No hugs please, we’re atheists

Over at In Living Color, Jean Kazez has a post in which she comments on the new code of conduct adopted by American Atheists to guide attendees at its conventions in the difficult task of keeping themselves nice.

Jean approves of some of the code of conduct (I’m not so sure I do , but we’ll leave that for another day), while expressing her disapproval of one particular passage that reads as follows:

You are encouraged to ask for unequivocal consent for all activities during the conference. No touching other people without asking. This includes hands on knees, backs, shoulders — and hugs (ask first!). There are folks who do not like to be touched and will respect and like you more if you respect their personal space.

I think it’s worth quoting at some length to convey just what she finds impractical and offensive about this:

What exactly is wrong with negotiating these things as we do the rest of the time – by paying attention to non-verbal cues? It’s better that way, most of us think. We don’t go through life constantly asking “I haven’t seen you for a long time – may I hug you?” Or “I’d like to show solidarity and sympathy – may I touch your arm as I say this next sentence?” We don’t, because (let us count the problems) –

(1) If we explicitly asked, then we’d put the person we want to touch/hug in the awkward position of having to say “no” if they don’t want to be touched/hugged. It would have been so much more thoughtful to notice the cues and not call attention to their sensitivity.

(2) If we had to explicitly ask, we’d ruin spontaneity – so most of us would just do less touching and hugging.

(3) If we asked, it would highlight what is better left subterranean – that touching has some mild sexual undertones, touching is ever so slightly intimate, touching can be gross to some people, some people may find me in particular gross.

If I were thinking of going to an American Atheists convention (to be honest, I am not), I’d find it off-putting to be told how to negotiate touching (“no touching other people without asking”) or even just be “encouraged to ask for unequivocal consent.” This crosses the line from what’s the conference’s business […] to what’s not. It’s up to me, I think, how I handle the vast number of decisions that are in the realm of etiquette, not law or even ethics. I’d be appalled if a conference organizer issued instructions about what to say after belching, whether and when to hold doors for other people, when to address someone by their first name, etc. It’s paternalistic and infantilizing – suitable for managing a bunch of 10 year olds, but not for running a conference attended by adults.

It’s interesting that a lot of the opposition to the current push from some directions to create detailed and intrusive codes of conduct to try to control our behaviour is coming from women who resent being infantilised. This plays against the narrative that codes of conduct are being developed for good feminist reasons. I would say, in fact, that the suspicion of these codes is motivated largely by feminist concerns that all this officiousness is providing just one more opportunity to infantilise women, who are portrayed as mentally weak and socially incompetent.

In any event, Jean goes on to talk about the contrast with religious communities, where, as she puts it, “there is constant touching between acquaintances.” She mentions the reform Jewish temple that she sometimes attends, describing it “an extremely touchy place” … and adding:

Before, during, and after the service you see constant physical interaction. Ask permission? You’ve got to be kidding. There is also a lot of synchronization – people stand up and sit down at the same times during the service. All this synching and touching is part of feeling collective joy, sorrow, etc. – all feelings evoked at times by a religious service.

But it’s not just (some) religious communities that are “extremely touchy” in this way. As I mentioned in the comments on one of Jeremy Stangroom’s recent posts on the ethics of hugging, the science fiction community (whose conventions I’ve been attending for over 30 years now) tends to foster the physical expression of warmth and goodwill through hugging and touching – and from my more limited experience the same probably applies to other literary and artistic communities. About five weeks ago now, I attended Continuum 8, the 2012 national science fiction convention in Australia, which seemed to be highly successful. Many people (of both sexes) commented afterwards on what an enjoyable convention it was, and part of what they liked so much was the feeling of warmth and goodwill among the attendees, often expressed through physical affection.

I suspect, but can’t prove, that this is driven in part by a feeling among the attendees of such conventions that, “These are my people!” If you are closely involved in literature and the arts, you may have a feeling of being under siege, to some extent, in a wider world that can, rightly or wrongly, seem hostile. At a convention of “your people” there is special feeling of community, camaraderie, and solidarity. For whatever reason, literary and artistic communities tend to build up such feelings, expressed in relatively free displays of physical affection such as hugs. This includes hugs between heterosexual people of the same sex – literary and artistic communities sometimes have a polyamorous vibe going on, but it’s certainly not just that.

Seen from that point of view, a code of conduct that explicitly problematises hugging is a bad idea. It starts to undermine the very solidarity and mutuality that you’d think an atheist group in America (where atheists really are somewhat under siege in many parts of the country) would want. A conduct provision like this sends a paradoxical message to convention goers who are forging something of community, much as science fiction professionals and fans have forged a community over, say, the last sixty years.

It’s true, of course, that some people dislike physical contact and do not want to take part in hugging and the like. Fine, this is the sort of thing that has to be negotiated, much as Jean Kazez describes. But it isn’t all that difficult to convey through body language that you are one of those people who, for whatever reason, do not want to be hugged or otherwise touched by others. There is no reason to have a policy that infantilises us at all by suggesting that we are helpless to navigate these familiar social situations.

In all, the anti-hug policy is intrusive, infantilising, officious, badly thought through, and generally, to say the least, unfortunate – not to mention impractical, as it applies beyond hugging to many forms of socially accepted rather minimal touching that lose their point if they must be preceded by words asking permission (Adam touches Ben on the back of the shoulder to attract his attention to say hello, Jill flirtatiously touches Jack on the elbow while they’re caught up in an intense, wonderful conversation, Steve gives Eve a reassuring squeeze to her shoulder after she’s just had a bad experience right in front of him, etc., etc.).

The policy makes American Atheists – and atheists more generally – look silly. It suggests an undue suspicion of physical interaction and the body that you’d think might be more the province of religion (though clearly not all religion, as above with Jean Kazez’s description of her reform Jewish temple). It also suggests a kind of clanking, clueless literal-mindedness about how human interaction actually works, playing into the unfair stereotype of atheists as socially challenged dorks. All in all, this is not a good look, and I hope that common sense will prevail. Even if the rest of the policy is acceptable (as I said, we can get to other reservations another day), the sentences that problematise hugging and touching ought to be excised at the earliest opportunity.

Leave a comment ?

171 Comments.

  1. Free hugs? No thanks!
    You can have free punches if you try to touch me.

  2. Is it attension seeking? Is it differentiation. Is it what the majority of Atheist want? Or is it some Atheist leadership Idea?

    Distancing oneselve from fundamental evolutionary traits is strange and tend to result weird consequences – then again, that may be what is sought…

  3. Whether or not the policy is ideal, the problem it addresses is, I submit, a real one, which is that, even if “it isn’t all that difficult to convey through body language” that one doesn’t wish to be touched, there are certain people who refuse to recognize those signals. The problem is not that women are “mentally weak and socially incompetent”, but that there are some (almost invariably men) who insist on pushing boundaries, which means that just trusting to “body language” and social signals is ineffective in such cases.

    How about a revision of the rules:

    It is the responsibility of the person initiating physical contact to ensure – by asking for consent, if necessary – that such physical contact is welcome. Initiating unwanted physical contact may be considered harassment.

    This is more straightforward, although I’m not sure it is better. It strikes me as more “legalistic”, but no different in effect than the existing rule.

  4. It says don’t touch without permission. This is acceptable. By touching without permission, even a hug, it forced your intentions upon someone else. The hug is YOUR need. By asking permission first, you are respecting that person’s personal space.

  5. Michele, I think you’re somewhat missing the point that people navigate these issues successfully all the time, and that many benign forms of touching – such as those listed by Jean and myself – would make no sense if we had a social practice of asking permission.

    To repeat an example from above, women who’ve flirted with me over the years have tended to touch me on the arm while talking to express warm feelings, attraction, etc. If they had to ask me for permission – “May I touch you on the arm?” – it would completely destroy this manner of interaction. Do we really want to remove this kind of action from the repertoire of how those women expressed themselves?

    Greg, at least your suggestion is an improvement. But really, once we start using legalistic language like that we ahould know that we’re in trouble – that we’re laying down codes of behaviour from above for fairly subtle aspects of behaviour that are matters of common sense, etiquette, and ordinary social understandings. It’s not the role of bodies such as convention committees to claim to be able to regulate that, or to be better at doing so than the grown-up people actually involved. Hotel venues and convention organisers certainly have a role in dealing with people who are actually being obnoxious (jeering, stalking, etc.), but not in trying to micromanage benign and familiar interpersonal interactions.

  6. As it stands, the policy is clearly absurd. So, for example, if one takes this section literally:

    No touching other people without asking. This includes hands on knees, backs, shoulders — and hugs (ask first!).

    then presumably it means that a couple who have been married for thirty years, for example, have to ask each other first before they hold hands.

    Of course, this can’t actually be the intention, but it shouldn’t be beyond the combined wit of the movers and shakers of a (relatively) large atheist organisation to construct a harassment policy that does mean what it says.

    That’s another thing about this policy. It’s terribly badly written. In parts, it doesn’t even mean what they think it means (but can’t actually mean).

  7. The policy makes atheists look socially incompetent.

  8. Actually, most of the geeky/literary/poly circles I socialize in are moving towards explicit consent mores. I wouldn’t think twice about a new acquaintance asking permission for a hug, and I ALWAYS do the same when I don’t know someone particularly well. It hasn’t impeded my ability to flirt or made actions less spontaneous; it makes certain situations considerably less awkward.

    There are, unfortunately, a lot of people who either don’t pick up on or willfully ignore non-verbal cues. Changing social rules so they can’t cause as much damage is a GOOD thing. I’m not sure the wording of this code of conduct reflects what it’s meant to convey, but frankly, a lot of the arguments against it seem spurious to me.

  9. The problem with the policy as I see it is that they’ve tried to take something that a small subset of people (mainly those on the autism spectrum) would find helpful and generalize it. Someone with autism might appreciate being asked before getting a hug or being touched in general and other people would appreciate not being hugged inappropriately by someone who doesn’t understand the social cues. However, the policy as it stands has no nuance to allow for standard neurotypical behaviour (i.e. implied consent for hugs and touching). A good revision would be “if you’re not sure if the person is ok with being touched, then ask.”

  10. Jeremy … yes, absolutely correct.

    Furthermore, whoever wrote the policy is apparently unaware of non-verbal cues. Imagine that two people on a date, say, are talking intimately over dinner. When they’ve finished eating, one stretches out his or her hand on the table, palm up, making a non-verbal offer to the other to hold hands. No words are spoken.

    This is normal, innocuous/benign behaviour between people who are getting to know each other, but also between people who are already lovers or even spouses. Yet, the policy forbids it.

    As for hugging – person A will often non-verbally invite a hug from person B, perhaps by opening their arms for person B to step forward and embrace if he/she so wishes. And on and on.

    This idea that verbal permission is needed for the whole range of de minimis or innocuous or outright benign touching is really quite bizarre when you think it through against ordinary human experience.

    We could go on pretty much forever thinking of examples of innocuous or benign behaviour that the policy forbids if you read it literally. Presumably no one will apply the policy so literally as that, but if it’s going to be read down along the lines of “Don’t hassle people or be obnoxious to them” then that’s probably the sort of thing it needs to say in the first place. More particularly, hotels and convention organisers might want to reserve a right to evict someone, or revoke membership of the convention to someone, who hassles or harasses others, or who generally acts in an obnoxious way. Perhaps the hotel and organisers should state firmly that such behaviour will not be tolerated if it’s drawn to their attention.

    But drawing up a code of conduct to try to micromanage issues of etiquette and social interaction doesn’t seem like a great idea in the first place.

  11. Ideally, a set of rules in a code of conduct ought to be redundant. They ought to capture how pro-social strangers get along without being awful.

    But just saying, “Don’t be awful”, is not taking the problem very seriously. Some people aren’t very good at reading social cues; say, drunken 4AM Dublin elevator people. That doesn’t mean they’re autistic, it just means they’re socially awkward. (As afflictions go, I’d self-describe in terms of the latter.)

    Of course, people who do not have this social awkwardness, should not be penalized. But it’s entirely possible for a thing to be intrusive, infantilising, officious, and badly thought through, while also being an improvement.

  12. But it’s entirely possible for a thing to be intrusive, infantilising, officious, and badly thought through, while also being an improvement.

    Yes, but since it’s also entirely possible for it not to be improvement, then assuming that it is those bad things, you have at least to show why we might think that actually it is an improvement (part of which involves establishing the extent of the problem that one seeks to “improve” and another part of which involves showing that there is good reason to suppose that a “bad” policy – or even a “good” policy – will actually make things better in that regard).

  13. Great Aphrodite Almighty! Have we really come to this now? Geeeezus, better not have an atheist conference in an Hispanic country. The expected norm there is for both men and women to kiss women on the cheek when greeting each other and saying goodbye. Men will also often hug each other (“un abrazo”). Indeed, for someone not to engage in these cultural niceties would be considered “standoffish,” “haughty,” “cold,” “arrogant,” if not “rude.” How in Hades was this kind of feminazi rule ever approved?

  14. Torquil Macneil

    BLS Nelson, bringing up the Dublin elevator horror is useful because it reminds us that a code of conduct is only useful if it helps to legislate over misdemeanours, and it looks like this one would be no help in that instance or in any of the other outrages at atheist meetings that have recently been so much discussed on the interwebs, there is nothing in here about when and how you may invite people to have coffee.And that isn’t a trivial point.To do what they are apparently trying to do, the drafters of this doc would end up needing fantastically detailed descriptions of apprporiate behaviour in just about every imaginable circumstance. This is not just undesireable, it is impossible.

  15. Torquil Macneil

    “better not have an atheist conference in an Hispanic country”

    Nor in France or Italy for that matter, where both men and women are kissed on both cheeks when introduced.

  16. Mark D. Larsen: “feminazi” ….

    Please. A debate about rules for conferences is a debate where feminism is, or ought to be, a shared assumption. Surely we all want equality, fairness, justice, inclusion, equal rights, etc. If you want those things (and you should), then I can’t imagine what “feminazi” is doing in your vocabulary. It’s just too associated with Rush Limbaugh and sexism to be kept in circulation. (I say that with all due respect to Paula Kirby. She tried to use the term with a narrow meaning, but connotations aren’t really fully in a speaker’s control. The term just isn’t usable.)

    I actually think this debate pretty much got resolved when the grown ups at CfI proposed a better harassment policy (with no rules about touching).

    http://www.centerforinquiry.net/blogs/entry/cfis_new_policy_on_hostile_conduct_harassment_at_conferences/

    Seems all to the good to me.

  17. When I was a child, I attended synagogue, with my parents, obliged to do so.

    One of the things I most disliked about going to synagogue was being hugged by people (adults) who saw me as a easy target of their overwhelming sense of fraternity or paternity or maternity towards Jewish children.

    I sure that I gave off endless non-verbal cues about not wanting to be hugged (I cringed at being hugged), but many paid no attention.

    So I’m not at all sure that most people read non-verbal cues about hugging those who do not want to be hugged.

  18. Jean: I concede that “feminazi” is a poor choice of terms in this discussion: not only too abbreviated to adequately convey what a user might wish to communicate, but also too saturated with historical baggage from a totally unrelated –and offensive– political philosophy. I was echoing the term from Kirby’s recent post, because I agree with her explanation of it in that essay. ‘Tis true, however, that her explanation does not accompany the neologism wherever it is expressed, and certainly not in my comments above. Fair point!

    That said, I still maintain the suspicion that invoked my use of the word. i.e., that such an over-the-top “hands off” rule originated from certain individuals who have been pushing an agenda about “sexual harrassment at atheist conferences” under the banner of “feminism” ever since last year’s “Elevatorgate.”

    Could I be mistaken about that? Could it be that the rule was proposed by others who were completely unaware of that incident? Maybe! If you have any information about where it originated, who proposed it, how, and when, please pass it along. I would love to know such details, and am more than prepared to alter my judgment if my assumption is mistaken.

  19. Suggestions:

    Greeting another atheist will take the form of
    – Rational Beliefs
    -(response)Reasonably Held

    together with a leveling gesture from the chest representing equanimity and the peace of rational order.

  20. One of the things that seems missing in the discussion is an understanding of perspective, in the sense that what you see depends on where you stand.

    What I mean by this is that there is a group of people who are unlikely ever to experience problems with unwanted contact. For such people, a handshake on meeting someone new will be a normal handshake, and a hug or comforting hand on the shoulder will come from a friend. But there is another group of people who are likely to experience things very differently. Unwanted contact may come from only a small number of others, but all too frequently such people will experience the too-long handshake or the hand on the shoulder or hug from a stranger.

    Unfortunately, what makes even discussing this sort of thing difficult is that the problem doesn’t even exist in the experience of those in the former group, while those in the latter group can easily feel that they cannot attend a conference without being pawed at. Which means that those in the former group end up asking why just paying attention to body language (and such) is insufficient and why anyone needs silly rules, while those in the latter latter group respond – not unreasonably – that, at least in some cases, the normal social cues aren’t working.

  21. Jeremy — in turn, quite a lot depends on what you think the root problem is.

    I think the root problem is that people have confused expectations about what is expected of them. I also think that, all other things equal, a code of conduct can be a balm for this irritant. Others — for instance, Russell — evidently believe that codes are themselves the irritant. If so, then that’s a clear disagreement.

    Harassment is another potential problem, and there are better and worse ways of dealing with it. For the purposes of this post, I am ambivalent. Perhaps there is no harassment problem to even address, contrary to the testimony of attendees; perhaps there is a very big problem, which is being ignored. Perhaps this code fails utterly to address it in a productive way; or, perhaps it does a great job.

    Even so, I’d like to point out that the ‘confused expectations’ problem is prior to the harassment problem. Even if you don’t think that there is a harassment problem (or don’t think it is in any way justified to think there is such a problem), you can still recognize the problem of confused expectations, and to treat it as an issue that can be adequately dealt with by the use of a code.

  22. Torquil, hardly a horror, I think! It was a small faux pas, of failing to listen to the desires of the woman in the situation, which was settled without incident. But then Skepchick reported on it, and the incident was subsequently amplified into a horror as many men felt vicariously emasculated in the public arena. Remarkably, nobody asked those dominoes to fall — they pushed themselves over all by themselves.

    I don’t think an arcane Borgesian rulebook is required just to tell people what’s broadly expected of them. Nobody would read that. I wouldn’t read it.

    But the general idea of telling people, “Don’t get all touchy-touchy with your new friend unless that’s manifestly cool with them” is not itself inherently abstruse. Of course, getting the language right is important, and requires some thoughtfulness by the code-makers. But however the wording ends up, the point is to let people to know that when they show up to an event, they will start out on the same page and on the same level as other attendees. That, from day one, they will be seen as potential friends and colleagues.

  23. Ben

    I don’t think your rejoinder works.

    Talk of confused expectations being the root *problem* doesn’t mean much unless we know:

    a) the nature of the problem (and this seems to be about harassment, not about confused expectations in and of themselves);

    and

    b) the extent of the problem.

    We shouldn’t be adopting policies that aim at correcting people’s “confused expectations”, if we’re fully aware that they have prima facie “bad” aspects, and we don’t know:

    a) whether such expectations are associated with a particular problem (since we shouldn’t be in the business of codifying a solution to people’s confusion);

    b) the extent of the problem (with which they may or may not be associated);

    c) some evidence that by sorting out people’s confusion, the problem – which may or may not be significant – will be ameliorated.

    The evidence base to justify introducing *bad* harassment problems (allowing for your sort of consequentialist analysis – i.e., even bad policies might be an improvement) isn’t there (at the moment).

  24. Jeremy, there is some traction to what you are saying.

    But here’s something we absolutely do not agree upon: the idea that we should “not be in the business of codifying a solution to people’s confusion”. It’s hard to know where to turn in the conversation if we can’t agree on that! I just don’t know what I can say that would change your mind, so long as this is off the table. Can you perhaps say a bit more about why you hold this view?

  25. Peter Beattie

    Quite apart from the dazzling display of social incompetence in that proposed policy, there is a possibly even more important question:

    What problem is this policy supposed to help solve? Does anyone have any idea? Is there even a problem? If not, we’d be wasting time and resources; if so, then a definition of the problem is essential in order to assess the likely efficaciousness of any proposed solution.

  26. Hey Ben

    Ah, I wasn’t really very clear there. I didn’t actually mean anything much by that at all. Only that we’ve got to have some additional reasons other than mere confusion to go for the codifying option (because there are a vast number of things that people might be confused about – quantum mechanics, the nature of freethought, the differences between second, third, and thirty-fifth wave feminism, etc, etc). Obviously what these additional reasons are will depend upon context, relevancy, thoughts about harm, etc.

    To put it simply, if you’re running a Cosplay meet and you draw up a policy titled, “How to think correctly about the relationship between social darwinism & militarism in pre-world war 1 Europe”, then probably you need to get out more.

  27. Peter, I don’t really have any idea. I think there are circumstances where “ask permission before hugging” would make sense–like maybe at a nudist camp, or at an orgy, or in a burn unit, or at a rape crisis center. I can probably come up with some other examples, if I put enough time into it. But I have no idea why anyone thinks an atheist meeting is one of these special cases. Unless it’s a nudist atheist meeting, and then I’m all for the policy.

  28. Where on Earth do people get that “hugs (ask first!)” can mean “no hugs”?
    And why is it bad to put in writing a basic rule of politeness like that?

    @ Jean Kazez:

    No need to hypothesise situations like nudist camps. For instance, there are people (I am one) who feel triggered by being touched without invitation, often because they’ve suffered abuse or bullying in the past. Is it unthinkable to acknowledge it and to avoid making us feel unwelcome?

    Another thing: touching does not have the same significance across cultures. And I’m not thinking about very exotic extremes, but even just different parts of Europe. Think that at a given conference, you may have people from different countries than yours, and that you can’t rely on the usual cultural assumptions with them.

  29. Oh, yes, and I was forgetting: neuro-atypical people who may not understand well non-verbal cues, like open arms. So it can be useful to them to put the thing in words, like “wanna hug”? Better to take the half-second to do that than to hug them when they are *not* fine with it, and make them feel uncomfortable unthinkingly.

  30. I’m not sure what you mean by that last sentence, “Better to take the half-second to do that than to hug them when they are *not* fine with it, and make them feel uncomfortable unthinkingly.” If someone opens his or here arms (in what I gather is what the OpenSF policy calls the “wanna hug” gesture), and a neuro-atypical person doesn’t respond to that cue, wouldn’t the result be no hug rather than an unwanted hug?

  31. [comment removed by author]

  32. Sorry Ben, but I’m not going to have this discussion with you here.

    But two things:

    a) I didn’t make the sweeping claim about testimony that you say I made. I was talking quite specifically about testimony that emerges after the event in the context of significant priming. This is the precise quote:

    the sort of after-the-event testimony we’re talking about just is notoriously unreliable – good skeptics should expect this sort of testimony to be treated with extreme caution, even if it’s their own testimony

    And that is absolutely right.

    b) In the very thread you’re referencing, I had this to say about the practice of making public material that has been posted privately on Facebook (in response to a third party’s worry that what they were writing would become public):

    I loathe the practice of taking private Facebook comments and turning them into blog posts. It’s a reprehensible practice.

    Don’t ever do it again on this blog.

  33. I apologize, and regret this lapse of judgment.

  34. Thank you, Ben.

    The main upsetting thing here was that I explicitly promised a number of people on that thread – who were talking about some extremely personal stuff – that my FB wall was safe, that I’m very careful only to accept friend requests from people I trusted not to make FB stuff public. (I’ve defriended numerous people precisely because I didn’t feel I could trust them).

    So… well, you can figure out why I found this distressing.

    Anyway, thanks for the apology. Appreciated.

  35. Of course. Perfectly understandable, no explanation necessary. I accept responsibility.

  36. irenedelse, no one is denying that you could imagine and describe a paradigm situation in which it’s a bad idea to inflict, as it were, a hug on somebody. We all know that. We don’t need a code of conduct to tell us such an obvious thing.

    The point is that the policy we’re discussing is worded so broadly – just read the literal words – that it covers endless other situations that are not like that at all. If you just read the words on the screen, it says, for example, that my wife is prohibited from hugging me (or touching me on the arm, or touching me in other way) without first explicitly and verbally asking me for permission to do so. That’s ridiculous! It’s not just my wife, it’s all my friends, no matter how close I and they might be in some instances. It’s also applicable to someone to whom I’ve clearly signalled (non-verbally) that I’d like them to hug me or take my hand. And on and on.

    I gave some examples in my post and upthread, and Jean Kazez gave some examples in her post. I’m sure we could continue pretty much forever describing situations that fall under the rule if you just read and apply the rule’s plain words … but where no one has done anything wrong.

    So yes, we know that there are some situations (usually but not always involving strangers) where it would be a bad idea to touch somebody without first asking them. As a matter of fact – if you feel you have to ask for permission to touch someone in a certain way, you should suspect that touching them in that way is a bad idea. But again, that’s not the point.

    Now, you might say that the rule won’t be applied literally. It will only be applied to the narrow range of situations where everyone knows that touching someone else without explicit agreement is a bad idea. But if the rule is only going to be applied to those cases, it’s not much of a rule. On the other hand, if it is going to be applied more literally it is officious and impertinent.

    Either way, convention committees have no particular authority on morality or etiquette. Why take guidance from them? What they might have is power to do something about the clear cases that everyone agrees are instances of a person hassling others or a person being plain obnoxious. What they can do in the program book or on the website, or wherever might be appropriate, is state that they will not tolerate such cases and will take action to warn or evict the culprits.

    There are models around that are far better than the AA code of conduct. Even a rather detailed but properly drafted code like the CFI’s can be much, much better (although it’s not perfect, IMO, and it’s more elaborate than necessary).

  37. Heterophobia and Hugging in the Atheist Community | insecular - pingback on July 12, 2012 at 1:46 am
  38. I don’t think the rules for a whole convention can simply be designed for the “neuro-atypical” or for people with unusual “triggers” (Irene’s words). This would be like demanding that all powerpoints be in a huge font for the sight-challenged, or demanding very loud amplification for the hearing challenged, or having a no-swearing rule because it “triggers” people with Tourette’s syndrome, or banning meat because it upsets vegans. You want to accommodate as many people as possible, but the accommodation has to be carefully crafted so it helps the minority without unduly harming the majority. I don’t think “ask before you touch” meets that standard. If you really have to cover this in a conference policy at all, then it makes more sense to just counsel sensitivity to people’s preferences and needs, reminding attendees of a range of possible “differences.”

  39. No Hugs When Learning… « Back Towards The Locus - pingback on July 12, 2012 at 9:31 am
  40. michael reidy

    At the distribution of name badges at the start of the conference optional little decals of teddy bears to stick on could be offered or indeed crossed out teddy bears. My previous suggestion of greeting and salute had an SF aspect, there does appear to be a significant crossover, mostly young men I suppose, but women without the experience of interplanetary travel would appreciate a more earthly touch.

  41. The rule could extend to others than neuro-atypical people.

    In any large group, there are always a number of people who will try to obtain a “free feel”.
    They will have to ask first.

    Once more, there are those who seeing the discomfort of others, persist in hugging them because they enjoy producing malaise. They will be out of business.

    However, I vote against the rule because in the practice, it is not realistic.

    Let’s say Richard Dawkins, in a moment of forgetfulness, puts his arm around someone, in a paternal manner.

    Free-thinkers are not going to expel or ostracize Dawkins.

    However, if they don’t expel Dawkins in his moment of forgetfulness, they cannot expel
    normal Joe in a similar moment, without losing all ethical coherence.

    And if they don’t expel normal Joe, the application of the rule will left to only exceptional cases of Ed the pervert, but the search for Ed the pervert will lead to witch hunts, blaming people for thought crimes, mob justice, and scapegoating (as it almost always does) and that is not desireable.

    So no to the rule.

  42. My lease prohibits all pets other than cats and dogs, which are permitted if and only if I inform my landlord.

    Tons of people in my apartment complex have pets other than cats and dogs. My landlord has yet to enforce this rule.

    But someday my landlord will want to kick out a tenant. And if that day comes, my landlord will pick one of the dozen or so unenforced rules, “discover” that the tenant has violated them, and begin eviction.

    That’s how this sort of regime works. You make all kinds of regular, every day things illegal. Then you ignore the fact that they’re illegal unless its convenient for you to notice. Its literally one of the two primary forms of legal regimes- you either go overinclusive and use discretion (suffering the harms of abused discretion), or you go underinclusive and use focused enforcement (suffering the harms of legal but immoral behavior).

    You’ve probably encountered this in other areas of your life. Speed limits, perhaps? Or the entire US tax code.

    The problem this will lead to isn’t going to be an emotionally stunted community incapable of mediating interpersonal interaction in the same way the rest of the world does every day. That won’t happen because this policy is going to be forgotten about after momentary lip service. The abuse will be that enforcement of this policy will be sporadic and focused upon people about whom complaints are made- meaning that this policy will be exactly as just as the complaint are, with the added downside that people who are challenged under it will, correctly, feel that they have been singled out for things that others are permitted to do.

  43. I understand and sympathize with the desire to look after the neuro-atypical, but do think this is a red herring. This is for two reasons.

    a) There is an implicit assumption that the neuro-atypical are not capable of preventing others from touching them by showing non-verbal (or even verbal) cues of their own. I do worry that this is another form of infantilization – one that is going under the radar. These people are not children, any more than women attending are children.

    b) Those who are extremely atypical (if that is indeed a workable concept) will likely not be attending conferences anyway. Not only due to not wanting to risk the physical contact, but also due to dislike of noise, bright lights, crowds etc.

    These people seem to be getting hit with a double whammy of unwarranted assumptions at the moment, firstly, that they are incapable of negotiating their own space and secondly (and more seriously) that they are responsible for a large number of the instances of people not respecting the boundaries of others.

    In fact, the paragraph about touching puts me in mind of behaviourist inspired social skills training materials – something used often with children on the autistic spectrum disorder. This says it all really.

  44. I, also, suspect that the discussion of the neuro-atypical is something of a red herring. There may be some such who have difficulty reading social cues, but they are not likely to be pawing others inappropriately (whatever difficulties there might be with social situations); there may be some such who dislike being touched, but they are not likely to be giving off “hug me” signals.

    I suspect that the real problem here are those playing PUA games of being just a little bit too intrusive, in a way that makes it difficult to object to any individual instance, even though the overall effect can make others extremely uncomfortable.

  45. You seem to feel pretty strongly about this. Have you spoken to someone from American Atheists about this? Their president Dave Silverman has been quite approachable in my experience.

  46. Ben Myers-Petro

    I wonder what social pressure is then put on the person asked for a hug. It’s not unreasonable to think of a person who may be asked if they will receive a hug who may respond in the affirmative but might not actually be wanting a hug at all. The affirmation may be convincing, but hardly unequivocal.

  47. Ben brings up a good point, one that too many ignore.

    In the US/Western European culture, (Other cultures have different mores and customs, and so I set them aside here), there is tremendous social pressure to always, always accept the outstretched hand. Leaving someone’s hand hanging is considered, in many ways, an insult on a scale with spitting at their feet.

    “don’t leave me hangin'” may be a phrase we laugh at, because of the bro association, but refusing a handshake for anything less than a bob dole reason, or your hands are obviously full is not considered a minor act. Many people will feel insulted by this, because in our culture, refusing a handshake was, at one time, a way of dismissing a person.

    Same thing with a hug, but to a lesser extent. If someone asks, or makes the “wanna hug?” gesture, rebuffing it is seen as generally a dick move.

    But now, the FTB lot wants this to be even more formalized? With verbal acceptance required, at least according to AA? Great, now silent rejection isn’t even possible, it has to be done in a rather public way.

    And as far as Greta ad-homming everyone who points out the problems, well, here’s the thing: once you write it down, you no longer just have spirit and intents, you have words. Words have actual meanings which do matter, especially in a quasi-legal usage. Again, let us look at the words:

    You are encouraged to ask for unequivocal consent for all activities during the conference. No touching other people without asking. This includes hands on knees, backs, shoulders — and hugs (ask first!). There are folks who do not like to be touched and will respect and like you more if you respect their personal space.

    “ask first!”

    Well, now it’s down the rabbit hole of “what do you mean by ask?” That’s not being overly fussy. This is something that could be used, effectively, in a lawsuit of some kind. When you say “ask first”, you can’t say “you know what i mean, it doesn’t have to be verbal.” Doesn’t work that way. You say “ask first”, well, if someone gets the question wrong, now they’ve violated the policy. Action *has* to be taken. You have no choice, there’s no longer room for misunderstandings. This is explicity clear in the first part of the paragraph I quoted, (i’ll requote the entire thing, the context that first bit adds is important):

    Yes means yes; no means no; and maybe means no. Please take no for an answer for any request or activity. You are encouraged to ask for unequivocal consent for all activities during the conference. No touching other people without asking. This includes hands on knees, backs, shoulders—and hugs (ask first!). There are folks who do not like to be touched and will respect and like you more if you respect their personal space.

    “Maybe means no”.

    Unless the answer to the question is an unequivocal yes/ofcourse/etc., you have to assume “no”. This is not arguable. It’s there in black and white. So what happens, according to the policy, if there is a misunderstanding?

    Participants asked to stop any harassing behavior are expected to comply immediately. Anyone violating this policy may be sanctioned or expelled from the conference (without a refund) at the discretion of the conference organizers.

    If you are told to stop harassing behavior, you have to. However, the second part says something different. Anyone violating the policy can be sanctioned or expelled. So now, according to the words used, misunderstanding a response to “want a hug” can easily get you expelled.

    Those are the words used. Once you start creating a letter of the “law”, you have to give that some credence. Questioning the letter of the policy is not being overly fussy, or anti-woman or any of that bullshit. It’s pointing out serious holes.

    For example, this one that they blithely ignore:

    American Atheists does not tolerate harassment of or by conference participants, speakers, exhibitors, volunteers, or staff in any form. Harassment includes offensive verbal comments related to gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, religion, sexual images in public spaces, deliberate intimidation, stalking, following, harassing photography or recording, sustained disruption of talks or other events, inappropriate physical contact, and unwelcome sexual attention.

    (bolding added by me)

    Well, who decides what’s offensive. Usually, it’s the person hearing the comments. So now, someone says something about religion that someone else finds offensive and that offense is reported. According to the letter of the policy, some action *must* be taken here. And no “Well, it’s an ATHEIST conference” isn’t a bye. There are all kinds of reasons a theist might attend. Maybe they’re curious. Maybe they are in fact trolling. Maybe they want to hear “from the horse’s mouth”.

    WHY they are there is immaterial according to the policy: American Atheists does not tolerate harassment of or by conference participants, speakers, exhibitors, volunteers, or staff in any form.

    That’s really clear. So what, now you remove religion?

    On and on. When you create letters of a law, the people reading the letter of the law have the reasonable expectation that said letter of the law is valid, and will be enforced. Blowing that off, ignoring it is stupidity writ large.

    Which brings us to another issue of harassment that Greta et al are ignoring, and I can’t figure out why: the role of the observer in such a case. Remember, rather a lot of the point of anti-harassment laws and workplace rules aren’t about bob telling sue an offensive story about how he banged that waitress like a drum last night. They are about bob telling that story to steve one cubicle over, and sue having to listen to it. That creates a hostile work environment.

    So now, someone who is aware of the “explicit approval, maybe means no” rule sees someone just walk up to someone and hug them, no asking. They don’t know the people. They don’t know their relationship. Maybe this is a “triggering event” for the observer, and they’re a little freaked out. “I thought you had to ask first. What if that happens to me”

    So they report that behavior to conference staff.

    Conference staff has no choice. Even if the couple in question is married, by the letter of the rule, they have to at least warn them. There’s no option to not do that. Stupid as it is, they have to do that, because if they don’t, they are breaking their own policy.

    On and on. This is why people question stuff like this. Not because they’re anti-woman, or seriously think that “i have to right to cop a feel”. But because they have some experience on whatever level with this and are WELL aware of how such a policy can go wrong, and want people to do more than meet a friggn’ checklist of FTB talking points in creating a policy.

    Policies are tricky things and damnably difficult to write. I’ve had to write many, I know what can happen when you get it wrong.

    The problems with the AA one are neither subtle, nor small, and pointing them out is not being a bad/evil person. It’s being someone who thinks critically.

    BTW, this happens in business all the time, except there, it’s called QA.

    the reaction to QA is about the same as the reaction to people questioning the policy. The penalties for ignoring QA are about what will happen if people continue to ignore the issues of this policy.

  48. Richard Hanley

    I roughly share the concerns about this policy. But I think “unequivocal consent” even followed by “(ask first)” is consistent with many of the situations you have described. I would say that in a normal marriage, for instance, you have unequivocal consent to touch your spouse’s arm to get their attention.

    And even with a relative stranger, non-verbal communication can amount to unequivocal consent…

  49. strangebeasty

    Let’s save the unnecessary rules that everybody just laughs off for religious doctrines. If you want to draft a policy document, focus on actual problem areas. Were people really complaining about receiving too many hugs at atheist conventions?

  50. “Spontaneity” is hippie nonsense. I will not be grappled, thank you very much.

    Your right to joy stops where my body begins.

  51. Richard,

    that only addresses the direct participants. “Unequivocal Consent” cannot be known by observers, and this policy has to allow for *observed* harassment, otherwise, it’s fairly useless.

  52. You write that “It also suggests a kind of clanking, clueless literal-mindedness about how human interaction actually works, playing into the unfair stereotype of atheists as socially challenged dorks.” But is this really an unfair stereotype?

  53. Ben Myers-Petro

    Most stereotypes are….

  54. Most stereotypes have a kernel of reality.

  55. Daniel Schealler

    @Russell Blackford & Everyone Else Too

    First I want to draw some attention to two things. I’ll get to my own reflections on this subject further down.

    Thing #1: Greta Christina has an article up at FTB that discusses some of these very issues: Hugs, Handshakes, and Codes of Conduct at Conferences.

    Here’s how it works.

    When you want to shake someone’s hand, you don’t reach out and grab their hand without getting their consent. You extend your own hand, in a gesture that indicates an invitation to shake yours, which they can accept or not. If they say, “Sorry, but I don’t shake hands,” or, “I have arthritis, I can’t shake hands,” or something along those lines… it’s slightly awkward, but it’s no worse than that.

    If you do shake people’s hands by reaching out and grabbing their hand… you’re doing it wrong.

    Greta goes on to describe consensual hugging in pretty much the exact same fashion.

    Thing #2: kosk11348 at Pharyngula has a very good metaphor for how a lot of the critics of the proposed sexual harassment proposals sound to those of us who are pushing for them.

    The best analogy I’ve heard yet for understanding this situation is a fire evacuation plan. Fires are rare, yet it makes sense to have a plan in place. Continuing that analogy, here’s my rundown of the “conversation” thus far:

    FTB: “Fire evacuation plans are a good idea. We recommend that all skeptical events have one.”

    DJ Grothe: “All this talk of fires scares away attendees. Plus TAM has never, ever had a fire.”

    Stephanie Zvan: “Actually, there have been a few small fires at TAM. Remember that trash can that caught on fire?”

    DJ Grothe: “Yes, I put that fire out myself. At no time did anyone feel unsafe.”

    It continues on for a little while. Russell, you come up twice.

    —————–

    As for my own reflections… I can see how Jean’s critical interpretation of the policy came about.

    Yes means yes; no means no; and maybe means no. Please take no for an answer for any request or activity. You are encouraged to ask for unequivocal consent for all activities during the conference. No touching other people without asking. This includes hands on knees, backs, shoulders—and hugs (ask first!). There are folks who do not like to be touched and will respect and like you more if you respect their personal space.

    It’s worded in the strongest possible terms. But that said, I don’t find it particularly threatening. Keep in mind that I’m a hugger. I hug everyone. Men, women, dogs. Especially dogs. :D

    Nothing about the AA’s policy makes me uncomfortable about being a frequent hug-initiator. All it does is place the burden on me to make sure that any of my attempts to initiate physical contact aren’t unwelcome. But I already adopt that burden anyway so for me nothing changes.

    My approach to hugging people (or other animals) I don’t know very well is a simple algorithm:

    1) If initiating or in the process of a hug and the other party stiffens or pulls away, terminate immediately, take responsibility and sincerely apologize for the gaff.
    2) Initiated hugs must always come with a delay to give the other person an opportunity to back away.
    3) If the other party’s body-language cues are clear and positive, initiate a hug.
    4) If the other party’s body-language cues seem pretty much positive but there’s some reasonable doubt, ask politely first.
    5) Significant doubt is a reasonable heuristic that the other party might not welcome a hug from me. Indicate with body language that I’m open to a hug, but leave it to the other party to initiate.

    My interpretation of AA’s policy is that nothing in my approach has to change. And while I can see where Jean (and perhaps yourself Russel) are coming from, I think that interpretation is problematically narrow and ungenerous.

    To my interpretation the policy is placing a very clear and firm burden on people like myself who appreciate and value pro-social physical contact to make sure that we don’t step over anyone’s boundaries. But that is a zero cost to those that the policy is not intended to catch, because we should be shouldering that burden anyway. The only cost of the policy is to those that aren’t shouldering that burden already. Well, good. Those that need a strong reminder to be on good behaviour deserve to get one.

    But more importantly, the policy sends a very clear and strong message to anyone who’s boundaries are crossed that they can and should speak up about it, and that any such concerns will be taken very seriously. Those are the people in this conversation that should come first. I shouldn’t even have left it this long to mention them.

    I don’t think the policy imposes cost to anyone that doesn’t deserve it. But even if it did that cost can be justified by making conferences and conventions safer and more comfortable to those that are anxious about their boundaries being disrespected. My rights as a free actor to impose myself on the world end where someone else’s right to be free from such imposition begin. The person acted upon should get a fitting and proportionate measure of protection over and above my own protections as actor to freely impose myself on the world around me.

    The policy of American Atheists seems entirely appropriate and noble to me. I support it.

  56. “My interpretation of AA’s policy is that nothing in my approach has to change.”

    You are using the lack of rejection as evidence of consent, and only resorting to “ask[ing] for equivocal consent” if you interpret their nonverbal cues as indicating that there is a consent issue.

    Now AA is only “encouraging” you to ask for unequivocal consent, so strictly speaking, nothing in your approach HAS to change. But you are not complying with their encouragement.

    Really… your reaction here is part of the problem this policy is designed to combat. You think that your own ability to interpret the nonverbal cues of women* is just as reliable as actually asking women what they think. Whether that’s true or not, this policy was written by people who don’t trust your own evaluation of your own skills at this task, and who therefore want to encourage you to try a different approach.

    And you didn’t even hear them, even though their wording was quite explicit, because you’re just that convinced that your behavior isn’t creepy and uncomfortable for some of the women around you.

    *specifically, women in a social environment in which being “friendly” is valued, and where letting you realize that they find your touch unwelcome is socially awkward, thereby giving them a reason to just grit their teeth and bear your hug rather than go through the greater social awkwardness of “being a bitch” in the eyes of society and stiffing you on the hug.

  57. Daniel Schealler

    @Patrick

    I’m a little bit unclear as to your position, Patrick.

    There’s a couple of ways I could read you and I’m not sure which one is correct.

    You could be saying that my personal methodology for initiating pro-social physical contact is not in line with American Atheist’s policy, and that I should change my methods to better align with that policy.

    Or you could be saying that my personal methodology for initiating pro-social physical contact is not in line with American Atheist’s policy, and that the policy should be changed such that my methods would no longer be problematic.

    Or of course I could have you wrong altogether.

    Could you clarify a bit please?

  58. Well, I’m one of those socially awkward peculiar people who finds it impossible to read other peoples’ body language, and as such I suppose I should be grateful for a policy like this, but I tend to agree with Patrick: it will be used against us socially awkward peculiar people, not against the charming and popular. As such it will further discourage us from attending or participating in such events, which are difficult enough for us already.

    Which is a shame, because atheism owes a great deal to its socially awkward, peculiar people.

  59. Daniel Schealler

    @Jon Jeremy

    Don’t think that was directed at me, but I’ll answer anyway.

    I’m not exactly the most charming or popular kid at the party myself. That’s why I actually carry around a method in my head for how to handle those sorts of situations (see above). It seems to come naturally to others, but for whatever reason it’s something I’ve had to work at.

    And I’m not saying you just have to work at it harder or anything like that. It was difficult for me to learn for no apparent reason whatsoever. Stands to reason it just might not be possible for someone else whose worse off in that department than me, and again for no apparent reason. It was just how I was wired.

    So fair enough – if you just can’t get it, you just can’t get it. I can empathize a lot, it used to be a major source of anxiety to me. I’d be all tense in social situations, stiff movements, jumpy, sweaty palms, fast breathing. I still get that way when hemmed in at crowds or when forced into a tight space with people I don’t know. (Elevators in particular suck for me, but let’s not go there right now, eh?)

    I used to be in exactly that boat. Or if not your boat, then at least a boat not entirely unlike it.

    I just couldn’t get a read on people. So I’d get anxious and awkward and tense… Which in turn makes it harder to get an accurate read on people. I used to make a lot of social gaffes (still do on occasion). Through trial and error I wound up following a very simple rule: If someone else actively goes in to give me a hug, then that at least is a sign I can trust that the person is probably okay with being hugged back. Anything less than that was cryptic and mysterious and in doubt… So I’d either ask politely, or just abstain altogether. If you look above you’ll see that that still survives as a remnant of my personal little system today.

    While it meant that a number of totally appropriate attempts to engage in pro-social contact probably went by unrealized, I regarded that as a small price to pay. Not only did it mean I wasn’t stepping on people’s toes… But I could also stop stressing about whether or not it was okay to engage in the first place.

    Now of course, what worked for me might not work for someone else, so I don’t mean to impose it on you or anything like that. I just wanted to point out that I think I know where you’re coming from, and let you know about the system I had in place for dealing with it that worked for me.

    Because to my mind, some kind of system is necessary. Not necessarily mine, but something.

    Because like it or not, socially awkward or not, the responsibility to be respectful of the boundaries of the people around you is one that neither of us can weasel out of. I understand your problem here – it used to be (and to a lesser extent still is) my problem as well. But even when it was my problem… The important thing I had to realize about that problem was that it was mine. Not anybody else’s. It was my job to deal with my own issues and not inadvertently impose myself on the people around me while doing so.

    So ultimately, I don’t see how this policy could be ‘used against you’ unless you were being irresponsible with the boundaries of other people in the first place. In which case, sorry to say, that’s a fair cop.

    Also note that the system that I put in place for myself? It pretty much boils down to AA’s policy. Sure, AA’s policy is worded a hell of a lot more strongly than would have been needed in my case – so maybe there’s an argument there against tone. But I hope we’re above the tone argument here. What should matter is substance.

    When in doubt, either ask politely or just hang back and let the other person initiate. The boundaries of other people are more important than warm fuzzy feelings that you or I might otherwise feel entitled to as the result of social interaction. Of the two, the boundaries of others are what should be prioritized. Any social issues that you and I have are our responsibility to deal with effectively. We shouldn’t expect, nor are we entitled to, special treatment.

  60. Daniel Schealler, Greta’s article looks like it was written by someone who thought her opponents were saying that harassment policies in general would lead to situations where people would need explicit verbal consent to comply with the policies. That might apply to, say, Thunderf00t, but not to Jean Kazez or our blog host. Furthermore, I already pointed out a problem with her article:

    That principle [what you listed as “Thing #1″ in a previous comment] is clear for the OpenSF policy, which already has language like, “please do that awkward ‘wanna hug?’ gesture before actually hugging.” It also has a reasonable caveat on “No touching other people without asking,” namely “Or unless you already have that sort of relationship with them.” Both of those nuances are missing from the American Atheists policy.

    The problem is that the verb “ask” generally refers to verbal communication unless the context makes clear that one is referring to non-verbal communication. If a policy says, “No touching without asking,” period, it is trivially easy to read to it as referring to verbal consent. If the drafters of the policy really meant “ask” to include nonverbal gestures, then they were ambiguous and failed to communicate that.

    Your “simple algorithm” for initiating a hug conflicts with a plain reading of the AA policy, much as Greta’s principle for initiating hugs and handshakes does.

  61. Daniel, I don’t think the fire analogy helps your side. We need to think about the fundamentals here. Why have a special behavioral code at a conference? Millions of people go to Las Vegas and take care of their own social interactions, apart from having to abide by laws and hotel rules (no smoking in smoke-free rooms, etc.). Why would you create special additional rules for conference-goers? We have to answer that before arguing for or against any specific rules.

    No, the reason for extra conference rules cannot be simply to prevent the rare bad thing, on analogy with preventing a fire. If that were the rationale for conference rules, then you might have a conference rule requiring people to wear condoms. HIV or an unwanted pregnancy are certainly bad things. That, surely we can all agree, would be stepping beyond what “management” is justified in regulating.

    What needs to be regulated at a conference, I would say, is only the sort of behavior that’s relevant to the conference itself. Suppose at past conferences there’s been a problem with audience members verbally attacking speakers. That would certainly interfere with a “skeptical” conference achieving its goal of open, rational debate. So some rules about interaction would be appropriate.

    I can see how a harassment policy could be justified as relevant to a conference achieving its goals, if the policy is confined to preventing men from aggressively hitting on women, if that really does occur and really does drive down female attendance or keep them from fully participating. I think that hasn’t been shown to be the case, as far as skeptical conferences are concerned, but it doesn’t hurt to have such a policy in place.

    But extending it to “ask before you touch” doesn’t meet the standard of being relevant to the conference’s success. Women touch just as much as men–maybe even more. Friends touch friends, etc. So it’s impossible for me to believe that excessive touching has driven anyone away from “skeptical conferences”. There is no evidence whatever for this. The touch rule cannot be justified as needed for inclusiveness and equal access.

    I think the touch rule is just a big-brotherish intrusion on private social interaction. It’s like a condom rule would be–it gets into something conference management has no legitimate interest in regulating.

  62. Daniel,

    You’re overlooking two things:

    1)

    Yes means yes; no means no; and maybe means no. Please take no for an answer for any request or activity. You are encouraged to ask for unequivocal consent for all activities during the conference. No touching other people without asking. This includes hands on knees, backs, shoulders—and hugs (ask first!). There are folks who do not like to be touched and will respect and like you more if you respect their personal space.

    “Asking” to me is specific, and verbal. Sticking my hand out is not asking. Saying “can I shake your hand” is asking. Just like pointing at the cookie jar is not asking, saying “may I have a cookie” is.

    Why is this a problem? Because that’s what the words say. They don’t say “gain approval” or anything else that leaves things open. They say “ask”. To me, and many others, “ask” is verbal.

    So now, we’ve already got an area that needs clarification. it is my experience that rules which need clarifying lead to more, not fewer rules.

    2) You, and many others keep ignoring the observer. Some of the things used to justify these policies don’t come from the people BEING harassed, they come from people observing others being harassed, or someone doing something that leads them to think they were harassing people. (Camera on a stick comes to mind. Still no proof he did anything wrong with it, but the fact he could have caused him to be reported.)

    That’s a critical component of harassment policies: the third party “observer”. Yet you, greta, and everyone else ignores this, and I am baffled why since I assume you, and I know Greta knows that harassment policies don’t just protect the people involved, but the people in the general area/workplace.

    Yet suddenly, this doesn’t exist?

    If someone OBSERVES someone getting hugs without explicitly asking, for however the observer defines “explicitly asking”, then the observer has every right to file a completely legitimate complaint against the hugger.

    What you don’t get is that many of the people questioning the policy aren’t doing it because we’re closet misogynists, or jerks, or rule-mongers, or whatever else you & greta & the others are dismissing us as. We’re questioning it because we aren’t just saying “WE NEED A POLICY” and halting our thinking. We’re looking at the policy itself, and saying “how could this cause more problems than it solves” and as written, the AA policy is a bit of a minefield.

    Maybe you should stop dismissing everyone who disagrees with you so easily.

  63. Originally I asked this of Russell, but I suppose I could ask the other commenters: has anyone brought up this concern directly with American Atheists? If so, what has been their response?

    Jean: Also asked this on your blog but comment is not appearing.

  64. I doubt that Thunderf00t thought anything so silly, either, JJ. His original argument put some quite good points as to why it would be detrimental to have a misconduct policy for a convention relating to sexual harassment – beyond some kind of statement about reserving the right to throw out misbehaving people. I may be mistaken, and nothing much turns on it anyway, but I don’t he was saying that any policy on seuxal harassment must, by its very nature, mean that explicit verbal permission must be sought for all touches.

    Sexual harassment is unwanted sexual conduct of a kind that is (perhaps because it is so severe or pervasive or persistent or perhaps for some other reason such as abuse of a power relationship) intimidating, humiliating, or otherwise likely to undermine somebody’s quiet enjoyment of the environment. It’s not enough that it just be unwelcome or merely offensive in the ordinary sense (though offensiveness in a higher legal sense may be enough) or just make someone momentarily “uncomfortable” – though if you’re being continually caused discomfort by someone pestering or stalking you, that’s another thing.

    It’s not just any sexual conduct that is not wanted (such an initial polite but unwanted invitation on a date, or an attempt to make knowing, flirtatious eye contact with someone who is not interested). It’s something more high-impact than that. So merely forbidding sexual harassment is not going to require that anything remotely like the policy we’ve been talking about be put in place. I hope that Thunderf00t realises that much.

    Most people know the sorts of behaviours that are being talked about under sexual harassment, though some do try to stretch the definition beyond what was originally intended (and some statutes are now very over-inclusive). There are grey areas, but the clear-cut cases are not hard to agree on (the famous action by Elevator Guy in Dublin would probably not count … which is one of the ironies of the Elevatorgate debate).

    If a convention committee wants to give some indication of what it’s talking about as sexual harassment and say it won’t be tolerated if shown to have happened, well fine by me (though it might want to be careful about whether it’s opening itself up to additional legal liability in some circumstances). But that need not involve anything like the AA code of conduct, and critics of the latter are not necessarily critics of having any provision saying that action will be taken against sexual harassment.

    Otherwise, what Jean said. Some people who don’t trust themselves not to act in ways others regard as creepy may need to work out rules for themselves. Men should perhaps be especially careful about touching women (but much touching is by women), and it’s really not up to convention organisers and the like to tell us the detail of how to interact among ourselves.

    That makes Myers’ comments irrelevant to all this, leaving aside the way they typically distort and misrepresent my own expressed views.

    By the way, I must take issue with people who keep saying that tone doesn’t matter. Yes it does. I wish I knew the origin of this canard.

    Part of your meaning is conveyed through word choice, intonation patterns, etc. If you think tone doesn’t matter, or if you can’t pick up on tone, you’ll miss part of the meaning of whatever you read. The claim that tone doesn’t matter is, to an English major, equivalent to the claim that the Earth is 6000 years old to a geology major. I want to say this in a civil tone (!), but would people please, please stop making such a silly claim?

    Something very like tone also matters in the law. Statutes, rules, etc., will most definitely be interpreted by courts, tribunals, and administrators partly in accordance with choices of wording that establish something like tone – which is really how wording, etc., conveys attitudes (especially but not solely attitudes to speakers or readers). One wording might convey they the words are to be construed with some leniency or flexibility, for example. Another wording might convey that the words are to be construed in the widest and harshest way.

    So, it’s important to try to maintain a civil tone with interlocutors. But if we’re confronted with a rule that has a certain “ring” to it suggesting that the rule is to be applied harshly and inflexibly – well that is part of the meaning of the rule: “This rule is to be applied harshly and inflexibly.”

    I think we should always scrutinise rules that would control people’s behaviour pretty carefully, and that does include what some might think of as matters of mere tone.

  65. Simon, I doubt that I have any special influence with American Atheists. Also, this policy raises many issues of general interest and importance that are appropriate to be discussed in a place like this. In my view, AA managed to do just about everything [edit: I exaggerate … but important things] wrong.

    If it’s any consolation, I think the CFI did a vastly better job with its policy … and Ron Lindays’s explanation of how it will work was even better. I have no beef with the CFI over its approach to a hostile conduct policy, and I think the emphasis on “hostile” is absolutely correct. Then again, there were numerous silly (in my view) proposals floating around at the time – the CFI rejected all of them, but it’s hard to know what the next organisation will do, and the one after…

  66. And while I’m here, let me remind everyone here, including myself, to be charitable and civil to each other. Just saying. Not singling anyone out.

  67. Jean Kazez:

    I think the touch rule is just a big-brotherish intrusion on private social interaction.

    To be fair, I don’t think that was the intent of the rule. Rather, it’s a byproduct of adapting the OpenSF policy, which is designed for a conference for and about people whose personal sexual norms are outside the mainstream, to a conference whose content and attendees are very different. The OpenSF’s no-touching rule (which as I pointed out above is more nuanced than the one in the AA policy) makes sense for a sexually charged forum where mainstream sexual mores do not necessarily apply. Setting down explicit rules makes up for the lack of the usual implicit societal rules that would apply in most other venues. I suspect that when the writers of the AA policy adopted their stricter version of the no-touching rule, they forgot to take into account why the OpenSF conference would have or need a rule about touching in the first place. They just didn’t think things through.

  68. JJ…Ahh, that sheds a lot of light.

  69. Why would they take the OpenSF policy as a model??

  70. @Peter Beattie: Probably because Greta Christina highlighted it as an example of a sex-positive harassment policy. As she put it:

    If people think that the Geek Feminist template is too sex-negative, or too restrictive on consensual flirting and consensual sex, it seems that it might be worth throwing the policy of a polyamorous conference into the mix, so people can have some ideas how a very sex-positive community handles this question.

  71. Peter, I don’t really know, but it might be relevant that the policy got developed during a conference call. The touch business may have been requested by specific parties to the call–

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/almostdiamonds/2012/06/26/american-atheists-want-people-to-have-sex-at-their-conferences/

  72. Daniel Schealler

    @J. J. Ramsey, Jean Kazez, John C. Welch

    Hmm…

    I’m still pretty sure of where I’m coming from – but with all three of you coming together and on my swift read-through making similar arguments without resorting to histrionics, I’m going to take a step back and recheck my my biases against reality before I go charging further forward.

    I’d already been reconsidering my previous post from last night before coming back here this morning to check up… I’d been behind on my RSS feed yesterday and read the Greta Christina and the Pharyngula article in the twenty-minute lead up to this one. After I’d had a chance to reflect, I realized that this is a pretty obvious pattern for anchoring bias that I hadn’t noticed at the time.

    I’m still pretty convinced that I’ve got a point here… But that’s just the thing. I would, wouldn’t, I?

  73. Daniel,

    It’s not that you don’t have a point. but, I think that you’re being a bit too willing to assume things about why someone would question the AA policy.

    I’ve not seen anyone sane say “Anti-harassment policies suck because I want to be able to cop a feel, it’s my right.”

    Indeed, that is not only inappropriate, but illegal regardless of the existence of a policy.

    I think the meme coming from the 5 usual suspects at FTB, that all questioning of policies are due to misogyny, sexism, being a gender traitor, etc., yadda is really stupid. not silly. Stupid. I simply do not understand why such a policy is above questioning.

    It seems to me CFI questioned the HELL out of their policy, and it led them to a rather sensible one.

  74. Simon, I doubt that I have any special influence with American Atheists. Also, this policy raises many issues of general interest and importance that are appropriate to be discussed in a place like this.

    The reason I recommend at least contacting AA is because there may be a reasoning behind it or additional context you’re not aware of. Being a national organization I highly doubt that they want to inconvenience their attendees.

    As far as the “general interest” issues, I’m not sure that there are any. Do we know of any other organization that has a similar provision you would object to? Or is this more of an isolated example? Open SF (not really a secular organization) and CFI have come up in the comments and this is not something that seems to apply to them.

  75. Not sure I understand you, Simon. The issues prompted by this and raised in the post go far beyond American Atheists or the secular movement, etc., etc.

    There are very large philosophical issues here about the concepts of what counts as misconduct in general and/or harassment, what role should be played by such codes (as opposed to ordinary law), how people should interact in social contexts (verbally, physically, sexually, etc.) and how much discretion they should have when they do so. All of these are touched on in one way or another in the original post, and they are matters that I, for one, have been thinking about deeply for many years. (And I’ve practised law and quasi-legal work in related areas, given workplace training in related areas, taught in related areas. From my p.o.v. this is all very important stuff.)

    I think these are matters of great general interest, and related issues do come up all the time in many countries and many contexts. They’re issues that as it happens your own organisation has handled pretty well IMHO, but there has been much other discussion of them lately that I don’t think has been handled so well.

    Similarly, if I criticised the NCSE for adopting a new accommodationist policy on some point (as I’ve been known to do) I’d be thinking much more widely about issues to do with the relationship between religion and science, etc. The new policy might prompt what I say, but I wouldn’t so much be interested in influencing the NCSE (where I have zero clout) as in discussing the philosophical issues. I might, however, still observe that the policy should be changed, and I’d welcome it if others took notice.

    That’s not meant to be an exact analogy, but it might give an idea of my frame of mind with these things.

  76. A decade ago in my old company we had the mandatory sexual harassment in the workplace course – a lot of it was stuff that normal sane people already know – but some of it was the everyday things that people do (male or female) that can make the workplace a hostile environment (water cooler talk or even just a collective appraising of a new hire from head to toe).

    Also since we were an international company , we also had the cultural sensitivity training thing – and things like hugging were specifically mentioned – because hugging is not the norm for Indians , but it can be for westerners so women were specifically advised how to deal with such situations (note this applied to interactions outside the workplace- it was quite common to go for lunch/dinner with the clients).

    I don’t quite see how we were being infantilised. And I don’t see whats the difference between the workplace and a professional conference.

  77. Deepak, I’m surprised you “don’t see whats the difference between the workplace and a professional conference.” Harassment policies are obviously very important in a workplace or school setting, because being an employee or student creates particular vulnerabilities, so these people often can’t independently protect themselves from exploitation by powerful superiors. A harassment policy gives them a much needed layer of protection. It gives a student, for example, an avenue for complaint and intervention that’s much quicker and more accessible than a court.

    A professional meeting is different because everyone’s an adult and there’s very little in the way of power relations making specific people vulnerable–there isn’t the boss-employee or professor-student relationship. In fact, I think the situations that American Atheists wants to cover with their policy would not be covered at all by most workplace or university policies. Those policies are very specifically tailored to specific situations involving special kinds of power relations and vulnerability.

  78. A professional meeting is different because everyone’s an adult and there’s very little in the way of power relations making specific people vulnerable

    I don’t agree with this if we are talking about the atheist movement/skeptic/humanist movement. There are high profile speakers who plainly put you would not want to be on their bad side especially if you’re not at their level of achievement and influence.

    There are power imbalances and they can be exploited.

  79. Simon, Vulnerability is almost inevitable in a student or employee, whereas I can imagine an atheist meeting where nobody’s especially vulnerable to anyone else–it could happen. Though yes, I can imagine the other sort of case too–where a famous person tries to exploit their influence. I don’t think the AA policy is just dealing with those kinds of things, but rather trying to get all attendees to behave themselves, even in interactions where there is no power differential. So…. a horse of a different color.

  80. Deepak,

    Given that it seems the majority of stuff beyond “just be adults” part went into specific cultural issues that weren’t the norm, and could cause problems, the comparison to AA is kind of small.

    AA’s policy isn’t anything like that. It’s a well-intentioned, but really poorly implemented attempt to fill a series of checkboxes rather than solve an actual problem.

  81. Deepak Shetty

    @Jean
    A professional meeting is different because everyone’s an adult
    Then you wouldn’t have various blog wars and wild accusations flying around , would you?

    there’s very little in the way of power relations making specific people vulnerable
    Didn’t you read Pamela’s speech?

    “It pisses me off to know that as strong as I am, I know I’m not powerful enough to name names and be confident that I’ll still have a career.”

    Why wouldnt the same apply to a skeptics conference?

  82. @Deepak: In fact, Pamela specifically mentions that it has been by people attending TAM (though not at TAM per se)

    Here in the skeptics community, we, like every other segment of society, have our share of individuals who, given the right combination of alcohol and proximity will grab tits and ass. I’ve had both body parts randomly and unexpectedly grabbed at in public places by people who attend this conference – not at this conference, but by people at this conference. Just like in astronomy, it’s a combination of the inebriated guys going too far – guys I can handle – and of men in power being asses.

    Source: http://www.starstryder.com/2012/07/15/make-the-world-better/

  83. Okay, I need to remind people that the discussions at Talking Philosophy operate under a strong principle of charity.

    We also expect respect and civility. This is entirely non-negotiable. Individual bloggers have control of their own posts, of course, and largely can set their own tone, but… ultimately all decisions on these matters are mine (not least, because I’m the only one who has corporate responsibility).

  84. Deepak Shetty

    John C welch
    the comparison to AA is kind of small.
    Perhaps. The point is that professional environments with adults still have such policies without it being considered infantile.

    People looking at whats legal miss the point. A group of guys ogling(no more) at a new female isn’t illegal – but try doing that in the workplace. It doesn’t really matter if its the subordinate being ogled at or the boss (i.e. the power structure can be irrelevant when it comes to male-female dynamics)

  85. Christophe Thill

    There is one persone I feel 100% comfortable hugging: my wife. With family and very close friends, it’s rather ok. With strangers? You must be joking! Come to me with open arms and you’ll get, at best a handshake, at worst a very suspicious gaze while I take a few steps backward. I think the “non-verbal cues” are clear enough here! But it might not be the case with all those who feel like I do. So why not just take the default option of respecting them?

  86. Deepak, Simon, Even if there are cases like that, they are actually quite different from situations on a college campus or in a workplace, where the college or business has given the perpetrator power over students or employees, and has responsibilities to the latter. What you’re talking about is a case where two people happen to be at the same conference, and so that’s where an exploitative interaction takes place. Mr Big shot says “sleep with me or you’ll never be invited to another X”. Certainly that’s awful, but It’s not obvious that conference management has the same sort of responsibility as a college or business does. Mr. Bigshot doesn’t have his power over his victim because of the conference, whereas the boss or professsor does have his power because he works for the business or college. I’m not saying “do nothing about it”. I’m just saying these are all different situations and need to be thought through separately from one another.

  87. One can be too careful but, of course, one can also be too carefree

    Missouri prosecutors are trying to decide whether to charge an alleged serial hugger who pretends to know women and cons them into giving him a hug.

  88. michael reidy

    How interesting that the American Atheists through a species of bricolage such as Levi-Strauss described in The Savage Mind are creating a parallel ethos of their own to match that which they reject. This conference may go down as the equivalent of the early Council of Nicea which promulgated a creed and condemned heresies. One senses the same love of the orthodox and the comfort and security of rules.

  89. Deepak Shetty

    but It’s not obvious that conference management has the same sort of responsibility as a college or business does.
    Why not? They want the attendees to have a good time and feel welcome and return.

  90. There’s generally a huge difference between sexual harassment in a school or place of employment and in a conference.

    In the first two cases, a teacher or boss can pressure a woman (or man) into accepting his or her sexual advances or face the possibility of getting a bad grade or losing her (or his) job.

    The person who is the object of sexual harassment at school or at work runs the risk of failing in their studies or career if they do not yield to pressures.

    The above does not seem to be the case at a conference, unless people who go to a conference are job-seeking, which may at times be the case.

  91. Deepak,

    you’re also comparing two different things. The workplace, and the legal reasons for policies in the workplace are vastly, *vastly* different than the nonexistent reasons for policies at conferences.

    The fact that they exist and work in one context, and indeed, are *required* in that context does not mean they are required for all contexts. Not everything is the same.

  92. Jean: A conference organizer may not have the same responsibility as an employer, but that doesn’t mean they can’t act in a proactive and responsible fashion nonetheless and that IMO this makes for better organizations.

    I organize events for CFI at the local level and to give you an idea a while back we created a code of conduct for our monthly discussion group that is read before each meetup. Why? Because even among a vast majority of thoughtful and polite participants all it takes is one disruptive a-hole to make it hell for everyone else (note:discussion groups attract this type of person). We make it clear that participation in the group is open to the public but is a privilege not a right. The overwhelming feedback we’ve gotten is positive from all of our participants.

  93. erikthebassist

    I was just in a social setting yesterday with predominately strangers, meeting my girlfriend’s family for the first time. Very awkward all the way around by nature but never was there a question of appropriate or inappropriate touching.

    When I said goodbye at the end of the day, I didn’t hug, offer to hug or offer to be hugged by a single one of them. Why? Not because I don’t like hugging, or because they didn’t like it, there was plenty of hugging going on and I hug people all the damned time, but because I didn’t know these people well enough to justify a hug. It was common sense, natural interaction among normal people. Most people understand that a hug denotes a deeper level of affection and familiarity.

    The problem is, many people don’t get that. Had some one from her family tried to hug me, I would have reciprocated, but I would have made a note that it wasn’t really appropriate and would add that person to my list of people to watch for additional social missteps. Not a good way to start a relationship and certainly easily overcome, but I’m a guy.

    I recognize that women are naturally not as at ease among strangers as I am simply because I’m in the privileged position of not really having to think or worry about being harassed. That some women do get harassed is the problem this policy is meant to deal with.

    It’s written specifically to deal with people who can’t respect boundaries and who will make it a less inviting place to be for those who want their boundaries respected. It’s not written for the purpose of regulating personal interactions between normal people, and pretending that it is seems to me to be a willy obtuse. Simply put, if you’re worried about this policy being in place, then you’re probably part of the problem. Normal people wouldn’t stress about this.

  94. Erik:

    1. On this blog you don’t get to call the people who disagree with you, many of whom have explained quite carefully why they find the American Atheists code of conduct problematic, “willfully obtuse” (or even “willy obtuse”). You don’t get another warning.

    2. On this blog you don’t get to tell people that “they are part of the problem” simply because they don’t agree with you. Again, you don’t get another warning.

    3. It’s entirely reasonable to think that anti-harassment policies can be written so that they do not have to be interpreted through a filter of “Ah well, although it says x, it actually only means x in circumstances y when applied to people z.”

    This blog is not Pharyngula, and I expect the people who comment here to remember that.

  95. It is quite correct that a conference is not the same as a workplace. An employee cannot easily depart his/her workplace, which means that policy is used to prevent inappropriate exercise of the employer’s power. The position of a conference organizer is different, though, because the organizer wants attendees to come, and to continue coming, and unchecked inappropriate behaviour will impede the realization of that goal. If your conference makes people feel unwelcome or uncomfortable, then they will just stay away.

  96. Well yes to your last sentence, Greg. For example, at a convention groups of friends or friendly acquaintances who are at the convention want to feel free to express solidarity and affection among themselves without going through some rigmarole or worrying about some intrusive, officious policy that micromanages their interactions. They don’t want organisers adopting some policy that makes this problematic and causes additional tensions, etc., in personal interaction.

    Conversely, in many workplaces you really don’t want the degree of widespread interpersonal affection, etc., that I remarked about Continuum 8. You might even want quite formal, impersonal behaviour – though that will certainly not be so in all workplaces.

    Conventions and (most) workplaces are really very different beasts, and the policy considerations relating to them are not readily comparable.

    What you do want at conventions is some assurance that truly mean or obnoxious or personally hostile behaviour won’t be tolerated by the organisers or the venue. Continuum 8 had that in its conduct policy, and nothing in the original blog post above argues against it. Perhaps even Thunderf00t could be persuaded to accept a firm but minimalist statement like that if the option were raised with him in a civil way (however, I don’t know him and have no clout with him, so no one now ask me why I haven’t written to him about it).

  97. Russell, I see the value of the policy under discussion in its recognition that it is the responsibility of the person initiating contact (of whatever kind) to be sure of the wishes of the person contacted. If others recognize the importance of such, then specific policy details and wordings are relatively trivial to work out. Indeed, I’ve suggested alternative wordings that would address the “you mean I can’t hug my wife!?” response.

    What troubles me are the various responses suggesting that any rules are unnecessary, because things should work themselves out using normal social signals. The problem with this is that there are at least some for whom things aren’t just working themselves out.

    And without something like “before you put your hands on someone else, it is up to you to be sure that they are ok with it,” you end up with an opportunity for endless “rules lawyering” about whether this or that instance of handling someone else was “truly mean or obnoxious”.

  98. But Greg, it doesn’t say that “before you put your hands on someone else, it is up to you to be sure that they are ok with it” – and even if it did, that would be an interference with ordinary social interaction that is not the responsibility of convention organisers.

    The fact is that we put our hands on people without asking them or literally “being sure” all the time, and the law acknowledges this. Why, just recently I touched someone very famous on the shoulder without asking him, precisely because I needed to attract his attention before I could speak with him briefly, and he was surrounded by admirers. Since I know him slightly, I was confident (but could I be sure?) that he wouldn’t mind, and of course he didn’t. We do this sort of thing all the time, and it’s what our parents train us to do as children. And it’s well known that the law recognises it by treating it as 1. technically a battery, but 2. de minimis, and therefore something that can’t be pursued in a court.

    There are so many exceptions to the rule in the AA code, or anything like it, that it is just unworkable. Even the elaborate sexual harassment codes used by business corporations and firms don’t, at least in my experience of them, try to stop this de minimis touching from happening. You’re entitled, say, to tap a partner in a law firm on the shoulder, even if you’re only a lowly articled clerk, as long as you have a good reason to attract his/her attention.

    I very much doubt your assertion that there are people who don’t know this sort of stuff (unless they are intellectually impaired). Of course, we can make misjudgments, but that’s different from not knowing that judgments have to be made … and getting the vast majority of our judgments right.

    In the real world, all sorts of de minimis touching does not require any particular consent, verbal or otherwise. Other forms of touching are negotiated through various explicit and implicit non-verbal clues (opening your arms to invite a hug, putting out a hand to be shaken, or if put out in a different way, to be held, stepping forward into a handshake to signal a willingness or intention to turn it into a hug, etc., etc.). This happens constantly among friends and relatives, or even friendly acquaintances. E.g., my young grown-up nephews know they don’t have to ask explicitly to hug me.

    It can even happen among people who’ve never met, as when I met one my authors whom I’d edited at a Dragon*Con, and she immediately hugged me in recognition and solidarity – and of course I was thrilled that she did. If she’d asked first or given more than minimal non-verbal warning it would have spoiled the moment.

    I think the reality of it is really that men should know better than to go around inflicting hugs on women who are strangers or whom they don’t know very well – not unless the circumstances are exceptional. It’s to do with the physical asymmetry between men and women. I usually wait for women to hug me (but if they know me or we have some connection … no, I don’t expect them to ask first). Even then there are all sorts of exceptions.

    If there are men who inflict hugs on women in socially unacceptable ways, sure it’s starting to be creepy, and I don’t mind hotel staff being able to have a word with someone who is acting like that to other patrons. But it’s very well known. It’s a different situation from the many, many situations I can think of where breaching the AA policy would be quite acceptable, even a good thing.

    And really, do you want your life controlled by all sorts of detailed rules created by organisations at all sorts of levels, rather than by your own good sense and discretion? That is really infantilising you. It’s purporting to know better than you do about how to handle yourself in ordinary social interaction. Personally, I’d find that to be creepy. There’s much in the AA code that creeps me out. But I think I’ve already stated somewhere that there’s no way I’d go to a convention organised by people who’d put such a code in place.

    Finally, you are wrong in your last couple of sentences. I can assure you from of dealing with this stuff that the more detailed you make rules the more rule-lawyering it generates. The best thing really is to remind people not to be mean or obnoxious. Most people recognise pretty much what that involves, and if that general rule is actually enforced the message will be brought home. Meanwhile, look at all the rule-lawyering we’ve seen in discussion of the AA rule from people who have their particular interpretations of it despite its quite sweeping terms.

  99. Simon (way up), I can see the logic of having some policies to make a group function as intended. On my class syllabus I have all sorts of policies like that. Perhaps you thought I was saying otherwise because I was trying to differentiate workplaces and schools from conferences I believe they are different and so you can’t make any direct inferences from what makes sense in the former to what makes sense in the latter. That doesn’t mean no policies at all would make sense for the latter.

  100. Hi Jean,

    Thanks for clarifying. I had read this:

    they are actually quite different from situations on a college campus or in a workplace, where the college or business has given the perpetrator power over students or employees, and has responsibilities to the latter

    to mean that that you were saying conference organizers don’t have a responsibility to their attendees and/or speakers. However your comment above indicates you don’t believe this.

  101. It’s just a different situation, a different kind of responsibility. There are lots of rules governing what professors can do to students because this is an inherently unequal relationship, professors have lots of power over the futures of students, administrations pay the salaries of professors, etc.

    I would not say that a conference organizer is responsible in the same sense for the way attendees treat each other, or even how speakers treat attendees. Each attendee is just personally responsible for his or her own behavior, as is true in ordinary life, outside of the conference.

    Nevertheless, a conference organizer is going to want the conference to function in a certain way–to be inclusive, open, fruitful etc. etc. For those reasons, I can see setting up some rules. I’m just saying the rationale for rules in the different settings varies, so each setting needs to be thought about separately.

  102. Well sure-no disagreement there. For example CFI has always had a harassment policy for staff. They didn’t just copy it verbatim for conferences. I’d be highly surprised if AA’s policy is the same as that for their staff as well.

  103. Stop Hugging Me « Neamhspleachas - pingback on July 17, 2012 at 10:45 am
  104. I very much doubt your assertion that there are people who don’t know this sort of stuff (unless they are intellectually impaired). Of course, we can make misjudgments, but that’s different from not knowing that judgments have to be made # and getting the vast majority of our judgments right.

    I’m not sure what you are referring to by my “assertion that there are people who don’t know this sort of stuff”. By “this sort of stuff” do you mean normal standards of behaviour? If so, then I don’t think I’ve even suggested that “there are people who don’t know” it. As I noted above, I think the real problem is people who know very well how one should behave, but choose to push the boundaries.

    Other forms of touching are negotiated through various explicit and implicit non-verbal clues (opening your arms to invite a hug, putting out a hand to be shaken, or if put out in a different way, to be held, stepping forward into a handshake to signal a willingness or intention to turn it into a hug, etc., etc.). This happens constantly among friends and relatives, or even friendly acquaintances.

    Yes, such does happen regularly among friends or those who know each other well. And that isn’t a problem, because, as people who know each other well you already know the others’ attitudes. Can you accept that some people are the objects of excessive physical contact from those who are not friends, and who try to push the “negotiation” as far as they can get away with? It does happen, and it makes some people feel extremely uncomfortable and unwelcome. Or is this just something that (some!) people should put up with?

  105. Greg, I’m now lost. You now seem to be arguing my side of the case – that people usually don’t need a code to know when they’re pushing the boundaries (and it’s not the role of a convention committee to start getting into the minutiae of how people interact when situations are ambiguous enough for genuine mistakes to be made – that is not the business of convention organisers). And you don’t seem to disagree that the code actually forbids a whole lot of ordinary behaviour between friends, and a lot of ordinary social behaviour between acquaintances, etc., and aceptable de minimis behaviour in general. To be honest, I’m now puzzled at your position, because you seem to be supporting my position that no elaborate code is required because people know when they are (seriously) overstepping boundaries – but that a firm approach should be taken that harassment of people (which, again people generally know what it is) won’t be tolerated. Although I quite like the CFI code and would only quibble around the edges, even people who would not have anything as elaborate as the CFI code are saying that harassment shouldn’t be tolerated.

    Again, convention organisers and hotel security staff have a role in stepping in when people breach well-understood social standards in obnoxious, hostile, harassing, etc., ways. They do not have a role in dreaming up a clumsy, intrusive new requirements for behaviour that override the ordinary standards, requiring all sorts of people to obtain all sorts of explicit permissions that are not usually expected or desirable.

    Also, let’s do a reality check. You’ll never get rid of all bad behaviour, if only because convention attendees are sometimes harassed by drunken members of the public staying at the same hotel but not attending the convention. Certainly the worst harassing behaviour that I (and more particularly the two women I was with) have ever experienced at a convention took that form. All convention organisers can do is be intolerant of clearly bad behaviour (by ordinary social standards) by convention attendees. They can’t work miracles.

  106. Again, convention organisers and hotel security staff have a role in stepping in when people breach well-understood social standards in obnoxious, hostile, harassing, etc., ways.

    Maybe this is part of the confusion. Of course someone should “step in” when there is obvious harassment occurring. The problem is that there can be harassment that is not obvious to an external observer. If I walk up to someone else and put my arm around him/her, take his/her arm, or let my hand rest on his/her knee, how could an external observer, without already understanding our relationship, see whether I was behaving normally with a close friend or intimidating a stranger? I submit that such isn’t possible, in any general sense, largely because the question of whether such action is consensual or an unwanted intrusion can only be answered by the person being so touched.

    A “dont’ touch unless you’re sure it’s consensual” policy recognizes this fact, and places the responsibility on the person doing the touching. There is no reason for anyone to “step in” unless the person being intruded upon complains about that intrusion — which is, again, the only way for an outside observer to ascertain that such actuall was an intrusion. One might counter that such is already possible, but that runs up against the facts on the ground. That is, absent any requirement to obtain consent, a complaint by someone being intruded upon will normally result in a) an unpleasant scene, followed by b) protestations on the part of the intruder that “I was just being friendly”, “I didn’t mean anything by it”, “it was an accident”, etc. etc., followed by c) nothing more, leaving the intruder free to intrude on others, and other intrusive people seeing that they can continue to intrude without consequence.

    I am reasonably sure that those proposing the policy are not wedded to any particular wording. If you (or someone else) were to propose a different policy that would have the same result for those being intruded upon, then I’m reasonably sure that no one would object. But it would have to provide some way of dealing with the problem, which at least some people experience as very real. What I seem to be seeing in this discussion is more than just an objection to some particular wording, but an objection to anything that might actually solve the problem, along the lines of “we don’t need any policy, because people just know not to intrude”.

    Yet some people are still intruded upon. Which is why I asked the question at the end of my last comment. I pose it again: if you say “we don’t need no stinking policy”, then do you believe that a) there is no problem for the policy to address, or b) there may be a problem, but those affected should just deal with it?

  107. But it would have to provide some way of dealing with the problem, which at least some people experience as very real.

    No it just doesn’t have to deal with the problem even if the problem is very real.

    You have to make an argument for that proposition.

    It is entirely reasonable to argue (1) that the sort of thing you’re talking about sometimes occurs; and (2) that any “solution” to that problem – given its extent (which is not clear) – is a) too onerous in terms of how it impacts the majority (in terms of normal, everyday, interactions); and 2) of undetermined effectiveness.

    By analogy, some people use the telephone to plan terrorist attacks; a solution would be to monitor all telephone calls; but most of us would be against that idea because the costs are too high (given the nature and extent of the problem).

    I’m not claiming that the argument would come out in favor of having no harassment policy, merely that you don’t get to point to bad stuff of the nature x, to a solution y, and then to claim that because y is a solution it’s necessarily right to introduce y. That doesn’t follow. It depends.

    Moreover, the fact that one cannot make this sort of argument without running the risk of being dismissed as a “woman hurter” (and that’s a precise quote) is a sad indictment of (a) people’s ability to think; and (b) the level of discourse in some parts of the freethought world.

  108. Well said Jeremy.

  109. @Jean et al
    A conference is more like a workplace than a social gathering. the primary purpose is professional. The organizers have responsibility to the attendees(even more so if you consider that the employer pays you v/s you pay the conference organizers).
    And for those who say you are tied to your workplace whereas the conference attending is voluntary – are you Ron Paul in disguise?

    But here’s the thing – suppose you are one of the organizers and a woman comes and complains to you that some person she just met hugged her and she felt uncomfortable – would you
    a. Explain why the conference doesnt have a hugging policy
    b. Or go have a word with the person – possibly the first time it would just be a word, the next time a warning , any more would probably have more severe consequences.

    If b. then why do you have a problem codifying it as policy?

  110. A general problem in both the article and the comments section is that almost no attention whatsoever is being paid to the underlying issues that prompted creation of this policy. My gentle suggestion would be to actually take that issue seriously, and then think about how to address it with a policy. Perhaps it’s a poorly worded policy and should be re-written, but it’s not a bad idea.

    One helpful exercise might be to imagine that you are a person (male or female) earnestly attempting to convey through various non-verbal cues that you are not open to hugging or being touched by strangers. Suppose that despite your best efforts, you are hugged or touched anyway, because you’re in a group of people that for whatever reason includes a high percentage of people who fail either to grasp or respond to appropriate social cues. Suppose this happens frequently. I have experienced what it’s like to be a young woman at a gathering of mostly male atheists. Can you trust my honest report that this thought experiment involves a typical experience, rather than a strange outlier?

    One approach to this issue would be to demand that those who don’t want to be touched shout out “no!” every time someone passes into a two-foot radius of personal space around the body, so that intentions are crystal clear. Another approach would be to request, not demand, that people make sure they have permission before wrapping their arms around someone else. Which of these approaches seems more likely to encourage “infantilisation” or a stifled social atmosphere?

    Many times in the comments above, people assume that non-verbal cues about hugging, or the usual ways of “negotiating” physical contact, are fairly easy to manage. Here’s an example of this approach: “But it isn’t all that difficult to convey through body language that you are one of those people who, for whatever reason, do not want to be hugged or otherwise touched by others. There is no reason to have a policy that infantilises us at all by suggesting that we are helpless to navigate these familiar social situations.” Please, take seriously that it can be very difficult indeed to convey through body language that you do not want to be hugged or touched, especially when the target audience of that message has a hard time getting it or simply doesn’t want to get it.

  111. Suzy

    On this blog, you don’t tell people they’re not taking an issue seriously just because you don’t agree with the position they take on an issue. Make your argument, by all means, but do not argue to people’s motivations (or lack of motivation).

  112. …the fact that one cannot make this sort of argument without running the risk of being dismissed as a “woman hurter” (and that’s a precise quote) is a sad indictment of (a) people’s ability to think; and (b) the level of discourse in some parts of the freethought world.

    Not to put to fine a point on it, but the dismissal doesn’t seem completely crazy. After all, the “sort of argument” seems to be that a) yes there is a problem, but b) you don’t think it’s important enough to address, so c) women who are suffering should just live with it. Maybe “woman hurter” goes a bit far, but if the conclusion of your argument is that “it just doesn’t matter enough that some women get hurt,” then it doesn’t seem to be a huge stretch.

    I would also point out that your analogy fails, because it involves “monitoring”. As I already noted, the policy cannot be based on “monitoring” by third parties. There is nothing strange about this; indeed most “intrusion” offenses, even in law, involve reporting instead of monitoring. Most cities have noise ordinances, but seldom, if ever, will you find anyone “monitoring” noise; authorities respond to complaints. The case is similar with regard to breaking and entering, and even assault, at least most of the time.

  113. Deepak, We are not talking here about conferences where the primary purpose is professional. Very, very few people make a profession out of being an atheist.

    Even if we were talking about professional conferences, there would be significant disanalogies between workplaces and conferences. I find that so obvious I can’t imagine why you’d want to belabor it. It doesn’t mean there should be no rules for conferences, but you can’t extrapolate directly from one setting to another. For example, it makes sense to have rules about sexual material in a workplace–no girlie calenders on the walls, for example. That’s because people share work-space and that has a long-term impact on employee performance. It’s another matter to forbid girlie calendars in the TAM lobby, like I hear the Skepchick crew was selling a few years back. A workplace is one thing, a conference is another. You have to think about the two issues separately.

    As for your scenario. No, I find it absurd to think conference staff should involve themselves in trivial problems like feeling uncomfortable because of a hug. This is not a highschool dance we’re talking about. Adult women can actually take care of their own minor problems. What I’d want a harassment code to deal with are much more serious matters than that.

  114. I think that Suzy is pointing out that some people don’t seem to be seeing that there is any problem, perhaps because they don’t experience any problem. Such people seem to be saying, “there is no need for any silly policy. Just rely on normal social cues; that works fine for me.” And Suzy is pointing out that however well that works for some people, there are other people for whom it doesn’t work.

  115. Greg, that’s exactly what I mean. I have no idea what intentions might be motivating the failure to take the underlying problem seriously, but even those who think the no-hug-without-permission policy is misguided should have a problem with a community where unwanted hugging is a problem.

    Jean’s recent comment is a useful example here:
    “This is not a highschool dance we’re talking about. Adult women can actually take care of their own minor problems. What I’d want a harassment code to deal with are much more serious matters than that.”

    More serious matters than that would be dealt with by the police, Jean, and not by a harassment code. Receiving unwanted pawing is not a minor problem; that is the point. Could you try to have some respect for people who don’t enjoy it, and who wish that a community they otherwise enjoy could improve its climate? Insulting those who appreciate having a harassment policy in place, by acting like they’re on the level of kids at a “highschool dance,” is unnecessary, trivializes the issue, and shows precious little respect for high school students.

  116. Suzy, No, there are plenty of things that are more serious than an unwanted hug, but not serious enough to go to the police with. For example, suppose a guy is persistently giving me unwanted attention, sexual or otherwise–he’s following me around a conference. I’ve asked him to stop, but he continues the behavior. That sounds like a reasonable thing to report to a conference organizer.

    Deepak’s case was simply one in which a woman gets an unwanted hug and “feels uncomfortable”. That was it–nothing else was included in his description. Should we be able to get help from conference organizers every time we “feel uncomfortable”? I think not. This is not to deny the feelings of discomfort. It’s just to say that adults cannot expect third-party assistance with every problem, even if it’s a real problem.

  117. Jeremy, I appreciate that you want the discussion here to meet certain higher standards. However, when I suggested that the issue wasn’t being taken seriously I was being serious. Several comments in the thread above have asked, is there even a problem here, to be addressed by some policy? The original post devotes one line to acknowledging that, “some people dislike physical contact and do not want to take part in hugging and the like”, which itself is a rather confused statement of the problem. I like physical contact and hugging just fine; I usually don’t like these things when initiated by strangers who had no permission to do this.

    Jeremy, I am also puzzled by something and I hope, given your earlier comment about “tone”, that you will not interpret this as coming from a negative or hostile intent. However, I noticed that you have an article here about how hugging women is always a sexually charged event for you, and though I don’t recall the exact argument, the idea was that “informed consent” might indeed be an issue before engaging in this sort of activity. If you think hugging is sexual–even if you acknowledge that other people may think hugging is sometimes non-sexual–to the point that that question of informed consent arises, what exactly is your objection to a group’s informal policy requesting something even weaker, getting permission?

  118. @Greg

    1. Nobody has said it doesn’t matter if some women get hurt (so you should retract that);

    2. Nobody has said that women should just live with harassment/suffering (so you should retract that) – codes of conduct aren’t the only way to deal with the problem of unwanted physical contact, etc.

    3. It follows, then, that your woman hurter argument doesn’t fly (well, there’s a surprise), so you should retract that (and don’t repeat that accusation on this blog – ever).

    4. The analogy doesn’t fail – it demonstrates perfectly well that the fact that there is a solution to some problem x doesn’t in and of itself justify bringing the solution to bear.

    5. Your reconstruction of my argument renders it unrecognizable. Here is the actual argument.

    a) Yes, there is a problem;

    b) It isn’t clear how significant the problem is;

    c) Yes, we might address the problem through codes of conduct;

    d) No, we’re not sure how effective any particular code of conduct might be;

    e) No, we can’t be sure there won’t be unintended consequences attached to particular codes of conduct;

    f) Yes, that might leave things worse off overall for the large majority of people (including many more women than would be benefited by any particular code of conduct), and yes, it might infringe against the rights of the large majority of people (including many more women than would be benefited by any particular code of conduct);

    g) No, that does not necessarily mean that we should not introduce some particular code of conduct (because we may judge that the moral calculus comes out in favor introducing a policy);

    h) But equally, it does not necessarily mean that we should introduce some particular code of conduct (because we may judge that the moral calculus comes out against introducing a policy);

    i) We have to argue for it – not just announce that people are “women hurters” or “not taking the problem seriously”.

    That’s the argument you need to address. I say again, it’s a perfectly reasonable argument, and constructing caricatures of the argument isn’t going to render it any less reasonable. It’s not an argument against codes of conduct. It is an argument for (a) getting straight about the complex moral issues involved – which partly means thinking about the “rights” of the individual as opposed to the “rights” of the aggregate; (b) thinking carefully about the likely outcome of any particular code of conduct (i.e., doing some empirical work, some data collection, etc – not just inventing policies in the context of a blog post, for example); and (c) not doing these things while foaming at the mouth about “women haters”.

  119. @Suzy

    what exactly is your objection to a group’s informal policy requesting something even weaker, getting permission?

    Well, I pretty much think that people shouldn’t go around hugging strangers. That’s my general view.

    But the issue of codification is different, because you have to think about (a) whether it will make a difference; (b) whether it’s proportionate to the extent of the problem (which is an empirical question); (c) whether any particular code of conduct infringes on the rights of large numbers of people; (d) whether it matters if it infringes on the rights of large numbers of people (if it prevents serious harm to some small number of people, then maybe it doesn’t matter); (e) whether any particular code of conduct will likely be inhibitory in terms of good stuff such as spontaneity, affection, etc; (f) whether it matters if it is inhibitory in this regard (see point d)); and so on.

    In other words, my position is that people who think this is a “no brainer” don’t understand the issues involved. That’s it, really.

    For what it’s worth, I’m extremely suspicious of guys who engage in serial stranger hugging. Stop it, I say!

  120. Greg, Suzy,

    I think that you are significantly misunderstanding or mischaracterizing the argument against this particular section of the AA code of conduct. I have not seen an argument that “there’s no need for any silly policy”. On the contrary, almost everyone opposed to the AA wording is in favor of having clear, powerful codes of conduct.

    What they are saying is that _THIS_ policy, the AA wording, is not good. It is confusing and it is not a significant deterrent to those consciously committing sexual harassment. There are better policies for deterring this bad behavior that are not confusing and don’t have the downsides associated with such a significant shift in social norms.

  121. Jeremy, the codification of a request that people “get-permission-first” is not an intrusion on anyone’s rights. Nobody has a right to attend a conference, and the people who put on the conference should be free to warn or kick out anyone whose participation or attendance they don’t care to have. In order to be fair to people, though, they probably want to include as many people as possible and make sure those people are well-treated.

    My first comment in this thread was motivated by the sense that concern about unwanted touching wasn’t being taken seriously. However, if you want a positive argument for the policy (though even I don’t like how they worded it), here’s one that responds to your letters:

    a) It already made a difference, by letting people know that harassment and unwanted physical contact is recognized as a problem by the organizers and will be taken seriously. This sets a better tone for conference participants and makes expectations clear.

    b) I don’t know how you empirically measure whether a rule against some action is “proportional” to the experience of suffering it. Do you mean perhaps that the penalty for violating the rule should be proportional? (If so, why should it?) If the unwanted-touching problem is not being taken seriously, then what hope do we have of accurately measuring proportionality? Suppose that unwanted-touching had been mostly eliminated by such a code, though. Would it then be, on empirical grounds that the problem was very small, time to eliminate the code?

    c) and d) As noted above, nobody’s “rights” are infringed by such a code of conduct. Even assuming that a group could not choose to police itself in this fashion, there is no right to hug other people or touch their knees without permission. So even if nobody was spared any serious harm by the policy, nobody is being robbed of anything important by it either.

    e) and f) I don’t think the code would have any negative inhibitory effect, and the burden of proof is rather on those who think it would. What happens at other conferences where such a code of conduct exists? I believe a similar code is in place at some atheist conference for young people, without inhibitory effect.

    In general, I don’t accept that anything changes radically once we decide to go ahead and codify the ethical demand to stop intrusive touching. You would acknowledge that at least some hugging is a sexual event for the hugger, which means that those who receive such an embrace unwillingly are being made to participate in sexually gratifying someone. At least one person on your other post claimed that all heterosexual women enjoy knowing that they are the objects of such arousal (do you object to this?). I guarantee that’s empirically false, but this is the relevant context of the code of conduct we’re talking about.

  122. Proxer, I scrutinize the original article here in vain for any mention of support for “clear, powerful codes of conduct.” Russell does say that he’s “not so sure” he approves of the rest of the code. If examples of clear, powerful anti-harassment codes were given in the comments above, I may have missed that.

  123. @Suzy

    the codification of a request that people “get-permission-first” is not an intrusion on anyone’s rights.

    Well, in the case of AA’s policy that just isn’t true. For example, suppose I’ve been together with my partner for 20 years. We go to an AA conference together, and briefly go our separate ways, and then later I see her standing with her back to me. I walk up to her, she doesn’t see me, and I put my arm around her without asking first or in any other way signalling my presence (as I have done on numerous other occasions in the past). Clearly, I have consent – established over 20 years, etc – but it’s a violation of the AA policy on even the loosest reading. (There is no sense in which I have “asked” – not even non-verbally).

    Clearly, then, if I want to go to an AA conference, and I want to stay inside their rules, then my partner and I are going to have to give up our right to conduct our relationship on our own terms (even though we would both be behaving entirely appropriately).

    This is an intrusion on our rights – private rights – and saying, “Ah, but nobody is forcing you to go to the conference”, isn’t the issue: the issue is that this particular code of conduct results in perfectly legitimate behaviors becoming delegitimized, etc, and that if I want to go to an AA conference, then I have to give up the right to conduct my relationship with my partner in the way I want to conduct it, and in the way that we’ve conducted it together for 20 years, even though our behavior is entirely appropriate for the setting, etc.

    Of course, you’re going to respond something to the effect, “Don’t be ridiculous, the AA policy isn’t interested in that sort of thing, that’s ludicrous, etc”, and needless to say that’s true. But it’s irrelevant. We are arguing against the AA policy as it is set down, not as it might be imagined, or as it should have been set down, or as to its true meaning. It is not in the least bit unreasonable to think, and possibly it’s essential, that codes of conduct actually mean what they say.

    Finally, if you read the AA code of conduct, it isn’t in the least bit clear that the loose reading is justified. In other words, as it stands, it isn’t clear that this is merely a “get permission first” situation. It’s at least arguable that it’s a “get explicit verbal permission first having asked verbally”.

    I know that people like to play fast and loose with the word “ask”, but frankly the idea that waving your arms around in some slightly bizarre way constitutes “asking” in all situations is dubious (which, of course, is precisely why some people want to argue that verbal consent is important).

    As to the rest of your post, obviously I have no problem with it, because you’re doing precisely what many, many people have not done. You’ve argued your case without calling anybody a “woman hater”, you’ve not suggested that your opponents must be closet misogynists, or anything else of that ilk. I might not agree with the points you make, but obviously I’m not going to have a problem with the fact you made the argument.

    There are other issues here, issues of principle, to do with the effect of trying to micro-manage people’s behaviour, which are also important, but, to be honest, I’ve said enough about this issue. I have the strong view that the AA policy is hopeless, and a weak view that the CFI policy is pretty good, but if I was going to take a strong public stance on the general issue of codes of conduct, then I’d want to spend a lot more time thinking about and researching the issue.

  124. I think that Suzy is pointing out that some people don’t seem to be seeing that there is any problem, perhaps because they don’t experience any problem. Such people seem to be saying, “there is no need for any silly policy. Just rely on normal social cues; that works fine for me.” And Suzy is pointing out that however well that works for some people, there are other people for whom it doesn’t work.

    Greg, as Proxer said, no one is saying there’s zero problems. That’s a strawman used to discredit people who have any issues with the AA policy, and I for one am more than slightly sick of being told what I think by people who are not me, and are wrong.

    Nor is anyone saying Social Cues Always Work. Because that’s not the primary objection to the AA policy. The primary objection to the AA policy is that as written, it’s a very poorly done policy that will cause more problems than it fixes.

    Again:

    1) Not saying there’s no problem.
    2) Not saying social cues always work.
    3) AM saying that the AA policy is poorly written and has major issues.

    More serious matters than that would be dealt with by the police, Jean, and not by a harassment code. Receiving unwanted pawing is not a minor problem; that is the point. Could you try to have some respect for people who don’t enjoy it, and who wish that a community they otherwise enjoy could improve its climate? Insulting those who appreciate having a harassment policy in place, by acting like they’re on the level of kids at a “highschool dance,” is unnecessary, trivializes the issue, and shows precious little respect for high school students.

    Again, who reports. Is it just the actual people involved, or any observer? It’s easy to talk about this in terms of direct involvement, but you also have to deal with observers who may not know all the details, and are only going on what they see or hear. How do you handle that within the AA policy, given that it has serious issues?

  125. Jean, honestly I am not sure what it means to give unwanted attention to someone, sexual or otherwise, that is more serious than an unwanted hug without also being the sort of thing it would be appropriate to take to the actual police or at least hotel security. If I thought someone was stalking me or making sexual advances despite my refusals, I would indeed think it appropriate to seek help from security or call the police. I’m not sure I’d even trust conference organizers alone to handle that level of problem–they’re likely just volunteers who aren’t trained in security.

    In the case Deepak mentions, if a woman finds an unwanted hug intrusive enough that she complains to an official, I see no downside in warning the offender not to do this again or risk being expelled. If an “adult woman” seeks help dealing with the situation, then she probably doesn’t feel equal to the task of dealing with it herself. Other women (including me) might indeed prefer to deal with it themselves, and nothing in this policy prevents them from doing that.

    No, adults cannot expect third-party assistance with every problem, but if conference organizers want to make their conference a more pleasant experience for everyone by instituting a get-permission-first policy, why not? The only real arguments I’ve seen against the idea are a) some people might feel infantilised (if so, then handle things yourself), and b) some people might feel repressed (but what’s the proof of a socially dampening effect? and why is it more important to protect people from these feelings–isn’t that rather infantilising, itself?–than to protect people who are literally being touched against their will?). Proxer mentions the “downsides of a significant shift in social norms”, but what about the upsides? Some people want the norms to shift, apparently including the organizers of this group.

  126. Jeremy and John, if we’re to the point of arguing about how the policy should be worded, but we agree that it’s desirable to have an anti-harassment policy that solves a real underlying problem, then we’re close enough in agreement for my purposes and I’m content. I’m not a lawyer and not very good at writing up precise policy language, so I’ll leave that to some better expert. My desired outcome is that a woman who finds a stranger wrapping his arms around her or placing an unwanted hand on her leg can expect the conference staff to consider this unacceptable and to do something about it.

  127. Deepak Shetty

    No, I find it absurd to think conference staff should involve themselves in trivial problems like feeling uncomfortable because of a hug. Adult women can actually take care of their own minor problems.
    Some adult women can and good for them.
    Not all, nor should they have to. So just to be clear – given my intentionally limited description you would rather the conference organizer should respond with effectively “you are an adult – deal with it” (diplomatically it can be phrased as you want but that’s the meaning).

  128. Deepak Shetty

    @jeremy
    Clearly, I have consent – established over 20 years, etc – but it’s a violation of the AA policy on even the loosest reading. (There is no sense in which I have “asked” – not even non-verbally).
    But that’s not a charitable reading.
    The policy only matters if someone complains isn’t it? (Unless you expect AA to have hidden police monitoring social activity)

  129. @Deepak

    The issue of a charitable reading when we’re talking about a quasi-legal document is moot. As I said a week ago on this thread:

    …it shouldn’t be beyond the combined wit of the movers and shakers of a (relatively) large atheist organisation to construct a harassment policy that does mean what it says.

    Obviously, it isn’t the case that the policy only matters if somebody complains, because a big chunk of the rationale for such policies is that they make people feel comfortable that boundaries have been set correctly so that if they do complain, they’ll be taken seriously.

    Anyway, the idea that you can write a bad policy, and then say, “Ah, don’t worry, everybody knows what we really mean, and look, people are only going to complain if there’s really bad stuff going on, you know, the stuff we intended to prohibit, not all the other stuff we actually prohibited” is absurd.

    Get it right. Okay, maybe it’s hard to get it right, but it’s not hard to get it more right than the American Atheists managed.

    This should not be contentious. Why are people defending shoddy work here? Not least, the whole thing is terribly badly written. As I’ve said before, in places it doesn’t even prohibit what it intends to prohibit: so, for example, you’ll find you’re not allowed to make offensive verbal comments about deliberate intimidation, stalking, following(!?), harassing photography, and so on.

    I’m in violation of their policy if I say – “Bastard harassing photography”!

    Are you really saying that you don’t expect an organisation such as the American Atheists to have mastered enough English to enable them to say what they mean to say in their own code of conduct policy? If so, blimey…

  130. Suzy, My example of something more serious than one unwanted hug (that makes you “feel uncomfortable”) but not serious enough to take to the police was someone who persists in hitting on someone repeatedly, despite her clearly saying No. I don’t think that’s against the law, but a conference organizer could reasonably intervene. Another example: an attendee calls the speaker a “bitch” and storms out. That’s not police-level stuff, not against the law.

    Deepak, Yes, if the chaperone says it diplomatically, I do think that’s the right thing to say. Simply “feeling uncomfortable” about a hug isn’t a reason to seek third party intervention. Of course, if you actually meant a grope, that’s different. But if we’re just talking about someone very sensitive to touch, who gets an unwelcome hug–well, life sucks. If you get into a crowd of people, there are bound to be lots of irritations.

    Nobody’s changing their mind at this point, so maybe I’ll sign off now.

  131. Jeremy and John, if we’re to the point of arguing about how the policy should be worded, but we agree that it’s desirable to have an anti-harassment policy that solves a real underlying problem, then we’re close enough in agreement for my purposes and I’m content. I’m not a lawyer and not very good at writing up precise policy language, so I’ll leave that to some better expert. My desired outcome is that a woman who finds a stranger wrapping his arms around her or placing an unwanted hand on her leg can expect the conference staff to consider this unacceptable and to do something about it.

    Someone actually did ask a lawyer about such a thing: http://www.skepticalabyss.com/?p=61

    and the lawyer’s opinion was not supportive of the concept, for reasons which make a fair amount of sense.

  132. Why on earth would we take a stance of reading charitably a law or a code of conduct that seeks to control our and other people’s behaviour? That misunderstands the principle of charity.

    Reading a law, etc., charitably, then acting on your charitable reading, is very dangerous. Now, perhaps judges should read them charitably when they come to be applied. But the rest of us should be scrutinising them very carefully to make sure they are not over-broad.

    The principle that we are more likely to make progress if we read the arguments of interlocutors charitably and the related principle that we should address interlocutors in a civil way are based on completely different considerations (to do with making intellectual progress, keeping a good atmosphere for mutual aid in advancing understanding, etc.), but there is no principle that: in public policy debate we should read laws and similar provisions charitably.

    Quite the opposite: we need to test what unfortunate (perhaps unintended, perhaps even intended) effects they might have. That really means that we should lean toward seeing how they could be applied harshly or absurdly by someone literal-minded or with an unpleasant agenda. It’s very important that we have people in our society doing this, and that they not be discouraged by uncharitable or uncivil responses to their actions when they do so.

    A lot of the discussion we’ve been seeing about this issue (not just on, or necessarily on this thread) gets things exactly backwards in wanting to treat the rule itself charitably while being uncharitable to people who are scrutinising it.

  133. Stepping back in just to say: Russell, that’s a great point.

  134. @John C. Welch: How much credence are you saying we should give to the site you’re linking to?

    As also pointed out on that very site, CFI’s president and CEO Ronald Lindsay who is a lawyer clearly is supportive of the concept of a code of conduct. CFI also has a legal counsel on their staff. I believe AA’s Amanda Knief is also a lawyer. That is a total of three attorneys I can think of that are on the payroll of two large national organizations that drafted policies very recently.

  135. Simon, But did you read the interview? Sure, there are lots of lawyers all over the place, but at the very least that one had a bunch of interesting things to say, particularly about liability. He also winds up framing a code of conduct, so the message was not–can’t do it. The message was–must be done very carefully. Do you really think that’s a suspicious position to take?

  136. Sure I’ve read the interview. I even added more or less the same comment I gave here in response to the site owner’s statement that it seemed to him/her [emphasis mine] “that nobody (including myself hitherto) has thought to consult with an actual legal professional about the situation.” which the owner acknowledged was in all likelihood false at the bottom of the original post.

    However I’m not sure what this has to do with the question posed on this blog…

    PS In hindsight I will acknowledge that my response to John C. Welch probably didn’t have much to do with the topic of this blog post either so the admin is free to remove if he wishes.

  137. I’m not planning to delete any comments – and as far as I know Jeremy is not, but who can say? – but there’s a general idea here of assuming good faith, staying civil and on topic, not strawmanning interlocutors, etc. That’s just a reminder to us all, including me.

  138. @Jeremy
    Obviously, it isn’t the case that the policy only matters if somebody complains, because a big chunk of the rationale for such policies is that they make people feel comfortable that boundaries have been set correctly so that if they do complain, they’ll be taken seriously.
    Sure. but thats was not your objection. Your objection was along the lines of I wont be able to touch my spouse. Clearly that’s not the case. AA is not planning on butting into hugs asking you if you have consent. If you see an old friend or a spouse for whom consent is implicit – by all means go ahead. The issue only arises for people who aren’t your friends and who might feel uncomfortable and might complain.

    Suppose AA instead has a policy of no abusive language to attendees (without consent) – it makes no sense for me to argue that I use profanities all the while with friends and they don’t mind and you cant regulate my behavior.

    I read the policy as consent need not be verbal and can be implicit and its your responsibility to see that the other person doesn’t mind. This is normal reasonable behavior. Specifying it in a document doesn’t change anything.

    Why are people defending shoddy work here?
    It depends. If you are arguing as Russell seems to be doing, that on principle, this clause in the policy is bad then that’s one thing. (where the wrongness of the claim is of higher priority to me than the ambiguity in the phrasing)
    if on the other hand you are quibbling about the language used / ambiguities etc – that’s a different thing.

  139. @Russell
    That really means that we should lean toward seeing how they could be applied harshly or absurdly by someone literal-minded or with an unpleasant agenda.
    Anyone with an unpleasant agenda can report you today – what you are relying is on the fairness of the organizers to evaluate the situation at hand.

    But Im curious How exactly do you think these rules can be misused?
    a. Bystanders observe your hug and report you to AA?
    b. Women who have scores to settle with you wait for you to hug them and then report you to AA?
    c. Women who have been tapped on the shoulder to get their attention report you to AA?
    d. Jeremy Stangroom’s spouse reports him to AA for initiating contact without permission?

  140. @Deepak – No, my objection is that I won’t be able to touch my spouse in the way described, and stay within the bounds of the rules, as set down.

    To be honest, I’m not sure there’s any point in continuing this conversation.

    The critics of the AA policy are saying, variously:

    1) It’s a bad policy because if you look at what it says, rather than guess at its intent, (which is perfectly reasonable given that it is a quasi-legal statement – see Russell’s longish comment above), it prohibits all sorts of behaviors that shouldn’t be prohibited;

    2) The “relaxed” reading of the policy favoured (not suprisingly!) by its defenders is not justified by the language of the policy. Specifically, it’s not in the least bit clear that it isn’t talking about explicit verbal consent (because the relaxed reading of it requires understanding the word “ask” in a way that is not standard);

    3) It’s a bad idea for a code of conduct to require that people guess at its intent, meaning, scope, etc (partly because this sort of thing is open to abuse, but for other reasons as well – for example, there are some people who argue quite vociferously that actually verbal permission, etc., is required, because not everybody is able to interpret non-verbal signals properly, so maybe they would draw the line in a quite different place – so who are we to believe?);

    4) It’s embarrassing that an organisation such as the AA, despite apparently having a lawyer available to oversee the thing, were unable to find somebody with sufficient mastery of English to ensure that the policy ended up saying what it meant to say;

    5) There are issues of principle in terms of the specificity of the advice, prohibitions, etc; in other words, it’s possible that we don’t want conference management to be involved in managing the stuff of everyday interaction (even if occasionally it means that people are going to be hugged if they don’t want to be hugged);

    6) But this is not to give harassment a free pass, because (a) it depends on what you take to be harassment (is an unwanted hug given without malice, not repeated, etc., harassment – not everybody thinks that is harassment, not everybody thinks it would be appropriate to involve conference management in managing that sort of thing); and (b) because harassment can be handled under a general “don’t be a jerk, or you’re going to get thrown out rule”;

    And so on.

    I agree with 1, 2, 3 & 4. I haven’t taken a public stance on 5, except to say that I think those issues are far more complex than the defenders of codes of conduct understand (and they are far more complex than that).

    Now if you want to call any of that “quibbling” that’s entirely your affair, and maybe you’re right, but that’s the point at which I get bored.

    I will say, however, that it is curiously ironic that people who advocate for codifying rules of behavior are also the people saying – “Well, actually, it doesn’t really matter too much exactly what these codes say, because everybody already knows what sort of thing is acceptable and what sort of thing isn’t.”

    I’m done now. You’re welcome to the last word (so long as you stay within the rules of this blog, of course – not written down, but hey, well all know what they are… right…?).

    (It’s possible I broke my own rules with that last comment. Sorry. I’ve given myself a warning!).

  141. Ways, among many, that this rule could go wrong.

    1. Those with the power to punish could accuse someone innocent whom they dislike or who threatens their hold on power.

    2. Someone could falsely accuse someone they dislike of hugging them, out of rivalry or malice.

    3. The rule could be applied selectively against group dissenters, heretics or those who don’t fit into the group.

    All of the above are true about any rule or law which is hard to prove (unless everything in the conference is filmed), but if a offense, even if it hard to prove, is serious enough, it is worth investigating in detail, having suspects interrogated by professionals, cross-examining, letting people be represented by lawyers, but this offense simply isn’t serious enough.

  142. In response to Jean’s earlier comment above, I take your position to be that an unwanted hug or touch is too trivial to demand any intervention, but other situations that aren’t serious enough to call police would still be serious enough to merit a conference organizer’s intervention. The critical difference between our views is that I don’t consider these in-between cases–like an audience member calling someone a bitch and storming out, or persistently hitting on someone who refuses–to be obviously worse than putting your arms around or hands upon an unwilling person.

    These matters are open to subjective differences and difficult to measure. Personally, I would rather have someone lightly touch my arm without permission than shout “bitch!” at me, but I’d honestly prefer the shouted insult over an unwanted hug. I’d rather have a guy hit on me repeatedly without touching than actually put a hand on my knee. Since we don’t know how different people would evaluate such cases, and since they’re all annoying and unnecessary behaviors, to me it seems simpler to lay out what’s acceptable behavior and what isn’t. Considering that the policy also warns people against wearing perfumed shampoos, lest those with sensitivities or allergies be affected, I don’t think it’s going overboard to state that you shouldn’t be touching people unless you know they’re okay with it.

    Again, I’m not seeing the terrible downside. I really doubt that such a policy would have a chilling effect on normal social interactions, since other groups have adopted such policies without such ill effect. If some people feel infantilised by a policy, then they needn’t rely upon it in managing their interactions with others. Meanwhile, other people feel that the policy is a benefit.

    If the problem really boils down to the difficulties of crafting policy language, then I must confess I have misunderstood most of the criticism because that didn’t seem to be the primary complaint. However, I would add that lawyers are not here to judge what is best, or even to judge what is best legally. Rather, they judge what is best from the perspective of protecting the interests of a specific client, or achieving what the client wants.

  143. In response to the ways this policy could go wrong (i.e. the downsides):
    First, anyone can falsely accuse an innocent person right now. You could excise the language about hugging, and still people could make up a false claim about some other rule.
    Second, if the consequences for breaking such rules include things like being asked to leave, why is that the sort of crisis that requires lawyers, interrogations, and so forth? Groups should be able to police their own memberships as they please, assuming they’re not discriminating based on identity. There’s no special right to attend a conference, no special right to be a surprise hugger without consequence.

  144. Suzy:

    Yes, people can make false claims about most rules (some rules have to do with problems where there is clear evidence), but that’s a good reason to only have rules where the matter is important, since rules can be misused.

    If all I need to do to get rid of someone who is bothersome (and I have more prestige or status in the group than that person), all I need to do is to accuse them of hugging me.

    That’s the making of tyranny.

  145. Deepak Shetty

    I will say, however, that it is curiously ironic that people who advocate for codifying rules of behavior are also the people saying – “Well, actually, it doesn’t really matter too much exactly what these codes say, because everybody already knows what sort of thing is acceptable and what sort of thing isn’t.”
    Well not really. All Im saying is that it’s a different discussion and you could provide constructive feedback to AA or in general as to what you’d want it to say – if the terms are ambiguous or misleading.

    For me 5 is the crux of the matter where the real disagreement is.

  146. Deepak Shetty

    @swallerstein
    >1. Those with the power to punish could accuse someone innocent whom they dislike or who threatens their hold on power.
    Which can be done today

    >2. Someone could falsely accuse someone they dislike of hugging them, out of rivalry or malice.
    Which can be done today (if you wanted to falsely accuse someone you’d accuse them of groping or stalking rather than hugging , no?)

    >3. The rule could be applied selectively against group dissenters, heretics or those who don’t fit into the group.
    Which can be done today.

    What you have to prove is that this policy makes for more misuse than if it didnt exist, no?

  147. Deepak Shetty

    @Jeremy
    (It’s possible I broke my own rules with that last comment. Sorry. I’ve given myself a warning!).
    Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (alan moore fan)

  148. Surely we’re going to wrap up soon…!

    Re: asking. I think the dictionary is clear on the meaning of the word. Asking involves language. In other contexts, that’s what we all certainly think. For example, if a college has a rule that people must ask permission before having sex (not a bad rule!), you are not complying if you rely on body language. Pretty clearly, an “ask before you touch” policy is expressly designed to avoid the sort of ambiguity that non-verbal communication involves.

    Re: what’s serious enough for intervention. Suzy, please remember we’re not talking groping, but just about touching and hugging. I’ll take your word for it that you dislike unauthorized touching and hugging, but we do have to think about the downside for the vast majority. I think you’re way too quickly dismissing the list of downsides in Russell’s post. If you take the rule on its face, which is the right way to take it, it creates a situation in which either (a) people don’t touch, or (b) there are a million little “may I touch?” requests being made. Both scenarios seem bad. Your defense of the rule really seems to be a defense of a much watered down substitute like “don’t touch unless you know it will be welcome.” That would create lots of leeway for people to know in a variety of ways.

    Re: backfiring. Another downside I didn’t talk about in my original post is that I think trying to regulate small matters tends to elicit mockery and rebellion. You may even see more sexual harassment than you otherwise would have. My evidence for that is the last year of misogynistic abuse against people like Rebecca Watson, apparently triggered by her complaint about “elevator guy.” I am not (NOT) blaming her for the abuse, but just observing a pattern. When people complain about minor and borderline cases of harassment, it unleashes…well, some very unnice tendencies in people. It seems to me that for effective deterrence of harassment, it may just be that less is more.

  149. Deepak:

    I’m not familiar with the current rules, but if they leave room for abuse of power, maybe they too should be revised.

    Sadly to say, in my experience, I’ve seen more abuse of power in well-intentioned movements which want to improve the world than in ordinary government bureaucracies.

  150. I don’t think it’s going overboard to state that you shouldn’t be touching people unless you know they’re okay with it.

    I also don’t think we should be touching other people unless we’re as sure as we can be that they’re okay with it (although there are situations – such as a crowded train during the rush hour – where this rule just isn’t in play).

    But sometimes it isn’t easy. I still have a fairly chilling recollection of an incident with a female student of mine, who I knew extremely well at the time, and who was over 18, who came to my room absolutely distraught and in floods of tears, unable to speak at all, and I just stood there, paralyzed, wanting to give her a hug, or to put my arm around her, or to do something rather than just stand there impotently asking her what was wrong, but not able to do anything, because of an (unwarranted) fear that she wouldn’t have wanted to be comforted.

    I made the wrong call back then, I should have taken the risk, and hugged her. Ironically, twenty years later, we’re still friends, and she is one of very few women that I will actually hug (mainly because she knows perfectly well that I find her attractive, a fact she finds hilarious – in an emasculating kind of way – rather than threatening).

  151. Deepak, I’m not going to speculate about your motives (I’d have to give myself a warning if I did!), but you’ve been saying some very strange things on this thread. E.g. you now seem to think that the burden is on critics of a restriction on people’s behaviour to prove that it’s a bad or the wrong restriction. But why on earth would anyone think that? Surely the burden is on the people who want to impose the restriction. They will need to show what the mischief is that the restriction is aimed at, why it is something intolerable, and why the new rule is not overly broad.

    In some cases, that might be easy, e.g. if it the rule is aimed at curbing physical violence of some sort that has not been covered to date for some reason. But if the effect of the rule, on its face, is to prohibit a whole lot of ordinary social behaviour that the general law explicitly tolerates (through such principles as de minimis) and which can be positively beneficial and mutually enjoyable for many people, then I think that burden will be very difficult to discharge …and the people who seek to inpose such a rule will quite rightly be regarded as officious (or worse).

  152. michael reidy

    Though not an atheist I welcome the attempt of AA to grapple with the problem of unwanted hugs and physical contact. Their ideal of rational beliefs reasonably held is clearly just that, an ideal that evades and founders in a welter of ‘what abouts’. In the absence of clear policy that everyone can adhere to or a lay ‘noli me tangere’ will events descend into a chaos of touchy feely? Perhaps this is just another phase of the revolutionary Church of Reason with its new calender and the renovated schedules of Comtian secular religion. The enthusiasm and heresy sniffing that has emerged leads one in that direction, a direction that the finger-post wit of Mary Midgley indicates in her essay in the New Humanist
    http://newhumanist.org.uk/2419/against-humanism

  153. All what I read here looks really weird from a foreigner point of view. Of course you have to follow the informal code of conduct of the country you are during the conference, but if it allows to touch someone (I don’t know the US one), I see no arm by doing it. And if you want to be out of the boundaries, there is no difficulties to tell the people in front of you, that you don’t want.

  154. You now seem to think that the burden is on critics of a restriction on people’s behaviour to prove that it’s a bad or the wrong restriction.
    When the criticism takes the form of “the policy can be misused” then yes a critic has to atleast provide some plausible examples (you have swallersteing saying – “That’s the making of tyranny” – do you not think such claims place a burden of proof on him?). We normally phrase it “consenting adults can do whatever the heck they want”. I’d prefer the emphasis be on consent (rather than the verbal. I dont know why you choose to portray it as control of peoples life and interactions.

    If you were willing to restrict your criticism to “show that the policy helps or makes a difference” then the burden of proof would be on AA or the supporters of the policy.

    Offtopic
    I’m not going to speculate about your motives (I’d have to give myself a warning if I did!)
    I too will not speculate about your motives to oppose a harassment policy (and I too can imply quite a lot without saying it – It’s silly to follow the blog hosts policy to the letter while violating it’s spirit)

  155. Not sure what you’re getting at in the last para.

    But anyway, the entire post is about how the policy is massively overbroad if you simply read it literally. And of course it purports to control people’s interactions (and to that extent their lives while they are at a convention). That’s what a policy forbidding certain sorts of conduct does.

  156. Jeremy wrote

    1. Nobody has said it doesn’t matter if some women get hurt (so you should retract that);
    2. Nobody has said that women should just live with harassment/suffering (so you should retract that) – codes of conduct aren’t the only way to deal with the problem of unwanted physical contact, etc.

    But in the comment to which I was responding, Jeremy had written

    It is entirely reasonable to argue (1) that the sort of thing you’re talking about sometimes occurs; and (2) that any “solution” to that problem – given its extent (which is not clear) – is a) too onerous in terms of how it impacts the majority (in terms of normal, everyday, interactions);…

    I don’t think that my gloss – that the argument here is, “yes, we see that there is a problem, but choose not to address it” – is perverse. After all, the comment did not say something like, “I can see that there’s a problem, but this response seems a poor one; perhaps we can find a better way to address it,” but instead “any ‘solution'” would be “too onerous”. Certainly one could argue about whether people are being truly “hurt” and so on, but if someone feels that they are being harmed, then a response of “I see what you mean, but we aren’t willing to deal with it because doing so would be too onerous” is unlikely to be well-received.

    More generally part of the problem I see in this discussion is what seems to be a bouncing back an forth between the “this is a bad rule” and “no rule” positions (sometimes by the same person). A number of people have noted that the specific wording of a rule is not that important, so long as the rule embodies the idea that before you intrude upon another’s person, you determine that they are ok with it. If someone were to respond that such is understood, but this particular wording seems a problem, then there would be little objection.

    That doesn’t seem to be the way the discussion has gone. What begins with particular objections to wording seems to end with “any solution … is … too onerous”. That makes the objections to wording seem disingenuous. If you object in principle to a rule about touching others, then any specific points about whether “consent” requires explicit spoken acknowledgement and suchlike are beside the point.

  157. On a more general note, I see what seems to be a disconnect in discussion here, possibly related to the matter of personal experience I noted above.

    Jean noted

    …if we’re just talking about someone very sensitive to touch, who gets an unwelcome hug…

    and Jeremy added

    … this is not to give harassment a free pass, because (a) it depends on what you take to be har
    assment (is an unwanted hug given without malice, not repeated, etc., harassment…

    I would suggest that “an unwelcome hug” is not, in itself, harassment. After all, ‘harassment’ means some persistent or cumulative behaviour. And it seems that no one objects to policies about stalking or similar activities.

    Unfortunately, there is also the problem of “distributed” harassment; that is: cumulative behaviour on the part of different people. If I am at a convention and there is a single instance of someone touching me, then I am unlikely to raise the issue. But if I cannot walk into a room without a dozen people handling me, then it can become a significant intrusion.

    Complicating the issue further is that, as I noted above, some people are much more likely to be the object of intrusive attention than others. Men are much more likely to intrude on the physical space or the person of women than of other men. And it seems that there are at least some attendees who find themselves to be the object of too much unwanted physical contact. The only real solution to this sort of problem is a rule that one does not touch others unless they consent (with appropriate attention given to what constitutes ‘consent’, if necessary).

    One may conclude that any rule embodying such a principle would be excessive and overly intrusive. Such may be a reasonable conclusion. But one must then accept that some conference attendees are likely to continue to feel harassed and unwelcome.

  158. But Greg, you can do two things. You can be worried about having further rules about touching others (these rules already exist in both the general law and in the vague standards of what is considered outrageous, and will probably be enforced by hotel staff and the like). You can also say that even if there is going to be a further rule this is a bad one.

    There is absolutely nothing disingenuous about thinking or arguing both of those things. Why make such an allegation?

    Actually, there’s also nothing wrong with saying that some small or rare “harm” (perhaps really just offence or emotional discomfort) is being done but that there’s no need for a further rule to deal with it beyond the existing norms of etiquette, politeness, etc. Just because existing norms in relation to some mischief are not 100 per cent effective in eliminating it does not entail that it is best for some further rule to be imposed.

    Similarly, some small “harm” may be done by all sorts of things – e.g. by the insistence of some people in asking rude questions, such as “How much money do you earn?” But it doesn’t follow that this is a mischief that needs to be addressed in a formal code of conduct somewhere.

    I very much doubt that any further rule specifically about touching people is necessary in the particular community we’re talking about. We already have the law relating to battery and sexual assault, moral norms, standards of politeness and etiquette, the concern of hotels to stop troublemakers, etc.

    But even if something more is needed, the post is about how the rule that has actually been adopted is officious, intrusive, unworkable, and contrary to our ordinary standards of polite, friendly, beneficial interaction. All of this can be quite consistent and principled. Once again, I don’t see any reason to conclude that anyone is being disingenuous.

  159. @Russell:
    Perhaps ‘disingenuous’ was not the right word, but arguing at great length about the details of the wording of a rule that one thinks shouldn’t exist at all strikes me as odd, at least. Rather like becoming deeply invested in an argument about salvation through faith or through works when one thinks that Christianity is load of twaddle.

    It also makes things confused, because it seems that we have some people (like you, it seems) arguing that there are no more rules are required, at the same time as others are insisting that no one is arguing that no more rules are required.

  160. I don’t think that my gloss – that the argument here is, “yes, we see that there is a problem, but choose not to address it” – is perverse.

    It’s entirely perverse, Greg, since I also went on to add:

    I’m not claiming that the argument would come out in favor of having no harassment policy, merely that you don’t get to point to bad stuff of the nature x, to a solution y, and then to claim that because y is a solution it’s necessarily right to introduce y. That doesn’t follow. It depends.

    The point I was making is that you can’t prejudge the issue. The claim that not all problems have solutions that are not too onerous is not as a matter of principle unreasonable.

    So, by analogy, again, it might be the case that we could eradicate all instances of cervical cancer by performing weekly PAP tests, but we’re not going to do it, because in various ways such a solution is too burdensome.

    It follows, then, as I stated, that one has to argue for the appropriateness of a solution.

  161. Deepak, we HAVE been providing examples of how the policy could be misused. It seems you’ve just not read them or ignored them so as to demand something that’s already been done.

  162. Jeremy wrote:

    The claim that not all problems have solutions that are not too onerous is not as a matter of principle unreasonable.

    No, it is not “unreasonable”. Indeed, there are some problems that may have no good solutions. The point is that, as I said previously,

    if someone feels that they are being harmed, then a response of “I see what you mean, but we aren’t willing to deal with it because doing so would be too onerous” is unlikely to be well-received.

    And this especially when there are proposed solutions on the table that many do not see as “too onerous”, and still more so when the measure of that ‘too onerous’ is that “it might cause me some slight inconvenience”.

  163. @Greg – You say:

    if someone feels that they are being harmed, then a response of “I see what you mean, but we aren’t willing to deal with it because doing so would be too onerous” is unlikely to be well-received.

    Two points:

    a) Well obviously it’s entirely possible that even correctly assessing that some solution is too onerous will not be received well by other people (if they don’t agree, etc);

    b) Yet again I need to state that I haven’t argued that some solution x is too onerous. I’ve merely argued that whether some solution x is appropriate – or too onerous – is something that needs to be argued for – without name-calling, abuse, accusations of women-hating, etc. And I’m still entirely correct on this point.

  164. I’m not sure I care about this issue. People are still going to do what feels reasonable and natural. It does, however, put unjust pressure on (mostly) men to be careful about what they do before being accused of harassment.

    As a side note, I assaulted Dawkins when I put my hand on his shoulder for a photo. I hugged Russell when we first met. There were no issues in either circumstance, and neither man appears to be holding a grudge. What it comes down to is knowing who you can touch and who you can’t.

    I don’t approve of the CFI policy for a different reason; it does away with the presumption of innocence completely — something that Marcotte wants to happen in rape cases in courts of law.

  165. Here’s the portion of CFI’s policy that bluharmony is referring to:

    Presumed guilt: Some have expressed concern that alleged harassers will be presumed guilty. There is no presumption of guilt under CFI’s policy.

    On the other hand, there is also no presumption of innocence. Neither allegations from the accuser nor denials from the accused will carry any special weight.

    With respect to process, CFI will treat all complaints seriously and will take reasonable measures to investigate complaints, including interviewing the alleged harasser. Only after the relevant facts have been gathered will CFI make a judgment regarding appropriate remedial action.

    Of course, in some instances, the conduct in question will have taken place in plain view before CFI staffers. In that instance, immediate action may be taken without the need for an investigation.

    Source: http://www.centerforinquiry.net/blogs/entry/cfis_new_policy_on_hostile_conduct_harassment_at_conferences/

    CFI did not “do away” with anything. A company policy is not a court of law that hands out prison sentences where of course there has to be a high standard of evidence.

    I also have no idea what Amanda Marcotte has to do with this discussion.

  166. Guys, you’re discussing the burden and standard of proof that ought to be used in investigations under a different policy that does not actually contain anything like the provision complained about in the original post.

    This may be an interesting topic in itself (as a matter of fact, I have a longstanding interest in workplace misconduct policies and procedures, which this is surely analogous to). But it’s getting rather remote from the subject of original post, especially as the whole thread had lapsed for over a month and it’s unlikely that many people are reading it anymore … and it raises a host of issues of its own. I suggest with all due respect to both of you that if either of you really wants to get into that topic, it would be better done elsewhere.

    Maria, yes you did hug me when we first met without any specifically asking. That was, of course, fine, though it would have breached the AA policy. People, especially women, act in these spontaneous ways all the time, relying on non-verbal and contextual cues, and very few people are likely to classify it as harassment or seriously want to prevent it. That is certainly relevant to the original post, though even on that point I wonder whether the thread isn’t now rather stale. Over on my private blog I usually consider threads to be stale after 14 days. There’s no such rule here as far as I know, but I doubt that many people are reading this by now.

  167. Russell — point taken.
    Simon — I don’t object to the CFI policy at all, it’s one of the better ones I’ve seen. As to Marcotte’s relevance, there’s too much back story for this post.

  168. Although it’s almost a year later, I still want to say this: I am a woman who is very often hugged without my consent. Usually by other women, but men as well. It is horrible and I wish it would stop. I suppose some people would blame me for not having the correct body language to let people know that I don’t want to be hugged, but don’t you think that if I could somehow prevent this by doing the right body language, I would have learned this skill by now? I assure you I have tried.

    If there was a normal practice of asking people, then I think it would become less awkward when a person says no. Anyway, I would much rather have the awkwardness of having to say no than just being hugged before I have a chance to say anything. Then afterwards I have to consider the awkwardness of telling the person, after the fact, that I didn’t like them touching me–which is a much MORE awkward situation, so much so that I usually say nothing. If I do bring up the subject, many people get mad me for not wanting to be hugged, or else they try to convince me that it’s not that bad and I should just get over it. So I rarely bring it up to people anymore–in my experience, if they do not ask beforehand, then they probably won’t take kindly to being told no at any point, before or after. But I am being very honest when I say, it is AWFUL to be hugged by someone I don’t want to hug me, and it happens ALL THE TIME. Just because I no longer say anything about it, due to bad experiences when I do, doesn’t mean it’s not that bad.

    So this idea that people in general are very skilled at reading consent/non-consent non-verbally does not ring true to me at all. I wouldn’t be surprised of some of you who are so confident about your ability to read people are actually hugging people like me, and making them feel bad, fairly often, and you have no idea.

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