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.

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