Archive for May, 2013

On “Not Harassment Per Se” Part 2- Is There Common Ground On What Constitutes Harassment?

Posted on May 3, 2013. Filed under: Atheism, Atheist Ethics, Personal, Social Justice |

So I have been having a somewhat civil conversation with John C. Welch and Pitchguest about my last post “On ‘Not Harassment Per Se'” and the subject came up that part of my problem is that we diverge on what constitutes harassment at Women in Secularism 2 should Justin Vacula attend.

I suggested that perhaps it might be helpful if I made a list of ten or more things that I would consider “harassment”, and ten or more things that I would not consider “harassment”.  So this post will hopefully assist in at least drawing my line in the sand regarding what I would consider appropriate and inappropriate contact with someone who has made it clear that they don’t wish to engage with a certain  attendee.

I’ll start with what I deem “normal, casual contact”

  1. Being in the same room as another guest if it is a common area
  2. Being incidentally within a few feet of another guest for a short period of time
  3. Being in a room where another guest is giving a presentation, assuming no efforts are made to be disruptive or undermine their wishes.
  4. Happening to be in a bar or restaurant that another guest happens to be at, assuming that it is coincidental
  5. Speaking to guests who have not made it known that they desire “no contact”, assuming they are not presently conversing with guests who desire no contact.
  6. Passing another guest in the common area-assuming that you don’t attempt to communicate with them.
  7. Staying at the same hotel as other guests of the convention.
  8. Attending the same presentation as another guest
  9. Asking conference staff to deal with legitimate harassment by other guests
  10. Infrequent and unintended non-verbal communication

If Justin was accused of doing any of the things noted above without sufficient grounds to question ulterior motives, I’m willing to concede that this constitutes incidental casual contact.

Now a list of what I believe constitutes harassment, even under the guise of “following the rules”

  1. A sustained effort to be in proximity to a guest who wishes no contact
  2. Intentionally joining into conversations that other guests are having with someone who desires “no contact”
  3. Attending presentations by another guest with  the express intention of being visible and/or asking questions of someone who desires no contact.
  4. Purposely trying to be visible to a guest who desires no contact, or following them if they chose to remove themselves
  5. Purposely trying to goad someone into speaking with you or putting them in a position where they need to reiterate an established desire for no contact.
  6. Purposely putting yourself in the path of a guest who does not desire contact or frequently putting yourself in proximity
  7. Switching rooms to be close to another guest or taking routes that guarantee contact
  8. Sitting beside, behind, in front of or otherwise near a “no contact” guest if it is unnecessary
  9. Purposely checking other guests behaviour in an effort to find something to complain to conference staff about
  10. Frequently trying to communicate non-verbally by making unwelcome gestures, whether seemingly polite or not.

So we are clear, yes, I absolutely hold every guest to this standard.  I would consider it blameworthy if conference guests went searching for ways that Justin is breaking policy, as opposed to waiting for him to do so.  I also do not think this is an exhaustive list of the ways in which a guest might try to abuse the spirit of a non-harassment policy by following the letter of it.

I understand that Justin is going to go to the conference.  I don’t think he should be disallowed from going.  I also know that other than some “if I happen to” and “if I’m close to” comments on his own blog, Justin has not outright said he intends to try and be a problem for the people who don’t want contact from him.  He also hasn’t said that he intends to go out of his way to respect those wishes.

To reiterate- I have not convicted Justin of a crime before the day he is accused of committing it.  I have done to this point what any person should do given the facts at hand.  Justin has written about his feeling regarding how enforceable a “no contact” request is.  When he had the opportunity to comment on it, he has used lawyering to explain why he thinks he cannot be stopped from at least some communication.  Those are not the words of someone who is committed to taking the ethical high ground.  I will also note that John C. Welch came onto my blog guns-a-blazing about all the reasons Justin will be totally justified when he gets “harassy” with these people and then simultaneously said I was accusatory for thinking Justin might act that way.  You know, that very way JCW thinks is totally justified given Justin’s predicament.

Since Justin doesn’t believe harassment policies are useful (though he would really, really love some groups to enforce them), perhaps he intends to go to the conference and show how absolutely workable self-policing is in reducing harassment.  Perhaps that is his angle.  Perhaps he wants to show everyone how superfluous harassment policies are by going to WiS2, staying a good distance from Ophelia and PZ and whoever else asks him to keep his distance, being on his “better than best” behaviour, and just reporting on how he fundamentally disagrees with just about everything said at the conference.  Then he could come home from the conference and report about how harassment policies are unnecessary because people with fundamental differences can go to the same conference and genuinely coexist without the specter of Orwellian harassment policies dangling over them the whole time.  He would be wrong in arguing that (and he and I have had that argument before), but at least his actions would bolster his case.

My concerns, though, have nothing to do with harassment policies.  Harassment policies are next to useless in mediating existing grudges and feuds.  A policy is great for outlining how it expects people to behave when they are interacting with other attendees and how it plans to mediate issues where someone has crossed an obvious line.  Policies do not do well when people have existing history, and what might seem an “undue burden” to place on all guests regarding communication becomes a serious issue between two feuding guests.  I want to reiterate to Justin- since he and I have had this discussion in relation to the post I linked to above- that this is not a reason to discount the usefulness of harassment policies.  In point of fact- I think that it underlines the need for them.  The only reason to believe that a Code of Conduct or harassment policy is useless or superfluous is if you assume that guests at conferences are good at self-policing their own behaviour.  The inability to respect other people’s wishes regarding “no contact” requests is a clear cut case of an inability to police your own behavior-  and underlines the need to make expectations and consequences as clear as possible to attendees.  The fact that a harassment policy is of little use in this particular case- and that common courtesy and common sense is expected from both sides- does not take away from a need for policies.

Essentially what I expect from Justin- as well as from Ophelia and PZ and Stephanie and Rebecca- is that people will try to be cognizant of the wishes of others.  That if someone has asked you to keep your distance, you do your level best to respect that.  That if someone moves away from you at a conference, that you don’t find other ways to make them unduly uncomfortable.  In return, I expect that Ophelia and PZ et al. will not talk about Justin directly without giving him a chance to respond.  I expect that people won’t try to purposefully exclude and isolate him in ways that are meant to bully him.  This conference will be less fun for everyone as a result of things that have been done to this point- and I hope that everyone makes the best of a bad situation.

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