Saturday, July 13, 2013

Harassment policies are pointless

PZ Myers, in a post titled "Why Cons Need Anti-Harassment Policies":

Wired has an excellent article on why harassment policies are needed — it’s because the social dynamics of conventions can mess up people’s perspectives. [...] Read the whole thing. It’s very thorough in discussing the psychology behind harassing behavior, and why it’s not just something evil psychopathic trolls do.

Apparently nobody told this to fellow "FreeThought" blogger Richard Carrier, who maintains his opponents (e.g. Thunderf00t) are "sociopaths" and Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers (CHUDs)

In any case, back to the points the WIRED article (written by Rachel Edidin and Laura Hudson) makes:

John Scalzi, the author and former president of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, forced the issue when he announced last week that he will no longer attend any convention that lacks an explicit, well-publicized, and enforced anti-harassment policy. Since then, nearly a thousand other fans and professionals have signed the pledge.
So the SAPs hate how interaction is happening. Moving along...

Diffusion of responsibility refers to the tendency of people in large groups to avoid decisive action. It’s linked to two specific circumstances: a large enough group of people, and a scenario in which responsibility isn’t explicitly assigned–say, a convention with no clear guidelines for what constitutes harassment, or for reporting and intervention. It’s because of diffusion of responsibility that companies over a certain size need to have protocols for emergencies and people explicitly responsible for implementing them. It’s a Somebody Else’s Problem Field that grows in direct proportion to the number of Somebody Elses in the room. And there are a lot of Somebody Else’s at a convention. 
The bystander effect, or, bystander apathy, refers specifically to the way diffusion of responsibility deters people from intervening in crises. Bystander apathy is also called the Genovese effect, after a young woman named Kitty Genovese who was stabbed to death over the course of about half an hour while dozens of people allegedly witnessed the attack but failed to intervene or alert authorities. It wasn’t that they didn’t care: It was that everyone assumed that someone else must already have taken action  
Let’s look at how these apply to conventions. We’ll assume that, say, 99 out of 100 convention attendees are basically decent folks there to have a good time, who will adhere to basic social etiquette. Number 100 is a different story. This person is offering free hugs to every passer-by–and when someone declines, hugging them anyway, even if it means chasing and heckling them halfway across the con floor. Everyone else knows there’s something off, but, unless (and sometimes even if) they’re involved, they probably won’t be able to pinpoint it. After all, if that person really was behaving inappropriately, someone else would already have intervened, right? 
Diffusion of responsibility makes it a lot harder for us to intervene and respond when harassment occurs. But social phenomena don’t just affect how we respond to harassment—they contribute directly to its prevalence.

WIRED says: Nobody feels responsibility for bad social interactions and therefore nobody intervenes.

It is true. None of the attendees will feel responsible for you having a shitty experience.

Many don't feel responsible for you having a terrible time at a public park, so they probably don't care much for something awful happening at a conference.

That is, of course, except for the organizers. You know, the people you paid to attend the conference? They might care.

It's something called "customer experience".

The article carries this "people in groups are jerks" line until coming to some "what a policy will do" arguments.

According to WIRED, it comes down to three things:

 An Effective Anti-Harassment Policy Does Three Things:
First of all, it establishes clear, external guidelines for situation-appropriate behavior, bypassing social proof and prompting attendees to regulate their own behavior rather than relying on communal cues. That awareness—and clear delineation of inappropriate behavior—also combats they bystander effect, empowering attendees to recognize and act in response to inappropriate behavior.
Second, an effective anti-harassment policy provides attendees with a concrete means of responding to harassment they experience or witness. It’s not enough to merely have a policy: it needs to be publicized, publicly visible, and easily accessible. And it should detail not only unacceptable behavior, but course of action for attendees to follow when an incident occurs. Social proof and bystander apathy are both relative to how people perceive their individual power and responsibility, and giving convention attendees concrete tools for responding to harassment not only empowers them to act, but increases the likelihood that they’ll see it as their responsibility to do so.
Finally, an anti-harassment policy must be procedurally reinforced. No matter how clear your rules or how alert and engaged your attendees, there will be incidents of harassment. Convention staff and volunteers need to be able to recognize inappropriate behavior and intervene as necessary, and understand how and where to respond to and escalate complaints. 
It’s important, too, to remember that staff and volunteers are parts of the same community as attendees–and, to some extent, vulnerable to the same phenomena, as both victims and potential perpetrators of harassment. You can’t instinctually assume that they’ll do the right thing. They not only need to be familiar with the anti-harassment policy, but understand their specific responsibilities under it.

Before we get into more problems with these policies, there is a comment on the article that is an interesting perspective:

This IS a problem specific to sci-fi/fantasy/comic/anime conventions. Whether it is because of the culture or the lack of social skills, it can not (as the author suggests) be blamed solely on crowd size. At SIGGRAPH there is not a culture that expects and/or accepts harassment, but at DragonCon there is. The harassment is just as strong at small local sci-fi-style conventions, even if there are only 5 people in a hallway witnessing it.

Recall that DragonCon is the sci-fi conference allegedly run by a bunch of creeps and Skepchick was surprisingly chill about it.

With this comment, we're back at the SAPs. Something is just amiss with these sci-fi types.

Why are harassment policies pointless? 

Apparently harassment policies establish:
  1. Clear, external guidelines for situation-appropriate behavior, bypassing social proof and prompting attendees to regulate their own behavior rather than relying on communal cues
  2. Concrete means of responding to harassment they experience or witness
All would be well and good if it didn't ultimately fail to deliver. They fail even when you may try to take them as seriously as the WIRED writers want you to.


Nobody reads harassment policies.

Visitors won't read your harassment policy. Who reads the harassment policy before going to a baseball game or carnival?


Thousands of people congregate at stadiums and parks across the country every day of the year, and nobody bothers to know just what the harassment policy details are.

How is that even possible? Is there just non-stop debauchery or do people generally know what's up?

How does this fact not blow the minds of 'feminists' everywhere?

Even the majority of volunteers and staff at conferences could not care less about harassment policies.

Consider the case of the volunteer.

They volunteer for the conference for two reasons:
  1. They get to attend the conference for free
  2. They perhaps care about the subject matter or cause
  3. They might get swag for being a volunteer
Is everyone going to sit down and watch a 20 minute video about what is and isn't cool? Or is everyone going to use their own subjective definition of what a creep is?

One might think paid staff should care, except it's not their first rodeo. It's their job. They don't need NerdCon 2014 to tell them that assholes exist.

Nobody will care to follow policy guidelines.

In an "incident", let's assume there are two types of people.

The harassers and their victims.

Obviously the harassers either didn't care to read the rules, don't think they broke them or plainly don't care if they broke them.

Surely we could rely on the victims to follow the proper protocols, right?


Let's look at a few well publicized examples of events that may qualify as harassment -

The Elevator situation:
The incident: A man asked a woman for coffee in a hotel elevator at 4AM.
How it was reported: A YouTube video was made wherein the victim instructed guys to "not do that".

The EWTS convention safety situation:
The incident: A woman felt unsafe at a conference about women's empowerment
How it was reported: It would appear that Twitter was the first to know, with conference organizers reaching out to the individual via a directed tweet.

The WisCon sexual harassment case:
The incident: A woman was sexually harassed at a conference.
How it was reported:  The woman reported the incident to the conference organizers. Then, in a move that was perhaps more effective, reported the incident to the man's employer.
The Dongle Joke situation:
The incident: A woman overheard a "dongle joke" at a Python developers conference.
How it was reported: The woman took a picture of the males who were conversing with each other, and then posted it on Twitter.

Surely there are to be more "normal" reports of harassment that don't show up on Twitter.

However one must at least concede the following:
  1. Victims aren't going to necessarily report to conference staff first
  2. All consequences that are punitive have nothing to do with conference policy
  3. Conference policy ultimately cannot control the flow of information about a problem
What do we mean by this?

A harasser could get kicked out of a conference. But in the big picture, who cares?

The real punishment is not doled out by conference organizers.

In the end, it is the person's employer and the internet hate machine that supply the punishment.

Publish that photo in a similar fashion to "dongle gate", and the 'feminists' will line up to support public shaming - policy be damned.

As we've seen before, conference organizers have stood up to criticize how the woman handled the "dongle joke" situation and they were shut down by the "progressive" hivemind.

It is rather strange to obsess over the rules and then fail to use the established channel. More perversely, people actually view ignoring official channels as more assertive and empowering. Why follow policy when policy is typically patriarchy?

If everything is going to wind up in Twitter court anyways, then we best not waste our time writing new rules.

Conference organizers will always grant themselves the last word anyways

The harassment policy could be a thousand pages long.

What will the last page read?

It will contain a sentence that will in essence explain a few key items:
  1. The conference is not a democracy
  2. The organizers are more than likely a handful of people
  3. These people can remove attendees for any reason
Conference policy is like an end user license agreement that the attendee is implicitly accepting by paying the fee and being present.

The agreement is that attendees have little to no rights whatsoever.

Writing down what attendees can or can not do is merely provided as a convenience for conferences that think that a lot of idiots will show up. Maybe, just maybe, an idiot is going to read the policy an problem will be avoided. But as we've already established, idiots don't read.

Having a harassment policy or honestly making an effort to write one is just another slow way to admit failure.

On the one hand, it would seem that the conference in question has attracted the wrong set of people and/or granted them the wrong expectations.

On the other hand, a harassment policy is a red flag that your event is ruled by people that really want to play Model UN.

At some point writing a bunch of legalese that is suffixed with an escape clause is just mental masturbation. Spare us.

All you need to state:
  1. We have a bouncer.
  2. We make the rules.
  3. We don't need to tell you the rules.

What could work better?

Rather than writing a harassment policy that reads like a privacy policy, EULA or rental agreement, one could actually manage expectations better.

Managing expectations is done by describing just what the hell is going to happen at each activity within the conference.

For example, for a given activity on the agenda -

Is this activity family oriented?

What age groups will be present?

Will alcohol be served?

What kind of attire is acceptable?

Who will be talking at this event?

What kind of topics will be covered?

Do attendees need to know something in particular about different groups attending the conference?

This is perhaps a "harassment policy" of sorts, but it presents the opportunity to frame things in a way that isn't lazy.

It isn't a footnote at the bottom of the brochure that explains what will happen when the creeps inevitably show up.

It may make the people that use that footnote policy as a crutch a little mad. Panelist ideologues that view the footnote as some sort of secret handshake between allies in a self-important battle for the disenfranchised might actually refuse to speak at your conference.

But who cares?

Drop 'em.

Make it a policy.

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