Friday, November 22, 2013

Skepticon Trigger Warning

Get a bunch of skeptics together and you can be assured of pointed debates.

But... weapons?

The Skepticon "security update" posted last Saturday (emphasis added):

My name is Dave Muscato; I am the Public Relations Director for American Atheists. I am at the Skepticon conference in Springfield, MO, although I am attending on my own “off-duty” this weekend and not in a working capacity for American Atheists.
Early Saturday morning, there was a security incident and I would like to clear up any misconceptions, explain where things stand, and tell you how Skepticon has resolved the situation.
About 4 AM on Saturday morning, another attendee of the conference made a graphic and direct verbal death threat to me while brandishing a semi-automatic pistol, which this person claimed was loaded. The incident occurred on E St Louis Street outside, away from conference property and neither in the conference hotel nor in the expo center. I was with a small group of people who were able to distract this person with conversation and diffuse things until we were able to return to the University Plaza hotel, where the person went to his room. I reported the incident immediately to hotel security and the Springfield police, and made statements on the record about what happened.
Skepticon organizers have been fully informed of all details of the incident, and all organizers and volunteers, as well as police and hotel security, have this person’s name and photograph. This person has agreed to leave the hotel and not return to Skepticon this year or in future years.
Skepticon organizers have been overwhelmingly supportive and competent. I was offered a security escort, which I appreciated, but felt was unnecessary and declined.
I still feel safe at Skepticon. I have been coming to Skepticon for four years now and intend to continue to donate and to return to Springfield for Skepticon 7.
I am not going to name the person involved in this incident at this time. Skepticon organizers and American Atheists have this person’s name and information. I will let them decide how to handle informing other event organizers about this situation.
What happens next depends on what American Atheists’ in-house counsel and the Springfield Police Department advise.
I would prefer not to discuss this incident further. I am OK. I thank everyone for their concern. I am extremely impressed and flattered with the outpouring of support from Skepticon organizers, other attendees, and speakers, as well as the support from the atheist community online.
I am here the rest of today but if I miss you, I will see you next year for Skepticon 7!

At 4:30 AM on November 16, Muscato had shared this on Facebook:

Hey universe, when I said it could be worse as far as the airline losing my luggage... that was not intended as an invitation for a death threat accompanied by a loaded 38.
I get a lot of hate mail and have lost count of death threats now, but this is the first time I have actually perceived my life to be in immediate danger from one.
Although it would not have helped in this particular case, I'm seriously considering a kevlar vest for future public talks.
Fellow activists, a reminder to be very careful about vetting whom you allow in your personal surroundings, and let me just say if I didn't want kids before, I sure as hell don't now.
This situation involved someone who I am lead to believe is normally pretty trustworthy who had simply had too much to drink. Obviously that's not an acceptable excuse for this, but I'm not upset at the person as much as that I don't want that person around me. I'm sure this is going to be going around the conference tomorrow but I don't feel it's necessary to name names and I'm not pressing charges. I may change my mind if I perceive this person to be an ongoing danger to me or anyone else at Skepticon. Hotel security and the Springfield police are fully aware and taking care of it, and I will be giving all the info I have to the conference organizers when they wake up, and I'll let them decide if there's further action they want to take, but I think it's under control now.
Now, to sleep for 90 minutes...


This is a very messed up situation - pointing a gun at somebody is no laughing matter. Hopefully the person involved stays well away from Muscato and future skeptic events.

There is no need to question conference policy around this situation - it isn't a question of whether or not the suspect is removed from the conference, it's a question of whether or not the suspect spends the coming days in jail.

Given that, it's interesting how many of the themes that have come up in these events are reminiscent of Atheism+ drama in recent memory. Further, it undermines a lot of the branding the social justice warriors have set aside for Skepticon.

For the past recent months the selling point of Skepticon has been that it's not The Amazing Meeting (TAM).

Selling the show 

In the days before TAM, the usual suspects brought up the usual "harassment policy" nonsense. For the uninitiated, this may sound like appropriate levels of concern for a serious problem. However it's a topic critiqued not lobbed at conferences generally. It's actually a stupid feud.

It is a subject frequently revisited as:
  1. The Atheism+ crowd had a huge falling out with the TAM crowd (more on this later)
  2. A "good" harassment policy doesn't cost a free conference (Skepticon) any money
  3. It gives social justice warriors something to write about
Harassment policies aside, the desire to sell Skepticon is often much more transparent.

When TAM claimed that it was the cheapest conference, "FreeThoughtBlogs" was there to passively aggressively check their calculations

Shortly after, PZ Myers took the time to fawn about the speakers at Skepticon and troll JREF. Myers waged war against TAM thinking it would do Skepticon many favors. Myers is about as good at strategy as he is with fact checking

Safe and welcome

Muscato is quick to state:
"I still feel safe at Skepticon."
This sentence was loaded long before Muscato's assailant was. In fact it was already a t-shirt.

Recall Harriet Hall's TAM shirt read:
"I feel safe and welcome at TAM"
The shirt was in response to some prior drama that served to cast TAM as a terrifying place that is not a "safe space" for women.

Muscato is a smart fellow and realizes that perception of risk is kryptonite for conference attendance. Any empty conference room, be it at TAM or Skepticon, is not really in the best interest of his activism or his career as PR director for American Atheists.

The last thing Muscato wants to do reminisce about how conferences are not as safe as they used to be. Neither would he enjoy starting a debate about gun control. He wants people to show up to the conferences, enjoy themselves and support his organization. 

Muscato cannot afford to blow the weekend on Twitter drama. Drama does not pay his bills.

Stranger danger

To put the following in context, consider that TAM is typically hosted in July. In 2013, TAM was July 11-13 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Skepticon 6 was November 15 - 17.

Insert this tweet October 30, 2013:

And the subsequent agreement from a whole host of people, most notably Watson:

The message here is clear: You may be sexually assaulted at TAM!

Carrie Poppy left JREF earlier in the year, and then published an "expose" of sorts on PZ Myers' blog.

The evidence provided by Poppy supporting the idea that TAM is not a safe space for women:

  1. Karen Stollznow claimed to be assaulted by a coworker at CFI at TAM
  2. Carrie Poppy claims JREF leader DJ Grothe attempted to remove her from the speaker list at CFI's Women in Secularism conference
  3. JREF neglected to ban CFI employee from their speaker list

The issues with the evidence, in order:
  1. No evidence presented suggests that Stollznow informed TAM of the events in 2010 and 2012, seemingly having reported the issues to the man's employer, CFI, instead.
  2. Sounds like office politics. 
  3. Is it JREF's job to provide supplementary punishment over and above CFI's reprimand of their employee?
Of course, the people that organize TAM (JREF) could be gigantic douchebags. They could even be classified as misogynists. And they might be even be dismissive about reported sexual assaults.

Yet two things seem clear:
  1. It's difficult to say the freebie meetup in Springfield, Missouri that is Skepticon is safer
  2. The police are still paid to care
The Skepticon organizers could have heard Muscato's story in the early morning hours and gone straight back to bed and things would have pretty much ended the same way.

One imagines the conversation:

Muscato: "The man in room 623 just pointed a loaded pistol at me."
Organizer: "Is that right? I'm a volunteer - I'm getting the hell out of here."

Describing a particular event as "unsafe" is simply very tiresome to a population of people that have spent the last several decades hearing that the new street drug is going to kill everyone, the next rave is going to corrupt children, porn causes sexual abuse and that rap music causes gangsters.

A good old fashioned boycott of people one finds objectionable would be preferable to this ill-conceived analysis of what constitutes a "safe space" for a particular gender. 

How absolutely ridiculous would it look if Muscato was actually shot at the "safe" conference?

It is perhaps best to avoid playing on fear.

Does alcohol cause gunplay?

Muscato tries so hard to dodge the drama he goes as far as to try to save the reputation of his attacker:

This situation involved someone who I am lead to believe is normally pretty trustworthy who had simply had too much to drink

Of course, Muscato missed an Atheism+ social justice lesson wherein he would have learned that events cannot be blamed on consumption of alcohol.

Adults do have a moral obligation to regulate their own behavior, and understand their own tolerance of alcohol. "I was drunk" does not excuse pointing a gun at somebody.

Yet it is worth considering that we may be able to reduce gun violence at 4 AM by more wisely managing alcohol consumption in the early evening. Perhaps finding a happy balance between an absolutely boring conference and legions of drunken armed children running around all hours of the night.

It's not an insane idea.

Naming names and inclusiveness 

Missing from this event is the name of the perpetrator. Which is sort of funny, as perhaps the only name of a person who committed some impropriety at a skeptics conference in the past five years happens to be the only person that happened to point a gun at somebody.

Isn't that a little odd?

If we accept the Atheism+ instructions of intellectuals like Richard Carrier, one would be trying their best to name names and kick the "C.H.U.Ds" out.

Especially if the person to be excommunicated happens to be a gun wielding crazy person.

On the other hand, the word "crazy" happens to be "ableist" and Atheism+ is about inclusion, right? There is a certain batshit trigger-happy demographic that currently feels excluded by the suffocating privilege of all those people that do not feel the need to brandish a pistol during disputes.

It is in some way a win for social justice that this man felt Skepticon was a safe space for him to kick back with his Glock and drink a few highballs.

Truly it is a disturbing situation. The founder of the organization that Muscato works for was murdered in 1995 - working for the organization should not be a dangerous job. It is further worrying that the threats are coming from peers within the group.

The silver lining in all this is Skepticon managed to find the ordeal at least somewhat humorous:

Cheers, Dave!


  1. Who are these pathetic wussbags who don't feel safe anywhere? Any real woman would scorn them for being such a bunch of passive victims.

  2. Tell us all about real women, chris.