On Harassment and Policies: A reply to a letter written by Todd Stiefel.
Once again I have read an absorbing and intelligent post by a member of the freethought community on the problems associated with harassment, especially sexual harassment. Of one thing I am sure, atheists, freethinkers and humanists will attract more than their fare share of perverts who think they can get away with their criminal acts without punishment because atheists, freethinkers and humanists ‘don’t believe in that stuff’. To a certain extent they are correct; members of the community do not believe in supernatural punishment. However, punishment in this world and in this life is a very different matter and can and should be meted out with the maximum force an organisation or criminal and civil law has available. The community must not be seen as a soft touch.
Trouble is, developing policies and procedures, as Todd points out in his post, is a complex and time consuming business. Start condemning ‘offensive language or behaviour’, for instance and you defeat one of the community’s greatest weapons when confronting religious extremists. Who defines what is or what is not offence? For behaviour in one situation may be considered normal and in another unwanted attention. Offence is a phrase that is almost impossible to define, attracts argument and counter argument and will result in policies and procedures taking an unacceptably long time to develop. Regrettably, I am becoming convinced that some members of the community think policies must be extraordinarily simple to draw up. They would not last 2 minutes in the hurly-burly of politics.
And that brings me to my main point: those attending conferences cannot rely on policies and procedures coming into force speedily, and when they do eventually arrive they will be contested, argued, counter-argued and refuted for months, maybe years to come. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, unless delegates take personal precautions, like attending in small groups of like-minded individuals and, without embarrassment, being willing to disrupt proceedings and talks immediately something as potentially criminal like being groped under the table or inappropriately photographed occurs sexual harassment will continue and, regrettably, get worse. It is all very well saying: ‘They shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it!’ but without actually doing something about it the line sounds as if it could have been delivered by an actor in the film Life of Brian.
Some brief observations on policies I have already seen.
- We do not and never will live in a perfect world. If anyone thinks that by being atheists, freethinkers or humanists we can create a perfect world they are sadly mistaken. Nor will drawing up policies and procedures bring kudos and congratulations to your particular organisation. Policies are always a result of compromise and negotiation if they are to be effective.
- Organisations combining together to present talks, discussions or conferences must thrash out policies that can be applied to every event they organise together. Having separate policies and procedures for each organisation will only result in a legal minefield.
- I have seen little mention of attitudes and behaviour towards the person. Harassment and abuse must be considered a personal attack and not related to criticism of a belief or idea. However, criticism of a belief or idea could constitute harassment if it is deemed to be more than could be described as fair. This must be addressed (see 5).
- At least one policy* fails to mention religion. That could in itself attract civil action from someone complaining that they were abused because of their religion.
- There must be a clear and definite delineation between harassment and criticism. A delegate must be aware that ideas and beliefs can be criticised as long as no personal injury or offence is implied or given. There is nothing wrong with fair criticism of attitudes and beliefs as long as the delegate expressing the attitude or belief being criticised is given fair right of reply. This must be included if religion – and it is required by law in many countries or states – is included in the harassment policy of an organisation.
My advice, get professional advice from a lawyer before blundering on and threatening the finances and security of your organisations.
* A list of policies can be found on the article referred to this post: