The AA Code of Conduct

So, recently the American Atheists have launched a Code of Conduct, that many people are happy about. I don’t really have easy access to docx documents — really, you can’t use HTML on your flippin’ website? — so I’m going to reply to the type-up at Greta Christina’s blog:

American Atheists is dedicated to providing a harassment-free conference experience for everyone, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, or religion.

We expect participants to follow this code of conduct at all conference venues and conference-related social events.

Standard boilerplate, not unreasonable, moving on:

Yes means yes; no means no; and maybe means no.

What the heck is this doing in a code of conduct? What is this to refer to? And why the canard that “maybe means no”? If I ask someone if they’re going to the bar after, and they say maybe, am I supposed to plan on then not being there? If I ask someone if they think the Jets will win the Stanley Cup, and they say maybe, does that mean they think they won’t? Okay, okay, I’m exaggerating a bit, but this line was, in fact, absolutely and totally irrelevant and unclear, especially in conjunction with the next line:

Please take no for an answer for any request or activity.

Oh, is that all you were trying to get across? Sure. But, then … does that include maybe? Again, what are you trying to get across with that first sentence, other than to spout feminist catchphrases so that all the feminists will nod happily?

You are encouraged to ask for unequivocal consent for all activities during the conference.

So … more than taking no for an answer, then, right? Getting unequivocal consent is a bit stronger than that, one would think. So, that means, translated into English, that you have to be absolutely certain that they agree before engaging in any “activities”, whatever they are. Does “activities” include, say, asking for another player for bridge? Is a reluctant “yes” to that problematic?

Look, yes, I’m getting really heavily into the mocking here. But why dont they just call a spade a spade? Why not say that this is about sexual activities, including flirting? The way it’s phrased, it sounds a lot more general than it needs to be, and a good code of conduct should not require me to do conceptual analysis on it or, in fact, to already know what they’re talking about to know what they mean by it. This is really sounding like one of those policies that sounds good but is mostly meaningless.

That changes:

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.

This one is clear,at least, although repetitive, as the first sentence says don’t touch without asking and the sentence in parentheses says the same thing. And as someone who does not like to be touched, I totally and completely respect their assumption about who I will respect and like more [sarcasm].

Look, people touch a lot in conversations. It’s a lot more common than people think or realize. While people touching me can make me uncomfortable, what would make me even more uncomfortable is to see someone take an automatic action to touch, remember that I don’t like it, and then stop. I’d feel bad about them having to change perfectly normal behaviour just because of my own peculiarity, and so that would make things awkward. If it was too bad, then I’d say something, but usually I can put up with it so that, overall, the comfort level is as high as it can be, given the personalities of the people involved.

And I know I’d be put off by this:

“Can I touch your arm?”


“Can I lightly swat you on the shoulder?”


“Can I give you a sympathetic hug?”


“Can I … ”

“OH FOR … just do it and get it over with already!”

More on this a bit later.


We have many different folks attending this conference: sexualities, genders, races, ethnicities, abilities, beliefs—these are just a few. Blatant instances of racism, sexism, homophobia, or other stereotyping and harmful behaviors should be reported to conference staff immediately.

Well, I’m not sure what counts as blatant, or why harmful seems to be attached specifically to the stereotyping of that, but that’s a bit of a nitpick. Presuming they’re reasonable about it … sure.

Please do not wear heavy fragrances—including perfumes, colognes, scented shampoos, etc. Some of those attending have allergic reactions to scented products. No one will object to the smell of your clean body!

This, I guess, would include aftershaves … which some people say they need for other reasons (I generally don’t use it). And my shampoo does have a smell, as does my soap, as does my underarm deodorant. Is that too much? How much is too much? Is this meant to be a ban or just a caution to not use too much? Yes, I know that people have allergies and so are impacted, but it’s really hard to enforce this in any way that makes sense. These sorts of warnings kinda annoy me, but I can also see the other side and also don’t see a good way of dealing with this. So, give it a pass for annoyance.

Please respect the sessions and the speakers. Turn off cell phones and other electronic devices, take conversations and noisy children outside the session room, and move to the center of your row to make room for other attendees.

There are chairs and spaces at the front and back of the room that are marked “reserved.” The front row chairs are reserved for attendees with vision or hearing impairments. The back rows are reserved for attendees with mobility accommodation needs. Please leave these chairs and spaces free throughout the conference for those who may need them.

I always find it amusing that you have to list basic courtesy in codes of conduct …

This conference welcomes families with children and expects all attendees to treat these families with courtesy and respect. Parents or guardians bringing children are responsible for the children’s behavior and are expected to remove disruptive children from the session. Parents or guardians should be aware not all language may be suitable for children.

Don’t you expect everyone to treat all people with respect and courtesy? The last two sentences are the meat, while that “courtesy and respect” line is just a motherhood statement.

American Atheists does not tolerate harassment of conference participants, speakers, exhibitors, volunteers, or staff in any form. Harassment includes offensive verbal comments related to gender, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, religion, sexual images in public spaces, deliberate intimidation, stalking, following, harassing photography or recording, sustained disruption of talks or other events, inappropriate physical contact, and unwelcome sexual attention.

Standard boilerplate. Although those last two phrases could likely have replaced that “touching” paragraph, since that is the sort of touching they want to get rid of.

Participants asked to stop any harassing behavior are expected to comply immediately. Conference participants violating this policy may be sanctioned or expelled from the conference (without a refund) at the discretion of the conference organizers.

And here’s the meat of it: what happens if you do wrong? Well, there’s a hint that you might get a warning, but it immediately says that if you violate the policy — I presume that that refers to the entire code — you can be sanctioned up to being kicked out of the conference if the conference organizers think you should be. And it can’t be the case that you must get a warning first, because some of these things are serious enough that you should be kicked out immediately. So, if you violate the code of conduct in any way, you can be kicked out. You have to rely on the reasonableness of the reporter and the conference organizers to avoid that. Which means, that if you want to actually follow the rules, your conversations would look something like this:

“May I speak with you?”



“May I place a friendly hand on your arm as a gesture of understanding and friendship?”


And, well, you get the idea from what I said above. But, of course, no one is actually going to do that. They’re going to act as normal. Hug their friends, shake hands, touch as normal, break into conversations, and so on and so forth. That’s because they will mostly read and ignore the policy, believing that they what they do is, in fact, perfectly normal and reasonable and so not problematic … which it will be most of the time. The only people who will actually think about acting that way are the Lawful types or the socially-awkward types who will either think that these are the rules, rules are good, so they should follow the rules (the former) or those who are worried that they might not have the social skills to avoid giving offense and so will want to use the rules to ensure they don’t (the latter). And these rules will lead to messy, unnatural and awkward interactions for anyone who tries to actually follow them … which is not what you want from rules.

See, the secret here is that all of these policies, at the end of it all, come down to a reasonable person standard, because they’re really aimed at having a recourse when someone is being totally unreasonable. We expect that all actions that a reasonable person would make will go unremarked, and that if there’s a simple minor misunderstanding the people will work it out like reasonable people. It’s only for persistent or, well, blatant cases that the policy should ever be used or required. So we rely on this pre-filtering. So, really, the purpose of these policies is to have an official way to deal with the really bad cases, and a standard to compare cases against so that if someone complains and the other person says that the other person is really simply overreacting both sides have something to appeal to.

Which, of course, is why I hate the “If they feel harassed, they are” standard. You can neither verify nor argue that, and so to actually use that as a standard and have it work relies on the whole “reasonble person pre-filtering” happening and working.

Thus, harassment policies that go into too much detail are problematic if it would mean changing how most people naturally and unproblematically act. If you are going to get into specifics, they have to be specifics that can be applied, and if they can’t, then you shouldn’t get into the specifics. Hence my mocking of the “Ask before doing anything” and “Get unequivocal consent”, as those are vague enough to apply broader than intended and if applied even at the level they talk about would be horribly unnatural and forced. No one will actually do them … but if you don’t, then you can be complained about and the organizers — if they actually try to follow their own policies and not their own judgement — will have no choice but to accept the complaint. Or act on their own conscience, which might leave them erring on the side of their own view and, thus, not catching some of the cases that the people in this debate want caught.

This is what happens when Chaotic individuals try to write rules [grin].

f you are being harassed, notice that someone else is being harassed, or have any other concerns, please contact a member of conference staff immediately. Conference staff can be identified by t-shirts/special badges/other ID.

Conference staff will be happy to help participants contact hotel/venue security or local law enforcement, provide escorts, or otherwise assist those experiencing harassment to feel safe for the duration of the conference. We value your attendance.

[Email address for organizers]

[Phone number for conference security or organizers]

[Phone number for hotel/venue security]

[Local law enforcement]

[Local sexual assault hot line]

[Local emergency and non-emergency medical]

[Local taxi company]

These are standard boilerplate. Just trying to be complete [grin].

3 Responses to “The AA Code of Conduct”

  1. Héctor Muñoz Says:

    It’s just common sense behavior taken to ridiculous extremes by hyper sensitive and weak people who thinks that life should be harmless and devoid of risk.

  2. verbosestoic Says:

    To be fair, there are some cases where someone really needs to take action. But too often personal issues that should be settled by the individuals get lumped into these things because the main criteria for deciding what gets included is “What bugs me”.

  3. Héctor Muñoz Huerta Says:

    It’s true, maybe I over reacted to it but I may not be the best judge onto social etiquette as I recognize I am kind of blunt.

    I think the AA community is a little shocked to find out they are not better than other people as a group just by the fact of being atheists and they are trying to set a higher behavior standar for their community.

    The thing is, they are exaggerating.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: