I probably should have just stopped reading his blog, but Jason Thibeault, the Lousy Canuck, is talking about harassment policies again. The first post talks about concerns about whether claims that criticism of religion could be considered harassment under the AA policy. I think that some of the normal criticisms of religion could be, and Thibeault himself does allow some things that might be:
Where someone shouldn’t claim all Muslims are terrorists or all Catholics are child-buggerers (thanks julian), or follow around someone who has expressed a religious belief and insult them repeatedly and — yes — harass them, one can certainly say that Islam or Catholicism are wrong because they depend on an entity that does not exist — a deity.
So, not unreasonable, but what’s odd about his claim is that he uses this as a defense:
The fact is, the convention handlers are the ones who determine what constitutes an incident of harassment.
But, wait, isn’t one of the reasons for putting a policy in place is so that it isn’t the case that it’s left up to convention handlers? So that, ideally, it’s spelled out what does and doesn’t count so that the personal biases of the handlers doesn’t come into play, on either side? It’s not much comfort to religious skeptics that people who are atheists are the ones who are going to decide if the side they agree with is more right than the side they disagree with, especially when the complaint comes down to comments like whether something is just a fact or not. Yes, people can indeed be somewhat objective, a lot of the time, but one should not rely on that and those sorts of subjective judgements as your fallback position. That’s why I advocated for a reasonable standard person in the first place, because it generally takes some of the subjectivity away; one can make various objective arguments about what counts as reasonable. I doubt that Thibeault would feel comfortable if, say, Thunderf00t was the organizer of a conference with leaving it up to him to decide if something was sexual harassment, and the same thing applies here. Leaving these determinations up to the whims of the organizers is a bad idea.
That one, I could — and did — generally leave, but the one today really bugs me, about asking consent for touching. Mostly because he tries to speak for people who are not him to defend the policy:
And this respect for bodily sexual autonomy must absolutely extend to people who have hang-ups about touching. If you’re running around hugging random people and you hug someone who doesn’t want to be hugged, sure, you might not be doing any physical damage, but you’re doing psychological damage that could have been mitigated by being a decent human being and asking for permission. Even if you know the person’s likely to accept (e.g. JT Eberhard, who loves hugs), you should damn well ask anyway. Maybe he’s not feeling it right then. Maybe he’s sick. Maybe he’s holding a hot coffee. Maybe he’s in a rush. Maybe you’ve already given him twenty hugs in the past half hour and he’s already begged off once, and he’s now little creeped out. Consent once, or to someone else, doesn’t mean consent always or to everyone.
Well, see, I’m one of those people who has a hang-up about touching, and while I appreciate the apparent concern I’d really rather he not try to speak for me, because for me he’s totally wrong. I really, really, really don’t want people asking me about it. I want them to act the way they’d normally act. I want them to act the way someone should in that circumstance. Asking me is totally artificial and, well, annoying. I would feel very, very bad about making someone act in a completely unnatural way just because they’re worried about possibly making me a bit uncomfortable. I’m an adult, and I can take it. And if it really, really bothers me, then I’ll take the initiative and let people know. I don’t need a policy to do that for me.
This, then, is the real concern here: that this imposes horribly artificial behaviour and stops people from acting in ways that are, generally, perfectly normal and reasonable. If a person would hug every person they meet, then it’s perfectly okay, in my opinion, for them to do so even if it bothers me. They clearly aren’t doing it to bother me, and they can’t know it bothers me, so why shouldn’t they do it? The same thing applies to any case where it would be expected, such as as an expression of sympathy or whatever. They’re doing what they should be doing, or at least what it’s reasonable to do. Asking, in most of these cases, isn’t normal and isn’t acceptable. And that’s where the problem is. Thibeault asks this:
If you don’t know for certain, don’t take the chance and do something without their explicit consent. How is this totalitarian or controlling, by saying that people have different tolerances for touching and that we should respect those by requiring consent?
And the answer is: Because it forces people who are, again, acting in perfectly normal and reasonable ways to suppress all of their conditioned responses and either recondition themselves to new responses or, simply, to short-circuit those responses to completely different ways of acting because … someone who is an exceptional case might be bothered. Even if most people wouldn’t. Even if it makes perfect sense. No, they have to constantly ask and second guess and wonder and ensure that they get consent and ask if they aren’t absolutely certain … because someone else can’t be adult enough to take responsibility for their own reactions.
Look, there are extreme ends where, really, you shouldn’t. Groping, for example. But placing a hand on an arm or a shoulder or giving a hug ain’t that type. If you try to write a policy on the sort of basis that Thibeault uses here, you end up with a horribly artificial policy that, basically, no one follows except those who take it seriously. And then you need the organizers to adjudicate reasonable and unreasonable claims, meaning that you build in the bias that you wanted to get rid of in the first place. Thus, any such policy must take reasonable cases and reasonable expectations into account, and in that include people having the responsibility to work out misunderstandings. Again, these policies exist to have something to point to when dealing with the really, really serious cases; they aren’t there to police or restrict normal social interactions. And when you try to do the latter, you don’t do it very well at all.
Especially if you are policing it on behalf of people you don’t understand.