So, there’s been an issue in the atheist movement for quite some time around Bed Radford and Karen Stollznow and some … interactions they might or might not have had. I’m not getting into all of that; if you’re interested, you can go Google it or dig through some of the links I’m adding to this post and you’ll find out all about it. At any rate, a court case about it has been settled in a manner that Hemant Mehta, at least, thinks mostly clears Radford, and so he called out those who posted about it initially and even kept timelines on the issue originally to apologize and correct/update their posts. Many of the ones he names commented that they hadn’t even heard of the latest updates before the post went up, and most of them have responded in some way. Again, you should be able to find most of them if you look. I want to talk about only one response: Rebecca Watson’s.
In her response, she essentially says that she merely reported the initial accusations, which was big time news and so worthy of posting, and that at this point she thinks that both Radford and Stollznow are terrible people — Stollznow mostly because of an issue where she “buddied” up with someone who Watson says harassed her for many years — and so, at the end, just didn’t really care about the issue at all. As she summarizes it:
… organized skepticism can once again rest easy knowing that one terrible person sued another one and got them to admit that they weren’t as terrible as the second person claimed. Congratulations, everyone! The record is set straight.
The issue arises when we look at her original post. Sure, technically she puts things like “alleged” in all the appropriate places, but the entire attitude of piece is, well, not so careful:
I’ve heard of several other “big name” skeptics who loudly argue online against any and all anti-harassment measures who are known for actually sexually harassing women in the meatspace. I’m hesitant to name them for legal reasons, because none have ever sexually harassed me personally and the women who told me about them haven’t gone on record. I’m very glad that Radford’s name was leaked, because it’s extraordinarily important that women know who to watch out for and for conference organizers to know who they’re putting on stage.
Presumably, someone who, well, actually sexually harassed women in the meatspace, in her eyes, especially since she starts by pointing out how Radford opposes the Block Bot, which is one of those measures. And it gets worse:
If you’ve been seriously harassed by a member of the skeptic/atheist community, I hope that you consider publicizing the name. Stollznow didn’t say Radford’s name (or the name of Center for Inquiry, the organization that she says failed to properly punish Radford), but she gave all the clues necessary for others to figure it out. I don’t blame people for not wanting to name names, as the backlash will inevitably be worse when that’s done, but I personally believe it’s worth it. The harasser will face social repercussions, other women will be better able to keep themselves safe, and perhaps most importantly, other women will feel comfortable speaking out about their experiences and being stronger for it.
This really looks like a call for social consequences against Radford, and advocates for naming names as part of a general strategy. And she seems very supporting of Stollznow in general:
Best of luck to Dr. Stollznow as I’m sure she goes on to face the avalanche of slut-shaming and hyperskepticism that inevitably follows any woman making any claim that involves a man violating her boundaries.
So there are two issues that she needs to address, one that might be a matter of impression and one that’s a matter of overall philosophy. The first is that it really looks like she’s supporting Stollznow here, and while in her response she talks about how after some of Radford’s defenses she couldn’t get enough information from Stollznow to judge what was true or not — and, really, Watson as a feminist should not expect to get that from a woman who is making a harassment claim — the overall impression of the response is that originally Watson at least didn’t dislike Stollznow, and so was willing to give her support, or at least take a supporting attitude towards her, but when they had their conflict and Watson ended up angry at her, then Watson didn’t care about her purported harassment. This is, in fact, one of the things that worried people about harassment policies and reacting to harassment in general: that if someone was popular or liked they’d be given the benefit of the doubt, but the person who was disliked wouldn’t. So the unpopular person who was harassed would get dismissed if they faced off against someone more popular, and the unpopular person who was accused of harassment wouldn’t get a fair hearing if they faced off against someone popular. Watson starts her post reporting the accusations with, essentially, a list of reasons why she doesn’t care for Radford, which should be irrelevant to the story. You can argue that they were used to show him as dishonest, but again that’s not an impartial, unbiased assessment of the situation, which is essentially Watson’s reason for saying that she didn’t do anything wrong, that that was all she was doing. At any rate, you cannot advocate for fairness and justice if you aren’t willing to take a strong stand and say “I will treat all of these situations the same no matter how I feel about them or how I feel about the people involved”, and Watson’s focus on the personalities of the people involved and, more importantly, how she feels about those people does not exactly give that impression.
But the philosophical point is more important. Watson wants people to “name names” so that social consequences can be applied to the accused harassers. Thus, she wants Radford and people like him to be punished, and to be punished when the accusation is made public, not after any kind of formal investigation has come to a public conclusion. So … what about this case? Let’s presume that the letter is literally accurate, and that the issues were misunderstandings and bad behaviour on all sides, and not harassment from Radford. Radford, then, would have been treated as if he was a harasser when technically he wasn’t. Is that fair? Should be be owed anything by anyone who either did push social consequences on him or, at least, pushed for them (as Watson clearly does)? Does this alter in any way her view that names should be named so that these consequences can be meted out to the accused harasser? If Watson took the line that he was guilty despite the letter, or that she still doesn’t know one way or the other, she could avoid these questions. Except she doesn’t. She says that she doesn’t care. But if Radford isn’t a harasser, then she has to care about social consequences being meted out for something that that person didn’t do, and even if Radford is a “terrible person” it is still wrong to treat him like a harasser if he isn’t. And if Radford is indeed still a harasser and Stollznow was pressured into settling the case and making this statement, then Watson should be screaming over how a woman who was harassed was pushed into denying that and how wrong that is, by her own philosophies, and that she doesn’t like Stollznow isn’t a reason to not care about her being harassed. So she has to care, one way or the other. And that she doesn’t speaks volumes.