One of the worst things you can do to the victim of an offence is to blame them for it. Of course, it’s done all the time, but that doesn’t make it okay. But while you can’t call a victim responsible for the offence they experienced, does that make the victim completely free of blame? No, it doesn’t. Victims do have responsibilities.
Let’s take the case of a hypothetical victim of sexual harassment. Now, there are some assholes that would be quick to say that the victim had it coming… maybe because of the way ze dressed, or maybe just because ze were friendly and smiled. But anyone whose colon doesn’t run through their brain can see that’s nonsense. No matter what the behaviour of the victim before the offence, offence is offence; it’s just plain wrong. The perpetrator doesn’t get a free pass just because the victim dressed or acted slutty, or “open” – from the perpetrator’s perspective – to being violated.
But all of what I’ve just mentioned refers to the period before and during the offence. There is no behaviour the victim can undertake before or during the offence – aside from explicit, non-withdrawn consent – that will make it morally sound to blame them for what happened. None. Not even if a scantily clad, girl with a shirt that says “fuck me, I’m horny” were to walk into a crazy party full of inebriated, brain-dead jocks at the Kappa/Sigma/Rape-a fraternity – all of whom are on bail for a previous gang rape under identical circumstances that the girl knows all about – and willingly drinks herself into a stupor… not even then would she be in any way responsible, or deserve any portion of the blame, were she to be sexually assaulted. Because as long as those guys were morally-adult persons, they should know that without explicit, sober consent, any sex would be rape. And if they aren’t capable of figuring that out, they shouldn’t be in a fraternity, they should be in a zoo, or some other institution where they can be properly controlled and monitored like any other human who is criminally incapable of knowing right from wrong.
But let’s talk about after the offence. At this point, the offence has happened – for which the victim carries no responsibility, of course – but does the victim now have any responsibilities?
In fact, ze does.
If you’re the victim of an offence, you have a responsibility to report it to the proper authorities, and see that justice is done. If you don’t, then you still have no responsibility for the offence you suffered… but you do have moral responsibility for any future offences suffered that might have been prevented had you spoken up. Let me make this crystal clear with an example. Say Amy was raped by Joe. No matter what the circumstances surrounding the rape, Amy bears no responsibility whatsoever for it; Amy is the victim, and she is completely blameless. But let’s say, after the rape, Amy decides – for whatever reason – not to report it. Some time later, Joe rapes Betty. Now, of course, Betty is completely without any responsibility for her rape (and obviously for Amy’s as well)… but what about Amy? If Amy had reported Joe, and seen to it that justice was done, Joe wouldn’t have been able to rape Betty. Did Amy have a responsibility to report Joe? Yes, she did. We all have a social responsibility to report crimes, and see that justice is done. It’s part of our responsibilities as citizens, and as members of society. Amy failed in her duty as a member of society when she did not report Joe, and so she bears partial moral responsibility for Betty’s rape. Amy still bears no responsibility for her own rape, but, Randian bullshit aside, society requires that people care more about themselves when considering whether to take or not take actions.
And yes, certainly there are often penalties for doing the right thing. Women reporting rape or sexual harassment, in particular, can have a hell of a time of it. I’m not unsympathetic to that. But that doesn’t excuse failing in your duty to do the right thing. And the hard fact is that every person that refuses to do the right thing because of some penalty or another makes it that much harder on everyone else in the future who wants to do the right thing. Everyone has the responsibility to do the right thing, even when it’s hard. That’s what morality is. It’s not always easy to be moral. But it’s always right.
Now, you may disagree with my position. You may disagree that it’s too harsh to expect people who have suffered an offence to report it when the costs of reporting at so high. You may think it’s unfair to put the blame on past victims for the suffering of future victims, even though the past victims could have prevented any future offences. Fair enough, maybe I’m wrong. This is something we can have a discussion about. But I don’t think any sane person can argue that – returning to the example – Amy would be a complete fucking dick to go public and decry the fact that there’s so much rape in the world… claiming solidarity with Betty… and that it’s so terrible that no one puts a stop to it. Again, to be crystal clear: Amy has suffered an offence, and done nothing, which allowed the offender to offend again – with Betty. Amy has no right, whatsoever, to pretend that there’s something wrong with the rest of the world that the same kinds of offence keeps happening, and she certainly has no right to cast judgement on the rest of the world for the fact that Joe gets away with repeat offending.
In case you were wondering why I’m discussing all this now, it’s because of the latest freethought shitstorm. At the recent Women in Secularism conference, Jen McCreight of Blag Hag made an offhand comment about the fact that there was a back-channel information track about some popular freethought speakers who were complete assholes to women at conferences. Her comment started a lot of people talking, and she eventually made a post about it. Now, let me be clear about this: I have nothing but respect for Jen McCreight, and for how she’s handled the situation up to this point. By her own admission, she has never personally experienced any of the bad behaviour, so it’s only logical that she’s unwilling to pursue any further action. Yet, despite that, she has come up with some very good ideas for how to handle the problem, and already there have been improvements. She’s my hero right now! She heard of evil shit going down, so she stepped up and said something about it – even though it wasn’t being done to her personally – and is following it through. And, yes, she’s suffering for it. She’s already being hounded by that whackjob from ERV, which is exactly the kind of nasty backlash she expected. Yet she continues to stand up and do what’s right, and I, along with every other decent person in the freethought movement, have her back.
But then there are those who could have spoken out ages ago… but didn’t… and now want to ride on McCreight’s coattails and cast judgement on the world they couldn’t be bothered to try to fix.
Q: Do famous atheist speakers really act like assholes to women?
A: I said, “Yes.” I’ve experienced some of it, in front of witnesses. I’ve talked to other women who’ve experienced it personally. I’ve talked to conference organizers who have strategies for minimizing the damage when they have to invite one of these men to one of their conferences.
Also, did you just express “skepticism” over this? It’s a completely uncontroversial statement. Unaccetable gendered behavior exists. Our movement is not immune. Men don’t become immune to bad behavior just because people like how they speak or write or organize. Yes, it happens.
What the fuck?!? You’ve experienced it? In front of witnesses? And we’re first hearing about this now? Because of Jen McCreight!?!
You know what? Men don’t become immune to bad behaviour because they’re good speakers, but the do become immune to the consequences of their bad behaviour when people like you don’t fucking speak up about the bad behaviour!
And I’m not alone in seeing this, and I’m not alone in being outraged that there’s a special privileged girl’s club who whispers in the back channels about the assholery that goes on, then whines in the public sphere that there’s so much assholery that goes unpunished. Behold as Zvan gets confronted by a justifiably upset woman:
It’s all well and good to advise “networking behind the scenes,” but I don’t have a fucking network, and that’s part of the reason I feel like going to conferences might be good for me. But if I have to network behind the scenes to be safe at conferences, then I have to already have what I’m looking for to be safe.
Maybe I’m being selfish about this. Maybe I’m too angry. But I’ve been abused enough in my life. I am not about to set myself up to be abused again, and it makes my eyes tear up and my throat constrict to think that going to these conferences means going to interact with people who everyone else may know is abusive but won’t warn me because I don’t have connections.
And Zvan’s response to this plaintive rebuke? To get on her soapbox and lecture about what should be done, while saying
This is a genie that isn’t going back into the bottle. It’s a problem that’s gone public in a big way, and it’s going to stay there. Yeah, you know why it’s gone public? Because Jen McCreight made it public. Not you, Zvan. Jen McCreight. McCreight made it public, and what were you doing, Zvan? You were one of the people keeping the fucking genie in the bottle!
It completely boggles my mind that someone like Zvan can have the gall to lecture the world on what the right thing to do about a certain kind of crime is, after they’ve been the ones covering it up for so long. It boggles my mind that people like her can stand up and talk about how much privilege everyone else has, but not see their own, and how they’ve abused to the detriment of women who aren’t as socially-connected as they are, and want to go to freethought conventions.
No, it doesn’t just boggle my mind, it makes me fucking angry. I’m glad to see that the cover over this conspiracy of silence has been lifted, and for that I want to see Jen McCreight get full props and respect. I want everyone to jump to her defence when the inevitable misogynist assholes (like Abbie Smith) start taking potshots at her. But for all those back-channel bastards who have been keep this secret from everyone but their privileged friends, leaving all the other women who go to freethought events to be thrown to the wolves, then having the fucking gall to cluck their tongues and intone dramatically about how bad the atmosphere at these events can get: Fuck. You. All. You are part of the problem. You know why Catholic priests and Jerry Sandusky and their kind got away with raping kids for so many years, because of the complicity of people like you, who knew about the shit going on, but kept it secret within the privileged circle.
Here’s what I’d like to see. I don’t want to see lists of names published with only hearsay about past incidents. But from now on, anyone who witnesses this bad behaviour… report it. Report it to the event organizers, and if they won’t do something about it, report it to someone who has enough integrity and public standing to shame both the jerk and the event organizers. Those who have been harassed in the past, if you see one of the jerk’s names on the speakers’ list for a future event, contact the event organizers with your story. Demand that the jerk either be taken off the speakers’ list, or, if that’s not possible, that ze be escorted at all times by a chaperone – basically treated like a fucking sex offender. And anyone who gets pulled aside and given some secret back-channel information about evil shit going on that no one else but the select few are privileged to, fucking slap the person telling you about it, tell them that they are part of the reason the problem continues to exist, then go to the event organizers and tell them that this person has important information about event attendee safety that they’re offering only to a privileged few. And again, if the event organizers don’t do something about it, go public, via someone who has the courage and integrity – and platform – to do something about it. Don’t forget to name the person who was keeping this important information secret. And finally, once all that has been taken care of, I’d like to see all those fucking privileged few who were in on the back channel information to step forward and apologize to the freethought community for their part in allowing the shit to continue so long.
No more keeping harassment and misogyny as a dirty little secret in this community. If you don’t have the courage to step forward and speak out about it when it happens, then you don’t get to fucking play the heroic martyr suffering because of it. Find someone who does have the courage and platform to do the right thing, and make a change, rather than bemoaning the status quo.
(And if I sound a little angry right now, it’s because I’m harbouring an innocent victim of a fucking monster right now, whose situation is analogous to what’s going on in the freethought community, actually. There was also a secret, privileged back-channel of important information she was not privy to, and because of it she suffered for years, until someone finally let her into the club a few days ago. Just as in the case mentioned above, had any of the people possessing this privileged information gone to the cops years ago, this person wouldn’t be in the situation she’s in now, with no home, no money, no job, no nothing. Thank you fucking very much, sisterhood of silence.)