Gossip, skeptics, and the mystery man

Inappropriate behaviour happens. That is a fact. Another fact is that such behaviour happens around us all, often without us seeing it for what it is. That shouldn’t be something we’re afraid to admit. Yet many are. The skeptical community – just like many social communities built up around like-minded thinking or circumstances – has problems. It’s a positive thing when we identify those problems and try to raise awareness about them and, in doing so, tackle them. Sometimes being aware that some people are made to feel uncomfortable by the behaviour of others at our events, (such as conferences or Skeptics in the Pub events) can make the problem less of a problem. Enabling people to report something that makes them feel uncomfortable makes the problem manageable. Speaking about the problems helps others realise what is and isn’t appropriate without treating people as though they’re idiots who need step by step lessons in socialising.

What am I talking about? Yesterday a blog post did the rounds in which the author admitted he had seen a high-profile British skeptic acting inappropriately towards a female attendee at a recent skeptic event. He hadn’t done anything at the time because he convinced himself he wasn’t seeing what he was seeing. Other people were seeing the same and they weren’t reacting so obviously nothing wrong was occurring… yet it was.

It was the sort of thing that could have been a joke but as it went on it became clear that she wasn’t playing. Now she didn’t scream or shout or anything, but she was certainly uncomfortable and it was unpleasant to witness. Right there I did something rather cowardly- I convinced myself that I hadn’t seen anything significant. The fact that I remember it so clearly today tells you that this was self-deception, but it was right on the boundary of being ok. I didn’t know either of these people personally, it might have been play-acting, etc. You make up reasons not to get involved.

I was extremely saddened to see skeptics and rational thinkers trying to work out who the mystery man in question was rather than taking the message at the core of the blog post and applying it to themselves and the events they attend or have attended. Rather than asking ‘Have I seen problems like this and not realised, even though they’re happening right in front of me?’ people were asking ‘who was it?! Does anyone know?!’

How disappointing for communities that pride themselves on rational thinking. An eagerness to dish dirt took over an eagerness to be skeptical of their own perception of the community around them. Speculation is often irrational, and the speculation surrounding this particular topic led to me seeing three different men being named as the mystery man in question by those not in the know. That is dangerous. On the flip of this though, it’s also dangerous to suggest that the problem isn’t a problem. In doing this we dismiss the experiences of those who’ve been harassed, and we turn our community into one where people don’t want to speak up about wrong doing for fear of not being believed. The way to tackle such issues is to raise awareness that they happen and that such behaviour will not be tolerated, and that it’s okay to speak up when you are the one having to deal with unwanted or inappropriate behaviour from other people. Pretending everything is peachy is ignorant of the reality.

It’s really appealing to focus on the positive or the subjects that we believe are more important, but while that might be productive in some ways it still leaves a very real problem being ignored. As people who want to be rational we should know that we need to be realistic and honest. Importance is also extremely subjective.

Let us not be afraid to question whether something we are seeing is inappropriate or not, let us not be afraid to speak out in the defence of those around us when they are too frightened to speak up or ask for help on their own, but let’s not have a witch hunt here, and let’s not make it be believed that all physical contact is not appropriate.

Let us also not pretend the incident mentioned on the blog post by Michael is an isolated one. Let us not brush this under the carpet because we’re eager to make Skeptics in the Pub events continue to look appealing to outsiders and newcomers. Let’s acknowledge there is a problem even if we don’t experience it ourselves. Let us be sure people know that we, as a community, are willing to tackle the problem. Let it go on record that reporting inappropriate behaviour will not drag you into unwanted limelight, and that this sort of behaviour is not welcome at our events no matter who you are. Ever. Let us make it known that we will not tolerate this, and by making this known, let us continue to make our skeptical communities and events safe and appealing to all.

‘Fire and swords are slow engines of destruction, compared to the tongue of a Gossip.’ – Richard Steele

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15 Comments to “Gossip, skeptics, and the mystery man”

  1. I find it reassuring that the awareness of these issues in the skeptical community is likely far greater than in other communities.

    This is also a potentially very sad fact.

    Had I witnessed something similar to the account in the blog a year ago I’d probably not have challenged it. I’m now confident I would.

  2. Hayley, I really don’t think it’s fair to say wanting to know who it is is just eagerness to dish dirt. There are legitimate reasons to want to know who the harassers are! Surely that’s obvious.

    • Very true, yet it’s clear nobody is going to name the person who was written about, yet people speculated and threw names around that weren’t even involved. That muddies the reputation of people who aren’t at fault and that is unfair and irrational.

    • Yes, and that stinks. It’s also one of the legitimate reasons people want to know – so that suspicion won’t fall on the wrong people.

  3. Also…

    “Let it go on record that reporting inappropriate behaviour will not drag you into unwanted limelight”

    Well that sounds great but is it true? My experience with how this stuff has played out among US skeptics in the last few months is that it’s the opposite of true.

  4. Tessa Kendall // 25 September, 2012 at 2:37 pm // Reply

    Thanks for adding this to the debate. I hope people now feel confident to speak out and know that real complaints will be dealt with so we can get on with what we do best.

  5. You’re right that throwing around potentially innocent names sucks, but that’s a symptom of not knowing who it is.

    And believe me… the central message has been heard and understood. Most people, I’m sure, get what Story was saying. His message was loud and clear, and important and needed.

    There’s a lot of us who’d like to know who it is, however, for so many reasons. Not that Story can reveal it… obviously, he can’t.

  6. I would hope that one of the organisers would have the nous to privately speak to the individual. Perhaps he is unaware as to how his behaviour is perceived. It seems a far more sensible step than merely whining and doing nothing but drag innocent people into the whodunit frame.

    If said person is inappropriate again, he should be publicly asked to leave.

  7. hear hear (though I wouldnt use the word whining)

    • I would most certainly call it whining and somewhat cowardly on Story’s behalf. I have the distinct impression he is the kid forced to play rugby, has had the ball come to his feet from the ruck but doesn’t want to pick it up. I don’t know whether it is more depressing that he and other witnesses do not have the balls to calmly speak to this individual, or that it has happened. Perhaps I am guilty of judging by my own standards here, rather than the average SitP crowd, but sometimes certain people need intervention. Now there is the potential situation that any man attending future events there is possibly under the spotlight.

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  9. Lee Christie // 1 October, 2012 at 6:05 pm // Reply

    I may be completely nieve, but I’m surprised people aren’t using Internet anonymyity to tell the world who’s being up to no good. Look at how easily news of Imogen Thomas’ affair spread on Twitter despite the superinjuction. Granted some people may dismiss anonymous claims, but I’m just saying it surprises me that the lid had been kept on this and the US skeptics’ identities.

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