Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Surly Amy Censorship and Justin Vacula-Guest Blog

  Every so often I will post a guest blog when someone writes about something I find interesting or troublesome.  Justin Vacula wrote the following blog he was given a DCMA complaint so someone is trying at some level to quiet him. I wonder if anyone can be surprised after listening to  Surly Amy. I'll voice my thoughts at the end of Justin's blog.



Surly Amy: Conferences should ban 'fake jewelry'

[The Surly-Ramics image has been removed from this post due to a DMCA complaint!]

Skepchick writer and Surly-Ramics creator 'Surly Amy' has recently argued that conferences should ban 'fake jewelry' after recounting her recent TAM experience in which she spoke of a group of "very vocal angry troll-like people that did some really awful things" to her. I argue that placing restrictions on freedom of expression and speech would be unreasonable and disastrous. The mere suggestion of banning 'fake jewelry,' I argue, should disqualify 'Surly Amy' from being a participant in discussion concerning anti-harassment policies.

'Surly Amy' -- blogger for the Skepchick network and creator of 'Surly-ramics' jewelry -- has recently appeared on the August 5, 2012 episode of Amanda Marcotte's "RH Reality Check" podcast to discuss feminism within the atheist movement. Of particular interest in this short podcast were Amy's comments on her experience at The Amazing Meeting and thoughts on anti-harassment policies at atheist/skeptic conferences. During the discussion, Amy had said that she -- and presumably other feminists in the atheist community because she uses the word 'we' -- wants conferences to have rules restricting particular types of jewelry people wear. For instance, Amy says atheist/skeptic conferences should have policies which restrict "fake jewelry" which is "intentionally offending."

Near the 11:53 mark of the before-mentioned podcast, commenting on her experience at The Amazing Meeting, 'Surly Amy' said,

There was this group of, again, very vocal angry troll-like people that did some really awful things to me in real life - that sort of thing that you usually only see online I was actually face to face with. I had people wearing t-shirts saying that they were not a skepchick, people making fake jewelry that I make that said things on it like 'you should be embarrassed.' There's this really crazy undercurrent of othering that I had never experienced before and it was really upsetting and I ended up leaving the event a day early.
It seems that 'Surly Amy' considers people wearing t-shirts she doesn't like and jewelry saying 'you should be embarrassed' to be indicative of "very vocal angry troll-like people" and people acting "really awful" (she doesn't take time to mention anything else which warranted these labels and conclusions). This also apparently constitutes a "really crazy undercurrent of othering" which, at least in part, caused her to leave the conference a day early.

Further commenting, near the 14:22 mark in the podcast, Amy mentions what she would like to see anti-harassment policies at conferences to address. She explains,
We're not asking for anything crazy - just basic rules so that we can say the sort of thing like making fake jewelry and intentionally offending people is not okay nor is grabbing someone's ass. That's it, that's all we're asking for.
What, anyway, is 'fake jewelry?' Since when did 'Surly Amy' have an exclusive hold on the market of ceramic jewelry? 'Fake jewelry,' it seems, is ceramic jewelry either meant to satirize Surly Amy's jewelry or ceramic jewelry which is not made by 'Surly Amy.' One example of this 'fake jewelry,' according to a JREF forum poster is as follows: "The fake Surlys I saw looked like a man and woman standing on either side of an elevator with a big red slash through the whole picture." Anyway, returning to the issues...

It is reasonable for one to not only claim offense to 'fake jewelry,' but also to ask conferences to have policies which restrict what jewelry people wear...because someone like 'Surly Amy' happens to claim offense?

'Surly Amy' -- and apparently others in the atheist/skeptic community -- seemed to, for whatever reasons, have moved away from the common response of "Too bad, that's your problem" when someone claims offense. This is, at least from my experience, the reaction that many atheists have when religious people claim offense. For whatever reason, 'Surly Amy' and others seemed to have compartmentalized this attitude (assuming that she and others would respond to religious believers who happen to claim offense to atheists/skeptics arguing against religious claims or otherwise being blasphemous) and afforded some sort of special rules for their own particular sensitivities. Note that 'Surly Amy' does not only condemn that which she finds offensive, but she also wants to squelch others' freedom of speech at conferences by encouraging conferences to adopt policies restricting messages displayed on jewelry.

Banning others' speech because one happens to claim offense or dislike speech seems to be 'the coward's way out' that is often condemned by the atheist/skeptic community. What ever happened to "I might not like what you have to say, but I will defend your right to say it?" What ever happened to toleration and an understanding that other people should be afforded with the rights to express viewpoints which some might not  like? What sort of 'freethought response' is banning speech and insisting that conferences adopt policies which restrict messages on jewelry?

What sort of consequences might follow if "I'm offended" is good reason for conferences to adopt policies restricting jewelry people wear? Should 'Teach the Controversy' t-shirts which mock creationists be barred from conferences should a creationist happen to attend a skeptic conference and complain? Should critical examination of Islam and pictures of Mohammad be barred from atheist conferences should a liberal Muslim happen to attend and complain? Should Tim Minchin's "The Pope Song" be barred because people happen to take offense to vulgar language?

Skeptical readers may think that all of these consequences would not follow because these cases are 'different' or otherwise aren't attacking persons. This reasoning, though, would ignore the fact that offense is a largely (or perhaps totally) subjective term. After all, many are lauding Matt Dillahunty's recent "speaking out against hate directed at women" post which says,
When you hear a complaint that someone has raised, you might think that they're expressing an irrational, emotional, over-reaction to the situation. You might even be correct - but it doesn't matter, and here's why: You don't get to decide what someone else finds offensive. You don't get to decide what someone else finds uncomfortable, unwelcoming, disconcerting, stressful, harassing, troubling or painful. You aren't the world: everyone isn't exactly like you. We're trying to build a safe and welcoming community. We're trying to sponsor safe and welcoming events. [...] We need to make sure that people who express their concerns are treated with respect and compassion and that we make reasonable efforts to either alleviate their concerns or clarify why we can't or won't. 
Apparently, persons are -- according to Dillahunty's accounting -- out of line to argue that people are acting irrationally when they happen to "express a concern that something is making them feel unwelcome." Dillahunty, though, at least says that concerns can't or won't be addressed. The idea that people may not rightly challenge others who are behaving irrationally is poisonous and ought to be challenged by skeptics. The mere claiming of offense or taking an attitude of 'I believe it, so it is so' is no justification for one to place restrictions on others' behaviors.

If 'Surly Amy' and others had their way -- according to what 'Surly Amy' said in this podcast and logical conclusions which seem to follow -- conferences would ban others' freedom of expression and speech on grounds of a person claiming offense. I hope this day never comes, but it might just be on its way if people continue to consider 'Surly Amy' as a valid participant in the discussion concerning anti-harassment policies at conferences. Her wanting to restrict which jewelry people wear at conferences, though, should hopefully disqualify her from this discussion. Is this the sort of feminism that is worth wanting? 'Surly Amy,' after all, is not some 'rogue voice' or 'extremist' who has little clout; she is a well-respected and listened to voice within in the feminist atheist community.

Are you, reader, in agreement with 'Surly Amy?'
Should jewelry which leads people to claim offense be banned from conferences?

  Well isn't this an interesting direction we are going now? Amy equates making parody jewelry to a person grabbing your ass without permission? Someone needs a reality check alright.
  I will agree with Amy in that there should have been sexual harassment policies in place long ago. Especially when she talks about the issue of women at conferences began for her  4 years ago. I wonder if it was an issue why someone didn't ask for some type of policy to be put in place long before now. There is obviously a percentage of people who act in ways that make others feel uncomfortable or threatened, I'm not saying those things do not happen. One of the ways we can work to stop that type of behavior is to speak out about it when it occurs. For anyone to allow others to make them feel uncomfortable and not do something right away is irresponsible to say the least. No one involved in this issue has had any problem speaking out to the public before now, why would they have stayed quiet while these things were happening? There was never a good time to bring it up? I think it is a valid question because the delay in reporting harms credibility.    
      I have a daughter and I have raised her so that she won't take any shit from some moron who thinks he is allowed to treat her anyway he likes. If anyone wants to say I am not sensitive to the treatment of women they can kiss my ass and if anyone wants to say I don't know what it's like to be threatened that would be wrong too. I have had people threaten me, my children and to bomb my house.To be honest the only rape threat I have had is to be ass-raped by Satan. Most all conferences will now have some type of behavior policies in effect and people are now aware of the problem so we can move on from there, right? No.
An example of Surly Amy's type of censorship

     Now we have people like Surly Amy telling us we can't publicly speak out against her or Skepchick? What other groups are we going to add to the list or is it going to remain just the one?  Surly Amy has hurt her own cause by trying to compare people who disagree with her with someone who would grab her ass without permission. If she is unreasonable about that then in what other ways is she doing the same thing?
   I am sick of all the atheists/skeptics who are falling victim to trolls then crying about it or labeling anyone who disagrees with them as a troll. I'm also sick of people telling me if I don't feel as strongly about an issue as they do then I am against them. The simple fact of it is a lot of people don't think harassment is a huge problem because it isn't happening to them and they have never heard anything about it in the past, who's fault is that? You can't keep quiet about a problem and then fault people for not being aware of it.

  Sometimes people do not have a right to be offended because those feelings are based on reactions to incorrect information or assumptions. You also should keep in mind not everyone has been through the same life experiences as you. Everyone is ignorant about some things and ignorance is not equal to stupidity. The sexual harassment issue needed to be addressed and attention brought to it but the manner in which it was brought  to the public's attention raises a red flag. The things being said by those who were involved after the problem has been addressed sets off alarms. 
  Maybe Amy will realize her mistake and try to correct it instead of making it worse by labeling people with legitimate concerns as 'trolls' of 'hateful people'. I expect that from psychics, religious believers, and ghost hunters but not from people who claim to be logical. 

Please keep in mind if you intend to comment- I don't suffer fools- consider that fair warning.


  1. U;ve said it before, Amy had a LOT of support and love at TAM. You could not even get near her table as people were buying stuff. Almost every woman was wearing a surly amy. My room mate bought over $100 worth and I bought almost $50 worth. My room mate and others went over to thank her for all she has done. There has been a harrasment police for the past 2 TAMS, if you read other "amy approved" policies NONE of them state they will make people remove clothing or censor jewelry. Remember last year with Lawrence Krauss, people wore tshirts against him and he even joked when he got up to speak about the anger directed against him. Now...he stayed. I'm not saying Amy should have stayed. BUT...saying "Everyone should go that makes people uncomfortable..." is wrong. There are deists that attend TAM. They don't adore it when Dawkins gave a speech about how all skeptics are atheists...and Penn is simply a joy for any believer to be in a room with. Should they go? Because I know several people that attended TAM that no longer will because of the anti deist policy (including Hal Bidlack, the former MC of many TAMs. He left because he was sick of the anti atheist tone of TAM). Should all talk of atheism be banned (including tshirts and much of amy's jewelry?) so that deists feel comfortable? Some skeptic conferences have indeed gone so far. This is America. A minority should have equal rights, not more than equal rights (or in this case a dictatorship). Also, why she ignored the love and support and money she made, and focused on a few people, is really a dishonor to all the women (and men) wearing her jewelry and that supported her and bought jewelry from her. She's is demanding total support and total control of how's behave. How about we ask her to behave in a grateful manner to those that do buy her jewelry and support her at these conferences? Are we allowed to feel hurt she doesn't say "thank you"?

  2. "You don't get to decide what someone else finds uncomfortable, unwelcoming, disconcerting, stressful, harassing, troubling or painful. You aren't the world: everyone isn't exactly like you. We're trying to build a safe and welcoming community. We're trying to sponsor safe and welcoming events"

    I'm a right-wing skeptic who's been to three TAMs and I've witnessed plenty of locker room talk against people like me, and not just social conservatives. I know exactly what it's like to have comments and T-shirts brought against me and I say, bring it on. The answer to these clashes is to make your case, not cry to the organizers.

    I'm really surprised here that Amy would lower her self like that with these demands.