Saturday, July 6, 2013

Empowering Women Through Secularism 2013 - A Review

It's hard to think what I can add to a review of EWTS2013. The fine folk at Atheist Ireland have already managed to upload all talks to YouTube, and while I consider myself a feminist, I do not consider myself a particularly well read or experienced feminist, possessed of unique insight unavailable to others. Do read on if you're interested in how it appeared to a newcomer.

I live tweeted both days, despite several impassioned pleas for me to stop from those who did not quite favour my updates every twenty seconds. Sat a row in front of Aoife (we had not fallen out, she needed to sit closer to a wall socket) I was able to judge her mood. Had the speaker said something agreeable? A soft flurry of taps indicated so. Less welcome statements were greeted with the sort of typing style likely to invalidate most laptop warranties.

It would be remiss of me to progress much further without congratulating Atheist Ireland on their success. This was only their second international conference, and to see so many moving parts come together so splendidly may put those outside their membership to thoughts of divine intervention. The speakers in attendance represented every continent bar those famed for penguins and polar bears. A friend attending referred to it as the first time they'd been at an atheist organised event where no one had described their beliefs in terms of sky fairies. The mood was, in general, quite positive and this would not have come about without much hard work from the organisers. I believe I heard Michael Nugent say he'd had three hours' sleep. Knowing his work rate he was likely referring to the entirety gained over the preceeding week - I for one was a little shocked to learn he slept at all.

For me the memories I'll take away will be those of the conversations I had with the attendees. The stereotypical blogger is one who does not venture outside while an error remains on the internet and I try not to damage perceptions in this regard. This was a great opportunity to interact with people outside my typical social circle, which typically consists of those in the same gender, income, and age brackets as myself. Conferences have a fantastic ability to put you in direct communication with likeminded individuals who've reached similar viewpoints through different routes and from differing perspectives. It's a great combination for learning.

My favourite audience comment over the weekend came from Anne. I'll paraphrase it as "Male feminists: getting other men on board? That's your job!"

It was such a relief to get some constructive feedback. I of course enjoy the occasional platitudes and cheers some of my posts can get, but you can't beat someone taking the time to tell you how you could be doing a more effective job. I'll be trying to follow her counsel on this in future and I've asked Anne nicely if she'd consider a guest post here. (Though if she's as popular as Fintan I'm giving up on writing as a pastime. I'm now in the inglorious position of being second most popular author on my own blog.)

One exchange I found a mite disappointing came after a panel discussion which mentioned the overrepresentation of the Iona Institute et al in Irish media. The phrase 'right wing conspiracy' earned a mention. A journalist present was kind enough to explain, and I'll quote him roughly as:

"There is no right wing media conspiracy. I contact the Iona Institute because when I call them, they answer the phone. You can have the best story in the world, but if the media has no way of getting in touch with you, they're not going to be able to run it."

He was not the first (or indeed the second) journalist I've heard make this point, and it relates as well to the Association of Catholic Priests (rumoured hard to contact) as it does to pro choicers. My disappointment was at an audience member's reaction to his helpful explanation - she shouted across at him that they had jobs to do, and couldn't be answering the phone to journalists. To which I responded "tough".

It's been brought to my attention that this could be considered a little harsh, and I've had a week to reconsider. In this time, after due reflection, I find myself holding the same opinion. If someone helpfully explains why your perception is incorrect, the appropriate response is not to give out to them. It is not the job of journalists to conceal themselves in shrubbery near one's residence in the hope of ambushing a comment. If you'd like to see less of the Iona Institute, be as contactable as them. If you can't be contactable this is not your fault, but don't blame journalists. (On a tangent, I typically respond to e-mail inquiries from journalists within 30 minutes and include my next window to take a call. This is imperfect, but a more productive way of getting my message across than claiming conspiracy and giving out to members of the press.)

To make this an even more general rule: if you insult or argue with a journalist at a conference you'll find the odds of that conference enjoying favourable coverage decrease as a result of your actions. I was saddened to hear that the same journalist had his paper insulted by an attendee rather than provide a comment. (He writes for a mainstream, reputable paper.)

Could the conference have been improved? Claims of infallibility do not emanate from Atheist Ireland HQ. This was but their second international conference, it was put together on a shoestring budget, and they stepped outside their comfort zone to bring this opportunity to Ireland. I thank them for it. Knowing some of the folk behind the planning I'm sure they're taking the opportunity to revisit what went well and what didn't with a view to making future conferences even more of a success.

Some have highlighted the absence of trigger warnings in one of the talks. I'm inclined to agree on this point and hope to see them included in future events.

There was a 30 minute section towards the end of the second day that has earned perhaps undue emphasis from some reviews. during this time open comments were accepted from the audience attendees for discussion. In principle I think this is a great idea and adds further to the benefit of attending in person, rather than watching the YouTube videos in solitude, however it does run the risk of incurring less than welcome comments.

The first and worst comment came from someone who said they'd taken 'a long walk' to get ideas clear in their head following Saturday's session. This promenade took them past Pride celebrations where they saw a banner saying "Trans rights are human rights!".

They then proceeded to make the offensive and hamfisted comment that women should just call themselves trans to get human rights. Working solely off my own ballpark estimate I'd hazard that half the trans community are women. It's cretinous to suggest they are somehow an 'other', unconcerned or unaffected by restrictions on the rights of both themselves and their fellow women. I venture to suggest that if this nonsense is the proceeds of a long walk spent in deep reflection, they should try their next one off a short pier.

The next comments, not unfairly summarised by others as "what about the menz?" by other attendees, involved a feedback loop between those who thought that women are also sexist and that men face equal discrimination. Like most feedback loops it contributed little in the way of information and was painful to the ear.

As I said I'm new to this, and have much to learn, but this claim of equal levels of discrimination against men is clearly balderdash.

I earn more than my female friends. If I'm ever sexually assaulted, no one will ask what I was wearing or if I'd had too much to drink. The only people who harass me in the street are chuggers. When I discussed these sample discriminations against women later that day the only proposed mechanism that tipped discrimination towards men was the risk of military draft - a concern I only find credible if we're likely to be sucked into a wormhole leading to Vietnam war era USA.

While I found these comments disagreeable I'm unsure what an organiser could do to prevent them. Giving the audience the ability to speak freely still, on balance, seems a worthy endeavour and I think the best response to a bad argument from an audience member is a great counterargument from an audience member. I regret not saying anything. I felt too new to this. I do know that Atheist Ireland went to significant lengths to arrange sponsorship for those with a stronger background in feminism than I, an approach which, if successful, would have stocked the audience with those capable of robust response. I'm unsure what more Atheist Ireland could have done.

I haven't covered the talks themselves. I enjoyed them of course, but I defer to Becca's detailed notes on the subject (and the videos linked in the opening paragraph) as they offer a better summary than I could hope to achieve. Do check out Becca's blog.

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