On red flags and the benefit of the doubt

We seem to have breached a new wall in the “sexual harassment in skepticism” war: names are being named, stories are being told. If you haven’t been following it, Greta Christina has a good rundown on the news to date here. (If you haven’t been following it, and would rather look at pictures of a baby elephant playing on a beach, those are here, and I don’t blame you.)

Essentially, these stories implicate a couple of big skeptic organizations, specifically JREF and CFI, in severely underreacting to accusations and confirmed incidents of sexual harassment by various of their employees and speakers. This is not the first time JREF and CFI have been at odds with feminists in the skeptic and atheist movement — for CFI, it’s not even the first time this summer. Both organizations (and individuals like DJ Grothe, the current president of JREF) have said and done offensive things and been called out. But, to people like me who are not on the inside track, this is the first we’ve heard about this level of unacceptable behavior, this level of sweeping things under the rug and prioritizing keeping popular male leaders over creating a safe and welcoming environment for women.

And one thing I’ve heard a couple times, in reading over blogs and comments on this subject, is “We shouldn’t have been so forgiving before. We shouldn’t have given the benefit of the doubt.” And that’s disturbing to me, because it suggests that the next time someone behaves in moderately assholeish ways, we should go ahead and assume they’re full-blown rotten scumbags. Which, I think we’d all agree when looking at it coolly, is not a rational approach to take.

Anger here is justified. I know some people have a much hotter response when angry than I do, and say things they don’t actually think and mean. (How this works I don’t fully understand, but I recognize that it does.) I want to be sure, though, that when the dust settles and the anger loosens its grip, we don’t actually go around upgrading offenses and declining forgiveness (that we’d otherwise have granted) because a different organization or person screwed us over in the past. I think there’s this fear of being a fool, of granting someone the benefit of the doubt — in a case where it was fair to do so — and then being shown later that they didn’t deserve it. Ironically, there’s something victim-blamey about that very notion that it’s foolish to give someone the benefit of the doubt if they later prove to be a thorough jerkass. It suggests that if we fail to fully intuit or extrapolate the depth of someone’s rottenness from a few initial red flags, we’re the ones who have messed up. Not true. It is always meritorious to judge someone based on what you know of their actions at the time. Failure to act on the basis of information you didn’t have is not a mark of foolishness.

Now, pattern recognition is a thing, which is why the “red flag” concept exists in the first place. If we’ve observed that the people who publicly belittle women’s concerns frequently turn out to also be privately harassing and assaulting individual women, it’s not wrong to keep that data point in mind when making a judgment about another person who publicly belittles women’s concerns. That’s different from concluding that that person must also be a sexual predator. (Also take into account confirmation bias and the availability heuristic and all that.) It’s even okay to say, “You know what, I’ve been burned before by people who acted in ways that you’re acting, and even though you might not go on to do what they did, I’m not willing to take the risk of trusting you.” That’s a personal call that everybody has every right to make. What I’m not okay with is people saying, “I’ve been burned before by people who acted in ways that you’re acting, so I am going to assume you’re also guilty of everything they were.” It’s okay to hold a little cognitive dissonance around “they might not be guilty / I still don’t trust them.”

Let your anger burn, my fellow feminist skeptics. But don’t blame yourself for forgiving in the past, or giving the benefit of the doubt when it seemed merited. We judged then based on what we knew then. Now we know more.

Baby elephant says that’s ok.

baby elephant face looking up from the surf

One thought on “On red flags and the benefit of the doubt

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