A Final Word: On T-Shirts and Teapot Tempests

I wore a T-shirt at The Amazing Meeting 2012 that generated a lot of controversy. You can see a picture of it on my Wikipedia article.  I didn’t want to talk about the T-shirt, but I’ve been repeatedly challenged to explain myself, and I’m afraid I can no longer avoid it. Steven Novella has recommended that we try to give other people’s arguments the most charitable interpretation. I hope my critics will do that, but I’m not optimistic. If past experience is any guide, they will misinterpret my explanation and put it in the worst possible light, which is why I haven’t offered it before. So be it; I have a tough skin. Once this T-shirt explanation is out of the way, I will have done my duty and had my say and will feel free to ignore all these divisive and nonproductive arguments. I don’t plan to write about gender or feminism or the squabbles in the skeptic movement again.

First, a brief digression about charitable interpretations and the whole “queer” discussion. I said “most” people in the LGBT community find the term offensive. Instead of attacking me as totally clueless, a charitable reader might have gently corrected me by providing quantitative evidence that the majority of people in the LGBT community do not find the word offensive (so far, no one has provided such evidence). When shown quantitative evidence, I would gladly have changed the word “most” to “many” or “some” or even “a few,” depending on the actual numbers, and we would all have learned something. What actually happened served as a perfect illustration of the points I made in my “Enemies” article. The ensuing discussion was bizarre, nit-picking, surreal, divisive, unproductive, and failed to emphasize the one thing we ought to all agree on: we don’t want to use labels that others find offensive.  The silly quibbling about my use of the one word “most” just derailed the discussion from the more important issues, and from all the other words in my post.

To set the scene for the T-shirt incident, there was a complex backstory involving Elevatorgate, Richards Dawkins, insults and threats directed at women, a perception that TAM’s anti-harassment policy was not being enforced, objections to a statement JREF President DJ Grothe made, accusations that Grothe had lied about reports of harassment, and numerous other incidents, many of which were blown way out of proportion. All this had left big chips firmly glued to shoulders.

It was in that context that Rebecca Watson announced in June, 2012, that she was cancelling her plans to attend TAM in July. The reason she gave was that  “I do not feel safe and welcome at TAM.” I was willing to take that at face value, as an “I” statement, not as a warning that women in general were not safe and welcome there. But predictably, many women did read it as a warning and cancelled their own plans to attend TAM as a direct result of Rebecca’s announcement.

The most charitable interpretation is that she was simply making a personal statement based on her own experiences and feelings, not speaking for women as a whole, and that she didn’t intend to damage the reputation of TAM or influence others not to attend. There are other less charitable interpretations. But I acted on the most charitable one, without making any further assumptions. In the simplest terms, if she had the right to say she didn’t personally feel safe and welcome at TAM, surely I had the right to say I did personally feel safe and welcome there. I wore a T-shirt that said “I feel safe and welcome at TAM” with a big smiley face to indicate no hard feelings towards those who felt otherwise. I did not discount anyone else’s experiences or feelings. I did not say that all women should feel safe and welcome at TAM. I simply made a positive personal statement in support of TAM, providing a counterexample for anyone who might have thought Rebecca’s statement represented the views of all women. I would have gladly provided more details, but they didn’t fit on a T-shirt, and no one asked me to explain what I meant.

As an afterthought, I used the back of the shirt to express a long held opinion: “I’m a skeptic. Not a ‘skepchick.’ Not a ‘woman skeptic.’ Just a skeptic.” The word skepchick predates the Skepchick organization. It was used at least as early as 1999, it was in common use on the JREF Forum for years before Rebecca’s first appearance there in 2004, and the Skepchick website wasn’t registered until 2005.  I was thinking of the word in its earlier, more general sense, which is why I didn’t capitalize it. I have explained that my stance is a matter of personal preference and does not imply any disrespect for those whose preferences are different.  I even said, “Please try to understand that ‘I like to do it my way’ does not equate to  ‘I’m accusing you of being wrong for doing it your way.’” If I say I prefer to cook my chicken by stir-frying, that doesn’t mean I think you are wrong to roast yours, and I’m certainly not trying to tell you that you should switch to stir-frying. I can appreciate that both cooking methods can produce delicious meals.

That message resonated with most people, even with one of the commenters on Will’s Skepchick blog who said

Harriet Hall’s T-shirt was brilliant! It encompassed free speech and equality. (just think we are all equal…we are all skeptics, not female skeptics and male skeptics but simply skeptics.

I was quickly made aware that some people thought my shirt was a deliberate, malicious personal attack on individual Skepchicks and on the Skepchick organization as a whole. They got very angry. Some blog commenters went so far as to suggest that I should have been forced to take the shirt off, that I should have been ejected from the meeting, and that I should be banned from participating in future conferences. One person even suggested that my right to free speech ended the moment someone felt offended by what I said. (Just imagine the disastrous consequences if free speech were to be limited in that way!)

I was free to make my statement; they were free to read things into my statement that I had not put there. I was sorry they were upset; but I saw that as their problem, not mine. They were responsible for assuming they knew what I meant and choosing to let my words upset them. Instead of assuming, they might have given my words the most charitable interpretation or they might have simply asked me to clarify what I meant; but no one did.

My critics said that as soon as I was aware that my T-shirt had upset some people, I should have stopped wearing it. Really? How far must we go to avoid upsetting others? What if I had worn an “I love dogs” T-shirt and cat lovers had interpreted it as a direct personal insult to cat lovers and had felt hurt and offended? What if a Christian is offended by his atheist neighbor’s Darwin fish bumper sticker? What if an atheist finds his friend’s crucifix necklace offensive? Jenny McCarthy’s anti-vaccine “Green Our Vaccines” T-shirt is very offensive to me, but I defend her right to wear it. The right to free speech entails the responsibility to tolerate opinions that we disagree with.

Incidentally, I was flabbergasted at the way my hygiene was impugned. No one knows whether I wore the same shirt for 3 days or 3 identical shirts on successive days or whether I washed out one shirt each night in my hotel room. And what difference would it make?

Why didn’t I just wear it one day and stop? Because the meeting was a large one, and one day would not have given everyone a chance to see it. And because people were still coming up to me on the third day to thank me for wearing it and ask if they could take a picture. In fact, on the last day, when I was no longer wearing it, people were still coming up to me to say they agreed with my T-shirt’s message. In fact, long after TAM I continued to get e-mail messages of support. I don’t have any statistics, but obviously a substantial percentage of people read it exactly as I had intended it to be read.

There! That’s done! Now back to science-based medicine.

This article was originally published in the Science-Based Medicine blog.

Dr. Hall is a contributing editor to both Skeptic magazine and the Skeptical Inquirer. She is a weekly contributor to the Science-Based Medicine Blog and is one of its editors. She has also contributed to Quackwatch and to a number of other respected journals and publications. She is the author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon and co-author of the textbook, Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions.

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