Chris Meyns

Philosophy desperately needs event codes of conduct

Recently the Aristotelian Society—a respected philosophy society in the UK—reached what may well have been a low-point in its 139-year history by dedicating its infrastructure, time and resources to hosting a speaker widely known for their transphobia and incitement to harassment of trans people.

Such hate advocacy under the banner of philosophy by a mainstream professional society has rightly been condemned, including by the Minorities and Philosophy (MAP) group which, among other things, has as its core purpose to address issues of under-representation in the philosophy profession. It makes gender-based harassment, and ultimately gender-based violence, look ‘normal’. During the week that this event was held, I learned of two more people ditching academic philosophy because of its problem with transphobia. A Guardian report last week showed that transphobic hate crimes in England and Wales have trebled in recent years. Hosting such a speaker professes that it’s somehow OK to bully people as long as you stick the label “Discuss.” onto it. (Nope. No, that is not OK.)

Now, I like the Aristotelian Society. When I first arrived in the UK, back in 2009, theirs was probably the first official philosophy meeting I went to ♥♡♥ So it saddens me to see it morph into something resembling an alt-right-ish forum.

Where things went wrong I do not know, and the Aristotelian Society hasn’t responded to queries. But let’s suppose that it was all an error. They unwittingly got themselves into this mess, and are hoping to do better in the future (hey! let’s keep some optimism, shall we?). Here are some easy steps for avoiding further gaffes.

1. Get yourself an event code of conduct

Adopting a code of conduct is massively easy to do, and need only take minutes. With plenty of examples out there, you don’t even have to invent one all from scratch. The most succinct version I know of just says “play nice” but somehow some people don’t seem to understand that? Or their vision of ‘nice’ is wildly different from what I’d envisage.

Consider this slightly more wordy sample Conference Code of Conduct, of which the ‘Quick Version’ simply reads:

Conference Code of Conduct Conference Code of Conduct, Quick version (CC-BY JSConf2012 and The Ada Initiative)

Why is having a code of conduct relevant? Shouldn’t it be obvious harassment and discrimination have no place at academic events? Well, in theory, yes. In reality, not so much.

Having a code of conduct matters, not least because of what it communicates. As the Geek Feminism Wiki notes when introducing its example conference anti-harassment policy: “… it sets expectations for behaviour at the conference. Simply having an anti-harassment policy can prevent harassment all by itself”. Explicating your code of conduct publicly sets a norm for behaviour for attendees, speakers, sponsors, or anyone somehow involved in the event. Further, importantly, a code of conduct gives organisers something concrete to act upon. Which brings me to the next point.

2. Enforce your event code of conduct

Your conference code of conduct should be enforceable and enforced. Otherwise it’s just an empty gesture. To be enforceable, your code of conduct must contain concrete steps for reporting violations, and detail what actions conference staff may take in response.

One of the signals I got from the Aristotelian Society was that they, as organisers, were supposedly powerless to ‘police’ or take action in response to anything a speaker might say or do. That’s … surprising. Because organisers aren’t powerless, are they? For one, as an organiser you decide who gets invited. (Remember, academic speaking slots are scarce. No specific individual has an automatic right to be invited, nor do organisers have an automatic obligation to invite or host any particular person. There was never the presumption that everyone would get a talking slot. Being offered a particular platform to speak is the exception, not the rule.)

Further, if you’re organising something, it’s your meeting. You get to set the basic standards for acceptable behaviour. If a speaker or attendee violates those, then maybe they shouldn’t be there? Had the Aristotelian Society had a code of conduct in hand which explicitly condemns harassment based on gender identity and expression, then a talk that was nothing but a long-winded exercise in that type of harassment should not have gone through. Perhaps you’re pondering: But how could they have known in advance? Read on.

Yes, measures may include removing the offender from the event. Even if the offender is the speaker. Here’s Geek Feminism again:

“Presentations or similar events should not be stopped for one-time gaffes or minor problems, although a member of conference staff should speak to the presenter afterward. However, staff should take immediate action to politely and calmly stop any presentation or event that repeatedly or seriously violates the anti-harassment policy. For example, simply say ‘I’m sorry, this presentation cannot be continued at the present time’ with no further explanation.”

How, you ask, can organisers recognise whether certain behaviour is racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, fatphobic or otherwise discriminatory (to name just some examples of behaviour that should have no place in philosophy)? The Aristotelian Society seemed to have quite some difficulties on this point. Their ‘statement of support’ suggests that harassment is a ‘debate’ in which it would be possible to ‘remain neutral’. (It isn’t. You can’t.)

Aristotelian Society statement of support The Aristotelian Society’s statement of support

Luckily, there’s an easy remedy! If you, as an organiser, have trouble recognising racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, fatphobia or other forms of discrimination, the point is to listen to people who are members of the community that is at risk of facing the harassment. They’re likely to be much better informed than anyone not belonging to that community to make assessments on the matter. If trans people flag up transphobia, take it seriously. Act on it. Here’s how Open Source Design put it as part of their ‘Be excellent to each other’ code of conduct:

“If you think you are offending someone for whatever reason, STOP immediately. If you’re uncertain, ask a core community member (in private message). Asking for guidance will show good faith that you are striving to uphold our code of conduct.”

The Aristotelian Society missed a golden opportunity here. Because not only do they standardly require speakers to pre-circulate their text (providing ample time for scrutiny), they also received multiple notifications flagging that their planned speaker was a serial harasser. You can do better. Enforce your code of conduct.

3. Acknowledge mistakes, do better

What if you were too late? The event was large, things happened so quickly, and you realise you inadvertently did end up facilitating harassment. Now what? Perhaps surprisingly, it’s actually not that difficult:

  1. Acknowledge that something went wrong
  2. Say why the behaviour is problematic and violates your code of conduct
  3. Say what measures you’ve taken in response

As an example of this, PyCon, the annual convention for Python enthusiasts, recently released a Transparency Report for their 2018 conference. They state:

“A Code of Conduct is only useful if it’s followed and enforced. To show that we take it seriously, we’ve prepared a list of Code of Conduct reports we received during the event, and how we responded. These reports are all anonymised.”

The Aristotelian Society did not have a code of conduct in place. It got caught up in promoting gender based harassment. Its event contributed to mainstreaming transphobia in philosophy. None of that is ideal. But it still has the opportunity to acknowledge that they did this, and say how they will prevent similar gaucherie in the future. Of course, it might feel messy to acknowledge that something went wrong. (Academics, those champions of awkwardness!) But trust me, attendees and wider members of the profession will 100% appreciate your openness and will to improve.

Nobody is waiting for a repeat of this or similar episodes. Most professional societies can and must do better. Professional philosophy societies in particular have a long way to go. Getting and enforcing event codes of conduct will be an easy start. ✖