On August 8th, 2013, PZ Meyers did several important things.


First, he listened, without judgment, when someone told him they'd been assaulted. He didn't question her about her actions prior to the assault, or her motivations for confiding in him. Second, he confided in a mutual acquaintance that he needed confirmation that the source of this story was trustworthy. Third, he considered how to react to this information. Up until this point I don't think anyone will disagree with his choices. This is all Survivor 101.


Here are some of the items that he probably considered while deciding on a course of action:

  • The assault is not recent.
  • The perpetrator is very well known.
  • The person who had been assaulted told organizers at the event about the assault and they did nothing about it.
  • This person fears retaliation from fans of the perpetrator and even the perpetrator himself (reasonably so given the community's response to similar allegations).


It also sounds like he considered the possible damage of a false accusation (highly unlikely given what we know about reporting cases of sexual assault) and decided that the damage done by a potentially false public accusation (I'm not implying that this or this or this were false accusations, but that the damage done to the alleged perpetrator is minimal) would be less than the damage done by keeping a true one private (behavior self-reported by rapists indicates that most attacks are perpetrated by serial rapists). Finally, he posted this blog.

Among the many reactions to that blog (and others like it) that I've seen, I'm most perplexed (and angered, and saddened, and frustrated) by the refrain that "these are issues for the courts to decide, and there are protocols in place that address these issues". The idea that the only time someone should be held responsible for something they have done wrong is when we send them to jail for it is laughable. It's so clearly fallacious and so utterly departs from reality and human nature that I wonder at the rationality of anyone repeating it.


Of course, criminal laws are very important to human society, and in the U.S., incarceration is also very important. But the reality is that there are many ways people can mistreat one another which we will never have criminal statutes for.

For example:

I drive an automobile owned by the state I work for. Use of this vehicle is a privilege, but it is also crucial for my job. I am required by my employer to operate it in the safest manner I possibly can.


If I get drunk and hit a pedestrian in that vehicle, I will probably go to jail. But what if I just don't take care of the vehicle? If I drive it and notice the brakes are bad, but I don't do anything about it? Say I'm driving this vehicle without getting the brakes fixed even though I know they're not working right and I hit a pedestrian. I'm probably not going to jail. But I'm sure as hell losing my job, any friends who I told about the brakes, and probably any future job requiring the operation of a vehicle. Let's say, for the sake of argument, in both these scenarios, the pedestrians suffer identical severely broken legs. It doesn't matter if I hit them while drunk or while neglecting to repair my brakes, they both would bear the scars of this incident for the rest of their lives.

Yet we consider drunk driving to be a more serious crime than neglecting crucial vehicle maintenance.

Why? After all, I can reasonably assert that both described scenarios involve equally wrong actions, since both involved a conscious choice to act in a way that resulted in harm to another person where the alternative would not have caused me any harm and would have had the added benefit of resulting in no harm to another person.

We, as a society, have clearly determined that drunk driving is wrong and we can reliably determine whether I was drunk at the time of the incident. Without knowing anything but that I was intoxicated and operating the vehicle that struck the pedestrian, my guilt is obvious. Similarly, we as a society have clearly determined that sexual assault on a stranger, with the threat of violence, is wrong. In cases of violent stranger assault, it's clear to completely uninvolved parties that the attacker harmed someone. Courts are good (sort of, not really) at dealing with these situations.


The brakes are a different issue. If you didn't know me before the accident, there's no way to determine for sure that I knew the brakes weren't working unless I admit it, which I won't now that somebody is hurt. Additionally, under other circumstances I might have a reason for not having fixed them. I may have been genuinely unaware that the brakes were failing. Or, I knew but I may not have had access to enough funds for the repair. I may have even been on my way to work to earn the money, or to a friend's house to plead for a loan. Or, I may have been on my way to get them fixed when it happened and it was just unfortunate and unexpected that they failed at that moment. It may be impossible for a criminal investigation to determine why I was driving with bad breaks. But, people who knew me before it happened, the people who I joked with about "no brakes! no brakes!" know how exactly how awful I am. Context matters here. We don't write laws that say “You will go to jail for hitting a pedestrian if you knew your brakes were bad and you had the means to fix them but you didn't do it right away.” Law is lousy at dealing with context: it's hard to prove I was able to fix the breaks and should have because I knew they were bad but that I chose not to.

Assault and harassment are like reckless driving in important ways: these are choices made by perpetrators, their victims are in no way responsible for what happened to them, there are kinds that our laws handle well, and there are kinds that laws handle poorly. (Sexual assault and harassment are also very different from reckless driving in important ways: sexual assault and harassment are committed against a particular target not the community at large, victims of sexual assault and harassment are overwhelmingly female-identified persons or minors, people hit by cars are not, and perpetrators of sexual assault are overwhelmingly cis-gender man while stats on reckless driving show a greater corrolation with age than gender. When we cannot write laws to punish people whose behavior harms others the only solution is for a community to decide to protect itself from people who behave in harmful ways. There could be almost no cost to non-rapists in performing the communal, social maintenance required to prevent rape. There should be no argument against fixing this problem in the secular community.


So what can we do? Let's look at ways we as a group regulate negative behaviors.


Maybe you've taken a friend's car keys when you knew they were in no condition to drive. Maybe you've yelled at cars for speeding through crosswalks or past schools. Maybe you've honked when somebody changed lanes without signaling. Maybe you've grounded your kids for speeding or texting while driving. Maybe your interference or calling attention to a bad driver saved somebody a lot of pain and suffering.


Maybe, if we quit pretending that stopping sexual harassment and assault are solely the domain of human resource departments and law enforcement we can actually make our community safer.


Maybe we can all make sure our friends get home safe and go to bed alone after they've had a wild night out. Maybe we all should yell back when someone gets cat-called. Maybe we should tell each other to respect other people's personal space. Maybe we'll resolve to stop referring to losing badly in sports and video games as “getting raped”. Maybe we tell our kids that sex isn't a prize you get from (or give to) someone. Maybe we tell them sex is something we do with happy, coherent, consenting partners or we do it alone (because there's nothing wrong with that). Maybe, you've seen a friend buy somebody a drink, and then another, and another. Maybe your friend helped that person stagger home. Maybe it happens more than once. Maybe it was consensual, no harm done. Maybe it wasn't. Maybe all you had to do was make sure that someone got into a cab with your friend's phone number instead of with your friend. Maybe you haven't interfered before because it didn't seem like a big deal. Maybe, for somebody, it was.


Before you decide to condemn PZ Meyers for his actions, I would urge you to consider all the times our community has failed the people who are actually being harassed, who are actually being assaulted, who are actually being hurt, who are truly afraid because we're no better at shutting these predators down than any other community and we really ought to be. We should be rational: hundreds of studies have shown the frequency of sexual harassment and assault are astoundingly high, and yet nearly all claims are met initially with disbelief. We know we're just like everybody else in most ways, so it stands to reason that there are atheists who have been sexually assaulted or harassed, that there are atheists who commit sexual assault or who sexually harass members of our community. Given what we know about the pervasiveness off assault and harassment, our first response should never be, “Are you sure that's what happened?”


If we're going to be rational, if we're going to be skeptics our first response should be, “How can I make sure this doesn't happen again?”

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