Heterophobia and Hugging in the Atheist Community

Over at Talking Philosophy, a blog attached to The Philosophers’ Magazine, Russell Blackford has written a post titled “No hugs please, we’re atheists.” Blackford is responding to Jean Kazez’s discussion of the new code of conduct adopted by American Atheists. Blackford, like Kazez, finds the codes of conduct  intrusive and that its “officiousness is providing just one more opportunity to infantilise women, who are portrayed as mentally weak and socially incompetent.”

I’m curious about the micromanagement of social interactions described in the codes of conduct. Daphen Patai argued some time ago that the type of vigilance required to police sexual attentions and the verbal expressions associated with sexist language would “create a social climate so unpleasant, and ultimately so repressive, that the cure would be much worse than the disease.”

Patai sees certain feminists as shepherding a coercive form of activism that is resistant to dissent. Dissenters are labeled anti-feminists, and their behavior is given the same amount of scrutiny as those accused of harassment:

In feminist circles, in particular, academic freedom is under attack by feminists not content with sexual harassment policies that are broad, vague, and all-inclusive and whose application routinely violates the due process of rights of the accused and the academic freedom of professors and fellow students.

The context for Patai’s statement is the emergence of the concept of anti-feminist intellectual harassment. Annette Kolodny, at an MLA Convention, defined anti-feminist intellectual harassment as a form of discrimination that also doubles as a threat to academic freedom. One of the ways that it can occur is when “any policy, action, statement, and/or behavior creates an environment in which the appropriate application of feminist theories or methodologies to research, scholarship, and teaching is devalued, discouraged, or altogether thwarted.”

This opposition to dissent has led to some odd concessions from critics:

Simply asking how large-scale a problem sexual harassment actually is, how loose the definitions of it are, or how representative the reported ‘incidents’ are, thus appears a heartless interposition, easily met by the rebuke ‘Are you saying: this or that (lower) number of cases is permissible?’ This is why critics of sexual harassment policies and related issues generally feel constrained to preface their objections with an expression of outrage over harassment itself—a conciliatory stance from which they can then politely register their opposition.

According to Patain, this is bad. Really bad. One should not feel the need to apologize for being critical or for asking questions. Criticism of sexual harassment policies, she maintains, is vital, especially when they infringe on freedom of expression and association.

I have to admit that I’m uncomfortable with the convergence of libertarian and conservative critiques of feminism on similar positions (I am critical of both libertarianism and conservatism), but I am skeptical of the feminist epistemological program and the sexual harassment literature’s reliance on feminist rhetoric.

What do you think?  Could the cure be much worse than the disease?