NOTE: This is, unfortunately, part of a continuing series about my time in Mensa. For context on why they’ve threatened to kill me and how I got in in the first place, read this and this.
There comes a day in everyone’s life when they realize that through a series of diversions, upsets and inconveniences, they are not where they wanted to be in life. This day for me arrived on Friday, in a hotel room in San Pedro, with three high-ranking members of Mensa being assured that Mensa is definitely cool.
“Whether you like it or not, you’re one of us,” one of the members of the meeting joked a few times. At this point, it’s clear that the joke about Mensa is on me.
It’s been months since I last interacted with the ‘brain trust’, as they often refer to themselves internally, and here I am taking a bus an hour and a half to meet them. It’s not for lunch in the hotel where the weekend’s Regional Gathering is being held as I thought, but at a table in a hotel room with a handful of people I’ve never met. The member who arranged the meeting, who I’ll call Amanda, offers me a cookie and bottled water when I walk in to her hotel suite where another prominent member, who I’ll call Maggie, is waiting to assure me that the group is safe, productive and taking all safety concerns seriously. We spend the next hour and a half talking, and I’m assured that I have gotten the wrong idea from the bevy of online death threats and that, in fact, some of the people threatening me are actually quite nice. Both women are huggers, both intelligent and kind people who I almost completely disagree with.
Some context: I got into Mensa as mostly a joke last summer and wrote a dumb column about it, only to be retaliated against in an unmoderated official Mensa forum where I was threatened several times. American Mensa powers-that-be reached out to me directly to see if I could provide any feedback on how to be better in the future, citing three times in the initial email that I had done so as a joke: “we take very seriously the safety and security of our members,” read the initial contact, “and now that you’ve joined—for laughs or no—that includes your safety.”
Safety is currently a major discussion within Mensa, and not just because of the online ethics the organization condones within unmoderated groups. At the hotel, we discuss the number of incidents from last year’s Annual Gathering in Indianapolis—a female member was arrested for unruly conduct, another banned from a certain hotel floor after harassing a number of women, two members reported their drinks being drugged after bartenders were off duty and one filed a police report. It’s clearly a prominent discussion and Amanda appears very upset by the incidents, going on to explain the security measures the events have in place and how she wishes that these conversations were handled in real life with them instead of later on in the dozens of available Mensa forums.
Back in October, ‘for laughs or no,’ I took both Mensa leaders’ offer to talk things through on the phone. My main focus on the call was why an unmoderated group (I’ll refer to it as UnMod) owned and endorsed by the organization was able to get away with threatening a new member, and what harm could be done by including “Hey, don’t threaten to fucking kill someone” in the description of the group.
By that time, I wasn’t concerned about only myself—a number of women had reached out saying they’d had similar experiences in the UnMod group that made them feel unsafe and discouraged them from participating in Mensa further. Amanda and the other Mensan explained at this time that UnMod existed as an unmoderated forum due to a schism that separated Mensa about five years back that had resulted in the main group being split into one moderated and one unmoderated forum. UnMod was the solution, a fully Mensa-sanctioned group in which a very active core group of members formed a community based just as much in inflammatory language and harassment as it was in genuine community.
The problem with my and other members’ desire to close down the group entirely, they explained, was that for many Mensa members, UnMod had been a source of comfort and support over the years and why many retained their membership at all. People who they admitted had regularly spewed hatred and bullied within the groups would be the same to turn around and start GoFundMes for UnMod members in need, send supplies to their houses if they were stuck in bad weather, offer support when they posted in the group about a genuine life struggle. So, then, is one person being threatened in a way I was assured was both unacceptable and typical of the nature of that group worth the sacrifice of the online safe place for members who maybe occasionally said impossibly fucked up things? They told me discussions would continue to this effect, and in the meantime nothing would change.
Things were more or less left there, with my name remaining tagged in the occasional obnoxious post. For the most part, though, the entire group had organized a complete block of my name so that discussions about me could continue or not without my knowledge. At the time, several members in the group informed me that the mass blocking technique was the UnMod’s go-to when a target of theirs did not drop out of the group of their own volition. Even so, it seemed like the group and me mostly moved on from the whole ordeal.
Fast forward a few months and I’m in a San Pedro hotel room with three strangers who would very much like me to not write critical things about Mensa on the world wide web.
[Writer’s note: as this conversation was not recorded, what is detailed below is my closest recollection of the conversation.]
To their credit, a few actions have been taken to improve the safety of the group and the organization, and Amanda tells me over bottled water that the person making the most direct threats was spoken to and pulled back from the group, and those making the more dangerous statements were talked to by the organization—usually by her specifically. She’s reached out to me more than once to let me know that conversations surrounding the group’s purpose were ongoing in the risk management, event safety and membership committees, and that though nothing had changed yet that she took my concerns seriously.
Then there was the invitation. Amanda suggested we meet in person at the Greater Los Angeles Mensa Regional Gathering last weekend to talk about my experience in the organization in person, and a suggestion that I might ‘have a great time and want to stay.’ Unfortunately, I am not paid enough to spend three days at a DoubleTree in San Pedro with an organization that largely dislikes me, but I appreciated the offer and appreciated her efforts to make me feel included. We set up a meeting.
Although there was a bar and food in the lobby, Amanda led me into the hotel suite she was sharing with others for the weekend’s Regional Gathering where Maggie, a tall woman who works in IT, and a third, younger woman who had a cute baby and lived nearby both waited. They spent the next 90 minutes telling me about their experience in Mensa and why they both believe that UnMod is an important part of the community—that is, why it seemed entirely likely that nothing was going to change.
Early on, Maggie brings up that she is one of the most senior members of the UnMod group, a real ‘hoser’ as it were—that’s what the users of the group identify as. She assures me that although she has been a loyal member of the group for years, she doesn’t block people en masse like the majority of core members do, and prefers to hear everyone out. (From what I can tell, she’s had me blocked for months.) Amanda and Maggie reiterate how the most hateful people in the group online can actually be the best in real life, and that the politics have really only grown toxic since Trump’s election.
There’s that argument again—essentially, just because someone says something brutal to you online doesn’t mean they are going to hurt you in real life. Give people like this a chance. Maggie explains that a longtime member who regularly says vulgar things in UnMod is one of her oldest friends at in-person events and respects women very much in spite of how he speaks to them on the board. Amanda shares an anecdote about an aggrieved Mensa member who was harassing her, and that UnMod members were the first to volunteer as her security force at public events. Even the most troll-y members on either side of the political spectrum are invited to all events and, Maggie believes, deserve to be given a chance in real life in spite of any egregious online conduct. This dissonance between online and real life is where the controversy about UnMod thrives, it’s implied, and a lot of them are ‘really good guys.’
“[UnMod] has a suite at the AG,” Maggie tells me, referring to the Mensa Annual Gathering boasting thousands of members and countless events, talks and parties over the course of a long summer weekend. “And I swear to God, I’ll go with you and protect you if you don’t feel safe, but they’re not gonna do anything to you. They’re not bad people.” The idea of entering a Phoenix hotel suite full of people who have blocked me from seeing the bullshit they write in a Facebook group is not a particularly appealing one, but I say it would be interesting to take her up on it.
Amanda also expands on past failed attempts to get rid of the UnMod group. “There’s definitely been lots of talks,” she says, but pumped her fist in victory when describing a past failed attempt to get it shut down. Maggie giggled a little, and admits that while she thinks several of her IT coworkers would qualify for Mensa she does not encourage them to, expressing concern that they might find the way she talks in UnMod and how she communicates in real life jarring.
The conversation surrounding UnMod remains that yes, there is regularly outright unwarranted harassment and dark and hateful statements made within the group, but that’s just how this group communicates with each other, and if you don’t get it or become an unwilling target, you can always leave. All that to say, nothing has been done and in spite of some conversations expressing member concerns, some members at the top of the heap are more in favor of the unmoderated online community in spite of their acknowledging there is a resultant safety risk.
“There’s a lot of badass women in this group,” Amanda assures me. “Most of the amazing people I’ve met in this group have been women, and there’s less of them.” When I ask her why she believes this is, she says it’s because women are less likely to give themselves credit for being as smart as they are—this tracks scientifically, and if you have ever met a man stupider than you. Still, the women-only groups do not appear highly regarded by the Mensa powers-that-be in the room, though in spite of not being organization-certified the most prominent one at least requests that those who post are at least ‘kind to each other.’ Though there’s little faith to be had in Facebook in 2019, it warrants a mention that much of the conduct in the UnMod group violates community guidelines across the site.
For most of the meeting I try to listen and glean what Amanda and Maggie want to accomplish with the meeting—put me at ease with them and the organization, and consider not writing critical things about Mensa online. I repeat, again, that even if a community like UnMod can’t be eliminated internally, I don’t see why a single rule barring group members from threatening each other is so difficult to get passed through or how it could possibly hurt the organization to do so. This is met with a nod, and assurance that the issue is still being looked at.
People thinking ill of even Mensa’s worst members is something that bothers members, and it’s not hard to see why. They’re smart and often nerdy, and understandably don’t like interlopers poking fun at what can be a positive community for the thousands of U.S. members who don’t participate in its toxic online components. I’d be lying if I said a lot of their programming at the Phoenix Annual Gathering didn’t look cool, or that I think I would have a completely miserable time. Still, they’re not protecting their members sufficiently, and doing so would not be as difficult as avoiding the inevitable conduct crackdown that appears necessary to the group’s survival.
So for now, here’s the solution to Mensa safety when you’re threatened—chill out, roll through, and hope a woman named Maggie has enough clout in an unmoderated Facebook group as she says so you don’t get your ass beat in a Phoenix hotel. And sure, a good portion of the meeting was to ensure the group was free from the absolute vice that is my barely-read column in Paste Magazine, but a good portion of it came from the kindness of both of their hearts, as well. I like them, and I hope they liked me too.
There’s only so much I can do for an organization that unironically sells Mensa/Fight Club merch in the year of our Lord 2019. I need those things, though. It reminds me I’m not the crazy one.
Anyways, barring any catastrophe, see you at the American Mensa Annual Gathering in Phoenix, Ariz. this July.
Jamie Loftus is a comedian, writer and social media victim of the International Olympic Committee. She’s the creator and star of the Comedy Central online original series Irrational Fears. You can find her some of the time, most days at @jamieloftusHELP or jamieloftusisinnocent.com.