In their own words

I have seen tweets over the last few months from people vowing never to read FreethoughtBlogs because they heard that FreethoughtBlogs is purported to condone groupthink, and comments in response to various blog posts about FTB that seem to suggest PZ or others at FTB promote the silencing of dissent, or that they condone bullying or threats of banning toward dissenters, or that they believe that commenters would be unsafe because they feature this or that writer on the network. I think this misinformation results from irresponsible messaging coming from a small number of prominent and well-meaning skeptics who, in trying to help correct real problems of divisiveness in skepticism, actually and rather clumsily themselves help create a climate where bloggers — who otherwise wouldn’t — end up feeling unwelcome and unread, and I find that unfortunate.

People who read FreethoughtBlogs do not feel silenced or unwelcome, and that bears mentioning at least somewhere in all of these posts about supposed rampant groupthought and unnamed lists of certain bloggers “bullying” dissenting commenters, and the like. So much of that feels to me more like trolling and distasteful chat room banter, often pretty mean-spirited, especially when it is from just one or a few skeptics recounting disagreements they’ve had with writers who are eventually deemed as “controversialist,” and whom they feel should be not allowed to write for such blog networks going forward.


(Relevant source material)

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5 Responses to In their own words

  1. Barefoot Skeptic says:

    I don’t know about the entirety of the FTB, but I do know I was made to feel EXTREMELY unwelcome on at least one. I tried very hard to be respectful with my differing opinion and the trash that was hurled back at me was so rude, and stated outright that I didn’t belong even speaking in their little club.

    Rather than engaging it a pointless argument I chose to not respond however I did read many of the other comments. I was not the only one treated that way, and I noticed some of the people who were being insulted actually agreed with the FTB point of view. However they were new (as they stated) or did not write on the blog site.

    I don’t know how we could have felt anything but unwelcome.

  2. smhll says:

    Points for using the phrase “irresponsible messaging”.

  3. Doubting Tom says:

    Barefoot Skeptic: That’s hardly uniform across the FreethoughtBlogs. Some commentariats greet newcomers with teeth bared and claws sharpened, others with tea and crumpets. And occasionally periods like the most recent war over harassment put people on-edge. Just as Poe’s Law says there’s no way to tell the difference between a fundamentalist and a parody, it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between “differing opinion” and a derailing troll trying to stir things up. Moreover, there are some topics where differing opinion (is harassment a really a problem, are women people, etc.) marks someone as generally not worth the conversation. I’m not saying that’s what you ran into, but it’s certainly a possibility.

    And since you didn’t provide a link, possibilities are all I can offer. I feel a little like a parent here, hearing “Mom, Billy hit me!” and wanting to ask “well, what did you do?” There’s been a general trend among the anti-FTB crowd to mischaracterize various things–Thunderf00t’s Mabus-style prose, uninformed rantings, blatant sexism, and abuse characterized as “simple disagreement;” Rebecca Watson’s tacked-on “guys, don’t do that” as an “overreaction”–that I can’t help but look at your “differing opinion” and wonder if it was as simple and innocent as you claim. I’m not saying you deserved the comment-knives, only that I’m skeptical.

    I have seen commenters attacked in comment threads. I’ve seen regular commenters being sarcastic and mistaken for trolls. I’ve seen newbies come in full of naïveté, asking 101-level questions, and shredded by a commentariat weary of dealing with it again (or not giving them a benefit-of-the-doubt before accusing them of JAQing off). But I’ve also seen (and been) new commenters joining in and being welcomed (or in the larger threads/communities, mostly unacknowledged). Your experience is not universal with respect to other commenters, nor is it universal across the FreethoughtBlogs community.

    Now, before I end this overlong comment, I did a little Googling and came up with this comment over at Butterflies and Wheels. Assuming you’re the same Barefoot Skeptic, and assuming this is the comment that you’re describing, your claim that you were made to feel unwelcome just because of a “differing opinion” and not being a regular ring hollow. You didn’t just express a “differing opinion,” you accused Ophelia Benson and others of “working so very hard to find offense,” and that Harriet Hall wasn’t “working that hard to be nasty.”

    I agree, she wasn’t working hard. Making and wearing a t-shirt is actually quite easy. But what you either missed or ignored (given your “why don’t you just ASK HER WHAT SHE MEANT!”) was Surly Amy’s account, where she told Harriet that she found the shirt offensive on day 1, and Harriet proceeded to continue wearing it for two more days. Harriet wasn’t working hard, but she was informed that her shirt was offensive to at least one person and carried on. Which means that she knowingly and intentionally was causing offense for at least two days, and was knowingly and intentionally acting against what you presumed her motives to be, namely “an attempt at unity.”

    Which you would have known if you had followed the advice you gave in that post and “Gather[ed] your supporting data. Then [made] your decision. Otherwise you are no better off than the shut-eyes and religious fanatics.” You claimed later in the thread to have done this, but there’s no indication of that in your first post.

    Your comment was not (apparently) just “differing opinion.” It reads as ill-informed (Amy’s account came 174 posts before yours in the same thread), accusatory, and condescending. And the responses to you, at least to your initial post (there were two responses that I saw), were hardly “trash”–unless you just think that “trash” means “someone used a four-letter word.” But then, don’t you think working so very hard to find offense in the f-word is a bit ridiculous? I mean, if we work hard enough we can find offense in almost anything-and I don’t even believe Setar was working that hard to be nasty.

  4. BarefootSkeptic says:

    I see your point, as in some aspects the shirt did have a negative effect. When speaking of unity I meant across genders-as I made very clear. I obviously do not know any more of what was going through anyone’s mind as the rest of the web, however in that same thread Harriet’s viewpoint was stated. And if that is to be believed at the same face value as Ophelia’s account of Amy’s words (and yes, I know since then Amy has written her version online herself) then she did not mean any specific insult to Amy or the skepchicks.

    So by that logic, who is to say she didn’t respond out of offense herself?

    Either way, as you well know because you read my posts(s) I specifically made the point that I knew Amy had been hurt. And that she probably wasn’t the only one. My intentions which I had thought I made clear were not to disregard feelings-but to bring to the front the point that people can be mistaken and can misread intentions, causing hurt where none was meant.

    When it comes to gathering the data, I did read through. As you noticed there were 300 posts before mine. With both sides of the coin-one of them containing Harriet’s side. But that was completely disregarded so it makes me wonder is the only data that counts the stuff that you agree with? By you I mean the general community, not you personally.

    I did try to be respectful when presenting my opinion. I did not call anyone a liar, nor did I accuse them of knowing not a thing about what was going on. And I certainly did not call anyone stupid or assume I am superior to anyone.

    Now as far as the swearing, yes I find it disrespectful-it is very apparent one can state their case without resorting to vulgarities. When I am having a discussion I don’t feel the need to speak like that-an argument, yes. But not a debate.

    Setar did make an effort to be rude-quite an effort. I don’t know if you read further but he was gracious enough to mention me again before I had responded. I did respond quite a bit further down #547, and what I got from him was “The Barefoot Skeptic #544:
    I would be responding to your post, except that it has one glaring problem that tells me a response is not worth it:
    B) You seem to be looking for a fight rather than a discussion…
    You see, I see this piece of bullshit all the time. Invariably, it comes from someone who is colossally and hopelessly wrong, after I have told them so in no uncertain terms.”

    That is not a very welcoming concept. And if it is seen all the time one would think he (she?) would interpret it a little more accurately.

    When I made my point about harriet explaining herself as well, I got this: “That’s bullshit. Take it to the shitpile you got it from, and come back when you’re willing to admit that “discussion” doesn’t mean “everything I say is right and you’re just being mean and making assumptions”.” again, not really a discussion.

    And finally (because this is where I disengaged) I said I understood why the term FTBullies. Here was mr not trying hard to offend had to say “Setár, self-appointed Elf-Sheriff of the FreethoughtBlogs Star Chamber says:
    July 19, 2012 at 1:08 am
    The Barefoot Skeptic #549:
    I now understand. Unfortunate, because you have probably lost many people who could have added to the community just because they didn’t agree with you on something.

    Your concern has been noted. Here’s a nice new shovel, now go dig a hole to China in the sandbox like you said you would.”

    Now, maybe I am being too thin skinned about it. Ok, that is my right and choice-however I am not devastated, curled up in a corner or missing out on something I want to do because I am avoiding an unpleasant situation. Please don’t take that as an accusation towards anyone-I was just making an example. I will respond by disengaging from those involved, or if I cannot as it would disrupt what I want to be doing then I stick up for myself. I didn’t feel that would have been productive so I just stopped.

    I truly hope most FTB writers aren’t like that. I don’t understand why the people I am referring to find it necessary. You and I disagreed just now, and because you were respectful your comments were received and I actually saw that what I wrote did not come across completely how I intended, and I sounded a bit snarky. I don’t think I deserved the response I got, but some people just need a target I guess.

  5. Doubting Tom says:

    however in that same thread Harriet’s viewpoint was stated. And if that is to be believed at the same face value as Ophelia’s account of Amy’s words (and yes, I know since then Amy has written her version online herself) then she did not mean any specific insult to Amy or the skepchicks.

    When first confronted about it by Sastra, that may have been the case (though Sastra suggests that she said the shirt would be ill-received and that her intended message was unclear). But after Amy told her that she found the shirt hurtful, Harriet made the choice to consider wearing it. At the very least, she didn’t care that it others might find it offensive and hurtful (already implied by telling Sastra she was “ornery”). Intent is not magic, and initial intent doesn’t necessarily hold once a person has been given additional relevant information. Harriet may have intended the shirt to be about gender unity initially. She was informed that it was personally offensive, hurtful, and divisive by at least one person, a member of that gender and a sponsor of the event. She chose to continue wearing it, now knowing full well that at least one other person, a colleague and sponsor, felt offended and otherized by it. Either she was intentionally being offensive, or she didn’t care what others thought or felt. Either way, it would be a strange way to foster unity, and either way it should be unsurprising to see such behavior labeled as intentionally offensive assholery.

    And either way, it cuts against your claim that Ophelia et al were “working so very hard to find offense” in an otherwise innocuous t-shirt.

    So by that logic, who is to say she didn’t respond out of offense herself?

    What do you mean? She was offended by her misapprhension of what Rebecca said regarding feeling welcome at TAM? Or she was offended by Amy saying that she found the shirt offensive? Either way, it sounds like Harriet was working much harder at finding offense than anyone on FTB.

    My intentions which I had thought I made clear were not to disregard feelings-but to bring to the front the point that people can be mistaken and can misread intentions, causing hurt where none was meant.

    And if I tell you, “hey, I find that thing you’re doing offensive” and you keep doing it, the only rational conclusion is that you either don’t care that I feel offended, or you want me to be offended. Again, intent isn’t magic.

    But that was completely disregarded so it makes me wonder is the only data that counts the stuff that you agree with? By you I mean the general community, not you personally.

    I agree that there were some that ignored or missed Sastra’s explanatory post regarding Harriet’s stated intent. I also think there were many who either disagreed with Harriet’s intent or disbelieved it. And again, it’s hard to see her own statement of orneriness and her continued wearing of the shirt despite Amy’s heartfelt objection as anything other than a staunch “I don’t care how my shirt makes people feel.” Which again cuts against the stated goal of “unity.”

    I did try to be respectful when presenting my opinion. I did not call anyone a liar, nor did I accuse them of knowing not a thing about what was going on

    You did however accuse them of working to find offense in otherwise innocuous things. Also, your all-caps exhortation that they ask Harriet what she meant and gather data before making a conclusion reads like “accus[ing] them of knowing not a thing about what was going on.” At the very least, it implies that they don’t know enough to make a reasonable conclusion because they’ve flown off the handle emotionally rather than doing the requisite research.

    They did the requisite research and found Harriet’s intent wanting.

    And I certainly did not call anyone stupid or assume I am superior to anyone.

    No, but that’s not the be-all, end-all of “polite.” Walking into a place (virtually) and saying ‘I didn’t have any problems, and you all are just looking to be offended. You should do some actual research before making a conclusion’ is not polite. It isn’t loaded with insults, it doesn’t say “I’m better than you all,” but it does read as insulting and condescending. That may not have been your intent, but (say it with me now) intent is not magic.

    Now as far as the swearing, yes I find it disrespectful-it is very apparent one can state their case without resorting to vulgarities.

    And this is one of those “not everyone is like you” moments. Not everyone sees strong language as “vulgar” and something to “resort to.” Many people would see that attitude as, frankly, immature and childish (that there are certain “bad words” that are bad as a result of their structure, rather than the attitudes behind those words and the context of their use). Others would say that strong opinions call for strong language, and that the words you consider “vulgar” are useful in expressing that passion.

    I would venture to say that those not-like-you people would agree with me that there’s a far greater capacity for offense in the intent behind words. Now, those vulgar words can certainly be used with the intent to cause offense and hurt. But so can completely “polite” ones. I find equal offense in “God hates f*gs” and “hate the sin, love the sinner”–perhaps more in the latter, because it’s trying to couch its homophobia in positive terms. Surely you’ve been in conversations (or at least have seen them) where a fundamentalist will end their letter with a biting “I’ll pray for you” that might as well be “go fuck yourself.”

    If you haven’t perhaps you’ve seen the most recent Star Trek movie, where Spock does precisely the same thing to the phrase “live long and prosper.”

    That not-like-you mindset is more concerned with substance than style. Consequently, it’s more likely to find offense in condescending accusations than four-letter words.

    When I am having a discussion I don’t feel the need to speak like that-an argument, yes. But not a debate.

    I don’t really see the distinction between discussion/argument/debate. Except that discussion doesn’t necessarily imply any disagreement, and a debate implies some degree of formal structure. “Argument” to most skeptics, philosophers, and the like doesn’t necessarily imply any degree of heatedness or anger. It denotes a discussion involving differing points of view, a verbal disagreement. Coming into an ongoing thread with an opposing position implies to me that one would be expecting to argue their position, unless they simply expected to leave or be ignored.

    That is not a very welcoming concept. And if it is seen all the time one would think he (she?) would interpret it a little more accurately.

    What’s misinterpreted? Setar responded to you with links, a re-explanation of their position (which it seemed like you ignored, given your “go ask her”), and yes, some words that would not be allowed in a G-rated movie and an accusation that you were being condescending. I don’t agree with all of Setar’s post, but the substance of it is more than just insults.

    Your response began with a defense of your specification of gender (which is one of the things I disagree with Setar about, it was relevant), but then a passive-aggressive accusation of bad-faith argumentation. When you say “Before you cherry pick any phrases out of that,” you’re saying “I expect you, based on your character, to dishonestly use contextless phrases against me.”

    That’s an insult. You may not have intended it as such, but it is nonetheless insulting.

    But to the letter-pointed section of your response, you gave no defense of your position (nor any indication of having read the links provided in response to your earlier statements). You simply said “yes I do,” and then accused Setar of looking for a fight. You used that accusation as an excuse to not defend your position.

    I’m going to try to make this as clear as possible. In a traditional argument/discussion/whatever, one side presents an argument, the other side attacks the argument, the first side defends their original position and attacks the opponent’s argument, and the volley continues until the argument ends.

    What happened in this case was that you presented an argument (various claims) and attacked the arguments of others in the thread. Setar responded with a defense of their arguments and attacks at your claims. You responded by defending some small points, but attacking Setar’s tone as an excuse to avoid defending your position.

    That is actual (not merely accusatory) bad-faith argumentation. Specifically, it’s the style-over-substance fallacy. It’s a non-sequitur. Naughty language or not, Setar provided links to articles that explained why they thought your position was ill-informed, explained their position, and attacked your claims that they hadn’t done the research and thus were like fundamentalist believers. Your response was not to engage with Setar’s explanations and positions, but to attack their motivations as an excuse to dismiss their arguments.

    And it looks like you did this to avoid addressing their point, namely that they did gather information before drawing a conclusion, and that you apparently missed it in your rush to make condescending accusations.

    You go on to make the argument that Harriet’s intended meaning trumps how it was perceived by others, basically making the case that yes, intent is magic. Which, I guess, puts me in agreement with Setar: you don’t gosh-darn get it.

    I could bust out my English degree and explain that all text requires individual interpretation, and that the author’s stated intent doesn’t invalidate the interpretations of other readers. Bradbury said he intended “Fahrenheit 451″ to be about how horrible television is, but it doesn’t mean the book isn’t also (as most readers interpret) about censorship.

    I could continue my argument from before poking holes in Harriet’s stated intent, and showing how (when additional data were handed to her) her intent was ultimately at odds with her actions, but I think I spelled that out pretty well above.

    I could provide links to explaining the point. I apologize for the insult, but based on your discussion in that thread, it seems like that would be a waste of time.

    I could point to your discussion there and how, despite your intentions, people read your posts as condescending, insulting, and superior. You’ve been right there at the center of the point that intent isn’t magic, but I suspect that your position would be that those people were looking to be offended, or that the unintentional nature of the offense negates their feelings and opinions.

    Instead, I’m going to offer some hypotheticals:

    When Laura Schlessinger used the word “n*gger” multiple times on her radio program, do you think she intended to be using a hateful slur? Does her intent (complaining about how confusing it is that a word can be a slur when whites use it but not blacks) make her firing illegitimate?

    When a man in an office tells a joke about how dumb blondes are, do you think he intends to make his blonde secretary feel otherized and disrespected? Or does his intent (to tell a funny joke and make people laugh) mean that her hurt feelings are illegitimate?

    When you bump into someone accidentally and they spill their coffee all over themselves, were you intending to harm them? Does your intent (to walk down the hallway uneventfully) put the coffee back into their cup, un-stain their shirt, and remove the burning sensation?

    Unintentional harm is still harm, and the person feeling hurt by unintentional pain still has every right to feel that very real pain. It doesn’t disappear just because the offender didn’t mean to cause it.

    Then again, if the offender continues telling blonde jokes or using the n-word or going out of their way to bump into you in the hallway, the claim of “unintentional” becomes harder and harder to support.

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