Michael Nugent, Vice Principal of Atheism

You may remember Michael Nugent from such hits as the time he rolled up his sleeves and dredged the Slyme Pit to no real effect (except ultimately to fill his comment threads with Pitter apologia) and that time he tried to mediate a dialogue between harassed and harasser, until he lost interest.

In that latter incident, Nugent demonstrated a pattern of behavior that he has since escalated: butt in to an issue that doesn’t involve you, adopt the pretense of mature authority, treat the issue as an academic subject to be studied or hashed out in formal debate, and then move on to some other issue once it gets too real.

This time, he’s decided that he’s very disappointed in PZ Myers. That’s his takeaway from this mostly good article about the Michael Shermer rape allegations and a couple of weeks where prominent atheists like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins have taken to Twitter and other avenues to make (and double-down on) sexist, essentialist comments about women, ignorantly pontificate about rape (and implicitly defend accused rapists), and whine to their millions of followers about being persecuted by PC thought-police bullies: PZ Myers is a meanie.

It’s certainly not the only point of that article; there’s a rambling bit where he talks about the good work done by atheist organizations, and tries to paint these issues of sexism and misogyny and rape apology as strictly American ones, despite the fact that Richard Dawkins is most decidedly from a different country with “United” in the name.

But PZ is the real problem. His rhetoric has escalated the “deep rifts.” Because while Penn Jillette is alternately defending and denying his use of gendered slurs, and while Richard Dawkins is defending his friend from rape accusations, they’re doing it without resulting to four-letter words. Accusing someone of rape? Rude. Actually raping someone? Not even worth comment.

He tried talking to PZ “privately” about the matter first, considering PZ a friend, and apparently seeing the need for an intervention about his destructive behavior. I can sympathize, somewhat. After all, I am all for people calling out their friends when their friends are hurting others. For that matter, I think that’s a situation where a private conversation may indeed be warranted before taking the issue public, a tactic often problematically proposed as a cure-all for disagreements. It’s not, and when it’s two people who don’t actually know each other very well, the insistence on private conversation first is mostly just a way of avoiding transparency and sweeping criticism under the carpet. But if it’s someone you’re close to? Sending them a personal note to say “hey, I think [specific thing you do] is hurting the people you care about, and I’m worried about you” would absolutely be a reasonable step in resolving the issue.

That’s not what Nugent did. Instead, he CC’d Richard Dawkins and Ophelia Benson on the e-mail. Again, I think Nugent thought he was trying to organize an intervention, but that’s really not how you go about it. An intervention means a bunch of people who care about you plan on their own to get together and confront you about your actions. It’s not sending “a letter to a person who I considered to be a friend who I thought was behaving badly” and also sending that same letter to two people who are, at best, tangentially involved, one of whom is the target of some of that perceived bad behavior. That’s not staging an intervention. That is, as I said in comments at Stephanie Zvan’s place, holding a parent-teacher conference. “I’m concerned about your behavior, so I’m sending this to your parents as well.”

Similarly, if I had a friend who was saying hurtful things, I probably wouldn’t say:

I am now asking you to take a long hard look at what you are doing, consider apologising to people who you have unjustly hurt and defamed, and start focusing on actually promoting compassion and empathy and social justice if those ideas are important to you.

That’s not how friends and peers talk to each other. That’s how you scold a child. “Now go and think about what you did, and don’t come back down until you’ve said you’re sorry.” Nugent was accused, rightly so, of behaving paternalistically with the dialogue a year ago, and this turns that up to 11. He has appointed himself disciplinarian of atheism, and what actions merit his attention?

In the last year or so, he has publicly accused Richard Dawkins of seeming to have developed a callous indifference to the sexual abuse of children, Michael Shermer of multiple unreported serious crimes, and Russell Blackford of being a lying fuckhead. He has joked about Rebecca Watson shanking Phil Mason in the kidneys, and about himself stabbing Christians and throwing people off a pier.

Last month he described Robin Williams’ suicide as the death of a wealthy white man dragging us away from news about brown people, said that a white lady who made racist comments looks like the kind of person who would have laughed at nanu-nanu, then added that he should have been more rude, because asking him to have been nicer about the dead famous guy is missing the point.

Let’s address those in order:

he has publicly accused Richard Dawkins of seeming to have developed a callous indifference to the sexual abuse of children

PZ was hardly the only one. In fact, lots of the people who levied that accusation were people who were sexually abused as children and found Dawkins’ repeated comments about sexual abuse trivializing and insensitive at best. Dawkins was attempting to generalize his own experience with “mild” sexual abuse to all or most sexual abuse victims, as a tool to attack what he saw as the greater abuse, religious indoctrination. This was inappropriate, and Dawkins later apologized for it, though I doubt that he still quite gets what was wrong. He seems fixated these last few years with ranking tragedies and atrocities, for no discernible practical purpose.

But Michael Nugent apparently sees no problem with Dawkins devising scales of rape and sexual abuse so as to compare people’s traumatic experiences. We have not, after all, seen him post letters telling Dawkins to think about the harm he’s caused or apologize to those he’s hurt with his words.

Michael Shermer of multiple unreported serious crimes,

Accusations that have been validated by multiple sources. Nugent has said that he was not trying to tell PZ to keep sexual harassment accusations secret, but it’s hard to read this (and the letter, which is worded in nearly identical language) as anything but that. On Twitter, Nugent expanded, essentially saying that he thought this matter would have been better served by the police than hashed out online. We’ll ignore the continued ignorant paternalism in Nugent thinking he knows better how to handle rape than the victim, we’ll even ignore the numerous clear reasons why rape survivors don’t go to the police. Nugent’s living in a fantasy world of privilege-enabled ignorance where police officers are never racist or misogynist or themselves rapists, and where every rape kit gets tested and victims are never pressured into recanting or (even with clear evidence that rape occurred) treated like criminals themselves. But look at what we know, especially in light of the Buzzfeed piece: Shermer’s behavior and the accusations were known to atheist and skeptic leaders. DJ Grothe knew about them. James fucking Randi knew about them, tanking the remaining respect I had for that guy. What was their response? To continue inviting him to events, to take out extra insurance to protect themselves from his actions, and to give him a stern warning that if he does it too many more times, he might face some consequences of some sort, while punishing the people who speak out. The same thing played out with Ben Radford. Leaders in the community excuse and coddle accused rapists and harassers, and punish victims. Why should Shermer’s victim have expected anything different to happen if the police were the authorities involved rather than the event organizers?

But Michael Nugent apparently sees no problem with Shermer treating conferences as date rape meat markets, or of engaging in unwanted sexual banter and actions with nonconsenting people. He apparently sees no problem with event organizers continuing to invite people to be prominent speakers at events, even after having credible evidence that they are sexual harassers or worse. He apparently sees no problem with blacklisting Pamela Gay or Karen Stollznow for daring to speak out about their experiences. We have not, after all, seen him post letters telling Michael Shermer or DJ Grothe or Ben Radford to think about the harm they’ve caused or apologize to those hurt by their actions.

Russell Blackford of being a lying fuckhead

So what? For context, here are the two tweets in question, where PZ is talking about Blackford’s repeated use of the dishonest “witch hunt” accusation, which is used by FtB opponents to justify harassment despite having no actual basis in reality. It is a lie. Someone who says it is lying. Incidentally, in searching, it’s clear which of the FtB opponents Nugent is receiving (dishonest) talking points from.

So what is so unconscionably rude about calling someone “lying” when they are, in fact, lying? Is it the “fuckhead” part? Does Nugent truly look at someone who is spreading misinformation that they know emboldens and encourages and justifies harassment–harassment that Nugent has acknowledged is a problem and has worked, however incompetently, to stop–and someone who uses a naughty insult, and sees the latter as the greater sin?

But Michael Nugent apparently sees no problem with lying and harassment anymore. There hasn’t been a post on the “dialogue” in over a year, and he hasn’t posted any recent letters to Blackford or others to encourage them to stop spreading damaging misinformation and making hyperbolic accusations of “witch hunts” and lynch mobs and inquisitions and thought policing and feeding frenzies and rage blogging and drumming up outrage for money. In fact, publishing these letters when he has, given who he’s defending within them, it seems that Nugent has endorsed precisely that behavior. Hyperbolic dishonesty is okay, giving support to harassers is okay, it’s naughty language that escalates and exacerbates rifts between people.

He has joked about Rebecca Watson shanking Phil Mason in the kidneys, and about himself stabbing Christians and throwing people off a pier.

Nugent does not deign to give context for these things, so I will. On Watson and kidney-shanking:

Coming off of SomeGreyBloke’s brutal savaging of Thunderf00t’s logic, now Rebecca Watson shanks him in the kidneys and mocks him cruelly. Trigger warning for sad ex-paragon of anti-creationism being publicly exposed as a moral cretin.

It’s a metaphor using violent language. I’m afraid I can’t get myself too worked up about it, any more than I could if he’d used a more clichéd variation, like “now Rebecca Watson rakes him across the coals” or “now Rebecca Watson holds his feet to the fire” or “now Rebecca Watson puts the last nail in his coffin.” I wonder how long it would take me to look through Nugent’s writing for similar use of metaphorical phrases that come out of war and torture and violence. Perhaps next time I need an insomnia cure, I’ll go looking.

On stabbing Christians:

He [Kevin Sorbo’s character in “God’s Not Dead”] is crossing a street when he’s hit by a car and killed.

Not right away, though. He’s hit right in front of a car containing two missionaries, who get out and run to his ‘assistance’. Somehow, they are sufficiently knowledgeable about medicine to be able to tell that he’s going to die, and only has a few minutes left to live. So, with smiles on their faces, they tell him he’s going to be facing God in heaven in a few minutes, and that he must accept Jesus into his heart. It was my nightmare, that the last, brief, passing moment of life is spent with smug stupid assholes quoting Bible verses and pressuring the dying to affirm their superstitions, which is obviously the most important thing he could do.

See, projection. I just wish whoever made this film could imagine lying on their deathbed, when an atheist barges in and starts yelling that they are about to cease to exist, and there will be nothing forever, and slaps them a few times ordering them to reject God right now. That’s not going to happen, but of course all they can do is project their authoritarian proselytizing impulse on other. And of course, since this is the Christian straw universe, our atheist professor accepts Jesus with his dying breath.

After which, the two smiling missionaries tell each other that they have “cause to celebrate”. A man just died. They want to celebrate. They’re going to Disneyland!

Fuck me. All I felt was hatred. That was despicable.

I’ve got to start carrying a knife now. Just so all you Christians know, if I’m in a fatal accident, and I’m lying in the street dying, and you’re not running over to stop the bleeding or otherwise physically help me, and you try to pull that prayer-and-conversion shit on me, I’m going to stab you. I’ll have nothing to lose, and you sure as hell don’t deserve to continue living. I don’t like violence, but I will make an exception for this one possible circumstance.

Now I know a lot of Christians aren’t like that, and that there are many who are also appalled at this wretched excuse for a movie. You can have another reason for disliking it: it has hardened the heart of an atheist even further against your religion.

Christianity is barbarism, evil, and gibbering insanity. Thanks, God’s Not Dead. When your religion is extinct, then I’ll have cause to celebrate.

Not exactly a joke, I don’t think. A statement of outrage, at seeing a vile, stereotypical portrayal of atheists straight out of a Chick tract in a movie that was more popular than it had any right to be, but not a joke. Again, I have a hard time getting worked up over this, just as I’d have a hard time getting worked up over a Jewish person expressing similar disgust at seeing the end of “The Merchant of Venice”–with Shylock’s forced conversion to Christianity–played straight and comedically. Just as I’d have a hard time getting worked up over an African-American person expressing similar disgust over the video games and comments and Reddit boards that have popped up in the wakes of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown’s deaths. When we see people cheer on negative stereotypes of ourselves, when we see ourselves, however distorted, made into caricatures and used as punchlines and cautionary tales, it rightfully stirs anger in us. Perhaps, and I’m going out on a limb here, perhaps the problem is casual bigotry and not the language people use to shock people into realizing how damaging and demoralizing and disgusting that bigotry is.

But Michael Nugent apparently sees no problem with popular movies that present bigoted caricatures of atheists. We don’t see him writing letters to Kevin Sorbo or the producers of “God’s Not Dead” to say that their film was counterproductive to the promotion of “compassion, empathy, fairness, justice, equality and respect for people.” No, Nugent believes atheists should be “tackling sexism, racism, homophobia and other discriminatory biases in society,” he just doesn’t think they should do it too loudly or angrily, lest they upset someone. Violent rhetoric in response to bigotry? Rude. Promoting “discriminatory biases” by acting out a violent fantasy against a bigoted caricature in a mass-market motion picture? Doesn’t even merit a comment.

Finally, the Robin Williams thing. I thought PZ was wrong to be so callous about the death of a celebrity, and I think Williams’ death gave many people the impetus to start important conversations about depression, suicide, mental health, and the like. But I also understood where PZ was coming from. The media often seems to need to be forced to cover issues of injustice against marginalized groups, and we saw the news out of Ferguson develop on Twitter long before any news station picked it up. And where are we today? There are still ongoing protests in Ferguson, and there’s increasing evidence of corruption, cronyism, and cover-up among the people who are supposed to be upholding justice in the case. You wouldn’t know it to look at the news. There’s not one mention of Ferguson or Mike Brown on the front pages of MSNBC or CNN right now. You have to scroll halfway down the page before you see mention of it even on the local St. Louis Post-Dispatch page. PZ has rightly identified one of the most negative defining features of modern media: that they have no attention span, especially on stories about race or gender or injustice. We were lucky, in this case, that the story was big enough–unignorable enough–that the media had to return to it after spending a day or two on Robin Williams retrospectives. But PZ rightly identified a trend in media, that they move from hot story to hot story without any thought to depth or continuing coverage.

Did he phrase it callously? Was he rude to people who were influenced by Williams and enjoyed his work on deep, personal levels? Did his dismiss and diminish their experiences and assume that his own mild interest in Williams was, perhaps, more universal than it actually was? Probably.

But I have a hard time getting as worked up about that as I do over Richard Dawkins doing something similar to victims of sexual abuse and rape.

Michael Nugent doesn’t. Say some rude things about the media, and about the way people respond to the death of a beloved celebrity, and Nugent will be very disappointed and say so repeatedly to whomever will listen. Say some rude things about how victims of rape and sexual abuse should feel about and respond to and react to and report their experiences? Not even worth mentioning.

Michael Nugent, no one has elected you Atheist Disciplinarian. Ireland and the UK are not above or beyond sexism and misogyny and rape culture. You may dislike PZ Myers’ methods, but to single him out while defending and minimizing rape, harassment, sexism, and the like, is far, far more counterproductive to atheism than occasionally calling people “fuckhead.” There’s no well-researched news article about how using naughty words is likely to bring down the atheist movement.

Perhaps, sir, you need to go to your room and think about what you’ve said–and more specifically, what you’ve chosen not to say, and what statement is made by your silence.

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3 Responses to Michael Nugent, Vice Principal of Atheism

  1. Pingback: How not to stage an intervention

  2. d4m10n says:

    Where is the claim that JREF chose to “take out extra insurance to protect themselves” coming from, originally? I cannot find a solid source on that one.

  3. Doubting Tom says:

    I specifically got it from Stephanie Zvan, though I think I’ve seen Carrie Poppy refer to it as well. If I had to guess, I’d imagine it comes out of the same deposition where DJ Grothe testified about the Shermer/Gay incident.

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