Deflection for Fun and Profit

After trying out “you’re too anonymous” and “fisking is a red flag” and “you write too much,” Tim Farley’s latest deflection tactics are to repeat like a mantra variations on “I wrote 4,300 words and you only focused on a small piece1” (1, 2) and “Principle of charity!” So I’ll indulge Mr. Farley, and I’ll even make it briefish and non-fisky.

There is one kind of argument where we should generally agree that it’s only necessary to address a small part, and that’s when the whole thing is built on some faulty premise. If the foundational premise is flawed, it doesn’t matter what elaborate edifice is built on top of it. It’s why you don’t need to spend time talking about thimerosal and MMR and autistic enterocolitis if you can show that there’s no link between vaccination rates and autism diagnoses. It’s why you don’t need to spend time talking about inerrancy and flood geology if you can show there’s no evidence for a god.

And it’s why Tim Farley’s whole 4,300 word post isn’t worth the electrons it’s displayed on. As he tweeted, it’s right there in the title: “The Block Bot is unsuitable for general use in its present form.”

It’s true. I think you’ll find few who would argue, including Ool0n, who coded the bot and appeared on BBC to talk about it. That’s part of why no one’s addressing this portion (the majority) of Farley’s post: because it’s obvious. The problem is that Farley seems to think that by making that statement, he’s arguing against someone who suggested that the Block Bot was intended for general use.

See, Farley seems to have watched the BBC video, and perhaps he read the related article, and the message he took away from the whole thing was that the only reason Ool0n would go on TV to talk about the Block Bot would be so he could promote his Block Bot as the solution to all of Twitter’s harassment problems, for general usage by any and all groups outside of Atheism+.

Farley drew this conclusion despite the fact that the Bot is clearly labeled, both in the video and on the website, as the “Atheism+ Block Bot.” He drew this conclusion despite the fact that what Ool0n actually explicitly advocated in the video was the implementation of shared block lists akin to Twitter’s shared follow lists. He drew this conclusion despite the fact that Phil Paul Mason’s article describes the “shared block list strategy” when talking about the Block Bot. He drew this conclusion despite the evidence that it’s intended for people conversational in the terminology of Atheism+, something he actually notes in his article. He drew this conclusion despite the Block Bot being open-source, allowing anyone to copy and alter the code, which seems like it would be unnecessary if one Block Bot were meant to satisfy every group’s needs. He drew this conclusion despite the utter absurdity of one guy going on TV to say that, effectively, Twitter should make him the primary moderator for everyone.

And now, Tim Farley would like you to apply the principle of charity when reading his article, which clearly was so charitable in its assessment of Ool0n’s position.

There is a charitable interpretation of the interview, one which is actually supported by what was said in the video and the article, one which could have saved Farley 4,300 words if he’d bothered to send a quick message to Ool0n2 and ask “do you really mean that the Block Bot in its current form should be used by the general public?” To which I suspect Ool0n’s response would have taken no more than three tweets (1, 2, 3). That charitable reading is that Ool0n is promoting the notion of shared and shareable block lists, of which the Atheism+ Block Bot is one example. The Atheism+ Block Bot, as its name suggests, is the Block Bot implementation that works best for Atheism+. A different group, say, Hell’s Angels, might take the code, tweak and adapt it as they wish, and set up their own Block Bot–The Hell’s Angels’ Block Bot–to block all the people who harass and abuse the Hell’s Angels online.

Now, perhaps I’m just better at using context clues, or perhaps I’ve just been following this battle long enough to understand people’s motivations better than Tim Farley does, but that’s what I took away from the interview, and it’s apparently (coincidentally) also what Ool0n intended. Sadly, that message was not communicated to Tim Farley, for whatever reason, and so he built his entire 4,300-word post on a premise that everyone would already have agreed with, thinking he was arguing against a position no one holds. There’s no further reason to discuss Problems 1-4, because they’re only problems if you assume the Block Bot, in its current form, is meant for general use. It’s not, and never was.

Now, Mr. Farley, about Problem 5 Mark II 6…

1. Where is it written that one has to address a person’s entire argument in a criticism? The only place where that would be problematic is if the part one is criticizing is justified by the rest of the article. This is not the case in the fallacious list-o’-credentials section of Farley’s article. There’s nothing in the other 90% of words that makes it any less a long argument from false authority. Believe me, I looked, because I went into this with respect for Farley and expecting him to be as thorough and clear in his reasoning as his reputation for research and documentation would suggest. Needless to say, that respect has been almost entirely pissed away.

2. This also would have saved Farley from basing his “Problem 3” on outdated information. Not his fault, but it seems like contacting Ool0n to check his facts would have been due diligence at the least, not to mention, you know, charitable.


Unskeptical Complaints

If you’re reading a blog as small as this one, chances are you know about the problem of online harassment of women, trans* people, people of color, LGB people, and other minorities. It’s a problem in just about every subculture with a significant online premise, from the skeptic/atheist community to comic fans to video game nerds to sci-fi/fantasy buffs, and so forth. Different groups are attacking the problem in different ways, but there’s a pretty general understanding among social justice supporters that this is a symptom of larger problems that will only go away if the overall culture changes and the systems of kyriarchy are dismantled. In the meantime, we need to find a way to deal with the trolls, harassers, assholes, and disingenuous arguers that flood various timelines and hashtags. One such stopgap solution is the Atheism+ Block Bot, helmed by Oolon1.

The Block Bot grew out of various needs in the social justice wing of skepticism/atheism, and the problem of online harassment has grown large enough to garner international attention, which led to a media promotion of The Block Bot on BBC Newsnight. It’s nice to see this issue getting mainstream coverage, and hopefully it’ll lead to more substantial action.

Skeptic activist Tim Farley took issue with the idea of the Block Bot as a general-usage or all-purpose solution to the problem of online harassment, and there’s a kernel of truth to his complaints. The Block Bot isn’t a perfect solution for everyone, even though it has grown and expanded its scope since its first appearance (I’ve noticed people in the comic fan community using/talking about it, for instance). Most of Farley’s complaints rest on that premise, which is a little like complaining about your toaster because it doesn’t accommodate every kind of baked good. That’s not what it was built for or intended to do. It’s the “Atheism+ Block Bot” for a reason, though the basic principle could be adapted for most groups.

The issue I had was with his “Problem 5.” That is, his second “Problem 5.” The first “Problem 5” is problematic as well–“blocks have consequences” he says, and I say “so should being an annoying asshole online.” If you’re worried about ending up on a Level 2 or 3 block list, maybe don’t say the kinds of intentionally ignorant, antagonistic, baiting, or bigoted types of things that lead to people wanting to block you en masse.

Which is where his Problem 5b picks up. Farley takes issue with the point that many of the people on Levels 2 and 3 aren’t “just anonymous trolls that deserve it.” The problem is that his entire objection is built on a mountain of logical fallacies, at least one of which is belied by the example he led off with2.

The problem isn’t just anonymous trolls. In fact, I suspect it’s rarely strictly anonymous trolls and far more frequently pseudonymous trolls, but that’s pedantry. Anonymity is a convenient shield for trolls and harassers to hide behind, but not everyone feels the need to do so. There are plenty of people on the Block Bot’s lists, and on the various pages documenting this harassment who are perfectly willing to say abusive, offensive, and antagonistic things right next to their real names and faces. Anonymity is a red herring.

And Farley should know this, since he begins the post by talking about his dealings with Dennis Markuze/David Mabus, who spent decades abusing, harassing, and threatening people on the Internet under a stable pseudonym, and who wasn’t stopped or mollified once his true identity was known. Markuze is a special case, being more prolific, more overtly abusive, and more clearly in need of help than most of the people on the Block Bot’s list, but he’s still a stunning example of how anonymity/pseudonymity is neither necessary nor sufficient for this kind of behavior.

But Farley’s justification is a stunning example of Skeptics Being Profoundly Unskeptical, which I think I’m going to have to make into a post category for how often I talk about it. Here’s the relevant bit:

However, just a casual scan down the list of Level 2 and Level 3 blocks reveals people, many of whom I know personally, who are deeply involved in the atheism, skepticism, secularism and humanism movements all around the world. They include:

  • A Research Fellow for a U.S. think-tank who is also deputy editor of a national magazine, and author of numerous books
  • A Consultant for Educational Programs for a U.S. national non-profit
  • A long-time volunteer for the same national non-profit
  • An organizer for a state-level skeptic group in the US
  • A past president of a state-level humanist group in the US
  • A former director of a state-level atheist group in the US
  • An Emmy and Golden Globe award winning comedian
  • A TED Fellow
  • Co-founder of a well known magazine of philosophy and author of several books
  • A philosopher, writer and critic who has authored several books

These are not anonymous trolls. They are not likely to be arrested anytime soon. Most of these people regularly speak at national conferences to audiences from several hundred to over a thousand people. Starting from the publicly available block list you can click the names to go directly to their Twitter feeds, I see little evidence that these people are attacking, threatening or spamming anyone.

This would make for a great game of spot the fallacy, wouldn’t it? Farley lists all these qualifications, but none of them are “noted anti-spam crusader” or “longtime anti-bigotry activist,” not that those would be excuses either. See, none of these qualifications are inconsistent with “abusive […] anti-feminists, MRAs, or all-round assholes” or “annoying and irritating”3. It’s possible to be an Emmy and Golden Globe award-winning comedian and also be an annoying asshole who delights in baiting feminists with disingenuous arguments, just as it’s possible to be a Ph.D. biochemist who believes in intelligent design. This is a pro hominem argument, an argument from false authority, that these people’s lofty credentials make them somehow incapable of being bigots, jerks, trolls, abusers, or just antagonistic assholes to specific groups of people.

The last paragraph there is a doozy of arguments from ignorance and unstated major premises. “I see little evidence” is very different from “there is no evidence,” and the mechanics of Twitter mean that offensive tweets are often lost to the depths of a person’s timeline after a relatively short amount of time. But there’s plenty of evidence that prominent skeptics are capable of being petty, antagonistic, obtuse, bigoted (both in overt and unintended/unconscious ways), and asshole-ish. Some skeptics love poking various hornets nests, some love directing snide comments and thinly-veiled insults at people/groups they disagree with on social media, some keep dredging up sexist/racist/homophobic arguments and tropes time and time again even after hearing repeated responses/debunkings, some hyperbolically respond to the slightest criticisms with howls of NaziCommieStasi witch-hunt inquisitions. Farley’s right, they’re probably not going to be arrested anytime soon, but that’s because being an annoying, antagonistic asshole isn’t a crime.

The unstated major premises here are that “only anonymous trolls (and certainly not people I consider friends) behave in ways that would merit mass blocking,” which I dealt with above, and “only behavior that is illegal merits mass blocking,” which is the usual response to those complaining about harassment: if it’s not illegal, it’s not really harassment; if it was real harassment, why didn’t you call the police? I’ve responded to this notion, so has Stephanie Zvan, and the fact that Farley is able to spout off with it in such a casual manner shows just how insulated from this stuff he really is.

There are degrees of harassment. Some of it is criminal, some of it is civil, none of it is pleasant for the target. Blocking someone on Twitter is not a punishment that requires a trial and a sentencing phase. And if you were receiving the same disingenuous arguments, the same JAQing off on Twitter day-in and day-out, you might not see it as all isolated innocent incidents. The dude who wolf-whistles at a woman walking down the street might be just one dude, whistling at just one woman, so that’s clearly not harassment, right? But if it’s the thirtieth time she’s had to roll her eyes at that on her walk to work, it takes a different tone. One guy asking a person of color if they wouldn’t rather wash all the color off and be white, or touching their hair and talking about how much they admire it, might be an act of clueless ignorance, but if it happens over and over, it doesn’t matter to the target that the act is being committed by different people. People get worn down. Why should every person have to deal with each individual ignorant microaggression as if it were the first time they’d experienced it? Why would you begrudge people the option to avoid those microaggressions, even if it’s only in one forum? Don’t other people deserve the same ability to check their Twitter mentions without seeing harassment, insults, slurs, ignorance, and abuse that Tim Farley has?

The Block Bot is not a perfect solution for everyone. It’s not meant to be. It’s a decent stopgap for the people who are tired of dealing with harassers, abusers, bullies, and assholes. If you think it’s a problem in and of itself, the solution is to change the culture so there are fewer harassers, abusers, bullies, and assholes, not to buy into a set of fallacies that makes you think only anonymous other-people are capable of that behavior, and that being a prominent speaker (or worse, a friend) puts a person above that capacity.

1. Full disclosure: I don’t use the Block Bot, though I have some of the same people blocked. I do, however, follow the Block Bot and its related Twitter accounts.

2. Yes, I ended a sentence with a preposition. It’s a myth rule. Get over it It is a thing you should get over.

3. The actual descriptions of Levels 2 & 3, from here.

Narrating Life

I’m enjoying Discovery Channel’s “Life,” when I get the chance to see it. I figured it was another appropriation of a BBC show with redubbed narration, but I didn’t realize I’d seen any of the original show before. In fact, the time-lapse video of undersea scavengers is one of the coolest biology videos I’ve seen in a long time, and I watched that months ago.

Seeing the original in comparison with the Americanized version makes me realize just how much more I like David Attenborough as a narrator than Oprah Winfrey. Maybe it’s the soothing British accent, maybe it’s the fact that Attenborough doesn’t spend the rest of his time promoting all manner of dangerous pseudoscience, all I know is that I hope it’s Attenborough when the DVDs come out.