“Believe that narrative, brah”

So, regarding the most recent development in the Stollznow/Radford harassment situation, Adam Lee noted how Hemant Mehta hadn’t contacted him (or, near as I can tell, any of the bloggers he mentions) before writing a post about the most recent developments in said situation, wherein he says those bloggers have an obligation to correct the record, make apologies, and blahdey blah.

I’ve been keeping up with the case on and off in my spare time, downloading court documents from PACER and mostly not having time to read through anything, but even a brief refresher on the matter showed that Mehta had gotten several things wrong in his post, not least of which was making insinuations and bloviating about journalistic responsibility when not actually bothering to talk to any of the people involved, though nearly all of them have publicly-available e-mail addresses, before insinuating that they’re being dishonest and have an agenda. Once again, we see that standards like “apply the principle of charity” and “pick up the phone” only go one way. So I said this:

@DaylightAtheism It’s okay, he didn’t bother to read Radford’s signed statement or look into the actual history of the matter either.

To which one of the atheoskeptic movement’s gaggle of assholes responded, a day later:

@Doubting_Tom Believe that narrative, brah. Believe until it becomes true.

So the SIWOTI syndrome hit, and now I’m writing this post instead of doing work. Thankfully, I’ve already hit most of the salient points in comments at various places. So, I’m pulling it all together here.

First, Hemant said:

Stollznow now says the allegations weren’t true.

We’ll leave aside the issue of believing wholeheartedly a statement released by one party in a case, especially when that party previously released a similar statement last year, falsely claiming it was signed and agreed upon by both parties. That event from last year is important, because despite linking to it in his post, Mehta seems to be unaware of what it said, and the key difference that makes that quote above such an egregious misrepresentation. To wit:

Karen Stollznow does not say the allegations weren’t true. An accurate description of what has happened is that Ben Radford released a statement that Karen Stollznow allegedly signed, and does not deny signing.

That statement does not say the allegations weren’t true. This is where it’s important to read things carefully, and especially important to consider what’s come before. The statement says “it would be wrong for anyone to believe” the allegations. This is weaselly wording, likely there as a result of a legal compromise. It would be much clearer, and would take far fewer words, to simply flat-out state that the allegations were untrue and are now retracted, which the statement from 2014 actually does:

These accusations and complaints against Benjamin Radford were false and Karen Stollznow retracts them. Radford was disciplined by the Center for Inquiry on the basis of them. One of Stollznow’s minor complaints (that Radford briefly stood in front of her during an argument when she wanted to walk past him) was the result of miscommunication during their relationship, but the accusations of sexual harassment, stalking, sexual assault, unwanted emails and the like were and are categorically false.

Emphasis mine. That’s a key difference between the statement that Stollznow did not sign and openly disavowed, and the new statement. It seems like a pretty relevant difference, too. There is no recanting, there is no retraction, there is no admission of dishonesty (or really, of anything, other than an acrimonious breakup and various unspecified misunderstandings) in the current signed statement. Mehta’s summary is a mischaracterization of what the statement says, especially in light of what has happened previously.

Mehta goes on to say this:

Radford has been cleared of any wrongdoing.

And this is false in nearly every possible way.

First, Radford hasn’t actually been cleared of any wrongdoing; CFI found sufficient cause to punish him for wrongdoing when the complaint was first made privately, and hasn’t (to my knowledge) since recanted or apologized or said they were wrong to do so.

Second, the court did not clear Radford of any wrongdoing, because the case was dismissed by consent of both parties. The court makes no statement regarding Radford’s wrongdoing, because the matter was settled out of court.

Third, no matter what the outcome of this case was, it couldn’t possibly clear Radford of any wrongdoing, because he was the plaintiff. The one accused of wrongdoing in this case was Karen Stollznow. At best, you could say that Karen Stollznow has been cleared of libel, assault, and slander1, but even that would be an overstatement since, again, they settled out of court.

So yes, I will continue to believe this narrative, brah, because it actually is true that Mehta has misrepresented various aspects of this case, whether through ignorance, incompetence, bias, or some combination of the three. The question remains, though: if you characterize a situation in a way that turns out to be false, don’t you have an obligation to correct it?


1. I took that phrasing of the parameters of the complaint from an earlier version, I think from the dismissed New Mexico case. Having looked through the more current documents, a more accurate version would be “defamation, fraud, and interference with beneficial contractual relations.” Either way, the point and outcome are the same. No matter what the actual complaint was, it was made against Stollznow and dismissed.

Oh, Uncle Richard

Richard Dawkins and Ophelia Benson made a joint statement denouncing and decrying the harassment and other bad behavior in the atheist movement.

This is a good thing. It’s good because after “Dear Muslima,” after all the asinine things Dawkins has said on Twitter and elsewhere, the dedicated antifeminist harassers have taken his comments as a sign of his tacit approval of misogyny and harassment. For him to join forces with one of the prime targets of antifeminist, anti-“FTBullies” abuse, sends an important, necessary message. All the kudos to Ophelia Benson for pursuing this, and kudos to Dawkins for recognizing that this is an important issue that required his comment and clarification.

But.

But “Dear Muslima” was three years ago, three years of non-stop abuse directed at atheist feminists, in many cases by Dawkins fanboys, in many cases by people who believed Dawkins was unambiguously on their side. It’s impossible to see this statement and not wonder why it didn’t come a lot earlier.

But Ophelia Benson had to reach out to Dawkins and apparently hold his feet to the fire a bit1 in order to get the statement made at all. This statement would hold a much greater amount of power if Dawkins had initiated it. As it is, it’s far to easy for the naysayers and harassers to say that Dawkins was bullied into this, that he’s doing it reluctantly.

But Ophelia Benson is the person who made the statement with Dawkins, and while she’s certainly been on the receiving end of tons of abuse, imagine how much more impact this would have had if Dawkins had made a joint statement with Rebecca Watson. Imagine if he had apologized for that, had expressed horror specifically at how his ill-conceived and fallacious attack had painted a target on Watson’s back. Imagine if he had finally put to rest the claims of blackballing2 and unambiguously supported Watson’s presence in the community. You’ll have to imagine, because obviously that didn’t happen.

But the statement, while clear, is still open to the same reinterpretation and spin that we saw back in the “don’t be a dick” debacle, that we see any time harassment policies arise. People who are motivated to be assholes will use motivated reasoning to justify continued assholery. Some already are dismissing this statement as Dawkins being duped, others undoubtedly will argue that what they’re doing isn’t bullying or harassment, but criticism and satire; that the FTBullies use terms that could be called “vulgar epithets” and they’re bullies (it’s right there in the name!) so it’s okay, or so Dawkins was really, slyly, calling out the FTBullies themselves and Benson was just too dumb to see it. We can reasonably guess this will happen because it’s what they’ve been saying for years now. Tu quoque and false equivalence are the air and water of the pro-harassment crowd.

But, and perhaps this is the most significant but, it doesn’t seem like Dawkins has actually learned anything. There is no admission of error in the joint statement, no acknowledgement of the seriously problematic things Dawkins has said about race or Islam or rape or molestation or abortion. And then, the very same week, he goes back to the “Dear Muslima” well, the “mild paedophilia” well, of trying to rank horrible tragedies as if their harmfulness could be measured with an SI unit, as if any positive purpose could be served by doing so, as if drawing a distinction between extremes weren’t a common tactic used to dismiss things like “mild paedophilia” and date rape. This blunder makes it unfortunately clear that Dawkins hasn’t internalized any of this, hasn’t realized that the reason people see him as an ally in their racism and misogyny and anti-Arab bigotry isn’t just because of one bonehead comment to Rebecca Watson three years ago, but because of a larger pattern of statements and behavior.

So it’s hard to see this statement as anything but a symbolic gesture. It’s a good symbolic gesture, a necessary symbolic gesture, but it’s hard not to wish it hadn’t come sooner, with a different motivation, with a clearer message, and with an indication that it represented real reflection and substantive change. Hopefully it’s a first step, and not a destination.


1. Ophelia Benson noted in the comments below that Dawkins needed convincing, not pressure, so I have corrected the account.

2. This is not to suggest that the claims of blackballing are incorrect, merely that I haven’t seen Dawkins confirm or deny them, and whether or not they have been true, denying them now would be valuable.

Projection

I run a pretty small blog here, so I’m always excited to see the little counter dealie up on the WordPress toolbar showing big lines to represent how many hits I’m getting. It’s a nice change of pace from the vast flatness I usually see. So, being curious, I sometimes check out where my hits are coming from. One recent source of visits has been a thread on the JREF forums, linking specifically because of my spat with Tim Farley. Here’s the relevant post:
Poster "Humes fork" saying "Tim Farley in a kerfuffle [links to my "Unskeptical Complaints" post] about Block Bot. Not surprisingly, what makes them angry is disagreement with them."
I’m not going to engage with that tired bit of mythology. I’ve dealt with variations before, and it’s repeated there without basis or substance. It’s an empty phrase, and you can judge for yourself whether or not what made me angry was “disagreement.”

But I found myself thinking about this post today, because of a Facebook post by JREF president D.J. Grothe:

There is an impressive distemper these days on the internets.
Many smart, good people that I know personally seem to fear this “call-out culture” online that is going on right now in many communities online. Folks are immobilized by a moral scare or panic that they think they are watching unfold presently. As for me, I think it all seems increasingly like some surreal science fiction imagining of some bizarre future dystopia. And so, I say:
Consensual sex — between any mature adult male or female etc. — is a human good. It is something that should be prized and promoted (would there be world peace if people just had more and better sex, ha?).
But instead I think unduly-moralistic scolds end up actively diminishing human flourishing by their sex-negativity.
And I curse the unholy alliance of the quack far-left so-called feminists: a different kind of ardent feminist than I am — and the authoritarian anti-sex rightist religionists whom I used to run with decades ago. (How the heck is it that these two equal opposites agree on so very much these days, and the two last decades, too?).
I have a disturbing answer, but it doesn’t work for a social networking or FB comment..

More accurately, my thoughts were spurred by D.J.’s response to some critical comments on that Facebook post. First, feminist blogger Amanda Marcotte posted this:

“I love consensual sex! It’s awesome. I couldn’t agree more. That’s why it’s super critical that consent exists, because when consent isn’t there, sex—and sexual behavior ranging from flirting to intercourse—stops being great and even really “sex” and starts being harassment, assault, and rape. So yea, feminists! By making consent a front and center issue, we can make sex better, more pleasurable, and more frequent—after all, nothing makes people less willing to have sex than being afraid that their right to say no won’t be respected. One question, though: Can you name some of these “feminists” that you’re talking about that oppose consensual sex? I’m pretty well-versed in feminism and don’t know any of the ones you’re talking about.”

Look at that! Not a nasty word, not an intemperate statement. It’s positively cheerful, with a genuine question at the end, looking for that thing that skeptics love above all, evidence in support of some claim. It got a whole bunch of likes, apparently more than anything else on the thread!

D.J. deleted the comment.

In response, Lance Finney posted this:

DJ,
I’m curious what your commenting policy is on your wall. Earlier, I saw a comment from Amanda Marcotte that praised consent and asked you for examples of feminists that matched the description you gave in your first comment in this thread.
Did you delete her comment?
If so, why? As I recall it, there wasn’t anything abusive about her comment. If you have a policy of deleting contrary comments, what is the trigger?

Look at that, perfectly polite! A question of clarification! If there’s one thing skeptics love as much as evidence, it’s clarity and good questions!

D.J. deleted the comment and blocked Lance Finney.

So, um…who is it, again, who can’t handle disagreement? I eagerly await an answer from the JREF boards.

The Tendency to See Only What We Want to See

I’m white, straight, male, able-bodied and cisgendered. While I’ve been in debt (still am, and probably always will be), I’ve never been poor. I have a college education and an underpaying but still middle-class, professional-level job. I live in the United States. I have never known oppression or poverty. I have never been subjected to discrimination on the basis of my race or gender or sexual orientation. The closest I’ve come is a couple of times when I was a teenager, where I was followed around a store by an employee, and in one instance, forced to talk to a manager because of a baseless accusation of vaguely-defined wrongdoing.

The fact that I was a white teenager meant that such treatment was rare enough that I still remember both instances; the fact that I was a white teenager means that such treatment stopped when I grew older.

Being a part of the majority means that I can turn it off. All the injustice and discrimination, all the mistreatment and institutionalized bigotry, I can tune it out. It never affects me, at least, not directly. I’m insulated–so insulated that even now, when I try to force myself to see it all, I can only get glimpses and best guesses.

We talk about imagining what it’s like to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. It’s a neat metaphor, and one of the most memorable bits of one of my favorite novels, but it’s still just a metaphor. I can try on someone else’s shoes and walk around for a bit, but they’ll never fit me right, and I have the luxury of taking them off and wearing something more comfortable. For minorities? I imagine it’s a bit like having Barbie feet:

barbie_feet2

Destined only for heels and wedges.

Or, perhaps more accurately, bound feet.

There is only one axis I know of where I fall out of the majority, and that’s religion. I’m an atheist, and I have been for some time now. And since I’ve adopted that label and outlook, I’ve noticed all the little things. All the times I’ve had to bite my tongue at work or at family gatherings or at my own wedding. I’ve panicked about people finding out, and wondered what effects that would have on my life. I’ve noticed all the little ways that my culture legitimizes and benefits religious ideas and people. I’ve seen the assumptions that people blithely make about the religious and nonreligious, the stereotypes and myths they repeat and spread–“you don’t have the right to push your atheism into government and schools” or “if I were an atheist, I’d just rape and murder people” or “aren’t you sad that your life has no meaning” or “what’s the big deal about the Pledge of Allegiance? It’s just tradition.” And I’ve let those slide rather than potentially ending up in arguments or revealing too much about myself. Mostly I’ve seen how blind most people are to all of it, never considering that the Pledge of Allegiance or tax-free churches or “teach the controversy” might be a problem.

I couldn’t turn that off. It affected me, even if it was mostly because of minor annoyances stacking up over time. And noticing that, noticing that society was structured in ways that inherently privileged religions and the religious, was what got me to start noticing that other groups are privileged in similar ways. And that I belonged to most of those groups. And just as I know how hard it is to get religious people to consider things from my perspective when they’ve absorbed all manner of misinformation from society, I can see how hard it would be for a person of color or woman or trans* person or disabled person or non-heterosexual person to explain to me what it’s like and how it sucks for those little annoyances and injustices to stack up on each other. I know they hear the same kinds of myths and questions–“Black History Month? How come there’s no white history month?” or “what if I go into the girls’ bathroom or locker room and just say I felt trans* for the moment?” or “if I were on welfare, I’d just sit around and have kids too–who wants to work?” or “how can you change the definition of marriage? It’s tradition!”–and I know that those come along with a lot more discrimination and disenfranchisement and danger than I’ve ever felt for being a nonbeliever.

Which is one of many reasons why it’s so weird to be accused of seeing only what I want to see. Because as a straight, white, able-bodied, cisgendered, educated middle-class man, I have the luxury of being able to do just that, if I want. I can tune out the bigotry and the discrimination and believe that the world is a just place. I can believe that equality under the law means that social equality has been achieved, that minorities are just looking for extra rights above and beyond equal treatment, and that the worst injustice one might face now is a single-gender gym or hearing a prayer at a high school football game. I can go about my life assuming that I got where I am because of my own skills and talents, and that affirmative action and social safety nets are just ways of lowering the bar for the inferior and promoting generations of lazy drains on society and criminals. I can trust in the powers that be, secure in my knowledge that even the smallest crime which victimizes me will be treated seriously by the police, and that regulations are burdens on businesses that force them to do things which aren’t popular or profitable–because if they were, the businesses would do them already. I can watch TV and movies and never worry that I’ll be unable to identify with the characters, never worry that every straight white guy on TV will fall into the same stereotypical mold. I can walk home alone at night, or go out drinking and know that the worst consequences I’ll face are a hangover and maybe some crude drawings in Sharpie on my face, and that I’d hardly be blamed for either one happening. If I tuned out all the stuff I’ve begun noticing and reading about over the last several years, the oversimplified, black-and-white, “just world” that in some ways I’m programmed to see.

But that’s not the world that actually exists. And as a skeptic, I’d rather face a harsh reality than a comforting truth. I don’t want to see people I admired doing terrible things. I don’t want to see people in power abusing that power at the expense of the less powerful. I don’t want to see my bookshelf increasingly clogged with tomes by people I no longer respect. I don’t want to see the ways that I’ve contributed to and benefited from a system that harms people who aren’t like me. I see those those things not out of some perverse wishful thinking, but because they’re real.

And I wonder about the people who reject complex, ugly reality for facile faith in an oversimplified perception of a just social order, who still call themselves “skeptics.”

Following the Block Bot

Happily for some, there won’t be much in the way of fisking today. There’s only a few things I wanted to really comment on, though I suspect it’ll still make for a ridiculously long post.

First, holy crap. I realize that not everyone who watches Virtual Skeptics is up to speed on all the internecine skeptical blog drama, so a recap may be necessary. That’s part of why a video is a poor choice of medium to respond to blog posts1: if you need to spend an extended time summing things up, down to the details of the programs involved2, maybe it’s better to find a venue where most of your audience will already be up to speed, or one where you can accomplish the recap with a link.

That aside, I suspect he would have gotten fewer people upset at his lack of immediate response if he hadn’t kept popping up on Twitter and Facebook to talk about it, make excuses, and leave multiple comments bemoaning his lack of time to respond. I sympathize with being too busy to blog; you can see how long my posts tend to be. But I don’t go around in a huff posting on social media about how I don’t have time to blog and besides everyone’s ignoring most of what I wrote anyway. That takes time too.

So, the first specific part of the video response that rubbed me the wrong way was “people were mad because it wasn’t easy enough to get rid of them [harassers] on Twitter.” It’s true that blocking only does so much, and shutting down the accounts only leads to the creation of new accounts. But one of the big problems, and one that’s glossed over here and later when Farley talks about Twitter changing their policies, is that Twitter often wasn’t enforcing their own existing rules regarding abuse, harassment, and threats of violence. Adding a “report abuse” button is all well and good, but if Twitter continues to handle it like they’ve handled some threats (1, 2, 3) to Anita Sarkeesian (just as a prominent example), then it’s not worth a whole lot.

The next bit:

So a BBC reporter on BBC Newsnight got interested and did a report on it, and got the guy who wrote Block Bot on there, and did a report. And people have argued with me that I am ignoring the commun—who the Block Bot is written for, and that the report covered that, and I have gone back diligently and watched the report several times, and they’re wrong, okay? You honestly watch that report, it does not explain that the Bot is for a specific community, you only see the name of that community briefly on screen, it says “Atheism+ Block Bot,” nowhere do they explain what that means, they don’t explain what Atheism+ is, and they don’t explain—and I’m not gonna get into all the details, you can go read my blog post if you’re interested in all the details—but there’s three levels of blocking, and they never explain the other two levels, they just, they barely reference them in the report.

He’s right, the report is very brief on the subject of the Block Bot. The relevant section is about 2 1/2 minutes long, just enough for some basics. I can certainly understand why they didn’t go into what levels 2 & 3 meant, because that’s on the website. I can also understand why they didn’t go into what Atheism+ was, because that’s mostly irrelevant to the point they’re making in the interview. I would think that someone who wasn’t a part of “atheism” plus or otherwise, would recognize the name “Atheism+” at the start of the Block Bot’s name meant “hey, this probably isn’t for me,” kind of like when I see an ad for Christian Mingle or women’s vitamins.

But the kicker is that while the report doesn’t outline in specific detail the intended audience of the Atheism+ Block Bot (aside from talking about how it was made by supporters of Rebecca Watson and displaying the name), it also doesn’t support the absurd conclusion that Farley leapt to, which is this notion that the Atheism+ Block Bot is meant to be a solution for everyone, effectively making Ool0n and Aratina Cage the moderators for all of Twitter.

As I noted before, what Ool0n actually promotes in the video is Twitter making it possible for people to create shared block lists, using the same technology as the shared follow lists. Mason asks him why Twitter doesn’t implement what Ool0n’s done themselves; if the intent were the one Farley took away, why wouldn’t Ool0n say “well, they don’t need to, I’ve already gone and done it for them” or something along those lines?

Ool0n has consistently been promoting the shared block list as a strategy. He’s been open about this, and that’s the impression I took away from the interview (and from the accompanying article, which is a bit clearer). The video is not explicit about who the Block Bot is for, but there’s nothing to support the conclusion that Farley drew, “that this was a good tool that everyone on Twitter should use.” He says later that he “really didn’t even want to write” the post. And if he’d maybe thought for a moment, “hold up, does Ool0n really think he ought to be in control of who gets blocked on Twitter? Isn’t that a bit megalomaniacal?” and then thought “maybe I’ll send the guy a tweet to make sure that’s what he meant,” he could have avoided the whole thing.

I do think this implies a practical suggestion for the Block Bot, which is to put the link to the source code on the front page, with a clear statement like “Specific harassment problems in your Twitter community? Build your own block bot!” And maybe add to the FAQ a “who is this for?” question, largely unnecessary back when the people it was for, and the people it intended to block, were the only ones who knew about it.

This bit tickled me:

I pointed out a lot of things about how the Block Bot works that were unclear to everyone. They, maybe they were clear to the people who run it, and the people who are using it, but other people were very confused

So, the people actually making use of the Block Bot were clear on how it works, but other people, perhaps people who’d never bothered to look at the website or the FAQ, perhaps people who only got their information about it after it passed through the filter of harassers and trolls whining about their freeze peach, were unclear.

Farley talks repeatedly about people being rude to him. I’m sure I’m in that group, though I don’t think I displayed any “rudeness” until he came into my comment thread with tired myths (“They are simply people that (some, all?) Atheism+ people disagree with on some topics”) and deflections. But then, Farley’s idea of rudeness seems to be that peculiar one that prevails in parts of skepticism, where it only ever works one way, and mostly appears to mean “using swear words” or “not being sufficiently deferential to your betters.” Jumping to an absurd conclusion and writing 4,300 words about it without bothering to check with the people involved? Not rude. Buying into a malicious myth that certain groups just can’t brook disagreement when you can’t find immediate evidence that they acted reasonably? Not rude.

I’m tired of that nonsense. I think it’s far worse to argue in bad faith than to use naughty words. I don’t think anyone in this movement has earned exemption from criticism or has shown that they are incapable of bad behavior. I think being dismissive can be far ruder than being aggressive. And I think yet another outsider thinking they can wander into a conflict that’s been raging for years, do a casual scan of the environment, and make authoritative pronouncements about what people’s motivations are, is pretty damn disrespectful. It’s like walking into the LHC having read a Wikipedia page on the Standard Model and saying “you guys must not really want to find the Higgs Boson, or you’d just look harder for it.”

Getting to the meat of people’s disagreements with the post, Farley says:

And I knew that I did not want to get into, and we said this in the comments of this post, of this YouTube, I did not want to get into who’s on the Block Bot, who’s not on the Block Bot, why is this person blocked, because that is a rat hole. I just wanted to talk about how it works, how is it administrated, are there bugs in the code, does it do what it’s supposed to do.
And I needed a way to bring up the issue of, “hey look, this guy’s on here, and this woman’s on here, why are they on here?”

Emphasis mine. So here, I think (being charitable), is a limitation of speech-vs.-writing. Someone who wrote those two bolded phrases so close together would, I hope, notice the obvious contradiction between them, but that’s harder to do with off-the-cuff speech. As someone who does a lot of off-the-cuff speech for a living, I understand how that can happen.

Farley goes on to obliquely reference one of Stephanie Zvan’s posts about people on Farley’s list, saying she “made my point,” which is (allegedly) that there’s no evidence logged on the Block Bot site for why each individual account made the list.

And you know what? I agree with that. It would be a great resource in these discussions if we could easily call up a screenshot of relevant or representative examples of tweets that got someone added to the block list. There may even be an easy way to implement that; I don’t know. All of my knowledge of computer code is limited to HTML tags. But I know that just stripping the URL from offensive tweets wouldn’t be particularly useful, since tweets get deleted and accounts get deleted and whatnot. A screenshot would be better, but it still takes a bit of time even to just “print screen” and copy and crop it into a decent image file, let alone uploading all those image files to be linked from the block list. I don’t know how much of that could be automated, but I do suspect that the handful of people running the Block Bot have day jobs and social lives too.

Keeping records on that sort of thing would be great, and I’m glad some people have been independently cataloging the abuse. But it’s a step beyond the general goal of the Block Bot, which is to protect people in this community from at least some of that abuse, and not something that is necessary to its function.

The only reason this would present a problem, again, is if you assume Ool0n and his friends want to be the moderators of all Twitter. If you don’t make that assumption, then you can opt-in to the system whether or not you know the specific offending tweets for any specific one of the six hundred-odd people on the list, trusting Ool0n and the administrators to make their decisions based on good reasons, or you can refrain from using the system, or you can make one that suits the needs of your particular community.

Back to the list of credentials (I’m tackling these next few bits slightly out of order):

And I did not intend to say that any of those people on that list shouldn’t be blocked. What I intended to say was, I, and I think others, look at the list, and see some of the names, and if you happen to know who those people are, and even if you click through and see their current feed, you sit there and go “well, the current feed looks pretty good,” scroll scroll scroll, “why is this person blocked?” So they should be listing the evidence. First of all, they should be recording the evidence, and there’s no evidence that they actually are. And, they need to, um, they need to have a way to look through it, and a lot of people are into the concept of “name and shame,” and I think that’s perfectly compatible with that. If you believe that it’s important to name and shame people, and it’s important to block these people, well, put the evidence of why they’re annoying there, and let people judge.
Um, and that was my point.

And later:

I knew it was an argument from authority. My choice was, this authority [points at himself], or some other authority, it was the only way I could think of to make that argument. And it was a wrong choice, I admit it now. And I have marked it with strikeout.

Emphasis mine. So, the only way Farley could think to make this point was with an argument from authority. That should have set off alarm bells in the mind of any skeptic, that maybe this point was a bad one, or maybe there was a better way to do this, but he barreled through anyway, and it’s nice to see that he’s recognized, at least to some degree, how problematic it was.

The issue is this point he’s saying he wanted to make. You can go back and read his article to find where he says that the Block Bot administrators should be tracking why each person gets blocked, and making that information available to the users. You won’t find it. It’s not there. The closest you get is in the conclusion section, where one of the bullet points reads “Require administrators to supply a reason or piece of evidence (e.g. a tweet) for any add,” which still says nothing about making that information publicly available so people can judge for themselves. Farley has been framing the lead-up and the response as though people “misunderstood” his point, but it the only way to have gotten that point from what he actually wrote would have been through telepathy.

So how could Farley have written this section without the argument from authority? Here’s an option (note that this is paraphrasing/rewriting, using as much of Farley’s actual language as possible, but is not altogether a direct quote):

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. From the publicly available block list, you can click the names to go directly to their Twitter feeds, and in many cases, you’d see little evidence that these people are attacking, threatening or spamming anyone. It’s possible that these accounts have tweeted malicious, harassing, or just annoying things in the past, but that wouldn’t necessarily be apparent to anyone just looking at their recent feed. The administrators should supply a reason or piece of evidence (e.g. a tweet) for each person on the list, at least at Levels 2 and 3, so newcomers can see why those names made the list, and judge whether or not they want to block those levels.

That’s one possibility; there are others. None of them required listing credentials as if they were relevant, or going off on how the levels aren’t clearly distinguished (outside of the sign-up page, where they are), how the people on these lists are just there because of “disagreements” with members of Atheism+, and how some poor confused soul might miss out on valuable tweets by blocking all three levels of offenders without knowing why those people were blocked.

Note how none of those claims serves to make the ‘administrators should keep evidence and make it available’ point that Farley says he was trying to make, and I have a suspicion as to why that is: it wasn’t actually the point he was trying to make. Now, that’s a rude accusation I’m sure, but I can’t imagine any other reason for this comment he left on my response to the post:

You are missing my point. I was not saying “these authorities are on the list therefore it is bad”, I was saying that if you actually look at what those people do on Twitter they are demonstrably not abusers/harassers/whatever. They are simply people that (some, all?) Atheism+ people disagree with on some topics. I repeated several times that I do not begrudge them the right to use the block bot in this way, but I think it reflects poorly upon them as skeptics that they are so unwilling to be questioned.

Emphasis mine. Strange how on August 2nd, this was his point, while five days later, it was the far more reasonable ‘put the evidence of why they’re annoying there, and let people judge.’

I commend Farley for not taking the logical next step and editing that point into the original post.

I’m not going to speculate on why Farley has so dramatically changed what he says his point was. What he said was his point in the comment here is much closer to what’s actually written in the article than what he said was his point in the video. And in that comment, it looks like he’s bought (in part or in whole) into the “FtBullies/Atheism+ can’t stand disagreement” myth that has taken various forms over the last year or so, but bears little resemblance to reality. The article’s argument hinges on this ‘they blocked these people just because they disagreed’ notion to make the ‘what if they block someone you want to hear from because of a disagreement you’re not involved with’ point that closed out the section, and that wasn’t later struck out.

I’ll leave the reader to decide if “if you actually look at what those people do on Twitter they are demonstrably not abusers/harassers/whatever” jives with the point Farley says Stephanie Zvan made for him.

Moving on, one thing Farley says a lot is that a community should be able to block whoever they want for whatever reason. Which is why quotes like “you don’t have to look very far to see people going ‘why am I on this thing? What did I do?’ And, um, that shouldn’t, that shouldn’t be happening” are so mystifying. Even if we ignore all the people who are out there spreading active misinformation, even if we ignore that people who say the most racist, misogynistic, and otherwise bigoted things often think of themselves as progressive non-bigots (does the phrase “I’m not racist, but” ring any bells?), I really don’t think it’s reasonable to suggest that we’d ever be at a point where anyone on the list says “yes, I completely understand why they blocked me.” Because even when there are well-documented reasons for blocking a person, we still see examples of them saying they were blocked for no reason. It doesn’t matter what level of harassment a person is engaged in; once blocked, they’ll still say it was just because they “disagreed” with “feminist dogma” or whatever. This thing that Farley says “shouldn’t be happening” is going to happen no matter what, because of disingenuous people.

Well, and because of dog-whistles and subtweets and subtle digs. Assholes of all stripes, from the highest echelons of politics and religion on down to the high school halls and online Twitter feeds, have learned the time-honored art of using coded language to say apparently innocuous things that actually aren’t. It’s why Republicans can claim that they’re not being racist when they talk about “terrorists” or “Muslims” or “foreign influence” or “illegals,” and it’s why certain assholes can claim innocence when they talk about “the real bullies” and “know-nothing bloggers” and “professional victims” and whatnot. Displaying those tweets as evidence of annoyance leads to the same thing that Farley says “shouldn’t be happening”–“what did I do? how is that ‘annoying’? doesn’t everyone hate ‘professional victims’?”

But I do agree, it’d be beneficial for those tweets to be cataloged. I just don’t know that there’s a feasible way of doing it on the Block Bot’s scale.

Farley spends a bit of time toward the end of the video going after Ool0n’s character:

But, last week, independent of this whole thing, Ool0n decided to block one of the accounts of Anonymous, the giant hacker collective. And he decided to start taunting them about it. And as a result of, right when my blog post went up, and through Friday and Saturday, the Block Bot was actually being Denial of Service attacked by Anonymous. Um, and he continued to taunt them, including calling the Block Bot “unblockable.” And, y’know, Ool0n, you, like I said, you’ve been nice to me, but that shows really poor judgment. Taunting Anonymous publicly on the Internet is about the dumbest online thing I can think to do. Um, and that’s the person who’s running the Block Bot for you.

Part of me sees this as the same kind of fallacious nonsense Farley pulled with the whole “credentials” section, just as ad hominem instead of pro hominem. ‘Here’s one thing that’s true about this person, so you can judge from that how fit they are to do a largely unrelated thing.’ “Taunting hackers online” is a bit more related to “administering an online service that targets trolls” than “research fellow for a think-tank” is to “harassing people on the Internet,” so it’s not quite as bad.

Now, I only saw bits and pieces of what Farley’s describing as it unfolded, so I asked Ool0n if he thought it was an accurate description. He didn’t think so (1, 2, 3, 4), and said he’d post about it when he gets home. (Edit: here’s that post.)

But from my perspective, as someone who’s sympathetic with the aims of the Block Bot but doesn’t actually use it, would I want someone like Ool0n, who ‘taunts Anonymous,’ running it? Well, yes, absolutely. Ool0n echoed my opinion in that fourth linked tweet there, but if I’m someone who’s getting harassed by trolls online, I’d like the person who’s running the service protecting me from that harassment to be someone who’s not cowed by prestige, power, or online shows of force. I like and agree with a lot of what gets done under the Anonymous umbrella–their campaign against Scientology, their truly heroic actions in the Steubenville case–but that doesn’t mean that any hacker who adopts the label “Anonymous” is necessarily acting in anyone’s best interest, or even on behalf of Anonymous as a larger group. And I’d want the Block Bot to be administered by someone willing to stand up to anybody.

The last thing I want to address is this bit of insufferably smug hypocrisy:

Uh, frankly, I was very insulted that a lot of the kind of, y’know there’s, I won’t get into who’s who, but there was kind of a very “gotcha” attitude toward my blog post, of “aha! We’ve discovered that Krelnik is a bad skeptic,” and they all focused on that one section where I listed credentials, and talked about how it was an argument for authority.

Well, yes, I’d say knowingly making arguments from authority is unskeptical. It’s a leap, I know. But boy, there’s that “focused on that one section” thing, as if it weren’t obvious deflection again. It reminds me of the cranks who say “read my book” or the conspiracy nutters who dodge criticisms and questions by sending you on YouTube scavenger hunts. The only way “you took that out of context” is a defense against criticism is if the context answers the criticism or renders it invalid. That’s not the case with the list o’ credentials section of Farley’s post, which only looks worse in context.

But as long as we’re looking at context, I have a hard time taking that “‘gotcha’ attitude” complaint seriously when one considers this:

But I know that some people didn’t read my blog post because I put a booby trap in the blog post about four paragraphs up from the bottom. I hid a sentence in the middle of a paragraph that said you were supposed to use a certain word when you commented.

Paris in the the spring You have got to be fucking kidding me. ‘I’m very insulted at the ‘gotcha’ attitude that people have only focusing on one small part of my post, and I know they didn’t read the whole thing because I put a ‘gotcha’ in one small part of my post, nyah!’

It’s true, I skimmed over that part of the post. Part of that is because it came after the conclusion. Part of it was because the “long-term prospects” for the Block Bot were irrelevant to any part of my critique, and indeed, to any of the critiques I’ve seen elsewhere online. Part of it is that a paragraph whose thesis was “A second looming problem for The Block Bot is it may become a victim of its own success,” made it even more clearly irrelevant, even to the points Farley made above. I skimmed that portion of the post and judged it to be not germane to my problems with the rest of the post.

Now I’ve gone back and read that section in grand detail, and it turns out that my initial judgment was right. Nothing in that section, including the ‘booby trap’ paragraph, has any bearing on any of the problems I had with Farley’s article. And unless the gotcha had been “Psst, problem 6 is clearly a fallacious argument that I’m just including to see who’s paying attention,” I don’t see how it could have. ‘You didn’t read this clearly unrelated section’ is not a response to the critiques of the rest of the post. It’s a juvenile exercise that insults Farley when he thinks others are doing it to him. And it’s not something he would ever fall for, because he’s certainly not the kind of person who would look at something quickly to decide whether or not it was worth his time and attention…

And I did read all of your posts. There are a number of red flags that I’ve learned about online commentary and you hit 2 of them: Fisking, and replies that are more than 4x longer than the post they are replying to.

Long experience has told me that discussions in that state go nowhere.
(Source)

…oh. Nevermind.


1. Farley’s comments here implied that it was his official or only response to the matter. If I’d known he was still planning to take the time to respond in a written medium, I could have saved quite a lot of time yesterday. And today, for that matter.

2. When he launched into the explanation of how apps work on Twitter, with multiple examples, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a workshop I went to recently to learn some new software for work, which included a lengthy description of how to use the red “x” button to close a window.

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.

Meme Debunking #4: The Faceless Troll Horde

A group of multicolored troll toys. In my last post, Tim Farley seemed preoccupied with the notion of “anonymous trolls” to the point where he seemed incredulous that non-anonymous non-trolls could both have stellar credentials and also, even if just on occasion, be bullies, harassers, and assholes on Twitter.

It seems like a symptom of this larger notion that Amanda Marcotte dissects at length in this Raw Story post that everyone else but me has read already. Here’s the relevant section (but read the whole thing):

But as awful as trolls are, they do serve a major purpose, if people are willing to accept that these are actual people expressing actual opinions, instead of imagining them, as too many people do, as almost a force of nature that the internet willed into existence and not people at all. That purpose is revealing that misogyny exists and it is widespread.
[…]
That’s why it’s uncomfortable to have so many people insist that there’s an easy fix for troll targets, the “ignore the bullies and they’ll go away” fix, usually spouted by people who haven’t considered for a moment that the trolls may very well be actual people who are trying to protect and perpetuate sexism.

We have this tendency to see “trolls” as an anonymous, faceless other, the Vashta Nerada of the Internet, existing in the shadows, omnipresent, and without intent beyond “lulz” or identity beyond stereotypes about neckbeards and basements. It’s a compelling notion, because it allows us to engage in that “it can’t happen to me” kind of wishful thinking. Trolls aren’t people you know, they’re other people. Abusers and harassers can’t be speakers and comedians, they’re other people. People who are apparently just trolls, just anonymous, because we have a very hard time thinking in complex terms about people in general. If a person does good in one arena, it makes us think they must do good in all arenas. It’s hard to believe that your favorite director molested an underage girl, that your college buddy is a date rapist, that the prominent figure in your movement whose books you own has some unexamined sexist beliefs and doesn’t take criticism well. People tend to respond in three ways to these kinds of revelations: denial, defense, and denunciation.

The first allows one to sidestep the cognitive dissonance entirely, and maintain that simplistic worldview that heroes are heroes and only do hero things, villains are villains and only do villain things, and there’s no in-between. Great for cartoons, not so much for real life.

The second relies on the very shaky notion that there’s some virtue in having one’s scales balanced between harmful and helpful actions, or even having a surplus of helpful to balance out the harm. “Yes, Ted beat his wife, but what about all that time he’s put in at the soup kitchen?” It’s a desperate position, and I think largely an untenable one.

The third is more difficult to accomplish, I think, and not a perfect response either. You go from support to opposition in a single turn, and simply change which black-and-white category you’re slotting the person into.

Much harder is recognizing the cognitive and social biases involved in our relationships with people, and recognizing that people can both help and harm, and that one doesn’t necessarily excuse the other. Trolls are people, and some of them are probably people you know. Statistically, you probably know a rapist and almost certainly know multiple rape victims, just as surely as you know divorced people and southpaws. We get nowhere by thinking of trolling (and other forms of bullying and harassment) as some inevitable thing perpetrated by a faceless, unknown force. Only by recognizing reality in all its discomforting complexity, can we actually address the problems.