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.

Advertisements

Slow Clap

I started a post recently building off a myth that Ben Radford perpetuated in a recent hilariously terrible screed about (straw-)feminists, but it’s in need of some editing and revising and thinking whether it’s even a good idea before I actually post it.

But then he wrote this bit of inanity, complete with bad photoshop, elevating his rhetorical style to the level of “bad college newspaper satire.” And I scarcely know where to begin.

I think my favorite part is the dig at the fact that PZ Myers hasn’t published a book yet. There’s a relevant criticism in the digital age. Or any age, really, since “publishing a book” doesn’t say anything about…well, anything. Except one’s ability to convince a publisher that they’re worth taking a risk on, and in the digital age, even that’s a diminishing factor.

Comparing peer-reviewed publication citations provides greater hilarity. Especially since BA-in-psychology-cryptid-expert Radford makes digs at PZ’s “writing outside of his field [of biology]”, and being “once known for his work as a biologist.”

If you’re not inclined to read through Radford’s attempt at humor (hint: it’s worse than his poetry), here’s the tl;dr: PZ strawmanned me!

No, seriously, that’s it. Radford made nearly 800 words out of an accusation that PZ strawmanned him. It’s a shame that, in the whole effort, he never actually said what PZ was supposedly strawmanning.

Look, here’s a bit of Arguing 102 for the would-be skeptics and internet debaters out there: it’s awesome that you found a list of fallacies on some website someplace, and you’re so happy that you’re learning all the Latin names and everything. And you totally understand what a straw man argument is and why it’s a fallacy and now you’re seeing just how common they are. In fact, maybe someone crafted a straw man argument in a conversation with you and you noticed it and furiously went a-typing away at your keyboard.

Here’s the thing: there’s a productive way to go about responding to someone’s straw man version of your argument, and a very unproductive way. First, the unproductive way:

“You strawmanned me! That’s a strawman!”

Also, the very unproductive way: “You strawmanned me!” x 258.

The productive way is to go beyond the accusation. The easiest way to do this is to quote your opponent’s straw man argument and either restate your original argument, quote it, or link back to it. Better still is to do that and then explain how your opponent distorted your argument, or why their response failed to address your actual points. That follow-through is actually important; it’s what separates the people who legitimately recognize fallacious reasoning and can explain what’s wrong with it (and thus help make their own arguments look even better) from the people who just learned the term online and don’t really understand the argumentation process, and the people who are using the term as a way to dodge legitimate criticism. Such people–both groups–are fairly common online.

As for Ben Radford, maybe someday he’ll get the hang of this skeptical argumentation and writing stuff.

Bigots Ruined It For You

[Trigger Warning for rape, misogyny, racism, assorted bigotry]

Let’s say you’re an enthusiastic Jain or Hindu, wanting to express your desire to be good, wanting to evoke Shakti with a clear symbolic representation as a flag or tattoo or something. You find the perfect symbol, one that has been used for that purpose since ancient times, the swastika. But you can’t use it. Bigots ruined it for you. A whole army of racists and supremacists claimed that symbol as their own and flew it over a campaign of genocide. It’s tainted, possibly forever. Try to adopt that symbol, and you’ll be mistaken for one of them, for a racist, a white supremacist, a Nazi, a bigot.

Let’s say it’s Halloween. You’re hosting a party for your friends, and you want to put together a costume that’s kind of ironic, something that you put thought into but looks like you just kind of threw it together. You settle on a classic ghost costume–white sheet, head to toe, with eye-holes cut out, like all the kids in “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.” You could flair it up a bit with a point toward the top, like the little tail bit on heads of those ghosts from Casper. But you can’t wear that costume. Bigots ruined it for you. Dress like that, and you’ll be mistaken for one of them, for a racist, a white supremacist, a Klansman, a bigot.

Let’s say you’re an enthusiastic southerner in the United States. You want to represent your heritage with a symbol of the South, something that proclaims in bold, primary colors your love of the land of barbecue and hospitality and Molly Hatchet. There’s a flag you can fly to do just that, except…except it was designed in a bloody war over (among other things) the right to treat some humans as less than human. It’s a well-designed flag, but bigots ruined it for you. It’s been tainted, by the war that spawned it and the continuing centuries of racist policies that followed. Fly that flag over your house, in your garage, on your trailer hitch, and you’ll be mistaken for one of them, for a racist, a segregationist, a bigot.

Let’s say you heard a funny joke recently. It’s kind of offensive, because it plays on stereotypes that you know aren’t true, but it’s a well-constructed joke nonetheless. You know you could tell it with perfect timing and get a roomful of hearty belly-laughs. Besides, you don’t believe those stereotypes are true. They’re absurd! But you can’t tell that joke anyway. Bigots ruined it for you. You may recognize that those stereotypes are false exaggerations, and you may know that everyone who hears you tell the joke knows that, but there are people who still believe those things, and there are people who are still hurt by those stereotypes, still affected by their presence in our culture. Tell that joke, and you’ll be mistaken for one of those people, for a racist, a misogynist, a homophobe, a bigot.

Let’s say that you’re a Christian. You follow Christ’s teachings and recognize that the most important thing–like it says in First Corinthians, like Jesus said to the scribes–is love. You want to express your Christian love by standing up for family values, because families–of any shape or size or configuration–are the purest example in this world of God’s unconditional love, and you value that. You see love as the most fundamental part of the Christian message, the foundation of Christ’s teachings, and so you would call yourself a fundamentalist Christian to express its importance to you. You define sin as that which is opposed to love, acts of jealousy and hatred, and see such acts as the worst crimes that one can carry out against their fellow humans. Despite that, you recognize that no person is truly evil, that those sins of hatred and jealousy come mostly out of ignorance, and that they can be corrected and defeated with love. You would advise people not to get angry at the hateful, but to hate the sin and love the sinner. But you can’t use those phrases–“family values,” “fundamentalist Christian,” “love the sinner, hate the sin.” Bigots ruined it for you. Use those phrases, and you’ll be mistaken for one of those people, for a homophobe, a fanatic, a bigot.

Let’s say you want to talk to a stranger in an enclosed space, like an elevator or a bus or subway car. After all, people end up in those things together, and it’s really awkward to just sit around staring at the wall silently or pretending other people don’t exist. Besides, a stranger’s just a friend you haven’t met yet, and you’re a friendly person. So you’d like to seize the opportunity to make small talk. But you can’t. Bigots ruined it for you. Rapists and sadists committing what are, effectively, hate crimes against women, along with violent misogynists and a culture that ignores them and dismisses the concerns of women, that blames victims and makes rape and harassment costly to report, have ruined it for you. Try to strike up that conversation, and you’ll be mistaken for one of those people, for a rapist, a violent person, a misogynist, a bigot.

Bigots suck. They make life shitty for lots of people. They make life shitty for the people who are targeted by their bigotry. They make life shitty for people who have to endure the inequalities built into a culture that rose up on bigoted foundations, even as more enlightened people recognize the mistakes of the past and try to dismantle that bigotry. And they even make life shitty for people who, in their innocent cluelessness or lack of empathy, might be mistaken for bigots. The solution is not to lash out at the targets of that bigotry, at the people who’ve suffered the most because of it, for being unable to look into your heart and your past and see that you’re not a bigot at all. The solution is not to lash out at people for being unable to discern whether an action is motivated by bigotry or ignorance. The solution is to realize that bigotry makes things suck for everyone. If you’re going to lash out, make sure you’re lashing out at the bigots. They’re the ones who ruined things.

What kind of diversity?

Vjack has a post up on Atheist Revolution discussing his problems with Atheism+. I’m not going to go into a lot of detail about it; I think he’s wrong, I think his posts on this and related subjects have been full of telling elisions and bad arguments. I’m personally disappointed that someone I respected and agreed with in the past has devoted so much of his recent blogging to this apparent vendetta. I generally don’t understand the pushback and opposition to the various proposed and enacted social justice initiatives, but it’s more striking when it’s from people I like (see also my quarrel with Toxicpath). But that’s enough of the personal stuff. The point here is simply responding to a couple of statements from that long-ish post.

On Values

In suggesting that we share common goals, I am being descriptive rather than prescriptive. That is, I am suggesting that virtually all atheist do in fact have some common goals and not that we should adopt some set of goals that we do not currently share.

I get where Vjack is coming from here, but he’s arguing against two contradictory strawmen. The implication in this statement (made explicit in the subsequent paragraph) is that Atheism+ is a movement saying that atheists should adopt social justice values, which they currently have not adopted.

This is flatly wrong, and that’s pretty clear from the few prominent posts on the subject. The fact is that a lot of atheists already do share these social justice values, just as most atheists share the values that Vjack presumed for the first sentence, which I suspect would be similar to the incomplete list I compiled yesterday. The percentage of atheists who share social justice values is clearly not as large as the percentage who value science, for instance, but it’s still a preexisting category. “Atheism+” is the label that arose and took off from a discussion of like-minded atheists who already valued social justice to describe themselves.

Imagine that the libertarian wing of atheism–something that’s already in existence and has been clearly visible for some time–wanted to set themselves apart, so they could discuss libertarian issues without having to deal with the constant harping of liberal atheists, and so they could work to enact policies that supported their libertarian ideals, which is not something that the entirety of the atheist movement would be for. Would we begrudge them the ability to label themselves with something catchier than “libertarian atheists” (hey libertarian atheists: “Athei$m.” You can have that one for free) and unite to work toward particular goals that align with both their libertarian and atheist viewpoints?

I imagine some would. I wouldn’t. The less I have to deal with libertarians, the happier I generally am. It’d be a win-win situation.

So Vjack is wrong in suggesting that “Atheism+” is somehow, by its nature, prescriptive. It’s describing a movement and a group that’s been forming for a good long time, even if that movement isn’t “all atheists.” But I think he’s also wrong with seeing prescriptiveness as a problem. There’s nothing wrong or problematic in arguing that a particular group should care about a particular issue, or take action in a particular instance. It’s something that the atheist movement is generally familiar with. We hardly need any prodding to be spurred to action to support a high school atheist in a free speech battle or to speak out against tyrannical theocratic regimes, because those things are obviously in-line with our shared values. But, you know, take a look at the “Bullshit” episodes on secondhand smoke or the Americans with Disabilities Act or Cheerleading. Granted, they’re not directed primarily and solely at atheists, but they’re clear examples of some skeptically-minded folks saying to others “hey, these are issues that are important, which you should care about (and adopt our position on).” They’re making an argument that people who are like-minded on one set of positions and values (existence of gods, importance of science, promotion of reality-based policy) should also be like-minded on other positions and values (corporate liberty, opposing government intrusion, libertarianism).

They’re making an argument, which others are free to accept or reject. There’s no magical barrier between one set of values that some atheists share and any other set of values that some atheists share. If I hold libertarian or liberal or feminist or vegetarian or Objectivist values for the same basic reasons that I hold skeptical and scientific values, then of course I’m going to argue that others who hold one set of values should hold the other. “Hey, we both care about [THING A], and I care about [THING B] for the same reason I care about [THING A]. Since you agree with me about [THING A], you should also agree with me about [THING B].” Making the argument is not a problem, because there’s always the opportunity for a counterargument. And if a movement can handle guys like Bill Maher promoting anti-medical quackery and Penn Jilette promoting anti-government ideology and the legions of AGW deniers promoting anti-climate science demagoguery, all under the heading of “I’m anti-medicine/anti-government/anti-AGW for the same reason I’m anti-religion, because I’m a skeptic,” then I don’t see how it can’t handle feminists and social justice folks doing the same, even if you believe that those people are wrong/irrational/unskeptical/whatever.

On Diversity

I have always thought our movement was strong because of our diversity and not in spite of it. I value big tent atheism, and what I mean by that is a large movement with great diversity in which people work together to accomplish the few goals we truly share.

Had I been drinking, I probably would have ruined my smartphone when I read that first sentence. I agree, movement atheism has a lot of diversity, even of the kind that Vjack cites. But the idea that the community somehow only or generally or mostly works together to accomplish the few goals we truly share, that “Atheism+” is somehow an outlier in working together on goals that are only shared by a subset of atheists, is ludicrous. Some atheists have the goal of building bridges with theists to work on shared goals, others see that as a waste of time or worse. Some atheists have the goal of making all discourse civil and professional and non-dickish, others value blunt and acerbic speech. These groups have existed, and have been trying to unite like-minded atheists toward one or another goal, and creating DEEEEEP RIIIIIFTS in the movement/community for years. We generally work together on goals like fighting school prayer and supporting science, but there’s always been factions of atheists pulling in different directions and sniping at their opponents.

But there’s a bigger thing going on here, and it’s one that was laid out pretty clearly by Greta Christina. The question is what kind of diversity do you want? Do you want diversity of opinion, or diversity of background?

To some degree, you can have both. You can have libertarians and liberals and authoritarians, just as you can have blacks and whites and browns and so forth. But there comes a point where you have to make various choices, because encouraging, supporting, defending, or being explicitly inclusive of some opinions will necessarily make people from certain backgrounds feel excluded or dismissed, and vice-versa. As Greta Christina said, you can’t include both women and people who think women are inherently irrational. You can’t include both trans* people and people who think that trans* people are just self-deluded or insane. One way or another, someone’s going to leave.

Again, we’ve seen this recently with organized skepticism. Various leaders in the organized skeptical community have wanted to preserve a diversity of opinions on the god hypothesis by welcoming (and coddling) believers, which has left atheists feeling snubbed and delegitimized. In trying to accommodate one group, they’ve alienated another. TAM made their choice, that they’d rather have the Hal Bidlacks and Pamela Gays than the Christopher Hitchenses. We’ve seen it go the other way as well, such as when Orac declared his end with organized atheism after Richard Dawkins supported Bill Maher’s receipt of that science award. Dawkins said he found embracing a diverse group of atheists more important than promoting medicine, and so he lost the support of at least one medical practitioner.

Of course, it’s not quite that clear-cut, is it? It’s not like Hal Bidlack said at TAM “atheists aren’t welcome,” and it’s not like Vjack has said “feminists aren’t welcome.” What they’ve both said is that those groups are welcome under certain conditions. Atheists were welcome at TAM so long as they didn’t attack believers for their beliefs. Atheists are welcome to have their conferences about the god hypothesis, so long as they don’t do it under the heading of “skepticism.” Similarly, Vjack doesn’t have a problem with feminists, so long as they adhere to his standards of who should be considered a bigot. The rest of the social justice opponents seem to agree: so long as women are like Paula Kirby or Abbie Smith or Mallorie Nasrallah and don’t think harassment is that big a deal, or don’t ask people to change their practices, they can stick around. Heck, they’ll be celebrated. But man, suggest that it’s wrong to make rape jokes to a minor or hand an unsolicited nude photo to a speaker or that guys be more aware of appropriate times to ask women out, and then they’re unreasonable, irrational, unskeptical, shrill, militant, radical, feminazi, femistasi, c***s and t***s.

Diversity is okay–it’s great! it’s desirable! it makes us strong!–so long as it’s on our terms.

And you know what? That’s okay. If they want to prize diverse opinions over diverse backgrounds, that’s fine. But then they really can’t be surprised when the people who feel excluded by the side they’ve chosen (explicitly or through inaction) go off and do their own thing.

Personally, I prize diverse backgrounds. Somite argued that gender (and by extension, other background factors) didn’t determine ideas or facts. Would that that were the case. Societies around the world do not treat people of different backgrounds (gender, social class, skin color, neurology, disability status, etc.) the same way, and so those people develop different perspectives on the world. Those perspectives do not change what is objectively true or real, but they do affect which aspects of reality people are concerned about and focused on. Would an all-male group of skeptics and atheists ever consider the pseudoscience behind douching or various cosmetics? How highly would they prioritize those things? Would a group of non-parent skeptics and atheists consider the claims about the effects of breastfeeding or water birth or teaching about Santa Claus? How much effort would they expend on those topics as opposed to acupuncture and angels? White American ex-Christian atheists have certainly addressed the Muslim claim about the 72 heavenly virgins, but do they have the same depth of analysis on the subject as Heina Dadabhoy did? Would they provide the same emphases?

People from different backgrounds provide perspectives and priorities that a more homogenous group wouldn’t consider. And I think that’s important, I think that’s valuable. I think seeing problems or claims from different perspectives is an important tool in evaluating them, and an important tool in arguing about them. Just given the god hypothesis, some people might be more swayed by a moral argument (like the Euthyphro dilemma, or “Why Won’t God Heal Amputees”) than an evidentiary one, and vice versa. Having both those arguments in your toolset is more useful than only having one. But I also think that the perspectives of people who come from different backgrounds can also help shape and change what we find important. If all atheism were run by folks from mostly-godless European countries, then we’d probably see a lot more Alain de Bottons and a lot fewer Matt Dillahunties–and if the majority of atheists shared Alexander Aan’s perspective, then the movement would be different in a lot of other ways. Our backgrounds and experiences shape who we are, what we care about, and what we spend our time and effort on. Failing to consider the perspectives of others means we make those choices with less information, and may expend our efforts in less-than-worthwhile directions.

Moreover, there’s the P.R. angle. Like it or not, people are primed to listen to and agree with people who share their backgrounds, who come from the same place they do, who speak their language. Alain de Botton’s atheist-church arguments might play well in Europe where churches are mostly toothless, but it was roundly dismissed and ridiculed in god-soaked America. And I suspect that Reg Finley is going to play better at a black church in Tuskegee than a white doctor, as an example. The more people of different backgrounds, different places, different perspectives, we have, the more “languages” we can speak, the more people we can speak to and reach. If the whole movement looks like an old white boys’ club, it’s going to speak less strongly to people who don’t fit into those categories. You can call it irrational, I call it ethos.

So I’d prize diversity of background, which provides different perspectives and opinions and prioirties, over diversity of opinion, for the most part. Given the choice between an ex-Muslim atheist and a white supremacist atheist, I’m going to go for the former every time. I think we gain more than we lose by excluding the bigots. Is that divisive? Hell yes. But “divisiveness” is not in and of itself, a bad thing. Movement atheism has divided itself from secular Intelligent Design proponents like the Raelians and largely-secular cults like Scientology, and I think it’s benefited as a result.

And if what it takes for the social-justice-concerned atheists to move forward and work on those topics without being weighed down by the rape-jokers and c***-kickers and “only on my terms” diversity enthusiasts is to relabel themselves and widen an already-extant rift, then so be it. We’ll be divisive, and you can do whatever. The rest of us will work together on the goals we truly share, and you can comfortably sit back and call us irrational nazis and baboons.

How Dare You?!

This is kind of a follow-up to my post on friendship, and is likely to hit some of the same notes and indict some of the same people.

I’ve noticed recently, though I’m sure the trend has been around for some time, this tendency in skeptic/atheist circles to suggest, explicitly or implicitly, that a person has done so much for the atheist/skeptic community that it is somehow out of line to criticize them. Here’s an example I saw today, in PZ’s post about Sam Harris:

The Harris bashing going on here is just ridiculous. The man is a hero of the skepticism movement. All you people rushing to judgement should be embarrassed.

Hes admitted countless times he phrased his ideas poorly on the profiling issue (even publicly apologized on TV).

PZ, you need to take note on how well Harris defends himself against this character assassination you’ve exacerbated once again. Compare that with how you usually respond to criticism.

Remember that next time you’re getting all upset over a comedian’s joke and crying all over your keyboard and empty donut cases.

I know that I’ve seen this same kind of sentiment expressed about DJ Grothe of late (there’s one buried in this comment), and I’m pretty sure it came up a bunch about Dawkins in the whole “Dear Muslima” flap.

To put it bluntly, this kind of thinking is wrong-headed, fallacious, dangerous, and dare I say it, religious.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t have role models. That would be absurd. There are always people who are better than us or more informed than us at certain things. It’s fine to look up to people; the problem comes when you begin thinking those people are somehow above you.

A further problem comes if they begin thinking the same.

Must we, scientific skeptics and rational atheists, keep learning this lesson? This is the lesson of Linus Pauling, the lesson of Ayn Rand, the lesson of Edgar Mitchell, the lesson of Bill Maher, and so on. Being brilliant, well-informed, or just right about one area or subject does not make one brilliant, well-informed, or right about everything. Expertise does not transfer.

We as skeptics and atheists spend a lot of our time arguing with people because they’re wrong about something. We argue with strangers, we argue with anonymous idiots, we argue with professional pseudoscientists and preachers who hate us, we even argue with acquaintances and coworkers.

Why would we avoid arguing with the people we care about?

Granted, James Randi and Richard Dawkins and the like are basically strangers to me. The same is true for most people and the famous role models they look up to. We feel a kinship with these people because they’ve said or written or done things that resonate with us, that we wish to live up to or emulate. That forges an emotional connection, even if it’s one-way, which boils down to (at the very least) the point that we care what they have to say. We value their thoughts and opinions enough to spend our money buying books filled with just that, or spend our time watching their videos or reading their words online.

And so when they, our heroes, say or do something that is clearly wrong, I think we have a responsibility to speak up about it. In part, it’s because there’s a cognitive dissonance in saying “I value what you have to say” and “what you have to say with regard to X is wrong/reprehensible.” In part, it’s because we recognize that there are other people who value what they have to say, but may not be informed enough to see that, on this topic, they’re dead wrong. In part, it’s because we hope that our heroes are reasonable and, when presented with evidence that contradicts their position, would change it, making them even more admirable for following the evidence. In part, it’s because we just don’t like people being wrong. In part, I think we realize that leaving the wrongness unchallenged could eventually lead to worse problems (like the ubiquity of vitamin megadosing or libertarians). And in part, I think, it’s our responsibility.

That responsibility has different degrees of strength. If it’s, say, an author you like who has said something stupid, then your purchase of his book, your recommending it to your friends, etc., means that you have contributed to his popularity. But if it’s, say, someone who is often chosen by the media to speak for a group that you’re part of, then they’re sometimes (de facto) speaking on your behalf. And you don’t want the general public to think that this thing they’re wrong about is generally representative of the group’s beliefs.

Because, one way or another, their wrongness makes you look wrong. You’re wrong by proxy.

And so we call out our heroes when they’re wrong because we care about them and their opinions, because we want to give them the opportunity to realize their mistake and correct it, and because we want to show clearly that we don’t share their wrongness. Phil Plait called out Carl Sagan in his first book, because Sagan was wrong about Velikovski. Phil was also involved in correcting Randi when Randi spouted off about climate change. PZ called out Sam Harris about his unfounded views regarding racial profiling, and promoted the opinions of actual experts in response. Many spoke up when anti-medicine Bill Maher was nominated for a science award. And so on and so forth. Maybe if more people had spoken more loudly and forcefully at Linus Pauling, it wouldn’t be a generally-accepted belief that Vitamin C cures colds.

What we don’t do, what we shouldn’t do, what we must not do, is say “well, these people have done so much good that we can overlook this little bit of bad.” We don’t accept that from religious believers about the role of religion in history. We don’t accept that from the Catholic Church regarding its predator priests. We don’t accept that from science, dammit. We don’t say “well, these guys have published a bunch of good papers before, let’s just let this paper slide without peer review.” We don’t say “gee, Dr. Pauling’s been right about so many things, what’s the harm in just assuming he’s right about vitamin megadosing?” We don’t say “NASA’s got a pretty good track record, so we’re just going to overlook this error in the rover program. We wouldn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.”

No, dammit, we’re skeptics, we’re scientists and science enthusiasts. We pride ourselves on seeking the truth and fighting ignorance. When prominent scientists and skeptics go wrong, they’re the ones we should argue with most strongly, most fervently–because either they, prizing truth and knowledge as we do, will change their position, or we–prizing truth and knowledge–will realize that it was our own that was in error.

Or they’ll go on believing and spouting wrong things. And then we’re free to question whether they really are committed to truth and knowledge, or if they are committed to their own sense of infallible rightness. That’s a bitter pill to swallow, to realize that even your heroes (maybe even especially your heroes) can be blinded by ego, but it’s a necessary lesson to learn. It’s necessary because no one is perfectly right or perfectly insightful or perfectly skeptical or perfectly reasonable. Pobody’s nerfect, as the hat says. And sometimes we become complacent in accepting a person’s thoughts or ideas as pure unvarnished truth, and need to be shaken out of it with a glimpse of their clay feet.

Being a luminary, being a role model, being a tireless advocate, being a hero, shouldn’t shield a person from criticism. It may mean that we give them a little more benefit of the doubt to explain or clarify, but even that isn’t inexhaustible.

What it does (and should) grant them is a group of people who care what they have to say enough to explain to them why they’re wrong.

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)