[CW: bigotry]

Stumbled onto Dan Fincke’s lengthy defense of Charlie Hebdo in my feed reader, so I decided to see how it addressed my own point. It didn’t, really, just making the tired “it’s okay because they’re liberal” argument that holds water about as well as most sieves. Fincke specifically brings up South Park’s hilarious use of antisemitism used to skewer antisemites and Colbert’s anti-rightwing schtick, conveniently ignoring1 all the times both those shows have, despite liberal (or left libertarian in South Park’s case) intentions, crossed well into racist, misogynist, transphobic, or otherwise bigoted territory, without making the bigots the butt of the joke. Read some trans people’s writing on the number of jokes at their expense on primetime TV someday. It rather takes a lot of wind out of the sails of those arguments.

But Fincke brought up one point in the process that’s worth tackling specifically.

And, to the point of stereotypical depictions, Ashley Miller has made the important point that the medium of political cartoon inherently plays in caricature. It plays on over-exaggerated imagery. It’s a stylistic element of the medium. Everyone usually looks awful or stereotyped in a political cartoon. That’s usually the point.

Yeah, no. It’s true, caricature is an art of exaggeration, whether it’s racist or not. The problem is when caricaturists rely on racist imagery, rather than their actual subjects, to make their caricatures. Take, for instance, most right-wing political cartoons featuring Barack Obama2. You’ll find a litany of bulbous noses and big lips, which (as this cartoon by Shmorky points out) are not features that Obama possesses. Rather than caricaturing a person, Barack Obama, who has a very caricaturable face, they fall back on caricature shorthand for black people that dates back to Al fucking Jolson.

The same is true for the Charlie Hebdo cartoons that have made the rounds lately. So many Muslim men with turbans, thobes, bushy beards, and big hook noses; so many Muslim women in burqas. Why is that? Muslim women wear a wide variety of different garb, depending on their particular denomination, from simple scarves and hijabs to the more restrictive niqabs and burqas. Muslim men have more clothing diversity, and both genders have far greater diversity than the cartoons would suggest. If Islam isn’t a race, why is every Muslim drawn as an Arab caricature3? Even if it weren’t racist, it’s lazy.

But then, lazy caricature often trades in racism, because racism is the laziest form of caricature. No need to consider anything about the people, what they look like, how they behave, just reduce them to a set of signifiers determined by their skin color.

Fincke links positively to Understanding Charlie Hebdo, a website that helpfully seeks to explain the cartoons for a non-French-speaking audience. That site compares Charlie Hebdo to Mad Magazine, which seems apt. Mad Magazine is also a humor publication that skewers current events with a left-leaning bias, and Mad also trades heavily in cartoonish caricatures of their targets. Mad also has a long history of bigoted cartoons that aren’t covered by the blanket immunity of “they’re liberal!” or “no, no, the bigots are the punchline!” because the bigots, very clearly, are not the punchline. And lest you think that cherry-picking the most easily-found images from the ’70s demonstrates that it’s no longer a problem, here’s one that drew some understandable heat in 2013.

Being liberal, making fun of bigots, and using caricature are all well and good. They are not, however, things that prevent your work from serving bigotry of one sort or another. That requires more thought, more consideration, and more awareness of context. Folks like Fincke want us to consider these French cartoons in the larger context of the magazine’s politics and French culture, but to ignore the larger context of a long, worldwide history of racist and homophobic imagery, and the splash damage caused by using that imagery, the way it undermines any intended message of anti-racism. Wouldn’t this cartoon be more effective at lampooning racists if it didn’t feature a black caricature who could have been traced from a 1940s Spirit comic? Wouldn’t this cartoon have been more effective if it didn’t think replicating racist imagery were the same thing as lampooning it?

In science and skepticism, we often talk about the Galileo Gambit, where cranks will compare themselves to Galileo because his ideas were rejected too. I’m starting to think we need an Onion Gambit: “It is not enough to wear the mantle of satire; you must also be good at it.”

1. Fincke acknowledges some of South Park’s issues with transphobia later in the post, but doesn’t seem to see the actual distinction. From Fincke’s perspective, apparently, all targets are fair game for whatever caricature the satirists decide to use. The problem is only when the content of the satire is actually false. I think the problem is when the satire feeds into or relies on stereotypes that have, traditionally, been used to demean and oppress the underprivileged. It’s especially egregious when the target of the satire is not the stereotype itself (South Park’s transphobia, the Asian caricature that led to #CancelColbert), but even material which tries to make bigots the butt of the joke often falls flat. Fred Clark wrote a piece awhile back that often comes to mind when this topic comes up. Making fun of bigots by exaggerating actual bigotry is a difficult tightrope walk for even very talented comedians and satirists, and we shouldn’t be surprised when they occasionally stumble. But saying that those stumbles aren’t problematic because the satirist usually has good intentions ignores the difference between intent and outcome, and robs us of a conversation that often needs to be had. Why is the joke/caricature/etc. problematic? Where does it come from? Why was it thought to be funny? Dissecting those issues often gets us to the messy world of how we all absorb and sometimes repeat bigoted stereotypes without thinking. These missteps should be opportunities for us to talk about how bigotry works, how to be more aware of splash damage, more compassionate. Getting defensive and saying “nuh-uh because liberal” only perpetuates the problem.

2. The special case is Ted Rall. Rall is a leftist cartoonist who drew fire in 2013 for cartoons that depicted Barack Obama in a decidedly apelike fashion. Those defending Rall pointed out that he depicted everyone in a decidedly apelike fashion. He and his defenders thought this equal treatment meant that the cartoons weren’t actually racist. I think it’s a prime example of the problem with “equal opportunity offense.” Things that aren’t really problematic when done to privileged groups aren’t so benign when they feed into or draw from a context of bigotry and oppression. It’s one thing to draw George W. Bush like a chimp. Dude looks like a chimp. But drawing Obama to look like a chimp, when he doesn’t, and when there’s a huge history of cartoons and propaganda and pseudoscience about how apelike black people are, when “monkey” is a slur, it means you may have to rethink your stock caricature.

It also shows what a lazy, shitty artist Ted Rall is.

3. To be entirely fair to Charlie Hebdo, many of these caricatures are of Muhammad, who was Arabian. The fact that Muhammad is basically indistinguishable from any other male Muslim in their cartoons, however, is a problem.

Bigotry, Satire, and the Left

[CW: Racism]

I used to be a big fan of “Family Guy.” I owned the first several seasons, and watched them repeatedly. I rejoiced when the show came back from its cancellation, even if the interim productions (A “live from Vegas” album and the direct-to-DVD Stewie movie) weren’t spectacular. I listened to the commentaries, which were often just as entertaining as the show itself. I loved how the show skewered right-wing religious fundamentalism, how frequently it crossed into the boundaries of bad taste for a laugh. Like, there was the bit where a JFK Pez dispenser got shot, or where Osama Bin Laden was trying to get past airport security by singing showtunes, and the whole “When You Wish Upon a Weinstein” episode. The latter of those never made it to air; the former segments were even cut from the DVD sets. Family Guy was edgy.

Seth MacFarlane, the creator and significant part of the voice cast of the show, is decidedly liberal, and his politics have certainly informed the series. More and more as the show went on, we saw bits lampooning creationists and religion, promoting pot legalization and gay marriage and positive immigration reform.

Unfortunately, as the show went on, we saw more and more of the stuff that eventually soured me on the series. That same “edginess,” that same intentionally-offensive philosophy of “we make fun of everyone,” meant more characters who were stereotype caricatures. Brian’s flamboyantly gay relative, the Asian reporter (voiced by a white woman) who occasionally slips into a “me ruv you rong time” accent for a laugh, the creepy old pedophile. And of course Quagmire, whose ’50s-throwback ladies-man character is eventually just a vehicle for relentless rape jokes.

Seth MacFarlane would probably tell you that he’s not a racist or a misogynist or a homophobe. He would probably tell you that he’s very liberal, that the show constantly makes fun of right-wing ideologies and satirizes even his erstwhile employers at Fox. In satirical parlance, he’d probably argue that his show is “punching up.”

The problem is that, while doing all that punching, he’s not giving any thought to the splash damage toward people who might not be his actual targets. What about satirizing right-wingers necessitates rape jokes and racial stereotypes? Would his satire be as effective without those elements? Might it be better? I don’t think Seth MacFarlane cares much. They get laughs, and when it comes down to it, laughs matter more to guys like Seth MacFarlane than the targets of those laughs.

There are lots of people in similar boats, willing to throw anyone under the bus for a cheap laugh, then defend themselves by saying that they’re being satirical, that because they’re politically liberal, or because they satirize the powerful in addition to the powerless, that they can’t be bigots. They’re just equal-opportunity offenders, treating everyone the same, and you don’t see their powerful targets complaining.

Which, of course, misses the point. It misses the point like a white person saying “well how come it’s okay to say ‘honky’ or ‘cracker’ but not the n-word?” It misses the point like a man saying “female comedians are always telling jokes about men, how come it’s only sexist when I tell jokes about chicks or rape?” It misses the point that when not all people are equal in society, mocking them equally does unequal harm. Author Saladin Ahmed put it best when he said “In an unequal world, satire that mocks everyone serves the powerful. It is worth asking what pre-existing injuries we add our insults to.

It’s an important thing to remember when you’re a satirist. Who is your target? Who do you want to hurt, and who might get hurt in the crossfire? Is it necessary to your point for your target to have sex with an offensive transphobic caricature? Is it necessary to your point to dredge up stereotypical slurs against one minority to lampoon bigotry against another? Is it necessary in making fun of racists and homophobes to replicate racist and homophobic imagery?

“Satire” is not a shield that protects its creators from crticism. “Liberalism” is not an inoculation that prevents its bearers from committing bigoted acts. Punching down is a problem. Splash damage is a problem. Not all slights are covered by “but look at the larger context,” not when your “larger context” conveniently omits the context of centuries of caricatures with hook noses or big lips or fishnet stockings.

And, it should go without saying, “criticism” doesn’t come from the barrel of a gun.

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.

…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.

The Business of Fear and Murder

All the depressing bullshit about gun violence and accidental shootings was running through my head last night, as I was falling asleep to an old “Law & Order” episode about easily-modified guns. I’m sure others have written about this more and better, but a new facet of fucked-uppedness of the gun situation in this country clicked with me last night.

Specifically, that gun manufacturers benefit directly from increasing fear and murder.

It’s no secret that there are tons of guns in this country, hundreds of millions of them, which works out to roughly one gun per person in the country, not counting government-owned weapons, and it’s unclear if it includes illegally-owned ones.

There are varying stories about how guns fall into the hands of criminals, and the prevalence of gun shows and Internet firearm merchants suggests that it’s probably not that difficult for most people who want guns to obtain them through legal or semi-legal means. But even if every gun on the streets was stolen from a home, a gun shop, or Wal-Mart, it wouldn’t matter: the manufacturers get paid either way.

Unless gun retailers work very differently from other retailers, the manufacturers/distributors get paid when shop owners order product to put on the shelves. Whatever happens to the gun after that–if it’s legally purchased, if it’s a straw purchase, if it’s stolen from the shop, if it’s stolen from the distribution truck on the way to the shop, if it’s acquired in some way then given, sold secondhand, or stolen–is irrelevant from the manufacturer’s perspective, because they’ve already been paid. Weapons stolen from the shop or the purchasers would presumably be covered by insurance, and then those people would presumably use that insurance money to buy more guns, which would be even better for the gun manufacturers/distributors.

We’ve seen surges in gun sales any time the gun lobby can convince enough people that someone’s gonna come take their guns away. Fear of new gun regulations increases gun sales. I talked last year about the memes and myths surrounding the gun conversation, so many of which hinge on fear–fear of home invasion, fear of muggings, fear of tyrannical government, fear of black youths–which form the justifications for owning guns “for protection.” I’ll be curious to see if there’s any upswing in gun ownership by people of color, as racist trigger-happy vigilantes and racist trigger-happy cops have reentered the news cycle in a big way.

A shame the fear of an accidental shooting never seems to drive people’s gun ownership decisions.

So the more fear there is–of violence, of government, of criminals–the more guns sell, the more gun manufacturers profit. Even in a climate of steadily declining violent crime; there’s no reason the fear needs to be realistic or justified. And the more criminals obtain guns, the more gun manufacturers profit. And the more criminals use those guns, the more fear they create, and the more fearful people buy guns, and the more gun manufacturers profit.

Gun manufacturers–and ultimately, the whole gun retail sector, though the manufacturers most of all–directly benefit from increasing gun crime. It’s time to stop pretending that the gun lobby is about advocacy or protection. They are selling both the disease and the placebo they call a cure. They profit no matter who buys, no matter who dies. We need, as a society, to stop letting the gun lobby bully us out of having a serious discussion about gun control. We need, as a society, to stop pretending that any gun control measures would be some risky, untested experiment when countless other nations have paved the way for us to follow. We need, as a society, to realize that “guns don’t kill people” and the other bumper sticker phrases that pass for gun lobby arguments amount to empty deflections designed to distract from actual problems. We need, as a society, to finally realize that the only people who benefit from more guns on the streets are the people who manufacture and sell them. We, as a society, need to realize that those benefits are paid for with innocent blood.

America’s Increasingly Mementoesque Gun Conversation

Last year, after the tragic shooting of Congressional Representative Gabrielle Giffords, there were a lot of conversations worth having. There was the conversation about how the increasingly divisive martial rhetoric of the conservatives–and in particular, the Tea Party, may have made the tragedy an inevitability. There was the conversation about what responsibilities the political parties have to try to defuse the more radical fringes of their movements. And there was the conversation about how Arizona’s lax gun laws might have contributed to the problem.

Unfortunately for the country as a whole, we couldn’t really have that conversation. Because every time anyone tries to have that conversation, conservatives and libertarians stick their fingers in their ears and shout “LA LA LA GUNS DON’T KILL PEOPLE LA LA LA THE SOLUTION IS MORE GUNS LA LA LA!” And because those chickenhawk conservatives and libertarians are in the pockets of the NRA and the gun lobby, and because the liberals have no spines especially when it comes to gun control, no one ever tries to have the conversation anyway.

It might seem like a strawman argument to say that conservatives think “more guns” is the solution to gun violence, but every time one of these tragedies happens, some asshole comes out and says “this wouldn’t have happened if someone in the crowd had a concealed weapon!”1 Because conservatives live in a fantasy world where carrying a gun makes you a cool-headed sharpshooting superhero, capable in a moment of precisely evaluating a situation that would have anyone else pissing their pants, drawing a bead on the bad guy, and taking him down in a single shot, then probably saying something clever and manly right before the credits roll. This is the same ridiculous fantasy world in which torture is a reliable way of producing information and trickle-down economics works.

Which is why I was so interested in this article in the wake of the Tucson shooting. See, there was someone at the event with a firearm. Joe Zamudio rushed over from a nearby drug store and, gun at the ready, nearly shot an innocent man who’d taken the gun from the actual shooter. If he had been a little more trigger-happy, a little less cautious and thoughtful, one hero would have shot another, and Zamudio might have been mistaken for a second gunman.

So we have here a clear-cut situation where carrying a concealed weapon at the scene of a tragedy didn’t prevent the tragedy (in fact, the gunman was taken down mostly by unarmed people, unless you count the folding chair as “armed”). Not only that, but the guy carrying the weapon explains that it would have only made things worse. In the end, having a firearm didn’t make anyone a hero–there were heroes with and without guns–and discharging that firearm would have resulted in more innocent people being injured or killed. Any lingering belief I had in that conservative myth of the Civilian Hero Who Shoots Back was well and truly shattered.

Then, earlier this year, that myth took another blow when would-be civilian hero George Zimmerman followed unarmed youth Trayvon Martin, ignoring the warnings of police, and indefensibly shot him to death. Zimmerman’s history marks him as a wannabe vigilante, leading a Neighborhood Watch and frequently calling the police to report suspicious individuals. Zimmerman’s tale punches further holes in the myth of the Hero With a Gun, because it’s a textbook case of someone mistaking their own fear and prejudice (whether toward Martin’s race or his attire) for evidence of someone else’s criminality. Zimmerman lacked the plot-granted rightness that belongs to the hero vigilantes of fiction, but retained their dogged certainty and lack of faith in the law to do the right thing. As a result, he killed an unarmed teenager, whose crime (at most) was defending himself against an armed stalker. The Martin case shows us that owning a gun and carrying a gun does not grant a person magic insight into the level of danger presented by individuals, nor does it give them the abilities or authority of trained law enforcement officers. Owning a gun does not make a person better able to sort out good from evil, does not make its owner a virtuous hero.

But if the Gun-Toting Vigilante is in luck, they might just live in a state whose laws treat Gun-Toting Vigilantes like automatic heroes, where you can “stand your ground” if you so much as feel threatened (whether or not that feeling is justified) and kill the source of that threatening feeling. And, in the eyes of the law, go on as if no crime has occurred. It’s interesting; if we trust Zimmerman’s story, then the law seems to be that it’s okay to shoot someone if they make you feel threatened, but it’s not okay to assault them. Or maybe it’s just the might of a firearm makes right.

While we were still having the Trayvon Martin conversation, a similar incident occurred2, with even less pundit-exploitable gray area. 13-year-old Darius Simmons was moving garbage cans outside his house when his 75-year-old neighbor John Spooner confronted him with a handgun and accused him of committing a theft that he couldn’t have possibly been involved with. Spooner shot Simmons in the chest while his mother was watching. When the police arrived, they treated Simmons and his family as if they were the criminals, despite Spooner having apparently premeditated the crime.

The myth of the Gun-Toting Vigilante Hero takes another blow, as it becomes obvious that not only does a gun grant magic insight into other people’s guilt, but it doesn’t even grant self-insight. There’s no way for the gun owner to know if their certainty and belief in their own virtuousness is accurate or delusional. In other words, there’s no way for the gun-owner to know if they’re the hero vigilante, or just a murderous asshole.

And so we come to the recent3 shooting in Aurora, CO, which by virtue of occurring at a screening of a Batman film, throws these myths of heroic vigilantes into the spotlight. The shooter in this case, James Holmes, apparently planned the attack for months. He came armed with canisters of tear gas, a 12-gauge shotgun, a Glock pistol, and a .223 Smith & Wesson M&P semi-automatic loaded with armor-piercing bullets in a high-capacity magazine. He was wearing body armor and a gas mask. He’d booby-trapped his apartment with bombs. And it looks, for all intents and purposes, that this guy didn’t want to be the courageous gun-toting hero vigilante, but a straight-up supervillain. Seventy people were shot. Twelve died.

Colorado is a concealed carry state, but there are no reports that I can find of anyone in the audience pulling a gun on Holmes. It’s certainly possible that no one else in that theater was armed. It’s also possible that someone was armed, but realized that additional gunfire wouldn’t help–because of the tear gas, because of the dark theater, because of the body armor, because of the crowd trying to get away. It’s also possible that someone was armed and just wanted to get out alive.

But no one stood up in that darkened theater and, squinting through the tear gas, drew a bead and fired a single shot at the weak spot in the shooter’s armor, taking him down. No one even (as in the Giffords shooting) rushed him to tackle him to the ground. Where was our Vigilante Hero?

Where he belonged: in the fictional film playing on the screen.

The worst part of all this is how easily it could have been ameliorated, if not prevented entirely, if our country had sensible gun laws. We accept, as a nation, that you can’t buy certain kinds of weapons. If I went searching online for places to purchase nuclear warheads, I think I’d have the Department of Homeland Security on my back pretty quickly. We accept, as a nation, truly ridiculous extremes of security theater at airports, submitting ourselves to X-Ray scanners and randomish searches and taking our shoes off and not carrying certain amounts of liquid, because some very small number of people have or might use those types of things to kill.

Remind me: how many shoe bombers have there been versus gun-toting killers?

We accept, as a nation, that because pseudoephedrine can be used to make methamphetamines, there should be limits on who can purchase it and how much they can purchase in a given time period. We accept that places selling pseudoephedrine must keep careful records on the names and addresses of people buying it, and that any suspicious activity be reported.

In 2009, all drug use (of which methamphetamine use is a subset) caused 37,485 deaths. Firearms caused 31,228.

There’s a major difference, of course, between guns and pseudoephedrine. Used as intended, pseudoephedrine can clear up congested sinuses without making one drowsy. Used as intended, guns can wound or kill. Using guns to wound or kill is not off-label use. It is the purpose of the device. The wounding or killing may be in service of some greater good (defending innocents, hunting for food). But a “greater good” was not served in all 31,228 cases in 2009. There was no “greater good” served by George Zimmerman or James Holmes or John Spooner. And unless you live in Kashmir or dine exclusively on utahraptors, there’s no “greater good” served by owning a semi-automatic assault weapon.

Can anyone give me a good reason why we can’t regulate guns at least as heavily as we do cough medicine? The best I’ve ever heard is “but the Second Amendment!” Take a look at the Second Amendment, kids:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

The word “regulated” is right there. “Well regulated,” in fact. Was James Holmes part of a well-regulated militia? Does letting George Zimmerman or John Spooner carry guns contribute positively to “the security of a free state”? How many more shootings will it take before we realize that maybe, just maybe, it’s time to give the NRA the finger and start working on more rational gun policy?

I know the response. It’s the response that Louie Gohmert gave: If someone in the theater had a gun, they could have taken the Aurora shooter down. Nevermind how many blows to the chin the Gun-Toting Vigilante Hero Myth has taken in the past few years. Nevermind the specific circumstances of the Aurora shooting that made it highly unlikely for anyone, gun-toting or not, to have taken Holmes down. Conservatives cling to their myths while real people die.

The other response is that determined criminals will always find a way to get their hands on weaponry. I suspect that’s a bit facile (I wouldn’t know where to start looking for, say, enriched uranium or sarin gas, even if I had the desire to use such things), but yes, determined criminals would almost certainly find a way to obtain guns.

And if that were monitored like pseudoephedrine is monitored, like terrorists trying to purchase WMDs are monitored, the lone nut stocking up on assault weapons would trigger law enforcement alarms as surely as the secret cabals trying to obtain grenade launchers or bomb bridges. And, moreover, the police would have a crime to hold the criminal on, namely possession of (too many/concealed/the wrong kind of) firearms. It wouldn’t be “oh, you killed someone, but we can’t charge you with anything because you said you felt threatened.”

It’s true, the determined criminal will get his or her hands on firearms if they want them badly enough. But there’s a big difference between “I can get this if I want it bad enough and save up enough to buy it on a black market” and “I can get this with a quick trip to the gun show/sporting goods store/Wal-Mart.” A determined meth producer is going to get their hands on tons of Sudafed, but we still keep it locked up and scan their licenses if they try to buy it.

And, as one last blow to the Mythical Hero Who Shot Back, James Holmes takes that craftiness a step further. Not only will determined criminals get weapons if they want them bad enough, they’ll also choose to attack places (like a no-guns-allowed theater in a concealed-carry state) where people won’t have guns. They’ll armor up and throw gas bombs so that, even if someone did have a gun, it wouldn’t do any good.

It’s time to put away childish things, like readings of a Constitution that omit the uncomfortable bits and fairy tales of gallant heroes with perfect apprehension of chaotic situations. It’s time that we close the Big Book of Conservative Myths and turn our attention to saving real lives in the real world. It’s time that we stopped waiting for Batman or John McClane or Dirty Harry, and started working on making a safer reality.

1. Following the Giffords shooting, one of those assholes was Arizona state representative Jack Harper (Republican, of course), who said “When everyone is carrying a firearm, nobody is going to be a victim.”

2. Sadly, I imagine that many such similar incidents occurred, but this is the one I read about at the time.

3. Since I started writing this post, the shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin also occurred. So far, it looks like the shooter puts another few holes in that Conservative Hero Myth, namely that the hero of one story (say, the White Supremacist narrative about taking back the country for white folks) might be the villain of another (say, the American story of one peaceful nation coming together out of many diverse races, ethnicities, religions, and so forth).

Meme Debunking #2: Publicity

I liked my post on the toxic immigration meme that I think I’m going to turn it into a series. I won’t say “regular series,” but when I come across phrases and memes that deserve a little skeptical examination, I’ll spend a little time debunking them. Consider it a paltry companion to Bronze Dog’s Doggerel series.

You know that saying “any publicity is good publicity”? People actually believe that. I see it a lot in discussions about bad comics especially: “it may be bad, but at least it has people talking.” And that sort of thing.

And yet, it’s obviously false. Painfully obviously.

Think about it this way: if there’s no such thing as bad publicity, why are there PR firms? Why does the term “damage control” exist? Why is there such a thing as spin?

When oil started pumping into the Gulf of Mexico, BP started running frequent ads championing their efforts to clean it up. When Toyota had to recall a bunch of their cars because of gas pedal problems, they released ads championing their responsibility and safety record. When GM was just coming out of a bankruptcy scare, they released ads about their stability and commitment to innovation.

If any publicity really were good publicity, would any of these companies spent so much money to contain the potential damage to their images?

It’s true that bad publicity gets people talking, and in some cases, to some degree, it might get people checking out the subject out of morbid curiosity. Hell, it’s why I saw “The Last Airbender.” But there’s a point where people aren’t just talking, they’re talking about how bad the subject is, and that has a major negative effect.

We’ve seen how bad PR has directly negatively affected vaccination rates, GMOs, High Fructose Corn Syrup, nuclear power, and various other topics under the typical skeptical purview. There’s no reason for anyone with the capacity for critical thought to believe that it’s true. So I think it’s high time we put this meme to bed–or at least subjected it to some bad publicity.

“And you draw the line at intelligent breasts?”

So, there’s this new Reebok commercial for their EasyTone shoes, which supposedly help work out your butt as you walk. It seems to me that shoes which leave you more tired after walking than you would normally be are defeating some of the point, but whatever. Here’s the ad:

Oh FSM, it’s been way too long since I watched any Coupling. Anyway, my second thought upon seeing that commercial is this: who’s the audience? I’ll admit, I was enthralled, but I don’t think I’m going to go out and purchase any butt-toning shoes for women, and while Reebok does men’s EasyTone shoes as well, you’d never know it from the commercial.

Presumably, the commercial is for women, but I have a hard time imagining that many women would be likely to have the same reaction to the commercial I did. Not only is it quite sexualized and objectifying, but it portrays even a woman’s individual body parts as jealous, catty, and shallow. How does that appeal to any woman?

Is it just ridiculously tone-deaf and poorly targeted, or do I understand women even less than I previously thought?