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.

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No Joke

I’ve recently been rediscovering some of the music that I liked as a kid. Since I listened almost exclusively to “oldies” as a kid, it means I’ve really been enjoying a lot of music that my parents grew up on, which is a very strange sort of nostalgia.

But I was listening today to the Bee Gees’ “I Started a Joke,” and it got me thinking. I’ve always kind of liked the song, and read it as the lament of an asshole getting his due. But listening it tonight, it occurred to me that it could easily be about a bigot, or bigots in general. Let me lay out my (kind of silly) case.

I started a joke, which started the whole world crying.

“I started a joke, but it actually caused harm to people.”

But I didn’t see
That the joke was on me.

As people got wiser, became better, they realized that the real joke here was the bigot, the backwards asshat who thinks it’s funny to judge and dismiss a group of people because of some common trait.

I started to cry, which started the whole world laughing,

Ultimately, the only rational response to bigotry–and to the overly dramatic gymnastics that bigots engage in to claim that they’re the real oppressed victims–is ridicule.

Oh, if I’d only seen that the joke was on me.

This all could have been avoided if I’d realized in the first place that bigotry is fucking terrible.

I looked at the skies, running my hands over my eyes,
And I fell out of bed, hurting my head from things that I’d said.

But instead I got overdramatic, thinking that the whole world was out to get me, thinking that my petty problems matched the difficulties faced by the people I demeaned, and attributing any difficulties I had to my willingness to speak truths that other people found uncomfortable or impolite or politically incorrect. It never occurred to me that I was just a jackass.

Til I finally died, which started the whole world living,

Old bigots die. The problem with bigots is they tend to get entrenched in their beliefs, and they tend to get entrenched in positions of power within the existing social structure, allowing them to get their bigoted beliefs embedded in the social structure. It’d be nice if those old bigots could realize that they’re wrong with the ease that younger generations tend to, but it doesn’t always happen that way. Consequently, the solution has long been to allow the old bigots to gradually die off, taking their bigotry with them, and leaving the society in the hands of people who largely see that bigotry as a relic of an unenlightened past. The change comes slowly, the change comes painfully, but it comes.

Oh, if I’d only seen that the joke was on me.

It’d be nice if that weren’t the case, but bigots cling so desperately to their beliefs. As they dwindle in numbers, they become increasingly ridiculous. And increasingly pathetic. They become increasingly the punchline of society’s joke.

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’s atheism got to do with it?

For most possible values of “it,” nothing.

I got into a Twitter argument with Somite yesterday after he cited a trio of old/dead white cisgendered anglophone men as a reason that Atheism+ might be unnecessary. The conversation went in a few different directions, but kept coming around to Somite saying various things were “unrelated to atheism.”

And he’s right. Atheism–dictionary atheism, anyway–is a single position with respect to a single claim. The claim is “god exists;” the position is “I don’t accept that.”

And that’s it.

Now, I happen to think that said position is the one that people would arrive at necessarily if applying skeptical and scientific methods to the god-existence claim. But it’s trivially obvious that that’s not the only path to atheism. Some people arrive at that position through wholly irrational processes, like the Raelians. There’s nothing inherent in atheism that implies rationality or skepticism. There’s nothing about atheism that implies an appreciation of science–just look at Bill Maher. There’s nothing about atheism that implies a rejection of other supernatural beliefs and claims; the most recent Atheist Experience episode had a secular reincarnationist, for instance. There’s nothing about atheism that suggests that one should argue with religious believers or try to deconvert religionists. There’s nothing about atheism that says an atheist should be out and vocal about it. There’s nothing about atheism that implies the necessity to fight for free speech and religious freedom, or to try to dismantle religious privilege. Nothing about atheism suggested supporting Damon Fowler or Jessica Ahlquist. Nothing about atheism suggests the need for something like the Out Campaign or the Clergy Project. There’s nothing about atheism that implies any course of action–it’s why the whole “Stalin’s atrocities were motivated by his atheism” argument falls apart so easily. Atheism is a single position on a single claim, it gives no instruction, implies no values.

So, yes, there’s very little that’s actually “related to atheism.” And yet, The God Delusion is a pretty sizable book. And it’s certainly not the only book about atheism on the market. I suspect that there’s more to George H. Smith’s Atheism than just 355 pages of “I don’t believe in gods.” But how? How is any of that content related to atheism?

The answer is that atheism as a movement has never been just about atheism. Movement atheism has been composed primarily of people with similar values and positions on a number of topics. Movement atheism has been largely pro-science, skeptical, pro-religious freedom, pro-free speech, and anti-religion. Movement atheism has typically valued education to the point of fighting for proper science education and against religious encroachments into secular classrooms. Movement atheism has typically valued atheists as people, and fought against tyrannical anti-blasphemy laws and repressive theocracies, for the benefit of atheists under those kinds of oppression. Movement atheism has been concerned with dismantling religious privilege so that questioning religion and coming out as atheist is more acceptable in heavily religious cultures, and providing a framework and support network for atheists who face discrimination or other obstacles as they go public. Movement atheism has always been a group of people who share certain values working to promote those values, and adopting the label “atheism” in part because of its stigma, and in part because it’s a major focal point and common thread uniting the various people involved. We all share atheism, and by and large, we also share a common set of values.

Movement atheism has always been atheism plus.

So is “Atheism+” necessary? I’d say so, if only because it’s a label for something that’s already existed for some time now. For years, some of these atheists who share values like skepticism and education and promoting science and improving life for atheists and so on and so forth, have also realized that they share social justice values. For many of us, these values spring from the same place as our atheism–from skeptical inquiry, empathy, and valuing human rights. We’ve noticed that, unlike values like promoting science and free speech and fighting religious tyranny, suggesting that these values are things atheists should be concerned with and fight for has been much more controversial. There’ve been a lot of people pushing back against the crusaders for social justice, and one of the arguments they fall back on is that these social justice topics are “unrelated to atheism.”

They’re right, so long as by “atheism” they mean “dictionary atheism” and not “movement atheism.” Fighting school prayer has nothing to do with dictionary atheism, but I never saw these people speaking up against the campaign to support Jessica Ahlquist, or suggesting that that’s not something “atheism” should be concerned with. The place where they’ve decided to draw the line is telling, I think.

But that’s really neither here nor there. They can have their line in the sand, they can have their opposition to social justice (or do it their way), and the folks under the “Atheism+” umbrella will work on it in our way, undeterred and un-derailed by the “that’s unrelated to atheism” arguments. Fine, great, it’s related to “Atheism+.”

There is one last point that I want to hit, and I hit it (clumsily, as usual when Twitter’s involved) last night as well. It’s true that none of the stuff I’ve talked about has anything to do with atheism. And it’s also true that “atheism” shouldn’t be concerned with issues of social justice or religious freedom or whatever. It can’t be. “Atheism” is a concept–as I said, a position. It does not have the capacity for concern. But atheists–who are people–do. And this is where the Out Campaign and Science-Based Parenting and the Clergy Project and Iron Chariots all come from. Atheists are more complex than just “I don’t believe in gods.” Part of it comes from empathy and rational self-interest–we recognize that our freedom of conscience and freedom to refuse to practice a belief system is contingent upon laws and governments, so we fight against those laws and governments who would restrict that freedom. Part of it comes from living in religious cultures–we recognize that some people face difficulties when they come out as atheists or living among the religious, and so we raise money for them, create support networks and discussion forums for them, and come out ourselves to remove the stigma. Part of it comes from the values that led us to atheism, like skepticism and education and science and so forth–we fight for good science and argue against the unsupportable claims of religions. Movement atheism has been, from the very start, only in small part about dictionary atheism, because dictionary atheism is only a small thing. The conferences, the speeches, the books, the movies and videos and blogs and podcasts, have all been about what interests and concerns atheists, not atheism.

And “Atheism+” is about recognizing that there are more things that should concern atheists if they want to continue fighting battles–and possibly winning–for the values they share. Some people disagree, and they’re welcome to do so. There are people–atheists–who’ve disagreed with various of the values of movement atheism, from science promotion to skepticism to whatever. Some of them came along despite the differences, others were left out of the movement. And they were welcome to do so as well.