On Taking Offense, and the Easiness Thereof

I wanted to point out this comment from an ongoing discussion, because it’s such a perfect example of the kind of Christian privilege that American believers take for granted:

Well, I guess you atheists are more easily offended than me. I do not see how a statue of the Ten Commandments makes anyone a second-class citizen.

It’s certainly easy, isn’t it, for a Christian to proclaim that he wouldn’t be offended by government-sponsored denigration of his beliefs, because he’s never experienced it. I’m guessing this commenter has never had a stake in important litigation where, in order to have his case heard, he has to pass through courthouse doors beneath a massive sign reading “THOU SHALT NOT BELIEVE IN GOD”. He’s never had to buy and sell things using currency that reads “In Atheism We Trust”, or be expected to pledge his patriotism with an affirmation containing the words “one nation under no gods”. He’s never had to lobby for his rights before a Congress where only one member is an outspoken Christian and most of the rest proclaim that Christians are vile radicals who are unfit for public office. He’s never been told by his elected officials that he has no right to have them represent him, or told by one of the top jurists in the land that the law “permits the disregard” of his viewpoint.

But atheists do face equivalents of all these bigotries, and more besides. Ten Commandments monuments in courthouses are part of this, and are a reminder of the countless ways in which American believers consign atheists to second-class status.

And on that note, I have to comment on a related topic. There’s a great, thriving atheist community on Reddit, and I’ve gotten a lot of hits and feedback from posting my articles there. They’ve even accomplished some truly great and tangible things, like raising over $40,000 for Doctors Without Borders. It’s never occurred to me that any atheist would feel unwelcome there, at least until I saw these two posts on Jen McCreight’s blog.

Whenever I see that I got an uptick in traffic from reddit, I’m always afraid to go check the link. Because inevitably when someone links to my blog, many of the comments will be disparaging remarks about my gender or looks. Hell, even some of the positive comments are about my gender or looks, which are still annoying – can we please comment about the content, and not my boobs, please?

As you might expect, this resulted in a flood of comments from outraged males. Quite a few of these explained that for the grievous act of having a blog which is openly female, which doesn’t try to hide that the author is a woman, she should expect to be the target of sexist leering. Here’s one stellar specimen from Reddit:

Author at the Presidio

Fig. 1: I will not have my opinions dismissed for posting this.

It’s the equivalent of a woman dressing up like a prostitute, giving a dissertation on Lawrence Krauss’s “A Universe From Nothing” while dancing on a stripping pole, and then being surprised that someone mentions something other than Krauss’s speech.

Let’s leave aside, for the moment, the fact that Jen’s picture includes the top third of her torso, and that this is equated to “dressing up like a prostitute” and “dancing on a stripping pole”. There are plenty of popular male atheists who have pictures of themselves prominently featured on their blogs, but who (I’m guessing) hardly ever have this used against them as an excuse to dismiss or belittle their arguments. It’s women and women alone who can expect condescension and hostility merely for making it obvious what gender they are. Or as another Reddit poster put it:

You need thicker skin. It seems like you are looking to be victimized.

What this person obviously meant to say was, “By being openly female, you are looking to be victimized.” It rather puts the lie to the other commenters who said they’ve never noticed sexism on Reddit, doesn’t it?

Of course, there will always be emotionally stunted trolls who think it’s the height of wit to make sexist or racist comments and then chortle heartily if they get an outraged response. The internet, like every other human gathering place, has its troglodytes, its bigots and its yobs (which is a fantastic Britishism and I’m officially stealing it). The real issue is how the larger community responds. Does it agree that sexism is unacceptable and say so firmly? Or does it deny, minimize, or attempt to deflect responsibility? Does it belittle the woman who’s targeted, tell her that it’s “no big deal” and she should just “get over it”, or worst of all, tell her that she brought it on herself and call her a sexist for pointing it out? (This is the kind of I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I schoolyard taunting that said trolls think of as brilliant repartee.)

This is how we make the atheist community larger and stronger: when someone feels unwelcome, we take the time to find out why, and if there’s something happening that makes them feel excluded, we fix it. If you instead pour scorn on the person who speaks up, if you call them thin-skinned, easily offended, a chronic troublemaker – this is the response of bigotry, and since it’s something atheists have so often been on the receiving end of, we ought to understand that. If we want the atheist movement to be a coherent force that can effectively challenge theocratic intrusion and religious privilege, we need to stop pushing people away, and start making sure that anyone who’s on our side feels welcome among us.

Book Review: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes
Why People Are Flocking to a New Wave of Secular Communities: Atheist Churches
The Frozen River: A Humanist Sermon
Thoughts on the Chapel Hill Shooting
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Penguin_Factory

    This is something that’s been annoying me for awhile now. Bring up examples of online sexism that are in the least bit subtle, and you’ll get a parade of idiots telling you there’s no problem. I think a lot of men just feel embarrassed about sexism and want to pretend it’s all gone away.

  • Em

    I think that’s a big part of it, Penguin. It’s like the Christians who hadn’t noticed Christian privilege until someone pointed it out – if they let themselves think about it and admit that it exists, then they also have to admit that they were passively allowing it to continue. And no one likes to admit to being even a tiny part of the problem, even if it was entirely unintentional and they wouldn’t do such a thing consciously. But some people can suck it up, realize humans aren’t omniscient and make mistakes, and resolve to pay more attention in the future! I don’t hold it against people for not noticing everything; I only start getting annoyed when they respond with over-the-top defensiveness, insults, and a refusal to admit there’s a problem at all. Curiously, one response I see a lot is that they simultaneously insist that we need to grow thicker skins and not get offended – because someone pointing out that a problem might exist is offensive to them, and we need to avoid offending them. Talk about a double standard.

    And yeah, somehow posting a picture of yourself while male is being neutral and unobjectionable, but posting a picture of yourself if you’re female is flaunting your gender and asking for it. Kind of like how heterosexual couples holding hands in public is just background imagery, but same-sex couples holding hands is waving their sexual orientation in people’s faces. Or how wearing a cross necklace is neutral, but wearing a scarlet A t-shirt is getting in people’s faces. Who decided what’s default and what’s a bizarre deviance, anyway? Or even that there’s a default in the first place, because surely if half the population is female, we’re just as default as the men. At least, you’d think so.

  • garry

    you make some excellent points, but i cannot take you seriously since you posted Figure 1, of you dressed like a gigolo dancing at a chippendale’s.

  • http://mike.shannonandmike.net Mike B.

    There are two points that slightly mitigate these reddit comments:

    1) She uses the term “perverted” in her single sentence description of herself. If a man did this my mind would also float toward thinking along sexual lines. I don’t see how she is surprised that it’s brought up as a topic of conversation when people link to her.

    2) When you do a google search for her name, count how many boob pictures you see: http://www.google.com/images?q=Jen+McCreight
    Most are probably associated with her involvement with BoobQuake, which also speaks to how openly she puts her sexuality (NOT gender) online.

    Let’s not confuse gender with sexuality.

  • Em

    Mike, try this then. You can be a woman using a pseudonym with no pictures of yourself available at all, but if you mention you are a woman and want to hang out with some other women, you’re at high risk for men demanding that you post pictures of yourself.

    Or Kathy Sierra, who got threatened with rape and death. She was known for tech blogging, not boobs.

  • http://www.punkassblog.com Antigone

    Boobquake had NOTHING to do with her sexuality. Not a damn thing. That was a protest against/ experiment of the whole Muslim community to blame earthquakes on women dressing “immodestly”. That was not an invitation to comment on her breasts, nor was it something talking about her desires to have sex. And, more to the point, it also has almost nothing to do with any of her other work.

    Stop searching for reasons to find it acceptable to comment on women’s bodies when they are talking about legitimate things, and quit ignoring the double standard.

  • plublesnork

    Mike: Careful, you’re sounding like a potential rapist.

    And if you can’t see why that is, which I’d almost guarantee, let me spell it out for you.

    Saying that because she declared herself a pervert means she invited this upon herself is akin to victim blaming a woman who has the audacity to want to dress sexy on the same night she has the audacity to get raped.

    Or, as another commenter on the blaghag thread succinctly put it: Admitting to being a masochist is not the same as giving you permission to take a swing at me.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    I think that when a person chooses to make their appearance the topic of discussion, as Jen and some other female bloggers did with Boobquake, it’s OK to comment on it – respectfully, and non-creepily – within that discussion. It’s not OK to treat this as generalized consent to comment on their appearance at any time, or to treat it as the lens through which you interpret everything they subsequently say or do.

  • Em

    Exactly, Ebon. Like, it’s one thing to talk about Arnold Swcharzenegger’s nude scenes while watching a Terminator marathon, but quite another to say that we can’t possibly consider his record as governor of California without considering the fact that we have all seen his ass (and so therefore he deserves to have every non-naked ass part of his life ignored and that he should be victimized, or at least should expect to be).

    And it can’t be said enough that it really does not make a difference whether you ever mention anything remotely sexual online. Women get harassed merely for being women and trying to do something like play a game or comment on politics, because the simple fact of being a woman is read as sexual. Men can openly state that they’re men without it being seen as provocative, however.

  • Tracy Poff


    Warning someone that they’re “sounding like a potential rapist” for making a comment is a pretty horrifying way to derail a discussion. Furthermore, I think that it’s going a bit far to compare comments on the internet to rape. Don’t you think that something like:

    “I know exactly what it’s like to be raped! One time, this person said some mean words to me on the internet!”

    would be rather insensitive, at least?

    I don’t disagree that it’s unfortunate that people will ignore what someone says in favor of discussing her appearance, or that the widespread acceptance of this is an example of sexism. But I don’t think that the way to solve this problem is to respond to an honest comment on the issue with insulting implications that the commenter sounds like a “potential rapist”. I think that such things generate more heat than light, and I hope that you’ll agree that our goal should be to end injustice, not to punish each other for honest attempts at discussion.

  • Em

    Another thought: as I remember, BoobQuake was in response to the ridiculous idea that women baring their flesh was so terribly sinful that it would cause natural disasters. The point was that (a) women’s skin, even breast skin, does not automatically equal sex, because it’s all just bodies like everyone has, and (b) even if a woman is baring skin in a sexual way, it still is not sinful or even an invitation for the whole world to treat her like public property. So if some guy looks at a woman showing skin and automatically thinks “prostitute,” that says more about him than about the woman. (And puts him a lot closer to “boobs cause earthquakes” believers than he’d probably like to admit.)

    And again, there’s a double standard. Arnold appeared naked in movies not to make a political or (anti-)religious point, but for money, which is a lot closer to prostitution than BoobQuake. And yet I haven’t heard him called a prostitute who can’t be taken seriously ever again, or that appearing naked for money should be expected to bring down an avalanche of harassment and vitriol on him (because harassment just appears like giant roiling masses of snow–or perhaps an earthquake–needing no human agency at all).

  • http://superhappyjen.blogspot.com SuperHappyJen

    I must say that I do find it difficult to take Arnold Schwarzenegar seriously.

    And I love Jen’s blog.

  • TommyP

    Yeah I was really shocked and saddened by all that sexist stuff myself. I haven’t ever understood where people are coming from with attitudes that are so far divorced from reality.

  • jemand

    Tracy Poff,

    Perhaps that was unfortunate language, but no more unfortunate than saying she brought it on herself by calling herself “perverted” and creating boobquake, no? Why are you so interested in protecting the sensitivity of people who make sexist remarks without deep reflection, while calling on people who call it out for using the wrong kind of “tone” or something, calling on them to engage in deep personal reflection and empathy with the person who gets oh so offended by being asked to consider how their statements encourage, or at least engage without critique, a culture which doesn’t take rape, or personal boundaries in general, seriously.

    Most of these comments are a bit like CO2 emissions. You can’t tie any particular weather related disaster *directly* to global warming, and you can’t tie any *particular* polluter as responsible for global warming, in it’s entirety.

    But sexist statements, statements like she brought it on herself by being unapologetically female, statements which degrade personal boundaries, statements that it’s not a big deal and women need tougher skin, or statements that we’ve got to tone down our rhetoric to protect the very sensitive souls of people who unreflectingly make a sexist remark, etc, are all a type of “pollution” which pervades our culture and has destructive consequences. Spewing these statements out until they become “common knowledge” and even “common sense” causes damage, any particular incident unpredictable, but damage nontheless. It will increase rates of rape and abuse, just as surely as increasing CO2 levels will increase rates of drought and flooding and other destructive events.

    We’ve ALL done it. It’s part of our culture… both saying a damaging remark sometime, or wasting energy/emitting greenhouse gases unnecessarily, etc. Pointing it out doesn’t mean the target is an evil person, or anything. We’ve ALL done it. It is the response AFTER that which determines character. Double down and spew some more sexist stuff? Or think carefully again about the things our culture has taught us which aren’t actually true and in fact might cause harm?

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    Reddit is not the only site on the internet with a set of sexist trolls that try to police the comment threads. Every time (I swear, every time, like clockwork) one of the Slashdot editors sees it fit to promote a story which makes note of or otherwise raises issue with the fact that there’s a dearth of women in Computer Science, the trolls come crawling out of the woodwork.

    They usually take one of these four forms:

    (1) Well, women are just no good at math. Duh.
    (2) Women clearly prefer to have other professions. Like cooking. Or cleaning.
    (3) Affirmative action is evil! Evil! Help, reverse discrimination!
    (4) Back in my day, there were no women in Computer Science. None! You all should feel lucky! Now get off my lawn!

    Now, as to not completely slander Slashdot users, I will say there’s usually at least one or two up-modded comments contesting such facile statements. For instance, you’ll typically find at least one person intelligent enough to note that women have reached near-parity representation in most other professions (including many sciences). Which suggests that maybe there’s something a little wrong in the social atmosphere around computer science, considering it’s not fundamentally more difficult, nor more math or physics intensive, than some of those other sciences are.

    It amazes and confuses me how many men will just hand-wave around the facts with poor reasoning rather than try to address the issue. Is it that they have so little confidence in their own ability than they think if women enter the field in proper numbers, they’ll drop off the ends of the continuum? Do they even understand that they’re being perceived as afraid and hostile by those who don’t share their biases?

  • Sarah Braasch

    I really appreciate this post.

    This is the way that I think we should address sexism and racism in the atheist or online or any community.

    By mercilessly condemning it and by insisting that all persons are treated with the dignity and respect, which their status as human beings demands.

    Having said that, we don’t want to curtail speech. I want all of the worst of the worst out in the open, in the disinfecting sunlight of public discourse. And, responding to someone like Mike B., by calling him a potential rapist, is a missed opportunity to have a real discussion with him about the distinction between female nudity and female sexuality. He seemed open to it.

    I actually think I might like the idea of REALID on the internet. (Referring to that article posted by Em.) Identity is power. I want my ideas taken seriously. That is why I use my real name. I don’t take ideas as seriously when not expressed by someone using his or her real identity. Saying that a woman should hide her online identity behind a veil of anonymity to protect herself from attack is just like saying that a woman should wear a burqa or never expose her cleavage in an online photo (with the intent of making a political statement demystifying the cataclysmic sexual spell of female nudity) or expect an attack. We should not feed this idea. We should not claim that we need anonymity to protect ourselves against online sexual predators. This is why I totally and completely support Jen’s campaign. Better to all expose our genders and put naked pics of ourselves up online. I am a woman. I have a female body. And, that still doesn’t mean that I want to have sex with you. Or, that I want you to rape me. I don’t. And, I have ideas. Ideas worthy of intense public discussion and scrutiny. Which I want to have taken seriously. And, criticized, mercilessly, for their content. Even if I have boobs.

  • jemand

    No, I don’t believe this is a missed opportunity with Mike B. The point raised was valid. If Mike B. can’t look beyond possibly offensive language to see a point, he should most assuredly NOT be granted the same pass, for fucks sake!

    People act like his offensive statements should be understood in context, that he didn’t *mean* harm. Which I think is likely, and understanding them in that context is fair. But neither did plublesnork mean any harm! Strong language was used to bring attention to a big problem! The ball is now in Mike B.’s court, if he wants to continue the discussion, if he wants to be open to learning new things, that is still 100% HIS CHOICE. If he decides to clam up and feel attacked personally instead of having ideas and language critiqued, that is ALSO HIS CHOICE.

    If this conversation ends in Mike B. refusing to engage with us, it is not plublesnork’s fault! But no… THAT language is just critiqued out of hand, while passes are given for initial (probably inadvertent) sexist commentary.

  • Sarah Braasch


    I just think it’s completely fascinating that if I had only read your last comment, without having read any of the preceding comments, I would have absolutely no idea on whose behalf you were arguing.

  • bbk

    The socio-political impact of The Terminator’s naked ass and admonishing a guy who blogs about making indoor snowmen with his daughter that he sounds like a rapist? Must have been a slow Saturday night!

    @jemand, off the top of your head, recount the last time you saw a woman attacked for something she said because it made her “sound like a rapist.” As an analogy, it’s akin to comparing a penny dropping to the floor to a comet hitting Jupiter. I admit that it makes good sense as far as analogies go, but how does it help your case in renouncing Reddit? As an analogy, it’s also sexist, condescending, and ad hominem. What is it you were complaining about, again? I forgot… That was Tracy’s point.

    The outrage at the sexist remarks sounds completely warranted, but the fact remains that it’s disingenuous to claim that the only photos of McCreight are of the “top third of her torso”. It makes no difference either way – but one needs to be factual or else people will dismiss their entire argument.

    It’s also valid to note that there’s a few things that women can get away with that men can’t. Change McCreight’s self description to read “if I were a man, you’d call me a pervert” and see if it strikes you in the same innocent manner or if the first thing that comes to your mind is that it “sounds like a rapist.”

    The fact of the matter is that it took 5 comments before someone used an inflamatory ad hominem attack to tell someone how it made him sound rather than discuss with them how their points relate to the current discussion and whether or not they were factual or meaningful. And it wasn’t a man doing it to a woman. So let’s at least get on the same page about one thing – purposefully derailing the other side, making ad-hominem attacks, deflecting away from points that were brought up, it’s always wrong. From my recent experience here on this blog, the “good guys” don’t do it any less than the “bad guys”.

  • jemand

    @bbk, the derailing occurred when Mike B. started equating Jen’s presentation of her gender, as flaunting her sexuality.

    That is my point. I AGREE with you, it wasn’t intentionally sexist, but it WAS very unfortunate, and inappropriate, and it’s valid to ask people to consider how women’s bodies are considered sex objects just by *existing* in ways a male body certainly is NOT.

    But at the same time, plublesnork ALSO was not being intentionally sexist, and by focusing on “sound” was not, as you say, trying to derail, but trying to separate how Mike was coming across given his choice of language, from accusations of the kind of person Mike *is.* It was, I believe, an attempt to point out sexist framing without calling the poster a sexist himself.

    Lets be fair now, NEITHER poster was “purposefully derailing the other side” or “making an ad-hominem attack.”

    So, in your MOST recent experience, I sincerely believe, NOBODY was doing it, not, as you claim, the “good guys” as much as the “bad guys.”

    I wish we could presume good faith on the part of Mike B AND plublesnork and move on…

  • bbk

    jemand, someone who makes an earnest attempt to make factual claims is, at most, nitpicking. It’s not derailment. Making a rape analogy, presumably because Mike is male, that is derailment. Let’s keep that clear. I don’t see anywhere in Mike’s post where he was making excuses for people who make sexist remarks. It sounds more like he was trying to make Ebon’s post a little more factual. I can only assume that if Mike pointed out some bad grammar, someone would still equate that with making excuses for rapists.

    Regarding recent experience, if that’s what you really think, then you must be insane.

  • jemand

    @bbk, no, it was not a simple addition of a factual claim, it was, also, a value judgment when he said that his added facts “mitigated” the reddit comments.

    The facts added weren’t relevant unless you equate female flesh as explicitly sexual, in a way male flesh isn’t, and adding that this “fact” of her boob pictures, “slightly mitigated” comments calling Jen a prostitute on a stripping pole, was definitely a derail.

    Sure, an unintentional one, and one, you apparently, didn’t see. Why didn’t you see it? Any ideas?

    I do think it was more subtle than plublesnork’s comment, *because* of the way sexism against women hides under the radar in our modern culture. It’s not seen, it’s not obvious, so something offensive and derailing is not even *noticed* until it triggers someone else to unintentionally say something back… and because THAT is considered deviant, it is noticed where the original sexism was hiding.

    As for recent experience, I am talking about this thread *only*

  • Em

    If vocabulary choice is the issue, can we switch from “potential rapist” to “rape culture apologist”? Mike’s statements specifically supported the idea that women showing their bodies in public is automatically sexual and that any consequences are the woman’s fault, not that of the people responding to her (who, what, just can’t help themselves, like dogs?). In this case, he’s talking about dismissing and/or hostile verbal/textual responses, but this is on a continuum with “well, if you go out like that in public you should expect to get disrespected and/or raped, and it’s your own fault.”

    Sarah, I’m all for women who have the courage using their real names on the Internet, but these players aren’t trying to get anyone to “take their ideas seriously” – they’re trying to play a game, in which part of the fun is playing as characters instead of themselves. Plus, there is a long history of people using anonymity and pseudonyms to discuss political issues (“Publius” and the Federalist Papers comes to mind) or be whistleblowers for good reason; eliminating the possibility would stifle a lot of discourse. There are millions of people who have started debating religion, sharing stories in violence survivor forums, and all sorts of other good things because they know their identities are confidential and their families and employers can’t track all their online activity like Big Brother with a simple Google search. Sometimes they later come out and start using their real names, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the pseudonyms help some people be taken more seriously, since others don’t instinctively dismiss them for being female/young/black/etc – and then when a casual comment eventually reveals that the person they’ve been talking to is female/young/black/etc., as usually happens, some people start reevaluating their assumptions. This also allows some people to decide they can get away with being total creeps, but that hasn’t stopped us from allowing people to publish anonymous pamphlets. There are people who do have the authority and power to discover who is behind a given comment, and they can use it if necessary. That gaming forum? There are people who know the real names and addresses, and they could look at pages of harassment and rape threats and inform the commenters that if they don’t cut it out immediately, not only will they be banned, but all their info is going to law enforcement so they can sort out who was serious and who was “just kidding.” Some people using anonymity and pseudonymity to be creepy, or cowardly, in traditional publishing doesn’t mean those aren’t still useful tools. So I can’t get behind the idea of requiring everyone to disclose their real identities all the time online.

    SuperHappyJen, I find it hard to take Arnold seriously too, but my point is I’ve only ever heard people say they think he’s too dumb or shallow or something similar, not that he’s practically a prostitute and should expect constant harassment. When he was governor, if he talked about fiscal policy, the news would report what he said about fiscal policy instead of talking about his body or what he was wearing. Which goes to jemand’s point that women’s bodies are automatically interpreted as sexual in a way men’s aren’t. And bbk, if you don’t think that sort of thing makes a difference in people’s lives, sometimes a huge one, I don’t even know what to say to you.

  • Rollingforest

    First off, I should say that I agree with Jen that the comments against her were sexist because those same commenters feel free to make them but would never accept them if they were made against men.

    You do see this in politics too. Scott Brown gets mocked a little for his nude pics but is mostly taken seriously, but when kinky pictures of Krystal Ball come out, there is a question of it derailing her entire campaign (google these if you don’t know what I’m talking about). I also hate that the media’s first response to talking about Laura Bush or Michelle Obama is to talk about what they are wearing.

    I think we should point out where Mike B is wrong and where plublesnork is wrong and not worry about what “side” we are on. Just argue the issue. If someone on your team says something illogical, you should point that out just as much as when someone on the other side does it.

    @kagerato #15: I agree that people getting defensive about articles about the lack of females in computer science does seem they have let sexist ideas get the best of them. Now if the articles said that the lack of females in computer science was caused by sexism in computer science but didn’t provide any legitimate studies to back that up, then yes, I can understand why people might be mad. There are any number of reasons why gender parity may not have been reached in computer science and saying “well it’s the fault of the males in computer science” without providing any evidence to back it up is just as irresponsible as declaring that women can’t do computer science. In either case, it is a “just so” story that should be criticized.

    @jemand #17: Though it is a little ironic that we criticize Mike B for making the comment, but then we also criticize him for not making more of them.

    @bbk #19: bbk does make an interesting point. If you look at the sex advice columns in student newspapers or online, they are almost entirely written by women or gay males.

    @EM #23: I don’t think “rape culture apologist” is any better. You might accuse the men on the forum of sexually harassing the woman on there, but that doesn’t mean that any one of them would have raped her. So I don’t think Mike B was apologizing for anything like that.

    I do agree with you on the importance of privacy on the internet. REALID might reduce harassment against women but it would increase harassment against gays. Every time someone made a homophobic comment on the forum, the gay members would be too scared to respond because they would risk outing themselves to their home town. Since many gays live in areas were homophobes are the majority, letting others know online of their sexual orientation would cause them to lose friends and face harassment from other students and even teachers. The advantage of anonymity is that it allows the free expression of ideas without risk that you might be harassed for suggesting them.

    I know that if the internet required REALID for all of its forums, I would never post on another atheist site ever again. It would sour the mood with most people I interacted with in real life if they found out I was an atheist and would make life more difficult than it needed to be. I would be forced to do online what I do in real life, the “nipple around the edges” approach to debating (which frankly works better when discussing the issue with Christians anyway). We already require people identify themselves in conversation and in letters to the editors in newspapers. We should have the internet for anonymity to allow for honest debate.

  • Em

    Good point about gay men facing increased harassment with a RealID system, and yeah, a lot of atheists living in hostile environments would be pushed out too. I don’t think it would necessarily improve things for women either.

    Sorry, I didn’t explain terms properly! I didn’t mean any of the men necessarily would have raped her; that’s not what “rape culture” means. This is what I meant. Excerpt: “In a rape culture, women perceive a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm.” The word “continuum” is crucial here: when you say someone is defending rape culture, you can be referring to any part of the continuum of ways to use sex and sexuality to affect people negatively. In this case, Mike’s comment was supporting verbal/textual sexual harassment – the milder end of the spectrum – as normal and expected, with the implication that we can’t really expect people not to see a woman with lots of visible skin and start thinking and saying derogatory sexual things. I mean… if he’d said, “Well, sure they said sexist things, but the fact that she didn’t veil herself in an entirely different setting somewhat mitigates that,” would we be having this conversation? That’s all I meant. (ETA: and I’d say the same thing if Mike were Michelle, which for all I know he is.)

  • Rollingforest

    :Sigh: In my post, #24, on the last paragraph, third sentence, the phrase I meant to write was “nibble around the edges”. I swear that Word’s spell check caused that to happen and not a fruedian slip ;)

  • Em

    I knew what you meant, but it’s a pretty funny coinage nonetheless :D

  • bbk

    Sure, an unintentional one, and one, you apparently, didn’t see. Why didn’t you see it? Any ideas?

    Something about “potential rapist” that drew my attention away from caring about the plight of female bloggers for a split second.

    @Em, “rape culture” is not much different than “potential rapist”.

    if you don’t think that sort of thing makes a difference in people’s lives, sometimes a huge one, I don’t even know what to say to you.

    You’re making a lot of assumptions that are simply untrue. Let’s go back to the top. Did Mike say that Boobquake mitigates the inappropriateness of sexist comments on Reddit? Or did he say that they mitigate the sheer depravity of those sexist remarks as described by Ebon:

    There are plenty of popular male atheists who have pictures of themselves prominently featured on their blogs

    In other words, is it really the case that Jen McCreight only ever posted the “top third of her torso”, as Ebon stated and depicted in the profile photo of himself? So I’m not sure, actually. Maybe Mike thinks that those comments were really okay because of Boobquake, or maybe he was just pointing out that Ebon’s post wasn’t entirely factual. Either way it doesn’t mean we don’t care.

  • Em

    Or did he say that they mitigate the sheer depravity of those sexist remarks as described by Ebon

    I’m not following. Are you saying that if some readers were looking at a different picture, then the sexist comments are not as offensive? How does that mitigate anything?

    And there is a difference between “I don’t know if you realize it, but this comment supports this nasty cultural trend and makes you sound like a creep” and “you are definitely a through-and-through horrible person.”

  • bbk

    @Em certain things are wrong regardless of context, but sometimes the fact that someone did something wrong is a separate issue from how we react to it. If you are waiting for a bus and someone robs you at gunpoint, that’s completely wrong. But if someone witnesses it and tells their friend that they saw the robber breaking into your locked house in order to do it, then pointing out that this version of events is inaccurate mitigates that version of events but does not mitigate the action of the robber. Again, I’m not sure what Mike B meant but that was my first reaction. I think if you tell a story in a less than factual manner, someone may feel compelled to set the record straight. As a matter of principle, you really shouldn’t take that to be anything but an honest attempt at accuracy.

  • bbk

    @Rollingforest: “That’s what she said”

    @Sarah: As others have said, anonymity is important. What would happen if the government of Egypt could knock on the door of anyone who posted a subversive blog entry?

    @kagerato #15 My take is that your four mock responses are probably more varied and not always as sexist as you make it sound, but also indicative of the fact of the matter that no one really knows why.

    Google “asperger jobs”:

    It is important that high functioning autistics and Asperger’s syndrome people pick a college major in an area where they can get jobs. Computer science is a good choice because it is very likely that many of the best programmers have either Asperger’s syndrome or some of its traits.

    Consider that the ratio male to female autistics is 5 to 1. Do you really want feminism to be in the business of telling autistics that they’re sexists and that they have to learn how to be low-conflict, socially adept, easygoing individuals so as to make CS friendly to women? Anyway, that’s just one possibility and it’s definitely a contributing factor. But the it’s one of the many reasons why I think it’s ridiculous to take any statistic where something is 80% men and assume that it’s without a doubt sexism.

  • Alex Weaver

    …so your hypothesis is that people on the spectrum are incapable of not conducting themselves in a sexist fashion? Do I understand you correctly?

  • Valhar2000

    …so your hypothesis is that people on the spectrum are incapable of not conducting themselves in a sexist fashion? Do I understand you correctly?

    Not to mention that the reasoning behind his conclusion that most programmers are autistic is thin, at best.

  • Rollingforest

    @Em #25: I think the issue is that feminism is both a philosophy and political group. Thus while feminism might have a philosophy that is perfectly reasonable, some of them use terms to describe their policies that misrepresent things for their benefit.

    It’s kind of like how Conservatives use the word “socialist” to describe Obama (sorry to compare feminists with conservatives, but I’ll explain ;) ). When you point out that he hasn’t outlawed private business, they say “but that’s not what we meant. We just meant that his policies cost too much and have regulations that we don’t like.” Maybe that is what they meant, but they knew perfectly well that if they used the word ‘socialist’ then everyone would think that Obama is trying to outlaw private business because that’s what ‘socialist’ MEANS. Redefining words so that they can spread lies about their opponents for their own benefit without taking responsibility for lying is a cheap political trick.

    However well-meaning their intensions, it seems like some feminists do the same thing here. When people hear the term “rape culture apologist” they assume that the person wants a culture where rape is celebrated. If the feminist says “well, that’s not what we really mean” then the question becomes: why didn’t they say what they really meant? The same issue exists with the word “mansplain”. Anyone not educated in feminist philosophy would believe the term meant that males aren’t capable of objective thought because of privilege. Feminists will say “well that’s not what the term means” but some of them use it to reject any male who disagrees with them so that they don’t have to actually respond to what he said.

    By the way, it should be noted that at the bottom of the link that you listed, she says “rape culture is using the word ‘rape’ to describe something that has been done to you other than a forced or coerced sex act.” But by redefining the word ‘rape’ to include sexualized comments against a woman on the internet, she is in a sense supporting rape culture herself by redefining the word ‘rape’.

    @bbk #28: But by reading most of the comments, you can tell that most of them have never heard of Jen before and were only commenting on the picture in the upper right hand side of her screen where she is dressed normally and her breasts are hardly in the picture at all. And I think Ebon is right that talking about sexuality in one context does not mean that it is okay to assume she wants every conversation to be about her sexuality. That’s forcing her against her will to always be sexual which is very uncomfortable for her.

    @Alex Weaver #32: Well, if you define a lack of social interaction with females (or anyone else) as sexist then yes, that is how people with Asperger Syndrome act. They can’t read facial expressions and always speak in a monotone voice. I think the point is that even if everyone was a perfect feminist, you’d STILL have more males in computer science because males with Asperger Syndrome are just better at computer science than anyone else (assuming that’s true. Science should shed some light on this. I knew someone in college who probably had Asperger Syndrome and computer science is exactly what he went into. I know that’s anecdotal but I think some experiments might show some truth in this.)

  • Alex Weaver

    The same issue exists with the word “mansplain”. Anyone not educated in feminist philosophy would believe the term meant that males aren’t capable of objective thought because of privilege. Feminists will say “well that’s not what the term means” but some of them use it to reject any male who disagrees with them so that they don’t have to actually respond to what he said.

    Err, this use of “mansplain” isn’t limited to males; those same “some feminists” will use it to reject commenters of indeterminate gender who disagree with them, and will continue to use it even when those commenters identify themselves as female. (Though they also tend to use male pronouns, etc. to refer to those commenters after said identification, so maybe this is just a case of “male” being “The Other” for them?)

    Well, if you define a lack of social interaction with females (or anyone else) as sexist then yes, that is how people with Asperger Syndrome act. They can’t read facial expressions and always speak in a monotone voice.

    I guess I’m doing it wrong, then.

  • jemand

    uh WOW. Conflating being an asshole to women, making women feel uncomfortable, etc, and being autistic…. that is SUPER OFFENSIVE.

    Not just to me as a woman, but, to all the people out there who have non-neurotypical mental functioning. Not being “normal” in mental function does NOT mean you are more likely to be unkind to women or make them feel uncomfortable.

  • Rollingforest

    @Alex Weaver # 35: Well, I’m glad to see that those feminists that do use the turn “mansplain” to dismiss their opponents without serious rational thought do so equally between the genders. That still doesn’t make it a fair debate, though.

    @jemand #36: Notice the IF in my statement. bbk was describing the characteristics of autism and Alex Weaver asked whether bbk believed that autistic people were “incapable of not conducting themselves in a sexist fashion.” I said IF Alex defined those characteristics that autistic people have as sexist then he would be forced to declare all autistic people sexist according to HIS definition. I’m not saying that they actually are sexist. I’m just saying that you shouldn’t expect them to change to fit whatever characteristics you think the computer science office should have.

    But that wasn’t the main point of that paragraph. The main point was that there is a possibility that autistic males are over represented in computer science. It would be wrong to assume that sexism has no effect on the number of women in computer science. But it is also wrong to assume that sexism HAS to be the cause of the lower number of women in computer science.

  • ildi

    It is important that high functioning autistics and Asperger’s syndrome people pick a college major in an area where they can get jobs. Computer science is a good choice because it is very likely that many of the best programmers have either Asperger’s syndrome or some of its traits.

    Consider that the ratio male to female autistics is 5 to 1.

    bbk left a crucial number out of this analysis: According to the NIH,only two out of evevery 10,000 children have the disorder. (Boys are three to four times more likely to have the disorder.)

    According to the Department of Education, there were 1,524,092 bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2006-07. Assuming the same ratio of two in 10,000 students, that means 305 of these graduates had Asperger’s. According to the Computing Research Association, in the same academic year 8,021 students were awarded bachelors degrees in computer science at the 170 PhD-granting institutions that they track.

    So, doing some back-of-the-envelope calculations, even if we assume that all 305 of the students were male, and that all of them went into computer science, that comes out to less than four percent; seems to be a good indicator that the number of Asperger’s males in the computer science field is a very small percentage of the total.

  • bbk

    @Rollingforest, don’t get me wrong, those comments would be sexist even if McCreight had photos of herself on a stripping pole. Actually if that was the case, I suspect that some of those same people would actually be saying “you’re beautiful and I want to marry you.” If it’s really the case that those people never so much as heard of Boobquake, i.e. not one of them watches the Colbert Report, then as much as I find that to be absolutely bizarre, I must concede that Ebon was not misleading. I guess I’m still not making the connection to Ebon’s final paragraphs, though. It seems that there’s a subtle bait and switch going on.

    @ildi & valhar200 & Alex Weaver, for what it’s worth Asperger’s is under-diagnosed, especially because many sufferers can compensate for it by virtue of having an incredible intellect. But as I was about to say even before ildi commented, don’t be ridiculous – no one ever said that all or most CS people have Asperger’s – or that people on the spectrum are inherently sexist (?!?).

    The feedback I get from most non-CS people is that they like to work on problems that “relate to real life” and they don’t like to be isolated in front of a computer every day of their lives. Those are things that, sorry to say, will never change at a fundamental level in the way that the critics seem to want it changed. Calling it sexist won’t help, either! It’s also pretty much undeniable that anyone who works in CS most likely does have to interact with people who do have Asperger’s and everyone sort of learns how to deal with high-conflict, obsessive, and anti-social personalities just because those are some of the very best CS people out there. It’s simply unfair to attribute those qualities to males and say that they are sexist just because that’s how they are – they might not be able to help it, and in some cases really can’t.

    Well, there is definitely a good place for autistics in CS and that’s a good thing. But I don’t think it’s a fair characterization of CS, either. Many artists are also required to work in isolation for extended periods of time on abstract ideas that don’t relate to real life. But I don’t hear people saying that artists are sexist and many women become artists only to regret the high degree of isolation. The difference is that they don’t have coworkers to blame and call sexist. Or, their coworkers are women, anyway. Meanwhile, many aspects of CS is in fact very social and makes a huge difference in people’s lives, but women just don’t seem to want to give it a chance. So there’s that. The point is, as I thought I clearly stated above, that no one really knows why women are under-represented in computer science. And that’s why when someone accuses CS of being a sexist profession, people get defensive, and I think rightfully so.

  • Mrnaglfar


    The obvious potential problem one should point out with your figures there is that they assume randomness in your sample, and that assumption may be an unwarranted. People don’t randomly go to college, nor randomly select a major.

    Another potential problem is that traits associated with austic individuals fall on a contiuum, not in a black and white fashion.

    It’s not nearly as simple as it’s being presented

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato


    Autism spectrum disorders are perhaps slightly under-reported. However, not anywhere close to enough to make a substantial difference in the makeup of people earning degrees in computer science. The scale is so far out-of-whack that your underlying point is meaningless. No one is seeking an exact 50/50 split of men and women; no one thinks that is realistic.

    Also, autistic disorders are a circumstance to be corrected, not something to be accepted for all eternity. That spectrum of disorders presents a social handicap against the individual, and they often have little apparent knowledge that they’re being isolated and discriminated against.

    On another note, you should forgive jemand for drawing a connection between autism and being offensive to women. It’s easy to see where that came from, and you didn’t make a proper effort to avoid implying it.

    As to the part about aspects of computer science being very social; yes. The reality of most computer science jobs is that you will be at a severe disadvantage if you take an anti-social attitude toward anything. Most projects are developed by closely-managed teams that need to delegate work and then connect the results in a very particular manner which implements the design. The loners in these sorts of groups tend to create barriers that make producing a good product very difficult.

    Of course, that’s all concerning just the implementation phase. Before that, you need to have a design. Design in computer science has little to do with math. Many programs and libraries end up with awful designs because the creator had little to no interest in thinking about the design and just wanted to hack out a quick result. However, actually coming up a sound design requires a great deal of almost philosophical thought and a keen understanding of the various needs the system is trying to meet.

    Beyond that, there’s also documentation, the essential but oft-forgotten aspect of a project. Good documentation requires more than just technical knowledge and quality writing skills; one also needs a sharp awareness of how the user will approach and interact with the product, and this is more psychological and sociological than anything.

    Anyone who wants to enter computer science because they think it will be non-stop mathematics and other strictly logical thought processes is making a severe mistake, and I would encourage them to reconsider immediately. We have too many people with this misconception already, and without a doubt the vast majority of them are not autistic. (I laugh at the thought.)

    @Rollingforest :

    That’s just it, actually. When these articles come up to try to address the problem, they don’t make any such strong claim as “lack of females in computer science was caused by sexism in computer science”. Typically, the most they will do is speculate. Most often, that speculation is based around much wider trends and situations in society than something targeted especially at computer science alone. However, there are always responses which read the situation as though they made such a strong claim, or as though they were ignoring problems in broader society. Neither is the case, but these two straw men come out anyway.

    As though the Slashdot editors were reading my posts lately, another article in this similar vein made it to the front page yesterday. Link: Wikipedia Works to Close Gender Gap.

    Take a look at the highly rated comments. There are many which simply dismiss the issue out of hand. No reasoning, even. They just don’t care, even though they feel it significant enough to make a comment about their indifference. Ironic. I assert they do care; they care about maintaining the status quo.

    Some of the comments are interested in how the data was gathered. That’s a legitimate issue, though tangential. Unless they have a better method of obtaining the data than random polls or surveys, it doesn’t move us anywhere.

    One commenter, causality, plays the perfect free will card. As though anyone, anywhere, ever had such a thing. Society has influences on your decisions; you don’t have unlimited power. (Should I note the irony of something named causality, which suggests determinism, making these kinds of statements?) Further, it’s quite revealing that anyone would invert the issue so badly. Inquiring and encouraging women to participate is hardly disregarding their free will. On the contrary, ignoring them and talking around them is what does that.

    There are also the meritocrats, for lack of a better word. Those are the ones that only care about the end result (product), regardless of how it is made (people). That is a very silly thing to say, and I would have hoped for better than such a narrow view.

    Don’t forget the stereotypical “men are for math, women are for socialization” trope. I told it comes up.

    Then, naturally, there are a few people who actually want to talk about the editor and management culture at Wikipedia. These are probably the most valuable people in the whole thread. It’s been known for a long time now that overaggressive editors deleting and otherwise pruning the article base are a problem. Edit wars have also been a big issue for a long while.

    One anonymous fellow talks about how not many women were consulted for the article. That’s true; it could certainly have used more comments from women about the matter. However, even if you could gather a hundred statements, that doesn’t necessarily say anything representative about the user and contributor populations as a whole. It would aid in facile credibility, at least, and show better interest from the journalist, however.

    ‘w0mprat’ talks about how once a particular gender bias becomes established, it’s hard to displace. That the whole matter is, at essence, an issue of social reinforcement and community. Probably one of the more insightful comments to make, and even concise.

    ‘erroneus’ is another in the dismissive camp. Women aren’t excluded by policy, therefore everything is great. End of story.

    The response to that post by Velex is an essential, even classic, trollish derail. Transsexuals can’t use the women’s bathroom, therefore women are sexist and the real problem. Suffering and impoverished women are all so privileged because people and the government would actually, gasp, try to intervene on their behalf.

    ‘Idarubicin’ cracks a joke about how this is not the best forum to discuss this. He’s right, and that’s why it’s funny.

    And then, perhaps most disappointingly of all, you have a woman posting anonymously about how this is all a useless endeavor and throwing her lot in with the meritocrats. Somehow, trying to encourage women to participate is now equivalent to leaving women “socially isolated, embittered, and unemployable”. The whole matter is just a scheme by “vocal feminist activists” to get attention. As though there are no men in the world the slightest bit concerned or bothered by the scarcity of women in these communities. To top off the cake, she presents a massive straw man. No one, anywhere, was proposing the creation of a “clique of writers who cannot be criticized or disciplined”.

    I hope, at least, the examples of what is seen as community wisdom (based on their moderation scores) show you why we haven’t made much progress.

  • bbk

    @40 I.E. not everyone goes to college. Also, the numbers reported for autism spectrum disorders are pie in the sky versus the number of CS degrees. The diagnosis rate for ASD was 1 in 150 4 years ago but then it got revised up to 1 in 100 2 years ago. That doesn’t count the cases that are not severe enough to warrant clinical diagnosis. You’d have to award hundreds of thousands of CS degrees a year to accommodate all the autistics that could potentially be getting college degrees. But if you limit it to just the part of ASD that is considered Asperger’s and just the part that’s diagnosed then you can play with the numbers to say anything you want. What I’m going by is that people who actually deal with ASD and Asperger’s actually recommend CS to them because they have a track record of being successful in that career path to the point where the people who work with them recommend it as a rule of thumb. If it were simply the case that Asperger’s were “inherently sexist” as Alex Weaver seemed to think that I implied, then it would make no difference if autistics became CS majors or joined the KKK. That’s not the point. The point is that CS itself is conducive to a way of doing work that people might mistake for sexism.

  • Mrnaglfar

    I assert they do care; they care about maintaining the status quo.

    What status quo is that and why do they care?

  • bbk

    You know what? Ebon is right and proper in pointing out how utterly disgusting the comments from Reddit were. I don’t fully agree with Ebon on feminism or his general take on gender issues, but I agree with him on this issue after I looked at what was actually happening. On further thought about everything, this really wasn’t the right thread to get into some of the ongoing quibbles and so I’m willing to commend him for making this his cause.

    @Sarah, I really have a few qualms about one of your remarks.

    Better to all expose our genders and put naked pics of ourselves up online. I am a woman. I have a female body.

    That’s cool and everything, but is it really sensible? If people make unsolicited remarks about your body, that means get naked for them? I guess if the only other option is to put on a burqa then maybe, but both options sound like they let “them” win and neither one would be likely to stop the unsolicited comments.

    The other question is, do you want them to think all of those same things about you but not say anything? The interesting part about that is that this is how I feel I’m treated by women, as a man, and in a lot of ways I’m not sure if I prefer it that way. I don’t like finding out that a group of female friends have held some opinion about me for months or even years and that it affected how I was treated but no one felt that I was entitled to know about it. In some ways it’s superior to just be able to know what people think. That doesn’t make me feel particularly comfortable, either. So let’s say that the comments weren’t intrinsically crafted as to be insulting and humiliating, but were nevertheless unsolicited comments about your body and they weren’t being posted as comments to a specific blog entry you wrote but on a separate thread intended for general discussion. I’m not saying that reality is even close to that, but let’s say if it were, then is there a point where you would say that your comfort level no longer warrants asking other people to make further changes to their behavior? I just want to know what a realistic solution is, because obviously I don’t think it’s realistic for every woman on the internet to put up their name and address along with naked photos of themselves.

  • http://GodlessPoetry.blogspot.com Zietlos


    Alright. Deep breaths. This is an important issue, I can’t screw it up by posting angrily…

    Something that causes harm to everyone it has touched… RealID.

    You know, Blizzard Entertainment wanted to input RealID into their WoW and SC2 games online, and on the forums. Real pictures, real names! What could POSSIBLY go wrong?

    Well, step one: A moderator who introduced the measure got prank phone calls. Black faxes. More importantly, her (she was female) picture was posted online, as well as pictures of her children, their school, the school’s hours, their teachers names, where she graduated university, the bus route her kids took, and her work hours. All because JUST HER NAME was posted online on a forum that as a moderator she had to be on fairly frequently. It was enough to find all the rest of that info.

    It wasn’t malicious, the uploader specifically said so. It was merely compiling information any more serious person could compile if, say, someone stole your loot in the game, and wanted revenge.

    To avoid being sexist (hahs!) the uploader then did the same, same info, enough for any molestor, hater, or griefer to pretty much kill their kids and get away scot-free, for every single executive of the company responsible for the RealID decision.

    When tried to get back at this uploader, they found his forum account empty. His name on it was fake, the credit card he registered with was a disposable un-named visa. He logged on from a proxy. Total blank.

    Do you REALLY want people to have a 100% easy time stalking, harassing, or even killing you if they disagree with you?

    Also, RealID will DECREASE sexism? BAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA whew…. Sorry, serious time… The old (false) adage goes “There are no women on the internet”. This is because, for the most part, people are anonymous online. Women exist, but they do not declare themselves as such, just as men do not explicitly label themselves male (though Anonymous is assumed male for some reason). The question arises: Would hackers and professional griefers, who can fake any RealID, be DETERRED by having a thousandfold increase in targets of varying attractiveness, or would it, perhaps, increase? Racism anyone? Homophobia was already mentioned. Ageism? Heck, redheaded males have a whole group dedicated to hating them (ginger girls, conversely, while fetishized, I would argue are a better subgroup to be in than “soulless monstrosities that deserve to be put down” that are ginger males). Anonymity is what gives equality. Whether or not this is a good thing for society, I won’t argue, in happy magical fairy land, yes, once everyone knows everyone on the net, everyone gets along fine and world peace springs up and everyone has fudge fountains. In real world land, extremist muslim men have internet connections, and get PRAISED for putting women down, do not forget. KKK do too. And so do trolls. And Neo-Nazis. Et cetera.

    I’ll leave the sexism questions to the experts. But I know RealID. Kill it, before it kills you.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato


    I wasn’t going to address problems with real name identification on the internet, but since you brought it up: yeah, there are some serious issues.

    The first and foremost of them is due to the structure of the internet, where essentially all connections are indirect and it is not possible to use any form of direct identification to get a guarantee that who you think you are talking to is actually who you are talking to. (This happens to be a huge problem in cryptography as well.) As long as there are many possible network paths by which one host can reach another, none of them are fully verifiable, and the remote server cannot force the usage of a particular path, it will always be possible to simply proxy around a scheme that seeks to identify any particular client or user.

    There’s a second, corollary issue, and it’s this: changing the general structure of the internet is very difficult. As it stands, the net is essentially a relatively small set of high-capacity backbone links which cover the long distance transmissions and connect a variety of ISP sub-networks located in and around the residential areas where the users are. Trying to change that topology into one where every node in the network is directly connected to every other node (a fully peer-to-peer system) would be economically infeasible. Indeed, that’s severe understatement.

    Instead of trying to change the structure, one could try to use the relative centralization of service to the advantage of identification. This would naturally require the cooperation of essentially all ISPs, everywhere in the world. It would also require a redesign of the fundamental protocols used on the internet, especially TCP/IP. In particular, the protocol would have to have to function in such a way as to guarantee the delivery of traffic along predetermined paths. When or if multiple such paths exist, one would need a deterministic prioritization scheme that allows the traffic route to be known ahead of time. This form of design places some severe limitations on extending and managing the network, as well as dramatically reducing its resilience to lost carrier nodes.

    Even then, that much is not sufficient to eliminate proxies. ISPs would also have to cooperate to set the routes so that any possible method of reaching any possible host is a-cyclical and strictly monotonically decreasing in distance toward the target host. Doing so would centralize the network structure even more so than already, and probably create substantial bottlenecks. That’s not even considering the difficulty of implementing redundancy on such a network.

    In my view, however, the technical difficulties are vastly overshadowed by the political, economic, and social difficulties of a real life identification scheme. Due to the necessary centralized nature of the network, the identifying party becomes either (a) ISPs, or (b) the government. In most of the countries of the world, neither of these two entities has a very good record at meeting user needs while preventing abuse.

    ISPs are highly profit-motivated, and typically doing everything possible to meet user needs and improve the network adds nothing to profits. Furthermore, some problems — like harassment and intimidation — that users face on the internet are issues that ISPs can do relatively little about, at least without relevant legislation and involvement with the police. Close interaction between ISPs and state agencies, however, can just as easily lead to corruption.

    In the U.S., ISPs have essentially wiretapped most, if not all, of the major internet hubs at the behest of the government. The NSA and FBI supposedly use the the information gathered by these wiretaps for combating terrorism and other high-level felonies. However, their track record has presented few, if any, cases where these wiretaps were actually useful in solving such cases. Further, it is quite clear that most of the traffic which passes through a wiretapped hub is clean, ordinary communications.

    You might think this is all very innocent, and it may start out that way. Eventually, however, things turn sour. Congress decided during the Bush administration that these long-standing wiretaps would be use-able even without a court order (a warrant). With essentially nothing of significance done under the Obama administration to restrict or eliminate these powers, we now essentially live in a society of permanent warrantless wiretaps. The cycle of corruption is complete.

    Too long; didn’t read? In short, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

  • Sarah Braasch

    I don’t think that only women should reveal their genders or post naked pics of themselves.

    I think everyone should. It would demystify the sexual taboo of public nudity. I have a body, including lady parts. And, so do you. Maybe not lady parts, but you understand what I’m saying.

    Let’s all get over it and move on with our lives.

    I think that the idea that we NEED anonymity in order to engage in free speech, to protect ourselves from those who would attack us for our speech, is a very dangerous road to tread.

    I’m not saying that this isn’t true in some circumstances; I’m saying that this is not an idea we would wish to feed, if we want to maintain our open, democratic society.

    Instead, how bout we teach everyone to grow up and learn not to kill other people for their ideas or identities.

    It’s the same idea in support of desegregation (racial or gender or whatnot) and the burqa bans.

    Sure, you can make the argument that women or blacks or gays (don’t ask don’t tell) are safer from those who would wish to harm them if they remain segregated, cloaked, in the closet.

    But, is that a society you would wish to live in?

    How are we teaching people to live together with one another without killing one another in a pluralistic society, if we just concede the argument?

    If we just say, you know, you’re right, we’re all assholes who are going to rape, lynch, torture one another for our ideas and identities, so we should just all either hide our identities from one another or segregate ourselves into our disparate identity / idea groups.

    I think it’s time for humanity to grow up.

    And, I was just commenting on another thread about how I inadvertently assume that everyone with whom I am conversing is just like me — a 35 year old pissed off former fundie gnu atheist woman, which led me to comment here again.

    I do think women have a responsibility to reveal their genders — on behalf of all women.

    So, you all know that the online world is not only populated by 20 something college educated suburban white boys.

  • bbk

    Sarah, if you haven’t already done so, I think that you would benefit greatly from reading Richard Spinello’s CyberEthics, as I did in college for my CS curriculum. The point being that you seem to be missing entire dimensions of the problem and only focusing on one aspect that you don’t like. The best way I can put this is that you’re pounding a square peg into a round hole. The destruction of personal identity as it happens in oppressive societies is not the same thing as anonymity. Far from it.

    As far as everyone posing naked, I think it robs people of personal power and autonomy in the same exact way that robbing them of anonymity does. The big problem isn’t that it robs people of the power to decide how much personal information to reveal. The problem is that it gives unprecedented power to a few individuals who would find themselves in a good position to exploit the ensuing cornucopia of information. The power created by control over one’s identity doesn’t go away, it just changes hands away from the owner of the identity. You would turn people into unwitting content providers for everyone from censors to advertisers to use for social engineering projects of their liking. Not necessarily of your own personal liking. In essence, you would no longer need a burqa to completely control someone. You could create other ways for them to surrender their personal identities.

  • Sarah Braasch

    There is a world of difference between what I think people should do, and what I think the law should compel people to do.

    But, having said that, think about this. And, I’m not saying that there is never a place for anonymity.

    But, in general, in public, in my discourse with others throughout my day, I am free to say whatever I wish. But, I understand that I will be held to account for my speech, in subtle and not so subtle ways, because my identity is known. This is a good thing. This makes open, free, public discourse possible, in the same way that the fact that you can be sued in court for violating a contract makes business discourse possible.

    So, I am careful not to threaten anyone with violence (which would actually be illegal) or to make racist or homophobic slurs (which would be treated as crimes if coupled with actual violence).

    And, I am careful not to say anything that could be construed as fraud, deceit, misrepresentation, slander, libel, or just simply ignorant, stupid, or lacking a basis in reality.

    This doesn’t exist online.

    And, that’s a bad thing.

    It makes everything said online by those hiding behind aliases just white noise.

    I do appreciate those who back up their online speech with facts, cites, et cetera, even if they use an alias. And, I do appreciate the fact that this is mitigated somewhat in a forum such as Ebon’s, because he polices his community and the comments herein to some degree. This is why I choose to post and comment here.

    But, otherwise, no one is accountable for their speech. Everyone is free to threaten violence, make racist, sexist, and homophobic slurs, and perpetrate fraud, misrepresentation, deceit, or just simple ignorance and stupidity upon the mass public.

    If we’re all in virtual burqas, open, free, public discourse is not possible. Democracy is not possible. Human rights are not possible. We are creating a virtual world in which anarchy reigns.

    This is why I reveal my identity.

    I stand behind my speech.

    And, it’s a good thing that I can be held accountable for my speech.

    I want you to take me seriously.

  • ildi

    If we’re all in virtual burqas, open, free, public discourse is not possible.

    I see it as the exact opposite, the key words being “all” and “virtual.” I look forward to the day when the gender, age, race, etc. of the participants has no impact on how the discourse is perceived. In virtual space people say all the hateful, bigoted things they really feel without being accountable (unless/until they’re banned) – therefore, you know how much these opinions still exist, and how strong these feelings still are. No one is hiding behind the veil of political correctness. Conversely, when someone cites data or studies to support their opinion, you can’t dismiss it as having validity just because you know it comes from a 16-year-old. Facts and opinions (good or ill) speak for themselves. Until this is true in meatspace, I prefer anarchy.

  • Sarah Braasch

    But, that’s just my point, ildi.

    How is everyone hiding their identities in the online world teaching anyone to be accepting of those persons with differing identities/ideas? I don’t mean accepting as in you agree with them; I just mean accepting as in you don’t try to kill them.

    I also want the bigots and the haters out in the disinfecting sunlight of unfettered public discourse. But, it is always twilight in the online world. They get to go hide in a dark, virtual corner and let their hatreds fester and percolate as bile in their bowels.

    And, it’s ok not to regard a 16 year old’s opinion in the same regard as an octogenarian nobel prize winning ivy league professor.

    There’s a reason why we have the word expert. It’s not elitist.

    Not everyone’s opinion matters on every single topic.

  • Sarah Braasch

    I don’t want anyone to get me wrong.

    I worship the internet.

    I love being able to reach out to a global, mass audience.

    I think that the internet might, just might save the world. (No, who are we kidding. Not even the internet can save us.)

    I love being able to hear the stories of people from all over the world.

    The internet is turning us into a global family.

    I just don’t want us to mess it up.

    And, I think it would be so much more effective at turning us into a global human family of individual human beings, without regard for sex, race, etc., and ushering in a global government based upon secularism, human rights and rule of law, if we all revealed our identities.

  • ildi

    And, it’s ok not to regard a 16 year old’s opinion in the same regard as an octogenarian nobel prize winning ivy league professor.

    Notice I said data and studies, not opinion. You don’t know if that 16-year-old is the current prodigy and the octogenarian professor has turned into a crank.

    How is everyone hiding their identities in the online world teaching anyone to be accepting of those persons with differing identities/ideas?

    Unless you are a fly-by poster who really isn’t interested in an exchange of opinions, and is more likely to lash out at identities rather than ideas, you are forced to deal with people’s opinions and information without the filter of your perceptions of their identity. However, over time, as you comment on a thread, you usually find these details out, and you may come to realize that you agree with someone with whom you wouldn’t have had the discussion with (or taken seriously) in the first place if you knew the details of their identity up front. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had my preconceived notions about a commenter blown out of the water when I find out details about them. It makes me more careful to focus on the issues not the people.

    it would be so much more effective at turning us into a global human family of individual human beings, without regard for sex, race, etc., and ushering in a global government based upon secularism, human rights and rule of law, if we all revealed our identities.

    Like that’s been working so well in real life, hasn’t it? The anonymity of the internet gives people a voice who may not have one in current society.

    Also, I wanted to mention that I think a virtual burqa is the wrong analogy here; I would compare it to a masquerade ball. You have no preconceived notions with masks that you would with who is hidden under a burqa.

  • archimedez

    Anonymity seems to work well in the comment section on this site, where most of the commenters are anonymous.

  • http://politicalgames.posterous.com themann1086

    anonymity != pseudonymity

    What I have in the name field, for example, is a pseudonym. It’s what I use for almost every online interaction in all the communities I join. “themann1086″, if I commented more, would be a recognizable “name”, much like “El Cid”, or “Zifnab”, or any other frequent pseudonymous commenters.