On Jason Thibeault, homophobia, tone, and trolls

I’ve put off writing about this for too long. But first of all: no, I don’t think Jason Thibeault is a homophobe. Not exactly. Second of all: I agree with him that you don’t have to always be nice. I think it’s important to be able to back up your claims when you’re harsh on someone, but when you can back them up, have at it!

In spite of those two things, I was deeply embarrassed by this blog comment of his and his subsequent “apology” for it. First the blog comment:

Unfrocked is right, I made a fallacious argument. DJ Grothe is not LITERALLY a douchebag, as he does not store vinegar or other potentially harmful chemicals in his person for the purposes of “cleansing” a woman’s vagina. In fact, I hear he wants little to do with women’s vaginas.

Jason has since explained this as a “rather oblique suggestion that DJ Grothe’s bringing up his homosexuality as a shield might actually be a tell that he thinks he can’t possibly be a bad ally to women.” And, um, while I generally try to give people the benefit of the doubt on these things (see: imporance of being able to back up your claims), I have a very hard time seeing how the comment can be read in the way Jason insists it was intended.

Rather, the comment seems to follow the rhetorical form of “Okay, bad thing A isn’t literally true of him/her. But bad thing B is! Zing!” And the “bad thing B” slot is being filled by “DJ is gay.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean Jason thinks there’s anything wrong with being gay, though. What I suspect happened is that he was so mad at DJ that he let the blind-mad part of his brain go searching for any rhetorical weapon he could use, it went “Hey! Lots of people think being gay is a bad thing! Let’s use that!” and Jason was too blind-mad for the saner part of him to think, “but there isn’t anything wrong with being gay.” I sure as hell don’t think anger is always bad, but sometimes it makes people stupid.

It’s embarrassing to see a fellow FTBer apparently engaging in that kind of rhetoric, even if he’d know better in calmer moments. But Jason’s “apology” was, if anything, even more embarrassing. Background: Justin Vacula, a leader in the NEPA (Northeastern Pennsylvania) Freethought Society, had been arguing with Jason about Jason’s use of the word “douchebag” and Jason’s alleged “incredibly poor conversational habits.” Justin was also apparently one of the first people (the first person?) to point out the apparent homophobia of the comment quoted above.

So in his “apology,” what does Jason do? Say he may have unintentionally spread an anti-gay meme, but at the same time complain that a “vacuous shitbag troll is running around telling everyone that I’m a homophobe based on a reading of my comment” and announce that “the troll is still a vacuous shitbag, and is still banned here.” I can see three things wrong with this.

First of all, as Russell Blackford has argued (not in the context of this flap, but in the context of the previous Gnu Atheist/accomodationist flap), tone matters. Now normally, I don’t think it matters very much. It’s not the main thing, and people too often complain about tone when it’s the content they don’t like. So I actually tend to disagree with most of what Justin was saying in the thread in question, and don’t give a shit about Jason calling DJ a “douchebag.”

But you know one situation where tone really, really matters? When you’re apologizing. When you’re apologizing, it’s really important you use a tone that suggests you’re actually sorry, and referring to the person who called you out on your mistake as a “vacuous shitbag troll” fails to do that.

Astonishingly, in his post on not being nice Jason linked to his “apology” with the text, “Here’s what an apology looks like, for reference.” Really Jason? If DJ Grothe wrote an “apology” where he called the person who called him out on whatever he was apologizing for as a “vacuous shitbag troll,” that would do the slightest thing to improve the situation? That Jason would not only “apologize” this way, but refer to his apology as a model for other people’s apologies, suggests a remarkable cluelessness.

Another issue is the use of the word “troll.” As was suggested in an actually pretty good thread at Almost Diamonds, there seems to be a widespread understanding of “troll” as “someone who is consistently disingenuous” (e.g. saying something they don’t really believe just to start a fight). But too often, “troll” seems to mean “anyone who disagrees with me too much.” In a previous thread, I had challeged Jason to explain what he means by “troll” and he responded:

I mean a coordinated attack by a set of sockpuppet accounts at a number of sites who morph as they’re banned to say ridiculous bullshit about people like Ophelia and Greta and Jen and Stephanie as though somehow they’re endorsing Taliban-like behaviour. That’s what I mean by “troll”. What do you take it to mean?

By this definition, Justin Vacula pretty clearly wasn’t a troll. After getting banned by Jason, he posted some comments signed “VacuousShitbagTroll” and “‘disengenuous asshole'”, but that’s not sock puppetry because his identity was completely obvious (and while I’m generally in favor of respecting people’s right to moderate their blogs however the hell they want, Justin’s wanting to respond is understandable in this case). Furthermore, I see no evidence that Justin was being disingenuous; the fact that he signed his real name to his comments argues in favor of his meaning what he said.

Like, I really don’t care for Alvin Plantinga, but if he inexplicably showed up in my comments to argue with me about my tone, I might call him a lot of things (including “hypocrite,” which I call him in the linked post), but it wouldn’t occur to me for a moment to call him a troll. Now… if people want to degrade “troll” into a general-purpose epithet, whatevs. But in that case I’ll know that when they call someone a “troll,” it gives me very little information about the “troll.”

Finally, Jason’s “apology” post did contain a tiny bit of actual self-awareness:

When people who have shown every intention of manufacturing controversy just happen to be right about something, I have this tendency to not believe them because of all the dross they’ve spat out before. I sometimes trust my pattern recognition all too much. The fact that this troll is presently spamming both DJ and all my compatriots, and has been for two days, is galling, but must not blind me to the fact that some people could find that offensive. (Bolding mine. The last “that” here refers to the “wants little to do with women’s vaginas” comment.)

The fact that he said what I bolded, I think, makes for a third reason the “vacuous shitbag troll” comment is unfortunate. It suggests Jason is unlikely to actually apply the lesson about being cautious about pattern-matching to “bad guy” in the future. When you realize you have a problem like that, it’s probably time to take a break from calling people “vacuous shitbags.” Not that you should never do that, just that this situation would’ve been a good time to take a break from it.

I highlight this aspect of the “apology,” because I really hope Jason does apply that lesson more in the future. I think Jason has some real issues here, but things like this give me a tiny sliver of hope that he’ll eventually become genuinely aware of them and fix them. I can think of a couple other examples of things that have given me hope here, such as Jason’s post “Vilifying Dissent” (he was against it), even though he later inexplicably walked back from it (I’ve read entire comment thread on that post, and I still have no idea what arguments there might have changed his mind).

In fact, my sliver of hope was actually enough to make me consider writing Jason about this privately. But… I eventually decided it needed to be addressed publicly. Because I’m embarrassed by it, more so than in my previous disagreements with other Freethought Bloggers (none of which involved calling anyone a “vacuous shitbag”). And also because quite a few people outside of Freethought Blogs, including Russell Blackford, whose writing I greatly respect, have expressed concerns about it.

Not that I agree with everything that’s been said about Freethought Blogs in this area. Jeremy Stangroom, for example, has complained about Freethought Bloggers having “attacked and ostracized” Chris Mooney, whereas I think Mooney largely deserved what he got. But that’s no reason to ignore genuinely ugly behavior when it happens… especially when it comes from someone you share a domain name with.

Note: Since I suspect the comments on this post may get heated, let me direct your attention towards the comment policy. I err on the side of not moderating people, but don’t be a total uh, douche.

Note #2: A previous version of this post said, “Jeremy Stangroom, for example, has complained about Freethought Bloggers having ‘bullied’ Chris Mooney.” On Twitter, Stangroom emphasized that he actually said “attacked and ostracized,” though I’d point out that one of the tweets in question had the tag #bullies.

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