Lots of people are awful, but not everyone who disagrees with you is

The two main impetuses for this post are both already old news in the blogosphere’s short news cycle, but I think the issue is important, so here it goes:

Impetus #1 is that this happened (emphasis added):

Adria Richards, a self-described developer evangelist, was at a tech conference sitting in the audience for a presentation. Two men were seated behind her and talking using technical language (dongles and forking) that allegedly morphed into a juvenile sexual joke overheard by Richards. She stood up, turned around and took three pictures of them. She then tweeted the pictures to her thirteen thousand followers with the conference hashtag. She made a second tweet then asking for conference organizers to do something.

Conference organizers removed the men, talked to them, one denied that some comments were sexual, admitted one was and apologized profusely. They were allowed back into the conference and that would have been the end of it BUT THE INTERNET EXPLODED.

Adria Richard’s company was besieged by DDOS attacks by Anonymous. One of the men was fired. Adria began receiving horrid rape and death threats. Adria got fired. And I commented on a blog post PZ Myers did about this titled, “Adria Richards did everything exactly right” and I disagreed with him. And got vilified, insulted, abused and disabused of the notion that what you think you know sometimes just isn’t quite what it seems.

I, of course, knew that the blog had a certain reputation for not suffering fools lightly. I know PZ, himself, promotes it as a “rude blog.” I wasn’t aware of how abusive it gets. I have been an avid supporter and defender of the so-called FTBullies and have paid a high price in the form of vicious ridicule and mockery by members of the slymepit. I cannot claim innocence as I have certainly thrown my own share of knives without knowing the full story some of the time, hell, maybe all the time. I don’t know anymore. I am doing what I need to in order to make myself right.

If you aren’t familiar with the comments section on Pharyngula, you can probably imagine what EllenBeth Wachs (the author of the post) means by “vilified, insulted, abused.” If you’re not, well, it included her being accused of being an “apologist for misogynistic behavior” and a “dumbfuck,” to pick two bits of it out at random.

You can read the whole post if you want to be really horrified, but I’m not sure I recommend it.

Afterwards, PZ wrote a short post where he briefly conceded that, “she [EllenBeth] might be right that the derision was disproportionate.”

Might be? Meaning PZ isn’t sure?

I’m a big proponent of the idea that people aren’t generally to blame for their comment sections. But PZ hasn’t just been allowing, but encouraging, this kind of behavior for a very long time. Last December, when Ed Brayton tried to defend PZ by saying you shouldn’t judge a blog by the comments. PZ’s response was to write a post titled “In defense of the commentariat” where he told his commenters, “you are the people I want here, and I affectionately regard you all as my local meatgrinder. Please don’t change. And when necessary, unleash hell.”

While I haven’t seen PZ ever quite sink to the level of some of his commenters, his own behavior is often quite similar if not to the same degree, for example assuming atheists who disagree with him on certain issues must by lying rather than having an honest difference of opinion.

Now I myself am not Mr. Nice Guy. There are some truly awful people in the world, and I don’t believe in being polite about how awful they are (for example). But the thing you can’t lose sight of is that just because there are awful people in the world, that doesn’t justify assuming everyone who disagrees with you must be an awful person.

With William Lane Craig, for example, I’m quite happy to call him a liar (among other things), but that’s a conclusion I reached only after observing his behavior extensively. When your first reaction to allies disagreeing with you is to accuse them of lying, something has gone seriously wrong.

Let me be frank about something. Money was the deciding factor in my coming to Patheos, before I realized moving to Patheos was an option, this kind of stuff had me wondering when PZ would finally do something so embarrassing that I would feel compelled to leave Freethought Blogs regardless of whether I had somewhere else to go. I think I’d be gone by now even if not for Patheos. The behavior of PZ and his commenters is not something I want to be associated with in any way, and I think it’s unfortunate that it’s one of the primary face of atheism on the internet.

The other impetus for this post is that recently, nearly two dozen leaders of national atheist orgs got together to make a statement calling for more civility on the internet… and Secular Women put out a response rejecting the call for civility. Among the reasons:

  • “At Secular Woman, the principle that ‘feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression’ (Hooks, 2000, p. viii) is taken as a given, and not a topic for debate.”
  • “Those of us working to challenge systemic sexism should be under no obligation to listen to or be more charitable to our opponents.”

I’ve expressed doubts about the idea of “being charitable” before. But I’m flabbergasted by the claim of Secular Women that they don’t even have to listen to their opponents. Even when dealing with deeply awful people, you need to listen to them some, or else you’re just assuming they’re awful without really knowing.

(On the internet I sometimes see people automatically accuse those who disagree with them of not listening, as if it were impossible to listen to someone carefully and then conclude they’re completely wrong, as if listening somehow required taking the other person’s side. Maybe the authors of the Secular Women statement are using such an idiosyncratic meaning of “listen” here, which could explain the statement I guess.)

But as an example of the benefits of listening: yes, “feminism” is often defined as being simply about equality, an in that sense few liberal people would reject feminism. But much of what passes for “feminism” is ridiculous and even harmful–not just the lunacy of Andrea Dworkin, but support for anti-sex work policies that are actually harmful to women.

Given that, it’s not hard to understand why many people have trouble seeing “feminism” in such positive terms. Personally, I’m a fan of the “I am if you think I am” approach to the label, but if you can’t fathom why anyone would be even more negative towards feminism than that, I recommend reading this. I don’t necessarily agree with all of it, but it’s an example of how people can have non-evil reasons for rejecting the “feminist” label. Listening to people is valuable because it lets you find out stuff like that.

(Note that none of the above should be taken to deny that there are plenty of people doing sex work activism who do identify as feminists.)

Now I can imagine someone making similar objections to the “atheist” label, explicit definitions be damned, as the objections I’ve just sketched towards the “feminist” label. In the “atheist” case, I have no problem calling myself an atheist and I think the reasons people who are basically atheists give for not not calling themselves atheists are kind of silly.

But I would never even think of declaring the issue “not a topic for debate.” I’m not personally very interested in debating it, but that’s because I don’t actually think the issue is very important. I’d never say it’s not a topic for debate in general, because that would implicitly tell other people it isn’t for them to debate even if they feel like it, which would be pretty arrogant of me.

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