Bravo JT

JT Eberhard, today (emphasis mine):

When I came into atheism, the blogs were a great part of what pulled me in. There was so much information, so many people outraged just like me. The blogs banded us together. We didn’t all agree, but we shared a cause and we were focused. I’ve talked to so many other people who tell the same story. Now…I don’t know what I’d think if I were coming from religion and seeing the blogs. What I’d see now are atheists at each others throats, twisting what each other says, and eager to disown one another over the minutia of shared causes. Every day I receive emails from people saying they’re dropping out of the movement or staying silent on social justice issues they care about, and it is expressly because of how swift we are to spite one another over disagreements – as if disagreements betray a hatred of one another (or of a particular group).

The response will come that we’re happy to see these people go, that we shouldn’t be so desperate to swell our numbers that we welcome the seediest and most despicable people. This is very true, and if all we were losing were the slymepit archetypes as well as other seedy and despicable people, I wouldn’t mind. But we’re not. On social justice issues there are many prominent names, many good people, who care about feminism, for instance, but who don’t say a word about it for fear that even agreeing on 99% will be taken as an excuse to declare war. There are many people composed of the purest and most vibrant empathy you can imagine who are leaving atheism as a movement. We should be glad to sever terrible people, but when we are hemorrhaging the rest we should worry, especially if we are culpable for it.

In writing this post, I’ve left out any disclaimers (I’ve found that no amount of disclaimers seems to be enough to convince many people that I write because I care, rather than because I secretly don’t care about equality all while under the guise of actually caring). I have made my case as fairly as possible, without (to my eye) a lack of compassion (for women, black atheists, and even little old ladies in the audience) and without making any slams at anybody’s character (I believe Jen, Greta, and the like have good intent, but that their approach is positively terrible and that they are not exempt from making bad arguments or putting words in people’s mouths they never said). I won’t even deploy the mocking term “Social Justice Warriors” since I think a social justice warrior is a wonderful thing to be. And yet, I worry that bridges will be burned and that social consequences will be applied – all for saying “you’re wrong” and even for saying I understand how they’ve reached the conclusions on which I think they are in error. And if I worry about those things from people I considered to be friends for quite some time, imagine how everybody else must feel. Use that empathy you so frequently tout (and which I think you possess).

This is what we have become: a movement where we cannot even disagree, no matter how amicably and no matter how kindly, without becoming enemies. The sad thing is, for those who would have the atheist movement reunite, to work through our disagreements rather than ostracize one another over them, stay silent in order to avoid more infighting or to avoid being shouted down publicly in front of their peers as if being wrong were a crime. I did the same myself for a bit.

There is a third group of people. These people care about equality for racial minorities and want them in this movement. We denounce racism in society at large and insist that speaker lineups at conferences are racially diverse. We care about equality for women, hate rapists, and demand that speaker lineups at conferences are gender diverse. We deplore most of the people in the slymepit and other assholes just as much as the next guy/gal. But we also think that popular figures like Jen, Greta, and the like are becoming increasingly toxic by mischaracterizing/demonizing their opponents, and being far too eager to brand and declare enemies.

I’m not the world’s greatest wordsmith, but I don’t think I’m a slouch. And yet I cannot find the words to convey what a painful admission that is to make, and how much it hurts to write. I came into this movement reading Greta Christina. Hers was, at one point, one my two favorite blogs and reading it, as well as knowing Greta, changed my life. I once admired Greta and Jen as paragons of reason, who argued in good faith and who nudged atheists of all flavors, so long as they were caring, toward the same cause, resolving their other differences along the way. I’m not certain if I was wrong then or if things have changed, but I don’t see it that way anymore, and I’m convinced I’m not the only one.

These people know that in a world where suffering takes place, so long as we’re compassionate and wish to push back, that drama is inevitable. It sucks, but it’s there. What we don’t need is additional, unnecessary drama, which is exactly what is created when we write posts in which we assign arguments to our opponents that they never made and treat them like they’re education or listening averse when they’re not convinced. We can disagree, but when we start treating each other as monsters for disagreeing, I think that’s drama that most atheists don’t want or need, and it’s time for it to stop. It’s not time to stop disagreeing, it’s not time to stop talking to one another about it, but it’s past time to start treating everybody who thinks a black speaker was out of line as a racist and everybody who thinks the Jen and Greta style feminists made a bad argument as friends to slymepitters who think misspelling somebody’s name in a derogatory fashion makes them clever.

Do I think it will stop? Sadly, no (I’d love to be surprised). But I do want people to know that there are not just two groups when it comes to atheists who worry about social issues, and that you are not a bad person, not a racist, not a woman-hater or any other sort of pariah for disagreeing with anybody in good faith.

I may not re-enter this subject again for some time, but it will no longer be because I worry about the loss of friends, the political penalties, or anything of that nature. It will be entirely because posts like Jen’s, where I must repeatedly sort out piles of mischaracterizations, straw men, and such have become the norm when dealing with that crowd. That is what makes me reticent to interact with them further, not our shared cause, compassion for the downtrodden, or anything else.

The dynamic JT identifies here is absolutely toxic. I’ve heard people claim that certain segments of the atheist blogosphere have their roots in Cold War era leftism, but I suspect it’s more an issue of human nature and group dynamics. Eliezer Yudkowsky’s posts on affective death spirals are relevant here, perhaps especially “Every Cause Wants To Be A Cult.”

The problem, in a nutshell, is that among the more extreme voices, there’s little penalty for being too extreme, but be just a little too moderate, and you’ll be demonized. The result, of course, is a self-reinforcing trend towards ever more extreme views. If there’s any hope of breaking the cycle, people like JT need to be brave enough to speak out even if it costs them friends. I’m rooting for ya, JT.

Update 8/24/2013: Based on some of the comments I think I need to add that I don’t have a strong opinion on the initial incident with Bria Crutchfield. That Bria apparently had permission from the other speaker to use part of their Q&A time the way she did does change my perspective somewhat, though it doesn’t negate JT’s worry in his original post that

Lately there’s been a lot of this attitude in the atheist movement, that every misstep out of naivety or ignorance, even if it’s insulting, makes someone a prime target for a shout down in a “public room” – as if humiliation and shame, while sometimes the proper tools, are always the proper tools.

In any case, the part where I think Jen and the people supporting her are clearly in the wrong is where she holds up JT as an example of

white straight cis men insisting they get to decide who your allies are and that you should not ever get angry, but rather calmly explain basic topics to hostile questions from every person that wanders across your path as if it were your personal duty on this earth.

That’s obviously not JT’s position if you read his post. The fact that responding to disagreement with that kind of blatant misrepresentation is so common within the atheist movement right now (at least online) is an absolutely toxic dynamic, for the reasons JT outlines, and it needs to stop.

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