I’m sure you’ve heard of the blowup recently involving Buzzfeed’s coverage of very serious sex abuse and assault allegations about Lawrence Krauss, a superstar scientist within movement atheism. Lots has been said regarding that coverage, and for good reason. Now I want to add to this an observation that came to me while reading his denial letter: Lawrence Krauss has all but admitted that he swims in a seriously broken system, revels in it, and has no plans whatsoever to examine himself for flaws or to change anything he’s doing. Here’s how I know that, and why this denial bodes so poorly for a movement that puts its superstars above its principles.1
The Network of Whisper Networks.
When women can’t speak out, they whisper.
Maeve McDermott, USA Today, October 18, 2017
A whisper network is an informal alliance of women within a male-dominated industry. It alerts members to a man who is known or suspected of abuse and assault.
We heard first about the one involving the film industry when the Harvey Weinstein scandal blew wide open. Another involves “Shitty Men in Media.” Another, in stand-up comedy, warns about male comedians who prey upon women; Louis C.K. was one of the comedians whose name popped up on comedy’s whisper network for years before he got outed as a serial abuser.
You can absolutely bet that there is a fundagelical Christian whisper network. Any group dominated by men and featuring next to no women (or no women at all) in leadership positions is going to feature not only endemic sexual abuse of all kinds, but also a whisper network moving around in secret as women try their hardest to protect themselves in a group that seems hellbent on destroying them. They just have to be more careful in that way-more-authoritarian atmosphere.2
A narrative came out of these stories: these industries were owned by men and policed by men, so the women being harassed and assaulted had no voices in these industries. When they tried to raise awareness about how they were treated, they were brushed off–or silenced through threats of legal action or worse. And so they took matters into their own hands to keep each other as safe as they could.
The Atheist Whisper Network.
Movement atheism is a broad term for atheists who are politically active, collected into groups at all levels, and pushing mostly on church-state separation issues. They also seek to change public opinion regarding atheism. The movement holds conventions and rallies, sponsors events, and launches huge media pushes. Some movement atheist groups are way better than others. I always point to the Minnesota Atheists as an example of a great local group that walks the inclusiveness talk; as you’ll see at the end, plenty of others exist as well.
For all the effort movement atheist groups expend to be more inclusive of women, the superstars of the atheism movement, as well as the most recognizable names in the movement and many of the most influential people in it, are men. Membership in these groups, unsurprisingly, skews male.
So yes, of course there is a thriving whisper network in movement atheism.
I learned about the atheist whisper network very shortly after I began blogging, but its existence didn’t surprise me. After all, I began blogging just a couple of years after Elevatorgate, and even without that scandal fresh in my mind I already knew that movement atheism had a woman problem.
That said, a few names have always come up in the atheist whisper network: men that women won’t share a stage at conventions; men who women will not go anywhere with alone; men who are suspected of being dangerous. Those names belong to men who are big names–even superstar names–within movement atheism. There are groups and events that are also whispered about as unsafe for women as well.
But that’s the insidious nature of a male-dominated broken system: these allegations and accusations are never seriously investigated and they go nowhere and do nothing, like the Jefferies tubes of Star Trek fame. The women who try to raise a formal hue-and-cry about the assaults and various creeperies they’ve endured are either silenced with legal threats (with brutal expediency and effectiveness) or else mocked and jeered right out of the movement–hounded by death and rape threats issued by infuriated atheist men who don’t want to hear about their idols having tin feet, and/or turned into humiliating and grossly-sexualized memes.
When Neil Carter wrote about a time a year and a half ago that one of these brokers of silence volunteered some truly astonishing information about sexual harassment claims within movement atheism, not one thing came of that post. It was, IMO, an absolute bombshell, and yet it vanished into the well.
The message being sent to women was quite clear.
Then Buzzfeed finally found enough evidence to print an absolutely explosive article about Lawrence Krauss, who for years has been one of the names in regular circulation on the atheist whisper network. The article was comprehensive; it covered dozens of people citing occasions and situations, as well as providing backstories and even corroborating witness accounts of the accusations being made. This report looks in every way like a slam-dunk example of that best kind of responsible real-live-journalism that Buzzfeed does sometimes to keep us all on our toes in between listicles, quizzes, and kitten videos.
And predictably, it split movement atheists at the seams.
The Denial Letter.
The Lawrence Krauss article has generated quite a lot of talk and response–Phil Torres has gathered together some fascinating quotes in support of Krauss’ accusers. Adam Lee has marveled at the “wall of silence” that was quickly built around one of atheism’s big stars. Greta Christina had a stunningly brief–and painfully eloquent–response to the question leveled at other big names in atheism–like her–regarding why they didn’t speak up earlier. Steve Shives accurately surmised why it’s so hard to hold leaders in movement atheism accountable.
And then Lawrence Krauss issued a blistering denial letter on March 6th. You can see the text of it here, at AZ Central. Hemant Mehta has already gone through the major points of the letter, which appears to be Krauss’ rejection of all of Buzzfeed’s charges by saying that each and every one of the accusations they’ve listed are simply differences of opinion/perception or else flat-out fabrications, occasionally offering other rebuttals. He refers to some of the accusations raised as “absurd claims.”
I find these rejections astonishing in the extreme, both for what Krauss wrote and what he left out, which we’ll get to in a mo’ here.This is a letter written by someone who has benefited greatly from movement atheism’s status as a broken system. And he has no intentions whatsoever of changing a thing about himself or it.
The Broken System.
A broken system is one that does considerable damage to members and has trouble meeting its own stated goals, thanks to a very lopsided distribution of power. Groups of people within the system are seen as dualistic–for example, of men and women, older and younger people, even people of color (POC) and white people. One group in each dyad gets the power in, and sole authority to speak about, that relationship (and is a have within it), while the other goes powerless and voiceless (and is a have-not). Power is concentrated among the haves, while the have-nots exist at the mercy of that privileged group.
In such an environment, abuse is endemic–and it’s no accident that it is. It’s a feature, not a bug. It’s baked in from the get-go. If a system isn’t built from the ground up to ensure that both groups in a given dyad have full representation and voices, abuses are what we can fully expect to see.
Haves not only feel free to abuse those who lack voices in the system, they also greatly resist changes to that power structure. Worse even yet, they tend to protect other haves rather than the victims of those other haves. They know how few real justifications exist for this inequality of power other than the immutable traits that have landed them in the haves group rather than the have-nots, and so they protect the existing structure with every bit of strength they can muster.
When you see a system whose dominant members slam victims of abuse and center (and feel sympathy for) those accused haves rather than the victim have-nots involved, and when you see a response that amounts to everyone shut up and move along because there is nothing to see here, you are seeing the bloody footprints of a broken system.
And everyone shut up and move along because there is nothing to see here sounds like exactly how Lawrence Krauss has responded to the accusations against him.
Because Shut Up, That’s Why.
FIRST: Curiously, Lawrence Krauss doesn’t appear to understand what sexual harassment is in the first place.
In the last part of his letter, he admits that yes, sexual harassment “is a serious offense by its very nature.” He continues with an immediate “but,” thus negating that first part entirely by asserting that Buzzfeed simply didn’t “carefully define” exactly what it meant by the term sexual harassment. That’s bizarre, considering.
For a start, CWRU’s actual sexual harassment policy is extensive, with numerous examples of off-limits behavior. Further, the authorities there told Nora, the student reporting him for sexual harassment in that case, that his behavior “could constitute sexual harassment in violation of the university’s sexual harassment policy.” If nothing else, that policy works as a good definition, and it’s clearly the one Buzzfeed is using here.
It’s hard to imagine that Krauss didn’t realize that asking a female STEM student circa 2007 to dinner, closing his door for privacy, and teasing her about dates, as he describes, wouldn’t be taken that way, though that appears to be exactly the excuse he’s going with.
However, by acting like he just has nooooooooo ideeeeeeeeeea how coercive this sort of behavior can seem to women in a male-dominated field in particular, by acting like it’s just something he does all the time with everyone, he can insinuate some really astonishing things about Nora.
SECOND: Lawrence Krauss appears to believe that he’s simply really socially awkward and never seems to catch any cues telling him that his “obnoxious” behavior is unwanted, threatening, or frightening.
Ah, the myth of the socially awkward guy who just doesn’t ever catch social cues–and thus is instantly absolved of any and all offenses he commits that make women feel unsafe and uncomfortable. The truth is, people do get the cues–even socially awkward people can learn to perceive them. They just don’t like what those cues are directing them to do or not do, so they ignore ’em.
There’s actual science involved here. I’m not just being mean to socially awkward guys like Lawrence Krauss, who, despite being a megastar, author of multiple published books, longtime professor, and constant feature on the atheist convention circuit, appears to still be perennially incapable of figuring out when a woman wants to get busy with him or not.
But only once does Krauss mention consensuality as part of any of his encounters with his many accusers–and it’s especially bizarre and disturbing that what he characterizes as a lighthearted mutual decision not to proceed with sex is described as a harrowing near-rape by the other party. What I took from his inclusion of this anecdote: he knows what consent sounds like. He uses the term consensual three times in that one paragraph (“Hotel Dinner Date”) and nowhere else in the document. And yet he claims to have no idea what anybody means when they talk about sexual harassment.
THIRD: Lawrence Krauss puts the responsibility for checking him squarely onto the shoulders of the women he is offending and frightening–not upon his own, where it belongs.
I wish I could tell you how alarming and disturbing it is that Krauss’ major defense in the letter is that he’s just “obnoxious” sometimes; it’s part of his public persona and part of his teaching strategy; and if anybody is bothered by him they just need to swat him down and tell him he’s getting out of hand and of course he’ll back off. He acts like he’s making this grand concession by saying that he’s totally going to “create and maintain a safe atmosphere for open dialogue on any matter and to provoke that dialogue.” But he doesn’t say how.
He admits that he knows that often “people may feel unable to speak out in uncomfortable situations due to social, professional or power dynamics.” To him, however, that just means that people need to be very sure to “speak openly” with him about any “inappropriate” things he says or does.
In reality, speaking up even in a really coercive environment is a great example of something that anybody in have-not position in a broken system can never actually do.
To address sexual harassment claims meaningfully, that coercive environment has to be cut down at the root–and victims must feel completely safe in speaking up (to higher-ups if need be)–and all claims must be taken totally seriously and victims shielded from retaliation–and justice must be fully completed one way or the other.
You will find none of those steps in the letter Lawrence Krauss wrote that he thinks absolves him of all wrongdoing and presents a comprehensive and well-considered defense against Buzzfeed’s article. He seems to blame his own victims for not being more firm with him or making more clear to him that he frightened and offended them.
As both a professor and a man with considerable sway in movement atheism, it is his responsibility to recognize the greater potential for coercive dynamics between himself and the women around him and to take measures to be a safe person for women to be around. It isn’t that hard to figure out how that’s done–if one cares to do it. I know dozens of men in movement atheism that I feel quite safe around–exactly because they take those pains. And a lot of ’em are very informal people too. The options are not informal and making women feel very unsafe or starched-collar formal and respectful toward women.
And ultimately, it’s not women’s responsibility to make sure Lawrence Krauss behaves respectfully toward women.
WORST: Ain’t nothin’ changin’.
Krauss’ letter is nine pages long. It contains a few apologies for those who accused him of sexual harassment–fine. It contains absolutely no blueprints for any meaningful changes Krauss intends to make to ensure that there is far less of a chance that his “obnoxious” behavior might be misinterpreted.
None. Not one.
There is no introspection evident on his part that he’s had an eye-opening confrontation with his own destructiveness; there is no sign that he’s worked out why this behavior is completely unacceptable.
It’s mind-blowing, how beyond terrible this whole letter is, but this element is one of the worst parts of it.
In the past, when an atheist leader got accused of something like this (it’s certainly happened before), there’d be some do-si-do around the issue and then it’d blow over, with nothing changing.
This time, there may well be some tangible fallout.
The denial letter I linked you to was printed in an article describing how Krauss was suspended from Arizona State University and banned from campus grounds. He’s lost a lot of other speaking engagements, appearances, group affiliations, and events.
More than that, I sense that maybe there’s going to be a renewed emphasis on fixing what is broken. I’ve never felt that vibe before. This scandal might actually turn into real change. And that’s great. Whatever comes out of this whole situation, if it’s built from the ground up in the right way, might well be something primed to make a far bigger and brighter difference to the world moving forward.
And that’s something to hope for.
I find it unacceptable that the gains made by movement atheism must happen alongside constant streams of victims who innocently trust that atheists are better people than theists are, simply because they’ve come to one additional correct conclusion about the supernatural.
The Chain of Pain.
I want y’all to see this whole scandal not simply as yet another drama in movement atheism.
I mean it is that, yes.
But it’s also an example of another broken system that people create when they still suffer from the indoctrination that produced the ones they’ve already rejected. Someone can deconvert and still be a terrible person. They can reject religion and still think women are sub-humans, or be a stone-cold racist.
Our movement forward as human beings doesn’t end just because we made one correct conclusion. That’s when it becomes even more important that we challenge our old ideas and be ready to be wrong about a lot of things–as long as there’s credible evidence leading the way.
If the elements of the broken system are allowed to perpetuate, then we haven’t gained as much as we think we have.
We’ll see you next time when we plunge into one of the weirdest beliefs of modern fundagelicals: their obsession with Israel.
1 Disclaimer: This post is a reflection of my opinions and does not itself accuse Lawrence Krauss or any other person of anything illegal. It uses a letter he himself wrote, positioned against the Buzzfeed article mentioned, to draw conclusions that are also my opinion.
2 There’s nothing I could see that is formally called that (yet!), but when I searched for “do christian women warn each other about creepy pastors” I got, well, a bunch of hits criticizing Christians for saying anything mean about their pastors for any reason.
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