Sunday Morning Survey – ‘Do You Give People A Pass Because They’re On “Our Side”?’

Sunday Morning Survey – Because I Have A Headache For Some Unknown Reason And I’m Kind Of Grateful That I Don’t Have To Get Out Of Bed This Time Of The Day To Do A Damned Thing Beyond Writing This .

Today I read a short statement from someone (let’s call them ‘X’) praising a speaker at a conference (it was a primarily a science, not an atheist conference – but we can talk about any event you like). People responded by politely agreeing or disagreeing about the relative value of that particular person’s contributions.

I was probably the most critical, albiet polite, but I didn’t say why. Here’s why.

I’m at a show, sitting with one person I know (let’s call them ‘Z’) and a bunch of people I don’t know (they’re friends of Z and I get a hurried introduction to the group). They’ve got drinks with them, which might be a contributing factor to what happens next. As the show starts, the performer happens to laud the name of a well-known figure in scientific history.

One of the people (who I don’t know) screams out ‘HE SUCKS!’ in response.

I am mortified. Of course, I’m in the same row as this heckler, and Z promptly tries to shush their friend, leading to a little ‘But he DOES suck! He does, right? Huh?… what? Wha the problem? He sucks!’ confusion.

By then, the damage has been done, because once you heckle the guy with the microphone on the stage, their attention is inevitably directed in the direction where the sound came from and I feel like I’m sitting with the bad-kids-on-the-back-row-of-the-bus.

There’s nothing I can do. Apologetic waving from the audience runs the risk of making it look like I was heckling, and the last thing I want to do is draw more attention and further ruin the start of the show that hasn’t even got underway yet. In addition, I’m upset to think that the performer might think that I endorse this kind of behaviour. There’s nothing I can do. Except feel absolutely dreadful, of course.

The show continues without any further hitches (apart from unrelated technical ones, but whatthehell. Tipsy people in the audience aren’t to blame for that).

Z does what I think is the right thing. When the show is finished, they corner their friend and make a firm admonishing statement as to ‘time-and-place’ and how they personally felt very embarrassed by the heckling – and did they consider the performer’s right to do their job and the feelings of the rest of the audience when they were heckling?

The heckler continues (although clearly ashamed) to defend their ‘you suck-age’ comment, by saying that they were only doing it on behalf of Z. But they get the point and apologise. It’s fairly obvious that alcohol was a contributing factor to what they did. The point is made and the conversation is over.

Of course I’m curious. Z had a bad experience with the well-known figure in scientific history? I can’t help myself and ask what the underlying issues were.

Z makes four clear and powerful personal reasons (backed up by another member of the group who was present for two of the examples they raised), as to why this particular figure was not only incredibly inappropriate and rude to them and others, but fairly unprofessional in the past. In fact – they’re blatantly sexist as well.

I’m rather taken aback to learn these things, and feel rather disappointed that Z had these experiences. Of course they colour my view of the popular figure in question, because I greatly respect Z and know that they’re one of the most reliable, hard-working and professional people I know.

But I’m also aware that people change, people learn, people can be humbled and still have very valuable things that they can give to the world – and that ‘YOU SUCK!’ comments are NOT best way to deal with the matter. I could easily have a great experience in the future with regards to this popular figure (as shown by the opening comments of this blog-post by X) – and maybe I could hear of them working with Z in the future (although I still think that would speak more to the consumate professionalism of Z rather than the figure in question).

That popular figure has got a fantastic track-record of contributing to science and makes an empirically-measurable difference. There’s a very good reason why they’re on the stage, working as they do. But they’re kind of an ass.

Here’s an example of someone I’ve heard people say that they would never take them seriously again as a representative of atheism – Bill Maher. Because he promotes anti-vaccination claims.

Where do you draw the line and scream out ‘YOU SUCK!’ – or do you do something else?


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About Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is a Philosophy teacher, media and psychology student, blogger at Patheos and podcaster at Token Skeptic. She has conducted over a hundred interviews including artists, scientists, politicians and activists, worldwide.
She’s the author of the ‘Curiouser and Curiouser‘ column at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry website and travels internationally lecturing on feminism, skepticism, and science.

  • Andy

    I can’t see that naming names would add anything to your main question about giving passes.

    I think free passes are given. One major example from recent memory was Derren brown’s “predicting the lottery”. Basically, the “trick” (or “camera trick”) sucked and the explanation sucked far, far more since he essentially went all paranormal on us and expected us to swallow the notion that lottery numbers could be predicted by committee.

    But people defended him, finding all manner of excuses like if you paid rally close attention to things he said, you’d see that he didn’t really want you to believe in the wisdom of the crowds and stuff – and anyway, he’s done some great work debunking psychics and stuff so he’s great even if he is basically, now, claiming some bizarre paranormal power for himself.

    He was “convincing” enough that there were “believers” accepting his explanation as fact.

    I think it’s possible, however, to laud the positives and critique the negatives. Just because Brown pulls a few dumb stunts doesn’t mean his other work is suddenly pointless.

    But drunks? I have no time for them. If they can’t control their behaviour then they should choose where and when they drink more carefully – or give up completely. It might come as a surprise to some but drinking isn’t compulsory.

  • carlbaker

    I agree with Andy – I don’t think it’s necessary to name names here. The question is “should certain people be given a pass because of who they are”. Pretty clearly they should not. We all screw up, and whether it’s by being a sexist jerk or a drunken one, whether we’re a leader in a community or just one of the crowd, our friends should call us on it and help us do better in the future.

    And any community needs leaders. In a freethinking/skeptical/think-for-yourself community, those leaders should be better at skepticism than the rest of us – or at least better at communicating it. Better doesn’t mean perfect or that they shouldn’t be striving to improve. Or that we shouldn’t call them on it when they screw up.

  • Michael Fisher


    Sunday Morning Survey – ‘Do You Give People A Pass Because They’re On “Our Side”?

    I do if it is regarding matters in their field of expertise ~ their views or future research within that area remain valuable. We can all think of examples of gifted, contributing figures who lose the plot when they express an opinion outside their area or who exhibit thoughtless insensitivity in their relations with other people. I do have difficulty however with talents who don’t sufficiently acknowledge the contribution that others have made that helped crystallise the breakthrough ~ that happens a lot !

  • Maria

    After Elevatorgate I saw a lot of criticisms about who was qualified to talk as a skeptic and who was a good role model. There was this written by Josh Witten at

    Public silence about uncomfortable issues may seem like a way to protect the community. In the long run, however, silence compromises the community’s goals and the dignity of the individuals that make it up. Not only does silence create the theoretical problems discussed above, but it also isolates the victims and ostracizes those with the courage to break the silence. Going forward, the discussion should focus on how to enable conversations, not whether we should be having them.

  • skepticola

    I think it’s like any professional group. If that person contributes consistantly with quality and with a clear effort to educate themselves and others, we should have a problem. Personality issues are going to taint our views. Unprofessionalism and bullying are unacceptable anywhere. I’d like to see more of a range of people across atheism and skepticism speaking out but we’re a minority anyway.

  • Cass_m

    I agree with the sentiment that knowing who it is adds nothing to the conversation. Everyone is going to have to decide for themselves whether how important the collateral information is to them.

    Were I Z I would talk about the figure with the group after the event. You’re right, people do change but sometimes the change is they get better at hiding their biases rather than truly examining them.

  • Lauren Ipsum

    Screaming “YOU SUCK!” isn’t going to solve the problem.

    Even screaming “{NAME} is a {sexist/racist/whateverist} buffoon!” isn’t going to solve the problem, even if it’s accurate.

    If {NAME} is speaking at an event, I think a polite confrontation might have an effect. For example, {NAME} is giving a talk, and has a Q&A session, and someone comes to the mike and says “{NAME}, we here in the skeptical/atheist (etc.) community are upset about {event}. A lot of people think when you {did whatever}, you really behaved in a {bigoted/sexist/racist/whateverist} way. Please give your side of this situation or explain why you are not in fact whateverist.”

    Then {NAME} has to defend him/herself or be seen as ducking the question. And that might, if not solve the problem, at least address it bluntly.

    Not that there isn’t a time and place for screaming, but IMHO, this isn’t it.

  • Rev Matt

    One point not yet addressed in the comments: The heckler claimed to be doing their heckling on behalf of Z. If Z didn’t want this to be done, then the heckler should have respected that.