This is a continuation of a post from this morning about an incident of possible harassment at a skepticism conference. Read that one FIRST.
Even among people who agreed that not all harassment has to result in physical assault to be threatening and dangerous, there was a lot of disagreement about the appropriate way to handle the incident and the ongoing discussion in the atheist blogosphere. Some of the people I disagree with have premises about privilege and gender that are too out of touch with reality to productively address, but even some broadly pro-feminism bloggers went seriously wrong. I’m excerpting a recent post on this topic by Friendly Atheist, but for the sake of fairness, you should read the whole thing.
“[Watson's public attack on a specific atheist who criticized her] was bad form for two reasons. One, it was a distraction from an otherwise important talk. Instead of us discussing the incredibly important issue of how the Religious Right harms women (the subject of the talk), we’re all discussing whether it’s right for someone with a big megaphone to pick on someone with a smaller one, whether someone was being a “bad feminist,” and all sorts of shit that doesn’t need to be aired in public…
Maybe everyone has forgotten: We’re all on the same goddamn side. We’re supposed to be the rational ones. That means we should know how to discuss things privately before they become a public spectacle where no one wins. We should always encourage more atheists to speak up with their opinions, not shy away from it, because we’re the ones who know how to handle differences in opinion. No one’s saying “Keep quiet if you disagree.” It’s the opposite of that, only more tactful.”
The broadest point first: It’s important to have these discussions in public especially if you’re of the opinion the man who frightened Watson made an honest mistake. Private conversations with the specific offender leave everyone else still in the dark.
Now on to the more specific issue: I don’t believe all atheists/skeptics can be meaningfully said to all be on the same side. Atheists don’t have a communal creed and don’t even all come to atheism through skepticism. Usually, we’re a coalition of bootleggers and baptists – we’ve come to the same conclusion, but for wildly disparate reasons, so it’s no surprise that there’s a lot we disagree on.
It’s possible to have a solely tactical discussion about balancing the relative harm done by acknowledging not all atheists are saints and having a public brouhaha about harassment versus allowing bad behavior to go unpoliced in order not to lose ground against a greater threat from religion, but I don’t think Hemant was thinking in terms of utilitarian calculus. Instead of sly cynicism, I think he’s succumbed to excessive optimism.
I don’t have any particular confidence that atheists en masse or within the blogosphere can easily work out our differences without spectacle. In fact, our varied beliefs can make it a lot harder, since we’re less likely to all be speaking the same language than a religious group with a common tradition and set of references.
Our fights are always going to be disorganized and difficult, so, when we think they’re important, they may as well be public, so we can try to persuade and learn from as many people as possible. But we’d do best to remember how little we have in common and try to be patient and charitable through the confusion that’s sure to follow.