On the Bria Crutchfield outburst at the Great Lakes Atheist Convention.

I wasn’t going to write about the one hiccup at the Great Lakes Atheist Convention, but someone on twitter has convinced me that I need to.  First, I’ll say that the convention was freaking awesome and that the organizers were phenomenal.  It was seriously one of the best-run first-time conferences I’ve ever attended.

The problems all started when, during the Q&A of Mandisa Thomas’s talk, a woman asked her what black people were doing to fight black on black crime.  Was the woman’s question naive?  Yes.  Very.  And the naivety resulted in her asking a question that certainly had racist undertones, even if the woman was not intentionally being racist.  Mandisa handled it well.

But then, during the Q&A of Darrel C. Smith’s talk, Bria Crutchfield stood up and proceeded to give the woman an angry tongue lashing.  This went on for about five minutes (or maybe it just seemed like that long).  While Bria did answer the woman’s question, it was very embarrassing to the woman and trailed off into a number of red herrings such as “I’m here, get over it” as if anybody was suggesting that Bria or black atheists were unwelcome at the conference or silently sneered at by…anybody.

I, and several others wound up leaving the room during Bria’s monologue.  It just seemed so unnecessary to me.  The questioner was ignorant of what would make her question offensive, and this could’ve been solved without Bria embarrassing her (and herself) by usurping another speaker’s Q&A.  The woman merely needed information, not to be screamed at, and certainly not to be screamed at through a long diatribe in the middle of a conference when the floor was not hers.

Anyway, while I believe there’s a place for drawing note to improper things people have done in public, I’m a big advocate of trying to resolve it personally first (after all, for good people usually all they need is to have attention drawn to their blind spots and they will feel sufficient contrition on their own).  I thought (and still think) that Bria had a blind spot there, so rather than immediately write a blog I pulled Bria aside later that day to tell her that I thought she was out of line (in the hopes of helping her to see her blind spot without publicly humiliating her).  It…didn’t go well.

I was just going to leave it there, but then someone on twitter started messaging me.  I thought it was obvious that Bria was out of line, but apparently not.  This convinced me that there may be a bigger overall problem with people thinking that any slight, even if it’s the result of ignorance rather than cruelty, can merit intentionally humiliating or yelling at someone.  I have seen this elsewhere, where a disproportionate response takes place and someone defends it by saying they were justifiably angry, as if every action taken on account of justifiable anger is therefore justified.

Anyway, I need to get Bria out of the way before I move on to the tweets.  When I spoke with Bria, I opened by telling her that I didn’t wish to imply that she’s a bad person, but that I thought she was out of line (I even told her that I have been out of line before and I don’t think I’m a bad person – it happens).  I explained that the woman in the audience didn’t mean offense, and to then take over another speaker’s Q&A to yell at her was probably a disproportionate and unproductive response (at least in terms of helping the woman to feel positively about Bria’s cause and to recognize where she may have misstepped).  Bria responded that she’d heard that I like to criticize other speakers at conferences.  I told Bria that this is news to me, but if I think someone is out of line, of course I let them know.  This is what I would want someone to do to me.

Admittedly, under the surface I was insulted by the suggestion that I was conveying my displeasure to Bria out of some need to feel superior, and not for my stated reason.  But I let it drop.

Bria then told me she was offended to justify her earlier explosion.  I said I didn’t blame her for being offended.  The question was offensive.  But surely, I asked, you don’t think that the offense was intended?  Bria did not answer, which suggested to me she thought it was intended.  I honestly don’t see how anybody could possibly have reached that conclusion.  I can very much relate to Bria’s offense (and the offense taken by others at the question).  I’m offended every time a person suggest that people who have a mental illness need to “toughen up”.  However, I can realize that such admonishments are not the product of a disdain for people with mental illness, but the product of ignorance caused by there not being nearly enough information readily available in our society about this subject.  I can draw the difference between those who are good people, but ignorant, and those who are assholes.  I can also realize that if I yelled at and publicly humiliated each of them, I’d drive good people away from my cause while hamstringing my ability to create another eager voice for it (all while believing they were at fault for insulting me to start out with!).  But pulling them aside and educating them?  Perhaps telling them my own story so they can understand?  That’s doing right by other human beings, it’s placing value on good intent and rewarding it with information, and it’s fulfilling my stated goal: changing minds.

Bria then told me that some people in the audience appreciated what she did.  I’m sure there were many that did.  My argument isn’t that nobody applauded Bria’s behavior, but simply that those who did were wrong to do so.  Bria then told me that “the only people who concern her were the people who agreed with her.”  (She reiterated this later on her facebook page by saying “At the end of the day, ALL that matters in MY life are those who are in MY corner”).  I told Bria that’s a great way to feel like you’re always right, but that dismissing the concerns of those who disagree with you out of hand is a terrible way to be made aware of your own blind spots.

I told Bria I understood that the woman’s question had racist undertones, to which Bria responded “I didn’t say I had a problem with that, I had a problem that she embarrassed Mandisa.”  I lamented that that Mandisa was embarrassed (Mandisa, in my experience, is a wonderful person and a fantastic hugger).  But I pointed out that Bria then embarrassed the woman who asked the question,  the only difference being that Bria had the full intention of doing so.  I asked Bria if she felt that engaging in the same behavior she found distasteful was the best way to advocate for her cause.  Bria responded that she doesn’t care what people think of her.  I told Bria I can appreciate not being bothered when people unfairly think ill of you (I like to think I have that down myself), but asked if that made adopting what Bria had already said to be distasteful behavior acceptable.  What I got next was a series of statements like “That’s how I roll” and “I chew the meat and spit out the bones”, as if those things even remotely addressed the issue of Bria being out of line.

After going down all these routes and making no progress, I asked Bria if she thought that was the best way to change a person’s mind.  Bria said she didn’t care if the woman’s mind was changed.  I then asked Bria, if her intent was not to change the woman’s mind, what she had hoped to accomplish.  Bria responded that she didn’t have to tell me that.  I agreed, but told her that it might help me to understand her position better.  Bria reiterated that she didn’t have to tell me what she had hoped to accomplish.

Anyway, the conversation went on like that.  I never derided Bria (in fact, a couple times I told her that I didn’t think being out of line made her a bad person, even though she made several jabs at my character, with more later that I won’t get into).  But I just want people to know the full context of what happened, and to know that I tried to resolve this personally.  I wouldn’t even have tried to resolve it publicly if not for being convinced that the problem extends beyond Bria.  That’s where my twitter interlocutor comes in:

Questions were answered. Just because you dont like what you are hearing doesnt mean the words were wrong.

As if questions couldn’t be answered without yelling at the woman in a room full of people and making a scene.  I won’t deny that buried deep within her tirade Bria did answer the woman’s question with substance.  However, the implication here is that I took exception to a question being answered, and not to the berating of a person who didn’t know better and doing her best to intentionally cause emotional pain in the process.  That we are hurt does not always justify us hurting others.  That’s why the words “justice” and “revenge” are not synonyms.

She didnt verbally thrash anyone. She said she was insulted by the quesrion, which was insulting.

But she did verbally thrash her.  Bria yelled at her and cursed at her.  Yes, the question was insulting, but to insult was not the woman’s intention.  I’m not a person to say that a verbal smackdown is never warranted – I don’t believe that.  The question is whether or not one is required every time a person insults us  without meaning to, especially a person who would feel horrible and immediately correct themselves if they just had it explained to them, deserves to be humiliated, shouted down, and treated as an enemy.  I don’t believe this is the case.

the man who’s speech was full of ‘fuck’ and ‘shit’ suddenly cares about swearing?

Rest in Peace, nuance.  We loved you while you lived.  By this logic, if a person says “Fuck!” when they stub their toe, they must therefore see no issue when someone yells “WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING?” when somebody accidentally steps on their toe.  Is the very simple difference in connotation completely lost on you?  Yes, I used curse words in my talk.  Do you really think that justifies swearing in anger at a person who made a misstep out of naivete?

She was passionate, constructive and onpoint. Stop policing tone when one is insulted in a space she shouldnt have had to worry

The tweeter seems to have a fondness for euphemisms.  In this world a lengthy tirade in the middle of someone else’s Q&A that implies (among other things) that Bria and/or other black atheists are unwelcome, clearly delivered to embarrass someone who made a mistake, is “answering the question”.  Or, by the tweeter’s assessment, it is “passion”.  There are plenty of passionate people whose first instinct in the presence of an ignorant question is to realize that they have been ignorant before and to help cure the ignorance, not to apply social punishments every time a person makes a misstep out of ignorance.  If you treat every person’s mistake as a personal affront and use it to justify purposefully embarrassing them (when the ignorance could’ve been cured without that), it’s not passion, it’s cruelty.

And people also swear when they are hurt and upset.

Yes, they do.  Not all of them stand in the middle of a conference and yell at the person who inadvertently hurt them.  You seem to think my problem is with swear words and not the way they were employed.

Eventually I decided I would rebut the tweeter’s points in a blog post.  I informed her of this and she responded:

Before you do, please take time to consider why answer was more upsetting than question.

Now, I could’ve taken offense to the implied accusation that I was speaking without considering things.  But I realize that the tweeter and I are two people on the same side with a disagreement, and that being insulted unintentionally is not the end of the world or a cause for me to lash out at her.  Fancy that.

Anyway, the reason that Bria’s outburst bothers me more than the woman’s question is intent.  Yes, yes, I know – intent is not magic.  But it’s also not irrelevant.  The questioner clearly intended no offense.  Her only crime was being naive, which is the very problem that the black atheists in attendance were purporting to fight.  If you’re fighting that problem, that people are largely ignorant of the very real problems with racism in the world, you’re necessarily acknowledging that those problems exist, so it can’t be too shocking when they manifest.  Can ignorance still hurt?  Sadly, yes.  We all have hurt others without intending to do so.  But it’s the difference between someone stepping on your foot by mistake and somebody stomping on it on purpose.  While the effect is the same, one person is far more ethically dubious.

Bria sought to embarrass the woman and to hurt her when there was no need, and Bria did it on purposeThat’s why people left the room.  For many we can stomach ignorance and lament when ignorance hurts somebody’s feelings, but we can’t stomach cruelty even if it’s in response to ignorance.  This woman was not an enemy to Bria or to her cause, she just didn’t know better, but Bria still shouted her down in a room full of people.  It seems painfully obvious to me that ignorance is a lesser crime than cruelty, and it certainly doesn’t justify cruelty as a response.  If public humiliation were a proper response to ignorance, college classes would be conducted by professors who did nothing but scream.

The reason I write about this is not to “get back” at the person on twitter or at Bria.  I’m honestly not bothered by them personally in the least.  I certainly harbor no ill will toward the tweeter and I don’t harbor any ill will toward Bria beyond what I normally reserve to people who do things like what she did without remorse.  But this doesn’t seem to be an isolated case.  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.  When did we forget that people in the atheist movement are our friends and allies?  When did ignorance, a crime of which we’re all guilty in one way or another, start to be a cause for anger rather than pity?  Our job is to cure ignorance, not to punish people for it.  I can see denouncing people for lacking empathy; I can see denouncing them for being dedicated to staying ignorant.  But to denounce otherwise good people, or even a person at an atheist conference who you don’t know from Adam, for being sympathetic but naive?  I cannot condone that.

In my eyes we’ve become far too eager to treat people as enemies when we disagree, and we’ve become far too eager to take someone’s ignorance of our pet cause as a personal offense.  Perhaps I’ve even been guilty of this at times and, if so, I’m sorry.

The sad thing is that yelling at people publicly, no matter whether it is appropriate or not, can often be viewed by those in your corner as taking a stand (ironically, it doesn’t take much heroism to shout someone down in a crowded room when they’re cowed into silence).  It will almost always pump up the troops, as it were, whether it was the appropriate response or not.  I’m all for pumping up the troops, but if we’re to be good people we must still concern ourselves with whether or not the ways in which we do so are ethically justified – a status that is not achieved by our mere offense or even by our anger, justified though it may be.

Maybe I’m tone-trolling, but I don’t think so.  When people dedicate themselves to staying ignorant or when they are intentionally cruel, sometimes we must employ social tools like shame.  Like I said earlier, I’m the last person to say that a good tongue-lashing is never appropriate.  But there are certainly times when it isn’t, when all it does is create resentment, drive us apart, and obscure our message.  Like Greta Christina says, anger motivates us, but unchecked it can destroy us.  I guess my point is that we need to remain wise in our anger, to let it motivate us without dissolving our focus. Our anger at the injustices in the world must make us more compassionate, not less so.  When we start treating our allies like enemies because they are imperfect, anger has morphed from being a tool into a sickness.

It's funny how ambitions change over time.
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What made performing special for me - bringing the unreal to life.
About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.


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