Michael Shermer has once again responded to Ophelia Benson for having dared to criticize him for saying something dumb and sexist and he’s going for the full persecution pose, complete with allusions to witch hunts, inquisitions, McCarthyism, purges and — yes — Nazis. You can read that response, which was published as a response to Ophelia’s criticism of him in Free Inquiry, here.
Let me provide another example of moral progress that at first will seem counterintuitive. It involves a McCarthy-like witch hunt within secular communities to root out the last vestiges of sexism, racism, and bigotry of any kind, real or imagined. Although this unfortunate trend has produced a backlash against itself by purging from its ranks the likes of such prominent advocates as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, I contend that this is in fact a sign of moral progress.
Leaving aside the first and last clauses, which strike me as rather irrelevant, one has to ask: Dawkins and Harris have been purged? In what universe, exactly? I write often about the alternate reality on Planet Wingnuttia, but it appears that Shermer lives on one of the moons orbiting that planet if he thinks that Dawkins and Harris have somehow been “purged” from the atheist movement. They remain probably the two biggest names in the non-believing world, with legions of readers and listeners, millions of books sold and constant invitations to speak at the largest and most prestigious events. No one has purged them, nor could anyone do so even if they wished (and no one, as far as I know, has even suggested such a thing). But the bad analogies are just getting started:
To date, I have stayed out of this witch hunt against our most prominent leaders, thinking that “this too shall pass.” Perhaps I should have said something earlier. As Martin Niemoller famously warned about the inactivity of German intellectuals during the rise of the Nazi party, “first they came for…” but “I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a…”
Really? Seriously? Do I even have to explain how ridiculous this Nazi reference is? I certainly hope not.
When self-proclaimed secular feminists attacked Richard Dawkins for a seemingly innocent response to an equally innocent admonishment to guys by Rebecca Watson (the founder of Skepchicks) that it isn’t cool to hit on women in elevators, this erupted into what came to be known as “Elevatorgate.” I didn’t speak out because I figured that an intellect as formidable as Richard Dawkins’s did not need my comparatively modest brainpower in support.
No, Dawkins’ “Dear Muslima” comment was not “seemingly innocent.” It was condescending and dismissive and, yes I’ll say it, irrational. That is not something we’re used to from Dawkins, which is why people were shocked enough by it that most wondered if the comment really came from him or whether it was someone deliberately trying to make Dawkins look bad. But no, he did say it and yes, he did look bad. And deservedly so. One wonders how Shermer might have said if he’d chosen to speak out. Would he have pointed out that Rebecca’s admittedly “innocent admonishment” was exactly that and that Dawkins’ insulting response to it was pretty vile? One doubts it.
But perhaps I should have spoken out, because now the inquisition has been turned on me, by none other than one of the leading self-proclaimed secular feminists whose work has heretofore been important in the moral progress of our movement. I have already responded to this charge against me elsewhere,* so I will only briefly summarize it here. Instead of allowing my inquisitors to force me into the position of defending myself (I still believe in the judicial principle of innocence until proven guilty), I shall use this incident to make the case for moral progress.
What does innocence until proven guilty have to do with any of this? That is a legal concept and you are not on trial, no matter how much you imagine yourself to be. You said something dumb and sexist in a public forum and someone else pointed out that it was dumb and sexist in a public forum. And the truth is that you are defending yourself, primarily by going on the offensive and accusing your critics of trying to destroy you and others the same way the Catholic Church, the McCarthyites and the Nazis did to their opponents.
All of this is such an hysterical overreaction that it leaves my jaw agape. No one has been “purged” in any “inquisitions” or “witch hunts.” What they have been is criticized for saying dumb things now and again. You’d think that Shermer, who has spent most of his adult life encouraging people to think critically would recognize criticism when he sees it, but he squeals like a stuck pig when the harsh glare of criticism is turned on him.
All of this leaves me with just one question: Is it really that difficult to just admit to having made a mistake? Is it really so hard to say, “Yeah, what I said was dumb. I should have thought it through more. I’m sorry”? I’ve had to do it many times. I bet most other people have too. Why is that so difficult? When Shermer said that the reason there are so few women speaking at atheist conferences is because being “intellectually active” was “more of a guy thing,” that was a really dumb and sexist thing to say. Yes, it was an off the cuff remark in response to a question he may not have been prepared to answer, but why not just say that? Why not just say “I said something dumb without really thinking it through and it was wrong” and then replace it with a more thoughtful and reasonable explanation?
I like Michael Shermer. I’ve written for his magazine and had interesting conversations with him at a couple of events and I’m even sympathetic to his libertarian political views, unlike a lot of others in this community. But he is embarrassing himself here and the only reason I can think of to explain it is vanity. I wish he would stop. There’s still a serious discussion to be had about diversity at atheist events but it cannot be had with someone who is making these ridiculous claims of witch hunts, inquisitions and Nazi purges.
And once again I am struck by how much this rhetoric mirrors that of people in stark opposition to the goals of atheists and skeptics. When Paula Kirby refers to Rebecca Watson and her defenders as “feminazis,” she is using exactly the same language used by Rush Limbaugh (who invented that term, or at least made it famous). When Al Stefanelli claims that Watson and her defenders just “hate white men,” he is using exactly the same argument used by right-wing Christians for decades. And when Shermer talks about witch hunts, inquisitions and purges, he is using precisely the same rhetoric that right-wing Christian anti-feminists have used, and continue to use, to describe not only feminists but the entire secular community as well. And he is acting just like those fundamentalist Christians who are practically addicted to false claims of persecution.
I am also struck by the fact that even in a community that is ostensibly dedicated to rational thinking, we have developed cults of personality that surround prominent members of the community with sycophants willing to defend them against any criticism, no matter how reasonable or justified that criticism may be (I’ve even seen it in some of my own readers when I’ve been criticized, even with the low level of “fame” that I have and it’s creepy there too). That’s not a surprise, of course; it’s pretty much human nature. But shouldn’t we strive to transcend such thinking? Shouldn’t atheists and skeptics, of all people, put in the mental effort necessary to overcome those tendencies and evaluate each and every argument and claim using the same rational criteria? Shouldn’t we, of all people, be willing to admit when we’ve said something dumb?
Look, I’m as guilty as Shermer of circling the wagons around myself from time to time, of getting defensive and remaining obstinate in the face of accurate and legitimate criticism. And anyone who says they haven’t behaved this way at one time or another is lying to you and to themselves. So the answer to my question above? Is it really that hard to admit to saying something dumb? Yes, it is. But part of being a skeptic is recognizing that we all behave irrationally from time to time, we all use cognitive shortcuts and make bad arguments sometimes and we all allow our vanity or our emotions to override our use of reason. And it’s always easier to spot it in others than it is in ourselves. I get it. I’ve been there and I’ve done it. But at some point you have to be intellectually honest enough to engage in genuine self-reflection, admit that you’re doing it and make amends. I think Shermer still has the opportunity to do that, but he’s got to stop making the hole he’s in deeper.
Shermer, like Dawkins and Harris, has done a great deal to advance atheism and skepticism in the world. We owe them all a debt of gratitude for the lifetime of dedication to fostering a more rational world. But they aren’t perfect and they aren’t above criticism. Nor am I, or Ophelia, or Rebecca Watson, or PZ Myers, or anyone else. And when any of is criticized for legitimate reasons — and we all have been, at one point or another (and for me, at many times) — we must put our vanity and our ego aside and evaluate our own behavior as closely as we do those we oppose. It’s not easy. It never is. But it’s necessary if we are to deserve the title of skeptic.
Editor’s Note: Kacy Ray, you are banned from the comments on this thread. The last thing we need is another 200 comments about how unfair it is that people won’t meet you out back behind your Facebook page for the conversation you insist on having.