I’d like to relay a few personal anecdotes on this blog. I’ll be talking about some abusive behavior, some misogyny, and references to sexual assault and harassment. I’m not just relaying them to share some personal experiences, I do have an ultimate point I’m trying to make.
I was a bullying victim in junior high. I never got in a fight or anything, I was just made fun of verbally. I was a nerd who was good at school and terrible at sports, and terrible at making friends. If I’m going to be clear, I don’t remember too much about it. It was an important part of my life for a while, and over time it wasn’t. I had to go to therapy for it, and then as time went on I stopped.
What I do remember was the indifference about it, or that the ordeal was somehow my fault. I would say something stupid before class, and the guy next to me in class would tell me to “just shut the hell up” and dismiss me. I would do the worst at whatever athletic feat was required of me in physical education, and someone would tell me to stop trying. I was called names (including homophobic slurs) and made fun of for changing into my PE uniform in the bathroom stall instead of out with everyone else.
Obviously that bothered me enough to get therapy, but there was a lot that bothered me outside of that: the callous indifference of those around me. Sure, there were onlooking students who didn’t seem to care, but there were those who were around who justified the behavior. “Maybe you’re getting made fun of for something you said” was a common one. When I would tell a teacher what someone said to me they would sometimes ask what I did to cause them to say that, instead of doing something about the cruel things done to me. People often told me I should have just behaved in another way, and that would have solved the problem. Those around me suggested that I just ignore the bullies, as if that made the problem go away (it rarely did). Just giving armchair quarterback advice on how to deal with a problem I dealt with on a daily basis was additionally fairly convenient for those giving the advice, feeling that somehow they had helped and didn’t need to engage with the problem any further.
Ten years later, I don’t care about it too much except to say that it happened. I get made fun of on the internet regularly, and I’ve had blog posts written about what a regressive leftist I am (as if that term hasn’t lost all meaning for me). Hell, a photo went around the internet of me wearing a dress and I got death threats in my inbox, and I don’t even particularly care about those too much. I was more anxious about people at work stopping me and asking about it, cause I just didn’t want to think about my coworkers seeing me in a dress, but I digress. I can’t say I’d feel the same if I actively got a large harassment campaign on Twitter or Facebook, but I didn’t.
That isn’t to say I haven’t run into assholery since becoming an adult. A few years ago I was working on a summer research project in China. One evening I was walking toward the cafeteria from my dormitory, and a group of college aged Chinese men in a pack saw me and immediately started mocking me. The population in this Chinese city was incredibly homogeneous, so a white guy with more facial hair than anyone in a 100-mile radius sticks out like a sore thumb. As they passed by, they shouted out “hello, hello, hello” at me in a mocking tone (English was very rare to come across) and they all joined in the fun and laughed as they looked at me me. I just kept walking, and they walked back to what I assumed were their dormitories.
It’s easy to hear this from the outside and dismiss it as a few assholes, and that’s what they were. They were assholes, and had I known how to speak fluent Mandarin I would have told them so. I shouldn’t have cared about it. But I did. They were clearly mocking me for being an American (and obviously a fish out of water at the time). It’s so difficult to impress upon the reader why this hurt, but it did.
Perhaps the reason it bothered me was that whatever it was they were saying gave them a lot of social power, and they were using that as leverage against me. They were making fun of a clear outsider, and whatever it is one of them said clearly caused the others to join in. Putting down an absolute stranger helped build clout, and the fact that it was a personal attack to someone for something superficial that I can’t change about myself was simply incidental.
When you’re a target of something callous like these instances, you tend to walk away thinking “what could I have said?” Language barrier aside, what would I have said? If they could understand what I had to say, would I tell them that being an American/westerner has nothing to do with my inherent worth as a person, and that they weren’t logically justified in harassing me? Would that have made a difference? If I shot back justifiably angry and called them assholes, would that have caused them to stop, or would that make them amused? Perhaps they would have gotten a kick out of making me upset.
When we as skeptics and critical thinkers engage debates and arguments, we often appeal to logic, reason, and evidence, which are all obviously supremely important. But what do you do when those don’t matter? There’s no “logic” to making fun of a foreigner. When you look at the “reasons” behind pointing and laughing at them, the jeers have no inherent logic to them. If you put them on paper there would be no formal syllogisms you could tease apart or critique. But within the context of the situation, the reason is apparent. The perpetrators are trying to have fun at someone else’s expense, or trying to gain a bit of social status, or tarnish someone’s reputation, or some other purpose.
There’s a naïve perspective among many self-proclaimed skeptics saying that if something is nonsense you should just refute it. If it’s completely logical, then it should be a piece of cake to simply make a good argument and be done with it. Perhaps this is scientism, perhaps it isn’t, but there’s a naïve idea that all you have to do to “win out” in an argument is simply make the better points. Ignoring for a second that most people aren’t in the best headspace for logical debate the moment they suddenly get harassed out of nowhere, what does it matter if there aren’t better points to make? What does it matter that even if your harasser is engaging in nonsense? Engaging in pure reason and logic doesn’t stop a crowd from joining in amusement at your expense! Logic, reason, and evidence are very important, but they’re not some magic panacea for resolving harmful human behavior. It’s not that hard to see that many human behaviors are immune to it.
I am reminded of a somewhat famous passage from Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Anti-Semite and Jew”
Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti-Semites have the right to play.
They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert. If you press them too closely, they will abruptly fall silent, loftily indicating by some phrase that the time for argument is past.
Sometimes, we as skeptics pretend that we have some argumentation superpower that is able to slowly but inevitably win over hearts and minds, or that people over time will become more and more rationally persuaded into behaving like the best people we possibly can, simply because progress is inevitable. I wish I still held that position. It kind of ignores that the point of these “arguments” sometimes isn’t to make a logical case, or to endeavor towards ultimate truth. Sometimes they’re just an ugly tool for ugly people to gain some sort of power over another, however fleeting or inconsequential that power may be.
When we tell marginalized folks or minorities that they should just engage with bigotry in a cool, calm, rational way, I think we sort of ignore the point. Many of us have been taught since kindergarten to treat every human with dignity and respect and not to mistreat them based on race, yet in practice when we grow up we still see adults completely ignoring the point. Merely saying that someone is a human and should be treated with the same respect and rights as anyone else doesn’t seem to help. We still see paper-thin excuses for banning transgender people from the military, and we see (ostensibly race-neutral) coded language like “thug” and “welfare queen” to denigrate people of color. We make excuses for a man who bragged about sexual contact without asking for consent, and instead of a nationwide condemnation we put him in the highest seat of power in the country.
When we ask someone to defend these attacks on their humanity from a calm, rational perspective, we are giving them an absurd burden that many of us don’t face ourselves. None of us should have to defend our humanity and our dignity based on characteristics out of our control (which may be everything), but when we place this on members of marginalized groups in particular to win over the other side with calmness and logic, we are burdening an already burdened group with a seemingly impossible task. If someone is saying something outside the realm of rationality and logic to denigrate your character, what are you supposed to say to that?
Outside of a brief incident abroad, I’ve never been attacked for my superficial characteristics. Yet one incident seemed perfectly enough for me. It’s fairly difficult to put into words just how bad it felt, a combination of confusion, anger, and hopelessless about trying to change the situation. We’re often quick to dismiss feelings, but if we are moral creatures that care about the well-being of others as a supreme value, then how we feel absolutely belongs in the equation of our calculus towards the well-being of others. But needing to care about the well-being of others is so difficult to put into words, especially for those who already don’t seem to care. In other words, I Don’t Know How To Explain To You That You Should Care About Other People.
I bring all of this up inspired by a recent incident at the Mythicist Milwaukee Conference this past weekend. My friend, Thomas Smith of the Serious Inquiries Only Podcast had a conversation onstage with YouTuber Carl Benjamin (who is known by his username Sargon of Akkad). Thomas set out to challenge Carl on some thoroughly abusive things he has said online. At one spot in particular, Thomas criticized Carl to his face and called him out for harassing a sexual assault survivor and a campaigner against harassment. And Carl simply just owned it, and said “yep”, gaining him a roaring applause from the audience.
— drkmwinters (@KWintie) September 30, 2017
I wasn’t at this conference, and I didn’t see this “conversation” save for a few online snippets. There’s more to the story for sure, and I’m not willing to pontificate about something I don’t know the in-depth details about. So for now let’s just focus on this clip. Thomas obviously finds it horrendous that Carl would give a snarky “I wouldn’t even rape you” to a sexual assault survivor in front of his then-hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers. Thomas is incredulous, partially I’m sure, at the person he’s talking to, but I assume even more so at the cheering crowd.
Let’s be clear, there’s no logic behind this. It’s not illogical either. A callous “yep” is simply a “yep”. It’s outside the realm by which we can evaluate any sort of truth value. Yet it’s this simple “yep” gained him cheers and yells in support. Later, Carl is able to rationalize this “yep” as something he simply doesn’t care about. Thomas is then able to tell him, “that is an unacceptable thing to say to someone”, which also gets him a handful of small cries in support, but at that point, what is there to say? Carl clearly had support for saying an awful thing, and not only got away with it, but was praised for it. In Thomas, I see myself from the past walking away from some harassers on the street. What is there to say?
At this point I’m knee-deep watching Thomas’ Twitter responses, seeing so many of Carl’s followers telling him that Thomas made bad arguments, and that he couldn’t handle Carl. Again, I haven’t heard the whole conversation, and I won’t know the entirety of it until it gets posted online. I’ve heard that Carl talked over Thomas and there was no moderation and Thomas had trouble fighting the hostile crowd, but beyond a few clips I have no confirmation. Based on my past online interactions with edgy anti-SJWs and accounts with Pepe avatars, I can’t expect that they’re right. Let’s be clear, Carl here isn’t making an “argument” either. He’s just gloating.
Maybe Thomas made bad points during the rest of the hour that this clip represents. I sincerely doubt it, because I find his work well thought out and genuinely critical of all sides. Maybe Carl gave more justification outside of these 40 seconds. All I know is that within these 40 seconds he got cheered for simply not caring about harassing a rape survivor. I know that people have defended Carl based on this clip or the harassing tweet in question. Neither his flippant response nor his wry attack on a rape survivor is “logical” or makes a good point in any sense. It’s snark, it’s harmful behavior, it trivializes sexual assault, and it gains him a following on YouTube. Somehow, while there’s no rational syllogism or logical basis behind it, he’s still allowed to say it and get away with it. Yet, if you call him an asshole, an assault apologist, or a misogynist, you’re likely to be dismissed for just saying things with no merit.
I’m not going to pretend I know the best way to confront this stuff. All I know is from my perspective and my past experiences, I’m seeing nothing new. There’s nothing logical, rational, or evidence-based in harassment or bullying. There’s nothing to tease apart there. It’s just empty attack. It gains followings, it encourages harassment campaigns, and it influences culture in a net negative way. I don’t always know what to do about it. But I don’t think you can confront bullying by simply making better speech.