My thoughts on Avicenna’s plagiarism and the reaction of commenters everywhere.

My thoughts on Avicenna’s plagiarism and the reaction of commenters everywhere. January 6, 2015

After being off the grid for a bit due to vacation with the family I’ve been having to do some catch up.  I just came across the latest to do in the atheist movement: the ousting of Avicenna Last from Freethought blogs.

Hemant broke the story, with help from many occupants of the Slymepit forum, that Avi was a serial plagiarist.  Shortly thereafter, Ed Brayton and a committee at FtB decided to remove Avicenna.  Most of what I have to say comes after reading the comments on various blog posts.

First, for those saying Hemant is a bad guy or doing the general tactic of trying to smear somebody who has disagreed with or criticized FtB, stop it.  If Hemant had revealed that somebody you didn’t like was a serial plagiarist you’d be jumping for joy.  Our joy should be drawn from learning the truth, not that the truth is convenient.  The last several years have more than confirmed that Hemant Mehta is a man of integrity – one of the best we have.  Yeah, there are some assholes in the Slymepit (I’ve seen some of their comments pointed at me).  But there are also good people there who care about what is true and who have taken up residency in the pit because they’re tired of the divisiveness and smears that have become synonymous with the cause of social justice.  If I’m to be honest, I share that issue with them.  Regardless of what you think of the Slymepit, they did a good thing here.  It’s time to admit that.

Second, try to have some sympathy for Avi.  By virtue of getting to blog on a big network you’re likely getting more traffic than almost any other blog out there.  The pressure to live up to that, to convince people that you’re intellectually deserving of that platform, is significant.  You don’t understand it until you’re in that position.  This doesn’t excuse what he did, but I can understand why he did it.  While I’ve always thought that any criticism Avi’s pointed my way for not being social justice-y enough was off the mark, in our personal interactions Avi always treated me like a good person.  I very much believe Avi is a good person who meant well.

However, good people fuck up, and they have to pay the consequences when they fuck up.  I don’t know about all of you, but I’ve fucked up plenty in my life and I still think I’m a decent bloke.  I suspect many of you have similar assessments of yourselves.  Making a mistake doesn’t make someone a bad person – good people are measured by how they react to fucking up.  Did they own up?  Did they become a better person for it?  Those mean a lot more than the actual fuck up.  To be honest, I thought CJ Wereleman reacted very poorly when his plagiarism came to light, and it was his reaction that told me what I personally needed to know about him.  I hope others empathize with Avi, even if they think he deserved to be booted from FtB (I think he did too).

Third, for those in various comment sections jumping on Ed Brayton because he didn’t act fast enough or because he didn’t monitor every FtB post and check every line for plagiarism, quit looking for any and every reason to demonize people you don’t like.  If it’s bad when you think someone at FtB does that, it’s bad when you do it too.  Ed is allowed to take time to read over the evidence and to weigh it in making a decision.  What did it take?  Sixteen hours?  Those criticisms are painfully ridiculous.  Like Hemant, Ed Brayton is a great man, one of the best I’ve ever known.  Sure we don’t agree on everything, but god dammit that man has integrity.  I’ve never known Ed to not do the right thing and, like Hemant, Ed did the right thing here.  If you wanted the right thing to be done, you should be ecstatic, and yet this isn’t good enough for many commenters.  Regardless of what you think of FtB, Ed Brayton is a great man and he did the right thing here.  It’s time to admit that.

If you want to know why the other side doesn’t always listen to you, it’s not because they’re all evil, close-minded haters.  No, it’s because so many of you have so frequently cried wolf to try and get the upper hand over the other as if the moral high ground can’t possibly be shared.

Seriously, here we have a situation where Hemant and Ed both did the right thing, and yet we have tons of people in comment sections trying to vilify both of them.  What will it take to get us to stop this?  There is tribalism all over the atheist movement that wasn’t there five years ago and it manifests itself like people cheering for their favorite sports teams every time members of one group get the tiniest window to crow over the other.  Five years ago it seemed our priority was attacking bad ideas.  Anymore so many people are so damn preoccupied with attacking each other.  Regardless of who threw the first punch, this is how it is now.  People are losing their fire for activism because of this.  People are walking away from the atheist movement because so much of what gets said goes beyond fighting for what’s right – it’s become about winning over the other side and demonizing those who aren’t ideologically pure in a perpetual explosion of petty drama. This is not a good thing for the cause of social justice or atheism.

Here’s what it boils down to.  Are there some rancid people with shitty opinions in the Slymepit?  Yes, there are.  But there are also plenty of people of character over there who have valid criticisms of FtB.  No amount of saying “but x person from that place said/did y and z” will change that.

Are there some rancid people with shitty opinions at FtB?  Yes, there are.  But there are also people of character who have valid criticisms on social justice issues.  No amount of saying “but x person from that place said/did y and z” will change that.

And even though almost everybody in both spaces cares about social justice, we’ve become so god damn preoccupied with guilt-by-association tactics it’s become enough to ignore somebody’s contributions because of the faction with which they align.  This results in us spending about as much time fighting with people who share our same goals than with people who are literally working against those goals on a daily basis.  I’ve read plenty of comments on FtB about this hullabaloo where a person acknowledges that everything Hemant reported was true, and then proceeds to complain about Hemant because he posted something that came to his attention via the faction they dislike.  Here, in the atheist movement, some people complain about the truth being revealed because someone they didn’t like revealed it.

And I don’t know what to say.  I honestly assume that I’ll get it from both sides for this.  From the FtB crowd I’ll be a rape apologist and somebody who creates a safe haven for [insert epithet for people they don’t like].  For the pitters I’ll be a social justice warrior sympathizer and somebody who just smears people he doesn’t like.  All of this will detract from the meat of what I said, which I think confirms that I want both sides to succeed.  I want equal rights for racial minorities, women, LGBT, etc (I write about this all the time).  I also want the atheist movement to be a place where people can voice their opinions without fear of being branded a traitor to all that is good if those opinions don’t conform to the ideologically pure standards of some.  And yet, I assume I’ll be treated as if I penned this piece because I want both camps to fail.  I’d love to be proven wrong on my assumptions, but this is generally the price people pay for wading into these situations in the atheist movement, and it’s why so many people don’t.  I want that to stop.  I want both sides to be heard when they deserve it.  And I want people to feel comfortable contributing their opinion without the worry that they’ll have to spend more time defending their character than arguing the point.

And for that to happen, both FtB and the Slymepit are going to have to take a step back.  They’re both going to have to start admitting when the other says or does something right.  I thought this would be the perfect opportunity.  It still can be.


Comments can criticize me or anybody else, but insults will be outright deleted and repeat violators blocked.  You can disagree, but do it with facts and charitable listening.  Assume the best of one another.  I’m very proud of my commentariat here for their tendency to do exactly this.  That is the atmosphere I wish to cultivate.

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