Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Feelings... Nothing More Than Feelings...

As the Atheism-plus shit-storm continues to roll on relentlessly, it's worth taking a step backing and remembering that the whole brouhaha is about hurt feelings - nothing more. No-one, repeat no-one, has been raped, had acid thrown in their face, or otherwise been physically hurt in any way.

It all started when Rebecca Watson felt creeped out by some guy expressing an interest in her. Assuming we can take Watson's word for what happened, the guy was a little clueless and socially awkward, but there's no evidence that he harmed or threatened her in any way, or intended to do anything of the sort.

Now, you may feel it was unfair that Watson felt creeped out by a guy merely speaking to her in a reasonably polite way. But here's the thing - the way someone feels is the way they feel. Nobody owes an explanation or an apology for their feelings. We are only responsible for our words and actions towards other people.

Elevator Guy did nothing immoral or malevolent - he was just a bit insensitive, and hopefully he has learned something and is now a bit more sensitive about how he approaches women. And Watson is perfectly entitled to make a request: "Guys, don't do that." As long as she realizes that what creeps her out does not become the law and unilaterally binding on all men, she can make that request, and reasonable guys will grant it.

Where it all began to go off the rails was when people started losing their shit and screaming that a relatively trivial incident was a "potential rape", and because Watson felt she was in imminent danger of being raped (which she had not said or implied), therefore Elevator Guy was a rapist, or at best "Schrodinger's Rapist". From there it was a short step to proclaiming that all men are Schrodinger's Rapists. The root assumption is that Watson's feelings trump reality, and unilaterally make someone else a criminal.

The same dynamic is at work in "T-shirt-gate". Surly Amy gets butt-hurt over a T-shirt or "fake jewelry" bearing a message she disagrees with. Therefore her feelings trump anyone else's right to free speech, and place other people in the same category as a sexual harasser who would "grab someone's ass."

Yet another example is "Mastur-gate". I would be kind of creeped out if I saw a homeless mentally ill man on the other side of the street jerking off, but I wouldn't make it all about me-me-me. I wouldn't be narcissistic enough to declare that my grossed-out feelings were ipso facto proof that the guy had knowingly oppressed and assaulted me personally, let alone that he was even aware of me.

The same pattern plays out over and over again among the hypersensitive crybabies who populate the various A+ online discussion groups. They are constantly on hair-trigger alert, eagerly seizing on every excuse, however tenuous, to be outraged. If you're not in the in-group, then no matter how polite and respectful you are, and how genuine is your desire simply to request information, you will immediately be dog-piled on and used as a "chew toy" until the moderator gets bored and bans you with a final flurry of F-bombs.

The thing is, because you are not part of the in-group, you are a Privileged Oppressor, they are Marginalized Victims, and you mere existence hurts their feelings and "silences" them. This justifies them in spewing hatred at you, and forbids you from speaking up to defend yourself.

Now, I've already mentioned that the internet is a rough-and-tumble, unforgiving place, and whether you are male, female, or anything else, your feelings are guaranteed to get hurt by some other person if you spend any time online. (Dare I say it, you may even get ragged on.) But your feelings are not more important than anyone else's. Women's feelings are not more important as a group than those of men, and to say otherwise is patronizing and infantilizing.

Yes, there are some real dicks out there, but there are also castrating bitches of both sexes (plus genderqueers etc.) If you can't take it, then either don't dish it out, or get out of the kitchen and quit yer bitchin'.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

It's a guy thing

It's been a few weeks since Michael Shermer made an off-the-cuff remark that was eagerly seized on by the A+ crowd. However, the witch hunt is still going strong, so I thought I might as well put in my two cents' worth.

Shermer obviously doesn't need me to defend him - his record as an ally of competent, capable women speaks for itself, as does Ophelia Benson's blatant dishonesty in quote-mining and strawmanning him. I'd just like to offer my perspective on what is or isn't a "guy thing".

Benson (and PZ Myers et al) know very well that no-one is claiming that "doing thinky stuff" is exclusively a male domain. However, when it comes to organizing conferences, and in general to being active in a movement and making stuff happen, there are two styles of leadership.

Style One is to step into the spotlight, take charge, issue commands, and generally be top dog. It takes a lot of ego and self-confidence, as well as energy and commitment.

Style Two is more indirect. It's all about networking, making connections, building coalitions, and often working behind the scenes as you seek to lead by influencing an organization rather than trying to control it.

The first style is a command-and-control approach which is oriented vertically on a hierarchy of power. In a corporation, for example, you have the CEO, the executives, directors, managers and so on. The second style is horizontal, based on a network of peers rather than a hierarchy.

Which style is better? That's the wrong question. Both styles are needed, and complement each other. The thing is, while there are men and women represented in both styles, I've observed that in general, more men than women gravitate to the first style, and more women than men gravitate to the second.

This is neither a good thing nor a bad thing - it's simply a fact, and to call it sexist (or call anyone who draws attention to it, a sexist) is just plain stupid. You can argue over whether there is an evolutionary-psychological explanation or whether men are just socialized by society to put themselves out there more than women - that may be an interesting discussion to have, and I think both factors probably play a role in explaining the difference.

However, if you want to engineer society to force equal outcomes in this and every other human activity, I highly doubt that it's possible let alone desirable to do so. I agree with Harriet Hall: you should remove unnecessary barriers and then let the chips fall where they may. I would go a little further and say that you should go the extra mile to identify talented people in historically under-represented groups, and encourage them to participate, so you get the benefit of their talent.

However, tokenism does nobody any favors. Giving prominence to an unqualified speaker just because she is a woman (who is adept at playing the victim card) is insulting to qualified women, to women in general, and to the audience who paid good money and were cheated.

The radfem dogma that gender is nothing but an arbitrary social construct is not only false and unfounded, but harmful to both men and women. As I've said before, if A+ wants to micromanage every detail of every conference, let them have their own little safe-space echo chambers and leave the rest of us alone. Men and women of good will can work together to achieve great results. It's not a guy thing or a gal thing - it's a decent human being thing!

Butterflies and Shit-stirring

Acidgate is the latest shitstrom to stir up deep atheist rifts on the innertubes. On the face of it (no pun intended), it sounds horrifying - a man threatened to throw acid in Ophelia Benson's face. But let's dig a tiny bit deeper, shall we?

It started when Benson wrote a post about rivalry within the Bolshoi Ballet which had escalated to the point where someone threw acid in a rival's face - and then conflated the attack with people disagreeing with her on the internet. I'm posting a screencap because (a) I don't want to drive traffic to her blog (but here's a terrific response from Katie Graham) and (b) the Ophelia Benson Memory Hole is notorious. Notice how she is taunting the "mildew pitters" and practically begging them to respond intemperately:

Unfortunately, someone took the bait:

Notice something interesting? From the URL, the original title of the post must have been "I'll teach you to mention acid in the face." Now it's: "Acid in the face now? Seriously?" Benson obviously wants to conceal the fact that she mentioned acid first (apropos of nothing), because she prefers the narrative that some evil slymepitter threatened her out of the blue, with no provocation.

To his credit, the guy who sent the tweet realized it was a dumb move, and has apologized both personally to Benson and in the comments section of Pharyngula. He's a braver man then I - I can't even bear to lurk there and would rather go on The O'Reilly Factor. But - damage done, bait taken, and now the FTBullies are dancing with glee.

This is not the first time Benson has pulled this kind of stunt. She goads someone into cussing her out, he obliges, and she then wallows in professional victimhood once again, but not before deleting or editing her original post to make herself look as pure as the driven snow.

Once again I emphasize that it was a stupid move and condemn the tweet, but I have zero sympathy for Benson. Damion Reinhardt said it best:
UPDATE: Uberfeminist has a very detailed analysis of the various edits and changes Benson made to her initial shit-stirring post. My respect for Benson continues to plummet.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Speaking Out Against Hatred Directed At Human Beings

Let's be honest - the Great Atheist Schism has not shown either side in the most flattering light. Some individuals in both camps have been guilty of harassment, abuse, stalking and invasion of privacy.

I agree with many of the stated goals of Atheism Plus, and yet I come down against the movement rather than for it. Why? Because I am struck by their hypocrisy and sanctimony. In their own eyes, they are holier than thou, long-suffering victims, paragons of enlightened and progressive thinking, while everyone else is an utterly depraved misogynist and rapist (if male) or gender traitor (if female).

The plussers refuse to acknowledge any middle ground, or any possibility that those who criticize them may have valid points. But my biggest reason for not getting on board with them is that they are simply irrelevant. They are just another internet echo chamber which has yet to achieve anything of substance in the real world.

Now, I know very well that there have been some incidents of misogynistic abuse on the internet in connection with the A+ drama, and I condemn these incidents. However, I'm not aware of any cases where a woman was attacked out of the blue simply because she was a woman. Rebecca Watson, for example, has been attacked because of her obnoxious treatment of Stef McGraw and others, and because she has the privilege of lecturing audiences on subjects of which she is manifestly ignorant. Jen McCreight has been attacked because she has more than once come across as a privileged princess who thinks the world revolves around her, and is oblivious to the problems of other people.

Again, I don't condone the use of misogynistic language, but the internet is a rough-and-tumble place, and feminists are fully capable of dishing out as good as they get, as a glance at any A+ forum will confirm. I've been active on internet discussion groups (under various different usernames) for longer than I care to admit, cutting my teeth on Usenet back in the day, moving on to blogs in the early 2000's (I had a moderately successful blog which PZ Myers often linked to and occasionally commented on), and more recently becoming active on Reddit and Twitter.

I've been at the receiving end of some robust criticism and disagreement since Day One, and in my experience some of the most violent and unhinged language has come from feminists - even though I've consistently spoken out for choice, against FGM and religious subjugation of women, and generally in support of equal rights, respect and responsibilities for all. "Shove a dead porcupine up your ass" is actually pretty tame compared to some of the things that have come my way.

So it's untrue as well as patronizing to suggest that all women are wilting wallflowers who are incapable of handling the Wild West atmosphere of the internet, and we brutish men must change our ways en masse to accommodate them. The internet is an unforgiving place, and it has a very low tolerance for any kind of hypocrisy and/or playing of the victim card. Let's face it, if you're on the internet in the first place, you are privileged compared to the majority of the human race.

As for sexual harassment at conferences, again this is something which should be condemned if and when it happens. I have nothing against a reasonable and proportionate policy such as Karla Porter has suggested. One point I'm really glad Karla has brought up, since I haven't seen it mentioned anywhere else, is that the obligation not to harass other people entails a corresponding responsibility to speak up if someone is making you feel uncomfortable.

On some other blogs, I've seen proposals that there should be no physical contact unless you first request it verbally and the woman gives verbal assent. This sounds incredibly awkward and stilted - "May I shake your hand? May I touch you lightly on the arm to get your attention?" And yet some women complain that this kind of policy doesn't go far enough: "Many women will say yes anyway, for fear of being labeled a bitch."

Criminy! So now men are supposed to know by psychic power when yes means no? This sort of helpless-victim attitude bugs the living crap out of me. "Please don't do that" - how hard is that? Sweetie, if you can't stand up for yourself in such a basic way, you are incapable of taking responsibility for yourself and should not be out alone in public.

It's really all about attitude. If you go in with a belligerent or fearful attitude, expecting every man you meet to rape you and/or invite you for coffee, you are not going to enjoy yourself, no matter what policy is in place or how stringently it is enforced - and your fellow participants probably won't enjoy your company either.

I recently tweeted:
I don't want to see long lists of thou-shalt-nots which infantilize the participants and take all the fun and spontaneity out of normal and consensual social interactions. I think A-plus's posture on harassment policies is especially problematic for a number of reasons:

  • Hypersensitivity, suspension of critical thinking and eagerness to take offense at the most trivial of issues and non-issues, for example "T-shirt-gate" and "Camera-on-a-stick-gate".
  • Use of harassment policies by outsiders as a weapon to exert control over conferences and settle old scores, heedless of the legal liability to which conference organizers may be exposed.
  • Use of policies and petitions to carry out vendettas against targeted individuals and give special privileges and protection from legitimate criticism to other individuals, by putting free speech on the same level as "grabbing someone's ass".
  • Scaremongering to the effect that sexual harassment is especially rampant at freethought and skeptical conferences.
  • Hypocrisy and inconsistency, e.g. refusing to condemn a speaker who harasses an audience member who is not in a position to defend herself.

To sum up, since this post is getting pretty long: I would like to see more civility and a lessening of the temperature by both sides. Currently, I don't see this happening any time soon, because Atheism-plus has gotten itself into a closed feedback loop. It witch-hunts everyone outside its elite in-group as misogynists and rapists, other people react with understandable irritation at this simplistic tribalism and us-versus-them mentality, and A+ takes their reaction as confirmation of its entrenched position.

To move forward, conference organizers should commit to reasonable policies for the safety and comfort of participants, but should refuse to be browbeaten and dictated to by the plussers. Let the plussers organize their own "safe space" conferences where never is heard a discouraging word. Those of us who value critical thinking, rationalism and the free exchange of ideas will support conferences that treat us like grown-ups and provide talented speakers who know what they're talking about.

Here's to a vibrant and stimulating conference schedule in 2013!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Shunning, Banning and Unpersoning

Thunderf00t, already a pariah to the plus crowd, has stirred up a hornet's nest once again:

Matt Dillahunty and Mick Nugent, among others, have accused Thunderf00t of dishonesty and quote-mining. And of course PZ Myers launched into one of his usual mouth-foaming rants while stating quite proudly that he had not even watched the video.

Whatever the merits of the arguments for and against, I think there is little doubt that Myers is in fact trying to redefine atheism as Thunderf00t claimed, and appropriate the title "atheist" to denote only those who march in 100% lockstep with Myers' political and social agenda. Forget the Powerpoint slide that some are trying to airbrush from the record. Myers has been quite explicit all along, on his blog and elsewhere, that if you don't buy into Atheism-plus's radical feminist ideology, you are a "dictionary atheist" and an "asshole atheist" - or as Richard Carrier put it, a scum-sucking CHUD who needs to be kicked back to whichever sewer you crawled out of.

I've already stated why I reject this tribalistic thinking. Getting stuff done as a social activist - for that matter, becoming a mature and decent human being - is all about realizing that you are never going to meet anyone who agrees totally with you on every conceivable issue, and being able to work with other people anyway.

For example, I am quite active in the fight for marriage equality. I often find myself working alongside liberal Christians. Should I throw a tantrum and call them brainless sheep because they believe in a god? That would be pretty obnoxious and clueless.

Atheists are already the most hated and distrusted minority in the US, less popular than gays, Muslims or even rapists. Myers' policy of recklessly and mindlessly alienating allies and driving them away is a recipe for suicide. For our movement to survive, let alone make progress, we must build coalitions with other groups, identify where our interests intersect with theirs, and work to achieve common goals.

But there is another reason why the FTB/Skepchick/A+ with-us-or-against-us extremism is disastrous and self-destructive. The concept of "one true atheism" is the antithesis of skepticism. Declaring certain viewpoints to be sacred cows that may not be questioned, and other viewpoints as taboos which mark their followers as evil and immoral, is the opposite of freethought. And cocooning yourself in an echo chamber, refusing to engage with anyone who departs an iota from your rigid inflexible hive-mind, cuts off the very lifeblood of any ideas-based movement.

What's the point of being an atheist if you aren't free to question, and demand evidence for, everything? I don't want to make the same mistake as Myers and proclaim that my version of atheism is the one true atheism. But the A+ version is one I want absolutely no part of.