(Reposted): Being Right Doesn’t Guarantee That You’re Not Wrong

Martin Pribble recently asked if I’d be willing to write a guest post for his site. I was, did, and have archived it below. Also of potential interest are two posts in reaction, first from Ophelia Benson, then from Stephanie Zvahn (thanks, both). Many of the comments on those posts are useful in helping to develop further thoughts on this, so thanks to many who weighed in. No thanks for comments like this, which seem generated by one of those PoMo paragraph generators. Sokal would be proud.


It’s not always necessary to be polite. Sometimes, being abrasive or rejecting diplomatic niceties is exactly what’s needed to get a point across. And sometimes, getting a point across is preferable to pleasing the crowd, a subset of the crowd, or even the person you’re talking to. For every person who has been disabused of some fanciful metaphysics by a self-styled “friendly” atheist like Hemant Mehta, you’re likely to find one that’s been persuaded by a firebrand like PZ Myers.

Different approaches work on different audiences. And as so many of us have pointed out over and over again, atheism is not a religion, a cult, an organisation. We’re united in our disbelief in god(s), not in our politics or strategies. So whatever approach one of us takes – no matter how large their blog or Twitter following – it’s a mistake to think that they define atheism, whether old, new, Gnu or one that eschews these categories altogether.

But we (and there, the dangers begin to lurk, as soon as I speak of a “we”) pride ourselves on not believing in the same highly implausible proposition (that gods exist). This means, at the very least, that we share some minimal commitment to reason, in that we want to be guided by the evidence rather than superstition or dogma. And if that is the case, it doesn’t seem much of a stretch to suggest that we should apply the same critical mindset to propositions beyond merely the god hypothesis.

So, when we speak of social justice, equality, freedom of speech and so forth, it’s reasonable to expect some similarity in approach, even if not in conclusions reached. To put it plainly, an approach in which we listen to the evidence, in other words to each other, without pre-judging what someone is going to say, what they believe, or what ideological faction they belong to. Their arguments are assessed on their merits, rather than via knowing which websites they frequently comment on.

Nobody can deny that some participants in these conversations are not honest brokers. Some are simply unreconstructed trolls, others trolls of the sly sort, mimicking critical reflection while subtly distracting – and detracting – from the real issues that others are trying to address. Another set of “others” aren’t trolls at all – and it seems to me that the community of sceptical and/or atheist activists and bloggers sometimes have a difficult time of it in distinguishing between these sorts of contributor to the debate.

The trend on the Internet generally – at least according to my anecdata – is for increasing hyperbole and hysteria, perhaps especially so when we can comment anonymously, with no fear of reputational harm. Those who shout the loudest think that they can win, or end up thinking that they’ve won once they have drowned out the opposing view. And even though our community might (hopefully) be more rational than any randomly selected group, we’re not immune to the same trend.

On emotive issues, this can be particularly worrisome, and is also more likely to happen – simply because the stakes are higher. And here’s the thing: I think we forget that a concern for tone does not automatically mean that you are a tone-troll (broadly, someone who is attempting to shut down legitimate criticism on the grounds that it’s expressed in a rude or hostile fashion).

To put it another way: you can grant that Francis Collins (for example) has some pretty confused ideas about which propositions gain epistemic weight via waterfall observations, yet still think that it’s a bad idea to call him some abusive name. You might think it’s a bad idea because you think it rude, or you might think that (on balance) he does more good than harm for science, so let’s not alienate people who we might reach through discussing him politely.

When the space for saying that (“that” being something like “Collins is wrong, but it’s not helpful to call him a moron”) disappears, we’re not having a rational conversation anymore. Yes, I did use the phrase “not helpful” – sorry, but it fits. And what it means is “not helpful to a certain strategic goal”. You might not share that goal, or you might share it, but think it should be achieved through different means. All of which are questions that we can discuss, if we’re still listening to each other.

We’re not, though – at least not consistently. And right now, the debate on misogyny in the sceptical community has escalated to such an extent that there’s a lot that can’t be heard over the screaming. Yes, there is certainly plenty that doesn’t need to be heard because it genuinely is sexist, or excuses sexism. But simply labelling someone a “rape apologist”, for example, doesn’t magically transform someone into actually being a rape apologist.

A problem here is that we could mean different things by a phrase like “rape apologist”. Coming from a position of privilege, most men might well be unaware of how that privilege biases them against seeing various threats, insults or instances of being demeaned or trivialised that women experience. This blindness might make them too tolerant (in other words, at all tolerant) of sexist language, or stereotypes around what it means when a woman dresses in a particular way.

To be clear, this blindness is bad, and needs correction. It’s certainly bad if we create, endorse, or fail to combat a climate of hostility to any poorly defined (and heterogeneous) group like “women”. And the fact that some women believe that such a climate currently exists is a problem in itself, whether or not you’re complicit in creating that climate. In fact, it’s a problem whether or not such hostility even exists – unless you want to claim it’s a complete fabrication, the perception most likely finds inspiration in some forms of behaviour or speech that we could modify at little or no cost.

Furthermore (and obviously, one would hope), rape jokes and stereotypes about women (or about any hypothetical “group”) are bad things. But there’s still a significant difference of degree between a man who says that a woman who was raped was “asking for it” and someone who asks the question whether, empirically, there is any correlation between what women wear and whether that correlates with sexual violence in any way. That difference rests in part with their attitudes, and in part with how easy it might be to change their views.

The former sort of man can perhaps never be persuaded that he has Neanderthal attitudes. The latter one could perhaps be persuaded that that’s the wrong question to ask. But once he’s driven out of a comment thread by name-calling, we lose our chance to persuade. And this is a key thing: it’s not PZ (or whoever’s) job to control the people who comment on their posts. But we all need to be aware that we set the tone at our websites not only by what we write, but also by how we respond to those who leave comments.

So if someone doesn’t give someone else a chance to explain what might be an honest mistake, rather than an attempt at trolling or rape apologetics, before descending on them with abuse, that abusive reaction is also antithetical to the skeptical cause, and should also be called out by the blog owner or other commenters. If it’s not called out, we quickly become gangs who have chosen a side, and chosen our authorities or leaders, and who then defend our turf by whatever means necessary – whether principled or not.

This tribalism, and defending of a cause, comes naturally to most of us. What also comes naturally is to double-down when challenged, especially when others question your integrity or motives. This complicates the reactions that people have to being called out for language that appears – or is – sexist or insensitive to the pervasive misogyny debate. Being defensive in light of such accusations is normal, and it’s perhaps uncharitable to use this defensiveness as further evidence of the commenter’s ignorance, prejudice or malice.

Here in South Africa everyone will know what I’m talking about if I were to use the phrase “playing the race card”, and hopefully you do too. In case you don’t, it refers to a tactic that’s sadly common here, and is used for avoiding uncomfortable discussions and not allowing any facts to interfere with your prejudices. If a white man such as myself says something about South African culture or politics, it is often dismissed simply on the grounds that I can’t understand what it’s like to be black.

What this crude form of identity politics misses is that blackness or whiteness or whatever-ness is only one feature of identity. Sometimes a powerful one, to be sure, but nevertheless, I might have far more features in common with a randomly selected black South African than she does with another randomly selected black South African. The same principle applies with gender, and just as we shouldn’t use the race card, but instead look at the arguments and evidence, we should avoid using the gender card.

Yet, we have to make distinctions between well-meaning interlocutors and trolls, and we all want to keep our websites and blogs free of trollish pestilence. So patience cannot be infinite. But when the current tensions started escalating to the point of an apparent civil war, it started to appear as if – increasingly – some members of this community started making judgements before hearing any arguments.

If all we want is to feel self-righteous, and right, that’s fine. It is indeed good to know who the enemy is. But it’s also good to change the enemy’s mind, where possible, and it’s good to discover that someone you thought of as an enemy is actually simply a confused friend. Let’s be wary of making the latter two sorts of interaction impossible.

P.S. I apologise for the generality in this post. It’s a difficult thing to write about, for various reasons, and that accounts for the evasiveness. First, the vociferous responses to interventions in this area do play a censoring role (or did, in this post). Second, I have friends and “friends” (in the Facebook/Twitter sense) on both sides of the civil war, which serves an inhibiting role. Third, and most important, specifics might detract from the general and primary point I’m trying to make – that we should be careful to keep listening to each other, because the thing we (as skeptics) are arguably best at is remembering  that we can be wrong, and recognising when that’s the case.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.