Categories
Morality Religion

More on civil discourse and Jen McCreight

Every day seems to bring another example of someone trying to outdo the previous day’s example of spleen-venting on the Internet, especially (of late) in the skeptic/atheist/freethought community. One of the consequences of this was the emergence of atheism+, which I wrote about a few weeks ago.  The sentiment behind a+ is easy to understand – over the past few years, seemingly intractable differences of opinion have emerged inside what some like to call (even if the name is perhaps – and sadly – often merely aspirational) the community of reason, most notably around sexism and misogyny. Various examples of sexism and/or misogyny have been endlessly debated, and these debates have included whether the offences were genuine or perceived, how much that even matters, who the guilty parties are and who is on the side of angels.

Many folk, myself included, have felt compelled to pick sides – or have been assigned to a side, whether they feel like they’re on one or not. The assignation is sometimes made easy, as some commentators seem happy to let their hatred shine, whether towards a construction called “Richard Dawkins” or one called “Rebecca Watson” (for simplicity, I’m using the Adam and Eve characters – there are many further examples one could cite). But that ur-story, and all the subsequent ones, contain so much detail and he said/she said components that you’ll almost invariably offend someone if you wade in. My previous call for civility even invoked (a little, to be sure) offence from Stephanie Zvan, so it’s not even safe to say “play nice”.

Nor should it be safe – one can call for others to “play nice” in a way that is counter-productive through being smug, blind to privilege, one-sided and so forth. Most troubling, perhaps, is that you might make that sort of call in ignorance of the fact that you’re one of those causing the problem. And it’s this final point that I want to address here. Everybody – on both sides of the debate, and everywhere in between – should not be permitted to forget this simple principle: no matter what’s come before, you – and only you – are responsible for what you say in response to it.

I left a comment saying essentially that on a blog post titled “Daddy to the Rescue!” The comment was published, and then deleted a few hours later (and there are reports from others of comment deletion on the thread there). For those who don’t know the context of that blog post, it’s this: Jen McCreight posted something amounting to a retirement/resignation letter to her blog. In it, she cites hate mail and so forth, and also reminds us of her chronic depression. She had basically run out of energy or strength to remain active, as despite the support she continued to receive from some, it was too disheartening to be the subject of constant abuse.

One dimension to this is the details of who is right and wrong in these debates on misogyny and related matters. Another is the playground question of “who started it”. Quite another is the question of what any skeptic/atheist/freethinker thinks can ever be served by insulting others instead of trying to demonstrating their error(s). Causing gratuitous harm is something we criticise (some of) the religious for, remember – why are we doing it to each other? I realise that many of you have tried to reason with those you consider to be your opponents, and have only ended up resorting to insult when reason failed. That’s understandable, even if regrettable (well, I certainly regret it when I do it).

It’s the last question, of insult (in Jen McCreight’s case, sustained) and the effects it has on people that led her father to post the following:

People who call her whore, cunt, bitch, etc. need to learn some civility.  Some parents forgot to teach their children how to disagree without being disagreeable.

The Internet has allowed a lot of people to express their thoughts.  But, it has also allowed anonymous people to publish pure hate and filth without any accountability.  If someone has enough balls to call my daughter a slut to her face I would quickly introduce them to some accountability – a quick fist to the mouth.

What we need in our society is a multitude of free thought, not a multitude of foul mouths.

Yes, in the tinder-box climate we’re talking about, it was a mistake to threaten a “fist to the mouth”. But as for the rest, it seems uncontroversial to me that you can disagree without being disagreeable, that the anonymity of the Internet has lowered our standards of civility, and that it would be (was/is) abusive to call Jen McCreight “whore, cunt, bitch etc.”. But some people seem to think that the problem is something else entirely, namely “Wooly Bumblebee” and some of her commentators. Ms Bumblebee thinks that Mike McCreight’s call for people to stop abusing his daughter

has to be the most pathetic thing I have yet to see. A grown woman being rescued by her daddy. It’s a fucking joke, and speaks volumes as to why she can’t handle the slightest little bump in the road. She is completely incapable of functioning as an adult. I rather pity her, and that is not a good thing.

Congratulations daddy dearest, and thank you for proving once and for all how completely incapable your little Jen really is.aricatured misogynist . folk seem through whether that matters including

Really? The “most pathetic thing I have yet to see”? We should surely insert some qualifiers there, like “on the Internet”, but even then the claim seems rather hyperbolic. Yes, Mike is Jen McCreight’s father. And that does provide part (a large part, no doubt) of the explanation for why he felt compelled to intervene. But to discount an intervention because of it’s source – without considering its content – is a simple instance of ad hominem argument. Mike McCreight has unique insight into Jen McCreight’s response to the bullying she’s reported, and it’s no doubt hurtful to him also. In a case like this, the principle of charity could lead us to say something like “Mike McCreight is hurting too, seeing as he cares for his daughter – we’ll suppress our juvenile instinct to accuse her of rushing off to Daddy for protection”.

She didn’t do that in any case – he blogged without her knowledge. Also, accusing someone of running to their parent for protection isn’t persuasive in itself – even if it does speak to immaturity (which would need more work to justify), immaturity on the part of the person that you are bullying doesn’t make your bullying virtuous. Your bullying is never virtuous – bullying is not the sort of thing that admits to virtue, under any circumstances.

No matter how you assign blame for past actions, or what your character judgements are in relation to all the players in this soap opera, we should all remember to include ourselves in those character judgements also, and try to be objective when thinking of our roles in causing or facilitating harm to others. In this instance, Ms Bumblebee has no defence – in the knowledge that Jen McCreight has been jeered off the stage, and had a long-standing depression triggered, she doesn’t take the option of silence (never mind sympathy). Instead, she broadens the net of victims to members of Jen’s family (and of course carries on with ridiculing Jen while doing so). That’s all “on her”, as the Americans like to say, no matter what sins you think Jen might have committed in the past.

Related, but worthy of a separate post at some point, Ron Lindsay’s (good) post from yesterday on “Divisiveness within the secular movement“.

Categories
Morality Politics Religion

Atheism + some mission-creep and potential confusion

So, the battle lines are now being drawn – at least according to some. Yesterday, Richard Carrier posted this:

In the meantime, I call everyone now to pick sides (not in comments here, but publicly, via Facebook or other social media): are you with us, or with them; are you now a part of the Atheism+ movement, or are you going to stick with Atheism Less? Then at least we’ll know who to work with. And who to avoid.

There’s much more to his post, and much of it is very good, very thoughtful and not at all disagreeable to me. So I’d encourage you to read it, and not to read this post as a rejection of what Carrier said. But I do want to reject his conclusion, and try to explain why it’s important that we all should reject it. The reason for this rejection is not simply the logical fallacy it seems to contain – namely asking us to embrace a false dichotomy – but more because it’s premature to ask for us to choose between poorly-defined (and potentially undefinable) alternatives.

But first, a backwards step, seeing as many of you might not know what I’m talking about. On August 18, Jen McCreight published a post that called for a new wave of atheism. Three posts since that one have sought to define what Atheism+ is (or should be), and have repeatedly emphasised the communitarian aspect of this definitional process – we are all encouraged to chip in with our ideas and suggestions. There’s plenty to love about all those posts, and I heartily endorse the sentiment of Atheism+.

What is that sentiment? As the name implies, it’s atheism, plus a focus on other things. To quote McCreight’s second post in the series:

We are…
Atheists plus we care about social justice,
Atheists plus we support women’s rights,
Atheists plus we protest racism,
Atheists plus we fight homophobia and transphobia,
Atheists plus we use critical thinking and skepticism.

That’s a good list, as I’d imagine that most readers of this blog would agree. But we wouldn’t necessarily agree on how to care, support or protest those things. We wouldn’t even agree on how to define the things we’re supposed to care about, protest or support. We’d agree about being decent people, in other words, but not necessarily agree on how to do that. And while reaching agreement on how to do that might be an important task, it’s not clear that it’s atheism’s task. To put it more clearly, I’m not sure that all of those (and other) worthy goals can best be accomplished under the banner of “atheism”. Especially not on Carrier’s terms, because – as someone who cares about social justice, for example, I’ll be damned if I’ll let him tell me that I can’t collaborate with a Methodist (not an A+ person, so someone “to avoid”) to address some issue of gender discrimination in a community.

Carrier might of course simply be indulging in a little hyperbole, which is understandable given the battle-ground I recently alluded to. I doubt that he’d have a problem with my collaborating with a Methodist – he’s rather asking us to take a stand against people who are unsympathetic to those goals. Certainly, at least those people described by Jean Kazez as

people who are seized by a desire to attack women when there’s the least hint of a question about male behavior at blogs and conferences. The notion of codes being imposed on their behavior sends them into a rage. These are the people whose existence you have to find surprising … and very disturbing. At the very least, they’re seriously lacking in empathy. Some of them even seem to feel an awful lot of hatred. I don’t know how numerous they are, but too numerous–and their ranks seem to be growing too.

But others also, like the “subtle trolls” I spoke about in my previous post on this topic area. And, those who enable or support the people Kazez describes above, or those who don’t denounce them. There’s a range of people who could be included in those who should be ostracised. But the problem is that it’s not always easy to identify them. One commenter on Stephanie Zvan’s site seems convinced that I’m one of the enemy camp, and I’m of course certain that I’m not. How will these decisions be made? A tribunal, or a democratic vote perhaps? And how does one repent after being exiled, and who gets to do the forgiving?

That’s somewhat facetious, I know. But the terms that this debate is quickly taking on lends itself to that. People are working towards what will quickly become an orthodoxy, and it’s going to happen too rapidly to be carefully thought out. Or, it’s simply going to be forgotten in a few months, as Notung argues here. As mentioned above, I’d have to agree with the 3rd point he makes – that it’s unclear exactly which issues should follow the ‘plus’. As for then deciding how to define those issues, I don’t think we can be complacent or confident (as some commenters at McCreight’s posts seem) about how difficult that might prove to be.

For social justice projects or strategy, we’d need to agree on an economic policy. As polarised as this issue is in an election year in the US, just after/during a global financial meltdown, while #Occupy rhetoric is still fresh in our minds… what chance is there of agreement on this? If we’re going to include a concern for the environment, can we simply throw climate sceptics out of our “circle of trust”, or do they get a chance to make their arguments? For feminism, what about people like me, who support it only as a contingent, necessary evil, because I hope to one day live in a world where race, gender, sex and so forth make absolutely no difference, so am loath to emphasise any such features, even in the short term?

My concern, in short, is that if we’re going to reach agreement on any of these issues, we might only get there through ruling certain question as out of bounds – perhaps even bullying them off the table, a phrase I think I owe to Jean Kazez. And if we’re forced to choose sides, a consequence might well be that all we succeed in doing is to institutionalise the current disagreements in the freethought community, rather than to get closer to solving them. In the meanwhile, there are groups already in existence that support those “plus” goals, or at least most of them, and who can probably be persuaded to support a larger list if a case was made.

I think, for example, of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, or the Council for Secular Humanism. They’ve been working hard for quite some time on a closely overlapping set of goals to those of the “Atheism +” movement. The question I’d urge the A+ supporters to consider is whether they’re not reinventing the wheel to some extent here, and also making life significantly more difficult for organisations like these – who often already struggle for support and funding. Just the sort of organisations, then, which could do with the ideas, energy and insight of all those who are currently enthusiastically talking about starting something new.