Ever since “Elevatorgate”, there’s been a great deal of discussion among skeptics about an alleged misogyny problem within the skeptical community. Having seen at least some of the vitriol thrown at Rebecca Watson in particular, I’ve been inclined to support these efforts.
But since the new year began, it seems like there’s been a new alleged scandal over feminist issues almost every day. And it seems like the same few prominent skeptical bloggers have been at the center of these controversies, not as the victims of inequality or as the alleged perpetrators of an injustice, but as the ones bringing these stories to light.
This recent string of accusations as well as the behavior showed to individuals who have been accused has forced me to grow concerned. And apparently, I’m not alone.
The latest skeptic to be accused of unfair treatment towards women was DJ Grothe himself, president of the James Randi Educational Foundation. In her most recent blog, Greta Christina charged him showing a pattern of “defending sexist language and behavior”, to which Grothe wrote a lengthy response in the comments section, which goes on to address many of the same concerns I’ve been having with what is beginning to look like a McCarthyist culture developing in our movement. Though I don’t want to put words in Grothe’s mouth and I should say that I don’t necessarily agree with everything he says.
Here’s Grothe’s comment in its entirety:
Greta: Some quick answers to your questions, although because of the nature and culture of these sorts of blogs, my comment here will be seen by fewer people than see your I think incorrect take on things, unfortunately. Such is the nature of these sorts of posts (direct responses can get buried in comments), and so I would appreciate if you link to my response here in your original post.
You ask two questions:
Question #1: Do you really think there is any context in which making threats of gender-based, sexualized violence — towards a person of any gender, but especially towards a female writer and her readers — can be justified?
No, of course I don’t. There is no justification for the use of such language, as I think you should know, since I’ve said as much many times already, including in an email exchange that you began with me the same day I made the comment that offended you on your post contra Long. I believe what Long said is unjustifiable, and I also believe that you treated him unfairly in your post against him. These two opinions are not incompatible: someone can be unfair to someone else who has done something wrong. I have explained why I hold this opinion in that email exchange you had with me, as well in numerous other comments on this blog network. You and I disagree about if/how you treated him unfairly, and you seem to be unable to allow for that disagreement. As a professional writer, maybe handling disagreement through public blogging and/or flogging is easiest or most natural for you; but publicly excoriating folks for not assenting to a view I hold is not how I am used to engaging in honest argumentation. You “fervently beg” me to agree with you, and of course I have already stated numerous times that Long’s comments were unjustifiable, but I simply do not agree that you treated him fairly.
You ask what I intend to do about it: well, I certainly don’t intend to write a punishing blog post against Long. But for the record, I wrote Long a message that day and clearly stated, among other things, how out of line I thought he was to use such language, even if he or others felt he was deliberately provoked. I do not believe he disagrees.
But again, and to repeat, threats of violence are unjustifiable, regardless who is making them.
Question #2: Do you really think that feminist bloggers in the atheist/ skeptical movements are writing about sexism and misogyny, and pointing out examples of it in our communities, primarily so we can manufacture controversy and draw traffic?
No, I do not think this, nor did I ever say this. What I do think is precisely what I have said: that I believe some of the controversies in the atheist blogosphere (certainly not limited to topics related to feminism or sexism) appear to me to be fomented for the hits that result. If I am wrong, and blog hits are no motivation in writing such posts, I will happily stand corrected. But I’d certainly hope that these “call-out” posts against various people in skepticism for real or supposed sins do in fact generate a lot of hits, because if they do not, I see little other real-world pay-off. I have been told by two people now who have been personally involved with one of the controversialist blogs that there has been explicit direction from that blog’s founder to this effect. Such controversialist posts seem like a pretty ineffective way to work to actually improve any situation, such as for example increasing women’s participation in skepticism, or at least seem to be far less effective than would be making better staffing and programming decisions, so I hope they at least result in an uptick in hits.
I do not deny in the least that you feel passionate about these issues; I also feel passionate about them, and have worked for over a decade to address issues of equality in skepticism, atheism and humanism, and to challenge instances of institutional sexism within these movements. But I submit that in your passion, Greta, I think you are sometimes just too quick to vilify and make enemies, and to sometimes encourage your fans to engage in such enemy-making. You may do this unintentionally; I think people can sometimes be blinded by their various passions. This is the in-group/out-group dynamic that I find unsettling about some of the atheist blogs — disagreement with some bloggers on various topics (not just feminism, to be sure) appears to be not at all well tolerated. It is these blogs by skeptics and atheists attacking others in skepticism that I think is an unfortunate turn in our movement(s) over the last year or so. (Note that some of these posts don’t just disagree through reasoned arguments but engage in calls for boycotts, public punishment or public shaming — Zvan’s recent blog post claiming I was a sexist actually engaged in literal ad hominem, stating that I have a problem and the problem is “me,” as a person, as an example.) (And before you could possibly misunderstand: this is not at all to say that I do not also find the vile and reprehensible things some folks have said to women bloggers to be more than unfortunate. One should be able to disagree with an opinion leader on various matters and about various approaches to these and other topics without being ugly, personally insulting, sexist and misogynistic, and it is deeply regrettable than many commenters on all sides of the issues during the various controversies did not do so.)
As you say, Zvan’s blog post cites three examples as evidence of my “hav[ing] an unfortunate pattern of . . . defending indefensibly sexist behavior by other men in the atheist/ skeptical movements.”
But the claim that I have a history of misogyny or of supporting sexist behavior is unsupportable.
Her three examples include 1) my comments on Watson’s post contra Krauss earlier in the year, 2) my “liking” a Facebook post by CFI Michigan justifying their choice of a speaker when she attacked them online for it, and 3) my comments on your blog post contra Long.
I stand by all of my comments (and “liking” CFI Michigan’s post about their speaker decision), and have never “defended indefensibly sexist behavior by other men in the atheist/ skeptical movements.” And I have seen a lot of such behavior at the organizations I have worked at over the years, and have always worked to change it. But when an author like Zvan recourses to my “liking” things on Facebook to argue that I exhibit sexist patterns of behavior, she seems to be sort of grasping at straws — they are in no sense examples of a pattern of sexist or misogynist behavior. I submit that such posts by folks like Zvan are focused moreso on whom a blogger might be more rewarded for publicly excoriating rather than for what legitimate reasons they might do so.
I have worked deliberately for many years to increase the involvement of women and racial minorities in skepticism, and to challenge institutional sexism within these movements. Of course, past performance doesn’t guarantee future results. But when I started working professionally in skepticism, there were almost no women employees other than secretaries. Of the women currently working professionally at the three national skeptics organizations, I have personally hired half of them myself, all of whom were for positions of leadership. I have worked to change, and have changed, various relevant corporate policies. In my programming decisions, I have made TAM more representative of the talents of everyone, not just of white men. (This is not because I believe in quotas — I certainly don’t— but because I think the skeptics movement benefits when it draws from and includes the talents of everyone, and doesn’t ignore the contributions of half of the population.) For contrast, look at the following:
CSICON 2011: 12 women out of 51 speakers on the program. (23.5%)
NECSS 2011: 9 women out of 27 total speakers (33.3%)
Skeptic’s Society Science Symposium 2011: 0 women out of 4 speakers (0%)
Skepticon IV (2011): 4 women out of 12 speakers (25%)
All of these events are fine and worthwhile events, and I think women and everyone else should feel welcome and safe at all of them. I regret that you now fear for your safety at TAM. Call me biased, but I think TAM stands out for the quality of its program, and not only because half of the speakers were women.
I want skepticism to flourish probably at least as much as you do, and I believe it is flourishing more now than ever, despite various internet controversies of past months. Some indications include that our organizations’ conferences are bigger than ever, attracting younger attendees than ever and have more racial and sexual minorities attending than ever, and this is not accidental; it is hard work. The press attention we win as we work to educate the public about this point of view is increasing. Our organizations are growing. Our grassroots groups are more active and numerous than ever. Our activism campaigns demonstrate measurable results and help people. I think it is a confusing turn if you conclude that you want this movement to flourish but that I do not. We merely may disagree that polarizing blog posts that result in enemies-list-making, calls for people to be fired, boycotts, etc. are the best way for our movement to flourish.
That said, I know that this movement has much more work to do for equality — concerns about misogyny are certainly not misplaced and we must all remain vigilant in addressing them. I do believe some of the reaction to real problems of sexism in our movement(s) has been hyper-vigilant, unduly polarizing, and a distraction from the actual hard work needed to fix problems. Further, I do think it is pretty ineffective way to improve things to try and publicly force assent, to bully or punish people who disagree with various approaches, to misrepresent people’s views to make our arguments seem stronger, or to be too quick to vilify. Some of these atheist blogs are sort of empty on the principle of charity in arguments, and I realize this may be because of past wounds in the blogosphere. But I’m hopeful we can adopt different, better, more effective approaches to address these problems. And just because you favor one approach and I favor another does not mean that we are not both working in common cause. People can take different routes to the same destination, and because you prize this sort of blogging doesn’t mean that I can’t prize other ways of addressing similar problems.
It seems that almost inevitably, many of the commenters over at Greta’s blog seem to be unwilling to address Grothe’s stronger points and have tried to draw attention onto his weaker ones, demonstrating his point about charity of arguments. It seems that even when an accused tries to reach out a hand of friendship, the mob seems content to set fire to it rather than seek peaceful understanding.
Like Grothe, I absolutely support further discourse regarding what might be a legitimate misogyny problem in the skeptical movement, though I think it’s important that future discussions on the subject be civil, as opposed to what I’m starting to see from some of these bloggers. They’re being too divisive, too bullying, too unwilling to accept reasonable dissent, quick to misrepresent the other side, too quick to condemn and unwilling to find peaceful resolution. And if one happens to find oneself unfairly condemned by this extremely influential in-group, there’s no mechanism for appeal. I think these bloggers have begun to abuse their influence and I’m glad someone as prominent in the movement as DJ has spoken up…even if they didn’t really give him a choice.
[Writer’s note: This article will be open to comments but I do insist all commenters remain civil and respectful both to me as well as to each other. Abusive comments will not be tolerated and will be removed]