Context is everything.
This Slate article from last year by Rebecca Watson is doing the rounds again and is being treated as gospel by some people. The issues and problems raised in and by the article are relevant to various things going on at the moment in various spheres I’m involved in. Some of the tactics are reminiscent of the rhetoric around the government porn ban, similar groups of radical feminists and other disruptive influences are trying to use the same sort of arguments and tactics in nerd/geek/gaming culture and this is worrisome.
I’ve been horribly mean about Watson in the past, not because she’s a woman but because she seems to me to be a dishonest opportunist. Still, I’ll try and keep this relatively level-headed and civil to make the necessary points.
So using quotes from the article as prompts…
When I first started finding a large audience on my skepticism website, on my podcast, and on YouTube, I wasn’t terribly bothered by the occasional rape threat, sexist slur, or insult about my looks. There was something downright amusing about a creationist calling me a cunt while praying that I’d find the love of Jesus. The threats were coming from outside of my community. Outside of my safe space.
At this point in Watson’s career she was properly focussed on skepticism and atheism. These were the things she presented and these were the things that were attacked. Some of it by trolls, some of it by people who genuinely opposed her – probably from the religious and woo communities. We all get this, we skeptics, the death threats, the sexual threats, the rape threats. We get told we’re going to burn in hell forever, or that people will beat us up. Muslims threaten to behead us. It’s not like this is limited to skeptics either. Post an opinion, any opinion, on a political forum and see the abuse you get. Identify yourself as gay, bisexual, transexual, black, Asian, whatever and someone is going to use that to try and attack you. Basically, the rule is, if you say something somewhere on the internet someone is going to take loud and obnoxious issue with it. Show a weakness, someone is going to troll you.
It wasn’t until I started talking about feminism to skeptics that I realized I didn’t have a safe space.
Why would a safe space to be a skeptic and atheist necessarily be a safe space to talk about feminism? Why would someone like Watson think that skepticism wouldn’t also be extended to her ideological beliefs about gender? I wouldn’t expect a knitting circle to necessarily share my views about free expression when it comes to pornography so why would someone expect a skeptic space to be automatically welcoming and accepting to feminism? Why would Watson think that her ideological faith wouldn’t be examined by skeptics in the same way that religion, political extremism or homeopathy is?
I felt we were doing important work: making a better, more rational world and protecting people from being taken advantage of. At conventions, skeptic speakers and the audience were mostly male, but I figured that was something we could balance out with a bit of hard work and good PR.
There’s a whole bunch of factors as to why there’s a fairly big gender gap but this is at a societal level more than at a conference or group level. Still, despite that The Amazing Meeting had gotten up to a creditable 40% female attendance rate off their own backs. The first sentence is a little ironic, since that is how many of Watson’s dissenters feel about her and those like her, like Atheism+ etc. We feel we’re trying to make a better, more rational world and protect people from being exploited – by the ideas Watson et al are promoting and the scaremongering they’re engaged in. The irony is that Watson et al screwed up what had been vast improvements in gender parity, 180 degrees from what she claimed to want.
Then women started telling me stories about sexism at skeptic events, experiences that made them uncomfortable enough to never return. At first, I wasn’t able to fully understand their feelings as I had never had a problem existing in male-dominated spaces.
As a skeptic, she should know that claims are not evidence. There’s no reporting of these alleged incidents, no evidence, so how can we accept them as true? If it was so bad why haven’t there been any significant reports of such since and why was there only one at one TAM and none at the following two TAMs? (Or since, IIRC). How would this compare with the general community outside conferences?
Why would you expect anyone, let alone skeptics, to take action on nothing but hearsay and rumour?
I started checking out the social media profiles of the people sending me these messages, and learned that they were often adults who were active in the skeptic and atheist communities. They were reading the same blogs as I was and attending the same events. These were “my people,” and they were the worst.
Individuals are not the community, Youtube is a trolltastic pit of scum and these claims are also not substantiated. We’re supposed to simply nod our heads and agree and if you don’t, apparently you’re excusing and encouraging abuse. ‘With us or against us’ (false dilemma).
Thinking the solution was to educate the community, I started giving talks about the areas where feminism and skepticism overlap. I encouraged audiences to get involved with issues like ending FGM, fighting the anti-woman pseudoscience of the religious right, and aiding those branded as “witches” in rural African villages.
And these are, indeed, areas of overlap and things that skeptics rightly oppose but the issue for skeptics is not that these are anti-woman, but that they are bullshit. That it’s anti-woman bullshit is just a nice bonus reason to fight it. However, that doesn’t mean feminism is free of bullshit or immune to skepticism just because it shares some goals and causes.
As I got to the elevator, a man who I had not yet spoken with directly broke away from the group and joined me. As the doors closed, he said to me, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I find you very interesting. Would you like to come back to my hotel room for coffee?” I politely declined and got off the elevator when it hit my floor.
Unsurprisingly, this met with a collective eyeroll by the majority of the atheist community as being utterly inconsequential. No-one is disputing that it may have made Watson feel uncomfortable, rather they are disputing that it was anything even approaching an actual problem. The collective response was largely ‘so what?’ and thus the ‘wars’ started. Watson etc got more entrenched and ended up showing what has been seen as their ‘true colours’ in wanting to clamp down on social interactions, ‘sanitise’ debates, not be questioned, not be asked for evidence and it all seemed rather too familiar to people who are used to arguing with the religious faithful.
It began to look very much like dogma, irrationality and faith.
Question it? You’re a misogynist. Dawkins weighed in and while I don’t agree that X being worse than Y makes Y acceptable, when Y is nothing at all the man has a point. The response? Racism ‘What do you know, you’re white?’ Sexism ‘What do you know, you’re male?’ Ageism ‘What do you know, you’re old?’ slurs, hatred and the kind of thing Watson herself has described as being terrible when it happens to her and par for the course from the faithful.
It exposed a certain wing of skepticism that was not at all skeptical towards radical feminist beliefs and had no problem being prejudiced towards the rest of ‘their’ community. Understandably, this pissed a lot of people off and the well publicised drama drew trolls like flies to a particularly delicious cowpat.
Dawkins’ seal of approval only encouraged the haters. My YouTube page and many of my videos were flooded with rape “jokes,” threats, objectifying insults, and slurs. A few individuals sent me hundreds of messages, promising to never leave me alone. My Wikipedia page was vandalized. Graphic photos of dead bodies were posted to my Facebook page.
Why is Watson presuming this is ‘her community’ rather than ‘sick individuals’ or trolls? She made herself a target, identified the things that would wind her up and the trolls struck. Having been attacked by trolls before she should know better. I’ve seen many of the anonymous threats etc myself, I was active at the time. They’re so obviously trolling (at least the vast majority of them) I can’t see how anyone would think otherwise. The more articulate objections have been ignored or had mud flung at them, rather than being engaged with, which also fuelled frustration. When a demand for evidence is treated as a personal attack by someone claiming to be a skeptic, something has gone very wrong.
Whatever you think about this Tweet, it’s fairly obviously a joke (albeit in poor taste) but then the skeptic/atheist community often uses mocking, jokes and disrespect as a tool in debate and argumentation. Watson’s position equating being asked for coffee to harassment or abuse was ripe for satire, not all of it well executed.
Given that Watson’s reaction to the ‘Elevator incident’ had been so utterly disproportionate to what actually happened, maybe what followed was predictable.
The organizers of the conference, the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF)—the organization started by the person who first introduced me to skepticism—allowed the man to attend the conference and did nothing to reassure me. I attended anyway and never went anywhere alone. This past year I finally stopped attending TAM when the organizers blamed me and other harassed women in our community for driving women away by talking about our harassment.
To a (bad) jokey tweet that’s another overreaction and, given Watson’s history with the elevator, a certain amount of ‘She’s crying wolf’ seems perfectly understandable. Why would they bar someone over a bad joke? Since there were already mechanisms in place to deal with problems at the meeting why would they feel a need to reinforce or change them (especially since there hadn’t been any harassment reports)? Other than economic issues the only identifiable reason there might be less women from one conference to the next is the scaremongering Watson et al have engaged in. This annoyed and angered organisers because it worked against all they had been managing to do to bring more women to conference, something sabotaged – ironically – by ‘feminists’.
Other skeptical organizations have been more compassionate. Center for Inquiry (the umbrella organization for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry), American Atheists, and several humanist organizations have enacted anti-harassment policies for their conferences. But still, there are leaders in the skepticism community who refuse to accept that there is a problem, and those who play the “both sides are wrong” game, insinuating that “misogynist” is just as bad an insult as “cunt.”
I’d argue it’s worse. Admittedly I’m British and we use fucking swearing like fucking punctuation but still. One is simply an obscenity, the other is a direct attack on someone’s conduct, being and character. An unfounded accusation of misogyny (and frankly, that word gets tossed around far too liberally) is far worse than calling someone a cock or a cunt.
Anti-harassment policies are a problem because:
a) They’re unnecessary – the law of the land and a conference’s reserved right to toss people out for any reason already cover the issue.
b) They’re overreaching – anti-harassment policies have become trojan censorship policies, they’re trying to police normal, healthy, of age human behaviour and they’re trying to be extended beyond the reach of the conference itself.
c) They’re ripe for abuse, especially in the context of RadFem ideas about burden of proof and presumption of guilt.
Thunderf00t on Youtube tackles some of these issues head on.
Of course, being against these unnecessary and potentially dangerous harassment policies has been mischaracterised as being pro-harassment, something that’s now happening in tech and geek communities. One can be both against genuine acts of harassment, and against dangerously overreaching harassment policies at the same time.
Meanwhile, other skeptical women are being bullied out of the spotlight and even out of their homes. My fellow writer on Skepchick, Amy Davis Roth, moved after her home address was posted on a forum dedicated to hating feminist skeptics. In September, blogger Greta Christina wrote that “when I open my mouth to talk about anything more controversial than Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster recipes or Six More Atheists Who Are Totally Awesome, I can expect a barrage of hatred, abuse, humiliation, death threats, rape threats, and more.” And Jen McCreight stopped blogging and accepting speaking engagements altogether. “I wake up every morning to abusive comments, tweets, and emails about how I’m a slut, prude, ugly, fat, feminazi, retard, bitch, and cunt (just to name a few),” she wrote. “I just can’t take it anymore.”
I’m not a participant at the Slymepit but I know people who are and it’s about far more than ‘hating on feminists’. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander and the community as a whole is ruthless with bad ideas, nonsense ideology and faith beliefs. RadFem ideas are no exception and nor should they be. Demanding they be treated with some level of extra respect is not so far removed from anti-blasphemy rules.
I’m not completely au fait with the accusations of ‘Doxing’ but there’s been plenty of that on all sides.
Trolls are going to troll and there’s little we can do about it while still maintaining a free internet. Presuming these threats and slurs are meaningful or anything more than simple trolling is disingenuous. Of course, it supports their contentions to take the trolls seriously, so they’re not actually motivated to identify incidences of trolling.
I know that this article will only rile up the sexist skeptics. I’ll hear about how I’m a slut who deserves whatever I get, about how I’m a liar who made everything up, about how I’ve overreacted, and about how I should just ignore the trolls and they’ll go away. I’ve written this article anyway, because I strongly believe that the goals of skeptics are good ones, like strengthening science education, protecting consumers, and deepening our knowledge of human psychology. Those goals will never be met if we continue to fester as a middling subculture that not only ignores social issues but is actively antagonistic toward progressive thought.
Kafkatrap. If this riles you up, you must be sexist. Oh, it couldn’t possibly be that you disagree or find things to object to. No, it must just be that you’re sexist.
Yes Rebecca, you are going to be trolled – and I’m sure you were. We all are, pretty much constantly, if we have any profile and we speak up about anything. This is not a special plight of women. It’s damn near universal on the internet. Women get it worse – in some quarters – simply because being a woman is a big red flag that ragging on you about it and using sexist insults is very likely to get a reaction.
Watson did overreact.
Yes, the best way to deal with trolls is indeed to ignore them. Take them seriously, write articles like this, you just feed them and you get more and worse.
Atheism and skepticism is concerned with atheism and skepticism. That sometimes crosses over with other goals but the more extra goals and beliefs you include the more you whittle down that community and make it less effective. It’s not ‘progressive thought’ or feminism per se that the wider skeptic community is hostile to, it’s the same things it has always been hostile to. Fallacious reasoning, poor research, lack of evidence and faith beliefs.
For some reason, some people, take that as an attack