What a difference a year makes. Twelve short months ago, I was an admirer of PZ Myers’ blog Pharyngula, and a happy dipper of my toe into some of the other Freethought pools. I went there for news and views, mainly, always ready to chortle at the latest YEC comedy routine, pharyngulate a silly poll, or follow links to cool science sites or skeptical tidbits. Oh, there was the odd post that gave me pause: posts where PZ was hoodwinked by a hoax, or snarked with excessive harshness on things like, say, being too nice to one’s Christian relatives. It was mildly embarrassing to learn I’d be considered a borderline accommodationist and a milksoppy dictionary atheist, but hey – FtB did not loom very large on my horizon.
What I almost never did, however, was read more than few inches into the comments, largely on the grounds that life is too short. And since I did not find Elevatorgate very interesting while the crisis was on, I either skipped or skimmed any discussion of it. Just another overblown internet flap, I thought. Anyway, I remembered Rebecca Watson from her pre-banning days on JREF, and considered her a lightweight then, a kind of frat-girl given to not terribly witty jokes. My skimming, though, left me with the vague impression that Watson had morphed into a brave martyr for women’s rights, that the lovely Richard Dawkins had blotted his copybook, and that an evil troll blog-nymmed ERV was flapping her leathery wings around the edge of the lighted space, along with legions of her slimy minions. It appears I was wrong on all counts.
My epiphany did not come via Pharyngula. Evidently some vile sexist misogynistic douchebag had polluted the pages of Nature with a piece of truly egregious asshattery, and one of the other Freethought bloggers was fearlessly calling him and the editor to account. Crikey, thought I, and followed the link. It led to “Womanspace”, a very short story by a South African virologist named Ed Rybicki: a lighthearted bit of fictional fluff built on a whimsical quantum-type theory to account for women’s general superiority in the shopping arena. Not great literature, but light, funny, and competently written. I wondered if I had followed the wrong link. I thought one would really have to work hard to find that story offensive, but it seemed that a lot of people across the internet were willing to make the effort.
Here’s the short version. I went back and read not just the OP, in all its self-righteous pettifogging detail, but also the comments – a chorus of playground jeers and insults that went beyond Rybicki to smear his wife and family members as well. Rybicki personally came on the thread in a doomed effort to defend himself, with a comment that was written partly in a kind of rhetorical third-person, and was thus seized upon as sockpuppetry. Anyone not joining in the chorus was assumed to be another sockpuppet, or else there at Rybicki’s instigation. Then the fearless blogger opened up an entirely gratuitous second thread – a gleeful invitation to a pitchfork party, an online version of a stoning. I was disgusted enough to wade into that one myself, bringing on all the predictable accusations of tone-trolling and toxic socks – so I said my bit, and stuck my flounce.
Now, what disgusted me even more than the infantile vulgarity of the comments (and the OP, for that matter) was their pointlessness. What were these people trying to accomplish? What did they actually want Rybicki to do? From the sound of it, they’d be happy with nothing short of public confession and a grovelling apology, followed by Rybicki burning himself alive on a bonfire made from that entire issue of Nature. Or was he just supposed to accept his role as a kind of human sacrifice, pour discourager les autres? The immaturity of it was breathtaking. Which led to a question of equally breathtaking naiveté on my part: did the grownups know? If PZ, who was almost my age, could see what was happening, would he not be disgusted as well?
Silly me. I went over to Pharyngula and at last began reading the comments. Went back and read up on Elevatorgate, paying attention this time. In the next few days, PZ more than answered my question, and in the negative – first with his hard line on the hapless Gelato Guy, and then with the amazing clusterfuck of Bunnygate, where he caved in to the pressure of his own commentariat. I shifted into lurking anthropologist mode, and kept watching. Over the next few months, I watched Ryan Grant Long undergo a version of the Rybicki treatment, followed by DJ Grothe being pilloried for trying to show how Ryan had been misrepresented. I watched John Loftus, whom I like and respect, pulling out of FtB in protest. I came out of lurkage once more, in January, when the dogpack’s savaging of Edwin Kagin, of all people, was too agonizing to watch from the sidelines. Etc. But even a lurking anthropologist can get bored when the data simply repeat themselves. I’ll cut to the chase: my informal observations, for what they’re worth.
Those involved in this bizarre behavior included about half of the Freethought bloggers, their Skepchick buds, and a shifting population of faithful commenters. Their demons – the targets chosen for pelting in the stocks – were increasingly men and women who might otherwise be regarded as allies and even heroes, including prominent atheists and skeptics. The concentration of vitriol, the insularity, the attacks on newcomers, chimp-style grooming of insiders, demonization of dissidents, and shrill adherence to a tight-lipped, zero-tolerance creed of “social justice,” were all ways to bind a community. It was, moreover, a community based not on reason and the examination of ideas, but on the knee-jerk application of a peculiar bigotry – any of us who were deemed to fall short were offered no empathy and no quarter, and attempts at self-defense or even rational discourse just compounded our douchebaggery in their eyes. The phenomenon began to look more and more like either a mass case of borderline personality disorder, or a cult. In fact, the recent spinoff into Atheism+ looks like a cult with a mass case of borderline personality disorder.
I have some thoughts about how and why this happened, but will save them for another time. However, to mark the anniversary, I’ve invited the accidental agent of my epiphany to be my guest on Lateral Truth. Next up: Ed Rybicki speaks out on his brief, puzzling career as a misogynist douchebag.