• #ThrowbackThursday – Happy EG day!

    Anniversaries are as good a time as any to pause, reflect, and take stock of the situation. By my reckoning, it was four years ago today, June 4th of 2011, that the Great Rifts of New Atheism first began to crack open. It was on that fateful day that Atheist Ireland placed Rebecca Watson on stage with Aron Ra, Tom Melchiorre, and Richard Dawkins to talk about the process of communicating atheism. Rebecca chose instead to open up a dialog about sexism in the atheist movement.

    Here is how she described her contribution to the panel on her vlog sometime later:

    And I was on a panel with Aron Ra and Richard Dawkins…on ‘communicating atheism.’ They sort of left it open for us to talk about whatever we wanted, really, within that realm. I was going to talk about blogging and podcasting, but, um, a few hours prior to that panel, there was another panel on women atheist activists, and I disagreed with a lot of what happened on that panel, uh, particularly with something that Paula Kirby had said.

    Paula Kirby doesn’t have a problem with sexism in the atheism community, and, because of that, she assumes that there is no sexism, um, so I thought that I would, during my panel, discuss what it’s like to communicate atheism as me, um, as a woman, but from a different perspective from Paula. I don’t assume that every woman will have the same experience that I’ve had, but I think it’s worthwhile to publicize the fact that some women will go through this, and, um, that way we can warn women, ahead of time, as to what they might expect, give them the tools they need to fight back, and also give them the support structure they need to, uh, to keep going in the face of blatant misogyny.

    So, I was interested in the response to my sort of rambling on that panel, um, which, like this video, was unscripted and rambling, for which I apologize. But the response was really fascinating. The response at the conference itself was wonderful, um, there were a ton of great feminists there, male and female, and also just open-minded people who had maybe never considered the, um, the way that women are treated in this community, but were interested in learning more.

    So far, so good. Communicating feminism to atheists wasn’t exactly the original purpose of the panel, but it’s certainly a discussion worth having. The vlog continues:

    So, thank you to everyone who was at that conference who, uh, engaged in those discussions outside of that panel, um, you were all fantastic; I loved talking to you guys—um, all of you except for the one man who, um, didn’t really grasp, I think, what I was saying on the panel? Because, um, at the bar later that night—actually, at four in the morning—um, we were at the hotel bar, 4am, I said, you know, “I’ve had enough, guys, I’m exhausted, going to bed,” uh, so I walked to the elevator, and a man got on the elevator with me, and said, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I find you very interesting, and I would like to talk more; would you like to come to my hotel room for coffee?”

    Um. Just a word to the wise here, guys: Uhhhh, don’t do that. Um, you know. [laughs] Uh, I don’t really know how else to explain how this makes me incredibly uncomfortable, but I’ll just sort of lay it out that I was a single woman, you know, in a foreign country, at 4 am, in a hotel elevator with you, just you, and—don’t invite me back to your hotel room, right after I’ve finished talking about how it creeps me out and makes me uncomfortable when men sexualize me in that manner.

    This all seems fairly uncontroversial to me. Cold propositions for sex are generally gauche, doubly so when directed at someone known to find sexualization by strangers discomfiting, trebly so at inescapable close quarters. That said, I wouldn’t have expected anything more to come of this video than the usual nastiness that we’ve all come to expect from YouTube comments sections.

    There are those who will tell you that it was at this point (2011-06-20) that all hell broke loose. They may not be lying, but they are almost certainly mistaken. Hell didn’t really break loose until July, with the following three posts on Science Blogs:

    Bad form, Rebecca Watson

    Always name names!

    The Decent Human Beings’ Guide to Getting Laid at Atheist Conferences

    (Arguably, the proverbial feces hit the metaphorical fan a couple days earlier over at Skepchick, but I’m not seeing much dissent in that thread.)

    Via Wikimedia Commons

    It is difficult to describe what happened next, because so many various topics were rapidly sucked up into the maelstrom. Some people wanted to argue about the ethics of calling out a student attendee from a conference podium, thereby punching down from a position of power. Others wanted to justify or condemn the actions of the (still unnamed) fellow in the elevator. Still others wanted to demonstrate how feminist ideas such as “Schrodinger’s Rapist” and “checking your privilege” would prove clarifying to the discussion.

    If you want a comprehensive schooling on how the clusterfuffle unfolded itself as people took sides and umbrage, here are the relevant wiki entries (from left to right):

    (I’d put æ on the list, but fear they may be full-on chaotic evil.)

    My own explanation of what happened next is that the online community became polarized between the sort of people who refer to their ideological opponents (sarcastically) as social justice warriors and the sort of people who refer to those other people (unironically) as misogynist trolls and harassers. Broadly speaking, the pro-social justice folks pushed for incorporating more feminist ideas, values, and taboos into the atheist movement, while the other group pushed back. Many who felt caught in the middle fled to higher ground, refusing to engage with known hot-button issues. Others fled the field altogether, choosing to refocus on less controversial activities such as video gaming or reading comics.

    There are relatively few useful lessons to be drawn from studiously rubbernecking the four-year-long online atheist train-wreck, and nothing new, of course. We already knew from the Robber’s Cave experiment (which took place about three hours east of OKC) that it is terribly easy to spark an intergroup conflict, basically all you need is some way to distinguish the two groups and finite resources to squabble about. We already knew from various disparate observations that an ideologically cohesive group may become ever more emotionally intense and dogmatically unyielding as moderates and contrarians drift away from the core in-group in the wake of a shock to the system. We should have been able to predict the formation of mutually anathematizing echo chambers as a result of all the usual in-group biases reinforced by a sort of siege mentality on both sides.

    We’ve reached the point today when some people on both sides of the ongoing deep rifts actively avoid engaging in dialogue with people who are perceived as being on the other side, to the point where even thoughtful attempts at structured discourse are foredoomed to fail.

    There may be a note of hope in the outcome of the Robber’s Cave study, though. Sherif and his colleagues found that harmonious intergroup relations may be restored “in the presence of superordinate goals that promotes united, cooperative action” to solve a problem facing both groups. We skeptics, secularists, and freethinkers should have no shortage of those to work on, together, if only we choose to do so.


    Category: AtheismAtheism PlusSlymePit

    Article by: Damion Reinhardt

    Former fundie finds freethought fairly fab.
    • I have gelato

      Odd that RW, PZ, Zvan and co now feel that there are some cases of alleged sexism in organised Atheism that they just don’t care about.

    • You’ve glossed over a very important part, as do most accounts of EG. Watson’s video wasn’t controversial to anybody (certainly not to me). It was posted June 20th. On the 22nd, a then-student Stef McGraw posted a mild critique on their blog disagreeing with the characterization of elevator guy (http://web.archive.org/web/20111204032621/http://www.unifreethought.com/2011/06/fursdays-wif-stef-32.html )
      The following day, June 23rd, Watson was giving a talk for the CFI On Campus student conference, where both I and Stef McGraw were attending. Although it really had nothing to do with her talk, Ms. Watson decided it was appropriate to give Stef a dressing down from stage, by quoting a bit of her criticism along with her name then saying she was an example of a young woman “ignorant about feminism” and that one comment was a “standard parroting of misogynistic thought”. She also said Stef “conveniently edited it…” to omit details, implying Stef was dishonest insted of merely disagreeing. (Transcript: http://www.thearmchairskeptic.com/2011/07/transcript-of-rebecca-watson-talk-at.html ).

      This completely out-of-proportion response, the unprofessionalism, the needless humiliation of a student (whom that conference exists to serve, not alienate) spurred anger at Ms. Watson, not any real umbrage about her video. At the time, the students and CFI staff were quite upset with her, as evident by critical twitter remarks.

      Later on, Ms. Watson and others transformed the narrative, claiming the backlash was about her out speaking out against harassment or sexism instead of her inability to handle criticism and poor choices about responding to Stef McGraw.

      • An Ardent Skeptic

        Ed, I appreciate the analysis of the situation that was the catalyst for hell breaking loose. I did a complete breakdown of what Rebecca implied about Stef McGraw here (Rebecca’s blogpost on the matter was missing a few important details.):


        IMO. most people don’t truly feel the sting of a verbal “slap across the face” unless they are the one who has been hit. I can certainly understand why the students were upset by what Rebecca said during her talk at the CFI Student Leadership conference. Her implication that there were people in the audience, including Stef McGraw and Rose St. Clair, who would laugh at the concerns of women who have been raped was a nasty thing to say. I doubt most of the students in attendance paid much attention to the rest of her talk after she hurled that accusation.

      • It seems likely to me that this entire blowup was almost inevitable. McGraw may have been the first skeptic to face a big ugly public callout in the name of truth, justice, and fighting misogyny, but she was by no means the last.

        Just as in fandom and gaming, there was going to come a time when the rise of a certain entryist movement finally resulted in the predictable pushback. Some of it temperate, some of it ugly.

      • An Ardent Skeptic

        The appalling lack of wisdom in the skeptic community surprised me. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised by this as I have met very few people in my 60 years on this planet who I would consider wise. But, I thought the proper application of skepticism would help skeptics acquire wisdom. I fully admit I couldn’t have been more mistaken in thinking that the skeptic community would have people with the wisdom to know how to avoid the pitfalls one sees in other groups.

        Armchair and I were watching some of our current “leaders” for years, and never thought they would rise to the prominence that they have attained because it was obvious to us that they did not deserve our support. Of course, if Armchair and I say “Skeptics should never have been fans of Person X? Person X never deserved a place on stage.”, we get called egocentric know-alls. Armchair and I aren’t egocentric know-alls. We’re people who have not had easy lives, and the difficulties we have experienced have made us cautious of giving support to the undeserving. To us, the undeserving are those who play to the worst in human nature rather than the best. People like P.Z. Myers do exactly that. They take easy potshots at the “enemy” and encourage others to do the same. It plays to people’s desire to feel superior. But, the desire to feel superior is an ugly part of basic human nature, and one that skeptics should do their best to avoid.

        The proper application of skepticism should give us wisdom. The wisdom to understand that people are quick to judge others negatively in order to feel better about themselves. The wisdom to know that those who make it their job to engage in this ugly behavior rarely admit error because they are convinced of their own superiority. The wisdom to know that this behavior is the antithesis of the values which skeptics are supposed to be advocating and, therefore, makes those who engage in this behavior unworthy of our support.

      • I fear that the typical skeptical curriculum doesn’t include a great deal of self-examination for the sort of cognitive biases that lead to in-group thinking and demagoguery. Come to think of it, that probably is the major lesson here.

      • Endsville

        Thank you for your words. I was excited about the skeptics community and was ultimately let down when these radfems started taking over and requiring political purity tests. Those people I looked up to as strong critical thinkers failed miserably when applying this to their own in-group. I started seeing them as a cult when some inarguable “truths” started spreading that you were an outcast were you to question them.

      • Aratina Cage

        I think people (you included by referring to it as a”big ugly public call out “) made a mountain out of a molehill.

        All Watson did is respond to McGraw’s ” big ugly public call out of Watson “, if you will. People painted it as Big Ma Watson smacking around Precious Baby Girl McGraw. Whatever. McGraw could have thought about it a little more carefully as you have and not been so quick to jump on Watson on the organizational blog she wrote for. She certainly had no need to be protected from being addressed by Watson as many people claimed to be etiquette with absolutely zero proof. She wasn’t in grade school. And how come this etiquette didn’t apply to McGraw on the org’s blog? None of it makes any sense.

      • Endsville

        That could be true. But given the context of Watson’s actions through the past few years lays that idea to waste.

      • Bloggers and vloggers can reply to each other online, asynchronously. They can use tools like rbutr to make their rebuttals known. They can argue back and forth on a relatively level playing field.

        Audience members and speakers are not on a level playing field at all. When a speaker decides to humiliate an audience member by name, damning them for parroting misogyny, there is no right of reply.

    • Four years already? That hardly seems possible. Seems like it was only yesterday (okay, not really).

    • Aratina Cage

      The “other group pushed back” with *misogynistic trolling and harassment*. So what do you want us to call it? Please don’t pretend that wasn’t a central theme of the so-called “pushback”. How many ways can we turn ” Rebecca Watson ” into a play on a slur? How many anon accounts can we make to batter her or badmouth her day and night? Etc.

      • Endsville

        Because insulting a woman isn’t misogyny. Arguing with a woman isn’t misogyny. Disagreeing with a woman isn’t misogyny. What people have a problem with is EVERYTHING YOU SAY THAT DOESN’T FALL IN LINE WITH THEIR IDEOLOGY IS CONSIDERED MISOGYNY. It’s tailor made to shut you up when you call them on their bullshit. Christ I’m so tired of this.

      • Out of curiousity, what was the earliest example of “misogynistic trolling and harassment” that you noticed?