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Posted on Oct 29, 2012 in blogosphere | 37 comments

Controversy, activism, and the internet: Part two

In my previous post, I detailed why I believe people who can’t handle controversy well should not directly engage with controversy whether it be coming out as an atheist, making a public stand for church/state separation, or writing about controversial topics on the internet – especially when they have seen similar results after various similar attempts. Rather than participating in direct engagement, I offered some advice such as writing anonymously, refusing to engage, sending information to others, or changing tone.

One commenter, Kate Donovan, a writer for TeenSkepchick, responded to my post accusing me of ‘ableism’ – quite the odd response [especially considering I work as a program assistant for a class including students with developmental and physical disabilities]. According to Wikipedia, ableism is “a form of discrimination or social prejudice against people with disabilities.” Kate, making this comment, referred to the following paragraph in my previous post:

I handle controversy really well; I do not break down in tears, jump to unreasonable conclusions about my safety, or have mental breakdowns. When I was preparing to challenge the constitutionality of a religious holiday display on a courthouse lawn in Luzerne County, I was told that I will very likely receive death threats, threats of violence, and a great deal of nastiness. I was ‘warned,’ one might say, and had every opportunity to back down and ‘pass’ the issue to someone else. I did not. I was aware of the potential outcomes of what turned out to be my very public challenge and weathered the nonsense.

For more context, read the following paragraph:

Had I been a person who did not deal well with controversy, the responsible action for me would have been to not go forward with the challenge. If possible, I could have remained anonymous, passed the ‘public torch’ to my friend Rodney Collins, or completely stepped back from the issue. In a climate that is generally extremely hostile to atheists who raise church/state complaints, there are obvious ramifications for those who go public with a complaint.

How my stating that I do not break down in tears, jump to unreasonable conclusions about my safety, or have mental breakdowns and handle controversy really well translates into ableism is beyond me. My post fails to make negative judgments on individuals who do not handle controversy well, but rather states examples of not handling controversy well. It should be obvious that breaking down into tears, jumping to unreasonable conclusions about safety, or having mental breakdowns are examples of not handling controversy well. Again, this is to say nothing of the character of the person who happens to experience these responses.

Many people handle situations differently. Personally, I love debates about religion while friends of mine — some of whom are atheists and theists — tell me that they would get angry and, as they say, “commit acts of violence” if they were to engage with people who, for instance, protest gay pride events. I have actively discouraged these individuals from engaging protesters and understand why they would be angry. Some members of groups such as the Silent Witness Peacekeepers, while at gay pride events, discourage people from confronting the protesters – often because they believe confrontation will end in violence.

I don’t want people who are prone to violent tendencies to engage in situations which may trigger them just like I don’t want people to engage in church/state activism who can’t cope with the negative ramifications. I don’t want atheists coming out of the closet if they can’t cope with what negative consequences may follow. I don’t want people to be put in harm’s way who can quite easily avoid the harm. While it would be nice to see a non-hostile environment, it is simply not the case – although we can, and do, work to change it.

Aside from focusing on the secular community and ‘atheist activism,’ all of us likely do not get along well with certain people whether they be persons whom we formally were involved with intimately, co-workers, family members, fellow peers, etc. Understanding that future interactions with these people would go poorly, especially when the past interactions went poorly, should lead us to a conclusion that we should avoid these people.

Different personality communication styles/types will shine in some situations while others will not. Our past experiences, too, may be important to reflect upon. Have we handled certain situations well in the past? If not, should we continue to engage in these situations again, especially if we are going to react in a similar manner? In hostile climates, people should be especially aware of the environment and not act in ways which would put them in harm’s way if they cannot cope well with the results which may follow.

I hope to address ways we can reduce hostility, work to improve the image of atheists in the public sphere, and perhaps even encourage people to express controversial opinions and take unpopular stances in future blog posts. I won’t address everything there is to address in one post and did not plan to in the previous post.

  • I think all these “isms” that get tossed around in this context are just a way for self righteous people to say “eff you” to someone they don’t like, and seem like they’re somehow fighting for someone’s “rights” or “social justice”. It feels utterly disingenuous. It’s like when a conservative anti-gay Christian tells me they will pray for me. It never occurs to me that they will literally go home and say a prayer to God on my behalf. More likely, they think it’s a way to take a shot at me but come off looking holier-than-thou.

  • the vacuous accusations of ableism et al exist for one reason: to make it easier to dismiss the target of said accusations.

    Don’t listen to justin, he’s a misogynist ableist.


  • This controversy has been interesting to me, and thus, I’ve been reading a lot from both sides. Frankly, “this side” of the controversy comes off better. It’s actually caused me to stop calling myself a feminist. I’m an equalist, if it’s imperative that I must have an -ism to ascribe to myself. Not that I think there aren’t self-described feminists who’d support the folks on this side of the divide as compared to the skepchicks and ftb side, (as, until just lately, I was one.)

    • Totally unrelated aside… I wonder why, when I log in with my FB account, I have no avatar, and my name has the “vote left” bit in it, which I haven’t used at least 2 years. Weird.

    • I completely relate. I used to call myself a feminist. I used to take pride in that word. Now, my feelings have changed.

      • Copyleft

        Some feminists are still committed to equality… but it’s no longer synonymous with feminism as it used to be.

  • Erm, working with people with disabilities does not automatically guarantee that nothing you say and do is ableist, just as being queer doesn’t mean that nothing I say and do is heterosexist, so I don’t know why you’d even mention that.

    Kate was only pointing out that it’s stigmatizing to people with mental illnesses to hold yourself up as some sort of shining beacon of proper response to controversy just because you happen to not have a mental illness. (From someone who does have one, by the way: congratulations. I’m happy for you.)

    You’re basically saying that people with mental troubles that cause them to have breakdowns when faced with online hostility should just “not act in ways which would put them in harm’s way if they cannot cope well with the results which may follow.” Or, in other words, if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen. Why not ask others to stop being so hostile instead?

    • Why not ask others to stop being so hostile instead?

      We can do that. We can also encourage people, while we are doing that, not to put themselves in harm’s way.

      • So people who react poorly to online hostility should either get off the internet or not complain?

        • I personally have a difficult time taking people who take trolls to heart seriously. I don’t begrudge people who do, but they don’t come off as very bright. Real life example… Charlotte Dawson; I was watching a story on the news several days ago wherein this celebrity explained that she was driven to attempt suicide because people on Twitter were saying mean things to and about her. So now she’s traveling around, looking up the trolls, and accosting them in real life. She accosted them on video, getting in their faces and screaming at them, and asking them how they like it. Very reasonably IMO none of them seem particularly ruffled, though they did point out, also reasonably, that they’d trolled her online, and she was actively hunting them down in real life to actually try to bother them in real life.

          She doesn’t come off as the sane person in that scene.

          • “I personally have a difficult time taking people who take trolls to heart seriously. I don’t begrudge people who do, but they don’t come off as very bright.”

            What on earth does someone’s mental health have to do with how “bright” they are? Also, that is an extreme example. Is Jen McCreight, who stopped blogging after having sexist insults hurled at her on a daily basis, also not very “bright”?

            • If she spends her time railing against trolls and constantly feeling persecuted ON THE INTERNET, then no, she or anyone else wouldn’t be particularly bright.

              I get anxious when I’m in large groups of strangers in real life. It’s hot, it’s crowded, it’s loud, and I start to panic. In order to protect myself, I don’t surround myself with large groups of strangers. If I were consistently going out on the town, hanging out in clubs, and surrounding myself with large groups of strangers… and then complaining about everyone making me uncomfortable… why, that wouldn’t be particularly bright, would it.

              • HJ Hornbeck

                So you solution is for Jen McCreight to get off the internet, and effectively cut herself off from her friends and family who communicate via it?

                While it is a good idea to avoid situations that make you uncomfortable, McCreight’s biggest crime was to talk about sexism and harassment. Why should that be worthy of a torrent of abuse and trolling? Shouldn’t the proper response be to call out these trolls, and not McCreight?

                • If she’s getting upset in certain forums, then she should avoid those forums, as I avoid crowded clubs. You don’t see me hanging out on 4Chan. The internet isn’t comprised wholly of whatever arena in which she was finding herself upset. Saying she can’t get online is hyperbolic at best and more likely just disingenuous. I’ve seen a plethora of blogs on FtB which do not hesitate to delete, ban, and block people who are trolling and often times people who just disagree in a polite manner. I’ve been reading blogs watching it happen in real time.

                  You can call out the trolls, if you want, and if you gain their attention, then it’s kind of on you, unless you have some sort of plan to actually have the internet policed. It’s a fact of internet life. Railing against it and being upset about it isn’t unlike condemning the tide… if there’s an actual threat, report it to actual authorities, who do actual investigative police work and set in motion the actual legal system.

                  Why should ANYTHING be worthy of trolling… you find trolls on websites where people trade chicken dinner recipes, trolls in the user review section on Amazon, trolls on the Christian sites and trolls on the atheist sites and trolls on the Muslim sites and trolls, everywhere, trolls.

                  Maybe there should be a petition against trolling. Not that it’ll accomplish anything, but it’ll certainly attract the trolls, like internet flypaper. Trollpaper. Meh. They exist, like mosquitos. Buy repellant or stay on a netted porch.

                  • HJ Hornbeck

                    McCreight wasn’t on 4Chan, she was on her own blog and her own Twitter feed. So you’re arguing she should give both of those up, in the same way you avoid crowded clubs?

                    • Prepagan

                      No, I think the position as expressed both by Justin and Kera was pretty clear.

                      If you are going to participate in controversial issues, take a good, long, hard, critical look at yourself and determine whether you are equipped with sufficient fortitude to cope with any backlash that might ensue. If, having done so, you find yourself sufficiently robust and pachydermatous of mind and spirit then have at it with gusto.

                      If, on the other hand you sense relevant vulnerabilities in yourself then perhaps you should consider the tone with which you intend to participate in your controversy of choice? Perhaps, instead of calling something a ‘disgrace’ you might consider a rational description of why that thing happens to be inconsistent or at odds with other more accepted moral positions. The latter course being less likely to inflame particularly hateful trolls while at the same time still maintaining the possibility of influencing those that are open to influence in the first place.

                      Of course, if your self examination is such that you don’t feel able to withstand any backlash at all then you should either take steps to ensure your anonymity (perhaps a ‘disposable’ net account) or simply avoid engaging in the controversy all together. Any other course of action would seem irrational – unless you were actively seeking some form of martyrdom on behalf of your cause?

                      None of this is to suggest that hateful trolling is at all legitimate but neither is it legitimate (no matter how popular in certain circles) to absolve victims of any element of responsibility for their own well-being.

                    • She has the power to moderate her own internet ‘living quarters,’ and if the task bothers her, then yeah, she shouldn’t do it. If people are under the impression that they have the right to not be offended, they’re incorrect in that assessment. The world doesn’t stop turning because someone’s offended. Again, if there are legit concerns, report them to the authorities. Otherwise, drink water and drive on.

                      I think you’re being deliberately obtuse, just FTR. You know as well as anyone else that it’s just silly to demand that the internet as a whole be beholden to the feelings of someone who decided it would be a good idea to put themselves out there.

                      Everyone, but everyone, in the public sphere has detractors. Whether you’re been noticed by 10 people or 100 million, someone doesn’t like you. If that’s intolerable, then don’t put yourself out there. Look at the abuse heaped on celebrities, politicians, reality tv stars, and yeah, bloggers, especially political bloggers.

                    • TheGoonhongo

                      So blame the victim. When the victim is attacked, don’t you just hate it when they scream?

                    • If I go to a club and have a panic attack, will you be there to condemn the party-goers for upsetting me, Goon

                • What Kera said.

                  It looks to me that, as with Stephanie Svan and the like, she defines “trolling” rather broadly, as in, “somebody on the internet really hates me!” Well, sure, but the amount of energy you invest in that is entirely up to you. She has the power to block people from her forum, for example. And unless the trolls are doing something like say, writing petitions against you (now who would do that, pray tell?), sending credible death threats, or other direct kinds of aggression, the best policy is to simply not feed the trolls, and push your agenda in spite of them. In other words, McCreight does have some degree of power over how and who she interacts with on the internet, and if she doesn’t exercise that, it’s kind of on her. And really, it strikes me that she’s playing victim to give more aggressive individuals like Stephanie Zvan, Ophelia Benson, Jason Thibault, etc and excuse to be aggro. I see the same dynamic with Natalie Reed, BTW.

        • In some cases, people can change their style of presentation and will likely get non-aggressive responses. I commonly hear that women, just because they are women on the internet, are attacked for expressing their views. This seems to be quite wrong considering many prominent voices at least in the secular community not receiving the backlash others do.

      • While we’re at it, why don’t we just encourage rape survivors who struggle with their PTSD every hour of everyday in every environment to just not leave their houses or interact with anybody? That’ll keep them out of harms way.

        The whole idea behind Kate pointing out your use of harmful language was to help make the ENVIRONMENT safer for those who are MARGINALIZED. i.e., the entire point of social justice advocacy. If we put the responsibility on the marginalized party, we’re only helping to keep them down.

        • “While we’re at it, why don’t we just encourage rape survivors who struggle with their PTSD every hour of everyday in every environment to just not leave their houses or interact with anybody? That’ll keep them out of harms way.”

          I don’t think this is the proper response. The jist of what I am saying — and perhaps some advice for people — is to understand yourself, how you cope with situations, and act appropriately. Some people with PTSD can, after therapy, just like many others who seek therapy, adjust and function better.

          “The whole idea behind Kate pointing out your use of harmful language was to help make the ENVIRONMENT safer for those who are MARGINALIZED”

          That’s quite different than accusing someone of ableism. Making environments safer is a worthy goal, but is not something I was discussing in the bulk of my post.

          “If we put the responsibility on the marginalized party, we’re only helping to keep them down.”

          So, there should be no responsibility whatsoever for a “marginalized party?” This seems most unreasonable. I would wager that many who undergo therapy, returning to PSTD here, learn effective coping mechanisms from therapists and don’t just hear “Well, you should have no responsibility and you don’t need to be here. Just go out in the world.”

          • “Making environments safer is a worthy goal, but is not something I was discussing in the bulk of my post.”

            I don’t think it should matter whether that was discussed in your post or not. Kate saw ableist language. She couldn’t not comment on it and live with herself, because she is a huge advocate of mental illness destigmatization. So she said something. And I think that’s noble.

            And of course people who suffer from PTSD would do well to seek therapy. (You’re talking to one such person right now. Hi there.) My point is that the therapist’s office shouldn’t be the only safe space for those individuals. People like Kate and myself would like to persuade the general public as well to be more aware of the struggles that such individuals experience, especially since those struggles are brought about by factors that are not their own fault. That’s where I was trying to draw a parallel between victim-blaming in cases of rape and your saying that those with mental disorders should be the ones who modify their behavior (when in so many cases, they can’t, or it’s far less difficult for the people around them to do so instead, because compassion and human decency).

            • I also have PTSD and I take meds. I must also see a doctor on a weekly basis. PTSD is hell. Intrusive thoughts, nightmares, it is difficult. But I have never used it as an excuse. I am not saying that is what you do, or what others do. I am only speaking for myself.

            • I’m also a huge advocate for mental health destigmatization, and I saw nothing ‘ableist’ in Justin’s prior post, nor in this one. In fact, I saw it as a very candid post which looks at mental health *as it is*, which is the best way to destigmatize it. He’s repeatedly stated he sees no negative connotation to his remarks, and I don’t either.

              On the other hand, running around shouting ‘ableist!’ at anybody who mentions anything about mental health that you might happen to disagree with is the *opposite* of what should be done to destigmatize mental health issues. It creates a culture of reactionary fear, where people are afraid to talk about the issue frankly, honestly, and *without any stigma*.

          • This is an unrelated topic, but I have PTSD. I have to take medication for it, including Prazosin which has become a miracle drug for me.

            I do not let bad experiences from the past, including the ones that caused the PTSD as an excuse. I am not a perpetual victim.

            • zenspace

              I’m trying to understand why anyone would click the ‘down’ arrow on this post. Naomi, to my mind, you exhibit the ideal: someone who understands themselves and their limitations (medical, personal, whatever) and deals with them intelligently without delving into victimhood (an illness in itself I would suggest). Is the implication that some think victimhood is the proper response?
              Naomi – I’ve only recently learned of your work. I’m impressed – keep it up.

    • An Ardent Skeptic

      The only behavior over which we have control is our own. You can demand that people to do all kinds of things but it doesn’t mean that they will honor your requests. That’s Justin’s point.

      If you can’t take the heat you should stay out of the kitchen because demanding that others lower the temperature isn’t likely to work.

      Skeptics should apply their skepticism to themselves, first and foremost. If we do, then we should be aware of our strengths and weaknesses. At which point, we should be able to determine what we are capable of handling, and we should do our best not to place ourselves in situations we don’t handle well. (This is not a mental health issue, it’s a self-awareness issue.)

      Justin is giving good advice. Your advice, that we demand that others play the way we want them to play, is misguided and unlikely to work. Most people don’t like being told what to do. Anyone claiming to be a skeptic should have an understanding of basic human nature, and not have the unreasonable expectation that their every demand will be met. You can ask, but you’d better be sure that you can handle the situation when you don’t get what your asking for. That’s life! Life isn’t a utopia where everyone does precisely what we would like them to do, when we would like them to do it.

  • HJ Hornbeck

    I hope you don’t mind if I recycle a comment I made on Part 1, as it seems relevant here too:

    “You also do not deal with the sorts of consequences people receive. Take
    Amanda Todd; did she deserve all the consequences her [actions] created?
    No, of course not. So we not only need to consider the consequences of
    [an] action, we need to consider the expected, received, and deserved
    consequences. Your article above neglects this angle, making it either
    incomplete or misleading.”

    • I’m not talking about people deserving or not deserving anything.

      • HJ Hornbeck

        Then your discussion isn’t complete. You don’t differ between just consequences (public criticism) and unjust consequences (trolling and harassment). You also don’t consider motive; it’s one thing to avoid going into a crowded room because it sets off PTSD, and quite another to avoid discussing sexism on the internet because it’ll make you a target of sexist trolls. Those two dimensions are critical, and dramatically change what should be done and who should be called out.

  • It’s unfortunate that Kate decided the best response was a snarky, dismissive insult “This is ableism. Thanks for playing!” instead of articulating a point of disagreement in a civil way.

    While people can be various -ists, hurling the epithet accomplishes nothing productive and comes off as a glib ad hominem. She is bringing discredit upon the sites she writes for, including teenskepchick and The Friendly Atheist.

    • Kate Donovan

      It’s unfortunate you decided to discuss my tone, rather than my specific example.

      I prefer to avoid ‘-ists’ as everyone is susceptible to a variety of -isms, intentional or no (this would be the case whether or not one worked with people with disabilities, for the record.) Using -ists is imprecise, as it suggests that people can categorically be one or the other, and let’s people think that, “But I can’t be X-ist, I work with people of X minority!” is a useful or productive point.

      As for where I write, neither Justin nor you, in your quest for rational and civil discourse, managed to note that the only site where I don’t guest blog is actually Ashley Miller’s Blog. Unsurprising, I suppose, as discussing ableism and mental illness (in this case, EDs) is the point of the series I last guested for at Teen Skepchick, and a fast run through where I’ve been blogging lately would have turned that up.

      • Tone matters here, as is spelled out in the discussion policy of this network. If you are not willing to show a basic respect to others, you are not welcome.

        I agree with your position re: ists, and I think it’s a good practice. I would have liked to discuss a point, but you offered no argument or justification. You simply quoted Justin and made a claim, in a particularly snide fashion which invites readers not to take it seriously. I also do not find your claim evident in the quote, so rationale is required- but do not bother if you are unable to do so in a civil fashion.

        As for where you blog, I mentioned the locations I know about. I do not read Ashley Miller’s blog, nor do I keep tabs on your blogging affiliations, but let the record stand corrected.

  • It sounds like she does not know the definition of ableism. I didn’t either until I read this blog. BTW, I like your writing very much. I think your prose is exceptional. I decided to link you in my blog roll so that my readers can find easily. Keep up the good work Justin!

  • 109dr87634r599

    Well said. My ability to deal with religious individuals who lack the ability to understand reason is quit limited. I am 46 and and just starting to understand that maybe others should be the public speakers and not myself.