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Posted by on Oct 25, 2012 in Atheism, Drama, Feminism, Freethought Blogs, Philosophy, Politics, Progressive Politics, Skepticism | 78 comments

Why Create New Drama When You Can Simply Move Your Performance to a Different Venue?

Yes, I apologize, but I’m going there.

Yesterday, thanks to the wise words of a commenter on one of my posts, I stumbled on an article on In sum, it’s a retelling of Rebecca Watson’s elevator experience from about a year and a half ago and the aftermath that continues in the skeptic/atheist communities to this day. The commenter mentioned that it’s a fascinating study in human dynamics and gender relations, and I agree. Unfortunately, since I’m an unimportant yet biased participant in this drama, my analysis is useless. Instead, I’d like to make a few comments about the article itself. Most of what I have to say is old news, but I think that it’s important to 1)* set the record straight, and 2) address the broader implications of this incident for skepticism and atheism in general.

You can read Watson’s article here. If you’re familiar with the story, there’s nothing new in this piece, except for the language that I will expressly address later. If you’re not interested in in rereading what has already been said by many different people, simply skip to Section 2.

1) Setting the Record Straight: The Elevator Incident And Its Aftermath

As usual, Watson’s retelling of her ordeal is one-sided, with no attention given to the real objections that have been expressed. Watson is a prominent (if not the most prominent) female figure in the skeptic/atheist community, and she speaks from a position of privilege. Her voice is loud and it carries across oceans. Compared to hers, mine doesn’t amount to a whisper at a Megadeth concert. At the same time, Watson often claims to represent the views of all women, while many women, with tiny insignificant voices like mine, don’t have a similar platform to express their objections.

The elevator incident began as an disagreement between several women. At a conference in Dublin, atheist activist Paula Kirby stated that she had not experienced misogyny or discrimination in the atheist community, and that, in fact, women have been consistently encouraged, yet reluctant, to participate. During a panel on communicating atheism, Watson took the opportunity to call Kirby ignorant, to make light of her co-panelist Richard Dawkins’ death threats, and to spend the rest of her speech complaining about the harassment she received from various online pseudonymous YouTubers and trolls. Although Watson claimed that these people were atheists, there was no way to know for sure.

Later that evening, the alleged elevator incident took place. Since Watson has post factum claimed that she suffers from face-blindness, it’s hard to know what the communications between Watson and the Elevator Man were prior to the incident. Assuming all occurred as Watson described, combined with my own relatively recent realization that many women would be uncomfortable in a similar situation (while many others wouldn’t), why the never-ending drama and in-fighting?

In reality, Watson provided good advice, given what most American women are taught about rape. I wasn’t born here, so I don’t have the same fear of strangers, but apparently many American women do. So if your goal is to get better acquainted with a woman you don’t know, elevator propositions are probably not your best bet. In fact, they’re probably not your best bet even when propositioning males.

Of course, had all this been said politely, I doubt we would have the rift that exists today. But that’s not what happened. In a YouTube vlog, sandwiched between accusations of misogyny, Watson told all men everywhere, “Don’t do that! ” while describing the proposition in the elevator. She characterized the incident as sexualization, then later called it objectification when another atheist woman, Stef McGraw, dared to disagree with Watson and mention the obvious double standards for male and female behavior in her own, relatively small, blog. Watson proceeded to call out McGraw in front of McGraw’s peers during a speech Watson gave at a Center For Inquiry (CFI) Student Leadership Conference and accused McGraw of, among other things, “parroting misogynistic thought.” She later published the same accusation in her popular blog, “Skepchick.” Shortly afterward, Dawkins wrote his Muslima comment with several subsequent clarifications, Watson responded by saying she would no longer be buying or recommending his books, and the situation blew up, making international news. People took sides, and an extremely crass and crude exchange of invective began, with most of the sexist and misogynistic comments being thrown in Watson’s direction, but not without a heap of foul, misogynistic, misandric, and paternalistic comments being lobbed at the other side as well. For some examples, women who disagreed with Watson were called “bitches,” “mentally ill,” and “attention whores.” Also, more serious tactics such as lies, Google-search poisoning, and threats were employed in attempts to destroy lives, credibility, and careers.

In the wake of the elevator incident the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) immediately adopted an anti-harassment policy at its annual conference, The Amazing Meeting (TAM).  As far as I know, it was the first skeptic or atheist organization to do so. The policy was made public shortly after the elevator incident occurred, and one year later, the JREF added a harassment expert to its team of persons designated to ensure conference safety. It is noteworthy to mention that no incidents of sexual harassment have been reported either at TAM or any other skeptic/atheist conferences except for one, which was reported improperly, and brought up approximately a year after the occurrence. Neither the conference hosted by Watson’s organization, Skepchick, nor the CFI had an anti-harassment policy in place until the JREF took action. It is also commendable that in 2011 JREF had a 50/50 male-to-female speaker ratio, and a similar balance in the audience. As far as such conferences go, this was an extraordinary achievement.

It doesn’t help matters that Watson was, and still is, a very controversial person in the community, who is either blindly worshiped or passionately disliked. She is entertaining, has a dry sense of humor, and speaks with a smattering of condescendingly punchy wit, but at the same time, she has been accused of hypocrisy, misuse of administrator privileges in JREF’s online forums, errors in her presentations, hosting lewd parties, and objectifying women by selling nude calendars (for charitable purposes). Watson has recently stated that she no longer supports the sale of such calendars or the use of proceeds to send women to conventions, which was her given reason for making the calendars in the first place. However, she is presently posing for another calendar while clothed.

Finally, nothing that Watson or her feminist supporters have done warrants the torrent of rape threats and other abuse they’ve received.  Such behavior is deplorable, potentially criminal, and inexcusable.  But that doesn’t dismiss relevant criticism of their actions or arguments. Nor does it exempt them from the typical satire that goes along with any politically charged situation. For a brilliant example, see last year’s “Revised TAM Schedule.”

2.) Skeptics And Atheists As A Community

Watson begins her article with the following words:

I’m a skeptic. Not the kind that believes the 9/11 attacks were the product of a grand Jewish conspiracy—we hate those guys. “Stop stealing the word ‘skeptic,’ ” we tell them, but they don’t listen to us because they assume we’re just part of the grand Jewish conspiracy too.

No, I’m the kind of skeptic who enjoys exposés of psychics and homeopaths and other charlatans who fool the public either through self-delusion or for fun and profit. It’s not just me—I’m part of a growing community (some would even call it a movement) consisting of hundreds of thousands of people worldwide who value science and critical thinking. We’re represented by organizations such as the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, which was established in 1976 and has included fellows like Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, and Bill Nye.

Merriam-Webster defines “skepticism” as:

a: an attitude of doubt or a disposition to incredulity either in general or toward a particular object
a: the doctrine that true knowledge or knowledge in a particular area is uncertain
b: the method of suspended judgment, systematic doubt, or criticism characteristic of skeptics.

Groups of skeptics have attempted to distinguish themselves from people who employ skepticism in their everyday lives by focusing on paranormal and supernatural claims, along with homeopathy and other types of quackery. But in reality, skepticism belongs to everyone who is willing to question any claim, including Watson’s claim that what happened to her in the elevator is true. Being a skeptic doesn’t make a person better or worse than others, and the same applies to atheism. Atheism is simply the lack of belief in god(s), and nothing more. An atheist conference is mostly about science, evidence-based thinking, activism and, occasionally, the discrimination that some atheists face.

Watson starts her piece by identifying a group of “skeptics” that she openly hates. This, to me, is the nutshell version of the problem we’re facing. Somehow, in the skepticism movement or clique, people have adopted a set of ideas that cannot be questioned. If you dare question those ideas you become the target of group hate. Worse, you are ridiculed, shamed, exposed, and hopefully silenced. The ideas surrounding modern feminist theory, although ill-defined and inconsistent, fall within this cluster, along with the beliefs held by 9/11 truthers and holocaust deniers. While I have seen evidence that persuades me that the official account of the 9/11 attacks is at least largely true, and while I have personal family experience with the effects of the holocaust, I would not automatically hate people making such claims and, therefore, find Watson’s use of the word “we” inappropriate. As for modern feminist theory, there are many great articles that elucidate exactly why it may be incompatible with the principles of rationalism and skepticism. And, in any case, beginning an article with an expression of hate and extending that hate to the entire group you’re supposedly representing is not endearing.

Watson continues by saying that she’s the type of skeptic who, among other things, enjoys exposing the self-deluded. But seriously, what’s enjoyable about that? Does her statement not express unnecessary glee at the embarrassment and shortcomings of others? I hold no contempt for such people because self-delusion is not an intentional act. Occasionally, it’s an act of necessary self-preservation. While I commend her goals of exposing charlatans and quacks who knowingly profit from lying to others, I cannot bring myself to hate people who are merely deluded, misguided, or simply not intelligent enough to tell fact from fiction. And an exclusive movement that holds itself out as superior to most other humans is — thankfully — doomed to failure. It’s no wonder that a small group of “skeptics” with leaders who hold human frailty in disdain has turned on itself as soon as an easy outside target disappeared (namely, the Creationists and Intelligent Design proponents).  And as Watson compares herself to people like Carl Sagan, I can’t help but wonder if she, in fact, opposes most of what he stood for.

Personally, I question everyone and everything, including myself, and I don’t need a support group to help me do it. Moreover, I don’t need people telling me when to be skeptical, because that’s a decision I must make by evaluating evidence (or the qualifications of relevant experts), and not by listening to the most influential person in a particular clique. That’s what defines skepticism to me. And if other skeptics are unwilling to argue charitably or question each other in good faith, then what exactly are we doing and why?

*If I made any factual errors, please feel free to correct me. I’m writing from memory, and it’s quite possible and even probable that I’ve made mistakes. I’m human.

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  • AceDiablo

    There was a comment on that article that suggested that something to take away from all that was a message about thinking of how your actions and words could be interpreted, but it got lost in all the yelling and shouting and acrimony.

    I respect Watson, and yes, I do think the rape threats are vile. But at the same time she seems to welcome them now, saying “Your hate makes me stronger!” She really seems to have dug her heels in and will tolerate no questions or disagreement about ANYTHING. I’ve had conversations with some of her allies who snap if I dare to suggest that the harassment issues at events are oversold, as if I’m saying they don’t happen at all. And I’ve talked to others who’ve never been to skeptic events and fear to go, sincerely believing they’re snake pits of harassment and groping, and it’s impossible for a woman to attend one without being grabbed and propositioned. They’ve read the blogs but haven’t gone so far to go in for actual experience.

    Re: stranger danger…yes, VERY oversold in the US. In the 50s, 60s, and 70s, possibly even the 80s, kids were taught never to talk to strangers and to distrust any friendly-seeming stranger. There are scare films that teach kids that there are pedophiles lurking behind every corner waiting to pounce on them. There are parents today who worry horribly about strangers; one friend of mine knows intellectually that statistically speaking, his kids are safer with that random stranger than they are with him, but emotionally can’t handle the thought of his kids talking to strangers. It’s that odd part of American culture; we go for emotional satisfaction rather than facts.

    And yes, it’s totally anecdotal. And it annoys me because I know people who, if I questioned RW’s elevator story in any way, wouldn’t hesitate to shriek that I’m sexist and misogynist…but were vilifying Chris Stedman over his anecdote about the snide, dismissive atheists he encountered and demanding to know if it was 100% true and if he could prove it. I’m sure it wasn’t intentional, but it did raise legit questions about where the line is drawn when accepting anecdotes on faith.

    Lots said here, lots more to say, but I’ll take a break….

    • And it annoys me because I know people who, if I questioned RW’s elevator story in any way, wouldn’t hesitate to shriek that I’m sexist and misogynist…but were vilifying Chris Stedman over his anecdote about the snide, dismissive atheists he encountered and demanding to know if it was 100% true and if he could prove it. I’m sure it wasn’t intentional, but it did raise legit questions about where the line is drawn when accepting anecdotes on faith.

      I was thinking the exact same thing about the way Stedman was treated!

      • bluharmony

        Stedman is a great guy, and I can’t figure out why some people are so unfair to him. It’s just because he wants to be nice to others, really.

        • Dhoelscher

          I said basically the same thing on Dan Fincke’s FB page a few days ago.

        • Sigmund

          I have no problem with his charity work.
          I do, however, have a problem with all the passive aggressive tactics he employs to demonize outspoken atheists. It is the standard accomodationist method of setting up a false dichotomy of ‘good’ moderation (moderate religions and moderate atheists-like Stedman himself) and bad extremists (fundamentalist religions and outspoken atheists.)
          He is cozying up to the politically powerful religious groups by reinforcing prejudice against atheists.

        • Stedman was doing more than just wanting to be nice to others. I’m one of those who challenged his anecdotes, and I don’t regret it, since I genuinely want to know if there’s anything to them. With the hindsight of EG, I can see now that there genuinely are some subsets of atheists who are dogmatic and unreasonable, but I still stand by the criticism of Stedman on his over-generalizations about outspoken atheists. He’s certainly not the worst of the lot, and he genuinely seems well-meaning, but by dissing outspoken atheists too broadly, he was dissing (even if not realizing it) me and you and a lot of people (the broad majority of outspoken atheists) who are undeserving of that kind of smear.

    • “stranger danger…yes, VERY oversold in the US.”

      I didn’t ever hear of it before today.. I like to have a little talk with people occasionaly. That certainly starts to explain the weird reactions had when I was in the States for vacation. Ugh….
      Well, I can be an asshole too… If that’s preferred in the US.

      • AceDiablo

        In the US there’s a hyper-paranoia about pedophilia and a growing lack of understanding of what it’s about. It’s increasingly used to apply to adults coming on to teens or anyone under 21, when technically it’s about prepubescent children. And there are reports of people being accused of being pedophiles when they’ve simply paused to watch children play in the park or driven slowly by a house where children are playing.

  • I don’t need people telling me when to be skeptical, because that’s a decision I must make by evaluating evidence (or the qualifications of relevant experts), and not by listening to the most influential person in a particular clique. That’s what defines skepticism to me. And if other skeptics are unwilling to argue charitably or question each other in good faith, then what exactly are we doing and why?

    Exactly. We’re being told to temporarily stop being skeptics for the benefit of a few people who don’t even seem to like skepticism very much. Taking things on faith is the sort of approach that we’re all supposed to have rejected by now.

  • AtheistNavyVet

    ok … Dawkins & Watson are not making nice but stop mis-defining Atheism …. it is up to believers to prove what and where alleged gods are …. one can not believe in a door one walks in door/s …. Atheism and Atheists are not defined by Webster or Merriam or Oxford …. we Atheists have been defining ourselves since the first Greek sailor JUST SAID NO TO A TEMPLE PROSTITUTE …. we have no alleged deities inside our brains BELIEVERS DO

    • bluharmony

      It’s the burden of someone making a positive assertion to prove it. As for the definition of atheism, take it up with OED or Webster. Words have meanings, and that’s how we communicate. If you don’t know their meanings, learn them.

      • Webster’s definition in particular is slanted against atheists and has been for a long time. On the other hand, the definition you used is not.

        • Dictionaries, like all books, are written by people and as such, suffer from the same inherent biases as any other source. A dictionary definition is just the phrasing of the people put in charge of writing the entry, nothing more.

          • bluharmony

            You know, considering how much the FTBers hate the dictionary (or any other source of authority that isn’t them), I’m starting to like it. It may not provide the best definitions, but it provides definitions that most reasonable people can agree on.

  • This idea of Watson receiving threats of rape may be incorrect. From what I have seen, she has shared comments that are akin to ‘go die in a fire’ or ‘go kill yourself’ … while inappropriate still, they aren’t rape threats.

    • TheDevilsTowelboy

      Go to Watson’s page-o-hate (easily googleable). The comments range from absolute incoherence to valid criticism, with ones that actually mention rape being somewhat rare, and I can’t find any that look like a direct threat – it’s more Youtube moron level “I hate you, you’re stupid” spew.

      I don’t know how many times this needs to be repeated – no one, not even Watson’s harshest critics, have any tolerance for REAL threats. Pretty much everyone agrees – if threats are valid, they MUST be reported to ISPs and law enforcement. Failure to report REAL threatening behaviour allows the perpetrators to continue their behaviour and threaten others. Watson’s refusal to take appropriate action is massively irresponsible for the general well being of the community. The only excuse to not report is that the threats are NOT actually credible (yes, false reporting is also a crime that wastes police resources). And if the latter is true, WHY ALL THIS RELENTLESS NOISE. The only reasons that remain are self-promotion and smear to undermine the positions of others (you’re pretty intimate with that eh Dracula?).

      • bluharmony

        I think she’s managed to produce one. And she’s been called the c-word quite a few times. Often by other women.

        • TheDevilsTowelboy

          Where? Not c-words, but real threat. And what did she do about it?

          • bluharmony

            I’m not sure what the text of the “threat” was, or if it was indeed real, but I think she posted someone’s IP address on her site at one point. I heard it was a real threat, but you know how that goes. I didn’t see it with my own eyes.

    • The article has the quote (which seems a legit threat to me)
      “honestly, and i mean HONESTLY.. you deserve to be raped and tortured and killed. swear id laugh if i could”

      • You’ll get the equivalent from A+ers and Watsonistas with their “I literally hope you die in a fire after you anally rape yourself with a dead porcupine” schtick. Complete with vague “I’d laugh if I could” (could what?), too.
        They consider the one a threat and the other not. Hypocrisy.

        Neither are credible threats, IMO. That being said, I don’t condone either of them *at all*. Even if they are not actually threats, they are too close to appearing as threats and they condone violence, which I do not — not even the appearance of supporting violence. But that I don’t personally condone them doesn’t mean they are legit threats. If I’m wrong, and they are, they should definitely be reported to the authorities, in *both* cases. Again. Hypocrisy.

        • Hypocrisy or lack thereof is a separate argument to whether or not threats have been made at Watson. I believe they have.

          • Well, I suppose it then depends on where you draw the line at ‘threat’. Going by the legal definition, I don’t believe those would qualify, though I’m certainly not a lawyer, so could easily be wrong. However, I’d be curious to know how you delineate the difference.

          • Not true. If she deems it is acceptable to dish out, then she has set a precedent of what is acceptable communication. If I routinely help myself to the contents of my friends fridge when I visit, it’s hardly reasonable to call it theft when my friends do it to my fridge when they visit. I’ve set a precedent of what I find acceptable to do based on my actions. If she does not deem it to be threatening when she does it to others, then she does not deem it to be threatening, period.

          • bluharmony

            If this stuff bothered her so much, she could just turn of the comments on her YouTube channel instead of monetizing her Elevatorgate videos (or even making that awful dating advice one). Also, she could try treating others with respect. I can’t read hate threads about me or respond coherently because I get too upset. And I can’t imagine taking the time to actually create a “hate collage.” Not to mention, that collage makes it pretty clear that the comment she always discusses as a lewd atheist compliment actually came from a Xtian.

            The couple of stalkers she has, however, are indeed very creepy, and I would be extremely bothered by that. Do those people have nothing to do other than obsess about her and her sexuality? But the rest of it is just 4Chan/Anon trolling, seems like.

            Also, I’m sure if any actual threats have been sent (and I haven’t seen any), the senders were at least smart enough to use proxies. But the stuff she does receive is truly disgusting, even if the threats aren’t real. I guess the bottom line is that two wrongs (or in this case, a million) don’t make a right.

          • Even if she invited threats (hypothetically speaking) this would not make them acceptable; it might make them understandable. The issues remain logically distinct. Even if you tried to provoke me to commit a crime against you, it is my responsibility alone for committing it, or refusing to.

          • I am not talking about “inviting” threats, I am talking about using against others, the very same phrasing she deems to be threats when directed at her. If she tells people to “go die in a fire”, it is unreasonable to claim to be getting threatened when people tell her to “go die in a fire”, as she clearly does not see it as a threat, given her own use. This would also apply if someone told her to go drown in a lake, or other similar assertions, given they use the same formatting. This is different than inviting, this is setting a precedent on what is deemed acceptable.

            PS “go die in a fire” isn’t a threat

          • I agree that “go die in a fire” is more an insult than a threat; This doesn’t mean she hasn’t been threatened, she has. Those are indefensible.

      • That’s not a threat. A threat is an individual saying *THEY* will do a certain thing. Saying someone ought to do something isn’t a threat. “Someone should shoot you in the head” and “I am going to shoot you in the head” are two entirely different things.

        But then again, these are being posted for political gain, not because they are remotely credible.

        • Cephus, in certain circumstances, while saying someone should shoot another person may not be a direct threat, it can nevertheless be illegal, such as incitement to violence (to an angry mob), or in certain countries, hate speech.

          Also, there are stricter rules in the US (at least) on what constitutes a ‘threat’ when it’s in reference to political leaders (specifically the US president). If a person in the US says that someone should shoot the president, in certain circumstances this can constitute a threat.

          Obviously, neither of these are the case here (no mob, nor politician), just wanted to point out that there can sometimes be exceptions to the usual requirement that the person claims that they themselves will carry it out.

          [Again, to ensure clarity, I do not condone threats or even indirect threats (another ‘should’ do it), or even statements that can reasonably be considered hints of possible maybe threats (never a legitimate tactic in my book; if you can’t make your point using persuasion instead of violent rhetoric, you automatically lose the debate, IMO).]

    • Even if she did receive tons of rape threats, or any other kind of threats, the fact remains that she has never taken any of them seriously enough to report them to the authorities. So she has threats, which certainly are vile, and she uses them to make political hay, she’s not at all worried that any of those threats are valid.

      Go figure.

  • You’d be surprised what you can find on Facebook:

  • can we just replace Watson with Ahlquist? Jessica seems to show much more maturity.

    • HughInAz

      Hell yes! Plus Jessica has actually accomplished something. Watson’s only talent is self-promotion. She is the Sarah Palin of the skeptical movement.

    • Hear, hear!

    • zenspace

      That would get my vote.

  • Dhoelscher

    In the atheist blogosphere we need a lot more of the kind of compassion and thoughtfulness you show in this post Maria. Thanks for writing it.

  • tkmlac

    What is so disheartening to me is that the skeptical community could be fighting the real misogynists out there on the Internet instead of trying to fight this fabricated image of the dangerous atheist convention. There have been countless people who have already asked for evidence that there is more harassment at our events than any other groups’ events and they have all been met with accusations of victim-blaming and misogyny. They are the ones getting attention because they can stir up enough controversy and sensationalism to get Slate and Jezebel the hits they need for ad revenue. Meanwhile, our movement AND women suffer because of them.

    • The problem is, if the skeptical community went after the real misogynists, they’d also have to go after the real misandrists, of which many in the Atheism+ community are a part. None of these people are interested in actual equality, regardless of gender, race, creed, sexual orientation or status, all they want is more rights for their pet group, screw everyone else.

  • Your description of the core problem as being the creation of dogmatic cliques that attack those who dare to question them is spot on. This is about as far from freethought, critical thinking, and skepticism as one can get.

  • Well written, I enjoyed this.

    Could you provide a link to Dawkin’s clarifications? I only saw the original remark.

    • bluharmony

      They’re further down in the same thread. He ends with simply asking for an explanation of where he’s wrong without all the swearing. (Always Name Names.)

  • Can’t really add much to the comments already posted, but extremely well-written and balanced and your link to Carl Sagan’s pale blue dot sums up exactly what skepticism should really be about.

  • Kevin Solway

    I can’t agree that it is an “achievement” to have 50% women at a conference. People should be treated as individuals instead of like herds of sheep. Men and women are different – as are all individuals – so when men and women appear to be equally interested in something, that is a sign that something is seriously wrong.

    • bluharmony

      It’s an achievement exactly because it doesn’t reflect the natural distribution or interest, and yet the female speakers were qualified and the female attendees were interested. Otherwise, it would just happen. Yet some people complained, and the JREF immediately addressed that complaint, as it has done throughout this mess.

      • It’s not an achievement one should be proud of, it’s a quota. People like Surly Amy are trying to push women into attending these conventions, not because the atheist community is actually made up of 50% women, but because they want to hit some numbers. If a man started a project to send men to a quilting convention, feminists would scream bloody murder, how dare he try to generate a 50% gender equality in a female-dominated activity! But when they do it, suddenly it’s a good thing?

        The reality is, the majority of high-profile atheist authors and speakers happen to be men. The majority of people who claim membership as active atheists happen to be men. It is what it is. It’s one thing to try to convince more women to become atheists, to encourage women to write books and become popular mainstream authors, it’s quite another to fly one gender to a particular show, just so the numbers look right.

        • bluharmony

          I’m not necessarily disagreeing with you. I’m simply saying that the JREF did all it could to satisfy the demands of this group of women, whether reasonable or not, yet it still got trashed. And that’s why an organization that’s committed to reason and logic should stick to those principles, even if a few histrionic women want to throw tantrums and lie about it. It’s like dealing with trolls or children. You don’t reward bad behavior by giving them what they want. I’m not saying that women shouldn’t be encouraged to participate, but an aggressive atheist conference-specific affirmative action program (with “scholarships”) is ridiculous. It’s like having a Catholic Church affirmative action program. If affirmative action is needed somewhere, it’s at the science education level.

          • I agree, I think the JREF put the harassment policy in place, not to make Rebecca Watson and her hoards of feminists happy, but because it’s a good legal defense in the event something happens, that anyone attending inherently agrees to follow that rule, releasing JREF from liability.

            The problem is, I don’t think the sciences are any more worth pursuing “affirmative action” than anywhere else. Women are not being purposely kept out of the sciences, they are choosing of their own free will not to pursue them. They could, it they wanted to, go into physics and astronomy, some certainly do, but many choose not to. So where is the big conspiracy here? Why the impetus to push women who are not interested in those fields to go into them anyhow, just to say you’ve met some quota?

            Makes no sense to me.

          • bluharmony

            Actually, for a conference host, an anti-harassment policy is a means to take on additional liability unless you specifically disclaim it, like the organization hosting Skepchick’s con does.

            With the sciences, I think that women were discouraged (and in many cases, still are) from pursuing those subjects for so long, that we need to wait a while to reach equilibrium. In law, for instance, it was reached pretty quickly. In politics, no. Heads of corporations, no. The fact that women are still stuck with most of the childcare (and often household) responsibilities does limit them in a way that men aren’t limited. That’s not to say that men aren’t limited in different ways.

            For example, I grew up with my mother telling me that women are no good at certain things. It didn’t matter that I was better at those things than almost all the boys I knew. I still believed her. Also, I think that diversity does provide perspective that would otherwise be lacking. It’s not just a magic number that makes someone the most qualified for a position.

          • Vic

            This is a great example of actual, persisting discrimination, the damage of which is very difficult to determine: Children being taught they have to fulfill certain roles or are unable to fulfill certain roles.

            That being said, it can be viewed critical how many women who prefer family life to a career due to a free, entirely conscious decision (“I really want to be with my children”) and not due to to subtle influences from society, her parents and her partner (“I prefer to stay at home, because I have been subconsiously influenced by a myriad factors to prefer to stay at home”).

            Same thing for anything else concerning disparities between men and women.

            Even the countries generally thought of to be the most egalitarian, e.g. Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, show differences in how men and women take up roles in society. How much of that is an expression of actually existing, biologically explainable differences in behaviour and psyche, and how much is systemic or subliminal sexism?

            Feminists argue the latter, while MRAs either say it’s entirely a woman’s personal choice or argue the former, and that is one of the points I, as an egalitarian, am in disagreement about with MRAs, because they massively downplay the role of subtle psychological “tugging” which continues to persist even under justicial equity.

            Regarding the biological differences between men and women: to whoever thinks I try to justify traditional gender roles with biological reasons, I just want to say: attributes applied to large group are described by bell curves, and although the apex of those curves for men and women MAY lie on different positions, this does not allow any conclusions about individual persons.

            On the contrary, knowing about these factors and differences and why they evolved with us, every one of us can make a conscious decision against these inherent traits and not reinforce them in others for their detriment.

          • bluharmony

            Yes, excellent point. I don’t have children, but all m lawyer friends do, and it’s interesting to see how they cope with this. None of them like it, but they do feel pulled to respond to their children in a way that men aren’t. And this does stall careers. To say that women are “lazy” because of this is ignorant. Whether it’s nature, nurture, or both, I don’t know; but most likely both.

            The attitude that women are no good at math and science (which has been disproved except to the extent that some men do appear to be slightly better at spacial reasoning) is still prevalent, or worse, once again, I hear the argument that women are too lazy to do the work. This is the kind of sexism we should be addressing; not coffee invites or the imagined rapes of someone who never leaves her house.

            Rape is best addressed through education of both sexes and the law, but that education should not include making women scared of every man. In fact it can be part of non-sex-based crime-prevention/protection training.

          • “The fact that women are still stuck with most of the childcare (and often household) responsibilities does limit them in a way that men aren’t limited. ”

            This assertion really bothers me a great deal whenever I hear it. It is extremely dishonest to claim women are “stuck” with the childcare while men are literally begging for equal time with their children after divorce. When the large majority of women demand sole custody in divorce, it’s hard to claim they don’t want those “burdens” or that they are being forced to endure them.

            As to your last paragraph, we are beginning to see that happen in reverse a great deal lately, and by reverse, I both mean telling boys they are inferior at some things, and telling girls they are superior at those things.

          • bluharmony

            In 8 years of divorce cases (while clerking) I’ve never seen a woman ask for or receive sole custody in a divorce, with the exception of child rape or severe abuse by the father. In those cases, only limited and supervised visitation was allowed.

  • Clare45

    A very well written and well balanced critique. Thank you. What RW and her supporters failed to realize was it was not so much the “Don’t do that, guys” remark that alienated people-even though it does sound a wee bit patronizing. It was the subsequent running down of well-respected atheists. She is certainly very good at marketing herself. Doesn’t she have a degree or diploma in media and marketing, or something similar? The Canadian skeptics seem to have fallen for it, as she has been invited to yet another Canadian conference in Ottawa.

  • Oh thank the gods we are finally talking about this again.

  • Oh thank God we’re finally talking about this again.

    • bluharmony

      Which one?

      • Rebeccapocalypse now. Even though I was among those who fully supported her when she said, “Guys, don’t do that” (she was talking to her own fanboys, after all) by this point I’m over it like Atari 2600. Good memories, yeah, but please don’t let’s play those games again.

        I’m half tempted to engineer a more dramatic controversy just to make people turn away. Any ideas?

        • bluharmony

          Ha. I meant which god. This has been talked to death for sure, but the Slate piece had over 5000 views shortly after it was posted, and I can’t imagine how many it has now. Moreover, people read it and believe RW’s story. This is damaging to the community, but even worse, it’s damaging to women who actually are (or will be) victims of rape. But I get the feeling she doesn’t care about that.

  • Copyleft

    It’s apparently important, however, NOT to indulge in any skepticism when it comes to claims of vicitimization. Asking for evidence is proof of cluelessness and misogyny. (Or so say the plussers.) “Victim cred” is a measure of personal worth, and anyone who threatens it should be treated as a monster.

    • bluharmony

      Even having “victim cred” doesn’t get you listened to if you’re skeptical of their ideas. Which doesn’t make logical sense, really. If you’re a victim, and an evil male made you this way, then it’s not your fault you hold the opinions you do, so you should be welcomed and accepted, right? But no, shunning apparently works better.

  • ZedZero

    First time in my life I type out the name of RW as I had feared what would happen if I did and the SIN blogosphere goes up in flames. Sorry my bad. This is a comic opera in many respects.

    Yesterday a NYC cop got busted for plotting to kidnap and cannibalize many young women on internet forums (I must have missed that forum). Well, the comments section have lit up with recipes and cooking tips with young ladies as the guest of honor. How many of these threats do you suppose are real? Mining the internet for threats to prop up your argument is the lowest hanging fruit for supporting an argument. An oblique threat like, I wish you to catch fire as opposed to I will set you fire, does not even merit notice in the comments section culture.

    I once had a meth dealer on a psychotic rampage leave a pair crutches in a cross in my porch after I threw his sorry ass out my house. A pretty good threat but, alas it was a hollow threat. Most people are more gas than substance.

    Threats need to be thought through carefully and if you determine you have good reason to fear for your physical well being I don’t think making yourself even more famous or available for public appearances is the best course action unless you make so much money that you can afford body guards or you learn the art of being a scary bad ass. Are we skeptics really so scary, a hive of depraved mashers and stalkers?

    • Vic

      If only there was way to deal with this. But this situation is unique and new. Nobody received threats over the internet before. If only somebody, a web programmer maybe, invented moderation tools, IP blocking and comment deletion.

      Until then, we, as internet users, share responsibility for the actions of all others internet users. I try to project my non-threat-sending behaviour and thinking via ancient lovecraftian rituals onto others, but they just don’t stop! I should make a webpage and complain about it.

      In all seriousness, however, I disagree with you about the nature of the the threats RW receives. They are a problem. It’s something which should not happen.

      If I could have a portion of internet in which cyber crime and trolling could be easily dealt with, I’d make use of that portion of internet. Until then, I’ll make do with what I got. And accept stalkers, hackers, neo-nazis, pedophiles and many other things are out there and will even try to come into contact with me. Because that’s the reason they came to the internet in the first place.

      I don’t want many things to happen. Campaigning against that, raising awareness? Good.

      But RW and A+ were not simply raising awareness. When I’m on the steets and give out flyers, I ask people if they want one. I do not grab and shake the lady with the grocery bags.

      If they don’t want a flyer, I don’t yell and kick them in the ass when they turn their back on me.

      They are not only entitled to their disagreement with whatever is the cause on the flyer, they are entitled to their disinterest to the cause. If somebody is not donating charity money for africa, I refuse to hold them personally responsible for a hunger death.

      If somebody does not agree with RW’s brand of feminism, which ignores and shames equity feminists, sex-positive feminists, liberal feminists and 4th wave feminists, they do not share responsibility for any negative behaviour towards RW.

      Saying “you should grow a thicker skin” is not always condescending. It’s not a good solution. But sometimes it’s the only solution applicable.

      • ZedZero

        No, seriously you are right. Not exercising option open to you may betray your intent. Start with moderation and escalate up till you get the desired result. Uniform atheosphere moderation would be quite helpful even if it is knuckling under to some extent. However I think we would have all benefited if it had began with RW not pushing the reset button on this whole thing. Moderate behavior does feed the beast though.

        “Virtual threats is regarded by the common commenter as true, by the wise as false, and by bloggers as useful” … Seneca the Surfer, I think…

        The internet is like a bumper sticker. It gives voice to people who nobody listens to or takes seriously. To promote these people to the focal point of you argument is feeding them. My response, your response, our response are evidence of that.

        Accessing threats is an art not science but, given the chimpanzee like shrieking of the internet I am sticking by my assertion that the comments section of a blog is something less than people who actual have a potential to come into contact with one another. I know this opinion antagonizes some people but, I have been through a bunch of bomb threats also and nothing. It is a probability game and without the power of prophesy guessing is tough but, do not lose sight of the fact that the probability is very low and you can take action to minimize the potential.

        In this I think RW and Co. need to be very thoughtful about their security. However if that was their prime motivation I do not think pushing the reset button on this nasty little dust up is the way to go unless there is something else you want more that security. (Insert your opinion of what that is here).

        We all exist in a spectrum of the social scale and negotiating terms with other. A one size fits all feminism is not going to happen or any other kind of ism.. The argument will persist, none the less, with the extremist screaming the loudest. Feeding the obsession will persist until we realize that we have followed the argument into a bucket of delusion.

        And furthermore . . . why is it so dark in here, where is that echo coming from? wha, wha oh noooooeesss!!!!!!

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  • Dhoelscher

    Maria here is a new response to R.W.’s article. I don’t agree with all of it but it presents a fresh and interesting perspective.

    • Vic

      Thank to this article I now know I’m a atheist islamophobic white-supremacist, yet I thought I only was one of these three things. And it makes so much sense! The KKK burns crosses, a clear sign of anti-religious attitude. Why have I never attended their meetings?

      • Dhoelscher

        As I indicated, I don’t agree with Sparrow on all points. In fact, on the main point concerning RW and the whole sexism issue, I’ve already written to him to say I think Maria’s interpretations capture much more of the truth of what’s going on. Given how complicated this whole controversy has become, I’m not going to fault Sparrow (too much) if his take on the sexism question isn’t the greatest one available to us. On this point, however, I think he is (although the point has previously been made by others) onto something important:

        “Not all the New Atheists are so explicitly enthusiastic
        about imperialism (indeed, many think of themselves as liberal) but a
        racialised attitude to Islam has steeped through the movement as a
        Do you want to claim Sparrow is wrong here. And if he’s not wrong, isn’t the point a hugely important one?

        Seems to me that, for those who don’t share the right-wing views of Islam held by people like Harris and the late Hitchens, rather than objecting to a critique like Sparrow’s by saying “he’s generalizing; that’s not me!” it might be much better to say something along the lines of “I’m an atheist, but not of the “New Atheist” variety.

        • “As I indicated, I don’t agree with Sparrow on all points.”

          Sheesh, what points *do* you agree on? It’s a pretty worthless and misleading article. Just about every paragraph contained some falsehood or another.

          “”Not all the New Atheists are so explicitly enthusiastic
          about imperialism (indeed, many think of themselves as liberal) but a
          racialised attitude to Islam has steeped through the movement as a
          Do you want to claim Sparrow is wrong here. And if he’s not wrong, isn’t the point a hugely important one?”

          He *is* wrong, in *multiple* ways, which is why it’s not only worthless, but misleading as well. Hence, his point is hugely *un*important. It’s the opposite of important, it’s a straw man, a red herring, a non-sequitur, an ad hom. And a few other things to boot.

          The guy thinks so-called ‘New Atheists’ are right wingers. Frickin nuts. First of all, ‘New Atheists’ is a non-category, made up by *critics* of outspoken atheists as a convenient label to smear them with all the old anti-atheist stereotypes. Most outspoken atheists reject the label ‘New Atheist’ (a notable exception being Victor Stenger, who I personally think is simply unaware of how it’s been used as a stereotype label). In fact, some of us make fun of the label ‘New Atheist’ by calling ourselves ‘gnu atheists’, tongue in cheek.

          Most atheists I know (the vast majority in fact) are strongly left-wing, often progressive, but with a minority that are libertarian at worst. Very few (though they do exist) involved in outspoken atheist activism are actual right-wingers of the Republican variety (in the US, obviously; non-US atheists tend to be even more progressive). Hitch’s support for the Iraq war was a notable *anomaly*. And even Hitch couldn’t be described as an Imperialist.

          We don’t just ‘think’ ourselves as liberal. In *several* cases, we’re more liberal than most other liberals. Example, from :

          “When it comes to marriage equality, atheists and agnostics are obviously in support of it, but the percentage for us is much higher than even that of “secular” Americans and unattached believers:

          “Nearly three-quarters (74%) of religiously unaffiliated Americans favor same-sex marriage. Within this group, however, there are differences in intensity. Atheists and agnostics (89%) are more likely than secular Americans (70%) and unattached believers (57%) to favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally.”

          “Overall, the more fervent an atheist or agnostic you are, the more
          likely you are to support liberal causes. Not really a surprise, but
          it’s always nice to put numbers to it.”

          I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m far more liberal than Jeff Sparrow himself. He needs to do some actual research and get his biases corrected. The article is nonsense on stilts.

    • bluharmony

      Since most of us who are aware of the dishonesty involved in the Elevator fiasco are also against American imperialism, that’s a pretty big leap to take. I mean, Hitchens was lovely (and benevolently sexist), but he was dead wrong about Iraq & the Muslims, IMO. But I’m not willing to go so far to excuse everything they do — in the name of religion or otherwise. I just don’t think we can fix the problem by killing them.

      • By the way, as far as I’m aware, Hitchens did not advocate killing Muslims as a way to ‘fix the problem’. If I’d ever heard him say anything like that I would have denounced him long ago. He supported the Iraq war on the justification that its purpose was (in his mind, I guess) to depose an evil dictator (in his view; I tend to avoid the word ‘evil’, though I deplore dictatorships and oppressors). He was terribly wrong about all that, but he was no war mongering imperialist as Sparrow ridiculously portrays him. His support for the Iraq war is similar, in my view, to the support many Americans (and sadly, a significant portion of US atheists/agnostics/unaffiliated) show for the death penalty. Completely misguided, but not malevolently sinister.

        • bluharmony

          Oh, I agree. And I really miss Hitchens. He was a brilliant writer. We’re all wrong about something. We’re human.

  • I’ll post the same thing here as I did in the Slate article:

    It’s disappointing to see this fiasco still going on. It’s what’s called a self fulfilling prophecy. Rebecca enters the community, asserts that the community as a whole is misogynistic, hostile towards women, rampant with sexual harassment, etc. putting everyone on the defensive. The response that this type of action is intended to get are threefold.

    1: Compliance. Accepting of the demands of those making the accusation, in order to “prove” they are not what they are being accused of. The vague generality of the accusation then allows the accuser to accept that this compliance is the exception, continuing to accuse the remainder of the community.

    2: Opposition. Those being accused take exception to the accusation. This is where accusations of male privilege and misogyny comes in, to try and silence these types. A failure to accept these assertions and continue to stand your ground then becomes “evidence” that the original accusations, are in fact, true.

    3: Open hostility. Usually in the form of accusations and insults of their own, and in standard troll fashion, when you revel you are displeased by a certain topic or behavior, the trolls will emulate that behavior and use that topic in order to get a reaction. These too are used as “evidence” of a certain type of attitude, an attitude that only exists because someone came into a community, made accusations of a certain behavior, and incurred the anger of (some of) those being accused.

    In other words, it is my contention that Rebecca created the very attitudes she was accusing the community of. The reason?… victim cred. Just look how much publicity she is getting from this. Just look at the results of Anita Sarkisian’s (sp?) campaign against gamers, that used the very same tactic and earned her $160,000 in 1 month.

    • bluharmony

      I think that’s about right, sadly. But I think Anita makes a more compelling victim. She’s not as insulting or condescending, and she hasn’t used her sexuality (and that of other women) to rise to prominence in the gamer community, unlike Watson.

      • I don’t know what you mean by “more compelling”. Do you mean she is closer to an actual victim, or is simply able to play the role better?

        When it comes to this topic, I’m a fan of the following video, in particular, starting about 7:30, where it describes her (anita’s) use of the above tactic of creating a hostility that can be benefited from:

        And while I’ll agree that she isn’t “AS” insulting or condescending as RW, she most certainly is those things in spades, and she is making a name for herself, with 32.500ish subscribers on youtube.

        • Thanks for posting the video link, and I think your 1, 2, 3, analysis above is quite accurate.

          • bluharmony

            Yes, thanks for posting the video. I should know better than to comment on things I don’t know enough about.

          • Thought I might update you with this tidbit


            Note, she still hasn’t provided a single video from her kickstarter’s $160,000.

          • bluharmony

            Thanks, I may write about her at a later time, but first I need to figure out what she’s doing with the money.

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