Make The World Better – Starting With Us
Pamela Gay has written a great and heartfelt piece over at her blog entitled “Make the World Better“, a blog adaptation of the talk she gave last weekend at TAM2012. While I was unable to attend (this world is far too large, and there are just too many awesome conferences I could attend so as to make my attendance at all events impossible), from most accounts the even was a roaring success. I only wish I were able to evoke such passion as Pamela Gay does. I thank Pamela for writing this.
However there were some reports of untoward behaviour occurring at the event. The misogyny does happen, the threats are made, and some are made to feel unsafe. I applaud people like Pamela for making the effort to make these conferences places where all people can feel safe from any kind of uninvited advances, from name-calling from, from sexism, racism, classism or whatever “ism” there might be. Her post made me think of what it might be that causes people to act inappropriately, and what we can do to address this.
It seems to me that the community of skeptics/scientists/atheists/whatever suffers from a few of very insidious social practices which need to be addressed.
Firstly, they (we) are not immune to the misogyny that affects many aspects of discourse worldwide; in some cases I’d say we are just as bad or worse than other groups. Women continue to be thought of as secondary in most situations, and because of the deeply ingrained societal and cultural lower position women are perceived to inhabit, it becomes much easier to put them down. There is much less at stake for a detractor if the people they are going to put down are already in a position of disadvantage. I hope we are working toward fixing this, and I am heartened to see groups like Secular Woman (http://www.secularwoman.com) being formed, which aims to bring the voices of non-religious women to be heard in politics and the wider community. (Admittedly this project is aimed mostly at the USA, but I see the positive influence this can have for the wider world.)
The second thing I see here is something that we are very familiar with in Australia. It’s a thing we call “tall-poppy syndrome”. It seems to me that, because it is easier for people to sit at home and troll than actually doing anything useful, that they do so for anyone who stands up for change and the betterment of our communities and the wider world. It’s easy to point at someone who is trying to make a difference and with jealousy on our tongues, and to cut them down, pointing out the failings in their ideas. We are notorious for suffering that here in Australia, and we only seem to like people who are “on the rise”. Once someone has made it past obscurity we disown them and criticise them. Stemming from a combination of jealousy and frustration, those who criticise make the most noise, are the most offensive and are also the most noticed. In Australia, it has been suggested that “tall-poppy syndrome” is due to our cultural past as a penal colony, a tendency to bring back down those who have garnered success, or those who appear to be ostentatious. Anyone who is seen as trying to be better than they are can be seen as someone trying to be better than their peers, and is therefore shunned. Look at the disdain FTB has received over what I perceive to be a rightful action, in the case of Thunderfoot’s dismissal as a contributor. (If you doubt me in this, go see PZ Myers’ video about the reasons for the dismissal. As far as I can tell, FTB didn’t do anything underhanded, and no they’re not conspiring against the community.)
The third thing I see the hurt and frustration so many are feeling within our communities; the trolls come forward and make asses of themselves, people get hurt by it and lash out, further feeding the trolls who then come back with more garbage to spew. It’s true there are some very unhealthy groups within the community, and some seem to be so insular within their little bubble (be it Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, YouTube, secular groups or societies or associations) tat they fail to see that those in other bubbles outside of their own are all struggling with this too. I see a fractured community, but one that is starting to realise just how fractured it actually is. This can only be a good thing. We know what some elements of the community are less than savoury specimens. We know that sometimes people go off half-cocked and spout off in anger. We know that some elements just want to tell the world they they are angry, and that everyone else can drop-dead. But at least we are aware of it. Remember, just because you’re an atheist, it doesn’t automatically make you a good person. All of the worms in the community are starting to emerge, and with this information we can start to define what we would like to see our community become. We have analysed the illness, and we have a means to treat it.
Like I said, I wasn’t at TAM2012, but I heard it was a great event to attend. Of course we can’t please everyone, some people attend for different reasons to others, and there’s no accounting for taste. But we can at least expect a certain level of conduct from people in these situations. I’m hoping, if we can clean up our own act, we can be seen as a beacon of humanistic values that the rest of society can look to with a sense of admiration. We can do this, I know we can. We just have to keep working at it.