Walking A Thin Line – The Perils of an Online Voice

Posted by on September 27, 2013 in Featured, Thoughts | 17 comments

WalkingAThinLine2

 

The movements of online atheism and skepticism are currently in turmoil. We see, on one side, people who want to make a difference in their societies by standing up against abuses, be they societal abuses or personal abuses, and gathering together under a banner of “Atheism plus social activism”. On the other side we see people who oppose the idea of adding to the term “atheism”, claiming with pedantic vigour that atheism simply means “a non belief in deities”. This seemingly innocuous difference has brought out some of the worst people have to offer, and has really shown the true colours of those involved in these movements.

The former have a desire to “clean up” the atheist and skeptic movement, and as well as attacking these injustices in society in general,  have also focused on the behaviour of those who identify themselves as atheist or skeptic. The latter seem to go “hammer and tongs” at any attempt by the former to make change, insulting them and antagonising them with precisely the kinds of abuse an language they are trying to rid from these movements.

From an outsider’s perspective it would seem that this is all the online atheist and skeptic movements have to offer, and that in order to be relevant within these groups, a side must be chosen, and a standpoint must be taken.

But nothing is ever that simple.

The former group, dubbed “Atheism+”, started from a suggestion by Jen McCreight as a way to refocus the activities of the atheist movement, because of the fact that many of the types of activism that people participate in cross over into the realms of feminism, humanism, equality, environmentalism, et al. At the time this suggestion came about, she had been subjected to all manner of abuse online, and even quit the movement for a while. Because of the support shown by Freethought Blogs, particularly by PZ Myers, the name FTB has become conflated with  Atheism+, and in some people’s minds, the two are one inseparable entity.

This all sounds great. A movement made up of people who stand by the principles of equality, the very principles so many are fighting for, only makes sense, for what hope is there for a movement where it’s members are among the very same people in opposition to the aims of the movement? And who wouldn’t want that? What’s surprising is the vitriol coming from outside the labeled movement, from those who cry “If it’s not broken, why fix it?”.

The cry from McCreight to cause “deep rifts” was justified insomuch that those who were continuing to sling abuse at her should not be part of her ” new new atheism”. But what I am seeing now is a decrying of any person who does not toe the line, and deep and purposeful digging into the “worthiness” of all of the “old grey bearded men” who helped pull atheism as an idea up out of obscurity. It has become a witch hunt, in some cases justified, and in others, not so much. And people don’t like this, not one bit.

It’s healthy to shake up the ranks now and then, slough away the dead wood, pruning and trimming at the old growth to make way for new voices. It becomes a problem when the attitude is to slash and burn, mowing down all who even dare to question the ideals. Even an unhealthy tree is more productive than one chopped to the ground.

On the flip side, those that decry the Atheism+ movement watch by gingerly for any misstep that A+ members make, pointing out any and all inequities and double standards that may arise in due course. Sometimes, but not always, this is justified. At other times it’s just plain old abuse.

This is not the only fighting going on within these communities. Everywhere I look, someone is trying to belittle someone else because their idea of what it means to be an atheist or skeptic doesn’t fall into line with their own, or because they use a word that someone else doesn’t like, or they slip up, make a mistake, or simply don’t know the correct procedure.

When Richard Dawkins tweets about Islam, there are people who are ready to jump up and down in a rage for his opinions. I understand this, as he is a prominent voice in the atheist scene, but people need to remember, he is a biologist first, and a social commentator second. This real contributions to atheism have been made in due course by his discoveries and ideas in biology, not in his standpoints about Islam, or women, or pedophilia. That’s not what he does well, and knowing this makes us all the more informed about how we pick and choose our information. Dawkins sometimes gets it wrong, and sometimes he is right but his timing is off. In either case, his opinions are his own, and how he chooses to voice them is his own business. While Dawkins is the apparent “face of atheism” he is in no way the spokesperson for atheism, he is just another voice. The same can be said for Harris, Myers, Blackford, Watson, McCreight, Benson… The list goes on. I don’t agree with everything these people say, and I don’t have to. That’s the beauty if being your own rational and thinking person, and not simply a club member.

At the moment, biggest news in the online atheist community is the appearance of the “Block Bot”, which was designed to help people to not follow people who may potentially offend them. As asinine as this is, as if people are too stupid or lazy to block people on their own, or are so sensitive that they will explode if they read the word “cunt” in their timeline, some find it useful, and all the more power to them. I have no problem with its existence, just like I have no problem with other services I don’t use. The problem arises when people are branded along with their addition to this blacklist, with names like “rape apologist”, “misogynist” or “racist” for the slightest of missteps or mistakes of rationality. Sure, some deserve it, but from what I can tell these brandings are handed out so flippantly that they lose their power and meaning. These terms have a meaning and a use, but if you label everyone who doesn’t agree with your opinion as a “misogynist” for a single issue or standpoint, you’re watering down a powerful and meaningful word based on what could be a simple disagreement. Then again, some people are looking so hard to be offended that eventually they will be.

Again, I’m not opposed to the existence of this tool, however I will not be using it. I have sense enough to make up my own mind about people, and am not so easily offended that I need to call someone a troll for a simple difference of opinion.

This is not a way to create harmony in a community, rather it is a way to divide us further. In my opinion, if you don’t like what people are saying, block them yourself and move on. Not every storm in a teacup is worth making a fuss over. Having said that, if people find the blacklist useful, so be it, they are free to use it at their own discretion.

The branding and the fighting, the witch-hunts and the putdowns, and the constant fight against the irrationality of others can be draining. And that’s just within the community. Add to  this the fact that we’re supposed to be fighting against the larger world’s misconceptions about equality and justice, and the world of “online atheism” becomes a potential minefield. It is for this reason that I have been avoiding social media lately, as its depressive effects are strong, and I feel the need to consolidate.

This is the fine line I walk, and one I’m determined not to waver from. I won’t condemn people because of who they follow on Twitter, or whose articles they read. This “atheism” thing is not a club we join by taking a vow and publicly announcing that we will “obey the atheist law”. It is precisely this kind of groupthink is precisely what drew many away from the mainstream, and to the online community in the first place; The ability for people of diverse backgrounds and political standpoints to fight together against the wrongs caused by religious indoctrination and groupthink. The choosing of battles, the weighing of evidence, and the lack of knee-jerk reactions is what keeps me sane and autonomous.

However it seems that the innate tendency for us as human beings to identify divisions is stronger than the desire to ignore them or set them to the side.

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17 Comments

  1. I agree.The cliche “live and let live” would be appropriate in this case.

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  2. You have expressed many of the views I hold myself. I have never found one person I agree with 100% though, and of that I am glad. That would be a scary thought. I am not offended by words but people who spew nasty comments at others for differing opinions have problems and I would rather avoid them. You notice I have been quiet lately because I’m too busy going through the same philosophical shit along with the nastiness, in the disability community. It’s happening all over and I refuse to let anyone turn me into a nasty bitch.

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  3. I disagree with much of what you say in this article.  For example:
     “We see, on one side, people who want to make a difference in their societies by standing up against abuses”
     There is no evidence of this. 
    Atheism plus is promoting as much abuse as they can get away with, such
    as publicly accusing people of being rapists, rape apologists,
    misogynists, etc.  And as far as I can tell, this was their intention
    from the very beginning.

    “the “Block Bot”, which was designed to help people to not follow people who may potentially offend them.”
    You
    don’t know what the purpose of the Block Bot is.  You are making many
    presumptions, and I think your presumptions are mistaken.
    As I see it, the purpose of the Block Bot is simply to black-list, smear, and do harm to anyone who opposes Atheism plus.

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  4. When atheism+ first came out, I remember asking supporters of it what it was for. The response I got what that it would separate the assholes from the non-assholes. No-one could tell me how the label would do that, but people were adamant the label was needed for that reason.
    There’s far too much righteous outrage in the movement for my liking, even if I tend to agree with almost all they stand for. The most worrying thing I heard was that I was being “morally problematic” by disagreeing on one particular issue – it seems the antithesis of freethought to label an opposing view as being a moral transgression to even say it loud.

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  5. I empathise, Marty – more and more, I’m just quietly going about my work, mostly locally, and staying out of the social media flare-ups and battles. Some folk seem to be looking for the worst in others, then making as big a deal of it as possible when they do. And on the other side, we’re perhaps too reluctant to apologise, and defuse the tensions, when caught out. “The movement” could do with a huge helping of humility, and the principle of charity.

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  6. @Kel
    “even if I tend to agree with almost all they stand for.”
    Do you really know what they stand for?  I know what they *say* they stand for.  I also know what I think they stand for in reality, and what I think they stand for is not what they say they stand for.

    “it seems the antithesis of freethought to label an opposing view as being a moral transgression”
    They have redefined the word “freethought” to mean any thought that agrees entirely with them.  It has nothing to do with reason, logic, or honest enquiry.

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  7. It seems to me that to include the word atheist in the name of any group that does not restrict itself to discussions about atheism is asking for trouble. Atheists do not automatically agree on any other issues. For crying out loud, some do not even agree what atheism is!
    One has merely to look at the theist example to see the problems that can arise. Christianity and Islam and Judaism and so on … Those religions are further broken down into schools, sects and cults: Christianity – Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, etc. ; Islam – Sunni, Shiite, Wahhabi, etc. ; Judaism – Conservative, Orthodox, etc. And so on infinitum. All are theists and all of them disagree, sometimes violently. Imagine the arguments if Catholics declared they were speaking for all Muslims. No, no one would dare claim to speak for all theists.
    Just because atheists do not tend to kill each other when they disagree does not mean there are no significant differences of opinion. And there are enough arguments within the so-called atheist ‘movement’ without introducing new ones.

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  8. When the divisions are on the lines of bigotry against others then yes I and many others don’t want to set them aside. For example you have Kevin Solway complaining about smears in your comments here. Given he defines masculine as logical/calm and feminine as illogical/emotional and has an anti-Semitic misogynist as his role model, I feel pretty happy “smearing him”. Having a space where he is free to be a bigoted arse is unlikely to be attractive to many women. Actually in his case he is mostly harmless and usually gets roundly laughed at in comment threads. Many are more viciously misogynistic, transphobic, etc. Just look at how many are cosying up to Cathy Brennan and declaring that all the trans* women blocking are men. These people often proudly announce they are “LGB*T*” Allies in their profiles…. LMFAO!
    Are you saying people need to set aside those considerations to work for the “greater good”? A whole bunch of those being “smeared” by being added to a list of people some think are worthy of *ignoring* on Twitter are busy misgendering trans* folk and being horribly misogynistic, like making “rape jokes”, to get on the list. I don’t know about you but I simply could not be purposely racist, sexist, bigoted like that. Unless I either meant it or felt it was so insignificant I was free to do so with no repercussions. Neither is a good indicator.
    As for “witch hunts” you should really read Crommunist (http://freethoughtblogs.com/crommunist/2013/06/20/abused-meme-roundup-witch-hunts/) … It’s ignoring on Twitter at worst. Even then anyone using the bot can decide to follow or unblock anyone blocked! Hyperbole like this seems to be a feature of the online atheist-skeptic movement. The bot blocks a whole bunch of different people – from MRAs, EDL racists, Anon lulz trolls, to TERfs/radfems and atheist-skeptics…. Out of all of those no one has got close to the whining of “our” community over being blocked on Twitter. Nothing worst than being ignored apparently – so far the winning comment is that the block bot is the worst thing an atheist has done since Stalin. Not a hint of a joke there. Ignoring someone on Twitter is almost as bad as killing millions. 
    “as if people are too stupid or lazy to block people on their own, or are so sensitive that they will explode if they read the word “cunt” in their timeline”
    — This is disingenuous bollocks Martin. You’ve written on the subject of calling women cunts, bitches etc. and why it is wrong. I know many blocked say they are blocked for just saying it in a reclamation sense. But then they have used these words as slurs as well, often. If anyone is in the list for using misogynistic slurs in a reclamative sense I’d be surprised. But nothing is perfect so it’s possible a couple are. Any I’ve looked into are using them as slurs on Twitter. They are totally free to do so just as we are totally free to criticise them for it and rate them as Level 3 – annoying or Level 2. Then there is the dog piling that occurs, when you have blocked 50-100 “Atheist SuperHeros” and friends that pop up to call women stupid cunts then maybe you’d realise individual blocking is not much fun. Including one great conversation I saw where someone was patiently explaining her PTSD was triggered by the word cunt as her childhood abuser used this to demean her. Only to have them call her a cunt. But I guess you are of the opinion she is “over sensitive” … ?
    “The problem arises when people are branded along with their addition to this blacklist, with names like “rape apologist”, “misogynist” or “racist” for the slightest of missteps or mistakes of rationality. Sure, some deserve it, but from what I can tell these brandings are handed out so flippantly that they lose their power and meaning. ”
    — First of all no one is “branded” as that… It means they said something that was misogynistic, racist etc in the opinion of one of the people blocking. Well actually in the opinion of *two* of the people blocking now as it requires confirmation to get on the list. So two people need to agree what was said was bigoted. One thing is unlikely to get you on there, unless it’s pretty extreme. The limitations of Twitter mean there can only be one or two tweets added to a report so I see how it can look like that. 
    How is this part unlike @EveryDayTransphobia or @EveryDaySexism … ? Or accounts like that …. They retweet one tweet someone made that was sexist, transphobic or racist to highlight it. This does exactly that, but may, if two people agree, add that person to a list as a suggestion to ignore if you want to avoid that crap. In reality this is what those accounts do also as ppl block the person highlighted, the block bot is just a bit more efficient at doing it. 
    It’s interesting to me how any criticism of people in our community with terrible words such as “racist”, “sexist”, “transphobic” is far far worse than them being those things. My take-away from the block debacle is that “our” community is incredibly thin skinned to criticism, we are seemingly so used to sending all the criticism one way that any to us causes a testerical over-reaction.  I’ve lost count of the number of people who have haughtily announced all their beliefs are rational or “theists” are mentally deficient and they are ubermensch atheists. Theists are racist, transphobic, not us. Theists are the misogynistic ones, “Islam” is the only standard of misogyny that exists, anything less than that is irrelevant, dear Muslima. You can see this in the insult of choice, even beats cunt, being called religious or a “theist/creationist” is the worst thing possible. It encapsulates the irrationality and illogical thinking that “we”, supposedly, are not subject to. 
    If we saw these behaviours as what they actually are, cognitive errors, then maybe we’d be a little bit more accepting of them actually existing in ourselves. But when I point people to the Harvard Implicit test and Michael Shermer/ Brian Dunning (http://www.skepticblog.org/2013/02/14/you-are-such-a-racist/) pointing out we are all racist, for one, this is considered totally ridiculous. They are “rational” and cannot be subject to this “theist” deficiency. Our community is woefully under informed about inherent bias and bigotry in all of us, and how we need to actively work against it not pat ourselves on the back that we are “rational” because we have rejected the proposition on the existence of god or gods.

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  9. I really enjoyed this post. I felt a lot of depressed feelings when I saw people I had followed start fighting with each other instead of trying to make progress. Now I’m just trying to be the best LabSpecimen that I can be and ignoring everything else.

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  10. Too many atheism plus people have defined a body of dogma that they say atheists must adhere to or be blocked. I didn’t take that kind of crap from religion, I’m certainly not going to take it from other atheists. I don’t need to have my views dictated to me – I’ve come by them honestly whether or not anyone else agrees with them. As far as I’m concerned, atheism + is just another religion without the deity.

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  11. I wonder if much of the retaliatory anger towards A+ could be sidestepped if individual labels of people were removed from those on the blocked list and instead the 3 category titles were expanded in a non inflamatory fashion, eg: Level 3 Annoying/use slurs. This would be honest, and would take away much of the issue with calling a radfem or a swearing feminist “misogynist,” which certainly causes that particular example to lash out. Perhaps it is too late, and the harm has been done, but I do see this as a possible middle ground compromise. I am neither a supporter of the bot, nor on the blocked lists. Much of the noise I’ve heard has more to do with this potentially libellous labelling, than in the being blocked itself. My thoughts on it.
    Brilliant post Martin :)

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  12. “The problem arises when people are branded along with their addition to this blacklist, with names like “rape apologist”, “misogynist” or “racist” for the slightest of missteps or mistakes of rationality.”
    I think this is being very generous to the Atheism Plus adherents.  There is, at present, no requirement of making the, “slightest missteps or mistakes of rationality” to achieve a label of misogynist and rape apologist.  For many in the movement, simple disagreement with their opinions places you nicely in these categories.  And the Block Bot is just an extension of the psychological blinders these people have used for years.  If you visit some of the FTB comments sections, you will see that it takes only a very polite and well reasoned argument to get banned from the site and labelled as a malcontent.

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  13. Great post, very balanced and reflexive imo. The discourse within the discourse ‘community’ has become very nasty and reactive in places. I’ve experienced it myself first hand too many times. One can be branded many things simply by putting forward an alternative argument. Differentiation is natural in an growing modern community, as groups emerge to take on specialised tasks. However, the discourse around these changes could be far more productive.

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  14. Have you considered the idea that differentiation of human communities as they grow is a social (multi-linear) evolutionary process? This would explain why we see these kinds of splits in all human groups throughout time, religious or not. Human systems like biological ones, must sense and adapt to their environment, which in modern societies includes social environments. Considering the saliance

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  15. Ugh…stupid pad…*salience of sexism in the world in the last period and the original focus of the new atheism on the issues that religion causes women…this seems like a natural evolution to me.

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  16. Kevin SolwayActually Kevin, I watched this unfold, I saw it for what it was, I’ve
    spoken to many involved and am even “friends” with some of them. What
    makes you think I don’t know? The description I gave above is precisely what they founded themselves upon.
    As I said above: “The former group, dubbed “Atheism+”, started from a suggestion by Jen
    McCreight as a way to refocus the activities of the atheist movement,
    because of the fact that many of the types of activism that people
    participate in cross over into the realms of feminism, humanism,
    equality, environmentalism, et al. At the time this suggestion came
    about, she had been subjected to all manner of abuse online, and even
    quit the movement for a while. Because of the support shown by
    Freethought Blogs, particularly by PZ Myers, the name FTB has become
    conflated with  Atheism+, and in some people’s minds, the two are one
    inseparable entity.”
    This was the true driving force behind A+. Whatever it has evolved into is a different beast.

     As for the Block Bot – I have spoken to oolOn about this. Have you?

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  17. What A+ seems to me is something that has been around for some time. It is called secular humanism. Why add anything to atheism when secular humanism covers all of what they wish to be involved in.? I belong to a humanist group apart from the atheist groups I attend. I was getting a headache reading the FTB because I seems that is all they were discussing for much too long. My first post here I thought live and let live was a good way to go but I do not see this ending any time soon. I am an old man so I suppose this should not trouble me as the young members.

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