[I wrote this article for my friend Amy Roth, aka SurlyAmy, who has asked leaders in the field of skepticism to write about the recent surge of anti-women rhetoric. She posted my article on the Skepchicks site, and you can find links to the whole series of articles at the bottom of that post. I'm posting my piece here on my blog as well because this is a very important topic, and I want as many people to see it as possible.]
What the hell is going on in the online community?
If you’ve been reading or paying attention at all to any of the online cultures like skepticism or general geekery (scifi, gaming, convention-going, and so on), you’ll have seen astonishing and depressing displays of sexism. That’s been true for a long time. But recently some sort of sea change has occurred, and what we’re seeing now is a marked increase in outright misogyny and thuggery.
The examples are so distressingly ubiquitous I hardly need point them out. A woman gamer wants to make a documentary showing misogyny in video games, and she gets rape and death threats. Rebecca Watson calmly and rationally tells men not to hit on women in enclosed spaces and reaps a supernova of hate and irrational vitriol. And now we’re seeing death threats, rape threats, all kinds of violent threats, against women who are simply trying to improve the way they are treated at meetings as well as online.
This. Must. Stop.
I am a skeptic and a scientist. I know what’s it like to feel anger and frustration toward implacable forces I think are threatening my way of existence. You may feel this way about many things as well. And while you and I may disagree on some of these topics, the way to work out our disagreements is through the exchange of ideas via honorable words and actions.
Threats, dickery, bullying, hate, insults, mob-baiting, and humiliation are not honorable actions and must not be used. You want to change my mind? You want to win my heart to your cause? Then argue your case logically and based on evidence. If you have to resort to the kind of crap we’re seeing now, then maybe your convictions aren’t as rationally based as you think they are.
Look, I know people are angry. Some of them have the right to be. As I have said many times, anger is natural, anger can be warranted, and anger can be a great motivator. But it must not lead to hatred. Unfocused anger, uncontrolled anger, cannot lead anywhere but away from a goal. Once hatred leaks in through those cracks, rational discussion is dead.
I have seen precious few discussions on this where sooner or later (and usually sooner) the comments don’t devolve into spittle-flecked rhetoric. Even if the original article is well-reasoned, thoughtful, calm, and rational, the comments quickly fall apart. That is what hate does.
That’s unfortunate, but that’s the internet. There’s not a whole lot that can be done about that in general, because you cannot control how others act. But here’s what can be done in particular: you can control how you act. Don’t let the anger, don’t let the hate, get the better of you.
Internet discussion devolves quickly, but discussions in person tend not to. We know when we are facing another living, breathing, feeling person, but that knowledge is easily overwhelmed by emotion online. But the two are not separate: raging emotions online have real life consequences. Threats and bullying online don’t just go out into the ether. They affect real people, and can cause a lifetime of damage.
Don’t let the hate get the better of you.
I’ve been quiet about this up until now for many reasons. Whenever I dip my toes into this miasma the overwhelming response is been vicious and hateful. Even many people who claim to be critical thinkers dive into the ichor and become part of it.
But I decided I can’t stand by and watch this anymore, and that’s why I’m writing this now. My friend, Surly Amy, has been posting a series of articles by men speaking out against this incredibly disturbing trend toward violent rhetoric, and the post by Dale McGowan, Executive Director of Foundation Beyond Belief, really struck home:
Silently shaking my head does nothing. The women under this kind of attack can’t hear my head rattling, so they can only assume I don’t care, when I actually care deeply. I think it’s the difficulty of putting this massive, deranged genie back in the bottle that keeps so many of us quiet. But that’s a poor excuse that only keeps the victims feeling isolated and besieged.
If you threaten violence against someone you disagree with, then you are not a critical thinker. You are not a skeptic. And you are most certainly not a decent human being.
If you disagree with someone, fine. You may be right, you may be wrong. But if, when expressing your disagreement, you bully, threaten, verbally or mentally abuse the person you’re arguing with, then you’re doing it wrong, and you need to stop.
Maybe you’ve heard me say this before, but it’s just as relevant now as it was in 2010, and it always will be: Don’t Be A Dick. If we can just start there, we’ll get a lot farther along the path of understanding and mutual benefit. And from there we can get on with the real work of making the world a better place. For everyone.
John Boswell, a musician from Washington State, is famous on the web for creating the Symphony of Science — musically autotuned talks by scientists and skeptics discussing the nature of science, reality, and wonder. These are impossibly catchy videos, worth watching over and again. The first, featuring Carl Sagan, was called A Glorious Dawn, and was simply amazing. It quickly went viral, becoming huge on the web.
John has just released his seventh in the SoS series, called A Wave of Reason, and like all of them is profound and lovely. And you may recognize one or two of the people in it…
So yeah, that’s me at about 1:26, saying "Teach a man to reason and he’ll think for a lifetime." It’s from my "Don’t Be A Dick" speech that I gave at TAM 8, and I think it’s worth putting it into context. Here’s some more from that part of the speech (starting at about ten minutes in):