[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.
Over the weekend, a full-blown scandal erupted in the
skeptical movement atheist and skeptical communities* over sexism and attitudes about sexual harassment. It started with a fairly straightforward story about a clueless man putting a woman in an uncomfortable situation. The conversation about it was interesting, to say the least. An important point that came up multiple times is that many men do not truly understand what women go through in such situations.
This point was driven home when Richard Dawkins spoke up about it. Through his own words, he proved quite clearly that a lot of men just don’t get it.
Here’s what happened, boiled down from a video post Skepchick Rebecca Watson made about this (she tells this story starting at 4m30s into the video at that link). Rebecca was a speaker at a conference recently. After her talk and a late evening of socializing with attendees at the bar, she got on an elevator to go to her room. She found herself alone on the elevator with a man presumably also an attendee. He said he "found her very interesting", and would she like to get some coffee in his hotel room? Rebecca turned him down, and in her video talks about how uncomfortable that made her feel.
If the story ended here there would be obvious things to say about it (obvious to me, at least, but not everyone, as will become quite clear). This man may have had nothing but noble intentions, but that doesn’t matter. Being alone in an elevator with a man late at night is uncomfortable for any woman, even if the man is silent. But when he hits on her? There’s no way to avoid a predatory vibe here, and that’s unacceptable. A situation like this can lead to sexual assault; I just read in the news here in Boulder that a few days ago a relatively innocent situation turned into assault. This isn’t some rare event; it happens a lot and most women are all-too painfully aware of it.
Rebecca, apparently, handled this situation with aplomb, and I’m glad. She turned it into a useful lesson for men on how not to treat women.
At this point there are many offshoot discussions and tangential topics being discussed on the skeptical blogs and elsewhere. I will ignore those, as they distract from what is in my opinion the most important thing here. As it happens, PZ Myers wrote a blog post about this, and Richard Dawkins — yes, the Richard Dawkins, PZ has confirmed this — left a comment in that post. And what he said… well. Read it for yourself:
It took me a moment to parse this. Read More