It is late June on the internets (June 21st 2012) and TAM (The James Randi Education Foundation’s, or JREF’s, big meeting in Las Vegas) is less than 60 days off. Already posters advertising “Tam9 from outer space” are popping up in all the cool places.
Rebecca Watson may have decided to boycott, but a quick perusal of headliners reveals that her big fellow podcast will be there. Three Novellas and Evan Bernstein of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe (SGU) will represent it; that’s four out of six SGU celebrities. This is no surprise as Steve Novella who hosts SGU is also a senior fellow with JREF.
The same quick perusal of headliners reveals that 16 of the 35 big names on the schedule are women (admittedly SGU was only counted as one name). Although there is not a slacker amongst the female names this ratio nods to at least some conscientious desire to balance the gender of the speakers.
PZ Meyers, a big name at Freethoughtbloggs (FTB) posts exciting news; he has convinced the popular Vlogger Thunderf00t to join FTB. PZ Meyers is ecstatic, and writes:
“Yes, the awesome has just gone up another notch, because Thunderf00t has joined Freethoughtblogs. You will never leave, ever again.”
Elsewhere he would write that he considered Thunderf00t a personal friend.
It is interesting that he states “You will never leave, ever again” because in just a few days he will kick Thunderf00t off of FTB.
The individuals whose harassment by Dr Buzzo at TAM8 sparked upskirtgate have been commenting furiously about what they did and did not say on several posts that discussed upskirtgate. Several times they repeat that they never stated that Dr Buzzo was taking upskirt photos; just that they were uncomfortable with the harasement, and the camera on a stick added to their level of discomfort.
Dr. Buzzo responded as well. He apologized if he made the women feel uncomfortable, and identified the camera on a stick as an XShot device. The "XShot-get in the picture” is apparently a popular commercial device for taking self portraits with other people.
Many people who posted categorical statements that Buzzo was taking upskirt photos recanted... at least partially. Gretta Christina updated her indictment of TAM organizer DJ Grothe to read:
“Grothe was told that a male attendee of TAM was persistently harassing women even after having been asked to leave them alone multiple times, and was strongly and reasonably suspected of using a camera on the end of a telescoping monopod to surreptitiously take photos up women’s skirts”
ThunderF00t jumped into the ongoing discussion about sexual harassment at meetings, his first post at FTB (titled MISOGYNIST!!!) raises rational questions in the semi-confrontational attention-getting style common in more popular blogs. He starts with an inflammatory statement, and then modulates it.
Unfortunately he steps onto at least one key feminist hotbutton issue while doing it. Thunderf00t states (bold from the original post):
“Put simply, YES talking about sexual harassment can sometimes be a bigger problem than sexual harassment.”Which in the context of the post might mean: “talking about sexual harassment way out of proportion to any real sexual harassment” or “Talking about sexual harassment that does not exist is a bigger problem than the non-existent sexual harassment” or some other attenuated form of the statement. One almost feels the desire to rip the keyboard out of Thunderf00t's hands and type some reasonable attenuating phrase onto his bolded assertion.
Thunderf00t specifically chooses this wording because it is a snowclone used often in civil rights movements to highlight the need to be vocal about issues of equality.
“Talking about ____ isn’t the problem, ____ is the problem”He may have specifically been assaulting a popular feminist version that had been used just a couple weeks earlier by DJ Grothe who was attempting to specifically address the Upskirtgate issues when he said:
“Talking about sexism isn’t the problem, sexism is the problem.”Though Thunderf00t’s statement is wrong on many levels the irony of embedding it in his own discussion of sexual harassment is unintentionally right. Is Thunderf00t’s post itself a bigger problem than sexual harassment? The reaction of some folks would have you believe it was.
Ophelia Benson rapidly posted a vivid description of a humiliating public sexual assault that a journalist in Cairo was subjected to; on the end of it she linked to Thunderf00t’s post in the hopes of tying his words to the violence.
For some, like me, the childishness of the knee-jerk attacks is inspiration to dig deeper into Thunderf00t’s MISOGYNIST!!! post. Normally I don’t find the use of all capital letters and three exclamation points inspire anything but bemused disinterest, but the vitriol encapsulating the links to it were enough to overcome my reaction to the unfortunate typesetting and pique my interest.
I expected a harsh attack on atheist-feminists. I would have loved a description of a coven of feminist bloggers listening to an 8-track tape of Shulie Firestone chanting from the Dialectic of Sex; the room lit only by the smoky light off of candles hand-crafted from liposuction offal. Instead I got a somewhat bombastic opinion piece that wrapped itself around a couple of fairly reasonable, albeit pedestrian, ideas. These appeared to be:
- There are no significant reports of sexual harassment occurring as part of or coincident with scheduled conference activities so it is impossible to reasonable deal with the issue as a defined problem of the conference.
- Reports of non-conference harassment are associated with establishments which have harassment policies in place to deal with the level of harassment that has been reported.
Alcohol is a strong contributing factor in many sexual assaults; let alone incidents of sexual harassment. If conference attendees went dry I know that I would be subjected to far fewer incidents of stupid harassment, and the incidents featured in ACT I and ACT II of this play would not have taken place. Since I have been a tea-totter for almost three decades my opinion on behavior while intoxicated is suspect. Though I personally might be at home, maybe even more comfortable, at a conference where attendees had to blow a 0.0 on a breathalyzer before entering the hotel I am not proposing that as a viable solution.
The issues addressed by Thunderf00t themselves are not sufficient reason for the tenor of backlash against him. Christopher Hallquist (another FTB blogger) posted a much more scathing indictment of atheist-feminists in January of 2012; he even named other FTB bloggers in his analysis. He also stopped short of imagining a Firestone-worshiping cannibal coven. Only those people attacking Thunderf00t, and with time some immature counter attacks, were conjuring violence.
One probable reason why Thunderf00t’s post sparked such response might have been because, as Gretta Christina put it: “This is what we are talking about now”. It was the hour of sexual harassment at atheist conferences. The bloggers at FTB had an alliance with Rebecca Watson who had self-described as a personal victim of physical, verbal, and just plain icky abuse. It would be impossible to leave questions formed from Thunderf00t’s inflammatory verbiage about this topic inflamed without invalidating Rebecca’s horrible experiences. Thunderf00t even specifically addresses Rebecca in his post (bold from the original post).
"let me be honest, repeatedly publicizing rape threats from a troll simply shows a crass lack of personal judgment and an immaturity at dealing with the interwebs, rather than a secular community ridden with men looking to rape women at conference."
I would have missed this passage being directed at Rebecca, but in a later video Thunderf00t juxtaposes it against her telling the audience at a conference that she has received rape threats from “hundreds of atheists”.
What Thunderf00t’s Rebecca passage means hinges on what is meant by “troll”. Many people use “troll” to mean “disagreeing with what I have faith in”, but I think the passage makes more sense if it uses the classical definition of “pretending to be someone or think something to get an emotional reaction out of other people”.
Trolling, especially as classically defined, is damaging and hurtful. When violent threats like rape or murder are connected to the trolling it is also illegal.
In August of 2011 a famous internet troll called David Mabus was arrested in Canada for violent trolling. If the campaign against David Mabus, which included a petition which gathered over 3,000 signatures, focused instead on “Canadian death threats” or “hundreds of death threats from people in Toronto” the campaign against him would have caused unnecessary damage to innocent Canadians. It may have also slowed or muted the eventual response as it was Canadians who eventually arrested Mabus.
When pictures of my daughter’s “inappropriate dress” went semi-viral I was subjected to quite a few obviously troll-like communications which I deleted. The Huffington post mirror of the story undoubtedly deleted quite a few more. It appears as if one cannot put a picture of a young woman up on the internet without it attracting banal stupidity. If I had been more mature about the level of interest the post would receive I might have thought of something more constructive to do with the troll comments than simply deleting them. I did not accuse some group or demographic of creating them because I could not conclusively attribute them to any one group. I could guess that the trolls were male, and probably be right. I could picture them as poorly-dressed middle-aged white men, but then I would be uncomfortably in the demographic I was vilifying.
As part of the demographic that is supposedly sending Rebecca rape threats I want the veracity of those threats examined. I want them to be shown to be non-credible. I want them to be blocked, or stopped, or to just go away.
As a person I want them to have never existed.
As July starts Thunderf00t is kicked off FTB.
Interestingly PZ Meyers calls Thunderf00t a troll after he kicked him off FTB. Meyers apparently subscribes to the more modern troll definition as he justified calling Thunderf00t a troll by saying:
”he had deep contempt for FTB, didn’t like what we wrote about, he thought we were unrepresentative, he despised everything we wrote”.
Which is obvious hyperbole as I’m sure Thunderf00t would not have despised Meyers writing about how awesome he thought thunderf00t was just weeks earlier.
In the storm that follows groups coalesce out of the interwebs: “Meyer’s Minions” and “Thunderf00t’s followers”. Accusations are distributed with casual abandon. Some are obviously fabricated; I saw Thunderf00t accused of posting “Mabus-like threats” in one comment.
One FTB blogger posts a profanity-laced “insider’s perspective” in which he enumerates 7 reasons for Thunderf00t’s expulsion from FTB. Four of his seven reasons are simply “he is a sh**y bloger”, one reason is that he is a “gaping a***le”, one is that he is ignorant, and the last is that people had to “deal with his s**t all the time”.
Another blogger is kicked off FTB. Interestingly it is because he was making Mabus-like threats to another FTB blogger:
” Now, get forever out of my life. Do not turn back. You do not deserve to even know the people you’ve insulted in that idiotic post you wrote. Don’t ever, ever find yourself in my presence or think you deserve to breath the air that I, and Jen, and Stephanie, and Gret and Ophelia and PZ and the rest of us breath, because you do not.
If you do make that apology it better be from laying face down in the mud.”
Thunderf00t posts a video where he bookends a reading of his MISOGYNIST!!! Post with commentary. Interestingly it reads well as a script, and sounds much more reasoned and mature. The addition of images and flow help the listener understand much of what sounds somewhat reprehensible when simply combined with the local images from my mind.
Meyers posts a video in response where he couples editing irritation to sweeping social declarations. I am led to beleiving there are two types of atheists: The wonderful forward-thinking members of FTB, and the evil-bad ones.
So atheists can be divided into us and them. Unfortunately I, and many “thinking free rationalists” are probably amongst the “them” to both sides.
How could any atheist/rationalist/humanist be a them to any side in today's environment? We have the first president who has openly accepted atheists as complete Americans running against a candidate who openly despises the irreligious. Ideologues like Rebecca may use most of their words to combat a War on Women, but it appears as if they are more concerned with the purity of their foot-soldiers than winning the war.
There are many bloggers like myself who will always be a "them" to the self aggrandizing spokespeople, but they do a disservice to the community when infighting prevents participation in the greater mission.