Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Bad Atheist - No Banana. ACT II scene 2: Thundergate

ACT II Scene 2: Thundergate (You are either with us or against us)

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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
The fact that the TAM conferences, which were alluded to, take place in Las Vegas makes point two much more salient. There are many establishments in Las Vegas where the male clientele is encouraged to engage in incredibly harassing behavior, but they are made to pay for it; quite literally. On the other hand there are lounges in Las Vegas where the clientele are expected to behave with a decorum exceeding that which is reasonable at a professional conference.

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.  

We can loose the greater fight, and we are poised to lose more as a group than any of us could individually win through infighting.  


The Vicar said...

I must disagree on the subject of voting for Obama.

Obama's term in office has been a period of lip service to progressive causes coupled with increasingly reactionary, authoritarian policy.

Yes, okay, he acknowledges that atheists are Americans. And that means precisely nothing since he and his subordinates have actually expanded the amount of money and power the federal government gives to religious bodies.

This pattern repeats: he gives a few speeches about being in favor of gay marriage, but in every case, his legal team -- presumably acting under his directions -- has been prosecuting gay people under the laws he claims not to support. He talks about the rule of law while claiming (and using) the ability to have American citizens assassinated without trial. He talks about transparency in government while invoking the state secrets act more than any previous president. Et cetera ad infinitum.

So, let's look at the outcomes:

If you vote for Obama, he (and the rest of the Democrats, who are almost uniformly as bad as he -- from a policy perspective Hillary Clinton is just Obama dipped in pink paint and wearing a dress) will continue to ignore you. If the things they have done so far haven't alienated you, you're never going to stop voting for them. They will continue to chase the money rightward, and make you a sucker.

If you stay home entirely, the Democrats will assume that left-leaning people are a lost cause and continue to chase the money rightward. After all, the margins on the vote are narrow, and if they can't get you, they'll chase people to your right instead. You are still a sucker, but a different type.

If you vote for a third party which is to the left of the Democrats, though, that's different. The margins on the vote are narrow. The Democrats know you were once a Democrat. Perhaps they will actually consider chasing you instead of moving to the right.

As for "the wrong lizard might get in", trying to blame Democratic losses on leftists who voted for third parties is just silly. Take the 2000 presidential election: Gore did not lose because of Nader. Gore lost because he did not fight for a real recount in Florida. The eventual recount figures released showed that he won the state (although only if the recount actually included the districts he didn't include.) The inevitable conclusion: if Democrats actually behaved as those of us on the left wished they would, they would WIN. Instead they insist on doing all this stupid stuff which alienates any decent human being -- who is actually in favor of drone warfare? -- and makes them vulnerable.

adult onset atheist said...

There are probably too many things we agree upon with problems in Obama’s term to worry about finding common ground there; I’ll just say “NDAA” and move on to your points I disagree with.

In the case of gay rights Obama has promulgated the greatest change in federal policy ever. He removed DODT. Not only did he remove it, but he required that the removal of the policy be an iterative process by which the various branches of service were required to study any problems with DODT remove, fix the potential problems, and then study the issue again. The removal of DODT was engineered to create a huge integrated workforce that exists in every state of the union. There has also been extensive sensitivity training for all DOD employees, not just active duty. So in addition to education and familiarization (the best weapons in the fight for real equality) he has a ticking bomb that will go off when the DOMA runs afoul of service men or women who have same-sex spouses. The feds will then have a real legal stake in addressing every homophobic state constitutional amendment in the US. Obama’s record on gay rights is a strategic masterpiece.

The strategic approach to issues is maddening. Progressive taxation, which is a key issue, has been abandoned. The excuse has been that it would have been impossible to win battles like allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire. Bullocks!

However, when you look at the major battle that was fought to win it looks like there would be an excuse for the administration’s timidity. Opposition to health-care reform swells like the tide that might carry Romney into office. I wanted universal healthcare, and this is not it, but getting rid of it is unimaginable. Did Obama stick his neck out far enough to get it chopped off for this partial victory?

Romney has pledged to repeal the health-care reforms entirely, and re-instate DODT. He has pledged to do these things on his first day in office, which while literally impossible is indicative of his strong motivation.
In your “the wrong lizard might get in” argument you may have the numbers correct; the voting influence of the left might be so impotent as to have only a silly effect. I disagree with you emotionally. If the wrong lizard gets in, and you have voted for someone with no chance of winning, if you have not campaigned actively against the wrong lizard, if you have not donated to the most effective opposition to the wrong lizard, then you have contributed to the loss.

In 1980 I voted in my first presidential election. As a progressive college student studying biochemistry I had this “everybody is a crook disillusionment” born of an adolescence in DC during Watergate. Many people I knew did not vote or voted for fringe candidates. Shortly after RR was sworn into office the first cases of AIDS became known. RR endorsed anti-gay legislation (that did not pass due to the more progressive congress than we have now) and remained silent on AIDS. People close to RR made statements that the “gay plague” might finally rid us of the gay problem. Thousands died. Over 25 thousand Americans had died of AIDS before the president ever mentioned AIDS or HIV in a speech. We never saw it coming.

I could go on-and-on about how the “wrong lizard” issue is not simply a different color of bad. I probably will. Your question, and my response, are already too long to be buried in the comment section of a marginal blog. The issues are also too important. I should do a blog post on this. I’ve been thinking of doing a couple on some related semi-historic/humanist issues.

Joshua M. Kreeck said...

Let me say I think it funny that a single reference to President Obama allows a complete ignoring of the rest of the text. The President isn't perfect and he's not as progressive as progressives mistakenly thought he was. He's also not as conservative as they now think he is. Alas, politics as in life, is too often considered a zero sum game when it is not. I will say that Obama is not as progressive as we want him to be because progressives believe too often in ideological purity. If you are too skittish to play hardball in politics then don't expect to be taken seriously when it comes to policy. Taking your softball and going home isn't going to solve the problem. It doesn't work. You have to fight, tooth and nail to be heard. Nobody is going to give you chance to be heard because you think you are right. You have to make it worth their while and progressives don't. They join useless third parties.

On to the text. Again I have to commend you for your choice of topic and engaging writing. After review of my comment from the other day I have to say it came off as more hostile to the ideas presented in the story then I intended. The perpetual escalation of this little flame war is absurd and counter-productive. It does seem to me a simple harassment policy for the convention would be reasonable. Although Thunderf00t's comment about it creating the illusion of a problem much larger then it's actual size is well taken but poorly made. The policy should be on the website and indeed on the program. That way a person who attends can reasonably be assumed to have read and agreed to comply with the policy. It need not be twenty six pages long. Simply "The organizers reserve the right to deny access for any reason they see fit, please don't be a dick" should suffice. Adults should not be shouting out while a speaker addresses a group. That is common courtesy. Adults should not be making physical contact with out invitation, specifically of the sexual nature, that is common sense and decency. His point to chewing on the leg was a sticky one. I'm not sure there is any circumstance where I would do that or feel comfortable having it done to me but as an adult I would expect him to be mature enough to feel out the situation. If he were not it shouldn't be a surprise when he is asked to leave after a complaint was made. I can't say any of this from experience but I do think its reasonable to assume that the majority of these convention goers are rational human beings who do not prey on women more then the general population. I hate the few "bad apples" expression so let me say I'm willing to bet that any demographic, including this specific one, has this same problem and likely at the same percentage of the population. There will always be people without boundaries but there is no reasonable way to know who they are until after the fact which is regrettable and occasionally can be tragic.

Joshua M. Kreeck said...

Dr. Dawkins made the point that Ms. Watson should have only been as annoyed as he is when someone gets on the elevator and chews their gum loudly. Personally I agree and initially it seemed that was so. However her later claims are far more severe then that and I hope those folks are dealt with properly. While I sympathize with these women being harassed and I truly do want to stop the harassment I cannot see a way to do so until after the fact but I do not think these women are in any more danger then when they leave their house everyday, at least by much, which isn't saying anything. The sexual assault, harassment and rape statistics are abysmal and frankly should give every woman pause. Honestly I'm surprised at how few women haven't petitioned their gender to pull a wonder woman on us and just move to their own little island.

This is a bigger issue then just in the atheist community. It's every community, everywhere. What this argument within the community serves is precisely nothing except perhaps to make the community weaker and not because talking about the issue is the issue but because nobody wants to come to terms with the issue.It seems no one wants to find an acceptable compromise. Seems it's mostly a game of he said/she said. "You are a feminazi"/"yeah, well you are a privileged ole white man"/"Silly little girly speaking is for mens"/"you just raped me with words" ad nauseum. Notice that none of that actually addressed or solved the issue. Sadly there probably won't be any solution or resolution to this.

adult onset atheist said...

Politics: refusing to play does not make it a game.

One set of ideas I’ve been bouncing around my head is the teabagger rise to prominence in Wisconsin. First Russ Fiengold is booted. Then Scott walker not only gets elected, but survives a recall election after shutting down important elements of collective bargaining with about the same majority that he got elected with in the general election.

One reason I thought this would be of special interest here is that the guy who defeated Fiengold ran a “Freedom of religion is NOT freedom from religion” plank in his campaign.

Also the history of Wisconsin politics would allow me to talk about Joe McCarthy. I love writing about tail-gunner Joe.

Joshua M. Kreeck said...

Mine was more of a passing annoyance in an election year. It bothers me how a brief reference to anything President Obama brings on a protracted complaint that overshadows everything else.

Whats funny is the "Tea Party" was never an actual party. They didn't break off and form their own political infrastructure. They took over the Republican Party infrastructure. This doesn't happen to the Democrats because there is no secret liberal Koch machine to fund a party overthrow. Even without the money though there isn't the will to make that happen. There simply isn't a throng of progressive activist chomping at the bit to take over the party. There are however disparate groups of progressives who all think the other groups are too right wing, or fascist or corporate or hawkish or whatever and so they go put in their vote on that 0.02% of the electorate and walk away smugly and pleased that they voted ideologically pure and then spend the rest of the next election cycle drawing false equivalencies between the parties and denouncing the rightward pull from the center by the conservatives. The Tea Party however glued hundred dollar bills together with anger and bitterness and misplaced blame and often times Bengay and shoved into the hands of the media and Republican Party and took over the damn thing.