Posts Tagged ‘elevatorgate’

Too long ago for it to still be topical, Greta Christina asked for some ideas on how the atheist and skeptical communities can “take on social justice”.

It’s a less intensely important question to me than it might once have been. I’ve been drifting a little from the “community” part of atheism and skepticism online lately, more through a reordering of my priorities and time management than any fading of my passion for the subjects themselves. But I’m going to chip in with an idea of what might benefit a lot of online communities, all the same. It’s not a specific suggestion for something which can directly be put into place (which is what Greta was asking for); it’s just where my mind went on giving the question some thought.

Don’t expect everyone to speak with one voice.

On anything.

There needs to be room for genuine, deep, fundamental differences of opinion to be expressed, among people who coexist in a community and share some common goals and interests. That really needs to be a thing that’s okay. Otherwise disputes and disagreements will still be inevitable, but they’ll also be needlessly divisive.

And we need to be very selective in what assertions someone can make which render them persona non grata to us. We need to be very slow and cautious in deciding that somebody’s differences make them such a hostile, destructive outsider that their collegiality absolutely cannot be tolerated, and they must be either forcefully and vehemently corrected or simply cast out.

We spend a lot of time telling religious people that, even though we think they’re completely, empirically wrong about things they strongly believe, and that our beliefs might offend them personally on a visceral level that makes them recoil from our very existence, we’re still people, and we deserve respect. Well, some of the ideological and personal gaps between atheists are at least as wide and chasmic as those between myself and any given god-botherer, so the same logic deserves to be turned inward, too.

To take a completely arbitrary and uncontroversial example: some atheists think that Rebecca Watson was right in the advice she offered after being approached by a man in an elevator in a way she found inappropriate. Other atheists think that she overreacted in a way that was unjustified and sexist.

Now, there are unquestionably some terrible human beings who’ve taken hardline positions on both sides of this argument. But neither of these viewpoints is enough to make somebody a bad atheist. Neither of these viewpoints alone should make someone unbearable for you to be in the same room with. If the single fact you know about someone is that they disagree with you on “elevatorgate”, it’d be a real shame if that meant you could never swap any stories about your experiences of religious persecution with them, or share thoughts on how to discuss your godlessness with deeply religious relatives, or in some other way engage with each other on a topic that’s meaningful to both of you.

And this doesn’t mean that you can’t talk about Rebecca Watson’s courageous feminist activism and/or feminazi misandrist histrionics. If you think the implications of that whole clusterfuffle are important, then of course you should keep talking about it and explaining why it matters. But it’s not a great idea to use a simple yes/no analysis of “Are they on the right side?” as a litmus test for whether somebody really counts as a part of your group.

Now, if you do manage to give up on expecting your tribe-members to all agree on anything, this may make it harder to define exactly what it is that unites you all. But maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe you don’t need to maintain unity among the group even on important matters. Maybe you might have some positive interactions with folk who, for whatever reason, fail to see the heroic/evil Rebecca Watson for who she really is. Maybe, if we try to see people as still being part of our community even when they’re painfully misguided and wrong about some really obvious and important things, then our efforts toward “social justice” could – and bear with me, because this may sound crazy – benefit from an atmosphere of diversity and inclusivity.

So that ended up being less a practical suggestion, and more another restating of my tiresomely idealist philosophies. I make no apology for feeling compelled to repeat myself.

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This might not be timely, but it’s a subject that just keeps coming back.

To recap: A few months ago, Rebecca Watson talked about an uncomfortable interaction she had with a guy she didn’t know in an elevator.

The complicated and diverse discussion about gender politics which ensued has been fascinating, and I mean that in a “massive car accident” sense only about 90% of the time. Part of this ensuing discussion has included a fair bit of abuse heading Rebecca’s way, some predictable, some surreal, some pretty batshit crazy. I think I’ve written about elevatorgate itself as much as I want to, but if you want to develop your own opinion further, here’s an idea for some research you could try.

Look up some blog articles and videos by people criticising Rebecca’s attitudes and actions regarding elevatorgate. Then calculate the percentage of those blogs and videos which have been made by terrible, terrible people.

This is what I find most frustrating about it all. There doesn’t have to be the preponderance of awfulness which there seems to be among people taking issue with things Rebecca has said or done. There’s room to disagree with her or object to her in a number of legitimate ways. But, for instance, Abbie Smith – who presumably wouldn’t have been blogging on ScienceBlogs for as long as she has if she hadn’t clearly demonstrated the capacity to concisely express thoughtful and intelligent views on things – doesn’t seem so interested in those.

She mostly seems interested in using the word “Twatson”. Like, a lot.

It comes up repeatedly in her blogs and comment threads, and here’s one particular instance where she explains her reasoning behind it:

Its a trip-wire, alerting me to the presence of stupid people. See, Ive found that all you have to do is lay down a funny alliteration, and stupid people fall over themselves on that point, ignoring everything else. They literally lose the ability to read and write, not to mention make cognizant points. Its not an effective teaching tool, its just funny. I do it to Creationists. I do it to HIV Deniers. I do it to anti-vaxers. And I did it here. You fell for it. *enthusiastic-clapping*

Like calling them rude names, being really patronising toward someone can be a lot of fun, but it probably won’t make them like you or think you’re worth listening to.

Personally, I do find it a bit of a struggle to keep reading through a whole blog post of what someone has to say when they throw out childish taunts at people I respect with no apparent reason. Maybe that means I’m stupid and have just fallen over. But it’s a shame, because some of Abbie’s points are worth making. The Richard Dawkins Foundation’s sponsorship of childcare for TAM attendees, for instance, is a cool thing that deserves to be noted. Her blog’s name is ERV, after its intended focus on endogenous retroviruses, and I don’t doubt I could learn all sorts of fascinating stuff if I read some of her posts on that subject more thoroughly.

But I’ve had to fight a natural inclination not to just say “Yeah, I’m done with you now” ever since she decided to be obnoxious and unkind.

She recently went on a weird tirade against Jen McCreight as well, which has been suitably picked apart over at Jen’s blog.

There’s just nothing about this approach which is a good thing, in any way. It goes beyond dissent, disagreement, dispute, disrespect. It’s a lashing-out which makes some people feel good, and allows them to dismiss any objections, by deciding ahead of time that anyone espousing civility or politeness is being obsessive and over-sensitive. It’s already been determined, beyond any inclination to question further, that indiscriminately calling Rebecca Watson a twat is fine and totally justified, and anyone who suggests otherwise is just obsequiously sucking up to her.

Let’s not keep doing that.

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