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The conflict in the skeptical/atheist communities: going forward

Kudos for Steve Novella who is acting as a mediator and a voice of reason. And I'm so encouraged by Harriet Hall and Amy Davis Roth's letters to each other! They are a show of great maturity, and neither has problems issuing true apologies and they are both secure enough to admit that their behavior was wrong. Hopefully this rapprochement will lead to an end to the online harassment that many atheists have been suffering, at the hands of other atheists.

(highlighting in bold is mine)


by STEVEN NOVELLA, Feb 25 2013

As movements grow, internal conflict becomes inevitable. A movement dedicated to reason, thoughtful introspection, and putting logic above emotion, one would think, should be able to deal with such conflict in a constructive way. If the events of the last couple of years have taught us anything, however, it is that we are all still biased and flawed humans, despite our striving for reason.

There is, perhaps, some sign of a light at the end of the tunnel, if you bear with me for a bit more preamble.

I have not been a direct participant in the recent drama over sexism in the movement, but I have had a front row seat. It has struck me throughout that many of the people involved, steeped in critical thinking, firmly believe they are correct and are being reasonable and yet are in such heated conflict with other critical thinkers who also believe they are correct and being reasonable.

There are, it seems to me, three general sources of this conflict. One is sincere and real ideological differences. If you read the recent exchange between Harriet Hall on SBM and Will on Skepchick, and a sample of the comments to each, these differences become apparent. Where exactly to draw the line between free speech and the avoidance of offense is one recurrent theme. Still, this by itself should not be enough to cause such a rift, for our common ground dwarfs these differences.

A second source of conflict are those who have chosen cyberstalking and daily harassment as their chosen mechanism of activism. Rape threats, threats of violence, sexually charged and grossly offensive language have no place in this discussion, but have infiltrated our community. The result has been to raise the level of emotion and defensiveness and pushing all sides toward the more radical extreme. This is, unfortunately, part of the new social media world we have created. We have to find ways to marginalize and ignore these elements, and not confuse them for those who have reasonable and friendly disagreements.

The third source of conflict seems to be avoidable misunderstandings on all sides. This is something we can fix, with a few helpful rules of conduct and more open communication.

Ray Hyman wrote an excellent article for CSI in 2001 called Proper Criticism, containing 8 rules that skeptics would do well to consider when criticizing pseudoscience. We should at least grant each other the same courtesy.

One particularly relevant rule is the principle of charity – one that I have advocated many times myself. Before you set out to criticize someone’s claim or position, you should endeavor to grant that position its best possible case. Don’t assume the worst about your opponent, assume the best. Give them any benefit of the doubt. At the very least this will avoid creating a straw man to attack, or opening yourself up to charges that you are being unfair.

Hyman added to this the principle of understanding – make every effort to truly understand your opponent’s position before attacking it.

It seems to me that in our current conflicts these principles have not been adequately appreciated, leading to unnecessary misunderstand, and fueling further conflict. One such series of unfortunate events emerged out of TAM 2012, when Harriet Hall wore a T-shirt expressing her support for the JREF and her personal approach to her own feminism. This was interpreted as an attack against the Skepchicks, and ugliness ensued.

Both Harriet Hall and Amy Davis Roth (who was at TAM and became embroiled in the T-shirt hubbub) had spoken to me about their feelings on the matter, and so I was able to assure both of them that a direct communication would likely resolve the misunderstanding. They both enthusiastically agreed, wanting nothing more than to see the beginning of the end of this feud. Below are the e-mail exchanges that resulted, which they both wished to be reproduced here.

Read the letters here.

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Probably not going to change the debate that much. Women can agree about gender equality and possibly feminism, but I would bet that many men will not see this in that great of a light. In fact, I bet the letter will have the opposite effect. More ammo for the misogynists.

I don't think the hard-core misogynists will be swayed by any of this, but I think that a lot of normal, reasonable people who were put off by all the vitriol will now feel that they can get involved in the community without having to "take sides" or to participate in infighting.

A lot of men that are misogynists don't actually know they are. I'm betting that there's a proportion of them that will not necessarily rise barricades to defend that position, once exposed to the notion they are.

This is absolutely true. I also know people who are racist or homophobic and are not aware, but these people are not the "hard-core" ones; these are people who simply have not questioned themselves much, but when their prejudices are pointed out to them, they can see why people thought of them as prejudiced. Many change completely. Fortunately.

Well, we know how easily drama can ensue from lack of questioning.

Slight derailment; how can we know?

Though I take a stand against bullying, my actions in life still make me one.

I have never thought of myself as one, yet when I tell stories about my youth, it would definitely put me in that category, even if the reason for my actions were not meant to harm others, but to keep, (what I thought at the time), myself safe.

I wonder if a misogynist can be caught up in a delusion or situation where he thinks he is not harming anyone. 

Rambling thought of the morning.

How can we know? By being asked, told, shown, and perhaps offered alternative positions?

Only if you have a mentor. =)

Happily, I seem to have a few here that keep me in line. =)

Ah! Mentors are VERY important. And of course, the principle of charity needs to be applied. We will convince more people by speaking softly (but firmly) than by shouting or making people feel stupid.

But, but; I'm really good at shouting and people, mostly, are pretty damn stupid.

Good atheist/bad atheist is still a valid strategy IMO =)

There are times when shouting or ridiculing is granted. We will call you then ;-) (LOL)


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