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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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Woohoo! Still good to go. =)

Peer pressure works wonders too =)

That it does.

Not a derailment. Useful discussion. The only way to know is: the Internetz! What I mean is that there are innumerable blogs out there of guys (and women) who were sexist, even misogynistic, as well as racist, etc., they thought themselves as "nice guys", they even felt they were victims, that women or gays or blacks had in reality, special privileges (ha!), etc., and then they figured out that they were not nice guys at all. they were caught up in a delusion of seeing themselves as nice people when their behavior (and thought process) said otherwise. 

We all have had positions in our youth which we now disavow; it's called "growing up". For example when I was a teenager, I thought i was not prejudiced, yet when someone called me a "dike" I reacted as if that was insulting, and I tried to make it very clear than I only liked boys. My attitude now would be different. I'd make sure the person using the homophobic slur understood that it was his prejudice showing, and that I couldn't care less who she or he thought I like to sleep with. 

When I had family over for dinner, two who were educators, I told a story about my actions in high school. My class was the largest going through the system at the time and we had to share lockers. My sophomore year, the second day, I tossed all the crap in the locker that wasn't mine onto the floor and kicked it down the hallway. Had my own locker for the next three years. 

Worked for me. 

They all looked at me like I was crazy, and Jo commented that that's why I think the "bullying" issue goes too far at times, because I was one of them.

How enlightening and sorrowful that thought is.

You have to see the positive side of the story: 1) now you would be the one kicking the bully's ass. 2) you're lucky that you locker space mate was not Nails :-)

I was a bad young man in a harsh blue collar area. Nails and I would have had fun. =)

In some respects it is the environment that shapes us some. South side of Chicago hasn't been a friendly place in a long damn time. Yet, when I made it out of there and into a profession that used mind over muscle, things did change; but those roots still come out every so often. 

This is understandable. It's a great reminder of how much our environment shapes us, whether we like it or not. We can do so much for kids and young people by fostering a positive environment in many respects. But unfortunately, that is the role of public services, the role of the government, of the whole society, not just of the parents or immediate family. And right now, our House of Reps wants to destroy the role of the government on public life as much as possible. Short-sighted individualism. 

Chicago Westside. 21 yrs of education, last two at Yale Law School, still have the Chicago swagger and attitude. Can't get rid of it easily - maybe not at all. It's worn as a protective device. The punks can figure you out, and it's a lot safer.

I do like the "principal of charity" thought though. Would make communication easier.

One of my favorite principles. Very, very hard to apply with people we already dislike. Only very few people can do this, but it's well worth the try. One should try it too with reasonable religious people. Try to understand where they're coming from. 

Interesting conversation. I think if we just called ourselves humanists, there will be no need for labels which necessarily end up in disagreements such as this


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