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Perhaps it’s not about the Skeptic Schism

Posted by Don McLenaghen on September 8, 2012

I was planning to write about my thoughts on what I saw as the exclusionary nature of A+ when I heard about the self-imposed digital exile of Jen. I think I had a bit of an epiphany. I no longer saw the issue in the narrowly defined bands of skepticism, atheism or even feminism (although those are all involved) but in terms of bullying.

As a member of the LGBT community and someone who was continually the victim of both physical and psychological bullying at school in the late 70s/early 80s…in a time and place where people saw “fags” as unnatural perverts. Where bullying was seen as an opportunity for “character building” …if you were a REAL man you would stand up to your bully and be a better person for it…the reality is shittier than that. But I survived with ‘minimal’ emotional scaring, I guess.

From that perspective I look at what has happened to the Skeptic Movement in a new way. It is almost impossible for someone who has not been subjected to this abuse to understand…it is literally beyond their conception. Bullying is not about points of view, agenda or the ‘future’ of anything. It is only about power and abuse!

Conversely, the victim will often focus on the ‘proximal’ cause (race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) as the “BIG” problem to addressed, missing the fundamental issue – The Bullying. The bully did not act because I was gay…there were lots of people who knew and did not bully. They acted because there are people in our society who wish to hurt…who feed on pain. My identity was only the proximal cause; their identity was the fundamental cause.

Returning to the supposed ‘schism’ in the community; the problem is not how we see ‘atheism’ or skepticism in the future; that is a disagreement in views. The issues articulated by the founders of the schism are not goals but process…not an argument of policy but the way those disagreements are conducted.

The fundamental problem Jen and those subjected to abuse was not whether people agreed or disagreed that skepticism/atheism should focus of social justice or feminism…there is space for debate there. The problem was when these issues were raised some people chose not to debate but to bully; the meeting of logical arguments with violent epithets and threats. Sadly, this is a character of the wider society and skeptics are not immune. Complicating and amplifying this problem is the internet.

One of the mixed blessings of the internet is to give voice to all the “little” crimes of bullying that would have remained isolated (and often unreported). Providing those victims the opportunity to express and share their pain…to find solace and solidarity in a wider community……to find some justice (of a sort) by bringing both the crime and the ‘criminal’ to public attention.

However, it has also provided a (usually anonymous) way for bullies from around the world find new victims. It not only united the victims but also the victimizers. Where in the past a bully was limited to their local community; the digital bully has the entire web-o-sphere to prowl for prey.

There is not a group/forum/community that is ‘online’ that has not been subjected to trolling…members singled out for persecution by this vicious hatred. There are few people who have not, in the heat of an argument with the ‘digital distance’ the web provides articulate a thought that was not in some way hurtful, overly forceful or simply ill-stated.

If the skeptical community adopts the practical actions proposed by some as anti-bullying there may be better purchase by the community as a whole; a greater recognition that it is not the content of the message but how those delivering the message are being treated.

This is where people’s honest difference of opinion about issues surrounding ‘proximal’ causes can muddy the water regarding the fundamental cause. Someone might think “I don’t think feminist point number ‘x’ is important, therefore I can’t see why anyone (pro or con) could get violently upset”. We can forget bullies are not motivated by issues; issues are simply excuses for their vile form of self-gratification.

This explains why I think that A+ (as originally envisioned) will not address this problem because it is NOT fundamentally a problem about the issues but a problem with bullying. If people think that the A+ forms/conferences will not be trolled, they are delusional. If they think that bullying over other issues will not occur, they are too optimistic. It may be libertarians threatening socialist…people who lack a rational argument…people who feel powerful by hurting others…people who confuse fame with infamy will rear their ugly head. Harassment is the symptom, bullying is the disease.

If one looks at some of the rhetoric that some of the ‘supporters’ of the A+ movement has said about those deemed enemies…well, bullying is bullying regardless the cause.

One would think harassment is simple enough, but when we add “sexual’ to that, about half the population sadly cannot (truly) relate…where as everyone of every ilk has at least once in their lives been the victim of bullying. It offers a distance between one’s honest disagreement with an idea and the treatment of the person presenting that idea.

I think this provides a framework for those who fear that other attempts to ‘police’ the behavior of the community will lead to a suppression of ideas…to witch-hunts or inquisitions. Anti-bullying campaigns do not limit the spectrum of debate but only the conduct by which such debate is executed.

Let me give three practical examples (these are distinctions open for debate).

Someone, let’s make it the ‘old white male’, shouts out at a forum at a participant . The intent of this is to bully the speaker into silence. This act would be judged under anti-bullying rules. It is unacceptable and subject to ejection. No one has a right to bully.

Someone, a different “old white male”, is at the bar and tells a ‘joke’ about . Here the intent is to be funny and not to bully. This act should be judged by social norms…it should be brought to his attention that such joke are hurtful and continuation of telling them may lead to social isolation but not “ejection” from the movement. People have a right to be a jerk.

Our last “old white male” is at the forum like our first example. There he expresses that affirmative action is ‘reverse-discrimination’ and we should abandon it. Now, this is out dated thinking and with better education he may learn the error of his judgment; that said he is entitled to his views and should not be shunned from the community. We all have a right to our opinions, provided our expression of them does not harm others.

The whole point of skepticism is to education; how can that be done if we only accept into our movement people who already agree with our views 100%. That is why I was against the ‘splintering’ action of A+ while support the ‘practical actions’ for the skeptical movement and the need to think about where skepticism will be in the future.


One Response to “Perhaps it’s not about the Skeptic Schism”

  1. Ian said

    I never mentioned Don that I really appreciated this take. Good job.

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