Note: Minor tweaks have been made to this post for clarity.
I’ve been working on this post for quite a while, thinking it ought to be as close to perfect as I can make it. Perfect is unattainable. So, since I mentioned this here without naming names (bad form), I’ll take a page from Debbie Goddard’s playbook and some heart from the fact that Ms. Magazine just tweeted one of my posts, jump in, and finish the thing.
I first noticed the problem in DJ Grothe’s behavior in April, when Rebecca Watson posted about Lawrence Krauss defending his friend who had pled guilty to sex with 30 underage prostitutes, some as young as 13, and invoking his authority as a scientist to do so. Grothe popped up in the comments to defend Krauss:
I think I see where Krauss is coming from here.
I don’t know the first thing about the Jeffrey Epstein situation, but I think in general that:
1) age of consent laws should be looked at more skeptically,
2) prostitution is not necessarily a bad thing, and
Age 13 is below the age of consent in my book, but 16 or 17 isn’t necessarily so. But I don’t read Krauss as in any way defending sex with a 13 or 14 year old girl.
After Rebecca pointed out that she had provided enough information to make a decision based on the facts of the case and other commenters expressed serious reservations, DJ rethought his comment:
I wasn’t thinking about it in terms of exploitation, which is clearly important. I stand by my view that laws regarding age of consent and prostitution, and the ways these laws are applied, should probably be looked at more skeptically. But that comment was ill-timed. I understand how, in the context of the other comments, it may have looked like I was trying to dismiss the harm done by sex trafficking. I wish it had been obvious that that wasn’t my intent at all, and I sincerely regret that it came across that way.
At this point, DJ had already been president of the JREF for more than a year. As one commenter noted:
If this is the attitude of the leadership of this movement, we’re never going to get anywhere. I can think of no better way to ensure that the “skeptics movement” remains white, male, and old.
I ran into DJ doing something similar when Bug Girl and I countered some evolutionary psychology claptrap on the subject of “rape adaptations” and suggested that CFI Michigan shouldn’t promote a talk like that uncritically, as it’s the sort of thing that requires some specialized knowledge on the topic to criticize effectively. I did so, then followed up on misconceptions demonstrated in comments. Bug Girl’s post contained a significant amount about the history of the field. Feel free to judge for yourself how much of those posts is knowledge that would be available to anyone who doesn’t specifically study rape or insect mating strategies.
CFI leadership’s response was less than stellar. It involved, among other things, a Facebook post saying we were behaving “like thought police.” This included references to “ideological purity,” and ended thus:
I assumed the bloggers were overreacting because of an honest mistake…they believed our group had invited Shakelford and was actively endorsing his views. I’m still hoping thats the case. I have a lot of respect for both Bug Girl and Watson. But saddly even after the true nature of the situation had been explained, Skepchick.org did not correct their attack and the author of Almost Diamonds made her position crystal clear: It doesn’t matter because your members are not informed enough to think skeptically about this subject. In other words…this viewpoint is too dangerous to be heard. How paternalistic and unfitting for a skeptic (I’d like to add several of our mebers are psych Phd’s and evolutionary biologists and would be more qualified than any of these blogers to deliver a smackdown). CFI has been taking a lot of flac lately. Arguably some of it may be deserved…but not this. Its the kind of silly over reaction we skeptics so quickly criticise others for.
Yes, the requirement for expertise was equated with paternalism, the authority of a PhD in any psychology field was considered more important than a specialty knowledge of rape, and Bug Girl was relegated to “blogger.” She happens to be an evolutionary biologist herself.
There was then a comment on this post, which had stressed that CFI didn’t endorse Shackleford:
Center for Inquiry – Michigan
The comment included this: “We respect and value Dr. Shackelford and his work, and his role as a faculty adviser to the Atheists at Oakland University student group.” In other words, the organization that didn’t endorse Shackleton’s work had just endorsed his work.
Both the post and the comment were “liked” by Grothe. I can’t tell you whether he read the posts involved before endorsing his friends’ defensive characterizations of them. He was still the head of the JREF when he made those endorsements. I got nods when I said I would go back to TAM only when they invited me to speak.
Most recently, I ran into DJ Grothe in the comments of a #mencallmethings post by Greta Christina. DJ took Greta to task for taking the following words (not by DJ–by someone I shall call “the yutz” rather than invoke him) “out of context.”
Fuck you Greta. You’re the troll. You posted for the sole reason of trying to bait a sexist into writing something threatening. You didn’t find one, but I dared to disagree with you, so you and your brainless followers thought ‘eh, fuck it, close enough. We’ll attack him instead.’ You’ve been capitalizing on this for months and perpetuating vicious stereotypes about both men and women, under the guise of ‘feminism’. I used to think you had something to contribute. Now I see you’re just a pathetic attention seeker who isn’t interested in anything other than stirring up shit.
Let’s provide that context, shall we? On Facebook, Greta posted Rebecca Watson’s Skepticon talk with a compliment about her speaking style. The very first comment was “yeah but she’s also a humorless feminazi who gets her jollies emasculating atheist men.” It was not ironic. Greta’s blocking of the commenter was compared by someone who is either “Franc Hoggle” or a fan with a similar fetish to the tactics of the religious right. To clarify, this is Greta’s personal page.
Shortly thereafter, Greta posted a new status:
So apparently, if you want your comment thread to draw hostile, entitled, misogynist trolling, all you have to do is say the words, “Rebecca Watson.” It’s like magic! Horrible, stupid magic.
Ten minutes later, the “out of context” yutz in question (again, not DJ) commented that “I think Rebecca was wrong. I don’t need to be a troll to disagree with her.” Not very much later in the thread he hoped “the skeptic community – EVENTUALLY – moves past this fiasco and actually gets around to discussing real issues related to sex and gender.” Real issues, not like those fake issues that came out of the treatment of Rebecca and others over “Elevatorgate.” Not like calling her a “humorless feminazi who gets her jollies emasculating atheist men” with no more provocation than seeing her video posted. Those aren’t “real issues” of sex and gender.
There was quite a bit more back and forth, including Greta pointing out that this guy was engaging in what she would later term the “yes, but” response to misogyny, the response in which whatever you want to talk about is so much more important than misogyny. There was also some paraphrasing that he insisted was misquoting, even after Greta clarified. Eventually, she posted a new status:
The magic works! Wow. Let me try again. Apparently, if you want your comment thread to draw a million dollars, a bathtub full of chocolate, and a pony, all you have to do is say the words, “Rebecca Watson.” It’s like magic!
This is where the “out of context” comment she quoted came from. The entirety of the comment (once more, by the yutz, not by DJ):
The magic worked? So now you’re accusing me of “hostile, entitled, misogynist trolling”? Like the kind you claimed you were trying to address, which included death and rape threats?
Fuck you Greta. You’re the troll. You posted for the sole reason of trying to bait a sexist into writing something threatening. You didn’t find one, but I dared to disagree with you, so you and your brainless followers thought “eh, fuck it, close enough. We’ll attack him instead.” You’ve been capitalizing on this for months and perpetuating vicious stereotypes about both men and women, under the guise of “feminism”. I used to think you had something to contribute. Now I see you’re just a pathetic attention seeker who isn’t interested in anything other than stirring up shit.
That’s the context Grothe was so concerned that Greta was leaving out. Changes the meaning greatly, huh? Or perhaps not at all. That somehow justified Grothe’s accusations of “unduly fomenting controversies” to drive traffic and suggesting that the yutz was a victim of “strong in-group/out-group biases.” Grothe suggested Greta was “bullying” the yutz by banning him on her blog as well as Facebook for the comments above:
If so, that seems to me like sort of bullying move. Like I said, I winced when he stated rather matter of factly that one can disagree without being a “misogynistic troll.” This is precisely why: such disagreements, especially as they escalate among partisans in a comment thread, can get one tarred and feathered by the personality driving the controversy, or by her or his loyalists. Wiser people than me just avoid such discussions as being far too risky, and too prone to divisive “us vs them” thinking.
Yes, these things just escalate on their own, don’t they, DJ? It isn’t ever because someone can’t leave a personal disagreement aside long enough to actually discuss migogyny. It isn’t because they deny that harassing and threatening behavior constitutes “real issues” of sex and gender. It isn’t because they can’t recognize something as “hostile, entitled, misogynist trolling” unless it contains “death and rape threats.” No, this is just going to happen any time any innocent individual clashes with “certain bloggers.” It’s automatic.
Or maybe not. The following are screen captures I took from the Facebook profile of the person in question.
Maybe…now I know this is a long shot, but just maybe Greta, despite going in for controversy, managed to correctly identify someone prone to irrational behavior, overt hostility, paranoia, and, gee, misogyny. And–again going out on a limb–maybe that person isn’t someone you want working themselves up into a lather through continuing direct confrontation on your blog.
In other words, maybe that “controversial” blogger was carefully getting her facts right. Maybe she did that the same way Bug Girl and I did, the way Rebecca did. Maybe we were all actually pointing to real problems, problems Grothe might understand a little better if he read more of those atheist blogs he disdains. Maybe these problems are things that require some background, some homework which we’d already done and Grothe simply didn’t before reacting. Maybe they even require some critical thinking about people Grothe is friendly or identifies with.
And maybe Grothe should consider the fact that he still heads the JREF, because this most recent incident was the first time I heard several people say they weren’t sure they wanted to speak again at TAM while he was in charge. Yes, DJ Grothe has a problem, an ongoing problem with a pattern, and that problem is him.