With Relatively Little Power…


“Witch hunt”.

“Talibanesque”.

“Feminazi”.

“Femistazi”.

“Totalitarian”.

“McCarthy-ist”.

With each one, I’ve been looking at the disproportionality of the response. I talk about the consequences of someone’s behavior, and I get compared to the great villains of the 20th and 21st centuries. It’s always seemed like overkill.

Then I noticed that Michael Shermer has invoked Niemoller against me.

To date, I have stayed out of this witch hunt against our most prominent leaders, thinking that “this too shall pass.” Perhaps I should have said something earlier. As Martin Niemoller famously warned about the inactivity of German intellectuals during the rise of the Nazi party, “first they came for…” but “I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a…”

That was when it clicked. This isn’t overkill per se. It’s horrendously bad argumentation.

To quote someone whose words have likely been repeated more frequently than Niemoller’s and likely with more understanding:

With great power comes great responsibility.

No, that’s not Uncle Ben, at least not ultimately. That’s Voltaire, talking (apparently) about French politicians.

Politicians. Government.

Look at that list of characterizations again. Six terms, four of them explicitly relating to governmentss. The other two relate to religious power, particularly in times and places where religion actively and effectively compete(d) with the state for control.

Control. Power.

We’re not talking about happy democracies with power-sharing strategies either. What happened to opponents of the powers listed above? They had their livelihoods taken away. They were locked up and forced into labor. They died. They were killed.

That’s the kind of power Michael Shermer and others and who have used those terms claim for me. It seemed bizarre until I realized that this was an argument about how I’m supposed to behave if I want to be allowed to continue in these movements.

You see, I’m supposed to be circumspect to the point of sitting on my hands when we talk about rules that could ever be misinterpreted or misused in any way–despite the fact that the lack of rules has been badly abused. I’m supposed to settle any difference I have with a public figure with closed-door diplomacy–despite the fact that they speak about me, individually or as part of a group, from stages and in magazines that function as the mouthpieces of organizations. I am ever supposed to hold my temper–despite the people who take to the airwaves to yell about me.

I’m being told I should act, not as though I were submissive, but as though I held all the power in the world.

Just a note: It isn’t going to happen. If you want me to behave as though everything and everyone trembled in response to my whims, you’re going to have to give me the unassailable power to make that happen. Then you’d have to convince me to take it. Frankly, I don’t think anyone is offering.

That isn’t to say I have no responsibility. I do have some power. Any piece I write here may (no guarantee) be read by thousands of people. Some smaller number of those people trust me enough that they don’t click on links. Another subset relies on me to articulate their positions. I have a responsibility to get things right.

I have a greater responsibility to accurately represent any person I write or talk about, even if my audience is small. That’s a direct responsibility, though it too scales with power. No one will go knocking on the door of someone because I get something wrong. I still work to get it right.

Of course, the people with more readers, listeners, viewers, and constituents have an even greater responsibility on these scores. The people who have a crowd of fans ready to harass (no, not criticize, not disagree with–harass) have a heightened responsibility to be accurate when they speak about me. They have power, even if it isn’t power they asked for, especially when it is power they haven’t tried to undermine by, say, telling people that the currently ongoing harassment is unacceptable.

My power, however, is quite limited, and any argument that relies on the idea that I have more than I do is flawed. If you can’t explain how and why I’m awful without assigning me the massive political power I obviously don’t have, I don’t see your point. At that point, the most I am is persuasive. And if a best-selling author can’t develop a more persuasive counter-argument than “You should act like you’re a government”, nobody’s shaken my confidence in my own argument.

Photo of pillory against a brick wall.

The sort of thing we reserve for private individuals.

As I write this, Shermer’s full article has been placed online. “Inquisition” is added to the list at the start of this post. He invokes, as others have before, the concept of “innocent until proven guilty”, which is a check on governmental powers of prosecution. Similarly, I apparently have recourse to have someone “pilloried”.

All Shermer’s article tells me is that, if I were someone other than who I am, if I had power I do not have, I should behave differently than I do. It contains not one single statement about why I, a single, private individual, should not point out that his behavior has consequences for the participation of women in the atheist and skeptical movements. It gives no reasons why other individuals should not agree with me or why any of us should not express any emotion invoked by those consequences.

It contains not one argument relevant to the circumstances in which any of the criticisms he lists were made. It has a lot to say about governmental power, and it lists a bunch of things Shermer doesn’t like. It makes no effort to explain the connection between the two.

Should those in the government, de jure or de facto, limit their behavior? Absolutely. So what?

I am not the government. Using words that claim I am does nothing to make me rethink my behavior. It only makes me wonder whether you have any valid argument at all. This one didn’t cut it.

Image Credit: “The Pillory – Clink Museum” by Frankie Roberto. Some rights reserved.

Comments

  1. says

    Maybe it is an irrational fear on Shermer’s part that ANY power exerted against him will somehow curtail his freedom… to which I would respond that maybe he should question the ways he’s using his freedom, if mere criticism is such a threat to him.

  2. Simon says

    Here’s more info on the Niemoller quote: http://www.history.ucsb.edu/faculty/marcuse/niem.htm

    Depending on which version of the quote you use (there are many variations circulating), he said something to the effect of

    “first they came for the… and then the…”

    where he apparently included: Communists, trade unions, Social Democrats, Jews, and other groups to show a steady progression of escalating attacks by the Nazis on various groups.

    If Shermer really wants to pursue the Niemoller analogy…who exactly does he think the “Inquisition” is going after? Men? Skeptics? Male Skeptics? Famous Male Skeptics?

    I should also point out that any analogy to the Nazis doesn’t necessarily need to be about their time in government. The Nazi storm troopers (which preceded the SS during the rise in Nazi popularity before 1933) were nasty thugs in their own right.

  3. says

    Simon:

    My view is that no one should ever ever ever use the phrase “came for” in proximity to the Nazis unless there’s actually someone “coming for” other people in a literal way. No one has been as rude to Shermer as I’m about to be, but even if everyone was saying that Michael Shermer likes to hump a pillow with the Gerber baby’s face on it while breaking the necks of squirrels with one hand while donating cash to the KKK with the other… STILL no one is “coming for him.”

  4. Wowbagger, Antipodean Dervish says

    It’s really becoming clear that too many atheists only know how to argue against believers who are part of a sociocultural majority – e.g. Christians in the US or Muslims in the Middle East. Anything outside of that scope and they’re lost – as illustrated by the complete rhetorical failure of Shermer’s response.

    The term, I believe, is ‘one-trick pony’.

  5. says

    I just don’t understand these ridiculously over-the-top responses to relatively mild criticisms. It’s like that cartoon gag–“Oh, it hurts so much! Stop it! Oh, the pain, the pain of it all!” “But I haven’t started yet.”

    Is this the way that respected skeptics respond to criticism? You prod at them once, in passing, and they howl about inquisitions and McCarthy and fascism? How are we supposed to take such behavior seriously? How would they respond to more robust critique?

    I mean, what about that story of the scientist who thanked the guy who disproved his theory, the one that’s always trotted out to demonstrate the scientific virtue of reexamining even deeply-held, deeply personal beliefs in light of new information? Did that story omit the three-page response where said learned professor called his usurper a Nazi?

    Or should we realize that skeptics and scientists can fall short of their ideals just like anyone else? And if so, why can’t our skeptical luminaries realize that too?

  6. says

    That’s some damn fine writing, Stephanie. This whole post needs to be held up anytime someone pulls this stunt.

    Shermer should know what he’s doing. He’s been a writer for ages. This is either deliberate chilling of discussion to whip up “his side” or he’s panicking.

  7. says

    I’m not going to yell it out again, but by now I actually hate Michael Shermer and yes I said that. That guy has so little respect for the actuall suffering, pain and horror that happened to other people that he loses all respect that I usually even give as default.
    He is a horrible person.
    Yes, I said that, too.
    Note that I didn’t say anything about arresting him, torturing him or killing him. Like, you know, Nazis.

    I also think we broke the website…

  8. frogmistress says

    Yes, and we have the power to purge Richard Dawkins from the movement. And that is what we are doing! *sigh*

    Please tell me why it is that we are always the ones being cautioned about overreaction?

  9. A Hermit says

    Shermer’s article…contains not one single statement about why I, a single, private individual, should not point out that his behavior has consequences for the participation of women in the atheist and skeptical movements.

    QFT

    Also have to echo GIliell’s point; comparing something as trivial as minor criticism or disagreement to Nazi oppression or witch hunts or the Inquisition is not just an over-reaction and an insult to the person being smeared with that comparison, it is a slap in the face to the millions who of real victims who suffered and died at the hands of those regimes. Shermer is making light of the most unimaginable atrocities.

    In the face of that kind of pig-ignorance any respect I had for Shermer is rapidly evaporating…

  10. says

    Is this the way that respected skeptics respond to criticism? You prod at them once, in passing, and they howl about inquisitions and McCarthy and fascism?

    No, but it’s exactly how I’d expect a libertarian to respond to criticism.

  11. doubtthat says

    This is fucking stupid. Democrats are allowed to say, “President Obama, what’s the deal with these drones.” Republicans are free to say, “Hey, we’re going to primary your ass because you seem to be slightly sympathetic to female autonomy.” The Nazi analogy fits much better with the people trying to shut down dissent.

    Hell, “They” may never have been “they” if there was more internal criticism. Rolling over when people in your “movement” say stupid, troubling, incorrect things is not only the exact opposite of what skeptic should be about, but it’s been historically…problematic.

  12. F [nucular nyandrothol] says

    Yup, you are correct.

    This, being the second or third time I’ve seen the Niemoller reference quoted, I also have to say that Shermer has the dynamic exactly backward. The power, the threat, the consequences, these are all in positions opposite to those in which Shermer places them in his rants, just like other popular oppressed-majority martyrs are wont to do.

  13. D. C. Sessions says

    As long as we’re trotting out analogies and historical references, may I bring in the boy who cried wolf?

    More to the point, I find it most interesting that the response to rather mild criticism (without threats) is to divert from the merits of the case to arguing about “help, I’m being repressed.”

    Someone is trying to close discussion on the merits. From the outside, it doesn’t seem to be one S. Zvan.

  14. says

    What’s next, the Comfy Chair and poking with the Soft Pillows?

    =====
    iJoe

    Maybe it is an irrational fear on Shermer’s part that ANY power exerted against him will somehow curtail his freedom… to which I would respond that maybe he should question the ways he’s using his freedom, if mere criticism is such a threat to him.

    That’s a brilliant insight, man.

    No one has been as rude to Shermer as I’m about to be, but even if everyone was saying that Michael Shermer likes to hump a pillow with the Gerber baby’s face on it while breaking the necks of squirrels with one hand while donating cash to the KKK with the other… STILL no one is “coming for him.”

    This bit made me laugh.

  15. says

    Ben Zvan:

    No, but it’s exactly how I’d expect a libertarian to respond to criticism.

    Is it any wonder why I persistently imagine libertarians as children? The whole philosophy, bottom to top, is rooted in this middle school simplistic, self-centered view of the world.

  16. Johnny Vector says

    In a previous post, someone asked if Shermer was a global warming denialist too. So I checked, and yes, he used to be. I read the entirety of the column in which he said he had been convinced that global warming was real. I was singularly unimpressed. It read like the rantings of a self-important blowhard, not a skeptical freethinker. I’ve never read him before, but after reading that column alone he’s in my “do not bother with” column. His response to Stephanie’s post is, in light of that, wholly unsurprising. He’s not a rational skeptic, he’s an egotistical fop. What a dick (and I use the gendered insult deliberately).

  17. freemage says

    Stephanie, all I can really say here is this:

    It’s a sign we’re winning.

    These overblown, histrionic responses–the claims of purges, of oustings, of Nazi analogues–all of them stem from that one thing. Roll back the clock twenty, thirty years, and Shermer probably would’ve just given a derisive little chuckle and sneer, and gone on with his work without even responding–after all, it’s not like he’d have to make a real response to a claim leveled by one of the ladies, right?

    But these atavistic throwbacks have learned that yes, they can be held accountable. Yes, the accusation of sexism and sexist language will have an effect on them–on their reputation and their standing in the community. And so they must respond. But since there is no effective way to deny the literal interpretation of their comments, and there’s no way they can bring themselves to apologize, they are left with nothing but one logical fallacy and overwrought appeal to emotion after another, a gish gallop that would do any Creationist proud.

    It’s still going to be a long, hard road. But we are winning.

  18. says

    @Tom Foss

    Self-centered children is about right for most libertarians. I understand the concept of “taking something without my permission is theft” which is what they use to justify…pretty much everything…but we have a representative government which we’ve empowered to grant or revoke our permission on everything. So it’s moot.

  19. says

    Why do the people falsely complaining about purges then go on to provide evidence that such a purge might actually be reasonable?

    Yep, I said it.

    Not only counting bigots, but even just run-of the mill self-appointed, brought their own ladder to climb onto the pedestal, leadership puts money in my pocket, need to sell more books kind of spokespeople?

    What good are people who spend as much time kicking the foundation blocks out from under their own argument as they do constructing it?

    With atheists like these, who needs theocrats?

    Graduates of the Wayne LaPierre School of Damage Control.

  20. yiela says

    I’m not a practiced commenter and I want to apologize for the clumsy attempt I’m about to make here. I’m not sure where I’m even going with this but I’ve wanted to try and say something. I endeavor to hear criticism honestly and hope someone will bother.
    When I read Shermer saying these things that sound more like something Rush Limbough would say, it’s hard for me to understand. It’s disappointing. Being a woman, feminist and atheist it feels a bit personal too. I see that people I identify with (feminist atheists) have gotten over the top social sanctioning for making minor criticisms that seem pretty true to me. Having been bullied throughout high school this controversy feels a lot like example making for the benefit of people like me. This is a harsh and nasty thing for a person without much of an in-group. It’s not like there are a lot of feminist atheists for me to hang out with, none I know in the meat world other than my sister and my daughter. I am reminded of the how my small group of free thinker friends, all guys, treated me in high school. They liked having me because I was an actual girl but they reminded me often that I wasn’t as smart as they were. Hmm. Wonder what they are like now?
    Anyway, I’m going to try and tie in this personal dumb story that the list of terms in the post reminded me of. A few years ago I decided to use myself for an experiment. I didn’t understand the appeal of being a raging, ranting bigot. It sounded awful to me even though I knew people who seemed to enjoy it. Could I feel like that? Was I too good of a person to enjoy something so wrong? So, I decided to embrace some already mildly bigoted feelings I had about a local privileged ethnic group in my local area of which I am not a part and who I had a lot of exposure to from my job. They were long established, successful in business and local government and tended to be conservative christians. They had a strong sense of culture and were just a bit cliquish. There are local jokes poking fun at this group and I consciously started telling these jokes a lot and commenting on local events and gossip that I felt supported my feelings. I found that other people I knew agreed with me and when they heard these comments they knew we agreed and we’d laugh and tell stories about these people. Oooh, it was fun. I found myself saying some pretty ugly things and even using a few of the standard bigot terms even though I truly did have many friends in this group and really didn’t hate them. One day I was talking to a total bigot guy I knew but never used to get along with (oh ya, he was in this free thinker kind of group I was in in high school but now he was a christian and libertarian). We were bagging on this ethnic group of my my choice and having a great time and when we ran out of jokes he started in on another ethnic group. Suddenly, my experiment was over. Like I say, I’m not sure where I’m going with this other than I guess it’s pretty easy to fall into this behavior. Not an excuse for Shermer but a reason to address it openly, firmly and forever.

  21. says

    @ Jafafa Hots

    Why do the people falsely complaining about purges then go on to provide evidence that such a purge might actually be reasonable?

    Yep, I said it.

    Oh, I’ve hit the point where I fantasize about having the power for a purge. Or, at least, having enough people in the “Atheist +” group (whatever people call themselves) that we can have our own conventions, events, magazines, organizations, and internet communities, and just ban the misogynistic brats. They can watch their “mainstream” conventions and organizations dwindle to the fifty or so people who want to sit around and talk about bigfoot and how much feminists suck. We’d finally have the time and energy to devote to serious skeptical work, once we didn’t have to stop and deal with debunking MRA bullshit every three minutes, or hold Yet Another Feminism 101 conversation.

    You know, I almost wrote: “What if there was a prominent atheist speaker who wrote racist articles or books, or launched into bigoted tirades on twitter complete with racial slurs, or doubled down and wouldn’t apologize for a nasty, off-the-cuff racist remark in a speech? That wouldn’t be accepted!” And then I remembered: oh, yeah. Christopher Hitchens. Sam Harris. Many more that I’m sure I’m not aware of because I don’t pay enough attention to the problem. So that’s a really terrible and insensitive analogy. There are some serious problems that need to be dealt with in the atheist community, and I need to remember that while the feminist issues may be what I’m seeing right now, it is not All About Me, and I certainly don’t want to become the people I hate.

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