Two days ago, shortly after I asked 18 questions of him in a post, Justin Vacula promised me answers. All of the answers.
Late that night, he produced an eight-minute video. That seemed awfully short to provide advice in response to that many questions, as well as being a highly inefficient way to deliver information when text was available. Well, as it turned out, the video wasn’t about answering the questions I’d asked. (This is not terribly surprising, as non sequiturs seem to be Vacula’s stock in trade, from his very first appearance on this blog.)
Vacula appears to have no interest in answering my questions, so I guess I’m just stuck continuing to point out the ways in which his self-serving “argument” doesn’t hang together. Let’s go through the video, shall we?
The first minute or so is just introduction:
Hi, Justin Vacula here, recording a YouTube video in response to [image of a comment by Melody Hensley on Center for Inquiry's blog] Stephanie Zvan’s blogpost February 26, 2013, titled “Think About the Consequences!”. Stephanie Zvan responds to some advice that I provided for people who face criticism and hate on the internet. I wrote:
Do not directly or indirectly engage with dissenters.
Avoid commenting on websites of your ideological opponents.
Refrain from attacking individuals; stick to criticism of ideas rather than persons.
Consider how people might respond to what you write. Can something be reframed so as to not lead to undesirable criticism?
Avoid sharing content when experiencing heightened emotions (great anger, disgust, stress, etc)
Consider sharing something with friends before it becomes public. A second (or third) set of eyes might suggest helpful edits which would avoid negative feedback.
[image of a different comment by Melody Hensley on Center for Inquiry's blog] Steven Novella agreed with this and said, “Your specific recommendations at the end of your last comment are all reasonable.”
Stephanie Zvan does not like what I had to say. She authored a blog post here, and she talks about [dismissive tone] harassment that some people face. She says she faces harassment on the internets [sic] and claims that Novella says I am minimizing and mischaracterizing the situation.
Well, no. Actually I linked to the comment in which Novella told Vacula this. But hey, I can quote it too, for people who don’t follow links.
justin – “less than charitable feedback” does not begin to cover it. Please Google “Rebecca Watson” and see what you find. Really try to imagine that you were the target of such attacks. Do you imagine that any online activist, blogger, etc. could stand up to this level of obsessive negative scrutiny?
Vacula then goes on to do more of the same in his video:
The situation which is Stephanie Zvan and friends experiencing negative…negative pushback on the internet, [image of a different comment by Melody Hensley on Center for Inquiry's blog] which is people commenting on Twitter, blogs–some of them saying nasty things admittedly. She considers it cyberstalking and harassment.
Well, it’s really besides [sic] the point of this YouTube video, and I’ve addressed this before.
Funny thing, every time Vacula addresses this, he leaves things out. Important things. Things like what the cyberstalking parts of this behavior actually entail. He leaves out the part where people went through my old comments on Greg Laden’s Blog to quote them out of context. He leaves out the bit where people dug through the Google search results on me until they found the one that listed my employer and posted that information in the slime pit (without anyone complaining that I’d been doxed, naturally). He leaves out the part where people dug up pictures others had posted of me online to make their cute little Photoshopped “satire”. He leaves out the part where the pitter have explicitly endorsed a policy of showing up when we are mentioned in spaces we don’t control or that are unmoderated in order to talk about the horrible things they claim we’ve done. He certainly leaves out that he’s taken part in that kind of swarming more than once himself.
And Stephanie Zvan writes:
I’m not sure what I would have done in his position. [sic]
Again, no. I said, “I’m not sure that I wouldn’t have done the same in his position.”
…referring to Steve Novella. She continues:
It generally sounds reasonable until you realize that half of those amount to [Valley Girl accent] “Stop talking” and the rest–given as advice–assume facts not in evidence.
I’m not really sure what she means by that.
That might be because, as far as I can tell, this is where Vacula stopped reading my post. The rest of that paragraph said:
For example, one of the strengths of Skepchick is that multiple authors means multiple eyes on a piece before it’s published. Telling someone who already does that to do that is very much like just telling someone who disagrees with you to “Think about what you’re saying.”
In case Vacula did read that and simply did not understand it, here’s what it means. In the particular example I gave, Vacula is advising Rebecca and Amy, who write for Skepchick and already have multiple eyes on their writing, to “Consider sharing something with friends before it becomes public.” Just as someone may still disagree with you after they’ve thought through their position, people may well (and, it seems, frequently do) post things Vacula doesn’t like with the benefit of advice from several people. I certainly have.
[image of a comment by EllenBeth Wachs on Center for Inquiry's blog] My recommendations here, for people who face criticism and hate to reduce the criticism and hate, are very reasonable things people can do. It’s what Karla Porter refers to–and I’m sure many others–as reputation management. The way people present themselves [image of a tweet by Amanda Marcotte] has something to do with their perception, with the criticism they receive.
I’m kind of surprised that this is the idea of reputation management that Vacula has come away from Porter with, and that Porter isn’t out there correcting him for all it’s worth. As an independent consultant, I would want my clients to think I understood a business term at–minimally–a Wikipedia level.
Reputation management is the practice of understanding or influencing an individual’s or business’s reputation. It was originally coined as a public relations term, but advancement in computing, the internet and social media made it primarily an issue of search results. Although it is often associated with ethical grey areas, such as astroturfing review sites, censoring negative complaints or using SEO tactics to game the system and influence results, there are also ethical forms of reputation management, such as responding to customer complaints, asking sites to take down incorrect information and using online feedback to influence product development.
Reputation management isn’t about dealing with individuals and shaping how they treat you. It is about influencing what people see when they Google you. Impression management is closer to what Vacula is talking about. It still offers nothing like the advice he’s giving. As far as I can tell from researching the two topics in a nonextenstive but targeted way, Vacula made up a list of things he wants other people to do and slapped a jargony name on it.
Back to the video:
After all, as I’ve pointed out on many occasions, there are many women on the internet–there are many feminists on the internet, some of them including men, who write about feminism, who write about women’s issues, who write about anything given in the world, and they don’t receive the level of criticism, negative feedback, what Stephanie Zvan calls harassment and cyberstalking. [image of a Twitter exchange with EllenBeth Wachs] They don’t receive this.
So the situation is that some people negative criticism and pushback on the internet while other don’t. So there has to be some kind of reason why this is the case.
There certainly does. However, before moving from this step to figuring out why the difference exists, we have to know who the people who don’t get harassed are. This is very basic. Define your control group.
Magical harassment fairies, magical cyberstalking fairies, magical negative dissenters–whatever you want to call them–don’t just appear out of thin air and criticize people on the internet. It doesn’t happen that way.
But there has to be some reason behind it, right? These people aren’t just going to randomly pop up. So I give some advice for people.
And Vacula does this without identifying his control group, without identifying competing hypotheses. I can come up with lots of reasons why any individual might escape harassment:
- Lack of an audience: How do the harassers find targets that no one is reading, who aren’t indexed highly on Google? Is this a case of security by scarcity?
- Lack of demands: Even harassers have finite time on their hands.Someone who talks about gender issues (or “women’s issues”) who doesn’t want anything to change is not likely to be perceived as a threat to anyone.
- Lack of effectiveness: Feminists generally don’t just talk about gender issues. They also try to accomplish something. Are people who manage to do that more likely to be targeted by harassers?
- Social and organizational circles: Does it matter where a feminist is? Do certain subgroups, either due to characteristics of the members or due to events like rapid change, tend more to harass?
That’s just off the top of my head. Feel free to suggest others. Don’t do what Vacula did and act as though one possbility is correct because it was the first one that occurred to you.
[image of a tweet from EllenBeth Wachs] And I really think that if you’re going to be on the internet, you’re going to be talking a big game, you’re going to be saying really nasty things about people–calling people “sexist”, calling people “misogynsist”–
Hold up a second. Is it “really nasty” to say that someone is sexist if they are sexist? Is it “really nasty” to call a misogynist a “misogynist”? Are these words somehow taboo?
instead of approaching the situation in a different manner and being charitable and saying, “Well, maybe what you have to say there could have been reframed differently.” Instead of engaging in a call-out culture in which you’re going to talk about how your ideological opponents or whomever said this nasty thing–this alleged nasty thing–
Here, of course, “nasty” can only be alleged, as opposed to when someone uses the words “sexist” or “misogynist”.
you can use the moment as an instructional tool [image of Vacula's advice] and say something like, “Well, here’s how I would have said it. Here’s the message I think that’s being conveyed by this piece.” Not making it nasty; not saying nasty things about the people.
This assumes that the only problem people have with speech is wording. The funny thing is, if all I disagree with someone about is their wording, I do tend to say, “Not how I would have said it, but…eh.” For the record, this has not proved to be protective against harassment or–yes–cyberstalking.
It’s different when I disagree with the content of someone’s speech. There is no way to resolve that with a simple rewording. I can tell you what I think the message is intended to be, but even at my most generous interpretation, I’m going to tell you that I disagree. The need for harassment policies at events? Not a question of wording. The idea that a site with no moderation is not a site that the vast majority of people will want to use? Not a question of interpretation. Even when I understand you perfectly, this does not compel me to bow to your point. You can be wrong, just as I can..
This, of course, doesn’t begin to cover talking about harmful behavior.
But Stephanie Zvan, Ophelia Benson, Greta Christina, PZ Myers—they don’t do that. They’re very often very uncharitable, and they reach the worst conclusions possible.
Oh, goodness, no. For example, I have never said or suggested that the reason Vacula doesn’t support harassment policies at conferences is because he wants to protect his ability to harass at them. You can’t reasonably call me, or anyone else, extreme on the basis of a failure of imagination.
And I believe (and this is just my hypothesis) that the reason they receive the negative pushback is because of the way they present themselves on the internet. Again, there are many people who would identify as feminists. There are many people who are women. There are many males who identify as feminist. There are so many people on the internet, right, who are similar ideologically to Stephanie Zvan, PZ Myers, etc. on gender issues–as some call gender ideologues…whatever you’d like to call them…feminists…whatever.
Ah, there’s that charity and generosity at work. “Gender idelogues”. Nothing prejudicial in that wording whatsoever. Nothing in it that ignores all the evidence presented on the topic around here and elsewhere. But I’m sure that’s just Vacula including terms his audience would use but he wouldn’t, right? That’s the charitable interpretation? That he’ll start responding to the people in question #9 of the post he said this was a response to and not eliding that they’ve spoken?
There are people writing about feminism who don’t get the pushback, so why is it that Stephanie Zvan gets the pushback, and other people writing about feminism don’t get the pushback?
It’s a good question, I’d like Stephanie Zvan to answer that question. I haven’t really seen an answer to this just yet. I’m all ears. I’m all ears.
We’ll see. Really, though, getting these sorts of basics settled is really the sort of thing Vacula should have done–in the spirit of charity and generosity–before wandering around the internet saying that people are being harassed (or “harassed”) because of their behavior.
When people like Stephanie Zvan complain about the treatment they receive and they engage in the same tactics of this call out-culture of imputing malice, thinking people have these horrible intentions behind the words they type, when that might not be the case. They look at the worst situation possible instead of being charitable, again.
No. Or better than that: Point to examples of me imputing motives instead of talking about consequences or simply describing behavior. Here are a few posts you can use as a starting point to search:
- Dammit, DJ
- “The Great Penis Debate”
- Still Not Disagreement
- Would It Be Immoral to Rape My Friends?
- Science Denialism: The Role of Criticism
- Vacula: Ladies, Y U No Quit?
Closest I can find to talking about motives is here, where I talk about someone having clearly stated their motives. That’s not “thinking” something. That’s listening when someone tells you something.
Well, why is it that she receives the criticism? I pose some tips here to reduce the criticism, and I’m fully aware that some of Stephanie Zvan’s critics are not going to go away. There are just nasty people out there who are not voicing reasonable opinions and being charitable, and some of these people, I must say, have tried in the past, but the efforts at diplomacy have failed so they’ve just resorted to ridicule and satire. But either way, I think that if Stephanie Zvan and company want the alleged bullies to go away…if they presented themselves differently on the internet, that they would go away, that people would stop talking about it.
Citations, please? I haven’t been able to find a source for Vacula’s advice, much less any evidence that this will work.
Still, we have a recent situation that can shed some light on how well this advice will work. A few days ago, Surly Amy reached out to Harriet Hall to patch up misunderstandings of the events at TAM last year that drew so much attention and reach for common ground going forward. This is, presumably, the sort of behavior Vacula would like to encourage. This, however, is what he retweeted yesterday, two days after the news about Amy and Hall.
So, no, this doesn’t seem to have a positive effect, even on the behavior of the person offering the advice.
But week after there’s a new Witch of the Week, a new person who’s horrible sexist, misogynist, women hater! when it really isn’t the case. And instead of using instances as an educational opportunity and just talking about the issues (not being nasty, not accusing people), they participate in the call-out culture. And that’s I think why they get this criticism, because of the way they present themselves.
So let’s look at what it takes to be a Witch of the Week, since Vacula uses the term. What constitutes a witch hunt? Well, you could be Wooly Bumblebee, A Voice for Men‘s Canadian news editor, who made several bullying videos, including one of Jen McCreight when she quit blogging that featured images of Prozac, tissues, and a back-patting device, and you could have the target of one of your videos ask her friends to flag it as bullying. Apparently it’s still witch-hunting if YouTube reviews the video and agrees with its target and her friends.
You could be Tim Skellet/Gurdur and have some of the people you’ve been chatting with informed that you participate in the slime pit, ask why that’s a problem, and be told.
You can be Maria Maltseva and have a blog post written to correct the record when you repeatedly lie directly and by omission.
Witch hunting is not what it used to be. For that matter, neither is being called a “horrible sexist, misogynist, women hater!”, since that didn’t happen in any of those cases. What did happen, however, is things being posted at that site like, “Possibly because Steph is in love with Laden. Probably for blog hits and the sadistic pleasure Steph gets from hurting others.” But that’s just to be expected in response to things that didn’t happen.
When you’re on the internet and you going to say nasty things about people, you’re going to get a nasty pushback. It’s not to say the nasty pushback is morally justified, but it’s just a state of fact; it’s just to state how the internet “is.” It’s not to justify the behavior.
So the million dollar question once again is this: “Why is it that some feminists experience negative feedback on the internet while others do not?”
It’s a wonderful question to explore. And I can’t wait for the comments in the article and hopefully a response from Stephanie Zvan and Ophelia Benson who also commented on what Stephanie had to say.
So, we await the response.
So Vacula–and whomever else that “we” represents–want a response. Try this one on for size.
In my last post, I listed nine situations of “nastiness”. The people involved are all feminists, to the extent I know about. They did not, however, all call anyone “sexist” or “misogynist” or engage in “call-out culture”. Debbie Goddard didn’t. Masala Skeptic didn’t. Heina didn’t. EEB didn’t. They still all received “nastiness”. Between that and the recent tweet about Amy and TAM, it rather looks as though Vacula’s thesis just doesn’t hold up.
There is, however, an alternate thesis suggested by the data. While the examples I gave didn’t have call-out culture in common, they did have one other thing in common. That, of course, is Vacula himself.
So, if we look at the data rather than making up some rules that don’t work, it kinda, sorta, you know, maybe looks like what we have to blame for harassment–is the harassers.