Rebecca posted a Twitter rant from Jeff Sharlet at Skepchick yesterday. Sharlet’s topic? This idea that dialogue is always something for which we should strive. He doesn’t exactly mince his words either:
Fetish for “dialogue” assumes those you disagree w/ lack only your insight; assumes they want to “compromise.” As if they have no agency.
Student fetish for “dialogue” a form of technocratic optimism based on free market myth of “exchange” as end in itself.
Rebecca added some choice words of her own:
Sharlet’s points are relevant to the continued harassment of women in the skeptic and atheist communities and the attempts by some to build bridges with harassers. One prime example is Michael Nugent, whose heart was surely in the right place when he began engaging with MRA harassers and then escalated to organizing a formal dialogue between Stephanie Zvan and a few mostly pseudonymous people who have no apparent objection to representing the “side” that harasses women. This dialogue was at the outset insulting to many of the women who are being harassed and almost immediately became arduous and confusing as well: “This is a response by Stephanie Zvan to the response by Skep Sheik to the first response by Stephanie Zvan to the Strand 1 Opening Statement by Jack Smith.”
If it had been someone like Stephanie herself organizing this “dialogue,” it would be bad enough, but the fact that it was organized by Nugent, a person who is completely unaffected by the actions of the harassers, and that he did it over the repeated objections of many of the women being harassed, is, as Sharlet says, the very definition of paternalistic.
Since I’m the person engaging in this dialogue*, I have a few things to say about these ideas, as you can imagine. Mostly, I agree with what the “Dialogue? Meh” folks are saying. The process I’ve been going through hasn’t actually changed anything.
There are three potential audiences for something like this. There is me. If the pro-dialogue folks are correct, I could gain something from this process, but I don’t know what that could be at this point. It won’t be understanding, the typical benefit of dialog, as the people I’m dealing with have been shouting their objections to me for a couple of years now. I already know why they think I need to be drummed out of this movement. I don’t disagree with the positions I object to because I don’t understand them. I disagree with them because, understanding them, I find them to be a combination of unhelpful in reaching the goals of our movements and immoral.
Nor will they, the second potential audience, come to understand my positions any better. How do I know? Well, they set up a place to talk about what I have to say. If you look at it, you can see the futility of dialogue with someone who doesn’t trust you. The positions I’ve elaborated are the positions I’ve held from the start. However, according to the people invested in this, anything they agree with is either me having been forced to make some kind of concession or is me setting them up for some kind of fall. On top of that, you can see very open statements that understanding isn’t even the point of the exercise for them. Winning is.
The third audience who is considered to benefit from this kind of exercise is all those fence-sitters who complain about having to deal with the heat of the conflict that dialogue is supposed to resolve. Such a dialogue potentially gives this audience an opportuntity to get at the issues of the dispute without the distraction of any emotions attached and make up their own minds about where the truth of the matter lies.
This, frankly, is where I’ve been most disappointed in this process. I had no expectation that I would learn anything new about the positions of people who have been shouting at me for ages. I had no hopes that those same people would expend any more effort to read my words straight than they do as they read everything–and I mean everything–else I have to say on the topic. There were enough people thanking Michael for organizing the dialogue, however, that I had some small hope that some of these people would read the back and forth and have something to say about the issues.
That hasn’t happened. The people who have engaged with the dialog are already people who know what’s been happening. They’re already familiar with the points of disagreement. They’ve already made up their minds about where they stand. Everyone else–the people who thanked Michael, the people who have been pushing for civil discussion, the people who have been calling for plagues on everyone’s houses–they’ve ignored this dialogue. There have been no links. There have been no discussions of the issues. These people have been no more likely to voice any opinion on where things should go from here than they were when they were complaining about any of us advocating for our positions.
This dialogue is bringing nothing any closer to any kind of resolution. The harassment hasn’t stopped. It hasn’t even slowed down. It hasn’t created any kind of understanding that didn’t already exist. The people who were paying attention still know what’s going on. They still think what they thought at the start. The people who weren’t paying attention don’t know any more than they did. They don’t care any more than they did. They’re just more comfortable because this dialogue has been quarantined where they don’t have to see it.
As far as I can tell, that’s exactly the point of this push to “dialogue”. It isn’t to get anything decided. It’s just to make people talk about these disagreements somewhere else–preferrably just among themselves. That’s all “dialogue” like this does.
*If any of you are looking forward to this continuing, expect it to start up again relatively soon. Mick Nugent has been busy with something I whole-heartedly approve of. I’m not getting much in the way of reward for this, aside from the feeling of communicating my position with some precision, but I’m still taking part. I committed to it, and as long as it goes on, I’ll give it the best shot this sort of thing is going to get.