[guest post] Thoughts on the Assumption of Good Faith

Mitchell of Research to be Done wrote this post after he and I and some other friends had a great discussion about social justice and giving people the benefit of the doubt, and how to adjust our beliefs and expectations when we’re proven wrong time and time again.

It wasn’t so long ago that Lawrence Krauss defended Jeffrey Epstein in the wake of accusations that Epstein had had sex with underage prostitutes, and I thought, “Well, that’s messed up, but maybe I can see how someone might think some of the things he thought, even while being incredibly mistaken.”

It wasn’t so long ago that DJ Grothe accused female bloggers of making women feel unwelcome or unsafe at TAM, and I thought, “Well, that’s shitty, but he probably just doesn’t understand what it looks like from the other side.”

It wasn’t so long ago that Michael Shermer responded to the criticisms of comments he made about skepticism being “a guy thing” with a piece that included the phrases “witch hunt”, “purging”, and “Nazi party”, and I thought, “Okay, that’s pretty over-the-top, but on the balance of things, he still seems like he’s a generally reasonable person most of the time.”

I like to give people the benefit of the doubt. I like to have faith in people, to believe that their intentions are generally good, to believe that they want to do right by the rest of us.

And yet…

And yet in the wake of recent events in the skeptic community, I find some difficult but inescapable realities have come crashing down on me.

While it’s possible that Krauss was simply incredibly mistaken about the situation with Jeffrey Epstein, I am forced to acknowledge that an environment in which such accusations are so easily dismissed is an environment in which it would be easier for someone who frequently engaged in sexual harassment to continue to do so without consequence. While it’s possible that Grothe just didn’t understand where the women who blogged about harassment in the skeptic community were coming from, I am forced to acknowledge that an environment in which the concerns of women are not taken seriously is an environment in which someone who doesn’t respect the women in their workplace is less likely to be called out on it. While it’s possible that Shermer was just having a really bad day when he compared criticisms of his comments to witch hunting and Nazism, I am forced to acknowledge that an environment in which criticisms made by women are routinely gaslighted in this way is one in which women would find it more difficult to criticize problems like sexual harassment.

I want to believe the best of those I have looked up to in the skeptical and scientific community. I want to, but I am finding it more and more difficult. In each of the above examples, my initial instinct was to assume good faith, and later events made me feel naïve for doing so. Later events made it obvious that none of these people just needed someone to sit down and civilly explain things to them.

In watching conversations in the skeptic community over the past few years, nearly every time I have seen someone say something that I thought was harmfully wrong, but said to myself, “They probably just don’t get it.”, later events have suggested that much deeper problems “just not getting it” were at work. It feels like whenever my instinct has been to give someone the benefit of the doubt, it’s later come about that their actions have been consistent with those of someone steering the community in a direction that benefited them at the expense of others*.

I don’t know what to do with this realization. I don’t want to be overly cynical, but I also don’t want to be naïve. I would rather not go through life assuming that every time anyone says anything that reinforces problematic ideas that person is secretly twirling their misogyny mustache and readjusting their monocle of twisted rationalization. At the same time, I want my perceptions to be accurate, and it seems clear that they haven’t been particularly accurate recently.

I put the question to the audience: at what point is the assumption of good faith not deserved? How do you decide when trust is overly naïve or mistrust is overly cynical?

If we err too far on the side of giving people the benefit of the doubt, we run the risk of providing leeway and power to people likely to abuse what they’re given, as seems to have been the case in situations like the examples above. I also find that, at least in my case, I am more likely to identify with people whose good faith I assume. That is, if we assume that I’m a thoughtful, well-intentioned person, and that Public Figure X is not, but I think they are, then when I see Public Figure X excoriated for saying shitty things, my reaction is going to be partially, “Jesus, these social justice people might one day get all angry at me for just misunderstanding something, too!”. If, however, I don’t assume that similarity, I am less likely to see the legitimate complaints against Public Figure X’s actions as unfair or ridiculous, because I won’t be able to as easily imagine myself saying those same things while honestly misunderstanding. It it seems to follow from that that if we assume good faith, we might, correspondingly, assume that the shit storms that we see are more unreasonable than they actually are.

On the other hand, if we err too far on the side of assuming the worst, then, well, we are unfairly assuming the worst.

In the grand scheme of things, maybe there is no good answer. Maybe the only actionable solution is to continue calling out bad behavior, and to not apologize for calling it out, and to pay attention when it starts to look like a pattern. I know one thing I have gotten out of recent events is that I’m going to be enormously more wary of the suggestion that people would come around if only we would engage more civilly**. That ship has sailed. Too many important problems, both with people and organizations, have been identified by skeptics who were unwilling to compromise on calling out bad behavior.

But I genuinely am curious: what say you, skeptics? Are there any decent rules of thumb for separating good faith from bad faith? When do you assume honest ignorance and when do you assume willful blindness? Are there any decent rules of thumb for how to engage (or not engage) if the truth is uncertain?

Or, in short: what is there to be learned from all this?


*I want to be clear at this point: I do not, in any of the above situations, think that any of these people ever consciously thought, “What I really want is a community steeped in harassment and misogyny.”. I simply think that they are capable of rationalizing behavior that has that effect when it benefits them, even when it has a detrimental impact on the community.

**I also can’t help but notice a certain massive irony in all of the calls for civil discussion over the last couple of years in light of the fact that all three of the people I use as examples in this post are operating on a civility level which we might fancifully term “Lawsuit”.

Mitchell Greenbaum is a geeky, poly, kinky, skeptic blogger who writes about social justice, relationships, depression, and chronic pain at Research to be Done, and engages in a wholly excessive amount of… auto-metacognition? Or does it make more sense as meta-auto-cognition? He isn’t really sure, but playing with prefixes is fun and writing bios is hard. True story.

[guest post] Also Known as the Argument from “Gotta Get Laid, Amirite?”

Mitchell of Research to be Done has a fantastic response to my recent post!

Let’s talk about street harassment. Actually, since Miri has covered the bases very well in her last post on street harassment, let’s talk about something that came up in the comments, and that tends to come up now and then in conversations about accosting or complementing women in public. I’m going to call it the Argument from Sociopathic Cost-Benefit Analysis.

It’s roughly this: “Well, some women do appreciate those compliments from strangers. Sometimes they lead to making a connection, or dating, or sex, etc., putting those of us who don’t accost women that way at a disadvantage with women!” Some people will take it further, and add that this means hitting on women in public is naturally selected for and therefore impossible to eliminate because evolution and such (the “EVOLUTION IS MAKING ME DO IT!!” argument).

Hoo, boy! So there are a few problems with this:

First of all, there’s the sociopathic part. Let’s grant for a moment that men who routinely hit on women in public have the world’s greatest sex lives as a result of it. That doesn’t change the fact that there are lots and lots of women who are incredibly uncomfortable being hit on in public. It doesn’t change the fact that if this is your reasoning for hitting on women in public, you are deciding that your ability to get laid matters more than the discomfort of all of the people that you make uncomfortable in the process. It doesn’t change the fact that your argument boils down to, “I don’t care about your feelings as long as I get laid.” If you don’t care that that’s what it boils down to, then by all means keep making the argument, I guess, but I sincerely hope you aren’t ever mixing it up with the, “But I’m really a Non-Creepy Nice Guy” argument, because newsflash: you definitely aren’t*.

Second of all, no, you are not allowed to say that hitting on women in public is selected for by natural selection. First, you don’t know if it’s heritable. Second, you don’t know how the selective pressures in our evolutionary history might have contrasted with those acting on random people on a city street today. Third, you do (I hope) know that our society in its present state hasn’t been around long enough for such a specific act to be selected for on a scale that even remotely resembles the scale that this phenomenon occurs. Fourth, you don’t have any actual evidence that it correlates with reproductive success in the first place. Fifth, even if you could show that evolution selected for this behavior, that isn’t an argument. It’s like saying that because gravity pulls us all toward the center of the earth, we all have to spend our lives burrowing toward the center of the earth (“GRAVITY IS MAKING ME DO IT!!”). The fact that external forces act on our society and ourselves doesn’t mean we are obligated to do exactly the same thing those forces do.

Third (jumping one level up in the nested iterations of points, here), why are you so concerned with missing out on the things that could happen between you and the particular subset of women who don’t mind being hit on in public? Undoubtedly, there are plenty of women you will miss out on interacting with as a result of being the type of person who regularly hits on women in public, also. Why are you not concerned about missing out on interacting with them? What is it about this one particular avenue of interaction that makes missing out on it so tragic?

There are, in fact, a large number of other ways to meet and interact with women. There are ways that don’t involve nearly so much risk of making people uncomfortable. Invariably, no matter what approach you take, and no matter what context you do it in, your approach will appeal to some people, and not appeal to others (the same way that some people may appreciate getting hit on in public, and other people probably won’t want anything to do with people who do hit on people in public). What is so amazing about hitting on people in public that the interactions you might start that way carry so much more importance, and the people you make uncomfortable carry so much less importance than in other situations where you could meet people?

In summary, the Argument from Sociopathic Cost-Benefit Analysis is sociopathic, not at all based in evolution or science of any kind, and, for a line of reasoning that is apparently about not missing out on interaction with women, ignores the fact that there are plenty of other ways to interact with them, and that no matter how you choose to do so, including hitting on women in public, you’re going to miss out on interactions with someone. In light of that, why not pick a context and style of approach that requires no sociopathy at all?

*You’re basically a less extreme version of the guy who thinks Louis CK should’ve just gone for it on the off chance she was into that shit.

Mitchell Greenbaum is a geeky, poly, kinky, skeptic blogger who writes about social justice, relationships, depression, and chronic pain at Research to be Done, and engages in a wholly excessive amount of… auto-metacognition? Or does it make more sense as meta-auto-cognition? He isn’t really sure, but playing with prefixes is fun and writing bios is hard. True story.