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Aug 02 2013

Just a casual scan

Yesterday Tim Farley wrote a piece about the block bot and some objections he has to it. One objection he has is that it blocks some people whom he considers…I’m not sure what, exactly – too good to merit blocking, I guess is the clearest way to put it. He considers them people who shouldn’t be blocked, because they don’t deserve to be blocked. But he makes this case in a very odd way.

The community needs of this very specific group (“Atheism+”), combined with the lack of auditing and transparency of control, has resulted in some (in my opinion) very strange choices. I am familiar with many of the people in these communities.  I know many of them in real life as well as online.  Scanning the list of Level 2 and 3 blocks makes me repeatedly scratch my head in puzzlement.

I’m not going to get into exact names here, as I do not want to discuss the pros and cons of blocking particular people.  That is not a productive line of discussion.  The bottom line is that if the users of this bot (or any Twitter user) want to block these people, that is their right.

And I will agree with that piece of text quoted above that implies that most would agree that the people blocked in Level 1 deserve that status. I scanned some of these accounts, and some I have seen before, and they are pretty heinous offenders.  No argument there.

However, just a casual scan down the list of Level 2 and Level 3 blocks reveals people, many of whom I know personally, who are deeply involved in the atheism, skepticism, secularism and humanism movements all around the world.

Yes…So what? Is the idea that people who are deeply involved in the atheism, skepticism, secularism and humanism movements all around the world cannot also be shits who harass women and/or feminists? Apparently that’s exactly the idea.

 They include:

  • A Research Fellow for a U.S. think-tank who is also deputy editor of a national magazine, and author of numerous books
  • A Consultant for Educational Programs for a U.S. national non-profit
  • A long-time volunteer for the same national non-profit
  • An organizer for a state-level skeptic group in the US
  • A past president of a state-level humanist group in the US
  • A former director of a state-level atheist group in the US
  • An Emmy and Golden Globe award winning comedian
  • A TED Fellow
  • Co-founder of a well known magazine of philosophy and author of several books
  • A philosopher, writer and critic who has authored several books

These are not anonymous trolls. They are not likely to be arrested anytime soon. Most of these people regularly speak at national conferences to audiences from several hundred to over a thousand people.

Again: so what? That doesn’t stop them being shits. I would love it if it did, but it doesn’t. The bit about the award-winning comedian, for instance – what, because comedians are never ever sexist? Ever? No comedian has ever relied on familiar old contempt for women to get laughs?

And all the rest of them too. None of those credentials are incompatible with being a shit. They certainly don’t confer some kind of fame-based immunity or extra leeway…or rather, they do, but they shouldn’t.

 Starting from the publicly available block list you can click the names to go directly to their  Twitter feeds, I see little evidence that these people are attacking, threatening or spamming anyone.

Attacking, threatening and spamming are not the only ways there are to be unpleasant and harassy. Not even close.

Now I’m not dumb, I know that many of these people have had very public disagreements with people allied with “Atheism+” who use this bot.  And let me reiterate: if people want to block others that they disagree with, that is their right.  

But these well-respected people are being listed right alongside some vicious troll accounts, and not being clearly distinguished from them.

That “disagreements” thing pisses me off. It’s right up there with “FTBullies” for repetitive fakery. It’s not about disagreements. It’s about picking fights, stalking, sneering, pestering, monitoring. Even people who direct state-level atheist groups, even TED fellows, can do stuff like that, and it’s not any kind of misbehavior or attack on free speech to block them on Twitter.

And by the way credentials don’t equate to well-respected. I don’t respect everyone who has a credential of that kind – why would I? You can have a credential and be an asshole. You might even have a credential because you’re an asshole.

The credentials are, on the contrary, often a source of wonder and disgust. “This is the guy who does such good work? Jeez. Who’d have thought it?” Maybe Farley is thinking that once people have credentials they’ll be inhibited from acting like assholes because they have more to lose. I’ve often wondered about that. Why isn’t ___ more worried about tarnishing the credentials? It can be puzzling, but that’s not at all the same thing as a slam-dunk reason to think assholitude is out of the question.

So, no. Credentials are only credentials. They’re not a free pass for being a creep on Twitter.

[I should add that Tim Farley did me a favor last year by talking to the guy who sent me the strange emails about how in danger I would be at TAM. I remain grateful for that. But I think this suggestion that important people can't be nasty people is very mistaken.]

28 comments

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  1. 1
    Josh, Official SpokesGay

    It is not only mistaken, it’s embarrassing and almost unbelievable. It’s classically fallacious. It’s the editorial board of the newspaper writing that Mr. Jones cannot but help be found not guilty at his upcoming trial because he is a Pillar of the Community. It’s the editorial board being outraged that Mr. Jones should even have to answer a court summons. Don’t they know who he is?

  2. 2
    Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

    I think it’s also the case that someone who acts like a perfectly decent person in everything else that they do could simply be annoying the crap out of someone by constantly tweeting at them despite receiving no responses. I’d block a person like that, if they’re someone that I have no desire to talk to who keeps trying to talk to me and thus clogging up my mentions. I don’t know if anyone on the Level 3 block list is such a person, but I wouldn’t be surprised. And yes, I have the right to clean up my Twitter feed of crap that’s making it difficult for me to use Twitter, and that certainly qualifies.

  3. 3
    Ophelia Benson

    Absolutely. I sometimes block people with no hostility at all but just because I want to get some junk off my timeline. I might then unblock or I might not – either way – I get to do that.

  4. 4
    Ace of Sevens

    Isn’t the separation into levels exactly what he’s looking for? Just block the level 1s if he doesn’t want to be rid of people who are merely unpleasant.

  5. 5
    Ophelia Benson

    Yes, I think so, but apparently he thinks a list of people who are unpleasant is impermissible if those people are his Skeptic friends.

  6. 6
    A. Noyd

    “I’m not going to get into exact names here, as I do not want to discuss the pros and cons of blocking particular people. That is not a productive line of discussion.”

    Not naming names sure didn’t stop him from discussing the cons (as he sees it) of blocking particular people, though. If he’s going to do that, then he absolutely does need to be willing to talk about the pros of blocking those particular people.

  7. 7
    Tom Foss

    It’s such a sloppy post, and yet he thinks it “shows” that the bot is mostly being used to shield Atheism+ types from disagreements. He’s clearly one of those fence-sitters who’s been far outside the fray, and thinks he can speak from authority with a mild perusal of current Twitter timelines and free-floating memes like “the FTBullies banned me for disagreeing, wah.” His comment to PZ about not understanding what it means to passively support misogyny is one of the most clueless things I can recently recall reading on a social justice topic. I guess he’s not a reader of Skepchick. And, of course, his comment thread is awash in Slymepitters in their Sunday best, showing that yes indeedy they’re the real victims here. And Tim knows what a victim is; he’s experienced harassment because one David Mabus equals the entire Slymepit and Manosphere.

    Oh, and because Josh sent him 10 tweets in one hour that were somewhat mean. He thinks that’s how “many people use the term.” Josh never called him any sexist slurs or even a gendered insult, or even any insult at all. He said a few naughty words and expressed his exasperation at the latest bit of golden-mean concern trolling bullshit, but Tim Farley thinks that’s what qualifies as “harassment.” Argh, dude needs a serious fucking reality check.

    Why do these old-guard skeptics keep going so far off the rails here? Maybe he’ll respond substantively to your point about arguments from authority, since he brushed off me and PZ.

    And as a side note, what’s up with the Pitters and this “bananas” business? Do I even want to know?

  8. 8
    Al Dente

    Some individual may be the nicest person in meat space but if they’re hateful in Twitter or other social media then they’re not a nice person. Farley is making the mistake of thinking “but these people shouldn’t be banned, they’re so nice.” Sorry, Tim, but many if not most of those people are not nice.

  9. 9
    Tim Farley

    Thank you for linking to my website.

    I would like to point out to those reading this post (and who might not have followed the link) you are quoting here about 450 words out of a 4,300 word blog post – about 10% of the post. There’s quite a bit more to my thoughts about The Block Bot than the part you quoted.

    I stand by my opinion that, given The Block Bot’s description of what Level 2 and Level 3 are supposed to be, and the current contents of those two lists, there are clearly people that do not fit the list criteria and do not belong on there.

    I also stand by my opinion, which I’m glad you quoted here, that it is everyone’s right on Twitter to block anyone they see fit. I use the block function quite a bit myself – I have over 450 accounts on my personal block list.

    –Tim Farley

  10. 10
    Tom Foss

    Oof, looks like I put too many links and HTML code snippets into that comment, ’cause it’s hung up like Christmas Lights.

  11. 11
    alexag

    “None of those credentials are incompatible with being a shit. They certainly don’t confer some kind of fame-based immunity or extra leeway…or rather, they do, but they shouldn’t.”

    THIS. I’m fed up to the back teeth with “respectable” people who act as if they’re role models dismissing harassment.

    “Yes, I think so, but apparently he thinks a list of people who are unpleasant is impermissible if those people are his Skeptic friends.”

    Maybe like many skeptics they don’t really know how “activists” like Travis Roy, Rachael Dunlop, Kitty Mervine and Barbara Drescher really talk about harassment and more supporters of skepchicks should know:

    http://www.anony.ws/i/2013/08/03/Acxda.png
    http://www.anony.ws/i/2013/08/03/mMozG.png

  12. 12
    alexag

    Tom, my comemnt is stuck too, but as long as we’re still and KEEP talking about it, the bullies don’t win!

  13. 13
    Sili

    So yet another voice agreeing Twitter should make it possible to share block lists, so different communities can block different people?

  14. 14
    Ant (@antallan)

    Perhaps one of the categories in the list should be, “People who really should know better (and do better)”.

    /@

  15. 15
    cethis

    I like Tim, but I think he has a blind spot when it comes to his friends within the TAM clique.

    What gets me is when TAM has all these sessions on “communicating skepticism” and then the organizers turn a blind eye to this kind of behavior on Twitter.

  16. 16
    UnknownEric the Apostate

    I still simply don’t get this animosity toward the Block Bot. It’s not being forced on anybody. One can choose to sign up or not. Those who sign up know what they’re signing up for. Therefore, what’s the issue?

    It’s just more “you have to listen to me” crap from “very important people.”

  17. 17
    Ophelia Benson

    Dang, I timed this post badly, as the last thing I did before running away from the internet for the day. That meant important comments got hung up. See Tom Foss @ 7 and Tim Farley @ 9.

    Tim, yes I know I wrote about only a fraction of the post, but that was the part I was interested in and disagreed with. I think I make that clear in the first paragraph.

    You say

    I stand by my opinion that, given The Block Bot’s description of what Level 2 and Level 3 are supposed to be, and the current contents of those two lists, there are clearly people that do not fit the list criteria and do not belong on there.

    I hope you can see, if you think about it, that that’s not likely to persuade anyone that you’re right.

    It’s not clear to me. That’s for reasons. I could give them, but that would get into particulars, and you want to avoid particulars. But avoiding particulars means you disable yourself from giving reasons; all you can do is “stand by” your opinion, which is just stubbornness rather than evidence or an argument.

    You said yourself you just did a quick scan of current timelines. Doesn’t it occur to you that that’s not adequate investigation on which to base the claim that there are clearly people that do not fit the list criteria and do not belong on there? There are people who poke and prod and jeer but who don’t do that every day. Some of the poking and prodding and jeering is not even recognizable as such except to people familiar with the terms of art of this particular conflict – it has its own jargon and you wouldn’t necessarily recognize it.

  18. 18
    Al Dente

    Tim Farley @9

    I stand by my opinion that, given The Block Bot’s description of what Level 2 and Level 3 are supposed to be, and the current contents of those two lists, there are clearly people that do not fit the list criteria and do not belong on there.

    No, it’s not clear at all. It’s your opinion that some people do not fit the criteria. Other people may have other opinions.

  19. 19
    Tom Foss

    I think Carlie put it well in Stephanie’s thread, that faced with a name on the block list, Farley’s assumption is “that prestigious person can’t possibly have done something to merit inclusion here,” not “wow, I can’t believe people of such status might behave so badly.” When he can’t turn up evidence with a glance at a timeline, his conclusion isn’t “I must need to look harder” but “it must be true that the Atheism+ people can’t stand disagreement.”

  20. 20
    Ophelia Benson

    Yes, I saw Carlie’s comment, and that puts it well.

    I’ve just been looking at his recent tweets and it’s distressing how non-responsive he is. He’s non-responsive here, and on your post, and on his post, and in those tweets. I thought he was better than that.

  21. 21
    Tom Foss

    Ophelia! How silly! He’s a long-time blogger and maintains one of the most useful websites in the fight against harmful alt-med and other woo-woo! Obviously he can’t be non-responsive, that would be a bad thing and his credentials establish that he is indeed better than that.

    It just must be that you Atheism+ people can’t see the responses, because they disagree with you.

    /snark

    At this point, it’s pretty clear that whatever “that” is, I can no longer assume that any of the prominent skeptics are better than it.

  22. 22
    Ophelia Benson

    Ha! There’s an irony here – I’m doing the very thing he wants us all to do – treating his track record as a reason to think he can’t do X bad thing.

    But at least in this case the track record actually is directly relevant to the particular X bad thing. I’m thinking he can’t be such a sloppy skeptic that he can’t even see the hole where his argument should have been.

    That really is relevant, while “Name is a way famous skeptic” is not relevant to “Name can’t possibly be an obnoxious harasser on Twitter.”

  23. 23
    Ophelia Benson

    Tim – seriously – I know this isn’t the whole of your post, I know it’s only part of it – but can you please explain to us the connection between being a Ted Fellow or an Emmy and Golden Globe award winning comedian, and not belonging on a list of people who are [sometimes/often] unpleasant on Twitter?

  24. 24
    Tom Foss

    But at least in this case the track record actually is directly relevant to the particular X bad thing. I’m thinking he can’t be such a sloppy skeptic that he can’t even see the hole where his argument should have been.

    Good point.

    I don’t see how going after a small part of an argument is an issue. If the part of the argument is flawed, then defend that part or say “yeah, you’re right, that’s shaky, but it doesn’t matter to my larger point,” or something. This “I don’t have to answer because apparently the rest of my article makes up for this knot of fallacies in the middle” is bizarre.

  25. 25
    Ophelia Benson

    Isn’t it? I could see it if the whole thing were one argument – but it isn’t. The bit we’re disputing (and we’re not the only ones) is detachable, it can stand by itself (and then fall down because it’s so unargued). It’s not tightly woven into the whole post so that detaching it is just nonsensical.

  26. 26
    PZ Myers

    You don’t get it, Ophelia.

    You may not criticize Tim Farley’s post unless you address every jot & tittle of it. Anything less, he’ll ignore you.

    On the other hand, if you address every jot & tittle of it, you are ‘fisking’ him, and he’ll ignore you.

    That’s some catch, that Catch-22.

  27. 27
    A. Noyd

    !!! PZ is reading my mind.

  28. 28
    Ophelia Benson

    Oh well if it’s a Catch 22 that’s all right, because Catch 22 is super-famous.

  1. 29
    The link between status and virtue » Butterflies and Wheels

    […] fame, status, titles, and what it has to do with whether or not someone can behave badly. As I discussed yesterday, Tim Farley seems to be claiming that fame and titles in the skeptic/atheist world are incompatible […]

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