Richard Dawkins trended today on Twitter, which is never a good sign. ‘Mild pedophilia is bad. Violent pedophilia is worse’, he’d tweeted, an idea I blogged about last year. ‘Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knifepoint is worse’, he added, which Ashley Miller has unravelled along with Amanda Marcotte. Dawkins, it turns out, was only making a simple point about syllogisms using the two most inflammatory examples imaginable – how anyone could be upset about is a mystery. (It always is.)
I’ve just criticised Richard Dawkins, and some will say – indeed they have – this makes the last thing I posted meaningless.
‘We have to be able to manage disagreement ethically, like reasonable adults,’ he said in a joint statement with Ophelia Benson, ‘as opposed to brawling like enraged children who need a nap.’ The statement has been called a ‘peace accord’ and was read by many, it appears, as the ‘ceasefire’ in atheist infighting some had demanded. Now that so soon after cosigning it, Dawkins has put foot in mouth again and been lampooned, it’s a sure bet hands are rubbing gleefully.
That was hesitance about this statement from the off. Some said it didn’t go far enough, and that Dawkins had yet to ‘walk the walk’ in pursuing activism ethically; others found it too nonspecific. Some declared he hadn’t meant a word, either to undermine him or it; others suggested Benson ‘bullied’ him somehow into signing it. But sign it he did, and my view is that even assuming a cynical reading, the Dawkins-Benson pact – shut up, that’s what I’m calling it – matters.
Because it wasn’t a ceasefire at all – the authors’ wording makes the point extremely clear that ‘disagreement is inevitable’, which must include on things like Dawkins’ tweets yesterday. The point is what it adds: ‘bullying and harassment are not.’
‘It should go without saying, but this means no death threats, rape threats, attacks on people’s appearance, age, race, sex, size, haircut; no photoshopping people into demeaning images, no vulgar epithets.’
This isn’t a peace accord – it’s a treaty establishing terms of engagement.
For the past three years, the above behaviour has been endemic in online atheism, targeting secular ‘social justice warriors’ and feminists in particular. There’s more: to quote a recent list,
- High profile feminists regularly receive graphic threats of physical and sexual violence, as well as verbal abuse.
- Men who make these sorts of threats on record – one of whom, cited by her, has been quoted saying adult men having sex with 12 year old girls can’t ‘under any reasonable definition constitute “rape”’ and is on record making consistent comments [edit: he's since retracted this view, but... still] – maintain devoted audiences of hundreds of thousands.
- Cyberattacks have caused prominent atheist-feminist sites including this one to shut down involuntarily until permanent defences could be installed.
- Members of this specific site have repeatedly had private, confidential emails published by antifeminists as an intimidation tactic, revealing sensitive personal details that placed some people’s physical safety at risk. (Kaveh Mousavi, who blogs here currently at On the Margin of Error, is an atheist blogging pseudonymously in Iran. If his real identity leaks, he could literally be executed.)
- Feminist atheist bloggers have had their home addresses published, had their businesses sabotaged, had petitions demanding colleagues remove them from their own podcasts, been blackballed from speaking at major rallies and had entire websites devoted to abusive comments about them – simply for blogging as secular feminists and criticising atheist misogyny.
- One prominent atheist feminist, after prolonged attacks of this kind, was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and then further harassed because of it.
There’s no serious doubt this began when Richard Dawkins mocked Rebecca Watson’s discomfort at being hit on in a lift and roused entitled male atheists the net over against her. Implicitly or explicitly, these harassment campaigns have often been carried out in his name.
We have to conclude that if a blog comment from Dawkins could unleash such violent torrents of misogyny, the man has influence, and any statement from him will have impact; more specifically, we also have to conclude that the hordes of angry antifeminists who till then hadn’t advanced on Watson felt empowered by his example.
So it’s not meaningless that in his statement with Benson, he says: ‘Some people think I tacitly endorse such things even if I don’t indulge in them. Needless to say, I’m horrified by that suggestion. Any person who tries to intimidate members of our community with threats or harassment is in no way my ally and is only weakening the atheist movement by silencing its voices and driving away support.’
If Dawkins’ current tweets on rape and molestation tell us anything, it’s that he’s going to keep arguing with feminists in our community – there’s no peace in our time to be seen here, and nor should there be if it meant letting statements like these go. But his statement alongside Benson makes clear too that the bullies, harassers and abusive trolls in atheism aren’t part of that argument any more.
There is no single atheist as influential as Dawkins; there may never be again, and likely this is a good thing. There’s certainly no feminist atheist as influential as he is, but his feminist critics are many and hold great collective influence. In the atheist sex wars, these are the sides – and the Dawkins-Benson pact means both sides will shun atheism’s worst elements.
That means the Slymepit, who exist entirely to harass and bully feminists among us.
That means the ‘Amazing’ Atheist, who has repeatedly threatened them with rape and violence.
That means Justin Vacula, who published the home address of Amy Davis Roth.
It means everyone who mounts cyberattacks against websites like this, including DDOS attacks and leaking private emails.
It means everyone who hounded Melody Hensley till she had PTSD, and everyone whose whole online existence is about harassing feminists in atheism.
When Richard Dawkins and Ophelia Benson – people almost never on the same side of the fence – agreed that this was unacceptable, they defined a new community standard. If any of the above is you, you don’t meet it, and however loudly or venomously you respond, this the start of your being squeezed out of our movement.
Have fun, to quote Jen McCreight, as you circle jerk into oblivion.
Going, going. Soon enough you’ll be gone.