Greta Christina and Alex Gabriel Yak About Sexual Identity, Secularity, and Politics

Alex Gabriel: I’ve tended to observe that people who march under the banner of humanism in the states lean somewhat more strongly to the left than humanists in Britain. I’m not sure why that is, but – in my experience, anyway – it’s more of a countercultural identity, [with] more immediate openness to class concerns in politics, feminism and that kind of thing.

I’ve found that humanists in the UK are first of all a little less well defined. You find people under the humanist banner everywhere politically, but as far as major organisations, I think that the British Humanist Association – the people that run it, and I’ve met quite a few of them, I would place more in the political centre than people I know at African Americans for Humanism or the American Humanist Association.

Greta Christina: I’m not sure why that is, but it’s interesting.

That’s a good question. Because this is me, and this is what I do, I’m going to speculate and pull speculative conclusions totally out of my ass – so, therefore, this is a provisional guess – but I think that to some extent [it’s] because being a nonbeliever in Britain is more normal, it’s more ordinary, it’s more common anyway.

Being a nonbeliever in the states is oppositional, and there’s no way around that. It’s a little different if you live in New York City or some place like that, but even then you have to contend with the rest of the country. And so I wonder if because of that, right now at least in the United States, we have a situation where in order to reject religion you have to be willing to question the religious right, for one thing.

Certainly in the United States, religion and conservative politics are very much welded together. One of the reasons why I’m engaged in atheist activism is that I do see it as a crowbar: when people become atheists, they do tend to become more liberal, more progressive. I think that may not always be true. I think that if atheism does become more common in the United States, then in a few decades that tendency of atheists, humanists, just any nonbeliever…

So I don’t think that humanists are more progressive: just ‘nonbelievers’ in the States tend to be more progressive, because the kind of personality that gets you questioning religion is also perhaps the kind of personality that gets you questioning other conventions about politics and society and so on. I think it’s possible that in a few decades that won’t be true.

*****

In which Alex Gabriel and I have a conversation about sexual identity, secularity, and politics.

Here’s the deal. When I was writing Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Alex Gabriel (of the Godlessness In Theory blog) was deeply involved in the process. He did two rounds of very thorough copy editing on the book, and I made numerous changes both small and large based on our conversations. (He’s a first-rate copy editor, by the way: I don’t know if he’s hiring himself out for that, but if he is, I can’t recommend him highly enough. UPDATE: Yes, Alex is hiring himself out as a copy editor. And I can’t recommend him highly enough. Seriously. Hire him.)

Anyway, when we were going over the book together, a number of topics came up where we said, “That’s an interesting topic, we should really talk about that more sometime.” How non-religious people name ourselves; whether sexual orientation is fluid depending on culture and awareness of possibilities; political differences between humanism and atheism; whether the phrase “coming out” was a cultural appropriation of LGBT language; whether the “born this way” narrative of the LGBT movement makes bisexuals even more invisible; and more.

This is that conversation. (Or the first of those conversations, anyway. Next time we’ll get into assimilationism and the Oxford comma.)

If you prefer to read than to watch the video, Alex has the conversation transcribed on his blog. Enjoy!

*****

Oh, and once again, here is ordering information for Coming Out Atheist in all three formats — print, ebook, and audiobook.

Coming Out Atheist cover 150Ebook edition:

The Kindle edition is available on Amazon. (That’s the link for Amazon US, btw — it’s available in other regions as well.)

The Nook edition is available at Barnes & Noble.

The Smashwords edition is available on Smashwords. Right now, it’s only available on Smashwords in epub format: I’m working to make it available in other formats.

All ebook editions and formats cost just $9.99.

Print edition:

The print edition is now available through Powell’s Books.

The print edition is also available at Amazon. However, be advised (if you haven’t been already) that seriously abusive labor practices have been reported at Amazon warehouses. Please bear that in mind when you’re deciding where to buy my book — or indeed, where to buy anything. (For the records: Powell’s employees are unionized.) Again, that’s the link for Amazon US — it’s available in other regions as well.

The print edition is $17.95 USD. It is being published by Pitchstone Publishing.

Wholesale sales of the print edition:

Bookstores and other retailers can get the book from Ingram, Baker & Taylor, and other standard wholesale distributors. It can also be purchased directly from the publisher, Pitchstone Publishing.

Audiobook edition:

The audiobook version is available on Audible.

The audiobook is also available through Amazon.

The audiobook is also available through iTunes.

And yes, I did the recording for it!

“We have had some success, although we sure as hell need more”: Greta’s Interview with Black Skeptics

Black Skeptics: In the book you stress the value of engaging in debates about religion with believers to encourage questioning and coming out. However, as you acknowledge, debating the validity of religious belief is only one part of the equation. For example, the vast majority of LGBTQ people of color and straight people of color are faith-aligned/identified precisely because mainstream America is racially segregated, faith (for many) is a form of cultural “home space” and social welfare resources in communities of color are extremely impacted. What further “intersectional” steps need to be taken to promote humanistic communities beyond just “coming out”?

Greta Christina: I’m surprised to hear you say that — I don’t think I did stress the value of debating with believers all that much. I mention in the book, but I don’t give it much space, and I mostly mention it because I actually advise against having those debates while you’re in process of coming out to people. I think that’s the wrong time for those debates. It is true that I think debating believers can be useful and valuable: a lot of atheists rag on other atheists for getting into those debates, insisting that they never work and are always a waste of time, so I think they deserve defending. And it can be difficult to draw a clear line between simply explaining your atheism, and explaining why you think religion is bunk. That’s one of the main reasons I talk about the topic at all. But it’s certainly not something I think everyone should do, I don’t think it’s a moral imperative or anything, and I think lots of other forms of activism are valuable.

So, with that being cleared up. The answer to your main question: Yes, for lots of people of color, faith is a home: it’s where people get social services, social support, a sense of identity and continuity and stability and history, and more. (It does seem that it can be a toxic home — that’s one of the takeaways I got from Candace Gorham’s book, “The Ebony Exodus Project,” I kept being struck throughout the book by how so many black women found their churches unsupportive and actually undermining. But it’s still a home.) So one of the biggest intersectional steps that godless communities can take is to make atheism a safer place to land for these folks. We need to look at what people of color are getting from their faith communities, and do more in our own communities to provide it. It wouldn’t suck if we did more to make some of these needs less necessary while we’re at it: to do political work on poverty and safety nets and institutional racism and so on. And no, that’s not “mission drift”: if local atheist communities can do blood drives and roadside cleanups and so on, there’s no reason they can’t do this sort of political work, too. And we need to be willing to take a hard look at the ways that we actually make our spaces unwelcoming: not just with racism of omission (e.g., failing to recognize what these folks need and provide it), but with more overt racism of commission. And all this actually does go back to the question of debates about religion: there’s not much point — strategically, poltically, or indeed morally — in arguing people out of religion if we don’t provide them a safe place to land if we succeed.

***

Coming Out Atheist cover 150Thus begins my interview with Black Skeptics. We talk about assorted issues with intersectionality: what intersectional steps humanist communities need to take, how we can shift the leadership of our organizations, whether atheist feminists need to focus more on ways that women of color are marginalized (hint — yes), how to prioritize our issues and get others interested in our priorities, and more. And, of course, we talk about my new book, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why — and how coming out fits into these intersectional interviews. Smart, thoughtful questions that really made me think carefully. (And they call the book “timely and insightful,” which makes me happy.) Enjoy!

Some Thoughts on Intention and Magic

“I didn’t intend you hurt you. I am so sorry. Here’s what I meant to do — I meant to do something good, but I can see that I failed to do it, and in fact I did something that hurt you. I was tired/ harried/ uninformed/ careless. I am really sorry. Please let me know if I can do anything to undo the damage or to make things better. I’ll be more careful in the future.”

“I didn’t intend to hurt you. So why are you being so mean to me about it? Here’s what I meant to do — I meant to do something good, so the fact that I actually hurt you is irrelevant. I was tired/ harried/ uninformed/ careless — so it’s not fair or right for you to tell me how I hurt you and why you’re angry about it. Let me tell you, at length, how your criticism is hurting my feelings, and how you should have expressed it differently.”

These are not the same statements.

Notice the lack of apology in the second statement. Note the lack of any concern being expressed for the damage that was done. Note how the hurt feelings of the one who did the injury are being made a higher priority than the injury itself. Note the lack of any expressed intention to change the behavior.

It’s often said in social justice circles that intention is not magic. This is true, although it’s somewhat oversimplified (as pithy slogans often are). Intention is not magic, it doesn’t make injury go away — but it’s also not trivial. I, for one, am a lot more willing to forgive an unintentional injury than an intentional one. If someone steps on my foot by accident, I’m going to be a lot less pissed off than if they stepped on my foot with premeditation and malice.

But in order for me to forgive an unintentional injury, I need to believe that the person who injured me actually gives a damn about it. I need to believe that they feel genuine remorse for the harm they did, and a genuine intention to do better in the future. They don’t need to pour dirt on their heads and chant “Mea Culpa” a thousand times (although if they hurt me very deeply, I need to see some proportional concern about that). What I need to hear is, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you, but I understand that I did anyway, and I care about that and feel bad about it. I’ll work to do better in the future.”

If, on the other hand, someone does an injury — and they don’t show any concern for the harm they’ve done or any interest in changing their behavior — then I have to assume that they very likely will do it again. And that demolishes any “get out of jail free” card they might have gotten for the “unintentional” part. Morally, the whole point of saying “I didn’t mean to hurt you” isn’t to rationalize and deflect responsibility and make yourself feel less bad. Morally, the point is to convey regret for the injury, and an intention to do better in the future. If it doesn’t convey that, then “I didn’t mean to hurt you” isn’t about making the injured person feel better — it’s about making the person who did the injury feel better. And that’s totally bass-ackwards.

In fact — and here’s the kicker — if someone is making the second statement, I have to seriously doubt whether the harm they did was, in fact, unintentional.

If someone responds to “You hurt me” with “Why are you being so mean to me? I meant to do something good, so the fact that I actually hurt you is irrelevant. It’s not right for you to tell me why you’re angry. Let me tell you how your criticism is hurting my feelings,” I think it’s very likely that they they’ve had this conversation before. Especially when it comes to social justice stuff. I think that if someone is getting defensive about their slut-shaming language, or is getting pissy about the word “cisgender,” the chances are very good that they have had (or at least have seen) this conversation before — and are choosing to ignore it. And that means that the hurt is intentional. That means they know that what they’re doing is hurtful, and are choosing to do it anyway.

Intention is not trivial. Good intentions do have power. But in order for good intentions to have power, they have to signal concern for the hurt that was done, and a willingness to make things right, and a commitment to do better. Without that, intention is more than just not magic. It’s bullshit.

I’ve Been Misquoted by American Conservative Magazine!

This must be some sort of career benchmark. I’ve been misquoted by American Conservative magazine!

American Conservative did an article about American Atheists being booted from having a booth at CPAC (the Conservative Political Action Conference), after initially being told they could have one. In their article, they had this to say:

If their soft-pedaling had won them supporters, American Atheists might have had a new problem on their hands. Although the many conservatives are uncomfortable with atheists, it’s not clear that the atheist movement is necessarily much more comfortable with conservatives. When Edwina Rogers, who had previously worked for Senator Trent Lott and President George W. Bush, was tapped as Executive Director of the Secular Coalition of America, Greta Christina, a popular atheist writer, called it “a disaster” and “unacceptable,” and resigned her membership in the SCA.

Um… yeah. Not so much.

Here is my reply to American Conservative, which I’ve written to them both as a letter to the editor and as a comment in the article.

*****

Dear Sir or Madam:

You recently quoted me in an article, “Conservative Atheists Speak Up About CPAC Shunning.” However, your quotation is highly misrepresentative of the actual position I took — in fact, it’s almost the exact opposite. In your article, you stated:

“Although the many conservatives are uncomfortable with atheists, it’s not clear that the atheist movement is necessarily much more comfortable with conservatives. When Edwina Rogers, who had previously worked for Senator Trent Lott and President George W. Bush, was tapped as Executive Director of the Secular Coalition of America, Greta Christina, a popular atheist writer, called it ‘a disaster’ and ‘unacceptable,’ and resigned her membership in the SCA.”

I did refer to Rogers’ appointment as a “disaster” and “unacceptable,” and I did resign my membership in the SCA as a result of it. But this was not because she was a conservative or a Republican. My opposition had to do with Rogers’ deceptive, manipulative, contemptuous, and insulting responses to questions about her appointment. Her conservative politics were cause for serious concern about whether she shared the values of most people in the atheist community and could effectively represent us. But I specifically stated in the article you linked to that I was willing to be proven wrong about this. I said, quote, “Maybe this is one of those ‘only Nixon can go to China’ things. Maybe a Republican could be uniquely effective at pitching secularism to Congress, and to America. The people who hired her aren’t idiots. This is worth considering. Keep an open mind.” I opposed her appointment because of her evasion, spin, and outright falsehoods in response to questions about her record — evasion, spin, and outright falsehoods aimed at the very community she was appointed to represent.

To state that I opposed Rogers’ appointment solely because she was a conservative is a serious misrepresentation of my views. I would very much appreciate a correction. If and when you issue one, please let me know. Thank you.

*****

Am now holding my breath for that correction. After I recover from the utter shock of American Conservative misquoting a progressive atheist in order to fit their narrative.

Secular Meditation: “If you can’t meditate for twenty minutes a day…”

clock in hand“You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day — unless you’re too busy. Then you should sit for an hour.” -Zen proverb

Almost as soon as I started meditating, I started hearing this proverb. It pops into my mind now and then: usually when I’m struggling with (or simply looking at) how to find time to practice every day, in a life that’s both overly packed and highly irregular.

Part of me gets it. And part of me thinks it’s totally classist, elitist, tone-deaf bullshit.

Part of me gets it. If my life is so packed with activity that I can’t find even twenty minutes to just sit still, then that’s a sign that I need to start scaling back. It’s a sign that the balance between activity and stillness in my life has gone haywire. It’s a sign that I’m taking on too much, and that I need to start saying “No” more often to more people. What’s more, if I’m telling myself that I don’t have time to meditate that day, it’s often a sign that there’s something I’m trying to avoid: some emotion or memory or anxiety that I’m furiously shoving into a corner with all my frenetic activity and that I know is going to start rising up the minute I sit down and start quietly focusing my awareness on my breath. And of course, there’s the little matter of priorities. If I can find time to dick around on Facebook or watch reruns of “Modern Family,” I can find time to meditate. For me, a big part of the point of meditation is to wean my brain off of needing constant stimulation and activity and input — so it’s worth looking at how much of the busy-ness of my life is legitimate and valuable, and how much is just generating noise to feed my sensation-junkie brain and distract me from uncomfortable truths that might come up in the silence.

So yes. Part of me gets this proverb, and resonates with it strongly.

gas station at nightBut part of me finds this proverb intensely irritating. There are an awful lot of people for whom a busy, action-packed life isn’t a luxury or a privilege, or even a choice. If you’re too busy to meditate for twenty minutes a day because you’re working one job at Wal-Mart and another at the gas station and you’re trying to get your car repaired and your laundry done and your kids to school, and you think this meditation thing might bring a modicum of calm to your life but you seriously have no idea how you’re going to find twenty spare minutes in your day to do it… is it really going to help for some smug Zen jackalope to tell you that (a) there’s something wrong with you because you don’t have twenty minutes of downtime in your day, and (b) the cure for what’s wrong with you is to find an hour of downtime in your day? With the implication of (b) being to loop around to (a) — that the lack of downtime in your life means there’s something wrong with you?

Fuck. That. Noise.

And even for me, who doesn’t work at the gas station or Wal-Mart… sure, there are plenty of times when “I don’t have twenty minutes a day to meditate” is crap, but there are some times when it’s legitimate. When I was in the final stages of finishing my upcoming book (“Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why”), pretty much everything other than the book got shoved onto the back burner. There were days when I didn’t shower, days when I didn’t leave the house, days when I didn’t see or even speak to another human being other than Ingrid, days when I took five minutes to make breakfast and another five to make lunch and ate at my computer. I got to the gym once in two months. Every spare minute that I had went into the book. What’s more, I was very socially isolated and in need of human contact (see above re: days when I didn’t leave the house): if I had twenty minutes to spare, I wanted to fill it with conversation or touch, not the sound of my own breath. It was a weird paradox: my ability to set aside distractions and stay single-mindedly focused on the book was very much aided by my meditation practice, but there were days when the practice was, itself, a distraction. I did keep it up (a freaking miracle, IMO), but there were a few days when I skipped it, and other days when I just did it for a few minutes, or crammed it in during stretches of enforced downtime. (On a bus? In a doctor’s waiting room? A fine time to squeeze in some focused awareness!)

And I did not need some long-dead Zen monk with no clue about the publishing industry scolding me for doing my meditation wrong.

(I also have an intense allergic reaction to writing about meditation that scolds people for doing it wrong. There’s a reason that almost all of my writing on this topic has been in the first person. A topic for another post, perhaps.)

I think my reaction to this proverb is so strong because the rightness of it is so right — and the wrongness is so wrong. There’s an important kernel of truth in there, and it’s one that I need to accept if I’m going to continue with this practice. If I let myself blow this off because life is hard, I’ll miss out on all the ways that it makes my life better. But there’s also a cluelessness in there, an out-of-touchness with human reality, that I not only can’t accept but don’t want to.

Not sure how I’m going to resolve this. For right now, for myself: If I’m thinking that I can’t sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day because I’m too busy, I try to take an honest look at what “too busy” means. And if “too busy” means “I’ve taken a careful look at my priorities and values, and today, twenty minutes of meditation just isn’t on that list”… then I meditate for ten minutes. Or five. During my full court press to finish the book, I found that even a five-minute meditation helped a lot in quieting my mind and restoring my focus… and it definitely helped me keep meditation as a near-daily habit, which I’ve resumed more fully now that the book is complete. If, on the other hand, “too busy” means “I can’t meditate, I have to blog about the Pope/ get my travel schedule into my calendar/ get my nails done/ fix people’s opinions on Facebook”… then yeah, okay. If I can’t meditate for twenty minutes a day because of all that, then I need to find a way to meditate for twenty minutes a day.

And if I can’t find a way to do that, then it wouldn’t be a bad idea to sit for an hour.

Activist Burnout, Prevention and Treatment: Greta’s Talk at Skepticon 6

The talk I gave at Skepticon 6 — “Activist Burnout, Prevention and Treatment” — is now up on YouTube. Topics include taking care of your health, carving out an identity separate from atheist activism, taking breaks, getting a life, saying “No,” and more. Plus it features one of my rare uses of props in a talk — an analog PowerPoint slide!

Many thanks to Rob Lehr of Hambone Productions for the excellent videography, and for the Herculean marathon of video work he does every year at Skepticon.

State Senator to Constituents: “My Oath of Office Means Jack To Me”

From Salon:

State Sen. Jason Rapert, the man behind Arkansas’ ban on abortion at twelve weeks, may have been elected to office to serve the 85,000 constituents in his district, but, he says, he only really serves God.

“It’s more important to do what is right by God,” Rapert told an audience at the Faith2Action banquet in Columbus, Ohio, “than it is to please those that would rather have me talk about pro-life but not really do much about pro-life.”

“There’s only one vote that matters and that’s when I stand before the Lord at the judgment seat,” he added, just in case it wasn’t clear.

Yeah. About that, Senator Rapert.

I looked up the Oath of Office for State Senators in the state of Arkansas. Wasn’t hard. Took about thirty seconds of Googling. You might want to try it when you have a sec. Here’s what it says:

“I, ________, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Arkansas, and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office of ________, upon which I am now about to enter.”

Please note the lack of any reference to doing what is right by God.

And this is the oath you swore. This is the position you campaigned for. This is the job you were elected to do.

If you want to spend your life doing what is right by your idea of God… there are jobs where you can do that. You can be a preacher, a missionary, a Bible salesman, a teacher at a Bible school, a data entry clerk at a mail-order Christian supply company.

But you didn’t want that. You wanted to be a state senator. And when you became a state senator, you made a promise. You swore an oath. And you did not swear an oath to serve God. You swore an oath to support the Constitution of the United States, to support the Constitution of the State of Arkansas, and to faithfully discharge the duties of your office.

So what you’re saying now is: “I lied. Yes, I promised to support the Constitutions of the United States and the State of Arkansas, and to faithfully discharge the duties of my office. And when I promised that, I lied like a dog. I had another agenda, a different set of priorities. If I have to choose between serving the constituents who elected me, and serving my personal idea of what I think my deity wants, I’m going to choose the latter. And I totally, barefacedly lied about that. Fuck all y’all.”

What’s more: I’d bet dollars to donuts that you swore this oath. I’d bet dollars to donuts that you didn’t affirm it, which is the secular version of oath-swearing. I’d bet a hundred dollars that when you made this promise, you made it with the implication that you were making it with your god as your witness. You made your god into your witness, the god you supposedly want to serve above all else — and you baldly lied.

I’m just sayin’, is all.

Shorter JT

JT Eberhard has responded to Jen McCreight’s critique of his post on Bria Crutchfield’s critique of a commenter at a Q&A at the recent Great Lakes Atheist Convention.

He took 8,208 words to do it in, though. Here’s my summary. Shorter JT:

“I wasn’t saying that it’s always bad to express anger about racism. I am just taking it upon myself to tell an African-American woman how and when and where and in what tone she should express her anger about racism. I am doing this, even though it enrages me when religious believers do the same thing to atheists — take it upon themselves to tell us how to run our movement and our messaging, and consistently advise us to tone it down. I know when the intent behind a racist question is genuine and when it’s hostile, and other people should trust me on this. Also, the intent behind a question is the most important factor in determining how to respond to it.

“A white person being embarrassed at being called out on her racism — whether intentional or unintentional — is the most deserving target of my compassion, the one I should be spending thousands of words defending. The African-American people who were the targets of that racism are a secondary concern. Also, African-Americans’ suspicions of white people are equivalent to white people’s suspicions of African-Americans.

“If people don’t understand what I say, it’s their fault as readers, not my responsibility as a writer. Also, if people interpret my writing differently from how I want it to be interpreted, it’s not that they have a perspective that I’m not seeing — they’re just wrong. It’s a mischaracterization. They just don’t understand me. It couldn’t possibly be that they understand me all too well.

“Some people don’t like the harsh tone that some social justice advocates sometimes take. They are tickled pink to see bloggers take on religion and religious believers with passion, rage, invective, and biting wit, a la Christopher Hitchens — but they don’t like it when these tactics are turned on them. In some cases, the fact that some people will harshly disagree when they get stuff wrong is enough to keep them from speaking out about social justice. They would rather stay silent about injustice than speak out and risk being verbally smacked down if they get it wrong. And when speaking about social justice, avoiding offense should be our highest priority. People only ever change their minds on social justice when they’re spoken to nicely: harsh expressions of anger doesn’t change people’s minds — even though I say the exact opposite when it comes to speaking about religion. Therefore, social justice advocates within the atheist movement should tailor our tone to make sure it doesn’t hurt anyone’s feelings — even though most of us get furious when religious believers tell atheists to do the same thing. The social justice advocates — “Jen, Greta, and their ilk” (that’s a direct quote) — are driving people away from atheism. People are being driven away or kept away from the atheist movement because of infighting — but me devoting several thousand words to criticizing other atheists somehow doesn’t count as infighting, it’s only when people disagree with me that it counts as infighting. Social justice advocates are ruining atheism. Despite the large number of people who say they have had their minds changed about social justice by those of us who are writing about it, we are still ruining atheism.

“And the fact that just about every feminist friend I ever had in this movement has called me out on my attitudes about this, numerous times… that’s not a problem. They’re just all wrong. If just about every quantum physicist I knew told me I was wrong about quantum physics, I’d probably pay attention — but I’m not going to pay attention to this.”

My response:

Your concerns are noted, and will be given all due consideration. Thank you for sharing.

PZ Myers’ Grenade, and Anonymous Accusations vs. Unnamed Sources: The “Deep Throat” Analogy

When we’re considering accusations of seriously bad, possibly criminal behavior, should we take anonymous accusations seriously?

What about unnamed sources?

Much has been said about PZ Myers’s post on Pharyngula, What do you do when someone pulls the pin and hands you a grenade?, in which he re-posted an email from a woman he knows — but whose name he did not disclose — saying that Michael Shermer coerced her into a position where she could not consent, and then had sex with her.

Much of what has been said about this is along the lines of, “We can’t trust anonymous accusations! Anyone could accuse anyone of anything anonymously! Anonymous accusations are just gossip! McCarthyism! Witch-hunting! Moral panic!”

So I want to clear something up:

This is not an anonymous accusation.

It is an accusation from an unnamed source.

There’s an analogy I’ve been making to some friends who I’ve been discussing this with. The analogy is with Watergate, and reporter Bob Woodward, and his confidential source popularly known as “Deep Throat.”

all-the-presidents-menThink back, for a moment, to Watergate. Think back to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. And think about “Deep Throat,” Bob Woodward’s high-level secret informant, from whom Woodward got much of the information about the numerous, highly illegal activities going on in the Nixon White House, and the high level at which these activities were going on.

These weren’t anonymous allegations. They were allegations from an unnamed source.* Woodward didn’t disclose who they came from — but he knew who made them.

And Bob Woodward — along with his colleague, Carl Bernstein — had a reputation for rigorously caring about the truth. The reporters paid attention to the reliability of their sources. They got as much corroborating documentation for their stories as they could. On the few occasions when they got information wrong, they said so publicly.

Woodstein trusted their sources… and people trusted Woodstein.

Do you think people should have dismissed Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting about Watergate, simply because it came from unnamed sources?

Do you see where I’m going with this?

PZ’s re-posting of an email from a woman he knows… this is not an anonymous accusation. It an accusation from an unnamed source. PZ knows who it is. And PZ has a reputation for rigorously caring about the truth. He has a reputation for paying attention to the reliability of his sources. He has a reputation for getting corroborating documentation when he can. On the occasions when he gets stuff wrong, he says so publicly.

But even if you don’t trust PZ, and don’t agree that he’s trustworthy and reliable? It still makes no sense to reflexively dismiss the entire notion of trusting unnamed sources for a story. Argue, if you like, that PZ isn’t reliable. Make that case if you like. (Many people certainly made that case against Woodward and Bernstein: many people said they were commie pinko liberal agitators, hell-bent on tearing down the Nixon presidency, and that their reports weren’t worth the paper they were printed on.) But unless you’re willing to wholly reject the very idea of reporting based on unnamed sources, you can’t just say, “These stories are anonymous — and therefore, we can and should ignore them, and can and should revile the people who take them seriously.”

Now, it’s true that in the Watergate reporting, one of the things that made Woodward and Bernstein trustworthy and reliable was that they didn’t rely on just one source. A single unnamed source could, in fact, all too easily be someone with an axe to grind just trying to stir shit up. So they wouldn’t publish a story based on unnamed sources unless they had at least two of them saying the same thing. More than two, in the case of highly explosive stories.

So in this situation? As of this writing, August 20 2013, 12:19 Pacific time, according to Jason Thibeault’s timeline: We have one unnamed source reporting that Shermer, to use her own phrasing, coerced her into a position where she could not consent, and then had sex with her. We have one unnamed source reporting that this first unnamed source told them about this incident shortly after it happened, and was visibly distraught. We have one unnamed source reporting, not that Shermer assaulted her, but that he deliberately got her very drunk while flirting with her — a story that corroborates a particular pattern of sexual assault. All of these are people PZ knows, and whose reliability he is vouching for.

In addition: We have a named source, Carrie Poppy, stating that she knows the woman who said that Shermer coerced her, that she knew about the assault, and that she’s the one who put her in touch with PZ. We have one pseudonymous commenter, Miriamne, reporting in 2012 that she was harassed by Shermer. We have one pseudonymous source, delphi_ote, reporting that they personally know a woman who was assaulted by Shermer. (Important note: These other reported assault victims may be the woman who said that Shermer coerced her, or they may be different people: since they’re unnamed or pseudonymous, we don’t at this point know. It’s deeply troubling in either case: these are either multiple independent corroborations of the same assault, or they’re multiple independent reports of different assaults.) We have one named source, Brian Thompson, saying he personally knows a woman who was groped by Shermer.

In addition: We have one named source, Elyse Anders, reporting on behavior from Shermer that wasn’t assault but was inappropriately and uninvitedly sexual. We have another named source, Naomi Baker, reporting on behavior from Shermer that wasn’t assault but was inappropriately and uninvitedly sexual. (CLARIFICATION: The report from Naomi Baker is not of an incident that happened to her: it is a first-hand report of harassment told to her by the victim.) We have a pseudonymous source, rikzilla, reporting on behavior from Shermer that wasn’t assault but was inappropriately and uninvitedly sexual. To be very clear: By themselves, these wouldn’t be evidence of anything other than creepiness. But added to all these other reports of sexual assault, they corroborate a pattern.

Do you think this would be good enough for Woodward and Bernstein?

Not for them to report, “Michael Shermer committed sexual assault”… but for them to report, “Serious, credible accusations are being made that Michael Shermer committed sexual assault — accusations that are corroborated by multiple sources”?

Washington Post Front Page Nixon Denies Role In CoverUpThe analogy isn’t perfect, of course. No analogy is: if it was perfect, it wouldn’t be an analogy, it would be the exact same thing. For one thing, it wasn’t just Woodward and Bernstein that people trusted, and were being asked to trust. It was the entire institution of the Washington Post. People trusted that the editors of the Washington Post wouldn’t have hired Woodward and Bernstein if they hadn’t thought them to be reliable. They trusted the Washington Post’s track record of hiring reliable reporters. They were relying on the reputation and track record of the Washington Post, as much as the reputation of Woodward and Bernstein. Probably even more.

But it’s also the case that the Washington Post had to place an immense amount of trust in Woodward and Bernstein. Woodstein didn’t disclose their sources to their editors, any more than they disclosed them to the general public. Ultimately, their editors had to trust Woodstein. Ultimately, the web of trust was centered in Woodstein, and in their ability to decide that their unnamed sources could be trusted.

I’m not saying that these accusations are definitely true. And I’m definitely not saying that these reports would be enough evidence to convict someone in a court of law. Like I said the other day, in my piece Harassment, Rape, and the Difference Between Skepticism and Denialism: We’re not talking about what kind of evidence would support publication in a peer-reviewed journal, or a judgment in a court of law. We’re talking about what kind of evidence would support judgment in the court of public opinion. The legal standard of evidence isn’t the issue here.

I’m saying this: This idea that we should completely ignore these accusations — and deride the people who are taking them seriously — simply and entirely because they come from unnamed sources? It’s ridiculous. We don’t apply that standard to any other reporting, on any other topic.

There are reasons that unnamed sources stay unnamed. Especially when they’re making accusations against powerful people. So think, once again, about Deep Throat. Unless you’re willing to automatically discount Deep Throat, and the dozens — probably hundreds — of other unnamed sources in the Watergate reporting, and the thousands upon thousands of other unnamed sources on other stories who told reporters and bloggers things they couldn’t tell anyone else about… then don’t discount this. Believe it; don’t believe it; be on the fence about it for now; decide for yourself whether the reporters are credible and the sources are credible and whether there are enough of them. But don’t reflexively reject these stories, simply because they’re “anonymous.” They’re not.

I strongly suggest that you look at this excellent piece by Jason Thibeault, The web of trust: Why I believe Shermer’s accusers, which gets into similar concepts more thoroughly.

*Yes, I know that Deep Throat was technically not an unnamed source. He was on deep background (hence the nickname): not letting himself be cited as a direct source of information, but instead corroborating or disconfirming information from other unnamed sources, pointing Woodward in fruitful directions, and giving background and big-picture information to put the information Woodward already had in a comprehensible context. Both Woodward and Bernstein did have plenty of unnamed sources, however, who they did cite more directly in their reporting. As has pretty much every other investigative journalist in the known universe. I’m using Deep Throat as my analogy because he’s so widely known, and his story is so recognizable.

Activist Burnout — Prevention & Treatment: My Talk at SSA Con West 2013

My talk at the Secular Student Alliance convention this year is up on YouTube! The topic: “Activist Burnout — Prevention & Treatment.”

I think a lot of us maybe need to hear this right now. I actually just watched the video myself: I wrote this talk to be as much of a pep talk for myself as it is for the rest of the movement, and I, for one, really needed to hear it tonight.

This, by the way, is the talk that includes my analog PowerPoint slide… which became a trope/ running joke throughout the rest of the conference.

Topics I touch on include: taking care of your health; carving out a life separate from activism; finding forms of activism you like to do — and letting that change as your life changes; just saying “No” to projects; and more. The talk is aimed at atheist activists, and somewhat particularly at student atheist activists… but I think it’s probably applicable to almost any social change activist, in any field. Plus — analog PowerPoint slide! Enjoy!