There’s a battle raging presently over at Ophelia’s and Stephanie’s over a guy by the ‘nym of Franc Hoggle. I say ‘nym, because a real-life friend of his learned of his online identity, evidently by him outing himself to this friend — leading to his friend discovering his blog, Grey Lining (no link, sorry). Said friend decided to tell Ophelia Franc’s real name so she could use it to defend herself and the rest of us by extension from his ongoing misogynist, anti-feminist, anti-FtB, anti-Ophelia and downright obsessive anti-PZ campaign.
To be clear, Franc Hoggle, despite making a great many oblique and yet threatening comments like “if I were a woman, I’d kick [Ophelia] in the cunt”, has never directly threatened anyone. In his nascent proto-Mabus state, he has compared PZ Myers, popular atheist blogger and small town professor of biology, of being like Idi Amin and Kim Jong-Il, the only admitted difference being that PZ was lacking only the opportunity to commit mass-murder.
The constant drumbeat of anti-feminist sentiment from his site and his commentariat (whom we would probably leave largely alone if they would only stop staging raiding parties!) is evidently intended to inculcate a hostile environment for our bloggers, shaming and othering and invoking fear to speak our minds lest we incur the wrath of some people who happen to think that including feminism in the skeptic and atheist blogosphere is the Wrong Direction For The Movement™. But he has made no direct threats to anyone, and short of the fact that he has visited the Melbourne-based Global Atheist Convention in 2010 under his real name, and PZ was planning on being at the 2012 GAC, he poses no physical threat to anyone in real life.
Primarily because not many people in the real, non-blogospheric part of the world actually know that Franc Hoggle’s actions are being perpetrated by a person who goes by a different name altogether in meatspace. You know, because Franc Hoggle looks like a real name. The anonymity of the internet is being used presently to provide this person with a shield he can use to protect himself from all the attendant fallout that would inevitably result from waging a four-months-and-counting campaign of hatred against an entire gender. And anyone who supports them, especially our ostensible deity figurehead “PeeZus”.
On the internet, anonymity can allow a person to espouse a particularly unpopular or government-censored position. It can also allow you to, if you’re willing to cheat the system by developing multiple screen names or accounts on various networks, amplify your voice beyond other folks’. You can, as with the case of the You’re Not Helping guy, build “sock-puppet” accounts and pretend like you have a small chorus of like-minded individuals on your side.
Or you can slip from one identity to another after one’s utility is used up, like Franc Hoggle did with his previous identity, Felch Grogan. Over at Atheist Nexus, Felch evidently acted as unofficial vigilante, unilaterally deciding to “out” three people’s real life information for relatively minor offenses like spamming or not being an atheist. Franc has also explicitly declared that Stephanie should out him, over on the Elevatorgate Challenge #4 thread. I guess the suspense is killing him.
So the case for outing Franc is relatively solid — for one, we have a months-long internet demonization campaign completely divorced from reality which threatens to spill over into the real world; secondly, we have Hoggle using the exact same tactics rather liberally on “small-timers” who are definitively not out to cause as much emotional harm as Hoggle has managed thus far; third, people generally want Franc’s real-life acquaintances to have the opportunity to learn what he’s up to on the internet in case they need to decide to dissociate themselves with him (e.g., forcing him to “wear his colors off the field”, to steal Stephanie’s phrasing); and fourth and most relevant, Hoggle himself says we should. However, a large proportion of the bloggers at FtB know Franc’s real name, and yet none of us have yet outed him. Ophelia feels that by being told she can’t out him, the defenders of this pseudonymity are condoning further abuse, helping hold the shield that Hoggle uses to protect himself from the splash damage of his invective. And yet, she has still not outed him. She has in fact stated that she has no immediate plans to do so.
There have been a large variety of arguments made against revealing Hoggle’s real name to the internet, the primary being that we are not the adjudicators of who is abusing their pseudonymity on the internet — that we are not a Star Court, that we do not have any moral authority to make the decision with which we are presented. There is fear that if we out Hoggle for his contributions to inculcating a chilly climate for women, others’ pseudonymity will be targeted in cases where Hoggle’s supporters decide our pseudonymity is less important than the damage they feel we’re causing to the community.
Additionally, acting as a damping mechanism is the fear of escalation of the selfsame campaign of vitriol and smear, where people who are so obsessed as Hoggle has become might see any attempt to out him as a personal attack. He has already decried the “smear tactics” of forcing him to own his actions in real life as well as on the internet. Certainly his defenders consider us as engaging in a personal attack. Some have expressed fear that it is when an obsessed person loses everything — and pseudonymity is pretty easily construed as a valuable thing to lose, and could very well be the last thing Hoggle has, aside from his sycophants — that they will “go nuclear” and lash out in a potentially very violent manner. We of course cannot act as psychologists based only on the ASCII characters he’s spewed forth onto his screen at great volume, but when faced with a potentially very bad situation like that, it’s only natural to want to protect one’s self from the worst-case scenario. Delusional, perhaps, but self-defense is hard-wired, and nothing we should under any circumstances abrogate (especially if I wish to remain consistent with my opinions about Rebecca Watson and Elevator Guy).
It is my earnest opinion that the entire skeptical-atheist blogosphere (meaning, the section of the two communities where the Venn diagram overlaps) is fractious in another and rather novel way. There are schisms of which we are already keenly aware in this community, e.g. the “New Atheist” / “Accomodationist” sections of the movement. There is a similar schism in the process of forming, between those who want to encourage more female participation in the movement where it has largely been a chilly climate for women in the past; and those who feel the community is perfectly open as it stands, and any attempt to improve the climate for women would be an abrogation of men’s rights. This last group is, by all accounts, comprised of a rather significant proportion of Men’s Rights Advocates, anti-feminists, and outright misogynists.
Yes, it’s well possible to become an atheist and skeptic without critically examining the plenary role that the patriarchal establishment has had in creating the disadvantages that men face, blaming instead those women that are pushing to deconstruct the patriarchy that leads to the disadvantages that both genders face. Just because you’re appropriately skeptical on one topic doesn’t mean you’re appropriately skeptical on all topics — and in fact, you’ll often find that to justify their misogynist presuppositions, people will engage in hyper-skepticism with regard to every mundane detail of every story offered by a woman just because it was told by a woman. And I suspect that this movement we’re seeing in the skeptic-atheist blogosphere is an echo of a larger movement going on internet-wide presently, where simply blogging on the internet as a woman will earn you death and rape threats, sexist name-calling, or demands for sexual service (as though these women are simply being uppity because they are lacking in the “being stuffed” department). In fact, there is an anti-misogynist-bullying campaign hitting even the mainstream media lately, indicating that this pushback against the constant and pervasive sexism everywhere on the internet may have hit a tipping point.
I mean, hell, I’m a guy, and just blogging in support of women, I get called all manner of things by these same misogynist trolls — “mangina”, “pussy-whipped”, “puppy dog”, “parroter”, “misandrist”, “gender traitor”, and my new personal favorite, “Jason Bieber”. Among other such grade-school taunting. It’s kind of nice that I never got a chance to stand up to bullies as a kid, but I’m getting a second chance now.
But I digress.
The case against outing Franc Hoggle boils down to one of respecting the pseudonymous rights of those who wish to participate in this community without having to risk themselves in their real lives. The biggest problem with that stance is that it also entails protecting people who want to tear down this community, out of fear that they will retaliate against our community members. I strongly suspect that there will always be some faction on the internet who wants to destroy what progress we’ve made in including women in the dialog, and that faction will not always “play by the rules”. In fact, one of them has already posted some otherwise less-than-public information about Stephanie Zvan’s current employment as a bargaining chip against her outing Hoggle, though it apparently isn’t information you’d need a private investigator to obtain. I don’t see this fear of retaliation as something that should paralyze us into inaction in the face of rampant bullying. But I’m also not seeing very many cogent arguments offered with respect to Stephanie’s challenge.
Frankly, if there’s a good argument against outing Franc Hoggle that outweighs the very real trauma being done to the psychology of some of our members and to the inclusiveness we’ve hoped to foster with regard to women in the community, I haven’t seen it yet. And that’s despite 552 comments in the thread at Stephanie’s where people are explicitly asked to provide a good reason that overrides women’s right to feel safe and protected by this community’s members.