It’s not a secret that I like JT Eberhard. I think he’s a generally savvy guy. He’s good at atheist activism. He is good FOR atheist activism. He is very much pro-equality, and he generally doesn’t take any nonsense that is directed at him.
He’s got a serious feminism problem, though. Not that he’s anti-feminist — on the contrary. Just ask him. The problem is, he is not good at feminist activism. And he is not good FOR feminist activism. And when feminists tell him so, he is apparently turning, one at a time, against them. In this, I see JT going very, very wrong, despite all his claimed good intentions. I am remiss if I do not attempt to help him right this wrong, even if it takes some frank observations and tough words and hurt feelings.
Being pro-equality, JT is certainly on board with the ideas behind feminism, almost all of the struggles, and even the idea of fixing the anti-woman biases in the secular communities — the territory on which these battles between the feminists and the antifeminists keep occurring. He never generally posts about feminism or feminist topics, though, except to point out that certain feminists are mean to him when he gets stuff wrong. The few posts he has posted that broach any topic resembling feminism, he presents viewpoints that run contra to what feminist scholars and even his close feminist friends say about the topic, or that betray a lack of understanding of the arguments in the conversation so far.
I’ve personally given him a lot of chances to understand where he’s going wrong, because, again, I like him, he’s pro-equality, and savvy. I’ve backed off of fights when I knew he was in the wrong, and I’ve let him do damage to people I knew were in the right and whose outrage at his actions were borne of seeing yet another supposed ally betray them — and I did so in the hopes that because he’s generally savvy, he’ll come to understand that he WAS doing damage to them in the ways they expressed. I keep expecting if he chews through what people have said (in a dozen different ways, all coming to the same conclusion), he’ll realize that he’s making some specific mistakes. That he’s misspending his time arguing with border cases that are tangential but affect him personally. That he’s agreeing with feminists about their assertions on what he’s lacking, but that he’s not actually making the changes necessary to correct those lacks.
And that’s why people keep saying he’s not “walking the walk” while he “talks the talk”. He’s not actually spending his limited time in appropriate ways that would discourage further harassment, even where he thinks he is. He has generally sided with hearing out every person’s case and giving them due process, but hyperfixates on challenging only that which confronts or criticizes him directly. Considering one patently obvious fact about the fight we’re having, that’s why his choices aren’t helping.
See, there’s this faction in the atheist community called the slimepit. They do not “generally” do much of anything — they are a diverse crew, with every bit as much internal strife as we have elsewhere in the community, despite their protestations that the strife in the broader community is entirely the fault of feminists — but they DO have a few commonalities. They generally have some past and unhealing trauma related to people on the internet disagreeing with them. They generally disagree with feminism, even where some of them pretend to be feminists by cargo-culting the word and saying that their libertarianism is “equity feminism”. They more generally disagree with efforts by feminists to reduce the chilly climate presented by the atheist/skeptic/secular communities online by taking people to task for misogynist actions, and by taking people to task for targeted harassment and vitriol aimed disproportionately at women-who-talk-about-feminism.
The slimepitters generally disagree with those who say these actions are unacceptable; they evidently want every odious opinion to be enshrined in perpetuity, and they generally get off on giving offense as its own greatest good, as though speech without consequences is what’s actually entailed by the phrase “free speech”. They want to be heard to disagree with these positions against harassment and against entrenched and unconscious misogyny repeatedly, and when they get banned or blocked from commenting because ultimately THEY’RE the ones who are targeting women with harassment and vitriol disproportionately, they cry about censorship.
But this so-called community is made up of a series of non-homogeneous nodes, a superset of forums and blogs and social media where each has its own rules for posting. Some places value having every opinion free to be spoken no matter how damaging to members of our communities, enshrined in perpetuity to do its damage to a person decades after the fact, exactly as the slimepitters want. Some places value enculturating specific commenting cultures by discouraging certain styles of comment that undercut discourse. The former generally call the latter “bullies” and “Nazis”.
JT’s blog as a node in the community exists somewhere in the middle of that continuum. He says he is very feminist, and he agrees with feminism, and he is sick, SICK, of members of these communities staging ongoing harassment campaigns against people like Stephanie, including said slimepit. But for his blog, he apparently wants the only rule for blocking people from continuing posting shit to be the only one I have here: “don’t piss off the blog owner”. That’s well and good, considering there’s other ways to discourage certain assholes from turning another forum into an indictment of their intended target — even the most hardcore banhammer-wielder still lets things through now and again just to discuss them and/or mock. But the thing that really gets JT angry is not people perpetuating antifeminist crusades by posting bullshit about feminism and feminists in general, or even specific feminists whom he claims to agree with and defend and consider himself an ally to — but rather, people extrapolating intent from action. When the problem raised here is JT’s inability to effectively prevent his forum from being overrun by these harassers… well, it’s a self-feeding problem. And it cannot be fixed without JT making some sort of tangible change.
And so people take him to task for letting a specific misogynist dig at Stephanie by Socratic Gadfly slide, with his only response to it being a comment saying “I don’t know what you’re talking about, but that’s pretty weak” (though later declaring that “weak” in his vernacular means “deplorable”, and not “ineffective”). The slimepitters descend upon the thread to do whatever they can to exacerbate the situation, to increase Stephanie’s pain and to get their message out that these damned uppity feminists can’t be satisfied with anything. They go entirely unchallenged. His response to being told he’s failing at the thing he claims to be doing — being an ally and defending Stephanie — is not to demonstrate that he’s understood where he’s fallen short and take more appopriate corrective actions; it’s instead to cry out against people interpreting that as a) him not being very good at feminism (because he was “confused” by the dig, instead of catching the misogynist part of that argument, despite it being relies very heavily on a trope he just had levelled at himself), and b) as him not really “walking the walk”.
This is, honestly, a very mild criticism of a person who spent a not insignificant part of a blog post saying “I really support Stephanie Zvan against her harassers” and then allowed said harassers continue to harass unchallenged in his space. When told what that first harassing comment by Socratic Gadfly meant, he did not return to say “now that I know what that person meant, that kind of attack is as unacceptable from commentariat as it was when Greg Laden used it on me”. He did not do anything to discourage the perpetual re-hashing of old grievances by the slimepitters about Greg and Stephanie, I’m guessing because he was hyperfixated on how Greg had annoyed him personally. And he presumes that people downvoting the libellous comments made by these slimepitters, who’ve set up a tent city in his backyard, is sufficient — though the libel persists, and does damage to the intended targets in a stochastic manner — over time, through repetition by newcomers newly infected by those memes.
It is a criticism that has been levelled at me, in fact, for giving certain dishonest interlocutors too much rope. This is a very mild criticism of a person who thinks posting a new blog post saying “hey, that’s crappy, you’re jerks” while letting all the libel stand in the original blog post unchallenged is sufficient discouragement of that sort of thing. Especially where the blog rules of “don’t piss off the blog owner” should have been triggered here, if we take him at his word that these actions legitimately piss him off. Especially where all of this is a distraction from his own feminist-ally-fail that incited all of this internecine blog-warfare.
Here’s where the rub lies: the aforementioned slimepitters truly believe what they say, and aren’t “trolls” in the original definition, against whom the correct response is “don’t feed”. The slimepitters attack their original targets repeatedly in as many locales as they can, making things up about them with aplomb in a tactic resembling Scientology’s “Fair Game Doctrine”, poisoning one locale after another against their targets, until those targets break. They evidently just want their grievances against these people (or against people these people have not yet shunned) to be heard again and again and again, and through the repetition of them give them legitimacy. All too often they pick up new nodes as allies against the evil feminazis, either as places they can repeat their false claims and slurs and libels without repercussions, or as places whose blog-owners have themselves had bad experiences with the people in question — for instance, perhaps one of the targets had once disagreed with THEM, horror!, and they might therefore be sympathetic to the slimepit cause. They hail people whom feminists have disagreed with as “witches of the week”, then love-bomb them — a tactic I expect JT will learn soon, because Stephanie criticized him, and then I did, therefore FtBullies. But, as projection often works, they are the real witch-hunters. Their chief weapons are tu quoque, false dichotomies, making up mythologies, and grudges that last for years and years.
And their targets are invariably drawn from a single pool. Their grievances are entirely aimed at specific people who talk about feminism on the internet, for daring to say that certain actions undercut women. The pitters are unable to post on those people’s sites directly, having been blocked for their repeated dishonesty, so they watch the rest of the community’s spaces and swarm a node Zerg-style any time these people’s names are mentioned, and they get to reset the slur machine and have the whole conversation over again from the get-go, hopefully presenting themselves as the more reasonable parties this time around. They do chipping damage to these individuals by doing the creationist tactic of coming into a brand new forum with the same dozen rounds in their argument-guns, and eventually, the targets and the target’s friends, fraying around the edges from having yet another space become a place they have to monitor for slurs against them, might get angry at the host and other guests of that space for not doing anything about it.
This is what’s happening to JT right now — Stephanie is upset that JT claimed to be a treasured ally to her without actually backing that assertion up. The pitter types saw the mention of both the secular community’s “acceptable whipping boy”, Greg Laden, coupled with one of the secular community’s outspoken feminists, Stephanie Zvan, and they descended upon the place creating yet another forum where nobody’s doing anything to control the slander aimed at individuals in our community, Stephanie included. Stephanie took JT to task for this, so he posted a new post saying these people are “jerks”, which they certainly are, and yet the original comments stand unopposed. Some of them are downvoted. Many of them are very highly upvoted. None of them are called “out of bounds”. JT’s commentariat meanwhile dogpiles Stephanie, myself, and anyone who dares say that JT has an obligation to actually attempt to challenge the libel that he invites into his site. JT says his putting up the blog post and rebuking the unnamed people attacking her should be deemed by Stephanie as sufficient, and that he’s therefore bent over backward to accommodate her “and more”, and therefore any further criticism of his inaction (or ineffective and unwelcome action) is “unfair.”
At this point, I have recognized a few patterns, not only in others in this campaign, but in JT’s behaviour as well. With respect to JT’s dealings with feminism, he’s more than willing to attack people he finds to be affronting him personally, and even in the most intemperate terms. But when he gets certain topics egregiously wrong, and others explain it to him, there’s little evidence that he’s willing to respond or internalize the criticism or use it to refine his argument for the next go-around, even when these people handle him with kid gloves — he’s more willing to go after the low-hanging fruit comments aimed at him than he is to engage with the counterarguments made against him (short of saying how much he respects them, and possibly offering a hug).
When something strikes JT as necessary to say, he will say it, even if others attempt to tell him why the things he feels necessary to say are generally ill-advised. He will do the opposite of what someone asks of him, then claim he has bent over backward for them. He will make the entire debacle either an indictment of himself, or an indictment of the person criticizing him, moving the topic of conversation off his weak areas and onto grounds where he has a lot of allies himself. Meanwhile, the original problem is forgotten, and the reasons people think he’s a bad ally are never addressed thereafter. He has several times posted these bombs publicly, then asked for private responses from the aggrieved. And when you do tell him (publicly) that his viewpoints undercut women in a specific way, you apparently have to apologize a lot for saying so, and only do so where it’s expressly on-topic, or else you’re the one who gets banhammered. Because that’s evidently enough to piss him off, where the libel against his friends is evidently not; a double standard that plays directly into his image as a bad ally.
He gets atheism; he is fired up on the topic, he is a capable campaigner for the topic, and he knows the nuances and the ins and outs of the arguments for science and against atheism. But with feminism, though he agrees with it in principle, he runs afoul of tropes that make him seem more like someone grossly misinformed by being subjected to creationist propaganda, than a science-booster who has a lot of experience in the field, if you’ll allow the parallel. He is inexperienced. He is a neophyte in the fights. But because he is very often very right with regard to atheism, he appears to believe his experience translates directly, when it very often does not.
JT, don’t misunderstand this post. I make all these arguments in good faith, and would never level such criticisms unless they were honestly borne from my observations of your actions, and out of a sense of needing a person I like and respect, who claims ally status, to actually be an ally by any definition of the word. The problem is not that you repeatedly claim to be an ally or agree with the ideas behind feminism. No, that’s all fine. The problem is not that you’re not running the comment moderation exactly as people are demanding — that would be a foolish requirement, considering that Stephanie’s only two criteria have been to “deal with” the fact that your forum has become yet another place where slimepitters are posting their usual libel unchecked, and to do it NOT via another blog post. The problem is something different entirely.
It is not enough to say, again and again, how you support people or respect their opinions or disrespect certain tactics. How you react to those tactics — like whether you allow people whose strategies are simply to repeat lies and mythologies about others and generally treat them like Fair Game to continue to do so in spaces you control — determines how people will react to you as an ally. It is clear that you CARE about this problem, but it is very unclear that you UNDERSTAND it, when you’re simply not REACTING as though you understand it. And THAT is the problem.
It is perfectly okay to avoid a topic as “not your bailiwick”. I would far and away prefer you simply avoid the topic of feminism, and stop doing damage to one of the causes in which I have a considerable amount of vested interest, than that you repeatedly blunder and stumble and raise people’s hackles and undercut people’s fights for causes that mean as much to them as movement atheism does to you. I would prefer you avoiding the topics to the situation we have now, forcing me to either chastise a person I consider to be generally on the side of angels except for these glaring flaws, or to let the damage you’re doing to my friends and allies slide in an effort to maintain our friendship.
Don’t force me into these catch-22s. Please.