Being both a 4th Listener and a Freethought Blogger, I knew I had to listen to PZ Myers’ conversation with David Smalley this morning on Dogma Debate. I wasn’t able to take notes because I listened to it while I was driving to work, but I made some mental notes. Overall I think they were both right.
First, here’s a little context to the conversation. Last week, as readers may remember, Joey Lee Kirkman publicly bashed Callie Wright and Ari Stillman of The Gaytheist Manifesto for no reason other than the fact they are both social justice activists (or as Kirkman likes to call us, PSJWs—pseudo social justice warriors). This led Smalley to both write a blog post and upload a short episode of Dogma Debate about the need to handle disagreements privately before they escalate into ugly public spats. Myers responded by writing about how Smalley’s statement was the same old “Let’s be nice to one another” silencing technique people use to brush harmful behavior under the proverbial rug. So Smalley invited Myers on his show to talk about it.
Smalley began the conversation with a story about how he settled a disagreement between Justin Schieber and Peter Boghossian by having them call each other. They still disagree with each other about social issues, but according to Smalley, they’ve learned to disagree respectfully. Myers responded that if someone has a history of being an abusive asshole, you should cut off ties with that person, and Smalley agreed. Smalley also said publicly fat-shaming and misgendering people goes way beyond a petty disagreement (a reference to the Kirkman situation).
After the break, Smalley gave an example of what he means by a petty disagreement. When he first saw the picture of Ellen DeGeneres riding Usian Bolt, he thought it was funny, but then after learning about how white people used to ride slaves, he realized why it was so controversial. Myers then called Smalley out for brushing over the controversy since DeGeneres didn’t intend it to be racist. Smalley then made the mistake of asking Myers if it would be okay if DeGeneres photoshopped a picture of her riding the back of a white sprinter, and Myers said yes because there’s no history of white people being used as animals in America. Myers then said if you want to know if something is racist or not, it’s best to ask an actual person of color instead of discuss it with another white person. The podcast lasted just for an hour, but if you’re a 4th Listener, you can hear the extended show here.
Now maybe I’m being too nicey-nice, but I think both Smalley and Myers made valid points. I used to be all “If you disagree with me, I want nothing to do with you,” but the more involved get with the atheist movement, the more I realize we’re a pretty complex group of people. We all have our blind spots, so it’s not unusual for two skeptics to look at the same piece of empirical data and come up with two completely different interpretations. For example, Smalley once said he thought Black Lives Matter protesters blocking the road was “going too far,” but Alix Jules explained to him why that wasn’t the case. At least they had that conversation so that Smalley could understand where Jules was coming from.
Which brings me to my next point: sometimes dialogue actually does help. In his discussion with Myers, Smalley shared a story about how, after talking to an anti-feminist woman, he was able to change her mind. Likewise, when I wrote about trigger warnings for The Humanist last fall, a lot of people told me it helped them see the issue differently than just the same old YouTube talking points.
As far as whether to discuss these things privately or publicly, I think it depends. I think private conversations are a good way to prevent things from escalating. It was a private conversation that helped me realize I handled the controversy over my “toxic feminists” post badly. Without that conversation, the whole thing might have blown up to something worse.
However, let’s be honest: Trying to have a civil conversation with some people is like casting pearls before swine. I recently tried doing some Street Epistemology on an anti-feminist guy on a friend’s Facebook wall. Maybe I didn’t do it right, but to me it was obvious the other guy only knew YouTube talking points, so we weren’t able to get anywhere. Also, Myers is right when he said intent doesn’t mean anything. You may have accidentally stepped on someone’s toe on a crowded bus, but you still stepped on that toe. You don’t have to do penance for it; just say you’re sorry and be more careful so you don’t step on anyone else’s toes.
The thing I agree with Myers the most is when he said sometimes opinions are more than just mere disagreements. If someone has a history of saying racist and sexist things again and again, chances are that person really is just a racist and sexist asshole. If someone has a history of being abusive towards others, chances are that person is really just an abusive asshole. We don’t need any more abusive, racist, and sexist assholes in the atheist movement, so we shouldn’t have to tolerate them for the sake of “working together for a common goal.” Also, I think DeGeneres should have issued a public apology and explain that at the time, she was ignorant about the history of whites riding on the backs of slaves.
Overall it was an interesting discussion. Not a train wreck, but not perfect, either.