Everybody’s an expert

There’s another thing Paula said, that’s much much more trivial, so I didn’t want to combine with the Nazi&Stasi totalitarian accusation – but it’s one that I keep getting and it’s really…a bad thing to do, so I want to address it too. Actually it’s not all that minor, as a thing to do – but it was about me, so it’s minor in that sense.

It started where I left off, with

I disagree. I see real strains of totalitarian thought over there. And I lived in a totalitarian state for 2 years.

The other said

Incidentally, I do hope you are as strident in your condemnation of threats against eg Ophelia Benson. That’s serious.

Paula said

What threats? There was no threat. Only ridiculous, OTT ‘concern’, which just goes to show how silly these overreactions are.


The reason it’s a bad thing to do, as I said a week ago, in response to Russell Blackford’s claiming to know more than he knew about what I was reacting to, is that you can’t judge what it’s like to get a threat (or threat-like message) if you’re not the one who gets it. You can’t judge, and you should be able to figure that out. Within reason. I don’t mean that if one gets a pretty postcard that says “Having a lovely time!” it’s reasonable to think that’s a threat. But within reason – you should be able to figure out that something that can be read as a threat might well be scarier to receive than it is to read about someone else receiving. See what I mean? It’s not real to them because they don’t have to do anything about it. I did. I had to decide whether what looked threat-like actually was a threat. Fortunately Tim Farley helped enormously with that, by doing all the hard work involved. But I didn’t know that was what was going to happen when I had to decide what to do.

So. It wasn’t “ridiculous.” It wasn’t OTT. It wasn’t “concern.” It wasn’t silly. It wasn’t an overreaction. It’s easy for Paula to think it was, but she didn’t receive it.

I’ll just remind Paula – clearly she’s reading me, in the same benevolent spirit as Abbie’s friends – that I didn’t squall and tear my hair the instant I read the first message. I puzzled over it and then sent a reply saying oh come on, it’s not going to be that bad, just maybe awkward at times. That’s not ridiculous, or OTT, or silly, or an overreaction, is it.

It was the last part of the second message that did sound threat-like.

I’m happy that PZ was not shot (gun or uppants camera) at GAC, but that gives me scant reassurance that you will *not* be shot either way in Las Vegas.

Please do not respond to this message. If you adopt safety measures, whether I’ve suggested them or not. DO NOT TELL ANYONE, including me.

Don’t you dare tell me that doesn’t look anything like a threat. Don’t you dare tell me I was silly to think it might be meant as one.

And don’t tell other people things like that, either. Have some sense. You don’t know. Leave it to the cops, or to people who are involved. Don’t sneer at people who think a threat-like warning looks like a threat. Have some sense, some epistemic humility, some decency.



  1. Sastra says

    I could be wrong here, but I think Paula Kirby’s phrase about “ridiculous, OTT (Over The Top) ‘concern'” was a description of the letter writer’s stance, not yours.

    The “silly overreaction” bit, however, IS referring to you. Which is wrong, because it wasn’t silly, and is only an ‘overreaction’ when judged in hindsight, with all information available. As you point out, we don’t get to react using hindsight. How convenient that would be.

  2. says

    Hm yes, I think you’re right.

    The contempt is still for me too, though – the ‘concern’ was ridiculous and OTT and how could I possibly not see that. (She called me “hysterical” in another tweet, not one I quoted.) She must have forgotten that I did see that, and replied to the sender in that vein.

  3. anthrosciguy says

    I don’t mean that if one gets a pretty postcard that says “Having a lovely time!” it’s reasonable to think that’s a threat.

    Kirby ignores context. Context is critical.

    Using this as an extreme example, even the above could be a threat with a certain context. For instance: you’re a cop who put away a particularly nasty criminal who repeatedly threatened you and your family, and has vowed to take revenge whenever that becomes possible. The criminal escapes. The postcard — from that criminal — arrives a week later.

    With no context, I see that postcard and don’t see a threat. The cop does. Who’s right? Not me.

    Given that Kirby doesn’t have the context you do, she is incapable of accurately determining whether or not you should feel a threat. You aren’t completely sure either, but then you’re the one facing whatever it is, not Kirby. So your view of the matter should be privileged by any reasonable person. Having read your previous posts about the “concern”, it sounds an awful lot like a veiled threat to me. How someone cannot see that I don’t know, but it seems to me that attitude would require some willful blindness.

  4. Hamilton Jacobi says

    Suppose you wanted to threaten someone in a way that is deniable, without using the stereotypical “Nice [insert vital organ of choice] you have there; it would be a shame if something bad happened to it.” How would you go about phrasing your letter, assuming you are a smart person who knows how to write reasonably well?

    If it were me, I would make it overtly friendly, but with just a few parts that come off as bizarre and a bit stalkerish. Just enough to raise questions without being obvious. Pretty much like the one that Ophelia received.

    It seems that those who assign a threat level of zero to this letter are making the implicit assumption that everyone who writes threatening letters is a knuckle-dragging buffoon straight out of central casting for the Sopranos. But from my point of view, it is a big mistake to assume that the overlap between {people who want to harm me} and {people who are smart and capable} is the null set.

  5. anthrosciguy says

    Also, one other thing I should have said in my just-posted comment. Even if the “concern” you got wasn’t a threat in the sense that the person actually intends to do violence, it seems certainly to at least be intended to scare you and make you paranoid. It does not sound like genuine concern for you, unless the person sending it is completely unfamiliar with the norms of human interaction.

  6. davidmc says

    I wonder if she has only heard about the emails, 3rd hand. It displays a complete lack of empathy. I hardly ever(i exagerate, its never) engage is public speaking and I would have still been freaked out by an email like that, as i suspect, behind all the bluster, most people would be too.

  7. julian says


    Nevermind any of Opehlia Benson’s other complaints. None of those are written down anywhere. The only important thing, the only thing worth seeing or talking about, is that she’s a little irked at being blocked by someone calling her feminazi.

    So who is it that can’t do nuance or read for meaning again?

  8. julian says

    Ophelia is called a cunt. She’s insulted and belittled across the internet for objecting to being called a cunt.

    This makes her the bully (somehow).

    I hate skeptics. Entitled bunch of brats.

  9. Chris Lawson says


    When I read those emails, I got the feeling that they were not intended as direct threats. Having said that, though, they were clearly written by someone who was not entirely in control of their thoughts and it was not unreasonable to see them as threatening (even if the author didn’t intend them that way). And certainly it was enough, in the context of the controversy about harassment and the horrifying rhetoric from some quarters, to decide that TAM was not worth going to. That is, even if a reader like myself was to conclude that those letters were not meant to be threatening, one should still conclude that the recipient of those letters could reasonably feel threatened by them and could very reasonably decide to back out of attending TAM.

    Frankly, I’m having trouble understanding why people would insist that a letter emphatically stating that your life was in danger and that you need to take special secret safety precautions should be dismissed as non-threatening.

  10. Sastra says

    What threats? There was no threat. Only ridiculous, OTT ‘concern’, which just goes to show how silly these overreactions are.

    Reading this yet again, I think the “silly overreaction” is also supposed to refer to the letter-writer. In which case, Paula Kirby isn’t specifically attacking you here, but placing you on her side (albeit temporarily): some people do exaggerate the problem out of proportion (letter-writer) … and this causes confusion (you.)

    This was probably answered somewhere on some thread I didn’t get all the way through, but — is the person who wrote the letter doing okay? Given that it apparently wasn’t actually a threat (and that you’re comfortable with this interpretation), then the email seems to have been written by someone with a high sensitivity for danger who felt a very strong concern for and connection with you and, presumably, the B&W ‘community’ as a whole. This community has now turned on him.

    If he was only trying to protect you and join in with the group, I think his heart must have broken when he read the reactions. A worst nightmare sort of thing.

    Okay, maybe that’s overreaction on my part. Knowing what I now know, I don’t read the letter in the voice of Penn Gillette (taunting) or John Malkovich (creepy) or Barney Fife (officious.) I hear Chris Crocker. And I think uh-oh.

  11. Tony... therefore God says

    If Ophelia is going to bully people, she deserves to get fucking blocked.

    Please give examples of this bullying and why it is bullying.
    Or STFU.

  12. mandrellian says

    Have some sense, some epistemic humility, some decency.

    Sorry Ophelia, I think those were thrown out the window some time ago.

    Ophelia is crying about being blocked on Twitter?

    PZ Myers is now telling you to fuck off and get over it.

    If Ophelia is going to bully people, she deserves to get fucking blocked.


    Case in point.

    No, RFA, Ophelia isn’t “crying”. And I’m sure such an infantilising gendered insult would warrant a #bullies tag (2012’s version of a reasoned adult fucking discourse) if it were directed at you or your heroes, I’m sure, you childish hypocrite. This looks more like a “WTF Paula?” to me, in response to being blocked and defriended – but then copping more insults and bullshit. How would you react if you were shut out of a room and could hear everyone inside continue to flame you but couldn’t respond directly? That sounds like actual, gradeschool bullying to me.

    You, on the other hand, haven’t been banned from this blog, so you can easily refresh this page every five minutes and respond to people calling you out for the personality of “bratty, drive-by trolling little shit” that you’re currently exhibiting.

  13. says

    Something I should add that I don’t think I’ve said before. I’ve gotten a number of emails from the same person. None of them were threats or discussed threatening things or anything like that. However, they were very very strange and I still don’t understand them. I was creeped out. They’ve stopped.

    Ophelia, I’m sure that the email you got was creepier than the ones I got.

  14. mandrellian says

    General comment: I sometimes wonder how many slack-jawed creationists/theopologists/atni-science dominionists are watching this ridiculous and growing farce from afar, happy to be left off the radar for a while and perhaps even crowing over the Deep Rifts [tm] that they imagine threaten to tear us asunder. Maybe lots, probably not many, but it doesn’t matter either way. One of the strengths of the skeptic community is that this, eventually, will pass once certain people either shut the fuck up and quit doubling down on every ignorant, presumptuous, emotionally prescriptive fucking thing they say or grow the fuck up (both, preferably), admit that problems exist that need to be addressed and stop blaming anyone and everyone who dares to highlight a problem.

    Honestly, my mind boggles. I don’t understand how anyone who calls themselves skeptical or rational or reasonable can look at this situation and basically accuse people of lying for attention, or overblowing a problem, or being “bullies” for standing up for themselves. It fucking reeks of the same ignorance and unawareness of privilege that’s exhibited by fundamentalists when they claim peoples’ right to believe is being threatened by militant atheists. No, fuckwits, let’s swap positions and see how you view your goddamn “FTBullies” when they’re standing up for your right to be treated like a goddamn human being.

  15. FossilFishy (Νεοπτόλεμος's spellchecker) says

    ReadyForAnything has the smell of socks. Here, let’s find out: please give us your definition of bullying RFA.

  16. says

    It’s easy to be an expert on someone else’s situation, especially after the unknowns of the time are later understood. It’s easy to judge with hindsight.

    What I don’t understand, is why it’s so hard for many seemingly reasonable people to understand that A) different people react differently to the same stimulus, B) how they react is based on what they know at the time, not what they find out later, and C) there is nothing wrong with this.

    Does Ms Kirby expect Ms Benson to have predicted the future with her Weirding Ways?

  17. eigenperson says

    The buzzword of the day is: bully.

    Definition: bully, n. One who strongly criticizes opinions or behavior that I agree with. Those bullies kept telling me creationism was false!

  18. F says

    Ophelia is crying about being blocked on Twitter?

    Reads blog post again.
    A fourth time.

    I’m not sure that “crying about being blocked on Twitter” means what you think it means.

  19. says

    Sastra @ 10 – yes, he’s ok! At least, according to what he’s told me. I had the same worry. :- )

    He thanked me for the way I reported on it (and apologized for all the…stuff), and specifically said he was ok with it.

  20. Gingerbaker says

    208 comments on previous thread. Twenty odd here.

    And still no one really addressing what Paula Kirby was really trying to say, and wondering if perhaps she – a woman whose insight and opinion we all have had multiple occasions to behold and respect – might actually have a point.

    Instead, the conversation followed typical internet mindhive dialectics – pretty much proving Paula Kirby’s point.

    Well done.

  21. julian says

    pretty much proving Paula Kirby’s point.

    That the femistasi are an authoritarian group and that FtB largely hosts and encourages behavior reminiscent of what she endured in East Germany?

    That was the last thread, Gingerbaker. This one is about how she mischaracterizes the threatening email Ophelia received.

  22. Utakata says


    I don’t think anyone is obligated to hear anyone out who calls FtB group thinking feminazis/femistasi, as is anyone is obligated to hear The Tea Party claiming Obama is a socialist. Yeah…we get the point already; both positions are ridiculous. And any credibility of them making such a claim is all but lost…

    …and what julian at 22 said.

  23. Lyanna says

    Kirby’s either a fool or a liar misrepresenting.

    I think she’s a liar misrepresenting. She must know that threats are often not overt, that they’re often phrased as OTT concern. She must have heard the classic “Nice [insert noun here], shame if anything happened to it” threat. She must know that’s not OTT concern.

  24. dirigible says

    “still no one really addressing what Paula Kirby was really trying to say”

    She seems to be saying that FTB is showing signs of totalitarianism and that OB’s concerns were unfounded.

    Nether claim is supported by the evidence.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *