Greta did a post the other day about someone who rethought something she wrote and then took it back. I hadn’t seen it until this morning.
This is how it’s done, people. She didn’t double down. She didn’t insist that she hadn’t done anything wrong; she didn’t equate “lots of people disagreeing with you” with tribalism, bullying, McCarthyism, or witch hunts. She kept it short and sweet, without a “making it worse” morass of defensive rationalizations/ making it all about her hurt feelings about people being mean to her. She heard the criticism, accepted that she screwed up, and apologized. This is how it’s done.
([cough] Michael Shermer [cough])
The result of course was that – starting in comment 2, already – some anonymous detective insisted for comment after comment that I misrepresented Shermer. No I didn’t. AD also insisted my article (which AD thought was a blog post) was about Shermer and that I had said Shermer is a sexist. No, and no.
A guy called Michael Heath has been insisting even more insistently on a couple of posts of Ed Brayton’s – Shermer and the Myth of Feminst Persecution and a later post that had nothing to do with me or Shermer – that I lied about Shermer, that I am a liar, that I defamed Shermer, that my article is demagoguery. That’s all false.
Greta addressed the detective – one “coelsblog” – in a long comment, which sums up a lot of things with beautiful clarity.
coelsblog: I’m going to say this once.
For the sake of argument, let’s concede all your major points. Let’s say that while Shermer’s statements were sexist, he didn’t intend any of the sexist intent that came across. And let’s say that Benson’s interpretation uncharitably took them out of context: what he said was sexist, but it wasn’t as sexist as she made it out to be. I don’t agree with this assessment: but for the sake of argument, let’s say that it’s true.
Does that in any way, shape or form justify Shermer’s reaction? Does it justify him calling criticism of him a McCarthy-like witch hunt, a purging, an inquisition, comparing it to the Nazi party? Does it make Benson responsible for what Shermer said? And does it make Benson’s actions more problematic than Shermer’s, and more worthy of extensive critique?
If you think Shermer’s ranting response was justified, or that Benson was somehow responsible for it … then I have nothing more to say to you. That is an indefensible position. And if you don’t… then why are you so fixated on Benson? Why are you micro-analyzing her comments in comment after comment after comment? Why do you think that her misinterpretation (in your eyes) is more worthy of more criticism than Shermer’s off-the-rails hissy-fit?
When you say something sexist, racist, homophobic, whatever, and someone calls you out on it… you apologize. Full stop. Even if the person calling you out got something slightly wrong… you let that pass. You say, “I’m so sorry. I did not intend to say anything sexist/ racist/ homophobic/ etc., but I can see why people are angry, and I can see why they saw it the way they did. I’ll speak more carefully in the future.” You don’t make it all about you and how everyone’s being mean to you; you don’t make your hurt feelings over being misunderstood more important than sexism/ racism/ homophobia/ etc. Do you think that every atheist who called out Charlie Jane Anders got absolutely everything right, and said everything in the best way possible? I doubt it highly. She didn’t focus on that. She focused on the injury she had done, and the apology for it. That’s what makes her a class act.
And when you — speaking to you now, coelsblog, not to the generic “you” — acknowledge in passing that Shermer’s sexist remarks were not okay, and then spend comment after comment after comment micro-analyzing Benson’s criticism of it, and blaming her for his off-the-rails reaction… it’s a classic “yes, but” response to sexism. In fact, “Yes, but… the person writing about this incident didn’t behave absolutely perfectly in all respects. Why aren’t we talking about that?” is one of the “Yes, but…” examples listed in that piece. The expectation that critics of sexist behavior always get everything absolutely right — and if they don’t, they should expect the targets of their criticism to react horribly — is, itself, unbelievably sexist. Stop it. Right now. Just stop it.
The imperfection in what I wrote in the article was saying of the overall stereotype, “Don’t laugh: Michael Shermer said exactly that…” when I would have closed that loophole by instead saying “Michael Shermer invoked exactly that stereotype…”
But that is really not a very big imperfection. Since I immediately go on to report exactly what Shermer really did say, it’s an absurd bit of pettifogging to pretend that I meant the “said exactly that” literally or that I intended it to mislead. For fuck’s sake, if I intended it to mislead why would I immediately quote exactly what he really did say? What I said is just a normal bit of commentary. People who know how to read know that. It’s obvious on the page which bit is in fact exactly what he said. Aesthetically, “invoked exactly that stereotype” is somewhat inferior to “said exactly that.” It’s a bit cluttered. In academic writing, of course, precision trumps aesthetics every time, but guess what, I’m not an academic and Free Inquiry is not an academic journal. There’s always a tension in this kind of writing, between pedantry and style. You make choices all the time. There are tradeoffs. You make them, generally, based on the background assumption that the reader is not an idiot. I never for one second thought that any reader would be idiot enough to read “said exactly that” and then ignore the next part where I spelled out what Shermer actually did say. Nor did I think any reader would be idiot enough to read “it’s a guy thing” in the following paragraph and think Shermer had said that, either, since I had just spelled out what he did say – “it’s more of a guy thing.”
You have to assume the reader is not an idiot, because if you don’t, you get horrible over-literal baby-step writing with no color or energy or wit. Lunatics are insisting that I wrote those four paragraphs (that address Shermer) the way I did as a dastardly attempt to frame him. The hell I did. I wrote it that way because writing that assumes the reader can’t read is terrible writing, and I refuse to do set out to do terrible writing. (Terrible writing I do by accident is another story.)