How not to stage an intervention

Doubting Tom wrote a Dubito Ergo Sum post ten days ago, on Michael Nugent, Vice Principal of Atheism. (Good title. Nugent does carry on as if he’s somehow been appointed to scold some people into obedience while protecting others from unwelcome attention to their more appalling behaviors. Nugent hasn’t been appointed to do that.) This post, I was saying, is worth catching up with.

DT starts by summarizing Nugent’s previous work in this vein, then describes a pattern:

Nugent demonstrated a pattern of behavior that he has since escalated: butt in to an issue that doesn’t involve you, adopt the pretense of mature authority, treat the issue as an academic subject to be studied or hashed out in formal debate, and then move on to some other issue once it gets too real.

It’s odd about the non-involvement. (It’s also very annoying, but never mind that for now.) Nugent spends a lot of words scolding us Americans for the fact that Anglophone media keep talking about “the atheist movement” when really all they’re talking about is some Americans. There’s a global atheist movement, Nugent keeps solemnly telling us. True; so why is he so interested in this issue that’s just an American thing? It’s a puzzle.

There’s that email Nugent sent to PZ back in August – that presumptuous, obnoxious email.

He tried talking to PZ “privately” about the matter first, considering PZ a friend, and apparently seeing the need for an intervention about his destructive behavior. I can sympathize, somewhat. After all, I am all for people calling out their friends when their friends are hurting others. For that matter, I think that’s a situation where a private conversation may indeed be warranted before taking the issue public, a tactic often problematically proposed as a cure-all for disagreements. It’s not, and when it’s two people who don’t actually know each other very well, the insistence on private conversation first is mostly just a way of avoiding transparency and sweeping criticism under the carpet. But if it’s someone you’re close to? Sending them a personal note to say “hey, I think [specific thing you do] is hurting the people you care about, and I’m worried about you” would absolutely be a reasonable step in resolving the issue.

That’s not what Nugent did. Instead, he CC’d Richard Dawkins and Ophelia Benson on the e-mail. Again, I think Nugent thought he was trying to organize an intervention, but that’s really not how you go about it.

To put it mildly. To do that he would have had to ask Dawkins and ask me, before cc’ing us on his unsolicited email to someone else. He didn’t do that. He cc’d me without my permission or advance knowledge. I don’t know about Dawkins; I suspect a few of these guys have been planning a lot lately, so for all I know he did discuss it with Dawkins first. But he sure as hell did not discuss it with me, and I was disgusted by it. It looked to me like nothing but an attempt to embarrass PZ, and using me to do it. Not cool.

Then Tom moves on to Nugent’s little list of PZ’s putative naughtinesses. He looks up the ones I didn’t take the trouble to look up and they’re even more ridiculous as examples of naughtiness than I had realized.

I knew how ridiculous the Shermer one was though. That one jumps out at you.

he has publicly accused…Michael Shermer of multiple unreported serious crimes,

Accusations that have been validated by multiple sources. Nugent has said that he was not trying to tell PZ to keep sexual harassment accusations secret, but it’s hard to read this (and the letter, which is worded in nearly identical language) as anything but that. On Twitter, Nugent expanded, essentially saying that he thought this matter would have been better served by the police than hashed out online. We’ll ignore the continued ignorant paternalism in Nugent thinking he knows better how to handle rape than the victim, we’ll even ignore the numerousclearreasonswhy rape survivors don’t go to the police. Nugent’s living in a fantasy world of privilege-enabled ignorance where police officers are never racist or misogynist or themselves rapists, and where every rape kit gets tested and victims are never pressured into recanting or (even with clear evidence that rape occurred) treated like criminals themselves. But look at what we know, especially in light of the Buzzfeed piece: Shermer’s behavior and the accusations were known to atheist and skeptic leaders. DJ Grothe knew about them. James fucking Randi knew about them, tanking the remaining respect I had for that guy. What was their response? To continue inviting him to events, to take out extra insurance to protect themselves from his actions, and to give him a stern warning that if he does it too many more times, he might face some consequences of some sort, while punishing the people who speak out. The same thing played out with Ben Radford. Leaders in the community excuse and coddle accused rapists and harassers, and punish victims. Why should Shermer’s victim have expected anything different to happen if the police were the authorities involved rather than the event organizers?

We’ll never know how Nugent would respond to that, though, because either he’ll have already dropped the whole thing, or he’ll be too busy finding new trivia to scold us for in new 5000 word posts.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    JREF actually took out “extra” insurance to cover the risks of Michael Shermer attending their events?!?

    How did the actuaries calculate that exposure?

  2. John Morales says

    FWIW, Michael Nugent has made it explicit that his blog posts on these matters are personal opinion only and not intended to represent Atheist Ireland in his position as chairman.

  3. says

    A pleasure, Tom!

    Nugent’s posts may not be intended to represent Atheist Ireland in his position as chairman, but that’s mostly beside the point. Nobody would read them if he weren’t chair of Atheist Ireland.

  4. John Morales says

    Ophelia, I think it’s relevant to be aware that at least some members of that organisation do not share his opinions on this issue, that being the impetus of his disclaimer.

  5. eddiejones says

    This is absolutely surreal…. I started reading FTB a couple months ago, following a link concerning a Dawkins tweet (either an early Shermer apologism or his Down Syndrome abortion gaffe, I don’t remember which). Since, it’s like I’m a spectator at a self-immolation fest. Shermer’s rambling defense of his (alleged) actions, Dawkins’ “bad rape vs. worse rape”, Sam Harris’ “estrogen vibe” (pathetic) rationale, James Randi’s “I guess that’s what men do”…. It’s becoming very difficult for me to believe these people AREN’T blatantly dismissive of women, at least those women who are active in the athiest movement… women who should be considered sisters in activism, or at least coworkers. I’m baffled… I do not understand how people who are leading figures in a progressive movement could be so shallow. Has anyone yet “coined” the word “authority-‘splaining”?? That’s what I’d call the mindless, ill-thought train of explainations, justifications, and misogyn-ations I’ve been reading. Sam, did you really SAY that? If you did so without thinking, say so and do so in an apology, not in a justification. Guys, you cannot dig yourself out of a hole.

  6. says

    To continue inviting him to events, to take out extra insurance to protect themselves from his actions

    Looks like JREF learned a thing or two from the roman catholic church’s mistakes. Only, the wrong things.

  7. martha says

    This has been nudging at me all through this Michael Nugent episode- an experience and a speculation about the underlying culture. So I’m going to say it. The (insalubrious, sorry) experience is that when I was in Ireland this summer, a teenage boy on the street of a small city called me a whore. His apparent intention was to pick a fight with my teenage son, because, hey, Americans.* A google search for Irish women and street harrassment suggests this kind of thing isn’t uncommon. I remember also, when I was there as an 18 yr old, a man surreptitiously pinching my butt. That’s the experience.

    About the underlying culture… I grew up in an Irish American family and we emphatically didn’t talk about THINGS, prominent among those THINGS being ways in which women’s lives are different than men’s, like, for example, the things boys might say to you. I’m sure I never told anybody about the American boy who, with, to me then, completely mysterious malice, called me a whore in seventh grade. So I’m wondering if among the other things going on with Michael Nugent, there isn’t just a visceral reaction to Ophelia et al talking about THINGS. Like out loud and stuff, where people can hear you. That’s the speculation.

    * Everyone else I met in Ireland was lovely, though. I don’t mean to let one teenager and one clueless blogger damn the whole country.

  8. Silentbob says

    he has publicly accused… Michael Shermer of multiple unreported serious crimes

    You would think Mr “hyperskeptical, hyperliteral, pedantically nitpicky” Nugent would recognize that this is not actually true. PZ quoted verbatim an accusation by someone else, writing that it was…

    an accusation I can’t personally vouch for, except to say that I know the author, and that she’s not trying to acquire notoriety [… ] I will again emphasize, though, that I have no personal, direct evidence that the event occurred as described; all I can say is that the author is known to me, and she has also been vouched for by one other person I trust.

  9. octopod says

    …they took out rapist insurance on him? Like, in case he raped someone and they sued JREF? I…I don’t even know what to say. WTF.

  10. Brony says

    @ martha

    About the underlying culture… I grew up in an Irish American family and we emphatically didn’t talk about THINGS, prominent among those THINGS being ways in which women’s lives are different than men’s, like, for example, the things boys might say to you. I’m sure I never told anybody about the American boy who, with, to me then, completely mysterious malice, called me a whore in seventh grade. So I’m wondering if among the other things going on with Michael Nugent, there isn’t just a visceral reaction to Ophelia et al talking about THINGS. Like out loud and stuff, where people can hear you. That’s the speculation.

    I get that impression A LOT. As a guy, with an admittedly aggressive personality and some experience in what people do when it comes to intense emotion and conflict.

    It’s a sensitivity that to me at least is obvious by what they seem to be completely avoiding in all of this. They have continually avoided talking about what is bothering everyone on this side of the conflict in specifics. They won’t actually address what Ophelia, PZ, Greta, Stephanie and many many others are actually saying. They just give their emotional characterizations of what is being said. Or when they do quote something it’s always the emotional summery offered by people on this side that they then pretend is outrageous, without actually addressing the substance that they summary is meant to, well summarize. They dance around the issues while tossing lots of emotional distractions everywhere in a bunch of primate distraction and dominance behavior.

    It’s a pattern that has me acting as if this is literally all social posturing to maintain the status quo, because that’s what I see!

  11. Steven Carr says

    I don’t understand.

    What exactly was wrong with inviting Michael Shermer to speak in 2010 at a workshop about myths in sex and sexuality on May 24th 2010, two years after he raped somebody?

    Surely whoever issued that invitation must have had some idea of what Shermer had done.

  12. says

    There’s one other bit of Nugent behaviour that jumps out at me here.

    Its not just his selectivity about which behaviour he deplores, but the people he applies it to.

    Women and their vocal allies get the headmasterly lectures, others do not. Those others being prominent atheists (all dudes) and most of the slymepit and slymepit-aligned types.

    I think there is something gendered at the core of his behavior. Or have I missed something?

  13. JosieF says

    The impression I am consistently getting, having read Michael Nugent’s essays in response to Adam Lee, is that he is desperate to preserve the ‘good reputation’ of the atheist movement at all cost. Hence the continuous dismissal of the ‘deep rifts’ as a purely American, and hence peripheral, problem, as well as his dismissal of obvious sexism as misunderstandings and exaggeration.

    The desire, amongst many prominent individuals, to perpetuate the myth of the atheism movement as an oasis of reason has clogged their ability to actually reason effectually.

  14. says

    Good title. Nugent does carry on as if he’s somehow been appointed to scold some people into obedience while protecting others from unwelcome attention to their more appalling behaviors. Nugent hasn’t been appointed to do that.

    While I agree, I personally think it’s good to stay away from anything that could give the impression of being an ad hominem. My $0.02.

  15. freemage says

    Leo: You do understand what an ad hominem is, right? That the term in no way, shape or form applies to insults, especially if those insults are the conclusion, rather than the premise, of the attack? For instance, “lying fuckhead” (hereafter to be abbreviated to “LF”).

    If I were to rebut someone’s evidence-based account of events by saying, “So and so is a LF!”, without addressing the substance of the evidence presented, then I am committing an ad hominem.

    If, on the other hand, I were to point out that someone is making a false claim, present evidence of this, and then conclude by calling the person in question a LF, then I am not remotely close to an ad hominem, and only the woefully ignorant and the desperately duplicitous would claim otherwise.

    And this whine is particularly disingenuous when we’re talking about the situation in question, where LF was used to describe someone who was, himself, poisoning the well by crying ‘witch hunt’ without the necessary prerequisites for such a claim–namely, that people were being falsely accused of nonsensical crimes, and those accusations resulted in severe penalties to their livelihoods, if not their actual lives. There’s three elements there, and not one of them was actually in evidence.

  16. says

    Ugg…I had missed this letter being published on Nugent’s blog. More of the same garbage he had published just days before, where he makes little more than baseless assertions, like this “it also undermines the effectiveness of attempts to promote compassion and empathy and social justice.” OK, and what’s the evidence for this claim??? That some people had their “final straw” with PZ? That alone demonstrates nothing. Were those people interested in promoting compassion and empathy and social justice? (Or even just one out of the three?) This isn’t obvious.
    And, I find myself needing to stress this more and more, just because someone says they are socially liberal, doesn’t mean they actually are.
    On that note, what really, really irks me is Nugent is supposedly worried about PZ undermining the effectiveness, but doesn’t want things said about Shermer who is obviously undermining the effectiveness. If Nugent is seriously worried about this, he should want Shermer booted out of every atheist or atheist related (so, I’d count TAM in that) event there is. But I’m getting the impression Nugent doesn’t want this, which makes me seriously doubt he gives a shit about “promoting compassion and empathy and social justice” himself. Well, at least not beyond getting those things for atheists, anyway. Fuck that.

  17. says

    Ophilia and freemage (quoting freemage below):

    Leo: You do understand what an ad hominem is, right?

    I’ll try this again, with added emphasis: “anything that could give the impression of being an ad hominem.” Meaning, something that may not actually be an ad hominem, but other people who don’t understand what an ad hominem is might see that way. So, yeah, I recognize that it’s not an ad hominem. Given the amount of unreasonable behavior that’s been displayed by the likes of Nugent and what not, I wouldn’t put it past them of seeing it that way.

    And this whine is particularly disingenuous

    I’ll also clarify that the reason I had said, “My $0.02” is that I’m not really dedicated to that position one way or another. I’m just throwing it out there as a point of consideration. I’m not trying to “whine” about it whatsoever. (And, again, I recognize it is not ad hominem. I’m trying to look at it from the perspective of someone who may not be so keen on these things. In other words: Think like your audience might think, not how you yourself think.)

    where LF was used to describe someone who was, himself, poisoning the well by crying ‘witch hunt’

    LF? Well, regardless, that, actually, may be more what I was trying to get at: well poisoning.

  18. says

    Yes, I did see and understand the “impression” part – but I’m not about to let a pervasive misunderstanding of what an ad hominem is prevent me from making reasonable criticisms of what people say and do. I think what I said about how Nugent carries on – “as if he’s somehow been appointed to scold some people into obedience while protecting others from unwelcome attention to their more appalling behaviors” – is reasonable, given all these endless obsessive posts focusing on a couple of naughty bloggers while totally ignoring the rapist in the room, and given the obnoxiously patronizing uninvited email he sent to PZ and copied to 2 other people.

  19. Brony says

    @Leo Buzalsky

    Meaning, something that may not actually be an ad hominem, but other people who don’t understand what an ad hominem is might see that way.

    This may not be possible. Many consider disbelief of an argument due to insulting characterizations that are otherwise accurate to be ad hominems. For example quite a few of the people acting sexist and saying sexist things would not be good people to listen to for gender and sex related issues. I think I understand your general point, it might be better to state the reasons for why the characterization makes them unsuitable to be listened to in addition to the characterization? Or do you have something else in mind?

  20. Phillip Hallam-Baker says

    @Leo, Go look up ad hominem in wikipedia before continuing. It is not even a logical fallacy, it is an informal fallacy for a start.

    The topic here is the character of Nugent. So arguments against his character are completely relevant.

    To see real ad hominem look at the arguments made by a creationist on PX Meyer’s blog. They argue Hitler was an atheist, therefore Atheists are NAZIs. Which is obviously nonsense.

    But it isn’t even the case that all arguments of that form are invalid. ‘The previous two popes covered up for pedophiles, therefore the doctrine of papal infallibility is nonsense’ is actually a very strong argument. Yes, I know Catholics claim that that the infallibility thing is very limited, etc. etc. But the idea that God would choose an enabler of child rapists as his infallible messenger is obvious nonsense even if the power has only ever been used once.

    Argument against the man is totally valid when the question at issue is the man himself.

  21. Phillip Hallam-Baker says

    If we look at the totality of the Shermer/Dawkins/etc. situation, it appears that John Suler’s phrase ‘toxic disinhibition’ explains much of the subsequent Internet fallout quite well. I didn’t start with a dog in this fight, or rather my dog is the Web itself. Watching a grass roots movement rise up and challenge their best known media spokespeople is unusual to say the least.

    The question I wanted to try to understand is whether the people will adapt to the technology or whether we need to change the technology. Is the problem here just that Dawkins is an old fart who doesn’t think before he tweets and younger more net savy people will know better?

    That is certainly one problem but it isn’t the only one. The central theme here is accountability.

    One cause of the current situation is that the atheist establishment is unused to the idea that the movement at large believes that they should be accountable to them. When they see Shermer being attacked they rush to his defense. They do not consider the possibility any allegations might be true.

    Implicit in this reaction is the idea that a member of the leadership has more value than a member of the movement rank and file. And indeed that there is a division between leaders and rank and file. A large fraction of the movement at large rejects both premises, there are people who speak at conferences and write books but that does not make them leaders. But there is also a faction that does want to be led and sees attacks on its leadership from within the movement at large as a form of treachery.

    So we get to the difference between a libertarian and a libertine. A libertarian believes in a universal ethical system with minimal ethical constraints. A libertine believes that no ethical constraints apply to their personal behavior but has no problem with rules that apply to everyone else. Libertines believe very strongly in a social order and hierarchy, doing so has no cost because they don’t believe the rules apply to them. They may mouth libertarian ideologies but their instincts and their politics are ultra-authoritarian.

    Such folk are the origin of the slymepit. But toxic disinhibition gets us to the point we are now. Both sides engage in nut picking. Absurd absolutes become shiboleths. Every comment from a newcomer is first evaluated to see which side it indicates them to be on. Nastiness abounds.

  22. Anne C. Hanna says

    Ophelia, I’m putting this here because it seems to be your most recent post on Nugent’s nonsense. I don’t know if you’ve seen his latest patronizing attempt to talk entirely *around* the subject of Alison Smith’s witness-backed report that Michael Shermer raped her. It’s ugly, as usual, but I thought the result of his apparent censorship of Sally Strange’s comment over there @42 was particularly ironic:

    Sally Strange October 3, 2014 at 2:05 pm

    [allegation about a named person deleted]. That’s the elephant in the room.

    The amount of verbiage you’ve put into dancing around that is impressive, Mr. Nugent. If only you’d put similar efforts into finding ways to make organized atheism less hostile to women.

    I can’t help noticing that everything he says about rape victims in that post is couched in the most patronizing possible tone — he’s perfectly fine with them doing anything whatsoever that lets him feel like their big powerful white knight protector, like getting “help” from police, therapists, family, friends, etc. But anything that rape victims and potential victims might do to directly empower *themselves* as protectors of their own and others’ safety, like spreading the word in their communities about who the rapist assholes are? Not even on his radar. He doesn’t seem to even be willing (able?) acknowledge it as a thing that can happen, much less to have any idea why this might be a valuable thing to do. It’s as if, like so many prominent atheist dudes, he’s only able to see women when they give him an opportunity to act like a hero. Women as autonomous, empowered agents in their own right? Not even a possibility he’s capable of imagining, much less addressing intelligently.

  23. says

    Anne, I have seen it. Michael Nugent tweeted it at me today to make sure I would. Emphasis on seen, because I could read only a little – he just does go on way way way too long, with too much repetition and filler and pseudo-precise throat-clearing. He’s a conversation-monopolizer.

    I did see what he did to Sally’s comment. I also saw some goon announcing that I didn’t co-write Why Truth Matters, I just spell-checked it. Such a whopper. I wrote a lot more than half of it.

  24. Anne C. Hanna says

    Ugh, I missed the goon. I admit that I pretty much don’t read the goon-comments any more, because at this point it’s just an infinite tedious rehash of the same distortions they’ve repeated without any genuinely meaningful variation since the beginning. But I suppose that’s easy for me to do, since the lies they’re telling aren’t about me. Is that one new? I don’t think I’d heard it before.

    It’s interesting how completely the slymepitters are dominating his comment section now. I wonder if he, or they, remember this post of his that you linked to last year.

  25. says

    No, it’s not new. I’ve seen it a couple of times, and since I see only a tiny fraction of what there is, I’m confident there are a lot more than two instances of it.

    I’ll have to look at WTM to remind myself which chapters I wrote. I wrote 5 of the 8, and the introduction that was added to the PB edition.

  26. says

    And I’m sure he does remember what he originally thought of the slime pitters, but he now thinks he was all wrong about them. He thought that by the time his hateful “dialogue” got going, too, and he was well convinced of it by the time the Dublin conference happened. He explained their grievances to me.

  27. Anne C. Hanna says

    *sigh* At the time I’d hoped the dialogue bullshit was just him bending over backwards to be fair, and maybe being a little naive about exactly how bad the slymepit was. And even with the more recent clusterfuck, I guess I still had some vague wishful thought in the back of my mind that, as much of an ass as he’s being, maybe it was more about defending his friends and refusing to look at the facts than anything else.

    But with this latest post, it’s just so clear to me that he only supports rape victims as long as their stories satisfy a non-threatening little victim script he’s got prewritten in his head. They’re allowed to share their stories, but only if they first pass their audition for the role of Helpless Victim in Need of a Savior. They’re allowed to accuse the person who attacked them, but only if that attacker is a funny-looking cartoon villain whom Nugent-the-Savior can dogpile onto without a twinge of remorse. Tell your story through non-Nugent-approved channels, or accuse somebody he likes rather than somebody hates? All of a sudden, he can’t hear anything other than “salacious speculation”, no matter what you or anyone else says.

    I wonder if he’d dare treat Alison Smith, or someone else in her position, like this to her face. And I’m afraid to find out the answer to that.

  28. daniellavine says

    OB, I’d been wondering about Nugent’s view of the dialogue, his motivations in trying to make it happen and his motivations for not seeing it through, etc.

    Is there anything you wouldn’t mind sharing about what he believes the grievances to be and why they’re justified, what convinced him, etc.? I understand if you’d rather not go into it, of course.

  29. says

    Daniel – I don’t remember most of the details, and there’s much that Nugent never really explained as far as I remember. I never did understand why he insisted on making “the dialogue” happen over the strong objections of the people most affected by it, or why he never realized what a pathetic joke it was.

  30. daniellavine says

    Thanks for replying. That situation put me in mind of a school teacher forcing a child to apologize to someone who’d been bullying her.

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