More divisiveness: my conversation with Tauriq Moosa continues

Last week I posted an e-mail correspondence between myself and South African BigThink skeptic blogger Tauriq Moosa. He was kind enough to follow up his e-mail, and I am posting my response here. You will notice that I am quoting from his e-mail without printing it in its entirety. I am hoping to avoid a nightmare of indented quotations. I will provide the full e-mail in another post if there are issues.

Hey T,

Was a busy weekend spent mostly with my lovely ladyfriend, so sorry that this response has taken so long.

I suppose as he’s equated “the movement” with “organisational membership”, the continuing framework that he operates in will be slightly narrowed (ignores those instances where divisive behaviour does occur because they’re not part of “the movement”). I assume this is what you mean?

In the statement of his thesis, Mr. Lindsay posits that the reason why misogyny isn’t divisive within the community is that the major organizations have come out against it. If you keep in mind that the orgs are not representative of the movement, nor do they set its direction, then the entire argument is a non-sequitur. It would be just as effective if he had said “We know that global warming isn’t a threat because the ice cubes in my gin & tonic haven’t melted yet”. It’s a nonsensical conclusion to draw from the premise.

Do you consider the harassment policies and so on, to be part of this [this = combating misogyny]? I’m interested since in my own efforts to “combat misogyny”, I’ve also merely reacted to instances where women were treated (obviously) horribly (Anita Sarkeesian, being the latest).

The harassment policies are targeted at reducing the overt harms caused by misogyny in the movement. I don’t imagine that they will have any more effect on misogynistic sentiment in the atheist community than anti-discrimination laws had on the prevalence of racism. They are not the cure, but they make the cure easier to produce.

It is my position that feminism (at least as I practice it – as a skeptical approach to gender claims) is a way to identify and combat misogyny. If we can see the strands of the web we’re caught in, it’s easier to find the way out. Otherwise our struggles may be in vain. The issue is larger than rape/death threats and overt misogyny, although those are still very serious problems. The issue is a philosophical one. It means we need new ideas and people to listen to them. Not everything that every feminist says is iron-clad truth, to be sure, but feminism represents a new set of intellectual tools that allow us to parse questions that, up until now, we haven’t.

I think I would disagree with you here, depending on what we mean by obliged [in response to my saying that atheist groups are not obliged to combat sexism, racist, etc.]

What I mean is that there is nothing inherent in atheism that says anything about equality between genders or ethnic groups. There’s no logical connection between “there are no gods” and “men and women are equal”. There is therefore nothing particularly hypocritical about an atheist movement that is dominated by men, even one that is actively hostile to the idea of female participation.

That being said, there is similarly nothing that says atheism must be male-dominated, it’s just turned out that way so far. It is certainly counter-productive to the aim of growing and building a strong and inclusive movement. Anyone who has that aim but who thinks that the goals of atheism+ represents an existential threat to “their” movement needs to seriously examine their motivations and their strategy.

I’m not sure I understand what you mean by it not being a good point on speculating on A+’s success. Could you please clarify? I think we might have different notions on what it might be, then.

Saying that it’s likely that atheism+ will fail, or even that it’s not sure to succeed, and therefore we should concentrate our efforts on established organizations, is not a good point. Maybe that is a misreading of what you said, but it seems like you identified that as one of the points that Lindsay made that you think had merit.

Is every instance where someone who articulates reasonable dissent and is mocked, namecalled, not something worth being concerned about? I’m not sure how this kind of instance fits into issue of equality between groups.
By incivility I mean, for example, comments on a blog at, say, FtB where a commenter uses excessive name-calling at the OP, swears at all the supporters, and so on, and barely or does not even mount an argument in defence of his view

The “civility” argument rests on the assumption that a conversation will be better advanced if both sides simply express their position in calm and rational terms. The argument fails on the grounds that it assumes that both sides are bringing rational arguments to the table. I can very politely explain why gay people don’t deserve to get married – it does not make my argument have a stitch more validity than it would if I just called everyone “a bunch of fags”. There are very civil ways to dehumanize someone. There are comparatively few ways to civilly invite them to go fuck themselves and their stupid arguments.

You use the term “excessive name-calling”, seemingly implying that there is an acceptable amount of name-calling. I know of no standard by which “excessive” could be measured except as a matter of personal preference. I have attempted, and continue to attempt, to tamp down the types of abuse that I see as unfair on my own blog’s comments. That being said, my blog is my space. I don’t presume to be able to tell someone else how to run their comments. If I think it’s an unfair environment, I do not continue to comment there. The “civility” argument is often brought around by people who don’t have good points, but wish that everyone would treat them as though they did. I have no patience for such accommodation.

There is also a meme in existence that people are raising legitimate concerns and then being abused instead of answered. I’ve seen people complain about this almost constantly. I have almost never actually seen any evidence of this happening. Even on PZ’s threads, which tend to be far more rough-edged than I’d tolerate on my own space, there is usually a willingness to treat legitimate requests for information as genuine. The ones that get abuse are the ones who kick in the door and sneeringly demand that everyone explain things to them because, from their perspective, everyone’s stupid and dogmatic and blindly following Rebecca Watson and… (take your pick).

Just because you think it’s wrong to apply this globally doesn’t mean you don’t think someone like [Russel] Blackford is “a product of a misogynist environment who is failing to recognize the flawed assumptions underpinning his argument, and thus allowing himself to reach a fatuous and harmful conclusion” (that is a mouthful!).

Let’s imagine you were born in a culture where short hair was a sign of low status. The longer the hair, the more deference they receive in things like housing, employment, criminal justice, what-have-you. Nobody questions this culture – it’s just the way it’s always been and everyone is more or less okay with it (everyone whose opinion counts, at least). You grow up thinking that everyone deserves some respect, but you have always, either consciously or unconsciously, extended more respect to long-haired people (the same way we do to our elders, for example).

Now imagine you moved to North America, where hair length and social status are orthogonal. You would be rightly thought absurd for having such a backward position. In time, you could probably be persuaded that hair length is not a reasonable metric by which to judge others. It is likely, however, that in moments of distraction or times when you’re not able to consciously remind yourself about hair-length equality, you will fall back on the traditions in which you were raised. This is especially true if you are surrounded by other people from your same culture. You might cognitively believe that short-haired people deserve equal treatment, but your actions may betray your upbringing otherwise.

Does this make you a bad and evil person? Hardly. It means you were raised in a bad and evil system that arbitrarily elevates some over others on an unreasonable metric. The correct way, in my opinion, to deal with this fact is to point out when you engage in behaviours or espouse beliefs that evince your upbringing rather than your better understanding of the relationship between hair length and social status.

Misogyny, racism, transphobia, able-body privilege – all of these are aspects of the same demon: a shitty culture. We were born and raised in a shitty culture that, overtly and covertly, inculcates beliefs in us about gender, race, physicality, the list goes on. Some people relish in these beliefs and find new and exiting ways of propping up the status quo. While it is convenient to label those people as “misogynists” (or whatever), it places the blame on the wrong person. Some people are just unthinking jerks, but it is their ideas that are bad and we need to have that conversation. Otherwise we run the risk of letting ourselves off the hook simply because we’re not as bad as the Todd Akins of the world.

Hopefully this clears up my position a bit.

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  1. smhll says

    While it is convenient to label those people as “misogynists” (or whatever), it places the blame on the wrong person. Some people are just unthinking jerks, but it is their ideas that are bad and we need to have that conversation.

    I think I get your point. I admit that I am somewhat racist because I was raised in a racist culture, where people make a big deal about race. I don’t like the admitting it, but I do do so.

    I like the video that talks about calling an action or idea racist, but not calling the person racist.

    Would the direction we want to go in be to say “That (something or other) that someone said sounds somewhat misogynistic” instead of “Misogynist!!!” ?

    (Personally, I always use three full exclamation points.)

  2. says

    I don’t like calling someone “a misogynist” for the same reason I don’t like calling someone “a racist”. We are all capable of, and occasionally prone to, say or do misogynistic things. That doesn’t make us “a misogynist”, although it may be a fair cop to call a person who glories in it a “misogynistic person”. It is still describing beliefs and behaviours, not some sort of internal quality. It’s too easy to say “well they’re misogynists” as both an explanation for behaviour and a way of separating yourself from the ‘others’. Both are mistakes that will only lead to the entrenchment of misogyny.

    I have no problem, incidentally, with blasting misogyny with both barrels. You don’t have to include the qualifier “somewhat” or “that sounds like it might be…” Naw, fuck that shit. Don’t shy away from calling it what it is, just make sure you’re aiming at the idea rather than the person holding it.

  3. gatoprecambriano says

    There are very civil ways to dehumanize someone…
    ..The “civility” argument is often brought around by people who don’t have good points, but wish that everyone would treat them as though they did. I have no patience for such accommodation…

    YES! Precisely spot on.

  4. smhll says

    OK, I tend to nice it up too much when people start cajoling me to “be nice”. (Unfortunate early conditioning.)

    IMO, it’s very possible for a reader who sees “That’s misogynist”, to run over to another forum and claim “That mean person called me a misogynist” without paying much attention to pronouns or modifiers.

    Links, people! I need to see links, or I’m not able to know whether one was reading carelessly or the other was writing carelessly, (or #2 really called #1 a misogynist).

  5. Tony •King of the Hellmouth• says


    Hopefully this clears up my position a bit.

    I believe it did.

    You could probably make a series of blog entries about the importance or lack thereof regarding civility in arguments.
    In the time I’ve been at FtB, I’ve noticed more and more that many people employ the Civility Argument, without having any *other* argument. If you strip away the concern for someone’s tone, what’s left? How and why did civility become so important in arguing?

  6. says

    Tauriq has a pair of posts that lay out, in a very detailed way, his belief in the value of a principle of charity in online discussions that undoubtedly dovetails the “civility” argument very closely. I’m hoping to talk to him about his position when time permits.

  7. Tony •King of the Hellmouth• says

    I’m hesitant to say someone is misogynist. That’s largely because I don’t know enough about misogyny to feel comfortable labeling someone as such.
    That said, when *is* such a label applicable?

    The same as ‘racist’. Obviously a member of the KKK or the Aryan Nations would be racist. But what distinguishes the racist who belongs to a hate group from the average joe on the street who says racist things sometimes? Is there a point where an individual stops being someone who uses racist language and becomes someone who is racist ?

  8. stakkalee says

    Another great post. I hope your next conversation with Tauriq does focus on what exactly each of you mean by ‘civility’. In his full letter, he says that he wouldn’t consider your hypothetical response to a racist as uncivil, but in part 2 of his series on the principle of charity he wonders if “name-calling and derision” are ever appropriate.

    More broadly, I agree with him for the most part on the principle of charity, in a “3 polite replies before I rip you a new one” way (although my personal limit is only 1), but I do want to point out that he himself states that we should act charitably towards strangers, which gives us broad leeway when addressing someone who’s shown themselves to be intractable on other points in the past. If someone comes into your space JAQing off, and you correctly identify them as a troll, or at least someone unwilling to correct their irrationally-held beliefs, do you need to extend them the same charity when they come around JAQing off again? Or more simply, does he feel like the principle of charity should reset at the beginning of each new conversation?

  9. says

    My general objection to the “principle of charity” is that it places an unfair burden on those trying to articulate their oppression, while placing no countervailing burden on members of the oppressive group to self-educate. I will elaborate another time, as Tauriq and I are trying to arrange to debate this point – I think it’s an interesting and worthwhile question to explore.

  10. PatrickG says

    This has been a very informative exchange, and I would like to express my appreciation to both you and Tauriq.

    A couple of unsolicited questions/suggestions, feel free to ignore!

    1) I do wonder about the format (since it seems it will inevitably lead to indentation-fail and/or excessive cross linking). Would you and Tauriq be interested in doing some direct chatting and posting the results, as opposed to the email exchange? This may not be practicable or desirable, but I thought I’d throw it out there.

    2) Would you mind posting Tariq’s full email as a footer to your responses, simply for ease of perusing the ongoing communication?

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