A response to Lee

A commenter going by the handle ‘Lee’ has been asking some pointed questions about how to respond to claims of discrimination. I tried to give a robust answer, which ended up ballooning into a full-length post.


I’ll respond by bringing the two into one. If someone claims they have been discriminated against, or they feel they have been discriminated against, what would you suggest as the next step?

1. investigate their claim, ascertain the details, come to a conclusion.

2. accept the claim, start accusing.

When you sort of scoffed at #4, I read that as endorsing (2) above. Perhaps I’m mistaken? I mean, I don’t want to appear to be dodging your questions, I think they’re good questions, but they’re not precisely relevant to the argument presented in #4. They assume that you would take route #1. Your second question seems to me to put that person’s participation into a higher priority slot than, say, checking if they’re full of it or not before making accusations.

So instead of jumping right to invective and scoffing back, I’m hoping to get an idea for why you reject #4 [#4 referring to point 4 in this week’s Movie Friday, and my disagreement that there is a meaningful difference between perceived and real discrimination – C].

And in a separate comment…

I suppose a correlated question would be: is it your position that we should take anyone and everyone’s non-rational (i.e. no grounds established) fears or feelings as actionable representations of the world, simply on the off chance that those fears or feelings may turn out to be grounded in reality, or because similar claims have been grounded in reality in the past?


The key to my objection to #4 is here: [Read more…]

Movie Friday: FAN MAIL!

Ohmygosh you guyse, I am just super excited. I was poking around in the dashboard of this site yesterday, and I noticed that I was getting a lot of hits from a Youtube video. Seeing as it is highly unusual for me to get referrals from Youtube, I clicked on through to see what was driving traffic to the site. Well wouldn’t you know, someone loves me and loves this blog enough to record a ten minute piece of fan mail! I’m so incredibly flattered. For someone to take ten whole minutes out of what I’m sure is a very busy schedule of hating the shit out of women to talk about little ol’ me? Gosh…

Let’s watch!

Well it’s the oddest piece of fan mail I’ve ever got. It doesn’t even seem like fan mail. It seems like he doesn’t like me! But that can’t be… I’m so loveable.

For those of you who didn’t/couldn’t watch all the way through, I will summarize IntegralMath’s* points: [Read more…]

A letter to Michael Shermer

This morning I was pointed toward a post written by Dr. Michael Shermer, a prominent skeptic, author, and neuroscientist. In it, he responds to an article by author and fellow FTBorg Ophelia Benson in which she sharply critiques the acceptance of stereotypes about the agency and willingness of women to speak up in skeptical circles, using a snippet of an statement that Dr. Shermer said in an interview: that while the gender ratio of non-belief is probably roughly even, it may be that men are more willing to speak up about it, which is one explanation of why it is more difficult to book female atheists for interviews.

I encourage you to read both Ophelia’s article and Dr. Shermer’s response first. My response is below:

Hello Dr. Shermer,

I remember watching the interview in question and being annoyed by your response to the question of why it was more difficult to find female atheists to join discussions. Your response, that speaking out might simply be “a guy thing”, was non-controversial but nonetheless disappointing, because this is not a question about which there is no information. You are, by your own admission, aware of the growing role that feminist discourse has been playing in the skeptic community overall in the past number of years. And yet, despite your awareness of its existence, your response betrayed no hint that you had listened to or understood anything that had been said by those voices – which is not to say that you haven’t, but there was certainly nothing in your “guy thing” response that suggests you have.

Let’s rewind the clock a bit and look at the context into which your statement was spoken. [Read more…]

How is religion like delicious yummy corn?

Disclaimer: the central metaphor of this post is scatological, so if you have a particularly weak stomach, might I suggest you watch this video instead.

There is a far-too-common meme that exists among a subset of the nonbelieving community that goes more or less like this:

Well of course religion has led people to do bad things. Nobody is denying that. And I certainly don’t believe there’s any truth to it, but some people believe sincerely and do good things. It’s therefore neither fair nor is it accurate to paint all expressions of religion with the same brush. Religion has inspired people to do great good, as well as great evil.

Perhaps one of the most celebrated of those holding this opinion is Chris Stedman, who has published an excerpt from his upcoming book ‘Faitheist’ at Salon: [Read more…]

Talking to Tauriq Moosa: full transcript

Here is the full text from Tauriq Moosa’s response to my original e-mail. My response is here.:

Dear Ian

Thanks for replying and eloquently replying to some of my points.

> His assumption is that atheism+ (and the larger movement toward awareness of anti-misogyny) is focussed on the organizations within the movement is a bad one.

I wasn’t aware that this was his focus. While I understand he may be confusing the movement for membership to organisations, I wasn’t aware that he had located A+ solely within the framework of this. 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?

> I hope you will forgive my laziness


> The organizations that Mr. Lindsay notes speaking out against threats have not, therefore, done a particularly adequate job of addressing the main part of the argument, which is that misogyny must be dealt with directly rather than simply tamping down its more obvious outbreaks.

I agree both with this and your point that they’re not obligated to tackle it – though they’d be wise to do so. However, what do you mean by “misogyny must be dealt with directly rather than simply tamping down its more obvious outbreaks”. Do you consider the harassment policies and so on, to be part of this? 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).

> I would hasten to add at this point that it is my position that there is no real obligation in a practical sense to root out things like misogyny, racism, homophobia, in any organization that is not explicitly concerned with those things.

I think I would disagree with you here, depending on what we mean by obliged. If one is part of an organisation which hopes to, say, lead the charge for something like evidence-based public policy and fight for issues of equality, fixing problems within the organsation would be part and parcel of that fight. I don’t think you and I disagree on this, but I think it would depend on what we mean by “obligation”.

> That being said, there has been consternation in recent years over the fact that women have been reticent to participate in the community. One potential explanation that was offered is that women just aren’t interested, or that they were too shy. When misogyny was pointed to as a more likely potential explanation for that difference, the response was vicious and has perhaps grown more so.

I think this is an important point that is often not brought up or reiterated enough. It seems that pointing out misogyny as no doubt you’ve also done invites particular individuals to take serious offence to this. (But as you say later on, it’s the confusion surrounding that term that also invites it.) Yet one can’t help think that most of those responding with sensitivity – as has been in my case – do harbour pretty blatant misogynistic views (women are inherently weaker, women are inherently stupider, nature has made them for motherhood, etc.)

> It is intensely gratifying to know that threats are taken seriously by these orgs, but the atheist community is much more than those.

I think this is pretty much your point in the beginning: Lindsay’s false equating?

> To say that atheism+ uses up scarce resources that CFI needs is roughly akin to the US Department of Education saying that CFI is horning in on its territory – they are organizations with perhaps roughly overlapping bailiwicks, but they do not focus on the same issues.

From what I understand, CFI does fight for marriage equality, women’s rights, etc. They’ve hosted conferences and have specific people dedicated to those areas. Perhaps I’m mistaken that they’ve done these, but I recall Lindsay and others discussing this. Lindsay himself has done a lot of work in the area of bioethics, too, since he’s a qualified lawyer and philosopher. My point here is, assuming CFI is fighting, say, for gay rights, would it not make sense to focus on putting the passion who considers herself an A+ toward that “department” of CFI?

This, note, isn’t me being some kind of cheerleader for CFI – even though I am a supporter – but I’m using them as an example. The others, like JREF, have a clear focus on science and society. However, if you are correct that (1) there really are no groups which can cater to the goals of A+, which I find doubtful since these are goals people have been fighting for, for ages (2) or the ones that exist are crippled by too much internal politics, ineffectiveness, and the problems of wider society (too much misogyny, etc.), then I grant you that resource should rather remain. I would support whatever attempts to accomplish the broad goals of A+, even if I don’t sign up as a “member” or whatever.

> I do not think it is a good point, or ever a valid one, to speculate on whether or not atheism+ will succeed, thus wasting money. Atheism+ is sure to fail if nobody puts any effort into it, but for the reasons I outline above, the fact that the major organizations are not doing what atheism+ does is reason enough to suggest that this line of reasoning is empty, at best.

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.

> The issue of “civility” is one that I find very tiresome

Then I think you’ll get tired of me quite quickly. Could you define civility for me?

> it is based on extremely flawed assumptions of de facto equality between groups

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. If anything those shouted out into silence seem to be on the weaker end. But again, I think you and I might not mean civility in the same way. So before we continue this focus, we should clarify what we each mean. 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. For example, this comment on Kagin’s blog. Another would be “[name redacted*]”‘s entire post calling Jen McCreight’s father a “failure” and McCreight “completely incapable of functioning as an adult.” [This post irrationality was such that I wrote a six-page currently unpublished reply.)

> To use an extreme example, if a man calls me “nigger” I am not being ‘equally uncivil’ when I call him a “racist cockbucket”. To use a less extreme example, it is not “equally uncivil” to call out someone who suggests that pregnant rape victims should “see it as a blessing in disguise”, even in extremely harsh language. To use an even milder example, it is not “incivil” to identify someone as homophobic when they say that while they don’t “have a problem with gay people”, they don’t think they should be allowed to marry each other because it will destroy society.

I don’t disagree but I think you’re locating civility in the actual words or phrases, as opposed to their, say effect or character content. One can use “rude” words to friends as a sign of affection (as I do all the time). I don’t think I’d say you’re being uncivil if you responded to a racist assertion like that. My only point would be to not resort to more dubious cases: for example, commenters who ask questions like “I’ve seen evidence that most Muslims are terrorists” should, in my opinion, be responded to with charity, not with incivility: we should question their evidence, show counter evidence, be able to mount our arguments. If they refuse and continue their absurd assertion, then perhaps mockery and derision is in order. Again, I don’t think you’re reply to a racist is uncivil!

> There are a number of high-minded and “civil” ways to dehumanize minority groups. There are comparatively fewer ways to mount an appropriate defense that will not be seen as “incivil”. Demanding “civility” often results in a restoration of the status quo of power divides, in which minority groups must sit mutely in the face of politely-worded abuse (or worse, appease their abusers with equally politely-worded responses). The problem that the “incivility” argument has is that it assumes that any level of incivility is equally bad, and that cracking down on it punishes/restricts both groups evenly.

Again I don’t disagree, but this again seems to me to locate civility with the actual words rather than the intent. It’s a bit muddled but I hope you see from my previous paragraphs what I mean.

> There are things that can be accomplished by a “third party” that cannot be (or cannot more easily be) accomplished from within the existing framework. New, external organizations are far more nimble and not prone to organizational inertia.

This is a good point.

> I do not share your assessment that this labeling is “unfair” – I do however think that applying it to a person globally (i.e., “soandso is a misogynist”) is a mistake, and I have said as much several times on my blog.

Is it not “unfair” because we’re all products of it, etc. as you said in the previous paragraphs: thus one can be a “perfectly normal person” but say or have views which are misogynist? I’m slightly confused: do you then think that Blackford is this? Just because you think it’s wrong to apply this globally doesn’t mean you don’t think someone like 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!).

I see us diverging and disagreeing on many points. This is to be expected. You have a far better grasp on these matters than I do and your taking time to explain it to a bumbling fool like me is greatly appreciated.



*In the interest of not having personal spats that don’t involve me spill into this space (at least not when I don’t want them to), I have removed the name. It doesn’t matter who said it – it’s a shitty thing to say. It’s also ridiculously untrue, but whatever.

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. [Read more…]

Divisive: a conversation with Tauriq Moosa

Yesterday, CFI’s Ron Lindsay posted a lengthy discussion of divisiveness within the atheist/freethinker/skeptic community(-ies). If you haven’t read it yet, you should, otherwise much of the following will likely not make sense. Go read it and come back.

Okay? Done? Did you read the comments too? Oh, you probably should. Even though Franc Hoggle is there. Maybe just the first few? It’s okay, I’ll wait.

Okay. Welcome back. Let’s move ahead then.

I took to Twitter and expressed my dismay that Mr. Lindsay had, in my eyes, done a great job of articulating a bad argument. An exchange with South African skeptic blogger Tauriq Moosa followed, which led to the following e-mail (published with Tauriq’s permission):

I wanted to focus on where we disagree – I think – as per Ron Lindsay’s post. You wrote:

False equivalence abounds, and the basic tenet of his thesis is false. Conflates major orgs with “the movement”.

What I don’t understand is this: Are you saying because he “conflates” major organisations with the movement, which I’m mostly on your side he shouldn’t, does this undermine the rest of his points? After all, he made good points on how to read charitably; that devoting resources – in terms of time and money – which organisations like his constantly need, could be “wasted” on something that is only starting; that we shouldn’t tolerate incivility, etc. these are all excellent points that I don’t think collapse even if he’s wrong about what constitutes the movement.

Also, if these already existing movements are bad social justice issues, isn’t the solution to pick up on their broken forms and fix them, instead of create whole new ones? What evidence do we have to suggest “new” ones will be any more effective, as opposed to using the avenues and inroads already created by existing – if broken – ones?

I subscribe broadly to the goals of A+, but I don’t even use the label atheist. I’m not a fan of categorisation since it too easily leads to ad hominem claims and refusal to acknowledge dissenting views (as I think is happening with many people, who are lumped unfairly with labels like misogynist and, according to Myers “irredeemable pest with nothing positive to contribute”; but also those who view FtB as hivemind and conglomerate of one voice, which is also unfair, etc. etc.)

Twitter is like a coiled spring or a collapsed accordion – a blast of a few characters can contain a very lengthy thought process. This was my response to Tauriq: [Read more…]

What’s your room number?

In the comments section of my first post on atheism+, a commenter has opened up a line of discussion about whether or not it is fair and appropriate to respond to honest and non-malicious questions with abuse and vitriol:

I think part of the issue with a lot of the discussions that happen both here and on A+ forums involve privilege, specifically those who are lacking privilege in one area or another. Many (lets say strait white guys) can often feel that they are being told that they are wrong because they are strait white guys, or that they aren’t welcome due to their status. Certainly some/most of the blame is on them, but I think it is very important not to introduce people to the concept in a manner than can be perceived as hostile or rude. It can be hard to accept “You can’t know what this is like, because you are man/white/strait/cis” when that is exactly what is understood. Nevermind if it is presented in a way that sounds more like “You are wrong, because you are a man/white/strait/cis.”

Even when it comes across perfectly, you can still feel rather dumb about the situation that caused it to arise (I did). It isn’t pleasant. It just needs to be put in a way that is non-confrontational.

I responded from a place of frustration, and to hir eternal credit, kbonn has stuck it out and tried repeatedly to further articulate hir position. I will take a stab at paraphrasing it, and kbonn is free to step in and tell me if I get something wrong.

One problem (not the problem, but a problem) in social justice conversations is that people who have some kind of privilege-related blindness will say things that come from a place of privilege without realizing the harm they may be causing, or the flawed assumptions from which they are operating. When members of oppressed groups respond to the naiveté of the privileged with personal attacks and abuse, it makes understanding and learning from the experience difficult. It is especially difficult to get anything from the experience when the privileged person is likely going to respond defensively to accusations of privilege and insensitivity.

The answer is clear – social justice advocates would be more persuasive and effective if they maintained an attitude of generous sensitivity in these kinds of interactions, and make allowances and accommodations for the fact that many of the people they are talking to are ignorant but well-meaning. It is certainly unfair to heap abuse on people for simple misunderstandings. [Read more…]

A Framework for Social Justice

[This is, as the title says, a framework for social justice, not the only one. There is more than one way to go about framing social justice. This is just one of more effective ones, in my opinion.

Also, I’m talking about ‘touching’ and ‘conventions’ here, so consider this a trigger warning, if relevant]

Talking about social justice is all well and good, but when it comes to the particulars, how do we decide how to move forward? Or (possibly more importantly) how do we recognise the wrong thing to do? In order to fix problems, we must first correctly identify the problem, then identify a solution. False negatives and false positives are always a concern. So how should we proceed?

We could, of course, bring in some basic heuristics. “Women and children first”. “Protect the underprivileged”. “Favour people of colour”. These policies all have their own issues, of course, and can easily come into conflict. They are all also highly contextually dependent.

Enter John Rawls. John Rawls brought forward two principles that allow us to move away from simple (and overly-simplistic) axioms to better conceive of the just choice to make. Of course, this is not a ‘perfect’ solution, but it’s certainly far better than many others that have been advanced in our history. The first is The Original Position. The second is known as The Difference Principle. I’ll explain these below, but I’m using them in a slightly different context to Rawls, so any Rawls purists out there will have to have some patience.

[Read more…]

Atheism Plus? Sounds awesome!


I’d like to begin by stating that I’m in full agreement with Jen McCreight’s general sentiment in her recent essay: “We can criticize religion and irrational thinking just as unabashedly and just as publicly, but we need to stop exempting ourselves from that criticism.” 100% agreement, no reservations.

While the so-called New Atheists (or Gnu Atheists, or whatever) have brought great public attention to religious issues in the the bastion of Christianity that is the US, they have been, in my opinion, largely a step back when it comes to… Well, things that matter.

Now before you leap down to the comment section, bear with me a second. Let me elaborate.

[Read more…]