Silverman screws up, again

I think I’ve been on this rollercoaster before: David Silverman Suspended Pending Investigation Into Touching Incident.

Silverman was accused by Vitsmun of violating her bodily autonomy by “caressing” her back as she put on her shoes at a party with other like-minded non-believers. She provided screenshots purportedly showing their interactions following the incident.

Yeah, I was following this story as it was emerging on Facebook. It sounds harmless at first — she’s bent over to put on her shoes, he just touches her lower back — but then I thought about it, and realized I would never do that to anyone. Why? Why are you touching her? Especially when you’re on notice already for crossing boundaries? And when I read Vitsmun’s account, it’s clear that she is very sensitive to these kinds of touching issues for good reason, and it stressed her…and it doesn’t matter if you think your behavior was fine, if the other person doesn’t, you did wrong.

Now Silverman is calling Vitsmun “evil” and a “shitty fucking asshole liar”. I think it’s clear who the bad guy is here.

So AAI is suspending him with pay while piously climbing up onto a high horse.

“AAI has very high standards of behavior for its Board of Directors and staff. We fight for human rights around the world and do not tolerate any Board Director or staff member violating anyone’s rights,” the statement says. “We also believe strongly in evidence, reason, and due process. We have today initiated an investigation into this incident and we will make our conclusions known in due course. In the meantime, we have suspended David Silverman on full pay until the investigation is completed.”

Where were these “very high standards of behavior” when they first hired him? That statement is not honest. Since hiring him, AAI has received nothing but shocked dismay and bad press, and they’re slowly realizing that this person might well be a catastrophe for their organization, and that’s why they’re trying to kick him to the curb.


  1. chrislawson says

    ‘Now Silverman is calling Vitsmun “evil” and a “shitty fucking asshole liar”.’

    There’s grounds for dismissal right there.

  2. anthrosciguy says

    You mean it doesn’t sound like it’s in keeping with his duties as outlined in the AAI announcement of his hiring? “He will oversee campaigns and assume responsibility for growing AAI so the organization can do more to make the world a safer place for atheists.”

  3. Ishikiri says

    @ginmar, #2:

    I think Jamie from the Serious Inquiries Only podcast was on the right track when she said: “if you wouldn’t do it to a man, don’t do it.” To be more inclusive of gays and bisexuals, I’d say: “if you wouldn’t do it someone you’re not sexually attracted to, don’t do it.”

  4. leerudolph says

    Ishikiri, #8: “I’d say: ‘if you wouldn’t do it someone you’re not sexually attracted to, don’t do it.'”

    I’m (sincerely) having trouble unwinding the syntax there; in any case, speaking for myself (and apparently Vitsmun), I don’t care if someone is sexually attracted to me, I DON’T WANT TO BE TOUCHED WITHOUT MY PERMISSION IN ADVANCE, so DON’T DO IT.

  5. says

    @Marcus Ranum #3,

    It “lower back” bro code for “ass”?

    If you follow the sources, it was the “small of her back”. Where apparently she had nerve damage, so I’m guessing it was painful. Yet another reason consent is important.

  6. elchapo says

    Hey Pharyngula! How’s my favorite culty little intellectual backwater doing?

    I usually just lurk here, but after hearing of Silverman’s monstrous behavior I just had to jump in and join this completely reasonable and not at all disproportionate response to a person’s back being touched by suggesting Silverman be hanged in the town square.

    Now there will be some people who look upon our condemnation of Silverman as nothing more than the reprehensible self-indulgent finger wagging of a small cadre of hypercritical malcontents. Ignore them. When those critics try to distract you with their “reason” I want you to think of Silverman’s hairy man-claw slithering down the backside of our damsel in distress as her world falls apart around her. Quelle horreur!

    Some others will mistake PZ’s lucid wisdom here for the geriatric ramblings of an aging nerd with a blog and a chip on his shoulder. Sidestep their obvious projection and hold fast to your (his) views. Stick to the mission at all costs. We are in this together.

    May your Fedoras sit forever snugly on your heads. Adieu.

  7. Porivil Sorrens says

    Imagine being so offended at the idea of not touching women without their consent that you make a weird smarmy blog comment about it. I feel sorry for the women that have to deal with elchapo in real life.

  8. elchapo says


    Not sure how we got mixed up here, but me and you are on the same page. That’s why I carry a stack of consent forms with me for all hugs, kisses, handshakes, and of course, back touches.

  9. Porivil Sorrens says

    Embarrassing, it’s like baby’s first trolling attempt. We get it, the idea of not touching women without their consent is horrifying to you, just link us to your slymepit account and get it over with.

  10. Frederic Bourgault-Christie says

    I love how the apologetics crowd don’t even try anymore. No attempt to say Silverman didn’t do it. Since Silverman didn’t apologize they can’t pull the “He apologized, STFU” card.

    Assholes: The person being distressed and it being close to the butt isn’t even the core issue, it is just what makes it a slam dunk. Silverman needs to be respecting boundaries and personal space no matter where it is. And given his prior conduct, if personal responsibility were on his agenda, he would be going out of his way to avoid even the appearance of grabassiness. Instead it took less than a year for him to be touching people in places that are not work appropriate (i.e. a high five, handshake, knucks, elbow tap, etc.) I work at a group home and we take this stuff seriously because it is about basic courtesy.

    We all know if it was an Official Enemy of yours, maybe a feminist or a creationist you don’t like, you would assume smoke means fire. But because Dave was on your funny memes, it’s okay if he fucks up at his job in a way that suggests his conduct hasn’t improved.

    Get over your hero worship. And stop projecting your culty faults onto people who don’t share them.

  11. elchapo says


    Perhaps you’re right. If you were that would explain why this blog was a lot more charitable towards Al Franken when he grabbed a woman’s breasts and fauxpoligized (“I’m sorry–but she misremembered–and I’m truly sorry and have much work to do. Also she’s wrong about what happened. And I’m sorry.”)

    Now why would that be? Could it be that Al Franken was a Democrat and fell more in line with this blog’s and it’s commentariate’s political leanings? Nooooo, couldn’t be.

  12. Porivil Sorrens says

    Franken was just as much of a scumbag and probably deserved worse than he got, but it is very funny that you think a milquetoast lib politician is some sacred cow here.

  13. kurt1 says

    Oh yeah, and I don’t give one righteous s*** about David goddamn Silverman.

    Cool story bro. You are so not mad about Silverman getting a slap on the wrist, that you had to check out the geriatric ramblings of an aging nerd with a blog and a chip on his shoulder in your favorite culty little intellectual backwater immediately, to post cringe. Something all well-adjusted people do, if they don’t give a shit.

  14. elchapo says


    Nobody cares about Silverman. He’s a washed up activist fossil from the now dead New Atheism movement. Nobody cares about AAI or any these pretentious conferences anymore. Get over it. It’s done. It’s been done for a decade now.

    Go to 11:39 in that video. That sums up the banal inanity of the “atheist movement”.
    I come to Pharyngula because it’s fun and fascinating to watch the hive mind buzz. I can honestly say that I’ll be sad when PZ Myers dies. On that day we will all have lost one of the finest examples of amusing online tribalism.

  15. says

    It sounds harmless at first — she’s bent over to put on her shoes, he just touches her lower back

    It shouldn’t “sound harmless,” it feels fucking unpleasant when somebody else touches you without your permission. I don’t care whether somebody touches my waist, or knees, or shoulders, or “lower back,” or whatever—they don’t have a right to do so without my permission, and it feels unpleasant. It’s not harmless.

  16. says

    I remember comments of disillusionment about Franken, of this sort:

    Franken? Oh, that sucks. I liked him.

    But statements of disillusionment are not statements of support for Franken, rather the opposite. “I liked him” puts any support in the past. It’s possible that there were supportive comments for Franken, though I don’t remember any. If that’s what you mean by “charitable” then I think the clear explanation is that,

    Franken had a hand in producing actual law and determining which people got lifetime judgeships.
    There was a real concern that he would be replaced by a right-wing asshat who would contribute to worse law and horrible people getting lifetime appointments.
    As a result, people were not feeling like Franken should be excused from the consequences for his behavior, but rather that it completely sucked that the consequences for his behavior included real risks of worse outcomes for people across the world…and to the extent of the effect of US foreign aid policy, lesser risks of worse outcomes for people in nations with rural populations and lacking large-scale infrastructure around the world.
    and, of course,
    Any disillusionment around Silverman already happened the last time his bad behavior made the news.

    I remember the first news trickling out about Franken. My first reaction was, “Oh shit, what does this mean?” because the first news wasn’t the worst news and also the first news I heard was about a single incident. Assault is bad. Sustained harassment is worse.

    It didn’t take long to find out that he’d engaged in sustained harassment against co-workers. And it didn’t take long to find out that the first thing I heard wasn’t the worst individual incident either. So although my first thought wasn’t, “His ass needs to get booted out of congress,” I supported his resignation as a completely appropriate consequence for his behavior.

    I don’t need to go through any of that process for Silverman right now, not because I refuse to engage in such thinking on his behalf, but because I’ve already gone through that process months ago.

    I was stunned, frankly, that he got another chance. That he wasn’t on his best behavior shows that he didn’t deserve it.

    I also don’t need to perform any analysis of what the risks are to the rest of us as a consequence of his bad behavior. With Franken I worried about another Republican joining the Senate. That wasn’t a defense of Franken, it was just a piece of shitty fallout from his behavior that the rest of us had to clean up. If anything it speaks worse of Franken. Are the risks of fallout from Silverman’s bad behavior that might negatively affect me? None that I can see. AAI will go on, and they’re going to continue to promote secularism. There’s no risk that some theocrat will take over the agency, so if anything secular activism and advocacy should improve. That doesn’t say anything positive about Silverman, but unlike Franken it doesn’t give me any additional reasons to be pissed at Silverman’s behavior.

    So that’s it. Silverman sucks, but we knew he sucked before he took the job and nothing bad falls on people who aren’t Silverman when he gets sacked.

    Franken sucked, but it came as a surprise and bad fallout affected many people who weren’t Franken.

    The more complicated reaction to Franken came from the more complicated situation. But the analysis of the bullshit behavior was and is the same. Franken’s behavior was bad and he deserved to lose his job. Silverman’s behavior was bad at his last job and he deserved to lose it. One incident at his new job would not on its own be enough to cause him to lose that job, but as we have a record of many crappy things he did at his last job and were never convinced he should have been offered this one, this confirmation that his behaviors haven’t changed is easy confirmation that Silverman’s behavior still sucks, and he still doesn’t deserve to have a job representing any group.

    It’s really not that hard for people who examine evidence and context. If you aren’t skilled at that, I do see how it would all be confusing.

    My advice is to try to learn from this and maybe, one day, you’ll be able to reason through these things on your own without random internet strangers mapping it all out for you as if you were a fourth grader struggling through your very first moral dilemma.

  17. says

    @William George, #26:

    I laughed.

    You really got to hand it to elchapo. You name yourself after a murderous drug dealer in order to crusade for … smaller, longer-delayed, and more cautious responses to bad behavior? The pseudonym is certainly appropriate. Who would imagine el chapo being pro-consent or advocating proportional responses to bad behavior? Then there’s the megalomanic persecutory complex hinted at here.

    If they have nothing else going for them, they at least have a decent talent for selecting their own pseudonyms.

  18. elchapo says


    No moral dilemma for me. You just confirmed my own view. That ” oh man, not Al Franken golly gee whiz, I really like him” tone contrasts harshly with every other #metoo style callout on this blog as well as other similar online communities. If potentially losing a congressman to a republican seat was really an issue, the vitriol should have been 10 times what it was. People should have been MORE acerbic towards Franken, not less. What he got instead from the media and blogs such as this one were kid gloves (by comparison). This is the major reason I don’t give the opinions of politicized people very much weight. Their intentions and perspectives are always so much more vague and corruptible than they let on. The lack of palpable outrage compared to that aimed at other harassers betrays the mendacity and apparent fabrication and manufacture of that outrage. And if the outrage directed towards people like Louis CK, or David Silverman is indeed real, then perhaps it is not real for the commonly stated reasons. i.e. it is a tribalistic/political outrage, and not one born out sincere contempt for the individual’s actions.

  19. says


    You show every indicator that you really can’t tell the difference between criticism of an individual and criticism of behavior.

    If potentially losing a congressman to a republican seat was really an issue, the vitriol should have been 10 times what it was. People should have been MORE acerbic towards Franken, not less.

    The vitriol for the behavior should be exactly the same for exactly the same behavior. The discussion of the consequences should be very, very different because the consequences of losing Silverman from AAI and losing Franken from the senate were very, very different.

    But the same vitriol for the same behavior simply doesn’t make sense to you. We should either react more strongly for the same behavior or less strongly for the same behavior – anything but criticizing similar behavior similarly.

    I have no problem saying that Franken did some good things as a legislator while also saying that he did horrible things as a co-worker who chose to engage in sexual harassment.

    See? It’s not hard. Good behavior gets praised. Bad behavior gets criticized. Maybe you should try it some time.

  20. brikoleur says

    In my view this burst of outrage greatly trivialises actual incidences of harassment, sexual and otherwise. It’s completely disproportionate to the action.

  21. elchapo says


    It also turns people against victims of harassment. Look what happened with Rebecca Watson. She merely pointed out how it’s not a nice thing to be accosted in an elevator after the doors close, and people should be more thoughtful about those kinds of interactions. She never said it was the worst thing that’s ever happened to her. I don’t recall her making a huge deal about it. But the internet did, and that’s how we got elevatorgate.

    That kind of emotional reactivity is rarely appropriate.

  22. efogoto says

    @31 brikoleur: This is about an actual incident of harassment, by someone with a history of harassment incidents. What about it doesn’t seem actual to you?

  23. Ishikiri says

    So, I’m not calling for Silverman, Franken, Louis CK, or the like to get the noose or be thrown in prison. I’m sure that in this wonderful age of the internet, you could find someone advocating for that, but it’s not a mainstream position on the left and I haven’t seen anyone argue for that around here. Though there are a good number of people for whom I think death would be a deliverance for the rest of humanity, I’m not a fan of retributive justice.

    However, I don’t see why it should be thought of as punishment for someone whose behavior violates the trust and safety of those around them to be brought down from a position of power and influence. That’s not something you’re entitled to, despite the beliefs of the Brett Kavanaughs and David Silvermans of the world. You have to continually show yourself to be worthy of it.

  24. says

    @ brikoleur

    First let me concede that the criticisms below are entirely separate from and additional to efogoto’s quite appropriate observation that you have implicitly asserted that the behavior of Silverman here described is not an incident of harassment. It would be interesting to know how you determined that to be true.

    My own unique criticism relates to this:

    this burst of outrage

    I didn’t see anything that constituted “outrage” before elchapo showed up, and then what I saw was directed at elchapo. Can you even quote one sentence that constitutes “outrage” rather than reasonable criticism?

    I don’t think you can, but even if you could one can be legitimately outraged. What’s wrong with outrage? There are lots of behaviors that legitimately deserve an outraged response. I think you’re actually confusing outraged criticism with invalid criticism.

    But if what you mean is that some of the criticism is somehow invalid (by reason of be disproportionate or in reaction to something that didn’t happen or for any other reason) why not quote one specific criticism that is invalid?

    Further, does criticizing a punch inherently legitimize murder? If not, what extra qualities must be present in the criticism of one behavior to trivialize worse behavior? Then, finally, where specifically do you find those qualities present in the criticisms of Silverman presented in this thread?

    Constructing an argument isn’t that hard, but it does require thought. Is that something of which you’re capable?

  25. says

    Obviously, elchapo, who has also posted under the pseudonyms booberry and liberalhysteria, will not be trolling here anymore. Banned.

  26. says

    Such a shame. They had so much brilliant substance to contribute, too.

    (Where “brilliant substance” is code for “stupid sarcasm”, that is.)

  27. kkehno says

    It seems that “tribalism” is one of those words like “transgenderED” that are dead giveway for person using it being either troll or just triggered hater.

    Is it not actually just opposite of tribalism to call people out? Silverman was “one of us” and if this really was hive of tribalism, should we not protect him rather than what actually happened. Same with Carrier, he was even one of the bloggers here but somehow individuals seem to be more important to us rather than the “movement” (tribe).

  28. George says

    Kkehno: unless the “Tribe” is the tribe of “Those Who Think It’s No Big Deal For Guys To Manhandle Women” vs the tribe of “Those Who Think Guys Should Keep Their Grimy Monkee Paws To Themselves.” :)

  29. says

    Wow, Silverman busted yet again for pulling a Silverman. That didn’t take long. I guess he thinks his overly aggressive response will cow everyone into shutting up. I suppose it worked before on AAI.

  30. Saad says

    Dudebros not only want to be able to touch your lower back without your consent, they also want to decide what the upper limit of your reaction to the touch should be.

    All the more reason to do “bursts of outrage” and “ruin their lives” by subjecting them to that most horrible of nightmarish scenarios for the privileged: consequences for their actions.

  31. =8)-DX says

    Geeze, what a wanker. And reading the related quotes it’s pretty obvious Silverman is another one of those at best clueless boundary-pushing creeps like Carrier. He understands nothing. And geeze, Vitsmun gave him sooooo much leeway in those chats, trying to counsel and support him.

    Also lol at the troll: as any regular knows the pharyngula commentariat is renowned for always agreeing on everything and all the comments being in lockstep. Never any disagreements here, total hivemind, no 200-comment 10-person arguments over multiple threads..

  32. rpjohnston says

    Who the heck writes “We also believe strongly in evidence, reason, and due process” about an HR issue? I don’t think that’s the kind of thing you’d read in any regular corporate HR statement. They’re just throwing out atheist catechism like that like they’re a church. It’s weird.

  33. fledanow says

    I volunteer in a food bank. Lots of people come and go. Some of them are babies. I like babies. I smile at the babies and tell their parents they have beautiful babies. Some of the people are attractive to me. I hand them their food the same way I hand everybody else their food. I go home and nobody knows whom I thought was sexy and I have touched nobody. It’s not hard.

  34. Frederic Bourgault-Christie says

    @19: (Hoping this is seen through the ban). Putting aside that, in fact, it was heartbreaking to see what Franken seemingly did precisely because he had been held to such high standards before (so in fact in my view people here were harsher on Franken, and this is generally a feature of the left as the Alt-Right Playbook points out – the right will launch ops on our side but we don’t do the same to their side precisely because progressives know to be careful about individuals), I hope you realize that when you got called out your only argument was a fallacy. Even if the folks here needed to be harsher on Franken, you needed to be harsher on Silverman. But instead of admitting that you needed to at least reach the standards of not apologizing for the conduct, which even you had to admit was the minimum standard here when it came to Franken, you decided to engage in what-aboutism because you got caught without an argument. Instead of just admitting that people had a point, you pivoted and spun. And then you had the gall to call people here culty.

    Do better, man. @45 is right: at the very least, we should demand that people in leadership be held to the same standards that anyone else would in the organization (if not higher ones) and that they should role model professionalism at the very least. Instead, Silverman reacts to being criticized by throwing tantrums. Not a good look, and not a good luck for you when you don’t see it.