On using suicide as a rhetorical strategy

[Edited per Esteleth’s suggestion to put this para up top:

[notice]Please note that I am not talking here about people who are honestly worried about their own thoughts of self-destruction, and who want to ask someone close to them for help but end up doing so sidelong. None of us say or do things perfectly when we’re in crisis. There is a pretty significant gray area between people who really are in crisis and people who know that saying they’re in crisis will get them what they want. [/notice]

— CC]

I have been reluctant over the last couple years to write about Hugo Schwyzer, mainly because I’ve realized since the last iteration of the perennial shitstorm that he wears like a second hat that it was all the same to him, positive attention or abuse: any attention feeds his ego.

But there was this passage in the slowly-going-viral interview with Schwyzer at New York Magazine’s site, which NYMag dangled out to Schwyzer after he announced he’s stepping offline the way a desperate dealer would offer one last rock to a recently reformed crackhead, that roused me to sufficient anger that I have to say something.

Here it is:

One reason you became a punching bag is that there just are not many men writing feminist columns online. Why is that?
Look at me. I mean, who would want to be me? If you look at the men who are writing about feminism, they toe the line very carefully. It’s almost like they take their cues from the women around them. Men are afraid of women’s anger. It’s very hard for men to stand up to women’s anger. I did for a long time until finally my mental health had to be a priority. I just got out of the hospital. I’m not shy about that. I’m sober, but I checked myself into a psych ward for a week, when I became a danger to myself.

Others have ably dissected the line about men needing to stand up to women’s anger in order to write about feminism. Here’s one good example by Noah Berlatsky.  A couple others representative of the trend:


But it’s the last sentences of Schwyzer’s statement I want to pay attention to here. Again:

I did [stand up to women’s anger] for a long time until finally my mental health had to be a priority. I just got out of the hospital. I’m not shy about that. I’m sober, but I checked myself into a psych ward for a week, when I became a danger to myself.

Those nasty feminist women criticizing Schwyzer drove him to the brink of suicide, in other words.

I have a long history with Hugo, including a real-life meeting, and though I decided two years ago that he was too toxic a person to interact with I still hope he can get well. (Or maybe because I decided that he was too toxic a person to interact with.) I honestly think Hugo’s stepping away from the Internet is one of the smartest things he’s ever done, and I sincerely hope he finds some help so that he can stop hurting people. Including himself. And that’s the last I’ll say about him directly in this post.

But I want to talk about the use of the “they upset me so much I nearly killed myself” trope, because it seems to have slipped past many people’s notice by coming in the wake of the egregious “beleaguered feminist men” thing.

Far too often, people threaten harm to someone as a way of getting attention. They do so to coerce other people into doing things. As we’ve seen in the recent example of every woman who says something on the internet ever, people make threats of violence in attempts to shut people up. They make threats, sometimes, just to get people to listen.

We see these threats for what they are, most of the time: violent abuse. But when the person being threatened is the person doing the threatening, our vision gets clouded. Our sympathy gets played. None of us want to see people hurt themselves. We tone down our criticism. We shelve our disagreements. We put what we were doing on hold to stroke the avowedly self-destructive person’s hair and coo at them.

It works. It gives the threatener what he or she wants. That’s why one of the most common situations in which suicide threats are used is in the context of abusive relationships. That goes for direct statements, as well as passive-aggressive references to suicide like the one quoted above. Abusers use threats of self-harm to keep their victims in relationships, because it works.

And as a consequence, anyone who’s been subject to that kind of emotional abuse is likely to find new examples of rhetorical suicide threats like the one above supremely triggering, even if they’re made in, say, overly dramatic “I feel sorry for myself” blog posts or what have you.

Please note that I am not talking here about people who are honestly worried about their own thoughts of self-destruction, and who want to ask someone close to them for help but end up doing so sidelong. None of us say or do things perfectly when we’re in crisis. There is a pretty significant gray area between people who really are in crisis and people who know that saying they’re in crisis will get them what they want. A very long time ago, during a difficult discussion in a group of trusted friends, I referred to my own self-destructive thoughts and I’m still not sure which side of that gray area I was on.

But if the statements are made where more than one or two people can see them, in a NYMag article or on Facebook or Tumblr or LiveJournal, the safe bet is on “abusive manipulation.”

Public suicide threats, whether direct or oblique, should be presumed at first glance to be forms of emotional abuse. If they’re direct threatening statements, the best helpful response, if you can use it safely, is “do you need a ride to the hospital?” If the person’s really suffering — and again, I have personal experience with both sides of this interaction — it may either get them the help they need or put things in perspective.

But if the person is using the threat as a rhetorical strategy, it serves as a reminder that there can be consequences for committing acts of emotional abuse on people you claim to care about.

It’s time for people to start calling rhetorical suicide references out as the abusive crap they are.

And if you’re thinking of killing yourself, trust me: whining about it on Facebook won’t help. This will. That link leads you to a list of suicide hotlines around the world. Call them. Get some help.

Lazy writer is lazy

Salon’s Katie Engelhart has a perplexing question: Where are the Women of new Atheism?

Where were the women?

Why, they were right there: stolidly leading people away from the fold. They were irreverent bloggers and institution founders. And scholars. Around the time that the DawkinsHitchensHarris tripartite published its big wave of Atheist critique, historian Jennifer Michael Hecht published “Doubt” and journalist Susan Jacoby published “Freethinkers“—both critically acclaimed. And yet, these women, and many others, failed to emerge as public figures, household names. “Nobody talked about [Doubt] as a ‘phenomenon,’” Hecht has noted. “They just talked about the book.” What gives?

Credit where due: At least Engelhart links to Jen McCreight, Skepchick, Secular Woman and the Amazon page for one of Ophelia Benson’s books. Without mentioning any of the individual women involved by name, other than Hecht and Jacoby as above.

And without a single mention of the misogynist campaign within New Atheism to silence women through constant harassment and occasional worse behavior. It’s as if Engelhart’s wrote a piece asking the question “Why Do So Many People Have Bullet Wounds?” with no mention whatsoever of people who commit assaults, or even of guns.

Those of us who’ve been in the blog world for a while might be excused for feeling a sense of déjà vu.

Nope, it’s not that the women in the movement have persevered in the face of outrageous contempt that eats up time and emotional energy they could be spending getting shit done. It’s because they have “failed to emerge as public figures, household names.”

I expect Engelhart had the best of intentions. But her article did whatever the opposite of “helping” is.

There are of course other aspects of the article that could be profitably dissected. Help yourself to the chum, oh fair denizens of the shark tank.

We told you! You didn’t believe us but we told you!

Here, at long last, is proof sufficient to most systems of jurisprudence that I am not PZ’s alter ego.

It’s the video from the #FtBCON panel Science, Skepticism, and Environmental Activism, held Saturday evening California time, also featuring Madhu Katti and Jennifer Campbell-Smith, my colleagues from the Coyot.es Network. The panel also featured Piasa the European starling.

Deadly woo purveyor out of prison

Cultural appropriationist and charlatan James Arthur Ray, under whose watch three people died of hyperthermia in a for-profit 2009 sweatlodge “ceremony” in Sedona, AZ, just walked out of prison after 20 months.

From that CNN story:

The 55-year-old son of an Oklahoma preacher, Ray built a multimillion-dollar business as a best-selling author and motivational coach. His book, “Harmonic Wealth: The Secret of Attracting the Life You Want,” made him a New Age star. He was was riding high as he planned his October 2009 Spiritual Warrior weekend at the 70-acre Angel Valley retreat outside Sedona.
According to testimony at his trial, acolytes who flocked to Angel Valley’s red rock foothills were willing to shave their heads, meditate in the desert for 36 hours without food and water and then symbolically die and be reborn in the sweat lodge ritual.
Fifty-five people followed Ray into the sweat lodge; three died from overheating and 19 others were hospitalized after they collapsed, vomited, had trouble breathing, hallucinated, foamed at the mouth or fell unconscious.
Ray was convicted of negligently causing the deaths of Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, New York; Lizbeth Neuman, 49, of Prior Lake, Minnesota; and James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee. Ray was found negligent, but acquitted of manslaughter charges that could have sent him to prison for 30 years.

Here we have an unusual example of skeptics and practitioners of Native religions on more or less the same side: I learned of Ray’s release from Native friends who have been commenting on desecration of their culture for profit. Traditionally, sweatlodge ceremonies run for far less time, include far fewer people, and are conducted in structures made of breathable materials — not plastic tarps — and run by people who’ve had eight years of training. There’s still plenty there to trip a skeptic’s trigger, of course, but at least people don’t fucking die from sweatlodge ceremonies run that way.

Ray should be watched like a hawk. It’s clear he’s learned nothing and regrets nothing. Gullibility is a shame, but it shouldn’t be a death sentence.

And for fuck’s sake, don’t ever go 36 hours without water in the desert, even if you’re not going to be crammed into a sauna with 60 other people for several hours by a negligent charlatan afterward.

Sing it, Carl

Blake Stacey has a good quote quoted at Science after Sunclipse:

The business of skepticism is to be dangerous. Skepticism challenges established institutions. If we teach everybody, including, say, high school students, habits of skeptical thought, they will probably not restrict their skepticism to UFOs, aspirin commercials, and 35,000-year-old channelees. Maybe they’ll start asking awkward questions about economic, or social, or political, or religious institutions. Perhaps they’ll challenge the opinions of those in power. Then where would we be?
— Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World, Chapter 24.

Did you know douchebags are full of dihydrogen monoxide?

Doing what I do for a living, I often find myself reading things on Facebook, Twitter, or those increasingly archaic sites called “blogs” in which the writer expresses concern about industrial effluent in our air, water, consumer products or food. Sometimes the concerns are well-founded, as in the example of pipeline breaks releasing volatile organic chemicals into your backyard. Sometimes, as in the case of concern over chemtrails or toxic vaccines, the concerns are ill-informed and spurious.

And often enough, the educational system in the United States being the way it’s been since the Reagan administration, those concerns are couched in terms that would not be used by a person with a solid grounding in science. People sometimes miss the point of dose-dependency, of acute versus chronic exposure, of the difference between parts per million and parts per trillion. Sometimes their unfamiliarity with the basic facts of chemistry causes them to make patently ridiculous alarmist statements and then double down on them when corrected.

And more times than I can count, if said statements are in a public venue like a comment thread, someone will pipe up by repeating a particular increasingly stale joke. Say it’s a discussion of contaminants in tap water allegedly stemming from hydraulic fracturing for natural gas extraction. Said wit will respond with something like:

“You know what else might be coming out of your tap? DIHYDROGEN MONOXIDE!”

!!!.999999999 . . .!

Dihydrogen monoxide is, of course, water. For the sake of quite likely wholly unnecessary but pro forma explanation, water molecules have two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, hence the symbol H2O; “dihydrogen monoxide” is a way of saying “two hydrogens and one oxygen” in a way not wholly inconsistent wiith accepted chemical terminology, though not in a way anyone ever uses except as a joke.

Though I chuckled once or twice when I first heard the joke back in the end-1980s, back when kilometer-thick sheets of solid-phase dihydrogen monoxide occupied the Northern Hemisphere as far south as present-day Kentucky, it got old fast.

I recognize the temptation to poke mild fun of people who make embarrassing mistakes. I’ll cop to having done so myself, f’rinstance in the post I linked above on the phrase “patently ridiculous alarmist statements.” But it’s one thing to snicker at people who have made basic, easily correctable mistakes, especially when you offer them a way to make that correction.

The “dihydrogen monoxide” joke doesn’t do that. Instead, it mocks alleged “gullibility” in a way that dissuades the corrected from learning.

It may have been first used, as far as Wikipfftdia can tell, by students at UC Santa Cruz riffing on a very similar joke that warned people about the dangers of “hydrogen hydroxide”; the students responsible liked the joke and printed up fliers to post around campus, an early form of Tweeting. But they thought “hydrogen hydroxide” wasn’t quite viscerally scary enough to people unacquainted with chemical terminology, so they upped the ante. Everyone had heard of “carbon monoxide,” and everyone knows it’ll kill you, so the three decided on the dihydrogen monoxide synonym as much more scary.

It wasn’t the first time the term had been used. Google Books records it being used as early as 1910, in a magazine snippet ironically poking fun at scientists for their abstruse technology:

Screen shot 2013-07-11 at 6.31.06 PM


There are a few other examples of the term before 1990, most of them seeming more or less innocuous. It took Usenet to make the joke version spread.

Here’s how the joke works:


  1. Someone makes a statement you find excessively ill-informed and credulous about the dangers of a real or imagined substance.
  2. You make the dihydrogen monoxide joke.
  3. Other people who are in on the joke laugh, or at least you imagine them doing so.
  4. You get a modicum of outside reinforcement of the value of your intellect, should yoou be insecure about same.
  5. The original target of the joke learns nothing, thus ensuring further opportunities for your own levity and morale-boosting.

And you know what? That’s fine if you’re fine with it. If you’re fine with a world in which there are intellectual castes, in which the Alphas get to sneer at the Betas and Gammas, who themselves have in-jokes they use to ridicule the Epsilons. For those that like that sort of thing, as Wilde said, that is the sort of thing they like.

And I understand the appeal. I know the appeal, for instance, of writing things that don’t give everything up to the casual reader, that reward the reader who’s willing to ponder, to look things up, to think about things for a while and be comfortable in not knowing what’s there all at once. That’s the whole point of literature, or poetry, of riddlles and puzzles. They’re fun. And they challenge intellectual laziness.

But ignorance — using the word in the strictly literal, non-pejorative sense — is different. Ignorance of science is an evil that for the most part is foisted upon the ignorant. The dihydrogen monoxide joke depends for its humor on ridiculing the victims of that state of affairs, while offering no solution (pun sort of intended) to the ignorance it mocks. It’s like the phrase “chemophobia.” It’s a clan marker for the Smarter Than You tribe.

The dihydrogen monoxide joke punches down, in other words. It mocks people for not having had access to a good education. And the fact that many of its practitioners use it in order to belittle utterly valid environmental concerns, in the style of (for instance) Penn Jillette, makes it all the worse — even if those concerns aren’t always expressed in phraseology a chemist would find beyond reproach, or with math that necessarily works out on close examination.

Besides, I find myself wondering how many of the people who use the dihydrogen monoxide joke would respond appropriately if they were told their Starbucks drink had been proven to contain significant amounts of oxidane. I suspect not many. If that applies to you: “oxidane” is one of two official names approved by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry for a particular chemical substance. The other?  “Water,” and its equivalent in whatever your vernacular might be. See how easy that was to just explain?

Hanging out with desert kit foxes

What, what time is it? July? Hell.

I have some catching up to do around here.

While I get less threadrupt, if any of you are available for and interested in a G+ hangout with the Desert Kit Fox project I wrote about this morning earlier this week, back in May, we’ll be doing one at 8:15 PM California time today. Dipika Kadaba and her team will be out at a field study area in the gathering dark, demonstrating how they’re using their drone at night to detect kit fox dens using IR videography. We did a dry run last night and it was impressive.

To join, you can check out my profile here.

I’ll post the youtube version after the show. Here it is:

By the way, if you were meaning to contribute to the Desert Kit Fox Project’s Indiegogo fund, you’ve still got four days to do it. And they’re slightly less than halfway to their goal.

Remembering the UpStairs Lounge

Over at The Friendly Atheist, Terry Firma points out that today is the 40th anniversary of one of the deadliest hate crimes in recent U.S. history: the deliberate arson of the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans.

Just before 8:00p, the doorbell rang insistently. To answer it, you had to unlock a steel door that opened onto a flight of stairs leading down to the ground floor. Bartender Buddy Rasmussen, expecting a taxi driver, asked his friend Luther Boggs to let the man in. Perhaps Boggs, after he pulled the door open, had just enough time to smell the Ronsonol lighter fluid that the attacker of the UpStairs Lounge had sprayed on the steps. In the next instant, he found himself in unimaginable pain as the fireball exploded, pushing upward and into the bar.
The ensuing 15 minutes were the most horrific that any of the 65 or so customers had ever endured — full of flames, smoke, panic, breaking glass, and screams.

It was a horrible murderous act, with 32 people dead, and Terry’s post is really hard to read. Not only for the description of the suffering (with a grotesque photo of the body of Metropolitan Community Church pastor Bill Larson, be warned) but also for the description of the reaction of locals after the event.

Tough reading, but do it anyway if you can. The victims at the UpStairs Lounge have been all but forgotten. They fucking well deserve better, and so do we.

Misandry In Teh Animule Kingdom!!!!7!

Misandry, polyandry, whatever. I know it’s some kind of -andry. Hordeling Ron Sullivan and her partner in crime Joe Eaton have been spending a lot of time in the San Joaquin Valley of late, and Joe has a new post up on Ron’s blog riffing on their recent frequent sightings of Swainson’s hawks. It turns out that the hawks engage in behavior that completely undermines the traditional institution of marriage as Gahd intended:

Polyandry, it seems, is not that unusual in buteos and related hawks. It’s more or less standard for the Galapagos hawk, which genetic studies indicate is the Swainson’s closest relative. (The i’o or Hawai’ian hawk is also near kin. Swainson’s is typically a long-distance migrant, with most of the population traveling from the North American plains to the Argentine pampas every year. You can see how accidental colonization of remote islands might happen.) Polyandrous mating groups also occur in the more distantly related Harris’s hawk. The advantage? Male raptors often provide prey for their incubating mates and nestlings. A female with two male providers would have a better chance of successfully fledging her brood.

The MRAs were right all along: it’s all about the child support. How dare those ladyhawks go against biology? Don’t they understand about gathering berries?

Anyway, it’s a good post by a longtime favorite natural history writer. And the post title proves that Parentheses Matter.

Speaking of people writing good stuff at the Coyot.es Network, we’ve added two new blogs over there: “InyoOwnWay” by Owens Valley biologist Mike Prather and “Miracle or Mirage?” by renewable energy maven Patrick Donnelly-Shores. We’ve got another new addition pending once she answers her email.

In Boring fields

In Boring fields the suburbs grow
In Council houses row on row,
A cozy place; and in the sky
The plastic bags still bravely fly
Used once by urbanites below.

We paved the Dead. Short days ago
It lived, sank roots, let seedpods blow,
Ten thousand years, but bid goodbye
to Boring fields.

Dig up the squirrel with backhoe:
On us, the moneyed hands bestow
A coin, a handshake and school tie.
You’ll do no good to wonder why.
We shall not sleep till leaseholds grow
In Boring fields.