Where Have You Been?

Thomas Smith released a podcast episode about his time at MythCon. I have few nitpicks about it; the bit where he chastised people for calling the organizers “Nazis” because it didn’t help him came across as tone policing and a touch self-absorbed, and I was chuffed he didn’t mention Monette Richards when he listed off people who’d been right about what would happen. But that needs to be weighed against the rest of what he said on that podcast, and in particular an honest-to-goodness ultimatum he issued to Mythicist Milwaukee: change and disavow your problematic board members, or he’ll do everything he can to discourage people from their events. Never thought I’d hear something like that from him.

The kudos and love he’s getting right now are deserved. His performance at MythCon was the best anyone could hope for, based on the few scraps I’m seeing. And yet, those kudos come with a bitter taste. Steve Shives beat me to the reason why, and Smith himself has suggested he agrees with Shives, so in some sense what follows is redundant. But it’s a point that needs emphasis and repetition until it fully sinks in.While I must have been aware of the atheo/skeptic community for some time, the event that really drew me in was, oddly enough, Elevatorgate. I was terribly puzzled at how a bunch of people who praised reason and logic could work themselves up into an emotional frenzy over what amounted to good advice. Combined with a budding knowledge of feminism, it drove me to keep a close eye on the attitudes and controversies within the community. While I didn’t see much of the SlimePit when it was but a thread at Abbie Smith’s blog, I was quite aware of the SlymePit and the controversies around its formation. As RationalWiki puts it:

Its entire reason for existing is to create a massive circlejerk around the meme that “feminism is poisoning atheism,” and as a result is heavily dominated by the kind of atheists who tend to prefer leaving their prejudices about women, economics, and occasionally race unexamined.

Many dismissed them as bunch of sad trolls or people who disagree or “satirists,” but I kept hearing rumours that a few of their members were organizers in atheo/skeptic groups, at least one of which was confirmed. Either way, the stunning amount of silence or dismissal from most other groups led me to conclude that many of their leaders either agreed in part with these anti-feminists or couldn’t afford to lose their support. This was only reinforced by hard data.

Regardless of gender, all respondents who are or have been involved in the secular movement are asked: Have you ever felt unwelcome, discriminated against, or harmed in the secular movement? Women outnumber men 62%/34% in responding “Yes.” It is worth noting that women do not outnumber men when asked the same question about religious organizations with which they’ve been associated. It appears they are less comfortable in secular groups than in the churches they left.

As early as 2013, I can find myself writing that skepticism has a sexism problem. By 2014, roughly three years after Elevatorgate, I had a pretty good understanding of how extremists like the ‘Pit could self-justify and perpetuate their views. And it’s not like I was alone is this, either, volumes of words were written about the subject and other people were speaking out about it. As far back as 2012, people were calling out the toxic YouTube atheism community for worse behavior. Pointing out that the “he’s just an entertainer” excuse won’t cut it.

Atheists, I need to ask you: Is there any line that you think should not be crossed?

Is there any line that someone could cross that would make you unwilling to support them or work with them? Is there any line that someone could cross that would make you not link to their videos, not share their blog posts, not upvote them, not post admiring comments about them in public forums, not buy or promote their books? Will you really support the work of absolutely anyone, regardless of how vile their behavior has been, as long as they say one thing you happen to agree with?

Would you support the work of an avowed racist, who has publicly and unapologetically stated their opinion that black people are not fully human? … why would you support the work of an avowed misogynist, who has publicly and unapologetically stated his opinion that women he disagrees with should be raped, and who makes public rape threats against them (visible to other rape victims, I’ll point out), in brutal, graphic detail?

That’s Greta Christina talking about T.J. Kirk in 2014, two years after the infamous Reddit thread, and following it up with a post of all the hate mail she received in reply.

When listening to Smith’s podcast, though, you’d think he was a newcomer to atheism. He didn’t know anything about Carl Benjamin until months before, when other people were complaining, and (back then) he was dismissive of their concerns; it was only when other invitees began dropping out and he started looking at Benjamin in depth that became conflicted. Yet he’s been doing the atheist podcast thing since 2010. In the last seven years, he’s never heard of the hatred directed at women or feminists from the community he’s been part of? He’s never heard of the many controversies involving sexism, and wondered what the fuss was about? Nor of the complaints around the YouTube atheist community?

Please. Twenty bucks says he knew about the complaints of sexism, he heard a few warnings about a toxic community, and engaged the same apologetics I’ve seen countless others engage in. He thought of them as just a few bad apples, or outsiders causing issues, or rare exceptions that were best ignored. Sure, Benjamin may have 840,000+ YouTube subscribers across two channels, he may take in $8,500+ a month from Patreon, but he’s just an obscure figure in the atheo/skeptic community who doesn’t have a lot of support.

What made him realize the extent of sexism within the atheo/skeptic community was not years of testimony or evidence from other people, it was experiencing a concentrated form of it first-hand. Listening to Smith’s podcast, I was worried. If it took an experience of that magnitude for him to recognize the problems within the community he’s part of, what else will he miss because it wasn’t screamed in his face?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad Smith has come around on this. He went through hell with superhuman composure, and is using that experience to bring awareness to other people who were sitting on the fence. But I have to wonder: where have you been, Smith? Where was that moral outrage in previous years, when people were dropping out of the movement because of the sexism they experienced? You’ve got a lot of catching up to do.