Sexism, atheism, and the volatility of internet discourse

My post on the topic of sexism in the atheist movement generated a lot of comments. As is often the case with heated discussions, a lot of different issues quickly got added into the mix and so it might be good to step back a bit and look at the big picture.

My original question was whether the atheist community had a problem with sexist attitudes towards women as evidenced by the response that Rebecca Watson received when she reported on her blog about an incident in an elevator at an atheist gathering.

But soon other issues entered the discussion, such as whether:

  1. what she experienced in the elevator was indeed a proposition;
  2. her own behavior might have encouraged it;
  3. she herself has clean hands, in that she supposedly reacts angrily to others when she is criticized; and
  4. she over-reacted to something minor by publicizing it.

I have to admit that when it comes to the first two items, I am hopelessly out of my depth and will not even try to venture a judgment, since the world of singles dating is completely foreign to me. For the third point, one commenter made the case that Watson and her supporters also dish it out as much as they get. As to the last point, whatever led up to the incident, I think (hope?) we can agree that Watson had every right to talk about it on her blog. Even if one thinks that it was hopelessly trivial and she was hypersensitive, the fact remains that she was talking about her own feelings on her own blog, and surely she has the right to do that? (After all, there are people who are known to use their blog to even complain about film trailers, an undoubtedly petty topic of no consequence whatsoever.) Similarly, people have a right to respond to her post. This is part of the robust nature of internet discourse.

But I am not sure if any of the above points are germane to the issue at hand. What I feel should be focused on is whether the nature of the responses to her post (irrespective of her personal qualities or even the incident itself) reveals anything about sexism among atheists. And I would venture that it at least raises the prima facie case that a problem exists (which may or may not be greater than the level of sexism in general) and that we would do well to address it.

As an aside, I want to comment on the robust nature of internet communication and how easily people seem to get angry on the web. I am always somewhat taken aback by the flame wars that erupt on the internet, where tempers flare and angry accusations can spring up about minor things.

My first experience with such anonymous anger arose in the very early days of the internet. This was in the good old days of dial-up connections using modems transmitting data at 1200 baud rates. I was part of a statewide movement funded by the National Science Foundation to improve math and science education in Ohio. The movement was a network of mostly middle school teachers sprinkled with a few college faculty like me. Since I had slightly greater familiarity with the internet than most of the other people, like the proverbial one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind, I was designated as a moderator for the listserv that was set up for communication. My moderation role was not in the sense of having to give prior approval to people’s postings but to provide general guidance on the use of the listserv and address any technical questions that might arise.

There was one teacher who seemed to have the ‘caps lock’ setting in the ‘on’ position all the time so that the entire message was always in upper case. After receiving a few such postings, I sent out a message to the list saying that internet protocol used upper case purely for emphasis and usually limited it for single words or a phrase and that a message entirely in upper case meant the author was angry and seen as yelling. I suggested that people might want to unlock the caps setting so that others might not misinterpret their messages as having been written in anger. My whole message was in the tone of being gently helpful, or at least so I thought.

Well, before you knew what, I received a furious message from the perpetrator, sent to everyone on the list (and in upper case of course) asking who the hell I thought I was to try and tell him what he could and could not do and that he had a perfect right to use all caps if he wanted to and by golly he would. I was surprised at this hostile reaction to say the least, since this was not the tone that he would have taken during any face-to-face meetings of the statewide group of which we were both a part. But there was something about the distancing afforded by even our fairly small list that seemed to eliminate the decorum that was the norm.

I let his message go without any response, because once people get into such a stiff defensive posture, there is really no reasoning with them, and it is better just to walk away. In addition, the person who usually gets harmed by such displays of anger is not the recipient of the message but the sender, since almost everyone else wonders why they are being petty and getting so angry about something so relatively minor.

So I am no longer surprised by this phenomenon. But I still do not quite understand it. What is it about internet communication that seems to foster anger and rudeness? Or maybe it doesn’t foster it at all but that such impulses were always there but in the pre-internet days it took time to convey those emotions because we had to wait until we met the person or it took time to write a letter or to make a phone call, and by that time we had calmed down. Maybe what the internet does is allow us to act on our impulses immediately without time intervening to cool us off.


  1. peter says

    I didn’t follow the Rebecca Watson issue very closely, but since I check in on Pharyngula every day I was passively exposed to the generalities.

    I don’t know if this has been addressed yet or not, I apologize if I’m repeating:

    Regarding issue 1 -- whether or not it was intended as a proposition; I recall reading that a woman’s perception of an experience in an elevator will be very different from a man’s. To a man an elevator is a small boring room. To a woman is a small boring box that has only 1 exit and feels like a cage. If she’s sharing it with a man, and the man behaves at all bad, there’s nowhere for her to go, and nobody to help her.

    In that light, whether it was meant as a proposition or not is beside the point.

    As for arguing out of emotion on the internet, I’ve found that I’m pretty susceptible to it. If a post really gets under my skin I try to wait a day or two before responding. That helps. But I think the source of my problem is not so much that they can’t see me (as they could in a face to face discussion), but that *I can’t see them*.

    If I could see their face during the discussion I imagine I’d be picking up on subtle non-verbal cues that would unconsciously moderate my response to their words. Without that, my brain is left with nothing but the words, and fills in the rest of the emotional picture according to its own rules -- not necessarily according to the way the speaker intended. Sadly, all we have to go on in that case is emoticons and acronyms.

    Of course, I could be very wrong, LOL 😉

  2. says

    Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and also their right to express it. This is paramount, IMO.

    But there are ethical lines that should be drawn, and not crossed. For example, regarding that cartoon, I actually don’t have a problem with that kind of impassioned/angry expression of opinion. But the character in the cartoon crossed an ethical line, IMO, when he suggested ‘jumping off a bridge’ without any indication of irony or humour. I draw the line at speech that advocates actual harm to a person or group of people.

    A phrase like ‘go jump off a bridge’ is quite common, and usually seen as figurative and innocuous, but the fact is that depression exists and people do sometimes jump off bridges. I would never want to be in a position of saying something like that to someone and then later find out the person had actually attempted to take their own life (whether or not my comment had much at all to do with the reason). I would consider that I had ‘done something wrong’ in that case. And so, imagining this improbable (but not impossible or completely unrealistic) scenario makes me think that the initial action itself crosses an ethical line that should not be crossed.

    Usually the harm done during internet ‘wars’ is not in the acts of speech, but in the acts that go beyond speech: Modifying/deleting comments which merely express disagreement, spreading rumours and other smears against a person whom you simply disagree with, banning/blocking, sock-puppeting, etc.

    Basically any additional action beyond mere speech which has the effect of suppressing dissenting (but reasonable) voices. Banning a troll or spammer (or someone who simply breaks previously agreed-upon forum rules) is one thing, but manipulation and bullying are altogether different.

    As for why things get heated on the internet? Several factors all play some part: pseudo-/anonymity, lack of any credible threat of violence in retaliation, unlikeliness of having to have repeated interactions with the person in real life situations, a newfound sense of freedom of expression which (like alcohol drinking in a frat house) tends to go overboard initially, etc.

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