I’m seeing way too much fascism and irrationality on the left these days. Particularly in atheism now. We have enough of it on the right. We don’t need the left doing it too.
And mind you, I am a leftist. I fully support reasonable socialism, to check and balance the excesses of an equally necessary but equally abusable capitalism. I’m left on all social values. I support taxes, and in some cases even their increase. I think big government needs checks and controls, but that it can actually accomplish a lot of things we need, and is often the best vehicle for doing so. I believe intersectional privilege exists in social systems. I believe Islamophobia and cultural appropriation actually exist as a thing (just not in every case any leftist claims they do). I think an alarming number of American police are downgrading the humanity of black people in their decisions to use force. I think toxic masculinity exists and is a problem. I think prominent women really are harassed and threatened far more than men are and that that’s a problem. I’m an unrepentant feminist, and indeed an outright social justice warrior. I fight with words to educate people on how they can change how they think to effect a better world, by first seeing their own ignorance or prejudice, and then doing something about it—like spreading the word, the only credible path to cultural change.
Point being, I’m a card carrying lefty.
So I want you to understand what it means when even I have to say to many of my fellows in atheism now:
You are doing this wrong.
You are becoming the very enemy you despise. You are resorting to the enemy’s own despicable tools. You are making the world a worse place. You are not rationally examining your own assumptions or emotions. You are not considering the practical utility of what you do. And in result, you are actually undermining all of your own goals with self-defeating actions and attitudes.
Here Is What I Mean
I agree there are blatant misogynists (like Stefan Molyneux) and other dangerously horrid people followed in movement atheism (like Thunderf00t) that I might wonder at if some conference booked them. Context would matter. But not everyone is their equal. And rounding up everything you dislike, everything imperfect, every milder bigotry or ignorance, until it equals “horrid” is irrational.
I find myself fully agreeing with other more sensible leftists, like this guy, and these folks. [And this psychologist. And this feminist.] And David Smalley. I don’t agree with him on everything he says. I’m far more a pragmatist about Clinton, for instance, who would have been a far more competent president than any other candidate on offer; and yes, I voted for Sanders in the primary, and Clinton in the general, and don’t regret either vote. But I pretty much concur with Smalley’s remarks this June and January; and with his post about what I just called “rounding errors” last year. He’s right. And I dislike and fear people who think he’s wrong. And yet, in accordance with his very point, I still believe a rational conversation with them is possible and not evil to contemplate. The fact that they don’t, is the problem. That they don’t see that as a problem, is what makes them dangerous. By which I do not mean “terrorist” dangerous. That would be a rounding error.
Part of what has me thinking on this so much lately is the recent implicit defense of fascism by Dan Arel, who endorses the use of violence to influence ideas and suppress speech (almost the very definition of fascism) and the hoopla about Mythicist Milwaukee having a feminist interview and critically question a popular atheist disseminator of sexism and other eye-rolling nonsense at their upcoming conference. As if that was the same thing as inviting that fact-challenged tin-foil-hatter Sargon of Akkad to be their keynote speaker or even just a scheduled speaker. They are not. They are challenging him. In front of an audience. An audience that wants to know why he thinks and says the things he does, and keen to see a credible social justice advocate ask him that. (But not, as many a debate fan irrationally prefers, try to rhetorically embarrass him—rather than seriously try to understand him and get him to think; and if you think that’s “more than he has done for us,” then you will have to agree that’s what makes us better than him.)
Even so, Sargon has not broken any serious laws or even advocated doing so. He is not inciting anyone to violence. He hasn’t called for a race war or the suppression of women’s rights. He hasn’t sent rape threats to anyone. He hasn’t violated any event’s conduct policy (even when disgustingly skirting the boundaries of a policy to be an insensitive dick). He just says or does some stupid wrong things. Which we should answer by saying smart correct things. Not by banning him from anything. Much less threatening him. You are welcome to loathe him, avoid him, even slag him off wherever appropriate. But that’s not the same thing.
Even my own values clause, in which I declare I will not be the featured speaker for a group that is actively hostile to certain fundamental values, has always made an explicit exception for dialogues and debates, especially on exactly those value differences. And by the way, that’s my own decision. I don’t expect anyone else to so refuse, or so agree. That’s up to everyone individually. I will not assume you are a homophobe, because you give a talk to a Mormon campus group while the Mormon church still lobbies for the suppression of gay rights. I wouldn’t assume you agree with that or that you are “aiding and abetting it.” Conversely, I will not begrudge you if you refuse to give a talk to a Mormon campus group, because of that Church’s lobbying (even though the actual Mormons in that group may have mixed views about their own Church’s policy). I think both are fine.
Because I’m a reasonable human being.
And because I’m a reasonable human being, I would happily have a drink with Arel and try to have a reasonable conversation with him about why he is wrong. I’d happily be a guest on his show. Or anything else. I will also unabashedly criticize him, by outright identifying what he said as endorsing fascism. Which it is. I don’t think that makes him evil. I think that simply makes him wrong. And maybe a little dangerous. But only insofar as anyone takes up his ideas and starts enacting them at the state or community level. Because that would be bad.
And I can think the same thing about anyone who might be saying sexist and racist things, like Sargon. Or I can think he’s an awful human being, unrepentantly disingenuous, and thus never want to be around him. And say so. And still attend a conference he’s at. I get to do either thing. Honestly, the only people I consider actionably intolerable are those who enact or threaten violence, engage or endorse campaigns of harassment, or make real efforts to violate or take away civil or human rights. Everyone else I can dislike, even criticize, even ruthlessly, but still treat as my neighbor, as someone reachable, someone who can have an honest conversation and listen. Until they prove they can’t. Then I just don’t waste my time on them anymore. No further action is required. Until they start threatening or using violence, I will never endorse abusing, scaring, harassing, or physically harming them. And that’s what makes me a humanist.
Mythinformation Con IV
Some leftists have issues with the actual speaker lineup at Mythinformation Con this year. Of course, if you don’t like it, don’t go. But claiming anyone who does want to go is ‘evil’, is silly. Melissa Chen is an outspoken, self-declared feminist, but she shocks lefties by having nuanced opinions (how dare she!) and sometimes agreeing with that dishonest disaster of a feminist Christina Hoff Sommers. Personally, I simply disagree with Chen’s decision on that. I don’t think Chen is therefore evil or intolerable or not a feminist. And She0nHead and Armored Skeptic have said far more embarrassing things that express a profound misunderstanding of feminism or the facts. Which makes them wrong. Not an evil threat to humanity who must be banned and shunned.
This is how it works. I don’t want them banned from anything. I don’t want anyone to shun them. I simply want us all to be able to say, without being threatened for saying it, that they’ve said a bunch of really stupid things and are not very good at doing facts or research on feminism or social justice issues, acting more as armchair reactionaries. And that maybe they have better, smarter things to say on other issues they are more informed about. And that maybe they’d have a cordial and honest conversation about the things they are wrong about if ever we engaged them in one. And that maybe they wouldn’t listen and we’d have to continue criticizing them for their persistent ignorance. And then we’d just continue criticizing them for their persistent ignorance.
And that’s it.
I’ve similarly found such failings in other YouTubers, like Jaclyn Glenn. Indeed, when it comes to critiquing feminism, She0nHead and Armored Skeptic are practically her clones. But they have not harassed anyone online, sent rape threats, or joked about raping a teenaged girl on her own internet thread, or any of the other actually vile things I have denounced as actually intolerable. The inability to tell the difference is a serious disease eating atheism alive. And don’t forget, that same inability plagues even those who are against or suspicious of feminism…they also “rounded up” disavowing those rape jokers with disavowing literally anyone who disagreed with anything any feminist said. Rounding error. It’s the same disease. The same stupidity. The same rot that destroys civil and productive discourse and makes organizing fellow atheists toward common humanist action all but impossible.
Unlike surrounding synagogues with guns and driving cars into crowds to try and murder people, this ignorance and irrationality, this rounding error and everything else, does exist on all sides.
What I actually said years ago about Atheism Plus, for example, does not match what any of my critics said I had said. Just see for yourself: actually watch my video on the subject and try to find any objectionable thing in it; look at my Sobrado interview (an Atheism Plus critic who—shock!—actually tried discussing it with me); even my own repeated efforts to make clear what I said—all ignored. The term was instead hijacked by opponents into something it wasn’t until it became useless. The same rounding error happened when a contingent of so-called New Atheism became in some ways a right-of-center reactionary movement. But again, nuance. Yes, extreme leftists over-defend Islamic cultural oppression (for instance, there really are in fact awful feminists who defend the abuse of women in Islamic and other cultures). But that then became an excuse to argue for racial profiling at airports and turning away innocent Syrian refugees fleeing the very people we are supposed to be against—even though they were fleeing, and thereby rendered starving and homeless, because our enemies were trying to kill them. As if it was impossible to contemplate that Islamophobia is real and a real problem, and at the same time so was “regressive leftist” apologetics for anti-feminist customs and teachings in Islam and Muslim-dominated cultures. Both are true. Yet it’s becoming increasingly hard to find an atheist who admits that.
Instead, everyone slides to either extreme. And if you criticize either of them, you are demonized as being at the opposite extreme, even though you are attacking both extremes, not siding with either. Criticize Sam Harris’s irrational defenses of racial profiling and turning away Syrian refugees and his excessive phobia of Islamic violence (when our risk of being killed by Islamic violence is absurdly low…and in the U.S. we are actually twice as likely to be killed by a right-wing atheist or Christian who is far more aligned with Harris than Islam), and you can only be a “regressive leftist” who defends the burqa and honor killing and Islamist terrorism. Never mind that you are against all those things.
No one cares to listen to nuance or believe in centrism. And this is a problem. It is a genuine problem. And yes, it is plaguing both sides.
Atheism Plus and Other Examples
See my point above about Atheism Plus. Many of these “rounding error” fans claim I contributed to this state of affairs. But I did not. I never endorsed or advocated any of the shit anti-plussers claimed I did or that some atheist bloggers now actually do. Like actually call for boycotting and shunning of people for no other crime than having bad ideas or being ignorant about something. Others have done this. I never have. I was always promoting the sane middle. And I was simply ignored. I was ignored by Plus detractors, who kept spreading lies about what I said and argued for; I was ignored by Plus promoters, some of whom now have gone to the irrational extremes Plus detractors feared. Which I was also against. But no one listened.
Honestly, though, I had no idea it would get this bad. It’s time to stop this nonsense and start acting rationally again, and prioritize evidence over rumor and opinion, listening over assuming, taking seriously what someone is trying to say over being disingenuous and mocking, and supporting dialogue and speech over violence and harassment. Just because trolls are awful, does not justify becoming one. Knee jerk reactions have to stop. Thoughtfulness has to begin. I took for granted that this reasonableness already existed. I was wrong. I literally have to tell people to be reasonable now. And for that many of you on both sides should be ashamed. Although lack of shame may be your problem. If so, I can’t help you.
Atheism Plus in its original form was falsely attacked as promoting a feminist purist extremism when in fact it wasn’t; it was only after that false attack rendered it a useless term that some of its advocates became those very feminist purist extremists, thus destroying the entire enterprise by turning it into what its enemies accused it of being. Consequently, I abandoned it as betrayed and dead. I now just stick with saying we need to be atheists, skeptics, and humanists, and to share the common values of compassion, honesty, and reasonableness. Which is what it was originally supposed to be about. This avoids the “baggage fallacy” of assuming I mean things I don’t. But honestly, I shouldn’t have to do that. I should be able to be listened to and believed to think only things I’ve actually said. And all should be ashamed who didn’t pay me that courtesy.
But this isn’t the only example of my point. Consider the ban hammer. All too often someone will say they were “banned” on some forum for nothing other than stating reasonable criticism or asking honest questions. Sometimes when people say that, it’s true. Sometimes when people say that, it’s not. Many a time I have checked and found someone who claims that, was actually banned for being harassing, disingenuous, dishonest, or refusing to listen or engage in any productive discussion. Often, indeed, many or all of those things combined. Also many a time I have checked and found someone who claims that, was indeed not doing any of those things, but was entirely reasonable, sincere, and polite, and ready to listen. And the banner was the one in the wrong.
You are wrong if you think no one should ever be banned from any forum. You are wrong if you think all banning is just and good. You are wrong if you think someone has no right to ban from their own forum whoever they want. You are wrong if you think someone can never be criticized for banning whoever they want. You are wrong if you always criticize someone who bans whoever they want.
See where I’m going with this?
Now apply the same reasoning to everything else going on in this movement, or any other.
Another example is the gender wage gap. Yes, a lot of it is confounded by other factors like personal choice and whatnot. But just because it “might” all be explained by that, doesn’t mean it is. How do you know? Check. Has anyone done the analysis to tease out how much of that gap remains after controlling for those other factors? (Hint: They have. And you should know how to find that out yourself by now.) Don’t ever use the “maybe, therefore probably” argument, because it’s irrational. It’s bad skepticism. Good skepticism responds to evidence, not conjecture. And evidence can go against you. So you always have to check. So check. Get informed. Understand the subject you want to pontificate on.
“But I don’t think affirmative action….” Stop. You are now resorting to a psychological defense. You are derailing the conversation. We were only talking about the facts, not policy. Always separate them. A discussion about the facts, is not a discussion about policy. What to do about the facts is a separate debate. Don’t use that as an excuse to not face the facts. This is what climate science denialists do. They don’t like the policy implications. So they use those as a motive to deny the facts. That’s irrational. It’s bad skepticism. You should know this.
“Well this study confirms my view…” Did you read it? Is its methodology sound? Is its sample size small? Were there nuances you are overlooking? Did you even check? Good skeptics are as critical of research that supports them as of research that doesn’t. They admit when results are problematic or ambiguous, even when they would have supported their position. And that means they check and seriously ask if that’s the case. Simply cherry picking the studies that support you and ignoring the ones that don’t, is bad skepticism. Good skeptics look at many studies, examine their actual findings and relative merits, and assess what if anything can actually be said with confidence. (Watch this video by Matt Dillahunty for more on this point, and why atheists still need to learn it.)
In the end, there are irrational feminists who think the eighty cents on the dollar wage gap is a one-to-one comparison of wages in comparable positions. They are wrong. And there are irrational anti-feminists who think that means there are no cents on the dollar in wage gap due to gender bias. They are wrong. They are both wrong. You need to learn how to live in a world where both sides are wrong. And where not everyone on each side thinks these false things. And where it’s possible to say that and not be vilified by both sides as a traitor.
See where I’m going with this?
Now apply the same reasoning to everything else going on in this movement or any other.
Bans and Boycotts
In all my advocacy of feminism and social justice, in all my years, at no point did I ever say we should ban or not invite to speak at conferences people who disagree on the particulars or facts about anything, feminist or otherwise. As long as they are willing to have reasonable discussions, and not flame out when people criticize what they say but accept being honestly criticized as a necessary part of discourse and life in any sensible movement, I’m fine with that. I don’t have to like someone or be a fan. I don’t have to agree with them or think they aren’t an ignorant idiot. I can simply not like someone, not be a fan, not agree with them, or think they are an ignorant idiot. And I get to say so. That really should be the extent of it.
It’s different if they are actually engaging in campaigns of harassment or lying, actually advocating white or male supremacy, or anything actually intolerable. Just being wrong or stupid is not the same thing. Nor is just being blindly sexist or racist the same thing.
I can “not like” any of the speakers at a conference, I can think what they’ve said on feminist and social justice issues is dumb and uninformed, and still be interested in what they might have to say on other subjects. I fully welcome and indeed hope anyone who cares to and can find the time will produce well-reasoned and fact-based critiques of what they’ve said on social justice subjects that they are wrong about, or any subjects they are wrong about. I would have liked to see Shoe0nHead and Armored Skeptic engaged in this conference by someone knowledgeable with more informed views of the feminism and social justice causes they mock; but not every panel and discussion at an atheist conference has to be about atheist disagreements on feminism and social justice. And this conference already has one of those: the engagement between Sargon and Smith. You can’t have everything you want. And you should know this.
And indeed I’m happy to be represented at this conference by noted feminists like Thomas Smith and Melissa Chen. Smith and I are pretty well aligned. And Chen and I are aligned on quite a lot, too. And though I know the irrational purists won’t like Chen’s feminism, I doubt they have ever critically listened to her, and I know they can’t abide disagreeing with someone on some things and not others without hating or condemning them. The fact is, I actually agree with her on most things. I just think Christina Hoff Sommers is a fact-challenged pseudo-feminist and no more a credit to feminism than Phillys Shlafly was, and Chen should know that; and I’m sure there are particular points of fact or policy Chen and I might also disagree on in the realm of feminism; but I’m sure that’s often true for literally every other feminist on earth. Why, then, would I damn everyone who disagrees with every single feminist position and view I take? I’d be damning the whole world. And I’d be a movement of one. What’s the utility function of that?
Mythicist Milwaukee’s position is sound, respectable, admirable, and well-stated (and I encourage you to go sign their petition affirming it): they are for mending divisions, they are for the idea that listening and dialoging should be desired not denigrated, that conversation is better than banning and shunning, that speech should replace violence, that as long as discourse remains polite and sincere, hearing someone out and challenging them is more important than shunning or banning them. Yes, if one side ends up being disingenuous, dishonest, or doesn’t listen, then you can criticize them for those failures and make a fair case we shouldn’t waste time trying with them anymore, and try someone else instead. But still trying anyway doesn’t make you evil. And none of this should mean expecting anyone to change their opinions or beliefs immediately. Atheists are made over years; so are informed feminists. Forget that at your peril.
I’m not the only one seeing this. Just listen to this interview with The Thinking Atheist, Seth Andrews. It explains a lot of what this article is about and why it needed to be written (especially that interview’s second half).
As one member of Mythicist Milwaukee said, “Let’s see each other as human beings and not avatars for ideology.” And that goes for both sides. My past advocacy for Atheism Plus should not be conflated with what some other Plusser said or did. I should be judged solely on what I actually said. And not what someone told you I said. Or what you thought I said, but you didn’t really read or listen. Reasonable skepticism means if you need clarification, you ask for it; you don’t assume a ton of baggage goes with some phrase or statement. And you should treat everyone that same way.
I’ll close with this…
I feel like I’m taking crazy pills for having to say any of the following. But here goes:
- Don’t defend unilateral violence.
Using violence or force, or the threat of them, to suppress free speech, is fascism. Punching or threatening someone who is only speaking, is using violence and force to suppress free speech. Therefore punching or threatening to punch someone who is only speaking, is fascism.
The difference between civilization and savagery, is agreeing by social contract to only answer words with words, and only violence with violence. If you claim the right to punch someone who says things you don’t like today, they can claim the right to punch you for saying things they don’t like tomorrow. The very foundation of the first amendment, and consequently all modern liberal democracies, is the acknowledgment of this principle.
We replaced fighting with voting for a reason. And that goal is only accomplished, if you actually replace fighting with voting. If you are the one who goes back to replacing voting with fighting, you are the enemy of democracy.
Wanting to punch someone for saying something, BTW, looks a lot like toxic masculinity run amuck. Check your emotions. And do something more rational. As a fictional H.G. Wells wisely said, “The first man to raise a fist is the man who has run out of ideas.” Learn it. Live it.
You get to insult, criticize, shun, protest, disaffiliate or disassociate, and make fun of anyone you want. That does not make you an enemy of democracy, nor deprives anyone of their rights, nor threatens to. Not hiring or publishing or platforming someone, is not censorship. Blocking someone, or expelling them from your property or personal space, is not censorship. Physically preventing someone from speaking where they have been permitted to speak, is censorship.
Marching threateningly under arms around synagogues is not free speech. It’s an actual crime called menacing. Using marches or other physical protests in any way that threatens the welfare and safety of those you are protesting, is violence. And a crime. This includes punching and throwing things at people. If you get gunned down in self defense by someone who can’t tell you are rushing at them with a glitter bomb and not an actual one, your death is deserved. Act more civilized. Respect the social contract. You don’t get to do to someone else, what you don’t want them to get to do to you. Scaring the shit out of people is wrong. You wouldn’t like it or want it from them. So don’t do it to them.
- Engagement is not endorsement.
Wanting to know what a racist, sexist, or homophobe thinks and why, does not make you a racist or a sexist or a homophobe.
Trying to engage so as to persuade a racist, sexist, or homophobe to not be a racist, sexist, or homophobe (or at least be less of one), does not make you a racist or a sexist or a homophobe.
Debating or interviewing a racist, sexist, or homophobe, does not make you a racist or a sexist or a homophobe.
Sponsoring a debate with William Lane Craig is not endorsing Christianity. Critically interviewing a Bishop on his covering up pedophilia in the Church is not endorsing Church pedophilia. Trying to understand why a “kill-the-gays” candidate for public office can believe and say the things they do, and thus interviewing them for that purpose, is not endorsing homophobia or “kill-the-gays” legislation. Trying to reason with an enemy before deciding it’s futile, is not allying with your enemy. Letting a sexist embarrass themselves by being interviewed by a feminist ready to challenge their views, is not endorsing sexism.
We cannot successfully thwart an enemy we don’t understand. And we can’t understand racists, sexists, or homophobes, if we never engage with or listen to them. This does not mean we should engage with or listen to all of them or any particular one of them. Just enough to understand most of them, and in whatever ways are safe and productive for us. And you shouldn’t be opposed to that.
- Stop the rounding errors.
In the conventions of the English language, someone can be a Nazi not literally but “figuratively,” if they endorse ideologies characteristic of a National Socialist Party, such as the superiority of the white race, the male sex, or heterosexuals, or the total power of the state to exercise violence. Someone who claims men and women and all races and sexualities deserve equal rights, and that state power and all other uses of force should be limited by human and civil rights, is not a Nazi. No matter how sexist, racist, or homophobic they are, they still are not a Nazi. They’re just a racist, sexist homophobe.
There are many degrees of being a racist, sexist, or homophobe. Some racists are a lot less racist than others. Some sexists are a lot less sexist than others. Some homophobes are a lot less homophobic than others. Some transphobes are a lot less transphobic than others.
Racism, sexism, and homophobia, and every other form of prejudice, are often a product of ignorance rather than malice. Nazism is typically a product of malice, not ignorance.
Being privileged and privilege-blind, does not make you evil. It just makes you ignorant. And ignorance is only fixed by education. And education requires engagement and dialogue.
Nazis, both actual and figurative, are awful people defending ideologies that would be horrific if enacted by any state. That still does not justify terrorizing them or violating their rights. They ought to be opposed in every civilized way available, with words, votes, and peaceable assembly. Boston was the most admirable display of just that civilized power. Until they are actually taking up arms against us, or literally threatening or advocating doing so. Then we get to do likewise.
Mere racists, sexists, and homophobes are not admirable people either. But some are more pitiable than despicable. And whichever they are, we ought first aim to educate them, by engaging with them, and failing that, to discredit them, with humor and criticism, and failing that, to disempower them, if they are exercising any revocable power to harm the targets of their racism, sexism, or homophobia.
And that’s it.
But no matter who our enemies, the rational and civilized war with facts and words, debates and votes, not fists and guns or any other weapon of oppression. Unless we are attacked or threatened with such weapons ourselves; and then we ought return fire only in like kind, and only against those who actually attacked or threatened us.
You need to learn to distinguish real violence from mere criticism or mockery. Criticism and mockery are not violence. Criticism and mockery must never be equated with violence. Criticism and mockery are not harassment either. But trying to force someone to read or see your criticism or mockery when they don’t want to and shouldn’t have to, is harassment. These distinctions matter.
You need to learn to distinguish between wanting to hear someone on some subject, and endorsing or agreeing with everything they say or believe or have ever said or believed. You need to stop punishing people for wanting to hear what someone says on some subject, merely because no one should endorse or agree with everything they say. Because listening to someone, is not endorsing them. And this does mean you need to stop meddling with other people’s conference lineups. If you don’t like a lineup, that conference is not for you. Don’t go. But everyone who wants to go, should get to go. That’s called the right of association and peaceable assembly. Don’t ever fuck with that. Learn to feel ashamed that you ever would.
You need to learn to distinguish between criticizing and hating someone; and between criticizing or hating someone, and insisting no conference book them. One side’s “rounding error” leads them to assume our criticizing or hating someone means we are asking that no one book them, when in fact we are not. Those are not the same things. The other side’s “rounding error” leads them to insist no one book someone, merely because they themselves criticize or hate them. But we should never insist on banning someone, merely because we don’t like them or don’t agree with them.
Both are rounding errors. Both are wrong. Both must stop, if you want to maintain any civilized and productive society. And if you don’t agree with me, please think on it for a while.
Meanwhile, take note. Mythicist Milwaukee’s work over the years, and their whole lineup and plan for this year, is diverse and innovative. They are skilled professionals who run an excellent conference. If there are things you’d love them to do in future, drop them a respectful request. If they get enough like requests, they’ll do it!