PZ Myers has not yet withdrawn or apologised for his serious allegation that I am defending and providing a haven for rapists, and that the evidence for this is that some people who comment on my blog also post on a different internet discussion forum. This is another example of the ratcheting up online of serious allegations and personal smears as if they were normal discourse.
Defamation matters, and I expect PZ Myers to maintain higher standards than I would an Internet troll. The word rapist has only one credible meaning: a person who rapes somebody. To say that I am defending and providing a haven for rapists is an unambiguously serious allegation. To suggest that rapists are commenting on my blog and on another forum casts a shadow over everyone who comments here and there.
Some people have speculated that PZ may not have meant to convey this meaning. I include below the subsequent Twitter exchange between PZ, Derek Walsh and Peter Ferguson, in which PZ was specifically asked five times how his stated evidence (that people who post on my blog also post on another website) supported his allegation (that I defend rapists).
PZ was five times asked the same question, in response to any of which he could have clarified and withdrawn and apologised for the claim, if that was not what he meant. Instead he continued the exchange on the basis of this claim. He answered questions that were specifically about how I am defending rapists, by referring to who is commenting on my blog, making a hypothetical analogy with the Ku Klux Klan praising him, and saying that he was judging me by the company that I keep.
He then changed the subject to two new smears against me:
- Firstly, PZ alleged that my overt and ongoing opposition to sexism, in all communities including atheist communities, has been completely absent in my recent posts. Actually, this is demonstrably false, as I will show later in this post.
- Secondly, PZ alleged that the reason that I am criticising him and others is because they are exposing sexism in atheism. Actually, the reason that I am criticising them is that they are misrepresenting and smearing named people and the atheist movement on a range of issues.
In a roundabout way, this latest smear brings the discussion back to my original reason for writing this series of posts – the misrepresentation of the atheist movement generally, and the injustice and hurt caused to individual people by demonising them – and I will review these wider concerns in my next post on this topic.
Finally, in his fourteenth tweet about his allegations, when asked how criticising him equated to defending rapists, PZ introduced a reference to me criticising him but not criticising a person who he described as a harasser. PZ did not name this person, or describe them as a rapist, or say that they were commenting on my blog or posting on the other website. When asked how this related to his claims that I am defending rapists, PZ did not answer and ended the exchange.
1. PZ’s original allegation
On the face of it, the allegation is clear: PZ is alleging that I am defending and providing a haven for harassers, misogynists and rapists. Also, he is not merely referring to what I think; he is alleging that I am actually doing these things.
There is no ambiguity in what PZ wrote. The sentence construction is clear, and it was written by an academic with a fluent command of English. It can only mean that I am doing both of the things he alleges (defending and providing a haven), for the benefit of people with all of the three characteristics he describes (harassers, misogynists and rapists).
All parts of this allegation are false and unjust. Different people may have different interpretations of the meanings of the words harassment and misogyny. However, the word rapist has only one credible meaning: a person who rapes somebody. Defending and providing a haven for rapists is an unambiguously serious allegation.
Also, PZ started his tweet with a period, in order that his answer to Derek’s question would not merely be provided to Derek, but would also be published on the timelines of the 157,000 people who follow PZ on Twitter.
2. PZ says his evidence is people who comment on my blog
Derek has now told PZ that this claim is incredibly serious and unsupported by evidence. If PZ had not meant to say this and had phrased the allegation carelessly, this would have been the perfect time for him to clarify that, and to apologise for writing it as he did.
Instead PZ responded that there is evidence to support the allegation. He said that the evidence is that my blog commentariat is populated almost entirely by slymepitters (the slymepit being the name of an internet discussion forum).
In saying this, PZ was extending his allegation against me, to also include a collective allegation against what he says is almost all of the commenters on my blog, to the effect that they are or include the harassers, misogynists and rapists that I am defending and providing a haven for.
This means that, if somebody trusted PZ’s tweet and reads any given comment on my blog, and/or believe that any commenter may also post on the slymepit, they could assume that the probability is that this person is a harasser, misogynist or rapist. This is a very serious allegation, particularly for commenters who use their real names.
3. First time PZ is asked how this means I defend rapists
Derek has now asked PZ how the notion that people who he doesn’t like comment on my blog is evidence that I defend rapists. Note the specific nature of the question: is this seriously the evidence that PZ is presenting to support his allegation that I defend rapists?
If for any reason PZ did not mean to say that I am defending rapists and that the evidence for this claim was that people who post on the slymepit also comment on my blog, this would be an obvious opportunity for him to clarify and apologise.
Instead, he spent three tweets describing how bad he believes people who post on the slymepit are, how they have found an excellent home on my blog, and how that ought to trouble me but doesn’t. For good measure, he also made an analogy with the Ku Klux Klan.
4. Twice more PZ is asked how this means I defend rapists
Derek has now asked PZ again how this means that I am defending rapists. Peter Ferguson has asked PZ the same question. This is the second and third time that PZ has been directly asked to specifically say how his statement that slymepitters comment on my blog is evidence for his claim that I am defending rapists.
Again, if PZ did not mean to say that I am defending rapists and that the evidence for this claim was that people who post on the slymepit also comment on my blog, this would be an obvious opportunity for him to clarify and apologise.
Instead he continued to criticise people who post on the slymepit, said that it is ironic that I am complaining about personal attacks while overlooking the people posting on my blog, and said that he considered that Derek and I are not fighting for principle but making personal attacks by any means.
5. Fourth time PZ is asked how this means I defend rapists
Derek has now granted PZ this assumption, and asked how does not deleting comments from people who frequent that site equate to defending rapists. This is the fourth time that PZ has been specifically asked how his claims to date are evidence that I support rapists.
Again, if PZ did not mean to say that I am defending rapists and that the evidence for this claim was that people who post on the slymepit also comment on my blog, this would be an overdue time for him to clarify and apologise.
Instead he responded that he had not said that I should delete comments (as an aside, how else would I avoid having people commenting on my blog other than by deleting their comments?) and said that he was saying that he judges me by the company I keep.
6. Fifth time PZ is asked how this means I defend rapists
Derek has now again granted PZ his latest assumption, and asked, even so, how does that mean that I am defending rapists. This is the fifth time that PZ has been specifically asked how his claims to date are evidence that I defend rapists.
At this stage, if PZ did not mean to say that I am defending rapists and that the evidence for this claim was that people who post on the slymepit also comment on my blog, this would be a long overdue time for him to clarify and apologise.
Instead, PZ changed the subject by saying that I should be more appalled by sexism in atheism than by people who expose sexism in atheism. Derek responded that I have a considerable history of doing this, and PZ replied nope, and said that it is completely absent from my recent posts, and belied by my choice of targets.
PZ and his colleagues sometimes refer to people refusing to apologise for something as ‘doubling down’ after they have been ‘called out’. To borrow this terminology, PZ is now ‘quintupling down’ on his allegation that I defend and provide a haven for rapists on my blog.
Incidentally, there are two new untruths in his new subject-change smear.
6(a) The first untruth in PZ’s subject-change smear
Firstly, PZ claims that my overt and ongoing opposition to sexism, in all communities including atheist communities, has been completely absent in my recent posts. This is simply not true. Here are some examples from posts that I have written recently:
I believe that atheist and skeptic people and groups, like all people and groups within society, should promote compassion, empathy, fairness, justice, equality and respect for people, combined with robust rational analysis of ideas. I believe that this should include tackling sexism, racism, homophobia and other discriminatory biases in society.
I believe that the approach taken by PZ Myers, and by some other people on (for shorthand) the FreeThought Blogs perceived ‘side’ of some disagreements, is counterproductive to these aims. It is also unjust and harmful in itself, because it routinely demonises decent people who support equality but who have a different approach to it.
I believe that sexism, like racism and homophobia, is a problem within society, and that it is therefore inevitable that sexism is also a problem within some atheist groups, and that we should tackle that problem.
Atheist Ireland has a policy of actively being inclusive to women and members of all groups who may be underrepresented or discriminated against in society. We work actively with other groups campaigning for abortion rights and equal marriage rights for gay people in Ireland.
Last year we organised an international conference in Dublin on Empowering Women Through Secularism, with speakers and participants from around the world. We discussed and adopted the Dublin Declaration on Secularism Empowering Women. The participants agreed policy priorities on secular values in society, human rights, separation of religion and state, reproductive rights and politics and campaigning.
On secular values in society, we concluded that the secular values that will empower women are science-based reason, equality and empathy in alliance with the principles of feminism. The priorities in democratic states were that secular values will protect and advance already-established freedoms, and that cultural and religious beliefs must not be used to deny or limit these freedoms. The priorities in nondemocratic states were that, where secular values are not recognised or protected by laws, such laws should be established and applied, and address the issues that deny women full participation in society and government.
On human rights, we agreed that human rights are universal, and should be applied equally in democratic and nondemocratic states; and that women’s rights are human rights, not separate rights for women. The priorities in democratic states were that women should have equal sexual, reproductive and economic rights in practice as well as in legislation. The priorities in nondemocratic states were the right to autonomy, self-determination as an individual, and fully equal treatment at all levels of society for men and women taking precedence over religious or idealogical dogma.
You can read the full declaration here. I believe is a useful resource, given the quality and experience of the feminist activists from around the world who formulated it.
Atheist activists and groups and authors around the world are working hard to promote reasoned evidence-based world views, and to counter the harm caused by faith and superstition… I believe that we should do this work while also promoting compassion, empathy, fairness, justice, equality and respect for people, combined with robust rational analysis of ideas. I believe that this should include tackling sexism, racism, homophobia and other discriminatory biases in society, and making our groups and events welcoming to everybody who wants to be involved.
I have previously contributed to a series that Amy compiled of posts about speaking out against hate against women.
I believe that we should not tolerate, in any of our online or offline communities, any sexual harassment or abuse or threats of violence against women that we would not tolerate if they were directed against our family or close friends. On the Internet, many women face a pattern of online sexual harassment, including rape threats, in the technology, business, entertainment, atheist, skeptical, pop culture, gaming and many other online communities.
This can cause some women to feel hurt and frightened, to hide their female identity online, or to retreat altogether from the Internet. And this can in turn affect other aspects of their lives. Our online identities and networking are increasingly important to our social lives and careers. And our friends and employers may see this hate speech when searching online about us.
Tackling sexism is a complex problem, with no magic answers, as is tackling the problem of hate speech and defamation directed against anybody. We should rigorously analyse the extent of these problems in our communities, both online and offline, and we should test and refine the best ways to eradicate them. But we must not deny that the problems exist, or reinforce them with prejudice and discrimination. Instead we should actively work to create inclusive, safe and supportive communities, in which we can live together as equals, regardless of our race, gender, sexuality or ability levels.
As atheist activists we should focus on the core issues that unite us, where we have literally endless work to do promoting reason and secularism in society. And as ethical atheists, we should work together to make our communities inclusive and caring and supportive. This includes combatting discrimination and harassment.
I believe any organisation that receives a complaint about a sex crime related to their activities (including the Randi Foundation) should report it to the police, rather than deal with it internally. Also, I agree with rape crisis professionals such as RAINN who say both that reporting by victims is a very personal decision that must be right for the individual, and also that their goal is have every rape reported to police, just as every murder is.
Nobody should try to objectively trivialise the subjective emotional suffering that a sexual abuse or rape victim undergoes, which is unique to each victim. Sexual abusers and rapists violate the bodily integrity of their victims, and violate the personal consent of their victims, by imposing their own desires onto innocent children, women and men.
The victim’s suffering can be equally traumatic regardless of whether the abuser or rapist is a family member, friend, acquaintance or stranger, and regardless of whether the abuser or rapist used physical force, or threat of physical force, or non-violent psychological coercion. If you live in a stable democracy, the people best placed to support and advise victims are the rape crisis centres that exist in many towns and cities.
To combat sex crimes and maximise the provision of justice, we need better resources for victim support, better public education about the nature of sex crimes, and better laws and legal training to vindicate the rights of everybody involved. As with any area of crime, we need as many crimes as possible to be reported to the police, so that as many criminals as possible are brought to justice and as many innocent people as possible are cleared.
I believe that an adult victim of any sex crime should decide whether or not to report it to the police. I believe that it is a personal decision that only they can make based on their own circumstances.
We saw what happened in the Socialist Workers Party in Britain, when a woman making a rape allegation ended up being asked by an internal disputes committee about her drinking habits and previous sexual history. Senior officials then asked an AGM to trust their judgment in mildly rebuking the man against whom the complaints were made. They added that they didn’t pass on the complaint to the police as they had no faith in the bourgeois court system to deliver justice. Skeptical foundations are no more qualified than the Vatican or the Socialist Workers Party or bloggers to investigate or make judgments on allegations of sex crimes, particularly in cases where there are so many conflicts of interest involved.
So PZ was simply wrong when he claimed that my overt and ongoing opposition to sexism, in all communities including atheism communities, has been completely absent in my recent posts.
6(b) The second untruth in PZ’s subject-change smear
PZ was also wrong to suggest that the reason that I am criticising him and others is because they are exposing sexism in atheism. Actually, the reason that I am criticising them is that they are misrepresenting and smearing named people and the atheist movement on a range of issues.
My particular reason for publishing my criticisms now was that, in my opinion, distorted versions of various disagreements in sections of the atheist movement were leaking into more mainstream media, and were creating an inaccurate interpretation of the work of the atheist movement worldwide.
I wanted people to be aware that most of the atheist movement is not engulfed by these disagreements, contrary to what some mostly American bloggers and activists seem to believe.
I wanted people to be aware that there is a great deal of patient, hard, sometimes dangerous work being done to protect atheists and promote secularism in the developing world, with its often overt theocracies, and to protect and advance secularism in the developed world, which is typically more democratic.
I wanted people to be aware that there are many excellent authors and broadcasters and bloggers and lawyers and foundations promoting a better understanding of science and secularism, of the dangers posed to people and societies by faith and dogma, and of the need for compassion, empathy, fairness, justice, equality and respect for people while robustly criticising ideas and beliefs.
I focused in more detail on the claims made by Adam lee in his Guardian article, because he asked (indeed, challenged might be more accurate) critics of his article to point out specific misrepresentations and smears. I also focused in more detail on the claims made by Ophelia Benson in her response to my original article.
For example, this is what I wrote about PZ specifically:
I believe that the approach taken by PZ Myers has been central to the escalation of what some people call ‘the deep rifts’. He is by no means the only person responsible, and he has been the victim of many unfair and vicious personal attacks himself. But, given his influence and responsibility, his role has been central in shaping how things have developed.
Whenever I have met PZ, he comes across as a decent person, motivated by a desire to promote reason and science, and to promote social justice and defend victims of injustice. He is quiet, polite, civil and friendly. He works tirelessly to promote his vision of a better world. I like him.
But something seems to happen to him when he gets behind a keyboard. He routinely demonises people in a way that he doesn’t do in person, and that he recognises as unfair when others do it to him. He routinely attacks people as individuals, as opposed to merely attacking their ideas or behaviour.
Whenever we have met, I have raised concerns about this. Each time, he has responded that he will tone it down, which to some extent he has. He no longer encourages his commenters to tell people to shove a rotting porcupine up their ass, and they no longer tell people to die in a fire or fuck themselves with a rusty chainsaw. But ceasing such vitriol, while obviously welcome, is a low hurdle for a blog promoting empathy and social justice.
In the last year or so, he has publicly accused Richard Dawkins of seeming to have developed a callous indifference to the sexual abuse of children, Michael Shermer of multiple unreported serious crimes, and Russell Blackford of being a lying fuckhead. He has joked about Rebecca Watson shanking Phil Mason in the kidneys, and about himself stabbing Christians and throwing people off a pier.
Last month he described Robin Williams’ suicide as the death of a wealthy white man dragging us away from news about brown people, said that a white lady who made racist comments looks like the kind of person who would have laughed at nanu-nanu, then added that he should have been more rude, because asking him to have been nicer about the dead famous guy is missing the point.
I believe and hope that he has now passed the apex of this approach. Some of his recent posts have been informative and science-based, he has written a sensitive account of his first kiss as a teenager, he has argued that people are complex rather than good or bad, and some of his recent criticisms of those he disagrees with have been more balanced and nuanced.
However, old habits die hard. In recent days, he has written that Richard Dawkins has been eaten by brain parasites and is grossly dishonest, that Christina Hoff Sommers promotes lies about feminism and claims them as inalienable truths, that Michael Shermer is a liar and an assailant, and that Sam Harris has scurried off to write a tendentious and inexcusably boring defence of sticking his foot in his mouth.
I have no idea what PZ thinks he will gain by continuing to publicly attack named people in this personalised way. I don’t think it is a response to ‘the deep rifts’. He was personally hostile to creationists before that, and many people, including me, did not challenge that, I assume partly because it did not affect us directly and partly because he was also citing objective scientific facts about the topics under discussion.
So PZ is simply wrong to suggest that the reason that I am criticising him and others is because they are exposing sexism in atheism.
7. The remainder of PZ and Derek’s Twitter exchange
After PZ’s two inaccurate change-of-subject smears about me, Derek asked PZ does he expect a free pass from criticism, and how does criticising him equate to defending rapists. PZ replied that he hadn’t said he was exempt from criticism.
Derek replied that following detailed criticism of specific things that PZ said and did, PZ accused the critic of defending rapists. PZ replied: “Detailed criticism of outing a serial harasser, with zero criticism of said serial harasser. That speaks volumes.”
Note here that PZ’s original claim was that I am defending and providing a haven for harassers, misogynists and rapists. This tweet by PZ referred to an unnamed harasser, not a rapist, and was therefore not a response to Derek’s question of how does criticising PZ equate to defending rapists.
Derek then asked PZ if he was equating refusing to comment on a particular allegation with defending rapists. PZ declined to reply and the exchange ended.
So here is an overview of PZ’s attempts to justify his claim that I defend and provide a haven for rapists.
- First he spent nine tweets making and discussing his claim that the evidence was there are people commenting on my blog that also post on another website. During this exchange, he failed five times to respond to direct questions asking him how this evidence supported his claim, and said that he was judging me by the company that I keep.
- Then he changed the subject to two new false smears against me: that my ongoing opposition to sexism has been completely absent in my recent posts, and that the reason that I am criticising him and others is because they are exposing sexism in atheism.
- Finally, when asked how criticising him equated to defending rapists, PZ introduced a reference to me criticising him but not criticising a person who he described as a harasser (and not as a rapist). When asked how this related to his claims that I am defending rapists, PZ did not answer and ended the exchange.
I will continue to highlight this pattern of misrepresentations and smears for as long as PZ and others continue to make them.
His other smears in the original tweet, that I am defending and providing a haven for harassers and misogynists, are also false, unjust and hurtful. But they are more complicated to address as some people have flexible interpretations of the meanings of the words harassment and misogyny.
However, the word rapist has only one credible meaning: a person who rapes somebody. PZ has alleged that I am defending and providing a haven for rapists, plural, and that the evidence for this is that people who post on another website also comment on mine.
I again ask PZ to withdraw and this unambiguous serious allegation, and to apologise to me and to the commenters implicated in his smear.
9. Some guidelines on commenting here
Please don’t say that named people are lying unless you can support that they know they are saying something untrue. Please feel free to say (and support) that they are saying something that is untrue or false or any similar description. But saying that they are lying implies that they know that it is untrue, which is judging their motive for saying it.
I have removed several comments from this series of posts that were prejudging a specific allegation against a named person, or that were speculating on unproven allegations of sexual assault or rape against three other people. For clarity, none of these people post on the website that PZ has linked to rapists, and three revealed the allegations themselves on another network.
So please respect these guidelines while commenting here:
- Please feel free to discuss the best ways to combat and minimise rape, by individuals, organisations, rape crisis professionals, the police or society generally.
- Please feel free to discuss your own experiences, as some people have.
- Please don’t speculate on specific unproven allegations against other specific named people.