Adam Lee has responded to my criticism of his article in the Guardian about Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the atheist movement. Adam had asked critics to provide detail of inaccuracies and misrepresentations in the Guardian article, and I did so.
In his response, Adam failed to address nine of the issues that I raised about inaccuracies and misrepresentations. I have addressed those points separately here, and I have asked Adam to respond to them.
In his response, Adam also raised other issues and questions related to ‘the deep rifts’. I am responding here to these issues. I want to keep this discussion of our opinions about ‘the deep rifts’ separate from the factual question of whether there were misrepresentations in the Guardian article.
Before I start, I want to say that I have admired Adam’s writing for many years, although I disagree with him strongly on this issue.
1. Misrepresentations and emotive language
Adam wrote: You said that you were going to address the question of where my article was “inaccurate”, but the majority of your article is a complaint about various choices of wording I made, the thrust of which is that it’s unfair for me to use emotive language in support of the conclusions I advocate. I reject this.
I agree, I put too much emphasis on this. It is fair for you to use emotive language in support of the conclusions you advocate. Equally, it is fair to highlight that you are using it. I don’t think it was helpful for you to use it in this context, as I think it makes it harder to resolve the problems that you are highlighting, but I agree that it is a legitimate style of polemic.
However, the majority of my article was outlining areas where your article was inaccurate or misleading. I’ve outlined them again in this post. I look forward to reading your response to them.
2. Harassment and threats against activists
Adam wrote: Over the last few years, I’ve seen some outstanding activists driven off the internet or out of the atheist movement entirely by torrents of horrendous harassment and threats. It’s an ugly silencing tactic, and it’s still going on: Rebecca Watson tweeted that she blocked or reported twelve abusive accounts yesterday. Not last month or last week, but yesterday.
As I said in my response to your article, I believe that this is the most legitimate of the arguments that you made. 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, however small or large the scale of the problem.
I have directly challenged this in my contribution to Amy’s series of posts on speaking out against hate directed at women.
I share your anger about this, and I understand that it is partly this anger that has caused you to write your article in the way that have written it.
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 problems of hate speech and incitement to violence 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.
As an added nuance, in these ‘deep rifts’ within parts of mostly American atheist blogging and activism, some people on both perceived sides have targeted some women in a sexist way. Some people on one perceived side have criticised some women using derogatory terms associated with feminism or body parts. Some people on the other perceived side have criticised some women using derogatory terms such as gender traitor and chill girls.
Adam, I suspect that we agree so far in our analysis.
3. The impact of remarks by prominent people
I believe that clueless, dismissive, or hostile remarks by prominent male atheists reward this behavior and encourage it to continue. Am I angry about that? Hell, yes! My words were chosen quite carefully to reflect that conclusion.
This may be our first area of disagreement, not in substance but in emphasis and tactics in addressing this aspect. Obviously, to some extent, remarks by anybody prominent in any area will have some influence on the thinking of people who admire that person. That’s why advertisers use celebrities in advertisements. I suspect we might disagree on the extent of encouragement such remarks might cause, but I accept that there is some, however unintended.
But there is a wide range of nuance in the three types of remarks that you describe: clueless, dismissive, and hostile remarks. In terms of prominent male atheists associated with ‘the deep rifts’, most of the controversial remarks made by PZ Myers are much more hostile than most of the controversial remarks made by Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.
And if somebody makes a remark that you consider clueless or dismissive (I’ll park the question of that being a subjective analysis, and grant you your interpretation for the purpose of this point), and then they clarify the remark with a qualification, you have two possible ways to minimise the encouragement that you believe this may give to impressionable hostile people.
Either you can repeatedly publish the remark without the clarification, and attribute it to the prominent person, thus causing more of the influenceable hostile people to become aware of the remark but not the clarification. Or else you can repeatedly publish the clarification (e.g. Richard Dawkins says don’t EVER rape anyone, drunk or sober), thus causing more of the influenceable hostile people to associate that remark with the prominent person.
You say that your emotive words were chosen quite carefully to reflect your conclusion. I think you were mistaken in who you targeted your emotional words at. If you had targeted your rhetoric of snarling etc at the people who actually engage in harassment, and a lesser rhetoric at those who you believe unintentionally aid it, that would have been more proportionate.
Remember your original theory: that hostile remarks by prominent male atheists reward certain behavior and encourage it to continue. If that is the case, then your hostile writing in a national newspaper will reward people who want hostile discourse, and penalise those of us who want reasoned discourse.
4. Are certain issues about sexism and feminism
I wrote: The paragraph then refers to comments about thought police, click-bait for profit and fake outrage, which are not issues about sexism or feminism.
Adam wrote: That couldn’t be more wrong. These are absolutely issues about sexism and feminism.
I think both of our assertions here are too absolute. That’s my fault, as I introduced the mistake. I believe that attributing motivations to those who disagree with us, instead of addressing their arguments, can indeed be issues about sexism and feminism, if doing so is motivated by a desire to either advance or challenge sexism or feminism.
5. Richard is not saying that feminism is a non-issue
Adam wrote: In context, what Dawkins was saying is that feminism is a non-issue, that the only reason people write about it and attack him or other atheists for allegedly sexist statements is that they’re acting in bad faith to drum up attention for themselves, or because they’re “outrage junkies” who simply enjoy getting angry over nothing. Amy Roth’s comment in my article explained this quite clearly.
I disagree with this. I believe Richard was saying that, in the context of the particular ‘deep-rifts’ subculture of parts of mostly American atheist blogging and activism, some people make arguments that he considers to be in bad faith for various reasons too complex to describe here.
But that is not the same as saying that feminism is a non-issue. Indeed Richard said at the recent world humanist convention that he is a feminist, and that everybody else should be as well, a statement that was met with applause from the global gathering who were present.
I believe that Amy is conflating two things, when she describes Richard’s comments about thought police and click-bait arguments, as if they were arguments against standing up to misogynistic hate speech. They were not. Richard has often spoken out against hate speech, most recently in his joint statement with Ophelia.
6. Rhetoric always used against people arguing for social justice
Adam wrote: This is the same kind of demeaning, minimizing rhetoric that’s always used against people who argue for social-justice-based conclusions.
No it is not always used against us. I argue for social-justice-based conclusions, and I have done all of my life. I rarely find that this argument is used against me when I am arguing for social-justice-based conclusions. Perhaps that is because I argue in such a way that does not lend itself to me being labeled as an outrage junkie. The important question is not whether the accusation is made, but whether the accusation is justified.
Ironically, I have been the target in recent days of some demeaning, minimising, defamatory and frankly silly rhetoric, that has come from some people who I assume would consider themselves to be arguing for social-justice-based conclusions, but that is an argument for another day.
7. Rhetoric used against atheists
Adam wrote: It’s used against atheists ad nauseam, for example: that we’re thought police and outrage junkies who want to stop teachers from leading students in prayer, even though that’s a harmless historical tradition that no one ever complained about before. It’s an attempt to deny legitimacy to any criticism of harmful practices that are in accord with conventional wisdom.
Yes, I agree that it is more often used in an unjustified way by religious people against atheists. Although that is starting to change in Ireland. When my late wife was being buried two weeks ago after donating her body to medical science, I asked the Dublin Medical Schools to replace the headstone on their burial plot from one with a religious inscription to one with a secular inscription. They agreed to do so, and there was virtually no pushback from religious interests. Obviously things are different all around the world, but that is one small positive move away from those attitudes in one small part of the planet.
8. Richard and Ophelia’s comments about fake outrage
Adam quoted Ophelia: “Part of what made The God Delusion so popular was, surely, its indignant bluntness about religion. It was a best-seller; does that mean he ‘faked’ his outrage?”
I wrote: But when Richard wrote about outrage in The God Delusion, he was responding to things like the Vatican police, in the nineteenth century, kidnapping Jewish children who had been secretly baptised by Catholic nursemaids. By contrast, when some people have recently expressed ‘outrage’ against Richard, it has been mostly about tweets on Twitter.
Adam wrote: Michael, I hope you realize what you’re doing here. Whether you intended it or not, you’re saying that you’ve taken it upon yourself to decide which issues are or aren’t worthy of our attention, and you want to be accepted as the arbiter of what feminists should or shouldn’t get upset about.
No, I am not saying that. Ophelia has since picked up this baton, in her blog post ‘The arbiter of what feminists should or shouldn’t get upset about‘. Ophelia adds (about me) that: ‘He’s not the boss of us. Why is he trying to be that?’
Please think about what you are saying here. Everybody decides what issues are or aren’t worthy of their attention. Some people, including you and me and Ophelia, also express our opinions about what we think other people should consider focusing on. But all three of us must know that we cannot decide what issues are actually worthy of other people’s attention, because only each individual person can determine that.
Alternatively, you could interpret almost every blog or article or book or piece of activism about anything, as being someone wanting to be accepted as the arbiter of what other people should or shouldn’t get upset about in any area of their lives. Also, including the word feminism in this context is a red herring. I’ll address that in my response to your next sentence.
9. A man talking down to feminists
Even leaving aside the moral implications of a man talking down to feminists in this way, do you think this is a strategy that’s likely to meet with any success at all?
Firstly, I am a feminist. Secondly, there are some feminists (and some women) on either side of these disagreements. And thirdly, in this instance I was addressing Ophelia’s comments about the outrage expressed in The God Delusion, so we were discussing a range of interrelated topics. Do you think that Ophelia was talking down to an atheist? Of course not.
This is a complicating and unhelpful factor in some of these discussions. Somebody who is a feminist says something, and somebody else (who may also be a feminist) disagrees with them. Then some people describe that disagreement as ‘talking down to feminists’ or ‘wanting to be the boss of feminists’.
Adam, do you believe that you are a man talking down to those feminists (or women) who disagree with your analysis? If not, why do you believe I am a man talking down to those feminists (or women) who disagree with my analysis? I don’t think either of us is talking down to anybody. We are having a respectful public conversation, trying to tease out complex issues for the betterment of everybody involved.
10. His worse followers treat it as permission
Adam wrote: I’m by no means the first to criticize Dawkins; plenty of prominent feminists and atheists have been explaining for years how certain of his remarks are untrue, hurtful, or founded in ignorance about the viewpoint and experiences of women. I guarantee those women could tell you that whenever Dawkins says something nasty about them, they get a noticeable uptick in harassment. His worse followers treat it as permission.
Firstly, I don’t believe for a moment that anybody harasses women because they believe that Richard has given them permission. If there are such people, they may as well believe they are getting permission from the man in the moon.
I believe there are some people who enjoy harassing people on the Internet, and who do so based on whatever happens to be the focus of their attention that day, but you would have to substantiate any claim that they are treating anything Richard says as permission to do so.
If you do believe that some people treat comments by Richard as getting permission to harass people, then I suggest that you should help to publicise as widely as possible the joint statement between Richard and Ophelia:
It’s not news that allies can’t always agree on everything. People who rely on reason rather than dogma to think about the world are bound to disagree about some things.
Disagreement is inevitable, but bullying and harassment are not. If we want secularism and atheism to gain respect, we have to be able to disagree with each other without trying to destroy each other.
In other words we have to be able to manage disagreement ethically, like reasonable adults, as opposed to brawling like enraged children who need a nap. It should go without saying, but this means no death threats, rape threats, attacks on people’s appearance, age, race, sex, size, haircut; no photoshopping people into demeaning images, no vulgar epithets.
Richard adds: I’m told that some people think I tacitly endorse such things even if I don’t indulge in them. Needless to say, I’m horrified by that suggestion. Any person who tries to intimidate members of our community with threats or harassment is in no way my ally and is only weakening the atheist movement by silencing its voices and driving away support.
Adam, you had a platform in the guardian last week to discuss Richard’s role and impact on these issues. You could have written in the Guardian:
Hypothetical paragraph that you could have written in the Guardian:
Some people who harass women online mistakenly believe that Richard Dawkins is encouraging them or giving them permission to do so. Nothing could be further from the truth. Richard has said, in a joint statement with Ophelia Benson, “Needless to say, I’m horrified by that suggestion. Any person who tries to intimidate members of our community with threats or harassment is in no way my ally.” The two prominent atheists, who disagree on many issues, agree that we should disagree without destroying each other. They both stress that this means no death threats, rape threats, attacks on people’s appearance, age, race, sex, size, and no vulgar epithets.”
Adam, imagine how useful that would have been in countering your fear that some people believe that Richard is giving them permission to harass people online? Instead, based on your analysis, you may have intensified the possibility of that happening. If you have another opportunity to use this platform, please consider trying this approach.
11. The joint statement and subsequent comments
Adam wrote: His joint statement with Ophelia Benson was a welcome attempt to mitigate that, but it was years late, and in any case, I think whatever good it did has been mitigated by his more recent reversion to type – lashing out nastily at feminists by calling them dishonest, witch hunters, thought police, etc.
Instead, this is what you wrote about the joint statement. Nothing about its content, just a passing reference with some negative qualifications, as a bridge to another emotive description of some of Richard’s recent tweets.
Are you aware that, on the day the joint statement was published, Ophelia reassured commenters on PZ Myers’ blog that of course she didn’t consider it vulgar to call somebody a fuckwit? If you had been aware of that, would you have included it in your article?
With regard to your second point, I believe that you are conflating Richard’s criticism of people who engage in personal smears against him, with criticism of people because they are feminists.
In recent years, Richard has been the subject of a stream of increasingly irrational and hostile personal smears. These range from implicit to explicit claims that he is Islamophobic, racist, bigoted, sexist, misogynistic and an apologist for pedophilia.
At least some of the people who have engaged in some of these smears would coincidentally describe themselves as feminists. In my opinion, Richard was responding to this stream of smears by criticising people for their behaviour, not for their feminism.
On the other hand, some atheists and feminists, and people of various other beliefs, have disagreed with Richard in considered terms, as should be expected and encouraged in any freethinking community. The pattern of personal smears against him by others makes it more difficult to discuss these reasonable disagreements in a constructive way.
12. Richard’s language
Are those comments also “phrased to generate prejudice in readers”? Will you write a follow-up chiding Dawkins for using such language?
I’m happy to address that here. As I said, Richard was criticising behaviour and perceived motivation. He was not threatening or harassing anybody.
He was not telling anybody to stuff a rotting porcupine up their ass, or die in a fire, or fuck themselves with a rusty chainsaw. That type of language, previously encouraged by PZ Myers, was a large contributory factor to the escalation of hostility in these ‘deep rifts’ within parts of mostly American atheist blogging and activism.
He was not accusing anyone of seeming to have developed a callous indifference to the sexual abuse of children, or of being a lying fuckhead.
Richard sometimes uses sarcasm and ridicule at times when I would use a different approach. That said, I think sarcasm and ridicule are legitimate responses in some discussions of ideas, just as you, Adam, believe that emotive rhetoric (such as describing Richard as snarling, accusing, roaring, scoffing, arguing and sneering) is legitimate language to reflect your anger.
With regard to content, I sometimes agree and sometimes disagree with Richard about the things he says. As an example, with regards to his comments about being abused at school, I thought Richard was mistaken to assume the impact of the abuse on his school companions, and that he was correct to acknowledge that. But neither of us lashed out at each other because of this.
We disagreed with each other, in the spirit of the joint statement between Richard and Ophelia, before the joint statement was even conceived, because that is how reasonable adults tend to disagree, with or without joint statements telling us that we need to.
In the same spirit, I agree and disagree with parts of the content of Richard’s recent comments about his critics. I doubt that they publish their blogs for the primary purpose of profit, as Richard seemed to imply. They do need to generate income to keep their blog networks functioning, and they do operate as profit-making enterprises, but I doubt there is enough money in it to be their primary motivation.
I broadly agree with Richard about the fake outrage, though I would call it exaggerated for effect rather than fake. At least, I hope that it is exaggerated for effect, as otherwise some people seem to me to be in states of outrage that are unhealthily disproportionate to what they seem to be outraged about. But I might be mistaken.
I am baffled in this context by PZ. In person, he is as far from being outraged as almost anyone that I know. He is quiet, polite, civil, friendly, and good company. Yet that character is not reflected in what he writes on his blog. So either he exaggerates his outrage for effect (which many good writers do) or else he compartmentalises his outrage very effectively.
Adam, in the same spirit as your request to me, will you please write a follow-up analysing the contribution of PZ and some of his colleagues to the escalation of these problems?
13. Is Twitter different from other arenas of discourse
Adam wrote: Your characterization of this as a controversy merely about “tweets on Twitter” is highly condescending. Is Twitter somehow different from any other arena in which people might express an opinion? Do you think that if religious figures make homophobic, racist or misogynist remarks on Twitter, those should also be exempt from criticism?
Yes, I do believe that twitter is a different from most other arenas in which people might express an opinion. Twitter combines unprecedented reach with high scope for misinterpretation. And how society comes to terms with that novel arena is central to resolving some of the problems we are addressing.
With regard to reach, Twitter enables people to have a disproportionate impact on global conversations, compared to even a decade ago, and this can have both good and bad impacts. On balance, I believe it is good overall, but the bad impacts are central to what we are discussing here.
When I was in college, and politically active, it would have been impossible for us to have such an impact on global conversations. We needed printing presses, or access to broadcast networks controlled by others, and countless volunteers, to convey our messages even within our own city, never mind internationally.
Yet today, somebody with fifteen followers on Twitter has been able to tweet the defamatory smear that I am harassing women, and have that discussed by people on the other side of the Atlantic ocean. That smear would not have been possible without Twitter, any more than our attempts to promote positive social change would.
With regard to misinterpretation, I generally try to interpret what people mean on Twitter by the overall sense of a series of tweets in a discussion, rather than just one tweet. Focusing on just one tweet is like taking one sentence out of a spoken conversation, and trying to analyse it as a standalone argument.
I frequently say stupid things, and someone politely tells me how it sounds, and I correct myself. But it requires good will, which you often don’t get on Twitter, particularly when people repeatedly republish one tweet out of context as if it was a standalone thesis.
Imagine the difference in the latest controversy if everyone who was reinforcing the impressions you refer to, were to instead repeatedly publish that Richard Dawkins has tweeted “Don’t EVER rape anyone, drunk or sober.” Based on your analysis, surely that would minimise the chance of rape apologists feeling endorsed, rather than inflame the likelihood?
So anyway, Adam, that is my response to your response. And I am happy to tease out any of the issues that you have raised if you want to.
I understand and share your anger at the harassment and threats made against some women atheists, and indeed against any women. I have directly challenged this in my contribution to Amy’s series of posts on speaking out against hate directed at women.
But I think that you are misdirecting your anger at Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the atheist movement, instead of against the people who engage in such behaviour. In doing so, you are being unfair to these people by unjustly harming their reputation on a high-profile media platform.
You are also conflating the ‘deep rifts’ that have intensified in recent years within parts of mostly American atheist blogging and activism, with the atheist movement as a whole, which is global as well as multi-localised and individual, and which is mostly unaffected by or unaware of these ‘deep rifts.’
I also look forward to reading your response to the nine issues listed here, which you did not address in your last response to me.
And can you please keep the two responses separate? This post and your last comment are evolving into a discussion of our opinions about aspects of ‘the deep rifts’, which we can discuss independently from the factual question of whether there were misrepresentations in your Guardian article.