On 17 September I wrote the first in a series of posts analysing recent media misrepresentations of the atheist movement, and the role of PZ Myers in the culture of demonising people. I highlighted the work being done internationally by the global atheist movement. On 3 October PZ alleged that I am defending and providing a haven for rapists because some people who comment on my blog also post on another website. This is a very serious false allegation.
While PZ has not written about my recent analysis of the atheist movement on his own blog, he has made comments about it on other blogs and has also tweeted about it. He has in sequence laughed it off, dismissed it, cherry-picked from it, misrepresented it, evaded it, called it a circle-jerk, engaged in whataboutery, said that he likes me and then changed his mind about that, before finally crossing the line into making a seriously defamatory smear.
- His first response was to laugh off what I wrote, saying that he was pleased to be witch of the week, oh joy!
- His second response was to dismiss what I wrote, saying that he had ignored my previous email and that he didn’t care that I was accusing him of being rude.
- His third response was to cherry-pick from what I wrote, falsely implying that the focus of my concerns was one of his allegations rather than his pattern of behaviour.
- His fourth response was to misrepresent what I wrote, falsely suggesting that I said European atheists are completely free of sexism and racism and that Richard Dawkins is American.
- His fifth response was to evade the issue, saying that he couldn’t respond to what I had written as it was incoherent.
- His sixth response was to suggest that Jerry Coyne and I were engaged in a circle-jerk of citing each other’s articles.
- His seventh response was to engage in whataboutery, by asking how his behaviour excuses bad actions on the other side.
- His eighth response was to say that he likes me and doesn’t like the demonisation of me by commenters on Ophelia’s blog, but he thinks that I am wrong.
- His ninth response was to seemingly withdraw his eighth response, accepting that he is a terrible judge of character, and telling all of his ‘friends’ to go away so that he can punch himself in the face instead.
- His tenth response was to allege that I am defending and providing a haven for rapists, and that the evidence was that some people who comment on my blog also post on another website.
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 both here and on the other forum.
But here’s a significant question. Why did it take PZ two and half weeks, and at least ten responses by him to my series of articles about these issues, before he finally noticed or settled on the idea that I am defending and providing a haven for rapists on my blog? What caused him to miss this extraordinary state of affairs for so long, during the very time that he was responding to developments on my blog?
And here is another question. Whenever PZ and I have met at conferences in recent years, including conferences that Atheist Ireland has invited him to, why has he not previously expressed any concern that I might be inadvertently defending and providing a haven for rapists? Surely he of all people would be sensitive to signs that someone defends rapists, and would have wanted to intervene on such a serious matter?
I have repeatedly publicly asked PZ to withdraw and apologise for this defamatory smear. He has declined to respond publicly. I have also privately emailed him with the same request. I am not publicly discussing the detail of that email exchange, other than to say that he has also declined to withdraw and apologise, and when I asked him to clarify some ambiguous assertions in his response, he replied ‘Not interested.’ I am now publicly repeating my request, for the record.
The analysis in my original article
On 17 September I wrote a post titled Recent media misrepresentations of the atheist movement, and the role of PZ Myers in the culture of demonising people
I argued that distorted versions of disagreements between some mostly American atheist bloggers were now leaking into more mainstream media, as evidenced by recent sensationalised newspaper articles about Richard Dawkins in the Guardian, and about Sam Harris in the Washington Post, and about misogyny in the atheist movement in BuzzFeed.
I argued that an honest analysis of the atheist movement would focus more on the 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 argued that the approach taken by PZ Myers has been central to the escalation of what some people call ‘the deep rifts’. I said 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.
I listed some examples of PZ’s behaviour in recent years, as follows:
“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.”
1. First response, 17 September – Laugh it off
PZ’s first response was on 17 September, in a comment on a post by Ophelia Benson titled Thou shalt respect The Leaders. PZ commented:
Wait a minute…do I get to say I’m the target of a witch hunt now? Am I the witch of the week? Oh, joy!
So nothing there to trouble him, just a trivial matter to joke about.
2. Second response, 19 September – Dismiss it
PZ’s second response was on 19 September, in a comment on a post by Stephanie Zvan titled Entirely Predictable.
Stephanie had falsely alleged that “Nugent attempted to use his influence directly to get PZ to stop talking about [allegations about a specific person]”. Some commenters had questioned whether Stephanie had written this in error, and PZ responded:
“Nope. Michael Nugent sent me what was essentially a draft of the article he published…a month or two ago. His one-sided defense of a known womanizer with multiple victims making accusations was there at that time. I ignored it. It was so patently biased and bizarre (really — you’re going to complain about making personal attacks by making a personal attack? It’s like the Mooney accommodation wars all over again), and so plainly a threat to take his complaints public, that I saw no point to replying. Yes, please, do go ahead and complain about that mean poopyhead Myers (in the politest possible language, of course!) — I’m not going to care. Nugent’s site is already a haven for the nastiest of the slymepitters, so how much does he think an accusation of rudeness coming from that cesspool is going to impress me?”
PZ was referring here to an email that I had written to him the previous month. Ophelia Benson followed this up by tweeting to me: ‘I really wish you would address why you think we should shut up about sexual harassment reports,’ and asked me ‘Why are you telling us to keep sexual harassment secret?’ She claimed I had said this in my email to PZ.
PZ and Ophelia were by now referring to the existence of this email in a way that implied that it was an attempt by me to stop PZ from talking about a particular issue. (As an aside, Ophelia also commented on this post: “Wagons? Circled. Bros before hos.”)
To correct this misrepresentation, I published the email in full in this post: The LBJ legend and my email to PZ Myers.
Nevertheless, despite describing my website as “a haven for the nastiest of the slymepitters”, PZ makes no reference to his later accusation that I am providing a haven for rapists. Whatever he thinks about my assertions, he thinks the appropriate response is to ignore and not care about what I have written, by misattributing it not to me, but to what he describes as the worst of the people who comment on my blog.
3. Third response, 19 September – Cherry-pick from it
In a later comment on the above post by Stephanie, PZ wrote:
“It’s an obnoxious letter. After telling me that I have accused “[name deleted] of multiple unreported serious crimes”, he gives me my marching orders: “consider apologising to people who you have unjustly hurt and defamed, and start focusing on actually promoting compassion and empathy and social justice if those ideas are important to you.” I’m supposed to not only shut up about serial womanizer and accused rapist [name deleted], I’m expected to apologize to him…presumably for my impertinence in suggesting that a Famous Skeptic ought not to treat conferences as his personal candy bowl. And now he denies telling anyone “to keep sexual harassment secret”. What was he expecting me to do in response? This is a problem: he’s so infatuated with civility that he sends out this vague, murky shit and expects everyone to do something that he won’t be so rude as to specify, and then when we try to puzzle out what he means he tells us no, that’s not it, and stop defaming me.”
PZ implies here that my email to him was solely or even primarily about this accusation, and that I was asking him to apologise for his rephrased description of that accusation.
Actually, it is clear from my email that my concerns about PZ related to his ongoing pattern of behaviour in general, ranging from his previous encouraging of his commenters to tell people to shove a rotting porcupine up their ass, or to die in a fire or fuck themselves with a rusty chainsaw, though his various accusations against Michael Shermer, Richard Dawkins and Russell Blackford, to his jokes about shanking and stabbing people and throwing them off a pier, to his description of Robin Williams’ suicide as the death of a wealthy white man dragging us away from news about brown people, and adding that he should have been more rude, because asking him to have been nicer about the dead famous guy is missing the point.
But, even given that, there is no mention to date of PZ’s later allegation that I am defending and providing a haven for rapists in the comments section of my blog.
4. Fourth response, 19 September – Misrepresent it
PZ’s fourth response was to my follow-up post titled The atheist movement is global. It is not defined by the mostly American ‘deep rifts’ disagreements. In this post I was responding to a post by Ophelia Benson titled The approach taken.
PZ responded to this on Twitter as follows:
Me – The atheist movement is global. It is not defined by the mostly American ‘deep rifts’ disagreements. [link to post]
PZ – Good to know that European atheists are completely free of sexism and racism, and that Richard Dawkins is now an American.
For the record, my post did not suggest that Richard Dawkins is an American. I wrote:
Apart from Richard, [one article] quoted eight people, all Americans…
Apart from Richard, [another article] quoted or cited five people, all Americans…
So let’s review these three articles. They all claim to be about ‘The’ atheist movement. There are 29 quotes or citations. Two are from Richard Dawkins, and the other 27 are from Americans.
Nor did my post suggest that European atheists are completely free of sexism and racism. That would be a truly bizarre claim for anybody to make. What I did refer to was Adam Lee’s claim in the Guardian that the atheist movement has been wracked by infighting about gender imbalance over the past few years. About this specific claim, I wrote:
That is simply not true. Most of the atheist movement around the world is not involved in this infighting, and many activists are either unaware of it or think it is a distraction of focus. I personally think it is important, or I would not be devoting so much time to it against the advice of many friends and colleagues, but as a reality check to those who are absorbed by it, it is simply not the case that the atheist movement has been wracked by it.
With regard to the substantive issue of sexism and racism, I wrote in my original post:
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.
5. Fifth response, 19 September – Evade it
PZ’s fifth response was in the following Twitter exchange:
Me – Feel free to respond to what I have actually written
PZ – Sorry, I can’t. It’s incoherent.
I don’t think I need to comment on that.
6. Sixth response, 21 September – Call it a circle-jerk
PZ’s sixth response was on 21 September, in a comment on a post by Ophelia titled The arbiter of what feminists should or shouldn’t get upset about.
This was about my detailed response to Adam Lee’s article in the Guardian. PZ responded by saying:
I see we’re on the merry-go-round now. Nugent says: “Jerry Coyne has reviewed the article on Why Evolution is True, and has analysed how it fits in with ongoing personalised attacks on Richard, Sam and others.” But the first paragraph of Coyne’s article says this: “I won’t bother to dissect it in detail because reading it makes me ill.” So now Nugent can rely on Coyne’s objective interpretation, and Coyne can cite Nugent. It’s all so circle-jerkish.
So we are now six responses in, and still no allegation that I am defending and providing a haven for rapists.
7. Seventh response, 23 September – Engage in whataboutery
PZ’s seventh response was on 23 September, in a comment on a post by Ophelia titled One of these things is not like the other. PZ commented as follows:
“If it will make him happy, I’ll take my usual tack in these arguments and concede that I’m totally evil, just a horrible excuse for a human being. You could even claim that I’m just a cynical white knight, paying lip service to feminism so I can get laid by strange, gullible women everywhere I go (and also that I’m incompetent, since that strategy doesn’t seem to be working). Now, how does that excuse bad actions on the other side? You are not demonstrating that anti-X is true and right and correct by demonstrating the wickedness of some guy who endorses X.”
This is what we used to call ‘Whataboutery’ when we were campaigning against terrorism in Northern Ireland. When challenged about unethical behaviour by ‘their own side’, many people would respond by asking ‘what about people on the other side?
8. Eighth response, 23 September – Say that he likes me
In a later comment on the above post by Ophelia, PZ wrote:
“Personally, I like Nugent a great deal, and I don’t particularly like the demonization going on in these comments. But I do think he’s wrong. He’s gotten so caught up in his self-appointed role as the Great Moderate that he’s gone flying off the rails, and these interminably long posts reflect a lack of clarity and consistency — civility is all, substance gets the axe, and as long as slymepitters don’t use four-letter words, they’re all right in his book. So what if they call women c*nts on their forum and Twitter? So what if their primary occupation is making up myths backed with photoshopped “evidence”? They’re not saying rude things about atheist Thought Leaders. It’s actually pretty savvy of them. Photoshopping Ophelia into bizarre images gets them a pass that they wouldn’t get from Nugent if they did the same thing to Dawkins or Harris. I also have to conclude from Nugent’s obsession with me as the apotheosis of wickedness that there’s something personal at work here, and that I’ve rubbed him the wrong way. Also that he’s decided I’m sufficiently small fry that he doesn’t have to give me the unquestioning deference he blesses the truly big shots with.”
This is one of the more nuanced of PZ’s responses, though I suppose I would say that, given that he says here that he likes me. Among the comments he was defending me from were that I am carrying 55-gallon drums of water for the misogynistic ‘side’ of atheism, that it is dishonesty that drives my arguments.
But PZ also implies that I am okay with behaviour that he knows that I am not okay with. For example, here is an extract from my contribution to Amy Roth’s series on Speaking out against hate directed against women:
“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 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 online networking are increasingly important to our social lives and careers. And our friends and employers may see this hate speech when searching online for information about us.
We must actively tackle this problem in each of our own communities. Doing this is one part of how the atheist and skeptical communities can start to become more inclusive, safe and supportive, and I’ve written elsewhere in more detail about how we can discuss this reasonably. We should also create a united front of online activists from different online communities, to properly research the impact of this abuse across all online communities, and to work together to find the best ways to eradicate it.”
Also, here is what puzzles me about PZ’s comment. Given that PZ liked me a great deal on 23 September, is it reasonable to assume that he had not by then formed the opinion that I am defending and providing a haven for rapists? If so, what new happened between then and 4 October to cause him to form that opinion and decide to publish it as an allegation?
9. Ninth response, 24 September – Changes his mind about that
PZ’s ninth response was on 24 September, in a comment on a post by Ophelia titled Whom you name and he won’t.
“All right, I’m a terrible judge of character, and am just going to tell all my “friends” to go away, I’ve got an appointment to punch myself in the face, over and over. I’m tired of letting them have all the fun of doing that.”
PZ now seems to have changed his mind about defending me, but still does not seem to have formed the opinion that I am defending and providing a haven for rapists. That revelation is still a week away. So what happened between those two dates?
I spent most of that week preparing Atheist Ireland’s submission to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, then representing Atheist Ireland in Warsaw at the annual OSCE human rights dimension meeting. When I came back, I wrote an analysis of some of the misrepresentations and smears that had been published about me while I was away. This is what I published on my blog that week:
- 25 September – PZ Myers’ unfair and hurtful misrepresentations of Richard Dawkins’ comments about being abused as a child
- 26 September – Atheist Ireland Submission to UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
- 2 October – Another week, another set of misrepresentations and personal smears
- 3 October – Protecting the human rights of atheists – my contributions to the annual OSCE human rights meeting in Poland this week
10. Tenth response, 4 October – Say I am defending rapists
Finally, on 4 October, a week after saying that he liked me a great deal, PZ crossed a new line by publicly alleging that I am defending rapists (that’s rapists, plural) because certain people comment on my blog. The desensitisation process was ratcheting along, with increasingly serious allegations now being casually made as if they were normal discourse.
I responded to that allegation in this post – The smears get increasingly serious as PZ Myers crosses a new line
And I outlined the detail of his failure to substantiate this allegation in this post – PZ Myers has failed five times to justify his smear that I am defending and providing a haven for rapists on my blog
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.
And so I return to the question that I opened with. Why did it take PZ two and half weeks, and at least ten responses by him to my series of articles about these issues, before he finally noticed or settled on the remarkable idea that I am defending and providing a haven for rapists on my blog, and decided it would be a good idea to publish that allegation?
Since then, I have repeatedly publicly asked PZ to withdraw and apologise for this defamatory smear. He has declined to respond publicly. I have also privately emailed him with the same request. I am not publicly discussing the detail of that email exchange, other than to say that he has also declined to withdraw and apologise, and when I asked him to clarify some ambiguous assertions in his response, he replied ‘Not interested.’
I now repeat that request, for the record: PZ, can you please withdraw and apologise for your defamatory smear that I am defending and providing a haven for rapists, and that the evidence is that some people who comment on my blog also post on another website?