JREF President D.J. Grothe has responded in the comments to my previous post, in which I expressed serious concerns about his responses to sexist and misogynistic behavior in the atheist/ skeptical community, and his attitudes towards bloggers who point it out. In that comment, he expressed concern that his comment might be overlooked. So I’m posting it here, with my responses.
But I want to say this first: I fucking hate this. There are about twenty million other topics I’d rather be writing about right now. (I haven’t even done my Project Runway: All-Stars recap, and I haven’t blogged about our kittens in way too long.) And despite the accusations that D.J. has made, I’m not writing this to generate controversy and draw traffic. In fact, I strongly suspect that most people are sick of this now, and that this will be among my less-widely-read pieces.
But I think this is important. I think it’s important to speak out against sexist behavior, and defenses and justifications of sexist behavior — especially when it’s exhibited by a prominent leader. I hope I make it clear throughout this piece why I think it’s important, but I’ll spell the crux of it out right here at the outset:
When people don’t speak out about sexism and misogyny, it creates a climate in which sexism and misogyny flourish. When people do speak out about sexism and misogyny, it creates a climate in which sexism and misogyny wither. Like it or not, D.J. Grothe and other leaders set a tone: if D.J. is setting a tone of excusing and rationalizing misogynistic threats of violence, and of impugning the motivations of people who call him on it, that fosters an environment where it’s seen to be okay. That’s important.
So here we go.
Greta: Some quick answers to your questions, although because of the nature and culture of these sorts of blogs, my comment here will be seen by fewer people than see your I think incorrect take on things, unfortunately. Such is the nature of these sorts of posts (direct responses can get buried in comments), and so I would appreciate if you link to my response here in your original post.
Done. I’m also, obviously, posting it here.
You ask two questions:
Question #1: Do you really think there is any context in which making threats of gender-based, sexualized violence — towards a person of any gender, but especially towards a female writer and her readers — can be justified?
No, of course I don’t. There is no justification for the use of such language, as I think you should know, since I’ve said as much many times already, including in an email exchange that you began with me the same day I made the comment that offended you on your post contra Long.
Actually — you haven’t said this many times already. In all your extensive conversation on this topic before now, you have, by my count, said this exactly twice: once in a comment on Stephanie’s post, buried four comments deep as part of a lengthy discourse about how both you and Ryan had been misjudged, and once in private email to me. You’ve said several moderately critical things about Ryan’s behavior: you’ve called it an “angry and unfortunate reaction,” said Ryan “reacted poorly,” that he “was party to escalating the rhetoric,” that he “reacted completely inappropriately in anger.” But until now, I have only seen two acknowledgements from you that Ryan even made any threats of violence, much less that they were unacceptable: again, once in a comment on Stephanie’s post, buried four comments deep as part of a lengthy discourse about how both you and Ryan had been misjudged, and once in private email to me. If you’ve said so elsewhere, it was someplace I haven’t seen.
And since you mentioned our email exchange, I feel like it’s fair for me to talk about it, too. When I initially emailed you asking you to please back off on the debate about Ryan, since his behavior had escalated to overtly threatening violence and I had concerns for my safety — and when I sent you the screenshots to show you what I was talking about — your initial response was, quote, “I don’t think he has made threats of physical violence.” When I reminded you of the content of the screenshots, and expressed shock and distress that you didn’t see any reason to be concerned, you said, quote, “There are no excuses for threats of physical violence”… and then proceeded to write three paragraphs excusing Ryan’s threats of physical violence, trying to explain what you saw as the proper context for understanding it, saying you thought I didn’t need to worry about it, and arguing that I and my readers were largely to blame for it. (Plus one paragraph telling me all the great things you’ve done to make TAM and JREF more friendly to women.) Very much like what you did in your comments on Stephanie’s post.
I was seriously shocked and upset by this exchange. When I write an email to a leader in the movement — especially one I’ve had a friendly relationship with — saying, “Hey, someone is making threats of violence against me, can we drop whatever differences we’re currently having and make dealing with that a priority,” I expect them to take it seriously. I expect them, at the very least, to express empathy and concern. I don’t expect them to dismiss it, or trivialize it, or try to explain and justify it. And I don’t expect them to blame me for goading the person into it.
If you give me permission, I’ll post those emails, so people know what we’re talking about and can make up their own minds about it. I certainly understand if you don’t want to: people do use a different tone in private emails than they do in public statements, including me, and it’s reasonable to expect that private discussions remain private. I wouldn’t have even brought it up here if you hadn’t, and I’ll respect your decision if you don’t want them posted. But if you’re okay with it, I’ll do so.
I believe what Long said is unjustifiable, and I also believe that you treated him unfairly in your post against him. These two opinions are not incompatible: someone can be unfair to someone else who has done something wrong. I have explained why I hold this opinion in that email exchange you had with me, as well in numerous other comments on this blog network. You and I disagree about if/how you treated him unfairly, and you seem to be unable to allow for that disagreement.
You misunderstand me. My problem is not with you criticizing my behavior if you object to it. I don’t agree with your criticism, but it is not the problem. My problem is with what seem to be your priorities.
My problem is that — when weighing on the one hand, “Greta did something that in my opinion was unfair by quoting someone out of context,” and on the other hand, “Ryan publicly stated that he wanted to ‘slap the bitch’ and ‘kick her readers in the cunt'” — you seem to think that the former is of greater concern than the latter. You have certainly devoted significantly more space to discussing it. In the discussion on Stephanie’s blog, you devoted one sentence to saying that “there is never any defense for real or pretend threats of violence”… and 2,371 words discussing other matters, including 602 words (by a conservative count) justifying Ryan’s behavior, defending it, explaining the context for it, expressed a wish that people have sympathy for it, defending your own reaction to it, and blaming me for having instigated it.
Those priorities are, in my opinion, exactly backwards. If you’d spent one sentence saying, “Yes, I think Greta’s behavior was unfair,” and then spent the rest of your comments on the topic saying that obviously the important issue here was threats of violence, specifically gender-based, sexualized threats of violence against a female writer and her readers… we wouldn’t be having this conversation. And it concerns me greatly that I should have to explain to the president of a major organization in this movement — especially an organizer of one of the largest gatherings in the movement — that threats of violence are of greater concern, and deserve more attention, than who was unfair to whom.
As a professional writer, maybe handling disagreement through public blogging and/or flogging is easiest or most natural for you; but publicly excoriating folks for not assenting to a view I hold is not how I am used to engaging in honest argumentation.
Blogging is not flogging. Disagreement is not excoriation. And if you don’t like publicly disagreeing with/ excoriating people you disagree with, what are you doing in these conversations? How is your public disagreement with me and other bloggers — including your accusation that we deliberately stir divisive controversy in order to drive traffic — different from my public disagreement with you?
You “fervently beg” me to agree with you, and of course I have already stated numerous times that Long’s comments were unjustifiable, but I simply do not agree that you treated him fairly.
See above re: priorities.
You ask what I intend to do about it: well, I certainly don’t intend to write a punishing blog post against Long. But for the record, I wrote Long a message that day and clearly stated, among other things, how out of line I thought he was to use such language, even if he or others felt he was deliberately provoked.
That’s good to know. This is the first I’m hearing of it. I’m glad you did that. I still have huge problems with how you’ve handled this situation — see above, and below — but I’m glad to know that you did this.
I do not believe he disagrees.
What makes you think that? I’m genuinely curious. In Ryan’s comments on Stephanie’s post, he seems to be largely unrepentant. True, he did say, “I do not (I feel silly even having to point this out) condone violence against anyone.” (Given that he did, in fact, say that he wanted to slap me and kick my readers in the cunt, I’m not sure why it’s silly that he has to point out that he doesn’t condone violence.) But he also minimized his actions as a time when “I lost my temper” and “lost my cool.” He wrote, quote, “I encountered the same hostile insults on Greta’s wall, and you’re actually wondering why I lost my temper? Figure it out.” And this, “I erased all of the offending posts from my wall after I cooled down, and if you’re going to freak out over the screen captures of posts I wrote in the heat of anger, well then I can’t stop you. Have fun. But you’re wasting your time.” And to my knowledge, he has yet to even apologize for the threats, much less acknowledge how serious they were. That doesn’t sound like someone who understands that making public threats of gender-based, sexualized violence is out of line.
Please stop defending him. Please stop making your excuses for his actions a higher priority than your repudiation of them. In doing do, you’re setting a tone in which the kind of behavior he exhibited is seen to be tolerable.
But again, and to repeat, threats of violence are unjustifiable, regardless who is making them.
Good. I’m glad to hear it. You’ve said that here more frequently, and more clearly, than you have in all other previous communications about this combined. You’re still prioritizing “Greta was unfair to Ryan” over “Ryan threatened to slap the bitch Greta and kick her readers in the cunt”… but the balance is shifting. I’m glad to see it.
Question #2: Do you really think that feminist bloggers in the atheist/ skeptical movements are writing about sexism and misogyny, and pointing out examples of it in our communities, primarily so we can manufacture controversy and draw traffic?
No, I do not think this, nor did I ever say this. What I do think is precisely what I have said: that I believe some of the controversies in the atheist blogosphere (certainly not limited to topics related to feminism or sexism) appear to me to be fomented for the hits that result.
That wasn’t at all the impression I got from your previous comments. But I’ll accept it as a clarification. And your clarified position is still very much mistaken.
If I am wrong, and blog hits are no motivation in writing such posts, I will happily stand corrected.
But I’d certainly hope that these “call-out” posts against various people in skepticism for real or supposed sins do in fact generate a lot of hits, because if they do not, I see little other real-world pay-off.
Several bloggers — including me, in the very post you’re responding to — have already explained why we do this, and what the real-world payoff is. We do it because we care about this issue, and because we care about this movement, and we think speaking out about people in the movement doing fucked-up shit is an important part of preventing said shit from happening again. You may disagree about whether the “sins” in question are real or supposed, or whether publicly calling attention to them is the best strategy for dealing with them (more on that in a moment). But it is flatly untrue — and incredibly insulting of people who have devoted years to this movement — to accuse us of deliberately provoking controversy with the self-serving intent of driving traffic.
I have been told by two people now who have been personally involved with one of the controversialist blogs that there has been explicit direction from that blog’s founder to this effect.
Citation very seriously needed.
Which blog are you talking about? I am unaware of anything like this in any blog I’m familiar with. And this is a serious accusation. You need to name names and back it up with evidence. Otherwise, it’s just going to spark speculation and gossip and controversy about who you’re talking about — exactly the sort of divisive controversy you say you’re opposed to.
Such controversialist posts seem like a pretty ineffective way to work to actually improve any situation, such as for example increasing women’s participation in skepticism, or at least seem to be far less effective than would be making better staffing and programming decisions, so I hope they at least result in an uptick in hits.
And that seems to be the core of our disagreement. One of them, anyway.
Yes, I think speaking out about specific examples of bad behavior among atheists and skeptics is useful and effective. And in particular, I strongly think that speaking out about specific examples of sexism and misogyny among atheists and skeptics — including defenses of sexism and misogyny — is useful and effective.
I can’t count the number of emails and comments I’ve gotten from men who have said that, in the wake of Elevatorgate and other discussions and debates and fights about sexism and misogyny, they now get it. And the same is true for every feminist blogger I know. These fights have been ugly, but it seems clear to me that they have moved the conversation forward. And every time a new argument about sexism and misogyny breaks out, I see more and more men speaking out about it. It isn’t just the women, or mostly the women, who are now fighting this fight. It’s lots of allied men. And I think that in the long run, and even in the medium and short run, that is going to make a huge, huge difference for the better in this movement.
When people don’t speak out about sexism and misogyny, it creates a climate in which sexism and misogyny flourish, since they’re seen to be normal and acceptable. When people do speak out about sexism and misogyny, it creates a climate in which sexism and misogyny wither: people become educated about them, and they’re seen to be stupid and harmful and unacceptable. And when people — especially men — speak out about sexism and misogyny, it creates a climate in which women feel more welcome.
Again: You may disagree, either about whether any specific criticism of any specific incident is fair and accurate, or about whether publicly criticizing other atheists/ skeptics is, on the whole, helpful or harmful. But please do not impugn the motivations of myself and other bloggers when we do it.
I do not deny in the least that you feel passionate about these issues; I also feel passionate about them, and have worked for over a decade to address issues of equality in skepticism, atheism and humanism, and to challenge instances of institutional sexism within these movements.
Thanks for recognizing that. And yes, I recognize that you care about this movement, and that you’ve worked, very successfully, for more gender inclusivity at JREF and TAM. I said so in my original post, and I’ll say so again here. And I have tremendous respect for people who do organizational and in-the-flesh community building work for the movement… since that’s stuff I (a) think is hugely important, and (b) completely suck at.
But I submit that in your passion, Greta, I think you are sometimes just too quick to vilify and make enemies, and to sometimes encourage your fans to engage in such enemy-making. You may do this unintentionally; I think people can sometimes be blinded by their various passions.
Yes, people are often blinded by assorted cognitive errors, including our passions, and including our tendency to increasingly rationalize our behavior once we’ve gone out on a limb with it. If I do this, I want to be made aware of it. So far, however, you haven’t made a very convincing case. Disagreement is not vilification: nor is it a deliberate attempt to make enemies and encourage others to do so.
And besides: This is the skeptical movement. We’re supposed to be questioning and criticizing and pointing out flaws in reasoning: not just in the world at large, but with one another. You’re doing it here, with me. Why should I not do it with you, or with others?
This is the in-group/out-group dynamic that I find unsettling about some of the atheist blogs — disagreement with some bloggers on various topics (not just feminism, to be sure) appears to be not at all well tolerated. It is these blogs by skeptics and atheists attacking others in skepticism that I think is an unfortunate turn in our movement(s) over the last year or so.
What do you mean, “disagreement appears to be not at all well tolerated”? Do you mean, “disagreement is often met with counter- disagreement?” Well, yes. If someone says something in my blog, and I disagree, I’m often going to say so. If other people disagree, they’re going to say so. Again: This is the skeptical movement. We’re supposed to speak up when we disagree with each other. Just like you’re doing here.
But I will speak for my own blog here: Dissent and disagreement is not only tolerated, but encouraged. In just about any comment thread, and especially in the longest and most contentious ones, you’ll see many people expressing views I disagree with passionately and even find repugnant. They are tolerated. Indeed, they are more than tolerated. I have changed my mind more than once based on arguments I’ve had in my blog. Furthermore, I expect criticisms of all commenters, whether they agree or disagree with me, to be directed at ideas and behavior, and I expect people to refrain from personal insults directed at other commenters. (I intervened about this just yesterday, in the original post about you, including with insults aimed at you.) And I have banned supporters of my positions, as well as detractors, for failing to follow this comment policy.
(Note that some of these posts don’t just disagree through reasoned arguments but engage in calls for boycotts, public punishment or public shaming — Zvan’s recent blog post claiming I was a sexist actually engaged in literal ad hominem, stating that I have a problem and the problem is “me,” as a person, as an example.)
Again — what do you mean by “public punishment or public shaming”? You use very strong language here, but you fail to cite any specific examples, and without them, I’m forced to conclude that by “public punishment or public shaming,” you mean “public disagreement.” As for calls for boycotts, I’ve seen those rarely: I often don’t agree with them, but I don’t think they’re automatically and by definition unreasonable. And, as has been pointed out elsewhere (can’t find the link, sorry — does anyone know where it is?), you’re misusing the concept of “ad hominem.”
(And before you could possibly misunderstand: this is not at all to say that I do not also find the vile and reprehensible things some folks have said to women bloggers to be more than unfortunate. One should be able to disagree with an opinion leader on various matters and about various approaches to these and other topics without being ugly, personally insulting, sexist and misogynistic, and it is deeply regrettable than many commenters on all sides of the issues during the various controversies did not do so.)
I appreciate you saying so. Thank you.
As you say, Zvan’s blog post cites three examples as evidence of my “hav[ing] an unfortunate pattern of . . . defending indefensibly sexist behavior by other men in the atheist/ skeptical movements.”
But the claim that I have a history of misogyny or of supporting sexist behavior is unsupportable.
Her three examples include 1) my comments on Watson’s post contra Krauss earlier in the year, 2) my “liking” a Facebook post by CFI Michigan justifying their choice of a speaker when she attacked them online for it, and 3) my comments on your blog post contra Long.
I stand by all of my comments (and “liking” CFI Michigan’s post about their speaker decision), and have never “defended indefensibly sexist behavior by other men in the atheist/ skeptical movements.” And I have seen a lot of such behavior at the organizations I have worked at over the years, and have always worked to change it. But when an author like Zvan recourses to my “liking” things on Facebook to argue that I exhibit sexist patterns of behavior, she seems to be sort of grasping at straws — they are in no sense examples of a pattern of sexist or misogynist behavior.
I think Zvan made her case very well — but I don’t want to rehash it. I will say, though, that your behavior in that comment thread — in which you said that there was no justification for Ryan’s behavior and then proceeded to justify it at length, prioritizing your concern for Ryan over what you thought was my unfair treatment of him over your concern for me over having been threatened with violence — very much supports her thesis.
I submit that such posts by folks like Zvan are focused moreso on whom a blogger might be more rewarded for publicly excoriating rather than for what legitimate reasons they might do so.
And once again, you’re accusing Zvan and other bloggers of deliberately provoking controversy with prominent public figures for their own self-serving ends. Please don’t do that. It’s flatly mistaken, and it’s insulting.
I have worked deliberately for many years to increase the involvement of women and racial minorities in skepticism, and to challenge institutional sexism within these movements. Of course, past performance doesn’t guarantee future results. But when I started working professionally in skepticism, there were almost no women employees other than secretaries. Of the women currently working professionally at the three national skeptics organizations, I have personally hired half of them myself, all of whom were for positions of leadership. I have worked to change, and have changed, various relevant corporate policies. In my programming decisions, I have made TAM more representative of the talents of everyone, not just of white men. (This is not because I believe in quotas — I certainly don’t— but because I think the skeptics movement benefits when it draws from and includes the talents of everyone, and doesn’t ignore the contributions of half of the population.) For contrast, look at the following:
CSICON 2011: 12 women out of 51 speakers on the program. (23.5%)
NECSS 2011: 9 women out of 27 total speakers (33.3%)
Skeptic’s Society Science Symposium 2011: 0 women out of 4 speakers (0%)
Skepticon IV (2011): 4 women out of 12 speakers (25%)
All of these events are fine and worthwhile events, and I think women and everyone else should feel welcome and safe at all of them.
Good for you. I am entirely sincere about that. You have done excellent work in this area, and I appreciate it, as do others. But as you yourself say, past performance doesn’t guarantee future results. And laudable behavior in the past doesn’t get you a free pass from criticism when you do something seriously problematic. If you don’t agree that you did something problematic, by all means say so — but don’t use “Look at all this other wonderful stuff I did” as your argument.
All of these events are fine and worthwhile events, and I think women and everyone else should feel welcome and safe at all of them. I regret that you now fear for your safety at TAM. Call me biased, but I think TAM stands out for the quality of its program, and not only because half of the speakers were women.
The quality of the program at TAM is indeed very high. And it has nothing at all to do with the fact that I don’t feel safe there. I don’t feel safe there because, when you were informed of threats of violence against me, you initially denied that there even was a threat, expressed minimal concern about the matter, went to great lengths to explain and justify the threats, and blamed me for having instigated them. If something like this incident with Ryan Grant Long happens again while I was at TAM, I don’t feel confident that you would take it seriously and act appropriately. The excellence of the speaker lineup is entirely irrelevant.
I want skepticism to flourish probably at least as much as you do, and I believe it is flourishing more now than ever, despite various internet controversies of past months. Some indications include that our organizations’ conferences are bigger than ever, attracting younger attendees than ever and have more racial and sexual minorities attending than ever, and this is not accidental; it is hard work. The press attention we win as we work to educate the public about this point of view is increasing. Our organizations are growing. Our grassroots groups are more active and numerous than ever. Our activism campaigns demonstrate measurable results and help people.
I agree that skepticism is flourishing, and I have no doubt that you want it to flourish. I disagree, however, that it is flourishing despite various internet controversies of past months. I think it is flourishing, at least in part, because of them. As I have said before: As upsetting and difficult as these fights about sexism and misogyny are, I am heartened to see us having them… because I’d rather we have them now than shove them on the back burner and have them bite us on the ass in twenty years. And again: This is skepticism. We’re supposed to speak up when we disagree with each other.
I think it is a confusing turn if you conclude that you want this movement to flourish but that I do not. We merely may disagree that polarizing blog posts that result in enemies-list-making, calls for people to be fired, boycotts, etc. are the best way for our movement to flourish.
Are those my only two options? Either D.J. Grothe doesn’t want skepticism to flourish, or I support polarization and enemies lists?
That’s a classic false dichotomy. I absolutely believe that you want this movement to flourish. And I do not support polarization and enemies lists. I simply disagree that “bloggers speaking out about when we think there’s seriously fucked-up shit in the movement” constitutes “polarization and enemies lists.”
That said, I know that this movement has much more work to do for equality — concerns about misogyny are certainly not misplaced and we must all remain vigilant in addressing them.
Thanks. I very much appreciate that.
I do believe some of the reaction to real problems of sexism in our movement(s) has been hyper-vigilant, unduly polarizing, and a distraction from the actual hard work needed to fix problems.
Again — can you provide specific examples of this hyper-vigilance and undue polarization? Without them, this seems very much like a classic attempt to trivialize sexism, and to have men decide on behalf of women how much vigilance and criticism is the right amount. As for the “distraction from the actual hard work needed to fix problems”: Talking about sexism in our movement is hard work needed to fix problems. I sincerely hope you didn’t intend to say that it isn’t.
Further, I do think it is pretty ineffective way to improve things to try and publicly force assent, to bully or punish people who disagree with various approaches, to misrepresent people’s views to make our arguments seem stronger, or to be too quick to vilify.
Again — those are very serious accusations. And again, you have not provided specific examples. Without them, I can only assume you think that any expressions of serious disagreement within the movement constitute forced assent, bullying, misrepresentation, and vilification.
Some of these atheist blogs are sort of empty on the principle of charity in arguments, and I realize this may be because of past wounds in the blogosphere. But I’m hopeful we can adopt different, better, more effective approaches to address these problems. And just because you favor one approach and I favor another does not mean that we are not both working in common cause. People can take different routes to the same destination, and because you prize this sort of blogging doesn’t mean that I can’t prize other ways of addressing similar problems.
I completely agree with you about different people taking different approaches to activism. I have said so, many times, in my writing and my speaking. I think that in a social change movement, a combination of confrontationalism, diplomacy, and community building is far more effective than any one of these tactics alone. And I have enormous respect for people who are good at things like event organizing and community building… especially since I totally suck at them.
But if you’re going to claim that the “sort of blogging” that I prize involves forced assent, bullying, misrepresentation, and vilification… I can only conclude that you don’t, in fact, extend the same respect to me that I am extending here to you. I can only conclude that you don’t, in fact, think that people can take different routes to the same destination. If you’re going to continue to accuse me and other bloggers of divisiveness, shaming, excoriation, intolerance of dissent, making enemies lists, and insincere shit-stirring to draw traffic, because we point out serious problems we see in the movement — including problems of sexism, misogyny, and troubling defenses of them by movement leaders — then this conversation has reached an impasse, and I’m probably not going to spend much more time on it.