Have you noticed that the people who tend to engender the most by-volume outrage about the feminist topics that have intersected with our skeptical and atheist communities lately aren’t actually the outright trolls or blatantly bigoted jerks? Okay, they get some ire, but are usually silenced in due course, and the rest of my statement is probably true of a lot of arguments. So I’m going to try to make this general, mostly, as a resource for future conversations, but include specific advice for this specific argument in the process.
The people who really seem to create the longest-term whargarbl — the peak burn for internet conflict — are almost always the folks who think they’re reasonable and just want to know what all the fuss is about, and make snap judgments about or unreasonable demands of the folks trying to drive the discussion — demands like “Explain everything that’s happened to lead up to this point in the conversation. And you both should calm down because both sides are being mean. Also, all those weird words that you’ve used up there, they mean something different in my mind and so you’re probably wrong unless you explain right now. ANNNNND GO.”
These people can very often be extremely well-placed in the community, and have a lot of fans and cause a lot of blowback and DEEEEEEP RIIIIIIFTS. The higher up the food chain a supporter or detractor is, the more likely they carry with them any number of adjuncts who will complain bitterly that they’re being “forced to choose sides” or otherwise buy into the slurs and mischaracterizations that their heroes proclaim. When someone near the top jumps in without doing the background research, the splash damage can be absolutely enormous.
But I was just asking questions!
Let’s assume for the moment that this straw-dummy example of what we’ve seen in the second paragraph italicized bit is not, in actuality, a troll using the technique to get a rise out of people, e.g. that it’s not someone arguing in bad faith. It’s very difficult to tell if someone is just asking questions, or if someone is Just Asking Questions (a.k.a JAQing off) in an effort to forestall conversational progress, which is probably why the technique is favored by certain seasoned derailers.
I will assume good faith in this because it is in actuality somewhat of an alleviation — a pressure-valve release — of some of the frustration that a conversation might entail. When you recognize that someone’s just trying to get your goat, you can back off of a conversation where the other person is obviously arguing in bad faith. Of course, it would be somewhat uncharitable to smack people around who are ACTUALLY just asking questions, because they just tuned in. And active bigotry is probably pretty rare in background society, but the bar for expressing it is absurdly low on the internet where nobody knows that you’re a dog — and sure, when we spot one of those, we get rightly annoyed.
But what really gets us furious is when people make specious claims and decisions based on insufficient information, then dig in their heels when people try to reeducate those naifs. When someone comes along claiming some supernatural thing that they “just know”, and you ask them what it would take to change their minds, if the answer is “nothing” then there’s no conversation to be had. Likewise with people who stand by their original judgments even in the face of all the further evidence, links, et cetera that you provide. If one side is not budging at all, it’s not a dialogue. Especially not if the person who isn’t budging is the person who’s proven themselves grossly ignorant of the facts at hand. You know how it works with creationism and Bigfoot, so why not with feminism?
Why all the hostility then?
Chances are, the outrage around these parts about the Just Asking Questions tactic comes mostly from the fact that we as skeptics are pretty much expected to Google that shit before asking it. We expect that folks in our community know how to find the resources and the information that we need before making judgments about stuff. And when we see “one of our own” being terrible at actually making the effort necessary to learn something before spouting off at the mouth, even the best of us will get testy.
And rightly so, when the brusque “hey, try this lmgtfy.com link” reply is summarily dismissed as rude by the recipient. Or worse, when the whole conversation is mischaracterized blatantly as “dogmatic” by someone who admits to essentially having just started watching after the final commercial break in the last part of a five-part miniseries. Seriously, there are some points where it’s better to just sit back and take in the action, and try to find the information you need, before you drop the brain-mouth filter long enough to ask something stupid and spiteful-sounding.
Okay, so are there ground rules to keep in mind if I don’t want to hit a nerve?
All I can really say about the practice of asking for the run-down in the middle of a big fight, is this. If you, as a participant in a conversation that obviously has a lot of backstory, expect to have your analysis of the situation keyed properly and rationally and received as the enlightened wisdom that it is as befits your stature as a member of the skeptical community, you should probably find out what it’s about first.
The clues are very often right there in the post, so when you think you should disagree, perhaps make sure the provided source material supports or refutes your arguments preemptively. And when there are no links, but a lot of references or blockquotes, that often involves either searching for that backstory, or at the very least reading a few (preferably from opposing viewpoints) summaries of the arguments in question. And being good skeptics, don’t assume the first summary you find is canon. Seek out an opposing viewpoint. In the skeptical community, you’d think this advice would be obvious.
When you do decide to ask questions, it’s in your own best interest to avoid front-loading the question with your personal assumptions about what’s going on. You remember the last time someone asked you, “why did you choose not to believe in God?” Remember how irritated you were by that framing, given that you never chose any such thing? Avoid questions like those.
By the way, don’t come charging in with “both sides are equally as bad” when you know that’s pretty much never true any time it’s used, much less when you don’t know what both sides are actually doing. Especially when you think you DO know what both sides are doing, and you think you’re employing hyperbole to make a point. It’s never true in politics, it isn’t true in religion, and it isn’t true in feminist topics like this one. When there’s a disproportionate amount of voices doing disproportionately nasty things on one side of the equation, seeing another use somewhat-naughty words is false equivalence and you damn well know it.
Learn the language
If you’re completely brand new to the whole feminist thing, you’re probably going to hear a lot of terms-of-art like “privilege” or “slut-shaming“. They actually mean something, and you should probably know what they mean before you question that they exist or that they’re necessarily bad.
These words’ meanings very often actually entail a lot of the very objections you might initially want to raise, and it behooves you to know whether or not your objections are at all on point. The words are also well-evidenced, as they often describe sociological conditions and trends that are observed amongst real populations of real human beings. Very few of these sample populations are internet-based. Very many of these words apply to internet-based human beings equally, regardless. Another point to remember is that even trolls are human beings, though by definition trolls are only interested in shutting up the conversation, not in actually scoring rhetorical points.
So, what about the
Taliban-like anti-harassment policies fight?
Now that you know the ground rules, it’s pretty much up to you to get up to speed. In context of this specific discussion, getting up to speed means knowing that:
a) Harassment happens at skeptical conferences (and probably at about the same rate as other conferences, or at least the same as the harassment rate in the background society). While this harassment may not be any WORSE than background society, that means it is NOT a “safe space” in the sense of being BETTER.
b) Harassment in general has a drastic underreporting problem that results in statistics being notoriously spotty.
c) Many skeptical conferences are only just now adopting strong anti-harassment policies for the first time, after noticing that their female attendance is either slipping or has never been all that great to begin with.
d) People advocating harassment policies are in actuality attempting to protect everyone from harassment, not just women. None of the language is protective exclusively of women.
e) These people who are advocating harassment policies (especially if they are women) are facing another iteration of the long-term trolling that anyone on the internet faces when talking about any sort of feminist topic. It has been cyclically cresting and waxing for years now, but all the abuse appears to be aimed at those folks who dare to question privilege on any particular axis.
You can find all of these facts from various sources covering this conflagration, and they are often not only well evidenced, but often the proof of these points come from the comment threads on the very posts they’re discussing.
So, is it okay to start late at all, then?
It’s perfectly acceptable to jump into watching a TV show or start reading a book near the end. That’s called “in medias res” — jumping into the middle of things. Sometimes stories do this on purpose, catching you up with the action as you watch, but the stories have to be specifically structured that way for it to be an enjoyable experience for the uninitiated.
For those who have been engaged in the fight and have been targeted for gaslight and slur campaigns for any length of time, having someone show up with the popcorn now, so deep in, and expecting that person to fill you in personally is, well, pretty rude. It’s probably significantly ruder, since you’re doing it about real conflict and not made-up drama, than for you to do the same with that big movie that’s just about to end. Seriously, you don’t expect the person watching the climax to fill you in on why it’s NOT dumb that there’s a green guy swinging a pointy-hatted fellow around and smashing him into the ground a lot. Either keep quiet and watch the end, and rent the movie later so you find out why there’s space dragons, or simply leave the topic alone for the sake of the sanity of the person who’s been there since the beginning. Seriously. I’m trying to watch here.
Or, alternately, you can wait for it all to blow over and ask questions then. That’s less onerous on the time and motivations of the person involved, and way less likely to leave you looking pushy or uninformed.
So, I hope that helps somewhat. In the interest of fairness, the comments section will be a 101-level (e.g. “Intro To…”) discussion of this current anti-harassment policy flap, and I truly hope that people will understand if questions are asked which sound significantly like you’re JAQing off, as I’ve explicitly earmarked this thread for this purpose. As long as your questions are asked in good faith, I’ll try (and I hope my commenters will do likewise) to answer them as my own time allows.
Also, if folks are less interested in the 101-level conversation and more interested in crowdsourcing links that are appropriate to particular phrases in this post, I’d be very happy to add your suggestions. (You know, assuming I don’t read them and they turn out to be something completely the opposite of what I meant.) I’m especially looking at you, Pteryxx, and your cache of research.