One of the big complaints we’ve seen recently regarding the anti-harassment-policy campaign, the question of feminism intersecting with our communities, and the question of whether the assholes in our movement represent the movement, is whether the feminists and anti-bigots are blowing things out of proportion. How often have you seen someone say “the whole community doesn’t have a problem with [X-brand bigotry], only a very small subset“? Often enough, I bet, that I hardly feel the need to repeat these arguments or point to any specific ones, though I’m certain I could give you a dozen or so with a quick search of my own blog’s comments. Never mind big names like Thunderf00t and Paula Kirby making it the entire premise to their opposition to harassment policies and to “feminazis” and “FTBullies”!
So the question, then, is why does this argument gain so much traction? No matter how measured we are with describing the scope and scale of the problem, people will always say we’re making mountains out of mole hills. I posit this is because of the availability heuristic — a cognitive bias wherein, when you’re presented with specific examples of a problem, it is easier to remember those examples, and you assign improper levels of importance to them.
Normally this is a beneficial heuristic, where we remember extreme outlier results from particular actions and take care thereafter to avoid detrimental outcomes as a result of those actions. It is actually to our advantage to remember the outliers are outliers when dealing with issues within our community, like that the hate-filled antifeminist misogynists who want to bully feminists out of our community are actually only a very tiny slice of our community themselves. Just like how actual “grab a stranger” rapists are few and far between (as most rapes are by acquaintances), that the average woman encounters thousands of strangers in their lifetimes, but is very probably only raped by one, if by any. The availability heuristic still inclines women to avoid strange men in situations where they are not totally in control (the vast majority of rapists, even rapists of other men, are male, whether you like it or not guys).
It is by this same availability heuristic that one avoids barking, snarling, angry dogs even if the dog has never bitten anyone in their lives, and even if the person who is doing the avoiding has never themselves been bitten. It is around that availability heuristic that the concept of Schrodinger’s Rapist (as with Schrodinger’s Racist, Schrodinger’s Thief and Schrodinger’s Attack Dog) is built.
That heuristic, however, also inclines outsiders looking into our community to see the rabid misogynist fuckwits and see that as a problem for the whole community. It also inclines some people who are incapable of seeing those fuckwits as part of our community to think that the REAL problem is that the feminists fighting them are “tarring the whole community” by pointing those fuckwits out.
To that end, I guess we need another Venn diagram like the one I used to explain what exactly the atheism plus label is constructed in opposition to. The last one worked well enough to describe the factions at play; this one should hopefully describe some of the actual problems and the scale of them.
Movement atheists are but a subset of atheists in general. We are the ones who talk about atheism on the intranet; we’re the ones who organize to challenge issues of church/state separation; we defend other atheists who are under attack by theists or even who are simply undermined by religious privilege. We challenge these issues proactively. Maybe by blogging about them, maybe by holding rallies, maybe by raising funds like we did for Jessica Ahlquist.
These movement atheists publicly represent atheism in general to the larger public, even though most atheists are content to simply exist without actually challenging religious privilege. Some of them even hide their atheism to get on better with the religiously-privileged. But the movement ones are the public face, and that public face is tarnished by the actions of the scant few vocal assholes who really and actually want to push out those also talking about social justice and protecting women, who really want to entrench their own privilege within the movement.
The misogynists, scumbags and assholes are a very tiny subset of the community at large. In fact, I’ve only made the circle as big as it is to fit all the words in it. But they are vocal and they are very motivated by their hatred of those ideas imported into the atheist community by the humanists and social justice advocates.
A subset of movement atheists realize that the scumbags exist, including most of the scumbags. (Some of the miscreants don’t know they hold those views, and they don’t know that they’re viewed by the rest of movement atheists that way. They are unaware of themselves, I guess.)
Most of the people who realize these scumbags exist want them to stop being scumbags in their spaces, to stop representing movement atheism as a whole. This is represented by the green circle. All Atheism Plus folks fall in that category, including those that fit the definitions of A+ without wanting or accepting the label itself.
A largely overlapping subset of the misogynists is the circle that thinks that the real problem is that green circle. This includes a subset of movement atheists who think there are no misogynists in the community (the willfully blind). It also includes a sizeable chunk of people who aren’t themselves bigots, but who just want to get along with those bigots (even at the expense of the underprivileged they’re driving out). These people think that the green circle’s availability heuristic has run amok, that we’re blowing the problem out of proportion by pointing it out. They themselves don’t realize (or refuse to accept) that the people in the green circle are not blowing the problem out of proportion — they are saying that others outside the movement will blow it out of proportion because the size of the purple blotch is irrelevent, only that there’s a blotch.
So there are actually three problem groups here. There are the bigots, obviously, and they’re the root of the problem. But the people who think the green circle are the REAL problem, are themselves a problem and in fact a very bad one. They’re actively condoning the bigots’ actions and condemning the folks in the anti-bigot subset as, say, “feminazis” or “authoritarians” or the likes. They’re the ones who balk at being “misidentified” just because they think the problem is overzealous anti-bigots. I can’t cry about their hurt feelings, frankly — they’re almost as big a problem as the bigots, after all. And the third problem group is the people who know about the misogynists but aren’t motivated to do anything about it, who try to straddle the line and play at neutrality, who refuse to be polarized between choosing the bigots or the anti-bigots; or who can’t even be bothered to pretend at neutrality, who are simply apathetic about it (the “everyplace is like this, learn to live with it” people).
It doesn’t matter how small a subset of movement atheism the bigots actually are, either — because they’re incredibly vocal, they’re succeeding in wearing down those vital women like Jen McCreight, Greta Christina, Ophelia Benson, Rebecca Watson, and Stephanie Zvan; of vital advocates for underprivileged groups like the trans community like Natalie Reed, and fighters of the “Race Realists” like Crommunist. They’re doing chipping damage and wearing away at these folks’ resolve because they keep talking about things the bigots personally don’t like. They are being divisive in telling us that we have no place to talk about those issues within the atheist community. The A+ers say “fine, go ahead, divide, your kind isn’t welcome in spaces where we dominate anyway”. And for that another subset thinks WE’RE the problem.
I’ve said a few times that the complaint that we’re “tarring the movement” with the actions of a mere few is completely analogous to a cancer patient telling a doctor to stop tarring their whole body with the cancer label when it’s only a very tiny subset that’s cancerous. Never mind that a very tiny bit of cancer can and will kill you if left unchecked — letting cancer fester is very divisive and will cause a great rift between you and the land of the living. Maybe that’s a bit of an insensitive analogy but I happen to think it’s a very close one. If we let their hatred fester within our movement unchecked, no matter how tiny a subset it is, it will hurt and maybe even kill our movement.
If that makes US the divisive ones, fine. Divide the body of our movement from the cancer.