The scope of the problem, and the availability heuristic

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.

Venn diagram of overlapping circles showing the community's problems with misogyny and denial that there's even a problem

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.

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The scope of the problem, and the availability heuristic

73 thoughts on “The scope of the problem, and the availability heuristic

  1. 51

    No, a change in topic focus to another related problem is not a derail — it helps to explore the problem more thoroughly. It’s a derail when someone tries to change the subject altogether because they don’t like the current one. Carry on. I only regret that I can’t more thoroughly participate in this because I think the distinction made between bullying and terrorism being purely physical is interesting, and probably wrong. The guy that beats you up for your lunch money every day — is he a bully or a terrorist?

  2. 52

    Schrodinger’s Rapist is sexist as well (I think it’s understandable, but still sexist).

    Only if you make an obsession out of the literal meaning of the word without recognizing that most of us mean “discriminatory against a sex with no good reason and no connection to reality” when we use the term ‘sexist.’

    You spend a lot of time publicly feeling sorry for yourself, Karmakin, and complaining about things like ‘mansplaining.’ Forgive me if I question your motivation. It appears to me you’re more upset at a perceived slight to Karmakin than you are worried about people “being pushed to MRA attitudes.”

  3. 53

    @Jason: He’s a strawman. Well no. I hate that term, especially in this case because he does happen. He’s a red herring. A distraction. He’s a derail. That’s better.

    Like it or not, for the reasons I mentioned, at least in schools, physical bullying is easy to deal with. It’s the Nelson Muntz’s in the world. They probably need help themselves as well, but at the very least the things they are doing are already against the rules, and especially in a violence zero-tolerance environment..well..like I said. It’s easy. More or less, we got that covered. Note that I generally disagree with zero-tolerance environments.

    But social bullying. That’s where the problem is. We don’t have rules against that. It’s very hard to even come up with rules against that. But here’s the first thing to know about social bullying.

    It’s rarely about the bully, it’s about the victim.

    That is, social bullying can’t really be done alone. It has to be done by an entire community. Enforcement? A joke. And why is it done?

    To enact change. Often negative change, to be sure, but still change. To stop gay people from being gay to stop geeky people from being geeky to stop introverted people from being introverted etc.

    It IS terrorism…but it’s also a political weapon in some circumstances. Does the righteousness of the cause justify the use of the weapon? Personally, I don’t think it does, mainly because I don’t think it’s effective in the first place. You just end up escalating things over and over, especially when you can’t marginalize your target and actually win/shut them up. (Which, to be honest is the goal here. Not a value judgment on this btw).

    Which is again, why I see it as bullies on both sides running the debate to the detriment of everybody.

  4. 54

    I see bullying as an individual or small group effort while terrorism is a larger group effort. Another difference is that bullies are picking on someone momentary satisfaction while terrorist have a usually political goal in mind.

    A bully bullying a weaker person is establishing dominance. A terrorist wishes some group or society to react in a certain way. The published goal of the 9/11 terrorists was to get US troops out of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. That’s more nuanced and long-term then getting grins and giggles out of harassing a school child.

    Are the pitizens bullies or terrorists? Some of both. Some of them get their jollies from sadistic behavior to perceived weaker groups. Others want to continue their dominance over women. And some of them want both.

  5. 55

    @Josh: You believe whatever you want to believe, but you’re doing feminism and equality no favors by defending sexist/bigoted speech/actions.

    I’ll continue actually doing the hard work and try to convince people to adopt a more positive/progressive point of view while you have funsies here.

  6. 58

    I see bullying as an individual or small group effort while terrorism is a larger group effort. Another difference is that bullies are picking on someone momentary satisfaction while terrorist have a usually political goal in mind.

    I think there can be organized group bullying with the intent to terrorize.

  7. 64

    Does the righteousness of the cause justify the use of the weapon? Personally, I don’t think it does, mainly because I don’t think it’s effective in the first place.

    It’s hard to tell from what you’ve written, but I think what you’re talking about is the use of social sanctions in response to deviant behavior. Those aren’t always a bad thing. I mean, it seems silly to say, “Kidnappers want to imprison law-abiding citizens, but law-abiding citizens want to imprison kidnappers. Really both sides are equally bad.”

    Now, social sanctions don’t have to involve putting people in jail. They can start with a mild rebuke (“Guys, don’t do that!”) and gradually escalate to glaring, ridicule, and eventually ostracism from polite society. This process is about 99% effective in discouraging unwanted behavior. From a moral perspective, the only question we need to ask is, “Do the level of sanctions fit the magnitude of the offense? In particular, is the ‘deviant behavior’ in question really harmful to other members of society, or is it just a minor eccentricity that we should be able to cope with?”

    So, consider the set of sexist lunkheads that haven’t been cured by mild rebukes or glares. Do you think there’s any reason not to escalate to ridicule and ostracism? Do they deserve to be treated any better than That One Guy who was talking on his cellphone the whole damned way through the movie I was trying to watch? (You don’t need to answer that, I’m just still ticked-off about the movie.)

  8. 65

    I agree that speaking of “terrorism” is putting it strongly, but I don’t think it’s entirely out of place. If there is a difference, it is only one of degree. To be sure, I haven’t encountered any examples of actual physical violence yet, but there have definitely been threats of both rape and murder (Just ask Rebecca Watson). I also think it is safe to say that we are dealing with something more than childish “bullying” just for the fun of it. There’s been a clear and concistent message of intimidation running through the endless hate-campaigns we have seen against feminists in the movement: “Shut up about about that ‘sexism’ crap, or you’ll get (more of) the same”. Finally, I think we can begin to distinguish a couple of fairly obvious agendas at this point, including, but not necessarily limited to:
    1. Defending the “church” and its “righteous prophets” from negative attention. (Works pretty well so far, don’t you think, dear Muslima?)
    2. Defending male privilege and opposing anything that would make it more difficult for the worst males who ever lived to seek pleasure at women’s expence (Thunderf00t’s objections that anti-harassment-policies at conferences would ruin his “fun” are highly revealing in this respect).
    3. There may* be a libertarian angle, in which case it’s rooted in a more general aversion to rules and restrictions (based on the kind of paranoid, slippery slope thinking that sees normal standards of decency as a first step towards Big Brother coming in and taking away our rights)

    * I’m saying “may be”, since those of my friends who (unlike me) identify as libertarians seem as disgusted by the pro-harassment crowd as I am, and I’m the one who introduced the word “terrorism” to describe what they are doing.

  9. 67

    Know what’s cool about your “more accurate” diagram, proudmra? Both sides are wrong, both are straw dummies.

    I bet you think you’re not a misogynist but perceived that way, too. Maybe if you stopped fighting with feminists, people would stop thinking you’re misogynist. I’m willing to bet you’re in the part of my diagram that overlaps the actual bigots and the people who think the A+ers are the problem, but don’t realize you’re actually damaging women. Congratulations, you’re a (very fucking vocal) rarity!

  10. 68

    The core theme of the plussers is “Anyone who disagrees with a woman is, by definition, a misogynist.” Your recommendation of “quit disagreeing with feminists and you won’t be called a misogynist” reflects the same silly attitude.

    No thanks. Atheists and skeptics aren’t as likely to fall for that routine as the general populace, which is why the new Atheist Tea Party is doomed to fail. Simply declaring “Anyone who disagrees with us is evil” never works.

  11. 69

    The core theme of the plussers is “Anyone who disagrees with a woman is, by definition, a misogynist.”

    *Sigh* No, it’s really not.

    Your recommendation of “quit disagreeing with feminists and you won’t be called a misogynist”

    Well yes, that would be silly. But that’s a silly point to make because that not what anyone’s saying. Well, other than those repeating blatant misrepresentations.

  12. 70

    Alright, but the real question now is, what should we do with them.

    Should we kill them? burn them? rape them? because we clearly can’t let them go on like that.

    I think it’s our duty to take away their freedom, and to shut them up for good. Because that’s what we believe in at freethoughtblogs, freedom of speech, unless it hurts my feeling.

    RON PAUL FOR PRESIDENT, 9-11 WAS AN INSIDE JOB.

    8========================D, my balls.

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