A week ago, I put up a post contradicting Justin Vacula’s suggestion that what the slimepit does is criticism rather than abuse. I noted then that I wondered whether he could tell the difference. I’m still wondering, even though he’s put up the post he’d been promising “on conflation of criticism with abuse and responsibility and the internet”…or at least left a comment on my post pointing to one of his.
What does his post have to say about the difference between the two? Well, nothing, actually:
It seems extremely obvious to me that people should consider the results of their actions before they make them and then act appropriately depending on various factors including their coping skills, past experiences, support systems, financial stability, etc. This line of reasoning is quite uncontroversial in some areas of the secular community when people consider ‘coming out’ as an atheist; many will say persons should not come out if they will have to face dire consequences for doing so. People who give this advice are almost never told they are ‘blaming the victim’ or ‘giving a warrant for bullies,’ but when the topic is changed to people who write on the internet — and often engage in vitriolic writing — all bets are off for some reason.
In fact, not only does this post not describe the difference between criticism and abuse, it seems to suggest the difference doesn’t matter.
Whether we consider classrooms, internet forums/blogs, or the hostile climate against atheists, it should be understood that nasty people exist. The nastiness is, of course, unfortunate. We can work to change this nastiness and hope that people will be nice, but this just isn’t the case and likely won’t be in the near future. We should, then, make responsible decisions based on our environments. If you don’t get along with another student in class, avoid interactions with that student. If you can’t handle negative feedback online and have received it many times, disengage and write about another topic (or stop writing).
Hey, ladies, are the people opposing you making an argument or are they saying that the only reason you’re taking action you think is important because your vibrator is broken? Oh, never mind. It doesn’t matter. Either way, you can’t work in these movements unless you can cope. To quote a beautifully succinct recent comment:
I think I’m finally getting it. The real message is “being a woman does not entitle you to protection from the extra hostility you get for being a woman.”
The problem isn’t just that Vacula’s post isn’t what it was promised to be. It isn’t just that it inanely ignores the realities of the situation we’re arguing over. His post is also incredibly self-serving.
Between my post and his, I attended CSICon. While there, I did what I usually do at conventions and conferences. I live-tweeted it so people who couldn’t make it could still get something out of the event or add something to it (both happened repeatedly last weekend). I started with the very first event on the schedule.
When I had the chance to check the hashtag search, I noticed something…odd, opportunistic, unhelpful, irrelevant to the hashtag on which it appeared, unprofessional. It was perplexing enough I didn’t quite know how to label it.
Vacula isn’t just some observer. He’s one of the people engaging in the abuse. He says “we” can work to change that abuse, but he won’t address his own. That means that for all his passive-voiced “nastiness happens”, what he’s really saying is, “If you don’t like it when I abuse you, stop what you’re doing.”
So the Skepchicks should stop giving people practical advice on how to fight superstition and irrationality among their friends, family, and communities? They should stop having breakout sessions in which people brainstorm how to make their activism more effective and how to measure their impact? They should stop handing out the wonderful and practical Skeptical Activism Campaign Manual that one of them helped to write? That’s what they were doing when Vacula made the choice to abuse them.
As for me, I should stop doing…what? I should stop live-tweeting conferences, for which both organizers and tweeps thank me? I should stop mentioning the Skepchicks, even when they’re giving great practical advice? I should stop tweeting? Stop being a woman on the internet? Stop–as Vacula actually says–writing?
Since Vacula can’t seem to figure it out himself, here’s the difference between criticism and abuse. Criticism is specific. Criticism of me deals with things I’ve said and done. Things I’ve really said and done, not nonsense made up by someone who doesn’t like me otherwise. Good criticism goes the extra step to explain why the problem behavior is bad.
Abuse isn’t specific. It doesn’t target behavior. Abuse of me targets me. It targets me no matter what I’m doing. It targets irrelevancies about me. Slapping my name on a criticism of behavior that isn’t mine is abuse. Making up stuff about my sex life is abuse. Slurs are abuse. Fat-shaming is abuse. Lying about me is abuse. Popping up to insult me when I’m doing nothing more than being visible is abuse.
The thing to remember about “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen” is that the kitchen is hot because you use the stove and oven for cooking. The heat is a job requirement for a cook. It is directly relevant to cooking. In the form in which the phrase was coined, it referred to criticism.
What Vacula, and the people he encourages and excuses, are doing, however, isn’t criticism. To adapt Truman’s analogy, they’re setting the entire kitchen on fire and telling us to leave if we don’t like it. Then, when we try to put out the fire, they’re telling us we’re bad cooks.
Stopping the kitchen from burning down is exactly the appropriate reaction in that situation. Putting out the fire is required so that others can cook. It is the responsible decision.
So, you know, thanks for your concern and all, Justin, but we’re handling the situation just fine.