What "Dialogue" Does

Rebecca posted a Twitter rant from Jeff Sharlet at Skepchick yesterday. Sharlet’s topic? This idea that dialogue is always something for which we should strive. He doesn’t exactly mince his words either:

Fetish for “dialogue” assumes those you disagree w/ lack only your insight; assumes they want to “compromise.” As if they have no agency.

Student fetish for “dialogue” a form of technocratic optimism based on free market myth of “exchange” as end in itself.

Rebecca added some choice words of her own:

Sharlet’s points are relevant to the continued harassment of women in the skeptic and atheist communities and the attempts by some to build bridges with harassers. One prime example is Michael Nugent, whose heart was surely in the right place when he began engaging with MRA harassers and then escalated to organizing a formal dialogue between Stephanie Zvan and a few mostly pseudonymous people who have no apparent objection to representing the “side” that harasses women. This dialogue was at the outset insulting to many of the women who are being harassed and almost immediately became arduous and confusing as well: “This is a response by Stephanie Zvan to the response by Skep Sheik to the first response by Stephanie Zvan to the Strand 1 Opening Statement by Jack Smith.”

If it had been someone like Stephanie herself organizing this “dialogue,” it would be bad enough, but the fact that it was organized by Nugent, a person who is completely unaffected by the actions of the harassers, and that he did it over the repeated objections of many of the women being harassed, is, as Sharlet says, the very definition of paternalistic.

Since I’m the person engaging in this dialogue*, I have a few things to say about these ideas, as you can imagine. Mostly, I agree with what the “Dialogue? Meh” folks are saying. The process I’ve been going through hasn’t actually changed anything.

There are three potential audiences for something like this. There is me. If the pro-dialogue folks are correct, I could gain something from this process, but I don’t know what that could be at this point. It won’t be understanding, the typical benefit of dialog, as the people I’m dealing with have been shouting their objections to me for a couple of years now. I already know why they think I need to be drummed out of this movement. I don’t disagree with the positions I object to because I don’t understand them. I disagree with them because, understanding them, I find them to be a combination of unhelpful in reaching the goals of our movements and immoral.

Nor will they, the second potential audience, come to understand my positions any better. How do I know? Well, they set up a place to talk about what I have to say. If you look at it, you can see the futility of dialogue with someone who doesn’t trust you. The positions I’ve elaborated are the positions I’ve held from the start. However, according to the people invested in this, anything they agree with is either me having been forced to make some kind of concession or is me setting them up for some kind of fall. On top of that, you can see very open statements that understanding isn’t even the point of the exercise for them. Winning is.

The third audience who is considered to benefit from this kind of exercise is all those fence-sitters who complain about having to deal with the heat of the conflict that dialogue is supposed to resolve. Such a dialogue potentially gives this audience an opportuntity to get at the issues of the dispute without the distraction of any emotions attached and make up their own minds about where the truth of the matter lies.

This, frankly, is where I’ve been most disappointed in this process. I had no expectation that I would learn anything new about the positions of people who have been shouting at me for ages. I had no hopes that those same people would expend any more effort to read my words straight than they do as they read everything–and I mean everything–else I have to say on the topic. There were enough people thanking Michael for organizing the dialogue, however, that I had some small hope that some of these people would read the back and forth and have something to say about the issues.

That hasn’t happened. The people who have engaged with the dialog are already people who know what’s been happening.  They’re already familiar with the points of disagreement. They’ve already made up their minds about where they stand. Everyone else–the people who thanked Michael, the people who have been pushing for civil discussion, the people who have been calling for plagues on everyone’s houses–they’ve ignored this dialogue. There have been no links. There have been no discussions of the issues. These people have been no more likely to voice any opinion on where things should go from here than they were when they were complaining about any of us advocating for our positions.

This dialogue is bringing nothing any closer to any kind of resolution. The harassment hasn’t stopped. It hasn’t even slowed down. It hasn’t created any kind of understanding that didn’t already exist. The people who were paying attention still know what’s going on. They still think what they thought at the start. The people who weren’t paying attention don’t know any more than they did. They don’t care any more than they did. They’re just more comfortable because this dialogue has been quarantined where they don’t have to see it.

As far as I can tell, that’s exactly the point of this push to “dialogue”. It isn’t to get anything decided. It’s just to make people talk about these disagreements somewhere else–preferrably just among themselves. That’s all “dialogue” like this does.

*If any of you are looking forward to this continuing, expect it to start up again relatively soon. Mick Nugent has been busy with something I whole-heartedly approve of. I’m not getting much in the way of reward for this, aside from the feeling of communicating my position with some precision, but I’m still taking part. I committed to it, and as long as it goes on, I’ll give it the best shot this sort of thing is going to get.

What "Dialogue" Does

30 thoughts on “What "Dialogue" Does

  1. 1

    I don’t really follow Nugent, so I hadn’t realized that the lull in “dialogue” was due to his other time commitments.

    To be honest, I thought that the “other side” had lost interest, preferring to engage in “satire” rather than “dialogue.” I had no doubts about your commitment, because what you have to say (in an excruciatingly slow process) is valuable – but again, it’s only what you have already been saying all along.

  2. 2

    I feel the same way I did when this started. I don’t think it’s going to change many — if any– minds. But Nugent kind of backed the pro-social action side into a corner. If nobody agreed to dialogue, the pitters would win by default.

    So, Stephanie, not that my thanks are worth much, but thanks for taking this on.

  3. 3

    Oh, so the “dialogue” hadn’t actually petered out as I thought it had. Has Nugent expressed any hope for some sort of resolution or is he still in wait and see mode?

  4. 4

    As far as I can tell, that’s exactly the point of this push to “dialogue”. It isn’t to get anything decided. It’s just to make people talk about these disagreements somewhere else–preferrably just among themselves. That’s all “dialogue” like this does.

    Yep, the “pox on both your houses” folks are like the school teachers who order the bully and the victim to sit down and work out their differences. The point isn’t to accomplish anything, it’s just to avoid having to do anything.

  5. 5

    I’d not thought of that… Sort of assumed with the bubble I’m in of reading FTBs fairly regularly that it was widely known. Now I come to think of it I’ve not seen anything about it at the other blogs/networks I look at. Why is that, you would think a “rift healing” effort would be big news! The “rifts” and “drama” certainly are…

    Google tell me that these places linked to it , at a quick glance->
    +Thunderdome links to it

    Positive start from Notung! I’m surprised so little linkage as I would have expected more interest. Why are “SkepticInk” not commenting on it? Apart from Notung that is. Damion is constantly going on about the need for “dialogue”, it happens and he is nowhere to be seen!

    Who else has been talking about “dialogue” and is a bit of a fence sitter? Ron Lindsey, Steve Novella.. The high profile ppl on the other “side” such as Strangroom, Blackford, Hale, Mayhew… etc. Why are they not interested, I thought they are constantly going on about too much “drama” not enough debate? The more these ppl discussed it the more positive change could come of it.

  6. 6

    As far as I can detect the existence of some “other” side, they seem to be barking mad and completely unashamedof how disgusting they have behaved. Why Mick thought dialogue would help, mystifies me.

  7. 7

    @4: I’m not trying to work out my differences with those folks. I’m trying to disassociate myself from those folks. They are toxic.

    As someone said yesterday, there aren’t rifts deep enough. We need great big universe-sized rifts.

  8. 8

    @2: So you’re saying that by refusing to debate him, Richard Dawkins lost to William Lane Craig?

    I think you can see why many around here would reject that type of thinking.

  9. 9

    The people who have engaged with the dialog are already people who know what’s been happening.

    Argumentum ad Rush:

    If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice

    There’s no need to air the issue out any more thoroughly than it has been; that’s just a fig-leaf to allow the want-to-be-unconvinced to continue to feign enough ignorance to pretend to be “skeptical”

    Since there’s no cost to the harrassers to remain harrassers, there’s no motive for a good faith attempt to understand or negotiate understanding. After all, they already understand quite well; they simply want to win – which they cannot do through the ‘merits’ of their arguments.

  10. 10

    I think Stephanie’s handled it just right. Nugent decided to be a patsy and Stephanie rolled up her sleeves and made what certainly seems to me to be a credible good faith effort. That it’s turning out the way she expected doesn’t mean she didn’t try; I come out thinking better of her and less of Nugent. My opinion of the ‘pitters remains unchanged, at zero.

  11. 11

    I’ll repeat the thanks to Stephanie and others who are engaging in this dialogue.

    As for changing minds, I maintain the position I have held over >2 decades of internet dialogue/debate/discussion: While it’s unlikely that any arguments will sway those who are strongly committed to their points of view, it’s often still worth engaging, for the education of the mostly silent audience of lurkers (and that would be a fourth audience, in addition to the 3 described above). Often, these people have never had an opportunity to see the issues laid out and discussed methodically, and their only option has been to form their opinions based on snippets of irate blog posts, even more irate comments, facebook flamewars, and twitter rants (or else to ignore the situation altogether, which, I will admit, can be very tempting). Unfortunately for those of us who are committed to evidence-based critical thinking, these lurkers are exceptionally difficult to detect, let alone measure, beyond anecdotal reports.

    It is indeed disappointing that the harassment has not stopped, and perhaps is even spreading in some quarters (for example a few people in a local student group who popped up to pre-emptively say that they didn’t want to participate in any events of my local CFI group that were feminist in nature, since “feminism is poisoning atheism”*). But I’m committed to my local atheist/rationalist/skeptic/freethought community, and I think we need to work our way through this (and hopefully come out stronger on the other side).

    *For the record, the event that was being proposed was a celebration of Darwin Day!

  12. 12

    Frankly if the dispute really was being “taken elsewhere” by this debate, I would have to count it as a win in strictly utilitarian terms (though not a very fair solution to you individually, Stephanie.) If we really could divert the harassers into an endless string of seventy-point line-item counter-counter-counter-arguments, it would be a huge benefit for the victims.

    Unfortunately that does not seem to have happened. Harassment continues apace. The world is much the same as it was before all this started, except now it has more seventy-point line-item counter-counter-counter-arguments in it. This is not a win. As long as you’re willing to continue, we might as well see what happens, but I’m no more hopeful than you.

  13. 13

    @2: So you’re saying that by refusing to debate him, Richard Dawkins lost to William Lane Craig?

    I think you can see why many around here would reject that type of thinking.

    But there have already been hundreds of debates between scientists and creationists. The “dialogue” with slymers is a new thing and I think was good for Stephanie to do if merely to show to the fence sitters and dialogue proponents (like Nugent) what the other side is really like and really demanding.

  14. 16

    It’s easy to be angry at the antis, but oddly the fence-sitters possibly make me angriest of all. They seem to be a collection of the spineless, the fearful and Pecksniffs who wouldn’t raise a finger to help you if you were on fire. By their failure to do anything but wish the arguments away they are tacit colluders, collaborators.

  15. 17

    I think that having a dialogue and failing is better than not having any dialogue at all. I also think that what some people call fence-sitters are observers that have noticed that this schism is really about a few personalities on the internet and that is largely inconsequential in the long run.

    Finally, I’ll like to add that I find it outrageous to think that the differences in ideology of these two -tiny- dueling groups on the internet are so staggering that an Irish mediator has no hope of reaching a pragmatic solution.

  16. 18

    axelblaster, “observers” who come to that conclusion are doing a lousy job of observing. Are you counting yourself among their number? And what would you define as a “solution”?

  17. 20

    I wish I could have responded earlier, I read your reply but I was on the road, fortunately, this allowed me to think about my answers a little better. This will not warranty that the answer is not stupid, but at least it will be sincere.

    The few observers that pay some attention to this, which are called fence-sitters (a mischaracterization, since most will tend to have humanist views, which tend to align with women and minority equality) have become numb from >two years of seeing this playout. They have “Misogyny vs Rad Fem” (False Dichotomy) fatigue. A large portion always viewed this schism no different than any other flame war on the internet, Meh!. Others have moved on, the have obtained emotional distance, regardless of their initial alliances or sympathies.

    So, who keeps the ongoing melodrama: Bloggers, Tweeters, YouTubers, regular commenters and forum denizens.

    The rest take look occasionally, read their favorite websites, take a mental note if they agree or disagree, and leave without a trace (or comment)

    So answering your questions:
    I considered myself a mostly detached observer, even though I agreed that is in the best interest of any organization or movement to empower movement. But any initiative I participated in any way was on a local level or on a personal level. If I witnessed my friends acting in a sexist or racist manner I would let them know of my disapproval of their behaviour but not making a judgement on their character. I believe most people are empathic, but the move at a very slow-pace when changing problematic behavior. So I’ve had limited success, but humans will predictably be more reactive to their limbic system, than rational.

    As for the solution, there probably isn’t one in the near future, at least not one that you will enjoy listening to, or in this case reading. The thing is that everyone is a little meaner on the internet. It is possible that some disagreements on the internet are magnified by the relatively minor emotional investment. I fact, I know some people that are trolls online (some aren’t even aware), but are such outstanding persons in meatspace, that would have convinced Jesus, himself, to “convert” to atheism.

    Sometimes I speculate that some atheists react negatively to admonishments online because they have suffered a lot in the hands of religious zealotry. Others are just very individualistic, for some thats a character flaw, to me that’s just another characteristics to be celebrated. If the arguments are presented to this person in a particular way, even if you don’t convince them, they will at least, rethink their positions.

    If the dialogues result in criticism of ideas and actions, but refrain from making personal attacks and assigning motives to their subjects. This would be a good outcome. So good that the many will be dissatisfied. The other option is the status quo for a longer time.

    For most of us, we aren’t really paying that much attention. We have the religious passing laws to limit reproductive rights; hatred from our families for self-identifying as atheist; and kids dying from preventable diseases because our neighbors think that good parenting means never vaccinating.

    Our plates are full. You guys are smart enough. Figure it out!

  18. 21

    typo in my comment: I considered myself a mostly detached observer, even though I agreed that is in the best interest of any organization or movement to empower [WOMEN].

    Writing this is so self-evident, that I feel silly that this needs to be said.

  19. 22

    axelblaster…so for those on the other side of the rift….who encourage behavior that disempowers women….what are you going to say to them? Fence-sitters seem pretty comfortable telling Steph what she should do. What will you tell the pitters?

  20. 24

    I learned about the Pit a couple of years ago, I’ve been a reader of PZ since 2007, during 2009 I did not read much of anything, since I was constantly traveling for most of the year, from 2010 to present, I’ve read Pharyngula periodically, but decreasingly. In many ways I am as faithful a reader of Pharyngula as any of the regular commenters that still survive since scienceblogs. But do I agree a lot with PZ Myers, it depends on the subject. Had I’ve been a regular commenter, I would have been banned by now for many different things, my money is on “tone trolling”.
    I mention this backstory because it is relevant for two reasons:
    (1) I would not endorse how PZ and his commentariat attacked some creationists or other right-wing ideologues, but the rumor that PZ was nicer in real live was already floating around. This confirms this nasty alter-ego on the web suspicion. Some research is pointing out this phenomena is real.
    (2) While reading Pharyngula, I’ve would be periodically be informed of the infamy of the slymepit. No stranger to the things that happen on internet forums, I did not feel the need to look, but skeptics are curious. Eventually I did.
    What I found was a forum that had more diversity of opinion than most comment sections in blogs, some I would condemn and some I would endorse. In fact, the problem with any opinion from that particular forum will depend on how that forum is comprised in a particular time in question. This must be highly aggravating for you because it seems that I’m dancing around the question, but my hesitation come from passing a judgement without knowing all the facts about an entire group of people. This hesitation arises from been raised for a good chunk of my childhood during a dictatorship, my family was considered seditious.
    It seems that some in the Slymepit are seduced by MRM rhetoric (and some injustices exist indeed), but perusing you see some equity feminist, or humanists. Its really a mixed bag. The actions of some are hateful at times. But in some occasions I’ve seen some of them show moral character. The membership fluctuates.
    Maybe my answer is that I can’t really tell them anything, is a very chaotic population. Some felt disenfranchised and gravitated there.
    I have seen some false accusations thrown at individual members of the Slymepit (some recognizable names and nym) that I could consider reprochable, because the didn’t have any basis. From what I’ve witnessed, the Slymepit are more likely to back-up their claims with links (whether you arrive at the same conclusions they have, is another matter), but this could be because of their underdog status.
    Collectively, they are as much victims of group thinks as anyone else. For example, if they champion themselves as critics of dogmatic thinking, they should attack the ideas of their opponents, but many of their attacks get personal and very petty. Do they really think they are advancing the cause of Skepticism, by attacking the poetry of the new FTBlogger? I hope not.
    They way I frame this issues would make me an enabler in the eyes of many here, but my own experiences guide my thoughproccess on these issues. They arose out of another comment sections from a blog I like but read less frequently. When they moved to the forum, non-censorship became the prime imperative. The problem is that for free speech to work, the most unpopular speech has to be protected as long as no criminal laws are broken… That even means Forum like the Slymepit and sites like Reddit.
    Fortunately, the numbers are on your side and the majority here will condemn all the members on the slymepit in a second without hesitations. Probably most fencesitters as well.
    I want to apologize for taking so much space in the comments but there is cautionary tale. All the hate sites and individuals that are considered misogynist and enemies here were introduced to me by FTBs, there is a bit of Streisand effect, that is very self-destructive ongoing conduct here. I’m sure accusations of victim blaming will follow. In my defense, I’m thinking in terms of pragmatism.

  21. 25


    I understand that this is the case. I will say that your are, orders of magnitude, dealing with a larger platter. I the case of the internet wars, thats the raw oysters that were left outside on a sunny day.

    What I’m saying is that the average atheists is already overwhelmed by their own problems, and internet wars are very low priority. I’ve been watching how this has developed. I’ve been trying to research the subject, maybe to write about it, but I just think is not worth it. This is the type of phenomena that needs some healing time, before it can be understood in perspective.

    I’m very surprised by the how some atheists have failed, on both sides of the schism (I’m not implying that both sides are equally to blame), to be reasonable.

    I do wish you a lot of success, I hope that you don’t get discouraged and continue your work.

  22. 26

    Like so many of the “both sides” camp, you have failed to explain what is unreasonable. One “side” has instigated and sustained a campaign of harassment, bullying, cyberstalking, and rape/death threats…the other “side” has criticized them for doing so. To make a claim that the targets of this campaign are being unreasonable, you need to do more than assert that.
    I also question how unbiased a look you have of the Pit. Your comments appear entirely sympathetic to them, when these are the people who started the rifts (needless to say, many of us are glad they showed their true colors. I don’t want anything to do with the Hendricks, Bumblebees, Justicars, Vaculas, Mayhews, Porters, etc who make up that crowd. They not only do not share my values wrt feminism, they are all too comfortable engaging in abhorrent behavior.)
    Do you hold out hope that some fence sitters will make up their minds? From your comments I get the impression that this discussion had been futile, so continuing with it seems pointless at this point.

  23. 27

    I recognized that comparing both sides is as equally bad is stupid and morally wrong, as a whole. But, I won’t whole pass a judgement on an entire group of people, because the most some of the most active member are assholes. If I did that, soon I will also have to admit the same from the Atheism+ forum and the Pharyngula commentariat.
    In fact, this problem has escalated because, in the same way the pentecostals and adventists in my childhood would attribute the worst moral characteristics to the people that worship different gods and to people that were homosexuals, the would become the prime example of evils.
    So one day Justicar is complaining that Jenn is faking concerns about her safety by pointing out that she is basically tweeting her location at a particular time. But a few weeks before he posted a video response about an anti-gun piece by Jerry Coyne, complaining that Coyne doesn’t get to decide how safe guns make their gun owners should feel. So, in this particular case Justicar is a huge hypocrite. I’ve seen some hypocrisy of FTB sometimes, but I’m a guess and I’ve already insulted my hosts, for which I’m sorry.
    But I’m against harassment, bullying, cyber stalking and rape/death threats. But I don’t know what to do about it other that what I can do in meatspace, influencing conduct online by arbitration of disagreements will get accused of concern trolling, tone trolling, silencing, mansplaining, or simply ignored. That’s way commenters stick to the blogs they read. When, an outsider comments on the situation, the same two-dozen name will meet in this neutral ground in a words and accusations until the admin closes the comments. But, is a stalemate, but the will live to fight another day. It’s not that productive.
    Then, I’m I a cynic, or an avid observer of the futility of this enterprise. Both?
    For me vaccination of children is my Muslima. I am hoping this is the week that my local skeptic group will return my calls about promoting a vaccination awareness campaign. I have a good feeling about this week, the have probably been too busy the last six months.
    Everybody has their own Muslima. Your Muslima is your priority. Your Muslima should be everyone’s priority.
    The question is how to invest your time advancing your Muslima’s goal in the most efficient way and avoiding time and effort drains.
    I’ve derailed this post too much. It’s a good thing that I’ve only commented toward the end. But I think that the rifts can not be reconciled. But of the persons participating with Stephany, some seem earnest. If the this could influence them, to disagree, but avoid making the disagreements personal. Some of those communities will self-police and that gives hope to at least have something resembling an honest opposition. But continuing this path will be a war of attrition that has no end in sight.
    As for the real trolls, they will exists even after this concludes, I don’t know if there is a solution for this, it’s an internet phenomena that thrives on the media.
    I have to add that the Slymepit some members have generated a lot harassment and bullying, but from my research, I’ve don’t think that there is evidence that any of the rapes threads that feminist like Rebecca Watson was coordinated by any members of the forum. There is a chance that they could be an effort of strictly troll groups on the net. But, as I understand from her writing she has the FBI involved and in the future this information could become available. If this is the case I think the Slymepit is beyond redemption.

  24. 28


    But I’m against harassment, bullying, cyber stalking and rape/death threats. But I don’t know what to do about it other that what I can do in meatspace, influencing conduct online by arbitration of disagreements will get accused of concern trolling, tone trolling, silencing, mansplaining, or simply ignored.

    Given the first sentence, I would argue you should be against the Slymepit. The individuals who post there all hide behind the banner of the ‘Pit. They *know* the reputation the place gets (if not agree with it, but hey they aren’t known for self awareness). Many of them have continued their obsessive bullying and harassment likely because they don’t agree with with the assessment that their actions are that bad. They see themselves as “brave heroes”. Once again, though, I have seen *no one* on this side of the divide who has consistently acted in any way as horribly as the pitters (and associated pissants like Al Stefanelli) have. They may be skeptical about reasonable things, but so much of their focus is their attack on FtB and Skepchick.
    There is simply nothing comparable from our “side”.
    With regard to your second sentence, I’d say trying to get involved in arbitration is not a good idea. What’s the point? Trying to get each “side” to listen to one another? This is one of those situations where the opposing side-the Pitters and anyone who side with them-have produced no valid points worth listening to. What is needed are more voices criticizing their hateful, anti-feminist rhetoric. We don’t need someone else playing “let’s engage in a productive dialogue”. Especially when they would deny the basic rights of women (and no, I recognize they don’t couch things in that way, but one has to actually think about the words they use to understand that this is the reality of what they say).

  25. 29


    I have to add that the Slymepit some members have generated a lot harassment and bullying, but from my research, I’ve don’t think that there is evidence that any of the rapes threads that feminist like Rebecca Watson was coordinated by any members of the forum.

    I missed this part, but how would you know if any rape threats towards Rebecca were from the Pitters or not? You’d have to have access to a lot of information that I highly doubt that you would. Personally, when a woman tells me she’s gotten rape threats I believe her. I’m not hyperskeptical, demanding vast amounts of evidence about something that is all too common in society (I could see if someone made an extraordinary claim that wasn’t made frequently, but rape threats directed at outspoken women are all too common in society). Not to mention that I’ve read more than enough of the absolutely vile things said about Rebecca, Jen, Ophelia, Greta and Stephanie to fully believe that there are Pitters who would make rape threats.
    Unlike you I do not seek to find anything redeemable in those shitstained human beings (remember, Karla Porter invited the Westboro Baptist Church to WiS2. These are disgusting, abobominable asshats who picket funerals and blame the deaths of American citizens on gay people like myself. I have nothing nice to say about them OR people like Karla Porter. And she’s a friend of everyone’s favorite Misogynist and Voice For Men, Justin Vacula. I’m ashamed to belong to the same species as scum like them.)

Comments are closed.