Retconning Mythinformation Con

After last weekend’s debacle at Mythicist Milwaukee’s conference, which included the audience cheering on harassment of a rape victim and victim’s advocate, Mythinformation Con speaker Melissa Chen has decided she knows what really happened. It was impressive enough that I had to share. My comments are included.

Now that #MythCon is over, I see the entire tempest in a teapot that resulted in a very different light. This was more than just an attempt by a radical faction of atheist activists who are fully aligned with the political machinations of ANTIFA to deplatform speakers they didn’t want to hear.

This was presumably Chen’s original position on those objecting to having a professional harasser there. I’m half giggling over “We show up where those we believe to be fascist are engaging in organized action and disrupt or protect those who do” being rendered as “political machinations” and half wondering when the self-appointed hyperbole police are going to show up. Chen posted this several days ago. Dan Arel identifies as antifa (no capital letters required), but to the best of my knowledge, Steve Shives and Kristi Winters have mostly refuted anti-antifa nonsense. If that makes people politically dangerous in Chen’s mind, there are an awful lot of us she’s eyeing as enemies.

Also, this has never been about not wanting to hear people. Winters spearheaded the effort to get Mythicist Milwaukee to remove Sargon as a speaker. She’s listened to more nonsense from Sargon than anyone but his most undying fans. She documented his behavior. She debated him. If Chen ever believed this was about anyone objecting to hearing him personally, she might want to spend more time checking her assumptions about people with differing politics.

It was more than just a campaign to be a thorn in the side of organizers (Mythicist Milwaukee) by driving up security costs with audacious claims to local police and media with no basis in truth.

You can tell me the fans of Gamergater shitlords aren’t dangerous when their targets stop being doxxed and swatted. When their targets’ events stop being cancelled because of shooting threats. When their “ironazi” flags stop showing up at rallies where people die. Then I’ll listen.

Until then, you’re just telling me you’re either not paying attention or not being honest.

This was ultimately about keeping atheism activism within the bounds of “Atheism Plus.”

2012 YouTube called. It wants its authoritarian bogeyman back.

Atheism+ was two things. The first was a group of people who were tired of fighting over the direction that organized and online atheism were taking. They decided to divorce themselves from the rest of that and go do some good on their own, mostly in a forum and a subreddit. They weren’t allowed to do that. Anti-feminist trolls and other people who thought they got to dictate what was allowed in atheism followed them and made it impossible for them to organize properly, but that was the idea. It was the opposite of telling other people what to do, though it certainly seemed to provide a sting to consciences by merely existing.

To the extent Atheism+ was anything outside those groups, it was a secular humanism more active than much of the organized Humanist movement at the time. Humanists claimed the principles involved in discussions of Atheism+. Several posts and articles were written about the terminology. And Atheism+, along with the work of black Humanists, lives on today in a more robust and politically active Humanist movement. That seems a very strange thing for one of the administrators of the Global Secular Humanist Movement to object to, though I must admit that I’m somewhat confused as to what that organization is supposed to do.

This was ultimately about establishing the dogma that people with disagreeable politics and views were not welcome to even participate, let alone be worth engaging with.

Pro tip: It helps very much to know ahead of time when you’re going to complain about politics making people untouchable so you don’t start your post by doing exactly that.

Less flippantly, this is a universal. There are political statements each and every event organizer isn’t going to put their time, effort, money, and name behind. That’s why Mythicist Milwaukee disinvited Amos Yee when it turned out your assurances he’d changed his mind were wrong. We’re not talking about absolute free speech and never were. We’re talking about the Overton Window, and the fact that none of the arguments over this issue use that term demonstrate the utter lack of political sophistication and knowledge generally being brought to the debate.

The NY Times recently published an article titled “The Dying Art of Disagreement,” an urgent and salient theme that needs to be reinforced today more than ever because disagreement is the lifeblood of a thriving society.

This was an opinion piece, not an article. It was the transcript of a talk by Bret Stephens, the conservative columnist who started his New York Times career with climate change “skepticism”. And that’s a beautiful microcosm of the whole campus free speech debate. Why? Because if you take a step back and look at the people with power to determine speech on campuses, it stops looking like conservative speech that’s preferentially threatened or students who are a major threat. Because the Times will tell you this too, even as they feel the need to empower denialists for “balance”. Because the polarization that people complain about is driven in no small part by that denialism.

I’ll leave any conclusions about how much of our activity at skeptic conferences should be driven by denialists as an exercise for the reader.

When Arel, Shives and Winters tried to get #MythCon to disinvite some speakers who were critical of social justice orthodoxy as it stands today, they were not really deplatforming Sargon of Akkad, Armoured Skeptic and Shoe On Head. On any given day, these Youtubers command the attention of 2 million subscribers; the capacity of the Pabst Theater alone is a measly 1,200. So the idea that they needed a physical stage to be exposed and legitimized to an audience is frankly, quite laughable. So what exactly, was the goal of the protests here?

My theory: it was to suppress the knowledge of just how large the latent community of those who did not subscribe to “Atheism Plus” was.

Again, Winters actually led on this. But no, this isn’t about hiding popularity. If it were, those of us who’ve been working on keeping harassers out of atheist and skeptic conferences wouldn’t point out that these people can make a living in the harassment industry or that a conference is likely to be flooded by enough of their fans to be a problem.

Their fears weren’t unfounded. This was an atheist/secular conference unlike any other. The total attendance exceeded the last two major atheist conventions combined.

I don’t know which conferences Chen thinks are major. Mythicist Milwaukee had about 400 seats sold just before the conference, according to their Gaytheist Manifesto interview. They haven’t put out revised attendance figures in congratulating themselves on their conference, so I that’s likely very close to final. Atheist and skeptic conferences don’t usually release their attendance figures, but they range from fewer than 100 attendees for one-off regional cons to ~1500 at Skepticon‘s peak. 400 is respectable, as numbers go. It’s not revolutionary.

A non-trivial proportion of the audience (about 12%) were Christians. After my talk, a few came up to me and one in particular jumped out.

An older soft-spoken gentlemen who identified as a Christian conservative said that never in a million years did he think there’d be anything “for him” at an atheist conference. He thanked me for educating him, and seemed genuinely delighted to have learned so much from my hour-long talk.

I’ve long used the argument that if popularity were our priority over truth, we could just turn the atheist movement into megachurches. I never expected to see something like that argument being made seriously.

Photo of a huge Jesus statue from the waist up rising from a pond in front of a megachurch.
Big butter Jesus is my new go-to photo for this argument. “big butter Jesus” by Cindy Funk, CC BY 2.0

Isn’t this amazing? For once, we were no longer preaching to the choir. We were no longer merely catering to the margins of the de-converted who were radicalized enough to join organized atheism. We were no longer just talking to those squarely in the Atheism Plus tribe.

This is a frankly bizarre and ahistorical view of atheist and skeptic conferences. It’s not at all strange to find Christians or religious Jews or pagans at conferences that bill themselves as promoting skepticism. It’s been A Thing. Sunday Assembly and Oasis are decidedly non-radical pockets of organized atheism, unless wanting to hang out with other nonbelievers is suddenly somehow radical, and their people go to conferences. Atheist and skeptic organizations send representatives to table at these conferences because the conferences themselves are gateways to atheist and skeptic activism.

And Atheism+ started amid the anti-feminist pushback to conference codes of conduct at atheist and skeptic conferences. Those were required because the attendees at conferences were decidedly not united on questions like not sexually or racially harassing people. There isn’t and never has been a uniform conference “tribe”.

Many told me later at the after-party saying that they came for Sargon but found my talk and the Islam debate between Faisal and Asra most illuminating, that these two scheduled items alone justified their entire trip, and were the highlights of the entire day.

Are there reasons Chen and Al Mutar aren’t speaking at more conferences? Al Mutar is still on the CFI Speaker Bureau, even if he’s no longer listed on the Secular Student Alliance‘s. Ex-Muslim’s like Sarah Haider and Muhammad Syed are still popular. I don’t know, but given the rest of the program, I’m not surprised those events were the most well-received by any of the attendees. Tweeting that Sargon/Carl “rules” is one thing. Believing it is another.

I have some concerns about how illuminating Chen’s talk was, though. The following slides were tweeted during the conference.

My understanding is that Mythicist Milwaukee will only release content for a fee, but if someone would like to provide a copy of the talk for review, I’d appreciate it. I don’t want to say much more without seeing the slides in context, but that’s just wrong.

This, my friends, is why we need to preserve the dying art of disagreement. Sargon and Thomas could not have a proper civil discourse because both sides thought the other was the personification of pure evil.

No, they couldn’t have “a proper civil discourse” because there is no common ground between people who care about facts and reality and denialists. The entire point of denialism is to shut down rational discussion, whether by piling on misinformation or by harassing the people who insist on facts. Climate change scientists know this. Vaccine activists know this. Feminists and anti-racists know this. It’s just that organized skepticism includes a lot of non-experts on sexism and racism who range from not recognizing this kind of denialism to engaging in it themselves.

When Sargon, in the heat of debate let slip that “feminism is mental illness,” he was guilty of the same hyperbolic speech that Arel and Shives are when they say that “#MythCon was a neo-Nazi bootcamp and Klan rally.”

It is one thing to criticize the fringe views of a movement, it’s a whole other thing to tar all under the same brush. It is imprecise, disingenuous, and frankly, outright malicious. And it makes you lose credibility in an instant.

I can’t actually find the words in quotes except in Chen’s post. For the sake of argument, however, let’s assume they said something like that. Is it hyperbole? Well, it’s definitely not literalism. It’s not meant to be taken literally, unlike the hyperbole Chen’s post started with, as the basic facts as stated are obviously untrue. So there’s a discussion to be had over how good a metaphor it is and whether that metaphor is strong enough to be worth the emotional response it invokes. Given that plenty of alt-right figures have stood up for Sargon/Carl, the metaphor isn’t clearly inappropriate.

Nor does it mean Shives or Arel (or Winters—remember Winters?—this was a campaign started by Winters) are saying everyone who attended Mythinformation Con shared views with Sargon/Carl. They explicitly said otherwise, which makes it strange to see in the same paragraph that calls them disingenuous.

“Feminism is mental illness” is not a metaphor in Sargon/Carl’s usage. He means it literally. He’s argued for it, and it’s an argument that has a long history of being used to deny women their basic rights. It is, after all, an argument that says, “Women who want to be treated equally are out of touch with reality and possibly in need of treatment.” That’s well beyond hyperbole.

In a way, Sargon of Akkad is low-hanging fruit. He makes compelling arguments sometimes but they are obscured by mean-spirited Twitter rhetoric, and the occasional total lack of nuance that gives his enemies too much ammunition.

These compelling arguments aren’t cited. They weren’t put on display at the conference. So why was he there? “Low-hanging fruit” is just another way of saying, “Yeah, the people who thought he shouldn’t have been there were right” without conceding that they had a point to their objections.

But me on the other hand? I’m more of a nightmare to Arel, Shives and company. I criticize their ideas from an intellectual and moral standpoint without resorting to their crude, slanderous tactics. I speak precisely without devolving into name-calling and broad-brushing. I admit when I’m wrong.

Again, I recall how this post started, even if Chen doesn’t. It’s worth addressing because Chen was supposed to be one of the people lending credibility to Mythinformation Con, but it’s not difficult. It just takes more words to make corrections than to say something right in the first place.

And I, along with others who think like me, have the backing of more people who are atheists and secularists and religious humanists who are increasingly critical of those who are trying to wage an all-out assault on reason and the ideals of modernity.

This is what #MythCon revealed. The schism is real and it’s coalescing into a new movement.

It’s good to hear that Chen is finally going to turn her attention to the denialists on the right instead of citing them to back up her positions. Oh? That’s not what she meant by “assault on reason”? How weird. But at least she’s declaring where she stands.

Retconning Mythinformation Con

7 thoughts on “Retconning Mythinformation Con

  1. 1

    Those slides of hers are exactly what I learned in Christian groups. That is … Freaky. Hell I even remember making that exact argument about the Enlightenment.

  2. 2

    it’s both sad and funny to me that those tweets came from andy ngo – he’s a boghossian sycophant of the rubin-inspired ‘classical liberal’ variety, promoting hacks like sommers as intellectual and shermer as rational… he’s highjacked the freethinker’s group at the portland state campus and turned it into another pocket of ‘freeze peach’ absolutist manure.

  3. 5

    Speaking of which, I have opinions on Chen’s two slides. The TL;DR is that she’s illustrating “post-modernism” by showing a Jackson Pollack painting and quoting James Joyce, both of which are actually “modern.” Post-modernism should be embraced by skeptics on paper, but as it critiques some of the sacred cows of Skepticism they instead wind up strongly opposing it, sometimes with comic ineptitude.

  4. 6

    They’ve since released the video for free, & well I don’t see the need to repeat my thoughts on Chen’s talk again: Spoiler alert: I thought it was awful.

    Her attempts to spin it after the fact are even more ridiculous, though it seems to me she removed or privatized the post so I can’t see what it said. How’s that for free exchange of ideas? Anyway, Carl’s fans finding Chen’s talk illuminating just proves what I already know about them not knowing jack about history, & I’m particularly annoyed about her characterization of the Thomas & Carl debaterview.

    Thomas did both what he promised to do & what the conference defenders claimed they wanted him to do: He challenged Carl on his actions & views. While it’s clear he didn’t like Carl–justifiably so–he was perfectly fair. His argument was not “all ad hominem,” as she claimed elsewhere, & it’s rather gross that people are creating this myth where they bring Thomas down to Carl’s level so he can be dismissed as merely being a less appealing alternative, like they’re a pair of shirts but Thomas is an ugly shade of brownish green, or something.

    And Carl most certainly did NOT “let it slip in the heat of debate” that he thinks all feminists are mentally ill, he was confronted on this quote & he EMPHATICALLY affirmed it. Maybe she really believes that the convention’s critics wouldn’t watch the video, if she thinks she can sell me on these lies. Or maybe the Mythinformation bubble just doesn’t care, because they know they can say anything they want & they’ll be treated like heroes as long as they sprinkle enough digs at social justice in there.

  5. 7

    “It is one thing to criticize the fringe views of a movement, it’s a whole other thing to tar all under the same brush.”

    Feminism might be “a movement” but MythCon isn’t. Atheism is. MythCon got flak from other atheists for having a guest list skewed toward the worst elements of the movement. They sure as fuck weren’t tarring themselves there.

    And if you invite notorious extremists as a draw for your conference (or defend those who do) and proudly cite the attendance numbers achieved that way as proof of your success, you don’t get to complain later about others supposedly overgeneralizing about the con-goers sympathies.

    But at least she’s declaring where she stands.

    Quite a ways up her own ass, it would appear. Yeesh.

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