Edits from earlier versions: Two major edits from information sent to me via Twitter by people who were, I think, trying to be hostile, but who I appreciate sending me the information. Ron Lindsay did not ask Rebecca Watson to take down her post, he asked her to reword it and the link to his post has been reworded to reflect that; this was a misremembrance on my part. The second is that I added screencaps and reworded the description of the Slymepit to be more accurate. The inaccuracy previously was the suggestion that they stalked people’s hospitals, which seems to be a game of telephone garbled interpretation I heard of an event that is linked to, in which they took PZ’s hospitalization as an opportunity to make up STD rumors about him. While I did have 2 editors fact check the post, they missed these, as did I.
So in recent days, there’s been a bit of drama in the atheist movement over Atheist Ireland and PZ Myers that I’ve spent a bit of time trying to fully understand the background of. Since I spent all the time getting a big picture overview, I thought other people might like to have access to it as well. I don’t regularly follow any of the main players’ blogs, and I’ve been ill for the last 8 months, so I haven’t regularly followed anything during that time. That said, the tl;dr version of the story is that it’s about Michael Shermer, and the longer version follows. It’s not convoluted, it’s just happened over a long period of time.
The key players:
PZ Myers – Jolly, potty-mouthed FreethoughtBlog founder and blogger
Michael Nugent – Extremely prolific blogger and founder/chair of Atheist Ireland
Atheist Ireland’s Executive Committee – Many joke it is Michael Nugent writing in the royal we but this appears to be the people listed on the contact page of their website.
Michael Shermer – Famous skeptic who has been accused by multiple women of rape or sexual harassment
Hemant Mehta – Major blogger at Patheos well known for keeping out of the infighting; Friendly Atheist
Slymepit – A forum/opposite of a fan club dedicated to hateful obsession with Skepchicks and FreethoughtBlogs. Think 4chan but obsessed with a very small number of people. They make photoshops, videos, write stories, tell rape/PTSD jokes, come up with crude nicknames, stalk our home addresses, work places, and use hospitalizations to start STD rumors — that sort of thing.
A couple years ago, Alison Smith came to PZ Myers with a rape allegation towards Michael Shermer. PZ had heard many stories about Shermer behind the scenes as there had been a lot of discussion about harassment in the atheist movement, but Alison came to him asking that he publish the account anonymously as a warning to other women to not allow Shermer to get them drunk and isolate them from groups. PZ felt morally obligated to publish the story because he knew so many women he trusted who had either witnessed or been victim to harassment from Shermer — full disclosure, myself included, though I was in no way a part of that decision process.
This caused a lot of people to be unhappy with PZ. It got worse when Mark Oppenheimer, a reporter known for his writing at the New York Times, wrote a story that named, with permission, not only Alison, but me and several other women as victims of Shermer’s behavior. Oppenheimer also gave a lot of corroborating accounts and stories, from named and unnamed sources, as well as discussing the state of the movement in general.
I would like to reiterate at this point that the person people were unhappy with was not Michael Shermer, accused serial harasser and rapist, but PZ Myers, blogger who was asked to publish an account of rape by a victim who was concerned about preventing more women from being victimized.
Enter Michael Nugent. After/around the Oppenheimer piece, Nugent became very angry with PZ, basically because he thinks the media is misrepresenting the atheist movement as hostile to women because PZ posted a rape accusation. He was also frustrated because the American media is more interested in the American atheist movement than the international movement. And he didn’t care for PZ’s tone when calling out famous people for doing bad things — not just Shermer, but other famous people as well, there was a list of complaints. Nugent wanted the movement to be more compassionate, but to people like Shermer more than to people like Alison Smith. It’s worth noting here that people from the Slymepit have been a major part of the commenters at Nugent’s blog for a couple years now, and a huge part of the anti-PZ voice there.
The argument escalated. And then PZ broke Michael Nugent with a tweet that has caused Michael Nugent to obsess over him, and the tweet, constantly since 4 Oct 2014. The tweet reads:
It’s not about what he thinks, but what he’s doing: defending & providing a haven for harassers, misogynists, and rapists.
Nugent has latched onto the idea that he’s providing a “haven for rapists” and demanded a recantation from PZ repeatedly. As far as I can tell, PZ feels that defending Shermer and allowing the Slymepit to be in your blog comments is very accurately represented by that tweet. PZ has also blocked and ignored Nugent, because Nugent has written some 80,000 words about him in the last 8 months. Which is, you know, a novel.
So now we are at this week. Ayaan Hirsi Ali said that the worst thing that happens to gays in America is that they are not served cake, while gays in Muslim countries are thrown off buildings. Ignoring for a moment that this is ridiculously inaccurate, it’s also a pointless thing to say. PZ pointed this out. Nugent, the Chairperson of Atheist Ireland, took the opportunity of PZ Pointing Out a Famous Person Doing a Bad Thing to have Atheist Ireland officially break up with him. Atheist Ireland pulls slightly more weight than Nugent himself, but even Hemant Mehta read it as Nugent writing a dissociation letter until Nugent claimed otherwise.
In the Public Dissociation Letter, Atheist Ireland mischaracterizes a number of PZ’s statements without actually giving citations in order to paint him in the worst possible light. Thankfully, Alex Gabriel has reprinted it with citations so that you can investigate the claims of PZ Pointing Out a Famous Person Doing a Bad Thing to see how terribly worded those blog posts truly are. Honestly, I hadn’t read most of them, so I had to look for myself, PZ has been brutal in the past, and he’s not entirely unbrutal, but it’s all pretty reasonable to my eye.
Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist, shared this public dissociation, and in it, he basically agreed with their characterization of PZ as a person who is unkind to people — which makes sense, given that Hemant makes an effort to be, you know, friendly to as many people as possible. Where Hemant goes a bit off-target is that he talks about the Slymepit in a way that makes it sound like he approves of them. My understanding of the situation is that Hemant wants nothing to with the Slymepit and avoids them like the plague, but the wording of this particular sentence is not great:
As for Myers himself, he responsed on Twitter with a sarcastic “Oh no! I’ve been disowned by the slymepit!”… in other words, associating Atheist Ireland with an online forum that frequently criticizes and mocks him and is populated by people he deems trolls (even though they correctly uncovered plagiarism on his blog network). In other words, he didn’t care.
As I explained to Hemant, when I read that sentence, it reads like he’s saying PZ shouldn’t call them trolls because they’re just criticizing his work and sniffing out plagiarism. Add to this the fact that Hemant is obviously unaware of the extent to which Atheist Ireland’s post is influenced by Slymepit, and you’ve got an entire post from Hemant that is sharing a lot of Slymepit positions. It’s like Slymepit sent out a Press Release full of mischaracterizations, Atheist Ireland reprinted it to disown PZ, and Hemant has posted highlights and questioned their troll status. And since people care what Hemant thinks, Hemant is the one who has gotten the attention.
This has led to drama. Rebecca Watson wrote a blog post that is, in my opinion, a little unnecessarily aggressive in its claim that Hemant is endorsing the Slymepit. Having said that, when I first read Hemant’s post I literally cried because I thought my friend and colleague was tacitly endorsing a group that has used my face to make rape jokes and made videos of me being shot to death, so I really get where Rebecca is coming from. Ron Lindsay, ED of CFI is now calling on Rebecca to change the wording of her blog post and apologize. All fall out because Michael Nugent is upset that people called out Michael Shermer’s bad behavior.
Shermer has been a bad boy on occasion — I do know that. I have told him that if I get many more complaints from people I have reason to believe, that I am going to have to limit his attendance at the conference.
His reply is he had a bit too much to drink and he doesn’t remember. I don’t know — I’ve never been drunk in my life. It’s an unfortunate thing… I haven’t seen him doing that. But I get the word from people in the organization that he has to be under better control. If he had gotten violent, I’d have him out of there immediately. I’ve just heard that he misbehaved himself with the women, which I guess is what men do when they are drunk. — James Randi, emphasis added