I wanted to respond at length to both Michael Nugent, who I’ve spoken with over Twitter, and to many commenters who agree with him in the previous post and on Twitter.
I don’t have a problem with Michael Nugent’s distaste for PZ’s tone. I don’t agree in general, though like Nugent, I found PZ to be lacking in his posts about Dawkin’s childhood sex abuse and Robin Williams’ suicide. PZ has always been a pit bull, and it generally gives his posts clarity and humor, both of which I appreciate. But, I don’t really care if you hate that, that’s fine, to each his own.
I also don’t really have a problem with Atheist Ireland’s dissociation with PZ. Again, freedom of association, to each their own. I do think that, while they’ve made an exhaustive list of why they don’t like his tone, they’ve failed entirely to even try to make a case as to why an American blogger’s tone has any relevance to the work they are doing. I’m not sure what harm PZ has actually caused to Atheist Ireland, beyond making Michael Nugent very unhappy. Why Atheist Ireland’s agenda includes breaking up with bloggers is beyond me.
The problem I have with Michael Nugent fundamentally boils down to his 9/17/14 blog post in which he equivalizes his complaints about PZ’s tone in his posts to PZ agreeing to post a firsthand account of rape in which the victim names her rapist. This post by Nugent is in response to a lengthy, in-depth article by well-respected journalist Mark Oppenheimer, known for his work at the New York Times, in which Oppenheimer details multiple accusations of misbehavior on the part of Michael Shermer.
PZ’s tone in that blog post is approximately, “I was given this information and it felt unethical not to give this woman the platform she asked for to share her story because I have every reason to believe her, so I am doing so and fully expect it to explode in my face.” In that post, he describes Shermer as a “putative assailant” and notes that the assault was reported to an organization (the JREF) at the time. Other women wrote to PZ with their own stories of Shermer’s inappropriate behavior towards them or their witnessing of the event, which PZ also shared. To date, the number of individuals on record with accounts of Shermer behaving inappropriately at conferences is 15 named individuals and 6 unnamed (best collection, additional article forthcoming).
Michael Nugent writes on 9/17/14, in light of the Oppenheimer article.
In the last year or so, he [PZ] has publicly accused Richard Dawkins of seeming to have developed a callous indifference to the sexual abuse of children, Michael Shermer of multiple unreported serious crimes, and Russell Blackford of being a lying fuckhead.
In recent days, he has written that Richard Dawkins has been eaten by brain parasites and is grossly dishonest, that Christina Hoff Sommers promotes lies about feminism and claims them as inalienable truths, that Michael Shermer is a liar and an assailant, and that Sam Harris has scurried off to write a tendentious and inexcusably boring defence of sticking his foot in his mouth.
♫One of these things is not like the other one, not like the other one, not like the other one…♫
The post in which PZ indirectly calls Shermer a liar is here, where he posts Shermer’s changing accounts of the evening he is accused of rape by opening with “It’s always the changing story that gives the liar away.”
In my opinion, “putative assailant” and “It’s always the changing story that gives the liar away” are a bit soft, but I’ll take it. As for accusing Shermer of crimes, well, no, he allowed others the space to do that.
Here’s what I find offensive about this:
- He’s misportraying what PZ has actually written about Shermer by dropping the “putative;” by failing to note that it is not PZ who is making the accusations, but actual victims themselves; and by complaining about the use of the word “liar,” which is merely defined as someone who changes their story and then attached to Michael Shermer changing his story
- That he is mixing up PZ’s examination of Shermer’s behavior with a complaint of PZ’s over-the-top rhetoric, when they are entirely different things. Not of a kind at all. Unless all negative things that involve atheist celebrities are the same, regardless of tone.
- That he seems to care more about PZ calling Shermer a liar than about the fact that Shermer did, in fact, change his story about the night in which he is accused of rape
- That he seems to care more about Shermer being accused of rape than whether giving a victim space to speak to Shermer’s behavior is a worthwhile thing to do in light of the fact that the statute of limitations has passed
- He only complains about PZ’s behavior around Shermer in the aftermath of a professional journalist doing a thorough investigation into Shermer’s behavior in which that investigator found it safe, prudent, and worthwhile to report those same accusations publicly in a major publication
- He seems to offer no space for anyone to come to the reasonable conclusion that Shermer is guilty of being an assailant and liar and that anyone who does so and dares to speak so aloud will be just as much persona non grata to him as PZ
Again, to me the worst part of this is that Nugent seems to think that calling someone a fuckhead is the same crime against tone as calling them a rapist in light of very credible evidence that they have committed a rape. Rapist is not an insult. Neither are assailant, harasser, and liar, for that matter. These are descriptions of behavior that it seems very clear to me that Shermer has engaged in.
If it’s not clear to you that Shermer has done these things, then fine. But here’s what we know.
Alison and Shermer’s stories agree on these salient points – they had sex and he was sober and she had too much to drink. They disagree on these salient points – she says she did not consent and that she was too drunk to have consented at the point they had sex, he says she’d sobered up by that point. So, we know they had sex, that he was sober when they had sex, even if we cannot know if she said yes in the room and you refuse to take her word, we have eyewitness testimony from others about how drunk she was before and after they had sex. She was so drunk that at least 30 minutes after their encounter, hotel security gave her friend a wheelchair to help her get around because of how much difficulty she was having walking. James Randi confirms that he knows Shermer was misbehaving at his conferences, likely in reference to Alison.
If you accept that it is rape for someone who is sober to have sex with someone who is drunk, Shermer raped Alison.
However, neither you, dear reader, nor Michael Nugent has to conclude that Shermer is a rapist, though I don’t know how someone can be intellectually honest and look at his pattern of behavior, his shifting story, and what happened that night and come to any other conclusion, but I think it is unsupportable to claim that someone is in the wrong for coming to the conclusion that his is a rapist and a liar. Doing so undermines any other claim you make. And it drives away many reasonable people who’ve come to that conclusion in light of the evidence around Shermer.
Finally, complaining about someone calling Shermer an assailant and a liar – particularly in the way PZ actually did so and in light of this evidence — is why the statement “defending & providing a haven for harassers, misogynists, and rapists” is not unreasonable. “Defending and providing a haven for” doesn’t require the presence of the people being defended and being provided a safe space. Particularly when a reading of this could legitimately apply “defend” and “haven” unequally to the list, as one of “and”’s meanings is “and/or,” making a legitimate reading of the sentence: “Defending and/or providing haven for harassers, misogynists, and rapists.” It’s not a charitable view of Nugent’s blog, but he didn’t give PZ’s a terribly charitable one either.
I don’t think that it is Nugent’s intent to create a safe space for Michael Shermer, nor do I think it is his intent to make people who find Michael Shermer’s behavior intensely disgusting feel unwelcome. But I do think that is what happened on 9/17/14 and has been in snowball effect ever since. Nugent has been, to his mind, fighting PZ’s tone, but people who are horrified at Shermer’s behavior have seen it primarily as a defense of Shermer. I hope that Nugent can understand why that might be and why, for whatever PZ’s tone is, a place where Shermer is clearly unwelcome is preferable to some of us than a place where the word “fuckhead” won’t be used.