Mitchell of Research to be Done wrote this post after he and I and some other friends had a great discussion about social justice and giving people the benefit of the doubt, and how to adjust our beliefs and expectations when we’re proven wrong time and time again.
It wasn’t so long ago that Lawrence Krauss defended Jeffrey Epstein in the wake of accusations that Epstein had had sex with underage prostitutes, and I thought, “Well, that’s messed up, but maybe I can see how someone might think some of the things he thought, even while being incredibly mistaken.”
It wasn’t so long ago that DJ Grothe accused female bloggers of making women feel unwelcome or unsafe at TAM, and I thought, “Well, that’s shitty, but he probably just doesn’t understand what it looks like from the other side.”
It wasn’t so long ago that Michael Shermer responded to the criticisms of comments he made about skepticism being “a guy thing” with a piece that included the phrases “witch hunt”, “purging”, and “Nazi party”, and I thought, “Okay, that’s pretty over-the-top, but on the balance of things, he still seems like he’s a generally reasonable person most of the time.”
I like to give people the benefit of the doubt. I like to have faith in people, to believe that their intentions are generally good, to believe that they want to do right by the rest of us.
And yet in the wake of recent events in the skeptic community, I find some difficult but inescapable realities have come crashing down on me.
While it’s possible that Krauss was simply incredibly mistaken about the situation with Jeffrey Epstein, I am forced to acknowledge that an environment in which such accusations are so easily dismissed is an environment in which it would be easier for someone who frequently engaged in sexual harassment to continue to do so without consequence. While it’s possible that Grothe just didn’t understand where the women who blogged about harassment in the skeptic community were coming from, I am forced to acknowledge that an environment in which the concerns of women are not taken seriously is an environment in which someone who doesn’t respect the women in their workplace is less likely to be called out on it. While it’s possible that Shermer was just having a really bad day when he compared criticisms of his comments to witch hunting and Nazism, I am forced to acknowledge that an environment in which criticisms made by women are routinely gaslighted in this way is one in which women would find it more difficult to criticize problems like sexual harassment.
I want to believe the best of those I have looked up to in the skeptical and scientific community. I want to, but I am finding it more and more difficult. In each of the above examples, my initial instinct was to assume good faith, and later events made me feel naïve for doing so. Later events made it obvious that none of these people just needed someone to sit down and civilly explain things to them.
In watching conversations in the skeptic community over the past few years, nearly every time I have seen someone say something that I thought was harmfully wrong, but said to myself, “They probably just don’t get it.”, later events have suggested that much deeper problems “just not getting it” were at work. It feels like whenever my instinct has been to give someone the benefit of the doubt, it’s later come about that their actions have been consistent with those of someone steering the community in a direction that benefited them at the expense of others*.
I don’t know what to do with this realization. I don’t want to be overly cynical, but I also don’t want to be naïve. I would rather not go through life assuming that every time anyone says anything that reinforces problematic ideas that person is secretly twirling their misogyny mustache and readjusting their monocle of twisted rationalization. At the same time, I want my perceptions to be accurate, and it seems clear that they haven’t been particularly accurate recently.
I put the question to the audience: at what point is the assumption of good faith not deserved? How do you decide when trust is overly naïve or mistrust is overly cynical?
If we err too far on the side of giving people the benefit of the doubt, we run the risk of providing leeway and power to people likely to abuse what they’re given, as seems to have been the case in situations like the examples above. I also find that, at least in my case, I am more likely to identify with people whose good faith I assume. That is, if we assume that I’m a thoughtful, well-intentioned person, and that Public Figure X is not, but I think they are, then when I see Public Figure X excoriated for saying shitty things, my reaction is going to be partially, “Jesus, these social justice people might one day get all angry at me for just misunderstanding something, too!”. If, however, I don’t assume that similarity, I am less likely to see the legitimate complaints against Public Figure X’s actions as unfair or ridiculous, because I won’t be able to as easily imagine myself saying those same things while honestly misunderstanding. It it seems to follow from that that if we assume good faith, we might, correspondingly, assume that the shit storms that we see are more unreasonable than they actually are.
On the other hand, if we err too far on the side of assuming the worst, then, well, we are unfairly assuming the worst.
In the grand scheme of things, maybe there is no good answer. Maybe the only actionable solution is to continue calling out bad behavior, and to not apologize for calling it out, and to pay attention when it starts to look like a pattern. I know one thing I have gotten out of recent events is that I’m going to be enormously more wary of the suggestion that people would come around if only we would engage more civilly**. That ship has sailed. Too many important problems, both with people and organizations, have been identified by skeptics who were unwilling to compromise on calling out bad behavior.
But I genuinely am curious: what say you, skeptics? Are there any decent rules of thumb for separating good faith from bad faith? When do you assume honest ignorance and when do you assume willful blindness? Are there any decent rules of thumb for how to engage (or not engage) if the truth is uncertain?
Or, in short: what is there to be learned from all this?
*I want to be clear at this point: I do not, in any of the above situations, think that any of these people ever consciously thought, “What I really want is a community steeped in harassment and misogyny.”. I simply think that they are capable of rationalizing behavior that has that effect when it benefits them, even when it has a detrimental impact on the community.
**I also can’t help but notice a certain massive irony in all of the calls for civil discussion over the last couple of years in light of the fact that all three of the people I use as examples in this post are operating on a civility level which we might fancifully term “Lawsuit”.
Mitchell Greenbaum is a geeky, poly, kinky, skeptic blogger who writes about social justice, relationships, depression, and chronic pain at Research to be Done, and engages in a wholly excessive amount of… auto-metacognition? Or does it make more sense as meta-auto-cognition? He isn’t really sure, but playing with prefixes is fun and writing bios is hard. True story.