It’s not the case that where there’s smoke there’s fire – nonetheless, the two correlate strongly. The more people smell smoke, the wiser it is to investigate; the more you spot, the likelier you are to find something alight, and anyone so fire-agnostic they refuse to make enquiries till presented with a room in flames can reasonably be suspected of anything from ambivalence on fire safety to being a furtive arsonist.
Misogyny has been the great fire of atheism. 2012 saw a pitched fight for smoke detectors to be used at cons, in which, as thick plumes billowed from every window, DJ Grothe said TAM was totally fire-free, no one having caught so much as a whiff of smoke, and women shouldn’t assume too much from the sky high column of it over the building. Later, Reinhardt et al decided piles of soot and ash wherever some male skeptics went didn’t conclusively prove fire damage, and so there was no reason at all to check for any.
People who defend sexism tend to think there are only two ways to handle complaints: either with absolute credulity, treating women’s claims as infallible, or with absolute agnosticism, throwing out anything short of airtight legal proof. Women who file reports are said to want their word taken as law, but complaints are supposed to prompt investigations, not foreclose them. In the first instance, all most plaintiffs want is for their claims to be looked into – something an all-or-nothing epistemology prevents.
The agnostic response to bigotry says we can never know enough to act. If we don’t have all the facts, we have none; if not everything has been proved, nothing can be, and if the curtains haven’t yet caught fire, no amount of smoke is cause for action. Claims with mountains of evidence are dismissed before any can be sought, responsible parties painting requests for them to find things out as demands for unquestioning belief.
I bring this up because of late, I’ve seen Ophelia say similar things.
Make no mistake: I don’t like being at odds with a long time colleague. I don’t enjoy the atmosphere in the hivemind being fraught, or losing friends and readers and income, or giving axe-grinding belligerents a show. Since those things are already happening though, and since I’ve no desire for this site’s enemies to dictate how it works, I think it’s worth discussing this. The Slymepit haven’t won when bloggers here differ over important things – they’ve won when we bite our tongues for fear of entertaining them.
So. That being said.
Last week, in case you live under a rock, Caitlyn Jenner – having some time prior announced her wish to transition – debuted her new name and appearance in Vanity Fair. When one of Jezebel’s writers declared ‘You look great, Caitlyn! Can’t wait to see more’, Ophelia published this post, which numerous readers perceived as trans-antagonistic. After I wrote in Jezebel’s defence, Facebook users mentioned her having linked to and quoted feminists like Julie Bindel, whom Ophelia denied knowing to be transphobic.
‘You know what?’ one of them replied. ‘Once someone points out her transmisogyny to you, congratulations. She is a “known transphobe” to you. You thank them for helping you get yourself together instead of making it about how hurt your feelings are that people pointed out your failure to do due diligence.’ In a post from a week ago, titled ‘If someone says it, then you know it’, Ophelia writes:
I was rewarded for my efforts by [that] staggeringly credulous and illiberal comment . . . Oh right, once someone – anyone, everyone, it doesn’t matter who, and don’t you dare ask how that someone knows, or where that someone got the information – ‘points out her transmisogyny’ to me, then I automatically know what that someone just told me, because there is no possibility whatsoever that that someone is wrong, or biased, or malicious, or passing on a claim passed on by forty thousand other people all of whom had no reason to believe it either. Listen up, atheists and skeptics: when someone tells you something, you know that something, because someone just told you it. Believe what you are told, by anyone, no matter who; it’s the skeptic way.
Honest to fucking christ, what is the matter with people? Why am I supposed to take their word for this kind of shit, especially when they model such godawful epistemic practice themselves? What kind of politics do they think they’re creating, if we’re all just supposed to take everyone’s word for everything?
These arguments make me uncomfortable, because I know where I’ve seen them before. I’ve seen skeptics respond to complaints about famous activists by pleading ignorance – I don’t know, We can’t know, I wouldn’t know – when they could know plenty. I’ve seen women called illiberal for demanding people be credulous and just believe who wanted no such thing, and whose claims when actually heard turned out to have a great deal of support. Ophelia’s worst enemies have all but died on the agnostic hill, as on worse days have I.
Julie Bindel is a public figure. She is paid to have public opinions – opinions seldom further than a Google search away. (Recent examples, having performed one, include that trans women are ‘men with beards and penises’ and being transgender is the same as being transracial.) As a blogger, does being asked to acknowledge these views once notified compel you to renounce all doubt, or just assume willingness to google?
At B&W, there are fifty-two comments on the post accused of ignoring Bindel’s transphobia. About thirteen – a third of those not left by the author – focus on it being relevant, some giving links or details. ‘I don’t know enough about Bindel to discuss it,’ Ophelia replies. ‘I don’t know these facts.’ ‘I don’t know enough about her’. ‘How would you know whom Bindel hates or doesn’t hate? How could anyone know that?’ Then, pressed to find out more: ‘I’m not all that interested in the exact quantity of transphobia contained in Julie Bindel.’
(Please note: this is an abridged summary. I strongly recommend reading the thread in full.)
How long can you plead ignorance before it looks wilful? When people have brought up a famous columnist’s record so many times, isn’t it fair for them to expect it be known to you? At a point, not least after saying you don’t care that much, doesn’t implying you’ve no rational way to know their stance threaten to sound denialist, like you don’t want to know? And is it strange if people interpret your commitment to saying so – instead of saying, more plausibly, that you rate them despite their bigotry – as a sign you might sympathise with it?
If sexism were defended this way, I’m wondering how charitably Ophelia would react. If rather than Bindel, Jane Clare Jones or other transphobes, someone on this network promoted men with antifeminist records – Shermer, Reinhardt, DJ Grothe – would she accept their history wasn’t worth mentioning? Would she let them claim over and over that they didn’t know about it, thus had know way to know except blind faith, thus couldn’t be expected to know? Would she let them rant about the illiberal expectation they know?
Or – going out on a limb – would Ophelia say that once so many people have pointed it out, there’s no excuse not to know about someone’s sexism? Wouldn’t she say that if significant numbers of women kept mentioning it, it was likely to be worth knowing about, and that at some point, claiming ignorance suggested indifference at best, misogyny at worst? That, at some point, a smoke-filled room makes knowing if there’s a fire one’s business?
Because – with one difference – that’s what readers seem to be telling her.
A lot of readers now appear to see B&W as a trans-antagonistic blog. Considering it seems to be somewhere anti-trans activists are cited quite a lot, whose author links to pieces attacking the word ‘TERF’ on sites known for transphobia, which attracts anti–trans comments while trans commenters are met with hostility and misgendered without regret, and where Ophelia’s whole first response to Caitlyn Jenner was to complain she’d been told she looked nice… does being agnostic on transphobia make their view seem more or less reasonable?
I’m sincerely sorry if that’s unfair. I’m not saying there’s definitely a fire.
But it does seem an awful lot of smoke.