Greta has a post from last week on social media and the risks of reading-in — how it’s possible to conclude too much from who someone else adds or blocks, or what they like or share; why guessing their motives is a bad idea.
I mostly agree with the thrust of it. On being unfriended, I’ve learnt not to assume the worst — I also have closeted friends whose parents monitor their feeds, and I’ve had my online presence dissected creepily. I doubt I’d go as far as Greta does — I check my mutual friends with strangers who add me, gauge who people on Twitter are by who else they follow, delete contacts who share posts from Breitbart uncritically. (There are things there’s no good reason to Like.) Reading the Facebook leaves is like reading body language — not bunk, but only reliable if you know someone, or when there isn’t room for doubt.
At Butterflies and Wheels, Ophelia Benson complains people made assumptions about her motives on Facebook before she left this site. (‘Greta herself blocked me’, she writes, followed by the words ‘presumably’ and ‘because’.) To quote one preoccupied-sounding commenter,
Alex Gabriel spent an entire blog post of several hundred words to say, basically, ‘I can’t point to anything wrong that Ophelia has said or done, but I really think she’s up to something . . . the entire thing was composed of exactly what [Greta] is now lamenting.
That post — the one post, hitherto, in which I ever criticised Ophelia — seems to provoke similar thoughts in her. It was, she wrote in late August, ‘not a matter of disagreeing with me, [but] of sniffing out my heresy and denouncing it.’
I pointed, it turns out, to a long list of things she did that readers were interpreting — not, I thought, irrationally — as trans-antagonistic. Namely:
- Treating requests she acknowledge Julie Bindel’s public, well documented, continuing anti-trans history as demands for cultish, unquestioning belief.
- Writing ‘I’m not all that interested in the exact quantity of transphobia contained in Julie Bindel’ when commenters brought it up.
- Uncritically citing anti-trans activists ‘quite a lot’.
- Uncritically sharing an anti-trans author’s attack on the word ‘TERF’.
- Displaying more hostility to trans commenters than transphobic ones.
- Displaying no regret on misgendering a trans commenter.
- Responding to Vanity Fair’s ‘Call me Cait’ story solely by objecting to Caitlyn Jenner being told ‘You look great’ by staff at Jezebel.
Between the post and her comment section Ophelia says this (dashes added for readability):
Greta was vocally and explicitly happy to see the way our colleagues were trashing me on their blogs, partly on the basis of that creepy intrusive secret-police-like trawling through my Facebook. On the back channel — I think I blogged about it shortly before I left the network — Lilandra had the bright idea of starting a thread with my name in the subject line suggesting we all discuss me, so several people jumped at the opportunity to rip me to shreds. Ed said let’s not do this this is a really bad idea, but they ignored him. I said using our blogs to shred each other wasn’t a fabulous idea and I’d assumed we all knew not to do that. That’s when Greta made her brave stand for the importance of using our blogs to shred each other.
I have a few things to say about this. To begin with, I left this comment in the thread at B&W just now. (When last I checked, it was still awaiting moderation.)
Ophelia: While I couldn’t care less what you or your commenters think of me, that isn’t remotely what happened on the backchannel. If you remember, and the most charitable conclusion is that you don’t, I was the first person to reply on that thread, and the first to suggest we not argue on-list — I said ‘Let’s not do this, this is a really bad idea’ before Ed did. (Thirty-seven minutes before, to be precise.) This was six weeks after my first and last post about you, and the one time it ever came up on the back channel. The point was not controversial: no one, let alone ‘several people’, jumped at the chance to attack, either in that thread or the following one, perhaps because using the mailing list for infighting is against the site rules.
Speaking of the site rules, and things it seems you’ve forgotten, perhaps these two sentences — from the bottom of every email at FtB — ring a bell?
All emails sent to this list are confidential and private. Revealing information contained in any email sent to the list to anyone not on the list without permission of the author is strictly prohibited.
Considering you were on the site for four years, during which time numerous violations occurred, I have to assume you noticed those words. What did you imagine they meant? Did you think, for instance, that ‘confidential and private’ was a polite request? Did you spend four years thinking ‘Revealing information contained in any email sent to the list to anyone not on the list without permission of the author is strictly prohibited’ applied to everyone but you? Or did you have a recent change of heart, and decide to mark your departure the same way Thunderf00t did?
You are publicising details — erroneous, mostly, but details nonetheless — of conversations on a private mailing list. You’re doing something that’s been done for years to intimidate FtB members and make them fear for their safety. If you were still on the network (and judging by your comment above, you did this prior to leaving), this alone would be solid grounds for expulsion. When Thunderf00t did it, it led people to leave and stop writing who knew their information was at risk. Assuming there are still people here and there at FtB who you don’t want to go through that, or just that you’re a minimally decent human being: knock it off, now.
It’s one thing to leak private information from the list, another to leak misinformation. For those of us who take the rules and our own privacy seriously, this isn’t just one security breach — it’s a set of claims we can’t counter without publishing what we did say, and eroding our privacy further. I’d tell Ophelia to stay classy and get on with my life, but I believe she’s had too long to monopolise the story of what went on here, so that’s what I’m going to do. (Please note: because I actually care about this, everything reprinted from the back channel here is quoted with its author’s express agreement.)
As I mentioned, mine was the first reply when someone mentioned Ophelia having been described as transphobic. Here it is — take a breath, fetch sweet tea and a shock blanket.
Since I know there are a range of views about this on the network, I don’t know how comfortable I feel having a back channel discussion where the rest of us discuss whether one member is transphobic in-the-third-person-while-they’re-in-the-room. If Ophelia wants to talk about that on-list, I’m happy to do that (and if a thread like that is unavoidable, which, I don’t know, maybe it is by now, I hope it can be collegial), but since this argument is already all over people’s blogs, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds . . . I think you can probably find out what people think about this by checking what they’ve said online.
Since she’s already published the details of what Ed said, Ophelia isn’t lying about him saying the same; she is wrong about him saying so alone and being ignored. After he said the same as me, the following replies came in:
Just chiming in to agree with Ed and Alex.
Agree, I don’t see this going anywhere productive in this venue.
Agreed. If individuals want to discuss this in private email rather than in public, go ahead. That might be a good idea, actually. But I think it’s a bad, bad idea for this conversation to happen on the FtB backchannel. It drags everyone into it, including people who may not want to be dragged.
Yup. This is not the place.
When someone started a thread with her name in the title, Ophelia claims, ‘several people jumped at the opportunity to rip me to shreds’. This is the exchange she is describing.
For the record, there were a couple of replies I haven’t reproduced, since I don’t have the authors’ permission, but neither of them differed in substance. The only one that did came from Lux Pickel, who writes at Zinnia Jones’s blog:
I’m actually interested in hearing what Ophelia has to say about it without worrying about the public audience. Would you please explain what your actual opinions are on the subject and what led you to writing, for example, the post asking why ‘trans’ as a modifier is needed if trans women are just women?
Brutal, I know.
This is what happened when Ophelia’s name came up, the only time it did come up: almost everyone, and most of us who’d criticised her, agreed it wasn’t wise to argue on the mailing list, and after some digression, the thread died. There were no weeks of turmoil on the mailing list, no one jumped at the chance to lay into her there, and both Greta and I said people should refrain from doing so.
After it was settled that that specific argument wouldn’t be rehearsed on the list, Greta did say the following about the idea of a rule against members criticising each other on their blogs, something Ophelia has since posted about having favoured.
Just as with the larger atheist community, we need to be able to criticize each other. If we have a rule that says we can’t speak out when one of us says something we think is deeply not okay, we will, in fact, have become the echo chamber we’re so often accused of being. And as with the larger atheist community, it’s much too easy for accusations of squabbling, infighting, or divisiveness to be leveled at marginalised people speaking up for themselves, or at allies speaking up for them.
That was Greta’s ‘brave stand for the importance of using our blogs to shred each other’, in which Ophelia accuses her of having been ‘vocally and explicitly happy to see the way’ people were ‘trashing’ her. Greta said nothing, explicit or not, about the criticisms I and others made, except that the back channel wasn’t the right place to hash them out — she just argued in principle, in a thread where the idea was being discussed in principle, that public squabbles shouldn’t be banned.
She wasn’t alone in saying so. The first response, immediately before Greta’s, came from Miri, and was as follows:
I’m hesitant to have rules about public ‘fighting’ because I know that no matter how clearly those rules would be written, someone would try to use them to dismiss civil public disagreement as ‘fighting’. The result would be that we would be even more afraid to criticize each other than we already are. At the same time, I also agree that some forms of public criticism are inappropriate and detract from our ability to maintain a network where everyone feels welcome (which is not the same as always feeling comfortable, by the way). So I’m not really sure what to do. I wish it were enough for us to just agree to treat each other civilly.
I tend to agree with Greta and Miri. One thing I want to mention in particular, though: personally, I tend to find public disagreements/interventions less stressful and difficult than private ones (including on this list) — because there’s more of an incentive for people not to lose their shit and shout at each other when writing public blog posts; because there’s more distance and more time to consider what to say; because having a general audience makes it more difficult for one person to be ganged up on and intimidated. (This is, I suspect, one reason marginalised groups online tend to stage arguments publicly.) Probably other reasons too. So, just on that front, I don’t think we should treat public callouts and fallouts as de facto worse than private ones — they can often be cleaner and more cathartic.
There’s a reason, in other words, why we don’t have a rule already against personal disputes on blogs, but do have one against them on the back channel.
Does this sound like several people jumping at the opportunity to trash Ophelia and rip her to shreds? Does it sound like Greta, or anyone, being vocally and explicitly happy about it? Does it sound like us ignoring a lone voice of reason saying not to do so? Three of us said it was a bad idea to ban bloggers here from squabbling publicly: all three of us had said already that the list wasn’t the place to do so.
The only person who wanted to start a fight was Ophelia. Below is an email from me, written in reply to something she said, which many of her statements since have resembled: because I don’t have her permission, I’m not going to reprint it here, but she is of course free to disclose her remarks. (I hope that if she does, she prints them verbatim as I have mine.)
Ophelia, that was not what I wrote. This was what I wrote. I stand by it: I think my post was civil and entirely fair — actually, quite charitable in hindsight — and I’m happy for it to speak for itself. In particular: my claim was not that you misgendered someone who’d told you their pronouns. It was that you’d misgendered them (accidentally, I don’t doubt) and shown no sign of apology or remorse — and that it wasn’t unreasonable for commenters to interpret that, in a wide and now wider field of other things, as trans-antagonistic. I stand by that as well. I have no desire to rehash this for the sake of it, particularly with you now leaving, but I won’t have what I said misrepresented.
For the record, one other person responded to what Ophelia said. Because I don’t have their permission and it was quite long, I’m not including that here either — again, they’ll publish it if they want to — but the tone was considerably less blunt than mine. After that, the fracas such as it was got broken up.
That’s it — that’s the entirety of the ‘shredding’ on the back channel Ophelia got, in the whole eight and a half weeks between first being criticised and leaving the network. All the above took place within twenty-four hours. I’m sure she’ll deem this post an outrageous, malicious lie, fond as she is of doing so when inconvenient things are pointed out, but I look forward to reading exactly which aspects she disputes, and how this summary is less honest than hers. (Subject to authors’ permission, I’ll happily amend this post with any quotations she thinks I need to add — meanwhile, I trust she’ll stop publishing details of private emails without it.)
Come at me, O.