UPDATE: D.J. Grothe has replied to this post in the comments, and has requested that I link to that response here in the original post. I will respond as soon as possible; it may not be until tomorrow.
I have two questions for JREF President D.J. Grothe. They’re questions that I find unsettling and upsetting to even consider, questions I wouldn’t have thought I’d have to ask a leader of a major organization in this movement. But I’ve been reading some things Grothe has been saying recently… and apparently, I have to ask.
Question #1: Do you really think there is any context in which making threats of gender-based, sexualized violence — towards a person of any gender, but especially towards a female writer and her readers — can be justified?
Question #2: Do you really think that feminist bloggers in the atheist/ skeptical movements are writing about sexism and misogyny, and pointing out examples of it in our communities, primarily so we can manufacture controversy and draw traffic?
I would like to think that the answers to both questions is an obvious and resounding “No.” D.J. and I have had some differences, but we’ve also had a largely cordial and even friendly professional relationship. I know he thinks of himself as an ally in the effort to make the atheist/ skeptical movements more welcoming to women. And I know that he takes pride — justifiably so — in, among other things, drawing more women to TAM, both as speakers and attendees.
But I’ve been following the discussion on Almost Diamonds about him, and about an apparent pattern he has of defending sexist language and behavior in the atheist/ skeptical communities. I’ve been reading the things he himself has been saying in this conversation. And I am extremely distressed to realize that the answers to both these questions appears to be, “Yes.”
I want to look first at Question #1. A bit of background, for those who haven’t been following this: In a recent blog post on Almost Diamonds titled Dammit, D.J., Stephanie Zvan pointed out what looks very much like a pattern of D.J. Grothe defending indefensibly sexist behavior by other men in the atheist/ skeptical movements. One of those examples stemmed from a dispute D.J. and I had over an incident on Facebook and in my blog: an argument about sexism and misogyny in Facebook with one Ryan Grant Long, which escalated and became ugly, after which I posted on my blog one of the uglier things Ryan said, applying the #mencallmethings hashtag:
Fuck you Greta. You’re the troll. You posted for the sole reason of trying to bait a sexist into writing something threatening. You didn’t find one, but I dared to disagree with you, so you and your brainless followers thought ‘eh, fuck it, close enough. We’ll attack him instead.’ You’ve been capitalizing on this for months and perpetuating vicious stereotypes about both men and women, under the guise of ‘feminism’. I used to think you had something to contribute. Now I see you’re just a pathetic attention seeker who isn’t interested in anything other than stirring up shit.
And Ryan then posted on his Facebook page the following:
For those who can’t read the screenshots, they say this:
Status update #1 from Ryan Grant Long: Oh look. That stupid, fucking, lying, fake feminist, man-hating, sexist BIGOT Greta Christina devoted a whole blog post to me, in which she AGAIN plays the part of the professional victim and pretends to be some kind of “feminist” while simultaneously perpetuating tired stereotypes about both males and females, and of course, casting me in the role of the evil oppressor because I have a dick. What a pathetic excuse for a spokesperson for the “freethought” movement.
Comment from Richard Ian Tracy: WWJD?
Comment from Ryan Grant Long: Slap the bitch?
Status update #1 from Ryan Grant Long: Greta Christina’s insane followers accused me of being an evil sexist man and wanting to “kick women in the cunt every day.” Let me be clear. I don’t want that for all women. Just them.
Comment on own update from Ryan Grant Long: And her make supporters should take a boot to the balls as well.
Comment on own update from Ryan Grant Long: And her Intersex readers can enjoy a good mallet to the micropenis. I’m all inclusive.
Now, D.J. and I clearly have very different interpretations of both the original Facebook conversation and its aftermath. He seems to interpret it as Ryan making a reasonable comment expressing dissent; getting dogpiled on and being “egged on” by my “ditto-heads” in an “in group/ out group” dynamic; the situation escalating; and me unfairly and “opportunistically” posting one of Ryan’s more extreme comments out of context. (All quoted words and phrases are D.J.’s, btw.) I disagree strongly: I interpret it as me pointing out an example of misogyny aimed at Rebecca Watson in another thread; Ryan immediately hijacking the conversation into yet another rehashing of Elevatorgate, in a classic example of “Yes, but…” topic-changing away from discussing misogyny; Ryan getting dogpiled on by a lot of people who thought his derailment was obnoxious; the situation escalating; and me posting an incredibly vitriolic, ugly, sexist comment of Ryan’s to my blog, as an example of the kind of abuse women commonly deal with on the Internet.
But none of that is relevant. Even if I conceded that D.J.’s interpretation was 100% right and mine was 100% wrong, even if I conceded that Ryan had been 100% reasonable during that thread and I had been 100% an asshole… none of it would be relevant.
Because when Ryan issued his ugly, vitriolic comment that I posted in my #mencallmethings post, he clearly crossed a line. And when he posted gender-based, sexualized threats of violence against me and my readers — when he said about me “Slap the bitch,” and said about my readers that he “wanted to kick them in the cunt” — he crossed that line at a hundred miles an hour, and left it miles behind him in the dust. There is no context in the world that would make saying those things appropriate, or justifiable, or excusable.
And it shocks and distresses me to see a major leader in this movement justify them, and excuse them, and try to explain them away. It shocks and distresses me to see a major leader in this movement say this:
But my point is that in those quotes of his angry and unfortunate reaction (something, again, I commented about directly on Christina’s post) I believe he is taken out of context, or at least not in the whole context.
And if people have the time or gumption, reading the whole 200 comment thread where the guy was roundly attacked, and the stuff escalated in ugly ways on both sides, seemingly egged on with impunity, provides some good context.
…the excerpts on Christina’s post, and the quotes on this post from Long originally seemingly attributed to me (very surprisingly) are only a snippet of a spectacular 200 comment-long FB thread, where Long was insulted, accused of wanted to kick women in cunts, and was party to escalating the rhetoric.
(Clarification, BTW: Ryan was never accused in that thread of wanting to kick women in the cunt. Other instances of men saying that they wanted to kick women in the cunt were pointed out to him, which he misinterpreted as an accusation against him.)
But the guy’s initial comments were reasoned, and then he was roundly and personally attacked by a number of Christina’s ditto-heads in that FB thread. He reacted poorly, and that’s what Christina I think rather opportunistically ran with.
What’s more: In D.J.’s comments, even when he did acknowledge that Ryan’s behavior was problematic, he mostly did so in a very minimizing way. He referred to it as an “angry and unfortunate reaction,” said Ryan “reacted poorly,” that he “was party to escalating the rhetoric,” that he “reacted completely inappropriately in anger.” In this entire thread, the instances of him even acknowledging that there were ever any threats of physical violence total one: “there is never any defense for real or pretend threats of violence.” And the instances of him expressing serious concern over these threats, or any sort of sympathy for the targets of them, total zero.
As Stephanie documented in her post: This does not seem to be an isolated incident. D.J. seems to have an unfortunate pattern of defending indefensibly sexist behavior by other men in the atheist/ skeptical movements. But trying to provide a context to justify, defend, and extend sympathy for someone threatening to slap the bitch and kick her readers in the cunt… that, in my opinion, is far more disturbing than anything Stephanie described.
And this isn’t just coming from some random guy on the Internet. This is coming from a leader in the movement: the president of a major organization, which hosts one of the community’s largest and most visible gatherings.
In her post, Stephanie said that several people are now not sure they want to speak at TAM again. I’m one of them. This is the first time I’ve said so publicly — but it’s true. This distresses me greatly: I had an amazing, inspiring, invigorating, hilariously fun time at The Amazing Meeting last year, it was one of the highlights of my year, and I had been very much looking forward to going again this year: as a speaker, a workshop panelist, an attendee, whatever. But I now have no intention of going back to TAM. I’ll be very clear: I’m not calling for a boycott, or saying that anyone else shouldn’t go. I’m saying that I, myself, have no intention of going.
I have no intention of going back to TAM because I don’t feel safe there. I don’t feel confident that D.J. Grothe takes threats of violence against public figures in this movement seriously: especially gender-based, sexualized threats of violence against female public figures. I have no way of knowing over the Internet whether violent language, aimed personally and in great anger at me and my readers, is just someone mouthing off or is a serious threat. I have to assume that there is at least the possibility that they are serious. And if I’m at TAM, and someone in the community escalates a disagreement with me into a personal grudge expressed by vitriolic, ugly, sexist language — and then escalates further into threats of sexualized violence against me and my readers — I don’t feel confident that D.J. would take them seriously.
Because he didn’t take them seriously here. Because, in 2,371 words (by my MS Word count) of commentary across five comments in this conversation, he spent one sentence saying that of course threats of violence were not justified… and spent 602 words (by a conservative count) justifying Ryan’s behavior, defending it, explaining the context for it, defending his own reaction to it, and blaming me for having instigated it. Because, in his commentary on this topic, he spent far more time and space explaining that he was right about me being unfair to Ryan than he did expressing concern about the fact that my readers and I had been targeted with violent threats. Because, even after Ryan’s language had escalated from simple grotesque ugliness to outright threats of violence against me and my readers, he didn’t back down and acknowledge that perhaps I’d been right to be concerned about Ryan’s behavior, and had been right to ban him from my blog. Because, in 2,371 words of commentary across five comments on this topic, he expressed extensive sympathy for Ryan for how horribly he’d been treated by me and some of my readers… and not one word of sympathy for me and my readers for having been publicly targeted with gender-based, sexualized threats of violence.
Because he apparently thinks that there is a context in which gender-based, sexualized threats of violence aimed at female public figures and their readers is justifiable, or at least understandable and deserving of sympathy. And worse than that: He apparently thinks that a heated Internet argument is one of those contexts.
I really, really don’t want to come to this conclusion. But it’s becoming impossible not to.
Let’s be nitpicky for a moment. There are actually a handful of contexts in which saying the things Ryan said might be appropriate. A consensual SM scene. A private joke among friends who share a sick sense of humor and who all understand that the language isn’t meant as serious. A movie or play about sexism and misogyny. But a heated Internet argument? Even a heated Internet argument on a hot-button topic on which feelings run high? Is that really one of the contexts in which gender-based, sexualized threats of violence aimed at women — hell, aimed at anyone — is justifiable, or excusable, or understandable? Is that really one of the contexts that should generate sympathy for the person making the threats… and censure aimed at the person receiving them?
If not — then please, for the love of all that is beautiful in this world, say so. And say so unequivocally. Don’t say it with excuses and justifications and pleas for sympathy for the perpetrator. Don’t say “Yes, but…” and then derail the conversation onto another topic. Don’t toss off a single sentence saying that of course threats of violence are bad, buried in a lengthy diatribe aimed at the people who are speaking out about it.
Just say that there is no context (apart from the obvious consensual ones like the ones listed above) in which threats of violence in general, and gender-based, sexualized threats of violence aimed at women in particular, is justifiable. And say that you take it seriously. And say what you intend to do about it.
And now, I want to move on to Question #2 for D.J.:
Do you really think that feminist bloggers in the atheist/ skeptical movements are writing about sexism and misogyny, and pointing out examples of it in our communities, primarily so we can manufacture controversy and draw traffic?
He seems to. In the conversation at Almost Diamonds, he had this to say about Stephanie’s post, my post on the #mencallmethings thing, and related posts from other bloggers:
I think as skeptics, it behooves us to be a bit more generous with others in disagreement, to be slower to vilify, and to engage in less scorched-earthing. I know it may be good for blog hits, but it is bad for skepticism and in my view, is antithetical to our values. (emphasis mine)
He reacted poorly, and that’s what Christina I think rather opportunistically ran with. (emphasis mine)
Few of these sorts of blog posts, this one included, appear genuinely to attempt to change anyone’s behavior for the better; instead, they seem to me to be deliberately controversialist, and focused on excoriating individuals for various things. (emphasis mine)
It may be the atheist blog sort of thing to do to insist someone who disagrees with something on one blog weeks before repeat themselves on multiple other atheist blogs weeks later (does that help with page views?) but my opinions are there for the reading, and I stand by them. (emphasis mine)
Of course, the rewards resulting from these sorts of unfair polemical and personal attacks ilk your blog post may be too great to change your MO, which I can sort of understand. (emphasis mine)
I’ll go back to believing what I have believed for a while now about some of these atheist blogs, now yours included: that fomenting movement controversy often seems to be prized over honest and sincere argument… (emphasis mine)
I have two things to say about this to D.J.:
1: You are seriously mistaken.
2: This is an incredibly sexist thing to say.
For starters: If D.J. Grothe thinks Stephanie, and I, and the other feminist bloggers he alludes to, are writing about sexism and misogyny in the atheist/ skeptical communities largely so we can manufacture controversy and draw traffic, he is seriously mistaken.
Stephanie has already done an excellent job of dismantling this misconception in her post About Those Pageviews. She’s pointed out that posts about internal controversies and other “insider baseball” within a movement are less likely to draw big traffic than posts of interest to the general public; that posts about internal controversies are just as likely to alienate readers as they are to draw them; that posts about disagreements with prominent movement leaders are just as likely to burn useful bridges as they are to build a readership; that if we wanted to draw traffic, we’d be blogging about sports or porn or celebrity gossip or cute kitten videos; and that no blogger in the world can predict which posts will draw traffic and which ones will die on the vine.
What she said. I would also like to add this: If I was only interested in drawing traffic to my blog, I’d be doing it on topics that didn’t regularly result in me getting targeted with ugly, hateful venom and brutal threats of rape and other violence. (Like this one, in which I was advised to fuck myself with a knife.)
I do not write about sexism and misogyny in the atheist/ skeptical communities so I can manufacture controversy and draw traffic. I’m going to spell out exactly why I do it, in huge letters, so nobody can miss it:
I DO IT BECAUSE I CARE PASSIONATELY ABOUT THIS MOVEMENT.
I do it because I want atheism and skepticism to flourish — and I think persistent patterns of sexism and misogyny are getting in the way. I do it because I’ve seen enough other social change movements, and have read enough history about other social change movements, to know what happens when they don’t deal with sexism/ racism/ classism/ homophobia/ etc. early on. I do it because I want our movement to deal with this now… so in ten years, twenty years, fifty years, we’ll have moved forward on it. I do it because I keep hearing women say they’re turned off from participating in the atheist/ skeptical movements — not only by sexism and misogyny but by stubborn and extensive defenses and justifications for it — and I want to change that.
Believe me: every time one of these instances of sexism or misogyny rears its head, I heave a huge, depressed sigh, and I say to myself, “Do I really have to write about this?” I’m tired of dealing with it, too. I’d rather be blogging about religious stupidity in the 2012 elections, or anti-atheist bigotry in high schools, or incoherent thinking in modern theology, or ways to build bridges between the atheist/ skeptical communities and the LGBT communities, or even Pascal’s freaking wager.
But if we don’t deal with this issue now, it is going to come back to bite us in the ass. If we don’t have these fights now, we’re going to have them in ten and twenty and fifty years — and they’re going to be a whole lot uglier then. Patterns of sexist behavior will have had more time to get entrenched; bad feelings will have had more time to fester; self-fulfilling prophecies will have had more time to get established. I don’t want that. So when these instances of sexism or misogyny rear their heads, I brace myself, and I put on my flame-retardant suit, and I dive in. Not every time; not as often as I should. But I do it.
And it is grossly insulting to tell me, and to tell other feminist bloggers, that we’re doing this primarily to get attention.
In fact, it’s not just a grossly insulting thing to say. It is a sexist thing to say. I want to ask D.J. Grothe this: Are you really not aware that one of the most common ways to dismiss and trivialize serious women is to say that we’re just trying to get attention? Are you really not aware that men’s ideas are generally taken seriously, and when they express them they’re generally considered to be sincere unless they prove otherwise… but women’s ideas are generally considered to be trivial, and when we express them, our motivations are called into question? Are you really not aware that men are generally seen as having an automatic right to express their ideas and to have them listened to and taken seriously… but that women are not, and that we commonly get treated as shrill, strident, insecure attention-hogs when we ask that our ideas be listened to?
The women — and the men — you have been talking about in this conversation are serious people, who care passionately about this movement, and who have put years of hard work into it. You may disagree with us — clearly you do. You have every right to disagree with us, and to express that disagreement. But when we’re blogging about an issue we care passionately about — especially an issue that exposes us to venomous hostility at best, threats of violence at worst — it is fucked up beyond measure to tell us that we’re doing it just to draw traffic and stir controversy and get attention.
And again: You aren’t just some random guy on the Internet. You are a leader of one of the movement’s largest and most visible organizations. I hope I don’t have to explain why that makes this far more important, and far more troubling.
You have gone out on an indefensible limb here, D.J. Please walk it back. This is a community that, by and large, respects people for changing their mind and admitting they were wrong. I believe you when you say that you want to work to make this movement more gender- balanced and inclusive, and I believe that you don’t consciously intend to be sexist. If you are serious about that, then you need to stop entrenching yourself in this indefensible position.
You have dug yourself into a big, big hole here. I fervently beg you to stop digging.