Holding clay feet to witch-burning fires

One of the more ridiculous memes that’s gained a disproportionate amount of traction in the freethought community is that of “witch hunts”. It’s the idea that there’s some roving band of bloggers and commenters hunting for the least appearance of deviation from the One True Path and punishing with extreme prejudice without evidence or empathy. It’s that if you dare speak up, you’ll be unfairly tarred and silenced and black-bagged and murdered and possibly eaten.

This band is invariably called “FTB”, “FTBullies”, “FTB and Skepchick”, or some mutation of the network’s name that includes the word “from” or “feminist”. Lately the smear also applies to atheism plus — mostly because that label, in being inclusive of outgroups, makes an outgroup of bigots and misogynists. Doesn’t matter if the people involved are actually from either network — it’s enough to use our site name as a shibboleth, to associate it with this opposition-to-the-haters as though that’s somehow a bad thing.

What’s actually going on here, though, is significantly different.

Some bloggers at Freethought Blogs and elsewhere, and any number of commenters in these spaces and elsewhere, have taken principled stands against certain behaviours they identify as damaging, and are actively campaigning against those behaviours. Interestingly, this exactly describes what is happening on the opposite end of the field. Commenters and bloggers have drawn their lines in the sand about which behaviours they find offensive — for instance, in our case, misogyny, in theirs, feminism — and attack, attack, attack the other side until people bow out.

This is not a “both sides” argument, however. The idea of what “attack” means is very significantly different for the opposing factions. One side is clearly a thousandfold more committed to abuse, hatred, sockpuppetry, vitriol, elisions, mischaracterizations and outright slurs. It is, after all, how that side moderates their discussions, given their “freedom of speech” fetishism and deification of offense as its own greatest good, as though free speech has anything to do with moderating one’s spaces.

Both sides have used swear words, both sides have used insults. Yes. Fine. I agree, some oppressed classes have lashed out at oppressors and people who would defend the systemic oppression they face.

I disagree with some, like Dan Fincke, that this escalates, that this coarsens the discourse — when you’re talking about your personhood, your rights to merely exist without facing an undercurrent of hatred, it’s difficult to argue dispassionately. Demanding that everyone do so closes the dialog to all but the most privileged, to all but those who do not face that hatred or oppression or injustice because of some immutable characteristic of their person.

So when we stake a claim, when we announce that we will defend our territory from people who attack these underclasses, we are drawing a line in the sand — we say “this far, no further”. We will not allow bigotry or hatred to dominate this space. Anger, frustration, resentment, bitterness over one’s underprivileged status — all of those are human. All of those are welcome because all of those can be fed back into fixing the community.

And fixing the community does, in fact, mean rooting out bad behaviour and either educating those committing the behaviours as to why they’re unacceptable (here or elsewhere), or excluding those actors from the conversation if they continue to behave that way.


But again, this is not a “both sides” argument. See, both sides think they’re right — that the behaviour they’re trying to root out is what’s really damaging the community. One, however, is an incredibly tiny but incredibly vocal slice of our community defending the right to be bigots, and attacking feminists and social justice advocates who attempt to enlighten raise consciousness of casual bigotries that permeate our spaces.

When someoone from one of the spaces devoted to defending bigotry and attacking anti-bigots gains some level of traction in our community, it falls to us — as the people who have drawn our lines in the sand — to point these people out and demand that they “wear their colors off the field”. We demand that people know these folks’ histories of bigotry so they can choose to associate with them or to eye them with suspicion and caution. We want people to know about these behaviours and we want to give everyone the information they need to make an informed decision.

Relatively recently, Crommunist fell into the trap of disapproving of “guilt by association” when Stephanie Zvan pointed out to several of her friends attending Science Online 2013 that a person attending that conference and chatting amiably with them had participated in the Slimepit, a forum dedicated to hatred of feminists in our community, Stephanie included. Crommunist’s since apologized for this, recognizing that it’s an argument in bad faith to claim that holding people to account for their behaviours — participating in such a hate campaign actively is indeed a behaviour! — is anything like tarring them for mere association. But that such a great thinker and normally awesome blogger can fall prey to the meme is telling. And saddening. And irritating.

That forum was built out of the side of Abbie Smith’s blog as her “monument” to free speech, but calved off onto its own site when National Geographic disapproved. It serves as a rapid response team, a personal army, for everyone who hates what people like me have to say about bad behaviours in our community. They swarm on anyone who talks about behaviours, who holds people’s feet to the fire for engaging in those behaviours. They cry “censorship” and “witch hunts” and “guilt by association” and “bullying” (oh irony!) and “bad skeptic” (this last, no matter how solid the evidence is). They decry our attacking “witches of the week”, as though holding people to account for their antisocial and community-sundering behaviours is anything like burning them at the stake. And they think all of this justifies their ongoing hate campaign where they heap vitriol on and do chipping damage to active and vital members of our community. They foment and inculcate hatred of Rebecca Watson, of Jen McCreight, of Ophelia Benson, of Greta Christina, of Stephanie Zvan. When one falls to the chipping damage, they move on to new targets.

They don’t even realize they’re doing the same thing, made a thousandfold worse by the levels of vitriol they bring to the table. They don’t even realize they’re — by their own definitions — engaging in witch hunts. The sheer numbers argument that they are a very tiny minority attacking those who defend the underprivileged (who in at least the case of women actually make up a majority) tells you exactly how much closer to “witch-hunting” they are than us, though. They hold offense itself to be sacrosanct, as though actively dehumanizing trans folks and gays and blacks and even women is NOT odious and community-sundering behaviour, and they defend those who would attack those underprivileged because they see it as a principled stand.

The bad guys don’t think they’re bad guys. They never do.

Which brings me to my next point. The elephant in the room. Justin Vacula, and his appointment as co-chair of the Secular Coalition for America’s Pennsylvania branch.

I’ve had lots to say about Vacula in the past. I think his argumentation is vacuous and needlessly expansive, needlessly repetitious, where a post rebutting my assertions that he’s done people wrong and that he’s engaging in bad behaviour — a post that could best be summarized as “nuh-uh, am not” — measures in the thousands of words, excluding blockquotes. I think his having written for A Voice for Men, a site presently on the Southern Poverty Law Centre’s misogyny hate site watch list, is horrible, mostly because the site does not care about men so much as about smashing feminists (and by extension, anyone fighting for true egalitarianism).

I think he’s drawn a number of lines in the sand that he’ll take people to task over that are misguided at best, and outright hateful at worst — look at the abuse he’s heaped on Surly Amy, look at his blatant mischaracterization of the scary notes that did the last bit of chipping damage that led to Ophelia ditching TAM. Look even at his blatant self-promotion — some self-promotion is good in this field, but he takes it to the point where he’ll ally with anyone he thinks (and knows) will increase his stock with the big names in the community at the expense even of the little names. The big names who are fed up with feminism, names like Richard Dawkins and Jeremy Stangroom and Russell Blackford and Paula Kirby and Sarah Mayhew. His ideas about the law are questionable at best, and he’s shown that he’s willing to gamble on legal matters on the advice of hateful and spiteful jerks to cut someone down without himself consulting a lawyer — he’s a ticking legal timebomb for any organization to take on, in other words. Not to mention the posting of home address information and a photo of Surly Amy’s apartment building to the same Slyme Pit that I mentioned earlier. He’s dismissed the active harassment people like Stephanie have received, claiming they can’t be harassed because they’re public figures — never mind that they’re getting this harassment only because they’re women on the internet.

He’s done some good atheist activism in the past, but he’s also done some terrible anti-feminist activism — and those feminists are members of our community too, dammit. All these threads, woven together, makes a tapestry that is uniquely Vacula. It shows us all what he’s made of. And so far, that’s “pro-atheist activism” on one hand, and “anti-feminist activism and active harassment” on the other.

These do not balance out. His “leadership” consists of divisiveness and hatred, not community building. He is an atheist, and an activist, but those alone do not qualify him for leadership. He is a leader only of brigands, if he can manage even that.

The man’s a horrible choice as a representative of any organization, least of all one so politically influential as the SCA. I realize some people view the appointment of Edwina Rogers as a misstep, and I understand it was part of some larger chess game to bring Republicans on board with secularism, but these two appointments combined do not speak well of SCA at all.

What we are attacking here is a pattern of behaviour, not a person. Vacula could very well realize all the things he’s done that make him a bad fit for the leadership role, and could have some epiphany, some moment of clarity, where he rises above all he has done before. Leaders should lead by example, though, and as we’ve seen with DJ Grothe and Richard Dawkins, sometimes these supposed leaders just can’t help but wallow in the muck and take stabs at their pet causes.

If this appointment means Vacula can keep his head down, rather than sticking it up to attack people fighting for social justice, then fine. Let’s see what he can do with the position. But as soon as he’s broken his silence and attacked any one of us, he’ll have proven his character and made every charge against him — every charge that should have meant the vetting process he probably went through by the SCA would have dropped him like the hateful cinder he is — absolutely correct. I realize Edwina Rogers only cares about broad-tent activism, but surely even she must know that certain people are bad fits as representative of the community at large. Hiring Vacula isn’t exactly going to achieve a broader tent. Not when the people most advantaged by the appointment are the harassers and bigots and antifeminists, and the people most disadvantaged are, ostensibly, your community’s path out of stagnation.

I’ve signed onto Stephanie’s petition for these and other reasons she itemizes. He’s no leader. Leaders foster inclusion and smooth out flare-ups. They don’t foster hatred and harassment and provide apologetics for objectively bad intra-community behaviour.

Do I think the petition will work to make the SCA reconsider Vacula’s appointment? No. Definitely not. Not with Edwina Rogers defending him from the top. Not with every indication that the SCA is going to stand by their choice. However, it does serve an alternate and excellent result — it makes SCA defend that choice publicly. It says that the lines in the sand that he’s drawn, they’re their lines too. And that is exactly what we hope to achieve by making more public the terrible behaviours of certain entities in our community.

We’re not hunting witches, putting them on stakes and lighting them on fire. Hell, we’re not even holding their feet to those fires. We’re pointing out their feet of clay, and letting everyone freely associate with those people with better information than they had before.

Surely, the difference between “guilt by association” and actually supporting their lines-in-the-sand is the information about the person you’re associating with, right? So when someone points out that, say, the person you just chose as leader has written for the same site on which Paul Elam calls for the legalization of rape and calls many of our community members stupid whores, that he actively participates in and inflames those hate campaigns, that should actually factor into the decision to put them into leadership positions. When you have that information and refuse to do anything about it, that does tar you — because you have behaved a certain way despite that information. That means you put less importance on that information than others in your community.

We’re making that information available to everyone so you can freely choose to associate or not with that person. If that’s divisive, it’s only because the people dividing from you have different lines-in-the-sand. That’s sort of the point. If you don’t like that people are pointing out your behaviour as though it’s a bad thing, then stop behaving that way. If you think the behaviour isn’t bad, then that information needs to be disseminated to all and sundry so those that those of us who choose not to associate with people engaging in those behaviours can make such informed decisions.

That doesn’t sound one damn bit like a witch hunt to me.

Now, on the other hand, attacking people for years on end with the most hideous trolling imaginable because they’re *gasp horror* women on the internet… or worse yet, for being feminists, regardless of sex or gender…

Does the SCA really want a witch-hunter as their leader?

Sign the petition and let them know what kind of person they appointed. Let them be free to make their choice to associate themselves with those values, and let us — like Stephanie and JT and myself and anyone else signing the petition — be free to disassociate with them as a consequence to their behaviour.

Holding clay feet to witch-burning fires

54 thoughts on “Holding clay feet to witch-burning fires

Comments are closed.