Hi Matt. Long time fan, first time writer. Never called into your show, given your rule about preferring theists because they’re more interesting call fodder; and the corollary rule about not acting like a Poe.
I’ve listened to a great number of episodes of The Atheist Experience, and while I don’t have the full scope of the four hundred odd shows you’ve put on, I’ve certainly come to understand your frustration when you receive the same questions over and over again. When you hear the third caller on the same show bring up the ontological argument or TAG or Pascal’s Wager, I feel every ounce of your cringe and I fully agree with every time you hang up on a person who simply will not engage in the points honestly.
It’s gotten to the point where some folks have nicknamed that sort of battle fatigue “Matt Dillahunty Syndrome”, where you need to stop repeat arguments dead in their tracks because they’re a waste of everyone’s resources, and your own are worn thin from past battles. This isn’t a new phrase made unique for this occasion — it is one I’ve seen in the wild for at least a year, and a recognition of the psychological damage that long-term trolling can actually take.
I respect that you’ve suffered from that, and had to be quick to hang up on abusive or potentially-abusive callers. I’ve seen your pattern recognition kick into overdrive where I didn’t detect a hint of abusiveness from the person, but trusted your judgment that you were making the right call for the situation, since you’ve been doing it for ten years, and you, after all, were the guy who would have to slog through it right then.
And I’ve seen the damage others have taken from those situations, where chipping damage has pushed Jen McCreight out of blogging, and forced Greta Christina to focus on her book, and Surly Amy to focus on her art, and forced Ophelia Benson out of speaking engagements. I’ve seen good people say really stupid things exactly once as a result of battle fatigue, and pay exorbitantly high prices for those solitary indiscretions. I’ve seen the real bad guys — who go out of their way to damage people who don’t deserve it for reasons other than their antisocial behaviour — incur absolutely no splashback themselves and go completely unpunished for far too long. And when they finally are called to account for their behaviours, the people demanding restitution are accused of being divisive or driving a witch hunt. I’ve seen too much injustice and too many good people fall to chipping damage by trolls.
So, I hope you can understand why so many folks feel betrayed by your so-called “concern trolling” a battle-fatigued forum about someone who got banned.
They really wanted to smooth things over with you, because of all the respect they — WE — have for you. So they delayed taking action while they tried to smooth things out. This delay cost the moderators of the forum very heavily in their users’ trust. The problem with your putting on a second account to make your points is not solely that you used a second account to prove that trust isn’t necessary about how right your points are. I mean, you obviously believe in how self-evidently right your discussion on how to treat strangers with less suspicion happens to be. I don’t know that it IS that self-evidently right.
The forum’s participants are threatening to leave in droves because the moderators screwed up in not treating your, frankly, rather offensive behaviour in advocating for someone who’d been banned, with the same sternness they’d come to expect from their community leaders. By a number of accounts, this person was banned perfectly reasonably — I know you’ve explained here that you feel it was less than merited, that the person was just overly snarky, but the people running the forum disagree. What happened here is like if you’d hung up on someone who may have had a valid point but just got on the wrong side of your tolerance for personal invective, then hung up on the next person who yelled about how you shouldn’t have hung up on the previous caller, but then lo and behold it turned out the second one was a very popular and respected community leader that even you look up to. So you waffle and bicker and commiserate instead of sticking to your guns, and the people depending on you to help provide a safe space for conversation in the manner of your choosing tune out because now the show is an hour of bickering about who gets to call in and who doesn’t, instead of actual theological debates.
Telling someone that they’re doing something wrong and having them listen earnestly does, in fact, require a level of trust from that person that you’re not simply some random troll. This is why the situation changed when you “took off the mask” and revealed that the Curious account was actually you. Especially when pattern recognition dictates that the overwhelming majority of the time that an argument is framed the way you framed it, it actually is a troll. By all appearances, you are examining a forum under stress, recognizing a weak point in that they are battle fatigued, and testing that battle fatigue in order to chastise them for not reacting appropriately as though they were still fresh. This is a very young forum — how long has it been around? A month? Two? I could find the exact dates, but it doesn’t matter. It’s barely crawling. And you’re kicking it for not being resilient enough to handle a troll or two, when the whole point of the place is to provide safe harbor with less of the usual trolling you get everywhere else on the intertubes. They have barely started building a coherent and unique userbase. And you’ve violated their ability to police the place by attacking — intentionally or not — their weak point in an effort to, what, make them stronger?
What’s more, in this specific case, you’ve really gone out of your way to advocate someone’s cause after they’ve been banned, doing far more damage to both yourself and the forum in the process than if you’d have approached a moderator privately and pointed out the ways their policies could be improved. With your real name, and your reputation, people would have been able to put aside the need to moderate heavily against concern trolls and rules-lawyering and undercutting forum moderators’ authority. Your points might be self-evidently right (and we can’t see them, obviously, because they’ve been lost to the deletion, so we have only your word that the elision of your identity did not also require modifying your arguments), but some things actually do require a level of trust to back them up. Not because these people are insufficiently introspective, but because these people absolutely must eye any newcomer who demands sweeping changes to their policies, policies built out of self-defense, with a modicum of suspicion — which you said was understandable, but wrong. I contend that it was not wrong at all. Self defense is decidedly not wrong, when the people who might claim to you to feel shunned are actually actively probing for weak points and trying to waste the forum’s resources.
I am concerned that the longer you do not apologize for misunderstanding the stress these people are under — stress in trying to build themselves a protected forum for more “advanced students”, where they don’t have to worry about random outsiders triggering them or abusing them or wasting their resources on 101-level discussions over and over again — the more the damage will accumulate and aggregate. I get that you’re still feminist, that you’re still a social justice advocate, that you’re still pro-everything-atheist-plus. But in your not living a life where you’re bullied every day just for trying to build a nice quiet spot for you to have discussions with like-minded folk, you just played the role of the guy calling up to demand why that other guy got hung up on. Your ability to assume good faith on the part of every person calling in (and your pattern recognition in weeding out those calling in bad faith) is a facet of the privilege you hold in that the people jumping to talk to you are, in fact, mostly calling to talk to someone in good faith.
But the internet is different, and the person who got banned for trolling might also be sockpuppeting and be simultaneously a trusted and beloved forum participant. The newbie asking concern-troll-style questions might (and often is) just a troll looking to damage the place, even where there’s an off chance that they’re arguing in good faith. Or worse yet, a big name and a hero to these people whose identity is important in establishing trust.
As you are.
You absolutely had a good point about providing a path to challenge bans, or first-time posts, or about rules for making second accounts (that aren’t used to sockpuppet). In fact, I agree with all of those points completely. So did the forum moderators, apparently. But the means by which you brought it to their attention is a violation of their trust in you, and more importantly in their trust in their moderators to handle outside cases like this one.
Furthermore, I am not dissuaded from my concern that you got suckered in by someone trying only to damage the place, who was banned for perfectly legitimate reasons. Considering that original person who approached you, “Skep tickle”, was by their own admission posting for the purposes of challenging the place rather than to participate (Slymepit link, where “Skep tickle” has been welcomed with open arms), these fears are very well founded. This, by the way, is probably also why people think Curious was their sockpuppet questioning their own ban after being correctly and justifiably thrown out on their ear.
And this person had apparently approached a number of others at the same time, including Rebecca Watson. That earns the title of troll all by itself. Shopping around looking for people on top to go circular-firing-squad and damage a part of the movement that these trolls couldn’t damage themselves, it would seem. Stephanie’s seen this sort of troll herself very recently. I am concerned that this troll tactic of divide and conquer worked here, and that you’re doing tons of splash damage in entrenching yourself in how self-evidently right your position is that you’re failing to see the multiple tiers of abuse that are happening — abuse that you’re providing apologetics for. And I’m not even sure you’re aware you’re facilitating that sort of abuse, here. If this tactic gains in steam because it worked on you, succeeded in doing great damage to that forum with you as the troll’s unwitting pawn, you’re doing us all a great disservice.
I know you, from dealings on the back channel and from your public face, to be introspective and thoughtful about these things. I know you’re a good man. I know you want to do right by everyone. And I know the inclination to dig in, to demand that people accede to your superior understanding of the situation. I’ve felt it. I’ve lashed out when I should have listened. I’ve been decidedly unheroic. And I’ve apologized contritely for it when it happened.
Please, PLEASE, don’t dig in this time. Pause your righteous indignation, that fire your fans know so well, and chew over what people are saying to you. They deserve it.