I’ve been doing a lot of mental calculations lately, trying to triangulate on my courses of action that result in maximal good for all the people who deserve it the most. I have a lot of competing and mutually exclusive variables in my head, though. I figure if I lay these variables all out, publicly, putting all my cards on the table, someone can help me figure out which ones I can discard and redraw, and maybe point out where I might have a better hand than I think.

I’m going to pay a number of costs for writing this post, but I’m writing it because some people I love and trust have privately told me they think I’ve fucked up. I’m going to do my damnedest to repair that perception, and the only way to do it is publicly, because other avenues have been cut off to me.

Much of this is old business, and I’ve been bottling this up for a bit. Bear with me. Once that’s through, you’ll get to new info.

Over the past two months, a shitstorm has been swirling throughout this network, wherein Ophelia Benson is — to put it as charitably as humanly possible — perceived to have acted trans-antagonistically by some trans folk, who called her on those points, and Ophelia is — again, charitably — perceived to have repeatedly doubled-down, and tried to defend herself from what she saw as ravening hordes who want nothing better than to throw her out of the network on her ear.

During those two months, because I frankly had not had any resources for this fight, I stayed out of it. I could barely bring myself to blog regularly about good things — every time I tried to set digital pen to digital paper, the only fight worth having was the one I had to stay mum on lest I get sucked in.

Eventually, I succumbed. I saw two people I liked once, on Twitter, going at each other’s throats about whether or not Ophelia is a straight-up, no bones about it, Trans-Exclusive Radical Feminist. I tried to turn the conversation toward behaviour — at that point, I had seen Ophelia participating in a TERF-heavy gender-critical Facebook forum, asking for help countering a specific demand that she answer “do you believe trans women are women, yes or no”. Some of the replies were awful, explicitly anti-trans. Some of these awful replies were liked by Ophelia. I pointed out on Twitter that that meant it was reasonable for someone to assume that she agreed with the post in question. Even if it was a like intended as “thank you for answering”, it is not actually irrational for outsiders to assume that someone doing a thing that 99% of the time means you agree, means they agree. So, it meant that trans folk who felt she was holding a position that was directly anti-trans were not actually irrational. But I said all of that in service of the argument of damning her for specific behaviours and not for a perceived position that she’s expressly denied in the past, e.g. that she’s an unrepentant TERF hiding among us.

This, of course, was only part of all of the interactions she had on that forum. And only part of all the future interactions she’s had on the topic. And only part of all the ways she and her defenders have reinterpreted things she’s done, said, and all the ways she’s treated trans folk through this entire escapade.

One of the costs I’ve paid for stepping in and trying to keep an argument to one about behaviours instead of perceived positions was that she pointed to me and painted me as an unmitigated slimepitter-like stalker and attacker.

This post containing a passage outlining what I’d like to happen:

There are honest interlocutors genuinely hurt by things she’s said and done, that they can point to, that are still extant on the internet and not grossly misinterpreted; and these honest interlocutors are demanding a genuine and contrite apology and improvement in behaviour in the future. That is to say, nothing that would cost her a damn thing except a moment’s introspection.

Shortly thereafter, PZ Myers publicly threw me under a bus.

On a Facebook post on Ophelia’s wall, where she first expressed her desire to leave the blog network because of all these snakes in the grass who were out to get her, PZ said that given the choice between supporting her or supporting a person who wants to see her kicked off the network who has only blogged once in the past month (or words to that effect), he supported her.

I did not, ever, once, ask for her to be kicked off this blog network. I had stayed out of it entirely, because, in the past, Ophelia — prickly though she is — usually comes around to understanding the positions of people she’s unfairly hurt, and integrates those positions in her effort to continue learning how to navigate this world. I trusted that it was, at that point, still possible that she — and her “defenders” — could rightly recognize that to the trans folk she had hurt, she was actually in the wrong, and she could fix things by apologizing, learning, and moving on. These trans folk, their allies, and everyone else gravely disappointed with how both Ophelia and now PZ were acting about the whole fight, were by then actively attempting to collate their experiences to determine if this was actually a pattern of behaviour with Ophelia.

And they found a few really hurtful, really questionable “jokes” she’s made, like one comparing trans folk being uncomfortable with drag to Rachel Dolezal being uncomfortable with blackface. Like one in answer to a question as to why trans women couldn’t just call themselves very feminine men: “too last week?” Like one in answer to a trans woman identifying as a woman, that she could then identify as an African American (something else, memory fails) who went to Oxford. These were not just trans-antagonistic, they were outright transphobic jokes. And people’s outrage redoubled; and the demands for an accounting of this pattern of behaviour increased. They wanted her to recognize this was shitty behaviour, apologize, and do better. But neither her nor her defenders heard any of their cries that way.

By this point, I recognized that siege mentality had kicked in so hard that it was literally impossible to get through to her; and that PZ himself, in defending his friend from overreach, felt that this dredging up old (as in within the last few months) stuff was prosecutorial and like a witch hunt.

Given I have done some of this “witch-hunting” of this level before — that is to say, an aggregation of instances that make a person think perhaps a given situation is an actual trend and not just an isolated incident which is a mistake — I found that argument fell flat. It fell as flat as it does in terms of whether or not we were “witch-hunting” Michael Shermer when outraged over “kind of a guy thing”, and held as much weight as the arguments that we were witch-hunting Tim Hunt when chastising him for saying that girls shouldn’t be in labs because they fall in love and cry (no matter how flippantly it was said). And even when it came time to try to show Michael Shermer has a history of harassment and possibly even rape, that still wasn’t a witch-hunt, no matter how far back we were going to dredge up instances to show a pattern of behaviour.

Those were not witch-hunts. This is neither a witch-hunt, by the exact same token.

But I attempted to let it lie again. I had said my piece, once, twice, thrice; and I even clarified that I don’t think Ophelia’s an outright TERF on my blog, even though she’s damn well been repeating a lot of their bullshit from that gender-critical group, and even making up some new bullshit of her own. I further said that I saw her as lashing out at people trying to be fair to her, that I saw her attack those who were obviously trying to offer her a spoon feeding of the actual arguments without any of the vitriol and even those who wanted to discuss the questions that got us into this mess WITHOUT talking about Ophelia’s situation. I also said that she was acting “paranoid” (by which I mean seeing attacks where there are none — I hasten to say that I will not use that word again in case it affects people with clinical paranoia).

I thought that was enough for the moment — and that I would live and let live, because the people doing the aggregating were doing a yeoman’s job at it. Sure, they were being classified as “poisoner”, “the worst”, “fixated”, etc. But without me, they were empirically right, and didn’t need what little support I could actually offer — and I didn’t have the resources to offer any anyway. And, Ophelia, despite her pretensions at leaving, has not left yet. Mostly, I’ll note, because PZ begged her to stay. I thought, maybe, if I left well enough alone, if we ALL left well enough alone for a short time at least, things would calm down, Ophelia would feel less under siege, and she might even have learned something in the endeavour.

Then, after a few days of silence, Ophelia pointed to my comment saying I didn’t think she was a TERF and she called it an indictment of her for thoughtcrimes, meaning she absolutely had to leave because of all the vicious and cruel attacks she was taking from those who were once her colleagues on the blog network. She pointed to me, to my comment about how I saw her as lashing out viciously and repeatedly at the people who were trying to help most, as the only example of someone talking shit about her. This despite my comment — aside from implying she’s attacking those who aren’t attacking her by using a word that might be mistaken for a mental illness diagnosis — was not exactly predicated on any lack of evidence.

I tried my damnedest to plead my case and explain why I’m arguing what I’m arguing. Why I thought that my sticking my nose in, in her own defense even, might actually not cause her to whip around and bite me viciously — like she did. Repeatedly.

I offered, straight off, to leave Freethought Blogs instead. I did so because my blog gets significantly less traffic than hers, and I didn’t think she was irredeemable, and that her presence — numerically, and in terms of the people who might leave in her wake — was more valuable to the network than mine.

(Remind me to post an extended form of my argument that doing wrong does not leave an indelible mark, which I mention now and then on Twitter.)

I tried several times to explain myself to no avail.

I don’t think you’re a bad harmful evil person. I don’t think you’re engaging in thought crime. I think you’re hurt, and feel cornered, and want to blame everyone for all the evil befalling you; as though every person criticizing specific behaviours has it out for you. I understand that; I empathize. But I’m telling you — I’m not attacking. This isn’t an attack. I don’t want us to have bad blood. I wish you could see what I’m saying for what it is.

Trans identity is a separate and distinct axis from gender. “Trans” does not modify “woman”, because we could as easily be talking about trans neutrois, trans agender, trans man, etc. You can talk about trans folk without discussing gender and still have a set of problems and disadvantages unique to them. The fact that your argument says “how could it be unequivocal or not in need of nuance with the word trans there” is part of the problem. The fact that the rest of your argument goes that not all trans folk would consider themselves women is beside the point. If someone asks “do you believe trans women are actually women” they are asking if you think “trans” modifies “woman” in some way that “white” might not modify “woman”.

This is the whole argument, soup to nuts. That’s what you just won’t back down on, despite once-friends and once-colleagues trying to tell you is harmful, and that’s what trans folk (from what I’ve seen) are upset about, notwithstanding everything else they might have gone back to dredge up in order to overreach and call you a TERF.
Saying I’m lying about any of this is a gross misrepresentation — if I missed the nuance of “do you believe”, that’s not a lie, it doesn’t actually modify my argument, and it’s not actually salient to the argument that people are trying to have with you in this comment’s paragraph one which you somehow keep evading by painting the people trying to express it as liars and poisoners and attackers.

And the interactions on that thread, after the original post proper, are part of the substance of why trans folk feel you were looking to TERFs to buttress your counterarguments. Because some of the arguments — from TERFs — were quite gross.

If a single trans person tells me to back down on this, I will, Chris. But to have another cis man tell me I’m doing it wrong when I am underscoring the arguments I’ve seen from trans folk, doing so because I’m placed closely enough that they might get through to Ophelia, that strikes me as blinkered. If you think I’m attacking, obnoxious, harmful to trans folk, that’s certainly not my intent and if anyone better placed within the group that’s upset is willing to tell me to stop, I’ll stop advocating for them. I never want to talk over anyone who otherwise has a marginalized voice.

Mmm-hmm. So your saying “THEY are like slimers” and using four tweets of MINE to illustrate how bad THEY (ostensibly including me) are, doesn’t actually mean you think I am too.

Never mind that up until that moment, I stayed the hell out of it because I hoped that the trans folk who were upset with you would be able to get the actual arguments through to you themselves.

Never mind that I only stepped in because I hoped that my being once considered a colleague might mean you’d recognize my actions as honest — as explaining why people were evidently upset.

Never mind that I didn’t even do it to you directly, I did it to someone who was going overboard saying that the arguments were that you were a TERF because thoughtcrime because associations. I was, in effect, defending you against overreach, and explaining exactly what I thought people had problems with.

Never mind that I did not point the conversation to you out of respect for the fact that you were getting a lot of hell from a lot of dishonest interlocutors stirring the pot, and didn’t want to add to that, and that you sought that conversation out and used it to illustrate how EVIL “THEY” ARE, and now you’re claiming it wasn’t about me, and that my post defending myself (and simultaneously restating the arguments I saw that trans folk were making) was actually an attack on you.

I honestly thought you might see my name and not immediately think “dishonest interlocutor”, “troll” or “slimer”. I honestly thought that, placed as I was as a colleague, that you could take what I was saying at face value. But you whipped around on me and bit, as though you were cornered. And all your commenters think I’m evil too, including a number I once counted as friends. I fucking hate every aspect of this but I don’t see how we can ever reconcile it. That’s why I’m leaving, so everyone can go back to peace and harmony without me, the dishonest attacking slimepitter.

@87: My point… as though I could make it any clearer… is that yes, there has been some dishonest interlocutors, and some people who are perhaps too quick to burn you out of their lives because they need to defend themselves from anti-trans sentiment generally, just like in any conversation about feminism in the skeptical community and all the sides-taking and too-quick-burning-out that happens around them. My point is that some people in amongst all this actually have real grist for their mills in discussing how your actions have hurt them directly. That there are legitimate grievances in amongst all the vitriol. I appreciate your apology to HappiestSadist too, because they’ve been one of the people I’ve been thinking of as people that have been hurt by this fight.

Yes, some people are out for blood. Yes, some chunk of those people are slimepitters stirring the pot, who actually have it out for you because they see you as vulnerable right now. Yes, the people who are out for blood might seem like attackers, even aggressive, even though they’re doing as much distancing as they can and not actually pointing that disagreement at you (like Alex, who did not direct it at you, and you had to either seek it out or have one of their friends send it to you).
But I’m seeing a large number of people — myself included — trying to pick up the points of genuine disagreement and talk about those, and getting treated as trolls, attackers, wrong-headed evildoers.

And I’m further seeing you lumping everyone together as “ugly group demonization”, where my talking about specific behaviours leads you to believe I think you’re a TERF or that I’m stalking you or that I’m part of some groupthink hatemob. And all of this reminds me of your fight with Shermer about “kind of a guy thing” and his immediate response was “feminazis!!!” So, at this point, I’m disappointed in how you’re reacting to the legitimate grievances (though I empathize with why — the under siege part of this does not escape me, I know you’re under attack by hateful and disingenuous assholes). I’m further disappointed that you can repeatedly characterize my actions in criticizing your behaviour as assaults on you as a person, or that I’m no better than the disingenuous assholes who just want you out.

I never once said I wanted you out. I don’t. I don’t want you to leave any more than I want to leave myself. I don’t want to be conflated with the attackers and haters, because I’m not.

And that’s why I’m here, in the comments of your post painting me as the reason you need to leave, defending myself against your attacks on me, because that disagreement — your disagreement with me — needs some dissent. If I can’t disagree with the implication that I’m some evil attacker, then I guess some thoughts are freer than others.

And then, a hundred posts later, Ophelia released Tigger The Wing from moderation WAY early in the thread, where they said:

Jason, here’s a trans person telling you that your characterisation of what Ophelia said is so wrong that it amounts to a lie.

If other trans people are reacting based on the lies about Ophelia then I can’t say I’m surprised, but I am disappointed if they did so without making any attempt to find out what she actually did and said.

So I made good on my promise, though a person reading the thread now would have to get to comment 120-ish to see that that moderation magic happened and thus I looked like I talked over a trans person through the whole thread. Which, I’ll note, is a great rhetorical post-hoc well poisoning, but nothing with any intentionality behind it. Just a fortuitous coincidence for those predisposed to think I’m an asshole.

Which, maybe, I’ll cop to. I like to think I’m an asshole for good causes, though. Maybe I’m wrong about that. I dunno. I’m too close to tell.

Then PZ put up a post about kittens. Here’s the “new stuff” I promised. Well, almost new. I haven’t expressed them in full anywhere yet.

Well, it wasn’t about kittens. On first read, I agreed unequivocally with everything in it — that everyone’s got their hackles up, that people need to try to read one another charitably (and boy howdy, not much of what I’ve said lately has been read charitably!), that it is gross to try to push people from one gender “box” into another, and that Ophelia’s particular box is a spiky one. I also agreed with the sentiment that nobody could tell trans folk that they were wrong to be upset about such things, especially not an old white cis guy like PZ. (Especially also not another middle-aged white cis guy like me, which is why I have been deferring heavily to trans voices about what exactly was wrong with the whole situation.)

I agreed even that some boxes, when people are pushed into them, explode, per the topic of the post. One thing that I didn’t mention in my “agreement”, but certainly should have, is that it’s the people within them that do the exploding, not the boxes. If you try to push a trans woman into the “man” box because she has a penis, it’s not the box “man” that explodes, it’s the trans woman. My not saying that on the post, undercutting the analogy, was me holding my tongue. Because, I was honestly hoping that Ophelia might stay and that she might apologize to the people she’s hurt and learn to do better — to not make the sort of shitty diminishing trans-bashing witticisms she’s made in the past ever again.

I especially agreed that trying to push Ophelia into a box labeled TERF was only going to exacerbate the situation. For instance, it might incline her to wholly adopt the “trans cabal witch hunt” narrative, which would certainly endear her to Brennan and Hungerford, who are already hovering around her and lovebombing her.

There’s another card I didn’t play then, for a few reasons, which I’ll get to. That card is that we presently have no compunction with regard to people who hang out on A Voice for Men in order to laugh at funny jokes about feminists, make funny jokes about feminists, and get help arguing against certain feminist ideals, calling those people MRAs. We likewise have no problem calling people slimepitters those who hang out daily in the slime pit, posting funny memes about Freethought Bloggers, giving us funny names like Oafie and Thimbledick, and generally considering it a fun and free and free-wheeling forum dedicated to TRUE freethought. Nor do we even hesitate to call people slimepitters who revel in these same activities acting as anti-feminist atheists, borrowing memes from the slimepit proper, borrowing tactics from their posters, taking cues from their intended targets and their intended attack methods, sockpuppeting in order to commit false flag operations to exacerbate situations like the one with Ophelia today. We have zero problem calling these people MRAs and slimepitters.

We likewise should be less unwilling to call someone a TERF who has Elizabeth Hungerford as a commenter in good standing on their blog; who accepts thanks and support against those evil skeletons from Cathy Brennan; who was until recently hanging out in that selfsame gender-critical Facebook group started by Hungerford and which was found to be replete with anti-trans sentiment, some of which posted by Ophelia herself.

But pushing her into that category WOULD exacerbate things. So I agreed with the post.

Some people, as I said in the original framing, feel hurt by that thought, that I would 100% unequivocally agree with everything PZ has to say about the fight since the beginning — why would I pivot so hard to Ophelia’s position and to Ophelia’s unequivocal defense, so suddenly?

Well, I didn’t. I didn’t agree with everything PZ has ever said about this. I agreed with the post, as I read it, though I have to clarify something.

In the comments, I quickly came to understand I misunderstood two parts of PZ’s post, and had to clarify my own position a handful of posts later. First, I thought that PZ was pinning the campaign to push Ophelia into the TERF box (as a label) was based on “lies and uncharitable assumptions”, and not that the people outraged at what she’s actually done being based on that. Absolutely, with all the false flag comments I’ve seen trying to exacerbate things, saying extremely TERFy things in Ophelia’s name, or trying to say that she’s intentionally misgendered HappiestSadist (who she has apologized to, and who accepted her apology), there were lies around. Though, I still don’t 100% know if I misunderstood. I was giving PZ the most charitable reading of that passage, which is empirically correct, that there are lies and uncharitable assumptions in the mix. If I DID misunderstand the thrust of this argument — and PZ never clarified — then I disagree strongly. The people who are upset with Ophelia presently are still upset because she has actually said and done things that are trans-antagonistic, and for the most part, the people demanding an accounting of all of that have kept their grievances to the specific and evidenced things that they can prove happened.

Second, I believed PZ was suggesting that Ophelia’s feeling, that she was alone in a den of poisoners on this network, began when Alex wrote his “smoke and fire” post. I would amend that to the first instance that I know about, which was Stephanie demanding better intellectual rigour in Ophelia’s defense. Stephanie’s post was completely understandable and correct, in my mind, given that there were many arguments flying around that were rightly mocked when served in defense of Dawkins or Shermer or any other recalcitrant big-name fighting the scourge of feminism within our communities. It became muddied, though, whether PZ actually meant the WHOLE ARGUMENT around Ophelia started with Alex’s post, as though he singlehandedly wrote a hatchet job ex nihilo and without any priors. At least, I now BELIEVE that to be what PZ means. I could still be wrong.

In response to the charge that the whole fight started when Alex wrote his post, a large number of people started posting a full accounting of all the various grievances they had with Ophelia pertaining to trans-antagonism, and none of them started with Alex’s post, but predated them by up to a year. I didn’t participate in the thread any more because, as I’ve been lamenting elsewhere, a trans person told me I was talking over them, so as promised, I shut up when trans folk were talking. They were airing their case, and my participating then would have made things worse, both for me — in terms of looking like I was out for her head — and in terms of their arguments. I stayed mum because I thought it was the best course of action.

And now people who think of me as an ally, think I abandoned them then. And, yeah. I did. I’m sorry for that.

Meanwhile though, PZ then closed the comments on the post, with this:

You know, I’ve been on the receiving end of this kind of campaign before. You’re all sounding like Michael Nugent, the Mouth of the Slymepit: according to him, I’m a homicidal monster who connived to railroad an innocent young woman who threatened to accuse me of rape, which apparently, according to a mob on twitter, I’m guilty of. If all you do is look over any voluble person’s record on the internet, you can find words and phrases you can twist or take out of context to support any nefarious claim you want. You just have to ignore 99% of what they say!

This is not to say Ophelia hasn’t screwed up or been intemperate (just as I wouldn’t say I’ve never done that, either), but that there’s an obsessive pursuit of every detail of her internet presence explicitly calculated with an intent to reach a predetermined conclusion. I’m also disappointed that, while she’s been reluctant to own her own errors, you all have been rather dishonest in admitting to your own agenda: you’re pissed off, you’re looking to score points, and hoping to drive Ophelia off this network altogether. Every time you claim you aren’t, I just have to roll my eyes.

There is no interest in honestly improving her awareness of trans issues at all — as if she were somehow completely opposed to any kind of social justice concerns at all — and clearly this thread has just become another opportunity to rage away. So it’s closed. It’ll stay that way, since the angry finger-pointing is completely unproductive.

This is absolutely patently an unfair characterization of what was happening on that thread.

Every single person who posted about repercussions wanted an apology, or at most, for her to shut up about trans issues while she went and learned about them herself. I know PZ sees a prosecution, rather than an attempt at convincing him that the history was actually far deeper and far more troubling than that Alex started a shitstorm single-handedly. I know PZ thinks that walking through one’s history for every single problematic thing that a person has ever said about any topic is Nugent-like — but that’s because that’s what Nugent’s done. That’s not remotely like what anyone else has done here, though. The absolute worst that you can say about anyone involved in this fight who’s actually doing any of the comment-dredging, is that they went looking through Ophelia’s history of transphobic comments, and finally, after building a dossier of them, demanding an apology and some self-reflection, and demanding an acknowledgement from him and others that, yes, this was actually problematic behaviour in the first place.

And the icing on the cake is that PZ recognizes that she’s been reluctant to own her errors, suggesting that he thinks these ARE errors. Even while he tries to play judo and call anyone asking for an apology and self-reflection as “having an agenda” of “hoping to drive Ophelia off this network altogether”.

I’ve screwed up bigtime in the past. I’ve talked out of my ass about things that I didn’t really know much about, and hurt people I didn’t mean to hurt, and they’ve brought those cases to me and, though it took me a while (measured in days, mind you), I’ve eventually come around on those issues. It is possible to do bad things, unintentionally, to realize you’ve done bad things, to own them, to apologize contritely, and to work to do better next time. What I didn’t do is dig in for months, then leave the network when more and more people said “no, seriously, you’re fucking up here”.

This is, of course, what I’m doing now with this ever-expanding post, trying to do right by those who think I’ve abandoned them and pivoted on them.

One of the big reasons I held my tongue more than I wanted to, is that first, PZ was actively trying to keep the network together, a goal I agreed with — I’d have preferred, best case scenario, that Ophelia stayed here, figured out that she was being an ass about some stuff (even while she felt under attack), and fixed those problems herself. Then we all stay together, one big, happy, resilient family.

Another is that I had a few extra days’ lead time on knowing that Ed was leaving. Traffic-wise, Ed and Ophelia both are about a third of this network. Without them, it’s now PZ and The Also-Blogs, at about a 90/10 split. We’re taking a big hit traffic-wise, which results in a big hit money-wise. That big hit money-wise means the server we’re paying for is slightly overprovisioned (which means more stable, yay!) but also means a larger slice of the ad revenue and more likely to result in shortfalls (boo). Shortfalls that will probably be paid out of PZ’s pocket. Shortfalls that probably mean if anything goes sour, we’ll have lean months, maybe even where bloggers get $0 revenue, where even now we’re lucky to get double digits.

When I offered to leave the network to keep Ophelia here, I was doing so from the pragmatic standpoint that if the cashflow stops, the network becomes destabilized further, and I am not personally dependent on my blog revenue to stay afloat. Some others of our bloggers are actually, believe it or not, dependent on that meagre revenue flow. The last thing I want to have happen is that the network collapses because of Ed and this coincidental simultaneous shitstorm with Ophelia, resulting in a lot of people without a digital home.

I was prepping for the eventuality that some people might end up homeless, and I was seriously planning a “solo career”, so to speak. This is why I offered to leave — I could probably do it safely. If I had, I planned on offering free berth to anyone who’d come with me. I don’t know how viable I’d be on a tiny Amazon AWS instance alone, but maybe with a few others, we could stay afloat.

But with Ed’s departure coming so soon (I thought I might have a few weeks, maybe a month!), I cannot possibly leave the network responsibly — without my free-tier tech support, the revenue stream becomes significantly tighter.

The fact that Ophelia’s apparently moved out with some finality now, though, means it’s all moot. I don’t have to go anywhere, at least for the moment. I can take a breath.

But, in order to reassert my right to speak freely, I do actually have to speak up, about the things that need to be said about how this all went down, and with some specificity about how the Guy Who Now Holds All The Chips has handled this scenario.

I think PZ is categorically wrong about what people’s intentions were. I think he is categorically wrong about what caused this shitstorm. And I think he’s categorically wrong, now, about prioritizing blog network unity over actually treating people’s concerns about Ophelia’s actions properly — that is to say, not mischaracterizing them as a witch-hunt when they are about accounting for actually shitty things she’s done. Now that she’s gone, I’m not saying “piss on her grave” — I’m saying, be a little more honest about who was demanding what. And I’m saying definitely don’t mischaracterize people, where the people who are blowing up in his kitten scenario are having the temerity to do it all over the thread that looked like it was there for that reason.

I suspect I will pay a lot of costs for this post. I’ll probably pay the cost in any intended mediation between myself and PZ, insofar as I’ve laid it all out publicly, though these grievances are not insurmountable regardless (at least, not on my end). I’ll probably pay costs with regard to my place in this network, and amongst peers who at least once respected me. I’ve already paid the cost of writing it for the past three hours, and will probably pay more cost for posting it with only minimal reread. But, I won’t, at least, leave people I love and trust with the impression that I’ve hung them out to dry through inaction. And at least one of the costs I’m recouping, finally, is that I’m no longer shutting the fuck up “for the good of the network”. The network can stand it, and though I suspect I might not be able to stand the costs personally, maybe I actually can. We’ll see. If not, I still have my backup plan.

I will post my thoughts on Ed separately. Something he said privately to me makes me think that my posting this first, clearing my conscience, is the right thing to do.

(No, I won’t tell you what that was. I said it was private.)

Jesus fucking hell. Sorry about the length.


285 thoughts on “Accounting.

  1. 4

    I’m glad you’re staying, Jason. So glad.

    PZ: put your listening ears on and hear what Jason’s saying. Much of it is what I didn’t have the words to express.

  2. 7

    I’m glad you’re staying. Thank you for speaking up.

    I think PZ is categorically wrong about what people’s intentions were. I think he is categorically wrong about what caused this shitstorm. And I think he’s categorically wrong, now, about prioritizing blog network unity over actually treating people’s concerns about Ophelia’s actions properly — that is to say, not mischaracterizing them as a witch-hunt when they are about accounting for actually shitty things she’s done.

    I agree. I’m seriously bothered by his position on this as well.

  3. 8

    This is the sort of thing I wish we had more of. Less kneejerking, more thinking before speaking (or writing, as it were). Less snark, more earnestness. Less word twisting, more transparency. Less trying to be liked, more trying to be right.

  4. 9

    I think this is a very good and important read, Jason. Though I shudder to think what the response is going to be, I thought it was very thoughtful and heartening. And it was very empathetic and clever for you to both realize and care enough that bloggers with very limited incomes will be hurt most if the site’s traffic takes a hit. The fact that that is going to happen anyway is rather distressing….

  5. 10

    I am disappointed, and I’m trying to figure out what I could have done differently

    I also felt limited by what I could do in the conflict, I was not sure I could be helpful in discussions between women about women. As it progressed though some things made sense to me (the black face analogy, the implications of statements from the Facebook group…). I was hoping that by addressing some of the bad and abusive arguments coming Ophelia’s way that she might have what she needed to address the serious criticism. But that did not happen. I missed something about human nature here. I’m still not sure how I should feel about PZ, but I do see how he was wrong about the origins of the conflict. I’m hoping that it was just hard to see past the abusive behavior to the reasonable criticism.

    I also don’t agree about looking at the social relationships of people being disgusting. I think that we have a natural instinct to look for implications in the public interactions of others and what matters is how you assess it and what you do with that information when you have it. Many parts of human nature are things that we need to talk about doing properly because they are a matter of instinct.

    My attempt to make amends was spending some effort pointing out things that I know that contradict opposition to things like gender orientation in response to what Hungerford was posting towards the end. I’m not going to stop reading Ophelia and I still think it’s important to support her as an outspoken woman, but I need to think about how to do something different and effective next time.

  6. 13

    I’m still mind-boggled that saying Elizabeth Hungerford is a trans exclusive feminist is apparently a comment worthy of banning and deletion on Ophelia’s blog. Bizarre. I read up on Hungerford’s views to try to understand what’s going on, and didn’t like what I read – if advocating banning trans women from using women’s bathrooms isn’t being trans exclusive, what is?

    (There is no evidence that this is anything other than fearmongering:

  7. 15

    I didn’t participate in the thread any more because, as I’ve been lamenting elsewhere, a trans person told me I was talking over them, so as promised, I shut up when trans folk were talking.

    Ah, I was wondering about that. Thanks for the clarification, and the post.

  8. 17

    Thanks for writing this post. I unfriended Ophelia on FB earlier in the year after being driven to distraction by her dogwhistles about my trans friends and enbies like me. People were talking about these growingly obvious undercurrents long before Alex’s post, people who read Ophelia previously, admired, liked and respected her, and were genuinely horrified and injured by her loss to the bigots. I am hurt by her loss. I can’t fathom it.
    I’m doubly hurt by PZ’s response.

  9. 18

    Thanks, Jason.

    This is some unfortunate shit, and it leaves me pretty damn disappointed at PZ’s response. I thought he and various other commenters were better at this whole privilege/skepticism thing.

    I mean, this network is where I learned to add humanism to my atheism, and how to shut up and listen to the voices of the marginalized. This is where I expected people to be called out for their shitty actions and words, not coddled based on reputation alone. Those were the lessons from all the posts on feminism, on LGBTQ rights, on anti-racism.

    And yet, nearly every other thing said in defense of Ophelia’s actions just contradicts all that.

    Suddenly, PZ IS actually banning people for disagreeing, and shutting down actually useful conversations. Suddenly, FTB regulars are the ones basically crying for “freeze peach” and decrying “witch-hunts” with massive hyperbole and no sense of irony, let alone evidence. Suddenly, reputation and a stated identity is proof of allyship, rather than current actions or words or listening to the actual harmed parties. Suddenly, trying to help stop harmful actions is automatically an attack, and hyper-skepticism and weak rationalizations abound.

    All those lessons I learned here, all the times the network stood for the right things in all the feminist arguments with various other skeptics or atheists, and suddenly we’re split when it comes to defending trans-antagonistic shit? JESUS fuck.

    That’s…that’s just horrible. I’m cis, but the obvious bias still crushes me, so I can only imagine the pain some are experiencing.

    Just…what the fuck.

  10. 21

    I’ve stayed out of the argument up to this point, as I’ve usually been a lurker, but I feel that I should pipe up to second what a lot of people in this thread seem to be saying: As far as I can see, you and many of the other ‘critics’ have generally been both restrained and constructive, although there have certainly been some who aren’t. Ophelia’s defensiveness, and PZ’s seemingly reflexive support have been disappointing to say the least, and is definitely reminiscent of the Hunt/Shermer/Dawkins etc. ‘witch hunts’.

    Like many others, this blog network basically introduced me to the concepts of intersectionality and privilege, and the idea that you can be totally right on one axis, and simultaneously totally wrong on another. If this community falls apart, I will genuinely miss it. With the exception of PZ, the bloggers and commenters that I most strongly identify with, and enjoy reading e.g. (in no particular order): Tony, Crip Dyke, Dana Hunter, Gillel, (and many others), all seem to have come out on the right side of this argument, in my opinion.

  11. 22

    Jason, could you have done anything differently? When Heina’s post was called a snide attack, no, there was no way you would have waded in and it not be characterised as an attack.

    So you could have said nothing, not easy to gauge if that would have been better. Or maybe handed your blog over to a trans person to do a guest post on spotting transmisogyny, but I don’t know if anyone would have. All theoretical and even in hindsight not necessarily better.

    It is very disappointing as all it comes down to is do you believe trans people when they say something is trans antagonistic. They’ve had a resounding no from OB and defenders plus PZ. Given the recently uncovered blatant transphobic jokes and comments about trans women not being real as they only “identify” as such. Classic TERF whining about trans women daring to call themselves *more* feminist than Ophelia. Her defenders are pushed into calling outright bigotry not bigotry to assuage their cognitive dissonance. It’s very damaging, I’m glad she’s left the network at least, but FTB’s reputation is much reduced. Not because of OB, every group has transphobic people in it, because of the denialist reaction.

  12. 23

    Oolon @20:

    The last comment I was made was this in the “A horribly effective silencer” post (I was responding to a comment in the OP and another commenter, who were saying that the word “TERF” gets thrown around too lightly):

    “Elizabeth Hungerford is a TERF. Let’s not beat around the bush.

    Then the next post after mine was by Elizabeth Hungerford, and that comment of mine was deleted. I couldn’t post anything afterwards.

  13. 26

    Crap. I meant that I didn’t see PZ banning someone for disagreeing. That’s what I’m curious about. For all that I’m ticked off at him, banning people for disagreement is a criticism that has been lobbed at him often over the years, and I’ve not seen any truth to that in the past.

  14. 27

    @Tony, I think kagekiri means closing the Drum and that Kittens thread. PZ did also silently ban me, but I don’t know if anyone else was banned.

  15. 28

    I keep coming back to PZ’s final shot. I just can’t get over it. Oddly, it’s the closest thing to a witch hunt I’ve seen in this whole debacle: “I know you’re guilty and if you deny it, that just proves that you’re a liar, too.”

    Pharyngula has been a regular haunt of mine for years. I’ve learned a lot from the regulars there and have grown in awareness of social justice issues because of it. And now I’m getting a queezy feeling just loading the front page. I’m left with a lot of negative emotions and no way to process them, no way to get past this point. I can’t just go back to how it was. I can’t just ignore what has happened. If I do that, I’m complicit.

    If I’m this messed up by this, I can’t even imagine what our trans friends are feeling like. Keep safe, people, and have a hug.

  16. 29

    Damn, I’m sorry Jason. I’m sorry that good people are being caught in this entire mess between a rock and a hard place.
    I have sympathy with PZ, who probably feels like his network is crashing around his ears, but I still think he’s wrong. I think he hoped to contain all this, that it was an attack, but it has failed miserably. The people at the centre of this do not want to see FTB suffer or fail, which should be clear by the fact that many of them are FtB writers.
    People have expressed deeply felt concerns.

    Also seconding Tony, I don’t know about banning, but I don’t doubt oolon when he says he was banned.

  17. 30

    Jason, I read most of this after the fact (I took an ill-timed internet break where this was concerned), but it almost physically hurt reading everything that you had written, because I recognized quickly how it would go down, but since it was all over by then there was nothing to do but read through to watch it play out. I recognized it and felt it so much because I tend to take that same place in arguments – try to bridge the gap, try to help calm things down, and it almost never works and instead turns into one or both sides hating the person in the middle. I kept hoping it wouldn’t go that way for you, but it did. For what it’s worth, I agree completely with what you were trying to do and I’m sorry you got chewed up by it.

  18. 31

    I understand and believe it when you say that your reach and your impact on this network, unique traffic-wise and by the numbers, is minuscule when compared with Myers and Benson, but in the last few years you have developed an important and distinct role in social justice within the Anglophone atheist movement: collating and documenting information, compiling timelines, analyzing issues passionately but with a clear and deliberate hand, and keeping people in the movement honest. That’s always going to be a largely thankless and agonizing and enemy-making task, and I’m very grateful that you do it and I hope you can be healthy and happy continuing to do it if you decide to. I’ve never seen you argue in bad faith; I’m sure it happens, but you’ve demonstrated time and again that you can receive and absorb and apply criticism constructively, that you accept and try to challenge your own biases, and that you’re willing to consider opposing views within reason.

    (PZ has a history of doing this eventually, as well, and I hope that he can revisit what happened here at some point. He is obviously hurting, obviously feeling betrayed by many and loyal to some and I’m certain that becoming disenchanted, over the past few years, with some of his more reactionary peers, being the target of their obsessive and endless needling, has had a toll on him. That’s no excuse for what he’s done here. It’s understandable, but it’s also bordering on unconscionable, and equating what you, your colleagues, and some FtB commenters have done — providing the evidence in context that supports the contention that Benson has real and ugly blindspots when it comes to trans issues, that she’s not nearly conversant enough in trans issues to critique or interrogate them with anything close to precision, that she provides cover for transphobes and TERFs under the guise of “interrogating” gender, and, especially of late, that she’s quite comfortable repeating dogwhistles, eg “trans ideology,” about so-called SJWs and liberal fascism when convenient — with witchhunts is the richest of ironies, given that these are the very methods used to demonstrate why, for example, Dawkins has no business trying to school feminists in feminism or why his handwaving away objections to Islamophobia is crude, blinkered, and bigoted. There is literally no other way to tackle transphobia but to define it and provide examples of it. It is the very opposite of reputation-smearing innuendo to cite exactly what one objects to and to explain that objection clearly. That is not thought-policing. That is doing due diligence in an honest and adult way. That is social justice in action, and PZ needs to be reminded of it.

    I have no idea if Benson is a lost cause at this point, but I do know that she’s playing straight from the MRA handbook of NotYourShield anti-feminist women when she plays the My Trans Friend Says It’s Okay game. It’s a lousy, lazy, and unethical play. Very disappointing, but no longer surprising.)

    Thank you for expanding on this, and hashing it out in public. I’m sure it’s difficult, and I really appreciate your honesty and integrity here.

  19. 32


    I think PZ is categorically wrong about what people’s intentions were. I think he is categorically wrong about what caused this shitstorm. And I think he’s categorically wrong, now, about prioritizing blog network unity over actually treating people’s concerns about Ophelia’s actions properly — that is to say, not mischaracterizing them as a witch-hunt when they are about accounting for actually shitty things she’s done.

    This 100% this! Thank you for having the courage to speak truth to power and to put the needs of the many in front of the needs of the few.

    Hopefully in time cooler heads will prevail and folks will realize and rectify the damage done.

  20. 33

    @Mookie, it’s worth noting that the trans friends who agree with her are almost certainly from the same gender critical group as her. Unfortunately there are a few TERF trans tokens who spout their bullshit as well. Although when they have to sign up to this purity pledge to be a good trans “ally” to the TERFs you can’t exactly take what they say to be authoritative. (CN transmisogyny)

    Basically you have to acknowledge you are not a woman, not allowed in “womens” spaces, and commit to shitting on the rest of the trans community. Much like FeMRA’s Judge Bitch and others have to throw other women under the bus to be accepted by Paul Elam and crew.


  21. 34

    Mookie @31,
    “… the MRA handbook of NotYourShield anti-feminist women when she plays the My Trans Friend Says It’s Okay game”

    That pretty much sums up the uncomfortable feeling I had about that. Thanks for putting it into words.

  22. 36

    oolon, that isn’t really a purity pledge (it was posted fairly recently, reposted from a blog, with only two comments, including an approval from Hungerford), but it does provide good insight into the mind-set of that place.

    (If you dare to see raw, unbridled transphobia, follow the link to the Pretendbians blog and have a glance around. It is fucking horrible.)


  23. 37

    Just echoing what everyone else is saying. PZ and Ophelia + defenders are just demonstrably wrong. To a person they’re engaging in the exact same behavior we’ve seen from Dawkins, Hunt, Harris over the last few years that we’ve all ridiculed. Thanks for everything you do for this community, Jason.

  24. 41

    Thanks for this post, Jason. Like too many posts over the last few years, it’s clear how painful but necessary it was to write.

    I’ve followed Pharyngula longer than any other blog I can think of, since the pre-ScienceBlogs days. I’m not writing it off entirely (it’s the only FtBlog where I can actually sign in to my account, if nothing else), but PZ’s credibility has really taken a licking in this situation. It’s not the first time he’s stepped in it, and I hope like other times, he eventually realizes where he’s gone wrong and says as much. But I also understand how we develop rose-colored glasses for our longtime friends and colleagues, and how strong the reflexive reaction to defend them from what you assume must be disingenuous attacks must be. The problem with PZ’s reaction is in failing to consider the evidence, and failing to consider that many of the people making the criticism also considered themselves friends and colleagues of Ophelia’s.

    It’s easy after years of targeted abuse to believe claims of conspiracies and bad actors; it’s also easy to believe that Tim Hunt was just misquoted by feminists with an agenda—the ease of belief is inversely proportional to how willing you are to look at the actual evidence. That after all this, after years of hearing and mocking it from Dawkins’s defenders and Harris’s defenders and Shermer’s defenders and Hunt’s defenders, the cries of SJW witch hunts and McCarthyist inquisitions didn’t trigger giant flashing 90dB klaxons in the minds of everyone even tangentially involved is a testament to the power of cognitive dissonance, compartmentalization, and the human tendency toward ad-hoc justifications.

  25. 42

    thanks for writing this. all of it is important tosay, but to me personally, especially the part about pitters and MRA’s: I don’t appreciate being featured on PZ’s blog approvingly for slogging through the pit to document their omni-bigotry, but being called Nugent-like for doing much much less to document trans-antagonism by Ophelia. That’s actual tribalism. Either documenting instances of bigotry to build a case is bad, or it’s not.

  26. 43

    @ ^ carlie : Pretty sure Tigger was a semi-regular (?) on Pharyngula for quite awhile at least when I was there some years ago and before. Could be mistaken of course.

    Jason Thibault ; Aweful situation all round, don’t see any winners here and the whole thing just sucks. Good if yeah, exceptionally long post here. You have my sympathies or whatever little they may be worth – as does Ophelia Benson as even does PZ Myers. It all seems to be turning to shit but, well, this too will pass and worse things happen on Jupiter so, yeah. Not sure what else to say really. Just cheering for all of you and drowning my sorrows for all of you – incl the Aussie cricket team right now.

  27. AMM

    I hadn’t heard that Ophelia was leaving FtB. Is that definite? I wouldn’t have heard it from her because I stopped reading B&W once the whole clusterfuck got into full swing.
    Personally, I won’t count it as a great loss, because I’ve always had mixed feelings about it. Some of the posts are great, but all along, an awful lot have put dents in my forehead from banging the desk. I only got involved to the extent I did because there were decent discussions of trans issues in the comment threads to some of her posts. However, from what you say, it sounds like it would be a problem for FtB as an entity, and there are a number of bloggers I follow regularly, in some cases even “religiously,” like Zinna, Miri, Ashley, Dana, Heina, Aoife (how does one pronounce her name?), Stephanie, Greta. (I notice that they’re all women, make of it what you will.)
    I’d hoped that now that pretty much everything that can be said has been said, those of us who are still unhappy with OB could just ignore her and her blog and get on with our lives, and maybe the dust would settle eventually and things would get back to normal. It’s beginning to sound like that won’t happen, though.

  28. 45

    Thanks for the post, Jason. I only heard about this shitstorm from PZ’s blog, and am shocked at how he’s behaved – like many here, Pharyngula probably taught me more about social justice issues than anything else over the years. (I’d be shocked at Ophelia, but I rarely actually read her, so my feelings on her are more “Mentally filed her as one of the goodies, turns out she’s not, huh.”)

    I’ve still some hope that one or both of them’ll take a step back and own it. It took PZ about a year after “Dear Muslima” to finally admit Dawkins was a bit of a dick, as I recall.

  29. 46

    I won’t deny it, I was angry, then red hot angry, and am still just barely dormant. From when Ophelia went hyperhyperbole about her colleagues trying to talk to her, I said that she needed to go. And even being less red hot angry right now, I think that was absolutely right. But I wish i would have more charity and patience.

    But even the amount of patience and charity I’d hope for would be much less than what you displayed, Jason. You really really did an outstanding job of trying to safe a hopeless situation, so thank you for that. And thank you for sharing this.

    I was thinking about not reading FtB anymore, but that would be unfair. I think I’ll ignore PZ until he comes to his senses, and finally give more attention to “the others’, who well deserve it. Ophelia’s unrepentant atrociousness cannot break up this network.

  30. 47

    Well said and explained, Jason. You have my support.

    The last few weeks have been a whirlwind. It’s a shame that this all-around crappy situation had to happen…and as with other rifts, I’ve been disappointed by the words and actions of a lot of people I once regarded as allies and friends.

  31. 48

    At the risk of a pile-on (people, I have a project I have to do today, won’t be checking back in here very frequently for a while), I have to disagree with parts of what our esteemed host has just said.

    Note that much of this reached critical mass when some troll demanded that Benson answer a challenge to the effect that “a trans woman is a woman – Yes or No! And saying No means you confess to rampant sexism and existential nastiness all the way down!” Benson didn’t like either the question or the attached conditions, and said so.

    At which point she seems to have drawn the slip with the black spot on it from Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” [pdf], and the rocks started flying.

    She rejected a crappy, slanted question put to her in the form of an ultimatum, as I hope most of us would, and while she may not have handled the ensuing mudslide with much finesse, at least on that point she had the right response. Thibeault has not represented Benson’s case fairly here – but at least he’s covered his own ass, and isn’t that what counts?

  32. 49

    I’ve kept quiet through this – I don’t really think of myself as part of a “community” on FtB, and there wasn’t really anything useful I could contribute without adding to a perception of piling on, probably counter-productively. I will say that I think the idea that you and everyone else with any criticisms of Ophelia are just pursuing a grudge and lying about it is ridiculous; and this has been the impetus for me to finally actually follow this blog, rather than just check occasionally or follow links, and I’ll do so if you move, as well.


    Aoife (how does one pronounce her name?)


  33. 50

    Pierce, the only thing slanted here is your representation of events. And the nice assumption that abbeycadabra was a troll (yet another case of you lot just assuming ill intent with no real basis).

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