How to sociably debate social justice

or Why We Should Feed The Trolls.

The following is a fascinating guest post by Hugh Dingwall. Hugh, aka “Objective Reality”, has posted a number of intelligent, perceptive, and compellingly-argued comments under previous posts at “Symptoms…”. I was very impressed by the quality of his writing, and by the careful manner in which he laid out his arguments, so I invited him to write a guest post. That post is below. I have never been happier to be told I’m wrong.  

[Note that (i) the title (and sub-title) above are due to me, not Hugh, so any criticism about the titling of the piece should be directed to me; (ii) Hugh’s points about safe spaces and no platforming are particularly timely in the context of this recent debate in academia: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/chicago-academics-hit-back-safe-spaces %5D


First off, thanks to Phil for inviting me to do this guest post, which I intend to begin by disagreeing with him about a couple of things.

Phil’s made it clear in a couple of different places, that he doesn’t agree with the idea of no-platforming (or blocking people), or with safe spaces. I get his reasons (and I think they come from a good place) but I think he’s wrong.

To deal with safe spaces first, this concept is usually portrayed by “SJW-slayers” as a way for a person to avoid concepts that challenge them, and this is, I think, what Phil (rightly) disagrees with. The problem is that that’s not what they are, at least in the forms that I’ve encountered them. The “safe spaces” I’ve come across have been areas, particularly on a university campus, where a marginalised group can go and (quite literally) be safe. The best example of this is the Women’s Room at my old university, which was established because there were a number of behaviours that male students engaged in that made female students feel quite (justifiably) unsafe. Since it was one room, with some paper resources if you needed them and a free phone (I know because my girlfriend of the time called me from there on a number of occasions) you could hardly use it to shelter your precious worldview. You could however, use it to call your boyfriend to come and pick you up when you’d had a distressing encounter with an arsehole at the student pub. This kind of safe space is, in my opinion, quite hard to argue against unless you’re the aforementioned pub arsehole – and is more commonly what defenders of safe spaces have in mind.

As regards no-platforming (the practice of preventing people from speaking on campuses because of their views), and relatedly blocking people you can’t be bothered with on social media, I again see Phil’s point. On the other hand, I remember how angry I was when my university played host to an Intelligent Design proponent. The issue wasn’t that my ideas were being challenged, or even that I thought this guy would convince anyone. I was angry that money (MY money – we have to pay for university in New Zealand (which this guy hadn’t when he attended but that’s another angry story)) had been spent paying him to lecture, when it could have been given to someone, even someone just as controversial, whose views weren’t provably false. It was an hour of my life I wasn’t going to get back, and the man had been paid for wasting it. He wasn’t going to convince anyone who wasn’t a closet-Creationist, and most infuriatingly, he didn’t even understand the theory of evolution that he claimed to debunk. (I should mention at this point that I dropped out of university, and while I was attending I was a Classics major – and I still had a clearer understanding of the theory than this guy who purported to be able to prove it wrong.)

To extend this logic to blocking people on social media, I think it’s important to know when a conversation has reached its useful end. I understand the principle that it’s good to be exposed to views you disagree with, but firstly, there’s no amount of David Icke I can read that will convince me that giant reptilians are a real non-metaphorical problem in the world. There’s a point past which a conversation with an Icke-believer stops being useful as a result. (The reader is invited to extend the logic to situations where political or philosophical disagreement devolves into mere fountains of bile). Moreover, I think that people whose goal is to harass or bully their intellectual opponents often use this idea (that you should always be open to defending your ideas from opposing views) as a way to try and argue that you owe them a continued conversation (even once they’ve begun abusing you or bringing in their followers to try for a dogpile) and that refusing them that conversation is a sign of cowardice. Which is bullshit – especially if you’re someone whose fame and/or status as a member of a despised group makes you a target for nastier-than-usual or literally-dangerous attacks, or if your opponent is a well-established internet presence who can call on a literal horde of faceless howling zealots to shout you down.

Finally, I’m not that keen on Rush. Though I acknowledge their technical skill, I’ve always been more of a psychedelia guy, and I have a special place in my heart for the British folk-rock explosion of the 70s (go look up Joe Boyd, and listen to basically everyone he produced, then work sideways from there, also the Grateful Dead, and Tom Waits).

[Editor’s note: Hugh’s criticism of Rush here is clearly an uncharacteristic lapse of judgement. He redeems himself by mentioning Tom Waits (whose, um, unique music I got to know via the fantastic Primus), so, much as it pains me, I’m willing to overlook the lack of enthusiasm for Rush. I’m sure Hugh will come round to their unique charms in the end.]

As you can see from the above, it’s entirely possible to disagree with people while remaining entirely civil. More importantly, it’s possible to disagree with people while acknowledging that they make good points, or have good reasons for the views they hold. (Reasons can be good even if you think they’re incorrect.) In philosophy, this is called “the principle of charity”. The idea is that to avoid strawmanning, you should ensure that you’re engaging with the strongest possible form of your opponent’s argument, given the things they’ve actually said. I find that it also helps to ask what people mean if you’re not sure, so you don’t end up talking at cross purposes.

Which brings me to the various discussions I had in the comments of Phil’s blog post “The Faith And Fables of Thunderfoot”.

The style of discussion I’ve indulged in above (and attempted to explain thereafter) is the way I talk on the internet if I’m interested in getting to the bottom of what people think, or making a genuine point. I’ll talk about the points that got discussed in that comments section in a bit, but first I want to talk about this style of discourse as opposed to trolling. See, I agree with Phil that trolling, while inherently somewhat mean-spirited, can be an art in and of itself (and some examples can be truly transcendent). However, the purpose of trolling is to keep your victim(s) expending energy for your amusement (and that of any onlookers). It’s not a form of argumentation, and if you put more energy into it than your victims do, you are a very ineffective troll. This is why I call bullshit on the likes of Thunderfoot and Sargon of Akkad when they claim to be “just trolling” as a way to avoid defending their arguments and/or actions. If they are trolls, then firstly we have no reason to accept their arguments as anything other than deliberately vexatious nonsense, and secondly (given the average length of their videos) they are very bad trolls indeed.

Pleasingly, there wasn’t much of that kind of conversation in the comments at Phil’s blog. Instead, two major points seemed to come up:

  1. People wanted to know how we could be sure that sexual dimorphism wasn’t to blame for the lack of women in STEM fields (this was the initial disagreement between Phil and Thunderfoot which led to the email exchange reproduced in the blogpost – I recommend going and reading it if you haven’t (otherwise some of this post may be quite confusing).
  2. People seemed nervous of adopting what might be seen as “feminist” positions, for fear that this might somehow be seen as implicating all men in a mass act of malice against all women, or that it might lead to them inadvertently endorsing some position that they deeply disagreed with.

To deal with the first point first (a novel idea, I know), the short answer is that we can’t. We can know very little for sure. On the other hand, it seems very unlikely that sexual dimorphism is to blame for women’s career and study choices. Phil goes into this in detail in this post here, but I’m not an academic (I’m a sound technician) and I want to talk about some other stuff as well, so I’ll just summarise the main points.

First off, I need to acknowledge that it’s not an inherently silly idea that sexual dimorphism might be to blame, as humans are a moderately sexually dimorphic species. Men* tend to be bigger, stronger, and hairier than women, who tend in turn to outlive them. It’s not totally outlandish to suggest that there may be brain differences as well. However, the evidence doesn’t bear this out, and as Phil points out in both the blogposts I’ve linked to, it’s very very difficult to decouple social factors from purely biological ones in humans. The evidence for social factors influencing women’s choices, on the other hand, seems to be pretty strong. It’s easily provable that society used to be much more sexist than it is right now. Most antifeminists would even agree with this proposition. I think it’s quite reasonable to argue that the recent (as in, last 50 years or so) influx of women into traditionally male fields is more likely to stem from an increased acceptance of women doing these kinds of jobs and studying in these fields than it is to be a result of evolution.

Which brings me to another point – there were a good number of appeals in the pro-sexual-dimorphism camp to what we might call “naturalistic” explanations, including a good deal of recourse to evolutionary psychology. Now, my good friend Daniel Copeland is convinced that there’s some merit in evopsych, and he is a very intelligent guy and makes a good case for the bits he supports. However, evopsych is probably one of the most abused theories I’ve ever seen. If you’re not familiar with it, the idea is that you can find explanations for bits of human behaviour in our evolutionary past, and sometimes you can discover those bits of evolutionary past by, for example, observing other primates. There are two problems with this – the first is that people who don’t fully understand it tend to just point to an aspect of human behaviour they wish to claim is immutable, and then invent an “evolutionary-sounding” reason for it. The more fundamental problem is that we’re not other primates, and even if we were, the world of animal sexual dynamics is hugely diverse.

There was a tendency in the early days of biology to assume that most animals would follow the family/relationship structure that those early biologists considered “natural” – dominant males, submissive females, and so on. The actual picture is much more complicated, and as I noted, we’re not other primates – we’re humans. Our whole thing is using technologies (including social technologies) to overcome our natural limits. That’s how come my wife can see, and my mother can hear. That’s how come we developed hugely complex social structures that let us live stacked on top of each other in cities without all killing each other (most of the time). There’s no reason to assume that even if there were a natural predisposition that led women to shun certain fields, we would allow ourselves to be bound by that. It’s not how we work. (Daniel Copeland wrote a nice blog post that goes into this in more detail.) We can also look at evidence (detailed in Phil’s post that I already linked) that shows that the steady decline of sexism globally correlates with a steady increase in women going into traditionally male fields both in science and the arts (there are far more female-fronted rock bands than their used to be, for one thing.) Obviously correlation is not causation, but it’s telling that these changes are far quicker than the sort of effect we’d expect from evolution, giventhe length of human generations.

And now to point number two. Again, I have some sympathy for this position. It’s completely wrong, but I get it. The issue is that while feminism is becoming quite broadly discussed (online at least), it’s not as broadly understood. This means that many people think that they are (or need to be) anti-feminist or non-feminist, when their views actually align with the majority of feminist theory. This is certainly the position I was in to begin with**. Then a very patient feminist lady on Facebook took the time to actually unpack what we were talking about, and I realised precisely how badly I had the wrong end of the stick.

The first issue I want to talk about here is terminology. Feminists use a number of words in ways which differ from a naive dictionary definition. This is (contrary to to what anti-SJWs would have you believe) not actually uncommon. In my own field as a sound engineer for a radio station, I use a number of terms which would be incomprehensible to someone who isn’t versed in sound tech, and a number of common words (for example “wet/dry”, “trim”, “bright/dark” and “dead/alive”) have quite specific meanings within that field. I’m sure Philip talks differently about physics to advanced students than he does to laypeople for the same reason. The advantage Phil and I have over feminists is that no-one misunderstands or willfully misuses our terminology against us. The terms that suffer the most abuse in discussions about feminism are, I think, “patriarchy” and “privilege”.

Again, since I’m not an academic, and I have already used a significant amount of virtual ink in this post, I’m going to summarise here. If you want really detailed discussions of exactly how these terms function, I suggest you go and check out people like Garrett, Chrisiousity, or Kristi Winters on Youtube. Patriarchy, as I understand it, refers to a social order which assumes that a specific sort of masculinity is the “default” gender identity, and judges all other in comparison (usually negatively). Privilege refers to the advantages (often small, at least when taken individually) that individuals accrue by being close to that default. In the Anglosphere*** the patriarchal ideal is rich, white, physically and emotionally dominant, heterosexual, and male – the more like that you are, the more privilege you have. The tendency is for one’s own privilege to be invisible (ie it just feels “normal”) so you tend to assume everyone can freely do what you can, unless you stop and think about it.

For example, I live in New Zealand. It is a small and fairly egalitarian country (we were among the first to give votes to women, and signed a treaty with our indigenous people rather than just murdering them all and taking their stuff, for example****) and seems reasonably enlightened on the surface. However, when I got married to a Samoan woman, I found that I was now conducting a field test into latent community racism. My wife and I can go into the same store within minutes of each other and get hugely different reactions from staff, because she is brown. When I am out alone with our daughters, I get approving noises from mums about how good it is that I as a Dad spend time with my girls, my wife gets asked if those little blonde girls are really hers. This was entirely invisible to me until that relationship opened a window for me into her world – in other words, a portion of my own privilege became visible to me in a way it hadn’t been. Here’s another example, in New Zealand, the majority of voters want decriminalisation or outright legalisation of cannabis. Our (Tory) prime minister has ruled this out, relying instead on “police discretion” to institute a sort of “de-facto decriminalisation”. The problem is that because people tend to use their discretion in slightly racist ways, this has led to disproportionately terrible outcomes for our Pacific Island and Maori minorities.

This is the result of an organic accretion of values over time – not a conspiracy. (White, straight) men have not conspired to create this system, though some men do work to preserve it because (presumably) they’re afraid of losing what power they have. This system also negatively affects some men – we are expected to be physically dominant and prepared to fight for family or country, and failure to do so can lead to terrible personal consequences. We are not generally assumed to have as deep an emotional life as women (because this is not patriarchally desirable) and this leads to terrible outcomes in mental health. We are expected to be hale and hearty and this leads to horrible outcomes in physical health. This is not a state of affairs that benefits us overall.

I use a pseudonym in lots of places on the internet because when I started out online (in the total wild west of pre-internet dial-up bulletin boards) that was just what people did, and I never thought deeply enough about the habit to change it. I don’t do it because I am afraid that people may harm me or my family because of my opinions. Anecdotally, my female friends are. Moreover, because I exist in a fairly privileged position (I am after all, a straight white dude from the wider Anglosphere) I don’t have to constantly justify my presence online, and my right to an opinion. Anecdotally, my female friends do. This means that I can get into arguments about feminism or other social justice causes on the internet without bringing the fatigue that results from a life of fighting sealions along with me, and I can be polite if the situation seems to merit it. (Also I am a pedantic and argumentative bugger.) While I think that it can be counterproductive to snap at people, I can totally understand why many women, POC, transpeople and so on do not have my level of patience with dudes***** who barge into conversations and restate very basic arguments very incoherently. This is because I have a privilege in terms of online discussion, which they do not.

Since you’re granted privilege by society on the basis of factors you can’t control, you can’t really get rid of it. All you can do is attempt to use it responsibly. One of the ways I try to do this, is by patiently and politely asking questions of antifeminists on the internet until they either make themselves look silly, or become more reasonable. That is, after all, what worked for me.

_____

*I’m going to stick with the terms “men” and “women” here because a) I don’t think trans people are a big enough population to seriously throw out the averages as far as size and weight distributions, and b) the exact configurations of people’s genitals are largely none of my business. I’ll worry about my own genitals, and my wife’s, and that’ll do me.

**I had a deeply tiresome “pendulum” theory about how power moved from group to group in society, and it tied into the death of prog and the rise of punk and it was awful. I had a bit of an embarrassment-shudder just typing that.

***It strikes me as a better shorthand for “mostly-white, mostly-English-speaking countries” than “The West”.

****If any of my readers are Maori and about to get cross with me for oversimplifying and making it seem like NZ’s racial history is just peachy-keen – stop. I know it’s more complicated than that and that the government did plenty of murdering and nicking of stuff (sometimes by stealthy law-making) and that the situation is far from resolved. It’s also a better deal than many colonised indigenous peoples got (which is totally shameful, I know).

*****Let’s face it dudes, it’s usually us. Like, 95% of the time, at least.

Preaching to the choir: The cult of online atheism

Christ, but it’s getting ever more embarrassing to identify as an atheist these days. To admit to my atheism means that, Zarquon forbid, I could potentially be mistaken for someone who subscribes to the rhetoric of any one of a number of vitriol-driven online nu-atheists including, in particular, the modestly monikered The Amazing Atheist.

The Amazing Atheist, real name Thomas James (TJ) Kirk [1], has a subscriber base for his YouTube channel approaching 1 million viewers. I didn’t know about Kirk’s channel, however, until my recent spat with another nu-atheist, Philip Mason, aka thunderf00t [1] (The “00” isn’t a typo or a screw-up with the text formatting, by the way. Mason prefers “00” to “oo”. Branding is of course very important for any online business, so let’s humour him.)

One result of the exchange with Mason, and the subsequent online discussion, is that I became aware of a variety of new YouTubers. (New to me, that is). Some of these I was really pleased to have found (see below); others, like The Amazing Atheist and the odious Carl Benjamin, aka Sargon of Akkad [1], I was somewhat less delighted to have encountered.

One channel that very kindly mirrored the video I made to accompany the “Faith and Fables of Thunderfoot” blog post was chrisiousity. (This video is a great introduction to what Chris(iousity) is all about). Chris also contributed many intelligent and perceptive comments under the “Faith and Fables…” video. So I’m at a little bit of a loss to understand why it took me until the end of last week to subscribe to her channel. I’m extremely pleased I did, however, not least because I might otherwise have missed the insightful video below which she uploaded about The Amazing Atheist (TAA)’s recent diatribe (this time targeted at Steve Shives, who describes himself in his Twitter profile as follows: “Guy on YouTube. Liberal. Progressive atheist. Supporter of feminism and social justice. Weirdo with weird friends. Tries to do good.”)

It’s worth taking 45 minutes of your time to watch, or, as I did, listen to, Chris’ video. Her calm, measured tones contrast starkly with TAA’s overblown playing to the gallery. More importantly, Chris highlights fascinating parallels between the treatment of heretics over the ages and the opprobrium meted out to Shives and others like him who dare question the orthodoxy of TAA and his close-to-one-million-strong following.

There’s a PhD thesis — indeed, a series of PhD theses — to be written on the question of heresy in this context, but I want to focus here on just one aspect of TAA’s approach to criticising Shives (and, by extension, ‘SJW’s like him [2]). The last couple of minutes of Chris’ video, starting at about the 42:00 mark, are flat-out astounding. Chris includes a clip where TAA launches into a tirade which can be accurately summarised as follows: “I’ve got nearly 1 M subscribers. My message resonates with all those people. How great am I? I win. I win.

As textbook examples of argumentum ad populum go, it doesn’t get much worse than this. Someone who, let’s not forget, has the temerity to call themselves The Amazing Atheist, is crowing that the size of their audience has a key bearing on the validity of their position. Mr. Kirk, please stop identifying as an atheist, amazing or otherwise, if these are the depths to which you’re going to stoop; it’s deeply embarrassing for the rest of us. We attempt to argue that atheism is a rational choice, as compared to the myths and fables of religious faith, and then “The Amazing Atheist” acts like the worst type of self-aggrandizing televangelist, validating his message by pointing to the size of his flock. (I’ve got to thank TAA, however, for putting me in mind of this classic Suicidal Tendencies track. It’s been too long since I dusted that one down and gave it a play).

As of 2014, 3% of the US population identified as atheists, and 5% as agnostics. Look at those subscription numbers, as compared to the percentages of those who have faith in some sort of a divine being. We must be in the wrong, right? [3] We lose.

TAA’s tribalism, and the associated cult of ‘personality’, does atheism a deep disservice. But, and it pains me to have to say this, I cannot condone, on the basis of similar ‘tribe-centric’ arguments, Steve Shives’ auto-blocking of those he suspects might disagree with him (much as I agree with Shives on many other issues). TAA bangs on about this in his own, inimitable, high decibel manner in his video. If we cut through the hyperbole and drama, however, he’s got a point.

I am well aware of the type of abuse that is doled out by members of the Tribe of The ‘Foot, Akaad, TAA, et al. (Very many of these followers, of course, follow the example of their favoured iconoclasts [1] and are wrapped up in the cosy warm blanket of anonymity). I have only experienced an infinitesimal fraction of the vacuous name-calling that Shives and very many others have to experience, and even I can understand entirely the appeal of attempting to preemptively block those whose allegiance lies with #TeamAmazing, #TeamFoot, #TeamAkkad etc. But blocking only cedes the high ground of the debate to those who so often can’t begin to construct any semblance of a coherent argument. Once blocked, they’ll make a big song and dance of it. (Look no further than the video above for good evidence of this). Even if they didn’t have any type of credible argument to begin with, as is so often the case, by being blocked they gain an entirely undeserved credibility (especially within their tribe; they wear the block as a badge of honour).

When I had a Twitter account I didn’t block for precisely this reason (nor do I moderate/censor/delete/edit comments at this blog (other than removing obvious spam) [4])). And, yes, it was sometimes very time-consuming to address entirely vacuous tweets. But blocking is entirely counter-productive. I’ll reiterate: it cedes too much ground to those who are entirely incapable of constructing an argument. We should ignore the abuse and counter evidence-free arguments when they are put forward. (Moreover, I am firmly of the opinion that while Twitter has its upsides, it’s hardly the most appropriate platform for reasoned, credible debate. The 140 character + hashtag format is almost custom-designed to entrench tribal behaviour. So, for reasons I detailed at the time, I killed my Twitter account. (In any case, and as I’ve said elsewhere, I’m Irish. Communication limited to 140 characters fundamentally goes against the grain.))

To close, let’s return to the heresy theme that Chris(iousity) so aptly identified. This is a classic from Nine Inch Nails…

 

[1] Many of those who rant at length about “delicate flowers”, “safe spaces”, “professional victims”, and what they see as the over-sensitivity of those who have to face torrents of online abuse, have delicately hidden behind a pseudonym for some, or all, of their online ‘career’. As I’ve noted previously (with, I’m afraid, tedious regularity), those who feel the need to hide within the safe space of anonymity are in no place to complain about what they see as the sensitivity of others. (And, no, it’s not an “ad hom” to point this out. Please see footnote #1 at the bottom of “The natural order of things?“)

[2] I realise that there are those out there who are easily upset by the merest mention of social justice. My apologies. I should really have included a link to the ‘trigger’ warning at the start of “When Atheists Ape Creationists…” before now.

[3] Alternatively, consider this chilling factoid: One Direction has outsold The Beatles (at least in the US and, for all I know, worldwide. If this is indeed a worldwide phenomenon, please don’t feel the need to tell me. I really don’t want to know). Clearly this must mean that the former are more artistically and culturally relevant than the latter.

[4] …even when those who are vociferous supporters of freedom of speech ask me to censor a thread.