Feb 25 2013

Moving Forward

As movements grow, internal conflict becomes inevitable. A movement dedicated to reason, thoughtful introspection, and putting logic above emotion, one would think, should be able to deal with such conflict in a constructive way. If the events of the last couple of years have taught us anything, however, it is that we are all still biased and flawed humans, despite our striving for reason.

There is, perhaps, some sign of a light at the end of the tunnel, if you bear with me for a bit more preamble.

I have not been a direct participant in the recent drama over sexism in the movement, but I have had a front row seat. It has struck me throughout that many of the people involved, steeped in critical thinking, firmly believe they are correct and are being reasonable and yet are in such heated conflict with other critical thinkers who also believe they are correct and being reasonable.

There are, it seems to me, three general sources of this conflict. One is sincere and real ideological differences. If you read the recent exchange between Harriet Hall on SBM and Will on Skepchick, and a sample of the comments to each, these differences become apparent. Where exactly to draw the line between free speech and the avoidance of offense is one recurrent theme. Still, this by itself should not be enough to cause such a rift, for our common ground dwarfs these differences.

A second source of conflict are those who have chosen cyberstalking and daily harassment as their chosen mechanism of activism. Rape threats, threats of violence, sexually charged and grossly offensive language have no place in this discussion, but have infiltrated our community. The result has been to raise the level of emotion and defensiveness and pushing all sides toward the more radical extreme. This is, unfortunately, part of the new social media world we have created. We have to find ways to marginalize and ignore these elements, and not confuse them for those who have reasonable and friendly disagreements.

The third source of conflict seems to be avoidable misunderstandings on all sides. This is something we can fix, with a few helpful rules of conduct and more open communication.

Ray Hyman wrote an excellent article for CSI in 2001 called Proper Criticism, containing 8 rules that skeptics would do well to consider when criticizing pseudoscience. We should at least grant each other the same courtesy.

One particularly relevant rule is the principle of charity – one that I have advocated many times myself. Before you set out to criticize someone’s claim or position, you should endeavor to grant that position its best possible case. Don’t assume the worst about your opponent, assume the best. Give them any benefit of the doubt. At the very least this will avoid creating a straw man to attack, or opening yourself up to charges that you are being unfair.

Hyman added to this the principle of understanding – make every effort to truly understand your opponent’s position before attacking it.

It seems to me that in our current conflicts these principles have not been adequately appreciated, leading to unnecessary misunderstandings, and fueling further conflict. One such series of unfortunate events emerged out of TAM 2012, when Harriet Hall wore a T-shirt expressing her support for the JREF and her personal approach to her own feminism. This was interpreted as an attack against the Skepchicks, and ugliness ensued.

Both Harriet Hall and Amy Davis Roth (who was at TAM and became embroiled in the T-shirt hubbub) had spoken to me about their feelings on the matter, and so I was able to assure both of them that a direct communication would likely resolve the misunderstanding. They both enthusiastically agreed, wanting nothing more than to see the beginning of the end of this feud. Below are the e-mail exchanges that resulted, which they both wished to be reproduced here.

Dear Amy,

I am so happy you have reached out! I hope we can become friends and put all the unpleasantness behind us.

First, I’d like to say that I admire you and value the work you have done. I bought one of your necklaces years ago (“Quackery is for the birds”) and have worn it frequently and gotten a lot of compliments on it. I particularly appreciate your artistic talents, since I have none of my own – can’t even draw a decent stick figure. I applaud your raising money for scholarships to bring more women to TAM. I appreciate the hard work you have done promoting the participation of women in skepticism.

I also value the Skepchick organization and appreciate what it has accomplished. It has done a lot to raise consciousness and promote women in skepticism. I don’t agree with everything it has done, and I don’t personally choose to join, but I certainly support those who do, and I would not want to do anything to discourage them.

I apologize for putting the word skepchick on my shirt. I honestly did not intend to target the organization, but rather the concept of “chick” in general. I did not foresee the reaction, and I should have. My social skills have never been very good. If I had it to do over again, I think I would have just said “I’m a skeptic. Not a woman skeptic. Just a skeptic.” I sincerely regret that I inadvertently contributed to inflaming the harassment that was directed at you. I was truly appalled by some of the venomous over-reactions and egregious abuse that you were subjected to online. I felt very sorry for you and what you were forced to endure. There is no excuse for the behavior of your persecutors.

And I have always admired Rebecca. She adds spice to the mix of personalities on SGU and has her own unique style. She is smart, hip, and eloquent. Rebecca had always been a big part of TAM; she had been good to it, and it had been good to her. That’s why I was so distressed by her announcement that she would not be attending TAM. I was also very distressed to hear that her former “immense amount of respect” for me could be totally destroyed from one week to the next by one action of mine that she disapproved of.

Dr. Novella has laid out a list of the things he thinks we agree on:

• gender equality
• judging people by the content of their character, and not by physical or gender attributes
• creating a safe and open environment regardless of sex or gender
• the concept of sex and gender are complex and multifarious, and it’s all within the spectrum of what it is to be human.
• condemnation of sexism in all its forms
• respect and recognition of the dignity of all people regardless of their sex/gender

Do you agree with these? If so, we have a starting point and can build from there.

No two skeptics are exact clones, and there will always be areas of disagreement. We should be able to respect each other even when our opinions differ. We may be able to get our opinions closer together through courteous discussions, or in some cases we may have to agree to disagree.

Even when we pursue different strategies, we can respect each other and tolerate our differences for the good of the whole. Next time we meet, I hope we can shake hands and maybe even share a hug.

Yours in skepticism,

And then the reply from Amy:


First of all, thank you for taking the time to open a dialog with me and thank you for the apology. It is very kind of you and I appreciate it.

I too would like to apologize. I am sorry for raising my voice to you at TAM in the speakers lounge. I never really gave you a chance to speak. I was, as you could probably tell, very upset at the time. At that point in time things had gotten so bad for me that I went to the speakers lounge to hide and the undercover harassment specialists had to be called in to take a report. When you happened to walk into the room I had already dealt with, among other things, all the stress leading up to the event and at least one full day of being belittled and targeted with nasty comments online via the TAM event hashtag. Various blogs were posting misinformation about me and Rebecca during my time at the event. Some of the people that were saying rude or inaccurate things also included photos from the event so I knew that these people were in attendance. I still, to this day do not know the real identities of many of the people posting. I had witnessed people showing off fake necklaces that they had created, that were made to mock and belittle me. That the necklaces were meant to upset me was not an assumption. The people who created them were open about their intent to make fun of me. Some of these people were posing for photos with you and complimenting your shirt. I assumed at that point, you were aware of the harassment that I and the blog I write for was dealing with prior to TAM, and the nastiness at the event, and that your shirt was also intended to insult me and our blog specifically. I realize now, that was not your intention. I still disagree with your decision to wear the shirt, especially after I told you how upsetting it was, but I certainly respect your right to express your opinion. None of this excuses the fact that I yelled at you. And for that I am sincerely sorry.

Things we agree on.

*gender equality

*judging people by the content of their character, and not by physical or gender attributes

*creating a safe and open environment regardless of sex or gender

*the concept of sex and gender are complex and multifarious, and it’s all within the spectrum of what it is to be human.

*condemnation of sexism in all its forms

*respect and recognition of the dignity of all people regardless of their sex/gender

Yes, we agree on everything on your list. The only thing that we seem to squabble over is the wider definitions of gender and how it can feed into heterosexism and cissexism but this is definitely not my area of expertise and so I am not going to delve any further into the conversation for fear of not getting it right myself. I am still learning about these issues. You have to forgive my partial ignorance, as I only started to identify as a feminist about a year ago, when the harassment became focused on me. It was when the MRAs and certain people from within organized skepticism and atheism started calling me a feminist did I even realize that I might indeed be one. I was a skeptic first, and only recently have I taken on the feminist moniker. I am still educating myself on some of the history and current status of the movement itself.

Speaking of harassment, this is where I think we may be able to find some common ground and work together to make things better in the broader skeptical community.

To give you an idea of the harassment we deal with, every single day we get hate messages via social networks or email. We get rape and death threats on a regular basis. In certain instances law enforcement has been contacted but unless an actual physical crime is committed they are not much help to us beyond taking reports. They contact my customers online and say things like my jewelry is toxic. They photoshop our faces onto pornography or make images of me crying and post them online.  There are multiple blogs that write about us daily and try to ruin our reputation so that when you search for our names now, hatred and lies pop up.

And let me emphasize here that disagreeing with me or Rebecca doesn’t mean that you are part of a hate group. That is not what I want to convey here at all and I don’t want to silence legitimate criticism. I am completely aware that many of the people who have sided with you on this issue are genuine, good people and sometimes the criticism is valid and taken to heart. My reaching out to you with the help of Steve should be testament to that fact. My hope here, is to make you aware of the fact that you are also being used unfairly by some as a reason or an excuse to attack us further. I am hoping we can work together to shut down some of these avenues that are taking advantage of both of us by putting the T-shirt issue and any animosity between us, behind us.

We are both feminists and skeptics after-all and while our approach may differ many of our goals can be in harmony. Let’s work together to promote the things we agree on instead of focusing on the negative.

I look forward to hearing back from you and I hope we can work together to makes things better.

A hug would be welcome. 🙂

This sounds like a good first step in moving forward toward a movement where we celebrate our common goals, while politely debating, yet tolerating, our differences. I thank Harriet and Amy for having the courage to publicly apologize and admit their role in the misunderstanding.

I also have no delusions that this one exchange will magically dissolve all conflict. Relationships are a never-ending process, but perhaps this may help us correct course to a more productive direction.

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