Anniversaries are as good a time as any to pause, reflect, and take stock of the situation. By my reckoning, it was four years ago today, June 4th of 2011, that the Great Rifts of New Atheism first began to crack open. It was on that fateful day that Atheist Ireland placed Rebecca Watson on stage with Aron Ra, Tom Melchiorre, and Richard Dawkins to talk about the process of communicating atheism. Rebecca chose instead to open up a dialog about sexism in the atheist movement.
Here is how she described her contribution to the panel on her vlog sometime later:
And I was on a panel with Aron Ra and Richard Dawkins…on ‘communicating atheism.’ They sort of left it open for us to talk about whatever we wanted, really, within that realm. I was going to talk about blogging and podcasting, but, um, a few hours prior to that panel, there was another panel on women atheist activists, and I disagreed with a lot of what happened on that panel, uh, particularly with something that Paula Kirby had said.
Paula Kirby doesn’t have a problem with sexism in the atheism community, and, because of that, she assumes that there is no sexism, um, so I thought that I would, during my panel, discuss what it’s like to communicate atheism as me, um, as a woman, but from a different perspective from Paula. I don’t assume that every woman will have the same experience that I’ve had, but I think it’s worthwhile to publicize the fact that some women will go through this, and, um, that way we can warn women, ahead of time, as to what they might expect, give them the tools they need to fight back, and also give them the support structure they need to, uh, to keep going in the face of blatant misogyny.
So, I was interested in the response to my sort of rambling on that panel, um, which, like this video, was unscripted and rambling, for which I apologize. But the response was really fascinating. The response at the conference itself was wonderful, um, there were a ton of great feminists there, male and female, and also just open-minded people who had maybe never considered the, um, the way that women are treated in this community, but were interested in learning more.
So far, so good. Communicating feminism to atheists wasn’t exactly the original purpose of the panel, but it’s certainly a discussion worth having. The vlog continues:
So, thank you to everyone who was at that conference who, uh, engaged in those discussions outside of that panel, um, you were all fantastic; I loved talking to you guys—um, all of you except for the one man who, um, didn’t really grasp, I think, what I was saying on the panel? Because, um, at the bar later that night—actually, at four in the morning—um, we were at the hotel bar, 4am, I said, you know, “I’ve had enough, guys, I’m exhausted, going to bed,” uh, so I walked to the elevator, and a man got on the elevator with me, and said, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I find you very interesting, and I would like to talk more; would you like to come to my hotel room for coffee?”
Um. Just a word to the wise here, guys: Uhhhh, don’t do that. Um, you know. [laughs] Uh, I don’t really know how else to explain how this makes me incredibly uncomfortable, but I’ll just sort of lay it out that I was a single woman, you know, in a foreign country, at 4 am, in a hotel elevator with you, just you, and—don’t invite me back to your hotel room, right after I’ve finished talking about how it creeps me out and makes me uncomfortable when men sexualize me in that manner.
This all seems fairly uncontroversial to me. Cold propositions for sex are generally gauche, doubly so when directed at someone known to find sexualization by strangers discomfiting, trebly so at inescapable close quarters. That said, I wouldn’t have expected anything more to come of this video than the usual nastiness that we’ve all come to expect from YouTube comments sections.
There are those who will tell you that it was at this point (2011-06-20) that all hell broke loose. They may not be lying, but they are almost certainly mistaken. Hell didn’t really break loose until July, with the following three posts on Science Blogs:
(Arguably, the proverbial feces hit the metaphorical fan a couple days earlier over at Skepchick, but I’m not seeing much dissent in that thread.)
It is difficult to describe what happened next, because so many various topics were rapidly sucked up into the maelstrom. Some people wanted to argue about the ethics of calling out a student attendee from a conference podium, thereby punching down from a position of power. Others wanted to justify or condemn the actions of the (still unnamed) fellow in the elevator. Still others wanted to demonstrate how feminist ideas such as “Schrodinger’s Rapist” and “checking your privilege” would prove clarifying to the discussion.
If you want a comprehensive schooling on how the clusterfuffle unfolded itself as people took sides and umbrage, here are the relevant wiki entries (from left to right):
(I’d put æ on the list, but fear they may be full-on chaotic evil.)
My own explanation of what happened next is that the online community became polarized between the sort of people who refer to their ideological opponents (sarcastically) as social justice warriors and the sort of people who refer to those other people (unironically) as misogynist trolls and harassers. Broadly speaking, the pro-social justice folks pushed for incorporating more feminist ideas, values, and taboos into the atheist movement, while the other group pushed back. Many who felt caught in the middle fled to higher ground, refusing to engage with known hot-button issues. Others fled the field altogether, choosing to refocus on less controversial activities such as video gaming or reading comics.
There are relatively few useful lessons to be drawn from studiously rubbernecking the four-year-long online atheist train-wreck, and nothing new, of course. We already knew from the Robber’s Cave experiment (which took place about three hours east of OKC) that it is terribly easy to spark an intergroup conflict, basically all you need is some way to distinguish the two groups and finite resources to squabble about. We already knew from various disparate observations that an ideologically cohesive group may become ever more emotionally intense and dogmatically unyielding as moderates and contrarians drift away from the core in-group in the wake of a shock to the system. We should have been able to predict the formation of mutually anathematizing echo chambers as a result of all the usual in-group biases reinforced by a sort of siege mentality on both sides.
We’ve reached the point today when some people on both sides of the ongoing deep rifts actively avoid engaging in dialogue with people who are perceived as being on the other side, to the point where even thoughtful attempts at structured discourse are foredoomed to fail.
There may be a note of hope in the outcome of the Robber’s Cave study, though. Sherif and his colleagues found that harmonious intergroup relations may be restored “in the presence of superordinate goals that promotes united, cooperative action” to solve a problem facing both groups. We skeptics, secularists, and freethinkers should have no shortage of those to work on, together, if only we choose to do so.