Pages Menu
Categories Menu

Posted by on Oct 26, 2012 in Politics, Secularism | 20 comments

Rebecca Watson’s Slate article

I’ve now read the Rebecca Watson article that Slate published on October 24 five times. Not because I’m particularly dim-witted, but because I wanted to try to understand what was causing the fresh outpouring of ridicule towards her in the comments there, as well as on my Twitter and Facebook timelines. Was it just as simple as people rising to the same bait as always, or were there some fresh provocations to be discovered? And more importantly, when will this nonsense stop, and how can we collaborate in getting to that point?

In a post addressing one of WoolyBumblebee’s posts about Jen McCreight, I concluded by saying the following:

…we can sometimes be accused of placing too little or too much emphasis on history, and not enough on our own conduct. Too little, in the sense of the tweet I quote above where zero effort was made to see if an interpretation is the correct one. And then too much, in the sense that we sometimes expect new entrants to a conversation to know minute and technical historical details of that conversation – and then abuse them when they get a detail wrong. There’s sometimes too little patience for any kind of induction period, and so-called “newbies” need the thickest skins of all.

To remedy this problem, I offer one suggestion: that when a debate gets heated, we should try to remember that no matter what’s come before, we’re constantly at a new decision-point, where we – and only we – are responsible for what we say in response to something we find provocative. Sure, someone else has committed a wrong, and we can be inflamed by that. But essentially juvenile questions of “who started it”, while diverting, seldom help illuminate the question of how it can be ended. In other words, I’m suggesting that we learn (or remember) some manners.

What I think Watson gets wrong in the Slate post is that she doesn’t take into account that she’s addressing an audience who won’t necessarily know the minute and technical details involved in the various incidents since that morning in the elevator. So I think that she should have made a greater effort to point out the positive work that’s being done in addressing discrimination in “the community”. There are only two sentences that I can see that acknowledge that some organisations are aware and trying to address the problem. The article paints what I think is an uncharitably gloomy picture, and as such will provide fodder for both anti-Watsonites as well as anti-secular folk. People on the fence, tempted to get involved the secular or skeptical community, might well say “I’m not going near that – sounds like all they do is hate each other”.

So, in terms of outreach and the like, I think Watson could have made better use of the opportunity presented by such a public platform. But in terms of everything else she said, I have no complaints, and nor should I feel entitled to. She’s telling her story, and unless I had the temerity to accuse her of lying about her own story, the fact that other people have competing (or supplementary) stories isn’t necessarily relevant. She’s not your spokesperson, or a historian of the skeptical movement. She’s telling her story, and reporting threats and the like that she felt significant enough to bring to the community’s attention, along with reporting the lack of sympathy she experienced in reaction to that. If you want to call her a liar, that’s your prerogative – but I don’t see any good reason to join in that game.

Because even if she is exaggerating – and even if she, or people in her corner – have done their own bad things – that’s not the only thing that matters. If you want to keep a scorecard, and constantly remind others of who is “most bad”, knock yourself out. But this nonsense has got to end. And there’s no chance of a cease-fire until people see the possibility of saying something like “damn, that sounds awful, and I’m sorry that I didn’t support you when you experienced that” or whatever, without following up with a sentence like “but you did this other bad thing, so quit whining/looking for attention”. Yes, it’s true that you can find fault and over-reaction on all sides of this divide (and sorry folks, but it is possible to say this without claiming a false equivalence – without keeping a scorecard at all, in fact). If people treat each other like crap, of course we’ll retaliate in some fashion, some of the time.

All of us need to remember that we have another option, which is to not assume the worst of each other, and to focus a little more on what we have in common rather than our differences. Yes, some differences shouldn’t be tolerated. But in all the hysteria and hyperbole, it’s unclear to me how many folks have considered whether this really is one of those occasions.