December 30, 2011

Redditgate and How it Has Been Handled

68xb2I had somehow missed the latest controversy to hit the atheist blogosphere until yesterday: Redditgate. What happened? A 15 year-old girl posted a picture of herself holding Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark in the r/atheism section with a brief message about how her religious mother bought it for her as a Christmas present (see the Reddit thread). This was very cool of her mom, and most of the people who commented on her post said so or shared accounts of how Sagan's wonderful book inspired them. Unfortunately, a few decided to make inappropriate comments about the sexual acts they'd like to perform on the girl. She initially joked back with them, and some seemed to take that as an invitation to become increasingly graphic in their descriptions. And then Rebecca Watson of Elevatorgate fame (Skepchick) blogged about it. Rebecca has since been subjected to all manner of attacks on Reddit (including threats of rape and death).

Having read through the entire Reddit thread and Rebecca's post, I believe she's right to raise the concerns she raised. I'm glad she's willing to stand up against misogyny, and I hope she continues to do so. Having said that, I also hope that she follows up her initial post by addressing the important issues a bit more effectively.

What Rebecca Got Right

Women deserve far better than the treatment this girl received in r/atheism. If we want to see more women in the atheist movement, we cannot tolerate this sort of thing. It would have been great if hundreds of Redditors had pounced on those making the inappropriate comments, downvoted them, and given them a good public scolding in much the same way they would certainly do with a creationist who showed up. This did not happen, at least not until people like Rebecca called attention to the situation.

I think there are two main points that need to be emphasized here. First, those who made the offending comments were way out of line and should be ashamed. The comments were not funny. Why would anyone expect women to participate when they are going to be sexualized? Rebecca was absolutely right to call attention to this.
The next time you look around your atheist events and wonder where all the women are, think of this and know that there are at least some of us who aren’t willing to just accept this culture without trying to change it.
Second, those who voted up the offending comments, chimed in positively, or stood by and did nothing are also part of the problem. We need to make sure we are not contributing to a context in which this sort of thing is tolerated. Rebecca was right to point this out.

What Rebecca Could Have Handled Better

While I agree with most of what Rebecca wrote, I think she could have handled the situation more effectively.
  • It is not just Reddit that is "infested with shitty racist, sexist, bigoted people;" this is the state of humanity. Anyone who has spent any time on the Internet will have encountered this stuff and will know that this problem goes way beyond Reddit. Rebecca is mistaken to single-out Reddit; the problem is far more pervasive. She makes an even bigger mistake in singling out r/atheism. The real cretins are a small minority. When Rebecca says that she rarely learns anything new here and that visiting "only serves to create and foster inside me an intense hatred of my fellow atheists," I have to wonder why she visits. We are mistaken to assume atheists are more rational than anyone else, except on the question of gods.
  • By claiming that the upvotes some of the comments received show that the content of the comments were "what everyone's thinking," Rebecca makes another mistake. As I said above, I agree that those who voted up these comments contributed to the problem, but to suggest that they were thinking the same thing as what the commenters said is absurd. I suspect most thought it was funny, and while that's unfortunate, it is a far cry from agreement.
  • Rebecca ignored the fact that the majority of the comments left in this thread were not inappropriate but were quite supportive of the girl's post. She makes it sound like most of the comments were offensive; they were not.
  • Instead of addressing as important an issue as misogyny in the intelligent and articulate manner with which she is capable, Rebecca resorts to "Fuck you, r/atheism," lowering herself to the level of the commenters she's objecting to in the first place.
Aftermath

Following Rebecca's post, I've seen a few vocal commenters in r/atheism calling her names, insulting her personally without responding to the valid points she raised, and other sad examples of asshattery. I've also seen some valuable, even thought-provoking, comments on both sides of the relevant issues. Some have raised decent questions about Rebecca's motives; others have provided effective defenses of her key points. There is still hope for r/atheism, but we're all responsible for helping it function well.

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