July 12, 2012

Freethought Bullying

Screaming manI should have written this post a few months ago. I should have written it long before Thunderf00t and Greg Laden were expelled from Freethought Blogs (FtB). I should have written it well before Paula Kirby's now infamous letter and the many heated responses it has generated. I should have written it before there was any serious talk of harassment policies at atheist conferences. I am ashamed that I didn't write about this months ago. It is with more than a little apprehension that I say the following: I think there might be some truth to the seemingly outrageous claim that a few of the bloggers at FtB are acting like bullies.

To be clear, the majority of those writing for FtB have not been doing any detectible bullying. In fact, I am referring to a relatively small group of about 4 or 5 at most. Based on the comments I've seen here and on other atheist blogs, as well as the email I've received, I am fairly confident you know who they are. So while I am of the opinion that FtB and any other blog conglomerate is generally a bad idea, this is not an indictment of the entire FtB team.

DissentDissent develops democracy

My issue with this handful of FtB bloggers concerns the manner in which they respond to criticism and disagreement within the atheist community. From what I have seen for myself and heard from others, they quickly dismiss ideas different from their own, gang up to mock the source of the ideas, and encourage others to do the same. This is bullying, and it is ugly.

Of course, this sort of response is not always completely undeserved. Kirby deserved flak for the "feminzai" slur. Isn't that one of Rush Limbaugh's words? She should have known that this would color everything else she wrote, even though some of her points were valid. But I do think it should have been okay for her to raise the issue of bullying without being ripped to shreds over it. Based on the prolonged reaction to her letter, I'm not sure this was the case.

I would hope that someone would feel comfortable questioning the merits of feminism or the manner in which a feminist blogger is coming across without immediately being called a misogynist and relentlessly mocked. Similarly, I would hope that someone would be able to ask about examples of sexism without immediately being dismissed. The tone set by some of these bloggers is that it is not safe to disagree with them. And yet, when this is pointed out, the person pointing it out is typically accused of various things and dismissed.

Phrases like "groupthink," "hive mind," and "echo chamber" have been used when describing these few FtB bloggers. There was talk of this well before Kirby. I'm not sure how fair it is, but it does not strike me as the main issue here. I don't think anybody would care whether they agreed with one another if it wasn't leading to the impression of some sort of gang bullying. Agreement among a group is to be expected; perceptions that a freethought group has become intolerant of dissent are not.

Feminism and the Abuse of PowerFeminism

There is no question that some of those complaining about FtB's bullying are upset by their feminist positions. But it does not follow that everyone complaining is necessarily anti-feminist. I have heard plenty of complaints from feminist and pro-feminist atheists for some time. Some of the FtB bloggers repeatedly insist that all their critics must oppose their feminism (wanting women to be quiet and submissive), but that just isn't true. Many of those concerned about what they are reading on FtB are feminists and are not happy with what they perceive as an abuse of power inconsistent with feminism. Again, the issue is primarily about how FtB handles dissenting opinions rather than the specific positions they advocate.

It has been awhile since I studied feminist theory in an academic context, actually reading the early feminist writings. My memory of what I read may be inaccurate. But from what I recall, early feminists would not have celebrated a popular blogger, a featured speaker at conferences who is surrounded with like-minded supporters, using his or her position to intimidate and bully others.

Whether they acknowledge it or not, some of these FtB bloggers occupy positions of power in the atheist community. They are admired by countless people, they earn money for their work, they speak at conferences, and they have real clout in the community. That some of them would be intolerant of dissent and engage in bullying does not seem consistent with feminism.

Why Speak Out?Speak out

Staying on the sidelines is certainly tempting, but it is becoming increasingly difficult. Rewards (i.e., links) are to be had by those who express their support for FtB. And those who suggest there may be a problem are condemned. We've all seen this happen. It doesn't look much like freethought, does it?

I write this reluctantly because I have become increasingly disappointed with a handful of bloggers I respect and whose work I have supported over the years. It pains me to consider the prospect of simply tuning them out, but that is the position in which I find myself. I have heard from many people who are questioning whether they can continue to support FtB as long as they promote the few bloggers to which I am referring. I think they have a point.

I've avoided speaking out for so long because I could not bring myself to face up to what I was seeing (i.e., post after post in which a few of these bloggers externalize all responsibility for the criticism they are facing). They've convinced themselves that their cause is righteous, surrounded themselves with allies, and prepared for some sort of imagined assault. They seem oblivious that attacking those who bring up bullying is only fueling the criticism. I hope they will reconsider, as I value their voices.

I think the atheist community can benefit from genuinely open discussion, disagreement, and even a bit of respectful conflict; however, demonizing and bullying each other is a mistake. It may delight the religious believers who are observing us, but it risks leading to the sort of fissures that can do lasting damage.

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