December 28, 2014

Michael Nugent vs. PZ Myers

English: Michael Nugent
Michael Nugent (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Michael Nugent has been working tirelessly to document what he considers to be smears, hypocrisy, and other objectionable behavior on the part of PZ Myers. His collection of thoroughly sourced posts about Myers' behavior now includes the following:
Not surprisingly, Nugent's efforts have been praised in some circles and thoroughly condemned in others. With a figure both as popular and as polarizing as Myers, nobody should expect anything different.

Initially, it appeared that Nugent was simply seeking an apology from Myers for the claim that he was providing a haven for rapists on his blog. This struck me as a reasonable request but one with little  chance of success. I suspect that Myers offered this characterization intentionally and that it was not something he would consider to be the sort of mistake that warranted an apology. Moreover, an apology doesn't mean much unless it is accompanied by a change in behavior. Whatever you and I might think of it, Myers' behavior has been working quite well for him for some time. As I said in a comment I left on Nugent's blog:
His regular readers are not looking for fair-minded rational behavior; they are seeking something else, and providing it has been quite lucrative for PZ.
I don't expect to see Myers change his behavior in the sort of ways Nugent and many others would like to see. And this brings me to the question I have asked repeatedly of those advocating it: what does the process of dissociating ourselves from Myers and others who behave like he does look like?

The context for this question can be found in the last paragraph of Nugent's most recent post on the subject:
I and others in the atheist movement have repeatedly asked PZ, both privately and now publicly, to reconsider and change his harmful behaviour, and to apologise to those he has hurt. I still hope that he does so. Perhaps the new year would be a good time for a new start. If he does not, and if we are to successfully promote an ethical, secular society based on compassion and reason, we need to actively dissociate our work from this ongoing harm.
Okay, so assuming that there is no apology and no change in behavior, what does it mean to "actively dissociate our work from this ongoing harm?" Is this something only large secular organizations can do, or is this a call for individual atheists who agree with Nugent's characterization of Myers' behavior to do something? Suppose I were to agree with Nugent. What am I being asked to do in response to Myers and others who behave in similar ways? Am I being asked to issue public statements repudiating their behavior, ignore them, or something else?

Nugent has chosen to focus on Myers because Myers' comments were directed at him. That makes sense, but I think Myers is merely one example of a much larger set of questions. Here are some examples:
  • Does an individual atheist have any sort of obligation to speak out against the bad behavior of other atheists? What about individual atheists with platforms for speaking out (e.g., blogs, podcasts)?
  • What are the most effective ways to deal with bad ideas and/or behaviors when they crop up? Should we ignore them and hope they go away, criticize them, or something else?
  • If we come to believe that a particular person or group of people (e.g., social justice warriors) are behaving in ways that undermine issues we care about (e.g., free speech), how should we respond?
I believe I've reached the point where I find talking about Myers relevant only insofar as doing so can inform answers to some of these other questions. I hope it can because I'd like to see some progress on these issues as we move forward.
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