The Freethought Bullies Meme


My primary goal in this post is to summarize the nature and development of the "freethought bullies" meme. I do this for two reasons. First, I have seen quite a few people on Twitter asking about it and what it means. And second, it has recently been made clear to me that a few of the bloggers writing for Freethought Blogs see the meme as primarily being the result of male privilege and irrational reactions to their efforts to introduce feminism to the atheist community. For example, see this post by Lousy Canuck in which he suggests that the meme is about people being upset by anti-harassment policies. These bloggers may be correct, but I fear that they are missing something important in the narrative they have constructed. I'd like to suggest that they consider expanding their views a bit with another possibility.


From what I've been able to gather, the origins of what would eventually become the "freethought bullies" meme go back to Elevatorgate. Rebecca Watson (Skepchick) was approached in an elevator at an atheist conference in a manner that made her uncomfortable, and she mentioned it in a video (i.e., "Guys, don't do that."). She was then subjected to some inexcusably nasty and troll-like responses. There is some genuine misogyny in the atheist community, and some of the misogynists in our midst went after Watson.

PZ Myers and some of the others who write for Freethought Blogs rallied around Watson, which was understandable. However, some in the atheist community perceived PZ and a couple of his associates as going overboard in their efforts, so much so that they came to resemble the very trolls who had prompted their response (e.g., name-calling, encouraging commenters to gang up on those who questioned the seriousness of Watson's encounter, etc.). Some feminist women and pro-feminist men in our community begin to feel alienated by Myers and Watson because of the responses they received when they questioned the seriousness of the harassment or the appropriateness of some of the solutions being proposed. In essence, they felt like they were being shut out of the conversation.

dissentPart of what many of the rational Watson/Myers critics missed in this initial kerfuffle was that PZ has long set a particular tone at Pharyngula. He is the arbiter of reality, and those who disagree with him are mocked. That is, PZ was something of a bully long before his defense of Watson. The difference, of course, was that this was usually directed at religious believers and not at atheists. In fact, I suspect that PZ's take-no-prisoners style was a big part of what made him so popular.

You'll probably recall that Richard Dawkins responded to Elevatorgate by questioning the seriousness of the incident and was promptly attacked by PZ and others for doing so. For some additional background on what may have been happening behind the scenes prior to Dawkins' statement, see this video.

This seems to be the point where PZ, Ophelia Benson, and a couple others writing for Freethought Blogs or Skepchick were perceived as going off the deep end, launching irrational attacks on those who questioned the seriousness of Elevatorgate, defended Dawkins, or tried to change the subject. More name calling, more division into "us and them," and a growing sense that those who disagreed were being silenced. Rational disagreement was beginning to be equated with trolling, and those offering even reasonable differences of opinion were labelled as traitors or misogynists.

Unfortunately, the real misogynist trolling also escalated. There were threats and thoroughly misogynistic comments made against these bloggers and their supporters. In such a context, it is understandable how they might have had trouble telling the difference between respectful disagreement and hateful trolling (especially on Twitter). To make matters even worse, a few of the critics who had initially been offering respectful disagreement became fed up and started lashing out.

But Why Freethought Bullies?

Given the undeniable presence of real misogyny, threats of violence, sexist slurs, and the like, how is it possible that PZ, Ophelia, and others would come to be viewed as bullies? Was it just because they were talking about feminism and the rest of the community didn't want to hear it? This may have been a factor, but I do not believe it was the primary one.

As the conversation shifted to the need for anti-harassment policies at atheist conferences, these bloggers were once again perceived as overreaching. While most of the atheist community seemed to agree that these policies could be helpful, there was not as much agreement with the notion that anyone questioning such policies was automatically a misogynist or a rape apologist. The rhetoric became more extreme, especially in the comment threads on some of the prominent blogs and on Twitter.

When Thunderf00t and Greg Laden were expelled from the Freethought Blogs network, and Paula Kirby sounded the alarm, the situation boiled over. Some of us who had been trying to stay out of it felt like we could no longer do so. This was the point where I first addressed the issue.

Here is a taste of some of what has been written about the freethought bullies meme to give you a sense of why people have been objecting to what they perceive as bullying behavior:
I present these not because I agree with every single accusation or interpretation offered but to convey a sense of why these bloggers were being viewed as bullies. My perspective is that the crucial mistake of those being called bullies has been to respond to those offering respectful criticism and disagreement in the same manner they have responded to the trolls who are delivering threats and personal insults. This sort of response, while perhaps understandable given the venomous nature of the trolling, has done some real damage.