October 27, 2012

Civility, Free Expression, and Power in the Atheist Community

Freedom of expressionThe phrase "vacuous shitbag trolls" was popularized by PZ Myers (Pharyngula) to describe persons who have the nerve to disagree with him. It has caught on to the point where I have seen it used by both defenders and critics of Freethought Blogs. It is kind of catchy, as long as one is not at all troubled by the implication that someone who disagrees is necessarily a troll. But that is not what I want to address here. Instead, I'd like to link this term to a prior post about whether words from a stranger on the Internet really hurt psychologically healthy adults and consider the broader implications for the atheist community.

At the outset, I should point out that I have not seen anyone claiming that they were harmed by being called a "vacuous shitbag troll" by PZ or anyone else. It would not surprise me to learn that someone had made such a claim, but I haven't seen it. And as far as I'm concerned, PZ should be perfectly free to use this insult however he sees fit without worrying about an adult taking offense to it.

A somewhat different question is whether it is appropriate for PZ and a few of the others writing for Freethought Blogs to dismiss those who disagree with them as trolls. To this, I would answer "no" and suggest that it is a mistake to equate disagreement with trolling. But really, who cares? PZ is perfectly free to equate criticism with trolling, just as we are perfectly free to dismiss him for doing so. And assuming PZ aims his insults at adults, he likely isn't doing any damage by using them, except to his own reputation. We can easily dismiss his insults and move on, right? Perhaps he is dividing the atheist community, but he's on record explaining that this is his intent, so we cannot be surprised.

But suppose that someone were to create a t-shirt design saying "vacuous shitbag troll" and that a handful of people showed up at the next atheist convention wearing them. We've already witnessed the power of t-shirts to upset some people at gatherings like this. Something tells me that anyone wearing such a t-shirt would be called bullies, loudly condemned by certain bloggers, and possibly tossed out of the convention for violating anti-harassment policies. Irony of ironies, this could even happen at a convention at which PZ himself was invited to speak!

I think that many of us would like to see some civility in the atheist community but that we are wary about restricting free expression. I think we also have some valid concerns about the power differential between those making decisions which might curtail free expression and those of us expected to abide by their decisions. I present the contrast between PZ being celebrated for saying what he says and critics being shunned simply for reminding everyone what he said as an illustration of these concerns.

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