Background Probability

The Agnostic Popular Front has moved to its new home at Skeptic Ink, and will henceforth be known as Background Probability. Despite the relocation and rebranding, we will continue to spew the same low-fidelity high-quality bullshit that you've come to expect.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Art of the Five-Finger Down Punch

Thank the gods, I am a tiny cog in the freethought movement. Don't have a significant audience, or an associated blind spot as to what it must be like to go through life without carrying around massive audience privilege like an invisible backpack with protective powers. As a small cog, I am well aware of the disparity in informal social power between those who have a large audience and those who do not. When it comes to power and influence, I'm almost invariably punching up rather than punching down.  This is doubly true when it comes to pursuing (probably pointless) palaver and associated argy-bargy on the internets - which is most likely for the best, because I can be kind of an fuckwad online.

If I somehow attained a much larger audience, I'd have to seriously consider the possibility doing so would burden me with a moral responsibility (rooted in the ethics of secular humanism) to avoid leveraging my newfound audience privilege in an attempt to make those with vastly less of a platform look like fools. I'd be aware that my own message would be widely read and discussed, while answering counterpoints from my target of choice would go relatively unnoticed. Even if I took the effort to link to responses, the odds are good that most of my readership won't be terribly keen on reading opinions that run contrary to those they are used to hearing on my site. Freethinking may be contrary to group-thinking in theory, but certainly not in practice.

All that said, it seems to me that many of the leaders in the movement seem completely oblivious to the inherent imbalance in punching down at those not in a position to answer in kind. Lately, this has become sort of a fashion over at the largest platform in modern freethought, where we've seen posts directed against relative unknowns such as: Bryan PestaStephen Packard, John HemblingKyle Hill, Paula Kirby and Peter Leschak (more to come). No doubt some of them deserved to be called out more than others, and some of them doubtless have somewhat of an audience of their own, but too often all that is accomplished by these 'down-punching' posts is to either feed the trolls or unleash the flying monkeys, rather than provoke a factual or moral debate about the proper means and ends of freethought. On most such occasions, it would have been simple enough to make essentially the same substantive arguments without making personal attacks, but probably that would have been less gratifying to our tribalist instinct to line up and take sides.

There are exceptions, of course. Some public figures (e.g. Scofield, Stedman, and Croft) have significantly fewer readers than the Freethought bloggers, but are deliberately engaging them in a public debate over the future of freethought. More distressingly, sometimes someone prints something so profoundly odious that punching down is the only appropriate response, other than perhaps crashing the server. There is no possible way to engage in a substantive debate or productive exchange of ideas with those who open the conversation with dehumanizing threats.

No doubt the enthusiastic supporters of Freethought Blogs will find some way to justify each and every instance of bullying from the FtB pulpit. That's how people generally work: tribal allegiances first, post-hoc rationalizations thereafter.


intepid said...

Do you think "audience privilege" as held by someone like PZ is in the same class as 'male privilege'? Of course I agree that an audience gives you power, but I wouldn't describe that as privilege, at least not in the social-justice sense.

By default a man is treated differently, assumed to be smarter, more confident, better at comedy etc, than a woman (all else equal). This assumption is a privilege we grant him just for being a man, he doesn't need to work for it or fight for it. Respected, rational people like Hitchens have presented rationales for why this made perfect sense from an evolutionary psychology perspective (he believed women simply aren't funny because they don't need to be).

PZ wasn't born with an audience. He worked for it, being the most prolific blogger I can think of as well as doing interviews, conferences etc. Being a white male probably made it easier for him to gather his audience, and I'm sure he would readily admit this, but my point is that 'privilege' as discussed in social-justice circles is more about what you take for granted, specifically because it is granted, ie you never had to work for it.

As a guy, I get to post largely what I like, where I like and experience remarkably little blowback. And then very occasionally I might say something that offends someone because it's politically incorrect, and I get some grief over it (eg so far on FTBullies I've been crtiticized for using 'bitching' and defending 'hysterical'). I feel like I'm being judged unfairly, just because I'm a guy. And maybe I am sometimes.

And then I realize that that's probably what it's like for a woman, except they have to put up with that shit all the time. The only time I have to even think about my gender is in a discussion about gender. Women have to deal with it all the time. Even when people like you it sucks to be a woman with an opinion, because there are so many men who think their sexual attention is a huge compliment. An exasperated Kate Beaton pointed this out a while back:

Damion said...

I appreciate that PZ has worked very hard to get his audience, but I cannot agree that the concept of privilege is so narrow as to exclude that for which one worked:

For example, "Class privilege can also apply to someone who has accrued wealth over time" and "Educational privilege" (IMO) can apply to those who had to scrabble to work their way through college and graduate school.

I can agree, of course, that wholly unearned privileges are more relevant to social justice movements, inasmuch as one of the fundamental goals of social justice is to level the playing field between those born with given advantages and those born without.

Damion said...

Also, and this may surprise you, I completely approve of the TJLP document. It encourages the consideration of privilege not as a verbal cudgel to berate others but as a useful concept to transform oneself. In the lingo of Twitter, they are #DoingItRight

intepid said...

From the first paragraph: "At TJLP, we think of privilege as an unearned advantage that a dominant group has over marginalized groups ... A key aspect of privilege is that, due to its unearned nature, those who have privilege often do not realize they have it"

Pretty clearly the unearnedness and lack of awareness are important factors, and I don't see how either of those apply to PZ.

Damion said...

The lack of awareness is exhibited in the act of punching down itself. If the writers cited above (not just PZ) remembered what is was like to have a small platform and relative inability to get a hearing in the community, I'd expect them to be somewhat more circumspect in condemning those who don't have anything resembling the FtBully pulpit.

Damion said...

Relatedly, it should be pointed out that audience privilege is highly intersectional with male privilege, white privilege, educational privilege, and the (politically unspeakable) privilege of being born damn clever. This might help explain why almost all the most prominent names in skepticism and freethought (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, Stenger, Sagan, Randi, Shermer) check all of these boxes.

Speaking of privilege and boxes and highly-educated white guys, have you seen this meme yet?

bpesta said...

Fwiw, that's not my twitter account nor do I claim to be active in the "movement".

B. Pesta

bpesta said...

It continues: