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.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Playing the privilege card

If you're bored (and not remotely inclined to suicidal ideation) it's sort of fun to keep track of how many comments are posted over at the FtB before someone derides someone else (usually a white guy) for having 'privilege' while having an opinion, particularly in threads where the original post is at least somewhat related to sexism or feminism or some other form of group-based discrimination.

So Much Wrong - Comment #10
Real Threat Assessment Experts - Comment #6
Threat Assessment - Comment #18
Schroedinger's Threat - Comment #83
Why I Have Hope - Comment #2
Sexual Harassment Definitions - Comment #5
Holy Fucking Shit - Comment #19
Eye Runny - Comment #16
I look at the slimepits - Comment #26
Making my comment rules explicit - Comment #52

This is just a small sampling, of course, and should not be considered statistically representative. Moreover, I don't mean to lump in serious conversations of the actual problem of privilege with the use of the word as a pejorative: a shorthand way to dismiss dissenting voices, lock out neophytes who are't yet hip to the jive, and prevent a two-sided exchange of ideas.

It's not just the term 'privilege' that's being used as a cudgel over there, either. Try expressing a dissenting view on any sensitive issue without being called a 'troll' or worse. Don't take my word for it, go ahead, try it yourself. Be as polite as you like while doing so, but disagree with the OP and see what happens.

And that's really what this kerfuffle has really been about - dissent. We can all agree that sexism is a real problem, but disagree about the scope of the problem and whether the solution should be handled in an authoritarian top-down manner (creating and enforcing policies) or via the usual interpersonal social mechanisms (informally enforced cultural norms against harassment, misogyny, and the like). As usual, the rift is between an authoritarian feminist approach (e.g. actively creating safe spaces unburdened by dissenters) and a more laissez-faire masculist approach (e.g. passively allowing unmoderated slimepits), and as usual the debate has degenerated into name-calling and recrimination in most corners of the web.

Personally, I lean towards the FtB / Skepchick party line on this particular issue, but that doesn't mean that I'm remotely thrilled about the name calling and derision heaped upon those who disagree. One can agree upon ends but not means, after all.


Cagey_B said...

I think you are confusing the Pharyngula commentariat for FTB in general. Yes, there are a lot of peopel on PZ's blog who assume that arguments are being made in bad faith without good cause, but that the commentariat, not the blog network and is one blog out of thirty or so. Even there, it's quite possible to have disputes without being labeled a troll outside of a couple hot-button issues. Look at Life Is Like a Pitbull with Lipstick's comments on male circumcision, for instance.

Jason Rosenhouse is the only actual blogger there who seems to be guilty of much straw-manning and assholery. I don't see why, absent any evidence of encouragement, you should hold the bloggers responsible for some vindictive fans.

Damion said...


I appreciate your feedback, and I especially appreciate that you've been quite specific in providing examples.

You are correct to say that I should not paint all of FtB with such a broad brush. Many of the bloggers there have never deviated from their original mission, and not a few have been sucked into this mess against their better judgment.

There are only a few blogs on the network where one can expect to be vilified, swarmed, and shouted down for daring to disagree. I am not personally inclined to creating blacklists, but thankfully, Greg Laden has already made one: "Don’t ever, ever find yourself in my presence or think you deserve to breath[e] the air that I, and Jen, and Stephanie, and Gret[a] and Ophelia and PZ and the rest of us breath[e], because you do not."

So there it is, a handy list of blogs not to visit if you do not want to fend off attacks from flying monkeys bent upon enforcing in-group cohesion and ideological uniformity. Thanks, Greg!

Anonymous said...

I've been trying to get a handle on what the FTBullies fuss is all about, so arrived here just now via Twitter. I've read several posts, perhaps the wrong ones, and the citations rarely support the serious accusations. If you can point me to sources i'd appreciate it. Meanwhile, this post's does not seem to be borne out by its citations.

The issue of privilege is central to discussions of harassment. It is a way of encapsulating the various factors (societal norms, disproportionate risks, representation in popular media, cumulative psychological stresses, limited avenues for redress, and so on) that make it generally more difficult for the people experiencing them to only a negligible degree to understand how they play out in other people's lives. It puts our ignorance and inexperience in context. It might be used as a card, or where "sense of entitlement" would better be, but you seem to be complaining about its invocation at all.

To wit: You seem to have cited the first use of the string 'privilege', whether or not the use was pejorative. By my reading, only the second and fifth examples you provide come anywhere close, and i fail to see how anyone could read pejoratively into most of the others. That is to say, immediately before disclaiming that you "don't mean to lump in serious conversations of the actual problem of privilege with the use of the word as a pejorative", you do precisely that.

Your description "authoritarian" also seems strange. Would you elaborate? The public postings of proposed policies and solicitations of feedback, even given their limited scope, contrast with my understanding of authoritarianism (insular, arbitrary, etc.). Unless you just mean "official".

I took the opportunity to scan the comments you shared, specifically those by the bloggers being accused of bullying. Taken together, they include several comments in disagreement, and in each case the treatment they receive belies your description of what is typical. See here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here, and follow the threads. Only the first two were called trolls, with warnings and clear, uncontrived reasons. The only vilification i found followed the last example, and it was restricted to a single other commenter.

The exception, of course, was yourself. This looks suspiciously like projecting or generalizing one's own experience. As you say, these threads are not representative, but i would appreciate your pointing to some comment threads in which an evidently sincere dissenter is "called a 'troll' or worse". I don't dispute that it happens; but by my readings, it tends to take a while.

Damion said...

i would appreciate your pointing to some comment threads in which an evidently sincere dissenter is "called a 'troll' or worse"

Happens all the time, and in every thread that you linked.

Anonymous said...

Right. I keep digging as i can, and i'll be frank that it's become increasingly clear to me that the accusations of bullying are untenable, and always have been. It's also become a bit of a trope to make broad accusations and refuse to provide examples, so it's interesting to get a response, albeit one that does not meet my request.

At the first link, Greta Christina describes in detail the commenter's obvious ill will and violations of her comment policy. The commenter was not simply "expressing a dissenting view on any sensitive issue", as you suggest is enough to earn one the 'troll' label, and certainly not "as polite as you like". The second is a quote on one comment thread from a separate thread, and it's not clear to me whom it's in response to there. (They may well have been trolling.) Finally, the third refers indirectly to several commenters on yet another thread, none by handle, and not solely for what they were saying there. It strikes me as uncontroversial to call several frequent ERV commenters 'trolls', but in any case this was not in response to someone expressing sincere dissent.

Damion said...

Seems to me that you have confused targeted criticism with "obvious ill will" unless you have specific examples of IACB demonstrating such ill-will. Where, exactly, was IACB "trolling" (posting inflammatory, extraneous or off-topic messages in an attempt to incite an emotional response) as opposed to sincerely and passionately dissenting?

Anonymous said...

Well, in their first post iamcuriousblue blames FtB bullying for the death threats FtB bloggers have received, and in their second they use second- or third-hand rumors of employment interference to liken PZ Myers to the source of these threats (which doesn't particularly bear upon the issue) and makes an incendiary accusation against Thibault (which doesn't hold up). Their comments taken together unambiguously violate Greta's comment policies 1 and 3, and expressly 2 here. A lot of people were snide in that exchange, but iamcuriousblue seemed exceptional (albeit not unique) in overtly disrespecting people.

Perhaps i should have said "evidently well-meaning dissenter", since iamcuriousblue is clearly sincere; but that would just be a better attempt at capturing the description in your post of someone standing no chance of being heard or dodging 'troll' accusations at these blogs. Is this example representative of the pattern of behavior you're criticizing?