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.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Final thoughts on #FtBullies

Video: FtBullies and the Freethought Movement

#FtBullies — Too broad a brush?

Some of my favourite Twitter interlocutors have been pointing out that just by using the #FtBullies hash unironically, I'm somehow implying that all of Freethought Blogs has a serious bullying problem, and aligning myself with every single dipshit who attacks the FtB, however spitefully and irrationally. Such broad brush interpretations may be inevitable, because it is not possible to clearly disclaim the intended scope of a 10-character hashtag in less than 130 characters. I'd much rather we had converged on a hashtag which would be most readily interpreted as meaning "Can we please discuss specific abuses of power by the most widely read and respected leaders in the freethought movement, regardless of who they are and how they disseminate their ideas to the public" but even now I cannot think of what that hashtag could have been. Forced brevity can be a harsh mistress.

Let me be abundantly clear about this, most of #FtBloggers aren't #FtBullies, and no one over there has been acting like a bully most of the time. Everyone with power abuses it on occasion, often without meaning to do so, and those with massive audience privilege advantage can be unaware of how much harm they are doing when they publicly shame lower status members of the community or when they encourage or allow various forms of cyberbullying to run rampant in their comment threads.

It has to be noted that while some popular freethought bloggers allow and even encourage piling-on, abusive language, and other bullying tactics, others have taken on the onerous burden of actively preventing their own blogs from hosting that sort of content. Here are a few top-notch examples of bloggers who generally refuse to allow cyberbullies to hijack the discourse on their turf: Daniel Fincke, Kylie Sturgess, Richard CarrierGreta Christina, Chris Hallquist. I do not read everyone else on the network, but I'm confident there are several others who also work hard to prevent substantive discourse from being sidelined by personal attacks, and I can only imagine what a timesuck that must be like for a high volume blog.

The essence of freethought is to be able to judge each proposition for itself, after looking at all sides of the argument. The argument over bullying in the freethought community is multifaceted and should never be oversimplified to the reactionary tribalism of us vs. them. However, if it came to that, I'd have to stand with any blogger who makes a good faith effort to avoid becoming a haven for hatred, regardless of their chosen affiliations or domain name.

This will be my last post on the subject of FtB. I've got other plans for August.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Crommunism and the commentariat

Ian Cromwell broke all of the unwritten rules of Twitter yesterday by patiently explaining his thoughts on a particular issue in some detail, without abbreviation and without barbs:

I have to agree with him on all points here, and so once again the Twitter rules of engagement are breaking down. Particularly,  I must agree that we should not tell other people how to manage their own patch of cyberspace, whether it is a blog, a personal Facebook page, Twitter feed, or what-have-you. To each their own, may they make of it what they will.

However, it must be said that the character of the forum reflects upon the character of the moderators. I used to be very active in an online forum wherein the only rule was "Don't be a dick" and the interpretation of that rule was entirely at moderator discretion. At the same time, I was somewhat active in another forum with essentially no rules of engagement: a place loaded with gun nuts, racist assholes, and unsubtle death threats. Oftentimes some of  same people would behave very differently in the two places, because they each had their own culture and rules of engagement.

Bloggers should not be told how to manage their comment threads, but neither should they expect not to be judged by the character of their commentariat. If you are hosting threads which proudly propagate memes such as "Fuck yourself sideways with a decomposing porcupine" then you may be assumed to have very different goals and values than someone who puts in place a comment moderation policy carefully designed to foster a "constructive, far reaching dialogue and philosophical debate" free from unnecessarily demeaning remarks which generally hamper rather than further substantive debate. 

One final point. As an avid consumer of high-end freethought content, I would much rather attend conferences where I can reasonably expect people will not be verbally harassed and abused, just as I would much rather read online forums where those same expectations will be maintained and enforced.  I'm not in a place to tell conference organizers or bloggers whether or how to create spaces in which a proper balance is struck between free expression and anti-harassment, but as an individual, I can choose not to patronize those who do not even try.

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.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Sexism vs. Atheism at FtB

Since sexism has become such a hugely popular topic within the broader freethought community, and since FreethoughtBlogs has become the proverbial 275 kilo Architeuthis of online unbelief, it seems fitting to get a sense of which FtB authors cover sexism the most often relative to some given baseline. The following list of the top dozen blogs is rough approximation based on comparing only two search terms, however, there are very few surprises here.

Monday, July 9, 2012

A brief history of #FtBullies

18 Jun 2012
Ophelia Benson pushes back against characterizations of Freethought Blogs as a haven for bullies:

21 Jun 2012
Richard Sanderson coins the new hashtag:

23 Jun 2012
Jeremy Stangroom jumps in

01 Jul 2012
Ophelia and friends join the party, and the hash-crash begins

Also on July 1st, Paula Kirby publishes Sisterhood of the Oppressed, thereby sealing her fate with respect to certain blogging collectives.

03 Jul 2012
Paula Kirby joins the fray on Twitter.

04 Jul 2012
Greta Christina and Jason Thibeault boast (without any apparent sense of self-awareness) about how they leveraged the size of FtB's loyal following to dilute out the original message of the hashtag, which was mostly people complaining about how FtB finds various ways to prevent the dissemination of dissent. At this point, the hypocrisy circuit on my personal irony meter completely blows out and causes collateral damage to both my sense of humor and my wireless router.

The ongoing hash crash becomes ever more intense, mostly consisting of lighthearted nonsense and occasionally sparkling satire. If you're going to shout down grouchy dissenters, hey, at least make it entertaining.

Finally, someone calling himself "dysomniak" apparently has in his hand a list of names of known misogynists:

No evidence is forthcoming, but the smear does the trick. People calling themselves skeptics block the accused without asking for evidence. Further blacklisting ensues. I include this last not because dysomniak is anyone special at FtB, but because he is representative of a certain kind of angry Pharyngulite, for whom the ends completely justify the means.

After this point, there are still a few feeble attempts to discuss actual cyberbullying on (and from) both sides, but for the most part the hash degenerated into name calling and mutual recrimination. Final recap video posted here.

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.