Rush Limbaugh, Being a Dick, and Skepticism

March 8, 2012


When conservative radio show host Rush Limbaugh called Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke a "slut" and a "prostitute" last week for her Congressional testimony about birth control, it caused a national uproar that continues to rage.

Limbaugh has since (however reluctantly and insincerely) apologized, but a closer look at his comments reveals that the controversy has implications for the skeptical movement.

The issue is less what Limbaugh said than how he said it-his approach, tone, and choice of words. He could simply have disagreed with Fluke, calmly and rationally explaining why he believed her evidence or arguments were wrong. Instead, he wanted to be funny; he wanted to be controversial and get attention. He'd made a name for himself as an outspoken commentator, and had to live up to that image.

Limbaugh's words were not merely insults (though one could argue that in an enlightened world slut and prostitute should not be insults but instead a sexually liberated woman's prerogative). As Fluke said in an interview on The View, "I tried to see this for what it is, and I believe that what it is, is an attempt to silence me, to silence the millions of women and the men who support them who have been speaking out about this issue." This is indeed the intended effect of insults: to put others down, to dismiss and silence them.

Limbaugh's approach is all too common in today's world. It's easy to see why: it's cheap, easy, and superficial. It's often the case that outrage and insults substitute for truth and accuracy; it's easier to call someone stupid or a slut than it is to engage them respectfully. It's easier to have knee-jerk, facepalming reactions of manufactured apoplectic outrage than it is to thoughtfully address another's opinion or evidence.

Bullies like Limbaugh aren't going away any time soon; there's always an audience for demagoguery, insult and shock jock humor. People like Limbaugh have legions of loyal fans eager to jump on the bandwagon and parrot his claims and opinions without having to think for themselves.

When President Obama was asked why he contacted Sandra Fluke to talk about the issue, he replied with characteristic wisdom and thoughtfulness: "I thought about [my daughters] Malia and Sasha, and one of the things I want them to do as they get older is to engage in issues they care about, even ones I may not agree with them on. I want them to be able to speak their mind in a civil and thoughtful way, and I don't want them attacked or called horrible names because they're being good citizens." As a writer on Jezebel noted, it was "a teachable moment if there ever was one."

 


As Deborah Tannen discusses in her excellent book The Argument Culture, attempting to mock, ridicule, and silence others is exactly the opposite of trying to engage in reasoned debate and discussion. It is dismissive and arrogant; as Phil Plait famously put it, "Don't be a dick."

Of course, Phil wasn't the first to point this problem out; it's long been a basic tenet of skepticism and rational inquiry. In every issue of Skeptic magazine, Michael Shermer quotes Baruch Spinoza: "I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." CSICOP co-founder Ray Hyman's guide "Proper Criticism" (which has been reprinted several times in Skeptical Inquirer magazine and stands as the publication's official guide to proper skeptical discourse) wrote, "We should...convey the opponent's position in a fair, objective, and non-emotional manner. We should avoid using loaded and prejudicial words in our criticisms."

It seems clear to most skeptics that ridicule, insults, and ad hominem attacks are wrong and counter-productive. Given the widespread condemnation of Limbaugh's words (not only among Democrats and feminists but among the general public), you would think that there would be a vast and deep gulf between the sort of vile tone and language Limbaugh represents and skeptics.

That is, unfortunately, not the case, as Phil, myself, and many others have pointed out. It is alarming and concerning when skeptics-women and men who presumably value freedom of speech, free inquiry, and respectful discourse-use the same tactics and fallacies that Rush Limbaugh routinely employs.

The irony is that this comes at a time when questions have been raised about how welcoming organized skepticism is-to women, minorities, theists, and others. Are skeptics seen as tolerant and welcoming to people with different ideas and points of view? Or are skeptics seen as dismissive, insulting, and eager to mock and silence diverse opinions? What is best for the community in the long term?

It's not just about the insults; anyone can lose their temper now and then, or call people insulting names; Penn and Teller (well, strictly speaking, Penn) do it all the time on the hit skeptical show Bullshit! But when the ridicule and insults become routine and mean-spirited-and when, as Sandra Fluke insightfully noted-the real objective is to silence those who have different opinions, there's a legitimate problem. It's not about those who are insulted being too sensitive; it's about respecting other people even if we disagree with them.

Those who make their names with controversy and insult rarely feel they are doing anything wrong; they believe they're just expressing their righteous indignation at those who aren't smart enough to see things their way. Any insults to (or silencing of) others, or corrosion of polite discourse, is easily justified in service of a greater good.

Of course, freedom of speech goes both ways. No one is trying to silence or censor Rush Limbaugh; his right to call Sandra Fluke a slut is protected by the First Amendment. Similarly, skeptics who regularly trade in insult and inflammatory demagoguery have every right to do so.

Many skeptics joined the chorus of outrage at Limbaugh's comments, yet have been conspicuously silent about similar (albeit not as extreme) behavior within the skeptical community. Each to his or her own. But the next time we express dismay at legitimate discussions that quickly devolve into bitter flame wars; or the next time we shake our heads at negative, political advertising that ignores the real issues in favor of fearmongering and mud-slinging; or the next time we wonder why the social and political environments have become so toxic, vitriolic, and polarizing, we can see how these seeds are sown. For some of us, the cause will be the people around us; for others the cause will be in the mirror.

Comments:

#1 Janet Factor (Guest) on Thursday March 08, 2012 at 8:48am

Very nice, Ben. Of course the root difficulty lies in distinguishing between people and their ideas.

Very often in skeptical discourse, our opponents accuse us of insulting them when what have actually done is criticize their ideas. They then feel fully justified in personally insulting us, as they perceive it, in return. This kind of misunderstanding is, I think, at the root of such behavior in general.

#2 Nathan (Guest) on Thursday March 08, 2012 at 9:28am

Are you referring to a specific even within the skeptic community in which names have been called?

It’s easy to say “yeah, ok, this makes sense,” to your post, but if you claim that other skeptics have been insulting or prejudicial in any way, you should at least link to it or explain it so we know what you are talking about.

As it stands, this blog post isn’t particularly valuable in discourse because it doesn’t particularly address any specific event.

That being said, when I call someone a “con-man” I am doing so in a prejudicial way.  They are causing loss of time/money/trust/etc. to make themselves money/power/etc. and that I am prejudicial against. I may be called rude for calling someone an “asshole con-man,” but that doesn’t make me wrong, and sometimes rudeness is appropriate. 

Calling women “sluts” and “prostitutes” (while it should be neutral) for using contraception is FALSE, as well as rude and inflammatory and intended to be such.  Calling a believer of woo an “ignorant gullible fool” may be considered rude by some, but it is a true statement, and demonstrably so.  It may be a verifiable and appropriate use of rude insults.

#3 Greg Laden (Guest) on Thursday March 08, 2012 at 10:29am

Here we go again.

The problem with naming names is that it will start a flame war.  The problem with not naming names is that these comments lack value without specificity. 

Off hand, I am having a hard time thinking of an example of a skeptic calling someone out by insisting that they have sex on camera and post the results, that they are a slut, that they are a prostitute, and by making the claim that insurance dollars used for basic medical payments are the same as having a third party paying you to have sex. 

Limbaugh has managed to be inaccurate, absurd, AND terribly insulting in a way that is dripping with misogyny.  At that general level, we do see some of that in the skeptics community and it is wrong and should not happen. The first amendment has little to do with this because that is about protection and government, in the US.  But there are parallels.

#4 Jason Thibeault (Guest) on Thursday March 08, 2012 at 11:12am

I really do appreciate you taking this stand, Ben, and I’m glad that you’re speaking up against the kind of misogyny and slut-shaming that Rush is engaged in here, especially in light of how many folks within the skeptical community are blatantly ignoring instances of the same sort of bigotry coming from “our side.” A number of us are being vocal about it, but we encounter so much pushback that it’s good that someone in your position is willing to support us.

That… IS what you’re talking about, right?

#5 Alan Wilund (Guest) on Thursday March 08, 2012 at 11:17am

. . .  because what Jason is saying is that if instead you’re talking about the tactics of the Skepchicks and their ilk, they’re going to have your (online, virtual) head on a platter.  Or they’ll just call you a “tone troll” and continue on doing the same types of thing, but for the Greater Good.

#6 Greg Laden (Guest) on Thursday March 08, 2012 at 11:24am

I am assuming that the post’s author is referring to the “kick you in the c*nt” remarks and other such things which definitely do not come from the Skepchicks.  The Skepchick tone is quite appropriate, I’m sure all would agree. 

I’m not sure what Jason is referring to.  Probably the same thing I’m referring to.  And I’m happy to name names: Abbie Smith and Franc Hoggle, Justicar, and the rest of them. 

When it comes to sexist, misogynist, often violent and threatening language, the Skepchicks, as well as many other bloggers or even just young women posing on Reddit, are the object of this sort of Rush Limbaugh type attack, on a daily basis. 

If that is not what we are talking about here, then I don’t know what.

#7 Jason Thibeault (Guest) on Thursday March 08, 2012 at 11:33am

No, seriously, I wasn’t trying to be ironic.

Greg, I’m talking about that crew in part, but not exclusively. I’m also referring to Penn Jillette’s “what an unfunny cunt” bit, The Amazing Atheist, and more generally, that gigantic blind spot some skeptics have to this sort of thing (see Alan @4).

I’m pretty sure that was Ben’s point. But without specifics, it’s every bit as likely that this post, like other unspecific posts, is acting as a Rorschach test where we’re seeing what we want, not Ben’s original point.

#8 Kazim (Guest) on Thursday March 08, 2012 at 11:49am

Yes, it is a shame that the post didn’t get more specific.  I’m sure we’d all love to know what “similar behavior within the skeptical community” is going on that is equivalent to Rush Limbaugh’s personal sliming and blanket hatred of “sluts” so that we can stop turning a blind eye to it.  But as you said, Jason, it’s difficult to discern author intent from a such a vague statement of disapproval.  So I guess we’ll go ahead and assume that Ben was talking about the similar misogyny of, say, The Amazing Atheist.

So in that vein, let me just say that it was a great and insightful post!

#9 BJ Kramer (Guest) on Thursday March 08, 2012 at 11:51am

I stand firmly with the ‘nice’ people in the tone wars, yet I have two problems with this.

Why is it that we somehow know Rush’s “real” motivation was to “silence”? It clearly didn’t work, and somehow never seems to. To me it looked like his motivation was to score cheap points with his rabble. Where does this knowledge of ‘silencing’ come from, and what does it even mean?

My second issue is that whenever someone posts something like this, they get pressured to cite examples. When those examples eventually surface they generally come in two forms:
  1) egregiously bad behavior that almost nobody supports (really, does *anyone* support Amazing Atheist anymore?)
  2) questionable out-of-context quotes that reasonable people can disagree about (like Penn’s comment to a friend where he used ‘cunt’)

Of course all this goes out the window if we give importance to anonymous blog posts. Are we really going to be the one Internet sub-culture that doesn’t learn to ignore the trolls?

#10 Bob (Guest) on Thursday March 08, 2012 at 12:00pm

I’m withdrawing my advertisements from this column.

#11 Mrs. A.S. (Guest) on Thursday March 08, 2012 at 12:13pm

Steve Cuno has already touched on this issue with his post on the JREF Swift blog entitled, “How to Sabotage Skepticism from the Inside: Entwine the Claim with the Cause”.

Once again, and even though Ben Radford has referred to a mirror in his post, we are making the assumption that the negative behavior being highlighted must refer to ‘someone else not me personally’.

IMO, skepticism should begin with ourselves and should always be first and foremost.  If we fail to do that self-evaluation and correct our own negative behavior, we run the risk of being no better than the purveyors of pseudoscience we are so quick to criticize.

#12 Stephanie Zvan (Guest) on Thursday March 08, 2012 at 12:26pm

Mrs. A.S., your comment assumes that the people commenting on the behavior of others don’t also look at their own behavior. That’s quite an assumption to make.

#13 Kazim (Guest) on Thursday March 08, 2012 at 12:36pm

Aha, Mrs. A.S., now I understand.  Clearly Ben was talking about YOU.  Thanks for stepping forward with your brave self evaluation.

#14 Mrs. A.S. (Guest) on Thursday March 08, 2012 at 12:40pm

@Stephanie Zvan

I don’t think that assumption is much of a leap when I read comments about who is ‘guilty’ and ‘not guilty’ of this behavior and those comments do not include an “I’m guilty. Thanks for the reminder that I need to better, Ben.” comment as well.

I’ll consider my comment inappropriate when I see more people owning the behavior.  Shall I start…Yes, I have done this when people have seriously pissed me off.  I must remember to not let my emotional state override my good judgement about how to deal with others in a productive way.  In fact, Stephanie, I consider this comment a bit of engagement in the type of behavior Ben is referring to because I’m getting very tired of people being quick to find fault while not owning any fault themselves.

#15 Greg Laden (Guest) on Thursday March 08, 2012 at 12:43pm

Jason: Absolutely.  Penn is one of the great examples of people getting big and famous and, apparently, not paying attention to what is being said in the world around him and going off the rails.  I was actually thinking about him too.

#16 greg_laden on Thursday March 08, 2012 at 12:54pm

BJ: You may be right, but I think that there is evidence of Rush’s motivations being in part to silence someone.

For one thing, women generally were excluded by the Republicans. Then, one woman who managed to get past that barrier (brought in by Democrats) was pounced on by the de facto spokesperson of the Republican party.

Also, have you checked out the transcript of Rush’s remarks?  Interestingly, you can’t, because they’ve been removed from his site.  Anyway, I’m not entirely sure Limbauch has to have used the term “shut up” for his behavior to be seen in part as trying to shut someone up. 

In these sorts of discussions, relying on proof positive to see the obvious for what it is would rather hamper us.  On occasion Skeptics need to be a little more flexible than they sometimes let themselves.

#17 Stephanie Zvan (Guest) on Thursday March 08, 2012 at 1:34pm

Mrs. A.S., you exclude the possibility that the people who are commenting here have examined their own behavior. You suggest they haven’t sorted out dialog and teaching from values-expressive behaviors and determined that they’re using appropriate strategies for each. You suggest that they haven’t determined where they find the appropriate line to be between accurately putting a name to behavior and name-calling. You’re suggesting they’re not aware of the level of politeness in a given discourse (which includes more than just words) before choosing what they consider to be the appropriate level of politeness for their response.

Now you may or may not agree with them about the decisions that they’ve made. That’s a different discussion—one that does and must delve into specifics. What you’re claiming is that these commenters, many of whom communicate at least semi-professionally, don’t assess their own communications, simply because they don’t step in here to say, “Why, yes, I have been doing this thing I do semi-professionally without paying sufficient attention to how I do it!” That’s quite the stretch.

#18 BJ Kramer (Guest) on Thursday March 08, 2012 at 2:28pm

Greg: Thanks for the response.

My issue with ‘silencing’ was actually more general when dealing with sexism: I don’t really understand what it means. When a sexist man tells a woman explicitly to ‘shut up’, well, he’s certainly *trying* to silence her, but it doesn’t seem very likely he’d succeed. I don’t know exactly what Rush said (I sure don’t listen to him, and as you pointed out, the transcripts aren’t available), but even if he did try to ‘silence’ her it would be such a pathetic and doomed-to-failure attempt (really, how could he?) that I’m scratching my head wondering why we’d bring it up (‘silencing’, that is).

I suppose someone with actual power (say, a newspaper editor who refuses to run op-eds by women) would actually be able to ‘silence’ women. Otherwise, I just don’t get it. Why characterize his speech with an intent that’s so obviously incapable of effect? If he said women shouldn’t read books would we say he’s trying to make women illiterate? No, we’d say he just said something stupid.

Well, I’ll leave it as an ‘I don’t get it’. I shouldn’t have brought it up here, as Ben uses the term the way it’s commonly used, and my befuddlement is with the general use, which seems correctly applied here. My other issue, however, drives me crazy.

#19 Mrs. A.S. (Guest) on Thursday March 08, 2012 at 2:42pm

It seems to me that you’re the one making the stretch, Stephanie.

Haven’t you just made all kinds of assumptions about what I’m thinking?

Let me be clear.  We have all engaged in this type of behavior because it is part of being human.  We get angry and upset at our detractors, or we fail to give people the benefit of the doubt and assume the worst possible motivations about their behavior, or we misinterpret what someone has said, or we don’t take the time and effort to fully understand what is being said before stating our opinion in not particularly productive ways.

You seem to have decided that I am taking pot shots at the semi-professional or professional writers in this community specifically.  I’m speaking to everyone including myself.  We need to do better.  We should be able to discuss all issues with a desire to find workable solutions not just dismiss people as being bad people because they’re opinions are different from our own.

#20 greg_laden on Thursday March 08, 2012 at 2:45pm

I see your point.  Of course, public misogynous attacks do in fact silence women.  For instance, I know a number of women who considered blogging who either didn’t start, started but didn’t do much, or did a lot but have quit or are quitting (including one prominent female blogger who has not quit yet) where all that not-doing and quitting and general all round shutting up is from being tired of that crap.  So it does, in fact, work, to some extent.

#21 BJ Kramer (Guest) on Thursday March 08, 2012 at 2:58pm

Greg:
This is where it gets dicey. I’d love to continue this, because I’m genuinely curious, and yet remain somewhat skeptical. I’d like someone to draw a line between a public act of misogyny and our knowledge of how its victims feel silenced…

But I’m going to stop here. In the past people have said nasty things about me when expressed skepticism about certain issues I feel haven’t been fully backed up with evidence (that I don’t doubt are nonetheless probably true). Thanks for hanging with me this far.

#22 greg_laden on Thursday March 08, 2012 at 3:05pm

I’d like someone to draw a line between a public act of misogyny and our knowledge of how its victims feel silenced…

You mean a line connecting them?  I just did, but without naming names and producing courtroom style evidence.  If/when the blogger I mentioned quits, she’ll probably blog about it. In the mean time just talk to some women who have a public stake in this community and they’ll tell you. Or you could read any of the blog posts that have made this connection.

Here’s a woman being shut up, in case you’ve not seen that before: http://goo.gl/zGRTB

and then read this:

http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2011/08/why_google_has_broken_its_prom.php

There is a line, connecting these things.

#23 Stephanie Zvan (Guest) on Thursday March 08, 2012 at 6:14pm

No, Mrs. A.S. I referred to what you said about the commenters here: “Once again, and even though Ben Radford has referred to a mirror in his post, we are making the assumption that the negative behavior being highlighted must refer to ‘someone else not me personally’” and “I don’t think that assumption is much of a leap when I read comments about who is ‘guilty’ and ‘not guilty’ of this behavior and those comments do not include an “I’m guilty. Thanks for the reminder that I need to better, Ben.” comment as well.” If you meant something other than what I interpreted it to mean, please correct me.

I note from the rest of your comment, however, that I appear to be correct. You do, in fact, seem to be suggesting that these professional and semi-professional writers do not go through the process of thinking about what they’re writing in these terms before they publish it. You are suggesting that what “we have all engaged in” gets published instead of being considered and edited beforehand.

#24 Mrs. A.S. (Guest) on Thursday March 08, 2012 at 7:17pm

I’m am not suggesting anything of the kind, Stephanie.

“We” means ALL OF US.  At times, we all exhibit the type of behavior Ben describes.  That can be counterproductive when we’re trying to find solutions for problems, and working towards making the community welcoming to anyone who wishes to understand what skepticism is about.

Skepticism is a methodology for reaching provisional conclusions based on reason and evidence.  Anyone who wishes to learn about that methodology, and the importance of applying it, should feel welcome in our midst—whether they have reached fully informed, well-reasoned provisional conclusions about every opinion they hold, or not. 

Why so defensive, BTW?  It isn’t a crime punishable by death to say that we all make mistakes, particularly when we are in a highly emotional state about issues which we feel passionately about.

I’m guilty as charged and willing to admit it.

#25 The Armchair Skeptic on Thursday March 08, 2012 at 7:30pm

Like BJ (#9), I think it’s reasonable to ask if Limbaugh’s intent really was to silence Ms. Fluke.  Another possible explanation, and one that seems more likely to me, based on his past behavior, is that Limbaugh did it to stir up controversy and gain some publicity and notoriety.  If so, it certainly worked.

#26 Randy (Guest) on Friday March 09, 2012 at 1:08am

“Don’t be a dick” is also a call to silence.  Yet we have our share of popular dicks (PZ Myers, Bill Maher, and Penn as you mention).

I disagree with them on occasion, but I don’t think ultimately that I would ask them to change their style to be less dicky.  It wouldn’t be honest.

Ad hominem is not a valid argument, but it is valid speech, and can be a reasonable response to vile people.

#27 James Croft on Friday March 09, 2012 at 9:51am

Important and wise words. The idea that they are not valuable without calling out specific individuals is nonsense: one can espouse a general principle without engaging individuals. If the general principle is sound, then individuals can seek to apply it themselves in their own work. The call to engage individuals is quite irrelevant to the value of the claim being made here.

I would further add that all the research I have encountered into effective persuasion and communication concludes that mean-spirited attacks and derogation of others is generally ineffective at changing minds. A skeptical movement should bow to the evidence.

#28 greg_laden on Friday March 09, 2012 at 10:56am

we have our share of popular dicks (PZ Myers, Bill Maher, and Penn as you mention)

I see what you did there ... you’re the only person who mentioned PZ Myers and Bill Maher. 

If I was PZ, I’d probably kick your ass non-politely for putting him in the same category as Penn.  I’m not sure about Maher.  He’s a Cable TV guy and I don’t get that station so I only seee the short videos people send me or post on Facebook, etc, and that is a rather biased sample.

But if you seriously think PZ and Penn are somehow similar, then I’d question whether or not you’ve really looked, or if you did, that you really thought about it.

#29 greg_laden on Friday March 09, 2012 at 10:59am

I would further add that all the research I have encountered into effective persuasion and communication concludes that mean-spirited attacks and derogation of others is generally ineffective at changing minds. A skeptical movement should bow to the evidence.

You might be right, but “all the research I’ve encountered” and “bow to the evidence” demands at least a link or two, and really, it should be to a few peer reviewed studies.  I would very much like to see this research before I bow to it!

(I’m not really being snarky here ... I’m truly interested.)

#30 James Croft on Friday March 09, 2012 at 11:42am

Sure! Take a look at my book-in-progress on the topic of freethinkers’ political activism. Each section draws from some of the most respected named in communications science, political science etc.:

http://harvardhumanist.org/tag/the-freethinkers-political-textbook/

#31 greg_laden on Friday March 09, 2012 at 11:53am

Great, thanks

Where are you on the Overton Window (so called)?

#32 James Croft on Friday March 09, 2012 at 12:03pm

I’m writing a post on it now. There are no published studies I can find on it at all. It is also frequently misunderstood by its proponents. As far as the current literature I have investigated is concerned, it is a theory that seems to fit some of the fact that has never been put to experimental test. There are also no case-studies I’ve found of Overton strategies being consciously pursued by any group. So at the moment I consider it a plausible theory unverified by evidence.

#33 James Croft on Friday March 09, 2012 at 12:05pm

I should add, regarding the linked material, that we’re playing with how strict to be about citations on the site. Some are more fully cited than others. I’m trying to find a happy medium between responsibility and readability, and we haven’t reached it yet!

#34 Greg Laden (Guest) on Friday March 09, 2012 at 12:40pm

You might have a look at George Lakoff’s “Thinking Points”

#35 James Croft on Friday March 09, 2012 at 1:02pm

It’s a great resource - it’s cited in one of the articles in the Textbook

#36 SkepticReport on Saturday March 10, 2012 at 11:44am

Greg Laden said “When it comes to sexist, misogynist, often violent and threatening language, the Skepchicks, as well as many other bloggers or even just young women posing on Reddit, are the object of this sort of Rush Limbaugh type attack, on a daily basis.”

Let us not forget that this applies to every skeptic who sticks his or her neck out there. Personally, I get my fair share of regular abuse and even more serious threats.

The point is, for a skeptic, it is merely par for the course, not the main issue. We are not successful if we are reviled by some people. We are successful if we turn some people into critical thinkers.

Greg Laden said “If I was PZ, I’d probably kick your ass non-politely for putting him in the same category as Penn.”

Solving what? He would be just like Penn, when he kicks ass non-politely. Only, that is not seen as a good thing, as Jen McCreight is “done” with Penn, because Penn is doing what people know he is doing.

And, of course, Rebecca Watson being just as much of a dick, when she put Stef McGraw in the same category as misogynists, merely because Stef McGraw dared to merely disagree with her on a matter of opinion.

If skeptics followed that approach in general, we would all be “done” with each other real quick.

I do not see how turning skepticism into a competition of who-can-ostracize-who-the-fastest is in any way productive. We have enough to fight as it is.

#37 greg_laden on Saturday March 10, 2012 at 4:05pm

Let us not forget that this applies to every skeptic who sticks his or her neck out there.

I don’t see an equal amount of crap, offensive language, and threatening rhetoric being thrown as all skeptics, and I don’t think it is a good idea to assume (and it is incorrect to assert) that there is not a special anti-female thing going on out there.  (I’m not sure if you are suggesting that men and women are both equally attacked or not because you are not specifying that.)


“woosh”  ... that was the sound of your paragraph about PZ going over my head.  I have no idea what you are saying there. 

And, of course, Rebecca Watson being just as much of a dick, when she put Stef McGraw in the same category as misogynists, merely because Stef McGraw dared to merely disagree with her on a matter of opinion.

You make shit up and call yourself a skeptic.  I see.

I do not see how turning skepticism into a competition of who-can-ostracize-who-the-fastest is in any way productive. We have enough to fight as it is.

Your comment is all about ostracizing people, you’ve got most of what you say wrong, and you are ignoring important data.  Your claims are not credible, your point of view is biased, and the assumptions you are asking people to make, incorrectly, are possibly offensive, depending on how you might care to clarify your first statement about how your life is just as hard as a skeptic as women who are constantly being told that they should be kicked in the cunt.

You’re a poe, right?

#38 SkepticReport on Saturday March 10, 2012 at 10:38pm

Greg Laden wrote: “I don’t see an equal amount of crap, offensive language, and threatening
rhetoric being thrown as all skeptics, and I don’t think it is a good idea
to assume (and it is incorrect to assert) that there is not a special
anti-female thing going on out there. (I’m not sure if you are suggesting
that men and women are both equally attacked or not because you are not
specifying that.)”

I did specifically talk about those skeptics who sticks his or her neck out there, not all skeptics. Most skeptics are what we could call “quiet skeptics”, who do not do anything in public, but nevertheless think critically, and do what they can to spread critical thinking, in their own ways. Those are the absolute majority of skeptics.

I did not suggest or assert that there is not “a special anti-female thing” going on out there, nor did I suggest that men and women are equally attacked in society. However, this is not a competition on which group gets the more abuse.

Greg Laden wrote: ”“woosh” ... that was the sound of your paragraph about PZ going over my
head. I have no idea what you are saying there.”

I’ll expand, then:

If you were PZ, you would probably kick someone’s ass for doing something, because you did not like how Penn kicked someone’s ass. How does that make you any different than Penn? It may even make you worse, since you are merely escalating the ass-kicking. If you don’t like what Penn does, don’t do what he does.

Greg Laden wrote: “You make shit up and call yourself a skeptic. I see.”

It is exactly these types of snide remarks that is the problem.

No, I do not make “shit up”. Whether you like it or not, that is how the Rebecca/Stef incident looked like to many people. You may phrase it differently, because you perceive the incident differently, but that does not mean your perception is the only one.

Rebecca got called out for being a dick, by many people. And rightly so, IMO.

Greg Laden wrote: “Your comment is all about ostracizing people, you’ve got most of what you
say wrong, and you are ignoring important data. Your claims are not
credible, your point of view is biased, and the assumptions you are asking
people to make, incorrectly, are possibly offensive, depending on how you
might care to clarify your first statement about how your life is just as
hard as a skeptic as women who are constantly being told that they should be
kicked in the cunt.”

That abrasive attitude is exactly what is the problem discussed here, and I’m afraid it clouds your perception of what I said.

Happy to clarify, though.

No, my comment is all about pointing out that ostracizing people by shaming them or being offended by what they said is not, in my opinion, a productive path for skeptics.

I do not think I got most of what I said wrong, since we are talking about perception of events. You may disagree with that perception, but please acknowledge that we are talking about just that.

I am not ignoring important data, since I am putting forward what I think of this matter. If you weigh some arguments more than what I felt relevant, you are free to do so. But I am not wrong merely because I see things differently than you do.

Likewise, you may not think my claims are credible, but then, you are forgetting that we are exchanging views on policy here, not pitting one scientific theory against the other, using evidence.

Thus, of course my point of view is biased, just as yours is. How on Earth can they not be?

Whether or not my assumptions are incorrect depends entirely on whether people agree with my point of view or not. Whether or not some may find them offensive does not mean I should be shunned, ridiculed or ostracized for them.

I did not say that my life is “just as hard” as a skeptic as women who are constantly told that they should be kicked in the cunt. I pointed out, apparently to your dismay, that some skeptics - those who stick their necks out - also get their fair share of abuse. Not just insults, but also threats of various kinds.

Yes, I get called names. Yes, I get threats of physical violence. Yes, I get threats of lawsuits. Yes, I get death threats. Now, what? Am I closing the distance to the person in the lead, the one who feels the most threatened? For what purpose are we running this race?

The problem lies, I think, in the way we choose to spend our time. If we seek ways to be offended, we will find them. I have chosen not to seek out or focus on insults in order to portray myself as a victim. Like I said, such things are par for the course, but I will not make it a focal point of being a skeptic. That is a futile approach.

I would much rather focus on what makes other people critical thinkers. Making people feel sorry for me because I am a skeptic, and thus be attacked on various levels, does not make them think critically. It only makes them feel pity for me.

Greg Laden wrote: “You’re a poe, right?”

I have no idea what a “poe” is. If you meant it as an insult, you made my point for me.

#39 greg_laden on Sunday March 11, 2012 at 7:05am

Most skeptics are what we could call “quiet skeptics”, who do not do anything in public, but nevertheless think critically, and do what they can to spread critical thinking, in their own ways. Those are the absolute majority of skeptics.

Interesting. Might be true.  Can you cite the survey?

<I did not suggest or assert that there is not “a special anti-female thing” going on out there, nor did I suggest that men and women are equally attacked in society. However, this is not a competition on which group gets the more abuse.

Actually, you did, and then, you did it again just now, essentially.  By implying that looking at differential treatment is some sort of competition or game, you devalue the importance of misogyny in the skeptics movement.  That’s a fail, in terms of feminism, humanism, and skepticism. 

If you were PZ, you would probably kick someone’s ass for doing something, because you did not like how Penn kicked someone’s ass. How does that make you any different than Penn? It may even make you worse, since you are merely escalating the ass-kicking. If you don’t like what Penn does, don’t do what he does.

My point had nothing to do with escalation. My point is that if you are putting PZ’s approach and Penn’s approach in the same category or otherwise calling them similar, then you are probably not very familiar with either one or both approaches.

No, I do not make “shit up”. Whether you like it or not, that is how the Rebecca/Stef incident looked like to many people. You may phrase it differently, because you perceive the incident differently, but that does not mean your perception is the only one.

Yes, I understand that a lot of people who either paid less attention than the situation deserved, came to the table with a preformed agenda, or had some other baggage, did not understand what Rebecca said, or conflated the wide range of topics she covered in a single talk and mixed them all up.  And those people generally got it wrong.

No, my comment is all about pointing out that ostracizing people by shaming them or being offended by what they said is not, in my opinion, a productive path for skeptics.

Hahahahahaha You are a very very funny guy! 

You are telling everyone to stop doing what you insist on doing yourself.  You do realize that, right?

Whether or not my assumptions are incorrect depends entirely on whether people agree with my point of view or not. Whether or not some may find them offensive does not mean I should be shunned, ridiculed or ostracized for them.

Actually, some of your assumptions are dead wrong, and very obviously so. 

bla bla bla

Whatever whatever, now you are wasting my time.

By the way, I do think that what those people did to you on the JREF forum, about the bullets on the airplane, was immature and unfair and endlessly stupid, even if you did have it all wrong.

#40 SkepticReport on Sunday March 11, 2012 at 7:36am

Greg Laden said: “Interesting. Might be true.  Can you cite the survey?”

Come on, Greg. You know better than that. You know perfectly well that there is always a cry for skeptics to become more engaged, to participate as active skeptics.

You surely cannot believe that the majority of skeptics worldwide are activists.

Greg Laden said: “Actually, you did, and then, you did it again just now, essentially.  By implying that looking at differential treatment is some sort of competition or game, you devalue the importance of misogyny in the skeptics movement.  That’s a fail, in terms of feminism, humanism, and skepticism. “

I know what I am arguing, thank you very much. I am not devaluing the importance of misogyny in the skeptics movement at all. I do not, however, conflate skepticism and critical thinking with political issues like feminism. Just as skepticism does not lead to atheism, it does not lead to feminism either.

Greg Laden said: “My point had nothing to do with escalation.”

Your point would result in escalation: One is a dick, so your response would be to be a dick. What do you think the response would be to your response? You could hardly get offended if people were dicks to you, could you?

Greg Laden said: “My point is that if you are putting PZ’s approach and Penn’s approach in the same category or otherwise calling them similar, then you are probably not very familiar with either one or both approaches.”

Actually, I am very familiar with both approaches. I don’t find either of them particularly productive.

Greg Laden said: “Yes, I understand that a lot of people who either paid less attention than the situation deserved, came to the table with a preformed agenda, or had some other baggage, did not understand what Rebecca said, or conflated the wide range of topics she covered in a single talk and mixed them all up.  And those people generally got it wrong.”

I could ask you for a survey, but I realize that you are expressing an opinion.

Greg Laden said: “Hahahahahaha You are a very very funny guy! You are telling everyone to stop doing what you insist on doing yourself.  You do realize that, right?”

How does what I have suggested here constitute dickery?

Greg Laden said: “Actually, some of your assumptions are dead wrong, and very obviously so.”

Let us agree to disagree, then.

Greg Laden said: “bla bla bla Whatever whatever, now you are wasting my time.”

Thank you for your opinion.

Greg Laden said: “By the way, I do think that what those people did to you on the JREF forum, about the bullets on the airplane, was immature and unfair and endlessly stupid, even if you did have it all wrong. “

Thank you. We agree that such approaches are unproductive, then. Why you fail to pursue them yourself is something only you can answer.

#41 greg_laden on Sunday March 11, 2012 at 8:45am

You know better than that. You know perfectly well ... You surely cannot believe that the majority of skeptics worldwide are activists.

Nice. 

I am not devaluing the importance of misogyny in the skeptics movement at all. I do not, however, conflate skepticism and critical thinking with political issues like feminism. Just as skepticism does not lead to atheism, it does not lead to feminism either.

The majority of skeptics, atheists, and humanists and feminists disagree with you.  But your position is a common one among the few remaining .... I’ll let those on the sidelines fill in the blanks here.

#42 SkepticReport on Sunday March 11, 2012 at 8:57am

Greg Laden said “The majority of skeptics, atheists, and humanists and feminists disagree with you.  But your position is a common one among the few remaining .... I’ll let those on the sidelines fill in the blanks here.”

No, please. Enlighten me.

Why does skepticism lead to atheism and feminism?

I see you had no answer to what was so dickish about what I suggested. I’ll conclude that you have withdrawn the claim, then.

#43 Ted Dahlberg (Guest) on Monday March 12, 2012 at 7:38am

I’d just like to say that I greatly respect Ben Radford for writing this. A lot of people, me included, could stand to learn from his example.

Laden… It is the behaviour of persons such as you and PZ Myers that has more or less driven me away from scepticism. No great loss perhaps but there you have it. I just got this familiar feeling as I read what you wrote. It took me a while to identify, but in the end I realised what it was. It was the feeling I remembered from going to high school, and knowing that the bullies were going to be there.

#44 Scented Nectar (Guest) on Monday March 12, 2012 at 9:01am

Greg and Jason, I see a similarity between what this article refers to, and those times when any questions, scrutiny, or points made about feminist issues, are not actually discussed, disputed, or debated, but instead are responded to with angry names/no-proof-accusations of “sexist” “rapist” “misogynist” “MRA” “dick” “dudez” “woman hater” “patriarchy supporter” etc.
Mind you, I also acknowledge that many of us who get called those things by you femtheists*, respond back with similarly insulting names. You freaked and faint whenever we do it, yet you do it too.
Personally, I am for everyone speaking their mind, crudeness and insults included. It’s more honest, and then the message becomes important instead of worrying over the packaging it’s in.
To me, calling people who simply have questions or skepticism about any feminist claims, names like sexist, etc, is simply an empty package. It’s not an answered question, nor an explained concern, nor anything but a brushoff insult with no attached message.
The motto among femtheists, seems to be No Scrutiny Allowed! Or maybe Scrutiny Is Mutiny!
*Femtheists are what I call atheists who practice radical feminism with a religious-like faith rather than based on evidence.

#45 Mrs. A. S. (Guest) on Monday March 12, 2012 at 12:28pm

Greg Laden says:

Yes, I understand that a lot of people who either paid less attention than the situation deserved, came to the table with a preformed agenda, or had some other baggage, did not understand what Rebecca said, or conflated the wide range of topics she covered in a single talk and mixed them all up.  And those people generally got it wrong.

I spent many, many hours reading many many blogposts and watching the talk Rebecca gave at the conference in Dublin, the talk Rebecca gave at the CFI Student Leadership conference, and the video Rebecca made about the elevator incident numerous times.  I have five 4”- binders printed duplex with blogposts and the complete comment threads on this issue.

I did not pay less attention, come to the table with a preformed agenda or some other baggage, misunderstand what Rebecca said or conflate the wide range of topics Rebecca covered in a single talk and mixed them up.  I have done a thorough analysis of Rebecca’s videos and her responses to Stef McGraw.  IMO, Rebecca behaved inappropriately to Stef McGraw, moreover, Rebecca did not proof that she had been “sexualized” or “objectified” by Elevator Guy.

As skeptics we have the right and responsibility to question the anecdotal assertions of others. 

We don’t accept “God has answered my prayers” as proof of Gods.  We don’t accept “I took this homeopathic medication and it made me feel better” as proof that homeopathic medications work.  We don’t accept “I’ve been abducted by aliens” as proof that we are being visited by aliens. 

And, I don’t accept Rebecca’s claim that she was beyond a shadow of a doubt “sexualized” or “objectified” because it requires the ability to read someone else’s mind.  I accept that Rebecca FELT that she had been sexualized or objectified but her statements about her feelings are nothing more than proof about how she felt.  (Just like people FEELING that their prayers have been answered or that alternative medicine made them “FEEL” better.)

Rebecca’s treatment of Stef McGraw, who dared to behave like skeptics should and question Rebecca’s interpretation of an anecdote, is unacceptable to many skeptics who understand what skepticism requires of us.

Stop dismissing all of us as bad people because we are doing our job as skeptics.

#46 spectator (Guest) on Monday March 12, 2012 at 8:35pm

Here are some specific examples that are accepted as part of the basic vocabulary in the Far Left leaning atheist community.
Climate Denier
Christard or Xians or christian
God bothers
Misogynist, MRA
Tea-Baggers, Homophobic, Bigot, Religious nuts
Accomodationists, Libtards.
Is picking on Sarah Palin’s disabled child or daughter having a baby out of wedlock any less disturbing than calling a 30 year old George Town stun\dent has specifically getting her law degree to be an advocate of public policy.
Attempts to silence the pope by claiming he said condoms cause AIDS. He didn’t. People naively believe that distributing condoms will resolve the epidemic. He has evidence, as well as, the fact that the Catholic church has been working in the trenches with African villages. The stats show a decrease in the number of new cases where a comprehensive program is taken. In contrast, the populations where condoms were distributed and people were encouraged to use them, the rate of new infections continued to decrease.
Even more common in online progressive atheist blogging is declaring someone a troll or a poe.

#47 spectator (Guest) on Tuesday March 13, 2012 at 5:50am

Laden: “If I was PZ, I’d probably kick your ass non-politely for putting him in the same category as Penn.”

Hoggle: “If I was a girl, I’d kick her in the cunt. Cunt”

Then he goes on to silence others by calling them a “Poe.” THAT is exactly the same tactic Rush used. I don’t see it so much as silencing. It’s using an insult   designed to dismiss and discredit without addressing the substance of what was said. This is a logical fallacy that anyone familiar with Skepticism 101 would instinctively avoid.
You ought to listen to the Skeptoid Podcast. Search for the many episodes on logical fallacies, Greg.
Or are you trolling cause you know better?
see what I did there?

#48 Spertit (Guest) on Tuesday March 13, 2012 at 2:15pm

Oh, god these people are so awful. A good article, a shame it will do no good. Freedom From Thought blogs circles the wagons tighter every day.

#49 astrokid (Guest) on Thursday March 15, 2012 at 11:59am

Another thing is the insistence than some insulting words are ok, but other insulting words are taboo..and as to which words are taboo, one side gets to decide!  People are insulted in a myriad of ways, so its ridiculous to believe that only one side knows the right way, and others dont. If gloves come off, they come off everywhere.

In a recent article “Why Men Are Slackers and Women Are Single”, By Suzanne Venker (as a guest commenter, I cant post URLs) she describes an insult to conservative Christians being thrown out by feminists..

Unlike women such as Condoleezza Rice, who quietly lead unconventional lives without a trace of resentment toward their fellow men, feminists are inherently insecure women who demand validation for their unusual choices. They do this by implying the so-called rise of women is a great thing — and proof that marriage is an outdated, patriarchal institution. At an event in Washington D.C., Bolick and Rosin appear together to do just that. Rosin, in her trademark elitist and condescending fashion, had this to say: ”Having reported a lot on Christian conservatives, I can tell you they get married, like, as soon as they fall in love and, you know, it’s probably because they can’t have sex unless they’re married — which is not the case for most of us.” (Envision lots of insulting facial gestures, as well as laughter coming from the audience.) Just imagine if I were to say in a similar forum, “Yeah, you know how those Jews are.”

#50 Ashley (Guest) on Thursday March 15, 2012 at 12:53pm

I really do not understand this trend of traditional skeptics, on sites or in venues associated with traditional skepticism, posting criticism of other skeptics or atheists without providing any sort of evidence of the behavior they are referring to.

This trend is completely anti-skeptical.  The claim that’s always trotted out is that “naming names” just leads to flame wars.  Well, what has the result of not naming names been?  Was there no flame war after “Don’t Be a Dick” or the sea monkey post on the JREF?  Is the thread above not a flame war?

How are we to evaluate a statement like “It is alarming and concerning when skeptics-women and men who presumably value freedom of speech, free inquiry, and respectful discourse-use the same tactics and fallacies that Rush Limbaugh routinely employs.” when no examples of skeptics employing Limbaugh-like tactics are provided?  In the absence of evidence, it’s hard to know if the author is describing a real problem or if he’s just complaining about voices in the community that he doesn’t agree with.

I also find it interesting that the most misogynist voices in the community always seem to rush in to defend these types of posts.  That’s probably coincidental, but if I was the author of one of these articles, it would at least give me pause.

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