Wednesday, July 6, 2011

On Naming Names, and Tuning Tones

Trevor Boeckmann posted this letter to Rebecca Watson on the UNI Freethought blog.  I was going to post the following as a comment, but I had so much to say that I decided it would be better to do yet another blogpost about “naming names”.

Dear Trevor,

Maybe something good can come out of the Rebecca Watson "call out" at the CFI Leadership Conference, and the blogstorm that followed. You have just been taught what may be a far more valuable lesson by this debacle than by any talk that was given at the conference you have just attended.

The issues which you deem important, and for which you wish to have a societal impact, arise from your ethics, which tell you that all people should be treated with fairness and equality. Where we sometimes fail is in assuming that all people who share our causes also share our ideals and our ethics in all of their dealings with others. As you have just witnessed, by Rebecca's handling of her disagreement with Stef, this is not necessarily the case.

You said how much you admired Rebecca and agreed with what she wrote and did.  When people agree with and admire someone, they often overlook things that person does that they might otherwise disapprove of.  You may not have noticed the dismissive and insulting way that Rebecca often deals with people who disagree with her on her blog.  But now you have seen it first-hand: while she claims to have been addressing Stef's argument, by using words like "parroting" and mentioning that Stef "conveniently" left out a fact, she was at least implying that Stef doesn't think for herself and was being deceitful.  I can understand why you and the others were put off by this.  It was rude and unfair behavior, and you expected better.  "Naming names" in that way not only shuts down a dissenter, it makes others hesitant to speak up.  Whether it was her zeal to combat anti-woman rhetoric, or, as you say, her airing of a petty Internet drama, Rebecca did herself, and the community, a disservice by handling the situation the way she did.  One of her Skepchick commenters even pointed this out, and she dismissed it by saying:

"Here, in case you've forgotten, your bio from this site" Uh-huh, and where does it say that I have to "keep as much of my audience as possible"? My job is to do what I want to do, and that is currently to speak out against anti-woman rhetoric. Are you going to call my boss and have me fired?

This statement demonstrates a lack of wisdom on Rebecca's part.  She had before her an audience of young, eager students who shared her goals.  She lost at least some of that audience by disregarding the tone of what she was saying.  Stef isn't a villain, and isn't well-known; nor was this an academic conference, where harsh criticism is par for the course. We must choose our battles, and our battlefields, carefully, or we will lose the war by killing our own with friendly fire.

And now other big names have weighed in supporting Rebecca, like Barbara Drescher and Jen McCreight.  But don't let that bother you, or Stef -- like any of us, they may not have the time or the inclination to do the research necessary to give a well-informed opinion. (In this case, I'm not sure if any of us can.) My first reaction after reading Rebecca's post was, "Who is Stef McGraw?"  I've read through everything Stef has posted on and it seems to me that Stef is an enthusiastic, intelligent person who is open to criticism.  She lacks experience, as one would expect at her age, but she doesn't come across as either a shallow thinker or a narcissistic know-all.  I'm sure she has learned something from this episode, although perhaps not what we were trying to teach her.

Our prominent spokespeople are not infallible. We must be careful, in our admiration of them, not to conflate the ethics of the ideas they advocate with what they are as people.  Instead, we should strive to hold them, as well as ourselves, to the ethical standards underlying the ideas we are advocating.  If we don't, we run the risk of becoming a movement of hypocrites.

Trevor, a commenter on your post said, “Don’t let the door hit yer arse on the way out!”  I’m saying, “Please don’t go!”  Yes, we don’t always live up to our ideals, but in the end, the process of  applying critical thinking and reason does prevail.  I hate seeing wasted potential.  (Even Rebecca’s, which is where she is headed if she doesn’t gain a better understanding of when it is appropriate to respond with dismissive sarcasm and when it isn’t.)  If we lose you and your friends, who are young and enthusiastic, we are damaging the future for skepticism and secularism.  I know it seems as though you can’t fight this battle, because there are so many blog posts, with so many comments.  The entire secular/skeptic world seems to be spewing forth on this drama, but it isn’t as many people as it seems.   My husband analyzed the comments on the three Pharyngula posts and found that of the 2,981 comments, 32 people account for 1,517 of those comments, and 35 for 511.  That's just 67 people doing most of the talking, while the rest of us have been reading, thinking it through, and continuing to engage in other constructive pursuits.  That's not so bad, is it?

I know I may sound preachy in this post, and I don’t mean to. And I most certainly know that I may not have gotten everything right in my writing, my thinking, or even my facts. I don't have a big audience; I may just be talking to myself, and hopefully, to you and your friends.  But please consider what I have said and stay with us.  Help us fight against bad thinking, not only by our adversaries, but also ourselves. Remember, though, that no matter with whom you choose to associate, those rifles will sometimes be aimed at you.  Be willing to be that target, and do your best to weather the emotional hurt the bullets cause, step back, and examine your thinking. This scrutiny of ourselves, individually, and as a group, is very important.  What seems like a waste of time on pointless discussions is a very necessary activity for all of us.   (I just wish we were a bit better at it, but that lack of skill also emphasizes our need to do it. Perhaps we should all consider living by my husband’s motto which is “Think More, Talk Less”.  This motto might be a great choice for one of Hemant’s T-shirts. :-))

With best wishes for success in attaining your goals, and the most sincere hope that you will choose to pursue those goals with us,

Sharon Madison

An Ardent Skeptic

P.S. I started writing this blogpost on Monday. Since then, I see the blogstorm has escalated further, with Rebecca's latest missive about Richard Dawkins. I can't see how Rebecca has made an unequivocal case for the charge of blatant sexism by first, "elevator man", then Stef, and now Dawkins. Rebecca could be destroying her credibility in this community by labeling everyone as sexist who does not interpret the limited amount of information she has provided about "elevator man" in precisely the way she has. We're skeptics! That means a diversity of perspectives and opinions on matters as ill-defined as this is.


  1. Dear Rebecca Watson, Trevor Boeckmann, UNI Freethought Blog
  2. Fursdays wif Stef #32, Stef McGraw, UNI Freethought Blog
  3. Fursdays wif Stef #33, Stef McGraw, UNI Freethought Blog
  4. About Mythbusters, Robot Eyes, Feminism, and Jokes, Rebecca Watson, Skepchick
  5. On Naming Names at the CFI Student Leadership Conference, Rebecca Watson, Skepchick
  6. The Privilege Delusion, Rebecca Watson, Skepchick
  7. My response and take on sexism in the atheist community, stclairose, YouTube
  8. Extra, Extra, Read All About It: Rebeccawatsongate Shakes Atheism To Its Core!, malimar, LiveJournal
  9. Richard Dawkins, your privilege is showing, Jen McCreight, Blag Hag
  10. Context matters, Jen McCreight, Blag Hag
  11. On Sexism, Objectification, and Power, Barbara Drescher, ICBS Everywhere
  12. Always name names!, PZ Myers, Pharyngula
  13. The Decent Human Beings' Guide to Getting Laid at Atheist Conferences, PZ Myers, Pharyngula
  14. Oh, no, not again...once more unto the breach, PZ Myers, Pharyngula
  15. Everyone Needs to Calm the F*** Down, Hemant Mehta, Friendly Atheist
  16. This Should Clear Everything Up..., Hemant Mehta, Friendly Atheist
  17. Pledge Your Allegiances, Hemant Mehta, Friendly Atheist
  18. The Decent Human Beings' Guide to Speaking at Atheist Conferences, ERV
  19. Bad form, Rebecca Watson, ERV
  20. Shut up about everything all the time unless what you have to say is HITLER!!!, Greg Laden
  21. Rebecca Watson, Barbara Drescher, and the Elevator Guy, Greg Laden
  22. Women in Elevators: A Man To Man Talk For The Menz, Greg Laden
  23. Ladies, Richard Dawkins knows how to protect you from being raped in an elevator, Greg Laden
  24. A preist and a rabbi go into an elevator and..., Ophelia Benson, Butterflies and Wheels
  25. Getting and not getting, Ophelia Benson, Butterflies and Wheels
  26. Rebecca Watson has a new video, Furious Purpose
  27. A storm in a blog teacup, or how Stef McGraw spectaculary missed the point [sic], Furious Purpose
  28. Guys, listen. That? Stop Doing That., Chris Burke, AAF Waterloo
  29. There's No Hiding in Public (Or More on Rebecca Watson, CFI, UNI), Chris Burke, AAF Waterloo
  30. I Missed the Point, Chris Burke, AAF Waterloo
  31. On Arguing From Within, Franklin Kramer, ISSA
  32. More on tone, Evolving Thoughts
  33. Elevator Guy, Jean Kazez
  34. What do feminists want?, JREF Forum thread
  35. So there was this female speaker on an elevator, JREF Forum thread
  36. The Female Skeptic In The Mirror (Ain't The Same As The Female Skeptic On The Wall), Kylie Sturgess, Podblack Cat
  37. My Final Word on 'The Matter'..., Kylie Sturgess, Podblack Cat (no longer available on-line)
  38. The new rules of Hayley Stevens, Hayley Stevens
  39. Richard Dawkins and male privilege, Phil Plait, Bad Astronomy
  40. Because of The Implication, Amanda Marcotte, Pandagon
  41. The Point, You Are Proving It, Melissa McEwan, Shakesville
  42. Dear Richard Dawkins, Sophie Hirschfeld, She Thought
  43. Richard Dawkins is a Dick..., Bud, Dead Logic


  1. Hello,

    Perhaps you could clarify as to why you've linked to my blog as a reference at the end of this blog post of yours. I fail to see the relevance. Thanks.

  2. Your blogpost was included as a link in Podblack's post entitled "The Female Skeptic in the Mirror (Ain't The Same As The Female Skeptic On The Wall)". There is a link to this Podblack blogpost in the list as well.

    Podblack considers your post relevant to this discussion. If you do not, I will be happy to delete the link to your post. Just let me know what you would like me to do.

  3. I should also say that I include everything I have read on an issue in my reference section so that my readers have the ability to study the issue and make up their own minds as to whether they agree or disagree with my assessment.

  4. "Be willing to be a target..."

    You. I like you. I like finding all these neat folks I didnt know existed last week.


  5. I have been reading about this and it seems that the incident between the UNI student and Rebbecca Watson has vanished from the narrative. Which is strange since if I am right about the timeline this happened between the video and Dawkins remarks.

    I am wondering if Dawkins was aware of what happened at the conference when he made his infamous remarks, and after reading PZ post and the response that follow he let loose.

    The major problem I see for skepticism, atheism and free thought, is that this fight is turning into a civil war that no one will win, and the Christian, and right wing blogosphere is just now getting wind of it, and that will be really ugly. Dawkins is their favorite whipping boy, and boy are they already enjoying this.

    I don't think any of the people battling this out on the internet really understand the damage this is doing to us. Just reading through your links it seems pretty obvious that people have left their critical thinking skills and reason at home, and are venting like crazy. This just plays into what the Christian right thinks about us.

    I like your blog I am going to add it to my blogroll. Thanks for writing and collecting the most balanced post I have found about this.

  6. This is months delayed, I know, but thank you.


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