Insight on the Infighting, An A-News Q&A With Justin Vacula
A-News is continuing its commitment to do all that we can to help bring some of the current infighting within our community to an end. While we still plan to hold our proposed peace talks and are currently working behind the scenes to draft a cease fire agreement, we thought it might be wise to share the perspectives of some who have been involved in this conflict. To that end we have begun a series of interviews of some of these involved community members. To start this out I spent an hour earlier today speaking with Atheist activist Justin Vacula. Here is what he had to say.
As an Atheist Activist how do you feel about the current infighting within our community?
As an atheist activist, I see the online in-fighting as harmful. People are who doing great things continue to be unfairly vilified as misogynists and sexists – people try to ruin their reputations. Additionally, it seems to be the case that those who are offering the impressions that conferences are unsafe places for women, when they actually are not, are drawing people away from participating. Newcomers, too, I would imagine, would get an impression that the atheist community is a hostile place toward women when this isn’t the case.
Rather than working together or, at the very least, spreading positive messages or constructive criticism, character attacks are the order of the day in what seems to be a ‘call out culture’ in which people launch personal attacks and fail to give others the benefit of the doubt, jumping to the worst conclusions about people
You mentioned the issue of conference safety for women, there have been some reported cases of sexual harassment/sexual assault. Many have said that these problems need to be addressed and are the basis of their concerns. How do you feel these safety issues should be addressed?
First, I would encourage all people — not just women — to be assertive and firm with others when needed. If someone feels they are in an uncomfortable situation, they should make their feelings known. For instance, if someone feels that someone is making inappropriate sexual advances, they should considering telling the person something like, “Thanks. That’s very nice of you, but I am not interested.” If advances continue, this may constitute harassment. People should remove themselves from uncomfortable situations at this point, alert others, move to a new group of people and inform them what is happening, or employ other strategies. If need, inform conference or hotel/security staff on premises. Assertiveness may be difficult for people, but this is very helpful and something one should practice. If someone is not assertive, removing oneself from an uncomfortable situation and telling others may be a good option. Sexual harassment and assault, of course, should not be tolerated. Victims should not stand silently and tolerate. Unfortunately, when groups of strangers meet in a conference center or hotel, there is bound to be unfortunate situations – and this is not just something limited to the atheist community. It is most regrettable, I think, that some have seemed to say that this is a huge problem (I don’t see evidence attesting to this) or a problem the atheist community is facing (I don’t see evidence attesting to this). In large groups of people, there may be problems – this is something expected and something people need to address. Not reporting or notifying, though, will not help the issue.
Anti-harassment policies will likely not deter any behavior and can provide a false sense of security for people. They can be seen by many, including myself, as unneeded and infantalizing adults. Laws exist and cover issues like harassment and assault. Persons should inform authorities/conference staff when necessary.
You also mentioned personal attacks. I know that you have been labeled as a sexist/misogynist by some who disagree with your stances. Is there any factual basis for these labels or is it just an attempt to discredit you?
Some appear to be confused, as I see it in many respects. First, they confuse disagreement, voicing skepticism, or asking for evidence with insisting that others are lying about claims they make. Further, one who asks questions is unfairly labeled as a sexist or misogynist. Some writers who identify as feminists, for instance, construe open disagreement with their claims as misogyny. Feminism, after all, is an ideology – a way of looking at things. Some unfortunately construe disagreement with feminist claims as being ‘anti-woman.’ Rather than simply responding to arguments, criticisms, or answering questions, some attempt to vilify their opponents insisting that they are horrible persons who just shouldn’t be listened to or taken seriously – a poisoning of the well. Disagreements I have voiced are not motivated by a hatred of women in any way. It just so happens to be the case that I have disagreed with women; their gender is incidental to the arguments being made. I voice opposition to arguments or claims being made regardless of what gender someone happens to identify with.
Something which really upset me and drove me to making a bad decision was my response to a DMCA claim that was filed against me by Surly Amy which resulted in an auto-takedown of a piece I had written.
I thought this DMCA action was the ‘lowest of the low,’ that a fellow skeptic would resort to legal action which would result in censorship because, presumably, she didn’t like what was being said – not because the image was used. She had filed DMCA complaints against another writer claiming, if I recall correctly, that she was being harassed and asking for the harassment to be stopped.
Rather than her simply asking me to take the image down or better attributing the image, she resulted in heavy-handed legal action which lead to a takedown.
Following my counter-DMCAing, arguing I was under the umbrella of fair use, a conspiracy theory popped up alleging that I counter DMCAd to find Amy’s personal, private details – which was not the case. In response, I posted her publicly available business address and a smear and fear campaign propped up – that I was encouraging people to attack her, that I made her fearful for her safety, that I was intimidating her, etc.
The posting of the address was a poor decision and one which I redacted – I asked for the posting to be edited and the address details removed.
This, though, is not a sexist act by any means, but what I think to be a legitimate grievance people might have against me – although the issue was blown out of proportion…not to mention the fact that Amy linked her own address through her Twitter feed to show that I posted it (she could have edited it instead of posting the details). This makes it seem like she really was not concerned about her safety, but rather seemed to be the case that she was trying to ‘score points’ against me. If she were really concerned, I would imagine that the posted details would have been edited, but perhaps we had both made mistakes.
Fair enough, we all make errors in judgement and you at least did something about yours.
I have also noticed a great deal of personal attacks in a forum calling itself the Slymepit. These personal attacks have some well known bloggers over at FtB up in arms. What are your thoughts on this side of the so called “Blog Wars”?
I’m a regular poster in what is now called the Slymepit. I originally posted in the ‘old version,’ on Abbie Smith’s ERV blog, when one of my blog posts was linked there. I found people, although quite crass at times, who shared positions with me – who disagreed with people like PZ Myers and Rebecca Watson. I was inspired to speak out against the campaign vilifying D.J. Grothe, the James Randi Educational Foundation, and The Amazing Meeting. The level of invective thrown at D.J was quite upsetting and was something I just simply could not tolerate. Following my speaking up and paying more attention to the issues at hand, I had become disenchanted with people like PZ Myers who previously promoted my activism, presumably in approval, and noted that their level of discourse was filled with anger and was based on false assumptions. Rather than encountering ideas, I noticed character attacks being the order of the day at some sites on Freethought Blogs and Skepchick. Where I most differ with most Slymepit posters, as you might guess, is the language used. I tend to steer clear of name-calling and character attacks unlike some of the posters there who have tried being nice, encountering ideas, being diplomatic, etc. Diplomacy, some have said, has failed…so some seem to utilize ridicule and satire in response to what they see as nonsense. It’s quite odd, then, that some at Freethought Blogs and the Skepchick network are so upset with the language and tone of the Slymepit while seemingly ignoring the hostile commenters on their own sites (while also attacking people or levying smear campaigns against their dissenters).
Many Atheists from the most dedicated and celebrated activists to those who are just joining our ranks have chosen to stay out of this conflict. However as time marches on more and more contemplate leaving our movement due to the fact that we are losing our rational high ground. It is obvious to many that this conflict is hurting all of us, what would you like to see done to end this conflict?
I would like to see people refraining from engaging in character attacks against other people. Unfortunately, I don’t see this ceasefire working when some of the persons involved in this — whether they admit it or not — unwilling to have a discussion. I’d like to have a discussion about these issues and move forward to at least give it a chance. Rather than vilifying people from blogs and dogpiling on rational commenters or people who dare to voice skepticism about an issue, more civil discussion can be had. Disagreements, additionally, can be taken off blogs and had in private. People can be mistaken, after all, and even make uniformed comments once in a while. It would also help to treat people more charitably – interpreting their words or arguments in a more favorable light.
Well thank you for sitting down and talking with me on this, is there any closing remark you would like to make?
If you expect or demand civility from others, it would be best to model the behaviors you’d like to see.
You can find more about Justin from his blog here
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