I’m calling this post a Letter to the Slime Pit – because it was a rather long comment I posted in the now non-existent original Periodic Table of Swearing blog post at Abbie Smith’s blog, ERV, addressed to the members of the Slime Pit who were starting to show signs of concern about tone, once it became clear that more people were coming out to speak up about the dogmatic tendencies of prominent members of newly formed Freethought Blogs network (henceforth, FTB).
So why am I writing a blog post for a comment I made?
Well, a number of people who read the comment asked me to turn it into a blog post in and of itself, perhaps because it might be useful as future reference – particularly for those new to the debate who might not be aware of what the Slime Pit actually is, or for those whose view of the Slime Pit has been (mis)informed by the FTB narrative. In the comment I also tried to explain the context behind some of the more outrageous hyperbole featured in the Slime Pit comments that has been seized upon by detractors as alleged evidence of misogyny and sexism, and further explained how those who were quick to condemn the Slime Pit on account of those allegations missed the point completely.
Understanding what I was getting at in the comment in question might require some background knowledge of the year long internet war that has been on-going since Elevatorgate occurred last year.
I’ll try to keep it concise.
Elevatorgate & Birth of the Slime Pit:
During Elevatorgate, pockets of discussion emerged in many corners of the atheist-skeptic blogosphere with people trying to determine how best to understand the events surrounding Rebecca Watson’s reported ordeal in the elevator, her treatment of Stef McGraw and others with dissenting views with regards to allegations of sexism in the atheist movement, Richard Dawkins’ sarcastic dismissal of the entire hullabaloo, and the gender politics within the movement in general.
Almost all of the prolific bloggers who spoke up early on this particular topic took the side of Rebecca Watson. Collectively, and due to having a large audience, these bloggers were able to define the terms of the debate that was to ensue. As far as they were concerned, with respect to Elevatorgate, one was either going to be pro-Watson, or a misogynist. Following their initial commentary, these bloggers, together with their hordes of commenters, embarked on an aggressive campaign to demonise their detractors wherever they could be found – the ‘bigger’ the fish, the louder the screams of condemnation. Call-out culture reared its fangs and if anyone dared step out of line, that person was to be the subject of ridicule, denouncement and castigation spanning several articles and blogs. This left many too intimidated to openly voice their opinion if it was not in line with the approved creed at this juncture. Many seldom dared to post comments at the blogs of these prominent people for fear of being torn apart by the horde of Watson sympathizers that dwelled in their comments sections.
One of the few high profile bloggers who was openly and actively critical of Rebecca Watson and her supporters at the time was Abbie Smith, owner of a science-based blog called ERV.
ERV blog entries related to Elevatorgate attracted a number of people who felt equally aggrieved by the dogmatism and hypocrisy on display from the pro-Watson camp. After brief spats with people like PZ Myers and Ophelia Benson in the comments section of ERV’s earlier posts on the gender politics of the atheist community, several of the commenters remained and continued with their criticisms of the regular torrent of perceived absurdity emanating from the pro-Watson camp on a day to day basis. As expected, the pro-Watson camp were not happy with the manner in which they were regularly criticised by ERV and her commenters.
They were to soon find a highly effective way to poison the well.
Among the many commenters at ERV were some who occasionally used profane language to deride Rebecca Watson and her various supporters within the newly formed FTB (home to PZ Myers, Ophelia Benson, Greta Christina, etc). Their occasional use of profane language (sometimes what are considered by some to be gendered slurs) in their commentary kept drawing the attention of various members of FTB who then used it as evidence of there being extensive misogyny in the wider atheist ‘movement’. (We shall later see how the use of such language was deliberate in as far as one particular commenter – viewed by many as the worst offender of the lot – was concerned) .
The existence of gendered slurs accompanying a few comments in various ERV posts discussing FTB provided the FTB mob the moral justification they needed in order to validate their otherwise dogmatic and irrational stances on gender politics. Of course, they made sure to always ignore the actual arguments and valid criticisms of their dogmatic behaviour that accompanied those rare slurs, and concentrated on highlighting the profanity instead. Over time, this strategy had the effect of rendering all commentary from ERV regulars not worth considering in the minds of many who were new to the discussion, because, after all, such commentary critical of FTB would be coming from misogynists, as they had been reliably misinformed.
Anyone who voiced any opposition to FTB’s dogmatism and hypocrisy would now risk being branded a misogynist like the ones that were alleged to occupy ERV, which the FTB horde had now christened the Slime Pit.
The Slime Pitters, of course, tended not to care about such labels and continued with their commentary on FTB dogmatism and hypocrisy without restraint. For all their complaints about language, there were plenty of equally offensive gendered slurs and hyperbolic allusions to violence to be found in the comment sections of FTB blogs like Pharyngula. It required almost no effort to bring these double standards to light.
And so it went on for many months, with the grievance industry that is FTB churning out drama after drama about everything that is supposedly wrong with the atheist-skeptic community, with members of the Slime Pit having a field day in pointing out the irony of such complaints by bringing to light numerous instances of the FTB mob remorselessly engaged in precisely the same behaviour they vehemently chastised in others.
The Slime Pit was now the de facto online source for documented instances of FTB’s inconsistencies, hypocrisy and dogmatism. And the fact is that there is a lot of insightful, interesting and thought provoking debate to be found there, and if at all there is any profanity, it is actually rare. But it is these rare cases that tend to stand out and it is those that are pounced on by people who wish to find an excuse not to engage with the commenters at the Slime Pit, despite there being thousands of comments worth of calm, nuanced and reasoned discourse to consider.
The Attack on DJ Grothe:
Things took an interesting turn when FTB turned their attention to DJ Grothe, JREF and TAM in May of this year. Examples here, here, here, here and here. DJ Grothe is the current president of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). He was already their target as early as January, but now with The Amazing Meeting (TAM) just round the corner, there was a renewed interest in crucifying him. Grothe was repeatedly attacked for his supposed failure to take appropriate and sufficient steps to properly assuage the fears of harassment-weary women in the skeptic ‘community’ ahead of TAM that was soon to take place.
The attacks on Grothe introduced a new level of absurdity to the debate on gender politics within the atheist-skeptic community, and many who were previously silent (on this issue) within the ‘movement’ such as Paula Kirby, the crew of the Ask an Atheist radio show, Thunderf00t (who had only recently joined FTB), and many others, felt compelled to speak up more openly. The blogosphere outside of the FTB enclosure was exploding with criticism of FTB’s dogmatic feminism, as was YouTube and other forums. All of a sudden, it became clear to casual on-lookers that those actively opposed to FTB dogmatism were not just the alleged fringe elements at ERV, but that this opposition was actually widespread and building. Some of these newly vocal people were familiar with the Slime Pit, but chose to distance themselves from it for fear of inviting the label of misogynist that the FTB horde were handing out to anyone that challenged their narrative. Others, while just as equally critical of FTB as the Slime Pitters, joined FTB in their castigation of the Slime Pit for their alleged misogyny.
This misconception created a problem for a significant portion of the regular commenters at ERV, some of whom were also concerned about the tone of the comments coming from their profanity-using co-commenters, and how they thought this reflected badly on all of them – even those whose comments tended to be calm and non-offensive. These ‘diplomats’, as I shall call them, were of the view that since recent events (the attacks on DJ Grothe and the attempted undermining of TAM) had brought many to begin to have doubts about FTB, it would be a good time to try to repair the image of people who comment at ERV so that they would not be seen as the misogynists they’ve been labelled as, by FTB, for simply disagreeing with them. In the final days of the original Period Table of Swearing thread this matter was hotly debated. Several new ‘members’ of the Slime Pit had also only recently de-lurked (i.e. began to post comments after months of simply lurking about and reading comments but not commenting for fear of being associated with the much maligned Slime Pit. I myself was a lurker until last September) and joined others in calling for a change of tone because they were starting to gain ‘allies’. Those that were well known for using highly obscene language were asked to tone their profanity down.
Franc Hoggle was considered by some among this lot to be the worst offender in this regard, and was blamed for much of the condemnation that the Slime Pit was receiving, mainly for crossing the line when it came to language. The image above highlights Hoggle’s most controversial comment yet – a comment, that would be used by FTB to smear all of the regular commenters at ERV as those that condone violence against women. To anyone with sense, the comment was intended as hyperbole. As you will see in my comment that I’m now posting below, Hoggle did it for a very deliberate reason.
There was an aggressive campaign by certain members of FTB to pressure National Geographic, the organisation that hosts the ERV blog, to take action against Abbie Smith for allowing comments like Hoggle’s, above, to be freely made (she tended not to censor comments in the interest of open and free debate). Wishing to relieve her hosts of the pressure they were being subjected to, she decided that it would be better for the commentary be moved to a different place. The Slime Pit thus found a new home – where they continue to shed light on the regular torrent of perceived absurdity emanating from FTB, on a daily basis, to this day.
Oh, and its now called the Slyme Pit.
Now on to the comment in question…
Now that the tide seems to be shifting – that is, now that there is a noticeable surge in open criticism of FTB antics from more ‘respected’ skeptics like Paula Kirby, Jeremy Stangroom, Russel Blackford, Jean Kasez, Justin Griffith, Thunderf00t, some of the guys at Ask an Atheist, etc, the voices within the Slimepit openly advocating restraint in the choice of words has correspondingly increased. I guess this is because of the tendency of an increasing number of these FTB critics who have varying degrees of clout in the wider community being reluctant to associate themselves with the Slimepit because of that same colourful language in use by the mostly pseudonymous commenters here.
This is understandable.
If you are operating online as a public figure (and not as a pseudonym), there is a lot at stake in how you present yourself on the internet, and who you are seen to associate with. These associations can have real world effects in terms of damage to personal reputation resulting to job losses, for example, or jeopardized careers. People like these generally cannot afford to be cavalier about who they are associated with on the internet. The Slimepit has received far too much bad press (most of it unjustified) for the average public skeptic to want to touch with a ten foot pole. There are exceptions to this, of course. My point is that there are many who are now speaking up who will be reluctant to defend the Slimepit, even when they agree 100% will all the criticisms of FTB presented here. But in saying this I guess I’m repeating what I already said a few pages ago, so pardon the redundancy.
The concern seems to be that now that the tide is shifting towards ‘our’ side, the last thing we can afford to do is ‘give the other side ammo’ by way of gendered slurs and other insults that can be pointed to by them as ‘proof’ of misogyny and hate in the Slime Pit that they are purportedly so valiantly at war against.
Some want the more abrasive and obscene ones among us to rein it in so that we can present to the world the best face possible, so that they might actually consider, for once, the many valid criticisms of FTB dogmatism that have been discussed extensively in the Slimepit. Now more than ever, there seems to be a chance for the Slimepit to vindicate itself after having been much maligned thanks to FTB propaganda that says we all have threatened to actually kick women in the groin, or that we all endorse such plans of action. It therefore might seem counter-productive for some members of the Slimepit to carry on with their verbal assaults at this time – when people are actually open to hearing what we have to say. In carrying on as they do, our more abrasive contemporaries tar the rest of us ‘diplomatic’ ones who have painstakingly avoided the use of offensive language while articulating our legitimate grievances about FTB dogmatism. We desperately want to show that we are better than FTB in handling discourse over sensitive issues. We actually ARE better, but seem to have trouble convincing the wider community of this because of the actions of a few individuals who seem intent on stirring as much trouble as possible with little regard for how we will all be perceived as a result.
The desired outcome for we the ‘diplomats’ within the Slimepit is for the fence-sitters to be exposed to the rational arguments that demonstrate the double standards and hypocrisy at play from the FTB-Skepchick brigade, win them over to our side, thereby restoring sanity, and above all, rationality, in the atheist-skeptic movement. As far as we’re concerned, vulgar language alienates those who might share our views, and further goes to empower FTB who will now use that against us.
Further, we are horrified at the prospect of medium-to-high-profile skeptics we respect, who actually share our views on FTB bullying, saying they want to have nothing to do with us by virtue of our posting in ERV. For this reason, we want some of the commenters to watch their tongue from now on.
I am very sympathetic to the sentiments of this camp, and I must admit, the diplomatic approach has been my preferred one for dealing with all the FTB-Skepchick-related madness. For all intents and purposes, I am very much a diplomat too.
I do think we the diplomats are somewhat oblivious to reality, though, and somehow naïve. I’ll explain why in a bit. First, let me tell you what I think about Franc Hoggle.
Franc’s goals are actually identical to that of the diplomats. Like us, he wishes to see sanity restored to the atheist-skeptic movement – but his approach is not through directly trying to ‘convince’ fence-sitters that he is right, through argument. Most of his writings in his blogs or in the comments here, you will notice, are for him to primarily vent his frustrations with the community, rather than try to convince anybody to take his side. He doesn’t seem to care if you believe him or not – his main aim is to simply convey his contempt for what he, rightly or wrongly, considers to be nonsense and while doing so hopefully jolt the more complacent atheists who already agree with him into speaking up and doing something about the mess.
Going back in time a little bit – you might recall that Franc’s initial post on these matters at Greylining attracted much abuse from PZ Myers and his horde.
What is ironic is that at the bottom of this very first post he even says “As much as I love PZ Myers, his consistency leaves a lot to be desired.” This is a Franc Hoggle you probably might not recognize today – polite, and civil. Then read the comments from his dissenters below the article.
Franc catalogued all the ‘criticisms’ he had been receiving from that camp on his blog, and a quick perusal through the comments shows you that there is no point in ‘debating’ with ideologues, as debating is the last thing they have in mind:
At NO point were any of his criticisms in his various articles actually addressed. All that came from the other side was abuse, and empty moral grandstanding.
The question is, how does one deal with this? Continue to try to painstakingly explain your position? Or give them exactly what they’re dishing out? Many a commenter on what came to be known as the Slimepit opted for a mix of the two approaches, but often leaning towards the latter. Franc took it one notch higher, though. Because moral supremacists are fairly easy to undermine (since they almost always will trip over their own hypocrisy at some point), he deliberately chose to become their bogeyman by being as obscene towards them as he could possibly get – not for the lulz, not for the sake of being obscene, but to deliberately trip them up; or more accurately, to have them trip over their own hypocrisy. In order to do this he kept giving them ridiculous things to get outraged about – and these things were bait that they kept biting.
Believing that they possessed the moral high ground (due to Franc’s obscenities and incessant scathing criticisms on his blog), they became bolder in entertaining all manner of ludicrous grievances from hard core feminists among the horde. In attempting to address these increasingly bizarre grievances, FTB began to come as across more and more unrealistic, and above all, more dogmatic. With their lust for ‘misogynist’ blood now at fever pitch, they manufactured melodrama after melodrama in order to quench their now insatiable thirst for more dissenters to take down. Theirs is a grievance industry, as you know. They literally went after almost anyone for the flimsiest of reasons. They began patrolling people’s private Facebook conversations, reddit threads, etc.. looking for slip-ups. No place was too obscure for them to find you and use you as an example of everything that was wrong with the atheist community, and how they were there to save the day. All of a sudden TAM became the most dangerous event a woman might ever dare to attend, and DJ Grothe was a misogynist who blamed victims. What? Indeed. The FTB-Skepchick brigade elected themselves the Mutaween of the atheist community, and went on a wild rampage, leaving even their sympathizers scratching their heads in bewilderment.
I am going to contend here that it is these excesses that have since emanated from FTB that have done a lot to awaken and sway the fence-sitters towards ‘our’ direction, some of whom have started speaking out in recent months. And this was Franc Hoggle’s specific intent when he deliberately decided to up the ante in terms of tone and language. That was the whole point of the CK joke, and all the associated hyperbole before and since.
And it worked.
The more ‘outraged’ they got over Franc’s antics and blogged about it, the more the members of the Slimepit found things to criticize about FTB. Several examples of various FTB bloggers and their regular commenters doing precisely the same thing they criticized in others (even including gendered slurs and equally hyperbolic allusions to violence) were amazingly easy to find, and this became the subject of much derision, ridicule and humour on the various ERV Slimepit threads. (The Slimepit essentially became, and still remains, THE forum where these endless acts of hypocrisy from FTB are specifically discussed on a day-to-day basis).
However, now that more and more ‘respectable’ skeptics are finally speaking up and are on board, Franc Hoggle et al are seen as liabilities by the diplomats (old and newly converted). But then these skeptics, remember, are now speaking out because of the recent excesses from the FTB-Skepchick gang (e.g conference harassment hysteria and crucifixion of DJ Grothe), which are largely the result of the deliberate prodding over the months by people like Franc and others here in the Slimepit who cared little for civility and were not shy to use language intended to shock and offend. They made the FTB horde paranoid – and look at what happened. The horde tripped over themselves and fell hard. All indications are that a slow implosion of FTB is in progress. They have lost huge amounts of credibility – and have done so through their OWN actions. With each new manufactured controversy they continue to burn more and more bridges, and pretty soon they’re going to find that they are completely isolated from the mainstream movement (if they aren’t already).
What puzzles me, I must confess, is that I thought it was apparent to all within the Slimepit watching this spectacle that this was precisely what Franc Hoggle was going for right from the start. He made no secret of his plans on his blog. And it has worked. I even warned Ophelia last year that this was Franc’s actual intention, and advised her to ignore his provocations, in vain. Franc Hoggle was too juicy a target to ignore. He was the bogeyman on a silver plate, after all, and his online atrocities simply had to be milked for all they were worth politically. And Ophelia still milks it, even today. Every other day she reminds us that someone wants to kick her in the groin, and that she is in danger, and won’t be safe at conferences, etc. It does not occur to her that it was a trap. She was, and still is, behaving in precisely the way Franc wants her to.
If I’m to blame Franc for anything at all with regard to the CK incident in particular, it is that he orchestrated it at other people’s expense – because now everywhere we go we have to explain to people that just because we post at ERV it doesn’t mean we want to kick women in the groin. He can sometimes be callous, but he’s a world-class provocateur none-the-less – who accomplished precisely what he set out to do, regardless of who got burnt in the process.
Fortunately, I’m not one who cares so much what other people think of me – so being associated with Franc’s (or anyone else’s) occasional obscenities in the Slimepit is not something that bothers me. My attitude is “I didn’t say those words – but if you think I said those words, well then that’s your problem, thank you. I really don’t care. My position on FTB is as follows…” Further, even as I participate in these threads I really do not imagine myself as being part of a collective whose image, cause, or reputation I feel the need to defend. We all speak for ourselves as individual adults, and I will not impose on anyone to alter their language, tone or prose on my behalf on these threads or on any other forum. You own your words. At best, simply respect the wishes of the person whose blog you’re infesting, for that person’s sake.
I fully appreciate that there are several among us who view this thread as a united front, and wish to see it reflect their own values with respect to tone as well as strategy. In my mind, however, this veers dangerously close to what’s going on at the other side. Before you know it you’re going to start policing each other. Be careful. Collectivism contains within it the seeds of religion.
If you’re that concerned about your image and how some of the comments here reflect on your credibility, my advice would be for you to leave the Slimepit and continue your commentary elsewhere, rather than to attempt to control what people say here. I don’t think it can end well, no matter how well-intentioned.
As far as BAD WERDZ go, in my opinion, it is the verbally abrasive faction within the Slimepit (i.e. those that present arguments but are also quite happy to invoke colourful language to convey their sentiments, usually out of retaliation – and in the case of Hoggle, intentionally to trip them up) that has done the bulk of the work of getting FTB worked up to the point of irredeemably undermining itself, resulting in a climate where more and more people are now open to hearing ‘our side’. And they have been at it for much longer, and more persistently, than we the strictly diplomatic faction of the Slimepit. In my opinion it is the former, more than the latter, that have kept FTB on their toes for the better part of the last one year. It is indeed odd that some among this lot are now succumbing to pressure to change their approach and tone. It’s their choice anyway, so it’s up to them how they wish to proceed henceforth – not that I think their proposed new approach will succeed.
I personally don’t think that this prolonged skirmish will be won by trying to advance cogent arguments for fence-sitters to consider, and playing nice. It’s going to be won by letting FTB continue to speak for itself, and letting them marginalize themselves in the process. I think they’re doing wonderfully so far.
To be clear, I’m not saying that cogent arguments are useless per se; I’m just saying that in the grand scheme of things, those cogent arguments are little more than decoration. Remember – you are dealing with ideologues here.
“People are best convinced by reasons they themselves discover.” ~ Benjamin Franklin
UPDATE – Ophelia Benson responds: