Archives For elevatorgate

troll

Maybe it’s just me, but the older I get, the more it seems that high school actually gives teens a fairly accurate sneak peek into adult life, minus the rent/mortgage, bills, and the fear of getting fired for or without cause, of course. High school drama seems like a pretty good description of what currently dominates once immensely popular and influential skeptical blogs after the nerd gender wars in the wake of Elevatorgate as many small skeptical conferences are being quickly reduced into confrontations about sexism, politics, and gender rather than discussions about all those science and skeptical inquiry topics they were meant to facilitate. But while I get plenty of gender and political correctness discussions from big name skeptical bloggers, my tech reading has remained quite clear of them. Well, until now, when the Donglegate incident lit up the feeds of numerous tech blogs and unleashed the fury of the internet on two companies.

Unlike the basic premise of Elevatorgate, where there was something to discuss and some good points to be made before the problem metastasized into what it has, Donglegate fits the definition of a tempest in a teapot to a T. At a conference for programmers working with Python, a popular open source scripting language, tech evangelist (basically a marketer/salesperson whose job is to explain why his or her company’s flagship products are the best thing since both sliced bread and perforated toilet paper) Adria Richards, overheard two guys behind her making an off-color joke about "forking a repository" followed by one about "big dongles." So she did what seasoned pros do in situations like this and asked them if they wouldn’t mind knocking it off because there was a presentation underway. Oh wait, then we wouldn’t have Donglegate, my bad. I meant she took a picture of them and publicly shamed them on Twitter for making dirty nerd puns with links to the conference’s policy asking attendees to keep their humor audience-appropriate.

From there things quickly got ridiculous. One of the guys in question was fired, Richards wrote an amazingly hyperbolic post delcaring that she felt compelled to shame them for every little girl out there who may never learn how to program because "the ass clowns behind me would make it impossible for her to do so" and concluding with "Yesterday the future of programming was on the line and I made myself heard," which unleashed the fury of the internet. She was also shown the door at her company as commercially painful DDoS attacks kept on coming for two days and her bosses most likely lost their confidence in her PR skills. And as the sour cherry on top, there was the usual assortment of rape and death threats by trolls who are attracted to these dramas much like vultures are attracted by the stench of putrid, rotting flesh, giving Richards a shot at a moral high ground, saying that brogrammers couldn’t stand to see a woman in tech stand up for herself, and, apparently, every woman and girl in the field or considering going into it.

But of course no manufactroversy would be complete without a kicker, and here it is. Richards herself is no stranger to dirty nerd puns, having used one herself on her work Twitter account a short time before the conference. By her logic, someone should’ve spoken up against it for all the boys who dirty minds like her will discourage from the field to peruse the profession. Why, if we let people make off-color jokes, they will be too offended to study, constantly in fear that the women in tech will just make jokes about their penises. </sarcasm> In the real world, people will make sexual jokes all the time and yes, a lot of them will make them at inappropriate times. The way to deal with this fact of life is to accept it and to tell the offending parties to knock it off when they cross the line rather than rush to appoint oneself as the savior of your industry’s future. As a man in the tech world, I’d be lying if I told you I’ve never heard women in IT make all sort of off-color puns about "multitasking" and "mounting drives." And yet I survived to code another day, mostly because like all adults, I’ve heard plenty of stuff like this since middle school.

Women going into IT are going to find that their problems with the industry will be institutional in nature rather than potentially overhearing dongle jokes. Graybeards who subtly imply or not so subtly declare that the programming world is not meant for women, or hiring managers who have free reign to hire whoever they think is most attractive rather than most qualified, are big issues those who want to ensure that little girls can easily become programmers if they so choose have to battle. If someone can’t handle a cheesy penis pun or joke implying coitus you can see in just about every other Superbowl commercial, this person is going to have a tough time in any job or any social circle outside of a fundamentalist religious group. If knowing that dirty jokes about the profession they want to take up exist are enough to make them abandon said profession, to me it’s a sign of a pathologically sheltered childhood rather than a real issue with the industry. It’s a downright inane argument that Richards was standing up for the future of women programmers and its self-serving nature is even more infuriating because it glosses over real problems.

I feel that it does a great disservice to women programmers when we’re told to treat them like a delicate bouquet of flowers instead of simply treating them as equals, paying them equal wages, and promoting them based on their merits as professionals. The women in IT I know want to be successful by doing something big and important, by cranking out highly visible projects. Why should we scramble to protect them from potentially overhearing a childish dirty joke and carry them to the finish line so we can hit the desired metric of female CIOs and CTOs, or architects? Isn’t that downright disrespectful to them? Why not just stay out of their way and let women in IT accomplish what they want to accomplish? It’s really not that hard to make an assumption that a qualified professional sitting across from you or next to you can excel regardless of gender. I’m not ridiculing Richards’ behavior because I don’t think there aren’t any issues for women in IT or any other STEM field. I’m ridiculing it because I have too much respect for women to think that a dongle or forking joke will deter them from following their programming dreams.

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broken emo

Oh how I miss the good old days of skeptical blogging, when PZ Myers was unloading on inane creationists and New Agers with the delicate touch of a tactical nuke, the Skepchicks didn’t lock down the comments under heavy moderation and traded links and the occasional friendly e-mail with me, so many skeptical big shots returned my tweets and e-mails, and many of us knew that our focus should be on science, education, and fact checking popular media for the benefit of a reader who didn’t see what was wrong with creationism in science class, or why so many people claimed to see UFOs if there’s almost no chance they’re really out there. That’s what we did. We educated, entertained, and started debates. But post-Elevatorgate, all that went to shit. Popular skeptical blogs now overflow with gossip and infighting, and the results are sad to behold. Sides have to be taken, lines have to be drawn, and the actual science and education stuff they used to be all about has taken a backseat, showing up between angsty s/he-said-what? posts.

PZ and the Freethought Blogs contingent has decided to turn their atheism and skepticism into some sort of a political campaign based on the logic that if you’re an atheist and a skeptic and know that creationism isn’t science, you also know why Paul Ryan’s budgets are crap and then proceed to take proscribed positions on key social issues. And as for the Skepchicks, well, the Elevatorgate horse hasn’t just been beaten to death, it’s bleached bones have been desecrated many times over by now, but of course Watson won’t quit because it brings her hits and lets her offer herself as a martyr to the hordes of sexist pigs in the skeptical community — who are really mostly rabid internet trolls who spew nothing but hatred anyway — to fawning fans. Her dubious behavior as a moderator at JREF can now be safely buried under her martyr cloak and skeptics who don’t agree have to tip-toe around her lest they displease her, explaining their behavior in great detail only to get a dismissive, passive-aggressive reply over a year after the fact.

I’m not sure what was the moment I first facepalmed while reading what has become of some of the big profile skeptics nowadays. Was it PZ Myers’ brief manifesto filled with disgust that some libertarians have the gall to call themselves atheists? Was it Greta Christina’s breathless praise of a cafe that put a diaper change station in the men’s room because it didn’t have space for a second one in the women’s restroom as if it was some sort of revolutionary anti-sexist message to its patrons despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of men’s rooms do have changing stations anyway? The whole Atheism+ affair that ultimately went nowhere fast? Perhaps it’s true that nostalgia is a seductive liar, as George Ball once opined, and maybe I am glossing over a periodic rift or two, but the last year has been one of the skeptical movement taking three steps back to quibble over semantics, late night bar gossip, and internal politics instead of promoting the united message of science and education needing to triumph over ignorance and stubborn fundamentalism, rendering once flourishing blogs less and less relevant.

Perhaps the real bright spots have been Phil Plait, whose passion for space overruled his meta analysis of skeptical niceness and who keeps cranking out fantastic skeptical and pop sci work on a daily basis, and the former top dogs of the Discover Network who never changed their big picture focus on the science and the narrative of discovery and education. They’re on to a new home but they’re still going strong. And here’s the important thing. If they paid any attention to the drama at TAM and the gossipy blog fights, they moved on. Maybe that’s what FTB and the other squabbling self-proclaimed skeptical leaders need to do? Maybe they could find a hobby that doesn’t involve writing passionate treatises about their feelings and how those around them are failing to nurture their personal existential crises? Last year I found a hobby that has zilch to do with computers, blogging, or Singularity skepticism and find it amazing how much that clears your mind. Maybe a little less focus on their drama will get the back into being the strong voices for science, education, and skepticism they were before they let politics overtake them?

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troll

One would think that by now talking about Elevatorgate would go way past beating a dead horse and into the territory of savaging the bleached, brittle bones left as its only remains. But you’re severely underestimating the sheer amount of mileage Rebecca Watson is trying to get out of it by writing an article on Slate about her sheer bewilderment as to how sexist and misogynistic the online skeptical community supposedly really is. By the title alone, you’d think that her account about being propositioned in an elevator ending with a “guys, that’s creepy, don’t do that” just threw open the floodgates of rape threats. Really, at this point the cow has been milked until it’s bleeding from its udders and Watson yet again manages to summon the cloak of feminism to do what she does best and deflect the number one criticism of her handling of the affair by enlisting the help of internet trolls who sound as if they were called from the darkest corners of the web to deliver the kind of misogyny you’d expect from a rabid Muslim cleric on Saudi TV.

Rape threats, while horrible, cannot be simply attributed to the skeptical community at large and doing so is either trying to establish guilt by association, or by labeling everyone who can visit a wide open public blog as part of the skeptical movement. I find it very difficult to swallow that with so many skeptics out there submitting their critiques of Watson’s blanket declarations, only the most vitriolic trolling is featured and highlighted, especially since she has a very heavy-handed moderation policy on Skepchick. The trolls aren’t just being fed, they’re given a feast the likes of which would be hard to find outside Valhalla! Every time they strike in response to her claims of widespread misogyny among society in general and skeptics in particular, she raises them on a pedestal and uses their most unhinged threats and sexist smears as supposed examples of the criticism she gets, giving them even more fuel to send her vicious threats. Rinse, repeat, ramp it up, soak up the hits in a disservice to her fellow skeptics, both male and female.

By the end of the day, one would think that the only comments she gets are either from devoted, supportive fans proud of all the fine work she’s doing or threaten her with gang rape on her way from the grocery store with nothing in between. Indeed, the skeptics have been so bad this year that we’re now not allowed to have adult themed calendars as we’re all pigs and don’t know how to be mature about sexuality, we’ll just stare at women and drool because that’s what we were told to do by mass media and a patriarchal society. Seriously, there’s feminism and there’s just going too far and Watson has been doubling down on going to far at every opportunity. Instead of fixing the legitimate problems she complained about and moving on, this has become the year of the Elevatorgate for the skeptical community and the so-called leaders of skeptical groups are now mired in melodramas that happen in bars after skeptic meetups and blog networks. So much for teaching people about science and skeptical inquiry, right? After all, geek drama, angst, and gossip are so much more important and worthy of our time…

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riot

After posting my review of how the current leaders of the skeptical movement are failing to lead and unite, I’ve been alerted to a new idea percolating around the Free Thought Blogs collective. It’s a brainchild of several bloggers notable in the feminist “civil war” being called Atheism+ and while it does pay some lip service to the need for scientific education and promoting skeptical inquiry, it’s primarily a social activism platform which isn’t too dissimilar from the agenda of many liberal political groups with the exception of equating atheism with good scientific education. Now, there’s much to be said for the positive aspects of non-belief, but in the agendas being outlined by Atheism+ the secular, non-theistic worldview is simply a vehicle to address social inequalities, particularly the kind we see in the typical post-modernist monologues; white male privilege.

Granted, the rants aren’t nearly as awful as the notion of complex physics equations expressing male nerds’ fear of women seen in the most egregious example of post-modernism tackled on this blog, but the concept seems to have some rather uncanny similarities. Basically, they posit, the atheist movement is now overburdened with holier-than-thou white men who condescend to women and minorities, pay too much attention to other white men whose books they read, and ignore the concerns of the women and minorities in their quest to lead the movement to the One True Atheism. Therefore, they continue, the only sensible course of action is to create the One Logical Atheism to counter it and demand equal rights for all women and minorities as part of the platform, call the whole thing Atheism+, and rhetorically marginalize critics by loudly wondering why they oppose equal rights and safe space for women and minorities when they question the wisdom of this splintering, regardless of whether the critics are women or minorities themselves. All right, I’m satirizing, true, but this is how the rhetoric has been shaped. Criticize them and you’re a monster and an apologist for rape, harassment, and white male privilege.

There is some truth in the fact that skeptical and atheist movements do have a disproportionate representation of white males between 18 and 50 and as all large homogenous groups tend to do, they don’t concern themselves with making others feel more welcome. Of course this doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re just self-absorbed know-it-alls who only want to dictate the rules of atheism and skepticism to the unwashed masses with different skin color, genitalia, and sexual preferences. It just means they haven’t considered how to make sure they appear welcoming of others. The proper course of action is to highlight this issue and ask whether there’s something they’re doing that drives women and minorities away. And yes, that’s been tried. However, what followed all these attempts were litanies of complaints about all those white guys taking over the movement, harassing the womenfolk, and ignoring all the minorities around them by the virtue of being predominantly white and male.

How does this help? It only makes the problem worse! There were “privileged white males” like PZ Myers asking why the movement failed to attract a more diverse audience and the responses from self-promoted leaders of the atheist movement from the Skepchick/Atheist Feminist camp was to describe the whole group as a bunch of homogenous leering perverts. Gee, what woman, or ethnic or sexual minority would like to join what sounds like a country club for secularists? And what’s even worse is that when a legitimate, reasonable point was made, i.e. Rebecca Watson’s initial handling of Elevatorgate ending up as a simple suggestion that propositioning someone in an elevator is kind of creepy and probably shouldn’t be done, she and her friends would double down on the “ZOMG! Rape in potentia!” sensationalism put forth by PZ and Phil Plait. Who, by the way, were the while privileged men who supposedly care nothing about their plight. Suddenly, an aside about creepy behavior after last call at a skeptical conference turned into a cautionary story of a rape narrowly avoided and brought out all the worst insecurities in the movement.

Not only is this terrible leadership — if starting a huge fight over hook up protocol after 3 AM and triggering fights among your movement’s followers is not a leadership failure, I really don’t know what is — but it makes the very movement they’re trying to expand and diversify seem even less welcoming in the basest way possible. Instead a follow up such as “but despite this incident, the conference was great and we had a great crowd,” they allowed Elevatorgate to define skeptical conferences in general and the only criticism to which they chose to respond came from random vicious trolls spewing misogynistic obscenities. The impression was that the only people who had disagreements with their handling of the incident were women-hating throwbacks to the 1940s. Well shit, I can pull tricks like that too if I respond to creationists or fundamentalists commenting on this blog only when they declare that I’m an atheist solely because I’m a sexually compulsive drug addict neglected by his parents, rather than when they try to argue a point that raises some questions that have scientific answers.

And now, they not only want to control the discussion by removing what they say are threatening and abusive threads, and ridiculing their critics into submission, they’re hiding behind lofty social goals and declaring that you should either be with them or you’re an apologist for inequality and crass discrimination. It doesn’t matter if you agree that the atheist and skeptical movement does need to be more diverse, that women need be treated better in the STEM field, and that minority viewpoints should also have a platform, but see their handling of these issues as promoting a lot more division than unity. You become a persona non grata to be verbally drawn and quartered on the web, you will not be invited to conferences, and you will be marked with an e-scarlet letter that will make it difficult to become a professional activist in the very groups which seek to help women and minorities. You must become a yes-man or a yes-woman. You’re either on board or part of the problem. You’re with them or against them. It’s an attitude much better fit for a hyper-partisan PAC or a fundamentalist group than for scientific skeptics.

Of course the victim here is the scientific education. The goal now is not to teach good critical thinking skills. It’s to teach how to balance out the social inequalities, oh and with a little science on the side because as we’re being told, once you become an atheist, all other reasons to treat a person of a different gender or ethnicity would vanish with religion, as if bigotry and hate ever needed a concrete, metaphysical reason for existence. Certainly, the Deicide Doctrine played a large part in the persecution of Jews in Europe, but so did half-baked conspiracy theories about greedy Jewish bankers buying up Europe for their New World Order. True, the story of Eve was used to justify treating women like property but so many men also treated women as their sexual possessions because they could. And yes, the Bible was used to justify slavery and racism, but so was Galton’s pseudoscience which cast all non-well-to-do-WASPs as less evolved.

The point is that religion is the easiest justification for hatred to which a bigot can point and yes, it can be the sole reason for his or her hate. But to think that there’s no bigotry or discrimination in any mostly atheist society is folly. Just look at the Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in Denmark, a country where a majority of the population proudly declares itself as non-theists. Not all of it is driven by religious elements. Let’s face it, there are atheist bigots, sexists, and homophobes out there and they’re not going to be swayed by Atheism+ or its doctrine that religion lies at the root of discrimination. The root of discrimination is social isolation and constant encouragements to hold all those different as untrustworthy and malicious if given any rights or voices. The talking points are up to the bigots in question and they can range from conspiracies to divine invocation with a lot of other options in between. Let’s not pretend that atheism will show hate-mongers the way and the light by the power of rational skeptical inquiry.

With all that said, we circle back to the question of how teaching science will be the panacea for all these social concerns. In my little corner of the skeptical blogosphere, I’m writing mostly about futurism, technology, and bleeding edge physics that fascinate me. I write about this because it’s what I know, these are the areas where most of my education and professional experience lies, and my goal isn’t to advance a social agenda but to tell my readers something that makes them go “gee whiz, that’s cool” or “oh, so that’s how it would really work?” and come back for another dose of that. If Weird Things grew big enough to start and host its own meetups, I would expect the attendees to come wanting to talk about the science and skeptically parse futuristic bombast they recently heard. My goal is not to create a legion of atheists to go forth and shape the world to my liking, but to help teach the need for proper STEM education and to make more informed decisions and conclusions when it comes to this area of knowledge and exploration. Even more fundamentally, to make people think, especially if they disagree with me or start a debate.

Whatever happened to all that? Where has the skeptical blogosphere I wanted to join so much gone? The blogosphere in which we the skeptics doled out posts on topics we understood to get people interested and excited about science and appreciate the threats posed by ignorance and religious fanaticism to the key engines of our progress as a civilization, science and technology? Whatever happened to letting people get there themselves rather than blast them with invective or clog the newsfeeds with TMZ-worthy gossip of what goes on after hours in hotel bars between skeptics and who was mean to whom or who made whom cry?

I’m a skeptic because I had a lifetime fascination with science and built my toys out of Legos, hoping to grow up to work on something amazing. I’m an atheist because I never saw a need for religion in my life and my parents never dragged me to synagogues. I’m a blogger because I like writing and wanted to see what happened if I wrote for an audience. If you need me, I’ll be right here writing about quantum mechanics, AI, ANNs, and squaring off with the Less Wrongians and Singularitarians. I’m not going become an Atheist+ by being shamed into it by a small clique of people who take themselves way too seriously and who want to turn their dramas and personal agendas into my battles.

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