the still fuzzy future of organized skepticism
Since I’ve been quiet for a long time and a whole lot of things have happened, there’s a sense that before moving forward, we might want to take a quick look back and address a few major issues that have been brewing in atheist and skeptical blogospheres. Sadly, the muddled focus for the future of organized skepticism is still as much a problem as it was over a year ago. It’s unnervingly telling that columns about JREF have been drying up and there’s still no articulated vision for where we go from debunking homeopathy and UFOs, though it would be unfair not to highlight major positives, like Orac being regularly quoted in mainstream media’s takedowns of popular quackery, and Yvette d’Entremont, aka Science Babe, being asked by Gawker to weigh in as a professional chemist on the flood of Vani Hari’s trendy, brain-dead nonsense. As for the organized atheist movements, which often participate in skeptical groups, well, they’re still more interested in turning skepticism and popular science into a left wing political movement and how to change the subject from science education to battling the ills and inequities of society.
And that’s pretty much where we left off last time, with two broad competing groups battling for what each says is the soul of skeptical and atheistic blogging. One sees science and skeptics being a means to a political end, as weapons to fight the Culture Wars with social reactionaries who are desperately trying to return us to the 1950s they imagine in their nostalgic fantasies. In the other end of the spectrum is the group which sees education as its ultimate goal, betting the farm on the idea that when you give people hope for a better world, they’ll help build it with the educational tools you provide, and that while battling social inequities is a noble goal, there will always be some social injustice, so the best we can do is confront it when it happens. I’m firmly in the second camp, personally, and as it so happens, people like me have managed to end up on the wrong side of the We Are All Already Decided doctrine of political debate. We just aren’t what the social justice contingent wants us to be: dedicated ideologues in their service.
Now, surely, you’ve heard the acronym SJW brandished on the web as a pejorative and almost immediately being proudly accepted by someone as an acknowledgment that he or she is on a mission to right society’s wrongs. Quite a few even go so far as to say that SJW is an imaginary pejorative used solely by misogynists and bigots, and that there are no “social justice warriors,” just people who support equal rights and respect for all, and those who don’t. But there is a line that can be crossed, even if you have nothing but good intentions, with which the road to Hell is often paved, to paraphrase St. Bernard of Clairvaux. There are activists who work to make sure that those being discriminated against have a voice, go to city council meetings, write op-eds in their local newspapers and in the national press, and who need our help and support. And then there are overzealous keyboard warriors fighting for the unwashed masses from the comfort of their couches, going after those who commit transgressions big, small, and even micro.
Oh you haven’t heard of microaggressions? Based on academic studies of how racism begins and propagates, the theory is based on subconscious biases coming out in everyday life. While its debatable whether these aren’t just known manifestations of racism by another name, there was little time wasted by the aforementioned keyboard warriors to cast everything around them as some sort of microaggression. Consider the following. As a Ukrainian-Russian Jew, much of my adult life was accompanied by jokes about the sturdiness of my liver, my friend Vassiliy who just so happens to be an enforcer for the Russian mob, my probable side job of selling malware to carders and identity thieves, my spy work for the KGB, and in some circles, a number of very colorful stereotype-based zingers not fit to print. And that’s just the Russian stuff. Can you even imagine the number of jokes lobbed my way when I was moving to LA? “Hey Greg, so will your work be primarily is software, or ‘hardware?’” apparently never gets old.
All of that is just good-natured ribbing, playing off on various stereotypes, many of them either negative or in a moral gray zone, right? Well, as most self-proclaimed social justice activists will rush to explain you, these are all microaggressions, intended to demean and stigmatize me, so every time you make a joke like that towards me, I should get offended and blame you for how often Russians in movies are gangsters, weirdos, malicious hackers, nefarious spies, or former commandos for hire with a moral compass pointing to the biggest wad of cash. And should you ever make such jokes in a publicly accessible platform, I’m within my rights to bring it up to then dismiss everything you have to say, and you as a person, by default. Why do you think Watson, to this day, features only the most vicious trolling she receives to address any criticism of what she says or does, and categorizes any disagreement with her or PZ Myers as hate speech by misogynistic, racist bigots? It turns their identity into an argument-ending cudgel and allows for what amounts to a get-out-of-criticism-free card with a side of self-indulgent moralism.
And really, it would be fine if this sort of thing happened when we hit a sensitive topic in one of the talks in the skeptical and pop sci community, it’s unavoidable and everyone deserves their turn at the microphone. But like most fanatics, these keyboard warriors won’t change their mind and refuse to change the subject so every issue and every problem that comes up as a topic of discussion becomes a macro or microaggression to be dissected by internet scandal and mob justice on blogs. And even when their complaints are heard, acknowledged, and met, they just can’t be met fully enough. No “yes” is enthusiastic enough, no accommodation ever sufficiently accommodating, and no “safe space” ever adequately safe. There’s no goal but to keep up the perpetual outrage and the corresponding blog traffic, and if you don’t go along with it, or even worse, dare point it out, well, they don’t have to tolerate your bigoted hate speech, so why don’t you go to your favorite neo-Nazi MRA site instead of bothering decent people.
Just to bring this all back into focus, let’s return to the We Are All Already Decided doctrine and see how detrimental it is to getting new people excited about real science and technology, then drawing them into skeptical groups. Who will want to go to meetings that shift from astrobiology and physics applied to UFO reports into social activism lectures, and who will even want to talk to skeptical groups which are lambasted for being full of women-hating bigots for what could’ve never been an adequate response to some suffered microaggression? Bombastic social justice platforms are fine when you’re starting a political group, but when your goal is to teach, inspire, and help others, creating an insular, rigid ideological squad that tolerates no dissent is every bit as bad as the politics of discrimination and exclusion we’re told to be fighting against.
When we declare that we won’t tolerate intolerance, then classify everything with which we do not immediately agree as being intolerant, we’re building coffee klatches rather than the broad skeptical movements that attract the wide following and support we desperately need when any scientifically-illiterate crank and quack with a big smile can use the web to raise vast followings ready to be fleeced, and used to harass critics into silence by sheer numbers. We can fight for both good science and for the rights of others, yes. But we have to know when to tone it down and when someone is using a moral, ethical banner to shield his or her grab for popularity, and a place at the microphone not by virtue of having something significant to contribute, but solely by using our guilt and shortcomings as fallible humans against us. And right now, it just seems better to do this whole skepticism thing without getting involved with big groups…