Over much of the past two years in political circles, a slew of polemics have been argued, over the online harassment directed at women. Even the list of more recent incidents spawning these debates is expansive; the harassment of feminist gaming critic Anita Sarkeesian; the viral video of Prime Minister Julia Gillard criticising Tony Abbott’s relationship with misogyny; the multiple waves online of chauvinist vitriol directed at amongst others, New Statesman columnist, Laurie Penny, and so it goes.
A heavy reliance on the Internet for communication leaves atheist and free-thought communities, especially in the US, potentially wide open to abusive interaction, whatever the disposition of their constituencies. One could go into great detail discussing the event that saw the crystallisation of the phenomena in secular circles online; “ElevatorGate” in 2011. However, I’ll try to be brief.
In 2011, atheist, sceptic and feminist blogger, Rebecca Watson, in the middle of a YouTube video post, pointed out that it wasn’t a good move for guys to introduce themselves at 4am, in an elevator, asking a woman to “…come to my hotel room for coffee?” Initially, this mild comment prompted a series of alleged and mostly unrelated grievances to be aired by Watson’s detractors.
Then Prof. Richard Dawkins entered the fray with his now infamous “Dear Muslima” commentary, sarcastically deriding Rebecca Watson’s supposed lack of perspective; Muslim women were being treated like dirt the world over, while Watson complained about guys in elevators. Imagine it as Dawkins’ take on “First World Problems”; very dry, at least a little truculent, and with a hint of unstated grievances.
What followed was an escalation in online abuse; “she’s too ugly to rape”; “I hope she gets raped so she knows what real abuse is”; “if I’m ever in an elevator with her, I’ll cop a feel”; “…Rebeccunt Twatson…”. And of course, there have been the ever-present images depicting feats Laurie Penny would likely describe as “sphincter stretchingly implausible”. This torrent of vitriol rapidly engulfed other targets, all while maintaining the same intensity of malice and irrationality.
Possibly the most sinister act amongst all of this, was an incident endured by Amy Roth in 2012.
“The Slymepit”, an Internet cesspool of vex and loathing, dedicated to attacking Rebecca Watson and fellow travellers, was to temporarily play host to the publication of Amy Roth’s home address. Despite an allegedly public source for such personal information, you have to ask; what was the implied, suggested use for Roth’s home address, being posted at such a forum?
The individual posting Amy Roth’s home address, one Justin Vacula, coupled this act to a claim of “censorship” at Roth’s instigation, on account of her filing of a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) claim on a particular photo of hers, and only the photo, to be withdrawn from a post of his authoring. As of writing, Vacula’s description of the exchange, published at the Southern Poverty Law Centre listed hate site, A Voice For Men, fails to accurately describe all the relevant details (i.e. that the article was not in fact, “censored”).
But aside from the obvious, what has any of this got to do with Richard Dawkins?
To simply state that abuse has followed Dawkins’ “Dear Muslima” comments, ergo Dawkins’ responsibility, would be an instance of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy so loved by reactionaries. As far as I can ascertain, Dawkins has offered neither tacit, nor explicit endorsement of the mentioned abuse. Rather, from “ElevatorGate” onwards, it seems often to be a case of overzealous Dawkins fans appointing trolling duties to themselves.
Still, at a time when men are increasingly being called upon to decry misogyny, sexism and online abuse, Dawkins’ continuing silence on a phenomena situated so close to him seems difficult to defend. This silence, coupled with the abuse, and coupled with the behaviour of a number of enablers, at least to my addled mind, seems only to serve the wrecking of communities, intentionally or not.
In response to the outbreak of online abuse, and a series of incidents at events, a number of free-thought organisations in the US have made steps to implement harassment policies. It’s been no secret that Dawkins’ sentiments oppose these moves for mostly unarticulated reasons. Maybe it’s a case of bonobo ethology romantically adapted to Homo sapiens, or perhaps more likely, it’s that Dawkins objects on the grounds of identity politics.
However, such policies aren’t a reflection on the behaviour of the broader godless constituency – they prescribe courses of action for when things go wrong, as happens from time to time in all human communities. The existence of a harassment policy no more defames a community, than laws against murder condemn a society as being particularly murderous.
Last year I covered the Global Atheist Convention for Ophelia Benson’s Butterflies and Wheels, although at the time I left something out of my coverage; an incident where my eyes were flecked with the spittle (and possibly the mild ale) of an atheist academic, who ranted amongst other things, that he’d always oppose bullies.
Said academic, a self-confessed Dawkins fan, despite his supposed anti-bullying advocacy, has thus far failed to call the harassment of Rebecca Watson, Amy Roth and others for what it is. Yet what he has managed to decry are concerns over a campaign to fund Justin Vacula’s presence at this month’s “Women in Secularism 2”, held by The Centre For Inquiry in Washington D.C..
My spittle-spraying former acquaintance isn’t alone amongst intelligent, academic, Dawkins fans in adopting this double standard. Weirdly, there’s an attitude even amongst a small set of atheist academics, that somehow they’re doing Dawkins a favour. It’s as if they harbour fantasies that fame and book sales will rain down upon them, if only they enable Watson’s harassers.
It’s not like Dawkins hasn’t been pressed for more substantive contributions to this debate, or even with questions about his mere awareness of the existence of the torrents of abuse. I’ve sources who’ve done as much, with little success in the way of obtaining answers, and Dawkins has publicly squelched such lines of inquiry, such as during a Q&A session at the University of Miami in September of 2011.
I was able to discuss these concerns with Dr. R. Elisabeth Cornwell, Executive Director of the US branch of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. She was aware of the mentioned instances of harassment, expressing displeasure and dismay.
I raised the issue of serious chatter arising out of a polarised climate amongst organisers, that suggested that Dawkins was using his influence to have Rebecca Watson barred from events. Dr. Cornwell assured me this wasn’t the case.
Whichever way one decides to interpret these contrary claims, one thing is indisputable – there‘s a lack of trust within secular circles, born of online harassment during the past few years. This conflict is ostensibly being driven by an unknown number of self-appointed zealots, and their enablers, acting in Dawkins’ honour.
Whatever Dawkins’ intellectual or personal differences with Rebecca Watson et al., it wouldn’t undermine him to explicitly state that he doesn’t welcome the online abuse of his opponents. Dawkins may retort that this is in fact obvious, however this wouldn’t seem to hold for those who need to hear the message the most – a number of his more enthusiastic fans.
(Photo Source: Marty Stone).