Friday, March 4, 2011

Do you have your snark-hunting permit for this year yet?

Well, as everyone in the atheist blogosphere knows by now, Jeremy Stangroom has begun a rather interesting campaign to document instances of inappropriate/unacceptable incivility on the part of the Gnu Atheists. I actually give the guy some credit for doing this; for too long, the gnu-bashers have accused us of systemic and unconscionable incivility, and then when challenged to back it up with examples, they have responded with stony silence.

Stangroom, in contast, is attempting to put his money where his mouth is, and as far as it goes, is not doing a terrible job. Out of the six examples he has cited so far, I admit I found two of them to be positively cringe-worthy (Dawkins' "stupid face" comment, and Blackford's calling Chris Mooney a "disgusting traitor" simply because he took Templeton money1). The other four inspired more of a shrug in me -- have you heard of this new thing called "weblogs", where people say whatever they want in an unedited and unmoderated forum? -- and it doesn't reflect well that Stangroom is reaching back several years to find this stuff. His campaign is ultimately a big fat "So what?" -- as several have pointed out, in order to show that gnus are systematically more incivil than other similar groups, he'd have to be citing several egregious examples every day -- but I still give him credit for rising to the challenge, however ineffectually.

What I want to talk about briefly, even though I don't have that much to say about it, is PZ's post on the topic, or more specifically, the comments. PZ is really pushing it here with this post, but of course, that's PZ's schtick. Are there really people out there who wish that every single outspoken atheist were perfectly level-headed and fair all of the time??? If so, I think those people are really boring. PZ flirts with "the line" all the time, and sometimes crosses it, and that's what makes Pharyngula so entertaining.

The comments, though, I think are going way too far. There's some rather vulgar reinventions of Stangroom's name, a whole lot of empty ridicule, etc. The commenters are trying to make a point, of course -- that they will not be reigned in by the tone police, and that any attempt to do so will just result in further escalation -- but it's unseemly and not very flattering towards them.

In other words, it looks kind of like most of the rest of the Internet. Only spelled better.

I'll be honest, I think the comments section at Pharyngula is a rather nasty place, and I don't really spend any time there as a result. But I'm not losing sleep over Someone Is Being A Jerk On The Internet. To be frank, I think some of the commenters on that post are being real tools; but I would not even be motivated to mention it if snark-hunting weren't such a hot topic lately. If you don't like how a particular online community is behaving, find a different one. Ho hum.

And I guess that's what's so puzzling about the anti-gnu brigade. Since when does the fact that you happen to agree with someone on a particular existential issue give you the prerogative to endlessly fret over their level of civility? To be clear, we're not talking about something like Christians needing to condemn and disassociate themselves from the "God Hates Fags" crowd, or god-forbid the obstetrician murderers. We're just talking about matters of tone and framing. It is so strange to be obsessed with someone else's civility level.

As others have pointed out, the charge that the gnus are giving all atheists a bad name is simply laughable. Even forgetting about Overton window-like phenomenon, which I believe are very real, atheists already had a bad name, and not because some of our number made some inappropriate comments on a blog one day.

Yes, damn right, some people in our community sometimes cross the line. Some of them go way over the line at times, and some of them (though I would argue not any of the prominent bloggers) do so habitually. But why are certain folks so obsessed with this rather trivial fact?

Edit: In re-reading some of Stangroom's series on snark-hunting, I am struck once again by the fact that he is resorting to empty ridicule in the very same posts in which he is nitpicking on examples of empty ridicule. It's got to be intentional; Stangroom doesn't seem nearly that self-unaware. I'm just a little fuzzy on the point he is trying to make. Is it supposed to be baiting people into a "you can dish it out but you can't take it" trap? Just a straightforward "taste of your own medicine" ploy? I dunno, I'm almost certain he's doing it to make a point, as opposed to just being cluelessly hypocritical (the presence of at least one ad hominem per post just seems too consistent and too "forced" almost to be a coincidence) but I guess I just don't really grok his point...

1My opinion on taking Templeton money could be a blog post all to itself, but not today. In short: I think Templeton is being very sneaky and is working towards a goal with which I disagree. That said, if I were a researcher or a journalist, and Templeton offered me money to conduct a study/write an article, and I felt comfortable with the request if not with the requester -- you bet your sweet bippy I'd take it. I've got mortgage payments to make, y'know! If you believe in what you are doing, having it funded by an organization like Templeton may create an undesirable conflict of interest, but it's not the worst thing in the world. It would be nice to be in a position to turn it down, but not everybody is, and I'm not typically going to judge someone too harshly for choices like that -- not even Mooney.


  1. I'm neither impressed, nor particularly interested by this cherry picking exercise.

    Regardless on where you stand regarding the whole Gnu-Atheist approach...

    The accumulated information will represent what, exactly?

    A cherry picked, hand filtered selection of posts and comments from which the only conclusion we can draw is that some inappropriate/unacceptable/uncivil comments and posts were made by some people.

    It seems like the point is that we will all be judged by the worst things any of us ever say, so we can't tolerate anyone ever saying anything unkind, and we should ignore the hypocrisy of those who judge all atheists or GnuAtheists that way who also get upset when they get lumped in with fundamentalist cranks or accomodationists, am I getting things right?

  2. Oh, don't get me wrong, I'm certainly not impressed. It's just that, since one of the perennial retorts to the gnu-bashers has been, "So where is all this alleged incivility?", I feel like if we were to reject his attempt out of hand, to say that even in principle he couldn't demonstrate anything substantive, that would be a case of shifting the goalposts. I think there is a responsible to articulate the gap between what Stangroom is compiling and what would be evidence of a systemic problem amongst the Gnus.

    Many, many "stupid face" comments. That would concern me. But he's not going to find them, he's just going to find a whole bunch of blogospheric snark and coarse language, peppered with the ever-so-rare slip-up like that one Dawkins comment.

  3. Soon after I encountered Usenet, way back in the Mesozoic (ie. the early 90s), I discovered the phenomenon of the Usenet Feud. You know: an enormous post containing the back-and-forth of two guys who hated each others' guts, over some matter large or trivial (Button diodes as cheap lamp dimmers? Srsly?), which one of them would post whenever they ran across each other in any newsgroup, anywhere.

    And I decided that it was pointless to try figuring out which one of them was in the right; whose ox had been gored first and/or worst (and whatever they were arguing about in the first place is long buried under multiple layers of recrimination -- "meta" stuff as Russell Blackford would term it). It's just not worth the time and effort.

    This latest dust-up has many of the marks of the Usenet feud. Unfortunately, it's right in the middle of the community I tend to call my own, where it's hard to ignore. I'm refusing to get involved, on principle ;-).