Atheism+, misogyny, and the trouble with trolls

There has been a lot of conversation about Atheism+ over the last week. Excellent summaries of the arguments against Atheism+, and rebuttals to those arguments are presented by Jen McCreight, Greta Christina, and PZ Myers.

Many of the discussions have been about whether A+ is really just the same as humanism. In addition to the verbal rebuttals linked to above, Jason Thibeault uses a nice set of Venn diagrams to make the same point.

Per Smith uses this diagram in illustrating his scholarly analysis of A+ as a sectarian movement. (Note that although it may seem that he is criticising A+ for being sectarian, he points out in the comments that he is describing a fairly common phenomenon, not making a value judgment over whether it is a good or bad thing.) What caught my interest, however, was not Per’s description of sectarianism, but one of the comments:

The biggest problem with this, is that is places ‘other miscreants’ in with misogynists etc. When we are actually talking about tolls. Trolling is a sport, the aim of which is to get a reaction out of people who are perceived to be pompous and thin skinned. In other words, to get drama out of drama queens. Within the rules of this game, no tactic is considered too underhand….

…In fact noting is sacred, anything from antisemitism to child abuse and be used or abused, and to ‘spout your own views’ is considered a ‘troll fail’. Therefore a troll may threaten rape, but this does nothing to inform us of his/her views on rape, misogyny or anything else. It doesn’t even indicate that the troll disagrees with the views of the person they are trolling.

I think Vicky makes an excellent point; let’s look at this more closely. Many of the opinions that atheism+ is a response to may be opinions voiced by trolls. Those opinions are therefore not representative of “actual” opinions, but rather reflect the fact that a troll can find some rich pickings by voicing nasty opinions about women and sexual assault, for example.

There is a somewhat philosophical issue here: how can we tell if someone is trolling, as opposed to voicing his actual opinion? Most of the time we can assume that when people say things, the content of their speech match up (to a reasonable extent) with the contents of their attitudes and beliefs. Of course, people do lie, and it can be hard to ascertain whether someone is telling the truth or not. But trolling is a special case. The motivation for a troll to respond with “chicks are bitchez!!!”, or a slightly more subtle “atheists are just like religious fundamentalists”, is to provoke a response. And the troll may or may not be lying. That is, the contents of his mind may or may not bear some correspondence to the words.

So when a blog commenter makes a statement, we cannot always know if he is a troll or whether he is reasonably sincere. How we categorize these statements informs how we respond. A sincere statement should be responded to with a link to the eleventy places where that particular argument is dealt with, at least. A troll can be ignored (but see the paragraph at the end of this post) , and should not be counted as evidence that atheist/secular/skeptical/humanist men are misogynists/racists/privileged etc. Or should he? As mentioned above, it may well be the case that the troll, whilst trolling, is actually making statements that reflect his attitudes. In which case he should be counted as one of the atheists etc. who are misogynists etc. But we cannot always tell.

Do these distinctions matter? Does the suspicion that many of the voices speaking out against the “evils of feminism” may not be sincere alter what we consider to be an appropriate response? Is atheism+ necessary if all the jerks within atheism/skepticism are trolls? My answers to these questions are “maybe”, “no”, and “yes”, respectively, but this is partly because I really don’t get the troll mentality. I get why people (usually adolescents) engage in pranks. I get why a pompous voice of authority can be an alluring target. What I don’t get is the “anything goes” approach. I don’t get how it’s OK to say hurtful things to victims of rape or any other abuse or injustice. I don’t get how it’s OK to pick vulnerable targets, find the things that are most hurtful, and attack those targets with passion and glee.

The very fact that trolls exist, and that they consider victims of rape, institutional sexism, or any other kind of misogyny to be valid targets is a problem. It’s part of our culture. While trolls may not be sincerely stating their beliefs, the fact that anyone considers their behavior to be acceptable is a real problem, and it is a problem that is plausibly entwined with the problem that there are people who do sincerely hold the values espoused by the trolls. In reality, it is extremely unlikely that all the misogynist comments that have been made regarding feminism and atheism+ are from trolls. As Greta Christina points out

I am getting very tired of people responding to these posts by saying things like, “Don’t give them attention. Don’t feed the trolls.” This has been addressed at length, in the #mencallmethings: “whore” comment thread, and elsewhere. (Here is a very good short video on that subject, summing up why “don’t feed the trolls” is a terrible response to sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, or other group-based hate.) The tl;dr: This is not a few trolls trying to get attention and stir up any kind of response. This is a sustained campaign of misogyny, aimed at driving feminist women out of a community. And ignoring it does not make it go away. Ignoring it gives it tacit consent. The only way to deal with it is to point it out, and shame it, and make it clear that our community does not tolerate it. When you respond to a woman speaking out about misogyny by saying, “Don’t feed the trolls,” you are essentially telling us, “Stay silent about the misogynist shit you have to deal with on a daily basis.”

And do watch the video Greta linked to.


3 thoughts on “Atheism+, misogyny, and the trouble with trolls

  1. I’m not a drama queen. And I’m not particularly pompous. hate words literally hurt me. It’s not “thin skinned,” which sounds really judgmental. It’s trauma, abuse survival, etc. Stuff hurts me that doesn’t SEEM to hurt others. Although I’ll bet the cumulative effect of a thousand cuts on everyone submerged in this soup of hostility, personal attacks, attributed motives and accusations of lying have GOT to be having an impact on overall, psychological health, as it does me. I feel like I’m the canary in the coal mine. If it causes me injury it’s probably causing injury to others, too, whether they can smell it yet or not. When someone says something hateful, I tell them what they’ve done, why I find it unacceptable and let them know they’re blocked, banned, ignored or otherwise removed from my life for it. I don’t let random strangers walk into my house and pee on my rug, either. If enough of us do this consistently, without getting into flame wars, I think we can tip the balance.

  2. Pingback: Does feminism have an excluded middle? | Cognitive Revolution

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