Fahgettaboudit: What Happens When Right People Say The Wrong Things

Posted on June 9, 2012. Filed under: Atheism, Atheist Ethics, Internet Etiquette, Personal, Trolls, You're Not Helping |

There is a pattern emerging in the comment section of posts about “good people behaving badly”.  It seems that some people seem obsessed with the idea that people we share some common goals with are beyond reproach. 

Richard Dawkins writes off sexual harassment as a worthless First World Problem- people insist that he get a pass. Commenters all over the internet tell us that we can disagree, but politely- and we must- MUST- afford his comments the most charitable possible interpretation.  I agree with Dawkins on most subjects- but I find his line of reasoning dismissive and dangerous on this issue.  So why am I supposed to give that idea less measured criticism than I give to any other? 

We come to respect people because they are uncannily right- so when they get something wrong- do they not equally earn criticism as they have earned esteem?

The faux-pas du jour is now DJ Grothe’s.  The President of the James Randi Educational Foundation has handled the issue of harassment at TAM with all the tact of a bull moose courting a chihuahua. 

DJ decided to do some classic victim blaming.  He suggests that harassment victims “regret” past “sexual exploits”.  In other words, he suggested that harassment is not that big of an issue because the people claiming to have experienced it are just feeling guilty for letting their hair down.  Some of the bloggers out there have suggested (in no uncertain terms) that DJ is forwarding an offensive and unwelcoming opinion of people who are trying to share their experiences in an effort to make conferences safer and more enjoyable. 

Once again, the chorus of those who think that certain people deserve a pass chimes in.  Why should victim blaming be considered reasonable by virtue of the person who initiates it?  Why should I or anybody else give Grothe’s comments the most charitable interpretation when such an interpretation doesn’t even exist?  He doesn’t get a pass.  He doesn’t get to act like he never said those things.  People have a duty to call him to account until he acknowledges his mistake. 

Did people call DJ some bad names? Sure.  Has he earned most of them? Yep. 

Ideas that don’t respect facts don’t deserve respect.  Period. 

They deserve to be mocked.  They deserve to be attacked.  They deserve disdain.  Measured comments deserve measured responses. Poisonous comments deserve poisonous responses.

So why am I writing a post about this?  Because a friend of mine is dealing with a troll over at his blog who is arguing that DJ deserves to be treated with more respect than his actions deserve.  Not only that, said troll is arguing that he himself doesn’t deserve to be called a troll- and doesn’t deserve to be banned- because he is Kind of A Big Deal™. 

The only way that sentiment could be any more annoying is if it was written in Comic Sans.

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33 Responses to “Fahgettaboudit: What Happens When Right People Say The Wrong Things”

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George, I understand that you can disagree with Dawkins over this issue. That’s your right. But on what philosophical BASIS do you base your criticism? Dawkins believes (as you do, I think) that people are solely the product of physical processes. It seems perfectly logical, to me, that he might say that some people are inferior to others. Some people are more deserving of protection than others.
Based on your post, you believe he is wrong. I agree with you, but I’m not sure how you come to your opinion. What makes your opinion any more valuable (or “true”) than his? Why is his argument “poisonous” while yours is not?

I’m not really clear what your question is. Are you asking me on what grounds I believe that problems are not cancelled out by worse problems elsewhere? Why I believe that the treatment of women in Western culture is cancelled out by the treatment of women elsewhere which itself might be cancelled out by the genocide in Darfur?
On what grounds would you say that idea is worth accepting?

Maybe I’m not following your original post. My question deals with the origin of your ethics. What gives you the right to call Dawkin’s and Gothe’s opinions “poisonous”? Why are you opinions more valuable or “right” than theirs? Aren’t ethics just relative in an atheistic perspective?
Maybe you’ve posted on this topic before, so my apologies if so. Why do you believe that all people are equal and deserving of equal respect? Genetically speaking we are most certainly not equal.

The concepts of fairness and “treating others in your community as you wish to be treated” predates religion. All social animals have different ways of dealing with distribution of resources in a population- ranging from more egalitarian arrangements to more top-heavy ones.
In the case of humans, the idea that specific people are not inherently more deserving of rights than others has continued to be central to many societies, often times in spite of institutionalized religion.

Aww, how cute! A (probable Christian) person who doesn’t understand where morals come from. I hope Nathan doesn’t think that hearsay represented as the written Word of God is the only way to develop morals. Thinking is hard; it’s much more preferential to just be told what to do in any given situation instead of actually having to weigh options.

More importantly, if he is a Christian, I hope Nathan doesn’t run into any Midianites. That could turn into an awkward situation if Nathan attempted to obey Yahweh’s commands on how to treat the inhabitants of that city-state.

I hate to come across as over-the-top sarcastic, but I sense a presuppositionalist argument for the existence of a deity coming. Did Ray Comfort release a new DVD recently?

By the way, I’m not sure what you mean by empathy. Obviously, I know what empathy is. But I’m not sure how you can base your ethics on it. I’d love to see you expound upon that. Empathy, from my viewpoint, is completely relative. I have empathy for sufferings that I am familiar with. I have no empathy for sufferings that I am unfamiliar with. I guess I can’t understand how empathy leads to universal equality.

Obviously, I know what empathy is… I have empathy for sufferings that I am familiar with. I have no empathy for sufferings that I am unfamiliar with.

Then you don’t know what empathy is. Or you are a sociopath. Although the most likely explanation is that you’re merely being disingenuous because, instead of recognizing that you make these kind of judgement calls every second of every day, you’d rather pretend that you defer to a bronze-age text that treats slavery as acceptable human behavior and even documents the proper method of selling your daughter into slavery. (Again, I’m assuming you’re Christian. Please correct me if I’m wrong.)

From dictionary.com:
Empathy – noun – the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.

I’m not familiar with having my leg torn off, but I can empathize with someone who’s experienced it. I bet it would be absolute torture. I’m not familiar with having a vagina, but I can empathize with what it would be like if somebody told me that because I have a vagina I’m only worth between 50-66% of what a person with a penis is worth (Lev. 27:3-7). I have no doubt that it would be a huge hit to my self-esteem. I’m also not familiar with what it’s like to be on the ice to win the Stanley Cup, but I’ll wager that even Molson Canadian sipped from Lord Stanley’s mug would taste like the nectar of the gods.

Empathy is an intellectual exercise. Again, thinking is hard, but you can do it. You’ve figured out how to use a keyboard, I’ll wager you can start empathizing right how if you try. Trust us, it’s way better than running to your Bible to see how you should act every time somebody picks up sticks on the Sabbath or invites you to a Barenaked Ladies concert. Also, you’ll probably get beaten up less because you won’t be throwing rocks at dozens of people every day.

Whoa there Sinned, you are starting to offend even me- stop it now.
Molson Canadian? Really? You’ve gone too far this time. Canadian could never taste good…never.

Yes, you pegged me. I’m a Christian. One of the reasons I’m a Christian (among others) is because I can’t wrap my head around a framework for atheist ethics. Christianity, whether true or not, provides a framework upon which we can base equality. This God-given equality forms the basis for our entire democracy. (“We hold these truths to be self-evident…”) I just don’t see any fundamental reason for arguing that people are “equal” in the eyes of an unguided evolutionary process. If we are only the product of “survival of the fittest”, then there is nothing more natural (and RIGHT) than the strong oppressing the weak, and the smart oppressing the dumb. I would like to hear a rational argument for why this isn’t right. I honestly just can’t wrap my head around it.
(I will also henceforth not respond to any insults like those posed in the last response. Most of us are here for an intelligent conversation, not for a whipping. I hope that your system of ethics includes equal-treatment for both Christians and fellow-atheists. If not, then I have come to the wrong website.)

You are the second Christian (shout out to Tracey) in as many weeks to comment on my blog questioning my epistemology.
As well, one of my other regular readers, someone I am very fond of, personal messaged me a few days ago asking questions about my atheism.
Perhaps, too, in light of another atheist blogger publicly converting to Catholicism- I should write a series of posts on the subject of atheist epistemology. It seems like an appropriate moment to get in depth into this kind of discussion.

I began to write a post in response to Tracey, who beat you to the punch on this line of questioning- but have been trying to parse the words correctly as this is a discussion that deserves thorough explanations.
I know why I believe certain things to be true, but I need to find ways to explain it that are accessible to non-atheists and philosophical laypeople. Stay tuned, I will update you on this thread as they are posted. Or better still- feel free to subscribe to the blog and you will be notified as new posts are published.

I will also henceforth not respond to any insults like those posed in the last response. Most of us are here for an intelligent conversation, not for a whipping. I hope that your system of ethics includes equal-treatment for both Christians and fellow-atheists. If not, then I have come to the wrong website.

Fair enough. In the interest of conversation, I’ll drop further insults, and as an extra added bonus, I might even tone down the sarcasm.

Whoa there Sinned, you are starting to offend even me- stop it now.
Molson Canadian? Really? You’ve gone too far this time. Canadian could never taste good…never.

I knew I’d pushed the envelope too far with that last comment. After such an offensive statement, there’s no way Nathan’s coming back, and I’m getting banned, aren’t I? Will I be forgiven if I do twenty “Hail Unibroues” and drink a litre or two of homemade Dragon Lady Red Ale tonight?

Consider it your “Rainbows and Ponies” warning. If you say things like that again, I will be forced to edit the word “Molson Canadian” to read “Yuengling”- so your comment makes sense without being offensive.
You have been warned….

What makes you think ethics are relative from an atheistic perspective? I’m not following.
That seems like it doesn’t follow.

You are assuming that genetics is the basis for equality. How do you arrive at that assumption? Why not in-group dynamics? Why not empathy?

I’m not convinced that any notable atheists have forwarded the idea that there is some “genetic score” or “equality quotient” that can be derived from data points. Who has forwarded such a hypothesis?

Ok, fair enough. I believe that all people are CREATED equal and are ENDOWED with certain rights. (Our founders may not have been “Christian” exactly, but the foundation of our equality is certainly steeped in religion. What is your basis for saying that all people are equal? On what basis can you say that Dawkins is absolutely wrong to ignore (or tolerate) harassment? You disagree with him, sure. But what superior moral ground do you have to stand on?

…the foundation of our equality is certainly steeped in religion.

So was the foundation for the inequality of slavery. Thankfully, western civilization has generally decided that no matter what religious texts say, slavery is wrong. Exercise for the reader: how did people come to that conclusion?

What is your basis for saying that all people are equal?

I can’t speak for George, but I don’t think that all people are equal. People vary greatly in size, strength, intelligence, skin colour, sexuality, hairstyles, music tastes, etc. However, I believe that all people have equal rights. What leads me to that belief? Well, the latest scientific evidence has shown that there are approximately seven billion human beings on this planet (besides me). Through rigorous testing, I’ve discovered that, despite their wide variation, most of them are quite similar to me, with needs, wants, strengths and frailties. Also, when I look into the eyes of another person I generally see myself, and I don’t mean a reflection of light. It’s creepy.

So, do we try to recognize that we’re all in this mess called “life” together, and that we should attempt find a way to achieve common goals and negotiate conflicting desires so that we can all achieve a modicum of enjoyment in our limited years on this planet? Or do we place value on people merely because somebody who claimed to be speaking for our creator said we’re all equal and it’s a damned good thing too, because if we weren’t told that all people have value, how could we possibly be expected to figure it out on our own?

But what superior moral ground do you have to stand on?

You (probably) worship a god that claims to have slaughtered almost every single creature on the planet by one of the most horrible methods possible a few thousand years ago, so I don’t think you’re really in a position to designate whose morality is “superior” or “inferior”.

As for Dawkins, I’d argue that he and I stand on similar moral levels, but I think that Richard’s willingness to ignore or tolerate sexual harassment is a viewpoint worth abandoning because it is purposefully allowing people to be placed in situations that make them uncomfortable or possibly even subject to danger.

Sined34 writes:
“What leads me to that belief [in equality]? …there are approximately seven billion human beings on this planet…I’ve discovered that, despite their wide variation, most of them are quite similar to me, with needs, wants, strengths and frailties. Also, when I look into the eyes of another person I generally see myself.”

Ok, so I’m glad that you have made a personal decision to agree that everyone on earth has equal value. But what if I disagree? Do you have a basis for enforcing this belief in equality on others? The basis for our modern society is that people are INHERENTLY are equal. It’s not that you happen to VIEW them as equal. There are many people (even today) that do NOT view everyone as equal. Our laws, therefore, impose this view on everyone regardless of whether or not they happen to agree. I’m not sure how you can get to this sort of system from a premise of atheism. From a theistic perspective, we say “God made us equal”. But from a purely evolutionary perspective, we are far from equal.

See Nathan, that is where your confusion is. You feel as though social Darinism is a logical extension of methodological naturalism. That seems like an awfully disjointed leap.
You don’t believe, I hope, that a theocracy grounded on biblical literalism is a logical extension of your worldview, for example.

Certainly I don’t believe that a theocracy is a desirable government. But I do believe that theism is an excellent groundwork for imposing equal rights. Certainly you can *believe* in equal rights and be a naturalist. But I’m not sure how you can go about IMPOSING equal rights as a naturalist (atheist). If naturalism is true, then on what moral grounds can you force me to adopt to your view of equal rights?

Are you arguing that humans have evolved beyond the grasp of Darwinism? Otherwise, I just con’t see how methodological naturalism (or atheism or “scientism”) can lead to anything OTHER than social darwinism. Is our society something “different” from nature, or is it a part of nature? The golden rule works great for governing individual actions. But when people don’t abide by it, we have to appeal to some sort of higher standard. I’m just not sure what that “standard” is in a naturalistic worldview.


I’m not certain I understand the question, exactly. Do equal rights really get “imposed” upon people? Looking back in history, there really do seem few times and places where people were all treated as equals. Plus, it seems like the people who didn’t have equal rights had to fight like hell to secure those rights against the privileged classes that either benefited directly from or merely perpetuated the inequality.

Did you know that even after claiming “We hold these things to be self-evident, that all men are created equal… endowed by their creator, etc, etc” that slavery continued in the United States for a long time afterwards, and that some of the men who penned those words actually owned slaves themselves? And that when they said “men” they meant “no bitches”? Plus, many of the people who owned other human beings or desired to keep women away from the levers of power had what they thought was a solid theological basis for their beliefs.

So what happened? After much unpleasant behavior, including yelling, civil disobedience, and outright violence, enough of the population became convinced that people of colour should receive the same rights as white folk to push through the civil rights act. And eventually, that same populace realized that a full 50% of their citizenry should be allowed to vote, despite the fact that they were born without penises. (Of course, both stories are much more complex than this – I’m horribly simplifying here.)

The irony is that Christians were on both sides of the fights for civil rights and women’s suffrage. So I don’t really see where you’re coming from when you say that the Bible produces a solid moral bedrock upon which we can build society. Unfortunately, religion has been and will continue to be used as justification for both good and evil, and I would argue that it certainly does not reflect an ideal “higher standard” to which we can appeal to answer the questions of most moral grey areas.

I’m at work right now, and I’ve already spent way too much time on this post. I’ll come back later tonight or tomorrow to see if i can do a better job of addressing your thoughts about atheism automatically leading to social darwinism.

Our view of the equality of people is an “absolute” that we impose on people all the time. We fought for it in World War II. We fought for it in the civil rights movement. We fight for it today in innumerable places even today – whether through money, diplomacy, or military intervention. It’s woven into our system of laws.

My question to you (and any other atheists) is WHY?? That’s my question. Historically, it seems based on Biblical principals. But I just can’t see how you (naturalists, atheists) would arrive at this same conclusion based on Darwinism.

I want to clear up a question here….
One comment ago, you said that atheists could *believe* in equal rights as a naturalist, but the question was how could they IMPOSE it.
Is that the question you want answered? Are you saying that you can perceive some argument whereby atheists might believe in equal rights- but the problem comes at enforcement since there is no real objective authority?
Or are you saying that there is no clear argument why anything is immoral or why something has value without appealing to the supernatural, as this comment seems to imply? I want to address your question, but I’m trying to figure out what your question is so that we don’t have to keep moving the goalposts. I have been down that road before….

Our declaration of independence begins: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are CREATED equal, that they are ENDOWED by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…”
This declaration forms the basis for our democracy and succinctly explains the origin of our belief in equality. Its truth is affirmed in our hearts and it is codified in sacred texts of essentially all of the great religions of today. I’m assuming, however, that (as an atheist) you disagree with this declaration.

Therefore, my question is this: If our current governmental system were dissolved and you were to begin the framework of our country anew upon an atheistic base, how would you affirm the equality of mankind? Remember that the statement must be simple enough for the common man to grasp.

I remind you that our Darwinian origins dictate that those who are weak in society (the infirm, the mentally ill, the elderly, those with genetic defects) are subject to die out as our evolution progresses. What would you say to someone (like Hitler) who decided to speed up the Darwinian process by euthanizing and sterilizing them in order to avoid their physical pain, propagation, and financial burden to society?

If our current governmental system were dissolved and you were to begin the framework of our country anew upon an atheistic base, how would you affirm the equality of mankind? Remember that the statement must be simple enough for the common man to grasp.

“We hold these truths to be SELF EVIDENT, that all men are created equal, that they are ENDOWED by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights….”

See what I did there? I removed the unneccesary assumption but retained the meaning. If something is self evident, it needs no explanation, because by definition it explains itself. The founding fathers synthesized an explanation right after acknowledging one was not necessary.

Call Staples, that was easy!

As I told you, I intend to hash this out in a post. The question is the wrong question, and my answer is entirely appropriate. I understand that you were trying to creatively ask a more difficult question, and as I said, I will hash it out in a longer post since it has been asked repeatedly by multiple commentors. I am having a private conversation with a Christian on this very subject, and that conversation is helping me formulate the direction of the post.

Thanks George – been on vacation and just catching up with things now.

I’m not sure that I see that you can say that “all men are created equal”. Evolution specifically implies that we are NOT created equal – that some are endowed with greater or lessor “value” in the genepool. So I don’t think your answer is at all valid – but I will wait to see your further elaboration in future posts.

That, Nathan, is the fundamental misunderstanding of what evolution really is. Survivability is not the metric of value, and similarity is not equality. That you are willing to so easily conflate the two says more about your epistemology than about mine. Ruminate on that for a few days, respond to it if you feel inclined. I’m currently on a bit of a vacation myself, and as promised, I will be starting to hash these things out more fully in some coming posts.

I don’t really have a good concept of what epistemology is. However, I am a biochemist, and I have a very good concept of what evolution is all about. Value is either inherent or it is assigned. If it is inherent, then it MUST come from our genes (or some other PHYSICAL attribute). I don’t take that approach at all. I take the viewpoint that our value as humans has nothing at all to do with our genes or any of the physical matter than composes our being. Most religions (including the one I espouce) takes the view that the essence of humanity is the soul: something completely “other” from our physical being. I take the view that our value is based upon having a soul that is made in the image of its Creator.

Most hard-core naturalists believe that value is assigned (by other people). This is a dangerous place to be, in my opinion, because assigned value is necessarily relative.

Woops, that last comment should have been from “tumeyn”… Rats, now you know who I really am! :->

You may or may not be aware that every time you comment, your e-mail address is visible in my comment bar. I would not be concerned that I “just now” figured out your secret identity. Do you want me to guess where you live, too? Rest assured that unless I’m given some very good reason to do so, I would never publish a commenters personal information if they have not offered it as public domain.

Have you read Arthur Leff’s work on atheist ethics? His views (himself being an atheist) are what most “theists” think about Atheists ethics. Essentially, that they have no grounding, no implicit authority. (see link)

Here’s the one that popularized “The Grand Sez Who” argument; That in the absence of God, the only “ethics” we have available to us are the will of the majority. He says: “I will put the current situation as sharply as possible: there is today no way of ‘proving’ that napalming babies is bad except by asserting it (in a louder and louder voice), or by defining it as so, early in one’s game, and then later slipping it through, in a whisper, as a conclusion.”

And again,

All I can say is this: it looks as if we are all we have. Given what we know about ourselves, and each other, this is an extraordinarily unappetizing prospect; looking around the world, it appears that if all men are brothers, the ruling model is Cain and Abel. Neither reason, nor love, nor even terror, seems to have worked to make us “good,” and worse than that, there is no reason why any thing should. Only if ethics were something unspeakable by us could law be unnatural, and therefore unchallengeable. As things stand now, everything is up for grabs. Nevertheless:
Napalming babies is bad.
Starving the poor is wicked.
Buying and selling each other is depraved.
Those who stood up and died resisting Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Idi Amin, and Pol Pot —and General Custer too— have earned salvation.
Those who acquiesced deserve to be damned.
There is in the world such a thing as evil.
[All together now:] Sez who?
God help us.

From: Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law, 1979 Duke L.J. 1229 (1979).

I’d love to hear your thoughts about his reasoning.

I’m not familiar with Leff- and I have asked a friend of mine who is a Philosophy professor to fill me in on Leff’s importance in the school of atheist thought. I can tell you off the bat that I’m in stark disagreement with his assessment of morality without divine authority. I have come across this argument several times- most commonly from theists- that there is no grounds for morality in an atheist worldview. It seems to me that this is more the product of the theist not caring enough to critically explore their own grounding for morality- to explore other options or schools of thought- than it is the product of no case being possible. It seems all too tempting to assume that everyone else has it wrong when you are convinced you have things right.
When we are talking about any epistemology that does not have a written “rule book”, the way Christianity does- it stands to reason that the person informing their morality may use any evidence based reasoning to inform that moral system. They can’t just “make shit up”, so to speak- but they are not limited to a script written 2000-3000 years ago. So I do not think it is fair to say that all atheists must be moral relativists just because one of them is. I think that Leff, if he is an atheist, is left with a giant hole in his epistemology since I don’t know him to have descended into sociopathic madness. I also think it is awfully suspicious that someone you describe as an “atheist” might end a quote with “God help us.” Hardly a phrase that is easy to square with atheism…
I’m sure that theists would love for this to be an honest representation of atheist morality. I’m also quite sure that this thought is mistaken. I’m equally certain that in Christian circles they don’t spend a lot of time highlighting robust atheist philosophy. I will provide you some links after the weekend.

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