Lessons From a Twitter Avalanche

A "Scumbag Privilege-Denying Atheist" meme image. Caption reads: "Don't like being sexually harassed on r/atheism? You should probably make a new account and never come out as being female ever again."
Sorry, atheist guys. Our fault. Image via Lousy Canuck.

The other day, I had a very unpleasant experience on Twitter. It’s the first thing I’ve ever said in such a forum that has left any sort of major impact – either positive or, as it turned out to be in this case, resoundingly negative. I wasn’t integral to the discussion, but I generated a lot of attention, more than I really wanted. And for what? Days later, the same basic question is still being addressed.

Maybe that’s a good thing. Right now the atheist movement at major conferences and in organizations like JREF and CFI is being fractured by accusations of sexist behaviour from powerful, well-connected men treating atheist women with exactly the same kind of contempt and sense of entitlement I suggested are common (though not universal, and I was careful to say that) amongst men in our society. It’s a huge issue, and this admittedly minor experience has opened my eyes to why, and to what women more active than I am in atheism are going through.

It seems like the atheist movement needs to have this conversation.

The problem is, the way the conversation is going down seems to generate more heat than light, and make it almost impossible for both sides to be equally heard, amplifying the voices of the powerful while drowning out, dismissing, and minimizing the experiences of those with less privilege.

Here are a few lessons I’ve learned from the experience I had on Twitter earlier this week:

1. Twitter is utterly the wrong place to have this conversation.

The issue of socially-accepted, deeply-ingrained, everyday sexism is large and complicated. There’s just not enough room for complexity of thought, nuanced opinion, and big issues to come through in 140 character tidbits. Plus, unless a person is extremely careful and thoughtful, it’s really easy for the short-and-snappy format to produce an impression of rudeness, brusqueness, or dismissiveness. And on top of it all, if you say something controversial, you can easily get swarmed with comments that make it hard for you to respond or to follow the thread of any one argument. That swarming was probably the worst part of my Twitter experience.

I’ve become committed to not arguing on Twitter anymore. I don’t know how good at it I’m going to be – some things people say just make me so mad! – but it’s ultimately fruitless and not worth my time or effort. Ugh.

A cartoon image of two birds, styled to look like the Twitter logo, fighting one another.
Twitter fights are dumb. Image via Digibuzz.

2. Sometimes ‘evidence’ is a club used to silence other perspectives.

Don’t get me wrong; I believe in evidence. I think every statement should be backed up by knowledge and investigation, and I don’t think we should believe things without evidence. But calls for evidence in an argument aren’t always used in good faith. Sometimes they become ways to shut down an opposing viewpoint, often by insisting on a very narrow type of evidence or demeaning and dismissing certain ways of knowing. There’s also the problem that privilege affects what kind of studies get done, and some populations may have nothing but common experience to offer as their argument, just because nobody is doing academic, peer-reviewed work on their issues. If all you value is academic, peer-reviewed studies, you’re going to conclude that those populations don’t have a case, and they’ll keep being marginalized.

A female comic book character, with fifties-style hair and make-up, announces in a speech balloon "You can be a part of women's research!"
Just try not to see studies as the solution to every question. Image via Seattle Women’s Health.

And some questions are just too broad to be summed up in a single study. Studies are good for answering questions like “Does a wage gap between men and women still exist?” or “Is it possible for people to lose weight by committing to a diet and exercise regimen?” They’re less useful for questions like, “Does our socialization process promote sexist ideas that affect how men view and treat women later in life?” If I pointed to twenty studies that proved examples of the phenomenon, it would scarcely scratch the surface of the issue.

The bottom line: if you’re looking for proof-positive, summarized and wrapped in a bow, you’re going to wrongly dismiss a lot of valid issues for lack of evidence. Real life is messier than that. I would recommend listening to people’s experiences and trying to understand why they perceive what they do, rather than hollering for ‘evidence’.

3. Nobody owes the world proof of their perspectives.

There was a conversation happening on Godless Spellchecker’s blog about whether it’s fair to say men hate women. I chimed in with my opinion, and I got battered by a sea of people demanding my proof. The pressure I felt to defend my position, as forum-inappropriate as it might seem, was intense. It felt as if these people were saying, “Give us the proof we demand, in the form we demand, RIGHT NOW, or we declare your beliefs to be invalid!”

It reminds me of this time in Grade Four when a classmate was evaluating the singing voices of people at our lunch table and, when I shyly refused to sing on command, she pronounced me the worst singer in the entire Grade Four class. I’m not sure I can draw a causal connection here, but I refused to sing in public again until high school, even though I really enjoyed singing a lot. It wasn’t until I graduated university that I learned to believe people who insisted I had a perfectly nice singing voice. Invalidation and negation is powerful stuff.

I believe in sharing the reasons why I believe what I do, which is why I write. But I think it’s important for everyone to remember that failure to deliver a specific argument at a specific point in time doesn’t say anything about the validity of a person’s argument. People with perfectly valid arguments needn’t dive in any time it’s asked of them to prove the value of what they’re saying. They’re allowed to take days off, to be too busy, to be too moody, to be all wrapped up in a really good book, to just not feel like it.

Two women, both dressed in white, with their hair pulled up in buns, wear expressions of anger and yell at each other.
There’s no need to get emotional, ladies! Image via Striving Onward.

Hell, it’s not as if nobody has ever written an article or book on the subject, or as if there aren’t entire blogs devoted to examples of sexism and male privilege. If the people in the argument really wanted to know my perspective, they could always do fifteen seconds of Googling and learn for themselves. People who are totally unwilling to do that have shown they don’t really care what has formed my opinions on the subject – they just want the opportunity to pronounce me the worst singer in the class, so I’ll learn to keep my voice to myself.

4. Gaslighting ends the conversation.

Any time somebody says the words “It’s all in your head”, they’ve proven they’re not open to your point of view. How can they be? They think your whole argument is imaginary. They think that the evidence convincing you of its truth is an hallucination. Now there’s no argument that can convince them of your rightness, because they’ve already dismissed everything you argue.

In psychology, a tactic like this is called ‘gaslighting’. It’s a manipulative way to discredit or confuse someone, to make them doubt their own perceptions – and it’s often used against women, not just in abusive relationships, but also in everyday debates or discussions. For instance:

  • You’re so emotional!
  • Calm down, you’re acting crazy.
  • Quit being so oversensitive.
  • You’re such a drama queen.
  • Hysterical much?
  • Can’t you take a joke?
  • Do you have your period?

Incidentally, in atheist circles (and certainly in the conversation I was part of a few days ago), this often takes the form of calling your beliefs ‘religious’ or comparing them to religion. “You want me to accept your extraordinary claim with no evidence? Who does that sound like?” – I heard that more than once in my discussion with Godless Spellchecker.

Of course, I didn’t want any such thing; it was just not a forum where appropriate evidence could be easily disseminated, especially with twenty people tweeting me all at once.  But I’ve found that telling somebody what they think, believe, desire, or feel – as if you know their interior life better than they do – is another highly effective way to manipulate somebody into distrusting their own perceptions. It’s also a fairly reliable sign that your partner in discussion isn’t really hearing you; they’ve already decided they know what you’re going to say and why, far better than you know it.

A parody of the historic Levy's Jewish Rye ad, featuring Richard Dawkins eating a sandwich. Caption reads "You don't have to be religious to be put off by Richard Dawkins."
Also applies to other atheist figureheads. Image via Uncouth Reflections.

It’s not worth the hassle.

5. The atheist/skeptic movement is not a monolith; all atheists have in common is their atheism.

Since I began writing for Friendly Atheist, I sort of felt as if all the atheist activists in the world had something in common with me, like I could go to any non-theist resource and find people who believed as I did. Well, that’s not exactly true. We believe some of the same things about certain deities, religions, and claims (like Bigfoot or homeopathy or the validity of horoscopes). On other subjects, we differ greatly.

That doesn’t need to be a breaking point between us, but I feel very uncomfortable making common cause with people who ignore instances of privilege and oppression. If you want to pretend that racism and sexism are things of the past (or worse, that the privileged group gets as good as they give in the field of racism, sexism, or any other -ism), we’re probably not going to see eye to eye no matter what else you believe.

So thanks for letting me be part of your club (as long as I don’t speak up too loudly and ignore what you want me to ignore). But I think instead I’ll go make common cause with theists who show compassion for the least of these.

Compassion is more important than what you believe about God.


5 thoughts on “Lessons From a Twitter Avalanche

  1. I simply steer clear of the “Atheist Movement.” No one really needs it except for the legal issues. I’m an atheist, but I want relatively little to do with the people in the “movement.”

    It’s weird to me that the term “gaslighting” has become commonplace. I was in an emotionally abusive marriage that can be really hard to describe to people since it was fairly subtle. A friend who came to visit while I was married said that it reminded him of the movie “Gaslight.” I hadn’t seen the movie, but I watched after I left him and the similarities were scary. It can be maddening when people tell you that you’re wrong about something you’ve experienced first hand.

    As far as the matter of asking for proof goes, it can be really frustrating online. I actually try to double check assertions before I make them and never knowingly make factually incorrect statements. However, I find other people propagate falsehoods all the time. A few minutes ago, I left a comment on the Friendly Atheist’s site in response to someone who said he learned the “international version” of the U.S. Civil War and that Canada never had slavery. As it happens, I’m an American who married a Canadian (yes, the abusive ex) and I lived in Canada for several years. I find the number of people who just make up stuff in some insane contest to prove that the U.S. is the worst country in the world just drives me up the wall. I don’t know why that gets to me and the feminist stuff doesn’t, perhaps because I lived abroad and that was a time when I was especially vulnerable. I’m not trying to prove the U.S. is the best country either, I’m just objecting to people propagating lies, many of which come from Americans themselves. Finally, a couple of days ago, I had to come to the notion that if someone can’t do a basic internet search, they don’t deserve a response. And now, I’ve gone and responded to someone again because the other people in the comments seemed to accept the notion that Canada never had slavery as a simple fact when a quick search turns up a Wikipedia page entitled “Slavery in Canada.” Slavery was part of the British Empire.

    That’s a long way of saying I can relate to your frustration. I think people who argue like that are simply dishonest. You can argue with liars and win pretty easily, but it’s time consuming because you have to research every assertion they make. No one has that amount of time. I’ve stopped spending time on a lot of blogs because I’ve encountered people like that.

  2. erickeys says:

    You have my sympathy. I’ve been drawn into some debates on the internet that left me feeling awful. Sometimes because I was attacked and beat on, other times because I realized I was the attacker. No matter which, I always felt a little less human afterward.

  3. Kristina D-H (@KmDeeH) says:

    I am sorry you got swamped. I know how upsetting it is. I did not get nearly the backlash that you did, yet I said more. Probably because they couldn’t be bothered with my 11 followers. I really dislike the idea of being silenced by them. So I will still follow him and stand up for my sisters. I am glad that I found you. Sorry it had to be like this. Cheers.

  4. bnewland123 says:

    The only fundamental problem that I see with what you’re saying is that first hand/anecdotal evidence is rarely, if ever, accepted in any kind of debate. That’s not a special tactic used “against women.” It’s just standard for any debating format. Otherwise, experience extends to things like miracles, and you, therefore, would have a very difficult time defending a position of atheism. When you make an assertion (EG: sexism in the atheist community is widespread and systemic), the burden of proof lies with you, not with the person arguing in opposition. That’s not to say that your experiences are invalid; it’s merely to say that anecdotal evidence (even if we assume that the one giving the anecdote doesn’t have some sort of cognitive bias) doesn’t establish a trend. It ‘s a single data point that does nothing but give a narrative, and assuming that there’s nothing just absurd in the narrative, the narrative’s contents can be understood to be A) anomalous and therefore not useful data or B) in need of grounding within research. A narrative is powerful in that it puts a human face to a problem, but data establishes that the problem exists and is not just some freak occurrence. Otherwise, a woman who does not believe that she has experienced sexism in the atheist community’s experience is just as valid, and you’re back to square one. Whose experience is anomalous, and whose experience is to be taken as truth? Only data and a proper study can answer that question. Therefore, I would say it’s likely not absurd, dismissive or insulting to ask for data where these questions are concerned. Rather, it is clarifying and illuminating.

    1. Here’s the problem: I can’t point to a single study that shows “sexism is real and is a problem” because it’s such a multifaceted issue. Which single study proves sexism? A study about harassment? networking? wage gaps? division of child-rearing? division of housework? STEM fields? cat-calling? rape? media depictions? stereotyping? domestic violence? stalking? I would need about a hundred studies to just start scratching the surface about sexism. And since the title of the post is “Tales of a Twitter Avalanche”, you might observe that there are too many characters. It’s also a lot of work to do on behalf of people who probably don’t really care what I have to say and may have a vested interest in presuming I’m wrong. I do have other interests in my life.

      Add, on top of that, that I didn’t reach my conclusions about sexism in the atheist community through a study: I reached it by observing, experiencing, and listening to other people’s experiences. That’s not a formal study, but that doesn’t mean I disregard it. Any one of those stories is just a random data point. Taken in aggregate, they can most easily be explained by assuming either a) a massive number of women are lying liars, or b) sexism in atheism is a problem. Of course, sexism tends to assume most women are lying liars.

      As with my lack of belief in God, I guess you’re free to claim that my point isn’t credible because I can’t point to a study backing it up. But rejecting the aggregate of your own perceptions and experiences seems to me like an impoverished way to go through life.

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