Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Insults, YouTube "Debates" and Ghostbusters: The Idiotic State Of The Online Atheist Movement.

*This post has moved from the regular thread as I think it's so far removed from the topics I usually cover, much like my response to Jayne Harris of HD paranormal*

Followers of popular YouTube atheists Thunderf00t, aka Dr Phil Mason and Dr Kristi Winters were treated yesterday to a masterclass in academic behaviour as the two took to Twitter to rip into each other apart. The spat, which lasted the full day and seems to still be raging, perfectly exemplifies the state of the atheist movement on youtube and on the internet in general.

Here are some highlights from the argument:

This continued for hours, with the pair repeatedly challenging each other to "debates" on other people's behalf, Winters calling Mason a "fraud" and Mason responding with disgusting insults about Winter's weight. These "academic debates" they were challenging each other to were to be held in no loftier a forum than YouTube. Both accused the other of "running from debates" and bragged of "kicking people's ass" and "destroying people" in debates. The disillusionment is staggering, you're making videos on YouTube for Christ's sake. I have to wonder if Einstein's famous challenges to Bohr regarding Quantum Physics would have come with petty insults if held over twitter or as YouTube Response videos. 

I doubt it somehow.

Academia ladies and gentlemen: challenging each other to pathetic toothless debates on a video sharing site for the benefit of their already partisan subscribers.

Sadly, this juvenile argument reflects the general state of atheism on YouTube and in the Blogosphere. A once vibrant and growing scene has devolved into a petty spat over gender and race issues. Prominent members of the movement concentrate not on what unites atheists but what divides us. There's little doubt that this schism began with co-oping of atheism by the Atheism Plus movement in 2012.
(above)The Atheism Plus mission statement, as given in a blog authored by Jen McCrieght. 

The aim of Atheism Plus, was to move atheists beyond questions of non-belief in God and religion alone, to focus more on ideas of feminism and social justice. On paper, this seems totally acceptable, most atheists were fairly liberal, and I for one agreed with much the Atheism Plus movement had to say. But, despite agreeing with liberal ideas, many baulked at the suggestion that the focus of the atheist movement should be moved from the very principle that united atheists in the first place. Certainly, gender equality issues, LGBTQ rights issues and racial equality issues had a place on the atheist agenda, but should they be the main focus of "atheism"? One simply can't change the definition of a word, to include elements as you so desire dissenters argued. Even the concepts of critical thinking and skepticism, which seem like natural bedfellows, don't quite fit with atheism for some. Many atheists didn't arrive at their disbelief via critical thinking, and many still held beliefs in things such as alternative medicine and conspiracy theories, which didn't naturally gel with the adoption of skepticism.

My own position on the idea of Atheism Plus was solidified when I saw how these questions of dissent were handled. The defacto home of atheism plus, PZ Meyers' Freethought blogs quickly became a forum where any suggestion of dissent was  met with instant bans from the site. Likewise engaging with many Atheism Plus supporters in a seemingly challenging way on twitter was met with blocks and bans. Bock-bots were deployed to block people for no other reason than the association with dissenters. Prominent atheism plus supporters like Richard Carrier spoke of "us vs them" divisions and excluding atheists who didn't support Atheism Plus.

I've never been a fan of threats of exclusion from communities for "wrong think", nor do I agree with silencing people because they have views that are opposed to mine. As an atheist, I've spent hours listening to the views and beliefs of creationists and the religious in general. As a skeptic, I do the same with believers and proponents of the paranormal, except to a much greater extent. Listening to opposing arguments is rational, it's key to constructing sensible arguments in defence of your own view. The silencing of dissension and the creation of "safe spaces" and echo-chambers is the death of progress in any community or movement.

Those that opposed Atheism Plus, will tell you it's dead and that ultimately its aims failed, they tend to be the only people who even use it as a term anymore, and rarely at that. It's been replaced with the more general term "Social Justice Warrior" or "SJW". But despite its disappearance, as a term at least, it certainly isn't dead by any means. The tenants of Atheism Plus have been assimilated by the Humanist community and the atheist and critical thinking communities, for better or for worse.

But the main place you can see the fossilised remains of this great atheist split is in the output of atheist content providers like Thunderf00t, The Amazing Atheist, The Armoured Skeptic, Rebbecca Watson, PZ Myers, Aron-Ra and Steve Shives.

(above) Thnderf00t, Phil Mason and Skepchick's Rebbecca Watson: Likely two of the most prominent voices and thus hate figures of the respective "sides" of the great atheist divide.

The blogs, channels and twitter feeds of some of these more prominent voices in atheism, resonate with bitter disputes and in-fighting, like the spat I documented above. Thunderf00t was once the scourge of creationists, his "Why People Laugh at Creationists" video series was searing and seminal, and still worth watching if you ever need to counter a creationist argument. Unfortunately, most of his recent output concentrates on "busting feminism" and in particular feminist "pop-culture critic" Anita Sarkeesian. Mason has made salient points about Sarkeesian, but he's also committed shameful and dishonest quote mines of her. In multiple videos he's commented on a statement issued by Sarkeesan in which she states:
"Everything is sexist. Everything is racist. Everything homophobic. And you have to point it all out."
 It's become her most famous quote, but it's completely out of context. It's a quote mine as nefarious any ever offered by a creationist (the undisputed kings of quote mines). Here's the full statement:
"When you start learning about systems, everything is sexist, everythingis racist, everything is homophobic, and you have to point it all out to everyone all the time. So that was year of my life where I was the most obnoxious person to be around."

An almost complete reversal of what the quote-mine infers, and even if the original context remains, how is this any more of a stupidly sweeping statement than "Feminism Poisons Everything!" A statement Mason is so fond of it's the title of an entire video series of his. Mason isn't stupid. I'm sure he's seen the full quote, yet he chooses to use this snippet out of context again and again. This kind of dishonesty turns people away from your argument, no matter how robust it is. You know what else turns people away from your argument? A seeming obsession. In the past year, Thunderf00t has made roughly one hundred videos, fifteen of these were directly about Anita Sarkeesian. Is it any wonder this woman is claiming Thunderf00t is a harasser?

That does seem like harassment even if he makes some very good points. One could argue, as her most vocal critic, he's playing right into her hands. He complains she doesn't confront him or his argument, but she really doesn't need to. Mason often damages his  own case in ways Sakeesian couldn't.

I recently resisted writing a fourth blog post about David Rountree, I though four in one year was too much, I don't want my audience to get bored and I certainly don't want to turn a critique of a man's work to personal attacks. I don't think Mason shares these concerns. As for the rest of Thunderf00t's output over the past year, 43 videos have concerned feminism (including the Sarkeesian posts), whilst he's provided only four concerning creationism, and 37 general science and debunking videos, the latter of which are consistently fascinating and worth watching.

Of course, he and virtually every other atheist content creator had some input on the new Ghostbusters reboot (as has virtually everyone else on the internet in fairness). Frankly, it says a lot about the level of political discourse when a mediocre reboot of  a 1980's horror/comedy is one of this year's push-button socio-political issues.

Various commentators have been championing the film and the negativity surrounding it as a feminist issue, even going as far as to say "feminists are obliged to see the film" This was much to the delight of Sony's marketing department, who are painfully aware that appealing to feminists and liberals and promoting the idea the seeing Ghostbusters as a political statement very likely saved the film at the box office.

"It’s the greatest thing that ever happened... Are you kidding me? We’re in the national debate, thank you.... Can we please get some more haters to say stupid things?”- Tom Rothman, Chairman of Sony Motion Pictures Division. 

Skepchick's Rebbecca Watson, gleefully revelled in the tears misogynists are supposedly crying over this throwaway summer, popcorn flick. Whilst taking about their "perceptual bias" she happily discussed how her own bias informed her support for the film.
" I love making misogynists angry, and that biases me in favor of Ghostbusters, maybe a little more. So, I’m more likely to enjoy Ghostbusters knowing that it makes misogynists angry. I’ve never stated publicly that the movie is definitely going to be great, so I’m not that invested in it, but I definitely want it to succeed."

It certainly sounds like she's invested in it, but for all the wrong reasons, she's hopeful that its success will anger people she doesn't like. Credit to her for acknowledging her own perceptual bias whilst critiquing that of others, but that doesn't make that bias any less flawed. She also bizarrely gloats that the film had been better critically received than either Independence Day or the 1998 Godzilla. Quite why she consider's these two Ronald Emmerich films the benchmark against which Ghostbusters should be measured, especially as the latter is considered one of the worst films ever made, escapes me. As does the reason she considers movies in general gendered.
" As of this video it’s rated as 78% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, which is pretty good (and certainly better than the all-male 1998 remake of Godzilla or the all-male Independence Day sequel "

Whilst the most frequently heard and loudest voices in the atheist movement voiced their anger about Ghostbusters or support for it, Ken Ham's Ark Encounter opened. Eric Hovind launched a search engine that will restrict the internet and deny a new generation of children raised in Creationism the opportunity to remove the scales from their eyes if it is successful. The new British Government has launched a massive attack on critical thinking and evidence-based policy, with Theresa May's first act in power, the closure of the Department of Energy and  Climate change.  How did the major critical thinkers, atheists and skeptics on Youtube and in the Blogosphere react to these things? They didn't. They were too busy focused on the big issues, like telling you how important/damaging the introduction of a female Slimer to the Ghostbusters franchise was. Or how every male character in the film being an idiot or a sleazeball was "misandrist" whilst forgetting that every male character surrounding the original team in the 1984 version is also an idiot or a sleazeball. In fact, the only non-idiotic, non-sleazy supporting character in the original is Dana Barrett, a WOMZ! I guess that 1984 version was misandrist too!

How creationists like Eric Hovind, Ray Comfort and Ken Ham must be laughing about the "atheist movement" now. All they had to do to was weather the storm long enough for us almighty critical thinkers to realise what divides us and forget what unites us.

All they had to do was wait.

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