It’s finally here. My first blog post, ever! It had to be 23. it seems. It turned out to be a double triple feature (“still shorter than JT and Carrier™”), as I didn’t like to split up my first article already. It’s a bit wonky at times, and since I had nothing to build on, I had to provide some context that ripped it apart a bit, I guess. But what do you expect on a topic about Grenades? If you liked it by any chance, please leave some feedback, comment, tweet, write “moar”, like, share, or get the word out. I would especially love to see comments and feedback down in the comment section. It’s still all experimental so let’s see where this goes…
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Eris wasn’t invited to the wedding party. She showed up anyway. And with her she brought a special present: a Golden Apple with the inscription “for the fairest” (τη καλλίστη, “ti kallisti”) which she quickly threw between the guests. Aha! In an instant, the three goddesses Athena, Hera and Aphrodite fought over it. “It is mine!” all three exclaimed.
“So I’ve been given this rather…explosive…information”
The traditional interpretation portrays Eris as a Goddess of Strife and Discord of Ancient Greek mythology. Her Golden Apple symbolizes a divisive matter, once brought up, divides even those who went along just fine before. The Three Goddesses might be seen as a Triple Deity, think Trinity, where each character represents a facet of the same one entity. In that sense, the Eris myth could be understood how one person is split apart, in internal struggle, and in three two minds about a matter. Eris might represent the war of ideas. After all, she is a sibling of Ares, God of War.
There are positive interpretations, too: Issues are brought to the table. The harsh light of objectivity shatters subjective illusions and assumptions, like the belief of each goddess to be the fairest of them all. Ideas and views come out, smash into each other and perish, new and better ones emerge. Isn’t that Evolution? In our more civilized times, we might recognize it in peer preview, the Socratic Method, or democracy. Debate. Or creativity. After all, we don’t need to fight wars anymore, we have constructive ways to harness strife and discord.
This topic is not about divisiveness, or having arguments or disagreement. It’s about the opposite, how we forgot about it.
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PZ Myers provided a perfect inversion of the Eris myth. His own blog “Pharyngula” exploded a few days ago when someone handed him a grenade that was, as he found to his dismay, already primed. He did—apparently—what you do, when you happen upon such an item: you quickly toss it into the next crowd!
In the explosive blog article, Myers raises the question whether famous skeptic Michael Shermer was a serial rapist. By Eris, that is an extraordinary claim! Predictably, the crowd scattered into all directions? Not quite.
There is a lot of backstory and intricate details required to fully appreciate the situation and context (to be explored some more in the future). For the time being, I offer an overview.
Once Upon a Time
… the community was described as “herding cats”, where different opinions and views could be discussed, and everonye still found a way to “agree to disagree”, and get things done. In such an environment, a Golden Apple could advance understanding, since we were committed to facts, evidence, better arguments and cogent reasoning, and were cool with suspending judgement if none materialized in a convincing way.
Atheism is in the Zeitgeist, so is Feminism. Atheists and Skeptics became more aware of social issues, but at the same time, new influences from social justice movements also found their way into the movement.
Those trends are visible not only in our community. Sexism at conferences was a topic at least since “Elevatorgate” (shouldn’t that be “Liftgate”?). It was a topic in the Technology and Gaming communities, too. From a naïve perspective, Shmeargate might fit neatly into that context (Mr. Deity proposed “Slandergate” for the current Shermer incident, but I like my portmanteau better).
However, those new views or ideologies aren’t negotiated yet and there is no agreement down to every detail. On top of it, they are, to stay with PZ Myers metaphor of choice, like dynamite. If you ever paid attention to the discourse around “racism”, for example, you will find that having genuinely “good opinions” is made near impossible to express. It is a situation where, with some ingenuity, anyone can be portrayed as a racist. If you see race, you’re racist, if you don’t, you’re colour-blind, which is also racist (I simplified this somewhat and won’t follow up on it within this discussion, since it’s more of an example, perhaps a bad one).
People who argue in that way are just interested in “winning” which also comes in great numbers, as a community can agree on interpretations, maybe a by-product of postmodernism, i.e. in one community colour-blind is the correct thing, in another it’s rejection of race, one prefers this term, and finds the other view deeply offensive, and vice versa.
It is the same situation with other social topics too, and have resulted in a large influx of what I’m going to call “Killer Memes”. They go by names like “check your privilege”, “the standard you walk past”, “shut up and listen”, “mansplaining”, and “hyperskepticism” and so on. I’m sure you encountered them before. I will touch on some below, but that’s more an extra article for another day. [edit: Here is privilege the real thing. t/h Katie aka tkmlac]
Most of the Killer Memes contain fairly severe ad hominems and value judgements, as they attack a person’s character and are seemingly based on some pre-existing “theory” that is typically explained on a blog deemed authoritative by the in-group (which is of course assumed to be common knowledge, even though, de facto, these terms are far from universally accepted).
Those who use these terms gain power, as they also take on whatever meaning they want them to mean. Asking how they apply in a given situation is seen as questioning the ideology behind it. In effect, they went unchallenged for a long time. Social Justice Warriors are very quick to show that they “understand them”, and “pile on” to gain social justice points among their peers. The Urban Dictionary article got it right.
Under normal circumstances the target of Killer Memes is just an individual. However, opinion leaders can take advantage and provide a narrative that orders the community on a larger scale. Isolated targets (e.g. someone declared to be a misogynist) is then seen as part of an enemy faction, which gives particular Killer Memes an extra edge.
It brings an additionally polarizing effect too, as now even the unsuspected participants, once they hear there is an evil side, will go some extra miles to avoid giving the “wrong” impression.
That way, certain opinion leaders advance their influence and agenda points. I’m not arguing that it all happens with cold calculation. There are a ton of social dynamics at work, I perhaps discuss in due course.
And PZ Myers is one of those opinion leaders — probably the most influential of a sub-movement that is loosely associated with FreeThoughtBlogs (though not all blogs there), SkepChick, Secular Women and SkeptiCon: it’s the sub-movement that sparked the “Atheism Plus” label. It would make it much easier if that term had caught on, and I hear Richard Carrier is still on a tour de force of trying it, but it is now largely associated with a forum. I still need a name for that faction though, and I’m going with the somewhat neutral sounding “the Commentariat” (not my coinage, it’s been around for some time).
Jen McCreight recognized early that the Commentariat’s views are fairly distinct and drifting into a different direction than the overall movement (hence the A+ label). Their regulars apparently made what I would call the “Patriarchy Switch” – atheists who once thought religion was the main topic, but now switched to “the patriarchy” as an even bigger issue (sometimes even the Kyriarchy concept is used).
The Commentariat generally agrees on almost everything, which should not appear surprising. It’s evidenced by the lack of disagreement. Wait, that’s circular. Anyway, things are true because Zvan agrees with Myers. And Benson agrees with Zvan. And Christina agrees with Benson. Or Zvan. Or Thibeault. Or McCreight. Or Zvan.
A uniform message that is repeated over and over is known to be effective. There is a possibility they genuinely believe their story, a by-product if you drink too much Kool-Aid. Where everyone else is of three two minds what to do with the information Myers asserted, the typical Commentariat regulars are cocksure, as Bertrand Russell would have put it.
Michael Shermer wasn’t particularly popular with them anyway, since he made the outrageous remark that skepticism was “more of a guy thing”, and then wasn’t too fond of the ensuing Commentariat treatment.
Not to forget, Myers divorced himself from the “Skeptics” movement, while Shermer is one of its most known members. And skepticism, if put to use against Official Freethought, is denigrated as “hyperskepticism”. Perhaps, the real divide is between the stray cats and the flock of sheep.
With Us or Against Us
The Commentariat traditionally has prerogative of interpretation. There are few others who comment on community issues like they do and no other “side” orchestrates their efforts in the same way. It doesn’t mean they conspire in some backchannel; just that they all tend to blog on the same issues, reference each other and tend to always agree on the main points, at best have additional side remarks. They also have frequent speaker roles and are regular attendees at conferences and are thus well connected.
But they also drift into a different direction as their ideologies begin to become more concrete and turn out to be less mass-compatible than they probably think right now. However, they still have everyone’s ear so they can use their interpretations and claim that “their way” was the right one, the good one, while the alternative is the “evil” one.
This is a false dillemma, especially since it becomes clear over time that for example PZ Myers views are along the lines of Radical Feminism, which is hardly the “only feminist way” (as you see there, even different sub-factions of Radical Feminists exist).
And so they use “polarizing” issues, not just Smeargate to portray them as the Good Team, and the alternative (including questioning the narrative) as choosing the Darkside.
Depending on how you put it, it’s either religious in style or propaganda. Early Christians believed the world was an evil place, full of devil worshippers. Their church was the only way to be good. Propaganda is more refined. For example, it might declare two sides, the American and the Un-American way of doing things. The interesting effect is that it most people feel included to be in the good team without extra effort, yet they still like to “show colors”, just in case.
Nobody would believe any of this when I told you that the Commentariat works exactly like that, but they say so themselves. And it’s obvious being obvious.
“Being with or against Atheism+”
— Dr. Richard Carrier (27th of August, 2012)
“[…] sometimes interpreted as a splitting or a false dilemma, which is an informal fallacy. Some see the statement as a way of persuading others to choose sides in a conflict which does not afford the luxury of neutrality. […]”
PZ Myers writes on a follow up of his grenade post:
“It’s time to pick a side and build a better secular movement”
— PZ Myers (15th of August, 2013)
It is comical, but they really do think of themselves as supporting everything that is considered good (such as equality for all, against rape, and presumably also against murder and genocide), strongly implying others were supporters of an evil “Standard” sometimes circumscribed with terms like “rape culture” or “boy’s club”, or even “The Patriarchy™”.
So when you disagree with the tenets of Atheism+ and the eccentric concepts it stands for (the Killer Memes etc.), you are “against them”. But the floating concepts and definitions freed from their original, narrowing, academic context have somewhat undermined their usefulness. I’m okay with actual academic ideas, but it’s not what Zvan and Co. are talking about and certainly not what is thrown around in the comment sections.
But question it, and it’s “hyperskeptical”. In short: lack of belief in Atheism Plus (or general Commentariat ideology) motivated by skepticism (or critical thinking) is somehow like Teaming Up with Evil. Remember, there are two sides. I wasn’t aware that “Team (Online) Evil” somehow also covers the backs of the Shadow Council of “Famous Skeptics”, different from Shermer, whose primary interests are unsolicited sexual adventures at conferences? It seems, Jen doesn’t want to protect women from this other man, which is allegedly the primary motive for “exposing” Shermer. It just tells me that narrative isn’t internally consistent, and dodgy. [edit: Greta Christina stated here, she knew about many cases for quite a while]
Hyperskepticism is somewhat akin to heresy (ἑτεροδοξία, from Greek “heterodoxia”): “being divisive” or “having different opinions”. Hyperskeptics and heretics alike do not follow the authority or their narrative and they are declared to be somehow in league with evil. It’s one of many religious undercurrents of their movement to be discussed another time.
Thankfully, Rebecca Watson recently memefied this whole mind-set, otherwise it would be much harder for me to make this plausible. Would you believe that this humbug really exist? In the atheist-skeptics-free-thinker community!?
It’s one of the Killer Memes: She called it “the Standard You Walk Past” and PZ Myers uses it on follow up post of Shmeargate, quoted above. In reality, these “Bad Standards” are more often standards that just hinder the commentariat and/or the careers of its leaders in some way.
As usual with those Killer Memes, they just mean what the commentariat wants it to mean. They do not challenge each other, as to not risk losing sjw points. An empty sjw account leads to a deprivation of hugs and ban. And so it’s no surprise at all, that nobody of the Commentariat even takes the time to lampshade their use. I’m liberally borrowing the term. It means to anticipate issues with one’s story (or argument) and already pointing out why it still works — hanging a lampshade on the issues.
It takes about 10 seconds, clicking links included, to see that even the “Standard You Walk Past” meme was used in a somewhat eccentric fashion. Already on the 0:05 second mark of the video where the phrase originates, the Chief of Army states:
“about an ongoing investigation […] about officers […] whose conduct — if proven — […]”
Perhaps Myers considers himself to be Holmes, since he took Watson under his wing. I’m hyperskeptical whether his chat with the women could count as “investigation”. It is remarkable as they did exactly the opposite as what it said in the “Standard” meme video. Nobody reported the alleged rape to the proper authorities, there was no proper investigation, there seems to be no proof, but they already named someone. It’s certainly not what the Chief of Army meant.
But it is useful for them to declare an overarching corrupted standard, a kind of conspiracy theory. That way, everyone not siding with them are by default in league with the devil harassers, rapists and contrarians; a conflation also enshrined in their Block Bot list.
Its operators somehow deemed it necessary to even block mostly inactive Twitter users with the “wrong” connections (who are themselves often merely one-tweet contrarians). But it provided them an “appalling team of opponents” nobody wants to side with, especially as it meant to be blocked, too (i.e. shunned)
Discord is good.
As we have seen, the Commentariat forgot about the good old “let’s agree to disagree” on their quest to get as many people behind them as possible while the movement may split (due to their increasingly eccentric views) and while they still have some influence. They have adopted authoritarian views, and openly use propaganda to win and keep followers. Internally, their ideologies have religious undercurrents and all that makes them a flock of sheep.
Divisiveness, strife and discord are good! We used to call this “herding cats”. As you see, throwing Golden Apples is about putting up something to discuss. There is disagreement, some chaos perhaps but it furthers understanding, and we can always “agree to disagree” and perhaps agree with each other on another topic.
PZ Myers Golden Grenade however is the inversion of it. It is a false dilemma. He seeks to order by stating a “with me, or with Shermer” situation which of course affects everyone.
Creating drama is also a good Erisian virtue, so there is at least that. And I’m quite enjoying it (thanks). I’m still unsure, however, whether the Commentariat is okay with being only seen as Lulz, but since they do not offer anything else, I’m happy with what I get, but welcome the change. Honest!
I might add some genuine constructive criticism. FreeThoughtBlogs could go behind a paywall, as Myers sometimes suggested. Provided, it doesn’t turn into a hate filled backchannel it might give the Commentariat some breathing space to let go of their siege mentality, which is partly responsible for driving them in this direction (if my description here is somewhat correct, even if it was partially polemic, it will become worse).
This behaviour also creates a polarizing effect. People who really were in three two minds, are pushed towards the opposite side (the effect is likely reciprocal, but the non-commentariat is not a side). That makes them much less prone to the Bandwagon Effect, unlike the Commentariat.
I personally don’t have hard feelings with anyone, whatever impression I gave. It’s easy to show goodwill and move forward.
“Enough!” shouts Zeus, patriarch of the Greek gods. After consultation with Hermes, a plan is prepared to settle discord caused by Eris’ Golden Apple. Will they succeed, or will ancient Greece teeter towards the first epic war? This is another story continued in the next article: In “Choose Wisely” we explore prophecies, believing claims and false dilemmas some more. To be continued…
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