The Shmeargate incident started by PZ Myers I discussed in epic length is coming to its final chapter, for now. The big picture was covered in “The Golden Apple Grenade”, specific details were addressed in “Choose Wisely”. “Blaming Helen” is about the final “wine story” of his infamous Grenade Post (you may want to re-read that part) and some of the arguments presented later by its supporters. And of course, another epic is continued, too.
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The lights go out. A blanket of silence falls softly over the audience. Timid rustles fill the air as everyone fumbles with their snacks. The silver screen flickers, the large opening title appears. A bombastic sound fulminates out of the surround boxes and presses everyone deeper into their seats as the final part of the saga begins …
It was on a fateful night in the fall of 2006. A woman, we call her “Helen”, was at a party. She is married. She thought it was a good idea to stay a bit longer. After all, she was protected by a web of trust and was with friends, yet unaware that there was predator of women around.
He kept her glass filled and flirted with her; made her drink, and drink more. No water was served to the wine. He was a “kind of a pig”, she thought, but found no escape and was forced to chat with him the evening. Her friends were suddenly gone. Panic slowly crept up her spine, as he was refilling her glass of wine once more. She thought about making an excuse to switch to some other guests, perhaps with a lavatory-castling manoeuvre she practiced so often before. But he was a Skeptic! Wouldn’t he see right through her ruse? She was alone. Cornered.
He made her forget how many drinks she had and one thing came to another: She got very drunk. A friend appeared just in time, picked her up and brought her to bed. On the next morning she woke up with a mighty hangover. FIN.
The Goddess Aphrodite perhaps better known by her Roman name Venus overpowered Paris of Troy with her beauty. What would enter history of arts as the “Judgement of Paris”, could hardly pass as such — a young man confronted by the goddess of sexuality showing herself bare. And then she bribed him.
Her voice was still singing in his head when he gave the Golden Apple, and the title of “who is the fairest” to her, in exchange for the most beautiful woman on earth. What could possibly go wrong?
There was a tiny detail Aphrodite “forgot” to mention. The woman in question was already married to another man. Not just any man. She promised him the wife of Menelaus — king of Sparta. It was madness. And so Paris set sail to pay him a visit.
Menelaus was in a bad mood. He just received news of his grandfather’s death. There was no time for grief though. He was awaiting an important guest on a diplomatic mission. With a gesture he ordered his servants to prepare the ceremonial hall. Perhaps he could leave a bit earlier and delegate some of the fine print to his advisors, while he would attend the funeral? Paris would understand it. Menelaus’ wife Helen could take care of the guest at the celebration in the evening. Helen of Sparta heard of Paris. He had some reputation, but they haven’t met in person yet.
“You finally get to meet a big celebrity, for the first time […] and you’re at a party having drinks together, sitting at a table. He shows a lot of interest in you, asks you lots of questions, listens intently. Your conversation is so animated, in fact, his focus on you so engaging, that you don’t even notice that he keeps filling your wine glass, and you don’t realize how much you’ve had.”
– Dr. Richard Carrier, “Michael Shermer: Rapist or Sleaze? (Unless Box Checked for Other)”
Fiction Wearing a Fancy Frock
Different text combined sometimes even of different genres and styles are in literature called a montage. In the online medium we may count videos, tweets and other sources as well.
The Shmeargate-Myth montage you were reading here is one fairly radical example. The technique can be used, among other things, for context, artistic reasons, just for fun, educational purposes, or to make certain nuances more visible by adding a contrast. It can be a thinking tool, too.
In a montage each element invokes themes, emotions, associations, which then colour the impression of the other parts. Sometimes the different elements shade into each other so much that they merge in the minds of the audience.
“Truth is a well-known pathological liar. It invariably turns out to be Fiction wearing a fancy frock. Self-proclaimed Fiction, on the other hand, is entirely honest. You can tell this, because it comes right out and says, “I’m a Liar,” right there on the dust jacket.”
– Alan Moore
Where the technique is used with great effect by writers such as Alan Moore, it can also be a tool of manipulation. And there we are right back to Richard Carrier, PZ Myers and the others of the Commentariat.
Dr. Richard Carrier is someone who likes to give his work the gravitas of academia and calls his story element in the first quote above a “thought experiment”, perhaps alluding to the fact that it is all made up. Otherwise a loaded headline ending with a question mark and sensationalist writing would be commonly associated with gossip magazine coverage. That brings Carrier into the tradition of PZ Myers, whose grenade post was already described as “Yellow Journalism”.
The issue isn’t necessarily with sensationalist writing. It is is the combination of elements that strictly have nothing to do with each other, but are appropriate to manipulate readers on an emotional level, which then gets carried over to the supposedly factual elements. Probably nobody confuses Shermer with Paris of Troy, but a lot in the community did confuse the “wine incident” of PZ Myers grenade post with the purposefully vague quote that reported the rape.
If the emotional response was at least directly related to the issue they brought up, they might have gotten away with the Commentariat’s “justified anger” rhetoric. Though the “wine story” in PZ Myers grenade post and Carriers “thought experiment” aren’t related to the alleged rape incident at all.
We may also ask when Shermer’s behaviour is as generic as it is strongly suggested, then why doesn’t the “rape story” contain anything about Shermer’s behaviour? It is strikingly disingenuous that on one hand, we seem to have a clear accusations to look into, which was retold many times, but on the other hand, we have nothing, since they are about something else. The relevant claims are vague – only linked to the details by associations. And they don’t hold any wine under closer inspection, as we will see.
It is notable that such manipulation attempts are also a common feature of Commentariat writers. The “standard you walk past” killer meme discussed in the first part is an example that had absolutely nothing to do with anything else, but rape incidents and a powerful speech of a chief of army could be exploited emotionally at the time (and PZ Myers used it again after Shmeargate). Rebecca Watson lumps together some more things with little more than a hand wave. The whole idea of “sides” as they emerge from the Commentariat perspective against them is a big “lumping together” in fact, in part created by the block bot, and created by montage. Additional evidence from untainted thirds corroborate this view even further. The sides, and ideological differences are fiction wearing a fancy frock indeed.
Reactions against them are directed at the emotional manipulation or propaganda (in form of writing or the Block Bot), and not against the issues or the victims or in my case, not even against them as persons. Shmeargate gives us some insights again how it all plays out before our very eyes, and should the Commentariat not level up, will play out the same way in the future.
Brian Dalton who has worked with Shermer before (“there was a hot blonde out there”) provides satirical commentary in the “begging” part of his regular show “Mr Deity”, where his weapon of choice was a clever analogy.
The Commentariat found his video fun and worthy to discuss, since Dalton raises a couple of good points was left in consternation upon receiving the news that not everyone agrees with their way of handling the situation. Wasn’t Dalton one of the good people?
Officially only PZ Myers is allowed to mock someone from the “community” when he quotes his targets using the comic sans font. However, as a general rule, mocking the Commentariat leads straight to the “evil side” as we have learned. Doing the equivalent of Comic Sans in audio, called Dramatic Reading, was accordingly declared evil by the Commentariat opinion leaders. I only bring it up as I found some interesting commentary on the situation before Shmeargate. Obviously, it is from a different context.
One dramatic reading mocks a comment made on Ophelia Benson’s blog where the user suggests “to dig up dirt” (ding!) and a “release of embarrassing information” (ding!) and reckons to “use the law when you can, and call for a higher level of harassment when you can’t” (arguable). Using a vague wine story where nothing happens to portray sleazy behaviour in a “thought experiment” is exactly that: intentionally embarrassing. And since the Commentariat keeps on doing it, while I’m busy writing, Stephanie Zvan delivers yet another example from yesterday.
Ophelia Benson herself was against this user’s disturbing suggestion (Hi Mrs Benson!). Though the follow up commenter, also a Commentariat regular, puts it into context with Shermer. At the time he was already a persona non grata due to his “more of a guy thing” remark and subsequent reactions to “criticism” he received. The commenter writes:
“Look at Shermer’s latest opus; mere disagreement is treated on par with torture and violence.”
Tribe versus the Others
It turned out to be not torture and violence which is anyway polemics, but Shmeargate. And that is quite real. The trajectory was right, and it is ironic as everyone else could see it coming, since the Commentariat hardly ever “merely disagrees”. The days of disagreement are gone, and replaced with vicious sectarianism. And it opens up yet another rabbit hole: the Commentariat’s lack of empathy, which they have replaced with expressions of tribalism. There might be a word or two about how such generalisations can be true. Once they are tightly-knit groups, they begin to show some common traits that very well define them, while they are in that group (Chris Clarke was Co-Blogger next to PZ Myers and makes some observations).
The members pat each other’s back which looks like empathy, but their behavior is about farming social justice points, the mythical currency that visibly keeps especially the comment section at Pharyngula running. They are routinely puzzled when their viciousness towards others come back in some way, and then have to rationalise the reaction as ideological differences. Chris Clarke concedes in a preceding post that the critics are right about “this one regard”, though he doesn’t mention (or maybe doesn’t realize), first, this one regard might be an extremely hateful, extremely absusive episode, enough to propel the targets into the ever-growing opposition against the Commentariat (which they then see as a “side”), and where they then, secondly, are declared to be in league with rapists and online harassers by the Commentariat, which isn’t exactly propitiating anyone, especially for those who use their real names. This is another way of explaining how “sides” could emerge (it as we have seen simply the “out-group”) and its shows vividly the conclusion we can’t escape: utter lack of empathy.
Interlude: I’ve written this earlier the day, before yet another drama (actually two drama episodes later) was kicked off by the Commentariat. This time one Sara Moglia of SkepChick reported of how Dawkins demanded the removal of Rebecca Watson from Reason Rally line up. When American Atheist responded mildly, by claiming that Watson wasn’t intended anyway, Moglia tweeted that she felt being thrown “under the bus”. I guess it supports the point once more. They can’t fathom that their extreme actions might yield responses. Meanwhile, Stephanie Zvan released another smeary piece now that Dawkins is target once again. She already brings the rationalisation in place when she states “If you don’t think posting something like this publicly–on Skepchick–will be seen as an invitation to harass her into a flare-up, you’re not thinking it through.” Lack of empathy, there it is again.
Mr Dalton of course got the Commentariat treatment as well, in a somewhat milder form, since the main target was Shermer and now Dawkins (if you read this in the far future, it is probably someone else’s turn). Their first method of choice is typically smearing when they can, especially when someone’s real identity is on the line, where they try to inflict greatest damage. This is done preferably by just inventing appalling views to rally against, by invoking one of their “killer memes”. And it cuts both ways, it creates a foil to farm social justice points and gets rid of a critic by undermining their reputation.
The trick is to make killer memes “ring true” and were they have to make no effort in explaining how they actually apply. Questioning is verboten. They might just type “victim blaming”, everyone is in awe; some Commentariat member adds an emotional story about real victim blaming thereby earning some more social justice points; everyone is in rage tears and shaking, as their emotions are channelled over to their new foil, and on top of it, the opinion leaders find this all very normal and acceptable. It is yet another “live” variant of the “montage” technique. Alas, fairly reasonable people on the side-lines like Dan Fincke or Matt Dillahunty apparently also have no problems with it, until perhaps it goes against them one day (the real situation got even more bizarre now that the Pharyngula tribe became “rape apologists” in a more literal sense, a plot twist close the one in The 6th Sense, the thread where these quotes were taken from is very upsetting).
Dalton “looked like” as if he was victim-blaming the woman in the wine-story (we called Helen). It is one of the cases where the different elements of the montage blurred so much into each other, and thus also “real events” and “fiction” in Carrier’s case, which Helen becomes like the actual victim. But she wasn’t. She merely got drunk and nothing happened to her. Still, Mr Dalton was compelled to follow up explaining the obvious:
As for contrast, we might continue Dr. Carriers version which has some stunning detail, only omitting the use of some Aphrodisiac obtained from the eponymous goddess to bring Helen to heel:
“Then you start to feel you must have drunk too much, your vision is blurring and you feel a little dizzy. He shows concern, and offers to take you to your room. You get up and almost fall, you are having difficulty keeping upright. He supports you, and in his arms walks you to […] your room. You are really out of it and at this point can barely think straight and can’t navigate on your own. You have difficulty walking. At first you aren’t even sure it was your room he took you to.” – Richard Carrier “Michael Shermer: Rapist or Sleaze?”
Only that Paris didn’t bring her to her room, but onto his ship, and sailed with her back to Troy. But our story isn’t over yet. Mr Dalton follows up some more what he heard about the wine situation, making it even more obvious why Carrier-style storytelling is very problematic and fits better with the myth.
“Well, please note — that’s a woman who admits that absolutely no harm came to her. And I have it from two sources now that that’s not even the way that situation went down. It was not a one-on-one with the accused, but a group of people. And the accused was not pouring the drink. He simply told the server to refill everyone (presumable everyone who wanted a refill). Does anyone really believe that the accused would be playing wine server at a Gala where he’s the guest of honor? Really?” – Brian Dalton (comment below the video)
The victim blaming charge was not only ridiculous, it is also “anti-women” to use their term. The point of deplorable victim blaming is that voluntary behavior in one case, such as getting drunk or dressing sexy, does not mean consent to something else.
There is no consensus what happened in the myth. Did Helen’s went with Paris on her own accord? Does falling in love through divine superpowers count as “voluntary”? Or should Paris be considered a rapist, which, in the archaic sense also meant a robbery-style abduction of a love interest? Whatever we think, Paris brought her back to Troy and entrenched himself in the town and Helen became Helen of Troy.
But One Does Not Simply Walk into Sparta and steals the wife of a king. Much less, infuriate two goddesses who didn’t win Eris’ Golden Apple. Hera and Athena teamed up with Menelaus, who also asked his brother Agamemnon and they put together a mighty army, together with the Myrmidons led by one Achilles. They set sail towards Troy to get Helen back (incidentally, Myrmidon means “ant people” and has the same connotations as “minions”).
And this is how the Trojan War began.
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Whew. I’m free! A few afterwords, not that it matters with this epic length (still shorter than JT’s and Carrier’s™): Dalton makes the valid point that no good skeptic should report or repeat unsubstantiated claims, especially as severe as those made against the accused. With this montage, I remained “meta” of the actual situation. I believe that contexts and situation in which such claims were made are an important concern of the community — even when my contribution is somewhat eccentric. My next post will be about something else I haven’t entirely decided on yet, but I hope to see you back. The post lenght should go down to about a third then and it will become somewhat more wieldy, but leave your feedback on that, too. Since I’m pretty much just testing and experimenting.
And please leave some feedback, comment, likes, dislikes, smack downs and critique down below. Or otherwise share, reblog, tweet the heck, it is very much appreciated.