The Burning Cloak of Infallibility

This is the second part of the Silverman Heresy. The previous part illustrated various contexts where David Silverman made his abortion remark that caused an outrage. In this installment, I chase down various arguments against the “witch hunts” allegations, show the history of the meme and the even larger context. We also get and idea how the faction frequently accused of instigating “witch hunts” thinks about the matter.divider We don’t know where FreeThoughtBlogs’ Jason Thibeault read the “Witch Hunt” charge he dismisses, and what prompted Stephanie Zvan of the same network to add a sarcastic “It’s just like the blogosphere, isn’t it?” below a historical witch hunt text. We do know, however, that the “witch hunt” meme is quite alive and that the Social Justice faction had to deal with it before. Often.

Where they Burn books…

Foreshadowing with Heinrich Heine:

“It was only the prologue, where they burn books, they eventually burn people.” — Heinrich Heine, Almansor (1821)

Heinrich Heine puts these words into the mouth of the Muslim Hassan in his tragedy “Almansor”. Hassan comments on the burning of the Quran in the conquered town of Granada at the end of the “Reconquista” in 1500. The quote often appears in Germany on memorials, as our history had seen plenty of book and people burnings, literally and figuratively. I foreshadow with this interlude, as Heine’s words were seen as a foreshadowing of what would come a little over a hundred years after he wrote it.

book burning & witch burning

Wait. Isn’t this is about Silverman? Hyperbole!


Some people will likely think: Surely, this is hyperbole! David Silverman was only criticized for what he stated in public – a completely normal procedure: standard activism. And as far as we know, he still walks among the living. If anything burned, then only his Cloak of Infallibility. And we don’t have infallible leaders. Tone it down!


Moral Panic

But not so fast. The “witch hunt” term has multiple meanings, and we will explore where it fits and where it doesn’t. Obviously, David Silverman wasn’t set on fire. That was the easy part. Yet, the suspects during the McCarthy Era weren’t set on fire, either and yet still, it is where the figurative usage of the “Witch Hunt” was popularized. It is a mistake to confuse the McCarthyian “witch hunts” as the defining source of what “witch hunts” are like, and not the other way around –  that the “witch hunt” is a thing itself that can be seen in both the McCarthy Era as well as in the historical Witch Hunts, and – perhaps – in Mr Silverman’s case. We could compare it the cognate moral panic. Wikipedia lists five characteristics, according to  Goode and Ben-Yehuda:

Concern – There must be awareness that the behaviour of the group or category in question is likely to have a negative effect on society.

Hostility – Hostility towards the group in question increases, and they become “folk devils”. A clear division forms between “them” and “us”.

Consensus – Though concern does not have to be nationwide, there must be widespread acceptance that the group in question poses a very real threat to society. It is important at this stage that the “moral entrepreneurs” are vocal and the “folk devils” appear weak and disorganised.

Disproportionality – The action taken is disproportionate to the actual threat posed by the accused group.

Volatility – Moral panics are highly volatile and tend to disappear as quickly as they appeared due to a wane in public interest or news reports changing to another topic.

This is surprisingly close to the situation at hand. The “movement” or community isn’t a public or the nation in the classical sense, and there are some other differences that have to do with the different media landscape that now includes social media and blogs. Other than that, it has it all. There was the concern that Mr Silverman is eroding human rights of women. Then we saw organized hostility and a consensus of the vocal actors who coordinated their efforts across multiple blogs, social media and organisations (such as Secular Women). Their statements and their volume was disproportional to an offhand remark that merely asserted a secular argument exists, and of course the whole affair itself is gone soon afterwards, only the grudges persist. In our case, it was replaced by Stollznow and Radford as the next big thing.

Not convincing? The venerable Oxford Dictionary defines a “witch hunt” as:

A campaign directed against a person or group holding views considered unorthodox or a threat to society.

Their American-English variant adds unpopular views:

informal, A campaign directed against a person or group holding unorthodox or unpopular views.

Merriam-Webster’s definition emphasises unfairness:

[An] act of unfairly looking for and punishing people who are accused of having opinions that are believed to be dangerous or evil

Chasing Down the Meme

Within the Atheist-Skeptics “movement” the meme seems to have made its debut in late 2011, in the aftermath of “Elevatorgate”. I only heard of Elevatorgate and “Dear Muslima” as a distant echo at the time and my readers might know more about this, than I do. The earliest case seem to come from Russell Blackford, who put it into a comment that is no longer available.

Sometime in May 2012 it must have been floating about, as Stephanie Zvan deals with it for the first time in the Atheist-Skeptics context. We learn from her that it is apparently a feminist or anti-feminist thing (which is often indistinguishable, it seems):

I’ve been accused of being on a witch hunt before. The same is probably true for pretty much any feminist who ever dares to point out that multiple men have demonstrated bad gendered behavior. – Stephanie Zvan, cont.

She then believes the backdrop of witch hunts are Salem, and when a situation isn’t like Salem, it isn’t a witch hunt proper. Power relations were, she argues, very different even in the figurative McCarthyian sense.

Even someone who only took away the lessons of McCarthyism should understand how the balance of power in a metaphorical witch hunt works. […] By comparison, what’s the situation I described in my post? A group of men too important to be touched. A group of women who share (and have shared for some time) knowledge privately among themselves because they don’t have the power it would take to protect them if they spoke publicly. – Stephanie Zvan, On Witches and Hunting Thereof

The balance of power doesn’t matter according to the definitions of “witch hunt” seen above. I don’t know what the situation was at the time, though at least later, the Social Justice League had quite an influence; many known and frequent speakers in the conference circuit; and very vocal fans and followers. Accusing someone of misogyny and worse is (or was) also a very potent weapon.

The main popularizer of the “Witch Hunt” meme in the Atheist-Skeptics community was probably Michael Shermer, who received a lot of flak for his “guy thing” remark. This is now early 2013 and again, a “Famous Atheist-Skeptic” is the target for a statement that was seen as “anti-women” by the social justice faction (of PZ Myers, Zvan et al). Mr Shermer’s reply had it all: witches, McCarthy and the Nazis. His original comment is now behind a login-wall, but PZ Myers quoted it and commented:

Astonishing. Apparently, criticizing anything Mr Michael Shermer says is now a “McCarthy-like witch hunt”, an “inquisition” with the goal of “purging” Shermer from the ranks of…what? He’s a publisher and author. Is there a threat to take his word processor away? But see, this is why the atheist movement can’t have leaders. The ones we’ve got, informally, all seem to think they’re like gods and popes, infallible and unquestionable, and that normal, healthy, productive criticism within the movement is all a conspiracy to dethrone them. – PZ Myers, The Delicate Ego of Mr Michael Shermer

PZ Myers’ argumentation became the standard reply on the matter. The gist is that he and his faction are just offering criticism of some perceived leaders and that people who cry “witch hunts” treat these “leaders” as infallible, and they shouldn’t. With some armchair psychology, that looks more like projection since their own opinion leaders shield themselves from criticism and consistently demonize it as misogynistic. It is also quite apparent that PZ Myers and others tend to make it about picking a side. He wants that we believe him and not the other person. He wants that the “movement” prefers his version of events over the version someone else maintains. I suspect that if the Social Justice people hadn’t made it all a zero-sum game of Whom-To-Believe and “With us Or Against Us”, a much more constructive situation could have emerged than it did.


Another year later, PZ Myers argument emerges again, this time jotted down by then-FTBlogger Ian “Crommunist” Cromwell, and the “witch” was Ron Lindsay for his most-criticized WIS2 conference opening talk.

“It is, however, a distressingly common circumstance to see people decry any and all criticisms of or actions taken against someone who is on ‘their team’ as a “witch hunt”. Oftentimes they will invoke the ghost of old Joe McCarthy, and generally bloviate about how innocent people are being dragged through the muck by (fill in the blank).” – Crommunist, Abused Meme Roundup: Witch Hunt

By the time the infamous Slymepit already took over the “Witch of the Week” meme with usual jest: TV shows intersperse so-called “Monster of the Week” episodes into their story arcs to draw in new viewers. I found this a rather apt way of looking at the situation.

There are quite a lot “Witches of the Week” already: next to ones already mentioned, there is Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Lawrence Krauss. Not the worst gallery to be featured in. Dawkins was nominated at least twice, and was perhaps the very first “Witch of the Week” with his “Dear Muslima” comment. When he reprised his role, it was extensively discussed by the Irish activist Michael Nugent who is somewhat above suspicion of being one of the evil “anti-women” apologists. Mr Nugent didn’t use the word “witch hunt”, yet his article has the same thrust and criticizes the very same people, PZ Myers, Rebecca Watson, Stephanie Zvan and so forth – namely the Social Justice faction. He describes a pattern:

The smears typically follow parts of the following pattern. Some people place the most uncharitable meaning they can on a comment by Richard, or else exaggerate it out of proportion to reasonable debate, and continue to do so even after he clarifies what he meant. Then, instead of correcting these false allegations, which are pounced upon by his enemies, some people either ignore the clarification or else blame Richard further for allowing himself and/or atheism to be misrepresented.– Michael Nugent, Richard Dawkins’ nuanced memoir and the unjust personal smears against him


The Pattern

And then we have the latest “witch” David Silverman. And here again, the same folk who are infected by social justice blogging make a concerted effort of critique. I think the pattern described by Mr Nugent in the other context holds up fairly well. Mr Silverman’s remark that there is a secular argument for abortion somehow morphed into him attempting to take away human rights of women. It is the most uncharitable interpretation possible aired with maximum volume.

Entertaining anti-choice arguments delegitimizes women’s humanity and bodily autonomy; which is why we have been disturbed and appalled to witness the President of American Atheists, David Silverman, commenting on the existence of secular anti-choice arguments during an interview at CPAC without providing any context as to the validity of said arguments. – Secular Women, Rending the Tent

We can already extrapolate what the Social Justice League people would reply: we shouldn’t treat “leaders” such as Mr Silverman as infallible; that it must be okay to criticize them for what they do and say; that statements made in public have consequences and that this whole “witch hunt” thing is anyway pure hyperbole and that real witches were mostly women accused for misogynistic reasons, and those men are misogynists themselves and it is therefore a perversion of the situation. Further, when someone’s reputation suffers from the criticism, this isn’t like actually putting them to the fire and finally, the influence of the “Witch Hunters” is anyway limited and Mr Silverman and all the others will be fine. And lastly, the criticism is anyway really mild.

However, even though Social Justice people hate dictionaries, these definitions of “witch hunt” do describe – even if polemical – the current situation with David Silverman. He pointed to “unorthodox” and even “dangerous” views in their eyes and there was a campaign against him, which was unfair, because he neither promoted nor himself agreed to these “unorthodox” values and even if he did, they don’t necessarily infringe on the human rights of women.


It also fits for the simple reason that those “witches” are effectively removed from the Social Justice League spaces, which they themselves hope to expand that it encompasses the whole “movement” (the metaphor for that is “tent”, which appears for instance in the various headlines of the Secular Women articles on the matter, e.g. rending the tent).

It is not that someone is merely “called out”, everyone learns their lesson and next time we are a bit smarter. That’s not what happens. Social Justice members have grudges and love feuds. They can’t let go. In part one, I illustrated that there was already a history with David Silverman. They kept building the animosities over time and when Silverman finally presented a weakness, it was immediately exploited.

The reputation of the “witch” is trashed to such a degree that any mentioning by commenters results in severe backlash and what is called “dogpiling” (when many commenters overwhelm one commenter by insulting and attacking them). That means, the “witch” is also ideologically infectious and cannot be mentioned in a positive sense anymore, unless they are useful (e.g. when former “witch” Ron Lindsay critisizes people liked even less). This brings it much closer to the historical situation than it might be apparent.

Infallible Comedy

Witchfinder General by Gumby

I like to come to the end with something comical and it illustrates some of the claims I made. This one is from November, around the time when Richard Dawkins was the “Witch of the Week” and when Michael Nugent just wrote his critique linked to above.

PZ Myers thought it a good idea to point his self-styled “horde” to Richard Dawkins’ “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit. He probably wanted to prove that his fans and followers can be polite and articulate. He wanted to prove that the critics were wrong. His post is plain and neutral. “Don’t give them the wrong ideas” he might have thought to himself. However, it becomes apparent with the first comment that Dawkins is a persona non grata and that the grievancs the commentariat has with him must be aired. The space must be ideologically disinfected so that newbies also understand clearly what to think of Dawkins.

PZ Myers manages to overlook all comments so far and claims, bravely, on comment #23 that his critics were lying when they say that Dawkins isn’t particular popular among his crowd:

[…] However, if you look over the questions posted on the IamA, you’ll see that they’re polite and friendly throughout. Kinda gives the lie to the idea that the horde was sent out “after” Dawkins, don’t you think?  I also suspect that the majority of the readers here, like me, respect Dawkins for his expertise and merely do not endorse the idea that he’s infallible, and are willing to call him out on differences of opinion. – PZ Myers, Comment #23

I don’t remember where anyone cared whether he sent his horde to pharyngulate Dawkins AMA. The issue was much more general hostility and smearing, not some AMA. He just tried to lower the bar so he can claim the hostilities weren’t that severe. Though even that failed. In stark contrast is his argument, again, that he and his followers merely burn the Cloak of Infallibility and nothing else. Remember folks, it’s just mild criticism! And that makes their whole show so hilarious often times, immediately afterwards regulars casts doubt on PZ Myer’s words. The brave host has to give in and tries to mitigate the damage only seven comments later. At #30 he claims:

Dawkins is a very smart guy and a great communicator…in his field. I will agree that he often digs himself a deep hole on social issues. But, you know, when we say that there should be no masters and no heroes, and that everyone should be subject to criticism, and there’s no one who’s perfect, we also need to recognize the complement to that: no one is totally bad, everyone has some area in which they’re right and good, and there’s no one who is perfectly bad. – PZ Myers, Comment #30

That makes PZ Myers the tragi-comical character that he is, as his commentariat keeps carping on.

As an other illustration and since it’s just in, some more hilarity comes today from the Atheism Plus department of the Social Justice League. It shows what kind of authoritarians they are. The admin proposes guidelines for April Fools Day.

[…] I’m not opposed to April Fools jokes here, but I think maybe we should put out guidelines that include, among other things:

  • No screamers (dangerous for epilepsy & anxiety disorders)
  • No shock photos (triggering)
  • No other dangerous jokes
  • If a joke is reported as triggering or otherwise dangerous, it may be hiddentexted or deleted per mod discretion
  • And if your joke takes the form of a link to media (e.g. Rickrolling), it should be explicit what kind of media it is (for sensory disability and potentially for epilepsy)

My intention is to encourage people to be safety-conscious and considerate to others. Thoughts? Opinions? Things I missed?  Rules for April’s Fool 

This is almost certainly not a (meta) joke. They would never make a joke on the backs of people who have epilepsy and the like, though by know they are governed by Poe’s Law, so we never know for sure.

(h/t windy)

People who want to control everything, narratives, language, what you can think of famous people and even April Fools jokes give a first glimpse of the more sinister aspects that will be featured in part three. For now I like to conclude that Mr Silverman was a target of a “witch hunt” in a polemical sense. Not everyone will agree, because we have to estimate what constitutes a campaign, and what exactly is unfairness. I hope though that even those who disagree get away with the understanding that it’s not entirely off the mark.

Until part three arrives you could read my take on the historical Witch Hunts here. Don’t hesitate, there is a comment section:  I love critique, feedback, disagreement, questions and additional thoughts. 🙂