In my own corner of the Internet, where skeptics hang out, I’ve been watching sometimes crazed arguments between so-called “social justice warriors” and those opposed to overdone “political correctness.” This little war has played out for a few years now.
For me, awareness of this business started an eternity ago in Internet time, way back with Rebecca Watson’s “elevatorgate.” Yes, I hate that “gate” naming habit, but we’re stuck with it. (We could call the whole trend “gategate,” couldn’t we?). Watson made a moderate, and to my mind reasonable, aside part way through a video. She pointed out something that a man did that made her uncomfortable and said, “Don’t do that guys,” then returned to her topic.
Amazingly, many people responded to that one short bit in a crazed, hyperbolic fashion, with death threats and repellent misogyny at the extreme end. It was like some hillbillies yelling, “We don’t want no advice from no dang woo-man.” Not what I expected from the skeptic crowd, though a hopefully small percent of them.
There have been various wars and “gates” after that, involving different personalities in skeptic as well as atheist social media. Many are about feminism, some are about the limits of free speech or just what is acceptable in public forums. Absurd extremes abound on both sides.
On some sites where skeptics and atheists congregate, there was a ridiculous self-purging of almost all speech that might be construed as offensive. People were booted off sites left and right for the temerity of having a different opinion on one issue or another. For these sites, it seemed like every week another “big name” in the skeptic world was found to have failed a behavior or opinion test and was summarily denounced and shunned.
I found myself ping-ponging between these sides, repelled by the trollish threateners and creeps on one extreme and disgusted by the self-righteous smugness on the other. Sometimes I’d get to the point of thinking, “The hell with all of ’em, and let the Flying Spaghetti Monster sort ’em out.”
Now for a brief detour. Per Wikipedia, the phrase, “Kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out” originated in a Christian crusade in Southern France. An abbot named Arnaud Almaric was said to be speaking to a soldier who was worried about killing true Catholics in the course of the war. Almaric allegedly said, “Kill them. For the Lord knows those that are His own.” Neat way to absolve yourself of blame.
Needless to say, I don’t want anyone to die, but I’m tired of the back and forth and divisions this has created. The best treatment of the issue I’ve heard is Steven Novella’s discussion with Julia Galef on the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast, episode #555. It helped illuminate why I’ve felt sympathy for both sides of the issue. When each side cogently and without bombast provides its best argument, there are reasonable points to be found.
More importantly, as Novella points out, there ought to be a middle ground that doesn’t squash free speech excessively, or allow excessively offensive behavior. Defining that “excessively” is a huge sticking point, of course, and complicated by trolls who only want to incite and inflame.
Don’t know if we’ll ever get there, but working toward a middle ground is worthwhile. Imagine having to grow up and communicate like rational semi-adults. Until then, I ask you to remember who boiled for your sins, and who ought to whack the most antagonistic arguers with a heavy meatball.