Friday, February 15, 2013

PZ's witch hunt

This is the third piece in my discussion on skeptical fails in the skeptical movement. If you haven't read my first two pieces discussing Ophelia Benson and Michael Shermer you might want to go back and read these articles because I reference them here. I would ask that at the least you go back and read the original sources I will be discussing which are listed in my first piece. The reason is that I don't want my views and interpretations here to bias your views.

Here's the reading list before I continue: first watch this video starting at 11:30. Then read 12, and 3.

PZ Myers is one of the most prominent atheist bloggers and thus he has the ability to reach a large audience and influence their views on an issue. Which is why I chose to address his contributions to this debate rather than limiting myself to the primary debate between Shermer and Benson.

So, lets start by looking at what PZ wrote (again please read his article prior to my interpretation so I don't bias you). PZ starts his post by telling us that "Ophelia Benson called out Michael Shermer for a sexist remark he made." Then he tells us that Shermer doesn't actually respond to Benson's accusation but instead dodges the issue. After this he gets ready to give us Shermer's quote by stating "here's what Shermer was caught saying  . . ." I added italics to this quote to emphasize the word caught. By stating that Shermer made a sexist remark, dodged the issue, and that he was "caught" PZ has already primed us to view the quote as being sexist. Now, PZ's framing isn't yet as Bad as Benson's was. However, PZ goes further.

PZ gives us Shermer's quote but uses the identical quote mine as Benson which I already addressed here and follows it by stating:
You know what? That is a great big hairy naked sexist remark. It's a plain assumption that men are intrinsically better suited to leading skepticism and atheism. You can't get much plainer than "It's more of a guy thing."
Again, I already addressed this when discussing Benson. This is problematic because Shermer's quote was ambiguous and PZ has interpreted the quote in an inflammatory manner that clearly was not intended by Shermer. I won't go any further since I already discussed this issue in the Benson context. What I really want to get into is PZ's next statement:
A good response would have been to admit that he’d made an unthinking, stupid remark and that he’d like to retract it. But that’s not what he does. Instead, he argues that he really does think the split in participation is 50/50, and points to TAM as having roughly equal numbers of men and women speaking.
Here PZ gives us the shut up and apologize argument. This "shut up and apologize" attitude is something that I have seen cropping up in many other blogs and comments that criticize Shermer. This argument seems to revolve around the idea that when a man makes a "sexist" comment and is criticized for it, the only acceptable response is an apology. In fact, the mere act of arguing against a woman after being accused of sexism often results in being called sexist because you disagreed with a woman. Apparently women are always right so the only way you can disagree is if you are sexist. If you don't believe me, I wrote about one example of this in my article Disagreement ≠ sexism. As another example check out Greta Christina's statement in response to a Shermer defender at comment 78 here where she says:
When you say something sexist, racist, homophobic, whatever, and someone calls you out on it... you apologize Full stop. Even if the person calling you out got something slightly wrong.. you let that pass. . . . The expectation that critics of sexist behavior always get everything absolutely right — and if they don't, they should expect the targets of their criticism to react horribly — is, itself, unbelievably sexist.
This is the kind of attitude that stops conversations. It is the argument that: you are wrong, you need to admit you are wrong, but I can make whatever mistakes I want, and if you criticize me for my mistakes, well, then you're a sexist.

I fail to see why this double standard on absolute political correctness is acceptable here. Clearly, I agree sexist behavior should be stopped, people should apologize when they say something sexist, and people should choose their words carefully to avoid sexist statements. But, why is it that the same reasoning doesn't apply to those who shout sexist!? Shouldn't they apologize as well? Shouldn't they use care with their words to make sure they don't make a false accusation? It appears that merely by uttering the accusation of sexism you somehow insulate yourself from any criticism because criticism would itself be sexist.

I want to voice my strong disagreement to this attitude. If you are going to make a serious accusation such as "you are sexist" you should do your best to make sure your accusation is accurate and not exaggerated. If you exaggerate your claim the accused has every right to defend their name by demonstrating that they did not do what they were accused of. Otherwise, we live in the witch hunt world that Shermer described where an accusation equals guilt and the right to prove your innocence is non-existent. Any defense is simply further evidence of sexism.

The greatest irony of those who attacked Shermer for defending himself (such as PZ) is that they proved his very point, that an accusation of sexism is like a witch hunt where your only option is to apologize or risk being accused of further sexism for defending yourself.

Now coming back to PZ's argument on this issue. It might make sense to PZ, from his personal perspective  that Shermer should retract his comment and shut up. From PZ's view, Shermer made a sexist remark, thus, the obvious solution is to admit guilt and apologize. However, PZ is just looking at the original sexist remark and ignoring the fact that Benson also quote mined and straw manned Shermer's position.

PZ is coming from a biased perspective and thus ignores a giant problem. Shermer isn't really defending his comment, he is attacking the misinterpretation of his comment. Remember, Benson didn't just say that Shermer made a sexist comment, she accused Shermer of saying "women don't do thinky" which Shermer never actually said.

Thus PZ's request appears a bit ridiculous. PZ is asking Shermer to just apologize for his remark and ignore the fact that Benson not only quote mined him but also straw manned his position and framed the issue in a seriously misleading manner. As skeptics we generally defend our position when it is mischaracterized. Thus, it is unjust for PZ to frame this issue as a situation where Shermer should just apologize.

What if Shermer really did say, sorry I was sexist, didn't mean to be and then shut up? He would, of course, be implicitly admitting that Benson's interpretation of his comment was correct. Thus, in PZ's world Shermer's only option is to plead guilty to something that he doesn't believe he did. I would like to see any case where PZ himself chose to apologize for something that he didn't do rather than trying to correct misunderstandings of his position.

Now, if Benson had made legitimate criticisms of Shermer's position then, Shermer could have been rightly criticized for failing to apologize. If she had said "hey Shermer, you know, that statement could be interpreted as a sexist stereotype" then Shermer could have been criticized for failing to apologize. But, as I already discussed, she didn't say that, she accused him of saying something much worse. She accused him of saying women are less intelligent than men. When she skewed Shermer's words this way, I believe she created a right for Shermer to not only defend himself, but to also point out a problem that exists in the atheist/skeptical movement today.

As I discussed in my last post, sexism is a broad word ranging from stating a true, but nevertheless sexist stereotype, to actively oppressing women. Sexist therefore carries a special power just like Nazi (though not to the same extent) to carry serious social stigma. Any accusation of sexism has the potential to tarnish the name of the accused beyond the act actually committed. This is why it is so important to allow the accused to defend himself. Especially when there are reasonable grounds to show that his position was misrepresented as was the case with "it's a guy thing."

In any other field of inquiry we would support debate over word choice. However, when it comes to sexism an accusation seems to be sufficient to establish guilt and require the guilty part to forgo a defense. In fact, if you read Shermer's response to Benson you can see that he is directly addressing this same problem. Too bad PZ didn't take home the meaning of Shermer's piece and instead decided to give Shermer the perfect example of the witch hunt he had just finished complaining about.

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