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Semiformalishmaybe

On the Ejection of Thunderfoot from FTB

A certain percentage of my readers are involved in the secular movement (really a set of fuzzily-defined cluster of movements, with a number of prominent, strong-willed, and/or outspoken people. Blogging and conferences are a big part of how we're trying to grow; that blogging is happening to a certain extent on Youtube as well as a number of blogging platforms, sometimes dedicated, sometimes generic. The way the secular movement interacts with other movements/causes has often been pretty complicated (parallelling a number of other activist causes I have my toe in, like socialism).

One of these platforms, Freethought Blogs (FTB), was founded because an older popular host for blogging became concerned at some of the political content on the platform; people left en masse to FTB as a replacement so they could talk about politics just as much as secularism and science.

Thunderfoot, an astronomy blogger mostly active on YT, was active on FTB for a short time (about the last two weeks), devoting his time there to offering internal criticism of some trends in the movement (particularly pertaining to feminism). I significantly disagree with much of his posts; for example, I think the harassment policy in conferences is positive in that even if the relevant laws on harassment offer some guidance on the topics, policies can (and should) go further, and the presence of good harassment policy can help to remind people that good behaviour is expected. I also significantly agree with some of his posts, particularly that (what I identify as third-wave feminist discourse and he mischaracterises as feminist discourse) some kinds of discourse are worse-than-useless in addressing gender issues in society (that which rejects civility, uses "privilege" as a means to disqualify views, and similar). His posts, and the responding other posts on FTB as well as the continued comment section, brought things to a fairly ugly head, and he was booted off of the site.

I am not happy with this, although I recognise the conversations became ridiculously heated. It should be possible for people to have disagreements within the secular community without it getting to this; inner criticism within a community is healthy, not unhealthy. This criticism may never lead to agreement on issues; many of these movements have seen splits and factions just within themselves, and mixing the concerns of multiple movements where not everyone agrees to every movement (or on ranking, or on what-if-any-theory should link them) is a recipe for a mess that requires civility and cool heads. Requiring everyone to approve of everyone else or everything they write is an impossible bar to meet.

I would've been much happier had Thunderfoot been left on, although I think Thunderfoot's civility is just as problematic as PZ's (who actually did the job of booting Thunderfoot). It's hard to take seriously the metacommentary that Thunderfoot getting the boot is a healthy community reaction removing inappropriate people when the booter merits it as much as the booted (if we really believed booting was the answer). I believe Thunderfoot is correct that there is a hegemonic discourse that's present in FTB and it's at least significantly the content of his writing (rather than his poor tone) that got him the boot.

(As an aside, I reject Thunderfoot's claim, in his YT video, that booting him despite promising an open platform is a sign of poor scientific integrity on PZ's part. That's poor personal integrity, not poor scientific integrity; there's no research being involved here, and even if research communities typically have expectations of open discourse, this is not a scientific matter or a scientific forum, so it's personal integrity that PZ has shown a failing in)

I do think there probably should be standards for FTB (and other liberal-secular-socialist movement institutions) on the topic of gender issues though (here I may disagree with thunderfoot, or perhaps not?), and that they should generally take the form of the baseline definition of feminism (not those of the faction I'm in, just the baseline):

  • Both genders of humanity have roughly equal potential in most tasks
  • It is unacceptable to restrict or strongly nudge people of either gender towards/away-from tasks based on their gender
  • In the long run, any institutions that create separate roles or paths dedicated to one of the genders that are not based on biological differences will require strong justification to persist/be created
I note that this definition marks Christopher Hitchens as being outside the bounds of acceptability on this topic; I am comfortable with that. Hitchens' statements on the role of women are normative in nature and if accepted they would limit the potential of women in the workplace; they merit condemnation. As for others, if they can agree to this baseline commitment (and apologies for giving myself an out here, but also for anything I might not be thinking of at the moment that really belongs in a baseline) and their later comments don't make us doubt that commitment, I am not inclined to accept criticism of them being marked as "sexist", "misogynist", or the like; misapplication of those terms should make us mistrust the person using them, no matter how elaborate the definitions of "oppression" or "privilege" the faction they reside in.

Thunderfoot has failed in choosing ways to express his criticism in reasonably-minimally-harsh means needed to get his points across. If he had done better on that front, perhaps things would not have escalated so far. Vitrol should be at most a rare event, not standard-faire.

My understanding of these matters is pieced-together from a few hours of googling "ftb thunderfoot" and writing and chewing on this blogpost; I may have missed some things I should be aware of. I also vaguely know a number of the people involved (although I doubt many of them would recognise me without dredging their memory; I am not prominent in the community by any means), and I do have opinions on the right way to do activism as well as positions that coincide in parts with the various people in this discourse; those may have tainted my judgement here. Take what I said here with quite a lot of salt, and if you're really interested, do that google search. Note as well that many of these people are really cool in the general case even if they have problematic views or discourse problems on some topics; you don't have to like all of them to like them or their writings.

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