(or, the “don’t be a dick” redux)

(or, losing faith in atheism)

Accusations of ad hominem get used way too much nowadays, usually by folks that have no idea what it actually means and use accusations of ad hominem attack as an all purpose get-out-of-jail-free card when somebody makes them look (and feel) stupid; or when concocting spurious complaints of abuse and harassment in order to silence dissenting opinion that’s torn them a new one in online forums (by addressing their argument and NOT their person, a critical subtlety beyond their grasp). As of late, it has become a nauseatingly prevalent practice on atheist forums in particular (like the ones that may have just spammed you to get your vote here).

A large part of the blame for this can be laid squarely at the feet of Phil Plait and his don’t be a dick Sermon on the Mount0 at TAM8. Thanks to that talk, carte blanche has been given to any loser with an axe to grind or cruddy book to sell to babble whatever gibberish they please – from 9/11 truth, to jebus pseudo-history1, to alien bodies in secret government bunkers2, and of course, antivaxxer / homeopathic / “microwave ovens give you cancer” nonsense – with complete impunity.

It is simply not possible to respond to any of these losers without them figuring out some way in which to construe you have been a rude or obnoxious “dick” and go whining to the nearest moderator or admin. Because they feel empowered. The days of being expected to defend your own statements on your own two feet are gone. Someone else will do it for you. It’s just lose-lose no matter what you say, so the wisest course when crossing paths with nutjobs now is to say nothing. This is the new “tolerance” reinvented for the new new atheist. It is a “tolerance” that is not freely given, but coercively demanded.

I somehow don’t think this is what Plait had in mind when he preached to the uncritical masses, but this is the reality he has enabled. As a wise man once said the path to hell is paved with good intentions3. Instead of ushering in a new era of open and civilised discourse, he has helped entrench and cement closed, cloistered communities with tacit but rigidly enforced codes of censorship, where those that stray out of bounds are arbitrarily labeled “dicks” – they are the new heretics and pariahs and are treated as such.

As a result, these communities are finding themselves being drained of vitality as the people that actually have things of substance to say (often confronting, challenging or even brutally direct things, because that is how true discourse works) leave due to the ensuing “chill” and dumbing down.

What remains is essentially an atheist version of Fox News ditto-heads, the unimaginative and intellectually incoherent that just repeat the same nonsense ad nauseam and mindlessly nod in agreement with each other while glaring suspiciously at anything that deviates from the harmless mediocrity that is the new accepted norm for behaviour.

Don’t believe me? Just go to these communities and compare the discourse now to what is in their archives from a year or two ago. These communities are dying from brain death as their life blood is slowly drained. With the very best of intentions.

Plait certainly can’t be blamed as the sole cause of this status quo, but he does bear responsibility for giving the whining mediocrity classes the sense of legitimacy they now claim to have. Thanks Phil. Did any of this ever cross your mind in your idealistic, über-utopian ruminations? Or did you just blurt all your gibberish out because it felt good? And because you knew it would have immediate populist appeal to the unwashed and unthinking masses? These are the great, unanswered post-polemic questions.

Nor do I think Plait ever considered that in the space of 31 minutes and 7 seconds he effectively undid what precious little was left of the great Age of Enlightenment Freethought / Humanist legacy. In one swoop, the new paradigm became that –

  • yes, people do have the right to not be offended,
  • yes, people do have the right to expect that you will curtail your language and temper your opinions for the sake of their precious and sacrosanct “feelings”, and
  • conversely, you have forfeited all of your rights to demand outrageous statements be supported by empirical evidence if it’s going to upset anyone.

What would the mercilessly acidic Voltaire and Diderot make of all of this? Perhaps it is fortunate they are dead and can’t witness this corrupt inversion of everything they fought for. They endured exile, jail and the very real risk execution demanding the rights to think freely, call bullshit for bullshit and to call an asshole an asshole. It’s gone Phil. You helped kill it.

“Freethought” in a sense is now truly free. The majority that throw it around now are ignorant of its heritage5 and have created an environment in which “freethought” equates to thinking whatever they please, no matter how nonsensical or downright idiotic, entirely “free” from criticism, responsibility, ethical considerations, principles, integrity, consistency and above all else, the annoying requirements to provide evidence and substance to support their statements. The “freedom” doesn’t just end there. They also demand the right to censor contrary opinion, to selectively edit it, to back track on a whim and alter their own statements and pretend they never occurred at all. And to achieve this, they demand the right to build their own walled, moderated gardens, secure cocoons where nothing can disrupt the “free” flow of whatever it is they please to babble about, and if it does it can be swiftly exterminated.

This bastard deformity that is contemporary “freethought” was captured exquisitely in a recent Facebook atheists exchange, preserved exactly as it was posted6

To ME being a FREETHINKER means FREE TO THINK AS I CHOOSE. To many so called “freethinkers” it seems if you dont think what THEY THINK …. you’re to be bullied bashed and belittled. If you are one of THOSE kindly remove yourself… WITHOUT A WORD OR ANY CONFLICT PLEASE from my wall, as free thought TO ME implies free to think whatever i CHOOSE… but on this wall no one will speak against anyone… welcome to switzerland my friends.. or candy land as i call it. respect 4 EVERY thought without judgement even if i dont agree.

So what is an old school Freethinker (aka a “dick’) supposed to make of an outburst like this? Well, a common response would be something along the lines of “OK. So does that mean you respect the thoughts of some Bangladeshis that think it’s quite acceptable to throw acid in the faces of disobedient and immodest sluts?” Which someone in fact did, knowing full well what the response would be (again, verbatim) –

“i dont care who u draw.. but thank u 4 being so quick to judge ME since weve NEVER spoken and YOU DONT KNOW ME. ITS TOLERANCE that matters… and im trying my best with u. brw.. im in adult entertainment.. do YOU know what FELCHing IS? its sucking someone ELSR’S cum out of someones cootchie or ass…. you are as pleasant as your name… bye bye…”

This was posted via personal message, the question that was asked was deleted, the person who asked was de-friended (bet that hurt) and banned from commenting anywhere the user had control in perpetuity.

This is how the system now works –

  1. You can say anything you please, any time, anywhere.
  2. Rule 1. does not apply to people who wish to criticise your statements  or ask you to validate them if there is even a slight risk that your feelings will be hurt.
  3. Anyone who violates Rule 2. has no protection from any rule anywhere. As such you can delete their statements, edit their statements to say totally different things, ban them from participating and spread rumours about them to warn others.
  4. If rule 3. is not adequate, or gives you insufficient material to work with, you are also entitled to just make stuff up and tell anyone who will listen about it. Especially moderators and administrators.

This is it – absolute freedom.

Of course Plait will emphatically deny that this is the result that he wanted from his talk. And I will believe him. But, what Phil wants has no causal relationship to what we have. His well intentioned rambling unfortunately contained no list of caveats or clauses to prevent the stupid from selfishly exploiting it – and in the feel-good euphoria of pretending to be fucking Gandhi while presenting it, and the fawning afterglow from the me too groupies, I doubt any of these considerations ever even entered his mind.

Possibly the greatest example of all this nonsense is currently embodied in the very fabric of the sites which are now engaged in spam campaigns to get your votes in the Agnosticism / Atheism 2011 Readers’ Choice Award for Best Social Networking Site of 2010. The BigTwo anyway, atheistnexus.org and thinkatheist.com – I don’t really know much about the little fish, but know their bigger siblings all too well7.

These sites preach a heady message of “enlightened”, “non-threatening” neo-freethought and they reached out to the masses and enticed them into joining their caring and sharing fold. And the masses came.

To these sites, popularity is not only an important consideration, it is the only consideration. And the way to achieve popularity is really quite simple (in theory) – you please everybody all at once. And all popular movements require trite slogans… You’re reading my mind aren’t you? Spooky.

In these environments, “non-threatening” gets translated into “do what thou wilt and thou shalt have protected status”. Add shameless populism that has no concern for consequence and you have fertile manure for shills, frauds, drama queens, professional victims and last, but definitely not least,  budding narcissist / psychopaths – and they sprang up like mushrooms after a spring shower.

As any weary long time ‘net user can tell you, the first casualty on any site that engages in a populist race to the bottom is the signal-to-noise ratio – it is a reality that no amount of denialism or propagandist rhetoric to the contrary can disguise. The cultural shift these sites underwent when they made the decision to switch from being humble user driven collectives to the “biggest and the best” at everything godless by pandering to the lowest common denominator was precisely that predicted by the cynics / realists (take your pick). Quality original user generated content, which was accounting for for 80-90% of new material, got diluted to a trickle, drowned out by –

  • self-promotion spam for external blogs (often to steal traffic in order to drive up stats and ad revenue) and self-published books reputable publishers won’t poke with a stick;
  • shabby pay-per-click DIY “news” site article spam, (think Examiner), again to steal traffic. Yes, that’s what all those “click here to read more” links are – common click theft for personal gain;
  • pseudo-science / pseudo-history / Zeitgeist gibberish;
  • endless reposts of existing content because more and more people were either too lazy or too stupid to check for duplication;
  • and just wholesale mindless inanity: “the pope is a nazi” and lame jokes, tired when Noah was a young lad, posted as standalone blog entries.

Now at ordinary sites run by folks capable of understanding the difference between “use” and “abuse”, “relevant” and “irrelevant”, “signal” and “noise” all of this would be a non-issue and easy enough to manage. Indeed there are sites that have been around for a decade or more and none of these things have ever been allowed to spiral out of control. All of this crap is in clear violation of any average site’s TOS (terms of service agreement) with their users and makes the process of controlling violations transparent and understood by all, especially those that willfully abuse them. Managing garbage is basic hygiene and is the secret for any site’s long term viability and success. This is common knowledge everywhere – except it seems in the atheist social networking sphere.

It’s not that management was not made aware of this degradation – they were, very early in the piece. In the case of Atheist Nexus, where some foresaw the boil festering, there even was a volunteer group representing the whole user base cross section assembled to formulate a set of site policies that would enshrine both user freedom and accountability, yet have enough teeth to deal equitably with misuse and abuse. Redemption was still possible – and they did an excellent job it must be added.

This policy document received official management blessing, was posted and accessible via a link on the main page that was completely invisible unless you had a magnifying glass and knew exactly where to look, and was then entirely forgotten about. In other words, “your concern is appreciated, we’ll get back to you”.

Of course, not a single guideline has ever been even remotely enforced. It would hurt feelings. Conversely, anyone having an issue with this garbage and saying so, thereby hurting feelings, would be branded a “dick”, officially warned that behaviour threatening site harmony would not be tolerated, they would be subjected intense scrutiny from that point forth and if they did not modify their attitude appropriately, they would be run out of town. All in reasonable, non-dick terms of course.

This is where the real value of the “entitlement” felt by empowered morons in the “don’t be a dick” universe blossomed – gibberish was, as any non-dick knew perfectly well, a free speech right. I shit you not. These spammers and frauds and gibberish mongers, with totally straight faces, began claiming that their critics were censors, fascists and “dicks” for wanting to stomp all over their rights to express themselves freely and unleashed an avalanche of spurious, mostly fabricated, complaint incident forms about “harrassment”, “abuse”, “persecution” and even “stalking”. This process was actively encouraged by management who at every turn stressed to users to complain first, think later. To not settle any disputes by traditional methods, ie. defending your statements using rational argument to justify your position, and instead hit the complaint button and complain, complain, complain.

To get an inkling of exactly how absurd, deranged and completely arbitrary some of this (mis)management regime really is, one poster who used the term “retarded” (in the dictionary sense) in response to a piece of outrageous nonsense received this admin message almost immediately upon posting –

calling someone a retard in the US is definitely unacceptable. Many people have kids that are “mentally challenged” and they really get pissed when we use the word.

Their target did not appreciate criticism and responded in the way the site encouraged – by complaining.

But… at the same time another member(who for special bonus nyuks went by the username “Freethinker”) regularly responded to criticism of his nonsense from one person by unambiguously accusing them of having with Asperger’s, therefore being less than human, and that for this reason they should be prohibited from posting on the site at all. These statements were not made once or twice – they were a steady abusive stream4. I mentioned ad hominems at the start of this article – and this is as cut and dried an example of an ad hominem attack as you can get.

Yet this Knight of Genetic Purity made these statements with impunity and without a single reprimand, even from other members. Why? Well, this person is black. The former, who committed the crime of saying “retarded”, unfortunately couldn’t tick a single box on the oppression bingo card – the middle class white boy is das juden for the enlightened new age8, who any one is free to kick in the comfort of knowing they will have neither sympathy nor recourse. Cultural awareness and sensitivity means that normal codes of conduct can be overlooked for the gentleman of colour for the sake of the rainbow of harmony, and it’s acceptable for these folks to brand others as subhuman. Of course the seas would boil and the sky would cave in should anybody call this Aspie hater a “nigger”

Intellectual incoherence already reigned supreme, and now there was abject moral incoherence. Cognitive dissonance just gave up, packed up and went home. But hey, at least the “dicks” are under control.

With this closed-loop feedback system entrenched where gibberish was encouraged and protected, and demands for some kind of intellectual standards being maintained ruthlessly stomped on, it was hardly any surprise that the trickle of valued contributers leaving the site became a full blown hemorrhage.

This attitude was straight out of marketing school – very much one that quantity is preferable to quality, and that as long as the numbers were good, no one cared if the place rotted. The folks deserting the place were more than made up for by new memberships that were posting reviews about the latest Disney Pixar flick  or vegan propaganda diatribes. The lunatics had finally taken over the asylum – the last pockets of resistance were driven from the site or intimidated into silence. The fact that the atheist community was presenting itself to the world as a pack of uneducated, illiterate, drooling imbeciles was not an issue of any import at all.

Really makes you want to participate in a community huh?

You’d think that at this point, you couldn’t sink any lower. That’s quitter talk, there’s always more damage that can be done, given sufficient will. There was a straw that would break the camel’s back and make management realise something had to be done.

It was at this point that virtually the entire moderation team, sick of copping all the blame for the situation (entirely caused by management apathy and incompetence) and sick of never being listened to by management, and sick of being powerless to do anything about it because management refused to give them the required permissions to do so, resigned en masse in disgust.

The penny finally dropped. The volunteer slave labour to do all the shitwork at the site had just left. A crisis was declared. The punchline to all this is jaw-dropping and has to be read to be believed –

Stop the madness! And a possible new site rule?

Enough is enough!

There has been way too much silliness and name-calling on Nexus lately. People are joining groups they disagree with simply to argue with group members. Others are stalking and chasing members around the site simply to harass them. Thin-skinned or not, this has caused visits to Nexus to be a chore for many, and a few have left the site.

The only qualification to be a member of Nexus is to be a nontheist. Other than that we are a community. Civil debate is welcome in the forum, but should not be tolerated in individual groups (unless this is the purpose of the group), and on member pages.

If you are unsure what is acceptable behavior, check out the Site Rules. If you are having a problem or you notice anyone violating the rules, please use the “Report an Issue” link at the bottom of every page.

Finally, I am seriously considering adding the title of the below Phil Plait speech to our rules.

Click to open video in a separate window: Don’t Be A Dick

What do you think? Good idea or not? I am interested in any feedback and open to solutions. I’m not looking for complaints.

Be forewarned that NO member names will be allowed in comments.

Simply staggering. Pointing people to the site rules (which have never been applied), exhorting them to complain at the merest whiff of “dick” (yet again), hug each other more, and the cherry on top – another reminder to watch Plait’s speech. Awesome. Nero fiddling while Rome burns.

So did management respond to the crisis and staunch the bleeding by recalling the moderators, allowing them to actually do their jobs and taking measures to control the mindless vandals that had subverted and destroyed the site?  Nope. In true Kafkaesque style, they responded by calling for  a community discussion to draft a new set of rules.

A new moderator-god was appointed and commenced the discussion on September 19, 2010 at 3:59pm.

Five full calendar months have since elapsed. The discussion is still going. To date, not a single existing rule has been equitably and fairly enforced. The gibberish, like a well oiled machine, continues unabated. “Dicks” continue to be intimidated into silence or banished. Situation normal, still fucked up.

And the farce persists even within the rules discussion threads themselves. In high black comedy, the following occurred in the discussion on ad hominem

My point of using it as an example was to show that I was able to disagree with another member without insulting or hounding her. By contrast, there are a few members here who are attacking absolutely anything I say, not because they disagree with what I say; but, because they disagree with me. They are just arguing for the sake of arguing and wasting everyone’s time.

This is from a person in the jebus history revisionism industry who had been using her site blog to spam a self-published book no genuine academic publisher wanted to touch. When critics began pointing out glaring holes in her “scholarship”, she responded not by challenging the criticism with the findings from her “research” – but by deleting the critical comments and accusing those critics of abuse, harrassment and stalking, and using the familiar “it was so horrible I deleted it” defense to explain why there was no evidence to support her complaints. Of course management believed every word she said.

In this instance however, evidence was captured not only of the comments she deleted (which showed none of the abuse she claimed), but fraudulent modification of the discussion to support her claims. Three times this evidence was presented to management, three times it was requested that action be taken against this person who had deliberately fabricated a complaint and made serious allegations another member who had only showed her research to be false. The matter was completely ignored in each case.

Subsequently to this, one of the critics was banned from the site, ostensibly for having duplicate site accounts. A second long standing member, a bystander simply stunned that this person would have the gall to pipe up in a thread about abuse, was also promptly banned. One assumes it was for excessive sarcasm. The accuser is still posting away happily, not a word of disciplinary action to be heard.

It is at moments like these where you see that it is more than just simple management apathy and incompetence, but actual discriminatory corruption that’s in charge. You lose your ability to keep laughing. This is what not being a “dick” is all about. It’s about expediency and purging the innocent for the sake of image. Given the choice between two ordinary white boys, or a female blabbermouth, self-proclaimed “author” and “scholar” who’s her own number one fan and with a well advertised talent for concocting persecution fantasies, and the choice is not even worth a second thought. It is complete ethical destitution.

One may get the impression that this appalling situation is a bit one sided. I would like assure everyone that it is not. Think Atheist can easily match any stupidity Nexus has to offer pound for pound. The relish with which it sucks up Nexus refugees is a case in point. Believe it or not, there actually are ideological maniacs that get thrown out of Nexus despite, on paper, being honours graduates from “don’t be a dick” school. They invariable land at Think Atheist where they are immediately embraced as lost children found and without pausing for breath promoted as Featured Member poster children. Then grilled for any secret dirt they may have on Nexus. It is quite sickening. At no point does it occur to anyone that they may have been thrown out for no reason other than they were dangerously unstable sociopaths (and in fact, if you want to cause a minor moderation meltdown there, just post an article to that effect. It sends them into a right tizzy as no one knows how to treat it and causes a mad scrabble). Occasionally, they would find out the hard way, as they did with Larry Carter Center9, the maniac left’s one-man hate and slander army who churns out ‘net gibberish with all the subtlety and finesse of Jeffrey Dahmer. I think he lasted a whole 2 weeks. But in any case, the main point is that the squabbling and game playing really is that petty.

The actual real dirty secret neither of them want people to know is that they started off as one and the same entity. Then, for whatever reason, no one will ever really know the real reason because it has been buried by such a volcano of deliberate bullshit and mis-/disinformation, they busted up. A tawdry lovers spat that escalated to a bitter divorce. Two aggrieved parties standing in opposite corners, glaring and spitting venom at each other whilst trying to maintain a sense of superficial decorum and bogus dignity. Both are as bad as each other and both are entirely convinced everything is 100% the other’s fault.

At the centre of this unpleasant little drama is the common atheist community member – the child in the custody battle, both parents tearing at them, lying to them, and desperately trying to convince them why they should side with them and not the other, because the other is bad and does horrible things.

Some of the children, once they have selected a parent, are made to feel special and groomed to venture into the other’s territory just to “have a look at something”, but really, its more than that. These two little bitches really just want to have spies to snoop around. It’s just so tawdry and I feel queasy thinking about it, but I’ve done my time being the manipulated child and I look back and all I can do is wonder how can intelligent human beings degrade themselves to this point?

And these are the people telling you to not be a dick. Unreal.

There are still people out there that are riding the euphoric wave of the “new atheism”, some to the point of even talking of it as the Second Age of Enlightenment. Such lofty praise I think is somewhat premature. I actually think it’s more appropriate to think of it as the Age of Incoherence – hopefully just a pothole that we’ll crawl out of, but calling it “enlightenment” is not a very funny joke.

This coccooned “don’t be a dick” world espoused by Plait may have some validity as a hypothetical exercise in reevaluating existing confrontations with delusionals that have soured. A pure “what if…” thought experiment, and that is all. But when it is pushed out to the masses as a gospel truth it becomes the smouldering train wreck that it is. What are the benefits that we see? Wholesale intellectual incoherence that is “free” to echo itself in closed, self-affirming “me too” networks. Degenerate moral incoherence where “right” and “wrong” are influenced more by ideology and demographic than event or action, let alone thought. The result is wholesale corruption as standards and common decency are twisted and manipulated to appease the “right” people for grubby political advantage and bogus socially conscious image, and overriding it all is a reborn McCarthyism that fosters a faux solidarity that can only be sustained by denunciations, scapegoats and purges.

There is some reassurance that the larger atheist movement keeps these social networks at arms length and only pays them only token lip service. It is a wise position to take, as the benefits of closer association are buried by the detriments of the stupidity they display to the world.

Make your vote count – vote for one of the little fish.

0 – Though the “don’t be a dick” mantra predates Plait, it took his talk to elevate it to chiseled-in-granite dogma that is force-fed to people at every turn on godless social sites.

1 – How much of this crap is a side effect of Dan Brown’s _Da Vinci Code_ bletherings we’ll never know (themselves shamelessly stolen from earlier jebus conspiracy loons), nor will we ever get an honest answer by pushing the question (that’s what “dicks” do). But to assume that the thought of cashing in never occurred to these junk revisionists is at best naive.

2 – No, seriously… From the chatroom at Atheist Nexus –

3 – Many variants exist. Generally, though probably incorrectly, attributed to Samuel Johnson. See this.

4 – Just a sampler of the typical Aspergers bashing abuse from the same person posted without raising a single eyebrow –

“until then, these little nagging posts of yours are just the inane impulses of an Asperger’s-inspired control freak. Take your meds. Everything will be fine”

“I once had an Asperger’s asshole respond to a religious joke I had posted in my blog”

“But it is you, by your own admission, who suffers from a neurological syndrome . . .  namely, Aspberger’s. This explains your nasty attacks on those who violate your unwritten rules.”

Naturally, the same person keeps breaking violin strings whining about ad hominems and other people’s “etiquette”. Also of note, this person did not limit his Aspie hatred to mere verbal derision. It extended to leaving personal threats on the target’s comment wall. No disciplinary action of any kind was ever taken.

5 – And similarly ignorant of Clifford’s Credo – “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”

6 – No link out of that old taboo of not speaking ill of the dead. Suffice it to say this was not some stupid teenager, but some woman in her late 30s with her own offspring, and a recovering junkie who either relapsed and overdosed, committed suicide or killed two birds with one stone by doing the latter via the former.

7 – No point really specifying which is which for purposes of discussion. They are fully interchangeable. Any dumbness perpetrated by one is guaranteed to have been mirrored by the other. And if it hasn’t, it is not to be mistaken for the other being any better – the other one will have some kind of idiocy of its own to make up the difference. They blur into one to me anyway.

8 – Made even easier by the equally toxic meme of “atheist mysogeny” birthed by Greta Christina and entrenched by enthusiastic promotion in our compliant atheist social communities. GC makes me writhe. I thought we left unquantifiable-generalisations-as-an-art-form behind as an embarrassing relic of the 20th century, along with pet rocks, mood rings and post-modernism. Apparently not.

9 – LCC is simply awesome. He once took a discussion someone raised about their experiences with female managers in a software company’s marketing department having a brutality that exceeded any they had ever experienced from male managers, and managed to twist it all up to the point that what the author really meant was that most of women who get raped and murdered deserve it anyway so who cares? He is still reposting this snippet on the few remaining sites that haven’t banned him yet.