Two answers and questions for Michael Nugent

Michael Nugent, writer and chair of the advocacy group Atheist Ireland, has authored a blog post addressing a recent Youtube video I uploadedI recently provided advice for people sharing controversial opinions to reduce the negative feedback they experience on the internet. I will respond to Nugent’s post, addressed to me, which has two questions. I will then provide two questions of my own.

The internet, I think, can be a volatile place in which people can experience nasty pushback. Those who want to share controversial viewpoints, I believe, should expect and prepare for vitriol. I believe that the behavior and language of some people who share controversial opinions on the internet may reveal why they receive a large amount of nasty pushback. Why do some people experience a great deal of negative pushback while others do not? There just has to be a reason why some feminists experience a tremendous deal of negative pushback while other feminists do not.

This leads me, then, to Nugent’s first question. He writes:

Justin asks why some feminists receive what he calls “nasty pushback” while others don’t, and he concludes that it is because of the way that they present themselves on the Internet. He says of this “nasty pushback”:

“It’s not to say the nasty pushback is morally justified, but it’s just to state a fact; it’s just to state how the internet “is.” It’s not to justify the behavior.”

Justin, here’s my first question for you. Can you go a step further than that, and say that at least some of “the nasty pushback” is morally unjustified, and can you give some examples of morally unjustified nasty pushback?

Indeed, some nasty pushback is morally unjustified. It’s difficult, though, to provide a one-size-fits-all definition of morally unjustified [internet] behavior. Anyway, here are two examples of morally unjustified behavior [which should not be tolerated]: unprovoked threats of violence and initiation of violence. On the other hand, other behaviors such as name-calling, parody, and satire exist. It can be difficult to ‘draw a line’ concerning what is morally justified, amoral (neutral), and morally unjustified.

The second half of Nugent’s post reads as follows:

Justin then concludes with his “Feminists’ million dollar question”.

“So the million dollar question once again is this: “Why is it that some feminists experience negative feedback on the internet while others do not?””

Justin, here is my second question for you. Do you think that we can more usefully ask that question in the active tense rather than the passive tense, and how would you answer this actively framed version of it:

Why is it that some people on the Internet direct “criticism and hate” and “nasty pushback” at some feminists, while others do not?

Note that this question – like your passively framed version – is not about what these people believe they are responding to, but about why some respond with “criticism and hate” and “nasty pushback” while others do not.

This is an interesting question indeed. I don’t know what is a more useful framing if there even is one. Perhaps it would be helpful, though, to examine ‘two sides of the coin’ and be candid. Let’s agree that it often takes two to tango. People behaving in a nasty fashion don’t just randomly appear AND we can’t, in all or perhaps even most situations, neglect to investigate the behavior and language of people who experience negative pushback.

Let us focus on, then, for the purposes of this question, the potential motivations for why people would resort to nasty pushback rather than civil, cool, and calm discourse.

Perhaps people are really upset about content they are reading and feel attacked. Rather than responding in a civil fashion or simply ignoring the content, they lash out. Anger, rather than cool-headed criticism and civility, can inform behavior. Maybe past experiences have lead these types of people to extremist positions [and clouded rationality]. Maybe not.

Perhaps people view antagonism as the only effective approach and do not wish to engage in civil discussion because past civil engagements were not successful or productive (for whatever reason). Such individuals might employ an over-the-top ‘shock jock’ approach of attacking persons rather than encountering arguments (or mixing the two).

Perhaps people are looking to push others’ proverbial buttons and take delight in doing so. When they see their behavior reinforced, they are likely to continue and experience great satisfaction.

Perhaps people believe that silence, in the face of what they believe to be hatred and nastiness, is not a reasonable option; they do not want to tolerate intolerance. Rather than responding in a calm and civil manner, they reciprocate what they believe to be nastiness with nastiness. Perhaps they would stop the nastiness if they people they believed were being nasty were to stop being nasty.

Rather than me simply guessing or offering interpretations of others’ motives, it would be very helpful for me to link “A letter to the Slime Pit.” This explains the history of the original ERV ‘slime pit’ and the motivation of posters.

Here is one part from that letter:

ERV blog entries related to Elevatorgate attracted a number of people who felt equally aggrieved by the dogmatism and hypocrisy on display from the pro-Watson camp. After brief spats with people like PZ Myers and Ophelia Benson in the comments section of ERV’s earlier posts on the gender politics of the atheist community, several of the commenters remained and continued with their criticisms of the regular torrent of perceived absurdity emanating from the pro-Watson camp on a day to day basis. As expected, the pro-Watson camp were not happy with the manner in which they were regularly criticised by ERV and her commenters.

Michael: here are two questions for you:

Do you believe people have any legitimate grievances against the behavior of feminists in the atheist community? Consider some individuals whom many believe were unfairly maligned — dubbed ‘witches of the week‘ — such as Michael Shermer, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Ben Radford, and Sara Mayhew.

People accuse popular feminist bloggers in the atheist community of shaming, blaming, defaming, and participating in ‘call-out culture.’ Do you believe that these claims have merit? Can you find fault with this perceieved approach and understand why people are angry?

I hope to hear from you soon.

Justin Vacula

Justin Vacula hosts the Stoic Philosophy Podcast; serves as co-organizer and spokesperson for the Northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA) Freethought Society; and has hosted monthly Stoic Philosophy discussion groups for the Humanist Association of Greater Philadelphia. He has appeared on and hosted various radio shows and podcasts; participated in formal debates and discussions; was a guest speaker for college-level courses; was featured in local, national, and international news; and has been invited to speak at various national, local, and statewide events. Vacula received bachelor's degrees in Philosophy and Psychology, a minor in Professional Writing, and the distinguished W.A. Kilburn Memorial Award for Philosophy from King's College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He is currently living in the Scranton, PA area attending Marywood University's graduate-level Mental Health Counseling program and has worked with the Arc of Luzerne County's Transition to Community Employment program as a teacher's assistant and job coach alongside adult learners with intellectual and developmental disabilities. He also plays poker; volunteers as a member of the website and media team for the Greyhawk Reborn Dungeons & Dragons campaign while playing at events in the Eastern United States; and enjoys metal music.