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Wednesday 11 July 2018

The Empty Chair

When is it time to say something?

This is a question that comes up repeatedly in different contexts, and we've covered some of them before, such as the notion that talking about gun control in the aftermath of a tragedy is somehow in 'poor taste', when the US has been in perpetual aftermath for some considerable time.

What is a good time to have a discussion? Does it depend on the discussion?

Over the years, there's been some talk about whether, for example, Richard Dawkins should debate William Lane Craig. There are those who think that all this does is to lend Craig a legitimacy he wouldn't otherwise have, and there's certainly a case for this. Dawkins himself has expressed this, and of course that's for him to do. As he quite rightly points out, it might look good on Craig's C.V., but it's hardly going to grace the resumé of one of the world's leading and most respected scientists. These are perfectly sound motivations for not accepting a challenge to debate, and it's difficult to raise a cogent counter to them. 

However, taking this to be a general principle in approach to discourse is a howler of quite epic proportions, and represents some really quite shoddy thinking.

So, preamble dusted off, let's get to cases.

Last year, as every year, there was a conference for sceptics, Mythcon. There was a fair bit of hullabaloo about it, largely because of one speaker, Carl Benjamin, a.k.a. Sargon of Akkad, who was at the time embroiled in some controversy over a stupid tweet - isn't it always the way. Prejudice declared: I think he's a complete muppet.

During the course of the conference, Sargon was involved in a discussion with Thomas Smith. I'm not going to rehash all the crap arising out of that debacle, as it's been done to death by all and sundry. Suffice it to say that, in my opinion, Thomas - for whom I have a lot of respect - was woefully underprepared for this discussion, and this resulted in him losing control of himself and his emotions, and caused him to miss the very many opportunities to show just how vacuous Benjamin's apologetic for his asinine views really is.

So, a couple of months ago, this year's Mythcon was announced. I was delighted to see that one of my favourite people, my amazing friend Courtney Heard, a.k.a. Godless Mom*, was slated to speak. For those unfamiliar with Courtney, she's simply one of the loveliest, most caring and... well... risk of fangirling imminent, so I'll leave that there. I'll pop links to her awesomeness at the bottom.

Imagine my surprise, then, when the following popped up in my Twitter feed:

Now, I'm reasonably familiar with several of the people visible there. Among others, fellow denizen of the fair People's Republic of Mancunia Stephen Knight, a.k.a. Godless Spellchecker, about whom the most right-wing thing appears to be that Dan Arel doesn't like him because he thinks that freedom of speech is important and worth paying the price for, a topic we covered in some depth in Permission to Speak Freely.

Also on the bill, Dr. Richard Carrier, with whom I had a very interesting and broad-ranging discussion on the Quantum Hug live stream. During the course of our discussion, we covered a lot of thoughtspace, including general attitudes to the way we think about things, and I'm not seeing a lot of right-wing there.

And then Courtney. 

OK, so I said I wasn't going to gush, but I lied.

I've encountered many people in my travels, both in cyber- and meatspace. I've exchanged words with scientists, philosophers, religious apologists, counter-apologists, academics of all stripe, lay-persons, you name it. In all my encounters, I can probably count on the fingers of one head the number of people I've met who even come close to fulfilling my personal definition of 'citizen of humanity', yet it's amply personified in Courtney. To say that she's lovely is to make an understatement of such gargantuan proportions that even James Ussher's estimate of the age of the universe looks like a bit of a boo-boo in comparison.

She's caring, compassionate, forthright, always willing to speak on behalf of those whose voices are lost in the noise, always giving of herself and her platform to amplify good causes and important discussions, always ready to defend the oppressed and speak up against tyranny. She exemplifies the very best of what it means to be a human, and it would only be mild hyperbole to say that she's left of Thomas Paine or Jesus, both left-wing radicals. She's pretty much ambisinister. To equate her with the right-wing is to paint yourself as a complete moron with no understanding of the political spectrum.

Worse, to equate her with apologetic for sexual harassment, herself a two-time survivor of rape, is to paint yourself as an unfeeling, unthinking, tone-deaf prick. This is the case whether you know about the rape or not. There is no way that tweet can be read other than tarring everybody in the image with the same brush and calling them right-wing apologists for sexual harassment. I realise that Bell, as a newly-minted sceptic, is still learning his chops, but this is despicable behaviour.

That said, what I really want to talk about is some of what followed, in particular, a position put forward by the aforementioned Dan Arel.

I used to quite like Dan's output and, looking at it, it's fairly easy to see why he amassed a decent following in the atheist community. However, since the incident with Stephen Knight in which he put his right to punch an old lady in a wheelchair over the rights of others to express opinions, he's become outwardly increasingly unhinged.

In the aftermath of this incident, a discussion ensued on Courtney's personal Facebook page involving Dan, along with myself and others.

So, the discussion, where it wasn't Dan smack-talking people and lobbing around unsupportable accusations like the world's most accomplished religious apologist, centred around him suggesting that even attending as a panellist is handing the right-winger the microphone.

This is, of course, utterly nonsensical. What Dan appears to be doing here is engaging in that discursive howler I talked about above. So let's look at the logic of the different situations and see how they compare:

In our first scenario, we have a one-on-one debate between a scientist and a religious apologist. In this situation, it's easy to see that Dawkins' presence here, as a prominent scientist and sceptic, actually does lend legitimacy to the apologist. His attendance sends the message that religious apologetic is something worth throwing his considerable weight into countering. It's also the case that, without Dawkins, this event doesn't go ahead. The religious apologist will never achieve the audience at such an event that a name like Dawkins will draw. It's quite literally a no-win situation for Dawkins. If he trounces Craig, then nothing notable has occurred and he's basically beat up a weaker kid. If Craig bests him - not at all beyond the realm of possibility, given Craig's timekeeping and gish galloping skills - then Dawkins suddenly becomes the person who was beaten by the weaker kid. There's no up side to this scenario which is, in the end, nothing more than entertainment.

Now contrast this with Benjamin at Mythcon. He's going to be there anyway. In fact, he's arguably now the bigger draw at this event, especially after the events of last year, where his dreck was lapped up by a large proportion of the audience in attendance. That latter brings me to the central point here.

The notion that attending this conference at which Benjamin is appearing constitutes 'handing him the microphone' when he's attending anyway is asinine in the extreme. It could be argued that inviting him to attend is a bad idea except, of course, that not doing so after last year's event could easily be painted as cowardice, and would be leapt upon by his fans as an indicator that people are afraid of him, thus it's actually important that he is invited. This is not 'giving him a platform', not least because he already has a platform.

Importantly, if he's attending, then it's incumbent on the rest of us to ensure that he's not the only one who has a microphone, and that his crappy apologetic is countered with better arguments, exposing his platform as founded on sand. 

If I can't attend myself to counter the toxic drivel of Benjamin (actually, I could but, being a nobody, I haven't been invited), I can think of nobody I'd rather have there than Courtney, whose calm, measured approach to all things, along with her wonderful mind and overwhelming compassion do our cause the justice it deserves.

The sceptic movement, of which I consider myself to be an outlier at best, has faced some tough challenges in recent years. All movements go through such times as they grow, as a simple matter of statistics. There will inevitably be those whose views beyond the ones we all share come along with attendant views that aren't commensurate with our own on corollary issues. The presentation by Bell actually provides a beautiful example of why this is, because it shows how easy it is to tar an entire group of people with a brush most suitable to be applied only to the outliers, even where those outliers are front and centre. That the inclusion of one idiot with right-wing views at a conference can be seen as the event itself becoming right-wing is the very reason that we really must ensure that such views are countered at the event. More importantly, it's important to make sure that those in the movement who hold views that stand a chance of tarnishing the movement are invited to attend events by the movement so that the movement as a whole is addressing them, visibly, at key events.

I say invite him to every event. Invite me, and I'll crush the muppet with reason and compassion. 

What we absolutely must not do is to drive these views underground where they can fester and multiply, only to come out when emboldened by shifts in the sociopolitical landscape. That's what's brought us here in the first place to a world where extreme right-wing dreck is on the rise, having been given the courage to come out in the open by Komrade Trichindova and his cronies, while many are unprepared to counter their idiocy, much as Smith was unprepared to counter Benjamin last time out. Attempting to silence toxic views only ensures that they aren't out in the open where they can be countered. They aren't going to go away by exclusion and strong-arming, they're going to go away by educating people and giving them better arguments to counter the bullshit with.

Keep them front and centre, where we can see what they're doing, and where we can use what they're doing to educate the movement. The notion that being prepared to attend an event where somebody whose views we don't like is slated to attend constitutes giving them the microphone is utterly vacuous and toxic, and must be challenged as strongly as the toxic views of the muppet themselves.

So here it is, the empty chair. I leave it here always, ready for anybody who wishes to challenge me on anything I've said, prepared to counter their challenges with better arguments. 

Meanwhile, my chair is occupied, and will remain occupied as long as I can sit upright, and I will defend my right to sit in it, and to exercise my fundamental right to express my views, regardless of who might say I shouldn't, until my dying breath, and even with my dying breath if necessary. 

Bring it on.

Godless Mom on Patheos
Godless Mom on Twitter
Godless Mom on Youtube
Ryan Bell on Twitter
Dan Arel on Twitter

Permission to Speak Freely: On freedom of speech, violence, and who can say what.
*As it happens, Courtney will not be attending this year's Mythcon due to personal commitments unrelated to this debacle.

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