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Student claims in-class tirade against trans woman pastor Constitutionally protected

Hey, did you hear? A student at Indiana University of Pennsylvania was kicked out of class for saying there are only two genders! This is just another example of how universities in America are just bastions of social justice warriors trying to brainwash and browbeat everyone into sharing their views! That student’s First Amendment right to free speech was violated!

Yep, that’s totally what happened. Not at all an account that relies solely on the perspective of the student in question, which was reported by Fox News as the objective story, resulting in harassment and threats being directed at the lecturer who evicted the student, other lecturers in her department, university administrators, and even undergraduate office workers.

There appears to be an irony here in the contradiction of the “safe space, coddling students to protect them from rigorous debate” narrative. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

What actually happened? Well, that’s a tougher question to answer than you might expect, because the lecturer in question, Dr. Alison Downie, is bound by FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974) and can’t speak directly on the student, Lake Ingle’s, behavior that caused him to be evicted from her class.  But she did issue a statement concerning the nature of the class itself, Christianity 481: Self, Sin, and Salvation, and another student from that class, Katherine Bradshaw, who is not bound by FERPA offered her perspective on the matter as well.

Downie’s description of the nature and goals of the class is as follows:

Here is part of the course description as it appears in my course syllabus: “Selecting representative diverse thinkers, this course requires students to understand a range of Christian perspectives, while focusing upon the selected three themes [self, sin, and salvation], in order to provide for depth of analysis. Students will gain an understanding of Christian history and tradition as well as an understanding of the many contemporary challenges evident in diverse Christian positions.”  

We discuss Biblical texts and early Christian thinkers as well as the positions of those in major Christian traditions writing about these topics today. We consider these questions: How do Christians understand what it means to be made in the image of God? Is sin best understood as a wrong act of an individual, or a condition inherited from Adam and Eve or systemic and structural forms of injustice? Is salvation about going to heaven after death or about how one lives in the here and now? 

There is not and never has been one answer to any of these questions in Christianity. 

Students are expected to listen to and understand a variety of approaches in order to develop depth of understanding of the complexity of Christianity, beyond one historical period or a particular church or Christian group.

Toward this end, Downie said that for this class she likes to present the views of Christian thinkers by allowing them to speak for themselves, and allow students to consider and discuss them:

When I have the opportunity to teach a small, upper level course such as this, I rarely lecture; instead, I craft various structures in different sessions so that all students, especially those most hesitant, feel welcome and able to have a safe space in which to speak, as we discuss class material. 

I also occasionally use short video clips as a way to have Christians speak for themselves in class, in lieu of guest speakers. In a university setting, students are expected to have the maturity and self-regulation necessary in order to listen to, understand, and respectfully discuss positions which they may find threatening or with which they may disagree.

Students are often surprised to discover the extent of the diversity of experiences and teachings among Christians, and students are expected to pay attention to all views, not only those with which they are already familiar. Furthermore, students are expected to prepare for and attend each class session, so that any particular session is understood in relation to the whole. 

While not a current university lecturer myself, I can say as a former religious studies major, graduate teaching assistant in comparative religion, and adjunct lecturer of my own course, that this course concept and structure sounds absolutely bog standard.

And what’s more, it should be clear from Downie’s description that her class is intended to foster precisely the sort of critical examination of ideas that has been near-outlawed in universities according to people like Steven Pinker, who would probably be too apoplectic right about now upon seeing the words “safe space” in Downie’s description to notice that she’s providing a safe space to allow for productive discussion rather than to squelch it.

But wait! She did squelch it! She kicked Lake Ingle out of class for having the temerity to express ideas at odds with the liberal ideas with which she was trying to indoctrinate the class!

Well, let’s talk about that.

According to Ingle, as Fox News writer Caleb Parke dutifully reported, this is what happened:

After showing a 15-minute TED Talk by transgender ex-pastor Paula Stone Williams discussing the “reality” of “mansplaining,” “sexism from men,” and “male privilege,” the professor asked the women in the class to share their thoughts. 

When no women in the class said anything, Ingle spoke up, challenging the professor on biology and the gender wage gap. He told the class that the official view of biologists is that there are only two genders. 

The feminist professor booted him from class and asked him not to come back. She referred him to the public university’s Academic Integrity Board (AIB). Ingle needs to complete the class to graduate at the end of the semester. 

“You are barred from attending this class in accordance with the Classroom Disruption policy,” IUP Provost Timothy Moerland told Ingle in a March 2 letter. “My professor is violating my First Amendment rights because of the fact that my views and ideology is different from hers,” Ingle told Fox News. “So she took it on herself to silence and embarrass me – bully me – for speaking up in class.” 

Downie accused the conservative libertarian student of “disrespectful objection,” “refusal to stop talking out of turn,” “angry outbursts in response to being required to listen to a trans speaker discuss the reality of white male privilege and sexism,” and “disrespectful references to the validity of trans identity and experience.”  . . .

Ingle objected to Downie’s “overall abuse” as a professor “indoctrinating” students because she won’t listen to the other side of a controversial argument. “You can’t say that anecdotal evidence is fact,” Ingle said. “My professor pretty much just tried to shut me up because she was just letting women speak. I brought up the fact that biologists don’t agree that there’s more than two genders and I said the wage gap she’s referring to – 77 cents on the dollar – that even the New York Times debunked that.”

Why did Downie ask the female students in the class to speak first? That’s not entirely clear, but I’m assuming it’s because she suspected that they might not get a chance to speak otherwise. Even Ingle does not say that only female students were allowed to speak, but that they were specifically asked to speak first after watching the video. And Ingle seems to acknowledge, implicitly, that he spoke out of turn– unless, that is, he identifies as female.

It’s important to point out here that IUP is a public university, and students do have a First Amendment right to speak their views. However, that does not mean that every class period is the equivalent of a simultaneous soapbox for students and lecturers alike, for the duration of the class, for obvious reasons. You can simultaneously retain your First Amendment rights and not be allowed to say anything you want, at any volume, at any time, while class is in session.

Further, it does not sound like a discussion on the gender wage gap, or the specifics thereof, were particularly germane to the conversation. Here’s a link to the Paula Stone Williams TED talk— she makes a passing reference to a woman “working twice as hard for half as much,” but that’s it.  It’s a talk about the differences between how Williams was treated as a man before she transitioned to being a woman. It talks about mansplaining as a thing that Williams experiences now that she’s a woman. It talks about the importance of listening to people in other groups in order to recognize how they are treated by members of your own group, and yes, it talks about privilege. And gives ample evidence of it. It’s a really good talk, and only fifteen minutes; you should listen to it.

Apparently when Ingle listened to it, there was a voice in his head saying “No, wrong, wrong, no, wrong” throughout, and that voice was so loud that he felt compelled to argue with a woman who wasn’t in the room, about statements she didn’t make (perhaps the “No” voice was just too loud to hear her), when the video was over.

Fortunately since fellow student Katherine Bradshaw was part of that class and published her thoughts on what happened, we can hear her perspective on how that went. First, some interesting context:

On Feb. 26, two days before the conflict, the class discussed the Nashville Statement. For those unfamiliar with this document, the Nashville Statement is a statement of faith published in 2017 by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. The document articulates the signatories’ views on sex, gender, gender roles, homosexuality and transgenderism. We spent an entire class period talking about this brief reading and some response tweets sent out by a prominent Jesuit priest. 

Article 10 of the document states, “WE AFFIRM that it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism and that such approval constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness.” 

Article 5 of the document states that there is a “God-appointed link between biological sex and self-conception as male or female” and that “WE DENY that physical anomalies or psychological conditions nullify the God-appointed link between biological sex and self-conception as male or female.” As the class discussed the document, there were no melting snowflakes. No one raised their voices. 

No one turned red in the face. It was a class period like any other. 

Ingle missed class that day.

Then the next class:

The following class period, Feb. 28, Downie showed a TED talk by Paula Williams, a transgender woman and minister. In the TED talk, the speaker recounted her decision to transition after she had married and built a highly successful career within various Christian organizations. She and her wife got a divorce, and Paula lost all of her jobs. 

To me, it was evident that this video and the Nashville Statement were meant to illustrate the diverse views of transgenderism within Christianity. The course syllabus states that students will be expected to engage with “diverse thinkers” and “understand a range of Christian perspectives.” 

Downie said that the floor would be opened for discussion for women first, and then once the women who wanted to make a comment were finished, the floor would be opened to the whole classroom. 

After a brief pause, Ingle began speaking. As I recall the event, this pause was less than 10 seconds long. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s article on the incident said the pause was 30 seconds long. I cannot accept the assertion that the class was silent for three times as long as I recall. 

In an interview with Henrik Palmgren of Red Ice TV, Ingle summarized his comments during class: “When the video concluded in class, I objected to the professor’s use of anecdotal evidence in a classroom setting as if it was factual evidence. And, of course, it is a topic of much dispute and debate. And I also brought up the fact that not all biologists agree that there are more than two genders, as well as many entities like the Economist, as well as The New York Times, even have put out statements saying that the gender wage gap myth is how it is portrayed to be.” 

At various intervals during Ingle’s comments, Downie attempted to tell him to wait his turn to speak, brought up the fact that he had not been present the previous class period and said that he had created a toxic environment. I recall that Ingle claimed Downie “couldn’t just make up rules,” referring to Downie’s decision to have women speak before men. Downie countered by claiming professors do make up rules when guiding discussion. As Ingle continued to express his views, he raised his voice and became red in the face. One student walked out of the class during Ingle’s comments. Other students engaged with him at Downie’s behest. One student said that Ingle sounded highly privileged and as if he failed to understand the video. Ingle responded that his only privilege is that he is extremely intelligent. 

Another student made the point that privilege often doesn’t have to do so much with intellectual ability, so much as opportunities individuals are given to show off their abilities.

She also says:

I would like to bring attention to Ingle’s claim that he disagreed with the speaker and/or the professor regarding the claim that there are more than two genders. This is the part of the story that Fox, Breitbart, The Washington Examiner and many other news sources chose to use as their headline. At no point in Paula Williams’ TED talk does she even broach the subject. To my memory, the viewpoint which Ingle claims to have rebutted was never introduced by either the professor or the speaker in the TED talk.

Bradshaw’s remarks are very well-expressed and should be read in full.  It’s clear that she saw this as an important chance to speak up and set the record straight.

Bradshaw does note that she disagrees to some extent with the punishment that Ingle received upon being kicked out of class, which entails not being allowed to return to class until he writes an apology that specifically references each charges of disruptful behavior against him. One of these charges is that he claimed that “a low score on any classwork would be evidence of a professor’s personal prejudice,” which Ingle steadfastly maintains he didn’t say, and Bradshaw didn’t hear him say either, so she maintains that he should not have to apologize for it. Seems reasonable.

So, lacking Downie’s personal account of what happened in the class but having a description of the course syllabus and accounts from both Ingle and Bradford, I’m going to make a wildly speculative, shot in the dark analysis of this situation:

  1. Lecturer sets up a course to allow students to engage with radically different standpoints across the political and moral spectrum through a lens of Christian thinking, both traditional and modern.
  2. Student misses the class where the views expressed apparently line up very close with his own but are presumably diametrically opposed to the views of at least some other students, and the class proceeds without disruption.
  3. Student attends the next class where the views expressed are diametrically opposed to his own, and throws a tantrum. 
  4. Lecturer gives student the boot pending a change to his behavior: no more tantrums.
  5. Student goes to the right-wing media yelling about his freeze peach.
  6. Media yells “HIS FREEZE PEACH!”
  7. University officials, from the lecturer herself to administrators to students, get harassment and threats.

And then…what happens next? We don’t know.

But can I suggest what might happen, and shouldn’t? What might happen is that the university decides that while Ingle’s punishment is legitimate, it just isn’t worth the bother of having a huge incident like this every time a student encounters beliefs that he deems tantrum-worthy, and therefore Downie and other lecturers must modify their courses to omit these controversial ideas.

That is the silencing effect we should be concerned about.

Oh, and Ingle? According to the Fox News article, he says he wants to be a professor himself. I’m sure he’ll be great.

In which I interview myself about American Atheists Con 2018

Who are you, and what’s your history re: religion and stuff?

  • Raised Lutheran (ELCA) in Wichita, Kansas.
  • Became an atheist in 1997/1998 (holy crap, 20+ years ago)
  • Got my BA in religious studies in 2000 (Texas Christian University). MA in religion and culture (University of Manchester, UK) in 2002, and PhD in cognitive science of religion (Aarhus University, Denmark) in 2009.
  • First skepticism/atheism conference: Skepticon 3, 2010 (I had mixed feelings, but as it turned out, I would go on to attend Skepticons 5, 9, and 10).  I’ve also attended Skeptics of Oz conferences in Wichita. I will be attending the Secular Women Work conference in Minneapolis this August.

Why did you go to American Atheists Con this year?

  • It was in Oklahoma City, which is only about two and a half hours’ drive away.
  • Curiosity. Never been.
  • Some interesting talks to listen to, new perspectives to hear, new ideas to ponder.
  • A chance to meet some people with whom I’ve only corresponded online thus far, see some old friends again, and make new friends.
  • The president of American Atheists, David Silverman, made a statement following the trainwreck of Mythcon last year that impressed me. He said, in part:

We can’t tolerate intolerance. We can’t abide elevating those who spend their time trolling, and harassing, and alienating the very people who we’re in this fight to help. We have serious work to do and we need serious conversations about how to do that. I don’t have time to waste on people whose only interest seems to be provocation for provocation’s sake and not on making the lives of our fellow atheists better.

Our convention next year is March 29 to April 1 in Oklahoma City. Like every year, we’re going to have new people you’ve never heard from. We’re going to talk about tough subjects. But we’re going to do it without making people feel unsafe at our event. We’re going to have a great time celebrating our community and the people in it. And we’re going to do it while working to help people.

Can you give me a quick overview of the issues with sexism and sexual harassment in atheism/secularism/skepticism (hereafter referred to simply as “atheism”)?

AA Con took place in the aftermath of multiple allegations of sexual harassment coming out against Lawrence Krauss, which you can read about here.  Krauss is a well-known and highly-sought-after speaker at atheist conferences and other speaking engagements, and has continued to be even though rumors of his behavior have been circling for years prior to the Buzzfeed article. The allegations against him are only the most recent in atheism’s long history of big name male figures being accused of sexual misconduct often at conferences, which includes one of them suing an entire blog network along with specific people for publishing allegations against him.

In the face of these revelations, individual atheists have had to divest themselves of hero worship and tribalism…or have not done so, and decided to instead just double-down on those things in defense of figure being accused. At the conference level, Mythcon basically picked up the pro-sexual-harasser/misogyny banner and ran with it, which is what prompted Silverman’s Facebook comment that I quoted above, and which brings us back full circle.

So atheism is a hotbed of sexual harassment, and you went to AA Con because you thought you’d get harassed at some other atheist con?

No. Atheism probably isn’t any more of a hotbed of sexual harassment than any other movement or group, actually.  If sexual harassment is a disease, then people speaking up about it and holding each other accountable is the treatment.  An organization or movement that is led largely by men (as atheism still is) that isn’t having a #metoo kind of reckoning probably isn’t that way because it has no disease, but because it hasn’t been diagnosed yet. 

Okay, then how about you get around to actually describing AA Con?

Righto. Well, the number I heard a few times was 850 attendees, which meant that they had to sell overflow tickets because that many people wouldn’t be able to fit into the Century Ballroom at the downtown Sheraton in Oklahoma City when it was time for the keynote conversation between David Silverman and Hugh Laurie.

Hugh Laurie? You mean House?

Yup. The keynote conversation turned out to be Hugh Laurie doing a bit of stand-up and then being basically interviewed by David Silverman about his atheism. It was enjoyable and actually reminded me of why it took me so long to get involved in movement atheism. Laurie’s British, as you know, and he described the culture shock in going from England to America in terms of rampant religiosity. He noted that Tony Blair is a Catholic, and described how that was actually a liability in getting elected in the UK as a “god botherer.” “God botherer” is a pretty common, benign term of ribbing in the UK for a devout Christian of any sort, perhaps a devout religious person of any sort.

It is not, I would note, Hugh Laurie’s personal insult of choice for Christians, something misunderstood by a preacher who apparently attended AA Con and wrote this charming review of the experience. Which you should read, because it’s kind of amazing. I’ll wait.

Okay, I’m back. Wow. So, how did Hugh Laurie remind you why you didn’t get involved in movement atheism forever?

He said that there’s not really anything like American Atheists in the UK– not just because it’s the UK, but because religion isn’t nearly as pervasive in politics and social life, meaning that it’s not such a big deal to not participate in it, meaning that movement atheism isn’t really a “thing.” If nobody’s trying to pass laws requiring you to follow their religious rules and generally applying social pressure to be religious, then getting all gung-ho about not being religious can seem kind of pointless.  When I was studying religion in grad school in the UK and then in Denmark, practically everyone around me was some form of non-religious, but the idea of joining an atheist movement seemed ridiculous and rather…petulant.

I absorbed this view so thoroughly that when I got back to the States, I brought it with me.  If you read the post I wrote after attending Skepticon for the first time in 2010, shortly after moving back to the US, you’ll see that my main objection was that it was just too…..atheisty.  I saw Skepticon as a big party for atheists, which it was in part, but I missed that if you live in the United States, particularly in a place like the South or the Midwest (like Missouri or Oklahoma), a big party for atheists that happens once a year might be the only time you actually feel comfortable being an atheist. That’s important.

And Skepticon isn’t, and AA Con isn’t, just a party for atheists. The focus on church and state issues, which now includes social justice issues, that comes with both conferences carries the premise that atheists should be engaged in areas where an injustice is being committed and in which religion plays a role. That encompasses myriad issues– LGBTQIA rights, Black Lives Matter and institutional racism generally, reproductive rights, sexual harassment and misogyny, immigration issues, sex workers’ rights, the drug war, and so on.

If people on the side of injustice, whatever it is, are claiming that God’s on their side, then there’s a natural place for atheists to fight for justice. In David Silverman’s talk entitled How the Mighty Get Back Up, he outlined how American Atheists would back initiatives in these areas, none of which are specifically about atheism, if the people involved in them self-identify as atheists. That’s a big deal. The community charity event that took place at the end of the conference on Sunday afternoon, packing up 30,000 meals for the hungry in Oklahoma City, is a big deal.

Says who?

Well, says Brian Fields of Pennsylvania Nonbelievers (American Atheists affiliate), with whom I spent quite a bit of time talking. Brian’s one of the people I’ve known on Facebook for quite a while, and seemed like an excellent person, and proved to be equally so in person. He was excited about the meal-packing event because it was a chance to do activism/charity work at the conference, instead of just talking about it.

Who else did you meet? 

Lots of people. Russell Glasser (The Atheist Experience), Thomas Smith (Opening Arguments, Serious Inquiries Only, Philosophers in Space….he has other podcasts, but those are the ones I listen to), Bridgett “Bria” Crutchfield, Victor Harris (emcee for the conference), Jamie (Talk Heathen, a new call-in TV show out of Austin), Aron Ra, Andrew Hall (Laughing in Disbelief blog on Patheos)…..

I got to see Mandisa Lateefah Thomas (founder/director of Black Nonbelievers) again, and she gave a killer talk on Saturday called Who Says Community is Dead? reminding everyone how incredibly important community is, and how standards for appropriate behavior within that community are not only permissible but critical to avoid pushing out good people by holding onto the trolls. I got to meet a bunch of people from Wichita Oasis for *cough* the first time, and promised to attend a meetup soon. Josiah Mannion was on duty taking photos for the conference most of the time, but it was nice to see him again. Other people too, whose names are not occurring to me right now– apologies.

(Oh, also I was giving out freeze peaches. Everybody listed above got one. If you don’t have one, you should totally buy one. No pressure or anything though.)

What was your favorite talk?

That’s difficult to answer as there were many very good ones, so I’ll name three that stood out:

  • Gavin Grimm gave an amazing talk on how his Christian upbringing impacted his process of coming out as a trans man called Losing Religion and Finding Myself.
  • Brooke Binkowski, managing editor at Snopes, talked about the need for skepticism in journalism and everyday life in a talk called, appropriately, Be Skeptical About Everything, Including Skepticism.
  • Andre Salais, a political analyst, described his work on campaigning for atheist candidates for office in Arizona in a talk called Atheist Candidates Project: Meeting America’s Demand for Non-Religious Representation.

Were there any talks that made you cringe?

Yes.

I looked ahead in the program on Friday, and saw that on Saturday morning there would be a talk called Islamophobe delivered by Mohammed Alkhadra. Note: The title was what caught my attention; I’d never heard of Alkhandra before. I enjoyed myself at the comedy show the night before (Leighann Lord, Andy Wood, and Victor Harris), but made sure not to have too much fun so that I’d be equipped to listen to Alkhadra the next morning.

Alkhadra was born in the US but lived in Jordan most of his life, and founded the Jordanian Atheist Community when he deconverted. According to his profile on the American Atheists web site, “after giving a speech in the United Kingdom about Islam, Mohammed faced arrest and even death at the hands of the government and Islamic extremists, prompting him to move to the United States.”  I am guessing this is that speech:


The talk he gave at AA Con was kind of an extended version of this speech, and the audience gave him a standing ovation at the end. I didn’t blame them. He described the horrors of criminalizing apostasy and blasphemy eloquently and passionately, and left no doubt concerning the value of free exchange of information (he credits learning about evolution from Richard Dawkins via Youtube for his deconversion).

So what made me cringe about his talk? Well, his conclusion was basically that if speaking out against the barbarism of an Islamic theocratic government is Islamophobia, then dammit he’s an Islamophobe and we all should be as well.

But he said this in Oklahoma, where voters approved a ballot measure to amend the state constitution to ban Sharia law from state courts in 2010.  He said this while three white men from a Kansas militia are on trial for plotting to bomb a building housing Somali Muslim refugees and a mosque. He said this in a country whose president campaigned on, and then tried to make good on, a promise to ban Muslims from entering the country altogether.

I don’t actually care if “Islamophobia” is the term of choice for hatred of and discrimination against Muslims. But we need to have some term for it, because it isn’t collapsible into racism, although bigotry is messy (hence intersectionality) and the two frequently bleed into each other.

To be as clear as possible, I feel like I need to return to bullet points:

  • Hatred of and discrimination against Muslims needs to be distinguished from criticism– however vehement– of Islam. The former is bigotry (whatever you call it); the latter is not.
  • Discrimination against Muslims is and should be illegal, but bigotry against Muslims, while reprehensible, should not. You don’t need to concede that hatred of Muslims for being Muslims should be illegal in order to call it bigotry.
  • The necessity of keeping even bigoted speech legal, even when it’s bigoted speech against a minority in one country, is underscored by the need to speak out against abuses committed by that minority when it is a majority elsewhere. Supporting Ahed Tamimi does not make one anti-Semitic. Supporting ex-Muslim organizations, especially in Muslim-dominated countries, does not make one an Islamophobe.
  • Real Islamophobia– real hatred of and a desire to discriminate against Muslims– belongs to the alt-right in America. American atheists should not flirt with the alt-right, much less shack up with it, by catering to its anti-Muslim sentiments.

I understand why the audience at AA Con gave Alkhandra a standing ovation. I hope that whoever reads this can understand why I was conflicted throughout his talk.

Well…..okay then. Any other thoughts?

I’m really glad I went. So much to chew on, so much to be inspired by, such friendly and excellent people. Thanks, AA Con.

A great mythtake

Recently I was listening to the Embrace the Void podcast episode “Tolerate Me Bro!” about Popper’s paradox of tolerance. Hosts Aaron Rabi and GW were talking about how this paradox plays out in the context of platforming or deplatforming speakers, which is to say, the decisions that providers of platforms (talk show hosts, conference organizers, etc.) make about whose voices to amplify, and the reasons they have for doing so or refusing to do so.

Rabi made the point that if your intent as the owner of a platform is to allow for a productive debate, the paradox of tolerance suggests that you are justified in establishing a threshold of expertise and/or viewpoint acceptance for those who participate in the debate. So, for example, if your goal was to have a meaningful, good faith discussion about evolution, it would be reasonable for you to exclude creationists from the discussion because they would not be able to participate from a place of knowledge and honesty.

Rabi wasn’t talking about MythCon, and I’d like to make that clear so that it doesn’t look like I’m putting words in his mouth as I apply that “threshold of good faith” concept to a skepticism conference held in Milwaukee.

Last year’s MythCon was preceded by skeptics arguing in various places online about the fact that the organizers chose to invite Carl Benjamin, otherwise known as Sargon of Akkad, an alt-right Youtube rabble rouser known for his strident antifeminist views and flirtations with white supremacy.  Many people encouraged the more respectable skeptic figures to drop out, which “Thinking Atheist” Seth Andrews did after significant grousing about the so-called “outrage brigade” raising the alarm about the conference.

Others, such as Matt Dillahunty and Thomas Smith, stayed in, relaying their displeasure about the experience afterward. Smith was especially condemning after having been faced with the prospect of “debating” someone who had once tweeted “I wouldn’t even rape you” at a sexual assault victim. When this fact was brought up on stage the audience cheered for Benjamin’s tweet, making it clear that if there was any faith to be found, it wasn’t the good kind.

Fast forward to last week, when the organizers announced the speaker list for the 2018 conference. Did they learn their lesson from last year? Not even slightly; rather it’s clear that they chose to double down. Their GoFundMe page for this year’s conference explains it thusly:

We lost $12k on #Mythcon 2017 and are raising money to support the cost of #Mythcon 2018. We cannot stop talking about, listening to and challenging ideas and issues that are important to us. We will not find progress talking only to those who agree with us. We need to explore beyond our comfort zone, ask difficult questions, criticize ideas and try to find common ground in order to work on conflict resolution.

Under this pretense we see that the schedule for 2018 features the following panels:

  • How has the political climate divided the atheist community? — Includes “Armoured Skeptic,” an antifeminist and “SJW” antagonist who also featured in the 2017 conference, and David Smalley, an atheist podcaster who apparently originated the term “screeching left.”
  • What is the impact of intersectionality? — Includes Peter Boghossian, who submitted a fake academic paper on the “conceptual penis” to a paid journal in an attempt to demonstrate that gender studies is based on hatred of men. 
  • Where do social justice, the secular community and identity politics meet? — Includes Carl Benjamin and Richard Carrier, the latter of whom is actually a mythicist, apparently the only one at the MythCon conference…who is also currently suing two blog networks and multiple individuals for reporting on allegations of sexual harassment by him. 
There are other panels, and other speakers, and I do not intend to impugn any of them here. Good people inevitably seem to get sucked into bad conferences sometimes.

That’s kind of the point, though– the inclusion of qualified speakers lends a veneer of respectability and legitimacy to others. The people participating in good faith, by their inclusion and through no fault of their own, lend their halo effect to the trolls and charlatans.

There are important, nuanced debates to be had about intersectionality, social justice, the secular community, identity politics….all of it, but many of the people chosen to have a platform in these discussions are not qualified, and they are disqualified not only by their lack of expertise but by their rejection of the entire subject matter.  There is no threshold of good faith at this conference, because participants are given a platform not based on their expertise and willingness to engage in productive discussion, but virtually based on the opposite– their willingness to stir the pot, to say inflammatory things that upset reasonable people and delight the sort of people who like to see reasonable people get upset.

MythCon has gone full troll, which wouldn’t be a big deal– skeptics interested in meaningful discussion can just look elsewhere; there are plenty of other opportunities– except that they’re still trying to maintain a facade of credibility in the process. That’s something they shouldn’t be allowed to do. We do not have to tolerate the intolerant. We do not have to lower the threshold of good faith for those who have no intention of or ability to practice it. We do not have to, and we should not. 

Good luck, Ohio

Ohio’s governor John Kasich has signed into law a ban on abortion performed on the basis of Down syndrome. I’m going to call back to a post I wrote last year when Mike Pence signed a similar law for Indiana:

Before I go into what’s so horrible about this bill, I want to first acknowledge that it’s almost certainly blatantly unconstitutional. To my knowledge, there is no legal basis for banning abortions that would otherwise be legal based on the reason a woman wants one. And Indiana’s law doesn’t just ban abortions performed because of fetal disability– it also bans abortions based on the race, color, national origin, ancestry, or sex of the fetus. Abortion was deemed a fundamental right in Roe v. Wade, and fundamental rights can’t be abridged based on a person’s motive for exercising them. One would think.

Elizabeth Nash, state issues manager at the Guttmacher Institute, made a great comment about the specifications of the bill: “They basically took non-discrimination language and made it an abortion ban.”  It’s always fun when conservatives pretend to care about diversity and egalitarianism purely for the sake of trying to make liberals look like hypocrites. What’s not fun is that this tactic is often remarkably effective, because on first blush a liberal might fully agree that women shouldn’t abort based on any of those factors. After all, none of these traits are the kid’s fault!  They’re circumstances of birth!

Yeah, well…there’s a problem there. Because we’re not talking about a kid. We’re not talking about about circumstances of birth, because we’re not talking about someone about someone who has been born. A fetus that is aborted will never experience discrimination, because that fetus will not experience anything. A fetus does not care why it was aborted, because a fetus doesn’t care about anything. The result of abortion is the same for every fetus, regardless of why the abortion occurred.

If we agree that a fetus is not a person (in the legal sense), then the fetus has no rights.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s freedom of speech, the right to bear arms, the right to privacy, or the right not to be discriminated against (which, again, social conservatives don’t generally support in the first place)– non-people do not have rights.

If we don’t agree that a fetus isn’t a person, which is to say, you think they are people…then every abortion is equally murder. Reasons don’t matter. We don’t just ban murders that take place because of discrimination– they’re illegal regardless.  So in that respect, passing a law that forbids abortion for discriminatory reasons is implicitly acknowledging that fetuses aren’t people.

And, in fact, the Ohio ACLU has called Kasich’s version of the law “blatantly unconstitutional”:

The ACLU of Ohio opposes this unconstitutional attack on reproductive freedom, which blatantly violates long-standing legal precedent prohibiting bans on abortion before viability.

 A woman should be able to decide whether or not to terminate a pregnancy in consultation with those she trusts. HB 214 inappropriately inserts politics into private medical deliberations, and would discourage open, honest communication between a woman and her doctor.

 It is not the government’s role to decide what can and cannot pass through a woman’s mind before deciding to have an abortion. This type of ban sets a dangerous precedent, and opens the door for politicians to further intrude into women’s personal health decisions.

 The ACLU of Ohio opposes discrimination in all forms, and works to ensure that people with disabilities are treated with equality and dignity. However, this purposely divisive legislation is about restricting abortion, not protecting against discrimination. Instead of wasting more tax dollars on this political crusade against reproductive health care, legislators should focus on addressing the serious concerns of those with disabilities in our communities.

The last I heard about Indiana’s law was that a federal judge blocked it. Let’s hope the same happens for Ohio, but you’d think that instead of spending all of the time, energy, and taxpayer funds getting an obviously unconstitutional law passed, Kasich would be bright enough to look at what happened in Indiana and just not bother. 

Inside (outside) football

Photo credit: AP/Gene J. Puskar

The insider-outsider problem in the study of religion entails that an insider in a religious tradition has an advantage of insight, while an outsider has an advantage of objectivity.

Which is to say, the insider can tell you what it feels like to participate in the religion, what’s compelling about it, while the outsider can tell you about the less attractive and even harmful features of the religion.

The most recent episode of the Freakonomics podcast shows the insider/outsider problem in the study of brain damage caused by playing football.

John Urschel, formerly of the Baltimore Ravens and current PhD student of mathematics of MIT, retired from the Ravens after learning about the prevalence of CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) in career football players. He had observed his own reduction in thinking skills following a concussion, and concluded that the risk of getting CTE, while still largely an unknown, was enough of a threat to his ability to study mathematics to justify quitting the Ravens and football in general.

So John is absolutely a football insider. The neuroscience researchers and journalist interviewed on the podcast are insiders– they describe, at every opportunity, their passionate and long-lasting love of football. They do this to emphasize how emotionally difficult it is to criticize the NFL for failing to acknowledge the incidences of CTE, and generally to point out a real problem with how the game they love is played.

And they also do this, no doubt, to soften the anticipated antagonism or skepticism of what they have to say as outsiders– that football as it is played today is highly likely to cause brain damage to career players and possibly amateurs as well.

(See also: How Anita Sarkeesian has had to repeatedly emphasize how much she loves video games, even while pointing out sexist elements in those games.)

I have no use for football, so could more easily adopt the role of the objective outsider on CTE in football players, but as a result, you would see me advocating for much more strident changes to rules, and stronger condemnation of the NFL for being slow to respond to legitimate criticism.

And that’s why it’s called the insider-outsider problem— is the outsider really so objective, if she has no sympathy to the value that others find in the practice she’s criticizing? Is the insider really so insightful, if her love of the practice blinds her to the valid criticisms that can be made?

Of course the potential ability of the insider and outsider, respectively, to influence and persuade others of their point of view is also highly dependent on their status. Some football-lovers undoubtedly would not listen to stories about brain damage caused by football if the news comes from someone who doesn’t establish their football-lover cred first. On the other hand, those with apathy or even antipathy to football, for one reason or another, might suspect the insider’s criticism of being incomplete or not fully representative of the actual problem it describes.

So you might conclude– okay, then we need both insiders and outsiders. Yes, we do. But insiders and outsiders are always going to exist, so more than that, we need to listen to both insiders and outsiders. And further, we need to be careful about demanding that someone genuflect sufficiently to demonstrate their status as an insider before listening to them, or even simply accept insider status as a prerequisite on its own for accepting what they have to say.

Obvious? Yes, when I state it like that. But nobody’s immune to the bias of favoring the perspectives of insiders in their own groups. Crafty politicians play shamelessly to this bias by portraying themselves as insiders of whatever group they happen to be speaking to, to great effect. Tribalism is rampant in skepticism, in movement politics, even in casual hobby groups, and it comes from the implicit assumption that insiders know what they’re talking about while outsiders don’t….except, of course, when the outsider is you.

So this is just a friendly reminder to consider the perspectives of outsiders (other than yourself). Common ground can be found at a deeper level than group membership.  For example, maybe you love football and I couldn’t care less, but (hopefully) we both care about avoiding brain damage.

New site, and update

As you may have noticed, I’ve been drawing a lot of comics lately. I’ve become disenchanted with the impact of straight-up writing, and decided to try my hand at combining some words with some images and see how that goes. If I may say so, it seems to be going pretty well so far– although some attempts have been a bit rough, there does appear to be a wavering upward trajectory.

On the day of the election, I created some characters in my head to play out the sort of conversations I saw around me, or those I wanted to see around me. If you create a continuing cast of characters in a comic, and you post that comic on the web, I believe it’s called a “webcomic.” So I created a webcomic, apparently.

As you may also have noticed, the comics that belong to that series have vanished from this particular page. That’s because they’ve moved to a new page called Giant If, their new home. I plan to continue drawing comics for this series as long as they occur to me, which might well be for the next four years. Check it out if you feel so inclined.

Making the new site also encouraged me to do something I’ve not done before, which is creating a Patreon. I started this blog in 2010 and have written for it since then without any sort of external funding from ads or anywhere else, and decided that maybe it’s worth a try.*

Patreon lets you choose to let people pledge a certain amount of money per month, or a certain amount of money per thing you produce (in my case, comics).  Both have a cap, so you can for example decide to pledge $1 per comic with a cap of $10 per month, or whatever.  I think that’s a pretty handy way to both a) require someone to produce something before you make any payment for it, and yet b) prevent yourself accidentally paying a larger amount than you expected if your donee suddenly starts producing at a higher rate than you’d expected.

I also put a link to my Amazon wishlist on there, because what the hell.

That does not mean that Cheap Signals is coming to an end, btw. You’ll see that I haven’t (yet) removed or relocated the comics I’ve been making that aren’t part of the Giant If series. That’s because I’m not sure where they really belong– do I want to make this blog solely about writing, and that one solely about comics (of all kinds)?  I don’t currently know, and advice would be welcome. But right now I plan to continue to do writing, at the very least, right here.

This blog, she is not dead. I’m still making stuff– I can’t not.

*There’s also a donation button on this page, if you’re interested in becoming the first person to use it.

“Summer of Justice” recap

Hot.

The so-called “Summer of Justice” protest week was…hot.

Wichita, Kansas, site of the original 1991 so-called “Summer of Mercy” protests, for which these protests were intended to be an anniversary celebration and renewal, has been experiencing a heat wave. Not exactly unusual for the third week in July. But that’s the week chosen by Rusty Thomas, director of Operation Save America, who went on to say “I pray what God began in 1991, he’s going to complete in 2016.”

Not being God, I can only offer my own view: I hope the “completed” part is true.

Wouldn’t that be nice? Last Thursday, during the protest week, David S. Cohen, co-author of the new book Living in the Crosshairs: The Untold Stories of Anti-Abortion Terrorism, gave a talk at a local bookstore. He told the stories of abortion providers who have been harassed, threatened, and in some cases outright attacked in the decades since Roe v. Wade was decided.

He told us of doctors, medical assistants, clinic owners, and volunteers who have been forced to wear disguises and take alternate routes to work because of threats, whose children have been stalked at school, and in one case had her personal information including home address published in a “newsletter” that was distributed to pro-life prisoners currently serving time. Yes, pro-life violent criminals were informed, during their prison sentence, that the only way to stop abortionists is with a bullet and by the way, here’s one of their home addresses.

At this point, I had already contacted Trust Women to express a desire to do something to help during the upcoming anniversary protest. Operation Save America had been kind enough to publish an anticipated schedule for the week, including speakers (note the gender of all involved), and I wanted to be useful in some way during what would surely be a stressful time for both South Wind Women’s Center (Dr. George Tiller’s former clinic: see this post and this post) and the Planned Parenthood central Wichita location.

I’ve gone to this Planned Parenthood location several times, with a positive experience each time. But security is something of a concern. At the Repro Rally on July 9, Planned Parenthood was accepting volunteers to act as escorts from the parking lot to the door of the clinic. South Wind, by contrast, has a secure private parking lot, which is something of a luxury in that it doesn’t seem to be very common for clinics that provide abortion services (though it should, in my humble view, be ubiquitous and government-funded).

So my initial question for Trust Women/South Wind was whether they’d like support in the form of counter-protest, and was told no– actually, engaging the protesters would be counter productive. But maybe I could be a legal observer?  A legal observer’s job is to observe, obviously, via your eyes and ears and video recording device and camera and notepad and however else you can notice, record, and document what’s going on. Not being a confrontational person (to put it lightly), this seemed to me an ideal way to help out.  What, you mean I don’t have to shout at people who hate me?  I can just be present, and pay attention? Sign me up!

So I was signed up. I got trained. I met some really cool people in the process, whose identities I won’t give here for privacy’s sake, but I can say this: Everybody cared. Everybody wanted to do something to defend the right to an abortion on the ground, against an onslaught of people who want to attack it on that level.

But we weren’t fighting– we were explicitly not fighting. That, of course, didn’t stop protesters from approaching us, once they figured out that we weren’t part of their group. We didn’t make it blatantly obvious, of course– no pro-choice t-shirts or signs. Just some people wandering around, watching, who were distinguished somewhat by the fact that we weren’t wearing t-shirts with big crosses on them or waving signs.

I trained on one day, and observed on two days following that. The protesters who approached me, on both days, were always men. Men over the age of 35, of varying degrees of politeness ranging from “Have a nice day” to “What you’re doing is evil, and I hope you know that.”

The number of signs and slogans that co-opted Black Lives Matter, and the wider movement against police racism and brutality, was astonishing.

No one, to my knowledge, was arrested. There was ample police presence, and the police officers were friendly to everyone. From what I observed they didn’t interact much with either the protesters or the legal observers. I was profoundly grateful for their presence– for obvious reasons, but also because it made my job decidedly easier.

So let’s talk about that now. Let’s talk about how last Saturday, the final day of the protest, I was observing until the official end, and I observed several protesters walk up to police officers and thank them for not arresting them. The “Thank you” part is great– no issue with that.  The “…for not arresting us” part is slightly different.

Pro-life protesters: They weren’t not arresting you because they’re nice, or because they respect or agree with you. They weren’t arresting you because, for the most part, you weren’t breaking the law.

The police are not on a crusade to arrest the virtuous pro-lifer at the behest of the evil abortion provider– they’re there to enforce the law, and the abortion providers and volunteers are happy to see them do it.  Due to the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, or FACE Act, protesters may not physically prevent doctors or other clinic personnel from entering the clinic, and you did not do that. You just shouted at them, with microphones and amplifiers. For the most part, you stayed where it was legal to stay. That is why you didn’t get arrested.

Freedom of speech protects your right to gather in groups and tell lies on the sidewalk. For better or for worse.

And boy, were there a lot of lies.

I often wonder about how the pro-life movement would look if everyone, nationwide, actually understood what abortion is.

When I see a pro-life lie about abortion, I have long since stopped thinking in terms of “liars for Jesus,” because there’s one critical problem with admonishing people for their supposed hypocrisy in violating one of the Ten Commandments in the name of their faith: You cannot lie if you don’t know what you’re saying is untrue. And I honestly don’t think they know.  They haven’t ever been taught the truth, so they don’t know that what they’re proclaiming is a lie.

Ignorance is the greatest enemy of human rights.

These people think that Planned Parenthood sells baby parts.

These people think there is such a thing as “post abortive syndrome,” where women who get abortions find themselves in a state of long-lasting regret and even self-destructive behavior afterward.

These people think that women get abortions because they are promiscuous, lazy, and/or selfish.

These people think that abortion harms/risks your body in ways that pregnancy and giving birth do not.

These people think that providing abortion services for minorities, who, due to poverty, are in greater need of abortion services, is racist.

These people preach against homosexuality and birth control at the same time as abortion, because they think “be fruitful and multiply” is a God-given mandate.

These people think that “viable” means a fetus is a healthy baby.

These people think banning abortion would end the killing of babies, rather than resume the killing and imprisonment of women.

These people think that abortion providers, people receiving abortions, and people defending the right to abortion don’t know what they’re doing. They think we don’t know what abortion is.

Ignorance really is the greatest enemy of human rights.

Happy not to be on that team

I can’t help wondering if, after having established his character Dilbert as the office Everyman, Scott Adams has somehow welded himself permanently into that role– in his own perception, at least. That perhaps after such a long time of speaking to the Dilberts of America and the world, Adams has managed to convince himself that he also speaks for them. 


Or maybe not. Maybe it’s just your typical bigot universalism tendency. Maybe that’s what it always has been. Either way, Adams has decided that the Democratic National Convention is very likely lowering the testosterone of American men, and thereby their happiness, on a national scale. 


Why is this? Because the celebration of woman aspiring to positions of power that they have never held throughout the country’s history– specifically, the presidency– makes Adams feel defeated:

I watched singer Alicia Keys perform her song Superwoman at the convention and experienced a sinking feeling. I’m fairly certain my testosterone levels dropped as I watched, and that’s not even a little bit of an exaggeration. Science says men’s testosterone levels rise when they experience victory, and drop when they experience the opposite. I watched Keys tell the world that women are the answer to our problems. True or not, men were probably not feeling successful and victorious during her act. Let me say this again, so you know I’m not kidding. Based on what I know about the human body, and the way our thoughts regulate our hormones, the Democratic National Convention is probably lowering testosterone levels all over the country. Literally, not figuratively. And since testosterone is a feel-good chemical for men, I think the Democratic convention is making men feel less happy. They might not know why they feel less happy, but they will start to associate the low feeling with whatever they are looking at when it happens, i.e. Clinton.

I’m sure that you– but perhaps not Adams– have already heard the aphorism “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” Maybe you’ve acknowledged it, though, without trying to stop and consider whether it really feels like oppression.  I can’t actually say, one way or another– I don’t know of any scientific studies that can verify it (though if you do, please let me know).

And Adams is making a scientific statement here. He’s saying that watching and listening to Alicia Keys perform Superwoman made him feel like a loser. That this feeling of non-triumph means lower testosterone, and therefore that this feeling must be spreading across the country and lowering testosterone levels on a national scale.  Wow!

So what if he’s right? Let’s just assume he is, for the sake of argument.

Power can certainly be a zero-sum game– if someone gains it, somebody else is losing it. Adams described the feeling he was having as like losing. Being non-triumphant. I believe him about that. I believe that to someone who sees the world in hierarchical terms and has bought stock in just-world bias, equality feels like losing.

He gets two things wrong about this, though.

First, he thinks that because he feels like a loser, he’s been somehow wronged. “Superwoman” apparently profoundly disturbed his worldview, and rather than question that worldview he blames the song, Alisha Keys, the DNC, Hillary Clinton, or all of the above for harming him. I feel bad, those people made me feel bad, those people are wrong!

Second, he universalizes– he thinks that all American men feel bad, or should feel bad, right along with him. He wants to bring a class-action lawsuit on behalf of all men against feeling bad, without ever checking to see whether everybody else who identifies as male feels like a loser too. Presumably at least some of them don’t– there were men at the DNC, right? A few of them? Was any footage captured of them bending over in agony while Alisha Keys was singing, protecting their genitalia?

That’s a common tendency of bigots– white supremacists assume that all white people are white supremacists, homophobes assume all straight people are homophobes, etc. and that anyone who isn’t is either lying or a traitor. Scott Adams, of course, assumes that all men are as threatened as he is by women in powerful positions.

Thankfully, he’s mistaken about that.

Let me restate that more emphatically– thankfully, Scott Adam is wrong. He does not get to speak for mankind, any more than any other fearful member of the majority gets to speak against a minority.

When I posted about this on Facebook, my friend Ben Pobjie commented:

He assumes that being male is like being on a team, and we all put that team first and identify with other members of that team before all else. I might be threatened by women in powerful positions if I thought I was on the same team as Scott Adams, and that the purpose of life was to be on the winning team.

When you think in those terms, it’s really a choice you make– do you define your “team” based on incidental characteristics and then push for them to win, whatever “winning” is supposed to mean? Or do you choose your team based on what they say and do, regardless of these other differences, and work together for common goals rather than common traits?

I seem to have less and less time, these days, for people who choose the former.

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