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Monday, January 9, 2012

Rillion's Law applied

I have my own law, devised under the screen name Rillion which I've used since about 2000. The law isn't quite that old, but it has existed at least since 2005. Rillion's Law states:
The amount of knowledge a person has about a particular subject is inversely proportional to his or her tendency to make universal, authoritative statements about it.
Yes, I know how pretentious it is to devise your own law-- especially if you're not remotely famous. And doing so is not an indication that I am in any way immune to the phenomenon in question. Quite to the contrary, the law exists in part to remind me to avoid it, and I don't always succeed.

The reason that this phenomenon exists-- generalizing grossly and erroneously with an air of authority about things you don't really understand-- is because people want to have opinions. They want to have a stance to offer when asked, or when they haven't been asked, and lack of knowledge on a subject makes one incredibly susceptible to glossing over important distinctions within it. Generalizing itself is not a bad thing. It's a necessary thing in situations when you need to focus on a small number of salient facts about a group to which other facts are irrelevant. Generalizing is important in science, where these situations are frequent. But it should always be done while ensuring that generalizing is what you're doing, that the facts you consider salient are salient for your purposes but might not be for someone else, and that the facts you're dismissing as irrelevant to the statements you're making are in fact irrelevant. Otherwise you end up grouping things together for bad reasons and disregarding important causal factors. You become an example of Rillion's Law in action. And when the universal, authoritative statements you're making are about people and end up grossly misrepresenting them, those people are not going to be very happy.

Jason Thibeault, who blogs as Lousy Canuck at Freethought Blogs, posted yesterday asking something along these lines: Are universal statements always a problem? His answer: maybe. He says:
It occurs to me that many (“ALL!” “Shh.”) of our problems around these parts viz every new conflagration, from our recent conversation with Mallorie Nasrallah, to thestatement by DJ Grothe that we only blog about controversial topics for hits, to the pushback against a Rebecca Watson blog title as though it meant she hates all atheists, is the fact that we as skeptics seem to have a problem with blanket universals even when they are not intended as universals. They are the quickest single thing you can do to engender hatred amongst your commentariat. 
Much of the problem with Mallorie’s open letter to the skeptical community has to do with the universal statement that skeptics “shouldn’t change for anyone”. While she claims she wrote the letter solely for the purpose of expressing her own views of the community, she presented it in the midst of a number of controversies wherein people have been demonstrably misogynistic to bloggers like Greta Christina or new women in the community like the 15 year old Lunam on r/atheism. This caused some outrage in the context of the greater fight we’ve been waging — the fight against entrenched sexism in our communities. 
For context, I always use the plural for communities because neither atheism nor skepticism have a single overarching community, much less a greater community for either one. We have a set of loosely allied communities, each manifesting their own sets of values and beliefs. The commenters and bloggers at Freethought Blogs appear to have clustered around beliefs in humanism as well as skepticism and atheism, and will fight a misogynist comment as quickly as a creationist or woo-peddling one. I don’t believe that the levels of sexism in our collective online communities are very different from the background of the internet as a whole, no matter how much of a safe space we’ve carved out here. However, there are three things that are important and mitigating factors to that blanket statement about the levels of sexism. 
1: The internet is, as a whole, a far cruder and crasser place than real life, owing largely to anonymity and the Greater Interent Fuckwad Theory.
2: Our real-life meatspace communities are very often being organized via the internet, so there’s a lot of overlap between what goes on in meatspace and what came from the internet to begin with.
3: we have experienced by my estimation a significant amount more pushback than most other communities built around other topics, against the very idea that people shouldn’t use sexist slurs at women, or treat women like they’re just there as dating pool material, because either of those are likely to result in women who might otherwise participate bleeding away from our communities. 
DJ Grothe described our fight against this pushback as being solely intended to drive controvery, to drive a wedge in the community, done solely for the hits. What makes this a short-sighted blanket statement is in part the misidentification of the problem, the misidentification of what it is we’re trying to do about it, and the misidentification of what’s actually being said about the community as a whole. Stephanie’s post itemizing the times when he’s exhibited this sort of blind spot for ongoing fights was met with doubling down, and DJ declared that the whole episode served as proof to him that that’s all the feminist bloggers in our community want to do is to tear other communities apart over sexism. 
Hasty generalization is, as we know, a basic fallacy. Rillion's Law is really just an observation about what causes people to generalize hastily. And what Nasrallah and Grothe have done, it seems, is hastily generalize about both the problem of sexism in skeptical communities and the people speaking out about it. Greta Christina has a post up today about Grothe, doing her best to be fair and give him the benefit of the doubt, but it's pretty damning nonetheless.
I have two questions for JREF President D.J. Grothe. They’re questions that I find unsettling and upsetting to even consider, questions I wouldn’t have thought I’d have to ask a leader of a major organization in this movement. But I’ve been reading some things Grothe has been saying recently… and apparently, I have to ask. 
Question #1: Do you really think there is any context in which making threats of gender-based, sexualized violence — towards a person of any gender, but especially towards a female writer and her readers — can be justified? 
Question #2: Do you really think that feminist bloggers in the atheist/ skeptical movements are writing about sexism and misogyny, and pointing out examples of it in our communities, primarily so we can manufacture controversy and draw traffic? 
I would like to think that the answers to both questions is an obvious and resounding “No.” D.J. and I have had some differences, but we’ve also had a largely cordial and even friendly professional relationship. I know he thinks of himself as an ally in the effort to make the atheist/ skeptical movements more welcoming to women. And I know that he takes pride — justifiably so — in, among other things, drawing more women to TAM, both as speakers and attendees. 
But I’ve been following the discussion on Almost Diamonds about him, and about an apparent pattern he has of defending sexist language and behavior in the atheist/ skeptical communities. I’ve been reading the things he himself has been saying in this conversation. And I am extremely distressed to realize that the answers to both these questions appears to be, “Yes.”
In essence, Greta Christina is saying "I think you're making some universal authoritative statements without being aware of the ignorance that enables you to make them. Or at least, I hope you are, because it's better than the alternative. And I'm giving you the opportunity to look around, understand, and amend your position on that new understanding."  That's a charitable reading. No doubt she's extending it because Grothe has a reputation for being an understanding, charitable guy himself. Perhaps to a fault, and in the wrong direction, in this case.

It's not fun for female bloggers, scientists, and activists to keep talking about the sexism thing, trust me. It's a pain in the ass, in large part because it means getting dismissed as a mere attention-seeker in precisely the way Grothe appears to be doing. But the existence of sexism in communities that presume to be so rational and fair-minded in the first place is a roadblock to even being comfortable to participate in the first place, and-- sorry-- people who aren't confronted with that on a regular basis can find it easy to forget, and dismiss as complainers people who do have to deal with it and speak up about it.

*removes needle from the broken record*

ETA: Grothe's reply

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