Thursday, October 10, 2013

A long reply to David Marjanović

[This post is about a very specific situation at Pharyngula which involves particularly this post and the ensuing comments there and here. The Pharyngula post was one of many about this letter presumably sent by a man to his daughter after she kicked her son out of her house when he told her he was gay:
Dear Christine: I’m disappointed in you as a daughter. You’re correct that we have a “shame in the family,” but mistaken about what it is.

Kicking Chad out of your home simply because he told you he was gay is the real “abomination” here. A parent disowning her child is what goes “against nature.”

The only intelligent thing I heard you saying in all this was that “you didn’t raise your son to be gay”. Of course you didn’t. He was born this way and didn’t chase it any more than he being left-handed. You however, have made a choice of being hurtful, narrow-minded and backward. So, while we are in the business of disowning our children, I think I’ll take this moment to say goodbye to you. I now have a fabulous (as the gays put it) grandson to raise, and I don’t have time for heart-less B-word of a daughter.

If you find your heart, give us a call
Those who haven’t followed the exchange or general situation will likely find this post boring and impossible to follow, so just ignore it.]

I’ll summarize my thoughts on the letter itself and its reception, though I’m finding the two impossible to detangle:

I’m of course very happy and impressed that the grandfather is taking in his grandson and providing him with acceptance and support. I also endorse his informing his daughter of his support for his grandson and telling her in no uncertain terms how wrong and harmful her actions have been. (This should go without saying, but I did say it several times, it was quoted several times, and some people still persist in ignoring it.)

I’m bothered by the misogynistic slur at the end. First, because bigoted slurs are a problem. Also, because it detracts from the letter’s message of love and compassion. Finally, because using a bigoted slur in a letter to someone denouncing their bigotry is hypocritical and counterproductive.

His disowning also seems to me somewhat rash and counterproductive. If, say, Chad were showing me this letter as a draft and asked me what I thought, I would (after recommending the grandfather remove the line with the slur) ask him some questions about the situation to determine if breaking off contact was precipitous and angry or whether it was warranted but other aspects of the situation. (Well, I’d give him my opinion and then try to help him find people more knowledgeable than I.)

The fact, though, is that we don’t know more details about the situation. (And even if we were to learn more details now, we didn’t have them when presented with the letter and commenting on it.) The only information we have is what’s in the letter: Chad’s mother threw him out when she found out he was gay, apparently because she has standard homophobic (religious) beliefs: being gay is shameful, an abomination, and against nature. We don’t have any indication that she was abusive prior to learning of her son’s sexual orientation or a “toxic” person or that the grandfather doesn’t have the emotional wherewithal to deal with her. Any of those – and many other factors besides – might be true, but we don’t know. Like everyone else, I can only evaluate based on the limited information available, and on that basis I think his disowning of his daughter seems like a rash decision made in the heat of anger, unlikely to be productive, and likely to contribute to further deterioration of familial relationships.

I think the disowning also comes across as rather hypocritical (as I’ll discuss below), which works against the letter’s positive intent. If part of your message is how terrible it is for a parent to disown her child, disowning your child in this angry way undercuts that message, even if it’s being done for an entirely different reason.

So, with the limited information available, that’s my reading: Taking in and supporting his grandson? Wonderful. Telling his daughter how awful her actions have been and how angry, disappointed, and ashamed he is? Great. Informing her that he doesn’t “have time for heart-less B-word of a daughter”? Unacceptable and wrong. Coldly disowning her? Seems rash and ill-advised. Hypocrisy? Not great, and counterproductive. None of the aspects of which I’m critical is the Crime of the Century. None is something we all haven’t done something similar to or that I would remotely see as erasing the great thing he’s doing for his grandson.

But it’s especially important to discuss the potential problems with the letter because of its spread and reception. I’ve seen it on at least three sites now. It’s been presented as an exemplar – a great example of how to go about things for grandparents in this situation - and the comments generally have been of the type “You go, grandpa!,” with little critical discussion. The fact that this letter has entered the internet and is being viewed as exemplary makes thoughtful criticism not only acceptable but necessary. (And yes, assuming the letter is genuine, the grandfather is a real person, but it’s not like commenting on 5-year-old Juan’s first piano recital.)

In that light, calling negative attention to the bigoted slur in the letter is extremely important (and this should not be left to women to do or defend doing). If the slur is ignored – especially by gay rights organizations promoting the letter - or people attempt to minimize, justify, or defend it, that sends the message to everyone that the community is fine with bigoted slurs against women or that misogyny should be overlooked or excused if it’s in the context or service of combating homophobia or another oppression. (As I asked previously: “If this were a grandfather disowning his gay son for misogynistic treatment of his granddaughter and the letter ended ‘…and I don’t have time for heart-less f****t of a son’, would that be ignored? Not factor into people’s evaluations? OK for feminist organizations to promote and celebrate without comment on the homophobic slur? Or is it only to be misogyny that gets minimized in this way?”) When it’s posted without comment, it sends the message to women that they should remain quiet in the interest of supporting victims of homophobia. When people do point to it and are criticized or silenced for doing so, the message is even worse.

Sexism and misogyny are far from the only forms of bigotry that people often see as justified as long as you’re fighting a good fight, but people do seem especially comfortable with excusing them. It’s even worse if we consider that for some people it might form part of the appeal of the letter, providing an opportunity to revel in someone’s telling off a “heartless B-word.” It sends the message to misogynists that, at least sometimes, the community accepts their anti-woman views.

With regard to the disowning aspect being accepted as exemplary, I’m concerned that the uncritical celebration of this act is getting in the way of considering all of the alternative responses relatives can take in this situation. Surely the ideal outcome generally is for bigoted parents to come to understand how wrong they’ve been, make amends, and work to rebuild the relationships with both their children and the family members they’ve alienated. Angrily cutting off contact, as I’ve argued, blocks off the avenues of influence and education most likely to lead to this outcome. Of course in many cases this ideal is all but impossible, or for various reasons the path to achieving it isn’t realistic or is too emotionally destructive to the people involved. (The immediate outcome here might be the best relative outcome in the field of real possibilities, but it’s far from ideal.)

But, as I’ve suggested, if people are developing a general guide with advice for relatives in this situation, I can’t imagine that – in the absence of any specific information, people would recommend angrily cutting off contact with your child until they “find a heart” as the best first option. And I don’t think “We’re not developing such a guide. We’re simply commenting on this one case” is a valid rejoinder, because this one case is being celebrated as exemplary in a general way (and necessarily in a general way, given that we don’t have any specific information about it). I suspect that if the letter about taking in the grandson had contained, instead of the disowning, a section about how he was sending his daughter some educational materials and information about organizations that could help her to understand, or that some of the other relatives would be coming to talk to her about it, or that he would be sending her updates on her son and what he’s doing, that people would consider it exemplary. Because people are focusing on the exemplary act of taking in the grandson and that makes us more likely to accept as exemplary all of the acts that accompany it.

That of course doesn’t mean people shouldn't point out that those or other options or others aren’t always possible or suitable. It’s the thoughtful discussion that’s desirable. This isn’t so much about criticizing or second-guessing people doing something good as about having a conversation about the various options available to people in the situation and the resources that might be available or be made available to them. Given that we’re effectively constructing a general guide with our comments, we should just recognize that and take a careful, thoughtful approach to the process.

And now I’m going to respond specifically to David Marjanović, because I think he’s honestly misunderstood me rather than actively tried to misrepresent me. I hate being honestly misunderstood far more than being mischaracterized or misrepresented, because being misunderstood is quite likely partially my fault, and means that I haven’t expressed myself clearly enough.

David had alleged that I had “mentioned the use of ‘her’ to refer to ‘parent’ as possible, if not likely, evidence of a misogynistic character,” which I had called “just absurd.” I made clear:
It had zero to do with anything like that. I had said his actions were hypocritical, and added parenthetically that if he was referring only to mothers when he described a parent’s disowning their child as “against nature”/bad – which is a reasonable possibility (and I provided reasons why I think that) – then he wasn’t being hypocritical. Because in that case he wouldn’t understand doing the same as a father to be equally “against nature”/bad. (And that might be a view held by many people, which could warrant some discussion.)
So, to David: To my statement “It had nothing to do with trying to paint him as a misogynist,” you replied:

I have not tried to accuse you of somehow deciding in advance he’s a misogynist and then looking for evidence to fit your hypothesis.
No, I didn’t think that.
The other way around. I thought you were concluding from this evidence that he’s likely (though not definitely) a misogynist.

I tried to disagree with the “likely” part of that conclusion: a more parsimonious assumption, as far as I can tell, is that he used “her” to refer to “parent” just because he was talking to and about his daughter. Wondering why you had gone with a less parsimonious but scarier option, I presented a possible reason…
Yes, I understood what you were saying, but it’s confused and wrong. I’m going to make one last, this time fairly exhaustive, effort to explain. (I’m not thrilled that you didn’t seem to pay attention to the rest of the post you’re quoting in which I point to the context – a discussion of possible hypocrisy – and how my remarks formed a part of it.)

The context of those remarks is extremely important to recognize. That context was a discussion of the hypocrisy or nonhypocrisy of the grandfather’s words/act. This is the exchange:

Jacob Schmidt @ 120:
It might surprise you to learn that someone can have compassion for the grandson and share the father/grandfather’s anger at his daughter, while being not particularly impressed that he would so readily and hypocritically disown his daughter and dismiss her with a misogynistic slur.
While I won’t defend his use of slurs, there’s no hypocrisy. The anger seems to be at disowning a dependent child for their sexual orientation, not disownment in general.
Me @ #121:
A parent disowning her child is what goes “against nature.”
[Of course, this ("her child") could be read - and not unreasonably in this context - as only referring to mothers, with fathers excused....]
Jacob Schmidt @ #122:
Assuming that’s a response to me… so are cars, plains, and the ink he wrote that letter with. It reads to me like he’s pointing out the hypocrisy of his daughter, not saying that anything unnatural is bad, or that disownment is bad because it’s unnatural (since that’s not why it’s bad).
Me @ #125:
It’s pretty obviously a response to a claim by her that being gay is “unnatural” and therefore bad. He’s suggesting that her disowning her child is what’s really unnatural and bad.
I assumed “her” was used because he was addressing his daughter.
Of course you did.
Me at #131:
Of course you did.

I’ll elaborate, in case anyone’s confused:

There are a few factors that would lead me to suspect that there might be sexism behind this remark (and there might not – I just wouldn’t assume that there isn’t). First, he later calls her a bitch. Second, he cuts her off as she cut off her son without viewing his own act as at all problematic in a parallel way. Third, there’s an established patriarchal cultural trope that mothers are naturally, and have a duty to be, unconditionally loving, whereas fathers have the complementary duty to offer conditional, judgmental love to improve a child’s character. According to Erich Fromm (who held this view), it’s the reason that in some cultures (like some Muslim cultures) fathers legally “take over” when a child reaches the age of 7 or 8. It’s not a bizarre belief in sexist cultures by any means. Again, his phrasing there might have nothing to do with sexism, but it’s not entirely reasonable to assume it doesn’t.
Jacob Schmidt @ #139:
I’ll elaborate, in case anyone’s confused:
No need here. I understand why, and I don’t disagree. I also know that using pronouns when addressing people is the point of pronouns, so that looked like the more valid interpretation.
He’s suggesting that her disowning her child is what’s really unnatural and bad.
But why is it bad? The mothers reasons are why; it’s not a contradiction to be against the disownment of gay teens while disowning toxic family members.
Me @ #144:
I also know that using pronouns when addressing people is the point of pronouns, so that looked like the more valid interpretation.
If you ignore context, sure, it’s the obvious interpretation that this was the sole meaning.
But why is it bad?
You’re still ignoring that it’s a parallel construction.
So the question under discussion was: In disowning his daughter after telling her that a parent disowning her child is “against nature,” is the grandfather being hypocritical?

A few notes about hypocrisy. I would define hypocrisy as: when your actions don’t match your words – specifically, here, when you condemn an act engaged in by others while doing it yourself without condemning that.

It doesn’t matter, in the context of evaluating hypocrisy, whether the behavior the person in question condemns is legitimately condemnable. We need to separate the evaluation of hypocrisy from the specific content of what someone’s being hypocritical about. So, for example, we can say Ayn Rand was acting hypocritically when she accepted government support during her illness despite inveighing against social welfare programs and their use, without agreeing with her condemnation of these programs. We can say religious people are being hypocritical if they preach against drinking alcohol while drinking themselves in private, without agreeing that drinking is sinful or that sin exists. “Condemning X while engaging in X” is hypocritical regardless of the content of X.

But evaluating hypocrisy does require trying to understanding how someone is characterizing their acts and those of others. Because it’s possible that someone might not be making the same distinctions and equivalencies we are. First, they might regard what appears to be the same act as two fundamentally different acts if, for example, done with different motives or for different purposes. Or, they might recognize acts as equivalent but have different standards for different groups based on beliefs about their different roles and duties. (This isn’t about “me vs. everyone else,” which is classic hypocrisy, but about consistently different expectations for people in different categories.) For example, there are Islamic beliefs about men and women that mean many Muslims regard the same sexual behavior engaged in by men and women very differently.

It can be difficult because sometimes hypocrisy runs very deep, and affects people’s fundamental understandings, or they’re simply unable due to their beliefs to view their actions as equivalent to those they’re condemning despite the obvious parallels. These cases maybe aren’t best discussed in terms of hypocrisy, but rather bad faith or deep-rooted prejudice. So it’s complicated, but I suppose we can say that they’re hypocrisy but at a deeper or…more collective level, but that’s different from the sort of basic hypocrisy I think we’re talking about in this case.

So in evaluating hypocrisy, I think, intent does matter: how the grandfather sees disowning children and whether or how closely he regards his own action as equivalent to his daughter’s is important here. He’s being hypocritical to the extent that he sees disowning as generally bad and the two acts as equivalent and less so to the extent that he differentiates amongst acts of disownment due to the motives or purposes behind them or holds himself and his daughter to different expectations based on their sex.

I was responding to someone arguing (in part) that the grandfather wasn’t being hypocritical because he saw the two disownings as fundamentally different due to their different reasons. Jacob Schmidt was arguing that he was specifically condemning disowning a gay child and not disowning in general, I assume focusing on the sentence: “Kicking Chad out of your home simply because he told you he was gay is the real ‘abomination’ here.”

Of course I recognize that their reasons are different, but I was suggesting, in response, that it was significant that the grandfather appeared to be making a general statement about the badness of a parent disowning a child, rather than specifying a particular type of disowning – for reason X – that he condemns and from which his act is excluded. His statement “A parent disowning her child is what goes ‘against nature’” - is a general one. (It seemed general, in addition to the content, because I recognized it as a parallel response to a presumed statement from his daughter that being gay is “against nature”/bad.)

I didn’t mention it in that post, but he also draws an explicit parallel a few sentences later – “So, while we are in the business of disowning our children, I think I’ll take this moment to say goodbye to you,” which suggests that he saw the acts themselves as the same. So my argument was that in the grandfather’s view the two disownings are in essence the same act and that therefore both should be seen as problematic by him despite their different motives. If the grandfather is saying X behavior is bad, and engaging in behavior X while recognizing that he’s doing so, that’s hypocritical.

The ONLY significance of “her” here, and the reason I italicized it, is that it brought to mind a possible alternative reading of the “against nature” sentence that would counter the argument that he was acting hypocritically. (This reading would still be entirely possible if he had said “his or her” or “their” or “a” or phrased the whole thing differently – “Disowning your child…” or whatever - but specifying “her” here led me to think about alternative, nonhypocritical readings of the paragraph.)

That alternative reading is: What looks like a general statement (“A parent disowning her child is what goes ‘against nature’”) might not really have been a general statement because he was, consciously or unconsciously, making a distinction between the roles and duties of mothers and fathers. Thus he wouldn’t be acting hypocritically because, even if the acts are the same, the people doing them are in different categories.

That’s it. I didn’t see the pronoun as evidence of sexist or misogynistic attitudes, and wasn’t trying to “explain” it with reference to them. The use of “her” simply wasn’t part of any argument I was making, and you can see that I made no argument about it or using it. I simply italicized it because it sparked the idea in my head that there might be an alternative, nonhypocritical reading in which he recognized the behavior as equivalent but saw it, consciously or unconsciously, as differently/less condemnable for a father than a mother.

No alternative nonhypocritical reading rests on the use of the feminine pronoun in that sentence, and I wasn’t trying to explain that use in terms of sexism. In #131, I offered three reasons to think he might hold (unconsciously) that sexist attitude:

• He calls his daughter a bitch at the end of the letter, and so he’s clearly not immune to his culture’s attitudes towards women.

• Just after he calls a parent’s disowning a child “against nature” and therefore bad, he makes the parallel between her disowning and his explicit: “So, while we are in the business of disowning our children, I think I’ll take this moment to say goodbye to you.” Despite this, he doesn’t appear to recognize that by his standards his act could be seen as wrong. He doesn’t appear to see any hypocrisy.

• The idea that it’s more “against nature” and worse for a mother to cut off her child is very common in his culture.*

This – not his use of the feminine pronoun - was my reasoning behind thinking it was possible that there was a possible reading of the “against nature” statement that wouldn’t contribute to the conclusion that he was hypocritical.

So, in sum, and based not just on that exchange, here are what I consider reasons to consider his action hypocritical and reasons not to:

Reasons to see it as hypocritical:

• The sentence “A parent disowning her child is what goes ‘against nature’” is a general condemnation of disowning, presumably in response to his daughter’s having said something to the effect of “Being gay is against nature,” which is also a general statement.

• He makes the equivalence explicit when he says “[W]hile we are in the business of disowning our children, I think I’ll take this moment to say goodbye to you.”

Reasons to see it as not hypocritical:

• The general “against nature” statement is preceded by a more specific one (also I assume a parallel construction) referring to reasons: "Kicking Chad out of your home simply because he told you he was gay is the real 'abomination' here.” [my emphasis] This statement is both itself specific and could possibly affect the interpretation of the more general one that follows.

• It’s plausible, for the reasons I’ve discussed, that there were sexist ideas behind what appears like a general statement about a parent’s disowning a child, meaning that his condemnation is stronger for mothers than for fathers. (It’s also plausible that there weren’t, or that, as Jadehawk suggested, he was too busy playing word games [with the parallel constructions] to notice what he was saying.)

• He says at the end “If you find your heart, give us a call,” so it’s not a “real” disowning. (I don’t see statements like this as necessarily inconsistent with disowning, but more importantly, it’s contradicted by the explicit equivalence he makes between the two acts of disownment.)

So on the weight of the evidence, on the hypocrisy scale I would give it a 7 or 7.5. My mind could be changed, and this isn’t the most important issue here, but those are my views and I certainly wanted to counteract the strange notion that this was about the pronoun.

Now, I realize that I did contribute to confusion here. It was a tense situation for me, and that can make me flippant in a way that can be hard to follow. I probably started the confusion when I highlighted only the words “her child,” which could be read, by someone assuming I’m a dolt, as suggesting that the parenthetical speculation was about what’s “behind” the use of the feminine pronoun. And despite my clarification, I didn’t do enough to make clear that this wasn’t about the pronoun when it should have been apparent that this was how Jacob Schmidt was reading me. I should have made it absolutely clear then that I was not referring to the pronoun but to the remark “A parent disowning her child is what goes ‘against nature’.” The question I was addressing was: Is this a general statement of the form X is bad, or might it be meant to apply (more) to one category of people?

In my defense, it simply didn’t occur to me, and wouldn’t occur to me, that anyone not actively trying to misconstrue my statements would think I was arguing that his use of “her” in referring to his daughter was itself evidence of anything or what I was attempting to explain the pronoun. I did recognize pretty quickly that my point might be missed – especially given the propensity of several people participating on that thread to mischaracterize my statements and arguments – and that’s why I quickly clarified, which didn’t turn out to be sufficient and might have contributed to the problem. I’m dismayed that the impression could persist for anyone that I was suggesting that the pronoun was part of any argument that I was making.

The problem in this case, though, is that there were several people on that thread who were more interested in willfully misinterpreting my statements than in engaging fairly with or honestly trying to understand what I was saying. So in the midst of this exchange, there was a post by Daz addressed to me:
So far you’ve managed to impugn the grandfather for breaking up the family, when it’s quite obvious that the mother did that quite handily when she threw her child out into the street. You’ve implied that he might well be acting misogynistically by referring to his daughter as “her” and you’ve spent gawd knows how many words pointing out that he (probably?) used a gendered slur.
I probably skipped over it at the time as it was one in a series of blatant misrepresentations (which have now been refuted more than once, including the first and third listed accusations here). I probably missed the phrase “You’ve implied that he might well be acting misogynistically by referring to his daughter as ‘her',” but even if I’d seen it I don’t know that I would have thought it worth responding to. Whatever the confusion occasioned by my remarks, how could anyone seriously believe I was suggesting any such thing? And if someone did, don’t you think it would have been a good idea to ask for further clarification rather than assume I was making that argument?

I think I also contributed to some confusion by referring too much to my views of the letter when I should have been more focused on the reception of the letter and its presentation as exemplary. I think I did make this clear eventually, and it became more so when other people helped me to clarify at Tdome, but I acknowledge that in focusing on individual acts I probably contributed to the mess about my alleged motives.

I don’t think everyone should be expected to express themselves with perfect clarity and comprehension in every blog comment. The nature of a discussion is that people’s views can change and develop or be refined in the course of the discussion. In the course of the conversation, I would have focused my arguments more clearly on the questions related to the reception of this letter and its use as an exemplar. (And I want to express my deep appreciation for strange gods, Jadehawk, consciousness razor, carlie, and others who worked to clarify rather than obscure and confuse the arguments.)

The problem is that it’s become, in my view, and for me at least, impossible to have a reasoned discussion at Pharyngula, and not only on topics like animal rights and psychiatry/psych rights that I expect to be controversial. An exchange of views, even an angry one, is impossible when some people are determined to make an environment actively hostile to you and your views. On the threads in question, I’ve been repeatedly misrepresented, often without those misrepresenting me bothering to quote my words; those misrepresentations haven’t been retracted, apologized for, or even acknowledged even after they’ve been repeatedly refuted with evidence; people have jumped to the silliest and most uncharitable readings of my words, latching onto any ambiguity, nuance, or lack of clarity to paint them in a negative light; people have attributed nefarious motives to me for which there’s no evidence; people have tried to make the discussion about me rather than the actual topic; people trying to set the record straight about what I and others have said by pointing to the actual record of comments have been attacked, sent to other threads, or threatened with banning; people have tossed in snipes at me for no purpose other than maliciousness and browbeating; strange gods has been treated cruelly and unfairly and threatened with banning for responding to these attacks;…

This pattern of intellectual dishonesty, bullying, and partiality isn’t only unkind to me and others and contrary to any decent standard of argumentation. (It might be a useful exercise for people who think I’m wrong to imagine how the response would have differed had my comments on that thread been posted instead by Caine.) It’s generally toxic to reasoned discussion and debate. I never thought I’d reach the point that I wouldn’t be particularly upset about being banned at Pharyngula.** I’ve been returning, less and less frequently to be sure, over the past couple of years probably because I remember a time when things were different. I’m sure I’m idealizing the past, but the environment in the past was in my recollection much more conducive to intellectual exchange. It wasn’t more polite or less angry; it was just that there was a greater commitment to intellectual honesty and fairness than there is now.

The creation of an elite circle of privileged commenters is also a (related) problem, as I see it. (I offered some suggestions for structural solutions, but they were ignored.) Another trend, toward the personalization of discussions - in the sense of making them largely about people’s personal experiences - is neither good nor bad, but it is a change. Since I don’t generally talk about my personal life in that context and am uncomfortable attempting to have a general or more abstract argument if other people are perceiving that as reflecting an indifference to their personal experiences or suffering or an attempt to hurt them, this change of atmosphere is less suitable for someone like me.

This isn’t about hate or even anger (which isn’t to say that I’m not angry with some people). I’m very glad I found Pharyngula and think it’s been a fantastic blog, not only for the content of the posts but for the quality of the comments and the community PZ’s helped to create. I thank PZ for that. I also think many of the people whose recent actions in some contexts I reject have done some great things there. But it’s become a hostile and unwelcoming place to me personally and a difficult one in which to have the sort of intellectual exchanges I enjoyed and learned from in the past.
As Jadehawk said, you are an activist. Similarly, I am a scientist – and that has caused trouble for me before, with other people.
First, I’m not “an activist.” I’m a sociologist, and analyzing writing is what I do.

Second, I have no idea what the relevance of this claim is supposed to be to this particular discussion, unless you’re implying that as a nonscientist – ignoring that I am in fact a social scientist, which is arguably more relevant expertise in this matter – I’m not as capable as you of analyzing discussions or that I’m coming at them from an irrational place or something. I sure hope that isn’t what you were implying, because it comes across as a fallacious and arrogant argument from authority.

Third, you made some bizarre speculation about me as a TV Trope (which, to be frank, you overuse in general; the concepts are fun and useful if applied correctly, but they’re not sociology and are no substitute for concrete knowledge and evidence) and then followed that with a statement about how this somehow reminded you of something I had said months or years ago. You provided no citation to back up your characterization of past events, which contributed to the false impression of me that others were already constructing. When I responded filling in relevant details of the story and pointing out that referring to it in the way you did was wrong, you responded
…That link seems to be the part I missed. I can’t remember anything about B&W in this context.

…Can’t remember that either. Perhaps I had left the thread by then; due to timezones, many threads go on after I visit them the last time.

…As for “links or anything”, I’m sorry to say that’s an unreasonable expectation from me – I don’t have the kind of memory or Google-fu necessary for that. I knew yours are better, so I expected you to remember the incidents in question at least as well as I do – and indeed you do. I never thought you wouldn’t weigh in!
It’s scientifically irresponsible to characterize someone’s actions or mental state without searching for and providing an evidentiary citation. No sources, no trust.

* The reasons I later mentioned that this might warrant discussion were two: first, as I said, the fact that the belief in some form is so widespread in the culture makes it more likely that it might form part of his attitude, like that of any member of the culture; second, due to the fact that the belief in some form is so widespread in the culture, it might be playing some small role in the reception of the letter. It’s possible that people reading are, without realizing it perhaps, more angry with the woman for disowning her son because she’s a mother, and in turn perhaps less critical of the grandfather’s attitude and actions towards his daughter because a) she’s a mother and therefore deserves to be punished more and b) he’s a father and so doesn’t face the same expectations of unconditional love. I don’t know whether that’s the case at all, but, as I said, discussion wouldn’t hurt.

** And no, PZ, I’m not saying I think it would be fine for you to ban me or asking to be banned, so you can’t do it and justify it as obliging my request. That decision is your responsibility, and you should do what you think is right and just and act in such a way that you’re least likely to regret and that’s most likely to earn you the respect of people whose respect you think is worth having. Since doing what’s just and right would require a thoughtful (re)reading of this and past episodes and the comments leading up to them, and it doesn’t appear you have time to take that on,…


  1. AE here.
    This is a lot to deal with, but I have a few quick comments:
    First, I think your take on the sitch at Pharyngula is spot on. I think that it is a good thing (maybe) that Pharyngula has become a place for people to share personal (and usually tragic) experiences and get support. However, you're right, in that discussion that is not geared toward that dynamic is viewed as detracting from it. I don't find I learn much, and so have become increasingly loath to contribute anything other than silliness. I have more silliness in me than most, but I'm not content to interact only as a clown.
    Second, I cannot comprehend PZ's dislike of SGBM. I don't think he's been fair. I also think that you rarely get a fair reading from other members of the commentariat. I admit that sometimes it isn't readily apparent to me what you are getting at-- I think you assume that the commentariat is better informed than it is, at times--but none-the-less, I have always found it worthwhile to read every comment of yours, and try to understand.
    Last, I think it would almost be healthy for me to be banned from Pharyngula. I'm such a creature of habit that I have continued to read the commentary there even as I grow less and less able to interact productively. Like you, I'm not asking for the banhammer, I don't think it would be fair, but maybe my time could be better spent. I should visit Salty Current a little more often.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful response, AE.

    I agree with you (which shouldn’t be surprising given that you pretty much agree with me :)).

    I admit that sometimes it isn't readily apparent to me what you are getting at-- I think you assume that the commentariat is better informed than it is, at times--

    I think you’re probably giving me a bit too much credit here. Sometimes it’s probably that. Sometimes I just don’t express myself clearly enough because of my state of mind. But I don’t recall it being so much of a problem in the past. It seems to me that some of it is related to the atmosphere in which some people are determined to impugn my motives and misrepresent me. So in addition to the confusion that introduces externally, I can tend to respond by either loading my comments down with caveats and nuances (which distract from my point and which themselves tend to be picked apart and misrepresented anyway) or just tossing out a short remark that I realize sooner or later was fairly cryptic even in context.

    Neither of these is ideal in terms of communicating my ideas clearly, but I don’t believe – and it’s taken me a while to come to this realization - there’s any response that will prove effective in that sort of hostile environment. (Strange gods’ approach is a positive one in my view, and it’s…not going well.) Which is not to say that if the bullying and active misrepresentation were to stop, my every blog comment would be a model of clarity and precision, but it would help.

    but none-the-less, I have always found it worthwhile to read every comment of yours, and try to understand.


    Last, I think it would almost be healthy for me to be banned from Pharyngula. I'm such a creature of habit that I have continued to read the commentary there even as I grow less and less able to interact productively. Like you, I'm not asking for the banhammer, I don't think it would be fair, but maybe my time could be better spent. I should visit Salty Current a little more often.

    :) Well, you’ve always been one of my favorite commenters there, so I hope you keep in touch. For me, one good side effect of dropping out there is more time to focus on my posts here. Unfortunately, it’s not a great platform for discussion. (Sorry about your difficulties commenting - you’re not alone. Thanks for persevering.)

  3. Thank you. Unfortunately I'm way too tired to so much as understand this post now – I hope I'll get to it next week, or next weekend.

    Second, I cannot comprehend PZ's dislike of SGBM. I don't think he's been fair.

    PZ hasn't been fair to sgbm. He somehow interprets an arrogance into him that I just can't see.

  4. Sorry, still no time, I'm not done organizing my long trip and other things. :-( What I can quickly do is note how careless it was of me that I seemed to contrast activist and scientist personalities, as if they were mutually exclusive. Of course they're not.

    Independently of this, I had plainly forgotten that you're a sociologist. You don't show up on Pharyngula anymore, I'm outright afraid of adding more blogs to my daily timesink list – and I'm already really bad at remembering anything about the meatspace lives of people I only know as written names (be that in blogs or in scientific papers).