More on tone

The “Tone Wars” revive from time to time, most recently in PZ Myers’ justified criticisms of Richard Dawkins’ objections to feminist objections to sexist language and moves. The story so far:

Jen McCreight, who blogs as Blag Hag (why can’t I think up such clever names?) was commenting on the following: Rebecca Watson attending an atheism conference. Anyone who has attended such conferences, whether academic or not, knows that a considerable number of the men, married or not, spend a lot of time trying to hook up with the generally minority female contingents. Rebecca was propositioned in an elevator at 4am, and Jen asked, simply, that men be a little sensitive. Her list of “Do’s and Do Nots” is worth reproducing:

Do not come up to me right after I give a talk on communicating skepticism and tell me a perk of my presentation was that I’m easy on the eyes.*

Feel free to say I’m cute when I’m rocking my black cocktail dress at Penn Jillette’s party at TAM 9.

Do not interrupt an intellectual discussion on diversity in the atheist movement with a unrelated sexual joke.*

Feel free to tell raunchy jokes when I’m having a beer at post-talk social. I’ll join you.

Do not reference my looks, boobs, or sexiness when introducing me for a talk or panel, especially when you would not do so for the male participants.*

Feel free to say you think I’m attractive in casual conversation and tweets, especially if it’s in addition to my intellectual accomplishment. I fangirl over people too – it’s okay.

Do not make numerous comments about my looks in an intellectual blog post that happens to contain a photo of me that’s not meant to be sexy.*

Feel free to comment away when I post photos from my Skepticon pinup calendar. You have the green light.

Do not follow me around the Skepchick party insisting that I drink your bottle of whiskey, after repeated “No thank you”s.*

Feel free to approach me or offer me a drink if you’re okay with the chance that I may not be interested. Sometimes I am!

And finally – if you miscalculate the context of the situation, if you accidentally make someone uncomfortable, if you come off as a creep but you really just had a brainfart and said something incredibly stupid and unintentionally demeaning – it’s okay. It happens. We’re human. It doesn’t mean you’re an evil misogynistic beast, even if we publicly discuss it so others can learn from your mistake.

But recognize said mistake, apologize, and learn from it.

*Yes, all of these “Do not’s” have actually happened

Sensible stuff, huh? Not to the chauvinists, of whom there are still way too many to tolerate in a civil society. Jen was attacked. Nastily and unnecessarily. The worst was what Richard Dawkins, yes, the Richard Dawkins, said, not because of the nature of it but because of who he is:

Dear Muslima

Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and . . . yawn . . . don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.

Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself Skep”chick”, and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He invited her back to his room for coffee. Of course she said no, and of course he didn’t lay a finger on her, but even so . . .

And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.


PZ rightly took Dawkins to task. As did several others (I like Greg’s comments the most). And there it would lie except that this is PZ who attacks anyone who suggests that a more sensitive tone might be adopted when dealing with an outgroup. He writes (what I would if I were as loquacious as he):

The response has been to belittle her reasonable suggestion, belittle her, accuse her of hysteria, defend the rudeness of the fellow with the proposition, and mostly act as if utterly obtuse to both the unpleasantness of the elevator faux pas and to disrespect the rational concerns of women. Women aren’t so much afraid that unruly mobs of atheist men will rape them at meetings, but that they’ll be dolts who trivialize legitimate and common concerns of women…and this incident has definitely shown that to be the case. We aren’t just going to see Rebecca Watson diminished as an asset to atheism, but all the other women who seek common cause with atheism will watch how we treat our own and find this community significantly less attractive.

This isn’t slightly bad. It’s very bad. Atheist men are alienating the people we want to work with us on the very same problems, the oppression of women under religious regimes, that you cited in your comment.

Now, as an exercise, replace “atheist men” with “science-supporters” and “women” with “believers”…

The Tone Warriors like to say that to ask someone to take a measured and moderate tone (i.e., to not be a dick) is to effectively silence them, or try to. The Tone Moderators (i.e., me and those like me, wonderful people every one) ask that the style of argument matters as well, and that to be constantly attacking and aggressive will, guess what? alienate those we want to work with (i.e., religious people who do not have a problem with real science). So the irony here is so thick you could stir it with a stick.

I guess I have to repeat that appeals for a measured tone do not mean one can’t sometimes get angry and noisy, just that you should hold it back for when it adds to the communication, not when it diminishes it by alienating the audience. As I used to say to my kids, if you swear all the time it won’t mean anything when you need to. Of course, one of my kids swears all the time, and the other never does, so on average, I’m 100% successful in that strategy.

Later: Again, Abbie at erv does it so much better than I can.

Even Later: Greg Laden summarises the entire discussion/furore

30 thoughts on “More on tone

  1. I would have mentioned erv had you not; that is where the most measured commentary is. Don’t think I can add to anything not said there.

    Someone, somewhere, I think it may be one of those oh, so reasonable thinkers who scribble at Pharyngula, tried to link up those in the Anti-Rebecca camp with accomodationists with respect to tone. Really. We will not issue a Wonderful People badge to it.


  2. I had heard echoes of this and Dawkins’ letter makes for very unpleasant reading. While I see the problem with PZ having a different position here I think I know what he’d say in his defence – the religious are in a position of strength while women are not.


    1. Fair enough. But “the religious” is a rather broad category; the religious in question are not the majority by any means. Nor are they in a position of power.


  3. PZ– Atheist men are alienating the people we want to work with us on the very same problems, the oppression of women under religious regimes, that you cited in your comment.
    Actually, an atheist woman is alienating the people we want to work with us on the very same problems, the oppression of women under religious regimes, that you cited in your comment.

    This was started by Rebecca Watson.

    Watsons petty, immature attack on a woman who disagreed with her is why we are hear right now.

    People disagree with me all the time. I love people disagreeing with me. I actively encourage young ones to disagree with me. But a female disagrees with Watson, so Watson actively decided to use the podium as a weapon to get the female ‘in line’.

    PZs focus on the original instinct is a lark. Its an excuse. I dont give a rats ass about Watsons ‘plight’, because not only did Watson originally agree that the incident was not a big deal (she did nothing in response to supposed ‘elevator guy’. nothing.), but because I myself have had to deal with an attempted drugging/date rape in college, and stalking in my adult life. Asking for coffee and then accepting the negative reply??? OH NOOOOOOOOOO!!!!

    And Im the one that ‘needs more life experience’.

    Dawkins lost some sycophants (Im sure he will mourn their loss, lol) and from what Ive seen from the student blogs, strengthened the respect he gets from some young, intelligent, articulate kids. Good for him.


  4. Watson accused some guy (apparently entirely uninterested in IDing the guy, so, some guy) of being ‘creepy’ for asking her for coffee at an atheist conference 1) late at night and 2) in an elevator.

    A female undergraduate student said “Whats the big deal? And we dont have the guys side of the story.” Well, many others said something like this (me and Dawkins, included), but this student for some reason INFLAMED Watson. So Watson deviated from her (poorly) planned speech to quote some things this student said and accuse said student, by name, of being ‘anti-woman’ and a ‘misogynist’.

    Watson abused her position as an invited keynote speaker for a personal vendetta. Her target was singled out and humiliated by Watson in front of hundreds of people, and given no opportunity to explain her own reasoning or correct anything Watson might have unknowingly *WINK!* misrepresented. And worst of all, this wasnt a planned, carefully thought out and considered move. Watson admitted that her decision to do this was done right before her planned speech, in a moment of ‘passion’, I guess. In other words, it was a total bitch move.

    And now shes broke the internet.

    PZ is fixating on Part I so he doesnt have to deal with Part II.


  5. ‘Now, as an exercise, replace “atheist men” with “science-supporters” and “women” with “believers”…’

    Doing this, I find that there is nothing inherent in being a woman that requires her to denounce all atheists as liars and frauds. Yet a very large and powerful (one might say privileged) minority of believers spend much of their time condemning science (and, by extension, science-supporters) as liars and frauds, and willing accomplices of every nasty totalitarian regime in history, for good measure. So, the analogy feels just plain wrong.


  6. As a minor aside, can I just suggest that it’s Richard Dawkins’ intervention that will get into the MSM and foul the footpath for all concerned? ‘Atheist Figurehead In Sexism Row’ will be followed by a number of brilliantly pseud0-researched items on the awful misogyny of atheists, scientists and intellectual types in general. That will surely be the major legacy of what started as a minor aside in a video about something else.


  7. Man, what a bunch of trivial bullshit. It sounds like they were all having slow content days or something. Read ERV’s post on it. Agree 100 percent.


  8. I don’t think this is about tone at all. This is about the logic of the argument.

    And, as long as you brought up tone, I’m swearing it off as a point of discussion. There is no such thing. Tone is so often (though not always) in the eye of the beholder as to be useless as a point of reference.


  9. The “irony” you mention came to my mind as well, though with a bit of thought I dismissed it. They really are not analogous.

    In one argument you have the Moderators/Accommadationists saying “We know that there really isn’t a god, but we’re going to ignore that and humor these religious people so we can work together on promoting science.”

    That would only be equivalent to this situation if you really believed that PZ and the Warrior/Gnus were saying, “We know woman aren’t really equal, but we’re going to ignore that and humor these ladies so we can work together on atheism (or whatever).”

    Clearly that’s not what they are saying.


    1. I truly love how the views of some person – here the tone moderators – can be rewritten to question beggingly support the views of their opponents in so unselfconsciously a fashion.


  10. My guess is the man who approached Rebecca Watson in the elevator acted on the spur of the moment. He saw what he thought was an opportunity and seized it without thinking it through. Watson did the same thing with her speech. On impulse, she seized an opportunity to make her point to a captive audience without pausing to consider whether it was appropriate in the circumstances. People do dumb things without being evil.

    The best lesson to be drawn is the value of empathy, the willingness to try and put yourself in someone else’s shoes, the willingness to ask yourself the question: “How would I feel if that happened to me?”


  11. I’m generally on PZ’s side of things on the tone wars, and think it is disanalogous for two reasons already mentioned (a) relative strength and (b) chosen and open to attack on grounds of justifiability vs unchosen and not needing any justification. The point Wilko makes that not all religious believers are in positions of strength is right too, but I think if you look at the actual practice of most of the new atheists, they tend to be sensitive to this. When was the last time you heard a new atheist mock an Australian aborigine for their religious views? The only such mocking I’m aware of came from a christian who was also on the board of a large Australian mining company.


    1. Most atheists are quite nice about another person’s religion unless it is the religion they have come out of or are faced with day to day. For example, sure, I never hear atheists mocking indigenous religion (except when, as happens in Australia, tribal men abuse young children sexually from time to time), but I hear them attacking entire religious traditions like Christianity (as if that rubric had any meaning whatsoever) or Islam (ditto). In my country and the US, Islam is a minority religion: atheist attacks upon it tend to be as nasty as anything can be. Yet I, like many people who have worked in research institutions, have met quite a number of reasonable Muslims working in science, who get shepherded into this despicable group. So I think the parallel is not so far off.

      Of course, the issues facing women in a patriarchal society are going to be different to those facing minority religious views, just as one can’t directly analogise racial segregation and feminist issues either. That doesn’t mean there aren’t useful comparisons to make.


  12. Being a member of a minority ≠ being in a position of relative powerlessness (I grew up in South Africa). But more relevantly I think there is an empirical issue dividing us: my impression is that rowdy atheists tend to attack the dominant religions in their home country more than any other. My impression is that Xianity comes in for a much harder time of it from these atheists in the US than do other religions (and I think that this is more true in the US than in the UK and Australia, which has to do the brands of Xianity which have been publicly prominent in different countries).


    1. We are probably in furious agreement here. I went to an English Baptist church – the nastiest they ever got was when the tea was too cold. American-style Baptists on the other hand are anti-gay, anti-science and anti-human rights. When I was there I watched the latter take over the former.

      But I do think that anti-Islamism is over the top. The largest Islamic nation in the world is to the north of Australia, and it has a burgeoning liberal democracy and rule of law, and is increasingly secularist. It isn’t perfect, but then, on the other hand, it executes fewer people than the US does…


  13. PZ is fixating on Part I so he doesnt have to deal with Part II.

    No. I specifically dealt with “Part II” in my first post on the subject.

    I’d really like to see a video or transcript of this CFI conference, because I keep hearing that Watson was directly ‘attacking’ McGraw. I have my doubts. I have seen the talk where Watson took Paula Kirby to task for being oblivious to inequities in the treatment of women, and she was quite polite and respectful in doing it (uh-oh–she used the acceptable “tone”). I suspect that the criticism levied against McGraw was nowhere near as vicious or one-sided as has been implied.

    Also, I talked to Paula Kirby after she’d been publicly criticized. She was far more mature about it than Stef McGraw — she actually thought about the points, accepted some, modified her thinking a little. Not once did she suggest that it was inappropriate for her views to find open disagreement in a talk at a meeting, which is just the strangest thing in this argument — where is the clause that confers complete immunity to public discussion for certain people? People name me all the time, sometime quite nastily. I didn’t know I could just complain that they’re not allowed to say my name or quote me.


    1. You have 105 readers for every word you write. Watson claims 7,000 (or maybe 9,000) and not only had the audience at the conference, but the potential audience of every blogger there. McGraw probably has a few hundred (or however many comparatively few followers). Do you see the problem?


  14. The dispute arising from when it is appropriate for a speaker to challenge the opinion of an audience member in a public forum, along with considerations of the etiquet appropriate for such an action, is very separate from the ill-advised rant of Dawkins.

    Assuming he wasn’t angling for satire. I have hard time believing that the poster boy for reason would unleash that kind of bitter and irrational attack and actually mean it. Western women need to shut up because they’ve got it easy? Really? Somebody tell me he’s having the blogosphere on, or that someone from hacked his comment account that day.


  15. I left the following comment on a post about this topic at

    While I certainly don’t agree with Richard Dawkins’ response, to the Rebecca Watson incident, I do agree with what he says in comment # 50 at

    “No, I obviously don’t get it. I will gladly apologise if somebody will calmly and politely, without using the word fuck in every sentence, explain to me what it is that I am not getting.”


  16. Susan Silberstein: You have 105 readers for every word you write. Watson claims 7,000 (or maybe 9,000) and not only had the audience at the conference, but the potential audience of every blogger there. McGraw probably has a few hundred (or however many comparatively few followers). Do you see the problem?

    No, because that’s not how this interwebby thing works. When I criticize something, that means 105 readers see that something; when Watson does, 104 people see that something. This is only a problem if you assume that all those powers of 10 are mindless zombies who blindly accept the first thing they read, and don’t pay any attention to linked texts. All you have to do is look at those bloated comment threads on my site to see that this is not true.

    With all this attention, McGraw has greatly expanded the number of people who have seen her argument. People who are confident in their position should not be dismayed when their words are more widely disseminated, even if it is in the vehicle of criticism. You think I got all my traffic because only people who agreed with me ever linked to me?


  17. John S. Wilkins:
    So if I want to destroy you, I should stop linking to you? BWAHAHAHA! Now I know your weakness, Myers!

    Well, no. You not linking to me would have negligible effect.

    Oooh, snap!


  18. I seem to have missed something. Did Rebecca Watson just escape being raped by the skin of her teeth? Did Richard Dawkins write something which trivialized rape and the experiences of those who have survived violent sexual assault?


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