The False Equivalence Game

Not long after I became active in the skeptics and secularist community, the so-called “elevatorgate” incident happened. I was quickly introduced to the sexism that exists in the community. I mean, sexism is everywhere, especially online, but I expected this community to be somewhat more enlightened. It seems I was wrong. The snowball has been steadily rolling for the past couple of years now, and a number of individuals have taken it upon themselves, publicly or anonymously, to target and harass bloggers like for instance those of FreethoughtBlogs and Skepchick, and also individuals like the organiser of the Women in Secularism conference.

Anyhow. One person, Lee Moore, has taken it upon himself to be a negotiator of sorts in this conflict. Not in itself a problematic thing to do, but he clearly does not understand the underlying conflict as he seems to think this is a dispute between two equal sides in something he choose to label an “infight” rather than a case of women speaking up against repeated physical and verbal harassment spanning over many years. By engaging people from one side who, among other things, are presenting their version of this conflict on known anti-feminist hate sites, he is effectively acknowledging these people’s position by inviting them to the table.

I have had a lengthy discussion with Lee Moore on the Atheism+ facebook group. I’ll repost key parts of our discussion here as I think I expressed my thoughts on his attempts to solve this issue pretty thoroughly. Most of the following text is copy/paste from the discussion, though I have trimmed and rephrased my comments somewhat to make the more readable in a blog format. His comments are quoted as-is.

A mediator should be impartial in a conflict, but I find his position to be heavily biased in favour of the anti-feminist gang and their position. I also find his self-appointment as mediator somewhat pretentious. Although he clearly states that he does not support any of the harassment, he still goes far to validate their main arguments. He responds to my claim that he is biased by stating:

Is anyone unbiased? Would anyone be better suited to put this together? Please let me know I would love to get them on board.

You seem to be missing the point. This false equivalence game you’re playing where you pose the two “sides” as the same, with the “truth” somewhere in the middle, is a futile effort and does nothing but validate and encourage sexists like Vacula and others. That’s why (almost, I don’t know) no one from the group that is targeted with this bigotry is interested in taking part in this project.

Also, this is not “infighting” as you claimed in another reply to another commenter. It is the women of the movement finally having had it and saying that enough is enough. I’ve been on the sideline of this since the beginning. I was pretty new to the secularist/skeptics community when this all started a couple of years ago, but after I talked to some of the new female friends I made when becoming active in the community, and who are leaders of various parts of it, I learned about these issues and the fact that they are common. There was not really any “side to pick” for me any more than there is a side to pick on any social issue where a steep privilege gradient separates the groups. This is not an issue that can be resolved by both sides compromising a little each. Either the anti-feminists get their act together and stop their bullshit, or the rest of us will just continue on our own and make our own community – as we are already doing. I greatly disliked the Christian patriarchy I grew up with, and I am not replacing it with a secular patriarchy instead. Even if it is, as a compromise, only sexist on Mondays and Tuesdays and every other weekend or something.

There is no doubt Moore believes the two sides of the conflict are equal in terms of how this conflict is progressing in the blogosphere.

I stated that both sides were the same as far as who is perpetuating this conflict.

Which is where we disagree. There is a privilege gradient at play here, and this is precisely why the way you depict this conflict at the current stage is a false equivalence.

Did you know that the other side of this conflict is growing? They arent some trend that will fade away in short time. While I do not have exact figures on their rate of growth I am aware that just as many leave our community due to the infighting many take sides and many are taking the side that you do not stand on.

Let us assume I am taking your word for it and this growth is true, which I don’t, it makes no difference anyway. This is just an argumentum ad populum in any case.

I have seen some in your side bill this as feminists vs anti-feminists, I have seen some in the other side bill this as anti-male vs atheists.

Well, the “anti-feminist” description is valid seeing as people like Vacula is associated with MRA groups already established as anti-feminist hate groups by third parties. The “anti-male” accusation is however unfounded in this case as there are plenty of men on “our side”. Note that there’s a difference between “anti-male” and “anti-feminist” as male is a gender and feminism is a cause (if you will). This distinction is also easily lost in your attempt at setting the “sides” up as equivalent.

If you are new to this conflict and all you hear is that there is a side full of misanthropy would you not wish to stand against it. I want to get the truth about this conflict out to all who will listen and at the same time demonstrate that we can work together.

I am not new to the movement nor the conflict, however this all first blew up when I was new.

Now that I have moderators that are acceptable to all involved in these talks I will be taking on the role of facilitator and organizer. This talk is going to happen. You have the option of being a part of it. Or you can keep arguing with me about it but I doubt you will change my mind. I just ask that if you do not wish to be a part of it you do nothing to hinder the attempt.

I am not in a position to hinder anyone to do anything, but I feel obligated to point out why this seems to be nothing but a game to people. A game that is dishonestly presented and dishonestly played. Which is why so many people refuse to play it.

He goes on to respond to me with a numbered list:

1) privilege gradient? The hell is that?

A gradient is a term from fluid mechanics (that’s where I learned it anyway) that describes the direction of increase in a field of varying strength or intensity. It can also be described as two points on two hight curves on a map. In terms of privilege it describes the direction of increasing privilege between various social groups. Men/women, white/non-white, gay/straight, cis/trans etc. Oppression travels down these gradients and the activism pushes back up it.

The privileged party tends to be ignorant of the reality that the under-privileged experiences. Equating the oppressor and the activist is the false equivalence I am talking about. I assume you already would agree that in such a case this is not two equal sides in a conflict. I suspect the point you’re making is that there is no privilege gradient in this conflict and therefore this does not apply. This is also why I claim that you are not unbiased as you, by the very fact of (I assume from what you’re saying) denying this gradient is at play here, will have chosen a side. This is exactly what Vacula is doing.

2) I was pointing out that this isnt going to go away on its own. You dont have to take my word for it, do your own research if you feel the need.

I don’t expect this to go away any time soon either. Even if 99% of the community thought this shit was fine, it wouldn’t make a shred of difference to what the rest of us would be doing. As others have stated, that’s not the sort of community we want to be a part of. It is not our community.

3) Vacula has refused to associate himself with the Mens Rights folks. The anti-feminist description is not valid even if I bought the guilty be association thing. I am aware of the differences in those terms, I was just sharing what I have heard from others.

Has he? (See my link to the MRA site at the top of this page.)

4) I have not in anyway made this into a personal game. I have no interest in this other than to see the conflict end. I would step away from this in totality if I thought someone else was willing to and could handle it better. It has brought me a great deal of grief.

Maybe, but you seem to feel this is the only way to settle this conflict. I have a much better solution. STOP FUCKING HARASSING WOMEN IN OUR COMMUNITY! It’s not that hard really.

5) You of course could hinder this project. When I release the names of those who have agreed to speak I fully expect many to write to them asking them to drop out.

I do not see this as a game nor do the hordes of supporters this project has attracted. Many of us only see it as a potential means to move our community towards rational and fact based discussions. There is nothing dishonest about what we are trying to accomplish.

Don’t worry. I’m not the type to write personal emails to people I disagree with to try to “talk them over to my side”. I’m the type that gets disappointed when people I otherwise respect display their ignorance from privilege, like Michael Shermer recently did, and get involved and say lots of dumb shit.

Privilege is not an impossible position to start from, it just takes more effort to empathise with the other group. We all need to do it, because the vast majority of us have some sort of privilege along one or more of these gradients. I get the feeling Lee Moore is pretty comfortable with his male privilege and can’t quite see the world beyond it. All of my other flaws aside, I’m pretty well aware of the existence of male privilege, being a trans woman I have enjoyed it myself, and am now taking a dive down both the male/female and cis/trans privilege gradients. Maybe I would have been as ignorant as others of my privilege if it hadn’t been for this, I can’t say, but it seems to be perfectly possible to grasp this concept as many men in the community have already spoken up; not by “taking our side”, but acknowledging these are real things people in the community experience, even if they don’t.


It appears I made a mistake when thinking the discussion we had on the Atheism+ facebook group was publicly readable. Lee Moore contacted me and pointed this out and I have apologised for publishing quotes from what he thought was a closed discussion without asking him or informing him first. The group does have over 200 members though, so it is not as if this was a personal correspondence. I won’t take it down, but I’ll link to his latest post of his so-called “peace process”. It is available here. Unfortunately it still shows that he doesn’t understand the conflict at all. I guess we’ll see what comes out of it. Let’s at least hope the vicious attacks stop.

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  1. Xanthë says:

    I am tending to think Lee Moore is extremely naïve and ill-informed, and do not see this ending well as we know the likes of Vacula enjoy playing manipulative and abusive games for their own self-aggrandising notoriety.

  2. A Hermit says:

    It’s amazing how some people can hold two seemingly contradictory ideas in mind at the same time; I see the anti-feminists arguing on one hand that politely pointing out some semantic difficulties with a comment made by someone like Michael Shermer is just like NAZIS!!!11!!!, but threatening to throw acid in that person’s face is “just a joke…”

    No. These things are not the same…not the same at all…

  3. A Hermit says:

    More importantly, of course, your point about the “privilege gradient” is well made. Pushing back against the status quo of sexism and exclusion is about leveling that gradient; about establishing that level playing filed which Lee and others naively believe already exists.

    The anger and viciousness with which the defenders of the status quo are attacking their feminist critics is telling, and actually kind of encouraging. They are afraid. They are losing, and on some level I think they know it.

  4. Veronica says:

    Yeah. Exactly that. I’m in principle not opposed to efforts to try to calm this whole thing down, but Lee don’t seem to understand what the underlying issue is at all. He treats it as a disagreement-type fight, which I’m sure it looks like too from within the privilege-bubble.

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