Ophelia Benson’s Medicine

There’s some serious hypocrisy flying around some quarters of the Free Thought Blogs. Ophelia Benson, PZ Myers and others are fighters for social justice, the feminist cause and the battle against sexual abuse and rape, which can only be applauded, and would be, were it not for their methods.

Michael Nugent has posted another clarification of his position on these matters. He has become the target for their rhetoric and misrepresentation, because he has objected to their rhetoric and misrepresentation when it has been directed at others, such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Michael Shermer. It seems ‘any critic of mine is a friend of my enemies and therefore an enemy of mine’.

[UPDATE – while writing this I see that Nugent has another post up covering the fact that Myers has not responded to Nugent’s call for an apology, after Myers said Nugent defends rapists.]

I’ve covered some of this before, specifically about how Dawkins is being misrepresented, and on the hypocrisy of Myers complaining about the ill-considered rhetoric of Dawkins and yet engaging in similar ill-consideration himself that resulted in misrepresentations of Dawkins. There I also pointed to Michael Nugent’s response to it all as one of the only sane assessments on the matter. And it’s as a result of Nugent’s criticisms there that Ophelia Benson continued her attack on Nugent, and had Adam Lee jumping in with both feet – firmly in his mouth. And Nugent responds again, with restraint and calm reason.

And it goes around some more, and Nugent finds he has to make yet another clarification of the misrepresentations of him.

You’ll notice that Nugent’s posts are very specific in addressing his attackers, very calm and considered, and necessarily spell out, repeatedly, in great detail, where they are going wrong. Some comments on his posts have suggested he give up and ignore the attacks, rather than give them air time. There’s always the danger that he’ll suffer the TL;DR short attention span response. But others, I think rightly, are supportive of Nugent’s efforts as being worth the trouble. The smears and misrepresentations should be documented in this manner, for the record.

The hypocrisy of Benson, Myers and others of the #FTBullies extends to their unwillingness to criticise the many viscous followers they have on their blogs. There are some clearly false accusations flying around about Dawkins and Harris, and latterly Nugent, such as calling them misogynists, or even supporters of rapists. In Nugent’s case Myers seems to have been pretty clear that he considers Nuget a defender of rapists that comment on Nugent’s blog, and holds Nugent responsible for that in some way; were it true in any case – and Myers offers no evidence of this claim.

Maybe I’ve missed it, but I haven’t seen Myers or Benson comment on their own blogs with something like, “OK guys, I’m criticising Dawkins and Harris for careless or even harmful rhetoric. Let’s not get into that ourselves.” Instead, they continue with the misrepresentations, and allow the more extreme of their followers to jump to the nastier conclusions on their behalf [UPDATE: except in the latest Twitter outburst Myers is responsible for all his own work].

I thought it might be helpful to Myers, Benson and Lee and others engaged in these campaigns against Dawkins, Harris and Nugent, if I quoted from a book a read some time ago. It was aimed at the sloppy thinking and failure to search for the truth, in favour of one’s emotive commitments, and directed generally against the religious, New Agers and post-modern relativists and other pedallers of flim-flam [h/t Pinker]. I’ve inserted and emphasised where I think Benson and co. might not get the message from the original.

Confusion and obfuscation are arguably the best way to go. Obfuscation is legal, it’s easy, there’s always an abundant supply and it often does the trick. The more unclear it is exactly what one is arguing, the more trouble one’s opponents will have in refuting one’s claims.

And this is why Nugent’s posts are increasingly detailed in refuting the charges from Myers et al.

Asking unanswerable questions is an inconclusive but useful tactic. … The fact that no one can answer such questions is taken by the pure of heart and limpid of mind to entail divine [self-appointed] explanation. The fact that such explanation allows the questions to be asked all over again seems not to trouble the divinely [self-appointedly] inclined.

In fact, the contortions are a giveaway not only that the explanation is not the right one, but that something is badly wrong with the method of generating the explanation, that things are back to front [mirroring the Vatican?], that the enquirer has started, not with a desire to produce an explanation, but with the desire to produce a particular explanation, or a particular kind of explanation.

What should trump what? Should rational enquiry, sound evidence, norms of accuracy, logical inference trump human needs, desires, fears, hopes? Or should our wishes and beliefs, politics and morality, dreams and visions be allowed to shape our decisions about what constitutes good evidence, what criteria determine whether an explanation is supported by evidence or not, what is admissible and what isn’t?

The truth is important to us, but so are our needs and desires and hopes and fears. Without them we wouldn’t even recognise ourselves. Without them, we think, we would merely be something like an adding machine. An adding machine can get at the truth, given the right input, but it doesn’t care. We want the truth but we also want to care – wanting the truth is indeed inseparable from caring. We want it, we care about it, it matters, and so do various other things we want and care about, some of which are threatened by the truth. … But we have to choose. … If we’ve never bothered to decide that truth matters, and that it shouldn’t be subject to our wishes – that, in short, wishful thinking [that everyone should agree with our gross characterisations] is bad thinking – then we are likely to be far less aware of the tension. We simply allow ourselves, without much worry or reflection, to assume that the way humans want the world to be is the way the world is [populated by privileged old white male misogynists, as we see it], more or less by definition – and endemic confusion and muddle [and the need for endless clarification] is the result.

Religion and related modes of thinking such as New Age, Wicca, paganism, the vaguely named ‘spirituality’, [and the social justice wars?] are where this outcome is most obvious. Public discourse features talk of [god stuff, or charges of rape] … without apparently stopping to notice that there may be reasons to prefer true beliefs rather than false ones.

What reasons? There are many. One is truth is something of an all-or-nothing proposition. It is intimately related to concepts such as consistency, thoroughness, universal applicability, and the like. If one decides that truth doesn’t matter in one area what is to prevent one deciding it doesn’t matter in any, in all?

Our internal private thoughts might not matter at all. … But how we influence each other, how we teach – by writing, by journalism, by talking on the radio, on platforms, in churches, in mosques, in classrooms, [how we use blogs to espouse rape claims rather than official channels] – it does matter. If we are going to influence people, it’s important we get it right.

If we minimize true facts that we dislike too often, we may lose sight of the fact that it is our reaction and degree of attention that is subject to our wills, and start to think that the facts themselves are subject to our wills. But on the whole they’re not.

But then this …

There are fields where indifference to truth is no handicap – advertising, PR, …, lobbying, marketing, In fact there are whole large, well paid, high status areas of the economy where truth-scepticism, wishful thinking, fantasy, suspension of disbelief, deletion of the boundary between dreams and reality, are not only not a handicap, but essential to the enterprise. … We need our dreams and stories, our imaginaries. They are good for us. We need the cognitive rest from confronting reality all day, we need to be able to imagine alternatives, we need the pleasure of fantasy. But we also need to hang on to our awareness of the difference between dreams and reality.

No! Some of these, advertising, PR, lobbying, marketing – and blogging unsubstantiated rape claims and naming as perpetrators people who have had no recourse to justice – are precisely the areas where we are seeing no handicap to the perpetrators of lies, but where the wider social handicap is far greater.

There is a profound irony in the situation [super fucking irony in this case] – in postmodernist epistemic relativism. It is thought to be, and often touted as, emancipatory. It is supposed to set us all free: free from all those coercive repressive restrictive hegemonic totalizing old ideas. From white male western reason and science, from the requirement to heed the boundary between science and pseudo science, from the need to offer genuine evidence for our versions of history, from scholars who point out we have our facts wrong. … Take away reasoned argument and the requirement for reference to evidence – by discrediting them via deconstruction and rhetoric, via scare quotes and mocking capital letters, and what can be left other than force of one kind or another? … This is emancipatory? Not in our view. It is not emancipatory because it helps emotive rhetoric to prevail over reason and evidence, which means it helps falsehood prevail over truth.

The book? “Why Truth Matters” – Ophelia Benson, Jeremy Stangroom.

Super fucking irony.

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