When Rebecca commented about Stef McGraw’s commentary in her talk at a the CFI Student Leadership Conference, at which Stef was in attendance as a student leader, there were those who complained that this was unfair; Rebecca has a big presence and a resounding voice on the Internet and in the Skeptics and Atheists communities, and for good reason. Therefore, when she speaks critically of a person or a person’s ideas, where that person has less of a voice, who is less well known or less well established, that could be seen as somehow unfair, or at least, uneven.
On the other and, Rebecca certainly has not only a right, but in her role, a responsibility to speak out and she was in fact responding to public comments Stef had made.
There is an irony here which has been pointed out a few times: Rebecca was speaking as a leader in the skeptics community to other leaders or future leaders in the skeptics community. She was not speaking as a notable star before her fans, but rather, as an established representative among emerging representatives. Saying it yet another way, the Rebecca-Stef differential in power was surely less than some insisted it was, and was transient in any event.
And, all of this is significantly diminished in relative importance by the two or three remarks made on Pharyngula (PZ Myers’ blog) by Richard Dawkins. Whatever differential in bigness of voice may have existed between Rebecca and Stef is miniaturized by the colossal size gap between the voice of Richard Dawkins and pretty much everybody else.
I think it is perfectly reasonable, and actually rather important, to discuss this differential. The effects of different size voices in our variously overlapping communities are rather obvious and they matter. At no point should someone like Rebecca, in relation to Stef, be asked to quiet down, and at no point should Richard Dawkins be told to shut up either. The insistence that Rebecca was wrong to disagree with a mere little person is just another form of silencing and it should not be tolerated. But, having said that, we can all recognize the differences in strength and reach of voice and what effect that has on our overall goals and on functionality within the community.
Face it, there are big people and there are followers. Not everyone can be classified into either category (actually, most people probably can’t be) but there is enough of a fan-phenomenon that bigness of voice can have some fairly absurd effects. There are followers of various well read blogs who will pretty much go along with whatever Simon says (Simon is a variable, you fill in the name). I have seen Simon make a remark that is tongue in cheek, or simply mis-stated, or perhaps intentionally vague, only to have the followers embarrass themselves by going along with it or being confused about what was meant.
The bigness of the voice matters. I did not particularly feel that Rebecca crossed some boundary when she remarked on Stef’s remarks. I think the accusation that Rebecca had screwed this up was little more than post-hoc hate mongering. But, the problem referenced is real and worthy of discussion. How do people like Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, and Rebecca Watson mitigate against the negative effects of their bigness? How do they even identify it? How do we deal with this as a community? I assume this all falls in the category of basic privilege checking, which some people are already good at, others perhaps need to improve.
Well? How do we address this? (Place your answers in the comment section below.)