Power and Presence on the Internet and Elsewhere

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… continuing ….

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.)

And now, on to the next issue…

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10 thoughts on “Power and Presence on the Internet and Elsewhere

  1. It would be interesting if you were only allowed (by some magic technology) to comment on someone’s writing if you’d met them a couple of times in person previously.

  2. What about the differential in venue? In the comments I recall seeing, the argument wasn’t so much that Rebecca shouldn’t have responded to Stef but rather the manner in which she responded. Instead of responding via a blog post it was the fact that she called her out during a talk where she was sitting right there and couldn’t respond that ticked people off.

  3. I still don’t think the use of a platform granted with the understanding that one would be representing a broader community to further a personal dispute in an asymmetric fashion is appropriate, and am disappointed that people seem to be so determined to misunderstand this idea that they inevitably bring “how bad” what Rebecca said was or wasn’t as if that was relevant.

    That said, that misstep was a tiny part of what happened and Rebecca was on balance in the right in the broader events of the elevator thing.

  4. Good points. A few possible counter-points:

    At academic conferences, people routinely stand up and trash (and I mean TRASH, not what Rebecca did) each other right there in front of each other. Im not saying that’s good or bad, just mentioning it. I don’t know how a leadership conference like this normally goes, never been to one.

    Also, what is the timing here regarding Stef’s video? Rebecca was an invited guest at a conference sponsored by her group. Was it appropriate to start a fight with a guest using a podcast? I’m just asking. What if the person with the widely known persona had been the one to launch a critique via a podcast?

    It is possible that none of that is important. What might be more important is the simple question: Should Rebecca have expected her off the cuff remark about Elevator Guy to have been left alone, or should she have expected there to be a comment here and there about it?

    If the answer to this question is the latter, then can we re-ask the question for Stef: Should she have expected her video blog to be the final word, or should she have expected a response?

    I am not sure that anyone is arguing that either woman should not have said something when they said it. The question may be more of whether or not the comments were properly set up and contextualized and delivered, and if not, how could that have been different.

  5. My understanding (which may be in error) was that Rebecca spoke at a seminar concerning women/representation/sexism, and that Stef was in the audience. Stef spoke out in public on her organisation’s blog, which made it look like her organisation supported her views. Rebecca pointed out that this was unhelpful when trying to provide a more inclusive environment for women…and there was a Q&A session where Stef could have spoken up and challenged Rebecca’s viewpoint. The room was full of people interested in the issue, and they could have had a tremendous dialogue on the subject.

    Yes, there was a power differential, but Rebecca was addressing the actual subject of the seminar…and Stef had the chance to rebut her in front of the same audience. Rebecca did not insult, demean, or belittle Stef personally – she addressed Stef’s ideas on the subject at hand.

    Richard belittled and insulted Rebecca personally, on a third party’s blog. For no reason. He was not involved in any of the events, he was not attending a seminar on the subject, he was not involved in trying to address a major topic of concern – he randomly reached out with language intended to cut Rebecca into pieces, and his fanboys cheered him on.

    I don’t see these situations as even remotely similar.

    If we are going to address power differentials, we also need to address how those power differentials are used. Based on how everything fell out, Rebecca attempted to address her differential with Stef by making it clear that she was addressing Stef’s ideas and not attacking Stef as a person. I don’t see how it can be done any better than that unless we simply start ignoring everything that other people say so we don’t accidentally hurt their feelings by debating an issue with them.

  6. From what I remember (haven’t seen the talk in months) this event wasn’t only a gathering of leaders and future leaders but one set up almost for mentoring. A safe friendly environment where those just starting to come into their own could approach and listen to others who were already very visible ‘activists.’

    Going off that, I can see why Ms. Watson’s chosen method of rebuking Ms. McGraw can be seen as inappropriate. For starters, criticizing someone in front of all their peers is likely to create a sense of shame and even resentment in the person being criticized. Doubly so if you don’t expect it or don’t see yourself as having failed.

    A mentor who’s seeking to educate or correct should be mindful of how their criticism is likely to be received. They aren’t speaking to a group (say Republicans) or to someone actively trying to undermine them. They are speaking one on one to someone (often) willing to learn and be corrected but still very much capable of feeling humiliated, hurt or as if whatever trust they had is broken.

    It’s also why when mentoring it’s important to give the mentee a chance to voice their opinion and objections in an environment where they feel such objections would be welcomed. Obviously a Q&A would not be that kind of an environment. There’s already a million and one reasons someone would not feel comfortable arguing when singled out from the group they are in.

    So Ms. Watson, if we believe she was acting as a mentor during that event, should have kept the discussion at a personal level even if only to avoid unnecessarily causing Ms. McGraw to feel singled out in the crowd (which you could argue is one of the responsibilities of someone acting as a mentor).

    Anyway, that’s just my thinking as to why what Ms. Watson can seen as wrong. Am I off base or in the wrong ballpark here?

  7. On the other hand, Rebecca is the David Letterman of the Skeptics movement: Fast witted, quick on her feat, very smart very funny (way smarter and funnier than Letterman). If you play with fire, you’re gonna get a little … warm, at least.

  8. @Julian:

    Good points, but I disagree. As I said, my knowledge of this may be faulty, but as I understand it:

    1) Rebecca had been discussing sexism in atheism
    2) Stef’s podcast (posted on her organisation’s site) was incredibly dismissive about Rebecca’s statements and her discussion of sexism
    3) The seminar was about supporting women and making the atheist community a more welcoming place for us

    I don’t think you can separate that out, especially if the conference was based on mentoring. Rebecca had been talking about a subject of great concern to a number of women, and Stef used an official platform to tear that down. Rebecca used an official platform to reopen that topic and explain why she felt it was inappropriate to try and shut down a discussion about sexism.

    If it was entirely personal, I think my opinion might be different. However, this wasn’t personal – Rebecca was standing up to an atheist organisation leader (albeit a student one) who was contributing to making atheism a ‘chilly’ place for women. She did so publicly as a voice for women who had no way to speak up.

    I respect that.

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