The Ferrett wrote a blog post a while back that, among other things, talked about his experiences being bullied in high school.
Witness my hunched teenage back, creeping through the hallways like a thief from door to door, spine flexed in submission from one too many vicious slaps on the back of the neck. Watch my eyes; no, scratch that – you CAN’T watch them, because my eyes slide away from yours the instant you make eye contact, darting off like startled goldfish, terrified of human reaction. Watch my arms instead; note the way they clutch my books in eternal paranoia, knowing that someone might slap them out of my grasp at any moment.
Witness the books. They’re hidden in my arms like refugees.
In the tight social net of high school, any individual thought is perceived as a threat. And must be crushed. Books and games that lie unapproved must be destroyed…
…That, or the spirit which flaunts them.
This boy has been successfully stamped down.
This is the story of a boy who, as the target of bullying, has decided to do what seems to be the only option: be as invisible as possible; don’t stand out, don’t say anything weird, don’t appear to think anything weird, etc. etc. This is a boy who has decided that the solution to being bullied for being different is to dedicate himself to being as inconspicuous and not-obviously-different as possible to avoid the slings and arrows. The story continues…
Knowing that I’m in for humiliation, I go to my first class. People are snickering. Josh, the jock who really has it in for me, immediately starts in before the entire class in the three minutes before the teacher shows up. Oh, he’s been humiliating me all along, but this is the best material he’s had in weeks – an obviously embarrassed nerd, coming in with splotches all over his neck. He leaps up out of his chair, prancing before me in sheer mockery:
“Hey, look at STEINMETZ!” he says, pointing at me with glee. “Guessa guy got LUCKY! Musta been a real dog, she’s goin’ with him. So didja get any last night, Steinmetz? Didja? Did our little boy get some nice little thang lass night, huh?”
The girls around me tried to shush Josh, so shamed were they for me.
And that’s when I realized that this was it. My life was being chosen… and it was gonna be chosen BY me or FOR me. I had finally done something cool, and I was STILL being humiliated for it. I could hunch down, endure his vicious jocularity, and take it in stride…
But I was not going to take it any more.
“Didja get any? Huh? Didja GET any?”
“No,” I said clearly, rising out of my chair. I faced him directly and placed my fingers a quarter of an inch apart from each other. “But I came THAT close.”
Josh slumped back in his chair, stunned. The class fell silent.
“You weren’t supposed to answer me,” he said quietly, his face pale.
It’s an absolutely wonderful blog post for a lot of reasons, and I highly recommend everyone read the entire thing, but I’ve picked out what I think is the most important part to illustrate the point I want to make to the skeptic community.
“I had finally done something cool, and I was STILL being humiliated for it.”
To me, one of the most significant realizations expressed in this post is in that line. The realization that this bully was going to be a bully no matter what. They would bully him for anything, whether it be something stereotypically uncool or not, whether it be this interest or that interest, this team, that accomplishment, etc. The point wasn’t what he was doing, it was how what he was doing could be made into a tool to bully him.
The skeptic community has a problem with bullies. It has problems with misogyny, racism, trans phobia, all in addition to the usual problems that plague any burgeoning movement. There are people in the skeptic movement who have spent a lot of time talking about ways to heal the “deep rifts” in our community recently. There has been a lot of talk about civility, restraint, politeness, giving people benefit of the doubt, etc. While I’m all for everyone developing the skills to step up and debate ideas in a productive manner, I’m also for everyone recognizing the reality of the situation in which we find ourselves. The reality is that some people deserve civility, and some don’t. Some people, when dealt with civilly, will reflect that civility back, and engage in productive discussion, and some will not.
Some people will not engage civilly with anyone who holds different ideas than they do. These people are not just waiting for someone to be polite, they are not uncivil as a result of being treated uncivilly, they are uncivil because that is how they have decided to engage, end of story. They are uncivil because they are assholes. We could be as magnificently civil as humanly possible, and they would not engage in a manner any more respectful than before.
In the same way that no pattern of “appropriate” action, no matter how perfectly, magnificently conformist, was going to stop the bully from the above post from bullying Ferrett, no amount of civility, no matter how perfectly executed, is going to stop people who have decided to be assholes from being assholes. What everyone needs to acknowledge, right now, is that while sometimes civility is an effective way to encourage productive discussion, it will never work against people who are not interested in productive discussion, and there are a lot of people in our community right now who have proven, repeatedly, that they are not interested in productive discussion. These people’s hearts are not going to grow three sizes because we start giving them undeserved benefit of the doubt, because we stop calling misogyny misogyny, or because we add some pleases and thank you’s to the discussion. They are bullies, and they should be treated like it, and they should not be tolerated, and we should not blame ourselves or our allies for refusing to tolerate people who have done nothing to earn that tolerance.
The problem with the bully in Ferrett’s story was not that Ferrett had failed to find the perfectly correct way to act, and the problem with the bullies in the skeptic community is not that we have failed to find the perfectly correct way to be civil that will magically cause assholes to be civil as well. There doesn’t seem to be anyone left in the atheist community who thinks that if we are just polite enough to the conservative religious right, they will start engaging in reasonable ways. How people can see how absurd that idea is with respect to extreme religious conservatives, but fail to see how absurd it is with respect to some of the blatant bullying and misogyny that has been going on in our community recently is, frankly, utterly baffling to me.