There has been a profound schism in the online atheist community. While I have not been directly involved in any way, it has involved a great many people that I care about and respect (and I find a number of them on each side of this complex and burgeoning issue). And because I have so much respect for these people (Kyle, Steve, Scientist Mel, Shannon Q, Godless Engineer Godless Iowan, Missus Snarky just to name a few) who are either at each other’s throats, or just so profoundly wounded (and in the hopes of offering some insight), I feel I must weigh in.
Things started with a NonSequitur episode on The Impact of Slavery, which had on it a guest who had been accused of (and even confessed to) multiple instances of sexual assault and statutory rape. He was, for all intents and purposes, a neo-Nazi, there to argue for the benefits of slavery.
This show took an unexpected turn when, instead of discussing the intended topic of slavery, the guests turned to the topic of ethno-states, a topic on which they both agreed. They then engaged the hosts on this topic, rather than each other.
There was considerable backlash regarding this program. In part it revolved around how much Kyle and Steve knew of the guest’s history before having him on, and a feeling that they had been coy or misleading about it.
This led to a follow-up show about the virtue of platforming people with controversial ideas.
Well I think this was an interesting and worthwhile topic, I think in many ways it missed the point and what people were truly upset about on the original show. I don’t think it was the guest’s ideas that troubled people, or that he was being given a platform to voice those ideas– many knew in advance that this would be the topic. Indeed, it was the individual himself that people had a problem with, and the crimes he was accused of. People didn’t want him in particular getting the platform. Was there truly no better person to voice those ideas and to take his position? Could the show not be delayed until such a person could be found?
However, this was a difficult situation for everyone. During the follow up show there were many criticisms levied, and while a few may have had some merit, it seemed to me that many were simply a stand-in for the fundamental complaint over the guest himself (and how and when his history was known). There seemed to be a dizzying array of criticisms that never seemed to be entirely on the mark, and defenses that never seemed entirely to satisfy, and thus a growing frustration on both sides.
There was then a rebuttal show on another channel. While it seems some effort was made to be respectful, a lot of frustration also seemed to pour out in other ways. We all have nagging complaints about each other, and sometimes a larger event like this can seem like an opportunity to vent those issues, but it turns what might be intended as a respectful discussion into a tangential hitjob.
Indeed, a friend of mine said “I had a lot of people who used to be good people who I had to block over this”.
They’re still good people.
Did Kyle and Steve ignore evidence? What did they know and when? Why didn’t they let this be discussed with the guest?
Honestly, I’ve heard a lot of different answers, and what it sounds like to me is two guys who came under a lot of fire they weren’t expecting and didn’t have answers lined up right away. It happens. I think a lot of the people criticizing the show didn’t have their criticisms lined up right away, and were taking potshots at it (the quality has been going down for a while, the moderates aren’t good enough, Steve needs to trim his beard… there may or may not be valid points here, but is this an opportunity to shit all over the show, or to try to solve a genuine problem or two?).
It is my understanding (and I may be wrong) that the hosts knew his background. So the question is this: Do you platform him knowing this?
If you give him the platform, seems to me reasonable to say the topic of his past is out of bounds. You need to know that as a condition of doing it. So do you do it?
Does it help him?
Of course. If it didn’t, he wouldn’t be on (ostensibly. He’s an idiot, and likes to admit to felonies on national platforms, but that’s neither here nor there).
So why do it?
We were talking about giving voice to the people you oppose. The black college student who invites a member of KKK to speak at his university, the Jew who invites a Muslim to speak at her temple. If our ideas are better, they can survive challenge, and by exposing them to our ideas they are challenged themselves.
It is not an easy process, nor is it a fast one. He reaps the benefits sooner and in a more obvious way.
But look at what this has done already. Everybody knows who he is…. And everyone is talking about him and his ideas, but not in the way he had wanted. And awareness of what he did wrong and just why it’s a crime has gone up. Why are people like this so disgusting? How has he been allowed to thrive? What constitutes consent and what does it take for there to be this level of disconnect in a human being that he can do this and brag about it.
His appearance on NonSequitor is a chance for us to double down on why we’re glad we’re us and not him, and to re-establish how and why that is, and just what’s wrong with him.
He’s neo-Nazi, and if you want to see just why these people are horrible, horrible people, the only way to do it is to bring them out into the light where everyone can see them. And you’re not going to find one that’s a good guy, you’re not going to find one that’s going to pass a background check. If you could do that, he probably wouldn’t be a neo-Nazi.
This comes down to a question of vales, not do Kyle and Steve find their guest’s actions acceptable (they don’t). It’s do they give his ideas a fair shot (and why).
It’s true neo-Nazis don’t care about free speech… They’d wipe it out if they got into power. So would many theists. That’s fascism. But we know that’s fascism because we’ve been exposed to it. There’s no mystery. We’ve seen it. And there’s a risk to doing it, to be sure, but tell me any activity without risk. That NonSeq might be able to point to an Incel member who quit in no way vindicates them of anything, but that there’s a risk for abuse of their platform is in and of itself not a reason to stop platforming people or a counter to their philosophy; there’s risk in shutting down and platforming no-one. It is because our values are superior to theirs that they are so important.
My father was a criminal defense attorney for 20 years. I teach law. Everyone wonders how you can defend someone you know is guilty (and damn right you know, you almost always know, it isn’t hard). Well that’s the system, that’s how and why it works, because everyone gets that voice, a competent and credible attorney (and it makes it harder to wrongly convict the innocent because the prosecution must prove EVERY case. Screw up, and the guy gets off, guilty or not, so a prosecutor learns to do it right and not cut corners!).
Kyle and Steve aren’t lawyers, but they’re putting information out there. Sometimes it’s for entertainment, sometimes for education, and if the balance goes too far one way or another, yeah, they’re going to get criticized, and that’s fine. And the original show did in fact go off the rails in that the guests ended up in agreement and far off topic. This gave a perception of a poorly produced show (I’ve no idea how anyone could have seen it coming… a white neo-nazi and black anti-slaver sharing a bromance on the show?). But the sensitivity towards the topic (and genuine lack of sensitivity towards Scientist Mel, both over the Incel guy and over the Superchat) has led to a huge fissure and attacks on YouTube and Twitter over manageable things (yes, the rape jokes in chat are a real problem).
I understand everyone who object to the platforming of their guest (and indeed, at first, I thought their main mistake was simply not finding an alternate neo-nazi to fill in). And I don’t think this is a black or white issue, and it’s one I think we all struggle with. I would hope reasonable people could at least see the other side and understand that it’s a reasoned position, not put entire friendships on this. It is their show, they’ve a right to do whatever they want, nobody denies that. But that aside, as difficult as it is, whether you like it or not, it’s a judgement call, and my judgement?… They were right. And I’m proud of that.