Some Words On Things I’ve Pondered For A While

I am a person. So are you, and all of those around us – that we know and don’t know – are people as well. But isn’t it strange how easy it is to forget that when you can’t see their faces, or when you don’t interact in person? Isn’t it easy to sit at a computer and rant, rave, and project your dislike of ideas, before remembering that it’s not a computer you’re subjecting to that negativity, but a person. Isn’t it easy to turn someone into a snarling demon, or a sniveling child, when your computers separate you?

On Sunday I attended TEDx Bradford on Avon. The final speaker was Pip Utton with a talk titled ‘In the beginning was the word’, and it caused me to have a revelation of sorts. His talk wasn’t religious in nature – it focused on language, words, and communication, and the revelation I had was probably more a moment of clarity during which I realised that my words aren’t always used how I want them to be used. By me, as much as others.

Utton told the audience that if there was one thing to be taken away from his talk it was that saying something positive to others might be something we forget in a day or two, but that our kind words could stay with that person for their whole life. Words are that powerful and can have that much of an impact. As a blogger my words are permanently online (even if a post is removed, it still hangs around the internet like a ghost), and I realised that my words could stay with people for their whole lives, and that was a thought that scared me a bit because I haven’t always been the person I want to be, here on my blog – and I know why. It’s become clear over the last two months, you see.

Online you can become involved in debates when they don’t involve you, and you can project other peoples negative experiences onto your own without even realising it. Before you know it, you’re perception of your own experience is coloured with the negative perception others have of their similar experiences. Only they’re them and not you.

The injustices effecting other people in society are problems that we want to eradicate, but online, the dialogue moves along so quickly that you can find yourself caught up in the current and suddenly speaking as though you have experience of that which you wish to eradicate, when in reality what you have is an outsiders view of the problem.

It’s also easy to think that all of those who agree with you about an injustice think in the same way as you do, and that when they say things they mean those things in the same way that you do. That’s something I thought regarding the use of the word misogyny – I thought other bloggers were using it to describe certain behaviour in the same way that I was, when it turns out they probably weren’t. I thought the same of mansplaining  – a horrific turn of word that I thought others were using jokingly, when it turns out they’re probably not. It was something I saw directed at men who I happened to agree with on a subject recently, whose whole input was disregarded because of their gender, by people I thought I respected.

Hmmm, I pondered…

It’s similar to the experience I had after I blogged at The Heresy Club about the Page 3 debate. I never expected to be told by other people that I was ‘championing my own oppression’. I had obviously been too hopeful that people would see sense – or the lack of it – in the petition being discussed, as I did. Alas, they didn’t.

I’ve seen friends used as pawns in games and have been saddened by the actions of those I thought were rational people, and recently I was saddened to see my words misrepresented by users of the Atheism+ forum when, after commenting about a thread that I thought was particularly illogical on their forum, some users twisted what I had said to make it seem as though I had told Atheism+ to ‘fuck off and die‘ or that I despised them completely. I did not and do not. It was a ‘them and us’ attitude, if you will. I can never take seriously people who use absolutes when absolutes are not… absolute.

I get why they want their safe space and, although I have some reservations about the Atheism+ brand, I respect their decisions. It’s a shame that respect couldn’t be mutual.  I do want social justice, I do want equality, and society-wide respect, but I don’t want these things because I’m an atheist, or because I’m a secularist, or because I’m a feminist – I want them because I’m just that sort of person.

A final thought. Another speaker at TEDx Bradford on Avon – Veronica Hannon – spoke about creating communication that resonates and how we need to turn inwards to investigate who we are before projecting ideas. I’ve come to understand that I haven’t been doing enough of this. In the future I’m going to be a lot more careful about who I throw my lot in with, I’m going to think more carefully before acting on impulse, and I’m going to ask more questions of myself and others. I’m going to spread my skepticism equally to those who sound the same as I do, and those that don’t, and I’m not going to jump through hoops for anybody other than myself. I’m just that sort of person, the type who got a little lost along the way and thinks she might finally be back on the right track.

We’ll see.

About Hayley Stevens 420 Articles
Hayley is a ghost geek and started to blog in 2007. She uses scientific scepticism to investigate weird stuff and writes about it here while also speaking publicly about how to hunt ghosts as a skeptic.

14 Comments on Some Words On Things I’ve Pondered For A While

  1. Admitting to our own failings is difficult for any of us to do. With my health issues I’ve ahd to tackle a lot of my demons head on and admit certain truths to myself that are difficult. Bravo on this post Stevens.

  2. Excellent post. There’s some real soul-searching going on here and that’s, I think, what has been missing in all these crazy arguments. Everyone is so busy defending themselves or attacking others, few have stopped and said “Wait a minute. What does what I just wrote look like to *blank*? Do they understand what I’m saying, or are my words going through a prism of experience that is different than my own that is changing my intended meaning?” It’s really the hardest part of online communication. Good on you for recognizing it.

  3. I’ve worked in the human rights and special needs field, both voluntarily and professionally for a long time, and sometimes I get very worried that human beings are locked into some anthropological social structure none of us fully grasp because we are all immersed in it , where factions fight against each other putatively for philosophies they don’t truly espouse, and alpha individuals somehow rise to positions of prominence without having the best interests of those below them to heart. I have little direct contact with the Atheist and Skeptical Communities in Britain, but it seems very frustrating even to me at a distance when your blog seems to take such pains to be balanced, fair and thoroughly reasoned and yet you are misrepresented, and find yourself sucked into discord you never wanted to be involved in. Is this what always happens? Then again, there you are resolving to try and become even more fair, understanding, and an advocate of social progress. Bravo for you. If you have influence on even one more person, that’s a great positivity. You’re probably influencing much more. (Whew, this comment became a little more epic than it started out as – but none of it is facetious). Keep going Hayley.

  4. Great piece Hayley, your views on trying to be a good person instead of trying to b a good ***ist are spot on. As for trying to understand how others will interpret your meaning, this is likely impossible, while still being a worthy thought experiment.

    My experience seems to be that within the realms of social justice so many people actually understand your meaning then work backwards to pick apart any statements to show they are far more worthy than you are. A recent blogpost of mine was joined by a lass who decided to try inventing her own non-gender-specific nouns in response to a request of mine for non-inflammatory ones. She drunkenly (i think) thought of “Wondersocket”. Was then told that this was offensive. It’s not a word, yet it is somehow offensive.

    Keep writing how you write it is always worth a read

  5. I agree with the sentiment and analysis of this post… But somewhat confused by the atheism+ point…

    – There was a thread where someone posited the rather controversial view that men should be willing to view themselves as rapists.
    – I was lurking and not joining in at this point but was *very* sceptical of that poster, he used an image from a high profile lawyer with a similar name as the posters nym but who was very unlikely to be posting in the open. This poster has since disappeared…
    – Many on that thread disagreed with the proposition.

    But regardless it was not obviously insulting or degrading within the context of an interpretation of SR — so despite my faker alarm buzzing it seemed ok to discuss it. So why did you say it was *disgusting* to be discussing that topic? It was not agreed upon or added to the rules that everyone there needs to submit to this edict before they could join in! A free thinking forum can surely discuss controversial topics? That is often how A+ is attacked — as not like this! You cannot discuss controversy, hive mind! Well you can as long as that ‘controversy’ is not demeaning to groups within the forum or hyper-scepticism about feminism-101 etc.

    I read the thread you linked to and given someone posted your one and only tweet on it stating it was disgusting to have that discussion (I assume you read all the thread before you made that judgement?) I don’t see that your words were twisted. The first poster lumped you all in as being the people that have the ‘fuck off and die’ sentiment but did not say you had stated that. I’d say Rhys was the one that said A+ can ‘fuck off and die’, not you, clearly, from my reading of the thread. Many were sympathetic to you on the thread so not quite as ‘absolute’ as you say.

    Also you do know that the forum has been attacked constantly by trolls as well as the usual Slyme orchestrated twitter etc attack? Given you, Rhys and Matt are probably seen as ‘on side’ in the misogynist atheist vs feminist atheist debate I’d assume the criticism was seen as even worse due to this context and the attacks from them. I know, taking ‘sides’ and not rational – but then we are not rational beings all the while.

    So anyway seems ironic that this misunderstanding is in a post about interpretation of each others words in the context of their allegiances and experiences on a subject. Your words will always be misinterpreted and you will always have to clarify due to this phenomenon. Understanding that when there is a polarised situation and you need to tread carefully is important, not everyone can act in the most rational way at all times when under attack. You taking offence at a group mildly ‘twisting’ your words while ignoring the tremendous pressure and attack they have been under is pretty daft, imo. Pop over there and discuss what you do and don’t like so people can make their minds up with a bit more information!

    • Firstly, I want to point out that your comment is way too long and is derailing, both of these are qualities listed in the Comment Policy as not okay. However, you have made comments I want to address.

      The fact that the thread was entitled ‘people who want us to go fuck ourselves’ and I was named is how I was misrepresented. Others did defend what I had said within the thread discussion, but nevertheless I was still misrepresented by the fact the thread existed with me mentioned in it. I also took offense at people discussing me as potentially turnable (to A+) as though I’m some sort of commodity, within the thread.

      I know A+ has been attacked a lot, but that thread was still a complete over reaction to what had been said, and I was lumped in with what other people had written simply because I got involved with a conversation on Twitter. Rhys, who made the initial comment, was flooded with patronising tweets from people involved with A+ in one way or another – that coupled with what had been said on the SR thread was what I was referring to as disgusting.

      Suggesting the criticism from people like me, Rhys, and Matt is worse because we’re ‘on side’ is ridiculous. I will criticise people whether I hate them, like them, don’t know them, or love them. You don’t get a pass from criticism just because we share certain ideals. Telling me I need to tread carefully when there is a ‘polarised situation’ is also a bit patronising, to be honest – if you feel you are under attack and cannot act rationally while it is happening, perhaps you (not you personally, I’ll point out) should step back and consider whether you should act at all, in the heat of the moment. Time is a friend. Perhaps that is also where the problem partly lies too?

      Feel free to call what I’ve written ‘pretty daft’, but I would have to disagree with you wholeheartedly, and also point out that you are coming across as slightly combative in your comment here. Especially as you write about others being under tremendous pressure, yet you don’t have all the facts regarding who I am or my story. I’m not suggesting you should – I’m not even suggesting I’ve been under a lot of pressure, but perhaps commenting as though you know these things, which you don’t, is quite an assumptive move on your part…?

    • oolon… Hayley was absolutely misrepresented in that thread. The only person that thread should have discussed at all was Rhys Morgan, and while I do think think Rhys’s “fuck off and die” reaction was extremely over-the-top and rather irrational, I think even he was treated badly, and this is why he dug in.

      A large number of people apparently never read the “men should be okay with being seen as potential rapists” thread and decided to react to the title alone, not realizing that the vast majority of us over at A+ disagreed quite strongly with the sentiment in OP. No one should be okay with being seen as a potential criminal, and that was a really bad misreading of Schrodinger’s Rapist, because SR isn’t about men at all… it’s about women.

      Edited: comment was way too long and went off on a tangent about A+ when this blog post is not solely about A+. HS

    • Fair enuff, I don’t know all the details… Sorry I came across as condescending and combative, it was not intended. I may read your comment policy too 🙂

      Given your explanation it seems it was a misunderstanding, Twitter is not a good medium for any sort of proper discussion! So maybe given your whole post is about communication and misunderstanding that naturally comes from online discourse in particular maybe my original comment should have just been like this –

      Sorry you were offended by something that appeared on the A+ forum, I currently post on it and to a degree identify with the community there. I can only speak for myself when I say as a reader/lurker here I mostly agree with what you post and respect your opinion on matters of scepticism. So not all of A+ does not have mutual respect for you, hopefully only a few of the posters on that thread you linked to.

      But my original comment may have undermined that a bit…

  6. I have to say this is one of the best takes on the current anger and infighting among skeptics I’ve read. Truly, we forget the power of language. Also, I had an “Ah-ha!” moment when reading how we take on the experiences of others, and lash out as if we personally have had that experience.

    I’m reminded that those that often are able to make the most change, are those that keep their heads and keep their “eyes on the prize” as the Civil Rights movement song suggests. If we get caught up in revenge, anger and payback… we lose sight of what our goals are. It’s so easy to get swept up into the personal story of someone, focus on our anger and want revenge, and not see that the goal is equality for all not an imbalance to make up for past offenses.

    I know from my skeptic work that personal stories and experiences make very poor “evidence” and can also distract from the search for a solution. We do indeed need to hear these stories, but we also need to listen. Discussion is a two way street. The best solutions are not dictated, but arrived at through cooperation and respect. We listen, even when we don’t always like what we are hearing. One thing I learned from Joe Nickell, listen to the person that saw a lake monster or UFO, and in doing so, they often listen to you. They are people also.

    Thank you for a post where I learned something!

  7. My first look in at this site and have found it interesting, especially the blog about ‘words’ and how careful we must be with them. It reminds me of the words to the old song,

    ‘It ain’t what you say but the way that you say it’,
    also very true! Mary.

  8. Hayley, I commented on your “Misogyny” post at The Heresy Club back in September. My comment was pretty self-absorbed looking back now, and only tangential to what you wrote. But I see another person (you) has been put in the “other” camp. This is crazy. There has to be a way for skeptics to talk about these things without people writing each other off.

    I think this medium is to blame. Like you said, people on the internet people are more likely to say things they wouldn’t say face to face. Does that mean they are really just holding the bad stuff back and are not really being honest in meatspace? I don’t think so. I don’t think it gets to that point as often. I think empathy comes much quickerfor people you know personally, and online other people can much more easily be perceived as symbols of something rather than, as you say, a person. Real life communication brings all the subtleties of the humanity of the other person and we are less likely to demonize them. It reminds me of a study I read about somewhere that showed people are more likely to support gay rights if they personally know people who are openly gay.

  9. “I thought the same of mansplaining – a horrific turn of word that I thought others were using jokingly, when it turns out they’re probably not.”

    mansplaining, whitesplaining,

    I don’t use either. I don’t like the term. I think both smack of a certain condescension best left out of arguments and I’ve said so before.

    But to go off as you do and pretend they are dismissals based on race is ridiculous. Both terms originate from what you’ll often find in discussions or privilege, race and power dynamics. Especially when describing ways in which certain members of that privileged class wave away examples of discrimination.

    Like earlier today when I was pointing out black stereotypes of the animalistic alpha male are still racist and was told “I’d kill to be seen as an Alpha male. You have nothing to complain about!”

    It’s an explanation that excludes the views and thoughts of the people it’s directed at. It’s common, very common, so a derisive word was coined for it.

    Would it have been better if they went the classical route and simply complained of men telling them how to do feminism (assuming they are women)?

    Does something like this really debase someone to the point you no longer respect them?

    “I also took offense at people discussing me as potentially turnable (to A+) as though I’m some sort of commodity, within the thread.”

    I’m not sure what to make of this point but it’s something to think about, I guess.

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