META discussion of Pharyngula and it’s “horde”

Reposting a comment I made on Noelplum’s blog, then expanding those ideas.

(Pharyngula discussion)

The commenters there do not behave like individuals, but rather like a collective. There are the few “heavy issue” posters who are more likely to quote you and, miracle of miracles, actually interpret about 50% of what you say accurately. Then there are the orbiters, who haul things out of context, misunderstand your argument, and cast everything you say in the worst possible light. Both types regularly degenerate into a combination of personal attacks and back-slapping, and any internal policing (eg “hey X, that’s not what he said”) is offered cynically if at all, with copious “he’s a fuckwad anyways, but” caveats lest any expressions of charity cause alienation from the hive.

What they’ve created is a place where dissent is certainly possible, but in an extremely narrow range, on a small number of issues**. Stretch the politics or social position too far, and nothing short of a mewling display of obsequience will exonerate you from an endless barrage of vitriol.

In addition, while very real, very relevant disagreements occur in the hivemind’s responses to you(amongst themselves), these disagreements are simply utilized to further do-down Big Dissent. When half of them agree on issue X, and half disagree, arguing against X is perceived as arguing against a position no one is espousing. When supporting X(and thus not arguing against it), it is perceived as “ignoring” the commenters who argue against it, not responding the argument destroyer that is X for cowardly reasons.

They don’t have regular dissenters because most normal people aren’t going to put up with that kind of abuse, whether or not they get banned. He doesn’t need to ban, all you have to do is read responses to something you might agree with to realize that your thoughts and attention is best applied elsewhere. I imagine that, while the dungeon is not very populous, one can go back through the history of contentious posts on PZs blog and find unique, single or double post individual dissenters who, when realizing the extent of groupthink and personal vitriol, just left and never came back.


Another interesting paradox is the stated position of PZ in contrast to my continued existence as one of his commenters. Clearly, I’m no “regular”, but riddle me this: If dissent on feminism is by definition unreasonable, and PZ bans unreasonable people, why am I permitted to retain commenting privileges?  Is it:

1. I’m not disagreeing with feminism.

2. I’m disagreeing with feminism, but doing to reasonably.

3. I’m unreasonable, but PZ hasn’t noticed me yet.

4. I’m unreasonable, but PZ has changed his tune on banning people.

Now it theoretically could be the first option, since I reject his definition of feminism, and I’m certainly not claiming women aren’t people.  However, I am disagreeing with some of the core dogmas and methods of feminism, esp. the PC paradigm.  While there is disparity in privilege in society, this exists in all society, and it’s not clear that the line between “privileged” and “underprivileged” can be drawn along gender/race lines.  It’s perfectly true to say that men have advantages in society, but it’s also true to say that women likewise have advantages.  Framing privilege in terms of the GDP of a particular gender or race ignores other measures of social privilege.  Indeed, defining privilege as something possessed by one gender necessarily entails that the positive aspects of that gender’s experiences are the only aspects of anyone’s experiences worth measuring.

Perhaps it’s the second option out of the four listed above, though that would render PZ’s position on reasonable vs. unreasonable dissent simply false.  If there is a way to reasonably be an anti-feminist, and I persist in affirming so, then PZ is wrong.  Allowing me to comment for so long would be a tacit concession of that fact.

The third option strikes me as implausible, given the sheer length of the thread and, judging by the number of lurkers, the volume of page hits accrued.  Of course, this possibility, that he really hasn’t/doesn’t care, opens up some interesting questions.

Since Noelplum can reasonably cite instances where he and others have commented honestly and genuinely, and been banned for being unreasonable or narcissistic, is PZ’s failure to moderate my contributions evidence that he is relaxing his grip on the discussion?  I think it’s entirely possible, and that brings us to option four.

This seems to me to be the most plausible, and least self-aggrandizing, proposed hypothesis.  First, it doesn’t assume out the gate that I’m being reasonable.  Second, it suggests that PZ is listening and taking seriously the people who are criticizing his blog policies, a compliment for any skeptic.  Third, the style of change that this hypothesis posits is consistent with what Crommunist adopted on his blog on the same network.  He regularly modified comments from other people, behavior that was mean-spirited, proves absolutely nothing about the commenter, and deprives anyone else from hearing what that person might have said.  Hitchens speaks passionately about the right of every person to hear every form of heresy, and decide for themselves whether it’s right or wrong; else, who might you choose and trust to filter your ears?  After repeated criticisms that manually editing other people’s posts to say horrific or silly things is nothing more than abusing power, he appears to have ceased doing so without any fanfare.  Perhaps PZ has likewise changed while maintaining a positive image among his “horde” and the wider community.

Finally, on that fourth point, there exists a less complimentary reason that PZ is relaxing his grip on the discussion, and this is something I point out in the fourth paragraph of this post.  He has cultivated a garden of sycophants and attack dogs, more or less homogeneous in their political and social views, who create such a hostile environment for 99% of those who might otherwise voice their opinions that the tiny minority willing to let such hatred wash over them and persist in disagreeing doesn’t present a problem worth risking FREEZE PEACH criticism from his peers.

As long as there are 20 people telling some new person he’s wrong, and no one supporting him, the appearance of said person’s abnormality, and by contrast the normality of the majority, is sustained; what we might call a “reality space” all their own.  This phenomenology can be experienced by simply referring family and friends to the discussion for feedback, and realizing that your self-doubt in failing to make any headway is due mostly to the “horde” being unable or unwilling to transcend the vagaries of semantics.

Alternatively, it might just be self-defense; put a group of rats* in a barrel and they don’t start eating one another until you stop feeding them.


* Given all of the disgusting personal attacks directed at me throughout that discussion, I don’t feel even the slightest qualms about referring to them as a group of rats in a barrel.

** All well and good if you’re Radfem hub or Conservipedia, but highly objectionable under the banner of “Freethought”.


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