As I’ve discussed before, the atheist and skeptical communities have a problem with sexism. How big of a problem, however, depends on who you ask. If you ask me, or Rebecca Watson, or Greta Christina, or PZ Myers, the answer is going to be something along the lines of “pretty substantial.” If you ask others, however – perhaps your run of the mill fan of Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens or even an occasional attendee of skeptical conferences – you might very well get another answer. Of course, some claim that the sexism problem is entirely a myth manufactured by femi-nazi bullies intent on punishing and ostracizing everyone who does not toe a particular ideological line. But we talked about those folks last time. Today, we’re going to talk about one other common response to this question: “it’s mostly just trolls.”
This is a common response not merely from people within the skeptical and atheist movements, but from people in all sorts of communities in response to all sorts of problems – sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and even classism. Bullies are bullies, so the logic goes – and kids these days (and they often are imagined as adolescents, teenagers, or young adults, it seems to me) get on the internet and just start picking fights for the fun of it. Indeed, trolls are often perceived as not even believing what they are saying – they are causing discord and hurt feelings for the sheer thrill of it. Thus even for adults, there is something about arguing online that strips people of all sincerity and makes them less receptive to other ideas and less capable of realizing they are attacking actual human people. Empathy be hard on the internets, you know.
Now, I do not want to suggest that there is nothing to these points. Psychologists and social scientists have been looking into this and there does indeed seem to be something about the internet which brings out our most ugly selves. But when such research is cited as a way to try to minimize a culture of hatred towards women or minorities, I have a real problem with this. For several reasons.