I’ve seen this over and over again: fellow atheists fill their blogs by criticizing Gnu Atheists for their incivility and stridency. After a while, you start to realize that those same critical atheists aren’t very nice themselves: they either have a secret mean side, are equally uncivil towards Gnu Atheists or other opponents like global-warming deniers and homeopaths, or simply lack intellectual integrity. Invariably, their readership drops off as people realize what they’re really like.
The latest case is that of Jeremy Stangroom, British writer, philosopher, and atheist. For a long time he’s been writing stuff about the gnastiness of the Gnus (see an example here); it’s almost as if he’s obsessed with the issue. In a new post he criticizes Russell Blackford for “incivility” because Blackford used some mild sarcasm, but then shuts off any comments on his (Stangroom’s) post. And, on the same site, the moral philosopher Stangroom manages to justify statutory rape.
Bear with me here. A while back philosopher Jean Kazez, who is always tut-tut-tutting about the Gnus for their incivility (and who subsequently lost a lot of respect and readers) put up a post criticizing Gnus for—shades of Cool Hand Luke—a failure to communicate. Her post included a cringe-making fable, “The Emperor’s Gnu Clothes,” in which the children who criticized the emperor were seen as “rude and insulting.” (Subtlety is not Kazez’s strong suit).
Yesterday, Brother Blackford wrote a very nice post, “The Emperor’s Gnude Clothes,” which points out that behind the calls for civility from people like Kazez and Chris Mooney is really a dictum—STFU:
It’s a matter of 1. do not question the beliefs of liberal religionists; 2. do not criticize pro-evolution liberal Christians, 3. do not make atheistic claims. Again, I don’t see how this can be any clearer. What we have here is not a call for politeness or some degree of communicative restraint in the interest of social harmony. It quite plainly says that we should not “criticize” or even “question” the religious views of (so-called) “liberal” Christians or “moderates”, and in particular we should not say “there is no God”. It’s there in black and white.
The current debate is not, in essence, about politeness or communicative restraint. If Jerry Coyne talks to a group of Christians he is polite to them, as long as they are themselves courteous, open to discussion, and so on. So am I. What we are proposing is not mocking individuals or generally behaving like arse/assholes. It is, however, doing the things that Mooney (and, apparently, Forrest) said we should not do. That is, we do intend to go on questioning religious beliefs, even so-called liberal ones, criticising religious apologists, even so-called moderates, and putting the case that “there is no God”. We will not do this in a way that lacks all “communicative restraint”, though the appropriate degree of restraint will depend very much on the context.
Blackford them constructs his own fable, much funnier than Kazez’s (of course, I’m biased), in which the little girl is told STFU:
“You must never say the emperor is naked,” one woman said, bending down to the little girl, “not even in the most polite and thoughtful way you can. First, the emperor is not making you go around naked, so why question his clothing choices? Second, the alternative emperor might be a nasty man, so be nice to the one you’ve got. Third, you can never prove definitively that the emperor has no clothes, so why make trouble? Civic friendship demands that you show epistemological and civic humility about emperors and their various degrees of undress. Now run along and play.”
At the end, Blackford gets in a swipe at our favorite accommodationist:
“But you’ve both got carried away here,” said a nicely-dressed kid with a big white Colgate smile. “Maybe the emperor actually enjoys being naked. Maybe he really doesn’t know he’s naked, and he can’t figure it out when you’re speaking to him politely. Maybe when he looks at you, your clothes look ridiculous to him, too! Calm yourselves!”
Jeremy Stangroom can’t stand this. Although most of Blackford’s article is simply a calm description of how accommodationists try to silence us, Stangroom, in a post called “We’re not uncivil, you toothy bastards,” takes issue with only one thing: Blackford’s sarcasm towards Mooney’s “Colgate smile.” Stangroom points out how Russell has used such toothy sarcasm before.
Of course Stangroom completely ignores every substantive point made by Blackford, concentrating only on the toothpaste sarcasm, which Blackford admits was “snark.” It’s more STFU-because-you’re-uncivil stuff. But the worst part is that Stangroom, contrary to his usual policy, closed the post to comments. He faults Blackford for a lack of “class,” but what is less classy than going after someone and then forbidding them—or anyone else—from replying?
But that’s not the worst part—not by far. Scrolling down that page, I was amazed to see Stangroom’s post from December 21 (I don’t often read the site), “14 year old boy has sex. Woman jailed.”It’s about a Daily Mail article that describes the case of Susanne Divers. Divers was a 26 year old English woman—engaged and a mother of two—who repeatedly had sex with a 14 year old boy. The boy eventually told the woman’s fiancé about the affair and showed him incriminating text messages. Divers thereupon denied the affair, and the boy, in despair, tried to hang himself. The police then warned Divers to stay away from the boy, but couldn’t press charges because he wouldn’t file a complaint.
Divers continued to have sex with the boy, and it was only after they were caught again that the boy pressed charges. Divers was arrested and sent to jail for three years.
This is clearly statutory rape: the age of consent in England is 16. What was Stangroom’s reaction? I append his post in full:
Yet again, this is ridiculous. Look at her. The boy should consider himself damned lucky. The police and courts should not have been involved. She should not have gone to jail.
It’s just about possible to make an argument that her actions were wrong (for example, she was cheating on her fiancé), but jailing her is absurdly disproportionate.
Sure people will point out that the boy attempted to take his own life. But people often do stupid things when they think they’re in love, including sometimes killing themselves. It doesn’t follow that this had anything to do with her (or even his) age, or that she is any more culpable than anybody else who finds themselves involved in an inappropriate affair.
Yes, look at her (click the link). A good-looking woman (Stangroom repeatedly refers to hear as “beautiful” in the comments and other posts, as if somehow the act would be more wrong if she were plain), clad in hot pants, boots, and fishnet stockings. Clearly such a woman should be able to rape anyone she wants, and that lad should “consider himself damned lucky.” The kid tried to tell the woman’s partner, she denied the affair, and he tried to kill himself. The police warned her off. She kept having sex with the boy. She should have stopped—indeed, should never have become involved with the boy in the first place.
In comments on this post, and in a subsequent post, Stangroom attempts to justify his view that the only thing Divers might have done wrong was be unfaithful to her partner. He says repeatedly that Divers was “beautiful” and recounts a story of a woman he knew who was 18 and had a sexual relationship with a mature-looking 13 year old boy who instigated the affair. Stangroom claims that 13 year old boys can certainly consent to sex, and that in this case “They were both having a fabulous time.” He adds that maybe it wouldn’t have been okay if it was an 18 year old male and a 13 year old female, but he’s not in favor of a gender bar to underaged sex or a hard-and-fast age line. Presumably Stangroom sees situations in which there should be nothing illegal about a 30 year old male or female having an affair with a “mature” eleven year old of the opposite sex.
That’s absurd. Yes, the law should certainly take into account issues of coercion when meting out punishment. But society has—rightfully, in my view—decided that it’s best to draw a legal line for consensual sex at a given age, just like it’s drawn a line for drinking or joining the military. The line is there simply as a conservative societal indicator of “age of consent”, avoiding all the argument that would occur if there were no line. We all know the damaging effects that can result from underaged children having sex with adults, even if they appear to be consenting. Would Stangroom apply the same flexible line to drinking, so that sometimes it’s okay for a mature ten year old to buy a pint, or a mature fifteen year old to join the army? Would it be okay for a “mature” nine year old boy to have sex with an older woman? And don’t forget that Suzanne Divers was warned by the police to terminate the affair after the boy attempted suicide (now there’s a sign of maturity and consent), but refused to do so.
The same goes for sex that is prohibited between people in asymmetrical positions of power and trust: professors and their students in high school or college, psychiatrists and their patients, and so on. In “affairs” of this type, the victim may claim that he/she was engaged in consensual sex, or was even “having a fabulous time,” but that doesn’t make it right. The line is there to prevent people in positions of trust from abusing that trust.
And when Stangroom talks about the woman being “beautiful,” and links to her semi-clad picture, saying, “Look at her,” and that the boy was “damned lucky,” or when he talks about the “fabulous time” enjoyed by another thirteen year old boy, he just seems creepy. It almost seems as if he’s jealous of the boy. And remember, this is a moral philosopher! He first spews all that unreasoning invective about New Atheists, and then produces an impassioned but misguided justification for statutory rape. Next to that, a reference to the Colgate Twins is trivial. Ask yourself: would you rather have a beer with Russell Blackford or Jeremy Stangroom?
And, Dr. Stangroom, unlike you I’m not closing comments on this post. So feel free to come over here and defend yourself—a privilege you didn’t extend to Russell Blackford.