Justin Vacula is an atheist blogger, graduate student and proponent of rational thought and free speech, all of which is apparently too much for certain ‘Skepchick’ members of the atheist/free- thinking community. His blog posting, censored by a DMCA claim on the basis of an alleged copyright infringment – coupled with a Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) claim — of one so called skeptic ‘Surly Amy.’ Portions of Vacula’s original blog post, with added commentary concerning the DMCA claim, is included here.
Skepchick writer and Surly-Ramics creator ‘Surly Amy’ has recently argued that conferences should ban ‘fake jewelry’ after recounting her recent “The Amazing Meeting” (TAM) experience, in which she spoke of a group of “very vocal angry troll-like people that did some really awful things” to her.
I argue that placing restrictions on freedom of expression and speech would be unreasonable and disastrous. The mere suggestion of banning ‘fake jewelry,’ I argue, should disqualify ‘Surly Amy’ from being a participant in discussion concerning anti-harassment policies.
‘Surly Amy’ — blogger for the Skepchick network and creator of ‘Surly-ramics’ jewelry — has recently appeared on the August 5, 2012 episode of Amanda Marcotte’s “RH Reality Check” podcast, to discuss feminism within the atheist movement. Of particular interest in this short podcast were Amy’s comments on her experience at The Amazing Meeting (TAM) and thoughts on anti-harassment policies at atheist/skeptic conferences. During the discussion, Amy had said that she — and presumably other feminists in the atheist community (she uses the word ‘we’), wants conferences to have rules restricting particular types of jewelry people wear. For instance, Amy says atheist/skeptic conferences should have policies which restrict “fake jewelry” which is “intentionally offending.”
Near the 11:53 mark of the podcast, commenting on her experience at TAM, ‘Surly Amy’ said:
There was this group of, again, very vocal angry troll-like people that did some really awful things to me in real life – that sort of thing that you usually only see online I was actually face to face with. I had people wearing t-shirts saying that they were not a skepchick, people making fake jewelry that I make that said things on it like ‘you should be embarrassed.’ There’s this really crazy undercurrent of othering that I had never experienced before and it was really upsetting and I ended up leaving the event a day early.
It seems that ‘Surly Amy’ considers people wearing t-shirts she doesn’t like and ceramic jewelry bearing sayings like ‘you should be embarrassed’ to be indicative of “very vocal angry troll-like people” and people acting “really awful” (she doesn’t take time to mention anything else which warranted these labels and conclusions). This also apparently constitutes a “really crazy undercurrent of othering” which, at least in part, caused her to leave the conference a day early.
Further commenting, near the 14:22 mark in the podcast, Amy mentions what she would like to see anti-harassment policies at conferences to address. She explains:
We’re not asking for anything crazy – just basic rules so that we can say the sort of thing like making fake jewelry and intentionally offending people is not okay nor is grabbing someone’s ass. That’s it, that’s all we’re asking for.
What, anyway, is ‘fake jewelry?’ Since when did ‘Surly Amy’ have an exclusive hold on the market of ceramic jewelry? ‘Fake jewelry,’ it seems, is jewelry either meant to satirize Surly Amy’s jewelry, or jewelry which is not made by ‘Surly Amy.’ One example of this ‘fake jewelry,’ according to a James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) forum poster is as follows: “The fake Surlys I saw looked like a man and woman standing on either side of an elevator with a big red slash through the whole picture.” Anyway, returning to the issues:
It is reasonable for one to not only claim offense to ‘fake jewelry,’ but also to ask conferences to have policies which restrict what jewelry people wear…because someone like ‘Surly Amy’ happens to claim offense?
‘Surly Amy’ — and apparently others in the atheist/skeptic community — seemed to, for whatever reasons, have moved away from the common response of “Too bad, that’s your problem” when someone claims offense. This is, at least from my experience, the reaction that many atheists have when religious people claim offense.
For whatever reason, ‘Surly Amy’ and others seemed to have compartmentalized this attitude (assuming that she and others would respond to religious believers who happen to claim offense to atheists/ skeptics arguing against religious claims or otherwise being blasphemous) and afforded some sort of special rules for their own particular sensitivities. Note that ‘Surly Amy’ does not only condemn that which she finds offensive, but she also wants to squelch others’ freedom of speech at conferences by encouraging conferences to adopt policies restricting messages displayed on jewelry.
Banning others’ speech because one happens to claim offense or dislike speech seems to be ‘the coward’s way out’ that is often condemned by the atheist/skeptic community. What ever happened to “I might not like what you have to say, but I will defend your right to say it?” What ever happened to tolerance and an understanding that other people should be afforded with the rights to express viewpoints which some might not like? What sort of ‘freethought response’ is banning speech and insisting that conferences adopt policies which restrict messages on jewelry?
What sort of consequences might follow if “I’m offended” is good reason for conferences to adopt policies restricting jewelry people wear? Should ‘Teach the Controversy’ t-shirts, which mock creationists, be barred from conferences should a creationist happen to attend a skeptic conference and complain? Should critical examination of Islam and pictures of Mohammad be barred from atheist conferences should a liberal Muslim happen to attend and complain? Should Tim Minchin’s “The Pope Song” be barred because people happen to take offense to vulgar language?
If ‘Surly Amy’ and others had their way — according to what she said in this podcast and logical conclusions which seem to follow — conferences would ban others’ freedom of expression and speech on grounds of a person claiming offense. I hope this day never comes, but it might just be on its way if people continue to consider ‘Surly Amy’ as a valid participant in the discussion concerning anti- harassment policies at conferences.
Her wanting to restrict which jewelry people wear at conferences, though, should hopefully disqualify her from this discussion. Is this the sort of feminism that is worth wanting? ‘Surly Amy,’ after all, is not some ‘rogue voice’ or ‘extremist’ who has little clout; she is a well-respected and listened to voice within in the feminist atheist community.
Following my post concerning thoughts of ‘Surly Amy’ on conferences banning ‘fake jewelry’ and t-shirts which one may find offensive, I received a DMCA claim which made led to a takedown of the post in question. Rather than responding to the criticism or simply ignoring it, someone (it is not yet clear if it was ‘Surly Amy’) decided to take legal action which resulted in censorship and a chilling effect.
If the use of the “This is what a feminist looks like” image were really the problem – although it was captioned noting it was a ‘Surly-Ramic’ and was in-line with criticisms of feminist ideas ‘Surly Amy’ holds – I would have expected an e-mail asking for the picture to be removed. Instead, heavy-handed legal action was taken sending a clear message to the skeptical community: if people are critical of ‘Surly Amy’ or other self-identified feminist bloggers, no matter how mild that criticism might be, they might be targeted with legal action. Don’t dare try it!
The post in question wasn’t even abusive nor did it contain harsh language; it was simply criticism of ideas that ‘Surly Amy’ presented on the podcast with Amanda Marcotte. As a public blogger, ‘Surly Amy’ should anticipate criticism following her very controversial statements. Instead of acting like other public figures do [assuming it was 'Surly Amy' who filed the DMCA] when being the recipient of criticism, legal action was the means of response…and ‘Surly Amy’ won’t even confirm or deny this.
Friends of ‘Surly Amy’ on the Freethought Blogs network – notably blogger ‘Lousy Canuck’ – has seemingly defended the use of legal action. In his recent blog post, he casts ‘Surly Amy’ as an oppressed victim – as has been the case with some feminists in the atheist community such as Rebecca Watson – and lumps all who voice disagreement, no matter how mild, into a group of bullies in his post which is essentialy appeal to emotion containing many distortions of fact.
Nevermind, though, that ‘Surly Amy’ and her blogging associates on both the Freethought Blogs network and the Skepchick network spent a significant amount of time levying attacks at D.J. Grothe, president of the James Randi Educational Foundation, and many others who have dared to openly disagree or voice ‘non-approved ideas.’
While it is the case that some people are engaging in troll-like abusive behavior online directed at ‘Surly Amy’ and other feminist bloggers, it is not the case that all who offer fair and civil criticism – like myself – are doing so. Totally ignoring this, the narrative of victimhood is being perpetuated and those who simply dare to disagree are branded as moral monsters. Bloggers are defending the indefensible — using legal threats which result in a censorship of criticism — while somehow maintaining that nothing is wrong with the behavior of ‘Surly Amy’ and everything is wrong with those who dare to criticize her.
For some time, I have remained quiet on these issues because of the repercussions one likely faces when daring to voice even the mildest dissent. The common tactics of labeling people as ‘misogynist,’ ‘sexist,’ ‘trolls’ who ‘do not care about women’ have been used time and time again by particular feminist bloggers and those who defend them. Many people have even messaged me offering support with a general message of ‘I can’t go public about this, but I’d like to thank you for what you do and support however I can.’ Fear exists within a community that is supposed to be open to criticism rather than using shaming tactics to quell dissent as many religions do. What a shame.