Posted by: Ticktock | December 5, 2011

Tone Deaf Trolls and the Myth of ‘Concern’

I won’t stop standing up for kindness and fairness in the freethought community, even if it drives prominent skeptics to scold me publicly, shout me down, or dismiss me with the mother-of-all freethought insults… by calling me a “concern troll”. These are classic tactics of arrogance that are inherently designed to dismiss dissent, and I’ve seen them employed against me and a few of my allies in this fight. But, I would argue that the ‘concern’ epithet is just as much an insult to reason and logic than someone shouting me down (which has actually happened to me recently) for the very reason that it’s a lazy way to argue a point.

“Concern Troll” is a term that is used as a way to isolate a critical opinion and dismiss it as trivial, the equivalent of a schoolyard bully taunting other students for being “babies”. Besides being a juvenile way to argue, the accusation is hypocritical because “concern troll” could be used against any skeptic for any argument that we make. We’re all “concern trolls” if you think about it.

Vaccine deniers could say, “oooh, you’re so ‘concerned’ about whether my kid gets chicken pox. Get over it!”

Christians could say, “Oh, poor babies ‘concerned’ about whether they get to eat gelato. Are they gonna cry to mommy that they don’t get to put up their billboard?”.Etc.

One example of when I was personally accused of “concern trolling” is when I made a comment on Greta Christina’s blog. Greta regularly gives a popular talk where she gives a biased sample of reasons why atheists are angry. Atheists eat it up because it highlights all the flaws of organized religion and omits all the good or neutral things about religion. She quotes Ghandi and MLK Jr, who have both admitted that they used anger to affect change, but she fails to follow their example and guide the people she has riled up into peaceful, thoughtful activism. Instead, her follow-up to this speech was an article that said that she “pretty much doesn’t care” what people do with their anger. This ambivalence to how atheists respond to their anger was what I dared to challenge.

Color me as obtuse, but I think that anyone who writes about anger should make it clear that violence is not something they advocate. I absolutely understand that Greta’s article was never intended to spur anyone to violent action, but an appeal to pacifism certainly merits a tiny mention when discussing an idea as intense as anger. But, my greater concern was that she didn’t care how people responded to their anger: she didn’t care if they went to a random church on sunday and shouted down the preacher, she didn’t care if they ripped up the pages of their parents’ bible, she didn’t care if they were to tell little children on christmas day that Jesus is just a myth. Or, I should clarify to say that she “pretty much” didn’t care, which gave her a whole lot of wiggle room out of any example of improper responses to anger that I could provide.

Let me just say that I DO care how angry people represent atheism. We atheists have friends, family, and acquaintances who just want to live their lives in peace and not be reminded that they are idiots on a daily basis. Activism in the name of anger can cost us personal relationships (hint: most christians don’t mind being friends with an atheist, but they do actually mind being friends with a dick). And if that makes me a “concern troll” then so be it.

Greta seems to think so. After labeling me a “concern troll”, she goes on to say, “So for this comment thread, all my regular readers are hereby authorized to respond to Ticktock in my name with the following: “Your concern is noted. Thank you for sharing.”

Glad we resolved that in such a reasonable way.

It’s a trend with the proudly dickish atheists that they sick their readers onto people that they disagree with. As if they are above any form of dissent against their far superior tactics. I dared to disagree on Jen McCreight’s blog that the Skepticon convention invited a comedian known for mocking religion to their conference as a featured speaker. It was Sam Singleton’s spirited performance (featuring a crowd yelling “god damn” in unison) that inspired a certain christian gelato store owner to respond with a bigoted unwelcoming sign to atheists on his front window. My argument was that this comedian made skeptics seem equally intolerant and unwelcoming and that this comedy show was just as bigoted as the gelato store sign (just not as illegal).

Jen’s answer to my criticism…”…You just killed so many brain cells with The Stupid that I cannot reply. I’m going to bed. Someone else will fill you in on what the word “bigotry” means, or maybe you can open a dictionary.”

Ouch. So hurtful, except that the only person who defined bigotry in that comment thread was me… “stubborn and complete intolerance of any creed, belief, or opinion that differs from one’s own.” I just don’t want to be a part of a community that ignores it’s own intolerance of others’ beliefs. Nor, do I want to be a part of a community that uses personal insults (“The Stupid”) instead of carefully constructed rational arguments. That’s not what I signed up for.

But, I refuse to be pushed out. I will still advocate for neutrality, kindness, fairness, and responsibility, even if I fall short of my own goals. As skeptics, we all have a vision of what we want from the freethought community. If I held a skeptic’s conference and invited a global warming denier or a 9/11 truther as a prominent speaker, I would expect some complaints from people within the movement for featuring unscientific guests. Would the people complaining about my convention be “concern trolls” for trying to shape how we appear to the outside world?  So why am I a “concern troll” for voicing my complaints? Because the blogs where I write dissenting comments have writers and readers who disagree with me? Does that seem reasonable?

Finally, I’d like to respond to PZ Myers, a biology professor with a devoted following of sycophantic acolytes, who did the honor of quoting me on his wildly popular blog. This is part of his response to my comments about reverse bigotry…

“How dare those atheists reject and mock a belief — excuse me, choice — that is antithetical to science and reason? Choosing to believe in a magic sky fairy, choosing to believe in evidence…they’re all perfectly equivalent, after all.”

He says that it’s a “choice” to believe, but we all know that many people are born into families or cultures where that “choice” is not evident. And even if the choice was easier to make, why would anyone choose atheism when our side prides itself on being unforgiving dicks, when our side resorts to insults and mockery, and when our side shuts down dissent with a papal-like presumption that the followers be obedient and not “concern” themselves with the tactics of their leaders. Often this war of tone breaks down to one side saying to the other side that their tactic is better, or both sides agreeing that multiple tactics are better, but putting tactical awareness aside, I think we might be better off focusing on how we treat people within our own movement and whether it speaks well of ourselves to force a pillow onto the mouths of critics and suffocate their dissent with a “fuck you and your smiley face, too“.




  1. We do not choose what we believe. We can choose what we practice. We can choose whether to consider arguments for and against. We can choose to make claims. However, we do not choose to believe.

    I dislike the conflation of skepticism with atheism that you’ve hinted at in this post, but it’s related to the problem as I see it. A huge part of the problem, I think, is this idea that if we just make people atheists, the world would be a better place. Well, you can’t MAKE people atheists and you can’t demonstrate empirically that they should be. However, teaching people how to think rather than what to think can help them in every aspect of their lives.

    Taking your word for it that Greta stated that she didn’t care what atheists do with their anger (I’d prefer not to visit the FTB site), I am reminded of Mother Teresa. Hitchens noted that she cared more for a child’s soul than she did for that child’s life. That makes sense if Teresa is right about what will happen to the child when she dies, but what if she’s wrong (as most of the readers here will likely believe)?

    If Greta and others who agree with her are right that eradicating religion will make the world so much better that it is worth all costs, then her statement makes sense. But what if she’s wrong? What if religion is simply replaced by other forms of authority and faith as a means of deciding what’s true? What if those authorities and faiths are even more damaging that religion is thought to be?

  2. This intolerant atheism looks more and more like the religion it opposes. It has the same opposition to other opinions that’s so offensive in much of organized religion.

    Thanks for the post!

  3. First, to badrescher, that it’s lair may become inhabited at some point in the future by a manticore is not a good argument against slaying the dragon.

    To ticktock, I’m pretty sure I’m on the side of the “proudly dickish” atheists most of the time.(although my blog has like two readers so my army of followers whom I could sick on people is shall we say…small). This is mostly because I think their level of dickishness is grossly overstated, which is why the term “concern troll” is still quite applicable at times. I stayed away from PZ’s blog for a long time due to its reputation and I have (since the move to FTB) found most of that rep to be completely unfounded.

    As for Sam Singleton, Sam’s a comedian and a pro. I’m on his side in this unreservedly, equating his act with the bigoted temper tantrum that gelato store owner indulged in is unfair. Sorry, that’s the ground I stood on when I was on the stage and it hasn’t changed.

    I am sorry to see someone who has worked as hard as you have in the skeptics movement get the short shrift however, it’s always sad when emigo’s fight. ;(

  4. Well said.

  5. Totally agree with the post and the commenters above.

    I have no problem with defending my personal boundaries.

    I have no desire, though, to either:
    A. Go for the cheap laugh of taking potshots at religious people and firing the first shot in so doing;
    B. Being an “atheist evangelist.” (That said, if I *were* desirous of being an “atheist evangelist,” I’d most likely do just the opposite of what Gnu Atheists do.

    Finally, re Skepticon. This conflating of skeptics and atheists seems to get worse all the time. Add in the Shermers who conflate political libertarianism and skepticism, and it’s why I don’t necessarily use either “atheist” or “skeptic” as a primary identifier of my mental stances.

  6. “I’d most likely do just the opposite of what Gnu Atheists do.”

    How do you mean? What specifically would you do different? Be less confrontational? Be less snarky? be anti snarky? be “nicer”? Be less funny or interesting?

    “This conflating of skeptics and atheists seems to get worse all the time”

    What do you mean by “worse”. A lot of people in the Skeptical movement are outspoken atheists. I understand how that might be bothersome or make one feel uncomfortable because I can see myself feeling the same way about Micheal Shermer’s and Penn Gillette’s libertarianism. But the answer to that problem is not a shifting around of identity or ducking labels. Be a skeptic or an atheist if that’s what best describes you, they are definitions, not tribal associations.

  7. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Preachy, militant, bigoted, disrespectful atheists are just as obnoxious as preachy, militant, bigoted, disrespectful religious people, yet neither side seems to recognize the hypocrisy. I wrote about my journey to self-identifying as an agnostic atheist in my Creative Non-Fiction class last semester, and the most common response from classmates was that of relief. They were relieved that I was nothing like they expected an atheist to be (preachy, arrogant, disrespectful). Anger is a legitimate vehicle for social change, but it comes with responsibility. We have every right to be angry about the ways we are discriminated against, and we have every right to air those grievances, but we will lose credibility by resorting to cheap jabs to further our message. I want atheism to be synonymous with maturity, rationality, and fairness, NOT preachiness, arrogance, and disrespectfulness.

    • Well DylanTK, I’m glad we’ve arrived at what’s really important, what “you” want.
      I don’t wanna be the troll here, but I don’t think the proper response to misguided perceptions of atheists by believers is exaggerated false equivalence or passive aggressive moralizing. “Preachy Obnoxious Atheists are just as bad as Preachy Obnoxious Believers” is self indulgent tripe.
      I happen to agree that ticktock was treated poorly in the situations he recounted, if I had been involved in the discussion at the time I would have jumped in to defend him, even though I happen to disagree with him that’s no excuse for shushing him. To extend that complaint to the same tired old snipes at the “Gnu Atheists”, ground that has been tread back and forth for eons in Internet time, is beyond unhelpful.

  8. My, my, ticktock, you are in fine form. I have been a bit busy with the events starting over Labor Day Weekend and actually hating all that is December. I just got off the phone with one of the two clinics at the university we’ve been referred to.

    Oh, deer, I called someone a concern troll yesterday. But that one was “I am just like you guys, but why don’t you question this bit that was not in the essay?” Though before I called him out as a concern troll my questions to him were answered with “you are stupid.” Le sigh.

    • “Le sigh”?

      I am SO stealing that. 🙂

      • Steal away. I think I stole it from someone else.

  9. […] you check out the latest post you can follow the adventures of yours truly as I white knight for the value of dickishness in the […]

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