Welcome to number thirteen in my ongoing series where I ask the men who are leaders in our community to speak out against sexism and hate.

Today, I am very proud to bring you the words of Todd Stiefel. Todd is the President and Founder of The Stiefel Freethought Foundation. He is a secular humanist, an atheist and full-time freethought activist. Todd also serves as an advisor to many of the top nontheistic organizations.

Todd speaks to us today specifically about abusive behavior on the internet and how anonymity can sometimes cause people to behave in terrible ways. He speaks of how we need to rise above our individual moral weaknesses and as a community we need to build incentives to encourage altruism and compassion.

Todd’s words after the jump.

From Todd:

As a society we need to stand against hate, intolerance and ignorance. Freethinkers are in an excellent position to lead the charge, as we are not bound to the broken morality of ancient texts and misguided dogma. One of the best ways to fight against hate, is to set an example of love and kindness. Unfortunately, the freethought community is doing no better in this category than other groups when it comes to our utilization of the greatest communication tool of all time: the internet.

Much like other corners of the web, our online communities are rife with anger, hate and even threats, particularly against women. This is not unique to freethinkers and skeptics. I have been on music forums where people have reported receiving death threats for posting bad reviews of guitar gear. Additionally, Michael Nugent provided a great summary of many other ridiculously unacceptable examples of internet nastiness (http://skepchick.org/2012/08/speaking-out-against-hate-directed-at-women-michael-nugent/). Of course, we have all seen the wicked vitriol regularly spewed in the comment section of any controversial post. Why is this so common and what can we do about it?

My opinion is that the main problem here is that anonymity on the internet allows people to hide and behave in ways they never would in face-to-face situations. When societal consequences disappear, people have less incentive to behave in socially acceptable ways. It is similar psychological phenomenon as moral hazard is in economic theory. A moral hazard occurs when someone, such as a person with insurance, will have a tendency to take additional risk because the cost of something going wrong will not be incurred by that person. On the internet, we get anonymity moral hazard; people are more likely to post things that would be risky in normal personal interactions because their pseudonym protects them from most of the repercussions.

The reality is that humans are the descendants of creatures that survived and reproduced because of traits that helped them out-compete other creatures. There are many traits that were selected, but two are particularly important to this discussion. First, is that compassion provided a huge advantage to our ancestors. Coupled with our intellect, it enabled them to figure out ways to take care of each other and work in teams to survive and thrive. Second, unfortunately, greed and violence were also selected as successful traits. Many of us exist today because our ancestors were better at raping and pillaging than their neighbors.

I have come to accept that all humans are capable of great good and great evil. We need to accept this and learn that our instincts can sometimes lead us down a path that creates more suffering than joy. We can never completely eliminate selfishness and aggression, because they are hardwired into our very natures. But, we can recognize our inherited moral weaknesses, and as individuals and societies we can choose to treat each other well. We can decide to build incentives to encourage kindly behaviors. We can live our lives focusing on leveraging our instincts for teamwork, altruism and compassion.

Online, much of the anger and nastiness could be eliminated if people performed a simple mental exercise before clicking to post. Visualize the answer to this question, “How would my peers react if I said this in front of a crowd of people who know me?” This question helps people see how their words might hurt others. It helps them understand the consequences of being kind or cruel. If this exercise leads to envisioning appalled faces, then the post is probably a very bad idea. If the exercise leads to seeing people wanting to engage in a calm dialogue, then the post is likely going on the right track.

Of course, there will always be people who are psychologically troubled, irrational or just plain mean-spirited. When they issue the inevitable threat of rape, death or depraved violence, we should treat it like the crime it is. Though I am not a lawyer, a few clicks reveals that such online comments are worthy of being reported to the authorities. Fortunately, society has built mechanisms to help control the people who act like our ancestral barbarians. People in the U.S. can go to this site to alert the Federal Bureau of Investigation: http://www.ic3.gov/complaint/default.aspx. More information on the legal aspects of cyber-threats can be found here: http://huff-watch.blogspot.com/2010/11/online-threats-and-stalking-and-law.html

As a community, I hope we can grow to treat each other with love and respect, even if our ideas are not deserving of respect. While acting as good critical thinkers, we can choose to be known as vitriolic or kindly in our skepticism. I would ask we take a step towards clemency in the comments that follow…

 

Todd Stiefel is the President and Founder of The Stiefel Freethought Foundation.

Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us, Todd. And thank you for encouraging humanism and compassion and for supporting so many wonderful projects. It is very much appreciated.

Prior posts in this series can be found here:

Speaking out against hate directed at women: David Silverman

Speaking out against hate directed at women: Dale McGowan

Speaking out against hate directed at women: Ronald A Lindsay

Speaking out against hate directed at women: Nick Lee

Speaking out against hate directed at women: Barry Karr

Speaking out against hate directed at women: David Niose

Speaking out against hate directed at women: Matt Dillahunty

Speaking out against hate directed at women: Jim Underdown

Speaking out against hate directed at women: Michael Payton

Speaking out against hate directed at women: Michael Nugent

Speaking Out Against Hate Directed at Women: Dan Barker

Speaking Out Against Hate Directed at Women: Carlos Alfredo Diaz

More to come.

Amy Roth

Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics and writes about vegan food. She is the founder and president of the Los Angeles Women's Atheist and Agnostic Group: LAWAAG. Follow her on twitter: @SurlyAmy or on Google+.

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17 Comments

  1. Profile photo of lokicleo
    August 10, 2012 at 12:55 pm —

    Todd is awesome. Check out his links. Turns out that by federal law online threats are illegal, even if the person making the threat doesn’t intend to follow through on the threat, and apparently even if the person being threatened isn’t a politician or celebrity. Oh and calling on the masses to do the dirty work for you – that’s illegal too.

  2. Profile photo of Heidi Love
    August 10, 2012 at 1:22 pm —

    This is my first post here ever. I just created my account and this is my real name. I always use my real name when posting online. I realize it’s traditional to use a fake name or avatar or whatever, but I’ve always thought that was kinda weird and creepy and I’ve never liked it. Especially when commenting on articles written by people who use their real names.

    I know that it can be scary to use your real name online, but it’s definitely caused me to take more responsibility for my comments (as Todd mentions above, there are societal consequences for me being an asshole if I’m not hiding behind anonymity).

    Todd’s suggestion to imagine that everyone knew who you were before posting your comment is a good one. I’d suggest going a step further and just posting with your real name. After all, all these folks (the Skepchicks and others) are using their real names. Why don’t the commenters?

    • Profile photo of frogmistress
      August 10, 2012 at 1:41 pm —

      My psuedonym and my real identity are tied together in all sorts of places. It doesn’t take much to figure out who I am.

      But there are plenty of reasons why someone might want to post anonymously. Keeping atheism from family, employers, friends that might react poorly. Needing to hide from abusive exes.

      I could go on, but I’m sure you get the idea. It is important that people be able to post anonymously. It is also important that they post, uh, responsibly is the only word I can come up with right now, even if it sounds like I’m telling them to not drink and post (which is usually good advice anyway).

      • Profile photo of Heidi Love
        August 10, 2012 at 1:56 pm —

        yeah, I totally agree that many people have good reasons for needing to post anonymously (especially as women). So if people have good reasons (such as those you mention) then it’s understandable, and hopefully they’ll make good use of Todd’s recommended mental exercise when they post comments. But if people don’t have good reasons, it would be great if they just used their real names. Again, it seems only fair when commenting on articles posted by folks using their real names.

        • Profile photo of marilove
          August 13, 2012 at 11:26 am —

          Meh. You could easily find my real name by googling this nym. I don’t tend to hide. Marilove, crushdmb — both are tied to my real name, Marilee Cornelius.

          And yet I’m still an asshole plenty. :)

          It’s not about anonymity, as has been said; it’s about “consequences”.

    • Profile photo of bug_girl
      August 10, 2012 at 5:52 pm —

      I don’t use my real name for a lot of reasons, including that I could get fired, and that I’ve been pretty open about my being a rape survivor.

      I think the perception that online anonymity is the problem is actually wrong. The problem is not anonymity; it is Lack Of Consequences.

      A lot of the people who are Asshats online and IRL are never held accountable for their actions. So they can keep doing it. When people are held to a higher standard, there is less nasty behavior.

      Compare the completely unmoderated comments on news stories with comments on blogs that are moderated. Or the way in which some Cons respond to harassment with a “that’s not cool and we will take action!” message, versus other Cons not taking it seriously at all. (example: ReaderCon http://glvalentine.livejournal.com/341417.html )

      It’s consequences that make the difference in behavior.

      • Profile photo of frogmistress
        August 10, 2012 at 11:46 pm —

        Exactly.

        Anonymity is not the problem. There are plenty of people out there who behave rationally while anon.

        For far too long, this type of behavior has been allowed to happen with no consequences at all. The more it is called out for being uncool, the less it will happen. Excusing it with boys will be boys will no longer cut it.

  3. Profile photo of mrmisconception
    August 10, 2012 at 7:32 pm —

    I think Todd is right.

    I also think it is best if I step away from the community for a while. I find that I get angrier quicker than I used to both online and in meatspace and that, I believe, is fueled by the emotions of having people I care about attacked.

    I’ll be back some time, I hope.

    • Profile photo of Amy Roth
      August 10, 2012 at 10:12 pm —

      This makes me sad.

      • Profile photo of Elyse
        August 13, 2012 at 12:44 pm —

        This makes me sad, too.

        I hope you’ll be back. You’ll be missed. :(

    • Profile photo of punchdrunk
      August 11, 2012 at 9:07 am —

      I hope you’ll be back, too.
      Take care of yourself.

    • Profile photo of SteveT
      August 11, 2012 at 11:52 am —

      Good for for self diagnosing a problem and deciding what to do about it! Anger can poison all aspect s of your life, so it’s good to step away before it gets to that point.

      Count me among those who wish to see you here again. You have a strong voice.

    • Profile photo of Will
      August 11, 2012 at 12:33 pm —

      Noooooooooo. =(

      But I do understand why. I do hope you’ll return!

    • Profile photo of Jack99
      August 11, 2012 at 9:15 pm —

      My heart just sank into my boots again. You will be sorely missed.

    • Profile photo of marilove
      August 13, 2012 at 11:26 am —

      :( :( Well, I’ll miss ya!

  4. Profile photo of absinthia
    August 11, 2012 at 4:34 pm —

    When I was harassed on FB by my ex’s loco girlfriend, the police said that unless her vicious postings affected my income (as in, influenced my employer or clients to fire/not hire me) there was nothing they could do. Not sure if this is because she wasn’t threatening violence or if this is a reflection of Canadian law, or a combination of both. At least when she found out I actually CALLED the police, she stopped.

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