Trolls and Other Disrupters Part II: A Pragmatist’s Guide To Moderating Secular Humanist Groups

This document explains Nirmukta’s approach to moderation and group membership with respect to secular humanism. It is a “Part II” to the document Trolls And Other Disrupters: A Pragmatist’s Guide To Moderating Online Freethought Groups (henceforth referred to as “Part I”). It assumes that you have read Part I, so if you have not, please do so before reading this. We intend for this document to be a “living document”. I.e., we will update it whenever required.

Some History

Nirmukta’s original tagline was “Promoting Science and Freethought in India”. Humanism was part of the agenda, but it wasn’t explicit. In November 2011, some of the admins including Nirmukta’s founder Ajita Kamal were collaborating on an article, and we were looking up the definitions of secular humanism. We came across this definition. The author of the piece makes a distinction between freethought and secular humanism – for him the two are related but not the same. This got us talking – we’d been assuming secular humanism was part of freethought, but this article says it’s not? Ajita’s response was, “It looks like I made the same mistake”. At that point, we agreed to leave things as they were, because we were “covered” by one of the core principles listed on the Nirmukta About page: “To promote the principles of equality, communal harmony and basic human rights”.

Several months later, the Facebook admins were continuously having trouble dealing with a certain class of trolls – “dictionary” atheists who didn’t agree with or share our views on secular humanism. These were people who were surprised that they were expected to reason ethically (i.e. reason about values in addition to facts), and support social justice causes. It seemed to come as a rude shock to them – what did any of this have to do with atheism? In February 2012, we decided that some re-branding was needed. Regardless of whether secular humanism is part of freethought or not, we realised that we needed to be explicit about secular humanism – to make it an explicit, “first-class” element of our platform. To proclaim it loudly, to leave no room for doubt. There was a secondary reason for this too – to avoid the “cold logical heartless atheists and scientists” stereotype from people on the outside. Because we were more than just “dictionary” atheists. And so we changed the tagline to “Promoting Science, Freethought and Secular Humanism in India”. We also discovered – with sadness, given that this was after his death – that Ajita had already been thinking along these lines –  in the episodes of The Cosmic Boondocks podcast after May 2011, he had started describing them as “Promoting science, freethought and humanistic values in India”. Today, you can still see one remnant of the earlier tagline – in the main Nirmukta Facebook group. While the banner image contains the proper tagline, the group name still has the old tagline – this is because Facebook does not allow changes to a group name after a certain time. As part of the re-branding, we also added a section on secular humanism in the What is Nirmukta page. To make things even clearer, we explicitly stated that “Nirmukta supports social justice movements like feminism, LGBTQ rights, and the rights of people with disabilities. We are explicitly against the caste system and against racism.” Note that all this happened before the Atheism Plus movement came into being. Nirmukta is 100% behind Atheism Plus; the only reason we haven’t officially adopted it yet is that we have not discussed it and our position on these matters is clear enough already. We might revisit this in the future.

What Constitutes Trolling?

So what constitutes trolling with respect to Nirmukta’s secular humanism? The patterns of behaviour described in Part I still hold, but there are additional factors which come into play. One kind of troll we’ve encountered is the person who is against the above moral positions. Such people deny that privilege exists, and they oppose these social change movements. This is rarely made explicit by them – but their words eventually reveal their views. Mostly, they have been men who hold sexist views, and ex-Hindus who indulge in caste apologetics. Another kind of troll is more slippery, because on the surface everything looks fine. But what they do is create a certain environment in the group, called a chilly climate.

The phenomenon of the “chilly climate” was first described by American academics in the 1980s. It refers to the way people who belong to less privileged social categories are marginalised, not via outright hostility or discrimination, but by “microaggressions”, “microinequities” and “subtle discrimination”. These are (for example) casual comments, jokes and other behaviours made by members of privileged groups, who don’t think they are doing any harm, but the accumulated effect of these behaviours creates a subtly toxic environment for members of less privileged groups, who are left with a lingering feeling of a “chill” – that they don’t belong here, that they need to watch what they say and how they behave, that others will not back them up or they will be silenced if they speak up, that they are different, under-represented, that their viewpoints will not be taken seriously, and so on. This can lead to a feedback cycle – there is a chilly climate, so people retreat or leave, and the chill pervades the group. You can find some reading on the issue here:

Is it Cold in Here?

The Chilly Climate:  Subtle Ways in Which Women are Often Treated Differently at Work and in Classrooms

Bernice Sandler: “The Chilly Climate” | CFI’s Women in Secularism Conference 2012

“I had no power to say ‘that’s not okay:’” Reports of harassment and abuse in the field

MIT Ombuds Office (Mary Rowe’s work on subtle discrimination and micro-inequities)

The chilly climate originally referred to the experience of women, but today, social scientists recognise it to be a harmful barrier to all marginalised groups. A Dalit person working in a company predominantly made up of caste-privileged people, for example, is bound to experience it. People who are in privileged groups need not be bad people – they don’t think they’re doing any harm – but it is the effects of their behaviour that we need to be concerned about, not their intentions, nor their self-perception. Additionally, non-privileged group members themselves might not realise that something is amiss – because the chill is slow and subtle. They might think that this is just how things are, or “maybe it’s just me/maybe I’m over-reacting”. This is why it’s important for organisations to figure out if they have this problem, and acknowledge it – so that we can collectively do something about it.

Nirmukta has a chilly climate problem. The evidence of this comes from feedback we keep receiving from members and our observations of behaviour in the various Nirmukta groups. The dominant group in Nirmukta is an amalgamation of the privileged groups that dominate any Indian organisation – male, caste-privileged, heterosexual, able-bodied, cis-gender and so on. When we first started discussing this issue – this was around August 2011 – we realised that what we needed to do is develop a “reverse” chilly climate. I.e., a climate where it’s people from privileged groups who feel a chill – and it’s people who hold casteist/sexist/etc. views who feel vulnerable, and have to watch what they say. That first part – i.e. “people from privileged groups feel a chill ” – sounds a bit Machiavellian, but it actually isn’t. What it means is that there were behaviours which they earlier were able to express easily, without consequence – that fat-shaming joke for example – but now we want them to think twice before saying it. A reversed chilly climate is a climate where people who belong to marginalised groups feel comfortable, and people who belong to privileged groups AND who express prejudiced/ignorant/hostile views, or deny that they have privilege in the first place, feel UNcomfortable expressing those views.

Our moderation policy today reflects this. But rather than write a “wall of text” to describe it, we’re instead going to describe it via responses to Frequently Asked Questions and “Frequently Raised Objections” that we have heard during our time as admins. The questions and objections below are all real – not the exact text, but in essence.

FAQ/FRO (Frequently Raised Objections)

  1. “You’re entitled to your opinion/It’s just a difference of opinion/Let’s agree to disagree.”
  2. “What about freedom of speech?”
  3. “Why can’t I say ‘bitch’ etc.”
  4. “You’re harming the atheist movement”/”We’re all atheists, we’re on the same side.”
  5. “You’re not going to grow if you keep banning people.”
  6. “The people you’re banning are the ones whose minds you should be changing.”
  7. “You have the right to be offended.”
  8. “Come on it’s just a joke”/”I didn’t MEAN it THAT way”/”I’m sorry for any offence caused.”
  9. “If you don’t educate me how will I learn?”
  10. “And you call yourself “free” thinkers”/This is not “free” thought.
  11. “But I AM a humanist”/”I am not a casteist”/”I am an egalitarian” etc.
  12. “This is/what about reverse racism/sexism etc.”
  13. “This is just political correctness.”
  14. “What about reservations?”

1. “You’re entitled to your opinion/It’s just a difference of opinion/Let’s agree to disagree.”

These statements essentially reduce moral arguments into matters of opinion. When in fact, moral arguments can be reasoned about intersubjectively, and certain moral positions arrived at, which are NOT a matter of opinion, nor something we are willing to “disagree” on. “Do racist jokes cause harm?” for instance – we are not going to “agree to disagree” on that. Going back to the chilly climate, allowing such people to remain in the group makes things worse. Note that not all moral arguments are non-negotiable. For example, we have not banned people for eating meat (a vegan might argue this should be non-negotiable), nor for supporting capital punishment, nor for arguing for or against sex work. How do we decide which propositions are negotiable and which are not? There is no simple answer, other than to say that on some arguments, we are not there yet – the arguments and their supporters have not reached critical mass either way so as to make these positions non-negotiable.

2. “What about freedom of speech?”

Misconceptions about freedom of speech in Nirmukta have been covered in Part I. Further, relevant to moral arguments, it should be noted that freedom of speech is contingent on the harm principle.

3. “Why can’t I say ‘bitch’ etc.”

Our positions on words like “bitch”, which are gendered/racist etc. insults, is simple. These words cannot be separated from their origins easily; their use (even when reclaimed) is divisive in group settings and contributes to the chilly climate; and you can easily pick another word without doing equivalent harm to yourself or reducing the quality of your argument. So we do not allow them period, in any context other than those where the use-mention distinction applies.

Here is some useful reading on the different slurs and their contexts and effects. And here is an old ban discussion from the Moderation Open Thread over the use of the word “bitch”. Please read both. We like and promote critical thinking here, which is also relevant to what language one chooses to use. What insults do we allow? As a handy primer: Slurs (gendered/ casteist/ ableist to name a few axes) are unacceptable. Creative swear words and neutral ones like ”asshole” for example are not encouraged but, we won’t shut them down.

4. “You’re harming the atheist movement”/”We’re all atheists, we’re on the same side.”

The movement being talked about in these objections typically refers to the “dictionary” atheist movement – i.e. the one which focuses on combating religion and nothing else. Hopefully it is clear to readers by now that Nirmukta is much more than that. We also think that movements against religion which include humanistic and Atheism Plus values are the only such movements worth having – so no, we do not think we are causing harm to the fight against religion.

5. “You’re not going to grow if you keep banning people.”

If growth means increasing in number, then the above statement is potentially true, but only potentially – because one can easily counter-argue that by banning such people we attract and retain more people of the kind we DO want in Nirmukta. But for the sake of argument, let’s say this was true – that our increase in numbers is reduced because we ban people. The thing is, growth isn’t about numbers alone. What we want is to grow organically while remaining aligned with our values. If this means increasing our numbers at a much slower rate, we are fine with that. We are even fine with a drastic reduction in numbers if it’s needed. Sometimes you need to shrink first in order to grow. Social change movements are heavily path-dependent – their immediate outcomes at any given stage as well as their long-term state are influenced by the path they took in the past. As of the time of writing of this document, Nirmukta is five years old – we still have opportunities for “course correction” to improve our future. I.e., we are taking a long-term perspective.

6. “The people you’re banning are the ones whose minds you should be changing.”

Of all the objections we hear, this is the strongest one, because it has a grain of truth to it. It would be great if we could educate and persuade people instead of banning them. But there are two arguments against this. The first is logistical. There are only a handful of people who do this educating, even amongst the admins. People lack time, they have lives, they don’t have the stomach for online conflict – there are various reasons for this. Because of the chilly climate, very few members speak up either. Hence most problematic statements and arguments will go unchallenged, unless one of the few “educating” admins makes an effort. A few weeks later, somebody else pipes up in a different thread or different group, and it’s deja vu all over again. That we “ban without educating” is actually far from the truth – the truth is that plenty of educating is done, but there is a limit to how many times one can do it. As our community grows, and as we develop a more healthy climate, we might be able to spare more resources for education.

One should also note that there is plenty of education on these subjects available for free online. But the trolls don’t seem to make an effort to read these resources, instead they demand a private real-time education in discussion threads. Sometimes admins will try, sometimes we won’t. This raises the question – say we don’t educate, why not at least let the thread and the person remain in the group? This brings us to the second argument against this objection: Education cannot happen at the cost of members of marginalised groups and members who already “get it”. We do not want people come to a Nirmukta group and see the same basic education happening about basic human rights again and again. We want Nirmukta to be a progressive space and a “safe space”. “Safe” does not mean protection – it means a space where you don’t have to deal with the injustice and chilly climate that you deal with in real life. The Facebook group rules explain this in a different way using the “conference room principle”:

“In any conference room sized group that draws members from the general public, there are bound to be rules of conduct. The conference room doesn’t belong to the general public. It belongs to the people that built and manage it giving it their time and resources, and to those whom they allow into it. Members from society-at-large are not born with the right to be in the conference room. They have to earn it. This doesn’t mean their rights to free speech are being curtailed when they are deemed undeserving of the group. It means the rights of those who deserve to be in the room are being protected.”

7. “You have the right to be offended.”

This statement gained popularity in arguments with religious believers – all Indian atheists must be familiar with the “hurting religious sentiments” line. In that context, it makes sense. In the context of secular humanism however, we are not dealing with propositions of fact. We are dealing with propositions of value. I.e., these are moral arguments. As mentioned earlier in the “agree to disagree” section, when we reason about ethics, we’re not talking about “offence” as much as harm and marginalisation. And certain behaviours can be established to cause harm. In which case, saying “you have the right to be offended” is morally unacceptable. It’s the difference between criticising Islam and expressing anti-Muslim prejudice (see Nirmukta’s stance on atheism).

8. “Come on it’s just a joke”/”I didn’t MEAN it THAT way”/”I’m sorry for any offence caused.”

There are studies showing that jokes can contribute to the chilly climate and there are strong ethical arguments against making ableist/racist/etc. jokes (e.g. read Oppressive Speech by Mary Kate McGowan), so “it’s just a joke” is not an acceptable defence. As regards the intentions of the joke-teller, as mentioned before, intentions while telling jokes are not important – what is important is the effects. And if those effects are harmful, then saying “I didn’t mean it”, or a bogus “sorry for any offence I might have caused” apology are not acceptable defences either.

9. “If you don’t educate me how will I learn?”

This has been addressed earlier in the “minds you should be changing” section. Additionally, “if you don’t educate me how will I learn” is in fact one of the Derailing For Dummies tactics.

10. “And you call yourself “free” thinkers”/This is not “free” thought.

Part I explains this misconception about the word “free” in “freethought”.

11. “But I AM a humanist”/”I am not a casteist”/”I am an egalitarian”/etc.

Labels are easy to adopt or disavow. We often see people avowing their allegiance to progressive labels, but the words that come out of their mouths and keyboards indicate the opposite. So what matters is not what label you give yourself – what matters is the content of your statements and arguments. We also focus on behaviours rather than character – i.e. “that’s sexist” instead of “you’re a sexist”. As regards the label “I am an egalitarian”, unfortunately this statement usually indicates a misuse of the word “egalitarianism” in that it denies the existence of privilege. It wrongly assumes fair background conditions as a premise, and is used as a coded word to fight against social change movements.

12. “This is/what about reverse racism/sexism/etc.”

The notion of “reverse racism” (for instance) is, sociologically speaking, nonsense. It comes about due to a fundamental misconception about oppression. Oppression requires institutionalised power to operate and works via social systems, not individuals. Members of marginalised groups do not have that power to assert “reverse” negative effects on the privileged. Privilege, Power, and Difference by Allan G. Johnson is a good book that explains this; it’s a short book and written in an accessible style. Here is a lecture by the author on the social system of racism in the United States. And here is a short article titled Aren’t Systems Just People? where he talks about social systems in general. So while it is possible for individuals of marginalised groups to be prejudiced or bigoted against members of privileged groups, there is no corresponding social system in existence that privileges them vis-a-vis those groups. So calling it “reverse __ism” falsely assumes a symmetry which does not exist. Similarly, we cannot deal with such incidences of prejudice in a completely symmetric manner either – while the prejudice cannot be ethically justified (in most cases), we have to take into account the social systems in operation as well.

13. “This is just political correctness.”

This is another weak objection, just like “you have the right to be offended”. Here are three links which sum up our position on the lament of “political correctness”:

1. Conservatives, “political correctness” and the incredibly offensive unfunniness of “Saturday Night Live”:

Disdain for “political correctness” is often positioned as a concern that some important truth is not being spoken for fear of offending someone. But that concern is nothing but smoke and mirrors. To invoke “political correctness” is really to be concerned about loss of power and privilege. It is about disappointment that some “ism” that was ingrained in our society, so much that citizens of privilege could express the bias through word and deed without fear of reprisal, has been shaken loose. Charging “political correctness” generally means this: “I am comfortable with my privilege. I don’t want to have to question it. I don’t want to have to think before I speak or act. I certainly don’t wish to inconvenience myself for the comfort of lesser people (whoever those people may be–women, people of color, people with disabilities, etc.)”

2. Politically INcorrect? As though that was a good thing…

To declare oneself ‘politically incorrect’ ceases to be a bold declaration of one’s refusal to mindlessly follow social conventions. To the contrary; it is announcing one’s intention to courageously embrace those conventions and the pillars of privilege upon which they are built. It is stating unequivocally that the speaker is completely uninterested in understanding why it is necessary to adjust language to reflect reality. Rather than being an iconoclastic stance, it is a vainglorious assertion of one’s lack of interest in swimming against the tide of cultural prejudice; preferring instead to tread water in the flowing tide of public opinion.

3. Political correctness gone mad

A sketch by comedian Stewart Lee.

What is political correctness? It’s an often clumsy negotiation towards a sort of formally inclusive language, and there’s all sorts of problems with it, but it’s better than what we had before.

14. “What about reservations?”

Reservations, or more generally affirmative action, is another thorny subject. It is also a complex subject; there is a detailed discussion in the Nirmukta forum, Building an FAQ on Affirmative Action, that is worth reading. We often see debates where a person will be anti-reservation. What we watch out for in such cases isn’t a simple litmus test of “pro-” and “anti-” – it’s the contents of the arguments being made. For example, arguing “there are problems with the way reservation is implemented” is different from arguing “If you’re an SC/ST your life is made”. Even more subtle is the denial of caste privilege. These arguments will typically mention phrases like “meritocracy” and “equal opportunity not equal outcomes”, and will contain a suppressed premise of fair background conditions. Such arguments are more likely to lead to a ban, because once again, they contribute to a chilly climate.

In Conclusion

If you’ve read this far and you’re thinking Nirmukta is not for you, you might be wondering what to do. One option is: Leave. Join a group which doesn’t share these values, or start one of your own. We hope you will choose the second option instead: Change.