Monday, July 26, 2010

Helping?

http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2010/07/25/on-the-incivility-of-atheists-tom-johnson-and-exhibit-a/

I won’t go into the background, since Jerry does an excellent job of summarising it in that link.  He’s also done an excellent job of investigating the perp (I’ll copy Jerry and refer to him as “JT”) and describing the current situation.  I don’t have an issue with any of that, it was well - and I think necessarily - done.

But I’m conflicted about some of the comments.  I won’t reproduce them here, but some people feel that “JT” needs to be “outed” by having his real identity revealed in public.  Some have gone as far as to say that he doesn’t ever deserve to gain employment in a position where anyone has to trust him (although I’d have thought that would include every position).  I wasn’t personally involved with the story as it was happening and wasn’t even aware of TJ’s site until after he closed it down (although I’ve seen cached versions).  So this probably moderates my sense of outrage.  However, there’s a harshness to this that I’m not sure I can agree with.  People – no matter how despicable – deserve the opportunity to redeem themselves.  And yet, it’s difficult to see how redemption could take place if he isn’t outed.  To be redeemed, people must be able to judge your actions, but this isn’t possible if nobody knows who you are.

I suspect some correspondents are confused between TJ being held accountable for what he’s done and being punished for it.  I’m all for his being accountable.  He orchestrated a sustained smear on New Atheists in general and some in particular.  He lied about his identity, used numerous fake identities on various forums and on his own website to feign support for his positions.  And he told damaging lies about New Atheist behaviour.  He apologised only when he was caught and he even lied in at least one of his apologies (specifically, he said that he wasn’t a graduate student). 

He should be held accountable for this, somehow.  But I don’t think it’s my job to punish him.  Even if I knew who he was, I wouldn’t out him.  Even if I were one of the people he targeted in person, I probably still wouldn’t be interested in outing him.  I can’t even say with any certainty that I want him to be outed.

Jerry reports that TJ’s PhD advisor is aware of the situation and that his university is investigating whether action will be taken against him.  Ophelia Benson thinks this handles the accountability part and I’m tempted to agree.  Being threatened with expulsion from his PhD programme might give him cause for serious thought.  Naturally, there’s a chance that he’ll weasel out of it scott free or that he won’t feel contrite at being caught or scared of potential consequences to come.  This would be frustrating but we’ll probably never know either way anyway.

I tend to feel that redemption is more important than punishment…or even justice in some cases.

So after knocking all these ideas about, have I come to any conclusion?  Well, the ideal would be for TJ to come clean in public, regardless of the results of the ongoing investigation by his university.  He’d no doubt take some flak for it, perhaps unfortunately, although surely deservedly.  He might harm his chances of future employment, but I don’t know how much. 

But if he gave a frank and full apology, in public, revealing his identity, then it might go a little way toward restoring his reputation. 

Now, I’m not a fan of people baying for apologies either.  Tiger Woods springs to mind.  He did some reprehensible things and we should….reprehend…..him.  But I can’t for the life of me work out what his personal life has to do with his sport.  And I can’t understand why we should hound him until he apologises… then act as though everything’s OK now. 

So I wouldn’t take an apology at face value, but it would be a start.  If TJ made his identity public then used that identity to start making honest, transparent blog posts, with honest, transparent, public debate, then we might be able to trust him some day.

So that’s my suggestion.  Rather than outing TJ, perhaps we should encourage him to come clean and start building a new reputation based on honesty.  Perhaps we should support an effort like that.  And by “support” I mean calling him out on accomodationist bullshit, investigating dubious claims and possible sock puppets, if we want to.  Or ignoring him.  But I don’t mean shutting him down because of his past idiocies.

If he doesn’t out himself, then he remains just another dishonest arsehole on the web and we shouldn’t lose too much sleep over that.

So to summarise: he seems to be in some trouble with his university.  There’s a chance that he’ll understand the consequences of what he did and how it might affect his future.  There’s a chance that it will actually (adversely) affect his future.  And there’s a chance that he’ll face no consequences or remorse at all.  So be it.  I’ll judge, but won’t execute.

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