the only joy I derive from seeing Ophelia Benson leave FreethoughtBlogs comes from making it easier to ignore her.


[HJH 2015/08/27] August 25th was an interesting day around these parts. The blog was flooded with clicks launched from Ophelia Benson’s new home, which caused a surge in hits to the various posts about Benson around here.

Just for the record, 61.48%
Once More Unto the Breach 21.13%
Some stuff about the Ophelia Benson dust up… 7.68%
So, your Favorite Blogger is Problematic… 5.76%
So – someone called you a TERF – now what? 2.02%
Yes – this is what we’ve come to. 1.92%

Notice the odd distribution: a quick one-off post about her, devoid of argument and evidence, was far more popular than posts packed to the brim with both. This fits into Benson’s general pattern of separating the argument from the outrage and focussing just on the latter, pushing a narrative that her opponents are just reactionary anti-intellectuals.

In thinking about the frenzied monstering of me on Freethought Blogs over the past few weeks, I realized I must have been laboring under a misapprehension all the time I was there. I thought it was a network that was partly about thinking – thinking as such, thinking as a value, thinking as a goal and a pursuit and a method. I knew it was about other things too, of course, especially secularism and atheism and also progressive causes, but I did think it put the “thought” part front and center. […]

I think Freethought Blogs the network has taken a hard turn to anti-intellectualism for the sake of absolutist political commitment. I think political commitments need to be accompanied by thinking.

But that’s nothing new, not even for me. No, what made this day notable was that the link didn’t come from her, but one of her commenters. Her defensive tactics are rubbing off on her fans, and it’s contributing to the giant ball of misinformation surrounding her situation. Even some of those opposed to her seem unaware of key bits of evidence.

The obvious rebuttal is to fight back with solid evidence and argument. That, however, is doomed to fail.

It’s funny how exactly like the slime pit they sound. (tagged: Obsessive)

Hah. Hornbeck could not “just ignore you” and “move on” , he’s positively obsessed with you.

Yep. Exactly that. And totally unaware of it. Christ, they’re pathetic.

I see your commitment to your resolve to ignore Ophelia remains unwavering.


I may have to stop reading the ‘obsessive’ tagged stuff here for a bit, for the same reason, if it keeps up. … I expect it may go on. The costlier it proves, the more it will need justification.

I don’t think that these people are bad people, but to people like Hornbeck, anyone commenting here is evil incarnate, beyond redemption, and—probably, given the general acceptance of Alex Gabriel in those circles—people whose eventual deaths will be a Good Thing. It’s a bizarre, illiberal, anti-intellectual worldview.

So you’ll continue to host conversations on the subject … And they’ll ignore that conversation, secure in their righteousness, repeat themselves endlessly, and continue attacking you and justifying themselves.

If I say something I’ll automatically be branded as an obsessive hater, as I’m still talking about the situation instead of moving on. This will further confirm the opinion of Benson and her fans, widening the gap between us and make earning some consensus even less likely.

Silence is the better option here. It’s not like the posts I and Melby have written are going anywhere, and they hold up well against the misinformation. Given time, the cloud will dispel and the truth will come out…. maybe. See, if you keep up the heated rhetoric long enough and fall into the sunk cost fallacy, you can easily wind up stating falsehoods over and over and over and over again, drowning out the truth through sheer volume. And a truth that’s never heard will never be able to challenge a false narrative. In short, silence hands the ball to Benson and gambles she’ll fumble at some point. It isn’t a good play.

And it doesn’t take much to keep the rhetoric in that furnace. If you talk about being a bad ally in general, Benson assumes you’re talking about her and tosses another log in the fire. Tweet something general about screwing up? It’s all about Benson, and another log pops in. Say something about the dangers of living in an absolutest mindset? It’s a great excuse for Benson to take a pot-shot at the blog network she voluntarily left. Leaving the blog network? Benson, log. All these instances feed into the heightened emotions and paranoia Benson needs to keep other people (and perhaps herself) from looking at the evidence.

I’m not the only one who thinks this. I’m hearing from a lot of people who are afraid to say a word on the subject, because it’s so very easy to be branded a heretic and expelled from the community of good people.

It’s not good. It’s like trying to walk a tightrope over a pool full of sharks. That’s not how to have a working politics or a reasonable worldview or a moral compass. If we can’t think or talk clearly because of the sharks, we’re screwed.

So no matter what I do, I lose. How on Earth do you defeat a Xanatos Gambit?

[CONTENT WARNING: Transphobia]

Let’s start with Benson’s first public post to that gender critical forum, back on April 26th, 2015 (if you won’t or can’t log into Facebook, I have a screencap of the thread). It was the fourth in a series of blog posts that Benson had been following. The words on that page fit perfectly with my earlier definition of a TERF.

38. We can support trans people without pretending to believe in something that is quite clearly false, namely the current dogma which insists that that there is no such thing as male and female, that trans women are female and have always been female, that there are no important social and political differences between trans women and biologically female women. We do not show respect for trans people as rational, intelligent adults by acceding to the demands of a small minority who insist that we deny biological and social reality.

Benson’s contribution was well received by the group.

Tara Bianca Rado: They are all excellent.
Max Dashuzz: Grazie.
Judith Green: These are brilliant. Very clear. The basis for a rational discussion.
Tara Bianca Rado: they have been incredibly useful as a reference, can’t say enough…esp “Am I cisgener” also fantastic…
Sinead Connolly: I really like this.
Elizabeth Hungerford: I don’t even know where to BEGIN! It’s ALL. SO. GOOD.

That last comment, the one by Elizabeth Hungerford, was endorsed by Benson. She and the author, Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, took turns singing each other’s praises and shaking their heads at the bigotry against TERFs.

Ophelia Benson: Hi Rebecca!
Rebecca Reilly-Cooper: Hello! Lovely to be here 🙂 Thank you for your kind words about my posts. It’s funny, I keep expecting to take a battering for them but I never do. I guess the kind of people likely to tell me to die in a fire are not likely to read 8,500 words of turgid analytic prose!
Ophelia Benson: Your prose is really not turgid. At all. I’ve read a lot of turgid philosophical prose for a non-philosopher, and I know!
Rebecca Reilly-Cooper: Aw, thanks Ophelia 🙂 it’s good actually, I wrote these posts mainly because I kept seeing students of mine calling me a TERF on twitter and I started to panic. I don’t have a permanent job and so my career is precarious and I’m genuinely afraid that writing about this stuff is going to damage my career. So I thought, what I will do is, I’ll set out exactly what I believe and reiterate the things I’ve said, and that way if any potential employer hears that I’m a bigot they can hopefully see what I’ve said and make their own minds up. I thought it would be one post of about 2,000 words and it just kept growing and growing…but anyway, the most useful thing about it is that now I can say to people: tell me which number point you disagree with, and we can discuss that. [liked by Benson]
Ophelia Benson: I know. The TERF panic is a horribly effective silencer.
Rebecca Reilly-Cooper: It really is. I’ve seen people say things about me “I pity her students, what if she has trans and non-binary students, her university should be told”, etc. And I saw a student I had taught and got on really well with saying about me “it’s a shame, she was great teacher and really kind to me, but she seems to have gone full TERF 😦 ”
Tara Bianca Rado: ^that is so troubling.
Ophelia Benson: It is, it is, and so familiar.

To add on to Hungerford’s extended quote of Reilly-Cooper, Benson shares her favourite quote from an earlier part of the series. Emphasis mine.

20. While it is possible to transition to the role of woman, this cannot be achieved by a simple act of will or performative utterance. The mere fact of “identifying as a woman”, feeling like a woman, believing one is a woman, or declaring “I am a woman”, on their own are insufficient to make one a woman. To be a woman is to occupy a social role and to be viewed by others as occupying that role, and therefore no subjective mental state is sufficient to make one a woman; becoming a woman is not a mere matter of “identifying as a woman”. If you are called Simon and “present as male“, then the mere fact that you identify as a woman, which presumably means simply to have some sort of feeling or belief in your mind, will have no bearing on how anyone views you, and thus you will continue to be treated with the respect and deference that it usually shown to men.

That lead to a discussion of the privilege that trans* women carry, entitlement via “erasure,” and a desire by Benson to mock trans* women.

Rebecca Reilly-Cooper: God, that Simon dude. What an arsehole! Someone DMd me that screenshot and said please, keep my name out of it, but look what is happening. Men are talking over women, in the time set aside for women to talk, and they are all congratulating themselves on how inclusive and progressive and revolutionary they are!
Ophelia Benson: Yes. When did we decide that trans-women are MORE women and MORE feminist than “cis” women are? And why? Why did we do that? And why didn’t I get a vote?
Rebecca Reilly-Cooper I think it’s down to something I didn’t talk about much in the posts, because it’s quite abstract and theoretical – it’s the move towards conceptualising oppression/injustice solely in terms of “erasure”. What “erasure” generally means is “refusing to recognise what a special snowflake I am”. So the worst (or only!) form of injustice, on this view, is failing to recognise and acknowledge the validity of someone’s self-perception and self-identification. And then, if you’re a dude who looks like a dude and is treated like a dude, but you *feel* like a woman inside, then you are the most oppressed person in the world. Far more oppressed than the woman who knows she’s a woman, even if all being a woman has ever brought her is a lifetime of male violence and exploitation. It’s ABSURD. [liked by Benson]
Ophelia Benson: Well I hope you do talk about that, then, because it needs talking about.
Ophelia Benson: I’m getting tempted to do some kind of obnoxious parody thing. Like…”I appear to be an American but actually I’ve always thought of myself as Sri Lankan. Not that I’ve ever been there or know much about it, but I *feel* Sri Lankan. The rest of you don’t know how fortunate you are, with your cis-nationality privilege.”

Note that this contradicts the narrative Benson and her friends are trying to push.

The dispute began with a post of Benson’s that criticized the way oppressive female beauty standards were being reinforced in the analysis of Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover. It was compounded by another post that voiced agreement with parts of Elinor Burkett’s controversial (and I would say transphobic) New York Times op-ed, and then compounded quite a few more times as tempers frayed, feelings were hurt, and the blogging community at Free Thought melted down. Benson, who is 67, has struggled with both the language and the substance of how we talk about gender at a moment when trans issues have become so central to gender discussions of all sorts.

April 26th is three months before that Vanity Fair cover, and it probably wasn’t even the first instance of transphobia. Benson shows no sign of confusion over language, having learned it from a TERF blogger she’s a fan of and continues to follow. Benson would have you believe this is just all one big, mysterious disagreement.

I don’t know the answer to his question. I don’t know why [AronRa] is still tolerated whenever he publicly disagrees with so many of his associates on that network. I don’t know why he is still tolerated and I’m not. I do know, though, that it’s not because bloggers on the network never do push anyone out over a disagreement.

She also wants you to think I’m obsessed over her. On that score, I’ve just lost the Gambit; this long-winded, detailed post is the perfect evidence for both her and her fans to point to as proof of that. It’s in their best interest to share it as widely as possible, to out me for the hypocrite they claim I am.

But: remember the traffic numbers up above. Benson and her supporters go out of their way to avoid posts filled with evidence, preferring to skim the outrage off the top and feed it into the fire. It’s in their best interest to ignore this post and hope that it gets forgotten in the backwaters of the blogosphere.

Which interest will win? Let’s find out.