Those who don’t know Thomas Smith (@TandtheB) and haven’t followed the controversy over Mythicist Milwaukee probably don’t have any interest in debates, Shitlords, or…Mythicist Milwaukee (MM). While I’m not in that camp I have stayed away from the controversy surrounding Sargon of Akkad, an apparently horrible human being and YouTuber with a rather rabid following. I had several reasons for doing this, which I’ll detail below, but after the nightmare that was MM I feel like I’ve dropped the ball as someone who calls themselves an activist and a part of the skeptical & humanist communities. This is a long overdue retrospective on my handling of this situation.
First, I’m not a part of the YouTube (YT) community and have purposely stayed away from it for this very reason. A long time ago I was making (very low-quality) videos and had thought it would be something I could do to support the popularization of atheism and the community of new atheists. This was before podcasts, which are much more fun to me than YouTube videos. The problem with YT is that it’s a steaming cesspool of awful Internet trolls who gain large audiences by being shitty and become even more shitty as they’re rewarded with views, likes, shares, and ad revenue. The comment sections on videos are a minefield and I just don’t have time for it.
That being said, this is the main reason I had no idea who Sargon even was. When it was announced that he would be attending MM for a panel discussion I started reading about his exploits and only came to know him via secondhand information. As is my usual reaction, I felt like it was an incredibly odd choice for this conference to have made but felt that it was the organizers’ prerogative to invite whom they wanted. I also had a faulty thought process that compounded my flippancy on the issue: Thomas Smith.
Thomas is one of the podcasters I respect most in the world for his skepticism, empathy, and researched thoughtfulness of every topic on which I’ve heard him speak. It’s not just that I align with his views, though. It’s that when he and I don’t align on something he’s always got something to bring to the table and state his case. He doesn’t devolve into flights of fancy or childish name-calling and I have no reason to believe that he’s dishonest in any of his dealings. That’s why, when I found out Thomas would be “debating” Sargon I felt like the conference was in good hands. Additionally, since Matt Dillahunty, Aron Ra, Seth Andrews, et al, were going to be there it seemed like there would be enough rational voices to counter Sargon’s awful arguments and his crowd of “Shitlords.”
But then, the rational voices started dropping out and refused to attend the conference – for good reason. Thomas opted to stay in and try to counter bad speech with good speech, which I supported and now feel was wrong. Sometimes good speech is drowned out in a swirling ocean of bad. Thomas tried to use the time to confront Sargon about specific things he had said and tweeted, but it became clear that the crowd had gathered to reminisce on Sargon’s Greatest Hits and the entire endeavor became pointless.
Here’s the thing about Sargon of Akkad: he’s a petty, mean child who thrives off of the attention of other petty, mean children and you’re never going to talk sense to someone like that – especially when they feel it appropriate to make claims as to your views and when asked what those views are, answer, “I don’t know.” This is not the mark of an intellectual, and no matter how good your speech is, his bad speech will always win.
Sargon ended up making audience members feel uncomfortable and unsafe, and Thomas didn’t even get to address some of the topics he wanted to. What makes this even worse is that even if he had, neither the audience nor Sargon would have listened or addressed it rationally. Everything about MM was bad judgment, poor ideas, and a complete failure.
After MM, Thomas was subjected to hordes of Shitlords on Twitter and Facebook spreading lies about his conduct, a non-existent confrontation at the party afterward, and the reason why security removed Tom (of Cognitive Dissonance podcast) from the room. The whole time I stayed silent because I felt it wasn’t my fight.
Well, this is my fight. If I care at all about the skeptic community, social justice, and future conventions then I need to be involved. That’s why I call on MM to issue clarification on the entire convention, an apology to everyone not in the Shit Lord camp, and a deep re-evaluation of what they want to be in the future. If they want numbers, they can invite shitty guests like Sargon and Milo and whoever else they want, so long as they own up to the fact that that’s what they are now: shitty. This has to stop. We have to ensure that good ideas are heard and bad ideas are left to the dark, stupid corners of YT and Reddit. We all need to be involved in cleaning up our community and becoming better people as a whole.
After the conference ended, Thomas wound up taking on a lot more patrons and finding support from more people all over, and I think this is a good sign. Knowing that Thomas didn’t back down from a challenge is admirable, but knowing that he was heard after all is encouraging. Just please, let’s not do this again.