Chaos during Social Justice and Feminism Debate at Milwaukee Atheism Conference

Sparks flew at the 2017 MythCon conference on Saturday when British YouTuber and cultural critic Carl Benjamin, aka Sargon of Akkad, exchanged verbal blows and jabs with his interviewer, Thomas Smith, an atheist and skeptic podcast host. The heated exchange on intersectional feminism, social justice activism and Black Lives Matter was marred by insults which frequently bled into Smith yelling at the audience. The tumultuous debate culminated in Smith storming off the stage after repeatedly accusing Sargon of holding misogynistic and racist views. Tensions continued to mount even after the conference, resulting in security removing angry attendees from the venue.

“Atheism plus” meets “atheism minus”

Held at the Pabst Theatre in downtown Milwaukee and organized by Mythicist Milwaukee, a secular and free inquiry group, the conference was surrounded in controversy weeks leading up to the event. Activists and feminists on social media took issue with the speaker lineup bringing to the forefront the growing chasm in the secular community between social justice humanism, sometimes branded as “atheism plus,” and a more libertarian or classical liberal skepticism. The event featured several atheist speakers of the latter-kind, including feminism critic Sargon and fellow video bloggers Gregory Fluhrer aka Armoured Skeptic and June Lapine aka Shoe0nHead.

Dan Arel, a social justice activist and atheist writer called the event a “neo-Nazi conference.”

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Arel, along with other activists, encouraged conference speakers to cancel their appearances. Following the sustained Twitter campaign, prominent atheist figures Seth Andrews and Aron Ra announced they were no longer attending, with the former taking particular concern with the three invited YouTube commentators. Sean Fracek, president of Mythicist Milwaukee told me that the theatre was also placed under significant pressure to cancel the event.

Despite the organized effort to shut down the event, the conference drew over 500 attendees, nearly double the attendance compared to the previous year according to event organizers.

An interview or a debate?

Sargon of Akkad and Thomas Smith spoke in a session titled “A discussion of socio-politics.” The session was marketed as an interview but played out as an acrimonious debate without the benefit of a moderator. Smith appeared agitated as soon as he stepped on stage and proceeded to immediately drill Sargon on a controversial tweet he sent to a British Labour MP.

“I wouldn’t even rape you, Jess Phillips,” Sargon tweeted in 2016. Phillips has previously spoken publicly about how she was the victim of sexual assault as a young woman.  

“You have signaled to the women in the movement you don’t give a shit about using rape to bully somebody,” Smith said to Sargon on stage. Sargon maintained that his tweet was not a threat and critics have misunderstood or mischaracterized his words. “The whole point was to demonstrate that I won’t do something and you say that’s a threat,” Sargon retorted. Smith called Sargon “awful.”

When some in the audience whooped in support of Sargon, Smith chastised the crowd, calling them “deplorables” and “sycophants.”

As the debate proceeded, Smith grew increasingly angry at the audience. “This conference is an embarrassment!” Smith shouted to the audience at one point prompting jeers and boos in return. “You guys wanna talk or just cheer at bullshit?” He later turned his frustration on the conference organizers saying the event was a “fucking embarrassment.”  

Although the men discussed other topics such as intersectional feminism, racism and Black Lives Matter over the next hour, Smith brought up Sargon’s “rape” tweet four other times. Sargon stood by his tweet and refused to apologize. “I think anything that happens in real life is way worse than a tweet,” Sargon said.

During a discussion on affirmative action, of which Smith is a proponent, Sargon accused him of advocating for Marxist social engineering. “Freedom allows white men to control everything,” Smith said in response. Audible gasps in the audience were heard. Smith explained that it is the state’s rightful role in taking away some freedoms in order to curtail discriminatory sentiments in the public. If two applicants are the same but one is non-white, the position should go to the non-white person, Smith elaborated.

While the debate brought to surface anger both on stage and in the audience, at times the crowd found the speakers unintentionally comedic. “Intersectionality makes us more individual,” Smith said. Sargon and the audience laughed. Smith explained that intersectional theory elevates individuals by bringing attention to their multifaceted identities. Sargon dismissed the argument, saying intersectionality was simply euphemism for collectivism.

As the debate proceeded to its second half, Smith grew increasingly agitated, accusing Sargon of being a “tool of the alt-right” and figures like Richard Spencer. When the master of ceremonies announced it was time to proceed to the Q&A session, Smith awkwardly waved him off, saying Sargon had not yet sufficiently answered his questions. The Q&A portion was delayed by about 15 minutes.

While many in the audience cheered frequently for Sargon — a handful of them wearing Make America Great Again hats and Kekistan flags — others appeared visibly upset. One woman rushed to the front to make a statement on the microphone. She criticized the fact that two men were discussing issues that affect women. Smith agreed with her but Sargon sarcastically apologized for being male and said he would try harder to change that next time.

Promptly at 2:41 p.m., Smith packed up and walked off the stage during the middle of a question, saying he was scheduled to speak until only 2:40 p.m. Smith proceeded to hastily leave the building altogether. Many in the audience cheered on Sargon, who remained until the session’s formal conclusion.

Security gets involved

Hours later at the VIP meet-and-greet event, Smith and his friends crossed paths with Sargon. After a combatitive discussion, Tom Curry, host of the Cognitive Dissonance podcast, was removed from the venue by security along with a woman. Smith left with the group but told me he chose to leave on his own accord.

“[Smith] seems to have sent a very angry couple of feminist goons after me,” Sargon told me. Smith denies asking anyone to speak with Sargon. “It’s a waste of time to talk to him,” Smith said.

Reflecting on the conference debate, Sargon expressed particular frustration with Smith’s continual demand that he apologize for the tweet to Jess Phillips. “I’m sorry, I’m not going to do that — especially not to a feminist who does not care about the male suicide rate and laughs at the idea of men having problems,” Sargon said. In 2015, Phillips laughed at a Conservative MP during a parliamentary committee meeting when he suggested starting an “International Men’s Day” as a campaign to raise awareness of the disproportionately high male suicide rate and wider men’s health issues.

However, Smith stands by his questioning. “I hate people who harass women online,” he said. Smith initially expressed regret for participating in the conference but changed his mind after speaking with some attendees. “Initially with how obnoxious the audience was, it felt at first like I just went into a crowd of all Sargon supporters,” Smith said. “But after hearing from a lot of people, mainly women, who didn’t know who Sargon was and were glad I exposed his disgusting sexual harassment, I think maybe it was worth it.”

Other speakers at MythCon included ex-Scientologist Ron Miscavige, Muslim reformer and Trump voter Asra Nomani, Iraqi human rights activist Faisal Al-Mutar and Singaporean free speech activist Melissa Chen. They all spoke without issue or controversy, fulfilling at least part of the organizers’ mission of creating “dialogue about culture, religion and freedom of thought.”

Lost in all this? An opportunity to close the gap between “atheism plus” and “atheism minus.”

[Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article stated that Thomas Smith and his friends approached Carl Benjamin (Sargon of Akkad). It has been corrected to better reflect the story]

Photo: Hilary Frank

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Andy Ngo

Andy Ngo is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore. who writes about free speech, secularism, Islam and women’s rights.
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Andy Ngo

Andy Ngo is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore. who writes about free speech, secularism, Islam and women’s rights.

31 thoughts on “Chaos during Social Justice and Feminism Debate at Milwaukee Atheism Conference

  1. “In 2015, Phillips laughed at a Conservative MP during a parliamentary committee meeting when he suggested starting an “International Men’s Day” as a campaign to raise awareness of the disproportionately high male suicide rate and wider men’s health issues.”

    Correction… International men’s day already exists… the proposal was to have a dedicated forum ON international men’s day specifically to speak to men’s issues, in the same manner the parliament has a MONTHLY such forum to discuss women’s issues.