I've not wanted to wade into this Rebecca Watson / Richard Dawkins / Steff McGraw / Jen McCreight / just about everyone kerfuffle, but things are getting about as heated as they can without a cage match. I generally dislike blogging on these meta-issues of skepticism, because I feel smug when I do it. And yet, I say these following words with humility, and I beg your indulgence. 

Full disclosure: I consider Rebecca a friend.  She and another Skepchick blogger Carrie once drove three hours, across to the Canadian side of the border to come to my house for what was effectively beer, pie, and coffee, so I'll put it out on front street: I may not be entirely unbiased here.  

See?  Bestest. Friends. Ever.
Also, I'll not link to many outside sources in this post, except when required for context, so as to not inflame the already raging fires more.

That being said, here are some simple lessons that I hope we have all learned:

1) Calling someone a "rape apologist" serves no one. Smarten up, and don't do that.

2) Just as when Randi publicly questioned climate science a little over a year ago, Richard Dawkins displayed some extraordinary insensitivity and ignorance to feminist issues.  When our heroes get stuff wrong, it reminds us not to practice the hero-worship and sycophancy that we all aspire to avoid.

3) Feminism needs to be discussed. Skepticism is too big, too important, to not discuss it. I see too often in comment threads and in some blogs (no, I'll not be naming names here, sorry) where people (usually white, straight, and male) talk of being tired of feminist issues being discussed, because it's not really a problem. The idea that because we're a science-based community, then equality and evidence is our M.O.  To be sure, women and visible minorities do receive an equal, and fair hearing in our lot.  So why then, is there still such an imbalance of the genders and the colours?  Well the answer is simple, but no less challenging: we have equality, but we don't have equity.  The outcome of our collective input still favours those with white skin, and penises.  Of if you like, Whitey McPenises.

4) If problem A is 10 serious, and problem B is 3 serious, it's still okay to oppose problem B.  One does not subtract problem B from A in order to assess how serious a situation is.  Feminism is not a zero sum game, where lots of oppression somewhere makes a little oppression seem like people should not complain.

5) Women have a different set of shared experiences then men do. I am normally loathe to speak of identity politics and post modernism with any sort of weight, but here it applies: It is wrong, ethically, morally, and culturally to assume that the male standard(s) of social interactions can be any sort of measuring stick against what is largely (but not uniquely) a female experience.  Men: stop it.

6) Atheists have often trumpeted (or parroted) the words of Dawkins with respect (or lack of respect) to religious persons, and too often have the religious been labeled as 'crybabies' when called out in the biting way that only Dawkins can deliver.  Maybe now we feminist atheists are getting a taste of the sting that the religious feel when Dawkins insults them, to cheers of applause from atheists.  Respect: It's time we all learned it, and not to define others by what they believe, but by how they act.

7) Don't let the extreme right wing, or any armchair political analyst fool you: "radical feminism" is not a body of thought in the feminist literature, at least not in the way you are being led to believe.  What they call "radical feminism", I call "white guy thinks vaginas are out to take his job away". Radical feminism is about abolishing patriarchy, not men.  During this whole affair, nowhere did true radical feminism come into play.

8) It's fine to "just ask the question" about why one simply cannot push the elevator button to escape, if your intentions are *truly* out of intellectual curiosity.  But it's also a huge leap of arrogance to assume that a) you already know the answer and more importantly, b) you can ask that question without a broader understanding of the cultural context of said question.  This is feminism 101: Understand the history and context, then see if your question still applies.  More often than not, feminist issues are not simple, and they have more baggage behind them then most are prepared to admit, or accept.

Going Forward (hopefully)

This is the challenge of feminism: to seriously challenge and question our own assumptions on how society operates with respect to genders.  We skeptics (and atheists) take pride (and boast) about phraseology like "critical thinking" and "challenging the status quo".  And yet here, our most most basic assumptions about human and gender interactions have been brutally challenged: do we have the courage to continue to ask questions about them, or do we dismiss the conversation wholesale, and make no effort to learn anything?

It's easy to denounce religious-motivated female genital mutilation; this is the extreme.  The hard part is seeing gender power imbalances in the mundane, everyday experience. Men: we don't experience life the way women do.  We just don't.

Special shout-out to Stephanie Zvan who compiled a helpful list of links in a recent post, where you can read many links and get more context about what happened, what didn't happen, and why feminism is still an urgent, important issue.

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I have no problems calling someone a rape apologist per se. I will agree, however, that in the context of an actual discussion (which not everything surrounding this is), it's often more helpful to point to specific things that are said and note how they support a rape culture.

Stephanie Zvan said...
July 5, 2011 at 12:50 AM  

This is true, Stephanie. Rape Apologists *are* out there. I did not mean to imply otherwise, and it's important to make the distinction.

Steve Thoms said...
July 5, 2011 at 1:42 AM  

This post is great. Very well done and important.

I would just further underline #2. What Dawkins said was really quite hostile and aggressive, just a step up from insensitive and into even more violent and creepy than the original incident we were all discussing.

Thanks for this. Mostly just giving you an approving shout ooot. (get me? i said oot)

Jennifer Michael Hecht

July 5, 2011 at 10:01 AM  

"To be sure, women and visible minorities do receive an equal, and fair hearing in our lot. So why then, is there still such an imbalance of the genders and the colours?"

Can't speak to the race issue, but as far as women go, part of the imbalance may lie with the other part of this story: I personally am dissuaded by a woman blogger exercising her right to disagree with another skeptic, and being treated extremely unfairly for it. I don't even want to be involved in this "how to get women into skepticism" thing anymore because some of the hypocrisy there is just not something I want to deal with.

Joey H. (signed because I need a new OpenID)

thezenmonkey said...
July 5, 2011 at 3:52 PM  

Joey, I think a lot of the differences in how the matter with Stef is viewed have to do with whether one thinks a leader commenting on a organization's blog is representing herself or representing her organization. As a movement, we've been doing a lousy job of making those kinds of distinctions, and they drastically change what constitutes an appropriate response. I'm going to try to get a post up on the topic (covering much more than just this incident) in the next couple of days. I'd love to get your input on it.

Stephanie Zvan said...
July 5, 2011 at 4:21 PM  

I'd love to read it, thanks. I'm not sure I agree with you on this point, maybe because my outrage stems from elsewhere, but I look forward to talking about it.

thezenmonkey said...
July 5, 2011 at 7:52 PM  

I am a female atheist who stopped participating in any atheist groups/activities exactly because of attitudes like the one Richard Dawkins expressed.

Unfortunately, Dawkins is representative of a LOT of male atheists - "it doesn't happen to me, so it isn't a real problem."

Some might read this as an "angry feminist" reaction. But I am not angry. I'm just exhausted. It is so tiring to have to constantly explain no, I do not hate men. No, I am not a "misandrist." No, I am not hypersensitive. No, I am not making it up. No, I am not imagining the sexual assault I experienced as teenager. Why is it that when I talk about something that happened to me and took a terrible psychological toll, I have to first make sure not to hurt any men's feelings or make them in any way uncomfortable? Why are THEIR feelings about my assault more important than my own?

When men, under the guise of skepticism, challenge what happened to me, they are not really interested in the truth. They are interested in confirming their own worldview.

Women already undergo gaslighting from society when we talk about sexual assault and harassment - "are you sure that's how it happened? are you sure you weren't imagining it? are you sure you didn't do something to deserve it?" Little do people realize that these questions are basically telling a woman, "you are too stupid/hysterical/crazy to know your own life experience."

Part of what awakened my skepticism in the first place was my resentment at the Catholic Church's sexism. It was extremely disillusioning to find that atheists could be just as bad, and sometimes worse.

I have no desire to put myself in a space where I know I will be subjected to this kind of thing. Unfortunately, the dude-centric culture of a lot of atheist and skeptical communities ensure that this is exactly what happens. I feel lonely as an atheist, but that is no where near the psychological toll of being asked to prove my honesty and humanity as a woman.

Kappa said...
July 7, 2011 at 10:02 AM  

Steve, it's so nice to see another man who gets it. I think you're right about "rape apologists"--I'd rather call them "[unconscious] rape enablers." If the skeptical community doesn't get this, it will become like Mensa--a place for lonely guys to show off how smart they are, to each other, and not relevant to the majority of intelligent people who could have belonged.

July 8, 2011 at 1:58 PM  

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