Why we Fight

My friend and fellow skeptic Joey left a thoughtful comment on my post yesterday, and as usual with Joey, I got to thinking.  I think her comment needs addressing, because her point is shared by many, and I think it's getting lost in the fighting.

Joey said,

"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, I really get what you're saying.  I think it pains me, and many others that it has gotten as vitriolic as it has. Today, I saw this conversation on facebook (though I'm not providing links that will identify the speakers):

Person A: Nothing can shake my admiration for Richard Dawkins.
Person B: That's a fairly sweeping statement, there. What if Dawkins turns out to be a closet child raper? Still won't shake your admiration?

I see problems with both statements, and they are reflective of the larger debate that is being played out.  As Person A helps remind us, Dawkins has an army of supporters who agree with him because they share his mindset, or because they will agree with whatever he says out of unshakable admiration (also known as "sycophancy").  Person B mentions child rape, as if we didn't need enough extremism in this discussion.

However, what I've learned over the past couple of days, is that this issue has gotten bigger than the two things that got people going in the first place:

Elevator Guy and Stef McGraw.

Those were both smaller issues that sussed out a much larger culture of misogyny in the atheist and skeptic communities.  The guy in the elevator sparked a discussion that ballooned up fast, and the issue of Stef McGraw is a side-distraction.  Yes, Stef's issue might imply a culture of hostility by Rebecca, or a culture of  entitlement when Stef speaking of her "ruined reputation," but that's not what this is about anymore.

Usually, whenever smaller events and discussions like these happen, there are a few comment threads here and there, it gets ugly, and in a week, people (for the moment) forget about it. This too, will pass.  But when our most visible leader and spokesperson talks with such insensitivity and hostility to a very important issue, it tells me that we need to distance ourselves from that culture of yesterday.

Dawkins' response cannot go unchallenged, or we are all complicit.

Sadly, this has become a fight.  Hopefully, no one relishes it, though I expect that many revel in the opportunity to insult, berate, and laugh at other members of our communities over feminism.  This is what misogynists do: they ridicule anyone who shows an interest in feminism because they think there is no problem, or they don't care.

I see other people on twitter and facebook exclaiming that "Because I agree with Dawkins, I'm a misogynist."

Perhaps you are, perhaps you aren't.  Perhaps you haven't given it much thought either way (This might help). Feminism is a very difficult concept to come to terms with, because, as I said yesterday, it challenges our most basic assumptions about how the genders interact.  It takes time, and very careful contemplation.  I'm not suggesting that if you disagree with Rebecca, Jen, Phil, Matt, Stephanie, Barbara, PZ, Greg, or myself, that you haven't thought of it enough.  I'm simply asking you to think about it a great deal more.

It took me years (including an undergraduate education in political studies) to understand feminism as I now do.  There was a time when I was hostile to feminism: lumping it in with the stereotype of bra-burning and man-hating.  There was a time when I was ambivalent towards it: thinking it a fine pursuit for others but not me.  There was a time when I was modestly curious about it: seeing how much of a body of thought it was, and thinking I could never hope to penetrate its dense tomes.  There was a time (now) when I saw the incredible value of it, and strove to learn as much as I could (while still leaving time for food and work).

For most people, the colloquial definitions of feminism are fine enough, because they're easy to grasp, and easy to approve, or reject. But real feminism, as we see Rebecca and others trying to discuss, is much more subtle.  As I said in yesterday's post, understand the historical and cultural context of a feminist question first, then question.  Dawkins (and his numerous supporters) asked the question without first understanding the context.

The worst, most intellectually dishonest thing anyone can do is to reject an entire discussion, as I see being done now, and in the recent past.

I see how an important discussion turning into a fight can be disheartening: it is. But we fight because we care too much, and this is simply too important to let slide.  Dawkins is not the only highly visible member of our community to act like this, and its time to make it known: Skeptics (and atheists) take women's issues very seriously.

I want to give Dawkins the benefit of the doubt here: he is a highly intelligent, eloquent, and educated academic, one who understands ethics better then most.  Will he take this moment to truly reflect on what he said, and what others have been saying, or will he soldier on like a smug, privileged British intellectual, completely removed from society?   Hopefully, time will tell.

As with alternative medicine harming people, psychics bilking people, and religions hindering education, we fight because we care.

And as for Joey, and the numerous other people that have been turned off because of this whole affair:  Please come back, and please don't hold what we're doing against us.  I understand why you're taking a break, and don't blame you: this has gotten nasty, exhausting, and it doesn't seem to be going anywhere.  But it is going somewhere positive, I promise. I also hope you understand why we fight:  the consequences of not standing up for feminism at this moment are too severe.

When this blows over (and it will), we'll save your seat for you.

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Why, exactly, are "Don't be a Dick" and "Don't be a Creep" controversial?

If someone's reaction to Phil Plait saying "don't be a dick", or Rebecca Watson saying "don't be a creep", is to get defensive or dismissive, maybe that someone needs to put a little more rational thought into their social interactions. These are pretty axiomatic principles of social discourse, after all!

James said...
July 6, 2011 at 2:08 PM  

Dunno. I've seen this sort of stum & drang play itself out too many times and it just makes me sleepy. No, I haven't read/seen Rebecca's talk but I got the basic gist of it and it seems like a no-brainer unless you're a twenty-something entitled suburban white boy (been there, done that) or (apparently) Richard Dawkins.

I haven't read his reply either but I'm not sure what the hell he felt he could constructively add to the conversation. That he's managed to dump a tanker of jet fuel on an unnecessary bonfire is a testament to his humanity, fallibility, and utter tone-deafness in certain areas (his response to the closure of the RD.net forums being a delicious example.) I'm not going to hate on him or chuck "Greatest Show on Earth" & "Ancestor's Tale" into the fireplace and cry myself to sleep on my gigantic pillow but I'm sure as hell not going to defend his witless ass.

I survived the dawn of Political Correctness and sociopathic campus speech codes; we are so far away from that atmosphere that anyone who uses those two words outside of a historical context is in all likelihood just holding up a cardboard shield for their bigotry.

And while I typically tune out the whole gender/feminism palaver, what I came away with is that women have very different perceptions of events than men do. And when a smart, articulate woman politely and concisely explains why she feels threatened by behavior that a twenty-something suburban white boy (or Richard Dawkins) may consider perfectly innocuous, it's time to shut the fuck up and really listen to what she is saying.

Part of being a good humanist is being able to empathize with others and try to put yourself in their shoes, to entertain the notion that the other person may actually have a legitimate point before dismissing it. From personal experience, that's not something that twenty-something entitled suburban white boys are very good at. If they're lucky, they may catch a clue at some point. Dawkins is old enough that he should know better; maybe he didn't get the memo.

This whole avoidable dustup hasn't put me off the athe-skepti-humanist "movement" any more than usual. It's the typical and unfortunate internecine bloviating and spleen-venting that periodically wracks the community; it doesn't make me upset as much as it makes me sleepy. It's far easier to puff up with outrage than shrug it off and actually do something concrete or meaningful.

You want to attract more of a certain group to athe-skepti-humanism? Find a way they can participate in a meaningful and enjoyable way that appeals to them and support their efforts or, at the very least, get out of their damn way. Far harder said than done, but probably more effective & useful than saying we need more members of group X for the sake of the appearance of diversity.

apthorpe said...
July 7, 2011 at 2:22 AM  

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