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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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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