This conversation continues from one that happened on Twitter.
Blake, my interlocutor, sent me this e-mail as a way of expressing his arguments and concerns more clearly:
Thanks again for the twitter convo, this is easily the most challenging and engaging discussion I’ve had since signing up on twitter a couple months ago. I’m sure you’ve dealt with many people with similar attitudes to mine and you understandably have little patience left for educating us one on one, so I thank you for responding and for your civility.
We left off with you asking what I’d expect in terms of evidence before accepting the contention of many feminists that misogyny is a systemic issue in society, and similarly endemic within the atheist community. There’s a lot I already do accept:
– I accept that there is a real problem with objectification of women and that there are extreme pressures on girls and women to meet unrealistic and even unhealthy standards with regards to their appearance. This is perpetuated by men and women, but is definitely a case of male privilege in action, and possibly even a dilute form of patriarchy.
– I accept that woman get disproportionately harassed by men, and the anonymity of many online interactions has led to some of the most vile and obscene displays of blatant misogyny, and this is disturbingly common even among atheists. I do think that this problem is somewhat mitigated by the fact that such comments are considered unacceptable by the vast majority of men and women (at least among most developed nations), and the perpetrators would never make such comments in person, nor would they act on the threats made. These are vile cowards and trolls who are rightly marginalized, and they know better than to peddle their hate speech anywhere they might be recognized and called out on it.
– Women are certainly disproportionately affected by violence, rape, and domestic abuse, but I suspect that it is physical differences rather than societal ones that account for much of this disparity. I’m willing to be shown I’m wrong about this, but all of this is almost universally understood to be a bad thing. I know there have been some horrific examples of “rape culture” recently (Stubenville, Rehtaeh Parsons, UBC chants), but I have still found that these stories are met with appropriate shock and disgust by most people, and there is widespread condemnation of such behaviour. This seems to me to conflict with patriarchy and rape culture narratives as promoted by some feminists.
So misogyny undoubtedly exists, and exists within atheism, but I feel like there is significant recognition of the problem (and I do give credit to the feminist movement for their tireless work on this front). The claim of many feminists, however, seems to be that it is rampant, out of control, unrecognized, and sometimes deliberately denied. If you want to demonstrate that this is the case, you need to show that there is some significant segment of the movement that actually considers abusive behaviour and attitudes to be acceptable or appropriate. Acceptable evidence for this would be implicit or explicit support of sexual harassment, physical or psychological abuse of women, or other clear instances of unashamed sexism by popular bloggers, vloggers, convention presenters, writers, etc. From what I have seen, even Thunderfoot and TJ are very deliberate about pointing out that abuse is a real problem, yet they argue more or less effectively (in my view) that there is a zealous branch of feminism that considers all kinds of harmless and mutually consensual behaviours “abusive” or “misogynistic” and ignores/attacks any dissent. I’m not saying consensual behaviours can’t be sexist (Hijab comes to mind as an easy counterexample), but I’ve certainly encountered the kind of misguided zeal those two love to criticize, and they are not the only ones who notice that it has the opposite of its intended effect:http://www.psmag.com/blogs/news-blog/feminism-maybe-feminists-ewww-66918/
Back to the “Rebranding Feminism” article by Dave Winer that started this conversation.
There are a lot of great feminist voices in my twitter TL and in the blogosphere who seem to share Winer’s perspective that some factions in feminism have earned the movement in general a bad name. You described Winer’s article by saying “the whole thing is a massive exercise in privilege denial.” I think this is an outright falsehood, despite rereading the article several times in an effort to understand what you could possibly be referring to. I don’t buy that privilege creates such thorough blinders that empathy, effort, and careful reasoning can’t overcome them. It also strikes me as likely that the confirmation bias of dedicated feminists can be every bit as powerful a force as the privilege of well-intentioned-yet-ignorant male feminist-supporters. The deliberate alienation of so many of us who are cheering and fighting for a similar if not identical cause is perplexing and frustrating, a sentiment that I know Winer and I share with many, many others, including a lot of women.
I hope I haven’t said anything so ridiculous that you write me off as a lost cause, you have already had a strong impact on my views here. I imagine my position will still shift significantly as I continue thinking about and discussing feminism; it wasn’t overnight that I realized my homophobic, politically conservative, creationist, Christian upbringing might not be wholly consistent with reality. I have no doubt that there’s a lot of naiveté and near-sightedness in what I’ve said, so I’d appreciate if you disabuse me of that.
My response follows:
There is a lot to take on here, and much of it is quite revealing of why you have had such a difficult time dealing with feminists. A great deal seems to be based on stereotype and innuendo rather than actual facts.
I will start off by saying that you seem to be generally making arguments assuming that your personal perspective on a given issue is the objective standard by which things should be judged:
– “I’ve certainly encountered the kind of misguided zeal those two love to criticize”
– “the perpetrators would never make such comments in person, nor would they act on the threats made”
– “I have still found that these stories are met with appropriate shock and disgust by most people, and there is widespread condemnation of such behaviour”
It is perhaps worth interrogating whether the “misguided zeal” is, in fact, misguided, or whether the fact that you don’t have to deal with these issues on a daily basis (and only see the major publicized cases, where of course there is backlash) is leading you to erroneously believe that these behaviours are in fact marginal. My assertion to you is that just as you would likely not be aware of the vast (vast vast vast vast vast) majority of racism issues, as evinced by your lack of awareness of the anti-racist movement, you are likely unaware of what the actual reality is for women within the atheist movement.
I would further put it to you that Thunderf00t and TJ Kincaid, similarly ensconced in an environment where they are only aware of the most egregious examples of misogynistic behaviour, are likewise misguided in their assessment. This is what makes their dismissive attitudes and egregious lies about what people are actually advocating (whatspecific consensual activities are these mythical zealous and dogmatic feminists trying to ban?) particularly dangerous and corrosive. They have no idea what they are talking about, and yet they consider themselves experts in the topic, and surround themselves with a claque of hangers-on (primarily, but not exclusively male) who use their arguments, which are careful to avoid the overt misogyny that would give away the game, to justify the cyberstalking and relentless abuse of prominent female atheists (Rebecca Watson, Melody Hensler, Amy Davis Roth, Ophelia Benson, Sikivu Hutchinson, Stephanie Zvan, the list goes on).
You also seem to be completely unaware of the amount of pushback that happens at the very mention of rape culture. Do you understand why Steubenville and Rehteah were such big cases? Because prosecution was not going to happen until people made a stink. Indeed, there are still people saying that ‘too big a deal’ was made of these issues, and that people need to learn to forgive and forget people for making little mistakes when of course they don’t really mean it. Contrary to your assertions about the widespread pushback and disapproval, the balance of the evidence strongly suggests that the exact opposite is true – horrible things happen to women because they are women, and society in general is more willing to blame the victims or exonerate the perpetrators or ignore the crimes than to do the necessary work to see justice done. It is only because a small and dedicated group of people fight against these things that they see the light of day. And, for their trouble, they are called dogmatic and hysterical and zealous and much worse besides.
I have been recommended the following as a resource to understand rape culture: http://www.shakesville.com/2009/10/rape-culture-101.html
I am also wary of the number of (I hope you will read this as pejorative of your arguments and not of you personally) weasel words you use in your defense of your position. “Some factions in feminism” is the latest in a long string of caveats that suggest to me that what you are complaining about is a nebulous, poorly-defined, and constantly-shifting cluster of people and behaviours. What you are doing is essentially making a complaint that can be applied to anyone that the speaker disagrees with. Is Stephanie Zvan “dogmatic”? Is Jessica Valenti? Is Amanda Marcotte? Is Sandra Fluke? Is Nancy Pelosi? Is Wendy Davis? Is Debbie Goddard? Is Jamila Bey? I put it to you that, if you did even a cursory search, you’d find someone making that claim about any and all of these people, despite the wide diversity of tactics, beliefs, and actions undertaken by these women. The fact that you personally find one or some or even all of them “dogmatic” is not evidence of the truth of that assertion – there is a very good reason to suspect that you are not in a particularly strong position to define what is and is not a reasonable reaction to sexism, nor are you in a position to understand how widespread it is (or indeed, how widespread it has to be before it is problematic enough to justify taking some action).
You described Winer’s article by saying “the whole thing is a massive exercise in privilege denial.” I think this is an outright falsehood, despite rereading the article several times in an effort to understand what you could possibly be referring to. I don’t buy that privilege creates such thorough blinders that empathy, effort, and careful reasoning can’t overcome them.
The second sentence has literally nothing to do with the third. I never claimed that one could not overcome privilege, I am saying that Winer has not, and I don’t think he’s even made an effort to. Instead he has spent the bulk of his time whinging that feminists are too mean to him, and that the problems he is encountering is 100% because other people are not generous enough to him. This kind of petulant complaining is indeed common, as you say. That doesn’t make it correct.
That article you provided is interesting, but you’ll note that it’s based on stereotypes, not factual beliefs. The fact that many people base their beliefs about other groups on stereotypes rather than facts is not in any way evidence that members of those groups ought to behave differently. I’m sure you would find it unacceptable directed at other minority groups – racial minorities, gay people, poor people – and so I hope you will understand why I don’t consider it acceptable or persuasive as evidence that feminists need to change their tactics. Stereotypes are not based in fact, and changing facts seldom makes stereotype-based beliefs any less persuasive. There are many who think that atheists are doomed to fail because we are ‘too mean’ about religion – is that a position you agree with?
The deliberate alienation of so many of us who are cheering and fighting for a similar if not identical cause is perplexing and frustrating
If I am fighting for something, and you are undercutting me, I don’t care if you think you’re fighting for my cause. You’re not. You are an ally right up until the point that you stop being an ally, and then you are a problem. I have written a much longer and more exhaustive argument on this issue here: https://crommunist.com/2013/08/19/was-it-kierkegaard-or-dick-van-patten-who-said/
Allyship is difficult and often thankless work, and if you think that others have some obligation to hold you to a different standard because you have good intentions, you are going to find it nearly impossible. Instead, you’re going to find yourself constantly defending your intentions, which nobody cares about, rather than your actions, which is what people object to. I think it is revealing, and worth spending time reflecting on, that you think the alienation is deliberate, but that your stumbles are simply mistakes that should be forgiven. Once again, I think you are placing too much confidence on your own ability to be a completely objective and impartial adjudicator of reality. You are aware that it is possible for you to be wrong in your assessment of things like the existence of gods, LGBTQ issues – self-directed skepticism is the most crucial kind.
Which brings me to the evidence you asked for. There are a lot of different examples of prominent atheists using implicitly sexist language and argumentation that I could offer: Michael Shermer suggesting that the reason there aren’t more women in atheism is because speaking up is more of a guy thing, Richard Dawkins belittling Rebecca Watson for daring to suggest she doesn’t like being propositioned in elevators (and using Muslim women to carry his water for him), pretty much 40% of Ophelia Benson’s blog… what I think I will do instead is confine myself to the aforementioned vloggers.
Thunderf00t spent the entirety of his tenure at FTB railing against, of all things, the institution of anti-harassment policies at conferences. Despite the fact that these kinds of policies are common and non-controversial pretty much everywhere else, there was (and continues to be) a major fight between those who say “we should have some rules and enforce them” and those who say “anti-harassment policies suck all the fun out of conferences”. One of the sides of this debate has buckets of settled case law on its side – the other is frankly delusional and more enamored of its own strawman nonsense than of the evidence they claim to champion. Here is what I wrote about his arguments:
It should be worthwhile to note that he has since devoted a meaningful chunk of his blogging to fighting as many straw feminists as he can conjure in the twisted labyrinth of his demented mind (in a 5 part series) and, of all things, the idea that we should focus our anti-rape efforts on deterring rapists rather than blaming victims. I’m not sure where you draw the line between implicit and explicit misogyny, but I have no difficulty identifying TF as willfully and maliciously misogynistic.
For his own part, TJ Kincaid achieved his notoriety for repeatedly verbally assaulting a rape victim in an attempt to trigger her PTSD: http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2012/02/08/the-not-so-amazing-atheist-self-immolates/. I trust that’s a fairly unequivocal misogynistic action, by pretty much any sensible definition.
Is this sufficient evidence for you to accept that there is a problem and that the “zeal” that you decry in “some factions” is actually reasonable and motivated by actual events?
This conversation is ongoing.
I appreciate that he’s open to changing his mind. And I certainly hope he does.
My thoughts are scattered all over the place after reading this. Why would Athiests in particular handle their approach to the issue significantly differently than an Agnostic or a Methodist? I understand the world view would be very different for a big C Conservative Christian, but most moderates are moderates regardless of affiliation, aren’t they?
When it comes to his understanding of the prevalence of issues, that may stem from his upbringing? Perhaps he doesn’t realize that not every case is publicized. At the most extreme level, look at child abduction – generally the high profile cases with national attention are Caucasian, middle-class or better. Just because you don’t often hear about lower income kids of different ethnicity on the news doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen to them. That’s the same with rape, abuse, etc.
And as to what constitutes systemic, or who is really guilty of these things in his mind is a little scary. It seems he’s saying for Rape-Culture to exist, people need to form groups to talk about it or something!
Finally he discusses rape-culture by saying “we’ll we’re appropriately disgusted as a group when we hear about it, Instead of wondering what we do as a group to educate kids – girls & especially boys to ensure it doesn’t continue with the next generation.
Sorry…I said I was all over the place!
These kinds of posts are really helpful to me, Ian, because I’d like to be able to have email discussions like this. I really have some valuable in depth exchanges about subjects like creationism and climate change denial. And I care about combatting privileged attitudes but — partly because it’s a newish topic to me, and partly because I’m one of the privileged group, I don’t always have ready responses beyond ridicule when somebody writes stuff like this. It’s good to have you providing examples of clear communication.
It’s a weird tightrope walk for me, because most of the time I blow off these conversations. But Blake was up front about saying “I don’t understand this” as opposed to “this is stupid”, which is a much different conversation. Anyway, I’m glad others are finding it helpful.
Nice work. I hope it bears fruit.