I was an unannounced guest on yesterday’s Ask an Atheist. The topic was “The Problem of Dogmatic Feminism“. From the notes posted before the show:
I am a woman. I have attended and spoken at conferences. I have diligently and thoughtfully explored and studied issues of sexism, privilege, social constructs, diversity, and equity. I was steeped in a college culture that, despite being single-sex, eschews gender binaries and celebrates women as integral components in all levels of society. I am a product of a college whose founder intended her institution to serve as “a perennial blessing to the country and the world” for educating women, a college whose tradition “educates women of promise for lives of distinction.” I continue to explore and study these issues as an educator dedicated to equitable opportunity and the ideals of egalitarian responsibility, and atheism/Humanism is a natural home for many seeking to be free of religion’s tendency to reinforce negative gender stereotypes and rigid gender roles through dogma.
That said, I am struck by the dogma that characterizes the discourse surrounding the issue of sexual harassment at atheist conferences. When prominent religious voices espouse dogma, we spot it and denigrate the thinking behind it with ease. I can’t help but listen in disbelief (ha!) as my female peers—gulp—dogmatically insist that any gathering worth its spit adopt and publicize a strict policy, indignantly assign sexual predation to entire categories of people (men), unflinchingly insist that speakers who make romantic advances are inherently abusive, and reactively denigrate and dismiss those who question the tone or content of these cries. Is our womanhood and feminism so holy that we cannot and will not open ourselves to criticism, discussion, and questions? Because the tone I’ve seen is unforgiving:
I sent the show an email.
Hi, Becky and Sam.
I’m one of the bloggers heavily linked to (at Almost Diamonds) in the materials for today’s show. I’d love to call in today to talk a bit about why this discussion comes across as dogmatic or non-skeptical. For example, I was fascinated by Becky’s calling out my “This is completely noncontroversial” statement while later following it up by saying she believes there is a problem based on statistics.
Please let me know if there’s a time that would be best for you.
The response I received wasn’t particularly inviting.
Any listener is welcome to call between 3 and 4 pm Pacific time. We stream live at our website. Our call screener is named Darren.
I called in anyway. The conversation wasn’t comfortable, and I’m not sure how productive it was. It was largely about whether I should change my tone when talking about sexual harassment. Feel free to listen to the show itself, but there are a few general points I’d like to address.
One of the points raised by Becky before I joined the conversation was that many people who are formerly religious have a problem with shame. She suggested that it shouldn’t, therefore, ever be used. So what I said in this post was bad.
To evaluate this claim, you have to understand what shame is and does. Shame is “a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety.” In other words, it is, in itself, a highly useful emotion for a social species.
Can it be misused? Of course it can. That’s why people who were religious have such unpleasant associations with it. Shame that is invoked for behaviors that don’t hurt anyone is incredibly harmful.
Shame that is invoked for behaviors that actually hurt people, however, such as D.J.’s comment saying women who were talking about having been harassed were just engaged in “locker room banter” after regretting their “sexual exploits”, serves a very useful purpose. It is the impetus to stop the harmful behavior. It’s not comfortable to watch, like much of the process of dealing with harassment in our movements, but it is sometimes what is called for.
The dogmatism in the show’s title wasn’t actually about dogma. It was about my stating things in strong terms. We never managed to come up with any of those things that I feel or write strongly about that were wrong, but apparently I still shouldn’t assert them as though they are the outcome of months of arguments full of citations on one side and–ironically–accusations that these closely argued points constitute feminist dogma on the other.
Toward the end of the conversation, this seemed to boil down to the idea that there have to be places to ask the “dumb” conversations. I agree. I’ve said as much before on the topic of skepticism.
Of course, I’ve also, in the same discussion, that there’s a place for forceful argumentation. And there’s a need for conversation that doesn’t stop at the basics over and over again.
The question is who does which and when. Becky mentioned that it bothered her that women weren’t the ones doing the 101-level posts in this discussion. Now, aside from the fact that I’ve done some of those too, though not all aimed at a general audience, the idea that women or particular women have to host 101-level discussions this far into our year-plus-long discussion is problematic. Why?
The Ask an Atheist crew may have been avoiding these discussions for the last year. I haven’t. None of the bloggers singled out by the show have been anything but involved in these arguments that entire time. That means they’ve been targeted for abuse that entire time. As I put it to someone who claimed to be unaware of the situation earlier today:
What I’m talking about is things like the campaign to get Rebecca Watson removed from Skeptic’s Guide. I’m talking about the posting of my employment information on a thread dedicated to hating those who said what happened in an elevator was not, in fact, zero bad. I’m talking about the ongoing participation in such a thread. I’m talking about getting a comment that said, for every person who commented about having been sexually assaulted, the commenter was going to go sexually harass a woman. I’m talking about Russell Blackford telling people I was like the Taliban because I suggested implementing anti-harassment policies that prohibited vendor use of “booth babes”. I’m talking about the people I talk with on Twitter being targeted with anti-feminist spam.
I’m talking about things like this: http://www.geoffreyfalk.com/wp_blog/?p=18504
I’m talking about things like this: http://freethoughtblogs.com/blaghag/2012/05/oh-yeah-well-youre-ugly/
I’m talking about things like this: http://freethoughtblogs.com/ashleymiller/2012/06/06/arent-you-making-it-up-why-women-dont-report-harassment/
I’m talking about things like this: http://freethoughtblogs.com/greta/2012/05/23/mencallmethings-ugly-mental-illness/
That’s the kind of crap I’m talking about, and it’s a very tiny sample.
If you want someone to have a lot of tolerance for privileged cluelessness, you probably don’t want to insist it should be someone who has been through all that. And you probably don’t want to blame the people who have been through all that for being changed by it. There’s a much better target for that blame.
So the people who are holding 101-level discussion mostly aren’t the people who have been fighting. They’re not the people who have been abused over and over again. Right now, that means mostly men.
Want to change how this is going? Want more women to hold those conversations? Want more women to demonstrate that kind of patience?
Then more women are probably going to have to step up. Where will they come from? I have no idea.
Hopefully they’ll meet the standards third parties want to impose on them. Maybe someone will even want to step in and shield them from all the abuse.