Are universal statements always a problem?

Or just sometimes?

It occurs to me that many (“ALL!” “Shh.”) of our problems around these parts viz every new conflagration, from our recent conversation with Mallorie Nasrallah, to the statement by DJ Grothe that we only blog about controversial topics for hits, to the pushback against a Rebecca Watson blog title as though it meant she hates all atheists, is the fact that we as skeptics seem to have a problem with blanket universals even when they are not intended as universals. They are the quickest single thing you can do to engender hatred amongst your commentariat.

Much of the problem with Mallorie’s open letter to the skeptical community has to do with the universal statement that skeptics “shouldn’t change for anyone”. While she claims she wrote the letter solely for the purpose of expressing her own views of the community, she presented it in the midst of a number of controversies wherein people have been demonstrably misogynistic to bloggers like Greta Christina or new women in the community like the 15 year old Lunam on r/atheism. This caused some outrage in the context of the greater fight we’ve been waging — the fight against entrenched sexism in our communities.

For context, I always use the plural for communities because neither atheism nor skepticism have a single overarching community, much less a greater community for either one. We have a set of loosely allied communities, each manifesting their own sets of values and beliefs. The commenters and bloggers at Freethought Blogs appear to have clustered around beliefs in humanism as well as skepticism and atheism, and will fight a misogynist comment as quickly as a creationist or woo-peddling one. I don’t believe that the levels of sexism in our collective online communities are very different from the background of the internet as a whole, no matter how much of a safe space we’ve carved out here. However, there are three things that are important and mitigating factors to that blanket statement about the levels of sexism.

1: The internet is, as a whole, a far cruder and crasser place than real life, owing largely to anonymity and the Greater Interent Fuckwad Theory.

2: Our real-life meatspace communities are very often being organized via the internet, so there’s a lot of overlap between what goes on in meatspace and what came from the internet to begin with.

3: we have experienced by my estimation a significant amount more pushback than most other communities built around other topics, against the very idea that people shouldn’t use sexist slurs at women, or treat women like they’re just there as dating pool material, because either of those are likely to result in women who might otherwise participate bleeding away from our communities.

DJ Grothe described our fight against this pushback as being solely intended to drive controvery, to drive a wedge in the community, done solely for the hits. What makes this a short-sighted blanket statement is in part the misidentification of the problem, the misidentification of what it is we’re trying to do about it, and the misidentification of what’s actually being said about the community as a whole. Stephanie’s post itemizing the times when he’s exhibited this sort of blind spot for ongoing fights was met with doubling down, and DJ declared that the whole episode served as proof to him that that’s all the feminist bloggers in our community want to do is to tear other communities apart over sexism. Of course that’s not going to be very well received, except by those who would rather have the right to call women cunts or feminazis or thought police or what have you — of which there is an actual faction, who are better organized than you’d think, and who explicitly argue against every instance of feminist thought on every blog they read.

When Rebecca Watson described an event that creeped her out (owing to the predatory behaviour exhibited), and suggested that guys should maybe not do that if they expect to actually pick up, one of the major pushbacks against the event — one of the major ways the otherwise obvious comment Watson made got turned into a complete and utter shitstorm — was that people felt she was describing a universal, that no man should ever flirt with any woman ever.

Barring the fact that Rebecca Watson said it and she has her own hate posse; and that “flirting” is being so often conflated by dishonest interlocutors with “cold-propositioning”, where the former involves a level of familiarity with your flirting partner and the latter involves asking for sex from a bloody stranger; the important factor here with regard to why this rankled so many people is in the perceived universal. It is, of course, a strawman argument to suggest that Rebecca Watson asked for anything like that level of restraint. She did, however, ask that men in general restrain what many of us apparently view as their biological and societal imperative — that they have an unalienable right to attempt to convince women to have sex with them without consequences and regardless of the situation.

In a way, the false perception of a universal proscription was being defended via another universal in this way. The idea that males have some kind of privilege that their “need to flirt” should override someone’s repeated suggestions not to flirt with her is so entrenched in the male ego, probably owing largely to the media narrative that boy must woo girl, that people lost all semblance of proportionality in their reaction to the Elevatorgate event, as proportionally as it was initially described.

When Mallorie Nasrallah wrote her open letter to the skeptics community, she evidently did not have the benefit of having lived through the various blog fights we’ve all had over the past few years with regard to sexism. Having not been exposed at all to the nascent anti-feminist Mens Rights Activism movements, the misogynist Men Going Their Own Way, or the splinter faction of people proclaiming themselves to be the True Skeptics who question feminism as some sort of dogmatic movement (in much the same way that some accomodationist atheists and theistic apologists call New Atheists dogmatic), she evidently did not recognize that her letter would be received the way it was. Her repeated defense that her letter described her own situation only, are given the lie when you read the actual take-away message and the thesis for her letter:

With all of my heart I beg you: Do not change. Do not change for me, do not change for someone else. You’re wonderful, just the way you are.

And this passage:

More recently I have noticed a trend among men in my communities, you seem to have been told that you’re awful and need to change. Again, apparently because your genitals imbues you with an inescapable assholism. Please never believe this lie.

And this:

If your jokes or teasing manner offend some people, so the fuck what? Someone will always be offended by jokes, never let them make you believe that you are guilty of something worse simply because of your gender. If you want to make boob jokes thats fine by me, you have after all been making dick jokes since you were old enough to make jokes. Plus they are funny as hell. If you want to go free and uncensored among a group of like minded people, if you want to try to acquire sex from a like minded person, awesome, do it, sex and friendship are amazing. You are not a monster for wanting these things. You are not a monster for attempting to acquire them.

The two passages together diminish and dismiss every instance of women being subjected to slurs or being treated as though they are only welcome in the community as long as they are attractive and put out to strangers. These two passages together describe a situation that is not happening — that people are being villified for making boob and dick jokes, or for simply being male, or for simply attempting to chat up a like-minded individual with whom you’ve already had some contact. If any of these things were happening, they would be wrong, and I would speak out against it. But it simply isn’t happening this way at all, in my experience. If it was, I should at least theoretically be a target of this misandry, owing to the fact that I am a public voice against sexism and have advocated for egalitarianism in areas that would benefit only men, like ending routine male circumcision or making sure that rape statistics include rape carried out against men. I do not see this misandry. In fact, when the trolls suggest that it’s happening, their examples given are specious or, at best, owing directly to the gender roles that I advocate against.

However, even if this supposed misandry was happening, the blanket statement of “if someone’s offended by your jokes it’s their problem” forgets that jokes can often form the substrate of a societal prejudice. Nobody would say “feel free to make jokes about blacks and if they’re offended it’s their problem”, because our collective consciousness has been raised enough that the majority of us consider racism to be counter-productive and antisocial behaviour. Women make up a very large percentage of the human race — more than half, even — and if we’re to achieve any sort of social parity between the sexes, it takes making the people with power understand that sexism isn’t cool. Like it or not, men have that power right now, because our significantly eroded patriarchy is still a patriarchy.

The fact that there are more males in the atheist community does not mean that they should be allowed to treat the women in the community with the sort of disrespect that they’re getting right now in aggregate. The corollary fact that any one woman, like Mallorie, does not feel like they’re being disrespected in any way is a data point in favor of our fight, not against it. If they are not exposed to blatant misogyny in our community, it is because we have collectively declared as a community that that blatant misogyny is universally wrong, and we fight against it when we see it.

That’s a universal statement I can get behind. It’s a shame that it is not true of all atheists or skeptics, and that any such universal statement is viewed with such suspicion as being dogmatic.

Bonus round: count the universal statements I made in this post.

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Are universal statements always a problem?

84 thoughts on “Are universal statements always a problem?

  1. 51

    There seems to be a fairly comprehensive misunderstanding here. Perhaps it is my fault. To wit:

    1. I do not condone, encourage, or proselytize the use of racial or sexual slurs, or any other particularily hostile language or diction choice.

    2. I do condone, encourage, and proselytize the right to use such language, if it seems useful and effective.

    That does not mean that I like hostile diction choices; it means I condemn the politically correct and ultimately conservative social control inherent in forcefully constraining diction choices. Censorhip and its inherent thought-crime ideology is not the answer to improving communication; education is.

    Ironically, I am in agreement with Daniel Loxton and Barb Drescher (and in disagreement with PeeZus) on the benefits of constructive, polite, non-confrontational communication.

    And, while I think Phil Plaitt expresses some hypocritical or at least self-contradictory thoughts on the matter, I tend to feel that non-confrontational communication, at least in the sense of not using hotile hateful language is almost always the way to go.

    Keep in mind that non-confrontatioal does not mean non-dissenting, non-disagreement, or uncritical dialogue and debate.

    There is a difference between condoning the right to use such language, and condoning the actual use of such language. That is quite clearly one of the sub-themes at work in Orwell’s 1984. Perhaps some folks cannot see and/or understand that distinction. I know Ophelia thinks that my position is disingenuous, but I think Ophelia is struggling with a false dichotomy.

  2. 52

    Some relevant quotes:

    “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

    Incorrectly attributed to Voltaire, it was actually stated by Evelyn Beatrice Hall, written under the pseudonym S. G. Tallentyre in her 1906 biographical book The Friends of Voltaire.

    Supposedly, Voltaire actually said:

    “I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.”

    linky: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voltaire)

  3. 53

    The right to say something is not the same thing as the right to have it published everywhere. If we had that kind of right, I’d be explaining a few things to a few publishing houses right about now.

    Also, you haven’t answered my question at #38. We’ll see that answer when?

  4. 54

    The right to say something is also not the same as the right to face no consequences for saying those things. People have the right to say the sorts of things that make them look like misogynistic asshats. And everyone else has the right to think that they are, in fact, misogynistic asshats, and to treat them accordingly.

    Social discouragement of certain kinds of speech in various contexts is not an abridgement of free expression rights. It is an exercise of those free expression rights.

  5. 55

    Stephanie Zvan, if you are referring to this::

    “‘For critical thinkers and skeptics, anecdotal discussion, when presented as evidence, needs to be critically questioned; approached with a healthy degree of skepticism. And in my opinion, all of that applies whether or not the anecdote originates from a man or a woman.’

    “And you’ve done this where for people who are arguing that sexism isn’t a problem in the atheist and skeptic communities?”

    Your question as it stands doesn’t really make sense. Approaching anecdote skeptically and using critical thought is something we do as individuals; it’s not something we do for someone else.

    For example, if I read some anecdote regarding something going on the skeptic community, I try to approach it using critical thinking and skepticism; I try to determine if there are gaps in logic, plausibility, sensibility, and so on. I try to avoid making any automatic assumptions one way or the other about the range of its veracity until I have examined and tried to find, if possible, corroborating evidence and/or additional anecdote.

    In my opinion some of the anecdotes I have read over the last couple of years, on the various sides of the argument, appear to me to be somewhat apocryphal. Lacking any proof, one way or the other, I can do nothing but hold reservations about them, and where it might seem appropriate, ask for some kind of external support for the anecdote.

    Does that answer your question?

  6. 56

    Tom Foss said:

    “People have the right to say the sorts of things that make them look like misogynistic asshats. And everyone else has the right to think that they are, in fact, misogynistic asshats, and to treat them accordingly.”

    Certainly. Doesn’t mean they are correct in their assumptions though.

    “Social discouragement of certain kinds of speech in various contexts is not an abridgement of free expression rights. It is an exercise of those free expression rights.”

    You used the critical phrase, “social discouragement”. Editing (for example, disemvowlling), deleting, and banning is not “social discouragement”, it is constraint and curtailing of an individual’s free expression rights.

    And only in Newspeak can editing and deleting someone else’s posts, and banning, be termed an “exercise of those free expression rights”. That is nonsense.

  7. 57

    A question then, John Greg. If you were in a pub, and you were thrown out by a bouncer for harassing other patrons verbally, is the bouncer (or owner) guilty of abridging your freedom of speech? Would you be within your rights to sue him or her for violation of your First Amendment rights?

    Blogs are private property that are open to the public. They are communities in which the community sets the rules for membership. Kicking you out of our club, or even deleting or disemvoweling your posts before doing so, does not keep you from standing outside hurling epithets to the people within. As evidenced by your own various communities’ slurs against Freethought Blogs and their bloggers.

  8. 58

    Certainly. Doesn’t mean they are correct in their assumptions though.

    It’s not an “assumption” to judge someone based on the words they use and actions they take. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then either it’s a duck or doesn’t care too much if it gets mistaken for one.

    You used the critical phrase, “social discouragement”. Editing (for example, disemvowlling), deleting, and banning is not “social discouragement”, it is constraint and curtailing of an individual’s free expression rights.

    No, it is not. You are confusing governments with privately-maintained blogs and other spaces. Bloggers have every right to regulate what sort of speech and conduct is acceptable in their private spaces, forums, comment threads, and so forth. You have the right to express yourself; you are not guaranteed the right to a platform to publish and promote said expression. You are most certainly not guaranteed the free and unfettered use of someone else’s platform.

    By “social discouragement,” I was referring to the way that communities (whether actual physical ones or commenting/blog communities) can exert pressure on others in the community through disagreement, criticism, and even shunning.

    And only in Newspeak can editing and deleting someone else’s posts, and banning, be termed an “exercise of those free expression rights”. That is nonsense.

    I agree. Editing and deleting someone else’s posts is, in fact, the exercise of one’s right to property–specifically, one’s right to control what kind of content appears on one’s own private blog/forum/etc. Newspapers (for instance) are under no obligation to publish every letter they receive, nor are they under any obligation to publish anything unedited. Blogs and message boards are no different. Again, you are not guaranteed a platform for your expression, nor does your right to free expression trump someone else’s sovereignty over their own property.

  9. 59

    Alfonso: your reading of Mallorie’s letter comports very little with what she actually said in that linked discussion.

    Everything else is an antifeminist screed. I am skeptical that you have any idea what feminism is, in fact. Does that mean I win at Who’s The Better Skeptic?

  10. 60

    The two passages together diminish and dismiss every instance of women being subjected to slurs or being treated as though they are only welcome in the community as long as they are attractive and put out to strangers.

    I think your conclusion that her words “diminish and dismiss” other women’s experience diminishes and dismisses the experiences of women who have experienced said acts and do not take offense to them, which —I believe— is the gist of Mallorie’s letter to begin with: That she does not recognize as sexism many of the claims of sexism made by feminists in blogs such as this one. I think it’s intellectually dishonest and unfair to call her disagreeing with the idea that these behaviors are sexist a dismissal of other women’s personal take on similar experiences.

    Further, I find it incredibly convenient that anecdotal evidence is protected from scrutiny —“How dare you question/dismiss/disregard this woman’s experiences?!”— if it perpetuates the feminist myth of the great misogynist agenda, yet is proportionately vilified, dismissed and gets the crap straw-maned out of it —“Your experience is your own and not representative of what ‘we all know to be true’.” or “You’re just one of the lucky few. Count your blessings.” or “You’re just suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. We all know what you’re really going through even if you are incapable of recognizing it.”— if the experiences do not fit in with the narrow definition of the modern woman’s experience according to feminism. In both instances, women are talking about their own personal experience and have nothing more than their own recollection of the event(s) to back them up, which invariably brings me to a more important point (one I alluded to above): Perhaps these women both had the exact same experience —say, for example, a man hit on each one of them uninvited, with equal directness, in an environment removed from other people— yet one experiences discomfort while the other does not. They each are at liberty to respond accordingly. Watson, for example, told the guy in the elevator “No”, whilst other women may have said “Yes”. Both are equally valid responses.

    Yet for some reason what happens after the event is evaluated differently in each case. When Watson goes on to tell men “um, don’t do that” and a battalion of feminists calls it “predatory tactics” (speaking on behalf of women in general, as they are telling men never to do that to anyone) you think it’s OK. If, on the other hand, a different woman —the one who does not take offense to such an approach— says “I think it was fine” and other people agree with her calling it anything but predatory —as is the case in Mallorie’s letter— (characterized by you as “diminishing and dismissing” of other women’s experiences) you think that is not OK. The only distinction I can observe —and I do beg that you shine a light on this if I’m wrong— is that Watson’s take-away from the experience and long-term response is aligned with your worldview of an ever-present misogynist agenda that needs to be eradicated, while Mallorie’s celebration of this behavior does not bode well in your view. And if this is the case, how is your feminism anything but the selective application of your moral values, which —while valid as a personal set of social ideals— are far removed from anything even remotely resembling skeptic thought.

    If isolated claims of sexism inside a community are enough “evidence” to make bigger claims of there being “a sexist trend” within that community, then logically isolated claims of equity inside a community are enough “evidence” to make bigger claims of there not being “a sexist trend” within that community. Both arguments are absurd, but feminists claim otherwise, and questioning this is a surefire way see how utterly anti-skeptical feminists are. Take Emil Karlsson’s participation in this comment thread, for example, where an argument in which he proposes that one would need to carry out a study to find out whether in fact sexism is a trend within the skeptic community disproportionate with its existence in society at large is met with, essentially, “we don’t need studies, we know it’s happening and that’s the end of that”. His arguments are dismissed as “straw-skeptic talk” at one point. I shit you not.

    Feminism is not skeptical. It is political and values-driven. That doesn’t make it bad (its politics and values themselves are what make it bad, in my opinion), but it does make it completely unrelated to skepticism, and people who subscribe to an ideology that requires such an utter rejection of logical thought and skeptical inquiry are being dishonest with themselves when they think of themselves as skeptics.

  11. 61

    Jason said:

    “A question then, John Greg. If you were in a pub, and you were thrown out by a bouncer for harassing other patrons verbally, is the bouncer (or owner) guilty of abridging your freedom of speech?”

    Fair question I suppose. But don’t you think degree of harrassment is important before sentence is cast? Harrassment could be any number of things from some silly old harmless drunk throwing soggy hankies at passing patrons while hissing mild insults, to someone waving daggers around and threatening the room. Degree is fundamental.

    “Would you be within your rights to sue him or her for violation of your First Amendment rights?”

    Aside from the fact that I am Canadian and know almost nothing about American legislation, I would say that once again degree should determine the level of right and/or wrong for all parties involved.

    Jason, I am not trying to be evasive here. I just think that your questions present a scenario that is just too short of specifics to be treated comprehensively.

    And let’s look at the blogs that I have been banished from. In all instances of those blogs (except Butterflies and Wheels, where Ophelia banned me before I even posted), I received far harsher insults and denigrations, i.e., harrassment, than I ever gave, ranging from “fuck off”, to “I’d like to run my skateboard over your stupid face” to “let me introduce you anally to a dead porcupine”, “you’re too stupid to breathe and I wish you wouldn’t”, and several other similar tangetial rape and death threats to the gleeful support of all those who do not like my point of view, and nary a word, nay, not a hint of chastisement of any kind from the blog hosts, let alone editing, deletion, or banishment.

    “Blogs are private property that are open to the public. They are communities in which the community sets the rules for membership.”

    Yes, but surely you would agree that consistency is important, wouldn’t you? For example, I was banned before even posting at Butterflies and Wheels for using a silly, harmless, juvenile infix nickname for Myers, and yet julian posts actual death threats, and frequent “fuck off”s, and other such sweet encomiums and gets a wee slap on the wrist. Where is the consistency in levels of harrassment leading to banishment? Where is the honest rationale?

    It is not so much that I get pissed off at the various rules that bring in censorship and banning (though I find any form of editing someone else’s posts to be nothing short of deep intellectual dishonesty and most foul), it is that they are arbitrary and ever-changing to suit the blog owner’s like or dislike of the particular posters — they rarely seem to stick true to stated principle.

  12. 62

    it is that they are arbitrary and ever-changing to suit the blog owner’s like or dislike of the particular posters — they rarely seem to stick true to stated principle.

    Even if we’re to accept this as something other than sour grapes, so what? Again, their property, their prerogative. If your use of certain (in your opinion harmless) terminology brands you as a potential troll who just wants to stir things up, then they’re well within their rights to determine that you’re not worth the potential hassle. You can always appeal–I imagine that there are e-mail links for all the aforementioned bloggers–but it’s their blog, and their right to apply rules however consistently or inconsistently as they choose.

    I would, however, recommend checking out blogs’ comment policies. In many of the linguistically liberal FreethoughtBlogs, potentially offensive language is often not a qualification for banning. Take a look at PZ’s comment policy, for instance, where bannable offenses include things like trolling and sockpuppetry, not insults or foul language. You may not like it, but then, you don’t get to make the rules. If you have a problem with that, start your own blog.

  13. 63

    @Alphonso – a lot of the situations that you’re implying are purely anecdotal actually have supporting evidence. Watson has screenshots of some of the threats she’s encountered when she writes about sexism. There’s a whole thread of rape jokes and other sexist comments and jokes (like the one about how women vs men take pictures of things) directed at that kid on Reddit. And so on.

    Sure, the plural of anecdote is not data, but when anecdote in the form of eyewitness testimony is paired with supporting evidence, it can become credible enough to result in criminal conviction. When anecdote in the form of chemists describing what they did in the lab is paired with supporting evidence in the form of spectroscopy, elemental analysis, and thermogravimetric analysis, it becomes credible enough to change the scientific landscape a bit (especially when that anecdote is followed by anecdotes from other chemists in other groups who have the same experience).

    So, I ask you: How much supporting info, and of what type, would it take for you to admit there’s a problem? I’m sure that we could find it for you… just set out your standard now, and promise not to move the goalpost when we meet it.

  14. 64

    Feminism isn’t skeptical? There are parts of feminism that aren’t skeptical but by and large it’s driven by data and research.

    I find that people who write things like that tend to be of the mind that the null hypothesis regarding sexism is that it doesn’t exist.

    Any rational person should be able to take a quick look at global data regarding women’s educational attainment, economic opportunities, economic power, access to equal protection under the law, reproductive rights, risk of experiencing gendered violence and sexual assault, and quickly realize that the null hypothesis is that sexism exists. And it would be the rare and special community where sexism is not an issue.

  15. 66

    Feminism isn’t skeptical. It’s driven by politics; which is in essence driven by personal views of social/religious morality. Saying that feminism is skeptical is akin to saying that: socialism, libertarianism, communism or capitalism is skeptical. Skepticism is about finding the answer to a question based on undeniable evidence (even if the answer shakes our moral values to the core). As I mentioned on another thread, anecdote does not facts make.

  16. 67

    Feminism isn’t skeptical. It’s driven by politics; which is in essence driven by personal views of social/religious morality. Saying that feminism is skeptical is akin to saying that: socialism, libertarianism, communism or capitalism is skeptical. Skepticism is about finding the answer to a question based on undeniable evidence (even if the answer shakes our moral values to the core). As I mentioned on another thread, anecdote does not facts make.

    So what about all that data that shows women earn less than men, even after allowing for factors such as career breaks to have children, or the data that shows women still do more housework than men even if both partners are working full-time ?

    Is that data just made up ?

  17. 68

    Feminism is at its core the idea that men and women deserve equal treatment. I suppose someone could be a sceptic and disagree with that idea, but they would be a piss-poor person as a result, and not one I would want to have anything to do with.

  18. 69

    Saying that feminism is skeptical is akin to saying that: socialism, libertarianism, communism or capitalism is skeptical.

    You can’t be skeptical about politics? Huh. Who’d have thought the place where your decision making ability has the biggest potential impact on yourself and others is one of the places you can’t use skeptical thinking.

    Snark aside, feminism requires us to be skeptical about ourselves and potential biases we may not be aware of. It asks us to examine the culture we live in, the organizations we support, our habits, our actions and decisions, honestly it’s as skeptical as you can get.

    Provided, of course, you have some grounding but the same is true of any personal philosophy. Take skepticism to far you convince yourself everyone around is merely a projection of your mind onto the nonexistent world.

    Skepticism is about finding the answer to a question based on undeniable evidence

    Is it? I’ve always considered skepticism to essentially be approaching every subject critically and with an open mind.

  19. 70

    Is it? I’ve always considered skepticism to essentially be approaching every subject critically and with an open mind.

    Exactly. We can approach moral and ethical issues with a sceptical perspective, but does anyone, except maybe Sam Harris, really think that there are definitive answers to be obtained as to what is moral and ethical ?

  20. 71

    Even so, it’s tangential to disregard these anecdotal reports in order to make the general claim that harassment isn’t happening. Sexual harassment targeted disproportionately at women is a real phenomenon, with real effects, substantiated by actual data. As in, data collected in observational and experimental studies.

    So, dismissing harassment as anecdotal is about as intellectually valid as dismissing vaccine effectiveness.

    Examples:

    http://www.physorg.com/news66401288.html

    A study by the University of Maryland’s A. James Clark School of Engineering found that chat room participants with female usernames received 25 times more threatening and/or sexually explicit private messages than those with male or ambiguous usernames.

    Quoting mouthyb:

    http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/apl/92/2/425/

    This one is behind a pay wall, but the summary states the following: “Study 1 included male and female college students (N = 175) and showed that women with relatively masculine personalities (e.g., assertive, dominant, and independent) experienced the most sexual harassment. Study 2 (N = 134) showed that this effect was not because women with relatively masculine personalities were more likely than others to negatively evaluate potentially harassing scenarios. Study 3 included male and female employees at 5 organizations (N = 238) and showed that women in male-dominated organizations were harassed more than women in female-dominated organizations, and that women in male-dominated organizations who had relatively masculine personalities were sexually harassed the most.” Women in the three studies who were outspoken were disproportionately subjected to sexual harassment, because they spoke up. (These were college students.)

    Here’s the text of the study: http://www.scribd.com/doc/55650053/The-sexual-harassment-of-uppity-women

    You know what really made the situation worse for the women being studied? Being outspoken about being harassed or poorly treated, even in workplace or academic situations about topics which were not harassment. Any sort of assertive behavior from women was enough.

    I’m going to keep looking, but there’s no dearth of science which supports women’s need to be wary of strange men, and the large scale of the problem of violating consent and personal autonomy.

    http://news.yahoo.com/survey-sexual-harassment-pervasive-grades-7-12-050245126.html

    During the 2010-11 school year, 48 percent of students in grades 7-12 experienced some form of sexual harassment in person or electronically via texting, email and social media, according to a major national survey being released Monday by the American Association of University Women.

    The harassers often thought they were being funny, but the consequences for their targets can be wrenching, according to the survey. Nearly a third of the victims said the harassment made them feel sick to their stomach, affected their study habits or fueled reluctance to go to school at all. […]

    From the actual report: http://www.aauw.org/learn/research/upload/CrossingTheLine.pdf

    Girls were more likely than boys to be sexually harassed, by a significant margin (56 percent versus 40 percent). Girls were more likely than boys to be sexually harassed both in person (52 percent versus 35 percent) and via
    text, e-mail, Facebook, or other electronic means (36
    percent versus 24 percent). This finding confirms previous
    research showing that girls are sexually harassed more
    frequently than boys (Sagrestano, 2009; Ormerod et al.,
    2008; AAUW, 2001) and that girls’ experiences tend to be
    more physical and intrusive than boys’ experiences (Hand
    & Sanchez, 2000). Being called gay or lesbian in a negative
    way is sexual harassment that girls and boys reported
    in equal numbers (18 percent of students).

    And finally, this is a slightly dated but comprehensive list of references documenting chilly climate: http://dynamic.uoregon.edu/~jjf/chillyclimate.html

    Gender bias and discrimination against women in academia take many forms, from overt sexual harassment to the much more ubiquitous and insidious problem of subtle and unconscious sexism impacting daily life, work distribution, student evaluations, and promotion and hiring decisions. This confluence of problems has been called the problem of the “chilly climate.”

    One error people make is assuming that gender bias and discrimination require a conscious sexist ideology or a conscious attempt to discriminate against women. In fact, however, psychological science has overwhelmingly demonstrated that sexist behaviors, gender bias, and discrimination can and do occur without these conscious beliefs or attempts to discriminate.

    A second error people often make is believing that discrimination is “out there” but not “here” — that is, that gender bias is in other environments than one’s very own department or university. It is very hard to discern gender bias in individual cases, while in aggregate analyses that it is operating may be an unavoidable conclusion.

    A third error is the belief that bias, though present, is negligible in effect. The problem with this is that a large number of nearly negligible effects all working in the same direction can easily cumulate to very significant aggregate discrimination.

    It is thus important to ask whether the bias occurs, despite one’s own beliefs that it is not occurring or that no one intends for it to be occurring. Although many systematic studies have demonstrated the empirical reality of the phenomena underlying the chilly climate, much of this research remains outside of mainstream awareness. For instance, although many studies have documented biases in student evaluations, only rarely do promotion committees explicitly take this fact into consideration. [emphasis mine]

    This page contains our selected references primarily to published empirical studies about chilly climate or related phenomena for women faculty. Our hope is that this resource will be useful and educative to students, faculty, and administrators.

    There are also research references linked from Ouellette’s “Is it cold in here” essay, which any of y’all could have pursued, if you weren’t going into intellectual anaphylactic shock from the mere mention of Watson’s name.

  21. 73

    The contention that “feminism isn’t sceptical” reminds me of religious people claiming that you can’t question the validity of their dogma because it would be against the freedom of religion…

    But when religion makes factual claims (i.e., the age of the Earth, or prayer as cure for illness), sceptics don’t hesitate to examine them! Because everyone is entitled to their opinion, but not to their own facts. It shouldn’t come as a surprise when feminists question the validity of some long-established social demarcations between men and women that many people still think come from “natural” differences.

    I’ve recently come across an example of how feminist studies can inform scepticism:

    http://pandagon.net/index.php/site/comments/book_review_sybil_exposed

    Very interesting read.

  22. 74

    john greg posted

    “The problem here is….” (Truncated for space.)

    I suppose this is irony. Mr. Greg has so many long posts that I can only assume he’s on a crusade to have every post he’s read devolve into an orbit around him.

    fwiw; Feminism has tremendous baggage. I agree with it as a theory and in many applications but (now hearing Greta Christina bells ringing in my head) my mother-in-law; a former apartment mate (grad student in women’s studies); and a member of a swim team were all ‘vocal feminists.’ And despite agreeing with them 95%+ of the time, their endlessness, repetition and some % “all men” characterizations led me to ask them to moderate their speech around me.

  23. 75

    John Greg, your full response is right here. Having written all of that, either start talking about the topic at hand here instead of whatever your concerns are about free speech, move your concerns to that thread where you will get a fuller hearing on them, or find someplace else to talk where you’re not pissing off the blog owner. My pub, my rules.

    Alfonso, likewise. You are on a discussion about whether absolutes are always to be taken literally. You are discussing side concerns, and I would be much happier answering them on the Mallorie Nasrallah thread where you can tell Mallorie that what she said in the comments and where she and I agreed, she was actually wrong. You know damn well that the “Stockholm syndrome” reference was talking specifically about the possibility of a woman needing to be told she’s a cunt in order to engage in mating habits; your suggestion that I’m saying her experience is invalid because I know better than her is a strawman and not borne out by any of the facts in that thread.

    Either take your argument there, where everyone’s still talking about it, or get kicked out of the pub.

  24. 76

    Trying to wrap my brain around how John Greg can characterize

    The corollary fact that any one woman, like Mallorie, does not feel like they’re being disrespected in any way is a data point in favor of our fight, not against it. If they are not exposed to blatant misogyny in our community, it is because we have collectively declared as a community that that blatant misogyny is universally wrong, and we fight against it when we see it.

    as

    dismiss and belittle any women who disagree with your rhetoric and ideology

    Or is this another case of him participating in the conversation he wants it to be instead of the one it is?

  25. 77

    Alfonso: your reading of Mallorie’s letter comports very little with what she actually said in that linked discussion.
    Everything else is an antifeminist screed. I am skeptical that you have any idea what feminism is, in fact. Does that mean I win at Who’s The Better Skeptic?

    Jason: Your reading of my comment comports very little with what I actually pointed out in my comment.

    If you define skeptic as ‘skimming over a comment, barely reading a reference, misunderstanding the relation of said reference to the argument, dismissing the entire thing as a mere screed, and making not a single attempt to counter any of the points brought forth in the comment’, then yes: You’ve won at Who’s the Better “Skeptic”.

    Your snark is par for the course in any discussion involving feminism, and the intellectual laziness of your response illustrates the point I was trying to make. I appreciate the assist! *high-five*

  26. 78

    @Alphonso – a lot of the situations that you’re implying are purely anecdotal actually have supporting evidence. Watson has screenshots of some of the threats she’s encountered when she writes about sexism. There’s a whole thread of rape jokes and other sexist comments and jokes (like the one about how women vs men take pictures of things) directed at that kid on Reddit. And so on.

    Sure, the plural of anecdote is not data, but when anecdote in the form of eyewitness testimony is paired with supporting evidence, it can become credible enough to result in criminal conviction. When anecdote in the form of chemists describing what they did in the lab is paired with supporting evidence in the form of spectroscopy, elemental analysis, and thermogravimetric analysis, it becomes credible enough to change the scientific landscape a bit (especially when that anecdote is followed by anecdotes from other chemists in other groups who have the same experience).

    So, I ask you: How much supporting info, and of what type, would it take for you to admit there’s a problem? I’m sure that we could find it for you… just set out your standard now, and promise not to move the goalpost when we meet it.

    The only situation I’ve described as anecdotal is Watson’s elevator event. Your lazy use of “a lot of” is a classic example of a straw man, as you’re arguing a point I never made. You’ve also chosen to ignore the main point of my comment, which is that two different women may interpret —and react to— the same event in completely opposite ways, and who are we to tell someone like Mallorie that her interpretation of what some people call sexism is wrong by suggesting her experiences —along with how she lets those experiences affect her— may be the product of her having “got some sort of Stockholm Syndrome”?

    For those two reasons alone it would be unrealistic of me to expect you to come up with any kind of accurate, relevant data that doesn’t rely heavily on emotional arguments, logical fallacies, and ideological predispositions. So I’ll kindly decline the offer. Thanks, though.

  27. 79

    Jason: You act as if I brought the subject out of the blue. Your post pointed out specific passages of Mallorie’s letter, which you then characterized —again: in this post— in a manner I do not agree with. It stands to reason that I address what I disagree with right here, rather than comment on a post where you didn’t make the specific comments I’m referring to. You’re really reaching here: “I’m not addressing your comment about this post because you’re making them on this post. If you had commented your arguments about this post on that other post, then we’d be good.” Really?

    You know that I’m not looking to discuss your “Stockholm Syndrome” bit, but merely used it as a reference for ischemgeek, to illustrate my point about how two women’s opinions are valued in completely different ways seemingly based only on how their conclusions fall in —or out of— line with your feminist dogma. My point is still the same point I first brought to the table on this thread, which is relevant to the words in this post: that the criteria you use in this post to characterize Mallorie’s words as “diminishing” and “dismissing” is, to me, disingenuous and intellectually lazy.

    Yet, while discussing it on this comment thread is far from irrelevant, I do understand how it may inconvenience you. However, given the penchant you —ever the feminist— have displayed for snark and evasive pseudo-answers, you give me little incentive to repeat myself on that other thread comment thread. So, whatever. I suppose the mistake was mine, for setting my expectations to high for skeptical discussion with a self-proclaimed skeptic.

  28. 80

    I just came across this discussion, so I’m late to the party. However, it’s gotten me thinking further about various things that have been wandering through my mind, so I’ll give my $.02 (whether you want it or not):

    I don’t think the basic issue is one of rough generalizations being misinterpreted as universals, although that’s certainly part of it. I think the tendency of recent discussions of sexism in the atheist community to become controversial boils down to three factors:

    1. The illusion of transparency (brief definition from wikipedia for convenience: “a tendency for people to overestimate the degree to which their personal mental state is known by others”).
    2. The illusion of asymmetric insight (“people perceive their knowledge of others to surpass other people’s knowledge of themselves”).
    3. In-group–out-group bias (“a preference and affinity for one’s in-group over the out-group, or anyone viewed as outside the in-group”).

    I think works something like this:

    Person X says A, with intended meaning A’.
    Person Y interprets A with meaning A”.
    Due to the illusion of transparency, X believes the intended meaning A’ was absolutely obvious and could not honestly have been misunderstood by Y, and says so.
    Due to the illusion of asymmetric insight, Y believes that meaning A” was absolutely obvious; hence Y says that X is being deliberately misleading about X’s intent.
    X continues to try to clarify X’s intended meaning, but since both parties now believe the other to be acting in bad faith the discussion is soured and clarification is unlikely to be effective.

    Or, a more complicated situation with group dynamics in play. Suppose X and Y are perceived to be members of different groups (let’s call them GX and GY), and that A’ is a charitable reading of A, and A” is an uncharitable interpretation. Others (J, K) are discussing a disagreement between X and Y.

    X says A.
    J believes X meant A’.
    K believes X meant A”.
    The two proceed to argue as to which is the appropriate interpretation.
    Because J adopts interpretation A’, K believes J to be a member of GX.
    Likewise, because K adopts interpretation A”, J believes K to be a member of GY.
    Due to in-group–out-group bias combined with illusions of transparency and asymmetric bias, we might expect the following kind of outcome:
    J interprets anything said by K both in an uncharitable fashion, and as a reflection on or result of the characteristics of GY, and likewise for K’s interpretation of J.
    This dynamic is self-reinforcing; whenever J interprets a statement by K uncharitably, it reinforces J’s belief that K is both a member of GY and that statements made by K or others perceived to be members of GY should be interpreted uncharitably (after all, J believes that K is a member of group GY and just said some horrible thing–so both K and by extension other members of GY are assholes and liable to continue saying horrible things). Likewise for K’s perceptions of J.
    For further confusion, suppose that K does not agree with either J’s assessment of K’s group membership, or with J’s characterization of GY; K attempts to clarify this to J.
    J interprets this, of course, as a steaming pile of lies; K is either trying to deny an undesirable association with bad people, or trying to whitewash GY.
    Obviously, neither J nor K convinces the other, and both leave the discussion thinking very poorly of the other… and, moreover, perceptions of group identity and poor opinion of the out-group are both liable to be reinforced.

    One of my suspicions here is that in-group–out-group bias is liable to result in the illusion of transparency and the illusion of asymmetric bias being extended to all members of the in-group and out-group, respectively; e.g., if J self-identifies as a member of group GX, J will consider X’s intended A’ to be perfectly obvious in the same way that J would consider J’s own intent to be perfectly obvious.

    In this light, we might look at something like comment 4 from Tom Foss:

    When Rebecca Watson said “Reddit makes me hate atheists,” some read it as “Reddit makes me hate ALL atheists,” which explicitly was not the intent, purpose, point, or even an accurate representation of her feelings. Arguing against the statement as if it were a universal was an exercise in missing the point.

    First, I agree with Tom Foss about Rebecca Watson’s intent. Second, I think I can understand why others do not. You just have to assume that they perceive Rebecca to be a member of an out-group, perceive members of their own in-group to have transparently non-malign intent, and believe themselves to understand Rebecca’s “real” intent perfectly. Voilá, uncharitable interpretation of Rebecca’s statement. The fact that her statement is particularly amenable to a specific form of misinterpretation (taking it to be a universal when it was not intended as such) may be, so to speak, the spark but not the fuel in the ensuing conflagration.

    And a couple more comments–all of this is speculation on my part. I don’t know a great deal about cognitive biases (if anyone happens to actually read this and have suggestions for literature to read on the topic, I would appreciate it), but they seem to fit so neatly as an explanation that it’s difficult for me to resist them. So, basically, take all this as a guess on my part that I know full well is just a guess. My further speculation is that knowing about these biases is not itself any kind of guard against them, and may in fact make them worse. For instance, it’s awfully tempting to think to yourself, “Ah, he’s saying that because he’s being deluded by the illusion of asymmetric bias.”–which of course means that being aware of the illusion may strengthen your belief that you are better able to interpret others than they themselves are! Which is to say, I’m not sure what would actually solve the problem.

  29. 82

    […] There’s a line that is apparently crossable where the calculus flips from never-acceptable to acceptable-this-once to out someone and remove the shield of pseudonymity behind which some trolls attack some public figures. Posting an address obtained from a previous target’s investigations of a serial harasser is not a politically smart move in an atmosphere where there are two parallel universes going on where one of them thinks anything done to their side is horrible but anything they do to you is acceptable. And this is knowing that so-called “universals” are NEVER such. […]

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