How the Internet Fits In

There’s a letter, the result of the HEADS deliberations on feminism in secularism. You’ve probably seen it by now. You may have also seen the letters from Secular Woman and the American Secular Census explaining why they didn’t sign the original. If you haven’t, you should probably see the information that Secular Woman was shut out of the process to write the letter.

That last is bad, and it disturbs me a good bit. “Nothing about us without us”, after all. Why their influence should be unacceptable, I don’t understand.

The letter itself I have mixed feelings about. Much of it is good. There is a lot there I would comfortably say myself, and it’s not anything secular leaders would have felt any impetus to say publicly and collectively even a year ago. That’s progress. That’s our success made visible.

There are other things about the letter, however, that tell me that the leaders of our movement’s organizations still (collectively if not individually) have some fundamental misconceptions about what is happening around them. In particular, the commentary about online communication could only come from people who think the internet is a contributor to the problem.

The thing secular leaders next need to internalize is that none of what has happened in the last three years started on the internet. It didn’t. Women have been harassed, objectified, and excluded much longer than there has been a thriving atheist blogosphere.

For probably as long as atheist and secular events have happened, women have showed up at our events looking for like-minded people and opportunities to advocate for our shared interests. For just as long, they left after being told women can’t think, being treated as though their presence turned the event into a dating service, being groped, being yelled at for showing up, or simply being shut out of participation or leadership. These things didn’t happen to all women who showed up, probably. Not all the women they happened to left. But they happened and women left because of them.

Jumble of wiring looking very messy.
You can’t straighten it out until you know where it all goes.

The internet did change things, but maybe not the way the letter would suggest. It didn’t change being told we’re dumb or being treated as though we’re there for the pleasure of the guys or the degree of representation or inclusion we experience for showing up. It did do three other important things.

First, it stopped us from being isolated. When the inevitable question of “Where are the women?” happened, lots of women answered. The told stories that were remarkably similar to one another. They compared notes. They stood up for each other when those conversations were inevitably overrun by people who didn’t want them to happen at all. They identified problems. They organized.

Second, it put some distance between us and that guy who explodes in anger when challenged. Or that guy. Or all the other guys who do that. It allows us to have our say without having to put ourselves within reach. It allows us to hide our name, our location, even our gender if desired. That offers much more freedom for having our say.

Most importantly, the internet gives us–some individually, some collectively–platforms for speaking. Platforms we made ourselves. To understand why this is important, take the letter’s advice to pick up the phone before speaking publicly. Here’s how that would have gone with many organizations once upon a time:

[ring, ring, ring]Org: Hello?
Mary: Hello. This is Mary X. I have some concerns about the speaker you’ve announced for your next meeting.
Org: We have a long-standing relationship with Speaker. Our members always love it when he comes to speak.
Mary: Yes, well, my concern is that–
Org: I’m sorry. You said your name was…?
Mary: Mary X.
Org: Are you a member, Mary?
Mary: I’ve been thinking about joining. I appreciate what you do. However, when I saw Speaker on your calendar–
Org: I see. Well, as I said, our members really enjoy Speaker.
Mary: But you haven’t–
Org: Thank you for calling, Marie. We appreciate letting us know how you feel. Good bye.

To the best of my knowledge, that particular conversation never happened. That kind of dismissal certainly has, though. Isolated complaints are easy to dismiss.

The big problem with “Pick up the phone” is that “nobodies” (those people you’re hoping to recruit into your movement) should get to have some input on this stuff too. What happens when they call? Someone very important wants to know why they’re being interrupted.

On the other hand, what happens when a “nobody” writes a blog post? Well, their thoughts on the subject might be crap, in which case they vanish. Or their thoughts might be representative of the thoughts of other interested parties. In that case, things start to get big. People know that they have the numbers to agitate for their interests. The person who said something stops being such a “nobody”. Then they get asked why they didn’t call.

Don’t forget why they’re being asked that. They’re being asked because more than just one isolated person is now calling. The internet, and the platform it can provide, has made that change. It has made complaints and requests for change effective.

Many of us, myself included, share the experience of complaints and requests that weren’t effective when made in private. We also have experience that our complaints and requests made in public are more effective. Unless women can be persuaded that handling things privately can and will have the same efficacy, that’s a genie that won’t be going back into its bottle.

All in all, the internet has been a great thing for women in the secular movement. It has been very good to us.

That’s why we’re being harassed.

I’m going to repeat that because it runs counter to much of the conventional wisdom on internet harassment: The internet has helped women in the secular movement reach for equality, and this is the exact reason why we’re being harassed. Both the pattern of harassment and the topics that prompt it are known and well enough understood to present as a formula at this point.

Ignoring that online harassment of women has a specific purpose may not be meant to aid and abet the harassment. The vast majority of the time, it almost certainly isn’t. That doesn’t much matter when it has that effect. Advice to be nicer, calmer, more charitable, advice to engage in dialog doesn’t just fail to address the reasons for harassment. It also places additional burdens and restraints on the harassed. That’s a two-fer for the harassers, however kindly it was intended.

That, in a nutshell, is the problem with handing out a bunch of advice on an issue without stopping to make sure you understand the issue (and, not so incidentally, with excluding the people who do understand it). The chances of doing any good approximate those of winning a game of chess without knowing how to play. The problem in this case, of course, is that this isn’t a game.

Image: “Wiring Before” by kelp. Some rights reserved.

How the Internet Fits In

16 thoughts on “How the Internet Fits In

  1. 2

    I think the organizations that signed that Open Letter did us a great service – they self-identified as organizations that are enablers for pitter slime and as organizations that I want nothing to do with.

  2. 3

    They’re also missing the point that claiming to want ‘dialogue’ can be – and in this case definitey is – a dishonest stalling tactic to maintain the status quo.

    “Well, let’s discuss whether what you think is a problem is actually a problem, but in the meantime we’re not going to do anything differently from how we’ve been doing it” ad infinitum means that nothing is going to change – yet, in the eyes of those who seem to think ‘dialogue’ is a magical solution to every problem, the ones doing that are being ‘civil’ and ‘reasonable’ while the ones pointing out the dishonesty are the troublemakers.

    As I’ve said before, the KKK still exists. Spearhead exists. Stormfront exists. AVfM exists. The WBC exists. Ken Ham has an audience, as does David Barton. Do the people obsessed with ‘dialogue’ honestly think that no-one has ever tried reasoning with them?

  3. 4

    The time for calling people on the phone and having civil discussion is long past. We’ve had nearly two years for discussion, two years to see one group definitively bullying the other. Now is the time for getting rid of the bullies, and if that means going along ideological lines because the bullies rationalize their poor behaviour with ideology, so be it.

    As a side note, DJ Grothe signed the letter. I don’t know if this is good or bad, but I’m leaning towards bad.

  4. 5

    As I’ve said before, the KKK still exists. Spearhead exists. Stormfront exists. AVfM exists. The WBC exists. Ken Ham has an audience, as does David Barton. Do the people obsessed with ‘dialogue’ honestly think that no-one has ever tried reasoning with them?

    Indeed. And by all appearances, they have TAM, which has invited pitter favourites Sara Mayhew and Russell Blackford. They can have their Bigfoot-bashing dick jokes in their privileged heaven. We’ve got bigger things to deal with.

  5. 6

    Setar, I’m just gonna copypasta what I said at Skepchick (when I had just found out DJ had signed the letter–yeah, I know, didn’t bother going through the signatures until someone else brought it up):

    Oh, heavens, SERIOUSLY?! DJ is part of the problem. DJ is one of the figures we need OUT of the skeptic movement (I don’t say atheist movement because he’s one of the brand of skeptics that wants nothing to do with us!) if we are to make any progress on sexism in this community. It’s not just the way he behaved to Rebecca and the Skepchicks over TAM 2012. There’s his disgraceful gaslighting of Ashley Miller when she told him he should have known about harassment that he personally dealt with. There’s his appalling policing of Greta Christina when a misogynistic troll was making violent gender-based threats at her and her commentariat. Then there’s his stubborn refusal to clarify whether or not TAM would have a harassment policy, and insisting to use an in-house non-publicized one rather than ones that had been praised by people who actually had experience dealing with harassment (and we all know how well that turned out, and how awful TAM ended up being for Surly Amy!). There’s the fact that after Elevatorgate he allowed people who were known to have threatened Rebecca to still attend TAM.

    If your statement on getting over sexism in our movement doesn’t address how to get people like DJ Grothe out of positions of influence in our movement until they take a long sabbatical to learn what is wrong with their behavior and attitudes, then your statement has failed. If your statement INCLUDES DJ Grothe it is part of the problem, not just for enabling his status-quo enabling, harassment-minimizing behavior, but that should be a very strong sign that your statement and the values behind it are fucked up.

  6. 8

    I find it both tragic and ironic that the last thing I heard about James Randi was his long-time partner worrying about his health, and whether he, the partner, would be allowed to visit Randi in the hospital. So, while Grothe is making it clear TAM is not interested in equality issues, the life experience of TAM’s founder may, at the very end, hinge on his access to fair treatment and respect. And it is not entirely clear he will be able to get the equal treatment he deserves.

  7. 9

    The thing secular leaders next need to internalize is that none of what has happened in the last three years started on the internet. It didn’t. Women have been harassed, objectified, and excluded much longer than there has been a thriving atheist blogosphere.

    That may be one of the the most important points I’ve read in this whole furor.

  8. 10

    I completely agree that the internet is now a place where women get harassed because they are effectively organizing and speaking out. This is essentially why I make the choices that I do in this controversy because I see supporting feminism as the most efficient way to reduce suffering for both men and women, the name is simply from the fact of the beast feminism is reacting against.

    The social structures causing the harm are in place to benefit men and are being actively held in place by men who benefit them (for the most part). There also are men and women passively holding these structures in place through their actions. They do not see themselves as sexists, bigots, or other and that can not be helped in strategy sometimes. But these social structures and the ideas that support them are my actual target. I want to kill ideas that I am convinced will harm people and that is impossible without hurting feelings.

    Our whole culture of communication keeps this going so a big part of this is a confusing misinformation campaign are the emotionally immature individuals (on both sides but I experience far more on the “Pit side”) who write in non-specific ways that paint their “opponent” in the light that they want. These people tend to not really try to find out if what they believe reflects reality very often and the scream very loud. They also ignore the fact that Triggers don’t apply the same to Offense, and Aggression from a moral stand point as the do to the issues that actually get emphasized on the FTB “side”.

    If the people handing down texts from on high want to get respect for their opinions they will attach some very real examples to those opinions for me to mentally chew on. Otherwise base tribalistic bullshit is a reason that I got out of religion. I will not pretend the “sides” are equal without a link to reality.

  9. 11

    Thank you for the thoughtful analysis of this problem and the Open Letter, Stephanie. For me the part that hit home was this: “…the leaders of our movement’s organizations still (collectively if not individually) have some fundamental misconceptions about what is happening around them.” In their defense, I think they really believed they could help on some level and that this was a “start” if not perfect. On the other side, they didn’t seem very interested in suggestions that they may not have the necessary information or expertise to do good rather than harm. The culture of mutual support among (some) leaders is fierce and it can interfere with self-reflection and -improvement, in my experience.

    The Census now has an open, anonymous poll on this topic which may give us a general idea how the Open Letter has fared “out here;” so far in my Web travels I’m seeing a couple distinct patterns: disappointment among feminists followed by criticism of their criticism by anti-fems, and some fairly defiant responses from the “atheists who got enough preaching in church, thank you” crowd.

    Oh, and I’ve also received the Census’s first hate mail, and been called “nutty” and a “radical dogmatic feminist.” Am I ready for the secret handshake? – Mary Ellen (President)

  10. 12

    A minor question: I’m seeing the assertion that Secular Women was shut out of the letter-writing process, but from their own response (and my admittedly weak Google-fu), all I’m finding is that they declined to sign the finished product. Now, this could definitely mean they had little or no input on the drafting process, but it’s hard to figure out exactly what happened/how it happened/why it happened given my ineptitude with the internet.

    I posted this question at SkepChick as well, but just in case someone here can point me to information, crossposting it. I confess I’m really really curious if they had input that wasn’t included, or simply weren’t given an opportunity to participate in the drafting process at all. I mean, this is kind of important issue, and the details of that seem significant (to this random person on the internet, at least).

  11. 13

    PatrickG: Let’s put it this way, then. When coming up with this statement, they did not contact any of the people involved, other than DJ Groethe, for input on how it should be phrased. Even if, in the incredibly non-existent case where both ‘sides’ were somehow making debate-worthy points, the analogy would be akin to the U.S. inviting only Israel to Camp David, and declaring a new Peace Process for the West Bank afterward.

    The fact that these twits didn’t even think to contact one of the ‘sides’ suggests that they are still fucking clueless about what’s going on; it becomes difficult to regard their pontifications seriously in that light.

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