(As promised. Sorry this took so long.)
Yes. Sam Harris’s recent comments about gender in the atheist movement were sexist. The original one was sexist; the second one explaining and clarifying the original one was sexist; several of the Tweets along the way were sexist.
And importantly, they were still sexist — even if you believe that some degree of gender difference in behavior or psychology is innate.
Let’s look at Harris’s first statement first, the one stating that “There’s something about that critical posture that is to some degree intrinsically male and more attractive to guys than to women” and that “The atheist variable just has this – it doesn’t obviously have this nurturing, coherence-building extra estrogen vibe that you would want by default if you wanted to attract as many women as men.”
Here’s why this is sexist.
There is a mountain of evidence showing that sexism is real, and that throughout our lives we get barraged with sexist gender expectations and gender policing. These socially trained and enforced gender roles begin at birth — people treat infants they think are female noticeably differently than infants they think are male, in ways these people are often not aware of and will often deny when it’s pointed out to them. This training happens in infancy, in childhood, in adolescence, and throughout our adult lives. It happens subtly and unconsciously; it happens obviously and overtly. It’s done to women, to men, to trans people of all varieties, to people who don’t identify on a gender binary. Link, link, link, link, link, link, link, link, link, link, link, link, link, link, link — and that list barely scratches the surface. We know this. It is not controversial — or it shouldn’t be. Harris himself understands and accepts it. (Interestingly, there’s some evidence suggesting that even in some non-human animals, gender roles are at least partly learned.)
It is also possible that there’s some degree of innate gender difference in behavior or psychology in humans. This is a more controversial and less certain statement (here’s a good summary of some of the thinking on the subject, with lots of citations) — but it’s not completely implausible. It certainly exists in other animals. If nothing else, the experiences of transgender people, many of whom feel they were born as a gender other than the one corresponding to the genitals they were born with, does suggest that some degree of gender identity and gendered psychology might be innate — although it also suggests that any of this innate-ness is incredibly complex, and does not easily line up with birth genitals or chromosomes.
Which leads me to my next point. Gender, and gender differences, are incredibly complex, and do not easily line up with birth genitals or chromosomes. And importantly: Any gender differences in humans, whether innate or learned or both, are very much an “overlapping bell curve” thing. (Or, to be more accurate, they’re multiple overlapping bell curves, since there are many different behaviors and psychologies that we commonly identify as gendered — verbal skills, spatial skills, a tendency to be co-operative, a tendency to be competitive, a tendency to be physically violent, many more.) The noticeable differences are on the far ends of the bell curves: gender is only a useful predictor in very large populations, and the majority of women and men fall into a range where gender is a largely useless predictor of behavior. (There’s a very good piece explaining this on Skepchick.) This is true even with a lifetime of sexist expectations and gender policing that’s done its best to push people into clearly divided gender camps. And importantly, humans seem to have a greater degree of social and learned influence on our behavior than most other animals.
So. Let’s say you’re asked why some particular human behavior — rearing children, enjoying harsh criticism, being the head of a Fortune 500 company, not reading Sam Harris — seems to be different in different genders. If your first and only answer is, “It’s innate,” that does two things — both of which are sexist.
1: It makes the “social training and enforcement” angle invisible.
2: It absolves you — and your readers — of the responsibility to do anything about it. Even if you believe that gender differences are a blend of innate and learned, zeroing in on the innate makes it easy to dismiss the learned part. “We’re just born different! It totally makes sense that women would be grossly under-represented in Fortune 500 companies! Women are just born to be more nurturing and less competitive! It’s innate! Why are you asking us to do anything about it?”
It’s flatly ridiculous to say that women disproportionately don’t read Sam Harris because he’s harshly critical of religion. Plenty of atheist writers/ podcasters/ videobloggers are harshly critical of religion, and have much more gender balance in their readers/ listeners/ viewers than Sam Harris says he does. PZ Myers, Rebecca Watson, Matt Dillahunty, Amanda Marcotte, Ophelia Benson, Alex Gabriel — I could go on. Not to mention me: I literally wrote the book on atheist anger about religion. And as far as I know, none of these people have the “84% male” gender imbalance that Harris acknowledges in his Twitter followers. Given that this is true, doesn’t it seem as if the gender imbalance in Harris’s followers has a more likely explanation than “women on average don’t like harsh criticism of religion”?
And it’s ridiculous to say that being “nurturing” has nothing to do with organized atheism. Tell it to the people running the many, many support organizations in our community: Darrel Ray at the Secular Therapist Project, Rebecca Hensler at Grief Beyond Belief, Andy Cheadle at the Secular Safe Zone project, Sarah Moorehead at Recovering From Religion, Robert Stump at LifeRing (the secular sobriety support organization), Vyckie Garrison at No Longer Quivering and the Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network, many more that I don’t have space here to list. For years now, movement atheists have been talking about how we need to create secular communities and support structures, to replace the ones people lose when they leave religion — and a whole lot of atheists have been stepping up to the plate. Atheism absolutely has a nurturing, coherence-building vibe. Either Harris thinks these support organizations don’t matter, which would be grossly insulting — or he’s genuinely ignorant about them, which would make him profoundly out of touch with the reality of on-the-ground organized atheism, to the point where he’s grossly unqualified to comment about it. (Kudos to Rebecca Hensler, founder and co-moderator of Grief Beyond Belief, for pointing this out in her excellent post, Sam Harris, Meet the Secular Support Movement.)
In other words: Jumping to the conclusion that Sam Harris has fewer female readers because women tend to not appreciate harsh criticism — and that this difference is innate — is sexist. And jumping to the conclusion that organized atheism has fewer women because women tend to prefer nurturing and coherence-building — and that this difference is innate — is sexist.
Which wouldn’t be such a terrible thing. We all have sexist ideas. Me, and you, and everyone we know. We all say wrong things sometimes — especially on the spur of the moment, when we’re on the spot and don’t have time to think.
Which brings me to Harris’s second piece — the one he did have time to think about, the one that was supposedly going to clear all this up, the one that was going to show once and for all that Harris’s words and ideas weren’t really sexist.
Yes, I think much of it was sexist. Here’s why.
First. If you say or do something that unintentionally hurts people, it is entirely reasonable to say, “That’s not what I meant — but I can see how you’d see it that way, I spoke poorly, here’s what I meant, sorry.” Again, we all mis-speak sometimes, especially when we’re speaking off the cuff, and spoken language can sometimes lose nuances of tone when written down.
It is not, however, reasonable to say (paraphrasing here), “That’s not what I meant — and you’re thick-headed and mean and paranoid for thinking that’s what I meant. Stop picking on me.”
It is not reasonable (and here I’m not paraphrasing) to accuse your feminist critics of being “determined to be offended”; to say that they are “looking for sexist pigs” (as opposed to, you know, seeing the reality of sexism everywhere around us every day); to accuse them of having “installed a tripwire in your mind, and you’re just waiting for people to cross it.” The idea that feminists are over-sensitive and are going out of our way to find sexism is one of the most common ways that criticisms of sexism get trivialized and ignored. Hint: You can disagree with our criticism without impugning our motivations in making it.
It is not in the slightest bit reasonable to point out that just 5 percent of Fortune 500 companies are run by women — and to use that as evidence of why status differences between men and women aren’t caused by sexism. Seriously? You can’t think of approximately 876,907 forms of sexism, both subtle and overt, that contribute to the under-representation of women running Fortune 500 companies? Such as — oh, say, to give just one example completely at random — the idea that valuing competition and criticism is more innately male? The inability to see this is seriously sexist.
It is not in the slightest bit reasonable to say that women mostly don’t run Fortune 500 companies because women in their 20s and 30s disproportionately do child rearing — and to again use that as evidence of why status differences between men and women aren’t caused by sexism. Again — seriously? You don’t know about the approximately 695,578 ways that women are pressured to do the lion’s share of child rearing, or are pressured to have children in the first place? It hasn’t occurred to you that there’s a wee bit of sexism in a social and economic system that (a) fails to provide child care for double-wage-earner households while (b) pressuring women to have children and rear them? (Libby Anne at Love, Joy, Feminism has some excellent perspectives on this topic.) The inability to see this is seriously sexist.
It is not reasonable to claim that criticisms of sexism are ridiculous because you “tend to respect women more than men.” Actually, treating women more respectfully than men is a form of sexism. Look up “benevolent sexism” and “putting women on a pedestal” and how they do measurable harm. (Libby Anne — a former homeschooled evangelical Christian, brought up “in a subculture that purported to respect women a great deal — and even to hold women above men” — once again has some excellent perspectives on this at Love, Joy, Feminism.)
It is not reasonable to claim that criticisms of sexism are ridiculous because you have worked with women, have women in your family, and were raised by a single mother. Most people have women in their lives. It’s not an inoculation against sexism. (And yes, I know that Harris said, “I’m not saying that my fondness for certain women proves that I’m not sexist.” I just don’t know why else he would bring up that point.)
It is seriously not reasonable to say, “It is a measure of the ridiculous paranoia engendered by political correctness that in the second it took me to make that joke about my sex appeal, I worried whether my assuming that most women are heterosexual would offend some number of lesbians in the audience.” I am baffled at the idea that it’s “ridiculous paranoia” and “political correctness” to stop and think about whether you ought not to assume heterosexuality. Yes, not perpetuating harmful tropes often requires you to think about what you say before you say it. That’s not being “paranoid.” It’s being thoughtful. And the idea that this thoughtfulness is a terrible imposition — well, that’s pretty darned sexist, not to mention racist, classist, homophobic, transphobic, and more. (Also, FYI: The phrase “politically correct” is a knee-jerk way of dismissing concerns about social injustice without actually addressing them, and it’s a dog-whistle for retrograde assholes. Advice: Don’t use it unless you want to call out the dogs.)
And it is not the slightest bit reasonable to get mad at a Washington Post reporter because she didn’t throw you softball questions for the entire duration of your interview. It is not reasonable to accuse her of trying to “make me look stupid” and of having “paid me back” because she included three paragraphs about troubling statements you made on gender, in a lengthy and generally complimentary piece plugging your book.
It’s interesting to note that Harris originally claimed that women on average don’t like harsh criticism — but when a woman at his talk was bold enough to harshly criticize him to his face, and when she reasonably but firmly persisted when he refused to acknowledge that what he said might have been sexist, he accused her of being “determined to be offended,” and told her “It’s like you have installed a tripwire in your mind, and you’re just waiting for people to cross it.” When it comes to harsh criticism, this is exactly the kind of gender policing that women get on a daily basis. It’s almost comical for Harris to argue that a taste for criticism is innately male — and then, three days later, to tell us how he himself has policed women against it.