On Sexism and Consciousness-Raising

I’ve written in the past about religion’s harm to women, and the way modern sexism is aided and abetted by ancient religious prejudices that still survive today. Every major holy book has sexist verses, but some of the most misogynistic and the most virulent can be found in the books referred to by Christians as the Old Testament. Since this text is the foundation for religions that comprise over half the population of the world, it’s small wonder that oppressive, sexist ideas still have so much power.

This ancient misogyny is on full display in this article about a group of pious Jewish women who want to pray at the Wailing Wall, the holiest site of Judaism. They’re obviously seeking to perpetuate the faith, not rebel against it, and you might think that would earn them respect from their peers. But instead, they’ve faced insults, taunting, and even arrest, all from ultra-Orthodox men who demand that women be kept separate, silenced, and subordinate:

Men sporting the black coats and wheel-shaped fur hats that identify ultra-Orthodox Jews shouted at the women, calling them “Nazis,” and telling them to “go to church”.

…Their adversaries, including the rabbi of the wall, say that the women have no business wearing such religious garments as yarmulkes and prayer shawls, or carrying the Torah, the Jewish holy book.

Such things, the ultra-Orthodox Jews say, are reserved for men.

Whatever religious blindness has afflicted these men, I trust that we as atheists can agree that this kind of sexism is unacceptable. This kind of disgusting bigotry should be intolerable in an enlightened world. We, both men and women, have every reason to cooperate in stamping it out wherever it rears its head, and to work for its total eradication.

But one of the biggest mistakes we could make would be to assume that misogyny only manifests itself in obvious ways: as ultra-Orthodox men cursing and spitting at women on the streets, or Muslims committing honor killings against female relatives, or Roman Catholics arguing that abortion should be forbidden even to women with life-threatening ectopic pregnancies. Those are the most visible manifestations, but sexism can take on more subtle forms as well, more difficult to notice and therefore to oppose.

I bring this up because of an appalling editorial published on Comment is Free by Nancy Graham Holm, writing about the ax attack on Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard by a Muslim fanatic. The title of her article was – no joke – “Prejudiced Danes provoke fanaticism”, and its argument was that Danish writers and artists are to blame for any violence they suffer as a result of offending the religious sensibilities of Muslims, who demand the right to be exempt from criticism or satire.

This cowardly nonsense was capably dissected by Ophelia Benson, the author of Butterflies and Wheels (and also a columnist for Comment is Free). Holm’s article also caught the attention of the Richard Dawkins Foundation, and there, too, most of the commenters on the site’s forum responded with appropriate criticism. But there were a few who couldn’t stop there – including one whose reaction was to attack Holm as a “stupid bitch”.

Ophelia stopped by to point out the inappropriateness of this, and she was met by several commenters who insisted that this was a perfectly acceptable way to criticize a woman, that it wasn’t at all sexist, and even if it was, women are just as sexist as men so it’s hypocritical to complain about it. Here are a few shining examples:

If you really want to cast a gender in the role of servants or slaves, then a case could be made that MEN have been the servants…

One half of humanity [that would be the male half —Ebonmuse] does not get a say in whether language is sexist?

Ophelia needs to recognize not only that “words change” in general, but that these particular words — slang terms like bitch — have changed and acquired a non-sexist sense.

These commenters argued that the word “bitch” is defensible as long as it’s being used only against one specific person and not a slur against all women, and if it wasn’t meant as sexist by the person who said it, then it wasn’t sexist.

While I don’t think this kind of attitude poses a threat to the atheist movement as a whole, I do think it’s extremely important to ensure that everyone feels welcome among us, regardless of race or gender. That’s a goal that the atheist movement still needs to devote more effort to accomplishing, and comments like these don’t help. (Several commenters referred to the “locker-room atmosphere” of the comments at the largely unmoderated RD.net forums – although to his credit, Richard Dawkins himself did step in to put a stop to the flame war.)

To begin, let me pose a question to anyone who thinks that “bitch” is an appropriate term to use in reference to any woman. If you strongly disagreed with an essay written by a gay person, would you write a critique calling them a faggot? If it was a black person, would you express your disapproval by calling them a nigger? If these slurs are unacceptable, as they obviously are, then why is it any different to criticize a woman with an epithet that implicitly demeans all members of her gender? The word, after all, has historically been used to insult any tough, confident or assertive woman by implying that she doesn’t “know her place”.

To assume that any word can be used in a vacuum, stripped of all its past connotations, simply by willing it to be so is ludicrous. A word’s meaning is not wholly determined by context – individual speakers can use words in new and unique ways – but neither is it wholly determined by individual intent – else we wouldn’t ever be able to communicate with each other. Even if you use that word with no sexist intent whatsoever – a highly dubious proposition, considering the way we’re all influenced by culture – it’s hardly reasonable to expect the recipient of your message to understand your pure heart. They’re much more likely to see that word as coming with all the sexist and misogynist context that has always been attached to it, understandably so. And condescendingly telling a person that they should just ignore all that and let you decide for them when they should be offended is only going to make things worse.

There are plenty of bad ideas out there that deserve criticism. But when we criticize them, we shouldn’t do it in a way that cedes the moral high ground, or that insults or alienates people whose sympathies were already with us. Nor should we tolerate others who do these things. Even the gentlest declaration of atheism is going to anger many irrational people, which is unavoidable and is no reason for us not to speak out. But we shouldn’t compound that offense unnecessarily if we want atheism as a movement to flourish and succeed.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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