On Being a Good (and Bad) Ally to Feminists

In the last few days, Melissa McEwan at the feminist blog Shakesville gave a list of advice to atheist men on how to make the secular community more feminist-friendly. There was considerable discussion of her list on Pharyngula, but the usual harassing trolls also decided to pollute the conversation with their stupidity. In response to hostile messages from some of them, McEwan posted this:

I started out writing about why I didn’t want to have anything to do with mainstream movement atheism, but, in the end, this entire endeavor has revealed that whether I want anything to do with mainstream movement atheism is irrelevant, because mainstream movement atheism doesn’t want to have anything to do with me.

Although I agreed with just about everything else McEwan was saying, I thought this was unfair. Certainly, I’m not denying that sexism exists. I’ve seen the abuse hurled at some of my female friends, and I’d never tell any woman that they have an obligation to put up with it. I believe it benefits both atheists and feminists for us to have a closer alliance, but if any feminist doesn’t feel safe or comfortable in the atheist community, then that’s entirely her decision to make.

But I think McEwan went farther than that, by saying “mainstream movement atheism doesn’t want to have anything to do with me”. To me, this sounds as if she’s saying that atheism has only one voice, and it’s the voice of the sexists. I just don’t think this is accurate.* In just the past few years, anti-harassment policies have become the norm at atheist conventions; we’ve had a whole series of atheist leaders speak out against sexism; and we’ve seen the A+ community forming to explicitly promote social justice. We have a lot of work left to do, certainly, but I think there are sufficient grounds to argue that a lot of atheists care about this and are trying to make it better, and their efforts shouldn’t be dismissed as inconsequential. (See also this comment on Pharyngula by Salty Current.)

I posted some of this on Shakesville, where it got, shall we say, an unfriendly reception. I was expecting that; McEwan’s is one of the most heavily moderated feminist sites and caters mainly to people who share a certain set of assumptions. And I would have let it end there, except that I was conversing with someone else on Twitter about the matter, and McEwan spotted that and decided to hold it up for execration. Here was my tweet, in reply to a person who I believe was asking a question in good faith:

And here was McEwan’s response:

Here is a thing Adam actually just said on Twitter regarding this discussion: “I certainly don’t think anyone’s claim of hurt feelings should be accepted without question.”

It is extremely hostile to assert that women’s feelings have to be filtered through a validity prism before their legitimacy can be authenticated.

And yet this is publicly posted as if it’s eminently reasonable.

McEwan didn’t expand on what she meant by this, but given the circumstances, I can see just one plausible interpretation: that if a woman says she’s harmed or offended by something I’ve said or done, then I’m not permitted to form my own opinion about the reasonableness of that claim, I just have to accept it without question.

Now, I recognize that being part of a privileged majority, not having to experience or even to witness the kind of exclusion and prejudice regularly visited upon outsiders, makes it easy to overlook that when it happens or even when I do it myself. We all experience this in some contexts but not others. As an atheist, for example, I’m more sensitive to the kind of religious privilege that a Christian living in America would consider normal, while as a white man, it’s more difficult for me to understand what racism or sexism against women and minorities looks and feels like. I recognize that surmounting this empathy barrier requires consciousness-raising, a deliberate attempt to see the world from others’ perspectives, and a willingness to listen and not reflexively deny. And I especially recognize that feminists, having so often been burned by trolls who are “just asking questions” in bad faith, have good reason to be gun-shy towards strangers offering them advice.

But even when all that’s said and done, there still has to be a role for good-faith disagreement about at least some things. The majority has often failed to acknowledge legitimate charges of prejudice, and is still doing so, but that doesn’t mean that every claim of prejudice should be automatically accepted as true. I’m willing to concede that inexcusible harassment is continuing to happen in some quarters, and that there are prominent atheists who’ve made some shocking missteps over the treatment of women. But I’m not willing to concede that the atheist movement as a whole has any desire to exclude feminists. I don’t think that alone makes me a bad ally, but if anyone believes that it does, then so be it.

* This thuddingly blunt statement was all the more confusing because, in an earlier post, I think she struck exactly the right balance: arguing that while it is a small but vocal group that engages in outright harassment and intimidation, it’s the moral responsibility of the larger community to speak out and condemn them as forcefully as possible, and not to engage in unhelpful “we’re not all like that” defensiveness – which is the same thing I said in my post on Skepchick. Common ground, perhaps?

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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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