On Being a Good Ally, Continued

Before I went away for the weekend, my attention was taken up by a a minor disagreement I had with Melissa McEwan at Shakesville. Since some of my experiences at the American Atheists convention bear on that, and since McEwan has written a further post about it, I wanted to write a followup. As I see it, there are four points worth touching on:

1. A glimmer of consensus on whether the atheist community is welcoming to women. In her latest post, McEwan wrote:

I will say, again, that I know there are men in movement atheism who make a practice of being good allies to women. (At least straight, white, cis women. And some men more broadly than that.)

I’m glad to hear that! And since that was the only part of McEwan’s original post that I had any reservations about, I dare say we might even have reached a consensus. Notwithstanding the noise and clamor of the misogynists, they’re not the majority. As I wrote in my convention wrap-up, there were at least two talks on feminism and social justice this weekend that got vigorous, enthusiastic applause from a packed ballroom.

Now, I’m not denying that harassment and abuse do happen. But let me state, again and for the record, that I’ve never asserted, nor do I believe, that anyone has an obligation to put up with it. If women associated with the atheist community experience sexism or poor treatment that makes them not want to return, they’re completely within their rights to do so. My only concern is that the blame for this be placed appropriately, on the guilty parties – those who engage in sexism, and to a lesser extent, those who condone it with silence – and not on the community as a whole.

It may seem like this whole argument was about semantics, but semantics matter, because people tend to change their behavior to match real or perceived social norms. Emphasizing that misogyny comes from an insignificant minority within the atheist community isn’t just true, it’s an effective tactic at diminishing it: if others are aware that the harassers’ behavior is not the norm, it makes those others less likely to participate in harassment themselves.

2. Better understanding of the basis of our disagreement. I wrote in my earlier post about a statement of McEwan’s that troubled me, about the necessity of accepting claims of personal offense without question. But The Letter D’s comment (later expanded into a post) made me see this in a whole new light.

I think D’s interpretation is the right one: it’s not that I should always and automatically revise my behavior in response to any claim of offense, it’s that I should accept other people’s self-reports of their own emotional state and not try to convince them they’re not feeling what they say they are. If that was in fact what McEwan meant, then I interpreted it wrongly, and I apologize freely and unreservedly for that. (As any atheist knows, there are countless religious believers who claim offense or hurt feelings as a way of stifling legitimate criticism, which is probably why I initially read her comment as I did.)

3. This is hard to get right. If this debate has taught me anything, it’s that a statement which seems innocuous or self-evident can be interpreted in a completely different way by a person with different lived experiences and starting assumptions. Melissa’s initial remark about mainstream atheism conveyed, to me, something that she didn’t intend it to convey. Just the same way, my comment about accepting people’s hurt feelings clearly said something to her that wasn’t at all what I intended to say.

4. With (3) in mind, let’s all try to be charitable to potential allies. That will probably raise some hackles, so I should emphasize that I’m not speaking about the conversation in the comment threads on Shakesville, but rather what happened on Twitter afterward. I was talking with another reader about the whole thing, and some people who I assume followed the discussion from Shakesville found him through my Twitter timeline and jumped down his throat.

This kind of unprovoked attack isn’t beneficial to anyone. Yes, there are bad-faith trolls out there, but there are also people who want to do the right thing and are trying to understand what that is. They’ll probably make mistakes on occasion, just as we all do. That’s why I believe that in discussions of this nature, all people should make an effort to treat others with an initial presumption of good faith, unless that person’s behavior gives reason to think otherwise. (Obviously, this doesn’t apply when personal safety could be at risk. In those situations, it’s reasonable to be especially cautious.)

Again, I’m not saying that anyone has a duty to express gratitude for allies at every opportunity, or that we should expect constant praise for showing a minimum of decency. But if allies feel like they’re walking on eggshells, or that they can never say the right thing – that’s a frustrating feeling, and it plays into the hands of the bad guys. Whenever possible, if someone says something with unpalatable implications, it’s always best to start off with “Did you really mean to say that X?”, rather than jumping immediately to “You horrible person, you must believe that X!” And yes, I realize I’ve been guilty of this as well, so I’m saying it as a reminder to myself as much as I’m offering it as advice.

Image credit: Baynham Goredema, released under CC BY 2.0 license

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About Adam Lee

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


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