Racism, misogyny, and those nasty Italian Fascists

A couple weeks before I made the switchover to Freethought Blogs, there was an internet dustup between Greta Christina and DJ Grothe (President of the James Randi Educational Foundation). I started a post series on it, then put the series on hold while the change over happened, and now the blog conversation has already shifted away from the specific DJ/Greta thing.

I only managed one post where I did much real commentary, titled “Yes, but sometimes it’s appropriate to say ‘yes but.’” Go read that for some background to this post (the other two posts I wrote were preliminaries where I didn’t say much of anything). Given that I’m at a new blog and the conversation has moved on, what I’m about to write doesn’t quite feel like a continuation of the series, but it’s on the same general topic. And with all that throat-clearing out of the way…

I would have thought it obvious that accusations of misogyny are not to be made lightly, and that making baseless accusations of misogyny is a fairly seriously bad thing to do. But lately, I’ve seen bloggers here at Freethought Blogs saying things that suggest they think accusations of misogyny aren’t a big deal. So I want to talk about that.

This has nothing to do with “tone” or anything like that. I have no trouble with anyone being harshly critical of anyone when they can back up their criticisms. The problem, rather, is with baseless attacks. The most basic reason I think baseless attacks are bad is because I’m generally pro-truth and pro-basing-your-beliefs-on-reason-and-evidence.

That’s not the full story on why baseless attacks are bad, though. In some contexts, polite lies in particular, you can plausibly argue that other things are more important than truth. Maybe that’s not right–Sam Harris’ Lying makes a surprisingly strong case that even most polite lies do more harm than good–but at least with polite lies, there’s a sliver lining to straying from the rigorously pro-truth position: helping people get along, protecting others’ self-esteem, etc.

With baseless attacks, however, there is no such silver lining. Their only side effects are to create ill-will, do unfair damage to someone’s reputation, and possibly discourage people from hearing out a valuable viewpoint. And the amount of harm done is going to be to some extent proportional to the seriousness of the accusation. In our society, misogyny is rightly regarded as a seriously bad thing, and this makes baseless accusations of misogyny at least somewhat seriously bad.

But maybe these sort of abstract arguments aren’t the right way to persuade people that they shouldn’t make accusations of misogyny lightly. Lucky for me, towards the end of last week, fate handed me a great example to make the point at a more gut-level way: an article by Be Scofield about how the Gnu Atheists are, in Ophelia Benson’s summary, “privileged homophobic racist imperialists”:

Be Scofield tweeted me about a new article of his at Tikkun, apparently hoping I would dislike it enough to give it publicity by saying why I dislike it. Ok, sure, why not. I do dislike it. Why do I dislike it? Well because it quite unbashfully calls “the New Atheists” racist.

Greta and PZ have joined Ophelia in expressing their exasperation about this article, and I’m totally with them. But I’d like to add that anyone who thinks accusations of misogyny are no big deal should take a look at Scofield’s piece, and Ophelia’s and Greta’s and PZ’s reactions to it, because when you toss around accusations of misogyny carelessly, you’ll often end up looking a lot like Be Scofield (at least to anyone who stops to ask whether the accusations are really justified.)

Ophelia indicates being called racist is enough for her to dislike the piece, and this is a perfectly reasonable reaction for her to have. After all, she’s knows she’s not racist. Similarly, when you toss around accusations of misogyny casually, you’re going to piss off a lot of people who think, “hey, I know I’m not a misogynist.”

At the beginning of this post I said I think some of the bloggers here don’t seem to think accusations of misogyny are much of a big deal. Now I’m going to give an example, from Jason Thibeault:

When pointed to behaviours that disadvantage women disproportionately, you don’t balk at the use of the word misogynist — that sort of objection ignores the grievous crime against women, acting as though the crime of poor language (if it is even poor language) supercedes or is more important than the misogynist behaviour at hand.

Uh, no. Disagreeing about the accuracy of labeling something misogyny doesn’t mean ignoring misogyny, or thinking that the crime of a baseless accusation is worse than actual misogyny. Any more than disagreeing about the accuracy of labeling something racist means ignoring racism, or thinking that the crime of a baseless accusation is worse than actual racism.

There are also a number of poor rationales for accusations of misogyny floating around. The “yes but” thing is one example, and there’s another one I want to talk about, also from Jason talking about Elevatorgate:

She [Stef McGraw] was using an argument used by real misogynists in the process — and in exactly the same way that misogynists use the argument. She did not say that Stef is herself misogynist or a bad feminist, only that she had used an argument that misogynists use. That Rebecca pointed out that a student leader and feminist could fall prey to the very arguments that anti-woman idiots use themselves is a painful lesson for Stef to learn in public (especially as an example of how student leaders should learn to be better leaders), but even if Rebecca had taken Stef aside privately and suggested she rethink her rebuttal, Rebecca would have been treated as every inch the bully as how she was treated for having done it the way she did.

Now, it’s not true that all Rebecca did was say Stef had used an argument that misogynists used. What Rebecca said was that Stef had engaged in “parroting of misogynistic thought.” (Transcript of the talk in question here.) This is a very important distinction. To illustrate why, I’m going to quote from a Harry Potter fanfic:

It was very hard for Harry to control his breathing. “Professor Quirrell, I said a good deal less than I wished to say, but I had to say something. Your proposals are extremely alarming to anyone who has the slightest familiarity with Muggle history over the last century. The Italian fascists, some very nasty people, got their name from the fasces, a bundle of rods bound together to symbolize the idea that unity is strength -”

“So the nasty Italian fascists believed that unity is stronger than division,” said Professor Quirrell. Sharpness was beginning to creep into his voice. “Perhaps they also believed that the sky is blue, and advocated a policy of not dropping rocks on your head.”

(The source, by the way, is Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, by Eliezer Yudkowsky of Less Wrong and Singularity Institute fame. Even if, like me, you don’t normally read fanfiction, the entire fic is strongly recommended for skeptics. Cf. Jen’s recommendation.)

The point is that not everything the fascists believed was false and evil. It would be hard to go through life only ever doing, saying, or believing false and evil things. Thus, not everthing the fascists believed was a fascist belief. Similarly, not everything thunk by misogynists is a misogynist thought, and not every argument used by misogynists is a misogynist argument.

Because of this, for Jason to suggest that “Stef used an argument that misogynists use” is, in itself, grounds for criticism is ridiculous. And as with the point about about baseless accusations and racism, this is a point that should be especially easy for atheists to grasp. Stalin was an atheist, but Stalin probably didn’t believe in fairies either. Don’t engage in the same kind of ridiculous rhetoric that atheists get on a regular basis from believers.

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Arguments for the existence of something that sounds kind of like a god
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Peter van Inwagen's argument for Christianity

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