Handling Sexism Among Skeptics

This is a continuation of a post from this morning about an incident of possible harassment at a skepticism conference.  Read that one FIRST.

Even among people who agreed that not all harassment has to result in physical assault to be threatening and dangerous, there was a lot of disagreement about the appropriate way to handle the incident and the ongoing discussion in the atheist blogosphere.  Some of the people I disagree with have premises about privilege and gender that are too out of touch with reality to productively address, but even some broadly pro-feminism bloggers went seriously wrong.  I’m excerpting a recent post on this topic by Friendly Atheist, but for the sake of fairness, you should read the whole thing.

“[Watson's public attack on a specific atheist who criticized her] was bad form for two reasons. One, it was a distraction from an otherwise important talk. Instead of us discussing the incredibly important issue of how the Religious Right harms women (the subject of the talk), we’re all discussing whether it’s right for someone with a big megaphone to pick on someone with a smaller one, whether someone was being a “bad feminist,” and all sorts of shit that doesn’t need to be aired in public…

Maybe everyone has forgotten: We’re all on the same goddamn side. We’re supposed to be the rational ones. That means we should know how to discuss things privately before they become a public spectacle where no one wins. We should always encourage more atheists to speak up with their opinions, not shy away from it, because we’re the ones who know how to handle differences in opinion. No one’s saying “Keep quiet if you disagree.” It’s the opposite of that, only more tactful.”

The broadest point first: It’s important to have these discussions in public especially if you’re of the opinion the man who frightened Watson made an honest mistake.  Private conversations with the specific offender leave everyone else still in the dark.

Now on to the more specific issue: I don’t believe all atheists/skeptics can be meaningfully said to all be on the same side.  Atheists don’t have a communal creed and don’t even all come to atheism through skepticism.  Usually, we’re a coalition of bootleggers and baptists – we’ve come to the same conclusion, but for wildly disparate reasons, so it’s no surprise that there’s a lot we disagree on.

It’s possible to have a solely tactical discussion about balancing the relative harm done by acknowledging not all atheists are saints and having a public brouhaha about harassment versus allowing bad behavior to go unpoliced in order not to lose ground against a greater threat from religion, but I don’t think Hemant was thinking in terms of utilitarian calculus.  Instead of sly cynicism, I think he’s succumbed to excessive optimism.

I don’t have any particular confidence that atheists en masse or within the blogosphere can easily work out our differences without spectacle.  In fact, our varied beliefs can make it a lot harder, since we’re less likely to all be speaking the same language than a religious group with a common tradition and set of references.

Our fights are always going to be disorganized and difficult, so, when we think they’re important, they may as well be public, so we can try to persuade and learn from as many people as possible.  But we’d do best to remember how little we have in common and try to be patient and charitable through the confusion that’s sure to follow.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Patrick

    "The broadest point first: It's important to have these discussions in public especially if you're of the opinion the man who frightened Watson made an honest mistake. Private conversations with the specific offender leave everyone else still in the dark."As you noted, Hemant wasn't talking about the RW's comments about the man who propositioned her. He was talking about her comments about the youtuber who criticized her, and the ethics of using a large microphone and a big name to take someone apart by name when they only have access to a small microphone, and as a result, no ability to effectively respond. This has nothing to do with the man's conduct.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16496144988509668275 Leah

    I think it's fair to debate whether Watson should have used the other woman's name but the bit you quoted above stands for why you'd address this in a keynote rather than as a private matter between the two women, as Hemant suggested.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05868095335395368227 vjack

    I think it is vital to understand that the following two statements do not mean the same thing:"The man in the elevator frightened Rebecca.""Rebecca was frightened by the man in the elevator."From everything I've read on this subject, it sounds like the second statement may be accurate. I'm not sure about the first.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16496144988509668275 Leah

    vjack, I think it's quite plausible the man frightened Rebecca out of ignorance, so the question is whether ignorance means we should use the passive voice to deny culpability or whether this falls under the category of negligent ignorance (ie people with privilege not listening to the critiques of people without).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00681934865643964687 JSA

    These episodes always need to be put out in the public, because they force people to talk about the issue. I think that most men can only engage in a limited amount of public slut-shaming and denial of gender privilege before realizing that they are wrong and the feminists are right.Things like this happen a lot. Most recent in my memory was this one between two people who were at an open source conference.The "new atheists" community is not known for its diversity. It's mostly a social club of anglo-saxon "old boys".

  • Anonymous

    Off topic but It seems a lot of atheists reject God but embrace another false master the state. And a lot of skeptics are hardly skeptical of government or the supposed need of it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10019240793982424774 Christian H

    " I think it's quite plausible the man frightened Rebecca out of ignorance, so the question is whether ignorance means we should use the passive voice to deny culpability or whether this falls under the category of negligent ignorance (ie people with privilege not listening to the critiques of people without)." — I wholeheartedly agree.Personally, I'm always baffled and horrified that people don't see that this is of course a case of sexism and privilege, but that's the benefit of an English degree, I suppose: we're trained to see this sort of thing."One, it was a distraction from an otherwise important talk. Instead of us discussing the incredibly important issue of how the Religious Right harms women (the subject of the talk), we’re all discussing whether it’s right for someone with a big megaphone to pick on someone with a smaller one, whether someone was being a “bad feminist,” and all sorts of shit that doesn’t need to be aired in public…" — If sexism is bad, it should be discussed whether or not it is committed by the religious right or the socialist left or by skeptics or by whomever. What I think a claim like this misses is that if you want to use charges of sexism to criticize the religious right, than you need to acknowledge it's venom when someone other than the religiously right uses it.Another thing about "sides": there's work on sexism that isn't especially atheist or skeptical. Some of it is religious and some of it exists outside of discourses about religion and skepticism. Adhering too strongly to a sense of atheism/skepticism can prevent one from encountering excellent antimisogynist resources.

  • http://www.fleshbot.com Kogo

    *Our fights are always going to be disorganized and difficult, so, when we think they're important, they may as well be public, so we can try to persuade and learn from as many people as possible. But we'd do best to remember how little we have in common and try to be patient and charitable through the confusion that's sure to follow.* Yeah, and this is why I refuse to engage in 'privelege' discussions: Because it is always derailing. It is ALWAYS a person who wants to commandeer an organization or effort to do NOT the thing it was actually engaged in doing and to instead endlessly pursue his or her sub-goal. Nothing would make privilegists happier than for atheists to say, "We give up atheism and will instead now become solely and eternally a privilege-discussion group."I've seen this happen. I watched a previously focused, decently organized housing reform group fall apart over this. Privilege is real. And it is also a complete derailment. If you 'want to talk about privilege', *form your own goddam space to do it.*

  • http://www.fleshbot.com Kogo

    *Off topic but It seems a lot of atheists reject God but embrace another false master the state. And a lot of skeptics are hardly skeptical of government or the supposed need of it.*Trolling. Patently false. Go away you stupid little shit.

  • http://www.fleshbot.com Kogo

    *Off topic but It seems a lot of atheists reject God but embrace another false master the state. And a lot of skeptics are hardly skeptical of government or the supposed need of it.*Hey anonymous:Name one prison, war, border enforcement measure, industrial subsidy or expansion of police powers that you do NOT approve of?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00681934865643964687 JSA

    "Yeah, and this is why I refuse to engage in 'privelege' discussions: Because it is always derailing. It is ALWAYS a person who wants to commandeer an organization or effort to do NOT the thing it was actually engaged in doing and to instead endlessly pursue his or her sub-goal."I consider myself pretty good at mind-reading, and this isn't the first conclusion I come to about women's motives. Isn't it at least as plausible that the women complaining about sexism at a skeptics conference simply wish that a skeptics conference were as safe an environment for women as a conference for pharmaceutical sales reps or a conference for school teachers?There are plenty of easy ways for a conference organizer to visibly signal that sexism is unwelcome and to foster gender diversity in the agenda. Do you really think this would detract from the goals of a skeptics conference? In my view, one of the biggest things holding back the skeptic/atheist community is that it has become an old boy's club of old white Anglo-Saxon cock swingers and Peter Pans.

  • Patrick

    Hey now, we're not perfect but we're better that pharmaceutical sales conferences. Fight words, JS. Fighting words.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00681934865643964687 JSA

    @Patrick – LOL, I could be totally wrong about that one, now that you mention it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13116034158087704885 March Hare

    It would be an amazing piece of misogyny if Elevator Guy knew what Rebecca's response would be and deliberately did it in order to cause this storm and further discourage women from attending any atheist conferences.Now that's how you do sexism!


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