Redefining Words: Sexism and “Agreeing to Disagree.”

Redefining Words: Sexism and “Agreeing to Disagree.” November 26, 2013

I saw this impassioned plea made by a Christian for people to agree to disagree on the subject of women’s ordination. The writer of the piece, Tish Harrison, insists that “objection to women’s ordination is not equivalent to sexism.”

The problem is that yes, actually, sexism is exactly what objecting to women’s ordination is equivalent to.

Someone who objects to women’s ordination is saying, explicitly and completely in his or her out-loud voice, that someone can be disqualified from serving in a role purely and simply because of her gender. Someone who says that women shouldn’t be clergypeople is saying, right out in the open, that simply because of a person’s plumbing and entirely irrespective of her education, qualifications, and passionate desire to serve in that capacity, that she should not be given that role.

That is exactly what sexism is.

There isn’t some other magic definition of it that allows for religious sexism to be exempt from the rest of sexism.

Tish Harrison is demanding that people use her own personal definition of “sexism,” apparently, one that allows someone to discriminate against 50% of the entire human race by denying a role to someone purely based on sex identification, and yet somehow not be defined as a sexist.

And then she issues a plea that people “agree to disagree” on this topic, effectively shutting down discourse and stopping thought.

And the writer of this piece is, in fact, a woman. I should be used to women being complicit in their own oppression by now, but it still shocks me when I see such a spectacle.

I’ve got no words.

Wait. Actually, I’ve got tons of words (which you likely already thought were coming).

I’ve talked before about how a dominant person may demand that someone “agree to disagree” when it becomes painfully obvious that the battle is lost, whatever that battle may be. Christians are now starting to demand that we “agree to disagree” about this or that issue–gay rights especially–which to me sounds like a tacit admission that they don’t have any arguments against it that actually fly, so they’re retreating behind “because shut up, that’s why.” If the target continues to dissent, the Christian wants that person to feel like he or she is just being mean or something to press the matter. It means, “I’m done talking now, so if you have anything else to say or still disagree with me, then tough noogies.”

It is a demand for silence. And you don’t often see someone on the underdog side making such a demand. As this blogger writes so eloquently, demands that we “agree to disagree” make the situation at hand sound like both sides have equal merit, like choosing between them is just sooooo harrrrd, like the side doing the oppressing and the side being oppressed should be able to just let the matter go and not fight about it anymore. And like that blogger, I cannot do that. Sexists don’t get a free pass and a benevolent nod to continue to oppress women. Women are being oppressed, and the discomfort of their oppressors at being reminded of that oppression just isn’t a good enough reason for the oppressed to “just shut up, that’s why.”

Also, I don’t think it’s mean to demand that someone have a good argument for his or her stated position, especially when that position is flat-out wrong. And that is what Ms. Harrison is. She is flat-out wrong. She is misusing big words she doesn’t understand (like “sexism”) and she is demanding that dissenters just shut up, that’s why, because–why? Is she terrified of people saying “Well, no, that’s actually exactly what sexism means?” Is she scared of offending her Christian audience, many of whom subscribe to this sort of sexism? Is she scared to confront her organization’s sexism for some other more personal reason, like a burgeoning sense of social justice that may well be smacking up against the very real rewards she is garnering from the sexist system as it is? We don’t know, and like sexism itself, it doesn’t really matter why she’s taking the side of the oppressors.

As she puts it,

While some may oppose women’s ordination for sexist reasons, others do so out of a genuine, even uncomfortable, conviction about the meaning of particular Greek words and the witness of Scripture.

Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader duel on Mustafar.
Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader duel on Mustafar. (Photo credit: Wikipedia). Yep, Luke’s father died in this fight. Died. Because shut up, that’s why.

And ah, now I see the problem. She doesn’t grasp that it doesn’t matter why someone is doing something oppressive. The simple truth is that sexism is the denial of opportunities to someone because of that person’s gender. It doesn’t add on, “except when there’s a Biblical reason for doing it.” The definition doesn’t care why the sexism is happening. Nor does having a Biblical reason excuse even someone who deeply cares about what the Bible says. If the Bible told a believer to commit genocide, is that a good reason to commit genocide? If the Bible told a Christian to cut off his hand if it offends him, is that a good reason to actually cut off one’s own hand? If the Bible tells a Christian that racism is totally fine, as many Christians think it indeed tells them, do we just shrug and not worry about the racism? Are we saying that as long as a particular bigotry or cruelty has some kind of weird-ass Christian scripture backing it up, then it’s totally not whatever it is? That if you just looked at the situation from a certain point of view, as Obi-Wan put it, then suddenly the lie he told Luke makes perfect sense?

I look at this whole situation and I just boggle: how is it that Christians can tell me that moral relativism is bad when they do it themselves all the time? It dwarfs and beggars belief.

This is nothing more than an attempt to control and dominate the very meanings of words. And what Ms. Harrison has described here is a major mark against her religion: her inability to engage with and understand her own religion’s tradition of institutionalized sexism.

Ms. Harrison continues:

When we reductively equate opposition to women’s ordination to sexism, we ignore the complexity of the issue and the messy process of communal discernment in a church body.

Translation: I just can’t see how we’ll ever fix this problem so we should just ignore it.

You know, it’s a good thing Ms. Harrison wasn’t around when black people were getting the right to vote–or Americans’ own great-grandmothers were. It must have looked just so overwhelming to adjust all those voting laws and restrictions! And, too, the body politic wasn’t totally on board with granting rights to the marginalized, just as the Christian church body isn’t now (and for much the same reasons). But that is no reason not to do something that must be done. And the idea that we shouldn’t fix problems because it’ll be “messy” to get the entire church body to understand something they are doing is wrong, utterly and completely wrong, and that even something wrong done for the best of intentions is still wrong–what, do we just ignore Christian sexism then? Let their abuse of women just roll until they’re good and ready to change? Because history’s shown us repeatedly that the dominant faction in a group rarely happily concedes ground to those they’re oppressing. It takes agitation. It takes loudness. It takes messiness. Change doesn’t happen without resistance. If Ms. Harrison is waiting around till the “church body” experiences “communal discernment,” I hope she’s ready for her granddaughters to be denied the same opportunities that women are getting denied today, and for the same fights to be fought over equal treatment and equal opportunity then as we fight today.

The biggest problem Ms. Harrison has, though, is that sexism in Christianity is not a complex issue at all.

A huge swathe of Christianity simply can’t handle the idea of women breaking into one of the last bastions of the Good Ole Boy Club. Regardless of why they say they are doing it, they are in fact denying opportunities and chances to certain people purely and simply because those people identify as the wrong gender. The only real complexity comes in when those people can’t handle the idea of being identified as sexists. It is indeed a very complex dance for sexists who don’t want to be called sexists when they are doing, saying, and espousing very sexist things. Last time we talked about soothing delusions, and this is decidedly one of them:

Ideological dogma: Men and women shouldn’t hold the same roles in the church body.

Troubling reality: When women are denied equal representation in church leadership and equal power in church hierarchies, no matter how that sexism is prettied up with words like “complementarianism” and made to sound like the bonus plan–oh how lucky women are that they don’t need to worry their fluffy pink ladybrainz with that leadership stuff, abuse is much more likely to happen because women lack effective advocates in those situations–and indeed, stories of abuse are rife within “complementarian” circles. When a group’s members are systematically denied opportunities purely because of an external facet they cannot control (such as gender, or race, or orientation), abuse is inevitable because that group is obviously–and despite all the dominant group’s shrill protestations to the contrary–inferior. Not for nothing is the concept of equal rights considered one of the greatest enemies of hardline Christianity–it means the end of a lot of privilege and effortlessly-held dominance.

Soothing delusion: Sexism is the bonus plan! How lucky women are that they don’t need to worry their fluffy pink ladybrainz with that leadership stuff! God meant it to be this way–we can’t help it! This is what the Bible says! Complementarianism means that men do one thing and women do another, just like in sex! Uh.. also Bride of Christ! And we all know the Bible never changes, ever, not even a little. Also, feminists are all witches who kill babies and want to emasculate men, and you girls don’t want to do that… do you? Of course you don’t. Oh, did your husband treat you like a live-in sex slave and emotionally abuse you constantly? Clearly you didn’t pray enough and weren’t good enough of a Christian because you are a helpmeet*. Good thing you’re in a covenant marriage that makes it almost impossible to divorce your husband–or even get help when the abuses you deserve for not praying enough start rolling in once your husband figures out you’re stuck with him.

Whew! Glad we got that all worked out.

Thankfully, most people aren’t fooled. Women are leaving Christianity in huge numbers, and they are not returning. And since they were the ones traditionally bringing kids to church, as that link makes plain, the kids aren’t coming in by themselves–so they grow up without being indoctrinated. The Barna Group (a religious survey group) has found the same thing–that women are as a whole not as religious as they used to be. They’re drawing away. And the churches are losing not only their membership, but also their free labor and their monetary donations. Since most churches rely (and have relied) heavily on female volunteers for labor and resources, that’s going to be an issue moving forward if women keep abandoning organized religion.

And you know what’s not going to stem the tide? Know what’s not going to make these women think they should give the religion another shot? You got it on the first try, I reckon: insisting that the real problem is that people are defining sexism to mean, well, sexism rather than using Ms. Harrison’s much-preferred “get out of sexism free” card of a definition.

It’s nice to be out of Christianity, I must say. I’m free to look at a group of people being outright sexists and I no longer have to rationalize to myself why those sexist things aren’t actually sexist at all. I don’t have to contort myself into finding just the right rationalization to make my religion live up to its ideals of equality under Jesus. I don’t have to excuse people who deny me equal representation in their leadership just because I identify as a woman. I can look upon them and know they are, in fact, sexists, and that their actions are, in fact, sexist, and I don’t have to worry about their poor widdle fee-fees if I call them out.

Not that evangelicals tend to go that “agree to disagree” route anyway; their loathing of compromise and ecumenical hand-holding is quite well-known, so I admit I’m not sure who Ms. Harrison’s even aiming her impassioned plea for silence at. Liberal Christians are already generally on board with women’s rights, and conservative ones will think she’s being “divisive” and wonder who let her talk.

I comfort myself in knowing that the more Christians insist on redefining words like they do, the faster the religion dies. Did you hear about that article from England about how Christianity may well die out in our generation?

Say it with me: “Aww, don’t tease.”

So yes, Ms. Harrison: when someone objects to a woman being in a particular job because she is a woman, that person is being a sexist even if that person’s reasons for the sexism seem very compelling to him/her.

Sorry to break it to ya.

Hope that helps.

I reckon we’re heading into the holiday week, but Conan’s wizard was right: there’ll be time enough for the Earth in the grave. There’s no rest for the wicked, not even the extremely wicked**. Next time we’re going to talk about a prominent pagan who apparently just reconverted to Christianity, and why that don’t front me none. There might also be talk about pies, so if all the “things I’m thankful for” posts are starting to make you a little stir-crazy, feel free to come hang out.

* “Helpmeet” is one of those words that makes me see red. Christians who misuse it have no idea what it actually means; they think it’s an archaic and Bible-y-sounding way of saying “helpmate,” but really it means “the right kind of helpmate” for someone–in the case of the Bible verse, Adam: “a help meet for (suited for) Adam.” Don’t get me started on “helpmeets” or that atrocious Debi Pearl book or we will be here all day long and Libby Anne’s done it better already anyway.

** From a Douglas Adams book, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul.

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