There’s a letter, the result of the HEADS deliberations on feminism in secularism. You’ve probably seen it by now. You may have also seen the letters from Secular Woman and the American Secular Census explaining why they didn’t sign the original. If you haven’t, you should probably see the information that Secular Woman was shut out of the process to write the letter.
That last is bad, and it disturbs me a good bit. “Nothing about us without us”, after all. Why their influence should be unacceptable, I don’t understand.
The letter itself I have mixed feelings about. Much of it is good. There is a lot there I would comfortably say myself, and it’s not anything secular leaders would have felt any impetus to say publicly and collectively even a year ago. That’s progress. That’s our success made visible.
There are other things about the letter, however, that tell me that the leaders of our movement’s organizations still (collectively if not individually) have some fundamental misconceptions about what is happening around them. In particular, the commentary about online communication could only come from people who think the internet is a contributor to the problem.
The thing secular leaders next need to internalize is that none of what has happened in the last three years started on the internet. It didn’t. Women have been harassed, objectified, and excluded much longer than there has been a thriving atheist blogosphere.
For probably as long as atheist and secular events have happened, women have showed up at our events looking for like-minded people and opportunities to advocate for our shared interests. For just as long, they left after being told women can’t think, being treated as though their presence turned the event into a dating service, being groped, being yelled at for showing up, or simply being shut out of participation or leadership. These things didn’t happen to all women who showed up, probably. Not all the women they happened to left. But they happened and women left because of them.
The internet did change things, but maybe not the way the letter would suggest. It didn’t change being told we’re dumb or being treated as though we’re there for the pleasure of the guys or the degree of representation or inclusion we experience for showing up. It did do three other important things.
First, it stopped us from being isolated. When the inevitable question of “Where are the women?” happened, lots of women answered. The told stories that were remarkably similar to one another. They compared notes. They stood up for each other when those conversations were inevitably overrun by people who didn’t want them to happen at all. They identified problems. They organized.
Second, it put some distance between us and that guy who explodes in anger when challenged. Or that guy. Or all the other guys who do that. It allows us to have our say without having to put ourselves within reach. It allows us to hide our name, our location, even our gender if desired. That offers much more freedom for having our say.
Most importantly, the internet gives us–some individually, some collectively–platforms for speaking. Platforms we made ourselves. To understand why this is important, take the letter’s advice to pick up the phone before speaking publicly. Here’s how that would have gone with many organizations once upon a time:
[ring, ring, ring]Org: Hello?
Mary: Hello. This is Mary X. I have some concerns about the speaker you’ve announced for your next meeting.
Org: We have a long-standing relationship with Speaker. Our members always love it when he comes to speak.
Mary: Yes, well, my concern is that–
Org: I’m sorry. You said your name was…?
Mary: Mary X.
Org: Are you a member, Mary?
Mary: I’ve been thinking about joining. I appreciate what you do. However, when I saw Speaker on your calendar–
Org: I see. Well, as I said, our members really enjoy Speaker.
Mary: But you haven’t–
Org: Thank you for calling, Marie. We appreciate letting us know how you feel. Good bye.
To the best of my knowledge, that particular conversation never happened. That kind of dismissal certainly has, though. Isolated complaints are easy to dismiss.
The big problem with “Pick up the phone” is that “nobodies” (those people you’re hoping to recruit into your movement) should get to have some input on this stuff too. What happens when they call? Someone very important wants to know why they’re being interrupted.
On the other hand, what happens when a “nobody” writes a blog post? Well, their thoughts on the subject might be crap, in which case they vanish. Or their thoughts might be representative of the thoughts of other interested parties. In that case, things start to get big. People know that they have the numbers to agitate for their interests. The person who said something stops being such a “nobody”. Then they get asked why they didn’t call.
Don’t forget why they’re being asked that. They’re being asked because more than just one isolated person is now calling. The internet, and the platform it can provide, has made that change. It has made complaints and requests for change effective.
Many of us, myself included, share the experience of complaints and requests that weren’t effective when made in private. We also have experience that our complaints and requests made in public are more effective. Unless women can be persuaded that handling things privately can and will have the same efficacy, that’s a genie that won’t be going back into its bottle.
All in all, the internet has been a great thing for women in the secular movement. It has been very good to us.
That’s why we’re being harassed.
I’m going to repeat that because it runs counter to much of the conventional wisdom on internet harassment: The internet has helped women in the secular movement reach for equality, and this is the exact reason why we’re being harassed. Both the pattern of harassment and the topics that prompt it are known and well enough understood to present as a formula at this point.
Ignoring that online harassment of women has a specific purpose may not be meant to aid and abet the harassment. The vast majority of the time, it almost certainly isn’t. That doesn’t much matter when it has that effect. Advice to be nicer, calmer, more charitable, advice to engage in dialog doesn’t just fail to address the reasons for harassment. It also places additional burdens and restraints on the harassed. That’s a two-fer for the harassers, however kindly it was intended.
That, in a nutshell, is the problem with handing out a bunch of advice on an issue without stopping to make sure you understand the issue (and, not so incidentally, with excluding the people who do understand it). The chances of doing any good approximate those of winning a game of chess without knowing how to play. The problem in this case, of course, is that this isn’t a game.
Image: “Wiring Before” by kelp. Some rights reserved.