Kameron Hurley wrote a great post recently that everyone in the atheist community ought to read right about now. It’s starts with an argument with a toddler.
I had the questionable delight of hanging out with a 3 year old for the last week, and at some point, when I hauled off his pants so he could go “Pee-pee in the potty” he proceeded to sit on said toilet for a solid five minutes having an argument with me because I’d said “Hey!” when he tried to hit his mother.
“You YELLED at me!” he yelled. “We don’t yell in this house.”
“We don’t hit our mom, either.”
“We don’t YELL. You HURT my FEELINGS.”
At some point, this child will understand the difference between a feeling of guilt for being called out when he does something bad and actual hurt feelings, but today is not that day.
“And you hurt your mom’s feelings,” I said. “You don’t hit your mom.”
“We don’t YELL IN THIS HOUSE.”
The post then goes on to use this framework to explain why the idea that Jonathan Ross was abused by that portion of the F&SF community that objected to his hosting this year’s Hugo Awards at WorldCon is nonsense.
Because in all the rage about how fandom must be full of crazy idiots who no longer have a Great White Hope to Save their Genre From Obscurity, what nobody seems to remember is that the actual pushback on Twitter was not raised fists to hit him, but expressions of fear that Ross was going to hit their mom. It was the internet yelling, “HEY!” and asking for reassurance that they wouldn’t be diminished, spat on, ridiculed, or raged at in their own house. (EDIT: for a sample of some of the “abuse” hurled at Ross, there’s an abbreviated storify thread here)
In fact, folks like Farah Mendlesohn spoke up pretty clearly about this early on, before the statement was made public (her post about resigning her committee position over the issue has since been made private) and Seanan McGuire bravely stated her fears point blank on Twitter, fears which, if I was a Hugo nominee and attendee, I would also share.
For doing that, for expressing their fear that Ross would do to them what he has done to others, for having a perfectly reasonable concern rooted in their history and Ross’s, those women and others who expressed the same reservations were branded as “haters” and lectured for “vilify”ing Ross (or accused of “abusing” someone without a single piece of abuse in evidence). Neil Gaiman did this despite having had such reasonable fears himself at one point.
No, Gaiman’s fears didn’t come to pass. Ross was kind to him and to Dave McKean when they met. Those fears were still reasonable, though, given the history Gaiman cited. Ross made fun of people for a living. The fears of Charlie Stross, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Farah Mendlesohn, and–yes–Seanan McGuire. Ross has a history of misogynistic humor. Would he have engaged in it onstage at the Hugo Awards? Maybe not. Is it a reasonable fear that he would? Absolutely.
It was with that in mind that I answered a request from a friend yesterday who was concerned that when a chunk of organized atheism reacted to Hemant giving guest post space to a crappy (really crappy, really, really crappy) pro-life “argument” by saying, “This is not up for debate”, it was somehow a worrisome, anti-intellectual position denying the possibility of any ethical questions surrounding abortion aside from bodily autonomy. I’ll share with you more or less what I shared with my friend.
The problem with debating the ethics of abortion beyond the question of bodily autonomy is that the question of bodily autonomy for women is not settled yet (using “women” because for trans and genderqueer people, I’d say it’s barely been raised), and it is foundational. Without that foundation clearly laid and agreed upon, no other debates can happen, because they keep reverting to that foundational question.
Obviously, the fact that this isn’t a settled question is not unique to atheist and humanist communities. However, I don’t think it’s the fact that it’s not settled “out there” is what keeps deeper discussions from happening within these communities. The problem is that women have had their nosed rubbed in the fact that they’re not considered to have bodily autonomy by people within these communities for the last several years.
We’re still having arguments over whether women’s bodies are communal property to be commented upon and sometimes even touched by whomever, whenever. We’re still arguing over whether women even get to name what happens to their bodies–or whether they’re capable of being or likely to be rational and honest while doing so. Give yourself a moment to let that sink in.
We’re doing this incredibly publicly. We’ve been doing it for more than three years. The debate goes on, in no small part, because there continues to be very little consequence to those who argue against women’s bodily autonomy and rationality and a great deal of resistance to the idea that those who do so repeatedly and using poor premises are unethical.
You can’t “move beyond” that fight in a community where the fight still rages. Without a general agreement that women are fully entitled to bodily autonomy, without that being a settled question, every other concern becomes an attack on that autonomy. It is both a distraction from a fight still needing to be fought for a basic right and–no matter how sincere the person who brings up the argument, no matter how much they agree that women have that right–a weapon that will get picked up and used by the opposition in that ongoing fight.
Does that mean you can’t ever bring up those other ethical concerns? No, but it does limit the circumstances in which you can do so productively are severely limited. I have quibbles with how some statements have been laid out, but I’m not going to air them in a discussion of Hemant’s terrible post. I’m not distracted that easily. I’m not three.
Basically, if you want to have those discussions, you have to have them in situations where bodily autonomy for women (preferably everyone) is treated as a settled question. In fact, those kinds of ethical considerations come up reasonably often in feminist spaces and even in conversations among abortion clinic escorts. Contrary to “hive-mind” stereotypes, people who have spent a long time arguing generally about the ethics of abortion think about these issues and talk about them. They just don’t have those conversations with people who don’t clearly respect a right to bodily autonomy.*
If you wanted to host a discussion about other ethical questions around abortion, you could probably do it on your blog, but it would be a lot of work to make it productive. For every issue you raised, you would have to flatly state that the issue did not constitute a good argument to curtail bodily autonomy but was instead an argument to do XYZ.
Additionally, if “do XYZ” amounted to “consider this factor when making the decision to have an abortion” you’d have to either provide evidence that people contemplating abortion don’t make that ethical consideration now or flatly state that you assume they do but that people who haven’t had to contemplate abortion may not have taken it into account. Abortion debate is nothing if not full of “You don’t agree with me; therefore, you have not thought about this.”
Essentially, if you want to write or debate on ethical topics in abortion other than bodily autonomy, you have to carefully locate your thoughts in relation to the ongoing debate on that topic. Or solve it. I’d be fine with that too.
What I am not fine with is people holding a discussion of issues surrounding my rights without paying me and them the respect to have the very best, most productive discussion possible–which does not include uncritical presentation of pseudoscience, ignorance of the ramifications of their positions, emotional slight of hand, or pretending that there aren’t people with basic rights surrounding the embryos and fetuses in question. If you try to have that conversation about my rights in that unacceptable fashion, I will absolutely tell you that we are not having that debate.
Beyond that, I will do my damnedest to strip you of every shred of legitimacy you claim in your attempt to host your shoddy “debate”. Not only will I be supported by others in that attempt, but I will be correct in doing so. You don’t get to hold others’ rights in your hands until you’ve demonstrated you’re mature enough to handle them. And the atheist movement has done anything but prove it’s that mature.
We–this movement–are not having this debate. Go clean house and put real demands on people to grow up and treat women like they have and deserve bodily autonomy, and then we’ll talk, assuming you still see a reason we need to.
While I’m talking about the completely predictable knock-on effects of an atheist movement that’s been hitting many of its prominent female activists for years, it’s time to talk about Dave Silverman’s comments about abortion at CPAC. I support Dave’s decision to represent conservative nontheists to theocratic conservatives. I support his decision to do so at CPAC as part of American Atheists strategy to turn conflict into media attention, and don’t assume he expected to find “his people” there. I think “fiscal conservatism” is short-sighted in someone who wants to see atheism grow, given that the top countries for atheism are mostly socialist democracies, but whatever. We all contain contradictions. I even agree with Jason’s analysis that Dave’s abortion message was mangled and not representative of his views.
Where Dave loses me, instantly and wholly, is when he starts lecturing others about giving him the benefit of the doubt and coming to him for clarification before reacting to his comments. He’s done it in a couple of places. I’m doing him a favor by not linking them.
Here’s the thing. When Dave Silverman claims that he is owed that kind of deference, his claims don’t match reality. Is Silverman personally pro-choice? I’m willing to believe he is if he says so, but there’s nothing about his history to tell me that he’s willing to take a stand on the issue if it gets n the way of his other goals. If you look for “abortion” or even “contraception” on the American Atheists site, you’ll find the Secular Coalition’s Model Secular Policy Guide, which is good on abortion, but you won’t find any attempt to uphold that particular section of the policy.
If it appeared that Dave was willing to embrace a cross on public land in order to grow American Atheists, I might justifiably be ridiculed for believing that, but it’s not unreasonable to think he might put abortion on the table. Wrong, perhaps, but not unreasonable.
In the broader context of the attacks on women’s bodily autonomy rights in the atheist movement, it is also not unreasonable to be uncertain where Dave will take his stand. Yes, American Atheists was an enthusiastic early adopter of anti-harassment policies. Yes, Dave wrote a piece for Surly Amy’s series on taking a stand against harassment. Yes, he yelled at Justin Vacula in public.
However, at the same time, his walk hasn’t always fully followed his talk. Dave has insisted that his tent needs to be big enough for even those people who work against anti-harassment policies. He’s promoted the Twitter feed of an “Elevatorgate” blogger. His behavior has not been as “zero tolerance” as his rhetoric.
Again, we all contain contradictions. We don’t always live up to our own expectations of ourselves, much less the expectations that we set for others. Dave is hardly alone in that.
However, the fact that none of us is perfect means that none of us is beyond reproach. None of us gets to demand that the people injured by our actions come to us hat in hand for explanations and clarifications before getting angry about those injuries. Not even the president of American Atheists gets to say, “How dare you yell at me not to hit you?!” Dave would do well to remember that.
For that matter, everyone over the age of three would do well to remember that. If you can’t, don’t be surprised if we sweep in and take away your toys until all you’re left with are the child-safe ones. This last week has ignited an acute, incandescent rage that I haven’t seen before in the atheist movement.
We–this movement–are not having this debate either. If you try to have this debate on top of the last few years, you will not have the same movement left when you’re done.
The last three years have changed the landscape of the atheist movement, and it hasn’t gone well for the people who have tried to keep women from speaking up for their rights. Those women certainly haven’t had it easy, but we now have anti-harassment policies in most places. We have more activities that appeal to and are available to women. We have more women speakers and leaders. We have Women in Secularism. We have Secular Woman. We have women networked and supporting each other behind the scenes in ways you can’t see until they erupt into action. We also have a bunch of men who have educated themselves on what supporting women’s rights actually means.
Much of that has happened out of anger. It’s happened at and after pivotal, explosive moments of collective rage. This could be another one of those moments. I can’t tell you what may come out of it, but I can tell you that I’ll watch for opportunities to make it a productive rage, because that energy has been and should be useful.
You’re not going to get to hit us again. If you try, damned right we’ll yell. Now, go prove to us that you’re not three years old anymore.
*I saw yet one more of these discussions in an explicitly feminist space today. It was thoughtful. It was calm. Someone changed their opinion during it. No one questioned whether women should have the power to make their own medical decisions. Funny, that.