Greta Christina and Lowering the Bar

I have been catching up on my reading while ill and one of the pieces I came across was Greta Christina’s piece on Women in Secularism, Affirmative Action and “Lowering the Bar”.

I honestly have no opinions onf the WIS conference in particular Lindsey’s speech. I didn’t hear it. It’s a speech by someone far far away. You may as well have tried to explain Martian Political Systems for all I care about it, but I hear that it was a lame speech and things were said that weren’t acceptable to many.

However what I wanted to speak about was Affirmative Action ™ which is the personal battle cry of the casual racist and the notion of lowering the bar.

It’s no secret that there are a sizeable proportion of people who consider the Atheist Community to be dominated by “Old, White Men” and that the majority of online atheism will eventually become old white men. It’s no secret that there exist a sizeable number of individuals who are part of our movement who don’t consider this to be a problem.

So you end up with bizarre occurrences. For example? Earlier this year I had slymepitters (And it was them, a similar post went up on the forum) mocking my lack of an invite to TAM 2013. I had to point out that I have NEVER been to any atheist meeting. No one really wants me to stand up on stage and talk. I have never done it (for atheism or skeptic topics. I get on stage a lot for medical stuff… FYI my last presentation on DUBSTEP or Dysfunctional Uterine Bleeding – System, Treatment, Aetiology and Prescription was a resounding success and the toast of the academic calendar. Mainly because I was ill and rasped my way through sounding like Macy Gray had taken up gargling ground glass. But to date have never been invited to speak. Mainly because I live in fucking India and it’s fucking miles away from the mainland USA where most such meetings occur and am not “famous” enough for people to toss in an honourariam to get me to show up.

In fact at TAM in my casual perusal of guest lists, there has been not one speaaker who was “Indian”. In fact 2013 has Sanal  Edamaruku and he is the first one I could find.

South Asians (because Indian as an ethnicity would refer to the old “Indian” moniker which includes Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh and Non-Native Indians which is just confusing. Let’s call them South Asians) are one of the less represented groups in Atheism and Skepticism not because “the man is keeping us down”, but because no one really thought to invite us.

Well there are two reasons. Most people don’t know about us and many people don’t “listen”. People aren’t maliciously not inviting asians they are just “forgetting to do so” or they don’t know anyone to invite.

Which is why we have affirmative action. Nay you say! Affirmative action is reverse racism! It takes away positions normally held by white guys!

It does and doesn’t. It does take away positions that NORMALLY would have been held by “Traditionally” white men. Except if we took a demographic look at how the  world is we would notice that the space occupied by these unfortunate white guys would normally “in an ideal non-discriminatory world”, be held by other groups of people. During the 60s and 70s there were major drives for women to join Medicine which is beginning to cause the majority of seats to be held by women. In fact some places are thinking of affirmative action to encourage more men because the culture of many groups of people encourage a dearth of education in boys resulting in a reduced application pool to medicine.

Affirmative action seeks to give people a chance to make it through a system and normalise the viewpoint. Let’s take a simple example. Nursing. I don’t know of any more female dominated profession. So lets say we want men to go through the system. So we set aside a few spaces for them. We encourage men to go through.

Now these men have to put up with a culture that denigrates and mocks them. Many of the first male nurses wrote and spoke about incredible sexism (Ironically they found great solidarity with doctors who were more egalitarian as a community) targetted at them. Which is why I don’t think sexism is a purview of men but bound to any system dominated by one gender. Many people still think I cannot “babysit”. That looking after a child for a short period is beyond my capacity as a man. A 15 year old girl would be a “better” choice. No one ever parses the fact that as babysitters go a medically trained one is the best.

Now these men who were “pushed” through the system form a anchorage. They can now fight for better treatment and fight for better recognition and be visible encouraging more and more men to consider nursing as a career. In fact at this point modern nursing is very encouraging to men joining up and tries to be as gender neutral as possible. Sure there are the old guard who don’t think the Y Chromosome is fit for anything but hammers and nails when it comes to medicine (yes that is a surgical hammer…) but they are dying out. Like actually dying. The future is that foothold of men. More and more men are joining nursing. One day we will have the same demographics as medicine where nurses are hired on skill rather than gender. But for now we have made progress.

So why did I use the example of Nursing? Simple. I was thinking of the men. If MRA truly cared about men’s rights they would be encouraging more of their number to go into the field rather than denigrating these men as betas.

But Avi! Won’t they have hired reluctant men who aren’t very good at their jobs to replace these excellent women? How are we to know if men can be nurses? Won’t we have to change the uniforms? Surely men cannot do the job! How ever will they cope with all the innuendo?

We aren’t shaving apes and shoving them into a nurse’s outfit.

In general the first groups of people hired or brought in to “diversify” are usually overly qualified and driven. The first children who went into “White Only Schools” in the USA were trained to ignore harassment by their white teachers.

They are pulling her hair and blowing smoke onto her face to “train” her to be one of the first black kids in a white school.

These children may not have excelled but the assumption that they replaced “only” geniuses who would have gone on to solve world hunger is idiotic.

The first people who break the boundaries and who are “affirmative action”/diversity hires tend to be excellent. Because you don’t bring in the worst if you want diversity. You bring in the absolute best of the group you want to represent because you want to ENCOURAGE more of them to stand up and be a part of the community.

And it’s the same with atheism and skepticism. The non-white/male/straight speakers that are going to get invited to these events are not going be slouches. And even if we do get “white men” we should bring in new blood. For god’s sake there are atheists out there who still quote Hitchens like he was a fucking Bible Character. We need to replace our horsemen and we need to create a diverse movement so that we don’t have situations where atheists from other parts of the world are deeply unhappy about something and are simply ignored because it doesn’t affect the vocal majority.

We understand that principle in sport. We call it investment in youth. We often let inferior players play not because they are good now but because if we give them experience, one day they will shake the foundations of the sport. We can accept that principle in a bloody game then why won’t we do it in our community?

Do you think Sanal Edamaruku is replacing a talented white person? Maybe. Do you think he isn’t good enough to hack the skeptical movement when he was a “miracle buster” in a country where religion is so ingrained into public life and education is so rigmarole based that most people aren’t taught the skills to be skeptical about dubious claims?

No. Sanal despite being a trailblazer is NOT an inferior choice. He is just a new choice with a new background who has had to fight different battles and is now telling a new audience about that.

It’s not lowering the bar. It’s letting someone new have a go. If you insist on the big draw names that’s fine. But don’t populate your movement with just those. Invest in a new generation of “big draws”. Invest in a wider variety of big draws.


  1. hjhornbeck says

    I’m a bit shocked anyone could think Edamaruku was just a diversity hire. Hasn’t the man been debunking gurus and their miracles for three decades? Hadn’t he become a minor celebrity in India, the go-to skeptic when reporters wanted to cover that angle? Heck, his years of miracle busting have probably turned into a half-decent magician. He’s better at talking about and representing skepticism than almost every other presenter at TAM.

    Oh no, sorry, I forgot: his area of expertese is religion. That’s a strike against him in the skeptical community.

  2. CaitieCat says

    Even from a simple statistics standpoint, I don’t see how not widening the pool of applicants can possibly lower the bar. Surely any fool can reason through that a larger pool of applicants for the same pool of positions can only result in a higher standard among accepted applicants?

    Say that 10% of people could be really excellent at $ACTIVITY_X, and that 20% would be good, 30% more average, and the rest awful.

    If our pool is only 100 qualified white men for the 100 spots, then we get 10 excellent, 20 good, 30 average, and 40 awful.

    If our pool is 100 (qualified all the way through the list) white men & 100 white women & 100 Black men & 100 Black women and 100 Asian men and 100 Asian women and 100 Latinos and 100 Latinas, then we get 80 excellent, 160 good, 240 average, and 320 awful.

    Assuming we still have the same 100 spots, instead of 10/20/30/40, our breakdown is now 80 excellent, and 20 good. How the fuck that can result in a lowered bar is beyond me. It requires the hidden premise that “white men are best at everything and deserve first shot”. It’s nonsense, bad reasoning.

    My hypothesis says that humans have equal potential to do a given activity. The only differences we should see, in a just world, would be among better and worse subjects for a given activity. If we’re seeing that instead, we’re getting huge numbers of only one demographic in what should be a desirable track, then logically we will end up with a better pool of applicants and graduates if we start with a wider base. Arguing against it is to insist on a form of unevidenced supremacy by the favoured group, and should be rejected on that basis.

  3. smrnda says

    When people think of qualified white males losing places to less qualified women and minorities, they’re forgetting how many fairly lazy, unintelligent white males have gotten into positions of power and influence by personal connections. The real reason why a lot of minorities struggle to get into desirable positions isn’t lack of talent but lack of social capital.

    That’s probably even more the case in the atheist scene, where there’s no real performance measure beyond notability.

    It’s also a problem that many educated white guys probably still don’t have much but a very vague notion of what actually goes on in much of the world, just for lack of curiosity beyond stories about how bad it is there.

  4. sezit says

    Those who say that opening the speakership is “lowering the bar” is to me equivalent to learning only western war-focused history as “History”. We cannot understand the complexity of human experience if we eliminate large portions of human experience.


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