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The West and the Rest of Us: Atheism & Sexism 101


By Sikivu Hutchinson

At a youth media literacy conference I organized recently, I was fortunate enough to experience the performance of an extremely gifted youth band whose co-lead singer is an Asian American female guitarist. At one point during the concert she tentatively introduced a song she had written about sexism by saying that it “kind of does still exist today.” I was struck by her qualified intro to the song. She is one of the few young women of color musicians fronting a rock band in a hyper-masculine industry in which rampant sexual harassment, gender-based wage discrimination and racism ensure that women of color are only visible as sex objects, hangers-on and so-called video hos. Nonetheless, she was uneasy about embracing the term sexism.

Women’s reluctance to name their experiences is symptomatic of the insidiousness of post-feminism, which has been normalized and relentlessly propagandized by mainstream media. It fits neatly into the exceptionalist narrative that the U.S. and the West are bastions of equal opportunity and enlightenment. Because people of color and white women have seemingly unlimited access to public space and public institutions the U.S. has evolved far beyond the “dark age” of the pre-civil rights era. Because women and girls now have the “option” to be just as video ho “nasty as they wanna be” the West is the universal standard for gender equity. This kind of totalizing thinking underscores a lack of critical consciousness about how institutional sexism, heterosexism, and racism—as the basis for individual acts of prejudice and discrimination—actually work. It is especially acute when it comes to the selective “West and the rest of us” mentality that some in the New Atheist movement exhibit about sexism, imperialism and women’s rights.

An example of this was recently on display in the Rebecca Watson-Richard Dawkins blogosphere throw down. Watson is the founder of the popular blog Skepchick, and frequently writes about gender politics. As has been widely discussed, Dawkins blasted Watson after she criticized a clueless slobbery male for propositioning her at 4 a.m. when she was alone in an elevator after a conference talk on sexism. Dismissing Watson as a whiny American feminist, Dawkins trotted out the victim Olympics plight of an oppressed Muslim female genital mutilation recipient from central casting. After a firestorm of criticism from feminist bloggers like Jen McCreight, Dawkins attempted to revise his position. Still, the phenomenon of white Westerners trotting out the cultural other as the ultimate barometer of oppression is a standard rite of passage. When powerful Western white men opportunistically evoke the lived experiences of Muslim women as a space of projection for what they deem to be “authentic” sexist oppression, they deflect from their own privilege and entitlement. It’s akin to white elites descending on Africa in search of the most hardcore safari experience. The exoticism and abject primitivism of the Other ultimately confirms the rationalism and universal subject status of “me” and “my” culture. Small wonder then that it is often far easier for a celebrated intellectual of the rationalist first world to see the authoritarian misogyny of Islam than the institutional sexism, heterosexism, and racism that he and other privileged males have benefited from at every step of the way; in the academy, in the publishing world, in the Western media, and in garden variety elevators. Predictably, Dawkins did not say that Middle Eastern and African Muslim women have an abysmally low standard of living because of the imperialist invasions and geopolitical exploitation of “secular” Western powers like Britain and the U.S., or that they are more likely to be dispossessed from their homes due to these incursions or to be sexually assaulted by occupying armies. These realities are far too inconvenient when it comes to parsing the global complexities of institutional sexism in the predominantly Muslim, Western-occupied nations of the Middle East.

This episode is more than just an example of individual prejudice/ignorance. First, it highlights the arrogance of Western paternalism, disguised as liberal humanism. Second, it speaks to the delusion of pretending atheist discourse automatically translates into a liberatory politics. Lacking a social justice compass steeped in the legacies of global liberation struggle (both within and outside the West), atheism or a Eurocentric humanism are a political dead-end for radical freethought communities. As I’ve argued many times before, the New Atheist focus on science and separation of church and state, without insight into the racial and gendered histories of these traditions, is especially bankrupt for people of color. For those unclear about the concept of institutional sexism here are a few guidelines:

I. What Sexism Does:

a. Gives visibility and worth to maleness and “male issues” as the invisible universal norm
b. Devalues the lives of women and normalizes or naturalizes violence against women
c. Constructs all women and girls as objects, property and territory for male control
d. Sexualizes women and girls
e. Dehumanizes women of color
f. Reinforces a hierarchy of men and women based on white supremacy, racism and heterosexism

II. How and Where is Sexism Manifested?
• Social, Political, Cultural, Economic and Religious Institutions
• Everyday Life
• Language

Comments

  1. says

    Yeah, that's foul; apparently men need to be coddled and accommodated so their tender egos won't be hurt by steamrolling "fem-bitches". That's rank bs. Whatever issues these commentators might have with Watson personally, discrediting the claim of institutional sexism is particularly egregious and toady-esque and shows they've drank the post-feminist Koolaide.

  2. says

    Excellent article, Sikivu. We were discussing the Watson-Dawkins incident extensively at our social networking site fir atheist (www.atheistuniverse.net); it generated 194 comments so obviously the subject generates a lot of passion. I'm not surprised about your experience with the young Asian-American rick band female lead singer; it is considered "uncool" in the young generation to complain about sexism; complaining about sexism is not "sexy", it's an admission of may be not being sexual enough for the times?

    Dawkins's huge foot in his mouth is so indicative of what you excellently describe as this bad habit of always explaining what truly constitutes sexism and what doesn't. Hint: it's never them, these highly aware, super-sensitive nice guys (as they see themselves) are well past sexism, in their own eyes, but they are not. Many insist that only non-Westerners are sexist. And many more insist that atheists cannot possibly be sexist! They may just be a bit nerdy or clueless, that's all :-P

    We still have a long ways to go.

  3. says

    The Golden Rule is the tool rational people use to determine the morality of our actions. "How would I feel if that happened to me?" It's a good tool, and serves us well in most cases. We see the problems when other criteria are used instead. Among the poor alternatives are scripture or tradition, etc.

    But the Golden Rule is NOT directly helpful in this case. Because as males, when we ask ourselves "Would I feel offended if someone offered a casual complement of my physical attributes?", the answer is almost always No.

    I'm talking in normal setting, amongst adults. Locked in a violent prison is NOT a normal setting, and would be handled differently. No other similar situations occur to me. But in a normal setting on the street, on the job, on campus…if someone told me 'you got a nice ass', the response of any man wouldn't be anything other than amusement and perhaps feeling a little flattered. When men apply the Golden Rule here, the answer is "I would not be offended if someone treated me this way."

    In fact, it leads us to opposite conclusions. "I would feel amused or flattered if I received this type of comment." And also, "Having offered such a complement, I would not enjoy being chastened — those women are failing to apply the Golden Rule in their response."

    So what is being asked here id for men to ignore the Golden Rule, and instead, take it as given that the behavior is bad, without further evaluation. Rationalists are not good at that.

  4. says

    Good insight; the right not to know, and to have one's selfhood defined by the FREEDOM of not knowing or having to experience these forms of embodiment is a linchpin of masculinity. Sadly women have also internalized the codes of institutional sexism so completely that many don't have any allegiance to the idea that this regime of hyper-embodiment and territorialization should be challenged.

  5. says

    I've also noticed the reluctance with with people will mention sexism, because it's become the norm to pretend that feminism is no longer needed. It seems like the success of equal rights' movements are judged by the lives of the few people who are fortunate enough to live in a community, family, etc. where they feel that they are not discriminated against, while the experiences of those whose families, communities, etc. still discriminate are ignored.

    Part of the reason why Dawkins' comment bothered me was because I'm from a Muslim family living in the US. So, while I get very frustrated by people excusing discrimination against women in Islam (using the "it's their culture" argument and others like it), I'm also bothered by people who use discrimination against women in Islam as a distraction tactic to get away with discrimination against women in other groups.

    I absolutely love science and think separation of church and state are essential. At the same time, I do think that there has to be a more multi-disciplinary approach. (Personally, while being a science major, I also love literature, and I think there's much in stories that can make us rethink our views.) Social justice and civil rights have to be an important part of any movement, and ignoring them means that the benefits of science and secularism will reach only some groups, when really the benefits should reach everyone.

    Thanks for writing.

    -Ani Sharmin

  6. says

    Your comments are right on. The continuous invocation of the experiences of Muslim women as a cover for entrenched institutional sexism and the culture of male entitlement in the West was one of the primary reasons I was motivated to write the article. It further underscores the willful ideological blindness of the mainstream "atheist movement" to intersectionality.

  7. says

    "the New Atheist focus on science and separation of church and state, without insight into the racial and gendered histories of these traditions, is especially bankrupt for people of color."

    I'm not sure if I agree with this point or if you're framing it objectively. Calling the New Atheist priorities "bankrupt" on matters of race is like calling atheism bankrupt on matters of morality. Atheism does not inherently involve the specific issue of morality. Just the same, the New Atheist movement is not about race because it has no intention to do so. I'm not sure if it needs to be criticized for not focusing on subjects it was not designed to address. Nor should it necessarily be framed as "bankrupt". We shouldn't expect a dialog on race from the New Atheist movement.

  8. says

    New Atheism as a global movement has everything to do with racial politics, gender equity and social justice, particularly from a radical humanist perspective steeped in the connection between the social construction of the category of the human and liberation struggle. Organized religion is based on moral hierarchies of race, gender, sexuality, class and nationhood, and not mere dogma about the divine creation of the universe and natural laws. Hence, as a feminist, my atheism is part and parcel of a radical humanist perspective on the universality of human rights and self-determination in rejection of the dualism of Abrahamic religions and other theistic belief systems. My overarching point is that New Atheism will not have global cultural relevance if it is based on an atheist posture that simply substitutes blind reverence for scientific inquiry without insight into the historical and political context of how scientific traditions have been articulated and institutionalized in the West. It will be just as bankrupt for the lived experiences of people of color as a “liberal” religious stance that cherry picks biblical scripture as the basis for an ostensibly universal creed of ethics and morality whilst ignoring how the inherent dualism of Judeo Christian belief prescribes authoritarian systems of power and control based on race, gender, sexuality, class and nationhood. Some white Western atheists believe New Atheism should not be steeped in discourse about institutional power and privilege yet that very stance is actually informed by having the historical power and privilege of being the universal subject of humanity, morality and personhood status. And historically the moral and political status of the universal subject has been secured by both Western rationalism and religion. Sunsara Taylor’s blog about the recent SSA conference (wherein the head of American Atheists egregiously compares the “disenfranchisement” of atheists to that of African Americans) provides a good example of how this dynamic plays out in the so-called movement.
    http://sunsara.blogspot.com/2011/08/my-thoughts-on-secular-student-alliance.html

  9. says

    Probably the most eloquent article on the whole Elevatorgate debacle that I have read so far, and putting it into a global context. Thank you very, very much.

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