[#wiscfi liveblog] The History of Atheism, Feminism, and the Science of Brains

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Now up: Jennifer Michael Hecht, a poet and author of three books about history. She has a PhD in the history of science from Columbia, and teaches at the New School and Columbia.

4:05: The first thing we can do to forward the goals that we have is to show up. To do what you’re doing right now. From The Happiness Myth: “It’s great to come out of the closet, but you also have to leave the house.”

Also, it’s important to remember that we’ve been here for a while. There have been atheists/secularists throughout history, including women. I’ll be focusing on one story, but I had a smorgasbord of women doubters, atheists, secularists to choose from. Even in the bible: Job’s wife says, “Curse god and forget him.”

4:14: Margaret Sanger was an atheist–“no gods no masters” comes from her. But she brought birth control to women in the U.S. Of course, there’s the whole thing with the eugenics…

4:16: Today I want to talk about someone you’ve never heard of. Her name is Clémence Royer. She translated Darwin’s work into French and claimed (unlike Darwin) that it proves atheism. Because she wrote an introduction to the French translation in which she connected Darwin’s ideas to atheism, she had a profound effect on how evolution was perceived in France–as atheist and anti-religion.

It’s not just building on Darwin, though, but also on Paul Broca’s work. Broca basically founded anthropology and neurology and discovered that a lesion on a certain part of the brain–the third left frontal convolution of the brain–you will have trouble speaking, even if your intelligence is perfectly intact. This came to be known as Broca’s area, and the affliction as Broca’s aphasia. The Catholic Church was troubled by this because the belief was that the brain has nothing to do with thought.

4:21: Broca was an atheist, and he and his atheist friends decided to form the Society of Anthropology based on Royer’s interpretation of Darwin. At first it’s men only, and Royer petitions to join and is denied. But she appeals to Broca and he lets her in.

The members later formed another group: the Society of Mutual Autopsy. It was intended to annoy the Catholic Church. For 30 years, as they died, these scientists dissected each other’s brains to try to find more phenomena like Broca’s aphasia. In her last will and testament, Royer states that she wants to donate her body to science. These scientists were lending meaning and ritual to their deaths while also advancing science.

4:26: The 1893 Freethought Convention was dedicated to the rights of women, and Royer was celebrated there. But we’ve forgotten that this is part of the history of secularism.

Royer believed a lot of the things people said at the time, and believed that she’d been born with a man’s brain.

4:29: The idea of science being on our side comes up a lot and people love to talk about who’s brains are like this and whose are like that. Maybe we should ask them why they never study the difference between the brains of tall men and the brains of short men. They have all sorts of social differences, too. But only certain differences are politicized.

Atheism used to be much more respectable. Edison was an open atheist and declared so right on the cover of the NYT. He got some backlash, but he survived. But the Soviet Union was atheist, and so it became treasonous to be an atheist. The 1950s were when god went into our money and into our pledge.

But our most murderous enemy is no longer the atheist Soviet Union, but rather places that are more religious than us.

4:31: Just by showing up, we see each other and see the crowd and encourage each other. Even if you don’t see exactly how you’re helping each other. Learn your empowering history. The knowledge of it may have been lost, but the change in the culture persists. We don’t remember these French anthropologists anymore, but at the beginning of the 20th century France separated church and state for the first time.

4:33: Know some feminist theory, even though it can be dense reading. It teaches us the subtle ways we take advantage of our privileges, such as where we live or our skin color or our money. You have to give away a little bit.

4:38: Audience asks Hecht to spell all the French names. lolz

4:41: Audience question: :What’s the best way to repopularize the atheist-ness of these historical figures?

Hecht: Micro histories tend to include atheists, but the larger, more general accounts leave them out. I have no doubt that there have been more nonbelievers in history than believers.

~~~

Previous talks:

Intro

Faith-based Pseudoscience (Panel)

How Feminism Makes Us Better Skeptics (Amanda Marcotte)

The Mattering Map: Religion, Humanism, and Moral Progress (Rebecca Goldstein)

Women Leaving Religion (Panel)

Gender Equality in the Secular Movement (Panel)

Why the Lost History of Secular Women Matters Today

How Women’s Concerns Can Best Be Advanced within the Context of a Secular Agenda

[#wiscfi liveblog] Why the Lost History of Secular Women Matters Today

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Susan Jacoby is up! She is a journalist and author who’s written a bunch of awesome books, including The Age of American Unreason, which I recently read.

1:50: Susan Jacoby opens with a poem published in 1837 about the trend of women speaking publicly about political causes. Oh, the humanity:

1:53: The reason we’ve been having all this debate about whether or not the government should pay for contraception is because people have forgotten what it was like before women could control their own reproduction. They don’t know the history of women’s struggle, beginning at the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848.

The forgetting of the history of marginalized groups is both a cause and an effect of their marginalization. If you’re marginalized, you may not have the power to have your stories included in schools and what we teach about history.

Every brand of religion is a mechanism for transmitting ideas and values, whether or not you agree with those values. Secular organizations, which have loose and non-hierarchical structures, can’t necessarily transmit their histories so efficiently.

1:57: Most men of the Enlightenment didn’t give much thought to women’s rights; not all Enlightenment thinkers were feminists. But all feminists born in the 19th century were descendants of the Enlightenment.

Women who were agnostics/atheists, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, were largely written out of history after the 19th century by women’s suffrage organizations because they “could not afford” to be “identified with ungodliness.” Stanton was largely unknown until the revival of American secularism in the 1970s, but there was a similar trend then to downplay the influence of secular feminists. But secular feminists, especially secular Jews, played a large role in the new feminist movement.

As a Jew, it’s difficult to support feminism given that Jewish men say a prayer every morning in which they thank god for not having been born a woman. Similarly for Catholic women.

The fact that feminism has become a part of religion to some extent is part of an accommodation by religion to secular values.

The difficulty for feminists to embrace feminism’s connections to secularism is part of the belief that there can be no morality without faith.

2:04: There have been no secular activists who have made women’s rights an issue, except insofar as they are threatened by radical Islam. Telling the truth about radical Islam and women is important, but we need secularists to understand that discrimination and violence against women are hardly confined to the Islamic world.

Robert Ingersoll is the only male secularist who is an exception to this. Ingersoll’s 20th century biographers failed to recognize this, however, perhaps because they were writing before the emergence of second-wave feminists in the 1970s. Ingersoll sided with Stanton in viewing religion as the main cause of women’s oppression and, along with Stanton, disagreed that giving women the vote would be enough. In this sense he resembled second-wave feminists as opposed to his contemporary suffragists.

He also understood that compulsory childbirth was used both by the Church and by individual men to stymy women’s goals. “Science must make woman the owner and mistress of herself.” Women would always be oppressed as long as they had to “rely on the self-control of men” to prevent pregnancy. He criticized the idea that fear is superior to knowledge and that virtue stems from ignorance (or slavery).

Think of the comments of Rush Limbaugh regarding Sandra Fluke, who he claimed wanted the government to “pay” for her to have sex.

2:10: Ingersoll noted that women were more religious than men. But unlike religious leaders, he attributed this not to women’s superior virtue but to the fact that they were so uneducated compared to men.

I’m not suggesting that secular women need a man such as Ingersoll to speak for them. Rather, that the secular movement needs more people, men and women, who have a passion for what was once considered exclusively “women’s issues.” Just issuing press releases is not enough. This is the case for all social causes that have relevance to secularism, even if that relevance is not immediately obvious.

2:12: The reason demographics show fewer female than male atheists is because atheism is a social pejorative, and women may be more sensitive to this than men. Some women worry that being out atheists will affect how their children are treated.

But we need more women involved. That’s why it’s important to recognize this historical connection between feminism and secularism.

2:16: McCollum v. Board of Education is a case that many people sadly don’t know about because it’s not taught in schools. But the case concerned whether or not schools can set aside time for religious instruction. The case was brought by Vashti McCollum, a mother whose son was being ostracized for skipping the religious classes. The family’s cat got lynched. It’s understandable that women would worry about speaking out about atheism.

2:21: Audience question: Can you tell us more about Helen Gardner?

Jacoby: She’s another one of those lost women secularists. She wrote Men, Women, and Gods, which sided with Stanton and Ingersoll in calling out religion for its role against women’s rights.

Audience question: Where are some good starting points to learn about women in secularism?

Jacoby: Look up the writing of women like Gardner and Stanton. Don’t go to the New Yorker article about Shulamith Firestone, though. That article took a disturbed person who did write some important things and used her to represent all feminists of the 1960s and 70s. It serves the purpose of people who oppose feminism and secularism to present portraits of feminists as unhappy, bitter women.

2:26: Audience question: Frederick Douglass was also a secularist and a feminist, but that’s never recognized. Is this due to racism?

Jacoby: Maybe. But how much of a feminist was he really? He did support women’s right to vote, but he didn’t speak out much about women’s issues. But he definitely had a lot else on his plate [audience laughs], so we can give him a pass for not being more vocal about women.

Audience question: What about Susan B. Anthony?

Jacoby: She was an agnostic but kept it private. She and Stanton were good friends, but she actually begged Stanton not to publish her book about secularism.

2:29: Audience question: How will history look on those who have stifled the concerns of women in this movement becuase they’re not “as bad” as those in other countries? I assume you are a psychic.

Jacoby: It depends on who writes the history.

Audience question: Can you talk about Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex?

Jacoby: Do I have to? [audience laughs] It’s not a book I ever liked that much because I felt it was dishonest in a way. While it explored the psychological roots of women’s oppressions, she did not draw from her own life and her own relationships, this brilliant women who subordinated her own intellect to that of men. It’s certainly a foundational work, but it doesn’t go far enough.

2:31: Audience question: What about the role of women in anti-war activism? Does military culture support sexism?

Jacoby: What better example do we have of this than sexual assault in the military? The idea of a culture in which superior physical strength is what prevails is certainly not good for women. And yes, I know, somewhere in the past there was Xena Warrior Princess. But in fact we know that warrior cultures have not been good for women. Is it worse in the military than in any government department? Sure it is, because the military is something in which physical abilities is highly valued and war is thought to be a separate state in which ordinary rules do not apply. Nazi Germany, for example–women were to be the child-bearers. Warrior culture is not good for men. It’s not so great for men, either.

2:34: Audience question: Are we going to have to fight this battle every 50 years?

Jacoby: I would hope not. But I was taken aback by how many emails I received from women who didn’t know that as late as the 1960s, a married woman would’ve had great difficulty getting birth control. One might say that that’s a good thing because nothing bad’s going to happen along those lines anymore, but that’s not true. Bad things are happening.

~~~

Previous talks:

Intro

Faith-based Pseudoscience (Panel)

How Feminism Makes Us Better Skeptics (Amanda Marcotte)

The Mattering Map: Religion, Humanism, and Moral Progress (Rebecca Goldstein)

Women Leaving Religion (Panel)

Gender Equality in the Secular Movement (Panel)

[#wiscfi liveblog] Sexism and Religion: Can the Knot Be Untied?

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I’m finally up and watching Katha Pollitt speak! Pollitt is a poet (say that five times fast) and a columnist for The Nation.

10:10: I chose the topic of my talk today because I didn’t know the answer: can religion be disentangled from the misogyny in its texts and its practices. I asked a random selection of people what they thought. My cousin Wendy (an observant Jew) said no. My daughter, a militant atheist since kindergarten, also said no.

The world’s religions are all deeply shaped by patriarchal ideas of a woman’s place. For some, that extends even into the next world. For Mormons, men in the afterlife can have many wives, but a woman can only enter the afterlife if her husband calls her by her “secret name,” which only he knows. Also, she will be perpetually pregnant in the afterlife to produce people to populate her husband’s planet, because he gets a planet after he dies!

In the Islamic afterlife, men also get a bunch of wives. Meanwhile, in Christianity, men and women are supposedly equal before god. But regardless of whether or not that’s true, the society Christianity establishes on earth is not egalitarian at all. (See: St. Paul on women.)

There are no female prophets in the bible, no female founders of a major new faith (except Christian Science), very few female religious leaders with independent power. To find a woman-centered religion, you have to go back to prehistory, and we don’t even know much about those religions. In any case, men are quite capable of worshipping a female god (i.e. Athena) while repressing women.

10:16: What about the bible? It’s full of misogyny, of attempts to control women’s sexuality (evidenced by the obsession with prostitutes).

The atheist in me wants to answer my question with a resounding “no.” The subordination of women has historically been one of the main purposes of religion. It’s the rulebook of patriarchy.

Today, priests and rabbis tend to talk in terms of complementarianism: men and women are equal; they’re just different!

Up until 100 years ago, there was none of this separate-but-equal stuff. Women’s sexuality was considered dangerous and potentially polluting. Today, though, you’d have a hard time finding a rabbi who’d say that the reasoning behind the menstrual taboo in Judaism is just that menstruation is disgusting. Instead, they say that the ritual bath “honors” women and is empowering and whatnot.

10:19: Orthodox Jews claim that men refusing to shake women’s hands has nothing to do with women being taboo; it’s just about “modesty” and “respect.” “We just think the sexes shouldn’t be so quick to touch each other.” They’re reframed it as no longer about a specific resistance to women, but a general thing.

When American Muslim women talk about why they wear the hijab, they invoke it as a simple of religious identity, not as something to keep men from being lustful. Some Muslim women choose to start wearing it even though their mothers didn’t. After 9/11, some well-meaning liberals suggested that non-Muslim women wear the hijab in solidarity with Muslim women who were being harassed. My suggestion was, maybe men should wear the headscarf. That did not go over well.

10:23: You can historicize away and reinterpret away anything that doesn’t fit modern liberal values. Some Muslim feminists argue that everything objectionable in the Koran is applicable only to Mohammed’s time, and everything good in it is inherently true.

“I don’t know what the difference between a skeptic and an atheist is…” [audience groans] The question is, why did god put his word in such a way that, up until the day before yesterday, it was understood for certain that it meant a certain thing, but now we claim that it was all misinterpreted? In terms of literary criticism, this is interesting, but people actually try to dictate their lives and social policy by their holy books.

God could’ve given the Ten Commandment to Miriam and said, “Thou must have equality between men and women.” But he didn’t. He spent four of the commandments demanding that he be worshipped. Somehow, he sounded exactly like the patriarchal society in which he was made up. But “God didn’t have to write like an old, cranky Jewish patriarch.”

So feminist theologians have their work cut out for them.

10:28: People today are hungry for a Christianity that is woman-positive and sex-positive. That’s why The Da Vinci Code, a terrible book, was such a huge success. We like the idea that the church was originally an egalitarian place and that this history was erased by sexists. This requires a lot of historical revisionism.

For instance, Mary and Miriam were fairly marginal figures in the bible, but some try to elevate them to mean more than they actually did.

10:30: Christianity still has its obsession with virginity and hostility to sex. This probably originally made it stand out as a religion. But you can’t derive our contemporary sex-positive gay-friendly culture from the New Testament. But some theologians try to do it anyway.

Atheists get mad when it looks like the goalposts are constantly moving. Now you say there’s nothing wrong with women wearing pants. That’s not what you were saying when you were burning Joan of Arc at the stake.

But in reality the goalposts have always been moving. When Europe was ruled by kings and queens, the Church underwrote monarchy and Jesus was described as the “king of kings.”

Religion changes when society changes. Well, maybe 50 years after society changes.

That process only looks dishonest if you think religion is a set of fixed rules and decisions. That’s how many of us atheists tend to see it. But you can also see it sociologically: it’s not really about the proper analysis of texts, it’s a social practice that reflects the society in which it is practiced. As society changes, people sift through the grab-bag of religion and pick out the bits that make sense.

Religions themselves don’t put it like that. They have to make it seem like there’s a direct line going back to the beginning, because that’s where their authority comes from.

This constant rewriting of history while never admitting what’s happening is how religions claim moral weight and power.

Some people believe that Judaism is inherently socialist, that Jesus was a pacifist, that Mohammed was a feminist, and that we need to get back to this original vision. But others believe that the “original vision” is that it’s okay to cut thieves’ hands off.

The bible used to be cited as a justification for slavery and Southern Baptism was invented to justify it. But nobody nowadays claims that the bible justifies slavery and we should really get back to that. Witchcraft was always condemned with the bible, but Pagans believe that witches are actually considered good in the bible. In any case, most people in the West don’t believe in witches, so nobody really cares.

10:36: The modernization theory would predict that, as human society progresses, people abandon religion or it becomes a shadow of itself. But reactionary religious movements are gaining strength while resisting modern roles for women. We see this in many faiths around the world. Does this prove the modernization theory wrong? Does it prove that the knot cannot be untied?

I’m still fond of the modernization theory. I see reactionary movements as a testament to the lack of modernity.

Fundamentalism is a vehicle for patriarchy, but that doesn’t mean that if people dump religion they will become feminists. The French revolution was made by men of the Enlightenment who were hostile than religion, but it did nothing for women’s rights. In fact, they were slightly worse-off legally. Ditto for the Soviet Union and Communist China. When the Soviets wanted to increase the birth rate, abortion was outlawed.

You can be good without god, and you can be sexist without god. We’ve seen plenty of secular justifications for inequality–evolutionary psychology, for instance.

10:40: When we do have gender equality, religion will be reinterpreted to support it. The bible will be said to have always supported feminism.

10:43: Religion is comforting to some women because it gives them a measure of power. For instance, a wife has to be her husband’s helpmeet, but in return the husband has to come home at a reasonable time at night.

The knot between sexism and religion will be untied when feminism becomes the norm, but religion will get all the credit.

~~~

Previous talks:

Intro

Faith-based Pseudoscience (Panel)

How Feminism Makes Us Better Skeptics (Amanda Marcotte)

The Mattering Map: Religion, Humanism, and Moral Progress (Rebecca Goldstein)

Women Leaving Religion (Panel)

[#wiscfi liveblog] The Mattering Map: Religion, Humanism, and Moral Progress

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I’m liveblogging Rebecca Goldstein’s talk, “The Mattering Map: Religion, Humanism, and Moral Progress.” Goldstein is a novelist and professor of philosophy at Barnard College. Follow along!

4:18: “Amanda just said in her wonderful talk that she wasn’t going to bore you with philosophy. That’s my job.”

I agonized over this talk. Should I publicly address the gender issue for the first time? [Audience: yes!!!]

4:21: Criticism of literary criticism can be used to unearth biases. For instance, that it’s okay for women to write certain kinds of books that are mostly read by other women, but those books are then dismissed as being “for women.” Subconscious gender biases undermine women and make them unwilling to enter the fray–though that doesn’t seem to be an issue at this conference.

In preparation for this talk, I polled some very prominent women and asked them if they ever feel that their gender undermines them professionally. Virtually all of them reported saying something in a discussion or meaning and being completely ignored–until the comment is picked up and reported by a man. Then, suddenly everyone jerks to attention.

Obviously it’s true that compared to more violent manifestations of misogyny, being ignored/interrupted/talked over is easy to dismiss because it’s an experience of privileged women. We privileged women can feel petty and ashamed voicing complaints about these things.

Psychologists call these experiences “microaggressions,” and they cite evidence that for women (and other marginalized groups), these small attacks take a greater toll than the more outright expressions of misogyny.

Derald Wing Sue, a researcher on microaggressions, says that it’s easier for marginalized people to deal with the more outright expressions of bigotry because there’s no guesswork involved. You can easily dismiss them as bigotry.

4:26: As secularists with strong scientific orientations, we’ve concentrated almost exclusively on the way religions exploit the “will to believe.” We’ve used science to argue against this. And that’s important, but we’ve largely ignored another issue: the “will to matter.”

I first thought of this idea through one of my fictional characters. I was invested in being “rigorous” and these ideas seemed to lack rigor. My editor said, “I don’t really understand Renee [the character].” Renee, like me, was a rigorous philosopher. She started coming up with these ideas about “mattering.” We’re invested in “mattering” and will give up our lives to causes for the sake of “mattering.”

Her other idea was “the Mattering Map.” A person’s location on the Mattering Map is determined by what matters to them and their perception of people–who the somebodies and nobodies are, who the heroes are, who should never have been born. We differ on who we think the heroes are because we differ on what matters. If what matters is intelligence, then the heroes are the geniuses. (In fact, Renee, the character, married a genius and regretted it.)

4:31: The idea of the mattering map has become a working theoretical concept in certain areas of psychology. The idea of my fictional character has been incorporated into actual theoretical work! I Googled it and got tens of thousands of hits, more than I got for me. [audience laughs]

It was even written about in the Harvard Business Review: an article called “How Mattering Maps Affect Behavior.” The article even quotes Renee herself.

4:35: What is it that keeps intellectually sophisticated people clinging to propositions about the world so improbable that they can be described–if you’ll allow me to use the technical terminology of epistemology–as crazy-ass shit?

These beliefs extend at least 30,000 years to Cro Magnon man, whose cave paintings are interpreted as expressions of spiritual beliefs. But the religions that still resonate with people were all originally forged during the period called “the Axial Age“–between 800 and 200 BCE. At the same time, secular philosophy and tragic drama emerged in ancient Greece. This period is called “the axial age” because these traditions still extend into our own age, including among the secularists who are the inheritors of Greek tradition.

What they have in common is a preoccupation with the issue of mattering.

Some lives achieve mattering and others don’t. Perhaps there’s something a person can do that will make the difference when it comes to his or her mattering. The question is, what is the human life that matters?

The belief that you might mess up and have a life that doesn’t matter, that you might as well have not even had, erupted during the Axial Age.

4:38: Why did this preoccupation emerge in this age? One possibility is that it was spurred by the emergence of cities, and the greater anonymity and choices that they provided. Markets and money, which provide an impersonal measure of wealth, could also have provoked this development.

The ancient Greeks had religious rituals to ward off evil, but when it came to the issue of what makes a human life matter, the Greeks did not really use religion. They used human terms. This is what allowed philosophy to develop in ancient Greece.

The belief is that life must be extraordinary in order to matter; ordinary lives are not worth living. It’s not immortal attention you need to attract, but that of other mortals.

In The Apology, Plato has Socrates compare himself to Achilles, who chose a short extraordinary life over a long ordinary life. Of course, Socrates was already 70 years old…so it was too late to have a short extraordinary life. But still, this shows that Socrates/Plato bought into this general Greek idea of the “ethos of the extraordinary.”

4:45: On the other side of the Mediterranean, the Hebrews were grappling with the same issue. They approached the problem of mattering in divine terms, not human terms.

But only one of these approaches has been self-correcting, and that is secular moral reason, initiated by the Greeks.

Back to microaggressions. What do they do? They undermine a person’s sense that they matter. And they’re even worse when they come from someone who matters to you, who can’t be dismissed as the ranting bigots and slobbering misogynists.

4:50: Without sensitivity to the will to matter and how it gave rise to religion in the first place, we fail to understand the secular ethical progress to which we are the heirs, and upon which we wage an assault, macro or micro, every time we undermine a person’s sense that he or she matters.

4:54: Audience question: What about the tendency to matter by notoriety rather than popularity? When people like negative attention, is that because they feel like mattering by something positive isn’t an option?

Goldstein: The various ways that people want to matter are interesting. The Greeks had a concept of celebrity too (having poets fawn over you). Maybe when you’re a secularist and you think that this life is all you have, the attention of many people becomes all the more important. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to lead to a satisfactory life, though, and that’s an empirical question. That’s something for the psychologists to figure out.

4:56: Audience question: How do you justify the claim that we secularists are the heirs to the Greeks when there’s such a strong aversion to philosophy and the liberal arts in the atheist movement?

Goldstein: I think there should be a correction to that. A lot of times when we make points in the atheist movement, we’re relying on philosophy whether we know it or not. The idea that science is the best way of knowing is an epistemological claim. People are always wondering into philosophy without realizing it, and I think philosophers should be given some credit.

4:58: Audience question: Can you comment on traditional gender roles in terms of mattering?

Goldstein: One can become convinced of these things because they’re so rigidly imposed. They’re often just handed down to us–men/women, slaves/owners, adults/children. The empirical question is, do they work? Do they make people feel as though they really matter? Is it conducive to the greatest good of the greatest number of people? But throughout history, these roles break down. The suggestion is that they don’t work. It took so long to realize that slavery is wrong, that racism is wrong, that sexism is wrong, but after that you never go back. People never start owning slaves again. They never become racist again. It’s progress. It’s just as much progress as scientific progress, and the two are linked together.

5:01: Audience question: Can you bring your ideas on mattering and your ability to develop complex characters to understand the psychology of the reviled misogynist?

Goldstein: I feel like I do understand reviled misogynist. I’ve had quite a few in my books. I’ve never created a character that I don’t in some sense sympathize with, understand what’s motivating them. I think the explanations for misogyny are fairly well-understood. How wonderful it must be to be born and think that everything is coming to you, and that even if you don’t matter very much, you can be sure that there are people who matter less than you. That’s why, again, social justice is the answer to all of these questions. One has to make all people feel like they matter and don’t need to put down some group to feel like they matter.

~~~

Previous talks:

Intro

Faith-based Pseudoscience (Panel)

How Feminism Makes Us Better Skeptics (Amanda Marcotte)

Viewing History Skeptically, Part 2: Beauty

Joan Jacobs Brumberg's "The Body Project"One of the first things one learns in a college-level history or sociology course is that the ways we define and think about various human attributes and qualities—sexual orientation, mental illness, gender, race, virginity—are never static. They vary geographically and temporally, and even though it may seem that the way we currently conceptualize a particular aspect of human experience is the “right” one, the one that’s accurate and supported by the research evidence, that’s pretty much what people always think.

This is what I discussed in a previous post, where I promised to write some followups about specific examples of this sort of thing. So here we go!

Beauty is a good example of shifting cultural attitudes—not only in the sense that beauty standards have changed over the decades, but also in terms of what meaning and significance we attribute to beauty as a quality. In her book The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls, Joan Jacobs Brumberg discusses these shifting meanings. Brumberg notes in her chapter on skincare that in the 19th century, acne and other facial blemishes were considered a sign of moral or spiritual impurity. In fact, many people believed that people got blemishes as a result of masturbating, having “promiscuous” sex, or simply having “impure” thoughts. She writes, “In the nineteenth century, young women were commonly taught that the face was a ‘window on the soul’ and that facial blemishes indicated a life that was out of balance.”

By the mid-20th century, however, Americans had already started to think of beauty very differently. Brumberg writes of perceptions of acne in the postwar period:

Although acne did not kill, it could ruin a young person’s life. By undermining self-confidence and creating extreme psychological distress, acne could generate a breakdown in social functioning. Acne was considered dangerous because it could foster an “inferiority complex,” an idea that began to achieve wide popularity among educated Americans.

Facial blemishes were no longer considered a sign of inner weakness or impurity; they were a potentially dangerous blow to a young person’s self-esteem. They were something to be dealt with swiftly, before they could cause any serious damage:

In magazines popular with the educated middle class, parents were urged to monitor teenagers’ complexions and to take a teenager to a dermatologist as soon as any eruptions appeared: “Even the mildest attack is best dealt with under the guidance of an understanding medical counselor.” Those parents who took a more acquiescent view were guilty of neglect: “Ignoring acne or depending upon its being outgrown is foolish, almost wicked.”

Whereas worrying about one’s appearance and trying to correct it was once viewed as improper for young women, it was now considered acceptable and even productive. Even state health departments issues pamphlets urging young people to make sure that they are “as attractive as nature intended you to be.” It was understood that beauty was an important and necessary quality to have, not only because it opened doors for people but because it was just another aspect of health and wellbeing.

Today, our views on beauty seem much more rife with contradictions. Obviously beauty is still important. Women (and, to a lesser but growing extent, men) are still encouraged and expected to spend money, time, and energy on improving their appearance. We know from research that the halo effect exists, and that lends a certain practicality to what was once viewed as a frivolous pursuit—trying to be beautiful.

At the same time, though, we insist that beauty “doesn’t matter,” that “it’s what’s on the inside that counts.” It’s difficult for me to imagine a modern middle-class parent immediately rushing their child to the dermatologist at the first sign of pimples; it seems that they would be more likely to encourage the child to remember that “beauty is only skin deep” and that one’s “real friends” would never make fun of them for their acne. (Of course, I grew up with no-nonsense immigrant parents who rejected most forms of conformity, so maybe my experience was different.) Nowadays, costly medical interventions to improve teenagers’ looks are more associated with the upper class than the middle class, and we tend to poke fun (or shudder in disgust) at parents who take their children to get plastic surgery and put them on expensive weight loss programs.

It appears that our culture has outwardly rejected—or is in the process of trying to reject, amid much cognitive dissonance—the idea that beauty is a good way to judge people, that it reveals anything about them other than how they happen to look thanks to genetics or their environment. No longer do we consider beauty a sign of purity and spiritual wellbeing, as in the Victorian era, or of health and social success, as in the postwar years.

Of course, that’s just outwardly. Although we’re loath to admit it, beauty still matters, and people still judge others by their appearance, and we still subscribe to the notion that anyone can be beautiful if they just try hard enough (which generally involves investing a sufficient amount of money). While people are likely to tell you that beauty is a superficial thing that shouldn’t matter, their actions suggest otherwise.

An interesting contrast to this is Brazil, where plastic surgery, or plástica, is generally covered by the state healthcare system. As anthropologist Alexander Edmonds describes, many in Brazil believe that beauty is a “right” that everyone deserves, not just those who can afford it. One surgeon says:

In the past the public health system only paid for reconstructive surgery. And surgeons thought cosmetic operations were vanity. But plástica has psychological effects, for the poor as well as the rich. We were able to show this and so it was gradually accepted as having a social purpose. We operate on the poor who have the chance to improve their appearance and it’s a necessity not a vanity.

Brazilians, too, have been influenced by Alfred Adler’s concept of the “inferiority complex,” and in this sense the meaning of beauty in that context is similar to that in postwar America, although with a few differences. Like Americans in the 1950s, many Brazilians believe that improving one’s appearance is an important form of healthcare that heightens self-esteem and confidence. It’s not a matter of vanity.

However, unlike Americans, Brazilians (at least the ones profiled in Edmonds’ study) believe that self-esteem is important for the poor as well as for those who are better-off. In the United States people tend to scoff at the idea that people living in poverty need (let alone deserve) entertainment, pleasure, or really anything other than what they need to survive, and in the postwar years the focus on adolescents’ appearance seemed to be confined to the middle and upper class. But in Brazil it’s accepted as a “right”–a right to be beautiful.

Looking at how Americans in the past viewed beauty, as well as how people in other cultures view it, exposes the contradictions in our own thinking about it. Our outward dismissal of beauty as vain and unimportant clashes with our actual behavior, which suggests that beauty is quite important. This tension probably emerged because we have abandoned our earlier justifications for valuing beauty, such as the Victorian view of beauty as a sign of morality and the postwar view of beauty as a vital component of health. Now that we know that beauty has nothing to do with morality and relatively little to do with health, we’re forced to declare that it “doesn’t matter.” But, of course, it does.

 

The Pressing Issue of Sham Gay Marriages

This, sadly, is not an April Fools’ joke. (Gotcha with that last one, though, right??)

Sue Everhart, chairwoman of the Georgia Republican Party, on same-sex marriage:

You may be as straight as an arrow, and you may have a friend that is as straight as an arrow. Say you had a great job with the government where you had this wonderful health plan. I mean, what would prohibit you from saying that you’re gay, and y’all get married and still live as separate, but you get all the benefits? I just see so much abuse in this it’s unreal. I believe a husband and a wife should be a man and a woman, the benefits should be for a man and a woman. There is no way that this is about equality. To me, it’s all about a free ride.

Sometimes people just come so close to the source of the problem but then still manage to veer off into complete idiocy.

Of course there would be same-sex couples who’d get married just for the benefits if same-sex marriage were legal where they live. There are already straight couples who do that. Hasn’t Everhart ever seen The Proposal? (Ignoring the part where they totally unrealistically fall in love, that is, because romcom.) And couldn’t gay men and lesbians just marry each other for the benefits, too?

Perhaps Everhart lives in a fantasy land in which people are only friends with others of the same gender, meaning that legalized same-sex marriage would indeed make it easier for people to shack up just for the benefits. But that’s not really how friendship works, especially since the need for healthcare and green cards goes beyond gender.

The truth that Everhart came so close to but still managed to completely miss is that federal benefits for married couples are fundamentally unfair. Why should having a certain type of relationship entitle you to special prizes? And don’t give me that crap about promoting procreation; we already heard it last week in the Supreme Court arguments. First of all, we give married couples those benefits even when no procreation is reasonably going to happen, and second, if you really believe that what this world most desperately needs are additional humans, I feel sad for you.

Everhart clearly thinks that marrying “for the benefits” is the wrong reason to get married. But what’s the right reason? Because one of you got pregnant and abortion is wrong? Because you need someone to provide for you (or take care of your household)? Because your families want to exchange property? Because you “truly” love each other and not just “as friends,” whatever that means?

Assuming that getting married “for the benefits” is Bad, well, that’s the problem when the government chooses to incentivize certain kinds of human relationships with material benefits, and when health care is only available to those who are given insurance by their employer, who can afford to buy insurance or pay for healthcare out of pocket, or who can marry someone to get on their insurance plan. Why should you only have that “wonderful health plan” of which Everhart speaks if you happen to have the right employer or be married to the right person? None of these things should be tied to marriage. But if they’re going to be, it’s only fair that same-sex couples have access to them, too.

Cultural phenomena like marriage are constantly changing in meaning and purpose. It used to be that most marriages were essentially “for the benefits”–for the husband’s family to get a dowry and carry on their family name, for the wife’s family to get the bride price, for the wife to have financial support, for the husband to have a housewife and a source of sexual gratification, for both families to receive social advantages of some sort, and so on. So, either Everhart should condemn all forms of marriage-for-benefits, or she should acknowledge that it only bothers her when the gays do it.

Conveniently, she basically did just that: “Lord, I’m going to get in trouble over this, but it is not natural for two women or two men to be married. If it was natural, they would have the equipment to have a sexual relationship.”

All I can say to that is that I truly feel sorry for Everhart if she really thinks that P-in-V is the only way to have sex.

Viewing History Skeptically: On Shifting Cultural Assumptions and Attitudes

I’ve been reading Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, Lillian Faderman’s sweeping social history of lesbians in 20th century America (this is the sort of thing I do for fun). At the beginning of the chapter on World War II, Faderman makes this insight:

If there is one major point to be made in a social history such as this one, it is that perceptions of emotional or social desires, formations of sexual categories, and attitudes concerning “mental health” are constantly shifting–not through the discovery of objectively conceived truths, as we generally assume, but rather through social forces that have little to do with the essentiality of emotions or sex or mental health. Affectional preferences, ambitions, and even sexual experiences that that are within the realm of the socially acceptable during one era may be considered sick or dangerous or antisocial during another–and in a brief space of time attitudes may shift once again, and yet again.

This is probably the single most important thing I’ve learned through studying history and sociology in college. For many reasons that I’ll get into in a moment, many people assume that the cultural attitudes and categories they’re familiar with are that way “for a reason”: that is, a reason that can be logically explicated. This requires a certain amount of reverse engineering–we note our attitudes and then find reasons to justify them, not the other way around. We don’t want gay couples raising kids because that’s bad for the kids. We don’t want women getting abortions because fetuses are human beings. We don’t want women to breastfeed in public because it’s inappropriate to reveal one’s breasts. We don’t want women to be in sexual/romantic relationships with other women because that’s unhealthy and wrong. That last idea is the one Faderman addresses in the next paragraph (emphasis mine):

The period of World War II and the years immediately after illustrate such astonishingly rapid shifts. Lesbians were, as has just been seen [in the previous chapter], considered monstrosities in the 1930s–an era when America needed fewer workers and more women who would seek contentment making individual men happy, so that social anger could be personally mitigated instead of spilling over into social revolt. In this context, the lesbian (a woman who needed to work and had no interest in making a man happy) was an anti-social being. During the war years that followed, when women had to learn to do without men, who were being sent off to fight and maybe die for their country, and when female labor–in the factories, in the military, everywhere–was vital to the functioning of America, female independence and love between women were understood and undisturbed and even protected. After the war, when the surviving men returned to their jobs and the homes that women needed to make for them so that the country could return to “normalcy,” love between women and female independence were suddenly manifestations of illness, and a woman who dared proclaim herself a lesbian was considered a borderline psychotic. Nothing need have changed in the quality of a woman’s desires for her to have metamorphosed socially from a monster to a hero to a sicko.

“Nothing need have changed in the quality of woman’s desires”–and neither did lesbianism need a PR campaign–in order for love between women to gain acceptance during the war. All that needed to happen was for lesbianism to become “useful” to mainstream American goals, such as manufacturing sufficient military supplies while all the male factory workers were off at war. And since having a male partner simply wasn’t an option for a lot of young women, the idea that one might want a female lover suddenly didn’t seem so farfetched. And so, what was monstrous and anti-social just a few years before suddenly became “normal” or even good–until the nation’s needs changed once again.

Once I got to college and learned to think this way, I quickly abandoned my socially conservative beliefs and got much better at doing something I’d always tried to do, even as a child–questioning everything. I also started seeing this phenomenon all over the place–in the labels we use for sexual orientation, in the assumptions we make about the nature of women’s sexuality, in the  way we define what it means to be racially white.

Unfortunately, though, the way history is usually taught to kids and teens isn’t conducive to teaching them to be skeptical of cultural assumptions. (That, perhaps, is no accident.) The history I learned in middle and high school was mostly the history of people and events, not of ideas. In Year X, a Famous Person did an Important Thing. In Year Y, a war broke out between Country A and Country B.

When we did learn about the history of ideas, beliefs, and cultural assumptions, it was always taught as a constant, steady march of progress from Bad Ideas to Better Ideas. For instance, once upon a time, we thought women and blacks aren’t people. Now we realize they’re people just like us! Yay! Once upon a time we locked up people who were mentally ill in miserable, prison-like asylums, but now we have Science to help them instead!

Of course, it’s good that women and Black people are recognized as human beings now, and we (usually) don’t lock up mentally ill people in miserable, prison-like asylums. But 1) that doesn’t mean everything is just peachy now for women, Black people, and mentally ill people, and 2) not all evolutions of ideas are so positive.

This view of history precludes the idea that perhaps certain aspects of human life and society were actually better in certain ways in the past than they are now–or, at least, that they weren’t necessarily worse. And while very recent history is still fresh in the minds of people who may be wont to reminisce about the good ol’ days when there weren’t all these silly gadgets taking up everyone’s time and wives still obeyed their husbands, nobody seems to particularly miss the days when a man could, under certain circumstances, have sex with other men without being considered “homosexual,” or when people believed that in order for a woman to get pregnant, she had to actually enjoy sex and have an orgasm.

Societal factors, not objective physical “reality,” create social categories and definitions. I believe that understanding this is integral to a skeptical view of the world.

In a followup post (hopefully*), I’ll talk about some specific examples of these shifting cultural attitudes, such as the invention of homosexuality and the definition of “normal” female sexuality.

*By this I mean that you should pester me until I write the followup post, or else I’ll just keep procrastinating and probably never do it.

How You Know They’ve Run Out Of Arguments

Steven over at WWJTD informed me of this nonsense:

The newest argument against homosexuality has arrived. It turns out it prevents straight dudes from being friends. Trevin Wax at The Gospel Coalition explains:

“But there is no such thing as absolute freedom when it comes to sexuality. The moment we celebrate or endorse certain behaviors, we curtail freedom in other areas. This is the nature of freedom.”

Wax then lists a few examples of platonic affection between straight men which have fallen out of vogue, such as lovingly written letters, holding hands and sharing a bed.

Wax attributes this lack of affection between men as the result of gay people being accepted into society. Because if there are gays, you don’t want to risk being mistaken for one of those people. He then goes on to talk about how a hypothetical pro-incest movement would damage his ability to be affectionate with his daughter.

As Steven points out, Wax nearly stumbles upon a good point:

Where I do agree with Wax is that I think it does suck that hetero men feel they can’t be affectionate with one another. And a good chunk of the reason for that is people fear being seen as gay.

That’s where we stop agreeing, because society moving toward acceptance of gay people won’t hinder hetero same-sex affection. It will bolster it. The less of a big deal being gay becomes, the less people will care if people mistake them for gay.

Where Wax screws up is that he makes a huge correlation-is-not-causation error. Yes, it used to be acceptable for men to be very affectionate with each other (platonically). It also used to be unacceptable to be gay (although, it’s worth noting that there was no such thing as “gay” back when romantic friendships were in vogue). Nowadays it is much more acceptable to be gay, and much less acceptable for men to be affectionate with each other. Therefore one must’ve caused the other, amirite??

No, I am not right. While this isn’t really my field, my hypothesis would be that the cultural stigma we’ve placed on (straight) men being affectionate with each other is largely a side effect of the way our culture sexualizes everything. Think about it. Women often can’t even breastfeed in public anymore because it’s “inappropriate” (read: too sexy). Women can’t be topless in public, not even on beaches, even though in many other Western countries they can. Fathers being affectionate with their daughters and teachers hugging their students are often looked upon with suspicion, because why would an adult want to touch a child if not sexually? (Maybe because touch is a universal way to express all kinds of platonic, romantic, and familial love, as well as friendly affection and reassurance, but whatever.)

The most amusing thing about Wax’s argument to me, though, is how blatant a sign it is that the bigots have truly run out of arguments to use against homosexuality.

After all, haven’t we rehashed all the usual ones hundreds of times by now?

“YEAH WELL HOMOSEXUALITY DOESN’T PRODUCE CHILDREN”
“Yes it can, and anyway, neither do infertile or voluntarily childfree straight couples.”
“YEAH WELL GOD SAID IT’S WRONG”
“Even if that’s true, you can’t make the rest of the country live by your religion.”

“YEAH WELL IT’S UNNATURAL”
“Homosexuality is found in hundreds of animal species; homophobia is only found in one.”
“YEAH WELL THEY’LL CONVERT KIDS INTO BEING GAY TOO”
“No, there’s no evidence for that.”
“YEAH WELL THEY CHOSE TO BE GAY”
No, they didn’t, here are all the studies showing that sexual orientation is not a choice.”
“YEAH WELL THE BEHAVIOR IS A CHOICE”
“So do some people not deserve to have love and sex in their lives?”
“YEAH WELL IT’S A MENTAL DISORDER”
“Then why can’t it be ‘cured,’ why did it get removed from the DSM decades ago, and why can gay people live happy and healthy lives?”
“YEAH WELL IT’S GROSS”
“So is Jersey Shore, but that’s legal.”
“YEAH WELL NOW STRAIGHT DUDES CAN’T HUG EACH OTHER”
“Wut.”
There you have it. They are out of arguments, and now they’re doubling down and reaching for the most inane ones they can think of.

Why Dan Savage Shouldn’t Use Hate Speech Against Gay Republicans

I’ve got a post up at In Our Words today! Here’s a preview.

A few weeks ago, an organization of conservative LGBT folks and their allies called GOProud endorsed Mitt Romney for president. Surprise, surprise: a conservative group endorsing a conservative presidential nominee.

Dan Savage, however, was apparently irritated enough by this to comment on it. He tweeted, “The GOP’s house f*****s grab their ankles, right on cue…” with a link to the story, followed by the word “pathetic.” Except that he didn’t use the asterisks.

One could hardly design a more controversial and, in my view, offensive message. First of all, the phrase “house f*****s” is a blatant allusion to another offensive term, one laden with historical meaning: “house Negros” (or “n*****s”). In the antebellum South, slaves were divided between those who worked in the fields and those who worked in the plantation owner’s house. The house slaves were typically lighter-skinned and received better clothing and food, and the type of work they did was less physically taxing than that of the field slaves.

A century later, Malcolm X characterized the “house Negro” as a slave who is more likely than a “field Negro” to support—at least tacitly—the institution of slavery, because it has afforded him or her an easier life than it did to the field slave. Similarly, he described African Americans who wanted to quietly live and work among whites as “house Negros,” and himself and his fellow activists as “field Negros.”

[…]This is the complex and painful analogy—which I have probably oversimplified here—that Savage has, for some unknown reason, chosen to invoke. To him, LGBT folks who support conservative politicians are like “house Negros” because they are willing to support a power structure that others (rightfully) consider oppressive.

Read the rest!

Urban Outfitters' Possibly-Accidental Holocaust Reference

Aside from perhaps American Apparel, there might not be any clothing retailer that people love to hate more than Urban Outfitters.

This time, UO has angered the Jewish community by selling a t-shirt that seems made to resemble the patches that Jews were forced to wear on their clothes during the Holocaust:

Credit: Urban Outfitters

The Anti-Defamation League wrote a letter to CEO of Urban Outfitters explaining the uncanny similarity to Holocaust symbolism. Although UO itself hasn’t issued any sort of statement, the company that makes the shirt, Wood Wood, has. They replaced this shirt with a plain yellow one and explained that they had never intended to make a Holocaust reference:

As some of you are aware, several news sites have been writing about our “‘Kellog’ T-shirt, which features an image of a six-pointed star, allegedly similar to the yellow badge Jews were ordered to wear by the German nazis. First of all the graphic is not the Star of David, and I can assure you that this is in no way a reference to judaism, nazism or the holocaust.

While I’m obviously glad that they apologized to anyone who may have been offended and changed the shirt, I’m a bit confused as to how this happened to begin with.

Because here’s the thing–Wood Wood is a Danish company. That’s right, from Denmark. This is the same country that made an extraordinary effort to rescue its Jewish citizens from the Holocaust. Ordinary Danish citizens helped 8,000 Jews escape to Sweden after the Nazis invaded, and over 99% of Danish Jews ended up surviving.

This is particularly poignant if you think about how differently things went in many other European countries. Only 10% of Polish Jews, 12% of German Jews, and 25% of Dutch Jews survived the Holocaust.

Anyway, the point of this brief foray in Holocaust history is to show that the people of Denmark were once willing to put their own lives in danger to save their Jewish friends and neighbors. Today, meanwhile, a Danish company is apparently unaware of the symbolism in its design and mocks the Holocaust with a $100 cotton t-shirt.

I do understand that it’s completely possible–perhaps even likely–that this was completely unintentional. After all, not everyone sees a six-pointed star and immediately thinks “Star of David,” not everybody sees a yellow color and a patch on the chest and thinks “Jude.”

And that possibility brings up some difficult questions. How far should people go to avoid accidentally using Holocaust imagery and offending a ton of Jews? Are we being “too sensitive?” (And I should point out that Jews by no means agree on this. Granted, Jews never agree on anything.)

I can’t really answer those questions. However, I will say that based on UO’s history of culturally insensitive merchandise, I’m not necessarily as willing to give them the benefit of the doubt as I might be with another retailer. Come on, “Navajo Hipster Panty”? Who signed off on that?

Furthermore, it should be noted that the decision to take the six-pointed star off of the shirt was made not by UO, but by Wood Wood. UO seems intent not to learn from any of its mistakes and to continue producing merchandise that offends people, waiting until the inevitable uproar begins to remove said merchandise from the shelves. When will this stop? And, incidentally, when will UO also stop stealing indie artists’ designs, promoting anorexia, and denying collective bargaining rights to employees?

As I mentioned, this particular story does have a happy ending. The shirt is now being sold sans Holocaust-style patch, so it’s just a plain yellow shirt. Yours for only $100 at Urban Outfitters.