Looking on in puzzled surprise


Ken has a nice post at Popehat on the strangely hyperbolic reaction to discussion of harassment at conferences.

I am not a feminist.  By that I mean that I am completely uninterested in whether or not I deserve the label “feminist” or “anti-feminist.”  I believe in the legal, formal, and social equality of men and women, I am interested in the ways that laws and social norms interfere with that equality, and I am open to discussion of approaches to changing laws and social norms.

I gotta tell you, Ken, that means you are a feminist. A non-feminist doesn’t believe in those things and isn’t interested in those ways and isn’t open to that discussion. Arguing about definitions isn’t what makes someone a feminist. To put it another way, your “by that I mean” might as well continue “the exact opposite of what any sane person understands by feminism.” But hey, if the word gets on your nerves because it sounds like people defending FGM as someone else’s fragile culture, I’m not going to argue, or paste a feminist button on you when you’re not looking.

On the other hand, I am often astounded by the reaction to “feminism” (self-identified, or so identified by critics) or any discussion of sexual harassment.  The reaction often seems wildly and disproportionately sensitive to criticism to a frankly disordered extent.  I’m seeing that from both men and women in this debate over harassment at skeptic conventions.  In fact I find the reactions more off-putting than the descriptions of harassment themselves.  Take, as a recent example, this recent letter from Paula Kirby, which repeatedly calls her opponents “hysterical” (a loaded term that I would only use trollishly, belligerently, or satirically), defends terms like “feminazis” and “femistasi,” refers to discussions of harassment as “totalitarian,” refers to the “Sisterhood of the Oppressed” and “Approved Male Chorus,” and generally acts like a 14-year-old flaming out upon being banned from a World of Warcraft subforum for comparing Orcs to various racial groups.

And what makes it all the weirder is that in person she seems like the sanest person in the room. She’s Obama-esque in her poise and calm. It feels Invasion of the Body-snatchers-ish. That’s not true of other principle actors in this clash, certainly including me, but Paula is the last person I would have expected to collapse into an extended tantrum.

I don’t get it.  I’m not saying that self-described feminists — or anyone else talking about sexual harassment — are always right.  They’re not.  Sometimes they’re perfectly silly.  I’m saying that they are participating in a marketplace of ideas, and that responding to them with “your criticism breaks the marketplace of ideas” or “your criticism is tyrannical” tropes is unserious and embarrassing.  I sometimes write things that some people think are sexist or offensive.  I own them.  If someone calls me out on them, I will apologize if I think it is appropriate, or refute the accusation if appropriate, or shrug and move on, possibly with a lol u mad bro.  What I will not do is attempt to portray myself as some sort of victim of bullying and censorship — as if someone had sued me, or tried to get me arrested, or physically attacked me.  People hissed at me for non-liberal views in college, people sure as hell hissed at me in law school, and here I still stand, not a victim.

Well, that’s how I see it. I’ve been trying to see the merit of the view that disagreement on a blog amounts to bullying (in the intervals of mocking the whole idea, granted), but it’s a hell of a strain.

I wonder what Paula would think if a few FTB people started doing tweets about #RDFBullies, full of high-minded vows to fight them, stand up to them, challenge them, and whacked-out cries that it is SAFE TO SPEAK OUT and YOU ARE NOT ALONE. I don’t think she would consider that very collegial or even fair – yet she doesn’t hesitate to do it to Freethought blogs. That too is odd.

Comments

  1. onion girl, OM; social workers do it with paperwork says

    I was trying to explain this whole mess to my father. It was a bit difficult because he still doesn’t quite get the whole blog thing, but once he got the basic concept he was even more confused. My father (a UCC minister) taught me about activism. He cried when I told him I was being sexually harassed in high school, and then fought the school (with my mom of course) until they did something about it.

    He just couldn’t comprehend what’s been going on, and honestly, I couldn’t really explain it either, because it just doesn’t make sense–to decent human beings, that is.

  2. says

    No, I don’t understand it either. I think my jaw dropped literally not figuratively when I got to the part where Paula sneers at the Women in Secularism conference, and at the men who think it’s unstupid. It’s just so…bratty.

    What the hell was so terrible about that conference?

  3. One Thousand Needles says

    I am completely uninterested in whether or not I deserve the label “feminist”

    If he was as uninterested as he claimed to be, he wouldn’t start that paragraph with “I am not a feminist.”

  4. anthrosciguy says

    What the hell was so terrible about that conference?

    What’s so funny ’bout peace, love, and understanding?

  5. mattee says

    I am used to the irrational idiocy of my perpetually drunk uncle with his paranoia about “those feminists.” I find it totally astounding how many seemingly intelligent and presumably sober people have outed themselves as (to some extent) sharing my uncle’s warped view of the world.
    *sigh*
    Keep fighting the good fight, Ophelia.

  6. frogmistress says

    There was nothing wrong with the WiS. It was brilliant. The problem is that some people can’t even take the time to do an little research to find out the details of what they are complaining about.

    Most of the conversation about the conference has been centered around the comment about harassment. This is good since harassment has been brought to the forefront and is being confronted. This is sad because so much more happened there which is not being talked about.

    Those who want to cast feminists as hysterical, over reacting women don’t bother to read anything else about the conference and so assume that all we talked about was the ebul menz.

    This is all so weird and so sad. I had an argument with my brother this morning over the bullying feminists do. Because, you know, they hold so much power in this world that they just bully those poor men into not calling them demeaning names.

  7. Arty Morty says

    I hope to hell Paula’s views aren’t shared by The Big R.D. Himself. I would expect he wouldn’t be fond of her take on the WiS conference; setting “Dear Muslima” aside, didn’t he speak approvingly of feminism, “consciousness-raising” and combating unconscious chauvinism, in The God Delusion? (Just dusted it off and checked: yes he did! page 115 in the hardcover.)

    I like to imagine he and she are exchanging words on their own backchannel over at RD.net.

  8. Martha says

    I was just about to give up reading atheist blogs when Jen McCreight posted the clip of the forum in which you both appeared with Sikivu Hutchison and Rebecca Watson.

    I had been shocked by the appalling level of misogyny I’d seen in the community. It wasn’t so much the behavior of the assholes that depressed me, as all communities have their share of highly unpleasant, egotistical people. It was the apologists for the assholes, the hyper skeptics, the utter dismissiveness of what appeared to be a large segment of the atheist community. I wanted absolutely nothing to do with that. If I want to see smug, posturing (mostly) male scientists who fail to realize that rational arguments from flawed assumptions lead to ridiculous conclusions, all I have to do is attend the monthly faculty meetings in my department. I couldn’t really see an up-side of the atheist movement.

    Then, I watched the four of you, and I heard you speaking impressively about a brand of atheism with social justice at the forefront, and I realized the loudest voices in the community do not necessarily speak for everyone. So I stuck around. The anti-feminist fervor is still disheartening, but I admire your willingness to fight.

  9. karmakin says

    If I want to see smug, posturing (mostly) male scientists who fail to realize that rational arguments from flawed assumptions lead to ridiculous conclusions,

    Oh, so we’re talking about economics now? I kid I kid! (Not really)

    The anti-feminist fervor, unfortunately is something that’s not going to go away any time soon. The problem is that for a lot of people, I do think, it’s partially a triggered response. This isn’t to excuse it, it’s just something that I notice. Either we’re talking about the mythical concept of the totalitarian feminist or someone who actually run into one of the mythical beings (although they’re not entirely non-existent), and then everybody, unfortunately gets painted with the same brush.

    Unfortunately, such moralistic totalitarianism are a personal trigger for me myself. (Social anxiety disorders will do that…I always feel one step away from being ostracized). What they should do, if they find it so upsetting is to stop coming here and reading it. Personally, I find 95% of the content here fine (and that percentage has gone up recently), and the rest is too good to miss so it’s worth it. But still. If the idea of feminism upsets them that much, just don’t go near it.

  10. Bruce Gorton says

    To be fair to Ken – I have seen it argued by posters on FTB that men shouldn’t call themselves feminists.

    So it seems a bit either you lose or you lose with regards to using that term.

  11. GMM says

    I don’t have a problem with men calling themselves feminists. Other women may have a different opinion on that because there’s no Feminist Headquarters where we all get together and vote on these things.

  12. Campbell says

    If we nasty bullying feminists had even half of the overwhelming power Paula et al. assign to us, let me tell you, the world would by now already look Quite. Fucking. Different.

  13. says

    @8 Martha

    [depressing]… It was the apologists for the assholes, the hyper skeptics, the utter dismissiveness of what appeared to be a large segment of the atheist community

    Yes, for me it’s much like the sensation of invalidated feelings.
    And I find the not-important-enough argument particularly suspicious. Why does someone bother to make excuses for something that doesn’t matter?

    Furthermore, a visible official policy serves several purposes:

    1) Put the bad boys on notice
    2) Arm the good boys and girls with talking points
    3) Empower the girls to not feel ashamed, and to seek community support

    My theory about Paula is tragic. I believe she worked hard to be accepted into the atheist club, and now fears that supporting feminism could threaten her membership (which might be true).

    Even so, I couldn’t resist tweeting “RT JFK – Ich bin ein ‪#FTBullies”

  14. Ruth says

    Having linked to the Feminism 101 take on it, though, I don’t think that is the reason Ken is rejecting the term. I think he’s actually doing the same as the people who say ‘I’m not an atheist, I just don’t believe in any gods’. He’s rejecting the term because of the negative baggage people have attached to it.

    This is just as misguided with ‘feminist’ as it is with ‘atheist’. You can’t stop feminists/atheists from being demonised by changing what you call them, because the hatred is not for the word but for the ideas behind it.

    I think the idea that men shouldn’t call themselves feminists is equally misguided, for different reasons. It perpetuates the idea that feminism is only about women’s rights, rather than about a broader idea of equality regardless of gender, i.e. Patriarchy hurts men too.

  15. Ray Moscow says

    I’m happy to be called a ‘feminist’ but, like Comrade Physioprof, I figure it’s a title best bestowed by others rather than something I claim for myself: mostly because I haven’t fought or risked nearly as much as those whom I see as the ‘real feminists’.

    But my sympathies and allegiance generally go for those fighting for equality, fairness and all that good stuff.

    And no, I don’t get all this feminist-bashing either, especially from people whom I would have thought to know better.

  16. avh1 says

    Ray pretty much summed up my take on the matter too.

    And Ruth I fully confess to not knowing enough about feminism to have an opinion on whether men who are sympathetic to feminism should call themselves feminists. From everything I’ve read, including the article you linked to, there are decent arguments on both sides.

  17. Ruth says

    @avh1 I agree that there are decent arguments on both sides. I just find the arguments in favour of men embracing the self-description ‘feminist’ outweigh those against.

    @Bruce I think the problem with Hugo Schwyzer is the same as the problem with Sarah Palin. It’s not about objecting to a man self-identifying as a feminist. It’s about deciding whether or not a person, male or female, qualifies as a feminist based on their behaviour, rather than their self-identification.

  18. SAWells says

    The idea that feminism is something only women can do, or that feminist is something only a woman can be, seems incredibly pernicious – yet again making feminism into a “women’s issue” rather than a human rights issue. Anyone can be feminist, all you have to do is treat women as real people.

    I did think Ken’s paragraph “I am not a feminist, I just believe in gender equality” was funny, rather as if he’d written “I am not a biped. By this I mean I have two legs”. He doesn’t realise that he’s been assimilated :)

  19. says

    I was raised by a conservative father, and though I’ve had the same values my whole adult life (but now better informed) it wasn’t until fairly recently that I called myself a feminist.

    They make the term scary. They pretend in a way that there’s some secret element that you just haven’t seen yet that is the hidden evil core of feminism. And if they’re not like my Dad, who doesn’t lie (except to himself), they lie.

    Same thing they do with any kind of liberal activism.
    Activist is a dirty word.
    When it’s conservative activism they don’t call it that, they call it family values or patriotism or whatever.

    I think feminists who don’t call themselves feminists are holding back out of the fear of “I didn’t know about THAT part!”

    Baby seal barbecues, that kinda thing.

  20. says

    As far as whether or not a man can choose to call himself a feminist, I decided that the term is not a degree, not part of an honors system, not magical.

    I can be a humanist and not agree with every last little detail of what one particular individual humanist or group of humanists say that entails.

  21. says

    But here again – I don’t see the relevance of Bruce’s “I have seen it argued by posters on FTB that men shouldn’t call themselves feminists.” I don’t see the relevance of the “on FTB,” especially when the (one, singular) post cited is one by PhysioProf that I doubt I ever read.

    It’s as if people think we all read and sign off on each other’s posts. We don’t! This is a network, not a group blog. We don’t co-ordinate. We don’t agree on all the things. We’re not accountable for what each other says.

    We’re not a unit. We’re not a Hydra. The joke about FTBullies is that it’s so meaningless.

  22. Frogmistress says

    But here again – I don’t see the relevance of Bruce’s “I have seen it argued by posters on FTB that men shouldn’t call themselves feminists.” I don’t see the relevance of the “on FTB,” especially when the (one, singular) post cited is one by PhysioProf that I doubt I ever read.

    I have heard people say that men shouldn’t assume the title, but be granted it, or whatever. Mostly, I have heard that from men. But, really, it just means that men shouldn’t try to take over the term like they tend to do anything else in the world. :)

  23. Godless Heathen says

    Ruth @17,

    That’s the sense I got from Ken, too. It’s not that he’s worried about being a man who identifies as a feminist, but that he doesn’t want to deal with the baggage that comes with the word.

    Frankly, if he’s a feminist, I think he should embrace the term, baggage be damned.

  24. Godless Heathen says

    SAWells @22,

    But feminism IS a women’s rights issue. By subsuming it under the label human rights, it’s much easier for people to ignore the specific ways that women are oppressed. The focus, as it always is, will end up being more on the rights of men than on the rights of both men and women.

    The rights that women are fighting for are often things that don’t affect men in the same way (e.g. the ability to be fully autonomous over our bodies, including deciding who to have sex with, what to wear, and whether or not to have children). Those rights will be forgotten when subsumed under the label of human rights.

  25. Godless Heathen says

    @frogmistress,

    But, really, it just means that men shouldn’t try to take over the term like they tend to do anything else in the world.

    This.

  26. Sili says

    I wonder what Paula would think if a few FTB people started doing tweets about #RDFBullies,

    That’s be lazy and derivative. You need to be clever about it:

    #RDFreaks
    #RDFascists
    #RDFuckers

    What the hell was so terrible about that conference?

    It’s not an RDF conference.

    You’re threatening the Dawkypoo brand. The more popular competitors get, the less attention and money for RDF. It’s pure capitalism in the marketplace of ideas.

  27. says

    I recall reading the “can men call themselves feminists?” debate a lot more often 5-10 years ago. I’m on the side of “yes,” and I thought that was the general consensus these days.

    I do remember in spaces where the consensus was “no,” men would normally identify themselves as feminist allies.

  28. Ruth says

    Godless Heathen @30, Yes, feminism is mainly a women’s rights issue, but it’s also a human rights issue. Just as anti-racism is a POC rights issue, but also a human rights issue.

    That’s why we need to keep the word ‘feminist’, but have all genders embrace it, rather than expect men to come up with some other word for themselves. Using the word ‘feminist’ emphasises that women benefit the most, and expecting men to embrace it emphasises that everyone benefits.

    The ones that get me annoyed are the ones who insist that if we want men to embrace feminism, we need to give it a more gender-neutral name, as if men can only be persuaded to care about something if they benefit equally. Ken’s ‘I’m not a feminist, I’m in favour of equality for everyone’ smacks a little of that.

  29. says

    crap, I’m deleting another long typingness that though heartfelt had too much of a “what about ME?” feeling when I finished. So I’ll just say this.

    I WANT to be a feminist.

  30. Frogmistress says

    The ones that get me annoyed are the ones who insist that if we want men to embrace feminism, we need to give it a more gender-neutral name, as if men can only be persuaded to care about something if they benefit equally. Ken’s ‘I’m not a feminist, I’m in favour of equality for everyone’ smacks a little of that.

    Exactly! Don’t include him in that evil girly category. He’s for rights for men AND women. As if giving women’s rights will take them away from men. I am awfully tired of that sentiment.

  31. says

    Sili (skip the subtitle please!) – No I don’t think so. I don’t think that’s right. One, I don’t think other groups do threaten the RDF brand, and two, I don’t think Paula sees it that way.

    Plus there’s the fact that Richard and CFI go way, way back. I suppose he might feel less friendly to the post-Kurtz CFI than he did to the pre-schism one…but given that the post-Kurtz CFI is much more friendly to gnu atheism than Kurtz and the other schismatics are, that seems pretty unlikely too.

    No I think it’s the other way around. RDF and CFI are allies in many ways, and (as far as I know) friendly in many ways. It seems to me that Paula’s jeery name-calling about a CFI event is more likely to make Richard cringe than cheer – especially when it’s so gratuitous and uninformed.

  32. stakkalee says

    I’m a lurker but I thought I’d just pop in on the discussion of whether a man should call himself a feminist; I agree with @Frogmistress that using a more general term could have the effect of erasing the point of the feminist struggle, which is to help women. I’m always reminded of a quote by the Dalai Lama – “I call myself a feminist. Isn’t that what you call someone who fights for women’s rights?” Leaving aside the fact that Buddhism isn’t any better than any other religion when it comes to the status of women, I’ve always admired that quote. Yes, I’m a feminist – I believe in equal rights for women, and I do my (very small) part to help with that fight. The word has been demonized by the same people that demonized liberal and “social justice” and all those other words activists use to assail the powerful.

    I also wanted to say that I, personally, am very glad this whole conversation has been going on as long as it has. I’ve gotten a TON of new blogs added to my blogroll. As to the haters, well, we all know what they gonna do, right?

  33. says

    Hang on, Ken didn’t say “I’m not a feminist, I’m in favour of equality for everyone.” He said “I believe in the legal, formal, and social equality of men and women.” That’s different. It’s less vague and woolly than “equality for everyone.”

    It’s lawyerly.

  34. Godless Heathen says

    The ones that get me annoyed are the ones who insist that if we want men to embrace feminism, we need to give it a more gender-neutral name, as if men can only be persuaded to care about something if they benefit equally. Ken’s ‘I’m not a feminist, I’m in favour of equality for everyone’ smacks a little of that.

    Ruth,

    Yes, I agree with you completely. I’m just used to people calling feminism is a human rights issue to be the type of people you describe in this paragraph. Or the people like Ken who say they’re in favor of equality for everyone.

    I see that you meant something different that and I agree with you. Thanks for the clarification.

  35. eric says

    every time somebody says “I support gender equality but I am not a feminist or anything” that reinforces the fear and smear campaign feminism has always suffered.

    I think the term has picked up an association with activism, so it goes beyond just ideological commitment to equality or improved rights for women. So maybe this is just a linguistic issue, with the word representing multiple categories of people and Ken pointing out that he doesn’t fit into one of those categories (but does fit into others).

    I honestly don’t think Ken is saying anything significantly different from what Ray Moscow said in @18, though Ray said it a lot better.

  36. Bruce Gorton says

    Ophelia Benson

    FTB isn’t the borg, but it is a group of people who are basically decent. Physioprof’s reluctance to self-identify comes with the whole point of guys who do, often seeming to want to get a cookie for it.

    Which is something I sort of read into Ken’s post – like he tried to avoid that just a little bit too hard.

  37. says

    I really don’t avoid the label because I think girls are icky or because I fear Rush Limbaugh will make fun of me.

    I avoid the label because it strikes me as a prime example of how discussions of labels, and who they should or should not apply to, are a waste of time, a distraction.

    The same goes for “liberal” or “conservative” or “progressive” or “libertarian.” People use such labels as shorthand for a set of ideas, but then argue about what ideas do or don’t go into the set, or who has or hasn’t adopted the label, instead of discussing the ideas themselves.

    Hence my use of the word “wankery.”

    “Ken’s position on how the First Amendment limits application of harassment laws shows that he is not genuinely committed to the equality of men and women” is something I might be interested in arguing, because it’s substantive. “Ken’s position shows that he is not a feminist” is not.

    The fact that the culture is suffused with anti-feminist propaganda — and that “feminist” has been demonized — is wrong and a signifier of bad things, but it doesn’t turn arguments over labels into something substantive.

  38. stakkalee says

    Ken, love your site. It’s one of the new ones I found during the current DEEP RIFT.

    I agree that using labels as signifiers for actual beliefs can be problematic because many of those labels encompass a wide variety of possibly-contradictory stances. However, I view taking the ‘feminist’ label in a sort of “I am Spartacus” way, to show solidarity for women fighting for equality.

  39. Sili says

    Sili (skip the subtitle please!) – No I don’t think so. I don’t think that’s right. One, I don’t think other groups do threaten the RDF brand, and two, I don’t think Paula sees it that way.

    Sorry, but it seems to be pan-FtB even if just meant for Pharyngula.

    I don’t know what Dawkins’ opinion is, I’m only talking about the brand of his foundation.

    I don’t think there’s a threat to RDF, no. Like PZed I think the “Let a thousand flowers bloom” approach to activism is the way to go.

    But I’m not the in position of trying to make a charitable foundation work in poor economic times. If Grothe can blame uppity feminists for the decline in registrations for TAM, I don’t think it’s farfetched to suspect the RDF leadership and hangers-on of being envious of any other atheist organisation that appears to be invading their turf.

  40. says

    Then sign out and re-do it.

    Well it would be awfully presumptuous for Paula to think of CFI as “invading” RDF’s turf; other way around if anything.

    Anyway she sneered at that one conference, not any and all CFI conferences. It’s that one specifically that she thinks is sneer-worthy…so much so that it’s worth being rude to all of CFI just to vent her irritation.

  41. David Hart says

    I suspect that part of the problem is that the word ‘feminist’ sounds like it could mean ‘female supremacist’ (in the same sort of way as ‘white supremacist’ etc) – and the sort of people that assume that are generally not the sort of people to bother to read deeply enough to discover that it actually refers to a movement for gender equality.

    I wonder if it’s too late to try a rebrand: “I’m a gender egalitarian”. More of a mouthful I suppose, but might lessen the flak, after all, it’s a bit embarrassing to admit to being against equality these days.

  42. says

    @David Hart:

    The MRAs have already camped the whole “egalitarian” bit and corrupted it. They frequently use this labels confusion nonsense to argue for a male supremacist viewpoint. It’s just one of those age-old semantic games people play when they have no argument to actually work with.

  43. maureen.brian says

    Feminisme has been current in French from the 1830s, made it into English no more than 20 years later. Any person of good will could have grasped what it means by now.

    Rebranding has been thought of before, offered as a solution, even thrust down our throats by people trying to guilt-trip us. We hold onto the term feminism precisely because it is the least likely to be taken over and adapted to someone else’s interests. Which may well have been why it was invented in the first place.

  44. says

    Yes. The second wave was women’s liberation at first, but that got instantly diminutized (as is only suitable for anything to do with women) into “women’s lib” which always made me turn purple with fury (so I spent several years looking like an eggplant most of the time), so we reverted to feminism after all.

  45. NateHevens says

    As a Straight White Dude(TM) (can someone please tell me how to do superscripts on here?… is it even possible?), I must admit that I also kind of feel like I can’t just declare myself to be a feminist… that it’s a label/title that should be… I don’t know… bestowed upon me or whatever… by a feminist… probably a feminist of the non-male persuasion.

    I think it’s because feminism is as much about egalitarianism as it is about the rights and freedom of women, and women are the forefront of the whole thing in many ways.

    I consider myself an ally, and hope that you all consider me one as well, and I’d like to be thought of as a feminist, but I do feel like that men especially should have to earn the label; that we can’t just claim it for ourselves…

    But that’s just me…

  46. picklefactory says

    Wouldn’t you know it but a bunch of Guys on the Internet came by and assed up the Popehat thread. It’s like that always seems to happen for some reason!

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