That critical posture that is to some degree instrinsically male


Well I’ve thought of Sam Harris as both sexist and smug right from the beginning, i.e. when The End of Faith came out. But one can think of people that way and still be startled when they demonstrate it with underlining and italics and asterisks and ALL CAPS.

Michelle Boorstein interviewed him for a CFI-DC event the other day. At the end she asks him a question we’re well familiar with.

I also asked Harris at the event why the vast majority of atheists — and many of those who buy his books — are male, a topic which has prompted some to raise questions of sexism in the atheist community. Harris’ answer was both silly and then provocative.

It can only be attributed to my “overwhelming lack of sex appeal,” he said to huge laughter.

If only he’d left it at that.

“I think it may have to do with my person slant as an author, being very critical of bad ideas. This can sound very angry to people..People just don’t like to have their ideas criticized. There’s something about that critical posture that is to some degree instrinsically male and more attractive to guys than to women,” he said. “The atheist variable just has this – it doesn’t obviously have this nurturing, coherence-building extra estrogen vibe that you would want by default if you wanted to attract as many women as men.”

In other words, it’s more of a guy thing.

By which I mean –

No. And fuck you. You know what that amounts to saying? It amounts to saying what Michael Shermer did say – that “it’s who wants to stand up and talk about it, go on shows about it, go to conferences and speak about it, who’s intellectually active about it, you know, it’s more of a guy thing.” It’s saying that women can’t do sophisticated thinking of any kind, because they’re too estrogen-y and nurturing. If taking a critical posture and being very critical of bad ideas is “instrinsically male and more attractive to guys than to women” then women are fucked; we’re consigned to domestic work and nurturing work and nothing else.

As I said about Shermer’s version – imagine saying that with “guys” replaced with “whites” and “women” replaced with “blacks” – imagine Sam Harris blurting out that stupid shit then.

I think it may have to do with my person slant as an author, being very critical of bad ideas. This can sound very angry to people..People just don’t like to have their ideas criticized. There’s something about that critical posture that is to some degree instrinsically white and more attractive to whites than to blacks,” he said. “The atheist variable just has this – it doesn’t obviously have this nurturing, coherence-building extra estrogen vibe that you would want by default if you wanted to attract as many blacks as whites.

Doesn’t sound good, does it. Sounds so bad that it seems pretty obvious he would censor it before it got anywhere near his mouth. But to say it about women? Oh that’s just fine. Women are soppy slushy sentimental fools who can’t stand to be critical of bad ideas, and guys are the clever rational critical people who do the intellectual heavy lifting.

*spits*

Comments

  1. moarscienceplz says

    If the defense of your thesis requires the words ‘estrogen’ or ‘testosterone’, and you aren’t specifically discussing reproduction, you shall earn an automatic ‘F’.

  2. says

    ” …. The atheist variable just has this – it doesn’t obviously have this nurturing, coherence-building extra estrogen vibe that you would want by default if you wanted to attract as many women as men …. ”

    This bloody statement lacks a coherence-building vibe. And that has nothing to do with hormones.

  3. Blanche Quizno says

    Here’s a problem. In our culture (and our species), caring for dependent children typically is a woman’s responsibility. Even when both members of a married couple with children work outside the home, the woman assumes a disproportionate amount of the housework and bills, and takes care of the lion’s share of the details surrounding the children and the family. Many are juggling caring for dependent children at the same time that their own parents are in declining health, with those elderly parents also needing care. Given this “women’s work”, many women in their 20s – 50s are not at liberty to run off to conferences etc. That’s just life.

    Doesn’t mean we’re sitting home worshiping the god du jour any more than it means we’re sitting home eating bonbons! What it means is that we moms often put our own preferences and hobbies on a different priority level than the priority we place on meeting our children’s needs, our aging parents’ needs, and our husbands’ needs, too, more often than not.

    These conferences are not organized around mothers’ needs. The timing, venues, etc. are not conducive to NOT disrupting the children’s lives and schooling, or accommodating elder care schedules. So, yeah. We see far fewer women in this demographic represented at the conferences and public gatherings.

    I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with the women in this demographic who manage to make it out! More power to them! Hooray! We need as many of them as we can get, of course. Because we need ALL demographics represented. My point is simply that there are those of us who are so consumed with what it takes to support our children and prepare them for successful, independent adult lives; and to help out our parents now that they have become frail and distracted; that we don’t go to conferences and gatherings.

    Doesn’t mean we don’t exist.

  4. Blanche Quizno says

    “hobbies” – I should have used “interests and passions”. “Hobbies” has a trivialization about it…

  5. dshetty says

    People just don’t like to have their ideas criticized. There’s something about that critical posture that is to some degree instrinsically male and more attractive to guys than to women</i?
    Hmm so when we criticised Harris and Dawkins and Shermer and Hitchens and Coyne, they actually found it attractive? who knew. We should just criticise the gaming community , they'll be head over heels in love with us.

    Sam Harris as both sexist and smug
    I skimmed through most of End of Faith – but I dont remember any sexism – is there something specific you are referring to?

  6. moarscienceplz says

    I also asked Harris at the event why the vast majority of atheists — and many of those who buy his books — are male

    Actually, I think even the premise of the question is wrong. My atheist club has about 400 members, and while I haven’t done an actual head count, I’d say the female to male ratio at a typical meeting is about 35/65. Obviously, we still are under-representing the female demographic in the general populace, but I don’t think the “vast majority” of atheists are male.

  7. Rabidtreeweasel says

    I have defended him on some things in the past. That is over now. He is on my “all done” list. I guess I’m just not as rational as he is. You know, I’m going into hysterics and getting all emotional. And no. He’s done.

  8. dereksmear says

    “As I said about Shermer’s version – imagine saying that with “guys” replaced with “whites” and “women” replaced with “blacks” – imagine Sam Harris blurting out that stupid shit then.”

    Well, actually, now that you mention it, Harris does believe that there is a scientific basis to James Watson’s view that whites are more intelligent than blacks.

    “It is worth recalling in this context that it is, in fact, possible for a brilliant scientist to destroy his career by saying something stupid. James Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, a Nobel laureate, and the original head of the Human Genome Project, recently accomplished this feat by asserting in an interview that people of African descent appear to be innately less intelligent than white Europeans. A few sentences, spoken off the cuff, resulted in academic defenestration: lecture invitations were revoked, award ceremonies cancelled, and Watson was forced to immediately resign his post as chancellor of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

    Watson’s opinions on race are disturbing, but his underlying point was not, in principle, unscientific. There may very well be detectable differences in intelligence between races. Given the genetic consequences of a population living in isolation for tens of thousands of years it would, in fact, be very surprising if there were no differences between racial or ethnic groups waiting to be discovered. I say this not to defend Watson’s fascination with race, or to suggest that such race-focused research might be worth doing. I am merely observing that there is, at least, a possible scientific basis for his views. While Watson’s statement was obnoxious, one cannot say that his views are utterly irrational or that, by merely giving voice to them, he has repudiated the scientific worldview and declared himself immune to its further discoveries. Such a distinction would have to be reserved for Watson’s successor at the Human Genome Project, Dr. Francis Collins.”

    http://www.project-reason.org/archive/item/the_strange_case_of_francis_collins2/#foot_2

  9. moarscienceplz says

    So it’s like standing up to piss?

    Yes, but in Harris’ case, he keeps facing into the wind.
    😉

  10. chrislawson says

    I am confused. I thought that women in atheism were being divisive. Now I it seems that women prefer oestrogen-vibe nurturing and coherence-building. Or is it that women in atheism are being divisive by seeking coherence? Or are they seeking coherence through divisiveness? I’m sure someone can explain it to me…

  11. chrislawson says

    I also await with anticipation the references to the research that supports Harris’s statement that women are more resistant to having their ideas challenged than men. For him to make that statement so confidently there must be a wealth of evidence, right? He is regarded as a skeptic, is he not?

  12. chrislawson says

    Seriously, though, if I were a best-selling activist author and someone asked me why my books were read by much fewer women than men, I’d say something along the lines of “I don’t really know why, but if I could figure out a way to reach out to women as well, I’d do my best to do so.”

    What we got instead was “Well, what do you expect of women? They’re all hormonal and inclusive and don’t like challenging ideas. I’m not even interested in writing for them.” Which is a spectacularly misguided philosophy for an activist.

  13. screechymonkey says

    chrislawson@11:

    I am confused. I thought that women in atheism were being divisive. Now I it seems that women prefer oestrogen-vibe nurturing and coherence-building. Or is it that women in atheism are being divisive by seeking coherence? Or are they seeking coherence through divisiveness? I’m sure someone can explain it to me…

    It’s simple. REAL women like nuturing and coherence-building, and appreciate it when a man gropes them or gets them drunk to drag them back to his hotel room.

    The divisive women aren’t REAL women, they’re old and ugly and just jealous that nobody wants to rape them (well, except maybe “to teach them a lesson”). And they probably have hairy armpits. And saggy breasts because they burned their bras. (Did I leave out any stereotypes?)

    Similarly, the men who support these divisive women aren’t real men. They’re “manginas.”

    So if only the divisive women (who aren’t really women) and their male supporters (who aren’t really male) would just get out of the way, the real men and real women of atheism would be one big happy family.

  14. drken says

    Or, maybe it’s because the leaders of the atheist movement are prone to making comments so drenched in sexist dumassery that it makes them feel unwelcome. Just saying.

  15. says

    What an amateur. He still thinks that you’re supposed to actually answer all the questions a journalist asks? Pro tip: when going into an interview, have already decided two or three points you want to get across. When asked a question, rephrase it to apply to those points, then answer the question you wish you’d been asked.

    I also asked Harris at the event why the vast majority of atheists — and many of those who buy his books — are male, a topic which has prompted some to raise questions of sexism in the atheist community.

    Well, that’s a great question. I try to make my books as inclusive and inviting as possible to everyone — that’s part of the job of a writer — so I don’t see them as appealing necessarily to a particular demographic. Do you have any suggestions for what I could do to further broaden the appeal of my writing?

  16. says

    Oh, one more “amateur” thing: people like Harris and Dawkins who have a history of hoof-in-mouth disease ought to try to do their interviews by Email so they can think 3 or 4 times before they hit “send”

  17. leni says

    This is fun! What if Fred Phelps had said it?

    I think it may have to do with my person slant as a preacher, being very critical of fags. This can sound very angry to people..People just don’t like to have their ideas criticized. There’s something about that critical posture that is to some degree instrinsically less faggy and more attractive to heterosexual traditional Christians than to fags,” he said. “The heterosexual traditional Christians variable just has this – it doesn’t obviously have this nurturing, coherence-building extra faggy vibe that you would want by default if you wanted to attract as many fags as straight people.”

    P.S. My vagina is instructing me to say that the ghost of Fred Phelps approves this message :)

  18. says

    So…there are not a representative number of women in atheist/secular circles.
    They used to say it was because we were more gullible.

    Now they just blame estrogen.

    It couldn’t possibly be the douchecanoes who are asked to “speak for” atheists on the regular are not actually saying anything that we’d really like to be associated with….because it’s fucking embarrassing?

    It couldn’t possibly be that their sexism is no more appealing than the sexism of the far right….

    Would that they would think critically about the topic…they might actually get somewhere…but, alas they have chupacabras to debunk and femi-nazis to “take down.”

  19. aziraphale says

    moarscienceplz @2:

    I agree with you, and with the criticism of Harris here. But in fairness, you don’t have to look far to find feminists using “testosterone-driven” as a casual synonym for “aggressive” or “dominating”.

  20. surreptitious46 says

    A potentially provocative question which may or may not have been asked with ulterior motive. I would not bother answering it and would just sit there and smile instead. I am not conscious when posting on forums about the gender split pertaining to who is reading my words and do not consciously write for either one or both. All I can do is convey my thoughts in as logical and reasoned a manner as possible. Who reads or responds to them is outside my jurisdiction. So if someone asked me why no women read my posts I would just say nothing and smile. They would of course not know why but even so that would not compel me to say so. But as I do talk to other human beings it is easy not to say anything when asked hypothetical questions so just saying

  21. Sili says

    There’s something about that critical posture that is to some degree instrinsically white and more attractive to whites than to blacks

    He might not say it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he thinks it, given his uninformed opinions on racial screening and general islamophobia.

  22. Hj Hornbeck says

    “The atheist variable just has this – it doesn’t obviously have this nurturing, coherence-building extra estrogen vibe that you would want by default if you wanted to attract as many women as men.”

    Ah, the ol’ “it’s the hormones” routine. As luck would have it, I once looked into that, among other things. To keep things short: human behavior doesn’t seem to be strongly influenced by hormones, making us somewhat unique among similar animals. The link between testosterone and aggression is tenuous at best, and the mood component of PMS is either ridiculously complicated or a myth.

    Also, there’s little evidence for women being more nurturing, or for that matter different on any psychological benchmark. Harris is wrong to toss out that blanket assertion, because it’s simply not backed up by science.

  23. HappyNat says

    So it all comes down to the fluffy pink ladybrainz, influenced by estrogen, natch? What a great “thinker”. Seriously, fuck these white privileged asshats.

  24. aziraphale says

    Sili @23: Islam is not a race, it’s a religion. And if I were now in the hands of certain members of that religion I would now be feeling extremely phobic about them. If I were still alive, that is.

  25. Folie Deuce says

    Has anyone considered that Harris might be right? Someone used an example recently, 90% of Wikipedia editors (a non-paying job anyone can do) are male. Is that because of sexism or because certain things happen to appeal more to men than women?

  26. Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought says

    chigau,

    All I could find was a 2011 editor survey, where

    Among those surveyed, 90 percent self-identified as males, 9 percent as females and 1 percent as transsexual or transgender.

    source

    Folie Deuce,
    what are these “certain things” you mention?

  27. aziraphale says

    chigau @29: Wikipedia itself gives the figure as 87% male and comments on it:

    “The gender gap may be driven significantly by Wikipedia’s conflict-oriented culture. Experienced female editors can be very successful—they are more likely to become administrators than men—but they are more likely to leave if treated aggressively in discussions, especially as new editors, when their good-faith contributions are more likely to be reverted than a similarly good-faith contribution by a man.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Wikipedians#Demographics

  28. Forbidden Sn0wflake says

    Has anyone considered that Harris might be right?

    Yes. Literally most of humanity for most of history considered that Harris might be right. Framing what he said as some kind of bold new idea that is being dismissed by dogmatists without proper consideration would be the most ridiculously ahistorical possible response to the incident.

  29. chigau (違う) says

    People are not always completely truthful about their on-line identity.
    We all know it’s “safer” to be male.

  30. Jackie says

    WTF does who edits Wikipedia have to do with innate preferences? Is that shit what passes for evidence among atheists now or do you just check your brain at the door when discussing sexism?

  31. iknklast says

    Nurturing. I’m so sick of hearing that. I (a woman) am not nurturing. Of course, I’m an atheist, so maybe…wait, my mother wasn’t nurturing. My grandmother wasn’t nurturing. Both fundamentalist, Bible inerrantly true Christians. Long line of non-nurturing females in my family. Maybe genetic, Harris would say – congenitally estrogen deficient. What if…non-nurturing Mom fails to teach daughter how to nurture? Possibly! Or what if Harris is just wrong, that nurturing has nothing to do with male/female, estrogen/testosterone? That might explain all the women I know, most of whom are not nurturing, better than some presumption of estrogen-vibes (which sounds awfully New Agey, but then, Harris does promote Buddhism).

  32. RJW says

    “Sexism in the atheist community”–the implication appears to be that it’s a separate category, and for some reason, atheist men should be less sexist than believers. Why?

  33. says

    you don’t have to look far to find feminists using “testosterone-driven” as a casual synonym for “aggressive” or “dominating”.

    And you’ll find people calling them out for it, because that’s also stupid.

    “Some feminists also say stuff as stupid as Harris does” is hardly a defense of either.

  34. static says

    “to some degree” seems to be ignored by many here. He didn’t say how big that degree is.

    so what is the explanation? If more men than women buy something…

    I think the problem is that the whole question is meaningless in the first place, and it was a mistake to try to answer it. It begs the question, by assuming that there is some difference between men and women. While such differences may exist in statistics at the population level, the fundamental error of sexism is using the stereotype about a population to make a judgment about an individual. This sort heuristic thinking is useful out in the wild, when a bear is coming after you, it is better to run, before trying to ascertain whether this particular bear happens to run against the percentages and is actually interested in sharing a cup of tea and some salmon sashimi. In normal interactions between people in the modern world, it is best to make no assumptions about a person from their apparent gender/race or other category you choose to make assumptions about.

    It’s not about denying facts about different percentages. If it so happens that 87.2% of wikipedia editors are male, using that to reason about an individual man, woman or wikipedia editor puts you at the risk of picking someone from the wrong distribution. It is stereotyping which is problematic- an unfortunately natural calculation used by the brain to allow for quicker decision making, but which we should attempt to avoid when reasoning about an individual.

  35. =8)-DX says

    I think Blanche Quizno has perhaps the only point that may excuse Harris’s point to some degree. If Harris had stopped at:

    There’s something about that critical posture that is to some degree instrinsically male and more attractive to guys than to women

    You could find certain truth in it – since the gender “male” and associated stereotypes are social constructs, it may quite be true that “female” is not associated with having a strong critical posture to worldviews, challenging established hierarchies, etc. And it may be true that many women are socialised to accept a passive/nurturing/cohesive (should be good for groupbuilding, no?) vibe.

    But it has nothing to do with estrogen, women’s intrinsic nature or How The World Works. It’s sexist culture, discriminating gender roles and patriarchal sensibilities.

  36. aziraphale says

    Marcus Ranum @37: Harris is not being accused of saying stupid stuff (a possibly temporary lapse) but of being sexist (a permanent flaw). That’s far more damaging.

    Can you give instances of feminists being called out for being sexist when they have used “testosterone-driven” or similar language?

  37. aziraphale says

    =8)-DX @40:

    “But it has nothing to do with estrogen”

    That’s interesting. Many naturally occurring substances affect the mind – oxytocin, endorphins, alcohol…. You are claiming to know that estrogen is not one of them. How?

  38. =8)-DX says

    @aziraphale #41
    No, it’s not especially interesting – it’s the null hypothesis. Any people making such psychological claims have to provide the evidence, not me. From what I’ve read there is not significant research showing causal relationships between estrogen levels and “being very critical of bad ideas” or “that critical posture” of atheists. I’m sure there are plenty of people more qualified to point you to the relevant research in the commentariat here, but it should be a basic premise that until the effects of culture and socialisation are ruled out it is not possible to claim a hormonal or genetic basis for general societal tendencies, whether for gender, race or any other group. The statement Harris is making, is “because the status quo is X, X is the natural/hormonal/genetic state”, which is demonstrably false for the vast majority of issues.

  39. says

    @aziraphale:

    Regarding the “Islam is a religion, not a race”… Well, no shit, Sherlock. Nobody was claiming that.

    But a lot of Islamophobia IS rooted in racism, because many people tend to see Muslims as “those brown people”. Yes, there are white Muslims, and brown non-Muslims. Again, no shit. But how does one weed out Muslims in line at the airport, if not by appearance?

  40. aziraphale says

    @=8)-DX #43:

    I was not concerned to defend Harris’s particular statements, merely to query your flat statement “But it has nothing to do with estrogen.” The null hypothesis is not necessarily true or even probable in biological systems. Most substances that the body produces in significant amounts do something. There is a large literature (admittedly of varying quality) on possible personality effects of estrogen. As it happens I found this

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/2009/04/07/do-testosterone-and-oestrogen-affect-our-attitudes-to-fairness-trust-risk-and-altruism/#.VBYUdfldXcA

    which gives some support to your null hypothesis, but the authors clearly didn’t think the answer was obvious in advance!

  41. aziraphale says

    @Richard Brum:

    “But how does one weed out Muslims in line at the airport, if not by appearance?” I agree, that’s difficult. But to take a concrete case, some members of mainly brown-skinned Muslim communities in the UK have gone to fight with jihadis in Iraq and Syria. If you are hoping to pick them up at an airport, brown skin is an obvious first marker to use. Some Muslims are also kind enough to self-identify by the style of their clothes or beards.
    I also agree that some Islamophobia is rooted in racism, or perhaps more accurately that Islamophobia and racism are both facets of a more general syndrome which includes fear of the stranger and a conviction of one’s own superiority. But my own fear of and hostility to ISIS and similar extreme Muslim factions are based solely on their actions. I feel confident in saying this because my feelings towards Islam were generally positive before 9/11.

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