It is more or less inevitable that, in any discussion of turmoil within a social movement, there will be those who archly perch atop some combination of a high horse and a fence, raining down tongue-clucking pronouncements about how the mere existence of dissent is the reason why they will never get involved. I suppose if one was being charitable, one could interpret this as an impulse to avoid conflict. After all, not everyone wants to jump into the midst of a fight, and I can certainly sympathize with that impulse. Some people simply want to exist and be at peace without having to ‘pick a side’ between factions that should be united in purpose.
Of course, the question becomes why those who wish to avoid conflict so ostentatiously announce themselves to be above it rather than just butting out the way they claim to want to do. Standing up on a soapbox and doing the whole ‘plague on both your houses’ lecture is not a statement of non-involvement; it’s a statement of philosophical purity and superiority. “I would never lower myself to so crass a level as to care about something and fight for it. How vulgar!” It is the same spirit of false equivalence we are so often ‘treated’ to from faitheists who would hush Gnu atheists for being ‘too strident’ and ‘attacking’ religious folks instead of engaging in a sort of faux-ecumenical hand-holding exercise where we hold our noses and pretend each other’s shit doesn’t stink.
So no, as much as I would like to grant the benefit of the doubt to the Chris Mooneys of the world, I will not pretend not to notice the contempt with which the tone trolls hover disapprovingly around any internal debate within the freethinking community. You’ve probably guessed at this point that I’m talking specifically about the latest round in a long-line of dust-ups over the treatment of female skeptics and the subsequent dismissal of their concerns. It seems like every time anyone mentions anything to do (even obliquely) with Rebecca Watson, a chorus of idiotic voices arise. To be sure, the worst offenders are those who decide to use the opportunity to showcase their ridiculous retrograde stupidity, but there is always a depressing number of people who decide instead to accuse both sides of needing to ‘take it down a notch’ or wonder why we can’t just be ‘on the same side’ or that they have ‘better things to do’.
First of all, this fight is fundamentally a fight about how we address sloppy and uninformed thought processes, not just about sex and gender, but about how we respond to pseudoscientific claims. The comments section of pretty much any open thread about feminism will be replete with phony ‘explanations’ for why women are just not cut out for scientific thinking, or how assault victims are just in it for the attention, or how ‘uppity cunt’ or ‘bitch’ are just value-neutral generic insults that have nothing to do with gender. These are the ‘why are there still monkeys’ retorts of an unthinking mind presented with a reality that does not conform to their worldview laden with stereotypes and mental shortcuts.
This movement is deeply interested in these lazy thought processes, because they are the exact same type of heuristics that give us pretty much everything that makes religion so appealing and dangerous. It is unbelievably foolish of us to pretend that we can use our skeptical toolbox to decry (often derisively) the intellect of those who would devote their lives to Christian apologetics, but then not fight over the exact same lazy approach that gives us “Men’s Rights Activists”, “Race Realists”, Randian Libertarians, and any other group that wishes to avail itself of the fruits of rational inquiry without subjecting their own ideas to its critical gaze.
So no, we don’t have something ‘better to do’ than fight about feminism – it’s the exact same fight we’re having against religion.
The second thing that I think gets overlooked by the denizens of the fence is the fact that internal struggle is a good thing. The freethinking community is full of people who clearly feel not only comfortable enough to raise these issues, but expect to receive some kind of audience. I saw a lot of this during the Occupy movement, where minority groups were (sometimes) being listened to in a serious way, often for the first time. Yes, there were a lot of folks clamouring that Occupy was supposed to be about income inequality and nothing else, and that getting side-tracked on issues of systemic racism, sexism, and social policy that was anything besides ‘regulate the banks, tax the rich’ was just a “distraction” from the “real issues”. However, those ‘side issues’ were an integral part of the overall problem, and Occupy was (and is) the appropriate venue to begin tackling them.
In the same way, the freethinking community prides itself on using rational, evidence-based inquiry to address problems. We are a group of people who, far more than the general population, know how to spot logical fallacies and work through dubious claims. It is perhaps principally for that very reason that we are having this fight – not because it’s a ‘distraction’, but because it’s at the core of who we are. And yes, we are going to keep having this fight over and over, because it is one of several topics on which the self-contradiction of our own beliefs often makes us lead with our chins.
So while I sympathize with those who would rather not have to keep dealing with these issues, I have no comforting words for you. Because we are thinkers, and noticers, and arguers, we will continue to think about, notice, and argue about feminist issues. As we become more vocal and effective at discussing the flaws of religion, I imagine that there are fewer and fewer people who are walking around completely oblivious to the flaws in theist arguments. In the same way, the more we discuss feminism, anti-racism, gender and other social issues, the fewer people there will be who find it easy to retreat into the same tired arguments that excused their ignorance in the past.
Yes, we are having this fight. Yes, we are having it again, and yes we will likely keep having it. And that’s a good thing, because as the adage says, it’s always darkest before dawn.
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