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A letter to Michael Shermer

This morning I was pointed toward a post written by Dr. Michael Shermer, a prominent skeptic, author, and neuroscientist. In it, he responds to an article by author and fellow FTBorg Ophelia Benson in which she sharply critiques the acceptance of stereotypes about the agency and willingness of women to speak up in skeptical circles, using a snippet of an statement that Dr. Shermer said in an interview: that while the gender ratio of non-belief is probably roughly even, it may be that men are more willing to speak up about it, which is one explanation of why it is more difficult to book female atheists for interviews.

I encourage you to read both Ophelia’s article and Dr. Shermer’s response first. My response is below:

Hello Dr. Shermer,

I remember watching the interview in question and being annoyed by your response to the question of why it was more difficult to find female atheists to join discussions. Your response, that speaking out might simply be “a guy thing”, was non-controversial but nonetheless disappointing, because this is not a question about which there is no information. You are, by your own admission, aware of the growing role that feminist discourse has been playing in the skeptic community overall in the past number of years. And yet, despite your awareness of its existence, your response betrayed no hint that you had listened to or understood anything that had been said by those voices – which is not to say that you haven’t, but there was certainly nothing in your “guy thing” response that suggests you have.

Let’s rewind the clock a bit and look at the context into which your statement was spoken.

A number of years ago (and I will freely admit that I don’t know how many years, as someone who is relatively new to this particular discussion), skeptics became aware that their community was strongly skewed toward a particular demographic: older white men*. As skeptics are wont to do, people began to ask “why is this the case?” From that question, a discussion began – what could the skeptical community do to address the gender disparity and increase the number of women in active roles?

Now I was not in the room, or even in the movement, when these discussions initially happened. As a result, I don’t know (nor do I really care) who initially said “well skepticism is a guy thing – women aren’t as active within the sciences, so there are fewer of them. Nothing to be done about it, chaps!” What I do know is that someone said this, and I know that because this line of ‘reasoning’ has been used as an explanation for disparities of all kinds stretching back into antiquity. It was (and still is) used to explain the lack of visible minorities at the top of academia or business, it was (and is) used to explain why there were fewer female politicians than male ones – it is the ‘go-to’ explanation whenever a group who had been historically excluded is not proportionately represented once active exclusion stops.

The reason why this explanation is so seductive is perhaps twofold: first, it has a certain amount of casual plausibility. It certainly may explain why some women are not active in the skeptical movement – a simple question of who is socialized to be aggressive, versus who is socialized to be passive. Nothing particularly controversial there, right? The second reason, however, is the problematic one: it excuses any semblance of responsibility on behalf of the group to make any adjustment to its behaviour. The door has been opened; women are keeping themselves out. Oh well, nothing to do about it.

That explanation was more or less in vogue when I entered the online skeptical community, but it quickly gave way to a new idea: let’s ask women why they’re not participating. In response to this new line of inquiry, a number of recurring themes began to emerge. Some women felt perfectly comfortable and welcome within the community and felt no need for it to change. Others gave different explanations: financial burdens, conflicting time pressures, lack of interest. Still others pointed out that skeptics were drawn from a segment of the population that has a male bias - fewer female scientists means fewer female skeptics. It’s not exactly rocket surgery.

However, one simply could not ignore the sizeable portion of the community who pointed to a culture of harassment, dismissal, and in many cases outright hostility that existed within the population of skeptics. Women who were treated as objects when attending conferences; women who had been verbally or physically assaulted at meetups, often with no response from the organizations hosting the events; women who were subjected to disgusting and terrifying behaviour in online forums for simply speaking up about a topic they were interested in.

You said in your article that the only way to answer the question of why women don’t attend events is to do a full survey. I disagree – that may be the best way to identify the size and scope of problems but it is hardly the only one. Even granting the validity of your statement for the sake of argument, studies of this topic have been conducted: harassment and mistreatment of women for being women is a problem within the community. Even by your own standard, this explanation of the source of the discrepancy (at least in part) cannot be ignored. And yet your response did completely ignore it.

Others, however, focussed on that explanation as something that we could fix. We may not, for example, be in a position to fix gender stereotypes in society at large, but we sure as hell can start to do something about harassment and assault. This discussion requires an understanding of gender and its sociological underpinnings – in other words, feminism. Conversations about socially-constructed gender roles quickly and necessarily expanded into a conversation about patriarchy – a culture of male entitlement to women’s bodies, of male supremacy, of the policing of what it was that we were being subtly taught about how men and women “should” behave. All of these pieces and more were necessary to redesign our community events to make it possible for those women who feared the prospect of harassment and assault for their mere existence in the skeptical sphere to feel safe enough to participate.

And this aspect of it is what frustrated me about your interview, but more so your response to Ophelia’s article. Without wanting to delve too much into it, and certainly without wishing to speculate about your motivations, I found your response to be particularly tone-deaf and at times riddled with straw men arguments**. Even the lede of your response, in which you (or the editors of eSkeptic, I am not sure) state that you have been vilified as “the embodiment of misogyny” is grossly inaccurate. Ophelia used your statement, whose truncation does not affect her thesis whatsoever, to demonstrate the fact that stereotypes are offered and accepted in the place of evidence when attempting to explain gender inequalities. Your explanation that speaking up (not, I am happy to agree, being a non-believer) is “a guy thing” is part of a cluster of stereotypes that ignores a wealth of knowledge about the role that discrimination and other kinds of social punishment plays in behaviour that falls along gendered lines. Rather than saying “I don’t know,” or “there are a lot of reasons”, you instead pivoted immediately to “it’s a guy thing” – a problematic response for a skeptic, I’m sure you’d agree.

At the risk of going on forever, I wish to address two more elements of your response that bothered me. The first stems from this statement:

…I do not believe that the fact that the secular community does not contain the precise percentage of blacks, Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans as in the general population, means that all of us in the secular community are racists, explicitly or implicitly.

I would not accept this argument from Newt Gingrich in defense of the GOP, and I doubt you would either. What the recent election showed us pretty clearly is that nobody in the Republican Party thinks that any of them are “racists***” , and yet their policies and their rhetoric are obviously racist, and their voter base is profoundly monochromatic as a direct result. This is not a controversial statement – even some voices within the Republican Party are beginning to admit that. I do not know, therefore, why you think that this argument holds up when discussing the skeptical community. There are profound gender-based and race-based disincentives to participation in many spheres, especially those that are dominated by white men. Your response to those disincentives is, again, to say “nothing to be done about them”, and that in the absence of “some other evidence” you feel no obligation to make any changes. That is your prerogative, of course, but people of colour and women are aware, and have been aware of what these disincentives are, and what the voices of those who are not willing to listen sound like. Like the Republican Party, you are free to deny any obligation on your part to listen and adjust – but it would be hypocritical of you to then profess bewilderment when those groups do not participate (and inaccurate to explain it as “a white thing”).

The second, by way of closing this letter, stems from this statement:

Is there anything I could say that would not confirm readers’ beliefs? Denial is what true witches (and bigots, racists, and misogynists) do.

This couplet is absurd in the extreme, and maybe now that I have pulled it out from the rest of the paragraph maybe you will see the problem: you assume that denial or silence are your only options. A few days ago I was taken to task for a careless attempt at humour at the expense of people with cognitive disabilities. While I didn’t see the harm in the ‘joke’, a number of people were understandably quite upset with me. My instinct, of course, was to defend myself by explaining the joke, or by trying to justify it, or by complaining about the tone of the criticisms. That is natural – I do not see myself as “a bigot” or having any active antipathy toward people with disabilities. However, because I know that my intention is immaterial when it comes to the harm my statement causes, I knew that my denials would not serve me at all. Instead, I gave them the benefit of the doubt**** and tried to understand the comment from their perspective. As a result, I apologized and edited the offending line.

I was not asked to debase myself, or wear sackcloth and ashes, or get kicked out of atheism, or any of the paranoid fantasies that are conjured by that segment of the skeptical community who belligerently obsess over the social justice conversation. I was asked to apologize. And I did. And then nothing else happened. You had (and probably still have) the option to do the same. Your way forward is to simply acknowledge that your statement was an unfortunate error, that you acknowledge that your use of stereotype was mistaken, and that you will try to have a better response to the question if you are asked it again in the future. That’s all. You are not being burned at the stake, Dr. Shermer – you are being called upon to recognize your mistake and apologize.

From my experience with you and your work (and I am a fan), I think you are capable of a mature, thinking response, and I look forward to hearing one from you.

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*Whether this awareness was born of well-intentioned introspection or the repeated insistence of female skeptics is a worthy discussion, but one that does not affect my thesis, and is best saved for another time.

**The most notable of which was your repeated admonishment for us to focus on the “real misogynyists” and the “real racists” – a derailing tactic that is better suited to a speech at the Republican National Convention than it is in a discussion among learned people.

***A red herring term that I deplore for reasons I explain here.

****A concept that I see from your response you understand, but that you evidently think should be applied to you but seemingly not to anyone else.