I Am Not Your Sword and Shield

A long-ago conversation has been haunting me somewhat of late. One of my friends had gotten into a rather heated argument with a woman who, although never having been through it, thought being raped was the absolute worst thing that could ever happen to a woman.

“No, it’s not!” I said, incredulous. “It’s horrible, yeah, but I can think of worse things. Being murdered, death of a child…”

And, since I’m a rape survivor, my friend thought I’d be a good counter-authority if she ever broached the topic again.

But here’s the thing I didn’t quite grasp in those days: I am one data point, not the World’s Authority. Yes, it’s true: while I think rape is one of the worst, but not the worst, crimes that can be committed against a woman (or any human of any sex or gender, not to mention any sentient creature), I’m just one survivor. I don’t speak for us all. Just because I can think of things that, to me, would be worse than rape doesn’t mean rape isn’t the absolute worst thing that might happen to someone else. It doesn’t mean those who think it is the worst are wrong or irrational for thinking so.

You cannot use me as a shield against their points. You can’t use me as your sword to strike them down.

I refuse to be used. Image courtesy Very Demotivational.

I refuse to be used. Image courtesy Very Demotivational.

Take it further. The man I had this conversation with would never question the fact that rape is devastating and traumatic. He wouldn’t demand anyone who’s been raped to just “get over it.” I was his shield only in the specific context of defending his position that there are at least a few things that could be done to a woman that are worse than rape, and this was in the context of an actual academic debate. But what if he’d used me to attack a victim who wasn’t able to recover from her rape? What if he was using the fact I’d survived my ordeal without professional psychological help to argue that all women should do the same?

He’s be wrong. Fractally wrong.

So that’s a thing I’d like understood: I’m one person. You can’t expect every other woman in the world to be like me. And you are not allowed to use me as your sword and shield against other women.

“Dana did/does/thinks X” is not a defense, it’s a data point.

I think that’s what really infuriates me when the people caught doing sexist or misogynistic things whip out their Token Female Friend. “This woman friend likes having her legs chewed without consent!” Wonderful – but that doesn’t change the fact that many women don’t. “My girlfriend calls other women crazy bitches all the time!” That’s true, but the fact she sees nothing wrong with an abelist and gendered slur doesn’t mean this is safe language for you to employ. “But I’ve heard you talk about how evil women are!” Yes, and I was wrong, and sexist, and have since realized I should stop being a horrible person. When will you?

Don’t try to use me as your defense against the indefensible, your weapon against my fellow women. You may use me as a data point for thoughtful consideration. That is all.

Sexist is Something You Do, Not Necessarily Who You Are

Chances are, you’re going to do something sexist. We’re living in cultures drowning in sexism. We’ve been raised with it; we’re swimming in it; like air, we’re so immersed in it we’re often barely aware of it. Makes it rather inevitable we’ll do or say something more or less sexist.

Yes, I said “we.” I’m not exempt. I say or think or do something sexist at least once a day, and that’s just the stuff I’m aware of. Constant battle, this, overcoming sexism.

Does this make me a sexist? Not especially.

And that’s the thing, isn’t it, that you must remember when you’re being called out on something you’ve said or done, some act or omission on your part. We’re imperfect human beings swimming in a sea of sexism, and we’re going to fuck up. Inevitably.

But fucking up doesn’t make someone a sexist. Just makes you a person who did a sexist thing. What makes you something else is what happens next.

Do you apologize and make a course correction? Reassess certain of your assumptions? Continue working against sexism and misogyny rather than, oh, say, running off in a snit to join up with certain of the community who revel in gendered slurs? Then it’s quite doubtful you actually are an actual sexist.

We all slip up sometimes. Image courtesy I Can Has Cheezburger.

We all slip up sometimes. Image courtesy I Can Has Cheezburger.

If, on the other hand, you howl in protest and scream about vicious witch hunts and insist the things you did or said aren’t a problem, then you begin to be a bit questionable. And if you really believe you’re not sexist because science proves the sexes are totes different, and besides, you can do whatever you like because reasons, then there’s an excellent chance you’ve crossed the line somewhere and become a really-real sexist. (In which case, do come see me when you’ve had an epiphany and wish to shed your sexist prat nature. I’ll be glad to help. Until that happy day, kindly fuck off.)

Most of us aren’t complete prats. So, chances are good you’re not a really-real sexist, but have merely screwed up. No need to feel like you’re the scum of the earth, because you’re not. No need to get ultra-defensive and proclaim you’re not a sexist from every rooftop, because it’s probably already clear you’re not, and even if it isn’t, it will be once you’ve issued a thoughtful response. You’ve been chastised, not convicted and sentenced. Your life is not in ruins, your reputation is not in tatters; you have not been branded with a scarlet S and banished to dwell forever among the dregs of society.

You’re just in the midst of a learning experience. You can make it out intact, tactfully, and with your non-sexist creds fully established.

Think You Care About Women? Stop a Moment and Read This

Kylie found this incredible piece of writing that should be widely shared. It’s called “Sleepwalking into Sexism,” and it’s by Harriet Page. I’ve included a long excerpt here; the piece itself is much longer, and every single sentence is worth reading. I’d like it if everyone reads this. I’ll settle for a few sleepwalking sexists, male and female, who need to be jolted awake before they do damage to self and others.

No matter what you have to do to get there, read it. Now.

There’s a rule that you shouldn’t wake sleepwalkers – the sudden transition into consciousness can be terrifying. My little sister can testify to the fact that on the one occasion that she woke me mid-somnambulance, I was so surprised I slapped her face. It’s startling to suddenly find that you’re not where you thought you were and, moreover, that you have no idea how you got there.

And, in a way, this is exactly what happens when nice, reasonable men who call themselves feminists are called out on their unconsciously sexist behaviour and attitudes. These men have sleepwalked contentedly through the minefield of gender relations without ever having cause to question what they’re doing and then BAM. Some crazy feminist with no regard for how scary and disorienting it’s going to be comes along and wakes them up with the rude news that, actually, they have unintentionally been engaging in some pretty sexist behaviour.

The result is, metaphorically speaking, the slap to the face that I gave my sister. She was the one who woke me from my comfortable reverie, and my instinctive response was to defend myself with a rapid attack. In her case, it was an ill-deserved slap. In the case of sleepwalking sexists, the responses are more varied. It might be immediate, unhinged abuse – ‘Crazy bitch, you must be on your period or something’. It might be icy politeness and contempt – ‘I’d thank you not to be so aggressive, it’s completely unnecessary’. It might be fake concern – ‘You maybe don’t realise it, but when you attack men like me who are only trying to help, it hurts the whole cause of feminism’. Whatever the method used, the result is the same; instead of reflecting on their own behaviour and attitudes, these men will retreat into an impenetrable defensive fortress.


This is the hard truth that must be learned; if you are one of those men who looks for these slip-ups, then you are NOT a feminist. If you are one of those men who believes in equality in some vague and idealistic way, but then turns on a woman the second she says something that remotely implicates you or the people you share a common chromosome with in something you don’t like, you are NOT a feminist. If you believe that a woman has to reward your attempts at feminism with niceness, like a dog getting a treat for a trick, you are NOT a feminist.

Being a feminist means believing ALL the time, regardless of whether women are nice to you, that the struggle for gender equality is on-going and real and essential. It means condemning all those ‘harmless’ little jokes about nagging women, female drivers and periods because you recognise that from the fertile soil of casual, unconscious sexism sprout the seeds of justification for serious assault. It means making the connection between a joke about a woman who bares her breasts on screen in the portrayal of a rape, and the man who thinks it’s funny to grope a woman in a club because she has cleavage showing and Hollywood tells us that boobs exist purely for sexual entertainment. Being a feminist is not about wanting equality for women because they’re nice to you. It’s about fighting for women every single day because you believe that they are human and that humanity is worth defending regardless of how nice, kind, clever, rude, attractive, funny, accommodating or mean the woman in question is.

Read the whole piece. I wish it had been there in the days when I needed the not-exactly-short, but definitely sharp, shock.

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Damn Sensible Advice

My stepmother posted this in her timeline, and it seems quite apropos.

Sage advice. Image courtesy Shut the Front Door.

Sage advice. Image courtesy Shut the Front Door.

Damn skippy I’m not. Never have been – I don’t have this diplomatic tendency to run about trying to make everyone all harmonize together. I don’t mind patiently talking to someone whose point of view differs from mine, as long as they aren’t actively malevolent or pushing my rage buttons. It’s nice to sometimes persuade people to change their minds, or to change my own when the situation warrants it. Even if we have to agree to leave a subject alone because we’re too many worlds apart, that’s okay – as long as they’re not calling someone else’s humanity or bodily autonomy into question.

But the haters? Yeah, fuck ‘em. There are some people swimming in the deep end of the cesspool, and I’m sorry, but I haven’t got the stomach to try fishing them out. Getting splashed with their sewage feels disgusting and the smell’s hard to wash out. The only time I want to talk to a hater is just when they’re considering that they might, just possibly, have been engaging in reprehensible behavior, and would like to ask my advice on how to clean up. (My advice, if anyone in the audience has just climbed out of a cesspit: hose the worst of it off yourself, apologize sincerely to those you’ve splashed filth all over, and then continue scrubbing. All will be well, though it might take more time and effort than you expected.)

This from now on will be my response to those who want me to make nice with the champion assbags: “I’m not the Jerk Whisperer.” Go elsewhere if you’re wanting someone to crawl up and lick the hands of haters. I’m too busy for lost causes.

Ensuring Women Remain Part of the Secular Movement

Having your consciousness raised is interesting. It’s a strange sensation, seeing the scenes that previously wouldn’t have caused a single eyelash to step up to the plate, spit on its hands, and prepare to bat. Then it’s pointed out to you that something’s wrong with the picture, and your eyelashes resemble the batter’s cage at a baseball stadium during spring training. I don’t think you ever really get used to it. And good thing, too, because we have a lot of scenes that should cause some consternation.

What is seen... cannot be unseen


Earlier this year, Secular Woman compiled the number of women and men working for 15 secular organizations in a staff or board capacity. We found that staff were comprised of 46% women and 54% men while the boards were 31% women and 69% men. The leaders of these organizations were 29% women and 71% men. In every capacity men outnumber women, particularly when it comes to positions of power and leadership (i.e. boards and heads of organizations).

Pre-consciousness raising, I’d have shrugged those numbers off. The culture around me had taught me two things: women can do anything they set their minds to, and women are awful. Ergo, lack of women at the top wasn’t anything to worry about: more of them could’ve gotten there if they weren’t so horrible. Or busy chasing hair, clothes, boys and babies. Or whatever it is feminine chicks do. I dunno, cuz I’m a tomboy, so I’m not one of those no good, terrible, awful, very bad women.

Then some folks pointed out to me that no, women aren’t actually aren’t horrible and awful at all, and rumors of equality have been greatly exaggerated. It took time and repetition and lots of people I trusted saying it before it sank in, but it eventually did. And so, these days, when I look at numbers like the above, my eyebrows knit, my eyes narrow, and my eyelashes pick up a Louisville Slugger.

I don’t talk about it as often as I should. For one thing, there are strong women and men on this network (listed in here) who say these things better than I. For another, I get buried in geology research, and it’s easier just to throw up a UFD or other such mystery. But that doesn’t mean I don’t read, and consider, and apply my eyeballs to the world around me, and notice the ten billion and one ways in which it’s still rather wretched to women, transgender folk, people of color, gays and lesbians and bisexuals and other such queer folk, and others who don’t fit the rather narrow conception society had of the ideal human (straight, white, male, Western, and Christian). It’s budged a bit, now that we uppity minorities came along with our Louisville Slugger-equipped eyelashes and started glaring meaningfully at the status quo. But really, we’ve only just begun to glare.

One of the results of all that meaningful glaring has been this Secular Woman piece: Opportunity and Access in the Freethought Movement. There is an unflinching look at why women may choose to give the freethought movement a miss, and a study or two, and then some solid suggestions. Not all of them will be ones organizations will wish to implement. But they’re the kinds of things that organizations should consider doing if they are serious about ensuring women remain within the secular and freethought movements.

Aside from that very vocal contingent that thinks hurling abuse at women is the height of sophisticated discourse, this movement has made strides. It’s not a solid sea of older white male faces out there writing popular blogs and speaking and leading. I’m seeing women and color, a rainbow of ages and sexualities, and eventually I’m sure we’ll have an even broader spectrum, with more visibility for people with disabilities. But this won’t happen if we declare our work finished, if we shut up and sit down, if we don’t keep pushing for a better and more diverse secular movement. Or should I say, movements? There are many movements that share some core goals and differ on others. That’s how it should be. We don’t need a monolithic movement. The world is too fucked up, and too many of us have too many different perspectives to offer, for that. But we do need all those various movements to work hard to ensure women and people of color and LGBTQ folk and all of that diversity doesn’t get disregarded, disrespected, and discarded.

We’re freethinkers, for fuck’s sake. We’ve been the agents of social change for thousands of years. We can’t fall at the last fence and congratulate ourselves on a job well done. We can’t let our consciousness slide back into torpor. Not now, not ever.

None of this is easy. No one ever said it would be. So, onward.

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A Refresher for Allies

Recently, I watched a conversation among allies go sadly awry. This was a private venue and I won’t repeat the specifics. They’re not necessary, really: gather together a mixed collection of people whose goals are similar but backgrounds are not, and you can watch the same thing happen. The folks in the group that are members of whatever minority or underprivileged group will eventually end up in the unenviable position of explaining to members of the the majority or privileged group that the tactic they think is so clever is problematic. Rather than admitting this is so and dropping the subject, members of the privileged group tend to dig in. It looks something like this:

Privileged Person A: Making fun of racists by using racist stereotypes to show them how stupid those stereotypes are – brilliant!

Minority Member A: Um, no, because it risks reinforcing stereotypes. Also, splash damage.

PPA: I don’t see it that way because reasons.

MMA, with B, C and D chiming in: It’s a problem.

PPA: Okay, it’s a problem for you. I totally get that. But it’s brilliant! Because reasons.

MMA, B, C and D: Collective headdesk.

As a person who’s a member of some privileged groups, and also a member of some non-privileged groups, I’ve experienced both sides. When I’m wearing my Privileged Person hat, I’ve had to learn something important: when non-privileged people are speaking, it’s time for me to shut up, listen, and then go away for a good think before defending my position.

It’s hard. I admit that. It’s bloody hard to have non-privileged people tell me that something I love, or something I think is a brilliant tactic for confronting injustice, is problematic. I want to get defensive. I want to find reasons they’re wrong. I want to go on loving my problematic something, or using the brilliant but problematic technique. I want to wave away the problems. The non-privileged person just doesn’t understand, or can’t see it for what it is, or is wrong. Right?

Possibly. But I’ve learned they’re right the overwhelming majority of the time, and especially when the lines break cleanly between privileged and non-privileged, it’s up to me to shut the fuck up, listen carefully, reconsider my assumptions, and try to see things through their eyes. Even when they haven’t been nice about it. Even when emotions are running high. Even when I think it’s a fun argument to have. Even if I think I’m right.

After watching that conversation go horribly awry because the privileged weren’t listening to the non-privileged members of the group, I headed off to spelunk the intertoobz for a few refresher posts. In addition to important work by our own bloggers – Greta Christina, Stephanie Zvan, Ophelia Benson, Jason Thibeault, Jen McCreight, Crommunist, Natalie Reed, Zinnia Jones, Ashley F. Miller, Avicenna, Paul Fidalgo, Miri, and PZ Meyers – there’s quite a lot out there helping allies become better allies. This is but a tiny sampling.

Hershele Ostropoler’s foot-stepping analogy is always critical to remember. It covers allies and non-allies alike.

If you step on my foot, you need to get off my foot.

If you step on my foot without meaning to, you need to get off my foot.

If you step on my foot without realizing it, you need to get off my foot.

If everyone in your culture steps on feet, your culture is horrible, and you need to get off my foot.

If you have foot-stepping disease, and it makes you unaware you’re stepping on feet, you need to get off my foot. If an event has rules designed to keep people from stepping on feet, you need to follow them. If you think that even with the rules, you won’t be able to avoid stepping on people’s feet, absent yourself from the event until you work something out.

If you’re a serial foot-stepper, and you feel you’re entitled to step on people’s feet because you’re just that awesome and they’re not really people anyway, you’re a bad person and you don’t get to use any of those excuses, limited as they are. And moreover, you need to get off my foot.

Sometimes, a refresher on what privilege is and why it can lead to inadvertent foot-stomping is a necessary thing.

The fact that people are stupid isn’t news, however. And actually that’s kind of why the concept of privilege is important – because privilege isn’t about being stupid. It’s not a bad thing, or a good thing, or something with a moral or value judgement of any kind attached to it. Having privilege isn’t something you can usually change, but that’s okay, because it’s not something you should be ashamed of, or feel bad about. Being told you have privilege, or that you’re privileged, isn’t an insult. It’s a reminder! The key to privilege isn’t worrying about having it, or trying to deny it, or apologize for it, or get rid of it. It’s just paying attention to it, and knowing what it means for you and the people around you. Having privilege is like having big feet. No one hates you for having big feet! They just want you to remember to be careful where you walk.

This reminder of what allies are was written for allies of autistic people, but applies to allies of any people.

But here’s the thing: if you are trying to be an ally, you need to recognize that it’s not about you. If you are talking over Autistics or otherwise bringing the discussion back to center on ‘allies’, you are not a real ally. Real allies tell these people “don’t do that shit. This isn’t about you.”

If you are really an ally, you are not going to make it about your feelings. Declaring yourself an ally isn’t something you get to do. If you are really fighting with us and for us, it should be because it’s right, not because you want an “Ally!” sticker for your Good Person collection.

A conditional ally, by the way, is not an ally at all. Anyone who says they’d be for your cause if you weren’t so mean/if you personally educated them on every issue/if you were more appreciative is not an ally. Again, it’s not about the privileged group’s feelings here-it’s about equal rights and about our very existence. My exasperation with nearly everything does not reduce my personhood or the fact that I should have equal rights.

The following article address that distress we privileged folk feel when being called out, and why we really need to get the fuck over ourselves. This snippet begins with a quote from a person talking about the Chik-fil-A explosion, and ends with a reminder that while the Distress of the Privileged is real, it’s not as painful as the Distress of the Non-Privileged, and we need to face that fact.

“This isn’t about mutual tolerance because there’s nothing mutual about it. If we agree to disagree on this issue, you walk away a full member of this society and I don’t. There is no “live and let live” on this issue because Dan Cathy is spending millions to very specifically NOT let me live. I’m not trying to do that to him.”


Confronting this distress is tricky, because neither acceptance nor rejection is quite right. The distress is usually very real, so rejecting it outright just marks you as closed-minded and unsympathetic. It never works to ask others for empathy without offering it back to them.

At the same time, my straight-white-male sunburn can’t be allowed to compete on equal terms with your heart attack. To me, it may seem fair to flip a coin for the first available ambulance, but it really isn’t. Don’t try to tell me my burn doesn’t hurt, but don’t consent to the coin-flip.

We also need to remember the very real difference between offense and harm.

Mocking the powerful and privileged for those characteristics society arbitrarily uses as a basis for according that power and privilege reverses, rather than participating in and reinforcing, the cultural narrative that justifies their privilege (and that in so doing necessarily justifies the marginalization and oppression of the powerless and unprivileged).  Mocking the powerless and unprivileged for those characteristics society arbitrarily uses as a basis for their marginalization does participate in and reinforce the narratives that justify that marginalization.

These things build up.  Over a lifetime, they build up a great deal: these usually-unspoken cultural narratives are precisely the stuff of implicit bias, and we’re soaking in them.  It’s a mistake to object to them as merely “offensive” — tacitly accepting that the inherently subjective idea of offense is of primary importance, which enables the privileged in claiming, confident it can’t be disproved or even argued against, that they’re “offended” by challenges to their privilege: or as Fred Clark has it, empowers the cult of offendedness — instead of pointing out that they do real harm.  They offend too, to be sure; and it’s unkind to offend on  purpose, or to fail to apologize for giving offense.  But the much greater harm lies in strengthening, even though it’s only a little bit at a time, the negative stories about marginalized groups that are woven into our society, both in the minds of the privileged, and of the marginalized people themselves.

This piece on privilege, politeness, and teaching was written about racism, but you can substitute sexism, ageism, ableism, or a variety of other -isms. Allies need to absorb this bit, because it will save butts from being hurt when tempers flare.

So if you say something racist I may write a detailed reply pointing it out and teaching a bit. I may also go off. Or I may just ignore it. It all depends. Depends on if I just spent the whole day dealing with racism, if I know you, if I think you can learn, if it’s something that’s been repeated over and over and I’m tired of dealing with it and think that you as an (assumed) intelligent person should know better. But you know what they say “If if was a fifth we’d all be drunk.” The point is I should not be expected to respond to racism with a happy-go-lucky smile and a will to teach. I’m not saying it’s okay to say ‘You stupid shit how dare you write this!’ There is a difference between being angry when addressing racism (or sarcastic or “rude”) and insulting people.

See this post has been brewing a long time which is maybe why I seem so “angry” or “rude”. I’ve noticed that when discussions of racism happen online the posts that go up in the aftermath, even some of the ones that address and acknowledge the issues of racism in the incident still say “They didn’t have to be rude about it. There was no call for it.” or “If they had just been more polite the person would have listened.” or some other variation (they of course referring to POC). What these people fail to understand is that if you’ve said something racist and fucked up you’ve already been rude to me. You’ve already offended me and ignorance is no excuse because you are a grown person, you can read, you can research, you can figure out how to treat people with respect and equality.

Here is a missive reminding us that molehills, while perhaps not as lofty or noticeable as the Alps, are still damned important in the aggregate:

And, in a very real way, ignoring “the little things” in favor of “the big stuff” makes the big stuff that much harder to eradicate, because it is the pervasive, ubiquitous, inescapable little things that create the foundation of a sexist culture on which the big stuff is dependent for its survival. It’s the little things, the constant drumbeat of inequality and objectification, that inure us to increasingly horrible acts and attitudes toward women.

In conclusion, I’d like to point up two recent posts by my own Freethought bloggers. Stephanie Zvan on argument:

It’s different when the argument you’re being asked to engage in “for fun” is essentially the same argument you have to have over and over in order to be allowed to fully participate in society. Or, say, to avoid being beaten to death, depending on where you are and what the argument is.

I shouldn’t have to say it, but there’s no way that can be fun. It’s just more work, with very high stakes, that you can neither afford to skip nor allow yourself to lose.

And Paul Fidalgo on shutting up and listening:

Take this opportunity to see if you can understand how you were wrong, how what you said could hurt. Instead of a war of words to prove your equality-cred in the moment, decide to take in the criticism as a tool for next time. Use what you’ve learned to get better at expressing your ideas. Use what you’ve learned to better understand where people who have lived very different lives are coming from.

You’ll have so many chances in your life to be right. You’re a skepto-atheist, after all. But in times like this, it’s okay to be wrong. It’s okay, as long as when you have been called out, you take the opportunity to improve yourself through acceptance of the criticism.

Use what you’ve learned to become wiser.

All of us will find ourselves in a position of privilege amongst the non-privileged at some point in our lives. We’re much less likely to trod on already-trodden-upon feet if we pause, inhale, and remember the above. And when we’re wearing our non-privileged hats in mixed company, hopefully more of our allies will have taken the time to do the same.


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Beauties, Beasts, and a Lesson Most of Us Don’t Want To Learn

This is a good read, an important read, and I’d like you to read it all. Gyzym is gentle but firm in explaining why movies like Beauty and the Beast can be jarring for those who didn’t realize that the fairy tale is actually a classic domestic violence scenario.

That’s important to face. And for those who would rather not face it:

We can argue for media that doesn’t push the horrible shit we need to unlearn as a society to get to a healthier place, or we can point out the flaws in our preexisting media, or we can do both. But “Just shut up,” isn’t an option. “Just shut up,” can’t be an option, because we can’t keep playing the “Nobody told me because nobody told them,” card. Nothing will ever get better that way. Nothing will ever improve if we keep not telling people this shit.

People not shutting up and speaking hard truths to hear may have caused me some discomfort and made a few favorite films, songs and books impossible to enjoy without acknowledging their deep flaws, but those folks who said “No, I won’t shut up” and continued to speak the hard truths made me a better human being. When I get back to fiction, they’ll have made me a better writer telling better stories. And they’ve made me unwilling to shut up my own self, which may not be the popular thing, but is a necessary thing, so fuck if I’ll stop. Even if I end up with kids (not necessarily my own, mind you). Even if they groan and grump and implore me to STFU during their show. Like George Wiman said when he posted this link, this is “Why it’s important to do MST3K with your kids when you watch movies.” Because while there’s such a thing as willing suspension of disbelief, we need to be trained that suspending disbelief should be a conscious act, and revocable upon return to the real world.

Fiction is useless except as a panacea if we can’t use it to compare and contrast with our real-world lives, if we can’t use it to throw our conditions and relationships and societies into starker contrast, if it can’t help us think. Escapism is lovely, and I love engaging in it. We all do. But we need to be conscious what we’re escaping from, and escaping in to, and watch out that we don’t allow our lovely bit of escapism to subtly normalize very problematic things*. Performing the occasional MST3K exercise on movies we enjoy is good practice for recognizing problem patterns in life. It’s necessary for separating fiction from fact.
And for those who want to cry, “But it’s art! You don’t need to take it so seriously!!” I have just one thing to say: art was never advanced by people passively enjoying the status quo. “Just shut up” isn’t an option for life, but it isn’t an option for art, either. If you truly love art, you will give it no quarter.**

We can do better.

The Beast with a rose. Image courtesy Nieve44/Luz on Flickr.

The Beast with a rose. Art with a problematic message can still be loved and appreciated as art. It can help us navigate the complexities of our world. But only if we’re willing to engage it. Image courtesy Nieve44/Luz on Flickr.

*Read this link. I mean it. Miriam hadn’t even written it when I wrote this piece, but it’s like she’d read my mind and knew I had this post sitting in drafts, and wrote it for the line I inserted it in to, and it says much of what I intended to say, and more.

**Nothing in the above should be construed as advocating for the position that art must always faithfully reflect reality. Fuck that noise. When artists hold mirrors up to life, I like the glass to be at least a bit wibbly.

Warning: Fencesitters and Bystanders May Be Affected

At the risk of inviting a miasma of socks, I am going to talk about Womanspace once again. It’s important, and I’ve got a point to make.

There are a couple of open letters that are worth reading. Dr. O’s An open letter to Dr. Rybicki makes a very important point:

Maybe your short story isn’t the biggest issue out there concerning sexism, but it’s the little issues that are frequently the most dangerous. Little slights, which appear innocent enough on the surface, permeate our thoughts and actions without our conscious permission and ultimately DO have consequences, whether we intend for them to or not.

And when your small act of sexism, intentional or otherwise, ends up published in a venue the size of Nature, it has an outsize effect. This is why women and men spoke out. Silence would imply the issue is unimportant. It’s most certainly not. As any scientist who also happens to be a woman whether a culture of sexism harms, and chances are excellent she will tell you it does.

Of course, this wasn’t the worst act of sexism ever perpetrated in the entire history of civilization. And it would have probably died quite quietly if the author had possessed the humility and courage to utter just two words.

I’d have liked it if he had. But he chose to pour gasoline rather than balm, and we all know what happens when someone starts a fire on the internet. I’m not sorry it happened. Many excellent posts came out of it. Nature got put on notice, and so did anyone else who might have thought that a little light sexism was quite all right. Dust-ups like this raise awareness. And I want to talk about why that’s important.

I came across this tweet from Ed Yong after the whole fracas had died down a bit, and it struck me:

@ Ten years ago, I'd have reacted exactly as the "overrreaction" crowd did. These are great teaching examples.
Ed Yong

It struck me because I’ve been that person.

I wanted to make sure I’d understood Ed correctly, so I emailed him. I’m beginning to believe the rumors he’s some sort of android, because he emailed back immediately.

So before I became an active science blogger, I would have reacted to this with all the derailing tropes that are coming to the fore: you’re overreacting, he didn’t *intend* to offend anyone etc etc. Fortunately, I’ve been party to a lot of conversations with intelligent feminists, both female and male, since then, which have changed a lot of my view on gender issues. I’m immensely grateful for that.

In the responses of the “out-of-proportion” camp, I see a belief that always crops up in these debates: that “not-being-sexist” is somehow an easy, default position. Hence: it matters whether or not Rybicki intended to offend, because sexism would be an *active choice* over and above the baseline of not being sexist.

Which is rubbish. Not being sexist is hard. You’re pushing against unconscious biases, cultural norms, historically ingrained turns of speech, and more. Not being sexist requires an act of listening to, and learning from, the reactions of those who speak out against it, even if that may make you uncomfortable. It requires introspection, care, and effort.

Ed Yong, for those not familiar, is not only one of the best science bloggers on the planet and a person I follow on Twitter equally for the knowledge and the hilarity he tweets, he’s also one of those men who actually gets it, who understands what sexism is and does and that it must be fought. There’s a lot more now than there used to be, and it’s not because women shut up when told they’re “overreacting.”

This should sound familiar to any atheist in the crowd. There’s a steady drumbeat of voices urging us to tone it down, don’t rock the boat so hard, stop being so sensitive, etc. forever on and on. I’ve been seeing the same thing with talk about sexism, and I’ll be providing more examples quite soon, because there was a particularly egregious example just today. And it’s rubbish.

I know it’s rubbish because, like Ed, I was once in that camp. I stopped camping over there only because people kept talking. Shouting, sometimes. I’ve been that sneering person. The noisemakers were noisy and annoying and disturbed my peace. I wished they’d shut the fuck up and let me get on with ignoring various issues.

But all those voices eventually got my attention. They broke through the deliberate deafness. It becomes impossible to ignore many voices speaking out. It’s damnably difficult to ignore a variety of viewpoints on the subject. It’s impossible to ignore when someone you respect joins that diversity of voices. Like me, you may, eventually, end up giving those voices a hearing, fair or not. And you may end up changing your mind.

This is uncomfortable at first. None of us necessarily likes rethinking certain of our assumptions. There are issues we may not think are issues or would rather not hear about. And sometimes, the counter-chorus starts. We want the voices to go away. Shut up, or go somewhere they can’t be overheard at the very least. But if they shut up, nothing will ever change.

Some things need to change.

And some things do.

This is what’s so often missed in these furors. I’ve been told I’m wasting time. So have my fellow bloggers, both here at Freethought Blogs and all over the internet. Why are you preaching to the choir? Why waste your breath on people who won’t change their minds?

The secret, dear reader, is that we’re not always trying to reach the unreachable. Oh, it would be nice. If I meet Ed Rybicki several years from now, and he tells me this whole thing got him thinking, and even changed his thinking just a bit, don’t think I won’t buy him a celebratory drink. It would be brilliant if his consciousness got raised, and if all those people so quick to defend him calmed down and realized that no one ever hated Dr. Rybicki as a whole human, but were annoyed by his story and appalled that Nature would give a platform to something that showcased sexist ideas about both women and men. It would be wonderful if everybody realized that unconscious sexism and unintended offense are things worth addressing, and doing something about.

But that’s not who we’re after.

The next Ed Yong may be listening. The next Dana Hunter may be, right at this moment, taking pride in the fact she’s not like those hysterical females, without realizing that those females are not hysterical and, additionally, are watching out for her ass too. The next person whose consciousness is raised on this issue, or any number of other uncomfortable issues folks wish we’d just shut up about, is out there, sitting on a fence or standing by.

That’s why speaking out is important. That’s why we won’t stop.

In This Case, Gonna Have to Say “Down With the Revolution!”

I’d really never thought of Google’s “real names” policy like this – but the Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal calls it “revolutionary”:

Imagine you’re walking down the street and you say out loud, “Down with the government!” For all non-megastars, the vast majority of people within earshot will have no idea who you are. They won’t have access to your employment history or your social network or any of the other things that a Google search allows one to find. The only information they really have about you is your physical characteristics and mode of dress, which are data-rich but which cannot be directly or easily connected to your actual identity. In my case, bystanders would know that a 5’9″, 165 pound probably Caucasian male with half a beard said, “Down with the government!” Neither my speech or the context in which it occurred is preserved. And as soon as I leave the immediate vicinity, no one can definitively prove that I said, “Down with the government!”

In your head, adjust the settings for this thought experiment (you say it at work or your hometown or on television) or what you say (something racist, something intensely valuable, something criminal) or who you are (child, celebrity, politician) or who is listening (reporters, no one, coworkers, family). What I think you’ll find is that we have different expectations for the publicness and persistence of a statement depending on a variety of factors. There is a continuum of publicness and persistence and anonymity. But in real life, we expect very few statements to be public, persistent, and attached to your real identity. Basically, only people talking on television or to the media can expect such treatment. And even then, the vast majority of their statements don’t become part of the searchable Internet.

Online, Google and Facebook require an inversion of this assumed norm. Every statement you make on Google Plus or Facebook is persistent and strongly attached to your real identity through your name. Both services allow you to change settings to make your statements more or less public, which solves some problems. However, participating in public life on the services requires attaching your name to your statements. On the boulevards and town squares of Facebook, you can’t just say, “Down with the government,” with the knowledge that only a small percentage of the people who hear you could connect your statement to you. But the information is still being recorded, presumably in perpetuity. That means that if a government or human resources researcher or plain old enemy wants to get a hold of it, it is possible. [emphasis in original]

And you know something, that’s true. I mean, we already knew about the whole people-could-search-you-out stuff; that’s one of the main reasons why we ‘nym advocates advocate ‘nyms in the first place. But this really brings home the point, better than anything else, that what Google and Facebook want us to do is something we don’t do even in real life.

We don’t walk down the street or in to private businesses wearing signs with our real names plastered all over them in enormous letters anyone can see. But that’s basically what Google and Facebook are asking us to do. They’re requiring something even the police don’t have the right to ask for without reasonable suspicion.

This is one revolution I’m not gonna be cheering for.

Tip o’ the shot glass to A.S.

An Open Letter to Those Who Think Real Names Solve the Civility Problem

Dear People Who Think Real Names Make People Behave Better:

I understand the desire for a more civil discourse. Most of us would like that (except for the trolls, one supposes), but a “real name” policy isn’t the magic cure that will make everyone nice. Allow me to direct your attention to what people feel perfectly comfortable doing under their real names:

Ah, yes. Very civil. A shining example of the kind of respectful discourse one can expect when everybody knows everybody’s real name, isn’t it?

We’ve seen your arguments as to why real names are necessary, and Facebook has disproved very nearly all of them. Those Facebook hasn’t managed to provide demonstrations against are taken care of at the previous link. And I’m sorry, but your civility argument was so full of holes it could be used to drain spaghetti to begin with, and since then several people have hit it repeatedly with birdshot. I think there are some scraps left there somewhere, but they can’t be scraped together into anything usable now. Real names do nothing to rescue teh intertoobz from civility problems. People are too adept at being rat bastards for anything like a real name policy to stop them.

Ah, you say, but there will be consequences! Because, y’know, bosses and stuff will know who’s saying what, and they’ll get caught, and everything will be happiness and rainbows.

That may be true in a subset of cases. A few people may have to pay a real price for bad behavior. Lovely. Meanwhile, the bad behavior continues apace, because the chance of suffering consequences is so damned remote. And folks like, oh, lessee, Bob “Shoot to Kill” O’Connell and Joe “12 Gauge” Martinez are free to continue spewing their hate and death threats on real name forums like Facebook and Google+ while people like Bug Girl and GrrlScientist are shut out.

You don’t solve the civility problem with real names. Real names won’t stop a soul from frothing at the mouth. Even if everybody signing up for Google+ had to provide a photo I.D., therefore guaranteeing they have to use their really-real names, the civility problem would continue apace. Look at Congress.

I hate to tell you this, but the civility problem will never be solved. There will always be a subset of rotten jerks in any given population. The band-aid of a real names policy does nothing but give you the illusion things will be hunky-dory.

You mitigate it by having tools in place for folks to flag bad behavior. You mitigate it by having policies in place that deal with that bad behavior no matter what name it’s coming from. That’s what Google can do: provide some community guidelines (while keeping in mind that free speech shouldn’t always be nicey-nice speech), and provide tools for people to report bad behavior.

You yourself are going to have to take some responsibility beyond “real names!” to solve the civility problem. You’ll have to flag people who are being wildly inappropriate (and not just because you don’t agree with them, or don’t like their way of putting things, but truly bad, outrageous, nasty behavior). You’ll have to block those folks who make you feel icky inside, whose actions haven’t reached the level of a flag but are still not something you’ll allow in your online parlor. Speak out against behavior you find reprehensible. And step in and ask folks to behave better when comment threads on your stream get heated.

Whose fault is it if a place is full of assholes? That’s right. Uncomfortable but true.

So please, stop bleating about how real names are required to make the web a better place, and go about doing things that will actually make it a better place. Plenty of ‘nyms will be happy to join you in those efforts.

Dana Hunter