To Paula Kirby: on ‘The Sisterhood of the Oppressed’

Paula Kirby’s open letter from a couple of weeks ago, ‘The Sisterhood of the Oppressed’, has generated various responses (googling it will bring these up), some of them fairly snarky – and while I know that sarcasm is a staple of atheist writing, Paula’s and mine included, I want to be as calm and clear as possible about what I think of her argument. Because it feels awkward discussing someone in the third person who I know and generally respect to a high degree, I also want to be direct from this point on. Paula: I know that, as I think your letter hints, feminist skeptics including at FreethoughtBlogs have disagreed with you before and may have been barbed. But I’d like to point out those comments were always qualified: PZ said FtB was criticised ‘by no less a person than Paula Kirby’; Rebecca Watson referred to ‘the esteemed Paula Kirby’; Ophelia, on the idea FtB was totalitarian, said ‘the sad thing is that it’s Paula Kirby calling us that’. I typically make a point of not speaking for others, but I don’t think anyone on this side of the dispute likes being at odds with you – certainly not how we to like scrap with, say, creationists. In an ideal world, I wish we never had to argue. I think that, as a writer and an activist, you’re one of the best things this movement has going for it, and in terms of atheists I admire you’re up there with some of my favourite FtBloggers. So writing this post hasn’t been at all easy – I’ve procrastinated, edited and considered scrapping it, because I don’t want any bad feeling between us in future. But it strikes me that, ultimately, the one thing worse than having this out is not having it out, so with all possible cool rationality I want to go through the points in your letter with which I take issue. (NB: despite being an aspiring member of the Approved Male Chorus, I’ll dispense for obvious reasons with ‘oppressed sisters’ and refer to Team FtB as ‘feminist skeptics’. I hope this term isn’t contentious: I realise from your writing that you see yourself as both, but it seems the best description of skeptics whose activism – Boobquake, for example – has a feminist as well as rationalist bent, and who see feminism as more than incidental to skepticism.) To begin with: totalitarian comparisons. Nazis and Stasi and bears Toward the beginning of your letter, you say you didn’t use words like ‘feminazi’ and ‘femistasi’ to imply that feminist skeptics would actually have sympathised with those groups, but to suggest they operate similarly: i.e. by ‘the intolerance and suppression of dissent’, ‘hysterical, bullying overreaction’ to it and ‘utter conviction that their own ideology is absolutely right and just and that no questioning of it can therefore ever be permitted’, whereby ‘anyone who dares to hold non-approved attitudes is automatically persona non grata and to be treated as an enemy of the people.’ The parallel you wanted to draw referred to supposed methods, not actual stances. I think we all got that. After that debacle with the Pope and PZ’s response, I doubt any established skeptic would seriously attempt – not least before an audience of their peers – to compare other freethinkers’ ideals with the Third Reich’s. As for Stasi, I’d struggle (with a couple of exceptions) to characterise FtB as seriously leftist. As far as I can see, people understood you meant behaviour and not beliefs. It’s just still a bad comparison. Or, if it isn’t, could you be a tad more specific? I don’t claim to know all the full history of feminist skeptics. It’s certainly possible I’ve missed out on scandalous conduct, and I’d change my mind if better informed. So… …who’s been intolerant, about what, and when? …who’s suppressed whose dissent? (Yours doesn’t look suppressed to me. It’s got its own hashtag.) …who’s been bullied, or treated as persona non grata? It isn’t bullying to criticise someone you think is out of order, or to stay away from a conference if you personally don’t feel safe there. It isn’t bullying, even if over the top, to stop endorsing someone who trivialises an experience you found distressing, or to suggest someone leave your blogging network if their stances no longer seem at home there. It isn’t bullying to block someone on Twitter whose comments you don’t want to read. As far as I’m aware, no one’s been silenced. ‘Go elsewhere if you want to say that’ isn’t silencing or suppression, and as far as I’m personally aware, that’s as censorious as anyone’s been. If I’m wrong about that, I’m happy to be shown so. Next… What the movement’s supposed to be about Elsewhere on this site, Hayley has a post called ‘The Mythical Skeptical Community’. (She also wrote a clarification of it.) Her point, as I took it, was that it’s problematic imposing homogenous identity on broad social movements. Your final comments call for ‘a renewed focus on what the movement is actually supposed to be about’, i.e. ‘the very purposes that brought [it] together in the first place’. You imply that feminist skeptics have ‘diverted their focus from their goals’ by discussing secular misogyny, and you seem to suggest they ‘go back to focusing fully on the promotion of skepticism, or secularism, or atheism, or pure science’. What I want to ask is, what movement? As I pointed out in support of FtB, secular freethought and criticism of religion is much older than the current ‘New Atheist’ movement. A quote:

‘Theism, which is the theory of speculation, is being replaced by atheism, the science of demonstration.’

Who said that? Not Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris or Michael Shermer; Emma Goldman, feminist and anarchist, a century ago. The paper it’s from, ‘The Philosophy of Atheism’, contains a hundred statements which would be at home today on an atheist blog. Another of her essays, ‘The Failure of Christianity’, reminds me positively of your columns. Not much later, during the Harlem Renaissance, black writers and social justice advocates said all kinds of similar things, which today would be hard to imagine in African American populations: essay were written on the title, ‘Is Christianity a menace to the negro?’, in a magazine whose masthead read ‘Our aim is to appeal to reason… prayer is not one of our remedies’. Whole novels, like Nella Larsen’s Quicksand, were written as salvos against the black church. Meanwhile in Weimar Germany, the Deutscher Freidenker-Verband – run by communist Max Sievers – had over half a million members by the time the Nazis banned it. (By comparison, the British Humanist Association had somewhere between thirty and forty thousand the last I heard, and claims to be Britain’s biggest nonreligious organisation.) When you say that feminist skeptics, at FtB and elsewhere, aren’t doing ‘what the movement is supposed to be about’, you imply that these traditions of freethinking writing – intersectional and intensely concerned with social justice – can play no part in the atheist community now. Why not? Skeptical activism is far too broad a church for its aims and means to be set by a single faction, person or body. The point of freethought, to me, is that it’s atheism plus. [Note: ‘Atheism Plus, capitalised, didn’t exist when this post was written – the phrase is purely descriptive.] If bigotry exists which is often transmitted by superstitious thinking, why shouldn’t the people who fight it write skeptical blogs? ‘A feature of life in general’ Your letter suggests several times that if problems feminist skeptics describe are real, our community’s still no worse than most other ones: that ‘sexualised’ behaviour at conferences (more on this below) is ‘just life’, ‘lack of prominent women is a theme in almost all walks of life’ and situations broadly which concern feminists are ‘a feature of life in general’. I’d say two things here. First: is anyone saying we’re worse than average? Second: our movement should be better than ‘life in general’. At FreethoughtBlogs and elsewhere, I’ve read a lot of feminist skeptics’ complaints – about being hit on, male-dominated events and various other things. I don’t recall anyone saying we’re worse than average. Of course women are marginalised in other areas, and it seems plausible we’re better than many groups, including of course religious ones. No one knows this better than feminist skeptics. The point is that in this movement, women’s experience need not be worse than average to be troubling. It might be better than average, but still fall miles short of what it ought to be. You’ve criticised religion before for treating women poorly. If that’s a bad thing, doesn’t it follow that atheists should avoid it – not just as much as is usual, but as much as possible? This community prides itself on being exceptional – more questioning, reasonable and rational than the wider world – so the benchmark we aim to meet isn’t any kind of average. We value evidence, so we demand it not just as much as anyone else does, but as much as we can. We value logic, so we aim not just to be typically logical, but optimally. To be no worse than other walks of life isn’t good enough: if we value inclusion of women, or general opposition to misogyny, we have to pursue these goals more than the rest of the world. But now I want to be more specific. Sexualised atmospheres Let’s talk about sexual goings-on at conferences. Here’s what you say:

‘The first [thing relevant bloggers complain about] seems to be their feeling that there is a sexualized atmosphere at skeptical conferences. … There’s a sexualized atmosphere at all conferences involving an overnight stay. … I am talking about normal, non-violent situations in which no assault takes place.’

That sexual things happen at events isn’t really the issue. Lots of people concerned by the recent drama, on FtB and elsewhere, have been emphatic they have no problem with mutually consensual hookups. Dave Silverman even said ‘I want people to have sex at our conferences’, when he introduced AA’s harassment policy. If in your words people find that fun, no one’s stopping them. But flirting ebulliently with someone in the bar is different from continuing to hit on her when she says no; from standing uncomfortably close to her and breathing down her neck; from following her around the bar, or out of it; from continuing to harass her the next day, or taking pictures of her (of any kind) against her wishes. Notice, none of this behaviour is violent, or would obviously be categorized as an assault. Should we prevent it, or establish ways of dealing with it, if we can? I would say yes, and I’d also say that mutually desired, consensual sex isn’t threatened by that. There’s another aspect to this. The scene you paint is an evening one, where guests are drinking together at or after dinner, during what the social portion of a conference. You’re right: a certain amount of friskiness will always happen in that context, which is fine. But there are contexts in which sexualised comments aren’t okay: like saying a popular vlogger aids atheism because she’s ‘a pretty blonde Romanian’; like hitting on Greta Christina or Rebecca Watson as soon as they’ve finished giving talks; like a seemingly middle aged man on the internet, telling 16-year-old Jessica Ahlquist to add her photo to a page called ‘Sexy Atheists’; like a steward at an atheist event I once saw staring at a woman’s chest as soon as she arrived, making no attempt to hide it. When occasionally I go to give a talk somewhere, as I know you more often do, I don’t have to deal with that treatment. Where people have occasionally found me attractive, they’ve told me that privately, tactfully or otherwise in a more appropriate situation than what was effectively my workplace at the time. I’d expect that to be the norm, but I couldn’t count the complaints I’ve heard from female speakers who were treated like their job was to provide eye candy. I think those complaints are valid. And speaking of women speakers… Whoever said there was a conspiracy? Your letter frequently implies that feminist skeptics see a sexist male conspiracy behind each door, cooking up nefarious schemes to keep godless women down.

‘You have the poor, oppressed, victimized, unfairly ignored women being urged to rise up against the evil conspiracy of those men, women-haters, sister-shamers and gender-traitors who are responsible for all their woes.’

You contrast this with your experience of seeking female speakers, where you found very few were willing to give public talks. ‘Who,’ you ask, ‘was holding these women back?’ ‘There was something in their own heads that was stopping them.’ I’d suggest this creates a false dichotomy. Either atheist women are actively ‘being prevented’ from making up proportionate numbers of speakers – at conferences, local groups, etc. – or there’s nothing to blame but their own mentality.   As your reference to WiS acknowledges, many skeptical and atheistic women have gained prominence and are regular speakers on the conference scene. This is very different from your struggle to find female speakers: we know as a matter of fact that many skeptical ones exist, and accept invitations to speak when they get them – but conferences still frequently suffer from gender-imbalance. At worryingly many, no women give talks at all. Why is this, when it’s obviously not that women are unwilling? Because they can’t accept invitations they don’t get. You’ve told us your experiences; here are mine. Thoughtlessness The first time we met was at the atheist student group I used to run, when you did a talk for us (an excellent one) on moral problems with Christianity. Yours was the last talk of the term, during which, if memory serves, half a dozen or so other guests had spoken. They were all male. The same was more or less true of the next term, and at the week of events when you came back and spoke again there were twice as many men as women giving talks. Had I and the dozen or so other organisers conspired, in twilit rooms at witching hour, to keep women out? Of course not. But it was still our fault, and in hindsight – forgive the pun – a serious cock-up. At events promoting godlessness and skeptical thinking, I believe we should show how diverse our community is. Is there something wrong with male speakers? Clearly not – no more than with, say, physicists giving talks. But if all or two thirds of a conference’s speakers were physicists, that wouldn’t reflect the breadth of the skeptical movement. The people onstage should, I think, be as varied as the people in the room – or as varied, as the case may be, as the people we’d like to have in the room. So why are they so often not? Because when groups of men like the one I was in are running events, they don’t always think about this. I didn’t. It doesn’t help that it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: that when lots more of the speakers we knew about were men, lots more of the ones we invited and therefore hosted were men. We threw out the names of all the interesting people we wanted to invite in our very first meeting, brainstorming at lightning speed – and of course, we ended up with a shortlist that was as unbalanced as our long list. I’m not suggesting we bar potential speakers because they’re male, or become draconian. But I am suggesting guys in organising groups put time into specifically researching female atheists, to the point of being able to write an A4-length list of speakers they’d like to host who aren’t white men. (Try it, other readers. I can do it.) Because when we have to think of interesting godless people and our minds run toward those groups by instant default, we propagate the existing imbalances. It’s not a conspiracy. It’s thoughtlessness. Re:becca Watson I want to be fair at this point. I know that, judging by what you write, you’ve had uncomfortable experiences with folk from Skepchick, FreethoughtBlogs and other sites, and feminist skeptics in general. (I head this title up with Rebecca Watson’s name because she’s emblematic of that community, not because I only mean her.) You mentioned ‘torrents of abuse’ and people who’ve been ‘picked on by the speaker from the platform’, and I also know others who’ve had run-ins with feminist skeptics that left them feeling hurt. So let me just say: I don’t know the details of these encounters, so I don’t have the evidence to pass judgement either way. But since people on this side have been accused of being dogmatic, I want to make clear that I don’t endorse everything feminist skeptics have ever done. Not everything Rebecca Watson’s ever done, not everything PZ has ever done, not everything that was ever said on FtB. I certainly wouldn’t want to treat people I think are wrong, but who are calm and reasonable about it, with contempt or vitriol. With specific respect to Rebecca Watson: yes, it’s true that sometimes she’s shorter-tempered than I might be; that she’s sometimes less tolerant, less polite or less sensitive than I might be. There are times when I would probably have been less spiky or pointed in her situation. But here’s the thing: I’m not in her situation. Rebecca Watson gets told regularly, in graphic detail, including by atheists and skeptics, how she’ll be raped and/or murdered. (She’s not alone in this, and it’s not by any means extraordinary: the same happens outside skepticism to women writers as diverse as Christina Odone, Laurie Penny and Louise Mensch.) When she and other people talk about harassment at conferences, they get called irresponsible. Is she, or are her colleagues, occasionally a bit ruder or snappier than needs be – particularly when, for example, male skeptics accuse them of sexism? Possibly. I haven’t experienced that myself, but it’s not wildly implausible, and I won’t deify any more than demonise them. There’s almost no one in skepticism I support on every issue, all of the time, and I’m not in the business of putting others on pedestals. The question is, can I understand whatever outrage they express? Yes, I can. If I’d put massive amounts of time and money into bringing TAM more women, and was the accused of driving them away; if I blogged, campaigned and lived as an feminist skeptic while in receipt of constant, vivid threats of violence only to be told there were no issues for godless women; if I spent my life, in general, combating misogyny inside and outside this movement, and then was told I was a sexist: you know what? I’d be mad too. And maybe sometimes, I’d take that anger out in non-optimal ways. I don’t think I’d have any right to scold Rebecca Watson (or anyone in that kind of position) for her approach, even if that interested me. I’ve no idea how it feels to be on the business end of that treatment, and I’d be pretentious at best to wag my finger from non-existent moral high ground when I’ve no idea how short-tempered it would make me. What interests me is the actual problem, and how to solve it – but I see that, perhaps, we’re not on quite the same page about whether one exists. The crux of the issue For certain religious believers, one gets the sense that truth is unimportant. This is odd, because in many cases the ethics of their behaviour demand on whether their beliefs are right: if it’s true that skepticism will send me to Hell, I’m glad to have been told; if it’s true that condoms would worsen the AIDS crisis, the Vatican’s right to prohibit them; if it’s true that Indians are born into poverty as punishment for misdeeds in past lives, the caste system might be okay. The fact these beliefs are baseless is the issue. I’m struck that you see widespread sexism in our community as a similarly baseless claim. You describe complaints about this as ‘hysterical and unjustified’, ‘ludicrously exaggerated’ and ‘distorted’, and you state that you don’t see the people making them as ‘mainstream’. I disagree, and I think the entire issue comes down to this. If it’s true that D.J. Grothe received reports of harassment at TAM, it’s fair to call him out on saying there were none. If it’s true that significantly many women reported harassment to no avail, it’s reasonable that others be deterred. If it’s true that feminist skeptics get torrents of misogynous hatemail, divisions aren’t provoked when people say there isn’t a problem. (They just became visible.) If it’s true that male sexual violence against women is commonplace, we can and should discuss the way men often see women. If it’s true that there’s sexism in this movement, it’s okay to talk about it. At this point, I find it hard to see how these things can be doubted. You still think we don’t have a problem? Sexual assault may not happen to all women, or a majority, but that doesn’t make it rare. At the end of last year, a U.S. government survey said one woman in five had been assaulted; according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, it’s one in six. Of course, as with anything, different studies say different things and are open to different criticisms – but I don’t know of a single reasonably conducted investigation into the rate of sexual violence against women which suggests it’s anything like as uncommon as it would need to be, for conference organisers to ignore the issue. While almost all the evidence suggests it’s far more common, imagine only one in fifty women face sexual assault: 660 attended TAM last year. Doing the math, I think those numbers mean organisers should take harassment reports seriously. ‘It has not always been easy’, you say, ‘to pin down what, exactly, our Allegedly Oppressed Sisters are actually complaining about.’ Well, here are some specific things: 1. Elyse Anders of Skepchick gave a keynote speech at a conference, and was given this (NSFW) sex card by two strangers immediately afterward. 2. At Women in Secularism, Jen McCreight accidentally started a discussion with others about particular, non-named male skeptics making ‘unwanted and aggressive sexual advances toward young pretty women’. 3. On Godless Bitches, women from the Atheist Community of Austin discuss various harassment incidents in the organisation’s past and how they were dealt with. 4. 14.4 percent of women answering this year’s American Secular Census – i.e. more than one in ten – say they’ve ‘felt unwelcome, discriminated against, or harmed’ in secularism. 5. Two commenters report harassment at a previous TAM, including a man who it could reasonably be suspected was taking upskirt photos. 6. Rebecca Watson, directly after indicating in a talk that she disliked being propositioned at conferences, is propositioned by a conference attendee, alone in a lift at 4am. (Update: Stephanie Zvan on how the details of that meant it wasn’t ‘zero bad’.) 7. A friend of mine described being unable to attend her atheist student group without being hit on, non-stop, by male attendees. 8. When a 15-year-old posted a picture of herself holding a Carl Sagan book on r/atheism, an entire thread of leering, sexualising comments resulted. Some of them were brutal, graphically violent fantasies of rape. 9. T.J. Kincaid, atheist vlogger AKA TheAmazingAtheist, who describes himself as ‘anti-feminist’, graphically and abusively told a rape survivor on reddit that he would personally rape her and ridiculed what happened to her, also announcing his hope that it would happen again. At the time of writing, he still has 296,821 subscribers who regularly watch his videos. 10. The details of her TAM-related e-mail not withstanding, an atheist blogger who apparently posts regularly has an entire category entitled ‘Kicking Ophelia Benson in the cunt’. (That’s closer to my understanding of ‘bullying’ than anything she writes.) This post is long enough already, so I’m leaving the list there, but it seems to me that each of these things (a) is legitimate as a target of complaint for feminist skeptics, and (b) occurred as one piece in a misogynistic jigsaw – not specific to skepticism, but nonetheless present there. If I read that list with no foreknowledge, as an atheist ‘beginner’, I’d be convinced that feminist skeptics were onto something. Yes, some of this is anecdotal, but it’s just as anecdotal to say ‘Well, I’ve never encountered sexism’ in counterargument. And feminist skeptics aren’t claiming these are everyone’s experiences; just that they’ve happened, and they shouldn’t have. So my sincere, non-rhetorical question is – if after all this, you still don’t think we have a problem, what would convince you? That misogyny happens in skepticism might not be a claim you believe, but it’s not extraordinary. It’s not supernatural, like claims involving gods or devils. So you should be able to imagine a scenario where you’d be convinced Team FtB have a point. What would it be? Just what – what more, at this point – would it take?

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