UPDATE: Eller has offered an apology. A genuine one this time. It’s posted on Jen’s blog: Eller offers an apology. Good for him. This sort of situation can go south and get ugly very quickly: good for Eller for not going there, and for acknowledging his error. That’s exactly the kind of behavior atheists should be modeling, and he’s done a good job of it here.
So I’m going to start by saying: What Jen McCreight said. The American Atheists Regional Atheist Meetup/ Rapture party in Oakland was neat. I heard many excellent speakers (including Jen herself); I met some wonderful new people, and got better acquainted with some wonderful folks I’d already met; I feel more connected now with my local atheist community. The stuff I’m going to talk about here was not the responsibility of the organizers, who did a fine job putting this event together.
So. The stuff I’m going to talk about here. Specifically, David Eller’s talk on Sunday at the conference, about how atheists needs to work more on creating an appealing culture/ community that’s an alternative to religion. At which he said and did the following (paraphrasing here, sorry — as far as I know there’s no video or audio record of any of this):
a) Gave, as examples of how we’re offering an attractive atheist alternative to religious culture, popular videobloggers Laci Green and Cristina Rad (ZOMGitsCriss), with photos of them on his PowerPoint screen — and made a point of saying how great it was that these videobloggers were so pretty, and how it was helpful to have a pretty blonde Romanian videoblogging to make atheism more appealing. Without any mention of any other qualities these women had that made them popular and appealing, other than their prettiness and blondeness. (And, I guess, their Romanian-ness.)
b) Provided a list of positive atheist role models we could promote — all but one of whom were male, and every single freaking one of whom was white.
c) Suggested that we should keep doing Boobquake every year, since it was exactly the sort of fun event that made atheism seem appealing. At which point, someone in the audience shouted out, “Boobs are great!”
d) When called on the videoblogger thing by Jen McCreight during the Q&A, semi-apologized for having offended anyone — and then went to on say that of course he thought these female videobloggers were smart and thoughtful and witty and insightful and inspiring and so on, and of course we should have understood that he’d meant all that (even though he didn’t say it). And then went on to say that it was still a good thing that these women were pretty, because that made atheism more appealing to men.
So again, I pretty much want to say, “What Jen said.” (Or, to be more accurate, “What Jen said… and another thing…”)
Okay. Deep breath. Let’s take these one at a time. And then let’s look at the big picture.
a) Do we really have to explain — again — that women in the atheist movement, or anywhere for that matter, have value other than as ornaments? Do we really have to explain — again — that women in our culture routinely get treated as if we don’t matter except to be sexually and aesthetically enjoyed by men, and that this is demeaning and belittling, and that men (and women, for that matter) need to be very careful not to go there? Do we really have to explain — again — what women feel like when this happens? What it feels like to be a pretty young blonde woman in that audience who is smart and talented and hard-working, and who suddenly gets her smarts and talent and hard work dismissed as secondary to her looks? What it feels like to be a non-pretty, non-young, non-blonde woman in that audience who is smart and talented and hard-working, and who suddenly gets her smarts and talent and hard work eradicated, because her looks apparently aren’t tempting enough to get anyone to listen to her ideas? Do we really have to explain — again — that there is a time and place for everything, and that while we’re not trying to squelch sexuality or flirtatiousness, and while there are appropriate times and places for commenting favorably on women’s attractiveness, a serious talk about strategy in the atheist movement is not one of them?
And do we really have to explain — again — that this isn’t just insulting to women? That it’s insulting to men as well? Do we have to explain — as was pointed out in the comment thread on Jen’s post — how insulting it is to men to tell them that the main reason they’ll be drawn to atheism is the pretty girls, and that they’ll only care about female atheists because of their looks? Do we have to explain that this attitude is heterosexist as well as sexist: that it assumes all atheist men want to look at pretty girls… and no atheist women do?
Do we really have to explain all this again?
Yes. I guess we do.
Okay. Consider it explained. Again.
b) When we’re discussing leaders, icons, and other role models in the atheist movement, there is no excuse for our lists to be dominated by white men. And there is not even a shred of an excuse for those lists to be overwhelmingly dominated by men, to the point where women get relegated to the status of a single token… and people of color are rendered entirely invisible.
We’ve been over this. And over it, and over it, and over it. (Here are my own rants about it.) This one is a no-brainer. This one is easy and painless. When you want to talk about atheist role models, in history or alive and active today, you need to spend ten minutes looking at lists of prominent female atheists and atheists of color, and put a few of them on your list. (If they’re not just popping into your mind automatically, that is.) It’s an easy and painless way to make atheism not look like a Whites Only, Men Only club. It’s an easy and painless way to make it clear that you recognize that women and people of color, you know, exist, and are part of this movement, and have always been part of this movement, and are welcomed and appreciated as equal participants and contributors. It’s not rocket science. Why is this still not happening?
As Jen said, better than I could ever say it myself, “Yep, someone giving a talk on how to improve our community was horrendously out of touch with one of the most important and commonly discussed issues in said community. The irony has not escaped me.”
c) Boobquake. Okay. First of all: Should we keep doing Boobquake every year? Oh, I don’t know. Maybe we should ask the woman who instigated it? The woman who has made it clear, repeatedly, that the answer is a clear, resounding “NO!”?
Jen McCreight has made it clear that Boobquake was a one-time event. She’s explained her reasons. She even explained her reasons during her talk at this event. (Given that multiple people at this conference made inappropriate comments about her chest, I can’t blame her.) Perhaps, when considering whether we should continue doing Boobquake every year, we first ought to consult the woman who created it.
And second of all: Do we really have to explain — again — that Boobquake was not just about boobs? Boobquake was about the demonization and suppression of women’s bodies and women’s sexuality. It was a fun, sexy, “the Emperor has no clothes” mockery of this demonization and suppression — but it was ultimately about the demonization and suppression. The idea that we should keep doing Boobquake because boobs are cool… that is missing the whole freaking point.
Now, I’ll be honest: This one probably wouldn’t have bugged me that much if it hadn’t been for the other stuff that happened during this talk. Boobquake was a complicated event, and a big part of its point was a celebration of women’s bodies and women’s sexuality, and if people treat it solely as such without what I consider to be a properly nuanced perspective… well, whatever. I don’t like it, but it’s not the crime of the century. In any other context, I would have let this one slide. But given all the other stuff that happened during this talk… it was part of the vibe, part of the bigger picture. And the bigger picture was seriously not okay.
I have to take a big, deep breath for this one.
Okay. First of all. If you want your audience to understand that of course you recognize that female videobloggers are smart and thoughtful and witty and insightful and inspiring and so on and don’t have value simply for their appearance… then you should say that the first time around. You shouldn’t assume that this is a given, that of course we understand that. Again: We live in a culture that routinely treats women as ornaments, as having worth only for the sexual and aesthetic pleasure we give men and for our ability to produce children. When you point to women who are icons in the movement, and only mention how pretty they are, without saying anything about their other qualities? It plays right into that trope.
Eller is an anthropologist. He is also, clearly, a smart guy. He should know all this.
And second: When you say that having pretty women as atheist icons is good because it will make atheism more appealing to men? You aren’t just playing into the “women have value only as ornaments” trope. You are actively perpetuating it. You are directly feeding it. You are essentially saying that the male atheists are the ones who count, the ones we need to worry about. You are essentially saying that female atheists have value only as bait, to draw the important atheists, the male atheists, into the community. You are essentially saying — to use a cliche of old-school feminism, but in this case it’s a cliche because it’s true — that men are the subjects of our community, and women are the objects of it.
That. Is. Not. Okay.
I get that, when we’re put on the spot about a screw-up , we don’t always handle it well. We get defensive, we get our backs up, we find it hard to admit that we screwed up. We are rationalizing creatures, and when someone tells us that we made a mistake or hurt someone, our brains are wired to defend our image of ourselves as good, smart people. I get that. I’ve done it myself. I don’t always handle criticism well. Especially public criticism. It’s how our brains are wired.
But if you’re a public figure, you need to find a way to re-wire your brain. You need to suck it up and deal.
Here’s a sentence to memorize: “I need to think about this.” If you have your back up and you’re getting defensive and you don’t have it in you at that moment to simply say, “I’m sorry, you’re right, that was screwed up, full stop”… say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize the effect that would have, I need to think about this.” It gives you time to absorb the cognitive dissonance. It gives you a way to apologize and still save face. (Especially in the atheist/ skeptical movement, where we value the ability to admit mistakes and change one’s mind.) And it gives you time to seriously reflect on whether you did, in fact, screw up, and what you might do differently in the future.
When you get called on your shit in public? Your apology should not make it clear that you don’t, in fact, get why it is that people are criticizing you. Your apology should not be a repetition of the same mistakes you’re being called on. Your apology should not make things worse.
Okay. Now. Some big picture stuff.
This isn’t about “David Eller is a bad bad man.” David Eller is clearly a smart guy, and while I disagree with him on some strategy stuff, I think he has some good ideas that are worth listening to. I don’t think this was conscious, mean-spirited sexism; I think it was unconscious, unintentional sexism. And I hope he can take this post in the spirit in which it’s intended. This isn’t about “David Eller is a bad bad man”: this is about “This is an all-too-common pattern in the atheist community: it happens far too often, and it happened again at this event, and we need to point it out when it happens so hopefully it doesn’t happen again.”
Because this is not an isolated incident. Far from it. This kind of stuff keeps happening. It’s a pattern. Women in the atheist movement commonly feel trivialized, invisible-ized, and inappropriately sexualized. (The wide applause and cries of “Thank you!” that met Jen’s comment at this event should make that clear.) And many women stay away from the atheist movement as a result of this. I see some signs that this is getting better, and I have hopes that it will continue to get better — but it’s still a common problem, and it’s still a serious problem.
I’ve explained before why we should care about this. I’m not going to explain that again in detail here. The quick and dirty summary: We should care because sexism hurts people, and we’re good people who don’t want to hurt other people. And we should care because it’s creating real problems in the community and the movement, and our movement will be stronger in ten or twenty or fifty years if we deal with this stuff now.
Like Jen, I don’t love making a stink about this. I really wanted my conference report to be, “I heard many excellent speakers; I met some wonderful new people, and got better acquainted with some wonderful folks I’d already met; I feel more connected now with my local atheist community.” I don’t want to start the next firestorm that eats the atheosphere for a week, and I sincerely hope that doesn’t happen here.
But as Jen said, “The more we let crap like this slide, the more it’s going to get perpetuated. And I don’t want the atheist movement of 2021 to be a room full of white men scratching their heads, wondering what went wrong.”