Conflagrations like the ones we’ve been having in the last couple of weeks can be very disheartening. I’ve seen more than one person say that they’re giving up on atheism/ skepticism, or are on the verge of giving up on atheism/ skepticism… because these conversations about sexual harassment at atheist/ skeptical conferences have gotten so ugly, and have revealed so much nasty, hateful misogyny among so many atheists and skeptics.
And I can understand that. I, too, get disheartened when what seems like an absurdly obvious proposition — the proposition that sexual harassment sometimes happens at atheist/ skeptical conferences, and that the people it happens to don’t always feel like they can speak out about it or name names (especially when the perpetrator is famous), so therefore these conferences should have sexual harassment policies and reporting procedures in place to make the harassment less likely to happen in the first place and to have a plan in place for dealing with it if it does — is met with venom, outrage, hyper-skeptical goalpost-moving demands for absurdly high levels of evidence that this harassment has even taken place (to the point where you need more evidence to convince some people of threats or harassment than you would to convince them of homeopathy or Bigfoot), no-win Catches-22 in which not naming names gets seen as gossip-mongering witch-hunt but naming names gets seen as character defamation, and “Yes, but…” derailments of the conversation into topics so far afield they might as well be on Mars. Yes. It’s frustrating, and enraging, and disheartening.
But in the face of this conflagration, I still have hope. In fact, I’m going to go further than that. The very fact of this conflagration, and other conflagrations like it, is giving me hope.
I know. You’re all going, “???” You’re going, “I knew Greta was a cockeyed optimist — but really? These conflagrations are making her feel good about our future?” I’m serious. Hear me out.
I have hope because, in the middle of all the Internet conflagration about sexual harassment at atheist/ skeptical conferences, one of the most immediate effects has been that at least ten different atheist/ skeptical conferences and communities (as of this writing) have either (a) adopted an anti-harassment policy with reporting procedures, (b) pledged to adopt an anti-harassment policy with reporting procedures, or (c) publicly stated that they already have an anti-harassment policy, and have then pledged to make it stronger and/or more visible.*
I have hope because, every week, I get emails or comments from people — in particular, from men — saying, “I’ve changed my mind about this because of you.” Every week, I get emails or comments from people — in particular, from men — saying, “Because of your writing, I get it now about feminism, and sexism, and the toxic environments that women live in.” Every week, I get emails or comments from people — in particular, from men — saying, “Because of your writing, I understand now why I have to speak out about this, and not just let it slide.” And in fact, I specifically get emails or comments from people saying, “I get it now because of Elevatorgate.” Or because of some other horrible conflagration that made us all want to hide under the blankets and drink/ cry/ scream ourselves hoarse. The conflagrations work. They raise consciousness. They make people recognize that sexism is real, and is fucked-up, and is worth fighting.
I have hope because I’m not the only one this happens to. Jen McCreight gets these emails and comments. Ophelia Benson gets these emails and comments. PZ Myers gets these emails and comments. Stephanie Zvan gets these emails and comments. Rebecca Watson gets these emails and comments. Natalie Reed gets these emails and comments. Jason Thibeault gets these emails and comments. Amanda Marcotte gets these emails and comments. Atheist and skeptical bloggers who write about feminism are hearing from people — in particular, from men — whose minds have been changed, or are being changed, because of these bloggers’ willingness to be a heat-shield, and to say things that lots of people don’t want to hear.
I have hope because other bloggers and podcasters and so on have had their perspective on sexism changed by these conversations… and are now speaking out about it themselves, and are changing their own readers’ minds. (Here are posts from just two — I’ve gotten private emails from others saying the same thing.)
I have hope because of the large number of men in these conflagrations who are speaking up for feminism, and against sexism and misogyny. I have hope because, when one of these conflagrations starts up, there are consistently a large number of men who not only speak up for feminism, but who stick doggedly and persistently with the arguments, and who have educated themselves about the issues and can speak about them fluently.
I have hope because, as unpleasant as it is, this conflagration is going so much better than the previous ones. I have hope because, as ugly as it is, this conflagration is nowhere near as ugly as, say, Elevatorgate. I have hope because — and I suppose this could be confirmation bias, I haven’t gone through and counted comments on all the comment threads — because it seems to me that the balance is shifting, and more people are on the side of feminism. I have hope because what was once a debate with roughly equal numbers on both sides now seems to be turning into a dogpile, with lots of reasonable people piling onto a handful of stubbornly sexist jerks.
I have hope because, for the most part, the young people get it. I do a lot of public speaking at college and universities, including speaking on the topic of diversity and the importance of fighting sexism/racism/ other -isms in atheism and skepticism… and for the most part, the students get it. For the most part, the students are already totally on board with the “why” of diversity, and just want to talk about the “how.” I have hope because students are the future of this movement, and to a great extent they are the present of this movement… and for the most part, they get it, and are running with it. The kids are all right. And that gives me an enormous amount of hope.
And I have hope because we’re having these conflagrations now — not ten years from now, or twenty, or fifty.
I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again: When you look at the history of other social change movements, you’ll find that every one of them has been bitten in the ass by sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, classism, and -isms and privilege issues generally. And specifically, they’ve been bitten on the ass because they didn’t deal with these issues early. Bad habits got set into place; self-fulfilling prophecies got set into a deep groove; bitterness and rancor and mistrust had decades to get set into place and fester. And as a result, years down the road, these issues were much harder to deal with.
I’ve said this before: Talk to anyone who’s seriously involved in politics or social change. Ask them, “If you could go back in time and get the early leaders of your movement to deal with race and sex — would you do it?” I can guarantee you that just about every one of them would fervently respond, “Yes, for the sweet love of Loki and all the gods in Valhalla — if we could go back in time and not screw that up, we would.” I’ve said this before: Atheism and skepticism have a unique chance to not screw this up. Atheism and skepticism have a unique chance to learn from history, and to deal with these issues early in the very visible/ vocal/ activist/ exploding-onto-the-scene stage of our movement… so we can get out of these bad habits, and interrupt these self-fulfilling prophecies, and keep the bitterness and rancor and mistrust from getting too deeply entrenched.
We seem, to at least some extent, to be doing that.
We are hashing out these issues now, in the early days of the powerhouse stage of our movement. And as frustrating and upsetting and discouraging as that hashing-out is — as frustrating and upsetting and discouraging as it is that such obvious, 101-level questions should still be generating so much rage and pushback and heat — it means we won’t have to hash them out in ten years, or twenty, or fifty. Or at least, we won’t have to hash them out as much, and the hashing out won’t be as ugly.
The fact that atheism and skepticism are having all these fights now? As frustrating as it is, as upsetting as it is, it gives me hope. It gives me hope that in ten years, or twenty, or fifty, we won’t be having them, or we’ll be having them a lot less.
So I want to encourage the people who are feeling discouraged. Hang in there. Social change is a long game. Have a drink, vent with your friends, snuggle your animals, go to the gym and pound the weights, scream into your pillow, watch “What Not to Wear” for ten hours straight. Do whatever you need to do to let off steam and relieve your stress. And then please, if you can, get back into the fray. What we’re doing works. It is working. And if it continues to work, we have the potential to massively change the world. We have the potential to make history. Please don’t give up.
Rah. Rah. Rah.
* If you know of other atheist/ skeptical conferences and communities that have adopted, pledged to adopt, or strengthened their harassment policies since this conversation/ conflagration began, please notify Sasha Pixlee at More than Men and Jason Thibeault at Lousy Canuck, so they can update their timelines and compilations.