A fifteen year old girl posts a picture of herself on Reddit r/atheism holding a copy of Carl Sagan’s Demon Haunted World, which she took to post to Facebook originally. She didn’t know she was evidently transgressing unwritten and sexist-by-design social rules by posting her picture, and thus was being taught the lesson that she should have “worn a burka”, in her words. She ended up on the receiving end of hundreds of comments upvoted by thousands of users involving all manner of hateful and diminishing speech. Rebecca Watson pointed this situation out on Skepchick with the usual inflammatory results, since everything that Rebecca Watson ever points out must be wrong because it was pointed out by Rebecca Watson. Bloggers everywhere leapt on this conflagration, hoping to sway a closely-allied community into fighting back against the atheist and skeptic communities’ problem with sexism.
Then I started to notice a new trend in various blog posts’ comment threads, both here and at Greta’s. It’s a trend I’m not terribly sure I like. It is the conflation of enabling misogyny, and being a misogynist.
Certainly, we are capable of more nuance than this. And in many cases, we do in fact do exactly that — we explain, carefully and calmly, that by making excuses for people who genuinely disdain women in general, a person who might otherwise consider women to be fully human is actually facilitating the environment that is actively preventing women from joining our conversations. By making excuses for misogynists who will make rape jokes at a fifteen year old, a person is not necessarily misogynist themselves, in the sense of hating women. They are, however, certainly no ally to women, and when you conflate the two, their ears close to the possibility that their actions are actively harmful.
Sometimes shocking people with an accusation of misogyny is a good thing, though. Sometimes a person needs to understand that the consequences of their particular action effectively facilitates the misogynists, the anti-women, the anti-feminists, the Men’s Rights Activists and pick-up-artists, the predators that exist and actively troll expressly for the purpose of making the climate that much chillier for women. Since there’s no way to tell the difference between a parody of misogyny and actual misogyny unless you’re really familiar with the person in question, since it’s so easy to Poe in this conversation (despite some assertions that it’s important to distinguish between parody and actual bigotry), each class of comment — actual misogyny, comments facilitating misogyny, and parodies of misogyny — all contributes to the overall effect that makes women feel unwelcome in our movement.
But because each class of comment can be identified as harmful in their own way, using a catch-all to lump all three in as pure unmitigated woman-hate is hyperbolic. For instance, while KvdH in Greta’s thread was most assuredly clueless about sociology, about the idea that social strata exist in our society, that a patriarchy can exist in our society and supported by evidence that most power falls into minority’s hands, that some classes of people have privilege over others, he was not in fact expressly misogynistic in any of his comments. He was grossly ignorant, and even dismissive, of whole aspects of sociology (calling them “social theory”), and kept piling onto his already dismissive attitude the more people gave him emotive arguments. But he did not at any point express an opinion that women are less than men.
Keeping these things clear, accusing people of exactly what they’re doing rather than some hyperbolic next-step of what they’re doing, is important. I’m not saying you can’t insult someone, of course — if someone’s being an asshole, they’re being an asshole. If they’re trolling, they’re trolls. If they’re lying, they’re liars. If they’re enabling misogyny, they’re enabling misogyny. If they’re expressing sociopathic lacks of empathy, they’re not actual sociopaths — unless you know them and have credentials to make that kind of analysis, you shouldn’t use a term of art from science as an epithet. Which is why, while I generally love commenter julian’s dogged and relentless assault on the stupidity you occasionally attract in comment threads on these blogs, I had a hard time swallowing when he accused aspidoscelis of being a sociopath. Because I strongly doubt julian has the credentials or the data to make that kind of analysis, he overreached by not stating that aspidoscelis was providing apologetics for sociopathy and/or antisocial behaviour. If he’d said that instead, I’d have found absolutely nothing objectionable about his comment. aspidoscelis’ comments are objectionable on their own without trying to turn him/her into an “other” that can be easily vilified. We can punish them with social disapproval without any hyperbole, without any overreach.
These kinds of overreach are detrimental to our cause. We can damn the dissent and even the dissenters without exposing ourselves to this kind of criticism. Privilege is a sacred cow to so many privileged folks claiming true skepticism, and making them question their privilege involves getting them to realize they’re treating it as a sacred cow, so when they can latch onto an overreach like these, they will. Because these criticisms are probably the quickest and easiest way for people to derail our conversations about privilege, I’d like to minimize their occurrence and keep things on topic as much as possible. These people are doing real things that are really damaging — and we can prove it without accusing them of things beyond where the evidence takes us.
Please, people. Keep swinging for the fences. Just please don’t throw your bat into the dugout when you’re doing it, though.