Or just sometimes?
It occurs to me that many (“ALL!” “Shh.”) of our problems around these parts viz every new conflagration, from our recent conversation with Mallorie Nasrallah, to the statement by DJ Grothe that we only blog about controversial topics for hits, to the pushback against a Rebecca Watson blog title as though it meant she hates all atheists, is the fact that we as skeptics seem to have a problem with blanket universals even when they are not intended as universals. They are the quickest single thing you can do to engender hatred amongst your commentariat.
Much of the problem with Mallorie’s open letter to the skeptical community has to do with the universal statement that skeptics “shouldn’t change for anyone”. While she claims she wrote the letter solely for the purpose of expressing her own views of the community, she presented it in the midst of a number of controversies wherein people have been demonstrably misogynistic to bloggers like Greta Christina or new women in the community like the 15 year old Lunam on r/atheism. This caused some outrage in the context of the greater fight we’ve been waging — the fight against entrenched sexism in our communities.
For context, I always use the plural for communities because neither atheism nor skepticism have a single overarching community, much less a greater community for either one. We have a set of loosely allied communities, each manifesting their own sets of values and beliefs. The commenters and bloggers at Freethought Blogs appear to have clustered around beliefs in humanism as well as skepticism and atheism, and will fight a misogynist comment as quickly as a creationist or woo-peddling one. I don’t believe that the levels of sexism in our collective online communities are very different from the background of the internet as a whole, no matter how much of a safe space we’ve carved out here. However, there are three things that are important and mitigating factors to that blanket statement about the levels of sexism.
1: The internet is, as a whole, a far cruder and crasser place than real life, owing largely to anonymity and the Greater Interent Fuckwad Theory.
2: Our real-life meatspace communities are very often being organized via the internet, so there’s a lot of overlap between what goes on in meatspace and what came from the internet to begin with.
3: we have experienced by my estimation a significant amount more pushback than most other communities built around other topics, against the very idea that people shouldn’t use sexist slurs at women, or treat women like they’re just there as dating pool material, because either of those are likely to result in women who might otherwise participate bleeding away from our communities.
DJ Grothe described our fight against this pushback as being solely intended to drive controvery, to drive a wedge in the community, done solely for the hits. What makes this a short-sighted blanket statement is in part the misidentification of the problem, the misidentification of what it is we’re trying to do about it, and the misidentification of what’s actually being said about the community as a whole. Stephanie’s post itemizing the times when he’s exhibited this sort of blind spot for ongoing fights was met with doubling down, and DJ declared that the whole episode served as proof to him that that’s all the feminist bloggers in our community want to do is to tear other communities apart over sexism. Of course that’s not going to be very well received, except by those who would rather have the right to call women cunts or feminazis or thought police or what have you — of which there is an actual faction, who are better organized than you’d think, and who explicitly argue against every instance of feminist thought on every blog they read.
When Rebecca Watson described an event that creeped her out (owing to the predatory behaviour exhibited), and suggested that guys should maybe not do that if they expect to actually pick up, one of the major pushbacks against the event — one of the major ways the otherwise obvious comment Watson made got turned into a complete and utter shitstorm — was that people felt she was describing a universal, that no man should ever flirt with any woman ever.
Barring the fact that Rebecca Watson said it and she has her own hate posse; and that “flirting” is being so often conflated by dishonest interlocutors with “cold-propositioning”, where the former involves a level of familiarity with your flirting partner and the latter involves asking for sex from a bloody stranger; the important factor here with regard to why this rankled so many people is in the perceived universal. It is, of course, a strawman argument to suggest that Rebecca Watson asked for anything like that level of restraint. She did, however, ask that men in general restrain what many of us apparently view as their biological and societal imperative — that they have an unalienable right to attempt to convince women to have sex with them without consequences and regardless of the situation.
In a way, the false perception of a universal proscription was being defended via another universal in this way. The idea that males have some kind of privilege that their “need to flirt” should override someone’s repeated suggestions not to flirt with her is so entrenched in the male ego, probably owing largely to the media narrative that boy must woo girl, that people lost all semblance of proportionality in their reaction to the Elevatorgate event, as proportionally as it was initially described.
When Mallorie Nasrallah wrote her open letter to the skeptics community, she evidently did not have the benefit of having lived through the various blog fights we’ve all had over the past few years with regard to sexism. Having not been exposed at all to the nascent anti-feminist Mens Rights Activism movements, the misogynist Men Going Their Own Way, or the splinter faction of people proclaiming themselves to be the True Skeptics who question feminism as some sort of dogmatic movement (in much the same way that some accomodationist atheists and theistic apologists call New Atheists dogmatic), she evidently did not recognize that her letter would be received the way it was. Her repeated defense that her letter described her own situation only, are given the lie when you read the actual take-away message and the thesis for her letter:
With all of my heart I beg you: Do not change. Do not change for me, do not change for someone else. You’re wonderful, just the way you are.
And this passage:
More recently I have noticed a trend among men in my communities, you seem to have been told that you’re awful and need to change. Again, apparently because your genitals imbues you with an inescapable assholism. Please never believe this lie.
If your jokes or teasing manner offend some people, so the fuck what? Someone will always be offended by jokes, never let them make you believe that you are guilty of something worse simply because of your gender. If you want to make boob jokes thats fine by me, you have after all been making dick jokes since you were old enough to make jokes. Plus they are funny as hell. If you want to go free and uncensored among a group of like minded people, if you want to try to acquire sex from a like minded person, awesome, do it, sex and friendship are amazing. You are not a monster for wanting these things. You are not a monster for attempting to acquire them.
The two passages together diminish and dismiss every instance of women being subjected to slurs or being treated as though they are only welcome in the community as long as they are attractive and put out to strangers. These two passages together describe a situation that is not happening — that people are being villified for making boob and dick jokes, or for simply being male, or for simply attempting to chat up a like-minded individual with whom you’ve already had some contact. If any of these things were happening, they would be wrong, and I would speak out against it. But it simply isn’t happening this way at all, in my experience. If it was, I should at least theoretically be a target of this misandry, owing to the fact that I am a public voice against sexism and have advocated for egalitarianism in areas that would benefit only men, like ending routine male circumcision or making sure that rape statistics include rape carried out against men. I do not see this misandry. In fact, when the trolls suggest that it’s happening, their examples given are specious or, at best, owing directly to the gender roles that I advocate against.
However, even if this supposed misandry was happening, the blanket statement of “if someone’s offended by your jokes it’s their problem” forgets that jokes can often form the substrate of a societal prejudice. Nobody would say “feel free to make jokes about blacks and if they’re offended it’s their problem”, because our collective consciousness has been raised enough that the majority of us consider racism to be counter-productive and antisocial behaviour. Women make up a very large percentage of the human race — more than half, even — and if we’re to achieve any sort of social parity between the sexes, it takes making the people with power understand that sexism isn’t cool. Like it or not, men have that power right now, because our significantly eroded patriarchy is still a patriarchy.
The fact that there are more males in the atheist community does not mean that they should be allowed to treat the women in the community with the sort of disrespect that they’re getting right now in aggregate. The corollary fact that any one woman, like Mallorie, does not feel like they’re being disrespected in any way is a data point in favor of our fight, not against it. If they are not exposed to blatant misogyny in our community, it is because we have collectively declared as a community that that blatant misogyny is universally wrong, and we fight against it when we see it.
That’s a universal statement I can get behind. It’s a shame that it is not true of all atheists or skeptics, and that any such universal statement is viewed with such suspicion as being dogmatic.
Bonus round: count the universal statements I made in this post.