Every damn conversation we’ve had over the past several years in our respective atheist/skeptic communities that even approaches the topic of feminism, or discusses women in any way, seems to attract the sort of person in our communities who demands that we prove that feminism — the idea that women are human beings and should be treated with basic human dignity — is skeptical. Who evidently believes that the natural overlap between skepticism and feminism is insufficient for the topic to be broached. That the feminists in the skepticism community are not turning a skeptical eye to their dogmatically held beliefs that women shouldn’t be systematically mistreated or disadvantaged by any social structure that we humans have built.
This is, to put it bluntly, bullshit. To put it less bluntly, it is a category error.
Asking “is feminism skeptical” is identical to “are ninjas awesome”.
Bear with me. I have a point. Yes, many ninjas, in fiction and in reality, are awesome. Some ninjas are not, though — they exist merely as cannon fodder for the good guys in a piece of fiction. They are nameless set-piece drones designed to prove how awesome the main character is. Many fictional ninjas are given magical powers that don’t exist in the real world, and many ninjas are cast as evil murderers out for blood and mayhem. There are ninjas who will move in silence and infiltrate the enemy base unseen, and there are ninjas who will totally pull a full-frontal assault where they uppercut people and make their heads explode while a wicked guitar riff squeals in the background. There are also, like in Mock The Movie: Laser Mission, ninjas who inexplicably turn up in a garden and are killed seconds after being introduced. And I’m certain the Venn diagram of all real-life ninjas, and all awesome people, probably overlap to a significant degree. But then, there are many real-life people who practice ninjutsu who are simply incapable of effecting any change in this world.
Likewise, there are some feminists who come by their feminist ideals dogmatically, who advocate for social change that would not actually fix the disparities endemic in our system. There are some feminists who are feminists because they believe in egalitarianism and they see the pendulum swung too far toward patriarchy at the moment. There are probably even some feminists who, yes, hate men. (I’ve never met one personally, but I hear that’s what all of us are, so maybe there really is one somewhere.)
Does that mean every feminist is dogmatic? Or egalitarian? Or misandrist? Of course not. Like ninjas, feminists are a diverse group. They are tied together by one common thread — the practice of ninjutsu, or the belief that women are worthy of basic human dignity, respectively. Whether you’re skeptical or not is in fact a separate question. Just like one can be an atheist without being skeptical (think Bill Maher), or a skeptic without being atheist (Pamela Gay springs to mind), one can be a skeptic without being a feminist or vice-versa. And one can, most certainly, be all three of these things — feminist, atheist and skeptic.
The people who are asking “is feminism skeptical” are not, in fact, asking whether or not feminism itself is skeptical, they are asking whether being a feminist is compatible with being a skeptic. Given the vast number of people who claim both, I’d say so.
I’d even go so far as to claim that if you’re anti-feminist, if you like the gender roles or the patriarchal society we live in just fine, or if you just want people to shut up about how women are oppressed, you are in fact evincing an unskeptical attitude in your unwillingness to examine your personal cognitive biases.
Yeah, that’s right, that’s what I said. Soak it in. It’s more skeptical to be a feminist than it is to act contra feminism.
Just like the Scumbag r/atheism meme image I included at the top of this post, evincing skepticism about whether or not women should be treated as fully human beings, is actually a terrible display of overwrought skepticism of the sort that leads to denialist hyper-skepticism. If we present evidence of ways that society — squishy and soft a science though it is — is actually creating a chilly climate for women, and we offer ways to improve society so those effects don’t happen any longer, the correct route is to question the evidence we present, and after interrogating that evidence to your satisfaction, accepting it. Being a skeptic involves actually accepting evidence when it is presented, not denying that evidence on specious grounds because it does not say what you want it to say.
We go through the identical procedure when someone shows us evidence for Bigfoot — they give us grainy footage of a guy in an ape suit, we’re going to say that’s insufficient, bring us something with a bit more meat. But if they bring us a corpse, or a live Bigfoot, or even a whole family, that should be sufficient evidence to accept that Bigfoot is real.
When someone shows you a study that women are asking for raises but not getting them, you don’t go on to repeat the trope that women aren’t asking for raises as often as men — that sort of assertion not only lies about the problem, but it creates a second problem in placing the blame on the victims of the misogynist behaviour.
When pointed to behaviours that disadvantage women disproportionately, you don’t balk at the use of the word misogynist — that sort of objection ignores the grievous crime against women, acting as though the crime of poor language (if it is even poor language) supercedes or is more important than the misogynist behaviour at hand.
When shown behaviours that are damaging to women, acting like your objections to the side points are more important than the objections to the behaviour itself is demonstrably unskeptical. Sometimes, pulling out the side concerns and discussing them is warranted (and usually more productive if done in isolation from the main concerns), but often, when taking the microphone on a topic for which someone has opened their private property to the public as a forum is seen — and rightly so — as derailing tactics, as a way to get everyone to stop talking about the really bad thing that the host really wanted to discuss. Derailment is unskeptical — it is avoiding the original topic because you, personally, and your personal biases, couldn’t handle that topic to begin with.
Or let’s say you’re assuming that the gender roles as enculturated into you by society are just fine and don’t need to change, that they can’t possibly be causing any of the problems we face in society where men are expected to be breadwinners and warriors and women are expected to be homemakers and baby factories; that boys like blue and girls like pink; that boys can play with LEGO and the regular plain old minifigs and girls need minifigs that look like dolls and LEGO blocks that are pastel colored. Those ideas are implanted into your psyche through long years of enculturation. If a feminist challenges these ideas, it is grossly unskeptical to not hear hir out. And it’s especially unskeptical to, rather than hearing hir out and examining the evidence for yourself, merely suggest that they have not done so then call it a day. Your work is not complete by merely calling someone unskeptical. If it was, we wouldn’t have a skeptics movement.
I don’t even need to get into how unskeptical it is to march into a conversation with a person who self-identifies by a single label and assume that they must, de facto, believe any number of things outside of the core tenet of that philosophy. To walk up to any feminist on Freethought Blogs and assume you must be talking to a clone of Andrea Dworkin is probably on par with marching up to a random theist and assuming they believe in the Abrahamic god and transsubstantiation and the inerrancy of the King James version of the Bible. You don’t know any of those things from the single fact that they believe there is one or more divine entities in this cosmos. You don’t know that we share any of Dworkin’s beliefs by our self-identification as feminists. You don’t know that we share all of, say, Christopher Hitchens’ ideals by knowing that we’re atheists. You don’t know that we share all of, say, DJ Grothe’s perspective, or priorities, by knowing that we’re skeptics.
You don’t know terribly much, in point of fact, about any person by looking at only one label with which they self-identify. Taking those labels in aggregate, you can find out a lot more about them. Knowing that a person is feminist means you know they are more likely to believe certain things, but does not mean you know for certain that they do. If you’re confused about this, try asking us. It’s the surest way to learn whether a given feminist is skeptical or not.
Don’t try this with ninjas though. If you happen to offend one of the awesome ones, you might get your head exploded by a super ninja uppercut.