There has been a stirring as of late in the blogosphere. Lee Moore, the host of a podcast co-hosted by Reap Paden, has taken it upon himself to attempt to broker a peace treaty, a ceasefire, a breaking of bread and a healing of the divide between the two sides of the Great Rift — between the feminists on the one side, and the antifeminists (and those claiming the name “feminist” for their libertarian laissez-faire cargo cult “equity feminism”) on the other. A sort of Khitomer Accord, if you will indulge the Star Trek reference. Of course, this would depend on either “side” being a cohesive unit, with leaders or any ability to encourage conformity among its self-identified members. In a leaderless movement such as ours, a movement where leaders viewed with awe and reverence by some are equally eyed with suspicion by others, such a gambit is doomed to fail.
But what really strikes me as misguided about the whole effort is that, from the outset of this conversation, everyone is using terms differently. And not just terms of art — we’re all working with different definitions on just about everything of substance! We talk of attacks, of slurs, of in-fighting, of trolls and witch-hunts and censorship and co-opting of movements. We talk of inclusiveness and privilege and exclusiveness and tribalism. And every one of these words means something completely different to one another.
But let’s start with the core term at issue here: what exactly constitutes “in-fighting” to both sides in this argument?
To those on our side, who have been put through one wringer after another just for daring to discuss feminism in our own forums, “in-fighting” comes in the form of the attacks we’ve endured. For the high crime of saying “guys, don’t do that” in reference to some predatory behaviour she experienced, Rebecca Watson was subjected to insane and disproportionate volumes of harassment, trolling, attacks, and vitriol. Anyone trying to legitimately argue with the thesis of “guys, don’t do that” without attacking in this manner, has likewise been (correctly) called out on sexist behaviour — maybe not behaviour as egregiously or unequivocally sexist as, say, rape threats or slurs, but it is definitely sexist behaviour to question a person relating an ordinary event just because said event was the genesis for a point you disagree with viscerally. It is certainly sexist behaviour to treat a woman’s word as less trustable than a man making an equivalently frequent claim — “I went to the store” is every bit as likely for a man as “I was made to feel uncomfortable by someone’s advances despite my stated desire to be left alone” is to a woman, but nobody launches years-long “skeptical” campaigns about a guy’s claim that he went to a store.
But the problem with telling them so, is that the people called out on the sexist behaviour of being “skeptical” of such claims apparently have the understanding that sexist behaviour is horrible, without really knowing what sexism is. They’ve evidently internalized the concept of sexism as comprising only the blatant sorts of sexism that involve slurs and harassment. So, they — folks like Justin Vacula — believe themselves to be above that layer of the problem, and they take umbrage at being lumped in with the most egregious folks who use slurs liberally — folks like Franc Hoggle or Reap Paden. They feel so, so much butt-hurt over being called “misogynist” or “sexist” that they shut out all discussion and double down on their actions, rallying with the “cunt”-criers and folks who think screaming “fucking bitch” over and over is reasonable discourse. They often mistake “that thing you said was sexist” for “you’re a sexist”, in much the same way that Jay Smooth points out that it’s very difficult to get someone to hear what you’re actually saying when you tell them that a thing they said sounds racist.
So then you get the kind of polarization that really preys on our own internal cognitive biases against taking criticism for what it is — the idea that when someone criticizes a thing you said as being impolitic in a particular regard, that they are “tarring” you or engaging in “witch-hunts”.
It has come to a point where attacking a sexist trope as sexist, means you’re attacking the person as sexist. And that calling someone sexist is a far worse crime than calling someone a cunt.
It has come to a point where documenting for all to see the abuse you’re getting is “playing the professional victim” (or alternately, “eating cat food”). And objecting to that abuse, why, that’s harassment!
It has come to a point where putting a commenter in moderation for abusing the discourse is “censorship” and “shutting down the debate” and “groupthink”, even if their words are enshrined, intact, on your page for all time, and everyone can see that they offered no actual argumentation to back up their mere gainsaying.
It has come to a point where big names like Michael Shermer can’t take mild criticism for a thing he said and probably didn’t even intend the way it came out, turning the debate instead into feminist Nazis hunting down various factions of ideologues, in his so-called defense essays that are more hyperbole and emotion than logic and reason.
It has come to the point where the event wherein a group of people expressing their own identities as both atheist and involved in some social justice movement, taking a name for themselves, and then withdrawing to their own pocket community, is treated like an attempt at co-opting the entire movement and turning everyone into something they’re not.
There is much resistance to the idea of coupling atheism and skepticism with any kind of moral judgements about particular actions, even though both movements are themselves social justice movements that do in fact carry moral judgement about a great many things. There is push-back against someone’s particular ideologies ever being examined critically and skeptically. One side thinks the other is guilty of this, suggesting that feminism can’t stand up to critical scrutiny. In my experience, this has been largely projection. A vocal subset of the atheist and skeptic communities are extremely wary of, and react with much volatility to, the idea that sexism might exist in our communities in large enough proportions to drive women away (however large or small that sexism problem might actually be). They question the existence of privilege, despite the concept having a strong sociological body of evidence, even while they defend less tenured scientific concepts like evolutionary psychology. They fixate on individuals, they hound them, they attack everything they say, following them from space to space and demanding the right to do so without consequences. They make life miserable for certain individuals, and they admit doing so, thinking themselves Brave Heroes and the Saviours of Tribe X.
And then still others question the validity of these hounders’ and harassers’ community credentials — they claim that these people screaming vile obscenities at a woman in the movement can’t possibly be anything but background trolling such as you’d experience on Reddit or Twitter, but then one has but to look at the other comments made from these accounts on other matters to see that many of them claim to be great leaders in our community and have the sorts of histories to prove their tenure.
So, with all that as background, we’re looking at a fundamental reality rift between the antifeminists and other such folks who generally think feminism is an encroaching cancer in our community, and the feminists who fight for the “no-soul” of the secular movements. The fact that these feminists and various social justice advocates are so numerous in our community that we can take petitions to our leaders asking them to enact strong harassment policies and take strong stands on social justice issues to improve and widen the reach of our secular movements, boasting several orders of magnitude more signatures than oppositional petitions demanding that we stop “silencing dissent” (a petition laudable in actually laying out its arguments for once, even if evidently so very few members of our communities agree!), tells me that we are winning.
Let me say that again. We are winning this battle. The evidence is all right there.
But we incur heavy losses from the battle fatigue. We drive away potential allies. People like Jen McCreight, who, while a skeptic and an atheist, places a much higher priority on fighting other injustices that affect her more acutely and directly and as such has backed away from the community even where we want to support her. I can think of a dozen allies like her — some of whom would rather not be used as examples — who got caught in splash damage, who got attacked by the members of the community. Attacked by these members whom some would disavow as “just trolls” and not really part of our community, others would rally around as “fighting the good fight,” and still others point out are the very problem we’re fighting to ameliorate.
These allies get driven out because the environment is too toxic to contain their voices, to add their distinctiveness to our collective consciousnesses and raise awareness of other issues stemming from the same lacks of skepticism and cognitive biases that we fight when we debunk psychics and argue against creationists. Sexism and racism and transphobia and homophobia are all every bit as worthy of targets for our skepticism and scientific inquiry as religion and traditional skeptical targets, especially since fighting them might improve the toxicity of our internal culture. They are every bit as worthy an adversary for our ire and for our rooting out and removing from our communities, because they cause every bit as much — in many cases, more even — real tangible demonstrable harm to individuals in our society, both at large and in the proximate sense.
When some third party steps in and calls for cease-fires, bear in mind that on our side of the rift, we’re firing at a target worthy of attack. If there are people with outmoded memes in our community, like the sexist idea that atheist and skeptical activism is a “guy thing” for instance, and we criticize those memes (and thus by that transitive cognitive bias we’re “attacking” the people as well), we are not engaging in a witch-hunt. Any pretension at claiming that particular victim mantle is the real instance of acting the professional victim. Forget people documenting the actual abuse they’ve received being the professional victims — the ones who truly profit from playing victim are the people who are called out on minor transgressions acting as though they’re being excommunicated by high priests of a feminist cult.
At this point, unless people could start actually using the same words to mean the same things, you’ll never see the kind of peace you’re looking for, Lee Moore. Here are some acceptable terms that Stephanie’s laid out for having a discussion with any of the other side of the rift’s supposed leaders, but I guarantee they’re unattainable in the kinds of numbers one would need to make an actual difference in the discourse, and would thus be for naught. See, anyone attempting to speak for everyone on either side of this debate will be rightly shot down as not representative of the whole argument or of anyone on their side but themselves — therefore, you might win a discussion with Stephanie, but that wins you nothing like a peace accord. And yet, nobody on our side of the rift has any pretensions that they can broker any kind of deal between feminists and antifeminists, any more than we could broker a deal between matter and antimatter.
I’ve been proposing that these great rifts have existed since the beginning, since we all started to coalesce as a relatively coherent “community” (though I still contend we are a loosely interlocked set of communities instead — a united federation of allied communities), and we’re only just now mapping out the boundaries of these great rifts. The problem presently seems to be, the rifts are too permeable. People on one side of the rift are too able to enter into and attack others’ spaces.
People on this side of those rifts generally want to be left alone by the folks on the other side, who swarm to feast on the flesh of the bloggers who dare criticize one of our movements’ “leaders”; we generally want to be left in peace and to let our contributions to freethought — in providing critical analysis of some of the things our leaders say — stand or fall on their own merits, without incurring undue levels of vitriol. The folks on the other side of those rifts generally want our leaders to remain sacrosanct and inviolate and above all reproach for saying things that are demonstrably harmful to an underprivileged class; generally, they want the liberty to be able to say anything, damaging or not, without repercussions. They want to be free of that one last meddlesome repercussion of people calling bullshit when they see bullshit coming from people who supposedly represent them. They claim to represent those who will not stand for censorship, and they prove it by trying to censor us and make certain topics taboo lest we bring down more harassment as a result. They want the repercussions to be entirely disproportionate and one-sided — for them to be the sole arbiters of who incurs what repercussions for saying which things, while we just want the freedom to say the things that we want and accept the reasonable repercussions as a result. Reasonable repercussions, meaning counter-criticism, for instance; not death and rape threats and howls of conspiracy and witch-hunts.
This is an intractable problem, presented the way it’s been so far. You’ll never have a Khitomer Accord in this scenario, with the two sides forming a strong alliance and teaming up to fight the big fights and respectfully washing their hands of other political issues between themselves. First, this assumes that the two factions are of equal power and influence and, hell, assumes that both sides are objectively equally right. This is not the case, demonstrably. And second, this assumes that we would put aside our differences and respect the cultures of people who engage in the very sort of nonsense that we fight so hard in other areas. We cannot, will not, stand idly by while people claiming to be allies in secularism do things that harm our own side’s members.
The best you can hope for is a Treaty of Algeron. A Neutral Zone could be erected between us such that if either side enters, it could be considered an act of war. Adam Lee has a fairly decent idea of what such a zone’s shape might be. In short: don’t act sexist or misogynist, and we won’t call you sexist or misogynist in return. We already have such an agreement in place in other skeptical domains. Don’t peddle woo, we won’t call you a woo-peddler. Don’t promote anti-evolution junk science to pump up your god’s image, and we won’t call you a creationist. Don’t say ridiculous racist shit, we won’t call you racist. It shouldn’t be that hard. Stop your antisocial behaviour, and we’ll stop pointing it out.
And it’s not like we’re not already gunshy on actually calling misogyny misogyny, what with the antifeminist sentiment so prevalent on the internet and so quick to jump up and say “but they totally don’t look like Yosemite Sam jumping up and down and screaming ‘I hates those wimmenz’, so they can’t be misogynist!” Hell, I’ve had to be corrected on this gunshyness myself. We’re all prone to that cognitive error, to making that mistake.
The fact that people are damaging discourse by pretending calling out an instance of misogyny is a witch-hunt, though, ain’t helping cure us of that particular cognitive bias! And the terrible fact that you’re comparing being called sexist to being burned at the stake for being an uppity woman is as richly ironic as if you called being chastised for saying something racist a “lynching”.
If you stop firing at us, at feminists and social justice advocates in general and at women in particular, then all the firing will stop. What you perceive as “firing” from our side is actually us pointing out each of your volleys.