Are universal statements always a problem?

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.
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In defense of my male feminism

I’ve had listed for some time, as part of my profile on the right, the fact that I consider myself a feminist. I put it in shortly after joining Freethought Blogs and being assailed in very short order by the winged monkeys who have this absurd tendency of descending onto any pro-feminism post, shouting down the defenders of equality with absurd accusations of being misandrist. Merely by considering our patriarchy to be heavily weighted against women, who despite making up over half our population seem to get the short end of the stick more often than not, you are de facto anti-male, apparently. I added that descriptive out of spite for the denizens of the slimepit who consider women fighting for women’s rights to be evil, and men fighting for women’s rights to be “fauxminists” just looking to get laid.

And, frankly, I think I fit the descriptive of “feminist” well enough that I did not hesitate in adding it, though until that point I called myself pretty much exclusively an egalitarian. I despise the gender roles that harm both men and women in different ways, and I recognize that the ways in which women are disadvantaged significantly outweigh the disadvantages that men have, especially taken in concert with the advantages that male privilege confers. I want gender roles to simply evaporate, to disappear entirely, to be cast off like the vestigial organs that they are in light of the harm that they do to humans of all genders, and that simply won’t happen without taking out the cultural institutions that reinforce them with each generation.

So imagine my surprise when I saw a post by fellow FtB blogger Comrade PhysioProffe, excoriating a disturbing trend of taking the name of “feminism” under troubling pretenses, like the case of Hugo Schwyzer. My surprise came not from the fact that Schwyzer deserves more scrutiny — after all, he built a career of teaching women how to be feminists out of some expressed remorse for having attempted to murder an ex girlfriend, so he damn well deserves scrutiny as a result.

My surprise, rather, was borne out of the fact that Comrade caught me in the blast.
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Owning the slur

Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can never hurt you. Well, not physically anyway. Not unless they’re slurs intended only to psychologically abuse a target, when they often accompany acts of violence.

There are a number of words whose only use is to hurt. There are words that once meant something strong and proud but, through repeated historical misuse, have become tainted by every bit of hate and venom that has ever flowed through them in their use. There are words that might, to some people, serve as a mere descriptive, an adjective to be used in daily discourse, but to others inculcate a fear of the types of violence with which the word has so often been used in parallel.

And then, there are the concerted efforts to retake those words, to rebrand them.
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The Problem with Privilege: some correct assertions, with caveats

I really want to get on with other things. Seriously, I do. Which is why I want to cede a bit of ground — or at least it might seem that way to the casual observer, given all the things I’m about to agree to. It would pay dividends in furthering the conversation if you do your best not to skim before replying.

There are a number of arguments in this whole privilege debacle surrounding the so-called Elevatorgate (a timeline, for you newbies) that, while not actually rebutting the issues in question, are in themselves valid and correct. Here’s a few of them, and why they don’t address the problem at hand.
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The Problem with Privilege (or: cheap shots, epithets and baseless accusations for everyone!)

This may be the last thing I have to say on the topic for a while, as I’m rapidly approaching my own STFU Station having already blogged far too much on this topic. But the imbroglio continues, and so must I. For a little while, anyway.

From blacklava.net. Buy one today! (If you're privileged.)

One of the major problems stemming directly from Rebecca Watson’s Elevatorgate (a.k.a. Rebeccapocalypse) has been the rapid descent into ad hominem attacks and the use of epithets solely intended to push people out of the discussion. This is, of course, no fault of Rebecca Watson’s. Nor is it Richard Dawkins’, who came down rather harshly on Rebecca’s complaint in claiming that she was complaining about “zero bad” as compared to, say, genital mutilation. (To which point I can’t help but think, complaining about creationists slipping their nonsense into science textbooks is zero bad as compared to religious genocide, so who’s to complain about that? But that’s an aside.)

The epithets have flown from both sides, fast and thick. People like ERV in calling Watson’s public rebuke of Stef McGraw “bad form” were called “gender traitors” by the likes of Skeptifem, with whom I’ve disagreed in the past — especially during one of those many “Greg Laden is misogynist!” blowups via Isis and her crew. ERV went on to refer to Rebecca as “Twatson” thereafter, as is her particular idiom — something I like about her is that she always swings for the fences, even when I disagree.

Meanwhile, Greg Laden has been supportive of Rebecca Watson, along with PZ Myers and other big names in the atheist/skeptic community, for daring to name names — an aspect I completely agree with, given that Stef McGraw was in a public leadership position and blogged her dissent on her organization’s blog in an official capacity. I can see not giving Stef a heads-up being slightly douchey, but anything beyond that — that Stef was a “mere student” who got “shanghai’d” — is pure hyperbole and well outside demonstrable truth (a.k.a., “a lie”). Greg has posted a piece about men crossing the road or waiting for the next elevator by default so as to avoid freaking out some poor woman who might have had a bad experience in the past, and has been accused of “[t]reating women like helpless, infantile victims” and also called misandrist for his trouble. Because apparently you can be both misogynist and misandrist while trying to actually constructively suggest ways to fix a problem.

And then there’s the billion and one instances of “bitch”, “cunt”, “liar”, or “sexist pig and traitor to feminism” that Rebecca herself has received. Or the accusations that she or her supporters are “man-hating feminazis”. Or that Rebecca totes woulda boned Elevator Guy if he was an alpha male instead of a dweeb. But we shan’t go into those, because by bias seeping into this post, you’ll likely miss my point.

That point being, a lot of people have their hackles raised by this issue of privilege in the greater atheist/skeptic/scientific communities. And make no mistake, there is an issue — the fact that there is an issue is very likely what’s causing so many people to dig in their heels. It is pervasive, and it is subtle, and it is not specifically misogyny so much as merely entrenched privilege. But people really dislike it when you point out that privilege actually exists as a sociological construct, just because its existence is disputed. Nobody mentions that it’s mostly disputed in the punditocracy by people like Phyllis Schafly or Ann Coulter, mind you, but it’s disputed as surely as Rush Limbaugh is responsible for the “feminazi” meme.

Some people have written some exceptionally eloquent calls to action on how to fix the pervasive privilege problem, and believe it or not, they do not involve quotas, nor do they involve shunning or even castrating men! There’s nothing misandrist in asking men to shoulder some of the burden in rape avoidance and in helping keep women who were once attacked from having a traumatic flashback every time they see someone walking toward them rapidly. There’s nothing misandrist in pointing out that the vast majority of rapes happen by men, of women. There’s nothing misandrist about suggesting that men are capable of better behaviour than this.

And there are a few words that don’t count as epithets at all, like “potential rapist” (in the context of a woman not knowing whether she’ll be attacked), or “privileged” (in the context of someone not having the experience to understand where someone else is coming from). They might hurt your feelings to be called them, but though they are descriptive, they do not actually reflect on your character, only your situation. And the psychic trauma you experience in being called those things is nothing compared to a rape survivor’s on the other side of that equation.

There’s likewise nothing misogynist in pointing out that most of these rapes happen by men that the women know. And there’s nothing misogynist in saying that because women experience fear where men are far less likely to in seeing someone more physically imposing than them, that they should be protected in general by some simple actions that keep them from experiencing the very real psychic trauma of a flashback experience. Yes, that’s saying that women are generally physically less imposing than men. It’s also saying that women are generally less physically able to fight off an attacker. It’s also acknowledging that, as with bear attacks, women are enculturated to simply allow an attack to occur so they don’t turn a “mere” traumatic rape into a brutal murder. It’s also acknowledging that there is a power disparity in every social interaction and that the greater the power disparity, the more uncomfortable the person on the short side of that disparity will feel when facing a situation that starts out innocently but could rapidly escalate to the worst possible scenario.

Acknowledging that men are often on the large side of this power disparity is not misandry, nor is it misogyny. It’s a fact, and a sad one. For all the tips for women to avoid rape (e.g.: “Avoid entry into elevators when they are occupied by a stranger. Stand by the control panel so you can sound the alarm button if necessary.”), the tips men should follow to keep from raping someone are far more likely to be effective.

And all the epithets — the ACTUAL epithets, not the perceived ones like “privileged” — that are flying back and forth are well beneath us. But, of course, we skeptics are a passionate bunch, and some of us even enjoy being dicks; myself included. I just would have thought we’d save some of the big guns for those threats to our society that we banded together to fight in the first place. And I was really hoping that we’d band together to combat another threat to our society rooted in a very similar sort of privilege to the ones that brought us together.

Today’s lesson: men and women ARE different

Since we’re talking a bit about gender norms and sexist behaviour lately, here’s a fascinating study Jodi pointed out to me yesterday regarding what people perceive as sexist.

Jodi has reservations with some of the questions asked, feeling as though if there’s not a preexisting stereotype regarding the behaviour in the question, it’s not really sexism, or it might not be perceived as sexism. The example she gave me was that if someone were to see me typing madly away at my keyboard and say “wow, he’s good with computers, too bad he probably sucks at fishing,” while it does follow logically that heavy computer users might not get as much outdoor activity as others, the fact that there’s no preexisting stereotype suggesting that computer users are bad at fishing means that the statement is not a prejudice so much as a logical deduction. If someone were to see me and say “my, what a good looking man, too bad he must be bad at fishing”, if there was a pre-existing prejudice against hot men regarding fishing ability (like the example used of intelligence), then that would be a sexist comment.

One of the more surprising results to me is the fact that more women than men find misandry to be sexist. I suppose it’s not surprising that they’d be more attuned to sexism since the women’s liberation movement is probably still fresh in most women’s minds, but it’s quite surprising that men ignore sexism against them as often as they ignore sexism against women.

Wait, is it sexist to say that men are predisposed to turning a blind eye toward sexism as a whole? Studying this stuff always feels like you’re walking into a trap.