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 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.

The Problem with Privilege (or: missing the point, sometimes spectacularly)

Part three of a series.

I disagree with a lot of people, a lot of the time. I even disagree with people who are being very reasonable and forthright with their thought processes in how they came to the conclusions they did. In fact, often, it’s those thought processes that give me insight into exactly how they missed the point of whatever it was they were disagreeing with in the first place. It’s at times like this that you have to step back and objectively analyze exactly how and where they went wrong so as to make them an object lesson for others that will almost certainly make the same mistakes.

@Mechelle_68, a twitter follower of mine, disagreed with most of my analysis of the ongoing Rebecca Watson “Elevatorgate” nonsense. She offered a number of arguments against what I had said in my first two posts, many of the points relating directly to the concept of privilege.

The main way she got things, in my view, completely wrong about Elevatorgate:

The issue that was pointed out here is that the man disrespected Rebecca by extending an invitation to her after she expressed, in the bar, that she was tired and wanted to go to bed. Also, that she had stated during the Con that she’d prefer to be treated as a “thinking human being, first”. Enter fire and brimstone.

Firstly, it’s possible this man may have not heard Rebecca make this statement. Bars are noisy. And if you’ve ever been to a post-con bar-meet, you know they’re even noisier. Loads of different conversations taking place and alcohol being consumed. You do good to hear someone talking to you without them shouting in your face. Now if Rebecca had jumped up on the bar and said “Excuse me, can I have your attention? Quiet, please, I have something to say. I’m tired and I’m going to bed. That’s all. Thank you.” then yeah, it’s possible to assume the man deliberately ignored her wishes. But I doubt very seriously that it played out like that. Chances are this guy didn’t hear her.

This was a hotel bar, filled mostly with the con goers, at 4 AM. Even at fairly large conventions, like TAM, I understand the bar scene is relatively close quarters so everyone can discuss. Sure, it’s a bar, and there’s likely to be some noise, but I strongly doubt it’s anything like a pub at happy hour. There’s absolutely no reason not to take her at her word that it happened exactly as Rebecca said — she announced to the remaining people at the bar that she was going to bed, then she left the bar, and one of the people in that crowd followed her out. Sure, I don’t know, because I wasn’t there. Neither were you, so who are you to cast aspersions on Rebecca’s credibility?

Say, for the sake of argument, that this person was not at the convention to hear her say explicitly that she would not like to be sexualized at every con (and remember, she was speaking not just for herself, but on behalf of all women, to actually encourage more participation by women in such cons — because that’s a big problem our community has in terms of inclusion at the moment, since women don’t particularly like being included in a movement just to be leered at). Let’s say also, for the sake of argument, that he had not heard her say that she was going to bed; rather, that he had seen her get up and start to leave the bar. Let’s even say for the sake of argument that he only coincidentally left at the same time.

Even with all these hypotheticals, the salient points are still that she was alone, slightly tipsy, in a foreign country, at 4 in the morning, in a hotel during which time most of the activity was winding down for the night, and a stranger got on the elevator with her and the first contact she’d ever had with this guy was for him to offer her coffee in his room so they could “talk”. Because he found her “interesting”. Rebecca still has every right to be creeped out. She has every right to say “don’t do this”, partly because it won’t work, but mostly because it will set off triggers like crazy in any society in which women are trained to be rape-avoidant. And that’s even ignoring the fact that he was supposedly paying enough attention to her to know who she was and to think that she was interesting, and yet wasn’t paying enough attention to know she’d talked that day about being sexualized, nor about being tired and wanting to go to bed. You know, because that fact would just make the whole situation all the creepier.

Let’s say for the sake of argument that Rebecca had taken this man at his word, and joined him for further conversation and coffee. Now, hopefully, that’s all this hypothetical elevator-guy had on his mind. But since we’re doing hypotheticals, let’s also assume that Rebecca had been sexually assaulted.

Yes, I’m suggesting the unthinkable, and I’m painting Elevator Guy as Schrodinger’s Rapist and therefore apparently disqualify myself from the conversation akin to Godwin’ing a thread. But still, play along, because I have a point to make.

What judge in Ireland, or England, or the USA, or in any other country in this world, would accept Rebecca’s word against the Elevator Guy’s and convict him of rape after she willingly joined him in his hotel room at 4 AM for “coffee”? In fact, would YOU accept her word in those circumstances?

Privilege works that way too, you see. Rape is disturbingly common and underreported in Western society, very likely because of how unlikely it is for the rapist to actually get convicted of his crimes. Men have the privilege of being given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to he-said/she-said situations where what she-said might give you five-to-twenty. If Rebecca had for some reason gone to his room, she would therefore have been insufficiently self-protective, and therefore would have been assumed to be a slut trying to screw over her last one-night-stand.

Don’t think it could happen in your country? Hell, it even happens in the liberal socialist paradise that is Canada.

I have more to say about Mechelle’s post, but that’s enough vitriol for one night. Tomorrow, I hope.

The Problem with Privilege (or: you got sexism in my skepticism!)

This particular blog debacle has already been done to death pretty well everywhere on the ‘tubes. I usually find that’s about the right time for me to weigh in, so here goes. First, I need to set the stage for those of you just joining us, though I’ve already given you links to this particular rabbit hole in the past, in case you’ve bothered to click them.

Rebecca Watson attended a conference in Dublin recently where she gave a talk addressing the sexism problem that appears to be relatively rampant within the skeptic and atheist communities, a problem that, every time it’s brought up, is generally pooh-poohed by the privileged white men of the community. This is an oversimplification of course, but the talk was generally well-received. It provided examples of behaviour she experiences all too often, being objectified and sexualized at pretty much every con she attends. I’m sure her experiences are not at all out of the norm, either.

After a convention is over, there’s often a traditional follow-up called “Bar-Con” where the convention-goers socialize in the hotel bar for an inordinate amount of time. Rebecca attended this particular convention’s Bar-Con, where the con’s attendees congregated and drank and socialized and generally had a good time. At about four in the morning, Rebecca announced that she was out of steam and was going to head to bed. She left the hotel bar and got in the elevator. A man from the group, evidently an attendee, followed her from the bar to the elevator and got in with her. While she was trapped in this elevator with him, he said, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I find you very interesting, and I would like to talk more. Would you like to come to my hotel room for coffee?”
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Latest Catholic sex scandal: priest under Pope’s adviser arrested

Feel the cops’ breath on your neck yet, Ratzinger?

Father Riccardo Seppia, a 51-year-old parish priest in the village of Sastri Ponente, near Genoa, was arrested last Friday, May 13, on pedophilia and drug charges. Investigators say that in tapped mobile-phone conversations, Seppia asked a Moroccan drug dealer to arrange sexual encounters with young and vulnerable boys. “I do not want 16-year-old boys but younger. Fourteen-year-olds are O.K. Look for needy boys who have family issues,” he allegedly said. Genoa Archbishop Angelo Bagnasco, who is the head of the Italian Bishops Conference, had been working with Benedict to establish a tough new worldwide policy, released this week, on how bishops should handle accusations of priestly sex abuse.

According to investigators, Seppia told a friend — a former seminarian and barman who is currently under investigation — that the town’s malls were the best places to entice minors. In tapped phone conversations the two cursed and swore against God. The priest is charged with having attempted to kiss and touch an underage altar boy and of having exchanged cocaine for sexual intercourse with boys over 18.

At what point do we get to claim there’s a correlation between being a member of the ecclesiasty of a sexually repressive religion, and having a set of sexual proclivities that might be best repressed? At what point do we get to claim that perhaps this correlation is causal? And at what point do we get to say, “look, being a member of a religion does not make you more moral or a better contributing member of society than those of us without religion?”

Update: my original title “Latest Catholic sex scandal: Pope’s adviser arrested” was wrong, it’s a priest under the Pope’s adviser, not the adviser himself. I actually understood this from the original article, but screwed up on the title in my linking post. Sorry if I gave anyone the wrong impression. Said adviser handled the situation thusly:

Genoa Archbishop Angelo Bagnasco, who is the head of the Italian Bishops Conference, had been working with Benedict to establish a tough new worldwide policy, released this week, on how bishops should handle accusations of priestly sex abuse.

Bagnasco said that when he met the Pope this weekend, he “asked for a particular blessing for my archdiocese” in light of the alleged crimes, adding that “like every father toward a son [feels] great pain in seeing a priest who is not faithful to his vocation.”

Oh yeah. REAL tough. Protect the diocese, not the children. And call the priest a bad apple in the meantime. No true Scotsman, you see.

Why are Republicans and media pundits really trying to eviscerate Social Security?

These accusations are interesting, plausible, and if true, potentially damaging to one of the greatest successes Democrats (and the beneficiaries of the program, of course) have had in the States. The few facts I know about Social Security are that a) it is not in danger of bankruptcy, the retirement age was raised from 62 when started in 1938 to 67 today (including deferment benefits for workers that keep working til 70), and that according to Milton Friedman, a demigod amongst conservatives, it actually disproportionately benefits the rich.

Friedman claims this is by virtue of the pay-in cap where you only have to pay a percentage of your wages into Social Security up to a certain salary, after which you no longer get “taxed”. You get the full benefit of payment regardless of how close to the pay-in you actually managed to make, so high-income folks get to withdraw much more than they made. Additionally, where mean life expectancy is determined by how much money you have to pay into hospitals, poor people live shorter, and may never collect from the social security fund while rich people who live longer will likely withdraw more than they paid in.

Since this is one of those memes best combatted by information, I’m happy to spread this message, though I’m skeptical without the real numbers. If there’s a risk of insolvency, why couldn’t they just lift the cap since even Lord Friedman suggests it’s configured unfairly? Why must the program be gutted and old people be put even more at risk of dying poor, underfed and without medical care?

Why Prayer is Nonsense #nationaldayofprayer

In honor of the US tradition of turning Cinco de Mayo into the farcical National Day of Prayer, today I repost my opus, Why Prayer is Nonsense.

By no means is this intended to be an exhaustive list of every theological discussion, every argument and counterargument, with regard to prayer’s efficacy. My aim with this series is to show why prayer is an ultimately useless endeavor, either devoid of any merit when defined narrowly, or if defined vaguely, indistinguishable from other mental disciplines like meditation; and how people entrenching prayer in the public consciousness and including it in their individual philosophies in such large numbers as exists today, tangibly harms society.

This is the master post, the first in a series that will be updated as time allows. I’ll be editing links into this post as I create the subsequent parts. There are a lot of interconnected points that need to be woven together to form my final argument, so please bear with me as I get this thing built. If you’d like to start pulling on threads early, that may help to shape future parts, but otherwise, bear in mind I may well cover it by the time this series is done. Some posts will be longer than others (especially part 2), but I’ll be making an effort to keep the parts relatively digestible, which is of course why I’m chunking this up to begin with.

Part 1: First, define prayer
Part 2: Know your deities
Part 3: But everyone knows prayer works!
Part 4: Even if it IS useless, what’s the harm?
Part 5: So why pray?

As an added bonus, as if that’s not enough to read on its own, check out Religion as a mental parasite to understand why and how the meme of prayer is spread.

Why am I anti-conservative, when many conservative financial ideals make sense?

untitled83 asked on my recent post about electoral projections:

I just have a quick question I’ve wanted to ask a strong liberal, or should i say a strong anti-conservative. I stumbled on your blog so here you go. Why is it so wrong to vote conservative. I work. I appreciate the effort of workers, of small businesses and of even large corporations. Even large corporations where small once. They worked hard and made there way to huge corporations which employ thousands of people. I don’t see anything wrong with them, or myself for that matter, wanting to keep the money we make as opposed to paying it in taxes.

If one believes its wrong to keep all that money and that it should be shared, then we should appeal to their morals and have them donate it. I prefer that than employing something like forced charity.

What are your thoughts on this? It doesn’t seem irrational to me. Why the strong anti-conservativeness?

As I said, these are excellent questions, and I find surprisingly little to disagree with in the assertions that untitled makes.

I do not see anything wrong with wanting to keep money earned. I do not see anything wrong with appealing to people’s better nature and asking that they donate what they have to spare to charity. I do not like the idea of forced charity. I do not like the idea of high taxes. I appreciate people who work hard, and in fact, I have such a work ethic that my blog (and home life) often suffers because of my inability to “switch off” and stop working for the company that pays my salary.

I understand a few things about the nature of a government “by the people”, and about the nature of corporations and big businesses, though, that colors what I’ve said. I’m not sure that everyone that votes big-C Conservative understands these things, in fact. I suspect many of these observations about both the government and corporations in general need to be pointed out, so I’ll try my best.
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How strawman arguments and shitty authors undermine #atheism

I haven’t read anything by Anthony DeStefano aside from his anti-atheist screeds on various news journals like USA Today, but I have no doubt merely by looking through the title list that he is a man of deep conviction in that which he cannot see. He’s written a book for children called Little Star, all about how the baby Jesus is very tiny but is our Lord. He’s written a book for grown-up children about how awesome a place Heaven is. And he’s written a book about all those things you can’t see but that the Bible assures you are really really real. And since you know other people believe it, they must really really REALLY be real.

So today we have a Serious Author writing a Serious Article in a Serious Journal about how atheists are superstitious “Materialists” who are simply incapable of comprehending that the parts of this natural world that we haven’t figured out yet are actually impossible to decipher, because God wants it that way.

Of course, it’s not quite fair to say that atheists believe in nothing. They do believe in something — the philosophical theory known as Materialism, which states that the only thing that exists is matter; that all substances and all phenomena in the universe are purely physical.

What nonsense.

We’re off to a running start.
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Daniel Craig in drag for sexual equality

And he doesn’t look half bad. Too bad M doesn’t make a very good case for Craig to keep his lady kit on in explaining all the problems women have to deal with in today’s society.

I like the message. I think it could certainly have been cropped down significantly (and probably was for the televised part), or Craig could have said something back in character, but otherwise, well done.