The Problem with Privilege (or: no, you’re not a racist misogynist ass, calm down)

Part two of a series, evidently. Told you I had more to say.

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

So you’re white. So you’re a man. So you’re well-to-do. That surely doesn’t make you evil! … OR DOES IT!?!?

People honestly don’t seem to understand what it means to say that there’s a privilege problem in the skeptical community, it seems. Nor what it means if they’re one of the lucky few majority who have this privilege. Nor what to do when someone calls you out on it. Nor pretty well any aspect of actually understanding the situation and its implications that might allow for normal social interaction on a daily basis without blowing up half the damn blogosphere every time someone points out a behaviour that’s damaging the way Rebecca Watson just did. I’m assuming inadvertently, since she’s pretty damn good at building networks, and she’s well-respected in skeptical and atheist communities enough for this to matter.

I mean, hell, all it took to touch off this particular firestorm was Rebecca complaining that a guy ignored one, if not two direct statements of intent in order to flirt with her — in one of the most socially awkward ways imaginable, indicating he was wholly oblivious of the implications of his environment — to provide the powderkeg. It took someone like Stef McGraw, a public figure as a member of a leadership organization at her school, completely missing the point of Rebecca’s complaint and doing so in public on her organization’s blog, to provide the fuse. Rebecca daring to rebut in public at a conference in which Stef was attending lit the match. Everything that’s happened since has been people of all stripes sticking their noses into the conversation as though it merited more than the back-and-forth that Rebecca could have damn well handled on her own. The explosion happened through three incidents, and everything else has been people picking through the rubble either trying to score rhetorical points or trying to triage the injured parties. (I said parties. I don’t mean Rebecca specifically.)

People including me, a white male taking advantage of his privilege to be heard on this one.

You see, privilege is when you are a member of a non-marginalized group in a region — like, say, being white and male and Christian in North America. Not only do the marginalized people get explicitly marginalized, there are some creeping and insidious ways that the privileged group gets advantages that they themselves might not be aware of. For instance, a man might get the benefit of the doubt when he approaches someone somewhere at some time and invites them for coffee. When that someone is a woman, and that somewhere and somewhen is an elevator at 4 AM, and that invitation for coffee is a thinly veiled invitation for sexual congress, the woman might get a little freaked out. People everywhere and of both sexes scramble to excuse the man, especially since he did nothing wrong, and therefore the woman is freaked out for nothing.

Except one of the ways privilege works is that the people with the privilege often try to solve the problems inherent in the power dynamic by suggesting that the underprivileged protect themselves. You know, because the onus of responsibility is on them to keep from being abused. How many times have you, as a man, been told to avoid dark alleys or elevators or going out in the middle of the night because you might be raped? How much rape avoidance do you have to practice? Sure, you have some small amount of necessity to avoid these areas because you might be mugged, but not statistically more than a woman might, even though women are on average physically less capable or less willing or more acculturated to simply not fight back. Males don’t have to practice avoidance the way a woman does. And a woman does because we excuse behaviour that indicates predatory isolation techniques in men, whether they cause any actual offense or not afterward.

I’ve already written a post for a secret project in which I discuss how I (only slightly, she’ll say) hurt my dear friend inadvertently by using too many of my own words, rather than simply pushing traffic to her words instead. I’ll happily include the post in this series when said secret project is fully operational, but until then, suffice it to say that as a guy, I have the ability to post more inflammatory things with less flack from the audience, and I automatically get more hits whether my words merit them or not. I recognize and acknowledge this privilege, and I accept it, and I’m even willing to apply this privilege to noble ends, especially if it means eroding at the privilege in general to provide the less-privileged with an equal shot in this world.

I have privilege, in being white and in being male. This does not make me a racist, nor a sexist, especially where I recognize that my position does actually give me societal advantages that I don’t necessarily deserve. It doesn’t make you a racist or a sexist either. But lashing out at someone who simply wants to point out where someone is taking advantage of a privilege — in this case, the privilege to flirt despite clear signs of pre-rejection — that’s just wrong.

It’s wrong because you, as the forum troll that makes comments like these or these, sense that some “right” is being taken away from you, but you don’t even know what it is. You assume that Rebecca advocated that the man in the elevator was a rapist — never mind all the rape avoidance techniques these women have been taught to employ as members of the unprivileged that include this exact scenario, and that she never took it beyond a complaint of the behaviour being generally creepy. You assume that people who support Rebecca are man-haters who want men to never flirt again, but you ignore the fact that they simply want you to pay more attention to them before diving into the sexual come-ons, especially right after you got done talking about how uncool those cold-opens are. You assume that anyone who disagrees with you on any minor picayune point is from “another tribe”, a different in-group, and therefore worth derision and total lack of respect. And once you’ve made up your mind on anything, come hell or high water you’re sticking to your guns.

Those of us who appreciate a little bit of reality in our discourse might simply recognize that when a woman says “don’t do this specific thing”, you probably shouldn’t do that specific thing. If not simply with her, then at least let it give you pause and search for indicators that the behaviour is acceptable with your next target. Flirting with women in elevators is fine. If you’ve known them for longer than thirty seconds, and respect if they tell you to back off, anyway.

Like all things, interpersonal relations are nuanced. Stop trying to make this a binary issue, because it’s not.

By the way, Jen at Blag Hag says much the same thing specifically about Dawkins. Yeah, he’s not a misogynist either. He’s just misusing his privilege to tell someone that their complaint is useless, just because it’s a “first world problem” so to speak. This is, of course, misguided. But don’t dare tell him so while including the word “fuck”.

Fox vs video games: the Bulletstorm shitstorm

The other day, when I saw it appear on the Playstation 3′s “What’s New” splash, I downloaded a demo for a first-person shooter game I hadn’t heard anything about before, called Bulletstorm. The demo video preceding the actual playable level pretty much set the expectations for the game — chaotically violent grindhouse with over-the-top game mechanics, protagonists with generally more machismo than intellect (even the girl) who are quick to make lewd sexual references, and buckets and buckets of blood. Despite its outlandish presentation, the demo was actually fairly fun. The ability to kick enemies and have them thereafter hang in mid-air long enough for you to aim at specific body parts is a bit silly. but otherwise my first impression was that with some polish, the game has potential.

I had no idea that potential that I saw was the potential for lulz when Fox News lost their shit over it. But there you have it. Turns out I’m not prescient — whoda thunk it? Though, given their earlier performance in grossly mischaracterizing Mass Effect’s “full digital nudity and controllable explicit sex” (which, as it turns out, is no more controllable or explicit than any sexually tinged and artistically presented offering on Fox Network’s prime time block), I should have seen it coming.

In the new video game Bulletstorm due February 22, players are rewarded for shooting enemies in the private parts (such as the buttocks). There’s an excess of profanity, of course, including frequent use of F-words. And Bulletstorm is particularly gruesome, with body parts that explode all over the screen.

But that’s not the worst part.

The in-game awards system, called Skill Shots, ties the ugly, graphic violence into explicit sex acts: “topless” means cutting a player in half, while a “gang bang” means killing multiple enemies. And with kids as young as 9 playing such games, the experts spoke with were nearly universally worried that video game violence may be reaching a fever pitch.

“If a younger kid experiences Bulletstorm’s explicit language and violence, the damage could be significant,” Dr. Jerry Weichman, a clinical psychologist at the Hoag Neurosciences Institute in Southern California, told

In their private parts! Such as the buttocks! You just can’t make this up.

More commentary below the fold.
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Doing your part for the ladies of the science blogosphere.

Funny thing happened to me when I was in mom’s womb. I grew a penis. Yeah. I know. Hell of a gift in the grand scheme of things because by virtue of my swinging pipe, it turns out I get a whole lot more say in this world than I’m due. By virtue of some dangly bits I will get better jobs, get more respect, and have a better chance at being heard when I have something to say. I didn’t ask for the hand I was dealt — that’s entirely near-random genetic stuff that I just don’t have the head for.

And yet there are some very excellent science bloggers out there who do have the head for things like genetics and other squishy scientific topics like that — stuff that I can’t fathom, being a mere computer geek and layman. And not just the squishy science, but the math-y science, like particle or astrophysics. By virtue of not having hit the lucky genetic combination, though, they seem to only gain attention when they’re talking about how they’re not getting enough attention. Gender disparity, and gender politics, are the quickest paths to being heard by female science writers it seems. This is a disgrace, because these women know science better than I do — better by far.

The topic came up at Science Online, and reverberated through the blogosphere for the past week, til I decided to chime in. By virtue of my swinging pipe, I will probably be fairly well read on this topic. It is only through acute self-awareness — awareness that I do not deserve this audience on this topic — that I humbly point you to some amazing women writers that don’t get mentioned in the list of favorite science authors any time someone tries to rattle off an informal “top ten” list of their favorites. The fact that Ed Yong, Carl Zimmer, Phil Plait, and other male writers always top those short lists when there are equally good female writers is lamentable, but ultimately fixable through better exposure.

Not the kind of exposure they tend to get, though. Christie Wilcox of Observations of a Nerd recently had a fan approach her on Facebook gushing over… you guessed it… her appearance. The fan said, and I quote: “You are GORGEOUS, and your tits look absolutely incredible.” Nothing about her science writing — you know, the stuff that made him an admirer — and nothing like the kind of civility you’re expected to give a perfect stranger. So, she wrote a blog post declaring war on the blogosphere. Well, sort of. She expressed her unwillingness to be cowed out of the conversation, and her support of anyone facing these same issues.

The trolls that show up in comments for supporting arguments beat the same drum everywhere you see them. Oh my, the trolls. They are a priceless bunch. On David Dobbs’ “STFU” post, the trolls are the main attraction. The ones that claim that a woman must be intentionally making themselves pieces of meat should someone notice that they have breasts. The ones that claim that they are “bear-baiting” by daring to wear makeup at work, then complaining when they get attention for being attractive. The ones that paradoxically claim that women are doing this to get noticed, while at the same time admitting that women that do not dress attractively do not get ahead in their careers. You create the environment where only attractively attired women get any attention, then you try to shame women for daring to complain that the environment is the real issue.

There are a lot of writers who need to be heard on this topic. SciCurious has declared that she’s going to do what she can to self-promote, and to make sure that that self-promotion is about her science writing no matter how others might construe it. This is a tactic that has worked once for Rebecca Skloot, whose incredibly popular and (so far as I’ve managed to read) thoroughly excellent book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks has won her awards and accolades beyond many male science writers, even while she is never mentioned as a science writer in people’s “top tens”. Sci also discusses the use of sex to sell science, and the advantages and disadvantages thereof. Meanwhile, she’s ACTUALLY “busting, busting up the stereotypes”. Unlike the Science Cheerleaders, whose advocacy of science is at best the repeated refrain of “GO SCIENCE!”. No science to be seen there.

Kate Clancy highlights the ‘friend bias’ of cliquishness in the blogosphere, and another where women can say something which is ignored until a man comes along and says the very same thing. These are important trends to note, and to counteract as much as possible — if you see someone ignoring that a woman made the exact same point three comments prior, damn well point it out. If you see that certain commenters latch onto conversation with men, while wholly ignoring pointed and excellent questions from women, damn well point it out.

And Stephanie Zvan identifies the real issue: people simply aren’t engaging with women on their science. Yes, Our Lady of Perpetual Win lives up to her deified moniker, as usual. Not only is it problematic that people are ignoring the work women do in science (much less conversations about science), but it’s also problematic when the only time people regularly retweet, share, or link women into the discussion is when it’s about gender politics. Why is it always about gender politics? Why can’t it be about science?

I’m going to continue my usual effort to promote good science and spread the word regardless of who’s writing it (and the Ed Yong link I posted above is specifically a list of good science that happens to have been written by women). This isn’t a call for “equal opportunity” measures. It is a demand that women not be overlooked for their science work. With my own job taking so much of my time lately, I’ve had difficulty doing as much sharing of science links on Twitter as I might like. I’m going to intentionally devote more time to that practice. I’ve come to follow on Twitter a rather disproportionate number of female science writers in the wake of Science Online 2011, so I expect my promotion of scientific articles will also be rather disproportionately from females. At least, I’m hoping so. Otherwise I’m not really doing my part, am I?

While I have your ear, here’s a blog that has only one post on it yet, though it has all the promise of a newborn. Our Science is a new blog on written by a 9th grader named Naseem, an attendee of Scio11, who promises to cover topics like the 2012 doomsday predictions, the recent “aflockalypse”, and why you should consider a career in science. She is catching people’s attention early, and if she’s as good a writer as she seems in the first post, I have every anticipation this will be a breakout skeptical and science-populism blog for the new year. If nothing else, it will be a testament to humanity to watch a 9th grader’s love for science grow as she explores it.

Her gender, mind you, is entirely a circumstance of sorta-random genetics.

RCimT: Religion/sexuality link roundup

Been a while since I’ve done one of these! I have to get some tabs off my Firefox and I don’t really have a lot of time to blog them individually, so here you are.

In case you haven’t seen it, Stephanie has weighed in on the hilarious conflation of sex-positivity and pedophilia a theist has accused Justin me of recently. As is her wont, Stephanie did not address the hilariousness of the religious apologist’s claims. Instead, she posted an essay, and a suicide note, that will cut you to the quick, no matter where you believe the source for morals might be. Hopefully the apologist will simply shrivel up and blow away at this. I mean, I doubt it, but I can’t help but hope so.
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How does one prove astrology? BY STARTING OVER.

The undying zombie astrology thread has attracted another latecomer to the party, this time Curtis Manwaring of Astrology X-Files, an astrology software developer who put together a seemingly testable hypothesis and added it as a comment on that thread. I’m moving my response to its own post, because frankly, nobody seems to be reading any of the follow-ups that have linked to it, and would rather continue the fight there. I’m tired of the single zombie thread, which is responsible for the vast majority of my database difficulties, causing me to hack my website to absurd degrees as a result. If it keeps attracting newcomers, I’ll close it, and add a comment saying “this post is closed, please visit any of the posts linked on page 9 of the comments if you want to continue the discussion.”

The meat of Curtis’ comment appears to be a way to test astrology, or at least one aspect of it. My problem with the suggestion is the same that I’ve had with the concept of astrology as a whole — it depends on a foundation that is simply not there. It builds on hypotheses that have simply never been proven, but rather always taken for granted. For instance, the hypothesis that there is any sort of correlation between the planets’ movements and people’s individual lives. Beyond this, much of what he suggests appears to disagree with other astrologers in the thread — even if you exclude Jamie “Darkstar” Funk of Dark Star Astrology (who has since attempted to shed his association with his ridiculous arguments here by changing his name). And to make matters worse, it appears to misunderstand statistical significance, the importance of sample sizes, and the importance of controlling for variables.

This is, as all my discussions against unfalsifiable and self-perpetuating memes, a long one. Grab a coffee.
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Harper government intentionally suppressing inconvenient truths

Remember how rules changes in 2007 basically muzzled climate scientists in Canada from providing interviews with journalists about evidence-based climate research? Remember also how a troll on this blog suggested it was really just the public losing interest in, you know, being “guilt-tripped” by the media about the current state of today’s climate?

Documents were recently obtained by Postmedia News proving these policies are in fact governmentally mandated. Apparently, climate scientists are not allowed to discuss floods or the last ice age without special clearance either.

The documents say the “new” rules went into force in March and reveal how they apply to not only to contentious issues including the oilsands, but benign subjects such as floods that occurred 13,000 years ago.

They also give a glimpse of how Canadians are being cut off from scientists whose work is financed by taxpayers, critics say, and is often of significant public interest — be it about fish stocks, genetically modified crops or mercury pollution in the Athabasca River.

“It’s Orwellian,” says Andrew Weaver, a climatologist at University of Victoria. The public, he says, has a right to know what federal scientists are discovering and learning.

Scientists at NRCan, many of them world experts, study everything from seabeds to melting glaciers. They have long been able to discuss their research, until the rules changed this spring.

These policies are squelching legitimate studies based on legitimate scientific evidence, out of some misguided fear that they may be used against Harper’s politics. To translate: reality might have political ramifications that are detrimental to the Conservatives’ platforms.

NRCan scientist Scott Dallimore co-authored the study, published in the journal Nature on April 1, about a colossal flood that swept across northern Canada 13,000 years ago, when massive ice dams gave way at the end of the last ice age.

The study was considered so newsworthy that two British universities issued releases to alert the international media.

It was, however, deemed so sensitive in Ottawa that Dallimore, who works at NRCan’s laboratories outside Victoria, was told he had to wait for clearance from the minister’s office.

Dallimore tried to tell the department’s communications managers the flood study was anything but politically sensitive. “This is a blue sky science paper,” he said in one email, noting: “There are no anticipated links to minerals, energy or anthropogenic climate change.”

But the bureaucrats in Ottawa insisted. “We will have to get the minister’s office approval before going ahead with this interview,” Patti Robson, the department’s media relations manager, wrote in an email after a reporter from Postmedia News (then Canwest News Service) approached Dallimore.

Are you outraged yet?

How the Pope Learned to Use the Big Lie

In my last blog post, I alluded very briefly and without much detail to Pope Joseph Ratzinger’s recent polemic against secularism, wherein he blamed secularism for the rise of Nazi Germany. I was immediately struck by how patently false and revisionist the claim was, and was honestly surprised to see it coming from such a person as the Pope. I mean, I’m used to hearing from your average theist guttersnipe troll about how Hitler, Mussolini, Pol Pot and Stalin were all atheists, and how their atheism led directly to the crimes against humanity they perpetrated (every claim being generally easy to knock out, but the Hitler one being the easiest), but to hear it from The Boss, the man who claims the infallibility of God? Well, that’s particularly galling. At least his nonsense is not going wholly unopposed, though I wish people were paying more attention to the anti-secularist hate speech he’s committing.

Let’s make one thing perfectly clear. Ratzinger is not an immoral and grossly misguided man, with delusions of grandeur and an agenda that demonstrably runs roughshod over human rights and the innocent children victimized by the clergy under his protection, merely by virtue of having been a member of the Hitler Youth. Membership was mandatory by law when he was a child, so he didn’t have much choice — it was either be quiet and play along, or speak up and do the right thing at the potential cost of his life. So unless he had some special virtue or uncommon reserve of courage unavailable to the average man, which he evidently did not, one cannot blame him for doing what most of us would likely do in his situation. The lessons he took from this oppression, however, were evidently the wrong ones.

Stephanie Zvan points out how like the propaganda employed by the Nazis, in fomenting the inherent antisemitism prevalent in the mostly-Catholic population, his tactics are. I will take it a step further and say it is an outright lie. Not just a lie, but a Big Lie, a propaganda tactic most famously employed by Hitler himself in scapegoating the Jews for the ills of his society. I contend that Ratzinger knows it is a lie, and has chosen to spread it despite his claims to special virtue.

Being the scholarly sort, or at least being PORTRAYED as the scholarly sort, you’d think Ratzy would have remembered the Lateran treaties between Pope Pius IX and Benito Mussolini, one of the key players in the creation of Fascism as a political movement. Mussolini considered Catholicism to be nothing better than a useful tool in the subjugation of his country’s people, feigning piety only to assert control over the Church. Without his actions in creating the Vatican State, the Pope might today be subject to the laws of the Italy and any treaties they have with others, including extradition treaties that might see the Pope called to account for his roles in covering up child rape cases.

You’d think Benny would remember the Reichskonkordat, the bilateral treaty between the Catholic church and the German state guaranteeing the Church and its clergy rights in Germany, which was signed by Hitler in 1933. The rights afforded, included a guarantee that all schools would teach Catholicism, the right to collect church taxes, and the exemption of all clergy members from all political party functions or membership.

You’d think the ostensibly-infallible Palpatine-lookalike would remember all the expressions of faith in the Catholic religion expressed by Hitler in Mein Kampf, and throughout his political life, or his expressions against atheism as being a function of Communism, his party’s diametrical enemy. His profession that, “[h]ence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord”, should be enough to show the man to be a practicing Catholic. If not that, then his frequent exhortation that “God [is] with us” should be clear. And the extraordinary existing documentation of pictures of Catholic clergy cozying up to the politicos (and I sincerely apologize for who’s hosting those pictures) would show that they’re anything but enemies.

The evidence runs counter to the Pope’s repeated lies about the Nazis. He cannot be ignorant of this evidence, so I have to assume that he is lying in a calculated fashion, in emulation of the lessons he himself learned during the Holocaust. They were not lessons of tolerance and respect for differences — rather, they were lessons in how to sway with gross propaganda an unwitting populace that believes you incapable of lying in such a fashion.

I repeat my previous call to arrest the Pope, as the man is demonstrably covering up actual crimes, all while fomenting religious intolerance against atheists, who are possibly the last acceptable religious minority to slander — and I say this knowing full well that people like to make the exact same claim about Catholics. I don’t pretend that the call to arrest him is not influenced by the emotions behind being told I am responsible for the evils of society. I embrace that anger, in fact, as it adds passion to my words when I say that Pope Ratzinger has covered up more evil done to this society in the name of his deity, than any atheist has ever done in the name of no-deity. And his claims that secularism leads directly to evil totalitarian regimes is, like every other aspect of the Big Lie, directly undermined by reality.