As you’ve probably already heard since Ophelia Benson has posted a few things about it, Michael Shermer has had another meltdown. To keep it short, Shermer said a stupid sexist thing on camera — about the skewed sex ratio among atheist/skeptical activists, he said “It’s who wants to stand up and talk about it, go on shows about it, go to conferences and speak about it, who’s intellectually active about it, you know, it’s more of a guy thing” — and Ophelia pointed out that that is exactly the kind of stereotyping of men’s and women’s roles that forms a self-fulfilling prophecy. She was right. He was wrong. It’s a fairly clear and simple case.
But apparently pointing out that Mr Michael Shermer said something that wasn’t very nice represents an all out assault on the man himself. His response was…well, unbelievable.
It involves a McCarthy-like witch hunt within secular communities to root out the last vestiges of sexism, racism, and bigotry of any kind, real or imagined. Although this unfortunate trend has produced a backlash against itself by purging from its ranks the likes of such prominent advocates as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris…
To date, I have stayed out of this witch hunt against our most prominent leaders, thinking that “this too shall pass.” Perhaps I should have said something earlier. As Martin Niemöller famously warned about the inactivity of German intellectuals during the rise of the Nazi party, “first they came for …” but “I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a….”
But perhaps I should have spoken out, because now the inquisition has been turned on me, by none other than one of the leading self-proclaimed secular feminists whose work has heretofore been important in the moral progress of our movement. I have already responded to this charge against me elsewhere,* so I will only briefly summarize it here. Instead of allowing my inquisitors to force me into the position of defending myself (I still believe in the judicial principle of innocence until proven guilty), I shall use this incident to make the case for moral progress.
Astonishing. Apparently, criticizing anything Mr Michael Shermer says is now a “McCarthy-like witch hunt”, an “inquisition” with the goal of “purging” Shermer from the ranks of…what? He’s a publisher and author. Is there a threat to take his word processor away?
But see, this is why the atheist movement can’t have leaders. The ones we’ve got, informally, all seem to think they’re like gods and popes, infallible and unquestionable, and that normal, healthy, productive criticism within the movement is all a conspiracy to dethrone them.
What’s particularly ironic here is that I’ve read his books and heard his talk on The Believing Brain and Why People Believe Weird Things — if anyone ought to be conscious of the way our brains make cognitive shortcuts and model the world with often-flawed assumptions, it’s Shermer, and he ought to know that calling attention to misconceptions that we all have is not an attempt to destroy a person. If that were the case, his books would have to be interpreted as incitements to mass genocide rather than reasonable discussions of how to recognize flaws in our thinking.
But then, Mr Michael Shermer doesn’t do self-awareness: one moment he’s critizing overwrought Nazi analogies, the next he’s comparing everyone who thought he misspoke to Nazis.
Similarly, he praises the great strides the movement has made in increasing diversity over the last decade, but doesn’t seem to be aware of how that happened. Let me tell you: it’s taken constant nagging from people like me, and Greta Christina, and Jen McCreight, and many others, to wake up the leaders of organizations and conferences from their complacency. It’s taken actions of organizations like the SSA and CFI to consciously reach out and broaden the scope of the movement, to open the doors to women, minorities, and young people. It’s taken the responsiveness of people like Dave Silverman and Ron Lindsay and yes, DJ Grothe, who, when we mentioned that their speaker lineups tended to skew a bit white and male, didn’t react by declaring their critics a Nazi inquisition out to purge the movement of white men. They weren’t dragged kicking and screaming into promoting equality — they were already thinking the same way themselves and were appreciative of reminders of the importance of being conscious of greater interests.
Shermer isn’t being purged at all. He’s being left behind if he thinks a skeptic shouldn’t be criticized. I’m hoping, though, that he’ll snap out of this and realize that he ought to be embarrassed by the laughable accusations he makes.
And Digital Cuttlefish cuts to the chase. Why is anyone satisfied with the “It’s a guy thing” answer?