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Sep 30 2011

Sexism in the atheist community

It is fairly obvious that women are a minority in the atheist community. The high-profile atheists tend to be men, even though there are many women who are making important contributions to atheist thought. This naturally raises the question: Is the atheist movement sexist? Is the atmosphere at atheist gatherings hostile to women? Are female atheists overlooked when it comes to providing high profile platforms as conference speakers?

I ask this because of a long simmering controversy that began when Rebecca Watson, who writes at Skepchick, posted a YouTube video where she recounted her experience, as a woman at atheist gatherings, that male attendees at these gatherings tend to unduly hit on women. She had been on a panel at an atheist conference in Dublin in 2010 and gave an example of an encounter with someone in an elevator late at night after her talk who invited her to his room for coffee. She declined. It was a minor incident and she treated it as such but used it to give generic advice to men to not too readily assume that women at atheist gatherings welcomed such advances, especially if they had given no prior indication that that was the case. The segment that deals with this starts at the 2:45 mark.

What happened next was astounding. Watson received an enormous outpouring of vitriol, presumably from members of the atheist community who form the readership of the blog, calling her names and accusing her of all manner of things. The comments quickly crossed the border from sexism to outright misogyny. What was worse was that Richard Dawkins heard about her post and also chimed in, belittling her concerns, in the form of composing a sarcastic letter to a fictitious Muslim woman in an oppressive country like Saudi Arabia telling her that her dire situation was nothing compared to the hardships that American women faced being propositioned in hotel elevators. And Watson says that she still continues to receive abuse and that people devote entire websites to attacking her.

Dawkins’ response to Watson’s comment is remarkably obtuse but illustrates the danger that always exists when you start thinking that you are fighting ‘big battles’ and that ‘lesser’ battles don’t count. The fact is that different people are immediately affected by different things and thus may be aroused to action by different passions and comparing them is generally not productive. For example, the battle for wage equality for American women does not cease to be a valid cause merely because women in many underdeveloped countries experience enormous hardships. My own approach is that as long as you are fighting for justice and equality and basic human dignity and rights, one does not gain much by belittling the efforts of those who are not fighting the same specific battles as you are. We should avoid the temptation to give too much weight to ranking social justice struggles in terms of importance. Instead we should support each other in our different struggles, though we obviously have to choose where we devote our own energies.

For example, I think male circumcision is wrong because it violates the bodily integrity of a child and should not be allowed until the child is old enough to give informed consent. But I am well aware that female circumcision is a much worse practice and is given the more graphic but accurate label of female genital mutilation. Now there are some who would argue that people who oppose male circumcision and try to abolish that practice are wasting time on a relatively minor problem as long as the bigger problem of female circumcision still exists. There are others who are offended that people who oppose female genital mutilation are not equally vocal about abolishing male circumcision. Both these attitudes seem to me to be wrong-headed because they make the assumption that other people should care about the same things that you care about, and with the same intensity. The fact is that people who see a wrong done anywhere are perfectly entitled to take action against it and try and recruit others in their cause without having to justify why that cause is more worthy than other causes. My suggestion is that we should devote our energies to fight for what we believe in and not undermine those who believe in other causes, as long as they all promote justice.

But this still leaves the question of whether sexism and misogyny is commonplace in the atheist community. It is hard for me to judge because I am not a very sociable person and do not hang out much with groups of any kind to notice these things first hand. I do occasionally attend a few freethinkers groups in my neighborhood and though the crowd has slightly more men than women, I have not noticed any overt sexism. I am also the faculty advisor for my university’s Center for Inquiry student affiliate. In the early days of that group I was a little concerned because the leadership and membership seemed to be almost entirely male but that has changed in the last year with two women taking leadership positions and doing a great job. But just because I have not noticed anything obvious does not mean that sexism or misogyny does not exist.

There is nothing intrinsic to atheism that would warrant sexism so any that exists must arise because for some reason the atheist movement tends to attract sexist males. This is disturbing and merits investigation. Is the level of sexism the same as in other sectors but that we notice it more and think it should be less because of the heightened social awareness of the community? One recalls a similar situation during the civil rights and antiwar struggles of the 1960s when those movements were also accused of rampant sexism, treating the women in the movements as either support staff or sex objects. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that just because one is fighting one form of discrimination that one has immunity from the charge of discriminating against others.

Whatever the cause, we should work to eliminate sexism and misogyny from the atheist community, as part of the effort to eradicate it completely.

40 comments

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  1. 1
    James

    I agree with you completely, Dr. Singham.

    One of the other frustrating elements of Ms. Watson’s situation is the constant calls by other atheists and skeptics for everyone to “just shut up” and “let it go.” It seems rather obvious to me that the level of contentiousness surrounding the issue of sexism is evidence that we need to discuss it more, not less.

  2. 2
    zaybu

    Sorry, I don’t agree with Rebecca Watson. Had the man in the elevator pursued her, harrassed her, in other words, had his conduct been objectionable and irreprehensible then Watson would have a case to bring that up to the public. This wasn’t the case. It was a simple flirtation, which ended as soon as she made her intentions known. Therefore, she should have kept this incidence to herself. But bringing it up to the public shows her immaturity, and by the same token, it puts a taint on all those women who have real grievances with misogyny in our society.

  3. 3
    Steve LaBonne

    This whole business, and particularly the utter cluelessness of Dawkins (who AFAIK has yet to apologize for his egregiously stupid and insulting “Muslima” rant), has depressed me immensely. Clearly, as James said, there is much work to be done.

  4. 4
    Steve LaBonne

    zaybu, you are an idiot. How hard is it to understand that you just don’t proposition someone in an elevator, and especially not late at night? And that women will rightly avoid a movement in which such swinish behavior is tolerated and those objecting to it are subjected to vicious public attacks? If you don’t understand something as simple and basic as that, you are not fit to be among civilized people. Go hang out in the barnyard where you belong.

  5. 5
    Mel Lifshitz

    She might not be so fully aware of the distinction between flirtation and sexual abuse, or her perception is hugely different from others. I think people should just let her be.

  6. 6
    Steve LaBonne

    She might not be so fully aware of the distinction between flirtation and sexual abuse, or her perception is hugely different from others.

    Her perception is exactly the one the majority of women would have had under the circumstances. Therefore, the perception problem- which amounts to a failure to confront your own male privilege and its effects- is yours, not hers. As is the smarmy condescension.

    (Mano, I hope you’ve looked at the several LONG comment threads on this at Pharyngula so you know what you’ve let yourself in for; you may want to consider closing comments on this post.)

  7. 7
    Somite

    These past few comments encapsulate how this incident has developed. People throwing insults and becoming irate over other people’s opinions. And these are truly just opinions. As opposed to other subjects we discuss there is no truth to be verified.

    RW could have been offended by behavior that is acceptable. The reverse could also be true. What I keep asking everyone in these conversations is how can you be so sure you are right!

  8. 8
    Steve LaBonne

    And these are truly just opinions.

    Sorry, no. Unexamined male privilege is a real problem, and pointing it out is not “just an opinion”, any more than is pointing out other injustice. And it’s a particular black eye (and a practical stumbling block, since it serves to discourage participation by half of the species) for a movement that’s supposed to embody rationality.

  9. 9
    Jared A

    Mano, thanks for bringing attention to this important issue, and doing so with respect and no hostility and presumption.

    I had no clue the atheist community was like this, either. But then, I despise clubs, especially the “like minded person” variety. That’s really half the reason I quit church in the first place. After having this pointed out to me I can see how the “boys club” mentality as cropped up.

    For the record: Complimenting a stranger can be flirting–though it can still fall on the creepy scale depending on the circumstances. Propositioning a stranger in the elevator is generally not. We can argue about whether a single instance is really sexual abuse but if it is considered acceptable and even defended by others we know we have a problem. At best the problem is poor social skills, but given the huge negative response to what should have been a minor illustrative anecdote the problem seems to be deeper than that.

  10. 10
    Jack

    Ok guys, imagine if this lady was your mother, sister, wife or girlfriend and how you would feel about a stranger hitting on her while she was alone in an elevator with a strange man. I feel that her bringing this up would have met with empathy on the part of men.

    Also, just because you are a man you do not inherently have the right to hit on any woman that you feel like. It’s not assault but it is very rude behaviour and if you don’t know that you should look for a Stepford(for men) clinic in your area.

  11. 11
    zaybu

    Steve,

    I made my objections known without insulting anyone. OTOH, you are throwing ad hominem attacks when it is not warrant. So before telling anyone is “not fit to be among civilized people,” you should take a good look at yourself in the mirror.

    Flirting happens everywhere in the Western World. Perhaps that incidence in some countries might be perceived as offensive, but I believe Rebecca Watson lives in the Western World where such practices are common. Bringing such a minor incidence as if that was sexism only damages the real issues concerning sexism as few in the Western World are going to take Rebecca Watson seriously. She did damage to herself, and she did damage to the cause.

  12. 12
    St

    I made my objections known without insulting anyone.

    False. You insulted every woman who is not OK with being propositioned in close quarters when nobody else is around by characterizing such behavior as a “simple flirtation”, and you specifically insulted Rebecca Watson by calling her “immature” and telling her to shut up. Go troll somewhere else.

  13. 13
    Steve LaBonne

    Autofill fail on that last one; that was me.

  14. 14
    zaybu

    Steve,

    For many millions of people, casual sex is their lifestyle, in case you haven’t noticed. If you find this immoral, that’s your problem, but for these people, they seek casual sex by going to bars, and flirting is part of the sexual game. There’s nothing wrong as far as I’m concerned as long as it is between consenting adults.

    It wasn’t simply “being propositioned in close quarters”. Rebecca Watson spent hours in a bar til the wee hours of the morning. That someone flirted with her afterwards was simply part of that sexual game. Had the man pursued her after she signalled her refusal, then she would have had a case, or if that man had been her boss, then that also would be inappropriate. But given the facts by her own admission, none of this took place. She was immature for not seeing what it is, simple flirtation which ended very quickly, and mistakenly labelling this incidence as sexism, which it isn’t, cheapening the real issues of sexism such as wage inequalities, or the lack of promotion at work, and so on.

  15. 15
    Jared A

    Steve, you are being a little over the top. If you want to be successful at bringing someone’s attention to their own implicit assumptions, prejudices, etc. than try to at least have a veneer of respect. By hurling insultIn the long run you’re just working against yourself here.

    zaybu, Watson gave a minor anecdote as a small thread in a tapestry. You take the thread out of the cloth and, yes, it seems pretty insignificant. On the other hand, the response of many has been that her feelings are somehow invalid, that she shouldn’t be allowed to talk about behavior in others that makes her uncomfortable. The level of threatening, bullying, etc. as a backlash is insane. Most of it is overtly sexism, and more importantly the context is sexist. This is what the problem is. Read any textbook on the sociology of bigotry and you will see what I am talking about.

  16. 16
    Steve LaBonne

    That someone flirted with her afterwards was simply part of that sexual game

    Who the hell are you to tell her that she “should” have interpreted it that way? That is a classic expression of male privilege. The term of art for it is “mansplaining”.

    Watson was- quite rationally, given the statistics on rape- uncomfortable with that situation, and her response was to let attendees know, in quite a mild way, that such behavior is not OK with a lot of women and will likely discourage them from participating in the skeptical movement. The response from too many men was, at best, condescending lectures like the one you’re presuming to deliver here, and extending to vilification and even outright threats. Yes, there is a real problem and you are very much part of it.

    Jared, I respectfully disagree, just as I (and many others) do when people direct the same kind of comment to atheists on sites like Pharyngula. I do not think that coddling bigotry has ever helped to reduce the incidence of it. It needs to be confronted forcefully.

  17. 17
    James

    zaybu,

    I doesn’t matter if you agree with Ms. Watson or not. You don’t get to make decisions about how she felt, or feels, about that incident. All she did initially, ALL she did, was use the anecdote as an object lesson in unwelcome advances. She simply said it wasn’t a good idea to act in such a manner, and that such actions DO make women feel uncomfortable in the community. Not “may” make them uncomfortable, “DO” make them uncomfortable. Her own reaction, and those of the many women who shared their own experiences in the aftermath, is proof of this.

    You do not get to dictate to women (whether you are a man or a woman yourself) that they should not feel uncomfortable being approached in such a manner . You might try to argue that such a reaction is irrational. However you’d make yourself look a fool if you demonstrated your complete lack of understanding of the social dynamics involved, as you did here. She was expressing her perspective, and the response was unconscionable. In an attempt to prove to Ms. Watson that the skeptic and atheist community is not sexist, dozens, hundreds, of men decided to man-splain in a disgustingly condescending manner. Many others decided to take it further and resort to calling her vile names and making remarks about her sexuality that no decent person would engage in.

    Your attempt to defend such clumsy courting behavior is ridiculously flawed. You essentially provide the “suck it up” argument, “that’s the way it is.” I’m glad many people are not so willing as you to accept poor behavior just because it’s common in society. We need to be better than that.

    You also use a woefully inadequate and simplistic metric to define sexism. It goes far beyond wages and promotions, those are just one facet of the problems that women face. The institutionalized acceptance of double standards and subtle second-class treatment is another facet, embodied by what happened in this situation and it’s fallout.

    Oh, and your accusation of ad homonym is off base. Steve did not commit an ad homonym fallacy, he insulted you. That’s not the same thing, look it up.

  18. 18
    James

    Also, why should she have kept that story to herself? I’d love to hear some rationalization for that assertion. Why does “Elevator Guy” deserve some sort of protection for his failed attempt at seducing someone.

    There is no social contract that says you should be protected from embarrassment for your actions in public. He chose to make his clumsy, ill conceived “move” on Rebecca; the consequences are his to deal with. That’s yet another example of privilege: the expectation of not being called out for boorish behavior toward women.

  19. 19
    James

    Change “homonym” in the above post to “hominem.”

    Stupid auto-correct, and stupid fat fingers.

  20. 20
    Jared A

    Just as an appendix to James’s excellent rebuttal, I want to point out that Ms. Watson has given MANY examples of unwanted advances. Why does everyone act like picking one controversial cherry ruins the whole bunch?

    Even if we eventually throw out this data point (we shouldn’t), doesn’t her major message still stand? Remember that we are not talking about what should be LEGAL, but instead making a case for how to self-censor ourselves.

    Everyone is allowed to talk about how the behavior of others affects them. It is typical of an empowered class to shout down that right when their own privilege is being challenged in any way.

  21. 21
    Wonderist

    Hi Mano,

    Just to let you know, I tried to comment about this, but I guess it had too many reference URLs, so it got rejected. I sent you an email instead. Hope it gets through. :-)

  22. 22
    Sue

    Simply being in an elevator with strangers can be uncomfortable enough for some people. It’s clearly not an appropriate place to proposition someone. At any rate, what was appalling was the constructive criticism, but the harassment she received and continues to receive as a result of sharing her thoughts.

  23. 23
    Sue

    *not the constructive criticism*

  24. 24
    Wonderist

    After reading your post, I urge you caution. Your post recounts the episode only from the perspective of Watson herself and her supporters.

    There is a completely different story that centres around a young feminist atheist Stef McGraw.

    If you are unfamiliar with the name Stef McGraw, then I’m sorry to tell you that you have been misled as to the nature of the affair.

    I would recommend *not* entering into this affair without doing a thorough back-ground check of all the various rumours and stories and distortions and allegations. Since doing such a thorough investigation is probably not something you’d be interested in wading through, I personally would recommend not getting involved at all.

    The key to this whole affair is how Rebecca Watson responds to critics who *simply* disagree with her response to the elevator incident. One of the very first people to disagree with Watson was Stef McGraw. She did so respectfully, and sensibly, and in return for her mere disagreement, she got ‘thrown under the bus’ by Watson.

    That was the key incident which ‘escalated’ the ‘elevator’ incident from a simple difference of opinion between two self-declared atheist feminists, into a massive internet shitstorm.

    People who defended McGraw against Watson’s behaviour were subsequently branded misogynists (in the case of men, only), ‘gender traitors’ (in the case of women, only), and in many cases, much worse accusations were made against them.

  25. 25
    zaybu

    Thank you, Wonderist for bringing illuminating info into this debate.

    Another fact that people on this forum want to ignore is that they leave out what happened before what took place in the elevator. To characterize this as just an “elevator incidence”
    is to mischaracterize the incidence. This took place after Watson spends a considerable part of her time in a bar, drinking until the wee hours, in an environment that many people whose lifestyle is to look for casual sex.

    It seems noone wants to address this because it would tear their argument apart.

  26. 26
    zaybu

    Sue wrote: “At any rate, what was appalling was the constructive criticism, but the harassment she received and continues to receive as a result of sharing her thoughts.”

    Sue, I just went on her blog, and after reading it a good portion, I can easily say that Watson style is to attack anyone who disagree with her in harsh and less than polite manner. So perhaps the insults she is getting is well deserved. As the saying goes: it takes two to tango. All she is doing is damage, to herself and the causes she’s espousing. Having friends like her, who needs enemies!

  27. 27
    Mano

    I just want to mention that Wonderist had a much longer comment with links supporting his assertions but for some reason his post was rejected, which is being investigated, along with other posts that were also inexplicably rejected.

    I was able to post the shorter version on his behalf, but without the links, alas.

  28. 28
    James

    I don’t need the links to the Steph McGraw portion of the story. I’m quite familiar with it, I spent some wasted time and effort arguing on her blog with her ever increasingly shrill supporters. Sorry Wonderist and zaybu, but nothing in any of that addresses any argument I made here, at all. Bringing up Ms. McGraw in this conversation is a complete red herring. The interaction between McGraw and Watson, and any criticism you have for Watson in that regard, are irrelevant when discussing the nastiness and stalker-like behavior of Watson’s detractors. Are you trying to suggest that something that Watson did justifies the treatment she received in turn? Because that’s what it looks like.

    Further, McGraw absolutely did not respectfully and sensibly criticize Watson. She was dismissive and hinted that Watson was sexually repressed. She was condescending and flippant about Watson’s original video post, all in the venue of a open public blog in the capacity of a representative of her group. Watson addressed this criticism, “called out” McGraw if you prefer, in her speech at a conference. I’ve read dozens of criticisms of Watson’s act, and none of them have convinced me that she acted inappropriately. I’ve watched the videos, I’ve read the posts, I’ve considered the arguments. McGraw engaged in open criticism, and was openly criticized in return. This is how it is supposed to work. She didn’t like that, nor did several others, but their arguments why that was not appropriate fail. But again, even if that action was unethical or inappropriate, does that have anything to do with the subsequent and continuing misogynistic attacks on Watson? Does that justify it all?

    Finally, zaybu, I did not address the lead up to the elevator incident because it has been explained by Watson herself in the video and in subsequent blog postings. That does not help your point in any way whatsoever. Simply asserting that it does, in some vain hope that those who disagree with you don’t know what they’re talking about, does not make it so. You are going to have to do better than that. If you aren’t capable or willing to address the points I made, just say so. Don’t assert that there’s some information that I lack knowledge of that demolishes my argument, and then not back it up.

    Nothing that Watson did in the lead up to or during the elevator incident justifies the way she was approached unless one ignores the social dynamics of male privilege. Watson did not display any interest in this man, made it clear that she was heading to bed, all after giving a talk about women being unfairly sexualized in the skeptic community. Yet EG ignores all of this, approaches her in a confined space, and propositions her in a creepy 70′s sit-com manner. Privilege fail.

    So you want to tear my arguments apart, go for it! Implying that because she was sitting at a bar late at night, probably drinking some alcohol, that she should expect, deserve, and accept boorish behavior is not sufficient to the task.

  29. 29
    zaybu

    James,

    I did not know anything about what Rebecca Watson had done until I read the post about this incidence on this forum. Far from me to portray myself as if I know the ins and outs of this debate. I have posted strictly from what I read in mano’s post and watching the video. What took place afterwards on her blog came to my realization after my initial postings here, and I only read a few tidbits here and there of her blog.

    Having said that, I still maintain that Rebecca Watson did more damage, not that I’m saying that she should have shut up, but her conduct is not beyond reproach.

    Sure, she received hate mail. Well guess what, I also have a website, and any hate mail or idiotic ramblings on my blog is quickly deleted. In the case of Rebecca, she seems to revel in this hate mail, publishing many of them on her blog. I think such behavior does not elevate the debate to be taken seriously, more like kids brawling in the schoolyard.

    And lastly, it’s not male privilege to ask someone an invitation whether for casual sex or for any other activity that male might have had in mind. And you don’t know more than I do if that invitation was creepy. Maybe that male was doing a practical joke, or whatever he had in mind, we can only guess. And we don’t even know of that incident ever took place. It could all have been a fabrication on the part of Rebecca Watson to create a controversy, which she seems to be delighted to perpetuate.

    The bottom line is that it’s very difficult to take Watson seriously, and she did that to herself. Like someone said, it’s not what happened that counts, it’s how you reacted to what happened that counts. In Rebecca’s case, her reaction has been infantile, to say the least. And I think I’ve spent too much time on this. Forgive me if I no longer wish to continue this discussion.

  30. 30
    Wonderist

    James, I repeat:

    The key to this whole affair is how Rebecca Watson responds to critics who *simply* disagree with her response to the elevator incident. One of the very first people to disagree with Watson was Stef McGraw. She did so respectfully, and sensibly, and in return for her mere disagreement, she got ‘thrown under the bus’ by Watson.

    People who defended McGraw against Watson’s behaviour were subsequently branded misogynists (in the case of men, only), ‘gender traitors’ (in the case of women, only), and in many cases, much worse accusations were made against them.
    You responded with:

    The interaction between McGraw and Watson, and any criticism you have for Watson in that regard, are irrelevant when discussing the nastiness and stalker-like behavior of Watson’s detractors.

    But again, even if that action was unethical or inappropriate, does that have anything to do with the subsequent and continuing misogynistic attacks on Watson?

    I happen to be one of Watson’s ‘detractors’.

    You appear to be saying that all of Watson’s detractors exhibited “nastiness and stalker-like behavior”, as well as engaging in “continuing misogynistic attacks on Watson?”

    Serious question: Are you claiming that I, personally, have engaged in: nastiness, stalker-like behavior, or misogynistic attacks on Watson?

    If so, I encourage you to re-read the two paragraphs I quoted from my first comment above.

    If not, then are you aware that your statements have come across as a direct attack on myself (by over-generalization, and guilt-by-association), which I would regard as ‘throwing me under the bus’?

    If you are aware of this appearance, are you concerned about it, or unconcerned about it?

  31. 31
    Wonderist

    Sorry, blockquote fail. There should have been a closing blockquote tag just before “You responded with:”.

  32. 32
    Jared A

    I see where you’re coming from Wonderist, but one thing you seem to be skirting is that regardless of whether or not everything you say about Watson is true, the atheism community still seems to have a problem with sexism. It doesn’t matter if Watson is part of that problem or not, not does it matter if all of her detractors are part of that problem. It’s there and it’s ugly.

  33. 33
    Wonderist

    the atheism community still seems to have a problem with sexism.

    Hi Jared,

    Please define what you mean by “a problem with sexism”. Do you mean a problem above and beyond the base rate of sexism in society, i.e. a specific, additional level of sexism associated specifically with atheism? Or do you mean that sexism also exists in the atheist ‘movement’, and that we should not ignore it? Or do you mean something altogether different, possibly?

    In my opinion, the *question* of whether or not there is a specific, additional atheism-related ‘problem with sexism’ is an important question which should be investigated. This is an empirical question which can and should be resolved by studying it directly with our tried-and-true scientific method.

    However, if you are simply going by *anecdotal* evidence, then another person besides yourself could equally claim that there is no specific atheism-related problem with sexism, based on their own anecdotal evidence, and there would be no rational way to resolve the question.

    For example, I have heard from many parties, both male and female, that in fact the skeptic/free-thought/rationalist community has a *lower* incidence of sexism, and more acceptance of women and also various sexual and gender identities such as within the LGBT community. Are their anecdotes more or less accurate than your anecdote?

    There is no reasonable way to answer that, except scientifically. There is too much personal, unconscious bias, even among us skeptics, for us to trust one anecdote over another. We are human, we are not perfect. We must acknowledge the possibility that we could be wrong. That includes me, but I suggest that it also includes you and everyone else, simply because we are all human.

    We cannot simply *assume* based on our own personal experiences that there definitely *is* or *isn’t* a specific ‘problem with sexism’ in the atheist community. That is a fallacy called Begging the Question: Assuming the answer to the question you are trying to resolve. I believe my point here is in the spirit of Mano’s original post, which I’ll re-quote:

    But this still leaves the question of whether sexism and misogyny is commonplace in the atheist community. It is hard for me to judge because I am not a very sociable person and do not hang out much with groups of any kind to notice these things first hand. I do occasionally attend a few freethinkers groups in my neighborhood and though the crowd has slightly more men than women, I have not noticed any overt sexism. I am also the faculty advisor for my university’s Center for Inquiry student affiliate. In the early days of that group I was a little concerned because the leadership and membership seemed to be almost entirely male but that has changed in the last year with two women taking leadership positions and doing a great job. But just because I have not noticed anything obvious does not mean that sexism or misogyny does not exist.

    There is nothing intrinsic to atheism that would warrant sexism so any that exists must arise because for some reason the atheist movement tends to attract sexist males. This is disturbing and merits investigation. Is the level of sexism the same as in other sectors but that we notice it more and think it should be less because of the heightened social awareness of the community? One recalls a similar situation during the civil rights and antiwar struggles of the 1960s when those movements were also accused of rampant sexism, treating the women in the movements as either support staff or sex objects. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that just because one is fighting one form of discrimination that one has immunity from the charge of discriminating against others.

    Whatever the cause, we should work to eliminate sexism and misogyny from the atheist community, as part of the effort to eradicate it completely.

    I can whole-heartedly agree with Mano on this, and at the same time, I can disagree with Rebecca Watson with regards to her perception of things, or with her treatment of fellow atheists/feminists such as Stef McGraw, and I guarantee you that my disagreement with her does not in any way make me a misogynist.

    It is that kind of ‘escalation’ of the disagreement which is the source of this divisive episode. People making awful assumptions about other people, failing to be self-skeptical in their assumptions, and acting out against others based on false beliefs about them.

    I recommend a healthy dose of self-skepticism directed towards our unconscious biases and assumptions (myself included), asking ourselves, “How do I really know that?” This is the ‘unapologetic’ approach I advocate (click on my username for details, if interested). We can only be *honestly* unapologetic as long as we, ourselves, don’t end up doing something we will need to apologize for in the process.

  34. 34
    Jared A

    Thanks Wonderist for the long response. I did mean a “sexism problem” on the local scale and not specifically compared to the base population. Since you were clearly better informed than me on this than me and weren’t resorting to raging, I wanted to hear your opinion.

    I don’t think anecdote is the right word here because I don’t have any of my own. Actually, I would be inclined to believe that overall sexism is lower in these groups, but I am trying to not let that bias me. Anyway, the evidence that I’m interested in for this kerfuffle happened publicly on the internet, for anybody to examine: specifically, the insane over the top comments and reactions of people on both “sides”. So to use a clumsy analogy: a case study examining a single captured unicorn says nothing about how common unicorns are, but it does prove at least one exists. In this sense I don’t think I was begging the quesion, either, but maybe I’m wrong.

    Certainly simply disagreeing with Watson doesn’t make you a misogynist, and i hope I haven’t seemed to imply that. I also agree with you that the escalation is the most interesting/worrying part. For the record I think calling the elevator dude a rapist is just a terrible thing to do. I know nothing about timelines or details on this, but I think that it would have been very wise/mature for Watson to distance herself from her “supporters” that were flinging that crap as quickly as possible.

    And that’s why I think that problems like this are worth examining–because it may provide lessons on how to keep the discourse elevated in the future.

  35. 35
    banned

    Would it have been sexist if the gender roles were reversed?

    What if the speaker was male and the invitation came from a female?

  36. 36
    Wonderist

    Hi Jared,

    Thanks for your measured response. I appreciate that.

    And that’s why I think that problems like this are worth examining–because it may provide lessons on how to keep the discourse elevated in the future.

    :-D Nice choice of adjective there. I think I like it. Mind if I use it in the future?

    Honestly, I believe that the lesson about discourse is pretty close to being the only real lesson in this episode. Personally, it crystallized several ideas in my mind, which I discuss on the page linked from my username. I’ve learned a lot from it.

    The only other possible lesson I’ve learned is about the difference between equity feminism and gender feminism. I identify most closely with equity feminism, and it’s my understanding that the perspective represented by Watson and many of her supporters is more closely aligned with gender feminism.

    I think the two feminisms are the source of the conflict (e.g. Stef McGraw expressed a more equity-feminist interpretation of the incident), but overall the lack of self-skepticism (of bias and assumptions) in the dialogue is what escalated the conflict and caused it to spread contagiously. Misunderstanding and accusation breeds more misunderstanding and more accusations.

    There is no actual need for that. The philosophical differences are interesting enough to be discussed without unfounded recriminations.

    So, with that in mind, I do not think this kerfuffle is safely/accurately representative of any *particular* underlying sexism, but is more representative of a wide-spread lack of self-skepticism, a too-willingness to put on airs of I’m-deeply-offended, and a too-willingness to toss around inflammatory accusations that are based more on personal hunches than any real evidence.

    I think much of this could have been avoided if people had adopted this strategy: Before I make a potentially explosive accusation, I will ask at least one question of the person in order to confirm/disconfirm my gut-level suspicion.

    I would go so far as to say that some personal rule like that is ethically required–like getting vaccinations before you go to school–in order to prevent the spread of malicious, damaging, viral rumours.

    The moral of the story: Ask first, shoot rumours later.

    To offer an alternative unicorn analogy: One volcanic argument about a unicorn on an elevator, in which each side accuses the other side of a) being evil unicornists and/or b) being unicorn-haters and/or c) not really understanding what a unicorn is, is not even proof of a unicorn, nor is it proof of the nature of unicorns, nor which side is right or wrong. It’s only proof of a difference of opinion, and a too-willingness to throw each other under the bus over it.

    Maybe there’s a unicorn. Let’s find out. But this kind of uncharitable discourse is not going to resolve the question, and causes unnecessary divisions, and is ultimately counterproductive. We need to elevate the level of discourse first, so that we can cooperate on whatever underlying problem might be there.

    We need to re-focus on skepticism, especially self-skepticism. I believe the most important question to focus on here is, “How do I really know what I think I know?”

    Richard Feynman gave excellent advice on this: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”

  37. 37
    Wonderist

    As a follow-up, I just found these two excellent, comprehensive blog posts from James Onen of Freethought Kampala.

    The first is an extensively thorough history of Elevator Gate, including several of the specific side-conflicts between different parties involved. https://freethoughtkampala.wordpress.com/2011/09/11/elevatorgate/

    The second is a detailed compilation of a wide variety of different failures of skepticism that were exhibited during the whole affair. James has really done a service in putting this all together. https://freethoughtkampala.wordpress.com/2011/09/15/elevatorgate-part-2-the-failure-of-skepticism/

  38. 38
    Wonderist

    Oops, those links should work as http or https. I wonder if accidentally making them https allowed them to get through the comment filter.

  39. 39
    bench grinder

    we should take care our women, cause they are our mother, sister , and wife…..

  40. 40
    Admin

    women is a subject not object. She has her own choice of everything. But, as religius one, she should do everything based on religion rules.

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