If you be mainstream everyone will love you

Yeah I already knew that, thanks.

Study: Everyone hates environmentalists and feminists

Of course everyone does. And you know why? Because lots of people work hard to make everyone hate environmentalists and feminists. People who hate feminism and feminists themselves work hard to convince everyone else that feminists are witch-hunters from North Korea. Oil companies and other interested parties hire PR firms to make environmentalists seem like soppy tree-hugging fools who will steal your SUV to plant potatoes in.

Writing in the European Journal of Social Psychology, Bashir and her colleagues describe a series of studies documenting this dynamic. They began with three pilot studies, which found people hold stereotyped views of environmentalists and feminists.

In one, the participants—228 Americans recruited via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk—described both varieties of activists in “overwhelmingly negative” terms. The most frequently mentioned traits describing “typical feminists” included “man-hating” and “unhygienic;” for “typical environmentalists,” they included “tree-hugger” and “hippie.”

Another study, featuring 17 male and 45 female undergraduates, confirmed the pervasiveness of those stereotypes. It further found participants were less interested in befriending activists who participated in stereotypical behavior (such as staging protest rallies), but could easily envision hanging out with those who use “nonabrasive and mainstream methods” such as raising money or organizing social events.

Or writing blog posts and speaking at conferences.

No no no no no no no! That’s even more abrasive and not-mainstream than “staging protest rallies.” Except that one of the much-recycled indictments of the feminist blogging conspiracy is that it’s all slacktivism. Like this for instance:

Embedded image permalink

See? Feminist baaaaaaaaaad because she doesn’t happen to be Ayaan Hirsi Ali (which she has in common with everyone else in the world except one person, so why it’s a rebuke is somewhat mystifying). Feminist does nothing but whine a lot. We hates feminists, precious.

Let’s face it: being a feminist is seen as “abrasive” and non-mainstream no matter what we do. The only way we could be “mainstream” enough to change that is to stop being feminists at all, which would suit the people who hate feminism but would rather defeat our purpose (we who are feminists). In other words, no.

This is, needless to say, frustrating news for activists, and not just the ones mentioned here. The researchers suggest this dynamic may very well apply across the board, such as to activities advocating gay rights or Wall Street reform.

“Unfortunately,” they write, “the very nature of activism leads to negative stereotyping. By aggressively promoting change and advocating unconventional practices, activists become associated with hostile militancy and unconventionality or eccentricity.”

“Furthermore, this tendency to associate activists with negative stereotypes and perceive them as people with whom it would be unpleasant to affiliate reduces individuals’ motivation to adopt the pro-change behaviors that activists advocate.”

So the message to advocates is clear: Avoid rhetoric or actions that reinforce the stereotype of the angry activist. Realize that if people find you off-putting, they’re not going to listen to your message. As Bashir and her colleagues note, potential converts to your cause “may be more receptive to advocates who defy stereotypes by coming across as pleasant and approachable.”

And by shutting the fuck up.



  1. says

    You know, it’s not like it’s fun being hated, You’d think, after all the decades of organizing for social change, if it were possible to do it without incurring negative stereotypes and views, people would have figured out how to do it without all the negativity.

  2. theoreticalgrrrl says

    Ayaan is a feminist, too.

    And one off-the cuff remark in a vlog 2 or 3 years ago from Rebecca doesn’t define her entire being.

  3. Wowbagger, Designated Snarker says

    Restating what by now is obvious: those atheists who claim to support Ayaan Hirsi Ali do so for the sole reason that her criticisms are chiefly aimed at Islam; Rebecca Watson, on the other hand, criticises religion but also includes atheists in her ‘need to do better’ commentary – an unforgivable sin in the eyes of people who consider the job of the atheist writer/blogger/speaker to be primarily one of reinforcement and ego-stroking, not honest analysis of the community’s shortcomings.

    If for whatever reason Ayaan Hirsi started applying the same level of criticism she applies to Islam to the atheist community, I doubt the number of minutes it would take for the brave heroes to start treating her exactly the same way as they treat Rebecca Watson would reach double figures.

  4. David Jones says

    because she doesn’t happen to be Ayaan Hirsi Ali (which she has in common with everyone else in the world except one person, so why it’s a rebuke is somewhat mystifying

    Watson isn’t contrasted with the individual person Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Their activites are contrasted – and perhaps their characters. The individuals here stand for those activities, or types of activities. It’s a common rhetorical trope. It’s metonymy, I guess. But of course you know this. Why you describe it as ‘mystifying’ is mystifying.

  5. AsqJames says

    By aggressively promoting change and advocating unconventional practices, activists become associated with hostile militancy and unconventionality or eccentricity.

    First off, what does “aggressively” promoting change mean (in this context)? I’m not exactly deeply immersed in the feminist movement so I might have missed all the aggression going on, but all I really see is feminists pointing out ways society is stacked against women and asking that the playing field be levelled.

    And “unconventional practices”? I know conventionally women have been treated as second class citizens (and still are in some ways), but that’s a really telling way of saying “advocating for equality”.

  6. Wowbagger, Designated Snarker says

    Watson isn’t contrasted with the individual person Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Their activites are contrasted – and perhaps their characters

    Ali criticises the religious. Watson criticises both the religious and atheists. That’s the ‘contrast’.

  7. says

    Watson isn’t contrasted with the individual person Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Their activites are contrasted – and perhaps their characters.

    You are so full of it. It is almost as if you assume anyone reading your comment is somehow unable to read the text in the image.

    “perhaps their characters”, you make it sound as if the contents of the image were unreadable, they are not, we can read it. They compare a straw version of Watson’s “character” with a list of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s accomplishments. The comparison is absurd. To add insult to injury, it assumes Ayaan Hirsi Ali wouldn’t call herself a feminist, because “reasons”.

    There is of course an Islamophobe subtext to the image. Whilst Watson “whines” against sexism inside white bro atheism, Ayaan is going against the “real” sexism. All those brown people being evil in the midwest are the only sexism we should care about.

  8. thephilosophicalprimate says

    Having taken a look at the actual paper, I have to say that the problem here isn’t the science reporting, it’s the scientists. The researchers seem to have completely failed to reflect at all on the origins of these stereotypes. In fact, they assumed without argument that these negative stereotypes were the automatic results of activism:

    “Unfortunately, however, the very nature of activism leads to negative stereotyping: By aggressively promoting change and advocating unconventional practices, activists become associated with hostile militancy and unconventionality or eccentricity.”

    This claim was not in any way supported by or tested in their research; it’s a starting assumption the researchers make — even though it could not possibly be more obvious to anyone who gives it a moment’s thought that negative stereotypes of people fighting for *any* change are enthusiastically generated and spread by opponents of change. Since opponents of change are by definition those who have entrenched power, their slanders against change advocates naturally have more reach and influence than the change advocates themselves.

    Aside from that rather big problem, I think I see a bigger one. What, exactly, do the researchers think they have discovered? They interpret their results in terms of the psychology of belonging: People don’t want to be associated with people about whom they believe negative stereotypes. But I see another rather obvious hypothesis that they did not in any way consider, let alone eliminate. And since evaluating one’s hypothesis with respect to other viable hypotheses is pretty much the whole point of science…

    The alternate hypothesis they ignored is straight out of the psychology of decision-making. They claim that their tests evaluated “willingness to affiliate” with persons identified as “typical” or “atypical” activists, but the studies actually involved participants reading advocacy articles full of factual claims as well as urging specific actions based on those claims. So why not consider well-established research on judgment and decision-making? The actual tasks study participants engaged in would seem much more amenable to that sort of analysis than the social affiliation model these researchers used. Based on their results, I would say that all these researchers have done is identified a common heuristic (cognitive shortcut) people use to identify motivated reasoning in others, which inspires skepticism about the claims of the motivated reasoner. The heuristic at stake here seems to be a particular manifestation of the general representativeness heuristic, as reliance on stereotypes usually are. At first glance, it’s even a *useful* application of the heuristic: We *should be* wary about the claims who is very emotionally involved in the truth of those claims, because motivated reasoning is a real thing.

    However, the usefulness of this heuristic doesn’t survive past that first glace because it is obviously very vulnerable to manipulation, becoming a form of motivated reasoning itself: When someone has been repeatedly exposed to negative stereotypes about environmentalists or feminists or progressives or liberals or gays or whomever, they are already motivated to disagree with anything anyone from the suspect class says. In practice, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of space between recognizing and being wary of motivated reasoners and being perpetually victimized by poisoning-the-well fallacies. The fact that many common heuristics are flawed is not news to anyone. Perhaps if these authors had looked at their inquiry in terms of the psychology of judgment and decision-making, where there is lots and lots of well-established research on the flaws of evaluative heuristics, maybe they would have been less tempted to blame the messengers and reflected more on problems at the receiving end of messages about social change.

    Come to think of it, the researchers could have tested this particular question easily enough. Suspicion of motivated reasoning would not readily generalize: That is, a description of a “typical” or “atypical” feminist preceding an advocacy article on a topic that had nothing to do with feminism shouldn’t generate equal levels of skepticism if the skepticism is in fact a manifestation of a heuristic for spotting motivated reasoning, but should generate roughly equal levels of skepticism if the researchers’ favored “aversion to social affiliation with negatively stereotyped persons” hypothesis were correct. But the researchers failed to consider this (I think fairly obvious) alternate hypothesis, so their research did not test it in any way.

  9. Great American Satan says

    Thanks for doing the informed takedown, primate, so lazy guys like me didn’t have to. 🙂

  10. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    What or who is a feminist?

    Tasliam Nasreen linked a simple test on her blog here :


    I took the test and turns out I’m a feminist and I’m sure both Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Rebecca Watson – both of whoem Ihold inthe highets esteem and respect are as well.

    Woman’s rights activist? Just another word for feminist.

    I’m also an environmentalist too.

    Well written Ophelia Benson and agreed although I do think the final two sentences may be taking it a bit farther than is actually the case. I’m not sure the article is really saying or implying that.

    There are stereotypes about feminists and environmentalists and not playing into those stereotypes and behaving in a very approachable manner can be one good approach to expressing feminism and environmentalism and convincing others of the rightness of these -although not exclusively so, not the only or even necessarily most effective way.

  11. David Jones says

    They compare a straw version of Watson’s “character” with a list of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s accomplishments.

    Then perhaps it should be revamped to compare Hirsi Ali’s accomplishments with Watson’s

  12. Sairam says

    The main issue I have with self prescribed feminists is not that they want equality…it’s that their version of equality always seems so Orwellian in nature. I myself understand the need for social equality especially in the job arena and more so in the professions (docs, lawyers, etc) . However in my country whenever I ask them what exactly got them into feminism they would move into a tirade about why exactly women were BETTER than men in all respects, frequently using broad blatantly shocking generalizations such as how men cheat all the time, women are way more compassionate, etc. Some women complain when men hold the doors open for them. Some complain when men flirt with them. Sure sometimes these activities reek of douchebaggery but by and large most men do it because it’s in their nature to respect and enjoy the company of women. Also, it doesn’t help that the word ‘feminist’ is now associated with these hound dogs…but hey you guys don’t screen out for stupidity/narcissism/superiority complexes . I won’t comment on Rebecca Watson personally because I know very little of her…and that may well be a propaganda post for all I know. But if you want people to start paying attention to your camp you really gotta get yourself a broom, a mop and some detergent.

  13. iknklast says

    What about someone who is a feminist, an environmentalist (Ph.D. in the subject, so I’m also an egg-headed elitist, amirite?) AND an atheist? Not to mention equally critical of communism and capitalism, willing to point out the flaws of each system rather than being an eager advocate of either one? Plus, I teach evolution. I guess I better forget having any friends at all…

  14. says

    David Jones @Metaburbia –

    Then perhaps it should be revamped to compare Hirsi Ali’s accomplishments with Watson’s

    No of course it shouldn’t. Rebecca Watson doesn’t claim to be Ayaan Hirsi Ali, she doesn’t claim that her accomplishments rival those of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, she doesn’t claim to be the most accomplished person in the universe. It isn’t the case that people aren’t allowed to do feminism or call themselves feminists unless they’ve done exactly what Ayaan Hirsi Ali (or anyone else) did. I don’t claim to be Montaigne or Hazlitt or Orwell but I’m still allowed to write essays.

    That stupid image is just a pictorial version of Dear Muslima, and Dear Muslima was excrement.

    Now go away, worldshaking genius on Twitter.

  15. etoo says

    Ophelia, I support your analysis completely. (And kudos to Philosophicalprimate–very nice.) We ARE angry, about things that pretty justifiably make us angry. Notice that these are the same criticisms used against the “militant” atheists–“They’re so angry, why, they’re as bad as fundamentalists!” When we protest, something has moved us to serious action, often at the risk of being arrested, or worse. What has driven that is anger. But no one I know who is so moved to action lives that in all areas of their lives. These people–atheists, environmentalists, and feminists, are most often kind, loving people. People who, when the context is right, come off as anything but angry. They are often, even typically, great educators, who do NOT bring anger into the classroom or other educational context, except as a matter for discussion.

  16. johnmarley says

    @Sairam (#16)

    Some women complain when men hold the doors open for them. Some complain when men flirt with them.

    Google “the straw that broke the camel’s back” ,

    You may feel that the men in those situations are just being polite or friendly, but the women involved probably see it as patronizing bullshit that they have to deal with all day, every day

  17. says

    Feminism did become synonymous with “man hating” in the 80’s because the feminists that were getting the most press had the most extreme message. It stuck. I admire those that still work with this label, as damaged as it’s rep has become. Personally, I do prefer “women’s rights activist” and “egalitarian”.

    We can complain as much as we like about how unfair people hating the term “feminism” is but we’re not individuals in this fight and we need our message to be heard. I personally moved away from it because of some feminist messages that I found disturbing (again, extremists but I still don’t really want to be associated with them). I want to support women’s rights, men’s rights and basic human rights at every turn. Women are at the major disadvantage on all counts when it comes to human rights but working with the “us and them” mentality is damaging and leaves us open to these kinds of attacks. Being egalitarian and looking at men’s rights as well protects us and gives us a more balanced view.

    Sorry if what I said upsets people….I really don’t mean to come across as belittling.

  18. says


    I suspect Sairam is just lying through his teeth. At age 35, I’ve never yet met any woman, feminist or otherwise, who actually complains about people holding doors. It’s an invented complaint to smear feminists as silly and unreasonable. Notice that Sairam names zero names.

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