Sexism as counter-culture

Robyn Pennacchia takes a look at sexism in gaming & atheism & similar as a matter of people in counter-cultural “communities” thinking they get a pass on little foibles like sexism precisely because they are counter-cultural. That’s a very important point that should get more attention and emphasis.

She found it in political activism when she was just a sprout. She got frustrated and pissed off and ended up leaving activism because of it. Then there was the “lit scene.”

There’s been a lot of attention, recently, paid towards sexism, sexual assault, harassment and misogyny in certain counter-cultural or non-mainstream groups. Specifically, the gaming community, the atheist community and, now, the alt-lit community.

One thing all of these groups have in common is that they are primarily populated by men who think they are not “bros.” Usually, they consider themselves intellectuals. Often, said men have a perma-vendetta against the sort of men they consider “bros.” For the most part, they’re not “alpha-males,” they weren’t jocks in high school–they were, more often, nerdy or even shy.

They are always the first to lock arms with you and rail against sexism coming from these other types of men. They are always happy to poke fun at Pat Robertson saying something horrifically misogynistic. They like to think of themselves as “the good guys” and the jocks and bros as “the bad guys.”

That that that. We’re different, we’re better, we’re special. We’ve seen the light, we’ve thrown off the shackles, we’ve spat out the Kool-Aid. We’re enlightened. We’re the roving coyotes, not the huddled sheep. We’re awake, not asleep. We’re cool. It is not possible that we are anything reactionary or clueless or unhip. We’re out there on the high wire, dancing and floating. Feminism is the boring repressive old Mommy who makes us get down and set the table for dinner.

I’m glad that more attention is being drawn to issues of assault, misogyny and sexism in these communities. It’s important. It’s also a lot harder than calling out Rush Limbaugh, because none of us have to live with Rush Limbaugh. I want to make these spaces safer for women, because we have as much right to them as men do.

It’s not just bros and jocks and finance dudes and yuppies and Christians and Republicans who are shitty to women. Being part of a counter-cultural or progressive community does not give you a free pass to be shitty to women without being called out on it. We need to hold our own communities to an even higher standard than we hold those in the opposition, we need to welcome criticism, and we to realize that the ones who call out shitty behavior in these communities are not the threat, but that those who protect it and shield it from criticism are.

We need to hold our own communities to an even higher standard – wouldn’t you think that would just be a truism? When the Catholic church and the military and the NFL and fraternities and universities are so notoriously bad at doing anything about rape within their ranks, wouldn’t you think rebel groups such as atheists and skeptics would be all the more keen to define themselves against that revolting precedent? Yet here we are, with the Big Name Atheists lining up to trash the people who try to do that. Do they really think that will work out well over the long haul?



  1. John Horstman says

    We see this split all the time with things like nationalism. There is a group of people who consider it nothing but harmful to ever criticize the in-group/tribe (e.g. “Love it or leave it” – note that “fix it” is elided by the false dichotomy), and there is a group of people who think questioning the status quo and active self-policing are the best thing one can do for a group (e.g. “Protest is patriotic”). Hide vs. air the dirty laundry. Radicalism vs. respectability politics. This is what defines radical vs. conservative ideology; it’s an unfortunate accident of history that we in the US consider “liberal” to be the opposite of “conservative” (“radical” – seeking to change the existing social structures – is the opposite of conservative – seeking to maintain existing social structures, and a lot of Conservatives are actually radical authoritarians/elitists/plutocrats) when liberalism is a conservative ideology – it is the status quo. Hence, we have a lot of conservative liberals, people in the spaces that tend to attract Leftists and radicals who are not themselves actually particularly Leftist or radical. Plenty of putative counter-cultures are actually mainstream, at least regionally (e.g. cosmopolitan urban environments), which also helps reinforce the phenomenon.

    Dawkins, for example, seems to be a deeply conservative liberal who wishes to maintain social systems that go back to the European Enlightenment, when Liberalism first got big in his region. He’s done very well for himself in the society in which he exists, so I can understand why he’s resistant to change, even if it’s change that is generally in line with the ideology to which he supposedly subscribes, even when change is the moral course. That doesn’t make a lot of his problematic behavior acceptable, of course.

  2. quixote says

    Isn’t a lot of this about coolness? Or, to use the official word, about status? All the groups mentioned — gamers, atheists, all the counterculturals who were shy and nerdy (read: low status) — have finally managed to clamber onto a platform from which they can look down on some people.

    Some of them are there because they care about the principles or the games. But a lot are attracted by their higher status. That’s just being human.

    And then, just when they got there and started enjoying the improvement, that whole automatic underclass known as women decides to clamber up there with them? Who will they look down on then? Some tiny minority of stupid guys? Where’s the big ego boost they signed up for?

    I know I keep saying this: misogyny and sexism are the most difficult bigotries to deal with. Everybody lives with men and women. Everybody has to change their own personal lives. No ego boost in sight.

  3. Anne Marie says

    I’ve got a great idea for an ad for atheism!

    Announcer: Hey, ladies, are you Catholic?
    Woman #1: We sure are!
    Announcer: And are you tired of all the Catholic dogma you’re supposed to believe?
    Woman #2: So tired!
    Announcer: And are you worried that if you leave, you’ll never find a group of people who will treat you the way the Catholic Church does?
    Woman #3: Exactly!
    Announcer: Maybe atheism is right for you!
    Women, in unison: What’s atheism?
    Announcer: Atheism is a lack of belief in supernatural beings. Here’s the best part though: the atheist movement has elevated numerous men to the status of leaders and these men cannot be questioned or criticized.
    Woman #1: Go on, I’m listening!
    Announcer: Plus, the atheist movement has managed to suppress allegations of sexual abuse by its leaders for years by employing a variety of familiar tactics, including victim-blaming and hyper-skepticism!
    Woman #2: So what’s the catch?
    Announcer: There’s no catch! As long as you like how you were being treated in the Catholic Church, you’ll fit right in!
    Woman #3: Well, you’ve convinced me!
    [Women giggle.]

  4. Ariel says

    I was comparing Pennacchia’s piece with yours. I see a difference but I’m not sure whether it is a real difference or just my projection.

    First, your title: sexism as counter-culture. Pennacchia’s piece is rather about sexism in counter-culture.

    Pennacchia’s causes of popularity of sexism in counter-culture:

    Because they know all the progressive stuff to say
    because there are women out there who have more of a vested interest in protecting these communities from criticism than in protecting other women.
    they ought to be immune from feminist criticism, because that is “not the point”

    The reason you add:

    Feminism is the boring repressive old Mommy who makes us get down and set the table for dinner.

    I wonder whether you are talking about one and the same phenomenon. Are you? I would say “no”, but I’m really not sure.

    For quite a while I’ve been noticing indeed the phenomenon of sexism as counter-culture. It is a reaction against feminism perceived as a prevalent force – as one more “power that be”, as “the culture”, as the mainstream, as what you see every day in the newspapers and on tv. Exactly as you say: as the boring repressive old Mommy.

    Pennacchia’s emphasis is that some people consider themselves too progressive or too liberated or too focused on other important tasks to accept easily any charge of sexism.

    My impression is that these two phenomena are very different. Am I wrong?

  5. 2kittehs says

    Anne Marie @3 – your ad has all the win.

    I think I’d go with the Catholic stuff if it was an either-or (I’m neither religious nor atheist). If I had to be in a group where the dudes behave like that, I’d take the one that at least has robes and gorgeous churches and cathedrals and artwork to see. (Wot me, shallow? Never say so.)

  6. Ariel says

    Ariel – well they’re not identical but I think there’s a lot of overlap.

    Ok, there may be some overlap, but it seems to me that they are different in that the “old Mommy” type is more difficult to combat. And I would say that up to now no really good response to it has been invented.

    Imagine someone telling a sexist joke, with you wanting to react. What do you do?

    A traditional, well tested reaction is to show disaproval, to call it sexist, perhaps to explain what sexist elements the joke contains, perhaps to show some irritation and annoyance. The ususal counterreactions are denial (“it’s not sexist!”), minimizing the damage (“it’s just a joke!”), anger or offence. Be that as it may, I would say that you can count indeed on some success. The traditional strategy works often enough.

    But what if your traditional reaction is received as going “old Mommy” again and greeted with “Oh, you are irritated and lecturing? Good. Mission accomplished then.”?

    That’s the problem. It’s like trying to ‘convert’ a hippie by lecturing him about going to college and becoming a good clerk in a bank … while what he does is to a substantial degree motivated exactly by being fed up with your lectures, by the desire to provoke you, and to show how much he doesn’t care about all this traditional ‘bullshit’. A pretty pointless attempt.

    If so, the question is what to do. How to combat a real counter-culture? By more culture? By something else? Any ideas?

    (Yes, I do know a lot about such quandaries. I have a teenager living with me.)

  7. Athywren says

    What I still don’t understand is how people can hold the opinion that “we’re better than that,” as I did for a long time, and manage to not have their whole world rocked, as mine was, when it becomes apparent that this is not the case?
    When my token MRA friend increasingly distant acquaintance first tried dragging me into the anti-feminist trenches with a rant about thunderf00t’s expulsion from here, that was my response to him – “we’re supposed to be better than all that bullshit, aren’t we?”
    What’s the point of considering yourself better than the other if you’re not going to bother being better? If it’s just petty, smug tribalism, what the hell is the point?
    I especially don’t understand this from the skeptical movement. It seems to me that the core lesson of skepticism is that we’re fallible. That’s the whole point of skepticism, isn’t it? Our minds play tricks on us, we convince ourselves that we’re right when we’re wrong, and others convince us that they’re right when they’re wrong, so how can you just assume that the people criticising you are automatically in the wrong if you’re a skeptic? I really don’t get it.

  8. johnthedrunkard says

    ‘Do they really think that will work out well over the long haul?’

    I doubt there is much, if any, thought involved. There appears to be a gut reaction which cuts off the grim realization that one DOES know ‘that kind of guy;’ that one may BE ‘that kind of guy,’ etc.

    Much less taxing debunking Bigfoot rather than Thunderfoot.

  9. skemist says

    OP and article are pointing out an important insight. Although I am sympathetic with a number of movements (current and previous) that might be considered counter-cultural, I’ve always been troubled by the typical lack of intersectionality that I noticed. If you look around in your little counter-cultural group and some groups (POC, women, etc.) that often suffer from discrimination are under-represented, that should be taken as prima facie evidence that there is some discrimination that needs to be addressed. There should be some analysis. People from under-represented groups need to be listened to, and not have their concerns dismissed out of hand. Too often, group insiders consider their CC movement as a fragile flower that will wilt under such scrutiny. Or they are too cool for school, and don’t want to learn. Of course, that kind of thinking is what turns people into assholes.

    (like Ariel@7, I have a teen and I also worry about these things a lot)

  10. Dunc says

    What I still don’t understand is how people can hold the opinion that “we’re better than that,” as I did for a long time, and manage to not have their whole world rocked, as mine was, when it becomes apparent that this is not the case?

    Well, there’s typically a couple of ways people react to unpleasant discoveries, and one of them is denial. I think that actually has a lot to do with the level of vitriol we’re seeing – people in denial will do to absurd lengths to maintain their denial, and they get more and more strident about it the more damning and incontrovertible the evidence of whatever they’re in denial about becomes.

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