Love letters to the status quo

“If your jokes or teasing manner offend some people, so the fuck what? Someone will always be offended by jokes, never let them make you believe that you are guilty of something worse simply because of your gender. If you want to make boob jokes thats fine by me, you have after all been making dick jokes since you were old enough to make jokes.”

“With all of my heart I beg you: Do not change. Do not change for me, do not change for someone else. You’re wonderful, just the way you are.”

These excerpts from an insipid, fulsome love letter to the skeptic/atheist community were enough to inspire a bout of epic eye-rolling when I read them last night. They were enough to motivate me to wrangle with Penn Jillette via Twitter for his promotion and support of the message contained therein. They were enough to push me to forward the letter along to the rest of the FTBorg, as a sort of “hey take a look at this dummy” thing. They were not enough to spark an entire blog post. After all, if I swung at every pitch, I’d burn out too quickly to fight the battles where I thought my participation could make a positive difference. I was happy to let those with stronger feminist street cred take the lead on this particular one.

It’s distressing, obviously, to see someone completely dismiss the experiences of others simply because that person has had a nice experience. The argument from myopia is a common one in discussions of privilege – “I haven’t seen it, therefore it’s not a problem”. Considering the sheer number and variety of examples of the marginalization of women in skeptical communities, it seems particularly tone-deaf to simply wave it away because you like dick jokes. I like dick jokes too. But there’s a way to craft sexual humour without being sexist, and this line is often crossed at the continued expense of female skeptics. We’re getting better, but work still has to be done. But again, I figured I could rely on my confreres at FTB to make the necessary arguments, and I could focus on getting my stride back after vacation.

Then I received this:

@Crommunist but isn't inconsiderate by definition a value judgment? Seems to me safer to err on the side of free expression in such mild ex.

Pro tip: when decrying someone else’s “value judgment”, you might not want to call the repeated negative experiences of a wide variety of people “mild”.

So now I feel as though this discussion needs some more unpacking, because evidently the point is not so obvious as I thought. First, I need to put a stake in the heart of the weasel-out argument that is being marshalled in defense of the original piece. This was not a letter to one particular group of people. There is nothing in the letter to suggest the author is at all aware that there is a serious issue of sexism in the skeptical community at large – nothing that says “I know other people have had a rough time, but the people I’ve met have been very nice to me, so congrats on showing greater insight into your actions”. This is not a letter that says Las Vegas is doing it right, or that she personally doesn’t have a problem. It is a letter that says, quite explicitly, that people have been telling men to treat women as delicate fragile flowers, that men are called awful assholes (simply because they are men), and that nobody should feel it necessary to alter their behaviour one bit (unless they’re the complainers, in which case kindly STFU).

We are treated to gems like this:

You have never been anything but awesome and welcoming. Who made you think you weren’t?

Which is about as explicit a statement of “I have not bothered to try and understand this issue at all” as you can get without just saying it verbatim. The answer to that rhetorical question, by the way, is dozens of prominent female skeptics who have been fighting for years to have their voices listened to instead of ignored or explained away as being “overly sensitive”. The fact that the author doesn’t understand that goes beyond simple laziness – it is a refusal to even make an honest attempt to understand the criticism of your position before dismissing that criticism in a flurry of straw men.

As to whether or not this is an issue of free expression – whether it is better to err on the side of the status quo because the marginalization of the minority is “mild” – I can only take this back to my earlier conditional argument about increasing diversity. Do we want women to feel more comfortable participating? If the answer is ‘no’, then embrace that – “tough shit ladies, if you want to roll with the big boys, grow some thicker skins.” I doubt this is the majority view. If we do want to see increased female participation (or LGBT participation, or PoC participation), then we have to learn where the barriers to participation are. One such barrier, the issue of how women are treated in skeptical communities by men, has been identified several times. Unless someone wishes to make the claim that we’ve already made all the necessary adjustments to remove this barrier, then we cannot simply ignore the problem until it goes away.

This is an argument that has literally nothing to do with free expression. Men in the skeptical community are free to say whatever they like to whomever they like. They are not, however, free to do so without any social consequence. If women consistently face sexist humour, and if their complaints are met by “it’s just jokes, don’t get your panties in a twist”, I can’t imagine they’d want to stick around. The author of the piece doesn’t appear to be bothered by that kind of interaction. Good for her. Similarly, I know lots of black folks that like cracking racist jokes with their white friends. I’m not one of them, and when people try that shit with me, they hear about it. If they refuse to recognize that the problem is not with me for being “too sensitive” about the serious racist climate that those kinds of jokes prop up (but rather is with them for exploiting that climate to get a cheap laugh), then I’m not going to waste my time and energy trying to dynamite a passage through the mountain of their ignorance – I’m just going to avoid them.

The author of the letter has had a positive experience. I am tempted to think, because of the way she talks about sexism, that her experience has not been sexism-free, but that she simply doesn’t care. Other people do care. A lot. And to tell those who are too steeped in the laziness of the status quo (and the few who are overtly anti-feminist) that they are licensed to ignore the suffering of others simply because not every single person sees it as negative is nothing that anyone who cares about increasing diversity in our community should agree with. I am not so naive as to think that this one post is going to completely explain the multitude of reasons why the love letter was wrong – this is a conversation we apparently need to keep having, as depressing as that might be for those of us who aren’t being listened to.

Go read what Jason said

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  1. Crommunist says

    To be fair, one of the reasons this leaked into blogspace is because Twitter is a TERRIBLE medium for debate. Neither of us were able to express thoughts the way we would have preferred.

  2. Retired Prodigy Bill says

    It’s not an April Fools Day joke if you take someone out into the parking lot and beat them nearly to death, even if you shout, “April Fools!” while doing so.

  3. says

    Uhgh, I respect Penn for his atheism and skepticism, but his libertarianism, not so much, and the conversation you had with this other individual reflects one of my primary gripes with that worldview.

    I value freedom of speech and I value an individual’s rights. I realize that you cannot protect others from hurt feelings. If just hearing I’m an atheist deeply offends you, that’s really not my problems. BUT, that doesn’t change the fact that there are imbalances in society, and while those vary depending on where you live, in places like North America, whites have long had a majority of the wealth, education, power and opportunity over all others and men have had this privilege over women, and christians have had this privilege over other religions. Things are better (no thanks at all to libertarian thinking) but that doesn’t change that imbalance still exists and when there is an irrational and harmful imbalance, we should strive towards a greater good instead of focusing on each numbnut’s whim. This is in no way a squelching of free speech which refers only to what actions the government may take to your expressing yourself. This is about reducing overall assholishness where you can and being conscious of how your privilege may skew how you view the situation.

  4. says

    Wow, low comment count, sorry I didnt notice your little post until now, I have been trying to address everyone, so here you go.

    People have gotten this message wrong from the onset.

    in an attempt to clarify:
    I was not talking about rape, etc.

    I was talking about the discussion that is being had about “how to draw more women” etc.

    Usually people think we have a low female count because skepticism doesn’t “appeal to women”.

    This is not a conversation about rape, or anything like that, its a conversation about “female oriented events” and so on. Yes I touch on flirting and such, but it is within this context.

    It is this that I take issue with and this I was addressing.
    Please take the time to re-read my letter, you missed the point entirely, and thats ok, maybe I wasn’t clear, however now that I have clarified I hope you will stop acting as though I was talking about blatant sexism.

  5. Crommunist says

    Your letter was anything but unclear, Ms. Nasrallah. You’ll notice that I didn’t say anything about rape or what you would call “blatant sexism”. My point is that your letter completely ignores, in fact it dismisses the experiences of several other female skeptics who do have a specific complaint about the way women are treated in skeptical communities. The message of your letter is overwhelmingly “I don’t have a problem, and therefore those complaints are without merit.”

    Yours reads like a copy/paste comment – I don’t think you actually read my post before writing that. Your dismissive language is further indication to me that you have no interest in engaging with the issue (which was the whole point of my “little post”), but would instead like to make it look like everyone else’s fault that you screwed up.

  6. says

    Wow, low comment count, sorry I didnt notice your little post until now, I have been trying to address everyone, so here you go.

    When addressing something you believe is a misunderstanding, it’s always good to start your reply with a backhanded comment. People are really receptive to a patronizing tone.

  7. Gentry says

    For full disclosure, I recommend reading the comments to Jason’s blog post as well. It’s a bit of a read, but there is fairly decent exchange between Mallorie, Jason, and a few other people. She clarifies things a bit more there than in her reply here.

    I’ll admit, she does make generalizations about skeptics in general, telling them to not change for anyone, but (if taken) in the context that she is writing a letter to the people she knows I can’t decry anything. To make the statement that she is ignoring the issue is disingenuous, as she has repeatedly defended her viewpoint from (now 4) bloggers after the letter, and from user comments prior to the letter (which, coincidentally, was the cause of her writing the letter).

    On a side note, as much as I agree and disagree with some points she and others have made on the subject, I was still impressed that civil discussion could still take place over a subject so hotly debated elsewhere at FtB.

  8. says

    Whether or not she came back afterward and changed her tune is immaterial. The letter itself is a naked admission that she simply does not care (or at least did not until people started yelling at her). She creates a number of strawman arguments – it doesn’t matter who she is writing to, her caricature of the anti-sexist argument is a lie. It may not be an intentional lie, but it is evident that she has not bothered to listen to the complaints of her fellow skeptics. The fact that she defends herself doesn’t make her positions any less bullshitty. Her comments are a repeated exercise in ignoring the fatal flaws in her argument and then setting up one straw man argument after another – most often, the idea that men have to feel guilty for being male. There is nothing she’s said there that leads me to believe that she understands the criticisms of her position whatsoever. Her showing up here and making a bunch of statements that have absolutely nothing to do with this post doesn’t exactly persuade me either.

    Whether or not dialogue is polite is similarly immaterial. We can all be as sweet as honey and exchange exactly zero information.

  9. ischemgeek says

    @Gentry: sorry for the late reply to this, but I had to point something out.

    If she was writing to the men she knows personally, she should have said so in the letter. When she addressed it to men of the skeptic movement in general regarding how to treat women in general, that’s when she stepped over the line into dissmissive.

    When she didn’t bother to indicate that she was addressing a specific subset and she instead chose to make it an open, general letter to all men in the movement, she was ignoring that there’s a greater skeptical community at large where experiences might not mirror her own and where the men might not be as nice as the men she knows personally, and therefore she was in fact ignoring the issue.

  10. Beauzeaux says

    “Wow, low comment count, sorry I didnt notice your little post ”

    Wow. Let’s open the “discussion” with an insult.

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