A Puzzle for Humanism

I should start by saying: unlikely my previous posts, this isn’t properly a book review. The major ideas in the discussion spring out of Kate Manne’s book Down Girl: The Logic of Mysogyny. I do give a general review of the book over on Goodreads; TL;DR: The book is excellent, timely, and thoughtful; people should read it. Manne illustrates a particular problem that I think is worth raising on this blog, given the discussions of ethical positions around humanism, feminism, Atheism+, etc.

Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” is one of the most widely cited phrases in public ethics and social justice, but it is often egregiously misused. Somewhat famously, Chelsea Clinton cited it in discussion of a man casually committing a horrific act of violence; political scientist Corey Robin was quick to point out that this is not the way Arendt was using the phrase. Documentarian Ada Ushpiz has similarly pointed this out in criticizing Eva Illouz. To gloss over these longer responses there, the dialectic goes like this.

Many folks think that “the banality of evil” refers to the attitude of indifference towards humans by the person causing harm; the idea that evil can be regarded as banal by the person committing the evil act because they have dehumanized the victim. This is the wikipedia gloss on Arendt’s view, butthe focus on dehumanization actually gets the point entirely (and dangerously) wrong.

Manne points out, as Arendt did as well, that many callous and casual acts of violence are not the result of dehumanization of the person against whom one directs the violence, but rather the result of paranoid or vindictiveness. The effort to dehumanize Jews holds far less prominence in Nazi thought than the thought that Jews were manipulating the political state of affairs, exploiting gentile Germans, and the like. It was not regarding them as inhuman, though there are tropes that track dehumanization, but rather the paranoia around “the Jewish Question.”

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Rebecca Watson at CFI

We’ve been missing one piece of information in all the condemning and howling and insanity of the Rebeccapocalypse: the notorious talk at CFI in which Watson hatefully and viciously tore into a poor innocent student and ripped her to shreds in public…or, at least, that’s how it’s been characterized by some people. Omission corrected: here’s the youtube video of the infamous talk:

Wow. Excellent talk, and guess what? The poor student was discussed civilly and without victimization. She didn’t even make up an insulting name for her.

It’s rather clear that the focus of her talk was presenting the evidence for anti-woman craziness that the people at CFI could use, not on attacking anyone at CFI.

(via Furious Purpose)

Too soon?

Wait, I don’t think this was intended as a joke. Esquire introduces an article on oral sex with Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s maid.

We don’t mean to be indelicate, but well, this whole thing has gotten a little indelicate, hasn’t it? In the latest Newsweek, the maid who was allegedly raped by former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn gives a very graphic account of their time together, including some very indecent oral sex. And whomever you believe, that’s a tragedy. Because as we’ve learned over the years from our sex expert, a blowjob need not be degrading or hurtful, for either party. Here, a little timely etiquette dedicated to one of America’s indelible bedroom acts. It might just help us all.

Diallo’s account is below the fold: not for the squeamish.

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No comments here, please

I think we’ve reached the saturation point, so comments are closed on this article. However, I do think I need to link to Rebecca Watson’s summary of her recent absurdist travails. Or if you’d rather, try reading Schrödinger’s Rapist and be enlightened.

This time, though, really, go over there if you feel the need to comment.

It is interesting that it is the jerk chauvinist skeptics and atheists who have turned Ms Watson into an angry feminist. It’s all your fault, bozos.

Oh, no, not again…once more unto the breach

This is your last gasp on the topic of the proper way to make a sexual advance. I’m just going to wrap up a few dangling bits.

Jen has slammed Richard Dawkins for some comments here. I can confirm that those comments were actually from Richard Dawkins. I also have to say that I agree with Jen and disagree with Richard.

Richard did make the valid point that there are much more serious abuses of women’s rights around the world, and the Islam is a particularly horrendous offender. Women have their genitals mutilated, are beaten by husbands without recourse to legal redress, are stoned to death for adultery, are denied basic privileges like the right to drive or travel unescorted. These are far more serious problems than most American women face.

However, the existence of greater crimes does not excuse lesser crimes, and no one has even tried to equate this incident to any of the horrors above. What these situations demand is an appropriate level of response: a man who beats a woman to death has clearly committed an immensely greater crime than a man who harrasses a woman in an elevator; let us fit the punishment to the crime. Islamic injustice demands a worldwide campaign of condemnation of the excesses and inhumanity of that religion.

The elevator incident demands…a personal rejection and a woman nicely suggesting to the atheist community that they avoid doing that. And that is what it got. That is all Rebecca Watson did. For those of you who are outraged at that, I ask: which part of her response fills you with fury? That a woman said no, or that a woman has asked men to be more sensitive?

I think reasonable men will be quite capable of both opposing Islamic fundamentalism with vigor and refraining from driving away their godless colleagues with petty harrassment, colleagues who may well be even more fervent and dedicated to our common cause of promoting equality all around the world. These are not mutually contradictory actions. They are complementary and necessary. Our goal isn’t to set the bar of equality at a level slightly higher than the situation in Saudi Arabia, or to some point somewhere around the significantly more enlightened (but still not adequate) level in America, but at a point where every woman has the same rights and privileges as every man, where women don’t have to fear being raped, and yes, where women don’t have to face this dismaying, depressing, common situation of seeing their autonomy disrespected and their compatriots rushing to excuse loutish behavior.

One other matter: some people muddled the issue by also pretending to be Richard Dawkins. Impersonating anyone else on this blog is an immediately bannable offense: I don’t warn you, I just delete all of your comments, and then I ban both your username and your IP address. You’re gone, burned to the ground. I’ve eradicated two Dawkins impersonators in that way. Don’t do it.

This thread really is the last on this specific topic. The only thing I’ve so far found useful about them is that they’ve smoked the flaming misogynists out of the woodwork. Try not to be one of them, OK?

Since Richard Dawkins has responded and is asking for an explanation of what he is missing, I’ll try to oblige.

Try googling “elevator rape”. What you will find is an unpleasant combination of stories about real crimes in which women were raped in elevators, and porn about women being raped in elevators. It is a small confined place in which a woman can be made helpless. Elevators aren’t exactly romantic or even comfortable; what a man might consider utilitarian transport can be seen as a cage to a woman alone.

The guy in the elevator was not accused of being a rapist; I got the impression from Rebecca that she wasn’t even really worried about serious threat to her safety, but was annoyed that she was being pestered by an insensitive cad. It was “slightly bad,” as you put it, and she responded at an appropriate level to the problem. She basically said to the atheist community, ‘hey, guys, don’t be an insensitive cad,’ a suggestion I find remarkably uncontroversial — it’s a slightly good suggestion in response to a slightly bad problem. It’s darned good advice, even.

Here’s exactly what she said:

Um, just a word to wise here, guys, uh, don’t do that. You know, I don’t really know how else to explain how this makes me incredibly uncomfortable, but I’ll just sort of lay it out that I was a single woman, you know, in a foreign country, at 4:00 am, in a hotel elevator, with you, just you, and—don’t invite me back to your hotel room right after I finish talking about how it creeps me out and makes me uncomfortable when men sexualize me in that manner.

That really should be sufficient to explain to everyone exactly what was ‘slightly bad’ about this situation.

The response has been to belittle her reasonable suggestion, belittle her, accuse her of hysteria, defend the rudeness of the fellow with the proposition, and mostly act as if utterly obtuse to both the unpleasantness of the elevator faux pas and to disrespect the rational concerns of women. Women aren’t so much afraid that unruly mobs of atheist men will rape them at meetings, but that they’ll be dolts who trivialize legitimate and common concerns of women…and this incident has definitely shown that to be the case. We aren’t just going to see Rebecca Watson diminished as an asset to atheism, but all the other women who seek common cause with atheism will watch how we treat our own and find this community significantly less attractive.

This isn’t slightly bad. It’s very bad. Atheist men are alienating the people we want to work with us on the very same problems, the oppression of women under religious regimes, that you cited in your comment.

I’m taking one last stab at explaining this. Imagine that Richard Dawkins meets a particularly persistent fan who insists on standing uncomfortably close to him, and Richard asks him to stand back a little bit; when he continues, he says to the rest of the crowd that that is rather rude behavior, and could everyone give him a little breathing space? Which then leads to many members of the crowd loudly defending the rudeness by declaring that since the guy wasn’t assaulting him, he should be allowed to keep doing that, and hey, how dare Richard Dawkins accuse everyone present of trying to mug him!

That’s exactly analogous to Rebecca Watson’s situation. She did not make these hysterical accusations everyone is claiming, she did not compare herself to the oppressed women of the third world, she did not demonize the clumsy sap in the elevator — she asked for some simple common courtesy, and for that she gets pilloried.

Sorry, people, but that sends a very clear signal to women that calm requests for respect will be met with jeers by a significant subset of the atheist community, and that’s not right.

Abortion needs to be taught in our medical schools

Read this horror story of a failed pregnancy.

I was taking an afternoon nap when the hemorrhaging started while my toddler napped in his room when I woke up to find blood gushing upward from my body. Though I didn’t know it at the time, I was experiencing a placental abruption, a complication my doctor had told me was a possibility. My husband was at work, so I had to do my best to take care of me and my toddler on my own. I managed to get to the phone and make arrangements for both of my children before going to a Chicago hospital.

Everyone knew the pregnancy wasn’t viable, that it couldn’t be viable given the amount of blood I was losing, but it still took hours for anyone at the hospital to do anything. The doctor on call didn’t do abortions. At all. Ever. In fact, no one on call that night did. Meanwhile, an ignorant batch of medical students had gathered to study me — one actually showed me the ultrasound of our dying child while asking me if it was a planned pregnancy. Several wanted to examine me while I lay there bleeding and in pain. No one gave me anything for the pain or even respected my request to close the door even though I was on the labor and delivery floor listening to other women have healthy babies as the baby I had been trying to save died in my womb.

Fortunately, a nurse called in a competent doctor to abort the fetus and stop the bleeding — or this woman would have been dead.

My two kids at home almost lost their mother because someone decided that my life was worth less than that of a fetus that was going to die anyway. My husband had told them exactly what my regular doctor said, and the ER doctor had already warned us what would have to happen. Yet none of this mattered when confronted by the idea that no one needs an abortion. You shouldn’t need to know the details of why a woman aborts to trust her to make the best decision for herself. I don’t regret my abortion, but I would also never use my situation to suggest that the only time another woman should have the procedure is when her life is at stake. After my family found out I’d had an abortion, I got a phone call from a cousin who felt the need to tell me I was wrong to have interfered with God’s plan. And in that moment I understood exactly what kind of people judge a woman’s reproductive choices.

The story also highlights the subversive strategy the right wing has followed: there is now a serious dearth of doctors trained to do abortions, so when a necessary abortion case shows up in an emergency, you’ve got a muddle of the self-righteous and the ignorant, all incompetent to do anything, milling about with their thumbs up their asses. She might as well have stumbled bleeding into a church and asked for help…which is exactly what the Coathanger Coalition wants them to do.

Imagine if someone showed up in an emergency room having a heart attack, and for religious reasons, no one had any training in using a defibrillator, and the only one available was in an underfunded clinic across town. That’s the direction we’re going, only we’re suppressing information and skills that would help just women’s lives. Which makes it OK, I guess. No men will die of a placental abruption, so it’s a low priority.

The divine right of penis

I thought this was pretty funny.


But then I realized that this was the answer to the whole problem of the political assault on women by Republicans. If they don’t give a damn about women’s rights in the first place, we just have to reframe the whole question: Rick Perry and the whole lot of abortion-hatin’, planned-parenthood-defundin’, make-life-more-difficult-for-women patriarchal party-poopers are interfering with men’s ability to get laid.

Put it in those terms, and I expect the party of plutocrats will turn right around. Nothing may be allowed to get in the way of a man and his sacred penis.

Paula Kirby kicks butt

I’ve got some flyin’ to do — you’ll be hearing from me after I arrive in Honolulu, with reports on sun, sand, and science from the West Coast Regional Meeting of the Society for Developmental Biology all this coming weekend — but for now you can enjoy this fine article by Paula Kirby. If there were any sense and justice in the world, the next atheist meeting I attend would be populated entirely with angry women looking to overthrow the temples of the patriarchy.

Enlightened professions perpetuate problems

As a member of the professoriate, I like to think that we are egalitarian and do our very best to correct the social inequities that are so prevalent outside of our relatively benevolent, enlightened institutions. Only…not. It looks like women get screwed over in academia, too.

The gender gap in faculty pay cannot be explained completely by the long careers of male faculty members, the relative productivity of faculty members, or where male and female faculty members tend to work — even if those and other factors are part of the picture, according to research being released this week at the annual meeting of the American Education Research Association.

When all such factors are accounted for, women earn on average 6.9 percent less than do men in similar situations in higher education, says the paper, by Laura Meyers, a doctoral candidate at the University of Washington. The finding could be significant because many colleges have explained gender gaps by pointing out that the senior ranks of the professoriate are still dominated by people who were rising through the ranks in periods of overt sexism and so are lopsidedly male, or that men are more likely than women to teach in certain fields that pay especially well.

Maybe the disparity is because equality is only just now beginning to percolate upwards from the new faculty? Nope, they corrected for that. Is it because we have more women in the low-paying sociology departments than we do in the higher paying computer science departments? No, they corrected for that. Is it because women are less able to do the work and are too busy gossiping about babies and needlepoint to do the work? No, they corrected for that.

Darn. I guess the simple fact of the matter is that we’re paying women less than they deserve. From which the important, obvious lesson to be learned is that we ought to hire more women, because we’re getting equal work for cheap.

Perhaps I should mention that to our hiring committees.