|"Atheist meetings? No thanks, cuz I don't like the ... " [fill in the blank]|
Rebecca Watson is still being bombarded with sexual and sexist insults at ERV. Ophelia Benson is saying it's intolerable to attack a woman with sexist epithets. Some people, like Russell Blackford, think the epithets are bad, but not that bad ... etc. etc. A lot of people are no longer talking to a lot of people over Elevator-gate. There are shifting alliances, blah-blah-blah....
I've been invited to speak about Elevator-gate at a local skeptics' group--and more generally about atheism and feminism. So now I have an official reason to think more about this, and I'm no longer just a run-of-the-mill obsessive-compulsive. (Phew, that's a relief!)
Recap of the whole story, and then some comments--
So... there's an atheist conference in Dublin, this past June. One panel is about atheism and women, and the first speaker is Paula Kirby--video here. The moderator raises the question why there are fewer women than men at atheist conferences. Kirby offers the view, based on "my years of being part of all this" that she hasn't seen men holding back women. She also says she's offended by the idea that women would be put off of atheism, and the atheist movement, because it's male dominated. Surely women aren't that easily frightened.
Later at the Dublin conference, there's another panel on communicating atheism, and both Rebecca Watson and Richard Dawkins are speakers--video here. Watson puts the topic of the panel on hold in order to respond to the question discussed by the previous panel--why fewer women in atheist-land? She rejects what Kirby has said as an argument from "ignorance" and an argument from "privilege" and claims that the explanation is (at least partly) that women get mistreated by men. To support this, she offers anecdotes--sexist rubbish from emails she's received from atheist men.
Still later at the Dublin conference, something happens to confirm Watson in her belief that women get mistreated by men at atheist conferences--she gets hit on in an elevator at four in the morning, despite having said, in the guy's hearing, that she's tired and wishes to go to bed; and also despite her message on the panel. When she gets home she puts a video on You Tube, which begins with a mention of Paula Kirby, and talks about the elevator incident -- video here.
She later speaks again at a CfI conference, refers back to the Dublin women's panel, and covers examples of harassment by atheist men, and also mentions the elevator incident. She's even more explicit than in the elevator video that the issue is why there are fewer women in the atheist movement. She tells the student leaders that this sort of overt sexism keeps women away--"that's why they're not coming out to these events." She also responds to reaction to her elevator video from a student activist named Stef McGraw. McGraw had said that there was nothing wrong with elevator guy's overture--her post is here. Watson says McGraw is "ignorant about feminism" and doesn't know the most obvious things from Feminism 101. Sexual interest is one thing, sexual objectification is another.
Later still, Richard Dawkins makes a dismissive comment about the elevator incident--here and then again here. And then, in turn, Watson dismisses him in a post called "The Privilege Delusion"-- here. "Thanks, wealthy old heterosexual white man!" she writes, and promises to stop buying his books. After that, the flood of comments for and against Watson begins, including a torrent of just the sort of sexual and sexist commentary she initially brought up in Dublin. It gets uglier, and uglier, and uglier...
Now for the comments (numbered, even!)--
(1) There's no excuse at all for the sexual and sexist backlash against Watson. It's inappropriate, disproportionate, inarticulate, and just plain ugly. Nothing she did or said justifies it, period.
(2) As much as Watson makes a legitimate point about misogynistic rhetoric that's been directed toward her, she's gratuitously dismissive toward people who see things differently. She dismissed Kirby as "ignorant" and "privileged"; McGraw as "ignorant of feminism"; and Dawkins as too wealthy, old, heterosexual, white, and male to understand.
PZ Myers has defended Watson on grounds that she was "civil" to McGraw and "polite and respectful" to Kirby, but he confuses the question of delivery with the question of content. Yes, her delivery is pleasant and in fact funny. She doesn't froth at the mouth. But the content is insulting. Instead of engaging with the ideas of people she disagrees with, she finds fault with the people themselves--they're too ignorant, too privileged, too unfamiliar with feminism 101, too wealthy, too whatever.
While I was away, some folks at Butterflies and Wheels raised the question how philosophers (like me) can be rattled by Watson's combativeness. Aren't philosophers combative too? Yes--very combative. But the rule is that one engages with ideas--it's off limits to dismiss a position as due to your interlocutor's ignorance or privilege or sex or age, or whatever it might be.
But, but, but... isn't it true that some people really are too benighted to "get it"--that they really do need to take Feminism 101? It's true, but dismissing someone in that fashion is a last resort, and certainly not permitted in direct debate between peers. Since Watson was responding to Kirby, McGraw, and Dawkins as peers, it was inappropriate to write them off in the way she did.
(3) Let's get back to the original question--why are there fewer women than men in atheist circles? Kirby's answer is essentially just negative: men are not holding back women. Watson says the opposite--male sexism and sexual harassment keep women from coming to atheist events. The message I see all over the internet is that feminists must agree with Watson. But no, surely not. As a feminist, I do care about the role women play, and whether it's justly or unjustly attenuated. I am interested in causes and explanations, and don't feel "beyond male vs. female" in the way Kirby seems to. But it doesn't follow I have to buy Watson's view of what makes the atheist community less hospitable for women than for men.
It could be that women are scared off by the prospect of dealing with sexism and sexual harassment. But there are lots of other possibilities. Perhaps the people you meet at atheist meetings argue too much--in their zeal to be ultra-rational and skeptical, maybe they don't know when to stop. Maybe the immense value attached to candor in the atheist movement stops people from properly valuing tact and diplomacy. Maybe people personalize debates too much. In fact, the issue could be even deeper. Perhaps women don't identify as atheists as often as men, and when they do, they identify as conciliatory, "live and let live" atheists. So they're bound to be less interested in atheist activism. If that's a factor, the atheist movement would have to change in fundamental ways to increase female involvement. You might have to examine some very basic things about the atheist movement, not just sexual and sexist antics that are extrinsic to it, to give women an equal role.
To speak a little more personally--I'm just one woman, and it's not clear to me which of my attitudes are gender-related and which aren't, but Watson is quite wrong about what makes me reluctant to come out to atheist events. I don't want any contact with neanderthal debaters like you see at many atheist blogs. It's got nothing whatever to do with fearing overt sexism or sexual harassment. I just don't want to run into Kevin, who wrote this about me at an atheist blog a little while back (with no complaint from the moderator)--
Jean: Let me clue you into something.
You will never win.
You cannot put the genie back in the bottle.
Live with failure every single minute of every single hour of every single day of the rest of your life.
I have no use for someone of your “intellect” telling me what I can or cannot say or learn.
And you will have to live with that abject failure forever.
Since the atheist blogosphere is full of Kevins, I'm a little reluctant to get any closer to "movement" atheists. I suspect more women would feel like me about this than men, and so--I'd like to suggest--it's not just overtly sexist epithets we should be worried about, as feminists. The whole style of interaction at atheist blogs is a problem.