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Skeptics and Misogyny and Privilege, Oh My

Since my blog post about the discussion about polyamory on the JREF forums, I've been poking around on the forums some more. Somehow, I managed to stumble across a thread relating to accusations of misogyny in the skeptical community, stemming from an episode at TAM last year.

TAM is an annual convention of skeptics and rationalists hosted every year by the James Randi Educational Foundation. It's one of the largest such conventions in the country.

Apparently, a prominent blogger named Rebecca Watson was harassed at TAM last year. And the fallout from her complaint about it, which I somehow managed to miss almost entirely, are still going on.

I don't read many skeptic or freethought blogs, which is probably how I missed the first go-round. A bit of scouting on Google, and a perusal of the JREF forum, shows an astonishing amount of anger, most of it of the "how dare this emotional woman tell us we're misogynists!" variety. Which is more than a bit disappointing, when it isn't downright rage-inducing.

In the interests of fairness, I have to say that I totally get why folks who identify as skeptics and rationalists might be especially resistant to suggestions that they are behaving inappropriately, especially with regards to sexism. A significant number of folks in the skeptics community identify as atheist. It takes quite a lot of effort for many people, especially people raised in a religious family, to break away from religious faith and embrace the ideas of rationalism and skepticism.

Once you do, there is a temptation to think of yourself as being more enlightened because of it. Things like racism and misogyny? They are those relics of patriarchal religious orthodoxy. I'm not a misogynist! I'm not a racist! I left that behind when I let go of religion. I don't think that women are placed below men by some sort of divine pronouncement. I'm not the one trying to make women into second-class citizens. How can I be sexist?

I can remember going through a thought process something like this myself, back when I was a teenager in the process of giving up on the idea of religion.

Years later, when I was first introduced to the notion of invisible privilege and the ways that society creates a bubble of special advantages around men, it felt quite weird to grapple with the notion that I might be the beneficiary of misogyny, or even be guilty of misogynic behavior myself, without even being aware of it.

So the reaction of folks in the skeptics community when confronted with inappropriate behavior at a conference might be understandable, though it's still disappointing. And maybe I'm naive, but the level of vitriol coming from some parts of the skeptics community against Ms. Watson and her supporters is completely over the top...and appalling.

All that is kind of beside the point, though. Yes, it can be tough to recognize the invisible sea advantages that we swim in, just as it might be hard for a fish to recognize that it's wet.

But here's the thing. It seems to me that anyone, regardless of whether or not he recognizes the many ways that society provides him with an invisible set of advantages that other people don't have, who hears someone say "I feel threatened" or "I don't feel safe here," should start by listening.

I do believe that most of the folks in the skeptical community--indeed, most people in general--sincerely don't want to be misogynistic (or racist or otherwise guilty of bias or oppression). And if someone claims to be a rationalist, it seems to me that if he is approached by someone else who says "I feel marginalized in this environment," the desire to find out whether or not a problem actually exists, and to fix it if it does, should logically outweigh that little emotional voice that says "But that can't possibly be true; I'm not like that!"

So at this point, I'd like to talk to all the guys reading my blog. Especially white guys, and most especially white guys who think that they aren't sexist or racist. The rest of you can...I don't know, cover your ears or something. Ready? Okay.

Listen. Guys. If you are at a conference or a sci-fi convention or something, and someone comes up to you and says "I don't feel safe here," you listen. And then you say "I'm sorry to hear that. This isn't the sort of environment I want to create. What can I do to help fix the situation? What would it look like if this space were more welcoming to you? Have I participated in any way in making this space feel hostile to you, and if I have, what can I do to make it right?"

This is really, really simple It's called "being a decent human fucking being."

Now, I know what you're thinking. It's probably some little thing that's gotten way blown out of proportion, right? There's not really a problem; this person is just being oversensitive. Right?

And that is one possibility, sure.

But seriously? Given the history of treatment of women and minorities in this society, and given how goddamn hard it is to be aware of the advantages you have over folks who aren't as white or aren't as male as you are, that probability is pretty goddamn remote. A lot more remote than you think it is.

Doesn't matter, though. You aren't going to find out if there's merit or not if you don't (a) listen and (b) consider the possibility that there's some validity to the complaint.

And while we're at it, let me tell you what you don't do.

You don't say "Well, I don't see a problem here." That just makes you look like an ass. If there's a problem with sexism or racism and you're a white dude, of course you're not going to see the problem. Duh.

And you don't say "That doesn't sound like that big a deal to me." That just makes you sound like an even bigger ass. If you haven't had the experience of what it's like facing constant systematic exclusion--and believe me, as a white dude, you probably haven't, any more than I have--you're not really in a position to tell whether or not it's a big deal.

And seriously, if you say anything, and I do mean anything, along the lines of "All these feminists are just out to get men" or "You're just being hypersensitive" or, God help you, "you must be on the rag," you don't sound like an ass, you ARE an ass. You're part of the problem. Whether you think of yourself as biased or not, the simple fact that you can think along those lines kinda proves the point. That setting isn't welcoming because you're one of the people who is making it that way.

Look, I know it can be hard to acknowledge that you have been given advantages simply by virtue of who you are; I felt the same way. It's a bit like trying to look at your own back.

But you're a rationalist, right? C'mon, you can figure this out. Treat it like an intellectual puzzle; that is exactly what it is.

And in the meantime, put aside the emotional response--because that's what it is, an emotional response, and listen.

Yes, it can be a little tricky to navigate this stuff. So in the interests of helping to promote better understanding for everyone, I've created a handy clip-and-fold guidebook that you can print out and carry in your wallet. Clicky on the picture for a PDF version!


( 45 comments — Leave a comment )
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Jul. 16th, 2012 05:56 am (UTC)
I love you, and I plan to print these out & hand them out to people, along with all my other info cards!
Jul. 16th, 2012 06:01 am (UTC)
I would also like to throw in there that, although the biggest problem, by far, was the large contingent of Poor Menz crying foul & threatening to rape the feminazis, a smaller, but just as douchey group were the handfuls of women jumping on the "just relax, it's not a big deal" bandwagon. Being a member of an oppressed group does not, apparently, automatically exempt one from internalizing the same system of oppression.

I have been guilty of some of that myself because of my own privileges (we all have them, to some degree or another), and I'm appalled that it took becoming active in the skeptics, atheists, & "rationalist" communities for me to see just how bad the problem still is.

The skeptics & rationalists & atheists collectively should be ashamed of themselves - when patriarchal theists didn't turn me into a feminist, they did. And that's where I should have felt safe.
(no subject) - tacit - Jul. 20th, 2012 08:36 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Jul. 16th, 2012 06:25 am (UTC)
I love you for this, seriously :D

I will be passing this around widely -- thank you. Trust me, it's much appreciated :)


-- A <3
Jul. 16th, 2012 06:30 am (UTC)
Y'know, most of the things that hurt me & made me most unhappy in life, would've been at least a little (sometimes a lot!) better if I'd been listened to & believed. Now while I'm at least mostly in control of my immediate surroundings, let me remember that with everyone I meet.
Jul. 20th, 2012 08:37 pm (UTC)
I think that's true in a lot of cases. It's hard to imagine ANY circumstance where responding to any sort of problem with 'well I don't see what the big deal is!' will ever be helpful.
Jul. 16th, 2012 10:22 am (UTC)
The thing that gets me is that the initial events that set off this whole thing actually really weren't that big a deal. I might be incorrect in this, but from my memory of reading her original post, I don't think Rebecca even thought it was a particularly big deal when she originally posted about it. The post that I remember was basically 'this was a thing that made me uncomfortable. I'd rather guys didn't do this. Hey guys, would you mind not doing this?'
The thing that made it into a Big Deal, and the thing that has left so many women feeling so very unsafe around TAM guys, was not the original post but the massive angry response* to it from the guys who should have been listening and from people who had nothing to do with the situation but who also decided they were going to be divisive and aggressive about it. So yeah, that card, very very apt.

One little problem I have with both the post and the card itself though... are you aware that the use of the word 'douche' as an insult is both sex-negative and woman-negative, and reinforces/perpetuates negative associations with women's genitals? I'd far rather you picked another word like, say, 'asshole'. At least everyone has one of those! (Also, totally an opportunity to practice what you preach, lovely man ;) )

You are awesome and I love you too. :)

*I'm still not entirely sure I understand this, and the fact that I don't is what disturbs me most about the whole thing. I mean, every person who has made it to adulthood without being incarcerated for the sake of society has learned that there are some things it is inappropriate to say to a complete stranger in an enclosed space (for example nobody would expect to be able to turn to a complete stranger and say "I would like to kill you", however politely phrased, without this being taken as a threat and the police being called). Yet somehow when you get down to talking about the nuances, the spaces between black and white, where things are 'a bit' inappropriate, rather than call-the-police inappropriate, people seem to get disturbingly angry at the idea that they might be 'a bit' in the wrong (and then, astoundingly, wade further into the being VERY wrong whilst being angry at it). Boggles me.
Jul. 16th, 2012 11:24 am (UTC)
I'm OK with douche being used as an insult. Why? Because the only douches that are useful are anal douches. Vaginal douches are useless, and in some cases harmful to women.

Just like guys who act like this.

(no subject) - awfulhorrid - Jul. 16th, 2012 01:48 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Jul. 16th, 2012 10:28 am (UTC)
Once you do, there is a temptation to think of yourself as being more enlightened because of it.

This, and I think there's also a lot of Geek Social Fallacies #1-2 in play. "We're all atheists, so we're all on the same team, and anything that threatens team unity is a Bad Thing." That can't-we-all-get-along can be a great thing sometimes, but it can also lead to downplaying things that shouldn't be tolerated.

I see a similar phenomenon sometimes with polyamorous folk's attitudes towards groups like the FLDS: THEY have a non-conventional relationship structure, and WE have a non-conventional relationship structure, so we should stick up for their rights to coerce teenage girls into marriage while dumping teenage boys by the roadside.

PSnitpick: "prerogative".
Jul. 19th, 2012 09:53 pm (UTC)
To be fair, I think a lot of poly folk I've talked to feel that the FLDS are actually giving us all a bad name and are therefore distinctly not on their side...
(no subject) - lederhosen - Jul. 19th, 2012 10:04 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Jul. 16th, 2012 03:45 pm (UTC)
"Years later, when I was first introduced to the notion of invisible privilege and the ways that society creates a bubble of special advantages around men, it felt quite weird to grapple with the notion that I might be the beneficiary of misogyny, or even be guilty of misogynic behavior myself, without even being aware of it."

It is so rare to find a man who can grasp this concept and really hang onto it. Thank you for the lovely blog post! May I share it on facebook?
Jul. 20th, 2012 08:44 pm (UTC)
Of course, by all means! :)
Jul. 16th, 2012 05:10 pm (UTC)
*slow clap*

I remain impressed.
Jul. 16th, 2012 05:36 pm (UTC)
I agree wholeheartedly with what you say.
I would suggest, though, that many straight/white/men, who self identify as 'geeks', do tend to think of themselves as being victimized. In that context, the defensive reaction to being told they are the ones perpetrating a kind of victimization. A person who has been bullied all his life is not necessarily going to respond well to the idea that he is, in any way, a bully.
Which is NOT an excuse. I know that society treats me differently (and, really, generally, better) because i am an apparently straight white middle class man. I also know that the fact I grew up wanting to read more than play sports figured into the way society treats me as well. And it is easier to focus on my own pain than to see and try to do something about the pain of other people.
Easier. Not better.
Again, you are absolutely right, and I thank you for taking the time and having the courage to speak out. Go you.
Jul. 20th, 2012 08:45 pm (UTC)
The fact that someone can be bullied (say, for being a geek) and also, at the same time, still be privileged (say, for being a cisgendered white dude) is something I plan to talk about in a LJ post I'm working on right now. :)
Jul. 16th, 2012 05:54 pm (UTC)
You make good points, and I agree. Here's my rhetorical question:

Why is it such a big deal just to swallow selfish comments about how other people shouldn't feel bad and spend the minimal effort necessary to be empathetic for one damned minute?

I have long held the opinion that people are responsible for their own emotions, just like they're responsible for all sorts of other things. I'm the first douchebag out of the door to tell you, "Don't make a big deal out of it" and "Toughen up" and those sorts of things.

But I also have to admit there's basically zero cost to me to just keep all those comments to myself until I know someone well enough to talk it over with them. There is zero cost in saying, as you suggest, "Wow, I'm sorry you feel that way. How can I help?" It's better than being a douchebag and then later realizing you feel they had a legitimate complaint.

Then, maybe after you help, at a later date, when you have the trust of this person, you can be a douchebag and tell them to take responsibility for their emotional reactions.

This is obviously not me disagreeing with you, but rather taking your point from another angle - the angle of simple human decency over the fanatic pedantry so common in the skeptic/atheist/bright/whatever community... well, it's fairly common in lots of places. Don't look at me - I'm white, male, and both excessively privileged and pedantic.
Jul. 20th, 2012 08:49 pm (UTC)
I don't think that's a rhetorical question at all.

I think it's a pretty complex question that has a pretty complex answer. First, there's the invisibility of any sort of privilege; the folks who are doing this are, legitimately and genuinely, unaware that they are coming at the situation from a highly advantaged position.

Then, there's the normal defensiveness that even well-meaning people can feel on being told they've done something wrong. Combine that with the invisibility of the advantage they have and you already have a situation where it is extraordinarily hard for folks to see and understand what they've done wrong, and very easy to believe they're in the right.

On top of that, you have a population of people who may have had the experience of being outcasts themselves, so (a) might not have the greatest of social skills and/or (b) might find it hard to accept that they might in any way be playing the role of the oppressor. That's changing; it's a lot less of a truism than it used to be, but I and many folks in my generation certainly remember the experience of being ostracized for being geeky.

So I think it's possible to end up with a perfect mix of elements that makes for a very toxic inability to really understand where someone else is coming from when that other person says "hey, you just ran all over my boundaries here; cut it out."
(Deleted comment)
Jul. 16th, 2012 07:14 pm (UTC)
I don't peruse the blogs, but this was covered pretty well on the Skeptics Guide to the Universe as it unfolded. The most contraversial element seems to be that Watson called the guy who threatened her by name at a forum the next day. (I don't see a problem with that myself. Shaming is a wonderful motivator.)

And the pres of the JREF, DJ Groethe (sp?), really inflamed things by saying before TAM this year that it was no big deal. He's probably the first to get your fold-em-up guide to avoiding douchebaggery.

Off topic a bit, but Mr. Deity made a spot-on mockery of the dust-up on one of his episodes (mocking not the situation of threatening behavior towards women, but of the TAM fallout in particular). If I was a better person, I'd know which episode, but hey, we all need to see every Mr. D.
Jul. 20th, 2012 08:50 pm (UTC)
I'm going to have to look for that Mr. Deity now. :)
Jul. 16th, 2012 08:03 pm (UTC)
Thank you.

I've had conversations recently attempting to educate a mysogynist and sent him various links, including to a previous post of yours about sexual assault issues. He didn't seem to get it and holds strongly to his "women are mean to me, I should be treated with the same respect I give others" script. As well as the "women should just be more careful about who they date to avoid rape." Nevermind his cluelessness about the mysogyny in making these complaints/statements to a female, or that any of this hate/hurt/entitlement might be what's preventing him from getting a date.

While it would be easy to give up on *him* I struggle with not wanting to give up on an important message. Of course, the mere fact the message is coming from a woman probably doesn't help, so I greatly appreciate your privilege role voice to the subject.

If you'd like to tell the story about how you resolved your struggle with coming to terms with privilege, or offer tips on that as well, I'd appreciate it. I've done some of that with privilege of being white, but putting it into words for another to grasp has eluded me. Nobody likes to be accused, and I think it initially tends to come across that way, so it's generally hit with defensiveness, and quite possibly a frequent rejection due to personal hurts as a majority as well.

I wonder about the order of the cards though, my first thought was to read across rather than down. Maybe depends on how you fold it but might be worth exploring options on.
Jul. 19th, 2012 10:06 pm (UTC)
Agreed, seconded and damn well thirded!

I recently had exactly the same situation, of trying to explain the concept of Rape Culture to a guy I was very close to, had respect for, and had assumed would be willing to listen and discuss in a open minded way.

Even though he'd never even heard of the concept before that conversation, some of the things that he picked up and commented on:

- More women should report their rapes, then the HO wouldn't think it was such a small problem and would allocate more resources to it! (Never mind me explaining some of the HUGE issues with that, and the repercussions that can result for women who report it.)

- Using the term 'Rape Culture' is totally semantically wrong, culture is something you enjoy and look forward to, like music! (He suggested using the term 'Rape Paradox' instead...)

- Complaining that well *obviously* if a woman is going to accuse a man of rape, the burden of proof lies on her, and if she won't go and have herself tested out at the hospital immediately with a rape kit, or whatever, she only has herself to blame if the case goes nowhere. Can't have the Innocent Menz being ruined just because a woman is feeling malicious! (...I have no words.)

...And I'm going to stop there, because although there was much much more, I can't really think of the conversation without starting to get angry. He lost a lot of my respect that evening, and that made me sadder than I can say.
(Deleted comment)
Jul. 18th, 2012 10:58 pm (UTC)
typically human
this inability to correctly analyze ones own characteristics is evident in almost everybody, women AND men of all shapes and colors. It becomes equally humorous and aggravating when it's displayed by Skeptics, lovers of science and other otherwise smart people.The capacity to take a step back and look at ones own behavior and thinking at least somewhat objectively and being able to reframe a construct of thought can't be valued highly enough.
One of the seemingly too simple, but all too easy to fall into fallacies is "I'm smart, therefore I couldn't be doing anything dumb". Remember, no matter what the issue is, be a skeptic of yourself and never be afraid to ask yourself: "am I being an ass?". Good things can come of it.
Jul. 19th, 2012 06:17 am (UTC)
I wholeheartedly agree with almost everything you said. No, actually: I agree with everything, but it's what you haven't said that bothers me a bit. You said, correctly: "It's possible that the other person is wrong. But you're not going to find out who's right if you don't listen and seriously consider the possibility that she is right." Great! But... How *do* you find out? Suppose that she is wrong (doesn't matter what the odds are -- it is possible, right?). I don't see any option in the scenario that you suggested to actually find out who was right and what behavior is best. It seems to me that there is only one consequence of following your prescription: you do exactly what you're told. There can be no discussion. A discussion means that both sides have right to give input; in situations like that, many women believe that men don't have that right -- they should "shut up and listen". Sure, "shut up and listen" is a great first step! But it is only good if afterwords you will have a chance to respond and get some listening in return. But that's not what happens. It's often pretty one sided, from what I've seen. Any attempt of discussion different than expressing 100% agreement (no matter how civil) is seen as "part of the problem". And it doesn't matter who is expressing the polite disagreement or what their arguments are -- if it's a man, he can't possibly know what's he talking about because "privilege!!" -- if it's a woman, she "internalized the oppressive mindset" or whatever. What they are actually saying can therefore be ignored.

Just to be clear: I'm NOT talking about the Rebecca Watson case! I remember that one well, I watched her video, and I was *completely* on her side. But I'm talking about a few other cases that I've seen over the years.

You keep teaching (in different contexts), that the fact that we feel bad as a result of someone's actions doesn't mean that the someone has wronged us. Our emotions are not always right. That is just as true in romantic relationships as it is in the context you discuss here. If someone feels that she was mistreated, she's not necessarily right. (Conversely, if the guy feels he's being wrongly accused, he's not necessarily right either...)

As a (trying to be) skeptic, I'm bothered by situations where someone's words are given the power to be unfalsifiable. And if you think about it, it's just a very difficult problem -- if someone says "X and Y bothers me, please don't do it" -- how can we argue? What is a legitimate way to argue here? They may be absolutely right, and they may be wrong. How to go about it?
Jul. 20th, 2012 09:08 pm (UTC)
Like edwardmartiniii says up there, it certainly can be the case that someone who is emotionally manipulative and/or drama-prone can create conflict where none is warranted.

I've been thinking about this nonstop for the past couple of days. The question of how to figure out whether we're talking about a real problem or manufactured Drama is a thorny one. I would say that all but the most absolutely bullheaded 'I hope you get raped' Internet trolls who reacted against Rebecca Watson would probably believe that they have evaluated the matter carefully and concluded that she's making something out of nothing, even though (to my mind) it's clear that isn't what happened at all.

I didn't include a step 3 on the card partly because I was dodging that exact question. :) I do think that it is absolutely necessary to say "I'm sorry to hear that; what can we do to make the situation better?" and then listen to the response. Nothing constructive *can* happen if people aren't willing to listen.

What happens after that, though, gets a lot trickier.

I've been trying to come up with an objective way to evaluate a complaint about misogyny or bias that applies universally, and I don't think there is one. And, like I said, a lot of people--especially people who are in an advantaged position but aren't aware of their advantage--might sincerely believe there isn't a problem where there is. So the best I can come up with is something like this:

- Is it possible that this complaint might have merit, and I can't see the merit in it? What factor(s) might make it hard for me to understand where this person is coming from? Do I generally hold an element of advantage over this person, and if so, what does that mean?

- Is this person someone who otherwise seems generally well-put-together and not prone to irrational outbursts of drama?

- What is this person asking for? Is it something simple that a reasonable person could reasonably accommodate, regardless of whether or not that person understands the reason for it? Is there a cost for other people to accommodate the request, and if so, what is that cost? Does the cost seem reasonable in light of the consequences the person making the complaint is warning about?

There might be more; this isn't yet a well-formed thought. If you have any ideas, it'd be awesome to hear them!
(no subject) - petite_lambda - Jul. 26th, 2012 01:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
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