Friday, July 8, 2011

Feminism ≠ Skepticism ≠ Atheism

Something very interesting - and more than a little disturbing - is happening in the skeptical blogosphere...

If you've read it you know where this is going

Rebecca Watson, Skepchick and one of the rogues at Skeptics Guide to the Universe, was speaking at a conference in Dublin, Eire.  In the context of discussing the issue of sexism in the atheist movement, she mentioned an uncomfortable incident during which she was hit on by some guy in an elevator cab at 4:00 am in the morning.

Another female skeptic made a post suggesting she was over-reacting.

Watson called out the insufficiently sensitive female skeptic by name.

Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, who has an angry atheist fan-boy posse bigger than Texas, made not one but three massively insensitive blog posts comparing female genital mutilation, being solicited for sex by anonymous strangers, and chewing gum.

Several male atheist bloggers sided with Watson.

Some others, including some women, did not.

Watson was told to "Shut and sing."

The blogosphere exploded with recrimination.

All this just in time for The Amazing Meeting, "TAM Nine from Outer Space," THE annual celebration of science, skepticism and critical thinking.

Skeptics are mostly male, mostly white, and frequently what most folks call nerds. Should skeptics also be feminists, enlightened, or at least sympathetic to women?  Perhaps they could at least agree to not to sound utterly clueless.  As a middle-aged white guy from the suburbs I may not even be entitled to an opinion in this argument, but this issue is demonstrating some significant fissures in a variety of movements.  Atheists are not necessarily skeptics about anything else.  Skeptics are not necessarily feminists.  Female skeptics may not be able count on male skeptics or male atheists not to be dicks (much like lesbian activists complain that gay rights activists can be extremely sexist).  Male skeptics and male atheists should no longer count on the few women involved in those movements to tolerate the sexism, and sometimes outright misogyny, encountered there.  At least not for a while, and perhaps never again.

Will there be a hot time or cold shoulders in Las Vegas? Will battle lines be drawn? Will public apologies be offered? Will once stalwart friends attempt to steer a middle course and lose all?  Are these alliances of convenience or birds of a feather?  Does the future offer renewed solidarity or bitter factionalism?  Only time will tell...just like the outcome of the Spanish Civil War.

UPDATE: The 'sphere is still going at it hammer and tongs.  My perspective on this issue is evolving but instead of rewriting I'll just re-post a couple of my comments made elsewhere...

On a thread featuring Iszi's wicked rip on Richard Dawkins "Richard Dawkins, oh dear," a poster asked:

"Can Rebecca and Dawkins please just hash this out in person at TAM?"

That's right, no reason to get excited. Sexist behaviour in the atheist-skeptical-rational-humanist movement can be sorted out by two people over a coffee.

"I’m confident that this actually will be settled at TAM and a month from now this will be largely forgotten."

Yeah, the sooner we all get back to the status quo the better. Cognitive dissonance makes me feel icky.

In a post titled "Oh hell, is Elevatorgate going to ruin TAM9?" the Atheist Experience blog one of the hosts wrote:

"In six words: Dawkins is wrong, Rebecca is right."

Dawkins should apologize and if his failure to do so ruins next weekend's skeptical hijinks for his fan-boy posse so be it. Praying for "Elevatorgate" to blow over in time not to ruin TAM Nine sounds like hoping that bus boycott doesn’t prevent the housekeeper from getting to work on time. There IS a pall hanging over the skeptical community. Hopefully, outrage at Dawkin’s loutish utterances will result in a big enough brawl to bring the conflict squarely into the light of reason. Were we to manage to put this all back in the bottle, what precisely would there be to celebrate at TAM, other than having found a way to assuage our cognitive dissonance? It’s time for everyone to dispense with their illusions. Male atheists are not feminists. Skeptics are not rational about everything. Several Über-famous skeptics are AGW deniers. When will the movement get around to dealing with that bullshit? A super-trendy atheist movie-making comedian is Big Pharma conspiracy theorist. How about the movement deals with that in real time? Putting this situation in perspective, "Rebecca was right, but let’s remember all that Dawkins has done for us," is rationalizing not rationality. There never was an atheist, skeptical, liberal, humanist, feminist monolith. Is this an alliance of convenience or are we birds of a feather? It’s better to decide sooner rather than later. Let's get dis-illusioned!

At Chris Mooney's Discover blog Intersection where he is defending his decision to interview Rebecca Watson for the next episode of Point of Inquiry...

Chris, I look forward to the episode. Before then if anyone cares to hear what RW actually says (instead of what you think you’ve heard) about the entire situation give a listen to the most recent SGU podcast; nothing “feminazi” about it. Actually, some of the more radical responses to the incident seem to have been written by male skeptics who sound like they’re trying to earn their “Enlightened” merit badge. Of course, some of the female responses read like an entries in a Phyllis Schlafly essay contest. This entire situation is fascinating and troubling. Is it men in general or just Richard Dawkins’ fan-boys who are circling the wagons around their atheist hero and telling women they’re “too sensitive?” Is it women in general or only the Skepchicks who are complaining that sexism is a barrier to female participation in the skeptical-atheist-humanist-rationalist movement? This is playing out like the cognitive schism between conservative AGW denialists and liberal AGW “realists” (sorry, is there a better term?). Hard core atheists side with Dawkins. Skeptics seem inclined to side with Watson. Haven’t heard much from the humanists. There isn’t so much rationalism in evidence as there is rationalizing, motivated reasoning, and attempts to soothe a boiling pot of cognitive dissonance. Keep up the good work, Chris; if you’re pissing off both extremes you’re doing something right.

PZ at Pharyngula was an early promoter of the idea that the movement needs more women (and got blasted by feminists for saying it wrong).  It was his blog where Dawkins stepped in it, not once but thrice.  At this point in the fracas he appears to be trying to play honest broker...

Have any of you read Orwell's Homage to Catalonia? According to George the Republicans spent as much time second-guessing, double-crossing, and backstabbing its allied factions as it did fighting the Nationalists. I find the parallels instructive and I hope the results are not the same. Be of stout heart and good cheer, people.

REUPDATE: The issue of diversity was examined in detail at TAM 9.  Still no apology from Dawkins.  Watson has made some useful comments on the issue (though an critical examination of her treatment of Stef McGraw does not seem to have occurred).  The world according to skepticism, atheism, secularism, and humanism has neither imploded nor exploded as a result of this incident and its aftermath.  All that said...

Atheism ≠ Skepticism ≠ Feminism


  1. Interesting...
    Not a unified front?

  2. Unified Front, ha! Didn't quite work in Spain, and it certainly won't happen between skeptics, feminists, and atheists. It takes a certain commitment to believing in your own fallibility, not to mention relying on a system of open communication, recalling leaders, owning up to mistakes ... have you seen the size of the egos in play here? Not to mention the delusion that it's more important to assert their positions among supposed allies than against the rabid Right wing....