Because of The Implication

By Amanda Marcotte
Tuesday, July 5, 2011 13:10 EDT
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There's no small amount of irony in the fact that I published this article about how the atheist movement dovetails with other social justice movements this particular week.  I was actually feeling pretty good about the whole thing, because I was writing it while traveling to CONvergence to speak at the invitation of Skepchick about the feminist depths of this issue, on a panel called "Women vs. God", where we discussed fighting the religious right.  Talking about my commitment to feminism through an atheist angle always pleases me, since the two are firmly intertwined in my mind—religion and patriarchy are so intertwined as to be functionally the same thing in most ways, especially in the context of history.  Pulilng down one means pulling down the other, and I think it's naive when anyone denies that and instead claims that there's a way to preserve religion without patriarchy or vice versa.  I'm thinking long term here; obviously in the short term there are religious feminists and sexist atheists. 

In fact, what makes all this ironic is I did get an eyeful this weekend of how serious the problem of sexism in the atheist/skeptical movement really is, and how much hard work needs to be done to get a male-dominated movement to take the problem of sexual harassment and female alienation seriously.  (Though by and large claims for reproductive rights go unchallenged; there are a few loud-mouths whose virulent sexism will cause them to take anti-choice nonsense seriously, but it's so steeped in religious woo that most atheists can't be bothered.)  Because right as I was traveling, conferencing, and writing about atheism, there was a blow-up that started because a guy exploited his position as a fellow atheist/skeptic to act like a creep towards a movement leader who happens to be female.  The controversy—and this is truly pathetic—is because she decided instead of just rolling over and taking it, she would say something about it. I know!  The bitch.

I don't want to recount everything that happened in depth, because it's really done better elsewhere, but what happened was this: Rebecca Watson, who travels extensively speaking about skepticism and atheism, was at a conference in Ireland and a guy followed her onto an elevator at 4AM and cold propositioned her for sex in this enclosed space without ever speaking to her before.  She mentioned it in a vlog that was mostly about other stuff, mainly to illustrate why this behavior is unacceptable and can turn women off from participating in events such as the conference.

The usual excuse-making for the guy immediately proceeded.  I'm sure you guys could generate all the excuses on your own: Claiming that men don't really know what's appropriate and what's not because women make it so complicated.  (This has been demonstrated untrue with research, though common sense should also apply.)  Denying the difference between flirting and cornering women in hopes that the implication of fear will grease the wheels for you getting your dick wet.  Claiming that introducing a whiff of coercion and fear into a situation is okay as long as you're willing to take no for an answer at the end of the day.  All of which reminds me of one of the great scenes from "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia".  

In sum, men who corner women know what they're doing. And yes, they are relying on the fear of rape to grease the wheels towards getting laid.  Rebecca may not have  put it that way, but being a mean ol' feminist bitch, I'm happy to say it.  Also: duh.  It also strikes me, in my dealing with geek culture, that there's a taboo against rejecting someone, and creepy dudes also are happy to exploit that, knowing that women who reject them will be condemned for violating the "don't be judgmental" rule. 

And I also know, being a feminist for many years now, that whenever a bunch of dudes start freaking out on a woman who called out some egregious sexism, there are a bunch of women willing to back those dudes up in order to get that coveted male approval and attention.  I call this move Pulling An Althouse.  Or Dr. Helen, if you prefer.  Or maybe just call them Sister Punishers.  And they were thick on the ground in this case, and Rebecca used a quote from one of her female attackers in a speech where she was talking about there's sexism in the atheist movement (as a prelude to the more obvious fact that there's sexism in religion).  You can read the whole story here. Rebecca sounds like she was much nicer about it than I was; I'm prone to making jokes such as, "The guys you attract with this crap don't go down, so I don't know why you bother."  It does make you look desperate, ladies.  I'm just saying.  

Anyway, this launched Round Two of Silence the Feminist.  This time, the theme was, "Sure, you may be right that this dude was a creep but shut up, since you're making people uncomfortable and can't we get back to talking about how religious people are sexists?"  This was greased by a political strategy known as Calvinball—one that the right is really good at, by the way—where you make up brand new rules of discourse that were previously unknown and then chastise the target for breaking the rule that didn't exist before because you just made it up.  In this particular case, Rebecca broke the previously unknown rule wherein you can't actually quote someone's public words and the name they publish under when disagreeing with them, at least if your blog has more traffic than theirs does.  It may also be true that there are exceptions on every other Sunday, but I'm not sure. 

Here is a classic example, from the usually rational Hemant Mehta, of this Calvinball argument:

This was bad form for two reasons. One, it was a distraction from an otherwise important talk. Instead of us discussing the incredibly important issue of how the Religious Right harms women (the subject of the talk), we’re all discussing whether it’s right for someone with a big megaphone to pick on someone with a smaller one, whether someone was being a “bad feminist,” and all sorts of shit that doesn’t need to be aired in public.

Two, whether it was the intention or not, you’ve convinced a young female in our movement that if she says something you don’t like, she better be ready for an all-out barrage of criticism from every “big name” in the atheist blogosphere.

It has it all: 1) Countering criticism that makes you uncomfortable by saying there's something more important to worry about 2) Shaming a woman for having success  3) Sexist paternalism in the form of arguing that a woman has to be shielded from open discourse lest she be too frightened to return and 4) Implying that said paternalism is feminism.  Sarah Palin's P.R. team would be proud. 

Personally, I think that convincing an audience of atheists that the religious right sucks is probably much less of a challenge than convincing them to look at themselves and find imperfections, and I applaud Rebecca for being willing to take the hard road. 

That's the bad news.  The good news is that people in the movement are fighting back against this tedious and predictable sexism,  and they're fighting hard.  PZ Myers, as usual, is on the side of the angels.  So is Jennifer McCreight. Sadly, Richard Dawkins was a dick about all this. 

To sum up a long story, what is fascinating to me about all this is that it's something that tends to happen over and over again, and while it sucks at the time, it tends to pay off over the long run.  Many of the attackers, especially the ones pulling the "you're right but shut up" card, may resist now, but they absorb and learn and often adjust their attitudes, a little at a time.  Now that the issue has been raised, it's hard to ignore it in the future.  More attempts to make things female-friendly usually come out of this.  But it is fascinating how these things have a predictable rhythm to them. 

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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