Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Real Problem Between Atheism and Feminism

I posted this link to an article about misogyny recently on Facebook. 

Things got ugly real fast. I blocked a few folks, deleted a few comments and tried to mitigate the damage with little success. You see, what tends to happen on Facebook is someone makes a post then as responses start, the intent of the post is quickly lost (if it was ever understood to begin with) as the thread descends into personality clashes, new, often irrelevant arguments, and barely disguised. okay, let's be honest, undisguised contempt for everyone who dares to challenge the simple, eloquent brilliance of the next person's comment.

I freely admit that I'm just as vulnerable, and guilty, as the next person in this regard. To be fair, I truly believe that MOST people posting feel passionate about the subject and genuinely want to change things. But I'm increasingly realizing that the Facebook thread format is NOT the venue for genuine discussion and debate. The structure and controls are just not there.

Near the end of the thread a woman posted a comment that was critical of my position. I took a deep breath and began writing my response to her. Because I genuinely want this issue to be fixed in the atheist community. As I formed my response it got longer and longer and I realized it needed more time and attention...and another venue. So here I am. 

It's impossible to fairly summarize the entire thread so I won't try. But I will start by pasting in the post that started my writing:


"Why is an imbalance in an authors readership inherently a problem? "You have women here in this very thread talking about why it's a problem. You've had women tell you in other threads you've posted like this, and, more widely, in comments, and essays, and books, and articles...we've been talking about lack of representation, lack of welcome, sexism, etc for A LONG TIME. To act like that conversation hasn't already taken place MANY TIMES is either ignorant or deceitful.Nate, I grew up as you did--in a very fundamentalist, anti-feminist sect. And even after I walked away from fundamentalism, I had a very hard time understanding the feminist position because I had a lot of misogynistic programming in my head. It took a very long time to overcome most of that (not all--it still crops up. I still combat it every day.) My best advice to you would be to stop talking and start LISTENING. Women are talking about this stuff. If you truly want to know what we think then GO OUT AND FIND THE MANY MANY PLACES WHERE WE'VE ALREADY EXPLAINED THIS. If you are truly interested, then do the work to find out. Because, honestly, if you aren't willing to do that work, then it appears as if you're trying to score a rhetorical point ie "Welp, no one told me why it was wrong that there's not a lot of women actively involved in atheism (in the exact time and place I specified,) so I can continue thinking there's no problem."

I do not contend that there is not imbalance in the atheist movement. I lived with such an imbalance throughout my childhood. I accept the evidence for that as well as some evidence that women continue to be treated as less than in this community and the world at large. I have never taken any position other than that. 

I have, however started expressing my growing frustration over how polarizing and destructive the topic has become. It is becoming increasingly clear that there is no room for nuanced discussion. At the same time, there is an increasing willingness to knee jerk plant everyone who decides to talk about it outside the accepted framework directly in the misogynist camp. Common sense tells us that's nonsense, but we continue to do it. And it's getting worse.  

Just as in the majority of issues in life, I believe the truth about feminism and sexism lies somewhere in the uncomfortable grayness of it all. 

So, back to this post and my intention. My intention, not the dozens of intentions attached to me by various posters here:

1. The original interview with Harris included a question about why he thought the majority of his readership were men.
2. Ms. Marcotte referenced that question in her article, changed it to the majority of atheists, then criticized his response saying "Harris didn’t even consider that it could be atheism that has a problem." 
3. In her use of the term "problem" relative to his response about his readership, she neatly switched the argument to something it was not. Harris' response was about his readership, NOT atheism in general.
4. I thought it was important to point out that switch because it says something to me. Just like the photo of a hunch-backed Dawkins, the presumptive title (at least where Harris is concerned), and the plethora of inflammatory terms such as "sexist blather", hyper-defensive, etc, this article increases the misinformation and divide. We don't need that! More important it feeds a frenzied segment of the movement who are now convinced that there is a conspiracy of atheists determined to push women's rights back to the middle ages.

This issue is clearly fraught with emotion. I get that. I also get that I can only relate to women, as with every other human, on an intellectual level. I'm not a woman and I can't understand it completely. I'm reminded constantly in my interactions with humans that women have no choice, at this point, but to view and interact with the world as though it were more dangerous than men have to view and interact with it. I also understand that it should not be this way.

But continuing to tolerate this kind of yellow journalism and continuing to attack misogyny with a blunt club is just going to separate us more. I watched the same thing happen in America during the Civil Rights Movement. Intolerance of any message that challenged status quo was brutally beaten down.

Consider this from the article:
"First, he warmed up with the “women are humorless” gambit, declaring his “estrogen vibe” comment a joke that simply flew over female heads."
Is it possible it was a joke? Isn't it a legal principal that we look at the entire body of evidence to help us decide the intent of a specific word or deed? Does Harris have a history of misogyny? In our search for REAL enemies of feminism, do we do the movement justice by automatically labeling everyone who offends us as a sexist jerk?

"He then moved on to produce an awesome cornucopia of sexist blather: Women’s value is their service to men. (“I was raised by a single mother. I have two daughters. Most of my editors have been women, and my first, last, and best editor is always my wife.”)"

Wait, what?!? His acknowledgement of the importance and value of women in his life is sexist? Seriously, is that the idea we want to put on our placards as we march toward equality? Further, there is no fair reading of his words that amounts to "women's value is their service to men". I can't help but wonder at the response had Sam, instead talked about all the men in his life who had taught him to respect women and live as equals with them. Without question their would be these same articles attacking him for relying on the words of privileged old white men. 

And that brings me to another point. If white male privilege renders old white man opinions impotent, why the great out cry over every real and perceived slight?

Women’s inherent desire to serve rather than lead explains their second-class status. (“For instance, only 5 percent of Fortune 500 companies are run by women…How much is due to the disproportionate (and heroic) sacrifices women make in their 20s or 30s to have families?”) 

Context Ms. Marcotte, context. This is what Mr. Harris said before and after the cherry picking:
I am well aware that sexism and misogyny are problems in our society. However, they are not the only factors that explain differences in social status between men and women. For instance, only 5 percent of Fortune 500 companies are run by women. How much of this is the result of sexism? How much is due to the disproportionate (and heroic) sacrifices women make in their 20’s or 30’s to have families? How much is explained by normally distributed psychological differences between the sexes? I have no idea, but I am confident that each of these factors plays a role. Anyone who thinks disparities of this kind must be entirely a product of sexism hasn’t thought about these issues very deeply.
Putting women on a pedestal is better than treating them like equals. (“I tend to respect women more than men.”) 
Women who don’t defer to men are bitchy. (“However, I don’t think I’ll ever forget the mixture of contempt and pity my words elicited from this young woman.”)

It is as though the author developed a list of "bad things that misogynists do" then went searching for evidence in Harris' response that he was one. That's not good journalism, and it's not good for this movement. 

Does anyone honestly think that this article did anything to move our society toward resolving the real issues of feminism? Does this article give us tools for working together? What I believe this article does is provide a great example of the tone that is a very real, very destructive, part of this conversation.

Now I will say something that will probably be met with outrage from all sides, but it is what I have observed with other social conflicts and what I have experienced personally in my life. The real solution to sexism will not be found in indignation, it will come from the action of women. You will not succeed at your goal of equality in all areas of life unless you do the hard work. Over and over again I saw members of the black community walking away from the rhetoric and digging in. Over and over again I see woman turning their back on the hyperbole of the movement and just doing it. I talk to women who refuse to spend time on defining the layers of psychology and intent of the enemy and just diving in, being the person, taking the action, to insure that they...they are not treated unequal. 

The Freethought movement simply IS NOT a cesspool of sexism and mysogyny. The Freethought movement has, by and large, responded quickly and effectively to deal with real examples of mistreatment that occur in our community. Contrary to the weird arguments I hear too often, the movement is not dictated to by Mr. Dawkins, Mr. Harris, or any other so called leaders. And there is absolutely no evidence that anyone worth listening to has an agenda against women that they are determined to inculcate into the minds of zombie atheists.

It's time for us to stop looking for high profile boogie men. It's time for us to allow a free exchange of ideas within the two movements without imposing a binary component to it. Sure, introduce your ideas. There are those in the movement who I respect for their willingness to, by and large, present their case without the need for name calling and line drawing. But the nonsense that happened on my thread has got to stop.

15 Comments:

Anonymous Linda said...

Thank you Nate for this post.
I see the same issues you do, and dislike the titles of misogynist/rape culture supporter, etc that seem to fly fast and free from some members.
That turns people off a lot, when they would have been willing to discuss issues. No one wants to be called horrible things, especially when they feel they are not those horrible things.

I know several women who have been called terrible things on social media, usually by people who don't know them, and I do not support this.
But I also do not support genuine critics being lumped in with trolls.

I just wish people be more generous when they converse with critics (not trolls, they are just looking to piss people off) and not assume the worst motives in them.

October 20, 2014 at 3:07 AM  
OpenID commandermudpie said...

You cannot reason with the likes of Marcotte. We need to ignore her horrible ideas, ignore her ignorant posts, and move of with other things.

October 20, 2014 at 6:58 AM  
Anonymous Sully said...

"My best advice to you would be to stop talking and start LISTENING."

This is rhetorical boilerplate and gets stated in identical form over and over again. It's just telling someone to shut up.

October 20, 2014 at 7:41 AM  
Blogger noelplum99 said...

Very well written. I can't think of anything to take issue with.

October 20, 2014 at 8:32 AM  
Blogger Cameron Brown said...

"The Freethought movement simply IS NOT a cesspool of sexism and mysogyny. The Freethought movement has, by and large, responded quickly and effectively to deal with real examples of mistreatment that occur in our community."

What is the slymepit or James Randi or Micheal Schermer then?

October 20, 2014 at 1:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your imagination.

October 21, 2014 at 1:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, it's time to allow free exchange of ideas, but delete anyone whose opinions differ from you. And people who complain about sexism should just get over it! Gah, what a complete and total misrepresentation of the FB discussion I was part of.

October 21, 2014 at 5:32 PM  
Blogger Nate Phelps said...

The scores of commenters (most of whom disagreed or misrepresented my position) who weren't blocked or deleted put the lie to this comment.

October 21, 2014 at 7:49 PM  
Blogger Hj Hornbeck said...

You do excellent work for the LGBT community, Nate, but when I comes to feminism....

1. The original interview with Harris included a question about why he thought the majority of his readership were men.

2. Ms. Marcotte referenced that question in her article, changed it to the majority of atheists, then criticized his response saying "Harris didn’t even consider that it could be atheism that has a problem."


I explained this to you in the Facebook thread, Nate:

2. Her article wasn't meant to be a fisking of Harris' blog post. Marcotte spent four paragraphs of the 16 in her article on Harris, and she covered both the initial interview *and* his massive response in that span. The thesis of her article was not Harris ...

and your point 2. is factually wrong. Here's Harris's own words from the interview: "People just don’t like to have their ideas criticized. There’s something about that critical posture that is to some degree intrinsically male and more attractive to guys than to women, .... The atheist variable just has this—it doesn’t obviously have this nurturing, coherence-building extra estrogen vibe that you would want by default if you wanted to attract as many women as men.”

"First, he warmed up with the “women are humorless” gambit, declaring his “estrogen vibe” comment a joke that simply flew over female heads."

Is it possible it was a joke? Isn't it a legal principal that we look at the entire body of evidence to help us decide the intent of a specific word or deed? Does Harris have a history of misogyny? In our search for REAL enemies of feminism, do we do the movement justice by automatically labeling everyone who offends us as a sexist jerk?


C'mon, now. You can't be ignorant of the "it was just a joke!" defense, used the world over to excuse all sorts of bigotry. Nor can you think that if someone was once a misogynist, they are permanently stuck as misogynists; by the same token, even if Harris wasn't known for making sexist comments doesn't automatically disqualify him from making a sexist comment now or in future. What matters most is what he said now, and in that Facebook thread, I directed you to three articles by two people that explained in much greater detail why Sam Harris's remarks were sexist. Apparently, you still haven't read them.

His acknowledgement of the importance and value of women in his life is sexist?

As I explained to you in that Facebook thread,

[As Harris says,] "If you really want to know the truth about me, I tend to respect women more than men. I’m not saying that’s a good thing, but it’s actually an honest statement about my psychological biases." He openly admits to treating the sexes differently, without evidence, then denies he's done it *in the very next sentence.*

October 21, 2014 at 10:26 PM  
Blogger Hj Hornbeck said...

Does anyone honestly think that this article did anything to move our society toward resolving the real issues of feminism? Does this article give us tools for working together?

Again: Marcotte's article wasn't aimed at moving society forward, or even attacking Sam Harris for that matter (four paragraphs out of 16, remember). So why are you demanding it must? I gave you three articles that do a better job on that front; why do you continue to ignore them, in favor of a target that's much easier to take down?

You are ignoring the advice of feminists on sexism. You are preventing them from even giving advice in the first place. As I explained in the comment thread,

Imagine you blocked all the climate scientists from commenting on your FB page. What sort of understanding of climate science would you come to, from listening only to the under-informed public or the openly-hostile/devious climate deniers? You're putting yourself on a course to become the sexist pig you loudly proclaim you are not, and for what?

Because Sally Strange called you "a bit of an ass" for making (in her opinion) unwarranted assumptions? Those don't exactly weigh out.


And this will come back to bite you in the ass, in another way. Back in the 70's, most of the feminist movement refused to listen to LGBT and anti-racism activists. They viewed them as a disruptive element, a distraction from their core focus, and chided them for being so mean and hostile. They had their own thing going, so why did they have to expand into feminism as well?

Forty years on, those disruptive fringe elements are now the mainstream of the feminist movement. The exclusionary types found themselves slowly marginalized by their more inclusionary peers. While there are still issues and dissenters, the feminist movement has generally endorsed and embraced the LGBT movement.

And for their part, LGBT activists are increasingly friendly with feminists and happy to ally with them. An exclusionary stance would not go over well with them.

October 21, 2014 at 10:42 PM  
OpenID MosesZD said...

Shorter Hornbeck -- Shut up and listen you misogynistic dude-bro.

October 22, 2014 at 3:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a hard time understanding that you post things on facebook knowing you will end up blocking people and that somehow that doesn't lead you to question your actions from the get-go.

After that, you fail to recognize that Marcotte is a misandry machine. She cares nothing about atheism, her goal is first herself, second women, fuck socieity, fuck all men, fuck any woman who disagrees with her.

Have you never read anything else by Marcotte?

Your concern regarding this piece, is wasted when directed at Marcotte, your questions should be directed to feminist organizations and any editor at Salon, Slate, The Guardian, HuffPo, or her many publishers that publish this crap. Do they understand it is tendentious bullshit or do they really believe she is a fine journalist?

Either answer is scary.

Seriously, though, you publish things on facebook knowing you will end up blocking people? Huzzah! A win for dialogue and thought!!

October 22, 2014 at 9:20 AM  
Blogger Nate Phelps said...

I never said I intended to block.

October 22, 2014 at 12:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe that the reasons for the reaction to Harris have been tediously explained multiple times. Completely ignoring all those reasonable and reasons explanations simply shows your burgeoning bias.

You are welcome to have any opinion you want...every has one. :). Is this opinion of yours working to bridge the gap with atheists/feminists? Are you truly looking to understand and find common ground? Your post doesn't read that way. A few more posts like this will have your readership be entirely the slymepit.

October 23, 2014 at 9:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it's almost completely slymepit now. The good minds have almost all given up or have been banned by him (but just the women I noticed). He should investigate where his accolades are coming from.. and why.AND find it problematic. But alas.....

October 23, 2014 at 10:12 PM  

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