Reading Rebecca Watson’s Slate article on sexism and sexual harassment in the skeptical community depressed me this morning. (And with a cold coming on and a car in the shop, I wasn’t in the market for anything more to be depressed about.) I don’t consider myself a member of the skeptic community, or indeed, of almost any community, but my admiration for many of skepticism’s leading lights–Carl Sagan, Martin Gardner, the Mythbusters, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Lindy West, Julia Sweeney–is beyond question. I am an atheist and freethinker who believes that if the human race is ever going to stop being a moral embarrassment, we’re going to have to develop humane replacements for the habits of mind that lead us to accept sexism, racism, xenophobia, and homophobia.
I’ve always thought that skeptics and freethinkers were in the best position to lead on those issues. We pride ourselves on our ability to set aside hidebound ways of thinking, to question traditional assumptions, and to bust long-standing myths. And there is nothing more hidebound than sexism and the patriarchy it bolsters.
The patriarchy emerged in the neolithic era, when women’s work was restricted to crop harvesting and the production of offspring, while men grabbed the more glamorous jobs of trading, toolmaking, and warfare. Though human society was, in past epochs, more egalitarian, seven thousand years is a long time to inculcate the sexist divisions of labor and cultural habits that the neolithic peoples’ bronze age descendants committed to stone tablets and papyrus. Priests and potentates, to bolster their own patriarchy-based legitimacy, saw to it that religion and culture modeled and justified a sexist view of the world, rehearsing the ways in which they’d later use it to justify racism and homophobia, sexism’s younger siblings.
What hold should the social attitudes toward women of late stone age/early bronze age peoples have on those of us living in the 21st century? That is an issue that skeptics can address, for there is a world of cultural and religious mythology to explore, and a great deal of bunk in need of debunking, when it comes to the excuses people give for why women shouldn’t do certain kinds of jobs, shouldn’t be educated, shouldn’t dress as they like, shouldn’t control their bodies. The area is way too rich for skeptics to ignore.
But instead, when confronted with a skeptic with XX chromosomes, some male skeptics appear comfortable with not only with holding stone age attitudes about women, but also defending or excusing them. In doing so, they employ arguments that they’d laugh out of the room if the topic were God, Holocaust Denial, or UFOs. A quote from Richard Dawkins, taken from Rebecca Watson’s Slate article, in which he slags on her conference discussion of misogyny in the skeptic world:
Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and … yawn … don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.
Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself Skep”chick”, and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He invited her back to his room for coffee. Of course she said no, and of course he didn’t lay a finger on her, but even so …
And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.
If Dawkins can’t understand that a Rebecca Watson might enter the environs of creepoutsville when a stranger invites her, apropos of nothing, to his room, his imagination rests on a smaller plot of land than I thought. But let’s leave that aside for a minute. Dawkins missed, out of either ignorance or malice, what was clearly Watson’s larger point:
In June of 2011, I was on a panel at an atheist conference in Dublin. The topic was “Communicating Atheism,” and I was excited to join Richard Dawkins, one of the most famous atheists in the world, with several documentaries and bestselling books to his name. Dawkins used his time to criticize Phil Plait, an astronomer who the year prior had given a talk in which he argued for skeptics to be kinder. I used my time to talk about what it’s like for me to communicate atheism online, and how being a woman might affect the response I receive, as in rape threats and other sexual comments.
The audience was receptive, and afterward I spent many hours in the hotel bar discussing issues of gender, objectification, and misogyny with other thoughtful atheists.
Dawkins ignores the issues of rape threats and harassment, choosing what he takes to be the least serious of Watson’s examples. And he does this in order to…what? To suggest that because Saudi women are treated abominably that Watson has no cause to complain? It’s the kind of logic I might expect of the miserable prick who stole my car: “Dear Cambodian Refugee, I know that two millions of your brothers and sisters were tortured and brutally killed by the Khmer Rouge, but stop your fussing. Look what this poor American whose car I stole had to put up with.” Dawkins’s rhetorical trick is brilliant at shutting down the conversation. Look at the miserable Saudi woman! Isn’t religious oppression awful? And let’s not pay too much attention to the woman an atheist harassed. It’s the appeal-to-emotion red herring, and if Uri Geller used it, skeptics would rightfully fry him for it. But any person of moral sensibility should get that the other people’s felonies don’t excuse our misdemeanors. Women should have the right to proceed through life without having their genitals mutilated, but they should also be able to speak their minds in public without having members of their community threaten to rape them, either in person or in website comments. One form of abuse may be more severe than the other, but women in either situation have ample cause to feel abused.
In at least one sense, the misogyny of some in the skeptic community fails to surprise me. Sexism is old, far older than any religion currently practiced, older even than written language. It’s infested our culture, our politics, our language, and our lives on a deep level. Freethinking movements prize reason, and that’s good, but they also evolved from a culture steeped in gender bias.
Skeptic groups, because they needn’t fret over the implications of upending tradition, should be better at purging misogyny from their movement than religious groups are. The tools are at their disposal. I hope they follow Rebecca Watson’s example and set about using them, because this shit’s really old.