Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Sexism and Rational Discourse, or What are we talking about again?

And I’m back. I guess I just take two months off blogging from time to time. When I’m not blogging, I often feel like it would be such a strenuous effort to return, but then I find I have something very important to say or sort through and suddenly it becomes easy again.

I want to talk about Elevatorgate. For those of you who don’t know, Elevatorgate is the overblown name of an overblown issue, which is the blowing up of the internet over sexism in the atheist movement. I find this larger issue to be a fairly important one, but the degeneration into flaming and name calling is incredibly off-putting. In fact, I’m easily turned off by what I consider deeply problematic or tangential or unproductive methods of dealing with big issues like this one, and that’s exactly what’s happened, and that’s what I want to talk about. For context and background, there are summaries here, here and here.

What I think is most egregious about the entire fiasco is not that Rebecca Watson was made to feel uncomfortable at four in the morning in an elevator in a foreign country, or that women and men attacked her (sometimes fairly, sometimes deeply not so), or that she responded to them publicly and by name, or that Richard Dawkins said some deeply irresponsible and offensive things, or or that there exist sexists and sexism within the atheist movement. What I am so irritated by and am made to feel absolutely frustrated and hopeless about is the quality of the discourse surrounding the affair.

I don’t just mean bad arguments, and unsubstantiated claims and flaming and trolling. Those are all awful parts of people and the internet and so be it. The worst part is that you have intelligent, invested people who are often sensible and rational talking about exactly the wrong things. Everyone is talking about rights. The right to flirt, to proposition, to be a sexually active male, to be offended, to criticize, to be an ass. Frankly, it blows me away how stupid those discussions are. Aside from all of the philosophical problems that the concepts of rights have, the rights to those things are...a little bit strange to talk about, and they’re being discussed as if they are as precious as the right to free press or redress of grievances. Rights are things that humans have in groups, recognized by states or other political (sometimes nonpolitical) bodies. Youtubers simply don’t have the power to take them away from anyone else, and so the anger surrounding the possibility of “losing” those rights seems incredibly silly. To clear up the issue: yes, you have the right to all of those things. You may do all of those things. Other people may (and, wait for it, have the right to) criticize you for exercising those ‘rights’ in the ways that you do. None of it is of any consequence to anyone’s having those rights. So can we stop talking about them?

The other thing everyone’s talking about, though in this case not explicitly, is authority and legitimacy. In other words, who gets to talk about sexism? (women? men? feminists? PZ Myers? Richard Dawkins?) You have women pointing out that there are parts of living as a woman in this society that men don’t (or possibly can’t) know about, and so men should by and large listen to women when they talk about sexism. Sounds fair, except of course that there are men who call out sexism and privilege, and women who vehemently disagree with the analysis of this specific issue, with the broader concepts involved, or with feminism as a movement entirely. In those cases (as when women claim that they would be perfectly comfortable in those situations and so it’s not a problem), who to listen to? To stick to the idea that women understand sexism better would be to fall into a trap of automatic sisterhood bestowed upon all those with uteruses, which is also self-contradictory, since women don’t agree. It also makes men who identify as feminists feel left out and it contributes to the idea that all opinions are equally valid, at least if they’re made by women. On the other hand, criticizing women for their views on sexism can turn into calling women tools of the patriarchy or manpleasers and condescending to them and belittling them, which doesn’t seem to be a particularly feminist thing to do. (This is a little bit of a second/third wave divide). So everyone is left confused, which makes sense, since all of this is rather difficult to wade through. But the question remains: why are we talking about this at all? Why is the relevant question who has the proper credentials to discuss feminism, sex, gender and sexism? Even the most rational and sensible group of people can get tripped up on such a difficult question, and it’s not worth it when it’s not the issue that’s really at hand.

None of this is to say that questions of rights, appropriate behavior, reasonableness and legitimacy are not interesting or important questions. They most certainly are. But in talking about sexism in the atheism movement, or sexism more broadly, the most important questions are those about effects, consequences and harm. How do we make atheism a more comfortable place for women? How do we combine appropriateness and sex-positivity in a way that makes the movement as strong and open as possible? How do we avoid perpetuating stereotypes about women? These are the questions. They often have empirical answers. There is data and concrete argument to be brought to bear on these questions. They are more productive and more relevant. Consequentialism is not a foregone conclusion as a moral system, but in most situations, it is the most pragmatic. So what we need are not only rational people who can argue well, but also people who are willing to make a concerted effort to arguing about the right things. This is how we make progress.


  1. I still don't see how just because she was made to feel uncomfortable that implies that it was offensive.

  2. Did I say that? I don't believe so, and I don't agree that that's the case. I think your distinction is valid, but the question is whether either of those things are relevant? The fact is that she was made to feel uncomfortable and we need to grapple with that.