I haven’t written on this very much. Strike that. I haven’t written on this subject at all, yet. You, dear reader, may chalk that up to my respect for having an informed opinion on the matter and I really didn’t want to share what I was thinking until I had taken enough time to cogitate and turn it over in my own head before I set it in “print.”
As a white male, and an olding one at that, I have in recent years had my consciousness raised towards the issues that racial and cultural minorities have faced in atheist, humanist and skeptical organizations. It was an issue that I hadn’t really thought much about what with my activism being more driven towards reducing the suffocating role that religion plays in modern society. I had only been too focused on the assumption that in working to struggle against the efforts that religious organizations make to tailor our world to the desires of the Next World’s Master, that freethought leaders and groups were also very forward thinking in regards to the power that cultural minorities should have in self-determination.
I had assumed that women would share equally in the power structure. I had assumed that women would be more likely to be “heard” when they discussed the issues that were important to them when it comes to freethinking. I had assumed that women were more likely to be respected than they are in the larger society. I had assumed this because of common cause. As atheists and agnostics who have had to correct assumptions about who we are and what we want and need in our relationship with the world at large, my thinking had been that we would be all the more sensitive to those who bore the extra burden of patriarchal society.
I was jolted into reality just a few short years ago when Rebecca Watson reminded men that it is not a good idea to proposition women in an elevator at 4 a.m. as the first point of conversation ever made. It wasn’t Watson’s statement that jolted me. To me, what she had said was a common sense maxim that I have always followed. As drunk as I have been in hotels, telling someone who is clearly exhausted that I want to go with her to her room is something that I have never done (unless I said things that I don’t remember due to blackout. Never having awaken following such drunkenness with a black eye or a strange woman next to me, I think it safe that I have never done that.)
The reaction to her statement, the reaction to her defense of that statement and the reaction of people who I had supposed to be properly decent individuals who would understand the key role of respect in the relationships between men and women, and the reaction to the reaction to the reaction has alerted me to the struggles that women face in becoming more active in skeptical, atheist and humanist organizations.
Since that time, there have been several brouhahas that continue to flare and cause not only rancor but have led to outright threats of bodily harm against activist women and men who stand with them. One of my favorite bloggers has decided that she can longer put up with it and the formerly prolific Blaghag has been writing only sporadically at Free Thought Blogs. Friends of mine have been targeted by a forum called “The Slyme Pit” because they think that wimminz should just lighten up and take the abuse as an expected cost of taking part in the internet. The reaction by misogynists has been to charge misandry at all opportunities.
And it is into this mess that Ron Lindsay stepped when he addressed a Center For Inquiry (CFI) sponsored conference for Women in Skepticism. Lindsay, the American CFI’s President and CEO spoke in the opening remarks for the conference, and in his words he reveals that he is still under the same impression that I was until ElevatorGate woke me up; that since women under religion are dealt a raw deal they should be grateful that they are members of a skeptic organization. It reminded me of Richard Dawkins’ sarcastic comment at Pharyngula that Muslim women’s are not of concern to Western women because Western women are worried about getting unwelcome sexual attention at atheist conferences (link no longer active at Pharyngula.)
But it’s the second misapplication of the concept of privilege that troubles me most. I’m talking about the situation where the concept of privilege is used to try to silence others, as a justification for saying, “shut up and listen.” Shut up, because you’re a man and you cannot possibly know what it’s like to experience x, y, and z, and anything you say is bound to be mistaken in some way, but, of course, you’re too blinded by your privilege even to realize that.
This approach doesn’t work. It certainly doesn’t work for me. It’s the approach that the dogmatist who wants to silence critics has always taken because it beats having to engage someone in a reasoned argument. It’s the approach that’s been taken by many religions. It’s the approach taken by ideologies such as Marxism. You pull your dogma off the shelf, take out the relevant category or classification, fit it snugly over the person you want to categorize, dismiss, and silence and … poof, you’re done. End of discussion. You’re a heretic spreading the lies of Satan, and anything you say is wrong. You’re a member of the bourgeoisie, defending your ownership of the means of production, and everything you say is just a lie to justify your power. You’re a man; you have nothing to contribute to a discussion of how to achieve equality for women.
Now, this really would have been a good opportunity to use his tympanic membrane as opposed to his glottis. The reactions to his speech would have been a good time to read before typing. He made a huge mistake in thinking that in order to dig his way out of a hole of his own making, this was an opportune time to grab a stronger shovel, deny that he was in a hole and start digging even further. He responded to critique of his opening remarks to say that Rebecca Watson lives in an alternate universe, and that she was guilt of misstating his position in a way more fitting to a North Korean communiqué.
What he doesn’t realize is that he was being patronizing in his opening remarks by reminding women how rough they have it in religion. They already know that. Worse, he doesn’t realize that it is important for people to be able to express anger and dismay at mistreatment and such expression is necessary in order to achieve progress. It is all very well and good to have civil discussions about where things should be fixed, yet when women asked for a concrete sexual harassment policy from the James Randi Foundation’s (JREF) annual skeptfest The Amazing Meeting (TAM) was to be told that there is no need for a specific policy because there were not really any serious problems (even when those problems were specifically pointed out.)
The men that were at the conference in support of the aims and goals of the speakers and conferees were there to listen rather than to talk. They were there to gain understanding, to make new friends and try to figure out the things that they do in their local organizations to be more inclusive of women and to get out of the way for women who are quite ready to move into leadership of skeptical organizations.
When I was a lad in my teens and saw the protests of women who wanted to have equal rights, I could’t understand the problem with doing that. I had believed, based on my experience with many women in my family and in my town and even on television, that there were very few differences in women’s ability to lead and proceed compared to men. I could even then see that women were often chucked aside to roles that were assigned to them. The girls in my classroom were among my most challenging competitors in math, science, composition and critical thought related classes. They were as athletic as the boys. I didn’t understand why there weren’t more women as political leaders or as bosses of businesses. I knew that the differences had to be cultural rather than biological, and I had thought that our society would progress on sexism as much as we had in the 1960′s on race.
It appears to me that male backlash has responded, and a crowd of males are saying that they just don’t want to give up our status of power over women. Ron Lindsay, I think, should at this point take a step back and review the responses to his recent talk. He states that he has apologized for his intemperate response and I have no reason to doubt his sincerity:
In my blog post of May 18, I complained about Ms. Rebecca Watson’s characterization of my May 17 talk. In doing so, I expressed my points in intemperate language, e.g., the comparison of her blog post to a press communication from North Korea, and for that I unqualifiedly apologize. This apology has been conveyed to Ms. Watson.
To be clear, I still firmly believe Ms. Watson’s blog post mischaracterizes my talk, specifically by characterizing my abbreviated discussion of the phrase “shut up and listen” as the “crux” of my talk.
It is time for Ron Lindsay now to listen, to show that he is capable of learning from his mistakes. His talk can not be considered in isolation from all that has happened since ElevatorGate exploded over the freethought community, and he should take this opportunity to learn how his words affect the movement as a whole.