Ron Lindsay’s Mistake

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.

Attribution not found.

This is the most important thing that men can do when women explain why they are angry.

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.)

This is a small snip of what Lindsay had to tell the conferees:

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.

In Defense of the Humanities Again and Again and Again

And Yet Again

NOT!

Over at Crooked Timber they’ve been hassling yet another Martha Nussbaum defense of the humanities. Though I know of her defense work, I’ve not read any of it, so I don’t really know whether the hassling is just.

But I’m going to believe it is. ‘Cause I’m tired of these defenses of the humanities. They’re so lame and predictable. In fact, I’m wondering whether or not it’s the humanities that’re IN FACT being defended.

Maybe the defense of the humanities has been USURPED INTO defending olden times. So, the defender doesn’t really like any of this new-fangled stuff, including the internet and all, but they don’t want to go after that directly. Instead, they defend the humanities.

And then . . .

One notion you find in defenses of the humanities is that we need to see the world whole. I agree. We need DO to see the world whole. Now more than ever. The arts do this in a way. So can the discursive humanities.

But we don’t need the old discourses. We need new discourses. 21st century discourses. Beyond postmodern discourse, etc. And it seems to me that the defense of the humanities genre is pretty much owned by people who want to stave off the creation of new whole-cosmos discourses.

That ain’t right.

A different kind of basterd…

….which is to say “Inglourious” ones. As in the movie. Which I just watched.

OK, the plot has its comedic moments, and its thrilling moments, and the climax is satisfying (partly because I didn’t know until it all came down whether they were actually planning to re-write some well-known history there). But jeezuzkrist there’s some appalling scenes (yeah, OK: Quentin Tarantino). Brad Pitt’s character, Lt. Aldo Raine, casually tortures and executes prisoners with a sort of detached sadism that almost makes me like the supposed villain, Col. Landa, by comparison. I’m damned sure that if a bunch of American commandos were running around behind German lines pulling that kind of shit, the Nazis would tell the Allies to knock it the hell off or they’d start doing the same to a few of their POWs. There’s a reason everyone signed on to the Geneva Convention. Just a little too much suspension-of-disbelief being asked there.

So what’s the point of this? Is there any redeeming value in this silly gore-fest of a flick? Well, how’s this for a wild speculation: Raine’s “aw shucks” drawl reminds me of George W. Bush. So: Raine is supposed to be Bush as the war hero he portrays himself as, and of course he’s the President who brought back torture as an instrument of state policy. Which makes the movie a kind of slap at current American practices in Guantanamo and Iraq.

Or am I just talking out my ass?

All IP iz mine! sayeth the Big Monopolist

Nina Paley is the creator of Mimi & Eunice and is unleashing them on the world under a copyleft license.

Re: The Male Privilege Checklist

In our modern society men clearly have many privileges over women. See The Male Privilege Checklist at some blog, and on Pharyngula.

As a man – one of those who are not happy that people are treated badly in any way because of their gender – I find that I want to highlight some of the disadvantages there are to being a man.

Here’s is my list with immediate reactions to some of the points made on The Male Privilege Checklist. The fact that I react to them in this way does emphatically not mean that I disagree that men have many privileges over women. We obviously do. But women have some, too, and some of those I am quite honestly very envious of, particularly in regards to children. The numbers refer to points in the original list.

3. If I am never promoted, I cannot blame it on my sex.
4. If I fail in my job or career, it is more likely that it will disrupt my family.
5. I am far more likely to be sued for sexual harassment than my female co-workers are.
7. If I’m a teen or adult, it is less likely that I can stay out of prison (where my odds of getting raped increase dramatically).
9. If I choose to be a housespouse, my masculinity will be called into question.
10. If I have children but am not the breadwinner, my masculinity will be called into question.
11. If I have children and provide primary care for them, in public people will often ask where their mother is.
17. As a child, if I chose a hero of the opposite sex, I could be sure other children and adults would worry about me.

Read the rest at Pleiotropy.

Are We Busted, Irrevocably?

Cross-posted in two other places. Why? Because I can.

By we I mean students of the human sciences.

* * * * *

Sometime in the early 1970s I read an article in Linguistic Inquiry, the house organ of Chomskyian linguistics, lamenting the lost promise of the Chomsky revolution. As I recall, the lament went something like this: In the early days it seemed possible that a complete grammar of English, or French, or Russian, or Quechua, or any other language was right around the corner. Then the articles began to get narrower and narrower in scope until finally the cutting edge of research discussed mere fragments. And the prospect of a complete grammar for some language, any language? Forgotten.

Almost four decades have gone by, with perhaps as many major revisions in Chomsky’s views on language. I don’t know what the official line is on the state of the Chomsky revolution, but, as far as I can tell, the situation hasn’t changed. It’s not just that the Chomskyians have failed to deliver on early promises, but that linguistics itself remains many. Chomsky never carried the day completely and, while some of the holdouts just wanted to remain stuck with the old ways, just as many wanted to forge ahead, but not under the Chomsky banner. As far as I can tell linguistics is, say, a half-dozen or so competing and apparently mutually incompatible schools that, for the most part, simply ignore one another. Linguists hold no deep conception that is as significant to all of linguistics as evolution is to biology.

And that goes across the board to all the human sciences. The cognitive revolution went flat in the 1980s. The neuroscientists have frittered away two or three decades taking pretty picture of the brain that benefit no one so much as the workers and stockholders of companies in the brain imaging business. Economists have been fiddling while the world economy burns and literary critics have been congratulating themselves on how revolutionary and counter-hegemonic they’ve been.

Up until recently I’ve believed this was the case because the problems are deep and compelling answers are hard to find. And, yes, that is true.

And, yes, I certainly have strong opinions on what approaches make sense, and which are garbage — not for the whole range of the human sciences, of course, but for those areas where I’ve been most active: literary studies, cognition and knowledge representation, cultural evolution. It’s not that I think all extant ideas and approaches are equally worthy. I don’t.

But I have thought that, after all, there is no other way to advance than to let 10,000 flowers bloom.

Perhaps I’ve been wrong. 1000 flowers? Sure, why not? 10,000? Really? Do we really need to sample the space of intellectual possibility at 10,000 points? Rather, are we really sampling the space at 10,000 points? Or are we only sampling the space at 1000 points, but pretending to sample it at 10,000 points by dressing up our ideas in funny but colorful costumes?

Are we bull-shitting ourselves about our intellectual productivity?

* * * * *

One of the standard ploys that curmudgeonly literary critics have deployed against newer ideas is that these new-fangled ideas with their technical terminology do not reflect any intellectual necessity. Rather, they are simply a response to institutional pressures for idea production. Institutions demand prestige, prestige requires publications, publications require new ideas, so let’s at least give them new terminology, which they’ll happily mistake for new ideas.

That’s the argument — it’s still alive and well. I’ve always resisted it despite the fact that, more often than not, it’s being deployed against ideas I don’t much care for myself. But, if those curmudgeons knew of my work, they’d deploy their argument against it as well, as I too employ abstract concepts and even a strange term or two.

But I’m beginning to wonder whether or not those curmudgeons have a point. Perhaps institutional pressures are bringing about needless over-production of useless ideas. It’s not that I’ve decided that our intellectual problems aren’t all that deep, after all. No, they’re deep. But these many ideas we’re tossing about aren’t plunging into the depths. They’re just padding out the CVs of the senior investigators.

What, then, can we do?

I wish I knew. As long as I can remember there has been calls for intellectual reconciliation and cooperation among disciplines. And those calls continue. E. O. Wilson has called for consilience. Herbert Gintis has called for the unification of the behavioral sciences around the idea of evolution. I’ve made a similar plea on behalf of cultural evolution.

But we are late-comers to this game. Calls for unification had become another genre of academic discourse long before we weighed in.

Can we do nothing? Nothing at all?

Come to think of it, doing nothing might give us a chance to chill out and do some real intellectual work.

Say you’re wrong

Let me start by sharing just how much of an opinionated bastard I am. I was conceived out of wedlock, so I am truly a bastard. I treasure that fact on a weekly basis. But other than that, I am not really much of a bastard. I’m a nice enough guy, and if you think not being a scoundrel disqualifies me, pass along. As for opinionated, I was once called that because once no one could decide where to go for lunch, and that quickly drove me nuts and I plainly said where I felt like going.

[I’m a slow learner, apparently. Now go read the rest at Pleiotropy.]

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