Monday, July 11, 2011

Three reasons why gnus especially should temper their criticism of outspoken feminists

The catalyst for this post, of course, is the ongoing Rebecca Watson/Elevator Guy/Richard Dawkins debacle. I don't want to say much about that, beyond just that my position is similar to Ophelia Benson's, i.e. Dawkins was wrong but not that wrong. I'm hearing now that some people are upset more over how Watson treated McGraw than anything else, but I've already expended too much mental energy on this whole little blow-up to look into it any further.

I think the majority of gnu atheists would consider themselves feminists or pro-feminism -- after all, religion has historically been used as a tool of misogyny (or is it the other way around?) and so it's only natural that those who ardently oppose the negative effects of religion would also oppose misogyny. But there also seems to be a very large contingent who, despite being nominally in favor of gender equality, are deeply resentful of what they see as overly "strident" feminists. They complain that it was not "us" who caused all of this oppression, both historical and ongoing. They complain that they are being treated unfairly, perhaps even claiming to be the victims of misandry.

Well, gnus shouldn't be making that type of mistake. Gnus, of all people, should be sympathetic towards the most outspoken forms of feminism -- even if that position can be wrong at times. Now I'm not saying someone ought to adopt an incorrect opinion, but gnus should not be infuriated by it, and should understand the value of these "strident" voices. And here are three reasons why:

Gnus ought to know that when attempting to change the public conversation, being polite, even-handed, or fair is not always the most important thing. The phrase you hear bandied about often is the Overton window, though I've become less comfortable with that term over time simply because of Glenn Beck's stupid novel of the same name. The point is that for far too long women have been expected to shut up and take their proper subservient place. And make no mistake, it's still socially acceptable in far too many contexts to express that view. On the flip side, far too many people find it unseemly or rude for a woman to speak up about gender issues.

This ought to sound all too familiar to atheists. And as gnus, how have we chosen to tackle that problem? By refusing to stay silent about our views, even in situations where it is perceived as rude or inappropriate to air those views. Our criticisms of religion may not always be entirely fair, but goddamnit, it's high time somebody said those things anyway. Gnus ought to understand that the same thing goes for feminist viewpoints, which have historically been squelched. You don't fix that problem by asking politely if maybe it's your turn to talk now; you fix it by expressing your views openly, unapologetically, and even vociferously. Eventually it just becomes okay to talk about those sorts of things, and then the nice calm polite conversations take place.

We're still not at a point in our society where everyone can have that nice calm polite discussion, and that goes whether you are talking about religion or gender. As a result, I don't blame atheists for being loud, ardent, or even rude. And I don't blame feminists for it either.

Gnus ought to know that crowing about 'persecution' from a position of privilege is pretty unflattering. When Christians in America complain about being 'persecuted', boy does that make my blood boil. It's true that Christianity is sometimes ridiculed in the media, sometimes even unfairly. But by god, Christians can proudly say that every elected US president has shared their religious views; they can expect their faith to be perceived a a positive character trait by the vast majority of the population; there is no shortage of media catering directly to their religious tastes, including whole separate musical genres; and numerous points of Christian dogma are codified into law, with far too many legislators talking with a straight face about adding even more. Yeah, you're not being persecuted, STFU.

News flash: That's how feminists feel when men complain about misandry. Are men sometimes criticized unfairly? Oh sure. But uh... yeah, you and I have got it pretty good, bro. Every elected US president has been a man; men are perceived as more capable than women in a wide variety of tasks, to the point where we can just expect a higher salary without even trying; there is no shortage of media catering directly to men, including the fact that the vast majority of protagonists in popular media are men; and until very recently, numerous laws were explicitly beneficial towards us. (As a side note, it is true that alimony law requires reform in many states now that, you know, we're actually letting women have jobs and stuff... but this is a legacy artifact of historic misogyny, not a result of misandry. Get that straight please.) On top of all that, most of us men don't have to constantly worry about getting raped.

So yeah, you know... stop complaining. I think it's okay sometimes to point out ways in which men are screwed over by laws or societal mores or whatever (as evinced by my parenthetical remark about alimony reform) but as the privileged group, we need to approach that sort of thing with due humility. No whining.

Gnus ought to know that cultural criticism doesn't take place in a vacuum. This is sort of the reverse of the previous point. I am much harsher when criticizing American Christians, for example, than when criticizing American Muslims; and by the same token I am much harsher when criticizing Muslims living in Islamic countries than I am when criticizing American Muslims. American Muslims may at times be worthy of criticism, but they are also getting a whole lot of bigotry and prejudice thrown their way. I always try to check myself, to see if I'm really trying to follow a legitimate point, or if I'm getting bamboozled by what essentially amounts to racism and/or jingoism.

Those who are formulating a criticism of an outspoken feminist would be well-served to do the same sort of introspection. There may be valid criticisms, but is the perceived importance of those criticisms getting amplified by the continuing societal hostility towards feminism and towards women in general? Are you getting bamboozled by misogynists? It's worth reflecting on.

To sum up, when you are advocating in favor of a group that has historically been oppressed, silenced, discriminated against, and devalued, it's okay to be a little brazen, a little overly harsh, a little angry, and at times even a little unfair. For too long, religious belief and open misogyny have simply gone unquestioned, enjoying a privileged position where not only do those on the wrong side wield the power, but have manipulated the bounds of socially acceptable conversation to squelch any opposing voices. Now after all these centuries, atheists and feminists are speaking up, making their story part of the public consciousness. And those who, in the face of that history, would criticize these proud new voices for seeming a bit too shrill -- maybe they ought to reconsider that.


  1. I found this through a link in the comments at Pharyngula. This post really nails some things that I often have a hard time articulating when I need to, particularly this:

    "There may be valid criticisms, but is the perceived importance of those criticisms getting amplified by the continuing societal hostility towards feminism and towards women in general?"

    I'm sure you're aware, but lot of what you've described in this piece is not just relevant to the discussion of feminism's place in atheism. I see these phenomena in lots of contexts. I will definitely be bookmarking this for the next time I need to gently suggest to someone that unexamined prejudice might explain why they feel so strongly about something despite all evidence.

  2. I have nothing to add (but when did that ever stop a commentator?)

    Seriously, that's an excellent and useful post.

  3. Thanks for the positive comments! And yup, absolutely this applies to any number of situations where one viewpoint has historically been silenced or ignored, doubly so when it involves one group being privileged at the expense of one or more outgroups being perennially devalued and victimized.

    As a white, middle-class, heterosexual male, it was a looooooong road for me to come to understand and accept this. I simply don't have a good frame of reference to understand what it feels like to NOT come from a position of unquestioned privilege. I basically had to accept that this is something I can't ever figure out for myself, that the only way to gain insight is to listen to people coming from a historically oppressed position and pay close attention to what they had to say.

    Even my experience as an atheist hasn't really been the same, as I come from upstate NY and while being an open atheist is a little unusual here, it's not particularly scandalous or anything. I don't face any material disadvantages or barriers as a result of my nonbelief. It's annoying that everybody just assumes everybody else is a theist, and that can be emotionally taxing, but all things considered it's really not that bad.

    Anyway, I'm rambling a bit now. Thanks again for the positive comments. I just wish I had spent a little more time on the sentence Anonymous quoted to make it a little less awkward ;) But I'm glad you found it useful.

  4. Great post. It's great to see someone seeing how the shoe fits on the other foot.

    I'm not sure I fully concur though with the atheists are oppressed perspective or that feminists can claim that status either.

    I think that while woman are oppressed as a class there's something a bit dodgy when a university student from a wealthy white family with "Sheila Jeffreys" under her arm claims that oppression in relation to all men.

    Similarly I might choke if Dawkins actually claimed he was "oppressed". In fact we can hear a lot from some religious people of their oppression when what they mean is having to defend their views. I hope atheists don't make the same mistake.

  5. You're definitely right that one must take care when playing the "oppression" card. I don't feel that I've seen that issue in the atheist blogosphere, at least not very often, but it's always a danger. I try whenever I talk about the issues faced by atheists to make it clear that it depends a whole lot on where you live. I'm not going to lose my job or lose family or anything as a result of being an open atheist. That's not the case in all parts of the US, though, and certainly not in all parts of the world -- but I try to make it clear that I *personally* don't experience significant prejudice because of being an atheist.

    That's a little different from what I was talking about in this post, though. There are these archetypes -- the "angry atheist", the "bra-burning feminist", the "uppity negro" -- which exist solely for the purpose of telling the groups in question to STFU and stop advocating for themselves. The message is that self-advocacy is inherently rude and unfair and impermissible.

    It's a pernicious and powerful meme. How many young women have you heard say something along the lines of "I'm not a feminist, but...", or "I'm not one of those feminists!"? The word has become toxic; the idea of vocal self-advocacy has been made unfashionable. Regardless of the issues, I think that's never okay.