In Which I am Disappointed in Hemant Mehta

8 Jan

Last week, I made a possibly ill-advised statement on my Tumblr, which led to quite a bit of further explanation on my part (here, here, and here) when several people misunderstood what I intended (admittedly, I worded things poorly).

After the original Tumblr discussions, I never expected to hear anything more about it, honestly, but a few days ago I woke up to find that someone had sent this screenshot of the original post to Hemant Mehta over at Friendly Atheist. After reading Hemant’s man-splaining of the sexism situation in general, I read through the comments on his post and basically hated everything far too much to be able to respond right away. I’m finally feeling at least somewhat up to that challenge.

First of, for full disclosure, let me say that I am not terribly active in any atheist communities on- or offline. This is almost entirely due to my general disenchantment with atheist communities and what passes for atheist activism. This disenchantment is due to several factors:

  1. Atheist communities are often hostile to women, and (being a woman) I don’t feel as if my presence is welcome or that my opinions are particularly valued or sought after.
  2. Atheists as a group tend to be relatively privileged, whether it’s white privilege, class privilege, education privilege, or whatever. Because of this sort of homogeneity of privilege, there is an amazing lack of any sort of privilege going on. This creates an unpleasant environment for those who lack the privileges of the majority as well as those who are actively trying to unpack their own privilege.
  3. Atheist activism tends to be towards decidedly narrow goals. Some of these goals are important (improving science education, combating religious child abuse), but some of these goals are trivial (getting God off the dollar bill, etc.). The trivial goals get a disproportionate amount of attention, while at the same time there is little recognition of the intersectionality of the broader goals with the aims of other social justice movements.

What has happened as a result of this is that I’ve heavily cut back on the number of atheist blogs that I read, and I have essentially no desire to participate in atheist groups whatsoever. That being said, however, even in the limited number of atheist blogs that I read, I still have days where there is much that just disgusts me, and my statement on Tumblr was born out of that disgust and the frustration I feel at the ability of atheist communities to be consistently disappointing to me.

On to the criticisms of my statement!

The most common criticism, which Hemant avoided but that I faced on Tumblr and saw in the comments at Friendly Atheist, was that I was wrong to say that the only reason white dudes become atheists is to get in on being oppressed. Fortunately, that is not even remotely what I said. While I admit that my original statement might have been confusing to some (but not to some others), what I meant was that I think that many men–especially an all-to-common type of upper-class, white, educated men–attach to movement atheism as their activist community of choice (as opposed to some other activist community) because they don’t experience oppression in any other way. For some people, “In God We Trust” being on the dollar bill really is the worst form of oppression they will ever face, and unfortunately atheist groups are simply crawling with these people.

What I see in a lot of atheist groups is that these men are the ones who drive the majority of discussion and decide on courses of action for the group. These men are also, sadly, the ones responsible for the majority of contributions to making atheist spaces unfriendly for anyone who isn’t one of them. As I said originally, I attribute a lot of this to unrecognized privilege, and as long as that privilege goes unexamined and unchecked, atheist spaces will continue to be dominated by white men as they alienate and drive off women and minorities.

Hemant’s post didn’t criticize, per se, but rather defended against charges of sexism within movement atheism in general. He starts off by saying the bolded part of my original statement is incorrect, insinuating that maybe I was joking (nope!), but admits that atheist groups could benefit from increased diversity.

Well, Hemant, you can of course disagree with me, but my opinion remains that white men dominate the atheist movement because it gives them a platform to advance a narrow agenda that addresses issues that effect them. Atheists who are interested in addressing sexism, racism, economic injustice and so on largely head elsewhere because the majority of people inhabiting atheist/skeptical spaces are unmitigated assholes when it comes to those topics. As far as this opinion “demeaning” the people I am talking about, I can only hope that maybe my statement will trigger an epiphany for a few of them, who will take a look at their privilege, think about the way it shapes their interactions with others, and work to recognize and be mindful of that privilege in a way that fosters community rather than driving away otherwise like-minded people.

Hemant then goes on to say that of course women have to deal with a lot of shit, which he knows because he listens to women. Gold star, Mr. Mehta!

But, oh shit, what is this?!

I’ve experienced the Boys’ Club mentality myself, where something I said was taken more seriously than a similar suggestion made by a woman. Are the people I’m talking about deliberately thinking, “She’s a woman, so who cares what she says”? Of course not. These are good, decent people who don’t hate women or go out of their way to belittle them. That’s part of the problem, though. They don’t realize when they’re effectively keeping women out of the conversation.

Oh, well, that’s okay then. As long as people don’t really mean to be sexist, then we should give them a pass, right? We certainly wouldn’t want to demean them by pointing out the colossal amount of privilege they have that enables them to do and say extremely sexist things without actually meaning to. That would just be mean, because they don’t hate women; they just treat women like garbage, but in a benevolent way. Gotcha.

Here’s more honesty for you: Many of the women I know who have worked for a while in any of the various national atheist organizations have been propositioned for sex (directly or indirectly) at some point or another. It’s not rape. They say they’re not interested and the men back off. But it’s to the point where I’ve seen women joke about it with each other because so many of them have been in that situation. I’m glad they can find humor in it, but humor comes from shared experiences, and it’s sad that this is one of the things they have in common.

I am simply awed by this insight. It’s just being propositioned for sex. It’s not like women are getting raped or anything! Some women even make jokes about it, so I guess it’s not that bad, even with Hemant’s rhetorical sadface at the end of the paragraph.

Obviously, there are women who run a couple of these groups. There are women who don’t have these experiences. There are plenty of men who don’t do these things and actively fight against it. But if these were isolated cases, we wouldn’t be giving this subject this much attention.

No joke? Honestly, there is not a day that goes by when I am not aware of the misogyny that is endemic in the atheist movement. And the men who supposedly fight against this sort of thing aren’t doing that great a job. I have a feeling that Mr. Mehta here is including himself in that group of white knights, and yet here I am pointing out how full of fail his grasp of the situation is. And I’m not even trying very hard.

If there’s an upside to all the posts that have been made about sexism in the past year, it’s that some people who weren’t aware that this is a serious issue are more aware of it now. And that’ll hopefully lead to more productive conversations in the future. (Right now, comment threads everywhere seem to resemble a giant cesspool.)

Probably more people are aware that some women consider this a problem; there’s not really much sign that it’s being taken very seriously or treated as an issue that really deserves to be addressed. And yes, your comment thread is a giant cesspool.

Here’s the question that’s still lingering in my mind hours after I saw it: Why would anyone think that in the first place? And whose fault is that?

Well, golly gee. I can’t imagine how you might find out the answer to these questions. Clearly, the solution is to make a blog post about it, fail to even attempt to contact the original poster of the thing you are confused about, and then wring your hands in dismay over how uncivil the discussion gets:

It’s annoying to see all the posts about sexism in our movement. Not because it doesn’t exist or because bloggers are wrong to call it as they see it, but because I know how the story will end: With lot of people saying a lot of ignorant things, with huge generalizations being thrown all over the place, with people dismissing anyone who disagrees with them, with people talking past each other and arguing about completely different things, with people tearing down others who don’t deserve it… and with people not interested in the discussion giving the entire movement a giant middle finger and walking away from it for good.

Yep. The really annoying thing is when people point out sexism.

I want to prevent that from happening. That requires us to be able to confront the issues in a civil way. We haven’t figured out how to make that happen yet.

I have a few suggestions:

  • Don’t minimize and trivialize the complaints about sexism (or any other -ism) by pointing out that it could be worse.
  • Don’t say how annoying it is for you to see posts about sexism in the atheist movement. (Seriously. Just keep that to yourself until you realize why it’s a terrible opinion.)
  • Don’t complain about how mean people are when they complain about being treated like crap, ignored, and made to feel unwelcome in your group.
  • Ask the negatively affected people (in this case women) what can be done to change the hostile and unwelcoming atmosphere of your communities.
  • When you are told what you can do to make things better, do it.
  • If you aren’t willing to do the things that will improve the situation, don’t complain that it’s not getting better.

It’s just not that difficult.

Unfortunately, I just don’t see it improving. I’ve read the Friendly Atheist for years, but I have never felt so disappointed with Hemant Mehta as I am right now.

P.S. “This is About Rainbows and Kittens…”? How much more childish and insulting could that be? This is not how to take the issue of sexism seriously.

4 Responses to “In Which I am Disappointed in Hemant Mehta”

  1. nursenan 01/09/2012 at 11:37 AM #

    Dear Bridget…wow Wow WOW. I hope that takes care of articulating how much I appreciate your intellectual voice and candor. How I appreciate your having taken this discussion’s merits on. This is in fact why I can’t help but wish for a dialogue with you, why I suggested that in your New Year’s Resolution post. Not to stray from the topic of discussion…I do realize how tedious that would be, not withstanding your many other commitments. I do hope that a Facebook forum will be your choice…although even as I say it, I realize how much time that could also entail.
    So, the chief reason that I feel isolated in my atheism, if and when I do,…is because of the points of this conversation. Misogyny, Boys Club Mentality, and worst of all to me…that the majority of men, if not all, still possess a sincere feeling of superiority over women. Latent, largely unrecognized Sexism. Consciously and subconsciously believing that THEY are the TRUE teachers of Society. That while they appreciate input from females…they still assume the posture of presiding over whether the female’s knowledge is correct, relevant and then whether they shall endorse it!! Sighhhhhhh! So, in fact, women are and always will be fighting the Equality War. It matters not to us that some men worldwide rise above this posturing and granted, perhaps DNA. That equates to how a Minority feels about 50% of the population being non-racist. Of course, we are profoundly grateful for the 50% of enlightened…but does this number leave us feeling Equal, Validated, etc.? Hardly.
    Do we ‘feel’ better knowing that it is a DNA problem, a Male neurological one? Marginally. Oppression is a profoundly succinct heavy feeling and entity. One that can’t sustain relief of, when the moment one enters a discussion forum… that supposed comfort of 50% numbered of enlightened…narrows to a 1% margin!! And this is you and I and all women participating in discussion forums are speaking to. And encountering. You are speaking to the fact that we are legitimately experiencing Sexism in a forum that is about Atheism…not Sexism!! We are speaking to the incredible frustration that we experience justly, when we enter a dialogue to discuss its topic, yet find we aren’t discussing something…but rather experiencing something else entirely! Men wonder why we permeate an air of arrogance…this is why! Can we truly be left with any other conclusion after we espouse information…only to have it ‘considered’ by them? Not considered as one analyses information given…NO! Considered as to whether it is worthy or correct, having derived from the mouth and mind of a female!!!
    And finally…this is where our warranted arrogance arrives from…which is the least of our desires…to be separated from the dialogue by our gender. This is where Men contract their insecurity and all of the behaviors that follow that….they recognize our equality , if no in fact, our superiority, which is not our goal at all. They mentally glean their mother, a female; creating them, teaching them, shaping them into beings other than their neurologically unsound existences of commonly imbalanced testosterone, adrenaline, and epidemic ADHD…the cocktail for Irrationality, Impulsiveness, insecurity. This neuro-cocktail is what promotes and creates their God-Complex…and their urgent need to dismiss females. For if we are their equals…they do not possess the ability to reason and rationalize that it ‘takes’ nothing from them! So then, they also cannot glean that we are not exhibiting a God-Complex with them. We simply BEING. And that is ALL we want from them, as well. Equally. Just BE. That WAR is derived from Men, speaks to this thoroughly and psychologically. That too many men carry this Battlefield-Mentality into everything they do is what we are speaking of today. That Men create a team, even if involuntarily, whenever there are groups of people. this is what is meant by Boys Club, by me. I don’t say this with malice, but with unfortunate truth. Conversely, if no women are present, men will create their other ‘teams’, brigades, if you will. So instead of misogyny, racism or class or the many other secular entities derived by Man, will prevail instead.
    In conclusion…inappropriate agendas are what we are speaking of. We women come to a dialogue forum to share, teach, inform, discuss, learn, glean. But instead we rarely encounter any of these things and purposes. We encounter the imbalanced psyche of Man instead. And we feel isolated, separated, discredited, disparate, and very sadly futile and despair. Gentlemen, this isn’t what arrogance is….this is desperation and a horrible longing for Man to be OUR equals, not us their’s. Men truly have no idea how lonely we are for our intellectual equals, rather than their seemingly infinite struggle towards Mental Superiority. A struggle that is all in vain. For the very fact that is it a battle they engage with us….deems them defeated in the very beginning. Hope Floats…that’s what women are…Tiring Floaters of Hope. I suppose this proves our commonality in existentialism and what we both have to gain in learning how to override our gender-specific DNA. We are asking men to consider that this our goal, commonality, not superiority…and to make ti their’s as well. To deliberately think and act, outside of your DNA Box. To GROW into more than our deficits. PEACE AND PROGRESS SPEED

  2. nursenan 01/09/2012 at 11:44 AM #

    Thank You Heather. For your effort in this on-going and Universal problem. Thank you for expressing and exposing the truth of this enigma that I encounter in every Atheist Forum. For expressing how alienated and lonely this leaves us. Never mind discriminated against. The very reason and purpose one goes to a particular forum is to share and feel included with Like-Minds! To feel validated and purposeful in the dialogue sharing.

    • nursenan 01/09/2012 at 11:45 AM #

      So sorry, Bridget…I realize you are not Heather. She was on my mind as I said my last words…she also suffering from this abuse.


  1. Atheism and Privilege (Cont.) « Greater Than Lapsed - 01/11/2012

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