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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.