Atheism and Privilege (Cont.)

11 Jan

I keep feeling like I’m really struggling here, trying to explain a fairly complex concept in a concise way. I don’t think that I’m completely off-base, since there are other people who understood immediately what I was trying to convey, but I’m also (obviously) not being as clear as I would like.

After much discussion with my partner on the topic of atheism and privilege dynamics, I’ve realized that maybe I’ve been going about explaining it all wrong, so I’ll try to explain again in the way that helped him to understand what the heck I was talking about.

What I think it really comes down to is that in atheist groups, unlike in any other social justice group, white men aren’t the oppressor. It’s not that anyone is joining a group in order to be oppressed or to feel oppressed. I think that on the whole, atheist/skeptical spaces have been, are, and will likely continue to be dominated by white men because they are spaces in which those men aren’t at risk of being seen as part of the problems trying to be addressed.

In feminist groups, for example, men in general (white men in particular) are generally only conditionally welcome–contingent upon their ability to check their privilege at the door and to understand that they themselves are likely part of (or at least beneficiaries of) the societal ills that feminism attempts to address. And this tends to go for pretty much any social justice group; white men, as the most privileged members of society are welcome conditionally only if they are willing to do their best to no longer be part of the problem. This is an incredibly humbling position to be in.

As a person of no small privilege myself, I can certainly sympathize. No one likes to be the bad guy. I don’t think many people like to be not just aware of, but constantly mindful of and alert for, the ways in which their own privilege clouds their thinking, twists their perceptions, and interferes with their ability to interact in healthy and helpful ways with marginalized people. It’s uncomfortable. It’s hard. It’s easy to fuck up, and in many social justice groups you will be called out when you fuck up. It requires a level of humility that I know I find hard to muster at all times, and which many people just seem incapable of achieving at all. The men who dominate the atheist movement have managed to create spaces where they can avoid the unpleasantness of ever being the bad guy.

I think it’s less that men find atheist activism/community appealing because they want to feel oppressed and more that it’s appealing because it offers them a way to not be reminded that they are themselves often oppressive.

By, for the most part, avoiding addressing things like sexism, racism and the like, atheist and skeptical groups seem determined to pretend that everyone in their group is on an equal footing, united under the shared experience of being atheists but without any recognition or appreciation whatsoever of differences in experience, even within the movement. I continue to see that any attempts by women or minorities to point out problems within atheist and skeptical groups aren’t even ignored, but instead bring out all the worst of the men in these spaces. Even otherwise “nice” men tend to trivialize and gloss over any complaints or criticisms by women.

The problem that I have with atheist groups and spaces is not about any particular instance of sexist behavior, but rather about what I consider to be a structural fault in the hierarchy of the atheist movement that leads to a pattern of nastiness towards women especially, but also toward various minority groups. As long as men (especially white men) are the driving force behind atheist thought, politics, philosophy, and activism, atheist spaces will continue to be safe spaces for men and uncomfortable and unpleasant spaces for many others.

Unfortunately, years of leadership by men has created an atheist movement that doesn’t require them to examine their privilege and in which they are able to say and do mostly as they please when it comes to the treatment of women–creating an environment where not only do men get to avoid recognizing their roles as oppressors, but where they can be actively oppressive without being called out on it very often.

This is starting to change, and the habit of calling out sexism and other -isms seems to be catching on in certain segments of the atheist blogosphere. It seems like at least some atheist conferences and such are making at least a nominal effort to include women and minorities and to discuss issues that are unique to those groups. At the same time, however, my observation is that there has been quite a bit of backlash to this. More women participating seems to have served largely to make more visible the problems within atheist groups, as women continue to be taken less seriously than men while also continuing to be treated as if they exist primarily to be objects of male lust. Some male atheists are just incorrigibly sexist, while others are more actively unpleasant toward women. Others content themselves with acting as apologists for the poor behavior of others.

Regardless, it’s clearly (to me, anyway) more than just a few bad eggs that are ruining things for everyone. The comments on blog posts pointing out sexism regularly turn ugly, and several notable atheist ladies have reported receiving some pretty vile hate mail. Just since Hemant Mehta posted about my Tumblr comment, I’ve gotten a couple of particularly nasty anon messages and one commenter on my original post who popped in to tell me I’m a dumb bitch (plus the guy who had to try and explain to me how much men are oppressed, too), and I’m, frankly, an internet nobody.

As far as whether or not all these sexist douchebags are true misogynists (as Hemant Mehta seems to think they are not)? Well, I’m honestly not sure what difference it makes. Even if it really, truly is the case that sexist atheist men aren’t really and truly haters of women, they certainly hold hateful opinions of women, do and say hateful things towards women, and defend other men who do and say hateful things towards women. And there seems to be a woeful lack of any real desire on the part of most men to improve matters much.

7 Responses to “Atheism and Privilege (Cont.)”

  1. oambitiousone 01/12/2012 at 7:22 AM #

    A rephrasing of your original remark:

    “Even if it really, truly is the case that sexist atheist *women aren’t really and truly haters of *men, they certainly hold hateful opinions of *men, do and say hateful things towards *men, and defend other *women who do and say hateful things towards *men. And there seems to be a woeful lack of any real desire on the part of most *women to improve matters much.”

    If we switch the gender references in this above paragraph (as I have), perhaps we arrive at the crux of the conflict. To tear down men en mass for how “they are,” we become as sexist as the particular men who condemn, harass, or dismiss many women.

    If a person, who happens to be a man, behaves in a way that many women find offensive or buffoon-like, does it make the women sexist to dismiss/criticize him?

    And what if the man pointedly dismisses a woman? Weak arguments will spring from assumptions that because the speaker is a woman (or of color, or of a cultural background), then that argument is flawed. Let him speak it and reveal his bias! I’d rather know a prejudiced person up front and know his lapses than to assume that because we share one cause (atheism), we share are intellectual equals.

    A few nasty comments from people (men) does not condemn a movement full of that gender. We cannot take our anecdotes and apply them broad-spectrum. That’s bad science–the very thing many in the atheist/skeptic communities are working to abolish! What are the stats regarding an audience’s reception of a woman speaking versus a man speaking? What of surveying a large number of atheists–not merely the ones who are writing comments–on their views toward the opposite gender, people of color, etc.?

    I leave off here fondly and with appreciation for your continuing to probe this issue.

    • bridgetmckinney 01/14/2012 at 12:07 PM #

      It’s not sexist to point out sexism.

      Dismissing a man’s opinions because he is a sexist is not dismissing his opinions because he is a man.

  2. oambitiousone 01/12/2012 at 7:30 AM #

    Edit:
    I’d rather know a prejudiced person up front and know his lapses than to assume that because we share one cause (atheism), we are intellectual equals.

  3. Eivind 01/12/2012 at 8:11 AM #

    If you had written about females being opressed, and someone had responded with “sometimes happens to males too”, I’d have agreed with you, and this does infact happen regularily. But it’s not what happened here.

    What happened here is that you said “X does not happen to white men” and then you got a response saying: “Yes it does, here are some examples”.

    I think you’ve done a really good job of claryfying what you really meant though. I agree with your argument as it’s presented in this post.

    I guess it depends on what part of the atheism-spectre you’re involved with though, because in the areas I’m most active, the misogyny of many major religions is one of the primary complaints against them. A major part of the problem I have with organized religions, is the fact that so many of them have a view of women that is, in my opinion, medieval. And a major reason I care about atheism at all, is the fact that so many of my female friends have suffered so terribly under misogynistic ideas of religion. (okay, so many of them are a mixup of culture and religion, but the latter atleast plays a significant part)

    Thus to me, atheism and feminism are logical allies. I think religion is bad for anyone, but *particularily* bad for women.

    • bridgetmckinney 01/14/2012 at 12:54 PM #

      The examples that you brought up of “oppression” of men were:
      1. Disparities in parental leave after the birth or adoption of a child.
      2. Parking spaces for expectant mothers and parents with small children that are “just for women.”

      The first one I agreed was unfortunate, but not that it is oppression. Disparities in allowed parental leave are a result of the assumption that mothers are the primary caregivers for children and the general belief that men’s jobs are more important than women’s jobs. So, it may be a discriminatory situation, but it’s not “against men” per se, and it’s only part of a broader system that overall PRIVILEGES men.

      The second point is just nonsensical. I don’t believe that there are parking spaces that are for women only. Anywhere. The only spots like that that I have seen have been labeled for “expectant mothers and parents with small children.” While pregnant people are almost exclusively women, parents are about half men. Additionally, at least in the US, these type of spaces are strictly an honor system, and there are no consequences for parking in one if you aren’t pregnant or a parent with small children.

      I’m surprised you didn’t bring up ladies’ nights at bars, too. Nevermind that the point of ladies’ nights is to draw in more women and get them drunk so that it’s easier for men to rape them. Whoops!

      I agree that atheist and feminism are logical allies. Ditto for atheism and anti-racism, disability rights, marriage equality, or any other social justice movement. Indeed, social justice focused spaces are crawling with atheists.

      It’s only when the main focus of a group is specifically atheist activism that the space ends up being terrible for women and minorities.

      • Eivind 01/16/2012 at 4:19 AM #

        Yes. And it was semi-random examples. Meant to support my claim that infact, white males can and do experience discrimination based on their gender.

        That you don’t believe that “mother & child” parking-spaces exist is, I think, symptomatic. You can try googling, and you’ll find that they do infact exist. (how common it is in english-speaking countries, I have no idea, in Germany 6 years ago when I lived there, it was quite common) This particular example is nothing more than an annoyance, but nevertheless it’s real.

        Being in a 100 big and small ways consistently told you’re at best an assistant, a number 2, a deviation-from-the-norm, in-the-wrong-place, not acceptable, wrong. When doing something as important as taking care of your own child, is *not* a detail.

        I totally agree that the general idea that women are “primary caretakers” and men are “breadwinners” is not against men per se. But the idea has the practical result that men who act as primary caretakers are discriminated against — and that women who act as breadwinners are discriminated against. Overall the idea hurts women more than it hurts men, but it does end up hurting both genders.

        You and me agree that women suffer the large majority of gender-based discrimination. We agree that sexism directed towards women is a much larger problem than sexism directed at men. We also agree (I think!) that the root cause of much of this discrimination is old-fashioned patriarchal ideas about the “proper” roles of men and women.

        It’s true that some atheist-spaces are unfriendly to women, and that is a pity, and needs fixing. This is another thing we agree on.

  4. pinkagendist 08/19/2012 at 11:03 AM #

    Interesting idea, although I think it’s a bit of a logical stretch. Isn’t the group white men flock to to hide (ignore or simply dismiss) privilege, right wing political groups? Isn’t that a better option than joining an atheist group?
    You’re painting with a rather broad brush.

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