Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The elephant in the room

I feel like there is a topic looming over this blog that I have to address, but I'm not sure how to approach it. I'm not at all ambivalent about the issue itself, but I'm conflicted about how to talk about it. I feel like the stakes are very high, but I don't understand why that is. I have either witnessed or participated in enough of these conversations to know that they can turn very nasty very quickly. I'm also acutely aware that discussing this topic will probably alienate me from a significant portion of the audience I'm trying to reach. On the other hand, the two main goals of this blog are to address issues of consequence from an atheist perspective and to address controversies within atheism, and this topic sits at the intersection of those goals. 

The topic is feminism.

I'm surprised by both the extent and the intensity of the hostility atheists have toward feminism. Surprised and disappointed. I'm also surprised and disappointed when prominent atheists who rarely discuss political issues not directly related to atheism still go out of their way to attack feminism. I'm surprised and disappointed that this is the issue around which factions are being formed. But if I must take a side, then I must side with feminism.

If you'll allow me a brief digression, I was aware that Richard Dawkins was controversial and divisive before I knew why that was so. Around the time that "The God Delusion" was published, I started to notice that he was frequently being denounced in rather harsh terms, and I started to wonder why. Whenever I saw one of these controversies flare up online, I would always look into it, and every time I would come away with the impression that Dawkins's critics were being totally unreasonable. After this happened a few times, I gradually became of fan of Richard Dawkins, and I owe it all to his critics.

I mention this because a very similar process brought me around to feminism. It all started with "Elevatorgate". At some point I became aware that there was a raging online controversy involving this person I had never heard of before. Her name was Rebecca Watson, and wanting to see what all the fuss was about, I watched her infamous video in which she relates a personal experience about an encounter with a man in a hotel elevator. I'm not going to go through the whole story. Suffice it to say I quickly concluded that Watson's point was quite reasonable, and I was stunned and horrified by the reaction she got for it. It just seemed grossly out of proportion, and so very hateful. When I saw that other women were dealing with similarly hateful attacks in response to similarly reasonable points, I decided that it was no longer enough for me to be passively supportive of feminism in principle. That's when I became a feminist.

To tell you the truth, I really don't understand the other side of this at all. When they talk about feminism, I don't recognize what they're talking about. They describe this authoritarian monster that ruthlessly enforces a strict conformity to dogma, but I don't see any of that. Besides, how would that even work? Shouldn't there be a trail of victims: a long list of careers ended by angry feminists? I can think of many careers which have survived angry feminists, but I can't think of any that were ended.

One thing that puzzles me is that it's not enough for anti-feminists to just disagree with feminists about something. Anti-feminists seem to believe that merely expressing feminist opinions is inherently harmful in some unspecified way. In discussing the "shirtstorm" controversy, Richard Dawkins concluded not only that the shirt was perfectly appropriate, but also that it was an outrage for anyone to think otherwise. I am aware that some opinions are so vile that they are an outrage unto themselves, but I can't see how questioning the appropriateness of a shirt could ever meet that standard.

There's something weird going on here, and I'm fascinated by it, so I'm going to talk about it on this blog. You can expect me to weigh in on these kinds of controversies in future as they arise. In addition to that, I'm also interested in applying some good old-fashioned skeptical rigor to the claims of the anti-feminists, because I don't think they hold water. As for the broader picture, I believe that some women have been driven away from atheism in part due to its hostility to feminism. I think that weakens us as a movement and hurts us as a community. That sucks, and I want to help reverse it if I can.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Drew,

    I'm a big fan from GB, and I just wanted to say that as a feminist who thinks the atheist movement is important (though I don't identify as an atheist), I'm really glad that you are writing about this. Particularly as a white man, whose voice will be listened to in a way no woman's will.

    I've been following you on Facebook for a while, and I'm now RSSing this blog. I look forward to seeing what you have to say.