Monday, September 17, 2012

Rift brewing in New Atheist movement over Dublin elevator incident.

I originally wrote this on 7th August 2011. Re-posting here because, rather amazingly the debate and fallout continues.

 The recent Dublin based atheist convention was intended as a launching pad for the new Atheist Alliance International, the world wide umbrella group for atheist advocacy groups.

It's fair to say there is a certain overlap between the New Atheist movement and feminist ideology. Most atheists tend to lean towards the left and most activists are male. This led to several debates within the movement over the recruitment of  more female members. These debates in turn revealed certain tensions which erupted during the Atheist convention in Dublin.

It began with Rebecca Watson, a speaker at the Dublin conference on 'Women Atheist Activists', being propositioned for sex in an elevator at 4am. She described this experience in a video blog as a "good example of what men in our community should strive to avoid". The video reignited the feminist debate and several responses were posted. On her blog Watson notes :

I was pretty frustrated, seeing a young woman who I’m sure is intelligent be so incredibly dismissive of my experience and that of other women in this community, and so uneducated about the fundamentals of feminist thought. She ends the video by asking, “What effect do you think it has on men to be constantly told how sexist and destructive they are?
When I was discussing the video with friends the next day, I was blown away to be told that there were other student leaders who had expressed similar dismissive attitudes recently on Facebook and on other blogs. An hour or so prior to my talk, someone sent me this link to a post by Stef McGraw on the UNI Freethinkers site. I added a paragraph of that response to a slide for the intro to my talk, in which I hoped to call out the anti-woman rhetoric my audience was engaging in.

The incident began to grow and widen into a debate over reasonable and unreasonble feminism with Watson claiming anti-feminist thinking was rife within the new atheist movement. Then, with characteristic subtley, Richard Dawkins became involved :-

You may recall that I related an incident in which I was propositioned, and I said, “Guys, don’t do that.” Really, that’s what I said. I didn’t call for an end to sex. I didn’t accuse the man in my story of rape. I didn’t say all men are monsters. I said, “Guys, don’t do that.” Cue Richard Dawkins‘ response:

Dear Muslima

Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and . . . yawn . . . don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.

Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself Skep”chick”, and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He invited her back to his room for coffee. Of course she said no, and of course he didn’t lay a finger on her, but even so . . .

And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.


This is especially interesting since Richard Dawkins sat next to me in Dublin and heard me talk about the threats of rape I get.
PS: Some are wondering if it was really Dawkins, and yes, that was definitely confirmed by PZ Myers. Also, some of you are wondering if I’m criticizing all rich, white, old, etc men when I call out those attributes. No! I am merely illustrating the unbelievable height of Dawkins’ privilege.

There is now a breech between heavyweights like Dawkins and Myers. Dawkins response outraged feminists within the movement. And the rift grew deeper :-

That’s where you come in. You, dear reader, have been incredible. You posted in response to Dawkins on the Pharyngula thread, bravely battling both him and the hoards of clueless privileged people who didn’t get it. You emailed me to tell me to keep talking. You introduced yourself at SkepchickCon and told me how much you loved Skepchick and SGU. You wrote blog posts and made videos and were kick ass, and you made me realize that Dawkins is not the present. He is the past.

So many of you voiced what I had already been thinking: that this person who I always admired for his intelligence and compassion does not care about my experiences as an atheist woman and therefore will no longer be rewarded with my money, my praise, or my attention. I will no longer recommend his books to others, buy them as presents, or buy them for my own library. I will not attend his lectures or recommend that others do the same. There are so many great scientists and thinkers out there that I don’t think my reading list will suffer.

Despite the fact that I’ve seen hundreds of comments from those of you who plan to do the same, I’m sure Dawkins will continue to be stinking rich until the end of his days. But those of us who are humanists and feminists will find new, better voices to promote and inspire, and Dawkins will be left alone to fight the terrible injustice of standing in elevators with gum-chewers.

The debate still rages on. One side believes atheism should promote feminism. The other, well, disagrees. PZ Myers responsed with link to Schrodiners Rapist :

When you approach me in public, you are Schrödinger’s Rapist. You may or may not be a man who would commit rape. I won’t know for sure unless you start sexually assaulting me. I can’t see inside your head, and I don’t know your intentions. If you expect me to trust you—to accept you at face value as a nice sort of guy—you are not only failing to respect my reasonable caution, you are being cavalier about my personal safety.

This form of extreme feminism views all men as potential rapists, and encourages this view in all women and expects men to act accordingly; others, such as myself, believe this is an unfair and unwise view.

The debate still rumbles on. It's worth emphasing the Dublin conference was intended as the launch pad for a world wide umbrella group uniting the various individual atheist advocacy groups. Instead it revealed the growing pains of a movement which started as a few academics promoting scientific understanding against the rising tide of creationism and religious violence, but which grew into a worldwide organization.

Update :- The debate continues.

Miranda Celeste finds herself forced to wade into combat :-

loathe internet drama. I think it’s immature, nasty, pointless, and a distraction. It’s for that reason, among others, that I am reluctant to jump into the fray. But I can’t remain silent about this. I have to say something.

4) If a woman agrees with the major tenets of what is generally considered “mainstream” feminism but doesn’t feel comfortable calling herself a feminist (because of the baggage associated with the word), this does not mean that she’s anti-woman, or ignorant, or is unaware of her own oppression, or just doesn’t “get it”, or has never experienced sexism or the threat of sexual violence, or hasn’t read enough feminist theory, or has been brainwashed by the “patriarchy”. I speak from experience here, as I’ve been accused of each of these things on multiple occasions.

Time to get personal: if you’re offended by my opinions, that’s fine. But don’t dismiss me. Don’t condescend to me. Don’t tell me that I’ve never experienced sexism or been in extremely threatening situations. Don’t insult my intelligence or belittle my education by telling me that I haven’t read enough on the topic (I have, and I happen to disagree with a lot of it). Don’t tell me that I’m an idiot who has been brainwashed by some supposed “patriarchy”. I am horrified by the violence and oppression experienced by women throughout the world. I’ve faced plenty of sexism and have been in threatening situations. I’ve read the books. I’ve thought about the issues. I’m smart and educated and a critical thinker. I just happen to disagree with you. And I (and anyone who feels similarly) shouldn’t be shouted down or vilified for expressing that disagreement.
6) Let me reiterate this one more time: feminists can be bullies. Calling yourself a “feminist” does not magically confer upon you the right to abuse your power or to bully your critics into silence, whether online or in “real life”.
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