Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Atheism, Feminism, and a Blogosphere Apocolyptic Shit Storm

Have you ever posted something on Facebook that was pretty mundane and mildly uninteresting, only to have it blow up with dozens of comments in a matter of minutes?  Well, something like that happened in the atheist blogosphere over the last couple of weeks.  I am not going to link to all of the posts because there are probably about a dozen of them, along with blog comments that are relevant.  I'll try and hit the highlights.

Rebecca Watson, a blogger at Skepchick, often gives talks at various skeptic/atheist conferences on feminism and sexism, especially as it related to the atheist movement.  Rebecca was giving a talk on such issues at a conference in Dublin, then hung out with a bunch of people having beers and socializing when she decided to head back to her hotel room.  It is 4 a.m.  A guy gets into the elevator with her and asks her back to his room for coffee, she politely (and probably quite tiredly) said no.  She posted a video blog in which she mentioned this encounter and that it made her feel very uncomfortable, especially after just having given a talk about sexism that evening.  Her only comment here was to tell us guys, "Hey, don't do stuff like that."  Which I think is very justified.

Next, another female blogger (Stef) posted that she disagreed with this approach for various reasons.  This too is OK. 

Next, Rebecca called out Stef at her keynote address a day or two later.  I don't have all the details, but Rebecca got a ton of criticism for using her "privlege" and "position" as the speaker to call her out.  There are two schools of thought on this.  First, when giving examples of things you disagree with, you should be very specific as to who said what.  This stems from past history where atheist-friendly bloggers and made general accusations about other atheists, but when pressed for details and specific, could offer none.  PZ Myers stated this quite clearly in Rebecca's defense.  Others, such as Hemant Mehta of the Friendly Atheist, and a public school math teacher by day, said that this is probably not the best approach if you want to encourage people to continue to speak up.  Emphasize what was right about the response and lead them to identify what was wrong with the response.  Fair enough.  In this case, both women are adults and have a public forum to express their views, so I'm not sure the classroom approach works well here or not.  This was but one side story on the whole "ElevatorGate" issue.

Next, Richard Dawkins (yes, that Richard Dawkins) made some comments on PZ's blog that basically told Rebecca to cool her jets and since the guy didn't do anything, she was overreacting, besides, he said, there are women in Muslim countries that have it far worse than Rebecca.  These comments have caused a major shit storm.  PZ verified that it was indeed the real Richard Dawkins.  Here is a case where being a subject matter expert (SME) in on area of atheism/skepticism does not make you an expert in all things related to atheism.  Dawkins, quite simply, doesn't get how a women could feel uncomfortable in that situation, especially since nothing happened.  His attempts to clarify have only gotten him in more hot water.  Dawkins is a SME on evolution and can debate just about anyone on matters of religion.  He is also a champion for equality and women's rights as they pertain to religious persecution.  But, he is not an expert on feminism and sexism and he just doesn't get it.  I hope he does.

There have been other posts by other prominent bloggers weighing in as well.  There certainly appears to have some hurt feelings and a few friendships strained. 

Next week, I will be attending The Amazing Meeting 9 in Las Vegas.  All of the major players in this brouhaha will be there.  I strongly suspect that one of them will get them all together to hash this whole thing out.  After all, that is what reasonable people do and atheists/skeptics sort of pride themselves on being reasonable.

So, two take aways from this.  Guys, think about the position you put women in under these circumstances.   You may know you are no threat, but she doesn't.  Be aware of the context.  Hey, if you've been flirting with her all night and you head off to the elevator together, then the question is not out of line or out of place, just be prepared to hear no.  Also, ask before you are in the elevator so she has an "out" if she isn't comfortable.  Another example is when walking along a street at night and you see a women approaching and she is alone, cross the street.  Take away any sense of distress she may have.  She will likely thank you for it even if you never hear it.

Second, know that not every one of the prominent atheists out there are experts in everything.  PZ is an expert in evolutionary biology, but knows not to speak a whole lot about astrophysics and the Big Bang.  Rebecca is a SME on sexism and feminism, but probably can't speak to much about evolution.  Same with people like Dawkins, or Hitchens, etc.  Some of them know they aren't experts and do well to avoid questions our of their area of expertise.  Others think they know more than they do and insert their foot in their mouths.

Finally, I will offer a couple of links to some good "summary" blogs.  Even if you do not consider  yourself an atheist or skeptic, there are lessons to be learned from these posts.

1 comment:

  1. What struck me is how willing people were to call out Dawkins for being a bit tone deaf on this issue. In many areas, attacking the "celebs" is verboten. Not the case here. And that's awesome. I fully expect an Elevator Guy meme to develop over TAM. Should be interesting to see how far people are willing to take it. The meme, not the elevator.