Monday, July 16, 2012

A house divided

“A house divided against itself cannot stand” - Abraham Lincoln June 16, 1858 (based on Mark 3:25)
I am sure that I am not the only one who has observed the rifts in the atheist and skeptic community and thought of the above quotation (not only am I sure; I know this for certain, as people have used the quote). I think of it, and think it applies, but I also think of the Danish expression “Lad falde hvad ikke kan stå” (“let fall what can’t stand”), which is originally from a socialist song, Socialisternes March (march of the Socialists), written in 1871 by Ulrich Peter Overby. This expression also applies to the current situation in my opinion.

For those unaware of what the rifts are about, they relate to the sexist atmosphere which exists in the community, especially during conferences. The problems of sexism has been raised by several through the years, but the current crisis is generally considered to have been started by the vile and misogynist reactions to Rebecca Watson making a rather minor point about this in a video about a conference.

Of course, some people will refer to other starting points, but it is really not relevant, since the end result is the same: the atheist and skeptic community is currently divided to a degree which probably hasn’t been seen before. The division is between those who are fighting the sexism and those who are actively fighting the people fighting the sexism (fighting should not be taken literately in either case). There are of course many people involved in neither camp.

The people fighting sexism are working on things such as getting the wider community to acknowledge that there is a problem, getting people to speak out against sexism and misogynist behavior, and getting conferences to create and enforce harassment policies. It should be noted that the people involved in this are not claiming that sexism is worse among atheists and skeptics than among any other group, rather they are saying that it is a problem which should be addressed.

Among the people fighting against sexism are PZ Myers, the pharyngulites (commenters at the Pharyngula blog), Rebecca Watson and the other Skepchicks, most FreeThoughtBlogs bloggers, Amanda Marcotte, and many more. It also seems like most conference organizers including CFI and American Atheists have come down on this side.

Opposing those are prominent people like Abbie Smith/ERV, Paula Kirby, Russell Blackford, a bunch of commentators generally referred to as the slime pitters, thunderf00t, and to a lesser degree Richard Dawkins and DJ Grothe. Given Grothe’s position at JREF and TAM, it should not surprise anyone that TAM is the only prominent conference to not acknowledge the need for a harassment policy which is enforced. This is rather strange, as TAM actually had a harassment policy in place in 2011, but unfortunately enforced it rather badly (part of enforcing is making reports of incidents, which was what TAM failed at – they handled the actual incidents rather well, according to all reports I’ve seen).

It would seem obvious that this is not an ideal situation, and if it continues, it will tear the community apart.

Well, if that’s what’s going to happen, so be it.

I’d rather have two communities than be part of a community which finds sexism and outright misogynistic behavior acceptable.

The two communities can work together on some issues (like fighting anti-vaxxers and creationism) and be on opposite sides when it comes to facing issues related to sexism. Many people in the broader skeptic and atheist movement won’t notice the difference, but those of us who actually care about these issues can choose which side we want to belong to.

There will, of course, be problems involved in this – the rifts are so deep that some of us won’t have anything to do with others. But this is not really an issue for members of the broader movement, who probably won’t notice or care. At most, they will find that some people are no longer invited as speakers at certain conferences, and that certain bloggers either no longer link to each other or write nasty stuff about each other.

So, to sum it up, there are deep rifts in the movement, and I think it is fine. Not only that, I feel more comfortable being in a smaller community within the movement, which doesn’t include people whose opinions and behavior I find repugnant. I can still appreciate the good work done by those people (like I did with e.g. Hitchens) without wanting to be part of the same community.

A note about comments: Currently all comments are moderated. This is due to heavy problems with spam. I will try to publish comments as soon as I become aware of them. Do note that there is zero tolerance for racist, homophobic, misogynist and bigoted comments.

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18 Comments:

Blogger Peter Ferguson said...

I find it disturbing that any woman who propagates the virtues of being a woman is labeled a feminist but any man who does the same is a misogynist. There simply is no label for a female chauvinist and no label for male 'feminist' if you will. Sexism works both ways but many communities are only concerned with one form of sexism, sexism against females. Part of this problem is because anybody who tries to raise this issue is quickly labeled a misogynist or sexist and that is what you have done here. In any field of debate the best method of progress is open discussion but this is almost impossible in this instance due to the all too quick labeling of people which leads to hostility and the break down of discourse. I, of course, believe that sexual harassment protocols should be in place at all conferences and any other events and every complaint taken seriously but that does not mean we should blow every incident way out of proportion such the elevator incident was. Let me ask you this, if the gender roles in the elevator incident were reversed do you believe it would have been treated in the same manner?

The people who you have listed as 'fighting' for and against sexism is rather crude. Just because they don't see the issue of sexism in the same manner as you does not mean they are against it, it just means they disagree with how to proceed and how things are being handled at the moment.

July 16, 2012 9:30 PM  
Blogger Kristjan Wager said...

"Part of this problem is because anybody who tries to raise this issue is quickly labeled a misogynist or sexist and that is what you have done here."

Where have I done that? I have talked about people fighting against sexism and people fighting against people fighting against sexism. I haven't called any of them sexist or misogynist.

I certainly think that there are sexist and misogynistic peopl opposing the people fighting sexism, but I certainly don't think that all people doing so are sexist and misogynistic. They just find such behavior acceptable. Why they do, I cannot understand.

"Just because they don't see the issue of sexism in the same manner as you does not mean they are against it, it just means they disagree with how to proceed and how things are being handled at the moment."

Of course it is crude. Drawing a line is always crude.

There is, however, no doubt that one group is calling for the movement as a whole to face the problem of sexism, and debate how to deal with it, while the other group, on the whole, are busy taking potshots on the first group.

That is not a question of disagreeing on how to proceed - that is one group trying to do something about a problem while the other tries to stop them from doing that.

This doesn't mean that certain people in the group fighting the first group isn't doing something against sexism. Some of them are (most notable DJ Grothe who works on getting more female speakers), but on the whole, they are not.

July 16, 2012 9:46 PM  
Blogger Xenophora said...

A unified front is a facade. Disfunctional families present as a rigid homogenous unit. Religions do. The rights and interests and the very safety of some members of these groups are sacrificed for the so-called good of the whole. Of course, it is the ones at the top who make the call about what is good, what is important.

Why do that again? Why have a movement that functions just like the religions that have hampered and oppressed us? These controversies are not scandals, they are indicators that abuse won't be tolerated and certainly won't be swept under the rug for the sake of keeping up appearances.

July 16, 2012 9:51 PM  
Blogger Peter Ferguson said...

'the current crisis is generally considered to have been started by the vile and misogynist reactions to Rebecca Watson making a rather minor point about this in a video about a conference.'

That is were you said it. Also you didn't answer my question, would the issue been treated the same if the genders were reversed.

Also taking time to find more female speakers is sexist in its own right. Speakers should be based on quality of the speaker and relevance to the conference and other attributes, not based on sex. Once again reverse the roles, imagine they were trying to find more males purely because they were males.

July 16, 2012 9:57 PM  
Blogger Kristjan Wager said...

"That is were you said it."

Your lack of reading comprehension doesn't change the meaning of my writing. Nowhere in my post did I claim that the sexist and misoynist attacks on Rebecca Watson was done by the group of people I mentioned.

"Also you didn't answer my question, would the issue been treated the same if the genders were reversed."

This is an entirely hypothetical situation, but had there been a problem of widespread misandry in the skeptic and atheist movement, then yes.

"Also taking time to find more female speakers is sexist in its own right."

Nonsense. Only an idiot would make such a claim.

"Speakers should be based on quality of the speaker and relevance to the conference and other attributes, not based on sex."

There are numerous more qualified speakers than speaking slots. In the end, one criteria must be choosen for picking between them. Getting a speaker list as diverse as possible would be a good one.

"Once again reverse the roles, imagine they were trying to find more males purely because they were males."

Contrary to what you obviously believe, none of us would have a problem with that, given that there was a gender-inequality which picking more male speakers would correct!. This is, again, an entirely hypothetical situation.

July 16, 2012 10:12 PM  
Blogger Peter Ferguson said...

If that paragraph isn’t referring to those you later list then that isn’t an issue with my reading comprehension but with your ability to write. You begin by saying there is a rift in the atheist/skeptic community and clearly state that ‘the current crisis is generally considered to have been started by the vile and misogynist reactions to Rebecca Watson’. You continue and in the next paragraph you say ‘the division is between those who are fighting the sexism and those who are actively fighting the people fighting the sexism’, you then list those fighting for sexism and then those opposing them; ‘opposing those are prominent people like Abbie Smith/ERV, Paula Kirby, Russell Blackford, a bunch of commentators generally referred to as the slime pitters, thunderf00t, and to a lesser degree Richard Dawkins and DJ Grothe.’ So there is clear link and continuity between those whom you label vile and misogynist and the list of people. So if these people are not those whom you are referring you need to re-word your article or clearly reference those whom you are talking about.
‘This is an entirely hypothetical situation, but had there been a problem of widespread misandry in the skeptic and atheist movement, then yes.’ Why does it have to be widespread for it to be an issue? An isolated issue of misandry should be treated just as seriously as one in a hundred.

July 16, 2012 10:52 PM  
Blogger Sili said...

"
I find it disturbing that any woman who propagates the virtues of being a woman is labeled a feminist but any man who does the same is a misogynist.
"

Well, a woman is free to do so for herself - that's feminism, yes. Women are *free* to make their own choices.

If you're talking about the likes of Phyllis Schlafly who make demands on *other* women, then she is as misogynist as any man doing the same, say Mitt Romney, and I believe most feminists would call her out on that.

This isn't about sexes or genders, but about values. As Wager pointed out there are plenty of women on - what I consider - the wrong side of this argument.

July 16, 2012 11:34 PM  
Blogger elronxenu said...

I didn't take long for an MRA to show up. First comment, full of "what about teh menz??"

Peter, there is nothing wrong with promoting the virtues of being a man. The harm comes when it's done to the detriment of women.

Sexism works both ways

Except it doesn't - 99% of the sexism that occurs in society is against women. They're systematically discriminated against in employment, remuneration, often education; female role models emphasize looks and passivity over intelligence and agency; major religions openly discriminate against women; meanwhile they have to fight to retain or obtain basic health care including gynaecology, contraception and abortion services.

And here you are, bleating that nobody pays attention to the men's issues.

that does not mean we should blow every incident way out of proportion such the elevator incident was.

And whose fault was that? I'll clue you in - it wasn't Rebecca. She said only 4 words: "Guys, don't do that." The incident was blown way out of proportion by the people who insisted that (a) there's nothing wrong with accosting somebody in an elevator at 4am, (b) he might have been autistic, (c) it might really have been for coffee, not a proposition, (d) any woman who feels uncomfortable about it should man up and deal with it, and furthermore (e) Rebecca should just shut up. These people - the people fighting the people fighting against sexism - are the problem here. Rebecca's refusal to shut up infuriated them, and they vomited hate against her all over the Internet.

These people are against sexism only if you can count "doing nothing" as fighting sexism.

July 17, 2012 1:16 AM  
Blogger Peter Ferguson said...

I am not bleating about men's issues, did I mention any? And sexism does cut both ways, yes of course the vast majority of sexism is directed at woman. But that doesn't negate the minority who experience it, and it is more prevalent than you think, it just isn't reported on at all, hence the point of my post, that if the genders were reversed would so much have been made of it? Now this isn't a effort to say us poor men, just highlighting that for the sexes to achieve true equality then we have to treat them exactly as that, equal.

People who value equality would espouse equality for all, not just equality for their specific race/sex/religion etc.

July 17, 2012 8:54 AM  
Blogger Coffee Loving Skeptic said...

My thoughts on this today.
The polarisation of skeptics. I'm trying/hoping for some conciliation
http://coffeelovingskeptic.com/?p=1653

July 18, 2012 12:32 AM  
OpenID Proxer said...

Peter,

I think that the central objection to your comments is that they seem out of place in this blog post:

Kristjan's central points seem fairly straightforward:

1) There is a growing divide within the atheist-skeptic community over feminist issues
2) This is OK to Kristjan for two reasons:

a) The larger A-S community will continue achieving its collective goals
b) He is happy to occupy the pro-feminist subset of the atheist community, and not associate with people 'fighting the people fighting the sexism'

Your comments don't really address these points. Your main concern seems to be that you feel that issues affecting men are disproportionally represented in the public forum.

This concern, while possibly valid, is only tangentially related to the issue at hand.

As such, your posts fall under the common term of 'threadjacking': There exists a discussion about topic X, and by dint of persistence and verbosity, someone effectively shifts the bulk of the discussion to topic Y.

Threadjacking is generally considered rude, independent of the issues being discussed. As such, I think that Kristjan would be well within his rights to not approve any further posts by you that continue in this vein, and allow you to engage the public forum on your own blog.

I could be wrong though.

July 18, 2012 5:07 AM  
Blogger Peter Ferguson said...

I wrote in objection to Kristjan's labeling of those who disagreed with Rebbecca Watson as 'vile' and 'misogynst'. This was my main point in writing as I feel anybody who doesn't automatically agree with a feminist viewpoint is immediately labeled as such. I admit, however, of going off point on this a little. But if we are to honestly progress the sexist issue then honest discourse should be allowed on both sides without labels being so easily flung about.

July 18, 2012 8:33 AM  
Blogger Kristjan Wager said...

Coffee Loving Skeptic, your wish for conciliation rings a bit hollow considering your behavior in the past, and the simple fact that you keep using gendered slurs, in spite of knowing that many of us find that unacceptable.

Or to put it differently, in order for me to accept that you trully wish for conciliation, you'd have to show that you're willing to make the first move, which would involve, among other things:

1) apologising for stuff you've said in the past.
2) decrying the vile behavior of some of the people on your side.
3) trying to listen to the concerns of the other side in regards to things like gendered slurs and the need for harassment policies.

July 18, 2012 10:21 AM  
Blogger Kristjan Wager said...

Peter, I have not labeled everyone who disagrees with Rebecca Watson vile and misogynist, and I don't think they all are - some of them, e.g. the slimepitters, definitely are, while others are just too blind to the prevalent sexism and their own privileges.

Having said that, I will also point out that Proxer is quite correct, and you're derailing. Proxer summed up the points of my posts pretty well, and you should address those, rather than whatever insults you think I've made against other people.

July 18, 2012 10:26 AM  
Blogger Peter Ferguson said...

I never said you 'labeled everyone', I said 'those who disagree' referring to those in the above article, I thought this was clear, maybe not.

Also nice change of tune, did you not say 'Your lack of reading comprehension doesn't change the meaning of my writing. Nowhere in my post did I claim that the sexist and misoynist attacks on Rebecca Watson was done by the group of people I mentioned'

How am I derailing when I am discussing one of the main points of your article i.e. the rift in community.

The rift is being made worse by silly labeling, by people who far to easily throw around insults such as misogynist and feminazi etc. I posted here because I felt you have done just that by labeling those misogynists, which not all are. I repeat, if we truly want to progress the issue of sexism we must have open and amiable discourse. By silly labeling and name-calling we only achieve broad division. We make it personal and break down discussion which helps nobody. Two rather fundamental camps develop and neither is willing to back down nor change their mind. This leads to stagnation on the issue. And if you are reading the comments made by PZ, Tf00t, Mike D, etc. this is exactly what is happening. This argument will probably never be solved because they got too personal all too quickly.

How about we refrain from silly labeling until their is clear evidence and warrant for it. That way we avoid rifts in the community and we are more likely to progress the issue.

July 18, 2012 4:13 PM  
OpenID Proxer said...

Peter,

There's an important difference between labeling a PERSON a misogynist, and accurately identifying speech or action as misogynist.

Were there the vile and misogynist reactions to Rebecca Watson's comment? Yes. And those reactions are the ones that are generally understood as having started the current crisis.

I would say that a major contributor to the current crisis/divide is the lack of accurate and charitable reading of each others' arguments.

Your initial post, at least, committed this error, by stating that Kristjan had labeled people as misogynist, when in fact he had carefully referred to behaviors and comments as misogynist.

Then you tried to derail the discussion at hand into a re-hashing of the Elevatorgate issue. This post has nothing to do with the dependency of elevatorgate on the genders of anyone involved.

You close by asserting that there is a contingent of feminist skeptics who disagree with other feminist skeptics about certain issues. Again, this is another topic. Kristjan is talking about feminist skeptics vs non-feminist skeptics.

I think that there are a number of important issues regarding divides within the feminist community, but they are not the subject of this post.

July 19, 2012 9:54 PM  
Blogger NickM said...

I don't know why people are surprised at the vitriol and slimepit that arises over this issue, Gnu Atheism made a name for itself in the first place by being intolerant and mean to anyone who didn't take their hard line on religion. Now that they've driven away most of the people who have a sense of proportion and moderation, it is natural that there is not much left to do except tear at each other.

August 20, 2012 4:37 PM  
Blogger thalarctos said...

"How about we refrain from silly labeling until their is clear evidence and warrant for it."

Many of us, having evaluated it, consider the existing evidence and warrant abundantly clear--certainly clear enough to act upon.

You don't have to agree with the conclusion we've come to, but we've carried out the process you request.

"That way we avoid rifts in the community and we are more likely to progress the issue."

Not everyone sees avoiding rifts in the community as the highest value.

For example, as an evidence-based massage practitioner, I accept that it may be impossible to stay in the same industry as people who insist on injecting "spirit" and "human energy fields" into the practice of healthcare.

It's better that we split up than that we try to paper over such vastly contradictory philosophies in the name of staying together.

Kristjan already provided some examples of where alliances could be formed over specific issues and progress made on those issues. But trying to force irreconcilable first principles into one movement means only that we'll make very little progress as we bog down in infighting about those first principles.

August 20, 2012 9:27 PM  

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