Blogs and podcasts are afire! We’ve seen hedging and hard-lining, demands and ultimatums, compromises, questions, excuses, and judgment all around one issue: the treatment of women in the atheist community.
I can’t say I’ve been hesitant to join the conversation. I can say I’ve been repulsed. I am so uncomfortable with the tone of the discourse surrounding these events and discussions that I’ve wanted nothing to do with them. But as a reader of blogs, an occasional conference speaker, an educator, and an engaged Humanist, I haven’t been able to avoid exposure to the discussions. Now I’m diving in, reputation be damned. So here goes.
What’s been happening? Over the past year, prominent bloggers/speakers in the freethought community have been drawing attention to issues of sexism, sexual predation, and gendered power dynamics as they play out at conferences, conventions, at meetups, and online. The discussion has been raw in many cases.
JREF President DJ Grothe wrote about why he thinks the discourse is “well-meaning” but “misguided, clumsy, and irresponsible,” and gave evidence to support that the vast majority TAM attendees report feeling welcome and don’t report assault or harassment. He was lambasted over and over again.
One blog commenter with a male name lamented that if one doesn’t meet ideological standards of FreeThoughtBlogs (and I’ll add: by extension the Freethought community), you are labeled:
1. sexist; 2. misogynist; 3. a harrassment enabler; 4. a rape enabler; 5. a rape culture enabler; 6. an MRA zealot; 7. a Slimepit Denizen™; 8. an anti-feminist; 9. a liar; 10. a derailer; 11. a troll.
Approximately 1 hour after his post, readers were informed that the poster was a known troll from other Freethought Blogs and had been banned. I know not of the poster’s previous online behavior. However, his list and DJ’s points gave me pause.
They summed up everything I’m afraid of being labeled if I speak/write on this issue, and it’s everything I’ve seen males be labeled as they raise questions, respond to posts on the topic of sexual harrassment/predation, and answer questions posed by bloggers. And I’m speaking about men I know personally, whom I respect, and who respect me, in addition to posters unknown to me.
I am a woman. I have attended and spoken at conferences. I have diligently and thoughtfully explored and studied issues of sexism, privilege, social constructs, diversity, and equity. I was steeped in a college culture that, despite being single-sex, eschews gender binaries and celebrates women as integral components in all levels of society. I am a product of a college whose founder intended her institution to serve as “a perennial blessing to the country and the world” for educating women, a college whose tradition “educates women of promise for lives of distinction.” I continue to explore and study these issues as an educator dedicated to equitable opportunity and the ideals of egalitarian responsibility, and atheism/Humanism is a natural home for many seeking to be free of religion’s tendency to reinforce negative gender stereotypes and rigid gender roles through dogma.
That said, I am struck by the dogma that characterizes the discourse surrounding the issue of sexual harassment at atheist conferences. When prominent religious voices espouse dogma, we spot it and denigrate the thinking behind it with ease. I can’t help but listen in disbelief (ha!) as my female peers—gulp—dogmatically insist that any gathering worth its spit adopt and publicize a strict policy, indignantly assign sexual predation to entire categories of people (men), unflinchingly insist that speakers who make romantic advances are inherently abusive, and reactively denigrate and dismiss those who question the tone or content of these cries. Is our womanhood and feminism so holy that we cannot and will not open ourselves to criticism, discussion, and questions? Because the tone I’ve seen is unforgiving:
Also, did you just express “skepticism” over this? It’s a completely uncontroversial statement.
And capitalizes on turning shame on an entire social movement[emphasis mine]:
Naming and shaming only works in an atmosphere that has some shame itself. This movement does have some, but not enough.
The tone of feminist discourse cannot afford to be dogmatic if it is to succeed in the atheist community. It cannot afford to engage in shaming tactics that were so insidiously used against those of us who escaped religion.
Skeptics are just that: skeptical. We’re primed and poised for argumentation. We’re not socialized by some construct to be that way; we socialize ourselves as such. Proverbial laying-down-of-the-law will only serve to alienate, not ally. Stating vaguely that there are men who women should avoid because they are predatory only serves to create a culture of paranoia, not partnership—at least not amongst and between men and women. What I do see forming is partnership between scared and/or indignant women against those who find the discourse unpalatable and increasingly destructive.
I in no way deny that physical assaults and sexual harassment are unwanted, problematic, and should be eliminated. Based on statistics alone, I’ve no doubt these have occurred between active atheists. I don’t intend to sweep women aside, nor to ignore cases of intentional predation, nor to devalue discussion on the role of women in the freethought movement. To that end, I am buoyed by bloggers (here and here) who seem to be expanding the discussion to focus on comfort and safety for all: gay men, those with disabilities, those questioning their faith in secret. And I’m buoyed by those who address the questioners who are so summarily attacked or booted from comment threads with posts and discussion about the intricacies of social, sexual, and romantic interaction (here, here). It alarms me that the voices I find affinity with on this topic are largely male; it does not bode well for the diversity of female voices in our movement.
So, does all this make me a sexist, trolling, lying, enabler of harassment and rape culture? Or perhaps a bad feminist? I’ll have a hard time abandoning my Seven Sisters heritage, but if the new Good Atheist Feminist is characterized by reverence for some holy sacrament of outrage, I will settle for the latter.