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Archive for January, 2012

“We don’t like the sexist behavior and aren’t going to accept it silently anymore,” women in the skeptical movement say.

“They kind of have a point,” some guys in the skeptical movement say.

“Women are dividing the community by stirring up this trouble!” other guys in the movement say. “There’s all this fighting! And now we’re splintered! And we’ll never ever be able to do those important skeptical things because who’s going to listen to a bunch of skeptics who can’t even get along! You’re hurting the movement!” they add, and more words to that effect.

But they are wrong.

When women (the minority group) speak up about ill-treatment they’ve received from the dominant group (men), it stirs up all kinds of trouble, for all kinds of reasons (which I’ve addressed a few times already, like here and here). Heated discussions erupt, and true feelings are revealed, and yes, when emotions are expressed and judgments passed, a group loses a certain level of comfort that had been taken for granted. (Well, the dominant members of the group were comfortable before and now aren’t, anyway.) And because it’s women who, by speaking up, undermined this sense of comfort–the illusion that it was all OK for everyone and everybody was just fine until certain people when looking for trouble–it’s women who get blamed for the conflict that appears.

This is called “being divisive.” Calling it that is a mistake. An actual misuse of the word “divisive” kind of mistake.

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You hear a lot about boycotts in the (online at least) skeptical community lately, particularly when a woman suggests that she’s hit her limit for –insert behavior– and will no longer be participating in some aspect of the community. People do not like to think about boycotts, and usually react badly, blaming the woman for even daring broach the topic and acting as if a boycott was a disproportionate response to whatever upset her.

We can go backwards through time for a few examples of what I’m talking about:

In a January 9  post on Greta Christina’s blog, “Two Questions for DJ Grothe,” DJ Grothe leaves a comment contrasting boycotts with “reasoned arguments” and associating them with “public punishment and public shaming.” He also says a few paragraphs later that boycotts hamper the skeptical community from flourishing. (Christina had said she would no longer attend The Amazing Meeting except as a speaker, and the crowd picked up “boycott” from there.)

In a July 5, 2011 post on Skepchick, “The Privilege Delusion,” Rebecca Watson made the remark that she would no longer be purchasing books by Richard Dawkins. She clarified later that she did not call for a boycott of Dawkins’s works after  comments on that post criticized her for calling for a boycott, using words like, “the latest in a series of overreactions by everyone involved in this elevator incident,” “boycott is the exact opposite of skeptic,” “boycott Dawkins for being insensitive to you or the concerns of female atheists, seems really hypocritical,”  and “boycotts seek to do harm to someone,” “please don’t boycott it’s the same as letting the bastards win,” and other things.

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Here are some reasons people give for not caring about increasing the number of women in skepticism:

Women are free to participate if they want. Nobody’s stopping them.
Men are just more interested in science.
I care about ideas–not demographics!

It is nothing new at all to say that the community of people actively participating in skepticism is composed by and large by middle-class white men. It’s more or less a homogeneous group, and it behaves like one, engaging in activities that the members of the majority like because they’ve never had to do it any other way. And that’s fine, I suppose, depending on your goals. If the goal of the skeptical community is to be a social club of people of like minds in a comfortable, non-challenging environment that is fun to be in and provides a social network of people who can hang out in small groups at the local level to talk and have some more fun, great! Clubs benefit their members in a lot of ways, as anyone who has ever joined one can tell you.

Even better, there are many formal skeptics and atheists groups built on the desire to improve the world we share, and that work very sincerely towards that goal by solving problems identified by and via the methods identified by this homogeneous group of people, who are used to thinking about themselves and what causes problems for them, and also sometimes the problems they perceive other people experience with strategies they suppose will work for those other people they don’t really interact with. Because, you know, homogeneity. Which has a very limited scope, in the end, and is likely to only solve problems for people just like you, and you’ll eventually run out of those people to reach and chances are good that no one from among the group of everyone else haven’t even heard about you and probably don’t care about your problems. They care about their own problems, but you don’t know what they are because you have no representatives from them in your group and get fussy when asked why not. Which may not matter if you’re just into skepticism or atheism for the fun clubhouse times but may matter if you are having trouble growing your influence or solving widespread problems on a large scale.

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By Robert Wright

Long Story Short:
This book has a lot of interesting close-ish reading of the big three Abrahamic religious texts (Torah, Bible, Koran), interspersed with a lot of philosophy and splaining I wasn’t that crazy about.

Why I Chose This Book:
I was enthralled by the ideas in Wright’s book, Nonzero, when I read it and I was looking for a book that addressed a more traditional “skeptical” topic to write about between that one about online reputation and the next one about cuddly animals.

The Book’s Strengths: First of all, I like Wright’s writing style. He explains his points well, and he intersperses his texts with just enough humor that it’s a pleasant surprise every time. True, writing style is not a very important part of a book’s message, but it makes it easier to engage with the text, particularly during the slower parts of the book.

I thought the book did a pretty good job of covering the structural evolution of the three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It starts with exploring religion from pre-literate societies, and it’s very clear on where the limitations are on how much we can deduce about prehistoric religions, and how we know what we know now about the religions of hunter-gatherer communities. For example, we know what the members and/or descendants of these hunter-gatherer societies say, and we have some historical documents from literate people who encountered these groups during the age of exploration and onward, but we can’t say that this is the way prehistoric religions looked because every culture evolves, and Wright points out frequently what aspects he discusses comes from documented sources (and which ones) and what aspects are supposition or speculation.

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“Focus on the message rather than the delivery” part 1 is here. I wrote it back in July and it was never intended to be a part 1 of anything, and when I wrote it I had in mind the kind of arguments you get against women speaking up for themselves and being criticized for being too angry, rather than having their points responded to. You know, blowing off what’s actually the problem and inventing a problem with how a woman presents her thoughts, insinuating that what she has to say is not nearly as important as controlling her emotions.

Turns out there’s a flip side to that.

You know what I’ve started to notice a lot lately? Women who speak about sexism being answered with a prim “Thank you for being so polite to me,” or “I appreciate that you are keeping a civil tone when you address me.” It’s the same crap, different attitude. Instead of addressing a woman’s points, it’s still addressing a woman’s tone, and it usually also manages to get a dig in at all the other women who are being angry, or huffy, or sarcastic, or even–gasp–name-calling (which, for the record, is just straight up name-calling and not ad hominem attacks, so you can stop waving that fallacy around during these types of discussions). And it’s addressing a woman’s tone in a patronizing way that is not gracious and not civil and not polite. It’s just another way to tone troll.

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Misogyny on the Internet has been a very hot topic these past several days, what with the Reddit business I wrote about here and this new business with Penn Jillette and the Tweet written about by Jen McCreight here (“The Straw Woman of the Skeptical Movement), and like all hot topics online it comes with comments. Lots and lots of comments that follow at this point a fairly predictable pattern. Within the first twenty on any well-trafficked blog you’ll probably see someone accused of mansplaining, and someone else objecting to the term, on the basis of not understanding what it actually is or simply not liking the way the word sounds. With that confusion in mind, I drew something up that hopefully illustrates what mansplaining is and is not.

The term “mansplaining”  is a portmanteau of “man” and “explaining.” A definition of the term can be found in a blog post by Karen Healey, “A Woman’s Born to Weep and Fret,” with an excerpt here:

Mansplaining is when a dude tells you, a woman, how to do something you already know how to do, or how you are wrong about something you are actually right about, or miscellaneous and inaccurate “facts” about something you know a hell of a lot more about than he does.

I hope to show with my chart how a conversation, particularly a conversation about sexism, can drift into mansplaining despite the best of intentions. I did do a search for such a chart first and didn’t find anything, so if you know of one better, please send me the link and I’ll include it here. Finally, if the term itself bothers you, get over it. It’s mostly men who do it, and yes, we know that all men don’t. If you don’t do it, it doesn’t apply to you. Just because you are a man and it includes the word “man” doesn’t qualify it as a gross, unfair, mean generalization any more than the term “chick flick” is understood to mean that all women like those kinds of movies–and besides, being called “chick” is way worse than being called “man.”

Clicking on the graphic will display it in a larger size. Enjoy!


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