Two shocking things happened tonight.
1. I decided to finally sit down and write again.
2. I went to the local skeptics group meeting, which I haven’t done for years and years and years. I used to be a member of the local skeptics group but got out of the habit, but then two OTHER things happened tonight (and that’s as fractal as I’ll get): a) The topic was Women in Secularism and b) my rehearsal was canceled so I had a free evening. (Does that sound glamorous to say my rehearsal was canceled? Because it was.)
I am happy I went. Everyone was very nice, and it was nice to see some of the people still participating that were there when I was a regular, even if they didn’t remember me (and I did not make a real effort to reintroduce myself). Their scholarship program for the giant annual student science fair is still going strong, and I think they said they gave out eight awards a year–cash and organization membership–and that it was a very positive experience for adult and child participants. I got to sit at the discussion table with all the members, and there was a big friendly dog there and cookies, and I got to speak a few times and even though I was a stranger who wandered in basically off the street what I said was taken as seriously as anyone else. I had some good conversations after the meeting and even left with a phone number and an invitation to meet for coffee! ;)
I had absolutely no idea what to expect.
In the end, the meeting went exactly as I should have expected.
I’m not really sure what to say about it. The attendance was heavily skewed toward retirement age, but I’d say that men and women were equally in attendance. It was pointed out that three of the five board members were women, and despite the president’s initial confessions of apprehension over the sensitivity of the topic and the fear of acrimony, it was a civil conversation about a lot of different things, none of which actually really addressed the topic of women in secularism.
The meeting started with a reading from an article by Susan Jacoby in the September/October 2012 issue of The Humanist. It was a very interesting article, that I’m not really going to recap or discuss here. It was a great start, and it led almost immediately to a lot of pontificating and Interesting Historical Reporting about Things Barely Tangential to the Topic. We learned about quirks of ancient religions, about passages from the Quran, about all kinds of things! You know what we didn’t learn about? Why secular women worked so hard last year to put on Women in Secularism 2012, and why they decided it was worth the effort to put in on again in 2013. We were told quite definitively that there were not and had never been “real” matrilineal and or matriarchal societies, even though one member had described her travels to a modern-day one within the past 20 years (because science). It reminded me, really, of how online you’ll see these discussions deflect immediately to Lamentations of Women in the World Who Have It Way Worse than You. I don’t know if people just liked to hear themselves talk, or show off what they know, or if this was a deliberate avoidance tactic because people were nervous about an angry conversation if they really got to business or what, and it lacked the patronizing tones of “Dear Muslima,” but the effect was the same. (And I said so as forcefully as I could while trying to be a polite guest in a new environment.)
Interestingly, after I said this, one of the women regulars expressed concern that skeptics and atheists in the US weren’t taking strong enough stands against the attacks on women’s reproductive freedoms (which started to turn into another pontification/mini-lecture about Rand Paul), and the moderator said something along the lines of “We’re here to discuss whether politics even belong in skeptical conversations and you’re both off topic.” And there it ended. And then it was suggested that because there was so much to cover about sexism online and sexual harassment, they’d probably have a continuation of the discussion at the next meeting.
At the very end, a different woman member made the observation that the list of topics within the women in secularism discussion was created by men without asking for any input from women at all.
The next meeting, then, is when they’ll be discussing “what happened to Michael Shermer” and whether sexism exists, and if there’s any truth to the claims that women are being harassed and name-called online, and if it’s really just some anonymous rabble-rousers who may not even be skeptics doing this divide and conquer thing (yes, they admitted that sounded a little conspiracyish), and also to present the male point of view about sexism in skepticism, because, well, obvious, because balance? I dunno. It wasn’t really explained why the men’s point of view needed to be brought up. And it’s kind of the meeting I thought would be happening tonight. And it’s a sad thing to say, but it’s highly likely I’m not going to be there.
And not because I’m going to be busy, because I probably could get myself there if I wanted. But I was talking to the president after the meeting, and I asked him what the organization was hoping to get from discussing this topic, and he said he’d been surprised to learn about all the controversy (it’s finally bubbled to the awareness of people who get all their information from offline sources!) and that the best course of action for a skeptics group to take would be to examine the evidence and decide for themselves if sexism really was happening.
He said they would probably come to that conclusion–that it was actually happening–next meeting. Which is good, because, well, yeah. But they had to examine the evidence for themselves because–again–that’s what good skeptics do. And I asked, then what? So what happens if you decide that sexism is happening? And the answer was a good one: They want to put anti-harassment policies in place.
Really? IF it’s happening? I’m trying to put myself in the shoes of people who aren’t fatigued by this subject, and who are exploring the controversy for the first time, and are probably sincerely hoping that the skeptical movement (and this group definitely puts itself in the skeptical movement rather than the humanist movement) has its best foot forward. And I wish I’d taken the time to write it down but I thought I would remember the quote the president ended with about how a community will never thrive if it fails to fully respect half its members. That was the take-home idea, and he read it twice–with feeling.
But even within this group with its 50/50 membership and leadership, it was a lot of splaining by men to the women of What It’s Like Out There and How Things Used to Be, and some You Didn’t See What You Thought You Saw, with a dash of Women Are Complicit in Their Own Oppression and Those Topics Don’t Belong Here, and I’m just tired of that, and it doesn’t make it more palatable even in the complete and utter absence of Hey You’re So Pretty and If We Joke about Harassment That’s Funny. I feel like I can predict that the guys next week will find some reasons to explain why the women who complain about harassment are influenced by their emotions, how they shouldn’t complain so much because focus/remember when/derailment, and even when they all do agree that sexism exists within the movement and harassment policies help, it’s more of an intellectual exercise for them to go through. That women’s topics are still just for women. That men blaming women in burkas for being too sexy instead of taking responsibility for their own behavior only happens Over There. That science shows no viable, alternative ways of men and women interacting have ever existed. That the status quo is too hard to change. And next month’s meeting–despite being part 2 of the conversation*–is also the last meeting before science fair business comes up (the science fair is in March and they’ll have some organizing to do with volunteer judges and settling prize amounts et cetera), and no one wants to have the kind of discussion that leaves people angry, and I honestly can’t see much productive coming out of it. The kind of conclusions they are going to draw have already been drawn over and over again, and I don’t think I can add much to it.
*In which we discover what has happened to Michael Shermer, which wasn’t answered when I asked the question at the meeting tonight because it’s functioning as a teaser to get me back there, I guess…
I know, I know, with women and socialization and manners and stuff, but I don’t really want to be the stranger that shows up and antagonizes everyone because I think THEYR DOIN IT WRONG. It’s not my group. They want what they want and are perfectly capable of identifying and meeting their own needs, and honestly, I can’t imagine a single thing bad coming out of this. And if their pace is slower than my pace, that’s my issue to deal with, which I am dealing with quite nicely from home.
The conversations I had with the people–the president, the members–were so nice and welcoming, and I was amused in one of those sad, cynical ways how the women gathered afterward to reaffirm amongst themselves how the guys basically missed the point and yep. The guys basically missed the point. There was some minor self-blaming for the guys missing the point based on the women not being clear enough, which is silly because we all understood exactly what the point was. And I am really looking forward to calling the one woman on the phone who had to leave early and talking to her more, and I wish I had the free time to join those two women who drove all the way out to the next county this morning to go to an atheist book club at The Coffee Bean with twenty other people and who attend Civil Conversations at the Coco’s every Monday night (and put up with pontificating, interrupting men there), and I wish I could hang out more with the woman who brought up the fact that women weren’t asked what they thought was important to discuss, but, well, I stopped attending these meetings regularly for a reason. I’d already hit my fill of dowsing and Bible codes (once you get it, you get), and my patience for pontificating is low. I would love to have some sort of women’s group that met separately from the main group, and I’ll express that if I ever do actually end up meeting that one woman for coffee (she doesn’t email. :(), but the rest of it… I dunno. I’m not really in a position to organize that myself. Interloper I can do fine, but poacher? Plus I’m supposed to be looking for a job, which, if found, would take up a lot of my time.
I do promise to look more regularly at the meeting calendar, however. You never know when things might change! And there was not a single person there I wouldn’t mind talking to again outside of the meeting context. The possibilities are endless.