There are a few online skeptical hidey-holes I pop my head into, and I saw a peculiar question posed in one. A skeptic was frustrated by all the recent hubhub stirred up by ElevatorGate (a Google search will give you all the information you need about ElevatorGate if you don’t know what it is), and the general request by some women to some men that they change some behaviors. Which behaviors, you ask? Well, mostly the ones that make women feel like they are assessed by every guy they encounter at skeptical business meetings for their value as mates or lays rather than as skeptics or critical thinkers, and the ones that make them think that the prettier they are the more likely it is someone will pay attention to them. There is a large group of women who object to such behavior, and who have stated in no uncertain terms that it’s a large part of why they usually avoid skeptical business meetings or other skeptical group environments. This focus on sex is an element of hostility within the skeptical culture. Reactions to that news ranged from shock to anger, and the aforementioned frustrated skeptic asked…
So should we be ourselves or should we be welcoming?
Oh, false dichotomy, thy name is ubiquity!
There are many problems with the framing of this question, and with the idea that skeptics are either nice or authentic. They can be themselves or they can make women feel more comfortable. I know there’s this popular character from skeptical (male) folklore who is gruff and cantankerous but superfunny (once you cotton to his sense of humor) and very generous and will buy you a beer just because he likes ya but he’s gonna tell you like it is straight up and he don’t pull punches for nobody and he respects women so much that he treats ’em just like men! (In skeptical folklore there are no historical, social, or political circumstances that put women at disadvantages, so it’s OK to do that.) In skeptical folklore, that’s just his way. If he looks like he’s not welcoming, it’s because you just haven’t gotten to know him. If he seems kind of creepy by disregarding your boundaries, he’s not–he’s friendly with everyone! It might also be that you are judging him on first impressions (which is bad and shallow and totally unfair and probably sexist against men, amirite?, but I digress). Maybe you have these personal hangups that are preventing you from seeing his true spirit that are totally in your head and that nobody should have to accommodate. Maybe you’re just a controlling bitch who doesn’t like sex who wants everything done your way regardless of how long everyone else has been around doing it the other way. Asking Gruff Skeptic to hide his true self is rude, and wrong, and goes against skepticism, but if that’s what it takes for you to feel welcome, well, hey. Sure. Whatever. I guess that’s not so much to ask. Uh, welcome. Happy now?
This false dichotomy is problematic for reasons beyond the fact that it is a logical error. In fact, rather than actually present the question as a legitimate one that cuts to the core existence of skepticism and reflects a real philosophical quandary, it turns out that it’s just another way to blame women for not participating and to remove the responsibility for solving the problem from the people who cause it (actively and passively) to the people who are ostracized because of it. I will resort to another numbered list to explain why.
- To thine own self be true! In skeptical folklore, Gruff Skeptic’s faithful companion is Rugged Individualist. Skeptics are people who valiantly resist the complacency of superstition and stand out from the gullible masses, isolated sometimes by their critical thinking prowess but very, very brave for living up to their values. To ask them to not be themselves (by being welcoming to women) is to ask them to subvert Reason Itself. Personal integrity is paramount; if you are going to cave into the hurt feelings of outsiders by being welcoming instead of being yourself, why be a skeptic at all?
- If skeptics have to suppress what it is like to be themselves (by not always hitting on women at skeptical business meetings or by giving up their skeptical website pornography forum) in order to make women feel more welcome in skepticism, and if they are <angry, incredulous, reluctant> about being asked by women to rein in the (non-skeptical, superfluous) behaviors so that the women feel comfortable interacting in skeptical spaces, then it’s clear they prefer the behaviors to women’s feelings and that women actually aren’t welcome at all (unless they tolerate/endorse/approve of those behaviors). Welcoming women requires sacrifice, not compromise. Being asked to give things up you like is an affront, not a gesture towards community.
- Framing the question as an either/or sets up a situation where you are either a skeptic or you are welcoming. There is no acknowledgment that you can be a skeptic and be welcoming. Nope. If you are welcoming to women you are not being true to yourself, and everyone knows that skeptics are true to themselves. (See above.) The question pits insiders (real skeptics) against outsiders (women who want to change their culture).
- Being welcoming to women means you can’t be yourselves, so if women join the skeptical community because it became welcoming to them, that means women will have made skepticism dishonest. If women were really skeptics, they wouldn’t want to undermine the movement like that. But they do, so they aren’t. It’s logic.
From chatter like this you’d think women were out to dismantle skepticism instead of contributing to growth. Remember–it was the skeptical movement who set out to recruit more women to active participation so they could better meet the goals of skeptical business. It was the outsider women who pointed out how dropping the Sex Club with a Skeptical Problem act might actually make the whole movement more efficient (with fewer distractions and a larger membership), and it was the insider skeptics who complained about prioritizing business ahead of sex. It makes you wonder, then, who the skeptics actually are. If you have to choose between being welcoming to women and being yourself, maybe the skeptic isn’t you.