Whenever a person points out a specific example of sexism, people who have committed similar acts hear, “You are a sexist.” When a person points out how this example of sexism is harmful, these people hear, “You are harming me.” They get angry at what looks to them like false accusations and unwarranted criticism, and it does not jive with their self-image as decent people. Their emotional response is to immediately defend themselves, but they defend themselves so loudly and so angrily that they end up missing the point entirely and nobody leaves the conversation thinking like they accomplished anything, and everybody leaves the conversation mad. Sometimes women, who feel like their concerns will not be addressed, leave the conversation forever.
If someone points out a sexist behavior–such as criticizing women for walking through parks topless but not men–and you have done that behavior, that means you were being sexist. Yes. Sexist behavior is sexist. Maybe you didn’t mean to do it, or didn’t realize all the consequences of it, and maybe that is the only sexist behavior you have ever performed in your life, but that sexist act happened. Does performing one sexist behavior make you a Capital-S Sexist Person? I don’t know. It probably means you just made a mistake. Is that so terrible? Is it so rage-inducing to be caught being wrong? Does discovering that you’ve done something wrong really require invective?
Why do some aspects of the conversation about sexism in skepticism make you so angry? All the time people make mistakes in their arguments or with their facts in skeptical conversations, and accept correction when the mistakes are pointed out. A good 75% of skeptical thinking requires you to challenge your assumptions and beliefs and pay attention to evidence, but somehow sexism gets a free pass. It is the one irrational bias that skeptics pride themselves on banding together to maintain. The skeptical community right now sends the message that it is OK to not challenge your thinking about sexism, and other skeptics will come to your defense to shield your blind spots and perpetuate the inequity should you end up on the receiving end of criticism for sexist behavior. In fact, it is the women who speak up to confront blind spots and present evidence to support their case who are accused of “making skepticism look bad”–not the people arguing with emotion that their sacred cow should be spared.
Why do people cling so tightly to sexist beliefs? What do you personally stand to gain from insisting on behaving in sexist ways that women you know say they don’t like or have been harmed by? If this is not a question you’ve asked yourself, you should take some time to think about it. It might make you more capable of having a real discussion on the subject of sexism in skepticism if you were aware of your motivations.