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Turns out that women can take a joke. Almost all of them (because who wants to speak in absolutes, right?) have a sense of humor, and even most of the ones who don’t can identify a joke on paper and in situ, either by careful (if speedy) grammatical analysis or by gauging the reactions of the people around them. In fact, sometimes women joke with each other, in public, in front of people, even in front of men. There is plenty, plenty of evidence that belies the common complaint that women don’t have a sense of humor, or can’t take a joke. And yet, this unsupported factoid has legs within the skeptical movement, and trots itself out every time a woman complains about a sexist or misogynist joke appearing in the skeptical discourse and asks people to cut it out.

Defensiveness ensues. And accusations, and lots of things, all revolving around the topics of It Is Perfectly Fine to Tell This Joke and I Don’t Really Mean It It’s Just to Be Funny and How Can You Not See That It’s a Joke? Let’s pick these apart one by one.

How Can You Not See That It’s a Joke?
Women can tell that it’s a joke. (See first paragraph.) But pretending that they can’t is a deflection strategy that enables men to criticize women for their behavior instead of taking responsibility for their own. The thing is that the women just don’t think the joke is funny. Their reasons for not thinking a sexist joke is funny include (but are not limited to) that they are hurt or embarrassed by jokes at their expense, that sexist jokes told in an environment of mostly men perpetuate harmful stereotypes about women, and that dismissing a woman as having no sense of humor is just another way to silence her (by shaming her, by inventing a flaw and then criticizing her for having it, usually in front of a group).

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It’s true. Nobody has the right to not be offended. All those sexist images and word choices and explanations for gender differences that women in the skeptical movement point to as offensive when they are asked why they are so mad about stuff… well, nobody promised those women that they could go through life–particularly not through life in the skeptical community–without being offended. There’s not some kind of Orwellian Freedom From guarantee going on that they’ll never have to experience unpleasantness or have their feelings hurt. It’s ridiculous to even suggest such a thing. They don’t want to be offended, well, that’s part of life. And if they choose to interpret images and statements as offensive, well, they’ve done that to themselves. They are responsible for their own reactions.

And it’s also true that the people who create the “offensive” (because offensiveness is subjective, right? so the scare quotes are necessary) content are perfectly within their rights to express themselves however they want to express themselves, and that the freedom of expression sometimes mean that people get mad, but that just because someone might be upset by what you say doesn’t mean you shouldn’t say it. I mean, fine art! And Jonathan Swift! Jonathan Swift offended all kinds of people, but he was doing important social commentary, and he’s part of the literary canon now, and if he didn’t write because he was nervous about hurting people’s feelings, well, Irish people and oppressive English people and colonialism. And maybe if you can’t handle being offended–if being offended is causing huge problems of your own making for you–you should probably just leave skepticism altogether, because thick skin and shit just got real and tensions inherent to public discourse and stuff.

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True story: Sometimes people make mistakes because they actually don’t know any better.

True story: Sometimes people are sexist towards women and don’t even know it, because they’ve never learned what constitutes treating women with respect as a person (vs. treating women with the “respect due to them as ladies” or somesuch), and sometimes that sexist behavior causes a whole host of problems with real consequences, as in actual damage done to women in the long or short term.

Women often call out this behavior when it happens, in hopes of averting those negative effects, or at least in hopes of averting them in the future. And often, when women call out this behavior and go so far as to say that the behavior needs to stop, people (usually men) swarm out of the woodwork to explain and defend the people who committed the sexist act.

Not because the sexist act is defensible, no–of course not! And not because they personally would ever commit such an act–how dare you suggest that they are sexist! Outrageous! No. They come out of the woodwork to help the women understand why they’ve been victimized by sexism, so women can learn what unfortunate social environments or upbringings cause men to behave in sexist ways and so women can be more sympathetic to those poor sexists who don’t know any better, or because these guys feel sorry for these other guys, and want to give a brother a break and because these women are making it hard for them to do that. There are all kinds of things about sexism that men come out of the woodwork to explain, and all of it adds up to one stinking pile of Excuses.

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Women are not asking for special treatment when they ask you to stop doing sexist things that discourage them from participating in the skeptical community. Nope. Yet people accuse them of asking for special treatment all the time, which is unfair because it is not what they are doing. What is happening is that they are being singled out for special treatment, and they don’t like it, and they want the special treatment to stop.

Here are some (very broad) examples of the special treatment that women get when they participate in the skeptical community that men do not get:
1. Strangers put their hands on them.
2. They get interrupted.
3. Their ideas are ignored.
4. Their physical appearance is commented on.
5. They are propositioned–directly and indirectly–for sex.
6. Their gender is used as an insult.
7. They are personally attacked instead of being disagreed with.

Here are some (equally broad) examples of the regular treatment women would like when they participate in the skeptical community:
1. For strangers to keep their hands off of them.
2. To be allowed to speak all the way through until they’ve completed a thought.
3. To have their ideas considered without some guy having to repeat what they just said and get credit for it.
4. To have their ideas and contributions commented on instead of their appearances.
5. To not be propositioned–directly or indirectly–for sex outside of social environments, and then not by complete strangers.
6. To not have their gender flung around as an insult to them or to other people.
7. To have intellectual disagreements stay intellectual.

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“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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