Feminism and Women Atheist Activists Part II

In my last post I provided an overview of some of the talk about sexism within the atheist and skeptic communities. I have since been reading the discussions that followed from Scented Nectar’s disagreement with Stephanie Zvan and Jen McCreight.

Rebecca Watson will not be attending The Amazing Meeting (TAM) this year because she does not feel “welcomed or safe” and she disagrees with the “recent actions of the JREF president, DJ Grothe,” who is quoted as saying that the claims made by some members of the community constitute misinformation:

I think this misinformation results from irresponsible messaging coming from a small number of prominent and well-meaning women skeptics who, in trying to help correct real problems of sexism in skepticism, actually and rather clumsily themselves help create a climate where women — who otherwise wouldn’t — end up feeling unwelcome and unsafe, and I find that unfortunate.

Watson’s response to this has been to reiterate her belief that the community is not a safe place for women, implying that Grothe is engaged in victim blaming. Grothe acknowledges the problems of sexism in skepticism, but he is of the opinion that the responses of some women skeptics like Watson haven’t been helpful. Watson views this as a denial of the problem and she refuses to support what she sees as his dismissal of women’s experiences.

From the initial quotation, Grothe seems primarily concerned about suggestions that JREF promotes sexism or condones violence or threats of violence against women. He doesn’t make the case that sexism isn’t a problem within the community.

Watson is making a general claim about the community based on her experiences and the experiences of other women. Those who object to Watson’s interpretation of the issue often address what they see as a disconnect between general claims made about the community, e.g., that it is not a safe space, and the experiences of some women who claim to have experienced sexism.

In other words, Watson’s critics don’t believe that her experience of sexism is sufficient grounds for claiming that the community has a problem, much in the same way that Watson claimed that Kirby’s personal perspective (lack of sexism) is not a good basis for making an assessment about sexism in the atheist community.

Watson argues that the community is “obviously not a safe space for me or for other women who want to be free of the gendered slurs and sexual threats and come-ons we experience in our day-to-day lives.” The implication of this statement is that those who do not share her perspective must not want to be free of sexism and misogyny.

Watson doesn’t want to assume that most women have had the same experiences she has had, but she wants to affect change, so that the women who do have these bad experiences have support systems. This requires the rest of the community or at the very least its leaders, to recognize that there is a problem.

Critics disagree about whether the problem exists, how it should be framed, and what would constitute an effective solution. This disagreement has not been welcomed to say the least.

Stephanie Zvan thinks Grothe should reconsider his allegations; Greg Laden, a Freethought Blogger, is calling for his resignation; and PZ Myers wants him to fix this genuine problem.

There’s a big gap between Watson and her supporters’ stated  goals, e.g., stopping sexual harassment, and the rhetoric being used in support of their goals. I’m specifically referring to the storylines that have emerged about what this debate is about, and who can dissent. Greg Laden writes that the skeptics movement is currently divided into two parts:

1) The part that wants women to be not only comfortable, but to lead, and this includes the majority of people in the movement, and

2) The part that wants the old timey conferences to retain their old timey charm as minor meat markets for nerds, that wants to keep its old white guy idols and icons, and that wants to move such marginal and suspicious entities as the Mens Rights Movement to the forefront, and this includes a minority of people in the movement.

There is little room for disputation with this model because if you disagree with particular issues related to the nature and prevalence of sexism, you’re immediately dismissed. Miranda Celeste Hale addressed this a year ago in Feminists can be bullies too, The epitome of condescension, and There’s nothing skeptical about the Skepchicks’ vicious “campaign.” She argues that it’s not necessary for anyone to agree that sexism is ubiquitous within the atheist and skeptic movement and that one should be free to dissent without being told to be quiet and listen.

6 thoughts on “Feminism and Women Atheist Activists Part II

  1. It is a problem. It does need to be addressed. The problem is not addressed by telling women to stop talking about it, lest other women decide not to attend a conference. Watson isn’t refusing to go because she disagrees with Grothe. She’s refusing to go because Grothe told her the problem was her fault and dismissed the issue as “rumors and gossip”. That says very clearl to women I’ve talked to, or seen posting about this, that their concerns would not be respected by the TAM organizers, therefore why spend their money there? Grothe made his bed, and I genuinely can’t believe he’s chosing to lie in it than sack up and admit he made a mistake.

  2. Given that people are reading his statement in several different ways, I think it’s fair to say that there is some disagreement about what he meant.

    He says, and I quote: “harassment issues are much discussed in some quarters of the skeptics and atheist and other allied movements (all generally for the better, to the extent the emotionally charged issues are tempered with evidence).”

    It seems pretty clear to me from this statement that he thinks these discussions are warranted or as he puts it “for the better.” The key word is generally. What are the exceptions? Again, I think he’s clear:

    “telling newbies that they need to be on guard against so-called sexual predators at our events, or that the movement or movements are ‘unsafe for women,’ may be a sure-fire way of making some women feel unwelcome who otherwise would feel and be safe and welcomed.”

    There are two likely rebuttals to this worth exploring:

    1. No one is claiming that newbies need to be on guard or that the movement(s) are unsafe for women.
    2. Even if his characterization of these claims is accurate, there’s little evidence to suggest that some women would feel unsafe as a consequence.

    Both points are open for debate; however, the discussion so far has been focused on this excerpt more than the others:

    “We have gotten emails over the last few months from women vowing never to attend TAM because they heard that JREF is purported to condone child-sex-trafficking, and emails in response to various blog posts about JREF or me that seem to suggest I or others at the JREF promote the objectification of women, or that we condone violence or threats of violence against women, or that they believe that women would be unsafe because we feature this or that man on the program.”

    Grothe is specifically addressing claims that the JREF is purported to condone or promote certain awful behaviors. Clearly, he disagrees, and labels these accusations as misinformation emerging from a “small number of prominent and well-meaning women skeptics who, in trying to help correct real problems of sexism in skepticism, actually and rather clumsily themselves help create a climate where women — who otherwise wouldn’t — end up feeling unwelcome and unsafe, and I find that unfortunate.”

    Have well-meaning women unintentionally sowed the seeds of moral panic? Have they made exaggerated claims? Have these women made general claims about the movement not supported by evidence?

    The very suggestion that these questions might be worth exploring is controversial, and I understand why some people don’t want to explore them. They’ve already come to a conclusion and consider it a waste of time or they consider it a form of disloyalty to women have had to deal with sexism and misogyny. I do not, as it happens, share this view, and I am not persuaded that Grothe’s conclusion cancels out his earlier statement about continuing discussion.

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  4. Rebecca’s quote said the skeptical community was not a safe space, and her comment may have been intended to include the virtual skeptical community which has some very outspoken trolls who have made all kinds of threats against her. In the quoted part that I saw (from USA Today, which he referenced), she didn’t tell women to be on guard against predators. That’s perhaps a valid interpretations. However Grothe missed the distinction between “not a safe space” and a place that is unsafe. “Safe space” is a buzzword with a particular meaning in the feminist and assault survivor communities. He appears to have missed the nuance of what she said, which she said broadly, and applied it in a rather literal way to his particular conference.

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