I mentioned before that last weekend I was going to a post-Rapture party/conference thrown by local atheists, and I did, and it had its definite moments. I wasn’t there on Rapture day itself (I was at Maker Faire then), but the crowd the following Sunday was undiminished, and the talks were generally good (a low point for me was Greta Christina’s New Atheist rant about the wonders of getting angry, a talk that ran too long, thus preventing anyone from asking questions afterwards or being able to challenge any of the ways she characterized critics of this angry style).
David Eller opened the day with a talk making several important points about the way religious ideas propagate themselves, and the ways atheism and atheists can combat those ideas. “People don’t get argued into religion,” he pointed out, so why expect that we can argue them out of it? “Don’t refute” religion, he summarized, “uproot!” Uproot the cultural structures that reinforce religion’s role, by pervading people’s experience through an inundation equal to the existing inundation of religious imagery and ideas. I thought he distracted a bit from this message by overemphasizing the role of widely-used Biblical names, Biblical phrases and metaphors, religious language like saying “bless you,” and other phenomena which have religious origins so vitiated by time and secular use as to be irrelevant to the propagation of religion.
But the really distracting move was when, as he described it in a subsequent apology, “just as I ask atheists to stop ‘speaking Christian,’ … I had as a male unreflectively ‘spoken male.’”
During a talk on how we need to make the atheist movement less about arguing and more of a community, David Eller brought up bloggers and videobloggers as an example of a good aspect of community. With photos of popular atheist videobloggers Laci Green and Cristina Rad (ZOMGitsCriss) on the screen, he quipped that it was so helpful that they’re “pretty” and that we have a “pretty blonde Romanian” on our side. Without any mention of their intellect, wit, or content.
…When there was time for Q&A, I purposefully raised my hand. Eventually the mic made it back to me, and I said (paraphrased to the best of my ability):
“I have a brief comment. If you want to make the atheist movement more social, we have to be aware of the concerns of minorities, not insinuating they’re only helpful because they’re pretty and blonde. There are plenty of pretty blondes people can watch – these people are popular because they’re intelligent and witty.”
…if you are using popular videobloggers as examples because you think they’re intelligent, don’t reduce them to their looks. It blows my mind people need this spelled out for them. It perpetuates the idea that we’re just keeping atheist women around as trophies or booth babes, not because we appreciate their input. Sure, Criss is attractive – but that is irrelevant and inappropriate for a talk on community building at a conference.
Three, the atheist community doesn’t exactly have a problem recruiting men. Nor would I stoop to suggesting we need to recruit hot guys to lure in the ladies to solve our gender problem. It’s insulting, and not to mention heteronormative.
Yep, someone giving a talk on how to improve our community was horrendously out of touch with one of the most important and commonly discussed issues in said community. The irony has not escaped me.
Rebecca Watson was speaking immediately after Eller, and also offered an antidote by abandoning her scheduled talk about grassroots skepticism, and talking instead about the religious right and its war on women and women’s bodies, explicitly noting that she was doing so in response to Eller’s comment and his insufficient initial response.
I take Eller at his word that he sees the error of his ways, and I doubt that he’ll make the same mistake in the future. But that doesn’t mean that the underlying sexism is gone. And the righteous and justified anger at Eller over this is unlikely to root out the sexism in the crowd that day, nor in the wider audience seeing this discussion on blogs today.
The irony is, as Eller later realized, that the problem is exactly the same as what he was describing with religion. Sexism is so ingrained in our culture, and probably so deeply wired into our brains, that simply calling it out, or even getting angry at it, is not going to replace it. It needs not just to be refuted (as McCreight did ably that day and on her blog), but uprooted and replaced by something else.
That replacement cannot simply be a message of pure gender-neutrality; men and women are different in obvious and interesting ways, and there’s no point ignoring those differences. McCreight herself made brilliant use of women’s unique anatomy with her “Boobquake” protest, a smart and funny bit of political theater that drew lots of attention to astonishingly sexist claims by an Iranian cleric. Along the way, McCreight and the boobquakers got lots of media attention, and she got to explain the protest’s goals at ABC News (filed, oddly, under “technology”). It was, in many ways, a success, and an argument for the claim that the differences between the sexes might be a great weapon against sexism.
But because of culture-wide sexism, including the sexism in skeptical and atheist communities who invite her to speak, she’s turning her back on that protest. In a second post on the post-Rapture conference, she writes:
I lost track of the number of boob jokes I received this weekend, thanks to mentioning boobquake on my talk on edginess (at the request of the event organizer [on Saturday]).
Which is why I’m done speaking about boobquake at conferences. I’ve already said no to groups who wanted me to talk about it, and suggested another topic. I think we can learn interesting things from what happened, but I’m just sick of how people see it as a green light for sexual harassment. I can only tolerate so much.
What started as a protest against men who blamed women’s revealing clothing for natural disasters should never have been turned into “a green light for sexual harassment.” Anyone who thinks it does is missing the point. And the success of boobquake could point the way to a related protest of such sexism. McCreight and other women shouldn’t feel like they can’t use their bodies as weapons against sexism for fear of encouraging sexism among the more numbskulled in their audience.
Which raises the question: did sexism win, or was boobquake doomed precisely because it was meant to take advantage of society’s sexism? Do the vloggers cited in the talk do better than vloggers who are less attractive on camera, and if so, is that a case of sexism that need to be rooted out, or is there a way to use that sexism against itself?
Now there’s no reason that atheist or skeptical communities should be less sexist than any other community (i.e., it’s not generally a theological or pseudoscientific claim), except that these groups tend to be highly educated and politically liberal, and that means they should be aware of and concerned about these sorts of implicit and pervasive societal biases. And it should be a concern because these communities skew significantly male, and getting a healthier gender balance is crucial to the long-term success of either movement, which goal cannot be accomplished if women feel afraid of being women at atheist or skeptical events.
So I’m glad that this instance of sexism was called out quickly, and I’m glad that it was followed by a talk pointing out that a major focus of the religious right is to create and perpetuate this sort of sexism. I’m glad that this conversation is continuing online, with folks like PZ Myers carrying it wider. But what’s next? With what do we inundate society to wash away and replace that sexism? I know the long form of the argument, but what’s the short version?