Sunday, July 3, 2011

Why We Don't Need This Kind of Feminism (no mention of coffee)

This is about Rebecca Watson, but I promise, it isn't about elevator propositions.

I'm a feminist. My mother, who I greatly admire, has been a social worker all her life. I think she's had every imaginable job in that field, from substance abuse counselor to women's shelter case worker, to the department of child and protective services. So I grew up hearing stories about taking screaming children away from the parents who beat them. I heard the true stories about her investigations of women who seemed to "run into doors" or "fall down stairs" a lot. I remember when she lost a client and a friend at the shelter, because her husband found her and killed her.

My mother did these (often) dangerous jobs for low pay because of her enduring need to help people who can't help themselves. She did them while raising myself and my two brothers, and while putting herself through college (she now has a Masters in Social Work). It's because of my mother and her career that I've seen the best and worst of men and women. If I had no other reason to be a feminist, then I would be simply because my mother has struggled so hard, so long, doing a job no one cares about for people, mostly women, society doesn't care about. So those are my credentials, and the "feminism theory" I subscribe to, is that all that makes me sick.

Many of you feel likewise. Maybe that's why we get so very invested in the cause- the cause of feminism. We get angry when it is threatened, or when we think it is. We defend its champions. Maybe our good intentions help us to miss the difference between the ideal and the institution. The ideal is always pristine and valuable. The institution, however, sometimes needs an overhaul. We needn't lose the former to improve the latter. Quite the contrary.. the only way self-respecting women and men can honestly lay claim to any ideal, is to privilege it over any specific movement or people.

Rebecca Watson's brand of feminism may have it's place, but it is not essential to feminism in the secular movement. In short, we do not need it.We can keep the movement where we strive for social and political equality for all people without cowing to people who exploit it. In fact, that is part of how we keep it. The ideal of feminism must not be tarnished by any one person or group, no matter how famous or influential. Now I'm going to tell you why.

1. She's lowering the bar of discourse. She seems to believe that anonymous internet comments prove something about society, or worse, about the secular community on the basis that some commenters are atheists. In the comments section of a video by Rose St. Clair criticizing Watson, someone named NeilGDickson called Watson's stance "hyperbolic". Watson replied with "I wish it was a hyperbolic straw man. Go ahead and read through some of these comments, or head over to my video and see the comments they're leaving there".

Anonymous internet comments are the graffiti of our time. Akin to scribbles on bathroom stalls. No doubt they signify interesting psychological facts about the handful of individuals that make them, but they say nothing about groups because they come from a self-selected group largely unstable and keen on "trolling" people. Not only does Watson believe that anonymous comments from random weirdos are evidence of what you think (because after all, you're both atheists!) but she spent ten minutes reading scatological riffs from them to an audience, at the otherwise highly respectable Center for Inquiry Leadership Conference. Perhaps next Gallup should stop phone polling about the president's approval rating, and just read whatever is spray-painted on overpasses and report that.

2. She has little respect for her host or audience. For someone beating the drum of awareness and sensitivity to circumstance, she certainly displayed little at CFI. She was invited to speak about a topic, but then spent fifteen minutes reading unrelated YouTube comments before settling the hash of attendee Stef McGraw, who had no means to respond as this was not a debate or panel. She did not think to ask for permission to do this. She did not think to ask for a few minutes more time so that others she was criticising could properly respond. She did not think to answer Stef in the medium in which Stef had addressed her, making the terms equal.

I was an invited (student) speaker. I spoke about interfaith. Since this is a highly charged issue, CFI made sure a panel discussion followed my talk. They, sagely, wanted to make sure different viewpoints were represented. Watson selfishly subverted this impulse to fair exchange, upsetting the audience and placing CFI in a very bad position.

3. Self-righteous aggression. Before, during, and after the incident at CFI, Watson has been steadfastly confrontational and venomous. Rather than explaining to Stef how her words could be detrimental, she simply called them "parroting words of misogynists". Why was this polarizing insult necessary? In her blog post after the controversy erupted, Watson called Stef's thinking "anti-feminist". Let's say Stef's position on the issue was 100% wrong. Isn't it possible for a person to be mistaken, without being opposed to an ideal? Isn't it unkind to describe someone who disagrees with you as disagreeing with a goal in principle? If I think affirmative action can't achieve political equality for minorities, are you then entitled to call my reasoning "anti-black"?  Watson does. This leads to my next point..

4. Distracting from the real issues. This has been noted elsewhere, but I have to say it. Even if Watson is 100% right about everything.. about Stef's criticism, about her own right to ridicule anyone at any time/place/ or venue.. has she succeeded in educating on feminism? On this there can be no argument, the answer is no. Those who might have learned things from Watson were turned off. Those who disagree have faced the vitriol of her and her legion of fans, further backing them into their contrary position and reducing the chances for productive discourse. How many people even remember what the thesis of her titled talk was about? The blogosphere has lit up with "rawr we hate you! you're a misogynist!" rants from both sides, totally obscuring any point that might have been made about actual women's issues.

In running blog comments Watson has shown tremendous energy, quickly refuting arguments and challenging claims. She has the countenance of a person desperate to be right and to quell all argument, as harshly as necessary, never backing off an inch.

Watson has failed miserably to understand her audience and to reach them. The result of that is the storm of fury now battering the internets.

At the same conference, the great Lauren Becker implored the student leaders not to always concern themselves with being right, with the winning of arguments. She said we must reach understanding and sway attitudes if we are to prevail. We must make people feel like they are respected peers (because they are) while we disagree with them, so that conversation can happen in earnest. Lauren is the very embodiment of grace and guts. Women like her bring me to my fifth and final point:

5. No Shortage of Great Feminists. I don't know if these people that I admire all adorn themselves with the label. I just know they speak powerfully to the issues. They inspire, rather than divide. They're sincere where Watson seems petty. They understand their audience because they want to. In a movement that has Greta Christina, Lauren Becker, Debbie Goddard, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Margaret Downey, Annie Laurie Gaylor, and many others, why must we settle for a Watson? These don't even include consideration of up and coming voices which are getting more numerous as the movement expands.

Rebecca Watson has done some great work. Her talk, the main body of it, at CFI was reportedly compelling and important. That's why it's too bad she needlessly shut the ears of half the audience right before. That's why Watson, and her brand of vituperative, self-centered feminism needs to go. Secularism will lose nothing in the bargain.


Malimar said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Malimar said...

It occurs to me that people lending undeserved credence to internet commenters is a result of failing to bear in mind the GIFT:

ERV said...

Once again, 'students' showing more class than their mentors (myself included, though ERV has always been and will always be Mos Eisley, no apologies).

I have no worries about the future of skepticism/atheism/feminism/whateverism. You all will turn out fine.


Roi des Faux said...

Saying that someone's words or actions are anti-feminist is not saying that that person is against feminism. It is saying that their words or actions are counterproductive with respect to the goals of feminism. If she thought that Stef was anti-feminist, she probably would have said "Stef is an anti-feminist".

Edward Clint said...

Greetings Abigail.

I've just recently become aware of your blog, but it and you are terrific. Really, a breath of fresh air in as many days. Thank you for the kind words.

ERV said...

Im glad you liked them, but meh, you all didnt need my posts or my support :) You have all made it perfectly clear you are able to defend yourselves in an articulate, intelligent, and impassioned manner.

I dont have to worry about you all.

Ill just give you the same advice I gave Stef: Stay in school. Dont do drugs. Drink your milk and do weight-bearing exercises to build up your bone density so you dont get osteoporosis.

Brandi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brandi said...

Well said! This is an excellent post.

Anonymous said...

(rolls eyes) Really?

AshleyZ said...

Excellent post.

I watched all this unfolding and thought to myself "I agree with Rebecca; elevator guy's actions were clueless and we should try to do better, so why am I so frustrated at her?"

I think you nailed it in #3. Using a word like "misogynist" is pretty much the equivalent of calling someone a Nazi, and we all know what a fruitful arguing technique that is. To apply a label like "anti-feminist" to someone who doesn't remotely deserve it, like McGraw, is so intuitively unjust that it naturally gets people's dander up. To call half your audience misogynist is fightin' words, and it naturally provokes the kind of train wreck we've seen.

There's an argument to be made that we can ignore the dictionary definition of misogyny (hating women) because the feminist term of art (holding any negative attitude towards women, including deference, chivalry, or expectation) technically suits the situation. But even if a group legitimately shares 9 out of 10 characteristics with the real, historical Nazis, it's a bad idea to make the comparison. No good will come of it.

Don't Godwin someone else's conference, and don't accuse someone of heinous bigotry because they slightly disagree with you.

Becca said...

Here's where Watson struck me as self-centered:
*she didn't realize how McGraw would have felt being called out in public like that. At a minimum, McGraw said she felt like she couldn't respond in the Q & A and Watson assumed she could have responded

Here's where McGraw struck me as self-centered:
*she did not take Watson at her word about her own experiences, but instead tried to defend someone whom she cannot know the motivations of. Even if she was right in this specific case, the fact is there are a lot of women out there experience sexism (some overt and uber-icky, some subtle and merely annoying), including in the skeptical community.

Here's where you strike me as self-absorbed, Edward:
*You apparently do not recognize that the tidy narrative about the choices your mother made (while utterly laudable) ignores that her choices were very likely also constrained by the society she lived in. Your idea of feminism appears to be completely compatible with it being completely irrelevant to feminism that the critically important work your mother did was so poorly paid.
Now tell me, if you can't even recognize the effects of sexism on your own mother, why should anyone believe you have any feminist credibility at all, or indeed even care about sexism happening to anyone?

*You think your opinion on what constitutes dignified discourse is the final say in the matter. While Youtube has a spectacularly bad rep (there truly is bathroom graffiti stuff there, I'll grant that!), there are places very real and important things come up in anonymous internet comments. More importantly though, I don't think it even counts as discourse to use examples of shitty Youtube comments as examples of 'bad behavior'. Responding to the comments on Youtube with a "neenerneener!", ok, that I could see as "lowering the bar for discourse".

*You think your assessment of what constitutes an 'annoyance' or a 'threat' in the skeptical community matters more than Watson's. In this, you make the same mistake as McGraw.

*You think that your standards of what is "appropriate" for a given talk counts for more than the person who was invited to give the talk. Someone who, for the record, obviously cares about the skeptic community and would like to address what is a glaring and galling issue within it, from her own perspective. Which, again, she was invited to share.
That's not to say she was necessarily 100% in the right. Just that you are conflating your opinion with "what is respectful".

*You think your idea on what "the real issues" on feminism is more important than Watson's. Sorry, but Watson explicitly said that other women have other viewpoints, and she wanted to share what it was like for her. Thus, you are in NO position to state what the "real issues" are. Watson's talk addressed what her real issues were. Whether you think they are the most important is completely irrelevant.

Why does feminism need you?

Kaisa said...

I wrote this before I read Becca's comment, which covered most of what I wanted to say quite well. The following will be somewhat repetitive:

If you want the atheist/skeptic movement to remain a sausagefest, then continue to ignore the experiences of RW and the women who have echoed those experiences. I know this idea has shocked many in the community, but people other than white dudes have valid perspectives too! Perspectives that can help change the makeup of the community for the better and help us address a wider variety of skeptic/atheist issues...if you want the community to stay relevant, that is.

In reference to your last two points, Why isn't there room for a variety of female voices? There's certainly a wide spectrum allowed for the male voices. Clearly your idea of a good, proper, respectable (classy? ladylike?) female voice isn't universal. They're *your* tastes, not the gold standard or the only standard.

According to you, RW is doing nothing for women and she's a voice we don't need. However, the reaction to a rather benign benign comment from RW has sparked a community-wide discussion, partly about feminism and how women should be treated. It may be a bit painful and uncomfortable, but if we *don't* go out of our way to shut this discussion down, it might actually help! I wouldn't call that "nothing" or "a voice we don't need." Unless, again, you don't care if the conferences and gatherings continue to resemble that of a Gentlemen's club.

Edward Clint said...

"If you want the atheist/skeptic movement to remain a sausagefest, then continue to ignore the experiences of RW..."

Where did I say negative experiences should be ignored? And for the record.. ISSA is not a "sausagefest". Half of our present officers are female; last year more than half. Our membership is 40-50% female and has been for a while. If you want an example of a group who unable to attract females, you should criticize someone else.

According to you, RW is doing nothing for women and she's a voice we don't need

I do advocate for a plurality of voices. Sam, who disagrees with me, just authored a post to that effect. That said, we should also have standards of discourse. We should be respectful, and we should welcome to conferences those who are truly excellent. Those who do not meet these basic criteria, should not be invited. Her voice is not merely different, it is unsanctionable.

Laurence said...

I'm curious if you come down on every voice who doesn't meet the standard of discourse you think is appropriate. If you did, I don't think you would be giving the compliments to ERV as her blog has lowered the standard of discourse much worse than Watson ever has. I'm sure PZ Myers and JT also lower the standard for discourse as well, but I don't see you calling them out as well. I don't think you are being fair here.

Edward Clint said...

I find it odd that you'd single out ERV, Laurence. If anything, her hard science posts stretch the intellectual legs more than any blog I know. Her commentary can be raw, but it's also sincere and discerning.

You think I don't criticize PZ Myers? I wonder what it would look like if I did.. maybe it could be a blog post called "Is PZ Myers a Crank"? And also it'd be posted in 2010.

Tell me again about fairness?

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