Sunday, July 3, 2011
Posted by Edward Clint at 6:42 PM
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.