Tuesday, February 8, 2011

When posts about gender go pear shaped

Yesterday I allowed Sharon Moss and Lyz Liddell to do a guest post on my blog. I rarely let people do guest posts, but I trust both of them immensely and have a great personal interest in making women feel more welcome in the atheist community, so their post seemed appropriate. They even waited a week before writing it, so they had plenty of time to think about their opinions and reduce a reactionary response. And while the comments have erupted into what I can safely call a clusterfuck, I'm here to stand by my decision to let that post go up.

I watched Sean's video. I have my opinions about his whole talk, and specifically about the Million Dollar Challenge as an evolutionary biologist and a feminist. I also have some thoughts on the whole "female vs woman" terminology debate. I'll likely expand on these later, because they're important topics (and as a blogger I'm compelled to give my opinions) but I want to focus on a different set of objections in this post*.

All voices must be heard, not just the ones supporting popular opinion.

Sharon and Lyz felt uncomfortable and unwelcome thanks to certain things that happened at the conference. That was how they personally felt. While I understand concerns that purposeful misrepresentation happened - something I do not support - I know Sharon and Lyz had nothing of the sort in mind. Others may just have been personally fine with the comments, and thus saw it as a misrepresentation. But if we want to make groups more welcoming, we have to worry about the people we're upsetting, not the people who already agree with us.

Frankly, the reaction to that post disappoints me more than whatever happened at the conference. It really illustrates how most of the secular community has no clue how to react tactfully to criticisms about diversity. To start on a positive note, what should be done when a woman says they were made uncomfortable by a situation?
  • Politely state that your original intention was never to cause offense or make someone feel unwelcome. I'm giving you the benefit of the doubt. Contrary to popular belief, I don't think all atheists are sexist assholes.
  • Apologize for the problem. You may not have intentionally done anything wrong, but this is the diplomatic thing to do.
  • Foster further discussion. Ask what in particular made them feel unwelcome. Ask them to expand on any points you didn't understand. Ask for feedback on how you can avoid this situation in the future.
  • Realize people who point out sexism are not out to blame individuals or event organizers, or even the movement as a whole. It is merely to highlight a larger problem so we can work toward fixing it.
Sharon and Lyz have had correspondence with the Alabama state director of American Atheists, and apparently he is doing many of the things on my "good" list and resulting in very productive conversations. I have also been talking to Sean Faircloth. While his initial reaction frankly fell into issue #3 below, he has been very polite and interested in feedback and discussion since then, which I really appreciate and respect.

On the flip side, it doesn't help to:
  • Automatically jump to conclusions that they're feminazis with an agenda to slander individuals and organizations (especially when they also praise those individuals and organizations in the same post). And yes, the vast majority of the commenters went straight to this viewpoint. All avenues of rational discussion? Obliterated.
  • Claim they're obviously wrong because you were there and you have a vagina and you weren't offended. Good, I'm glad everyone in the room wasn't upset... but women aren't all the same, nor does being one mean you understand sexism or feminism. Newsflash: women can say sexist shit too. Hell, I do sometimes - no one is perfect.
  • Flaunt how women and/or feminists have previously supported you or your conference. Look, that's great, but we're talking about a single incident, not your whole past. Again, even the most anti-sexism humanists can screw up every once in a while. Don't fall into the "But I have a black friend!" fallacy.
  • Belittle them by saying these issues are trivial. Is a poorly timed joke about "the weaker sex" as bad as issues like female genital mutilation? Of course not. But little things do matter, especially when added together. Those small remarks and uncomfortable gazes from the audience can add up to feeling like a second class citizen by the end of the day, especially in the context of other things going on in a woman's life.
  • Encourage people on your side to drown out the opposition. One, the argument from popularity is a logical fallacy, folks. Two, the pure anger in these comments completely discourage other women who also had problems with the conference to speak up. Who wants to admit they were also offended when the result is being mocked, insulted, and told to shut up? (Key word: drown out. Feel free to disagree, but is the vitriol necessary?)
  • Use triggering terms that have been traditionally used to oppress women's opinions - "irrational," "hypersensitive," "overreacting," "humorless," "hysterical" - especially without justification. If you think someone is being irrational, break down their logic and show their flaws. Resorting to these terms can cause many women to shut down discussion thanks to their history.
If a student who attended a Secular Student Alliance conference was deeply offended by what they considered a sexist statement in a talk, I'd take their concerns seriously, no matter how much I personally disagreed with them, because I want this movement to be welcoming. And if you can't understand that, then you are part of the problem.

To the conference organizers and (unfortunately) few commenters who actually managed to behave tactfully in this whole situation, thank you and keep up the good work. Your concerns are going to make this movement more accepting in the years to come. To everyone else? While I don't agree with it 100%, it would still help if you watched (or re-watched) Phil Plait's Don't Be A Dick talk. Just sayin'.

*I am going to consider any comments in this thread that debate the Million Dollar Challenge or "female vs woman" topics thread derailing, and both sides of the debate will be swiftly deleted. You have been warned.

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