Ask An Atheist Takes On Dogmatic Feminism

Becky and Sam of Ask an Atheist recently did a podcast called “The Problem of Dogmatic Feminism” to which I’d like to respond.

By way of background, their podcast is mainly a response to recent commentary on the blogosphere regarding the issue of harassment at conferences, mainly skeptical or atheist conferences (though as far as I know, really, the former much more so than the latter). You may recall that at one point in this discussion, I suggested that DJ Grothe consider stepping aside as head of JREF in order to bring in someone who was better prepared to handle sexual harassment issues, and others made similar remarks calling at least for him to change his approaches. As a response to the widespread blogospheric call for better policies at all conferences, DJ made two fairly pedestrian mistakes: 1) He made it about him and TAM (which it was, but not exclusively or entirely) and 2) He suggested that the people who were complaining about harassment being an issue at conferences were really the problem, and that if only they would stop complaining women might feel “safer” or “more welcome.”

One of the key bloggers in all this has been Stephanie Zvan, at Almost Diamonds, although Stephanie is not even close to the only voice on all this. It is just that she has taken a bit of a leadership role and her posts have formed the framework for much of this discussion.

Becky and Sam’s podcast turned out to mainly be a reaction to Stephanie’s posts, and within that context, it turned out to be mainly a critique of Stephanie’s tone and approach, and in particular, her alleged use of “shame” as a tool. Not entirely, but mainly; other bloggers and other issues were certainly mentioned. I think it is fair to say that Stephanie’s posts and her activism in this area comprised a plurality of the discussion. (This will become somewhat important later in the discussion.) We were able to witness a sort of auto-Marhall McLuhan moment when Stephanie called in and shamelessly defended her position!

I want to respond to several of the things that Becky and Sam said, and I’m going to work off my notes from the show and thus do this more or less in temporal order.

First, I want to say that I completely agree with their three main points, which I will paraphrase here to make sure we are all thinking approximately the same thing:

1) Harassment at conferences, and sexism in the Atheist and/or Skeptics community is real, a problem, and needs to be addressed. At one point, I think it was Sam, misspoke and said something along the lines of this: As an evidence-based kinda guy he wants to see evidence that harassment was real. (I might have misheard.) But in other parts of the discussion the two podcasters did make it clear that they recognize that there really is a problem, they are against sexism, and they are all for doing something about it.

2) Regarding tone: Although I’m going to critique what they said in detail about this, I do agree that tone is very very important and it is possible to wreck an argument by using the wrong tone.

3) The commenters over on the ERV blog are in the main out of line.

(I do hope that people recognize that #3 above is an example of #2. I’m afraid that often the word “tone” is used only to refer to certain “tones” and not all.)

I was not overwhelmingly impressed by Becky and Sam’s understanding of the overall context of this discussion. Becky mentions the discussion that is a month old, and a year old, in the same sentence at one point. There seems to have been major areas of discussion that Becky and Sam have just discovered. They explicitly state that they have reached a threshold and gotten fed up (Becky says this I think) which I interpret, perhaps incorrectly, to suggest that Becky has only recently been paying attention to this particular discussion and suddenly became annoyed and decided to do something about that.

And there is nothing wrong with that. That’s what commentary, blogging, and podcasting is all about much of the time. I just mention this here because it helps to explain some of the other issues I want to (constructively, I hope) bring up.

Which brings us to this: On numerous occasions one or both of the podcasters talked about women who are writing about this, woman who are engaged in this conversation, etc. etc. They did throw in the “some men” qualifier now and then. But they never mentioned a single man who has been writing from the feminist perspective. Considering the degree to which some of the men and some of the women who are engaged in this discussion cross post and cross reference, it is not really possible to delve into this issue without noticing that there is a “chorus” (their words) of female and male voices asking for a change in how we do certain things.

It occurred to me early on in the podcast that Becky wanted to describe the conversation that is going on now as one with two camps of indistinguishable or possibly equal levels of stake, merit, standing, and possibly even numerical representation. This could not be farther from the truth, and by the end of the podcast, they had changed what they were saying and had begun to more clearly identify that there is a large difference in terms of standing, level of discourse, and numbers, in this conversation.

Becky talked about “Dogma” (that’s even in the title of the podcast) but I did not hear any specific examples of Dogma, let alone an argument for why a particular bit of Dogma was a problem.

The largest area of disagreement that came to my mind during this podcast had to do with “shame.” Becky made the claim that Stephanie Zvan was using “shame” as a tool. I think it is true that Stephanie has used shame here and there, but ironically Becky seems to have misidentified where Stephanie was using that particular tool. Nonetheless, Becky and Sam both argued that since “shame” had been a big part of people’s nasty religious background, it was inappropriate to use shame in the atheist community.

That claim is wrong in many, many ways. Most trivially but very obviously: So what? If water was thrown on people as torture by some Christan group, do we let their houses burn down? No. More importantly but I’m sure much more subtly, what we refer to as “shame” is a fairly complex set of communication tropes and emotions. For what it’s worth, “evolutionary psychologists” have identified “shame” as a built in human emotion. You can’t really not have shame. Well, you can, but people without the ability to experience it are in a special category and we need not discuss that here.

Shame is very often the only tool people have to push back against oppression. There are people who can do nothing to better their own way of life than to rely on shame to bring allies into play, or to reduce the severity of the way they are exploited or injured. Many of us have had the experience of being in a crowd of like minded protesters, with the police mounted on horses or armed with their tear gas, bearing down, by order of an oppressive mayor or governor, and all we can do is chant “Shame, Shame, Shame … the whole world is watching.”

To designate shame as something that should not be used in the context of effecting social change is to me unthinkable. To not recognize the social value of shame one must be truly privileged and unwilling or unable to examine that privilege.

Ashley Miller was shamed. She made a complaint. DJ Grothe responded poorly to it. The conversation kept going. DJ demonstrated an absolutely spectacular passive aggressive counter attack. Here in Minnesota we are thinking of printing his face on our money. He kept insisting that a certain very clearly defined using many adjectives thing had never happened even though he knew full well that this thing had in fact happened if you just knock off a couple of the adjectives. After this went on for a while, Ashley realized what the communication issue was and made a clarification.

Since Ashly had to change her story to be more accurate, others…every single one of them being privileged white males…on facebook and the blogosphere stood there and stared hard at her and insisted that she demure. She was made to publicly apologize to DJ. She was chastised. How dare she make an error that would sully the name of DJ Grothe.

That…was a misuse of shame. And that really happened.

In the podcast, Becky and Sam used shame…well, samelessly. They Shamed Stephanie for using the title “Zero Tolerance” for a blog post (but they had that wrong … so they had to change their story to shaming her for using the term ‘zero’ because it is so absolute, but really only reveal their own ignorance of the larger discussion. Do you know where the term “zero” first appeared in this discussion? About one year ago? Yes? Well then, you are not Becky and Sam, because they don’t!)

They elevated shame to the level of an Avenger Movie reference or at least a This Old House reference, by calling it “Hammer of Shame.”

(So let’s review: Stephanie did something shameful for using the word “zero” but Becky and Sam have no problem calling a particular proscriptive suggestion “The Hammer of Shame”… makes me laugh, seriously.)

They shamed Stephanie for banning a troll, and when she explained that there was a broader context, they shamed her for acting in ignorance of the fact that Becky and Sam did not pay enough attention to the context.

By the way, as an aside, do not ever tell a blogger who to ban or not ban. If you think you can do that, you don’t know crap about blogging. It is entirely up to the blogger to make that call, and it is never appropriate to demand an explanation or shame a blogger for their action. Every single comment that is allowed on a post is there by special permission. If someone wants to have a totally open comment policy, then that is their (very irresponsible) choice. But I digress.

And finally, and very briefly, I do want to get back to the question of evidence. Sam seemed to say at one point that anti-harassment policies must be based on evidence, or more exactly (I think) that we only need them if there is real evidence that we need them. This is a great example of one of the common Skeptical Fallacies. It is a little like saying that we need to prove for every satellite we launch the need for one of those expensive launch vehicles like rocket ships and such. If you don’t know about gravity, you might think that, but if you know about gravity, it is kid of a silly question. If you don’t know why this analogy applies to conferences, then you know nothing about very common issues commonly addressed, for example, by various HR departments, but you can learn. No need to reinvent the wheel. Just get smarter.

I love Becky and Sam’s show, and I think the two of them are great. I think they made some key points and as I say in the beginning I totally agree with them. But I also think they got some stuff wrong, and I assume that they will take the commentary that will ensue into account. Or at least, it would be a shame if they didn’t.

Share and Enjoy:
  • Twitter
  • StumbleUpon
  • Facebook
  • Digg
  • del.icio.us
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Google Bookmarks
  • LinkedIn
Tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to Ask An Atheist Takes On Dogmatic Feminism

  1. Bob Allen says:

    Looks like you just want to add your 2 cents to the conversation and have these folk take that 2 cents into account and move the overall discussion into this particular Blog thread.

    Good luck !!!!

  2. Greg Laden says:

    Bob, I find your comment both stupid and insulting. This conversation has only barely been happening on my blog; It’s mostly been at Skepchick and Almost Diamonds, and I’m fine with that. Your suggestion that I write blog posts for the sake of people reading my posts or clicking on my blog is absurd. I’ll have none of that. NONE OF THAT, DO YOU HEAR???

  3. Bob Allen says:

    I didn’t realize that I touched a sore spot.

  4. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says:

    Wow, what an asshole.

    Okay, I’ll go read the post now.

  5. Bob Allen says:

    Realizing that NO MALE has EVER experienced, on a day to day thingy, what it’s like to grow up in a Patriarchal Authoritarian Culture – as a woman – I also realize that quite a number of Males (including myself) tend to get a tad “touchy” over issues of Feminism !!!!!!!!

    So, Greg is a tad touchy – and because I point this out – Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven – calls me an “asshole” !!!!

    As I said – MANY Males – get just get a tad touchy – when the issue IS Feminism. It’s the Nature of the Beast – This MALE reaction – concerning some issues within Feminism !!!!!

    It’s hard for sensitive guys ALSO to experience the day to day oppression of a Patriarchal Authoritarian Culture – but it’s an easier row to hoe – than being a woman – within that Culture !!!

    Come on guys – support without the touchiness IS what is called for !!!!!

  6. Simon says:

    Good post Greg. A bit off-topic, but I recommend reading The Honor Code by Kwame Anthony Appiah. It’s a great book on how concepts like ‘honor’ and ‘shame’ have been misused but in fact remain very relevant for cultural progress.

  7. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says:

    As I said – MANY Males – get just get a tad touchy – when the issue IS Feminism. It’s the Nature of the Beast – This MALE reaction – concerning some issues within Feminism !!!!!

    Okay, here’s what you actually said:

    Looks like you just want to add your 2 cents to the conversation and have these folk take that 2 cents into account and move the overall discussion into this particular Blog thread.

    Good luck !!!!

    I didn’t realize that I touched a sore spot.

    What the fuck does the point you’re now claiming to be making have to do with anything Greg said in the post?

    Or did you not even read the post, just parsed the title and made some uncharitable assumptions?

  8. John Moeller says:

    Your suggestion that I write blog posts for the sake of people reading my posts or clicking on my blog is absurd. I’ll have none of that. NONE OF THAT, DO YOU HEAR???

    I didn’t realize that I touched a sore spot.

    Bob, you should wear a taller hat.

  9. Bob Allen says:

    My, oh my, I’ve really openned up the can of worms – where GUYS get TOUCHY about some aspects of Feminism !!!!

    Let’s see – in Greg’s FIRST paragraph – he CLEARLY indicates – “…to which I’d like to respond.” THAT, my MALE friends – IS indicating that he indeed – wishes to add his 2 cents worth of comments. But then MAYBE – some of the TOUCHY males commenting – FAILED to read Greg’s OPENING paragraph. Just sayin’.

    A few paragraphs later – Greg says – “I was not overwhelmingly impressed by Becky and Sam’s understanding of the overall context of this discussion.” Which IS STILL part of 2 cent commentary !!! Greg goes into DETAIL – for his 2 cents.

    Then Greg goes into a 2 cent monolog about Shame – and appears to use “Shame and Blame” as a “Slash and Burn” tool of the trade, again, indicating and justifying a 2 cent appraisal – for what it’s worth (again, only about 2 cents).

    And then Greg gives a small blurb – about 2 cents worth – about “evidence”, or the question there-of. Greg briefly mentions space-ships and gravity – concluding – “If you don’t know why this analogy applies to conferences, then you know nothing about very common issues commonly addressed, for example, by various HR departments, but you can learn. No need to reinvent the wheel. Just get smarter.”

    Obviously – there IS – SOME kind of connection here – particularly with HR departments and the “Slash and Burn” of “Shame and Blam” – but the connection IS ONLY about 2 cents worth of explanation.

    Greg ends with an Obligatory 2 cent ending of “it’s OK to agree to disagree”. Which is fine, but only worth about 2 cents.

    So, getting back to my openning summary – “Looks like you just want to add your 2 cents to the conversation and have these folk take that 2 cents into account and move the overall discussion into this particular Blog thread.

    Good luck !!!!”

    It sure looks like a good summary to me – and WOWIE GEE WIZ – the NERVES that I’ve touched over the issue that GUYS TEND to be rather TOUCHY on certain areas of Feminism – certainly finds a GREAT DEAL of commentary – above – and WE’VE probably NOT seen the end of the TOUCHY FEELY THINGY that GUYS tend to have with certain areas of Feminism – which MAY appear below !!!

    Get out the Pop-corn !!!!! (Or as Bet Davis might put it – “We’re in for a bumpy ride!”). (Dig that last punctuation!).

  10. Becky says:

    Hi Greg,

    Happy to have you add as many cents as you want; happy to have linked your blog on our page. You’ve got some good points, and some points that I think Sam and I address in our supplemental audio recordings. We jettisoned a lot of stuff in favor of taking Stephanie’s call. I disagree with your characterization of us shaming Stephanie (1. not our intent, stated or implied; 2. doesn’t seem to be the result, i.e. Stephanie has not expressed feeling ashamed by anything we said). Anyway, Sam presses me more on the shame idea in the podcast extra, so I’d be interested in your feedback.

    Do I know squat about blogging? I am a literacy educator, so I tend to subscribe to a reader-response theory of engagement with texts/media. An artist/blogger/musician/creator/etc. puts their work out there, and viewers/readers respond in all sorts of ways. In blogs there’s the opportunity for turn-taking of engagement and response. I’m overall not very proscriptive about how it should be done, just observant of the consequences. If I as a reader see people with my questions being banned and dismissed, I’m going to identify with the person being banned. (In this case: Eww. That’s a crummy consequence.)

    Of course, this is your space and you determine the content/frequency of interaction and response.

    Thank you for your listenership and engagement. :) I may be hit-or-miss or silent in further responses as the threads get spread out and as I turn my attention to remedying sleep-debt and attending to my day job. I’ll try to keep an ear out, though.

  11. dysomniak says:

    Wow, Bobby boy. You sure do manage to type a lot without saying much. Dig the random caps too. It’s cute that you think you’ve touched a nerve here. Rest assured there is nothing shocking or original about your “analysis”. It’s merely a less coherent version of the same stupid shit that pops up on every article related to this subject. Dunning-Kruger in full effect.

  12. Greg Laden says:

    Becky, thanks for the reply.

    I should clarify my remark about “knowing squat about blogging”… I meant that as a general comment, not as a retort to your comment, though it looks that way and I should fix that (and will when I get a chance, shortly). I was making a stronger and more general aside about a subject I’ve been meaning to write a blog post about and probably will so. The relevant idea here is this: One can never fairly judge the specific actions of a blogger regarding comments. You might see a single comment show up then disappear and that commenter is now “banned” (a term that itself has a meaning that is not understood by people who don’t blog, who are often commenters) and as an observer you don’t know what else has happened behind the scenes. That commenter might have sent separate emails, there might have been a dozen comments that were caught by a filter (“Becky is a jerky poopy face” made it through but nine comments with multiple links to pornographic sites that say the same thing were caught by the spam filter.) And so on. There are other factors. Anyway I’m sure you know all about blogging.

    I am a literacy educator, so I tend to subscribe to a reader-response theory of engagement…I’m overall not very proscriptive about how it should be done, just observant of the consequences. If I as a reader see people with my questions being banned and dismissed, I’m going to identify with the person being banned.

    Suppose you got a comment by a person who wanted to “kick you in the cunt” followed by two or three by other commenters supporting that idea, and all of those commetners were then discovered by you to be having a conversation on another blog in which every day a half dozen to a dozen comments were added telling made up stories about you, accusing you of various improper acts and involving a sort of informal contest to think of more and more insulting ways to mangle your name. Then, sometimes, when you happen to engage in a conversation with someone else on the internet … say a commenter on your site or a fellow blogger, or in your case, a guest on your show, that person was then dragged into that fray simply because they know you, so that you really had to think twice about who you interviewed. And, you then found that 2 out of every 3 of the comments on your site, where you are not very proscriptive, were from this group of people keeping up this horrid, insulting banter, so that your site (representing your show and you) became a major hang out for them.

    Those are the people who are regularly “banned” at many free thought blogs, those are the people who are now making an utter fool of you with this “troll vs hero” banter they’ve got going now on your blog (yes, the rest of us are watching and wondering if you get that at all) and those are the main voices opposing what many of us are doing regarding the implementation of nothing other than sensible HR style consideration at conferences and in other contexts in the broader atheist and skeptic movement, and those of the people that DJ Grothe has I think rather dumbly and accidentally thrown his lot in with and those are the people you’ve managed to give renewed intertubual life to by providing them with a sense of false equivalence in this debate.

    This is not the Ivory Tower, Becky. You’ve misidentified the game.

    Regarding “shame” clearly we have different definitions of what that means and may have to agree to disagree.

  13. Becky, I’ve said very little of how I feel about what happened on that show. Don’t use what I haven’t said as evidence of anything at all. I don’t get the luxury of feelings in talking about this. When I do express emotion, I become “angry” or “whiny” or “manipulative” or “self-victimizing” or “hateful” or “biased”, any of the many qualities used to dismiss feminists who are talking about real problems as being irrational.

    If you want to know how your show sounded to people who aren’t willing to engage in a comment thread with the crew you’ve currently got commenting about the show (and that is a consideration in removing commenters as well), try the half a dozen people who have said to me, “I don’t know how you managed to be so nice writing your response. I couldn’t have done it.” Or go ask people you weren’t talking with when you decided to do the show. Go ask some other self-identified feminists.

    Be aware too that agreement with you in that thread ranges from cost-free to encouraged. Disagreement means…well, you’ve got the evidence for that.

  14. Also, there’s a very large difference between feeling shamed and feeling ashamed. The second is an internalization. They should be kept distinct when discussing shame.

  15. SallyStrange says:

    Becky’s responses continue to underwhelm.

    What is even more disappointing, though, is that she seems to be the only co-host who’s still engaged eith the issue. Was that a deliberate decision or did it just happen?

  16. Yes, Becky’s responses are sometimes so underwhelming as to be absent entirely. She emailed me late Monday to request the rescue of a comment in moderation (because of links); I replied yesterday to ask her for an example of “dogmatism” from me, since she named me as one of the “dogmatic” feminists in the podcast. No reply. I find that deeply unimpressive.

  17. Deen says:

    @SallyStrange:

    What is even more disappointing, though, is that she seems to be the only co-host who’s still engaged eith the issue.

    I got the impression from the radio show that she was the one who wanted to talk about the issue in the first place, so that’s not too surprising.

  18. Also from that Mike Gillis guy, who said at least twice in his two long comments that she feels very strongly about the subject. She feels very strongly about all this unsourced uncited unquoted “dogmatism” among teh atheist feminists. She feels very strongly about this thing that hasn’t been shown to exist at all.

  19. Ophelia, if you accept that Becky’s using the defintion of “dogmatism” that says we’re being very insistent, then she’s sourced it fairly well.

  20. Amphigorey says:

    Becky seems very invested in the “both sides do it” fallacy, which is why she’s working so hard to disagree with you. If she agreed with Stephanie and Ophelia, she’d be just another dogmatic feminist, and she can’t have that.

  21. Becky says:

    Ophelia,

    I urge you and others to listen to our supplemental audio (we didn’t cover all ground on our live program in favor of taking the phone call) where Sam and I further discuss this (in case you thought I was the only one engaged in this). Please stay tuned also for the response you are desiring. I am currently on my 15 minutes of duty-free lunch during the busiest work week of my year. We all three producers have day jobs and we need to work, eat, sleep (in that order) and sometimes responding makes its way to 2nd or 3rd place.

  22. Greg Laden says:

    Part 1 of that is here: Ooops, link deleted. I’m not really interested in sending people to the new ERV West Coast location.

  23. Greg Laden says:

    I don’t quite get the discussion here about “Becky” vs. “Sam” as having different roles in this dissociation. I kind of thought this was mostly Becky’s thing with Sam being more of the interviewer or foil. That seems more or less fine and normal and even a good format. I’m sure I’ve done that with various co-speakers on ATR more than once. Am I missing something? Prolly not.

  24. I disagree with your characterization of us shaming Stephanie (1. not our intent, stated or implied; 2. doesn’t seem to be the result, i.e. Stephanie has not expressed feeling ashamed by anything we said).

    Becky. Wow.

    And yet…

    And yet DJ Grothe has not apologized for the things that Stephanie has shamed him about. He hasn’t even acknowledged that these things might be, you know, bad. Ergo, he has not felt ashamed.

    By your own logic, she therefore did not shame him. And your entire argument falls apart.

  25. Also, need I say “intent is not magic”?

  26. Greg Laden says:

    Shame is a verb. Ashamed is an adjective.

    What I find shameful at the moment is the way in which the ERV gaggle has settled in at AAA’s web site. Its like a second home. That will work well for them, I’m sure.

  27. Deen says:

    @Greg Laden in #26: at least it might make them think twice about not trusting people’s moderating decisions again.

  28. Bob Allen says:

    Ah yes, good ol’ “Shame and Blame” going together with “Slash and Burn” (as I talk about in #9 above) – wielded from the elevated platform of Rightious Indignation !!!!!

    Yup, about as good as it gets !!!!!

  29. Deen says:

    Glad to hear at least someone is having fun. Me, I’m just bored.

  30. Loved the post!

    One thing: You said, “In the podcast, Becky and Sam used shame…well, samelessly.”

    I assume you meant shamelessly?

  31. Greg Laden says:

    Well, its kinda the shame thing… :)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>