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.