Seneca Falls, we have a problem

All right, I admit that title might be a little confusing, since not too many people are familiar with the hamlet of Seneca Falls, New York, but on top of it being only 12 km from where I grew up (which is well worth remembering,) it was the location of the first Convention on Women’s Rights in 1848. We’ve come a long way since then – unfortunately, the direction has become somewhat questionable. While there is a lot of support for feminism being closely aligned with skepticism, enough that many people believe they are sisters, the grim reality is that their relation is superficial at best, and almost diametrically opposed at times. And the fact that pointing this out is sufficient to engender long diatribes in response is actually support of it by itself, but let’s go into it a bit deeper than that. This is long, so it continues after the break.

The problem with writing about this topic is, if you take any time at all to compose your post carefully or slot the topic in amongst others, the drama has continued apace. I have tried approaching this topic in detail twice before, but things ‘get old’ quickly in the blogoblob, and any links used to illustrate a point get buried under an avalanche of new posts, often going in other directions. So when I speak in generalities, it’s mostly to avoid the appearance of harping on old news.

First, let me address some of the problems that I’ve seen, repeatedly, within this topic. I’m not going to bother informing you where I stand on equal rights and gender bias, because I want people to read what I’m saying, not filter it all through what “side” I’m on. That’s actually the first:

1. Feminism, online, displays far too much use of polar extremes. There is no such thing as sides in this issue, and an attitude of “fer us or agin’ us” is not only counterproductive, it is worthy only of people without any minds at all. Everything is grey area; those that cannot handle this are guilty of purposefully skewing reality to try and make it fit their goals.

2. There is a wicked tendency to try and “read between the lines.” Addressing a particular topic, such as the use of the word “mansplaining” (a personal experience of mine,) does not indicate anything more than addressing that particular topic. Humans are far too complicated to make a judgment about someone’s attitude, based on single posts or comments, worth anything at all. And no one who considers themselves a skeptic should be guilty of snap judgments of this nature.

3. There is a distinct difference between being affronted and being harmed. When it comes down to any discussion of what, for instance, any convention should be doing to protect attendees from harassment or assault, discussions of whether someone looked at someone else’s boobs are petty and misguided. The word ‘victim’ should apply to those who suffer lasting impact, otherwise it loses all importance.

4. Anecdotal evidence does not become valuable solely within the topic of feminism. Again, those who consider themselves skeptics do not accept singular accounts as evidence of any significance. When someone self-reports their reaction to alternative medicine, this does not eliminate the scientific studies that determined the worthlessness of such treatments. And someone who reports being harassed, in a convention with 5,000 attendees, does not make the convention a dangerous place. Mathematically, we call that .02% – provided that the account is even accurate.

5. Assuming that a situation will ‘escalate’ is not supportable. Any woman being ‘hit on’ by a man does not indicate that rape is even remotely likely – we call that a slippery slope argument. Panhandling does not lead to mugging, political lies do not lead to totalitarianism, and ice cream does not lead to obesity. While there are always exceptions, they are called ‘exceptions’ for a distinct reason.

And the biggest one, which really needs its own special emphasis:

6. Bias from a particular gender can only be counted as a factor when it can be distinctly shown as the primary influence. Because someone is a creep and is also male, this does not make all males creeps. It pains me to have to point this out, but it is rampant in feminism. We do not accept arbitrary distinctions based on skin color, nationality, or model of car driven, but it continues to pop up in such discussions. It might be possible, given a large enough sample, to determine if any individual is sexist, but to then conclude that this must apply to most members of that gender is actually sexism itself.

In fact, there’s something that bears very careful consideration here, because it’s a demonstration of mutually contradictory claims. Throughout the history of the world, populations of females and males have never been shown to diverge to a significant level; roughly, it’s been a 50:50 ratio for as long as we can determine. Yet the repeated message is that males are dominating society, and have been for a long time. Since, supposedly, the only discernible difference between genders is a tendency for males to be larger and stronger (not exceeding an average of 15-20%,) this seems to imply that males gained this advantage through physical subjugation, and apparently continue to maintain the advantage this way. Since this is obviously ludicrous, sociologists spend their time determining what is being missed within the whole idea – up to and including the possibility that the idea is based on incorrect assumptions.

The same contradiction underlies a significant percentage of the attitudes regarding feminism itself. While females are more than capable of doing anything that males can do, somehow they need special protection from (and this is a real term used pretty frequently) the “white male privilege.” I’m going to take a moment here and note that, as a white male myself, nobody seems to have notified me of how my privilege is provided, because I sure as fuck haven’t seen it yet in my life. But getting back on topic, there is an inherent problem with the idea that empowered, capable females of the species continually need special accommodations as constant victims. One must ask who is to blame for the apparent bias: the males for their dominance, or the females for allowing it to happen?

Most of the real issues that I’ve seen, however, I can only describe as confirmation bias, or looking for instances to support the idea of rampant sexism. Some time back, Jen McCreight on BlagHag featured a guest post by two attendees of a skeptical conference. There, a panel discussion was set up to address the recent (reputable) poll that found that women and blacks were under-represented among atheists, in comparison to average populations. I’ve addressed part of this in detail, pointing out that assumptions about causes are demonstrations of poor reasoning ability; at this convention, they had at least opened the topic up for discussion about both causes and ways to bring those statistics into more acceptable ratios.

The guest posters found numerous problems with this panel, from the bad ratio of men to women (5:1), to the overbearing nature of the moderator; their biggest complaint, however, was the panel first ignoring one audience member, then openly denigrating her comment when she was allowed to speak. I readily admit, that sounds pretty bad.

The keyword there is “sounds.” What became clear in the comments of that post was that many people who actually attended did not see any of these issues, and it wasn’t exactly a big room. It was disturbing to see how few commenters, with reasons to now question the accuracy of the post, hesitated even slightly in their accusations of misogyny. But soon afterwards, the video of the very discussion got posted online, and even more of the complaints got called into question. I don’t want to belabor something long past, but I think it’s necessary to demonstrate where some of the real problems lie.

Panel makeup. I cannot vouch for how many women the organizers tried to get onto the panel, but when the very discussion point is the lack of women active in atheism and secularism, this kind of underscores the difficulty in finding enough, wouldn’t you think? Especially since this was a local, and not nationwide, convention. Assuming that the organizers weighted the panel towards males consciously is pretty biased in itself. It was very clear that the one woman on the panel was able to speak freely, was never interrupted, and in fact was much easier to hear than at least two of the male panelists, and spoke more often.

The moderator dominating the discussion. The moderator was louder, but that’s different from dominating, especially since he had a handheld microphone while the panelists all worked from tablestand models that naturally remain farther from their mouths. It also bears noting that some people are good at projecting, and know they have to when speaking publicly (the kind of people you look for as moderators, actually.) Since I saw no instances of the moderator talking over anyone or interrupting them, ‘dominance’ seems a very subjective thing to prove.

Ignoring the woman from the audience. This one’s hard to establish. Since no questions from the audience were taken for a long time, it’s clear that she was not being singled out. Whenever the camera switched to the audience, there were no visible hands raised, but they did not pan the entire room (the woman in question, even when speaking, did not show up in the video at all.) The audience that was in view, however, was predominantly female, engaged, interested, and laughing at appropriate times. No one that I saw seemed the least chagrined, annoyed, or even overly thoughtful.

Denigrating her comment. The comment in question, from the woman in the audience, was that the moderator constantly used the term “female.” And here, I will admit that some tact might have been more in order – not for using the term “female,” which is hardly derogatory, but because when it was brought up at least two people, apparently somewhat confused over the complaint, joked about it. I’m not surprised by this reaction – the idea of the ‘proper’ way to address women is wildly subjective and changes constantly – but if it was apparent that the woman stormed out (again, this is not visible in the video and was only attested by the guest bloggers,) then an apology was indeed in order. Or at least, I think so.

Now, the biggest problem. As soon as many of these same observations were made, the video itself was completely blocked out (audio wiped and video blocked by text.) What has all the makings of being a biased account of a panel discussion, which could certainly have been very useful in helping make feminism a directed and goal-oriented practice by correcting some issues, was instead censored. Am I being reactionary when I think that this was being swept under the rug?

Later on, both Ophelia Benson of Butterflies & Wheels and Adam Lee of Daylight Atheism went off on long posts in response to commenters. Adam made a case about the curious newly-named tactic, “mansplaining,” attempting to show that a particular commenter was evidence of a cultural bias, using a poorly-related study to do so. That he neither understood the study itself and the problems inherent in his conclusion (a conclusion that the people running the study did not reach themselves,) and never tumbled to the idea that one commenter does not reflect culture in any way, shape or form, was never recognized. Maybe he understood the point I made about ‘mansplaining’ being a sexist term in itself – sexism does not apply solely to women, which is where equal rights addresses a lot more than feminism.

Ophelia wanted to open a debate on the use of terms such as ‘cunt’ and ‘twat,’ apparently in order to examine their inherent sexism. What I never managed to get across was that any individual’s use of a term reflected only that individual, and was meaningless in supporting any idea of sexism or cultural bias. I wasn’t the first to point out that in some cultures, Irish and Scottish being two primes, both terms are used much more generically than here in the states, both as stronger versions of ‘idiot.’ It’s very easy to consider that the slang terms for female genitalia must indicate a derogatory attitude towards females, but this is armchair psychology; the same cannot be said for terms like ‘dick’ and ‘balls,’ and even ‘bitch’ generally means someone who complains excessively or is very snotty. The skeptical approach requires realizing that, not only do cultural usages reflect the impact of any particular word, there is also no way to determine the attitude underlying any usage without extensive questioning (preferably by someone who actually knows what to ask and isn’t in search of a particular conclusion.) Even then, it applies to just one person.

Neither one of them tumbled to the idea of trolling; if you display online a hot button that can be pushed, someone’s going to push it. Some topics are even guarantees of responses no matter where they are introduced. This is indicative of nothing more than childish fucking around. Welcome to 1995…

There’s something else that needs to be considered as well, related to the point at top about grey areas. There are actually levels of sexism, which I’ll crassly crush down into two just for the sake of demonstrating. Overt sexism is the idea that not only are females and males different, but one is inferior because of it. Subtle sexism is more insidious, since it may be a cultural bias that no one has considered closely. For instance if I, a privileged white male, saw a female struggling with a heavy burden and went to help, some would consider that I was implying that a female was incapable of doing something without a male’s help. This is subtle sexism – just, not on my part. I could be helping because I am bigger, and/or because I am nice, and would do exactly the same thing for a man in the same situation. One cannot judge motivations on the external action.

When it does occur, however, subtle sexism would be better addressed with something in proportion to the problem. I passed over terms like ‘crime’ and ‘violation’ instead of ‘problem’ there because not only do these not apply in the slightest, they’re an overt attempt to elevate the issue beyond the level that it is. There are some things in our societies and cultures that reflect standards long past, and are considered now to reflect an unwarranted gender bias. They remain, in part, because of momentum, tradition, and the overall slow progress that such things always take – most people know what “the proof is in the pudding” means even when they don’t know what it means. Leaping down someone’s throat over any minor instance of sexism only serves to make the issue seem overreactive and obsessive; it’s not looking to encourage change, only to throw blame. There’s a distinct difference.

This is the dangerous line that too much of feminism courts. Being able to make the distinction between real and imagined sexism, and being able to see what’s important and what’s trivial, are paramount; without them, the whole topic can become a gross caricature, which completely destroys any value that it might have had.

One of the most frequent abuses is the word “victim.” Call me whatever name that you like, but I do not consider anyone who has had their boobs stared at, that has been hit on (no matter how directly,) a victim, and most especially not in the same class as someone who has been raped. I have been very circumspect in this post so far, but I consider such things crass and opportunistic manipulation, the attempt to expand the ranks of the disadvantaged to force attention to the issue. In no way do I want to minimize true victims, but it must be considered that we actually have a very good set of laws regarding such, even applying to convention attendees – they have not stopped such things from occurring, nor will they ever, because that’s not how laws actually work. It is even difficult to classify rape as any form of sexism, since it is not limited to female victims – one can point out that it occurs 70% more for women than men (I just made that up – I have no idea what it is), and feel good about this arbitrary line, but what matters is why it occurs. Making men ‘aware’ is highly unlikely to have any effect, because it overwhelmingly remains assault, and not usually a planned or thoughtful course of action.

When I talked about the convention and video above, one of the complaints from the bloggers was quickly redacted from their post: that a small experiment was performed with the audience. Everyone was polled as to how likely they felt they could have sex that evening with one of the attendees. By a huge margin, women voted themselves more likely than men. This is not the horrible whatever that the bloggers interpreted it as, but a common and telling sociological experiment that demonstrates what our culture is actually like – in fact, it stands a good chance of being inherent in our species, because it appears in numerous other species as well. The female is often the one who decides when sex occurs, and with who; it is often based on which prospective mate displays the best traits for strong healthy offspring. As such, this puts the female in a position of power in regards to the strongest drive that we have as a species, and produces no small amount of leverage as well. In light of this, many people believe that rape is an effort for males to take over control of this aspect.

The problem is, we’re playing armchair psychologist again. Motivations for any kind of violent crime are not simple, and are often built up over a lifetime of personal experience. We find it ludicrous to say that theft is caused by poverty, or that murder is caused by either passion or video games; we’d be fatuous to try and simplify such broad subjects under a narrow range of motivations. Criminal behavior is far, far too complex for anyone not well-versed in its study to attempt any dissection of it. Worse, however, is selecting one particular aspect of criminal behavior for special attention, based on an arbitrary idea of its importance.

Small experiment here. If I say that the wealthy need special protections because they are the targets of theft far more often, is anyone goaded towards activism by this? Why not – is there something wrong with that reasoning? But it’s easy to enjoin people to protecting women, and children; now ask why. Is it because humans already have a tendency to be more protective of women and children? Where did this come from? And if, as so many like to maintain, it’s a cultural thing, why is there so much effort to take advantage of this bias rather than overcoming it in the interests of equality and empowerment?

Let me break here to introduce another perspective. Physically, women are the ones to raise children. Not only do they have the necessary sexual organs, but they have active lactation glands. Believe it or not, I have actually had arguments with people over whether it is likely that they have different inherent mental and emotional functions in this regard too. I’m fine with the idea that many of the assumed cultural tendencies, cooking and cleaning for instance, are not reinforced by female brains, but I have a hard time believing, as is often maintained, that there is no difference between male and female thought processes. Despite the fierceness of the arguments, no one managed to produce any support for their claims, though I asked repeatedly, but I was accused of blatant sexism for even voicing the suspicion. What became apparent was that far too many of the people arguing with me had heard about some study disproving the belief, for instance, that men made better mathematicians and engineers, and extrapolated this into “no difference.”

In many species, the female is the primary caregiver of the offspring, for reasons given above. The male, in turn, often brings back food and acts to protect the nest/den/birthing area, and even the female from other suitors. When we even think to apply this to humans, however, we encounter huge amounts of resistance. “Women are not just child-bearers!” No argument, but no one ever said they were just child-bearers. Now, bear with me a moment. What, exactly, is so bad about child-bearing? Children are, inarguably, our future from every perspective that you care to name. Raising them is both an arduous, time-consuming, incredible task, and requires no small amount of attention to their attitudes, standards, motivations, and so on. Any child reaching even an average age lives longer than just about every corporation that has ever existed. How, then, did raising children become such a marginalized aspect of our culture? Why do we seem to think that a woman is not complete if she does not also pursue a professional career? Did child-rearing become so unimportant that we should now delegate it to the daycare service?

Pause here if you need to, and go back up there to the bit about ‘reading between the lines.’ I said absolutely jack shit about women having to, should, or were intended to do nothing but raise children. Sorry, but I’m working on some more nuanced thoughts here, and I expect everyone to keep up. I’m fine, and in fact extremely supportive, of women doing whatever they want to do. But I also consider children important, more important than any career choice someone cares to make, and want to highlight the peculiar attitude we have fostered nowadays. Never, ever feel bad about raising kids, and if you’ve devoted the majority of your time to it, you’re far more likely to be doing a better job than fitting them around your employment schedule. If you think I’m only directing this at females here, that’s your bias – I said nothing of the sort.

We’re still discovering the amount of our thought processes that have been shaped by evolution, and to what extent. The insidious part about this is, these influences are extremely subtle and often require careful consideration to realize even exist. And even when we realize that they exist, we do not change our thought processes by wishful thinking – it often takes constant vigilance. This in no way implies that we are prisoners of them, though; we can overcome them with enough cultural emphasis, often in the right direction. The right direction is sometimes a difficult thing to figure out, perhaps requiring an approach that stimulates the same inherent drives by proxy. That sounds like mumbo-jumbo, but if I say that the drive for tribal strength and competition is sublimated into organized sports, you’ll perhaps understand it better. When I spoke above about the idea that women have been ‘subjugated’ for centuries, and again about the role that they play in sexual selection, I was hinting at something that may tell us a lot about our cultures. Men being seen as the ‘money-makers,’ or much earlier, the ‘hunter-gatherers,’ does not make them superior. And at the same time, men having a different attitude towards sex, or an interest in cars or hunting, does not make them inferior either. Both of those are examples of sexism. Even if we firmly establish that women are better at child-rearing and men are better at chasing gazelle, that’s just life. Sexism is making a value judgment on either.

It seems highly likely that the cultures that we have are shaped by both women and men, contributing in different yet complementary ways. The idea of ‘power’ is somewhat skewed, unless we recognize that men can be made to do a hell of a lot of things simply from their desire to please and keep their mate – who wields the power then? Or is trying to determine who is ‘on top’ a corrupt way of thinking that simply creates more antagonism than it corrects?

Don’t get me wrong: sexism exists, as does unnecessary gender bias. But the frequent displays of confirmation bias, ‘victim’ creation, and blatant manipulation do absolutely nothing to address these things, and stand a very good chance of making the situations far, far worse. If you know that “tree-hugger” is often considered a derogatory term, then you know how public perception can be screwed up by inept attempts to instill awareness.

Then, there’s the not-so-inept attempts, where blatant misrepresentation comes into play. The etymology of the phrase “rule of thumb,” supposedly based in the sanctioned abuse of women, is a complete fabrication (for an alternate take, see here.) The long-discredited “Women make 77 cents for every dollar men make” is still used by people as a rallying cry, when they should know it’s been addressed time and time and time again. Such utter fucking bullshit manipulation of statistics is not only intentionally misleading, it makes feminism appear, very clearly, to be in pursuit of a skewed agenda rather than standing up for equality. Moreover, anyone claiming to embrace skepticism cannot reasonably ignore such things, and needs to honestly recognize that feminism, like any other topic, has (at least) its share of people fueled by agenda rather than critical examination. Not to mention promulgating the idea that payscale denotes importance.

Recently, numerous blogs began posting about the ‘issues’ taking place at skeptical conventions – people being propositioned, stared at, or stalked, speakers being sleazy, and so on. That this was very likely occurring one-tenth as much as the exact same behavior in the bar down the street wasn’t a perspective that enough people seemed to possess; because it was a skeptical, secular, or atheist convention, it simply would not do. It has led to the idea that atheists now need a special label, Atheism+, to denote the ones interested in active feminism or whatever (I’ve caught this only peripherally, and I’m glad, because it’s even stupider than all of that above.) And of course a lot of pressure is being put on event organizers to ensure that women remain chaste and unapproached.

First off, atheism is a standpoint – those that want to make it a movement can, of course, but that smacks too much of in-group bullshit than of trying to address the problems with religions, which is why I emphasize critical thinking more than anything else (and why this post even exists.) I don’t give a fuck if you join my club or not, and won’t be joining yours – but I’m very motivated to have people see “making sense” as a virtue.

Second, as numerous bloggers have pointed out, the efforts to make conventions ‘safe’ implies that they weren’t before, which is just another manifestation of something called ‘Stranger Danger.’ Anecdotes about being harassed at conventions always stand the chance of being misinterpretations, overreactions, and outright lies – just like eyewitness accounts of crimes stand the chance of being inaccurate; skepticism almost demands the awareness of human nature. Yet even if true, they mean little unless placed in the context of number of participants and the number of occurrences outside of conventions. Worldwide media today can alert us to any and every terrible thing that happens, skewing them out of proportion and making it seem as if criminal behavior is rampant. But compare such things to auto accidents, which number in the thousands every day and should be keeping people off the road entirely. That’s the problem with a lack of perspective – you become oversensitive to select things, way out of proportion to their actual danger.

And yes, people have been propositioned at conventions. Their boobs have been grossly, unjustly ogled. Some have even been groped. Whoa, wait, what’s the difference here? The difference is, the first two are, “Get over yourself,” while the latter is illegal. As such, they don’t actually compare, and should not be lumped in together – yet they usually are. Many people have never looked close, but the various laws regarding sexual harassment usually define it as, “repeated, unwanted sexual propositions or statements.” What this means is, it is actually not against the law to go up to someone and ask them if they want to fuck like turtles – it’s even protected under free speech. And regardless of how little someone might want to hear that, words are not assault. That’s a precedent we really cannot afford to set. In fact, since our culture revolves around men presenting the option and women accepting or rejecting, we can expect things like this to occur all the time. The key in there is that anyone (men or women) not wishing to keep hearing this must express their displeasure upon hearing such a proposition; only after that does it become illegal.

There are three problems with doing anything more than this. The first is, nothing can be open to subjectivity, and virtually nothing can be open to single witness testimony. Any punitive actions based on witness accounts alone are wide open for abuse, and as the account above about the guest posters and video demonstrates, subjective interpretation is unlikely to produce useful information. Anyone wishing to deny that false reports would occur is actually claiming that women differ from men in their likelihood of abusing the system. Second is that it creates a hostile, unwelcoming environment. People begin to feel that they cannot even engage in discussions without something that they said being taken the wrong way, and forget even flirting. If the goal is to separate discussions by gender, this is a marvelous way of doing it. Expanding on that, secular pursuits revolve around open and often contentious discussions – that’s the only way to promote any kind of activism in the slightest. There’s no small amount of irony in trying to change this in exactly the opposite direction.

And finally, there’s such a thing as effective enforcement. Since there are already laws against harassment and assault, what does anyone really want convention organizers to do? Repeat these? Hire a large security force? Have chaperones for every attendee? Let’s be real. If any organizer has added something to their convention rules or whatever, feminists have accomplished jack shit. In order to see the use of them, you’ll have to leave whoever is harassing you to report this to whatever security you can find (unless the idiot is doing this right smack in front of witnesses,) and by leaving, you have solved the problem anyway. If you’re really in a position where you can’t leave, nothing that the organizers added matters anyway.

This is the reality of reality. On the streets, police cannot be everywhere. We generally recognize this and avoid areas where we might be at much higher risk, like dark alleys. While the very mention of this in relation to feminist hot topics always brings wailing about “blaming the victim,” we’re perfectly happy to apply these standards to excessive speed on the road, smoking around gasoline, and sticking hands under lawnmowers. While the woman who gets abused while drunk among strangers is still the victim of a crime, this does not absolve her of participating in stupid behavior. The idea that it should is implying that society should be under perfect control (and lawnmowers should be able to cut only grass.)

Overall, of course, this also reinforces the idea that feminists claim to be trying to eradicate. If danger lurks around every corner, only for women, how come? If an empowered, capable woman needs special protection at a public convention, how come?

I’m going to do my part for empowering women. Men can join in too. Repeat after me: “Fuck off, asshole!” That is your key part in the law. If that doesn’t work, fetch the police. I’m pretty sure that’ll take care of 99.9% of the horrible issues at conventions. Hey, it works in bars with drunks.

No, this does not make anyone feel like they’re crusading against something, and no, it is not indulging any feelings of special treatment or dispensation as a female. If that’s what you’re actually after, you need to rethink your approach. And stop being so sexist.

As a final note, I’ll introduce you to a little rule that I wield, courtesy of the time that I spent on UFO newsgroups, that so far has stood up quite accurately: If you whine or rant or throw names around in response to anything that I post; if you resort to labeling or insist that since I haven’t had your experience then I don’t know what I’m talking about; if you try to twist my words or mangle the topic or compare me to anyone else; all that tells me is that you have no point to make at all, and aren’t capable of adult discussion. I have no problem with throwing this into sharp relief and making it even more evident to everyone ;-)

That I actually had to say this is also a clue, for those that can spot them.