A young woman is featured at a freethought conference and speaks on communicating atheism through blogging, then later on sexism within the atheist community. She has her say, makes some points (namely, that just because other female skeptics don’t recognize sexism within the skeptic community in their own lives and work, that said sexism might still exist), and afterwards basically goes on with her life. Later, she spends time at the bar in the hotel chatting and generally having a good time, and when at four in the morning she decides she needs some sleep, she finds herself alone in an elevator with a man who takes the opportunity to ask her to his hotel room for coffee.
(A word to the wise: an offer for coffee at four in the morning is rarely about a desire for caffeine.)
Later, the young woman records a vlog about her experiences at the conference, and as an aside relays this experience, ending with, “Guys, don’t do that.”
This is the story of how I became a feminist.
First, let’s clear the air
“Feminist” is the kind of terms that comes loaded with huge amounts of baggage, and it’s not my place here to define it or to throw up walls about who does or doesn’t get to claim the mantle of the term, or to apply that term to others. Virtually everyone in polite discourse agrees broadly with the idea that “women should be treated equally to men,” or “women should collect equal pay for equal work,” or “women should have strong role models in media,” so hopefully we can address issues slightly more sophisticated than those Gloria Steinem was fighting for in 1972 or so. (Hell, even the complementarians among right-wing American Christian evangelicals would broadly agree with the idea of legal equality between men and women; they’d just cover themselves with the fig leaf of “different roles” based largely on terrible ideas of biological essentialism and determinism.) We can start with the hoary old cliche of “the radical notion that women are people,” and move on from there, can’t we?
Also, I recognize and respect the opinion of those who claim that a man, particularly a white, cisgender, Western-educated man, can by definition not be a feminist, although I disagree. If your politics means that you consider me a feminist ally, rather than a true feminist, I’ll accept that label instead. While this is the space in which I’m telling a story about myself, I fully believe that stories such as mine should be decentered, and offer it here for what I presume to be a largely male, cisgender, white audience.
Second, let’s clarify some terminology.
I’m fully aware that there’s quite a bit of separation among the various subgroups I’ll be discussing here, and that to some degree I’m going to pretend that the atheist, skeptic, freethought, and rationalist movements are one and the same. This is to some degree an artifact of the way the different groups are incredibly porous to one another, and the lines between them are fuzzy at best. Such is the ambiguity that comes with any kind of discussion of sociological or sociopolitical movements. As reasonable people I think we can embrace the ambiguity without pretending that the distinctions we encounter are meaningless, and the principle of charity should be our guide in deciding whether some overstatement that seems unfair towards some subgroup is intentional or not.
Also, while in the media “New Atheism” seems to be used almost exclusively to describe the Four Horsemen of Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and Dennett, I’m going to be using it more broadly to refer to the kind of aggressive anti-religious style of which those writers became symbolic. “New Atheism” was essentially a PR campaign that helped a few writers sells some books, but the style long predates The End of Faith both in widely-published work (just ask H.L. Mencken or Ayn Rand), and in more personal conversations, conducted in-person or online (ahem, Reddit).
A Twerpy Adolescence
This isn’t the place for a detailed look at my experiences with religion (suffice to say that a childhood spent absorbing Asimov while embedded in the culture of the Deep South had its aftereffects), but I had a love of science from as early as I can remember. By the time I was in the first grade, I had started collecting the volumes of Charlie Brown’s ‘Cyclopedia from the local grocery store, and yes I was that little teacher’s pet in your grade school class who got A’s in every class, knew that names of not just the nine planets but their major satellites, could pronounce “photosynthesis” before “salmon,” and looked down his nose at Star Wars fans because the franchise didn’t even pretend to justify its use of FTL travel before his voice started to drop. I was socially awkward, had little respect for cultures other than that of the Western post-Enlightenment “Age of Reason,” and was terrified of girls despite having an extreme interest in sex.
My teenage years were not kind to me, and I certainly wasn’t kind back. I embraced the libertarian ethos of Robert Heinlein and (to a lesser extent) Ayn Rand, wasn’t disinclined to speak of “invisible sky fairies” to my classmates, and entered college intending to double major in physics and computer science, with a minor in philosophy. Eventually, my abrasiveness on issues faded and I quickly rejected right-wing politics (unsurprisingly, it was getting laid for the first time, an event which quickly led to my first long-term relationship, that provided the catalyst for that), but I think it’s fairly obvious that by the time the second Bush term came around, I was exactly the kind of person that Dawkins, Harris, et. al were writing for.
The New Atheist perspective gives those of us interested in making a better, more progressive world a very simple answer to the question of the ills of the world: “religion poisons everything.” If you’re looking at the world from a perspective of challenging inherent bias, muddy thinking, and unchallenged assumptions, then Religion-with-a-capital-R looks like the Big Bad at the end of the game: a massive social organization built on disseminating, often by force, an ideology built on the edifice of the unproven (and arguably disproven) premise of “God exists.” In so many parts of the world, including the so-called Enlightenment West, religion is used as a means of social control, as a way of clouding the minds of mass numbers of people, and manufacturing consent for social policies of great evil. In this sense, movement Atheism, with broadly-defined New Atheists as the tip of the spear, is exactly as revolutionary in its vision of the world as any anti-capitalist, anarchist, or anti-patriarchy movement. Movement atheists even use, authentically, similar rhetoric as leftist movements as to the value of their work: demolishing structures that oppress women, for instance, or hoover wealth into a privileged class (although they tend to disagree about the identity of that privileged class).
That, combined with the general idea that a true rationalist or skeptic should be without personal prejudice, as prejudice by its nature represents a biased viewpoint that is anathema to proper reasoned thought, leads one to the conclusion that the atheist/skeptic/rationalist movement should, broadly speaking, be significantly less racist/sexist/etc than the society in which it is embedded. For years, I accepted this as more-or-less true of the movement, that a few bad apples aside scientists and skeptics as a group were far less prejudiced than society at large. By the evidence of my eyes, of my experience, it largely was, as certainly I didn’t hold prejudices against people, neither did my skeptical friends, and therefore….
I think it’s obvious where the error is here.
Objectivity versus Intersubjectivity
Call it the Myth of Sherlock Holmes. Or the Myth of Spock, or Commander Data, or Herbert’s Mentats, or any number of other countless examples of the type within geek media. It’s the idea that the key to being rational, the key to being the hero, the key in some sense to being fully human is to deny one’s emotional state, to work always from first principles, to reach some state of perfect knowledge of oneself that will allow for the rejection of unseen biases, to reach a state in which one acts like one of Heinlein’s Fair Witnesses, a recorder of the world able to transcend one’s background and see reality as it actually is. To what degree, for that matter, is this quest for Objectivity-with-a-capital-O the unstated desire of the transhumanists and the singulatarians?
And, of course, since science was born with the Enlightenment, and the Enlightenment was born out of Western European culture in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it is people of that background, expressing those biases, who are most like this model of Objectivity. To be a more perfect scientist is to see the world like Newton, modulo the religious rantings and the alchemy and the terrible personal relationships he had with basically everyone, of course. It is to find the calculus in the motion of the spheres, to find the nature of light in the rainbow, to abstract oneself to nothing in pursuit of a more rarefied, perfect state of existence.
One of the more subtle biases that comes with this is what I like to think of as physics bias: that the observational sciences are “more pure” the closer they reach mathematical purity, that Real True Science comes about from discovering a Theory of Everything that will describe the motion of every particle, anywhere, ever, and once you have that everything else is just mopping up the messy details. (Spoiler alert: the Schrodinger Equation does more-or-less exactly that, we’ve had it for nearly a century, and it turns out to be of limited utility in describing anything more complicated than a hydrogen atom.) When you spend your life thinking of particles you tend to deal in phenomena with R-squared values nearing four nines, and consider disciplines like sociology (where R-squared values of 0.30 are often really fucking compelling) as barely worth thinking of as sciences at all. And what value philosophy, or literature, or art? These disciplines aren’t really any less made up than religion, are they: it’s just somebody’s opinion, and Objectivity is impossible.
This myth is pervasive, and utterly wrong in terms of the way that actual science is practiced. Because even if a hypothesis is developed using such Brute Reason methods as described above, it still must be communicated to the world around me: the results of such reason must be justified to be true. Which means sharing not just a chain of reasoning, but the physical evidence that supports that reasoning. This is more vital to some fields than others: a physics or chemistry experiment can be repeated in various labs to ensure the results are valid, but historical fields do not allow for parallel experiments to be performed. We can’t repeat the Devonian era to see if strata reoccur in similar patterns: instead we must justify our results to our fellow geologists, allowing everyone to view the one set of strata we have and argue our position based on those.
A repeatable result, then, is not necessarily just one that relies on a repeated experiment, but may be based on repeated observation of pre-existing evidence. And just as a repeated experiment is seen as more and more likely to be valid as it’s performed in more and more labs under various different conditions, a repeated observation is more likely to be valid as it is accepted as true by persons of varying perspectives.
I have no idea if the term is in wide use among philosophers of science, but in my Usenet days we used to commonly refer to this idea as intersubjectivity: we may all bring our varying experience to a piece of evidence, and the more broadly we find agreement about a certain feature or a certain result or a certain meaning, the more likely those features, results, or meanings are to be true. Embracing this ethos requires communication among people of broad backgrounds and perspectives, especially those with deep disagreement, and it means being open to foreign ideas, and being willing to accept that your own biases may be clouding your judgement.
Embracing intersubjectivity means being forced to listen.
Motes and Beams
To even a beginning skeptic, the easiest thing in the world is to find places where those one disagrees with are committing logical fallacies. Argument from authority, the fallacy of the excluded middle, false equivalence, ad hominem… it’s the water in which we swim, and it’s incredibly valid and useful. It’s also basically Skepticism 101. Because the hard part is recognizing those errors in one’s own thinking, to accept that despite natural intelligence (however you want to define “intelligence”) and education, one can still have huge gaps in knowledge that are not readily apparent.
For me, the baseline idea that of course a proper scientist couldn’t really be all that racist, or sexist, was remarkably resistant to contrary evidence. It was a belief of faith for me, one that was all the more compelling because I believed it to be borne of reason, or argument from rock-solid first principles. What I missed, what I forgot, was that even the clearest and most durable result of reason must die against the shoals of evidence. The evidence was all around me, but it took a wonderful young skeptic in an elevator to force me to confront it.
Rebecca Watson suffered years of harassment for pointing out the obvious, that dudes in elevators with young women at four in the morning probably shouldn’t try hitting on them. Why? Because it’s the experience of so many women that men offering coffee in enclosed spaces aren’t really offering coffee. And even if you are, the young woman you’re offering it to can’t tell the difference between you and an abuser. From this debate, atheist/freethought conferences were forced to start addressing the issue of codes of conduct, either to create and enforce a code that would protect the safety of the marginalized persons attending, or in rejecting the need for such a code in the name of “free speech.” From this debate, serious conversations about the need for content warnings and safe spaces in online discourse in the rationalist community, and ways of fulfilling that need without compromising the integrity of free expression.
And in response the reactionaries, most notably those like Thunderf00t and The Amazing Atheist, started to rear their ugly heads. Insisting that they had no need to listen to the perspectives of others, that accusations of bias were groundless, that reaching out to the marginalized was intrinsically against the goals of free and rational thought. Those like Richard Dawkins, who continued to be an influential and powerful figure after making an astonishing number of comments similar to the infamous “Dear Muslima.” Those like Scott Aaronson, who claimed to be “97% in favor of” feminism while wishing that he’d had a partriarchal arranged marriage as an adolescent. Those like Michael Fucking Shermer, who is essentially ad admitted rapist at this point, and James Randi, who probably knew about Shermer’s behavior and kept silent.
Poisons and Silver Bullets
Once all of that became apparent, it became harder and harder for me to pretend that the freethought community was free of the the biases that led to sexism, and racism, and other forms of social oppression. And once I realized that error, it became all the more obvious that I had so many other false beliefs that were cluttering the way I saw the world, beliefs that were only rectified by expanding my worldview, to be quiet and listen to the historical victims of colonialism, of capitalism, of patriarchy, of horrible regimes not necessarily built on religion.
And it became clear that while I may disagree with the truth statements put forward by religious texts, that there could be a beauty in those texts, and that many adherents to systems of faith were just as clear-eyed about the use of metaphor as I. That if I could find resonance in the stories of Jean-Luc Picard, so might others find resonance in those of Jesus, or the Buddha.
That religion wasn’t the straightforward poison I had believed it to be was a hard lesson. There’s a temptation, instead, to find another straightforward poison, a single thing that must be eliminated to create utopia. Perhaps heirarchy, or money, or racism, xenophobia, insularity? The harder lesson, the lesson that led me to my rationalist adulthood, was the realization that there’s no single poison that we must eliminate, and no silver bullet which will engender utopia. To seek poisons and silver bullets is largely to engage in binary thinking, and if there is a single insight that I now recognize as the core of my identity, it’s that all binaries are false binaries. (Even that one.) Rejection of this binary means always considering context, always considering the varying perspectives of others, and embracing humility about one’s naive beliefs. Rejection of this binary means understanding that one is embedded in a culture that gives such a huge bias in favor of the belief structures of cisgender, white, straight men that one’s first question when approaching any question should be, “what is the perspective of those who don’t fit those categories.”
And that’s how I became a feminist. At least, that’s how my journey began. The fuller understanding of intersectionality, and how that is fully supported by the ideas of intersubjectivity, was another journey, and will likely be the subject of a later piece.