I have now been following, largely from a distance, what I’ve come to think of as the misogyny wars inside the atheist-skeptic movement (which has just recently made national news!). I’ve stayed away from the fray because I have had little to add to it, and because it is a treacherous territory where one is almost guaranteed of turning friends into enemies just by chiming in. Still, during my recent vacation in France and Italy (countries that have a lot to teach both about misogyny and women's liberation) I had some thoughts that may be worth sharing — at my own peril, naturally.
The first thing I need to say is that yes, as far as I can tell, the atheist-skeptic (hence forth A-S) movement does have a problem with women. Obviously, not every A-S does, and likely not even the majority (hard data do not exist, as far as I know). But reading the comments of some major figures (which shall go conveniently unmentioned), the commentaries on those comments by the average Joe-the-Atheist (mostly males), and from personal experience at countless “CON(s)” (can we please have a moratorium on using that darn abbreviation?) and meetups, it’s clear to me that there is a problem.
Now, one could reasonably argue (and indeed, people have argued) that the A-S community is simply a microcosm of society at large, and since the latter still shows obvious signs of misogyny, then we shouldn’t be surprised that so does the A-S movement (if you don’t think that society still has a problem with women you have simply not been paying attention, and you need to go back to Feminism 101, which I am not about to provide).
Well, yes, but this observation still doesn’t quite make things right for two reasons. First, just because someone else is misogynist it doesn’t provide an excuse for you to be one too, obviously. Second, and more pertinent to our discussion, A-S pride themselves in being open minded and rational (if not downright politically progressive — pace our small but vocal cadre of libertarian friends), and there is no rational defense of misogyny (if you disagree, may I again recommend Feminism 101?).
So, if women in the movement complain that A-S organization X or Y does not have a sufficiently well developed sexual harassment policy, or it does not enforce such policy swiftly and effectively enough, the people in charge of said organizations ought (moral) to listen carefully and act accordingly.
However (you knew this was coming, yes?), it doesn’t follow, as it has been claimed in the heat of the misogyny wars, that anything a woman says in this department goes and ought (again, moral) not to be questioned. For several reasons.
First off, and this should be obvious, “women” are not a monolithic category who see everything the same way. What may constitute borderline sexual harassment for one woman may be interpreted as innocuous or even welcome flirting by another. (I hope it’s clear that I’m talking about actual borderline cases, not instances of men brazenly groping women in public, or making threats of rape via Twitter.)
Second, and related to the first point, we do not want to create a social environment where people are constantly afraid of stepping across invisible, vague and always shifting boundaries. That would take the fun out of going to the bar after the conference with friends and, frankly, out of flirting with members of the opposite sex (or of the same sex, if you are so inclined). In other words, as we have seen in the workplace and even in schools, there is a danger of overdoing it in the area of political correctness, something that makes for the kind of overcautious and over-regulated society most of us really don’t want — especially the libertarians! (Remember the case a few years ago of a kindergarten child being expelled because he kissed a girl in his class?)
Third, and lastly, there is a danger in automatically assuming that group X (in this case women, but it could be an ethnic minority, or a religious one — including atheists themselves) is automatically right in every dispute regarding treatment of said group. It is well known, for instance, that racism is not confined to white people, and that pretty much any group is capable of xenophobia. An accusation of sexual harassment can not only get someone thrown out of a meeting or a bar, but can perhaps permanently tarnish his reputation in the relevant community, and ought (yup, moral!) to be treated accordingly. While it may make sense to default to the possibility that the charge is justified, any particular case deserves further investigation by the people in charge. Yes, this will complicate the job of conference organizers, so what? Nobody is obliged to organize a conference, but once you do you are expected to provide a certain number of services, a fair treatment of your guests being one.
So, where do we go from here? Here are three conceptually simple, yet I’m sure extremely difficult in practice, action items. First, let’s tone down the self-righteousness, on both sides. It just doesn’t help. Second, organizers of all future CON(s), you need to take the issue seriously, develop and clearly enunciate your policies, and be ready to deal with the consequences in a firm, if courteous and hopefully constructive, manner. Lastly, the A-S community needs to take the first step toward solving any problem: admit that there is one. Pretty straightforward, no?
P.S.: In what is perhaps a preview of what is about to come, something strange (or perhaps entirely predictable, depending on your point of view) happened this past weekend when I posted a link to thoughtful essay by Russell Blackford about the new American Atheists "don't hug unless you ask" policy over at my Google+ stream. I have been warned that I will likely be banned from (ironically) "freethought" discussion groups, and that my views will be seen as misogynistic and those of "a rape apologist, potential rapist." This is just really, really sad.
P.P.S.: Since it's clear from early comments that the point of my P.S. wasn't clear, I am clarifying it now. I meant the above as an example of the sort of trolling that goes on in these instances and is entirely unhelpful to a reasonable debate. I did NOT believe that I was going to be branded a rape apologist and be banned from discussion groups.