Skeptics Skeptical on Sexism: Part Two

In my previous post, I recapped my reaction to the idea that skepticism is suffering from misogynistic and sexist tendencies in light of the Elevatorgate incident. I was initially disbelieving that a group of people presumably dedicated to rational discourse could suffer from such irrationality, but I was forced upon further introspection to see that this was a distinct possibility that cannot be immediately dismissed. After offering some general ideas on why the skeptical community might be prone to misogynistic behavior, my conclusion is that the historical trends and current demographic that make up the skeptical community make sexism a problem we have to explore and respond to appropriately. What form should such a response take? Given the rather vitriolic back-and-forth sparked by Elevatorgate, I was confounded by two things. The first was how quickly people dismissed that there was a problem; the second was how quickly anyone defending the negative behavior of those within the skeptical community was labelled misogynistic or misinformed. I understand both reactions, insofar as no one likes to be criticized and it's a knee-jerk reaction to try and quash any dissenters. Regardless, the end result was disheartening. The skeptical community came across much like a bunch of squabbling children shouting names at each other from across the playground.

How can we come together and combat an issue that I think we can all agree is important, if somewhat uncomfortable to acknowledge? Step one is, I believe, rather obvious but easily overlooked: we must respect each other’s positions and give them their most charitable interpretation. Only by doing so can we discuss the problem and possible solutions and come to any sort of consensus. Sexism is not a problem that will be solved by shouting more loudly or rudely than the other person. We can only hope to affect change by listening to the concerns of those involved and working towards solutions that address those same concerns.

Rebecca Watson, the woman at the heart of the Elevatorgate incident, demonstrates the strengths and weaknesses of this entire debate. Her first step was assessing a situation within the community and bringing into the light. Simply put, she and others have experienced behavior that is demeaning, offensive and sexist in nature at skeptical conferences. This is the case. Trying to massage the facts of that case in order to show there really isn’t any bad behavior – that these women are simply misinterpreting things - misses the point. Productive and insightful members of the skeptical community who are championing our mutual cause are feeling put-off, or even threatened, by their compatriots.

As such, speaking out is absolutely the right thing for Ms. Watson to have done. We have no hope of remedying the problem if it is not brought into the public discourse of which we are all a part. The fact that so many dismissed her immediately as a feminist radical or an overly sensitive woman (which is itself a charge that seems loaded with sexist thought) is shaming. The correct response to her concerns has to be to engage in introspection and discussion, with the aim of understanding the concerns of those involved and working towards appropriate solutions.

On the other side, those pointing out the problem have to be careful not to vilify themselves through their own inappropriate reactions to criticism. Watson did her cause no favors by engaging in the online exchanges sparked by Richard Dawkins' comments (her initial blog post to his various comments can be found here). Dawkins may have initiated the infamously public row, but Watson poorly handled her end of the discussion. She did not attempt to make sense of Dawkins’ responses in a way that would have strengthened her position had she then shown his response to be inadequate. Though his tone made it difficult, she did not give him a charitable reading and was thus sidetracked from championing her initial goal.

She did herself even more of a disservice with respect to Stef McGraw, another skeptical blogger who challenged Watson’s interpretation of the events that transpired within the elevator. To briefly summarize, McGraw questioned the assumption that being sexualized is the same as being the object of sexist behavior. From McGraw’s original post here she writes, “Watson is upset that this man is sexualizing her just after she gave a talk relating to feminism, but my question is this: Since when are respecting women as equals and showing sexual interest mutually exclusive? Is it not possible to view to take interest in a woman AND see her as an intelligent person?”

This is a valid point that could help interested parties discern what is and is not the appropriate way to interact with a female cohort. People are literally hardwired to take notice of other human beings in a sexual way. Noticing someone who piques your interest is not, in and of itself, inherently problematic nor socially abnormal, so McGraw is right to point out that being viewed as a sexual being is not the same as being dehumanized and objectified. Working together in order to figure out when sexual interest crosses the line is something every interested party should contribute to through active discussion, not by the squashing of a differing opinion.

The fact that Watson called McGraw out by name as – I’m paraphrasing here – an uninformed parrot of misogynist thought at a talk at which McGraw was in the audience was poor form and counterproductive (you can see the exact wording here). Someone who was attempting to engage in the discussion, even if they didn't agree wholeheartedly with Watson’s outlook, was publicly disparaged for not towing the company line. I believe Watson may have become blinded by the moral righteousness of her cause. Fighting for equal standing and respect is the morally right thing to do, but defending that cause by any means necessary is not necessarily the right thing to do. Stemming sexism does not give you a moral blank check by which you can wage your righteous war. We must be willing to enter these discussions as equals and give each other the respect necessary to move forward together towards a common goal.

An even poorer response is to respond to despicable behavior in kind, as demonstrated by this initiative: creeper cards. The brainchild of blogger kdotcot, these are red, yellow and green cards to be distributed at cons to people who have acted, respectively, inappropriately, somewhat inappropriately, or positively. They read as follows, as posted here:

Creeper Cards

Creeper Cards

I’m at a loss to see the positive benefit that such a passive aggressive tool can achieve. From what I have read, someone was punched after handing one of these cards to someone, and I’m hard pressed to feel much sympathy for the victim. I am certain that the receiver of this card (cardee) had done something to offend the distributor of this card (carder), and I am sure the carder felt these cards would achieve something positive. However, I think it is safe to say this person either: (a) did not intend to be offensive; or (b), was trying to be offensive. Now, put yourself in the shoes of the cardee.

If (a), then all you have managed to do is shame the person in a disrespectful way. While it may be possible that this will lead to better behavior in the future, you've likely only engendered anger in the cardee. I, for one, would find it very offensive to be handed one of these cards and then have that person walk away without further discussion, as the card program intends. I have offended many people in my time and will likely offend many more. Change in my behavior has come when the person in question has responded respectfully but firmly, highlighting the error in my ways. I, in turn, feel shame and guilt and then try to amend my future conduct so as to be worthy of the respect this individual has shown me. This is the type of interaction that demonstrates respect without quietly tolerating the inappropriate behavior on display.

If (b), then the person obviously intended to be offensive and probably does not care at all that you just handed them this small piece of paper. Again, without trying to engage with the person, how can you hope to affect any real change? I see anyone falling under (b) laughing heartily at the passive aggressive attempt to change their admittedly bad behavior.

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Respect is the key to this problem. Sexism is, at its core, a fundamental lack of respect for women, and as such we must work to demand respect for all interested parties, within the skeptical community and without, if we hope to change the current state of affairs. This is not the same as saying that all people who display sexist tendencies are women-haters, nor does this mean that we should allow small amounts of sexism so as to not ‘convict the innocent’ who do not intend to offend.

We are working in admittedly grey territory here, and it is only through substantive discussion that we will be able to maximize the black and white areas at the expense of the grey. Once these lines are drawn, as best they can be, the skeptical community will be able to weed out members not committed to this creed of mutual respect. Doing so will mean that both sides of the debate have to meet with each other and agree to put their strong convictions to the side. Open dialogue must be encouraged and lauded. We skeptics are absolutely up to this challenge. I only hope we can get past our entrenched opinions and get down to the difficult but worthwhile task before us.

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