Friday, 26 October 2012

Failing at Feminism; A How-To Guide

Right, can we get something straight here, do we think?

No one who insists that a woman should be protected from unpleasant messages, from invitations to coffee, or from criticism because she is a woman is any kind of feminist. If you put your opinions out there in a public forum, those opinions are subject to dissent and mockery – ownership of a vagina doesn't change that. More shockingly, I contend that even people who own [hushed whisper] penises are allowed to disagree with you. No, really. I know that sounds radical.

Rebecca Watson has appeared in Slate this week to bitch some more about how hard it is to be her – an educated, white, middle-class American woman whose rights are protected under law.

She claims she's been “grabbed and groped” at atheist conventions, and if that's true then THAT – I completely acknowledge – is out of order. But guess what? I get groped from time to time in bars and clubs, and on trains too. Do I blame that on the clubbing community? Do I blame it on commuters? Er, no – I blame it on the people who grope me. I'm not sure how that's difficult to understand. And no one's denying such people exist, by the way, even among the atheist community.

As for the rest of Watson's claims, that she receives nasty emails and tweets... well, so fucking what? I stated a few weeks ago in a tweet that I've never received abuse from other atheists. Since posting THAT tweet, I have. And again – so fucking what? What sane reason could I possibly have to think I can say something people won't like in a public space and expect not to get shit for it?! I've been getting sexist comments, sexually graphic messages, even direct threats from religious people for years. Do I blame the religious community for that? Again, no – because the vast majority of religious people don't behave like that.

I think the most galling part of that Slate article is the way Watson's wedged Richard Dawkins in there. I've suspected for some time that she's far more interested in creating a platform for herself than in fighting any kind of social injustice – I mean, the only right she seems to be interested in is her own right to piss and moan about how tough she has it, and she doesn't seem to have noticed that nobody's denying her that. I wish Dawkins hadn't sent that “Dear Muslima” note, not because I think he's wrong but because his doing so has given this shamelessly self-absorbed and deeply manipulative pseudofeminist more exposure than her opinions ever deserved.

Incidentally, she's given herself away dreadfully with her criticism of Dawkins' “Dear Muslima” comment – I'm astonished she didn't realise it before submitting her piece to Slate. She's slammed Dawkins for telling her – legitimately - that Western women haven't got it as bad as women in the Islamic world... ON THE SAME PAGE as telling us about this incident:

so essentially, a message saying “you don't have it that bad, stop moaning” is OK if it comes FROM her... but not if it comes from someone else TO her. She's allowed to shrug off male circumcision on the grounds that it's not so bad as female circumcision, but Richard Dawkins isn't allowed to shrug off an invitation for coffee on the grounds that it's not so bad as getting beaten.

Right then.

(As it happens, I agree with Watson that female circumcision is probably more damaging most of the time than male circumcision – although I'm sure plenty of people disagree with me and I'm quite happy to discuss that. But I also agree with Dawkins that being beaten is worse than being invited for coffee; if Watson wants her point about relative harm to be valid, she has to at least consider the possibility that Dawkins' precisely analogous point might be valid, too.)

I sincerely hope Richard Dawkins will not be tempted to respond, because Watson doesn't deserve his notice. She's not a sceptic and she's certainly not a feminist; she's a self-serving, immature individual who's worked out that throwing the word “misogyny” around can get her exposure in – for example – Slate magazine (for which, by the way, I am disappointed in Slate). The fact that this tactic works is far more of a comment on the community calling itself skeptical than all her stories about nasty emails could ever be.

I don't need the patronising protection of Watson and others of her view, and I resent the implication that she speaks for me because I'm a woman too. I am not a weak, defenceless little creature hiding in the corner from all the nasty men, and I don't need to be rescued and patted on the head by anybody, not even another woman. Seriously; I can look after myself, thank you.

So, men; we all know how Watson thinks you're allowed to act, speak and think. Basically, you're not allowed to – not if Watson is present. I happen to think that's a little unreasonable, so here are some guidelines I set out should you happen to care what I think (unlike Watson, though, I don't make the assumption that you do):

1: Say what you like to me. If you disagree with me, say so. If you want to call me a cunt, go for it. I won't necessarily pay a blind bit of attention to you if the latter is how you choose to approach me, but I won't stop you doing it. Why would I? It's just a word, and as someone opposed to blasphemy laws in all forms it'd be pretty hypocritical for me to then turn around and say “but you have to be polite to me”.

2: (This one goes for women too.) If you would like to ask me for coffee - or even for sex - ask me. Really, it's fine. I'm quite capable of saying “no” should I wish to. Being attracted to someone is not a problem; in fact, some biologists and anthropologists have advanced the opinion that it's normal and even necessary.

3: Just think about it before you touch me. A touch on the arm or a playful nudge probably won't bother me if we're getting on, but a hand on my arse probably will (unless we're really getting on). Use your common sense; read my body language, listen to what I'm saying, put yourself in my place - and if you think physical contact would be unwelcome don't make it. I'm not an alien, I'm just a person. If that's too complicated, then wait to see if I touch you first – fairly or not, being female means I don't have to worry so much about making you feel intimidated (although I will, of course, also refrain from touching you if it seems likely to be unwelcome).

4: The above said, don't touch my breasts or my crotch however well you think we're getting on. If I'm OK with that level of physical contact, you'll know about it and we won't be at a damn convention.

5: This is the most important one, really; 99% of you don't need to worry about these guidelines. You're fine. The vast majority of you are not misogynistic gropers and you already think of women as, y'know, real people. And let's face it; the 1% of men who do think it's OK to grope a woman without her permission basically have no interest in how women would like them to behave, anyway. So carry on as you are, and don't let yourself get suckered into thinking women are feeble little things who'll be scared if you talk to them. THAT is condescending and sexist, and THAT pisses off reasonable women.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Atheism Plus; the Last Rites

Atheism Plus, it seems, has passed away.  Many of us predicted it, although I think we're all pleasantly surprised by just how quickly reason has prevailed among the sceptic community.

Many reputations have taken a hit with it; sorry PZ, you handed people a share of your influence for no better reason than that your fear of being thought a misogynist mattered more to you than whether they were actually worth listening to. Even if you HAD then actively disavowed the illogical and spiteful use to which they put their new power you'd still have looked a fool - and you didn't do that, so you look a coward too.  The name Richard Carrier has become short-hand for the kind of vitriolic with-us-or-against-us mentality that characterised fundamentalist APlusism from the beginning (whatever its sophisticated moderates might have tried to say later), and Jen McCreight has shown herself to be so self-obsessed as to feel no compassion for a homeless man and to think people should ask her permission to masturbate.

Self-obsession, really, is the overwhelming impression Atheism Plus will leave with me.  Well, self-obsession and a devastating want of introspection.

I think the most contemptible thing about Atheism Plus, though, was the fact that it had two purposes; a superficially admirable ostensible goal, and an underhanded, dishonest and rather sinister ulterior motive. In the beginning, A+ was about helping marginalised people within the atheist/sceptic community to feel more included - many of us thought that laudable, as in fact I did myself when I first read about it.  It became clear pretty quickly, though, that its real purpose was to exclude white men above a certain age (unless they demonstrated total and unquestioning faith in the teachings of APlusism), shout about how tough it is to be an educated white middle-class American woman - and to shut us all up if we tried to ask questions or disagree with them.

In case my contempt is not clear on this point; the "feminists" behind Atheism Plus started out trying to tell us they were going to help gay and bi people, transsexual and transgender people, black people, Latino people and other groups underrepresented in the atheist movement. They used that platform to bitch about men trying to make conversation with them in public places.  No one should be more pissed off with them than the people they co-opted, shamelessly exploited, and then ignored.

Once it had stopped pretending to care about gay people, black people and transgender people, Atheism Plus was supposed to be about helping women to feel safe in the atheist community. Not only did many of us feel perfectly safe already, but those of us who've had the temerity to point this out have rather amusingly then found ourselves experiencing abuse and anger from other members of the atheist community for the very first time.  Devising a product then manufacturing the need is a time-honoured method in business - just look at mouthwash.  But A+ don't seem to have grasped the idea terribly well; what they've done is try to sell us a mouthwash to cure dog-breath we don't have, then force-feed us garlic when we didn't want to buy it.  Then wonder why we told them to get the fuck off our property.

If I have one good thing to say about A+, though, it's that it's failed equally in both its goals.  It took a while, but the sceptic community has now almost unanimously rejected the dogmatic tyranny of Atheism Plus.  I think many of us wish the whole embarrassing melodrama had never happened - and I certainly sympathise with that position - but for my part I have to say I find myself reassured about the ability of the atheist movement to make the rational decision as a group.

So Atheism Plus has left me with a pretty bad taste in my mouth.  It was petty, small-minded, vicious, dogmatic, hypocritical, exclusionary, dishonest, irrational, selfish, uncaring and deeply, deeply sexist.  We shall not miss it, but we are wiser for having known it.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Why religious moderates should be THANKING us.

I just had a conversation with a woman on Twitter who professes to hate religion but is a self-identifying Christian. Yah, that just happened.

Anyway, I had a look at her page trying to work out where she was coming from, and saw this:

...and realised that all of us in the atheist, secular, humanist, rationalist movement have been missing something we should be pissed about, and that we should be using in our PR.

Moderate religious people like this woman should be GRATEFUL to us.

When we atheists fight for the rights of women to control our own reproduction, our doing so benefits not only ourselves but religious women too.  When we stand up and tell religious lunatics that they don't have the right to stop gay people marrying, we help religious gay people too. When we campaign to keep creationist drivel out of schools, it is not only our children who benefit from a decent science education but everybody else's children too. When we battle superstitious restrictions on scientific research, that research helps everybody, not just atheists.

We of the "New Atheist" movement take shit from all directions, from religious leaders, from politicians, from faith-heads, even from other non-believers. And most of the time that's fine, we're happy to deal with it because we care about creating a more secular and less superstitious world.

But when "moderate" religious person with no idea of how much they owe to us turns around and demands to know why we care so much about religion when we don't believe in God/s, or even mocks us for caring - that pisses me off.  Do you have ANY IDEA what our society would be like without secularists to fight your battles for you?!  The woman who posted the above tweets is a single mother, a woman who has received an education, who has a say in how her country is governed, who has the right to work, and who is considered an equal member of our society.

Do you think she would be allowed to be or to have or to do ANY of those things if christianity were allowed to govern unopposed?!

If you are a religious person who is in favour of equality and freedom, you are in a difficult position. Your values are being opposed by people who share your faith and in fact use that faith to oppose those values; this means you don't really have a leg to stand on if you want to tell them they're wrong, since you believe the same stuff they do.  We atheists do not have that problem; we're free to tell them their beliefs are utter rubbish without being hypocrites.

We atheists, secularists and rationalists fight a lot of your battles for you, religious moderates, and for the most part we're happy to do so.  Just maybe try not to be totally ungrateful when you're enjoying equalities, justices and freedoms that have been hard-won by other people in the face of the religion you're telling us we shouldn't care about.

Insight into the Atheism Plus mentality; "It's all about MEEEE!"

I should make it completely clear right now that this post is not directly related to Atheism Plus. However, like many others I've been trying to get my head around the mentality of a sect that conflates disagreement with abuse and has given the world "Shroedinger's Rapist", so an insight into the thought processes of the woman who came up with the whole idea seems less than totally irrelevant.

A couple of days ago, McCreight tweeted the following:

Any of us who've had the joy of being poked in the back by some random's boner on the London Underground can probably sympathise.

However, I confess my interest was piqued by a follow-up tweet:

Now, McCreight's Twitter settings prevent me from expanding her tweets to see the responses she's getting, so I can't actually tell you exactly what was said to provoke this response.  However, it struck me as such a strange and hyperbolic thing to say - given that based on the original tweet all that had actually happened was that she walked past him while he was engaged in masturbation - that I replied and this conversation happened:

I never received a reply to my last question.

I'll happily admit that at this point I didn't really know where I stood on what McCreight says she experienced.  On the one hand, yes it's a bit grim to unexpectedly see someone masturbating on your walk to work - and of course what the homeless man was doing was illegal.  On the other hand, I couldn't work out why McCreight seemed to have taken it as such a personal attack on her rights, as in her own words all that had happened was that she'd seen him masturbating while she was "walking by".

The other thing that bothered me was the total lack of concern for the homeless man himself.  Here we have a person who is already living on the streets - with all that that suggests about the chances of his having mental illness and/or drug addictions - and who is now so far removed from the societal inhibitions that usually govern our public behaviour that he is masturbating openly in a public place.  There is a REASON that most people don't do that.

I totally acknowledge that had I been in McCreight's place there probably WOULD have been a moment of "ew, gross" when I saw this homeless man and registered what he was doing.  I'd also probably have got the hell out of there in a hurry.  But I'd like to think of myself that once the initial shock had subsided I'd have felt at least a little concern for this man, for his safety and well-being.  If I witnessed a homeless person shrieking in conversation with himself at the top of his voice, or engaging in self-harm, or doing anything else that most mentally-healthy people do not do in public, I would have felt uncomfortable and probably scared... but I would also have felt compassion.

Why does this not apply because the particular eccentric behaviour this man was displaying happened to be sexual in nature?

Then I saw this tweet:

...and suddenly I got it. The reason McCreight expressed no sympathy or concern for the homeless man is that, in her world, everything anyone does within the scope of her perception is about her.

Seriously, is there any other conclusion we can draw from this?  Never mind everything else that ought to strike us as strange and concerning about what the homeless man was doing; the point so far as McCreight was concerned is that he didn't ask her permission to do it (never mind the question of how he was supposed to know or care who the hell she was OR that she was going to walk past).

Apparently I wasn't the only one struck by the total lack of empathy McCreight showed for this man, because shortly after the above she tweeted this:

When I first saw this one I sincerely thought - hoped! - it was a joke, but I'm forced to the conclusion that she was serious; another example of quite epic self-centredness. Never mind the details of what anybody said, never mind the validity of their points about her total want of compassion (which, you will notice, are not actually refuted in that tweet); the people expressing concern for the homeless man's well-being are uncaring, insincere haters just looking for an excuse to get at McCreight.

Quite apart from all else that's breath-takingly irrational and presumptuous in that statement, who exactly is promoting a "Male-Sexuality-Trumps-Everything agenda"?  What IS a "Male-Sexuality-Trumps-Everything agenda"?  If we take the words at face value, what McCreight is saying here is that anyone who feels concern for homeless people or those with mental illness thinks rape is acceptable.  That's jingoism worthy of Richard Carrier, it's hilarious.

The attitudes of people in the Atheism Plus movement have puzzled me for some time; as I have commented elsewhere, I am neither vain nor self-loathing enough to assume that the only interest a man could feel for me is sexual, for example.  Neither am I sufficiently scared of men that I feel the need to consider them all misogynists - and, these days, potential rapists - until they prove otherwise (if such a thing were actually possible) by my very specific criteria. Nor do I understand a mentality that by default brands all dissent and disagreement (and even questions!) as abuse from either misogynists or sister-punishers.  Most of all, I don't understand how a group that was supposedly set up to support marginalised groups in the atheist "movement" can produce little more than self-righteous whinging from wealthy, educated, middle-class white women living in democracies about how no one understands how hard it is to be them.

Next time you visit the A+ website, keep the words "it's all about meeeee!" in mind. You'll probably find it's all a lot more comprehensible... although if anything even less palatable.

Edit: I am told that some people on Twitter have been mocking Jen McCreight for having said that she is experiencing depression. Not cool, people. You don't make a joke of mental illness, and you don't get to tell her she's lacking in compassion if you then behave like that. Out of order.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Why Jeremy Hunt scares the life out of me.

I write this with a feeling of utter disbelief that I should feel the need to do so.  In the UK, in the year 2012, we are apparently to be dragged back into a fight most of us thought long won - the battle for the rights of women to make our own moral choices.

A few days ago, new Women's Minister Maria Miller stated that the time limit on abortion should be lowered; you can read about that here.  That's right; we have a Minister for Women who wants to limit the reproductive rights of women - her actions, I am delighted to say, resulted in the hashtag #MariaMillerDoesNotSpeakForMe trending on Twitter.  However, Cameron's appointment of an anti-women Women's Minister has been somewhat eclipsed - a remarkable feat in itself - by his appointment of Jeremy Hunt as Health Secretary.

Jeremy Hunt.  You know, Rupert Murdoch's BFF.  The one with the creative tax returns.  Thinks serious diseases can be treated with drops of magic water.  No education in science or in medicine – you know the one I mean.

And Hunt's wasted no time getting scary; today we learned that based on no evidence whatsoever and against the consensus of the medical profession, he wants to lower the time limit for abortion in the UK to twelve weeks.  Why?  Well according to this Guardian article, it's because "[t]here's an incredibly difficult question about the moment we should deem life to start.  I'm not someone who thinks that abortion should be made illegal. Everyone looks at the evidence and comes to a view about when that moment is and my own view is that 12 weeks is the right point for it."

Let's just be clear about something here; this man, who has no medical training at all and quite openly has no value for evidence-based practice, not only believes his subjective opinion should outweigh the consensus of the scientific community in matters of policy BUT DOES NOT EVEN POSSESS THE WIT TO UNDERSTAND WHY HE SHOULDN'T ADMIT TO BELIEVING THAT.  And this man is responsible for our healthcare.

This is terrifying.

I've blogged before about the bizarre notion that women's bodies should be considered somehow public or even government property; the short version is that you don't have the right to stop me making a certain decision about my life just because it's not the same decision you believe you would make in my place.  The time limit on abortion IS a moral grey area, as Hunt himself admits and as I'm happy to concede; in truth I’m somewhat ambivalent about later-term abortions because there’s so much that must be taken into account.  But the salient point here is that my opinion on whether other people should have abortions later in pregnancy doesn’t matter; even if I HAD a strong conviction on the subject, it would not be my place to inflict my personal opinion on others and put women's lives at risk by making it illegal to disagree with me. Neither, I contend, is it Jeremy Hunt’s.

He’s attempting to render a grey area black-and-white by making it illegal to disagree with his own entirely arbitrary opinion, and he doesn’t seem even to realize why that’s at once logically ludicrous, morally revolting AND terrifying.  I’m sick of saying that pro-choice doesn’t mean pro-abortion; being pro-choice simply means being willing to let people make these difficult moral decisions for themselves, not treating grown women as if they’re goddamn children.

Abortion itself is almost a secondary issue here (keep your eye on it, though, because having Hunt publicly shoot for twelve weeks would be a great way to make the people aiming at twenty weeks sound reasonable - exactly analogous to the point I was making in the Akin article linked above); the scary thing about this, really, is that Hunt is now responsible for decisions on medical matters for the entire country... and it already horrifyingly clear that he has no value for logic or for evidence-based reasoning.

It’s been said many times in recent years that we now live in a world in which all opinions are considered inherently valid on their own merits.  This has led, among much else, to homeopathy being funded by our already-stretched NHS, to religious leaders being consulted on matters of public policy, and to people with no scientific education whatever being convinced that their uninformed belief in creationism puts them on an equal platform in debate to real scientists and scholars.  To quote Asimov, too many of us now labour under the foolish and dangerous misapprehension that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge”.

The appointment of someone like Hunt to such a position as that he now holds is a terrible comment on the anti-intellectual and politically cowardly illogic that pervades our society and shows itself in every parent who elects not to vaccinate, every believer who contends that their fatuous notions should govern the lives of others, and every vicious charlatan who takes people’s money in exchange for “psychic” readings, cleansing of auras or quack medicines.

If people want to run their own lives according to idiotic ideas I can’t stop them, but Hunt and others like him can fuck right off if they think for a moment that they’re going to abuse their power to inflict such rubbish on the rest of us.