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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The only thing I hate about being a feminist...

Bill Bailey, hilarious feminist
...is that it's still possible to make general statements criticizing them and be taken seriously. 

Richard Dawkins weighed in on the sex/gender dispute, pretty much attributing all of the consternation to a blanket disapproval of the "million dollar challenge" (an experiment intended to show that women are essentially sexual gate keepers by asking how many men would accept a million-dollar bet to find a woman who would sleep with them by the end of the day, versus how many women would) and the use of the word "females" to refer to women.  Missing the point rather grandly, I would say, in agreement with Jen McCreight's comment here.

But what mainly irks me is this: he is able to say, honestly and truthfully, that "When the Million Dollar Challenge was offered at the American Atheists meeting, it deeply offended some feminists." Which, of course, allows commenters who find the offense unjustified to immediately set upon the "feminists." Oh, those darn feminists, always so outraged about the silliest little things.  No sense of humor or perspective.  Only a feminist would be bothered over this "hysterical twaddle" (as Dawkins put it).  I'm trying to imagine what would happen if an experiment regarding race was presented at a meeting, and he said that it "deeply offended some people concerned with racial relations."  One would hope that everyone is concerned about racial relations, and so would find it rather ridiculous to say something like "People concerned with racial relations getting offended, nothing new to see here."

Likewise, I would say that everyone should be concerned about gender relations.  It's certainly open for debate whether feminism should be primarily about disposition (as in, "I believe firmly that women are equal in value to men and should have the same rights as far as is possible") or disposition and interests ("I believe all of that, plus I'm specially concerned with how women are viewed socially by men and each other").  There are plenty of people in the former group who don't consider themselves feminists because they're not also in the latter.  There are also, I'm sure, plenty of people who are in both groups but who don't call themselves feminists because they associate them exclusively with those people who are irrationally outraged, however you might choose to define that.  I don't like being associated with Andrea Dworkin, but that certainly isn't enough to make me disavow membership in an entire body of people concerned with gender on the broader scale.

If Dawkins had said that when the Million Dollar Challenge was presented, it "deeply offended some women,"  it would have implied that women are the only ones, rightly or wrongly, who would be offended by the Challenge.  If the issue had been race, it would have been like saying that the experiment "deeply offended some black people."  Even though the word "some" is in there, the assumption is that offense would only be felt by members of the specific group being discussed.  But aren't we at the point now that that assumption is entirely unjustified?  That you don't have to be a minority to be offended by racism, female to be offended by sexism, gay to be offended by homophobia? 

By asserting that the offended party are feminists, Dawkins is suggesting that feminists (however he defines them) are the only ones who would be offended. Since he does this as part of a dismissal of what he calls "hysterical twaddle," it seems pretty clear that he thinks of feminists as being the type of people to get offended in the form of hysteria about twaddle. Some of them clearly are. But that has nothing to do with whether the offending object in fact is hysterical twaddle. People concerned about race issues often differ on whether a particular act or idea should be considered racist, and hence presumably worth getting bothered about. People concerned about gender often differ on whether a particular act or idea should be considered sexist or otherwise problematic in that regard, and hence worth getting bothered about. I happen to think that the most appropriate term for the latter group is "feminists," and therefore that slamming feminists as a group makes a person look like an arse. And I don't support enabling arses to proliferate in their arsiness. You don't get to dismiss the legitimacy of offense about something by identifying the group offended by it, and certainly not by dismissing the group offended by it. That's the essence of the ad hominem fallacy.

20 comments:

  1. Found you via your Pharyngula comment. Excellent points. I'm not sure why feminist concerns are dismissed so often - even by our fellow women. Frankly, I'm fed up with it.

    Thanks for a great post.

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  2. Yes, yes, thank you!

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  3. Excellent post!
    (I also found you via your Pharyngula comment)

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  4. I kind of liked Dawkins comments. Biology is a fact, not a predetermination.

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  5. Biology is a fact, not a predetermination.

    You're right, Anonymous, it is. But who is treating it as a predetermination? The people complaining about the panel suggested that the panelists were. If the complaintants were telling the truth on that, then Dawkins should have agreed with them. If they weren't telling the truth, then he could have criticized them on that basis. But since he didn't, I have to believe that he didn't actually read about the issues people had with the panel. It wasn't fundamentally about objecting to the Million Dollar Challenge.

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  6. To be honest, I thought he was talking about a different conference. From what I understand it was the word "female" and women getting hit on.

    I just don't think the word "female" is legitimately offensive. Should someone bringing that up be made fun of? No, but they don't have to be taken seriously.

    As to being hit on, it's hard to relate. It is biology, men do have to pursue, women are less likely. A lot of men wish they were hit on, but women shouldn't feel they can't be around men for fear of always being hit on.

    A big problem I have seen from this is that there will always be an attitude that "white straight men" are part of the problem and shouldn't have a say in a possible decision that will affect their future behavior.

    It will always be a tough pill to swallow when men are accused of having privilege and judged for it while being told other groups should have absolutely no preconceptions about them.

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  7. True, and I try hard to avoid that. When people get stirred up they're prone to painting with the broadest brushes possible, and that is not conducive to having any sort of productive discussion. It's important to be specific, listen, and talk about individuals rather than entire groups.

    As you implied before-- biology can be a reason, but it's not an excuse. We don't have to deny that it exists in order to understand and respect each other.

    For my thoughts on the "female" thing, see the post after this one.

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  8. ...and of course, I'm guilty of only paying attention to dissenting comments. Thanks much to Karly, Jay, and the approving Anonymouses for the kind words. This is a new blog (my first, actually) and positive feedback is really appreciated.

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  9. Just popping in to say that the previous Anonymous has confused me a great deal. I've never come across a situation in which "white straight men" were unable to have a say, or even actively discouraged, unless it was stated at the door that it would be thus.

    Plus, speaking as a "white (well, mostly) straight man" I have to admit that I could do with a little less say.

    That said, while I understand how RD's response was extremely offensive, I'm a bit lost as to how the original Challenge was offensive. Yes, I could see it being uncomfortable, and I don't think it was necessary to demonstrate at the meeting, but it does make a salient point about society's perceptions. I'm afraid I just stumbled on this whole controversy and haven't seen all the relevant videos or traced back through all the relevant posts, so I feel like I'm missing a great deal. Did someone attempt to attach a normative value to the challenge results?

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  10. I don't see a problem with the phrase "deeply offended some feminists". After all, he did say "some", and those who where offended were surely feminists (men or women of whatever "kind of feminism"), or else they would not have felt offended by the Million Dollar Challenge.

    On the other hand, it was rude to ridicule those who felt offended by calling them "hysterical twaddle".

    But we have to go beyond this analysis. Because sometimes its just hysterical twaddle (not saying this was tbe case). We may all have the "right" to feel offended, but we must recognize that there is irrational or dogmatic offense. If, for instance, my atheism offends you, I can somehow recognize your "right" to feel offended by whatever you like, but you are not entitled to an apology from me.

    In the end, the reasons whay people take offense is what matters. But then again, who's to say which are good reasons and which are bad reasons? We go back to the beginning.

    Since I can't see the offensiveness of the Million Dollar Challenge (maybe I'm stupid or "macho", or both), I don't consider RD's commen that offensive. Maybe just wrong word choice.

    I suggest we all just relax and let everyone speak their minds, without judging them, and try to learn something from what everyone has to say.

    Great Post.

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  11. Having followed this from the beginning, RD seems to have missed a lot. During the panel, the female/women comment was brought up. The million dollar challenge was presented as part of a different talk. Having not seen the video of that talk, I can't say for sure, but from what I have read, it wasn't that it was brought up, but how it was brought up. It (allegedly) wasn't mentioned in the academic way that RD suggested, but something like "guys, look around the room for a woman you would want to have sex with....." and then somehow tied in to the million dollar challenge. If true, that is something that is offensive. Its not the fact that there is a difference, but that it was completely unnecessary to objectify all of the women in the audience to make that point. A point which some people suggested didn't even really fit in with the talk, and also the talk was apparently about feminism, from a generally progressive, feminist man.

    I am of course going off of hear say, so if the facts are wrong, my arguments are irrelevant. But it seems that most people arguing that its no reason to be offended aren't considering context and delivery. You can try to make a legitimate point and screw it up with an offensive delivery and if you do, you should be called out on it.

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  12. Since there are so many "Anonymi" here, I will specify that I am the previously implied "dissenting Anonymous" of the posts at 6:10 and 6:52.

    Gretchen, being dissented against is not an insult. There is a level of respect involved with dissenting against someone.

    I wouldn't dissent towards a middle schooler or travel to the inner city and dissent against someone there because not everyone deserves the respect of dissension.

    @Different Anonymous:

    My comment about "white straight male" was coming from the attitude from other places, specifically Pharyngula, that males should shut up and listen. I understand that it is a little hyperbolic and shouldn't be taken that seriously, but it seemed that was the new battle cry for a lot people in the comments.

    I am just vehemently against that, both on principle and practicality. There's plenty of organizations that try to diversify by attracted traditional majorities, and I find it hard to believe those organizations tell their members to shut up and listen. It's a very condescending phrase.

    But as you pointed out, I may have brought that opinion over from that blog to this one and may have assumed Gretchen approved because she commented over there. That sentiment may not belong here.

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  13. Oh, I know that dissent isn't an insult Griger. It can be very helpful, actually, and I appreciate it. I just don't want to only focus on comments from people who disagree with me.

    PZ Myers is guilty to some extent of the very thing I accused Richard Dawkins of doing in this post, which is making assumptions about which "teams" people are going to be on. People's opinions on this issue are all over the map-- it's not a male vs. female thing or even a feminist vs. anti-feminist thing. There are people who need to "shut up and listen," but not permanently, and only those who dismiss claims of offense out of hand without even attempting to understand where the offended parties are coming from.

    Which is what I think Dawkins did, honestly. It's easy to dismiss what someone has to say if you're not even listening to it to begin with, and instead have made up your own version and shot it down:

    "People are upset about X. I've determined that the people upset are Y. Why are they upset? I don't know! Rather than actually reading/listening to what they have to say, I'm going to make up my own reasons and than talk about how ridiculous they are. See? Obviously they're upset about nothing."

    That's the straw man of a person who doesn't actually give a damn about whether people are offended or not.

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  14. Also, people in the inner city don't deserve the respect of dissent?

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  15. Gretchen: Also, people in the inner city don't deserve the respect of dissent?

    Ha, I thought I might have some response to that, but I originally was going to say "I don't go to the backwoods of Arkansas to dissent," but I thought I would flip the script a little since that is a common generalization.

    I admit I should have clarified it, but then I would be specifying uneducated, criminals on the corner, stuck in their own world. Then, I thought that would still be interpreted wrong and even might seem worse, and honestly, would I have had to clarify if I said "backwoods" instead of "ghetto" or "inner city"? Probably not.

    So, I said "inner city" and left it at that with implication that dissension is a sign of respect not worthy of people who don't really understand (middle schoolers) or who aren't educated enough to care (backwoods people or inner city people). Of course both of those are stereotypes. Maybe I should have just specified someone else, but I just thought about saying "backwoods" and wanted to say something else.

    And I agree, we should, as a society, put a lot more attention on people who are positive than we do.

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  16. As to your other comment. Do you think the attitudes of atheists towards Christians lends itself to dismissive attitudes towards people with complaints that aren't concrete in their evidence?

    When reading Dawkins comments, it seems we could have replaced "feminist" with "creationist" and gotten the same attitude.

    So a creationist says, "I believe that the Earth is 5000 years old," and they get a response, "Oh Ok, whatever."

    Then you have someone say, "I think 'female' is offensive."

    "Oh Ok, whatever."

    It almost seems that atheists spend so much time dealing with disproving creationists with facts, evidence, and critical thinking, that it is almost akin to putting a car in reverse while going 60 mph to then deal with the subtleties and subjectivity of "being offended."

    Let me say I am atheist, but I am probably more sympathetic than most towards Christians because I realize they are as just as diverse as any large group.

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  17. Yes, as I said in a previous post I do think that non-believers are well used to being offensive, and that could get in the way of being properly conciliatory toward fellow non-believers who are offended. I think it's easy to forget that we don't necessarily have anything in common aside from not believing in any gods, and are going to have radically different sensibilities when it comes to a lot of other things...such as gender issues. It might be that developing a thick skin is held to be so important that it makes it harder to do anything other than snort and sniff when somebody is willing to say "This bothers me."

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  18. Since we can't edit, let me just say that, yes, plenty of people in the inner city deserve respect of any kind, as well as in backwoods Mississippi or Arkansas in case that wasn't clear.

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  19. "I think it's easy to forget that we don't necessarily have anything in common aside from not believing in any gods"

    It might be that developing a thick skin is held to be so important that it makes it harder to do anything other than snort and sniff when somebody is willing to say "This bothers me.""

    I think that is good insight to the situation.

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