On Sexism, Objectification, and Power
I was hoping to kick-start this blog with a highly critical review (AKA, rant) about the BS spouted by two members of a panel at the World Atheist Convention. The four-person panel all made reasoning errors, the severity of which ranged from ‘not even notable or worthy of criticism’ (Rebecca Watson) all the way to ‘so ironic, hypocritical, and irrational that I can see why atheists are so hated’ (AronRa). I may still get to this at some point, but I have been sidetracked by something else and I am highly motivated to write about it instead.
So here I am, about to do something that may shock a few people who have read my criticisms of her in the past. I am about to stand beside Rebecca Watson.
While reading James Croft’s review of the CFI Student Leadership Conference, mostly to find out how the agenda, which focused on activism (especially the featured talk by Desiree Schell) was received, I got to this:
The skeptical twitterverse has been buzzing with criticism of Watson’s talk due to her singling out a specific member of the movement by name and critiquing them in her talk.
Well, that got my attention. A talk about sexism (Watson’s topic was the Republican War on Women) in which she names names? Curiosity took over and I popped over to Twitter for a look. The first thing that caught my eye was this post by an attendee. I watched the video in which Rebecca describes her experience at the WAC after the same panel I was planning to write about. Essentially, after a day in which she publicly discussed her experiences with sexism and after making it clear that she was tired and wanted to go bed, she had (from her post on the matter):
…an unpleasant encounter I had with a fellow atheist that I thought might serve as a good example of what men in our community should strive to avoid – basically, in an elevator in Dublin at 4AM I was invited back to the hotel room of a man I had never spoken to before and who was present to hear me say that I was exhausted and wanted to go to bed.
In other words, he just didn’t get it.
I initially skipped the reply from a blogger in order to get an understanding of what any of this had to do with naming names at the CFI Conference. Then I got the gist: It seems that Rebecca quoted (and named) this blogger at the beginning of her talk, knowing that the blogger was in the audience. A blogger who’d criticized her. On a public blog.
The rest of the post recounted the discussion among some of the conference attendees that followed the talk. I found most of it somewhat disturbing, but I have to say that there was a part that made me laugh out loud (bold mine):
The primary response to the incident seemed to be that there was a power imbalance, and it was inappropriate for Rebecca to use her power as a nationally-known skeptic and as an official CFI-endorsed speaker at the conference to attack a student at said conference. Moreover, having been publicly called out by Rebecca Watson, Stef McGraw’s reputation as a skeptical student leader is now ruined forevarz.
The discussion of “power imbalance” carried over in a rebuttal by McGraw.
So there are multiple issues here, but I think they are related and I hope to make that relationship clear here. The questions are:
- Was the story a case of sexualizing? Is Watson whining and/or demonizing men?
- Why the disagreements? Don’t we recognize sexism when we see it?
- Was Watson wrong to identify McGraw in her talk?
- Was there an “imbalance of power” comparable, as was suggested by many, to sexual harassment in the workplace?
- Is Watson an hypocrite?
Regarding the issue that sparked it all, I will spare you an analysis of what makes the incident a case of sexualizing (and creepy). Rebecca did a fine job of that in a post herself (which I quoted above). I am more interested in the incredible shallowness of the discussion, the lack of empathy demonstrated by McGraw and those who ‘sided’ with her on the issue, and the way the whole thing completely occluded any discussion of Rebecca’s talk, which is a talk I actually want to see and hear about.
I was amazed that a young woman could hear the story and not find it creepy. Perhaps it takes years of experiencing sexism for yourself before you can recognize and understand it. However, empathy doesn’t require that kind of understanding and I find the lack of empathy among the students who commented on this disturbing.
Watson blamed Stef’s reaction on ignorance and I won’t disagree, but a lack of perspective is more than just a failure to read the feminist literature. The difference between ‘getting it’ and not, I think, is in how deeply one is willing to think about the issues as well as and how much one is willing to be educated. Most importantly, how willing they are to listen to the views of those with more knowledge and experience than they have themselves. It is not dissimilar to the problem of expertise and, unfortunately, I see this as a symptom of a cultural shift away from both respect for others and the willingness to work for knowledge.
Mostly I think that shallow thinking and disrespect for wisdom stems from the narcissistic idea that one knows enough already. I realize this sounds like the typical crotchety “kids today!” attitude and maybe it is, but I am not alone in my thinking on it. I have seen so much of this in my classroom that it is now easy to for me to spot. Many simply do not think beyond the surface features of concepts, especially if doing so means that they might need to change their view.
The surface features of feminism that seem to get the most attention today are sexual freedom and equal voice. Both of these issues are complex and, when people oversimplify them in the name of feminism, the ‘solutions’ can exacerbate the problem. Sexism, the thing that feminism fights against, is not simple either.
On Sexual Freedom
If I were an anthropologist studying our culture today, I might get the idea that “sexual freedom” is about incorporating sex into every aspect of life or that it is the freedom to express one’s self sexually without regard to other people’s feelings. It’s not. Sexual freedom means YOU get to choose what happens to your body. You get to choose when and with whom to have sex. That’s all it means. In order to have that kind of freedom, we have to take responsibility. Culturally, it must be as okay to say “no” as it is to say “yes”. This cannot happen if women are primarily viewed as sexual objects when they do not choose to be.
With all freedom comes responsibility. In the Watson vs. elevator guy example, there were responsibilities on both sides. Watson’s responsibility was to refrain from expressing an interest in sex if she didn’t want it. She did more than that. She clearly expressed a desire to do something else: to sleep. Alone. The man in the elevator had a responsibility to consider the situation and put a little bit of thought into how she might feel about being propositioned at that time in that setting.
On a side note, calling women “prudes” because they do not choose to have sex with multiple partners, do not like it when men stare at their boobs (instead of listening), or do not enjoy a constant barrage of dick jokes, is the opposite of sexual freedom. Think of it as freedom of religion, which includes freedom from religion.
On Sexism and Equal Voice
Sexism is a deeply-rooted cultural phenomenon that is perpetuated, in part, by personal interactions involving struggles for power. Sexism is the set of subtle thought processes that keep women from equal access to resources for the same effort. It is not about simple numbers. It is not, for example, the high ratios if male to female speakers at conferences. It is the set of thought processes that, in part, leads to those high ratios and the thought processes that those high ratios perpetuate. What needs to change are the thought processes.
Getting more women involved is not a cure-all, especially if the women who are included are not qualified to contribute (which only serves to exacerbate the problem as it appears that’s what women have to offer; that’s what makes tokenism bad). And nobody who is qualified wants to be asked to speak simply because they have the right genitalia. This is what some people mean when they say that ratios are a “non-issue”. It’s not that they don’t matter. It’s the fact that the problem is not the ratios. The problem is the culture that keeps them high.
On Watson’s Public Flogging
Regarding the ‘naming of names’, I don’t know if I would have added the quotes to my talk, knowing that the blogger was in the audience, but how doing so is wrong escapes me. One comment was that Watson was “using the first part of her talk as a soapbox”, which tells me that either they haven’t seen her talk before or they haven’t been paying attention. Most of her talks begin with personal stories. Some are very long and most are irrelevant “small talk”, but some are soapbox-like. I don’t know if it is an intentional strategy for her, but it has the effect of bringing most of the audience closer, which makes them more receptive to the message. Speaking style is one of Rebecca’s strengths. As for the “soap box”, I wonder if they realize that what we ALL do is stand on a soap box and preach. Few of us actually take actions to affect policy change.
Other criticisms included calling into question Watson’s “atheist credentials”. I didn’t realize atheists needed credentials, nor is it relevant. Yes, I have criticized her openly (on more than one occasion, actually) in the past for speaking outside her knowledge base. I do not think she has done so in this case, but that does not matter because it is just not relevant.
One commenter actually claimed that, “…Dawkins or Christina [Greta, I assume?] would never insult someone who was in the audience at a peer conference.” Um. Really? Indeed, they would if it were warranted. At The Amaz!ng Meeting last year, Massimo Pigliucci’s talk was built around criticizing two very prominent skeptics, Michael Shermer, and James Randi (whose organization hosted the meeting; Shermer’s co-sponsored it) for a lack of hubris! In a university setting, academic talks are criticized on the spot by colleagues, in front of other colleagues. Open discussion, including criticism, is how shared knowledge is built.
The bulk of the criticism of Watson’s ‘calling out’ seems to be about power. Power to do what? Some have compared it to sexual harassment, which is a bit ridiculous and, again, shallow thinking.
McGraw and others claimed that Watson’s position and ‘celebrity’ in skeptic circles put McGraw at a disadvantage. That may be true, but I fail to see the relevance of this, either. This is not about power at all. There are no decisions to be made, positions to fill, salaries to pay, or awards to be given. It’s a disagreement, not an exchange. In cases of sexual harassment and discrimination, power is used to control people or coerce sexual favors in exchange for access to resources. To use some stereotypical examples, get the job, you need to sleep with the casting director. To get a raise, you’re expected to look the other way when your boss ogles you or slaps your ass. If you have sex with the teacher, they’ll give you an A. THAT is about power.
And McGraw’s reputation has “ruined” by Watson? Rebecca doesn’t have that kind of power. Nobody does. First, people do not start with “a good reputation” that can then only be reduced. Nobody is entitled to such a thing. A reputation is something you earn. Nobody can harm your reputation unless they lie. If they are telling the truth, then it is you who have harmed it.
Finally, some discussion of whether Watson is a hypocrite was pushed around. I have to say that, although it clearly doesn’t change my view of the elevator man’s actions or Rebecca’s in naming McGraw in her talk, it is clear that her actions and messages today are a world apart from what they were just a few years ago – or even more recently. However, I am encouraged by this recent edit to a 2006 post:
EDIT, June 26, 2011: Someone just sent me a link to this and asked me what I think about what I wrote more than five years ago. Well, I think I was wrong to make a joke that sexualized two women. I made a lot of off-color jokes back then, and to be fair I probably still do — but the difference now is that I’ve had five years to grow and change and learn about ideas like feminism and the patriarchy, and I’ve figured out that my actions and words will never be separate from those concepts.
And I am equally encouraged that she wrote this instead of trying to bury or hide from the past.
I have heard, third hand, that Rebecca’s talk, which was about a dangerous threat we face today, was excellent. I will have to wait for the video to be posted to judge for myself. In the meantime, I am hugely disappointed that some of the students were so wrapped up in the drama and threatened by the idea that we still have work to do to in promoting equality (work that doesn’t involve raising our own self-esteems) seem to have missed it along with its point.