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When “Can’t you kids play nice?” is not enough: Feminists, Bloggers, and the Division of Skeptics

The following is a guest post by Wendy Hughes. Wendy is a resident of Southern California, a volunteer at CFI-LA and JREF, investigator with the Independent Investigations Group (IIG-West), and co-founder The Odds Must Be Crazy (featured on Skepicality). You can find Wendy on Twitter as @wendy91602.

For over two years I have seen my community appear to divide like an amoeba. The division is over issues that seemed at first to be misunderstandings and hyperbole. I propose that this division can be explained by theories advanced by psychologist Rudolf Dreikurs that I learned in a parenting class in the 1980s. I urge readers who are undecided about the validity of claims about this division to consider my proposal when evaluating them.

I confess to not being a blog reader. My version of activism is engaging with my grassroots skepticism group in testing claims of paranormal ability. I love the investigations. It’s a hands-on activity; I get to really do the work, not just read the accounts of others. The books, the canon, such as it is, are important. The books and magazines are how I learned that there is a name for what I like, and groups that enjoy the exercise of critical thinking; but they are substitutes for assessing paranormal claims and designing the demonstrations to test the claims.

A friend suggested that the reason why I don’t perceive any sexism among skeptics used this analogy. He thought that people who listened to Dr. Phil Plait’s DBAD (Don’t Be A Dick) speech at TAM 8 who thought of themselves as never having behaved dickishly toward believers thought the speech was inoffensive and inspirational; but those who knew that they had been rude or critical of people who accept what we call woo woo heard Dr. Plait’s speech very differently. My friend said if listeners saw themselves that way, the DBAD speech seemed like an attack or criticism, not a friendly reminder that the human brain has evolved to pay attention to the false positive – that the brain of modern humans makes this mistake because we are the descendants of those who mistook the wind in the bushes for a predator, and pattern seeking is our specialty.

I think my friend was suggesting that the reason the claims of misogyny seem exaggerated to me is because I have not had the experience of receiving hate mail or discrimination because of my gender. The reason I was minimizing the necessity for action on the part of the secularist organizations to focus on the needs of women, he thought, was because I could not relate to the experiences of others. That sounded profound, and tried to live with it for awhile – I examined my feelings and memory for an appraisal of empathy for my fellow skeptics. I asked around among my friends for their opinions, and realized there was not unanimity on this topic – especially among women. Some of the men I asked said they just kept their opinions to themselves, because it was safer that way; that for a white male, giving any kind of opinion was a sure way to attract criticism and be labeled as a misogynist or worse, and all without ever having done any harm to any woman, ever.

But my friend was wrong about a few things. First: I married for the first time at age 18; my first husband was abusive. So I lived for six years fearing for my life, the person closest to me a ticking time bomb. For over a decade after that experience, I had what was probably PTSD – one day, I heard another couple fighting in the next apartment, and the woman was calling out for my help. I froze. I could not move to help her. It was as if their argument was threatening me, even though I was safely divorced from the person who’d actually engaged in domestic violence. So – I not only sympathize with women who’ve experienced violence, I am one of them.

Second: That I can’t identify with the claims of rape. I remember being slightly coerced, but not violently raped. However, it has happened to people I know and care about.

Yet, many men charged with, and convicted for rape have been exonerated. There is no question that a woman deserves the opportunity to bring her case if she thinks she has been a victim of criminal violation; but that in no way should take away the right of the accused to a fair trial.

I have experienced sexual harassment on the job, but it was such a long time ago, and the business environment was so different in those days, it almost seemed normal. Feeling as if my job security depended on what I wore to work, hearing the supervisor advise my co-worker to wear a T-shirt because it would influence customers to spend more money at our business, all seemed like business as usual; yet today, it is a punishable offense. When so-called women’s liberation was first starting up in the 1970s, it seemed to be directed to women with careers. I was a stay-at-home mom; it didn’t seem to include me. Now I realize that I should have felt included – that women’s liberation, gender equality, applies to all women.

Furthermore, I recently learned that another woman I know well, who was brutally raped and left for dead almost forty years ago, uses the date of that experience as a password for some of her electronic media. I tried imagine how it feels to not only live with that memory for the rest of her life, but to have to key in the date on a regular basis just to access some online account. She lives a fairly normal life, has a significant other in her life, drives, shops, helps with family responsibilities, the whole catastrophe. In fact, it’s easy to forget that she is a survivor because she functions so well – as does an adult woman I know who was a victim of statutory rape when she was a teenager. I think, unfortunately, we are all victims of some kind of aggressive behavior at one time or another; but there are degrees.

My first response, though, to the claims that the secularist organizations should focus on women’s issues, was economic. The skepticism community is small. There are lots of organizations supporting women’s issues (e.g., NOW, NARAL, Planned Parenthood; local, national and international). Additionally, I began noticing much more distraction when I was associating with my friends and activities in the skepticism community. It wasn’t as much fun anymore, and the gossip and opinions were interfering with my friendships.

Later, I began to remember the lessons I learned as a parent of teenagers. A school counselor recommended that my husband and I take a parenting class. The course was designed on the theories of Rudolf Dreikurs. I wondered if the strategies learned in the parenting class could be applied to restore the sense of belonging I had found so compelling when I discovered the community of skeptics.

When my kids were teenagers, I was at my wits’ end. My children were completely out of control, and the usual methods to rein them in: taking away privileges, grounding them, yelling and threatening, were not helping. In the parenting class, we were promised that we would learn how to get them to cooperate. People have a strong need to “belong,” to be a part of a group or community. This built-in drive can be leveraged for good or evil. Seen in this way, it’s understandable why young people are attracted to gangs or Greek letter clubs, gravitate toward organized sports, try to find others with common interests. What I learned in that parenting class helped me a lot at the time; I think it helped my children, too. Although I don’t use the skills consciously every day, I learned how to identify what emotion is being expressed and the best way to respond to that signal.

One early example was seeing my stepson sitting on the couch with a sorrowful expression on his face. Practicing, I said, “You look sad.” He relaxed visibly. Most of the time, when there is disharmony, people just need to be heard. Agreement is not always necessary; being heard is usually enough. Paraphrasing the claims of a colleague, a claimant for a paranormal challenge, or an adversary in a debate are examples of this strategy.

Some of the emotions that we learned to identify and deal with were identified by mistaken goals: attention, power, revenge, and displays of inadequacy.

Although the parenting class directed the participants to observe their children’s misbehavior, the strategy has as much to do with one’s own reactions. The advice was to observe my own feelings and sensations, think about what I usually did about them, and observe how my children responded in order to figure out what the goal of their misbehavior was. In other words, my own response was a clue to my child’s goal; it works pretty well with adults, too.

Annoyance/Attention:
For example, if I was feeling annoyed, my usual response was to scold or nag. The child’s usual response was to stop annoying, but only briefly. The child’s goal was attention.There are other explanations that may fit just as well; the parenting class was employing a particular discipline. At the time, when I tried to think of annoyance as the child tapping me on the shoulder, instead of defiant misbehavior, it was useful to keep in the back of my mind that by doing a chore, this child would feel like a contributing part of a family.

It bothers me that there is distraction from the work of skepticism. I want to do the investigations, commune with my friends and colleagues, work for consumer protection, testing of claims of the paranormal. Would it be better for the skepticism community to just let the claims and counterclaims play out in the criminal justice system? Do we really have to take sides when we don’t know the details that constitute evidence and the law that that has to be applied? By letting it bother me, distract me from my projects, I’m giving it attention that won’t help me or the community, let alone the claimants. That doesn’t mean I don’t care, but will my attention will really help solve their problem?

Anger/Power:
In parenting, sometimes anger is the key to the transaction. If I felt angry or threatened, my responses could be to punish, fight back or, possibly, just give in. The responses could include continued misbehavior, defiance, or slow and sloppy semi-obedience. What I had been engaging in with my teenagers was a power struggle. How many times has your response with a parent, employer, camp counselor or law enforcement officer been seeing-red anger? How many times has someone close to you responded to some action you’ve taken with anger that surprised you? If you have no recourse, no dialog, no opportunity to negotiate, identifying a power struggle is a step toward remedying the situation.

I don’t perceive a power struggle between me and my friends and colleagues. There are differences of opinion, but we’ll see eventually how things work out when more information is available. If I worry about it too much, finding it difficult to decide what to think, it’s because there is not enough information. As soon as there is enough information, the right decision will seem obvious.

Hurt/Revenge:
When someone is close to you, they learn your “buttons” to push, the issues that you hold dear. For some of us, these include aspects of the broader society: politics, women’s issues, race relations. I’ve seen holiday dinners with family turn into shouting matches when one relative needles another about a known special concern. The response was a ping-pong game of trying to get even. After the parenting classes, when I thought about those holidays, it seemed as if the adults in my family had been playing out a pattern of revenge for past conflicts.

If I as a skeptic am hurt, it’s because I think that others are refusing to cooperate. It bothers me to realize that some of my closest colleagues are ready to give up on the skepticism organizations and groups, and that I will be lonely without them. It’s a threat to my sense of belonging. We all come from different backgrounds, we have had different experiences; it would be strange if we all had the exact same values. I don’t really think the failure to cooperate is aimed at me. Someone, somewhere, has had a bad experience, and the reverberations are being felt by all of us. We all respond in a way that is appropriate for us personally. In this way, I understand that this conflict between skeptics is not the first of its kind, that it has a beginning and an end, and will not be the last. It will not destroy skepticism. We may not recognize it a year from now; but critical thinking will not go away because of it.

Hopelessness/Inadequacy:
Finally, when I felt like giving up, hopeless to ever solve a problem, the hopelessness is a clue to the child’s feelings of inadequacy. The family suffering with a child’s drug abuse or other troubling chronic behavior is familiar with the lack of response – the seeming inability to change.

If I feel hopeless, who is demonstrating inadequacy? Maybe it’s the whole community. People I counted on to be able to come up with rational responses in stressful situations are instead finger pointing, making up apps to block one another, and therefore refuse to communicate. They are yelling past one another, and trying to communicate huge important ideas in 140 characters or less.

Can this be helpful in the Skepticism community?
It wasn’t as if my family suddenly turned into a TV fantasy of civil behavior and polite discourse. It did, however, seem to help us. It occurred to me recently that if we tried to apply the lessons from that parenting class to the recent conflicts in the skepticism community, it may alleviate some of the stress.

We evolved to use more than just spoken language. We use and respond to nonverbal cues – see the expressions on one another’s faces, notice changes in posture, and hear the emphasis placed on words and phrases. We tend to seek patterns and see bifurcated monolithic sides to an argument instead of the unique and distinct thought processes individuals can share in a conversation. We can focus on our strengths and talents. Notice when someone, anyone, makes a wise choice. We must pay attention for the moments when any of us thinks a kind thought for someone else. And finally, encouragement is needed to work together toward our common goals of science and critical thinking and against our common opponents of superstition and pseudoscience.

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3 Comments

  1. Todd Armstrong says:

    You gave away your position by citing, “Some of the men I asked said they just kept their opinions to themselves, because it was safer that way; that for a white male, giving any kind of opinion was a sure way to attract criticism and be labeled as a misogynist or worse, and all without ever having done any harm to any woman, ever.” As if the only opinion a man could purport would necessarily be misogynist. …”any kind of opinion”… are you fucking kidding me. It could not be an opinion that was not misogynistic.

    1. Your criticism doesn’t make sense, Todd. She said that they were afraid to be LABELED as misogynist, simply by having any opinion. That does happen, whether you want to believe it or not.

  2. Cat Burns (@AtheistFeline) says:

    Thank you Wendy!! That was beautiful, and hope people take a step back and start thinking about what really matters. <3