On sexism, Ophelia Benson, Michael Shermer, hyperbole, and my stumbles into the Rift

Why are atheists “militant” (as we are so often described)? Because we object to being treated as lesser humans just because we don’t believe in gods; because we don’t want the state to give extra privileges to the religious and treat us as second-class just because we are atheists. And speaking up, seeking only equality, gets us labelled as “militant”. Unfortunately, such is the history of religious privilege that most Western societies are still far from having a genuine secularism that treats everyone equally (and don’t even ask about the Islamic world).

Another privilege running through the history of most societies is male privilege. This is diminishing (at least in the West) and it has diminished largely because of the “militant” women who speak up and demand equality, that they not be treated any less favourably just because of their gender. Any atheist who supports secularism must — if they have any consistency — applaud them and fully support the equality of women. Unfortunately, such is the history of male privilege that most Western societies have still not arrived at full equality for women (and don’t even ask about the Islamic world).

The people best qualified to judge the biases against atheists are the atheists; religious people are often oblivious to them, are often puzzled about what the problem is, and want you to pipe down, labeling you “militant” if you don’t. They really don’t see the problem in, for example, mixing Christian prayers with government business, and think that they are the victims if this is not allowed.

The people best qualified to judge the biases against women are the women; men can be oblivious to them, and can be puzzled about what the problem is, and want the women to pipe down, labeling them “militant” if they don’t. They really don’t see the problem in, for example, men having most of the high-ranking roles, dominating many areas of society. If a woman speaks up she should be listened to with respect; if she is speaking up then there likely is a real issue that needs addressing.

Many such women are speaking up, telling us that when they do speak they are often met with insults. Women who advocate for a better society in which everyone is treated with equality and respect — women who are doing society a favour and should be honoured for it — are often met by slurs, slurs against their gender, their physical appearance, their sexuality, sometimes even threats. This is vile and unacceptable and atheists should entirely repudiate it. Has the internet made this more common? Perhaps, because it allows people (ok, I mean men) to do it in an anonymous, and therefore cowardly, fashion.

Some have suggested that if a women speaks up then she should expect brickbats, that she makes herself fair game, and that taunts aimed, not at her ideas, but at her gender, should be expected and allowable. Well, this is simply wrong. By all means debate and critique her ideas, ideas do not automatically merit respect — but people do.

Less reprehensible than calculated slurs — but still important — is the repetition of stereotypes, stereotypes that imply that women are less capable than men and less suited to important roles. Since such stereotypes serve to perpetuate inequality they should be challenged. Again, women will be more aware of the stereotypes and when they challenge something, calling it a harmful stereotype, they are most likely right.

Thus, if someone is listening to a talk and hears a man suggesting that men are more “intellectually active” and that such activity is “more of a guy thing”, then the teeth are quite rightly set on edge and the listener is quite right to protest. If the speaker had used that language unwittingly, but had still reinforced a stereotype that women are less intellectually capable, then, whatever the speaker’s intent, he should acknowledge fault and apologise.

I might be a good idea for readers to stop reading now (and it might be a good idea for me to stop writing now), because I know full well that what follows may not be favorably received, so I want to clarify what I am not saying. What I am not saying is this, in the words to me of Greta Christina (atheist, activist for sexual equality, and author of the superbly written book “Why are you atheists so angry?”):

The expectation that critics of sexist behavior always get everything absolutely right — and if they don’t, they should expect the targets of their criticism to react horribly — is, itself, unbelievably sexist.

I am not saying that; I am not saying that critics of sexism have any special obligation to get things right, I am not saying that they have any special beyond-the-norm obligation to be sensitive to the feelings of those they criticise, nor any obligation to make their complaints meekly.

What I am saying is that nor do they have any special licence to ignore the general obligation to be fair, especially when criticising named individuals. And I am saying that because if it were held that, in this context, any degree of unfairness and rhetorical excess was considered acceptable, because the poor dear was obviously upset and couldn’t help but let her emotions get the better of her, then that would be the very epitome of sexism.

Michael Shermer, noted atheist and skeptic, was being interviewed by Cara Santa Maria, who read out a question she had received, saying that “Atheist groups always consist of a bunch of (mostly old) men” and asking “Why isn’t the gender split [in atheism] closer to 50/50 as it should be?”. Santa Maria then recounted that: “putting together this episode and putting together this panel I had a hell of a time finding a woman who would be willing to sit on the panel with me and talk about her atheism. Why is that?”

The first part of Shermer’s reply was “I think it’s, it probably really is 50/50”, denying the validity of the (stereotypical?) question. He then paused slightly and continued: “it’s who wants to stand up and talk about it, go on shows about it, go to conference and speak about it, who’s intellectually active about it; it’s more of a guy thing”. Presumably this was a reply to the second part of Santa Maria’s question, commenting on her report that she had had “a hell of a time” finding a female panelist.

That wording was poor, it was unfortunate, it reinforced a stereotype harmful to women. Saying that being “intellectually active” is “more of a guy thing” sounds bad. It would be good if Shermer accepted that (whatever his intent) his wording was sexist.

Ophelia Benson is a stalwart campaigner for atheism and the equality of women. She had already been writing a piece about sexual stereotypes, and, rightly, her teeth were set on edge by that remark. As a prime example of exactly what she was writing about, she slotted the remark prominently into her piece:

The main stereotype in play, let’s face it, is that women are too stupid to do nontheism. Unbelieving in God is thinky work, and women don’t do thinky, because “that’s a guy thing.”

Don’t laugh: Michael Shermer said exactly that during a panel discussion on the online talk-show The Point.

As she later said about her wording: “That’s a deliberately hyperbolic and slangy way of putting it. I write that way.”

Benson’s piece continued, giving the actual quote:

“The host, Cara Santa Maria, presented a question: Why isn’t the gender split in atheism closer to 50-50? Shermer explained, “It’s who wants to stand up and talk about it, go on shows about it, go to conferences and speak about it, who’s intellectually active about it; you know, it’s more of a guy thing.”

It’s all there — women don’t do thinky, they don’t speak up, they don’t talk at conferences, they don’t get involved — it’s “a guy thing,” like football and porn and washing the car.

There are several things to note. Benson omitted the first part of Shermer’s reply, the “it probably really is 50/50” that was his most direct answer to the question as Benson quoted it. And she omitted the second part of Santa Maria’s question, about finding female speakers. Thus she had substantially altered the context, making the question (and thus Shermer’s reply) about atheism overall and thus about intellect, when the question as asked was more about activism. She had also quoted “more of a guy thing” as “that’s a guy thing” (those are different).

Understandably, Shermer was inflamed. “Women are too stupid to do nontheism … women don’t do thinky, Don’t laugh: Michael Shermer said exactly that ..”. Wow!

Benson has recently explained: “Since I immediately go on to report exactly what Shermer really did say, it’s an absurd bit of pettifogging to pretend that I meant the “said exactly that” literally …” and she said that a more precise wording would have been “Michael Shermer invoked exactly that stereotype …” but that she had chosen the more striking wording for “aesthetics” and “style”.

Shermer read it literally, and replied: “Who in their wrong mind would believe such rubbish? According to Benson, me! Her evidence that I believe women are too stupid to do nontheism is a single 10-second sentence I uttered …”.

Benson is right that good writing is usually non-literal, that one often chooses words for aesthetics and style. But there are times when that is less appropriate, and I suggest that one such time is when you are directly criticising a named person. The accused is then, understandably, much less keen on “style” trumping the precision and accuracy of the accusation. Rhetorical flourishes that are fine when writing about a topic in general are rather less fine when specifically criticising an individual.

In his reply, Shermer pointed out that Benson had omitted the mitigating words “I think it probably really is 50/50”. Benson has since stated that, because the two halves of Shermer’s reply were disjointed, “including it could have made him look simply incoherent. The two together are confusing. I don’t think I would have been doing him any favors by including it”.

To my mind that was not Benson’s call to make. She was publicly criticising Shermer, and should not have omitted obviously relevant and possibly mitigating facts, but should instead have included them and left it up to the reader to judge (or else, if she didn’t want to get sidelined into the full context, as getting in the way of the main thrust of her piece, it would have been fairer not to have made this about Shermer at all). Shermer obviously considers that including that phrase does him a favour, since he pointed to it in his reply.

Benson justifies her approach, saying that: “The article is not about Shermer. It’s about stereotypes”. An earlier version had not mentioned Shermer at all, as his remarks had not yet been made, they were slotted in as an example.

I can see Benson’s thought process as she developed the article, in her mind it was not about Shermer, and his words were just a convenient example. But is it really OK to very publicly criticise a named person, to use “deliberately hyperbolic” non-literal wording, and to excuse this because it is “not about” that person? By naming him she had made it about him. If she had wanted it to be only about the stereotypes she could have avoided names.

Shermer was entitled to take the piece as “about” him, and it is understandable that he interpreted the wording literally. Having been attacked in a “deliberately hyperbolic” article, Shermer responded in kind, with hyperbole of his own.

His two replies talked about “McCarthy-like witch hunts” and “inquisitions” in the atheist community and he Godwinned by quoting Martin Niemöller’s “First they came …” poem (come on Michael, criticising someone, regardless of whether or not it is fair, hardly amounts to “coming for” anyone in the sense of that comparison).

To be fair to Shermer his replies demonstrate that he intended the remarks as descriptive, rather than normative, that he recognises and applauds the movement over recent decades towards gender equality, and that he doesn’t regard gender inequality today as owing to any lack of ability among women, but instead as the result of society’s biases.

The fact that Shermer responded to hyperbole with hyperbole was unfortunate, he would have done better to ignore the exaggeration and not over-react. Of course the response to Shermer’s hyperbole was more escalation (PZ can be relied on for that!). Each side sees the other side’s hyperbole as excusing their own, with the feedback loop leading to Deep Rifts.

And so to my minor part in the drama. I commented on two FreethoughtBlogs threads (one on Ophelia Benson’s blog). My intention was to wonder whether, if Benson’s initial complaint about Shermer’s wording had been less exaggerated, Shermer might have accepted the point rather than escalating, with perhaps a better outcome all round. I won’t rehash the whole of the threads, but just focus on one part. After reading Benson’s post (which was partly about me) I summarised the post by saying that:

You [Benson] now explain that you didn’t intend the wording as literal but chose it for rhetorical power.

This was intended as a neutral précis of her post, in which she had said that it would be “absurd … to pretend” that the words were “meant literally” and that the wording was chosen for “aesthetics” and “style” rather than for “precision”. My phrase “rhetorical power …” was not intended to be derogatory; if anything, saying that writing has “rhetorical power” is complimentary (rhetoric: “art that aims … to inform, persuade, or motivate”). It was also in line with the description that, later in the thread, Benson herself gave of the same passage: “… deliberately hyperbolic … I write that way” (“hyperbole” = “use of exaggeration as a rhetorical device … to create emphasis or effect”).

But Benson was not happy, protesting:

That is not what I said. I didn’t even say anything like that.

She suggested that I was “simply inventing” that phrase, and she asked me to “withdraw the inaccurate statement of what I said” saying that she “can’t even call it a paraphrase, because it’s too far off”. Another commenter described my paraphrase as “seriously disingenuous”.

This illustrates how sensitive everyone is to how others paraphrase their remarks, especially when done be someone they perceive as criticising them. I’ll leave it to readers to judge for themselves whether my “chosen for rhetorical power” paraphrase was fair (Benson seems to have taken “rhetorical” as implying deliberate deceit, which was not my intention in using the word).

My point is that, if Benson felt misrepresented by that paraphrase, to the extent of asking me to withdraw it, surely it can be understood how someone might feel on reading the paraphrase: “… women are too stupid to do nontheism … women don’t do thinky, Don’t laugh: Michael Shermer said exactly that …”. If Benson’s intent in naming the person was to elicit an admission of error, that was not the optimal way of phrasing it.

My arguing along these lines (predictably) did not go down well with the FTB regulars. The hyperbole in Benson’s original piece was dismissed as “unbelievably minor”, too unimportant to raise. With characteristic dichotomy they wanted to proportion blame 100% and 0%. It was as though any acceptance of any fault (however minor) by one party would thereby entirely exonerate the other party, and thus could not be done.

While repeatedly pointing to and condemning the hyperbole and exaggeration in Shermer’s replies (described as a “rant”, a “hissy fit”, and a “meltdown”) they refused to accept that the hyperbole in writings by FTB bloggers was even relevant, and they maintained that pointing to it was something that only “sexist trolls” or a “Shermer fanboi” would do, in an attempt to exonerate Shermer.

Hyperbole by Shermer was taken literally (“Somehow I don’t think Shermer’s references to witch-hunts, inquisitions, purity-of-thought brigades, and so forth were chosen for “rhetorical power”. I think he meant them quite precisely.”), yet hyperbole by FTBloggers was excused by saying that only an “idiot” would read it literally.

FreethoughtBlogs is not an easy place in which to argue for a dissenting viewpoint, at least not on this sort of topic. The near-automatic presumption is that anyone sustaining a differing opinion must be doing so insincerely, and thus be trolling. The main aim of other commenters is to “out” you as a troll. Anything you say will be given the least charitable interpretation possible. You will be outnumbered, and so will be subject to many comments. If you reply you will quickly be accused of “derailing” the thread by making “comment after comment”, which is trolling. If you leave some comments unanswered you then get accused of not answering questions and thus of insincerity, which is trolling.

Of course the discussion will naturally focus on the points of disagreement, the regulars will lay into you about those, and you naturally respond, and these aspects then dominate the thread. You then get accused of getting your priorities all wrong, of ignoring more important issues (whereas the more important issues are not being discussed purely because they are not being disputed!), and that is of course trolling. It is as though the concept that someone might have a genuine and honest difference of opinion is simply not accepted. Inevitably you end up accused and then convicted of dishonesty.

[By the way, if you want to tell me that things are as bad or worse on some other blogs or websites, then you may well be right; but if so they're not the blogs that I read, and I'm writing about my experience of the blogs that I do read.]

Why does this matter? Why am I writing about this issue (other than that Benson wrote about me in a blog post)? It is not that I think that Benson’s (minor) fault is greater than Shermer’s, and it is not that I think that Benson’s hyperbole exonerates Shermer — I don’t. It is simply that I — like very many others — despair that too many people in the internet-atheist community are in the business of over-reacting and feeding escalation, and too few people — on all sides — are interested in under-reacting and reconciliation. The route to the latter is taking the most charitable interpretation of another’s words, not the least charitable.

First, it’s about fairness. Equality and respect for women is a simple request for fairness; and if fairness matters then it matters towards all, even those who profoundly disagree with you. Secondly, too much rhetorical hyperbole can be counter-productive, it can divide and alienate rather than persuade. Thirdly, the feedback-loops of excess hyperbole have resulted in in-fighting among many in the atheist community who agree on much and disagree only on little. We’ve reached the situation where even attempts at dialogue are unwelcome, and where in-group reinforcement dominates over rapprochement. Fourthly, it is about the fact that someone can disagree with you without being dishonest, and without thereby being your enemy!

Finally it is about integrity. Another person’s faults in no way excuse one’s own. Fiddling one’s expenses is not justified by pointing to the vastly greater Enron fraud. Anyone claiming the moral high ground should police themselves to a higher standard than anyone else holds them to.

There are a few hopeful signs: Benson admitted to a “slight imperfection” in her piece, and Shermer talked about “slips of the tongue”. Is it too much to hope that Benson might write a piece accepting that — whatever her intent — her article gave the impression that Shermer’s words and attitudes were far worse than they are? Is it too much to hope that Shermer might write a piece accepting that — whatever his intent — his words gave the impression of a sexist stereotype, thus hindering, not advancing, women’s equality? And can we all under-do the hyperbole when talking to or about those with whom we disagree?

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7 Responses to On sexism, Ophelia Benson, Michael Shermer, hyperbole, and my stumbles into the Rift

  1. Neil says:

    I’ve experienced this in microcosmic form after a couple of comments that I’ve posted, and I empathize. On occasion, I’ll posted a comment that’s simply meant to raise a question that is purely hypothetical, but on topic, and I’ve been shut down immediately by being told that I’m too uninformed or off-topic, presumably because people automatically assume I’m angling against the popular opinion in a subversive way. I don’t consider my posts profound and worthy of replies, but if somebody is going to take the time to reply to one, the least they can do is consider what I’ve actually said or asked.
    Within the world of reader comments, I think what might happen is, in an attempt to reply to a post quickly, some of the context is missed or judgments are made too hastily. The stake often seems to be planted in the ground fairly quickly after one of the more prominent bloggers takes a side. The biggest problem I see with this is that once somebody has written or said something that a large enough number of people disagree with (often by prompting from one of the bloggers), anything they write or say in the future is automatically disregarded by some number of those people; take Sam Harris, for example. And further clarification is no cure. I’m sure you’ll find this out soon enough.

  2. fojap says:

    Exchanges like that are always a bit frustrating. I only came across Freethought Blogs for the first time a few weeks ago. There’s an odd clubbiness over that I don’t quite understand. I’ve apparently picked up in the middle of all of this. . . I don’t know what you’d call it.

  3. Anton Szautner says:

    That pair of opening paragraphs is terrific! (…and I won’t even ask about the Islamic world).

  4. Anton Szautner says:

    (…ditto with the pair that identifies who is best qualified to characterize themselves, etc. – wonderful!).

    The ‘she said-he said’ shoving matches and side-taking of the like described are incredibly tedious and repulsive. Controversies like it force one to dig deep and exhume original sources since its impossible to judge exactly what happened just from reading what folks say on over-heated mega-threads.

    Nobody’s perfect and we’re not always as careful as we should be to refrain from concealment in promoting our arguments or letting our tongues flap out flippant commentary, but when one’s miff gets exhibited on a platform for everyone else’s scrutiny, the juggernaut is primed for controversy, and its a self-sustaining reaction. Commenters avail themselves of quick response and judgment on the set-up as it appears, then continue to hold fast and secure it with familiar allies of reliably like opinion.

    The worst is caving into the temptation of assigning a presumption of a stance on someone based on a response that doesn’t necessarily or exclusively justify it. We’re none of us always as careful as we ought to be in our headstrong rush to react. (Some might react to remarks like these, for example, by falsely assigning to them an inability to stick to the issue, or as an indication of a stance on it they may not share. Such presumption is dead wrong. And, no, it doesn’t indicate a sensitivity for accomodationism either, which I personally detest.).

    Retraction is rarely offered, acceptance less so. Reputation is given priority and focus rather than statements and ideas. Emotion takes over the driver’s seat: reaction, obsession and outrage replaces patience, deliberation and yes, if its not excessively trite to says so, tolerance. Everyone seems to recognize that such ‘Deep Rifts’ consume a tremendous amount of effort and time, but not everyone agrees it unwarranted or might be better devoted to ‘bigger pictures’. Depending on personal emotional or ethical sensitivities brought to bear on a given issue, arriving at consensus can and will provoke squabbling and nasty behavior. Apes with disquietingly large brains hobbled by powerful feats of pique and constructing stupendously intricate models of irrationality are ubiquitous. (As if malicious traditions of superstitious nonsense wasn’t sufficient target).

    Its a fascinating psychological phenomenon if it wasn’t so dreadful to watch. I read about a recent study that demonstrated how many in the public (in particular, as it reflects on those commonly known as ‘denier’ types) are apparently oblivious to disclaimers, retractions or other corrections of fact on previous stories they’ve been to exposed to. They’ll continue to cite the wrong information as justification for their views. Once an inaccuracy or falsehood is unleashed, for too many, it seems, the cat is out of the bag and nothing can reel the kitty back. Its a real pity that something similar appears to be in operation even amongst that ostensibly ‘rational’ community of skeptics and atheists…many of them scientists.

    …and, of course, if they aren’t qualified to address the puzzles of the human condition and their elaborate cultural beasts, and the nagging disease of irrational thinking commonly afflicting all, who else? Some murky figment imagined to reside outside of nature?

  5. JesseW, the Juggling Janitor says:

    I’ve read your (lengthy) re-cap of your discussion on your blog. I agree with your paragraph that begins: “That wording was poor”. I also sympathize with your encouragement to avoid hyperbole and escalation.

    However, I do notice that nowhere in your re-cap do you mention any discussion you had with people supporting Shermer’s “side”. This suggests to me that you haven’t done any such discussion. Once again, I ask, is this correct?

    (Note that I previously asked you this on PZ’s Thunderdome back on Jan 28th.)
    (I’ve also re-posted this comment on the current Thunderdome, here: http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2013/02/09/thunderdome-19/comment-page-1/#comment-558687 )

  6. Coel says:

    Dear Jesse,

    However, I do notice that nowhere in your re-cap do you mention any discussion you had with people supporting Shermer’s “side”. This suggests to me that you haven’t done any such discussion. Once again, I ask, is this correct?

    That is correct. At the time I posted on those FTB threads and then wrote this post I had not discussed this at all anywhere else.

    Subsequent to writing this I did then post 3 comments on a piece by Harriet Hall (my first comment said that IMO “you [Harriet Hall] exonerate Michael Shermer a little too much, the wording he used (which you don’t quote in full) was unfortunate and gave a sexist impression”). That’s it, I’ve not discussed this issue (or Shermer or Benson) anywhere else.

  7. mothmantis says:

    This is an excellent post. Thank you for this. I’ve been watching the ongoing escalation between the Atheism+ and Atheism Regular crowd with a growing mix of fascination and horror. It’s nice to hear a reasonable take on the entire situation. Gender inequality exists. This is a fact. People over-react and say things they ought not, especially on hot-button issues. This is also a fact.

    I wish I had some profound insights into it, but I’m fairly new pretty much anything related to social justice or rationality (five years ago I was a homeless Southern Baptist that believed in aliens. And the Illuminati. And ghosts. And astral projection. And pretty much anything that was in an X-Files or Fringe episode). These days I’m generally in line with the values being espoused by both sides: skepticism, compassion, honesty, equality, and so on. But I feel like I absolutely have to hold myself to those values first if I’m to expect anyone else to, y’know? I mean, if I’m not willing to grant someone else a charitable interpretation or acknowledge that they aren’t being intentionally malicious, then I really shouldn’t expect them to show me the courtesy. That might be the only good lesson religion taught me.

    Anyway, maybe it’s just the way the ball bounced, but it seems like this all began around the time I started getting into the secular blog/YouTube community. I know the concept of community usually gets held up for ridicule by some of the members, which is why I don’t interact much, but that’s what it is. Coming from a tiny little redneck town that still had outbreaks of human slavery in the mid-1980s, believe me: y’all are the only people on the planet that ever made any sense to me. Like it or not, that is a community.

    And it’s been heartbreaking watching people like Myers, Christina, Shermer, and Thunderf00t, (people that very probably helped save my life from a very literal meth and alcohol addiction,) spend a good portion of the past year hitting each other behind the knee over nitpicky, pedantic bullsh*t.

    It just seems like being nice doesn’t matter to people, or that it’s entirely possible to disagree without being disagreeable. I don’t know. Needed to vent. Apologies.

    Thanks again.

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