Tuesday, 5 July 2011

On Privilege, Sexism, and Anger

I tried several times to write a post about the reaction on the atheist blogosphere to Rebecca Watson's accusations of pervasive sexism in the atheist community. You had better look at her account of it here, but I can summarize briefly. Watson was at a skeptics conference in a Dublin hotel. At 4:00 am she announced that she was tired and wanted to go to bed. As she got on the elevator to go to her room, a man followed her in. During the ride up he invited her to his room. She declined and in a subsequent event recounted this event in order to discuss sexism in the atheist community; the context of that discussion was a talk on sexism in the religious right.

I feel like I have a lot more to say about the words privilege, oversensitive, and overreaction, but in all honesty I can't do it. I'm tired of the whole conversation. I know lots of people who say they are sick of feminism. I'm sick of it, too, but for a different reason: I'm so so so bloody sick of the need for the same basic discussions over and over again. I'm sick of people--mainly men, sometimes women--refusing to listen. I'm sick of people claiming that a discussion about sexism is off-topic (especially when the topic you wish you were discussing was about how it's bad that the religious right is sexist). I'm sick of people taking a conversation about semantics and the history of words--a conversation I think is very helpful and important--to use it as a way of fudging out of the real problems (note: that is a non-atheist example, but the comments are an excellent example of the sort of blindess I'm seeing). I'm sick of people who seem to be trying to give perfect examples of speaking from privilege. I'm sick of people claiming they don't have privilege when what they only seem to lack is superpowers. I'm sick of it all. I want to give it all up.

But more than that, I am furious. First of all, I'm flabbergasted that people don't see how it's a problem to corner a woman in an elevator in the middle of the night and proposition her. If you don't bother to think through how this would look to the woman, there's something really wrong with your methods. This makes you blame-worthy. Not because she felt creeped out, but because you did not do anything to mitigate the possibly creepiness. I'm flabbergasted that this doesn't seem more obvious to people. But as an extention of this I'm furious. Absolutely blood-boilingly angry. All I can see right now is that those who are saying this is not an issue of sexism or is not worth talking about (and, worst of all, that it is an issue of sexism and it's still not worth talking about) are being deliberately obtuse, are outright refusing to listen. Which is why I can't write those posts I wanted to write. Which is why I need to write this post instead.

It's strange. I'm familiar with the discourse around angry feminism. That is, of course feminists are angry; they have an awful lot to be angry about. Asking them to be calm and considered is too much to expect (and not because they're crazy hormonal women but because they have too many legitimate grievances to not be angry). In fact, accusing them of not being "reasonable" continues, albiet unintentionally, a historical line of sexism. But I've never been angry before. Then again, I've never been as interested in gender issues as I am right now. There's a personal history behind that, but nonetheless I am realizing how horribly frustrating this absolute refusal to understand really is. And yet it's clear that anger is not going to help right now. For the first time I think I begin to see the real importance of finding a place for emotion in discourse about such issues, including the academic discourse I am most used to. [Note: most of the feminists in this particular discussion have been very calm, collected, and reasonable. I'm just saying that I'd understand if they were otherwise.]

Part of what infuriates me, of course, is that while all of this is going on in the atheist blogosphere I know that folks in that quarter will still criticize religion for being sexist. I don't know what bothers me more, that people will claim that there isn't a huge sexist issue in atheism and from that position of supposed security critique religion, or that people who know perfectly well that this problem exists still level those critiques against religion. I do know that religious institutions are sexist and have been sexist in ways the atheist community isn't, but I still think that community had better do some serious housecleaning before pointing fingers. Glass houses, eh?

But this is not what makes me most angry. No, what makes me most angry is accusations of overreacting, is the utter failure to listen. That more than anything makes me angry these days, the failure to listen, the utter arrogance required for people to shut out others' experiences in order to hold their own not-very-considered armchair philosophizing. This is a rampant problem, one that promises to make me angry (or forlorn, depending on my mood) again and again and again.

I'm at a loss. I don't know what to do with this anger. One thing I did is go through this post and cut out all of the cusswords. And another thing I'm doing is reflecting on how my education in a liberal English literature department has helped me see past my own privilege, and how other people who have not been as educated to consider things from other people's perspectives may not find it so easy to do so. Another thing I'm doing, hopefully, is letting women who are hurt by this whole issue know that I'm angry on their behalf. But otherwise I don't know how to move forward, how to make all of this OK. I probably can't, and that's what's scaring me the most.

[Edit: I should also point out that I realize I might be unwarranted in my some of my anger. That's what makes it difficult.]


skatej said...

:) How refreshing to find a man angered by a "women's issue." The
angry feminist image is alive and well here in the American South. For that reason I have started labeling myself as an Egalitarian (which falls more in line with my philosophical beliefs. Feminism has turned into a lot of male bashing unless one considers neo-feminism. Perhaps I'm a lasseiz-faire-ist). Yeah, anger at a situation that is absolutely hopeless at this time sucks. We can only hope that the people who agree with us are the people who make the most babies (Which is not the case).
Anyway, let me just say that your anger oddly warmed my heart. I'm sorry, friend.

Christian H said...

"Feminism has turned into a lot of male bashing unless one considers neo-feminism."

Help me here. Feminism that I am used to isn't especially male-bashing in character. I keep a close eye on that and it's rare that I need to call anyone out on it. And there's a lot of feminism here. Is it really the case that feminism is notably misandrist in the American South? That would hurt chances of progress, I think. But I'd also understand it; the more resistance you get, the harder it is to be fair.

Leah said...

Really appreciate this. I have one more post on this topic tomorrow that's a little personal, so we'll see if I manage to keep the anger in check to be productive in the comments.

skatej said...

According to "Family Theories" by White and Klein (2008) the definition of feminism often focuses upon the themes of subordination and oppression, and how to change it. Because of this, in areas where there happens to be the most oppression, such as in the American South (as you so observantly pointed out) things can get a bit male-bashy. Imagine a constant stream of "Well, little lady"s and jokes about getting a new housekeeper and cook in a wife and you'll see what we're up against.
It's the basic idea of people riling each other up. One party decides they are going to change a norm, which leads to the other reacting against it, which leads to the original party becoming more defensive, with an ensuing scaffolding effect.
It is much more common here, for example, for a man to be the decision maker of the household, and for a woman to be expected to stay home (that's not as common anymore because nearly everyone is in a two income household). Remembering of course that I grew up in the seat of the fundamentalist takeover, which was a huge dig at women's rights, where Southwestern Theological Seminary in Fort Worth boasts a homemaker degree for women, which Paige Patterson, president, was quoted on the brochure saying something along the lines of "Finally, a truly Biblical degree for women," I'd say those of us who believe we are certainly capable, knowledgeable, and canny regardless of our genitalia have a bit more anger behind our convictions.
I once had a two-week long ordeal with my car breaking down repeatedly. I had the alternator replaced, which was put in incorrectly and cut up a belt, which threw a hole in the radiator, which melted the head gasket. I had to get a whole new engine. When I noticed something was wrong when I accelerated, the car went back to the mechanic. He did not listen for the sound I heard, and barely test drove it to find it. He came back and said there was nothing wrong with my car. My mom asked "what would cause that sound to happen then?" and he looked at her, looked at me, then smiled at my 14 year old brother and said "Woman driver."
That southern gentility comes with its own set of barbs.

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