Sunday, July 3, 2011

In Which It All Comes Tumbling Down

Sometimes, events happen that shake the foundations of things that you hold very near and dear to your heart. I have always known, since I first read The Blind Watchmaker, that Richard Dawkins is a very intelligent man, a brilliant scientist, and an incredibly eloquent speaker. But, as things turn out, he's kind of a privileged dick.

To make a long story short, recently at an atheist conference Rebecca Watson, who writes at the excellent Skepchick blog, was approached by a man in an elevator at four in the morning, who asked her back to his room for coffee. Regardless of the purity (or lack thereof) of his intentions, it was a very poor move on his part. Cue the uproar: many people responded to her post saying that she overreacted, others shot back at them pointing out, rightly so I believe, that Watson was well within her rights to feel uncomfortable in this situation.

In one of these posts, written by PZ Myers at Pharyngula, the Richard Dawkins, he of God Delusion and Four Horsemen fame, posted this:

Dear Muslima
Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and . . . yawn . . . don't tell me yet again, I know you aren't allowed to drive a car, and you can't leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you'll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.
Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself Skep"chick", and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He invited her back to his room for coffee. Of course she said no, and of course he didn't lay a finger on her, but even so . . .
And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.
And later...
No I wasn't making that argument. Here's the argument I was making. The man in the elevator didn't physically touch her, didn't attempt to bar her way out of the elevator, didn't even use foul language at her. He spoke some words to her. Just words. She no doubt replied with words. That was that. Words. Only words, and apparently quite polite words at that.

If she felt his behaviour was creepy, that was her privilege, just as it was the Catholics' privilege to feel offended and hurt when PZ nailed the cracker. PZ didn't physically strike any Catholics. All he did was nail a wafer, and he was absolutely right to do so because the heightened value of the wafer was a fantasy in the minds of the offended Catholics. Similarly, Rebecca's feeling that the man's proposition was 'creepy' was her own interpretation of his behaviour, presumably not his. She was probably offended to about the same extent as I am offended if a man gets into an elevator with me chewing gum. But he does me no physical damage and I simply grin and bear it until either I or he gets out of the elevator. It would be different if he physically attacked me.

Muslim women suffer physically from misogyny, their lives are substantially damaged by religiously inspired misogyny. Not just words, real deeds, painful, physical deeds, physical privations, legally sanctioned demeanings. The equivalent would be if PZ had nailed not a cracker but a Catholic. Then they'd have had good reason to complain.

So, we are to think, if we follow the Great Oracle, we should totally ignore the plight of women in the Western world because others have it worse off.

About that.... um, no. That is the sort of relativism that infuriates me, and manages to completely miss the point. It completely misses the point that 1 in 7 women in the United States alone have been the victims of attempted or committed rape during their lifetimes, and the ratio becomes 1 in 4 before the age of 18. Add to that the fact that the conservative part of our country, and even some of the liberals, seem all too ready to put the onus of blame onto the victim rather than the attacker, we have a culture here that is built to oppress women, in the workplace as well as on the streets.

This is the reality, not hyperbole. Professor Dawkins is absolutely correct that female genital mutilation is a horrific practice, it does not give us the right to blithely pass off the issues, even if they are not so nightmareish as those he speaks of, that women are faced with every single day. And the fact that he thinks he can is unbelievably arrogant and offensive to me, as it should be to anyone who seeks for equality to exist someday.

This has brought even further into perspective a problem I have recognized with the secular movement recently. For the past six or seven years, ever since this has actually become a social movement, we have been all too happy as nonbelievers to band together and snicker at the religious, watching our YouTube clips of Dawkins, Hitchens et al and referencing all of the atrocious writings in the Bible and, occasionally, the Koran. I will not say that this has not been incredibly important for us; as one of the most ostracized and loathed groups in this country, solidarity and community are essential to our wellbeing, as they are with any minority group. But, this has led us to think that that is enough, and it simply is not. Theological and historical arguments are all well and good, but there must be more if we are ever to make the kind of change we want to see. Hence, we MUST become more aware of issues of social justice, feminism being one of the most important.

I mean, for fuck's sake, it's about damned time we did something different. The more we sit at our conferences, in our basements, snickering at the silliness of Jesus wafers, the more we enable our ostracization. It is only once we make it a priority to make the world a better, more equal place will we truly come into our own. We have the voices; the Jen McCreights and JT Eberhards and Amanda Marcottes are already, I think, pushing in this direction. I do not consider myself anywhere near as eloquent or intelligent as them, but I hope that we can kick the asses of the Dawkinses and start making our own new leaders, because frankly, the old white men are getting boring.

So, that's my statement. I think that Dawkins and Hithcens have, in terms of leading this movement into a new realm, have passed their expiration dates for the moment. (I reserve judgement on Harris and Dennett). Are they still brilliant scholars? Yes, but that is not enough when they are so clearly out of touch with issues like feminism.

So, it is here that I announce my support for McCreight/Marcotte '12: A New Way Forward. Or something like that. I bet they can make up a catchier slogan.


  1. How, exactly, is this not throwing the baby out with the bathwater? Even the most educated men make mistakes sometimes. Just because Dawkins doesn't understand RW's or JM's feelings doesn't mean that he's no longer a worthy spokesperson for the secular movement. I also fail to understand how calling your ignorant opponent--who is asking for a rational explanation--a "privileged dick," "fucker," et al, promotes discourse.

  2. The thing is, Brandi, this is not a "sometimes" issue. Dawkins has, by all accounts, a long history of discounting feminist issues. I didn't say they are now all of a sudden useless; you'll notice that I said that he is still a brilliant scholar. Which he is. But our movement cannot, I think, be so out of touch with an issue like this and remain relevant.

    As for my colloquial language, well, I plead Irishness.

  3. I do see your point Andrew... but at the same time, I see Dawkins' as well. If the man attempted to rape the woman in the elevator right then and there, I would agree with your argument more, but he did nothing of the sort. The woman was no sort of victim... he was pointing out that there are many women who are. Yes, it was a little over the top, but I don't think he deserves to be called a privileged dick... at least not for that particular post