Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Stuff the atheists can learn from the feminists!

Whatever happened to sex-positive vs. sex-negative feminism?

Back when I was in college and grad school, I thought there was a significant division within the feminist movement over the question of whether sex is good or bad for women. As I've written, my thoughts on this division have evolved, and it's not just me. The division has disappeared to such a degree that when I was writing my latest post on Saturday, I started wondering whether it ever really was a thing. Was I just hallucinating?

So I got out some of my old feminist books off the shelf, and confirmed that, no, I was not hallucinating. I think the following statement from Ariel Levy in the 20th anniversary edition of Andrea Dworkin's Intercourse kind of sums it up:

With the possible exception of the Shakers, it is difficult to think of an American movement that has failed more spectacularly than antipornography feminism. In the late 1970's, when a prominent faction of the women's liberation movement -- including Brownmiller, Dworkin, Steinem, Morgan, Audrey Lourde, the writer Grace Paley, and the poet Adrienne Rich -- turned their attention to fighting pornography, porn was still something marginalized, as opposed to what it is now: a source of inspiration for all of popular culture. [...] If the antiporn crusade was a losing battle, it was also a costly one: it divided, some would say destroyed, the women's movement. The term "prosex feminist" was coined by women who wanted to distance themselves from the antiporn faction.

The idea was that sexually explicit words and images created for the express purpose of arousal are inherently harmful to women. Not just abuses within the porn industry or negative messages in some types of porn, but the whole kit-and-kaboodle, on principle. It supposedly caused rape. This theory was part of the mainstream of feminist thought as recently as 2006 when I wrote my blog entries "A feminist in favor of porn" and "yes means yes".

One problem with the "porn causes rape" claim is that there was never any evidence to back it up. And, as I explained in "porn and me", that inspired some people to claim that instead of insisting on evidence, we should value supposedly female types of reasoning like intuition or some other such rot -- which made me hate the antiporn feminists all the more.

Then there was this little problem with antiporn crusader Andrea Dworkin muddying the waters on the definition of rape (as I discussed here). In the early days of the Internet, I had the misfortune of getting into a dispute with a feminist who claimed that heterosexual sexual intercourse is inherently degrading to women -- that, regardless of her desire or consent, the mere act of a penis penetrating a vagina is psychologically harmful to the vagina-haver -- and cited Dworkin as proof that this is "the feminist position." I assume this is a misrepresentation of whatever Dworkin said, but the experience reinforced my impression that Dworkin has had a very harmful impact on feminist thought.

As a consequence, people like me ended up going too far in the other direction. As recently as ten years ago, I would have told you that I don't think that feminists should focus on issues like date rape or misogyny. I would have given some reasonable-sounding reasons for this, but looking back, I think it was more a question of the fact that those issues were claimed by Catherine MacKinnon, Andrea Dworkin, and their fans -- and, frankly, I didn't want to be in the same movement with those guys.

But then what happened?

With the rise of the Internet and the corresponding rise in instant access to all sorts of content, the evidence became overwhelming that sexually explicit imagery for the purpose of arousal is not inherently harmful to women -- and, in particular, it does not cause rape. The idea that porn causes rape dropped completely out of the mainstream of feminist thought.

One of the awesome things about this development is that it demonstrates quite conclusively that basing one's conclusions on evidence is a female type of reasoning! The other awesome part is that we don't have feminists debating about whether sex is good or bad across the board -- we've realigned along the idea that consent and autonomous choice are the measures of whether a given sex act is good or bad. And now we're mostly all friends again.

Last Saturday morning I wrote about how making women feel safe and welcome in the atheist movement actually increases the probability of a given straight male atheist getting (consensually) laid. I want to add the disclaimer that that's not the reason why women should be included in the atheist movement. Women should be included in the atheist movement because women are people too, and can contribute to and benefit from the movement just like any other people. However, since the sexists were claiming that the feminists are just a bunch of man-hating prudes, I wanted to make it clear that that's not true. Helping guys get consensual sex is not the point of feminism, however it is a noteworthy side-effect.

Unfortunately, since Saturday morning, Richard Dawkins's descent into taking leave of his critical thinking skills has only gotten more appalling (see these links). He has decided that his new battle is to make sure we lady atheists know our place in the atheist movement.

Sam Harris also got into the act, posting a defense of his claim that critical thinking is a guy thing. Harris surprises me less than Dawkins. Sam Harris is the guy who claimed that guns are on balance beneficial to women, including in situations of domestic violence. He even posted on his FAQ that his debating opponent's case was based on evidence that shows the opposite, yet, instead of wondering (and researching) why that might be, he continued to repeat his initial reasoning for his original (debunked) assertion. That's not how critical thinking works. A similar thing happened when Harris debated a security expert over his idea that airport security should intentionally adopt a policy of racially profiling people who "look like Muslims." Basically the biggest mystery is how this clown got on the stage in the first place.

Does the arc of history bend towards justice? In general, not necessarily. But the atheist movement -- with its love of the scientific method in all its error-correcting glory -- is a different story. The "Men's Rights Activists" that are currently such a blight on our movement...? Their influence will decline and vanish, even if some of our most popular big names choose to sign onto Team Sexism.

In the worst-cast scenario, Richard Dawkins will do about a decade's worth of damage to the atheist movement he helped to create -- and he will flush his own legacy down the toilet in the process. (Are these tweets really what you want to be remembered for, Mr. Dawkins? Because that's the direction you're heading...)

This should be an interesting ride.


Daniel Midgley said...

Atheism is bigger than Dawkins, and it's always been anarchic. Just as the LDS Church can no longer get away with its sexism, atheism's heroes won't be able to either. I think (or hope) that the anti-feminist Dawkbros are seeing the end of their time.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Daniel!!!

So true!

Repeating here what I said on Facebook, the point I've been making in my parallels with the feminist has been about helping improve a movement by being willing to criticize one's own leaders. My formative experiences in feminism were largely colored by a conflict that doesn't exist anymore. I think this current conflict is going to be a very interesting and fruitful one for today's batch of teenage atheists to be cutting their atheist teeth on. It's a lot easier to shine the light of critical thinking on other people than on oneself, and this is a fantastic object lesson to illustrate that just because you have critical thinking skills doesn't mean you're automatically applying them to your own ideas all the time. It will be an incredibly positive learning experience for our new generation.

C. L. Hanson said...

p.s. We atheists know that the response to bad ideas is reasoned criticism and evidence. Yet, sometimes people are so blatantly, painfully wrong that the appropriate response becomes hilarious mockery. And the community didn't disappoint!

Here's Amanda Marcotte on Sam Harris and Penn Jilette and Rebecca Watson on Dawkins.

Also, less funny, but Adam Lee wrote a good summary of the situation (and made some of the same points I did).

Eric said...

Thanks for sharing this! I read with great interest and followed the links you shared. I read Dawkins' The God Delusion and Harris' The End of Faith/Letter to a Christian Nation prior to "coming out" as a nonbeliever, and they were all very therapeutic and confidence-building during that momentous period of my life. (Although in hindsight, I may have overreacted with too much anger at first...

I guess it is human nature to idolize people we want to emulate. So it is very disappointing to see these two bastions of reason taking such unreasonable and intolerant views. At this rate, there soon won't be any "Horsemen" left!

I watched the documentary film "The Unbelievers" about Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss recently (which also includes brief appearances from other leading atheists), and was disappointed. Not only did the film take more of a "rock star" approach, effectively worshipping both scientists and shielding them from criticism, with very little substantive science, I was actually shocked to hear Dawkins publicly argue that we should hold believers' ideas in contempt!

That, I realized, is the (main) difference between people like Dawkins and Harris and people like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson: It is possible to respect religious believers and understand the source of their beliefs, without sharing those beliefs. But when you hold others in contempt, as they obviously do, it is easy to stop thinking critically about your own beliefs.

I am, quite frankly, embarrassed to call myself an atheist given the public notoriety of a few atheists. It is also not a label that requires effort to attain (at least being a "good" Mormon meant continuous self-improvement!). Hence my preference for secular humanist and even secular Buddhist (we'll see how the latter experiment turns out...). :-)

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Eric!!!

I agree with you on the differences among these various leaders, and that's cool if those are your preferred identities. But I don't think this scandal is a reason to stop identifying as atheist.

The point to my story about the feminist movement is that -- even though there were currents I found objectionable -- the movement as a whole was important and valuable. For this reason, I refused to ever stop identifying as feminist. Instead, I objected to the problematic bits on feminist grounds, as a feminist.

As I said in my third piece in this series, the "Radical Feminists" brought us some very valuable ideas that are now central to feminist thought. But that movement within feminism was neither entirely homogeneous nor entirely praiseworthy. When you're saying things like trans-women shouldn't be accepted among us because they're really men, or all heterosexual sex is rape, or that a man masturbating to explicit images in the privacy of his own room is doing terrible harm to women -- it wouldn't be crazy for someone to react by saying, "Are you sure you don't just hate men?" But today you would have to be quite ignorant (probably willfully so) to argue that feminism is inspired by hating men. And part of the reason for the change is that we feminists demonstrated that we know how to take out our own trash.

That's where the atheist movement is today. It wouldn't be crazy for someone to look at today's atheist movement and say atheists are a bunch of hypocrites who can apply criticial thinking to ideas we don't like (eg. other people's religion) but when it comes to our popular guys' own prejudices (eg. sexism), many start spouting the same logical fallacies we shread when they're trotted out in defence of religion.

But, while atheism itself is as old as the hills, the current movement is new and growing fast. Some speed bumps and growing pains are par for the course. (When I mix metaphors, I go all out! ;) ) I have no doubt that the atheist movement is up to the task of taking out its own trash -- and a new generation of atheist leaders will be getting a great learning experience in the process.

Eric said...

I completely agree with you, chanson! I continue to self-identify as an atheist, and am still proud to be a part of this movement despite the notoriety of a few of its leaders. You are right -- the movement is very important and we need to band together, not run away each time somebody says something stupid! Although organizing atheists is more or less like herding cats, I think over time we should come to agree on a set of more or less universal ethics. Although at that point, we are already describing secular humanism...

As much as I would love to discuss atheism with everyone, my current circumstances require me to be more pragmatic. As I still attend church with my family and am currently "called" as Webelos den leader in our ward, describing myself as an atheist to my 10-year-old Cub Scouts or their parents probably wouldn't win me any favors. :-) I had no problem telling the current bishop and ward mission leader, however!

I still have some respect for Sam Harris, although I disagree with his views on guns, Israel, and don't share his sexism or contempt for religious believers (who are generally much more wonderful, intelligent people than he makes them out to be). I have read the first chapter of his new book, Waking Up, and look forward to finishing it this winter.

Given Harris' experience with neuroscience, meditation, Eastern spirituality and psychedelic drugs, I see him more or less as an expert in this field, just as Dawkins is in the field of evolutionary biology and Krauss is in the field of astrophysics. Outside these fields of expertise, their blind spots become painfully obvious, but I suppose that is true of all of us. At least some people are willing to admit it. :-)