Recently, bloggist Greta Christina received some threats and abuse – unfortunately this isn’t a rare occurrence for Greta (or any feminist atheist writer these days), but the abuse in question was in response to some criticism she posted of Sam Harris, atheist advocate and author, recently in the spotlight thanks to voicing some sexist attitudes. Greta tweeted some of the abuse and @’d Sam, saying it’d be nice if he spoke out against such abuse – she made it clear she wasn’t blaming him for it, just asking if he’d distance himself from people behaving like sugared-up pre-adolescent Xboxers in his name.
After some back-and-forth Sam did exactly that, asking anyone who’d abuse any of his critics to unfollow him on Twitter. One of his tweets during the exchange, however, jumped out at me:
Does *anything* go without saying?
I thought this was a good question – I asked it myself not so long ago (2011 to be exact – “Elevatorgate” was only the beginning).
Prior to 2011 I saw that not only were atheist and secularist concerns priorities when it came to atheist activism, but LGBT people and non-white people as well – I’d always thought opposition to LGBT & racial discrimination went without saying and I was happy to see that it did among atheist leaders as well.
At the same time I thought the atheist movement getting behind gender equality (regardless of whether you use the “F” word to describe it) went without saying – not just because of authoritarian patriarchies like Saudi Arabia (and the Bible Belt, and Queensland) but because women are human beings deserving full equality with their fellows. I thought, given everyone’s insistence on skepticism and rationality, that a quick look at the state of play even in advanced societies with legal equality would reveal that women, just for starters, earned less for identical work, were disproportionately overlooked for promotions and executive & political positions and were disenfranchised across the board in myriad ways; that is, social and professional equality were still unrealised goals (again, just for starters – problematic, repressive and sometimes damaging expectations of what a “real” man or “real” woman should be and shouldn’t do are another essay entirely).
But, imagine my surprise when I learned that no, the atheist movement didn’t appear to care about that undeniable hard data because, well, who knows? I saw a lot of chest-beating and foot-stomping and violent assaults on straw-feminists and paranoid fever-dreams of misandrist femtopias and invocations of Christina Hoff-Sommers (the last person anyone should ever depend on for reliable information about the attitudes and goals of mainstream feminism) and general tantrum-throwing – not to mention low-level, casually clueless sexism – but very little in the way of reasonable arguments defending the male-heavy status quo. This wasn’t restricted to a few bloggers or vloggers either; sexism was alive and well and entrenched up to the executive level in the very organisations that held national and international skeptic and atheist conferences – the very organisations that made up the public face of the movement and presumably wanted said public to see their intelligent, rational and enlightened approach not only to science but to society.
I also thought the atheist movement opposing and decrying, as a group, harrassment, online bullying, threats of violence, rape and murder, abuse and cyber-stalking of anyone, not just women, went without saying. How disappointed I was to learn that it didn’t oppose outright such behaviour, and even went as far as to dismiss allegations of rape, dismiss threats as “it’s just online, get over it”, ignore patterns of problematic behaviour, blame victims at every turn and generally behave like any woman who complained of being targeted was getting all in a tizzy about nothing. Again, this was happening at an institutional and executive level and not just on the blogs and Youtube accounts of a few misogynist miscreants.
In short, Mr Harris, yes: in this movement at least, there a great many things that not only need to be said but need to be said repeatedly and loudly, right now, by people in positions of influence. Richard Dawkins did exactly that when he signed a joint statement with Ophelia Benson decrying abusive behaviour in the atheist community – the fact that within 72 hours he’d undone that good work by revealing gaping holes in his appreciation of sexism and rape culture notwithstanding (not to mention his earlier foot-in-mouth about rape rankings) . Clearly your fellow Horseman, for all his own missteps, appreciates that some things really don’t go at all and really do need to be said.
I made the mistake of thinking that opposition not only to casual sexism but also harassment and abuse did indeed go without saying in this community; you appear to have done exactly the same thing. My mistake was a result of simple naivete, but after several years of sustained and publicly-reported abuse and death threats of your fellow atheists and skeptics (leading to more than one restricting their involvement or quitting it entirely due to obsessive and unrelenting hate campaigns), all based on little more than their gender and alignment with certain ideals, I’m wondering what possible excuse you could have.