Sexism: scaring the good ones away
A couple weeks ago, Rebecca Watson (of Skepchick, duh) wrote a piece for Slate magazine recounting the enormous brouhaha that erupted after her comments on how to treat women at skeptical gatherings. Most of the readers here will probably be familiar with what happened, so I’m going to skip to the end of the article, when she describes how this sudden eruption of misogyny in the skeptical community has affected other women.
Meanwhile, other skeptical women are being bullied out of the spotlight and even out of their homes. My fellow writer on Skepchick, Amy Davis Roth, moved after her home address was posted on a forum dedicated to hating feminist skeptics. In September, blogger Greta Christina wrote that “when I open my mouth to talk about anything more controversial than Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster recipes or Six More Atheists Who Are Totally Awesome, I can expect a barrage of hatred, abuse, humiliation, death threats, rape threats, and more.” And Jen McCreight stopped blogging and accepting speaking engagements altogether. “I wake up every morning to abusive comments, tweets, and emails about how I’m a slut, prude, ugly, fat, feminazi, retard, bitch, and cunt (just to name a few),” she wrote. “I just can’t take it anymore.”
This next sentence may be obvious to some…but guess what? The sexist hostility, the tolerance of violent harrassment, and the outright hatred is scaring people away from our community. It’s silencing people. And it’s alienating young people that could be our biggest and most active contributors. These issues put the skeptical community in danger of destroying the momentum we currently have. I’m glad Rebecca has made these issues known to a wider community and that we have feminist allies on our side as a result. But there is much more work to be done.
I have spoken in person and conversed by email, comment thread, or private message with many self-identified skeptics and interested people who want to know more about skepticism. Every so often, I am amazed by how many more people have heard about skepticism since I first learned about it five years ago. It gives me hope that skeptical voices will become more prominent in the media, in politics, and in normal everyday conversation. But when many of these folks hear about the types of threats and abuse that skeptical women have tolerated for the movement, they just want to run. Far, far away. And they never get to hear about the wonderful things that skepticism has to offer.
A movement is not just about ideas. Yes, we all agree that vaccinating against disease is good for public health. Yes, we agree that false balance in the media is a problem, that evolution belongs in science class, and that homeopathic “remedies” don’t truly belong in pharmacies. But there is much more to the skeptical movement. A movement has goals. In our case, one fundamental goal is to spread skeptical principles and ideas far and wide so that more people can think skeptically, promote the cause, and make the world a more rational place. (Right? Sometimes I feel like these goals are totally overlooked!)
And then here’s the obvious conclusion: if you’re scaring people away–both men and women–your movement is not going to be very popular or widespread. And, of course, the more women leave the movement, the worse off you’ll be. There are fewer role models. There are fewer voices contributing ideas, time, effort, and resources.
Now here’s the (maybe) new part of this conversation: you’re scaring off the good young people. I’ve had the privilege of meeting many young people that care passionately about what happens to our world and our society. They’re, at this moment, fighting for stricter emissions laws to combat global warming, working at non-profit organizations, writing about bad policies and advising people on new ones, and becoming doctors, lawyers, and scientists. I know most of them would agree that outright threats of murder and rape are completely unacceptable, and that they could never work for people who tolerated this.
I care very deeply about making the scientific and skeptical perspective known to a wider audience. I think it has implications for education, government policy, public health, and even conversations about ethics. But even I am questioning the skeptical movement these days: is it really worth staying in such a hostile environment? If I feel anxious about getting up on stage and make my voice heard, isn’t my participation basically moot? If I have to think twice about writing a blog post like this (there be dragons–and here be trolls), are skeptics ever going to succeed?
Yes–sexist behavior is damaging to its targets. But it’s also damaging to the community. If skeptics want to quibble about old pictures of the Loch Ness monster, it doesn’t really bother me. No harm done, even if we’re not focusing on issues that I care about more. But if skeptics want to vehemently hate women who are making their minds and voices heard–honestly? It makes me think about getting outta here.