June 27, 2012

What We Can Learn from the Feminism/Skepticism Debacle

Oh boy, oh boy. I'm not sure I've ever wanted to beat my head against my desk as much as I have in the utter shambles that is the 'debate' in the skeptical circles over women's right to feel safe. It all kind of took off (as far as I could see) with Rebecca Watson's elevator report and has re-exploded after Jen McCreight said a few words that led to people asking for better harassment policies at conferences. Now, I don't have much to say in the actual 'debate', though for the benefit of doubt, I believe: everyone should feel safe at conferences, that reported threats and harassment should be taken seriously, that the safety of attendees is far more important than the promotion of the events and that marginalised groups should be paid attention to. (And check your privilege!) So I'm generally in agreement with Watson, Zvan, Benson et al, and in disagreement with Groethe, Thunderf00t, Blackford etc.

No, what I want to talk about is what we can learn from the back-and-forths that have been going on regarding the issues brought up by the skeptical folk. Let's not make any bones about this: it's been a mess.

I think the first thing to take from this is the failure for people to check their privilege. I've said this many times and I'll say it again here: understanding the concept of 'privilege' has completely changed my approach to life, for the better. It's an important part of skepticism, too, as it's essentially an observer bias. We've each developed our own understanding of how the world operates based on our experiences and privileges and it's hard to shift that understanding to someone who has a different experience of life. As I said in my last post - we just don't notice a lot of things if they don't apply to us. I've never felt particularly unsafe in bars, on the street at night or at conferences. But that doesn't mean that other people feel the same. So, when Ophelia Benson - a woman who no doubts gets her share of aggressive misogynistic hate mail - gets an email that essentially boils down to, "watch your back", I'm not surprised that she plays it safe and takes it as a threat. Sure, from the point of view of someone who feels safe and comfortable, who never receives worrying violent messages, it might read as "No, really, watch your back - I'm really worried about you." But they don't have the same experiences as Benson, so maybe they should just shut up and listen to why she acted as she did.

Which brings me to my second point: shut up and listen. Everyone's so eager to shoot their mouth off about everything - even if it's things they know very little about. I was recently massively disappointed by Thunderf00t. His YouTube videos on evolution and creationism are very, very good. Sure, he's a bit arrogant, but he knows what he's talking about, so he's earned the right to speak confidently and with a bit of swagger. Unfortunately, he doesn't seem to know very much about harassment against women and the movement to improve things, but he still carries he arrogant swagger into the argument. What he should have done is be quiet and listen to what women have to say about the matter, because these are the people who have to deal with this shit all the time.

It's a strange phenomenon that any kind of sociological issue is viewed as a free-for-all for anyone to air their opinion, even if they have very little knowledge or experience of the subject matter. I'm trained in maths and physics so I can have a decent discussion about physics in the news or whatever, but I don't go wading into Jen McCreight's evolutionary biology posts and start giving her my opinion on genomics, because I haven't got a clue what I'm talking about. Instead, I read with interest (and a little confusion) and feel happy that I've learned something. Similarly, when Stephanie Zvan gives the low-down on what it's like to be a woman at conferences and what's needed to keep things safe and happy, I read what she has to say instead of blabbering all over her blog. Similarly - I just don't know what it's like to be a woman all day, every day. So I have to learn.

This is basic skepticism. Understand the limits of your knowledge and do your research if you want to form a solid opinion. Listen to those in the know. Be aware of your biases. Be aware of the Argument from Authority fallacy. Just cause a big shot like Russell Blackford has something to say, it doesn't mean he's right. The surprising wrongness of Groethe, Thunderf00t, Blackford and Dawkins should hammer the Argument from Authority into your head: Do not just absorb high-standing people's word as gospel. They can be wrong. None of these people are experts in feminism and harassment. Be skeptical and check other sources of information.

Just because people are part of the skeptical, critical thinking community - it doesn't mean they will always be thinking critically and skeptically. This includes me and you. Check yourself. If you find you've got a very strong opinion about something, be sure you've got a good reason to be so sure.

We need to be better than this.

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