Privilege Fail in the Atheist Community


For the atheist community at the moment, the biggest news is the story of Rebecca Watson.

For those not in the know, any of these threads will work.

Not to mention the long running and terribly terribly sad saga of posts on Pharyngula where the more…shall we say…douchey members of the atheist community made a relatively small problem into a major unsettling demonstration of how far things need to go.

Okay, before I get to deep into all that, let’s give the quick breakdown for those really confused right now.

Rebecca Watson was at an atheist conference, speaking on, among other issues, sexualization of women in the atheist community. Later that night at 4 am an attendee of the convention approached her while in the elevator, ignored her claims that she was tired and just wanted to go to bed and skeevily asked for sex.

Now, this happening in an enclosed space with absolutely no attempt to get to know her as a person and with an added creepy bonus of deliberately ignoring the refusal of consent in her being tired and uninterested in pursuing things, Rebbeca Watson was understandably skeeved and said on her vlog, hey guys, don’t do that.

Apparently by doing this, she personally ordered Hitler to invade Poland.

Who could have known?

There was a backlash and when she pointed out this backlash as an illustration of a point that the atheist movement has to grow with regards to women’s inclusion in the whole conventions, speaking tours, etc… side of atheist activism, well, there was an even bigger backlash.

And when PZ Myers decided to prove that his feminism wasn’t for sure and decided to throw into the ring his first tepid support for the rather non-controversial idea that maybe just maybe we could respect women as full people rather than the sex class and not be douchey when hitting on them, or at least failing that, at least not provide a stark reminder to even the few female leaders and speakers in the movement that any man will feel comfortable pulling social privilege and make you feel disrespected and an object, well…

The lunatics were let out of the asylum on that one and if you follow my links to the PZ posts you will see an epic swarm of marauding men trying to beat the others off to show off their best attempt at the Privilege Fail.

And when that’s going on, what soon followed was the usual silencing tactics, minimizing of women’s issues, blatant anti-feminism, full out misogyny, and so on.

Basically, the misogynist community let their freak flag fly on this one.

And that’s bad. But it’s worse because the last big discussion of women regarding the atheist community was THIS ONE.

Basically, the last big fight was on how we can get better inclusion of women in the atheist movement and basically fix the “middle class white men” problem it has.

That fight had led to some good developments, more atheism and feminism discussions, better inclusion of the marriage of feminism and skepticism, and even some airing of concerns about the con problem where women who attended were made to feel unsafe, out-numbered, disrespected, and of course treated like a sex object open to sex offers anywhere, anywhen.


Oh, irony. Well, not irony, more like unfortunately illustrative example.

What makes this worse is that luminaries like Richard Dawkins and Hemant Mehta came down on (if you’ll pardon the euphemism) the side of the devils on this one.

So, yeah, that’s the situation and the context.


And now, 500+ words into my post, let’s get into the real meat of what this fail illustrates.

And to begin, let us just note the sad obvious. Rationalist men are no less devoid of their cultural training in an unfortunately misogynistic culture with regards to women.

Being a free-thinker doesn’t save you being raised in a world where a woman is thought of as the sex class, some sexual object there to provide sexual relief and little else and not fully deserving the full respect one would give a man.

Being a free-thinker doesn’t make one fully cognizant of the rape culture, including the culture wherein if Rebecca Watson had been raped in that enclosed space where her consent was already being treated as optional, many of these same men would be following cultural traditions in saying she should have been more forceful in defending herself.

And if I may tangent here, many of the comments claim simultaneously that Rebecca Watson was making a mountain of a mole-hill and shouldn’t have committed the high-crime of talking about it in the nicest least-threatening or angry way possible while simultaneously giving advice like “she should have carried a taser if she was so worried.” Yes, the same people who thought mild rejection followed by “hey guys, don’t do this” were somehow going to have her back if she tazed this guy in the nuts. That doesn’t even begin to make since.

Back on the roll, being a free-thinker doesn’t protect one from privilege fails. I mean, that’s what it’s about. Being a free-thinker cis-gendered male means that you were raised male, raised in the toxic soup of culture and will have to heavily examine those learned behaviors if one wants to improve.

And unfortunately like what we’ve seen from a large section of men and other dominant groups, it can be easier to trip over your privilege and make yourself look like an asshole than to just listen to minorities and acknowledge basic level stuff.

And here, we need to discuss directly two quotes from major giants in the atheist community. Men whose work I respect, especially the latter.

First, Hemant Mehta:

This was bad form for two reasons. One, it was a distraction from an otherwise important talk. Instead of us discussing the incredibly important issue of how the Religious Right harms women (the subject of the talk), we’re all discussing whether it’s right for someone with a big megaphone to pick on someone with a smaller one, whether someone was being a “bad feminist,” and all sorts of shit that doesn’t need to be aired in public.
Two, whether it was the intention or not, you’ve convinced a young female in our movement that if she says something you don’t like, she better be ready for an all-out barrage of criticism from every “big name” in the atheist blogosphere.

Second, Richard Dawkins:

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 yes, the second one is directed towards a fictional invented strawman for the purpose of “mocking” Rebecca Watson’s arguments. And that sound you’re hearing is my heart breaking because I fucking love Richard Dawkins. Like, The Selfish Gene was the first non-fiction book I ever bought for myself love.

Now, these posts contain a lot of arguments, so let’s just quickly translate what they are saying:

Shut up.
Shut up. Shut up.
Shut up. ShutupShutupSHUTUP!

And if you read the comments in PZ Myers’ posts, you’ll find that that was a common thread when people could bother to respond to Rebecca Watson’s arguments instead of bitching at all women or feminists.

Now, you may think this unfair, but let’s treat these arguments as if they were good faith and look at exactly what they are arguing at their most basic level.

Both directly call for the cessation of Rebecca Watson making her argument, seeing it as a distraction from bigger issues, those being a) the radical sexism of the Religious Right and b) the horrific treatment of women in third-world Middle Eastern and African countries.

Now, people who know anything about most minority rights movements can recognize that this argument is already made of fail. The idea that Issue X must wait until “much bigger” Issue Y has been resolved has always been a silencing campaign to try and shame a cultural movement from discussing issues the speaker personally finds threatening to their privilege or self-regard and those following that advice have often found themselves inevitably having to return to those issues later from a more disadvantageous position because of the loss of forward momentum on the issue.

But let’s really look at the arguments. They are arguing that Rebecca Watson is basically making too much of a small problem and “wasting our time”. But that doesn’t follow.

A small problem doesn’t waste time, especially not a small problem that Rebecca Watson didn’t seek to make a big thing of.

I mean, let’s think of it like an actual small problem.

I was recently in the San Francisco Pride Marches (Trans, Dyke, and Pride and yes, pictures will be coming, I promise). Now, feet get tired in those, so let’s say I step on someone’s foot accidentally.

This is a small problem. To solve it I would say sorry and seek not to do it again. If the person turned to me and said Ow, I would say the same thing.

And if someone said on a blog that people should strive not to step on people’s feet in marches, the general consensus would be “yeah, of course, no problem”.

It’s not a hard problem to solve. So instead, the community ripped open its head and let loose a thousand angry chipmunks to demand that Rebecca Watson be silenced. That’d be like if the entire crowd attacked the person whose foot I stepped on because them saying Ow was distracting from the Parade.

Possibly shaky analogy aside, I hope the point stands. Small issues don’t get massive blowback. Small issues aren’t asked to shut up. Small issues aren’t treated as grave distractions from important work (also extra fail points go to both gentlemen for choosing subjects that “Rebecca Watson should be focusing on instead” that Rebecca Watson has often devoted a lot of focus to and which feminists in general have been more outspoken about than male atheists…yeah, whoops).

Because that’s the thing, small issues are small. Minor problems are minor and they don’t get entire communities backlashing against them, massive pushback by leaders, and arguments that they need to stop carrying on about them while “real work” needs to happen. Minor issues get resolved quickly without fuss. That’s how you know they are minor. When they are met with a collective yawn.

Once you argue they are “distracting” from real fights, you are acknowledging that this problem is real and discussion needs to occur.

Now already these arguments taken in good faith reveal the dichotomy, but let’s also go one step deeper.

Notice anything about the “more important” issues?

Yeah, they’re both about cultures that the speakers in question don’t belong to. Yeah, it’s real easy to condemn and see as evil acts done that have no connection to oneself whatsoever. Hemant Mehta doesn’t really have any connection to the Religious Right and Dawkins doesn’t to the Middle East or Islam. They are easy targets.

They are also targets that have limited ability to fix from the outside.

Yes, atheists can, do, and should point out issues in the Religious Right all around the world, both Christian and Muslim, pointing out egregious behavior and making it impossible to hide them from the public eye and public condemnation. To make it easier for people to leave those communities and try to reach those who can break from the oppressive conditions they find themselves in.

But the thing about that is that comes with a lot of downtime.

Trying to leave stuff to reach the curious in those communities to leave or grow or even seek to reform from within is great work, but at the end of the day, the best work is going to be done by other individuals learning and growing and becoming better.

And that’s really the best activism when we get right down to it, trying to improve oneself, trying to improve one’s community, and trying to reach others in other communities to improve themselves as well.

And that’s the part being directly rejected in those posts by these important leaders in the atheist community.

While we can do little but speak out and hope on getting people out of the Religious Right or the end of oppressive operations on women in the third-world, we can do a lot in our own communities. Improving them to be better versions of itself and thus providing even stronger incentive for others to join the rest of the world.

In short, the atheist community is not going to be able to quickly fix FGM, but damnitt, it can, if it put it’s mind to it fix the Atheist Community’s problems with women and sexism. It can address how women are made to feel sexualized and dismissed at conventions, can address the easy privilege fails that many male atheists fall into when speaking to or about women, can try and discourage the douchebags in its community rather than seek to silence the feminists who dare speak about that which we do not speak about.

There’s a lot and what can be done will produce much more dramatic change than we can affect in other cultures, who will always see its most dramatic changes from within. From those who lived the experiences, from those in the cultures, from those who escaped to those still in it.

But that would be hard. That would involve personal growth and hard looks at the community and a genuine demand to improve the hard interconnected issues that lead to problems like wide-scale sexism in the first place rather than giving oneself a blank check to feel smugly superior to a backwards uncivilized lesser culture.

And that could be an excuse if we were 5 year olds and we weren’t talking about a movement based in critical analysis of sacred cows and unexamined claims. A movement based on looking at the momentum of social inertia and goes, hey, wait, is there any support for any of this or are we just doing what we’re doing because we’ve always done it.

And that’s what makes these privilege fails so sad to witness. Because the community has the tools to examine these automatic resistances to discussion and growth, that has them calling for silence and demonization at the mildest of topic introduction, these cultural learned behaviors that serve no one’s interest, not men’s, not women’s.

And they are being actively deliberately ignored in favor of rolling into a ball and trying to wish it all away.

And that would be the biggest privilege fail of all and until that issue is addressed, atheism will always find its calls for minority identities to join in the struggle ringing a little hollow and its numbers continuously white, male, middle class, cisgendered, and heterosexual. Because a skeptics movement based in observing reality as is that refuses to seriously address the racial, sexual, sexuality, gender, class realities that are simply isn’t one yet.

The atheist community has a lot of growing, but like I’ve said in previous posts, I believe it will do so, shakily and possibly with a few fallen heroes of old having painful flameouts, but nonetheless growing into a movement able to address its problems and become a better movement for it, a more inclusive movement with a stronger respect for intellectual honesty and consistency.

But I won’t lie in agreeing with Rebecca Watson and others that the display seen here in the backlash to her is an overdue reminder on just how far the movement has to come, especially in its conventions.

But hey, it’s work we can do the most easily. Because it’s our own damn community.


3 Responses to “Privilege Fail in the Atheist Community”

  1. postman said

    I just want to thank you for the work you have been doing here and at Pharyngula. You should know that your efforts are not wasted and there are people out there who are grateful to be educated by your thoughtful commentary. A couple of years ago, I was clueless about topics relating to feminism, gender and so on. Obviously, I could afford to be, being a man in a patriarchical society. Now, thanks to you and other feminists on the internet, I feel better equipped to understand the experiences of women and non cisgendered individuals. I consider myself a better human being, although I have a long way to go in many aspects, and have you to thank for.

  2. niete said

    Man postman, you are one disgraceful suck up.

    • cerberustheasexual said

      Took you 3 and a half months to come up with that comeback?

      Wow, that’s pretty insultingly bad.

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