Morality Politics

On Elliot Rodger, #YesAllWomen and #NotAllMen

As news of Elliot Rodger having killed 6 people, then himself, spread across the Internet this past weekend, the Twitter hashtag #YesAllWomen started to trend. On the surface, the reason for the widespread uptake of this hashtag is easy to comprehend, given that Rodger had announced his intention to

“enter the hottest sorority house of [the University of California–Santa Barbara], and … slaughter every single spoiled, stuck-up blond slut I see inside there.”  To “all those girls I’ve desired so much,” he says, “you will finally see that I am the superior one, the true alpha male.”

elliot-rodger-fusillade-santa-barbara-islaTo those women (and men) who were using the hashtag sincerely (as usual, there was some satire, some trolling, etc.), Rodger’s actions and the apparent motivation for them provided a useful opportunity to note that sexism and misogyny – whether of the extreme sort that leads to things like beating and rape, or the more widespread sort that is documented on sites like Everyday Sexism – is something that is far too common.

It doesn’t matter that you might be able to cite an instance, or a handful of instances, of a woman who doesn’t appear to be the target of sexist attitudes. It also doesn’t matter that you might be able to cite an instance, or a handful of instances, of men who are the target of sexist attitudes.

Of course it’s true that men are also discriminated against. That is a problem, and one that isn’t given its due attention. But it’s a separate problem, and one that doesn’t diminish the fact that women are, in general, discriminated against more pervasively and acutely than men are.

As with race – particularly in a country like South Africa, but also more generally – a history of discrimination doesn’t get obliterated when legal equality arrives. Social attitudes are sometimes slower to change than jurisprudence is, meaning that you have a larger and more receptive audience for misogynous sexism than you do for misandrous sexism. This could manifest in advertising that objectifies women, or in unequal pay, or in the possibility that you get promoted more slowly as a woman than you would as a man.

Exceptions to this pattern say little about whether the rule is still accurate, until we reach a point where the exceptions start becoming, well, unexceptional. Nevertheless, it should be permissible to question whether this case – Elliot Rodger – is one of somebody acting out of a misogynistic mindset. It might be, for example, that he was simply disturbed in some more general fashion, and that the sexism aspect is a distraction from that more general motivation.

As is typical, a case like this turns the majority of columnists, tweeters and bloggers into psychologists, all offering their non-expert diagnoses of what Roger’s problem was. I’ll try to resist that, because I think it’s irrelevant to the message and the motivation of #YesAllWomen, and also irrelevant to how a competing hashtag #NotAllMen, missed the point about the role a hashtag like #YesAllWomen can play in raising awareness of a genuine social problem, as well as reinforcing solidarity amongst those who experience the discrimination the hashtag catalogued.

An exact diagnosis of Rodger is irrelevant because it’s a pretty safe bet that that misogyny was a large part of his motive, both because it’s a regular feature of his manifesto (which, incidentally, also offers an explanation of why he killed men as well as women. He hated them because they were more successful at attracting women than he was, and this seems to amplify, rather than detract from, a characterisation in which women are objects of conquest), and because of the everyday sexism that I’d suggest any honest observer would agree is real.

#YesAllWomen was noting, and bemoaning, this most recent and tragic expression of these sorts of attitudes. Twitter is a place where we broadcast in 140 characters or less, and a place where rhetoric counts greatly in terms of political effect. #TheVastMajorityOfWomen dilutes the message, regardless of whether it’s more accurate or not (I don’t think it’s more accurate, myself.) The hashtag was a rallying cry that summarised something that is indisputably real, regardless of whether there are details to be nitpicked over or not.

Also, it was a political moment. To accuse those who deployed the hashtag of opportunism or grandstanding misses the point that it wouldn’t matter if it happened to be the case, after detailed analysis, that the Rodger case was not a perfect fit for this broader protest. Yes, all women (leaving aside the nitpicking, as I say above) experience the effects of a patriarchal attitudes, and those attitudes can sometimes lead to tragedy just like this – regardless of whether this (Rodger) is the best way of making that point.

So, it’s in this context that the #NotAllMen hashtag lands, with (some) men rushing to defend themselves against the notion that they are responsible for the sexism that women are subjected to. But unless someone had said that you – Jacques Rousseau, or Keyser Soze, or whomever – are responsible for this sexism, #YesAllWomen isn’t aimed at you, and there’s no need to defend yourself. There’s no reason to take it personally, except as an opportunity for a self-assessment regarding whether you might in fact be complicit, and to what extent. Your actions thereafter, if any, should follow from that self-assessment.

Any sensible person already knows that #NotAllMen are like Rodger, or a diluted version of him. Objecting in the general sense that #NotAllMen does can only serve to give the impression of disagreement with the general point that sexism against women is prevalent, and that this sexism can be part of the reason that men like Rodger end up doing what he did.

It is a pity that conversations about discrimination need to start with qualifications and mea culpas – I would prefer to operate in a world in which any idea can be discussed without running the risk of being misinterpreted through assumptions of bad faith and so forth. But that’s not how politics works – discussions like these happen in a context, where the reception of a message is influenced by that context.

Regardless of what you might be intending to indicate by using #NotAllMen, you’re either saying something so obvious that it perhaps doesn’t need to be said, or saying something that takes attention away from a far more important issue – the issue captured by #YesAllWomen. The hashtag bemoans a real social malady, and our responses should take care to acknowledge that, rather than use it as an opportunity for nitpicking.

Morality Religion

More on civil discourse and Jen McCreight

Every day seems to bring another example of someone trying to outdo the previous day’s example of spleen-venting on the Internet, especially (of late) in the skeptic/atheist/freethought community. One of the consequences of this was the emergence of atheism+, which I wrote about a few weeks ago.  The sentiment behind a+ is easy to understand – over the past few years, seemingly intractable differences of opinion have emerged inside what some like to call (even if the name is perhaps – and sadly – often merely aspirational) the community of reason, most notably around sexism and misogyny. Various examples of sexism and/or misogyny have been endlessly debated, and these debates have included whether the offences were genuine or perceived, how much that even matters, who the guilty parties are and who is on the side of angels.

Many folk, myself included, have felt compelled to pick sides – or have been assigned to a side, whether they feel like they’re on one or not. The assignation is sometimes made easy, as some commentators seem happy to let their hatred shine, whether towards a construction called “Richard Dawkins” or one called “Rebecca Watson” (for simplicity, I’m using the Adam and Eve characters – there are many further examples one could cite). But that ur-story, and all the subsequent ones, contain so much detail and he said/she said components that you’ll almost invariably offend someone if you wade in. My previous call for civility even invoked (a little, to be sure) offence from Stephanie Zvan, so it’s not even safe to say “play nice”.

Nor should it be safe – one can call for others to “play nice” in a way that is counter-productive through being smug, blind to privilege, one-sided and so forth. Most troubling, perhaps, is that you might make that sort of call in ignorance of the fact that you’re one of those causing the problem. And it’s this final point that I want to address here. Everybody – on both sides of the debate, and everywhere in between – should not be permitted to forget this simple principle: no matter what’s come before, you – and only you – are responsible for what you say in response to it.

I left a comment saying essentially that on a blog post titled “Daddy to the Rescue!” The comment was published, and then deleted a few hours later (and there are reports from others of comment deletion on the thread there). For those who don’t know the context of that blog post, it’s this: Jen McCreight posted something amounting to a retirement/resignation letter to her blog. In it, she cites hate mail and so forth, and also reminds us of her chronic depression. She had basically run out of energy or strength to remain active, as despite the support she continued to receive from some, it was too disheartening to be the subject of constant abuse.

One dimension to this is the details of who is right and wrong in these debates on misogyny and related matters. Another is the playground question of “who started it”. Quite another is the question of what any skeptic/atheist/freethinker thinks can ever be served by insulting others instead of trying to demonstrating their error(s). Causing gratuitous harm is something we criticise (some of) the religious for, remember – why are we doing it to each other? I realise that many of you have tried to reason with those you consider to be your opponents, and have only ended up resorting to insult when reason failed. That’s understandable, even if regrettable (well, I certainly regret it when I do it).

It’s the last question, of insult (in Jen McCreight’s case, sustained) and the effects it has on people that led her father to post the following:

People who call her whore, cunt, bitch, etc. need to learn some civility.  Some parents forgot to teach their children how to disagree without being disagreeable.

The Internet has allowed a lot of people to express their thoughts.  But, it has also allowed anonymous people to publish pure hate and filth without any accountability.  If someone has enough balls to call my daughter a slut to her face I would quickly introduce them to some accountability – a quick fist to the mouth.

What we need in our society is a multitude of free thought, not a multitude of foul mouths.

Yes, in the tinder-box climate we’re talking about, it was a mistake to threaten a “fist to the mouth”. But as for the rest, it seems uncontroversial to me that you can disagree without being disagreeable, that the anonymity of the Internet has lowered our standards of civility, and that it would be (was/is) abusive to call Jen McCreight “whore, cunt, bitch etc.”. But some people seem to think that the problem is something else entirely, namely “Wooly Bumblebee” and some of her commentators. Ms Bumblebee thinks that Mike McCreight’s call for people to stop abusing his daughter

has to be the most pathetic thing I have yet to see. A grown woman being rescued by her daddy. It’s a fucking joke, and speaks volumes as to why she can’t handle the slightest little bump in the road. She is completely incapable of functioning as an adult. I rather pity her, and that is not a good thing.

Congratulations daddy dearest, and thank you for proving once and for all how completely incapable your little Jen really is.aricatured misogynist . folk seem through whether that matters including

Really? The “most pathetic thing I have yet to see”? We should surely insert some qualifiers there, like “on the Internet”, but even then the claim seems rather hyperbolic. Yes, Mike is Jen McCreight’s father. And that does provide part (a large part, no doubt) of the explanation for why he felt compelled to intervene. But to discount an intervention because of it’s source – without considering its content – is a simple instance of ad hominem argument. Mike McCreight has unique insight into Jen McCreight’s response to the bullying she’s reported, and it’s no doubt hurtful to him also. In a case like this, the principle of charity could lead us to say something like “Mike McCreight is hurting too, seeing as he cares for his daughter – we’ll suppress our juvenile instinct to accuse her of rushing off to Daddy for protection”.

She didn’t do that in any case – he blogged without her knowledge. Also, accusing someone of running to their parent for protection isn’t persuasive in itself – even if it does speak to immaturity (which would need more work to justify), immaturity on the part of the person that you are bullying doesn’t make your bullying virtuous. Your bullying is never virtuous – bullying is not the sort of thing that admits to virtue, under any circumstances.

No matter how you assign blame for past actions, or what your character judgements are in relation to all the players in this soap opera, we should all remember to include ourselves in those character judgements also, and try to be objective when thinking of our roles in causing or facilitating harm to others. In this instance, Ms Bumblebee has no defence – in the knowledge that Jen McCreight has been jeered off the stage, and had a long-standing depression triggered, she doesn’t take the option of silence (never mind sympathy). Instead, she broadens the net of victims to members of Jen’s family (and of course carries on with ridiculing Jen while doing so). That’s all “on her”, as the Americans like to say, no matter what sins you think Jen might have committed in the past.

Related, but worthy of a separate post at some point, Ron Lindsay’s (good) post from yesterday on “Divisiveness within the secular movement“.

Morality Politics

(Reposted): Being Right Doesn’t Guarantee That You’re Not Wrong

Martin Pribble recently asked if I’d be willing to write a guest post for his site. I was, did, and have archived it below. Also of potential interest are two posts in reaction, first from Ophelia Benson, then from Stephanie Zvahn (thanks, both). Many of the comments on those posts are useful in helping to develop further thoughts on this, so thanks to many who weighed in. No thanks for comments like this, which seem generated by one of those PoMo paragraph generators. Sokal would be proud.


It’s not always necessary to be polite. Sometimes, being abrasive or rejecting diplomatic niceties is exactly what’s needed to get a point across. And sometimes, getting a point across is preferable to pleasing the crowd, a subset of the crowd, or even the person you’re talking to. For every person who has been disabused of some fanciful metaphysics by a self-styled “friendly” atheist like Hemant Mehta, you’re likely to find one that’s been persuaded by a firebrand like PZ Myers.

Different approaches work on different audiences. And as so many of us have pointed out over and over again, atheism is not a religion, a cult, an organisation. We’re united in our disbelief in god(s), not in our politics or strategies. So whatever approach one of us takes – no matter how large their blog or Twitter following – it’s a mistake to think that they define atheism, whether old, new, Gnu or one that eschews these categories altogether.

But we (and there, the dangers begin to lurk, as soon as I speak of a “we”) pride ourselves on not believing in the same highly implausible proposition (that gods exist). This means, at the very least, that we share some minimal commitment to reason, in that we want to be guided by the evidence rather than superstition or dogma. And if that is the case, it doesn’t seem much of a stretch to suggest that we should apply the same critical mindset to propositions beyond merely the god hypothesis.

So, when we speak of social justice, equality, freedom of speech and so forth, it’s reasonable to expect some similarity in approach, even if not in conclusions reached. To put it plainly, an approach in which we listen to the evidence, in other words to each other, without pre-judging what someone is going to say, what they believe, or what ideological faction they belong to. Their arguments are assessed on their merits, rather than via knowing which websites they frequently comment on.

Nobody can deny that some participants in these conversations are not honest brokers. Some are simply unreconstructed trolls, others trolls of the sly sort, mimicking critical reflection while subtly distracting – and detracting – from the real issues that others are trying to address. Another set of “others” aren’t trolls at all – and it seems to me that the community of sceptical and/or atheist activists and bloggers sometimes have a difficult time of it in distinguishing between these sorts of contributor to the debate.

The trend on the Internet generally – at least according to my anecdata – is for increasing hyperbole and hysteria, perhaps especially so when we can comment anonymously, with no fear of reputational harm. Those who shout the loudest think that they can win, or end up thinking that they’ve won once they have drowned out the opposing view. And even though our community might (hopefully) be more rational than any randomly selected group, we’re not immune to the same trend.

On emotive issues, this can be particularly worrisome, and is also more likely to happen – simply because the stakes are higher. And here’s the thing: I think we forget that a concern for tone does not automatically mean that you are a tone-troll (broadly, someone who is attempting to shut down legitimate criticism on the grounds that it’s expressed in a rude or hostile fashion).

To put it another way: you can grant that Francis Collins (for example) has some pretty confused ideas about which propositions gain epistemic weight via waterfall observations, yet still think that it’s a bad idea to call him some abusive name. You might think it’s a bad idea because you think it rude, or you might think that (on balance) he does more good than harm for science, so let’s not alienate people who we might reach through discussing him politely.

When the space for saying that (“that” being something like “Collins is wrong, but it’s not helpful to call him a moron”) disappears, we’re not having a rational conversation anymore. Yes, I did use the phrase “not helpful” – sorry, but it fits. And what it means is “not helpful to a certain strategic goal”. You might not share that goal, or you might share it, but think it should be achieved through different means. All of which are questions that we can discuss, if we’re still listening to each other.

We’re not, though – at least not consistently. And right now, the debate on misogyny in the sceptical community has escalated to such an extent that there’s a lot that can’t be heard over the screaming. Yes, there is certainly plenty that doesn’t need to be heard because it genuinely is sexist, or excuses sexism. But simply labelling someone a “rape apologist”, for example, doesn’t magically transform someone into actually being a rape apologist.

A problem here is that we could mean different things by a phrase like “rape apologist”. Coming from a position of privilege, most men might well be unaware of how that privilege biases them against seeing various threats, insults or instances of being demeaned or trivialised that women experience. This blindness might make them too tolerant (in other words, at all tolerant) of sexist language, or stereotypes around what it means when a woman dresses in a particular way.

To be clear, this blindness is bad, and needs correction. It’s certainly bad if we create, endorse, or fail to combat a climate of hostility to any poorly defined (and heterogeneous) group like “women”. And the fact that some women believe that such a climate currently exists is a problem in itself, whether or not you’re complicit in creating that climate. In fact, it’s a problem whether or not such hostility even exists – unless you want to claim it’s a complete fabrication, the perception most likely finds inspiration in some forms of behaviour or speech that we could modify at little or no cost.

Furthermore (and obviously, one would hope), rape jokes and stereotypes about women (or about any hypothetical “group”) are bad things. But there’s still a significant difference of degree between a man who says that a woman who was raped was “asking for it” and someone who asks the question whether, empirically, there is any correlation between what women wear and whether that correlates with sexual violence in any way. That difference rests in part with their attitudes, and in part with how easy it might be to change their views.

The former sort of man can perhaps never be persuaded that he has Neanderthal attitudes. The latter one could perhaps be persuaded that that’s the wrong question to ask. But once he’s driven out of a comment thread by name-calling, we lose our chance to persuade. And this is a key thing: it’s not PZ (or whoever’s) job to control the people who comment on their posts. But we all need to be aware that we set the tone at our websites not only by what we write, but also by how we respond to those who leave comments.

So if someone doesn’t give someone else a chance to explain what might be an honest mistake, rather than an attempt at trolling or rape apologetics, before descending on them with abuse, that abusive reaction is also antithetical to the skeptical cause, and should also be called out by the blog owner or other commenters. If it’s not called out, we quickly become gangs who have chosen a side, and chosen our authorities or leaders, and who then defend our turf by whatever means necessary – whether principled or not.

This tribalism, and defending of a cause, comes naturally to most of us. What also comes naturally is to double-down when challenged, especially when others question your integrity or motives. This complicates the reactions that people have to being called out for language that appears – or is – sexist or insensitive to the pervasive misogyny debate. Being defensive in light of such accusations is normal, and it’s perhaps uncharitable to use this defensiveness as further evidence of the commenter’s ignorance, prejudice or malice.

Here in South Africa everyone will know what I’m talking about if I were to use the phrase “playing the race card”, and hopefully you do too. In case you don’t, it refers to a tactic that’s sadly common here, and is used for avoiding uncomfortable discussions and not allowing any facts to interfere with your prejudices. If a white man such as myself says something about South African culture or politics, it is often dismissed simply on the grounds that I can’t understand what it’s like to be black.

What this crude form of identity politics misses is that blackness or whiteness or whatever-ness is only one feature of identity. Sometimes a powerful one, to be sure, but nevertheless, I might have far more features in common with a randomly selected black South African than she does with another randomly selected black South African. The same principle applies with gender, and just as we shouldn’t use the race card, but instead look at the arguments and evidence, we should avoid using the gender card.

Yet, we have to make distinctions between well-meaning interlocutors and trolls, and we all want to keep our websites and blogs free of trollish pestilence. So patience cannot be infinite. But when the current tensions started escalating to the point of an apparent civil war, it started to appear as if – increasingly – some members of this community started making judgements before hearing any arguments.

If all we want is to feel self-righteous, and right, that’s fine. It is indeed good to know who the enemy is. But it’s also good to change the enemy’s mind, where possible, and it’s good to discover that someone you thought of as an enemy is actually simply a confused friend. Let’s be wary of making the latter two sorts of interaction impossible.

P.S. I apologise for the generality in this post. It’s a difficult thing to write about, for various reasons, and that accounts for the evasiveness. First, the vociferous responses to interventions in this area do play a censoring role (or did, in this post). Second, I have friends and “friends” (in the Facebook/Twitter sense) on both sides of the civil war, which serves an inhibiting role. Third, and most important, specifics might detract from the general and primary point I’m trying to make – that we should be careful to keep listening to each other, because the thing we (as skeptics) are arguably best at is remembering  that we can be wrong, and recognising when that’s the case.

Daily Maverick Morality Politics

Gendered epithets: Short-term battles vs. long-term wars

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

This Saturday, September 24, Slutwalk comes to Johannesburg, and thousands will participate to protest victim-blaming and to affirm the right of all women to wear what they want, and act as they please, without fear of being misunderstood as welcoming sexual assault.

Many will participate dressed in clothing that might be considered sluttish – in the traditional sense of the word – because part of the point of Slutwalk is to reclaim the word ‘slut’ and to say that others (rapists, as well as those who deny women agency in less violent ways) don’t have the authority to impute desire where none might exist.

As I’ve previously argued in the lead-up to the Cape Town Slutwalk, calling these protests Slutwalks runs the risk of alienating some supporters who see the word ‘slut’ as inescapably pejorative. It also runs the risk of creating tension between those sympathetic to the cause, but divided on the appropriateness of the name.

In fact, one unfortunate consequence has been that some who question the name are thereby assumed to be unsympathetic to the cause, despite their reasons for objecting to its branding. The equation has sometimes appeared quite simple: Object to the name, and thereby reveal yourself as (at best) only partially aware of the deep-seated patriarchy and resulting lack of understanding experienced by many (probably most) victims of rape.

Another example of this easy equation is highlighted by my previous sentence, where I use the word ‘victim’. Criminal agents have recently violated my home, three times in the space of a month. That makes me (and my family) a victim of their crimes. To call those who are victims of crimes ‘survivors’ instead of victims is a choice, not an obligation – it can signal a certain attitude or mindset, but we start playing very fast and loose with language when choosing not to use that signal is taken as indicating a lack of sympathy.

Words mean something, and they can have consequences. One way to be help being clear about potential consequences is to agree on definitions and to allow for the fact that increased miscommunication – and misattribution of motive – becomes increasingly likely if we can revise those definitions as we please. This particular slippery slope concludes with a world of Humpty Dumptys, all asserting that “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

Slutwalks have such momentum, and have achieved such significant consciousness-raising and debate, that even those who oppose the name need to acknowledge that they probably do more good than harm. I’d therefore like to appeal to a post-Slutwalk consideration of how we engage with such issues and causes in future – and in particular a consideration of whether gendered epithets like ‘slut’ merit a place in our discourse around social activism.

Besides the debates around whether (ostensibly neutral) designators like ‘Chairman’, personal pronouns like ‘he’ or words like ‘mankind’ perpetuate a gender bias, gendered epithets constitute another class of words that reveal a bias in our language and behaviour. Apologies to sensitive readers, but there are quite simply far more negative words used to describe women than there are to describe men.

‘Bitch’ is a mild example – not only because it’s sometimes used in reference to men, but also because it has been stripped of much of its sexist content in usages such as ‘to bitch about Arsenal’s defence’. But ‘cunt’, ‘twat’ or ‘whore’ have a visceral impact and malice that ‘cock’ or ‘prick’ lack. And then there is the word ‘pussy’, which, while applied mostly to men, is intended to accuse that man of being weak – just like a woman.

The primary question is really this: Why do these words not get the same attention and attract the same outrage as the words ‘nigger’ or ‘kaffir’? While I do believe that it’s possible to use all these words for effect – in humour, or to make a point about racism or sexism – most usages of them are instead in anger, and intended to silence or demean the target.

These expressions of contempt or hostility use words that are linked to a race or a gender, and as I’ve suggested above, that race is often black and that gender is often female. But while the racist versions of these slurs are unquestionably considered unacceptable, the sexist versions operate in a context where misogyny is so deeply entrenched that it can escape notice.

As Phil Molé argues in ‘The Invisibility of Misogyny’:

It’s not just the fact that misogyny is invisible that we need to face – it’s also the fact that this invisibility is a large part of what makes it the enormous problem it is. We cannot begin to properly address misogyny and the harm it causes unless we start being able to see it.

One aspect of seeing misogyny is perhaps recognising that words can be used to harm, and that when those harmful words are linked to race or gender, existing stereotypes regarding those races and genders can also be reinforced. Even if you use these words without holding sexist and racist attitudes, you can have little control over how your target perceives them, and the hurt they might cause.

In the context of this weekends’ Slutwalk, these targets include those women who have been subjected to hostility through being called a slut, and who find themselves unable to see the word as anything other than demeaning.

Furthermore, we sometimes forget other audiences – the genuine racists and sexists, who could overhear casual uses of such epithets, and interpret this to mean that their position is more broadly supported than is actually the case.

So while I can believe that the Slutwalk does more good than harm – and while I fully understand the point of calling it Slutwalk in the first place – I worry about how to reconcile it with the broader issue of how language can be used to reinforce misogyny. I imagine that many self-described feminists agree with me on sexist epithets in general, understanding them to be a subtle way of reinforcing negative attitudes towards a particular sex.

And if, in a few months or years time, a campaign is launched and marches are held to get people thinking about whether it’s appropriate to call someone a cunt, might it perhaps be the case that we’ll have little answer to someone who retorts “you’re simply missing the point to find ‘cunt’ offensive – why not simply reclaim it, just like you did with ‘slut’?”

Also read this interesting exchange initiated by Ophelia Benson at Butterflies and Wheels, which prompted many of the thoughts expressed above.