Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Open Letter to Rebecca Watson

Because far be it for Q (that's me) to be able to say something in 1000 characters or less (seriously! That's what the contact page on SkepChick allows!), I return to the InterWaves for a brief missive. I wrote it to both praise Ms. Watson's piece, and to make (of course) a marginally related point of my own. I hope she'll forgive the indulgence (in the unlikely event she even reads this):

To Ms. Rebecca Watson,

I just read your piece on Slate. Bravo! I think it was an excellent piece, and I'm nothing but confused by those who say "Well, maybe she has a point, EXCEPT HER EXAMPLE DOESN'T HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH SEXISM" (excuse the yelling all caps re-enactment). It is clear, to me, that the "Elevator Incident" is a) only an example, not your entire "case", and b) a *legitimate* example. (I refrain from making the requisite Todd Akin joke here--it would seem inappropriate all things considered!)

Anyway, I'm sure you have a million of these to read--hopefully more in support than detracting, but I wanted to add a quick point:
One of the female commenters on Slate echoed your analysis, and said that this was why she became more open to progressive religious groups; she was still an atheist, but appreciated the respect and feminist work some of them conduct. This represents, to me, an essentially problematic element of many parts of the skeptic community, emblematized by Prof. Dick Dawkins's argument against civility. (His responses to you mixed privilege with this problematic element for a potent combo.) For one thing, human biology implies that feeling insulted or attacked engages our "fight or flight" and makes it more difficult for us to reason. One could argue that it's the individual's responsibility to reason, even if they feel attacked. But why not, on the part of the skeptic, reason that it's better to be polite and even overly civil, and get your message listened to by a larger audience, than to be blunt and unconcerned with others' feelings, narrowing your audience and message to those with above-average self-control and self-reflection?

Anyway, I could go on and on (and already have), but this is a point I have some interest in. I have had little interest in the formal Skeptic community because of the common attitude I sense. To rampantly stereotype, it's the "Being dedicated to rationality means it's my right and obligation to be condescending to those who are less rational" vibe. Whereas I highly value civility. I don't see being kind and patient and listening to other people's perspectives (even if I think they're poorly reasoned) as mollycoddling or being somehow oppositional to disagreement and rational argumentation. Polite disagreement has won me far more converts than searing wit and incisive reason. Psychology and sociology imply you convince people, build movements, and change policies through inclusive rhetoric and gradual convincing, not brinksman-like logical put-downs.

And like the woman who commented on your blog, I would rather side with a feminist, progressive religious group than with an oblivious, "sex- and color-blind" (and therefore "privilege-blind") skeptic group.

Argh, ok, all that's neither here nor there--in the end, I wanted to say "Good on you", good luck, and keep up the fight(s)!



Christopher said...

Well said. I'm coming from a different angle, as someone who was previously quite religious but is no longer into the whole church "thing", and much of the commentary I have observed in the atheist/skeptic community has been venemous, rude, bigoted and arrogant - and therefore no better than some of the more hateful religious groups they oppose.

I have been reading lately about the destruction of many traditional cultures and religions around the world as a result of the imposition of modern ideals, whether they be Christian or capitalist or communist or whatever - sometimes in the form of international "Aid" - and have been leaning toward a notion that many religious systems and customs have inherent value in the way that they maintain stability and meaning within a community, even if some of the morals seem cruel or diametrically opposed to "western" notions of morality and justice. The loss of these cultures - many of which are living with far more sensitivity to people and environment - to the homogeneous behemoth of modernity, does not constitute any positive notion of "progress" for humanity. Yet atheism-and-rationality-as-religion would seem to pursue that goal as vehemently as the various "Christian", Capitalist and Communist empires that have plundered the earth's people, cultures and resources for the past few centuries.

I'm not sure there is a simple solution; I think most cultures think they have (or are moving toward) some ideal of values and morality, but the destructive (and often dominant) ones are the ones that arrogantly try to force the rest of the world to come with them, often in the name of "love" or "for their own good", but also for selfish gain. When skeptics do the same - especially when they do so without being polite and respectful, they are simply being the worst kind of hypocrites.

If people want to rid the world of religion (not that I think they should), they must first take on the positive roles that religion fills in society, and that begins with a morality of respect and love.

Sorry if I ranted too long! :)

ou812 said...

Elevatorgate a "legitimate" example of sexism? It was a polite invitation to coffee that Rebecca interpreted as "sexualizing". He did the exactly the right thing by taking "no" for an answer, but even that wasn't good enough for her.