Friday, March 22, 2013

My two cents on Donglegate

If you're not familiar with Donglegate, there is a ton of stuff on the innertubes about it, so I will just post a link to what I consider the most sensible post I've seen so far on this whole sorry mess.

I've worked in the tech industry for many years. Every place I've worked in has been overwhelmingly male but there have always been extremely bright, capable women also, whom I've respected and enjoyed working with.

I once worked with a guy who had a really creepy way with women. He once left a dongle in a co-worker's computer, and since he sat next to me, I overheard him phoning her to say, in a very leering voice, "I left my dongle in your computer. You realize this incriminates both of us, don't you?" I cringed, and could only imagine the woman's reaction.

There were several other incidents where the guy made inappropriate remarks to women, and he had a reputation in the company for being a creep. A couple of times women vented to me about him, and I commiserated, but he was a peer so I wasn't in a position to discipline him. But now that I look back, I regret that I didn't take him aside and tell him that he was being inappropriate and people were complaining about him, and he needed to get his act together.

I'm sure that on various occasions I've unwittingly said things that made my female co-workers feel uncomfortable. I would much rather be told about it privately, and given a chance to apologize and learn from the incident, than have my picture plastered all over the internet.

I feel sorry for Adria Richards, and condemn the abuse and threats that were directed at her. But there's no denying that she mishandled the situation in a way that made her employer look bad and was incompatible with her role as the public face of the company.

I also empathize with the guy who was fired, who has since made a very classy apology. It's hard to find any winners in this situation. Too many people and companies have overreacted, and two people's careers are harmed, perhaps permanently. Very sad.

I think we all need to think about the fact that certain things are inappropriate to say in public, but there are also inappropriate ways of reacting (and of reacting to the reaction, and so on). Let's all try to be decent human beings and not lose a sense of perspective!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Don't teach homeowners to lock their doors. Teach burglars not to steal.

In the wake of the horrific Steubenville rape case, we've been hearing a lot lately about "rape culture". Is the United States, or western society in general, a rape culture? Is this a useful, verifiable or even meaningful statement? If it is in fact the case that an all-pervasive "rape culture" permeates every aspect of our society, are there any concrete steps we can take to alleviate the situation, or must we throw up our hands in despair and moan at each other, "all men are pigs"?

Let's get the obvious out of the way. Rape (and I'm thinking of sexual violence and coercion in general) is a horrible crime, and should be punished severely. The blame for rape lies 100% on the rapist. And given the seriousness of rape, false rape accusations - if and when they occur - should be treated correspondingly seriously.

It's clear that in some communities, something that could be called "rape culture" exists. The Steubenville football players were treated as gods who could do no wrong, and the level of callousness they showed about the rape is chilling - as are the lengths to which some adults in Steubenville went to pervert the course of justice.

If we recognize that rape culture exists at some times in some communities, then there are specific steps we can take to reduce it. We can educate people about the law, the seriousness of rape, the suffering of the victim, the medical repercussions and so on. But it seems to me the term "rape culture" often gets bandied about in much the same way as "the patriarchy" and "male privilege". It's hard to escape the suspicion that for some feminists, it's just another stick to beat all men over the head with, and criminalize them as a group.

I'm particularly tired of hearing the mantra, "Don't teach women to guard against rape, teach men not to rape", and seeing "helpful hints" like the following:

Wow, I'm glad someone reminded me not to rape! (Heavy sarcasm)

"Don't teach women to guard against rape, teach men not to rape" is no different from saying "Don't teach homeowners to lock their doors. Teach burglars not to steal." The fatuity of the latter advice is obvious. But there is a kind of moral panic that breaks out at the mention of rape, that prevents us from thinking clearly.

First of all, the vast majority of men don't need to be told not to rape; they weren't going to rape anyway.

Secondly, the message seems to be that women should not have to take any responsibility whatsoever for their personal safety. A woman should be able to walk the streets drunk at night in the skimpiest of clothing and not be accosted. Yes, in an ideal world she should, but let's face it - that's just not realistic.

The fundamental error made by those pushing the idea of "rape culture" (as a blanket, "Schrödinger's Rapist" type concept) is confusing two different things - risk and blame. Apparently, if we ask women to shoulder any of the responsibility to reduce their risk of being raped, we are totally absolving the rapist of all blame! It's either-or. To which I say: bullshit.

Look, it's not rocket surgery (as some guy said). We can and should teach everyone that rape is a horrible crime and cannot be tolerated. At the same time, we can and should teach everyone that there are reasonable precautions they can take to reduce threats to their personal safety. Let's remember that men can be raped, and women can rape.

"Don't teach women to guard against rape" is not empowering - it's infantilizing! It's wrong-headed and dangerous advice. All potential rape victims - which means everyone - deserve better.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Slymepit and the Pendulum

The Atheism+/FTB narrative: They alone are the brave, pure and noble Social Justice Warriors, fighting the good fight against misogyny. Everyone else is a "slymepitter": a rich, privileged, white, hetero able-bodied male yada yada, who hates all womyn and wants to marginalize them and keep them out of any position of power or visibility within atheism at all costs.

The reality: it's just not as black and white as that.

It's really disappointing to break free of the simplistic, binary, us-vs.-them thinking of the religion many of us were indoctrinated with while growing up, only to find exactly the same kind of dogmatism so widespread among so many of our fellow atheists. But let me just point out a few counterexamples to the assertions of Mick Nugent, Pissy Myers et al.

First of all, the Slymepit itself was started by a woman, Abbie Smith. Many women are active in it.

Secondly, there are many people who neither identify as Atheism-plus nor have any involvement with the Slymepit. I myself have never posted there and rarely read it. Since there's essentially just one thread with thousands of posts in it, I find it hard to make sense of what the conversation is about unless I spend a lot of time researching the background, which frankly I'm not that interested in doing.

I will say though that the few times I have browsed the Slymepit, I haven't seen anything out of the ordinary. It's just another internet forum, certainly not the vile den of misogyny where rapists gather to plot their brutal attacks, as the A-plus types would have you believe.

The big difference of course between the Slymepit and the A-plus spaces is that the former is essentially unmoderated while the latter are very tightly controlled. I gather that some Slymepit users occasionally take advantage of their freedom to post what seems like crude and perhaps juvenile humor. Some folks such as Mick Nugent have taken exception to this, and used it to portray all who may or may not have frequented the Slymepit as guilty of "nasty pushbacks against feminism" and hatred of all women.

Mr. Nugent produced a list of fifty examples of "nasty pushback" and challenged Justin Vacula to defend them. I wonder how long it took Mr. Nugent to come up with this list by diligent (obsessive?) trawling and quote-mining. More to the point, I wonder what anyone is supposed to do with these examples, divorced from context as they are. Finally, glancing over the list, some of them are undoubtedly crude and insulting, but others simply express opposition to Atheism-plus and to the words and actions of specific women such as Rebecca Watson. In some cases, it's quite hard for me to see what Mr. Nugent is exercised about.

The point that seems to escape Mr. Nugent is that I could look through a single thread on Pharyngula or and come up with a list as long or longer than his. So Atheism-plus most definitely does not hold the moral high ground. If anything, there is much more hatred, rage and vitriol present on the "plus" threads as opposed to the crude humor and derision in the Slymepit. There is also a degree of groupthink and credulity that I personally find abhorrent and is certainly incompatable with freethought and skepticism. And the ruthless quashing of dissent and suppression of any diversity of opinion is something I also find repellant.

I used to have a lot of respect for Mick Nugent, so I find his selective outrage and tribalism very disappointing. Of course, I lost my last shred of respect for Pissy Myers a long time ago.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013


Does sexism exist? How much of a problem is it? What can we do about it?

Let me clarify at the outset that by "sexism" I mean what I think is the most common everyday use of the word, i.e. negative attitudes against a gender group in general, or individuals based on their gender. I've written previously of the pitfalls of certain academic feminist definitions which define sexism as both the cause and the effect, leading to cocooned thinking that is impervious to reality.

I'm also aware that sexism plus a power advantage is more detrimental to the victims of sexism than sexism alone. However, I don't want to go down any road that suggests that men always have power over women, only men can be sexist, and only women can be victims of sexism. Once again this leads to cocooned thinking and tunnel vision.

However, I have no problem acknowledging that women as a group are the ones who suffer most of the ill effects of sexism. Every day's headlines seem to bring fresh outrages from the Muslim world: girls having acid thrown in their faces for the crime of going to school. Women being brutally raped, and then even more brutally punished for the crime of adultery, i.e. being raped.

Closer to home, we see women being belittled, denied opportunities in the workplace, and held back from achieving their full potential, just because of their gender. Western society has made a lot of progress since women first entered the workforce in large numbers, but it still has a ways to go. And then of course there are all the War-on-Women laws being passed in state legislatures across the US every day - laws which treat women as nothing more than incubators, and deny them control over their own bodies.

Sexism hurts a lot of people (including many men, plus transgender/genderqueer people) by denying them equal rights, respect and responsibilities. It also hurts society by depriving it of the talent the victims of sexism would otherwise contribute.

So it seems to me that sexism is undeniably a problem and we should try to address it. But what is the most effective means?

First of all, I'm totally cold and unsympathetic to radical academic theories which declare that I am an oppressor, and part of some vast international conspiracy called "The Patriarchy", just because I'm a man. I refuse to be considered interchangeable with any other man, or to consider any woman interchangeable with any other woman.

I am a very strong believer in treating everyone first and foremost as an individual. Yes, you can be sensitive to someone whose background is different from yours, and try to learn from them rather than jumping to conclusions. But at the end of the day, the background is the background, not the whole person. So any collectivist remedies for sexism, which deny individuality, are out the window as far as I'm concerned.

The solution to the War on Women is simple in principle: vote the bastards out. Of course this takes energy, commitment, organization and a lot of voter outreach and education. Let's leave the details for another day and turn to workplace discrimination.

Sexism, like racism, is about negative, often unthinking attitudes about a group. When I lived in England I often dealt with workmates who had very negative attitudes towards Irish people in general, and yet accepted me as an expert in my field and a valuable colleague. They seemed to make a distinction between the group and an individual from the group.

I wish I'd had the guts to call them on their anti-Irish attitudes, but I'm not a very confrontational person in real life. However, I'd like to think that I showed by example that not all Irishmen are lazy brawling drunks. If my mere existence caused any of my colleagues to question their assumptions about Irish people, then perhaps I've done my bit to dispel negative stereotypes about the Irish in Britain.

Similarly, as women enter more and more fields of work that were previously exclusively male, we can hope that they will show that they are fully equal to the job. Of course, we can do more than sit around and hope: we can put policies in place to encourage more women to follow their career choices regardless of whether it's a "man's job" or not, and to educate people on how to get along with the opposite sex in the workplace and treat them with respect and professionalism.

I'm against quotas because they tend to help mostly the brightest people who would make it anyway, while creating resentment and backlash that hurts those who most need a helping hand. But there is certainly a case for going the extra mile to encourage under-represented groups, and measuring progress to ensure that the goal of more inclusivity is being met. It seems to me that affirmative action should always be trying to put itself out of business, by creating a society in which it is no longer needed. The danger is that it instead becomes an entrenched bureaucracy, and like every bureaucracy, sees its primary goal as perpetuating itself.

I know the foregoing has been pretty vague and short of specifics, but to try and sum up, polices against sexism in the workplace should in my opinion:
  • Treat everyone as an individual first and foremost.
  • Encourage everyone to see their colleagues as individuals first and foremost, rather than simply instances of a given group. I think this is absolutely key to dispelling negative attitudes.
  • Monitor progress towards the goal of greater inclusivity, and adjust policies as necessary, with the goal of phasing them out when no longer needed.
  • Avoid heavy-handed command-and-control measures which tend not to work and only to create resentment, exacerbating the problem.
  • Accept that different individuals will make different personal choices not only in the work they want to do, but in the work-life balance they want to have.
  • Remember that the goal is not strictly enforced 50-50 representation for its own sake in every nook and cranny of the workplace, but giving each and every individual maximum opportunity to achieve his or her personal goals, regardless of what society has traditionally deemed to be men's work or women's work.