If this happened, it would be real news

What kind of diversity?

Vjack has a post up on Atheist Revolution discussing his problems with Atheism+. I’m not going to go into a lot of detail about it; I think he’s wrong, I think his posts on this and related subjects have been full of telling elisions and bad arguments. I’m personally disappointed that someone I respected and agreed with in the past has devoted so much of his recent blogging to this apparent vendetta. I generally don’t understand the pushback and opposition to the various proposed and enacted social justice initiatives, but it’s more striking when it’s from people I like (see also my quarrel with Toxicpath). But that’s enough of the personal stuff. The point here is simply responding to a couple of statements from that long-ish post.

On Values

In suggesting that we share common goals, I am being descriptive rather than prescriptive. That is, I am suggesting that virtually all atheist do in fact have some common goals and not that we should adopt some set of goals that we do not currently share.

I get where Vjack is coming from here, but he’s arguing against two contradictory strawmen. The implication in this statement (made explicit in the subsequent paragraph) is that Atheism+ is a movement saying that atheists should adopt social justice values, which they currently have not adopted.

This is flatly wrong, and that’s pretty clear from the few prominent posts on the subject. The fact is that a lot of atheists already do share these social justice values, just as most atheists share the values that Vjack presumed for the first sentence, which I suspect would be similar to the incomplete list I compiled yesterday. The percentage of atheists who share social justice values is clearly not as large as the percentage who value science, for instance, but it’s still a preexisting category. “Atheism+” is the label that arose and took off from a discussion of like-minded atheists who already valued social justice to describe themselves.

Imagine that the libertarian wing of atheism–something that’s already in existence and has been clearly visible for some time–wanted to set themselves apart, so they could discuss libertarian issues without having to deal with the constant harping of liberal atheists, and so they could work to enact policies that supported their libertarian ideals, which is not something that the entirety of the atheist movement would be for. Would we begrudge them the ability to label themselves with something catchier than “libertarian atheists” (hey libertarian atheists: “Athei$m.” You can have that one for free) and unite to work toward particular goals that align with both their libertarian and atheist viewpoints?

I imagine some would. I wouldn’t. The less I have to deal with libertarians, the happier I generally am. It’d be a win-win situation.

So Vjack is wrong in suggesting that “Atheism+” is somehow, by its nature, prescriptive. It’s describing a movement and a group that’s been forming for a good long time, even if that movement isn’t “all atheists.” But I think he’s also wrong with seeing prescriptiveness as a problem. There’s nothing wrong or problematic in arguing that a particular group should care about a particular issue, or take action in a particular instance. It’s something that the atheist movement is generally familiar with. We hardly need any prodding to be spurred to action to support a high school atheist in a free speech battle or to speak out against tyrannical theocratic regimes, because those things are obviously in-line with our shared values. But, you know, take a look at the “Bullshit” episodes on secondhand smoke or the Americans with Disabilities Act or Cheerleading. Granted, they’re not directed primarily and solely at atheists, but they’re clear examples of some skeptically-minded folks saying to others “hey, these are issues that are important, which you should care about (and adopt our position on).” They’re making an argument that people who are like-minded on one set of positions and values (existence of gods, importance of science, promotion of reality-based policy) should also be like-minded on other positions and values (corporate liberty, opposing government intrusion, libertarianism).

They’re making an argument, which others are free to accept or reject. There’s no magical barrier between one set of values that some atheists share and any other set of values that some atheists share. If I hold libertarian or liberal or feminist or vegetarian or Objectivist values for the same basic reasons that I hold skeptical and scientific values, then of course I’m going to argue that others who hold one set of values should hold the other. “Hey, we both care about [THING A], and I care about [THING B] for the same reason I care about [THING A]. Since you agree with me about [THING A], you should also agree with me about [THING B].” Making the argument is not a problem, because there’s always the opportunity for a counterargument. And if a movement can handle guys like Bill Maher promoting anti-medical quackery and Penn Jilette promoting anti-government ideology and the legions of AGW deniers promoting anti-climate science demagoguery, all under the heading of “I’m anti-medicine/anti-government/anti-AGW for the same reason I’m anti-religion, because I’m a skeptic,” then I don’t see how it can’t handle feminists and social justice folks doing the same, even if you believe that those people are wrong/irrational/unskeptical/whatever.

On Diversity

I have always thought our movement was strong because of our diversity and not in spite of it. I value big tent atheism, and what I mean by that is a large movement with great diversity in which people work together to accomplish the few goals we truly share.

Had I been drinking, I probably would have ruined my smartphone when I read that first sentence. I agree, movement atheism has a lot of diversity, even of the kind that Vjack cites. But the idea that the community somehow only or generally or mostly works together to accomplish the few goals we truly share, that “Atheism+” is somehow an outlier in working together on goals that are only shared by a subset of atheists, is ludicrous. Some atheists have the goal of building bridges with theists to work on shared goals, others see that as a waste of time or worse. Some atheists have the goal of making all discourse civil and professional and non-dickish, others value blunt and acerbic speech. These groups have existed, and have been trying to unite like-minded atheists toward one or another goal, and creating DEEEEEP RIIIIIFTS in the movement/community for years. We generally work together on goals like fighting school prayer and supporting science, but there’s always been factions of atheists pulling in different directions and sniping at their opponents.

But there’s a bigger thing going on here, and it’s one that was laid out pretty clearly by Greta Christina. The question is what kind of diversity do you want? Do you want diversity of opinion, or diversity of background?

To some degree, you can have both. You can have libertarians and liberals and authoritarians, just as you can have blacks and whites and browns and so forth. But there comes a point where you have to make various choices, because encouraging, supporting, defending, or being explicitly inclusive of some opinions will necessarily make people from certain backgrounds feel excluded or dismissed, and vice-versa. As Greta Christina said, you can’t include both women and people who think women are inherently irrational. You can’t include both trans* people and people who think that trans* people are just self-deluded or insane. One way or another, someone’s going to leave.

Again, we’ve seen this recently with organized skepticism. Various leaders in the organized skeptical community have wanted to preserve a diversity of opinions on the god hypothesis by welcoming (and coddling) believers, which has left atheists feeling snubbed and delegitimized. In trying to accommodate one group, they’ve alienated another. TAM made their choice, that they’d rather have the Hal Bidlacks and Pamela Gays than the Christopher Hitchenses. We’ve seen it go the other way as well, such as when Orac declared his end with organized atheism after Richard Dawkins supported Bill Maher’s receipt of that science award. Dawkins said he found embracing a diverse group of atheists more important than promoting medicine, and so he lost the support of at least one medical practitioner.

Of course, it’s not quite that clear-cut, is it? It’s not like Hal Bidlack said at TAM “atheists aren’t welcome,” and it’s not like Vjack has said “feminists aren’t welcome.” What they’ve both said is that those groups are welcome under certain conditions. Atheists were welcome at TAM so long as they didn’t attack believers for their beliefs. Atheists are welcome to have their conferences about the god hypothesis, so long as they don’t do it under the heading of “skepticism.” Similarly, Vjack doesn’t have a problem with feminists, so long as they adhere to his standards of who should be considered a bigot. The rest of the social justice opponents seem to agree: so long as women are like Paula Kirby or Abbie Smith or Mallorie Nasrallah and don’t think harassment is that big a deal, or don’t ask people to change their practices, they can stick around. Heck, they’ll be celebrated. But man, suggest that it’s wrong to make rape jokes to a minor or hand an unsolicited nude photo to a speaker or that guys be more aware of appropriate times to ask women out, and then they’re unreasonable, irrational, unskeptical, shrill, militant, radical, feminazi, femistasi, c***s and t***s.

Diversity is okay–it’s great! it’s desirable! it makes us strong!–so long as it’s on our terms.

And you know what? That’s okay. If they want to prize diverse opinions over diverse backgrounds, that’s fine. But then they really can’t be surprised when the people who feel excluded by the side they’ve chosen (explicitly or through inaction) go off and do their own thing.

Personally, I prize diverse backgrounds. Somite argued that gender (and by extension, other background factors) didn’t determine ideas or facts. Would that that were the case. Societies around the world do not treat people of different backgrounds (gender, social class, skin color, neurology, disability status, etc.) the same way, and so those people develop different perspectives on the world. Those perspectives do not change what is objectively true or real, but they do affect which aspects of reality people are concerned about and focused on. Would an all-male group of skeptics and atheists ever consider the pseudoscience behind douching or various cosmetics? How highly would they prioritize those things? Would a group of non-parent skeptics and atheists consider the claims about the effects of breastfeeding or water birth or teaching about Santa Claus? How much effort would they expend on those topics as opposed to acupuncture and angels? White American ex-Christian atheists have certainly addressed the Muslim claim about the 72 heavenly virgins, but do they have the same depth of analysis on the subject as Heina Dadabhoy did? Would they provide the same emphases?

People from different backgrounds provide perspectives and priorities that a more homogenous group wouldn’t consider. And I think that’s important, I think that’s valuable. I think seeing problems or claims from different perspectives is an important tool in evaluating them, and an important tool in arguing about them. Just given the god hypothesis, some people might be more swayed by a moral argument (like the Euthyphro dilemma, or “Why Won’t God Heal Amputees”) than an evidentiary one, and vice versa. Having both those arguments in your toolset is more useful than only having one. But I also think that the perspectives of people who come from different backgrounds can also help shape and change what we find important. If all atheism were run by folks from mostly-godless European countries, then we’d probably see a lot more Alain de Bottons and a lot fewer Matt Dillahunties–and if the majority of atheists shared Alexander Aan’s perspective, then the movement would be different in a lot of other ways. Our backgrounds and experiences shape who we are, what we care about, and what we spend our time and effort on. Failing to consider the perspectives of others means we make those choices with less information, and may expend our efforts in less-than-worthwhile directions.

Moreover, there’s the P.R. angle. Like it or not, people are primed to listen to and agree with people who share their backgrounds, who come from the same place they do, who speak their language. Alain de Botton’s atheist-church arguments might play well in Europe where churches are mostly toothless, but it was roundly dismissed and ridiculed in god-soaked America. And I suspect that Reg Finley is going to play better at a black church in Tuskegee than a white doctor, as an example. The more people of different backgrounds, different places, different perspectives, we have, the more “languages” we can speak, the more people we can speak to and reach. If the whole movement looks like an old white boys’ club, it’s going to speak less strongly to people who don’t fit into those categories. You can call it irrational, I call it ethos.

So I’d prize diversity of background, which provides different perspectives and opinions and prioirties, over diversity of opinion, for the most part. Given the choice between an ex-Muslim atheist and a white supremacist atheist, I’m going to go for the former every time. I think we gain more than we lose by excluding the bigots. Is that divisive? Hell yes. But “divisiveness” is not in and of itself, a bad thing. Movement atheism has divided itself from secular Intelligent Design proponents like the Raelians and largely-secular cults like Scientology, and I think it’s benefited as a result.

And if what it takes for the social-justice-concerned atheists to move forward and work on those topics without being weighed down by the rape-jokers and c***-kickers and “only on my terms” diversity enthusiasts is to relabel themselves and widen an already-extant rift, then so be it. We’ll be divisive, and you can do whatever. The rest of us will work together on the goals we truly share, and you can comfortably sit back and call us irrational nazis and baboons.

What’s atheism got to do with it?

For most possible values of “it,” nothing.

I got into a Twitter argument with Somite yesterday after he cited a trio of old/dead white cisgendered anglophone men as a reason that Atheism+ might be unnecessary. The conversation went in a few different directions, but kept coming around to Somite saying various things were “unrelated to atheism.”

And he’s right. Atheism–dictionary atheism, anyway–is a single position with respect to a single claim. The claim is “god exists;” the position is “I don’t accept that.”

And that’s it.

Now, I happen to think that said position is the one that people would arrive at necessarily if applying skeptical and scientific methods to the god-existence claim. But it’s trivially obvious that that’s not the only path to atheism. Some people arrive at that position through wholly irrational processes, like the Raelians. There’s nothing inherent in atheism that implies rationality or skepticism. There’s nothing about atheism that implies an appreciation of science–just look at Bill Maher. There’s nothing about atheism that implies a rejection of other supernatural beliefs and claims; the most recent Atheist Experience episode had a secular reincarnationist, for instance. There’s nothing about atheism that suggests that one should argue with religious believers or try to deconvert religionists. There’s nothing about atheism that says an atheist should be out and vocal about it. There’s nothing about atheism that implies the necessity to fight for free speech and religious freedom, or to try to dismantle religious privilege. Nothing about atheism suggested supporting Damon Fowler or Jessica Ahlquist. Nothing about atheism suggests the need for something like the Out Campaign or the Clergy Project. There’s nothing about atheism that implies any course of action–it’s why the whole “Stalin’s atrocities were motivated by his atheism” argument falls apart so easily. Atheism is a single position on a single claim, it gives no instruction, implies no values.

So, yes, there’s very little that’s actually “related to atheism.” And yet, The God Delusion is a pretty sizable book. And it’s certainly not the only book about atheism on the market. I suspect that there’s more to George H. Smith’s Atheism than just 355 pages of “I don’t believe in gods.” But how? How is any of that content related to atheism?

The answer is that atheism as a movement has never been just about atheism. Movement atheism has been composed primarily of people with similar values and positions on a number of topics. Movement atheism has been largely pro-science, skeptical, pro-religious freedom, pro-free speech, and anti-religion. Movement atheism has typically valued education to the point of fighting for proper science education and against religious encroachments into secular classrooms. Movement atheism has typically valued atheists as people, and fought against tyrannical anti-blasphemy laws and repressive theocracies, for the benefit of atheists under those kinds of oppression. Movement atheism has been concerned with dismantling religious privilege so that questioning religion and coming out as atheist is more acceptable in heavily religious cultures, and providing a framework and support network for atheists who face discrimination or other obstacles as they go public. Movement atheism has always been a group of people who share certain values working to promote those values, and adopting the label “atheism” in part because of its stigma, and in part because it’s a major focal point and common thread uniting the various people involved. We all share atheism, and by and large, we also share a common set of values.

Movement atheism has always been atheism plus.

So is “Atheism+” necessary? I’d say so, if only because it’s a label for something that’s already existed for some time now. For years, some of these atheists who share values like skepticism and education and promoting science and improving life for atheists and so on and so forth, have also realized that they share social justice values. For many of us, these values spring from the same place as our atheism–from skeptical inquiry, empathy, and valuing human rights. We’ve noticed that, unlike values like promoting science and free speech and fighting religious tyranny, suggesting that these values are things atheists should be concerned with and fight for has been much more controversial. There’ve been a lot of people pushing back against the crusaders for social justice, and one of the arguments they fall back on is that these social justice topics are “unrelated to atheism.”

They’re right, so long as by “atheism” they mean “dictionary atheism” and not “movement atheism.” Fighting school prayer has nothing to do with dictionary atheism, but I never saw these people speaking up against the campaign to support Jessica Ahlquist, or suggesting that that’s not something “atheism” should be concerned with. The place where they’ve decided to draw the line is telling, I think.

But that’s really neither here nor there. They can have their line in the sand, they can have their opposition to social justice (or do it their way), and the folks under the “Atheism+” umbrella will work on it in our way, undeterred and un-derailed by the “that’s unrelated to atheism” arguments. Fine, great, it’s related to “Atheism+.”

There is one last point that I want to hit, and I hit it (clumsily, as usual when Twitter’s involved) last night as well. It’s true that none of the stuff I’ve talked about has anything to do with atheism. And it’s also true that “atheism” shouldn’t be concerned with issues of social justice or religious freedom or whatever. It can’t be. “Atheism” is a concept–as I said, a position. It does not have the capacity for concern. But atheists–who are people–do. And this is where the Out Campaign and Science-Based Parenting and the Clergy Project and Iron Chariots all come from. Atheists are more complex than just “I don’t believe in gods.” Part of it comes from empathy and rational self-interest–we recognize that our freedom of conscience and freedom to refuse to practice a belief system is contingent upon laws and governments, so we fight against those laws and governments who would restrict that freedom. Part of it comes from living in religious cultures–we recognize that some people face difficulties when they come out as atheists or living among the religious, and so we raise money for them, create support networks and discussion forums for them, and come out ourselves to remove the stigma. Part of it comes from the values that led us to atheism, like skepticism and education and science and so forth–we fight for good science and argue against the unsupportable claims of religions. Movement atheism has been, from the very start, only in small part about dictionary atheism, because dictionary atheism is only a small thing. The conferences, the speeches, the books, the movies and videos and blogs and podcasts, have all been about what interests and concerns atheists, not atheism.

And “Atheism+” is about recognizing that there are more things that should concern atheists if they want to continue fighting battles–and possibly winning–for the values they share. Some people disagree, and they’re welcome to do so. There are people–atheists–who’ve disagreed with various of the values of movement atheism, from science promotion to skepticism to whatever. Some of them came along despite the differences, others were left out of the movement. And they were welcome to do so as well.

Friendship

[Trigger warnings: rape, misogyny, terrible people]

You may be aware of the Rationalia affair, where poster and admin “Pappa” wondered:

Would it be immoral to rape a Skepchick?

Post by Pappa » Fri Jul 20, 2012 8:46 am

Not for sexual gratification or power or anything like that, just because they’re so annoying.

I’m really torn on this one. :dunno:

Given the recent climate, this post isn’t all that surprising. Rape “jokes” that don’t follow any kind of typical joke structure and aren’t funny? Check. Treating outspoken women (and Skepchicks in particular) like something less than human1? Check. People coming out of the woodwork to claim this is “out of context” and how dare the #FTBullies publicize this one post and demonize a whole group for condoning this sort of thing from a leader in their community, while remaining strangely silent on the actual thread? Check.

The one thing that weirds me out about the whole thing is a set of comments by Pappa’s supporters in the Pharyngula comment thread. Here are a couple by poster “comeatmebro,” which illustrate the thing I don’t understand. Comeatmebro says that Rationalia is a “close-knit…community,” and that Pappa is a “nice person,” that this statement was in bad taste but “is not characteristic of Pappa.” He cited much of this as reasons why more people on the Rationalia forums haven’t condemned Pappa’s comments.

And I just don’t get it. See, if one of my friends were going to say something as stupid, offensive, vile, hateful, and misogynist as what Pappa decided to post on a public forum, I would be the first in line to slap them upside the head (figuratively) and say “not cool, bro.” See, that’s what friends do. Being someone’s friend gives you the benefit of their company and association. It means they care what you have to say, they care about your opinions and what you think. But that also comes with a responsibility, the responsibility that belongs to all good friends, the responsibility of honesty. Friendship means looking out for each other, but that’s not just “if you ever get in a barfight, I’ve got your back” or “if you’re down on your luck, I’ll help you out,” or “if you ever lose your teeth when you’re out to dine, borrow mine.” It means that you’re there to protect them, even from their own mistakes, and help them, even if it’s to overcome their own faults. Being a good friend means being willing to pull your friends up short and tell them when they’re being an asshat.

You do this, in part, because you care about your friend, and you don’t want to see them hurting themselves or others. You do this, in part, because you know that a strong friendship is unlikely to break over one disagreement. You do this, in part, because you know they’ll listen to you more than others. You do this, in part, because you want the people you associate with to reflect well on you.

And when you shirk that responsibility, when you let your friend continue using homeopathy instead of real medicine/dating her obviously abusive boyfriend/making bad rape jokes on the Internet, eventually your friend is (hopefully) going to realize their mistake, and then they’ll ask you that question: why didn’t you tell me sooner? Why didn’t you warn them ahead of time that they were making a mistake? Why didn’t you tell them how they looked to everyone else? Why didn’t you say what no one else was brave enough to say to their face?

The answer is always the same: because you were being a bad friend.

Rationalia, your friend Pappa has a problem. His problem is that he thinks he’s joking. He thinks he can make comments about raping people and laugh it off as a joke. He thinks “annoying” may be a crime punishable with rape. He thinks it’s okay to double-down on this stuff and throw around ableist slurs. He’s shown that he doesn’t care how all this reflects on himself, or on all of you. Some of you are Pappa’s friend. It’s your responsibility to tell him what an ass he’s being, and how harmful it is. Harmful to himself, because you know2 that he doesn’t actually condone rape. Harmful to you, because your community’s silence looks like assent. Harmful to the culture at large, because this kind of speech going unchallenged acts as a cover for those who do think some people deserve rape, who do think rape’s a laughing matter, a trifle, a joke. You are shirking your responsibility. You are being bad friends.

Either you need to start being better friends to Pappa and save him from himself, or you need to stop being friends with Pappa, and save yourselves from him.


1. I think Pappa’s post implies that there are people–less annoying people, obviously–that it would be immoral to rape. I honestly can’t wrap my head around it.

2. You don’t know this. Sadly, rape is very common, and thus rapists are a lot more common than we think. And since most rapes are committed by friends, dates, or acquaintances, it’s fair to suppose that most rapists are generally thought to be “nice people.”

A Play in One Act

I posted this at Lousy Canuck, in response to the most recent entry in the harassment tragicomedy of errors, which only gets worse the more you learn. But because I’m easily impressed with my own cleverness, I decided to make it a blog post here, too. For posterity.


I like the logic of “damned if they do, damned if they don’t.” Imagine, if you will, the JREFstaurant.

MAITRE D’J: Welcome, sir, to the JREFstaurant.

PATRON: Thanks, I read some reviews and–

MAITRE D’J: Anything bad you’ve heard about our food is clearly the fault of some well-meaning food critics who are engaged in some distasteful cafeteria banter after they willingly ate their food and thought the price was too “steep.”

PATRON: What I read was actually pretty positive, except–

MAITRE D’J: Controversialist food bloggers, looking for better circulation! There has never been a report of food poisoning at the JREFstaurant!

PATRON 2: Wait a minute, I got food poisoning here last week! You helped me to the bathroom!

MAITRE D’J: I thought you just had the stomach flu. You didn’t think it was important at the time to say it was food poisoning.

PATRON: Didn’t I hear about a food poisoning case here a couple of months ago? They even made documented reports.

MAITRE D’J: Your table’s over there. I’m going into the back now, and you won’t see me for the rest of your meal.

[PATRON sits and reads the menu. WAITER enters to serve them]

WAITER: What would you like to order, sir?

PATRON: Actually, your menu doesn’t seem to have any food information on it. Just this long welcome note.

WAITER: I assure you, we have nineteen specially-prepared chefs in back to take care of your order.

PATRON: Yes, but if there’s no food on the menu, how do I know what to order?

WAITER: Putting food options on the menu might be a serious waste of time! Do you have any evidence that putting food options on the menu makes people more likely to order something?

PATRON: But all other restaurants do it.

WAITER: See, that’s just an argument from popularity. Surely you expect the JREFstaurant to have higher standards. Besides, what if we put these food options on the menu, and someone wants an item that’s slightly different? Or worse, what if they ordered the wrong thing?

PATRON: That doesn’t seem like it’s much of a problem.

WAITER: You’re just some kind of foodinazi! I mean, I’m not saying you’re a Nazi, but you know who puts food options on menus? Nazis.

PATRON: Okay…can I get a sandwich?

WAITER: Fine, I guess.

[WAITER leaves, and returns a few minutes later with a sandwich on a platter.]

WAITER: Your sandwich. Happy?

PATRON: Wait, what is this? Why does it smell so bad? [Picks up one of the bread slices] Is this what I think it is?

WAITER: It’s a sandwich, just like you ordered.

PATRON: It’s shit!

WAITER: What foul language!

PATRON: No, this is a shit sandwich. It’s dung on toast!

WAITER: Look, you ordered a sandwich. I gave you a sandwich. It’s got stuff between two slices of bread, therefore, a sandwich.

PATRON: But it’s a shit sandwich.

WAITER: Jeez, there’s just no pleasing you people!

FIN

Errant Dog: A Real-Life Allegory

I went to take out the trash this morning, only to find a rather large dog standing in the courtyard outside my little apartment complex. It stood there looking at me as I opened the door, like it was guarding what passes for my front yard.

I closed the door and went back inside.

The complex doesn’t allow pets, and while I know that rule’s been violated at least once before by a neighbor who’s since moved away, I was reasonably sure the dog didn’t belong to the tenants of the other three apartments. I thought that maybe I’d seen the dog before at a house across the street, but I wasn’t sure. I couldn’t see a collar, but I wasn’t going to get close enough to really look.

Don’t get me wrong; I love dogs. I’m very much a dog person, and in my experience dogs love me too. The vast majority of dogs I’ve met have been friendly, cheerful mutts who were perfectly harmless. But I didn’t know this dog, and I knew that not all dogs are harmless. I could have assumed that this dog was, like most dogs, perfectly harmless. But if I turned out to be wrong, I would have been in real danger. Much safer to assume the dog was harmful, despite the lower probability, because turning out to be wrong would have no serious consequence.

I’ve never been attacked by a dog, but I have read about what to do. Obviously I try not to put myself in dangerous situations with dogs; I don’t approach strange dogs or stick my fingers through chain-link fences or anything. But I also know not to run away or make sudden movements around strange dogs, to keep my fingers curled into fists, and if possible, to get on top of something like a car or van to escape. Sometimes when I’m out walking, I scout out cars or other escape routes, just in case. Sometimes when I meet a new dog in a more friendly situation, I still keep my fingers protected as I reach to pet it. Just in case.

I watched the dog for awhile, feeling a little silly as it did normal dog stuff. Once I closed the door, it relaxed. It lay down in the grass. It stood up, walked around in a circle a couple of times, and lay down again. It was a cute dog doing typical cute-dog stuff. And yet I wasn’t going to go outside and chance that it would suddenly do something less cute.

My wife and I kept checking the window, watching the dog on and off for about fifteen minutes, until I finally decided to call the police. It’s not that the dog had done anything, but it certainly could have, and it seemed far better to call for help and have it taken care of before any potential harm had occurred. As it turns out, the police had already been called about a stray dog, and I suspect it was probably the same one.

I again felt kind of silly calling about the dog, but the police took the concern seriously, and an officer was here pretty quickly. The dog ended up running off, but the officer assured me that he was going to try to catch it, and that Animal Control was on their way as well. I saw the officer a few more times over the course of the morning, and I never found out if the dog was ever caught. But at least I didn’t see the dog again.

I feel bad for the dog. I feel bad assuming that it was a bad dog, just because it was in the wrong place, just because it was a big dog defending its new territory. I feel bad that I can’t tell, just from looking, whether or not a dog is likely to attack. I feel bad that I have to assume the worst to ensure my safety. But I’m glad that I can call on people who will take my safety concern seriously and act swiftly to prevent any unfortunate incidents from occurring.

If only every problem were so easily solved.

I Hate Stereotypes

The only reason this is here is because I couldn't find a good shot of the Stereotypes bowling team from The Simpsons.I really do. I hate that it’s a natural impulse–in fact, a necessity of communication–to lump people together and assign characteristics to those lumps. I hate that stereotypes are almost always based around some kernel of truth, so that a legitimately true statement can be dismissed as “propagating a negative sterotype” or “[insert group here]ism.” But what I hate the most, what really rankles my hackles up, is when people act in ways that reinforce those stereotypes. I hate seeing liberals who are indignant vegan newagers. I hate seeing racist homophobic Republican NRA members driving rusty pickup trucks with Confederate Flags on the back. I hate seeing disgustingly socially inept nerds like these assholes. I hate hearing Michael Steele talk about things.

Which is why I’m upset by the reaction to Jen McCreight’s Boobquake idea. Here’s the Cliff’s Notes version of Boobquake, for the uninitiated: a Muslim cleric said that women dressing immodestly causes adultery, which in turn causes earthquakes. Jen reasoned that the proper response to this ridiculous (but empirically testable!) claim was to ridicule and empirically test it. So was born Boobquake: a suggestion for women to dress immodestly on a specific day (this coming Monday, April 26th), either causing worldwide earthquakes with their abundant cleavage, or falsifying the cleric’s inane hypothesis. It’s a cute idea, reminiscent of Rebecca Watson’s recent Great Apple Experiment–both taking a ridiculous claim and simultaneously giving it the (lack of) respect it deserves while also taking the opportunity to do some good science and promote skepticism.

The response has been enormous and unexpected. Most of it seems to be pretty positive. Some of it is from the “duhr hurr hurr boobies” wing of society, and some of it seems to miss the point entirely. But then there’s been a particular flavor of response from some self-described feminists talking about just how horrible this whole idea is, because it objectifies women and plays right into the patriarchy’s wishes to see see scantily-clad women. It’s “‘Girls Gone Wild’ with a cause slapped on it,” and “capitulating to Dude Nation’s fondest desire,” and “Since when did we ‘stick it to the man’ by wearing low-cut shirts or short shorts?”

This entire post will be dismissed because I used this image.And this is where I have a problem, because I don’t like it when feminists–who I agree with and would generally count myself among–reinforce the Limbaughian stereotype that they’re sex-negative humorless man-hating bluenoses. And yet, here we are.

I see two big problems with the reasoning of this position. First, there seems to be an assumption that there’s one “the man” or one “patriarchy” to fight against. I can’t imagine the cognitive dissonance which must occur to be able to hold that assumption in light of this situation. Here we have an explicit rebellion against the misogynistic rules of patriarchal fundamentalist Islam, which force women to dress in a way that hides any hint of their sexuality. Of course, in order to defy those rules, one would have to dress in a way that doesn’t hide a woman’s sexuality, and coincidentally there’s a closer-to-home patriarchy that marginalizes women for not flaunting their bodies (also, for flaunting their bodies too much–we have a very picky patriarchy). I’d think that this is clear evidence of (at least) two distinct patriarchies with different ways of marginalizing women and different sexual values, but apparently we’re all one Clan of the Dangling Penis. Even when you fight against them, you’re working for them.

The second big problem is an apparent inability to understand the difference between choice and coercion. I won’t deny that our society rewards women who fall within a certain range of body types and who dress in such a way as to walk a fine line of sexual objectification, largely ignoring those who fail to fit or comply. It’d be silly to deny that. But there’s a missing step between “society objectifies women by forcing them to dress provocatively” and “women who dress provocatively are being forced to do so by society.” To make the claim–implicitly or explicitly–ignores the fact that women have agency. A woman can choose how she dresses, regardless of what society expects of her. Women are, in fact, capable of choosing to dress provocatively, and may even be capable of doing so for reasons other than gaining male attention. When one is forced to do something, regardless of what that thing is, it breeds resentment and foments a rebellious attitude. When one chooses to do something–even if it is the same thing–there’s no reason to resent or rebel. Who would you rebel against? Yourself?

When I was a child, I was often forced to take naps. I did not enjoy it, I didn’t want to do it, and I faked sleep or read surreptitiously or did other things besides napping. Now, I frequently take naps by choice–am I therefore playing into the hands of the parents and teachers who wished me to take naps in the past? I have had jobs in the recent past where I was required to wear a tie every day. While I liked my array of ties, it was time-consuming to put them on and restricting to have them on all day, every day. The dress code at my current job is more relaxed; I still wear ties, but only when I choose to do so–and I do it because I like my ties, and I like the way they complement my shirts. I’m not vindicating my old bosses every time I spend a minute or two on a Full Windsor knot, I’m exercising control of my wardrobe through personal choice.

I quoted a bit from a Salon article above, and I’d like to examine the full quote in more detail, because I think it’s emblematic of the whole problem:

Since when did we “stick it to the man” by wearing low-cut shirts or short shorts? When women burned bras back in the day, there was a statement there, full of boldness and righteous anger. This type of happening feels like feminism lite, “cute” feminism or “male-friendly” feminism.

I like that she follows up her “we never protested by flaunting sexuality” clause with the example of burning bras (which, strangely enough, apparently never happened). Sure, bras represented the uncomfortable yoke of male expectations and enforced femininity, but is she really suggesting that there weren’t any men at the time who would have supported the idea of women without bras? I wasn’t around for those protests–but apparently, neither was Beth Mann–but I have a hard time imagining a world where no man enjoyed seeing nipples through shirts.

But again, we run into the problem of “the man.” I don’t know, if your point is to “stick it to the man,” doesn’t that depend on what “the man” wants you to do? Like, going braless was a response to “the man” enforcing certain standards of femininity (like wearing bras, and fake lashes, and makeup, and so forth). If “the man” wants you to hide your femininity under a veil and a burqa, are you still going to throw away your bra and makeup? Would that really make any sense?

The point of the protests in either case would be against the enforced standards of femininity. In one case, those standards included wearing bras and makeup, so women went braless and threw their makeup away. In the other case, the standard is extreme modesty, so wouldn’t the equivalent protest to be to throw away the burqa and veil and dress immodestly?

Finally, there’s the pejorative of “‘male-friendly’ feminism.” Yes, heaven forbid and saints preserve, the last thing any feminist should want is to be male-friendly! Why, that might make men think they could support women’s rights and feminist causes without being derided or denigrated, that they could participate in rallies and marches without others saying that they’re just there to gawk and pick up chicks, that they could call themselves feminists without worrying that they might be using the term presumptuously. Certainly, feminists would have no use for male allies–why, they’re the patriarchy, and clearly they’re all equally part of the problem, and it’s no sense being friendly to any of them so that you might actually get them to see how they might even unconsciously contribute to oppression. No, the feminists have gotten so far by being branded “man-haters,” and that term certainly isn’t ever used to dismiss what they have to say, so they should wear it with pride and continue to practice a staunch policy of borderline misandry.

I guess this is what it boils down to for me: On one hand, there’s Jen, a Ph.D. student who is responding to misogynistic religious mores by suggesting that women choose to dress immodestly for the sake of an actual scientific experiment. On the other hand, there are women who call Jen a bad feminist because her flippant academic suggestion means women will expose their femininity, which might cause men to think dirty thoughts. I don’t know about you, but I’d say the real feminist cause isn’t the one that encourages women to refrain from doing things because of what men think.

Then again, what do I know? I’m part of the problem.