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Archive for July, 2010

Someone I’m following on Twitter, @quietriot_girl, recently put out a call for any interested men to discuss feminism. I volunteered, and she sent the following list of questions, to which I’ve attached my answers here.

1. Do you consider yourself to be a feminist?

If so, why? If not, why not?

Yep.

People have many different ideas of what feminism means, but all the formulations I’m most familiar with seem to describe philosophies that I consider important and worth following. One of my housemates at uni had a bumper sticker up in her room with a quote to the effect that “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people”. I can get behind that.

It’s not exactly a revolutionary observation that gender discrimination against women has been a pretty shitty and widespread thing throughout much of the history of civilisation, and we’re still not over it today. There are still ways in which unhelpful and unfair stereotypes and assumptions about women’s role in society linger on in the way people think and act, and I think it’s worth taking an active role in addressing this, beyond merely adopting the passive stance of “not being sexist”.

2. Look at this list of speakers for a forthcoming Feminism In London conference.

http://www.feminisminlondon.org.uk/p_speakers10.ikml

As you can see there are no men speakers scheduled. Would this put you off attending such an event? If not, please elaborate.

Well, I’m just an antisocial person, so this wouldn’t really be my scene anyway. Putting that aside, I suppose that seeing a long list like this of all women speakers might make me doubt how welcome I’d be, as a man. Which is okay; I wouldn’t begrudge the organisers of this event if they wanted an exclusively female attendance.

If this was representative of a more general trend, this may be a cause for concern, as I think that men have an important part to play in the feminist movement, and blocking us out entirely from open discussion and involvement can only be counter-productive. However, it does fall to me to be careful how I phrase such objections, so that I don’t come across as just angrily trying to barge into a discussion these womyn-folk are having to make sure I’m heard because I’m a MAN, dammit.

All the feminist activism I’ve experienced has tended to be very positive, inclusive, generally in line with my own values, and has never made me feel like I’d be an unwelcome part of it. I don’t personally feel like the voice of male feminism is being systematically ignored or shut down, so I don’t worry too much about the under-representation of men at certain events. It may speak to a broader problem within certain organisations, but I don’t feel equipped to judge that.

Also, let’s not forget that the reason for interest or concern in men’s role in feminism is not because of a general problem of societal oppression of men, or the hardships men traditionally face as a result of gender discrimination. It’s because getting men on board with the cause can help advance feminism. I do think that feminism would suffer if it lacked any kind of outreach to get men involved, but this wouldn’t be that grave an injustice against men themselves.

Also also, my friend Jessica deserves a shout-out for being a voice of positive, inclusive feminism in the context of Christianity. Again, I don’t know if she’s just radically out of sync with the usual tone of “mainstream feminism”, or if mainstream feminism has some more inclusive corners than you’re giving it credit for.

There were also two follow-up parts to question 2…

Are there any issues you would like to see discussed at feminist events that are not represented here? What are they?

Are there any specific people (of any gender identity) that you would be interested to hear speak at a feminist event?

…but I feel less qualified to comment here. I’m not that immersed in the feminist movement that I feel like I really know what they’re discussing most of the time, and I’m unlikely to find out by attending any “feminist events” because, hi, still quite antisocial.

The one thing I suppose I’d want to suggest be talked about more is the concept of practical, evidence-based activism – establishing what works and what doesn’t, what tactics will get people on our side and what will put them off, when it comes to trying to make a wider audience understand what feminism is trying to do and why it’s important. If our aims are no more specific than to “stand up for” certain ideas, or to “fight” for “equality” without ever nailing down what those words mean, then we’ll just end up talking at cross purposes and confusing things.

3. Do you have any other comments on how you perceive feminism to be at the moment? Especially from the perspective of being a man?

Well, I know that its failure to be sufficiently inclusive to men is one of the things you’ve criticised the mainstream feminist movement for, but my own experience of feminism hasn’t found it at all off-putting or unwelcoming. This may simply imply that it hasn’t been primarily “mainstream” feminism that I’ve been interacting with, which could well be the case.

The skeptical movement is my main thing, the big cause and community that’s hooked me for the past few years, and my burgeoning interests in equality and politics and journalism and so forth have all kinda spun off from that. Feminism and racial equality are both non-trivial parts of the skeptical movement, and I think this is largely why I’ve taken as much notice of them as I have.

A big part of the feminist message for me comes from people I already respect and admire as skeptics in their own right, perhaps most notably the Skepchicks. The purpose of that blog is to provide a more female-oriented wing of the skeptical movement, but they know that they’re working as part of a male-dominated community, so they’ve made sure things don’t start to feel exclusive in that regard.

Maybe that says something useful about a broader feminist approach that could be more widely adopted: rather than “feminism” simply existing as a stand-alone movement on its own, a better way forward would involve pre-existing groups or communities of people with shared interests, who currently happen to be predominantly male, taking on the task of feminist outreach themselves.

4. Where do you live?

London, UK.

5. What is your ethnic origin?

I’m as White British as they come.


So, that’s the game, folks. If you’ve got anything to add to this perspective, let me know, and I’m sure Elly would also like to hear.

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I’m still going back over a few recent news stories, highlighting and commenting on stuff that happened while I was feeling too lazy to blog about it at the time.

The latest example is a couple of things the Friendly Atheist brought to my attention. Firstly, a report on Blasphemy Day, which I’m hoping to be able to join in with again the next time September 30th comes around. We had fun last time.

Here’s Hemant’s summary of why it’s important and what it’s about:

It’s not about mocking religion or calling a believer names.

It’s about the freedom of speech and the idea that religion (along with other strongly-held beliefs) should be open to criticism.

No one should be able to silence you because they don’t like what you say.

For our part, let’s make sure we’re not just calling people names and mocking things for mockery’s sake. It does fall to us to explain what we’re doing, and what we’re trying to achieve, when we say and do things that offend other people’s sensibilities. Obviously, something with a name like “International Blasphemy Day” has to be all about crossing lines, but the lines we should aim to cross are ones that will challenge and discomfit people. There are other lines, further off, which will just make people roll their eyes at us and think we’re being obnoxious – and I think there comes a point where insistently defending our right to cross those lines as well becomes unhelpful.

However. We also do not cower and grovel in response to being shut down. Last time, university societies exercised their rights to religious freedom by such actions as quoting Richard Dawkins and drawing Mohammed stick figures. The religious response included hostility, verbal abuse, violence, and destruction of property. If we don’t do anything the godly don’t like for fear of upsetting anyone, that’s called a theocracy, in practice if not on any official documentation.

There are people who will always be offended unless we’re sitting quietly and subserviently and not expressing ourselves. Sometimes these people deserve to be told “Fuck you if you think you can shut me up”.

People who threaten atheists with death or their property with vandalism for daring to express their beliefs? Definitely fall into this camp.

On the other hand, here’s a fine example of how not to do it. Sure, it’s this guy’s right to burn any copy of any book that he owns, including the Koran. But he’s clearly not just standing up against basic oppression for the right to express beliefs that the majority might not agree with. He’s using this as a gimmick to preach about the “dangers of Islam”, and telling people that the Koran is a sure path to Hell. And he says he got the idea from Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.

To many believers, who may not read the kind of blogs likely to give them the full story, and whose first reaction to a blatant and provocative criticism of their beliefs is not likely to be positive, this guy with his anti-Islamic aggression might seem to be doing much the same thing as us. (“Us” being anyone else participating in International Blasphemy Day with similar intentions to my own.)

We really can’t ignore this. It won’t work to simply blame those believers for being over-sensitive, without explaining our point, and laying out clearly why they should have nothing to fear from us. If their belief system really is too puny and weak to handle any kind of dissenting view even being expressed within earshot, then fine, screw ’em and blaspheme away. But if we’re going to claim to be doing something compassionate and meaningful, for a better reason than gratuitous offense, we need to actively distance ourselves from people like this who are just trying to give Muslims a hard time.

So, yeah. Neither a dick nor a pussy be, I guess.

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First, a quick reminder: I’m hosting the next Carnival of the Godless blog carnival on 1st August. If you’ve got a blog post you’d like featured, submit it here before the end of the month – or tweet at me, comment here, or email cubiksrube @t hotmail d0t co d0t uk. Any efforts to spread the word and round up a few more good godless posts will be much appreciated.


And now onto our main feature: another example of people on the internet doing actual journalism, people who write for newspapers just spewing whatever bullshit suits them and fits their already-decided-upon view of the world, and entirely the wrong one of these two getting paid handsomely for their work.

For instance, Punch and Judy shows are not currently under fire from some imaginary “PC brigade” of moral do-gooders trampling on every last traditional remnant of this once great nation of ours. Despite inspecific outcries from the Mail and the Telegraph about what “officials” have “warned”, there’s no evidence at all that the imagined horde of rampaging bureaucrats have done any kind of clamping down on people performing the standard wife-beating puppet show.

The PR firm behind the announcement admit to a complete lack of concern about the accuracy of the stories they’re responsible for, and are openly thrilled by the coverage their clients are getting. And the papers get a great Broken Britain story to flog to their customers, who can enjoy getting all blustery and outraged over this latest affront to British values, which is probably all about appeasing foreigners and Muslims, somehow.

Everybody wins.

Occasionally there are significant consequences when the papers claim things that are completely untrue, but this seems to be a rarity. So the schadenfreude I got from reading this story was mildly therapeutic.

After the recent Raoul Moat killings, someone somewhere mocked up a cover for a fictitious game called Grand Theft Auto: Rothbury, designed to look like an installment in the GTA series and including a picture of Moat on the front. To anyone who’s spent more than a few minutes on the internet recently, this should obviously stand out as the kind of distasteful joke that certain message boards are very good at providing within minutes of some horrible tragedy.

But somebody at the Daily Star apparently has no concept of the fact that people on the internet often like to make things up about topical news events to be funny. The “game” was reported by the Daily Star as a real thing which everyone ought to hurry up and be outraged by.

I really can’t imagine how they can have got something so fundamentally wrong, except by noticing the mocked-up cover graphic and simply making the rest of the story up from there. If they’d done any research – even just typing the name of the thing they’re writing about into Google, to see whether they could find any evidence for its existence – then even someone with the cognitive capacity of a Daily Star reporter might have started to suspect that something was amiss. But no, they just went ahead and accused a video game company of insensitively exploiting a series of very recent murders.

In the apology it looks like they were obliged to provide, they essentially acknowledge as much:

We made no attempt to check the accuracy of the story before publication and did not contact Rockstar Games prior to publishing the story. We also did not question why a best selling and critically acclaimed fictional games series would choose to base one of their most popular games on this horrifying real crime event.

I wonder if this means they’ve decided that checking the accuracy of their stories before misleading millions of people would make good practice in future, and that they’d rather not carry on being dishonest hacks.

I’m sure Tabloid Watch will continue to let us know.

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First of all, let’s not ban the burqa.

David Mitchell wrote an excellent piece for the Guardian recently, on the subject of the illiberality of the recent French parliamentary decision to ban the traditional Islamic face veil in public. I agree with just about every word he writes, and even flatter myself that he even expresses it in a similar tone to mine, when I’m on especially blinding form. (It’s the part where he starts calling people dicks that particularly rings true.)

I’ve no doubt that many extremist conservative Muslims of religious authority are assisted in their efforts to oppress women by the burqa. But outlawing it altogether is just oppression in a different direction, because we’ve decided that “our” values are superior to “theirs”. And even if we’re right – which, let’s be honest, we totally are – the fact that we don’t legally force other people to go along with our way of doing things is vital to our retaining any sort of moral high ground.

A lot of people claim that the ban is a way of standing up for women’s rights, by preventing their tyrannic oppressors from telling them how to behave. No matter that a ban would also tell them how to behave, but with the full weight of the law behind it this time – again, our values are superior, so that’s apparently fine. But it’s not even fair to say that supporting a ban is the only way to stand up for the rights of oppressed Islamic women.

David’s whole point is that the respect/ban dichotomy is false, and there is a “huge gulf of toleration” in between the two. It’s absolutely possible to object to this unfair treatment, without calling for sweeping legislation to make criminals out of anyone who does what we don’t want them doing. Just because we don’t want those laws made, doesn’t mean we support anyone’s right to force women to dress a certain way.

And, in fact, the law already doesn’t support them doing that. I don’t know how senior Muslims in France or Britain would normally enforce their own personal rulings on women’s dress, but if it’s by violence, or threats of violence, or imprisoning women indoors until they comply, then that’s already illegal. If it’s just through less legally problematic routes, like social castigation or religious pronouncements, then it’s really not the government’s place to get involved.

(Also, let’s not confuse the burqa-specific ban, supposedly enforced on grounds of religious tolerance, with the more general legislation about the visibility of people’s faces in certain public arenas. The latter certainly has a place, but then religion is an entirely moot point. If you’re having your passport photo taken, it doesn’t matter whether you’re wearing a burqa or a Guy Fawkes mask, it’s got to come off.)

There’s an important factor which doesn’t get much play, though.

David Mitchell isn’t simply flat-out against banning the burqa. While professing his antipathy to the ban, he’s also explained clearly, eloquently, and entertainingly the reasons why he’s against it, and made equally clear that this doesn’t mean that he supports in any way the burqa’s use as an “empowering” garment, and that he finds a “massive flaw” in the belief system that requires it.

And I think this is an important part of the debate. If you just say that you’re against the ban, it can seem like your position is callous and unconcerned regarding the plight of oppressed Muslim women. It’s really up to you to frame your argument in such a way that people can’t easily get the mistaken idea that you’re blasé about what many Muslim women are going through, or that you don’t think it’s any big deal.

Just like when everybody drew Muhammad, some people could be forgiven for thinking we were just being provocative dicks, and I argued that it was vital to explain why standing up for this particular irreligious right, in the potentially offensive way we were doing, was important.

So, I hope I didn’t come off back then as being needlessly provocative or obnoxious, and I hope my intentions are clear now as well. Misogyny is a terrible thing wherever it happens, and it can be especially disturbing under Islamic law. This needs to be fought, with education, campaigning for progressivism, outreach, satire, and whatever we’ve got, but I can’t support passing laws banning women from doing things we don’t want to see them forced into doing.

I’m a borderline libertarian nutcase when it comes to freedom of expression and what other people choose to do with it. The best answer to bad speech is usually more speech, and I think we could do with hearing a lot more of that on this subject.

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Well, I hadn’t rolled my eyes and despaired of humanity in, ooh, hours, so I suppose I should be grateful this story came along when it did.

What happened was, someone got on a bus in Texas, wanting to go to a Planned Parenthood office. Apparently the Capital Area Rural Transportation System does “some door-to-door service within its rural coverage area”, not just a set of standard routes.

So, a woman wanted to be transported to one of this organisation’s clinics, which provides services like contraception, pregnancy testing, cancer screenings, information and education on sexual health, sex and relationships counselling, vasectomies, and abortions, among other stuff.

The driver refused to make the journey, and he was subsequently fired. The reason for his refusal was that his Christian religious beliefs meant that “in good conscience, he could not take someone to have an abortion”. He’s filed a lawsuit against his former employer, wanting his job back, as well as back pay and “compensatory damages for pain, suffering and emotional distress”.

Oy.

Let’s start with two things the guy’s lawyer said, one of which is complete bullshit and one of which is much more valid, but which are lined up next to each other as if they’re connected somehow. Thing the first:

It’s only because he voiced his religions [sic] beliefs that he was canned.

Unless I’m hugely misunderstanding the story, this is demonstrably false. He wasn’t fired for “voicing” anything. He was fired because he refused to do the job he was being paid for. He’s welcome to hold religious convictions, and even to voice them, but any actions your convictions compel you to take are not automatically protected by the law.

I might have a profound and deeply held conviction that the PS3 I saw in a shop window on my way home from work today ought to be mine. This doesn’t mean I can just take it, no matter how much I protest that Jesus wants me to worship him by playing God of War III all weekend.

Thing the other:

Employers have a legal responsibility to at least attempt to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs.

My legal expertise could fit on the side of a cereal box – which, incidentally, is where I got it from in the first place – so I don’t know the ins and outs of how true this technically is. But sure, if it’s something that can be worked around, I’m in favour of making the effort to find a compromise. Religion shouldn’t be relevant – if it’s important to someone that, say, they don’t want to drive their bus a particular route, but it’s not something that comes up that often, and if things can be shuffled around so that other colleagues are covering them without being inconvenienced, then this needn’t be a big deal.

But there comes a point beyond which it’s not reasonable to expect your employers to make room for your own personal quirks. And that’s what this is. One guy’s personal quirk. There is no legal issue about driving someone to a Planned Parenthood clinic, and this is where I think some of today’s Twitter discussion got derailed, and why former bus driver Edwin Graning should probably shut up.

Tracy King, the Skepchick whose comments brought this to my attention, raised the point of how any of us might feel if our job involved driving somebody somewhere to be murdered. Such a scenario would surely make us a party to this terrible crime, and her point was that – in this particular bus driver’s eyes – this is analogous to taking a female passenger to get an abortion.

Now, first of all, Planned Parenthood does a lot more than perform abortions, and there could have been many other reasons the passenger might have wanted to go there than to actually terminate a fetus on this particular trip. It’s not clear from the article whether she was feeling chatty and told the driver that this was exactly what she was going there for, or if he just knew the destination and drew his own conclusions.

But in a sense, it doesn’t even matter whether his personally held convictions are against abortion, or against sexual and reproductive health advice in general. They’re his own convictions, and they need concern nobody else. The only justification he has for not doing this part of his job is that he doesn’t want to. The reasons are utterly irrelevant when it falls to his employers to decide how to respond to that. It’s his choice, based on what’s important to him alone.

And the values that are important to him might make it impossible for him to drive someone to a Planned Parenthood clinic. And that’s okay. But because it’s his personal choice, they’re his personal consequences to deal with if it means he can’t do his job properly any more and he gets fired. It’s not fair for him to expect everyone else to bend to fit his own set of values and ethics, if what he finds immoral is out of phase with everybody else.

I’ve made the comparison before to a vegan working in an abattoir. They might want to refuse to do any work involving the slaughter of animals which they find morally repugnant, and they probably should. But they can’t take this stance and still expect to hold down their salaried position.

If it was an actual murder that you were assisting by driving somebody somewhere, you could argue that refusing to participate shouldn’t lose you your job. Because, unlike visiting a clinic, murder is illegal. So it’d be kinda unreasonable for your job to demand this of you. I think that’s where the analogy falls down, if you’re using it to try and argue this guy’s defence.

This might seem like I’m ragging on Tracy for being too lenient with this guy. That’s really not my intent – she wasn’t arguing his defence in any legal respect. Her point in the first place was simply that she could sympathise with his feelings, given his presumed views on abortion and the fact that he may have felt like he was being asked to aid and abet what he saw as an ungodly sin. I totally agree with this, and with pretty much everything that you can see on her Twitter feed on this subject.

I didn’t want to let the story pass without comment, but I felt that it deserved a little more thought than a standard moan about religious privilege. That’s why there’s quite so much of it. Sorry about that.

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Just a quick link today, shared earlier by my brother: Intelligent Design Is Still A Lie. GLaDOS meets Ben Stein and some dodgy auto-tuning. Watch. Chuckle. Go to bed. (That’s my schedule, anyway. You may adapt it as you see fit.)

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First, a quick reminder: I’m hosting the next Carnival of the Godless blog carnival on 1st August. If you’ve got a blog post you’d like featured, submit it here before the end of the month – or tweet at me, comment here, or email cubiksrube @t hotmail d0t co d0t uk. So far there’s precisely two entries you’ll be competing against. Any efforts to spread the word and round up a few more good godless posts will be much appreciated.


I pondered a little while ago about the role of people who maintain unskeptical beliefs in the skeptical community. And now this post over at The Man Version has got me thinking on it some more.

And I completely agree with almost everything in it. In particular, this paragraph sums up something I may have been attempting to say about the nature of disagreement among skeptics:

Two people reaching different conclusions on an untestable claim does not mean that either side made some grievous error. It certainly doesn’t mean that one view is an attack on the other. The answer to the religion question requires a lot of looking inward. We all come from different backgrounds, different experiences, and different points of view. That’s what makes talking to other people interesting. That’s what makes having friends desirable. Of course occasionally you will have different opinions. If not, you might as well talk to yourself.

However, I have a slightly different take on what it should take for someone to be “welcomed among the skeptics” in spite of a single isolated wacky belief.

The author here bases it mainly on whether or not the belief in question is harmful. If someone’s a Christian but not trying to push creationism in schools, fine; if Bill Maher’s spouting anti-vaccination bullshit, not so much. And this isn’t an irrelevant point. But I think that a failure to employ appropriate critical thinking can be considered harmful in itself, and a lot of skeptical kudos can be lost even without endorsing anything as dangerous as the anti-vax movement.

Here’s another example from that post:

What if Massimo Pigliucci thinks he saw a flying saucer once? Massimo isn’t writing “They Are Among Us” books or pushing to spend billions of tax dollars on methods to prevent alien abductions, so does he have to give back his doctorate in genetics?

I only have a passing familiarity with Massimo Pigliucci’s work, but he seems pretty awesome. I’ve heard him interviewed on the SGU a couple of times, and he really knows his stuff when it comes to dismantling creationist pseudo-science. And no, his valuable understanding and acumen in the field of biology probably wouldn’t be greatly affected by an unrelated belief in flying saucers.

And yet, if he claims that he saw a thing in the sky one time and reckons it was a UFO – in the sense of being a genuinely extra-terrestrial craft, not just a flying object which he personally could not identify – I still think this would have significant implications about his overall credibility as a skeptic.

Countless UFO sightings have been reported over the years, and many alternative explanations have proved more plausible than aliens flying over our heads. If someone lacks the basic skeptical nous to realise that it’s far more likely that their perception or their judgment was in some way erroneous, than that they sighted evidence of a visiting alien intelligence for which no other evidence has ever been found… then I think you’d have to wonder how much their critical assessment can be trusted on anything else. The belief itself may be benign, but it speaks to an underlying approach which is far from what the skeptical community should be aspiring to.

Similarly, I can imagine some harmful beliefs which shouldn’t necessarily rule someone out from taking part in any scientific discussion. Not every mother who’s read some tabloid headlines, watched the news, seen Oprah’s guests express their deep concern for our country’s children, found some sciencey-sounding autism support websites online, and is now worried about the risk of getting her kid vaccinated, is in any way villainous or reprehensible. Being misled by credulous media outlets in one area doesn’t instantly lose you the right to claim to know what you’re talking about in other fields of science.

I just hope they’d have taken on board some better information before they’re invited to speak at TAM. Anyone claiming to be an active skeptic really ought to be at least sufficiently familiar with the literature to know that the anti-vax movement is bunk. Just like they should be aware of the cognitive biases and imperfections that can make people think they’re seeing aliens.

Bill Maher’s still an idiot, though. I think we can agree on that.

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