Posts Tagged ‘discrimination’

Because I should talk about this, but I’m getting tired of the -gate snowclone.

So there’s been yet another big gathering of sciencey types which I’m disappointed not to be attending. This one’s called Skepticon.

And although I’m sure there were lots of exciting conversations and presentations that went on there, most of the gossip from the weekend that’s made it as far as my RSS feed and Twitter stream has been about this one ice cream store, and a sign that was put up there:



If you can’t see the image, it’s a sign in the window of Gelato Mio stating: “Skepticon is NOT welcomed to my Christian Business“.

That’s a) illegal, and b) a real dick move. You really don’t get to flagrantly discriminate against any group of people like that, whether it’s Jews or blacks or Skepticon attendees.

So far, so uncontroversial. The guy’s a bigoted religious nut who’s so unable to handle having his beliefs questioned that he doesn’t mind breaking the law in his resulting childish tantrum. We’ve seen worse.

Then it started getting more complicated. He didn’t just stand by his raving intolerance and start shouting back at anyone who called him on his bullshit. His first apology was pretty thin, but he admits he was wrong, and acknowledges that many people from Skepticon had already been into his shop with no trouble.

Later, he offered a further apology, in a somewhat less boilerplate style. He says again that what he did was “inexcusable” and “completely wrong”, and that it was an impulsive action in a moment of poor judgment. He’d wandered down to visit the conference at some point, having genuinely no idea what it was about (he only seemed to connect the term “skeptics” with UFOs), and happened across a presentation somewhat more acutely critical of his religion than he was expecting. So he got angry and petulant and acted like kind of a dick.

This apology was thorough and unabashed. He did wrong, he’s sorry, he’s attempting to make amends.

So, skeptical community. Do we forgive him?

Aaaaand clusterfuck.

Jen says yes. Hemant says yes, even if the guy still has a problem with atheism. Buffy says yes, and that a sincere apology like this deserves credit, given how difficult they usually are. Ed Brayton says we should move on, and count the apology as a victory even if it was more of a PR move than anything else. SkepticMoney says yes. Hayley says yes, and has some harsh words for any supposedly compassionate humanist skeptics looking to “make an example” out of this local business owner.

Adam Lee says meh. JT Eberhard says no, and has no real interest in listening to any more of this guy’s efforts to appease him. PZ says fuck no and fuck you.

Personally, I’m not finding it helpful to insist that everything rest on the question of whether he should be “forgiven”. I’m going to take a cue from the Eliezer Yudkowsky playbook (one of the Skepticon speakers and increasingly a hero of mine), and taboo the word “forgive” and its derivatives, as well as variants on the phrase “accept his apology”. Without getting bogged down by the language, then, what do I think?

Is Gelato-man an irredeemable jerk? No. He lashed out stupidly in a fit of anger, but he’s apologised and admitted wrongdoing, which was by no means inevitable.

Does he sincerely feel remorse for what he did? I think so. I find it hard to imagine him writing what he did if he didn’t feel bad and get why he was out of line.

Are we all going to be his friends? Well, probably not. The fact that he has the capacity for such spite toward non-Christians at all tells us something about his character, and I don’t think he really merits a heart-warming reconciliation scene. We’re not obliged to like him, or find him a charming fellow, or deny that what he did was obnoxious and unlawful, in order not to bear a grudge in perpetuity.

Shall we move on from this incident now? Seems like a good idea. There’s nothing else it’s worth demanding or expecting from him. I think it’s all been sufficiently resolved that, should we have occasion to think of him in the future, we’d remember him as “that gelato guy” before “that bigoted asshole”.

Is it worth even making a fuss about this kind of thing in the first place? I think it can be. Being deprived of the chance for some ice cream may not be a major human rights violation, but casual discrimination against non-Christians or the non-religious is a big deal in a lot of places, not least the USA. Many State Constitutions give a pro-religious bias, to the point of denying non-believers the right to hold public office. Almost half of the country would disapprove of their child marrying an atheist, and nearly as many deem atheism completely at odds with “American society”. The amount of abuse and death threats atheists face, simply as a result of existing and speaking their mind, emphasises how important it is to publicly oppose this kind of bigotry. I wouldn’t want to see recriminations taken any further in this case, but calling out this kind of prejudice is important.

Should we try harder not to upset other Christian shop-owners in future? Not really. The offense that made this guy fly off the handle wasn’t any kind of vitriol directed at him; it was a presentation intended for the skeptics who chose to attend, and which satirised some aspects of popular religion. It’s not like everyone was getting together to hate on religious people all weekend. There was an assortment of attractions, all of which sound worthwhile, and many of which would be bound to offend large swathes of people who aren’t good at dealing with contrary opinions. Satire and mockery are an important part of, well, just about everything. This guy’s not obliged to like that we made fun of his invisible friend, and he’s not obliged to like us for it. But that’s a thing we get to do, and we’re not obliged to care about his wounded pride if he’s really that threatened by alternative viewpoints. Which I think he gets now.

Have I asked myself enough rhetorical questions for one day? Yes. Yes, I have.


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…K-I-S- …Wait. Um. What letter rhymes with “Vatican”?

Okay, never mind. This is about The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, part of the Vatican, which sent some sort of open letter to all Muslims not long ago.

It’s possibly a bit weird.

The end of the month of Ramadan offers the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue a welcome occasion for sending you our most cordial wishes, hoping that the efforts you have so generously made during this month will bring all the desired spiritual fruits.

Impressively flowery language aside, I actually went so far as to look up Wikipedia’s page on Ramadan to see if I’d missed something here. Yes, this issue has actually driven me to research. Horrors. Anyway, my largely ignorant assumption was basically right: Ramadan is about fasting and abstinence, and maybe more praying than usual. Quite where generosity comes into it I’m not sure.

But still, it seems an odd thing for the head of the Catholic Church to be wishing for followers of Islam: that their efforts “will bring all the desired spiritual fruits”. So, you hope that their devotion to a false god who doesn’t exist, and their denial of the true Lord Jesus, is bringing them spiritual fulfilment? Huh. I thought those were generally advised against by Christian teachings, so I’ve only done the second one. Do I get a positive wish for spiritual fulfilment from the Vatican as well?

No, evidently not. Because one thing Christians and Muslims have in common is the way they are…

faced… with the challenges of materialism and secularisation.

Oh, right. That’ll be me, then.

Of course, it is possible to be a religious secularist. One can hold religious views, but consider them a personal matter which should not influence state policy or be involved in any official legislation. But it seems clear that what the Vatican’s objecting to is the irreverence against faith often exhibited by those without it.

We cannot but denounce all forms of fanaticism and intimidation, the prejudices and the polemics, as well as the discrimination of which, at times, believers are the object both in the social and political life as well as in the mass media.

Yep. Prejudices and discrimination in social and political life. I’m sure the spiritual leader of over a billion Christians knows just as much about that as the Muslims his office is addressing.

There surely can’t be much that they have in common. What do Christians and Muslims both share, which doesn’t also include atheists (or “secularists”)? It’s not the nature of God, or Jesus, or really any of the big important spiritual questions which they both claim to have answers to. Atheists, though, have at least one thing in common with every religion: they’re the only ones who agree that all the other religions are false.

The right to practice their own beliefs in a way that doesn’t inhibit the freedom of others? The right not to have an opposing faith view forced on you? Secularists are right with you on those.

The only significant unifying factor which atheists aren’t on board with seems to be the idea that believing in some all-powerful divine overlord is good in itself, even if it’s the wrong one – even, in fact, if that belief is completely untrue. Christians, by nature of their religion, believe all Muslims to be wrong in finding the prophet Mohammed’s writings to be divinely inspired – but the fact that they believe untrue things about a fictional god is still somehow seen as a virtue.

What they share is belief in belief.

Which in fact they probably do also share with a good many non-religious, who miss the comfort provided by a religion they no longer believe in. They use “church-going” as a synonym for “morally upstanding”, and so on.

It’s a flimsy connection for two opposing faiths to find with each other, and still fails to exclude the godless in the way they really want to.

(h/t Atheist Revolution)

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A Conservative MP in the UK recently suggested that the minimum wage might be a “hindrance” to some people who want to find work, and that the “vulnerable” – such as those with disabilities – should be able to work for less than this legally mandated lower limit.

The internet heard about this, and exploded.

People were angry at Philip Davies’s insensitivity, and it’s not hard to see why. After the outrage bounced around Twitter for a while, an official response was posted by mental health charity Mind, as well as a damning riposte in the Guardian (not forgetting the admirably quick-off-the-mark NewsThump).

The people vehemently disagreeing with Davies are clearly concerned about people with disabilities, learning difficulties, or mental illness being discriminated against unfairly, and would be against any legislation implying that such people are less worthy of the basic human rights that we tend to think all members of society deserve equally. And while this is admirable, I think that Davies is getting unfairly swept up with a slew of other bad ideas that are worth criticising.

Partially, anyway.

Simon Perry has highlighted some of the over-zealous criticism better than most, and has tried to clarify what Davies was and was not saying, and why it may not have been as abhorrent as all that.

I think he’s only sort of right as well, though.

Davies was highlighting one of the effects of having a minimum wage: sometimes people won’t get hired for a job they wanted, which they could have got if they’d been able to agree to work for below the legal minimum. This limitation has no doubt closed off some opportunities for people willing to work at very low rates.

So, he argues, some of the “most vulnerable people in society” should have the option of working for below minimum wage, if they find this helpful in getting them onto the job ladder.

It’s not that clear from the articles I’ve read, but it seems that the following ideas are the only ones that can really be read from what Davies seems to be saying:

  1. People with disabilities or mental illness should accept that they’re often not worth as much in the job market, they oughtn’t expect to be paid as much as the rest of society can expect, and they’re just going to be poorer because of it.
  2. Everyone should earn at least the minimum wage, unless they want to accept less.
  3. There should be no minimum wage.

The first option is discriminatory and callous.

The second is either meaningless (there’s no point to a law you have to follow unless you don’t want to) or it’s effectively equivalent to the third.

The third would at least be a coherent idea, but I suspect that if that was what he meant, he’d have said so far more straight-forwardly.

So, in a way, it’s hard to be particularly angry with Philip Davies, as it’s not entirely clear to me what he’s getting at.

But I’m still a long way from being on his side.

Davies would argue, no doubt, that he’s concerned for the rights of the disabled, and the otherwise “vulnerable”, and is seeking ways which might make it easier for them to find a position in the workforce. But his apparent compassion and desire to genuinely help people doesn’t bear up to much scrutiny.

Whatever he meant to say, it’s clear that mental health charities, sufferers of mental illness and disability, and basically everyone else have all criticised him for being insensitive. If he had a valid and compassionate point in there somewhere, nobody got it. People felt he was being unfair and unkind, and at the very least he had expressed himself poorly.

And his response has been to get snippy and passive-aggressive with his critics, dismissing their concerns as “Left wing hysteria”. He’s made no apparent effort to explain why his suggestions are not the unfair and prejudiced ones he made them sound like, but is painting the whole liberal wing as some kind of monolith that’s resistant to new ideas and is just out to get him.

This is not how you behave if your primary concern is caring for people and making positive changes. This is how you behave if you’re responding to any slight on your character with stubbornness and petulance.

And for what it’s worth, I don’t even think it’s a good idea.

Most countries have a minimum wage law, and it’s worth considering why it’s there in the first place. The reading up I’ve done on the actual answers to this complex question has been minimal, because I know what you’ve come to expect from me by now and I hate to disappoint. But I think this is a fair characterisation: it’s a restriction on the free market that society tends to find necessary, in order to save the working class from the natural result of unrestrained capitalism.

A part of me wonders what I’ve become, that I can type a sentence like that with a straight face. Let me try that again without sounding like quite such an unbearable wanker.

If minimum wage laws weren’t there, many people would be working for less than the current limits. (Otherwise the laws would be doing absolutely nothing.) This implies that, if the market were free of this particular restraint, people would end up working for rates of pay currently considered unacceptably paltry. The way a free market would actually value many people’s labour would be so appallingly low, we’ve put laws in place to make sure things don’t get quite that bad for anyone.

The idea of a truly free market may have a certain libertarian appeal, but the vast inequalities between sub-minimum wage workers and their corporate employers should be of grave concern to anyone who thinks a freer market is always better.

While increasing the pay gap even more might open a few doors in the short-term for some individuals, surely what’s more worth addressing are broader problems in the way things are structured. There are keen 20-year-old men and women in the workforce, young and energetic and eager to work, who are having to decide between selling their labour for £4.92 an hour, or not working at all.

There’s a bigger issue in play when so many people are that desperate to keep their heads above water, and Philip Davies is not alone in failing to address this with his proposal.

If the only solution you have is that some people ought to accept even less than the current limits, then you’re tacitly accepting a seriously fucked-up economy with grossly unjust class divides as being either basically fair or sadly inevitable.

Which, unfortunately, seems to be what Davies is doing. This particular gem from the BBC report especially infuriated me:

Mr Davies replied that, irrespective of whether it was “right or wrong”, that was “just the real world that we operate in”.



You’re an elected member of parliament, entrusted with the responsibility to represent the people and enact national legislation to try to make society run in a functional manner.

If you’re resigned to the way things already are, think that whether something’s “right or wrong” is “irrespective”, and aren’t trying to change the world we operate in, then what the fuck are you good for?


Is it just me, or am I sounding more and more social libertarian every time I try and write about serious things?

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I may be taking something of a step back here.

I’ve talked about feminism a few times before, what it means to me, what it means to someone else, and how it relates to skepticism or men’s rights. It’s been an important theme to much of my engagement with the rest of the internet, and something I’ve argued about on a number of occasions with some degree of passion and interest.

Now I’m wondering if I even know what it means.

I haven’t suddenly shifted my views on anything real, or not all that much. But I think my interpretation of the term “feminism” itself bears some examination.

I wanted to talk about this even before I read Holly’s post on Imaginary Feminism and recognised so many infuriating factors of certain critiques of “feminism” that I keep encountering. I slightly take issue with the word “imaginary”, because it’s sadly not true that the kind of feminism she’s describing doesn’t exist. The examples she cites – Valerie Solanas, Phyllis Schlafly, and the rest – are all real people, who really believed the things they said, and continue to have supporters.

It’s the way it’s all lumped together that’s the problem. As Holly says, one of the primary straw-man claims about feminism is that it’s monolithic. Solanas et al. were feminists, and so it’s assumed that anyone else who identifies as a feminist, or writes from a feminist perspective, or promotes an agenda of empowering women and calls it feminism, can’t possibly also believe in things like sexual positivity, and must be seeking to actively disempower men.

A big part of the problem is people who insist on seeing feminism this way. I know people who look at this extreme bloc of thinkers – and more contemporary writers like Bidisha and Kat Banyard – and think that’s what feminism is. And while ideas like theirs certainly deserve to be criticised, turning it into a deliberate effort at feminist-bashing might well alienate people who would otherwise agree with you, if they identify as feminists themselves but mean something very different by it.

But I think a lot of the problem comes from the word itself.

Since so many different feminists have such different ideas on what it means, is it too vague a term to really mean anything? There are no doubt some feminists who do hate men, and for whom that is a defining part of their idea of feminism. But even aside from this extreme minority, there are various conflicting ideas on how to work for equality, and what equality means, and where things like sex work and men’s rights fit into that equality.

As well as a (possible) feminist, I’m an atheist, and there’s a degree of disagreement within the atheist community about what that label means as well. But there isn’t the same wild variety of opinions within atheism as in feminism – or rather, opinions only tend to vary on unrelated subjects, or peripheral details like the tone of atheists’ public engagement. What it means to not believe in God is one of the more straightfoward aspects.

It’s less straightforward to believe the radical notion, as the bumper sticker goes, “that women are people”. This was a definition of feminism pinned to the bedroom wall of one of my ex-housemates, and is less than helpful in explaining things. You’d have to go a long way to find someone who’ll disagree that women are people, in any literal, biological sense. But if it’s meant to be taken in a more nuanced, metaphorical way, then it doesn’t help resolve the many disagreements over how this should be done.

Similarly, everyone who’s not dangerously insane would agree that men should have rights. That’s not the same as saying women shouldn’t have rights, or that men particularly need to defend their rights against a horde of angry women who want to strip them all away. And yet the “Men’s Rights Movement” has an unfortunate tendency to be a mess of bitterness and misogyny. The equivalent of certain brands of misandrist feminism, I suppose.

But because there are so many differing views under the massive “feminist” umbrella, the opposition to feminism is necessarily just as disjointed and scattered in what it thinks it’s against.

The flavours of anti-feminism that I’ve generally encountered before (as regular readers may recall) have tended to be sophisticated and progressive. It’s dead set against things like the stereotyping of gender and sexuality roles, victimisation of women, and downplaying or ridiculing of men’s rights, which it often observes in mainstream feminism.

And it’s true that all those things are present in feminism to some degree, and I support anyone taking a stand against them. But going after the whole feminist movement, or all feminists, for these particular transgressions means you’re liable to frustrate and alienate a lot of potential allies.

They forget that the more historically prevalent kind of “anti-feminism” has wanted women to stay in the kitchen all day, looking after the children, not bothering their husbands with any domestic chores or having any vocational aspirations of their own, and not worrying their pretty heads over any silly things like being allowed to vote.

This is what most feminists are opposed to. They’re usually not against the idea of respecting men, or acknowledging and respecting people’s complex and nuanced decisions on gender identity and sexuality. Even those feminists who are against the very existence of strip clubs or pornography or prostitution are often attempting to express a compassionate notion of liberalism, not crushing people’s rights for their own convenience.

Being an “anti-feminist” these days may mean that you endorse and support ideas wholly compatible with many people’s idea of feminism.

So I have to wonder whether the terminology’s that much use to me.

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Holly at the Pervocracy blog posted an interesting piece today, about criticising potential allies in some movement for public acceptance, and the potential risks of alienating them from your cause. I’m reproducing below a comment I left on that article.

(The article of mine that I’m referring to, if you need reminding or you missed that whole clusterfuffle, is here.)

I think I was about to say pretty much what Aaron said. It’s generally best to operate on an assumption of good faith, unless it’s later disproven.

It’s not even really about rights or movements, so much as it’s about basic courtesy in interacting with other people. Asking if somebody has some kind of fucking problem is sorta flat-out rude, and beyond what’s merited from a one-off use of one inappropriate word. Particularly if you don’t know them well and don’t know much about their genuine attitudes to things – perhaps they care a great deal about mentally disabled people, but just aren’t so attentive to it as to moderate their vocabulary in all instances.

I posted a lengthy piece on my blog a while ago, defending a journalist who’d written a newspaper article about protecting young people from homophobic discrimination. It had been widely circulated around Twitter and the blogosphere. Another blogger utterly eviscerated him, heaping personal abuse on top of numerous criticisms of what he was saying and the allegedly despicable nature of some of his attitudes.

And the infuriating thing was, she had a lot of good points. As much as protecting young people from hate should be something we can all agree on, this journalist’s piece did at times seem in danger of pathologising homosexuality, or being too quick to label kids with an unhelpfully binary gender or sexuality identity. There were many valid criticisms to be made about his piece.

But, fundamentally, he was a good-hearted guy trying passionately to help people suffering discrimination. It’s not that his errors don’t deserve to be corrected simply because he’s basically on the right side of things. But they didn’t deserve the unmitigated vitriol which this blogger continued to hurl at him.

This blogger identifies as anti-feminist, in part because of how many of her interactions with the feminist community have gone this way. And it’s frustrating, because she’d be a good ally if she didn’t tend to be so hostile that many people don’t want to be on her side.

Sorry this is so long, it’s just reminded me of something I’ve wanted to vent about for a while.

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This post makes several good points.

Sometimes, bad words are bad. Language can be extremely offensive. For instance, unless you’ve been paying no attention at all to the last few decades or so of Western culture, you’ll be aware that there are some things you don’t generally call black people in public.

And there are times when it’s simply a matter of basic courtesy and compassion to moderate our language in other ways, choosing phrases that avoid certain connotations with the potential to wound. Richard Littlejohn might object even to this measure of “political correctness”, but it’s often just basic human sensitivity.

But sometimes it does go too far, and language policing can intrude on and obstruct useful dialogue.

It reminds me a little of the more tiresome aspects of the Don’t Be A Dick kerfuffle still going on among the skeptical community. The people arguing for impeccable civility when interacting with outsiders can often be the ones with the most obnoxious and infuriating tone when dealing with fellow skeptics.

And, similarly, people most actively clamouring for a sensitive use of inclusive language often seem to find the most tactless and judgmental way of making their point.

If somebody has written a lengthy treatise on some topic of interest, and your first or only response to is to point out that they used a term you consider unacceptable or discriminatory, condemn them for being prejudiced or insensitive, and act as if this shuts down the rest of the discussion, then we’re going to waste a lot of time before we have a chance to actually talk about any worthwhile issues.

You can still point out the objectionable term, but don’t automatically assume that it came from a place of spite or malice, and don’t act as if it renders insignificant any points the person was trying to make.

Maybe they just don’t give transsexual issues much attention in their everyday lives and so didn’t think to include that factor specifically in their phrasing. It doesn’t make someone a terrible person for working under a passive assumption that male/female is a simple binary system, if they’re writing about something entirely unconnected to gender issues.

Maybe they haven’t heard it used as a term of abuse and harmlessly assumed that “Paki” was simply a diminutive of “Pakistani”. Most of them will be eager to amend their language if they learn that it’s widely interpreted in a hostile way. That doesn’t need to be the most important thing about the geopolitical analysis in which they inadvertently used the slur.

Maybe they get a bit lazily heteronormative from time to time. We’ve all done it. It’s worth watching out for, but it’s not the end of the world.

I suspect that most such instances where the language police are called in aren’t due to genuine racism, or sexism, or anything so actively unjust. It’s just people slipping up and getting things a bit wrong. And they deserve the benefit of the doubt more often than not.

(Hat-tip to Broadsnark, if memory serves.)

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Here’s a crude paraphrasing of a conversation I’ve heard a few times lately, in blogs and comment threads. (The first speaker is female.)

“Men tend to outnumber women in the skeptical community. At events and meet-ups, most of the attendees and speakers tend to be men. I feel like women might be under-represented and may feel alienated from skepticism as a result.”

“Well then do something about it! Get more involved yourself, and try to get other women involved too, start your own group – just don’t keep moaning about it and expecting concessions to be made for you without your having to do any work.”

If the respondent is male, it’s hard not to see this as a fairly typical case of casual chauvinism. But other female skeptics seem to be the ones pushing this view at least as often.

I’m still yet to comprehensively describe my own position on feminism, but I should really get on with it, because it’s rare that I read anyone else’s opinions on the subject without at some point feeling compelled toward self-inflicted cranial trauma.

Rebecca at Skeptical Ireland has some complaints about the assumptions made by certain brands of feminism, particularly in response to an interview with prominent feminist Kat Banyard on the generally excellent Little Atoms radio show and podcast.

Says Rebecca:

Up until this point I never thought of myself as a minority that desperately needed to be stood up for. I do not need another woman to tell me how I should and should not feel about my place within any community…

I refuse to go to a SITP [Skeptics In The Pub] meeting that I have organised and count how many women are at the table, or how many other perceived minorities might be in attendance and then use this a basis to measure success (whatever that means).

She has a valid point about the unhelpfulness of the obsession with quotas (which Dan Jacobs expands on in the comments) that some feminists seem to want us to hold to, and consider a vital measure of the fairness of any group project.

But… surely it’s not a complete red herring to consider whether women are being systematically excluded from a community. It has happened before. Not just to women, by any means, but they’ve been among the more notable targets of this kind of discrimination.

It should be possible to suggest that an infrastructure might have inherent biases which it would benefit us all to overcome, and propose ways we can work on fixing this together… without becoming a caricature and insisting that any men who gather in one place without inviting the same number of women are sexist and should be completely changing things by themselves.

Jen McCreight noted a recent Secular Humanist Conference which had thirteen male speakers and two female. It’s not insane to take this as a cue to wonder if members of the skeptical community – men and women alike – could be doing more to reach out to women who aren’t currently a part of the group.

It’s all very well saying that women should get more involved if they want to see more women getting involved, but does the attitude of the community make it clear that we really want them to? Or are we, at times, carelessly giving the impression that being white and male is the presumed default, and anyone who doesn’t fit the mould probably can’t really be down with this whole “skepticism” thing?

Rebecca’s right that patronising women and assuming they need help against the oppression of all those bastard men solves nothing. I don’t think that “sexism” is the most useful word to describe the problem, or that outright prejudice against women is nearly so significant a causal factor as lazy thinking and reflexive defensiveness against accusations of sexism.

But this isn’t the first conversation Jen’s had where she’s noted a gender disparity and essentially been told “Well, fix it, woman!” And that unhelpfully plays down the things that men can do to help.

I’m probably either a simpering liberal or a fascist pig, based on all this. Place your bets, folks.

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