Monday, July 16, 2012

A house divided

“A house divided against itself cannot stand” - Abraham Lincoln June 16, 1858 (based on Mark 3:25)
I am sure that I am not the only one who has observed the rifts in the atheist and skeptic community and thought of the above quotation (not only am I sure; I know this for certain, as people have used the quote). I think of it, and think it applies, but I also think of the Danish expression “Lad falde hvad ikke kan stå” (“let fall what can’t stand”), which is originally from a socialist song, Socialisternes March (march of the Socialists), written in 1871 by Ulrich Peter Overby. This expression also applies to the current situation in my opinion.

For those unaware of what the rifts are about, they relate to the sexist atmosphere which exists in the community, especially during conferences. The problems of sexism has been raised by several through the years, but the current crisis is generally considered to have been started by the vile and misogynist reactions to Rebecca Watson making a rather minor point about this in a video about a conference.

Of course, some people will refer to other starting points, but it is really not relevant, since the end result is the same: the atheist and skeptic community is currently divided to a degree which probably hasn’t been seen before. The division is between those who are fighting the sexism and those who are actively fighting the people fighting the sexism (fighting should not be taken literately in either case). There are of course many people involved in neither camp.

The people fighting sexism are working on things such as getting the wider community to acknowledge that there is a problem, getting people to speak out against sexism and misogynist behavior, and getting conferences to create and enforce harassment policies. It should be noted that the people involved in this are not claiming that sexism is worse among atheists and skeptics than among any other group, rather they are saying that it is a problem which should be addressed.

Among the people fighting against sexism are PZ Myers, the pharyngulites (commenters at the Pharyngula blog), Rebecca Watson and the other Skepchicks, most FreeThoughtBlogs bloggers, Amanda Marcotte, and many more. It also seems like most conference organizers including CFI and American Atheists have come down on this side.

Opposing those are prominent people like Abbie Smith/ERV, Paula Kirby, Russell Blackford, a bunch of commentators generally referred to as the slime pitters, thunderf00t, and to a lesser degree Richard Dawkins and DJ Grothe. Given Grothe’s position at JREF and TAM, it should not surprise anyone that TAM is the only prominent conference to not acknowledge the need for a harassment policy which is enforced. This is rather strange, as TAM actually had a harassment policy in place in 2011, but unfortunately enforced it rather badly (part of enforcing is making reports of incidents, which was what TAM failed at – they handled the actual incidents rather well, according to all reports I’ve seen).

It would seem obvious that this is not an ideal situation, and if it continues, it will tear the community apart.

Well, if that’s what’s going to happen, so be it.

I’d rather have two communities than be part of a community which finds sexism and outright misogynistic behavior acceptable.

The two communities can work together on some issues (like fighting anti-vaxxers and creationism) and be on opposite sides when it comes to facing issues related to sexism. Many people in the broader skeptic and atheist movement won’t notice the difference, but those of us who actually care about these issues can choose which side we want to belong to.

There will, of course, be problems involved in this – the rifts are so deep that some of us won’t have anything to do with others. But this is not really an issue for members of the broader movement, who probably won’t notice or care. At most, they will find that some people are no longer invited as speakers at certain conferences, and that certain bloggers either no longer link to each other or write nasty stuff about each other.

So, to sum it up, there are deep rifts in the movement, and I think it is fine. Not only that, I feel more comfortable being in a smaller community within the movement, which doesn’t include people whose opinions and behavior I find repugnant. I can still appreciate the good work done by those people (like I did with e.g. Hitchens) without wanting to be part of the same community.

A note about comments: Currently all comments are moderated. This is due to heavy problems with spam. I will try to publish comments as soon as I become aware of them. Do note that there is zero tolerance for racist, homophobic, misogynist and bigoted comments.

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