If we don’t speak up, the status quo wins.
Yes, this fight can be painful. When we battle against deeply entrenched beliefs that people are emotionally attached to and are entangled with social and political and economic structures on every level, it can be difficult—more than difficult. We ask people to give up ideas that they’ve built their lives around. We ask people to change, often in profound ways. We ask people to take a leap into a way of thinking—indeed a way of living—about which they know little or nothing at all and have been fed lies, myths, and misinformation. We ask people to admit that they’re wrong about something really important. In many cases, we ask people to acknowledge that they have done harm. Of course they’re going to resist. Of course they’re going to fight back.
We’re often told that our fights against these beliefs are divisive. The people saying this aren’t wrong. These struggles can be ugly, painful, difficult. They can create bad feeling between people who might otherwise be friends and allies. They can make it hard to work together on issues we have in common.
But calling for an end to the fighting means standing up for the status quo.
When one group of people has controlled the conversation for centuries—indeed for millennia—and another group finally begins to get its voice of opposition heard, of course that’s going to create conflict. To say, “Let’s stop all this fighting,” is basically saying, “Let’s return to the way things used to be.” It is basically saying, “If there’s any pushback at all against this, the absolute top priority must always be that the people controlling the conversation don’t get their feelings hurt.” It is basically saying, “Let’s return to the good old days, when so many of us were comfortable and complacent, and the people who weren’t kept their mouths shut.”
That is not acceptable.
The status quo is wrong. It is wrong in the sense that it is literally, factually, mistaken about questions of objective reality. It is wrong in the sense that it harms people in real, practical, terrible ways. We cannot accept the status quo simply because challenging it is painful. We have to be willing to fight. At the very minimum, we have to not try to stop other people from fighting.
I think now would be a good time to stop and say that I’m not, in fact, talking here about atheists fighting against a world steeped in religion, a world largely controlled by religious believers. Yes, of course, everything I say here could be applied to that. But that’s not what I’m talking about this time.
I’m talking about feminists fighting against a world steeped in sexism, a world largely controlled by men.
I’ve been noticing something interesting lately. As you may know, I’m the author of a book titled Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless. I’m the writer whose blog post about atheist anger went viral all over the Internet; I’m the speaker whose talk about atheist anger at Skepticon 4 has gotten over 150,000 views on YouTube. I am the person who literally wrote the book on atheist anger. I am regularly and enthusiastically applauded by many atheists for articulating my anger about religion—anger that these atheists share—in a passionate, uncompromising manner.
And yet, in all too many cases, the exact same atheists who applaud my passionate, uncompromising attitude toward religion turn around and say that I need to be polite, diplomatic, understanding, non-divisive, and moderate when it comes to misogyny and sexism—at least when it comes to misogyny and sexism within the atheist movement.
If it didn’t piss me off so much, I’d think it was hilarious.
You don’t get to have it both ways. You don’t get to be inspired and motivated by my uncompromising rage toward religion and then tell me that my uncompromising rage about sexism and misogyny in the atheist movement is divisive, distracting, and sapping energy from the important business of atheist activism. You don’t get to cheer me on for being a badass when I stand up fiercely against religion in society and then scold me for being a bad soldier when I stand up fiercely against sexism and misogyny in the atheist movement. You don’t get to applaud my outspoken fearlessness when I demand that social and political and economic systems be made safe and welcoming for atheists and point out the ways in which they are not and then call me a divisive, attention-hungry professional victim when I demand that atheist groups and organizations and events be made safe and welcoming for women and point out the ways in which they are not.
Does this fight get in the way of unity? Probably. As I wrote on my blog last May, I do not want to be in unity with atheists who tell me to fuck myself with a knife. I do not want to be in unity with atheists who say they hope I get raped, who tell me to choke on a dick and die. I do not want to be in unity with atheists who say that I’m a whore and therefore nobody should take me seriously. I do not want to be in unity with atheists who say that I’m an ugly dyke and therefore nobody should take me seriously. I do not want to be in unity with atheists who post their opponents’ home addresses on the Internet and who hack into their opponents’ private e-mail lists and make content from those e-mails public. I do not want to be in unity with atheists who write for rape-apologist websites that are being monitored by the Southern Poverty Law Center (the organization that monitors hate groups). I do not want to be in unity with atheists who alert the Westboro Baptist Church to atheist events and ask if they plan to attend. I do not want to be in unity with atheists who bombard other people with hate messages and threats of rape, violence, and death. I do not want to be in unity with atheists who call me a cunt and call other women cunts—again and again and again and again and again.
I do not want to be in unity with atheists who consistently rationalize this behavior, trivialize it, make excuses for it, blame the victims, tell us to just ignore it, say we’re participating in a “culture of victimization” for talking about it, and tell us that we have to set aside “differences” in the name of unity.
And I don’t think I should be expected to. I don’t think anyone in this movement should be asking that of me. I don’t think anyone in this movement should be asking that of anyone.
If feminists in the atheist movement don’t speak up about sexism and misogyny in the movement, the status quo wins. And the status quo is one in which most atheist organizations are led by men, one in which most of our prominent public figures and spokespeople are men, one in which most conferences, events, and meetings are primarily attended by men. The status quo is one in which movement leaders say and do unbelievably stupid sexist shit, double down when they’re called on it, and still continue to be movement leaders with few consequences or none at all. The status quo is one in which the most moderate, noncontroversial proposals for making the community welcoming to women—such as having clear policies at conferences barring sexual harassment—elicit firestorms of controversy that eat up the Internet for months. The status quo is one in which questions about why all this might be and suggestions about what might be done to change it are routinely met with anger, bafflement, dismissal, patronization, calls for moderation, excuses, elaborate rationalizations for why any explanation at all other than unconscious sexism must be the real reason for this pattern, and an insistence that our absolute top priority in this conversation has to be that men’s feelings don’t get hurt.
Yes, this pattern is changing. The degree to which this is happening is the degree to which people have been speaking out and pushing back. Things have been getting better for women in the atheist movement, and more women are participating at all levels because people have been fighting for it.
And yes, these fights are hard. We’re confronting deeply entrenched beliefs—beliefs that people are emotionally attached to and entangled with social and political and economic structures on every level. We’re asking people to give up ideas that they’ve built their lives around. We’re asking people to change, often in profound ways. We’re asking people to take a leap into a way of thinking—indeed a way of living—about which they know little or nothing and have been fed lies and myths and misinformation. We’re asking people to admit that they’re wrong about something really important. In many cases, we’re asking people to acknowledge that they have done harm. Of course some people are going to resist. Of course some people are going to fight back.
But that doesn’t mean the fight isn’t worth having.