Sunday, July 8, 2012

Response to Paula Kirby's Open Letter to the Skeptic Community

I never thought I'd be attempting to write a rebuttal to a letter from an author of the stature of Paula Kirby whose excellent writing on atheism in the Washington post I have always admired. But her bizarre response to the entire sexism-in-skeptics business has flabbergasted me; I'd have thought that as a woman and a skeptic, a person of her erudition would be spearheading the efforts to weed out this deplorable attitude that has been plaguing the atheist-skeptic movement for a long time. Instead, I am watching in horrified fascination that she seems to be interested only in the denial of its existence, and vehemently opposed to anyone who dares to point it out.

In a publicly accessible Google doc, she recently wrote an Open Letter titled - rather amusingly - "The Sisterhood of the Oppressed" (dated July 1, 2012) to the Skeptic Community, in order "to spell out (her) position on the "Women in Secularism" issue". I think it's high time to exercise the old noggin' and address comprehensively the points she raised in her Open Letter. Since it is a rather long one, I'd try to break it up in small chunks and respond similarly; I am also quoting directly only the portions I am addressing. In the event the said document is not available in future, worry not, Inquisitive Reader, I Haz PDF!!

(Other bloggers, including atheistlogic and Ophelia Benson (Un et Deux), have already admirably taken on the letter, making a far better job of it that I possibly ever can. However, I take this as an intellectual exercise. To quote Barney Stinson, "Challenge accepted!" I must also acknowledge the invaluable help and input I received from my friend, Tigger The Wing in formulating this response. But I have to warn: this is a L-O-N-G-read!)

In the introduction, Paula cautions:
It will be a long letter, because, unlike some, I haven't been posting ad nauseam on the issue for the last year, so there will be quite a lot to say.
Note how she prefaces with the term ad nauseam the discussions on this issue, as if the whole controversy is boring and irrelevant, not worthy of her time and attention. I find it quite telling as to her state of mind expressed in her letter.

In the opening section titled "Totalitarian attitudes", Paula writes:
First, since I gather this has touched a nerve in some quarters, I shall deal with the terms “feminazi” and “femistasi”.
As a point of reference, it was Paula who called on Twitter the Freethought blogs (specifically, PZ Myers' Pharyngula and Ophelia Benson's Butterflies and Wheels), as well as the Skepchick blog, totalitarian and comparable to both Nazis and the Stasi; Ophelia Benson has commented on it and Rebecca Watson has screencapped the tweets in all their bizarre glory.
As a general principle, I oppose the use of any kind of name-calling. But sometimes an apparently rude term is doing more than being rude: it is conveying a meaningful point in shorthand form. For the record, I am categorically NOT suggesting that the people I have applied these terms to are, in fact, Nazis or Stasi members, or would ever have sympathized with either of them.
Even when someone called her out on this grossly False Equivalence by asking, "Really? Radical feminists are as bad as the people who butchered millions of Jews?", Paula maintained that the ... allusion is to totalitarian thought and no tolerance of dissent. FTB is currently awash with it. In the same vein, Paula continues in her Open Letter:
There are many of us who are proud to be called Grammarnazis and who know perfectly well that no aspersions are being cast on our intentions towards either Jews or Poland. It might be considered distasteful that the suffix -nazi has come to be used simply to mean “extremist” or "obsessive", but nevertheless, it has come to be so used, and The Sisterhood of the Oppressed cannot legitimately chalk it up as yet another example of their alleged victimization.
"Alleged victimization"? Alleged by whom? Ophelia has expressed her disappointment with Paula, and Rebecca has rightly pointed and laughed at this ridiculous suggestion of equivalence between Ftb/Skepchick blogs and an oppressive Police State/force; similar sentiments have been expressed by many of both their readers (e.g. here, here, here, here and here; lots more where these came from). The 'allegation of victimization' seems to exist only in the inflated heads of Paula and her ardent followers - many of whom troll Ftb/Skepchick, leaving patently ridiculous comments (an egregious example here) - who are all-too convinced of their mind-reading powers.

Paula continues to engage in rhetorical hyperbole on the same theme, 'defining' her use of 'feminazi' (a term coined by the odious misogynist, Rush Limbaugh) and 'femistasi' (all credits to Paula for this neologism):
In both "feminazi" and "femistasi" the allusion is to certain totalitarian attitudes and the intolerance and suppression of dissent... that the Nazis and the Stasi had in common... In the case of the -stasi suffix, it draws attentions to behaviours associated with the thought police, for whom anyone who dares to hold non-approved attitudes is automatically persona non grata and to be treated as an enemy of the people. I am referring, of course, to the unfailing response on certain blogs whenever someone has had the temerity to challenge the claims that have been made there. Any suggestion, no matter how mildly phrased or how in keeping with the principles of skepticism, that The Sisterhood might not be automatically and wholly right by default has been met with torrents of abuse, and a pot-pourri (actually, dung-heap would seem a more appropriate metaphor) of accusations ranging from troll at the lower end, through slimebag, douche etc, right up to misogynist or even rape-apologist.
Right. "Totalitarian attitudes", "intolerance" and "suppression of dissent". The summum bonum of these absurd charges is this: Ftb had brought onboard the blogger Thunderf00t. Rebecca wrote an inspired account of that venture; do read it - I'm not quoting it directly here for fear of derailing this discussion, but it's too good. Suffice it to say that to anyone familiar with Thunderf00t's blogging style, it was clear that aside from the decidedly inferior quality of this blog and the needless offensiveness (which still would be acceptable as an individual quirk), s/he used the platform to engage in baiting other bloggers (both Ftb and Skepchick), attacking them with strawman arguments (misrepresenting their positions) and generally displaying deplorable behavior one expects only from trolls. Skepchick was a particular target of Thunderf00t's ire; Rebecca has extensively recorded it. In addition, Thunderf00t appeared to be contemptuously dismissive of discussions about sexism and misogyny in Ftb, as well as of anti-harassment policies for atheist-skeptic conferences that Skepchicks helped promulgate. Eventually, Thunderf00t was let go from Ftb. The internal reasons were, of course, not made public (a fact that has fueled much speculation, polarizing Thunderf00t's fans and engendering the allegations above that Paula hurled).

To any rational, dispassionate observer, however, it is difficult to figure out where any kind of dissent is being suppressed by Ftb/Skepchick blogs and their followers. Contrarian arguments and unsupported assertions - from anyone, including fans of Thunderf00t or Abbie Smith (about whom I have previously written) - have been argued against, with evidence, ridiculed when found to be ridiculous, and rebutted, again, with evidence - all within the context of specific blog posts. But no one, not one of these so-called dissenters, has been chased all over the internet, or has had their existence threatened with extermination, comments deleted or access to the blogs blocked without repeated and adequate warning. Still feel like stretching the Nazi/Stasi metaphor, anyone?

Paula expresses her surprise:
Good heavens, we have even seen Ophelia Benson describe DJ Grothe's call for more balance in the discussions as "sticking a metaphorical target" on her! Hysterical, bullying overreaction to dissent? Attempting to make it so unpleasant for anyone who dares to oppose them that others are deterred from trying it? Utter conviction that their own ideology is absolutely right and just, and that no questioning of it can therefore ever be permitted? Yes, yes and yes. That is why the rest of us are drawing comparisons with totalitarian attitudes.
"Hysterical, bullying overreaction to dissent'. Consider that for a moment. Then let me take you, dear reader, through Ophelia's experience. She was supposed to speak at TAM (The Amazing Meeting), organized by the JREF, to be held in July 2012; she decided to abstain after receiving an emailed threat. Initially unsure, she looked into the matter and found the threats credible, even though some commenters of dubious intent and integrity continued to squabble over their interpretation. However, deplorably, an appropriate response was not forthcoming from TAM/JREF; DJ Grothe, the author and President of JREF, who had earlier drawn the ire of other Ftbloggers (Greta Christina and Stephanie Zvan) for his persistently lax attitude towards sexism and misogyny amongst the ranks of atheist-skeptic organizations), showed supreme unconcern about the situation (a commenter in B&W summed it up nicely; Grothe's conduct even resulted in calls for his resignation from JREF). Not content with that, he all but blamed Ophelia for poor attendance of women at TAM and other skeptic meets.

Upset with this unbecoming conduct on part of Grothe, Ophelia construed this condemnation from him as the placement of a metaphorical target on her, making her easy game for others to pass all the blame to her for "creating a climate where women... end up feeling unwelcome and unsafe." So, no, Paula. Ophelia didn't comment on any hypothetical 'call for more balance'. And what certainly didn't help was the self-important Russell Blackford (I have mentioned him earlier) jumping in like a clown and announcing with a dismissive condescension that Ophelia didn't receive threatening emails and that the emails she received were not threatening at all.

And let's also talk about "Attempting to make it so unpleasant for anyone who dares to oppose them that others are deterred from trying it". Ftbloggers (by which you mean PZ, Ophelia, Stephanie Zvan, Greta, Ashley and perhaps a few others) are making things unpleasant, you say? Allow me to provide just two examples from many that abound: (a) One of the so-called atheist bloggers (firmly in your camp) casually puts forth the idea of kicking Olivia in the c**t; (b) A man Greta had a disagreement with wanted, charmingly, to kick her and her women followers in the c**t, male followers in the balls, and "intersex followers in the micropenis"; inexplicably, DJ Grothe interpreted these slurs as "a reasonable comment expressing dissent" from this vile person. So, again, no, Paula; your condescending dismissal of the threat Ophelia felt (you have said, [I quote] "What threats? There was no threat. Only ridiculous, OTT ‘concern’, which just goes to show how silly these overreactions are." [End quote]) is ill-considered, simply untrue and a gross misrepresentation of the situation.

And this is all just on the blogs, of course. Let's not forget the abuses of speakers' "privilege" at certain conferences, where audience members holding “the wrong attitudes” have been picked on by the speaker from the platform.
Ha! Finally, the reference to events surrounding elevatorgate! (Good grief! Why can't you speak plainly?) You, Paula, are clearly miffed about the disagreement that Rebecca had with you, and by extension, you are showcasing Stef McGraw as the poster-child for Rebecca Watson's follies. Sadly, it doesn't wash. Regardless of how colored your perceptions are towards Rebecca, however you try to spin the situation, you are comparing the "crimes" of a group of people saying "Guys, don't do that!" or commenting on inadequate sexual-harassment policies in conferences about Women in secularism, to those of the Nazis who mercilessly killed millions of people with a view to exterminating an entire subsection of the human population. Aren't you, Paula, just a little bit bothered about the scale of events here? (Atheistlogic has covered it well; I defer to AL for this.)

In an attempt that'd make shame any conspiracy theory buff, Paula manages to find someone being 'oppressed' and 'attacked by the thought police' while trying to decide which twitter-feed to follow.
Finally, and delightfully ironically (given that later in the day we had people objecting to the "femistasi" term), Saturday saw someone on Twitter being harassed by one of the Sisterhood for having had the temerity to simply follow the decidedly unapproved @AngrySkepchick. Not even your "Follow" lists are now safe from the prying eyes of the Sisters, and be sure you will be subject to interrogation if your choices appear to deviate from the required standard! What fun Orwell could have had with that! (I see the person concerned has since posted saying she's distancing herself from @AngrySkepchick: fair enough, her Twitter feed is her choice; but it doesn't alter the fact that one of the Sisterhood felt the right to interfere in it.)
Someone being harassed on Twitter by one of what you cutely refer to as the Sisterhood? You mean, the exchange between Sharon Hill of (the online skeptic news website) and Amy Davis Roth ('Surly Amy') of the Skepchicks? Where Amy raised the point to Sharon that for someone of her stature (as a journalist for a skeptic news site), her following a hurtful, insulting parody account amounts to tacit approval of that account's conduct? Did you even bother to find out about the whole sequence of events? Did you, for example, note that after everything, Amy had a chat with Sharon, explaining her position well enough for Sharon to understand it? Did you perhaps also notice that despite the alleged harassment, Sharon still retained her twitter follow for that @AngrySkepChick account - so much for totalitarian intimidation, no?

Oh, and notwithstanding your jibe about the 'Follow list' not being safe from the prying eyes, that's not how Twitter works. For example, Amy and Sharon's exchange was visible to the other blogger, Justin Vacula, as well as to others who follow any of the three - there is really no other 'secret' there. However, your conclusions make me curious: in a public forum, such as Twitter, person A points out to person B that who B chooses to follow indicates something about B's choices; you consider that interference and harassment? Really? Whereas when people who have been actually harassed/threatened complain about those situations and evince interest in the institution of anti-harassment Policies, to your eyes that is no big deal? I, of course, don't expect that you'd see the irony in that.

Paula's analogies and similes continue to become darker and more gloomy. She writes on:
There are more reasons why the totalitarian analogy is appropriate even if, like any analogy, it is an approximation rather than an exact fit in every respect. Let's consider 1930s Germany for a moment. How did the Nazis gain popular support? By exploiting a sense of grievance post-Versailles, by continually telling the German people they'd been treated abominably, had their noses ground in the dust, been unfairly penalized, that they were the victims of an international, Jew-led conspiracy, that they needed to rise from the ashes and gain their revenge and their proper, god-ordained place in the world.

It was a form of madness that took hold of virtually an entire nation: it seems that it is horribly easy to persuade humans of their victimhood, and to create in them a dangerous persecution complex that then justifies (sic) any action against their enemy because, really, it is only a form of "self-defence".

There are real parallels with what has been going on in The Sisterhood over the last year.
Wait... What?

Let's see just how far your already strained metaphors would stretch. So, you're in effect saying that people - particularly people like Ophelia, PZ, Stephanie Zahn, Rebecca, who have suffered actual harassment of various stripes - are actually like the Nazis trying to spread propaganda to incite... who exactly?

Assuming you mean, men and women who are potential attendees in these conferences, trying to make them more aware and in asking for stricter and broader-spectrum anti-harassment policy which would ensure safety of the said attendees is all part of a conspiracy by the Ftbloggers, you say? To keep whom down?

Systemic sexism and misogyny is self-evident in the way how any woman who dares speak up against it gets threats of rape and violence (Cf. Experience of Ophelia, Rebecca, Jen McCreight, and so forth). And whereas the Nazis were hell-bent on exterminating groups of human beings en masse, these feminist objects of your derision seem to be simply saying, "Hey guys, don’t harass women!"

Again, who do you think has the persecution complex? And how does that make you feel?
Change the terminology a little and you have the poor, oppressed, victimized, unfairly ignored women being urged to rise up against the evil conspiracy of those men, women-haters, sister-shamers and gender-traitors who are responsible for all their woes.
Ohhh... Paula. I see it now. There are, of course, people who'd call you out for this giant strawman you've erected, but not me. I am walking along your spiel on parallels. You're afraid that the said "poor, oppressed, victimized, unfairly ignored women" would rise up against your ilk, and... do what exactly? Attend conferences, not attend conferences - wax on, wax off? So, are you at least acknowledging that there are poor, oppressed, victimized, unfairly ignored women who grievances can be manipulated? If yes, isn't the best defence against those the institution of a strict broad-spectrum anti-harassment policy, a system that these women can trust and rely on in times of need?

Perhaps this would not be a bad time to point out what blogger AtheistLogic has ably brought up to our attention:
"...assume that they (i.e. the Ftb/Skepchick bloggers) are radically suppressing the voices of those who disagree with them. Let's look at the points that's actually being disagreed upon:

  • Some women at conferences feel harassed.
  • Women who feel harassed at conferences are less likely to go.
  • Such women have said that instituting an anti-harassment policy would make them feel more comfortable.
  • An anti-harassment policy would not negatively affect the experience of anyone who wasn’t harassing women.
  • Therefore, institute a fucking harassment policy.
Honestly, this battle is pretty much won. American Atheists, Dragon*Con, CFI, SkepchickCON, Skepticon, SSA Con and more all have instituted harassment policies. Even TAM, at the centre of all the controversy, had a harassment policy last year, which one assumes will be carried over seeing as how last year’s TAM was the largest turnout of women they've ever had (i.e. anti-harassment policies get more women to come)... That's it. That's all there is to it..."
So, do you see, Paula? Real-life res... Paula? Oh, there you are - busily shifting the goalpost. Let's see now:
The difference is that the sense of injustice among ordinary German people post-WWI was, in some respects, at least, justified. They really had had their noses rubbed in the dirt by the Treaty of Versailles and really were suffering more than their fair share of blame and reparations for the war. (Of course, I am not suggesting that Hitler and his cohorts were justified in how they exploited that sense of grievance.)
Right. Stretched, tortured metaphor is stretched and tortured to the breaking point... And, any time now...
So is the Sisterhood's sense of victimhood also justified? No.
Eh... What? Victimhood? And you write that with a serious face? Is this what you've gathered over the past few years of your association with the atheist-skeptic movement? Très triste!
Despite the endless wails of "It's not fair" that have taken up so much space on the internet over the last year, it has not always been easy to pin down what, exactly, our Allegedly Oppressed Sisters are actually complaining about. Sure, catch-all phrases such as “misogyny” have been bandied about with relish, but the exact form this alleged misogyny is supposed to have taken is harder to identify.
You know what, Paula? If you could once switch off the sneering disregard dripping from your written words, if you could listen, just once, over the sound of your own perceived awesomeness, perhaps you wouldn't have had problems identifying the source of these complaints arising from within the community.
It seems to boil down to two things, with considerable goalpost-shifting between them. The first seems to be their feeling that there is a sexualized atmosphere at skeptical conferences; the second seems to be that they do not play a prominent enough role in the movement (i.e. they are somehow being prevented from doing so). I shall deal with the conference issue first.
Please, by all means, let us hear you. If you don't have facts, you can always make things up. There hasn't yet been a shortage of straws in the world.
In my experience (and I've attended and organized a lot of conferences in my time) there's a sexualized atmosphere at all conferences involving an overnight stay: people are away from home, probably drinking more heavily than they would at home, *cough* networking, surrounded by people who share a common interest, whether that's in secularism or buttercups or ball bearings, and who are equally letting their hair down and out for a bit of fun, and, moreover, with hotel rooms conveniently located right above their heads. Absolutely anyone can find themselves being sexually propositioned at any conference at all if they hang out in the bar long enough, and late enough at night. And please don't try to tell me it's never instigated by women and certainly don't try to tell me it's unique to secularist/skeptical conferences. It's just life. For those who engage in the propositioning and those who respond positively to it (and many do), it is presumably one of the fun bits of life.
Please spare the poor, much-beaten strawman! At least, won't you please think of the strawchildren, the strawpersons of future?

No one has complained about consensual hook-ups during conferences and meetings. We are, after all, taking about adult human beings. However, I'm sure even you'd agree that the key concept here is the 'consensual' bit, y'know, like both parties agreeing to it. But honestly, am I to believe that Paula doesn't understand that the topic of this debate is not sexual liaison between consenting adults, but rather unwanted sexual advances and sexual harassment that many women have had to bear at these meetings? Am I to believe that Paula cannot comprehend the focus of the conscientious attempts to neutralize this threat by strengthening the policies, thereby making the atheist-skeptic conferences safer and more pleasant, attractive places for women to visit and participate in? How,just how, does someone of Paula's caliber miss the glaring fact that all the arguments so far have been about formulating means to protect women from the tiny minority of harassers that do find their way into these conferences, not about blaming men in general or complaining that harassment is commonplace?
I simply do not accept that any reasonably mature, rational adult does not know exactly how to avoid getting into this kind of situation if he or she would prefer not to, or how to deal with it if it occurs. Note that I am talking about normal, non-violent situations in which no assault takes place. I am talking about the kind of normal interaction that, whether you like it or not, goes on wherever you get a group of adults letting their hair down while away from home.
All right. This is plain ugly now. Victim blaming, Paula? By your argument, any adult individual who does nevertheless find herself in such a situation would be, therefore, unreasonably immature and irrational, right? Well, guess what, Paula. In many of these situations, a persistent non-violent string of sexual propositions have been known to give way to women being groped, and at least on one occasion, the possibility of intrusive, voyeuristic upskirt photos of women being taken (update and clarification here; however, as Greta has pointed out, the update/clarification doesn't alter two major points about the incident: (a) the process of formal reporting of sexual harassment in these conferences is in shambles and needs a major overhaul; (b) DJ Grothe's claims about zero reports of sexual harassment at this and several previous TAMs are patently false - a severe organizational FAIL on his part, too. Stephanie Zvan has further information of the specifics, highlighting the laudable role played by the intrepid blogger Ashley Miller in not remaining silent.

Ashley has written an eye-opening post on why women always hesitate to report harassment, the horror of persistent scrutiny via various media, and everywhere the same lingering doubt, "Are you making this up?" I wish I could make you read this post, Paula - because whether you choose to accept it or not, this, too, is assault, the most insidious kind, because it is disguised. Therefore, when you say:
Of course assaults of any kind are always totally unacceptable – and, indeed, illegal; but to give the impression that such assaults are commonplace is to do a disservice, both to the women who will be put off attending as a result, and to the vast majority of men, whose decency is thereby grossly maligned... To tear a movement apart, to provoke massive divisions within it, to malign the people in it, to distract it from the very purposes that brought the movement together in the first place, over something that is just a feature of life in general and not specific to the movement itself, is a tragic waste. Not just tragic, but deeply irresponsible.
... Your voice rings hollow. Once again, the decency of a vast majority of men who are thoughtful, courteous, and don't engage in sexual harassment is not under any threat. Do you know what does grossly malign the said decency of all men? The fact that there are some men who do so engage, and the fact that there are, sadly, irresponsible men (like DJ Grothe) and women (like yourself) who refuse to do anything about it.

That is the true nature of the people that are tearing the movement apart - the men and women who, for some bizarre reason, are determined to stop other talking about the problems, even those who have experienced it firsthand. Talk about Ostrich Complex!!
My background is in business. I have lost count of the number of times I have been present at meetings when the women said nothing and left it all to the men. I've been guilty of it myself, many a time. Was it because the men weren't willing to listen to the women? I don't think it was. Did the men dismiss our comments if we made them? No, they didn't. Did they try to stop us making them? No, they didn't do that either. Were the women lacking in ideas? No, of course not. We just didn't speak up. Crucially, many of us didn't speak up, even when openly invited to do so.
I am sorry. Is there a point to this narrative? Is it possible that Paula, despite all her erudition, finds it difficult to recognize the fact that there are many women, in various walks of life, who have been taught all their lives that come what may, do not speak up in front of men? Is she unaware of, or has she not in, situations in which women speaking up about an issue have invited a swift backlash directed at their gender, the most recent, and a horrific, example being that of Anita Sarkeesian? As AtheistLogic summarizes:
Anita Sarkesian... started a project critiquing the depiction of women in video games. Before she even started working on the project (having merely announced it) she was called a bitch, whore, slut, feminazi (of course!) and c**t, told to get back in the kitchen, make a sandwich and show her tits.
How does Paula not recognize these very real-life scenarios? Is it possible (what I want to know is how) that Paula is consciously engaging in what is patently victim blaming - blaming and shaming the women for not being able to speak up in the company of men?

Paula continues along the same line, trying to show she tried - oh, how she tried - to get women to speak in the events she organized, conferences, seminars, workshops; there was a great demand on part of delegates, male and female, as well as the audience to hear from women. But in spite of invitation, encouragement, offer of support and coaching, she could not get the desired response and enthusiasm from the women she encountered. She says:
...try as I might, most women we approached simply refused to even consider it, saying "Oh no, I couldn't possibly."... So I have to ask: Who was holding those women back?
Paula makes it out to be that women are simply not interested in making presentations at professional meeetings. I can't say about the business-world (perhaps the environment in the business world is particularly shitty and not conducive to good cross-gender interactions at all? I don't know.); but in my field, Biological Sciences, there are plenty of women who are well-respected in their field and are continuously making presentations and spreading awareness about science and scientific issues. Even in the atheist-skeptic world, there are plenty of strong, vocal, erudite women, always ready to lend their voices to progressive issues - just look at the line-up of the Ftbloggers and Skepchicks amongst others. So, what exactly is Paula trying to prove through her rather rambling narrative?

In a way, does it matter? Paula may well pit her individual experience against the individual experiences of scores of other people. None of that helps in any way the current debate about the presence of sexism and misogyny within the ranks of the atheist-skeptics and their organizations, in other words, people whom we intrinsically expect to know better. So what can be done about it?

Paula's solution is desperately predictable; consciously or unconsciously, she comes back to the same process of blaming the victims of their circumstances. Completely dismissing the idea that each woman's personal, social and professional pressures may be different and not susceptible to the same 'hammer-meet-nail' approach, she squarely places the burden and/or blame on the individual woman. She prescribes that each woman must change herself. And in silence. Always in silence, so as not to create any ripple in the ether.
... while all these things may be true to a greater or lesser extent, banging on about them does not even begin to help women achieve their goals. If we, as women, externalize the reasons why we are not being heard as much as we say we'd like to be, and seek to put the blame on other people, nothing is going to change or, at the very best, it is only going to change painfully slowly. It is a simple fact of life that it is always easier to change our own behaviour than to persuade other people to change theirs.
Without a hint of self-contradiction, Paula continues what she clearly considers her inspirational spiel:
...this alternative that I would urge women to seize with both hands – whether we're talking about how we interact in our jobs, in our social lives or in the atheist movement... to take responsibility for ourselves and our own success. To view ourselves as mature, capable adults who can take things in our stride, and can speak up appropriately. To really start believing that we can do whatever men can do. To stop seizing on excuses for staying quiet and submissive, stop blaming it on men or hierarchies or misogyny or, silliest of all, "privilege", and start simply practising being more assertive...
So Paula, what happens if the Second Law contradicts the First law?

(Sorry about the Asimov reference) What happens after the women having done all a-seizing, a-taking responsibility, a-viewing self as mature, tries to speak up... and is immediately shut down by a group of men who won't suffer gladly such rank impertinence from Teh Wimminz? You clearly don't understand at all what 'privilege' means (perhaps a legacy of your privileged life/upbringing? I can't speculate). Consider this: you have the privilege of remaining singularly unaware of the various pressures that stop women succeeding. If you genuinely think (as you wrote) that "many, probably most, organizations… will leap at the chance to put a woman into a position of leadership" then you are either sheltered or deluded. Currently in the US, most employers won't even a woman her a salary equal to those of her male colleagues, for equal amount of work, unless forced to by legislation.

Forgive me, but I'm going to sort of paraphrase your privileged, ignorant Deepak Chopra-esque bullshit.
  • All men, or even all women, are not enlightened on this subject; sexism isn't dead (I can almost hear a "Yes, but..." coming along.)
  • Women must not assume that the system is malevolently weighted against them (which it is, to all practical intents and purposes, but that's just too bad.)
  • Women must not claim prejudice when they have been slow or even reluctant to grab an opportunity (Never mind the compulsions, pressures and inequities that may prevent them from even recognizing the said opportunity.)
  • The doors are open; but women hesitate fearfully at the threshold, it must be their fault
  • Woman should demand that there be no special barriers put in their way on account of gender (If the demands are not met, too bad... because remember, 'silence'!)
  • Woman should not demand that men actively go out of their way to make it easier for us than it otherwise would be (Those poor, poor men!)
  • Woman need to summon up their courage and confidence, and step through that open door. Aunt Paula says, in her experience, whether in the atheist movement or elsewhere in the western world (in Western Europe, at least), women who do just that will almost always be welcomed (You mean, like Sarkeesian, no? Reality is so inconvenient!)
Pardon me while I go puke. Your easy-peasy trickly sweet solutions to all women have given me a case of severe GI disturbance. Removal of these social barriers for women is all that the progressive feminists has ever asked for. But do you have any idea how huge those barriers are, and how well defended? And that, by blaming women for their apparent inability to scale those barriers, you are helping defend the same barriers that you lament? If you look at the system with the dispassionate detachment of a scientist, you'd find that in many ways, it is actually weighted against women via a great deal of prejudice and preconceived notions. Contrary to what you say, women aren't reluctant to take opportunities; but have you any idea how rare it is for opportunities to be offered to them without strings attached?
...vast majority of successful women... have refused to let anything stop them... haven't diverted their focus from their goals to worrying about how men are treating them, and they haven't waited for men to give them permission to succeed. Are we going to say their voices and experiences do not count, because they have made it? That the very fact of their success makes them "privileged" beyond the point of having anything valid to say on the subject? That any woman who has achieved success doesn't count or can even be advanced as further evidence that "ordinary" women can't make it?
In parroting these tropes, you continue to show that you understand nothing of privilege. Can you just try to understand that your one-size-fits-all solutions don't work for real human beings in real-life situations? The women who succeed are rare; statistics show that. Most (if not all) of those women who do not feel that the system (or men) held them back, probably weren't held back. But their experience doesn't negate the experience of the vast majority of women who don't succeed because they were held back. Implying otherwise by placing the burden of failure on these women's shoulders is victim-blaming.

Strangely perhaps, you do appear to understand the breadth of the problem, because you say,
Anyone – male or female – considering becoming prominent in this field is likely to be letting themselves in for a considerable amount of really nasty stuff. There is no reason why women shouldn't be able to cope with that as well as men can. But I do find it hard to see how anyone who is shy about speaking up within the movement, in front of people who are broadly on his or her side, is going to be able to deal with some of the abuse that will start coming their way from those outside the movement if he or she becomes more prominent. [emphasis mine]
And yet, when someone like Ophelia, Rebecca, Stephanie Zvan, Jen McCreight and others do speak up and make a statement of the problem and offer solutions, you engage in shouting them down. What kind of contradiction is this, and why? Why is it that someone of your caliber persistently refuses to understand the main point behind the feminist protests against sexist attitudes and misogynistic behaviors, and prefers, instead, to engage cheap, meaningless rhetoric better suited for the kindergarten (Oppressed Sisters and Approved Male Chorus, anyone?) and needless hyper-criticism without the benefit of any nuanced understanding? What exactly is preventing you from getting the central message of the efforts from the Ftb/Skepchick feminist/atheist/skeptic folks in the past year, beyond this caricature:
What we have seen endlessly on the pages of the worst of the blogs over the course of the last year-plus is just a tedious, counterproductive, alienating, divisive, pointless self-indulgence. "To hell with the movement as a whole, let's spend a whole year demanding that everyone talk about how hard it is being meeeeeeee."
...that seems to have lodged in your brain? You have asked these people several times in the past year not to behave as if they are infallible. Great advice. Well, are you? Can you admit that your perception of the whole business may be colored, or skewed, if not outright wrong? Can you think of a situation in which your hypothesis that you have outlined and espoused repeatedly...
Far from encouraging new women to get involved, all this hysterical and unjustified insistence on how dangerous our conferences are for women, how hostile our movement is to them, the indignities and humiliations they will be exposed to should they dare to set foot over the skeptical threshold could have been calculated to scare them away.
...could be falsified? What kind of observation would convince you that you were, in fact, wrong? Do let us know.

I am going to ignore the last couple of paragraphs on your open letter, because in those you rehash the same tired old tropes that you have displayed earlier. There is no point in going over them again. Suffice it to say, your position, exemplified by this:
... whole furore has only made matters worse for women: firstly, by effectively telling them they'd have to be mad to risk getting involved in skepticism; secondly, by consistently sending out the singularly unhelpful message that they are victims and will face nothing but oppression; and thirdly, by reinforcing all the negative sexist stereotyping that many real feminists have been working so hard over many years to overcome. For years women were kept out of positions of influence because of the stereotypical image of them as hysterical, over-emotional, over-subjective, irrational, over-delicate, etc. And for years, real women have been working very hard to demonstrate the injustice of that stereotype. Frankly, when I see precisely those characteristics being paraded with pride by people who have the gall to call themselves feminists (and to dismiss those who disagree with them as misogynist), I am utterly disgusted.
... is a gross misrepresentation. Demanding to be heard, asking for a safe environment in which to work as a collective, calling out harassing behavior from morons - these are NOT signs of weakness. You should know this, and we have not a clue why you think so or why you're behaving in this bizarre fashion.

You have also used the term 'bullying' in your Open Letter. I assume it is in reference to the Twitterstorm over the hashtag #FTBullies? It is possible that the term doesn't exactly what you think it means. I am not certain how much you know about the contribution of Abbie Smith and her blog followers, who are never short of the choicest of sexist, misogynist and viciously bilious slurs to be applied to Ftbloggers and Skepchick bloggers, whenever the discussion proceeded to a direction not of their liking. But surely you remember (as I don't think you're dishonest) how the bully meme all started - how your ardent follower Russell Blackford chose to vilify the Ftbloggers as bullies for incoherent reasons known best to him? And then you tweeted with the #FTBullies hashtag, and the Ftb folks lovingly gave it the treatment it deserved. They pointed at it and laughed, I repeat, see? Pointed. And laughed. Not engaged in genocide or secret authoritarian surveillance of those they disagreed with. See, NOT Nazi or Stasi, by a long shot.
And so I shall be silent no more. I hope others will speak up too, but even more, I hope we will start to see a renewed focus on what the movement is actually supposed to be about: the opposing of irrationality, rather than the propagation of it.
Curious you should say that. Because independently folks at Ftb and their readers have arrived at the same conclusion, albeit in a slightly different way. I leave you with some august thoughts from a blogger whose stance on this has been very well appreciated.
In a truly rational world, it might be possible to substantively and productively explore the pros and cons of competing positions in good faith and reach a nuanced understanding and a mutually satisfying path forward.
Let us all hope for sanity to return.

UPDATE: Blogger Jadehawk does a great take-down of the Open Letter touching upon some aspects that I had missed.


  1. Aside from displaying Paula Kirby's hyperbole and misrepresentation, which were self-evident, you've ably exposed the irony of her siding with those who try to shout down women who spoke up to say that they get shouted down and then patting them on the head and telling them they shouldn't be afraid to speak up more.

  2. Thank you, Monado. She appears to be a mass of contradiction. I wonder why.

  3. Great take down.
    It's almost funny how she claims that "mature reasonable women" know how to deal with shit (obviously without making anybody uncomfortable, especially not the douche who just harassed them), but runs off screaming "BULLIES!" when people crash a hashtag.
    I think I really need to write post about the "Strong Woman Fallacy"

  4. Oops. I just removed a comment that I simply wanted to add one word too.
    In short, Thank you for writing this. It worries me that many of our atheist cohort are not aware of their own lack of empathy. This, apparently, is common among those of us who have more privilege than most. I just finished reading Chris Hayes book, 'The Twilight of the Elites' and one of the take-aways for me is the corrupting nature of the myth of the power of the 'meritocracy' and Kirby fits right in there.
    So does Thunderf00t.

  5. Giliell, I shall look forward to reading your post. :)

    Dean, you're spot on. Sadly, I don't know how to remedy this situation or address this lacuna of empathy. What else would we, as atheists, have - in fact, what good is reason if it is not informed by - empathy?

    1. Feedback seems to be the most likely corrective for privileged behavior. It may not seem like it some, or even most of the time, but articles like yours and others are effective in providing 'push-back', reframing and so forth. I suppose it's a never ending struggle and we all need to take care of ourselves for the long haul. I don't think there's a quicker or easier solution that is in line with our moral and ethical standards.
      "what good is reason if it is not informed by - empathy?"
      Well said. What kind of world do we want? We really do have some choices there as a species, certainly the only one that does on this planet. There are no laws that say we have to follow any particular model of cooperation, in fact, there have been many thousands of societies with different modes of operation. Why can't we have a society where most of the people are respected by others for their innate and developed talents and dispositions? Wouldn't this have a high probability of slowly improving the empathy of all?
      Which brings my thoughts back to Ms. Kirby. The above is why I agree with you and say she is simply wrong on this and we actually have a few good ideas of why she was.

  6. Or perhaps you are simply wrong, Suirauqa. Paula is a standout orator for both atheism and feminism, and you have played right into the hands of the femistasi bullies whose only agenda is to drive a wedge between people on the basis of gender alone. Shame on you.

  7. Awww... Laurie! You came all the way just to say this? I'm honored and all that, but next time, please remember to bring your reasoning hat, won't you?

    Paula is truly a standout all right. When atheists-feminists congregate, she should really stand out and try to follow what's going on inside.

  8. What a bunch of dullards you are. More free of thinking than freethinking.

  9. David, I'd have considered your brief succinct message as droppings, but sadly, it's too devoid of substance. Diarrhea, perhaps?

  10. Laurie's "defense" of Paula based on her doing a lot of work for atheism & feminism reminds me of the defense of Z. Budapest's transphobic remarks in the pagan community, based on her being a "respected elder".

    Fact is, it doesn't matter what else you've done, you say offensive crap that shows a lack of understanding, you're gonna get treated like you said offensive crap that shows a lack of understanding.

  11. It would be great if you could clearly connect all these posts together (part 1, 2 etc) so I have somewhere to point people who want to know wtf the #FTBullies tag is all about.