On Naming Names at The CFI Student Leadership Conference
Last weekend I gave a talk at CFI’s Student Leadership Conference. They asked if I’d talk about the Religious Right’s War on Women, and I was only too happy to oblige because it’s an important issue that I enjoy discussing. The night before I spoke, though, I became aware of what I think is a pretty serious problem with anti-feminist thinking amongst the very people I was meant to be addressing.
You may recall that last week I posted this video, in which I describe an unpleasant encounter I had with a fellow atheist that I thought might serve as a good example of what men in our community should strive to avoid – basically, in an elevator in Dublin at 4AM I was invited back to the hotel room of a man I had never spoken to before and who was present to hear me say that I was exhausted and wanted to go to bed.
The night prior to my talk, I happened across a video rebuttal from a woman who I was told would be at the CFI conference. I was pretty frustrated, seeing a young woman who I’m sure is intelligent be so incredibly dismissive of my experience and that of other women in this community, and so uneducated about the fundamentals of feminist thought. She ends the video by asking, “What effect do you think it has on men to be constantly told how sexist and destructive they are?”
I made the mistake of replying to the uploader (stclairose) and some of the hateful commenters at 2 AM – never a good idea. My response to her question at the time was that I never called all men sexist and destructive, nor did I do it constantly. In fact, in my video I specifically said that most of the conference attendees – men and women – were awesome. What I should have added is this: for the men (and women) who are behaving in sexist and destructive ways, I hope that pointing it out to them has the effect of making them consider their actions and stop being sexist and damaging.
When I was discussing the video with friends the next day, I was blown away to be told that there were other student leaders who had expressed similar dismissive attitudes recently on Facebook and on other blogs. An hour or so prior to my talk, someone sent me this link to a post by Stef McGraw on the UNI Freethinkers site. I added a paragraph of that response to a slide for the intro to my talk, in which I hoped to call out the anti-woman rhetoric my audience was engaging in.
This is the paragraph I ended up quoting:
My concern is that she takes issue with a man showing interest in her. What’s wrong with that? How on earth does that justify him as creepy? Are we not sexual beings? Let’s review, it’s not as if he touched her or made an unsolicited sexual comment; he merely asked if she’d like to come back to his room. She easily could have said (and I’m assuming did say), “No thanks, I’m tired and would like to go to my room to sleep.”
I pointed out that she posted a transcript of my video but conveniently left off the fact that I had already expressed my desire to go to sleep. I also pointed out that approaching a single woman in an elevator to invite her back to your hotel room is the definition of “unsolicited sexual comment.” But those are unimportant details in comparison to the first quoted sentence, which demonstrates an ignorance of Feminism 101 – in this case, the difference between sexual attraction and sexual objectification. The former is great – be attracted to people! Flirt, have fun, make friends, have sex, meet the love of your life, whatever floats your boat. But the latter involves dismissing a person’s feelings, desires, and identity, with a complete disinterest in how one’s actions will affect the “object” in question. That’s what we shouldn’t be doing. No, we feminists are not outlawing sexuality.
I hear a lot of misogyny from skeptics and atheists, but when ancient anti-woman rhetoric like the above is repeated verbatim by a young woman online, it validates that misogyny in a way that goes above and beyond the validation those men get from one another. It also negatively affects the women who are nervous about being in similar situations. Some of them have been raped or otherwise sexually assaulted, and some just don’t want to be put in that position. And they read these posts and watch these videos and they think, “If something were to happen to me and these women won’t stand up for me, who will?”
After my talk, I met a ton of amazing young men and women who came to talk to me about their own experiences. Some were considering not attending the conference due to the anti-woman sentiments they were reading. Some told me that the previous year, they watched in horror as Heidi Anderson was shouted down while on the stage discussing feminist issues. I think that the intelligent, thoughtful, caring people I met at the conference were very much in the majority, but are often out-shouted by an angry minority. Over the next two days I would see that kind of angry bile dominating the #CFICON Twitter hashtag, demanding I retract my statements and apologize. The Tweets emanated from only three or four Twitter accounts, none of whom appeared to be McGraw or stclairose. Those that weren’t anonymous were men (EDIT: @ramenneedles has informed me that one was @DoctorHoenikker, who is a woman).
The demands for an apology were very interesting. None of my critics at any point offered any counterargument concerning my points on objectification or feminism . . . all their criticism was entirely about tone. At first they were angry because I had criticized a student. For instance, Trevor Boeckmann, a CFI intern, Tweeted, “It’s one thing to call out a public figure, it’s another to spend your keynote calling out a student.” (Boeckmann must have actually missed my talk, since I spoke about McGraw’s post for about two minutes out of sixty. Despite this and the fact that he did not mention my name, I saw the Tweet on the #CFICON feed and correctly guessed it was about me, anyway. See below for more on that topic. )
This struck me as extremely disrespectful to McGraw. She is not a child, and is not incompetent. She is an adult woman who is a director for a prominent campus organization and who is more than capable of defending her own words if she chooses. When I pointed out that we all should be held accountable for our words, I was told that I should have informed McGraw before my talk. I’m not sure why that’s a requirement since it would have only given her a few minutes’ additional notice, but I would have been happy to had I known who she was at the conference. I was then informed that I was in the wrong because (according to @AaronFriel) I “ridiculed” a person instead of attacking an argument when I said that McGraw’s “post was a pretty standard parrotting of misogynistic thought”. I hope I don’t need to point out to this audience that criticizing a person’s words is not the same as criticizing the person. At no point did I ridicule McGraw, and I even started that part of my talk by stating that I had no desire to embarrass anyone — only to use actual, relevant examples to show the anti-feminist thought that seems so pervasive.
With all other complaints answered, my critics fell back to one complaint: I was wrong to use McGraw’s name.
Now I must share one additional fact about me: I loathe passive aggressive behavior. Loathe it. I sincerely believe that if you are going to criticize someone’s argument, you should clearly and honestly state to whom you are referring and what exactly they have said or done that you find objectionable.
For me, this is a question of respect: I have enough respect for the person I am criticizing to not make them guess that I am talking about them or guess at what they said that needs to be defended, and I have enough respect for my audience to allow them the opportunity to double check my work. If I hide the person and the exact words that I am criticizing, how does anyone know whether or not I’m creating a strawman? How can the person in question respond?
McGraw and stclairose had enough respect for me and/or their audiences to state my name and link to my video when they criticized me, and though I vehemently disagree with their arguments, I appreciate the fact that I at least knew they were addressing me directly. And so, I did the same during my talk, using McGraw’s name and exact words as an example of what I see as a problem in this community. And I hope that when she or anyone else disagrees with what I’ve written here, they again have enough respect to say my name.
Zombie Fail Whale image courtesy of our friends at Topatoco.