Welcome to the fourteenth installment of my series that directly addresses the sexism and hate directed at women in our communities.
Today, I bring you the words of, Michael De Dora. Michael is Director of Public Policy and the U.N. Representative for the Center for Inquiry. Michael addresses some of the misconceptions surrounding the requests for harassment policies and discusses the potential reasons for the push-back. He explains the importance of secular ethics and explains why it is a driving force in his work.
Michael’s comments after the jump.
Note: I’d like to thank Amy Davis Roth and SkepChick for inviting me to join this series. May it help us all become slightly wiser.
Nearly four years ago, I accepted an offer to become Executive Director of the Center for Inquiry’s outreach branch in New York City. A couple months into my exciting new position, I discovered a surprising fact: at least three-quarters of our active members were men, most of them senior citizens. While I appreciated their devotion and attendance – I consider many of them friends – I found this troubling and ineffective. So, I made a conscious effort to diversify our membership. For the most part, it has worked, and I am proud to say that the current executive director, Stephanie LeRoy, leads a vibrant community of people young and old, male and female, and of various racial and ethnic backgrounds.
Fortunately, secular and skeptic groups across the United States have pursued similar efforts, with similarly positive outcomes. In particular, over the past four years there has been a noticeable increase in the number of women, both speakers and members, who are involved in the movement. This is undoubtedly good. But it is important to note that this is also a change from the past, when men were more likely to be in control. As such, there have been conflicts. Forgoing specific details that have been discussed at length on various websites, there are probably dozens of disturbing instances of women on the blogosphere being subjected to jokes about rape, murder, and looks; and of women at events and elsewhere being excluded, disrespected, or subjected to treatment as purely sexual items.
In response, a number of people – both men and women, mind you – have put forward a reasonable request: that women be treated fairly and equally within the community, and that leading organizations implement, and intellectuals support, attitudes and policies that would help to see this request realized.
To my surprise, apparently some are hesitant to comply with this request. It appears they have taken it to imply other ideas, such as: that this problem is unique to, or even more common in, the secular and skeptic movements (no one has said that); that secular and skeptic men are monsters who cannot control themselves (no one has said that); that men should never flirt with or desire sex from women (no one has said that); that secular and skeptic events are havens for sexual harassment and abuse (no one has said that); or that every organization should focus more on women’s issues than other issues (again, no one has said that)*.
Notice that these are all misunderstandings in communication, and are thus rather easily fixable.
Unfortunately, I suspect that for many of objectors, there’s something deeper at work. I suspect some reject the recent push for equality of the sexes in the secular and skeptic communities simply because they do not like that women are now asking for, and often receiving, an equal seat within previously male-dominated forums.
Admittedly, this is speculation in some degree. Yet whatever the reason for the poor treatment of the women around us, it is happening, and it is disgusting. And whatever the reason for the opposition to a new way of thinking about how men ought to treat women, it is happening, and it is completely wrong.
As if I should need to, allow me to explain why I believe this.
My decision to take the job at CFI was based on several reasons, but chief among them were the organization’s dedication to a range of important ideas: separation of religion and government, the scientific outlook, freedom of inquiry, and secular ethics. That last idea is one I’d like to focus on for a moment.
I have written several times about my views on what a decent secular moral framework might look like. I am under no impression these posts will solve longstanding and widespread moral disputes. But whatever your preference on ethics — religious, utilitarianism, Kant, virtue ethics, etc. — I think there is one thing we can all agree on: all human beings have the potential to experience pleasure and happiness, and pain and suffering, and generally seek to secure the former and avoid the latter. Consequently, as moral agents who affect the well-being of others, I believe we have an obligation to afford them enough respect and individual autonomy so that they can pursue their own ends.
You might consider this a scientifically or philosophically advanced version of the Golden Rule. Allow me to provide a few concrete examples of how this would operate in relation to the present discussion. Because I would not want someone to disrespect me simply because I am a male, I do not make sexist remarks about the intelligence of women. Because I would not want a person, especially unfamiliar, to comment on my private parts at a public gathering, I would not consider doing it to another person. Because I would not want a person to treat me as means to some one-track sexual end, I would not treat another person in that way. Because I believe human beings deserve the right to determine when they are to be physically touched and when they want to engage in sexual activity, I leave it to a woman to decide when she would like to allow me into her world.
If you are among the people who have been the target of criticism for supposedly making sexist remarks or acting in a misogynistic manner, think about all of this. Have you rejected arguments simply because they are coming from a woman? Have you disrespected women? Was it simply because of their sex? Have you afforded women the same respect you feel you would afford all human beings? Have you tried to put yourself in any of these women’s shoes? Have you treated women as you would treat yourself? Have you let sexism and misogyny slide when you could have tried to stop it?
These questions represent a crossroads for the secular and skeptic movement, as many good people are questioning their involvement. I understand and sympathize many of their points of view, and direct this message to those who consider themselves on some other “side” of the argument: imagine the message it would send and the potential consequences both within and outside the movement if secularists and skeptics finally collectively stood together against sexism and misogyny, and for equality of the sexes and fair treatment. I dare say it could be historic.
Women have experienced and to continue to endure social oppression and harassment at the hands of men – even within the secular and skeptic communities. It’s time for us all to condemn this unacceptable behavior. It’s time to articulate as a community why the sexes, and indeed all people, should be treated fairly and equally. And it’s time for us to act in accordance with this thinking, to treat one others with kindness and empathy. Otherwise, not only will women continue to face poor treatment, but we might also see the end of the already fragile secular and skeptic movements.
* I welcome evidence of such statements if they do exist.
Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us, Michael and thank you for joining us at this crossroads. Together, we can forge a pathway to an enlightened future.
Prior posts in this series can be found here:
More to come.