Speaking Out Against Hate Directed at Women: Jim Underdown

Welcome to the eighth installment of my series that directly addresses the hate and harassment we have been seeing in our community.

Today, I bring you the words of Jim Underdown. Jim Underdown has been the Executive Director of the Center for Inquiry Los Angeles since 1999. He is the founder and chair of the Independent Investigations Group.

Jim calls for a cease fire.

His comments after the jump.

From Jim:

Cease Fire

The Center for Inquiry Los Angeles and the Independent Investigations Group do not tolerate any hatred, threats, harassment or abuse toward women. Period. No exceptions. We take this strong stand not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it’s the right way to grow our movement. The women who comprise our staff, speak at our events, and volunteer are indispensable to the work we do in promoting secular humanism, skepticism and critical thinking. We would be severely limited in what we could accomplish without their contributions.

Angry words have polarized the skeptical blogosphere for over a year now about how women want (or ought) to be treated. Even the women in the discussion have been passionately at loggerheads about this.

Has our community learned anything from each other?

One thing that was underscored for me is the importance of listening. I learned a long time ago from the cherished women in my life that if they say there is a problem, chances are very good there is a problem. It doesn’t matter if it looks like a problem through my eyes. If she sees a problem or feels a problem, then there is a problem. (Just because I ride the subway alone at 1:00 a.m. doesn’t mean my wife will be comfortable doing the same. She and I often perceive threats in the world differently.)

It’s important to recognize that comfort and security levels may differ between men and women – between all kinds of people for that matter. So don’t expect everyone on the planet to be on the same page about what bothers them, instills fear in them, or hurts their feelings. An awareness of this difference in people might help us skeptics cut each other a little slack more often.

Ok, so how do we mend this chasm?

First, I should say that the sides may not be as far apart as they think they are. I spoke to a number of people who’ve followed this issue or been a part of it since the beginning. Most saw some possible ways to restore once cordial relationships.

May I humbly suggest a few ways to approach this?

1. Cease fire. Even if you’re throwing something out there as a joke or poking some fun, know that someone’s feelings might be hurt – whether you think they should be hurt or not. Maybe we can save the witty jabs for our real enemies like Sylvia Browne, homeopathy, and Power Balance Bracelets.

2. If you sincerely want to explore a complex topic with someone, try for face-to-face or at least phone conversations with him or her. Both are better media than chat rooms and blog comment threads to have a sane discussion. So much of communication is lost on-line.

3. Be skeptical of your own position. This self-challenging-of-one’s-own-beliefs (discussed brilliantly in Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson’s Mistakes Were Made, But Not By Me) is no easier for skeptics than for regular people. But we should know better. Skepticism should not end at our own opinions.

4. Try to give fellow skeptics the benefit of the doubt. It really is possible to offend without intending to.

5. Don’t engage the cranks. Some people just love to lob incendiary bombs into legitimate discussions. Why dignify a saboteur with a response? They thrive on that.

6. Tolerate no threats of violence. This is critical. Threatening women with violence or rape via a keyboard has got to be an all-time low in the world of cowardice.

That’s all I can think of.

The skeptical tent covers a lot of people and I know we are all different politically, socially, and in many other ways, but that doesn’t mean we can’t unite under this cause.

We all think being skeptical and scientific about our universe is a good thing. Let’s try to be together on that idea – lest we be divided and conquered by those who live by and profit from ignorance.

Jim Underdown is Executive Director for the Center For Inquiry, Los Angeles.


Thank you for taking the time to give us your opinion on the issues, Jim. We appreciate it.


Prior posts in this series can be found by clicking the links below.

Speaking out against hate directed at women: David Silverman

Speaking out against hate directed at women: Dale McGowan

Speaking out against hate directed at women: Ronald A Lindsay

Speaking out against hate directed at women: Nick Lee

Speaking out against hate directed at women: Barry Karr

Speaking out against hate directed at women: David Niose

Speaking out against hate directed at women: Matt Dillahunty

More to come.

Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia, science-loving artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics and is currently in love with pottery. Daily maker of art and leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Tip Jar is here.

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  1. This one isn’t as impressive. I get what Jim is trying to do, but there’s too much “both sides” equivalency going on here. I also don’t think Jim understands that our “real enemies”, for those of us who care passionately about women’s equality, are, in fact, to be found in great number right here in our own little community.

    Being a diplomat is nice, I suppose. But one does have to pick a side—much more clearly than Jim has.

  2. “One thing that was underscored for me is the importance of listening. I learned a long time ago from the cherished women in my life that if they say there is a problem, chances are very good there is a problem.”

    THANK YOU. It’s not like bringing up problems gets you lots and lots of goodies. It’s a pain in the ass and it’s a triple pain in the ass when people resist what you are saying because it might mean they need to look within.

    Most people I know would much rather focus on the interesting stuff than the same old shit that they encounter regularly…It’s REALLY tiresome and depressing…and yet needs doing.

    Are the violent threats being outted anywhere?

    1. Violent threats directed at this blog or the contributors to this blog get reported to the FBI and local police. We occasionally post the over the top rape threats or as some like to call them, rape ‘jokes’ as you saw in the post that inspired this series: but there is really little benefit to continually posting angry messages. When appropriate, we post but we try not to encourage attention seeking sensationalists. There is enough space out there on the internet for them without our help.

  3. I appreciate Jim Underdown and all of the leaders for their contributions to this series. I felt like Dale McGowan really understood the issue. Underdown, less so, esp from his parenthetical: “Just because I ride the subway alone at 1:00 a.m. doesn’t mean my wife will be comfortable doing the same. She and I often perceive threats in the world differently.” My emphasis. It isn’t just a question of perception. The likelihood of assault or harassment is different depending on your demographic. A woman or a non-gender-conforming individual is far more likely to be targeted than a cis man. I’m not sure that Underdown gets that, but I’m still glad he’s speaking out.

  4. “5. Don’t engage the cranks” Oooooo, are they self-identifying now? When the cranks come from within the ranks, they’re a little more difficult to recognize, imo.

    I like his flat statement of what won’t be tolerated by his organization, but it seems like he’s suggesting that the division within the community is merely a differnce of opinion that has degenerated into bad behaviour, exacerbated by trolls (cranks), rather than an actual issue. Maybe it’s just me.

  5. 1. Cease fire. Even if you’re throwing something out there as a joke or poking some fun, know that someone’s feelings might be hurt – whether you think they should be hurt or not. Maybe we can save the witty jabs for our real enemies like Sylvia Browne, homeopathy, and Power Balance Bracelets.

    Nope, sorry. I consider MRAs, misogynists, and those who would dismiss the concerns of others just because they don’t want to self-examine as bigger enemies to “the movement” then any of those mentioned.

    Want me to keep my powder dry for bigger foes? Better pick some more worthy foes.

  6. I appreciate Jim’s post, but I think it could have been better constructed. There are portions where his meaning is vague, open to interpretation (such as his comment that he and his wife “perceive” dangers differently – I don’t think he meant it the way it sounds).

    Any appeal to reason and disscussion for a better understanding is welcome, I hope, though I fear it will be lost on the extremists (MRAs, etc.).

  7. I apologize ahead of time for the length of this comment! It’s a little ridiculous, but I had a lot to say. =P

    I appreciate the effort here, but this letter is problematic in the extreme. I’ll start off by saying I’m glad that we have an ally who recognizes that there is a serious problem and that he is willing to listen. I hope he will read the comments and criticisms here with the understanding that we are trying to educate, not trying to tear him limb from limb just for the hell of it.

    I think some of the other commenters above have made some great critiques, so I will try not to rehash what they’ve already said, and I will try to be as specific as possible.

    Angry words have polarized the skeptical blogosphere for over a year now about how women want (or ought) to be treated. Even the women in the discussion have been passionately at loggerheads about this.

    It’s not that “angry words” have polarized our communities, it’s that sexist assholes have polarized our communities. They use pseudo-skepticism (e.g., “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence!” when discussing sexual harassment, not realizing that harassment is not an extraordinary claim but an extremely common one) to push sexist and often misogynist messages. It is straight up an attempt to uphold privilege and power.

    As for women being “at loggerheads” about this, I think what you’ll find is that there are some women who are more willing than others to give more away (so to speak) when they are bargaining with patriarchy. Typically, critical/activist feminists are not as willing to engage in the same sorts of patriarchal bargains as anti-feminists. So, the women whom you will find arguing against the feminist positions typically found on Skepchick and many FtB blogs have made patriarchal bargains that they feel will grant them access to more of the power wielded by men in our patriarchal society/community. Of course they don’t recognize the sexism or misogyny, because they’ve internalized it to the extent that they think it’s right and normal.

    This notion that the community has been polarized and that even women disagreeing means there’s an equality in the positions of both sides is bizarre and wrong. As an analogy, that there is a polarization between those who wish to teach creationism in biology classrooms and those who wish to teach evolution does not mean that there is an equality in the validity of both sides. The fact that there are some biologists who believe in creationism does not mean that creationism is a valid view. The same is true with sexism and sexual harassment in our communities. So, saying something like “even biologists in the discussion have been passionately at loggerheads about teaching creationism” does not in any way mean that creationism has a valid position.

    Ok, so how do we mend this chasm?
    First, I should say that the sides may not be as far apart as they think they are.

    No, you’re wrong. The “two sides” of this are people who believe women should be treated as human beings with respect and dignity, and those who do not. If a person argues against the need of a sexual harassment policy, they are part of the problem because they are refusing to recognize the very real experiences of people who have been harassed. Plain and simple, that person does not see women as human beings worthy of respect and dignity, and they are actively trying to block women from feeling safe at events in our communities. Is that seriously a valid side that we want to “mend the chasm” with?

    There’s also the problem that many of us simply do not want to make amends but just want to move forward without those people who are causing the problems. It’s been over a freaking year, and many people are still going strong ratcheting up the hatred (e.g., specifically directed at people like Amy for no reason other than her association with Rebecca and Skepchick). There are entire websites dedicated to perpetuating hatred towards women in general and towards women/feminists in our community in particular. People actually spend time making fake necklaces in an effort to harass (oh, I’m sorry, I mean “poke fun”) at a Skepchick who has done more in the last month for this planet that those people have done in their entire pathetic lives. It’s gross, it’s despicable, and those are absolutely not the type of people we should want to have in our community.

    So, how long do you expect us to wait for these people to recognize the error of their ways? Why does it become our problem to cater to their ignorance and prejudice? They don’t listen to us because they’re so embedded in their cognitive biases (and usually in their privilege), and when all these false equivalencies of “the two sides divided by deep rifts” comes about, it makes them think they have a valid position. In fact, I’d argue that your letter could be construed by those people as validation of their position as having merit. There is absolutely, positively, zero merit in their position. None. At all. They have never once made a valid, rational argument about why the feminist position is wrong and why sexual harassment policies are bad or why people like Amy should be treated the way she has been treated.

    In response to your suggestions:

    1) Like mrmisconception said above, MRAs, misogynists and sexist trolls are the enemy. They are at least, if not worse than Sylvia Brown, homeopathy, and Power Balance bracelets. Of those two sets of things, which do you think causes women more issues? Being treated like shit on a consistent basis or some asshole wearing a plastic bracelet? Sexism, misogyny, racism, homophobia, ableism, transphobia, the poor–all of these social issues should be as, if not more, important as debunking bigfoot or UFOs or power balance. And it’s extremely disconcerting to be told not to focus on those things because they’re not the “real enemies.” That idea, my friend, comes from a place of privilege.

    2) I don’t buy into the idea that good communication and exploration of a complex topic is generally difficult online. What makes it difficult is when people do not approach it in good faith. Most of the comments that get people like me angry on Skepchick are not coming from people making a good faith effort. It comes from people who have not read the comment thread or previous posts/comments, who repeat stuff that’s already been addressed ad nauseum either on this very site or within the feminist blogosphere at large, or who think their opinion is Truth and refuse to recognize their own biases. It becomes very difficult to have in-depth discussions when people like that come in because they generally refuse to shut up and listen and educate themselves, and they tend to keep digging holes. So, to me, it’s not the medium that makes the conversation more difficult, it’s the fact that some people are disingenuous or engaging with bad or ignorant intentions. I run into the same problem in face-to-face conversations on topics of feminism and gender.

    3) I completely agree.

    4) We should try to give everyone the benefit of the doubt to a certain extent, not just skeptics. But this is contextual. I’m not going to give MRAs the benefit of the doubt. Period. They don’t deserve it. They have to prove over the long term that they’ve changed and are willing to engage in good faith discussions.

    5) This “don’t feed the trolls” nonsense has been addressed elsewhere. Needless to say I don’t agree with your premise and telling us not to respond is really telling us “shut up and suffer in silence.”

    6) Agreed.

    Ultimately, I am thankful that you’re willing to speak out and to listen, and I hope that you will seriously consider what is said here in the comments. You’re on the right track, but I think you still need to move beyond this dichotomous thinking that there are two sides that need to be brought together. There is only one side (the skeptical/atheist/humanist community), and there are people within this community who need to be weeded out and left behind.

    1. I was going to write a post here, but seeing as you laid it out so eloquently, I’ll just agree.

    2. I want to disagree with the “two sides” depiction.

      There are way more than 2 sides. There are the people who have at least some dim understanding of the disparities and inequities in our world, think they are wrong and unfair, and want to do something about them. Then there are those who revel in the disparities and use them as an opportunity to be as nasty and ugly and malicious as they think they can get away with.

      But I think there are also lots of people who, while not particularly malicious, just don’t get it. Others are immersed in anger (often born of insecurity and fear) who do and say things as bad as anyone in the second group. Still others just don’t care or think they are powerless to do anything. I think all of these people are ultimately reachable and are potential allies. Obviously, some of them are easier to reach than others. I hope this series of posts (including this one) either gets through to some of them, or helps some of us engage in discussions with some of these people that eventually brings them around.

      Or maybe I’m just clueless about human behavior and there’s no hope of change. :-(

      P.S. too late at night, I’m having an awful time trying to get my subjects and verbs to agree on number and tense… I hope this is intelligible.

      1. I see what you’re saying. Functionally, in my view, the people who are malicious and the people who don’t get it are not very different. Why? Because the people who don’t get it do/say things (regardless of intention) that can be quite problematic and reinforce oppression. And they often get defensive when you try to point it out to them, which doesn’t help at all.

        But, I do agree that there’s a lot of false dichotomy going on all around (even in my response above), and ultimately I think there’s just a bunch of asshats in our communities that need to be shut out and left behind. We can at least try to educate the non-malicious clueless people, and those who don’t want to be educated or want to ignore the problem can be jettisoned as far as I’m concerned.

  8. Perhaps one of the roadblocks to moving forward with this issue is the fact that online comments aren’t really “conversations” at all. I’ve posted several responses to the postings in this (very awesome) installment, only to read them over and delete them because my thoughts could so easily be misconstrued in this setting. (I worry that I’ll come off as being on the “wrong side”…)

    That being said, I liked the suggestion to have real discussions in person. I know it’s easier to fire off bullet lists of ideas online, but it’s hard to fold them into a broader conversation. It’s just too easy to group people into “sides” based on blurbs they’ve spent too long (or not enough time) composing. It’s just unnatural.

    I believe that all these postings have great merit, not because they are online, but because the people who wrote them will have to stand behind what they have written in real life, to real people. It really is about making people aware that sexual harassment and all the bullshit that goes along with that is not acceptable behavior in the real world.

    Maybe that’s why I stay out of these online things. Even the things I just said above could be construed as me not supporting the skepchicks. And that would make me sad.

    Maybe the internet should only be used to show pictures of baskets of kittens…

    1. The thing is, if you really take the time to think through and write out your thoughts and you’re engaging in discussions with good faith, then you will be fine posting comments here even if you disagree with what appears to be the majority opinion. And by good faith I mean that you’ve done the research and educated yourself and that you’re willing to have a conversation. This means that if a bunch of people start pointing out something to you that you should take it seriously as a possibility. Unfortunately, nine times out of ten, this is not what people do (they double down and stubbornly refuse to listen to the very people affected by these things), and that’s where at lof of the angry comments get directed.

      I personally don’t engage with skeptics outside of the internet. I don’t have the resources to attend a bunch of conferences, and I am unaware of an active and engaged skeptical group in my area (and I’m too busy to start one and run it). The one atheist group on my university campus is run by a bunch of young kids who are more interested in stirring shit up with religious students than going out and actively doing stuff to improve the community. So not all of us have access to having conversations in real life, and yet we are still affected by issues of social justice in our everyday lives that we would love to be able to educate people about being skeptical and critical of. That’s a hard thing to do when there’s an extremely vocal minority in the skeptical/atheist communities denying that social injustice exists or is a problem. I hope that by speaking out in an online format that I am helping to educate and get people thinking more critically about these issues, and maybe they can take those things to real life conversations. But it doesn’t have to be one or the other, and I still do not agree with the premise in the original post that online conversations cannot be as productive as face-to-face conversations.

      (And honestly I didn’t read anything into your comment about you supporting or not supporting the Skepchicks. I think you bring up a good point about how easily dismissed people are in online forums and how that’s not as easy to do in face-to-face conversations.)

      1. Well stated. Skeptics can only argue from facts and logic. If you are arguing using something other than facts and logic, you are not being a skeptic.

    2. I worry, though, that a lot of this “conversations are more constructive face-to-face” or variants thereof is that people in general have some major reservations about saying anything socially inappropriate or too confrontational face-to-face. That doesn’t mean the debate is actually nicer, it just means that real issues don’t get addressed and are allowed to fester. Moreover, since marginalized people are generally under more pressure to conform and have greater social risks if they don’t, a face-to-face discussion may be one that puts a lot of pressure on them not to speak their mind, especially if the issue is one that is triggering for them or deeply embarrassing to talk about in person.

  9. Ok, so how do we mend this chasm?

    Your advice is far too complex, Mr. Underwood.

    I’ll make it simple: eject the bigots. Period. Make the fence-sitters choose sides. The movement may shrink temporarily, but it’s the only way to achieve sustainable growth.

  10. Yeah this is now my least favorite. Will and others have said why. But it seems to me he’s boiling this all down to a “difference of opinion” and a difference of “perception” which is just, quite frankly, utter and complete bullshit. He’s missing the point entirely.

    And I’m going to be the first to say that I’m unable to say, “BUT! I’m glad he’s speaking out!”

    Honestly? In my opinion, these kinds of words aren’t helpful to the cause, at all, and in fact only reinforce a lot of the “it’s just an opinion!” and “it’s not REALLY a threat, you only think it is, lighten up!” ideas that are super common in this discussion.

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