Some Practical Thoughts on Women in Skepticism

Some Practical Thoughts on Women in Skepticism

Far too often, it seems, our thinking becomes caught in a loop of ideology and abstract thinking. When it comes to many issues, I see us forgetting about real-world, practical solutions because of the emotional impact that larger ideas and beliefs have on us. In an interview with Canada’s George Stroumboulopoulos (aka Strombo), author and professor of animal sciences, Temple Grandin touched on this issue which she calls “abstractification”.

I’m not into ideology and theory…Things have gotten to far away from reality–I call it abstractification. We need to be figuring out how to solve practical problems. In the ’50s, in my country, the Republicans built the interstate highway systems and the Democrates went to the moon.

As a woman with autism, Grandin explains she has difficulty thinking in abstract terms; her brain deals in pictures, a more literal style of thinking. What makes her happy is when something she does has a real impact on making the world a better place—-again, in a practical, literal sense. As a skeptic, I find it very important to base our solutions on evidence and apply critical thinking to them, instead of relying on what “feels right”.

Now, let me assure you…as a writer and artist, I’m fully aware of the importance and power of ideas, words, symbolism, and metaphors. In a few days, I’ll be attending The Amaz!ng Meeting where I’ll be presenting my talk on “Secular Storytelling”, which focuses on taking advantage of the powerful influence storytelling can have on us and it’s ability to inspire us into both action and a new manner of thinking, in order to promote skepticism and secular humanism. But I’m concerned that too often, more literal, practical thinking is being overshadowed by ideology and abstractification. And so, I’d just like to offer a few tiny examples of how we might do some more practical problem solving, when it comes to the issue of women in skepticism, in addition to the slightly more abstract action of speaking, writing, and debating issues in general.

One practical action has already been implemented at this year’s TAM; there seems to have been a conscious effort to invite more women speakers to conferences. One of the biggest and most easily remedied problems—-not just at skeptic conferences, but society in general—-is simply exposing everyone to more women. As writer, I often speak about the benefits of more depictions of female characters in comics, tv, and movies which demonstrate that women are just people. Think of the wide variety of male characters we’re exposed to and then the very narrow options for female characters. For this reason, I’d like to mention that I don’t want to see more women at skeptic conferences just talking about women’s issues—-we need to see more women talking about the same variety of topics that our male counterparts do, just like this year’s TAM lineup offers.

When it comes to the issue of women attendees, however, the issue has become focused on the problem of some women feeling uncomfortable or objectified by advances and flirting from male attendees. First of all, let me assure you that this is not a problem confined to skeptic, atheist, and freethought groups; I’ve been to a wide variety of conferences—-from the low to mid level anime and comic book conventions to the high-end, as classy as it gets, TED conferences. No matter what the topic, venue, or budget, when you gather a group of people in a social setting, you will end up with the problem of unwanted sexual advances or an unbalanced ratio of men/women attendees. This is an issue about conferences and meetup groups in general, rather than skepticism specifically.

One factor in this issue, however, is the practical problem that there seems to be a lack of social spaces for skeptics and humanists to hookup with other like minded people. Something which could be considered is having events set aside specifically for singles. This is a pretty common-place idea at other venues and in other communities, which have singles-only evening events as part of a conference’s program, or host meetups designated for single-and-looking members. If these spaces were available, there would a safe place for flirtation among attendees and might reduce the amount of this behaviour in settings where everyone simply wants to partake in causal socializing or intellectual debate without being hit on.

When the situation does arise where you’re feeling uncomfortable, I’d like to suggest that we consider doing a bit more speaking up, at the time. It may be that the people around you aren’t aware that they’re making you feel bad. We can be too quick to cynically believe our feelings will be misunderstood or ignored. I’m sure there are plenty of situations where we can politely express that we’d just like to be treated like everyone else and aren’t interested in flirtation—-not simply to say this in general but directly to those who are demonstrating that unwanted behaviour, when they’re doing it. Personally, I would do this before bringing up the topic in a more general forum because of the potential for a very practical result; that specific person might actually recognize their unwanted behaviour and make a real change in how they interact with others. Speaking or writing in a public forum to men in general has the drawback that many men may think that their own behaviour has never been a problem—-these gals are referring to other guys, not me! There are certainly going to be times where this won’t work, or is appropriate, but I think it’s cynical not to believe that most decent people will be understanding, as long as you’re nice about it.

And speaking of being nice…the last practical idea I’d like mention is one that has been mentioned before and applies to most any issue; remembering to not be a dick. This applies to everyone—-even you—-in pretty much every sitution. The “Don’t be a Dick” rule isn’t just about style; it’s a manner of communicating which has a real use—-not being a dick will never make things worse. But keeping to this motto is a lot harder than it sounds. It’s easy to be nice on matters which we aren’t emotionally invested in and towards topics which aren’t particularity important to us. Not being a dick doesn’t mean being a push-over or an apologetic. It means making a conscious effort to ensure that your words are going to be received in a manner which makes it most likely that your opponents may find them convincing.

As skeptics, we all know that the act of telling someone they’re wrong often makes them more deeply convinced they are right (my favourite book on the subject is, of course, “Mistakes Were Made, But Not By Me” by TAM9 speaker, Carol Tavris). This is exacerbated by aggressive language, personal attacks, and general dick-ish behaviour. What I’ve seen in the discussions about women in skepticism is many debates quickly escalating into arguments blown out of proportion. One side will be called whinny, privileged, man-hating crybabies who need to shut the fuck up, while the other is called rich, white, fucking privileged, rape-apologetics who are an embarrassment to scientists everywhere. There is nothing helpful about this kind of debate. The practical result is only to make those who already agree with you more passionate, those who disagree more confident of their convictions, and everyone in the middle turn away and push the entire topic away from their interest completely.

What else can we do, in addition to debate and consciousness raising, that will have a practical benefit to the issue?

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