A few weeks ago, we discussed the recent rape allegation in the atheist community on the podcast. Not surprisingly, we received a lot of feedback, some positive, some critical, and some rather disconcerted – and I would like to address the primary themes from the latter two categories.
I’m going to divide this into two portions – one that addresses issues particular to the discussion on our episode, and one that (much more importantly) will address the larger issue of sexism in general.
On the rarity of false rape allegations: Several listeners expressed concern that I did not cite a report for my claim that about only 10 percent of rape allegations are false. You can find a full report on this issue right here. According to this report, I actually misremembered the estimate of false allegations – turns out that rigorous research on this question estimates the rate of false reports to be somewhere between 2 and 8 percent, rather than 10.
On Mr. Deity’s video responses: After the recording, I was informed that Brian Dalton had made a second video clarifying his remarks. As I wrote in the comments, I was happy to discover that his original video was not quite as awful as I originally believed, but still find the content of the video to be disturbing and depressingly consistent with the dismissive and belittling way so many people respond to women who come forward with rape allegations.
I certainly did respond emotionally to seeing this video – which I think was completely appropriate – particularly because it was shocking to see someone who I have met and talked to at conferences respond so poorly. I did not mean to suggest that Dalton’s video was on a par with the great moments of historical injustice – as one commenter seemed to take me as meaning – but that as a personal experience, it threw me for quite a loop.
On my statement that I am inclined to believe the allegation: I was aware, when I decided to state that I do believe the allegation, that this was going to upset many people. It was a conscious decision made before the podcast recording, and not in the heat of the moment, for that precise reason. I want to make clear that I do not know that this allegation is true; but as we do for so much else, when presented with a question we cannot answer definitively, we must consider the evidence and then make a guess. Many people prefer to take the stance of withholding judgment – and while I have some sympathy with this position, I also feel that withholding judgment is, in itself, a reflection of one’s overall assessment of the larger social context. And my assessment of the social context of this particular rape allegation and, rape allegations in our society in general, is what leads me to believe the allegation.
First, there are the details of this case in particular. The people involved in bringing the allegation to light are people who, as Jason Thibeault over at Lousy Canuck explains so well, I have a great amount of trust in. That Myers knows this woman personally especially factors in to my assessment that this cannot be written off as a vengeful or confused woman who has some kind of ulterior motive outside of protecting women in the community. This is not just some random person on the internet. She’s someone who people whose judgment I trust have come to trust themselves.
Second, there is the context of sexism from within the atheist and skeptical movements for the last several years. As I’ve written about before, the problem is chronic, much more than merely a matter of “perception,” and incidents of sexual assault, harassment, or sexist behavior have been attested to – openly – by many women and men on many occasions. I’ve also personally witnessed behavior at conferences that was ill advised at best, and creepy at worst.
Finally, informing both of the above points is my larger understanding of sexism in our culture and the ways in which it tends to amplify the voices of those denying the problem and belittle or quiet the voices of those speaking up. To fully unpack this, however, we have to delve more deeply into some of the responses to the allegation that speak so powerfully to these larger problems.
On the silencing of women.
Historically, the voices of women speaking out about their experiences of being treated as less than fully human have been met with two strategies – denial, or outrage. Today, the latter response is often trivialized as the result of grumpy trolls looking for someone to bully, and the fact that they are particularly fond of bullying women written off as mere coincidence or juvenile insecurity. This is a grave mistake, but I would like to spend more time talking about the first response – denial.
Currently, few people take the position that sexism – and all of its attendant consequences – does not exist at all. Thankfully, the feminist movements of the past 150 years have made that unacceptable in most polite company. However, there are still many, many people who will acknowledge the existence of sexism, but only in the most abstract, theoretical sense. Sexism – so the discussion goes – certainly is “a problem,” and rape is “a horrible thing,” but when it comes to specific acts or specific claims, they get much more uncertain about this whole sexism thing as an actual, concrete reality. Women who are harassed, dismissed, or belittled by peers are merely “overreacting,” it is said, or “reading too much into this.” So when evaluating such incidents and claims, many people find it more likely that women are simply imagining or manufacturing things, rather than experiencing the very real consequences of a cultural tradition of subjugating and dehumanizing women that has hundreds of years to its credit.
Now often, people inclined to doubt the reality of sexist behavior will respond to less serious claims with a good eye rolling but also, a formal declaration that sure, some sexism exists. But when much more serious allegations are made – such as sexual assault or rape – their reactionary position sets in much more firmly, and every rhetorical trick in the book is employed to argue that no one should take such allegations seriously. Sexism, it would appear, is something they can recognize when it is trivial enough to simultaneously acknowledge and dismiss, but the possibility of an actual sexual assault or rape is going much too far. Because the unspoken rule – which so many women have written on the inside of their skull – is that people support the equality of women right up to the point where they are really asked to take the reality and power of sexism in our society seriously. At that point, they either get annoyed or hostile – they’re not interested in this, after all, and they didn’t come here to talk about it!
Women who have come forward with rape allegations, to others and to the police, know this response all too well. Some asked, after the allegation was made against Shermer, why she did not just go to the police? (Although this ignores that she did go to one of the organizations involved in the conference, and they failed to take her seriously.) There are several problems with this stance.
First, such questions heavily suggest that people assume women have a decent amount of power to bring their rapists to justice – that indeed, the police will start out by taking their claims very seriously. In fact, however, justice for rape victims is incredibly difficult to come by – only 3 percent of rapists ever see the inside of a jail cell, and, moreover, some police departments even start out their investigations of rape allegations by assuming the woman is lying.
Second, such arguments ignore the social consequences of coming forward with a rape allegation. If all the people who respond with such hostility to reports of these incidents ever really wanted to know why women might be disinclined to come forward, they merely only need look in a mirror. Women who come forward about rape face social ostracization, harassment, and the extraordinarily psychologically horrible experience of being dismissed and belittled. It is not surprising that Shermer’s accuser is unnamed – who would want to subject themselves to this kind of treatment?
The simple fact is that the majority of people in our society are inclined to disbelieve such reports and assume or imagine ulterior motives (or “confusion”) on part of the woman rather than assume that she is victim. This is despite the fact that the best social science on the question documents the rarity of false rape allegations, and despite the fact that women coming forward with such allegations have far less social power than the men they accuse. Victims of rape and sexual assault know this, and they have to weigh their desire to report the rape – which is unlikely to end with justice – with their desire to not endure the psychological costs of doing so. This is especially the case when the woman involved is struggling with feelings of shame and self-blame.
For as the victims of sexual assault and rape know all too well, sexism, according to the voices of those who respond with hostility to reports of actual sexism, is “real” right up to the moment that it isn’t.
On rape as an isolated event with no social or historical context.
Yet such considerations, according to some, cannot be brought to bear on the recent rape allegation (or any particular case, for that matter). There is “no evidence,” they claim, and therefore, the rest of lived reality is not admissible in to trying to discern what actually happened. Too bad, but, unfortunately “good skepticism” requires us to dismiss this woman and, all those who find themselves in the same situation.
I beg to differ. As an historian, I am acutely aware of how unequal power relations between men and women have predisposed us to dismiss the voices of women and privilege the voices of doubt. When I consider this situation, I place it in a context of hundreds of years of sexism, and in particular, the reaction against feminism that has been perfected into a host of rhetorical strategies in the last few decades not merely by the New Right, but also by those who fancy themselves progressive. There are countless books, articles, and research projects that track this reaction and analyze its strategies – a good place to start, if you are curious, is the book Backlash.
Yet those who are angry about hearing about this rape allegation or other reported incidents of sexism in the atheist community do not consider this relevant evidence. Rape, apparently, is something that happens outside of a social context – outside of power relations, outside of political culture, and outside of history. Rather, true, “legitimate rape” occurs in a little box somewhere that will somehow collect overwhelming evidence of that rape so that a woman is not merely left only with her words (or her shame), and this evidence will be collected regardless of the interest the rapist has in not getting caught, and it will, moreover, be convincing to all despite the tendency of most people to not believe said woman. Justice, in other words, will come to those truly wronged. Because rape is not something that happens in a society predisposed to dismiss it. Rape is not something that happens in a culture which slut shames or attacks women who come forward about it. Rape is not something that happens in a society at all, really; it happens in a lab, in a controlled environment where we can easily collect what we’ve decided counts as “valid” evidence, and ignore everything else.
In the responses to the recent allegation, this argument – often implied rather than stated because really, it sounds pretty stupid when you explain its logic bluntly – was expressed most vehemently by the repeated claim that this rape allegation (and the numerous reports corroborating a history of inappropriate and creepy behavior by Shermer and others) represents nothing but gossip. Out of all the common responses made to the recent allegation, this one captures best the callousness with which people respond to women coming forward with stories of sexual assault and rape, and the desperation of those who deny the extent and power of sexism in our society.
This argument is as brilliant as a rhetorical strategy as it is absurd as a logical claim. First, we start with a definition of all reports or communication concerning individuals – especially famous individuals – as “gossip,” because apparently, when people in a community talk to each other about their experiences with other people in a community, this can only be gossip. And as we all know, “gossip” is inherently trivial and the product of people simply lusting after sensationalism and celebrity. Therefore, since all reports of sexual assault or rape that do not come conveniently packaged with semen samples, multiple witnesses, and maybe some videotape (this occurs in a vacuum, remember?) are nothing but gossip, and gossip is trivial and untrustworthy, therefore, these reports should be dismissed. Isn’t that impressive?! I’ve just negated hundreds of years of history and at least two years of specific social context to brilliantly discover that this rape allegation, by its very nature, cannot possibly be taken seriously!
Unfortunately, this argument is bullshit. Reports of inappropriate or sexist behavior – especially when there are lots of them, made by several different people, sometimes even witnessed by several people – are not gossip, and they do, indeed, count as evidence. We all consider the reports we hear from others, about others, as legitimate sources of evidence in our daily lives every day. True, this does not mean we believe every report we hear, and indeed we should not – but this allegation does not stand alone, and so far, no one has provided any reason as to why we should, against the grain of these accumulated reports, assume all these men and women that are reporting such behavior to be either motivated by malicious intent or seduced by a cult of celebrity. Because that is so much more likely than the idea that Michael Shermer took advantage of an intoxicated woman. Because it is not like such things are incredibly common in our society. Because it is not like the cards are stacked against women coming forward with such stories; not at all. Sexism exists, sure; but not like that.
And this speaks to a larger problem in the atheist community which I’ve blogged about before. This is simply that too many atheists do not understand how societies actually work – they are horrible, horrible social scientists. I know, this sounds too blunt and uncharitable to be true, but it appears to be so. Blinded by an obsession with religion being awful, all the other mechanisms of social control – such as racism, classism, and sexism– become invisible, or are only discussed insofar as they, too, can be tied back to the Ultimate Evil underlying them, religion. This allows people like Harris to engage in anti-Muslim bigotry while claiming he is as pure as snow, and it allows people like Richard Dawkins to dismiss and belittle feminist atheists while still insisting that all he wanted to do was point out how bad Muslim women have it. In the mind of such simpleton atheists, social ills are not a matter of subtle and sophisticated power relations, or a discourse of assumptions and taboos reinforced by our culture, our friends, and ourselves. Rather, social ills result simply from Bad Ideas, consciously held – and therefore as long as someone says they oppose sexism and racism, and they sincerely mean it, that means they never partake in either.
No wonder, then, that those who were upset that I was honest about believing this allegation were shocked at my irresponsibility. What a preposterous conclusion to come to! Clearly, there is no evidence for a culture of sexism in this community at all – that would require people walking around, holding picketing signs that say “I disrespect women” or “I view women as objects for sexual conquest” or “Women are stupid.” I mean really, where is the evidence? Where, as Ann Coulter has asked of racists, are all these sexists?!
But let’s stop for a moment. I want to make clear that by mocking this viewpoint, I do not intend to imply that my analysis of the situation – that this rape allegation is true – is not a serious matter. It is. It is, of course, possible that it is not true. And in that case, Michael Shermer has gone through a lot of unpleasantness that he did not deserve. I recognize that there is therefore a risk that I am contributing to this.
But I believe the risk is small – and furthermore, that the risk of contributing to a culture that silences and dismisses the victims of rape is, in my eyes, much, much greater. I have learned too much in my lifetime to be comfortable with being a part of that culture, even if I assist it only by passively refusing to take a position. I think this woman’s story is true. And in any case, I think we should all care about whether or not it is true.
Which brings me to my last reflection. Some of our listeners and readers simply expressed the desire not to hear about sexism in the atheist and skeptical communities. They do not conceive of themselves as community members, and they are not interested in this issue.
I would encourage anyone who adopts this view to think seriously about why they care about atheism, or philosophy, at all. Anyway who listens to atheist podcasts or contemplates the virtues of belief and non-belief must have encountered the common atheist claim that a world without religion would be a better world for us all. That religion, by encouraging tribalism and unreason, causes harm. Now, without this quality, why in the world is atheism worth investing in or fighting for? Why is it even worth thinking about? If this community is not about making a better world, then it is about nothing at all – nothing except intellectual masturbation, that is, the satisfaction of knowing we are not amongst the duped or deluded. But I don’t think that has any value I can recognize. If this community is not about being critical of all our assumptions, of all of the old-fusty dogmas and unexamined biases of the past, then I’m not interested in being a member of this community.
This is why I spoke openly, emotionally, and honestly about the events that have transpired the past few weeks. To do otherwise would have not only been intellectually dishonest, but ethically dubious. For while I am neither psychic nor free from the cognitive mistakes we all can make, to the best of my abilities, it seems to me this woman’s story is true – and, more fundamentally, that we live in a society which chronically belittles and oppresses women. I will not ignore this for the sake of a shallow and useless unity.
But I wish it were not true. Like Greta Christina, I do not want to believe all this. Every moment of encountering sexism, every comment thread on a feminist post where I’ve seen other atheists reading the script of reactionary anti-feminist rhetoric to a tee, every eye roll I’ve encountered for insisting about talking about this – it has been unpleasant, and emotionally taxing. The power I have to communicate a different perspective – to explain how comments on a thread are the products of assumptions so deeply rooted, and so pervasive, that we hardly even recognize them as assumptions – often feels non-existent. But I’ll have to keep trying, because otherwise, I’m not sure what I’m doing, or why it matters at all whether there is a God or no.