24 December 2012

Feminism, the Patriarchy, PZ Myers, and other trigger words

I haven't read Pharyngula in a long time. I used to really like PZ Myers, but between belittling people who didn't agree with his definition of atheism, the "Elevatorgate" nonsense, and the colossally stupid dramas over sexual harassment policies at conferences and the embarrassment that was "Atheism+", I just stopped caring. But I suppose a part of me yearned for the PZ of old, when he said stuff like this:
Science is simply a process for examining the world, and anyone can do it, even if you don't have a lab coat. If something has an effect or influence, you can try to examine it using the tools of science — so when someone announces that gods cannot be detected by observation or experiment, they are saying they don't matter and don't do anything, which is exactly what this atheist has been saying all along.

So I visited Pharyngula hoping to read something incisive and clever like that. Alas, 'twas not to be. Instead, he has a post ranting again about feminism, mocking Michael Shermer and erecting massive straw men in order to belittle anyone who disagrees with him.

The crux of the rub, and I suspect a big part of what triggers any women's issues post into a mine field, are statements like this:
Most importantly, if you think feminism, that is equality for men and women and opposition to cultural institutions that perpetuate inequities, is irrational, let’s see you explain your opposition rationally.
See, I think that the vast majority of rational people, particularly those in the nontheist community, fully support legal equality between men and women. And we acknowledge that there are cultural expectations – gender roles, if you will – that women and men may or may not choose to embrace, and we should be tolerant of and celebrate those differences.

The thorny part comes in just to what degree this is all really relevant in our modern day. Some women, like Rebecca Watson, are utterly convinced that our society is a "patriarchy" that perpetuates the sexual objectification of women, and that such things aren't really a significant issue for men because, well, men are in control since it's their patriarchy. Or something. Other women, like Maria Maltseva, have considerably more moderate views on such issues.

The thing is, we don't all agree on the severity or relevance of this sort of thing. We don't all agree that there actually is a "patriarchy" in modern America. We don't all agree whether ads featuring scantily-clad men or women, in an attempt to appeal to our biology to drive the free market, are indicative of any kind of broad social problem. We don't all agree that, at least in modern America, the areas where women still experience inequality deserve more attention than the areas where men experience inequality – areas such as life expectancy, medical research funding, homelessness, widespread acceptance of male genital mutilation, suicide rates, victims of violence, workplace deaths, domestic violence and family court biases. Some of us have a hard time caring when the Rebecca Watsons of the world complain about sexy women in commercials and being awkwardly invited on a date when in other countries, women are treated like cattle (some of us like, I dunno, Richard Dawkins).

The problem is, though, that in the mind of PZ Myers, Watson, and the those of that ilk, there is no room for measures of disagreement. If you're not totally on board their train, then you are the enemy. You are, as PZ describes it, an "anti-feminist". No – you are not allowed to broadly support women's legal equality and support their right to accept or reject certain normative gender roles while disagreeing about the extent and/or severity of these issues in modern Western civilization. You either swallow the whole doctrine, or you are part of the problem.

And, that's why I stopped reading Pharyngula. If I wanted dogmatism, I would have stuck with religion. At least they give out free crackers.


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