Thursday, September 18, 2014

carry on with your knitting, ladies, nothing to see here

Here's the opening part of a conversation (well, a small section of a longer conversation) that happened in the atheist blogosphere and Twittersphere this week:
Big Name Atheist Guy: I see more guys at atheist conferences because, well, I assume guys are just more into, like, critical thinking and the like because of some GENDER ESSENTIALIST SHIT I just pulled out of my ass or something. 
Other atheists, some of them women: you're not wrong about the gender imbalance, but whoah, that GENDER ESSENTIALIST SHIT you're pushing there is perpetuating some lazy sexist tropes and you probably need to think a bit harder about what you're saying.
So far, so innocuous. The whole Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, pink for girls, blue for boys gender essentialism bullshit is very irritating (and, just to be clear, generally unsupported by the science), but it's an easy trap to fall into, and, hey, sometimes we say things without thinking about them enough and fall foul of some cognitive shortcut caused by the culture we've all been swimming in since we were born. It's really no biggie, and certainly doesn't tar the speaker as an irredeemable bigot, just someone who once didn't think before he spoke (or, to use an Americanism, "misspoke"). We all do that; I know I do.

So at this point the conversation can go one of two ways, as follows:

option A:
BNAG: hmmm, yes, you're right, there are clearly a whole host of cultural issues that I'm ignoring here. see how easy it is for even a rationalist to slip into lazy modes of thinking? thanks for the heads-up.
OASOTW: no probs. we all do it from time to time. patriarchy, eh? tchoh. anyone fancy a pint?
option B:
BNAG: OMG you just called me a filthy sexist pig you shrill bullying harpy. HELP HELP POLITICAL CORRECTNESS THOUGHT POLICE WITCH HUNT FEMINAZIS
OASOTW: *sigh*
BNAG: also, some of my best friends are women.
OASOTW: *facepalm*
It won't surprise anyone to discover that option B represents how the subsequent conversation actually went. What might surprise some people is that the big name atheist losing their shit in such a major way was not (as you'd probably assumed) Richard Dawkins, but Sam Harris, author of such seminal New Atheist books as Letter To A Christian Nation and The End Of Faith and, with Dawkins, one of the original Four Horsemen (Daniel Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens being the other two). In fairness to Harris I should link here to the original article containing the quote, and reproduce the relevant section:
I think it may have to do with my person slant as an author, being very critical of bad ideas. This can sound very angry to people. People just don’t like to have their ideas criticized. There’s something about that critical posture that is to some degree instrinsically male and more attractive to guys than to women. The atheist variable just has this – it doesn’t obviously have this nurturing, coherence-building extra estrogen vibe that you would want by default if you wanted to attract as many women as men.
I hope you'll agree that my humorous paraphrasing above retains most of the original gist. Dawkins isn't in the clear here, though, as he predictably weighed in to accuse Harris' critics of being some sort of Orwellian Thought Police and then went Full Mental Jacket by accusing anyone expressing critical opinions of only doing it to attract traffic to their own websites. Coming from the man whose books, admirable as they mostly are, sell in large numbers at least partly because of his own ability to foment controversy and outrage this sent most people's irony meters off the scale.

Harris has some previous form in the area of blithely assuming his own infallibility, most obviously the lengthy conversation he had with security guru Bruce Schneier in the wake of Harris' suggestion that we should single out Muslims for special treatment at airports. A conversation that can be read in full here and here (and I recommend you do, because it's quite interesting) but can basically be summarised as follows:
Harris: Let's profile for Muslims. Because 9/11. And when I say Muslims, I mean anyone who looks Muslim. And by that I mean brown and possibly a bit beardy, or wearing those funny clothes that they wear; you know the sort of thing. 
Schneier: Even if the sort of profiling you're proposing were ethical or even possible, it would be pointless and self-defeating. Security engineering is complex and often counter-intuitive and you clearly don't understand the first thing about it.
Harris: But Muslims! 9/11!
Schneier: *facepalm*
The lesson here is that being right about one thing doesn't guarantee being right about any given other thing, and that even as a high-profile "public intellectual" you shouldn't assume that you can never be wrong about anything, and that particularly in the age of Twitter you, big atheist celebrity, might actually end up getting taken to task by someone who knows more than you who's just some Joe Public type. The shame of it! The airport security discussion in particular reinforces the point that "common sense" and "intuition" are generally utterly hopeless guides to anything, least of all life-and-death decision-making, and that a prominent public intellectual ought to know this. The other lesson is that if you ever get so self-regarding that you lose the ability to apply your awesome critical thinking skills to yourself or gracefully acknowledge when you've got something wrong then you've clearly jumped the shark in a big way.

Harris, clearly following the Dawkins playbook, later issued a huffy (and lengthy) "clarification" blog post, which basically amounts to saying: some of my best friends are women; heck, I'm even married to one of them. Interestingly he made pretty much the same defence against a charge of using sexist language after writing an opinion piece about Sarah Palin in 2008. Here are the exact words:

For what it’s worth, the article was vetted by the two women closest to me (wife and mother) and by two female editors at the LA Times.
Listen, I was raised by a single mother. I have two daughters. Most of my editors have been women, and my first, last, and best editor is always my wife.
Well that's OK then. Of course the irony here is that Harris' careless trotting out of the old "women don't like hard sums and thinking because they're all nurturing and shit" trope was instantly self-refuting as he was confronted with a wall of criticism, most of it far from "nurturing" and a good proportion of it from women.

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