Nov 24, 2009

Deconstructing Diversity

At a departmental update meeting yesterday, our head of operations approvingly commented that we are "ahead of the rest of the region" in meeting the company's diversity targets (which he somewhat haltingly described as "getting more females into jobs" - nuanced!). Considering that bizops is an entry level organisation, and that we have more low grade employees, recent college graduates, and interns than any other function in the region, this is damning with faint praise indeed. Rather than patting ourselves on the back for hiring almost as many women as men (which is only legally required, so no cookie, Large Corporation™) at low pay, we should be looking to see how come it is that they get stuck there. It's not how many female employees you have in the mailroom - it's how many you have in the boardroom.

Anyway, that was kind of funny cause he's a smart guy who I really respect, and he seemed to be genuinely pleased with this in a completely unexamined kind of way. Like the mere fact that women are allowed to do low grade administrative and customer facing roles in an IT giant is major progress. And because I was tickled, it got me thinking about diversity and representation in general.

In a very apropos way, Teh Intrawebs came through with a serious web event on the topic of diversity, inclusion and representation this very past weekend. PZ Meyers, one of (if not The) premier atheist and pro-science bloggers out there, posted an article about the under-representation of voices in the New Atheist movement[1] that do not happen to be attached to the bodies of white males. Now, not only is it certainly true that the most often recognisable faces of "New Atheism" are white and male - Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, AC Grayling, PZ Meyers, Sam Harris - it is also true that women and people of colour are dramatically under represented in the community at a lower level, too. On top of which, and this was actually the trigger for the blog post, the atheist movement lovingly platforms people who are overtly misogynist in many of their views, the likes of Christopher Hitchens and Bill Maher.

What I find interesting is that while Meyers was concentrating on the former and the latter aspects of the parlous record of diversity of the atheist community, it's the middle one that really took off in response to his post. I've occasionally posted on Pharyngula before, and I've found that one of two things would happen: if I posted on any topic of biology, religion, atheism etc, - in short, on topic - I got either completely ignored or patronized and belittled. If I posted off topic to say that I found a particular post or discussion to be sexist, I would get run out of town by an intimidating brigade of self righteous dudes who knew for a fact that I, as a woman, couldn’t possibly understand sexism as well as they do, esp. with regard to how they're not and I'm just imagining things. In short, textbook online woman-marginalising and feminist-bashing, no different from so many online gaming fora or geeky blogs.

I'd always put that down to lack of diversity, myself; representation of women on atheist blogs is so low, went my train of thought, that other than myself and a few other lonely voices you couldn’t really expect to find too many feminists on even such a popular blog as Pharyngula, regularly generating threads of a thousand posts or more. Well, it turns out I was pretty much completely wrong - in fact there emerged a large number of articulate, well informed, strongly feminist voices, male and female, in support of PZ's call for recommendations for female and PoC atheist thinkers and speakers. And you have to think to yourself, have these people been hiding? Are they new to the blog? Where are they all when PZ posts pornulated images for laughs, or makes off colour jokes about "the trophy wife", or when the commenters in the many lengthy threads on the website exhibit sexism, misogyny or even just obliviousness and crass disregard for the feelings of minority groups?

I'll get to the answer, but by a slightly roundabout route. Amanda Marcotte, partly I think in response to the kerfuffle (I'll tell you about the kerfuffle in a minute), wrote a piece in which she outlines the natural affinity between atheism and feminism as progressive movements and calls for more cooperation and understanding between the two communities - mostly for an increase in open mindedness among the dudely dudes and libertarian asswipes that seem to make up so much of the numbers on the atheist side. In comments, I disagreed:

"[…]I think your generosity to the atheist/sceptic blogosphere crowd is unwarranted. […] There’s a lot of penis inches invested in the cleverer-than-thou stance of New Atheism; as a sub-culture it’s very heavily weighted towards the Smart Guy(tm) crowd, and is rife with antifeminist landmines.

Atheists are different from feminists in that they have an easily recognisable enemy with a face to it, wheras feminists are shadow boxing against a whole social paradigm. They’re not really as much into dismantling religion as a system of oppression as they are into slamming religious people, and too many of them define their identities by that dichotomy to make me comfortable that they’re not just pro-science bigots. That’s not an argument against atheism (I’m still an atheist, Hitchens or no), but I do think that they’re not the natural fellow travelers to feminism that you think they are.

Yes, the other night when someone on a thread there called rape “a mere inconvenience” and dismissed it as “20 seconds and we only have her word for it”, he caught hell. But that was in the 400’s of an almost thousand comment thread, and a lot of horrible shit got under the wire prior to that by not being quite offensive enough to trigger outrage. It wasn’t a bad showing on the whole for the community, but mostly because of the surprising growth in articulate and passionate feminist voices, not because the rank and file are undergowing some sort of growth process."

Which brings us to the kerfuffle. This guy was obviously trolling, spouting off shit so calculatedly offensive that it simply made me guffaw with disbelief to see people engage with him. But boy, did they! Dozens upon dozens of comments poured in, rebutting his ridiculous pro-rape anti-woman sloganeering, telling him to fuck off, calling him every imaginable name under the sun, and generally getting extremely hot under the collar about the whole thing. Now I'm not saying that it's not a good thing for people to be offended when somebody dismisses or belittles rape; it's a great thing, and if I'm honest when I first read what the guy said even I found it shocking. But it was tame stuff compared to what you hear even on Guardian CiF comments threads sometimes, let alone in the darker and more misogynist corners of the internet. Plus, he was an easy target: it's all vey well to say that raping and beating women is wrong wrong wrong, but when it was pointed out to the same community a few motnhs ago that pictures of a crucified mostly naked woman are maybe not the most woman friendly or amusing of images to post on a progressive, liberal blog, they responded mostly with outraged defensiveness.

On top of which, in the very same thread in question, in which wonderful and intelligent things were said, quoted, endorsed and expounded upon, there was also stuff like this:

"Hmmm, this piece isn't up to PZ's usual standards. It must have been ghost authored by a black woman or something."

"Listing women or dark-skinned people whom I agree with simply because they are women or dark skinned is something that stands against true equality."

"So can we all just fucking get over ourselves and move on to solving some of the "REAL" problems facing the world?!!"

"Here's a clue: people who whine about skeptic groups being anti-female anti-not-white haven't got the discipline to be a good skeptic. Skepticism is about thinking, not whining about how the world hates you and how the universe is out to get you."

"I regard the majority of Western feminists as somewhere between cockroach and the crud behind my fridge."

The thread is 1030 comments long at this stage, so you can imagine the above is just a sampling - and a tame sampling at that, because I didn't have the energy to go trawling for the really horrible stuff. If you have the stamina, I recommend you read the actual thing itself (I got as far as about #700 and lost the will to live). Anyway, the point is, while these comments were not as bad as the pro-rape trolling, they were pretty objectionable from a feminist point of view, and while certain people picked up on some of them, they passed off with relatively little rancour. So it's not like the atmosphere in this thread magically transformed the blog into a pro-woman, feminist, safe space kind of thing. Shit still went down, and a lot of it was pretty gross, but - and this is the interesting thing - it didn't shut the feminists up this time. Why? What made this thread different to the Raquel Welch on a cross thread? To the many many pro-evo psych threads? To my first thread on Pharyngula, in which it was loudly asserted to general acclaim that Patriarchy wouldn’t exist if paranoid feminazis didn't see it everywhere?

Greta Christina has a great and probably seminal post on the maleness, whiteness of the atheist movement, on why this is a problem, and on what e can do about it. Read the whole thing, as the saying goes, but to our purposes, she broadly talk about three things that can be done to make the movement more diverse: actively reaching out to non-white male atheists, conciously working to eliminate biases and debunk stereotypes, and active listening and open engagement with criticisms of sexism/racism.

What I think this episode over the weekend proves is that the first one - outreach - is by far and away the most important one. And here's at long last my answer to why all those wonderful smart feminist people came out of the woodwork and defended women's right to be heard within the movement, and the justice of our feelings of marginalisation: because PZ, by asking them to help him reach out to high profile female and PoC atheists, was reaching out to them. All the douchebags in the world trolling in the comments wouldn’t have the force to completely deter and shut down feminists if the owner of the blog, the person with authority, officially signals that their views are welcome.

Which kind of brings us back to diversity and how to create it. Getting warm bodies of the right sex and colour in your club is not a reflection of true diversity; the real metric of the inclusiveness of any group is how comfortable out-group individuals feel operating and expressing themselves within that group. And while educating and disciplining your group members to be more inclusive and less arrogant is always a good thing, if you're a person in a position of authority, there's just no substitute for stanidng up and saying to minorities and outsiders: "you are welcome, we value your contribution, we are listening: tell us what you think".

So, Mr Big Boss, a little less of the "females" and a little less of the "we're close to our diversity target". If you want women and people of colour to believe that you mean it, it might not be a bad idea to ask us what we think you should be doing in the first place.

[1] Let's table the discussion about whether it really is a "movement" for now, and play like the recognisable figureheads of current atheist discourse are "leaders".