April 25, 2010

A Pair of Doubles

It's been a busy weekend, much of it in support of Boobquake. First off, I've been listening to the calls to do more about Iran than mock the credulity of a cleric. That's a taller order than you might think.

But what is to be done? What are the actual conditions in Iran, and what kind of leverage do we in the Western world, and particularly in the U.S. have to effect change?

Last summer, Stephanie Zvan was privileged to chat with Dr. William Beeman, professor of anthropology at the University of Minnesota and a leading Western scholar of Iran. They discussed the intersection of religion and politics in Iran, U.S.-Iranian relations, and the culture of Iran, including conditions for women. Some of what she learned surprised her. It may surprise you too.

It's been a while since a new edition of Atheists Talk, but I think this one was worth waiting for. Go check it out.

I am also very proud to announce that I was invited to blog at Sex In The Public Square. I don't know how often I'll have anything to say that's worth putting there, but I couldn't resist a post after watching the backlash against Boobquake.

There was no sex in skepticism before the women showed up.

Forget Houdini's brooding eyes and dark curls. Forget his personal magnetism. Those were strictly incidental. Forget the amount of skin--well-muscled skin--that he showed in his escapes. That was only to demonstrate he wasn't hiding a key anywhere. Strictly utilitarian. Houdini's appeal to his audience was based entirely on the complexity of his tricks and the calm reasoning he showed when dealing with mediums and spiritualists, and it's a mere coincidence that many of the male faces of the skeptical movement since then have had similar stage experience and heaps of charisma.

I warn you, it gets sillier...and more serious. Please read it and check out more of Sex In The Public Square while you're there.

And finally, I've been getting ready for the immodesty portion of Boobquake. I think I'm doing pretty well so far. Don't you?

April 21, 2010

An Immodest Proposal

Or, Why I'm Attending Boobquake

When I read about Boobquake, my first thought was, "Heh. Cute."

Sedighi claims that not dressing modestly causes earthquakes. If so, we should be able to test this claim scientifically. You all remember the homeopathy overdose?

Time for a Boobquake.

On Monday, April 26th, I will wear the most cleavage-showing shirt I own. Yes, the one usually reserved for a night on the town. I encourage other female skeptics to join me and embrace the supposed supernatural power of their breasts. Or short shorts, if that's your preferred form of immodesty. With the power of our scandalous bodies combined, we should surely produce an earthquake. If not, I'm sure Sedighi can come up with a rational explanation for why the ground didn't rumble. And if we really get through to him, maybe it'll be one involving plate tectonics.

I didn't really think much more of it. The original proposition, that dressing immodestly leads to a chain of actions that includes adultery and the wrath of god in the form of earthquakes, was too silly to really get too worked up over. Then the reactions started.

Boobquake to me is a minefield of contradictions; women are choosing to get their breasts out in order to make a statement against sexism. For me, because we live in a society where women are treated like sexual objects, the statement falls a little flat. Sexism manifests itself in the UK through enforcing women to self objectify, tits out, will be assumed to be ‘tits out for the lads’, even if that’s not the case. Women in the UK are also pressured to cover up and told that if you show too much flesh you deserve rape. As I said, it’s a minefield. Maybe a statement of solidarity would be to challenge the ways we are forced into modesty/objectification in our own country whilst perhaps, supporting women’s organisations in Iran, and maybe fighting imperialism. I don’t really know enough to propose an answer to how to end sexism in Iran.

I guess my point can be summarized in the following sentence ‘Boobquake ignores the socio-cultural context of the country in which it is being performed, the relationships between Islam/atheism/imperialism, and as such is potentially an ineffective statement’

No. Just no.

These? These are my breasts. They are mine to dress as I please, when I please. Or not. Beyond that, they are no one's political statement. They are plenty big and heavy enough on their own. They don't need to carry the weight of women in Iran, in the U.K. or next door. They don't need to bear the burden of a successful or unsuccessful atheist or skeptic or feminist event. There is no bra supportive enough for that.

So on Monday, after work (because work pays me for the privilege of dictating how I dress while I'm there), I'll be putting on that bra. Then I'll pull that shirt out of the closet and make sure the front isn't laced too tightly. Then I'll get together a group of friends and go out. We will not be seen and not heard. We will not keep our voices low or our eyes turned down. We will not be deferential in expressing our opinions or our preferences. There may even be some extramarital flirting. We'll see.

And then, when we're done being our most immodest of selves (but still ourselves), we'll laugh. We'll point at the man who was silly enough to connect our modesty to plate tectonics and desperate enough to need the ground to shake to get someone to listen to how he thinks we should dress, and we'll giggle. We'll laugh a little, too, at the people who thought that maybe we should be concerned about what the world would think--while we were telling the world we didn't care what it thought. But that last will be gentle laughter.

Then we'll get back to the serious work of beating our heads on the intractable problems that we care about, seriously, but over which we have very little control. We'll confront sexism and religion-based oppression directly, to the extent that we want to and can. And we'll do it all a little better for having had the release of ignoring everyone's opinion on what we should wear, and a little laughter.

April 17, 2010

Caring About Abuse

To those implying* that your friendly local atheist is taking some new-found interest in fighting child sexual abuse because it involves the Catholic church or because Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are supporting the effort to explore legal options:

Oh, there are plenty of things I could say here. Short, pithy, pointed. Angry. Satisfying…but unhelpful. So I'll settle for this: Are you listening to yourselves?

I'm serious. Did you think for one brief minute before sharing your first half-formed thoughts on this?

Even among child abusers, people who think they're doing something okay are not the rule. People fight pedophilia, even when they find it within themselves. Many who do act on it come up with elaborate stories to explain away what they're doing. The monster who says, "Mine to do with as I please," is not common. Why would you think we're apathetic about it?

No, I don't sit around saying, "Child sexual abuse is bad. It should stop." I also don't generally say, "Gravity pulls that way. It should stick around." The reaction to child sexual abuse is so universal that I've been cautioned as a writer against using it as a cheap emotional device in stories. Some things are simply so self-evident that it is an insult to say them to anyone who's been introduced to the concept. Some statements require an explanation justifying their utterance. This is one of them.

What is it that you think of us? Do we condone child abuse normally--until it's done in the shadow of the cross or the crescent? Are we merely callous and insensitive? Frivolous? Self-absorbed? Blind to the problem?

While you're thinking about the audience for your condescension, think about that last option a little harder. If you are so much more personally concerned with the problem of child sexual abuse than we are, you probably know that somewhere between 10% and 25% of children are estimated to be affected. Even given lower survival rates among those children, they still grow up to be a large percentage of the population.

How many of those people you're accusing of jumping onto a trendy and politically expedient problem are survivors of child sexual abuse themselves?

No, I can't tell you either. I can tell you that you've hit at least one. Me. I don't spend a lot of time talking about it, but who does?

I participate in certain activities instead, activities directed at helping kids survive when they're abused, activities directed at calming people down enough that pedophiles feel free to seek treatment and that fruitful research on the problem can take place. I could tell you what they are, but I won't, because I decide when and where I talk about this, not you.

I didn't go through what I did, mild as it is by some standards, to be put on trial by you to prove that I care about this issue enough to have an opinion on whether it's a good thing to put pressure on the world's largest central religious organization to change policies that perpetuate child sexual abuse. I didn't survive to watch that piece of me be dismissed because you don't like how I--or someone else--talks about religion, when we're talking about systemic, organizational enabling of abuse.

Do you want to talk about other actions you think will be more effective than prosecution, to engage people who have always wanted to help but not known how to tackle problem this pervasive and diffuse? Great. If nothing else, I'm always up for a chat on changing clerical exemptions to mandatory reporting laws. Now seems like a great time to fix those. We'll talk.

But if you come at this questioning my motivation, I have nothing to say to you, except to ask what kind of monster you think I am. There is no grounds for discussion. We're done.

* Not a strawman and not limited to those who dislike atheists or, sadly, even to those who appear to be angry at one or two atheists in particular. I could point, but there are some discussions that should be staked through the heart and buried at a crossroads.

April 14, 2010

All That and a Skeptic

I am a skeptic.

I'm also an atheist, feminist, progressive, absurdist artist. I have prejudices and blind spots and unquestioned notions. And I have friends whom I love dearly who are arguing (in a way I find incredibly painful to watch) over the purity of the mission of the skeptical movement--again. Unsurprisingly, I agree with most of them, even though they don't agree with each other. Only, I don't think I'm doing it just because they're friends.

I agree quite strongly with Barbara Drescher, and others who have chimed in before, including Daniel Loxton, on the definition of scientific skepticism.

Notice that all of these definitions describe a process, not a conclusion. They describe a search for truth, not a search for values. In fact, there is a clear and very scientific statement that values are irrelevant: “A skeptic is someone who applies vigorous and systematic research to any claim, regardless of its political, religious, or social implications.”

At the same time, I have to agree with Rebecca Watson that any movement that can be damaged by those who are associated with it following their values, even if values are not specifically what the movement is about, is not a movement I need to be associated with. I don't give up all those other things I am to be a skeptic, and I won't.

That doesn't mean I don't value the people who do largely set those things aside to focus on skepticism. We need people who can do that. I may not say often enough how much I appreciate them (some of whom may be you), but I do. It just means I can't operate that way myself. And I think they need me too.

They need me in part because for all we like to talk about the objectivity of science, perspectives and values matter. If we don't have enough of them, we're not even asking all the right questions, much less figuring out all the angles from which we need to approach them.

But they also need me because I don't fit tidily into their movement, because I travel to strange places and meet people they wouldn't, because I don't entirely compartmentalize. They ground the movement, keep its core from wandering too far and communicate to the pilgrims who come to them. I carry their message--and their values--to those who wouldn't seek it out on their own.

When I travel, labeled as a skeptic, among those with whom I share other values, I have an opportunity to spread skepticism to a sympathetic audience. People who already agree with me are much more likely to also agree when I say it is important that we don't fool ourselves, that we lean on something more reliable than the faulty cognition that can allow both our ideas and our opponents' to exist simultaneously. They are more likely to trust a scientific method that tells them what they already think they know.

No, this is not an ideal state for anyone to end in, and yes, some of these people will now think they are skeptics without truly understand what skepticism is. Some of these people will fail utterly at skepticism, and if this is where we leave things, the skeptical movement has, as Barbara said, failed.

But what if we don't leave things there? I don't. I don't know anyone involved in any part of this monstrous argument who does. If we continue to nudge these people toward a greater reliance on strong evidence instead of their kind feelings about us, if we continue to slowly sow seeds of doubt and encourage them to sprout, if we push them in the direction of that core of skepticism, have we failed just because that first step was insufficient? I don't think we have. I think we've made progress.

There are (at least) two ways to look at the question of whether some of us should wear our skeptical hats and our values at the same time. We can insist that any values but those of skepticism itself taint the process and must be left outside. That may well be a reasonable approach for skeptical organizations with limited resources. Focus is a pragmatic value in activism, and these sorts of fights have been known to tear plenty of organizations apart.

On the other hand, we can look at this as carrying our skeptical values and processes with us into the wider world. Then it becomes a question of us tainting them, rather than the other way around. And frankly, that's a plan I can get behind. One of those non-skeptical bits of me is an unholy love of subversion, and to be a movement, we need to move.

But honestly, I don't understand why this is being presented as a choice. We need people to do both these things. We need a core full of idealists (and yes, I understand the irony of skeptical idealism, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist), and we need those who carry the methods and the message far and wide.

The more I look around at the conversations going on, the more I think we're all reacting to the things we hear, colored by our preconceptions, filtered through our biases, than to what we're each saying. I'm terribly afraid that if we keep doing that, then skepticism really has failed. And so have all of us.

April 06, 2010

To the Kids of Fulton, Mississippi

First, since you're used to being first, to the kids who went to the big dance:

Congratulations. You, with your parents' help, have just fucked things up for life. Well, maybe not all of you. Some of you were probably planning to start local, dead-end jobs straight out of high school. The rest of you, though...whew.

When it was just school administrators being asses to Constance, you were fine. People looked at that and assumed some of the kids were okay with it, but others were modern humans who were being overly sheltered by idiotic adults. You had a chance to be one of those kids, the ones who have a role to play in the 21st Century. Then you had to go to that dance and ruin everything.

Yeah, yeah, I know. It's the one your parents wanted you to go to. It's the one the cool kids were going to. It's the one your friends were going to.

Fuck. That. Shit.

What you did was wrong. It was cruel, and pointlessly cruel. It was stupidly easy and easily the stupidest thing I've seen in a long time. You gained nothing by it. Hell, you didn't even have as much fun as you thought prom should be. And you lost everything.

Remember how you thought about getting out of there and doing something with your life? Forget it. You're one of "those kids from Fulton" now, and everybody knows what you did. Sure, you can find a school to go to, even one away from home, but it's going to be one of those schools that's no good for anything but sending you back where you came from.

You can find a job, kid from Fulton, but it will be a job that requires someone just like you. Prepare to spend the next fifty-some years of your life taking the same kind of orders you've been taking from your parents and your teachers and your friends. You've just waved goodbye to your chance to grow up and determine how you want to live your own life.

You can find people to laugh with, be friends with, marry, but they'll be the same kind of stupid, cruel people you've shown yourself to be. Chances are good they'll be from Fulton too. Who else would want to hang out with you? But whatever you do, don't you dare to be any different than they are. You've already seen what they do, what you do, to people like that.

Not the life you were looking for? Well, it could still all go differently, I suppose, but it won't be easy anymore. Your one chance at this point is to figure out why what just happened is all wrong--and to fix it. Your chance is to be one of the kids who left Fulton behind them, one way or another.

Good luck with that. I mean it.

Now, to the kids who went to the official prom:

I love you guys. You're awesome in a way that nobody's who's never had to fight to make their own path can ever understand, much less achieve. That may not seem like a lot right now, but it's everything. Just wait and see.

Beautiful Red Dress

Zuska has a good post up today about the choice for adult females to identify as girls rather than women. It's decidedly worth a read.

She ends with Helen Reddy's "I Am Woman," which was part of the soundtrack to my formative years. It was interesting hearing it again. My musical tastes have changed with the years, and they seem to have done so before I'd internalized all of the messages of the song. I appreciate it better on a fresh listen.

I am inspired, however, to post the song that replaced Reddy's in my musical lexicon.

Beautiful Red Dress

Well, push my button, baby. Here I come.

Yes, "girls" is used with distinct irony. And one more, a very short story.

She said, "Listen. Honey."

April 01, 2010

Garbage Statistics

Literally. We have a corner lot in the city, with plantings where a lot of people would have lawn, so lots of trash gets blown into our yard and stays for a while. One of the rites of spring is my own personal neighborhood cleanup. I started right after work, and here's a little rundown of what I found.

Well, I think it was interesting. Read on at Quiche Moraine to see whether you agree.