Hello from a new Atheists, Agnostics, and Freethinkers of Waterloo blogger!

19 05 2014

Hello there! I know this blog has been rather inactive as of late, but since I’m the secretary of AAFW for Spring 2014, I figured it would be a good idea for me to do a bit of blogging for the club.

I’m Harrison Gross, an upper year undergraduate student in math at the University of Waterloo. Kitchener is my home. I grew up in (and still live with) a catholic family. As many former christian atheists, I took my faith rather seriously for a while as a child. I was an altar server at a local parish for about four years, and my mother was a co-president of the parish Catholic Women’s League. I distinctly remember when my grandmother on my mom’s side was dying of liver failure that I prayed rather energetically to god one night after playing a board game with the family. She died that same night that I was praying for her to live. That incident shook my nascent faith.

It was always rather strange though. I went to catholic schools growing up, but we went to a different parish from the one that was right there, instead we went to one that was a tad farther away. It turns out that the politics of the CWL of the school parish drove away my piano teacher, one of the first friends that my mother had after moving to the region, and the association led to some sort of unfortunate confrontation. This was my first inclination that churches were more of human institutions rather than divine.

Because of that internal confrontation, I was confirmed as an adult in a church without a school attached, so all of those with me were either students in public schools or other outcasts from the regular system. During confirmation class in religion in Grade 8 the next year, the teacher resigned me to reading the bible. I was extremely bored.

I eventually became an altar server for my parish, St. Louis in Waterloo. This is where I first drank alcohol. I found the church wine disgusting at first, though relaxed into it later. From the start though, I knew it wasn’t blood. I had tasted blood, from my own cuts as a kid. The Eucharistic Mystery was not much of a mystery to me: it was patently false.

I slowly gained knowledge of other christian denominations, and never really found them inspiring. I first ran into an atheist while in Cub Scouts, he was a fellow scout, and he lived down the street from me. He said he didn’t believe in anything. I was surprised, I hadn’t known anyone else who hadn’t believed. This would change a lot in time to come. These days, hearing of how the Boy Scouts of America is run in regard to non-believing scouts makes me rather glad I did it here in Canada.

High school was where I really stopped believing. First off, I was tired of wasting time sitting on the sides of an altar performing an elaborate act that I didn’t believe. My siblings (I was the youngest of five) had mostly all stopped going to church themselves, for their own various reasons. Some have gone back, some have gone to other churches. In high school, I became friends with a bunch of nerds. Being one myself, it worked out well. But as I learned about math and science, religion just faded in the background in importance, and when I looked back at religion after, I wondered why I had ever been involved. There was little gain, and few people that I could identify with.

When I got to university, I became friends with Chuck, a former AAFW blogger, now alumni. He invited me out, and I’ve been attending off and on ever since. My goals for blogging this term are to review a couple of atheist books I’ve picked up, as well as cover some local/Canadian news.

Till next time,

Harrison Gross

Yes, the Earth is still warming. No, it didn’t stop 16 years ago

7 02 2013

There are probably as many climate change myths circling around the internet as there were days of record-breaking temperatures in 2012.  The latest myth (a variation on another myth) is that global warming stopped 16 years go.  This is similar to other claims that say, “global warming stopped in year X”

This variation of the myth got its start after the Daily Mail (a London tabloid) reported:

“The world stopped getting warmer almost 16 years ago, according to new data released last week.

The figures, which have triggered debate among climate scientists, reveal that from the beginning of 1997 until August 2012, there was no discernible rise in aggregate global temperatures.

This means that the ‘plateau’ or ‘pause’ in global warming has now lasted for about the same time as the previous period when temperatures rose, 1980 to 1996. Before that, temperatures had been stable or declining for about 40 years” (Source).

As this article from Discovery shows, the Daily Mail article is filled with misrepresentations and falsehoods (not that such a fact ever stops these myths from spreading).  The Daily Mail attempted to use a report from the Met Office to show that the planet hasn’t been warming for the last 16 years, but as this statement from the Met Office explains, “The first decade of this century has been, by far, the warmest decade on instrumental record”.

The report the Met Office did put out doesn’t even make mention of the issue brought up by the Daily Mail article.  In fact, the Met Office explained this to the Daily Mail in an email exchange:

Q.1 (From the Daily Mail) “First, please confirm that they do indeed reveal no warming trend since 1997.”

The linear trend from August 1997 (in the middle of an exceptionally strong El Nino) to August 2012 (coming at the tail end of a double-dip La Nina) is about 0.03°C/decade, amounting to a temperature increase of 0.05°C over that period, but equally we could calculate the linear trend from 1999, during the subsequent La Nina, and show a more substantial warming.

As we’ve stressed before, choosing a starting or end point on short-term scales can be very misleading. Climate change can only be detected from multi-decadal timescales due to the inherent variability in the climate system. (emphasis added) If you use a longer period from HadCRUT4 the trend looks very different. For example, 1979 to 2011 shows 0.16°C/decade (or 0.15°C/decade in the NCDC dataset, 0.16°C/decade in GISS). Looking at successive decades over this period, each decade was warmer than the previous – so the 1990s were warmer than the 1980s, and the 2000s were warmer than both. Eight of the top ten warmest years have occurred in the last decade.

Over the last 140 years global surface temperatures have risen by about 0.8ºC. However, within this record there have been several periods lasting a decade or more during which temperatures have risen very slowly or cooled. The current period of reduced warming is not unprecedented and 15 year long periods are not unusual (Source).

Choosing a random starting point in order to get the data to say there is no warming is an old climate “skeptic” trick.  The last part of that message is important so I’ll restate it: “However, within this record there have been several periods lasting a decade or more during which temperatures have risen very slowly or cooled.”  Global warming isn’t about temperatures rising year-by-year in a straight line.  Variation is expected (a point I touched on in my previous post).

So what else do we know?  Well, the last 35 years have shown an increase in global temperatures.  But the warming has varied from year-to-year.  Various weather events, such as El Nino, along with volcanic activity have an impact on this year-to-year variation.  The upward trend is driven by greenhouse warming from human-created emissions.  Watch this video , even after those natural causes are taken out we still see an upward trend in temperatures over the last 16-years.

And let’s not forget that 2012 was the hottest year on record in the US (Source).

It’s as simple as that really.  This myth is, well, a myth.  The planet is warming, and humans are the cause.

Weird weather. Soon to be normal weather

1 02 2013

2012 was the year of extreme weather and 2013 is already looking like it will be runner-up, if it doesn’t break 2012’s records.  Over the past couple of weeks here in Southern Ontario the temperatures have gone from -20 (windchill -29) Celsius, to a high of 12.  As of right now the temperature sits at -9 (windchill -16).  At the start of the week I was walking around in shoes.  A couple of days later I had my winter boots back on.  The U.S., along with the rest of the world, has seen its fair share of extremes over the past year as records were shattered in 2012.

From The New York Times:

While parts of China are enduring the harshest winter in 30 years, the Antarctic is warming at an alarming rate. In Australia, out-of-control bushfires are partially the result of record-breaking weather (new colors were added to weather forecast maps, to account for the new kind of heat). In the United States, where Hurricane Sandy devastated parts of New Jersey and New York and where extreme drought still lingers in the Midwest, the average temperature in 2012 was more than a whole degree Fahrenheit (or 5/9 of a degree Celsius) higher than average – shattering the record.

More from The New York Times

Such events are increasing in intensity as well as frequency, Mr. Baddour said, a sign that climate change is not just about rising temperatures, but also about intense, unpleasant, anomalous weather of all kinds.

Here in Britain, people are used to thinking of rain as the wallpaper on life’s computer screen — an omnipresent, almost comforting background presence. But even the hardiest citizen was rattled by the near-biblical fierceness of the rains that bucketed down, and the floods that followed, three different times in 2012.

The extreme weather of 2012 has raised concerns among scientists, who say that these events are linked to climate change.  According . According to the National Climatic Assessment report released in 2012:

There is “unambiguous evidence” that the earth is warming. “Certain types of weather events,” the panel concluded, “have become more frequent and/or intense, including heat waves, heavy downpours, and, in some regions, floods and droughts. Sea level is rising, oceans are becoming more acidic, and glaciers and arctic sea ice are melting.”

The report makes it clear that the earth is warming and extreme weather events are occurring with increased frequency.  But is extreme weather proof of a warming planet?  Yes, and no.  Let’s get this out of the way:  Weather is not climate.  We’ll start by looking at some definitions:

Weather is the mix of events that happen each day in our atmosphere including temperature, rainfall and humidity. Weather is not the same everywhere. Perhaps it is hot, dry and sunny today where you live, but in other parts of the world it is cloudy, raining or even snowing. Every day, weather events are recorded and predicted by meteorologists worldwide.

Climate in your place on the globe controls the weather where you live. Climate is the average weather pattern in a place over many years. So, the climate of Antarctica is quite different than the climate of a tropical island. Hot summer days are quite typical of climates in many regions of the world, even without the effects of global warming (Source).

All this means is that you can’t point to a single weather event and say, “It was climate change”.  However, weather conditions can tell us something about the state of the climate.  A warmer planet increases, “the chances of weather disasters” (Source).

Another point to note is that although scientists predict a warmer planet, certain regions could face harsher winters.

The unprecedented expanse of ice-free Arctic Ocean has been absorbing the 24-hour sun over the short polar summer. The heat in the water must be released into the atmosphere if the ice is to re-form this autumn. “This is like a new energy source for the atmosphere,” said Francis.

This heat and water vapour will affect the all-important jet stream – the west-to-east winds that are the boundary between cold Arctic and the warm mid-latitudes. Others researchers have already shown that the jet stream has been shifting northwards in recent years.

This should serve as a reminder that while the global trend is a warming planet, that trend may not be evenly distributed.  We shouldn’t expect the global average temperature to increase in a nice straight line.  There could be cold periods, but the overall trend is a warming planet.


No one is being purged

24 01 2013

Much has already been said about Shermer’s statement regarding atheism being “a guy thing” and how the sensible thing to do would’ve been to say, “What I said wasn’t well thought out.  Allow me to apologize/clarify the intended meaning of my statement”.  Rather than what he did, which was to write an article that invokes the spectre of witch hunts and purges.  I, like many in the secular community, found myself baffled by Shermer’s reaction after Ophelia Benson called him out on his statement.  If anyone should know better than to make such arguments, it would be Shermer.  Wouldn’t it?

Now it would be disingenuous if I were to ignore that Shermer had more to say in his original quote than, “It’s a guy thing”.  Throughout this post I’ll be quoting from this article (unless otherwise stated).

First of all, Benson shortened the quote. What I prefaced the above with is: “I think it probably really is 50/50.” Benson also left out my follow up comment moments later that at the 2012 TAM (The Amazing Meeting) conference of skeptics and atheists, there were more women speakers than men speakers. I misspoke slightly. According to D. J. Grothe, the TAM organizer, there were an equal number of men and women speakers (the roster on the web page is incorrect) until, ironically, Ophelia Benson herself dropped out. As for the sex ratio of attendees, there were 40% women in 2011 and 31% in 2012, the shift, Grothe speculated online, possibly due to some of these very same secular feminists irresponsibly blogging about how skeptic or atheist events were not safe for women.

In any case, please read my answer again. Where do I say or even imply that women are, in Benson’s characterization of what I said, “too stupid to do nontheism” or that “unbelieving in God is thinky work and women don’t do thinky?” Clearly that is not what I said, as punctuated by my preface that I believe the actual sex ratio is 50/50. And for the record I don’t believe for a moment that women are not smart enough to do nonbelief thinking, or any other type of cognition for that matter.

Ok.  So what if the gender split really is 50/50?  We’re running the risk of having two different discussions.  One is strictly about the numbers and the participation rates, the other is about an underlying culture of discrimination that numbers alone can’t explain.  Back when the debate about how women were being treated came to the forefront of the secular community, some out there were demanding the numbers.  E.g., collect data on the number of women going to conferences, the number of harassment complaints that had been made, and compare this to the general population to see if a problem existed.  The problem is that determining the existence of gender discrimination in a community can’t be boiled down to a numbers game.  Now if we were going to make an argument that discrimination towards women is worse in the secular community than in others, then numbers would be useful.  However, that has not been the focus of the discussion within the community about women in secular-atheism.  Later in the article Shermer writes:

For all I know there may very well be stereotyping still going on in secular circles, but here I would like to challenge the assumption that a sex ratio other than 50/50 is evidence of misogyny. It isn’t.

Ok.  Fine, but the argument that misogyny exists in secular circles is not based solely on uneven sex ratios.  We are aware that unevenness in numbers does not equal misogyny.  Refuting that argument isn’t very useful.

Most of what Shermer writes in the article up to this point can be summed up as, “Ok.  It has a few problems but it’s not terrible.  He doesn’t say anything that’s too off the wall”.  Unfortunately, things start to take a bizarre turn right about here:

As well, as in witch hunts of centuries past, we should be cautious of making charges against others because of the near impossibility of denial or explanation after the accusation. (Just read the comments about me in the forum section of Benson’s blog, where I’m called a “jackass,” a “damn fool,” and other descriptors that have become commonplace in the invectosphere. Is there anything I could say that would not confirm readers’ beliefs?

First, if anyone can invoke the spectre of a “witch hunt” it would be female-identified feminists.  Because, you know, women were actually burnt as witches.  All those names Shermer was called?  That’s happening to the feminists as well.  Second, there is something Shermer could say to prove the beliefs of those commenters wrong.  “What I said wasn’t well thought out.  Allow me to apologize/clarify the intended meaning of my statement” Judging by the response to the article, most people would’ve accepted the apology.

In a different article he writes,

Let me provide another example of moral progress that at first will seem counterintuitive. It involves a McCarthy-like witch hunt within secular communities to root out the last vestiges of sexism, racism, and bigotry of any kind, real or imagined. Although this unfortunate trend has produced a backlash against itself by purging from its ranks the likes of such prominent advocates as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, I contend that this is in fact a sign of moral progress.

If you’ve been looking for a way to get people to immediately ignore the point you were making about moral progress, here it is.  Mention purges and, “a McCarthy-like witch hunt”.  To muddle the message even further, state that people were purged even though such a thing never happened.

What Shermer seems to be getting at in the aforementioned article is that there have been great strides of improvement in the role women have to play in the atheist movement.  Since our attention has turned inwards to address instances of sexism and misogyny things are getting out of hand, at least that’s the case in Shermer’s view.  He comes off as saying, ‘I’ve been very supportive of women in atheism.  Why are you coming after me now as an example of someone who hates women?’.  Of course, it’s been pointed out that Shermer has straw-manned the criticism made by Benson in response to his original statements.  I think Ed Brayton sums up Shermer’s reaction the best:

All of this is such an hysterical overreaction that it leaves my jaw agape. No one has been “purged” in any “inquisitions” or “witch hunts.” What they have been is criticized for saying dumb things now and again. You’d think that Shermer, who has spent most of his adult life encouraging people to think critically would recognize criticism when he sees it, but he squeals like a stuck pig when the harsh glare of criticism is turned on him.

Getting back to the first article.

Finally, there is a deeper problem here that I have observed over the past several years that I would like to address to the larger secular community, and that is the dangers of in-group fighting and inquisition purges of those who are not “pure” enough in their atheism, skepticism, or humanism.

I’m going to make the collective voice of secular feminists sound like a broken-record for a moment but, “Who is being purged?”  There is no central organization dictating who can and cannot participate in the world of secular-atheism.  Aside from internet forums, there hasn’t been a banning of people who disagree on feminism.  No one is dragging Shermer, Dawkins, or Harris off to a camp for defying the will of the party.  Mass burnings of “Skeptic” magazine aren’t taking place.

Nobody likes in-group fighting.  It isn’t fun, and we’d rather be focusing our energy on dealing with issues we can all agree on.  The problem is that the list of issues is rather small in our community.  As I previously wrote for CFI, “Being an atheist is fine, but it should not be the central basis of your ideology.”  The larger message behind that statement had to do with getting atheists to engage in political movements.  It’s really difficult to use lack of a belief in gods as a central driver in what you do.  Splits within movements happen all the time, movements where the threads that tie everyone together are much stronger than they are among atheists.  The transition period is bound to be unpleasant, but I don’t think it should be a shock to see a split occurring when the idea that is supposed to unite us is so weak. Given what Shermer says in his article, he is not unaware of the tendencies of movements to split.  However, he seems to view it as something that is generally undesirable.  I view it as necessary in the struggle to address the major issues of our time.  Why would I want to waste time in a group that is being held back from achieving its goals because a number of people cannot agree on the right way to move forward?  I would rather go with the faction that has demonstrated that its interpretation of our situation is best backed up by the evidence.  Such an approach doesn’t require a purge.  All it needs is for people to go their separate ways.

To avoid having that last statement taken the wrong way I should be clear: None of this means I’m going to completely ignore Shermer or suggest that other people do the same.  I just don’t see him as a voice to listen to when it comes to feminism in the secular-atheist community.  Stick to writing books on skepticism and why people believe weird things.

Advice for Clubs Day

17 01 2013

The University of Waterloo’s Clubs Day event is currently underway.  For readers that don’t go to UW, it’s a two day event where the student clubs set up booths in our student life centre to promote their clubs and recruit new members.  Having been involved with AAFW for close to 3 years now, and participating in the Clubs Day event every term that I’m actually on campus I thought I’d provide some general tips about promoting your atheist club at such an event.

1. Encourage several members of the club to come out and participate in promoting said club

Each Clubs Day event lasts for 5 – 6 hours.  No surprise, working a single booth for that long gets boring.  When people ask you to describe your club, what it does, when you meet, conditions for membership (if you have any), you end up repeating yourself which becomes tiresome.  Eventually, you’ll switch on your auto-pilot voice and then enthusiasm you had at the start of the day will be gone.  Involving multiple members can help alleviate the boredom.  You’ll have someone to converse with during the slow periods, they can also provide their own little presentation on what the club is all about allowing for a better sense of variety when it comes to what the club is all about.

2. Have at least one member that is good when it comes to making a “sales pitch”

What do I mean by this one? Have a member of the club that isn’t apprehensive to shout out to people who are just passing by.  Most of us tend to wait until someone is staring right at our display board, and even then we may wait for them to initiate the conversation before we start talking about the club.  This is because getting the attention of strangers who are barely paying attention as they walk by is difficult to do.  I know how I am when I’m on the other end of the exchange.  I’m likely to ignore you (or possibly not hear you because I have my headphones in).  Therefore, I’m expecting a similar attitude from the person if I’m the one trying to grab their attention.  However, the sales pitch method does work, not all the time, but it does work.  It will bring in people who otherwise wouldn’t have given the club a second-look.  If you don’t have anyone in the club who possesses a natural sales pitch mentality, then work on developing your own.  Practice.  The first few rejections and odd looks are going to hurt there’s no way around it.  Just try not to take it too personally.  Create a good one-liner that will catch someone’s attention.  Usually, “Hey, are you interested in atheism?” will do just fine.  Don’t hesitate to seek attention.  In an event that’s about promotion it’s exactly what you want.

3. Patience.  Be prepared for some frustrating conversations

You are the atheist club.  Expect controversy.  I’m sure this is an obvious statement, but it never hurts to repeat it.  You’re going to have people come by and say some rather annoying things.  Try to be polite.  We all get frustrated and there may come a moment when you need to end the conversation because it’s clearly going nowhere.  Promoting your club means promoting its attitude as well so do what you can to stay positive.

4. Have fun

During the peak hours of Clubs Day there’s always a small hint of excitement in the air.  More so during the Fall term when the new students arrive, eager to get involved in university life beyond studies.  Make sure your club’s ability to have fun is on display.  It’s a great recruiting technique.

Should all speech be free?

11 01 2013

In my previous post for CFI, I made a comment about how my views on free speech likely differ from the majority of the atheist community.  That is to say that I have some disagreement with the idea that all speech should be free.  Reasonable restrictions can, I believe, be placed on speech.  Before getting into this issue as it relates back to feminism and safe spaces I need to elaborate a bit more on my stance towards free speech.

It is safe to assume that the atheist community holds a liberal conception of free speech.  Generally, free speech is viewed as an unquestionable right.  We should allow the neo-Nazis and the Westboro Baptists to speak freely because restricting their rights to free speech has the potential to start a slippery-slope until no one has the right to speak, is how the argument generally goes.  All speech should be encouraged as exposure to a variety of different ideas is the best way to determine which one is right.  Truth will naturally win out in the end.

Liberal notions of free speech, however, face the problem of contradiction.  It is possible to find situations in which a group that champions freedom of speech will engage in tactics to silence speech when they find it unfavourable.  As an example, I refer readers to an incident that occurred on Reddit (a supposed bastion of free speech).  The short version is that the person who created /r/jailbait was outed by a writer for Gawker.  Reddit quickly flocked to defend the rights of the man to post pictures of underage girls.  Attempts to post the link to the Gawker article were actively censored.  I could also point to the United States as an example of a nation that supposedly enshrines free speech but has no problem censoring it when the speech in question might harm the agenda of the state.  The point is that those that champion free speech will not hesitate to actually silence speech when it may reveal an unfavourable fact about those champions.  It’s ok for someone to speak in a manner that is oppressive, hateful, or, in the case of the Redditor in the story, promotes child pornography.  Speaking out against this speech though?  Unacceptable.  Granted, this doesn’t apply to all advocates for free speech.  They’ll agree that this hypocritical behaviour is unacceptable.  However, the problem of whether all speech should be free remains.

My contention with the idea that free speech should be an unquestionable right, that all should be allowed to speak freely with no restrictions, is that I don’t buy into the notion that people who engage in oppressive and hateful speech should be allowed to speak.  Defense of racists, and misogynists is not something I want to advocate for.  I believe that we can place restrictions on speech without descending into a totalitarian dystopia.  Canada has not descended into a hell-hole because of the country’s hate speech laws.  As a community that wants to approach things critically we should be able to have a conversation over what constitutes hate speech and make reasons for why there is a benefit to restricting such speech.  Telling the misogynists that they can’t use gendered insults or threats of rape doesn’t mean we then turn around and say that you can’t make a few blasphemous statements.

To use an example that the atheist community can identify with, consider allowing a creationist into a biology class to say that evolution is false.  I’d be surprised to find many in this community that would disagree with the suggestion that we do not allow that to happen.  The school should actively restrict the ability of the creationist to talk about creationism in the biology class.  This is because the aim of a biology class should be to teach biology, not Christian myths.

So how does this apply to safe spaces for feminism in the atheist community?  It means keeping out the “trolls”.  Those who only want to derail the conversation and are more interested in insults and intimidation.  Further, this would help to ensure that such safe spaces remain a place to discuss feminism.

Now for some this may come across as an attempt to censor all criticisms of feminism, but this is not the case.  Criticism of feminism happens all the time, especially amongst feminists.  These are people who all come from different backgrounds and thus have different ideas about how feminists should act, how patriarchy should be addressed, and so on.  That sort of criticism is fine.  Here is where a critical approach comes into play.  At what point does the criticism cross the line from being constructive to disruptive?  I would argue that it starts with people that simply want to say that feminism is poisoning the atheist movement, who engage in logical fallacies to make their arguments, and goes on to the people that engage in gendered insults and threats of rape and death towards feminists in the community.  I believe that restricting this sort of speech should be permissible as it adds nothing of value to the conversation.  While I think it’s clear, at least to me, that such speech should be restricted.  The question of how to deal with the feminism 101 comments is a different matter.

First off, what do I mean by feminism 101 comments?  These are the sort of comments that ask the same old questions over and over again. E.g. “What about the men?”, “Aren’t you just engaging in reverse sexism?”, “Does patriarchy really exists?”, “I’m not a feminist but I believe in equality for both sexes”.  Sometimes the person asking the question is innocent enough, they honestly don’t know because they’ve never been involved in such a conversation.  However, most of the time this results from someone’s refusal to look up “Feminism 101” and find the answers to these questions that have been asked again, and again.  The questions become a way to derail the conversation and prevent feminists from moving on to more critical discussions about how they should move forward.  The restriction of feminism 101 comments would depend on the nature of the event/conversation.  If the purpose is to discuss feminism 101, then allow such comments.  If the purpose is to discuss how feminists should act, how patriarchy should be addressed, and so on then the feminism 101 comments are likely to be a distraction.  They should be discouraged if not actively restricted.

None of this has to occur at every single atheist conference.  It will largely be up to the organizers as to what restrictions they want to place on speech, if any at all.  The purpose of the conference and the beliefs of the organizers would likely dictate how far each conference goes to establish rules regarding speech.  The same thing goes for forums, blogs, and video comment sections.  The people running those sites are the ones who get the final say on what is permissible speech.  One point that some advocates for free speech miss is that these are private events/places.  This isn’t the government cracking down on your right to speak, it is another individual (or group) making rules for their place of gathering/discussion.  No one is forcing you to go to an event that has rules you disagree with.

Restrictions on speech should be made where we can agree that the speech causes more harm than good.  I do not think it is a loss to the community to keep hateful voices out.  Doing so may allow us to get back to conversations that really matter to us, rather than being bogged down in this conversation.

Safe Spaces (and more on feminism)

3 01 2013

Thunderf00t’s latest Youtube video, has been causing a stir in the blogosphere. In the video criticizes feminists within the atheist movement accusing them of bringing harm to it.  Now I’m not going to use this post to elaborate on why I disagree with Thunderf00t.  You can find a good rebuttal to the video, written by Michael Nugent, here. This recent episode of the debate over feminism in the atheist movement does provide a good backdrop to discuss “safe spaces”, which came up in a comment thread of Nugent’s article over on AAFW’s Facebook page.

The context here is that, as part of its focus, the Atheism + movement is seeking to create safe spaces.  Whether it be internet forums, or at the conferences themselves.  This post will focus on conferences as its where most of the controversy seems to becoming from.  I see two options to creating safe spaces each with their own strengths and weaknesses: 1) put stricter rules in place about how people behave at conferences, what they say, and who is allowed to attend 2) work harder to educate those who still have issues with the idea of a safe space, thus reducing the number of people opposed to them.

1) Put stricter rules in place about how people behave at conferences, what they say, and who is allowed to attend.

Conference organizers should be free to decide who they want at a conference, and what they say and do.  The organizers invest their time, and money into planning and hosting these events.  It is not unreasonable to suggest that they make the rules.  If you don’t like the rules, don’t go to the conference.  The conferences can be turned into safe spaces by controlling the environment.  Of course, the most apparent flaw with this option is that it’s an obvious stifling of free speech.  If there’s one thing the vast majority of the atheist movement agrees on it’s the concept of free speech.  Such measures would play right into the hands of people like Thunderf00t who would then have a fair reason to accuse Atheism + and feminists of trying to be “politically correct” and trying to silence free speech.  (Ignoring that, in his video, Thunderf00t more or less proposes the same thing by reaching out to secular leaders to deal with the problem of feminists in the movement.)  Unless an individual’s behaviour is clearly harassment, and is causing distress and harm to other conferences attendees, then it is unlikely that most in the atheist movement would opt for conferences that take this hardline approach.

I’m inclined to mention here that this would actually be my preferred approach.  I have issues with the liberal conception of free speech.  However, I’m well aware how unpopular this option is likely to be.  So I will move on and leave the discussion about free speech for another day.

2) Work harder to educate those who still have issues with the idea of a safe space, thus reducing the number of people opposed to them.

This is likely to be the preferred option amongst the atheist movement.  After all, it’s a movement that prides itself on educating others.  Spend more time informing people of why feminism is needed, what experiences have female atheists dealt with, what would it mean to have a “safe space”?, etc.  Obviously, this has already been done.  It’s been going on before feminism became such a controversial issue within the community back during the Elevatorgate incident.  So some could say that we have been educating people, and that it’s not working.  There will always be people that will hold to an anti-feminist position.  No matter what the evidence is, no matter how nicely it’s explained to them they are not going to turn around and say, “Hey, this feminism thing makes a lot of sense.  I can see why you bring these issues up again, and again”.  There are some out there that will never say those words.  Educating others is a nice sentiment but it can be a waste of time.  It comes from the belief that people just don’t know any better and that education will free them of their ignorance.  Unfortunately, people have reasons to hold the positions and beliefs they do other than ignorance.  It’s not that those anti-feminists are ignorant.  It’s that they are willfully so because they see the feminists as a great threat, and nothing is going to convince them otherwise.  This is why I lean towards Option 1.  Some people will never learn, and do not want to learn.  I’m personally not interested in listening to, or dealing with such people.  Again, I’m fully aware that this is likely a minority view amongst the generally liberal atheist movement.   At the very least, I put the idea forward for consideration even though I don’t expect it to be accepted.

The education option is not a complete waste, however.  There are those sitting on the fence.  People who are supportive of feminist ideals, but don’t refer to themselves as feminists for various reasons.  We can educate the fence sitters.  Here patience, and a civil tone is encouraged as we want to draw them towards, not push them away from, feminism and its role in the atheist movement.  We want them to understand why there is a need for safe spaces at conferences.  In time, the anti-feminists could be a lonely minority.


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