The Zen of why atheist men should understand #ShutUpAndListen

OK, so I’m a man.  I am going to preempt this post by saying that his is an attempt to explain my understanding of an issue which I may be completely wrong about.  But I think it’s valuable to express it anyway, just in case I might flick on a light bulb for some people.


Ex-theists and perspective:

Many atheists used to be theists.  If this is true for you, then there was a time when they were involved in questioning your beliefs, and during that time you probably had conversations with atheists who were attempting to provide evidence, logic, etc in order to get you to see a point.  For whatever cognitive reasons, your past self was just not seeing it.  But over time, you started to digest the ideas, have them incorporate themselves into your mind, and one day it just sort of clicked.  It just made sense, perhaps suddenly, perhaps a little at a time, but one day it just made sense that belief in a god is not rational nor justified.  You were not necessarily exposed to a new idea, but you were exposed to a new perspective that shifted how you saw the issue.

I am willing to bet that a lot of what delayed this ‘getting it’ was trying to engage with the information.  A theist hears a logical point from an atheist, and they have to try and employ their current worldview against it; their mind has to address it with what content it already has.  In short, they are trying to respond to it as part of an intellectual conversation.

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Privilege is a tricky concept.  One of the important aspects of it is that if you have it, it works to blind you against seeing it.  In our culture, belief in god, mostly the God of Abraham, is widespread and the tradition called “Christianity” has a privileged position.  I’ll bet that most ex-Christians didn’t understand the privilege that theism and Christianity had before they started living as out-of-the-closet atheists.  And now that they are out of the closet (I hope, anyway), they start to understand that privilege because they see it from a new perspective.

Just like the theist could not understand the atheist position, intellectually or in terms of the cultural privilege such belief comes with, many men are struggling with the concept of male privilege right now, and the relationship between these two phenomena should be enlightening.


Male privilege as a perspective

A few women have told me that the ideas that some men are trying to communicate, in regards to feminism, sexism, and “Men’s rights” are ideas they are well-aware of.  On the other hand, many of the messages that many women are trying to communicate to such men, especially right now in the atheist community, are not being understood.  Feminist criticisms are based on ideas that are not part of the mainstream and which are marginalized in comparison with the ideas some men tend to make in such conversations.  So when some men respond, rather than listen, they are repeating the mainstream view which the feminist criticism is responding to in the first place.  It’s like a theist responding to an atheist claim by saying “but god really exists.  Just ask anyone!”

For our purposes here, the (mostly Christian) theistic ideas that many ex-theists are familiar with are analogous to the anti-feminist ideas which many of those same atheists still defend.  Similarly, atheist arguments are analogous to feminist criticisms of mainstream gender concepts and behaviors.  The atheist talking to the clueless theist (clueless in the sense that they do not yet understand either their privilege or the superiority of the atheist position) is therefore also analogous to the feminist talking to the MRA or someone like Ron Lindsay (also see Amanda Marcotte’s open letter to CFI) who simply is not getting why they are being told to shut up and listen.

This is not about free speech.  This is NOT about silencing dissent or quelling men’s place in the conversation.

I will repeat.  #ShutUpAndListen is not about silencing dissent, conversation, or about bullying forward an ideology.  It’s about the fact that if you are not listening, you may not be in a cognitive position to understand because your mind is oriented along the lines of the mainstream idea being criticized.  In this specific case of male privilege, it’s about how one’s position as a male in our society gives that person unconscious, automatic, and unintended advantages that they will not see by trying to engage by using it.

One’s intellect is not in question here per se, but it is partially your intellect—your ability to engage with and converse about ideas—that is the cause of the blindness.  By engaging by use of your perspective, which is privileged, you are using your privilege rather than trying to see it.  There is a paradox at work here, in other words.

zen-circle-sheilan-sheilanIt seems to me that this is very much like a Zen koan.

If you try and use your intellect only to understand Zen, you will never understand the concept of Zen.  Zen is about transcending ourselves, consciousness-raising, etc.  It is about allowing you to take yourself out of yourself so you can see yourself from another perspective.  Once you see it, your perspectives shifts in a way that you could not have understood, or predicted, before the shift.   After you see the shift, you can engage with it intellectually, but not before.

Privilege is about perspective, perception, and is entwined with the very foundations of how we understand ourselves in relationship with other things.  It is not an objective concept to be apprehended, it is a way we see such concepts.  It is a method, not a fact.

Think about how it changed the way you understand the world to understand that your previous religious worldview (for those that had one) was fundamentally wrong.  Was it conceivable to understand what you understand now, then? When I first saw the shift of my own privilege (which happened much too late, when it comes to male privilege), it changed the conversation for me.  And so now talking with men who do not get it yet is much like talking with a fundamentalist Christian.  I simply cannot show either of those interlocutors either my atheist or feminist  perspective, but I can talk around it.  I can describe it and hope that they are listening to me, rather than thinking about their reply, but I cannot force them to.

All ex-theists had to spend some time really listening, whether live or via reflection, to what an atheist has said to them about belief. Some may do this on their own and without external argumentation, through genuine introspection and self-doubt, but it amounts to the same.  Understanding privilege is more about introspection than it is about understanding a concept.  it’s about understanding how our mind works (or, more correctly, how it doesn’t).

And that’s why we all, at some times, need to shut up and listen.  It’s like meditation; we have to shut down our privilege engines, our verbal and intellectual powers, and watch the mind in action to see how it’s skewing the world for us.  By insisting upon verbalizing it—by talking rather than listening or watching—we are not able to see the machine in action, and to fix it.

So, whether it comes to gender, race, etc, shut up and listen.  Sometimes, it’s the only way to understand.

More thoughts on creepiness and sex-positivity

I was responding to a comment from my post yesterday about elevatorgate, just now, and realized part of what put a twist in my panties about this issue originally.  And while I think that I am in agreement with Rebecca Watson almost completely, and thank her for her consciousness raising (assuming she won’t mind the continual use of that term associated with her new BFF Richard Dawkins), I also think that there is a tangential issue that all of these conversations touch on that have been meaningful for me for a long time.

So, while trying to slowly put behind us the specific issue of Rebecca Watson and her elevator friend, I want to address the general issue of being creepy in a sex-positive world full of happy, horny, sluts.

It is essentially this: There is nothing wrong with asking for sex.

I have read, in the last few days, so many comments about proper ways to hit on women that don’t sexualize them, that respect them, and that will not creep them out.  I get it; make sure you are in a safe context, speak to them respectfully, and and don’t just proposition them, but talk to them first.  The last part throws me off a little.  There is nothing inherently wrong with asking a person, in a safe environment and with appropriate words, to have sex with you.  You just have to be prepared to hear and accept a no, because that is likely what will happen in most (but not all) cases.

Before this issue arose, I would have not done what elevator guy did, but mostly for pragmatic reasons.  Whether this makes me privileged, insensitive, or whatever, the fact is that I realize that it just would not work, and is therefore a waste of my time.  I would have not understood the fear that many women would feel in that situation because I, as has been pointed out, have some blinders on.

Fair enough.  Blinders partially removed, trying to understand better, but I still have concerns for how this privilege of mine interacts with a world of happy, horny, sluts.


The world I want to live in; a slut-friendly world.

Many commenters, on Pharyngula and elsewhere, pointed out that men do not have the right to assume that any interaction with a woman gives them the right to assume the possibility of sexual encounters.  That’s right, we should not assume anything.  But this is different than saying they don’t have the right to ask, so long as they are willing to accept a no without feeling rejected.  This distinction is critical, because it highlights where he rub here is.  Asking is not assuming.  In fact, it is perfectly flush with skepticism; you don’t know something so you investigate.  I think that many so-called “elevator guy apologists” are probably trying to articulate this, while still often missing the factor of context.  People talking past one-another on the internet, once again.

The issue is this; what would be acceptable for one woman would be creepy for another.  In other words, just like with the Schroedinger’s rapist issue, we have what I call the similar problem of Schroedinger’s slut; we don’t know (in most cases) when the proposition will be acceptable or creepy for another person.  So, once you find the appropriate place and time, it’s carpe diem time.  Life is too short to live life in fear.  So, if you meet a girl or a guy (or both) at a party, a bar, a club, or elsewhere where they are not physically trapped, then ask what you desire! If you are respectful, open, honest, and so forth and are still seen as creepy, there is nothing you could have done to not be creepy.  That person might just have issues with their sexuality, if you did in fact ask respectfully and in a safe space.

I’m extending this issue into the realm of sex-positivity and sluthood, not common bar/party meetings of people where the normal vanilla rules apply.  In my ideal world, a proposition of sex between relative strangers is morally and socially acceptable, even if it is unlikely to succeed.  I still don’t do it often, because I am often in vanilla circles and realize that many people are sex negative and view sluthood as a bad thing.  But at a kink club, polyamory meetup, or a swing club?

Different rules.

But creepiness is still an issue, and that is what I am curious about.  See for us, one thing we have to learn is how to hear “no.” And how to say no without feeling bad about it.  That is difficult as well.


A Memorable Lesson from Polyamory 101

A few years back I was at a polyamory meeting where had this exercise which has stuck with me ever since.  We stood up and walked around the room asking anyone and everyone for permission to kiss them.  Male, female, old, young, etc.  Everyone had to say “no” (even if you wanted to say “yes!”) so that we could get accustomed to hearing and saying no.  The reason for this is that we learn that there is no harm in asking.  Hearing no is not so bad, and neither is saying it.  Some people may think there is harm in asking, and others feel bad saying no.  That’s just immaturity and prudishness.  By all means be a prude if that makes you happy.  But even in that case you can still say no without it being an issue.

I have been to a few conferences over the years.  Financial struggles make it hard to do so more, especially now.  And while at a conference among godless heathens and (often) libertines, I sometimes meet more freaky people, and the only way I found this out was by asking.  Just not while in an elevator and alone.  But I will not be shamed by my admitted privilege into not asking at all, as some voices in the last few days seem to imply.  That is a form of sex-negativity, and is not a step towards health for our community or for any individuals.

Bottom line: We all need to try and be aware of contexts that present potential dangers and violations of respect, but there is a distinction between the context and the request for sex.  We all, as a culture, need to be able to ask for what we want, be prepared to hear a no (or a yes), and we need to remember that people have different boundaries that we cannot predict upon sight.  When we cross other people’s boundaries, we can apologize; and when someone crosses ours we can realize that they may have meant no disrespect.

And when people do act disrespectfully without concern for our discomfort or boundaries, we have the right to call them out on it.  I am in full support of people who cross boundaries being educated, especially if they display no concern for having done so.  Let’s hope that Rebecca Watson’s education of us will be a prevention of potential harm that could happen.  Let’s hope that nothing more serious than what she experienced ever happens at a conference.

And let’s also hope that the sluts in our community have some hot sex with each-other.

Elevatorgate: frustrations with creepiness as a man-slut

Another male perspective on something I cannot comprehend, I know.  But I have a few frustrations I want to vent, understanding that many feminists (and I count myself among them) will view my comments as just not getting it.

I will not recap the events over the last weekend about the Elevatorgate issue that arose from Rebecca Watson’s recent video and subsequent kerfuffle.  If you don’t know, then simply skip this (or catch up and come back).  I had a long conversation with Ginny about this yesterday, one that made it clear that I’m not completely understanding Watson’s (and many other women’s) experience with this, but nonetheless an issue I have thought a lot about the last few days.

During that conversation with Ginny, I said something that was better articulated in a comment by a “Marty” on Phil Plait’s blog today (#31)

Just as it would be insulting for me to assume that every moment I spend with other women is a possible sexual encounter, it’s also insulting to treat every moment a woman spends around any man as a potential sexual assault.

This gets to the heart of part of this issue for me.  Now, I recognize that there is no comparing the issue of me being around a woman and feeling like I want to be sexual with her and the fear a woman might feel in an enclosed space, especially if he is hitting on her.  But what I think has been overlooked in the conversations about this issue in the last few days (and I have read many, not nearly half however, of the comments on the various blogs that have brought this up) is the fact that their is a two-sided responsibility here and that there are frustrations that are valid for people in elevator guy’s place.

What I have learned

I have learned that many women would feel uncomfortable, and not in just some socially anxious way, if they were in an elevator with me, alone, and I propositioned her.  Even if I used respectful words.  Even if I didn’t physically touch, or even get close to, her.  Even if (as one commenter on Pharyngula said) it were at noon.  This teaches me that it is just a thing not to do if only for the fact that it will not work.  That is, even if I was convinced there was nothing wrong with doing so per se, as many commenters still uphold, the fact is that it is not pragmatically wise.  I accept that it causes women discomfort, and I want to avoid that.

I have learned that many women think a lot about how to avoid sexual assault day to day.  I have learned that the fear of such things is prominent for many people.  I knew previously that the statistics for rape and sexual assault are astoundingly high, but I learned that an elevator is one of the places where the anxiety is a little higher.

I will not be propositioning women in elevators, ever.  Even if I see one smiling at me and giving me bedroom eyes as we ascend (or descend), I’ll wait until she is off the elevator to say anything.  Certainly, if I see Rebecca Watson in an elevator, I will wait until another time to compliment her, just in case it comes across as flirting.  Let’s just say when I’m interested in someone I don’t hide it well (And no, that was not a crude reference…).

Also, I’ll certainly never look at this song the same again:

Essentially, I understand that as a male in our culture, I have a responsibility to be aware of how my “privilege” blinds me to how I can use sexuality in ways that make women uncomfortable.  I accept that some things I may do, even while trying to be respectful of women as people, will come across as creepy and inappropriate.  I will keep trying to expand my understanding of this problem.

What I want others to understand

For clarification, much of the following is NOT directed towards Rebecca Watson per se.  this issue has grown larger than the initial encounter that spawned it.  It’s mostly a rant.

Just because statistics of rape are ridiculously high, and the vast majority of them are committed by men to women, does not mean that women are rationally justified to live their lives in fear of men, even in elevators.  I know that most women do not, but the comments in recent days concerning this issue tells me that many do.  I am an advocate of not allowing fear to dominate a person’s behavior or thinking.  Fear is a tool of oppression as much as patriarchy, white/male privilege, or wealth disparity.  When you encounter a guy hitting on you in an elevator, you need to keep in mind that even though the statistics of assault are really really high, probability states that he’s just clueless at best, overly aggressive at worst.  He’s probably just drunk.

I want women to be cautious, aware, and safe, but I don’t want them to be afraid of men without justification.  And women do have the right to request that a certain kind of behavior is not done (like hitting on women in elevators), however you have to keep in mind that you are responsible for how you are interpreting people’s actions based upon statistics.  I think it is fair to request that women do not assumes that violence is likely, even while being aware of its possibility.  I think the distinction is important.

I do not believe Rebecca Watson did anything wrong in that elevator or in her subsequent video.  The guy was probably clueless, and her advice to not do that was good advice.  Whatever increases well-being, as Sam Harris says, right?   I like Rebecca Watson.  I think she is intelligent, thoughtful, funny, and eloquent.  I have met her a few times, although we have never spoken more than a word or few to each other because she is usually inundated with fans and friends, as a person of her abilities warrants.  I happen to also think she is an attractive woman, and under the right circumstances I would like to get to know her better (both intellectually and otherwise).  Is that sexist? Am I sexualizing her? Perhaps, but I am not merely sexualizing her.  I think that creates a distinction which matters as well.

Luckily for her, I don’t drink coffee.  I would also not use this euphemism to proposition someone anyway, nor would I do so without any existing familiarity at very least.  I also don’t think that coldly propositioning anyone is wrong or creepy in all cases, just not pragmatic in most cases.

If I were to find myself  talking to Rebecca Watson and got any indication that she might be interested in getting to know me, I would probably ask her if she’d like to get a drink and talk alone (but still in public, to start).  And I would let things take their natural course from there.   I doubt I’d have that opportunity, as I have no reason to think she would be interested in me (despite the fact that I’m brilliant and beautiful, that is…).  Of course, my guess is that most men will certainly avoid, if they have been paying attention, hitting on her at any conferences from now on, and I am no exception to this.  Perhaps that was what she wanted, I don’t know.

But could I imagine a situation where I would say or do something that would set off a woman’s creeper-meter? Oh for sure! I have no doubt that if actually faced with a women I was interested in romantically or sexually, I could (and certainly have in the past) creep said woman out.  The best intentions and the utmost respect can’t always avoid that, as sometimes it is just a look in the eye, bad choice of words, or awful timing to do so.

And that sucks, because it’s very very frustrating to know this fact looms over interpersonal interactions where sexuality is a factor.  As a man who wants to be sex-positive, likes casual sex on occasion, and meets attractive women while out and about, the fact that no matter my intentions I am more likely to creep a woman out than gain her interest is frustrating.  And it’s not that I assume I have the possibility of a sexual encounter with any women for whom I have interest, its just that when I would like some sexual contact with a woman I just met or don’t know well, my asking may come across as inappropriate even while presented respectfully.

I often find myself asking myself, after hearing of stories where men are perceived as creepy, questions like ‘is there a way he could have asked which would not have been creepy?’  And, if not, was it really creepy or was she just not attracted to him in particular? Also, is it sometimes the case that people are creeped out without justification?  I think these questions expose important distinctions as well.

There seems to be a tension, here, between the ideal sex-positive world that I strive for and one described by those talking about privilege of which men are usually blind.  I have no desire to be a pick up artist (PUA), but I do desire to live in a world where sexual interest in a woman, expressed openly, honestly, and respectfully, is not called sexist.   I, as a man, simply don’t know how to approach women I am attracted to, preferably in an at-least partially public area, without being pegged as suffering from privilege-blindness. I hope there is a realistic answer to this tension, because I want to be respectful while enjoying sex with others who want the same thing.  And just like women can’t tell the good men from the bad ones (the Schrodinger’s rapist problem), I can’t always tell the sluts (not a derogatory term) from the women who will view my proposition as creepy.  Let’s call that the Schroedinger’s slut problem.

I, as a slut, just want to be able to be a slut in a feminist world.  I know there are others out there too who feel this way, but now I’m anxious about being the next elevator guy because I crossed someone’s boundaries without knowing it.  Yes, I won’t hit on a woman in an elevator now (my consciousness has been raised, thank you Rebecca), but I might do it while she’s alone at the end of the bar, while at a party where she knows nobody, or some other situation that is uncomfortable or creepy for her.   And then I’ll have to be told that this is also unacceptable, and many people will agree and see me as sexist, and I’ll be just as confused as I was when I first read about what elevator guy did.

At bottom, I want women to give us men a little more leeway concerning creepiness, and I want men to treat women better so that men can stop being feared as sexual predators.  It will be so much better for everyone, men, to stop being predators.  And it would be some improvement if women would give us a little lenience about perceived creepiness.

This is more of a rant borne of frustration than anything else.  Thanks for listening.

So, Rebecca Watson, would you like to come over to Philly for a drink?  I promise; no elevators!

(that wasn’t creepy, was it?)