Notes and Comment Blog

Our short and pithy observations on the passing scene as it relates to the mission of Butterflies and Wheels. Woolly-headed or razor-sharp comments in the media, anti-rationalist rhetoric in books or magazines or overheard on the bus, it’s all grist to our mill. And sometimes we will hold forth on the basis of no inspiration at all beyond what happens to occur to us.

Marilla and Mrs Lynde

Jun 10th, 2015 4:35 pm | By

The second one was the next day, after I’d re-read some Anne.

May 25, 2009

But physical punishment or ‘correction’ has been morally unproblematic until very recently, some of you retort.

I don’t buy it. I’m at least very skeptical. I agree that it’s been widespread – but not that it’s been morally unproblematic. Of course it was morally unproblematic to some people, to many people, but I’m claiming that to a substantial minority it was not. (I’m talking about the 19th century onwards, if only because there’s so much more literature for children and about children starting then. I could talk about Hogarth on cruelty – but I won’t, for now.)

After writing about Anne of Green Gables from memory I started wondering…wasn’t there a subsidiary character, who did recommend beating? That neighbor? Didn’t she say at some point ‘You ought to beat that child, that’s what’? In other words wasn’t the issue made explicit at some point – didn’t Marilla have a choice, which she made, for our edification?

So I re-read the first half or so. (Don’t scorn; it’s a good book; sentimental, yes, but not too cloyingly so, though I skip most of Anne’s long speeches about the fairies in the glen and whatnot – I’m as bored by them as Marilla is.) Yes, there is. Rachel Lynde comes up to Green Gables to meet Anne, and promptly points out how skinny and homely and red-haired she is, at which Anne loses her temper and shouts at her; Marilla rebukes her and sends her to her room. Mrs Lynde says to Marilla, among other things, ‘You’ll have your own troubles with that child. But if you’ll take my advice – which I suppose you won’t do, although I’ve brought up ten children and buried two – you’ll do that “talking to” you mention with a fair-sized birch switch.’ After she leaves Marilla wonders what she should do. ‘And how was she to punish her? The amiable suggestion of the birch switch – to the efficiency of which all of Mrs Rachel’s own children could have borne smarting testimony – did not appeal to Marilla. She did not believe she could whip a child. No, some other method must be found to bring Anne to a proper realization of the enormity of her offence.’

Well…why couldn’t Marilla whip a child? Or why did she not believe she could? Because she found it morally problematic. She’s a very unbending character, who conceals her affection for Anne for a long time, yet she can’t whip a child. This is apparently plausible, and not unreasonable, and in fact subtly admirable, in a very popular children’s book published in 1908. It can’t have been an extremely eccentric attitude. It wasn’t universal, but it wasn’t freakish, either.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Marilla and Mr Murdstone

Jun 10th, 2015 4:30 pm | By

I was in a Facebook conversation earlier today with a friend who wanted to know if people recommended Anne of Green Gables, and later I remembered that I’d written at least one post on the subject. Actually there were two (I’m not counting one about a blasphemous cover for a new edition).

May 24, 2009

You know, I’ve been thinking. There’s this line the religious involved in the Irish nightmare have been giving us – this ‘we didn’t realize beating up children and terrorizing them and humiliating them was bad for them’ line. It’s Bill Donohue’s line too – ‘corporal punishment was not exactly unknown in many homes during these times, and this is doubly true when dealing with miscreants.’

You know what? That’s bullshit. I’ve been thinking about it, and it’s absolute bullshit. It is not true that in the past it was just normal to beat children, or that it was at least common and no big deal, or that nobody realized it was bad and harmful. That’s a crock of shit.

Think about it. Consider, for instance, Anne of Green Gables, published in 1908. Marilla doesn’t really want Anne at first, and she’s less charmed by her than Matthew is. She discourages Anne’s fantasies and her chatter, and she’s fairly strict – but she never beats her, and the thought doesn’t even cross her mind. If it were so normal to beat children – wouldn’t Marilla have given Anne a good paddling for one or more of her many enthusiastic mistakes? Wouldn’t she have at least considered it? But she doesn’t. Why? Because she’s all right. She’s a little rigid, at first, but she’s all right – she’s a mensch – she has good instincts and a good heart. She can’t be a person who would even think of beating Anne. Well why not? Because we wouldn’t like her if she did. So it’s not so normal and okay after all then. And this was 1908.

Think of Jane Eyre. There is beating and violence and cruelty to children there – Mrs Reed treats Jane abominably, and Lowood school (based on the Clergy Brothers School that Charlotte Bronte and her sisters attended) was very like Goldenbridge, complete with starvation and freezing and humiliation and beating. But it’s not okay! It’s not normal, it’s not just How Things Are – it’s terrible, and shocking, and wrong. Think of Mr Murdstone in David Copperfield – he’s not okay; he’s a very bad man. Think of Dotheboys Hall in Nicholas Nickleby – not okay. Think of the poor house in Oliver Twist – not okay. Think of the way Pap was always beating Huck Finn – not okay. Think of Uncle Myers in Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood – very Goldenbridge; not okay.

I’m having a very hard time thinking of any classic fiction in which children are beaten or smacked and it’s treated as completely routine and acceptable. I don’t think that’s some random accident, I think it’s because most people have always known that it’s wrong to treat children like punching bags. Beating and other cruelty may have been much more common a few decades ago, but it was by no means universal, and it was not universally acceptable. So if you hear people peddling that line – tell them it’s a crock.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Transformative contributions

Jun 10th, 2015 2:50 pm | By

I’m leaving tomorrow to go to the Reason for Change conference in Amherst (outside Buffalo). Things will be slow here.

If any of y’all have something you want to say in a guest post, send it to me in the next few hours and I’ll schedule it for while I’m gone (unless it’s no good, but how likely is that?).

Also, go to the conference!

Critical thinking is not an end in itself. It is a means to effect positive change, to transform our world for the better. At “Reason for Change,” the Center for Inquiry’s 2015 international conference, we’ll bring the skeptic and humanist communities together to do just that.

And we’ll do it in a place that many consider to be “home” to the skeptic and humanist movements: Western New York and CFI’s headquarters in Buffalo. Fittingly, 2015 will be the 35th anniversary of Free Inquiry and the 39th anniversary (last party before 40!) of Skeptical Inquirer, the two foundational publications that helped start it all.

This conference will be truly special. It will be both a celebration of our accomplishments and a robust examination of the challenges we still face. It will be an invaluable opportunity to connect and collaborate with thinkers, activists, researchers, and other luminaries from around the world. It will honor the individuals who have made transformative contributions to the advancement of science, reason, and free inquiry while also highlighting the next wave of up-and-coming activists.

That’s a great theme, and one I take a sharp interest in. It’s a meme among the little knot of people who make a hobby of complaining about me (and others) that I used to be skeptical and good but I’ve done a complete 180. Nope. I haven’t. I was a feminist then; I gave a shit about rights and equality and justice then. I’m very interested in how humanism and critical thinking intersect.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

No conservation laws in effect wherever this is?

Jun 10th, 2015 12:33 pm | By

Meanwhile, in another part of the primeval forest

Steven Spielberg has been trolled by numerous Facebook users after a photo was shared of the director with a mechanical Triceratops on the set of 1993 film Jurassic Park.

The image was posted on the Facebook page of Jay Branscomb as a joke, alongside the caption:

“Disgraceful photo of recreational hunter happily posing next to a Triceratops he just slaughtered. Please share so the world can name and shame this despicable man.”

Incredibly, a fair few members of the public didn’t grasp that the picture was taken from the Jurassic Park set, believing that Spielberg had actually poached a dinosaur…

Well and besides, it’s obviously not dead – it’s resting.

People are roaring with laughter at Joyce Carol Oates because she apparently fell for it too…or perhaps she was being ironic like the wag who posted it. After her performance over Charlie Hebdo, though, I doubt the irony explanation.

Joyce Carol Oates ‏@JoyceCarolOates Jun 9
Joyce Carol Oates retweeted Chris Tilly
So barbaric that this should still be allowed… No conservation laws in effect wherever this is?

Oh, yes, there are conservation laws there, but Triceratops are overbreeding like mad and they have to be culled. If they’re not the Fukuisaurus doesn’t stand a chance.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Need an abortion? Well there’s always New Mexico

Jun 10th, 2015 12:05 pm | By

Federal appellate court to Texas women – Sorry, sucks to be you.

A federal appellate court upheld some of the toughest provisions of a Texas abortion law on Tuesday, putting about half of the state’s remaining abortion clinics at risk of permanently shutting their doors and leaving the nation’s second-most populous state with fewer than a dozen clinics across its more than 267,000 square miles. There were 41 when the law was passed.

Ten clinics, for a state bigger than France.

Image result for texas size compared to countries

Bigger than Germany, bigger than the UK.

Image result for texas size compared to countries

A three-judge panel of the appellate court, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, in New Orleans, sided for the most part with Texas and the abortion law the Republican-dominated Legislature passed in 2013, known as House Bill 2.

The judges ruled that Texas can require all abortion clinics in the state to meet the same building, equipment and staffing standards that hospital-style surgical centers must meet, which could force numerous clinics to close, abortion rights advocates said.

In addition to the surgical standards, the court upheld a requirement that doctors performing abortions obtain admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of a clinic. The court said that except as applied to one doctor working in McAllen in South Texas, the provision did not put an unconstitutional burden on women seeking abortions.

Because if those sluts need abortions they’d better damn well get out of rural Texas – and be prepared to wait in long lines, too. Serves them right.

Throughout the ruling, the Fifth Circuit judges cited the explanations given by the Texas Legislature for what is considered one of the most restrictive abortions laws in the country.

“Texas’ stated purpose for enacting H.B. 2 was to provide the highest quality of care to women seeking abortions and to protect the health and welfare of women seeking abortions,” the Fifth Circuit ruling read. “There is no question that this is a legitimate purpose that supports regulating physicians and the facilities in which they perform abortions.”

Said the court, blinking innocently.

The decision by the Fifth Circuit, regarded as one of the most conservative federal appellate courts in the country, is expected to take effect in about 22 days. In the meantime, however, the clinics and their lawyers plan to ask the court to stay the decision while they appeal it. If the Fifth Circuit declines, the clinic lawyers said, they will seek an emergency stay from the Supreme Court that would prevent the ruling from taking effect while the Supreme Court considered whether to hear the case.

Because this situation is a fucking emergency for women who desperately need to stop being pregnant. This isn’t some game. It’s people’s lives.

Lawyers for the Texas clinics that sued the state said about 900,000 reproductive-age women will live more than 150 miles from the nearest open facility in the state when the surgical-center requirement and admitting-privileges rule take effect.

The Fifth Circuit panel found that the percentage of affected women who would face travel distances of 150 miles or more amounted to 17 percent, a figure that it said was not a “large fraction.” An abortion regulation cannot be invalidated unless it imposes an undue burden on what the Supreme Court has termed “a large fraction of relevant cases.”

Oh I see – an undue burden is fine if it applies to “only” 17% of people.

Previously, a panel of the same federal appeals court ruled that Mississippi could not force its only remaining abortion clinic to close by arguing that women could always travel to neighboring states for the procedure. But the panel in the Texas case on Tuesday held that the closing of a clinic in El Paso — which left the nearest in-state clinic some 550 miles to the east — was permissible because many women had already been traveling to New Mexico for abortions, and because the rule did not close all the abortion clinics in Texas.

That’s the standard? It doesn’t close every last clinic in a state the size of Germany?

Oh well, it’s only women.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

For confronting the feminist thought police

Jun 10th, 2015 11:16 am | By

Anne Perkins has some pleasingly acid thoughts on Tim Hunt FRS.

Here at last is someone who has come out with it. Women at work are a nuisance.

Hunt chose his moment of public revelation at, of all places, a women’s convention on science and journalism in South Korea. Perhaps he thought they’d be flattered when he told them that the trouble with women in labs was that they fall in love and cry when they’re criticised.

Of course they’d be flattered – he’s a Nobel laureate. He’s talking about them. What could be more flattering?

Note that old device, that get-out-of-jail-free admission of chauvinism.

These are not the words of a victim whose meal was spiked with a mysterious truth drug, they are the proudly admitted perceptions of a scientist. A scientist. Drink that in.

Yet, from his reaction, which was in the familiar non-apology apology of “I am sorry if I have caused offence, I should never have said such a thing in front of journalists”, it appears that he thinks it is he who has been in some way traduced, confounded by that dratted tendency of women not to get the joke. It seems quite likely that he is even now overwhelmed with supportive messages from colleagues for confronting the feminist thought police.

Talking of witch hunts (accompanied by “I promise I’m not making this up”) and The Shirt and locker room exploits and and and.

Even the response of the Royal Society suggests that the great institution doesn’t entirely get it. Science needs everyone regardless of gender, they said as they frantically pedalled away from one of their leading lights. How about, sexism is wrong, full stop?

Yeah. “We have to pander to these silly prejudices women have about being dismissed and belittled, because dammit we need their tiny little fingers, so keep it in mind next time old boy.”

What is both shocking and bewildering about Hunt’s jovial after-dinner remarks is that this is the considered view of someone whose life has been devoted to not taking the world for what it seems to be.

How bizarre that someone so entirely unreflective about his immediate surroundings can win a Nobel prize for original work. How bizarre that when he delivers his Nobel laureate lecture he describes (with a self-deprecation that is the luxury of an unchallenged inner sense of rectitude) the way that breakthroughs in his understanding came from mistakes, like running a centrifuge for too long or attributing unexpected results to contamination, but it never occurs to him to examine his own assumptions about the people with whom he works.

Yes and no. Mostly no, because they’re not really the same kinds of reflection, the same kinds of understanding, the same kinds of examination. But it would be nice if even scientists could learn some minimal social truths.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

She was bruised by the ties and she couldn’t breathe

Jun 10th, 2015 10:49 am | By

First ever  UK prosecution for forced marriage:

A 34-year-old Cardiff man has become the first person in the UK to be prosecuted under forced marriage laws introduced a year ago.

The man, who cannot be identified for legal reasons, was jailed for 16 years after admitting making a 25-year-old woman marry him under duress last year.

He also pleaded guilty to charges of rape, bigamy and voyeurism at Merthyr Crown Court.

The “under duress” sounds mild. The details are not mild.

The judge said the offences began when the woman became engaged last year and in March 2014 he took her to his house under the pretence of having a meal with his wife.

“Your house was empty, you locked the front door and drew the curtains, you ignored her pleas to let her go and threw her mobile phone away and bound and gagged her with scarves belonging to your wife,” he said.

“You tied her hands behind her back, she was bruised by the ties and she couldn’t breathe. She almost passed out and then you raped her.

“She was a virgin, something which you knew and something which you used to ensure her silence. You took her innocence to ensure her silence.”

Not the best wording, since having sex shouldn’t equate with guilt, but the point is that’s hardly the pleasantest way to stop being a virgin. The point is also that sex in fact is seen as guilt for a woman by many people, and that a raped virgin is seen as damaged goods, tainted, used up. In that sense the perp took her cleanness, her purity, her eligibility for marriage, and that he did it on purpose. Ugly.

This isn’t the standard kind of forced marriage though. In a way it seems like a bad idea to make this kind the first prosecution, because it’s not the paradigm.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Well who else thinks that?

Jun 9th, 2015 6:08 pm | By

Karen James has good things to say on Twitter about this “phwoaaar women in the lab eh” bullshit. (That’s something Twitter is good for. Arguing about complicated subjects, no. Commenting on sexist or racist bullshit, yes.)

Karen James ‏@kejames 6 hours ago
That Tim Hunt & others feel comfortable being overtly sexist in public says a lot about the larger environment in science.

Brava @girlinterruptin on the larger problem around Tim Hunt’s remarks, this para especially. …

Embedded image permalink

I dislike the workforce argument 4 why sexism & other isms are wrong. MT @royalsociety Science needs women #wcsj2015

I had the same thought when I read the Royal Society’s statement. It annoyed me. Never mind the faff about “we need women in the labs” – say it’s shit.

The workforce argument suggests if we didn’t need ‘the research capabilities of the entire population’, sexism would be a-ok. @royalsociety

Erin ‏@EmicAcademic 6h6 hours ago
@kejames @royalsociety Similar to “promote diversity=better profits!”; equality is only important when it is profitable for the ppl in power

It’d be better if those trying to ‘distance themselves’ from misogyny would just say ‘sexism is wrong because it is wrong’. @royalsociety

Are they worried people will start talking about political correctness and identity politics? Or, worse, being pussy-whipped? Are they worried that sexism actually doesn’t matter unless it damages the bottom line?

Oh well. It’s only women.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Old gents’ club

Jun 9th, 2015 5:44 pm | By

Is it something in the Bovril?

Cat Ferguson at BuzzFeed reports:

Tim Hunt, who won the 2001 Nobel Prize in medicine for his work on cell duplication, was speaking at an invitation-only lunch in honor of women in science. He reportedly opened his talk by saying: “Thanks to the women journalists for making lunch.”

The 72-year-old scientist went on to say that he has a reputation as a chauvinist, and that labs should be segregated by sex. The problem with female scientists? “You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry!”

“You” of course are a heterosexual male. Isn’t everyone? Everyone who counts?

Hunt is a member of the Royal Society, which quickly distanced itself from the remarks, first tweeting “Tim Hunt’s comments don’t reflect our views,” and then releasing an official statement.

“The Royal Society believes that in order to achieve everything that it can, science needs to make the best use of the research capabilities of the entire population,” they wrote on their blog.

“Too many talented individuals do not fulfill their scientific potential because of issues such as gender and the Society is committed to helping to put this right. Sir Tim Hunt was speaking as an individual and his reported comments in no way reflect the views of the Royal Society.”

Also, he’s obviously an asshole, and assholery is not part of the mission of the Royal Society.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

These days, Dawkins describes himself as “a communicator”

Jun 9th, 2015 9:57 am | By

Sophie Elmhirst has a long profile of Richard Dawkins in the Guardian. It’s partly about his new career of creating uproars on Twitter, and whether or not that’s a good idea.

The two strands of Dawkins’s mission – promoting science, demolishing religion – are intended to be complementary. “If they are antagonistic to each other, that would be regrettable,” he said, “but I don’t see why they should be.” But antagonism is part of Dawkins’s daily life. “I suppose some of the passions that I show are more appropriate to a young man than somebody of my age.” Since his arrival on Twitter in 2008, his public pronouncements have become more combative – and, at times, flamboyantly irritable: “How dare you force your dopey unsubstantiated superstitions on innocent children too young to resist?,” he tweeted last June. “How DARE you?”

“Flamboyantly irritable” is a good way of putting it. There are problems with both, especially in a famous Oxford academic – and especially when they are irritable rather than witty or probing. Anybody can do irritable, and anybody does; it’s hard to see why Dawkins needs to join that massive and uninteresting crowd.

These days, Dawkins describes himself as “a communicator”. But depending on your point of view, he is also a hero, a heathen, or a liability. Many of his recent statements – on subjects ranging from the lack of Nobel prize-winning Muslim scientists to the “immorality” of failing to abort a foetus with Down’s syndrome – have sparked outraged responses (some of which Dawkins read aloud on a recent YouTube video, which perhaps won him back a few friends). For some, his controversial positions have started to undermine both his reputation as a scientist and his own anti-religious crusade. Friends who vigorously defend both his cause and his character worry that Dawkins might be at risk of self-sabotage. “He could be seriously damaging his long-term legacy,” the philosopher Daniel Dennett said of Dawkins’s public skirmishes. It is a legacy, Dennett believes, that should reflect the “masterpiece” that was The Selfish Gene and Dawkins’s major contribution to our understanding of life. As for Twitter: “I wish he wouldn’t do it,” Krauss said. “I told him that.”

Lots of people have told him that – friends and colleagues, I mean, not just onlookers.

Dawkins regularly goes on fundraising lecture tours, where his fame comes in useful. Tickets for a tour of the US in June – “an evening with Richard Dawkins”, in theatres in Portland, Oregon, Rochester, Minnesota and Boston – are on sale on the RDFRS website for $35. Access to a VIP reception beforehand is $250. Membership of the “Dawkins circle” costs from $1,000 to $9,999 a year, winning you discounts to the foundation’s online store, invitations to events with “RDFRS personalities” and, at its most expensive, two tickets for an “invitation-only” event with Dawkins himself. The fundraising is led by Robyn Blumner, the full time CEO of his foundation; Dawkins is her celebrity draw. “I’m totally hopeless at asking for money,” said Dawkins. “So I do work extremely hard at trying to be charming.”

Twitter not included.

For Dawkins, the science has always come first; his atheism is simply a natural extension of a lifelong quest to do Darwin’s work on Earth. As for the suggestion his public interventions over the past few years have done more harm than good – both to himself and his cause: “That does worry me,” Dawkins conceded, and yet he cannot quite resist the urge to wade in. “I think there is a curious desire in humans, maybe not all humans but certainly in me, to put things right,” he said. “There’s a joke in the New Yorker or something like that, of a man at a computer. It’s obviously very late and his wife is begging him to come to bed. He’s saying, ‘I can’t come to bed. Somebody’s wrong on the internet.’”

Twitter is not the best medium for putting things right. It’s one of the worst.

In recent years, the following sequence of events has become something of an online soap, regular and predictable: Dawkins tweets, is criticised for being deeply offensive, and then writes a long article to explain what he actually meant, which usually is not too far from what he said in the first place, but expressed with slightly more nuance. Since Dawkins joined Twitter seven years ago, he has amassed more than a million followers. He tweets assiduously, attracted by the medium’s limitations: “I’m sort of mildly intrigued by the art form of précising something into 140 characters; it’s not an easy thing to do. And there’s a certain satisfaction in the skill of doing it.”

Avoiding the obvious joke, I will make the less obvious point that the satisfaction fades pretty quickly, or at least it did in my case and I think probably in most people’s. You get the hang of it and then it just becomes a tool – it can be good for rapid conversations if the participants are witty enough, but no one tweet is likely to be a work of art. I think the medium’s limitations are something Dawkins shouldn’t be attracted by – I think they don’t work in his favor.

There was the pot of honey, for instance, as Elmhirst goes on to say.

Even on more serious topics, Dawkins cannot quite fathom how often he finds himself at the centre of online firestorms. “I do seem to be horribly susceptible to being misunderstood,” he said.

And why is that? If it’s a pattern, there’s probably a reason for the pattern. I think I know what it is.

“Quite a lot of what I do on Twitter is try to raise a discussion point,” he said. “It’s as though I was doing a seminar with students and said, ‘Here’s an interesting thought, X. What do you think about X?’” He is then mystified when his hypothesis is met by a chorus of criticism and abuse. “Very often I’m not making a point, but asking a question.” Sometimes his questions seem genuinely curious: “Whistling requires precise tongue positioning, like finger on violin string. Yet most can whistle tunes sans training. Interesting?” But often they are more rhetorical: “Truly? Is Sweden such a fatuously ridiculous country, bending over backwards to accommodate religious idiocy?”

Now I’m picturing fatuously ridiculous Sweden bending over backwards, and snickering.

Last July, Dawkins wrote, in 136 quickly infamous characters, “Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knifepoint is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of date rape, go away and learn how to think.” For Dawkins, this was simply the illustration of a basic point of logic; on the other hand, he was using a highly sensitive crime as an example. “If I used another example it would have been obvious,” Dawkins said, by way of explanation. “The point is there are people who seriously refuse to admit that some rapes are worse than others.” Isn’t that a judgment to be made by the person who’s experienced it? “Exactly, which is why I said date rape may be worse than stranger rape. I said that. It’s up to the victim to decide … But it’s absurd for the thought police to come along and say that it is forbidden to allow a woman to rank some rapes as worse than others … This is a logical point, and there are people who say that emotion trumps logic.” For Dawkins, the idea that someone could understand his argument and still disagree with him was bewildering. “There must be something wrong with how I’m expressing it,” he said. In the presence of his logic, there is no room for an alternative view.

When did he write that? Right after we issued the joint statement. Two days after, if I remember correctly.

Perhaps the greatest source of disquiet within the atheist movement – particularly in the US, where the movement, under the broad banner of “skepticism”, is more active and organised – is among feminists. Greta Christina, an American feminist and atheist blogger, first met Dawkins at an event in 2009. It was a fantasy made real. “He was the reason I started calling myself an atheist … [meeting him] was one of the proudest moments of my life.” Then, in 2011, Dawkins waded into a comment thread under a blogpost about a discussion of sexual harassment that had recently taken place at a skeptics’ conference in the US: “Dear Muslima,” Dawkins wrote to an imagined Muslim woman, “Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and … yawn … don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car … But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.”

The attempt at satire went down badly: Dawkins appeared to be dismissing any concerns about sexual harassment (“He spoke some words to her. Just words,”) and doing so by ranking the experiences of women. He later apologised, but it marked, for Christina, a “disappointing and discouraging” turn for Dawkins, who had become, in her eyes, “so troubling, in such serious ways, and in particular so stubbornly troubling”.

Dawkins has always called himself a “passionate” feminist. As a fellow at New College, he agitated to allow women to be admitted, a change that occurred in 1979. “I show my feminism very largely in the Islamic context,” he said. “Because if women are having a hard time anywhere in the world, it’s there … I get impatient with American feminists who are so obsessed with being looked at inappropriately over the water cooler at work or whatever it is, that they forget that there are women being literally stoned to death for the crime of being raped.”

No, we don’t. We don’t forget. I, for instance, write about both. A lot.

His position has been interpreted in unfortunate ways by some of his followers. “Because he’s such a hero in the movement,” the American feminist Ophelia Benson said, “that gave a green light to an awful lot of people in the movement who thought it was okay to harass [feminists].” In recent years, online sceptic forums have been deluged with bilious anti-feminist posts and crude photoshopped images of women.

In an attempt to quell the increasingly unpleasant tone of discussion, Dawkins released a statement last August, jointly written with Benson, calling for an end to the online abuse. Dawkins added a personal footnote: “I’m told that some people think I tacitly endorse such things even if I don’t indulge in them. Needless to say, I’m horrified by that suggestion. Any person who tries to intimidate members of our community with threats or harassment is in no way my ally and is only weakening the atheist movement.”

A few weeks later he was back on Twitter writing comments about how a drunk woman’s evidence was unreliable in a rape trial. Why? “Because I not only care passionately about truth, I care passionately about justice.” (Should it not worry him more that such a tiny proportion of rape cases make it to court at all? “Oh absolutely … I care very passionately about that, of course I do.”) Benson, who had encouraged Dawkins to write the statement in the first place, looked on in despair. “No, no, Richard,” she remembered thinking. “That was not the idea.”

Yup. That is what I thought.

But don’t worry: the balance sheet comes out right.

“Ultimately, will his net impact be positive?” Krauss asked. “I think the answer’s yes. For all the intelligentsia and all the people who are offended, I see a much larger audience that I hadn’t appreciated for whom these issues are brand new.”

Again, I will avoid the obvious retorts. I’m tired of uttering them.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Why wouldn’t you call on the king to issue a royal pardon?

Jun 9th, 2015 7:32 am | By

Oh, do better, State Department. Come on.

Via Paul Fidalgo at The Morning Heresy – a passage from the daily press briefing at State.

QUESTION: Saudi Arabia.


QUESTION: Do you have any comment or reaction on the upholding by the supreme court of the blogger’s verdict and punishment by flogging?

MR RATHKE: We are deeply concerned that the Saudi supreme court has upheld the 10-year prison sentence and 1,000 lashes for human rights activist and blogger Raif Badawi for exercising his rights to freedom of expression and religion. As we had previously said back in January, the United States Government continues to call on Saudi authorities to cancel this brutal punishment and to review Badawi’s case and sentence. We strongly oppose laws, including apostasy laws, that restrict the exercise of freedom of expression, and we urge all countries to uphold these.

QUESTION: So would you like to see this – the court said the only way it could be overturned was with a royal pardon. Would you be – are you looking for the new king to grant a pardon in this case?

MR RATHKE: Well, I don’t have anything further to say about the internal workings of how Saudi authorities may address the case, but I would go back to our call on Saudi authorities to cancel this punishment and to review the case and review the sentence.

QUESTION: Well, that sounds to me like you’re calling for the king to pardon him.

MR RATHKE: I don’t have –

QUESTION: Well, if you called on them –

MR RATHKE: — more to say about –

QUESTION: — back in January to review the case and then to cancel the punishment, they have reviewed it now, the court has at least, and upheld it. So you still want it to be reviewed and – the case to be reviewed and the punishment to be canceled, correct? That’s what I’m hearing.

MR RATHKE: Yeah, that’s our answer.

QUESTION: The only way – the court says the only way that that can happen is if a royal pardon is issued. Ergo, or does that mean that you are calling on the king to issue a pardon?

MR RATHKE: I’m not going to go beyond what I said. That’s –

QUESTION: Well, then it doesn’t sound like – I mean, if you won’t call on the king to issue a pardon, which is what the court says is the only way that the punishment or the case can be dismissed, then I don’t understand what the point of you getting up here and saying that you’re deeply concerned about it is because you’re clearly not going to do anything – do the one thing that – or call on the king to do the one thing that –

MR RATHKE: To go back to the verb you used earlier, I’m not going to parse the Saudi court’s decision. But the United States Government’s view remains that we believe that the punishment should be canceled and that the case and the sentence should be reviewed.

QUESTION: But if the only way that that can happen is by royal pardon, why wouldn’t you call on the king to issue a royal pardon?

MR RATHKE: I just don’t have anything further to say on that one.

Thanks for nothing.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)


Jun 8th, 2015 5:47 pm | By

A couple of people who dislike one or more of my recent posts have explained their thinking to me via…


Why do people do that? What is the point? They could comment here, they could email me, they could (if they’re friends) talk to me on Facebook…but instead they choose the medium where you can write only 140 characters at a time.


It always fills me with a vast weariness when people do that.

  1. Blurt
  2. Blurt
  3. Blurt

Ok, now what? There are things I can say to each blurt, but what is the point? I don’t want to blurt. I want to be able to use however many characters I need for the purpose. I don’t want to engage in a dance of blurts.

So I just sigh and ignore the blurts.

Seriously, if you want to talk to me about something complicated, do it anywhere but Twitter. Twitter is the wrong damn medium for that.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Guest post: This shared frame for solidarity has been missing

Jun 8th, 2015 5:29 pm | By

Originally a comment by Salty Current* on Living in the box [guest post by Seth].

There are so many other things going on here. Survival. Solidarity. Empathy. To me those are the keys… not making sure everyone is on the same page theoretically. Imagine one person saying, “I’m just trying to breathe here” and receiving the answer, “But what does that mean for ME?”

This strikes me as a strange argument. Taking into consideration how our actions affect others who are oppressed and struggling, listening to their concerns and taking them into account, is pretty much the definition of solidarity.

There was a great interview by Chris Hayes of Brittney Cooper several months ago, at the time the hidden-camera street harassment video went viral. I think he expected Cooper to basically side with those arguing that the video contributed to racial bias, if inadvertently, and leave it at that. Instead, she recognized the validity of that argument (and expanded it: the reception of the video also tended to sideline the vulnerability of black girls and women to street harassment); but then went on to suggest that black men, rather than focusing on this exclusively, could find their solidarity with women by seeing the problem within a shared framework of wanting to occupy public space and not be harassed – in their case, by police, in women’s, by men. It wasn’t a rhetorical game, but an accurate framing of the problems that could allow people to see their struggles in common terms rather than being set against each other.

It seems to me that this shared frame for solidarity has been missing from the current discussions, but it certainly exists. I’ve been arguing for a while that we can look at these struggles in terms of freedom, specifically freedom of self-definition and self-determination. The existential freedom to craft our identity and our own path rather than being chained to a false essence. The claim to that freedom unites all struggles for liberation, and those who oppose it with essentialist arguments, be they feminists, trans activists, or those hostile to these movements, are opposing liberation.

By the way, I think Lady Mondegreen’s suggestion on the other thread about asking some trans people who want to have a real discussion to write some posts was a good one. I think there are people who for whatever reason want to divide and sow hostility between our groups and movements, but that our goals are actually the same and we can better realize that through dialogue that focuses on what unites us rather than divides us. (And, in purely selfish terms, I’m sure I could learn a lot from it.)

*Yes two in one day. What can I say? She’s on a roll.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

We see that trans people express their gender in diverse ways

Jun 8th, 2015 10:44 am | By

Zinnia has a terrific post from last December explaining how and why trans people got shoved into hyper-gendered boxes.

When it comes to transitioning, many people seem to equate living as a woman with being stereotypically feminine. It’s a common assumption that trans women express their womanhood via conventional or even excessive femininity. Movies and TV shows often depict trans characters as far more feminine than most cis women – at times absurdly so. Tabloids focus on conventionally attractive models and actresses; when Christine Jorgensen became one of the first widely known trans women in 1952, front-page headlines described her as a “blonde beauty”.

Sound familiar? It sounds to me exactly like the reactions to Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover. It sounds exactly like that patronizing “ooooooh great job of being a gorgeous woman!!” commentary, as if that were the whole and only meaning of being a woman.

A 2002 study in Poland used a derivative of the Bem Sex-Role Inventory to evaluate 132 trans people and 438 cis people. Among the cis men, 4% were classified as feminine, 48% as masculine, 24% as androgynous, and 24% as undifferentiated. In comparison, trans men were more likely to be rated feminine, less likely to be masculine, and more likely to be androgynous. These results don’t really align with the suggestion that trans men exhibit stereotypical or excessive masculinity. And among cis women, 34% were rated feminine, 16% masculine, 28% androgynous, and 22% undifferentiated. While no trans women were classified as masculine, only 52% were rated feminine, with the remainder being androgynous or undifferentiated. Trans women were actually more likely to be rated androgynous than cis women.

A 2012 study in Spain used the inventory to examine 156 cis people and 121 trans people, with somewhat different results. Here, trans women were less likely to be rated feminine than cis women, and more likely to be rated androgynous and undifferentiated. Trans men were, again, more likely than cis men to be classified as feminine, and less likely to be masculine.

Neither of these studies supports the idea that trans people are any more extremely masculine or feminine than cis people. Instead, we see that trans people express their gender in diverse ways, much as cis people do.

So, she asks, why do the stereotypes persist?

To understand this, it’s necessary to look at the history of how gender dysphoria is defined and diagnosed.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, the medical community finally began to recognize gender dysphoria as a treatable condition. They now faced the questions of how to determine if a person is trans, and whether transition treatments are appropriate for them. At a time when the very idea of medical transition was widely unfamiliar to the public, therapists and doctors aimed to make the process seem legitimate and unchallenging to social norms.

How to do that? By “ensuring that any trans people who were accepted would conform closely to gender stereotypes.”

In a 1973 paper, Dr. Norman Fisk of the Stanford gender clinic listed certain factors pertaining to “the overall team decision as to acceptability for sex conversion”. Among these were “appreciation of core gender principles” and “physical passability” – the degree to which a trans woman was perceived as indistinguishable from a cis woman.

So what exactly were those “core gender principles”? A 1971 paper by Stoller contains a lengthy description of what he believed to be the defining features of trans women and trans men. As children, trans women are depicted as “developing a feminine gracefulness of movement”, drawing “beautiful women”, identifying with feminine women in television or movies, and enjoying “trying on jewelry and makeup”.

And so on.

Trans people had a powerful incentive to meet these clinical standards: their ability to transition was at stake. The problem, of course, was that these criteria were based on archaic gender norms. Women were expected to be feminine, conventionally attractive, interested in jewelry, straight, emotional, lacking sexual interest, and married to men. Men were expected to be masculine, interested in sports and construction, and take straight women as partners. Dr. Fisk actually stated that the Stanford program offered “grooming clinics where role-appropriate behaviors are taught, explained and practiced”.

In short, these clinics seemingly aimed to produce only people who were as stereotypical in their gender as possible, perhaps not realizing that cis women may also be tomboyish, sexually outgoing, or attracted to women. There is evidence that this kind of selection process is still occurring: a 2004 study of 325 trans people seeking treatment in the Netherlands found that patients were more likely to be referred for hormone therapy when their appearance was perceived to align more closely with their gender.

Boxes boxes boxes. Rigid hard immovable boxes.

Cis people set these stereotypical standards. We conformed to them against our own inclinations. And cis people now have an entrenched stereotype of us as overly feminine. Well, whose fault is that?

I’m gonna guess cis people’s?

For trans women, transitioning tends to involve a reduction in attributes perceived as male, and an increase in attributes perceived as female. On our own, we can grow our hair out, change the way we dress, and practice altering our voice and how we walk. Medical treatment can change our facial appearance, give us a more feminine body shape, reduce our body hair, and enhance our breast growth. If the Kessler and McKenna study on gender cues is applicable to everyday life, this suggests a newfound abundance of female cues could mean we don’t have to pay as much attention to maintaining all of them. Once many of them are solidly in place, it might start to feel less like we have to push our gender cues to the maximum.

In my experience, the difference has been substantial. Before, I felt like I was walking a tightrope, constantly making sure my presentation was in perfect balance to avoid being misgendered. But after two years of transitioning, I’ve realized that I just don’t care – and now, neither does anyone else. Nowadays, makeup is a rare indulgence. I’ve shaved half my hair off because I just felt like it. I don’t need padded bras anymore, and I don’t usually bother with bras at all. I have a huge trans tattoo on my chest. For me, transitioning didn’t mean turning into Bree from Transamerica – I’m more like some kind of frumpy dubstep housewife. That’s because my gender is finally for me, not for everyone else.

I used to get mistaken for a man occasionally – but the difference is it didn’t matter. That was my privilege.

[This is a long and brilliant piece, with illustrations; read the whole thing.]

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Guest post: Compliments aren’t something separate from this problem

Jun 8th, 2015 8:35 am | By

Originally a comment by Salty Current on Nail polish.

I think part of the problem is the conflation of identity with all of the cultural baggage that’s come to be associated with being a man or a woman. I’ve always felt that I’m a woman, felt that my woman’s body was “right,” and this has never had anything whatsoever to do with my preferences, interests, emotions, or abilities. I didn’t question whether I was a boy because I liked sports and math and had no interest in dolls or having children. I wasn’t confirmed in my girlness because I nurtured (stuffed and real) animals or liked playing with other girls or dancing. The thought that I might actually be a boy simply never occurred to me, and in the years since, as I’ve learned about people whose experience was very different, I understood them but still never shared that experience. And I believe this is true of everyone: people understand their identity, however complex that might be; they don’t develop that identity on the basis of what they like or what interests them. I’m sometimes a man in my dreams, but I don’t wake up confused about my identity.

I just don’t think there’s a connection – I don’t think trans women know they’re women because they like nail polish or weddings or whatever is associated with women in their culture. I think they know they’re women, and then, like everyone else in the culture, often have (stupid) ideas about what that entails.

None of the nonsense associating women with some things and men with others is the fault of trans people. They can reproduce it, as we all can, but the problem is with the culture generally. So when I as a feminist challenge some aspect of patriarchy – including the media or public response to a trans woman – I’m not trying to lay the problem at their door.

I didn’t read the Jezebel thing, or your post about it, Ophelia, or any of the surrounding arguments, but I did read Alex Gabriel’s post here at FTB, and in general I don’t think I agreed. I almost commented at his blog, but pretty quickly decided it was a bad idea given the probable appearance of the asshole flash mob. You’d think they’d have enough spaces what with Pharyngula, the Pharyngula FB group, the Atheism+ forum, all of their own FB pages, etc., etc. But no – they have to swarm comment threads everywhere they can (where have I seen that before…?) to squelch discussion by launching attacks and throwing out misrepresentations. I’m not at all happy with Gabriel for giving them another space in which to do it.

Anyway, I found his post strange and unconvincing. He asks at one point something like “Are compliments only acceptable for cis white women?” It’s a bizarre question. The point isn’t about compliments, but about a culture we inhabit as women. Women raised as girls,* from the very moment we’re born, are responded to based on our appearance. We’re looked at, watched, assessed, compared, judged, commented on in our presence or absence, chastised, warned about our fate as we age, instructed on how to be properly decorative, and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on. And we see this happen to other women. There’s no escape, and it’s unimaginably tedious. We all have one life, and we have to put up with this bullshit?

Compliments aren’t something separate from this problem – they’re part of it. Within this system, every compliment carries several messages to women: “I have the right to assess and comment upon your appearance,” “You should heed my opinion,” “Your value is in how you look,” “You should respond positively,” “You can always face a different judgment,” and occasionally “I’m threatening.” In this perverse environment, some compliments I outwardly greet with a smile meet with an internal “Go fuck yourself.” But like almost every woman, I’ve been shaped by this culture – of course I can’t just leave it behind practically speaking, but I also can’t just erase all of my responses to it.

And this is terrible. We all like compliments. In all cultures, people work to make themselves attractive (and this can be fun when it’s not felt as an obligation or necessity or impossibility), and enjoy it when others express appreciation for their efforts. But our system of appreciation of physical beauty is so distorted in so many ways, and especially when it comes to women, that we can’t separate even an ostensibly complimentary focus on a woman’s appearance from it. I would trade never being on the receiving end of another compliment for an end to this system, for a culture in which equality reigns, in which appearance is just one part of how everyone is seen, in which tastes aren’t shaped by commercial interests, in which “dressing up” is for special events, in which no one is derided or held back for not measuring up to anyone else’s standards of attractiveness.

So…the cover. I’ll say at the outset that I’m thrilled for Caitlyn Jenner. I hope she lives in happiness every moment of her liberation, with her family by her side. I’m also thrilled for the innumerable other trans people her brave decision will help. I’m not interested in her political views, which, judging by the Sawyer interview, are fairly conservative rubbish. But I honestly had forgotten even that she was an Olympic athlete. When I googled and was reminded, I had a memory of the 1976 Olympics, at which Bruce Jenner won the decathlon. I was glued to the gymnastics, where 14-year-old Nadia Comăneci received a perfect 10 and the gold. I was awed. When they had a tour of the gymnastics Olympians across the US, my best friend and I went and were enthralled. They were strong, athletic, and impressive girls. Not once did I think they were boys, or that we were boys for thinking how fantastic it was. It was just another step in the “this is part of what it is or can be to be a woman – we’re not restricted” advance.

I won’t judge Caitlyn Jenner on her choices; nor do I think she’s responsible for all of the commentary that surrounds the VF cover. I’m not saying she did it wrong. But she was a world class athlete. It would have been amazing had the cover shown her running (does she still? does she have injuries?) or doing something athletic. It would have been great had she contributed to the understanding that “woman” is expansive, not an essence but an existence, not a corset but a leap.

* Obviously the identity-experience issue is complicated: men raised as girls and women raised as boys, for example, have more complex experiences.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Guest post: Living in the box

Jun 8th, 2015 8:15 am | By

Originally a comment by Seth on We need to talk.

I think Ian Cromwell (, formerly of this very blogging nexus) has made some very cogent analyses of race that can, mutatis mutandis, be appropriated to gender analysis with respect to gender identity and gender expression. To paraphrase Ian, race is a social construct, and as such is equal parts ‘how one sees oneself’ and ‘how one is seen by everyone else’. (There is more involved, to be sure, but Ian’s archives are free for the perusal of the curious.)

Similarly, I think gender can be described as a confluence of ‘how one sees oneself’ and ‘how one is seen by everyone else’. Ophelia, MrFancyPants, and I are more-or-less comfortable with the gross dynamics of how we’re seen by ‘everyone else’ in regards to our genders, though indeed we all have some very strong disagreements of the specific assumptions that come along with that assignation. None of the three of us particularly identify with being men or women very strongly, in the same way that Ophelia and I don’t particularly identify with being white people. We understand that that is how we fall under the social classification system, we acknowledge it, and we don’t feel misidentified when other people look at us and say ‘Oh, there goes a [woman/man/white person]’. (Of course I’m being a bit presumptive, but I think it’s a fairly safe presumption, given my familiarity with Ophelia’s archive; I’m open to correction.)

Indeed, this is the very definition of what it means to be cisgender: when society (aka ‘everyone else’) looks at us and shoves us into a box, we do not grumble about the label on the lid of the box. We don’t feel a fundamental wrongness with the overall shape of the box. We could take or leave it, really. For many people like us (and, indeed, for the three specific people I’ve named here, including myself), we might disagree with the colour of the box, or with some of the other items that get shoved into the box along with us that we’re expected to contort ourselves to accommodate, but the box itself isn’t the issue.

For transgender people, however, the box is very much the issue. When they get shoved into their box, they cannot recognise the shape that it contorts them into. Or, more analytically and less analogously, their self-identification does not match with how ‘everyone else’ identifies them. And, when you know that EVERYONE ELSE is wrong about you in such a fundamental way, when you feel it in the marrow of your bones, it is very, very tempting to build up mental systems wherein your own perception of yourself is the only valid and acceptable perception. The seeming alternative is self-invalidation and self-alienation, wherein you try to conform to the society’s identification of you instead of the truth you know about yourself…and I don’t need to spell out how that tends to work out, I hope.

Currently, some transgender people are staking the claim that their own perception is the only one that should matter in the social construct of gender. To descend into analogy again, they are climbing out of the boxes that other people have shoved them into and are crawling into boxes that they feel more comfortable in. The more comfortable boxes are very important to their self-identity, and their broader mental and emotional health.

One of the goals of modern feminist critique, as I understand (and attempt, in my own inept way, to practice) it, is to liberate everyone from the necessity for the (gendered) boxes entirely. To build a world in which the only relevant box is ‘human’ or even, perhaps, ‘sentient creature’, into which more-or-less everyone should be able to find a corner that fits them well without causing anyone else harm. A world in which people are ‘just folks’, where there isn’t a such thing as ‘people’ as opposed to ‘female people’. The more proximate goal is to make all of the individual boxes more accommodating, looser, so that each person in their own box has freedom to shift around without being packed so tightly by all of the objects (read: gendered expectations) that are also shoved into the box with them. To someone with such goals, the fact that someone else wants to crawl into a box, with all its constricting objects, can be somewhat incomprehensible.

Contrariwise, to someone who’s spent their whole life railing against the confines of their box, it can feel like any criticism of their decision to find a more personally-accommodating box is the same as saying ‘Your ill-fitting box shouldn’t bother you so much! In fact, you should stay in it and make it fit you better, and help all of us eventually destroy the boxes!’ Even if that isn’t what the critic is implying, or even intending to imply. Even worse is the all-too-frequent ‘You aren’t even in the box you think you’re in; you’ve just redecorated your own box, badly, into a parody of what our box is supposed to look like.’

After enough time having to battle those kinds of perceptions, of having your own self-identification invalidated by (almost) everybody, it is not surprising that so many transgender people are not only claiming the fact of their boxes, but championing them, and using what few means are at their disposal to try and reframe the narrative to support their self-identification. At the same time, this seems like an invalidation of literally centuries of work that have gone into deconstructing gender roles.

The boxes need to be destroyed, but that is going to take a lot of hard, long, slogging work. In the doing of that work, we cannot lose sight of the fact that the boxes still exist, and must be made as comfortable as possible for as long as that’s true. I hope there is a way to unite the seemingly-disparate goals of gender critique and transgender activism. Both goals are worthy, and necessary, and I firmly believe the conflicts within them are mainly topical and surmountable.

Trans people are people. One day, “people” will have to be enough for the lot of us. Until then, though, we’ve got a lot of work to do.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

We need to talk

Jun 7th, 2015 6:26 pm | By

Jane Clare Jones at Trouble and Strife puts it this way:

Feminism, as a political movement aimed at the liberation of women, has long theorized gender not as an innate essence, but as a hierarchical system enforcing women’s subservience. Characterizing certain personality traits – compliance, nurturance, the desire to be pretty or objectified – as ‘natural’ to women, is, according to feminist analysis, a primary mechanism for maintaining gender hierarchy. As a result, many feminists have genuine questions about trans ideology’s assertion that ‘gender identity’ is both natural and universal. It comes perilously close to naturalizing the oppression of women.

This is not trivial, and it needs to be discussed. But it has been decreed that it cannot be discussed, because to discuss it is to ‘deny the right of trans people to exist.’ Trans ideology collapses the fact that trans people exist into the theory of why trans people exist, and judges anyone who questions the theory to be a transphobic bigot intent on denying the very existence of trans people. Indeed, even those trans women who persist in existing despite subscribing to the feminist critique of gender are denounced by many in their community as self-hating or treacherous. This is argument by non-argument, and it functions to close down discourse by rendering feminism’s long-held analysis of gender unsayable.

Well it doesn’t make it unsayable in general, I think – but it makes it unsayable in a context of discussing trans issues. Maybe cis feminists shouldn’t be discussing trans issues. But then again trans issues are becoming more mainstream – which is a good thing, right? More visibility, thus (eventually, one hopes) more understanding? But the more mainstream the issues are, the more influence they have. That’s why I felt the impulse to do a very brief post asking questions about Jezebel’s commentary on Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover, certainly – because it was out there.

Undergirded by an appeal to boy-brains and girl-brains, trans ideology’s core commitment is that a person’s gender is nothing other than their gender identity. Gender resides entirely in an individual’s private experience of ‘feeling like’ a man or a woman, and therefore, if an individual declares that they feel like a woman, then they are a woman, and moreover have always been a woman, in exactly the same way as non-trans women have always been women.

Ahhh but that’s just it, you see. I never have straightforwardly “felt like a woman” – and neither have many of the women I know. For all I know none of them have. It’s not like that. It’s much more muddled than that. Most of the time I don’t feel like anything in that way – I just be; I exist. I don’t just straightforwardly identify with being a woman; I never have. I can more easily say I identify with being a feminist than I can with being a woman.

Maybe that itself is cis privilege – not identifying that way because you don’t have to. But it’s not always a privilege, certainly. Much of the time I would rather just be a human. That’s part of the appeal of gender-neutral nyms, isn’t it.

From a feminist perspective what is lost in this account is the entire structure of gender as a system of oppression, a system which functions by identifying a person’s reproductive potential and then socializing women to fulfil the role of a member of the reproductive class. For many non-trans women the idea that the essence of being a woman resides in ‘feeling like’ a woman, is not so much wrong as incomprehensible. Our experience of womanhood is not an internal feeling, but a lifelong process of being subjected to – and revolting against – very specific social sanctions and expectations. Be quiet. Look pretty. Make yourself small. Smile. Don’t be too demanding. Accommodate other people.

Quite. That’s not something women necessarily identify with, or something they “feel like.” It’s something imposed.

I don’t for instance “feel like” the Bravo TV conception of women, which is a series of “Real Housewives” and other brands of wives or girlfriends or other related-to-man categories. That’s not my idea of women and it’s sure as hell not my idea of myself.

But it’s also the case that I don’t feel wrong or not at home or anything like that about my gender, but other people do. People vary. That’s fine.

But we need to be able to talk about it.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Blogging is NOT a crime

Jun 7th, 2015 4:54 pm | By

Amnesty International:

URGENT: We’ve just heard that Saudi Arabia’s Supreme Court has decided to uphold Raif Badawi’s sentence of 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison. Let’s remind them that blogging is NOT a crime!


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Terrible news

Jun 7th, 2015 4:42 pm | By

From the Guardian:

The cruel and unjust sentence passed on the Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, 10 years in jail and 1,000 lashes, has been upheld by the supreme court in Riyadh. Hopes that the court might reduce or even commute the sentence, particularly as the holy fast of Ramadan begins next week, have been dashed. The only remaining appeal now is to the Saudi monarch, King Salman. From Quebec, where she has been granted asylum with their children, Mr Badawi’s wife Ensaf Haidar has said that she fears the public flogging – 50 lashes at a time every Friday after prayers – might resume as soon as this Friday.

I’ve often quarreled with the Guardian, but it gets this one right:

Mr Badawi’s sentence is a brutal exercise in public intimidation. He has challenged Saudi Arabia’s autocratic and religious state, and even though his arguments could not be more carefully and modestly expressed, to hold them at all is incompatible with the regime under which he lives.

So what kind of regime is that?

As this newspaper has argued before, Saudi Arabia ought to be treated as a global pariah. It is a source of a particular strain of jihadist poison, of fanatical preachers, and of young men, like the 9/11 hijackers, who threaten both the west and the whole Middle East by their readiness to fight, often in the cause of Wahhabist Islam. For the past month, a Saudi blockade has been imperilling thousands of innocent Yemenis, and aerial bombardment by Saudi jets is killing scores more. Yet the kingdom continues to be treated with honour by western powers. Britain buys Saudi oil and courts Saudi trade. Even free speech in the UK has been curtailed in order to avoid giving offence to so rich and powerful an ally. Of all the European powers, only Sweden has been prepared to jeopardise relations and its arms trade by taking a stand.

Mr Badawi will never have doubted what a challenge he posed to the kingdom. He will have understood the retribution that it was likely to bring down on his head. It is the kind of courage that demands to be recognised and honoured by everyone who respects human rights. We are and we remain Raif Badawi.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Nail polish

Jun 7th, 2015 10:46 am | By

Elinor Burkett wrote a think piece for today’s New York Times.

She asks if women and men have different brains, and notes that an affirmative answer to that question has been known to elicit heated dissent.

But when Bruce Jenner said much the same thing in an April interview with Diane Sawyer, he was lionized for his bravery, even for his progressivism.

“My brain is much more female than it is male,” he told her, explaining how he knew that he was transgender.

This was the prelude to a new photo spread and interview in Vanity Fair that offered us a glimpse into Caitlyn Jenner’s idea of a woman: a cleavage-boosting corset, sultry poses, thick mascara and the prospect of regular “girls’ nights” of banter about hair and makeup. Ms. Jenner was greeted with even more thunderous applause.

And some doubts or questions or amplifications, from Laverne Cox for instance.

And from Burkett.

A part of me winced.

I have fought for many of my 68 years against efforts to put women — our brains, our hearts, our bodies, even our moods — into tidy boxes, to reduce us to hoary stereotypes. Suddenly, I find that many of the people I think of as being on my side — people who proudly call themselves progressive and fervently support the human need for self-determination — are buying into the notion that minor differences in male and female brains lead to major forks in the road and that some sort of gendered destiny is encoded in us.

There’s a tension. I’ve said that before, and I might say it again. There’s a tension between the idea that gender is socially constructed and we get to shape it any way we want to, and the idea that it’s firmly binary and we are one or the other with no overlap or shaping allowed. This whole thing is just riddled with tensions, and it’s not transphobic to try to think about them.

That’s the kind of nonsense that was used to repress women for centuries. But the desire to support people like Ms. Jenner and their journey toward their truest selves has strangely and unwittingly brought it back.

It has, and that’s one thing that some feminists feel uneasy about. It’s not transphobic or trans-excluding to say that.

Brains are a good place to begin because one thing that science has learned about them is that they’re in fact shaped by experience, cultural and otherwise. The part of the brain that deals with navigation is enlarged in London taxi drivers, as is the region dealing with the movement of the fingers of the left hand in right-handed violinists.

“You can’t pick up a brain and say ‘that’s a girl’s brain’ or ‘that’s a boy’s brain,’ ” Gina Rippon, a neuroscientist at Britain’s Aston University, told The Telegraph last year. The differences between male and female brains are caused by the “drip, drip, drip” of the gendered environment, she said.

Along with a bunch of other drip drip drips. The gendered environment is obviously not the only one, but it’s equally obviously one.

THE drip, drip, drip of Ms. Jenner’s experience included a hefty dose of male privilege few women could possibly imagine. While young “Bruiser,” as Bruce Jenner was called as a child, was being cheered on toward a university athletic scholarship, few female athletes could dare hope for such largess since universities offered little funding for women’s sports. When Mr. Jenner looked for a job to support himself during his training for the 1976 Olympics, he didn’t have to turn to the meager “Help Wanted – Female” ads in the newspapers, and he could get by on the $9,000 he earned annually, unlike young women whose median pay was little more than half that of men. Tall and strong, he never had to figure out how to walk streets safely at night.

Those are realities that shape women’s brains.

By defining womanhood the way he did to Ms. Sawyer, Mr. Jenner and the many advocates for transgender rights who take a similar tack ignore those realities. In the process, they undermine almost a century of hard-fought arguments that the very definition of female is a social construct that has subordinated us. And they undercut our efforts to change the circumstances we grew up with.

In other words, some trans women embrace the very definitions of “woman” that feminists have been trying to shake off for (I would say) well over a century.

The “I was born in the wrong body” rhetoric favored by other trans people doesn’t work any better and is just as offensive, reducing us to our collective breasts and vaginas. Imagine the reaction if a young white man suddenly declared that he was trapped in the wrong body and, after using chemicals to change his skin pigmentation and crocheting his hair into twists, expected to be embraced by the black community.

I have; I have tried to imagine that. It makes me cringe every time. Why would it be so cringe-worthy? Because the young (or old) white man (or woman) would not have had the experience of being seen and treated as a black person.

But that ship has sailed. Fine; I wish it a safe voyage, a safe and happy and scenic voyage. But I would like to go on being able to ask searching questions about gender and the status of women. I would like to go on being able to talk about women.

Even the word “woman” has come under assault by some of the very people who claim the right to be considered women. The hashtags #StandWithTexasWomen, popularized after Wendy Davis, then a state senator, attempted to filibuster the Texas Legislature to prevent passage of a draconian anti-abortion law, and #WeTrustWomen, are also under attack since they, too, are exclusionary.

“Abortion rights and reproductive justice is not a women’s issue,” wrote Emmett Stoffer, one of many self-described transgender persons to blog on the topic. It is “a uterus owner’s issue.” Mr. Stoffer was referring to the possibility that a woman who is taking hormones or undergoing surgery to become a man, or who does not identify as a woman, can still have a uterus, become pregnant and need an abortion.

Accordingly, abortion rights groups are under pressure to modify their mission statements to omit the word woman, as Katha Pollitt recently reported in The Nation. Those who have given in, like the New York Abortion Access Fund, now offer their services to “people” and to “callers.” Fund Texas Women, which covers the travel and hotel expenses of abortion seekers with no nearby clinic, recently changed its name to Fund Texas Choice. “With a name like Fund Texas Women, we were publicly excluding trans people who needed to get an abortion but were not women,” the group explains on its website.

I think it’s ok for people who provide services to make sure they’re not accidentally excluding trans people. It’s when we’re talking about (and/or working on) the politics of abortion that I think we really need to go on talking about women, because the politics of abortion is inextricably linked to the subordination of women.

The landscape that’s being mapped and the language that comes with it are impossible to understand and just as hard to navigate. The most theory-bound of the trans activists say that there are no paradoxes here, and that anyone who believes there are is clinging to a binary view of gender that’s hopelessly antiquated. Yet Ms. Jenner and Ms. Manning, to mention just two, expect to be called women even as the abortion providers are being told that using that term is discriminatory. So are those who have transitioned from men the only “legitimate” women left?

Are trans women better (truer) feminists than cis women?

The struggle to move beyond such stereotypes is far from over, and trans activists could be women’s natural allies moving forward. So long as humans produce X and Y chromosomes that lead to the development of penises and vaginas, almost all of us will be “assigned” genders at birth. But what we do with those genders — the roles we assign ourselves, and each other, based on them — is almost entirely mutable.

If that’s the ultimate message of the mainstream of the trans community, we’ll happily, lovingly welcome them to the fight to create space for everyone to express him-, her- or, in gender neutral parlance, hir-self without being coerced by gendered expectations. But undermining women’s identities, and silencing, erasing or renaming our experiences, aren’t necessary to that struggle.

Bruce Jenner told Ms. Sawyer that what he looked forward to most in his transition was the chance to wear nail polish, not for a furtive, fugitive instant, but until it chips off. I want that for Bruce, now Caitlyn, too. But I also want her to remember: Nail polish does not a woman make.

Nor does the absence of nail polish make a man. I was fascinated by the paraphernalia of Being a Grownup Woman when I was a child, but once I was old enough to start deploying it for real, I got sick of it in a heartbeat. Some women like it; some don’t. Drip, drip, drip.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)