Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Rationalization of Misogyny: Why I left the Vegan Skeptic Community

Some time ago,  as some of you know, there was a rift in the abolitionist movement.

Gary Francione made waves in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement when he published Rain without Thunder:  The Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement in 1996.  A masterpiece in many ways, it forced a lot of us to rethink how we go about Nonhuman Animal liberation.  I am an ardent supporter of 99% of Francione's work.  Honestly, it's the best thing we have going in this movement.

That said, many of you are aware that I take issue with Francione's position on atheism and feminism.  I won't rehash those points here, but given those developments, myself and a few other activists thought it prudent to branch off and begin a new project, one that valued rationality.  As a scientist and an atheist, this position seemed well-suited to my worldview.  I began to advocate for a rational, evidence-based approach to Nonhuman Animal liberation.  Instead of drawing on personal beliefs, religion, experience, etc., I have argued that we need to hold our tactics and theory up to scrutiny.  Does it work?  And does it work for the right reasons?  If not, we're not making any headway.  As Francione argued himself in Rain without Thunder, it's time to abandon personal allegiances, idol-worship, and comfortable (but ineffective) approaches.

And so I became an ardent supporter of VeganUK, a small internet community that favors a rational approach and offers a safe space for atheists to connect and collaborate.  I started publishing papers and blogging about our new approach.  I became an administrator for the VeganUK Facebook group.  I became an editor for their magazine, The Abolitionist (now in a webpage format).  I spent hours and hours at this non-paid position because my heart was in it, because I really believed in the project.

At this time, I was also studying sociological gender theory pretty heavily.  Teaching gender at the university level, I became immersed in the research on gender inequality, rape culture, and patriarchy.  It was starting to inform my work.  I noticed at this time that other feminists who also valued a rational approach to Nonhuman Animal advocacy were routinely being shouted out and then banned from VeganUK.  The community rules, in so many words, stated that if you don't hold up to scrutiny, you get the boot.  Which is fine if we're valuing rationality, but it soon became clear that this was a ruse to subdue critical feminist thought. There was intense pressure on female group members to agree with the men and ignore the feminist experience that shows women another side to reality that men are more or less blind to.

You see, the utopian dream of rationality is achieving 100% objectivity.  But this dream of pure objectivity completely obscures the fact that human beings are themselves tools of measurement.  Humans are products of socialization, they are prone to error and bias.  The scientific method works to reduce bias, but it cannot account for how one's identity shapes the very questions we choose to ask.  Neither can it assure that how we choose to research the question and how we interpret the results is done with complete objectivity.  So long as the human factor is involved, there will always be bias.  Feminists argue that recognizing differential socialization and privilege is a more honest approach to a scientific inquiry into social inequality.  Social beings studying the social are never divorced from the social.  If you can't get rid of bias, the next best thing to do is own up to it.  If your tool is imperfect, you will have imperfect results.  Pretending the imperfection isn't there is unprofessional, dishonest, and often dangerous.

In advocating this position, a position widely accepted within the scientific community, taught to students of science, and often required in scientific publications, I was ridiculed as "unscientific" by individuals in the group with zero scientific training themselves.  Apparently being a male atheist skeptic with a few pop-science books on their shelf makes them experts on science.  I disagree.  I think their claim to expertise (with zero qualifications to support it) is a prop for patriarchal oppression:  A means to sound important, authoritative, and wise to protect the white male position and delegitimize marginalized voices.

I will not rehash the illogical and often hateful "rationalist" arguments some vegan men are using to adulterate feminist theory, I don't think they warrant any further platform.  The atheist movement itself, where much of this anti-feminist rhetoric originates, is rife with sexist claimsmaking and abusive treatment of women.  A few years ago, feminists in the atheist (rational/skeptic/humanist/free-thinker) community began to speak out against the harassment they'd been enduring online and at conventions.  Prominent male leaders either ignored or mocked their complaints.  In response, many women and their allies created "Atheism+", where intersectionality is encouraged and social inequalities are explored through a rationalist lens.

It was not enough to dissect the role of religion in oppressing humans in general.  When we operate according to generics (i.e. "humans," "humanity," or "mankind"), we more often than not default to the experience of privileged, white, heterosexual men.  We need a more nuanced approach that recognizes how the white male experience is not the universal experience.  Atheism+ proponents argue that the unique circumstances of marginalized experiences are largely ignored in atheist activism.  As the popularity of Atheism+ increased, atheism was no longer seen as a space for men to reassert their white male superiority and mock religious people (who, by the way, are often from vulnerable non-white, non-male demographics).  Atheism was now about inclusivity and compassion for at-risk populations.  Needless to say, the boy's club wasn't too happy about this.

The rift in the atheist community remains.  Female free-thinkers have launched new web spaces and an annual women's conference, but many men in the movement continue to belittle feminists and harass them.  At this year's Women in Secularism conference, the Center for Inquiry's CEO Ron Lindsay opened the event with a speech bemoaning how feminist critique was nothing more than a means to silence men.  The realities of patriarchy are completely lost on even those men supposedly in support of the feminist approach to free-thought.

The rational approach, more often than not, hides behind masculine ideology and the rhetoric of rationality to bully, intimidate, and ultimately silence women, people of color, and other vulnerable persons.  As often as rationality is used to liberate, it is used to oppress and maintain inequality.  Rather than prioritizing criticism and discourse, it becomes a legitimized means of stifling marginalized voices to the benefit of privileged white males.

As I am writing this, one the leaders of VeganUK is stalking my every move online.  He is watching everything I post here, on Twitter, on my Facebook page for this blog, and who knows where else.  He is stalking me, but also screencapping things he finds objectionable, then emailing me with those images as "evidence" (evidence of what, I wonder?  That I have a vagina with a brain to back it up?).  He fills up my inbox with threats to sue me for voicing free speech over public content that I find problematic and sexist.  Apparently free speech, rational thought, and criticism is appropriate only when it does not target privileged white men like himself.  As a woman who has been a victim of violence at the hands of men who have stalked me, I find it repulsive that I am being monitored. It is male-on-female aggression.  It is a classic misogynistic technique to threaten, frighten, and control women.

As I am writing this, The Abolitionist is hosting my work without my permission.  I contacted four administrators (most of whom I still consider friends) explicitly letting them know that I wanted my work to be removed.  I have no desire to be associated in any way with a group that promotes anti-feminist sentiment.  They continue to refuse my request:  My work is not mine to control.  For a group that claims to promote science and rationality, I was quite shocked that academic dishonesty and blatant theft was actually being defended.  I was told more than once it was up to them to decide what to do with my work.  I never signed any permission for them to use it and I certainly did not sign off any copyright privileges to them as real publications would require (but apparently not required for glorified blogs like The Abolitionist). Nonetheless, they continue to hold it without my permission as though they have ownership.  I believe this is simply another way to reassert male dominance:  It is a reminder to me, a woman, that I am at their paternalist mercy. Any female victim of rape and violence will recognize this as another technique of male aggression intended to maintain female subordination.  It is a relationship of dominance and control.

When men can't shut women up with language of authority, power, and knowledge (more "sophisticated" and legitimated means of controlling women), they simply revert to the tried and true method of harassing and threatening them.  It's no accident that the majority of men who have stalked and harassed me in this movement are educated males disgruntled when I wouldn't engage their scientifically-framed hatefulness.

According to AARDVARC, 1 in 12 women will be stalked at least once in their lifetime (this is 4 times higher than the number of male victims).  87% of stalkers are men. 76% of female murder victims had been stalked.  So, yeah, men know this technique scares women.  Online stalkers in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement are drawing on a culture of misogyny and violence against women to frighten and silence us.

Freedom Earth - Joseph C. Grant, Jr.
A woman's work is never done.  Privilege will always try to silence others to protect itself.  But, as always, onwards and upwards.  I'm still a scientist, I'm still an atheist, I still value rationality, I just keep a skeptical woman's eye on it all from a safe distance.  The vegan skeptic community is a noxious trap for many critical thinking women, and it's nothing I want to be a part of.

If you have not done so already, please check out my new project the Vegan Feminist Network.  The amount of support we've received so far has been extremely rewarding and promising.  We've already been promoted by Being Feminist, Feminspire, and Citizen Radio, which is very exciting.  We will continue to expand and work to create a safe internet community for women who've simply had enough of the sexist status quo and want a place where their voices can be heard loud and clear without fear of violence and maliciousness.