February 29, 2012

Sexism in the Atheist Community: Defensive Responding

DefensivenessThere is a tendency for men to become defensive when the subject of sexism is raised, and one of the most common expressions of this defensive reaction involves launching accusations of "man-bashing" at the woman who brought up the subject. This reaction is not surprising; it is precisely what one expects when privilege is challenged. Take a look at how Christians in the U.S. respond to threats against Christian privilege. They get defensive and cry persecution. What you see looks awfully similar to how many men respond when male privilege is challenged, doesn't it?

I read a recent post written by a high-profile atheist blogger for whom I have great respect. In it, he claimed that he has never once felt that others thought he was awful simply for being a man. Really? Never? My initial reaction was disbelief. Warranted or not, hasn't every man felt that way at some time or another? I have certainly felt like some women thought I was worthless simply because of my gender. Does this make me a monster? What the hell is wrong with me to have felt this way?

I went back and re-read the post a day or two later, and I finally got it. The author was trying to distinguish between people thinking he was awful solely because of his gender vs. his behavior. His point was that men are not typically criticized for their gender but for their behavior (i.e., expressions of sexism). Unfortunately, the same is not true for women.

When women in the atheist community raise the issue of sexism, men need to listen without getting defensive. As Greta Christina reminded us, defensive responses involving "yes, but" are not helpful here. Such responses communicate to the speaker that we are not really listening. It is tough to be welcoming and dismissing or argumentative at the same time.

But What If She's Wrong?

There is a relevant question that is often omitted from discussions of this subject:
What if a woman accuses me of being sexist because she's misunderstood something I said? She's assuming my intent was something very different than what it actually was. What if she's simply wrong?
In such a case, I find it helpful to slow down. Don't respond immediately because you are probably going to do so out of anger. Let your ability to reason kick in first. Then try to look at things from her perspective. If she misunderstood you, can you see how that might have happened? If so, you should be able to explain yourself without being defensive. Is it possible that you are coming across in a sexist manner without realizing it? Be willing to take ownership for misspeaking if that is what happened.

Some people, both women and men, are overly sensitive to perceived criticism. This is a fact. But I certainly don't want to arrive at this interpretation until after I've exhausted all other possibilities. And if the person who called you out is not alone but is joined by several others, odds are good that the problem is yours rather than theirs.

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