May 13, 2013

Dear Muslima Revisited

English: Richard Dawkins at New York City's Co...
English: Richard Dawkins at New York City's Cooper Union to discuss his book The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I'm going to go back a couple years for this one. I'm not sure what made me think of this recently, but I'd like to revisit this incident to see if we might learn something from it with the benefit of hindsight.

We've all had the experience of being sick with a bad cold, so it is something we should each be able to relate to quite well. Imagine you have had a really nasty cold over a weekend. You barely slept on Sunday night because you kept coughing yourself awake. Still, you manage to drag yourself into work on Monday because staying home sick is not a realistic option. A co-worker who does not know that you have a cold asks how you are doing, so you tell her. You complain about your cough and how you were up most of the night because of it. You tell her how you are just trying to get through the day so you can go home and have a nap.

As you finish, you see tears in her eyes and catch an odd tone in her voice. Caught off guard, you ask what is wrong. She breaks down and tells you her husband was recently diagnosed with a terminal illness. Something about your description of symptoms brought her recent experience back. She tells you that she hasn't slept a full night ever since they got the news about his health.

Her husband is dying, and here you are complaining about your cold. You would very much like to crawl under a rock at this point. It is not that your cold is irrelevant; your cold does matter. Nobody is saying that you should deprive yourself of medical treatment aimed at relieving your symptoms. What you have been going through is not somehow invalidated by the tragedy with which your co-worker has been dealing. But doesn't hearing what she has been going through give you a somewhat different perspective about your complaints?

Dear Muslima

I don't know if Richard Dawkins was trying to encourage perspective-taking along these lines when he left his now infamous Dear Muslima comment on Pharyngula. I've never met him, cannot read his mind, and can only speculate about what his intent might have been when he wrote the following:
Dear Muslima

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, and you can't leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you'll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.

Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself 'Skepchick', and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He invited her back to his room for coffee. Of course she said no, and of course he didn't lay a finger on her, but even so . . .

And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin
When I read these words now and recall the context in which he wrote them (see Elevatorgate), I understand why they provoked outrage and why Dawkins was raked over the coals by the Freethought Blogs/Skepchick/Atheism+ contingent. They interpreted his comment as dismissive, and they had a point to do so. If he had really been trying to encourage perspective-taking, being more direct about his intent might have helped.

One of the most popular interpretations of Dawkins' comment at the time was that he was suggesting that because worse things were happening elsewhere (i.e., in some Muslim countries) that privileged White women in the U.S. had no right to complain or to try to fix problems closer to home. Just as I am not sure if Dawkins was trying to encourage perspective taking, I am not sure if this particular interpretation was the most accurate one.

When I read Dawkins' words today, I think it is at least possible that he was not claiming that the sexism experienced by women in Western nations is irrelevant or that the women experiencing it should just put up with it. I suspect that Dawkins would agree that sexism is relevant and that none of us should put up with it. The fact that women in other parts of the world have it far worse does not invalidate the experience of Western women. Why should it? Even if awareness of what women in other parts of the world (or those less privileged) are enduring leads to some perspective-taking, that does not mean that the concerns of relatively privileged women are unimportant.

I do not know what was in Dawkins' mind when he wrote his comment, but I think it is at least possible that he sought to encourage some of the relatively privileged atheist women in the U.S. to engage in some perspective-taking

Adjusting Our Perspectives

The person with the cold who encounters the co-worker struggling with a recent diagnosis of cancer almost certainly experiences a shift in perspective. One would hope that a relatively privileged feminist blogger living in the U.S. would have a similar experience upon learning about what some less privileged women experience. None of this means that her concerns are unimportant, invalid, or undeserving of attention. All it means is that she may gain some perspective by learning from others. And this is true for all of us.

I think that it is important for atheists and skeptics, people who often pride ourselves in critical thinking, to realize what this sort of infighting looks like to those outside our community. But even more than that, I believe that we should all strive to consider multiple viewpoints and possible interpretations before we come unhinged and attribute ill intent to others. I may be completely wrong about the intent behind the Dear Muslima comment. I accept that possibility and welcome the opportunity to learn from it. I would hope that others in our community would be willing to accept the possibility that their interpretation could also be wrong.

Dawkins is Not Infallible

Experience teaches me that someone will inevitably respond to this post - probably without having bothered to read it - by suggesting that I "worship" Richard Dawkins and that I cannot accept the fact that he could have made a mistake. It will not matter that I've said nothing of the kind here. Nobody is infallible, and this certainly includes Dawkins.

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