February 8, 2015

Harvard Humanist of the Year: Anita Sarkeesian

English: Photograph taken of Greg Epstein and ...
Greg Epstein (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I've been asked a few times what I think of the recent news that the Humanist Community of Harvard has decided to give their Harvard Humanist of the Year 2014 Award to Anita Sarkeesian. I haven't addressed the subject because I'm honestly not sure what to think.

How can this be when everyone else seems to have such strong opinions on the subject? First, I'm not familiar enough with Ms. Sarkeesian's work to provide any sort of meaningful evaluation of whether she is deserving of this award. I believe I have watched two of her videos dealing with what she perceives as sexism in video games, and that's about it. I didn't see anything remotely related to humanism there, but I have no idea if what I saw was in any way representative of her body of work. Second and much more important, I have absolutely no idea what the criteria are for the award, who else was being considered, and the like. I'm not even sure if the award requires the recipient to be a humanist or to have done anything useful to advance humanism. Without knowing much more about the criteria used to evaluate the suitability of those being considered, I have no way of knowing whether Ms. Sarkeesian was an appropriate choice or whether there were better options.

I have seen a few tweets by Greg Epstein, the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard, that appeared to equate humanism with feminism in a way that was reminiscent of Atheism+. According to Damion Reinhardt (Background Probability),
As best as I can tell, Epstein is arguing that if you claim to be doing feminism, then you are doing humanism by implication. There is no need to ask whether what you are doing actually embodies humanist values or promotes humanist goals, we can take it as read that everyone who calls themselves a feminist is also doing humanism. He also throws in an emotional plea for us to side with Sarkeesian because she has faced loads of nasty online abuse (and not a few threats), but we can safely discount that as a red herring when it comes to the question at hand.
I see humanism and feminism as being fairly distinct, so this possibility strikes me as unfortunate. But even if one wanted to argue that being a great feminist necessarily made one a great humanist, I'd be surprised if there weren't many excellent candidates who did more for feminism in 2014 than Ms. Sarkeesian. But of course, I'm only saying this based on what little I know of her work, and so it isn't anything more than a guess on my part.

But in the end, I find it difficult to be too invested in who the humanists at Harvard decide to award. I'm not part of their organization, and I have little reason to think that they would care what I might think of their choices. I'm content to leave the analysis of Ms. Sarkeesian's appropriateness to those who are more familiar with her body of work.

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