The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe is a weekly podcast dedicated to skepticism, science, and reason. In my nerdy fever dreams SGU would be the #1 ranked show on radio and television (they would have a TV show in my dreams of course) and everyone at SGU would be world-famous and they would be earning super-star dollars. The show is a team of skeptics headed by uber-skeptic, Steven Novella, and they talk about skeptical/scientific topics.
The show reflects the direction I would love to take my own personal “New World Order”: if everyone had just a little more critical thinking, a little more science education, a little more skepticism in their lives, then we could really get down to business and change the world for the better. If most people took on the the attitudes and values of the panel at SGU, then we could turn the tables of this mess we call a world. I often feel like I don’t need to speak: I could simply have a digital archive I carry around with me, and use a Steve Novella quote in lieu of talking, given that 99.5% of what is said by Steven Novella reflects my positions precisely — and he can always say it better than me anyway.
Someday I will write a blog post about the 0.5% difference (see Jamy Ian Swiss, atheism/skepticism, and tents), but of course today I want to talk about the big news that Rebecca Watson, after nine years, is leaving the show. It was announced yesterday on her blog that she was leaving SGU and her final episode as a skeptical “rogue” was posted to the webs.
Putting it mildly, Rebecca has been a polarizing figure in the atheist/skeptical “community”, sometimes simply due to her brand of witty snark, but more often (and with more vitriol) due to her feminist advocacy. She has one of those personalities that usually either endears her to or repulses her from people. This same love/hate relationship she has among the skeptical/atheist community has been warring inside my own head for years. I like to think that my extremes on any specific issue, makes me an amalgamated centrist, but it probably doesn’t work that way. That’s why Rebecca Watson is so fascinating to me as a barometer for my own views: at any given moment, I’m endeared to Rebecca Watson, and repulsed by her — sometimes simultaneously. Does this constitute a net/net ambivalence toward her? I don’t think so. I think that makes her someone who has that really special ability (especially if one strives to be a public figure) to generate reactions in people — both good and bad. Ambivalence and indifference is death to someone who aims to self-promote.
Rebecca has naturally (and purposefully I believe) had that ability to strike just the right note (or wrong note depending on your perspective), at just the right time, to elicit strong reactions from people from all sides. For Rebecca, I imagine this comes as both a gift (notoriety which can be used for self-promotion) and a curse (notoriety from psychopaths). Elevatorgate had so many ripples through the atheist/skeptical community, I do not think its impact can be overstated. Discussion from her video and her comments afterward were largely or tangentially responsible for a schism that is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. I’m not being flippant when I say this is a real talent. Most people seeking to affect change would give multiple appendages and/or organs to have this ability. I would never say there is a single cause for all the controversies, in-fighting, lashes, and backlashes among skeptics, atheists, feminists, freethinkinkers, etc.; but I would say that where there are such controversies, you don’t need 6 degrees of separation to get to Rebecca Watson – probably just a binary system would suffice.
I don’t want to cop-out and not say specifically where the love falls and where the hate falls in my love/hate relationship with Rebecca Watson. First, I want to make it clear that love/hate is just an expression. I don’t know Rebecca and I want to preface this by saying I like Rebecca as far as it goes. I like her as a public figure, I like her on the SGU and — even though she brings out strong reactions of disagreement in me sometimes — I even like her when I “hate” her. So here are my thoughts for what they’re worth:
Rebecca Watson is a feminist. Rebecca Watson is a Skeptic. Feminism is an ideology. Skepticism is a tool for reasoning. I think that these two can inhabit the same person at the same time, but much like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, depending on how you are looking at a person and their goals and values in any given situation, you can examine either their ideology or their skepticism, but you cannot evaluate ideology and skepticism simultaneously.
This is further complicated because there is no such thing as a universal Platonic ideal of “feminism” or any other ideology. “Feminists” are a group of individuals with individual ideologies loosely coalesced around some nebulous goal concerning women’s rights. For every single “feminist” (I’m using feminism here, but you can insert any ideological position), there is a “feminism” unique to a certain individual that espouses feminist beliefs. In this sense saying “Rebecca Watson has a feminist ideology” is saying something, in that it puts her in a set of people that would advocate for women’s rights, but it still says almost nothing about where she falls on the very broad (if you think I mean that as a pun, shame on you!) spectrum of feminist ideology. In this sense, when we speak of Rebecca’s “feminist ideology” we really can only speak of Rebecca Watson Feminist as a set of one and draw no further conclusions about what her feminist advocacy entails.
I say all this to make two points:
1) A person’s ideology can (should) be instructed by their skepticism, but belief is antithetical to skepticism. We need beliefs to “put on pants” and go out and live our lives, and sometimes our beliefs bring us to adopt certain ideologies. At this point, we are hopefully still using skepticism to continually inform our beliefs, but the action of advocacy necessitates leaving a skeptical mindset. Ideology involves positive momentum, and skepticism by definition is an exercise in doubt and irreducibility. Even though groups like SGU try to sneak in science and reason as part of the definition of modern skepticism, this is only a practical move to be able to engage in meta-skepticism which allows advocacy under the name “skepticism”. The statement, “skepticism is the best tool to obtain logic and reason”, is itself an ideological position, but a necessary axiom to be able to “put on pants”.
2) I believe that Rebecca Watson’s ideological feminism has become more important to her than her skepticism. Or, I suppose put a better way, feminism and her ideology are apparently driving her more than skepticism. Put even a better way, I suppose that it appears to me this is the case. But I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way. But I also actually don’t have a problem with her shifting her focus from skepticism and into feminism. I support all forms of feminism — even if I disagree with some of the individual expressions of feminism — because at its core, feminism shares my goal of making women equal in value and force in society (if not giving women a greater role!). I believe that the world is inherently better when women are given a full voice. I do believe that some forms of radical feminism are irrational and illogical and taken to their logical conclusion would be highly detrimental to society — but I still find value to that: it shifts the center and makes rational, progressive feminist arguments seem tame and much more digestible to the general public. We need people to kick down the door whether or not they are being reasonable. I don’t believe Rebecca is always being reasonable when it comes to feminism, but I also don’t really care. Go after it! I don’t think Rebecca leaving SGU and throwing in with ideology is necessarily a bad thing, nor is it necessary for her to choose one or the other. I think she could continue to juggle the two, but unlike some of the Social Justice Warriors, I don’t believe one entails the other. So if it makes sense for Rebecca to focus on one over the other, I fully support the decision.
Finally, I’ll mention some specific points of disagreement with Rebecca’s actions over the years, as I believe these are examples in support of my position that she is more ideologically driven these days as opposed to skeptically driven. Again, I’d like to preface this by saying that for the most part (and certainly in relation the general public) Rebecca Watson is a thoughtful, reasonable person, but I believe she has moved away from the skeptical movement and toward feminist ideology in her advocacy. Perhaps that is necessary. Rhetoric really is effective even if it is seemingly contrary to skepticism.
- I do not think calling D.J. Grothe a “monster” is reasonable.
- I tend to think that there is something to what Abbie Smith and Stef McGraw said on the way Rebecca Watson behaved.
- I think her ideology causes her to have a blind spot for sussing out real hatred for women from people merely criticizing her views or behavior.
- I disagree with her specifically about her advocacy for conference policies, and generally about the infantilization of women that these types of policies promote.
- I think the paradox of using the term “privilege”, is that only people with “privilege” would think of using the term “privilege”. Also, “privilege” is almost always used as an ad hominem and I have yet to hear any actual analysis of how one would determine a scale of privilege or how we could possibly use it as an evaluation tool of fairness or justice.
- Speaking of privilege, I think Rebecca Watson et. al. use only the most uncharitable interpretation of their opponent’s positions.
- I think she overreacted and made an enemy of Richard Dawkins.
- I also think that the high maintenance monitoring of commentary at Skepchick is more ideologically driven, than skeptically driven. I think ideology has put her (perhaps necessarily) in an “us vs. them” situation, where dissent is not acceptable.
- I don’t think she is necessarily a hypocrite for the nudy Skepchick calendar and her current feminist positions – anyone can grow and change positions – but I do believe it is hypocritical for her to so harshly judge those that don’t share her current positions.
- I think there was something really off-putting about her sock-puppeting behavior at the JREF forums – if not completely nefarious, then her actions were certainly self-serving.
- Boycotting TAM was another overreaction, and attacking DJ Grothe during that time seemed pretty out there, and maligning him seemed uncalled for.
A lot of these examples of Rebecca’s behavior over the years seem ideologically driven and not those of a skeptic. Which is okay, I don’t point out these things to vilify her, but I also think that ideologues should not be so quick to condemn people with a “you are either for us or against us” attitude, because they will find their own behaviors reflected back from their perceived enemies. We all make mistakes, but one of the worst attributes of bad ideology is giving harbor to bad behavior for those who agree with you and viciously attacking those who disagree with you for the exact same behavior. This is where critical thinking goes out the window in favor of ideology, and I think Rebecca has engaged in this from time to time.
But I also think that there is much more overlap in mine and Rebecca Watson’s worldview than not. I simply think that she has chosen to focus more strongly on certain parts of her advocacy than skepticism in the past several years and I compliment and encourage her effort — even if I don’t always agree with it. I do think it is time she moved on from the SGU, because while I don’t think she has left skepticism, I do believe she has drifted in her advocacy focus over the years toward socio-political ideology. SGU has clear, stated goals of scientific-skeptical advocacy and education. These goals are antithetical to political movements and they are apolitical, sometimes to the degree of annoyance of some listeners. I think Rebecca struggled with her desire to be an ideological/political advocate and the role she had on SGU.
In the end I hope it works out great for everyone. I hope Rebecca continues to find her socio-political voice and affects the change she desires, and I hope SGU continues to kick ass. I will put in my two cents here and say that Rebecca needs to be replaced by not one, but two women (or three, or four). Perhaps it “shouldn’t matter” if they replace her with women or not, but I say it does. I think more women voices everywhere are called for and until women are equally represented, I see no reason not to specifically seek them out for vital roles. I think female voices make everything stronger. Give credit where credit is due, Rebecca made SGU stronger. She made it stronger from a production standpoint, and she made it stronger by growing the audience. It was in no small part because she had a different voice, and different voices usually complement more than they detract.
So, good luck Rebecca and “so long” and hopefully it’s “good riddance” from the perspective of both you and SGU.
As I’ve stated before, and I will undoubtedly state again, I’m a hack blogger, not an “author” or “journalist” and as such, I’m pretty lazy about sourcing. I just write opinions in this online diary rant, so I don’t feel overly compelled to meticulously source everything I say. I do what I can, but this is just a hobby that hopefully puts my voice out there to whatever degree it matters (probably none). That being said, here is a list of sources (by no means exhaustive) of background information relevant to this post.
- Rebecca’s Blog Site
- Richard Dawkins’ “Dear Muslima” letter in response to Elevatorgate, contained in the following link:
- Rebecca’s Response to Dear Muslima
- Site dedicated to crushing all things Rebecca. Example of love her or hate her, she creates sparks.
- Another article not particularly in the pro-Watson camp
- Freethought blogs (pro-feminism) and Slymepit (anti-feminism). Not equating these two places, simply showing where you can get what I think are extreme views on either side of the feminist schism within skepticism. Slymepit came out of a thread from Abbie Smith’s ERV site who I really like. She seems to have disappeared from the fray and is actually doing real science. Damn you Abbie for eschewing drama and actually working. In the end I think both sides are right and both sides are wrong. That doesn’t make me a fence sitter, given any specific topic or question I will have an opinion one way or the other, those individual opinions just so happen to agree with parts of one side and parts of the other.
- You can also check out Freethought blogs to get a healthy dose of Atheism+, a group that represents my point about once advocacy kicks in, one has adopted an ideology and left skepticism. As a matter of fact PZ Myers did just that: he turned in his skepticism card, and I believe rightfully so given his values as a Social Justice Warrior.
- Here’s a good primer on Atheism+ written by Richard Carrier. Atheism+ which has much overlap feminism and is a movement that in no small part is due directly and indirectly to elevatorgate and the fallout afterwards. This article can also serve as a rabbit hole for links and a history of Atheism+ and SJW. Like with most players in this theater, I like Richard Carrier, but also simultaneously find him to be an arrogant twit. Unlike, much of the A+ crowd, I can like and respect a person, but disagree (sometimes respectfully, sometimes not), without banishing them. I enjoy Richard’s books, but find him rigid, dogmatic, smug, and arrogant in much of his public persona. But so what? If we had to approve of and like 100% everyone’s thoughts and actions to be able to share space with them, then no one would like anyone. Judgment to this degree is for religious zealots, and I left religion in part because I value everyone, even if I disagree with them, even if I despise their views. At its root, I cannot support these movements because I believe ultimately they 1) undermine their own goals by excluding people that could be their allies (not an accommodationist argument!) 2) They don’t want people like me in their movement, so I respect their decision to exclude me. 3) While their goals actually reflect mine very closely, we disagree on fundamental definitions of what “feminism”, “atheism”, “justice”, and “fairness” are and also the best way to achieve the similar goals we have.
There are many, many more links, but if you pull the thread a little of any of the above links, you’ll be able to go down a rabbit hole that could entertain and/or repulse you for weeks.
In the end, I support everyone who uses skepticism as a foundation to inform their lives and ideologies even if I disagree with their conclusions. I believe that’s okay. Politics, social policy, fairness, justice, and other human constructs are instructed by individual values and no one has an objective claim to the ultimate answer. That’s reserved for the religious and for extreme ideologues, not skeptics. I believe some ideologies are abhorrent, but individual people rarely are.