Yeah, but she asked for it… How my mind changed on victim blaming.

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Liberty Responsibility - George Bernard Shaw

Quote from Shaw’s play titled “Man and Superman.”  Image from AZQuotes.com

 

In my teens and twenties, I remember thinking that a woman who went out into a questionable area while dressed provocatively was responsible for increasing her risk of being the victim of a crime (e.g. mugging, kidnapping, rape, etc…).  It seemed a purely matter-of-fact, logical, and unavoidable argument to me.  In the form of a classic syllogism, my argument looked roughly like this:

  • Premise 1: Many men* have very little impulse control, and can easily be provoked into committing crimes against women.
  • Premise 2: Women can provoke men into committing crimes against them by dressing or acting provocatively.
  • Premise 3: Women don’t want crimes committed against them.
  • Conclusion: To avoid crimes being committed against them, women shouldn’t dress or act provocatively around men.

It seems clear as day, right?  I mean, isn’t it like suggesting that going out into a blizzard without shoes is going to cause me to get really cold really fast?  Isn’t it just one of those Newton-esque “equal and opposite action/reaction” kind of things?

Or is it?

In the example I gave of going out in a blizzard barefoot, we’re talking about pure physical processes.  Human tissue reacts very poorly to extreme cold.  And the cold acting upon my feet is not a conscious agent.  The blizzard doesn’t choose to freeze my feet.  Can we really say the same about men?  Are men just purely physical processes?

As a male, I’m pretty confident in saying “Umm… No.”  Despite our sometimes simplistic thought processes, men are a bit more complex than that.  Men make decisions, and thus can be considered responsible for their actions.  And when men choose to commit crimes, we hold them responsible.  When a man chooses to steal your car, break into your house, or commit fraud, we hold him responsible.  Even if you left your car or house unlocked, or were fooled into wiring him your money, we don’t hold you responsible.  We hold the criminal responsible.  He chose to break the law.  You are not responsible for crimes committed against you.  And neither are women when they dress in a way that some men find enticing.

If our first inclination is to focus on blaming the victims of crime, telling them how they should have acted differently to avoid enticing the criminal, then we’ve failed to focus on the conscious agent who was motivated to (and did) commit the crime.  We’ve distracted ourselves from the actual problem.  And in so doing, we’ve precluded any actual improvement in the culture that helps to form these criminals.

But there’s another problem with my old argument.  You see, I failed to explain a very important term.  What counts as “dressing or acting provocatively?”  Who decides?  The man who just committed a crime after being “provoked?”  (The spineless wanker who either A) couldn’t control himself, or B) is claiming to have been provoked to shift the responsibility for the crime away from  himself?**)  We’re going to trust his judgement as to what was so provocative that he just couldn’t help himself?  Or are we all going to become fashion and behavior critics, together deciding on exactly which clothes, types of makeup, gestures, or levels of inebriation are sufficient to provoke a man?

If you don’t already think this last suggestion is ridiculous, allow me save you some time and point towards a an example culture that has implemented this style of formal fashion and behavioral critics for women.  Consider Iran, the most influential proponent of Shia Islam in the modern world.  There, officially sanctioned “morality police” patrol the streets looking for salaciously dressed ladies.  They routinely arrest, imprison, and/or publically shame women for provoking male lust with their behavior or dress.  And the male criminals?  They’re punished rarely, if ever.  Women have even begun to start cutting their hair and dressing as men to avoid persecution.  Amazingly, we’re told that all of this legally sanctioned harassment and bullying will protect women***.

So let’s stop pretending that making women responsible for the choices male criminals make is a reasonable position.  You want to make a real difference in this kind of crime?  Start talking to the men in your life – the younger they are the better.

  • Be the example you want them to be.
  • Give them as many opportunities to socialize with women as you possibly can.  Don’t encourage boys fetishizing women by keeping them separate.
  • Don’t keep two different sets of rules for boys and girls.  Everyone plays by the same rules.
  • Focus on our commonalities, not what separates us.  The more we pick out and focus on what differences there are between the sexes, the more different males will consider females to be.
    • This can be a bad precedent to set, as it can be easy to attach moral significance to any of these differences (e.g. a woman’s virginity – but not a man’s –  is the repository of hers and/or her family’s honor).
  • Support women learning self defense.  Give them every tool available to either avoid/escape from criminals or make them think twice about committing a crime.
  • And lastly, when you hear about a crime – blame the criminal – not the victim.

*More specifically, a significantly higher proportion of males than females have very little impulse control.

**Feel free to decide which of these two options is more likely.

***Or their family’s “honor.” You pick.  They’re both equally asinine rationales.

 

Edited on 6/1/2016 for grammar and clarity

 

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Visiting a gas station with a transgender friend

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I am human

A few months ago I accompanied a transgender friend (we’ll call her Julie) to pick up some snacks from a local gas station just outside of Chattanooga, Tennessee where I live.  She was about to join my wife and I for some hobby board games back at our house, and we needed snackage.  So we drive down to the nearest gas station to our house.  I remember walking in next to her and splitting off to grab a couple of things.  Meeting her back at the line to the checkout counter, I began to take note of how both the customers and the employees were looking at her.

Everyone was intensely and unabashedly staring at her.  Seeing as we live in the American South where folks tend not to approve of transgender people, I quickly moved closer to her and began to chat amiably.  The stares made me feel immediately concerned for her, so I wanted everyone to see that she wasn’t alone.  I’m not a small man, and sometimes my mere presence has diffused situations.  But even that seemed to have little effect.  I remember trying to appear as comfortable as possible while chatting with Julie, and she seemed to adopt the same approach.  We finished our business at the checkout counter and left to then enjoy a day of delightful board games.

I’ve never asked her how she felt while we were there.  And when I consider asking her, it occurs to me that this is what it’s like to be Julie on any given day that she doesn’t happen to “pass” perfectly as female.  Everywhere she goes, this sort of response is quite possibly the norm.  Being with Julie in that moment gave me a small window into what it’s like to be her – to never know if someone might try to make good on the threatening stare they’re leveling at her.  I’m used to being able to cruise below everyone’s radar, making my way through the world without most people even batting an eye so long as I don’t behave strangely.

But Julie doesn’t have that luxury.  Despite how she feels on the inside, she doesn’t pass perfectly as female all the time on the outside.  And that makes me terribly afraid on her behalf.  I fear getting a call and hearing that my friend has been beaten up or killed by some idiot bigot.  And this is no idle fear, mind you.  Transgender people face a significantly higher risk of physical and sexual abuse from strangers when compared the general population.  I’m sure that Julie has developed a pretty effective sense for which places are safe, but she isn’t perfect.  And she won’t always have someone to stand alongside her against bigots wishing to do her harm.

This is one of the reasons that the recent “Bathroom bills” making their way through the American South concern me.  Ostensibly enacted to protect children from an imaginary wave of transgender bathroom predators, these laws merely function to put people like Julie in extremely dangerous situations.  The last thing someone like Julie needs is for a ridiculous law to force her into a men’s bathroom here in the South.  We may as well be putting a big “bigots please beat the hell out of me” stamp on her forehead.  And all in the name of protecting people?

As a father of a six year old, I’m absolutely in favor of protecting kids from sexual predators.  But let’s focus our energies on places where this is actually a historically demonstrated threat. (Far more children have been molested by authority figures in churches than by transgender people in public bathrooms.  How about we start with church authority figures?)  Transgendered people aren’t any more likely to be pedophiles or child abusers than are cisgendered people (i.e. people whose gender identity matches their genitalia).  They just want to pee in peace.  And as civilized people, we have no reason to deny them that peace.
P.S.  If you’d like to provide support to transgender folks who just want to pee, take a look at the IllGoWithYou Ally Project.

Update: I invited Julie to read the above, and she noted that she doesn’t even notice the stares anymore.  This may be because they’re so common, but it may also be because people look away before she can notice them staring.  I don’t recall her looking any of the gas station employees or customers in the eye during our visit, so I’ll have to keep an eye out the next time I accompany her somewhere.  To this day, what strikes me about the situation I described in this post was how unabashed the people were in staring, and how immediately threatened I felt on Julie’s behalf.  To be sure, feelings of threat don’t necessarily equate to actual threat.  I may well be biased in favor of seeing threats where they don’t actually exist.  (I also tend towards taking on a protector role with people I care about.)  That said, this doesn’t necessarily mean that I should discount those feelings either.  And the above-linked national statistics on violence against transgender people do suggest that my fears are not entirely baseless.

 

Alienating good people

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“No battle for equality has ever been won by alienating good people.”

-Stephen Knight on his Godless Spellchecker blog

In the blog post linked above, Stephen Knight details a Twitter exchange with Mona Eltahawy, a feminist activist and writer working primarily on Arab/Muslim issues.  In their exchange, Mona asserts that women should be the ones leading the fight for women’s rights.  She further suggests that men should “[…] shut up and listen to women about women’s rights.  Women lead feminism. Not men.”

I find this argument problematic.  Full disclosure:  I’m a white male, so if you’re the sort who thinks my race or genitalia automatically disqualifies me from having a worthwhile opinion on women’s issues then you can save yourself some time and browse elsewhere.  (I highly recommend Sarah Haider’s presentation on Islam and the Necessity of a Liberal Critique at the American Humanist Association last year.)

Still here?

Ok.  Now I’ll certainly admit that Twitter, with its 140 character length limit, is hardly the place to have careful reasoned discussions about complex topics.  And were I a part of this discussion, I would have done my best to charitably interpret Mona’s comment.  Perhaps she wasn’t intending to completely discount male contributions to feminism?  Perhaps she really meant to just say that men should simply do more listening?  If so, I think she’d be right.  Far too many dudes go about their lives far too ignorant of what it’s like to live as a woman in their culture.  We do need to listen more.

Unfortunately, when questioned by multiple folks, Ms. Eltahawy doubled down and resorted to criticizing the identity and motives of those questioning her argument.  She even went so far as to very negatively generalize and disassociate herself from ex-Muslims, suggesting that too many of them have allied with “right wing, racist shits.”

This is really a case study in how not to defend your position.  Recognizing and avoiding these kinds of abusive or “guilt by association” ad hominem arguments is one of the first things you learn in any introductory philosophy or rhetoric course.  And if you’re still reading, it seems safe to assume that you see the problem with arguing that the value of a person’s ideas or contribution is determined by their genitals, race, religion, hair color, favorite food, etc…  (We have a word for that kind of thinking)

Typically, I only see this kind of logical fallacy employed when someone is embarrassed at the lack of reasons available to support their argument and wants to try to save face.  That seems very likely to be the case here for Ms. Eltahawy, though I’ll add the caveat that I’m no mind reader.

But what’s most frustrating in all this is that Mona Eltahawy, Stephen Knight, and Ex-Muslims in general are natural allies on a host of issues, not the least of which are gender equality, religious freedom, and the right to live without someone else’s religious beliefs being imposed upon you.  They certainly don’t agree on everything (who does?), but it seems an utter waste of pooled resources to alienate someone like Stephen or all Ex-Muslims just to save face.  Liberals can, and should, do better than this.

 

The Regressive Left and its Opposition to Muslim Reform

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Arshia Malik, blogging for the Times of India, recently wrote a piece  titled “The Battle with the Regressives.”  In it, she castigates a section of the western political left* for prioritizing the opinions and concerns of Islamists over their victims.  She calls this section of the western political left the “Regressive Left,” a term seeing increasing use since being popularized by Muslim reformer Maajid Nawaz.

As she and many others have suggested elsewhere, the Regressive Left is characterized by its criticism of those who argue in favor of reform for Islamic theology and culture in favor of secular human rights.  The Regressives do this while simultaneously ignoring Islamists who are actively working to impose their theology upon societies all over the world.  Instead of focusing their energies on people who support laws that criminalize blasphemy, mandate death for apostasy or amputation of the hand for theft, allow child marriage, protect practitioners of female genital mutilation, and various other extremely harmful policies; Regressives act as though the best use of their time is to focus on the people who oppose these policies.

Recent examples include:

  • Goldsmiths University’s LGBT society aligned itself with Goldsmith’s Islamic Society after its male members heckled and attempted to bully Maryam Namazie, a female ex-Muslim reformer who had been invited there to speak.
  • Nathan Lean, Research Director at Georgetown University’s Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding**, wrote an article highly critical of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Asra Nomani.  When publically challenged by Nomani to explain why he uses abusive language towards Muslim reformers, Lean refused to answer.
  • Nathan Lean later wrote another hit piece against Maajid Nawaz in the New Republic.  His primary interview sources in the article: members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Islamist group that Nawaz left during his de-radicalization process.  (Because people who want to impose their religion upon everyone else are reliably objective sources, right? )
    • Nafeez Ahmed and Max Blumenthal – yes that Max Blumenthal – wrote a similar hit piece in AlterNet.

An uncharitable reading of these pieces suggests a willingness to support religious fascists and bullies over those pushing for universal human rights.  Nathan Lean, a non-Muslim, even argues in his article criticizing Hirsi Ali and Nomani that Nomani’s work to increase gender equity in Mosques might be imposing equality upon those women who prefer a more traditional (read: gender apartheid) worship service.  To me, this sounds like someone who believes that universal human rights aren’t really universal – that cultural norms should be prioritized over human rights.  This is an extremely slippery slope that leads very quickly to excusing all kinds of abuses in the name of “culture.”  About to be forced to have your genitals mutilated?  That’s a shame little missy, but we wouldn’t want to impose our imperialist western “human rights” on you.  Had acid thrown in your face for being disinterested in some jerk who thought he deserved you as his wife?  Well, Miss, we can’t really speak out against the perpetrators because some women you grew up near speak well of honor cultures.  You’re a child forced to marry someone much older than you?  Sorry, ma’am, but that’s just how things are done in your country.  It would be awfully indecent to speak out against your culture’s norms.

On the other hand, a charitable reading of these examples might suggest that these Leftists are so concerned with combatting anti-Muslim bigotry that they have drawn the line at anyone who says something that might be used as ammunition by right wing racists and bigots.  But even with this charitable reading, the effect seems rather chilling when it comes to honest discussion.

If we pursued the same policy in other areas, we’d soon be condemning nearly every piece of literature or spoken word the world over.  It is trivially easy to derive violent theologies from the Bible, Quran, or the Bhagavad Gita.  Likewise, history shows that it takes very little mental effort to derive anti-human philosophies from the writings of Marx (e.g. Soviet Communism) or Nietzsche (e.g. Hitler’s Aryan superiority).  Each of these works contain material that can be used as ammunition (or even further inspire) bigotry when read in certain ways or within certain cultural contexts.

Unfortunately, we can’t directly question the writers of these works.  But we can do so with members of the current Muslim reform movement.  And they are not hiding their motives or their purpose.  Useful resources include:

*Full disclosure: I consider myself a leftist in most areas.

**That’s Prince Alwaleed Bin Tala of Saudi Arabia – the foremost exporter of Salafi (read: extreme Sunni fundamentalist) theology to the world.  Which means that Mr. Lean’s funding is coming from someone invested in promoting an ideology directly opposed to the Muslim reform movement.