In a really terrific post during my vacation, Freddie DeBoer nailed something to the cross:
It seems to me now that the public face of social liberalism has ceased to seem positive, joyful, human, and freeing. I now mostly associate that public face with danger, with an endless list of things that you can’t do or say or think, and with the constant threat of being called an existentially bad person if you say the wrong thing, or if someone decides to misrepresent what you said as saying the wrong thing. There are so many ways to step on a landmine now, so many terms that have become forbidden, so many attitudes that will get you cast out if you even appear to hold them.
Freddie’s concern was with online hazing of the politically incorrect. Writers are not just condemned any more for being wrong or dumb or rigid. They are condemned as sexist, racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, blah blah blah – almost as a reflex in trying to discredit their work. That’s particularly true when it comes to fascinating issues like race or gender or sexual orientation, where liberalism today seems to insist that there are absolutely no aggregate differences between genders, races, ethnicities, or sexual orientations, except those created by oppression and discrimination and bigotry. Anyone even daring to bring up these topics is subjected to intense pressure, profound disapproval and ostracism. This illiberal liberalism is not new, of course. But it’s still depressingly common.
Sam Harris is one of its latest victims. There sure is plenty to disagree with Sam about – and we have had several such arguments and debates. But the idea that he is a sexist – and now forced to defend himself at length from the charge after a book-signing discussion – is really pathetic. His account of the episode is well worth-reading for the insight it gives into the Puritanical wing of the left. Michelle Boornstein decided to play the sexist card after a contentious interview, and then tweet it out thus:
“Something about that critical posture is..intrinsically male.” @samharris on why chicks don’t dig atheism http://t.co/NDf5T0dJYr
— Michelle Boorstein (@mboorstein) September 12, 2014
Here’s what she was referring to (in her words):
I also asked Harris at the event why the vast majority of atheists—and many of those who buy his books—are male, a topic which has prompted some to raise questions of sexism in the atheist community. Harris’ answer was both silly and then provocative. It can only be attributed to my “overwhelming lack of sex appeal,” he said to huge laughter.
“I think it may have to do with my person[al] slant as an author, being very critical of bad ideas. This can sound very angry to people… People just don’t like to have their ideas criticized. There’s something about that critical posture that is to some degree intrinsically male and more attractive to guys than to women,” he said. “The atheist variable just has this—it doesn’t obviously have this nurturing, coherence-building extra estrogen vibe that you would want by default if you wanted to attract as many women as men.”
This is impermissibly sexist because it assumes that there are some essential biological and psychological differences between men and women, and for a certain kind of leftist, this is an intolerable heresy. If that truth cannot be suppressed or rebutted in a free society, its adherents must be stigmatized as bigots. It’s a lazy form of non-argument – and may have been payback from Boorstein after Harris and she differed quite strongly on the power of fundamentalism in American culture.
But Boorstein’s premise – that because many more men than women seem to buy and read his books, there must be some sexism at work – is preposterous.
Anyone can buy a book on Amazon. There are no gender barriers whatever. The free flow of ideas will often lead to different audiences for different authors. That some books by white Americans are read disproportionately by whites doesn’t mean they’re racist. And, yes, style of writing – especially the combative, testosteroned debates that occur online or typify the slash-and-burn atheist conversation – can lead to a disproportionately male-skewed audience for that kind of thing. But all that is a function of free choice in a free market of ideas – not some kind of institutional sexism – let alone personal sexism. Why we cannot revel in these differences and embrace them as part of what makes being human so fascinating and variable is beyond me. But clearly it threatens people. Reality can.
Then Sam was subjected to a public dressing down by a person in the book-signing line:
She: What you said about women in the atheist community was totally denigrating to women and irresponsible. Women can think just as critically as men. And men can be just as nurturing as women.
Me: Of course they can! But if you think there are no differences, in the aggregate, between people who have Y chromosomes and people who don’t; if you think testosterone has no psychological effects on human minds in general; if you think we can’t say anything about the differences between two bell curves that describe whole populations of men and women, whether these differences come from biology or from culture, we’re not going to get very far in this conversation.
But the conversation is not the point. Even an individual writer’s personality and style is not the point. The point is the enforcement of an ideology by the weapon of stigma and social ostracism. Some favorite lines from the p.c. war:
You should just know that what you said was incredibly sexist and very damaging, and you should apologize … You’re just totally unaware of how sexist you are.
It’s that last line that really gives the game away. It means essentially that a writer cannot win. Or rather: that a writer somehow has to represent all of humanity or risk being regarded and demonized as hostile to whole sections of it. This should be called out for what it is: a full-scale assault on the integrity and freedom of writers in the name of social liberalism. Writers need to stand up to this cant – and not capitulate to it.
For more on the subject of women and atheism, check out the Dish discussion thread, “Where Are All The Female Atheists?” One of those readers brought to our attention the work of the brilliant female atheist Jennifer Michael Hecht, whom we subsequently invited to join our Ask Anything feature to discuss the subject of suicide, explored in her book Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It.