Being ‘Over It’-And the Lack of Charity
February 19, 2013
Last week I wrote what I thought was a fairly straightforward piece titled "Over It." It was an introduction to a poem, and then a poem. It was short, in three parts, and about an anti-rape poem by Eve Ensler, and her One Billion Rising campaign to encourage women to dance as a way to end rape.
In the first part I explicitly stated that I agreed with Ensler's goals ("I support her goals of reducing rape and other forms of violence against women"), but that I had reservations about Ensler's use of statistics, and whether or not encouraging people to dance would actually do any good. In the second part I wrote a poem, using the same title, the same structure, and some of the same lines-echoing, expanding on, and supporting many of Ensler's sentiments. The poem was clearly supporting and agreeing with Ensler on many topics, and I added other topics which I felt had been largely left out in the discussion (such as the issue of male rape, and the epidemic of sexual assault in Native American communities).
I disagreed with Ensler in some places, for example her characterization of "a good rape," which I found offensive, and her focus on the media and culture as a source of rape (instead of rapists). In the third section I added two notes dealing with rape statistics, including from two-time Pulitzer nominee Steven Pinker's new book, which (for those who bothered to look up the reference) explicitly addresses the problem of rape underreporting that some people brought up. If people think Pinker's data about the 80% drop in rapes over the past 30 years is wrong, they should contact him directly.
I did not say or suggest that people should not participate in the One Billion Rising events, or that they were stupid for doing so; in fact I wrote "If people want to do the dance, that's great." I just said that I, personally, see no value in it and will not be participating. (I have a general skepticism about the effectiveness of countless "awareness raising" campaigns-is anyone really unaware of rape, or bullying, or child abuse, or drunk driving, or the dangers of obesity, or any other common social problem?)
So why the anger and venom? Why would anyone get enraged and morally indignant because I think women dancing is a waste of time and not actually helping decrease the incidence of physical and sexual assault?
The piece was completely feminist, pro-women, anti-rape, and pro-activism. Even the parts that questioned Ensler's statistics explained why those misleading statistics actually harm women. The argument was not for an end to anti-rape activism, instead it was quite the opposite: it was for effective anti-rape activism, informed by valid statistics.
The phrase "I'm over rape" does not say or suggest that either I or Eve Ensler (who originated the phrase) is tired of hearing about rape, or that anyone should be quiet about it or not speak out. I used (and repeated) Ensler's phrase exactly as she meant it: I am "over rape" in exactly the same way that Ensler is "over rape": It is time for it to end, and as I wrote, "I am over rape. I join mothers, sisters, fathers, brothers, and lovers in condemning rape and all manner of violence against women. All rape is bad. It is never deserved, nor asked for, nor good; it is always bad and wrong. Always."
The words and intent were repeated, crystal clear, and written without a trace of irony or sarcasm but instead a heartfelt passion that "Women deserve better; they deserve real answers and real help-not faux activism, ineffective e-petitions, or dancing flash mobs."
Is it possible to somehow interpret this as supporting rape in some way? I didn't think so, yet over the past week I have been criticized and vilified, painted as a misogynist, "rape apologist" and even "anti-feminist" by a few people who either didn't read my piece, or didn't understand it.
I have mostly avoided looking at the comments because very few of them actually address the content of what I wrote. PZ Myers, somewhat predictably, jumped at the chance to dress me down for my perceived sexism in a blog titled, "You Don't Get to Be ‘Over' Rape" -an obvious dig at the poems by Ensler and myself.
Myers admits that I'm technically correct that Ensler's statistics are not exactly right, but claims I'm being "hyperskeptical," and states that "One billion women have been victims of ‘homicide, intimate partner abuse, psychological abuse, dating violence, same-sex violence, elder abuse, sexual assault, date rape, acquaintance rape, marital rape, stranger rape and economic abuse,' confirmed by statistics that Radford cites. One billion women. Radford's hyperskepticism is so fierce that he objects to Ensler using 3 general words - raped, beaten, violated - instead of 26 more specific words, but is willing to overlook the horrific truth that she is correct and one billion women will suffer for their sex in their lifetime."
Except that I didn't; Myers misread it. I actually didn't write the "one billion" figure that Myers misquotes me as saying; that was Ensler's number. What I actually wrote (check it yourself) was that "one-third of women [have been victims of] homicide, intimate partner abuse, psychological abuse, dating violence, same-sex violence, elder abuse, sexual assault, date rape, acquaintance rape, marital rape, stranger rape and economic abuse." (One in three women is not the same as one billion if you do the math, though perhaps that's just my hyperskepticism.)
Furthermore Myers apparently didn't read the list very carefully, or he might have noticed that many of these "specific words" (as the phrase he uses) aren't really comparable to being "raped, beaten, or violated." We can start with homicide, which is clearly not the same as (and in fact is much worse than) being "raped, beaten, or violated." Psychological abuse, which can include anything from controlling behavior to verbal insults to bullying and suicide threats, is not necessarily the same as being "raped, beaten, or violated." Same-sex violence could certainly be included as potentially akin to being "raped, beaten, or violated," though Ensler focuses on male-perpetrated, opposite-sex rape. Elder abuse, also, may include anything from theft of personal property to insults, physical abuse, and abandonment (and is not gender-specific); these, also, are not necessarily the same thing as being "raped, beaten, or violated." Then there's economic abuse, which can include anything from preventing a person from taking a certain job to running up unauthorized bills on another's credit card to unlawful eviction to bank fraud; these, too, are not quite the same as being "raped, beaten, or violated." (Nor, for that matter, are all these examples of "women suffer[ing] for their sex.")
But Myers knows that.
He knows that not all the dozen or so specific categories included under the umbrella term "violence against women" (as defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the DOJ) are the same as being "raped, beaten, or violated." It is Myers, not me, who wants to split hairs; I explicitly stated that "all these are serious, legitimate problems" even if they are not equivalent to rape. No matter how you slice it, Ensler's statistic is flawed, and does not say what she says it does. If the number is really one in four, or one in five that doesn't imply that rape is not a real problem, as I stated in the original piece. But addressing social problems requires good data--and this point has nothing to do with feminism or rape; I discuss this problem of exaggerated statistics being used in "stranger danger" and child abductions at length in my Media Mythmakers book. Instead of acknowledging that flawed numbers shouldn't be used to support important causes, Myers chose to suggest that questioning the statistic is somehow an effort to minimize rape. It only takes a few seconds of thought or a few minutes of web searches to see that I'm correct about the varied, non-beating, non-rape (yet often no less serious) types of abuses under "violence against women."
Oh, it also takes one other thing that Myers and his ilk lack: it's called charity.
It means giving someone the benefit of the doubt, trying to see things from another point of view instead of searching for ways to misunderstand, misinterpret, and mischaracterize another's position.
Steve Novella recently commented on this in the context of recent, similar attacks on Harriet Hall regarding gender and sexism: "I think we all should remember the principle of charity, something which is often missing in these internal fights. When considering another's argument it helps to give it the most charitable interpretation, to argue against the best possible argument on the "other side." This is the antidote to the straw man fallacy. If you are not charitable then it is likely that you will waste time arguing against a position that was never articulated. Find common ground and be charitable... My problem with so many of the exchanges that are fueling internal strife is that they are maximally uncharitable to the target of their criticism. This is very counterproductive."
Indeed, I brought up that very issue last year-ironically in the context of Novella's Skeptics Guide to the Universe co-host Rebecca Watson's vitriolic and largely misguided criticism of a piece I wrote:
It's often the case that outrage and insults substitute for truth and accuracy; it's easier to call someone stupid than it is to engage them respectfully. It's easier to have knee-jerk, facepalming reactions than it is to thoughtfully see if there's some misunderstanding on someone's part-or, god forbid, even some common ground. For my part, I take my cues from Ray Hyman, one of my heroes and one of the founders of both CSCIOP and the modern skeptical movement.
If you haven't read Ray's piece "Proper Criticism," you should; it's what guides editorial policy in Skeptical Inquirer. It's a short piece explaining how best to deal with people and claims you disagree with. I'll quote a few short sections: "Many well-intentioned critics have jumped into the fray without carefully thinking through the various implications of their statements. They have sometimes displayed more emotion than logic, made sweeping charges beyond what they can reasonably support, failed to adequately document their assertions, and, in general, failed to do the homework necessary to make their challenges credible. The principle of charity implies that, whenever there is doubt or ambiguity about a claim, we should try to resolve the ambiguity in favor of the claimant until we acquire strong reasons for not doing so. In this respect, we should...convey the opponent's position in a fair, objective, and non-emotional manner. We should avoid using loaded and prejudicial words in our criticisms."
I'm a big boy. I'm used to hate mail and nasty, anonymous comments and criticisms, both founded and unfounded. It's part of the job, both as a writer and as a skeptic. But the sad part is that I strongly suspect that I am often on the same side of an issue and share the same goals as many of my most vitriolic critics. But they don't notice because they're shouting at me.
I will close with a few wise comments from Harriet Hall:
• Please read what I say, not what you choose to imagine I meant to say.
• Please don't try to argue about statements I never made.
• Please try to understand that "I like to do it my way" does not equate to "I'm accusing you of being wrong for doing it your way."
• I don't think I deserve your contempt and hostility.