The Course of Reason

Safe Spaces (and more on feminism)

January 4, 2013

Thunderf00t's latest Youtube video, has been causing a stir in the blogosphere. In the video, he criticizes feminists within the atheist movement and accuses them of bringing harm to it. Now, I'm not going to use this post to elaborate on why I disagree with Thunderf00t. You can find a good rebuttal to the video, written by Michael Nugent, here. This recent episode in the debate over feminism in the atheist movement does provide a good backdrop to discuss "safe spaces", which came up in a comment thread of Nugent's article over on Atheists, Agnostics, and Freethinkers of Waterloo's Facebook group.

The context here is that, as part of its focus, the Atheism+ movement is seeking to create safe spaces—whether it be through internet forums, or at conferences themselves. This post will focus on conferences, as it is where most of the controversy seems to be coming from.

I see two options available to creating safe spaces, each with their own strengths and weaknesses: 1) put stricter rules in place about how people behave at conferences, what they say, and who is allowed to attend; and 2) work harder to educate those who still have issues with the idea of a safe space, thus reducing the number of people opposed to them.

1) Put stricter rules in place about how people behave at conferences, what they say, and who is allowed to attend.

Conference organizers should be free to decide who they want at a conference, and what they say and do. The organizers invest their time, and money into planning and hosting these events. It is not unreasonable to suggest that they make the rules. If you don't like the rules, don't go to the conference. The conferences can be turned into safe spaces by controlling the environment. Of course, the most apparent flaw with this option is that it's an obvious stifling of free speech. If there's one thing the vast majority of the atheist movement agrees on, it's the concept of free speech. Such measures would play right into the hands of people like Thunderf00t who would then have a fair reason to accuse Atheism+ and feminists of trying to be "politically correct" and trying to silence free speech. (Ignoring that, in his video, Thunderf00t more or less proposes the same thing by reaching out to secular leaders to deal with the problem of feminists in the movement.) Unless an individual's behaviour is clearly harassment, and is causing distress and harm to other conferences attendees, then it is unlikely that most in the atheist movement would opt for conferences that take this hardline approach.

I'm inclined to mention here that this would actually be my preferred approach. I have issues with the liberal conception of free speech. However, I'm well aware how unpopular this option is likely to be. So I will move on and leave the discussion about free speech for another day.

2) Work harder to educate those who still have issues with the idea of a safe space, thus reducing the number of people opposed to them.

This is likely to be the preferred option amongst the atheist movement. After all, it's a movement that prides itself on educating others.  We could spend more time informing people of why feminism is needed, what experiences female atheists have dealt with, and what would it mean to have a "safe space"?, etc. Obviously, this has already been done. It's been going on before feminism became such a controversial issue within the community back during the Elevatorgate incident. So, some could say that we have been educating people, and that it's not working. There will always be people that will hold to an anti-feminist position. No matter what the evidence is, no matter how nicely it's explained to them they are not going to turn around and say, "Hey, this feminism thing makes a lot of sense. I can see why you bring these issues up again, and again". There are some out there that will never say those words. Educating others is a nice sentiment but it can be a waste of time. It comes from the belief that people just don't know any better and that education will free them of their ignorance. Unfortunately, people have reasons to hold the positions and beliefs they do other than ignorance. It's not that those anti-feminists are ignorant. It's that they are willfully so because they see the feminists as a great threat, and nothing is going to convince them otherwise. This is why I lean towards Option 1. Some people will never learn, and do not want to learn. I'm personally not interested in listening to, or dealing with such people. Again, I'm fully aware that this is likely a minority view amongst the generally liberal atheist movement. At the very least, I put the idea forward for consideration even though I don't expect it to be accepted.

The education option is not a complete waste, however. There are those sitting on the fence. People who are supportive of feminist ideals, but don't refer to themselves as feminists for various reasons. We can educate the fence sitters. Here patience, and a civil tone is encouraged as we want to draw them towards, not push them away from, feminism and its role in the atheist movement. We want them to understand why there is a need for safe spaces at conferences. In time, the anti-feminists could be a lonely minority.

This post originally appeared on AAF Waterloo's blog.

About the Author: Chris Burke

Chris Burke's photo
Chris Burke holds a Bachelors in Environmental Studies: Honours Environment and Business from the University of Waterloo. Next he will be working towards a Masters of Environmental Studies in Sustainability Management. He's an active member of the Atheists, Agnostics, and Freethinkers of Waterloo student group. In his spare time he enjoys reading and playing music.


#1 TheBiboSez (Guest) on Wednesday January 09, 2013 at 8:55pm

Just as the questions about religion should be open to free inquiry, so should questions about other ideological movements, such as feminism.

Why is it not acceptable to ask if feminism is actually beneficial to woman? Many women reject feminism - are we to silence them before they can explain their rejection?

In 1836, anti-slavery rhetoric became so compelling that the US Congress passed the first "gag rule" to prohibit abolitionists from discussing slavery. Various gag rules regarding ending slavery persisted until 1844; overturning them was seen as a major victory in the fight to end slavery.

Creationists also resort to silencing tactics to forestall discussions of evolution.

"Free inquiry" should include the freedom to question even popular and politically-charged notions such as feminism.

For example - many feminists insist that, despite women's equality, men should still be required to provide protections to women (such as safe spaces, prohibited speech, and even the chivalrous sacrifice of men's lives), even if these protections result in the denial of women's agency, and indeed, their infantilization.

The First Church of the Perpetual Victim Goddess deserves no more legal support or tax money than any other religion.




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