Thursday, February 3, 2011

Fiftieth Post Special Edition: A Feminist Skeptic

For this, my fiftieth post, I thought I'd veer off a little from laying waste to Failbook and instead discuss an issue that has been a thorn in my side for the better part of the last year, namely, what's a feminist skeptic to do?

(If either of those words confuses you, try referencing these working definitions of feminism and skepticism. It may be the case that neither means what you think it does, even if you are well-educated.)

At first blush, feminism and skepticism seem to complement each other like chocolate and peanut butter. Skepticism is the perfect vehicle to debunk claims about female inferiority, and feminism is all about breaking out of traditionally held but incorrect notions about all aspects of life. I can cite a few wonderful examples of this marriage of the two concepts: Delusions of Gender, Woman: An Intimate Geography, and Amanda Marcotte's amazing Skepticon talk late last year (we'll get back to her at the end).

But more often than not, feminism and skepticism are either at odds with each other, or, more frequently, completely out of touch with each other. The fault lies on both sides, and I've seen failures on both sides so many times that it makes me despair for the joining of forces that seems logical to me.

Let's start with the feminist side, because I have more experience with the feminist blogosphere than I do with the skeptical blogosphere. I follow a lot of feminist blogs: Feministe, Feministing, Fugitivus, Tiger Beatdown, and Yes Means Yes! are just some of the feeds in my Google Reader. But when I think about which feminist blog best sums up my experience in this world, it has to be Shakesville. Melissa McEwan takes on the worst of sexism, racism, heterosexism, ablism, transphobia, and so many other ugly ideologies in this world with wonderful contempt, causing anyone with an open mind to re-examine themselves for prejudices so ingrained that they might as well be undetectable, were it not for her illumination of them.

And yet. And yet when it comes to matters of science, I sometimes see Shakesville fall short in ways that make me cringe. When it comes to scientific studies that support Shakesville's positions on, say, abortion, they are lauded. And they rightfully post vicious take-downs of pseudo-scientific bullshit studies about gender differences.

But a couple weeks back, when Melissa made a post entitled "Feminism 101: Coded Misogyny and Institutional Prejudice," I found myself wincing at just a few of the points she made. Some of them are dead on: Black women are punished for wearing their hair in a natural style; our sexist culture codes war and the lack of a social safety net as masculine and therefore desirable; we should all be aware of the way that gender binaries influence our thinking about many, many aspects of culture. But her attack on "Western" medicine is painful for me to read:

So, too, discussions of Western/non-Western medicine. Western medicine is coded rational/masculine; alternative medicine is coded irrational/feminine. And here again is an example of intersectional prejudice, as many alternative practices (yoga, acupuncture, acupressure, massage, herbal remedies) are imported from the East. (And practiced disproportionately by people marginalized in the West: Women/people of color/queers.) The wholesale dismissal of alternative practitioners and practices as quacks and opportunists (despite there being plenty of quacks and opportunists to be found in Western medicine, too) is an institutional prejudice frequently loaded with both coded misogyny and coded racism.

Oh dear. Oh dear oh dear oh dear. I'm not going to explain why non-science-based medicine (NSBM) is generally a bad idea: you can go to Science-Based Medicine for that. But I'd like to take on her claim that the opposition to NSBM is based on sexism and racism. In fact, my personal objection to NSBM is caused partly by my advocacy for social justice. In short, women and people of color are more likely to be poverty-stricken and without adequate health care. If they are having medical issues and the only care they can afford is "alternative" care, that is a huge, institutional problem that we should be addressing, because alternative care is not adequate care. Black and Latina women with breast cancer don't have equal access to treatment. If they fill that gap with homeopathy or acupuncture, that is not adequate and not equal. Immigrants to the U.S. get about half the health care services afforded to natural-born citizens. If they fill that gap with traditional medicine from their home countries that has no measurable positive effect on their health, that is not adequate and not equal. I could go on and on, but the point is this: marginalized people may be more willing and likely to opt for NSBM, but this is not good for their overall health outcomes, and may in fact be a product of their marginalized status.

Yes, there are problems with science-based medicine, specifically the way it interacts with capitalism (see Bad Science for more on this). And Melissa rightfully points out in the comments that medical trials need to include more marginalized populations. But modern, science-based medicine has lengthened our lifespans, given us birth control and abortion, made it possible for transfolk to physically transition, and afforded new opportunities to the disabled. Don't we owe it a little more respect than to say, "reflexively privileging Western medicine, which is best at serving the needs of financially privileged straight white thin generally able-bodied cis men, serves the narratives of the Patriarchy"?

So that's one example of how my favorite feminist blogs can be insufficiently skeptical. (There are plenty others, but I'm already headed for tl;dr territory.) It's posts like those that make me feel that I cannot make my Internet home entirely within the feminist blogosphere.

But I can't migrate to the skeptical blogosphere either. Though skeptical bloggers should be using their well-developed senses of critical thinking to examine their own prejudices, this just doesn't seem to be the case.

Sure, skeptical bloggers are generally progressive folks. They tend to be pro-gay marriage, pro-choice, anti-censorship, etc. But the safe space that you see on feminist blogs, where racism/sexism/homophobic/etc. are not acceptable, is not present in the skeptical blogosphere, perhaps because the skeptical movement is dominated by white, cisgender, straight, able-bodied men. Here's an example: about a month ago, Skepchick had a post up about the kerfuffle over the removal of n-word from Huck Finn. The author rightfully condemned the proposal, but in his condemnation he wrote:

Did he discover that Twain was not commenting on an atrocity of the time the book was set, but simply writing a buddy story about Huck and Jim that we can update every couple of decades to suit our current culture? I can't wait for the version with the rapping river boat captains, or the version where the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson sign on as a couple of skank 'ho's on The Bachelor.

Sweet Stephen Jay Gould's ghost, what was this poster thinking?? In case it's too subtle for you, he equated modern Black culture with rap and "skank 'ho's." What an evenhanded, neutral representation of an oppressed minority culture! It's as though a Kanye West music video came to life in the form of words on a skeptic blog.

Even on consciously progressive skeptic blogs like the Friendly Atheist, the comment threads can devolve into rampant, ugly sexism. (I wanted to post a link to a discussion I found particularly offensive, but the post where I believe it happened seems to have been scrubbed of all evidence of the back-and-forth between the misogynist and the women who protested his comments. I'm not a fan of this revisionism; I'd prefer the offending comments be hidden [i.e. accessible an extra click], with a note from the mod as to why it's unacceptable on that site.)

So what's a feminist skeptic to do?

Personally, I've only found one blog that meets in the middle of my two deep-seated identities, and that's Pandagon. This is Amanda Marcotte's baby, and she attacks both social justice issues and skeptical issues with unmatched rigor. More and more these days, I find myself sharing all her articles with my Google Reader followers, posting them on Facebook, doing whatever I can to spread her opinions across the Internet. We need more bloggers like her.

Just don't expect me to answer the call! I happened to have time to write this all up today because I'm home sick. Otherwise I'd be running around on my usual hectic schedule of full-time job, part-time school, and constant, time-consuming disease management. I'll continue my daily posts taking down Failbook, though, because it's a good outlet for my extreme frustration with popular culture. And maybe for my 100th post, we can dive back into this topic.

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