Dissent on feminism is not like dissent on evolution

One of the popular memes out there in the feminist blogosphere is to compare a person who disagrees with a feminist position to a creationist who disagrees with all of evolution. There are two problems with this.

First, there is a general attitude amongst caricature/Internet feminists that if a person dares disagree on even a single feminist point, that person must be a rape culture apologist who just wants to rape. Also, rape. And elevator rape. Rape. Rape. Rapey rape. Rapedy rapedy rape rape rape. That, of course, makes no sense, especially in the context of comparing dissent on feminism to dissent on evolution by creationists. A person who disagrees with one or even a few parts of feminism is not like a creationist because a creationist rejects virtually every bit of science discovered since Darwin. (If we get more specific and go with young Earth creationists, we can include every bit of science since the beginning of the Enlightenment.) A person who disagrees with some part of feminism does not think women are second-class citizens by default, nor does such a person necessarily reject other parts feminism. More importantly, such a person does not necessarily reject the basic idea of equality. This is unlike the creationist who can only reject evolution by rejecting vast swaths of science.

Second, feminism is – at best – a philosophy. It is not science. It is not fact. It isn’t any more provable than anything Kant ever said about the good being found in good will itself. That isn’t to say it isn’t useful, but it is not some established, objective observation of the world. (I have to include that last line because omitting it means I think feminism is nothing but garbage and rape is awesome.) Evolution, on the other hand, is science. It is fact. It is an established, objective observation of the world. To express dissent to it is to express an ignorance that can be countered with objective facts and education. Feminism does not enjoy that same, dare I say, privilege. If it did, then so would egalitarianism. Or any other philosophy. It would be an inherent contradiction: Philosophy is a subjective interpretation of the world, so to say it can be objectively true makes no sense. It certainly uses facts and the latest knowledge of the world to support and build its propositions, but from that use ultimately comes non-scientific, subjective interpretations. Moreover, virtually all philosophies make or are developed for the purpose of making normative claims. That is, they make value claims. The subjectivity is unavoidable.

The only reason this ‘feminist dissent is like evolution dissent’ meme is popular is because cheap rhetoric is so easy. The two topics enjoy a cross section that would be the link on a Venn diagram labeled “liberal/progressive”. By attempting to appeal to what much of that link already accepts – evolution – the feminist side of the aisle is attempting to invent a shameful comparison: ‘Why, you’re just like a creationist! Don’t you feel silly now?’ It’s hardly any different from the argument that atheism is a religion. (Oh, hey, look. Many feminists share my position that there is no God and that religion is bad, so I know a lot of them have been accused of having a religion. I also know that that accusation is annoying, so no one in her right mind would want to make it herself. Yet here we are, with feminists making just that sort of argument. I have exploited my own Venn diagram link. Isn’t lazy rhetoric fun?)

More rhetoric losses

I just wrote about the RNC losing the rhetoric battle on women. Now I have a personal example of someone losing the rhetoric battle to me.

Look around at some of my recent posts and Roxeanne de Luca will show up. She’s an angry little person who really wants me to know just how mad she is. For a little while, though, she only wanted me to know that (and, I suppose, FTSOS readers). She hid a few of my comments from her readers due to her pattern of cowardice, but once called out on it, I guess she re-thought things. (At least, she re-thought them a little bit; some of my posts are still missing.) She recently allowed this post of mine:

You probably won’t post this, but I’m sure you’ll see it: Your cowardice is astounding, Roxeanne. Not only have you run away from debates when you were trounced on my blog, but you have the gall to write about people you’re too afraid to let respond.

I know you like to take the “I’m older than you, therefore I’m a smart adult and you should listen to me by default” route, but methinks it’s fair to say you’ve fully lost the right to that (boring) strategy through your childish cowardice.

I didn’t think reverse psychology would work since her blog presumably isn’t a kid’s sitcom from the 90’s, but here we are. She responded:

Learn the difference between having a life/not feeding the trolls and cowardice. You aren’t brave; you’re bored and you’re boring.

This is when I know I’ve beat her. She’s the little kid who dropped her ice cream and everyone laughed at her. Now in order to make herself feel better, she wants to slap the cone out of my hand by reflecting my rhetoric and calling me boring.

It looks like, as usual, Roxeanne’s anger has gotten the best of her. At least she’s giving me a reason to fill up my “Humor” category a little bit more.

And the Republicans lose the rhetoric battle

I have written in the past about when I know I’ve beat someone in a debate. The best sign comes when that person starts stealing my rhetoric in a way which is not intended to quote or mock:

It’s sort of like when something embarrassing happens to a kid in grade school who in turn tries and do something more embarrassing to someone else. Or, equally, when a kid drops his ice cream on the ground, so he goes and knocks his brothers’ ice cream down too. Something negative happened to a person and that person wants to reflect that negative thing onto someone else in order to make himself feel better.

I had this in mind when I heard that the Republican National Committee released an ad contending that President Obama had a “War on Women”. Take a look:

It’s no secret that the Republicans have been facing a lot of criticism for their actions towards women in recent months. The result has been for people to popularly say the GOP is waging a “war on women”. Now the RNC is responding by simply declaring that Obama is the one who is waging a “war on women”. It’s almost hilarious.

I don’t expect very much from Republicans, but this ad is especially uncreative. It doesn’t say anything new. It isn’t well made. And worst of all, it’s just stealing the rhetoric from the other side. The RNC dropped its ice cream and now it wants to slap everyone else’s cones to the ground too.

tigtog doesn’t get it

I recently came across an old post from hoydenabouttown.com that referenced an argument about rhetoric I made on Pharyngula. Basically, I was saying that one’s argument should match one’s goals. The sexist goals of PZ and others do not match their goals of making people more aware of what they see as sexism, thus their rhetoric is just awful. That isn’t to say it is awful for their in-group discussions. I expected to see harsh rhetoric from PZ and his followers. That’s what his audience wants, so he delivered. The problem is when they want to appeal to anyone else. No one is going to listen. Try getting an event organizer to book more female speakers by calling him a sexist, privileged pig who wants to take away women’s rights to vote. See what happens. So once I made my argument and everyone thoroughly misunderstood it, I cited Cicero who made the same basic point all day long: rhetoric should match goals. Unfortunately, author “tigtog” of hoydenabouttown.com doesn’t seem to get it:

Using this quote as if Cicero thus obviously advocated politely rational rhetoric is so hilariously ignorant about how Cicero actually used rhetoric in practice to garner an audience and persuade them to his will! Nobody who was actually familiar with Cicero’s most famous successes as an orator could possibly imagine that he was recommending civil argumentation.

(I didn’t actually use a quote, but I digress.)

tigtog then went on to discuss specific tactics Cicero used. None of it got to my point. Again, rhetoric needs to match goals. The times when Cicero used harsh rhetoric matched his goals and spoke to his audience. If he did the same thing in 21st century American politics, he may have been seen as just another asshole who is petty and flies off the handle. Or not. All politics are local, so – as always – it all depends on his audience.

People just don’t seem to get it. I’m all for harsh tones when harsh tones work. I feel they are more honest, so I prefer them. Just look at the hilarious lashing Richard Lenski gave to creationists. The second letter he sent to the morons at Conservapedia was far from nice, but it’s hard to deny its greatness. And, oh gee, look at his third sentence:

I expect you to post my [second] response in its entirety; if not, I will make sure that is made publicly available through other channels.

In his first response he was fairly cordial. He was just responding to a few silly creationists. However, his second response was designed to be seen by scientifically-oriented people. That’s why he explicitly said he would make it public one way or another. So in each letter we see appropriate rhetoric: in the first he answered nicely so as to more easily move on from the situation while remaining professional; in the second he ripped them apart so everyone could laugh. That pretty much nails the sentiments and arguments of Cicero in every regard.

So, again, my argument is simply that one’s rhetoric must match one’s goals. In fact, that was Cicero’s argument. This makes tigtog wrong twice. First, she has implied that I would not advocate for harsh tones. Saying as much is to willfully disregard everything I have said. Harsh tones are great when used correctly. Second, I never argued what Cicero thought was the best or worst specific rhetoric one way or another anyway. That’s just poor reading comprehension on her part.

Oh, and using an embarrassing misunderstanding of another person’s argument as a premise for one’s own argument is also bad rhetoric. I don’t know if Cicero ever felt the need to be explicit on that point, so maybe tigtog can enlighten us all.

This is what I mean

When I argue that language matters (and get called racist for doing so), this is what I mean:

…style matters.

The register and dialect you use matter. Your word choices matter. Whether you use semi-colons or instead write two separate sentences matters. But it is a stylistic choice, not a grammatical one, and it should be recognized (and criticized) as such.

I like to use semi-colons to link related sentences; other people do not, and argue that this makes it difficult to follow what I’m writing. That is a solid argument. We can have a lovely debate on whether semi-colons are more elegant and more readable than dividing the sentence into two little sentences. However, this debate can only take place if both sides agree that their opinion is more of a guideline than an actual rule.

As the author, Hortensio, goes on, one’s goals (and I would argue intentions) matter as well. Do I want to persuade? Do I want to offend? Do I want to do both? Do I want to comes across as pithy? Ironic? Academic? All of these things matter, and they all require a writer to pay attention to his audience. Writing with only one’s self in mind will likely result in poor writing. Or at least writing no one wishes to read.

Ironically, I have no good way to transition into my next point, so here it is: In the comment section of the above linked post is a discussion on the use of “they”, “s/he”, “one”, and the like. It is only briefly touched upon, but I think the gist is this: do we want to be socially conscious or do we want to be undistracting? That is, neutralizing gendered terms in order to not arbitrarily favor men has been a popular trend in writing for quite some time. However, one result of this trend has been to use the grammatically abhorrent “they” or the aesthetically grotesque “he or she”. This tends to distract because it deviates from the vast majority of writings; I see it and tend to think the writer is making a point to be socially aware, leading me to assume a lack of genuineness. The other option is to consistently use “she” or consistently use “he”. This is my personal preference. I want people to read over my pronouns as if there really exists a gender neutral term in English. I can appreciate the idea behind exposing the lack of awareness everyone has over these sort of issues, but I’m not going to sacrifice the quality of my writing for it.

Now all I need to do is make another 500 posts about language and maybe people will believe me that I really do care about writing.

Why this offends me

PZ currently has a series of posts going where people write about why they are atheists. If anything, it serves to debunk his claim that atheists ought to be holding up a bunch of particular progressive views: people have their non-belief for a wide variety of reasons, not due to a certain set of normative views. Attempts to place everyone under the banner of atheism, as if that’s a coherent thing to do, just won’t work. For the nth time, atheism is 100% descriptive.

I’ve only read two of these posts and maybe skimmed another one or two. I don’t care that much about why Joe Schmo is an atheist. (It’s no better than Joe the Plumber from 2008.) But one of the two I’ve read caught my attention:

Simple. I read the bible. At 11. After reading through Norse, Roman, Egyptian and Greek mythology. I recognized they were the same. My mother was ecstatic, My father not so much. Oh, and I am African American. My mother was an atheist, and so are my children…they also came there with some guidance, but of their own volition.


I liked this from the get-go because of its punctuated pace. But then I got to the irrelevant part about Gwen being black. Who cares? I understand that atheism amongst blacks in America is lower than it is amongst whites, but it really isn’t important to the issue. A valid question, however, is why I have said in the title of this post that this offends me.

I remember in the first or second grade being given an assignment to write a paragraph. I chose to write about my dog. I can no longer recall the details of everything I said, but I distinctly remember writing the sentence, “He is a boy.” It was out of place and did not pertain to the topic sentence, so when the teacher asked people if they could identify possible changes that needed to be made, a few students pointed it out. The teacher agreed and I learned something.

And that brings me to why Gwen’s irrelevant line offends me: It’s bad writing. She’s black? Fine. Create a blog post expressing experiences had while living as a black atheist. It would be an interesting topic. But to randomly mention it is just an attempt to get PZ’s attention. Everyone knows he’s going to go out of his way to promote a member of a minority group if he can. There isn’t anything necessarily wrong with that, but he obviously did not pick Gwen’s piece because it was the cream of the crop. At best I can grant that this is effective rhetoric – it got her posted, after all – but it is not quality writing.

I have written at other times about my concern for language. (I especially liked a South Park episode that distinguished between the gendered sense of the word “fag” and the looser, more generalized use of the term.) I’m not pretending that I’m the perfect writer – I bet I have at least one non-typo error somewhere in this post – but I do have a genuine interest in how people use words. Language has an impact on us every single day. There are even comprehensive philosophies which use it as their cornerstones. It matters. It is the most common, most important way in which we communicate with each other over the course of our lives. Let’s not abuse and misuse it.

When PZ does not help women

I write from time to time about the use of rhetoric in communication. When most people hear that word, they think of empty phrases that have no real substance behind them, but that’s not correct. Yes, there is a lot of empty rhetoric out there, but the vast majority of it – even when people don’t realize they are utilizing it – is really an art.

I was thinking about this earlier right around the time I was also thinking about PZ’s posts on feminism. He uses rhetoric which stays within his general style of being brute and harsh, but I don’t think that’s a good thing at all. It isn’t that I’m being a tone-troll – people can swear and curse and insult and say whatever other mean things they want and I don’t mind. The issue here is that I don’t think PZ is being effective.

In my view, the core point of rhetoric is to communicate a particular idea to someone in a way that meets a goal. Generally the goal is to convince another person that Concept X is correct, but that isn’t always the case. Take for instance the harsh rhetoric of Gnu Atheists. It can be cordial yet forceful, and when that happens I think the point is to convince a person to believe a particular idea. But when the rhetoric is rougher, more insulting, less kind, the (primary) point is not necessarily to get a person thinking, “Oh, yeah, that guy is right.” No, instead the point is to break taboos. Referring to God as a sky-daddy or calling religious thinking irrational and silly goes against the grain because it is expected for one to respect and accept beliefs if they are religious beliefs. That’s horseshit. Breaking that taboo is important in breaking the hold of religion; make it okay to attack religion and maybe it won’t be held in such unjustified revere. PZ is good at doing that, just as many other Gnu Atheists are. (Richard Dawkins even begins The God Delusion by talking about undeserved respect.)

But when it comes to promoting feminism, PZ is not usually effective. He often blames men, calls people sexist merely for not agreeing on controversial, nuanced topics, and sometimes he even lies. This is par for the course when it comes to caricature feminists; all those things people stereotype feminists as being come to the surface, and that is harmful. Confirming false ideas which many people see negatively does not demonstrate effective rhetoric.

This would be fine, though, if PZ could justify his rhetoric as getting at another point like with the Gnu Atheists. But I doubt he can. What more could he want, after all, than to promote equality for women? He may do that in some ways, but when he uses bad rhetoric, he overshadows his primary goal. And if he isn’t achieving that goal, he is not helping women. In fact, his failure to achieve his goal goes to the left on the chart: He is actually hurting women because he is confirming stereotypes and putting a stop to productive discussion.

To use an anecdote, I’ve had my run-in with feminists. I still stand by my core arguments on some issues (a picture of fat women objectifies obesity first – and that is a good thing, anyway), but on other issues I have become more aware of my biases. And the reason has absolutely nothing to do with the caricature feminists who say men who disagree with them are promoting rape and other absurdities. No, it has to do with the people who actually took the time to explain their arguments. It’s weird, but women acting hysterically somehow does not promote viewing them as rational.

Now take this recent post by PZ. He says atheism has a sexism problem which is being denied, but he doesn’t go off the deep end. He focuses on things like female leadership and the need to be more aware of a lack of women at events and conferences. He does say obtuse men (and, surprisingly, women) are an obstacle, but he specifies that it is a small minority, not all men (or women). I agree:

Our one obstacle? The small number of indignant people who will be in denial, and take recognition of a common problem as an insult. Get over it. Appreciating women as partners actually doesn’t hurt, and the only insult here is the bizarrely obtuse attitude of some men and women.

He is almost trolling by calling people out for being in denial – I haven’t read the comment section, but given that it is nearly 700 posts deep, I have no hope for it – but the important thing is that he hasn’t gone and blamed men or atheists in general. The issue, in part, is a lack of awareness, and that does not place direct blame on people. (Also at issue is a legacy of society where men rise to higher positions more often than women – most Gnu Atheists spokespeople are accomplished in academics – and that is beyond the scope of atheism.) He points out ignorance, communicates a precise issue he has seen in his class (see post), and promotes the talent of women. This is hopeful because rather than attack others, he has taken a positive position. That is what is needed if PZ actually does want to help women.

It’s just effective rhetoric.


When most people hear the word rhetoric, they think it’s all just empty baloney. It isn’t. Most of the rhetoric we experience of which we are aware comes from our politics, and sure, it isn’t always the best, but there’s some good stuff out there. I could literally offer millions of examples, but I want to focus on two that I think are especially good (in terms of being good rhetoric).

The first is the “Is Obama a U.S. citizen?” question out there. The number of Republicans who don’t think he is fluctuates between 30-55%. That’s amazing for such a stupid question, but there’s good reason for it. Pay attention to what the Republicans keep saying. Even when they agree that President Obama is from Hawaii, they sneak in a little bit of doubt. “Yeah, I take the President at his word.” Sure, you do. And even when they don’t fiddle with weasel words and phrases, it’s still great rhetoric. By simply bringing the issue up again and again they convey that there is doubt out there; by denying the point they actually bolster it.

Another great example is with Dubya. I know, I know. He wasn’t exactly known for eloquent speech, but that’s part of his rhetoric, purposeful or not. He would routinely repeat phrases about safety and strength and courage, even when he wasn’t making any grammatical sense. All that mattered was that people heard a few key words; I did something similar when I kept repeating “boy-rape” in a recent post (though my sentence structure stands up). Or when Dubya spoke to Evangelicals, he would begin most of his sentences with “and”, reflecting Biblical writings (“And the Lord said it was good”). He knew his audience. His rhetoric there was no accident.

But there’s bad rhetoric out there, too. And lo, not just the political variety. (Okay, maybe appealing to a religious audience isn’t going to be useful on this blog.) This classic is one we’ve all heard:

Junior: But Billy and everyone else is doing it!

Mom: If Billy and everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you? You aren’t going.

Now, the proper logical response would be to point out that this is a reductio ad absurdum. Just because Junior wants to do some of the same things as his friends does not mean he would also want to jump off a bridge. Mom has committed a logical fallacy. Junior might appeal to emotion and point out how left out he’s going to be when he goes to school Monday morning and everyone is talking about what they did Saturday afternoon. He probably won’t win, but it’s his best shot using rhetoric. He could also try pointing out the logical fallacy, but that might be a bit over his head, methinks. Besides, superior logic from children isn’t usually received well. Junior needs to know his audience: Mom.

I think the fairest way to frame my relationship with rhetoric is that it’s love-hate. I love to see its effective use, even if it sometimes ends up in people believing dumb things. But at the same time, what makes rhetoric effective isn’t whether or not it’s true; what matters is if it convinces one’s audience. That means something like this blog or The God Delusion will probably fail to change the hearts and minds of any hardcore theist, but the people out there on the fence who value logos might find one or both persuasive, or the atheists who feel religion deserves a gentle hand may become uncomfortable with continuing with any undue respect. It is those people who are the primary audience and so it is by them that the rhetoric here or in The God Delusion must be measured.

What I find especially unfortunate about rhetoric (this is the big hate part of the relationship) is that people just aren’t very good at using it. Take a look at the comment Nate deleted from his blog.

Hey nate,

By reading your blog I have learned that Kirk Cameron is not the dumbest Christian on earth.
Congratulations. Sorry there’s no prize money.

This is simply bad. This person is making a comment on a blog that will be viewed by an audience that will likely agree with Nate more than disagree. There is no appeal in issuing an insult, especially when it is devoid of any substance around it. Okay, great, some guy on the Internet thinks someone else is dumb. Does that knowledge get us anywhere? It’s this sort of garbage that makes people think negative things when they even hear the word “rhetoric”; it rises to the level of “Yo Mama” jokes. Anyone offended by those jokes is an idiot. Anyone impressed with that rhetoric is a mook.

Rhetoric is an art form. It is there to persuade a particular audience to think one way (or at least not think the other way). When it’s empty, it’s ugly. When it’s abused, it’s offensive. When it’s noticed, it’s appreciated.