Monday, July 25, 2011

You're not a "skeptic" if you can't challenge your own biases

Approaching life with a healthy dose of skepticism and applying reason to life's various quandaries is a good thing. My father has long touted to my siblings and me the importance of having a "scientific mind."  No doubt the world would be better off if more people let reason reign in their lives, rather than ideology. (*cough* Eric Cantor *cough*) But there is a difference between seeking to use reason and making skepticism and reason an identity. The latter, I'm beginning to think, results not in injecting more reasonableness into public discourse, but less, as people who are invested in touting their own superior logic are rarely self-aware enough to spot and acknowledge the places where their thinking has been colored by bias. And make no mistake--no one is immune to the biases inherent in our society--not even the guy who calls himself a Skeptic and fancies himself the smartest person in the room.

This hit me watching the discussion across the Internet about sexism in the atheist community. I'll not rehash. See here (4:30 mark), here and here. Suffice it to say that the response from far too many men, within a movement that prides itself on reason, has not been to investigate why a woman might feel threatened about being propositioned in a hotel elevator, in a foreign country, at 4 a.m., but to flat out deny there could be anything wrong with approaching women this way. They have branded women touchy and irrational for worrying about things like sexual assault and no amount of quoting rape statistics can convince them. Mention the raft of research into how male privilege works and they will deny its existence. Mention microaggressions and their impact on marginalized groups and they will decry political correctness. Asking a man not to corner a woman he is attracted to is tantamount to suggesting that men can never speak to women or, in the words of a commenter on a recent feminist post on Pharyngula, attempting to "make me feel guilty just because I have a penis."

Many male skeptics have shown that they "get" sexism, PZ Myers among them, but far too many men have been awfully, well, unreasonable, refusing to even entertain the idea of sexism within a community that champions critical thinking. But a commenter called oofreerefilloo helped clarify what I think is the problem. Ze wrote:
I'd be disappointed to hear that there is any sexism in the skeptical movement. Isn't that almost an oxymoron?

See, people who call themselves skeptics are immune to biases related to gender (and, presumably, race and sexuality and class, etc.), because they are so darned rational. Sexism among evangelicals and religious fundamentalists--that is worth examining. Those credulous types have sexism written into their dogma. But skeptics are so much smarter! Proclaiming oneself a skeptic is like an "ism" flu shot. It's like how a person born in the northern United States can be assured he is not racist, because all racists live in the South.

What? You say that's ridiculous? Well, of course it is. Thinking like this only allows sexism and other oppressions to fester. If I am assured that the guilty parties are those people over there, then I never have to examine my own biases. This, I think, is the problem with wrapping yourself too tightly in the flag of reason--proclaiming oneself a Skeptic, rather than a human being who approaches claims with skepticism. It is too easy to believe that everything you do is reasoned, which is impossible unless one is superhuman...and no reasonable person believes in super humans, right?

I was inspired to write this post after watching Nick Gillespie on Friday night's episode of "Real Time with Bill Maher." Here I thought no one could be as smug as Maher himself, but Gillespie takes the crown. Of course, the editor of Reason magazine and and avowed libertarian was no more an ideologue than anyone else who sits on the "Real Time" panel...but he was certainly no less of one either. Thing is, I'll bet you'd have a hard time convincing him of that. Like several libertarians I have encountered, Gillespie seems to view his ideology as intrinsically linked to critical thinking. His magazine is called Reason for goodness sake. I wonder if Gillespie is willing to acknowledge the biases that make him poo-poo workers' stagnant wages and drip disdain at John Fetterman. (Though the person who posted the clip below chose to cut out Fetterman's remarks, he went on to talk about the suffering of average Americans.)

The most useful thing we can all do--for our personal growth and for the good of our communities--is to constantly challenge what we think we know. It's easy to challenge others, but it's even easier to stop challenging yourself when you are convinced of your own unimpeachable reasoning skills.

Proclaiming yourself a critical thinker is no good if you think it absolves you of, y'know actual critical thinking, particularly that which leads to confronting the inclinations and privileges that we ALL have.


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