Today, I will address two questions: what is sexism, and is Dr. Harris guilty? Then, I will look at a couple of objections to what appears to me to be the only reasonable verdict: innocent.
What is sexism?
Merriam-Webster defines ‘sexism’ as: “unfair treatment of people because of their sex; especially : unfair treatment of women”. They further add that “behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex” qualify. Since it is remarks that are under question, I'll use the latter definition.
‘Unfair’ is further defined as: “marked by injustice, partiality, or deception”. A ‘stereotype’ is defined as: “an often unfair and untrue belief that many people have about all people or things with a particular characteristic.”
We can synthesize these definitions and ask if Dr. Harris’ remarks amount to fostering untrue or deceptive beliefs that many people have about women.
Notice that this question reduces to an empirical one for which there is, at least in principle, an answer. Were Dr. Harris’ comments about men and women untrue or deceptive? To answer this, we will examine what he said about psychological differences between the genders. Then, we will examine whether the evidence appears to indicate that what he said is untrue or deceptive.
But first, let’s clarify what Dr. Harris did not say. One would think that I wouldn’t have to repeat that which he clearly expressed here, but so many of the accusations against him are based on these distortions:
He did not say that a psychological difference between the genders does explain why “angry atheism” attracts more men. He hypothesized that such a gender difference might contribute to that explanation.
He did not say that whatever psychological differences might be at play, they must be innate or biological. He acknowledged that they may be contributed to by either biology or socio-cultural influences.
He did not say that women aren’t capable of thinking as critically as men or that they are more gullible than men.
He did not say that this matter is undeserving of even five minutes of his time.
Were Harris’ comments sexist?
Dr. Harris thinks that women are, in general, less attracted to the aggressive and charged confrontations that characterize active atheism than men are. Based on the definition of sexism above, it follows that one could only find Dr. Harris’ comments sexist if one could not reasonably conclude that the available evidence indicates that females may be less psychologically inclined towards aggression.
In 2005, psychologist Janet Shibley Hyde, PhD, analysed 46 meta-analyses spanning over two decades of investigation into a variety of psychological gender differences including cognitive variables, verbal and non-verbal communication, social or personality variables, measures of psychological well-being, and others (1). In almost all cases, the research indicated that males and females are much more alike than they are different. In contrast to the “gender differences hypothesis” she was initially investigating, she ended up coining the “gender similiarities hypothesis”. Men and women, it seems, are not from Mars and Venus, after all. This was her conclusion:
“The gender similarities hypothesis stands in stark contrast to the differences model, which holds that men and women, and boys and girls, are vastly different psychologically. The gender similarities hypothesis states, instead, that males and females are alike on most—but not all—psychological variables. Extensive evidence from meta-analyses of research on gender differences supports the gender similarities hypothesis. A few notable exceptions are some motor behaviors (e.g., throwing distance) and some aspects of sexuality, which show large gender differences. Aggression shows a gender difference that is moderate in magnitude.The last paragraph underscores the sobering consequences of sexism. But while Dr. Hyde found that these concerns are valid for most gender differences (similarities, actually), they aren't necessarily valid for aggression, where a real difference between males and females was identified.
It is time to consider the costs of overinflated claims of gender differences. Arguably, they cause harm in numerous realms, including women’s opportunities in the workplace, couple conflict and communication, and analyses of self- esteem problems among adolescents. Most important, these claims are not consistent with the scientific data.”
I’m not a psychologist or an expert in this field, but after reading that relatively recent and thorough review and doing some web-based searches that failed to find any data that would clearly overturn Dr. Hyde’s conclusion, it seems to me that one could tentatively stop here.
Of course, I’m completely open to other relevant and more recent data, and if anybody reading this knows of any, please chime in.
I’ll be the first to admit that the available data doesn’t conclusively prove that a large enough gender difference in aggression does explain the apparent male predominance in the “angry atheist movement”. Nobody knows what does. But for Dr. Harris to be found innocent, it must only be the case that one could reasonably hypothesize that such a difference might play a relevant role.
A couple of possible objections
Perhaps, based on the same evidence, you disagree with Dr. Hyde’s conclusion. That doesn’t make Dr. Harris’ comments sexist. Reasonable people can and often do disagree on the interpretation of imperfect evidence. Dr. Harris’ comments could only be sexist if it were unreasonable for Dr. Hyde herself to have reached her (sexist, in that case) conclusion about aggression. (Again, new overturning evidence, to which I am completely open, would also be relevant here.)
One of the most thoughtful objections to Dr. Harris’ remarks that I’ve discovered come from a blogger named Libby Anne. I encourage people to read her post in it's entirety. Here’s a part of what she wrote:
"Would Harris suggest that black and Hispanic men, too, have a “nurturing, coherence-building, extra estrogen vibe” that makes the angry tone of Harris’s atheist activism off-putting? Presumably not. Presumably Harris understands that there are a variety of reasons for the underrepresentation of people of color, including both casual racism in the organized atheist community and cultural specifics in the wider society, none of which have anything to do with any sort of underlying psychological differences. And yet, when it comes to the underrepresentation of women in organized atheism Harris chooses not to consider either casual sexism in the organized atheist community or the cultural landscape women live their lives against. Instead, he jumps straight to presumed psychological differences between men and women."
Regarding Ms. Anne's analogy, I had a look, and as far as I could see, there isn’t any reasonable psychological evidence supporting the claim that Blacks and Hispanics are less aggressive (or psychologically different in any other relevant way) than their Caucasian counterparts. That's precisely why that suggestion would represent bigotry, and why it's not a relevant analogy. As for Dr. Harris jumping to psychological gender differences, he did, in his blog, acknowledge that sexism, misogyny, and social pressures (all themselves, potentially influenced by recognized psychological gender differences in aggression and sexuality, I would add) are relevant considerations.
It seems that the question of whether Dr. Harris’ comments are sexist boils down to an empirical one. Is it possible to reasonably conclude, on the basis of the available evidence, that men may be fonder of the aggressive and charged confrontations that characterize the visible North American atheism movement because men are psychologically more inclined towards aggression than women are, when considered in the aggregate? I think that the answer is yes, and so I think that it’s just not possible for the charge of sexism that’s been made about Dr. Harris to stick.
Because the question of Dr. Harris' innocence is an empirical one, I would hope that people on both sides of this debate would restrict the conversation to one about the relevant evidence. As a core message of the atheism movement, it's ironic that that would require a reminder. No matter what we think of Dr. Harris' comments, wouldn't we all benefit from that kind of conversation, rather than the one we are seeing right now?
1. The Gender Similarities Hypothesis. American Psychologist 2005;60:581-92.