Until Richard Dawkins exploded onto the scene, I had never heard a man described as strident. It was a put-down reserved exclusively for women with both strong opinions and the nerve and cheek to express them without being the least deferential. Along with the word “militant”, strident had become the automatic descriptor for anyone who publicly proclaimed her feminism.
Germaine Greer is often described as strident and so was Hillary Clinton - particularly in her run to become the first female President of the US. Since she has become the mouthpiece of US foreign policy, however, I notice the epithet is no longer so regularly applied.
I have been called strident myself on occasions, sometimes to my face, but most often by people who have never met me and do not know me. Indeed, I doubt that any woman who has openly identified as a feminist has not had the word “strident” thrown in her direction. And it is an unattractive word, creating an impression of someone who is shrill, aggressive and unreasonable. A strident person, we imagine, is someone who is so opinionated and argumentative that they are almost fanatical, and will shout you down if you try to put an opposing point of view. Combined with the word militant you create the impression of someone who is both obnoxious and deeply intimidating.
Attach such insults to the word feminist often enough and the desired effect is achieved - no one can hear the word feminist without also picturing a shrieking, narrow-minded harridan, and good-hearted people who might otherwise sympathise with feminist ideas turn away.
I thought the word strident, therefore, was also sexist - a word only ever applied to opinionated and threatening women. But it seems I was wrong, it seems the word strident is not gender specific at all, but can also be applied to men who argue vigorously that there is no god.
At last weekend’s “The Rise of Atheism Conference” I heard a great deal of vigorous discussion about gods and religion, both on the stage and off it. I laughed until my insides ached at some of the funniest comedians on the planet as they ripped into a wide range of sacred cows. I was deeply moved by the terrifying experiences of Taslima Nasrin, a Bangladeshi journalist who lives in banishment and fear of death because of her outspoken criticism of the treatment of women by Islam. I felt both cleansed and refreshed as I allowed the crystalline common sense of Robin Williams, P.Z. Myers, A.C. Grayling and, of course, Richard Dawkins to flow over me. I accepted the wisdom of the advice from Phillip Adams and Leslie Cannold to beware of hubris. And I marveled at the journey from darkness into light taken by ex-fundamentalist preacher Dan Barker and ex-Hillsonger Tanya Levin as they told us about their gradual conversion to rationality and atheism.
Yes, there was plenty of humour at religion’s expense, plenty of teasing and plenty of robust criticism of the excesses and unwarranted privileges of organised religion. Things like exemption from tax - not just for actual charitable work but also for religious proselytising; exemption from the anti-discrimination act; the lack of any real separation between church and state in Australia; and the refusal by any government or private company to sponsor the conference despite the millions in taxpayer’s money handed over to World Youth Day and other religious gatherings. An example perhaps, of how intimidated all sorts of organisations are about doing anything that might offend the church.
But I also heard Richard Dawkins hush some restive members of the audience when a questioner bravely declared herself a Christian before asking him about DNA. Despite the fact that this is apparently a favourite gotcha question from believers to atheists, Dawkins answered her thoroughly and respectfully, as he should.
Richard Dawkins isn’t perfect, nor are any atheists. Greer and Clinton aren’t perfect either, any more than I am. No doubt, like all who feel passionately about something, we express ourselves too vigorously for some tastes on occasions, but, be honest, who doesn’t?
So what’s with the use of the word strident?
I am beginning to believe that someone is only called strident (and militant) when they express opinions and ideas that deeply disturb and threaten the powerful and the privileged (“militant unionist” anyone?). Strident is not gender specific - it is a word reserved for silencing those impudent enough to forget their place and dare to challenge the status quo.
If I am right, then strident is a badge of honour to be worn with pride by those who refuse to be frightened or insulted into silence. And I am pleased to welcome all 2,500 atheists (they could have sold each seat three times over, by the way) at last weekend’s conference to our ranks. Let us all, strident atheists and feminists together, march forward in freedom, rationality and great good humour.