Small Things You Can Do To Improve Mental Health In Your Community

[Content note: suicide, mental illness]

A few weeks ago Northwestern lost yet another student to suicide. There’s been pressure building all year for improved mental health services on campus, and I think that pressure will soon culminate in real, helpful changes on campus.

At the same time, some have been saying that what we need is not better mental healthcare services, but changes in campus “culture,” such as a reduction in the stigma of accessing mental healthcare and an increase in our willingness to discuss mental health which each other.

I don’t think that these things are mutually exclusive; I think we need both. People whose troubles are relatively minor will benefit from increased openness about mental health on campus without needing any improvements in mental healthcare, but those who suffer from serious mental illnesses–the kind that can contribute to suicide–need more than just supportive friends and professors. They need treatment. Right now, it’s becoming clear that many of those people are not getting the help they need.

Echoing these debates, a blog run by Northwestern students called Sherman Ave posted a piece called “A Reflection on Death, Privilege, and The College Experience.” (Sherman Ave usually sticks to humor, but this time it poignantly diverged.) The author wrote:

In writing these words and thinking these thoughts, I do not believe that a “call to action” here ends in throwing more money toward psychological services. As much as I believe that funding of psychological services at this university should be increased, I would hesitate to claim that another few thousand dollars would have stopped Alyssa Weaver and potentially Dmitri Teplov from committing suicide. Rather, I encourage everyone reading this article to think carefully about the state of those without the privilege of stable mental health.  We should seek to sympathize with members of our community instead of ignoring them for the sake of convenience. If we have the tremendous power to come together in grievance of a lost classmate, then there’s absolutely no reason we shouldn’t be able to show the same love and solidarity for that classmate before they give up on our community.

And a commenter responded:

I agree with the need to come together to “show the same love and solidarity” to members of our community who need or want support and communication from others, but what does that practically mean? I find myself asking–how can I, as one person, contribute to a positive dialogue that moves our community towards supporting each other in the face of hardship? How do I even “identify” someone who needs my help? Or how do I make myself open to facilitating healing in my peers?

I don’t think there’s any easy answer to this. Practically speaking, changing a culture is like voting–it’s pretty rare that the actions of a single individual make an immediately noticeable difference. Westerners are used to thinking of themselves as individual agents, acting on their own and without any influence from or effect on their surrounding culture, and this is probably one of the many reasons it’s so difficult for people to even conceive of being able to make an actual impact when it comes to something like this.

You don’t have to be an activist, a therapist, or a researcher to make a difference when it comes to mental health. The following are small things almost anyone can do to help build a community where mental illness is taken seriously and where mental health is valued. Although I’m specifically thinking about college campuses here, this is applicable to anything you might call a “community”–an organization, a group of friends, a neighborhood.

1. When people ask you how you’re doing, tell them the truth.

This is something I’ve been really making an effort to do. This doesn’t mean that every time someone asks me “What’s up?” I give them The Unabridged Chronicles of Miri’s Current Woes and Suffering. But I try not to just say “Good!” unless I mean it. Instead I’ll say, “I’ve been going through a rough patch lately, but things are looking up. How about you?” or “Pretty worried about my grad school loans, but hopefully I’ll figure it out.” The point isn’t so much that I desperately need to share these things with people; rather, I’m signaling that 1) I trust them with this information, and 2) they are welcome to open up to me, too. Ending on a positive note and/or by asking them how they are makes it clear that I’m not trying to dump all my problems on them, but I leave it up to them to decide whether or not to ask more questions and try to comfort me, or to just go ahead and tell me how they’re doing.

2. If you see a therapist or have in the past and are comfortable telling people, tell them.

One awesome thing many of my friends do is just casually drop in references to the fact that they see a therapist into conversation. This doesn’t have to be awkward or off-topic, but it does have to be intentional. They’ll say stuff like, “Sorry, I can’t hang out then; I have therapy” or they’ll mention something they learned or talked about in a therapy session where it’s relevant. The point of this is to normalize therapy and to treat it like any other doctor’s appointment or anything else you might do for your health, like going to the gym or buying healthy food. It also suggests to people that you are someone they can go to if they’re considering therapy and have questions about it, because you won’t stigmatize them.

3. Drop casual misuse of mental illness from your language.

Don’t say the weather is “bipolar.” Don’t refer to someone as “totally schizo.” Don’t claim to be “depressed” if you’re actually just feeling sad (unless, of course, you actually are depressed). Don’t call someone’s preference for neatness “so OCD.” These are serious illnesses and it hurts people who have them to see them referenced flippantly and incorrectly. One fourth of adults will have a mental illness at some point in their life, and you might not know if one of them is standing right next to you. Furthermore, the constant misuse of these terms makes it easier for people to dismiss those who (accurately) claim to have a mental illness. If all you know about “being totally ADHD” is when you have a bit of trouble doing the dense reading for your philosophy class, it becomes easier to dismiss someone who tells you that they actually have ADHD.

4. Know the warning signs of mental illness and suicidality, and know where to refer friends who need professional help.

You can find plenty of information about this online or in pamphlets at a local counseling center. If you’re a student, find out what mental health services your campus offers. If you’re not a student, find out about low-cost counseling in your area. If you have the time, see if you can attend a training on suicide prevention (and remember that asking someone if they’re okay or if they’ve been feeling suicidal will not make them not-okay or suicidal). Being aware and informed about mental health can make a huge difference in the life of a friend who needs help. This doesn’t mean you’re responsible for people who need help or that it’s your fault if you don’t succeed in helping them–not at all. It just gives you a toolbox that’ll help you respond if someone in your community is showing signs of mental illness.

Learning about mental illness is also extremely important because it helps you decolonize your mind from the stigma you’ve probably learned. Even those who really want to be supportive and helpful to people with mental illnesses have occasionally had fleeting thoughts of “Why can’t they just try harder” and “Maybe they’re just making this up for attention.” That’s stigma talking. Even if you didn’t learn this from your family, you learned it from the surrounding culture. Studying mental illness helps shut that voice up for good.

5. Understand how social structures–culture, laws, business, politics, the media, etc.–influence mental health.

If you learned what you know about mental  health through psychology classes, your understanding of it is probably very individualistic: poor mental health is caused by a malfunctioning brain, or at most by a difficult childhood or poor coping skills. However, the larger society we live in affects who has mental health problems, who gets treatment, what kind of treatment they get, and how they are treated by others. Learn about the barriers certain groups–the poor, people of color, etc.–face in getting treatment. Learn about how certain groups–women, queer people, etc.–have been mistreated by the mental healthcare system. Find out what laws are being passed concerning mental healthcare, both in your state and in the federal government. Learn how insurance companies influence what kind of treatment people are able to get (medication vs. talk therapy, for instance) and what sorts of problems you must typically have in order for insurance to cover your treatment (diagnosable DSM disorders, usually). Pay attention to how mental illness is portrayed in the media–which problems are considered legitimate, which are made fun of, which get no mention at all.

It’s tempting to view mental health as an individual trait, and mental illness as an individual problem. But in order to help build a community in which mental health matters, you have to learn to think about it structurally. That’s the only way to really understand why things are the way they are and how to make them change.

On Useful and Not-So-Useful Definitions of Racism

[Update 10/22/13: If you’ve found this post through a racist hate forum, don’t bother commenting. Your comment’s going straight to the trash and nobody will ever read it. :)]

Richard Dawkins, whose Twitter feed never fails to amuse, has lately been discussing racism–specifically, against white people:

[Here’s the link in case you can’t see this]

 

Dawkins sounds eerily like my high school self here–desperate to stick to his own definitions of things and reject the definitions of others, all while claiming that everyone needs to be using the same definition in order for a discussion to be productive. Dawkins assumes that a dictionary definition is by default more legitimate than a definition provided by people who actually study the subject in question and presumes that what is written in a dictionary is “true” in the same sense as, say, the periodic table or the speed of light. Consider that dictionaries have historically been written by those least likely to understand what racism actually is and how it actually works, because if you’re a white person, racism isn’t something you’re ever forced to give serious thought to.

It is true that if you define racism as “not liking someone based on their race,” then people of color can be just as racist as white people. If you define racism this way, then it is true that the person who dismissed Dawkins’ opinion at the beginning was being racist. If you define racism this way, then it is true that a white person who is treated rudely by a Black person is a victim of racism, and it is true that, strictly speaking, affirmative action is racist.

But the fact is that this isn’t a very useful definition. You might as well make up a word for “not liking someone based on the color of their hair” or “not liking someone based on whether they wear boxers or briefs.” I don’t deny that it’s hurtful when someone doesn’t like you based on something arbitrary like your skin color, but when you’re white, this doesn’t carry any cultural or institutional power. When you’re not white, it does. Because then it’s not just a random asshole who doesn’t like your skin color.

I have had a person of color express prejudice towards me because I’m white exactly once in my life. Once. (And for what it’s worth, it was a stranger on the train who apparently just felt like yelling at people that day.) I have never been denied a job because I’m white. I have never been followed around or stopped and frisked by the police because I’m white. I’ve never been told I’m ugly because I’m white. I have never been told I’m stupid because I’m white, and I’ve never been told that I’m unusually intelligent for a white person.

Disliking someone based on their skin color is not enough for it to be racism. In fact, it’s not even a necessary condition. You can like people of color a lot while still maintaining that they’re just different from white people or that they need protection or that they’re perhaps better suited by nature for servile roles (this was an attitude commonly expressed during slavery). Likewise, you can just loooooove women while still supporting patriarchal laws and cultural norms, which is why I have to laugh when someone’s all like “But how can I be sexist? I LOOOOVE women! ;)”

As a scientist, Dawkins must realize how difficult it is when people take technical terms and use them too generally. For instance, a “chemical” is any substance that has a constant composition and that is characterized by specific properties. Elements are chemicals. Compounds are chemicals. Basically, tons of substances are chemicals, including water. Yet most people use “chemical” to mean “awful scary synthetic substance put into our food/water/hygienic products.” You see products being advertised as “chemical-free,” a laughable concept, and people talking about how “chemicals” are bad for you.

So yes, it’s important to recognize that many people use the word “chemical” in a particular way that conflicts with the definition used by chemists. But that doesn’t suddenly mean that this lay definition becomes the “real” definition and the chemists are suddenly “wrong.” And if you want to rant about the dangers of chemicals with your friends (I’d advise you not to, but whatever), it doesn’t matter if you use the lay definition.

But the way the lay public uses the word “chemical” is essentially meaningless, because they basically use it to mean “substances that may or may not be dangerous but we don’t really know we just know that we can’t pronounce them.” It doesn’t even necessarily refer to synthetic substances, because most people would probably say that cyanide is a chemical, it’s naturally occurring (in fact, it’s produced in certain fruit seeds). So if you want to discuss chemicals with a chemist, you’d better use the actual definition, because the terms used by chemists are more precise and useful.

Of course, when it comes to race it’s not quite as benign as people taking chemistry terms and using them haphazardly. It’s important to remember that white people have a vested interest in ignoring the structural causes and effects of racism–the kind that are best encapsulated in the definition of racism preferred by sociologists and activists. It’s uncomfortable to talk about racism this way. It’s painful and guilt-inducing to acknowledge that you (as a white person) have benefited from unearned privileges at the expense of people of color. It’s awkward to admit that affirmative action is not “bias in favor of people of color”; it’s an attempt to correct for the fact that college admissions and hiring practices are actually prejudiced in favor of whites, and this has been shown by controlled studies over and over again.

What’s significantly more comfortable is claiming that “everyone can be racist” and “Blacks can be racist too” and “some Blacks are even more racist toward whites than whites are toward them.” That is a definition of racism that white folks can deal with. But that doesn’t make it useful for actually talking about the things that matter.

 

 

 

“It’s not about gender.”

The underside of a loggerhead sea turtle

Loggerhead sea turtle. Credit: Upendra Kanda

Sea turtles (superfamily Chelonioidea) are found in all of the world’s oceans except the Arctic. They spend the majority of their lives in the sea, but females return to shore to lay eggs. All seven surviving species of sea turtle are on the endangered species list. Like many marine animals, they are threatened by oil spills, pollution, and fishing (they are often accidentally caught in nets). They are also in danger of poaching, as their meat, shells, and even their flippers are sold in some countries.

Sea turtles are also threatened by climate change. Because they use shorelines as nesting areas, rising sea levels may destroy those habitats, and the extreme weather brought by climate change may decimate their nests and eggs. Further, as global temperatures rise, so does the temperature of the sand in which sea turtle eggs are laid. Studies suggest that higher sand temperatures can have devastating effects on eggs and hatchlings, causing more female offspring, more deformities, more deaths of eggs and hatchlings.

Whooping Crane

Whooping Crane

The Whooping Crane (Grus americana) is an endangered bird native to North America. Before Europeans colonized the continent, there were probably over 10,000 of them. By 1938, that number was down to 15 due to hunting and habitat destruction. Thanks to a sustained and expensive conservation effort, the population has now recovered to about 382. However, during the past two years, five Whooping Cranes have been illegally shot.

Imagine you’re a biologist specializing in sea turtles and the effects of global warming on them. You’re well aware that there are many species adversely affected by global warming, and even more species adversely affected by human activity in general. For instance, many species of birds are threatened by power lines, skyscrapers, and other things that they can accidentally fly into and die. This obviously isn’t an issue for sea turtles. But sea turtles and global warming is what interests you and what you’ve decided to study.

Now imagine that every single time you write a paper or give a talk or submit a grant proposal about sea turtles and global warming, someone–probably a climate change denialist–shows up to be like “Yeah well it’s not a climate change thing! Many other species are affected by human activity! Why don’t you focus on those? Why don’t you talk about manatees? Why don’t you talk about Whooping Cranes?”

You probably know where I’m going with this, right?

Men and women (and those who identify as neither) are all harmed by the patriarchal society we have created. Nobody–or very few lucky individuals, perhaps–wins this game. Everyone is screwed by gender roles. Everyone faces denial and victim-blaming if they report sexual harassment or assault. Everyone is threatened by bullying and exclusion if they step outside of their roles.

But men and women are not always harmed in the exact same ways or by the exact same facets of the system.

When I wrote about street harassment a few weeks back, a bunch of people showed up to inform me that this is “not about gender.” Men get harassed on the street too. Anyone can be harassed. Anyone can be subject to unwanted, creepy, objectifying, humiliating sexual attention. This is true.

But the dynamics play out in different ways. Because it happens more to women than to men, the cumulative effects–the fear and self-objectification and distrust–are different. Because so many women are socialized believing that their looks are all that matters, it’s different. Because so many men are socialized believing that they must want sex all of the time, it’s different. Because women are so much more likely to be sexually assaulted, it’s different. Because men are more likely to have learned how to fight back and defend themselves, it’s different.

It’s different.

Gender is undeniably a way in which we organize our social world. So it makes sense that gender could also be an important lens through which to analyze society and social interactions. Most things, in fact, are gendered in some way. Yesterday in my psychology of gender class, the professor noted that housework is a gendered phenomenon, unlike, say, walking into a bookstore. When most people picture housework, they probably picture a woman doing it–or, at least, they picture men and women doing different types of housework (cooking/laundry/dishes versus yardwork/plumbing/painting). Walking into a bookstore, on the other hand, is something you can easily picture either a man or a woman doing.

But what about after they walk in? Which sections of the bookstore do they go to? Which books do they buy? Do they read those books alone in the armchair or on the subway, or do they read them in a book club?

Gender is a useful and fascinating lens to use, but it is only one of many. You could also use race, or class, or nationality, or any number of other social distinctions. Many social phenomena are racialized or…classified? There has to be a word for that.

Even with these, of course, people will show up bloviating about how “we’re all human” and “seeing race makes you the racist” and “everyone has problems” and “it’s not about gender.”

If you take these claims in good faith, you might assume that people who say this just don’t care very much about examining social divisions and inequalities and would prefer to look at problems facing everyone. Even then, however, the problems that face everyone don’t face everyone equally.

However, no matter how well-intentioned these people are, what they’re doing (purposefully or otherwise) is supporting the status quo, in which these distinctions are kept invisible and treated as irrelevant–a practice that only serves those in power.

Gender is an analytic framework that interests me, so I use it. As a woman, I use this framework from a woman’s perspective; it’s not my place to speak about men’s experiences. (Plenty of writers, by the way, use this framework from a man’s perspective, such as Ally Fogg and Figleaf.)

The point of the opening analogy, by the way, was not to compare men or women to animals or to suggest that women are like sea turtles or men are like Whooping Cranes or even that human threats to animals are like patriarchy (although perhaps you could view it that way)*. It was only to show that sometimes, it’s useful to look at an issue through a particular lens–for instance, examining threats to sea turtles by looking at climate change. Both sea turtles and Whooping Cranes are harmed by human activity, such as poaching and habitat destruction. But if we had to pretend for the sake of argument that climate change does not exist and that all animals are equally in danger and that humans screw over all animals, we would miss a vital point about sea turtle eggs and warmer temperatures.

And, by the way, nobody would accuse a sea turtle expert of not caring about Whooping Cranes or of actively hating Whooping Cranes simply because they happen to be more interested in studying sea turtles. Nobody would accuse a biologist who studies climate change of not caring about poaching simply because they’re more interested in how animals are harmed by climate change.

So no, I don’t have to talk about men every time I talk about women. I don’t have to pretend that there are no differences in how men and women are affected by things. As far as I’m concerned, it is about gender–and about race, and about class, and about everything else–and feel-good platitudes about how “we’re all the same species” only have the effect of hiding these important phenomena.

~~~

*Analogies Are Imperfect™, so please don’t derail the comments with discussions of the weaknesses of this particular analogy.

Assorted Thoughts on Women in Secularism 2

The WiS2 conference logo.

Last post about Women in Secularism (for now), I promise!

I just wanted to give a quick overview of how things went since I couldn’t do much over the weekend but liveblog/-tweet obsessively.

First of all, I want to thank Marcus Ranum (and Stephanie) once again for getting me there. I’m still a little shocked that people would buy me plane/conference tickets just like that and it makes me really happy. So thank you, again. I hope there will someday be a way for me to repay all the various acts of kindness that have come my way simply because I joined this community.

Second, I want to thank Melody Hensley and the rest of the CFI-DC staff for organizing this. Even if I had paid my way to the conference, I think it would’ve felt like a small price to pay.

General logistics stuff. This was the first professional conference I’ve been to and I was really impressed by how well it was organized. The hotel was awesome, everything was easy to find, there were beverages in the tabling area, there was plenty of space for people to mingle, things generally started and ended on time, and so on.

The questions were handled differently than most conferences I’ve been to: rather than people raising their hands and asking, they wrote their questions down on cards that were provided beforehand, and the MC chose the best questions to ask the speakers. While some people felt that this made the experience feel less interactive and personal, I think it was a wise decision. First of all, it prevented long, irrelevant, not-really-a-question-but-more-of-a-chance-for-me-to-talk-too “questions.” Second, it made it possible for people who don’t feel comfortable speaking up in front of a huge room of people to ask questions too.

My one issue was that there wasn’t really any mention of the harassment policy. While I knew that WiS has one (I wouldn’t attend a con that doesn’t), I was surprised that the staff never mentioned it during any of the brief housekeeping comments at the beginning. I realized at the end that had something happened, I wouldn’t have really been sure who to go to or how to contact them. On the other hand, aside from a few awkward situations, I felt so safe and comfortable all weekend that this was never an issue.

The talks. Were amazing. My favorites were the panels, especially Faith-Based Pseudoscience and What The Secular Movement Can Learn From Other Social Movements. (Apparently there was also a fantastic panel on women leaving religion, but that was at 8:30 on Saturday and I slept through it oops.) I knew that Stephanie, Greta, Rebecca, Amy, Debbie Goddard, Sarah Moglia, et al. would be awesome, but I also got to hear Carrie Poppy and Desiree Schell on the panels and thought they were great. I also enjoyed the solo talks, especially Rebecca Goldstein’s and Susan Jacoby’s.

My one gripe is that I felt that the talks kinda focused too much on history and philosophy, which–don’t get me wrong–are interesting and important subjects, but I would’ve loved to hear more about strategy and organizing and the issues facing non-white/queer/poor/etc. women in religion or in the secular movement. That said, the variety of talks seemed intentionally designed to appeal to as great a variety of people as possible, so I won’t kvetch about it too much.

The people. AHHH. The people are always my favorite part of going to conferences. I finally got to meet a ton of people I’ve been friends with online and also made a lot of new friends. On Saturday night, PZ graciously lent us his room for a 25-person Cards Against Humanity game, which later dissolved into a 4 AM rant session. And there were plenty of lunches and dinners and hanging out between talks.

The best thing, though, were all the compliments. All weekend I kept hearing people affirming each other and pulling each other up. It seemed like any conversation I participated in involved someone being like “I’ve really admired your writing for a long time” and “That piece you wrote about X meant a lot to me” or even just “Your fashion sense rocks.” While I obviously liked it when people did it to me, it also felt really nice to hear people complimenting others. It was a reminder that we really do have a community.

The FtB gang (well, most of it) at WiS2. Credit: Brian D. Engler

The FtB gang (well, most of it) at WiS2. Credit: Brian D. Engler

Diversity. It was pointed out several times by attendees that the audience at WiS2 was very, very white. I noticed this too. I’m not sure if it’s a consequence of the cost, the subjects of the talks, the marketing, or something else, but I hope that future WiS conferences make an extra effort to engage and welcome atheists of color.

In other ways, though, it was quite a diverse audience. There were folks of all ages, including a few really awesome kids and teens. There were plenty of men (so much for the claims of “separate but equal”). I got to talk to a bunch of queer/trans* people, which is always great. And although Elisabeth Cornwell mentioned in her talk that there weren’t any poor people in the audience, there were in fact quite a few, many of whom had benefited from Secular Woman’s, Surly Amy’s, or Marcus’s travel grants.

The Ronald Lindsay thing. If you’re reading this you’ve probably already heard all about this, but if not, here are some excellent observations on it from Rebecca, PZ, Stephanie, Adam, Ashley, Amanda, and even Cuttlefish.

I think that, completely regardless of Lindsay’s views on feminism and its tactics, the remarks and the aftermath were inappropriate. First of all, this was not the time and place. As the CEO of a major organization and a blogger, Lindsay has plenty of fora in which to air his ideas and concerns about feminism. The opening remarks of a conference created in response to vicious attacks on women in the movement just shouldn’t be one of those fora. Lindsay likewise could’ve discussed his concerns privately with influential feminists in the movement rather than posing them to a conference audience. Not to belabor the point, but it would be like opening a conference on mental illness by suggesting that some people with mental illnesses use their illnesses as an excuse to be lazy, or something.

I don’t think that Lindsay is a bad person or opposes women’s rights or anything like that. Although I disagree with the views he expressed about feminism and the concept of privilege, I don’t think that these views should never be expressed. This just wasn’t the appropriate place to express them.

Second, there’s the issue of Lindsay’s subsequent doubling down. While I was irritated by his opening remarks, I didn’t think it was a huge deal…until he responded to Rebecca Watson’s criticism by producing another blog post in which he attacked her and compared her to North Korea. Literally. Keep in mind that Rebecca was a speaker at this conference, and that, apparently, Lindsay wrote this post instead of attending a fundraising dinner for the conference.

Needless to say, this is unprofessional, petty, and inappropriate for the CEO of an organization. Lindsay made many of us feel as though he was supporting this conference under duress and in name only.

Lindsay’s talk was as notable for what it left out as what it included. While he addressed the use of religion to oppress women, he made absolutely no mention of the vicious abuse women, including many of the women in the audience this weekend, have faced in the secular movement. He made no mention of the bullying of Jen McCreight, of the posting of Surly Amy’s address online,  or of the continued impersonation, harassment, and threats toward Stephanie, Ophelia, Rebecca, Greta, and others. He did not say that even if Jen, Amy, Stephanie, Ophelia, Rebecca, and Greta are completely wrong about every single thing they’ve ever said or written, this does not make it okay to threaten them with death and rape. He did not make a single comment about why this conference was organized in the first place. This omission was glaring and telling. It shows that he doesn’t understand what it is we’re fighting for.

Anyway, I deliberately left this till the end of my post because I think it’s unfortunate that the vast majority of what happened at this conference, which was fantastic, is getting overshadowed by this unprofessional incident. I think it’s important to talk about it, but I also want to emphasize that I thought that this conference was a huge success and I hope there will be a third one. (If you’d like to help make that happen, by the way, you should donate to CFI and earmark the money for Women in Secularism.)

In any case, I think it’s pretty clear why a conference like this needs to exist. Women and (male allies) need a space to discuss their place in the secular movement without being accused of trying to make men “shut up.” We don’t want men to shut up; we just want to be as heard as they are.

WiS2 attendees after Maryam Namazie's talk. Credit: Brian D. Engler

WiS2 attendees after Maryam Namazie’s talk. Credit: Brian D. Engler

[guest post] Hello from a Severely Disenchanted Former Democrat

While I’m in DC, here’s a guest post from my friend Andy, who wrote this after he received yet another letter from the Democratic Party asking for donations.

To whomever reads this letter:

Hello from a severely disenchanted former Democrat.

Firstly, I would like to politely ask you to remove me from your records from this date forward. I do not wish to receive any more solicitations through any medium from your organization or party or any of its accompanying PACs.

Secondly, I wish to express my sincere distaste with almost everything your party has done in the last 5-6 years. The President put it quite well when he pointed out to Noticias Univision 23 in Miami, Florida, stating “The truth of the matter is that my policies are so mainstream that if I had set the same policies that I had back in the 1980s, I would be considered a moderate Republican.”

Nothing could be closer to the truth. Your party has slipped its moorings and has floated so far to the right that I can no longer consider myself a Democrat by any stretch of the imagination.

My heart breaks to see a party that I had such hope in for so long disintegrate into this. When we called for a public option, an option our president told us would be kept on the table, we were stabbed in the back behind closed doors as the president promised pharmaceutical companies and medical lobbyists (many of whom poured millions of dollars into his campaign war chest) that the public option was a pipe dream. I am outraged at the complete silence this administration and party has had on the violence that met the peaceful protestors of the Occupy movement. Friends and people I cared about had their limbs broken, were arrested for no reason, and harassed, pepper sprayed, and beaten. And all of this without a word from our benevolent, supposedly progressive president. I’m sick of the hypocrisy on Guantanamo when the president’s plan was never to shut down the facility, but to only move it north onto the US mainland. Now hundreds of men sit in cages, tortured, abused, and being force-fed, many with no formal charges, many cleared for release, and all your party does is blame the Republicans for “stonewalling” which is complete crock.

I ache at the destruction we’ve once again caused around the world by becoming involved in meaningless conflicts throughout the world for no other reason than economic interest. We decimated Libya and put it into the hands of Islamic radicals (who now have vast arrays of weapons and are now turning them against their own people, who we were supposedly “saving”). We continue to terrorize and bomb, extrajudicially, people in the remotest regions of Somalia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and many other countries with unmanned robotic drones, capable of vaporizing great swathes of people and never being seen. And we can never be held accountable for our actions, because Obama continues to insist on the secrecy of the program and refuses to submit to UN or ICJ investigation, all because we’re Americans and we know what’s best. This new prong of the War on (of?) Terror accompanies continued aggression in Iraq with special operations and Afghanistan with both convential and unconventional tactics. We have also considered arming Syrian rebels and have given equipment and arms to the Bahraini government, which is committing massacres with US equipment, while the media ignores it completely. This is to say nothing of Israel and its systematic degradation and war against Palestine, all of which is funded by the US, with this administration pledging more aid to Israel than ever before.

Our police continue to become more and more militarized, thanks in large part to help from the Federal government and loans. While our schools flounder and our infrastructure crumbles, I get to watch friends rounded up with Armored Personnel Carriers by police officers who, for all intents and purposes, may as well be soldiers in Afghanistan for all their equipment.

Obama is also the first president to assassinate a US citizen (and his 16-year-old son) without any due process or oversight. The labeling of this person as a supposed “enemy combatant” does not grant the right to the government to vaporize him without a trial. Yet, it still happened. And now, with the passing of the NDAA last year, the US government now has a legal basis to authorize force (in the absence of due process) on American citizens on domestic soil.

Your party claims to be sensible about immigration, too, yet under Obama’s administration it is likely to reach 2 million deportations (a record never before met) by 2014. There have been no serious talks of how to reform this broken and often racist system, yet the administration seems quite content on continuing the legacy of America’s exceptionalism while pumping up the rhetoric and pretending to be compassionate towards immigrants.

And despite rhetoric to the contrary, Obama’s administration has stepped up the so-called War on Drugs, a $1 trillion dollar failure. He continues to harass and jail legal medical marijuana dispensaries and refuses to even talk about reforming these laws. Meanwhile, our jail system is overflowing with mostly petty non-violent criminals a great majority of who are poor, uneducated, and of minority racial status.

I could go on for pages about the failed policies, broken promises, and complete 180-turn-arounds that your party has done. To me, a lifelong Democrat, my heart is broken, my faith is shattered, and I am angrier than I have ever been before. While our country and our people reel in pain and sadness from tragedy, from no work, from low wages, from burdening debt that we cannot get out of, we watch as our supposed “People’s Party” hands more and more cash to corporate interests and grinds us under their heel.

The fact of the matter is that Obama (and the Democratic party) have continued almost all of the failed policies of the Bush administration. Whether it’s GITMO, warrantless wiretapping, extraordinary rendition, illegal wars, drone strikes, immigration, and much more, Obama has shown us very clearly exactly where he stands in terms of the American people and their wishes. Your party is now nothing more than Republican Party Lite.

Having said that let me reiterate once again:

DO NOT SEND ME ANY MORE SOLICITATIONS, EVER.

Signed,

Your Friendly Neighborhood Anarchist

~~~

Andy Cheadle-Ford is a professional activist in the secular student movement and is passionately involved in many social justice campaigns. He often refers to himself as the “Friendly Neighborhood Anarchist” and strives to show that anarchists are normal, compassionate, and intelligent people. When he is not working or plotting, he is typically enjoying a good book, video games, or a tasty vegan dinner with his friends.

Note: The author’s views do not necessarily reflect those of the national Secular Student Alliance

[#wiscfi liveblog] What the Secular Movement Can Learn from Other Social Movements

The WiS2 conference logo.

After just four hours of sleep, I’m back to blogging. This is a panel with Debbie Goddard, Carrie Poppy, Desiree Schell, and Greta Christina, and moderated by Soraya Chemaly.

9:08: Soraya: We’re going to compare the secular movement to other social movements, expanding secularism through social justice, and the marginalization of women in social movements.

Greta gets cheers and applause just for introducing herself!

9:12: Soraya: Let’s talk about the life stages of social movements.

Greta: I think the reason I’m here is that I’ve been involved in the LGBTQIA-etc. movement for many years. I do think there are parallels between the atheist/secular/skeptical movement and that one. I think we’re about 35 years behind it; I think we’re where that movement was in the 1970s, after Stonewall. We’re learning the importance of coming out and visibility; I think that’s the most important thing you can do. It’s about making atheism a safe place to come out. It’s also about not quibbling about nomenclature; the LGBT movement had a lot of arguments about that. Letting firebrands be firebrands, letting diplomats be diplomats. The LGBT community has sort of learned to play good cop, bad cop.

One thing we can learn from the LGBT movement comes from one of its early failures: diversity. They sucked at racial diversity, class diversity, etc. That continues to harm the movement. It set patterns into place that are hard to get out of and created resentment. There are a lot of things about not being inclusive that are self-perpetuating. If you’re wondering why many of us are so passionate about inclusivity in atheism, talk to anyone in the LGBT community and ask if they’d get into a time machine, go back, and fix the diversity issue from the beginning.

I’m upset about the fights we’re having now, but I’m grateful that we’re having them now because it means we won’t be having them as much in 10 years.

Desiree: One of the things that’s interesting about the labor movement is that we were so effective that y’all have forgotten. The 8-hour work day, occupational safety, weekends–those came from the labor movement. What the secular movement can learn from the labor movement is the importance of celebrating your successes, because when you don’t, you forget those successes. Celebrate your militancy, current and past. I call myself a militant unionist and I haven’t blown anything up.

Carrie: Thank you Desiree for the weekend. [applause] In all social movement there’s a period where men running everything. Then you get to a stage where women are engaged and are the foot soldiers. That’s the do-or-die moment. This conference is especially well-placed because we are in the women’s stage and it’s do-or-die time.

Debbie: When I was in college I got involved with LGBT activism because I joined groups and was like, “Oh I want to hang out with these people” and ended up doing rallies, etc. Realized that if we promote secularism and critical thinking, we won’t have to fight for gay marriage because everyone will just be like, duh. Eventually they hired me at CFI as a field organizer. I didn’t even know organizing was a thing you could do.

It’s not about getting everyone to join an atheist group. It’s about representation.

I was really impacted by Greta’s talk about how when we succeed, people will just be atheists. They won’t be badasses for being out atheists. They’ll just be atheists, who cares.

There are a lot of young atheists; it’s hip now. But they’re not necessarily doing activism.

9:25: Greta: That’s what you see in the LGBT community. Early on, if you were out you were an activist by definition. That is to some extent true for atheism. Now you see a lot of gay people just living their lives. In 20 years maybe we’ll be seeing that with atheists. That is still to some extent activism. Being an out LGBTQ person is very powerful. It’s a huge part of why that movement has succeeded.

Soraya: My daughter’s class was talking about difference and her teacher, who was gay, asked her what it’s like to be an atheist. Before this wouldn’t have happened; that’s a huge change. Can you talk about the downsides and benefits of alliance-building?

Greta: We’re not going to get anywhere if we don’t do alliance-building. Sometimes there’s this resistance because we think it’s mission drift. But there’s a lot of overlap. I was talking to Teresa MacBain about someone in the Clergy Project who can’t come out because his wife has a chronic illness and he needs the health insurance. Is there an intersection between atheism and healthcare? Yes. Religion oppresses people and perpetuates poverty.

The downside is, it’s hard. You have to do things that aren’t comfortable. You have to do things differently, you can’t just do the same kinds of events. You have to acknowledge when you screw up. It is really, really hard. I have been on the receiving end of it. It’s really hard to try to be an ally with people and suddenly 100 of them are piling on you telling you you screwed up. It’s hard,  but too bad, you have to do it anyway.

Desiree: I don’t think it’s just that it’s hard. If you look at feminism, there was definitely a point in women’s suffrage when it was considered a wealthy, educated woman’s pursuit–until they got working class women involved. Many historians say they wouldn’t have won women’s suffrage if they hadn’t included working class woman. It’s not just this idea that we should be inclusive; sometimes that’s the only way to win.

9:31: Carrie: It’s so apparent to me that you have to ally yourself with social justice movements because that’s already your goal–to promote happiness and end suffering. It’s inherent in any movement that you’re heading towards social justice. This may not be a popular opinion, but I think interfaith work is a great place to ally yourselves. I grew up a believer and for me, there was a stepping-down process and becoming a liberal religious person was a very important part of that process. Our liberal religious friends are very important allies in finding common goals. We won’t find that often among conservative religious people.

The downside is that it’s really hard to get people to listen to you when you’re proving more than one point at a time. It’s hard for me to talk about being an atheist vegan if you’re none of those. But it’s good to think about what you guys have in common and use that as a base point.

As far as mission creep goes, I used to work with someone who would often talk about it. And my response was, YOU’RE a mission creep.

9:35: Debbie: I think sometimes the goals are different and the interest other groups have in working with us is different. Even with interfaith people feel like they have to swallow their integrity. Sometimes it feels like we have to hide a part of ourselves if we can’t say, “I think you’re wrong about Jesus.” A lot of us feel strongly about that. I can’t just hang out with religious people and not tell then how wrong they are all the time. I’m exaggerating a little bit, but I see why people are uncomfortable.

Trying to ally my atheist and freethought groups with LGBT groups, they didn’t want us. They didn’t want us saying that Jesus hates them. We have to swallow some of our ego to accomplish our goals.

Desiree: This is a good time to talk about diversity of tactics. It just means you have a variety of tactics in your arsenal and you use them based on the situation, the political atmosphere, who you have in your group, etc. When we’re talking about interfaith work, diversity of tactics means that we support each other in those endeavors. Even if we don’t agree exactly with the way they do this. We have to stop snarking on each other every time someone does something we personally wouldn’t do, because it’s all really really valuable.

Greta: One challenge is, as Debbie said, do they want to work with us? In the LGBT movement, some have tried to distance themselves from the view of gay people as godless. How do we make that case that we are worth allying with? I don’t know that I have an easy answer, but there are a lot of us and we’re also on the internet and raising money.

9:39: Soraya: That to me is a really key question. I think the question of branding these words and how we communicate goes beyond just coming out and talking about it. It requires a much more systematized method of communicating. If we could talk about the language of it and the stigma of some of these words.

Debbie: The Outreach department at CFI talks about this a lot. We like the word “secular” because it allows us to work on both political and social issues. But one of the downsides is when we say secular and mean atheist, then the Religious Right doesn’t want to support a secular agenda because it’s anti-religious, it’s atheist. Maybe 10 years ago that should’ve been a consideration. I subscribe to some right-wing newspapers and they use “secular” as a dirty word.

I saw Gloria Steinem speak. Someone asked her if we should be using feminism given that people think it means hating men. And she said that with the agenda that we have, any word would come to mean that.

I do think it would benefit us to have alliances with groups that are willing to support a secular agenda.

Carrie: I personally have always preferred the word atheist because it’s the most honest. Anything else, people just see through anyway and think you’re trying to pull the wool over their eyes. But organizations can have very different tactics from individuals. They can try to destigmatize the word atheist, but in your personal life you can choose not to use that word.

Desiree: I work with primarily women of color, most of them are new Canadians working in low-wage jobs. We have a lot of conversations. I do talk about the fact that I’m an atheist, but I don’t say “I’m an atheist.” I say that I don’t have a god, and that seems to resonate with people. If you can build a personal relationship with someone, after they already think you’re great, bring up the fact that you don’t believe in god, and they’re much more likely not to care or even be interested.

Greta: Some of us are going to be more comfortable being softer, doing interfaith work, and some of us are going to be more comfortable being more in-your-face and using stronger language. I think all of that is useful. Those of us who are more in-your-face move the center. In the LGBT movement, we’re been talking about same-sex marriage for 20 years and now it’s become the mainstream position. But building bridges and using softer language is important, too.

It’s not about the word we pick. It’s not the word they don’t like; it’s the fact that we don’t believe in god. In that sense it’s different from other social movements. There’s no way to say you don’t believe in god without implying that you’re wrong, so there’s always going to be a bit of tension when working with believers.

9:47: Soraya: Sometimes it seems from talking to people that there’s something unique in what’s happening with women in the secular movement. But I don’t think that’s really true; there are parallels to other movements.

Greta: There’s a lot of pushback against feminism in the atheist movement. It’s everything from, “Why can’t we just get along?” to “Stick a knife in your cunt.” Seriously, I’ve gotten that. Some people ask why we’re “blaming” atheism. But these conversations are happening everywhere–in the gaming world, in the tech world. This happens whenever men are dominating a movement. We’re not saying that atheism is special. But we have the opportunity to do something about this in our movement. It would be like a Chicago police officer saying, well, murder happens everywhere. Why do you want to focus on murder in Chicago?

Desiree: I agree with most of what you’re saying. But I do expect more of the atheist movement. We talk so much about how smart we are. Why is status quo ok for this, but in every other area we’re supposedly better?

9:52: Carrie: Usually it’s helpful to see a broader concept, but in this case it’s actually not. It’s like saying that your family is just as bad as the family down the block. If your mom is beating you up and saying, “Well Sally’s mom beats her up too,” my response would be, “Fuck you mom.”

Debbie: The Human Rights Campaign uses shiny white dudes living in suburbs, not the dykey lesbian types. Movements use certain people who will be accepted and listened to. I was reading about the role of churches as organizing spaces for African Americans in the 1950s and 60s; the ones who were organizing a lot of those meetings were women. They couldn’t put themselves in top-level position, but they were bringing people together. A lot of times women have been the organizers more than the men.

I don’t know how that works with the feminist movement but I see some reflections of hierarchy and structure there.

Is it new and how do we change it. We have to think of ourselves as a movement like these others ones, not that we came up with this whole new idea. We should learn from the way these over movements have incorporated people and stayed relevant.

Soraya: During the Second Great Awakening, there was great diversity–people of color, women. Thanks to secularism in our country, these religions could explode. Today, when I look at religious media, which is incredibly successful, I wonder what we can learn from their success.

9:59: Debbie: There are a lot of people who rail against the fact that Black atheists organize; “I don’t see color” and all that. One of the things with the Christian mass communication is that people aren’t that kind of arrogant about how they think.

Greta: I saw a talk once on the differences between liberals and conservatives. It said that conservatives are really good at following authority and working in lock-step. But if liberals aren’t so good at that, and we can’t do that or else we’ll fail at our goals. We should play to our strengths. I don’t think we’ll ever be a movement that marches in lockstep.

The demographics of this country are changing, and getting a diversity of genders, races, classes, sexual orientations front and center plays to our strengths.

10:09: Reader questions: How can we address class if we hold meetings in luxury? What about global secularism and regional issues?

Greta: re: the luxury thing: That’s important. That’s why I’m really happy to see free, student-run, regional conferences. There’s also a lot of organizations that use conferences as fundraising, and I get that, but I do think that we’re not going to get diversity of class at a conference unless we find some way to address that, whether it’s scholarships or having more free conferences.

Desiree: I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Class is a great gateway oppression. If we’re talking about intersectionality, people have a hard time thinking about race or gender issues. But everyone gets class because everyone can vaguely understand what it’s like to be vaguely broke. So if we’re going to talk about different kinds of oppression, it’s great to start with class.

Back in the day, the left-wing movement was a collection of the upper class and academics working together. There’s a lot of progressivism now that doesn’t speak to working class people. It’s an academic pursuit. If we don’t speak to people’s personal interests on a day-to-day level, we’ve got nothing.

Debbie: There’s a lot of this attitude that people who are poor must be lazy. A lot of people can’t conceive of not having a safety net or support structure, where one bad illness in your 20s can wreck everything for 15 years.

There’s a lot to be learned from looking internationally. Class is a big aspect of it.

10:22: Reader questions: Can you touch on some specific examples of allying with other groups?

Carrie: There’s a great group called Interfaith Youth Corps and they’re very accepting of atheists and agnostics. When I’ve gone to their events people come up to me and want to know why I don’t believe, and I’ve never had them push their beliefs on me. The conversation is immediately about how we can work together to help people in the community.

Debbie: I think all around we don’t do service much, and that is a class issue in the first place. A lot of the Black churches would do a bunch of service stuff, whether that was volunteering at soup kitchens or collecting clothes or help build houses. I don’t often see atheist/secular groups doing this.

Desiree: Single issue campaigns. You don’t have to agree with the majority of what someone thinks. You only need to agree with what they think about one specific issue and use that to build relationships.

20:28: Soraya: Closing statements?

Carrie: I’ve been thinking about how a lot of people here feel ostracized by people in the community who don’t support the issues they care about. It reminds me of how in high school I used to write letters to this boy I liked about why he should like me. And it didn’t work. Instead he went around and told everyone how I was fat and stupid. I realized that he’s the idiot, not me, but I wasted all that time trying to get him to like me. These people who don’t like you and think you’re an idiot and a waste of time? They’re a waste of time.

Debbie: I was really excited to come to this. I’m really excited that we’re talking about these issues. I want to see people do stuff. That doesn’t mean I don’t like it when people think about stuff or write about stuff–I was a philosophy major, I like that stuff too. But I also like doing stuff. I would like to see us all do more stuff in person, get involved in service projects, get involved in tutoring. Help schools with crappy science classes.

Desiree: Scandinavian countries have the lowest rate of religious adherence. They also have the highest union density. You have to look at atheism from different perspective–race, class, etc.

Greta: When social change movements get the “woman thing” right, they flourish. When they don’t, they fail. We have to get this right. Stop telling me to stick a knife in my cunt, stop telling me this doesn’t matter. Stop telling us not to feed the trolls, stop telling us to think about something happy like bunnies. If we do this right, we win. So, let’s win.

~~~

Previous talks:

Intro

Faith-based Pseudoscience (Panel)

How Feminism Makes Us Better Skeptics (Amanda Marcotte)

The Mattering Map: Religion, Humanism, and Moral Progress (Rebecca Goldstein)

Women Leaving Religion (Panel)

Gender Equality in the Secular Movement (Panel)

Why the Lost History of Secular Women Matters Today (Susan Jacoby)

How Women’s Concerns Can Best Be Advanced within the Context of a Secular Agenda (Panel)

The History of Atheism, Feminism, and the Science of Brains (Jennifer Michael Hecht)

Secularism: A Right and Demand of Women Worldwide (Maryam Namazie)

[#wiscfi liveblog] Secularism: A Right and Demand of Women Worldwide

The WiS2 conference logo.

Next up is Maryam Namazie, a blogger and activist who’s been involved with tons of secular organizations: Equal Rights Now, the One Law for All Campaign against Sharia Law in Britain, the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, and Iran Solidarity.

5:00: Namazie is talking about secular activists in the Muslim world who are being persecuted for speaking out. At the end of her talk, she will ask us all to write them a message.

5:04: There have been protests over the treatment of Malala Yousafzai, Amina Tyler, and others. You can see the immense resistance taking place day in and day out in response to Islamism, US-led militarism, and cultural relativism. Today as an era or revolutions and uprisings in the Muslim world, and many of them are women-led.

It may seem that Islamists are making gains in the area, but change is palpable. Yet many feminists, cultural relativists, and others are on the side of Islamists and believe that any opposition to Sharia law is tantamount to racism and cultural imperialism. But they’ve bought into the notion that Muslim communities are homogenous–Islamic and conservative. But there is no homogenous culture, and those in power determine the dominant culture. These relativists claim that Islamists represent authentic Islam.

5:07: A professor received death threats for posting this cartoon on his office door:

BKk7wNaCIAAze1b.jpg-large

Conflating Islamism with Islam is a narrative that is peddled by Islamists to prescribe the limits of acceptable expression.

The demand for secularism is no more imperialist than the demand for women’s suffrage. Post-modernists who demand “respect and tolerance for difference” no matter how intolerable that difference is are siding with oppressors.

5:12: Islamophobia is used as a tactic to scaremonger critics into silence. It’s made not out of actual concern for Muslims, but out of a desire to support Islamism. If you really wanted to support Muslims, you would oppose Islamism, which kills more Muslims than anything else.

5:14: Everyone has a right to their religious beliefs. But Islamism isn’t just personal beliefs. Saying that people have a right to Islamism is saying that women’s liberation is only for white American women.

The idea that islamism is just a “misinterpretation” of the religion is inaccurate. The Koran and the Hadith are full of anti-woman laws and principles. Stoning to death for adultery is a Hadith; Mohammed himself stoned a woman to death for adultery. In the Koran there are suras on wife-beating.

5:17: Is  there a “good” interpretation of religion?  [audience: “No!”]

For instance, a Sharia court said that it’s ok to beat women as long as you do it “lightly” and don’t leave any marks. But no violence against women is acceptable.

Women are freer the lesser the role religion plays in the public sphere. Secularism is a precondition for the improvement of women’s status. All women, not just those who are Western.

5:20: If people really wanted to live under these rules, Islamists would not need to enforce them with such brutality.

Of course there are some people who prefer Sharia law to secular law, including some who are born in the West. Some people support racial apartheid, too. But there is no right to oppress. Post-modernists who suppose Islamists say that our demands are Western, but since when is secularism a Western demand?

When it comes to women’s right, when it comes to freedom, these rights suddenly become “Western.”

5:24: Reader question: How should those of us who are not of Middle Eastern/African descent walk the fine line of criticizing this? How should a progressive secular organization approach bigoted anti-Muslim activists like Pamela Geller?

Namazie: It doesn’t matter where you come from. If you think something is wrong, you should be able to say it. The Islamists have made it impossible to speak up and criticize because of this label of racism, which we should rightly fear. But they will also tell me that I don’t have the right to speak about Islam because I’m an ex-Muslim, or that I wasn’t a “real Muslim” because I was Shia. There’s always an excuse for why you’re not allowed to speak. But we have a right to speak about any injustice anywhere.

Racism exists. As an ex-Muslim I face racism. There are lots of people who aren’t Muslim who face racism. Racism doesn’t stop if you stop criticizing people’s beliefs; that’s a cop-out. You’re not going to deal with racism against Muslims by stopping free expression. These are bogus arguments to stop the debate from taking place.

Far-right European/American movements against Islam attack all Muslims because they blame them for Islamists’ crimes. And Islamists attack innocent people on buses and in discos because they blame them for American militarists’ crimes. If we don’t criticize Islamism, we leave the space open for far-right racists to attack it. They seem to be the only ones speaking, but we have to stand up and speak from a purely rights-based perspective–everyone should have the same rights. It’s not anti-racist to demand different rights for different people; it’s actually racist to do that. Secularism is good not just because you’re white and Western, but because it’s better for women. Not all Muslims want the laws that Islamists want.

5:30: Reader question: What percentage of the population in Iran is secular or atheist?

Namazie: I don’t know because it’s a crime to be an atheist in Iran. I would say it’s a large percentage. The Iranian Revolution wasn’t an Islamic revolution; it was a left-leaning revolution and the Islamic movement appropriated it and has ruled with sheer terror for the past several decades. Iran is the center of a mass anti-Islamic backlash.

The problem is, though, that it’s hard to gauge who’s who. I met a woman who was an atheist but she was wearing a burka. It’s hard to know the real numbers.

5:33: Reader question: There are people who make statements that because Muslim women have it so bad, Western women should just be quiet about their own experiences. How do these statements strike you?

Namazie: I don’t agree with those statements. You can always find a situation that’s worse. When I discuss women’s rights in Iran, people say, “Oh, but it’s so much worse in Saudi Arabia.” Women can drive in Iran. Yay. Of course there are degrees of oppression. For instance, some people want to call honor killings domestic violence. But that’s a very different thing. So it’s good to be able to name it, label it, and speak of the differences.

But the situation of women in the West is not perfect, either. And this is a fight that is global. I don’t find the comparisons very helpful.

5:35: Reader question: Revolutions in the Muslim world may be initially led by women, but how long do they remain positive towards women?

Namazie: What have secularists here done to support those women-led revolutions? Not very much. Both Western governments and Islamists want Islamic regimes because they’re a great way to control the population. What greater oppressor than a theocratic state? In Iran, the West supported the Shah’s regime, but when the revolution happened, Western leaders decided that they preferred the Islamic regime.

This happened during the era of the Cold War, when the U.S. was trying to build a green Islamic belt around the Soviet Union. They supported the Taliban and an Islamic regime in Iran. Some of the greatest allies of the West are now Islamic states, such as Saudi Arabia.

[#wiscfi liveblog] The History of Atheism, Feminism, and the Science of Brains

The WiS2 conference logo.

Now up: Jennifer Michael Hecht, a poet and author of three books about history. She has a PhD in the history of science from Columbia, and teaches at the New School and Columbia.

4:05: The first thing we can do to forward the goals that we have is to show up. To do what you’re doing right now. From The Happiness Myth: “It’s great to come out of the closet, but you also have to leave the house.”

Also, it’s important to remember that we’ve been here for a while. There have been atheists/secularists throughout history, including women. I’ll be focusing on one story, but I had a smorgasbord of women doubters, atheists, secularists to choose from. Even in the bible: Job’s wife says, “Curse god and forget him.”

4:14: Margaret Sanger was an atheist–“no gods no masters” comes from her. But she brought birth control to women in the U.S. Of course, there’s the whole thing with the eugenics…

4:16: Today I want to talk about someone you’ve never heard of. Her name is Clémence Royer. She translated Darwin’s work into French and claimed (unlike Darwin) that it proves atheism. Because she wrote an introduction to the French translation in which she connected Darwin’s ideas to atheism, she had a profound effect on how evolution was perceived in France–as atheist and anti-religion.

It’s not just building on Darwin, though, but also on Paul Broca’s work. Broca basically founded anthropology and neurology and discovered that a lesion on a certain part of the brain–the third left frontal convolution of the brain–you will have trouble speaking, even if your intelligence is perfectly intact. This came to be known as Broca’s area, and the affliction as Broca’s aphasia. The Catholic Church was troubled by this because the belief was that the brain has nothing to do with thought.

4:21: Broca was an atheist, and he and his atheist friends decided to form the Society of Anthropology based on Royer’s interpretation of Darwin. At first it’s men only, and Royer petitions to join and is denied. But she appeals to Broca and he lets her in.

The members later formed another group: the Society of Mutual Autopsy. It was intended to annoy the Catholic Church. For 30 years, as they died, these scientists dissected each other’s brains to try to find more phenomena like Broca’s aphasia. In her last will and testament, Royer states that she wants to donate her body to science. These scientists were lending meaning and ritual to their deaths while also advancing science.

4:26: The 1893 Freethought Convention was dedicated to the rights of women, and Royer was celebrated there. But we’ve forgotten that this is part of the history of secularism.

Royer believed a lot of the things people said at the time, and believed that she’d been born with a man’s brain.

4:29: The idea of science being on our side comes up a lot and people love to talk about who’s brains are like this and whose are like that. Maybe we should ask them why they never study the difference between the brains of tall men and the brains of short men. They have all sorts of social differences, too. But only certain differences are politicized.

Atheism used to be much more respectable. Edison was an open atheist and declared so right on the cover of the NYT. He got some backlash, but he survived. But the Soviet Union was atheist, and so it became treasonous to be an atheist. The 1950s were when god went into our money and into our pledge.

But our most murderous enemy is no longer the atheist Soviet Union, but rather places that are more religious than us.

4:31: Just by showing up, we see each other and see the crowd and encourage each other. Even if you don’t see exactly how you’re helping each other. Learn your empowering history. The knowledge of it may have been lost, but the change in the culture persists. We don’t remember these French anthropologists anymore, but at the beginning of the 20th century France separated church and state for the first time.

4:33: Know some feminist theory, even though it can be dense reading. It teaches us the subtle ways we take advantage of our privileges, such as where we live or our skin color or our money. You have to give away a little bit.

4:38: Audience asks Hecht to spell all the French names. lolz

4:41: Audience question: :What’s the best way to repopularize the atheist-ness of these historical figures?

Hecht: Micro histories tend to include atheists, but the larger, more general accounts leave them out. I have no doubt that there have been more nonbelievers in history than believers.

~~~

Previous talks:

Intro

Faith-based Pseudoscience (Panel)

How Feminism Makes Us Better Skeptics (Amanda Marcotte)

The Mattering Map: Religion, Humanism, and Moral Progress (Rebecca Goldstein)

Women Leaving Religion (Panel)

Gender Equality in the Secular Movement (Panel)

Why the Lost History of Secular Women Matters Today

How Women’s Concerns Can Best Be Advanced within the Context of a Secular Agenda

[#wiscfi liveblog] Why the Lost History of Secular Women Matters Today

The WiS2 conference logo.

Susan Jacoby is up! She is a journalist and author who’s written a bunch of awesome books, including The Age of American Unreason, which I recently read.

1:50: Susan Jacoby opens with a poem published in 1837 about the trend of women speaking publicly about political causes. Oh, the humanity:

1:53: The reason we’ve been having all this debate about whether or not the government should pay for contraception is because people have forgotten what it was like before women could control their own reproduction. They don’t know the history of women’s struggle, beginning at the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848.

The forgetting of the history of marginalized groups is both a cause and an effect of their marginalization. If you’re marginalized, you may not have the power to have your stories included in schools and what we teach about history.

Every brand of religion is a mechanism for transmitting ideas and values, whether or not you agree with those values. Secular organizations, which have loose and non-hierarchical structures, can’t necessarily transmit their histories so efficiently.

1:57: Most men of the Enlightenment didn’t give much thought to women’s rights; not all Enlightenment thinkers were feminists. But all feminists born in the 19th century were descendants of the Enlightenment.

Women who were agnostics/atheists, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, were largely written out of history after the 19th century by women’s suffrage organizations because they “could not afford” to be “identified with ungodliness.” Stanton was largely unknown until the revival of American secularism in the 1970s, but there was a similar trend then to downplay the influence of secular feminists. But secular feminists, especially secular Jews, played a large role in the new feminist movement.

As a Jew, it’s difficult to support feminism given that Jewish men say a prayer every morning in which they thank god for not having been born a woman. Similarly for Catholic women.

The fact that feminism has become a part of religion to some extent is part of an accommodation by religion to secular values.

The difficulty for feminists to embrace feminism’s connections to secularism is part of the belief that there can be no morality without faith.

2:04: There have been no secular activists who have made women’s rights an issue, except insofar as they are threatened by radical Islam. Telling the truth about radical Islam and women is important, but we need secularists to understand that discrimination and violence against women are hardly confined to the Islamic world.

Robert Ingersoll is the only male secularist who is an exception to this. Ingersoll’s 20th century biographers failed to recognize this, however, perhaps because they were writing before the emergence of second-wave feminists in the 1970s. Ingersoll sided with Stanton in viewing religion as the main cause of women’s oppression and, along with Stanton, disagreed that giving women the vote would be enough. In this sense he resembled second-wave feminists as opposed to his contemporary suffragists.

He also understood that compulsory childbirth was used both by the Church and by individual men to stymy women’s goals. “Science must make woman the owner and mistress of herself.” Women would always be oppressed as long as they had to “rely on the self-control of men” to prevent pregnancy. He criticized the idea that fear is superior to knowledge and that virtue stems from ignorance (or slavery).

Think of the comments of Rush Limbaugh regarding Sandra Fluke, who he claimed wanted the government to “pay” for her to have sex.

2:10: Ingersoll noted that women were more religious than men. But unlike religious leaders, he attributed this not to women’s superior virtue but to the fact that they were so uneducated compared to men.

I’m not suggesting that secular women need a man such as Ingersoll to speak for them. Rather, that the secular movement needs more people, men and women, who have a passion for what was once considered exclusively “women’s issues.” Just issuing press releases is not enough. This is the case for all social causes that have relevance to secularism, even if that relevance is not immediately obvious.

2:12: The reason demographics show fewer female than male atheists is because atheism is a social pejorative, and women may be more sensitive to this than men. Some women worry that being out atheists will affect how their children are treated.

But we need more women involved. That’s why it’s important to recognize this historical connection between feminism and secularism.

2:16: McCollum v. Board of Education is a case that many people sadly don’t know about because it’s not taught in schools. But the case concerned whether or not schools can set aside time for religious instruction. The case was brought by Vashti McCollum, a mother whose son was being ostracized for skipping the religious classes. The family’s cat got lynched. It’s understandable that women would worry about speaking out about atheism.

2:21: Audience question: Can you tell us more about Helen Gardner?

Jacoby: She’s another one of those lost women secularists. She wrote Men, Women, and Gods, which sided with Stanton and Ingersoll in calling out religion for its role against women’s rights.

Audience question: Where are some good starting points to learn about women in secularism?

Jacoby: Look up the writing of women like Gardner and Stanton. Don’t go to the New Yorker article about Shulamith Firestone, though. That article took a disturbed person who did write some important things and used her to represent all feminists of the 1960s and 70s. It serves the purpose of people who oppose feminism and secularism to present portraits of feminists as unhappy, bitter women.

2:26: Audience question: Frederick Douglass was also a secularist and a feminist, but that’s never recognized. Is this due to racism?

Jacoby: Maybe. But how much of a feminist was he really? He did support women’s right to vote, but he didn’t speak out much about women’s issues. But he definitely had a lot else on his plate [audience laughs], so we can give him a pass for not being more vocal about women.

Audience question: What about Susan B. Anthony?

Jacoby: She was an agnostic but kept it private. She and Stanton were good friends, but she actually begged Stanton not to publish her book about secularism.

2:29: Audience question: How will history look on those who have stifled the concerns of women in this movement becuase they’re not “as bad” as those in other countries? I assume you are a psychic.

Jacoby: It depends on who writes the history.

Audience question: Can you talk about Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex?

Jacoby: Do I have to? [audience laughs] It’s not a book I ever liked that much because I felt it was dishonest in a way. While it explored the psychological roots of women’s oppressions, she did not draw from her own life and her own relationships, this brilliant women who subordinated her own intellect to that of men. It’s certainly a foundational work, but it doesn’t go far enough.

2:31: Audience question: What about the role of women in anti-war activism? Does military culture support sexism?

Jacoby: What better example do we have of this than sexual assault in the military? The idea of a culture in which superior physical strength is what prevails is certainly not good for women. And yes, I know, somewhere in the past there was Xena Warrior Princess. But in fact we know that warrior cultures have not been good for women. Is it worse in the military than in any government department? Sure it is, because the military is something in which physical abilities is highly valued and war is thought to be a separate state in which ordinary rules do not apply. Nazi Germany, for example–women were to be the child-bearers. Warrior culture is not good for men. It’s not so great for men, either.

2:34: Audience question: Are we going to have to fight this battle every 50 years?

Jacoby: I would hope not. But I was taken aback by how many emails I received from women who didn’t know that as late as the 1960s, a married woman would’ve had great difficulty getting birth control. One might say that that’s a good thing because nothing bad’s going to happen along those lines anymore, but that’s not true. Bad things are happening.

~~~

Previous talks:

Intro

Faith-based Pseudoscience (Panel)

How Feminism Makes Us Better Skeptics (Amanda Marcotte)

The Mattering Map: Religion, Humanism, and Moral Progress (Rebecca Goldstein)

Women Leaving Religion (Panel)

Gender Equality in the Secular Movement (Panel)

[#wiscfi liveblog] Sexism and Religion: Can the Knot Be Untied?

The WiS2 conference logo.

I’m finally up and watching Katha Pollitt speak! Pollitt is a poet (say that five times fast) and a columnist for The Nation.

10:10: I chose the topic of my talk today because I didn’t know the answer: can religion be disentangled from the misogyny in its texts and its practices. I asked a random selection of people what they thought. My cousin Wendy (an observant Jew) said no. My daughter, a militant atheist since kindergarten, also said no.

The world’s religions are all deeply shaped by patriarchal ideas of a woman’s place. For some, that extends even into the next world. For Mormons, men in the afterlife can have many wives, but a woman can only enter the afterlife if her husband calls her by her “secret name,” which only he knows. Also, she will be perpetually pregnant in the afterlife to produce people to populate her husband’s planet, because he gets a planet after he dies!

In the Islamic afterlife, men also get a bunch of wives. Meanwhile, in Christianity, men and women are supposedly equal before god. But regardless of whether or not that’s true, the society Christianity establishes on earth is not egalitarian at all. (See: St. Paul on women.)

There are no female prophets in the bible, no female founders of a major new faith (except Christian Science), very few female religious leaders with independent power. To find a woman-centered religion, you have to go back to prehistory, and we don’t even know much about those religions. In any case, men are quite capable of worshipping a female god (i.e. Athena) while repressing women.

10:16: What about the bible? It’s full of misogyny, of attempts to control women’s sexuality (evidenced by the obsession with prostitutes).

The atheist in me wants to answer my question with a resounding “no.” The subordination of women has historically been one of the main purposes of religion. It’s the rulebook of patriarchy.

Today, priests and rabbis tend to talk in terms of complementarianism: men and women are equal; they’re just different!

Up until 100 years ago, there was none of this separate-but-equal stuff. Women’s sexuality was considered dangerous and potentially polluting. Today, though, you’d have a hard time finding a rabbi who’d say that the reasoning behind the menstrual taboo in Judaism is just that menstruation is disgusting. Instead, they say that the ritual bath “honors” women and is empowering and whatnot.

10:19: Orthodox Jews claim that men refusing to shake women’s hands has nothing to do with women being taboo; it’s just about “modesty” and “respect.” “We just think the sexes shouldn’t be so quick to touch each other.” They’re reframed it as no longer about a specific resistance to women, but a general thing.

When American Muslim women talk about why they wear the hijab, they invoke it as a simple of religious identity, not as something to keep men from being lustful. Some Muslim women choose to start wearing it even though their mothers didn’t. After 9/11, some well-meaning liberals suggested that non-Muslim women wear the hijab in solidarity with Muslim women who were being harassed. My suggestion was, maybe men should wear the headscarf. That did not go over well.

10:23: You can historicize away and reinterpret away anything that doesn’t fit modern liberal values. Some Muslim feminists argue that everything objectionable in the Koran is applicable only to Mohammed’s time, and everything good in it is inherently true.

“I don’t know what the difference between a skeptic and an atheist is…” [audience groans] The question is, why did god put his word in such a way that, up until the day before yesterday, it was understood for certain that it meant a certain thing, but now we claim that it was all misinterpreted? In terms of literary criticism, this is interesting, but people actually try to dictate their lives and social policy by their holy books.

God could’ve given the Ten Commandment to Miriam and said, “Thou must have equality between men and women.” But he didn’t. He spent four of the commandments demanding that he be worshipped. Somehow, he sounded exactly like the patriarchal society in which he was made up. But “God didn’t have to write like an old, cranky Jewish patriarch.”

So feminist theologians have their work cut out for them.

10:28: People today are hungry for a Christianity that is woman-positive and sex-positive. That’s why The Da Vinci Code, a terrible book, was such a huge success. We like the idea that the church was originally an egalitarian place and that this history was erased by sexists. This requires a lot of historical revisionism.

For instance, Mary and Miriam were fairly marginal figures in the bible, but some try to elevate them to mean more than they actually did.

10:30: Christianity still has its obsession with virginity and hostility to sex. This probably originally made it stand out as a religion. But you can’t derive our contemporary sex-positive gay-friendly culture from the New Testament. But some theologians try to do it anyway.

Atheists get mad when it looks like the goalposts are constantly moving. Now you say there’s nothing wrong with women wearing pants. That’s not what you were saying when you were burning Joan of Arc at the stake.

But in reality the goalposts have always been moving. When Europe was ruled by kings and queens, the Church underwrote monarchy and Jesus was described as the “king of kings.”

Religion changes when society changes. Well, maybe 50 years after society changes.

That process only looks dishonest if you think religion is a set of fixed rules and decisions. That’s how many of us atheists tend to see it. But you can also see it sociologically: it’s not really about the proper analysis of texts, it’s a social practice that reflects the society in which it is practiced. As society changes, people sift through the grab-bag of religion and pick out the bits that make sense.

Religions themselves don’t put it like that. They have to make it seem like there’s a direct line going back to the beginning, because that’s where their authority comes from.

This constant rewriting of history while never admitting what’s happening is how religions claim moral weight and power.

Some people believe that Judaism is inherently socialist, that Jesus was a pacifist, that Mohammed was a feminist, and that we need to get back to this original vision. But others believe that the “original vision” is that it’s okay to cut thieves’ hands off.

The bible used to be cited as a justification for slavery and Southern Baptism was invented to justify it. But nobody nowadays claims that the bible justifies slavery and we should really get back to that. Witchcraft was always condemned with the bible, but Pagans believe that witches are actually considered good in the bible. In any case, most people in the West don’t believe in witches, so nobody really cares.

10:36: The modernization theory would predict that, as human society progresses, people abandon religion or it becomes a shadow of itself. But reactionary religious movements are gaining strength while resisting modern roles for women. We see this in many faiths around the world. Does this prove the modernization theory wrong? Does it prove that the knot cannot be untied?

I’m still fond of the modernization theory. I see reactionary movements as a testament to the lack of modernity.

Fundamentalism is a vehicle for patriarchy, but that doesn’t mean that if people dump religion they will become feminists. The French revolution was made by men of the Enlightenment who were hostile than religion, but it did nothing for women’s rights. In fact, they were slightly worse-off legally. Ditto for the Soviet Union and Communist China. When the Soviets wanted to increase the birth rate, abortion was outlawed.

You can be good without god, and you can be sexist without god. We’ve seen plenty of secular justifications for inequality–evolutionary psychology, for instance.

10:40: When we do have gender equality, religion will be reinterpreted to support it. The bible will be said to have always supported feminism.

10:43: Religion is comforting to some women because it gives them a measure of power. For instance, a wife has to be her husband’s helpmeet, but in return the husband has to come home at a reasonable time at night.

The knot between sexism and religion will be untied when feminism becomes the norm, but religion will get all the credit.

~~~

Previous talks:

Intro

Faith-based Pseudoscience (Panel)

How Feminism Makes Us Better Skeptics (Amanda Marcotte)

The Mattering Map: Religion, Humanism, and Moral Progress (Rebecca Goldstein)

Women Leaving Religion (Panel)