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Mar 30 2014

Occasional Link Roundup

First of all, the most important thing this week: donate to Karen Stollznow’s legal defense fund. Jason has a timeline of the whole story as it unfolds at his blog, and reading it has really given me an education in how exactly rich powerful dudes shut up the people they abuse. If you want to see Stollznow defeat this ridiculous defamation suit, help contribute to her fund. And by the way, if you don’t want people to write about your abuse of them, try not to abuse them. Eh, Radford?

Moving on, I’m going to briefly mention the various talky things I’m doing this spring and summer. Next weekend, I’ll be at the Skeptech conference in Minneapolis, giving a talk about how technology has influenced the social justice movement (how’s that for a broad topic? Guess who came up with that bullshit?) and also speaking on a panel about moderating online spaces.

Then on May 16 at Women in Secularism 3 in Alexandria, VA, I’ll be on two panels: “Online Activism” and “Intersectionality and Humanism.” If you need any motivation to get to the con before Friday night, there it is.

At some point from July 3-7 in Bloomington, MN, I’ll be on a few panels for CONvergence, but I’m not sure what they’ll be yet. From July 11-13 I’ll be at SSA East in Columbus, OH, talking about microaggressions and making secular groups more inclusive. And if North Texas Secular Con gets rescheduled for late July, I’ll be speaking at that somewhere in Texas. And there’s FtBCon on August 22-24.

I’ll be doing a fundraising campaign sometime within the next month so that I can actually pay for all this (those costs are rarely covered and when they are, they don’t include stuff like food). So look out for that.

Links:

1. Cate explains “white feminism”:

When I talk about “white feminism,” I’m talking about the feminism that misappropriates womanist thinkers like Audre Lorde to declare that keeping white women’s racism in check is “bashing.” I’m talking about the feminism that cheekily denounces “twitter feminism” as useless, without considering that twitter is the main medium through which less economically privileged women (usually women of colour) can put their feminism into practice and gain access to and engage with like-minded women. I’m talking about the feminism that publishes an article advocating for forced sterilization, completely disregarding the way in which forced sterilization was used as a tool of genocide against black and native women. I’m talking about the feminism that thought holding a writer’s retreat at a former slave plantation was a swell idea. I’m talking about the feminism that throws women of colour under the bus in the quest for body diversity and acceptance. I’m talking about the feminism that thinks barging into a Maasai community and “breaking barriers” is feminist, disregarding the work that actual Maasai women are doing to help achieve equality on their own terms, and obliviously parading its class privilege along the way. I’m talking about the feminism that insists that “Muslim women need saving” and refuses to acknowledge that cultural differences mean different, culturally specific approaches to feminism and equality. I’m talking about the feminism that thinks not “leaning in” is the only thing standing between women and economic success. I’m talking about the feminism that defends The Onion when it calls a little black girl a “cunt”. I’m talking about the feminism that celebrates Tina Fey, Lily Allen and Lena Dunham, but tears down Nicki Minaj, Beyoncé and Rihanna. I’m talking about the feminism that pats itself on the back, but doesn’t apologize after supporting a known abuser of WoC feminists who confesses to his transgressions. I’m talking about the feminism that did all these things in the space of one year.

2. Scarleteen has this amazing sexual inventory to help you figure out what your boundaries are and share them with someone else. I’ve seen many of these types of lists, but this is my favorite because of the sheer scope of things it includes as part of a conversation about sex and intimacy that others might not: preferred pronouns and identifiers, comments about one’s body, triggers related to bodies and sex, various types of relationship arrangements, and sexual stuff involving phones and the internet.

3. Jay writes about the lie of the word “normal”:

Normal is a lie. It is a toxic lie, one that seeps beneath our skin and turns us against ourselves. Normal is why I grew up hating the colour of my skin and the way it marked me out as different from my classmates. Normal is why I wanted to be a boy growing up, because boys got to do all the things I wished I was allowed to do. Normal is why my ex used to silence me every time the topic of my queerness arose in conversation with friends – he was ashamed to be dating someone non-heterosexual, someone perverted. Normal is why many Muslims think I’m too “western” and westerners think it’s weird that I don’t drink alcohol or eat bacon. Normal is the little voice whispering in your ear that whatever you are, whoever you are, you are an outsider and a freak and you will never be good enough.

Normal drives people to hate themselves.

4. Chally talks about how patriarchy encourages women to be uncertain of their feelings and opinions, and even of whether or not they “really” experienced boundary violations:

One of the things that gets me the most about patriarchal society is that women are made to be constantly watching out for our own protection, even while we are simultaneously taught to dismiss our opinions, insights, and instincts as wrong or insufficient.

5. Dr. Nerdlove discusses social awkwardness and how it’s used as an excuse by some men as a way to violate boundaries:

The pressure to give someone a second chance – that they were just being awkward and the woman should just relax her boundaries a little – is telling a woman that she doesn’t have a right to establish her limits or to control who she does or doesn’t talk to. It carries the message that the right of a maybe-awkward-maybe-creepy guy to talk to her is more important than her right to feel safe and secure. It means she’s not allowed to trust her instincts and instead should either magically intuit somebody’s intentions or just let the crowd override her decisions.

6. Mitchell explains the usefulness of being selective about who you engage with online:

By the same token, if I had a blog that was all about studying climate change, I would probably block climate change deniers. Blocking a particular climate change denier does, obviously, prevent me from being exposed to their input. However, I wouldn’t consider this a loss for two reasons: first, because their input isn’t new or novel — it isn’t just wrong, it’s redundant — and second, because it is trivially easy to look up the arguments and opinions of client change deniers anyway. If they ever were to come up with a new, interesting idea, it wouldn’t be hard to find.

Blocking those people would mean I had more time and energy to engage with people who have thoughtful, nuanced opinions about the topics under discussion. It absolutely does deprive me of access to those people’s opinions in the same way that not going on a date with that person who pleads “Just give me a chance!” would deprive me of the miniscule chance that they would turn out to be a good match, but ultimately it leaves me with more time to engage with ideas of value.

7. Lucy has a lot of useful advice for screening a therapist.

8. The Belle Jar Blog has a post about those shirts dads wear that have slogans threatening their daughters’ boyfriends:

Rape culture is the normalization and trivialization of rape and sexual assault. It’s a culture in which sexual violence is made to be both invisible and inevitable. It’s a culture that teaches us that male sexual violence is both normal and desirable. It also teaches us that men are not able to control their actions when they are aroused.

And that’s what this shirt is really saying, isn’t it? That a teenage boy will, given the chance, commit some kind of sexual violence against his girlfriend, and that the only solution to that violence is more violence, this time on the part of the father. This shirt assumes that the rape (or attempted rape) of the daughter is inevitable, and the only solution is to remove the boyfriend from the scene. This shirt says that the blame (sidebar – why the need for blame?) for any sex had by the teenage couple will be put squarely on the shoulders of the male partner. Why? Because our culture teaches us that men want sex more than women, that they can’t help being physically aggressive when it comes to sex, and finally that all of these toxic messages are just sexual norms and there’s nothing that we can do to combat them beyond matching violence with violence.

9. Lucia wrote this amazing post about being single:

I have learned, over the years, that my description of my rather persistent singleness is not neutral. The reception and interpretation of my lack of a romantic partner has called up some of the most interesting, misguided, or presumptive statements and unsolicited analyses of my psyche and my behaviour. It has suggested to many that I may be too nervous to date, too preoccupied with my career, too picky about prospective partners, too conservative, too liable to pick “bad” matches, too this, too that. Funny how one’s personal life so quickly becomes open season fo armchair psychologists! And while these commentaries and assumptions can be only rather irritating at times, the banter of a nosy relative or well-meaning friend, I have recently noticed how awfully sinister, how awfully narrow-minded and rife with victim-blaming they can be.

What good things have you read/written lately?

Mar 28 2014

Disagreeing Without Delegitimizing: On That Racist Colbert Tweet and Reactions Thereto

[Content note: racist language, sexual harassment]

It has all the makings of a social media firestorm: at some point last week, Stephen Colbert made a joke on his show in which he implicitly criticized Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder for refusing to change the team’s racist name. The @ColbertReport Twitter account tweeted part of the joke out-of-context. Now-deleted, the tweet read, “I’m willing to show the #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.”

Screenshot via Suey Park

Screenshot via Suey Park

Folks thought Colbert had tweeted it and didn’t realize that it was part of a larger satirical bit that was actually criticizing racism against Native Americans, because nothing in the way the tweet was made suggested that it was a quote from the show. And even knowing the context, many would argue (and have argued) that that context doesn’t excuse racist language against another group, and that said language is still harmful.

Some Twitter users, including Suey Park, criticized the tweet using the hashtag #CancelColbert. Although the hashtag’s mostly a useless mess now, Suey’s Twitter account is currently a great collection of her thoughts and retweets of others’ opinions about the situation. For the record, I don’t personally think Colbert Report should be canceled over this, but that doesn’t mean I can’t agree with the criticisms being made. And also, I’m not even sure that everyone tweeting in support of the hashtag also literally wants the show canceled; it’s an alliterative and snappy hashtag that gets attention, and in a medium like Twitter, sometimes that’s what you need. But maybe they do. I respect that view despite disagreeing with it, and it’s unfortunate that in many settings this has become a conversation about whether or not they should cancel the show, and not about what’s wrong with this whole situation.

So naturally, there was a swift counter-response, including many of Colbert’s liberal fans, who claimed that the critics were “too sensitive” and “don’t get satire” (because there’s no way someone could possibly disagree with you unless they just “don’t get” the topic at hand). There was smug condescension about stupid Twitter social justice warriors who “took the tweet out of context” and “didn’t bother researching the actual facts.” There was, in other words, all the usual smarm and dog doodoo.

First of all, to understand what happened, let’s go back to an amazing recent article by author Kameron Hurley called “Rage Doesn’t Exist in a Vacuum, or: Understanding the Complex Continuum of Internet Butt-Hurt.” There’s a long parable here, but bear with it, because it’s instructive.

I once stood at a bus stop in Durban while two young, drunk men murmured sexually explicit threats and promises to a young woman standing next to me. It was just the four of us – the woman being threatened, me, and the two perpetrators.

South Africa is not the world’s safest place, though with how often folks pull out guns to solve disagreements in the US – legally! – now, I’d argue it’s not so safe here, either. In any event, I kept my mouth shut. After all, they weren’t threatening her with an actual weapon. They were just talking about all the sexual things they wanted to do to her.

It didn’t concern me.

I didn’t want to get knifed, or attacked, or threatened in kind. Who wants that?

But after a few minutes, when they didn’t seem to tire of their threats, but instead kept at it, I finally lost my shit.

It was a fantastic losing-of-the-shit, because I’d spent the last six months hurrying back to my flat before dark, being told by every well-meaning person I knew that there were evil men waiting to rape, mutilate and murder me – maybe not even in that order! – even in broad daylight. I had one guy in a car slow down once on a sunny Sunday afternoon on the hill just outside the university where I was walking alone, who told me I best not walk alone, and best get inside, because people were likely to jump out of the woods and haul me off to the terrible fate all young white girls traveling abroad are assumed to inhabit, eventually.

I’d spent some time getting cat-called, yelled at, and solicited, though most folks in Durban were in fact quite lovely. In truth, I was to receive far more direct threats and harassment as a young woman living in Chicago than I did in Durban.

But that’s a post for another time.

To an outsider seeing my screaming meltdown at these two men, in which I raved and shouted and told them how they were utter assholes for harassing us, and they should fuck off, and who the fuck did they think they were, this might have seemed like the raving of some unhinged person. After all, from afar, all you see is two guys at a bus stop talking to a woman who seems deeply uncomfortable. But my rage, my “sudden” outburst was actually the result of the venting of six full months of increasing dread and terror inflicted on me not even so much by actual bad people, but people ostensibly concerned for my safety, whose admonitions that I “stay inside” and watch my back, and be careful, and who would then go on to talk about who’d been raped, shot, stabbed or mugged that week, had really started to get to me. It was a rage at the entire situation, at being expected to shut the fuck up and go inside all the time because I was a young woman. It was rage at the idea that the threat of violence so clearly worked to keep people in line.

After I raged for a few minutes, the guys milled about for a bit, confused, and finally wandered off. When they did, the young woman next to me breathed a sigh of relief and said, “Thank you so much. I was afraid to say something, because I was afraid they’d knife me or something.”

When the internet loses its shit over what, to many, looks like a single, insignificant incident unrelated to anything else, it’s easy to say they’re fucking nuts. They’re raging over some perceived slight that’s been blown waaaaay out of proportion. That, in truth, is the easier narrative.

[...] Internet rage is almost never a one-off. It happens in a continuum. It’s seen as one more event in a long line of connected events.

Colbert is funny. I like him. But he has a history of using humor in bigoted ways. I don’t have room here to discuss them all at length, but here’s an example. And no, it doesn’t matter if it’s “ironic.” People’s anger and hurt over the tweet has to be viewed in context, and that context is 1) lifetimes of racist abuse and 2) lots of racism from Colbert and his writers in particular.

It is extremely ironic that Colbert’s defenders demand that the tweet be viewed “in context” while refusing to view anger over the tweet in context.

As it turned out, Colbert didn’t write the tweet and neither did anybody on his staff. The Twitter account is run by Comedy Central and Colbert does not know who made the tweet. However, you would be forgiven for believing that a verified Twitter account named after a TV show is run by someone involved with that actual TV show, and I don’t understand why people are treating those who thought this was Colbert’s tweet as though they just believed one of those emails from a Nigerian prince offering you $10,000,000. Comedy Central should not be running an account that’s dedicated to a particular one of their shows, and they especially shouldn’t be tweeting jokes out of context that look really really bad when presented out of context. That’s basic fucking PR. And as for Twitter’s role in this, the entire point of verified accounts is that they’re supposed to be run by the person or group named in them. (Of course, that person might have staff tweeting for them, but at least it’s someone employed by the celebrity.) I don’t know how or why Twitter verified an account called “Colbert Report” that is not run by anyone associated with the Colbert Report, but that’s on them, not on Twitter users.

But anyway, I don’t actually want to argue about whether or not the tweet was racist or offensive or in bad taste or whatever. The meat of my point is this:

  • If you defend Colbert’s attempt to attack racism by condescendingly sneering that his detractors just “don’t get” satire, calling them “idiots,” and generally acting like there is no conceivable reason anybody in their right mind could’ve disliked this tweet, you are part of the problem and I don’t think you care about racism as much as you claim to care about racism. I think you care about Stephen Colbert.
  • Relatedly, if you accuse people of “derailing” the conversation about the Washington Redskins to discuss what they perceive as Colbert’s anti-Asian racism, something tells me you’re not actually that concerned about racism. Because you can be racist against one group while trying to fight racism against another, or you can just try to be anti-racist and do something perceived by some as racist. You can also care both about the racism of the Redskins’ name and the racism of Colbert’s joke. You can care equally about these two things. Shit gets complicated.
  • It’s insulting and inaccurate to assume that anyone who feels differently than you do about an issue just “doesn’t understand” it. Perhaps they simply have a different understanding. As Crommunist tweeted, “It is emphatically the case that PoC have more familiarity with satire than white people do with racism.”
  • You can disagree that the tweet was hurtful without disagreeing that people have a good reason to be hurt by it. Actually, I fall into that category. I don’t think it’s hurtful. But, I’m not Asian or Asian American. So of course I’m not hurt. If you are white, it’s not your place to say that the tweet is categorically Not Hurtful.
  • The existence of people of color (and, in fact, of Asians or Asian Americans) who have no problem with the tweet does not invalidate the claims of those people who do have a problem with the tweet. Analogously, the fact that some women don’t “mind” catcalling doesn’t invalidate those of us who do mind it.
  • Blaming people for not realizing the tweet had a context to it is asinine. There were no quotation marks around the quote. Many comedians use Twitter to write one-liners that have no context. Even if someone suspects that it came from the show, nobody has the time to watch every single recent Colbert episode to try to find the bit. Even if you know the context, you may still find the racial language hurtful and jarring, and you may still think the entire original joke was pointless and fell flat.
  • You can lecture people about not getting upset about “out-of-context tweets,” or you can lecture comedians and others about using Twitter effectively. Which group you choose to lecture says something about your priorities.

These are risks you take with humor, especially satire. I’m tired of seeing people blame those who don’t find a particular joke funny for “not getting satire” or “not being able to take a joke” or “being too sensitive.” Look, some people will laugh at a joke and others won’t. Some will think the joke’s great and others will find that it hits way too close to home. Some people like to consume their comedy with nothing but laughs, and others like to point out how humor can be used to promote faulty and harmful thinking.

And it’s quite possible to love and understand satire but still feel that a particular joke goes too far. Many people felt this way about The Onion‘s tweet calling 9-year-old Black actor Quvenzhané Wallis a cunt, many people who were otherwise huge fans of the satire site. In fact, The Onion, which presumably is a fan of itself and also “gets” satire, eventually agreed with them and published a heartfelt apology that would serve as a great model to Stephen Colbert or whoever the hell wrote that tweet.

You can disagree that the joke was hurtful or bad or unfunny without being an asshole to the people who think it was hurtful or bad or unfunny.

Just like I can say, “I love New York but I can see why you don’t like it.” Or “I like Colbert’s style of humor but it’s not everyone’s thing.”

Or, you know, I haven’t spent my entire life dealing with the effects of structural racism, whereas you have, so our perspectives are going to be different.

~~~

Out of respect to the important issue originally raised by Colbert, I’ll close with some links to more about the Redskins controversy and why the team should be renamed. I also welcome a discussion about this in the comments even though it wasn’t the focus of this piece.

Mar 25 2014

It’s Okay to Lean Out of Silicon Valley

I have another Daily Dot article. This one’s about the the guy who wrote an article saying he doesn’t want his daughter to work in Silicon Valley. I talked about why he’s probably taking it too far but also why the counterargument–demanding that women sacrifice themselves to make sexism go away–is misguided.

Excerpt:

Arguably, you can’t change an industry simply by leaving it. You’d think that women fleeing Silicon Valley in droves would get the men running it to realize that they’re driving women away, but the Valley’s almost religious adherence to the theory of meritocracy will prevent that from happening. If women aren’t working for us, they’d think, that’s just because they’re not good enough—or strong enough. And that’s assuming anyone notices or cares about the lack of female representation to begin with. Therefore, women who want Silicon Valley to change should occupy it, not leave it.

But this view, too, often puts the onus on women to expose themselves to sexist microaggressions and harassment for the greater good. The idea that women (or, at least, feminists) “should” force their way into spaces like technology, business, and politics to “fix” the sexism within places the needs of others before the needs of those women, especially since any complaints they make about the sexism they encounter are likely to be met with, “Well, you knew what you were getting into.” Ironically, the expectation that women always put their individual needs last is a key component of sexism.

Furthermore, it’s not necessarily the case that getting more women into a given space makes that space friendlier to women in general. As Segan points out, women who want to work in Silicon Valley are expected to demonstrate the same stereotypically masculine traits as men are—with, of course, the added double bind that feminine women are considered incompetent while masculine women are considered unlikeable. Neither incompetence or unlikeability is a huge help when it comes to getting a job.

Women who do manage to break into and succeed in Silicon Valley are likely to be women who gamely laugh at sexist jokes and brush off harassment in the office—and expect other women to do the same. AsAshe Dryden describes, women who speak up about sexual harassment in the workplace risk retaliation, such as firing. Success for a woman in Silicon Valley therefore seems to depend partially on keeping quiet about the mistreatment she encounters, and the easiest way to keep quiet about mistreatment is to not view it as mistreatment at all.

Read the rest here.

As a sidenote, this Daily Dot gig is really making me write more, which is great.

Mar 24 2014

On Shaming People Online “For Their Own Good”

[Content note: online harassment and bullying]

Online vigilantism in general is nothing new, but lately I’ve been noticing a disturbing trend of people trying to teach others that they “should’ve known better” by posting “embarrassing” photos of them online, and/or doxing them based on photos of them that were already online.

Two examples I’ve come across:

1. A dude went to a Magic: The Gathering tournament, found as many players as he could whose butt cracks were exposed, and posed for photos next to them. And then put them online. Apparently this is “part funny, part social commentary, and part PSA.” From the Daily Dot:

Showing your ass in a convention of 4,000 people is “unacceptable,” he says. “There is no way (barring some sort of handicap) that they didn’t notice this. Not doing anything about it is lazy, gross and bad for the community. Some people won’t get into magic because of this type of stuff.

“I hope that people will see this and think ‘maybe I SHOULD pull my pants up.’”

2. A bunch of Reddit and 4chan dudes have apparently made it their personal mission to dox women whose photos end up online, whether intentionally or not, to, once again, “teach them a lesson.” Sometimes this means doxing women who purposefully upload sexy photos of themselves to subreddits like r/gonewild, and sometimes this means doxing women whose email accounts get hacked or who get photographed without their knowledge or consent.

The reason all this stuff has caught my attention isn’t just the sexism and body-shaming it often entails, but the circular reasoning of it–something I’ve noted about these types before. We’ll punish you for putting photos of yourself online because it’s a stupid thing to do. Putting photos of yourself online is a stupid thing to do because we’ll punish you for it. You shouldn’t wear ill-fitting clothing that exposes parts of your body that shouldn’t be exposed because then people have to look at it. People have to look at you wearing ill-fitting clothing that exposes parts of your body that shouldn’t be exposed because we just took a photo of you and put it on the internet. Women who put sexy photos online have no self-respect because putting sexy photos of yourself online is a bad thing to do because it shows you have no self-respect because putting sexy photos online is a bad thing to do because–at this point my ability to write words breaks down and I have nothing to say but WHAAAaaaaAAAAT A;LSDKFASLKDF;ASDFAJ;D?!

Whenever you find a silly self-justifying spiral like this, you know there’s something going on that people either can’t or won’t acknowledge.

I have some questions for these brave heroes. First, to Redditor OB1FBM, who posted the butt crack photos:

  • If this is really about making a “public service announcement,” why’d you post it to r/funny?
  • If you’re really worried that “some people won’t get into magic because of this type of stuff [butt cracks],” why aren’t you worried that people won’t get into Magic because the community apparently has creeps who go around taking photos of people’s asses?
  • If you really wanted to “spare the person the shame of being confronted in front of other people” (say, by tapping them on the shoulder and warning them that they need to pull their pants up), why the fuck did you post this on the internet?
  • If you really want to make MtG tournaments more comfortable for those who likewise find butt cracks “unacceptable,” why didn’t you talk to the organizers about implementing a dress code?
  • If you really want to make people change their behavior, why haven’t you considered the evidence that shaming isn’t an effective way to do that?

Next, for the men who think it’s their sacred mission to shame and terrify women for existing in photographic form:

  • WTF?
  • If you like looking at attractive women (and I know you do, or else why the fuck are you on r/gonewild), why are you making that astronomically less likely to happen by making them afraid for their lives?
  • WTF?
  • If your entire worthless thesis is that women shouldn’t let photos of themselves get online because look what can happen, why do you have to actually make that happen in order to make your argument? That’s like robbing someone’s apartment to “helpfully” point out that they need to keep their apartment locked so that shitheads like you don’t rob it.
  • WTF?
  • If these women are, as you claim, “looking for the attention” of having their full names, phone numbers, addresses, and social media accounts posted online and spread widely, why wouldn’t they do that themselves? It’s not difficult to post your own full name, phone number, address, and photos online. Shockingly, I don’t think they need your assistance with this task.
  • WTF?
  • Supposing posting a sexy photo of yourself online (or storing one in a private account that gets hacked, as it were) is really such a bad thing, is being threatened with rape and death, having one’s family threatened with rape and death, and never being able to get a legit job ever again really a reasonable punishment? Hell, even rapists don’t usually face such a strict penalty.
  • WTF?
  • Why are people who dox people on Reddit literally Hitler unless they’re doxing semi-naked women?
  • WTF?

And on and on it goes. I have more questions than answers here, really.

These two seemingly unrelated phenomena might not seem to have much in common at first: one involves “hot” women and the other involves “ugly” (or, at least, “gross” or “disgusting”) men, one involves doxing and the other does not, one involves shaming people for committing what most consider at least a faux pas and the other involves people simply existing and having bodies.

But there are a lot of similar themes, too: the self-righteous vigilantism, the use of shaming as a disciplinary tactic, the insistence that the targets “deserved” or “asked for” what they got, the creepy obsession with people’s bodies and what they do with those bodies, the indignation at something that’s frankly none of anyone’s business.

I’m sure someone’s going to comment here about how yeah well you shouldn’t have your butt crack showing. Yeah, I guess you shouldn’t, at least by our local norms of what should and should not be shown in public (remember that this is neither a universal nor a natural truth, but a social construction). There are a lot of things you generally should not do, such as speak rudely to strangers without provocation, take up more seats on the subway than you need, or leave too small a tip at a restaurant. Are we prepared, then, to publicly shame people who do these things as well? Where do we stop? Are we prepared to take photos of parts of strangers’ bodies that we know that would not want photographed and put those photos on public forums frequented by thousands of people? Is the sight of a human body that offensive?

OB1FBM claims rather unpersuasively that “it’s not about being fat,” but it is, in fact, exactly about that. In order to talk about why lots of people are so gosh-darn rude as to have their butt cracks visible when they’re sitting, you have to talk about the fact that mass-produced clothing fits very few body types well, and denim especially is not a fabric that’s great at molding to bodies as they move. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, denim is the normative fabric for pants in Western society.

Brian Kibler writes:

Here’s the thing. I was a fat kid growing up. I know the kind of treatment that many overweight people deal with. I was mercilessly mocked by other kids in school. My own brother told me that I would never get a girlfriend. Even to this day, I habitually tug on my shirts to keep them from hanging unflatteringly over my body. That feeling is something that never goes away – the sense that everything just fits wrong on you, and feeling like you’re never truly comfortable in your own skin. Public shaming was hardly a new and novel experience. It was often just what I felt from *being* in public. It certainly wasn’t going to be the catalyst for some sort of change in my behavior. And I’m sure my ass hung out of my pants from time to time.

Want to change the way people dress at Magic tournaments? Be a good example. I’ve made a point since I started playing again to always dress up for tournaments, and you know what? I’ve seen people emulating that. “Be the change you want to see in the world”, as they saying goes – not “Be the asshole who makes fun of other people because they aren’t how you want them to be.”

OB1FBM might not be trying to make it about being fat, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t. It’s about that, and it’s about people being engaged in a gaming competition and forgetting for a moment that they need to pull their pants up or their shirts down and thus committing what can at worst be considered a small and common faux pas.

I’m a little bewildered that I had so much trouble finding critical responses to this stunt when I googled it that I realized how necessary this blog post was. I am, and yet I’m not. The devaluation of consent, autonomy, and dignity in our society extends far beyond the usual culprits of sexual assault and harassment.

And speaking of that, while I’m stating the obvious. There is nothing a person can do that justifies having their personal information found out and posted to thousands of people online*. Taking naked photos of themselves and giving them to a partner doesn’t justify it. Taking naked photos of themselves and putting them in a password-protected online account doesn’t justify it. Taking naked photos of themselves and putting them on a forum meant for that purpose, without the personal information attached, doesn’t justify it. Existing in public where they can be photographed looking “sexy” doesn’t justify it. Being a sex worker doesn’t justify it. Making you uncomfortable because someone’s owning their body and sexuality who shouldn’t be doesn’t justify it. Being a woman doesn’t justify it.

If you knowingly, purposefully violate people’s privacy and consent in order to “teach them a lesson,” you are not offering up a “public service announcement” or doing your community some sort of act of kindness. You are a bully. You are every schoolyard bully who has ever beat up a kid to “teach them a lesson,” you are every workplace bully who has ever ostracized a coworker and sabotaged their work to “teach them a lesson,” you are every online bully who has sent anonymous violent threats to people you don’t like to “teach them a lesson.” You are every person who has committed violence and abuse against their partner to “teach them a lesson.”

What a proud tradition you carry on.

~~~

*As usual, a caveat! This blog post is discussing shaming people for behaviors that do not directly harm anyone. In a follow-up (hopefully), I’m going to talk about the murkier ethics of shaming people for behaviors that do directly harm others.

Thanks to this blog post for alerting me to the MtG thing.

Mar 18 2014

Surprise Weddings are Nonconsensual and Icky

Okay, I promise I’ll actually write something for this blog soon, but for now I have another Daily Dot piece, this time about “surprise weddings.” (It’s as icky as it sounds.) Here’s an excerpt:

It’s incredibly ironic that an event meant to celebrate the joining of two people in marriage would be so one-sided, and that consent would be deemed so irrelevant. Relationships aren’t—or shouldn’t be—about one person deciding and creating things for another. They should be about two people building a life together.

In case my reference to “consent” doesn’t make sense, consider this: expressing a desire to have sex with someone doesn’t mean they get to decide unilaterally when and where and how the sex will happen. Agreeing to marry someone doesn’t mean they get to decide unilaterally when and where and how you’ll get married and who the guests will be and what music you’ll have and what types of hors d’oevres will be served. Unless, of course, you tell your partner that you don’t really care about these details and they’re free to do whatever they want with the wedding planning.

Weddings, like the marriages they are meant to celebrate, should be collaborative. That collaboration can mean “We make all the decisions together,” or it can mean “I don’t care, it’s all up to you!”, or it can mean anything in between. Personally, if someone sprung a wedding on me like that, I’d have to have a serious conversation with them about why they don’t think my own wedding preferences matter enough to be taken into account.

You can read the rest here.

One thing I didn’t really have space to get into in the article was the romanticization of surprise itself, and why it is that people find surprises so romantic. I think part of it is just how many people find it fun to be surprised, so it’s nice when a partner surprises them. It also implies a certain amount of effort; secrecy can be hard, and doing things without your partner’s suggestions can be especially hard (such as planning a birthday party they’d like with the friends they’d want to see or buying them a gift they’ll love without asking them what they want).

On the other hand, surprising your partner also means–you guessed it–not having to communicate with them about their desires and preferences. It means being let off the hook if they don’t like it so much because, well, how were you supposed to know! Communication can be fun and exciting, but it can also be difficult and not very exciting. Especially communication about wedding planning.

Mar 05 2014

Hate Crimes, Google Glasses, and Victim Blaming

I have a piece up at the Daily Dot about a woman in San Francisco who was attacked because she wore Google Glass to a bar, and referred to it as a “hate crime.” So many issues to pull apart! Here’s an excerpt:

[C]alling something a “hate crime” adds a certain tone of immediacy and violation to it. I’m not surprised people often call things hate crimes when they’re not. Being mugged or even assaulted isn’t that uncommon, but being a victim of a hate crime is very uncommon—especially if you’re an affluent straight white person. Our criminal justice system is centered on perpetrators, not victims. There is no justice system to help victims of crimes restore a sense of safety and bodily autonomy. We have an institution to punish criminals, but not to support victims. Maybe referring to one’s experience as a hate crime is a way to garner sympathy that may otherwise be difficult to come by.

But “hate crime” does not mean “the perpetrator hates who I am as a person.” It doesn’t mean “this felt especially bad.” It means that the crime was committed with the intent of harming a person who is a member of a social group that has historically been subject to stigma, prejudice, and discrimination—not just on the interpersonal level (as occurs when, say, a white person dislikes a black person), but on the institutional level (as occurs when, say, black people are more likely to be arrested and convicted of crimes that are more likely to be committed by white people). The reason “hate crime” is an important category of crime to define and track this way is because it’s important to understand the effects of institutional oppression, especially since promoting hate against these groups encourages further attacks against them.

Do Google Glass wearers, or technology enthusiasts more broadly, fit into this category of groups? The answer is clearly no. They have not historically been denied rights according to other people. They do not suffer from poverty, sexual assault, violence, abuse, or unemployment at significantly higher rates than other people. They are not generally considered unfit to be friends, partners, parents, employees, or tenants. They are not targeted by the police for unjust stops and searches, and they are not given harsher sentences for committing the same crimes as other people. While people labeled “nerds” or “geeks” sometimes face ridicule or bullying, so do people who have red hair or whose last names sound funny.

Read the rest.

Mar 03 2014

It’s Okay Not To Disagree With Your Friends About Politics

I’ve seen a lot of articles and discussions lately on the theme of “why you should have friends who disagree with you [about politics].” Given how uncritically this view is often presented, I want to complicate it a little. My point isn’t that you shouldn’t have friends who disagree with you about politics, or that having friends who disagree with you about politics is bador that there no benefits to be had from having friends who disagree with you about politics, or that you should never expose yourself to views with which you disagree.

My point is just this:

  • Having politically divergent friends is not necessarily superior to not having politically divergent friends;
  • Having politically divergent friends does not necessarily make you superior to those who do not have politically divergent friends;
  • There are legitimate reasons why someone might choose not to have politically divergent friends;
  • There are other ways to reap the benefits of having politically divergent friends.

The reason I’m trying to make these points so carefully is because anytime I attempt to discuss this without several metric fucktons of nuance, folks immediately take my points to their most extreme possible conclusion and start being all like “OH SO YOU THINK THERE’S NO REASON TO EVEN ENGAGE WITH VIEWS WITH WHICH YOU DISAGREE AND IT’S BETTER TO JUST STAY IN YOUR OWN LITTLE BUBBLE HUH blah blah groupthink blah circle jerk blah blah echo chamber.”

*sigh* No.

When a position gets strawmanned so vigorously every time it’s brought up, I know it’s time to give it a proper defense.

In the interest of being fair, I understand where this is coming from. It is true that people tend to avoid evidence that goes against their beliefs and seek out evidence that confirms their beliefs. It is true that people sometimes stereotype and pigeonhole those that disagree with them rather than actually listening to them to see how they justify their own views. It is true that some people think you’d have to be “crazy” or “evil” or “stupid” (meaningless words, by the way, all of them) to hold some belief they disagree with. It is true that it is “easier” not to engage with views you disagree with than to engage with them.

I just don’t think that ameliorating this requires being “friends” with people you strongly disagree with (in my case, conservatives, libertarians, and so on).

First of all, perhaps we are disagreeing on the definition of “friend.” To me, a friend is a person with whom I share parts of myself that I would not share with a coworker, a classmate, a person I just met at a party, a stranger on the subway, a professor, or even a family member. My relationships with my friends aren’t purely dispassionate exchanges of ideas; they involve emotional intimacy and disclosure.

Someone with whom I’m friends on Facebook may also be my friend, but they may only be a “Facebook friend” if they are not someone with whom I’m interested or comfortable sharing very personal things. (I get pretty personal on my Facebook, but my definition of “personal” differs from most people’s.)

There is no need to be “friends” with someone (by my definition) to discuss politics with them and learn from their differing perspective. I can get that from a class discussion or from reading a blog post or newspaper editorial or from having them in my family or from getting into a conversation at a party or any number of ways that do not involve me making myself emotionally vulnerable to people who are probably going to hurt me. I engage with diverging views all the time. I just don’t need to do it while hanging out with friends or checking my Facebook.

Second, people have different goals for their friendships. If one of the main things you get out of friendship is exposure to ideas you disagree with, then it’s easy to strawman people who don’t want to do that as “not wanting to be exposed to ideas they disagree with.” If one of the main things you get out of friendship is emotional support (like me), then it’s easy to feel like we’re being demanded to open ourselves up to rejection and ridicule from conservative “friends” who think we’re going to hell or deserved to get sexually assaulted or should not have full human rights.

Furthermore, to those of us who don’t view friendship primarily as a way to be exposed to ideas we disagree with, it can feel very odd to be told that we “ought” to make friends with people we disagree with in order to “learn from them.” My friend Wes says, “I feel like articles like this view people as plot devices or vehicles for self-reflection. I have friends because I enjoy interacting with them, not because I think that interacting with them is good for me.” While some would argue that friendship is a transaction in any case, I personally feel gross conceptualizing it that way, and even if I didn’t, you still have to agree on what exactly is being transacted. If someone thinks they’re providing me with emotional support and hoping to get the same in return, it would probably be a little hurtful to realize I’m actually treating them as an anthropological experiment so that I can learn How Conservatives Live.

Just as people can have different goals for friendship, they can have different goals for social media. Progressives in particular often get criticized for “shutting down” disagreement on our Facebooks, because we’ve decided that we don’t care to see certain things on our pages. This, again, is taken as evidence that we don’t want to “engage” with dissenting viewpoints.

But I do want to engage with dissenting viewpoints. I’ve simply decided that my Facebook will not be the place where I do that. My Facebook will be a safe space where I go to get support, bounce ideas around with people who can help me develop them, share updates about my day-to-day life, and keep up to date with what my friends are doing. It is not Miri’s Free-For-All Political Argument Arena. That I do not want a barrage of notifications from people yelling at me every time I open Facebook (and nor do I want the panic that inevitably ensues) should not be taken as an indicator of my supposed unwillingness to “consider alternate views.”

Third, not all disagreement is made equal. For instance, I am not interested in engaging with people who ignore empirical reality, whether they do that in the form of denying climate change, insisting that racism is over, or claiming that you can “snap out of” mental illness. There is nothing to be gained from listening to someone call the sky green and the grass blue over and over.

I am also not interested in engaging with people whose sole justifications for their views are religion. You believe abortion is a sin against god. I believe there is no god and no sin. Neither of us is going to convince the other, and I’ve heard this argument a hundred times and will not gain anything from hearing it again.

The above views are things I can just as easily read about online or in books or newspapers. There is no need to waste my own or another person’s time hashing them out in real time.

Other disagreements are productive and interesting to hash out with people. I have argued about human rights organizations, how do donate to charity, affirmative action, whether or not Dan Savage sucks, whether or not polyamory can work, the Israel-Palestine situation, Occupy Wall Street, unpaid internships, why there aren’t more women and minorities in the tech sector, and plenty of other things, either in person or online. Some of the people in some of these debates were conservatives and libertarians, others were liberals or progressive. In any case, diverging views were exchanged and considered.

Fourth, even disagreements about the same issues can read very differently to the same people. For instance, I’m sure progressive dudes can have nice, dispassionate discussions about abortion rights with conservative dudes, because hey, no skin off their backs (and then they can turn around and demand that women do the same, you know, to avoid “groupthink”). Likewise, there’s probably a reason I included affirmative action in that list of things I can debate productively. It doesn’t affect me personally. When someone says they oppose affirmative action, that does not feel like an attack on me personally.

(It’s important to note, here, that just because you don’t mean for your Unbiased Objective Opinion to feel like an attack to someone else doesn’t mean that it doesn’t. Recognizing the disparity between intentions and outcomes is integral to debating sensitively and successfully)

Most people will not be interested in entertaining debates that feel like attacks on who they are, especially on aspects of their identity that they cannot (and, generally, don’t want to) change.

However, I suspect that the challenge isn’t convincing people that it’s okay not to do things that make you feel bad, but convincing them that some things that do not make them feel bad make others feel bad. If any of the people preaching the virtues of having politically divergent friends ever experienced the way I feel when yet another dude sneers at me about false rape accusations or asks me how I can tolerate living in “that neighborhood” with all of “those people,” they would probably stop preaching it.

But some people never experience that feeling either because they don’t experience much marginalization or because their brains just work differently (I have many extremely patient female, LGBTQ, PoC, and/or disabled friends who don’t mind engaging with those who are prejudiced against them). It is sometimes difficult for them to understand that others do experience that feeling (or even what that feeling is) and that that doesn’t make others “worse” than them somehow.

For what it’s worth, I’d be absolutely willing and interested in having conservative friends who want to just hang out and play games and explore New York together and leave my politics alone. I’ve had friends like that at college. But it rarely works because most conservatives who encounter my politics want to debate them, and I’m not interested in doing that with people I consider friends. My close relationships with people whose politics were very different from mine have relied on embracing our similarities and appreciating what we admire in each other, not on endlessly hashing out the same tired political arguments.

It’s easy to make statements like “everyone ought to have friends on the other side of the aisle” when you don’t consider that others might view friendships and political disagreements differently than you do. I want my friendships to be a refuge from the loneliness and cruelty of the rest of the world. That doesn’t make me “weaker” or “less open-minded” than you; it just means that I have different priorities. My priorities are shaped not only by the personality I was born with, but by the experiences I’ve had and the goals I’ve set for myself in my life.

If you enjoy political debates with friends, cool. If you don’t, cool. I want people to be open-minded and consider views they disagree with, but not at the cost of feeling accepted and supported by their friends. I want to challenge the idea that a person’s worth, intellectual capability, open-mindedness, or commitment to skeptical thinking can and should be judged by their willingness to have Dispassionate Debates with their friends about issues near and dear to their hearts.

Feb 28 2014

Cynthia Gockley and the Disgusting Cowardice of PUAs

I’m almost surprised that I’m writing this blog post, but not quite. I’m writing this blog post because it might help displace a smear piece written by a pickup artist about a feminist woman, which is currently showing up as the top search result when you Google her name (I won’t link to it).

PZ explains:

A woman using the pseudonym Cinzia La Strega has been an active commenter on feminist blogs, and has her own blog in which she mocks the absurdity and repulsiveness of PUAs on the web and twitter. She’s annoying to Matt Forney because she laughs at him — she actually reads the nonsense he posts publicly and, rather than becoming aroused, she ridicules him. She must be punished for making him impotent.

So he dug into public records, social media, all that sort of thing, tracked down her identity (it wasn’t hard; she admits to not being a technical person and made no major efforts to hide, other than by using a pseudonym), and exposed her in detail. I won’t be linking to that post. I’ll just tell you that he published her name, her place of employment, her RateMyProfessor page (she’s a community college teacher), her address, her phone number, her weight, photos, her sexual history, accounts about her unpleasant pedophile uncle, her relationship with a transexual “woman” (the scare quotes are Forney’s), and engages in a lot of bizarre remote psychoanalysis. And most damning of all, he accuses her of being a FEMINIST right in the title.

And now the first Google result when you search for “Cynthia Gockley” is the hateful, asinine blather of some dude who is that threatened by a feminist on the internet. That threatened, you guys. It’s part of his apparent strategy to “destroy feminism” using SEO (search engine optimization), and it includes trying to destroy the reputation of a woman who did nothing but write blog posts about how ridiculous PUAs are.

So hey, where are all you guys who talk about free speech all the time? Because there’s no such thing as free speech when those with power use their speech to silence, intimidate, and smear those with less power.

I think what strikes me the most about this is just how cowardly it is, and what a blatant attempt it is to keep people from coming to their own conclusions about pickup artists and about feminism. Tactics like this are used by people who realize on some level that they can’t win through reasonable debate, and so they resort to shutting up those that disagree with them through whatever means necessary, including online stalking and harassment.

I’ve met plenty of people who think that pickup artists are either smart psychology-oriented dudes who know what women want, or silly awkward nerds trying to game their way into a hookup. Some PUAs are probably some combination of these things, but if you look at their beliefs about women, their methods, and especially their responses to criticism, you’ll see that it’s really much more malicious than that. And while I tend to avoid ascribing malice to people where ignorance will suffice, what this Matt Forney dude (never even heard of him until now) is trying to do is pretty blatantly malicious.

Anyway, hopefully this post will bring more visibility to what’s going on and maybe provide an alternate narrative to any potential employer who happens to Google Cynthia’s name. Here’s her blog, by the way, if you want to give it a read.

And now I’ve entirely lost faith and humanity and am going to eat some chocolate and play some video games or whatever.

Feb 27 2014

Occasional Link Roundup

First of all, I have an announcement! After a lot of planning, some friends and I have launched a Facebook support group for atheists struggling with mental health issues. It’s called Help Without Heaven. In just a few days, it’s grown to over 100 members and is really active, supportive, and helpful. It looks like this was really a need that hadn’t been filled, and we’re really excited about how it’s going.

Soooo unfortunately, our community being what it is, we (the admins) can only accept members we know personally, or who can get another group member or a mutual friend to vouch for them. This is to ensure as much safety for the group members as possible, and it’s unfortunate that this means that much fewer people can benefit from this group than if we let in anyone who wanted to join.

However, if you’ve had a good record of commenting here and you’d like to join, you can email helpwithoutheaven[at]gmail.com from the email address you use to comment, and I can send you an invite to the group. You can also take a look at the group and see if you have friends in it, or if you have mutual friends with one of the listed admins, who could maybe vouch for you.

And like, I just gotta say for the record, if you try to sabotage this in any way or use this as further ammunition in some dumb vendetta against “FtBullies,” you are really, really sad and pathetic. This has nothing to do with FtB and everything to do with atheists getting the help they need to be happy and healthy.

Anyways! On to the links.

1. Angele on Thought Catalog writes about depression:

But see, that’s the thing — depression doesn’t care what life looks like on paper. It doesn’t give a damn about what you tell yourself about how great life is and could be. What it does is slams the sheer gravity of being down upon you when you least expect it, ties weights to your ankles and drowns you in a sea of anxiety, of “what if”s and “not good enough”s. And that is something that took me a long time to understand and an even longer time to talk about.

2. Janani on Black Girl Dangerous talks about the intersections between eating disorders and race (TW):

I remember being hugely troubled by the language many of the speakers and health educators would use about their experiences: that ‘eating disorders were about power and control, not beauty’.  As if this were a dichotomy. As if beauty were something other than a system of control and domination.  There is nothing shallow about beauty; I have drowned in it. My anorexia had everything to do with affluent white womanhood, something not available to me, but that I was systemically surrounded by.  It had everything to do with heterosexuality: an aspiration for ‘proper and dignified’ white womanhood – that is ultimately desirable to white masculinity.

3. People love to claim that nonbinary gender is some dumb #firstworldproblems thing, but Foz put together this amazing list of nonbinary gender identities from cultures around the world. There’s even one from Jewish religious texts. (By the way, even if nonbinary genders only occurred in the Western world, that wouldn’t mean they’re not legitimate and worthy of respect.)

4. Captain Awkward has some wonderful advice on first taking care of yourself in order to be a better friend when things aren’t going well:

You are the only person who understands me!” “You’re my only friend!” sound like compliments, but they come with too much pressure and too much…self… to actually be compliments. Your friend, even if she promises to be your best friend forever, can’t actually fix your bad feelings about yourself or fill up all your lonely places. I get why you feel abandoned, I get why you are panicking, I get that you would do anything to make this right, and I have oh so much love and empathy for you right now. But my honest advice is, take massive, radical care of yourself and do what you can to comfort and distract yourself  until you can meet her on more solid emotional ground.

5. s.e. smith discusses all the snark about women saying “I’m fine” and not really meaning it:

There’s an almost hostile attitude behind the frequent demands for “women” (as though women are an amorphous, interchangeable mass) to explain why they say, “I’m fine.” It’s a sharp reminder of the demanding tone that tends to prevail in situations where women are pressured to talk when they’re not ready or need time to deal with something before they can approach a conversation. There’s an expectation here that women should be ready on everyone else’s schedule to deal with everything, including their own emotions.

6. Heina writes about being labeled “angry” when she isn’t:

He was hardly the first or only person to dub a carefully-worded, cautiously-approached conversation an expression of anger, despite my avoiding of words like “sexist.” Being read as angry when you are not does not require bad faith on the part of the person interpreting your words. All it requires is the skewed perspective bequeathed to us by the world: that anyone not upholding the status quo is disrupting it, and that such disruption is, by nature, angry.

7. This article from the Belle Jar about men who ask women to debate feminism with them is simultaneously a steelman and a snarky rebuttal, and I love it:

After all, if you’re going to call yourself a feminist, you should be willing to back that belief up with facts, right?

And if you’ve got all the facts, it should be easy enough to convince him, shouldn’t it?

And after all, how is he supposed to understand anything if you won’t educate him?

He just wants so badly to understand.

If you don’t mind, could you start by providing him with some kind empirical data that women continue to suffer from systematic oppression? He doesn’t care about the past, and doesn’t want a history lesson. He wants to talk about the here and now. And from what he can see in the here and now, women are doing pretty well. Just look at you! Smart, well-educated, pretty. What about your gender could you possibly imagine has ever held you back? If anything, it’s probably done you a few favours!

8. Another one from the Belle Jar, that I can also relate closely to:

If you live with a volatile person for long enough, it’s hard to maintain a consistent personal narrative. Every event is re-framed by how they saw it, and no matter how hard you try to hold on to your version of events, the force of their overreactions starts to erode your confidence in your own perspective. Trying to fight against them begins to exhaust you – they’re too good at pushing your buttons, know too well exactly what to say to hurt you most deeply, and you can’t keep up, can’t maintain that level of mean-spiritedness. You start to accept what they tell you, because it’s just easier. It’s easier to be wrong all the time. It’s easier to apologize. It’s easier to lie down and let them walk all over you. Of course, you lose yourself in the process, but what does that matter? By that point you believe that that self was worthless anyway.

9. This sexual boundaries checklist from Scarleteen is one of the best I’ve ever found. I love how many things the author considers a necessary part of a conversation about boundaries.

10. This piece by Gaby Dunn is amazing:

I used to think I was getting away with something.

“Girls don’t count,” I’d say, running my fingers up her arm at the bar. “Don’t you know that?”

We both had boyfriends. Long-term boyfriends. Mine had introduced me to the concept.

“I wouldn’t feel threatened,” he’d say. “I know they could never compete.”

He meant that a woman, no matter how attached I got, could never “steal” me away from him. He meant that he’d only care about male penetration, about “sex” in the most typical terms. I was young and I didn’t value myself and I hadn’t been taught a lot about feminism or how relationships should work. I said nothing, because I wanted it to be true.

What have you read/written lately?

Feb 24 2014

Religion vs. Mental Illness, A Bit More Concisely This Time

Chris Stedman, author of Faitheist and blogger at the Religion News Service, asked me to comment on why atheists should stop calling religion a mental illness for a piece he published today. I ended up giving him a way longer comment than he necessarily wanted or needed (#bloggerproblems), so I thought I’d publish the full thing I sent him since it’s nevertheless a way more concise explanation of my views than my huge post on this was.

Equating religion with mental illness is harmful for a number of reasons. First of all, when done to make fun of or put down religion, it also puts down by association people struggling with problems like depression, anxiety, eating disorders, or schizophrenia. People with these serious mental illnesses already face plenty of stigma and discrimination, so derogatory remarks about how religious people are “all crazy” or “belong in a mental institution” are harmful.

Second, this comparison ignores the fact that religion and mental illness are different psychological processes. Religion largely stems from cognitive processes that are essentially adaptive, such as looking for patterns, believing in things that are comforting, and getting joy out of connecting with others and feeling like a part of something larger than oneself. Mental illnesses, by contrast, are fundamentallymaladaptive. People who cannot leave the house without having a panic attack, who feel a compulsion to wash their hands hundreds of times a day, or who are convinced that everyone hates them and they are better off dead, are experiencing symptoms that interfere with their ability to go about their lives. Except in extreme cases, religion does not operate this way. It is important to point out when religious beliefs and observances reach a level at which people cannot function normally, but we do the secular movement no favors by focusing on these instances to the exclusion of the vast majority of religious people who are healthy, happy, productive members of our society.

Third, calling religion a mental illness keeps us from asking serious questions about what actually does attract people to religion. Often, it’s the sense of community, the support available to people who are struggling financially or emotionally, the quick way to make friends, and the opportunity to mark important life occasions such as births, marriages, and deaths using traditions that feel meaningful. Although some of us are trying, atheists are still not that great at providing these types of communities. Many refuse to even acknowledge that most people value–even need–such communities. Calling religion a mental illness is a convenient way to avoid thinking about what we could actually be doing to make the secular community more welcoming and inclusive, and what sorts of resources we are lacking that people can find in religious communities.

Finally, claiming that religion is a mental illness obscures the fact that we all–yes, atheists too–regularly engage in irrational thinking. Religion is a type of irrational thinking, but it is not the only type; introductory psychology textbooks catalog dozens of biases, fallacies, and other ways in which our minds trick us. While it’s impossible to become entirely free of cognitive bias, we can become more free of it by learning to notice it. If thinking irrationally is a mental illness, then we are all mentally ill, and the term loses its meaning. As a survivor of mental illness myself and as someone who plans to work as a therapist, I think we should save that term for situations in which people are truly suffering and having trouble going about their lives.

Don’t forget to go read Chris’s piece!

And incidentally, I’ve been quoted by journalists a bunch of times and it has almost always come out sounding weird and out of context and not like what I meant at all. Chris avoided this issue entirely and even let me see a draft of the piece to make sure he wasn’t misrepresenting what I said or getting anything wrong. If he ever asks you for a quote, say yes!

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