Intent: Just How Magic Is It?

There’s a saying in the progressive community that intent isn’t fucking magic. It comes from this fabulously snarky post about how not intending to hurt someone doesn’t magically keep them from being hurt.

“Intent is not magic” is one of those simple, catchy phrases we use to get a point across, kind of like “consent is sexy” or “the personal is political.” Like all simple, catchy phrases, it does a great job of creating and perpetuating a meme, but not so great a job of explaining a concept or situation in its full complexity. Luckily, for that we have blog posts!

There is, obviously, lots of truth to the claim that intent is not magic. If something harmful you do accidentally–such as the example used in the blog post, outing a trans person–has consequences for the person you did it to, that person has to deal with those consequences whether you meant to do the thing or not.

But where “intent is not magic” really comes into play with regard to social justice is when people try to use intent as a get-out-of-bigotry-free card. That is, they think that because they didn’t mean that joke to be sexist, it magically isn’t anymore. Because they didn’t mean to be homophobic when they referred to a crappy party as “gay,” then they magically weren’t being homophobic.

When it comes to bigotry, intent doesn’t really factor into it very much. There are Twitter accounts that collect tweets of people literally going “I’m not racist but I just don’t like black people” or “I’m not sexist but women are stupid.” Racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry are more about which ideas you believe in and which structures you support than they are about how you would personally classify your beliefs and actions.

When you say or do something bigoted (intentionally or otherwise) and hurt someone, they’re often hurt not because they think you meant to hurt them, but because what you’ve said or done is just another in a long series of reminders of their place in the world–some more malicious or severe than others, but all microaggressions that research shows have tangible health consequences.

But doesn’t intent make a difference sometimes? After all, I’d feel much better if my friend forgot to come to my birthday party by mistake or because they were taking a sick friend to the hospital rather than because they didn’t want to come but didn’t care enough to change their RSVP. I’d be much more okay with a friend borrowing a dress and ripping it by accident as opposed to on purpose. Saying something that triggers me because you don’t realize it’s a trigger for me is different from triggering me on purpose.

Intent matters a lot for one particular thing: judging someone’s character. Yes, a person who is deliberately, unabashedly racist is probably a “worse” person (whoever you measure that) than someone who says something racist because they’ve never learned that it’s racist. It’s much worse to trigger someone on purpose than to do it accidentally.

The thing is, though, that your character is rarely what’s up for discussion in these situations, and making the discussion all about you and your character is counterproductive, not to mention egotistical.

When someone says something bigoted, what I want to discuss is why it was hurtful, how it props up bigotry, and how you can learn enough not to do something like that in the future. I don’t want to discuss your character or what’s in your heart of hearts. Unless someone proves themselves to be a crappy person–say, by calling me a cunt or telling me that I’m probably a feminist because I’m too ugly to get laid–I generally assume that most people are decent people. That happens to be one of my beliefs about the world. But it’s not really relevant. You can be a decent person and be wrong about gender or race, just like you can be a decent person and be wrong about how evolution works or why the sky is blue.

It’s definitely the case that many people will be less upset if you say something bigoted to them out of ignorance rather than out of malice. But it’s important to keep in mind that once the person is already upset, they’re already upset. At that point, the best thing to do is to apologize and seek understanding of what you did, not provide them with a complete audit of your intentions and how not-bad they were. You can, if you’d like, embed your not-bad intentions within your apology: “I had no idea that was so hurtful and didn’t mean to say something homophobic, but I understand why you’re hurt by it and I’m sorry.”

You know how they say that you can’t talk someone into loving you? You also can’t talk someone out of being upset with you, unless that talking includes some concrete steps on your part to make amends for what happened. “You shouldn’t be upset because I didn’t mean it that way” isn’t going to cut it.

Note, again, that not meaning to say something homophobic does not mean you haven’t said something homophobic. Just like not meaning to break a nice vase doesn’t mean it’s not broken.

On a similar note, not intending to hurt someone is different from intending not to hurt them. If someone accidentally breaks my nice vase, I might be glad in the back of my mind that they didn’t do it on purpose, but I might still be annoyed that they weren’t being careful around my nice vase, especially if they are often clumsy and break people’s things by accident. The analogy holds up for saying/doing bigoted things, too. People who say/do them rarely do so just once.

I’m not going to respect you just for not meaning to say hurtful things. That’s one of those bare-minimum-of-being-a-decent-human-being things. Actively seeking information on how not to be hurtful, on the other hand, is a rarer and more important habit to have.

Arguing about intent distracts from the more important conversation. Don’t turn these conversations into referendums on whether or not you are a good person. Personally, I think you are, or else I wouldn’t be trying to have those conversations with you to begin with.

Intent can make a difference sometimes, but it’s not magic.

Of Pranks and Playboy: The Pros and Cons of Online Hoaxes

Header for Playboy's fake party guide.

If you were online at all last week, you probably came across a Playboy article called “Top Ten Party Commandments.” The article was in Playboy’s usual style, but rather than emphasizing your typical dudebro disregard for women’s feelings, opinions, and preferences, it’s all about how you can’t truly have a good time without consent and it discusses the cool initiatives different campuses around the country are doing to promote consent.

So, obviously, the article wasn’t really written by Playboy. It was a prank by a group called FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture, which was also responsible for a similar hoax involving Victoria’s Secret last winter.

I really like hacktivism like this, but it does have some negative externalities. I’ll talk about some of the pros and then some of the cons.

First of all, it gets attention. Someone who might not click on a link to an article called “Why Consent is Important” might click on a link to an article called “Playboy’s Top Ten Party Commandments.” That person would then be exposed to information and opinions they might have never considered before.

Second, a hoax like this answers the question every activist is tired of hearing: “Yeah, well, if the way things are right now is so bad, what’s your idea, huh?” Although I reject the idea that in order for criticism to be legitimate, one must have a ready-made solution at their disposal, the fake party guide does a great job of giving an example of the type of content a consent-positive magazine might publish. It shows that, in a world free of rape culture, lingerie brands might replace phrases like “Sure Thing” with “Ask First,” and college party guides might rank campuses based on which are the best at promoting safe and healthy sex, not which have the drunkest women.

Third, these pranks provoke a strong positive reaction that sends a powerful message to the companies they mimic. That message is, you don’t have to promote rape culture to sell products. We’re often told that this is “just what sells.” Maybe it does, but consent can sell, too. After the Victoria’s Secret prank, social media filled up with people praising Victoria’s Secret and announcing that they plan to go out and buy the new (fake) products. Likewise, before people figured out it was fake, they congratulated Playboy on taking this new direction.

Part of the fake playboy party guide.A smart business will gauge the public responses to these hoaxes and act accordingly. Victoria’s Secret apparently said that they would “look into” creating a consent-positive lingerie line, although I haven’t heard anything else about that since December. Playboy, on the other hand, publicly stated that they had nothing to do with this hoax, and asked that it be taken down. Bad move.

The drawback of these pranks, though, is that many people will inevitably not hear the part about how it’s a prank; they’ll only hear the part about how X Company That Wasn’t That Good About This Stuff totally switched tacks and created some cool new product that doesn’t suck. I was still bursting people’s bubbles about the Victoria’s Secret months after it happened. Corrections aren’t as sticky as the original news story they’re correcting.

Furthermore, plenty of research confirms that it is really difficult to correct misinformation once it has been spread. From a guide in the Columbia Journalism Review:

Unfortunately, available research in this area paints a pessimistic picture: the most salient misperceptions are typically difficult to correct. This is because, in part, people’s evaluations of new information are shaped by their beliefs. When we encounter news that challenges our views, our brains may produce a variety of responses to compensate for this unwelcome information. As a result, corrections are sometimes ineffective andcan even backfire (PDF).

And even if people are not actively engaged in resisting unwelcome facts, the limitations of human cognition can hinder the correction of misperceptions. For example, once a piece of information is encoded in memory, it can be very difficult to undo its effects on subsequent attitudes and beliefs. Trying to correct a false claim with a negation (e.g., “John is not a criminal”) can also lead people to more easily remember the claim you are trying to negate (“John is a criminal”). Finally, people may use the familiarity of a claim as a heuristic for its accuracy. If corrections make a claim seem more familiar, we may be more likely to see the underlying—and incorrect—claim as true.

What this means is that, even if a media outlet prints a correction (which some had to do after misreporting the Playbox hoax as genuine) and even if people actually see it (which they’re probably not very likely to, since it won’t spread virally like the original news did), the correction is not very likely to “stick.” And, even more worryingly, reporting the Playbox hoax accurately the first time might still lead people to misremember it later as being not a hoax.

But so what if people keep thinking that Victoria’s Secret and Playboy really created these products? Well, it’s always unpleasant when someone gets credit that they don’t deserve. But also, it skews people’s perceptions of how far we’ve come and what is left to be done. Major corporations like these still don’t really take public stands for consent; rather, they create products that negate its importance or actively promote rapey stuff. If people develop the impression that this is changing when it really isn’t, they might be more skeptical of efforts to make it change.

Although it bothers me that these pranks likely end up spreading misinformation, I still think that the pros outweigh the cons. But you may disagree.

[guest post] Thoughts on the Assumption of Good Faith

Mitchell of Research to be Done wrote this post after he and I and some other friends had a great discussion about social justice and giving people the benefit of the doubt, and how to adjust our beliefs and expectations when we’re proven wrong time and time again.

It wasn’t so long ago that Lawrence Krauss defended Jeffrey Epstein in the wake of accusations that Epstein had had sex with underage prostitutes, and I thought, “Well, that’s messed up, but maybe I can see how someone might think some of the things he thought, even while being incredibly mistaken.”

It wasn’t so long ago that DJ Grothe accused female bloggers of making women feel unwelcome or unsafe at TAM, and I thought, “Well, that’s shitty, but he probably just doesn’t understand what it looks like from the other side.”

It wasn’t so long ago that Michael Shermer responded to the criticisms of comments he made about skepticism being “a guy thing” with a piece that included the phrases “witch hunt”, “purging”, and “Nazi party”, and I thought, “Okay, that’s pretty over-the-top, but on the balance of things, he still seems like he’s a generally reasonable person most of the time.”

I like to give people the benefit of the doubt. I like to have faith in people, to believe that their intentions are generally good, to believe that they want to do right by the rest of us.

And yet…

And yet in the wake of recent events in the skeptic community, I find some difficult but inescapable realities have come crashing down on me.

While it’s possible that Krauss was simply incredibly mistaken about the situation with Jeffrey Epstein, I am forced to acknowledge that an environment in which such accusations are so easily dismissed is an environment in which it would be easier for someone who frequently engaged in sexual harassment to continue to do so without consequence. While it’s possible that Grothe just didn’t understand where the women who blogged about harassment in the skeptic community were coming from, I am forced to acknowledge that an environment in which the concerns of women are not taken seriously is an environment in which someone who doesn’t respect the women in their workplace is less likely to be called out on it. While it’s possible that Shermer was just having a really bad day when he compared criticisms of his comments to witch hunting and Nazism, I am forced to acknowledge that an environment in which criticisms made by women are routinely gaslighted in this way is one in which women would find it more difficult to criticize problems like sexual harassment.

I want to believe the best of those I have looked up to in the skeptical and scientific community. I want to, but I am finding it more and more difficult. In each of the above examples, my initial instinct was to assume good faith, and later events made me feel naïve for doing so. Later events made it obvious that none of these people just needed someone to sit down and civilly explain things to them.

In watching conversations in the skeptic community over the past few years, nearly every time I have seen someone say something that I thought was harmfully wrong, but said to myself, “They probably just don’t get it.”, later events have suggested that much deeper problems “just not getting it” were at work. It feels like whenever my instinct has been to give someone the benefit of the doubt, it’s later come about that their actions have been consistent with those of someone steering the community in a direction that benefited them at the expense of others*.

I don’t know what to do with this realization. I don’t want to be overly cynical, but I also don’t want to be naïve. I would rather not go through life assuming that every time anyone says anything that reinforces problematic ideas that person is secretly twirling their misogyny mustache and readjusting their monocle of twisted rationalization. At the same time, I want my perceptions to be accurate, and it seems clear that they haven’t been particularly accurate recently.

I put the question to the audience: at what point is the assumption of good faith not deserved? How do you decide when trust is overly naïve or mistrust is overly cynical?

If we err too far on the side of giving people the benefit of the doubt, we run the risk of providing leeway and power to people likely to abuse what they’re given, as seems to have been the case in situations like the examples above. I also find that, at least in my case, I am more likely to identify with people whose good faith I assume. That is, if we assume that I’m a thoughtful, well-intentioned person, and that Public Figure X is not, but I think they are, then when I see Public Figure X excoriated for saying shitty things, my reaction is going to be partially, “Jesus, these social justice people might one day get all angry at me for just misunderstanding something, too!”. If, however, I don’t assume that similarity, I am less likely to see the legitimate complaints against Public Figure X’s actions as unfair or ridiculous, because I won’t be able to as easily imagine myself saying those same things while honestly misunderstanding. It it seems to follow from that that if we assume good faith, we might, correspondingly, assume that the shit storms that we see are more unreasonable than they actually are.

On the other hand, if we err too far on the side of assuming the worst, then, well, we are unfairly assuming the worst.

In the grand scheme of things, maybe there is no good answer. Maybe the only actionable solution is to continue calling out bad behavior, and to not apologize for calling it out, and to pay attention when it starts to look like a pattern. I know one thing I have gotten out of recent events is that I’m going to be enormously more wary of the suggestion that people would come around if only we would engage more civilly**. That ship has sailed. Too many important problems, both with people and organizations, have been identified by skeptics who were unwilling to compromise on calling out bad behavior.

But I genuinely am curious: what say you, skeptics? Are there any decent rules of thumb for separating good faith from bad faith? When do you assume honest ignorance and when do you assume willful blindness? Are there any decent rules of thumb for how to engage (or not engage) if the truth is uncertain?

Or, in short: what is there to be learned from all this?

~~~

*I want to be clear at this point: I do not, in any of the above situations, think that any of these people ever consciously thought, “What I really want is a community steeped in harassment and misogyny.”. I simply think that they are capable of rationalizing behavior that has that effect when it benefits them, even when it has a detrimental impact on the community.

**I also can’t help but notice a certain massive irony in all of the calls for civil discussion over the last couple of years in light of the fact that all three of the people I use as examples in this post are operating on a civility level which we might fancifully term “Lawsuit”.

Mitchell Greenbaum is a geeky, poly, kinky, skeptic blogger who writes about social justice, relationships, depression, and chronic pain at Research to be Done, and engages in a wholly excessive amount of… auto-metacognition? Or does it make more sense as meta-auto-cognition? He isn’t really sure, but playing with prefixes is fun and writing bios is hard. True story.

Making the Normal Abnormal

Much of progressive activism focuses on making things that seem weird, abnormal, and wrong to many people seem more ordinary, normal, and acceptable. For instance, activists have tried to show that being attracted to someone of the same gender is no different from being attracted to someone of the opposite gender, that eating vegetarian or vegan is no big deal, and that abortion is just another medical procedure that everyone should have access to.

Making the abnormal seem normal is a crucial part of activism, but so is the opposite, which is less talked about: making the normal seem abnormal.

Here is a “normal” thing in our society: a young woman walks down the street at midnight, one hand clutching her keys and the other holding her pepper spray with her finger poised on the trigger. Her heart pounds and she walks as fast as possible. Few other women are still out, but plenty of men hang around, walking freely down the street. A few of them shout sexual comments at the woman just for shits and giggles.

This is our normal. This is okay to many people. Not only do they think this is normal, but they might even advise this woman to do this whole keys/pepper spray/avoid certain streets/don’t show skin charade. They might even consider her stupid or foolish if she does not perform the charade well enough.

So what I want to do is to get people to look at this differently. I want them to see how weird, how artificial, how bizarre this actually is. I want them to imagine a sentient alien species visiting Earth and furrowing their brows (if they have brows) and wondering, “Wait, so, you divide your species in half and one half can’t walk down the block without getting harassed or threatened by the other half? And your solution to this is not for the ‘men’ to stop harassing and threatening, but for the ‘women’ to stop walking alone?!”

I want them to see how utterly fucking weird it is that one half of humanity has a socially-imposed curfew every evening because we won’t teach the other half to leave them the hell alone.

Here’s another normal thing. An 8-year-old boy likes the color pink, so he brings a pink lunchbox to school. He gets bullied mercilessly. People might agree that this is sad–the more liberal among them might even say that they wish things weren’t this way–but many will agree that responding to a little boy wearing pink by bullying him is normal, understandable, “natural.”

No. It’s not. It’s really fucking weird. Wearing or possessing something of a certain color makes you a target for abuse? And our solution to this is to teach children not to have or wear things of certain colors?

We created pink as a signifier of femininity. Girls are not born swaddled in pink blankets (and neither are boys in blue ones). This is not some all-powerful, hurricane-like force of nature that we just have to live with and plan our lives around.

But we throw our hands up and let children be abused by other children because of their aesthetic preferences.

One more example. In this country, unlike in many others, you have to pay inordinate sums of money to get an education that will allow you to have a job that you can actually support yourself and your family with (unless you’re Bill Gates, but most of us are not). And unless you are lucky to have a family with tons of money, you have to take out loans with horrible interest rates to get this education. Sometimes these loans will be 3 or 4 times what your starting salary will be. People will tell you that this is a “bad idea,” but you don’t really have much of a choice. No, being born into a rich family is not a choice.

Isn’t that kind of weird? We need people trained in all kinds of professions (not just business, finance, and engineering) in order to have a functioning society. But rather than making this training affordable to those who want it, we either discourage people from getting it or make them take out huge loans that they may default on. We shoot ourselves in the foot, and we wonder where all the good teachers and therapists and so on are.

When you start to see how abnormal many aspects of our day-to-day existence are, you realize that changing them is not optional.

People have a vested interested in seeing injustice as “normal,” not only because that frees them from the obligation to fix the injustice, but also because it spares them from the despair of realizing–really realizing, not just in the abstract, platitudinous, “yeah well life’s not fair” sort of way–that injustice exists.

Always remember that. And know that most people do not do this intentionally. Most people do not maliciously decide to treat terrible things as okay because they want others to suffer. And although intent matters when assessing an individual’s character, it doesn’t really matter when it comes to the consequences of that individual’s actions, especially not when viewed in the aggregate: many individuals making many little choices that all add up to create a society in which it’s viewed as “normal” that, for instance, a teenage girl should expect to be brutally gang-raped if she decides to hang out with some male classmates.

Whether or not anyone intended to create this society, it is nevertheless the one that we created. Debating intent diverts attention from the more important question: how do we fix it?

When someone says that rape is “just a thing that happens” or that “it’s only natural” for poor people not to be able to have healthy food and a safe home, what they’re doing is normalizing injustice. They’re constructing injustice as a regular, expected, run-of-the-mill fact of life, to be met not with anger and collective action, but with a resigned shrug of the shoulders.

Don’t let them.

How to Be a Responsible Devil’s Advocate

Devil’s advocate is a tricky rhetorical strategy. On the one hand, it can be extremely useful for exposing the flaws in an argument, helping others clarify and strengthen their positions, and practice your own argumentation. Using devil’s advocate when the topic under discussion is, say, whether or not we should pursue immortality or how best to end our dependence on non-renewable energy sources will probably be productive and enlightening.

On the other hand, when the topic is whether or not it should be legal to shoot unarmed Black teenagers or how best to respond to sexual assault, devil’s advocate is a minefield of potential faux pas, triggers, and discussions that end in yelling and/or blocking each other online.

Although some claim that in discussions like these we should be “objective” and not allow emotions to “get in the way,” I would argue that 1) it is virtually impossible to be objective about issues to which we have a personal connection, and 2) it’s not even desirable to be objective about issues to which we have a personal connection. For all their flaws, emotions alert us when the stakes are high, tip us off to our biases, and keep us fighting our battles. The important part is knowing what your bias is, and reminding yourself constantly to be on the lookout for information that doesn’t fit into that bias.

The reason this is relevant to the devil’s argument discussion is that people are going to have strong emotional responses to issues like sexual assault prevention. They just are. If you choose to play devil’s advocate during a discussion about an issue as personal and painful as this, you’re probably going to push some people’s buttons, and not in a good way. You’re going to sound exactly like the people who argue against them in earnest, and you’re going to make them defensive and cause them to double down even on parts of their arguments that are not that good. You’re going to jeopardize any chance of having a productive discussion.

Unless you learn how to be a responsible devil’s advocate.

First of all, and most importantly, accept that some people do not want to engage with devil’s advocates on certain issues. They do not want to hear about your thought experiments and hypotheticals. They do not want to argue with people whose positions on the issues are not clear, because it can be painful and even triggering to hear these opinions.

You may feel that these people are not doing their duty as Good Skeptics by not engaging in your Spirited Debate or supporting Free Inquiry or appreciating Diversity of Opinion, but it frankly doesn’t really matter. Some people don’t have the privilege to be able to look at issues like this objectively and without emotion because they have lived through the traumas and tragedies associated with these issues. If you can’t respect that and accept that not wanting to argue with you does not mean someone is Bad At Arguing or Bad At Skepticism, then you have no business trying to discuss these issues with anyone.

Second, make sure you have examined your own motivations for wanting to play devil’s advocate on an issue that’s personal and painful to many people. I’m not saying that there are no good motivations (insofar as you can discern “good” and “bad” motivations here); I’m just saying that it merits examination. Are you doing it to hash out your own doubts and figure out what you believe? That’s pretty legit. Are you doing it to help the other person argue better? Commendable, but not necessarily recommended; I’ll get to that in a bit. Are you doing it to get a reaction out of someone? If so, consider not doing that ever.

Often people are “rubbed the wrong way” by the discourse on issues like sexual assault, sexism, racism, and so on. They just find the claims made by progressives on these issues to be irritating somehow and they feel compelled to argue against them without really knowing for certain where they themselves stand or why they feel such a need to argue with a random internet person they don’t know.

A lot of the time, these people discover that their irritation and discomfort are stemming from unexamined prejudices, biases, and feelings of guilt. They realize that they’re actually worried that they will be perceived as an “-ist” or that they have undeserved privileges or that they have mistreated others because of bigotry or that they are resentful because they think minority groups are receiving special advantages of some sort. Examining carefully your reasons for wanting to play devil’s advocate can reveal some of these deep-seeded thoughts and feelings, and prevent others from using up valuable time and energy trying to get you to recognize them.

Third, if you’re playing devil’s advocate in order to try and help someone else, find out if that person actually wants or needs your help. Unsolicited advice is frankly annoying in almost any case, but especially when it involves a long, drawn-out debate with someone you believe to be in need of convincing, only to find out that they actually think they’re kindly bestowing their argumentative expertise on you.

If you’re not a progressive activist, you might not know how discussions generally work in our communities. We’re always hashing things out with each other, trying out new arguments, and asking for feedback. If we blog on networks or in groups of some sort, we often have private backchannels where we practice our arguments. You may think, running across a random blog or Twitter feed, that we’re desperately in need of someone to help us refine our views, but generally we have plenty of trusted friends and colleagues that we can do that with. So don’t assume.

Fourth, if you have now decided that you’re going to play devil’s advocate, tell the person what you’re doing. Be open. Get consent. Constructive debate is not that different from sex in this regard. For instance, here are some things you can say:

  • “I generally agree with you, but I’m having some doubts. Can I argue from the other side to see how you’d respond?”
  • “I’m not sure this argument will stand up to scrutiny. Do you mind if I try some counterarguments?”
  • “Want to practice debating this issue?”
  • “I don’t actually believe this, but just out of curiosity, how would you respond if I argued that ______?”

As Captain Awkward says, use your words. The clearer it is what you’re trying to accomplish and what your actual point is, the likelier it is that you’ll have a productive discussion and nobody’s feelings will be hurt.

And, as I mentioned in my first point, don’t forget to accept no for an answer. Do not respond passive-aggressively about how “sad” it is that you can’t even have a good debate about this issue. Do not snark at them about how “some skeptic you are.” Do not bloviate using grand, vague terms like “freedom of expression” and “free inquiry.” Do not pout about how you “just wanted a discussion.” If they say, “Sorry, this is too close to home,” say “Ok, sorry I bothered you!” and move on.

Fifth, be prepared for the possibility that people will misinterpret your arguments and positions as much more vile than you believe they actually are. You may be accused of rape apologia or various -isms or of not giving a fuck. Two things may be going on here: 1) the people you’re arguing with have a more accurate impression of your views than you think they do, because they’ve been down this road before; 2) the people you’re arguing with are extremely sensitized to horrendous bigotry and now sometimes see it in places where it isn’t really.

You may feel this is incredibly unfair, and that’s understandable. However, what’s considerably more unfair is how often these people, many of whom have been personally affected by the issues they’re discussing, have to deal with those who blame them and treat them like they’re subhuman and advocate for them to have their rights taken away (or not even given in the first place). Your arguments may sound exactly like the arguments made by those Actual Bigots, and so you get pegged for one.

Remember that being charitable means trying to understand why others often aren’t.

And remember that when it comes to social justice issues, the devil already has plenty of genuine advocates. There are people who tell us every day that bitches be lyin’. There are people who tell us every day that we shouldn’t ruin rapists’ lives by holding them accountable for what they did. There are people who say that Trayvon deserved it. There are people who say that a fetus has more rights than an adult human.

So, I will include the same cautionary note for devil’s advocate as I recently wrote for sarcasm: if you mimic terrible opinions and sound exactly like the people who hold those opinions earnestly, do not be surprised if people don’t take kindly to your arguments. Do not be surprised if we’re tired of responding to the same terrible opinion every day. Maybe you were bored at work and started reading a feminist blog for the first time in your life and wanted to play a fun game of devil’s advocate, but for those of us who write those blogs, that’s what we do every day. And for those of us who live the horrible reality of some of the issues we write about, facing the same terrible opinion for the millionth time can be too painful and stressful to be worth it.

You may be able to turn these issues into an engaging intellectual exercise while we may not. Do not hold yourself up as a paragon of emotional stability and argumentative prowess because of this. Understand that you’ve been lucky.

Update: added a link to this relevant post.

“They’re Your Friends/Family/Neighbors!”: On Activism and Appeals to Kinship

This post may have more questions than answers. You have been warned!

For a while I’ve been noticing a certain tension in activism of various kinds. On the one hand, we want people to care about our causes not because those causes are necessarily proximal to them and impact their lives directly, but because these causes are just important and working on them contributes to a better world. On the other hand, relating these causes to people and showing them why the causes are relevant to their own lives gets them to care when they otherwise might not.

The particular example of this I’m going to talk about is the “they’re your friends/family/neighbors” approach, and my two subexamples are women’s rights and mental health advocacy.

For instance, in this past year’s State of the Union address, Barack Obama said this: “We know our economy is stronger when our wives, mothers, and daughters can live their lives free from discrimination in the workplace and free from the fear of domestic violence.” Sexual assault, too, is often talked about in this way, when men are exhorted to “imagine if it happened to your mother/sister/daughter/girlfirend/wife.”

Similarly, during the National Conference on Mental Health this past June, Obama (again) uttered the following sentence: ”We all know somebody — a family member, a friend, a neighbor — who has struggled or will struggle with mental health issues at some point in their lives.” (Notably, none of the conference speakers actually identified as mentally ill except one woman on one panel, so the conference seemed to be addressed at people who have mentally ill family members, friends, and neighbors as opposed to people who have mental illnesses.)

Although these verbal maneuvers are so common as to pass unnoticed by most people, they’ve been criticized soundly. For instance, writing about Obama’s State of the Union address, mckennamiller at Daily Kos says:

The time is long past due that we recognize the value of all people by their inherent worth, rather than by their relationship to someone else. The reason to fight homophobia isn’t because “you’ve got a gay friend,” it’s because it’s simply the right thing to do. The reason why a woman is valuable isn’t because she’s someone’s sister, or daughter, or wife, it’s because of the person she is unto herself.

Writing about Steubenville, the Belle Jar Blog says:

The Steubenville rape victim was certainly someone’s daughter. She may have been someone’s sister. Someday she might even be someone’s wife. But these are not the reasons why raping her was wrong. This rape, and any rape, was wrong because women are people. Women are people, rape is wrong, and no one should ever be raped. End of story.

And, writing about the mental health conference, C.D. says:

Second, the “friends and family” approach makes it seem like people with mental illnesses are only important in the context of their relationships. In the President’s speech, we are defined not as individuals, but within the structure of relationships with “sane” people – the “family member, friend, neighbor” who knows us. This makes us secondary players in our own illnesses: our conditions are important not because they’re destroying our lives, or making every day a struggle, but because they’re making our loved ones miserable.

I agree with these arguments. I think that the “friends and family” approach, which I will call the “appeal to kinship” for lack of a better term, implies–not intentionally–that people should care about these issues because, well, wouldn’t it suck if that happened to someone you love?

I think the “not intentionally” part is absolutely vital here. A lot of people respond to the arguments above with things like “Yeah well Obama didn’t mean that women have no worth if they’re not related to you” and “But nobody said that we should only care about mentally ill people because they’re our friends and family” and so on. Yes, if we were saying that Obama et al literally mean to say that we shouldn’t rape women and we should help the mentally ill get treatment simply because sometimes people we love get raped or have mental illnesses, that would be an incredibly uncharitable interpretation. But that’s not what these arguments are claiming.

They’re claiming that very kind, very well-intentioned phrases and statements can still send the wrong message, a message that the speaker never meant to send but that is getting sent nonetheless.

Do speeches like Obama’s actually convince people that they should only care about rape survivors or mentally ill people who happen to be part of their lives? I doubt it’s quite that simple. But they probably reinforce the preexisting tendency that most people have to value their loved ones over their not-loved ones, which isn’t a problem when it comes to personal relationships, but is a problem when it comes to social justice: the biggest problems facing people in this world are the problems least likely to affect the friends and family of your average listener of Obama’s speeches.

However, speechwriters and activists do not pick their strategies at random. I think that the reason appeals to kinship are so often made is because they probably work. People do have a bias toward those who are close to them proximally and relationally, and many people are probably more likely to get invested in a cause if they think it affects those they love than if they have no reason to think that. There’s a reason coming out in various forms is such a powerful political act; not only does it humanize people who have been considered “other” for decades or centuries, but it also often jolts the friends and families of those people into awareness. The conservative, anti-gay politician who suddenly flip-flops when a family member comes out as gay or lesbian is a tired trope by now, but there’s a reason it happens.

If this is truly the case that people care more about issues when they believe those issues affect the people they love–and, based on what I’ve studied, it probably is–that brings up a bunch of difficult questions. If appeals to kinship are effective, are they justified despite the possible harmful implications?* How successful would they need to be in order to be justified?

Even supposing we choose to use appeals to kinship to get people to care about things we think they should care about, that doesn’t mean we have to just accept that people are biased in this way. Can we get people to unbias their thinking and care as much about issues that do not affect their own own loved ones? If so, how? After all, while it’s true that there’s a good chance that some of your friends and family are queer, mentally ill, or victims of sexual assault, how likely are they to be living in abject poverty? How likely, if you are white, are they to experience racism? How likely are they to be incarcerated?

The appeal to kinship is similar to another strategy often used in liberal activism: “_____! They’re just like us!” With this tactic, people are persuaded to care about some minority group’s lack of rights by making them see that the members of this group are really just like them and therefore deserve rights. For example, the push for same-sex marriage rights and the way that that push has now become the most visible and most-supported LGBT cause is a prime example of this. Being unable to legally marry is objectively not the biggest problem facing queer people, but it’s getting the most attention. Why? Partially because queer people who get married are Just Like Us.** It’s no surprise that a certain very popular current song about same-sex marriage is literally called “Same Love,” after all.

Unfortunately, premising one’s activism on people being Just Like Us has two negative effects: 1) it fails to challenge the idea that people must be Just Like Us to deserve rights, and 2) it fails to help those who cannot somehow be shown to be Just Like Us. That’s why liberal activism frequently ignores the most marginalized people–they’re the hardest to portray as being just like “ordinary” (white, middle-class, straight, Christian, etc. etc. blahblah) folks.

So, to expand on my original questions a bit: Should we acknowledge the limitations of the Just Like Us approach to activism while using it anyway? Should we stop using it? Although this approach has ethical issues, could it be even more unethical to abandon a strategy that can do a lot of good? How do we get people to care about oppression, discrimination, and prejudice even when it does not affect anyone they have a personal connection to, or anyone they feel very similar to? 

Although I’ve presented some arguments here, I don’t actually intend for this post to answer any of these questions. So if you have answers, the floor is yours.

~~~

* I should note that more research is needed (as always) on this. Not just on the effectiveness of appeals to kinship, but also on their potential dangers.

** For a really fantastic and in-depth treatment of same-sex marriage and assimilation, read this piece by Alex Gabriel.

[guest post] Harry Potter and the Fuzzies of Altruism

Here’s a guest post from Robby Bensinger about the psychology of altruism with a little bit of Harry Potter thrown in. 

Effective Altruists are do-gooders with a special interest in researching the very best ways to do good, such as high-impact poverty reduction and existential risk reduction. A surprising number of them are also Harry Potter fans, probably owing to the success of the EA-promoting fanfic Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.

The author, Eliezer Yudkowsky, calls that nice inner glow you feel when you help people “warm fuzzies“. But I’ve noticed that not everyone who’s interested in charity and social justice gets identical “fuzzies”. People with the same humanitarian goals can differ not only in their philosophy and tactics, but even in their basic psychological motivations. So I decided to construct a taxonomy of fuzzies modeled after the four Houses of Hogwarts.

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slytherfuzzies — how it feels to save the world by improving yourself, mastering your own will, and achieving your personal goals.

Slytherfuzzies are that self-esteem boost, that sense of being effective and just plain Awesome, when you successfully help people. Fuzzies are especially slytherin when people’s happiness is seen as an indispensable means to achieving slytherfuzzies (or just Victory), rather than your altruistic impulses being used as a mere means for making the world a better place. Picture Gandhi cackling in a darkened, smoke-filled room and muttering, ‘All goes according to plan…’

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ravenfuzzies — how it feels to save the world as an intellectually stimulating puzzle.

One helps people not so much out of felt empathy as out of boredom, or curiosity, or a conviction that happy, healthy human-style intelligences help make the world a more beautiful, interesting, and complicated place. Any altruist can recognize the value of doing research and figuring out what actually works, but when you’re driven by ravenfuzzies your altruism will exhibit a ravenclaw’s detachment and openness to experience.

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gryffinfuzzies — how it feels to save the world from within a hero narrative, (e)utopian vision, or any sort of Moral Quest.

A gryffinfuzzy can be as proud as a slytherfuzzy, but the grounds for pride are externalized — things are finally The Right Way, not necessarily my right way. Compared to hufflefuzzies, gryffinfuzzies are more bold, epic, blazing, and abstract.

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hufflefuzzies — how it feels to save the world in the form of lots and lots of sick baby bunnies.

Hufflefuzzies are warm. Personal. Social. Fuzzy. They’re probably the most common and essential source of altruism. They are units of reverse schadenfreude, of empathic joy, of emotional connection, solidarity, or belonging.

____________________________________________________________________

I’m not trying to get a perfect mapping from canonical Houses to moral sentiments. Experiencing hufflefuzzies doesn’t make you a hard worker. Experiencing slytherfuzzies doesn’t make you a conservative.

Instead, I’m using the Houses as an excuse to investigate the different reasons people do good. It’s a common error to assume that everyone thinks and perceives the same way you do. If adopting a more complicated view of happy glowy squishy humanitarian fuzzies helps us better understand each other, and better reach out to people with different styles of moral reasoning, then adopt it we should!

In my own case, I seem to be mostly motivated by gryffinfuzzies. I find that especially interesting because philosophically I’m much more likely to explain and defend my ethical views in terms of the value of empathy (like a hufflepuff bodhisattva), or the value of diversity (like a ravenclaw Feyerabendian), or just in terms of my personal preferences (like a slytherin existentialist). Apparently my core moral intuitions are quite distinct from my intellectualizations of morality.

What about you? What drives you to do good? What combinations of fuzzies do you experience, and do they vary for different kinds of charitable work? Are you working on cultivating some of the varieties that you’re currently missing out on? Do my groupings make sense to you, and are there any fuzzies I’ve left out?

Robby Bensinger is critical thinking activist and philosopher. The former president of the Indiana University Philosophical Society, he does research in the intersection of science and religion, consciousness studies, value theory, and metametaphysics. (Yes, metametaphysics.) He has been heavily involved with the IU Secular Alliance for the past five years, and works much of his mischief at the blog Nothing Is Mere.

[guest post] Undigging the Hole: FOFISSAMO

While I continue to recover from what I did to myself to celebrate finishing college, CaitieCat is back with some advice about apologizing.

So you’re in a mess.

You said something in public that might have used a bit more thought, a bit more empathy, and now you’re in a hole. And people being what people are, instead of climbing out of the hole with the help of the people we’ve hurt, many of us will instead turn to digging deeper, insisting that all we have to do is dig a little deeper and then people will get it and think we’re decent people again. Some of us will bring in backhoes to really get down to the dirt.

By digging the hole, I mean frantic excuses, insistences that your best friend is such a person and that you totally let them use your bathroom and everything, screams of “reverse prejudice” and the like. As a public service, then, allow me to offer this simple four-step algorithm for Undigging the Hole. I call it FOFISSAMO, as noted in the title of the post, as a pleasantly pseudo-Italian mnemonic.

FOFISSAMO stands for:

  1. Find Out

  2. Fix It

  3. Say Sorry

  4. And Move On.

Now here’s what I mean, specifically, by each step in undigging the hole you’re in.

Find Out

Finding out. People HATE the finding out step. Ron Lindsay called it being silenced, for instance, ironically while he used a privileged platform, with a  captive audience provided, to make the complaint. So my first step is simple, despite how much people hate the thought: Shut Up And Listen. If someone’s telling you what you did hurt people, the first impulse of the moral person should be “listen to them”, not “deny that you hurt them”, “insist they’re being oversensitive”, calling them any form of Nazi, or any of the frequently-used other responses we see.

Just pay attention. Attend closely to what the person is telling you about why what you did is a problem. Treat them as a human being, worthy of the same amount of attention you expect to receive yourself. Trust that they know what they’re talking about, the way(s) that they’ve been hurt by what you did, and just as you hope your words are taken in a good and gracious light, give them that same respect. There’s a reason the Golden Rule can be found in almost any civilization’s development.

Yes, it will probably be uncomfortable. You will be feeling embarrassed that you hurt someone, embarrassed to be called on it in public, and often defensive. Remember that this is their time; you had yours when you did the hurtful thing.

Once you know what the problem was, and if it’s amenable to this, then the second step is…

Fix It

If there’s a way you can undo the harm you did, do that. If there’s a way to mitigate the knock-on effects, do that too; an example from other circumstances – if your mistake in making a bank deposit causes someone else to incur fees related to their unexpected banking error situation, you offer to cover those fees, right? Same thing here.

Often there’s no way you can actually do much to fix it, so your next important step is…

Say Sorry

This is probably the simplest part, and also the hardest. Apologize. An apology, to be effective, takes the following form (parenthetical parts are optional/situation-dependent):

I am sorry (for having hurt you/run over your dog/dehumanized you/made you feel like crap/used a slur – even unknowingly, telling them that part comes later!)”.

Don’t say, “I’m sorry if I hurt anyone,” because you already know you did. That was what step 1 was for.

Don’t say, “Mistakes were made,”: own your shit. “I made a mistake” is a much stronger and better statement for this.

Stay away from these things.

Just: “I’m sorry (I hurt you).” If you can include a statement here of exactly what you did wrong, preferably specifically and openly addressing your mistake as a way of acknowledging that you’ve learned and will try to not repeat it, you’ll be doing well.

Which brings us to Step 4…

And Move On

By this, I don’t mean “force the other person to drop the subject”, or “ignore them when they try to help you understand how not to do it again”.

I mean, don’t spend your time trying to weaken your apology by offering excuses. If the injured party wants to talk about how you got there, great, do what they want. But don’t spend time trying to make it not have happened, don’t spend effort on pretending you didn’t fuck up. Just follow their lead and leave it behind when they’re ready to.

Remember, when you bring it up again to re-apologize or get them to recognize that you’re really truly a decent person and totally not like those other people who do or say racist/sexist/transphobic/ableist/whateverist things, or whatever your motive is, you’re not putting only yourself back in that spot of shame and unhappiness, you’re reminding the person you hurt that they were hurt by you. That’s not going to make it easier for either of you to move on.

The important part in this step is to remember that you’re not the injured party here. Take your cue from how the injured party reacts. Let them drive the process, if they want to. And if they don’t, drop it when they do.

So there you have it. FOFISSAMO. Find Out, Fix It, Say Sorry, And Move On: Undigging Holes Since 2013.

CaitieCat is a 47-year-old trans bi dyke, outrageously feminist, and is a translator/editor for academics by vocation. She also writes poetry, does standup comedy, acts and directs in community theatre, paints, games, plays and referees soccer, uses a cane daily, writes other stuff, was raised proudly atheist, is both English by birth and Canadian by naturalization, a former foxhole atheist, a mother of four, and a grandmother of four more (so far). Sort of a Renaissance woman (and shaped like a Reubens!).

[#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)

“But I’m a man and I don’t feel like I have any privilege.”

Another one inspired by the comment thread of doom.

The hardest thing about explaining privilege to members of dominant groups is that, usually, the fact that you’re advantaged in certain ways doesn’t mean you’re not disadvantaged in many other ways. So when we’re talking about gender and a man is told that he’s privileged–or when we’re talking about race and a white person is told that they’re privileged, or whatever–their immediate response is often, “What privilege? Look at all the ways my life has been unfair!”

To be clear, this argument is not always made in good faith*. However, for the sake of this post, I’m going to pretend that it is, because there are important points to be made about this.

Privilege is best understood as a system of interacting benefits (or disadvantages). When people in a feminist space talk about “privilege,” they often just mean male privilege. All other things being equal–this is the important part–if you are a man, you are at an advantage relative to a woman.

Of course, that’s only useful theoretically. In practice, gender isn’t the only thing that matters. Race, sexual orientation, gender expression, gender identity, (dis)ability, religion, skin color (within race), class, weight, attractiveness, immigration status–all these things make a difference. (This is what feminists refer to as “intersectionality.”)

Say you’re a man but you lack privilege in another area–say you’re a man of color. Are you more privileged than a white, upper-class, straight, able-bodied, Christian woman? Probably not. Are you more privileged than a lower-middle-class, queer Latina woman? Probably. And your being male is only one of many ways in which you are more privileged than this hypothetical woman.

Many men have trouble understanding or accepting the concept of privilege because they do not feel that they have much of it. On one hand, this is true–men can be poor, men can be disabled, men can be non-white, men can be queer. On the other hand, privilege often remains unchallenged because it is invisible. If you are white, you don’t spend much time thinking about the fact that you never (or almost never) get stopped by the cops for absolutely no reason, searched, and subjected to harsh questions. If you are a man of color, this is something that’s almost certainly happened to you, and a problem of which you are very much aware. Likewise, if you’re a man–unless you’re very visibly gender-nonconforming–you don’t have to worry every time you go out alone at night that someone will harass you, that someone will rub up against you on the subway platform and make disgusting sounds, that someone will follow you down the street yelling at you to come back to him. All of these things have happened to me and most other women.

But this probably isn’t something you think about all the time. It’s natural that you’d think more about the ways your life can be challenging, not about how lucky you are to not get followed down the street by strange men all the time. The injustices in your life are probably more salient to you than all the myriad ways in which things work as they should. So it would make sense that, overall, you feel like you lack privilege rather than feeling like you have it.

Another way of looking at it is that a man can very much have a really difficult life that’s almost devoid of any privileges. But if, hypothetically, this same man with these same circumstances had instead been born a woman, her life would be even more difficult and even more devoid of privilege.

This is why privilege is best used as a theoretical concept and not taken too literally. It’s impossible to “measure” it. It’s impossible to know, for instance, whether a hypothetical man necessarily has more total privilege than me, or whether I have more than him.

This is also why, when discussing privilege with folks who aren’t very familiar with intersectionality, it’s best to be as specific as possible. “You just don’t get this because you’re privileged” or “Check your privilege” is never going to work if the person you’re talking to actually lacks privilege along every axis other than the one you’re talking about (well, or if they don’t know what the hell privilege even means). If I–a white, able-bodied, cisgender, middle-class woman–yell at a poor, queer man of color to “check his privilege” because he said something sexist, he would (and should) laugh in my face. Because he’ll probably immediately think of his class, race, and sexual orientation and wonder how, exactly, he’s so privileged.

When this comes up, it’s vital to remind people that the disadvantages they face in life are not a product of the fact that they’re male (or white, or whatever). If I tell you that being a woman means I have to worry about people harassing me on the street and you tell me that, well, being a queer man means you get harassed on the street too, you’re missing the point a little. It’s not being a man that gets you harassed. It’s being queer, because we have a society that’s unjust toward queer people.

Some have tried to get around this hurdle when educating about privilege by creating metaphors in which you get a certain number of “points” in different domains. If you’re white, you get more “points” than if you’re not white. If you’re male, you get more points than if you’re not male. If you’re straight…you get the idea. Then the total points you have is your privilege, and you can see that getting few points in one category doesn’t mean you can’t get many points in another category. (John Scalzi made a similar metaphor brilliantly here.)

Such metaphors are fraught with complications (should being male give you more points than being white?), they’re useful for showing that you can’t just look at one axis. It’s not just about being male. It’s not just about being white. It’s everything.

Privilege is a theory, a framework that can be used to explain how our social world works. Like all theories, it has weaknesses and blind spots. Some try to make up for these by continually inventing new forms of privilege–vanilla privilege and couple privilege are a few that I’ve heard relatively recently–but in reality, the problem with taking privilege too literally is that there are just too damn many variables that shape our circumstances and what we are able to achieve. It is completely possible to be a straight white cis able-bodied middle-class Christian mentally/physically healthy English-speaking American plain-ol-vanilla-white-bread man and still have your life completely destroyed and fucked over by circumstances beyond your control.

That does not mean that you do not have privilege.

All it means is that privilege is just a theory, useful for explaining many but not all things, and that you, my friend, were really unlucky and that legitimately sucks.

~~~

*Examples: “Male privilege? But women never answer my OkCupid messages!” and “White privilege? But [insert story about how you got rejected from a job/college because some Totally Unqualified Black Person got it instead].”