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The real privilege

Someone commenting on Scofield’s Tikkun post endorses the claim that “new atheists” are totes privileged.

The literature, social spaces, and most widely recognized voices of atheism are predominantly populated by Western, white, male, heterosexual, cis, middle class (and above) people…[T]he lopsided demography of our communities tends to draw upon otherwise privileged life experiences, and as you have illustrated, this privilege inadvertently shines through in our literature and our actions.

True up to a point, but there’s another way to view that, which Scofield seems to be not just overlooking, but perhaps self-disabled from even recognizing.

Many of those “voices of atheism” are privileged, but what is the most conspicuous kind of privilege they have? It’s actually not anything mentioned in that list, except for the hint in “middle class (and above).”

The really big privilege they have is education, and the associated ability and freedom to think critically about their culture’s myths and how those myths are related to social control.

And what they’re doing with that privilege is trying their damndest to share it.

Not hog it, not Bogart it, not put a wall around it with a sign on the gate saying Rabble Keep Out, not charge a fee for it, not demand an oath or an initiation ritual as the price of entry, but share it.

Another way to put it is that their most basic form of privilege is cultural capital, and again, what they are doing with that capital is trying to spread it around.

Hank Fox has an argument in his Red Neck Blue Collar Atheist that has to do with the privilege of education, including self-education. (Hank doesn’t have a background of privilege. On page 2 he writes, “I don’t know of a single blood relative who got a college degree. Neither of my parents even finished high school.” But Hank is saturated with the privilege of self-education. He has the privilege of valuing it, of doing it, of sharing it.) The basic idea is that without education, people come up with bad mental models for how things work, relying on luck and magical ways of trying to get some, instead of figuring out what they need to do to change their circumstances. That’s a matter of privilege, if you like, but the good news is that it’s a kind that is inherently non-zero-sum…provided there is funding for good universal education, which there so often isn’t.

The privilege of education and cultural capital has this awkward aspect – often called “elitism” – that educated people may well know more about something than uneducated people do. That’s inequality. That’s class. That’s a one-up one-down situation. There is always the potential for shame and humiliation…but there is also the potential for learning and sharing. Yes no doubt it can be shaming when some posh Oxford guy says your god gives no sign of existing…but that’s not all there is to it. Would it be shaming to hear some posh Oxford guy reading the news tell you that Robert Mugabe had decided to retire? You do the math.

 

 

Comments

  1. Fin says

    The other problem with his contention is that the demographic of people among the atheist community is changing, largely because of the sharing you describe, or the innate understanding of reason that some people seem to possess (Srinivasa Ramanujan is a perfect example). It’s refusing to recognize that change at all, and ignoring operations like Nirmukta, for example.

    It’s discounting all the other voices out there, which makes the accusation of racism rather shaky, in my opinion, if you’re ignoring all of the non-western, non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual, trans, non-middle class voices out there to do so.

  2. Dave says

    If there’s one thing that really gets up my nose about identity politics, it’s the worship of the idea that all you have to be is yourself. No, dammit, you ought to try to be better!

    Meanwhile, the kind of inclusion-obsessive listologism that produces phrases like “Western, white, male, heterosexual, cis, middle class (and above)” just makes me want to spit. In what rational universe is the fact that I still have the genitals I was born with relevant to my views on metaphysics?

  3. says

    That privilege of being educated is why it is almost unethical to be a non-liberal atheist in the USA. Education here needs to be better and more accessible; it just won’t do to have it only available and convenient for a small handful of the population.

    On top of that, I have been amazed over and over again at how even people with four-year college degrees can dismiss all they learned about the natural world and humanity in favor of their belief in a sky deity, right-wing politics, panaceas, and/or magic powers. It’s almost like you have to get to them early to head off a lifetime of messy, destructive thinking.

  4. says

    the kind of inclusion-obsessive listologism that produces phrases like “Western, white, male, heterosexual, cis, middle class (and above)” just makes me want to spit. In what rational universe is the fact that I still have the genitals I was born with relevant to my views on metaphysics?

    Try: the universe in which a particular planet is dominated by such people who tend to control the discourse and laws on every topic.

  5. says

    I think what gets me about this whole discussion is that it’s so straw-grasping, tangential to anything actually relevant to the discussion of atheism, or the advocacy thereof. The argument “People who believe ‘x’ are mostly privileged people – they should not advocate the belief in ‘x’” just doesn’t work. It’s not even comprehensible.

  6. stevebowen says

    I haven’t heard “Bogart” in that context for years. Yep, don’t Bogart that knowledge my friend, it’s one of the few resources that doesn’t diminish the more people use it.

  7. Phledge says

    What arguments like this fail to address is the fact that all discourse, not just that of atheists, is dominated by white, middle to upper class, hetero men. At least atheist groups a) are trying to address this inequity and b) are unencumbered by a belief system that automatically devalue Other voices.

  8. Dave says

    @4: Oh, honestly. Rational debate cannot be about reaching answers which are right because they are “inclusive” of everybody’s self-defined gender identity. If it is a rational debate, the answers will be right irrespective of anybody’s gender-identity. I am perfectly well aware that the world has not been run that way historically, but arguing that such things HAVE to matter is a step too far towards the idea of different truths for everyone. And then we might as well all just pick a deity.

  9. says

    C. Mason Taylor @ #5:

    Good point.

    “People who believe ‘x’ are mostly privileged people – they should not advocate the belief in ‘x’”

    OR

    “People who believe ‘x’ are mostly privileged people – therefore us unprivileged lot should believe in Y.”

    Isaac Newton began his life as the son of a poor ploughman. He went on to accumulate quite a bit of knowledge, to write a few of his ideas down, and became a professor of mathematics, Master of the Royal Mint, and a wealthy man.

    Somewhere along this trajectory he passed from being ‘unprivileged’ to ‘privileged’, and therefore by the above yardstick from having respectable beliefs to rejectable ones. But at what point should we start the rejecting? And how do we identify the ‘Y’ we should accept?

    There’s probably a doctorate in that for some enthusiast.

    ;-)

  10. says

    Not all Oxford guys are posh or have posh accents. As for atheists being upper middle class, most people I know are working class and most of them are atheists.

  11. says

    “And what they’re doing with that privilege is trying their damndest to share it.”

    Not to mention why they are having to try their damnedest; like having to put up a right royal fight against the most privileged
    tax-exempt liars for Jesus doing their damnedest to put a wall around it with a sign on the gate saying Sinners, Keep Out, for within lies the tree of Knowledge.

  12. Sheesh says

    On Bogart: Willie Nelson and Stephen Colbert remind us in their Christmas carol to, “let not mankind Bogart love.” ;)

    I still say swell, too, with and without sarcasm.

  13. says

    It’s just occurred to me that:

    The literature, social spaces, and most widely recognized voices of [add virtually any subject in here] are predominantly populated by Western, white, male, heterosexual, cis, middle class (and above) people..

    BTW what does “cis” mean?

  14. says

    @4: Oh, honestly. Rational debate cannot be about reaching answers which are right because they are “inclusive” of everybody’s self-defined gender identity. –Dave

    You are going to need much more context to see why the long string of identifiers are important. Where are these rational debates being held? Who has been invited to them? Who can attend them and participate in them? When people are being systematically shut out of these debates because of something like gender identity, then there is a serious problem with the debates.

    If it is a rational debate, the answers will be right irrespective of anybody’s gender-identity. –Dave

    Let’s turn this around and say that, if the answers that the Catholic Church comes up with are right, then it doesn’t matter that women are not allowed to hold positions of power in the Catholic hierarchy. See? The answers being right does not address the problem of women being excluded almost entirely from the process of formulating answers.

    I am perfectly well aware that the world has not been run that way historically, but arguing that such things HAVE to matter is a step too far towards the idea of different truths for everyone. And then we might as well all just pick a deity. –Dave

    If you recognize the historical and ongoing rampant discrimination against numerous groups of humans who share a characteristic identity, then you should realize why truth-seeking ought not be relegated to one particular kind of person, and you should understand that limiting who can seek truth is a pernicious thing itself.

    For instance, should not a Native person be able to reject a White god-man on the grounds of skin color of the deity alone or because of the tongue this god-man spoke in? For many Christians, the answer was “No”. Native people were forced to accept this White god-man without question because they were excluded from the conversation.

    It seems to me that you can’t even really have a rational debate while prejudicially excluding certain people wholesale from the conversation.

  15. Chris Lawson says

    I’m not entirely sure about the education argument (not that I’m going to argue against education!). The reason I say that is that from personal experience there are plenty of blue collar workers and people living in poverty who are openly atheist. When I looked up some figures, there is not a consistent relationship between education on religiosity, or even fundamentalist religiosity (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religiosity_and_intelligence for some examples).

    I am also aware that studies have shown that belief in non-religious pseudoscience such as anti-vaccination, is stronger in those with a university education.

  16. Josh Slocum says

    Bernard:

    “Cisgender” means “individuals who have a match between the gender they were assigned at birth, their bodies, and their personal identity”.

    So, as a man who also feels that I’m innately a man, I’m cisgendered. A transgendered person feels a disconnect between the sex of their body and their gender identity. Thus they are not “cisgendered.”

  17. Chris Lawson says

    Bernard,

    “Cis” is short for cisgendered or cissexual, and it means feeling comfortable with the social roles associated with your biological sex.

    It’s a clever word originally from the Latin meaning “on the same side as”, which was used in chemistry to describe isomers as either cis- or trans- depending on the orientation of the chemical bonds. Since the word “transsexual” came to be common for those who feel uncomfortable with the social roles expected of their biological sex, it made sense to call those who were comfortable “cissexuals”, or “cis” for short.

  18. says

    I should have though of that. The Romans divided Gaul into Gallia Cisalpina and Gallia Transalpina. I can’t say I find any social rôle particularly comfortable but I don’t think it’s got anything to do with my biological sex; it’s just that I don’t like things being imposed on me. Sorry I have a habit of rambling on – thanks for the information.

  19. Pteryxx says

    Rational debate cannot be about reaching answers which are right because they are “inclusive” of everybody’s self-defined gender identity. If it is a rational debate, the answers will be right irrespective of anybody’s gender-identity.

    No, the answers aren’t right BECAUSE they’re inclusive.

    An inclusive community is more likely to arrive at the right answers.

  20. Chris Lawson says

    Pteryxx,

    I agree completely. Inclusivity is a noble goal, but by itself it can lead to self-contradiction (do we allow rabid anti-Semites into our Inclusivity Club?). Rationalism is an approach to thinking about the natural world. Inclusivity is an approach to building social groups. In my opinion, rationalism generally works well with inclusivity for the simple reason that the vast majority of exclusionary philosophies e.g. racism, sexism, nationalism, etc. are irrational as well as immoral.

  21. says

    #20, Chris Lawson,
    Er… You ‘take issue’ with the education level argument, and then put up a link to religion and intelligence?
    Do what?

    It is though pretty complex. There are plenty of people stuck in the lowest strata of society who are pretty damn well educated, but have taken wrong turns and/or been dealt some pretty shitty cards by fate or the capital & class systems.
    Its mind-boggling how often one simple character flaw can lead even the seemingly smart to ‘suddenly find themselves’ 30 grand in debt to a 5000% apr usury company, after lending 200 quid for a weekend away with their mates.

    Anyway, high IQ can sometimes be a shitty hand from fate itself as well, education is too often tuned for efficiency to a middle bell curve, and doesn’t work so well for a.d.d.’s for example.

    The whole system of education appears to be in peril right now anyway, especially more so for the lower orders. ‘Life-quality equipping’ takes a back seat, logic, critical thinking, all that. – ‘Existing on minimum wage equipping’ seems to be where it’s mostly at now.

  22. Pteryxx says

    Chris:

    (do we allow rabid anti-Semites into our Inclusivity Club?)

    …if you think inclusivity is about deciding who gets allowed into a club, instead of calling out bigotry no matter who shows it, I think you’re starting from a fundamentally flawed viewpoint.

  23. BinJabreel says

    There are plenty of people stuck in the lowest strata of society who are pretty damn well educated, but have taken wrong turns and/or been dealt some pretty shitty cards by fate or the capital & class systems.

    Hi! Pleased to meet you. Six years of university level education, and I’ve got two minimum wage jobs plus two other self-employed jobs, and I still barely make $8,000 a year. Which, out here in the San Francisco Bay, is sub-sub-poverty level.

    But it’s true, education doesn’t correlate with atheism as much as we think it would. My father’s been an atheist since he was in his twenties, and he barely finished high school. It wasn’t until we became adults, though, that he ever actually admitted it to us.

    I think it might correlate with vociferousness of beliefs, though. The more educated you are, the better able you are to hold your ground if you do speak up, and the more likely you are to say, “I’m an atheist,” as opposed to “I’m not really religious.”

  24. says

    it means feeling comfortable with the social roles associated with your biological sex.

    no.

    cis/transsexuality has nothing to do with gender roles. transsexuality is a mismatch between the sex the brain perceives itself to be (AKA gender identity) and the sex the rest of the body has developed into.

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