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Mar 27 2013

Distinctions, always distinctions

Adam Lee did a post in Amy’s series a week ago and I missed it. (Too busy stuffing my face with cupcakes, probably.)

Most of us became atheists for intellectual reasons, because we find the arguments for theism unconvincing, or for moral reasons, because we find its teachings intolerable. But it seems to me that there’s a small number of men (and a smaller number of women) who are atheists purely because they delight in being offensive, because they believe no one has the right to tell them what to do. They think this community is a place where they can indulge those impulses: where they can be as crass and boorish as they want, where they can leer at or hit on women in any way they want, or cheer on those who do. And too often, we’ve seen that when women object to this treatment, however politely, they become the targets of a campaign of violent threats, abusive hate mail and dehumanizing filth.

It’s even trickier than that, because there is some merit in being “offensive,” depending on a lot of particulars. But there’s offensive and then there’s offensive. There’s telling the Catholic church it’s an evil institution, and there’s telling a particular nun that she’s ugly and repellent. Or to put it another way, there’s offensive and there’s mean. The people Adam is talking about are blind to that distinction.

But the sexists are not the future of atheism. No matter how much noise they make, they’ll never be anything but an ignorant, resentful minority. I’m confident that most atheists are good, decent people who don’t condone harassment. But to those good and decent people, especially us atheist men, I want to say this: This isn’t just a women’s fight, it’s your fight too. We all have a stake in the future of this movement, so raise your voice, speak out, make yourself heard! Call out the trolls and the harassers; tell them that their behavior is wrong and unacceptable. Don’t sanction them by your silence. They do what they do because they believe that it’s socially condoned, that people who don’t speak up must approve of their behavior.

Don’t sanction them by your silence. And you know what else don’t do? Don’t encourage them by your “dialogue.” Don’t say “we have to start somewhere” when the somewhere in question is just more of the same old harassment. Don’t talk about “grievances” on “both sides.” Don’t encourage the harassers.

On the surface this fight is about the treatment of women, but ultimately it’s about what kind of community we want atheism to be. Do we want it to be an insular and impotent subculture, where we do nothing but complain that the world doesn’t understand us? Or do we want it to be a mass movement that fills streets, that strikes fear in the hearts of theocrats, that shifts the course of history? If we’re willing to do the work necessary to broaden our appeal as much as possible, to make the atheist community a welcoming and tolerant landing place for all kinds of people, it can be the latter. If we divide ourselves and chase away allies by allowing prejudice and hate to spread unchecked, it can only be the former.

To put it another way, you gain harassers but you lose people who dislike harassment. Is that really a good bargain?

7 comments

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  1. 1
    Josh, Official SpokesGay

    So this. Somewhat but complicatedly related: The phenomenon of immediately scrutinizing an interlocutor whom someone accuses of being “offensive” is near-universal in US business and social culture. The default reaction is “you OFFENDED somebody, which is ipso facto bad, regardless of context, and you lost us a customer/reader/contributor, which is always inherently bad and can never be balanced by any positive gain in another arena.” Mass marketing writ broadly.

    As you’d guess, the “offensive” thing is almost always a calling out of bullshit, unreasonable expectations or behavior, or refusing to be cowed by someone in a position of power who is using surface civility to needle one or exercise privilege at one’s expense. Shorter: it’s about propping up appearances and privilege. It’s nearly always the person in a position of greater relative power who is treated as the victim of a wrong-doing.

    I think something like this—probably unintentional, but so what?—is going on with Nugent and the bog standard accommodationists of all stripes. The idea that “losing a potential customer/ally” is the worst thing ever is probably so deeply ingrained they don’t realize that it’s a flimsy premise that is in need of questioning and unpacking.

    Like “diversity” (yes, I mean to use the scare quotes), “inclusiveness” is not an inherently good thing and a goal to be striven for for its own sake alone. That this is so universally lost on well-meaning people frustrates the shit out of me. See your recent post on the matter for another example.

  2. 2
    SallyStrange

    “inclusiveness” is not an inherently good thing and a goal to be striven for for its own sake alone.

    Well, yes, the question is, who to you really want to include?

    As I pointed out on Nugent’s Irish Slyme Outpost, 100% inclusivity is impossible in practice. If you take steps to include more women, you’re going to end up excluding misogynists. Recruit more people of color? Oh noes, you’re alienating racists! And so on and so forth.

    It’s like the thing with tolerance. “Oh, you endorse tolerance, so that means you’re a hypocrite for not tolerating my intolerance!” Actually, no it doesn’t, but I can see why you’d be motivated to think so.

  3. 3
    Pieter B, FCD

    But it seems to me that there’s a small number of men (and a smaller number of women) who are atheists purely because they delight in being offensive, because they believe no one has the right to tell them what to do.

    This is the Bill Maher type of atheist—the contrarian, or as one British broadcaster described Bill’s friend Ann Coulter, “controversialist.” This is the type of person who claims that telling them you found something they said or did offensive is an attempt to control their thoughts, or limit their freedom of speech.

    I’m not suppressing your freedom of speech, dude, I’m exercising mine. Heat, kitchen, etc.

  4. 4
    Argle Bargle

    …they believe no one has the right to tell them what to do.

    The libertarian atheists.

  5. 5
    smhll

    <i?I think something like this—probably unintentional, but so what?—is going on with Nugent and the bog standard accommodationists of all stripes. The idea that “losing a potential customer/ally” is the worst thing ever is probably so deeply ingrained they don’t realize that it’s a flimsy premise that is in need of questioning and unpacking.

    I tend to also think that there is a gendered difference in socialization that may be a factor. When we tell boys not to cry, that goes along with similar cultural messages telling men not to complain. Possibly, differences in upbringing (rough generalization) could lead to women being more willing to offer up complaints and to men having distain for ‘complainers’. (Not the most commonly used word. I’m sure others spring to mind.) My 2 cents.

  6. 6
    Setár, Elvenkitty

    Pieter B #3, Ulysses #4:

    This is the Bill Maher type of atheist—the contrarian, or as one British broadcaster described Bill’s friend Ann Coulter, “controversialist.” This is the type of person who claims that telling them you found something they said or did offensive is an attempt to control their thoughts, or limit their freedom of speech.

    The libertarian atheists.

    I wouldn’t say they’re all libertarians, but the overlap is indeed striking (and goes with my observations prior to finding the skeptical community). It’s not just an ideology thing, it’s a behaviour thing. And it just so happens that libertarianism involves a lot of denialism, making one wonder why libertarians are allowed to call themselves skeptics in the first place.

    They are indeed assholes, and if kicking libertarians out of skepticism reduces the asshole behaviour we kill two birds with one stone by doing so.

  7. 7
    Pieter B, FCD

    Global-warming denialists call themselves “skeptics” too, yanno.

    I lean strongly to the libertarian view in matters of civil liberties, but the idea that The Free Market™ will somehow solve all issues of injustice is pseudoscience.

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