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Mar 12 2014

The social in social justice

We hear a lot – a LOT – about how “social justice” aka atheismplus aka feminism & anti-racism & LGBT rights & trans rights & animal rights and fill out the list as you like, is a distraction, is divisive, is “drama,” is attention-whoring, is whatever label you want to use by way of saying it has nothing to do with atheism or skepticism or secularism or free inquiry.

There are ways that’s true, if you look at both parts of the equation very narrowly and literally. It is of course perfectly possible to be both an atheist and an aggressively misogynist shithead. If we didn’t know that a priori we would certainly still know it empirically, because we’ve encountered so many glowing examples. (I mean “glowing” in a radioactive sense.)

But very narrowly and literally isn’t the only way to look at the issue. That which is literally true isn’t necessarily good for strategy or longevity or popularity. Atheists can be shits, sure, obviously, but if you want an atheist movement that makes atheism more acceptable and even respectable (by which I mean worthy of genuine respect; I don’t mean prim and conformist), then having a movement full of shits isn’t helpful. Also, if the movement is one where people get together, in local chapters and the like, then, again, having a lot of shits around isn’t conducive to expanding the movement. Shits repel everyone else.

Now, if there are more shits than there are non-shits, maybe being inclusive toward the shits is the best way to go, at least in terms of bums on seats. But I’m sentimentally optimistic enough to think that shits don’t outnumber non-shits. In any case there’s also the quality issue. Is it better to have a bigger movement full of shits? Or a smaller movement not full of shits? For pure vote-counting, obviously the first is better, but for pretty much everything else, the second is.

Also, there’s principle. A lot of us actually do act on principle on these things.

All of that indicates why social justice is actually not irrelevant to atheism or skepticism considered as movements as opposed to purely individual desk activities.

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  1. 1
    aziraphale

    You slide rather quickly from “social justice” to “not being a shit”. That might be OK if your definition of social justice were not so wide. When it includes animal rights, some proponents of which have bombed animal research centres, released animals which wreck the local ecology, and harassed and threatened scientists, I’m not so sure.

  2. 2
    quixote

    aziraphale, I think Ophelia’s point is about not being shits, atheist or not. When it’s the paleo diet / animal rightists / whoever being shits, then they put themselves beyond the pale by their actions, same as anyone else.

  3. 3
    Chris J

    @aziraphale:

    There are shit ways of being an animal rights activist. Hell, there are shit ways of being a lot of social justicey-type things, usually involving trampling over some other sector in order to bolster your own. TERFs come to mind. “Not being a shit” is a pretty decent, albeit glib, filter on such things.

    @OP:

    Basically, Social Justice is relevant anywhere where there is a society. Any time you want to build a movement and bring people together, you’re going to have to deal with questions about how you want people to treat each other and which sorts of people you’re going to support; you just can’t avoid it. It’s the harassment policy at a convention. It’s the rules at a public pool. It’s the etiquette guide on a forum.

    The more I think about it, the more the question about whether movements like Atheism and Skepticism should deal with Social Justice issues seems absurd. If you don’t deal with it, your group will reflect the deficiencies of the culture around you, members of the group will notice the problems and bring it up and you will have to deal with it anyway.

    I guess the conclusion of this argument is to address Social Justice issues within the confines of your movement rather than society in general, but I figure once you’ve hit that point you might as well speak to the rest of society in your efforts as well.

  4. 4
    johnthedrunkard

    Well… One COULD be an atheist creationist, if you subscribed to some crack-pot Von Denicken view.

  5. 5
    Ophelia Benson

    The more I think about it, the more the question about whether movements like Atheism and Skepticism should deal with Social Justice issues seems absurd. If you don’t deal with it, your group will reflect the deficiencies of the culture around you, members of the group will notice the problems and bring it up and you will have to deal with it anyway.

    Yup.

  6. 6
    aziraphale

    @Chris J

    Obviously movements like Atheism and Skepticism needs to deal with issues of social justice within the movement. I have no quarrel with that, and applaud the efforts of Ophelia and others in that direction.

    Social justice in the wider society is harder to deal with. For one thing, we can’t expel offenders from society as we can from our own organizations! Also, there is a real question how much social justice we want. Not in relation to human rights – in which I include feminism, anti-racism and LBGT rights, and which I take to be absolute values. But in terms of social equality, I am haunted by Peter Singer’s argument that anyone with significant disposable income ought to give all of it to charity, at least until there are no more human lives to be saved by doing so. I find that argument very convincing, and I do give regularly to charity. But I don’t want to feel that, unless I give all my income away, I’m not a real, 100% member of the atheist community.

  7. 7
    UnknownEric the Apostate

    I started to tear up reading this. Thank you, Ophelia, for generally being awesome. :)

  8. 8
    Chris J

    @aziraphale:

    But in terms of social equality, I am haunted by Peter Singer’s argument that anyone with significant disposable income ought to give all of it to charity, at least until there are no more human lives to be saved by doing so. I find that argument very convincing, and I do give regularly to charity. But I don’t want to feel that, unless I give all my income away, I’m not a real, 100% member of the atheist community.

    I don’t think anyone is making that sort of argument. The atheist community doesn’t need to and cannot arbitrate who is an atheist and who isn’t based on social justice stances. Including Social Justice issues into Atheism just means activism under the Atheism label in support of those issues and addressing those issues internally.

    (And, by the way, “how much social justice we want” is not the thing you have an issue with. We want all the social justice. You just disagree on what amount of charitable giving is just.)

  9. 9
    Chris J

    Hmm, ok, slight error. @Aziraphale, you weren’t suggesting that the Atheist community arbitrate who is an atheist, you were concerned about arbitrating who is a member of the community. That sort of thing does need to happen; if a speaker is notoriously sexist, it’d be bad form to ignore the sexism and continue to invite them to speak without challenging them on it. Still, I think you’re concern about being thrown out of the community if you don’t adhere to extreme standards is unfounded.

  10. 10
    Chris J

    *your

    bleh, I can type today at all. Sorry about all the posts.

  11. 11
    Ophelia Benson

    Don’t be sorry!

    Eric @ 7 – aw, jeez – that might be the best compliment I’ve ever.

  12. 12
    Improbable Joe, bearer of the Official SpokesGuitar

    There’s something so incredibly dishonest about the resistance to being a better person that goes “well, I can’t be 100% perfect. No one is 100% perfect. Let me just find some group worse than me and call it good.”

    Because otherwise… what the hell is the point? If the endgame is the exact same world we have now minus a few crosses or 10 commandments monuments on public land(or plus atheist-themed jackoff benches) then the “atheist movement” is less useful or satisfying than a bowel movement, and stinks about the same amount.

  13. 13
    Jenora Feuer

    There’s something so incredibly dishonest about the resistance to being a better person that goes “well, I can’t be 100% perfect. No one is 100% perfect. Let me just find some group worse than me and call it good.”

    Fred Clark over at Slacktivist refers to that as the ‘Anti-Kitten Burning Coalition’. The people who find something that no even mildly empathic person would ever be against, and then insist that they’re better than that.

  14. 14
    Timothy

    “There are ways that’s true, if you look at both parts of the equation very narrowly and literally. It is of course perfectly possible to be both an atheist and an aggressively misogynist shithead. If we didn’t know that a priori we would certainly still know it empirically, because we’ve encountered so many glowing examples. (I mean “glowing” in a radioactive sense.)”

    Best use of a priori that I’ve seen in a long, long time!

    Nice post. I’m struggling with some ‘narrow’ and ‘wide’ definers in some other areas, so I very much appreciate your insights and ability to articulate that which I could not.

  15. 15
    Ophelia Benson

    Thanks! I like to use “shithead” and “a priori” close together like that.

  1. 16
    The Reading List, 3/19/2014 » Almost Diamonds

    […] The social in social justice–”There are ways that’s true, if you look at both parts of the equation very narrowly and literally. It is of course perfectly possible to be both an atheist and an aggressively misogynist shithead.” […]

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