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Quitting: a reason for optimism

Because I live in the same city as Natalie Reed, I occasionally have the opportunity to bump into her and talk about stuff outside the medium-constrained environs of the internet. Our most recent encounter happened the afternoon before she posted her hard-hitting piece about the casual ease with which cis-privileged assholes can dehumanize a trans person. I suspect it happened after our chat, because she didn’t say anything about it to me. Instead, the subject of our conversation that day was the thesis of the article that would appear the next day:

Let them have The Movement. Let it be a club for entitled little white cis straight dudes to get together and tell each other how fucking smart they all are to know that John Edwards is lying, and there’s no bearded sky daddy doling out favour on the basis of how rarely you eat shellfish or have hot queer sex. Let them go right on thinking of themselves as the few insightful rebels who could see through The Matrix and now fight against the evil machinations of Andrew Schlafy and Jennifer McCreight. Let them live in their mythologies. Let them sink, bit by bit, into self-congratulatory, insulated irrelevance, while the rest of us get on with actually trying to help make the world a bit less of a mess.

Natalie expressed, in her inimitable way, her exasperation over the seeming intractable assholery of the atheist movement and offered some potential explanations for why these problems not only keep resurfacing, but why they may be a feature (rather than a bug) of who the movement is and how we interact. The most compelling hypothesis she offers is that atheism may serve as a civil rights issue for those who otherwise have no fight with which they can identify – middle-class cis white men have finally found something they can get outraged about, and can do so without having to confront any of their own privilege or sloppy thinking when it comes to non-Bigfoot-related subject matter.

Natalie has been recently joined in this entirely understandable sentiment of “y’know what? Fuck y’all” by Jen McCreight and, more recently, blog friend WilloNyx who have said basically that atheism and the fight for same is an entirely opt-in issue for them, and if constant abuse is the reward for participating, they can find other ways to exist in the world. If forced to play a game of “chicken” for the soul of the atheist movement, it is only the most fanatically devoted participants who are actually willing to stay in the driver’s seat long enough to see their way through right up to the crash. The rest of us will bail long before that happens.

While I can certainly understand that sentiment, it is not one that I share. Most of this comes from a place of extreme privilege – I am financially comfortable with a stable foreseeable future, plenty of opportunities for creative personal fulfilment and abundant social interaction. I am additionally a cis man, and while being black means that I am not among the uber-majority group, I face almost zero of the day-to-day consequences of even subtle systemic racism, thanks to a country and a city that are remarkably progressive and cosmopolitan (and the fact that black men are not Public Enemy #1 here; that position is probably taken by people of First Nations, or maybe Philipinos). I face essentially none of the hateful backlash that people like Natalie, Jen, or WilloNyx experience as a regular consequence of merely existing and having an opinion. I have the luxury of viewing discrimination in almost entirely academic terms.

Beyond that, however, I think there is a side to the story that this position (“if it’s going to be this hard, there are other places I can put my energy”) neglects*: we’re winning. One of the things that Natalie found particularly galling, both in her post and when we spoke beforehand, was the backlash against the entirely non-controversial idea of sexual harassment policies at conferences. How is it possible that we had a Deep Rift™ open over something that has not only miles of precedent but would make a major positive difference in the lives of more than a few people? Of course, the problem is that while a handful of bloggers were engaged in a pitched battle, the major orgs simply went ahead and adopted the policies. It was a tidy victory representing a step forward that was almost entirely lost in the fight over whether or not it would ruin everything for everyone forever.

And that fight was emblematic of the direction I see the larger fight taking. Three years ago, when I first entered the atheist blogosphere, basic 101-level social justice was well outside the mainstream. There was a small number of voices articulating positions that did not fall into the bread-and-butter topics of evolution, cosmology, and theology. Now, mainstream atheist forums like Reddit’s r/atheism is often (half-jokingly) derided for being synonymous with r/LGBT insofar as the fight for recognition of gay rights dovetails the fight against religious domination of public life, and the popularly-shared links reflect that. The community at large is (always too slowly) realizing that atheism is a social justice issue, and that our struggle is a similar struggle to that of gay people, people of colour, women, trans persons, people with disabilities, people with mental health issues… the list goes on.

I am always amused by the enormous and paranoid pushback against the Freethought Blogs platform. To hear our “critics”** portray us, we’re smug sanctimonious bullies who are destroying the atheist community, and are the very antithesis of free thought***. We are alternatively the complete undoing of the atheist movement, or so far outside the mainstream that we are entirely unimportant. The former argument gives us way too much credit – we’re bloggers for fuck’s sake. The second argument is a deluded fantasy – whereas they do not, I actually have access to FTB’s traffic numbers; there is nothing in them to suggest that we are being ignored or losing any of our popularity (despite the number of soothsayers who have been predicting the death of FTB from its launch).

Here’s the reality: FTB is a symptom (rather than a cause) of a fight that’s currently being won in the atheist community. The fact that a platform like this can a) exist, and b) garner enough interest to not only sustain itself but to turn a modest profit, means that this is a conversation that people are interested in having, even within the confines of a community that did not form in order to specifically discuss it. Most of the blogs on FTB existed before there was a network, and we benefit synergistically as a consequence of our shared internet geography, but all of our efforts would be wasted if there wasn’t a huge bloc of people willing to log in every day to read and comment. The ‘knock-on’ effect of this interest is that there are now people people equipped to have this conversation, which pushes it inexorably into the mainstream (regardless of the consent of the would-be footsoldiers and guardians of what the ‘mainstream’ deserves to be).

Yeah, there are always conservative, retrograde elements in any civil rights fight. Any move to provide equal opportunity and access means that those who have had disproportionate benefits will see themselves as losing something, and nobody likes to lose. That pushback gets ugly and hurtful and occasionally outright dangerous, and each person fighting to be heard has a duty to their own safety and sanity first. However, in another three years, there will be another “generation” of newly-minted atheists who will see gender-skeptic feminism and anti-racism as equally non-controversial as gay rights. Freethought Blogs will be home to a bunch of now-largely-irrelevant and redundant old fogeys whose major contributions to the movement have already come and gone. And those fighting against this shift will have some serious questions to ask themselves about what it was they thought they were fighting for.

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*I am treading on all kinds of eggshells when I make statements like this. I want to make it as clear as possible that I don’t think Natalie and those who share her position are wrongTheir lives are theirs to live, and their choices equally theirs to make. This is an issue of differing values placed on various decision attributes – there is no “correct” way to feel about this.

**A far too generous term. Criticism is a noble practice, wherein the real shortcomings and sins of omission committed by an entity are detailed, with an alternative view put forth in opposition. FTB has a few critics, and has far more braying jackals who fling around lazy and low-rent insults instead.

***I would also be remiss if I didn’t point out that I am more or less completely ignored by the #FTBullies crowd, who seem to focus all of their vitriol on 5 or 6 blogs on a network of nearly 40. I don’t hold myself in high enough esteem to be offended by this omission; I simply find it funny to see how egregiously this latest meme misses the mark.