Abused meme roundup: “Witch Hunts”

In light of the recent furore* over CFI’s bafflingly vacuous response to Ron Lindsay’s behaviour, some prominent members of the freethinking community have decided to pull back their participation in an organization that they see as not adequately representing their values. Some have even gone so far as to encourage others to do the same. This is pretty much boilerplate activist behaviour: someone says or does something unacceptable, you don’t patronize or support them anymore. We applauded it when Chick Fil A’s Dan Cathy made homophobic statements and people stopped buying his chicken. We applauded it when Rush Limbaugh said… well, basically the stuff he always says, but this time we paid attention.

And yeah, maybe boycotts don’t always work, and maybe they’re often impractical what with megacorporate ownership of pretty much everything, but they’re a pretty non-controversial method of expressing displeasure with someone or some entity whose actions you strongly disagree with.

Unless, of course, you’re criticizing CFI and Ron Lindsay, in which case it’s a “witch hunt”.

The image of a witch burning

Now, to be sure, this is not the only circumstance under which I’ve seen this comparison dredged, unwillingly, into a place it doesn’t belong. It is, however, a distressingly common circumstance to see people decry any and all criticisms of or actions taken against someone who is on ‘their team’ as a “witch hunt”. Oftentimes they will invoke the ghost of old Joe McCarthy, and generally bloviate about how innocent people are being dragged through the muck by (fill in the blank). [Read more...]

Colour blind, deaf, and dumb

Right now, as you read this, some well-intentioned white kid on the internet is posting a link to this video. In it, the actor Morgan Freeman states that the way to solve racism is to stop talking about it. Specifically, Freeman says that if the host stops seeing him (Freeman) as “a black man”, then he will stop seeing the host as “a white man” and they can presumably just be man-friends and hold hands under a double rainbow or something. Needless to say, I am far from impressed by both the content and the ubiquity of this clip, as it serves more to confirm the “I don’t need to do anything” impulses of white people who haven’t given much thought to the matter beforehand.

For my part, I much prefer John Legend’s response to a very similar question. And I think there’s something to be gleaned from the age difference between Messrs Freeman and Legend. The former is a man who came up in a world where the consequences of anti-black racism were dramatically self-evident: vicious racist slurs coming out of the mouths of police officers and judges, blatantly and unashamedly racist laws and policies, frequent acts of race-motivated physical violence with a blind eye turned toward it by an indifferent society*. The latter is a man who came up in the world of ‘polite’ racism and “post-racial” politicking, where the fashion is to find an endless string of euphemisms to disguise racist attitudes and behaviours that, minus the drama, haven’t changed much.

Which isn’t to say, incidentally, that the kind of racism that Morgan Freeman experienced isn’t still very much alive and well today; it’s just less common. [Read more...]

Religious Islam vs. Political Islam

There’s one final point I need to explore before I launch into a longer discussion of the events of last month, and that’s a debate I had in the comments about the difference between Islam as a religion and Islam as a political force. The former refers explicitly to Islam as I have described it up to now – the scripture-based, dogmatic, supernaturally-connected philosophy that all Muslims claim to be following (although arguably none actually do). The latter is the sense in which we have “Islamic countries” – a fusion of religion and politics and culture and history that is broadly referred to as “Islam”.

This difference is not semantic, and it is (I imagine) the latter type of ‘Islam’ that the most vociferous critics think of as they alight their soapboxes. That is not necessarily a bad thing, mind you – cultural criticism is important, even if it’s someone else’s culture you’re criticizing. The problem arises when criticisms of a culture fail to take all the relevant elements into account and fixate on a single one. So, for example, there are legitimate criticisms to make about “black culture”*, and black critics make them all the time, but when those criticisms focus on race and fail to factor in things like racialization, poverty, historical exclusion, and a litany of other relevant factors, the crticisms land far wide of the mark.

Indeed, it is usually this exact thing going on when members of majority groups complain that it’s only ____-ist when they do it. That’s maybe a conversation for another time, but the double standard is only true in a very superficial and inaccurate way. [Read more...]

Is criticism of Islam racist?


Now let me explain why it’s not that simple.

In any dispute among atheists (or non-atheists) about Islam, the chances are pretty good that someone will make some kind of off-side claim about what “Muslims” do or do not believe, or that we need to curb the civil liberties and human rights of Muslims to protect “Western society” from “Muslims”. In many of these cases, the rejoinder will come back that such policies or beliefs are racist.

In these moments, the accused will oftentimes develop (almost supernaturally) an encyclopaedic knowledge of what racism is and how it works, or at least ze will behave as though ze has that knowledge. “Muslims come from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds,” they say “so they’re not all the same race. Therefore it can’t be racist!” That brand of dismissal has become so commonplace that it is, more often than not, run through with a vein of long-suffering annoyance, not entirely dissimilar from the one heard immediately before the words “race card” or “political correctness police” are uttered. It is the reflexive, elusive, near-thoughtless evasion of the issue, so that one can stand behind the original criticism, regardless of its quality or accuracy.

There are two principal issues I have with this evasive response: [Read more...]

Islamic criticism vs. Islamophobia

The freethinking community periodically finds itself in the paroxysms of indecision and self-recrimination for its inability to consistently address a simple question: what is the difference between “criticism of Islam” and “Islamophobia”? Whenever we seek to draw attention to atrocities committed in the name of Islam, we are caught in a firestorm of criticism on a variety of fronts. The most recent example was the fracas surrounding prominent atheist spokesmen Sam Harris and, to a lesser extent, Richard Dawkins, for comments they have made about Islam.

There are two extreme responses to this issue. The first, favoured by many within the atheist community, is to deny the very existence of Islamophobia – to claim that the term is political jargon that is used exclusively to deflect legitimate criticism by painting all critics as bigots. The second is to make the converse claim that all criticism of Islam is indeed Islamophobic, and that people’s religious beliefs ought to be off-limits. While these two positions are extreme, and while I am far more sympathetic to the former than the latter, I would imagine most people would agree on the following statement:

Bigotry is morally reprehensible, but we should be allowed to criticize bad ideas regardless of the social characteristics of those who hold them.

[Read more...]

Lessons to be learned from the Boston tragedy

I have just returned from a trip to Boston. These posts have been waiting for a while to publish, and this is as good a time as any.

Over the past month*, I have repeatedly found myself in the odd position of defending Islam and Muslims from fellow atheists. As an atheist, I am certainly strongly antagonistic to Islam, as I am to all religions. It is, therefore, unusual and counter-intuitive for me to step up in its defence. After all, the critics and I share a fundamental belief that the world would be a better place if fewer people adhered to Islam. We share the belief that Islam is false, that it holds up dangerous beliefs in such a way as to preclude criticism, and that it is a major contributor to human suffering worldwide.

My departure from the opinions of anti-Islam critics happens when I perceive those criticisms to be grounded not in factual appraisals of the damage caused by Islam, but in a lazy conflation of ‘Islam’, ‘Islamism’, and general distaste about brown foreign types. These criticisms come quickly in response to any circumstance in which Islam is implicated. Even in cases where Islam is not explicitly mentioned, like in the case of so-called “honour killings” where the murderers are most often operating within cultural norms grounded in extreme patriarchial entitlement, Islam gets the credit by diffusion.

In the case of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the alleged bombers in Boston, the anti-Islam screeds began to pour in well in advance of the suspects even being identified, let alone their motivations being known. When the news broke that the bombers did indeed profess Islam, I could almost hear the sound of a million Islamophobic cocks standing immediately to full attention. Finally, some vindication of the facts they had “known all along” – that a random act of terrorism was in fact religiously-motivated by the worst religion in the world, and there was no need to stop stigmatizing any and all people who are Muslim (or ‘Muslim-looking‘), or to examine our own policies and behaviours – it’s because Muslims. Full stop. [Read more...]

Islamophobia, a discussion


Depending on who you read or listen to, either Islamophobia simply isn’t real, or it’s not as pervasive as people think it is, or sometimes it’s a legitimate criticism, but it’s often used incorrectly to shut down someone legitimately criticising Islam, or else it’s just some word (without any legitimate meaning) that people use to shut down conversations. To which I say: bullshit. I have to grant, of course, that there is possibly some people out there do these things, but I have to admit that I haven’t actually seen any of them. Even in articles where these claims are made, no evidence is provided.

Most often, people who haven’t ‘picked sides’ in this particular debate are left wondering what this term means, exactly. So I’m going to sketch out what I think it means, and how I see it used (which are, oddly enough, the same thing). Note that ‘what the term means’ isn’t the same as ‘what the word is defined as’. [Read more...]

Possibly foreign

As you’ve no doubt heard from countless media sources, two devices exploded yesterday at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing two and wounding dozens. No group or individual has claimed responsibility for what appears to be an attack. I am trying to cage my language as much as possible here, for reasons I will make obvious over the course of this post.

Boston is my favourite city in the United States. It is also home to my closest friend, who was thankfully nowhere near the site when the explosions happened (although he had biked the route earlier in the day). Obviously there are no words sufficient to the task of expressing the shock and grief that Bostonians and Americans are feeling today, so I won’t waste much time in trying.

I did get a bit of a taste of it yesterday though, when I wasn’t sure if my friend was okay – standing at a marathon finish line sounds like something he’d be into, and when he didn’t answer his phone a part of my brain decided, despite having zero evidence, that he had been killed. The next half hour was black hell for me, as the thought refused to be shouted down by the voices of reason detailing the 90,000 other places he was more likely to be than at the epicentre of a bomb blast. He was fine. Working in his lab (a logical place for him to be on a Monday), with no phone reception.

That fear, that grief, that terror that was rampaging through my brain and playing fun percussive tricks with my autonomic nervous system, is not something I would wish on anyone – not even whoever is responsible for engendering it in me. [Read more...]

“Accidental” racism and intentional brilliance

Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows what my position is on “intent” when it comes to things like racism and misogyny. Intent lies on an orthogonal axis to racism – someone doing something intentionally racist just adds bad intent to bad action. If we are of the opinion that racism is harmful in and of itself, we have to identify something as ‘racist’ or ‘not racist’ based on its own merits, regardless of whether the person “meant to”.

This appears to be a major sticking point for people. They have bought, either consciously or unconsciously, into the myth that racism is something perpetuated by “racists”, and that if someone didn’t mean to do it then it can’t really be racist – just “ignorant” or “an accident” or whatever euphemism they prefer. This myth has a lot of popular currency and is fairly ubiquitous within North American discussions of race. The problem, of course, is that people can be and are discriminated against based on their race in ways that have nothing to do with ill intent all the time. Demanding that intent be consubstantial with racism precludes us from taking any action against these kinds of racism.

In a stunning display of well-intentioned cluelessness (and what could be called willful ignorance), country star Brad Paisley has decided to step into the fray by teaming up with LL Cool J in a ballad called “Accidental Racist”. Here’s a sample: [Read more...]

Rose DiManno, rape culture ambassador

I had an MRA show up in the comments yesterday. In between the bluster and the self-aggrandizing and the laughable talking points, he did manage to slip in the kernel of an actual point (I know – nobody was more shocked than I was). He reminded me of the claim that I made a couple of weeks ago about the role that male feminists ought to play:

The task falls to male feminists to learn to identify and advocate these ideas, pulling from our own experiences as the above authors have. Like religion, the entire philosophical edifice of gender needs to be critiqued and pulled apart in order to rob it of the power to hurt us in the many ways it does. Not in exclusion to discussions of how patriarchy hurts women, but in addition to it.

Male feminists have a duty to support our female and gender-queer allies, and to use our male privilege as a method to amplify their voices. Beyond that, however, we also have an opportunity to vocalize, perhaps better than anyone else (and certainly better than MRAs), the ways in which our understandings of gender not only hurt women, but hurt men too. There are a variety of experiences and emotions and ways of living that rigid gender roles make socially unacceptable for men, and a number of unacceptable situations that men are forced into for the simple fact of their (our) gender. There is no valid reason for such prohibition, and therefore no justification for its associated harms.

The specific form of the reminder from the commenter was regarding this story (TW for sexual abuse): [Read more...]