Glimmers of secular hope

There has been a great fracas recently within atheist/secularist circles as ‘Horseman’ Sam Harris has been subjected to repeated critique* as the avatar of a disturbing trend within atheist circles: using “reason” to mask anti-Muslim sentiment in politically pallatable language. I have noted this tendency previously:

I don’t think anyone could confuse me with someone who is pro-Islam. As much as I find all religions repugnant, the face of Islam we see today is one of repressive fanaticism that stifles human progress. To be sure, there are plenty of examples of fanaticism in Christianity as well, to say nothing of Hindu and Buddhist repression happening in India and other parts of Asia. Whether it is due to anti-Muslim bias and the collision of Islam and secularism in Europe, or a reflection of the true excess of Islamic regimes, the news consistently carries stories of Muslim-dominated countries carrying out horrible acts with the excuses of Qur’anic license on their lips. I will not relent or shrink from criticizing this inhuman (or perhaps all-too-human) display of authoritarianism with claimed divine mandate.

That being said, there is a backlash against Muslims that is not based on their beliefs per se, but about our attitude about the danger that Muslims (and Islam) pose to the world. This attitude is not informed by evidence, but fueled by paranoia and misinformation. It qualifies, by every comparative standard that I can think of, as just as worthy of criticism as racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, take your pick.

My concern is that atheists find it far too tempting to single out Islam for particular opprobium because the stories we hear about Islamist-dominated countries are so dramatic. We conclude from the drama that Islam per se is a particularly twisted ideology, above and beyond the ideology of, say, Christianity. My counter-claim to this assertion is that Christianity contains essentially all of the same commandments and prohibitions and exhortations that Islam does, but time and the rise of secular society have rendered it, in the aggregate, less overtly oppressive than the current incarnation of Islam (again, in the aggregate). [Read more...]

Asking for a friend…

When I was a little kid, people (including family and teachers) made a big deal about my intelligence. In strong contrast to what I understand to be the experience of many black children in white-dominated environments, I was always complimented for my intellect and encouraged to push further. It was a rare occasion, however, that my physical appearance or size was made an issue (except in the sense of “you’re bigger than the other kids, so be more careful”).

There was a recent dust-up when the President attempted to crack a joke while fundraising for an attorney general in California:

President Barack Obama has apologised to the California attorney general for remarking on her appearance at a fundraising event on Thursday. Mr Obama described Kamala Harris, a long-time friend, as “the best-looking attorney general in the country”. Ms Harris’s spokesman said she strongly supported Mr Obama but would not say whether she had accepted his apology. Critics have cited the remark as an example of the ongoing hurdles women face in the workplace.

Speaking after Ms Harris at the fundraising event in California on Thursday, Mr Obama said she was “brilliant and she is dedicated and she is tough, and she is exactly what you’d want in anybody who is administering the law and making sure that everybody is getting a fair shake”. Then he added: “She also happens to be by far the best-looking attorney general in the country… It’s true. Come on. And she is a great friend and has just been a great supporter for many, many years.”

On its own, divorced from context, this is exactly the kind of compliment you would like to receive from a friend – that you are hard-working and capable, and attractive to boot. However, eyebrows were of course raised because this isn’t just one buddy saying a nice thing about another – this is the President of the United States making the physical appearance of the Attorney General of California an issue. It is somewhat inconceivable that he would give a man the same kind of compliment in that situation. And in an environment where women’s appearance is used to dismiss or denigrate their competence - regardless of their station - the comment takes on a disturbing element.

Black feminists, however, have noted that there is an unexplored phenomenon in this story: Ms. Harris is a black woman. The well-worn stereotype about black femininity does not often include the possibilty of being competent and attractive. In the realm of black femininity, they say, the compliment tacks sharply against both the stereotype of black women as not competent and as not attractive. Far from being troubling, some black feminists have found the comment a welcome one, and have criticized white feminists for failing to take the racial element into account when parsing the president’s words.

In the spirit of honouring that type of intersectionality, friend of the blog Slignot has reached out and made the following request:

I was writing about the importance of complimenting children on things they do rather than things they are when I realized I had a deeply limited experience as a white woman who grew up in an overwhelmingly white place (Utah). As I made a generalized background point about boys more commonly being complimented for being smart & girls for being pretty, I realized I have no idea whether this is remotely true when you’re not assuming white experiences being the default or norm.

As soon as I recognized my mistake, I tried to see if anyone had done any sort of discussion of this when talking about the pretty/smart gender divide but either it’s not readily available or my google-fu just was lousy today. So I decided to ask Crommunist on Twitter if he’d be willing to tell me about his experiences with compliments growing up. However, this ran into the problem of his experiences not being necessarily representative outside of the particular circumstances of his upbringing in Canada. I was able to get a few other answers from people through Twitter that lead me to believe that there’s probably a whole lot more going on here with other stereotype threats that need recognition when we talk about inequitable treatment of kids based on gender.

So if you’re willing to share your experiences, I very much want to know what sort of compliments you received growing up, who gave them to you and honestly how much of the time they doubled as microaggressions. (As someone pointed out to me, people told him he was smart, but in tones that conveyed this was surprising to them.) Does the smart/pretty gender divide apply?

Because my audience is a bit larger and more diverse than hers (I think), I’m boosting the signal for this request to see if others can bring their personal experiences to bear and help to flesh out her piece. Please leave a comment here, or contact her on Twitter.

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UPDATE: Kevin Drum posts an analysis of this worthwhile empirical exploration of the effect that introducing appearance has in these kinds of discussion.

New required reading: How to Get a Black Woman Fired

I haven’t commented on the Adria Richards thing at all, which some people might find surprising since it lives right at the intersection of sexism and racism where I do some of my best work. There are a few reasons for this: circumstances have robbed me of quite a bit of my writing mojo, the story was covered from every conceivable angle and I didn’t have anything new to contribute, and I don’t really know enough about the world of tech to really comment much on the climate. All that being said, I have been following and reading and listening.

This piece in particular, I think, has broad resonance:

Last week Jamilah King assembled a list of survival tips for techies who are not men and not white. Now, let’s look at the other side and examine how trolls, mansplainers, amateur Internet career counselors — plus some self-identified feminists and well-meaning types — willfully or unwittingly contribute to a pattern that just so happens to rescue large groups of professional white men from the unchecked tyranny of individuals who aren’t professional white men.

In this handy guide guide brought to you by me, Colorlines.com’s self-appointed white male correspondent, I’ll walk y’all through the steps that lead up to almost every incidence of HR-by-mob. While the details of every case aren’t identical, let’s recall that we’ve seen this happen to black women all walks of life, ranging fromformer Department of Agriculture state director Shirley Sherrod to meteorologist Rhonda Lee to women of color targeted by DADT in the military. It’s also how cultural commentators such as Zerlina MaxwellAnita SarkeesianRebecca Watson and Courtney Stanton became the targets of months-long smear campaigns, obscene Wikipedia edits, and threats of sexual assault and other violence, solely because they called out racism and sexism where they saw it. The pattern is real and not new at all, and we can’t interrupt it until we understand it.

As is the case with all posts in the “New Required Reading” series, the whole thing should be read in its entirety, and I’m not going to quote the whole post, but there are a few things I want to do. First, and easiest, is to list the steps: [Read more...]

(un)Fairly Labeled

There is a great deal of consternation that gets kicked up over the terms “racist” and “misogynist” (I would also put “homophobic” in this category, but it is a special case). People who engage in racist or misogynistic behaviour, or who espouse racist or misogynistic attitudes, will furiously clutch their pearls and fan themselves feverishly whenever the dreaded “r word” or “m word” are applied to their behaviour. “But I’m not a racist!” they will cry “how dare you call me such a thing!”

Those who are thus rebuked have developed a fun new pattern of congregating to lick their collective wounds and lash out at those who have applies such ugly and hurtful labels to them. To them! Of all people! To be called such a hurtful thing! It’s beyond the pale!

 It slaps pejorative labels—racist and sexist—on great segments of the population on the grounds of the skin colour and genitals they happened to be born with, and aims to radicalize other segments into a state of perpetual victimhood.

The above is sliced from a piece quoted by fellow FTBorg Avicenna. The original piece seeks to deny the existence of privilege by pointing out just how awful it is to be racialized as white, or gendered as male. It’s not an original argument, nor is it particularly well-argued – I will say that the writing is pretty good. Even so, I don’t recommend reading the whole piece (the original – not Avicenna’s; I assume you read everything he publishes) unless you have a lot of time to kill and some extra eyes to roll, but it’s the exerpted piece I want to expound upon a bit today. [Read more...]

He who fears God…

When I was in Catholic school, right before we had our Confirmation (the Catholic equivalent of a bar mitzvah), we had specific instruction in Catholic dogma and catechism. Unlike the horror stories that I’ve heard from some others, all of the Catholic schools I attended were fairly secular, save for the mandatory religion class and the prayers during the morning announcements after the national anthem. We didn’t, for example, get fire and brimstone during science class or disciplined by dour nuns. To my recollection, we didn’t even get much by way of instruction in the Catholic beliefs on sexuality. Of course, it was elementary school, so that was likely due to squeamishness over the topic rather than evidence of the enlightenment of the instructors.

In any case, we were taught about the seven “gifts of the Spirit“, which are distinct from the seven virtues, which are themselves a counterpoint to the seven deadly sins – please believe that Catholicism is well steeped in the same numerology that defines the quirkier aspects of Judaism. Wisdom, understanding, counsel, piety, counsel, knowledge, fortitude… sure. Even at thirteen these seemed pretty self-explanatory (even if they were plainly not evinced by those who claimed to be “strong in the Spirit”). But it was the seventh that gave me trouble…

Fear of the Lord.

My catechism teacher tried to convince me that this simply meant ‘awe’, and a recognition that Yahweh was much greater than we were. Fine, I said, but why not just use ‘awe’? Why ‘fear’? If Yahweh was benevolent and loved us and all that jazz, why would it be right to fear him? After various attempts to explain that ‘fear’ was a metaphor (the Catholic dodge for just about everything), I was simply told to ignore the ‘fear’ language as an anachronism. Of course, once I learned about Stockholm Syndrome in undergraduate psychology, the anachronism suddenly made a lot more sense.

Of course, since rejecting theist belief, I have come to understand ‘fear of God’ in an entirely different way:

A church billboard saying

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The pursuit of purity

A common failing I see in most online discussions of just about any topic is a failure to separate the person from the idea. Whether it be invocations of ‘racists’ or ‘misogynists’ (or, I will subsequently argue, ‘feminists’ or ‘skeptics’), we categorize people based on their arguments, usually (but not always*) after a tiny number of instances of a given behaviour, or based only on their furious affirmations of allegiance one way or another. This is not only a failing of our criticisms of others, but our images of ourselves.

The specific form of this that I want to discuss today is the word ‘ally’. What most people mean when they use the term ally is that they are a person who is not a member of a marginalized group, but who is sympathetic to that group’s needs and (in some cases) helps to articulate their arguments. Allies are useful and important to any movement – there were many white civil rights and anti-apartheid crusaders; there were (and are) many male feminists and suffrage advocates; there are lots of heterosexual people who fight against homophobia.

The crucial function that allies can serve, if they do their work properly, is to leverage their privilege to carry the voices of the minority group to new audiences. It is quite easy to dismiss minority perspectives as being self-serving when oppressed groups speak out for themselves (e.g., “playing the race card”); it is much more difficult to justify outright dismissal – not that it doesn’t happen, just that the excuses need to become more convoluted. Allies are able to break through some of the status quo resistance to change by bypassing the easiest excuse: that people are cravenly advocating a position for their own selfish gain. [Read more...]

Required Reading: Deconstructing ‘Masculinity’

One of the important roles for male feminists is to use our male privilege as a means of cutting through some of the most cynical dismissals of feminist positions. When anti-feminists can’t say “well she’s just saying that because women are trying to oppress men”, they have to find more convoluted (and increasingly less probable) explanations for their reflexive dismissal. By providing obvious counter-examples to the meme that feminists are just women who hate men, male feminists have the opportunity to ‘signal boost’ the messages from other feminists.

But a role that I think is increasingly relevant (or, at least one that I am becoming more aware of) is that of providing male critiques of the way in which masculinity myths fail to serve men. There are no shortage of harmful myths about how women ‘should’ be, and we should be combatting them vigorously – they often place women in situations that are disempowering and often dangerous. At the same time, there is room in feminist discourse to turn the analytical tools of gender critique on all constructs of gender. Today I want to walk through two examples of doing just that: [Read more...]

New required reading: Why Don’t Women Speak Out About Sexual Harassment? Here’s why

I realize that talking about sexual harassment is sooo ‘last year’, but there still remains a sizeable contingent of the atheist (and non-atheist) community that thinks that reports of sexual harassment at conventions is overblown, and does not merit a response or even a robust discussion. The prevailing thought repeatedly comes back to “just report it”, with the corresponding assertion that since we are not awash in reports of harassment, harassment doesn’t exist. Absence of evidence (of that specific kind) is evidence of absence, so anyone who complains about it should just STFU.

To put it another way,

The world is fundamentally fair when it comes to reporting sexual harassment. Harassment claims are handled with appropriate gravity, and claims can be properly adjudicated according to the abundance of evidence that exists when harassment takes place. True claims are not (or very rarely) dismissed or explained away by blaming the victim. The absence of verified claims is therefore a valid indicator of the lack of real harassment. Those who speak about harassment in the absence of verifiable evidence are therefore lying in order to destroy the movement.

It does not occur to people that, because victims of harassment very rarely have video/tape recording of every interaction they’ve ever had with another person, and because harassers rarely target people when there are witnesses around, “true” harassment claims are very difficult to separate from “false” ones. As a result, the level of evidence they demand* is either by definition impossible to produce, or only possible in the most egregious of circumstances. An approach is needed that allows victims of harassment to feel comfortable that filing a report will have a meaningful result, rather than triggering an avalanche of suspicion and victim blaming.

The “just report it” response breaks down even further when issues of power and authority are involved, as we have seen recently.

But maybe mine is not the word you want to take for it: [Read more...]

Atheism is a social justice issue

This is part of a series of articles intended to illustrate the usefulness of treating atheism as a social justice issue, rather than trying to wall atheist discourse off from social justice discussions. Read the introductory post here. Read the second post here. Read the third post here. Read the fourth post here.

What I hope we have seen from the previous examples is that, in the exact same way that race ‘intersects’ with LGBT issues, or that class ‘intersects’ with gender issues, religion is tied up in other so-called ‘social justice’ topics. Insofar as no social justice issue can truly be well understood without an appreciation for the differential ways they impact other groups, it is impossible to understand and intelligently critique religion without first learning to identify and analyze the other elements that ‘intersect’ it.

I certainly cannot speak on behalf of all atheists – perhaps there are indeed people who enjoy talking about their non-belief with the same rough intent as people who collect stamps or build ships in bottles. They may not care at all about what other people believe, so long as they are allowed to pursue their atheism hobby unmolested. If such people exist, I have not come across them – although I consequently wouldn’t, so maybe that’s a Catch-22. My experience of organized atheism, and of the far-less-organized world of online atheism, is that atheists believe passionately in secular government and that religion deserves public criticism. It is to these atheists that this series is addressed. [Read more...]

Atheism is a social justice issue – colonialism edition

This is part of a series of articles intended to illustrate the usefulness of treating atheism as a social justice issue, rather than trying to wall atheist discourse off from social justice discussions. Read the introductory post here. Read the second post here. Read the third post here.

One of the social justice issues that I have become increasingly aware of, as a direct consequence of aboriginal activist groups in North America and Africa, is the issue of colonialism. The fact is that, with only a handful of exceptions, our current geopolitical system carries with it a legacy of colonization by various European powers as they attempted to expand their domain and their powers. Indeed, even our very idea of what a nation is has been essentially cribbed wholesale from the colonial powers. Because we exist in a history and an existential philosophy that was created by the colonizers, identifying colonialism is often quite difficult. Its effects, however, are easy to observe (if not to properly attribute).

Even the most cursory examination of the history of colonialism will stand testament to the fact that religion is a major and intrinsic component of colonialism. During the physical colonization of Africa, Asia, and the Americas, religion provided not only a major source of the justification for the domination of the people aboriginal to that region (i.e., the need to ‘Christianize’ and ‘save’ those people), but informed the mechanism of action (e.g., foreign missionaries, residential schools, destruction/adaptation of local religions/customs). It is not possible to understand religion without understanding colonialism, and vice versa.

Which is why this ‘contribution’ from atheist standard-bearer Dr. Richard Dawkins was so ill-conceived: [Read more...]