Don’t Go In There!

Hmm… I still have access to the FtB server. Apparently the whole “plugging the security loopholes” lesson hasn’t quite been learned, given that you’re reading this post right now. Anyway, just thought I’d throw this out there, since it’s something that I did in January and is finally now seeing the light of day. This was originally posted earlier today at my personal blog (which, I’m sure it will disappoint you to learn, I am not posting at very much at all).

Horror films are a wonderful source of escapism, where we can feel the thrill of terror in the relative safety of our living rooms or a crowded movie theatre. One of the all-time classics within the horror genre is the zombie movie: hordes of shuffling, shambling atrocities hell-bent on devouring the flesh of the still-living. One of the iconic images of any good zombie movie is the panic-stricken victim of a zombie bite who is slowly turning from human into monster, as all morality and reason drains from their body while their comrades feverishly debate whether or not to put their erstwhile friend out of hir ‘misery’ courtesy of a well-timed shotgun blast to the face.


One of the things that has always struck me about the thrill and threat of the zombie subgenre is the idea that someone can walk around ‘infected’ without showing any outward signs of distress, but at that pivotal moment they ‘turn’ and lash out. Having watched enough zombie movies in my life, I know enough that I would be far more cautious about that ‘little scrape’ on my friend’s upper arm after a fight with a horde of the undead. I’ve seen enough movies to know that that ‘little scrape’ might mean the difference between life and un-death. I suspect that, if you’ve watched these movies too, you know as well as I do what the warning signs are – the eerie music, the mysterious noise, the unexplained ‘headache’.

Much like a zombie movie afficionado does, members of visible minority communities have spent years learning to read the warning signs of racial antipathy, even from those who don’t recognize that they’re ‘infected’ with the subtle biases that affect us all. They (we) have learned to spot the danger from a long way off, ensuring that we can take the necessary precautions to protect ourselves.

In the following presentation, given in January of 2013 in Kelowna, BC, I explore the parallels between zombie movies and anti-racism, with examples drawn from classic horror scenes. I discuss how we can learn to understand racism in a contemporary context, and understand the role our subconscious plays in our interactions, and how we can use this knowledge to avoid and combat racism in the same way we use it to avoid and combat zombies. I discuss how to have more productive conversations when you, as a member of the majority group, enter a minority space. Finally, I emphasize how anti-racism is a crucial and useful part of a skeptical toolchest, and how we can use this knowledge to grow the movement.

I hope you enjoy the talk, and please feel free to share it, as a whole or in part, wherever you like:

Part 1: Don’t Go In There!

Part 2: Fighting Racism, Zombie Style

Part 3: How Not to Get Your Head Blown Off

Part 4: Anti-Racism and the Skeptical Movement

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Clips from Dawn of the DeadZombielandShaun of the Dead, and Resident Evil claimed under Fair Use principles for educational purposes.

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...]

Imagine you had a friend…

Imagine, for a moment, that you had a friend.

If you’re like me, you will find this a wildly improbable scenario to entertain, but I implore you to at least give it a try. This doesn’t have to be a close friend, or someone you’ve known for an incredibly long time. Perhaps imagine someone who, if you were having a bunch of people over, you would feel compelled to invite but wouldn’t feel super put-out if they couldn’t make it. Someone whose last name you wouldn’t know if it wasn’t listed on their Facebook profile. Someone who you’ve never hung out with except in the context of a group. Someone who, if you ran into them at a party, you wouldn’t go out of your way to introduce your new boyfriend to.

That level of ‘friend’. Someone you have generally good feelings about, but whose friendship is not exactly indispensable to your life.

Imagine you had a friend… [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...]

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...]

Who occupies “the middle ground”? A story of an open letter

Yesterday, I admonished you to read a Colorlines piece that details, in a step-by-step fashion, the way that majority spaces react when minority members speak up about discrimination. I put a particular emphasis on step three:

Step 3: Play the ‘Middle’ Between Rational and Frothing Racist

You know how mainstream news shows discuss global warming by pairing an actual scientist who points to decades of consistent research with an oil-company shill who says global warming can’t be real because Al Gore said something dumb once? And you know how the news anchor moderating the discussion gets to occupy the “rational” “middle” ground by saying “more research is probably needed”? You’re that guy now. Crackpots don’t get people fired, people who validate crackpots do, so get to work.

Let me get you started on your “common-sense” blog post, article or mainstream interview: “We can all agree that the behavior of these Internet trolls is unconscionable. However, let’s not discount their concerns because of a few bad apples…”

You’ve got some primo poli-sci Overton Window triangulation going on now! By assigning the Internet trolls one end of the alignment spectrum, you’ve successfully shifted the terms of the debate from, “What can be done about rampant unjust outcomes for women and people of color?” to “How many racial epithets is it OK to fit in a tweet?” Also, don’t moderate the comments on your blog post, even if they overtly threaten women and people of color. That would be, like, censorship.

The reason I highlighted this point, apart from my personal exasperation at the “tone” argument as a whole, is because I want to talk about something else I read yesterday.

Those of you who are familiar with the online atheist community are all-too-aware of the fact that atheist spaces are currently grappling with their own failures to attract women and people of colour. The problem mirrors one that the American Republican Party is having, and the people arguing against structural changes make many of the same arguments – that what is needed is merely a ‘pinkwash’ or a ‘brownwash’, rather than a concerted effort to change the culture. I have summarized my view of how we got to this position in a previous post, but the even summarier summary is that people began asking why women weren’t participating, but only some of those people accepted the answers they were given.

In response to what is (sincerely by some, ironically by others) being called the “deep rifts” within atheist communities, an Open Letter was drafted, and several high-profile secular groups signed it. It calls for, among other things, a détente between people on “both sides” of the “deep rift”, and a pledge to model more “constructive” standards of communication. I quote from that letter selectively: [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...]

Steubenville, consent, alcohol, and me: my stories of sexual non-quest

This post is going to contain some stories about my personal life – specifically, my sex life. If you’d rather not know that kind of information about me, this is probably where you want to stop reading. Also trigger warning for discussion of rape (but I swear there’s nothing explicit).

I generally don’t blog about rape. My specific opinion on the topic (spoilers: I’m opposed to it) is barely marginally helpful, as I am just as likely to set foot in the wrong place as I am to say something profound, and there are people who are much more directly affected by the discussion than I am. My preference is to read the opinions of others who have more pragmatic experience with the topic, either as someone who has been raped, someone who works with rape victims, or someone for whom fear of rape is part of their daily life and decision making. Listening to those voices has been immeasurably helpful to my own understanding of the topic and the sociology underpinning it.

One of the biggest shifts in my thinking – more crystalization than a real ‘shift’ – is about the topic of consent and how it relates to alcohol. I managed to figure out on my own that you shouldn’t do anything drunk with someone that you wouldn’t do sober, and that you should extend that to a potential partner – if ze wouldn’t fuck you unless ze was wasted, it’s not okay. I don’t know that I considered that ‘rape’ before I began reading feminist writings (I probably would have just thought it was a shitty thing to do to someone), but I have no problem identifying it as such now.

I have avoided talking about the rape of Jane Doe in Steubenville, Ohio because, again, I don’t think I have anything useful to add to the topic. I’m glad the judge didn’t buy the argument that a girl who was so drunk that she had to be physically carried out of a room was still sober enough to consent to sex. I think that anyone who thinks that the blame starts and ends with the two boys who raped her is severely deluded, as are those who wish to completely exonerate them. Hopefully this case will be high-profile enough to spark a discussion about the messages we send boys about masculinity and about sex and about women and about consent. [Read more...]

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...]

Special Feature: Crommunist goes to Chicago

So as many of you probably know, I was in Chicago this past week, taking part in a panel about atheism and social justice at DePaul University. I also got a chance to discover a little bit about the city while I was there. What follows is a re-cap of my time there.

The Panel

If you haven’t already, you should read the liveblog version of the event from fellow FTBorg Miri Mogilevsky. Unfortunately, there was no video of the talk, so Miri’s recap is the closest you’re going to get to seeing it. Despite what I said in the comments, I was not drunk during the talk – I’m just that incoherent in person.

First off, I have to say what an immense honour and privilege it was to be invited to speak at the event. I was even more flattered to be included on a panel that included Anthony Pinn and Sikivu Hutchinson, two people whose work has influenced my own profoundly. I have had the opportunity to interact with Sikivu before, and she was exactly as brilliant and insightful in person as I remember from our last encounter. She does the same thing that Christopher Hitchens is noted for – she speaks in paragraphs, and her writing could have been transcribed from her speaking (or vice versa).

Meeting Dr. Pinn was a trip, because he’s ‘Tony’, this extremely laid-back and affable guy when we’re just hanging out, and then someone mentions something that is relevant to his work and he becomes ‘Doctor Pinn’ – the Rice Endowed Chair who is dropping knowledge like an over-encumbered librarian. It’s amazing to watch. For the record, I couldn’t tell you which one I like more – both Tony and Doctor Pinn are fascinating and great people to be around in their own right. [Read more...]