Aug 04 2013

Why atheists need diversity lists: an FAQ

The other day’s post has done as well as I hoped it would – my thanks go to everyone who’s shared it. If you liked it and you haven’t shared it, consider doing so; not so much just to swell my hit count as to help promote the people on the list and spread the message. (Well, all right: partly for my hit count. I’m only human.)

Alongside being welcomed seemingly by many, it’s provoked a degree of pushback. To an extent, I’m glad of that, since if you’re pissing no one off you’re doing no good. There have been several recurring objections, as well as misconceptions or questions, so rather than address them individually on separate comment threads, I’m collating my responses to the commonest reactions so far.

I introduced the 2013 post by saying why we need diversity. This is about why we need diversity lists.


Why isn’t person X mentioned here?

There’s no particular logic to who did or didn’t make the 2013 list, beyond that I’ve tried to hew more closely to people actively involved in skeptical, secular, atheist, rationalist or humanist discussions – ideally, where possible, more than one of the above – rather than figures who just happen to be atheists. If someone was on last year’s list but isn’t on this year’s, don’t conclude I no longer want to promote them: there’s not necessarily any reason one person reappears and another doesn’t, except who came to mind first while I was writing the new version.

Remember that we have a comments section! 100 is an arbitrary figure, and I could have gone on listing people for a while – plenty of people deserve attention who didn’t get a name check here, including no doubt plenty I haven’t heard of, so if there’s something you think has been overlooked, mention them in the comments beneath the list. Self-promotion is permitted and encouraged!

Why isn’t person X higher up the list?

Numbers on this list are for ease of reference only – it’s alphabetical! (You might think this would be obvious. I did when I wrote it, assuming people would notice surnames ran from Ahadi to Zepf. Apparently not.) There’s no single criterion by which I’d want to rank such a wide range of people, and I don’t want the list to be hierarchical anyway, because some aren’t more important than others. They all matter.

Why isn’t group X better represented?

Good question. The original list in 2012 made efforts to accommodate neglected demographics, in terms of race, class, gender, sexuality and age as well as people whose professions or vocations weren’t (stereo)typical of our community – artists, musicians, comedians. In the end, I think the end product suffered – by trying to include all possible subgroups, I feel like I ended up not giving any of them enough space, so this year concentrated on gender and race.

I realise this approach isn’t problem-free. In particular, I’d like there to have been better representation of queer and trans* people and those with disabilities, and I recognise the absence of those subgroups is a serious issue. If you know of existing lists that highlight secular thinkers with those backgrounds, let me know; or, if there aren’t any, let me know whom you’d mention on one, and perhaps we can create a dedicated, supplementary resource to this one.

Why not make an inclusive list, with all the white men we already know about? Why exclude people for being white men?

I’m not excluding white men. White men, in case you hadn’t noticed, are not broadly absent from the secular community; the groups on this list are. If we want to take steps to include them, we need dedicated lists of relevant people. Why, anyway, would we need a list of names everyone knows?

The people on the list are suggested as additions to the speaking/writing/campaigning circuits, not replacements for the people currently on them. This isn’t a zero sum game where every time we discover or promote a woman of colour, a white man gets excommunicated. This being said, I’d absolutely support all-woman or all-minority-ethic speaker lists at dedicated conferences for those subgroups – and I think that at regular conferences, when there’s only one seat left on a panel to fill, James Randi and PZ Myers can probably cope if organisers want to include someone new or up-and-coming. Stagnation, after all, is not a good thing; if your conferences’ speaker lineups in 2016 are the same as the ones from 2006, with no new blood being injected in between, you have serious cause to worry for your movement.

But this is positive discrimination! Imagine if things were the other way around! Would a list of 100 people who weren’t members of minorities or women be okay?

Things aren’t the other way round. If they were, in a parallel universe where women and people of colour dominated our community and white men were a marginal underrepresented group at conferences, in our media and at our organisations, making a list of ones who merited attention would make sense.

In this universe, that is not the case. Addressing the absence from speaker line-ups and websites of groups that comprise more than half our species is not equivalent to policing that absence. If you want to imagine the list the other way round, imagine its context the other way round.

You’re lowering the bar. Promote people on their merits, not their gender or race!

Why do you think biographies are attached to these names? I am including people on their merits – I detail, in each case, why the person in question deserves attention, what their fields of expertise or interest are and what their contributions might be. If I wanted to list 100 female or minority-ethnic people regardless of merit, I’d have found Facebook groups for atheist women and people of colour and typed up the first 50 members’ names from each. If you think choosing people on merit means only choosing white men, you have some terrible presumptions.

The fact these figures are brown, black or female isn’t why you should know about them – you should know about them because they’re talented, interesting, articulate and relevant – but it’s probably at least part of why you didn’t.

The cream rises to the top! If they’re talented, they’ll make a name for themselves.

Do you honestly think personal quality and talent are all it takes for someone to ‘rise to the top’? (And by implication, that today’s white men possess them to a vastly inordinate degree?)

You almost certainly knew before reading the list of the campaign against Mother Teresa Christopher Hitchens carried out in the mid-nineties; of the book and documentary film through which he advanced it. Did you know that the film was co-written by Tariq Ali, and the book inspired by Aroup Chatterjee’s writing? We remember Hitchens effectively as Mother Teresa’s sole prosecutor, but aren’t they just as worthy of credit for tarring and feathering her as he was? And is it a coincidence, or purely down to his (admittedly far from minor) individual talents, that only the work of Hitchens – white, English, public school and Oxford-educated, perfectly placed as a media-friendly pundit in a still male-dominated press – is widely celebrated, and not Indian Chatterjee’s or Pakistani Ali’s?

We likewise have it on record from Richard Dawkins that U.S. publishers prior to 2006 felt nervous about picking up The God Delusion. Some felt America wasn’t ready for it, or that controversy would ensue, as to some extent it did. Was Dawkins’ manuscript accepted, over all the similar ones no doubt pitched to publishers in prior years, purely on his merits as a writer and thinker? Or were publishers also encouraged by his status as a prominent world academic with a record of successful popular writing, whose book was guaranteed to sell (profitably, if not in the huge numbers it ultimately did)? And did Dawkins’ status as an already widely read academic have nothing to do with his status as a white man from a wealthy family? One record, once again, he’s credited his studying at Oxford with moulding his life’s successes – Oxford, which only a year before his admission had banned women from compromising more than a fifth of the student body, and which he reached largely through attending an all boys’ school that remained so till 1990 and currently charges £163,155 for seven years of day attendance and £204,240 for boarders. (For those unaware, only seven percent of British children – but consistently around half of students at Oxford and Cambridge – attend private schools.)

Hitchens’ background was eminently similar, and in fact they even attended the same Oxford college. Whatever the scope of their talent or efforts, to claim there were no other factors in their success is ridiculous; do you imagine there were no equally hardworking or gifted people who might have become secular leaders, had their gender, race and class not denied them Dawkins’ and Hitchens’ advantages? There certainly were – some of them are on this list. To accuse me of giving them a special ‘leg-up’ on account of their genders and races ignores all the legs-up our white male leaders have often had on account of theirs, for which lists like this only compensate.

But I haven’t heard of these people!

Is that a bad thing? To let you in on a secret, I hadn’t heard of most of them till I did research, and – guess what? – I’m glad I do now. I feel enriched for having discovered Myra Zepf’s columns, Victoria Gugenheim’s body art, Azita Chellappoo’s blog, Michael Brooks’ thoughts about science as a brand (to pick four examples from the crop). As Hemant Mehta said at Friendly Atheist on sharing the list, it’s like finding hidden treasure.

Fame to date, again, isn’t the only measure of merit or skill – and be aware that you’re in danger of furthering a vicious cycle: the reason you haven’t heard of someone may in large part be that others weren’t willing to book or promote an unknown. Everyone, even the superstars we’ve all heard speak a hundred times, was unknown at some point; I know I’m not alone in saying that on leaving a conference, the highlight which sticks in my mind is often someone I didn’t previously know, and the break you give somebody might turn out to be their big break.

It’s true that big names fill seats, but so do catchy titles, interesting topics and fresh perspectives. Moreover, as someone who’s organised these kind of events, the number of seats filled isn’t always most important: would you rather pack a lecture theatre out and have your audience hear a well-known speaker say what they always say, before trundling to the programme’s next event, or fill only half the seats for an event which goes viral on YouTube, raises the profile of your conference through word of mouth or thoroughly informs your community’s future discussions? Only approaching the biggest names can actually hinder you – offered the choice between a conference where the 100 people on the list were speaking, or one where I’d seen all the speakers before plenty of times, I know which I’d rather attend.

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