When Firebrands Start Tone-Trolling

Like Greta Christina says, anger motivates us, but unchecked it can destroy us.

- JT Eberhard, criticizing Bria Crutchfield for what he saw as her overly angry and harsh anti-racist commentary during Q&A at the recent Great Lakes Atheist Convention. A critique that assumed, among other things, that he is best able to decide when a white person is being intentionally racist versus, unintentionally so; that when it comes to racism, he is best able to decide when it’s best to present an outraged tirade versus calm engagement; and that he is best able to decide who African-American atheists should see as their allies in the atheist movement.

Sigh.

Jen McCreight has already done a masterful job dismantling JT’s piece, and I don’t have much to add to what she said. But since JT used my ideas to bolster his case, I want to say this. It’s an excerpt from my Free Inquiry essay, Why We Need to Keep Fighting:

In all too many cases, the exact same atheists who applaud my passionate, uncompromising anger about religion will turn around and say that I need to be polite, diplomatic, understanding, non-divisive, and moderate when it comes to my anger about misogyny and sexism. At least, when it comes to my anger about misogyny and sexism within the atheist movement.

If it didn’t piss me off so much, I’d think it was hilarious.

You don’t get to have it both ways. You don’t get to be inspired and motivated by my uncompromising rage about religion… and then tell me that my uncompromising rage about sexism and misogyny in the atheist movement is divisive, distracting, sapping energy from the important business of atheist activism. You don’t get to cheer me on for being such a badass when I stand up fiercely against religion in society… and then scold me for being a bad soldier when I stand up fiercely against sexism and misogyny within the atheist movement. You don’t get to applaud my outspoken fearlessness when I demand that social and political and economic systems be made safe and welcoming for atheists, and when I point out the ways in which they are not… and then call me a divisive, attention-hungry professional victim when I demand that atheist groups and organizations and events be made safe and welcoming for women, and point out the ways in which they are not.

Now, please do a mental search-and-replace. Replace “my anger about misogyny and sexism” with “Bria Crutchfield’s anger about racism.” Or “Natalie Reed’s anger about transphobia.” Or “Josh Spokesgay’s anger about homophobia.” Or… oh, you get the idea.

It is especially distressing to hear this notion coming from a hard-core firebrand atheist: someone who’s made a reputation and a career out of his uncompromising rage at religion and religious believers, and his passionate use and defense of anger, invective, and insults… aimed not only at religious believers, but at other atheists who critique his hard-line approach. And it is especially distressing to hear my ideas used in defense of this. Yes, I have said that anger can be a difficult and dangerous tool. But just as it is not up to religious believers to tell atheists how and when and where and in what tone we should express our anger about religion, it is not up to white people to tell African-Americans — or any other people of color — how and when and where and in what tone they should express their anger about racism.

So JT, in the future, please do me a favor: Do not quote me in support of your half-assed, hypocritical tone-trolling about social justice. Please assume that nothing I have ever said could possibly be interpreted as supporting your perspective on social justice. I do not support it. I think it is beyond fucked-up.

Coping with Life Under a Cloud of Medical Uncertainty

question mark sign“If we don’t know the answer to a question, it’s better to just say, ‘We don’t know.’ And then, of course, investigate and try to find an answer. We shouldn’t jump in with an uninformed answer based on our cognitive biases. And we definitely shouldn’t assume that, because we don’t know the answer to a question, the answer is therefore God, or something else supernatural.”

Skeptics and atheists say this stuff a lot. It’s all very well and good: I totally agree. But what do you do if the question on the table is one you really need an answer to? What if the question isn’t something fairly abstract or distant, like, “Why is there something instead of nothing”? What if the question is one with an immediate, practical, non-trivial impact on your everyday life? Something like… oh, say, just for a random example, “What are my chances of getting cancer, and what should I do to prevent it and detect it early?”

Here’s what I mean.

*****

Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, Coping with Life Under a Cloud of Medical Uncertainty. Go find out more about having a “presumptive” diagnosis of a genetic syndrome that increases your odds of getting cancer; the difficulties of living with medical uncertainty; how this difficulty contributes to people’s frustration with science; and why we should embrace science anyway… read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

PZ Myers’ Grenade, and Anonymous Accusations vs. Unnamed Sources: The “Deep Throat” Analogy

When we’re considering accusations of seriously bad, possibly criminal behavior, should we take anonymous accusations seriously?

What about unnamed sources?

Much has been said about PZ Myers’s post on Pharyngula, What do you do when someone pulls the pin and hands you a grenade?, in which he re-posted an email from a woman he knows — but whose name he did not disclose — saying that Michael Shermer coerced her into a position where she could not consent, and then had sex with her.

Much of what has been said about this is along the lines of, “We can’t trust anonymous accusations! Anyone could accuse anyone of anything anonymously! Anonymous accusations are just gossip! McCarthyism! Witch-hunting! Moral panic!”

So I want to clear something up:

This is not an anonymous accusation.

It is an accusation from an unnamed source.

There’s an analogy I’ve been making to some friends who I’ve been discussing this with. The analogy is with Watergate, and reporter Bob Woodward, and his confidential source popularly known as “Deep Throat.”

all-the-presidents-menThink back, for a moment, to Watergate. Think back to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. And think about “Deep Throat,” Bob Woodward’s high-level secret informant, from whom Woodward got much of the information about the numerous, highly illegal activities going on in the Nixon White House, and the high level at which these activities were going on.

These weren’t anonymous allegations. They were allegations from an unnamed source.* Woodward didn’t disclose who they came from — but he knew who made them.

And Bob Woodward — along with his colleague, Carl Bernstein — had a reputation for rigorously caring about the truth. The reporters paid attention to the reliability of their sources. They got as much corroborating documentation for their stories as they could. On the few occasions when they got information wrong, they said so publicly.

Woodstein trusted their sources… and people trusted Woodstein.

Do you think people should have dismissed Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting about Watergate, simply because it came from unnamed sources?

Do you see where I’m going with this?

PZ’s re-posting of an email from a woman he knows… this is not an anonymous accusation. It an accusation from an unnamed source. PZ knows who it is. And PZ has a reputation for rigorously caring about the truth. He has a reputation for paying attention to the reliability of his sources. He has a reputation for getting corroborating documentation when he can. On the occasions when he gets stuff wrong, he says so publicly.

But even if you don’t trust PZ, and don’t agree that he’s trustworthy and reliable? It still makes no sense to reflexively dismiss the entire notion of trusting unnamed sources for a story. Argue, if you like, that PZ isn’t reliable. Make that case if you like. (Many people certainly made that case against Woodward and Bernstein: many people said they were commie pinko liberal agitators, hell-bent on tearing down the Nixon presidency, and that their reports weren’t worth the paper they were printed on.) But unless you’re willing to wholly reject the very idea of reporting based on unnamed sources, you can’t just say, “These stories are anonymous — and therefore, we can and should ignore them, and can and should revile the people who take them seriously.”

Now, it’s true that in the Watergate reporting, one of the things that made Woodward and Bernstein trustworthy and reliable was that they didn’t rely on just one source. A single unnamed source could, in fact, all too easily be someone with an axe to grind just trying to stir shit up. So they wouldn’t publish a story based on unnamed sources unless they had at least two of them saying the same thing. More than two, in the case of highly explosive stories.

So in this situation? As of this writing, August 20 2013, 12:19 Pacific time, according to Jason Thibeault’s timeline: We have one unnamed source reporting that Shermer, to use her own phrasing, coerced her into a position where she could not consent, and then had sex with her. We have one unnamed source reporting that this first unnamed source told them about this incident shortly after it happened, and was visibly distraught. We have one unnamed source reporting, not that Shermer assaulted her, but that he deliberately got her very drunk while flirting with her — a story that corroborates a particular pattern of sexual assault. All of these are people PZ knows, and whose reliability he is vouching for.

In addition: We have a named source, Carrie Poppy, stating that she knows the woman who said that Shermer coerced her, that she knew about the assault, and that she’s the one who put her in touch with PZ. We have one pseudonymous commenter, Miriamne, reporting in 2012 that she was harassed by Shermer. We have one pseudonymous source, delphi_ote, reporting that they personally know a woman who was assaulted by Shermer. (Important note: These other reported assault victims may be the woman who said that Shermer coerced her, or they may be different people: since they’re unnamed or pseudonymous, we don’t at this point know. It’s deeply troubling in either case: these are either multiple independent corroborations of the same assault, or they’re multiple independent reports of different assaults.) We have one named source, Brian Thompson, saying he personally knows a woman who was groped by Shermer.

In addition: We have one named source, Elyse Anders, reporting on behavior from Shermer that wasn’t assault but was inappropriately and uninvitedly sexual. We have another named source, Naomi Baker, reporting on behavior from Shermer that wasn’t assault but was inappropriately and uninvitedly sexual. (CLARIFICATION: The report from Naomi Baker is not of an incident that happened to her: it is a first-hand report of harassment told to her by the victim.) We have a pseudonymous source, rikzilla, reporting on behavior from Shermer that wasn’t assault but was inappropriately and uninvitedly sexual. To be very clear: By themselves, these wouldn’t be evidence of anything other than creepiness. But added to all these other reports of sexual assault, they corroborate a pattern.

Do you think this would be good enough for Woodward and Bernstein?

Not for them to report, “Michael Shermer committed sexual assault”… but for them to report, “Serious, credible accusations are being made that Michael Shermer committed sexual assault — accusations that are corroborated by multiple sources”?

Washington Post Front Page Nixon Denies Role In CoverUpThe analogy isn’t perfect, of course. No analogy is: if it was perfect, it wouldn’t be an analogy, it would be the exact same thing. For one thing, it wasn’t just Woodward and Bernstein that people trusted, and were being asked to trust. It was the entire institution of the Washington Post. People trusted that the editors of the Washington Post wouldn’t have hired Woodward and Bernstein if they hadn’t thought them to be reliable. They trusted the Washington Post’s track record of hiring reliable reporters. They were relying on the reputation and track record of the Washington Post, as much as the reputation of Woodward and Bernstein. Probably even more.

But it’s also the case that the Washington Post had to place an immense amount of trust in Woodward and Bernstein. Woodstein didn’t disclose their sources to their editors, any more than they disclosed them to the general public. Ultimately, their editors had to trust Woodstein. Ultimately, the web of trust was centered in Woodstein, and in their ability to decide that their unnamed sources could be trusted.

I’m not saying that these accusations are definitely true. And I’m definitely not saying that these reports would be enough evidence to convict someone in a court of law. Like I said the other day, in my piece Harassment, Rape, and the Difference Between Skepticism and Denialism: We’re not talking about what kind of evidence would support publication in a peer-reviewed journal, or a judgment in a court of law. We’re talking about what kind of evidence would support judgment in the court of public opinion. The legal standard of evidence isn’t the issue here.

I’m saying this: This idea that we should completely ignore these accusations — and deride the people who are taking them seriously — simply and entirely because they come from unnamed sources? It’s ridiculous. We don’t apply that standard to any other reporting, on any other topic.

There are reasons that unnamed sources stay unnamed. Especially when they’re making accusations against powerful people. So think, once again, about Deep Throat. Unless you’re willing to automatically discount Deep Throat, and the dozens — probably hundreds — of other unnamed sources in the Watergate reporting, and the thousands upon thousands of other unnamed sources on other stories who told reporters and bloggers things they couldn’t tell anyone else about… then don’t discount this. Believe it; don’t believe it; be on the fence about it for now; decide for yourself whether the reporters are credible and the sources are credible and whether there are enough of them. But don’t reflexively reject these stories, simply because they’re “anonymous.” They’re not.

I strongly suggest that you look at this excellent piece by Jason Thibeault, The web of trust: Why I believe Shermer’s accusers, which gets into similar concepts more thoroughly.

*Yes, I know that Deep Throat was technically not an unnamed source. He was on deep background (hence the nickname): not letting himself be cited as a direct source of information, but instead corroborating or disconfirming information from other unnamed sources, pointing Woodward in fruitful directions, and giving background and big-picture information to put the information Woodward already had in a comprehensible context. Both Woodward and Bernstein did have plenty of unnamed sources, however, who they did cite more directly in their reporting. As has pretty much every other investigative journalist in the known universe. I’m using Deep Throat as my analogy because he’s so widely known, and his story is so recognizable.

On Being Honored for Having Gotten Cancer

LLS-logoSo, this awesome and somewhat weird thing has happened. I’ve been named the 2013 Honored Hero by the Foundation Beyond Belief for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Foundation’s Light the Night Walk.

This is a slightly odd thing. It’s wonderful, don’t get me wrong: I’m touched by it, it makes me feel both proud and humble, it inspires me to work harder for this movement. But it is slightly odd. And it’s making me think more carefully about what it means to live an honorable humanist life, a life that’s worth being honored for.

A brief bit of background. In October of 2012 I was diagnosed with endometrial cancer. I got lucky, if getting cancer can ever be “lucky”: the cancer was Stage 1, caught early, and they’re pretty sure they got all of it. I didn’t need chemo or radiation. All I needed was to get my uterus and ovaries cut out, and then to recover from the whole “having a major organ cut out” thing. I do have a genetic condition, Lynch Syndrome, which greatly increases my risk of getting certain cancers (including this one). Emotionally this feels a bit like having a time bomb in my body, but on a practical level, it mostly just means I have to get a colonoscopy once a year and get the pre-cancerous doodads scooped out before they turn ugly.

So that’s the first bit of background. The second bit: the Foundation Beyond Belief is once again supporting the Leukemia & Lymphoma Foundation’s big annual fundraiser. Last year, the first year of the FBB’s participation in the Light the Night Walk, they raised $430,000 dollars. This was the largest amount ever raised by a first-year non-corporate team, and the fourth largest amount raised by any team in the nation in 2012, including corporate teams. As awesome as this was, they’re hoping to outdo themselves this year. Now that the atheist community is familiar with this event and the structures are in place, they’re raising their sights to a goal of $500,000.

Last year, they named Christopher Hitchens as their International Team’s Honored Hero. As someone whose atheism and cancer were both very public, Hitchens was an obvious figure around whom the community could mobilize for this event.

This year, they’ve named me.

I am both proud and humble that they thought me worthy of this honor. But I’ll be honest: I’m also slightly puzzled by it. When I first heard about it, I kept thinking, “Why am I being honored for getting cancer?” I mean, it’s not like getting cancer is an accomplishment. It’s not something I made happen—it’s something that happened to me. If I could have avoided it, you better believe I would have.

But when I think about it more carefully, I don’t think I’m being honored for having gotten cancer.

*****

Thus begins my latest column for The Humanist magazine, On Being Honored for Having Gotten Cancer. To read more, read the rest of the piece. And if you want to take part in the Leukemia & Lymphoma Foundation’s Light the Night Walk under the Foundation Beyond Belief banner, here’s how to get started.

If You’re Getting Discouraged…

If you’ve been getting discouraged lately by all the horrible bullshit, and by all the people who want to cover their eyes and pretend the bullshit isn’t real, and by all the people who would rather blame the victims of the bullshit rather than consider the possibility that it might be real… I bring you this comment, recently made by SheerDistaste at The Atheist Experience.

Don’t stop at the first two sentences. Keep reading.

You know what? This whole feminism crap that all of FtB has been going on about ever since that elevator thing pisses me off.

Do you know why it pisses me off?

Because it’s rubbing off on me.

Back when it started here, pretty much all of the articles talking about feminism, harassment at conferences, rape culture, whatever I found to be ridiculous overreactions to inconsequential bullshit.

Then after reading these articles for about a month, eventually 1 in 10 I would say “that’s actually a good point”. Then it was 2 in 10, then 3. As of now it’s about 8/10.

And furthermore, often when I am reading something, or talking to someone, or watching something, etc. completely away from FtB, I’ll find myself thinking “that’s sexist” or “that’s really offensive and degrading to women, I don’t support that at all” – when before I wouldn’t ever have these thoughts. And whenever I get these thoughts I get annoyed because I’m starting to sound like PZ Myers or whoever or one of his flunkies here… yet these things keep popping into my head, more and more frequently!

You guys (and girls) are slowly turning me into a feminist, and that pisses me off a lot.

Dear SheerDistaste,

First of all — thank you. A whole lot of us really needed to hear that right about now.

Second — yeah, I’m pissed off too. Swallowing the red pill can really, truly suck. It’s hard to see how shitty the world is sometimes. It’s hard to see how deeply sexism has burrowed into all of our brains. It’s hard to see people denying even the possibility of unconscious sexism, because they don’t want to admit that they or the people they care about are perpetuating it, and don’t want to do the hard, never-ending work of uprooting it. It’s hard to see rape culture in action, perpetuated by otherwise decent people who would no doubt be outraged that you think of them as perpetuating rape culture. It’s hard having your eyes opened to sexism… and then, as a direct result, having your eyes opened to racism, and classism, and ableism, and xenophobia, and homophobia, and transphobia, and all the other isms and phobias that permeate our brains and our culture. And it’s really, really hard to see how often the bad guys win.

On the other hand…

You get to have authentic relationships and connections with people of all genders. You get to live your life without constantly worrying about “Am I a real man?” or “Am I a real woman?” You get to not live in a constant state of cognitive dissonance. You get to expand the kinds of people you can have friendships and relationships with, and not live your life in a bubble of people who are almost exactly like you. You get to know that you matter, that you’re one of the people who’s making the world better. And you get to have some incredibly smart, funny, courageous, compassionate, dedicated, insightful, freaking awesome people in your life.

I’m giving myself a pep talk here, as much as I’m giving you one. This has been a shitty, shitty couple of weeks, and a shitty, shitty couple of years, and right now I’m feeling very discouraged and demoralized. So mostly, I want to say “Thank you.” Thank you for being willing to change your mind about something difficult. And thank you for saying this. A whole lot of us really needed to hear it.

And I’m putting out a call for comments. If you became a feminist, or became more of a feminist, because of all the writing and speaking and video-making and podcasting and other work that so many of us have been doing about it? Please say so here. If you’ve been emboldened to speak out more about feminism by other people speaking out? Please say so here. And if you can think of other reasons why you’re happy to know and understand about feminism, despite it often being painful and angry-fying? Please say so here. I think a lot of us could stand to hear it right now. I know I could.

Activist Burnout — Prevention & Treatment: My Talk at SSA Con West 2013

My talk at the Secular Student Alliance convention this year is up on YouTube! The topic: “Activist Burnout — Prevention & Treatment.”

I think a lot of us maybe need to hear this right now. I actually just watched the video myself: I wrote this talk to be as much of a pep talk for myself as it is for the rest of the movement, and I, for one, really needed to hear it tonight.

This, by the way, is the talk that includes my analog PowerPoint slide… which became a trope/ running joke throughout the rest of the conference.

Topics I touch on include: taking care of your health; carving out a life separate from activism; finding forms of activism you like to do — and letting that change as your life changes; just saying “No” to projects; and more. The talk is aimed at atheist activists, and somewhat particularly at student atheist activists… but I think it’s probably applicable to almost any social change activist, in any field. Plus — analog PowerPoint slide! Enjoy!

Secular Meditation: What’s the Point?

As I’ve been pursuing this new meditation practice that I’ve been yammering on about, there’s a question that keeps coming up: Why, exactly, am I doing this? What’s the point?

I don’t mean “What’s the point?” as in “Why am I bothering with this?” I know why I’m bothering with this. I’m getting a whole lot out of this practice: it’s affecting my life in heaps of ways, most of them overwhelmingly positive.* But… well, that’s actually the question on my mind. I’m getting lots of different things out of this practice. Which of these are side benefits — and which of them are actually the central point?

This isn’t an academic question. The specific goals I’m trying to achieve with meditation are, to some extent, going to affect how exactly I pursue it. I’m already noticing subtle but non-trivial differences in different forms of meditation and how they affect me… and it’s occurring to me, as I work on creating a meditation routine that fits into my life, that what I want to get from meditation is going to affect how exactly I go about it.

So what are the reasons that I’m doing this practice… and which of these, if any, are the central reasons? (For me, of course. Your mileage will almost certainly vary; your motivations and priorities for doing this, if you are doing this or are considering it, will almost certainly be different from mine. And yes, I’m aware of the irony of being goal-oriented about a practice that’s fundamentally about acceptance and being in the moment. I’m looking at that… but I’m basically okay with it.)

sad_silhouetteAlleviation of depression, stress, and anxiety. This is the primary reason I started this practice in the first place. I was experiencing a serious depressive episode, triggered by seriously bad shit happening in my life, and I was looking for pretty much anything I could add to my mental health care repertoire. (Anything with some decent evidence showing that it’s effective, that is.)

And this is still a huge part of what I’m getting out of this practice. Both in the immediate sense, and in the longer term. If I’m having a depressive episode, meditation is one of the things — like exercise, or spending time outdoors — that reliably makes me feel at least somewhat better pretty much right away. And in the longer term, the practice does seem to be helping lift the depression: my episodes are coming less frequently, and are less severe, and are easier to pull out of, since I started the practice. (And yes, I realize that many other factors are contributing to this improvement, and I realize that I am a data point of one, subject to confirmation bias and the placebo effect. I wouldn’t be crediting this practice with these effects if there weren’t medical research backing it up.)

But I don’t think this is the central reason I’m doing this. I can see how it would be for a lot of people, that would be entirely reasonable — but I don’t think it is for me. I think that once this episode of depression is managed and is well behind me, I’m still going to want to meditate, and am still going to find value in it.

still waterThe ability to be still. This is a good one. Before I started mindfulness and meditation, I was totally one of those people who couldn’t be still for a minute, who wanted to constantly be doing some activity or having some sort of stimulation going into her brain, who surfed the phone and checked her email while waiting five minutes for her coffee at the cafe, who drummed her fingers and looked at Twitter and Facebook while her email was taking thirty seconds to load. Now… well, okay, I’m still one of those people, but I’m a whole lot less like that. And I’m getting less like that every week. I’m becoming much better able to just be still, to take those five minutes waiting for my coffee and spend them focusing on my breathing, or observing how my body feels and experiencing it, or even just looking around and noticing, really noticing, the people around me and the place I’m in. (It’s a bit paradoxical, I suppose, since “practicing mindfulness” is still, in some sense, an activity… but it’s a paradox I’m okay with.)

This is a big one. And it’s one of the ones that really feeds the others. Being able to be still makes it easier — heck, makes it possible — to connect with my body, to respond rather than react, to turn my focus where I want to. Actually, it makes it easier — heck, makes it possible — to meditate in the first place.

But I still think it’s a side effect. I don’t think this is the central reason I’m doing this.

hammockRelaxation. Yeah… not so much.

It’s interesting how many people assume that the point of meditation is to relax. Not so much. Sometimes meditation is relaxing… but sometimes, it’s really not. I’ve had meditation sessions that made me want to climb out of my skin. Not as often now that I’m more experienced with the practice, and am better able to sit with uncomfortable or unpleasant emotions and let them happen instead of twitching out of my skin to evade them. But still. Meditation is often relaxing for me… but sometimes it’s aggravating, or uncomfortable, or frustrating, or occasionally even upsetting.

The point of meditation and mindfulness isn’t to relax. The point is to be present with my thoughts and emotions and sensations… even if they’re uncomfortable, or anxious, or freaky, or frightening, or sad. In the long term, in my day-to-day life, this practice does seem to be making me more calm and peaceful. But if I want to do something that will reliably relax me, I’m much more likely to get a massage, or masturbate, or sit quietly and read a book.

So yeah. This definitely isn’t the central reason I’m doing this. It’s not even a peripheral reason. It’s a nice thing that happens sometimes.

peace-signPeace. Since starting this practice, I’ve become much more accepting of annoying things in my life that I can’t change. Small things, mostly — things like the bus being stuck in traffic, or the restaurant being out of the dessert I wanted — but I’m becoming better able to apply this to some bigger things as well. And frankly, the “little things” thing is not so little. The ability to get through the day without falling into a series of irritations and frustrations and mini-rages over small things that I can’t do anything about — the ability to go, “Yes, this is irritating and frustrating, but it’s out of my hands, so I’m just going to let it go,” and the ability to then actually let it go — that’s pretty awesome. (I’m working on a whole separate post about this, in fact: the whole “serenity to accept what I can’t change, courage to change what I can, wisdom to know the difference” aspect of this practice. It’s the “wisdom to know the difference” that tends to be the sticking point, of course. But I digress.)

So, yeah. Inner peace. Pretty cool. But still not the central reason for doing this.

Nervous_system_diagramConnection with my body, and improved body awareness. Many of the practices I’m doing are very body-focused. There’s the body scan (the practice I try to do every day if I can), in which I focus my attention and awareness on each part of my body in turn, fully experiencing the sensations in each part before moving on to the next. There’s the walking meditation, in which I walk slowly and deliberately, focusing my attention and awareness on each step I take, and how it feels in my feet and legs and the rest of my body. There’s the breath meditation, in which I focus my attention and awareness on my breath, as I breathe in and out. All of these have the effect of making me more intensely and intimately connected with my body: not living in my head quite so much, not feeling quite so much like data stored in a cloud system, off in the ether, accessible by my hardware but separate from it. And this has loads of benefits: from making it easier to take care of my health, to just feeling good in and of itself.

But no. Still a side effect. Still not the central reason for of all this.

wait-signResponding rather than reacting; having my experiences rather than them having me. This is a big one. This is a huge one. This is pretty darned close to the central reason I do this.

It’s also a little hard to describe. But I’ll take a crack at it.

There is a difference between consciously responding to things, and reflexively reacting to them. There is a difference between, on the one hand, having a thought or sensation or emotion, and noticing it, and making a conscious choice about what, if anything to do about it… and on the other hand, having a thought or sensation or emotion, and reacting to it impulsively, without thinking. There is a difference between being influenced by my thoughts and emotions and sensations… and being driven by them. I sometimes think of it as the difference between riding a rollercoaster, and being chained to it. The way I usually frame it is that I want to have my experiences, my thoughts and feelings and sensations… rather than being them, rather than them having me.

This isn’t an either/or thing. I do both of these, I always have, I probably always will. But since I’ve started meditating, the balance is sliding away from the latter, and towards the former. I won’t pretend that I’m anywhere with this other than tiny baby steps — but I can already see a difference.

And this is huge. This has enormous potential to change my life for the better. This is already changing my life for the better. This is making me better able to make good decisions; to take my time about making decisions; to patiently wait for information to come in before making decisions; to make decisions thoughtfully based on my actual values rather than making them reflexively based on my lizard-hindbrain fight-or-flight instincts. And it’s also just enabling me to feel a little more centered, to not feel like I’m constantly being whipped around, to feel like my life is mine and that it doesn’t belong to whatever circumstances happen to be popping up at the moment.

This is a big fucking deal.

But I still think this is a side effect. A big one, and one that’s very close indeed to what I’m seeing as the central point of meditation and mindfulness… but still a side effect.

camera lensSharpened focus. This is even closer to the central point. When I meditate, I often feel like I’m practicing a very specific mental skill: the skill of turning my attention and awareness away from the distracting chatter that my brain constantly churns out, and returning my focus to whatever I’m choosing to focus on. And when I say I’m “practicing” this skill, I mean it literally, in the sense that a musician or an athlete practices — doing it over and over and over and over and over again, and over, and over, and over and over and over… until I get better at it, until it becomes easier and more second nature. It feels almost like physical exercise: like I’m exercising the muscle in my brain that recognizes when I’ve gotten sucked into some memory or worry or plan or fantasy or perseveration, and notices it, and accepts it, and gently turns away from it to focus on something else. (And yes, I know I don’t have muscles in my brain. A more accurate description would probably be that I’m strengthening and reinforcing certain neural pathways.)

And this is huge. This ability to consciously decide what I’m going to pay attention to, the ability to let go of multi-tasking and just focus on doing one thing at a time… it’s huge. It has already improved my work productivity tremendously, my ability to focus on whatever piece I’m actually working on, and not get constantly distracted by shiny beads on the Internet. (Hey, I said “improved.” I didn’t say “perfected.”) And this increased ability to focus my attention and awareness where I choose to focus it… it’s absolutely essential to realizing the central thing that I’m getting out of this practice.

But it’s not the central thing.

I think the central thing that I’m ultimately getting from this mindfulness practice is this:

Mindfulness itself.

Mindfulness isn’t just a means to an end. Mindfulness is an end. Mindfulness, itself, is the point.

This is the only life I have. I want to be present in it. I want to experience it. I don’t want to be barely conscious through most of it. I don’t want to be sleepwalking through it like a zombie. And I don’t want to constantly be racing through it to the next bit. I don’t want to spend my entire life focused on my future, until I’m on my deathbed and look back and realize that I didn’t let myself have a present. I want to savor the experiences of my life, and really take them in. I want to taste the food I’m eating. I want to absorb the book I’m reading. I want to feel the sex I’m having. I want to stay present with people when I’m with them, and to really listen to them, without tuning out or rehearsing what I’m going to say next.

I want to be present in my life. That’s what mindfulness means. The reason for practicing mindfulness is so I can get better at being mindful. Mindfulness, itself, is the point.

And all these other effects of this practice are, for me, ultimately subsets of this one, or are in service of it. The ability to focus is a form of being mindful. The ability to respond rather than react, and to experience my thoughts and emotions rather than have them toss me around, is a form of being mindful. Being present with my body is a form of being mindful — and it makes it easier to be mindful in other ways. Being at peace makes it easier to be mindful. Being relaxed (when that happens) makes it easier to be mindful. Being still makes it easier to be mindful. Not being depressed sure as hell makes it easier to be mindful. In fact, in some ways, that “buried in a vat of cotton” feeling of depression, the feeling of being disconnected from my life and my feelings, the inability to experience pleasure, the inability to make the connection between seeing something that I want or need to do and finding the will to do it… all of this is, almost by definition, an inability to be mindful, an inability to be present in my life and to experience it. These side effects aren’t trivial, far from it. But they’re side effects.

Now, on a day-to-day basis, I am going to tailor my practice, at least to some extent, to which side benefit I feel most in need of. If I’m feeling anhedonic and disconnected from my body, I’m going to do a body scan, or maybe a walking meditation. If I’m feeling jittery and jumpy and in need of calm, I’m going to do one of the “sitting still or lying down” practices: a body scan or a sitting meditation, as opposed to a walking meditation. If I’m feeling reactive, overwhelmed by my emotions and worries, I’m going to do the “focus on your thoughts” or “focus on your feelings” meditation, where I let myself have my thoughts or feelings, and notice them, and experience them, and let them pass. Again, these effects aren’t trivial: they have a great positive impact on my life, both in the larger scheme and in my day-to-day, minute-to-minute experience of it. And of course, many of these practices and effects feed into each other, and make each other easier and more effective.

But ultimately, for me, the point of practicing mindfulness isn’t to be less reactive, or to have more stillness and peace, or to be more connected with my body, or to bring a more laser-like focus to my writing, or even to be less depressed and anxious and stressed. The point of practicing mindfulness is so I can get better at being mindful. Mindfulness, itself, is the point.

*There have, in fact, been a few interesting and unexpected downsides to this practice… which I may write about at some point.

Why We Need to Keep Fighting

This piece was originally published in Free Inquiry magazine.

Megaphone.svgIf we don’t speak up, the status quo wins.

Yes, this fight can be painful. When we fight against deeply entrenched beliefs, beliefs that people are emotionally attached to, beliefs that are entangled with the social and political and economic structures on every level, it can be difficult. More than difficult. We’re asking people to give up ideas that they’ve built their lives around. We’re asking people to change, often in profound ways. We’re asking people to take a leap into a way of thinking, indeed a way of living, that they know little or nothing about, and that they’ve been fed lies and myths and misinformation about. We’re asking people to admit that they’re wrong, about something really important. In many cases, we’re asking people to acknowledge that they have done harm. Of course they’re going to resist. Of course they’re going to fight back.

We’re often told that our fights against these beliefs are divisive. And the people saying this aren’t wrong. These fights can be ugly, painful, difficult. They can create bad feeling between people who might otherwise be friends and allies. They can make it hard to work together on issues we have in common.

But calling for an end to the fighting means standing up for the status quo.

When one group of people has gotten to control the conversation for centuries, indeed for millennia, and another group of people finally begins to get their voice of opposition heard… of course it’s going to create conflict. To say, “Let’s stop all this fighting,” basically means saying, “Let’s return to the way things used to be.” It basically means saying, “If there’s any pushback at all against this, the absolute top priority must always be that the people controlling the conversation don’t get their feelings hurt.” It basically means saying, “Let’s return to the good old days, when so many of us were comfortable and complacent, and the people who weren’t kept their mouths shut.”

And that is not acceptable.

The status quo is wrong. It is wrong in the sense that it is literally, factually mistaken, about questions of objective reality. It is wrong in the sense that it harms people, in real, practical, terrible ways. We cannot accept the status quo simply because fighting against it is painful. We have to be willing to fight. At the very minimum, we have to not try to stop other people from fighting.

I think now would be a good time to stop and say: I’m not, in fact, talking here about atheists fighting against a world steeped in religion, a world largely controlled by religious believers. Yes, of course, everything I say here could be applied to that. But that’s not what I’m talking about this time.

I’m talking about feminists fighting against a world steeped in sexism, a world largely controlled by men.

I’ve been noticing something interesting lately. As you may know, I’m the author of a book titled “Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless.” I’m the writer whose blog post about atheist anger went viral all over the Internet; I’m the speaker whose talk about atheist anger at Skepticon 4 has gotten over 150,000 views on YouTube. I am literally the person who wrote the book on atheist anger. And I am regularly and enthusiastically applauded by many atheists for articulating my anger about religion — anger that these atheists share — in such a passionate, uncompromising manner.

And yet, in all too many cases, the exact same atheists who applaud my passionate, uncompromising anger about religion will turn around and say that I need to be polite, diplomatic, understanding, non-divisive, and moderate when it comes to my anger about misogyny and sexism. At least, when it comes to my anger about misogyny and sexism within the atheist movement.

If it didn’t piss me off so much, I’d think it was hilarious.

screaming statueYou don’t get to have it both ways. You don’t get to be inspired and motivated by my uncompromising rage about religion… and then tell me that my uncompromising rage about sexism and misogyny in the atheist movement is divisive, distracting, sapping energy from the important business of atheist activism. You don’t get to cheer me on for being such a badass when I stand up fiercely against religion in society… and then scold me for being a bad soldier when I stand up fiercely against sexism and misogyny within the atheist movement. You don’t get to applaud my outspoken fearlessness when I demand that social and political and economic systems be made safe and welcoming for atheists, and when I point out the ways in which they are not… and then call me a divisive, attention-hungry professional victim when I demand that atheist groups and organizations and events be made safe and welcoming for women, and point out the ways in which they are not.

Does this fight get in the way of unity? Probably. As I wrote in my blog last May:
I do not want to be in unity with atheists who tell me to fuck myself with a knife. I do not want to be in unity with atheists who say they hope I get raped, who tell me to choke on a dick and die. I do not want to be in unity with atheists who say that I’m a whore and therefore nobody should take me seriously. I do not want to be in unity with atheists who say that I’m an ugly dyke and therefore nobody should take me seriously. I do not want to be in unity with atheists who post their opponents’ home addresses on the Internet; who hack into their opponents’ private email lists and make content from those emails public. I do not want to be in unity with atheists who alert the Westboro Baptist Church to atheist events, and ask if they plan to attend. I do not want to be in unity with atheists who bombard other people with a constant barrage of hate and threats of rape, violence, and death. I do not want to be in unity with atheists who call me a cunt, who call other women cunts, again and again and again and again and again. And I do not want to be in unity with atheists who consistently rationalize this behavior, who trivialize it, who make excuses for it.

I will now add to that list: I do not want to be in unity with atheists who sexually harass or sexually assault women: at workplaces, at conferences, or anywhere else. This was not in my original post from May or my original Free Inquiry article — but it should have been.

And I do not want to be in unity with atheists who consistently rationalize this behavior, who trivialize it, who make excuses for it, who blame the victims of it, who tell us to just ignore it, who say we’re participating in a “culture of victimization” for talking about it, who tell us that we have to set aside these “differences” in the name of unity.

And I don’t think I should be expected to. I don’t think anyone in this movement should be asking that of me. I don’t think anyone in this movement should be asking that of anyone.

megaphone 2If feminists in the atheist movement don’t speak up about sexism and misogyny in this movement, the status quo wins. And the status quo is one in which most atheist organizations are led by men, one in which most of our prominent public figures and spokespeople are men, one in which most conferences and meetups and groups and events are primarily attended by men. The status quo is one in which movement leaders say and do unbelievably stupid sexist shit… and double down when they’re called on it… and still continue to be movement leaders, with few consequences or none at all. The status quo is one in which the most moderate, non-controversial proposals for making the community welcome to women — such as having clear policies at conferences barring sexual harrassment — turn into a firestorm of controversy that eats the Internet for months. The status quo is one in which questions about why all this might be, and suggestions about what might be done to change it, are routinely met with anger, bafflement, dismissal, patronization, calls for moderation, excuses, elaborate rationalizations for why any explanation at all other than unconscious sexism must be the real reason for this pattern, and an insistence that our absolute top priority in this conversation has to be that men’s feelings don’t get hurt.

Yes, this pattern is changing. The degree to which this pattern has been changing is the degree to which people have been speaking out about it, and pushing back against it. This pattern has been changing, and things have been getting better for women in the atheist movement, and more women are participating in the atheist movement at all levels, because people have been fighting for it.

And yes, these fights are hard. We’re fighting against deeply entrenched beliefs, beliefs that people are emotionally attached to, beliefs that are entangled with the social and political and economic structures on every level. We’re asking people to give up ideas that they’ve built their lives around. We’re asking people to change, often in profound ways. We’re asking people to take a leap into a way of thinking, indeed a way of living, that they know little or nothing about, and that they’ve been fed lies and myths and misinformation about. We’re asking people to admit that they’re wrong, about something really important. In many cases, we’re asking people to acknowledge that they have done harm. Of course some people are going to resist. Of course some people are going to fight back.

But that doesn’t mean the fight isn’t worth having.

My Podcast Interview With Masocast!

I have a new podcast interview up! This one is with Masocast, who does “casual interviews with intelligent, funny, and all around interesting kinky people.” We talk about the experience of writing erotic fiction, whether the stories in my erotic fiction collection (“Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More”) came from my own sexual fantasies, being out as a kinky person, how the kink community can become more accepted, how the hell I wound up writing “The Unicorn and the Rainbow,” and a lot more.

And we also talk about atheism! Masocast is an atheist, and we had a grand old time talking about godlessness before we got to the sex.

It was a delightful conversation, and Masocast is a great interviewer. I’d never heard of the Masocast podcast before I went on it myself, but I think I’m now going to have to keep listening. Enjoy the interview!

Bending coverThe ebook of “Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More” is available on Kindle, Nook, and Smashwords. The audiobook is available on Audible and Amazon. The print edition is in the works.

A Timeline of the Sexual Harassment Accusations

At the Lousy Canuck blog, Jason Thibeault has put together a timeline of the major events of the sexual harassment accusations in the skeptical and secular communities. This is a living document: he is updating it as new information comes in and as new events unfold.

This is hugely helpful. For people who have been following these stories and want a clear document of everything that’s happened; for people who have been following these stories and want to show other people exactly what’s been happening; for people who haven’t been following these stories because it’s confusing and new things keep coming out every day; for people who are writing or commenting on these stories and want to make sure they’re getting their facts right… this is enormously helpful

Also — when all the reports are put together like this, it’s really, really telling.

If you care about this issue, I urge to to go look at it.