Activist Burnout, Prevention and Treatment: Greta’s Talk at Skepticon 6

The talk I gave at Skepticon 6 — “Activist Burnout, Prevention and Treatment” — is now up on YouTube. Topics include taking care of your health, carving out an identity separate from atheist activism, taking breaks, getting a life, saying “No,” and more. Plus it features one of my rare uses of props in a talk — an analog PowerPoint slide!

Many thanks to Rob Lehr of Hambone Productions for the excellent videography, and for the Herculean marathon of video work he does every year at Skepticon.

State Senator to Constituents: “My Oath of Office Means Jack To Me”

From Salon:

State Sen. Jason Rapert, the man behind Arkansas’ ban on abortion at twelve weeks, may have been elected to office to serve the 85,000 constituents in his district, but, he says, he only really serves God.

“It’s more important to do what is right by God,” Rapert told an audience at the Faith2Action banquet in Columbus, Ohio, “than it is to please those that would rather have me talk about pro-life but not really do much about pro-life.”

“There’s only one vote that matters and that’s when I stand before the Lord at the judgment seat,” he added, just in case it wasn’t clear.

Yeah. About that, Senator Rapert.

I looked up the Oath of Office for State Senators in the state of Arkansas. Wasn’t hard. Took about thirty seconds of Googling. You might want to try it when you have a sec. Here’s what it says:

“I, ________, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Arkansas, and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office of ________, upon which I am now about to enter.”

Please note the lack of any reference to doing what is right by God.

And this is the oath you swore. This is the position you campaigned for. This is the job you were elected to do.

If you want to spend your life doing what is right by your idea of God… there are jobs where you can do that. You can be a preacher, a missionary, a Bible salesman, a teacher at a Bible school, a data entry clerk at a mail-order Christian supply company.

But you didn’t want that. You wanted to be a state senator. And when you became a state senator, you made a promise. You swore an oath. And you did not swear an oath to serve God. You swore an oath to support the Constitution of the United States, to support the Constitution of the State of Arkansas, and to faithfully discharge the duties of your office.

So what you’re saying now is: “I lied. Yes, I promised to support the Constitutions of the United States and the State of Arkansas, and to faithfully discharge the duties of my office. And when I promised that, I lied like a dog. I had another agenda, a different set of priorities. If I have to choose between serving the constituents who elected me, and serving my personal idea of what I think my deity wants, I’m going to choose the latter. And I totally, barefacedly lied about that. Fuck all y’all.”

What’s more: I’d bet dollars to donuts that you swore this oath. I’d bet dollars to donuts that you didn’t affirm it, which is the secular version of oath-swearing. I’d bet a hundred dollars that when you made this promise, you made it with the implication that you were making it with your god as your witness. You made your god into your witness, the god you supposedly want to serve above all else — and you baldly lied.

I’m just sayin’, is all.

Shorter JT

JT Eberhard has responded to Jen McCreight’s critique of his post on Bria Crutchfield’s critique of a commenter at a Q&A at the recent Great Lakes Atheist Convention.

He took 8,208 words to do it in, though. Here’s my summary. Shorter JT:

“I wasn’t saying that it’s always bad to express anger about racism. I am just taking it upon myself to tell an African-American woman how and when and where and in what tone she should express her anger about racism. I am doing this, even though it enrages me when religious believers do the same thing to atheists — take it upon themselves to tell us how to run our movement and our messaging, and consistently advise us to tone it down. I know when the intent behind a racist question is genuine and when it’s hostile, and other people should trust me on this. Also, the intent behind a question is the most important factor in determining how to respond to it.

“A white person being embarrassed at being called out on her racism — whether intentional or unintentional — is the most deserving target of my compassion, the one I should be spending thousands of words defending. The African-American people who were the targets of that racism are a secondary concern. Also, African-Americans’ suspicions of white people are equivalent to white people’s suspicions of African-Americans.

“If people don’t understand what I say, it’s their fault as readers, not my responsibility as a writer. Also, if people interpret my writing differently from how I want it to be interpreted, it’s not that they have a perspective that I’m not seeing — they’re just wrong. It’s a mischaracterization. They just don’t understand me. It couldn’t possibly be that they understand me all too well.

“Some people don’t like the harsh tone that some social justice advocates sometimes take. They are tickled pink to see bloggers take on religion and religious believers with passion, rage, invective, and biting wit, a la Christopher Hitchens — but they don’t like it when these tactics are turned on them. In some cases, the fact that some people will harshly disagree when they get stuff wrong is enough to keep them from speaking out about social justice. They would rather stay silent about injustice than speak out and risk being verbally smacked down if they get it wrong. And when speaking about social justice, avoiding offense should be our highest priority. People only ever change their minds on social justice when they’re spoken to nicely: harsh expressions of anger doesn’t change people’s minds — even though I say the exact opposite when it comes to speaking about religion. Therefore, social justice advocates within the atheist movement should tailor our tone to make sure it doesn’t hurt anyone’s feelings — even though most of us get furious when religious believers tell atheists to do the same thing. The social justice advocates — “Jen, Greta, and their ilk” (that’s a direct quote) — are driving people away from atheism. People are being driven away or kept away from the atheist movement because of infighting — but me devoting several thousand words to criticizing other atheists somehow doesn’t count as infighting, it’s only when people disagree with me that it counts as infighting. Social justice advocates are ruining atheism. Despite the large number of people who say they have had their minds changed about social justice by those of us who are writing about it, we are still ruining atheism.

“And the fact that just about every feminist friend I ever had in this movement has called me out on my attitudes about this, numerous times… that’s not a problem. They’re just all wrong. If just about every quantum physicist I knew told me I was wrong about quantum physics, I’d probably pay attention — but I’m not going to pay attention to this.”

My response:

Your concerns are noted, and will be given all due consideration. Thank you for sharing.

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.

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!

Celebrate Same-Sex Marriage… and Demand a New Voting Right Act

Yesterday was a happy, happy day. The Supreme Court struck two powerful blows for equality: forcing the Federal government to recognize same-sex marriages, and effectively overturning Prop 8 and alloweing same-sex marriage in California. Yay!

But the day before yesterday was a fucking travesty. The Supreme Court struck down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, effectively gutting the act. The tl;dr: The Voting Rights Act recognized that some states have a lousy track record of actively and systematically stopping some people — most notably black people — from voting… and it required those states to get federal approval when they changed their voting laws.

That’s now gone.

So now these states (Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia) can enact restrictive voter ID laws that placee a disproportionate burden on poor people, young people, and racial minorities… without any federal oversight. They can gerrymander their voting districts to disenfranchise poor people, young people, and racial minorities… without any federal oversight. They can set up different voting rules and regulations in different districts, making it easier to vote in rich, white, conservative districts, and harder to vote in poor, non-white, progressive districts… without any federal oversight.

And they’re going to. They’re already doing it. Within two hours of the Supreme Court decision, Texas passed a voter ID law that the Federal government had quashed after VRA mandated review.

Think this doesn’t affect you? Think again. To give just one example: You know Wendy Davis, the amazing Texas state senator whose filibuster stopped a draconian anti-abortion bill from passing? Republicans have already tried to gerrymander her out of her district. Now that the Voting Rights Act has been gutted, that’s suddenly going to be a whole lot easier for them.

This affects all of us. If you give a damn about citizens in this country being able to vote… this affects you. If you give a damn about the fundamental moral principle that citizens being able to vote, without pointless roadblocks being thrown in their way because they won’t vote the way the entrenched power interests want them to… this affects you. If you give a damn about the way that the principle of democracy in this country is gradually being chipped away at, bit by bit… this affects you.

We can’t let the happy news about same-sex marriage lull us into complacency. There is hard work ahead.

The NAACP has a petition in place already, pressing Congress to enact a new Voting Rights Act, one that the Supreme Court can’t gut on the specious grounds that the old one is out of date. Sign it. And then throw some money their way — every penny helps. And spread the word about it: tell your friends, spread the word on Facebook and Twitter, do whatever you can to raise the alarm. And get onto other ways to support them and take action.

And if you have other suggestions about hard action that we can take on this, or other organizations that are working on this, please speak up in the comments.

If you’re at all into this social justice/ intersectionality thing… put your money, or your time, or your voice, where your mouth is. Thanks.

“People want to matter more than they want to live”: Rebecca Goldstein’s Talk at Women in Secularism 2

Women In Secularism 2 logo

Note: The Women in Secularism 2 was kind of a weird rollercoaster. The highs — and it was overwhelmingly highs — were very high indeed; the lows were seriously low, and of a variety that seeped poison into the highs and made them harder to appreciate. Many other people have been writing about some of the lows: I may well weigh in on them at some point myself (although others have already said most of what I would want to say). But the speakers and panelists at WiS2 mostly seem to have cared deeply about making this conference incredible, and overwhelmingly brought their A-game. Lows aside, this was easily one of the best conferences I’ve attended. It’s hard to find the balance between not ignoring the awful but not letting it take over everything, and I’m not going to tell anyone else where that balance should be for them. Myself, I want to spend a couple/ few days writing about the awesome, before I decide what to say about the crap.

“People want to matter more than they want to live.”

Rebecca GoldsteinA somewhat interesting thing happened at the Women in Secularism 2 conference. The talk that got most people excited and happy and buzzing was from a speaker who isn’t often seen on the atheism circuit. I asked almost everyone I spoke with at the conference who their favorite speaker was… and almost all of them said, “Rebecca Goldstein.” Or else, since many people weren’t familiar with Goldstein, they said, “The last speaker on Friday before the reception. The one who spoke about mattering.”

That was certainly true for me. I was gobsmacked. I’ve only seen Goldstein speak once before… and both times now, she has completely rearranged my brain. Today’s piece is something of a mish-mash between the ideas she presented in her talk, and the places where my now-rearranged brain is running with them. Mostly, though, they’re her ideas, and she deserves the credit.

The core idea: There are a handful of deep, fundamental desires that drive almost all human beings. We want to eat; we want to have sex; we want connection with other people; we want to feel good; we want to survive. Some others.

Goldstein’s thesis — and one that’s now being supported by many psychologists — is that we have to add something to this list: We want to matter.

Some people, in fact, want to matter more than they want to live. Think about people who are willing to die for a cause. They are willing to die, indeed happy to die, if they think that their death — or the work and the fight they’re risking their lives for — will matter.

This is the idea that’s been resonating through my head for days now. I’m seeing it everywhere. Why are we so obsessed with fame and celebrity? Why do people take ridiculous dangerous risks, just so they can make videos that go viral on YouTube? Why do I get more upset about the ultimate heat-death of the universe than I do about my own eventual death? People want to matter… in some cases, more than we want to live.

So what does this have to do with religion and atheism — or for that matter, with women and feminism and social justice?

Well. For starters:

Jesus_Blessing_the_ChildrenOne of the main things people get from religion is the feeling that they matter. After all, what could make you feel more important than believing that the creator of the entire universe cares passionately about you: that he wants more than almost anything for you to do right and be with him after you die, and is even waging a war for your soul? In fact, Goldstein — along with the psychologists who are running with this idea — argues that modern religions with more interventionist/ caring gods began to arise with the rise of civilization and cities, when many people began to have less of an intimate connection with their society and their world, and became more anonymous and interchangeable. When you don’t matter as much to the people around you, when the human world is treating you like a replaceable cog in a machine, the more animistic, “gods and spirits are running around doing stuff that affects us but without that much attention to us” religion isn’t as attractive as a god or gods who keep close tabs on each and every human life.

Of course there’s a creepy Orwellian aspect of this kind of belief as well. What with the all-knowing creator of the universe constantly spying on you, never giving you a moment to yourself, listening in on even your private thoughts and desires. But I’m guessing — and I’d be interested to know if the psychology backs me up on this — that most of us who find this God thing more creepy than comforting are people who already have a strong sense of mattering. We don’t need to matter to an invisible magical creator… since we already feel like we matter to the world.

Which brings me to Part Two: What does all this have to do with women and feminism and social justice?

I bet you see where I’m going with this. Or rather, where Rebecca Goldstein is going with this.

Religion — especially this “God knows and cares about every feather falling off of every sparrow, of course he cares about you” religion — is going to be more appealing, and more important, to people who feel that they don’t matter. People who are marginal, invisible, anonymous to the world around them, will have more of a need to believe in a god who sees them and loves them, a god to whom they matter. People who have a greater sense of agency, visibility, influence, aren’t going to need that as much.

And when you think about people who are marginal, invisible, anonymous to the world around them — women are high on that list. Along with poor people, blue-collar people, people of color, LGBT people, disabled people, many others I don’t have space to list here.

So if atheism is going to flourish, we need to do two things.

1: We need to make damn well sure that these folks matter to us.

We can’t keep building a community and a movement for people who already have power, people who already feel like they matter. We need to build a community and a movement where otherwise marginal, invisible, anonymous people matter. And we can’t just decide to make their concerns our concerns, out of the benevolence of our hearts. We need to create a community and a movement where all atheists count as “we.” We need to create a community and a movement where these folks get a voice, a place at the table, a say in what matters to all of us.

And 2: We need to work towards a world where these folks matter more… period.

society_without_godIt’s already been well-documented (largely and most famously in Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment by Phil Zuckerman) that societies with high levels of happiness and social functioning tend to be societies with high rates of atheism. If Goldstein’s hypothesis holds up, this doesn’t just apply to the obvious elements of the “happiness index” Zuckerman talks about, a strong economy and a low crime rate and good education and good health care and well-supported arts and good beer. It applies to whether people feel like they matter: whether social policies are more egalitarian or more rigidly hierarchical, whether there’s relative economic equality or economic power is in the hands of a few, whether the government is deeply corrupt or the people have a say in it.

We need to treat people as if they matter. Everyone. We need to put work and effort into getting people to matter who commonly feel like they don’t. We have to do this if we want atheism to flourish.

Not to mention it being, you know, the right thing to do.

Does Social Justice Activism Mean Mission Drift for Atheism and Skepticism?

If the atheist and skeptical movements focus on political and social justice issues, will that constitute mission drift?

No.

Okay. I realize that’s not a very satisfying answer. How about this: Nothing that anyone I know is advocating in this department constitutes mission drift. Sure, there are some ways this could hypothetically happen, if that does ever wind up happening it’d be worth commenting on or even pushing back on… but it doesn’t automatically and by definition constitute that, and the kinds of things that the social-justice crowd are advocating don’t fall into that category at all.

That may not be satisfying, either. Let me spell it out in a little more detail.

mission statement bookMyself, and the other people I know of who are advocating for the atheist and skeptical movements to focus more on social justice issues, are not proposing that these movements change their basic missions in any way. We simply want for these movements to expand the appeal of atheism and skepticism to demographics we haven’t traditionally attracted, by focusing part of our attention on issues that these people care about and that are still totally in our wheelhouse. We are basically advocating for two things:

(1) that these movements expand the focus of their existing missions into new areas having to do with politics and social justice, in ways that are consistent with those existing missions and that constitute clear overlap between those missions and these issues;

(2) that the organizations in these movements pay attention to these issues in internal matters, such as hiring and event organizing.

Let’s take #1 first. And let’s look first at skepticism.

The skeptical movement, and the main skeptical organizations, are focused (at least in theory) on doing activism and education around applying rationality, critical thinking skills, the scientific method, and the prioritization of evidence to address testable questions about non-subjective reality. It’s not about advocating for any specific conclusions — it’s about advocating for the methods, and the principles of valuing reality and truth that underlie those methods. In practice, it often doesn’t play out this way — in practice, for instance, the skeptical movements are strongly pro-vaccination and anti-creationism, and are pretty comfortable supporting the one position and opposing the other quite vehemently, and doing so qua skeptics. But yes, at least in theory, you could be a skeptic and a vaccine denialist: there’s no position that constitutes a litmus test for being a skeptic.

Sure. Fine.

So why can’t all that rationality, critical thinking skills, scientific method, and prioritization of evidence be applied to testable claims having to do with social justice?

DEA: DEA agents in Detroit, Michigan Spike TVTestable claims about social justice issues get made all the time. Yes, some social justice questions have to do with basic values that can’t really be settled by methods of rationality… but a whole lot of them don’t. Lots of them are questions about what is and is not factually, testably true. The claim that people have unconscious racial biases which affect our behavior is a testable claim. The claim that children raised in same-sex relationships grow up with deep psychological problems is a testable claim. The claim that people act significantly differently towards infants we think are male and infants we think are female is a testable claim. Proponents of the drug war make testable claims that certain practices and policies have certain results: that zero-tolerance for drug law violations, long sentences for people who break drug laws, significant resources being spent on investigation and enforcement of drug laws, etc., will result in less drug use and fewer negative consequences from drug use. Etc. Etc. Etc.

Why would it constitute mission drift for the skeptical movement to focus attention and research — and the advocacy of rational, evidence-based thinking — on these claims?

In fact, the skeptical movement is already focusing on political and social justice issues: with its focus on global warming denialism, for instance, or its questioning of the value of organic food. Given that this is true, why is there such strong pushback from so many people against the very notion of the skeptical movement focusing on other political and social justice issues, and such fear that this will pull skepticism away from its roots?

And now let’s look at atheism. The atheist movement, and the main atheist organizations, are focused (at least in theory) on advocating for the acceptance and civil rights of atheists, advocating for church/state separation, creating communities and support systems for atheists, and opposing the harm done by religion. (With different focuses from different organizations, of course.)

abstinence chalkboardSo why would it constitute mission drift for the atheist movement to focus on how religion harms people by undermining social justice? Why would it be mission drift to focus on the harm done by abstinence-only sex education; by the influence of the religious right on reproductive rights; by the influence of the religious right on public education and economic policy; by fraudulent preachers and psychics preying on impoverished communities? Why would it constitute mission drift to work on making our communities and support systems more welcoming to a wider spectrum of people, and to look at ways that these communities might be alienating some populations without intending to? Why would it constitute mission drift to look at ways that advancing acceptance and civil rights for atheists might work differently in different communities and demographics, and to adapt our work accordingly?

And in fact, just like with the skeptical movement, the atheist movement is already doing this. The atheist movement has, for instance, taken on the issue of gay rights and same-sex marriage, and has done so with passion and energy. Religious bigotry against gay people, and the myriad ways this bigotry has injured so many people, is one of the most prominent issues for the atheist movement, and has been for years. Given that this is true, why is there such strong pushback from so many people against the very notion of the atheist movement focusing on other political and social justice issues, and such fear that this will pull atheism away from its roots?

Why should the people who are already in the skeptical and atheist movements, the people who have been in the skeptical movements for years, be the ones to decide which topics are core issues for atheism and skepticism, and which ones are on the fringe?

Why is the very idea of expanding the appeal of atheism and skepticism to demographics we haven’t traditionally attracted, by focusing on issues that these people care about and that are still very much in our wheelhouse, being viewed with such suspicion and hostility?

Why should the agenda get to be set by the old guard?

Okay. So now let’s take a quick look at #2: asking skeptical and atheist organizations to pay attention to social justice issues in internal matters, such as hiring and event organizing.

This one won’t take long. It’s kind of a no-brainer. Or it should be.

equal opportunity employer logoDoes it constitute mission drift for skeptical and atheist organizations to adopt fair hiring practices and be equal opportunity employers? To have day care at meetings and conferences? To have student rates for conferences? To have meetings and events near public transportation, as much as possible? To have sign language interpreters at events? To have events at locations that are wheelchair accessible?

How would any of this change the mission of these organizations? Any more than it would change the mission of IBM, or the Audubon Society?

And if it wouldn’t… then why would it be mission drift for skeptical and atheist organizations to adopt affirmative action practices in booking speakers? To oppose the overt harassment and misogyny persistently aimed at women in our communities? To have codes of conduct at conferences?

You might agree with all of these policies, or with none of them, or with some but not others. You might agree with some of them in principle, but have issues with how they’re currently playing out in practice. But why are objections to these policies being presented as “mission drift”?

Why should the people who are already in the skeptical and atheist movements, the people who have been in the skeptical movements for years, be the ones to decide which internal policies are core issues for atheism and skepticism, and which ones are on the fringe?

Why is the very idea of expanding the appeal of atheism and skepticism to demographics we haven’t traditionally attracted, by changing internal policies in ways that these people care about and that are still consistent with our missions, being viewed with such suspicion and hostility?

Why should the agenda get to be set by the old guard?

I know. It’s really one of those questions that answers itself… isn’t it?


Note: Since I’m starting to have issues with writings about controversies and debates within the movement that don’t say who and what exactly they’re responding to: This piece was written in response to Jamy Ian Swiss’s talk at the Orange County Freethought Alliance conference. However, it’s a idea I’ve been thinking about for some time: this talk was simply the catalyst.

In Praise of Taxes

(This piece is a reprint from April 15, 2009.)

1040 formI realize that griping about taxes is an ancient tradition. Especially, in America, on or around April 15th.

Today, I want to buck this long-standing tradition.

Today, I want to speak in praise of taxes.

Look. I don’t passionately love paying taxes, either. I’m especially cranky about it this year [2009, when the piece was written], since there was a miscommunication about my withholding and I had to write a big-ass check today. (UPDATE: I’ve been super-especially cranky about it for the last few years, since the way the IRS is dealing with same-sex married couples is beyond stupid.)

highwayBut I drive on the highways that my taxes pay for. I hang out in the parks that my taxes pay for. I go to the libraries that my taxes pay for. I flush my toilet into the sewer pipes that my taxes pay for. When I set fire to my stove that one time, I called the fire department that my taxes paid for.

health inspection certificateAnd there are all the invisible things as well, the things our taxes pay for that we don’t notice until they disappear. There’s the filth that isn’t piling up in the streets, because my taxes are paying for street sweepers. There’s the rat hairs that I’m not eating, because my taxes are paying for health inspectors to see that the restaurants I eat at are clean and safe. There’s the tuberculosis that I don’t have, because my taxes are paying for public health officials to stem the resurgent tide of TB.

I take advantage of the things my taxes pay for. And I’m lucky enough to live in a society that is more or less democratic, where I have something that resembles a voice in how my taxes are spent. If I don’t like the way our taxes are being spent, I can vote out the people who decide how to spend them, and vote in people who’ll spend them the way I want them to.

So how, exactly, is paying taxes tyrannical, or unfair, or the hand of the government picking our pockets?

As I’ve written before: The basic idea of democratic government — what it ought to be, and what much of the time it is — is a society pooling some of its resources to provide itself with structures and services that make that society function smoothly and promote the common good. And it’s the structure a society uses to decide how those pooled resources should be used.

screw you t-shirtTaxes are, quite literally, the pooling of these resources. To oppose paying taxes is to oppose the idea of society itself. It is to oppose the idea of pooling resources. It is to oppose the idea of working together for the common good… and to support, instead, a social philosophy of “Screw you, Jack, I’ve got mine.” You want to live in a world with no functioning government? Move to Somalia.

(Some people want government and taxes, and the services they provide, replaced with private enterprise and volunteerism. My problem with that is: Where’s the accountability? Where’s the process by which I can vote for how I want my fire extinguishing money spent… or can get rid of people who I think are spending it corruptly or stupidly? And besides, I don’t want my fires put out by people who are primarily concerned with making a profit, and are therefore doing cost-benefit analysis about whether my house fire is really worth extinguishing.)

bear from simpsonsReflexive griping about taxes always reminds me of the Simpsons episode, the one where the bear gets into the streets of Springfield and the town goes nuts. They demand an elaborate, 24-hour bear patrol… but when they get their paychecks and see that they’re five dollars less because of the bear patrol tax, they’re outraged.

I think Americans are all too often exactly like that. We want the bear patrol, but we don’t want to pay for it. And all too often, like Mayor Quimby, our elected officials are all too willing to pander to us. Hardly any elected official will ever run for office in the U.S. on a platform of “I’m going to raise taxes, so we can pay for services we all want and need.”

It’s commonly assumed that this state of affairs is the natural order. Human nature. It’s taken as a given that of course nobody wants to pay taxes, that of course political hash will always be made out of griping about them. And in a Springfieldian, bear-patrol way, to some extent it’s true. Of course we would all love for there to be roads and parks, fire departments and sewers, clean streets and plague-free cities… all without anyone having to pay for it. Provided by benevolent elves, perhaps.

But I also think that this is a U.S. phenomenon as much as it is human nature. Look at European countries like, say, France. In France, this reflexive anti-tax sentiment just doesn’t play. I’m sure people gripe about taxes in France, too… but most people there seem to basically get that taxes are the price you pay for living in a society and providing the things that make a society function.

And I would like to start shifting the way Americans think about it, too.

i voted stickerI think that those of us who care about government — who think that government is a salvageable idea and one that works more or less right at least a fair amount of the time, those of who think that as sucky as government often is it sure beats the alternative — need to speak up in praise and defense of taxes. On and around tax day, I’d like to see fewer gripes about the horribleness of taxes, and more commentary and news stories and blog posts and such about why the hell we pay them. On and around tax day, I’d like to see newspapers do a series on “the things your taxes are paying for.” I’d like to see people sporting “I Paid My Taxes” buttons on April 15th, the way we sport “I Voted” stickers on Election Day. I’d like to see April 15th get treated as a patriotic day, the way we treat the Fourth of July and Memorial Day.

We need to remind people — and ourselves — that, at least in a democracy, “paying taxes” basically just means “society working together to make all of our lives better.” It’s socially responsible. It’s patriotic. And it’s no more tyrannical than everyone on the softball team kicking in a few bucks for pizza.

You sometimes see cute little stories in the news, about how on such and such a day of the year, you’re no longer working for the government, and from now on for the rest of the year you’re working for yourself. It’s a story based on the concept that you pay about a fourth to a third of your income in taxes, and if you break that down by year instead of by paycheck, you’ll have paid off your year’s worth of taxes on such and such a day.

But it’s a story that I do not accept.

Because when I’m working to pay taxes, I am still working for myself.

And I’m working for everyone else in the society I live in.

Comedy Does Not Win a Free Pass: Seth MacFarlane at the Oscars

I am sick to death of the idea that “it’s just comedy” somehow gives you a free pass when you’re saying things that are racist and sexist.

And I am sick to death of the idea that any transgression of social norms — no matter what those norms are, or why they exist — automatically transforms you into a comedic genius.

I thought I didn’t have anything to say about Seth MacFarlane’s performance as Oscar host that Spencer Kornhaber at The Atlantic didn’t already say. If you haven’t read his piece, read it now. Money quote:

It shouldn’t be hard to come up with a sensible position on this. Everything, including punchlines about the Jews cutting non-Jews out of Hollywood, snickers about women faking the flu to lose weight, and cracks that there’s no need to try to understand what Salma Hayek’s saying because she’s so hot, is “OK.” It’s a free country, etc. But that doesn’t mean those jokes aren’t hurtful, obvious, or dumb. It doesn’t mean they don’t make the world a worse place. Humor, after all, can be an incredible weapon for social progress, but it can also be regressive: The more we pass off old stereotypes, rooted in hate, as normal—as MacFarlane did again and again last night—the longer those stereotypes, and their ability to harm people, will be in place.

But I’m realizing — after linking to Kornhaber’s piece on Facebook and getting into depressingly predictable debates as a result — that I do have something else to say. It’s this:

I am sick to death of the idea that “it’s just comedy” somehow gives you a free pass when you’re saying things that are racist and sexist. And I am sick to death of the idea that any transgression of social norms automatically transforms you into a comedic genius.

Yes, artistic freedom in comedy depends on the ability to say or do anything, even if it runs counter to social norms. That’s true of any art form. Comedy isn’t special in that regard. And yes, of course, comedians should have the legal right to say whatever they want (within the obvious limits of libel laws and copyright laws and such).

Does this mean that comedians should get a free pass when the things they say and do are screwed-up? Does it mean that comedians — or any artists — should be exempt from criticism when the things they say and do dehumanize, trivialize, shame, reinforce harmful stereotypes, support and rationalize the unequal status quo, and otherwise injure entire groups of people? Especially groups of people who have already been hurt a whole hell of a lot, in this exact same way, for centuries?

Lenny_Bruce_arrestI think there’s a bad logical fallacy that some comedians make. They think that being transgressive and cutting-edge and iconoclastic typically means offending people… and that therefore, if you’re offending people, it somehow automatically makes you transgressive and cutting-edge and iconoclastic. They think that because they’re offending people and making them angry, it means they’re Lenny Bruce.

It doesn’t work that way. To be iconoclastic, you have to destroy icons. To be cutting-edge, you have to push cultural boundaries in a way that moves society forward. To be transgressive — at least, to be transgressive in a meaningful way — you have to cross lines and break rules that deserve to be broken and crossed.

And to be Lenny Bruce, it’s not enough simply to offend people. You also have to be brilliant. To be Lenny Bruce, it’s not enough simply to say things nobody else will say. You have to say things nobody else will say — and which are also the truth.

The notion, expressed in Seth MacFarlane’s Oscar performance, that all African-Americans look alike? That Hispanics are hard to understand, but that’s okay as long as they’re attractive to look at? That women are unforgiving in relationships, and never let go of anything? That Hollywood is run by a Jewish cabal that only hires other Jews? That the nudity of female actresses exists primarily for the sexual enjoyment of men?

That’s not breaking icons. It’s reinforcing them. That’s not pushing our culture forward. It’s dragging us backward.

It’s not brilliant.

And it’s not true.

Kika posterWhat’s more: I’m sick to death of the notion that, if you critique something a comedian says or does for being hurtful and fucked up, you need to “lighten up,” “stop taking things so seriously,” and “get a sense of humor.” I remember years ago, Pedro Almodovar responded to feminist critiques of one of his movies (the critiques had to do with rape jokes, if I recall correctly) by saying something along the lines of, “Why are feminists like this? Isn’t it possible to be a feminist and still have a sense of humor?” To which I wanted to respond, “Isn’t it possible to have a sense of humor and still not think your jokes are funny?” This idea that having a sense of humor means giving all comedians a free pass on criticism for anything they say, ever… it’s bullshit. It’s a “Shut up, that’s why” argument. It’s a reflexive attempt to shut down any criticism — artistic as well as political or moral — before it ever starts.

Well, you don’t get to have it both ways. You don’t get to say that comedy is an important form of artistic expression, a valuable contribution to our cultural landscape in which artistic freedom is necessary and paramount… and then say that everyone just needs to lighten up, and what comedians say and do isn’t that big a deal, and it’s ridiculous to call them to account for it.

Some social norms are there for a reason. The social pressure to (for instance) not act like a racist asshole — that’s there for a reason. It’s there because racism is bad. It’s there because, as a society, we are in the process of changing our minds about race… and exerting social pressure against racist ideas and behavior is part of how we learn to do that, and teach each other to do it.

And this idea that any violation of social norms automatically makes you courageous and transgressive… it’s childish. It’s adolescent. It’s a cheap, easy way to make yourself feel rebellious and edgy… when you’re actually squarely in the center, reinforcing the very structures you’re pretending to rebel against.