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.

Gay Bishop Comes Up With the Worst Argument to Support Same-Sex Marriage

An atheist says Bishop Gene Robinson’s new book, “God Believes in Love,” has some major flaws.

How do we convince religious believers to accept same-sex marriage?

The opposition to LGBT rights in general, and to same-sex marriage in particular, overwhelmingly comes from conservative religion, founded in the religious belief that gay sex makes baby Jesus cry. So if same-sex marriage proponents want to persuade religious believers to support same-sex marriage… how can we do that? Should we keep our argument entirely secular, and stay away from the whole question of religious belief? Or should we try to persuade them that God is on our side?

God Believes In Love book coverLots of people make the second argument. Bishop Gene Robinson is one of them. And Bishop Robinson is a man to be taken seriously. The first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, Bishop Robinson has been active in progressive political activism for many years: he is a fellow at the Center for American Progress, is co-author of three AIDS education curricula for youth and adults, has done AIDS work in the United States and in Africa, and famously delivered the invocation at President Obama’s opening inaugural ceremonies in 2009. He’s recently written a book, published by Knopf and widely reviewed and well-received: God Believes in Love: Straight Talk About Gay Marriage. Aimed at religious believers who oppose same-sex marriage or are on the fence about it, the book makes a Christian case for same-sex marriage: “a commonsense, reasoned, religious argument made by someone who holds the religious text of the Bible to be holy and sacred and the ensuing two millennia of church history to be relevant to the discussion.”

And I think this is a terrible, terrible idea.

I am an ardent supporter of same-sex marriage. What with being married to a woman and all. I agree fervently that same-sex marriage deserves fully equal legal and social recognition with opposite-sex marriage, and I am very glad to see Bishop Robinson, and anyone else, advocating for it in the public arena.

But the argument he makes in his new book, God Believes in Love, disturbs me greatly. I am deeply disturbed by the idea that God, or any sort of religious or spiritual belief, should have anything to do with the question of same-sex marriage. I am deeply disturbed by the idea that any decision about politics, law, public policy, or morality should ever be based on what’s supposedly going on in God’s head. I agree completely with Bishop Robinson’s conclusion about same-sex marriage — but I am passionately opposed to the method by which he’s reached it, and the arguments he’s making to advance it.

*****

Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, Gay Bishop Comes Up With the Worst Argument to Support Same-Sex Marriage. To find out why I think God should have nothing to do with the debate over same-sex marriage — including for same-sex marriage proponents, whether they’re religious believers or not — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Intersectionality’s The Thing: Andrew Tripp’s Reply

Sparked by his piece on transmisogyny from a little while ago, Andrew Tripp and I have been having a conversation about atheist activism and what its priorities should be, amongst other things.

Andrew has posted his reply to my most recent response:

Intersectionality’s The Thing: Responding to Greta.

If you’re interested in this conversation and have been following it, please go read it.

And here’s a list of/ links to the previous posts in this conversation, including Andrew’s original post that sparked the conversation:

Andrew: Papercuts: Transmisogyny, Western Atheists, and the Meaning of Oppression
Me: Is Anti-Atheist Bigotry A Papercut? A Conversation with Andrew Tripp
Andrew: Responding to Greta: The Scale of the Thing
Me: “Whatever activism gets them excited”: A Reply to Andrew Tripp
Andrew: Intersectionality’s The Thing: Responding to Greta

Same-Sex Marriage Opponents Increasingly Desperate and Stupid

Wow. They’re really getting desperate.

Headline and subhead from the Los Angeles Times:

Gay marriage opponents take unusual tack with Supreme Court
Lawyers defending the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Prop. 8 argue that marriage should be limited to opposite-sex unions because they alone can ‘produce unplanned and unintended offspring.’

Quote:

“It is plainly reasonable for California to maintain a unique institution [referring to marriage] to address the unique challenges posed by the unique procreative potential of sexual relationships between men and women,” argued Washington attorney Charles J. Cooper, representing the defenders of Proposition 8. Same-sex couples need not be included in the definition of marriage, he said, because they “don’t present a threat of irresponsible procreation.”

Wow. Just… wow.

This argument is so stupid, so desperate, I almost wondered for a moment if these lawyers were deliberately tanking their own case.

I mean… set aside, for the moment, the notion that the primary purpose of marriage is the shotgun wedding. Set aside, for the moment, the notion the primary purpose of marriage is to encourage people to stick together who otherwise wouldn’t want to, because they “irresponsibly” (their word, not mine) got pregnant. (A notion that’s grossly insulting to just about every married person — including the straight ones. Okay, I’m not doing a very good job of setting it aside, am I?)

According to this logic, these folks should be proposing a ban on marriage for infertile straight people. After all, if the primary purpose of marriage is to encourage couples to stay together if they unintentionally get pregnant, there’s no reason for infertile straight people to be married. If you’ve had a hysterectomy, if you’ve had a double orchiectomy, if you’re post-menopausal, if you have untreatable erectile dysfunction, if for any other reason you can’t conceive children without “substantial advance planning” (again, their words)… no marriage for you. You’re not who marriage was made for.

Oh, it doesn’t make sense to have a separate legal category for infertile straight couples? It’s okay to let infertile straight couples slip in through the cracks, even though they’re not who marriage was made for, because it doesn’t make sense to have a separate legal category for them? Then why on Earth does it make sense to have a separate legal category for same-sex couples?

In a weird way, this argument makes me hopeful. Because you know what? They are desperate. They are grasping at straws. They got nothin’. They are proving to everyone with a shred of sense that the opposition to same-sex marriage is bankrupt. It’s morally bankrupt, and it’s logically bankrupt. Once they let go of the religious arguments — once they let go of “Gay marriage makes Baby Jesus cry,” since that really isn’t going to fly in front of the Supreme Court — their arguments become increasingly contorted, increasingly stupid, increasingly laughable, increasingly desperate.

They got nothin’.

Let’s just hope that the Supreme Court sees that.

“Whatever activism gets them excited”: A Reply to Andrew Tripp

Andrew Tripp and I were having an email conversation about a piece he recently wrote about priorities in the atheist movement, titled Papercuts: Transmisogyny, Western Atheists, and the Meaning of Oppression. We both thought the conversation might be of interest to other people, so we’ve taken it public. Today’s piece is in response to Andrew’s most recent reply, Responding to Greta: The Scale of the Thing. A complete chronology of the conversation, with links, is at the end of this post.

As I said at the beginning of this conversation: There are some things Andrew says that I don’t agree with, and some of it I disagree with fairly strongly. But I have tremendous respect for him, and in particular for his hard work, integrity, and commitment to his ideals, and am basing this conversation on that foundation.

Okay. So you’re not saying, “Atheists aren’t oppressed.” You’re saying, “Atheists don’t face systemic violent oppression.” Thanks for the clarification. On that, I totally agree — in the United States, anyway.

So a smaller point, and then to the larger one — namely, where the priorities and energies of the atheist community and the atheist movement should be going.

The smaller point is about this: “We atheists have the privilege of being able to conceal our beliefs.” I really hope I misunderstand you here. I assume you wouldn’t tell a gay person, “You can live in the closet, therefore your oppression isn’t really all that bad.” If you wouldn’t say it to gay people, please don’t say it to other atheists. Living in a closet is oppression.

Now to the bigger question: the priorities and energies of the atheist movement.

If your only point were about some atheists playing the victim card while ignoring (and in some cases denigrating) issues outside their worlds… yes, I’m totally with you on that. (I’m pretty sure you know that! :-) ) I’ve argued the same thing many times: that both individual atheists and atheist organizations need to broaden our horizons, focus energies on intersections between atheism/ religion and other forms of oppression, look at ways that we ourselves may be perpetuating these oppressions, do alliance work and service projects with/for other social change movements and oppressed groups, look at who we’re not reaching and work on reaching them, etc. (You know: the usual “social justice” line that’s totally ruining atheism.) Like you, I don’t like it when some atheists dismiss and even deride other marginalizations and oppressions, while demanding attention for anti-atheist oppression. And I’ll add that if you, personally, care more passionately about anti-trans violence than you do about anti-atheist oppression, and are more moved and outraged by your trans friends who have died because of transphobia, that is way more than reasonable. That is admirable. I would never try to argue you out of that.

But you’re also arguing (if I understand you correctly) that things like the Times Square billboard and nativity scene lawsuits are a waste of atheists’ money and energy: that these things are trivial compared to things like the systemic violence and oppression of trans people… and therefore atheists shouldn’t be doing them. At all. And there’s where I have a problem. [Read more...]

The Scale of the Thing: Andrew Tripp’s Reply

Andrew Tripp and I have been having an email conversation about a piece he recently wrote on the Considered Exclamations blog, titled Papercuts: Transmisogyny, Western Atheists, and the Meaning of Oppression. The piece was primarily about transphobia and oppression against trans people, especially among some feminists, and most of the piece I agreed with heartily. But he said some things about atheist organizing and anti-atheist oppression that I disagreed with, so we’ve been emailing about it.

We both thought the conversation might be of interest to other people, so we’ve decided to take it public. I posted my first reply here, in a letter/ post titled Is Anti-Atheist Bigotry A Papercut? A Conversation with Andrew Tripp.

Andrew has now posted his reply: Responding to Greta: The Scale of the Thing. If you’re interested in this conversation and have been following it, please go read it.

And here, because I think it will be useful later on even though it’s a bit repetitive now, is a chronological list of the posts in this discussion:

Papercuts: Transmisogyny, Western Atheists, and the Meaning of Oppression
Is Anti-Atheist Bigotry A Papercut? A Conversation with Andrew Tripp
Responding to Greta: The Scale of the Thing

Is Anti-Atheist Bigotry A Papercut? A Conversation with Andrew Tripp

Andrew Tripp and I have been having an email conversation about a piece he recently wrote, titled Papercuts: Transmisogyny, Western Atheists, and the Meaning of Oppression. We both thought the conversation might be of interest to other people, so we’ve decided to take it public. For the record: There are some things Andrew says in this piece (and has said in our subsequent conversation) that I don’t agree with, and some of it I disagree with fairly strongly. But I have tremendous respect for him, and in particular for his hard work, integrity, and commitment to his ideals, and am basing this conversation on that foundation.

Hi, Andrew. Greta here. I was reading your Papercuts piece, and was totally with you… up until this.

American atheists are not oppressed. We are not the Other. We are not dehumanized as a matter of course. We aren’t fetishized objects for audiences to drool over. Our agency and identities are not lampooned and erased because of our atheism. We have blogs read by millions. Heads of our nonprofits get on the mainstream media regularly. Those organizations, for the most part, have good-sized budgets, ranking in the millions of dollars. We’ve got some issues to overcome before we have a truly equal footing in society, yeah. But pretending like getting “In God We Trust” off the money won’t do a damned thing to change the world. We have to use our positions to tackle real oppression, or we’ll never live in a truly free society. In the grand scheme of things, we as Western atheists have some minor, papercut level inconveniences. To pretend that papercut is a gaping head wound is patently absurd, and we need to stop it.

I think you may be coming from a position of privilege here that you’re not seeing. You live in Chicago, and being an atheist in Chicago (or rather, being a white atheist in a more liberal enclave) is not that bad. Being an atheist in the Bible Belt is another thing entirely. Being an out atheist in the Bible Belt means risking your job, your safety, your property, your community, custody of your kids. Look at what happened to Damon Fowler. That was no papercut. That was systematic oppression, from every part of the society around him. And atheist activism isn’t just about nativity scenes and getting In God We Trust off the money. I do think those things matter… but that’s not just what it’s about. And I don’t understand why an atheist activist would be so dismissive and trivializing of the real oppression many atheists in this country do face.

The problem with the Maria Maltseva piece you linked to isn’t that it points out the seriousness of anti-atheist bigotry. The problem (well, one of the problems) is its basis in Maltseva’s raging anti-feminism. We can acknowledge the reality and importance of sexism, transphobia, and other forms of bigotry and oppression — and indeed, talk about the places where those bigotries and oppressions intersect with religion — without being dismissive and trivializing of bigotry and oppression against atheists.

I really liked the piece other than that. Hope you’re doing well: take care, and I’ll talk with you soon.

(I’ll post links to Andrew’s replies as he posts them.)

Shoes for Social Justice! UPDATED

So if you were following the absurd manufactured shoe controversy, and you were feeling irritated or frustrated about it (or just baffled by how unbelievably dumb it was), and you felt inspired to do something about it — here’s something you can do.

In response to the stupid non-controversy, several readers made new donations to my blog, and specifically requested that I do something frivolous with the money. I’m deeply touched and grateful by the sentiment… and I’m on it. I already have the frivolous shoes picked out. :-) But some people on Atheism+ have been organizing an interesting response to the non-troversy that’s caught my imagination, and I wanted to spread the word.

There’s a charity I didn’t even know about until the last couple of days: a not-for-profit organization called Dress For Success. Their mission is to promote the economic independence of disadvantaged women by providing professional attire, as well as a network of support and career development tools. So on Atheism+, some of my readers and supporters have begun a fundraising campaign to donate money to the organization in my honor.

I think this organization’s mission is an excellent one. As someone who cares passionately about both clothing and social justice, it’s definitely in my wheelhouse. And given that so much of this non-troversy is focusing on the question of “how could someone dare to seek help from supporters and then spend some money on dressy, comfortable shoes, suitable for a professional work environment and well-made enough to last for years”… it seems like a perfect fit. Here’s what one commenter on Atheism+ had to say about her experience with the organization:

I have personally benefitted from this charity.

They take clothing donations, but they are very label conscious when it comes to what they accept. They’re only looking for business and work appropriate attire, and they’re deathly picky about shoes in particular, amusingly enough. Fluevog was about the lowest quality they had. roll that around in your brain for a little while. I went home with three pairs of shoes and not a one of them retailed for less than $250.

That said, the main thing a personal shopper does is gently try to explain to you that it’s all right to take so much stuff, that’s what it’s there for, and you’re not cheating anyone else, and you deserve to have the clothes you’re getting. It wasn’t just me. There were four of us in with appointments at the same time, and every single one of us said the same thing: “You can’t give me all this stuff, I don’t deserve it.”

They didn’t let me out until I had a bit over a full week’s worth of work clothes, and I had a second appointment in six months to do it AGAIN for the other season. It kind of blew my mind.

So if your response to this non-troversy is irritation, frustration, or bafflement — or if you just think this is a good organization and you want to support them — please participate in this fundraising campaign, and donate to Dress For Success. Mention that it’s in my honor if you feel inspired to do so.

Oh, FYI: You know that offer I made in response to the non-troversy, to refund any donations made during my cancer fundraiser to anyone who wasn’t happy with how I’ve been spending my money? As of this writing, the number of people who have taken me up on that offer: Exactly zero. Just thought you’d like to know.

*****

UPDATE: Dress for Success has posted the following comment, clarifying some details about their program:

Hello, all!

I haven’t followed the “non-troversy” mentioned, but we always appreicate folks spreading word about our orgaization and, of course, clothing donations!

I just want to clarify something mentioned in the post about, we are NOT label conscious when it comes to the clothing that we accept. We are more than happy to accept any brand of clothing as long as it’s clean, has been taken care of (no holes or stains, etc.) and is, of course, appropriate for an office environment. Since our women are applying and being accepted into an array of career fields, we accept everything from suits to sweaters to scarves– as long as they are professional in nature!

I hope this clears things up! Please feel free to donate away! The women of Dress for Success can’t thank you enough!