On Being Disillusioned By Heroes… or, No, I Am Not Bloody Well Happy to Hear Horrible Things About the People I Admired

The other problem here is confirmation bias: the tendency to see only what we wanna see.

-Brian Dalton, a.k.a. Mr. Deity, responding to reports of sexual harassment, assault and rape being made against prominent figures in the atheist/ skeptical community.

Brian Dalton isn’t alone. In many discussions about reports of atheist/ skeptical leaders committing seriously unethical behavior, this trope has come up again and again: “You just want to believe these reports! You were already biased against these people, and you’ll believe anything that confirms what you want to believe! You want to believe that Richard Dawkins blackballed Rebecca Watson from speaking at the Reason Rally! You want to believe that Lawrence Krauss has sexually harassed people at conferences! You want to believe that Michael Shermer committed rape! You’re only seeing what you want to see!” I’m using Dalton’s words as an example, since I’m starting to get weary of critiques that don’t point to an example of what’s being criticized (such as Phil Plait’s notorious “Don’t Be a Dick” speech)… but this is far from the only time I’ve seen this idea.

Here’s the problem with it:

I did not want to believe this.

I did not want to believe any of it.

Richard Dawkins is the reason I’m an atheist. Richard Dawkins is the reason I’m an atheist activist. Before I read The God Delusion, I was calling myself an agnostic, and was very occasionally writing about skepticism and religion. After I read The God Delusion, I was calling myself an atheist, and had decided that I needed to start making atheism the center of my writing career. Very few books have changed my life so rapidly, and so dramatically, and so much for the better. For years, Dawkins was my Number One atheist hero. The day I met him in person was one of the proudest days of my life.

Michael Shermer was enormously influential in my development as a skeptic and a non-believer. The way he laid out the case for cognitive biases — and more specifically, the way he laid out the case for cognitive biases leading to religious belief — strongly shaped both the way I thought about religion and atheism, and the way I wrote about it. In my early days as an atheist and skeptical writer, I cited Why People Believe Weird Things, and the ideas I got from it, all the freaking time.

Lawrence Krauss? Lawrence Krauss is freaking well trying to answer the question, “Why is there something instead of nothing?” Lawrence Krauss is the reason that, when religious believers ask me that question as if it were an unanswerable “Gotcha!”, I can answer, “Actually, physicists are working on that very question, and it seems like it might have an answer. Just like every other question in history that at one time was unanswered, and that people once thought was magic, and that turned out to be Not Magic.”

I admired these people. I looked up to them. My life and my work was shaped by them.

Why on Earth would I want to believe the worst about them?

When I started hearing bad things about these people, the last thing I wanted to do was to believe. It’s one thing to hear reports that your heroes are flawed human beings: to hear, for instance, that they cheat on their spouse, or that they’re a demanding diva backstage. We are all flawed, all human: I can deal with that, I don’t expect anything different. But it’s another thing entirely to see one of your heroes say appallingly racist and sexist things, and double down when they get criticized for it, and keep saying them again and again and again… and to then hear reports that they blackballed one of the people who criticized them most publicly. It’s another thing entirely to hear reports that one of your heroes committed sexual harassment. It’s another thing entirely to hear reports that one of your heroes committed rape.

It was extremely painful to hear this stuff. It was upsetting. It sapped a lot of the excitement and energy I had about the atheist and skeptical movements. It made me feel less optimistic about the future of these movements. It was demoralizing. I did not want to believe it.

I did not start thinking badly of these people until I started hearing bad things about them.

If anything, the confirmation bias worked in the other direction. When I started getting involved in atheism and skepticism, I started out thinking that these people were mega-awesome. I started out thinking that they were not only smart and articulate and insightful, but that they were rigorously ethical. I did not start thinking badly of these people until I started hearing bad things about them. Again. And again. And again and again and again, and again, and again. And again.

September 5 is not the first time I heard reports about Richard Dawkins blackballing Rebecca Watson. August 7 is not the first time I heard reports about Lawrence Kraus sexually harassing women at conferences. August 7 is not the first time I heard reports about Michael Shermer sexually harassing and even assaulting women. I have been hearing these reports for a long time. I couldn’t say anything about them at the time — people had told me these things in confidence — but at the time these reports started to become public, I had been hearing them for a while. In some cases I heard them second-hand; in some cases, I heard them from the horse’s mouth. And I heard a lot of them.

Again. And again. And again and again and again, and again, and again. And again.

Is it the case that right now, as of this writing, in September 2013, I’m more inclined to believe these reports than I once was? Sure. But it didn’t start out that way. I didn’t start out thinking badly of these people, and focusing on every possible piece of evidence that would confirm my bad opinion. I started out thinking well of these people. I changed my mind. It was painful; it was upsetting; it was demoralizing. But I let go of my cherished opinions — because I saw a significant and credible body of evidence contradicting those opinions.

Isn’t that what skeptics and atheists are supposed to do?

Angry Atheists and Equality: Greta’s Podcast Interview with “Life, the Universe & Everything Else”

LUEE logoPodcast time! When I was at the SkepTech conference earlier this year, I gave a podcast interview to Gem Newman of the “Life, the Universe & Everything Else” podcast, hosted by Winnipeg Skeptics. That interview is now up — along with the rest of a very interesting show.

In the interview, we discuss angry atheism, the role religious believers can play in fighting the harm done by religion, strategies of arguing religion with believers, the importance of coming out and atheist visibility, internalized atheist stigma, my favorite arguments against religion, challenging entrenched biases within skepticism, hyperskepticism (or what I’m now calling denialism) and treating ordinary claims as extraordinary ones, straw Vulcans and the notion that being unemotional about an issue makes you more rational, tone-trolling about misogyny, coming out bisexual versus coming out atheist, Twitter walls, self-publishing, and more. Enjoy!

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.

When Firebrands Start Tone-Trolling

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

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

Sigh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Trayvon Martin and the George Zimmerman Verdict — and What “Freethought” Does Not Fracking Well Mean

Please note: This blog post has a different comment policy from my usual one. It appears at the end of the post.

Other people have written about the details of the George Zimmerman case, and the verdict, more clearly and eloquently than I can. This piece does a pretty good job, as does this, as does this, as does this, as does this, as does this. But I feel that I need to get on the record about this. I may be disjointed, I may not be my usual eloquent self, but I can’t let this pass in silence.

Sometimes, I am deeply ashamed of my country. This is one of those times. The George Zimmerman verdict is making me physically ill.

I didn’t blog about the George Zimmerman verdict the day that it happened, or the day after, because I was out of town at my father’s memorial and the scattering of his ashes (and was then flying back home). And I can’t stop thinking about how I feel about my father’s death… and then thinking about how Trayvon Martin’s parents must feel. There have been moments when my grief over my father has felt nearly unbearable — and my father died at age 79, quietly in his sleep, after a long decline and years of very low quality of life from which death was a respite, of natural causes that nobody in this world could consider unjust. I cannot begin to imagine what it must feel like to be grieving the death of your teenaged child, who was hunted down and shot, whose death came from a systemic hatred and contempt of your race that you and yours have to live with every second of every minute of every day of every year of your entire life… and whose killer, in a grotesque travesty of justice, was acquitted.

I cannot begin to imagine. But it is my moral obligation to try.

It is also my moral obligation to do whatever I can to change the world, to do what I can to move this world towards one in which this would never happen, could never happen. It’s a tiny tiny start, not anywhere near enough, but it’s a start: I’ve signed the NAACP petition to the U. S. Department of Justice, asking them to file civil rights violation charges against George Zimmerman. You can sign it, too. If you know of other action that people can take, please make suggestions in the comments.

And in response to some (not all, not even most, but some) of what I’ve been seeing in the online discussions about this — largely among atheists/ skeptics/ etc., since that’s the Internet world I largely inhabit — I also want to say this:

I am sick to fucking death of the idea that “freethought” means “we have to treat all ideas as worthy of consideration, and debate them calmly and without anger, and treat people we disagree with respectfully.” Some ideas are morally repugnant. It is not antithetical to freethought to respond to morally repugnant ideas with rage. It is not antithetical to freethought to tell people with morally repugnant ideas that their ideas are morally repugnant, and that you will have nothing to do with them.

There are some issues that are worthy of calm, considered debate, issues on which people can reasonably disagree and still be friends. The question of whether a young black man should be able to buy candy at a convenience store without being hunted and killed is not one of them.

And I am sick to death of people looking at the national conversation about the George Zimmerman verdict, and acting as if “oh no, people are being mean to people who expressed views they find morally repugnant, they’re swearing at them and unfriending them and blocking them!” was the real issue here, the most important issue, the issue we should all be discussing. A young black man was hunted and killed for the crime of being a young black man, and his killer was acquitted. This is not an isolated case: it reflects the reality of millions of African Americans. And what some people really, really want to talk about is, “People are cussing people out and banning them on Facebook!” If those are your priorities, then please get the fuck out of my life. Do not comment in my blog. Do not read my blog. Do not follow me on Facebook or Twitter. Do not attend my talks. Do not buy my books. Go away, now.

And I am sick to fucking death of the idea that I am somehow morally obligated to host these debates — and these derailing meta-debates — in my own space.

I am not willing to host a debate about this on my blog. I am willing to host many debates on my blog, about many issues. I am willing to make my blog into a place for people to express many ideas and opinions with which I passionately disagree. This is not one of those issues, and this is not one of those times. If you have anything at all to say about this that even remotely hints at implying that what George Zimmerman did was remotely defensible, or that this verdict was anything short of grotesque… do not comment in my blog. Now, or ever. Do not read my blog. Do not follow me on Facebook or Twitter. Do not attend my talks. Do not buy my books. Get the fuck out of my life, now. Thank you.

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.

American Terror: Excerpt From “Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels” by Sikivu Hutchinson

Godless Americana coverThe following is an excerpt from Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels, the new book by Sikivu Hutchinson. Available on Amazon and CreateSpace; coming soon on Kindle.

*****

American Terror

A little white boy, a cherub with an impish grin, earnestly clutches a microphone before a church congregation in a blurry video of the Apostolic Truth Tabernacle in Greensburg, Indiana. He begins to belt out a ditty, “I know the Bible is right, somebody’s wrong…Ain’t no homos going to make it to heaven,” in a playful schoolboy lilt. The crowd erupts, rising to its feet, fists pumping, high fives extended, roof raised. The pastor beams proudly from the pulpit, deliciously pleased by this home team display of American Idol precocity.

The video generated thousands of hits and comments online, some praising, many condemning. Christians were slammed as hypocritical and un-Christian; detractors were piously directed to Bible verses smearing homosexuality. The mantra from tolerant Christians was that God doesn’t endorse hate, especially from the mouths of babes. Biblical condemnation of homosexuality was a remnant of antiquity, inapplicable to the complexities of the modern world, a distortion of God’s unconditional love.

Eavesdropping on the red-blooded zeal of the Tabernacle’s come-to-Jesus audience, it’s clear that the cherub has renewed its wilting faith. The straight backs of dark-suited men frame the furtive glances of silent little girls in frilly dresses peaking around the camera as whistles and applause ripple through the sanctuary. With the womenfolk tucked away, giving praise to Jesus is just another alpha male sporting event. The wisdom of heterosexual solidarity will not be lost on more tolerant corrupted generations. The cherub is no more than five years old. Soon, he will be new to elementary school, new to the savage dance of peer pressure and the playground rituals of gender. He is “innocent,” yet fully initiated into the culture of violence, permissiveness, and patriarchy that says “boys will be boys.” Western civilization revolves around this unbreakable sacrament. From the nameless, faceless American military drone victims of the Middle East to the expendable Jezebels of American inner cities, to be American is to always be innocent against the global backdrop of otherness. It is to accept as gospel that “they” hate us because of our freedoms while “we” are free to pillage the globe with American war machines and pipeline youth of color into prisons. Historically, conquering and “democratizing” savage foreign lands has been part of the U.S.’ foreordained Christian mission as an “exceptional” civilization. American exceptionalism was a key theme for the GOP and Religious Right in the 2012 presidential race. Former Republican congressman and presidential candidate Newt Gingrich amplified this theme in his book A Nation Like No Other: Why American Exceptionalism Matters:

The ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the unique American identity that rose from an American civilization that honored them form what we call today “American Exceptionalism”…President Obama, for example, simply does not understand this concept. In the past he was outright contemptuous of American Exceptionalism, deriding Americans as “bitter” people who “cling” to guns and religion…If the ideas in the Declaration were not new or particularly radical, then why did this single document fundamentally alter world history? The answer is this: no nation had ever before embraced human equality and God-given individual rights as its fundamental organizing principle.

Caricatured by the right as a socialist revolutionary, Obama sought to burnish his Americana credentials by trotting out the rhetoric of exceptionalism. In 2009 he maintained that it’s a “core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional.” Yet, Obama’s identification with exceptionalism was not enough for GOP ideologues like Gingrich, who insist that Judeo-Christian might and right makes the U.S. superior to other nations. Predictably, Gingrich’s summary of the U.S.’ exceptionalist path contains only passing reference to slavery. For Gingrich, slavery was only a minor deviation from this “nation like no other’s” ascent to global leadership. If the Declaration of Independence invokes “unalienable rights” of liberty and equality granted by God, then the U.S.’ unique righteousness lies in this contract. According to this view, American civilization, as the most religious superpower on the planet, means God—white, Christian, straight, and pure. And even though the U.S. is the fount of freedom and individual liberty, God cannot be expected to bend to the whims and cultural relativisms of modernity. To do so would be a betrayal of his will, as manifest in “natural” law.

The little white boy of Apostolic Truth Tabernacle is the unofficial face of Americana, the spiritual inheritor of God, mom, and apple pie. This holy trinity was sorely tested by President Obama’s landslide victory in the 2012 presidential campaign. The GOP’s anti-government message of lower taxes and shiftless welfare queens, coupled with its attacks against birth control, abortion, gay rights and undocumented immigrants, was repugnant to many voters. Yet, although a majority of the electorate rejected the party’s Christian fascist rhetoric, those that would write the political and cultural obituary of fundamentalist Americana are premature. God has always been one of the U.S.’ primary afflictions. The performance of American national identity is steeped in this cancer. The right-wing backlash against democratic citizenship is fueled by it. Unleashed from its YouTube moment, the cherub’s folksy performance deep in the heart of this small Midwestern church reverberates in hundreds of so-called gay conversion therapy sessions throughout the nation. It provides the backdrop for the monster popularity of alpha male toys that give little boys license to prey and pillage. It fuels the suicides that claim the lives of hundreds of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth every year. It drives the she-asked-for-it rape culture that says women’s bodies are dirty, shameful, sinful, and always there for the taking.

*****

Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels is available on Amazon and CreateSpace; coming soon on Kindle.

Welcome Yemisi Ilesanmi to Freethought Blogs!

Yemisi IlesanmiWe have a new blogger in the Freethought Blogs network — Yemisi Ilesanmi, blogging at YEMMYnisting! The tagline of her blog is “Proudly Feminist, Proudly Bisexual and Proudly Atheist.” — you can see why we brought her on, right? Here’s what she says about herself in her bio:

Yemisi Ilesanmi is a Nigerian woman, resident in UK. She holds a Masters of Law (LL.M) degree in Gender, Sexuality and Human Rights. She is a trade unionist, human rights activist, an author, a poet and sometimes moonlights as a plus size model. She is a passionate campaigner for equal rights, social justice and poverty alleviation. Her debut book ‘Freedom To Love For ALL: Homosexuality is Not Un-African’ is available in paperback and kindle editions on Amazon (www.amazon.com/dp/1481864815). In sometimes, what she thinks as a past life, she was- – National Women leader/Assistant National Secretary, Nigeria Labour Party. – Vice President, International Trade Union Congress – Chairperson, ITUC Youth Committee – International Labour Conference (ILC) Committee Member on Applications of Standards – Founder/President, National Association of Nigerian Female Students She is the founder and coordinator of the campaign group Nigerian LGBTIs in Diaspora Against Anti-Same Sex Laws.

I’m totally thinking about that Tom Lehrer line: “It’s people like that who make you realize how little you’ve accomplished.” Her introductory post makes her awesomeness even more apparent. Please welcome her to the network!

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.

2013 Day of Solidarity for Black Non-Believers, Feb. 24: “Come Out and Join In”

This is a guest post from the Day of Solidarity National Committee; Kimberly Veal, Chairperson.

Day of Solidarity for Black Non-Believers logoThe percentage of black non-believers in the U.S. is small but increasing. Most have difficulty meeting other black non-believers or finding many who are involved in secular organizations. The internet has made many connections possible; however, the common feelings expressed by black non-believers are those of isolation, loneliness, and alienation. Often the remedy for these feelings is activism. This activism includes diligently searching for and befriending other non-believers, working with as many other non-believers as possible to address social ills, continuing to be educated about the factual world, providing positive expressions for secular ideas through writing and public speaking, and strengthening the secular community by supporting existing organizations as well as creating dynamic new ones. Unfettered activism is captured in the purpose of the Day of Solidarity for Black Non-Believers.

The Day of Solidarity for Black Non-Believers (DoS), held annually on the fourth Sunday in February, must be embraced beyond the events that take place in cities across the nation on that day. It must be used to build genuine communal relationships. It must be used to launch a wave of activism among blacks in America and other people of color as we strive to openly embrace our non-theist status in an ethical and dignified manner. Those that accept this call to activism must garner enough interest to create and support opportunities that will motivate those who have so far remained dormant except for an occasional message via email, Twitter, blogging, or postings on Facebook. This Day of Solidarity event is an effort to bring them out from behind those high tech media devices and other locations that keep them inconspicuous.

Anyone who supports this initiative can contact other non-theist individuals, groups, and organizations to plan a gathering, such as brunch, lunch, book or film discussion, museum trip, speaker presentation, etc. Decide on a time and place. Publicize the event as widely as possible. Use Facebook, Twitter, MeetUp.com, and other websites. Also consider newspaper and web-based community calendars, issuing local press releases, radio station announcements, and making personal invitations. When your planning is complete, post the details of your event on the DoS Facebook page for the benefit of others that may be looking for an event in your area.

We want to know about every event that takes place on Sunday, February 24, 2013; large or small, private or public! Please be sure to post your videos, pictures, links, podcasts, or comments on the DoS Facebook page. If you have any questions or need further information, be sure to contact us on our Facebook page or e-mail us at aadayofsolidarity@gmail.com. Black non-believers you are not alone. “Come Out and Join In.”

Frequently Asked Questions:

1) What is the Day of Solidarity for Black Non-Believers (DoS)?
The DoS is a nationwide event during Black History Month to promote community and solidarity among blacks in America who identify as non-believers: atheists, agnostics, skeptics, free-thinkers, etc. DoS has been organized as a way to counter the religious voice that all too often serves as the lone voice of black consciousness and experience. These gatherings will promote fellowship and the pursuit of humanist strategies to solve the problems facing humanity – especially those affecting the black community.
2) Where will the DoS events take place?
Day of Solidarity events will take place in cities and towns across the U.S. We plan to keep an updated list as events are reported. Send us an email, aadayofsolidarity@yahoo.com, to request event locations.
3) When will the DoS take place?
The Day of Solidarity will take place on Sunday, February 24th, 2013. Thereafter, the Day of Solidarity will take place annually on the last Sunday in February.
4) What can I anticipate happening at a DoS event?
The events will be unique, customized by each of the organizers and attendees. Most likely DOS meetings will take place in coffeehouses, restaurants or other casual settings. Larger groups may convene in libraries or other public venues. Although there is no formal itinerary for the DOS events, organizers are encouraged to include a segment on historical black non-theists, share life experiences, plan for the next DOS, and there should be ample time to socialize – get acquainted!
5) Is there a cost for attendance?
Ideally, there will not be a cost to participate outside of whatever food items or group merchandise participants choose to purchase. The goal is to gather. DoS organizers are encouraged to keep all costs to a minimum to encourage the most participation. A small admission fee may be requested to defray any rental costs associated with the venue. Local organizers will inform attendees ahead of time if a cost is associated with attendance.
6) Do I have to be Black or African American to attend?
No! The events are open to everyone. We welcome the support and participation of our allies in the Secular Movement, regardless of race. While we do not wish to discourage other individuals from attending, the primary focus will be on answering the religiosity in the black community and providing a forum for black non-theists to share experiences.
7) I don’t see a Day of Solidarity event planned in my area but am interested in participating. How can I learn more about organizing a DoS event?
Please send an email to aadayofsolidarity@yahoo.com and we will send you suggested guidelines for organizing an event. Also, review the info section on the Facebook page. We can also assist in identifying local secular groups that may have an event planned or contact information for others interested in participating.
8) I live in a remote area and cannot attend the DoS closest to me. Any hope for me participating in a DOS event?
We will aim to use as many forms of communication as possible if there is interest. Skype and/or conference calls may be options for those of us in rural locations or who have accessibility issues.
9) I’m pretty sure I’m the only black non-theist in my area! I’d still like to participate somehow. Any suggestions?
Well you never know. There are more of us than you think – but whether two, twenty, or two hundred are gathered, solidarity can be achieved. We can help with suggestions for finding other non-theists in your area so just send us an email. The Day of Solidarity for Black Non-Believers is in the process of building, and our numbers will grow as more people are comfortable with identifying as non-believers. We have to start somewhere. So even if your event only has two people in attendance, that is a positive move in the right direction. We hope to see you or hear about your event on February 24th!

2013 Day of Solidarity for Black Non-Believers
“Come Out and Join In”
National Co-Sponsors: African Americans for Humanism, Black Atheists of America, Black Non-Believers, Inc., Black FreeThinkers, and Black Skeptics Los Angeles.