We were chatting in our top secret and amazingly awesome backchannel, full of such incredible wit and delightful banter that you shall never ever know, about how some folks over at an intelligent design website called Uncommon Descent decided to do a bit of a breakdown of the whole Loftus thing, propping it up (in act of unconcealed schadenfreude) as indicative of some kind of big rift or infighting amongst atheists.
Which is a bit tedious and uninformed in that it hasn’t exactly been much of a conflict or controversy at all. No battle lines actually got drawn, nobody was attacking anybody (except in Loftus’ imagination), and there was no grand battle. In fact, pretty much everyone agreed that his remarks were over the line and his behaviour erratic and strange. All that really ultimately resulted from it was a nice, timely nudge in the direction of having an interesting and important discussion about the value of diversity in networks like FTB and in the atheist community as a whole, and a reminder of the problems lying behind accusations of tokenism.
Greta Christina made a really interesting point, though, that got my brain pieces to start doing brain stuff. She pointed out how whenever there’s a disagreement within our community, no matter how minor, people will exploit it to make up stories about “rifts” and “infighting” and “drama”, how we’re a bunch of angry little kids who endlessly squabble amongst ourselves. And then when we do agree with one another, suddenly we’re a “hive mind”, an “echo chamber”, “preaching to the choir”, a “circle jerk”, “silencing dissent”. We’re mocked and attacked for disagreeing with each other, and mocked and attacked for agreeing with one another. A catch-22, no-win, damned if you do and damned if you don’t situation.
What occurred to me, though, was how familiar these kinds of tactics are. While I’m relatively new to the atheist community, and new to seeing them play out here, I’m familiar with the same kind of “fit the circumstances to your opinion” thinking (rather than fitting your opinion to the circumstances), the same way of finding means of interpreting any action as terrible, even the acts that a moment ago you had criticized someone for not taking. I was familiar with them from feminism, from the trans community, from poverty activism and social justice work, from social attitudes towards addicts, and things like that.
I started wondering if these catch-22 set-ups are actually sort of the hallmark of discrimination, sort of the most direct and immediately recognizable way of knowing that a given group has been predetermined to be in the wrong regardless of what they do, or just generally aren’t being given a fair chance in terms of how they’re treated or understood.
Examples are pretty easy to come by… there’s the classic “slut” / “prude” dynamic applied to women. No matter how a woman expresses her sexuality it can always be disparaged and held against her. There is no “goldilocks zone” for female sexuality, she can always be shamed, and the lines dictating “acceptable” expressions of her sexuality can always be shifted as needed to keep her forever looking for external approval. Then we’ve got the awful “you’re trying too hard, therefore not a real woman” / “you’re acting like a man, therefore not a real woman” dynamic applied to trans women. No matter how we express our gender, it can always be held against us, always used as a means of undermining the validity of our female identity. Either we’re told we’re stupidly exaggerated barbie doll caricatures of womanhood who reflect male misconceptions of what being a woman is, or we’re told we’re not feminine enough and haven’t been able to let go of our inherent masculinity and therefore clearly not a “true transsexual” and must just have some kind of creepy sexual paraphilia or something. There’s also the version of this that appears in transphobic wings of contemporary radical-feminism, where if we express a femme identity we’re “reinforcing patriarchal gender binaries” and “perpetuating societal concepts of what a woman is ‘supposed’ to be”, but if we’re lesbian or tomboyish or even simply assertive, empowered or confident then we’re “holding onto male privilege, acting like typical domineering men, infiltrating women’s spaces and raping them through claiming women’s identities and bodies as their own”. And if we ever get upset, or object to this? “Typical male privilege and sense of entitlement, demanding that you get exactly what you want. Typical male aggression, too, trying to yell at us women and silence our voices. Look how violently angry you’re getting! Typical Y chromosome behaviour.”
Or poverty? “Leeching off the system” vs. “taking our jobs!”. Or sexual orientation? “I don’t mind gay people as long as they don’t act like it.” vs. “Marriage is between one man and one woman! If they raise kids the children will end up screwed up! Stop white-washing homosexuality and acting like it’s normal!”. Or feminism? “Man-hating bulldyke!” vs. “You’re such a hypocrite, dressing all sexy and wearing make-up and then getting upset when men hit on you!” Or addiction? “If we offer them any help or assistance, we’re only enabling them and rewarding bad behaviour.” vs. “Why should I care what happened to them? They could have gotten help.”
The thing about prejudice is that you’ve already made your judgment before you get the information. You’ve already decided something about the party in question, so you interpret your perceptions to fit whatever you’ve decided. These kinds of lose-lose situations crop up as a result of people trying to get the reality to fit the preconceptions… the cognitive dissonance often causing those preconceptions to break down into nothing more complex than “not a real woman”, “bad for society”, “hate men” or even just “bad”, no matter what the situation in front of you actually suggests, no matter what potentially contradictory justifications you had just used five minutes ago.
It’s worth keeping an eye out for these sorts of criticisms, where you’re being attacked for one thing one moment and the complete opposite thing the next. Noticing that you’ve been placed in a lose-lose situation like this does nothing for actually solving the problem, of course, but it does make it very clear that you’re not being given a chance, and that you’re dealing with an irrational, emotionally-based hatred rather than an analytic one. It helps to know what kind of a game you’re being forced to play.
Another valuable lesson that can emerge from paying attention to this kind of thing is learning to spot it in yourself. Like, say imagine a group or political party or musician or whatever you really, really, really hate. Now think of your primary criticisms. Do any of your criticisms contradict each other? Like are you criticizing some people for both infighting and for groupthink? For being both callously individualistic and fascistic? For being too elitist and too populist? Too derivative and too weird? As much as it’s an indicator of when a group you belong to or a group you sympathize with aren’t being given a fair chance, it can also be an indicator that you aren’t giving some other group a fair chance, and that you’re forcing circumstances to fit your opinion.
Anyway… I’d love to hear some examples of other lose-lose dynamics in the comments, if anyone has some.