I am also reminded that there is much I must do to prepare »« [Lounge #461]

We must be a force for change

There is a very limiting and very human tendency to focus on one issue at a time, and think, once that issue is dealt with, that all the problems have been fixed. We elect Obama, we have a black president, racism must be over. The Supreme Court affirmed a woman’s right to an abortion in Roe v. Wade, therefore reproductive autonomy for all women has been achieved. We had a cold winter, therefore global warming is a myth. Many Muslim women are oppressed to a greater degree than American women, so America has achieved perfect sexual equality. We are short-sighted and self-centered and eager to see any signs of progress as an ultimate triumph.

One of the sobering things about Zinnia Jones’ latest video is that she reminds us that we have a thousand problems, not just one, and that you haven’t fixed transphobia by legalizing gay marriage. We have very far to go and we shouldn’t confuse taking a first step with reaching the destination.

Another myth: by freeing yourself of one superstition, god, you’ve freed yourself of them all. Zinnia has a special message for atheists, because she has long identified with that group and has seen it all, with proudly self-proclaimed atheists joining in the denigration of transgender people. And worst of all, they use “science” to justify their bigotry.

When you look at what these atheists are actually saying, their claims have nothing to do with religion. If you’re wondering how they can be transphobic despite being atheists, you’re asking precisely the wrong question. They aren’t transphobic in spite of their atheism. They’re transphobic because of their atheism.

And I don’t mean that their atheism has made them merely indifferent. No – it’s actively made their transphobia worse. As unlikely as that might sound, it’s pretty obvious from the way they structure their arguments. It’s not an appeal to faith – far from it. They appeal to the values of science, observation, and reality, because they feel that these values support their transphobia. In many cases, they actually compare being trans to believing in God. They’re not speaking the language of religion, they’re speaking the language of secularism.

This is not my atheism. There are many atheisms out there — one of the side-effects of believing in freethought — and some of them are narrow, elitist rationalizations for maintaining the status quo and preserving the privileges of those lucky enough to be economically secure, blessed with an education and a healthy body, marked with the right color of skin and the correct kind of genitalia and the proper sexual orientation. It is a kind of self-satisfied country club atheism. These are atheisms that look at all the human beings in the world and says to most of them, “You can not be one of us,” instead of, “You could be one of us,” or better yet, “We can be free together.”

Good atheism, like good science, is disruptive — it says tradition and dogma are not sufficient, that we have to look critically at reality to determine the best answer, and often we’ll get answers that contradict what you want to be true. By their very nature, they must necessarily identify and criticize the dysfunctional elements of society and provoke change to improve them. And if you’re one of those atheists who thinks your job is to hector people different from yourself into conforming, then you’re one of those dysfunctional elements.

Zinnia is going to be speaking at Women in Secularism 3 today — I wish I could have gone this year. I think it’s one of the best examples of atheism being true to its nature and demanding better of all human beings.

Comments

  1. Ben Wright says

    This is relevant to something I’ve been thinking about lately – the idea of there being such a thing as an ‘accidental sceptic’.

    Like the maths pupil who gets the right answer but shows no working, they have opinions on some things that coincide with what genuine sceptics and empiricists have found out. They attach themselves to ‘sceptic’ as an identity, even though they’ve never actually exercised scepticism. Then, as Zinnia describes, they go on to assume that every opinion they hold is equally well-founded, based on the misconception that they walked a rigorous path to the things they are accidentally right about. So, when contradicted on those other things, it’s clearly the other party that’s wrong because all their own beliefs are well-founded. Because they’re a sceptic, see. It must the the other person who is illogical. They say they have evidence? Nonsense, they can’t, by definition.

    The idea seems to sum up a lot of the arse-gravy that spills out of the Pit and all the other locations Simba must never go to. ‘Accidental Sceptic’ seems like a more accurate term than pseudosceptic, and that already has a different definition anyway.

  2. says

    If somebody argues that science supports transphobia I am afraid they don’t really know much about the science behind sexual dimorphism, endocrinology, and the development of sexuality and gender identity. Even if all of human diversity isn’t explained by science yet, especially since neuroscience has a lot more to figure out, it doesn’t mean that human diversity isn’t real or is imagined. Believing so would be scientism, not science.

  3. marcus says

    The roots of “hetero-privilege” run deep, as in, “Of course LGBT people should be allowed to marry each other, I just don’t want them living next door to me.” I would not even have imagined anyone could hold that view before I read this. Zinnia astutely demonstrates that equal rights and equal respect are obviously very different things. Rationalism is a tool, if it not used to observe, question, and eradicate our deep-seated preconceptions and prejudices then it is not really rationalism at all and is no better a force for good in the world than religion. Thanks for this.

  4. says

    Ben Wright:

    This is relevant to something I’ve been thinking about lately – the idea of there being such a thing as an ‘accidental sceptic’.

    I think of them as “right answer skeptics”. They believe that vaccines work, homeopathy doesn’t work, Loch Ness contains no monster, and that creationists are [insert ableist slur here]. And “believe” is the right word. They have no knowledge in the sense of justified true belief*. All they can do is recite their side’s position.

    They often practice a form of cargo cult skepticism, where they use the names of logical fallacies like incantations. They dress up bare assertions in misused jargon. For example, something is “evidence based” when they approve of it, and “anecdotal” when they don’t.

    -

    * Or if you insist, justified true belief with no smart-arse comments about coins in the pockets of job applicants.

  5. zmidponk says

    Jadzia626 #2:

    If somebody argues that science supports transphobia I am afraid they don’t really know much about the science behind sexual dimorphism, endocrinology, and the development of sexuality and gender identity.

    I get the distinct impression that they argue that science supports transphobia in the same way that eugenicists argued (and some still argue) that science supports racial segregation and discrimination – in other words, they take a few scientific ideas and concepts, badly misunderstand and/or distort them, then use that to argue their position is scientifically based.

  6. azhael says

    you haven’t fixed transphobia by legalizing gay marriage.

    This is obviously true. I definitely think that it helps, because after all a progressive society that adopts marriage equality is also more likely to embrace ideas of gender-identity equality (and in fact here in europe it is often the case that when one country adopts anti-discrimination laws to protect non-exclusively heterosexuals, it also extends those laws towards transgender individuals), but while there is a certain degree of correlation between the two, they are definitely perceived as separate issues.
    Here in Spain, anti-discrimination and marriage equality laws for all LGBT categories appeared at roughly the same time and yet, while the societal acceptance of LGB (mostly LG actually…) has skyrocketed ever since, the acceptance for T is clearly lagging behind…

  7. sheikh mahandi says

    We have a long way to go to achieve a rational society, but with the blogs of Zinnia, P.Z, and others we can at least see that there are people out there who will highlight things we should think about, and give due consideration to where we fall short of the standards we should be setting for ourselves.
    Thank you Professor Myers.
    Thank you Zinnia

  8. ernezabet says

    I’m really appalled and angry by the bigotry aimed at Zinna and anyone who is not considered normal by atheist. I really expect ” us” as minority group to be better than this. PZ has blogged twice this week about Trans issues and I guess he will have to continue pointing out this is just plain wrong. I don’t care if you use science or religion it’s still just hate. As PZ said there many forms of atheism, but this small minded intolerant view is just horrible. Atheist will never be able to be a cohesive rational voice if we continue to tear apart each other this way.
    This is a beautiful amazing world we live in and Zinnia is just one part of that beauty. Crawl out of that dark pit you live in and look around with out judgment. What you should see is diversity that makes it beautiful and amazing. I can’t imagine how painful it must be to be born the wrong gender and then have this hate filled crap thrown at you. The microscopic minds that feel free to bully and threaten hide behind their
    * privilege*.

  9. sydmidnight says

    This is relevant to something I’ve been thinking about lately – the idea of there being such a thing as an ‘accidental sceptic’.

    I just think of them as Fundies, because other than the theistic side they’ve chosen, ‘The Accidental Atheist’ is eerily similar to religious fundamentalists. Their mindset and personality appears pretty much the same, they just happened to come down on the correct side of a few issues. They also tend to yell the loudest and present a negative portrayal to outsiders. And just like their religious brethren, they seem to cling to their dogma because it allows them to denigrate others instead of improving themselves.

  10. Thumper: Who Presents Boxes Which Are Not Opened says

    …you haven’t fixed transphobia by legalizing gay marriage.

    Of course not, they’re different prejudices. I’m always very confused by people who conflate them. I assume it’s kind of based on the fact that they are often held by the same people, and those people often conflate the two. For example, it’s currently happening with the transvestite person who won the eurovision. People who rant about them seem to assume they are homosexual because they like to wear woman’s clothing.

    I haven’t really been following the story, so I have no idea if they are homosexual or transexual or what their preferred pronoun is; all I know is that they are physically male and like to wear dresses. I am utterly confused by people who seem to think they can extrapolate their sexuality or gender from that.

  11. twas brillig (stevem) says

    re OP:

    YES.
    Atheism is not a panacea. Atheism is not a philosophy that is a solution to all problems. quasi-Atheists who claim so are mistaken. It might be they who are deluding theists into calling Atheism yet another Religion.

  12. Thumper: Who Presents Boxes Which Are Not Opened says

    Hmm, that was incoherent. Sorry, probably had one pint too many at lunch.

    My point is that people often conflate homosexuality, transexuality and transvestitism, and often conflate the separate phobias that apply to each, which is probably what leads to the idea that allowing gay marriage has somehow fixed transphobia.

  13. Zeppelin says

    Good video, bookmarked for linking when I don’t feel like arguing with people myself for an hour!

    Thumper: I’d say homophobia and transphobia both stem from sexism and reification of gender roles ultimately, so one might hope that if someone isn’t homophobic, they’d also not be sexist, and hence not transphobic (and transvestite-phobic; I’ve yet to meet someone who is okay with one but not the other).

    Unfortunately human minds aren’t that tidy and people are bad at consistently applying principles, so ya…not sure where I was going with this really -_-

  14. says

    Ah, but atheism, in and of itself, is non-prescriptive, morally neutral—as I was lectured a number of times on older threads.

    Here I’d just say that whatever atheism is, in and of itself, it always comes attached to human beings, some of whom are colossal assholes, and who will use it, like everything they believe, to reinforce and project their assholishness.

    Maybe this is banally obvious, but I’ll say it anyway: I have encountered so many kind, decent theists in my life (my wife among them) and so many atheist schmucks, that I’m really beginning not to care whether the person in front of me is a believer or not. It is so far from being the most important fact about a human being, that I now wonder why it would come up in a normal conversation.

  15. damien75 says

    I still have to wrap my head around the idea of someone being ainti transgender people “because of his.her atheism”.

    Being an atheist and anti-trangender I can imagine (with some effort), and rationalizing being anti-trangender using the type of reasoning that atheists commonly use, I can understand very easily.

    But atheisme being causal to being anti-trangender… No, I don’t get it.

  16. twas brillig (stevem) says

    “I still have to wrap my head around the idea of someone being [anti] transgender people ‘because of his.her their atheism’ .”

    YES. I, too, do not see how one could CAUSE the other. Atheism and anti-(*) are two separate characteristics of a person. Association is not Causation.

  17. damien75 says

    On the other hand, I can see how being right about one thing could make them so bold as to think they are right about the next thing. It could give them confidence.

  18. AMM says

    ernezabet @ 8:

    “This is a beautiful amazing world we live in and Zinnia is just one part of that beauty.”

    And even if you think she isn’t “one part of that beauty,” it would still be no reason to harass her and put her down. She’s not hurting anyone[*], she’s just living her life and sharing her perspective with those who are interested.

    [*] N.B.: being the sort of conundrum that makes small, rigid minds ‘splode’ doesn’t count as “hurting.” After all, few here would claim that the wave-particle duality is hurting anyone.

  19. ernezabet says

    AMM
    PLEASE re-read my comment. I’m on Zinna’s side. I called her beautiful.
    *rubbing eyes*
    I think she’s fucking awesome and a lot braver than me.

  20. Freodin says

    #Jadzia626

    If somebody argues that science supports transphobia I am afraid they don’t really know much about the science behind sexual dimorphism, endocrinology, and the development of sexuality and gender identity. Even if all of human diversity isn’t explained by science yet, especially since neuroscience has a lot more to figure out, it doesn’t mean that human diversity isn’t real or is imagined. Believing so would be scientism, not science.

    I will readily admit that I don’t know much about the science behind the phenomenon… and while that doesn’t keep me from accepting these people, it makes it difficult for me to understand them.

    My google-fu really sucks… could you point me to some scientific explanations for this situtation?

  21. AMM says

    ernezabet @20

    Sorry, I wasn’t intending to contradict you. I agree she’s amazing. (Not to mention cute :-) )

    I was pointing out that her right to be free from calumny, harassment, and erasure doesn’t depend upon her being “beautiful” by any definition of “beautiful.” She could be a schlub, and she would still deserve a place in the world.

    FWIW, the “you” was intended to be the generic “you”, not the ernezabet “you”.

  22. AMM says

    Freodin @21:

    while that doesn’t keep me from accepting these people, it makes it difficult for me to understand them.

    One thing I’ve slowly and painfully learned: you don’t have to understand. Sometimes the greater wisdom lies in cheerfully accepting what you don’t understand. E.g., I can’t understand how anyone could like avocado, but I’ve learned to accept that some of my best friends love it (I love silly examples!)

    My google-fu really sucks… could you point me to some scientific explanations for this situtation?

    There are lots of scientific explanations. It’s not clear which, if any, are more than simple just-so stories. (To my unpracticed eye, they all are.)

    Again, the fact that you don’t have a scientific explanation doesn’t make it any less real. A central component of scientific practice is being able to live with not having explanations for stuff you really, really want explained.

  23. Steve LaBonne says

    Rationality is important. But compassion is even more important. And what changes the world for the better is combining them.

  24. says

    Freodin
    Pretty much what AMM said. I don’t fully understand what it’s like to be trans*, but I also don’t really understand monosexuals, football fans, or people who like sour cream. So I just leave folks alone to live their lives as long as they’re not hurting anyone, and call it good.

  25. HappiestSadist, Repellent Little Martyr says

    Thanks for this, PZ. With very few exceptions, I prefer to avoid explicitly atheist spaces, because of the sheer number of “right-answer” and “accidental” skeptics that populate them. And though there are certainly non-atheist transphobes aplenty, there is a specific kind of transphobia that seems to arrive as a result of that pseudoskepticism, which is I think what Zinnia is referring to. The odd cargo-cult science fetish, with zero understanding of the actual science that underlies atheist transphobia is a flavour that seems rather unique to pseudoskeptics.

    I regularly offer Trans 101 to cis people who claim they don’t get it (and that’s why they’re saying awful, ignorant things), in the venue of their choosing, no questions aside from the inside of my underwear off-base, guaranteed snark-free. The people who get this offer tend to be the pseudoskeptic sort. And they pretty much never take me up on it. But they would like me to hear more about how the term “cis” is very mean, and that i don’t understand science.

  26. unclefrogy says

    for me I see all of these questions as a continuum in my struggle to understand what all this is, Life the universe and everything.
    much I still do not understand and much of that is about myself and my own thoughts.
    Having come to my current thinking through looking at existence through scientific exploration and reason I have reluctantly had to let go of the ideas and beliefs I acquired in childhood having grown up in the white working class subject to all the prejudices inherent in that environment.
    No Gods is but one part my growth in understanding
    Personally I find the struggle to avoid the fear and suspicion associated with sexual preference and expression takes effort on par with the effort it took to accept the conclusion that religion was too full of errors to be of any further use to me.
    What I feel and understand today is very much different from what I thought and felt in High school.
    All ways asking questions is easier than answering them.
    uncle frogy

  27. Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :) says

    They aren’t transphobic in spite of their atheism. They’re transphobic because of their atheism.

    I think it’d be more accurate and less quote-mineable to phrase this as “they’ve blended their transphobia with their atheism.”

  28. says

    But they also use their atheism, explicitly, to back up their transphobia. That’s the part that Zinnia’s talking about, and I agree completely, I’ve seen it myself. They do so in much the same way that the Atheist Douchecanoe Navy, over at the Pit and such places, does about feminism and women, they apply the same bullshit hyperskepticism in the same way.

    I know we’d like to No True Scotsman this, but these are, sadly, our fellow atheists, and like we have had to with the ADN, we have to recognize that they are out there doing this, and they are quite explicitly laying their support for their transphobia to their atheism and skepticism.

    Zinnia’s a smart, observant woman. You can take her account of what she’s personally experienced as a reasonably true, if obviously subjective, account of what happened. We don’t have to get all “Not all atheists!” about it.

  29. Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :) says

    To me, the straightforward reading of that one statement I quoted is “these people were on the fence or supportive of gender-identity justice until they became atheists, or would be except for having been atheists.” I don’t think that is factually correct, and think that one statement would be better rephrased in a fashion that does not read this way because of that straightforward reading’s factual incorrectness (my suggestion for how to do that probably needs work; would “they’ve constructed an explicitly atheistic transphobia” be better?). I don’t dispute any of the points you’ve raised, I probably don’t dispute any of the ones Zinnia’s raised (I don’t watch videos very often – habit from years of broken speakers and browsing while waiting for Solidworks to finish processing something), and I don’t see where you get “No True Scotsman” or “Not All Atheists” from that specific, narrow quibble.

  30. says

    To me, the straightforward reading of that one statement I quoted is “these people were on the fence or supportive of gender-identity justice until they became atheists, or would be except for having been atheists.”

    I don’t agree with that. “They’re transphobic because of their atheism” merely claims atheism as a cause of their transphobia — it does not claim that without atheism no other thing would have caused their transphobia (sufficient conditions being, after all, not necessarily necessary conditions.)