So having a bit more fun with taking things Greta Christina said really, really well and beautifully in regards to atheism, and applying those concepts to things I’ve observed in terms of how other minority groups are treated, like in my Catches Twenty-Two post…
I’ve been thinking for awhile that it would be interesting to talk a bit about how the “Shut Up, That’s Why” non-arguments she once elegantly described being used against atheists also show up in tactics used against other unpopular ideas and movements, like feminism, queer rights, or social justice.
“Shut Up, That’s Why” was right away one of my absolute favourite things Greta had ever written. Given how much I adore her work, and how she has been possibly the single most influential atheist blogger for me, personally, that’s pretty high praise. But in all honesty, the kinds of tactics she was describing I had come across far more frequently in the context of feminism than atheism, and resonated with me on that level more strongly than on the level of being an atheist. Maybe it’s just because I do a generally lousy job of being truly outspoken as an atheist, but still… I always thought it would be interesting to explore that a bit, and talk about how “Shut Up, That’s Why” shows up in other contexts. So this is me doing so.
A “Shut Up, That’s Why” argument, to put forth a pretty simple and basic definition, is an argument that isn’t presented as part of the conversation or discussion, but designed to shut down the conversation entirely. Like for instance, if I’m saying “bacon sandwiches are delicious no matter what!” and then someone says “pshaw! You’re being stupid! Without mayonnaise, bacon sandwiches are dry and gross”, that’s not a “Shut Up, That’s Why”. That’s just responding to my claim with a counter claim. It’s legitimate. But if I make my claim about the deliciousness of bacon sandwiches, and then someone says “Why the hell are we talking about sandwiches anyway? We should be talking about the weather! And besides, my sandwich preferences are a personal matter and none of your business. And nobody wants to hear you blabbing all about what kinds of sandwiches you do and don’t like anyway.” that’s a “Shut Up, That’s Why”. It steps back and decides to attack the discussion on a meta level, undermining the legitimacy of considering the issue at all.
What’s frustrating and dangerous is that these tactics get employed to shut down conversations that are far, far more important than bacon sandwiches. Conversations about things like, say, religion’s control of the public sphere, the treatment of women within our society, systemic oppression of non-normative sexual identities, or the pervasive climate of violence and risk thereof towards trans women.
The fact that these tactics are used to shut down such a broad range of important dialogues is exactly why I want to try to demonstrate how they can occur in a variety of contexts other than atheism, and try to provide examples by which they can be recognized regardless of the exact situation or topic.
The first “Shut Up, That’s Why” Greta articulates is described as follows:
Don’t you have anything better to do? Why do you keep talking about atheism when (the economy is tanking, there are wars, people are being tortured, the planet is overheating, etc.)? How can you think this is important? Why do you expect anyone to pay attention to it?
Or, as Greta also brilliantly describes it, “The ‘How Can You Talk About Blowjobs When People Are Dying In Darfur’ Argument”.
This one is easily transplanted into other contexts, and we see it there all the time. It was in fact a cornerstone of the elevator controversy. Dawkins initial “Dear Muslima” response was hinged around suggesting that discussion of sexual objectification or harassment of women in developed “western” nations was irrelevant due to the existence of more extreme forms of sexism and misogyny in certain middle-eastern theocracies.
It’s hard to imagine what Dawkins meant to achieve by that other than the direct trivialization and undermining of the original conversation. Hence why it’s a “Shut Up, That’s Why”. Dawkins was not drawing connections, nor was he encouraging greater activism in regards to the mistreatment of women in Islam. He hasn’t exactly been pouring a ton of effort into such work, after all. He was simply trying to find an excuse for why we shouldn’t bother addressing this particular issue.
One of the neat things about human beings, and social justice, is that we can talk about more than one problem at a time, and can even work towards addressing more than one at a time. We don’t need to solve all the world’s problems one at a time, starting with the “worst” and then, after we’re done with that, working our way towards the “minor” ones. We can address anything we feel is worth addressing. Saying “something somewhere else is worse!” is not even remotely a valid criticism of someone pointing out a problem. The fact that trans women in Kuwait are being plucked off the streets by police, raped, then intimidated to remain silent through threats of further abuse, does not suddenly make the randomized violence and systemic but not-usually-physical discrimination faced by trans women in North America any less of a problem, any less worth addressing, or any less nightmarish to endure. And I’m sorry, but implying that it does makes you a horrible person.
No matter what we’re talking about, there is always a “bigger problem”. So you think women are treated poorly at sci-fi, comic book and gaming conventions? Well so what, what about reproductive rights and the way that access to contraception and abortion is being fought by the Republican party? So you think the issue of reproductive rights for women in the United States is bad, well what about the way women are treated in Iran? You think the way cis women in Iran are treated, well what about trans women in Kuwait? You think the mistreatment of trans women in Kuwait is bad, well what about the death penalty for homosexuality in Uganda? Well what about ethnic cleansing? Well what about nuclear weapons? Well what about climate change? Well about the eventual extinction of the human species? Well what about the sun exploding and wiping out the Earth itself? Well what about THE INEVITABLE HEAT DEATH OF THE UNIVERSE?!?
Religion is based on faith, not reason. It exists in a different realm from science and politics and such, and it’s not fair to expect it to compete on the same level.
This one is more difficult to see how it applies in other contexts, but it certainly does.
Religion is not the only topic that people claim is somehow departed from conventional inquiry, nor is religion the only means by which people claim that whatever tools you’re using to address the topic aren’t the relevant ones for the topic.
Remember the whole “you’re really actually a man, because science” argument? That’s actually a different form of the same tactic. You see, if I approach the question of gender from a standpoint based on the importance of self-identification, someone can invalidate my claims in that regard by claiming that “science says” I’m male, and that somehow all the fields of inquiry I’m using to support my position are irrelevant to this version of “science”, and also that this “science” gets the last word. If the science of gender variance is then introduced to the discussion, the range of relevant considerations will be narrowed… to biology, to genitals, to genetics… whatever technique works for invalidating whatever angle I’m approaching from and shutting down the discussion.
Or how about “the concept of racial privilege isn’t substantiated by the evidence” (then you present the sociological data indicating clear social inequities along lines of race) “well sociology is just soft science anyway. Can the idea of privilege work for predicting outcomes? Hrumph.”
The point is that any act of claiming that only a particular perspective, particular considerations, a particular field, particular qualifications or particular data are relevant to the discussion (whichever ones, incidentally, happen to support the conclusion they’ve already drawn) and that other perspectives, considerations, fields, and information don’t count to the discussion. It’s still the same tactic of claiming non-overlapping magisteria, and claiming that the issue can’t be discussed because whatever background you’re approaching the discussion from “can’t speak to this issue”.
Why do you care what other people believe?
This one is another that is relatively easy to apply outside of atheism, and that we’re generally all familiar with. The response is simple: because people act on their beliefs.
The idea when this argument is presented is that everyone more or less just has their own opinion, and we’re all entitled to it, and as long as we don’t push our opinions on others, we all get along lovely and find and the world is a happy song of everlasting harmony. If only that were the case.
The thing is, we do not exist in a vacuum. We share a society. We are mutually interdependent on one another. Our actions affect those around us. Even our non-actions affect those around us. And our actions are inevitably based on our beliefs and values.
So sadly, that hinge in the idyllic presentation above “as long as we don’t push our opinions on others” can’t ever actually exist. Our beliefs will always have consequences for the others in our lives. So yes, other people’s beliefs do matter, and do affect me.
“Well I think of you as a man, and I’m entitled to my beliefs, and you need to respect those, so I’m going to call you ‘he'”
While technically true that this person’s belief about my gender is their own, it does directly involve me, it’s a belief that affects me, it’s a belief that contributes to the environment in which I exist, it’s a belief that causes me harm (microaggression), it’s a belief that affects and modifies the beliefs of others, it’s a belief that can help normalize and perpetuate even more directly harmful beliefs and, potentially, actions.
I do not need to respect someone’s right to a dangerous, harmful belief, nor do I have to accept the statement that someone is “entitled to their opinions” as a means of terminating dialogue. We exist in this world together, and our actions affect one another and are inextricably intertwined, so we do indeed have a vested interest in one another’s beliefs, and everything else that may govern their choices and actions.
I care about what you believe because I care about what you may do or say because of those beliefs.
Religion is personal and private. I don’t see why we have to talk about this.
As Greta herself points out, this exact same argument was used for decades as a means of silencing discourse regarding LGBTQ people. “Keep it in the bedroom”, “I don’t mind gay people as long as they don’t act like it”, “the other day I saw two fat lesbians KISSING. It was fucking gross. Nobody wants to see that”, “Yeah, well, if you’re just going to end up looking like a dude in a dress, you shouldn’t get a sex change, because you’re never going to look like a real woman, and having a guy like that in the bathroom with me makes me really uncomfortable”, etc.
Some things are personal and private. People set their own boundaries for what they do and don’t wish to openly discuss. And that’s okay, such boundaries deserve to be respected. But some dialogues do need to happen. And sometimes the very same thing someone is claiming is “personal and private” for the occasion of shutting down the conversation is something they will push into the public sphere and attempt to legislate on other occasions (like religion, or sexuality).
Privileged parties have been asserting their own positions in regards to things like religion, sexuality and gender publicly for a very, very long time, to the extent that those positions are simply accepted as “normal”. To claim that those iterations of these things that vary from the privileged norm must be kept quiet due to it being a private matter is a supreme act of oppression.
Generally, how this argument is presented is not as an assertion of one’s own boundaries in terms of what one is comfortable discussing, but instead an imposition of boundaries on what another is “allowed” to talk about. It is an excuse to keep certain topics, identities and voices quiet, silent, subjugated.
While the “gay people shouldn’t act gay” thing is fairly obviously connected to this, I’d like to add that I think a lot of the cultural pressure placed on trans people to “pass” as their identified sex is related to this as well… the idea being that we aren’t to make cis people “uncomfortable” by allowing our existence to be noticeable. We must never be either seen or heard. Trans people are fine, as long as no cis person ever has to be inconvenienced by noticing our existence. Like atheists. And gay people. And racial minorities too, via apartheid, segregation, and the institution of ghettos.
Atheists are so superior. They act like they’re so much smarter than believers, and they think they’re right about everything.
This tactic can be used in almost any situation, to discredit a person making claims you don’t want to hear.
The truth is that every single time a person makes a truth claim contradictory to someone else’s, they’re saying that the other person is incorrect. Everybody runs with the general assumption that they’re right about whatever opinions they hold, even if they accept (as they should) the possibility of being wrong. Nobody believes something they think is wrong. If they did, they wouldn’t believe it.
Now, we can either just accept this simple epistemological fact and move on with our lives, or we can commit ourselves to total complete post-modern relativism or conceptual nihilism where we believe absolute nothing whatsoever (and are either paralyzed as a result, or hypocrites).
What’s NOT fair to do is to end up saying “GAWD, everyone who disagrees with me is so ARROGANT to think they’re RIGHT about this!”… it’s just childish. I’m sure we’ve all known a friend or relative or (ex?)spouse or someone who would constantly pull out the “you always have to be right!” thing while never acknowledging that they do this in the context of trying to prove (as always) that they’re right.
The things is, you yourself think you’re right about whatever it is we disagree about too, so just get over it, and act like a grown-up. If you think I’m wrong, then you are free to demonstrate that. I promise I’m open to your actual arguments. But chastising me simply for having a belief or position is both immature and ridiculously hypocritical. It’s also cowardly, in that it suddenly exempts you from having to go to the trouble of weighing your ideas against mine.
Atheists, of course, are not the only group accused of “arrogantly” having the audacity to stand behind their own position. Those stubborn feminazis, never listening to any contradictory opinion. Those stuck-up, elitist scientists, thinking science can solve everything. That hivemind Freethought Blogs, just hanging out with people who agree with them all the time, totally convinced that they’ve got it all figured out.
…and the countless young trans folk who, after coming out to their parents, and trying to defend the validity of their identity and their choice against the anger and incredulity of their families, were told they were “just being stubborn” and, presenting information to counter the cissexist myths and misunderstandings the parents picked up from the ambient culture, “always had to be right about everything.”
It’s always an act of dismissal, and silencing. Sometimes much more tragic and heartbreaking than others.
Atheists are so whiny.
Just like the feminists. And the gays, with their demands for special rights. And the civil rights marchers. And the suffragettes. And the abolitionists.
For all the hundreds of times I’ve been confronted with this argument used to try to dismiss or silence some kind of advocacy, I have never ever been given a decent, consistent, workable definition for what is “whining” vs. what is a legitimate criticism or voicing of concern. It seems the only real distinction is whether you agree with the objection or not.
One of the definitions of what makes something qualify as “whining” is that whining allegedly doesn’t present any solution to the objection. But sometimes voicing the concern is the solution. Sometimes simply making a presence known, or claiming empowerment through voicing one’s experiences, or letting people know that you’re not okay with something, sometimes that is a very real and meaningful step in the right direction. So is raising awareness, allowing people to simply know that there’s a problem.
Take for example someone objecting to the omnipresent homophobic and misogynistic language in the online gaming community. “Stop whining, fag. You’re not presenting any solution, you’re just bitching about it. So STFU!” … well, what kind of solution exactly are you suggesting I propose, beyond maybe “quit using homophobic and misogynistic slurs”? Isn’t that enough? Or do I need to hold your hand through it and present a systematized set of consequences, punishments and moderation strategies? Of course, if I did that, I’d be accused of censorship or fascism instead.
Drawing attention to the problem, and letting people know that the casual use of the terms of the terms “fag”, “bitch” and “cunt” and so forth are harmful and bigoted is itself part of the work towards solving the problem. Acting like this is “just whining” because it doesn’t contain some kind of structured long-term strategy that you can implement like a Starcraft build order is not a reasonable criticism. It is, like all “Shut Up, That’s Why” tactics, a means of simply shutting down the conversation, dismissing the issue, and continue to wallow in privilege, ignorance and complacency.
Honestly, I would be happy to see the words “whining”, “whine” and “whiny” removed from the language entirely. I’ve almost never seen them used in a productive way. It’s like they were specifically designed for the purpose of trivializing and dismissing the pain, struggle or objections of others. It’s the ultimate red flag for knowing when you’re dealing with a “Shut Up, That’s Why”.
I’m so tired of hearing about atheism. Can’t you give it a rest?
And you’re tired of hearing about racism. And tired of hearing about sexism. And tired of gay and queer and trans rights, and tired of AIDS, and tired of breast cancer walks, and tired of bullying awareness campaigns, and tired of hearing about murder rates and poverty and homelessness and the recession and survival sex work and climate change and everything. Fine.
I take it back. That right there is a legitimate time to say you’re whining.
Because you know what? WE ARE TIRED TOO.
I am EXTREMELY tired of women being treated as sex objects first and human beings later. I am EXTREMELY tired of trans people not having any legal protections against discrimination, and tired of us being mocked and sneered at in the mainstream press and media, and tired of constantly hearing about other trans women being murdered or feeling the need to take their own lives, and tired of people feeling content to happily send letters to The Daily Mail about how we should all just be given brain surgery (as though that gross and appalling human rights violation wasn’t actually a common institutional practice for decades), and I am really, really, really fucking tired of having to write about this shit all the time.
But this needs to get talked about. Because if we don’t talk about this stuff, if we give it a rest, nothing is going to change or get any better. We’re going to have to continue living as second class citizens while you get to relax and tune it out and, well… rest. But we don’t get that. For us, this dark, depressing, inconveniencing stuff we talk about is a constant and inescapable aspect of our lives, and one we would absolutely love to have end. But we don’t get the option of ignoring it.
So you complaining about how we draw all this unpleasantness to your attention, and ruin your happy good time feelings? Fuck you.
I’m tired of hearing your patronizing, cissexist, dismissive, privileged ignorance all the time. Can you give it a rest?
Can’t we just get along? Can’t we agree to disagree? Neither of us can prove our side with 100% certainty, so there’s no point in even having this discussion. Can’t we just live and let live?
Well… yeah… like I mentioned earlier, this could be a beautiful world if it worked that way. But it doesn’t.
The truth is, those of us who are raising these objections that you’re telling us to shut up… us feminists, and trans-rights advocates, and social justice types, and protestors, and atheists… people don’t simply let us live. That just isn’t reality. Our lives, our experiences, our rights, and even whether we live or die, is dictated by the positions of others, by the cultural climate we live in.
When I go out after dark, I am taking a risk. I am literally risking being attacked, sexually assaulted or murdered. That is because we live in a culture that objectifies and devalues women, and openly ridicules and despises trans women. Instead of “live and let live”, cis people get to live, since neither I (nor Asher) pose them any threat, and then they decide whether or not to let me live.
So simply allowing that cultural climate to exist as it does, without offering my own voice and participation, is not appealing to me. What happens to me and my brothers and sisters is dependent on the aggregated beliefs of our shared society. So yes, I am going to make my own beliefs known as strongly as I possibly can, and do everything I can to influence the beliefs of others in a direction where we’re going to be just a tiny bit less likely to get killed, or otherwise brutalized by the culture we live in.
We are all connected. Our beliefs and opinions are not islands. We depend on, and affect, one another, and our beliefs have meaning and consequences for people beyond ourselves. This is why we are in dialogue. This is why we need to converse, and share, and grow collectively. This is why we need to prod one another, and talk. In fact, we can’t even avoid it: human life is a conversation, the only thing in question or flux is how that conversation is framed, who controls the terms, and what topics are permitted and which are silenced.
This is why we cannot, and should not, shut up.