On Robin Williams’ death, PZ Myers does not speak for me.

I hate the call-out culture that is developing in the blogosphere.  Admittedly, I used to be a part of it, and now I regret it.  It’s not that people never need to be called out, but it seems like a good portion of the blogosphere is just looking for any little excuse to snipe and start fights which diminishes the power of the act.  Also, this culture seems to first assume the worst of people, even people on our own side, rather than taking the time to talk and try to understand one another.  I just want out of it, and I’ve done so.

But on the other hand, something I dislike about religion is that religious people often say nothing of the immoralities of religious leaders for the sake of unity and PR, and I certainly don’t want to do that.  So today I make an exception, because something was said that is so unnecessarily spiteful that I want to comment publicly.

So here it is: the other day PZ Myers posted what I, and a legion of others, took as a low blow to Robin Williams:

I’m sorry to report that comedian Robin Williams has committed suicide, an event of great import and grief to his family. But his sacrifice has been a great boon to the the news cycle and the electoral machinery — thank God that we have a tragedy involving a wealthy white man to drag us away from the depressing news about brown people.

. . . Boy, I hate to say it, but it sure was nice of Robin Williams to create such a spectacular distraction. No one wants to think the police might be untrustworthy. [This refers to the police shooting of black teenager Mike Brown in St. Louis.]

Not an event of great import and grief only to his family, but to all of us who took life lessons from his work and found joy in our lives on account of it.  This is why, to many of us, reducing his death to a distraction is callous.  We see his death as a tragedy, not only because of the greatness of Williams’ life but because it’s an indictment of how we’ve dedicated too few resources to fixing his condition (a condition that also affects the poor and people of other races – and doesn’t schedule itself around other news stories).

And the use of “wealthy, white man” here is, at best, an epithet.  Would having a debilitating condition that ultimately killed Williams have been ok with PZ if he was black?  Or poor?  It’s not less of a tragedy because he was wealthy and white: Williams was a good human, and that’s why his death is significant.

And, as others have pointed out, people are capable of caring about multiple things at once.  Grief is not a zero sum game.  Grieving the loss of Williams does not interfere with our outrage at the situation in Ferguson, nor has it impacted the media’s coverage of it (turn on the news, seriously).  We can simultaneously wish more resources were dedicated to saving everybody from mental illness and racism/police brutality.  The two are not mutually exclusive.  But to sneer at a man who suffered because he wasn’t suffering within the context of your pet cause is unconscionable.  One needs not throw someone who harmed nobody, no matter how wealthy or white, under the bus in order to be an ally to anybody, including racial minorities.  Both causes deserve better than that.

I can understand wishing more resources were directed to the issue of how our justice system fails racial minorities (because FSM knows the accusations of not caring about that subject will come).  That’s a perfectly valid point, and one I back in full.  But that’s not the issue here.  The point is that it can be done without the spite and toxicity to someone who brought goodness into the world, whose affliction seems to garner less empathy from PZ due to the color of his skin and the size of his bank account.

Others have said the same, even here on Patheos (Terry Firma over at The Friendly Atheist and Dan Arel both spring to mind).  But Jerry Coyne also weighed in and he’s 100% right:

This is one of the most contemptible and inhumane things I’ve ever seen posted by a well-known atheist. It reeks of arrogance, of condescension, and especially of a lack of empathy for those who loved and admired Williams not because they knew him, but because he brought them happiness and made them think.

Yes, we can care about the oppressed, but we can also care about the loss of someone who did a lot of good in this world. Let’s face it: few of us atheists will make the difference that Robin Williams did. In a time of immense brutality, it does no good to ride roughshod over the feelings of those of us who really did admire and respect Robin Williams. What is gained by that?

So what do I want?  What was the point of this post?  I have no hope or intention of changing PZ’s mind (if more eloquent people have failed to do so, I shouldn’t even try).  But I do realize that PZ is viewed by many, including those on the edge of leaving religion who might not know much about the atheist movement, as a figure of import.  I want to speak to them, to the people looking at the breadth of the atheism movement and seeing this one person sticking out.  Friends…this man does not speak for me.  Atheism just means that you don’t believe in god, it sadly does not guarantee that people will eschew being mean or that they will always (or ever) make sense.  That includes me, Richard Dawkins, and also PZ Myers.

But in this case of unmitigated toxicity, I want you to know that I am disgusted and that most atheists would also be if they were to read it.  I cannot speak for anybody else (though, if you click around the internet, you can find them speaking for themselves), but this man absolutely does not speak for me.  I think what he said was cruel and ill-reasoned.  Whatever your reaction to his words, please direct it at the man who wrote them, not to atheism or to our movement which, to my eyes, is ordinarily brimming with compassion.


Comments on this post will be heavily moderated.  You’re free to disagree, but if you’re just being a jerk or unnecessarily mean you’ll get deleted and banned with nary a thought wasted on regret.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.


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