Racism, Everywhere: Resisting a Secular Culture War

Racism, Everywhere: Resisting a Secular Culture War April 28, 2019

Louis Hansel, Unsplash.com, CC0 Licensing

Let’s begin with a story. Some two years after walking into the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre in Quebec City, the man who on January 29, 2017 murdered six human beings, paralysed another, and injured eighteen more was sentenced to life in prison, with no possibility of parole for 40 years. The prosecution wanted 150 years behind bars, which would have been a Canadian record, but Justice Francois Huot noted that “punishment should not be vengeance”. At 29 years old, the murderer stands a chance of reforming and being granted parole.

In the interim, the Quebec City mosque has expressed solidarity with a range of similar atrocities: the Manchester Arena bombing (May 22, 2017: 23 dead, 139 wounded, radical Libyan Islamist suicide bomber), the massacre at the Pittsburgh Synagogue (October 27, 2018: 11 dead, 7 injured, white supremacist shooter), and the bombings in Christchurch (March 15, 2019: 50 dead, 50 injured, white supremacist shooter). But there has been no paucity of others. Since the Quebec City mosque shooting alone, North Americans have been shaken by mass attacks close to home like the Las Vegas mass shooting (October 1, 2017: 59 dead, 527 wounded, white shooter’s motive unclear) and the Toronto van attack (April 23, 2018: 10 dead, 16 injured, white incel perpetrator).

Meanwhile, for some, there’s hardly been time to recover from one attack before another emerges. Take, for instance, Kabul, Afghanistan–a city of about 4.635 million. Here are all the mass murders it’s endured since Canada’s mosque massacre:

March 8, 2017 (49 dead, 63 injured, ISIS claimed responsible, Haqqani also suspected)

May 31, 2017 (150 dead, 413 injured, Taliban presumed responsible)

June 3, 2017 (20 dead, 87 injured, no party named as perpetrator)

June 15, 2017 (6 dead, 10 injured, ISIS claimed responsibility)

January 27, 2018, (103 dead, 235 injured, Taliban claimed responsibility)

March 21, 2018 (33 dead, 65 injured, ISIS claimed responsibility)

April 22, 2018 (69 dead, 120 injured, ISIS claimed responsibility)

April 30, 2018 (29 dead, 50 injured, ISIS claimed responsibility; Taliban also suspected)

August 15, 2018 (48 dead, 67 injured, ISIS claimed responsibility)

September 5, 2018 (20 dead, 70 injured, ISIS claimed responsibility)

November 20, 2018 (50 dead, 94 injured, ISIS presumed responsible)

In the last two years, in one city, 577 died and 1274 were injured from the most prominent mass attacks alone. People at hospitals. People at funerals. People at prayer. Children. Civilians. Human beings, all of them.

And in an ideal world, these would all be dead that we grieved. We global humanists would be able to pour our efforts into addressing the greatest sites of trauma and recovery work the world over.

But instead, we have the blisteringly stupid rise of further fear, further hatred, further violence to contend with close to home.

We have people with similar impulses to the murderer of six men in Quebec City, on January 29, 2017, to pull back from the brink.

And how incredibly infuriating that, while it’s just so simple to pin radicalization to religion in Kabul’s examples, the same human mediocrity, the same appeal to the lowest common denominator through radicalization, also exists in such supposedly “culturally enlightened” parts of the world as well.

O Canada, You Secularized-But-Still-Racist Lunk

I’ve been writing quite a bit as of late about racism, in essays on white-culture entitlement, white supremacist historical ignorance, the role of Western-atheist rhetoric in racialized violence, and a dogwhistle of a religious term. Today I need to talk about the recent rise of emboldened white supremacy in Canada.

Dear, sweet, 24%-no-religious-affiliation Canada.

I want to point out first, though, that “Canada” is still an idyllic concept for many. Many Canadians have contributed significantly to the world under its banner. Many Canadian children look up to those role-models and aspire to do the same. Many others, outside Canadian borders, long above all else to join its ranks. And I salute the image of Canada that all three groups advance.

But there’s no denying that Canada’s history is racist. Canada’s built on land stolen from indigenous people it attempted to wipe out. Its first prime minister was a racist even for his time, being the only one to use “Aryan” in reference to Canada’s central character. It exploited Chinese workers to build its signature railroad, then isolated an entire generation of Chinese immigrants from their families through an aggressive head tax. It threw Austrians and Ukrainians into concentration camps during WWI, and the Japanese during WWII. It turned away Hindu immigrants in 1914–many to their death at British hands back in Calcutta–and Jewish people fleeing persecution in WWII. It kept the first prime-minister’s system of predatory, culturally-genocidal residential schools open until 1996. So–you get the idea: not a lot, intrinsically, to be proud of in our origin story.

Which is why, when recent articles noted a disturbing trend of radicalizing racism, especially towards immigrants, my first concern was this pretense that we’d just become racist. When did we ever stop to catch our breath?

But after permitting the knee-jerk incredulity to pass–after allowing that these papers are nonetheless reporting on the rise of a specific strain of overt xenophobia–I reminded myself that this strain wasn’t new in another way, either. I’d seen its rise firsthand during the U.S. presidential election in 2016. I’d witnessed, and spoken plainly about, the rise of emboldened racism up north to match the rhetoric of emboldened groups down south. I’d started learning Spanish in solidarity against it.

I’d ultimately left the country, in no small part, because of it.

Which led me–after a moment’s further stewing–to my second concern. My humanist concern. The question of what we–and yes, that includes even a Canadian absconded to Colombia–will do next. I left the immediate vicinity of that country’s social contract, but I did not leave–and never can–the obligation.

Because it is blisteringly stupid that we have to fight these tendencies again–but the alternative is making way for a normalization of more of the incessant grief and strife that cities like Kabul have to endure. The kind of mourning already, horrifically, becoming naturalized (anew) in the U.S.’s black churches and synagogues, too.

Global Humanism’s Progressive Mandate

There are some atheists who believe that the correct path to progress is simply to target and critique every last person of faith until faith disappears. I have discussed at length why a politics of anti-desperation is more effective, and I most recently tackled the idea that demonizing others only imbues their mythology with greater power.

But most of us, when looking at the strong showing of irreligion in polls of Westernized religious belief… Well, we recognize the same, don’t we? We atheists are becoming socially dominant, which means we are increasingly tasked to recognize a new role for our activism. It’s one thing to shed a body of cultural stories that are, at best, complicated and contradictory in their positive messaging… and at worst, utterly antithetical to honest and morally sound discourse. It’s another thing entirely, though, to shape a world so that it’s stable enough not to support new falsehoods in their wake.

And make no mistake: the tribalism underpinning white supremacist and anti-(brown)-immigrant movements is a symptom of said instability. Clinging to myths of racial purity especially has the power to provide shelter to white male persons struggling with their identity in a landscape of lesser automatic systemic entitlement (not to be mistaken as an automatic “good life” for all white persons–simply, a relative leg-up) in a staggeringly divided classist society. And what does the demographic of white male persons also tend towards at greater rates than other demographics?

Atheism. (Darn tootin’!)

Which means that secular folk are uniquely positioned to build stories that can tackle this problem. Culturally narratives that provide greater stability than those currently disseminated by groups seeking solely to stir up hatred and contempt–against immigrants, against women, against any non-conforming expressions of masculinity.

This is our fight, folks.

And while some rightfully chafe and rage at essentially having to convince a group of people not to be assholes… when we have more environmental refugees than ever (and the number will only increase if we don’t radically address the root environmental causes); when we have ongoing wars with a spate of tediously socio-political root causes; when we have a myriad of treatable diseases going untreated; when we have children living and dying in the most horrific of cultural conditions… we have to remember that we don’t need to put aside our anger to make a difference.

Be angry that this stupidity is part of the agenda for 2019.

Be angry that the supposed utopia of ideas that “rational” secular discourse was meant to engender has instead fomented its own brands of self-serving tribalist mythology.

But also? Commit to ensuring that this isn’t the social agenda for the future of our increasingly secular world.

How a Compassionate Humanist Can Fight Racism

As I noted in my essay on Western atheism as a proving ground for white supremacy, a loss of cultural status often finds white persons clinging to supposed intellectual superiority to justify their continued and fairly singular entitlement to a certain way of living, at any cost. This makes atheism particularly appealing, because its social-media discourse is ostensibly rationalist and empiricist (even if, in practice, it still looks a lot like the dissemination of smug, self-congratulatory anti-theistic memes).

But humanism requires more–and therein lies, I suspect, the challenge we can lay at the feet of those seeking the highest moral positioning in our growing secular world.

Humanism, after all, is a whole-species concern. It entails a recognition that our little spaceship contains 7.7 billion sentient beings under the banner of homo sapiens sapiens. And if we want to be the “side” that favours knowledge and discovery over strict, narrow-minded adherence to ancient stories, where better to start than with that fact?

Because informed empathy is not an easy skill to master. It’s practically automatic for we human beings to cling to singular stories of struggle–one toddler dead upon a seashore; one small child shell-shocked in an ambulance, coated with dust and blood from an horrific disaster. It’s a much greater intellectual challenge to extend our empathy across the nuanced playing fields of whole communities, whole slews of lives not captured in individual photos. And perhaps the greatest mental challenge in this moral real is the ability to hold–as a proper humanities education teaches us–dissenting ideas in tension, and to learn to be comfortable with the tension (even as we’re welcome to loathe one position on the spectrum!), when the alternative is to desperately rush to conclusions just so that we don’t have to sit with that discomfort for long.

(Think of it, dear readers of Dune, as the compassionate humanist’s pain box: There is no obligation to endorse any odious idea one holds in tension during such a mental exercise, but the longer one can hold even those horrible ideas in tension with one’s most strongly held humanistic convictions when reflecting on the nature of the human condition, the greater a lock one ultimately has on the complexity of detangling those most odious ideas from the human condition on whole.)

But can’t we just show racists that their targets have feelings, too?

Now, I’m not discounting the value of direct empathy building. Indeed, some folks are always going to argue that the way to pull people back from the brink of radicalization is to expose them directly to the humanity of others. I’m a touch more cynical, though. I think that our desire to know where we stand in social hierarchies is too strong, too fundamental to our animality. Moreover, because human behaviour to date has also found male persons to take wilder risks (for better and for worse), we’re fighting a culture in which this demographic is especially susceptible to hierarchy pressures in ways that violently threaten us all. (Another time, in another essay, I’ll discuss how feminized persons also manifest hierarchy pressures, and racism!)

But even if it is in our nature to be status-seeking creatures, this still gives us humanists a roadmap for anti-racist advocacy within a secular world–an atheist world–where the rush of being intellectually superior has for so long been tied to disdain for fairy tales.

What if we flipped the script on what constitutes intellectual superiority?

What if we re-centred that core humanities principle–the ability to hold ideas in tension and demonstrate a full understanding of each position (NOT to be confused with forcing others to accept your personal point of view in the interest of “balance”!)–as the true measure of intellectual superiority?

What if we refused to see as “superior” the fragile mind that still simplistically and erroneously believes the seat of moral reasoning to exist at a neurological remove from emotion? Who still holds to an outdated biological model for critical thought?

Remember that Lament about Ahistoricism?

I’ve written before on how frustratingly ahistoric we can be in our secular storytelling, and it’s just as true here as it is for supposedly “novel” diversity in Western culture. Indeed, we already have plenty of role models–masculinized role models!–to forward in this light. My appeal doesn’t involve reinventing the wheel so much as elevating masculine history from its reductive treatment in today’s discursive climate.

It means celebrating, say, that Captain James T. Kirk cried and feared openly for the safety of his friends, and once defended a mama rock from destruction at the hands of miners; and that Captain Jean-Luc Picard loved song and archaeology and literature no less for his ability to be bold and take life-and-death risks as the situation required it; and that Benjamin Sisko took on his parenting duties with a seriousness equal to his role of station commander, while also respectfully wearing the mantle some of his religious constituents had placed on his unbelieving self.

It means noting, too, that the mighty hand that penned Moby Dick, Herman Melville, was a man whose friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne involved an abundance of overt emotional affection in correspondence; and that Ernest Hemingway’s prose was often deeply sentimental (e.g. For Whom the Bell Tolls); and that Raymond Carver’s original stories, before being slashed by his editor, were also warmer and more sensitive works (e.g. the stories in Cathedral) than his reputation for minimalism would have you believe.

It means remembering that we had Ziggy Stardust and Prince and Freddie Mercury, and a heyday for Morrissey, and a hundred other musicians whose performance of masculinity was not diminished by the expansive range of possible human experience.

And it means remembering Carl Sagan (currently returning to stardust), and Neil DeGrasse Tyson (still with us), and a whole host of other secular figures who–while not perfect, for what human is?–made a mark for themselves with wonder above disdain, inclusion above tribalism; and who celebrated the pursuit of greater knowledge about our cosmos not as rigid empirical endeavour, but as giddy good fun.

The Take-Away

Canada, an increasingly non-religious nation, is like most of the West also experiencing a spike in people (predominantly white and male) whose socioeconomic insecurity has them choosing a supposed “enlightenment” of tribalist conflict, often taken to overt and violent extremes, over allyship with the rest of us in trying to diminish the staggering rich-poor divide at the core of their actual loss of social stability.

And this white-supremacist nonsense, this anti-immigrant bullshit in a time of greater-than-ever global mobility pressures, is the storytelling with which many human beings want to fill even a secular world.

So we humanists–of every stripe and background–have to do better.

Thankfully, though, we already have the tools for such an effort at our disposal. We know that rational thought is not a mental process that ever exists at a complete remove from emotion and related cultural input. And we know that our shared histories of masculine excellence (real and fictional) already contains a myriad of people whose exceptionalism was not directly predicated on manifestations of pride, anger, and shows of overt physical and intellectual dominance.

What our secular world thus calls for is a firmer application of scientific discovery and nuanced collective history than ever.

We can’t let people get away with claiming that they’re simply “being rational”.

We can’t let people get away with claiming that masculinity is diminished by anything but combative approaches to self- and communal mastery.

And we can’t let countries like Canada get away with pretending that racism and xenophobia are somehow new.

Because the problems are as old as the Western world itself.

But thanks to all the hard work of so many come before–thanks to the wealth of scientific data now at our disposal, along with greater access than ever to the full, wondrous range of human experience to date–perhaps it’s not impossible to imagine what we atheists are all supposedly gunning for:

A better secular story, still to come.

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