Response to Jen McCreight – on social justice, Bria Crutchfield, and the “third group”.

Response to Jen McCreight – on social justice, Bria Crutchfield, and the “third group”. August 21, 2013

Comments closed.

If you’re uninterested in the dust up between myself and Bria Crutchfield, consider scrolling to the bottom to read the meta of this post.

Jen McCreight wrote a response to my piece about Bria Crutchfield.  This post was linked to by Greta Christina, Rebecca Watson, and countless others in that camp, many saying “Jen wrote exactly what I wanted to say!”  Let’s take a look at what many people wanted to say.

Right from the start of Jen’s post in response to my own about Bria Crutchfield, from the very title, the misrepresentations start to flow.  The title was “On silencing anger to silence minority voices.”  The implication is that I want people to not be angry or offended at injustice or ignorance, when I never said anything of the sort.  In fact, my post was full of statements like:

Like I said earlier, I’m the last person to say that a good tongue-lashing is never appropriate.

I have reiterated time and again that most anger in our movement on the subject of race and women’s equality is justified anger, so the idea that I want people to curtail their anger is disappointing.  What I have said, however, and what has yet to be addressed, is that not every action taken on account of justifiable anger is necessarily a justified action.

Another implication is that I was trying to silence somebody.  Again, I have always written that we must be vocal and that we must challenge bad ideas with honesty and fervor.  Are we so detached from nuance that saying “Taking over another speaker’s Q&A to verbally berate somebody is inappropriate and unnecessary” becomes equivalent to “That person should be silent”?  Had Bria pulled out a bullhorn to shout the questioner down I would’ve thought that was out of line too, and it would have nothing to do with silencing her.

And that’s just the title.  Let’s get on to the rest of the piece.

My favorite thing to wake up to in the morning is white straight cis men insisting they get to decide who your allies are and that you should not ever get angry, but rather calmly explain basic topics to hostile questions from every person that wanders across your path as if it were your personal duty on this earth.

Whenever somebody like myself criticizes feminists of the Jen McCreight variety, our innate features are always swiftly trotted out.  I’m a white, cis, male.  Yup, I sure am.  Not that this makes me wrong.  Now, you could argue that it makes me more likely to have blind spots to particular issues, and you’d be right.  But if those features have produced an ignorance in me that has caused me to use a fallacious argument, then the argument should be easy enough to defeat on its own without recourse to well-poisoning, ad hominems, and red herrings.  But merely pointing out the traits with which I was born does nothing to bolster one’s arguments, nor should they prohibit me from saying a black person or a woman did something wrong as swiftly as I would say a white person or a male was doing something wrong.

And, once again, I have not ever said that people shouldn’t get angry.  Repeatedly, until I am positively blue in the face, I have said most of their anger is justified.  I have shared Greta’s atheists and anger talk and quoted it repeatedly.  I think anger is necessary to be an activist.  What fair-minded and objective person could possibly glean that I think people should not be angry?  I don’t even think Bria was wrong to be angry and I told her so.  What I did say was that justified anger doesn’t permit every action.  I thought I was perfectly clear on this when I wrote:

That we are hurt does not always justify us hurting others.  That’s why the words “justice” and “revenge” are not synonyms.

But apparently not.

Furthermore, I don’t think the question was hostile.  In her post, Jen asserts that my opinion on the hostility of the question must be derived from psychic powers, as if body language and tone are meaningless indicators.  But I’m not only operating off of her body language and tone (which I think would be sufficient by themselves), I also spoke with the woman afterward.  I even messagd Mandisa to see if she thought the question was malicious and Mandisa told me “I definitely don’t think the question was intentionally malicious, or even malicious at all”.  Nor do I think it’s the responsibility of every black atheist to answer every ill-informed question they are posed, as Jen asserts (although, if you’re trying to make it as a public figure with the stated cause of dissolving ignorance about race in the secular community, it might be a good idea).  However, I do think it’s ethically better to not treat every manifestation of ignorance as if the person hates black people or women, etc., and I definitely don’t think every manifestation of ignorance merits public humiliation.

Mandisa and I have spoken about this.  Neither of us believe the audience member’s question was hostile, even though we both believe she did a poor job in avoiding offense (which can happen unintentionally).  The question was offensive and Mandisa and Bria were certainly not remiss in any way for being offended.  That’s why I never condemned anybody for being offended.  What I did condemn, and still do condemn, is when a person is offended inadvertently and considers it fair or even morally right to purposefully embarrass the person.  This is especially true when Bria said, in her outburst, that part of her outrage was that the question embarrassed Mandisa.  If embarrassing others in a crowded room is immoral when done by mistake, it shouldn’t be considered moral to do it on purpose.

This is why I wrote:

Can ignorance still hurt?  Sadly, yes.  We all have hurt others without intending to do so.  But it’s the difference between someone stepping on your foot by mistake and somebody stomping on it on purpose.  While the effect is the same, one person is far more ethically dubious.

My position is that Bria was the one who was more ethically dubious, even if her offense was perfectly understandable.  Do people do wrong things when they’re mad?  Sure.  I’ve done them.  We all have.  But that only makes them understandable and usually immediately forgivable once remorse is shown- it doesn’t make them right.

JT’s psychic powers allow him to know that the woman asking the question on black on black crime is naive and not racist.

I addressed this earlier.  One does not need psychic powers to interpret a person’s tone, body language, or to speak to them afterward to try and understand.  All of which I have done, none of which Jen has done.  And yet, Jen still feels perfectly justified being convinced that this person was being intentionally racist.

This is despite that particular question being one of the most common, racist, debunked talking points from the far right. Even if 99% of the time that question is thrown out precisely to be hostile as a racism “gotcha”, we’re to assume this case is different for no good reason.

Wrong.  Nobody is challenging the idea that it’s an ill-formed question.  Nobody’s denying that hatemongers use it.  But to say that we’re assuming that in this case the person had no ill-intent is a mere assumption for no good reason is simply untrue.

His psychic powers also make him certain that Bria’s intent was to humiliate and embarrass, and he dismisses that Bria or other black atheists have any good reason to feel unwelcome at the conference.

Again, one did not need to be psychic to glean that Bria’s friend had been embarrassed and that she was going to return it in kind – one only needed to be in the room (and if/when the video of Bria’s outburst is released, it will confirm this).  But I was still willing to give Bria the benefit of the doubt (practicing what I preach, as it were), by speaking with her in private.  I posted how that conversation went, and it became clear to me that Bria (who flat out said she didn’t care about changing the woman’s mind) wanted to publicly shame her.

I also didn’t say black atheists didn’t have a good reason to feel unwelcome at the conference.  What I did say is that while offense at the questioner’s ill-informed question was understandable, that I didn’t feel like a question that carried no malicious intent should convince someone they’re unwelcome.  There may have been reasons Bria or another black attendee felt unwelcome and, if so, I’m very sad/sorry about that.  If those reasons exist, I am as of yet unaware of them.

After all this, JT has the gall to pull Bria aside and explain how he thinks she should have handled the situation – aka, be more nice and calm, and keep your disagreements to private discussions with the individual. This is so condescending it blows my mind.

I realize Bria was upset, and the reasoning is not lost on me.

I don’t think Bria being upset was wrong in anyway.  I despise the same things that likely led to her being upset.  She was undoubtedly hoping for an event where she wouldn’t have to put up with the products of racial ignorance in our culture, even if they manifested without intention.  I can imagine her disappointment at finding out this would not be the case.

I am also aware that my perception is colored by natural biases.  A good article on this comes from Sikivu Hutchinson writing about Kiera Wilmot (which I also covered) on the fact that black female students are far more likely to be expelled and such:

“In many American classrooms black children are treated like ticking time bomb savages, shoved into special education classes, disproportionately suspended and expelled then warehoused in opportunity schools, juvenile jails and adult prisons. Yet, while national discourse on the connection between school discipline and mass incarceration typically focuses on black males, black girls are suspended more than boys of every other ethnicity (except black males). At a Georgia elementary school in 2012 a six year-old African American girl was handcuffed by the police after throwing a tantrum in the principal’s office. Handcuffing disruptive black elementary school students is not uncommon. It is perhaps the most extreme example of black children’s initiation into what has been characterized as the school-to-prison pipeline, or, more accurately, the cradle to grave pipeline. Stereotypes about dysfunctional violent black children ensure that the myth of white children’s relative innocence is preserved.

Nationwide, black children spend more time in the dean’s office, more time being opportunity transferred to other campuses and more time cycling in and out of juvenile detention facilities than children of other ethnicities. Conservatives love to attribute this to poverty, broken homes, and the kind of Bell Curve dysfunction that demonizes “welfare queens” who pop out too many babies. Yet there is no compelling evidence that socioeconomic differences play a decisive role in these disparities. The fact remains that black children are criminalized by racist discipline policies regardless of whether they’re privileged “Cosby kids” or are in foster care or homeless shelters. According to Daniel Losen and Russell Skiba, authors of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Suspended Education” report, “ethnic and racial disproportionately in discipline persists even when poverty and other demographic factors are controlled. …When it comes to black girls, the widespread perception that they are dangerous, hostile and ineducable is promoted and reinforced by mainstream media portrayals. Historically, black women have never been regarded as anybody’s “fairer sex” because white women have always been the universal standard for femininity, humanity, and moral worth.”

The NYT reiterates this:

Although black students made up only 18 percent of those enrolled in the schools sampled, they accounted for 35 percent of those suspended once, 46 percent of those suspended more than once and 39 percent of all expulsions, according to the Civil Rights Data Collection’s 2009-10 statistics from 72,000 schools in 7,000 districts, serving about 85 percent of the nation’s students. The data covered students from kindergarten age through high school.

One in five black boys and more than one in 10 black girls received an out-of-school suspension. Over all, black students were three and a half times as likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers.

And in districts that reported expulsions under zero-tolerance policies, Hispanic and black students represent 45 percent of the student body, but 56 percent of those expelled under such policies.

Also, there is plenty of psych research confirming that we simply see people of our own race as better motivated and people of other races as worse motivated.  Whites and blacks alike have been shown to exhibit this prejudice, which sort of cuts against both myself and Bria. She’s naturally more likely to read the worst of a white person in an ambiguous case and I’m naturally more likely to think better of them.  So while Bria and I share the premise that this community should be better, I was more likely to give the benefit of the doubt to this community member and Bria was more likely to be wounded by her ignorance.  I get that there are natural biases in place to overcome, and getting it gave me tremendous pause before I reached a conclusion on the matter.  We all have biases.  They simply make it harder to get at the truth – they do not necessarily make us wrong.

This is why, when I spoke to Bria, I insisted several times that I didn’t think she was a bad person or that her anger was unjustified.  But if I’m out of line about any topic, from mental illness to religion, I do always appreciate when people (fairly, and in good faith) attempt to apprise me of it.  I may not always agree, but who thinks it’s condescending to convey to a peer that you think they made a mistake?  I guess you could say it’s condescending to believe that you perceived something they didn’t, but isn’t that an inherent case in any opinion a person might hold?  In my case, I spoke with Bria privately (away from any eyes) to express my opinion, not as a paternal figure, but as a concerned peer who assumed that atheists, just like religious people, should welcome being treated like they have the spine and integrity to withstand good-hearted criticism as a sign of respect.

When doing so, I did not implore Bria to keep all her disagreements private.  Obviously, having written about Bria’s outburst (and yes, it was an outburst), I think sometimes these discussions must be had publicly.  But not always, and not always in the middle of a conference, during another speaker’s Q&A, and not always with screaming and intent to embarrass, etc.

There are certain things that are out of line.  I know for a fact that Jen thinks people who get up during Q&As to make statements rather than ask questions are at least close to that line.  Nobody denies there are certain behaviors that are both bad ideas or unethical (using a bullhorn to talk over another speaker, punching a person you disagree with – extreme examples, but used to make the point).  My position is that shouting down an audience member who had a genuine ignorance and who meant no offense, even if her ignorance was offensive, didn’t make it acceptable for Bria to cross the line with impunity.

And yet, when this is said using very clear language, immediately I am accused by Jen of trying to silence minorities (presumably out of lack of sympathy or empathy), castigating people for anger, using psychic powers, etc.  This is why there are so many silent people in this movement on social justice issues.  It’s not because they don’t care, but because any disagreement is bound to result in these types of mischaracterizations from the Jen McCreights, Greta Christinas, Jason Thibeaults, Stephanie Zvans, and others like them that they think it’s not worth the effort.  People feel as if they must condone this type of behavior in order to be a feminist or a social justice advocate, otherwise they don’t get bestowed with that all-important “ally” title.  Of course, Jen and crew are not the arbiters of who is an ally to a cause.  I am an ally to compassion, reason, and to fairness, not to particular people.  If that makes you my ally, splendid!  If not, that’s fine too.

It is incredibly problematic for a white man to tell a black woman to not get angry about issues of racism that affect her on a daily basis.

Which is why I didn’t tell her not to be angry about issues of racism.  Jen writing that line would’ve been bad enough had I merely never said that, but it’s even worse considering that I said (and have repeatedly said) the exact opposite.  From the post’s comments:

I can empathize with the frustration of having to educate people repeatedly, be it with mental illness or atheism. I also asserted that there was a substantial response beneath the tangents of Bria’s outburst.

But these things still don’t alter the fact that not every action taken on account of justifiable anger is best or even good. It sounds like you and I both agree that the substance of Bria’s diatribe could have been delivered without humiliating someone who had no ill intent. That’s the crux of the matter.

And I’m seeing people say that I’m telling people to not be angry. That is not the case. I think people should be angry. I’m simply saying that not everything done on account of that anger is wise or good.

I have been saying this time and time again, to Jen and Greta in private as well as in public.  To keep having to answer the charge that I’m telling people to not be angry from people who repeatedly jump on their opponents for failing to adequately listen is very tiresome (not unlike having to keep interacting with ignorance about social justice issues, I’d wager).  Tiresome though it is, I’m not about to shout Jen down or challenge her integrity anywhere, especially in public.  I will keep saying she’s wrong though.

JT might not get mad, but it’s not because he’s achieved some higher, moral zen state that gives him infinite patience to deal with ignorance and hatred – it’s because these issues don’t fucking affect him.Of course you can stay calm when you either don’t care or don’t have to care.

And if I had said that Bria’s outburst were not understandable or her anger unjustified, this would be a splendid rebuttal.  But I never said any of those things.  I merely said that her outburst was inappropriate, unfair, and that she to this point has demonstrated zero remorse for embarrassing a well-meaning (but ignorant person) on purpose.  I understand that sometimes anger, even justified anger, can get the better of us.  But in my case and in Bria’s, the problem was with us, not with the anger.

So yes, even though I can empathize with Bria’s anger to an extent, I probably can’t fully do so.  She probably can’t empathize as fully with mine on the vast public ignorance of mental illness.  That doesn’t make her automatically wrong in making moral assessments of my behavior any more than it makes me wrong to assess hers.

He claims to understand how she feels – which is self evidently false from the article he just wrote. When you’re a member of a minority group, it is infuriating to hear the same offensive, dehumanizing, and ignorant questions over and over again. It is even more infuriating for people in a position of privilege to insist that it is your duty to personally and calmly educate every person that crosses your path. Even if 99% of the people asking these questions are assholes with no inkling to ever change their mind, you’re to treat each new one as a special snowflake. THIS one is just asking questions, guys!

Do you really think I have no idea what it feels like to be part of a minority group and to hear the same offensive, dehumanizing, and ignorant questions over and over again?  I read Christian literature and address religious appraisals of atheists on a daily basis.  We, too, are a minority that deals with this.  Ditto with mental illness and getting asked why people who are clinically depressed can’t just toughen up, or why anorexics can’t just eat, or if we are a danger to society because of the medications we’re on.  I realize this is infuriating, and I also realize that there are people out there determined to hate, who must be shamed and shouted down.

But I also understand that not everybody is dedicated to hate.  I realize that many people (certainly not as few as 1% as Jen would have us believe…that is some very creative statistical work) are good-hearted, but are themselves victims of a society that has made ignorance of our cause the default position.  I find at atheist conventions the number of the good-hearted goes up dramatically (go us!).  I have no doubt that there have been times in the past when I opened with hostility which may have been exactly the right response elsewhere, but that by doing so I inadvertently punished a person who was genuinely trying to understand me.  I can admit that I was wrong, I can admit that I was unnecessarily cruel, and I can (and do) sincerely say that I am sorry.  While that type of reaction may be understandable, even though my anger may be justified, I must admit that I was still wrong to have done it.

And when did I ever say it was the duty of every minority to personally and calmly educate every person that crosses their path?  Again, Jen lobs bombs into territory I never even sought to occupy (spectacular, though the explosions were).  What I did say was that if you’re going to do so, it’s out of line to take over another speaker’s Q&A to intentionally embarrass a person, even if you answer their question in the process.

Jen says people almost never have any inkling to change their minds.  We’re to believe it’s because others are just so close-minded.  For one, I have found in my mental illness work that people frequently change their minds.  I am always approached at conferences by several such people (and sent emails by many more), who say they have come around on how they view mental illness or religion.  For another thing, perhaps the reason Jen is not seeing people change their minds is in the approach.  If you think that shouting people down and embarrassing them in public for the crime of ignorance is appropriate (malice or dedicated ignorance are other matters), one doesn’t need to wonder why people might become averse to you, not see eye-to-eye, and eschew the cause for which you are so passionate.  Jen wants me to be introspective, to try and understand my own faults, and I appreciate that.  I don’t think it would be unreasonable of me to ask her to do the same about people and their potential to alter their perceptions if only we don’t mistreat them.

Newsflash: If someone is parroting racist, sexist, or transphobic talking points, calmly explaining why they’re wrong doesn’t tend to work because they’re not looking to have their minds changed.

This is simply false.  While the question and the sentiment beneath it may be horrible, such things do not always necessarily come from horrible people.  Sometimes they do, and when we let loose the dogs of war in that case we come off to others as taking a morally justified stand.  People parrot the talking points of anti-med, anti-counseling advocates to me all the time.  This is what they’ve been exposed to, it doesn’t necessarily mean they want people like me to suffer.

In this case I don’t think there’s very much room to argue that the woman who asked the question was doing so very much in a “tell me what the black community is doing so I can get on board” type of way.  Was it offensive?  Yes.  Ill-informed?  Yes.  But did it betray a closed mind or any malice toward racial minorities on the part of the questioner?  No.  Absolutely not.  And for her to then be treated as an enemy to black people, as someone who deserved public humiliation that should be reserved for people of hate…it wasn’t right.

You’d think someone who frequently deals with religious apologists would understand this.

Ironically, dealing with religious apologists (and more so with the people who read them) is why I completely disagree with Jen’s point.  While William Lane Craig is a liar and a fraud, I don’t necessarily think that everybody parroting his lies are, themselves, liars.  While I deal with religious apologists I despise, I also deal with the people they’ve corrupted (which makes me despise the apologists even more).  But not everybody corrupted by WLC has a bad heart.  For those people, I tend to look on them with pity and on their ideas with contempt (more so because I pity the person holding them).  But contempt for people who obviously care, even if they haven’t thought it all the way through?  No.  Must their ideas be criticized?  Of course.  Must we not allow for somebody’s personal offense at having their ideas criticized to be a conversation stopper?  Absolutely.  But none of this entails that people aren’t sincerely mistaken or willing to have their minds changed.

If you think scarcely anybody is sincerely ignorant but willing to have their mind changed, then we’re not going to agree on much.  I have actually spoken about this very thing in public several times.  One of the most disappointing questions that can escape an atheist’s lips is “Why do you argue?  You’ll never change anybody’s mind!”  As Greta has even pointed out, this movement is populated mostly by people who have had their minds changed.  Many of us (and I don’t use “us” by mistake) were anti-gay, anti-atheist, etc. back when we had the good lord as our co-pilot.  We changed.  In large part for me it was a combination of things.  It was seeing public atheists brave enough to denounce, without equivocation, religious leaders, while also having things explained to me when I had questions – much of which was done on blogs as I made my way into atheism.

If someone came into an evolution conference saying “if we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” would JT argue that they’re simply naive, not informed, and want an explanation? Or would he think they’re informed enough to be parroting a creationist talking point that’s, to steal the perfect phrase from Crommunist, “an ideological attack disguised as ‘just asking questions.’”

To be completely honest, it would depend on the person.  I would always think the question was tiresome and ill-informed, but surely you don’t think every person who believes evolution means monkeys, and asks a question about something they sincerely believe, is intending to make an ideological attack.  It can be, but it’s not always.  What if someone asked it in a biology class?  Or asked their biology teacher afterward?  Is it so hard to believe that a white person in the audience at a conference where people tend to be more supportive of equality, with a black person on stage who is an expert on what is going on with the black community, could ask the question she did to get a black person’s perspective on something she was ignorant about?  Could the audience member not have been a good-hearted person who is the product of the same community of ignorance that Bria and I both lament?  Far from being impossible, this sounds even on its face like the most plausible explanation to me (and that’s before you take tone, body language, and actually talking to the people involved into account).

Jen also mentions another thing that bothers me: the idea that just asking questions is particularly offensive.  Sure, there are some people who are the equivalent of walking push polls – they intentionally ask suggestive questions.  But it seems we’re so worried about them that we’re over eager to convict everybody with questions of their crimes.  Some people really do have questions driven by what produces all honest questions: ignorance.  If we verbally berate them, we accomplish nothing but the creation of resentment for our cause.

In my theater classes I learned that you never hit a person on stage.  It’s not that actors don’t strive for realism or that some are so dedicated to their craft that they’d happily take a punch in order to achieve realism.  The reason you don’t hit someone on stage is the audience.  If a woman slaps her kidnapper, you want the audience to think “Good!  She hit him!”  You don’t want them thinking “Oh, that poor actor!”  Such is the distinction between denouncing, in no uncertain terms, people who are asking pointed questions and denouncing (and attempting to embarrass) someone who honestly had a question, even if the question is ill-formed.  It is not moral to treat someone who accidentally stepped on your toe the same as somebody who stomped on it on purpose, and to treat every single person as if they are asking pointed questions out of spite is not only unfair, but unproductive.  Having spoken to the questioner as well as some people who know her, I know she’s a very timid person.  The question she asked of Mandisa was the first time she ever asked a question at a conference (and she regularly attends conferences, and donates to secular organizations).  Do you think she will ever ask one again?  Hell no.

Perhaps there are some who are so eager cow people who ask pointed questions into silence that they are ok with inflicting collateral damage on the ignorant and curious.  I’m not one of them.  I don’t think ignorance should be punished the same as malice, and I don’t think anybody can fairly deny that such collateral damage does frequently take place.  The only question is whether or not it takes place to our detriment, which I very much argue it does.

Insisting that minorities quell their anger is insisting that minorities stay silent.

Speaking of convicting people for crimes they didn’t commit…

Asking for public ignorant statements to be responded to in private sweeps the problems under the rug.

Do you really imagine that if questions, sincere questions no matter how ignorant, cannot be responded to by taking over another speaker’s Q&A, embarrassing somebody for asking the question, and launching into a huge tirade rebutting assertions that nobody has made, that problems of race are getting swept under the rug?  Did you not read me saying that Mandisa handled the woman with aplomb (in public, no less)?

Observers hear the problematic statement but no response, which reinforces the status quo and sends a message that no one found that statement problematic.

Jen seems possessed by the notion that I don’t think the question should have been answered and it’s offensive nature pointed out, rather than thinking that it could be accomplished, even in public, without Bria lighting into a person who wasn’t an enemy to Bria or her cause.

It also puts all of the burden of educating one person, who most of the time don’t actually want to be educated, on individuals who already feel drained and exhausted from having to explain the same basic 101 crap over and over again.

Jen says that most of the time such people don’t want to be educated.  I don’t have enough information to disagree as firmly as I’d like.  My experience doesn’t confirm her assertion, but that’s my experience and not hers.  But even if I were to concede her point in full…so what?  Is Jen suggesting that this woman didn’t want to be educated?  If so, all available evidence, to my eyes, would make Jen wrong.

And yes, curing ignorance is exhausting and we all lament that people are ignorant about atheism, race, gender, mental illness, etc.  Nobody is saying otherwise.  But we’re all ignorant about things, so it’s hard for me to treat a person’s ignorance as an intentional drain on others.  Not wanting to resolve one’s ignorance is a problem, but being ignorant is not.  And what is asking a question of an expert (if done sincerely) but an attempt to resolve one’s ignorance?  At least she was trying.  If you are tired and don’t want to help, then don’t help.  But are we really going to start getting mad at people for acting like an expert on a stage, there to give a talk for the express purpose of educating, shouldn’t then be asked questions on the subject of race during the question and answer session for fear a person’s ignorance might be the offensive type?  I mean, isn’t that what a Q&A is there for?  When I sign up to do talks, I sign up to speak to everybody.  It’s not like I give talks like college courses, where only people with x-amount of credit hours in the subject are allowed to attend.

And this call for calmness and personal explanations is even more infuriating coming from JT. I have calmly and privately explained social justice issues to JT for years, over email, texts, phone calls, in person conversations. So has Greta. So has Crommunist, who points out the last time he did so he was ignored, so he’s not going to try again. And also feel like all of these attempts have been ignored because no progress at all has been made. So when a person I consider a friend doesn’t even listen to these calm private explanations, why is he insisting it will work on strangers?

Yes, if only you, Greta, or Ian had taken over another speaker’s Q&A to yell at me in a crowded room, then perhaps I would’ve seen the light.  The problem wasn’t the calmness of your explanation, but the same problems in your blog post: you made arguments that didn’t convince me.  Arguments that don’t convince me won’t become more convincing if you’re trying to embarrass me in public (though, for some, they might then just abandon the subject entirely and never get educated).

I have ignored tons of people who have thrown arguments at me: Cromwell, Jen, Greta, Thibeault, Stephanie.  The reasons for doing so is because I had either made my case and was willing to let the argument stand to public judgment at that point, or because I can only rebut so many people.  As it stands, I’m not going to rebut everybody who has commented on the Bria Crutchfield outburst.  There is only so much time.

And then there’s the accusation that I don’t “even listen to these calm private explanations”.  This is, itself, an exhausting trope: the idea that if somebody doesn’t agree with Jen, Greta, and the like on issues of social justice that they must not be listening (or caring).  Is it not possible that I am listening, and I simply do not agree?  Consider, Jen, how many times in rebutting your blog post I’ve had to point out that I never said the thing I was accused of saying (or, in some cases, that I’d said the exact opposite).  Yet here I am, quoting you word-for-word and doing my damndest to respond to what you actually said.  How is it that I’m the one charged with not listening?

When I started college, I labeled myself as a feminist. Like, woo, equality, who wouldn’t be behind that?! I started to read feminist blogs and I disagreed with a lot, if not most, of what they were saying. It was incredibly tempting to spew forth my uneducated opinion, and that desire did not come from wanting someone to calmly explain it to me – it came from thinking I was right and they were wrong.  I’m sure I did that occasionally because no one is perfect, but you know what I ultimately decided to do? I shut up and listened. I read more and more and attempted to educate myself before partaking in any discussions. And now after a lot of time and work and thought, I understand.

Bully for you.  I’m not you.  Jen laments how she wanted to express her opinion because she thinks she’s right and others were wrong.  Does anybody ever want to express their opinion for any other reason?  Now that Jen is more educated, does the motivation for writing, say, her blog post, differ from when she was uneducated?

If I’m wrong, point it out.  But don’t act like I’m uneducated because I’ve not reached your conclusions.  And don’t act like I’m resistant to education because I’ve not reached your conclusions.  And don’t act as though I’m not listening because I’ve not reached your conclusions.  Remember, I’m not the one assaulting arguments the other never made.

Do I fully understand? Of course not. It’s a never-ending process, but it begins with listening and educating yourself first.

Earlier Jen expressed outrage that I could be condescending.  Clearly, condescending someone in a discussion is immoral in her eyes.  But now we get the implication that I’m neither listening nor attempting to educate myself (otherwise, why write it?).  The idea being that if I was just willing to listen or try to understand that I’d think like her.  To call this condescending would be to dramatically undersell it.

But this was the cherry on top from JT’s post:

Lately there’s been a lot of this attitude in the atheist movement, that every misstep out of naivety or ignorance, even if it’s insulting, makes someone a prime target for a shout down in a “public room” – as if humiliation and shame, while sometimes the proper tools, are always the proper tools.  When did we forget that people in the atheist movement are our friends and allies?

I must steal this response from Jadehawk: We didn’t forget. We realized it wasn’t true.

I have lost all care for being labeled as an ally – not from feminists, but from feminists like Jen and Greta.  It means nothing worthwhile to me.  It has nothing to do with how much I care about equality, but rather whether or not I agree with them on everything.  Jen, Greta, and their ilk are not all feminists, they do not own feminism, and I’ll happily take the label from the feminists who know that empathy applies to everybody, not just to the people in my camp and not the people they’re berating.

So no, I’m not an ally to Jen, Greta, Jason, Stephanie, etc. in the sense that I don’t like much of what they do in the pursuit of the goals we share, and I’ll not pretend that I do in order to receive a label that carries nothing more than their approval.

Being a good ally doesn’t involve silencing the people you claim to be allies with by policing their emotions and behavior.

The definitive final line of the post.  To review: I did not attempt to silence anybody.  I did not police anybody’s emotions.  I did not even attempt to “police” behavior.  Bria is my peer, and I thought she was out of line.  She is not bound to abide by my opinion.  I simply made the case that she was out of line and have defended it.  She’s free to behave how she pleases, as are Jen, Greta, et al, but they are not free from criticism over it anymore than I am.

Quite to the contrary, I think good friends do point out to each other when their behavior is beneath them.  I certainly don’t consider myself friends with Bria, but in this sense I certainly treated her like one.  Remember all those attempts Jen talked about to alter my behavior?  Those didn’t make her a bad ally or a bad friend.  She was doing it out of concern, but yet she can’t imagine how someone else could do the same.

Should I feel it do be necessary, tomorrow I’ll get to Greta Christina’s post about when firebrands tone-troll.  This may not happen as Greta was among the “Jen said everything I wanted to say” crowd.  But as a forethought, I’ll point out that I don’t think that being a firebrand means shouting down and embarrassing everybody who offends me.  I think being a firebrand means telling the truth and not allowing offense to be a conversation stopper.  There is a difference between the Chris Stedmans of the world who assert we shouldn’t offend others in the interest of building bridges, even if that means obstructing the truth, and people like me who have no problem offending, but who still don’t think that every means of expressing one’s opinions are moral or productive (bringing a bullhorn to a Q&A, wearing a shirt that reads “Jesus was a cunt”, etc.).  Being a firebrand does not mean treating ignorance as a punishable offense in all cases.

The Meta of This Post

Earlier I wrote:

As Greta has even pointed out, this movement is populated mostly by people who have had their minds changed.  Many of us (and I don’t use “us” by mistake) were anti-gay, anti-atheist, etc. back when we had the good lord as our co-pilot.  We changed.  In large part for me it was a combination of things.  It was seeing public atheists brave enough to denounce, without equivocation, religious leaders, while also having things explained to me when I had questions – much of which was done on blogs as I made my way into atheism.

And this is a great part of why I’m writing this post, even though I’ve little hope of having a fair argument with Jen, Greta, and the like at this point (I would love to be surprised).  When I came into atheism, the blogs were a great part of what pulled me in.  There was so much information, so many people outraged just like me.  The blogs banded us together.  We didn’t all agree, but we shared a cause and we were focused.  I’ve talked to so many other people who tell the same story.  Now…I don’t know what I’d think if I were coming from religion and seeing the blogs.  What I’d see now are atheists at each others throats, twisting what each other says, and eager to disown one another over the minutia of shared causes.  Every day I receive emails from people saying they’re dropping out of the movement or staying silent on social justice issues they care about, and it is expressly because of how swift we are to spite one another over disagreements – as if disagreements betray a hatred of one another (or of a particular group).

The response will come that we’re happy to see these people go, that we shouldn’t be so desperate to swell our numbers that we welcome the seediest and most despicable people.  This is very true, and if all we were losing were the slymepit archetypes as well as other seedy and despicable people, I wouldn’t mind.  But we’re not.  On social justice issues there are many prominent names, many good people, who care about feminism, for instance, but who don’t say a word about it for fear that even agreeing on 99% will be taken as an excuse to declare war.  There are many people composed of the purest and most vibrant empathy you can imagine who are leaving atheism as a movement.  We should be glad to sever terrible people, but when we are hemorrhaging the rest we should worry, especially if we are culpable for it.

In writing this post, I’ve left out any disclaimers (I’ve found that no amount of disclaimers seems to be enough to convince many people that I write because I care, rather than because I secretly don’t care about equality all while under the guise of actually caring).  I have made my case as fairly as possible, without (to my eye) a lack of compassion (for women, black atheists, and even little old ladies in the audience) and without making any slams at anybody’s character (I believe Jen, Greta, and the like have good intent, but that their approach is positively terrible and that they are not exempt from making bad arguments or putting words in people’s mouths they never said).  I won’t even deploy the mocking term “Social Justice Warriors” since I think a social justice warrior is a wonderful thing to be.  And yet, I worry that bridges will be burned and that social consequences will be applied – all for saying “you’re wrong” and even for saying I understand how they’ve reached the conclusions on which I think they are in error.  And if I worry about those things from people I considered to be friends for quite some time, imagine how everybody else must feel.  Use that empathy you so frequently tout (and which I think you possess).

This is what we have become: a movement where we cannot even disagree, no matter how amicably and no matter how kindly, without becoming enemies.  The sad thing is, for those who would have the atheist movement reunite, to work through our disagreements rather than ostracize one another over them, stay silent in order to avoid more infighting or to avoid being shouted down publicly in front of their peers as if being wrong were a crime.  I did the same myself for a bit.

There is a third group of people.  These people care about equality for racial minorities and want them in this movement.  We denounce racism in society at large and insist that speaker lineups at conferences are racially diverse.  We care about equality for women, hate rapists, and demand that speaker lineups at conferences are gender diverse.  We deplore most of the people in the slymepit and other assholes just as much as the next guy/gal.  But we also think that popular figures like Jen, Greta, and the like are becoming increasingly toxic by mischaracterizing/demonizing their opponents,  and being far too eager to brand and declare enemies.

I’m not the world’s greatest wordsmith, but I don’t think I’m a slouch.  And yet I cannot find the words to convey what a painful admission that is to make, and how much it hurts to write.  I came into this movement reading Greta Christina.  Hers was, at one point, one my two favorite blogs and reading it, as well as knowing Greta, changed my life.  I once admired Greta and Jen as paragons of reason, who argued in good faith and who nudged atheists of all flavors, so long as they were caring, toward the same cause, resolving their other differences along the way.  I’m not certain if I was wrong then or if things have changed, but I don’t see it that way anymore, and I’m convinced I’m not the only one.

These people know that in a world where suffering takes place, so long as we’re compassionate and wish to push back, that drama is inevitable.  It sucks, but it’s there.  What we don’t need is additional, unnecessary drama, which is exactly what is created when we write posts in which we assign arguments to our opponents that they never made and treat them like they’re education or listening averse when they’re not convinced.  We can disagree, but when we start treating each other as monsters for disagreeing, I think that’s drama that most atheists don’t want or need, and it’s time for it to stop.  It’s not time to stop disagreeing, it’s not time to stop talking to one another about it, but it’s past time to start treating everybody who thinks a black speaker was out of line as a racist and everybody who thinks the Jen and Greta style feminists made a bad argument as friends to slymepitters who think misspelling somebody’s name in a derogatory fashion makes them clever.

Do I think it will stop?  Sadly, no (I’d love to be surprised).  But I do want people to know that there are not just two groups when it comes to atheists who worry about social issues, and that you are not a bad person, not a racist, not a woman-hater or any other sort of pariah for disagreeing with anybody in good faith.

I may not re-enter this subject again for some time, but it will no longer be because I worry about the loss of friends, the political penalties, or anything of that nature.  It will be entirely because posts like Jen’s, where I must repeatedly sort out piles of mischaracterizations, straw men, and such have become the norm when dealing with that crowd.  That is what makes me reticent to interact with them further, not our shared cause, compassion for the downtrodden, or anything else.

Other resources:  Dan Fincke has written much on this, and I highly recommend his work.

Browse Our Archives