Lessons from #AtheismPlus

[Content note: racism, misogyny, transphobia, domestic abuse. Links are not currently labeled and may lead to triggering content.]

The first thing I did two years ago when I realized I was an atheist was look for other atheists. Specifically, I did a Google search for atheist forums. I was hoping to find people discussing ways to break free from bad ideas. Instead, I found people wallowing in their own sense of superiority. “I’m alone,” I thought, and I didn’t bother searching again for weeks.

When I searched again, a little more extensively this time, I found the various atheist and skeptical forums at Reddit, which were better in some ways. By scouring the user-submitted links at Reddit I eventually found what I was looking for: intelligent and well-informed atheist writers arguing passionately for the prioritization of reason and evidence over tradition and intuition.

Over the next year I devoured atheist materials. I watched atheist presentations, debates, and panels. I read atheist blogs, articles, and books. I listened to atheist podcasts. I followed atheists on Twitter. I thought constantly about the injustices wrought by religion. I wrote scores of (unpublished) blog entries. I engaged in discussion with theists online and off, doing my part to counter bad ideas and spread good ones.

Then, one year ago last month, Jennifer McCreight put out the call for a new wave of atheist activism. Some people–mostly men–were harassing other people–mostly women–for (among other things) discussing feminist ideas in secular spaces. I didn’t know much about feminism, but I knew the people being attacked were among the most insightful, dedicated, and conscientious people I had found in the atheist and skeptical movement: people such as Greta Christina, Rebecca Watson, and Ophelia Benson. I found nothing in their writings to warrant anything approaching the kind of abuse they received. I wanted to learn more about social justice from atheists who shared their concerns. I also wanted to promote skepticism and uphold the values of humanism. So I added my support to the nascent Atheism Plus movement.

I thought as a group we’d do things like talk, write, and start various projects. I thought I would help by organizing and writing. I assumed I was qualified to do both. I did not expect to be confronted almost immediately by the staggering dimensions of my own ignorance and arrogance.

I am a white, straight, cisgendered, American man. I have a history of depression, and I suspect I fall somewhere on the autism spectrum, but for the most part I happen to conform to the dominant culture’s standards for normalcy. Until I began to pay serious attention to the stories and experiences of people not like myself, however, I had little reason to think critically about those standards, how they inform my identity, how they affect the way I view and treat others, and how they operate in our society.

Atheism Plus put me in contact with people who did not have the privilege of ignoring or treating as academic problems such as racism, sexism, transphobia, and ableism. These people were fighting daily for the recognition of their humanity. They did not need my analysis, advice, well wishes, statements of solidarity, or even my friendship–they needed my assistance. They knew more about the reality of their struggles, the goals and methods of their oppressors, and the needs of their respective communities than I did, so if I really wanted to help out, I would have to shut up, listen, and learn.

I’m still learning. I’m glad I have kept relatively quiet in the meantime, because my instinct, honed by a lifetime of exposure to a culture that says people who look like me are better than others, is to pontificate without asking myself if I am at all qualified to do so. The fact is, I do not know what it is like to be a member of most oppressed groups. I have no right to speak for them.

What I can do, and what I have learned to do over the past year, is to find people speaking from experience about the injustices they are forced to contend with daily, listen to those people, and amplify their voices. In doing so, I have also become aware of who is working with them and who is working to silence them. I am not qualified to label anyone an ally, (including myself) but I have found some people who are more informed than most, and I’ve tried to boost their signals as well.

Throughout all of this, Twitter has been indispensable. When the A+ movement first started, I wanted to get an accurate picture of its demographics and concerns. Part of doing this involved putting together a list of all the Twitter accounts I could find of people who had publicly expressed support for A+, or at least its right to exist. (Thus demonstrating one of the benefits of using labels: finding community.) Starting with this pool of social justice-oriented atheists I was able to branch outward and find even more atheists addressing matters affecting marginalized people. In time, I was also able to move upstream and find some of the sources of their more revolutionary insights.

I should not have had to go on a year-long fact-finding odyssey to find any of these people. My community, the atheist community, should have prioritized their voices long ago. Why? Because atheism is a social justice issue. Atheists are oppressed and persecuted the world over. We need the expertise of other such groups to inform our struggle and keep us relevant. And if we are humanists, we have a responsibility to liberate ourselves and others from all forms of oppression, not just that which impacts us personally.

If you, like me, are new to social justice, if a lack of relevant experience limits your ability to produce original material, or if a lack of resources limits your perceived effectiveness, you can still contribute. You can still be an agent of positive change. You can find people experiencing, documenting, examining, and fighting oppression. You can be a conduit for their words. You can act as a channel for their stories. You can carry their anger, observations, arguments and concerns to a wider audience. You can start doing this today using free internet communications services like Twitter, WordPress, and Feedly. You will face a backlash, but tools such as the Block Bot can help.

You can also tell your own personal story. My story so far is “white boy gets a clue”. Being the product of a racist, classist, misogynistic, heterosexist, gender-essentialist culture, my self-knowledge and knowledge of others was limited. But the stories of marginalized and oppressed people brought to my attention a number of points of articulation where the foreground of actual human experience moves independently of the background of stereotypes and common-sense assumptions.

For example, until the Atheism Plus forums gave me access to safe-space conversations among trans and genderqueer people about how they experience their bodies during sex, I did not realize how simplistic some of my assumptions about the body, gender, sexuality, and human identity really were. The gender I feel myself to be is not hampered or hindered by the physical realities of my body. I don’t know what it is like to have a disappointing or frustrating relationship with my body, to have my natural expectations and desires stymied by the presence or absence of certain parts, or to have parts that refuse to provide the sensations I need for fulfillment. Neither does the gender I feel myself to be conflict very much with the gender role I was assigned at birth. I don’t know what it is like to be counted as a type of person I know I am not, to be forced to move, act, speak, and look in ways that are fundamentally unnatural to me, to be told the specific combination of traits that are natural to me is impossible and therefore non-existent, or to have my purported non-existence render my humanity invisible to most.

Through reading firsthand accounts of people whose bodies and societies betray them, I was able to see that gender dysphoria is not the result of confusion or defiance, but has to do with brain/body parity and the ubiquity of inaccurate and incomplete gender categories. Dysphoria manifests in the lives of the affected in understandable ways and requires practical solutions at both the individual and societal level. I credit Atheism Plus with illuminating the struggles of gender-nonconforming people for me and showing how their more visible choices such as clothing and hairstyle do not exist solely for others, but connect to their internal reality in meaningful ways and have potentially restorative functions.

Real people with gender dysphoria alerted me to a fact I was aware of but hadn’t really considered before: I have a gender! Before this, I thought my male body automatically dictated my masculinity. But, if a quirk of genetics or hormones could have easily resulted in a major break between who I feel myself to be and what kind of body I have, then minor breaks might exist. And if society could get trans and genderqueer people so disastrously wrong, it could get me wrong. A critical look at my gender identity and role was now possible for me. This was tremendously empowering. I was free to deconstruct and reconstruct my identity to better suit my actual nature. I could more accurately and confidently communicate this nature to others. And I could see, hear, and speak to others more directly, without as much interference from rigid and unrealistic gender stereotypes. The result of such listening was a realization that I needed to assist in the debunking of these stereotypes because phobia and harassment stemming from them too often leads to tragic results.

A second example of the humanizing and empowering effect of my engagement in the Atheism Plus project came about through my increased exposure to the experiences of black women and the ways they are derided, devalued, disrespected, gaslit, parodied, insulted, attacked, stolen from, silenced, ridiculed, and ignored by the dominant culture. In their analyses of these phenomena, black women revealed how ongoing white supremacist sentiment deploys a specific set of stereotypes to control the way the black woman is perceived. These stereotypes reinforce dehumanizing prejudices and work to prevent the formation of authentic relationships between black women and people of other races and genders that threaten the racist status quo. In their writings, womanist and black feminist activists revealed the existence and functioning of some of the stereotypes occluding my vision. I began to look at popular media portrayals of black women in a much more critical way after the racist utility of many of these images was made evident. I also began to understand the enormity and complexity of the project to alienate and stigmatize black women, the toll this constant assault takes on their minds and bodies, and the reactions such treatment can elicit.

The explanatory power of the theories brought to my attention by womanists and black feminist activists helped me better understand some of the cultural dynamics at play in last month’s incident at the Great Lakes Atheist Convention between black atheist speaker Bridgett “Bria” Crutchfield and white atheist speaker JT Eberhard. (During the Q&A segment following Mandisa Thomas’ speech on what the freethought community can learn from the hospitality industry, a white woman went off-topic and asked Mandisa what her group Black Nonbelievers was doing to fight black-on-black crime. Later, during the Q&A segment following Darrell C. Smith’s talk about the black atheist experience, in response to a man whose question about how to make black atheists feel comfortable at atheist events was directed at her, Bria gave an educational answer that used the woman’s racist question from earlier that day as an empirical example of why black atheists feel unwelcome. The white woman broke into tears at some point during or after this. JT Eberhard, who’d spoken earlier that day, afterwards pulled Bria aside to tell her she was “out of line”. Bria did not agree.) The predictive power of womanist and black feminist theories helped me determine how such a situation would probably play out and who was most likely at fault even before it escalated from sniping on Twitter to an 8500-word exercise in essentialism, denialism,  and motivated reasoning. I knew a black woman publicly expressing strong feelings while addressing a racist talking point from an ignorant (at best) white woman would likely receive exactly the kind of paternalistic shaming and silencing reaction Eberhard and one of the event’s alleged organizers provided–a reaction that would be compounded if the white woman staged a tearful retreat.

I knew to expect a greatly distorted perception of the intensity and appropriateness of Bria’s words from those people invested (however unconsciously) in silencing people who look like her and protecting people who look like themselves. Even though I was not at GLAcon and had not seen or heard a recording of what Bria said, I had good reason to trust her and the person who said she was “passionate, constructive and on point” more than the one who characterized her behavior as “verbally thrashing someone for no good reason”. This allowed me to show Bria support by favoriting and retweeting a message from herself and a supportive witness on Twitter when I first became aware of the situation, before any blog entries had been posted–a tiny act, but a relatively speedy one in a context where immediate support matters. I would not have had the confidence to do this without the information I learned through Atheism Plus. Later, at atheist activist Jennifer McCreight’s blog, Bria received a much more substantial show of support. Jennifer and her commenters rallied behind Bria while demonstrating a more informed and accurate understanding of the racial dynamics at play than one usually encounters in atheist discussion spaces. Their understanding could not have come from mainstream movement atheism, which still insists on color blindness.

I hope I have shown with these two examples how a person’s mind can be changed, their perspective widened, and their behavior affected by a skeptical approach to social justice which prioritizes the testimony of the oppressed over the assumptions of the oppressors. I also hope it is understood that such an approach is primarily valuable not because it provides privileged persons like myself an opportunity for personal growth, but because it is the most direct route to achieving the type of change that matters. The change I most want to see is a removal of the barriers preventing unfairly marginalized people from becoming full participants in society, so they can live normally and pursue their happiness just like everyone else. It is my hope that one day we can prove wrong those people who think inequality will always be a part of human society.

I would like to conclude with a list of 25 noteworthy things I learned during my first year of involvement with Atheism Plus, followed by a list of Twitter users I think more people should be listening to. The first list is not an attempt to represent the fullness of thought within the social justice movement or the A+ movement. (It’s a personal list, and there were 65 additional subjects I didn’t have the time to include.) The second list is similarly non-exhaustive. (It could use more activists specializing in physical disability, poverty, sex work, chronic pain, fat acceptance, child abuse, and other issues, but I think it is a great start for the typical sheltered atheist.) The writers of the pieces linked to in the first list and the owners of the Twitter accounts in the second list do not necessarily endorse or even know about the A+ idea, nor are they all atheists, but I think they have a lot to teach atheist activists and I think we should be supporting them.

  1. White culture has problems which white people must openly and actively confront in order to dismantle white supremacy. I first began to understand this when I read the account of a diversity consultant’s experiences with white feminist organizations whose leaders couldn’t understand why women of color were not showing interest in joining. The consultant noticed a pattern: in diversity workshops most of the white feminists, upon learning about and admitting to their various racist and classist biases, would make dramatic displays of emotional distress seemingly indicating sorrow and remorse, yet would ultimately refuse to implement major changes to their organization’s structure and policy that would better serve the specific needs of women of color, calling such changes “unfair” and labeling their proposals “attacks”. The juxtaposition of the white women’s emotionality with their inhumanity disturbed me greatly. Later I would discover that the phenomena of White Women’s Tears is well-known to womanists and black feminist activists. If the majority of white feminists can be counted on to behave this way it suggests they’re all getting the same basic training, perhaps from a culture that says a capacity for intense feelings of shame indicates a fundamental goodness–a “fine soul”–which should excuse one from consideration as a bad actor even as one continues to behave in a callous manner. There is much, much more to say on this and related topics, but I think the writer of the article is right to say about such interactions between the marginalized and the gatekeepers of power, “This, in short, is where racism lives.”
  2. There is a vast and thriving market for the promotion, trading, and remixing of media wherein a black woman is shown being subjected to physical violence at the hands of an authority figure after she has expressed anger in public. Many people apparently find this sequence of events and images gratifying, relieving, comforting, and worthy of celebrating when captured in real life, probably because a shallow and prejudiced reading of such incidents can appear to justify the racialized misogyny of a status quo they’d rather not have to oppose.
  3. Violence is first of all authoritarian. It begins with this premise: I have the right to control you.” This article helped me immensely by shining a light on the unexamined assumptions responsible for the rage I used to feel when my girlfriend challenged me. I realized my anger was being magnified by the idea that she was breaking “the rules” when she opposed me, and my sense of righteousness was being inflated by the idea that by maintaining a position over her I was defending order and civilization itself. I realized I was acting in defense of an unreal and illegitimate hierarchy that I had not embraced after a process of rational inquiry but had inherited from my culture and had unknowingly incorporated into my psychology. When I dropped this baggage I found I was not nearly as threatened by my girlfriend’s independence and assertiveness. In our arguments I could consider her statements as manifestations of her individual goals and desires, rather than as blows in a life-or-death struggle where her victory would upend humanity’s best and only system for maintaining stability and warding off chaos.
  4. What trolls do is engage in behaviors that are gendered male, raced as white, and marked by privilege.Trolls–the ones doing the heavy lifting when it comes to generating malignant culture and abusing others online–can be identified, studied, and understood. Effective strategies for containing the damage they do and preventing the circumstances that spawn and empower them can be developed.
  5. The Great Chain of Being continues to influence human culture. Getting rid of the imaginary being at the top is not enough–every link in the chain must be broken.
  6. Nothing about us without us.” This powerful motto was brought to my attention by activists on the autism spectrum, whose stories and experiences helped me see myself and the world in a new light.  Autistic people must be included in the social justice conversation.
  7. Privilege exists. [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8]
  8. Socially conscious atheist activism is needed and wanted. [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39]
  9. Uncompromising activism is required. Speaking up, speaking out, and identifying offenders is necessary to protect others and effect change. [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7]
  10. Internet activism on Twitter and blogs connects people, gets attention, changes minds, and makes things happen. [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7]
  11. We are not alone. Other communities are taking a stand against sexism and related problems. Forging solidarity is mutually encouraging, and it helps add to the knowledge base. When we compare notes, we often find commonalities we might never have guessed existed. [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14]
  12. Rape culture exists. [1, 2, 3, 4, 5]
  13. Microaggressions matter. [1, 2, 3, 4, 5]
  14. Harassment and trolling has a purpose and an end game. [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6]
  15. Harassment is not a natural feature of the internet that we should expect and accept. Spaces online, like spaces offline, are more valuable and useful when cleared of those who habitually prey on the less powerful. [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7]
  16. Social injustice causes biological and psychological harm to people. [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14]
  17. Victim-blaming doesn’t help. [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14]
  18. Despite popular and enduring misconceptions, feminism is effective and empowering. [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8]
  19. We can end rape culture. [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10]
  20. There can be no dialog between inveterate harassers and their victims. [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6]
  21. Safe and exclusive spaces are necessary.
  22. Free speech does not include the right to be listened to.
  23. There are a lot of people out there right now who don’t get it [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12]
  24. …but people can change. [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9]
  25. How to be an ally.

Twitter users speaking out on matters of social justice.

Contrary to popular opinion, Twitter is not a total wasteland of narcissism and superficiality. A tweet can be very meaningful and insightful. A tweet can also point its readers to long-form resources such as news articles and blog entries. An active presence on Twitter can lead to connections between seemingly disparate groups, potentially reversing some of the alienating effects of ongoing segregation in the physical world.

If you follow a more diverse set of people on Twitter it will expose you to a wider range of opinions on any given matter. This can increase your ability to serve the marginalized and vulnerable. As an example, when I learned about the petition for a “report abuse” button on Twitter, I gave it my full support. But later I found out that trans women had many reservations about the button because they are often the victims of false abuse reports by TERfs. Merely streamlining the abuse-reporting process would not necessarily benefit trans women. Twitter needed to do more to identify and fight the specific forms of transphobic bullying already taking place on its network. If I had been following more trans activists at the time, I would have known that, and I would have qualified my support for the button. Once I discovered my blind spot I was able to seek out and follow more trans activists, most of whom are on the list above. Now, when I search for a term or a hashtag on Twitter using the “people you follow” link, I will not be lacking their valuable perspectives. The “people you follow” search is extremely useful for finding patterns in opinion and illuminating deficiencies in your understanding so you can be a better ally, but it only works if you follow a wide variety of informed people.

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  1. Pingback: Lessons from Atheism Plus » Godlessness in Theory
  2. Flip

    i’m not at all involved in atheism plus, in fact i’ve only just heard of it, but i wanted to say thank you for this post. It was engaging and thoughtful and i will be coming back to reread it and the links. You gave me a lot of food for thought about my own privilege as a white woman, but also someone who is dealing with a lot of issues to do with depression and society’s expectations to fit and act a certain way.

  3. Pingback: Cleverly Named Bunch o’ Links 10/11/13 | Gravity's Wings

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