Wednesday, October 15, 2014

pale, male and stale

It was, of course, inevitable that in the wake of the mainstream media interest in the atheist community's sexism problems there would be a backlash from that most oppressed and put-upon group, Angry Blokes.

Basically this gist of this bone-headed article is: hey, dude, look up "atheist" in a dictionary! It just says "lack of belief in gods", right? Nothing about racism or feminism or any of that shit, right? CHECKMATE, etc., etc. Or, to rephrase the complaint a bit: "nobody told me that when I started being an atheist I had to stop being an arsehole".

Well, firstly, nobody is telling you that you have to stop being an arsehole, just that it would be nice if you did, and, furthermore, that we reserve the right to tell you when you are being one.

The depressing thing is, this is actually quite simple. Putting the dictionary aside, anyone who bothers to be an "out" atheist and tell people about it, as opposed to an "out" a-unicornist, say, is effectively already making a political statement, one which says: I'm bothering to mention this because (by contrast to the unicorn stuff) there are real-world consequences of people believing this stuff, most generally hostility to reasoned enquiry and dissent, the tendency to kill each other for believing in slightly differing flavours of nonsense, and the brutal oppression of women. Furthermore, you're making the (hopefully fairly obvious) statement: I think these things are bad, and that the world would be a better place if they stopped, as far as is possible.

To come at it from another directiom, I maintain that atheism does imply and entail a concern for feminist issues, because in large part the social structures which maintain patriarchy have been established and enforced by religions. So if you hold to the idea that, say, brutal Islamic oppression of women is bad (which it undoubtedly is) then you can't really go on to say that you're fine with, say, Sam Harris' lazy trotting out of sexist tropes. Or, at least, not unless you're a) engaging in some extreme denial about the existence of institutionalised sexism in western societies or b) pulling a Dear Muslima and suggesting that because one is "worse" than the other (by some imaginary metric) that we can safely not care about the one involving the rich white dudes whose books we like.

Among the things that involves ignoring, though, are things like the terrorist threat made against Utah State University TODAY for having the temerity to invite computer games writer and activist Anita Sarkeesian to speak. This isn't the first death threat that's been made against Sarkeesian, and the authorities are taking it extremely seriously, not least because the guy mentioned admiringly in the e-mail, Marc Lépine, was very real and killed 14 people (injuring 14 more) at the École Polytechnique in Montreal in 1989, supposedly because of a similarly virulent anti-feminist agenda. And let's not forget that this is all happening because Sarkeesian dared to put out some videos making the (fairly self-evident and uncontroversial, you'd think) case that the video game industry has a problem with how its products portray women.

The barely believable follow-up to that is that the talk has been cancelled, not by USU but by Sarkeesian herself, over concerns for her own safety once it became apparent that Utah's barking gun laws would permit attendees to carry concealed weapons into the venue even after a threat such as this one had been issued.

Back to the original article - one of the more chucklesome elements is the juxtaposition of the pooh-poohing of "liberal issues" and "social justice" and the photo-montage the author (or an editor) saw fit to illustrate the piece with. Take a look:

It may be instructive to list the people illustrated here:
  • Penn Jillette, 59, white, magician, comedian, tedious hectoring loudmouth, likes calling women cunts;
  • Neil DeGrasse Tyson, 56, person of colour, astrophysicist, occasional inaccurate quote-rememberer, generally pretty good on recognising social justice issues, BUT a man who, crucially, does not self-identify as an atheist, for what I think are weaselly bullshit reasons, but nonetheless that's not a label that he accepts;
  • Bill Maher, 58, white, comedian, talk show host, pseudoscience advocate, likes calling women cunts;
  • Lawrence Krauss, 60, white, physicist, unfortunate choice of friends, rumours of inappropriate conference behaviour;
  • Christopher Hitchens, 62, deceased, white, journalist, casual dismisser of women;
  • Sam Harris, 47, white, writer, neuroscientist, careless perpetuator of sexist tropes and taker of great umbrage when called out on it;
  • Daniel Dennett, 72, white, philosopher, cognitive scientist, no known form on the subject that I know of;
  • Richard Dawkins, 73, white, evolutionary biologist, tweeter without due care and attention;
  • Ricky Gervais, 53, comedian, purveyor of thoughtless ableism, likes calling people cunts;
  • Ayaan Hirsi Ali, 44, person of colour, writer, activist, regrettable neo-conservative wingnut.
Just to summarise, of these ten people, only 9 of whom actually self-identify as atheists in the first place, eight are white, nine are male, and all but two (of the nine who are still alive) are over 50, with the youngest being 44. If the list had been specifically chosen to satirise and undermine the article it was attached to, and perfectly illustrate the point being made by the people it was dismissing, then I'd say they'd done a pretty good job.

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