SSA Week: It’s Awesome!

As most of you hopefully know, it’s SSA Week!

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Why is SSA Week so important? Ed Brayton has the best lowdown, in my opinion:

First, because of their incredible success and growth. The public schools have long been home to thousands and thousands of Christian student groups, from Bible clubs to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, providing friendship and community to their members. Secular students need that kind of community even more given the generally hostile attitude toward atheists, agnostics and humanists. It can feel pretty lonely being non-Christian in this society, especially as a teenager.

SSA is building the next generation of leaders for this movement. I speak to SSA clubs regularly and I am always encouraged to see so many bright and engaged young people. I see people like Jessica, Harrison Hopkins, Miri Mogilevsky, Kate Donovan, Ellen Lundgren, Monica Harmsen, Hassan Kalifeh, Gordon Maples and many others as being groomed for future leadership positions and I am greatly encouraged. I hope you are too.

I’m not even offended that Ed didn’t mention me by name. Harrumph, etc.

Seriously, though, the SSA is a phenomenal organization, and the great people who work there and at CFI on Campus, especially Lyz Liddell, Sarah Moglia, and Debbie Goddard, have been huge influences on me over the past four years and have enabled me to learn how to be a good activist and organizer. Without them, my time as President of DAFT would have been much less fun.

Speaking of which, my time as El Presidente is rapidly coming to an end. Given what the job market is like, I have no idea what my future in the secular movement looks like; I’d love to get a job in it and work there, but whether that happens or not is up in the air. Whatever happens, I’m going to keep supporting the SSA, and CFI, because I owe them massively for making my life more fun and more meaningful, and there are far too many students and activists across the country to name who can say the same.

In which we play with puppies...

Last year, Chana and I played with puppies for SSA Week. It was the best.

I’m not sure if I can blogathon for SSA Week like I did last year, because blogging time is a thing I have so very little of any more, but definitely make sure to check out all the other things that other writers are doing for the week. And, if you can, please throw a few bucks their way. They’ll put it to good use!

[Forward Thinking]: How Should We Punish People for Moral Failures?

In the newest installment of the Forward Thinking series, Libby Anne and Dan Fincke have asked this question:

How and when (if ever) should we take it upon ourselves to punish someone in our lives for a moral failure? How does this vary depending on various possible relationships we might have to the the morally guilty party? Consider, for example, how or whether we might punish our friends, our partners, our parents, our colleagues, strangers we encounter, etc. What sorts of values and principles should guide us when we presume to take it upon ourselves to be moral enforcers?

I think that there is a problem with this question straight off; the very idea that the violation of one’s morals should result in punishment. I take from the prompt that punishment here means more than a simple pointing out, or the having of an argument over a point of ethics; the implication here is that we should have in and of ourselves a special desire to be, as it is said, “moral enforcers,” attempting to keep the people we know and encounter in line. And, frankly, that’s an attitude, even in a hypothetical as it is presented here, that worries me deeply.

What this prompt essentially asks for, in my opinion, is strategies that force people to conform to a normative system of beliefs about conduct, in other words socially acceptable actions. In this case, I believe that norms have to be questioned more thoroughly than perhaps any aspect of society, for, to borrow from Adorno, we know via our own experiences that our society does not really operate under any sort of widely held ethical truths; thanks to the implementation of capitalistic-driven mass media, amongst plenty of other reasons, any sort of social contract that Americans ever ascribed to certainly does not exist anymore. Consumerism and other material concerns have replaced any responsibility wider society might have felt towards their common man. With public ethics no longer having any objective core, we find ourselves in a state of nihilism.

Thanks to this, Adorno claims, claims about morality cannot be objective; only scientific statements, about fundamental empirical facts, can ever be given objective validity. Morality becomes prejudicial, making it impossible to make good decisions between opposing claims of ethical subjectivity. Thus, morality becomes a tool of power, useful only to make its espouser more attractive. And that influence created is backed not by ethical validity, but the material assets of the person backing a moral vision.

Now, before the pitchforks and torches are raised, I’m not claiming that Dan and Libby Anne are capitalist megalomaniacs seeking to bring us all under our rule. What I mean to do by quickly laying out part of Adorno’s moral philosophy to to indicate the danger of thinking, even in the abstract as it is laid out in the prompt, the idea that we can be so set in our morality that we then believe ourselves to have the authority to punish others for violating our own moral code. I cannot ever imagine myself being so certain of rights and wrongs that I would take it upon myself as a duty to discipline another because they did or said something that contradicted my views in some way. It seems like a position borne of ego, and not a terribly moral one in and of itself at that.

So, that’s my answer, and a question to all of you: could you ever be so certain of your morality, so affirmed, so unconcerned at the possible holes in your own reasoning, that you would take it upon yourself to become an ethical constable? I certainly don’t think that I could.

Intersectionality’s The Thing: Responding to Greta

Sparked by my piece on transmisogyny from a little while ago, Greta Christina and I have been having a conversation about atheist activism and what its priorities should be, amongst other things. You can check out Greta’s latest addition to it, which I will be responding to below, here.

First off, Greta, in regards to your asking if I think being in the closet with regards to one’s beliefs isn’t oppressive, certainly not. But there is definitely, without question, a big difference between the two. Your commenter johnstumbles said exactly what I would say in response; that we as atheists having a choice whether or not to be out is better, and inherently grants us more control over our lives, than those who do not have the ability to pass, or remain closeted. Even if an atheist is living in the deep south, in a super conservative town where Cowboy Jesus is the mayor, if they are of an economically stable class, they are white, they are male, and they are employed, then that means that this atheist has control over their lives, in a way that a person who is not white, part of the working class,  and their appearance doesn’t readily fit into the gender binary does not. A person belonging to any of the latter groups fundamentally is struggling against systemic oppression of the sort that we have allowed to be entrenched in America for decades, if not centuries.

If you’re poor in America, it’s likely you’ll stay that way thanks to how capitalism works here. If you’re a person of color, you’re going to be treated worse than a white person will. The same goes for being a woman, or someone who doesn’t fit into the male/female boxes. Our society is set up precisely to make sure that such people have no ability to improve their lives in a way that being an out atheist simply does not entail. Being an atheist in the deep south certainly isn’t a good thing in most cases, and being identified as such can have poor consequences, this I grant you, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s far from the worst thing to be in terms of being able to live a reasonably comfortable life. It is this last part that most atheists have the ability to live, whereas, say, a trans* person does not except in rare cases.

Regarding the billboards and nativity scenes; I didn’t say that they should stop completely, and I didn’t mean to give that indication. I think that they can serve all of the purposes that you have listed, and I cannot deny that importance. What I am saying, though, is that they are not enough. For instance, Greta, I have heard you speak (hosted you, even!) on the similarities between the coming out experience for atheists versus that of queer people. You have spoken very eloquently on how, in terms of the gay rights movement, one of the main reasons it has gained mainstream visibility is that more and more straight people realized their friends and loved ones were gay, and thus acceptance bloomed. This is true, but only in part. The gay rights movement would never be here unless Stonewall, which was started and kept alive by trans* folks, had happened, along with the many other lesser-known radical demonstrations that happened before and after it. The same is true for the Civil Rights movement; Martin Luther King Jr., though definitely not exactly the tame, peace-loving hippie that he has been been whitewashed into our consciousness, would have accomplished a lot less if it hadn’t been for the actions of Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis, and the Black Panthers.

The same is true for atheism, and it adds more to my first point. Firstly, that in order to have a successful movement, we have to work in many different ways, both inside and out of the corridors of power. While one group works for popularizing, like many do with billboards, others have to be looking at the bigger picture, the one where we see ourselves situated in a hugely powerful system of intersecting oppression. Simply looking to make atheism popular and well-known, like has happened with gay rights, will not do enough. We have seen that in the gay marriage conversation, where it has become an accepted assumption that once equal marriage is a achieved, all problems relating to queer folk will be solved. This is simply not the case, but non-normative queer folk, like trans* people and homeless youth, have been completely erased from the conversation, so that’s what society thinks.

To my bigger point, Stonewall and the Panthers arose because those communities faced, and still do to this day, unrelenting pressure and prejudice from the government, particularly through the police. The existences of people who do not fit our ideal norms have their existences criminalized, their voices silenced; not just with trans* people, but with women, as we’ve seen plenty of times recently in the national debate over the right for women to have control of their own bodies. Black men are routinely stopped simply for their skin color, and are arrested and imprisoned at a far higher rate than any other group. To my knowledge, for American atheists, i.e. the ones we have been addressing in this conversation, this does not happen. This gives us privilege. It allows us to focus on popularizing our existence rather than struggle for survival. We are fortunate for that, but we cannot take it for granted.

Finally, to your point about wanting people to be activists who are eager to do that sort of activism: I agree, you don’t want people who are only going through the motions working for change. However, what I want from our atheist organizations and leaders is a recognition of how fortunate we Western secularists are, in comparison to other groups in our world. We’ve got it pretty damn good. That means we have power, and we can put that power to good use once, as a community, we flick off the blinders and open our eyes to how the world works and how we as a society are complicit in the oppression of our brothers and sisters who lack the privileges that you and I, Greta, as white, middle-class people with the time to write blogs have, and then work to make change. For the record, I think the Center for Inquiry is already doing this, as is Black Skeptics Los Angeles, and the Secular Student Alliance to a degree. But more organizations can, and I think are capable of doing so.

If the goal of the atheist movement is to make the world a better place, we have to look at the big picture, because working away in our own little corner will do no good for anyone but us in the long run. I do not want our movement to repeat the mistake of the gay rights movement and favor only the most acceptable segment of our group and leave others behind. We need to work for justice for everyone, because justice for a privileged few is no justice at all.

Responding to Greta: The Scale of the Thing

For the past little while, Greta Christina and I have been having an e-mail discussion about a piece I wrote entitled “Papercuts: Transmisogyny, Western Atheists, and the Meaning of Oppression,” which some of you may have read. Greta took issue with some comments I made about the difference in scale I see between atheist oppression and that leveled against trans* and gender non-conforming folks. We have decided to take the conversation public, and I am incredibly grateful to Greta for how she has gone about this conversation; she is without question one of the best writers and people in this movement, and one of the reasons I write in the first place. I can’t properly express how flattered I am that she has taken the time to do this. You can read her first post in this series by following this link. What you will read below is my initial reply to her.

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