SSA Week: It’s Awesome!

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

SSA-week-Page-Banner

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!

Advertisements

In Praise of Radicalism

I and others have talked a lot in the past year or so about a schism within atheism, one driven by one side’s belief that atheists can and should become involved with issues that are not traditionally associated with the atheist community, i.e. things like feminism, anti-racism, trans* advocacy, and such, and those who, well, don’t, often with rather awful results in the latter case. However, for me, that doesn’t seem to be the only split in our community, or indeed in progressive groups at large. There is, in fact, another way, one which I happen to ascribe to; that of a more progressive, radical bent.

This came up recently in a post by Ed Brayton, the head of FreethoughtBlogs, who took issue with a piece on In These Times by Bhaskar Sunkara, who is the editor of Jacobin Magazine, one of my favorite publications. In it, he takes issue with what he sees as liberals like Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias becoming so centrist, they lack any kind of ideology:

There seemed to be something different about this band, an idealism that blended the resurgent youth activism that rallied behind Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign and against the Iraq War with the liberal “netroots” culture that developed alongside it. Their popularity grew as they were absorbed into the media ecosystem. Klein’s writing moved from his eponymous Typepad to the American Prospect to the pages of the Washington Post. Yglesias also got his break at the Prospect and ended up at Slate.

But at some point, Klein and company stopped being liberals. They even stopped being human. The singularity—a technological superintelligence—was upon us. The wonks had become robots, ready to force enlightenment down our partisan throats.

Sunkara went on to detail how during and before the most recent presidential campaign, Klein did things like defend Paul Ryan’s budget plan, which was, frankly, a barely concealed attempt to further attack the poor in our country, as well as Klein declaring himself to not be liberal. He goes on to advocate for a return to an ideology-driven journalism on the mainstream left. However, Ed, by no means any centrist, took issue with Sunkara’s analysis:

To be blunt, this is anti-intellectual bullshit, faux populism aimed at exactly the wrong place. It’s the kind of “thinking to logically robs humanity of poetry and emotion” nonsense that we often see from the right. The last thing we need in a political system that is soaked with appeals to ignorant populism and emotional argument is to marginalize the people who actually do logical and detailed policy analysis. It isn’t enough to declare one’s good intentions if the policy being advocated won’t achieve the stated goals.

I want to take issue with Ed’s analysis here, and try to make a case for a more radical way of life while not completely disregarding moderate views, which Sunkara seems to do. Unlike the latter man, I’m not a Marxist by any stretch of the imagination. I actually identify myself as something entirely more stigmatized in our society; an anarchist.

Quelle horreur, etc. You may now be thinking I want to violently overthrow the government and turn this country into a Road Warrior-esque hellscape, with the human race fighting one another over gasoline and such. But that’s not the case. I imagine there are certainly such apocalyptically-minded people out there, but by and large, we anarchists are quite a cuddly bunch. Noam Chomsky is one of us, as was Emma Goldman, who is one of the coolest people to ever live.

But if we don’t want Road Warrior, then what DO we want? Well, the overthrow of the state part is definitely still there, preferably non-violently. I believe, essentially, that in America, our government no longer works for its people, if in fact it ever did. Furthermore, the government is more and more using military-caliber force against its citizens, notably via the police department. Not only do they lie compulsively to preserve their power, but there are innumerable cases of the police using extreme methods, from torture to using drones (albeit unarmed versions) to hunt a criminal, whom they have been so unsuccessful in detaining that they have taken to randomly shooting at people who they think might be this suspect.

Many books have been written on how the state fails us, and I’m not going to recap them here. However, the moral of the story is that through a long process of rationally examining evidence for the government’s incompetence, I think that its problems are inherent to its existence and cannot be solved through normative means. However, I also have the understanding that it’s pretty likely that won’t happen in my lifetime, and thus, we return to the radicals vs. centrist conversation.

I and others like me are most likely not going to make it into the mainstream conversation any time soon. The media that reaches the wider population is not capable of expressing complex ideas, thus we’re probably always going to be relegated to the blogs and academic spaces that most people never tread, nor care to. But that doesn’t mean we progressives are going to stop talking, or give up trying to change things.

What we are is a check on those like Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias, the ones who can offer alternatives that are still backed up by facts and rationality, but at the same point have a stronger ideological ethics behind them. Ideology and emotion are no barrier to a good argument, used correctly. I think Sunkara tried to make an important point in his piece, but got lost in the emotion and excessive and odd metaphors. I also think Ed was wrong to completely disregard his argument as anti-rational. At its finest, there’s nothing irrational about radicalism; it’s just a bit out of the ordinary, non-normative, a constant seeking of greater change. And on the day that it is realized, well, that will be an interesting day indeed.

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.

Continue reading

Football, Rape Culture, and The Great American Gaslight, Part 1

[trigger warning for rape]

In my day to day life, I try to avoid American football at all costs. For me, it has always been symptomatic of everything loathsome about America; the games seem more like three hour advertisements than sporting events, designed to carry on the capitalist dream at all costs by selling viewers everything they can while a game of some sort happens in the background. In certain parts of the country, particularly Texas, the high school game is an inextricable part of the culture, with some schools’ stadiums holding as many people as do those of professional teams, and costing astronomical amounts of money. Money that could be spent teaching children proper history or science regularly is diverted to the football teams, with predictable results; the game is a religion unto itself, unlike any other sport in the world, even proper football.

This kind of thinking, privileging football above education, has continued into the college game in several high profile instances, most publicized being the case of Jerry Sandusky and Penn State University, the latter being one of the most well known college football programs in the country, whose upper echelons conspired to cover up Sandusky’s sexual abuse of 52 children over a 15 year period, some of whom were involved in The Second Mile, Sandusky’s program for underprivileged youth. After this came to light, he was eventually indicted,  convicted and sent to prison, but not without riots breaking out from large parts of the Penn State student body, who flipped a news van and caused property damage over the firing of coach Joe Paterno, who was among those who assisted in the coverup.

The whole affair, particularly the protests in support of Paterno, was one of the most visible manifestations of male privilege and rape culture. I realize that both of these are very loaded terms, and, thanks to some feedback from friends, I realize I’ve been a bit lax in actually defining social justice terminologies for those of you who read this blog, so I’m going to try and do that from now on. So, over the course of this post and the ones that will follow it, I am going to try, via the lens of football as America’s true civil religion, which seems to stand inviolate above nearly everything else, to present privilege and rape culture as the driving forces behind the whole apparatus of the game, as the things which make it so powerful and entrenched. Who knows, we may get into a little bit of nationalist theory too. First off, I am going to introduce my theoretical framework of feminist epistemology as the grounding for all of this.

I mentioned privilege above, and also its loadedness as a term, and so I’m going to try and defuse that a bit. Privilege, as elucidated at greater length here and here, we define as being a set of unearned advantages conferred upon a person or group based upon socially constructed (i.e. skin color is not genetically determined, women aren’t naturally less rational than men, etc.) notions of normalcy. Our society has over the past several decades, particularly since the Civil Rights movement, been oriented to ignore aspects of identity that have historically been used to ostracize and demean those who do not ascribe to Western societal norms; thus, we have, through a widespread, nearly all-encompassing apathy, made it so that it is nearly completely taboo to even discuss gender or particularly race; the done thing is to prove that you’re not prejudiced by not even taking into account issues of identity, only viewing your black friend based on their personality and moral character, because after all, if race is a social construction, then surely it doesn’t matter and shouldn’t be considered, right?

Well, not quite. When we do that, and ignore aspects of identity that determine entire groups of people’s social status, we’re not being caring or sensitive. What we’re doing when we make ourselves blind to the issues inherent to gender, race, class, or any socially constructed divide is further exercising our privilege. In epistemology, this is referred to primarily in the “problem of the rational knower.” Lorraine Code, in her book What Can She Know?, analyzes this problem in depth, and it is from her that I shall draw here.

Referring to that problem, that being whether or not it is important for us to be aware of the sex of the knower. According to Code, academic philosophy has the habit of treating the knower as a “featureless abstraction.”[1] In the logical proposition “S knows that P,” which is the most basic form at the heart of philosophy, she claims that the emphasis is never on who that knower is, but instead what it is that they know; this then leads to understanding of everything that prevails in those conditions stated. This is a part of the grand project of modern philosophy, which, it is posited, examines the “problem of knowledge” in order to determine the “possibility and justification of knowledge claims” in order to establish a “relation of correspondence between knowledge and ‘reality’ and/or ways of establishing the coherence of particular knowledge claims within systems of already-established truths.”[2] These set methodologies, then, endeavor to make these truth claims in order to ground them within a “permanent, objective, ahistorical and circumstantially neutral framework or set of standards. The question ‘Who is S?’ is regarded neither as legitimate nor as relevant to these endeavors.”[3]

It is this latter part wherein lies the rub for Code; those making the judgments about permanence, objectivity, ahistoricity and neutrality are, in attempting to live up to those mandates, working for a sort of purity in which questions of identity cannot enter. Code disagrees strenuously, for she believes that such an unattached, impartial knower is nonexistent, nor is it truly possible for such a person to ever exist. She introduces a type of relativism into the conversation, asserting that a certain epistemological relativism can hold that “knowledge, truth, or even ‘reality’ can be understood only in relation to particular sets of cultural or social circumstances… Conditions of justification, criteria of truth and falsity, and standards of rationality are likewise relative.”[4] The universal purity that her targets ascribe to simply does not exist in the real world.

There are however many critics of relativism in this context, asserting that it would be a disaster to move in such a direction, but Code believes it is possible to avoid the slide into subjectivism that they so fear; her relativism is one that would sidestep reductionism and simplified planes of knowledge, and could keep open “a range of interpretive range of possibilities… it creates stringent accountability requirements of which knowers have to be cognizant.”[5] With this, she has introduced a moral-political requirement to epistemology, but cautions against not just authoritative statements on the matters of knowledge and rationality, but on any idea that the subjectivity and circumstances of the knower are the only paradigms to consider; they are significant, but not definitive. This distinction will be very important to the rest of the book.

Returning to the sex of the knower, Code posits that this sort of absolutism in epistemological endeavors has led to the construction of women as, simply, not-men. It is the case that the “S” of “S knows that P” has been “tacitly assumed” as male, but not just any male; “the S who could count as a model, paradigmatic knower has most commonly – if always tacitly – been an adult (but not old), white, reasonably affluent (latterly middle-class) educated man of status, property, and publicly acceptable accomplishments. In theory of knowledge he has been allowed to stand for all men.”[6] These expectations are not mere habit, she asserts, but instead the product of the conscious convictions of philosophy, and has been engrained for centuries; when this issue arises among male philosophers, they say that things are “as they should be.”[7]

This being the case, women are in effect judged to lack the capacity to be proper knowers. Code recounts Aristotle, my man Rousseau, and Kierkegaard amongst others in the Western philosophical tradition who have said as much. Amongst all, women’s knowledge is “inherently and inevitably” subjective, whereas the defining feature of knowledge has been commonly regarded as objectivity. Here, Code has an easy answer to the question of the knower’s sex; if women’s knowledge is naturally subjective, then “if the world-be knower is female, then her sex is indeed epistemologically significant, for it disqualifies her as a knower in the fullest sense of that term.”[8] It comes down essentially to a question of access; historically, many forms of knowledge, particularly those explored at institutions of higher learning, have been unattainable for women; this leads to the question of whether “maleness” or “femaleness” are subjective factors of the sort that form and are constitutive of knowledge; however, given the fact such a binary consideration would fail to adequately take into account how gender functions across a spectrum in society, which Code very rightly points out, such an analysis would be far too problematic to be able to form a proper answer.[9] The question, then, is not necessarily between genders, but between the natural and the socialized, and whether that dichotomy has any validity.

In short, what we find ourselves faced with when we enter into the social world is one built on foundations of inequality. Our society has been constructed so that a normative class of white men are perceived at all turns as being the most rational, the most knowledgeable, the most trustworthy. With this in mind, in my next post, I will further add to this rationale and begin to apply it to the stories I briefly introduced at the beginning of this post, as well as in other instances.


[1]    Lorraine Code, What Can She Know? Feminist Theory and the Construction of Knowledge.

                (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991): 1.

[2]    Ibid.

[3]    p. 2.

[4]    Ibid.

[5]    p. 3.

[6]    p. 7.

[7]    Ibid.

[8]    p. 10.

[9]    p. 12.

Papercuts: Transmisogyny, Western Atheists, and the Meaning of Oppression

[trigger warning for transphobia, transmisogny, discussion of gendered violence]

Over the weekend, a giant shitstorm erupted in feminist circles over an article by Suzanne Moore, a British writer, who, in a column for the New Statesman, which is most of the time one of the best news outlets in the world in this blogger’s opinion, made the following comment while talking about discrimination against women:

We are angry with ourselves for not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body shape—that of a Brazilian transsexual.

Now, the rest of the piece being quite good, it’s entirely possible that it was just a case of using an easy stereotype to get a point across. Which still isn’t okay, but it would be miles better than what actually happened. What actually happened was that she doubled down on her bigotry, and she double down hard. From Nico Lang, who recaps the three ways she responded to her critics on Twitter:

1. On using the problematic “transsexual” instead of trans or transgender: “I use the word transexual. I use lots of ‘offensive’ words. If you want to be offended it your prerogative.”

2. When asked why her work doesn’t recognize the intersectionality at hand: “I dont even accept the word transphobia any more than Islamaphobia You are using ‘intersectionality’ to shut down debate. Its bollocks.”

3. When she’s run out of things to say, FTW: “People can just f**k off really. Cut their dicks off and be more feminist than me. Good for them.”

Then, it got even worse. Julie Burchill, another well-known British feminist, took it upon herself to defend Moore in a hate-filled screed that is more fitting for a right-wing message board than anything, much less The Observer, a reputable British paper whose editors clearly left their reading glasses at home that day. I’d recommend caution clicking that link above, because it is truly, truly appalling. So much so that The Observer took it off their webpage. And, hopefully, they’ll be hiring new copy editors sometime soon.

The worst thing about this whole debacle isn’t just that it happened in the first place, and in some of the most reputable progressive news outlets in the world, but the fact that it is nothing new. In fact, Burchill has a twenty-year long history of transphobia. This kind of demonization of trans* and non-binary people is a constant fixture of our society. Trans* women in particular are used as punchlines as a matter of course throughout media, as Nico recently explored in the show New Normal. They are exploited for their otherness, made objects, never given their own agency in our societal discourse. And this has an impact.

All in all, trans* people are completely ostracized from our conception, existing in a space outside the norms, where the wider world views them at best as objects of curiosity, at worst subhumans only worthy of exploitation and violence. Even with the passing into law of the Matthew Shepard Act, trans* people face overwhelming amounts of violence and abuse. It was estimated by the William and Mary Law Review in 2000 that murders of trans people worldwide are reported about every three days, and that it is highly probable that many more murders go unreported.* Especially in Brazil, the murder rate for trans* women is staggering, making Moore’s initial comment all the more awful. Furthermore, there are very few places where trans* people are allowed to exist at all, in any way approaching humane; in the US, only a few states and cities have set up laws to specifically prevent discrmination on the basis of gender identity, and most countries have none at all. In many cases, violence against trans* people comes not from the average citizens, but from the police.

I have no idea whether Moore and Burchill know anything about what trans* women face on a daily basis. I suspect they don’t give a damn. And that is a problem, and it’s one those of you reading this who are interested in social justice, and, hope against hope, those who generally are not can realize is one that needs solving.

See, when I came to Chicago three and a half years ago now, I had no idea any of this was going on. I wouldn’t call myself a transphobe or anything like that then, but I definitely had no conception of what transgender really meant, much less did I ever think about the issues involved or that trans* people even really existed. It just wasn’t something that I ever really thought about, nor had I ever received any kind of education on the matter. That in my second year of studying at DePaul, when I was introduced by my best friend here to a group of wonderful people who proceeded to completely change my worldview with their stories, their evidence, their resources, their voices. Old concerns, like those still tightly clung to by the mainstream atheist set who deride the idea of secular involvement in social justice activism,  now, as presented, with only the lense of Western secularism, seem naive and uninformed.

I would argue that there is a distinction to be made between discrmination on the one hand and systemic oppression on the other. Atheists and secular people are certainly not viewed with a great deal of positivity in the US or in most of the world; as Greta lays out, discrimination against atheists has recently turned violent in many parts of the globe, particulary in the Middle East. In every case she lists, it is the police or state criminal justice system that is responsible for the punishment of atheists. In the cases of Alexander Aan and Albert Saber, the police turned a blind eye to violence inflicted upon them by civilians, arresting not a single one of either man’s attackers.

Haven’t we heard something like that before? Systemic violence and incarceration of a dehumanized group? Oh yes, right, when I was discussing trans* oppression a few paragraphs ago.

I would put forth that those like Maria Maltseva who are up in arms over the fact that they Totally Suffer Really Awful Oppression by being atheists in America are out of their damn minds. Yeah, religious people are the majority in this country, and Christian interests in particular exert a huge and unwieldy influence over our politicians. But honestly, to look at the kinds of things that are happening to women, people of color, and trans* people on a daily basis in this country and, frankly, everywhere else around the world, and insist that that Nativity scene on the lawn is a Real Problem, but then not lift a hand to fight against the oppression and war against entire groups of people by our police and criminal justice system is unethical at best, criminally negligent at worst.

American atheists are not oppressed. We are not the Other. We are not dehumanized as a matter of course. We aren’t fetishized objects for audiences to drool over. Our agency and identities are not lampooned and erased because of our atheism. We have blogs read by millions. Heads of our nonprofits get on the mainstream media regularly. Those organizations, for the most part, have good-sized budgets, ranking in the millions of dollars. We’ve got some issues to overcome before we have a truly equal footing in society, yeah. But pretending like getting “In God We Trust” off the money won’t do a damned thing to change the world. We have to use our positions to tackle real oppression, or we’ll never live in a truly free society. In the grand scheme of things, we as Western atheists have some minor, papercut level inconveniences. To pretend that papercut is a gaping head wound is patently absurd, and we need to stop it.

* Frye, Phyllis (Fall 2000). “The International Bill of Gender Rights vs. The Cide House Rules: Transgenders struggle with the courts over what clothing they are allowed to wear on the job, which restroom they are allowed to use on the job, their right to marry, and the very definition of their sex”. William and Mary Journal of Women and the Law 7: 139–145