[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.

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