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Ableist Language and the Need for Empathy

So I listened to this episode of Atheistically Speaking regarding ableist words and I would like to offer some thoughts.

First I wanted to point out how relatively polite and reasoned the debate itself was. When I heard it described as ‘contentious’, I should have realized that it was in the sense of the ideas themselves, not the tone. This was no yelling match a la Fox News. This was a solid battle of ideas.

Anyone who knows me at all should know whose ideas I found most compelling. I had heard rumblings of ableism, but didn’t really know much about it until I read Ania Bula’s article about the issue a little while ago.

I have an admission to make, however. When I first started thinking about ableist terms, I had the same attitude as Thomas. I used many of these words myself on occasion. Should I have to stop using certain words because some people might misinterpret what they mean and take offense, even though I in no way intended to do so? This has gone too far! This is a line I will not cross!

But then I expanded my view and looked at other communities that have been disenfranchised and marginalized throughout history. We are perfectly willing to recognize there are certain words we shouldn’t use because of their negative connotations regarding other minority groups. Bitch is a term that has misogynistic roots yet many people use this term to refer things other than women. This doesn’t remove the socially pejorative value overall  however. As Ania stated, gay is used a pejorative to mean undesirable. This meaning of the word is well-known enough for Wanda Sykes to do a PSA on why you shouldn’t use gay when you mean undesirable. We have changed our language over time as a society because we recognized that certain words perpetuated harmful stereotypes. And while an individual well-meaning person may not have had that intent, the very use of the word legitimizes its use, and thus opens the door for people who are not so well meaning to use it ones less than charitable way.

To be brutally honest, I think the big reason there is such blowback on the use of words that aren’t ableist is because the disabled are still, in a lot of ways, fair game for insult and ridicule. And if you think I am exaggerating, do a Google search of memes with disabled people. I am sure you will find lots of horrible shit that’s being said about humans who, through no fault of their own, have some sort of disability. I am not going to be high and mighty about it, either. I will admit I used to make fun sometimes of disabled people, just because they behaved in a way that is considered ‘abnormal’ by some. That shit is abhorrent, and I freely admit it. I think only when there is more visibility and discussion about these issues will there be any sort of change in this attitude. LGBT acceptance took decades to gain any sort of mainstream acceptance, and that was because started realizing that these were not perverse monsters, but instead their neighbors and friends. And the battle isn’t won. As Callie Wright (host of The Gaytheist Manifesto) will attest, there is active discrimination against transgender folks going on right now, and some states are trying to nullify marriage equality even though that’s blatantly unconstitutional.

For the reasons above mentioned, I think these conversations are important to have. There are too few of them going on, and there is too little attention paid to the issues of disabled people. I think what Ania is doing, by spreading the word in a most passionate and eloquent way, needs to be amplified a thousand fold. It’s only when it’s demonstrated how these sorts of words actually hurt people and perpetuate dangerous stereotypes that we’ll get people to stop discussing these things as academic and removed from their experience into the realm of human empathy.

EDIT: I implied Thomas thought the word ‘gay’ couldn’t be used as a pejorative. That is clearly incorrect and I removed the text in which I said this.

Ania wrote a rebuttal on her blog to Thomas’ comments at the end of his show. The article can be found here.

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Keep The Rally Reasonable

So I was going through my Facebook feed and found this little tidbit that a friend had shared from some atheist YouTuber named Thunderf00t (the video is here)

The Reason Rally, likewise…. its goals…..
1) LGBTQ equality
2) climate change
3) womens reproductive rights
Just what you want to see at the ‘largest gathering of the non religious in history’!

Ironically…..I would normally be a naturally ‘ally’ to something like the Reason Rally. Sadly however, when the code of conduct tells me I must listen to trans stories and respect peoples pronouns……sorry but thats a deal breaker. I just wish ‘the largest gathering of the non-religious in history’ had chosen better targets to focus on.

Now, I don’t follow the atheist YouTube community, but I do know they tend to be pretty hyperbolic in their outrage. I suppose this behavior is an effort to get more views, and thus more revenue. However, from what I have heard, this particular personality is not that extreme. Well, until now apparently.

The Reason Rally, for those who are unfamiliar with the event, is according to their website

…a celebration of fact-driven public policy, the value of critical thinking, and the voting power of secular Americans.

That seems innocuous enough. Different voting blocs have gatherings all the time to demonstrate their strength and solidarity. This is what citizens should be doing in a healthy democracy. However, apparently this particular incarnation of Reason Rally has been infiltrated by duh duh DUH! THE SJW AGENDA (cue screams of horror and despair).

Apparently, buried in the depths of the official Code of Conduct for the Rally lies the  Apocalypse of Atheism as we know it! And what are these nefarious Rules that lead to the Gotterdamerung of the Godless? The entire text is here, but this is the summary

The Reason Rally Coalition is committed to presenting spaces that are fun, friendly, and informative for all participants.

This includes creating an atmosphere that is and harassment-free. All attendees, including speakers, sponsors, and volunteers, are required to adhere to our code of conduct for the duration of the Reason Rally festivities at all ticketed events and venues.

The Reason Rally Coalition does not tolerate harassment of or by participants in any form. Prohibited conduct may include—but is not limited to—harassment related to gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, age, religion, sexual images in public spaces (not related to convention sessions or materials), deliberate intimidation, stalking, harassing photography or recording, sustained disruption of talks or other events, inappropriate physical contact, and unwelcome sexual attention.

The Reason Rally Coalition recognizes that mockery of religion occurred at Reason Rally 2012, and we welcome such discussion. However, the harassment of individuals for their religious beliefs will not be tolerated. Racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic conduct will not be tolerated.

Failure to abide by our code of conduct will result in ejection from the event without refund at the sole discretion of organizers.

The Reason Rally Coalition understands that human interaction can be complex and confusing. Please give each other the benefit of explaining behavior you find offensive or unwelcome. However, participants asked to stop any prohibited conduct are expected to comply immediately.

Yes, that’s it. These are the pronouncements that are causing such wailing and gnashing of teeth among a subset of the ‘movement’. Apparently, treating people with common human decency is something that will not be tolerated among the Purists of the community. Atheism has been hijacked by a bunch of bleeding heart crybabies! Hyperbole aside, these guidelines seem, at least to this humble observer, to be common sense. An argument has been made that there is too much emphasis on social issues and not enough on ‘atheist’ issues. I am not sure how entertaining a rally would be if that was the only thing that was celebrated. ‘Woo hoo, I don’t believe in a personal God! Now let’s get drunk!’ That’s not to say that such a celebration wouldn’t be entertaining, but it hardly seems worth having a massive gathering.

The truth is, the secular community isn’t a monolith, and it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It embraces many varied and vital interests. Above all else, this community is a gathering of humans who deserve respect and love, who just all happen to believe logic and reason should dictate national policy. If this sounds unacceptable to some, then, frankly, I don’t want them in the community.

A happy what??

Another great post from Lucy Dee.

lucyferity

“You should wear brighter colored clothes, like you did in Sunday School.  All this black is making you look depressed.  You were so happy as a child.”

And the Emmy goes to…….  Me.

*sighs*  My mother….

Delusional enough to assume that me having a favorite color, which is not HERS is what makes me “look” depressed.

MANY things can send me in a downward spiral.  My choice of clothing is not one of them.  I happen to love black, but it is by no means the only thing I wear.  It’s just the only one she chooses to complain about.

As a child, most of my clothing was handmade.  Cult living doesn’t really procure much in the ways of financial comfortability.  If you were lucky, not all of your clothing was a hand-me-down from an older sibling.  Black was forbidden…

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Of Humans and Hubris

There is much hullabaloo being started in the ‘Atheist/Secular Community’ about some alleged improprieties of the financial and/or ethical sort that have recently emerged. I won’t bore you with the details, but if you are so inclined you can read about them here, here, and here.

To be clear, I am not taking a position as to the whether the accusations are true or false. I am trying to be objective and let the process play out before making a judgement on that score. What bothers me almost more is not that these alleged misdeeds occurred, although if these did happen they are certainly bad enough within themselves, but the reactions these potential ‘scandals’ have elicited.

To paraphrase ‘Casablanca’, people seem absolutely shocked, SHOCKED, to learn this sort of thing could happen in our community! After all, aren’t we supposed to be above the fray, looking down from our twin ivory towers of reason and skepticism upon the corrupt hoi polloi that slither on their bellies below us?

The answer is an unqualified and emphatic ‘NO’! The problem is the assumption that just because we are atheists and /or freethinkers, we are somehow immune from human foibles and weaknesseses. This, of course, is absurd. We are all just evolved apes trying out best to figure out what is going on in this universe. We still have the same predilections for lying, stealing, and cheating as do the religious folks some of us like to mock. The inverse is also true : We have the capacity to be noble, kind, and generous to our fellow humans.

So, then, we should not be surprised that in a movement where we have deeds that portray the best of humanity, we also might have acts that show us at our absolute worst.

Thus, it is disturbing to learn that some would call for the dismantling of the community completely. However, the fact is that ALL human communities, of whatever size or complexion, are going to have these problems crop up from time to time, because of the fact that these are HUMAN communities, and thus embody all those traits, good and bad, noble and base, to which our species is prone.

The solution, therefore, is not to tear down the structures that have been built and that have helped so many, but to strive to improve ourselves, the members of that community. And while it may seem easier to ‘burn it all down’, to raze and rebuild, we must realize that no matter how strong the structure, it will ultimately fall if there isn’t a strong foundation. We should strive to build each other up, and not tear each other down. It is in this way that we will prove our worth to our fellow travelers, regardless of affiliation or belief.

The Problem of Talking Privilege

A friend posted on Facebook the other day regarding the hypocrisy of a White woman who often portrays Japanese characters in cosplay complaining about how a White woman and not a Japanese woman was cast in the upcoming live-action adaptation of ‘Ghost in the Shell’. I commented on this post and stated that rather than launching an ad hominem attack on the commenter, we should look at the issue on its own merits, because I thought it was worth discussing. He then proceeded to state that he didn’t care who played the role, because that was what actors are supposed to do: namely, act.

I was going to respond, but then realized that this subject was something that I would like to expound on more, and have decided to discuss it here as the first official post (the announcement of the blog redesign notwithstanding) of ‘The Podunk Polymath’.

And what subject am I alluding to exactly, one might ask? The subject I am referring to is that of privilege, because what I wanted to say in that response was something along the lines of ‘well, yes, of course you don’t care, because White is considered the default, and you are White, so it means nothing to you. You don’t have to think about race, for it rarely affects you in your daily life, but what about that Japanese person who sees the already abysmal representation of their ethnicity in media and entertainment? Do you not think this development is just another slap in their face? Do you not think that this feels a lot like cultural appropriation? That no blockbuster movie can hope to get made without a White lead character?

This situation is not unique in Hollywood. Don Cheadle spoke recently about how he couldn’t get enough funding for his Miles Davis biopic unless he cast a White character as a lead character in the movie. He seemed to be resigned to the fact that in order to get major backers for any film, one had to demonstrate appeal to a wider, read White, audience.

What exactly is privilege, though, and why do people, especially those of the White persuasion, get so defensive when the topic is brought up? Keep in mind, when we speak of privilege in the context of social justice, we define the word a bit differently. A good succinct definition I found is from the everyday feminism website:

We can define privilege as a set       of unearned benefits given to a people who fit into a specific   social group.

Now notice the definition doesn’t mention a specific group. Privilege can apply to ANY group, not just Whites people, or rich people, or males.

It is important that we also talk about intersectionality when discussing privilege. Again, this term has a specialized definition in the context of social justice. I asked a good friend in the LGBT community how he would define intersectionality vis-à-vis privilege, and he told me:

Basically, it means having privilege in some areas, but not others, and how they intersect. For example, as a gay man, I don’t enjoy the privileges straight folks enjoy, but I do enjoy the privileges of being a man that women don’t enjoy.

So, one person can have privileges in some ways, and be underprivileged in other ways. Sometime ago, I recall taking a test that assigned positive and negative numerical values to each characteristic you might have to determine your privilege. If you were White, you add a certain value. If you were gay, you would subtract. It was a fun yet informative way in understanding the concept of privilege and intersectionality.

As one can imagine, however, there was a huge backlash when the idea of privilege was introduced. The main thrust of the criticism that wasn’t just outright ignorant bigotry had to with the idea that those being identified as having some privilege were being personally attacked. They lived their lives, never said a racial or homophobic slur, and weren’t classist in any way. Another complaint was along the lines of ‘I work three jobs and live in a trailer, but I happen to be White. What the hell privilege am I getting? I don’t get special compensation for being a specific skin color!’

These reactions are understandable and actually fairly normal. We are all human, after all, and, generally speaking, we don’t like to feel like we’re being attacked for something we feel like we had no control over.

I think a lot of the confusion comes from the word ‘privilege’ itself. Many people assume that if you have a privilege, you are seeing some tangible benefit, such as being wealthy or being a member of selective club. When we are speaking in this context, though, the privilege may not be readily apparent to the individual. It is more subtle than that. As humans, unless we actually can see or feel something that is right in front of us, we tend to not think it exists.

Here’s an example. If you are born a Black male, you automatically, through no action on your part, are statistically more likely to go to prison or die before your 18th birthday. If you are born White, you have a better chance of graduating from college and making more money than your Black counterparts. Did the White person do anything to make this happen? Did he or she personally deprive their compatriot of any rights? Of course not. It’s just the fact of being born as a more privileged class. 

Many who feel personally slighted will ask ‘well, what am I supposed to do? Feel guilty for something I didn’t do? That I had no control over?’ NO! No one is asking you to take on personal guilt, unless you actively contributed to oppressing someone else. All anyone of a more privileged class can do is be aware. Have the personal maturity to realize that you have a higher position, though it is through no fault of your own, and to use that position to bring up other people to your level. That doesn’t mean you have to be some activist on the streets. Most people are not built for that.  In your daily life, you can make a difference by just recognizing inequality when you see it, and, if you are in a position to do so, calling it out. The great thing about privilege is that if we all actively contribute in whatever we can, the same level of privilege can be attained by all people. And, in the end, isn’t that what being a humanist is all about?

Planned Parenthood, Josh Feuerstein, and Criminal Culpability

On November 27, 2015, a man entered a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, CO, and opened fire, killing two civilians and a police officer. I am not going to give the name of the gunman because I don’t want to give him any more publicity than he deserves. As the facts started coming out about the gunman, he became apparent that we had another deranged, White male; one who identified with the anti-abortion movement and spoke of ‘baby parts’ after being detained. I am not going to speak to his motivations, because there will be plenty of armchair psychologists to tease that out. Nor will I speak about the media’s seeming reluctance to label the gunman as a terrorist, though he definitely fits that definition in my mind. No, the focus of this piece is going to be Josh Feuerstein.

Josh Feuerstein?

Yes, the very same earnest Christian evangelical YouTube personality who started a tempest in a coffee cup with his lament against Starbucks and the unforgivable sin of issuing a plain red cup for the Holiday season instead of a design festooned with all the symbols of his imagined ‘Christian’ holiday, although most of the symbols he is railing against are of pagan origin. But I digress.

The Paul Blart Mall Cop lookalike made another video not long after the Cecil the Lion imbroglio making the case that people were hypocrites for mourning the loss of a friendly lion, but yet were not mourning the killings of millions of babies by Planned Parenthood.  The full transcript of the video is below, taken from The Friendly Atheist:

So let me get this right. Tonight, America is crying about an old lion named Cecil that was killed by some dipwad who cut his head off and left his body there. But check this out.
Planned Parenthood has hunted down millions and millions of little innocent babies, stuck a knife into the uterus, cut them, pulled them out, crushed their skull with forceps, ripped their body apart, sold their tissue, and threw them bleeding into a trash bin.
You guys are crying about a lion, but what about the babies? You know what I call that? I call that being a hypocrite.
I say, tonight, we punish Planned Parenthood. I think it’s time that abortion doctors should have to run and hide and be afraid for their life.
Instead of some hunter.
Both are wrong. But one is a lion. The other are humans. Stand up for humans.

Of course, these are despicable things to say. He is basically calling for abortion doctors to be hunted and killed like animals. This is a new low even for this ignorant buffoon. But is it criminal?

Certainly, he is at least morally culpable to some degree, or so says a friend who has a degree in Philosophy. I will admit this particular branch of human thought, while crucial to human knowledge and quite fascinating in general, is one that I have difficulty fully comprehending and frankly gives me a headache. So I shall defer to her judgment on this. This is the same level of moral culpability that any of numerous right-wing bloviators might bear. Recall that some years ago Bill O’Reilly inveighed against George Tiller, or ‘Tiller the Baby Killer’ on several occasions on his show. Not long after, George Tiller was killed by a gunman while he was attending services at his Kansas church. There are of course many other examples this sort of irresponsible speech from all corners of the right-wing pundit-sphere.

But what O’Reilly and Feuerstein said, and what many others have said in the same vein, are simply not criminal offenses. Brian Dunigan, an attorney at Ponce Law in Nashville, put it this way:

The First Amendment protects speech even if it advocates violence, unless the speaker encourages “imminent lawless action.” This was decided in a case called Brandenburg v. Ohio. That case refined a concept you may be familiar with, the “clear and present danger” test. In a nutshell, it’s not illegal to call for violence at some indefinite time in the future. You just can’t incite someone to violence at that immediate moment.

Does this mean that people shouldn’t speak out against such speech? Of course not. In the ‘market of ideas’, these sort of disgusting utterances should be thoroughly discredited. Indeed, with the advent of the internet and the explosion of social and ‘new’ media, there are many voices doing exactly that : speaking out against the purveyors of such ideas. However, we must also remember that free speech in the U.S. is almost a religion all in itself, and those who would abridge that speech, regardless of any good intentions they might have, might be wary lest they invoke the law of unintended consequences. For the very sort of fiery rhetoric they despise coming from an opposing view might be the very type of speech they might engage in when a cause that is dear to them arises. And who is to say those very restrictions they enacted might not ultimately become shackles around their own wrists?

 

Changes

As most of you undoubtedly know by now, I have relinquished my hosting duties on the podcast. Joe is still hosting, however, and he has a new co-host named Sharon Bush. She brings a fresh perspective to the show, and I think she will prove to be an asset. Going forward, the tenor of the show will change, with less emphasis on ridicule and divisiveness, and more emphasis on what can be done to improve society through collaboration with secularists and theists alike. Of course, just is just a broad outline, and Joe has his own ideas, so I may be completely wrong, in which case I will gladly stand corrected. All podcast content will now be located at http://utbbpodcast.wordpress.com. I am going to leave the links for donation, Patreon, Stitcher, Spreaker, and iTunes on the page for now, as well as the RSS feed, until such time as all this information is transferred to the libsyn page.

This page will once again be solely a blog page for my sometimes cogent ramblings, which was its original intent. I am going to concentrate more on social and political issues, however, though of course secularism and skepticism will still inform much of my writing.  One thing I want to try to do from this point forward, however, is to try to be more pensive and less reactionary on any issue I discuss. Of course, this does not mean I won’t go off on the occasional tirade against something that really grinds my gears. What it does mean, however, is that I am going to try to approach everything I write about from skeptical point of view, including issues I am sympathetic with. I hope in this way to try to get to the central truth of the matter instead of reaffirming any preconceptions I might already have. Cognitive bias is a bitch, after all.

So, if you like the blog, by all means read, follow, or comment. If you want only to hear the dulcet tones of Joe and Sharon (and, really, who could blame you), then go check them out at the aforementioned website, and go like the page on Facebook. They can also be found on Twitter @JoeKindic and @SharonBushUTBB. Of course, there is always the show Twitter account @SeethinHeathen which I will also be using for the blog. Thanks and take care.