Monday, August 20, 2012

Atheism+, an admission, and my thoughts on cynical attacks on the former

Yesterday, Jen McCreight of Blag Hag wrote an amazing post entitled How I Unwittingly Infiltrated the Boy's Club & Why It's Time for a New Wave of Atheism, and it's pretty freaking brilliant. Like a lot of important pieces of writing, I saw myself a bit in what Jen had written:

I was exactly what a Boy’s Club wanted. I was a young, not-hideous woman who passionately supported their cause. I made them look diverse without them having to address their minority-repelling privilege. They liked that I joked about sex and boobs not because it was empowering for me, but because they saw it as a pass to oggle [sic] and objectify. But the Boy’s Club rescinds its invitation once they realize you’re a rabble-rousing feminist. I was welcome at TAM when I was talking about a boob joke, but now I’m persona non grata for caring about sexual harassment. I used to receive numerous comments about how hot and attractive I was, but when I politely asked for people to keep the discussion professional, the comments morphed into how I was an ugly cunt. I was once considered an up-and-coming student leader, but now I’m accused of destroying the movement.
When I first started getting into the atheist movement, I followed Friendly Atheist quite closely. I no longer do, for a plethora of reasons, but I followed a pretty cool comment from "Jennifurret" to her Blogspot page. It was pretty cool, and I thought that Jen seemed pretty neat to me. I liked that she was smart, and she hit the nail on the head, she was witty. I also liked that she was a girl who had no problem joking about boobs and sex, and that I found that a pretty cool quality in a woman. And I wholeheartedly admit I felt validated because following Jen meant that I was participating in an equal movement. It let me easily ignore a lot of the problems that I'd noticed, or been shown, about the lack of diversity in the atheist movement - the fact that it was white men preaching mostly to white men.

Let me be clear that there were times in my life that I would feel just as betrayed as the "Boy's Club" members Jen refers to. Because she was willing to objectify, to a certain extent, her gender for her amusement and the amusement of those around her, it was assumed that she was cool with any sort of objectification, and I know that when younger I'd have been livid if a girl who I had called "cool" for that reason then "turned on me/us" by making it a problem if me/we kept going past the limits that she had set. I mean, we let her into the clubhouse and she used it to stab us! Seriously. I'm glad that I was able to notice that when Jen began talking about privilege - even before Elevatorgate.

For me, the vitriol surrounding Elevatorgate really showed me how wrong the atheist movement can be. Rebecca Watson gave good advice to the men in the movement and she has been attacked constantly. Her allies? Attacked, just as voraciously (when they're women, mostly). The blog network Jen is on ended up in a huge fight because several of the bloggers thought it was a really good idea for atheist/skeptic conventions to do what almost every major company does and have a strong policy declaring what harassment is and how the convention will protect people within from harassment, and help people who feel they've been harassed - so big that it ended with two bloggers being removed and one of them later hacking into the network's private correspondence.

Some people decided they wanted to be let out of the atheist movement, and I can't say I blame them. Jen, however, proposed something in that post that I think has a chance of making a big difference: Atheism Plus, or A+ for short. She then expanded on it in a second post. I think it's a great idea, and a focus point for people who actually want to change the atheist movement to make it inclusive. I want atheists to care about social justice, equality, and inclusiveness. I probably want this a lot because Jen, among other bloggers, really made me realize that I haven't acted that way my whole life. Amends should be made, and I want to make them.

Which is why this made me angry:
Full transcript:

You know, I think I have some pretty big worries about the "A+" thing and what that might mean. I might sound cynical, but I just don't really trust the fact that this movement is already principally comprised of privileged voices supposedly working on behalf of women and minorities. We can't just tack on the "+" sign, say we care about social justice, and PRESTO the problems are gone. Nor can the A+ers just be more socially aware than the "boys club" Atheists just by saying "we're not like them". That shit takes EFFORT.
So until I see real, genuine, concentrated efforts on the part of anyone down with A+ to actually ADDRESS the root problems that have made Atheism such a reprehensible movement in the first place, and to put such discussion and thought AHEAD of the branding process I'm not going to trust this to be anything all that positive, and I have real concerns that it's actually going to become dangerous. There is VERY little more dangerous and destructive than large groups who think of themselves as enlightened and want to "help" The Other. 

Oh damn I just broke my promise not to talk about or get involved in that stuff, didn't I? Urgh. Guess THAT takes effort too.  Personally, I'm just sticking with my being a trans-feminist and social justice activist who happens to think secularism is important. And thinks critical thought goes hand-in-hand with feminism and SJ. And thinks science is awesome. Good enough for me. I don't WANT a logo for whatever I am or am doing.
Natalie declared that she was going to stop working within the atheist community for her goal as a trans-blogger, and I can't really blame her. The overall atheist community is a really horrible place for people who aren't cis straight white guys. That's what Jen is about when she says she wants to move to a second wave of atheism. As Jen noted in her second post on the topic, there was an exciting community response, and very little negative response. That's the power of a good idea - it can catch attention, and make it work.

The idea is about a day old, and the discussion has been for branding. What logo will A+ use? Will we have a website? Natalie doesn't think these are important questions. I disagree - I think they're incredibly important questions. A+ needs to have a public face if it's going to work. Do I think it's the most important part? Of course not, and I doubt anyone working on the idea of a website or on a logo thinks that the work will be done once A+ has a shiny new website with a cool piece of branding.

I think that we feel comfortable helping with that. There is a huge part of me that loves to be the leader, but I think I've made the same tacit acknowledgement that many others who joined the thread made: cis straight white guys cannot be leaders in the second wave of feminism. That's been the lesson of the last two years, if you've been paying attention. We can be, if you'll forgive the martial metaphor, footsoldiers, but we cannot be the generals. I want to help. I want Jen, and Natalie, and Crommunist, and Rebecca Watson, and a thousand other people who are not privileged to give leadership and show me where to focus my efforts. I'll give ideas if asked, but I won't push them - because I can't understand what the end game means. The chances of me being in an elevator with a woman who is pushing her presence on me and asking me out for coffee? Slim. Will I ever be ogled by people who think they have an acknowledgement to look at my body and talk about it? Never. Will I be threatened with rape or death for disagreeing with the majority? Unlikely.

So when Natalie says, "There is VERY little more dangerous and destructive than large groups who think of themselves as enlightened and want to "help" The Other" I find myself agreeing that there is a possibility here. This is what happened, after all, with colonization, with religious conversion, and with a hundred other examples from our past. Natalie has said she wants out, and fine - she can go. If she doesn't want to be a leader of A+, she doesn't have to be a leader of A+. But the movement must consist, in terms of numbers, of the privileged. The movement's bias towards white guys is massive and constant, and it's what we want to change. If A+ didn't have, at its start, a lot of straight cis white guys in it, then it'd be doomed. There's not enough women, LGBT people, black/Asian/native and so on people in atheism for it to have enough adherents to get shit done.

I also really found Natalie's thoughts, "Nor can the A+ers just be more socially aware than the "boys club" Atheists just by saying "we're not like them". That shit takes EFFORT." We're aware it takes effort. Some of the more vocal supporters of A+ are people like Jason Thibault, and if you are going to tell me that he's not put in EFFORT beforehand, then you're full of shit. Jason is a damn good ally to the feminist movement. I've written blog posts and comments, I've defended those attacked on twitter, I've even submitted a guest post for Sasha Pixlee's amazing More Than Men project. And I know I'm not alone. I've participated, and I'll continue to participate. Natalie has instantly condemned every privileged member in the movement, a movement that is a day old and does not yet have direction from the people it needs to be directed by, save for to come up with a fucking name. We did what we were told.

You see, social justice movements need to be lead by the people who are being harmed, but it needs people to be part of the movement too. I hope the amount of women and LGBT people and people who aren't white swells into A+. I hope it can be easily made into a situation where lots join because it's a place where they can feel safe. I hope A+ becomes a common brand, a sign that you're a part of a new wave of atheism where you care about equality, justice, and safety. That's why branding is important, and that's why it's what I can help with today. When Natalie says that "I don't WANT a logo for whatever I am or am doing", that's good for her, and her go-it-alone style of writing. But if you're going to change the world, you need to sell your movement, and you can't sell your movement without optics. Without a brand.

I want to be led. I want to see some people in atheism take the reins and toss out ideas, and tell me where to go. I want to write letters, I want to write blog posts, I want to do whatever will help, and I'll toss in my ideas when asked to do so. But I can't lead. So far I've been asked to help name and brand a movement. When I am led to do otherwise, I will. I trust Jen - and that's why I can look back and realize I was wrong, and I can hope to be brought forward. If that's not what Natalie's seeing, that's fine - but I would hope that her very cynical outlook allows for an apology if A+ can prove her wrong.

I hope that we do.

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