Are you transphobic? Am I?

This is a difficult post to write, but it’s been on my mind for a while. No one is obliged to comment, or to educate me if I’m wrong (which no doubt I will be), but comments are, as ever, welcome, to continue the discussion. I’ll start with some conditions – please read them first and try to bear them in mind if what I’m saying causes some rage. Edit: some very constructive comments have happened, so thanks to everyone who’s pitched in and been civil with it. I’ve also added some stuff to the end of the post.

- Transphobia is real. Hundreds of people are killed and abused every year because society says we must obviously present as male-men and female-women and some people disagree so much, fear and hate so much, that they think murder or assault is justified. It is not. Obviously.

- People within oppressed groups are justifiably angry, and it’s not their job to educate ignorant people. But the ignorant people who want to learn are not enemies.  It can be difficult to judge, and it shouldn’t be their job, but piling on people you’ve decided are worthy of vitriol isn’t necessarily constructive.

- Discussions of sex and gender can become heated, and while scientific-sounding ideas have been used as a justification of hatred in the past, acknowledging the reality of biological sex is not in itself transphobic. That, as a human being, a woman, a scientist, a “liberal” sort of person, is my view. I know people disagree. Please bear with me.

Edit: I think this could be tl;dr summed up as: sex, like gender and sexuality, may well be appropriately considered as a spectrum. However, the existence of spectrum does not negate the existence of its extremes; if we’re thinking greyscale, then white and black are still a part of that. Not more important, but maybe more frequent. Simpler, perhaps, and more widely represented throughout the world (not just in people). Language, however, does not name all the shades of grey, but we seem more capable of understanding and describing black and white.

Language

I believe this is the root of the problem. Many languages are based on the male/female sex binary. While English does not gender* all or most words like some languages do, we can still find it hard to accommodate some concepts because we don’t have the linguistic tools to do so. Given language is an integral part of our lives and predominant means of communication, it’s not surprising that trying to discuss emotive, personal subjects that our language does not even yet adequately describe is fraught with difficulty.
* Gender here being the linguistic term for words that have male/female properties (in reality or only in the language), not the gender expression of people.

It is now more widely accepted that gender is a spectrum; adult human beings are not all just men or women, but individuals often have and show qualities of both (or neither). But, just because there is a spectrum, and we don’t have language to adequately describe it, doesn’t mean that the concept of male and female sexes isn’t a real mammalian biology phenomenon. It is. It’s what the majority of the reproducing animal world does. M+F —> offspring**. That’s not a revolutionary idea, and it’s not false.

People not fitting neatly into the “norms” (a word I don’t like because abnormal has clear negative connotations; defaults? Standards? Typicality? Something like that) of sex and/or gender doesn’t mean they’re not still people who deserve respect and rights like everyone else. People having to alter their reproductive organs or being any kind of trans* doesn’t (shouldn’t) change the fact they’re still people. I’ve written a bit about LGBT+ labels before, it’s a fun tangent.

Edit: I changed the URL for this image due to a comment below, which highlights some controversy around its creation and use.

People have the right to identify as they wish. We have a need to categorise, to define and describe – indeed that’s what science (biology in particular) really does. But here we’ve moved out of biology and into more of a social arena – the two are quite different. While people might be conflating sex and gender all over the place, they’re also conflating biological concepts with human cultural concepts, and I think that’s another hindrance to progress.

The problem is, as I said, that transphobia is real, because we are very much stuck in the sex/gender binary (in language and culture), and discrimination happens because people fear what they do not understand. That shouldn’t be the case, and surely the way to address it is education. But if we actually cannot even talk about it because our language doesn’t accommodate the ideas and people only ever get frustrated – how can we achieve that?

A similar problem

A lot of the anger feels similar to the problem feminism has with its predominant “whiteness” and the justified anger from women of colour (WoC) whose voices are slowly being heard more widely. I would not presume to speak for them and I do believe it’s our responsibility to listen and learn, and not to demand teaching. People sometimes overcompensate and cause even more offence, and make themselves sound like idiots. It can be frustrating when you’re shot down when you think you’re doing A Good Job and it’s important to ask where your own anger comes from – is it because they’re wrong, or maybe you could do better?

Undoubtedly trans* voices need to be more widely heard (when I wrote about Juliet Jacques’ SitP talk, I did so because I found it enlightening, as something I was – and still am – hugely ignorant about, and I hoped more people could learn from it – you can read about her own experiences here). But a lot of the vitriol online is coming from “allies”, whose motives I would question given their tactics. I don’t think everyone they leap on is wrong and I don’t think the conversation is moving forward. Perhaps that’s because of where I’m standing, I don’t know. But I’d like to see an end, or at least a significant curtailing, to the name-calling that seems far more knee-jerk than considered, and far more off-target than useful. In addition, the language problem is perhaps unique to the trans* debate. It can of course also be offensive when other people are discussing you – if you haven’t seen Panti Bliss’ speech on homophobia yet, do take a few minutes.

Discussions

Sex is a biological concept. Gender is a cultural construction, a social idea, a form of expression  - to which everyone has the right. Both are spectra, both have “exceptions to the rules”. But the exceptions to the biological rules of sex do not invalidate them; its definitions apply to all mammals and many other species.  A problem has arisen where stating this seems to lead to attacks (but here’s a very reasonable reply), where the person saying it is branded transphobic and other things – is that necessary, fair, helpful, or true?

I’ve linked to Gia’s post above, and another situation I’ve experienced was the Soho Skeptics Trans* Panel (which Gia helped to organise, with the help of Bethany Black and Adrian Dalton – you can listen here). The room was full of people, many of whom were likely ignorant of any trans* issues at all, and no doubt they learned things there. But people on the internet decided it was wrong because they disagreed with some definitions and didn’t like that Julie Bindel was there, even though the panel itself got on fine. Bethany even quit Twitter for a while because of the abuse she received after the event.

Discussing the basic facts of biology is not transphobia. It isn’t hateful to say maleness and femaleness are things, that XY sex determination operates in human animals. It isn’t hate speech to say that the XX sex chromosome configuration in people tends to create female biology, and women who can reproduce through conception, pregnancy and birth. Or that XY sex chromosomes, under ‘normal’ (that again) conditions, create testes that make sperm and these can fertilise eggs; inside or outside of a uterus, now we have that technology (and indeed can create offspring without the use of male sex cells at all; but these are technological feats more than biological ones). The existence of the ‘outgroups’, the atypical, doesn’t nullify any of this; exceptions don’t destroy rules.

Just as we typically have 2 arms, 2 legs, a heart with 4 chambers and 20 digits. A human who has atypical biological features is still a human. That is a cultural issue; that we recognise the rights of all. To state that someone with Down’s Syndrome has an extra chromosome is a biological truth, not hate speech. Just as to state a MtoF transgender woman who has XY sex chromosomes is “genetically male”. Although it should be irrelevant in everyday life. The fact that it is not, that some people base thoughts and actions of hate on it, is why education is important.

People discussing trans* issues who want to understand are not doing so to cause harm. People laying into them for having conversations about this stuff, trying to understand, trying to work out better ways of using our imperfect language, of accommodating the needs of people of all sexes/genders – because some needs are specific to some people. One of the very few things I agree with RadFems on is that “women born female/women” will have different experiences from someone who has become a woman later in life [Edit: please see comment with valid point that I've phrased this wrongly] and hasn’t always experienced femaleness and the social effects. Culture dictates, experience shows. Arguing that is futile and helps no one.

From @boodleoops:

To say women’s oppression is rooted in female reproductive function is (clearly!) not to say that only those who reproduce experience it. What it does mean is that oppression of those believed to be female has its origins in a fear of, and need to control, female biology.

It’s frustrating because people arrive instantaneously with online hate-flamethrowers – and again I understand why they’re angry because there are transphobic people all over the place (a good place to start is deleting “tranny” from your vocabulary, which I’ve heard from too many who should know better. See the link for more.) – shutting down potentially helpful dialogues. Like the Soho panel. As I said at the start, it’s not other people’s responsibility to teach us – we need to listen too, but if you can’t even start a conversation without people viciously trying to silence you straight away, how can we expect to get anywhere at all?

More biology and culture

The species of animals living on Earth are typically composed of two sexes; male and female. Males and females together produce young. In human society, however, there are layers of culture on top of our basic biology and instincts, we have laws and rights and these do (or should) extend to every individual. We have choices, and we are as a whole and as individuals more than a basic desire to procreate. Discrimination, persecution, oppression and exclusion based on any physical characteristic or life choice (where others are unharmed) is unacceptable and any “social justice movement” seeks to address this.

** There are many exceptions to the male/female sex binary – it can be far more complicated than the simple dichotomy we tend to see and learn about from the get-go, for example things that asexually reproduce like bacteria, plants, fungi and aphids, but even then there are often further complications to that basic idea; hermaphrodites (animals with both sexes’ reproductive organs, usually invertebrates); gynandromorphs (animals with generally male and female physical characteristics, e.g. male on one half and female on another) and so on.

The major exception to binary sex that’s relevant to humans is of course intersex. But the issues that intersex people face are fundamentally different, as explained well in this short link. And the very real existence of intersex people (and other animals) does not mean that maleness and femaleness are not real. The issue with being assigned one sex or the other, the insistence on putting children in one of two boxes, is different from not personally identifying in gender terms with the sex of your own body. There are discussions around the usefulness of the “cis” and trans terms that I don’t think I can get into here.

Of course, women who do not choose to reproduce are no less women than those who do (though we childfree people have to battle with this a lot; with the inappropriate and intrusive questions, with the dictation of your own plans and future decisions by others, with the questioning of your purpose and morality, of being labelled selfish…) and women who cannot reproduce ever in their lives or following surgery/other treatments are also no less women than those who can.

So gender certainly is not dictated by our physical bodies – any trans man or trans woman is the gender they live as, defined by them, not their bodies. But  sex is also somewhat independent; surgical alteration of the body does not change one’s chromosomes. Cloning an adult trans man who was female at birth would create a female child (HT @flayman for that point). Whatever comes after that is irrelevant – from the biological viewpoint (again separate from the cultural one), that child will develop a female body as her XX-containing genome dictates. She may or may not become a woman. Questioning the concept of male and female because gender, and our language that describes it, is imperfect – and because some believe gender is a matter of brain differences, again I’m not going there – is an argument built on shaky foundations and a refusal to acknowledge genetics and developmental biology.

“But, were they a man or a woman?!” That is not important to us, get on with your day.

A major problem I see is choice and beliefs around how that works. If we can choose our gender (can’t see why not) can we not also choose our sexuality? Again some radfems would say no, and even that bisexuality isn’t a real thing. I don’t entertain that argument. Perhaps it’s partly genetic (most things are) – but is that important? Maybe, like sex and gender, it is also a spectrum – not just of preference, but of choice. Some choose, some do not and cannot. Some change over time. The bottom line is we are all people and must be treated as such. The hurdle to overcome is fear of difference; and not difference in a negative sense, but in the sense we all differ in many ways from each other, and that is not a bad thing.

Fear

Because the groups of people who do not fit into the categories we are comfortable with – both biologically and socially – are relatively small (not insignificant), others traditionally have taken advantage and because of their fear have caused them pain, which is wrong and something that many activists, Gia included, try to address if they can. That doesn’t mean we’ll never be wrong just because our intentions are good, far from it. But perhaps we could reassess who or what the enemy really is.

This piece on fear is excellent. It says what I want to say:

A feminism whose primary aim is validating these fears – one that supports and thrives on them – is no feminism at all. It is, at best, a diversion, a support group. At worst it reinforces the oppressions it claims to challenge. It denies any possibility of change, presenting self-definition as a substitute to challenging oppression at all.

I am tortured by the fear of being a terrible person but not of being called one. There are worse things than name-calling. Most of us know what these things are. They’re what feminism should be there to challenge.

So if you want to call people transphobic because you think they’ve misstepped in their handling of our imperfect language in an imperfect culture, which we are all hoping to make better, for everyone, then you can do that. It might be abusive, though. And it really doesn’t help.

Edit 20/02/14: I didn’t elaborate much on the background before this post (most of which I’ve not been involved in), or the other aspects of sex that aren’t genetic. If that’s something you want to read about, go here –  a good post that explains why (again, quite justifiably) a lot of people are angry about this stuff. It’s life, and human lives are complex, and – again – the oppressive culture that affects many people is very real but can easily be ignored by those of us who are not directly affected. Further insight to be found at TransHollywood.

The comments below are important, too. I did not wish to chime in on this to be “splaining” and condescending to those for whom it is all very old stuff; like a man telling feminists what to do. It’s come across like that, however, and that’s a failing on my part. What I meant to do was ask why this particular issue is so hard to discuss compared to some other things, and my personal conclusion is that it is partly down to the limits of our language. I think the complexity of human sex and gender is inadequately covered by our current vocabulary, understanding, and ability to express these ideas and lived experiences. An interesting article on the effects of language on our thoughts and behaviours has come out, showing that specific gender references in language can cause us to identify in certain ways at certain times, compared to speakers of other languages.

My main point is that, while I absolutely acknowledge that these restrictive ideas and the words themselves can be and are used to oppress (which I do not condone), it is surely not the case that any use of them is, in and of itself, oppressive. We have to have language to communicate. Scientific language specifically is by definition reductive; words are used and created to describe ideas and discoveries. We cannot at every point explain the fine details, the exceptions, the contexts, of every single word we use – if we did that, we’d be like Ents, and we’d never get anything done.

Alex’s article makes the fair point that perhaps the scientific language could, therefore, change – if circumstances require. It is after all up to science (and scientists) to accept new findings and alter conclusions accordingly. I think the sex/gender issue is peculiar to human mammals – even if other species exhibit similar exceptions to a simple male/female “dyad”, the cultural issues of gender expression, of oppression in society, would appear not to exist. This was a point I tried to make in saying we could distinguish between biology and culture. Obviously science does not stand apart from culture entirely, it is part of it – one affects the other. But it is still the case that procreation is what life on this planet does in order to continue being life, and mammalian animals do that, primarily, with two sexes. Humans are of course more complex, we live and we love and we die – the sex bit (both the act and the state of being) is rather more complicated than it is for our animal cousins.

I hope these extra words clarify some things, along with the extended discussion below. Edit even more: I’m really not Lewis’ biggest fan by any means but enjoyed this on intersectionality “uses and abuses”, *and* the comments. And I can say I’m not a fan without turning into a bully, remaining willing to listen.

Related:

On the Sunday Assembly

On January 19th I got up earlier than I would have liked for a Sunday, downed a mug of tea and headed to Holborn to check out the Sunday Assembly at Conway Hall.

I’ll say it at the start and I’ll probably have to say it at the end – this isn’t just criticism. It’s my experience, it’s what I thought and felt. I’m sure it’s valuable to people – the hall wouldn’t fill up otherwise. I’ve seen people express interest so I’ll share my thoughts – people are most welcome to their own.

Not because I thought that would be a fun thing to do, but because I had a visitor who wanted to check it out. Equally, not for fun, but as a journalist. I thought it might at least be interesting, given the theme for the day was “brains” – brains are cool, and certainly fascinating. Why not?

Well, the reason I don’t go to these things is because I don’t feel like I need to; what benefit would I derive from what is essentially a church service that just happens to not be in a church and lacks mention of a god? I was never forced to church as a child (thanks, mum ‘n’ dad) and the collective acts of worship I was required to attend at school only ever made me quite uncomfortable.

People preaching to me (even if I actually agree with them) isn’t something I enjoy, so why voluntarily go in for it? Makes more sense to stay at home, have a bit of a lie in, watch The Big Questions with a big mug of tea and in a mild rage, then get on with some housework.

I livetweeted my experience, which was met with a mixture of “oh that sounds as awful as I expected!” and “that’s what I thought” across to “what’s your problem, people are having fun, leave it”. Which is all fair. Some of my posts were quite snarky but, honestly, I was terrified – beforehand, and very much during. I just found it really intimidating – for the above reasons, it’s just not my scene.

Particularly when it started properly. After finding a seat high up with a direct view to the stage, where there was a screen showing the London Assembly’s logo/slogan and a band off to one side, the music began. Sanderson Jones – the… convenor? – then began clapping and pretty much everyone joined in straight away. They stood up. Karaoke I’m So Excited. I was excited in a scared sort of way. We remained seated, although wary of being odd-ones-out.

Then people were jumping. To a karaoke song! On a Sunday morning! How confusing. The song finished, but straight into the next one: Daft Punk – Get Lucky. They altered the chorus slightly to make it “a bit less creepy” – replacing the original “he’s/she’s/I’m” pronouns with “we’re”.

We’re up all night ’til the sun
We’re up all night to get some
We’re up all night for good fun
We’re up all night to get lucky…

Repeat almost literally ad nauseam. Not that I’m uncomfortable with songs about sex – sex is great! And being a fuzzy godless liberal, one is perfectly allowed to express such sentiments (slut-shaming problems aside), although the precise implications of the Daft Punk lyrics aren’t without issues. It’s catchy for the tune and nothing else, for me. But this was the kind of awkward that occurs when you’re watching a film with your parents then some characters are suddenly naked and squirming and making grunty noises. Why is this mishmash room full of people of all ages singing a song about shagging..?

Something else that bothered me the whole way through was the fact that we were being filmed from a variety of angles. Not even on mobile phones or little handheld camcorders, but giant balance-on-your-shoulder Proper Cameras. I hope we don’t stick out like a sore thumb, sitting among the revelers, with my pale apprehensive face.

Speaking of pale faces, the room was overwhelmingly white. I suppose there are a number of reasons for that – central London, other things I haven’t considered. Plenty other groups suffer the same lack of diversity – it would be good to address it positively, but I don’t have the answers myself.

We had a little skit from a couple of guys that imagined aliens speaking about animal life on Earth, and particularly humans, surprised that “meat” could do all we do, especially talk. It was quite well-done, I like sci-fi and I enjoyed it.

Sam Nightingale, a neurologist, gave a talk about the relative infancy of neuroscience, the general brilliance of the human brain, and closed with an inspiring speech praising our squishy thought generators (my phrase).

The next karaoke special was something by Elvis. This was followed by a moving and fascinating talk from a woman called Lotje, who had a brain haemorrhage at age 32 but survived – only she lost her memories and verbal abilities. Having re-learned a lot of what we take for granted, she still cannot read, but has a healthy appreciation for her brain regardless. What it’s been through, how much she has recovered, and how beautiful the world seems to her every day. Very humbling.

We were all invited to take part in some “silent reflection” which felt very much like the “let us pray” moment at school. I found that strange – it wasn’t for anything in particular, just to be generally “thankful”. I’ve no issue with silences performed out of respect, but again it was the context that made it uncomfortable for me.

At the end several collection vessels were passed around and a surprising amount of people were clutching £5 notes. There’s no required contribution, I’m not sure exactly what they’re collecting for – some explanation would have been nice. I’m told the group tries to be very open about their finances but we agreed with each other that this seemed strange. If your aim is to be as helpful in a community as church groups often are, why not elaborate? There was a short talk from a guy who, separately, takes part in Casserole Club, but no indication we were funding it, more of a recruitment drive.

So, as I said at the start, most of this isn’t even criticism really, it’s just that I felt immensely uncomfortable being there. On their own, each of the things wouldn’t bother me, or I’d actively enjoy them.

Of course I like celebrating science and humanity – that’s why I consider myself a humanist, I go to science talks/lectures of an evening for fun, I go to Skeptics in the Pub and things like Nine Lessons And Carols For Godless People (I was even in it!!). I go to Conway Hall often for various events, but never feel as out of place there as I did that Sunday.

The difference at those other events, I feel, is that there’s no expectation of overt and uniform enjoyment and agreement. Everyone who attends does so as an individual, no one tells you what to do or think (indeed discussion is generally the most fun bit) and invitations to be full of wonder aren’t accompanied by an applause prompt or followed by a sing-song.

If you like that sort of thing…

I love music and singing. I love gigs, and jumping around to songs can be good fun. Just not so much when standing in a hall full of clapping folks singing along to a rendition of a pop song, led by a slightly awkward (although very talented)  karaoke aficionado on-stage with a man doing big encouraging over-head claps at the crowd. I guess you have to be there.

It’s great to encourage people to make an effort, to better themselves, to help out where they can. I’m just not sure a branded get together helps with that in any real way besides making attendees feel like they’re part of a community – which again in itself is no bad thing, I like the communities I’ve joined. I don’t feel like they expect me to act a certain way at events, though, and none of those things I like feel like church – but this did.

To quote the 9 Lessons creator himself:

[NB: typos top/to, between/be]

Therein lies my problem. As a pretty-much-always godless person, I feel no need to bring church into my life. All the cringeworthy groupthink and [Edit: WP has deleted the rest of this sentence for me; I'm not sure what else I said. Something more about communities probably]. Some might feel a form of it is missing, or enjoy finding it – no problem. I just find it strange, too, that the model is the same.

If you do feel like you need a church, but not the God stuff, I guess the Sunday Assembly might be for you. They might not call it an atheist church but that’s really what it is. Will it suffer the same fate as those that have gone before? We’ll see.

Links

  • My Storify from the day – scared tweets!
  • Andrew Watts went to this same service and has shared his experience via the Spectator; he has his own faith and was surprised someone asked him about it at SA.
  • Alom Shaha‘s original piece on his experience, though he says “My thoughts have moved on since then” – good to read the comments, too.
  • @MrRegars seems to have had a similar experience to me but also enjoyed finding out why some others were there.
  • Simon Clare writes “In Defence of Sunday Assembly” (not that my aim was to make this an attack…) from his Brighton perspective.
  • Simon Clare resigns from the Brighton Sunday Assembly due to double standards and financial issues relating to the London founding group
  • Alex Gabriel discusses the new call for full-time SA interns on £20/week (in Central London…)

Atheism flux

A lot of people I know seem to be talking about atheism/humanism/secularism at the moment, so I thought I’d wade in with my first proper post of the year.

2014-01-09 13_21_23-New Humanist magazine _ Rationalist AssociationTom Chivers wrote the initial post in New Humanist‘s debate, “Is it time to move on from the New Atheism?”. For the uninitiated, new atheism is an outspoken anti-religious movement that encourages rational thinking, challenges to harmful religious ideas and powers held in society, and promotes secular culture and politics.

Tom argues that, while many think of New Atheism as something like: Richard Dawkins shouting at people and going very red in the face and think he’s a silly if not odious man and therefore atheists are all like him and just as irritating… perhaps it has actually been quite successful. Atheism has more visibility, it feels like more of a movement, for better or worse, and the heavy-handed tactic has paved the way for those who would rather take a softer approach.

A bit about me

I don’t actually talk about “my atheism” that much any more. In fact, I’ve rarely volunteered to talk about it – generally it’s been other people’s decision to initiate a conversation. I was more outspoken about it at school when, despite never going to church with parents or anything, people would take it upon themselves to tell me I “must be a Pagan”, or “shouldn’t celebrate christmas”, or had no morals and hated everyone (which, ironically, made the latter far more likely every time it was said).

From Guardian article on compulsory worshipI vaguely remember one instance of sitting in my room and tentatively attempting to pray for something – I can’t remember what – and at the time thinking it was stupid. I recall a Summer Camp at our local Primary School run by a religious group (Edit: of which there are plenty, as the NSS shows), who made us sing songs containing lyrics like:

The name of the Lord is
A strong tower [all shout: TOWER!]
The righteous run into it
And they are saved!

And finding it dodgy that these people were allowed to get on stage to preach to a bunch of 8 year-olds. It was irritating that we had bible readings in assembly every week, prayers, and songs about the Lord of the dance settee (whatever kind of sofa that was, magical it seemed) whether you wanted to or not (it wasn’t even an explicitly religious school). I was in fact Mary in the Year 6 Nativity, and my best mate played Gabriel. I tried to make him laugh, never went offstage, and had to cuddle a pretend baby Jesus at the end. That was probably the end of my acting aspirations right there.

Point being, religion never directly harmed me – it was just around me, and was quite an irritation. My parents never told me what to believe, or what they believed, until I was a lot older and had already made up my mind. I think it took longer for me to abandon Santa than Christianity.

I’ll still criticise religious crap where it crosses my radar, often: new lows from the Catholic church and their inability to protect children from abuse, or indeed actively protecting known abusers, maybe their anti-LGBT activities, HIV-spreading tactics or misogyny; maybe it’s genital mutilation, be it boys in Muslim or Jewish families, or girls sent abroad from the UK by their parents or growing up in African countries; the oppression of women in hard-line Muslim countries (Saudi, Egypt etc.) and indeed generally. There are so many injustices and human rights abuses perpetrated under the guise of religious belief – these need to be addressed on our doorstep and everywhere.

It’s not about having a go at individuals for holding beliefs, despite what our critics think. I don’t feel the need to, unless they give me a reason. It’s about challenging the acceptance of actions otherwise condemned, simply because the motivation is claimed to be religious. It should not be a free pass to discriminate, to oppress and promote prejudice, or to physically harm. But it is. And it’s about challenging disproportionate religious power and voices in governments and justice systems.

Why “atheist”?

For me, it’s just been a useful word that describes my being outside all those belief groups I don’t belong to. Not just “outside” or “other” but something almost tangible. It doesn’t mean anything besides not-religious but it’s part of who I am and have been for the majority of my life.

Surlyamy

Atheist Surlyramic

It’s not the same for everyone. For many it is important to positively identify as an atheist because they were religious in the past and/or suffered because of it and need to have that agency as apostates or victims/survivors. Telling people it’s “silly to define yourself by something you’re not” (which was the take-home message from Alom Shaha‘s contribution to the debate) takes that away from them, and that’s not something we should be doing. [Edit: have expanded on this at the end of the post.]

As Alex Gabriel then pointed out, it seems odd that someone, who has fought hard for the rights of apostates, to expose the harms religion can impose (especially as we’re growing up) and to promote atheism as a choice people can make that can be beneficial, would then say it’s not worth identifying positively with atheism as an ex-religious person. But we all have a tendency to change our ideas and priorities over time, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

As a friend quoted on facebook, “Don’t have positions. Have goals. You can’t move from a position. You can move towards a goal.” – while not technically true, you get the idea. It can often be more constructive to have something to work towards, positive things to take action on, rather than simply naysaying. I have heard people say this is why they like the annual Secular Europe March (most of which I’ve attended), because it’s for something, rather than simply a protest (although mainly it’s anti-Vatican, to be fair).

Community pest

Of course, simply not subscribing to any of the superstitions about deities that exist in human culture today doesn’t necessarily mean you share any other traits with all the other people who don’t. So it’s hard to say anything about “atheists” as a whole, really. I don’t, therefore, find it surprising that there have been “schisms” and divisions in the “community” (whatever it is), with people signing up to additional atheist-plus (if you like) categories to better define what they actually believe about living.

Doing a pub quiz about 5 years ago

Ariane & me at a pub quiz about 5 years ago

Martin Robbins wrote a piece suggesting ways for “Atheism” to move forward, past this new atheism vitriol personified by Dawkins and his contemporaries (and disturbing fanclub). Some similar points are made by Ariane Sherine (of Atheist Bus Campaign fame, and a very lovely small, grinning person generally). However, the calm and inoffensive approach isn’t for everyone, might not be all that effective in some cases, and surely shouldn’t be all that’s left – commendable as it is on paper.

I think sometimes we’re talking at cross-purposes. Sometimes we’re focusing on the community and its image; what people think when they hear “atheist” (“oh atheism is just another religion” etc.) and sometimes we’re talking about us as individuals and how we fit into the world, what we want from it, and what we’d like to see. Being so different, I think it’s hard to tell the amorphous whole what it should be doing, or even what it is.

I tend to agree with Alex, too – the anger can be necessary and justifiable. Some aspects of religion are truly abhorrent and deserve the full backlash that secular/humanist/atheist movements can create. Bringing in further off-post discussions, it has brought people to atheism – I’ve spoken to people who, to my surprise, read The God Delusion and it changed their world. It does happen. So just because it’s not relevant to us – we who never had faith, or those who left it for different reasons or by different means, doesn’t mean it’s obsolete. It doesn’t work for everyone, but when is there ever a one size fits all solution?

I also want to be free to criticise people who also share my disbelief in religion when they’re wrong about other stuff. While I don’t consider myself an Atheist-plus, I agree that many of their messages are for people who like to think of themselves as decent human beings who care about others and making things better for everyone. If a bunch of atheists in America want to send endless online threats to women because they’re misogynistic bastards, I’m right behind people laying into them for that, or at the very least distancing ourselves.

Part of the beauty of not sharing anything besides non-belief with other atheists is that none of them represents me. Dawkins doesn’t, the misogynistic Americans don’t, I stand for myself. The community exists only as proof that it’s a popular position, that reason isn’t shunned everywhere and that god doesn’t need to be in someone’s life for them to do good stuff.

The “privilege” problem

It is a buzzword, but I think it’s appropriate. In a similar vein as thoughts I’ve expressed previously on politics and social cohesion, there is an amount of privilege in being able to step back and be calm about these things – when the negative effects aren’t hitting you personally at present (or ever). It takes time and being quite far removed to achieve that, for most people. For many around the world it remains easier to suffer the oppression than speak out against it. And if they do want to speak out, they’ll have to shout or they won’t be heard.

So, without wishing to take away at all from anyone’s efforts in leaving their old beliefs and cultures behind – it’s a great thing to be in a better place in life, to be comfortable in oneself and happy enough that the negative, scary or traumatic things don’t make us angry or upset. But maybe it is often a privilege to be in that position, and perhaps after a long time fighting we can find ourselves in a relatively good situation, one that allows us to change our focus and our goals to more positive ones.

That still doesn’t invalidate anyone’s wish to be actively pushing back – for anyone who is still being hurt, for anyone who is still angry (I’d never question any clergy abuse victim’s right to express their feelings on the matter, and am humbled when I witness it) and I think it’s a bit unfair of people to be saying that the rage should just stop. If people aren’t shown what the harm can be, where does the support come from?

from memerial.netThe privilege of being distanced from real harm and direct experience makes people complacent, and prone to focus on such pointless minutiae as mentioned in Martin’s piece. Because when you’re not worrying about your life or physical safety, when you’re not verbally attacked daily, when your beliefs have no real visible impact on your day to day life, it’s very easy to stand back and say “well it’s not that bad”. And it’s not for us. Not now, for which we can be grateful. But basic human rights are still curtailed by religion globally. That’s something we all care about.

Also, when we don’t see these big problems, people who care about people often end up turning on what they do see instead, which can be minor intra-community disagreements, and then they end up looking like dicks.

As Gimpy commented on Twitter: “Evangelism is on the rise in Africa and South America, Asia has its own problems with religious privilege – atheistic ideas need spreading.” It is also privilege that allows us to think there is no need for more forceful and outspoken campaigns. People suffer and die for these ideas – we’re comfortable in a city/country, but not everyone is, and if our principles apply equally to human beings the world over, we shouldn’t be complacent.

Why talk about it?

Well, while it may be pointless to try to “herd cats” in atheism, skepticism or whatever heterogeneous group of people we’re talking about, it’s always worth stepping back sometimes to reflect.

People who whine about “navel-gazing” don’t seem to notice that it’s those who are least self-aware and spend the least time on reflection who tend to be the most annoying and/or harmful. If you never think about your actions and their impact, how are you ever going to learn from mistakes, and avoid making them in the first place?

Of course, it’s important not to only think, but I don’t imagine anyone, really, who just sits and thinks and never does anything. In a broad sense, armchair philosophers notwithstanding. Not that I have a problem with philosophers either.

Disclosure: with the exception of Gimpy and Mr Chivers, I know and like all of these people “in real life”, and, from Twitter-based interactions, these two also seem like good chaps.

Edit: here’s a video of Greta Christina at Skepticon talking about the perception of ‘atheist anger’, how accurate it is, why people are angry and how useful (or not) it is. It’s 48mins long but you could skip through – obviously some American focus, where the anger is arguably both more prevalent and necessary for many individuals. Flagged by Alex Gabriel.

Edit II: Following a Twitter conversation this morning, I’d like to add a couple more points. It seems people sometimes have an aversion to “identifying based on what you’re not”. I don’t think that’s all that unreasonable. Religion is a huge part of human society, culture and history, and rejecting it – gods who give a damn about our business and creating rules to live our lives by – can be an important statement for people to make. “Atheist” as a label can, to an individual, mean many things. It can, by positively identifying as such, validate your movement away from a religion-dominated childhood/community and acknowledge any struggle and persecution that may have gone with it.

Other labels are generally of different meaning. Humanist has other aspects to it – the mere act of rejecting the idea of god(s) is surely worthy of its own descriptive term. In UK society, we are lucky that atheist is pretty much the default now, and entirely accepted except by some hard-line religious people – who wield very little to no power over our lives. That isn’t the case for everyone. Identifying as ‘atheist’ is a bold statement in many communities; or even outlawed. We should respect people’s chosen identities.

Finally a- as a prefix, I think, means more than just “not/non-”. It can also mean “free from”; aseptic, free from infection/contamination. Asexual; without sex (also given sex is important to many/most people on the planet, and influential, asexual people are perfectly within their right to positively identify as having a life free from it).

We are free from religion. Personally – culturally, less so, and that’s where some other labels (secularist, humanist) can come in.

Edit III: A video from BBC world service featuring the excellent Bob Churchill on challenges for many atheists worldwide today

“Even though it’s a disbelief, it’s a belief that I can be ethical and moral through reasoning… not dictated to”

Sexist “brand advice”? No thank you

Today’s rageblog is brought to you by sexism and racism in the worst analogy I’ve seen in a long time.

Phil Baty,  Times Higher Education and World University Rankings editor, picked up on this piece* on the THE news pages today. Having alerted the Everyday Sexism project, he rightly said that underneath the rubbish in this article lies a perfectly valid point about universities being encouraged to play to their strengths, whatever they happen to be, even if they are commonly overlooked in exercises like league table ranking. However, the analogy used is truly abysmal.

From the title: “Brand advice to rankings also-rans: find your own line of beauty” and sub-headline: “Universities told not to mope like teenage brunettes with blonde ambitions” we see that this is going to be about comparing Higher Education institution performance to expectations of female appearance. Sounds like a great idea! Apparently teenage girls with dark hair tend to “mope” because they wish they were blonde. OK then. I’m not even sure where that comes from, it barely makes sense. Ambitions to have a different hair colour are often easily rectified with some cheap, convenient chemical concoctions. That aside, there’s the assumption that this happens, and that if it does, it’s just what girls do – nothing to do with a sexist backdrop to our culture that consistently tells girls, from day 1, that their being beautiful is the main thing (and dictating what that “beauty” is).

THEsexismBrandAdvice

The picture accompanying the piece is also, um, striking. Underneath it says “Back to their roots: universities should make the most of their unique assets” – really running with the hair thing. Girl plays (we assume) mournfully with her impossibly-shaped blonde Barbie doll. Bless her and those unattainable goals of emulating this caricature of femininity. Why won’t she wake up and see that she is kinda pretty, anyway?

Brand advice, you say. We’re sure to find a PR firm involved, then – it’s Frank, Bright & Abel who (according to their website) “specialise in brand identity, brand and marketing communications, and internal engagement“. I’m not sure you’ve been particularly bright in this communication.

Going to Twitter, their HE-focused account has promoted the post. I did correct them to point out that it’s less “brand advice” and more ridiculous sexism, but no response so far.

More from the article:

Universities that are not top of the league tables are marketing themselves like a teenage girl who “spends all her time wearing a wardrobe that doesn’t suit her body shape”, a branding consultant has said.”

That branding consultant is FBA’s Rebecca Price (I haven’t had any response from her yet, either). She seems perfectly content here to run with the ridiculous “body shape” idea (promoted by the likes of Gok Wan and every body-shaming women’s mag you can wave a hot wax-covered stick at), that women should closely inspect all their limbs and pointy bits and inny bits so that they can buy some clothes that fit them just-so, because we’re all out there to model clothes and look pretty for everyone, right?

As if teenagers, and specifically teenage girls, aren’t already bombarded with enough prescriptive image “advice”. Girls grow up in a world where women’s bodies are used to sell entirely unrelated products; are constantly scrutinised by the media, peers and adults everywhere; are appropriated by political movements (it can be a shock realise that actually you can do what you like with your own fertility if you so choose, but quite a lot of people vocally oppose that choice) and used to measure women’s worth. Girls do not need more people pointing out that what they look like is what matters – particularly in the context of higher education!

It’s a bit like…the teenage girl who’s got black hair and brown eyes who longs to be blonde-haired and blue-eyed, and spends all her time wearing a wardrobe that doesn’t suit her body shape,” she explained.

“Universities…like that teenage girl need to get to the point where they realise: ‘Look love, you may not be blonde-haired and blue-eyed, but you’re lovely, and this is how you’ll make the best of it’.

I’m sorry, what? This reads to me like a shockingly racist, as well as sexist, line of thinking. Perhaps Ms Price draws on her own experience, doesn’t have blonde hair and wanted it when she was little, OK, but it’s truly dense not to stop and think about what you’re going to say here and realise how it will come across. I can’t avoid Godwin’s law, but holding up the blonde/blue-eyed (not that there’s anything wrong with them) as the ideal girls are aiming for in your professional communications (or indeed any conversation), really?

Look love…“? Is this how people speak to Ms Price? I’m sorry if that’s the case.  “Make the best of it“? As if anything else is sub par and you’ll have to scrape around to find something, anything, to be proud of when it comes to your looks and as a human being?

I know what the point is, I get it. But as Mr Baty said and, I assume, David Matthews (the THE journalist who published the comments) thought – even if it is a valid point on University rankings and how those who don’t always get noticed could attract more customers students, this was surely one of the worst ways of communicating it.

THE’s Twitter account have half-fairly pointed out: “We are reporting the comments, not making them” and the writer David Matthews has echoed that he is “reporting, not endorsing“. I think Mr Matthews could have made an effort to show some disapproval, shock, question or something about the comments, though perhaps that’s not within his remit in this case. [Edit: he suggests it is up to readers alone to interpret]. I usually enjoy reading THE pieces, they are often refreshingly not devoid of personality – I would prefer to see people picking up on this sort of unnecessary, damaging commentary (as later tweets have done), rather than just re-posting it without criticism. So this blurb is my criticism to attempt to redress the balance.

It’s almost funny that this has come from a supposed “communication specialist” – THE happily confirmed that FBA did not make any payments to have their firm mentioned, nor did any competitor do so (given Ms Price’s comments, it might be surprising if more institutions decided to take brand advice from them).

We are surrounded by sexism, Higher Education is certainly no exception and indeed people are very much trying to address it. Not regurgitating awful marketing “advice” would be a simple a good start. Not having the comments made at all would be even better, but sadly we’re not there yet. Only by questioning and critiquing this tired nonsense can we begin to see it as the odd mistake rather than the standard background noise.

*Available on Freezepage.

Edit: I have been somewhat told off for criticising the writer because he’s just doing news-style reportage. I had a rant about that as well but haven’t added it in because it’s a fair point in a sense. If anyone has something to add on the subject, please continue below in the comments.

Opt-Out Organs

I’ve never really felt the need to write about organ donation as an issue because what the right thing to do seems very obvious to me; make the system opt-out so that, by default, organs fit for donation are harvested and distributed to patients on waiting lists.

Unless you don’t want that to happen; if, for some reason, you actually care what happens to your body after you die. I don’t really get this POV – when you’re dead, you have no consciousness, no future, no considerations – you are no longer. You are an ex-person.

What’s the problem?

Some people do seem to have objections. Often religious ones; apparently it’s important when you transition to a non-corporeal afterlife that your corpus (for some reason) remains intact, such as it is. Embalming, coffins, all of that – try to preserve your physical form, even though you no longer need it. Very strange, really. But people do it.Organ transplant box

Perhaps you care what your family thinks after you’ve gone. Maybe you want to spare them the apparent trauma of doctors distributing your parts to others who could make use of them. Again I don’t really understand that – what better gift to give in your death than that of more life for others? Life for parents, for children, for friends and family and lovers. Why would you want to withhold that?

People are selfish, that’s why. You and yours matter more than anyone else and theirs. There’s reason to that, to an extent, but I think the world might be a nicer place if people were more concerned about others in both life and death, managing to lay aside what we want for ourselves when others could potentially benefit, at little or no cost to us.

Until research and technology allow us to grow whole, fully-functional organs in the lab, unfortunately we are reliant on organs people have grown in their own bodies for transplants. I also wonder what people who have objections to donation would do if they found themselves or one of their loved ones on a waiting list for an organ? Well, given that aforementioned selfishness, presumably hope that other families are more selfless.

It seems a similar kind of thinking pattern to that of anti-vaccination. We don’t want to take the (tiny) risks, I’ll do what I want despite the evidence, I’ll reap the benefits of a society that doesn’t share my views and shelters me and mine from my stupidity. Too harsh?

Another perspective

I posted about this recently when the opt-out plans enacted in Wales were in the news and someone made a point I had never considered before.

People have funny ideas about death; it’s one of those largely incomprehensible, stressful, emotional yet utterly everyday concepts we really struggle with as human beings. As a result, we sometimes do odd things in life.

One of those odd things is to be superstitious. Avoiding certain things lest we tempt fate and upset the supernatural forces that may or may not govern our destinies. That superstition could well include completely avoiding the idea that we may die unexpectedly, and thinking about what would happen after that event.

So, if someone is squeamish about the idea of death, and their own in particular, maybe they don’t really want to carry around a card that tells the world they’re happy for other people to make use of their organs after that collision with a bus/overzealous motorbike excursion/tragic fall/accidental overdose.

Some people might feel that signing those forms and receiving that card makes that death-reality come closer. They might be as rational as you like and know how ridiculous it is, but just that feeling, that discomfort, could deter them from participating in the opt-in system. They’d have no problem if it were all up to the people dealing with them after their death – they wouldn’t ever have to actively think about it.

I wonder, how many potential donors have we lost because of this emotional quirk? How many could we gain with the opt-out system?

Opt out if you have to

If you care so very much what happens to your no-longer-living flesh, surely at some point in your life you can find the time to sign the form that tells everyone else about it. The change would be publicised, the population educated.

Lives will be saved by that simple action; even if you don’t want to actively participate in donation, you minimise the impact your non-participation has by agreeing to the system change. Maybe that can satisfy you.

If it doesn’t, what exactly is the problem?

I really don’t understand. Religious beliefs are allowed, but surely where there are negative consequences, you should seek to contain those. Personal objections are also allowed, but again, if you care so much, what’s so hard about making sure you tell people?

Is it that it’s embarrassing? Perhaps, then, time to re-examine the position.

Like so many things, it seems to be a problem with failing to empathise, failing to seriously consider the future. A lot of people are really bad at that.

But, thankfully, I do think the majority want to help others when they can, and would welcome the change. It is of course a lot more complicated than the above, but those are my current thoughts.

For now, don’t forget to join the register if you haven’t already – it’s really easy. And I’m proud to have that card in my wallet.

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