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Posts Tagged ‘bigotry’

Because I should talk about this, but I’m getting tired of the -gate snowclone.

So there’s been yet another big gathering of sciencey types which I’m disappointed not to be attending. This one’s called Skepticon.

And although I’m sure there were lots of exciting conversations and presentations that went on there, most of the gossip from the weekend that’s made it as far as my RSS feed and Twitter stream has been about this one ice cream store, and a sign that was put up there:

 

 

If you can’t see the image, it’s a sign in the window of Gelato Mio stating: “Skepticon is NOT welcomed to my Christian Business“.

That’s a) illegal, and b) a real dick move. You really don’t get to flagrantly discriminate against any group of people like that, whether it’s Jews or blacks or Skepticon attendees.

So far, so uncontroversial. The guy’s a bigoted religious nut who’s so unable to handle having his beliefs questioned that he doesn’t mind breaking the law in his resulting childish tantrum. We’ve seen worse.

Then it started getting more complicated. He didn’t just stand by his raving intolerance and start shouting back at anyone who called him on his bullshit. His first apology was pretty thin, but he admits he was wrong, and acknowledges that many people from Skepticon had already been into his shop with no trouble.

Later, he offered a further apology, in a somewhat less boilerplate style. He says again that what he did was “inexcusable” and “completely wrong”, and that it was an impulsive action in a moment of poor judgment. He’d wandered down to visit the conference at some point, having genuinely no idea what it was about (he only seemed to connect the term “skeptics” with UFOs), and happened across a presentation somewhat more acutely critical of his religion than he was expecting. So he got angry and petulant and acted like kind of a dick.

This apology was thorough and unabashed. He did wrong, he’s sorry, he’s attempting to make amends.

So, skeptical community. Do we forgive him?

Aaaaand clusterfuck.

Jen says yes. Hemant says yes, even if the guy still has a problem with atheism. Buffy says yes, and that a sincere apology like this deserves credit, given how difficult they usually are. Ed Brayton says we should move on, and count the apology as a victory even if it was more of a PR move than anything else. SkepticMoney says yes. Hayley says yes, and has some harsh words for any supposedly compassionate humanist skeptics looking to “make an example” out of this local business owner.

Adam Lee says meh. JT Eberhard says no, and has no real interest in listening to any more of this guy’s efforts to appease him. PZ says fuck no and fuck you.

Personally, I’m not finding it helpful to insist that everything rest on the question of whether he should be “forgiven”. I’m going to take a cue from the Eliezer Yudkowsky playbook (one of the Skepticon speakers and increasingly a hero of mine), and taboo the word “forgive” and its derivatives, as well as variants on the phrase “accept his apology”. Without getting bogged down by the language, then, what do I think?

Is Gelato-man an irredeemable jerk? No. He lashed out stupidly in a fit of anger, but he’s apologised and admitted wrongdoing, which was by no means inevitable.

Does he sincerely feel remorse for what he did? I think so. I find it hard to imagine him writing what he did if he didn’t feel bad and get why he was out of line.

Are we all going to be his friends? Well, probably not. The fact that he has the capacity for such spite toward non-Christians at all tells us something about his character, and I don’t think he really merits a heart-warming reconciliation scene. We’re not obliged to like him, or find him a charming fellow, or deny that what he did was obnoxious and unlawful, in order not to bear a grudge in perpetuity.

Shall we move on from this incident now? Seems like a good idea. There’s nothing else it’s worth demanding or expecting from him. I think it’s all been sufficiently resolved that, should we have occasion to think of him in the future, we’d remember him as “that gelato guy” before “that bigoted asshole”.

Is it worth even making a fuss about this kind of thing in the first place? I think it can be. Being deprived of the chance for some ice cream may not be a major human rights violation, but casual discrimination against non-Christians or the non-religious is a big deal in a lot of places, not least the USA. Many State Constitutions give a pro-religious bias, to the point of denying non-believers the right to hold public office. Almost half of the country would disapprove of their child marrying an atheist, and nearly as many deem atheism completely at odds with “American society”. The amount of abuse and death threats atheists face, simply as a result of existing and speaking their mind, emphasises how important it is to publicly oppose this kind of bigotry. I wouldn’t want to see recriminations taken any further in this case, but calling out this kind of prejudice is important.

Should we try harder not to upset other Christian shop-owners in future? Not really. The offense that made this guy fly off the handle wasn’t any kind of vitriol directed at him; it was a presentation intended for the skeptics who chose to attend, and which satirised some aspects of popular religion. It’s not like everyone was getting together to hate on religious people all weekend. There was an assortment of attractions, all of which sound worthwhile, and many of which would be bound to offend large swathes of people who aren’t good at dealing with contrary opinions. Satire and mockery are an important part of, well, just about everything. This guy’s not obliged to like that we made fun of his invisible friend, and he’s not obliged to like us for it. But that’s a thing we get to do, and we’re not obliged to care about his wounded pride if he’s really that threatened by alternative viewpoints. Which I think he gets now.

Have I asked myself enough rhetorical questions for one day? Yes. Yes, I have.

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Dan Savage, not for the first time, is mostly right.

His plea in this video is to those Christians who consider themselves in the liberal and tolerant subset of their religion, who keep reminding him that not all Christians are bigoted homophobes.

The problem, as he points out, is that they issue these reminders by emailing him personally, much more often than they do so by publicly denouncing other bigoted or homophobic Christians. He wants them to do more to join non-religious types in condemning the extremists, and do some good while boosting Christianity’s credibility as a source of tolerance and compassion.

And I think it is worth trying to bring some liberal Christians onto our side here, and to ally with them to some degree in combating values that we both find abhorrent.

(We’re still going to think your faith is ridiculous. Fair warning. But that doesn’t need to be constantly on the table while we’re talking about stuff like gay rights or abortion.)

The thing to remember, though, is that these abhorrent values are unequivocally Christian values. The history of Christian progressivism or fundamentalism has been a complex and bumpy one, but The Good Atheist is right to suggest that “hijacking” is an over-simplified description of what the conservative fundamentalists are up to. Their justification for bigotry comes straight from the same Bible that liberal Christians find their inspiration to be compassionate and charitable.

One thing that’s different, though, is the claim to speak for all Christians. That is something you only here from the right-wing nut side of things, and this is to the liberals’ credit. But Dan’s right to point out that, a lot of the time, the end result amounts to “silent complicity” by the latter group of the former’s prejudices.

A lot of the liberal Christian reaction is limited to emailing complaints to people like Dan Savage for their unfair characterisation of Christianity as being wholly bigoted and homophobic. But members of the bigoted and homophobic wing of the religion are out there debating with him on national TV shows, and this is the kind of thing responsible for defining the public face of Christianity. If that face is one of intolerance and hate, whose problem is that? Who should it fall to to correct the imbalance, to stand up for a compassionate, tolerant, liberal Christianity, to make sure this is a view that’s also heard and appreciated and understood?

Not mine. Not Dan Savage’s. We’re not part of that movement. We can’t be responsible for its PR.

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I find it hard to keep track of which side certain organisations are on. It’s often not obvious from the name.

Planned Parenthood, for instance, are the good guys, providing important sexual health services and having their funding cut by politicians who lie about what they do.

Focus On The Family, on the other hand, are a Christian organisation who do a lot of preaching against just about everything that sounds fun. (And in making sure I had these the right way around, I noticed that Google have cached an interesting version of their Wikipedia page.)

And another one which could go either way based on the name is the National Organization For Marriage.

Now, I’m still kinda torn on whether I’m in favour of marriage at all. (I’m all for love and long-term committed relationships, but there are some arguments against institutionalising it. I’m not getting into that discussion now.) But I do know that any notion of marriage I’m ever going to support would have to be a lot more open and liberal than the narrow, overly specific idea that the NOM are talking about when they use the word.

They’re not too keen on the gays, is what I’m getting at.

They have some responses up on their site to what they consider the toughest questions that a defender of “traditional” (i.e. “no queers”) marriage can be asked.

It’s seriously lame, you guys.

For example, here’s what they lead with, as their most slam-dunk convincing argument designed to shoot down any nonsense about equality or human rights:

Gays and Lesbians have a right to live as they choose, they don’t have the right to redefine marriage for all of us.

That’s it. That’s them breaking out the big guns. That’s all they’ve got.

I know, right? So lame.

That’s obviously a run-on sentence. Either separate those two clauses with a semi-colon or a full stop, or throw a conjunction in there.

Oh, and also it’s a bullshit argument. They want to hold equal rights back from a sizeable chunk of the population, so that the majority don’t have to go through the trauma of a minuscule change to the English language.

Because that really is all it means. It’s about semantics and language, not about anything real. Nobody’s marriage is being affected; just what’s legally meant by the word “marriage”.

This is confirmed in their answer to the question about who same-sex marriage is supposed to harm:

Who gets harmed? The people of this state who lose our right to define marriage as the union of husband and wife, that’s who. That is just not right.

Yes, that’s the big moral outrage here. Those despotic campaigners for equality are crushing some people’s rights to keep the law intolerant and prejudiced, like they want it to be.

This is kinda like saying that Jaffa Cakes should be outlawed because I can’t abide there being any dispute over the meaning of the word “biscuit”. Why should anyone give a fuck if you’re upset that you don’t get to define a word and its legal implications for everyone else?

They also have a recommended response to accusations of bigotry. If someone suggests you’re trying to take away people’s rights, NOM think you should say:

Do you really believe people like me who believe mothers and fathers both matter to kids are like bigots and racists? I think that’s pretty offensive, don’t you? Particularly to the 60 percent of African-Americans who oppose same-sex marriage. Marriage as the union of husband and wife isn’t new; it’s not taking away anyone’s rights. It’s common sense.

So, they have two basic points here, both super-classy:

1. “Oh, you think my position is bigoted? Well, I have a black friend who agrees with me, sooo… that’s pretty racist of you.”

2. “Of course we’re not taking away gay people’s rights to get married and raise children! Gay people never had those rights to begin with!”

I could carry on having fun with this, but the blog Holy Bullies and Headless Monsters has taken it apart pretty thoroughly.

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Here’s an interesting account of someone’s experiment wearing a veil which covered her hair, and the shift in attitudes she experienced when people assumed she was a Muslim. It’s a troubling tale of prejudice and discompassion.

Here’s a clip of Sam Harris, one of my heroes, talking about Islam, asserting among other things that Osama bin Laden’s interpretation of the religion is an entirely reasonable one.

Does one of them have to be wrong?

No, they really, really don’t.

Holding two distinct ideas in your head isn’t always a sign of cognitive dissonance. They have to be directly conflicting for that to be the case; otherwise it’s just a matter of appreciating nuance and complexity. Hell, sometimes it’s no more complicated than understanding basic object permanence, which most humans get the hang of by the age of 12 months.

Islam is a dangerous religion which lends itself to murderous fanaticism. Its primary text advocates theocracy, murder, and slavery, and millions of its adherents use their faith to justify numerous barbaric, primitive, morally indefensible behaviours.

And yet, at the same time as all that being true, you should simultaneously not act like a douchebag to a woman you don’t know who’s wearing a veil to cover her hair.

I mean, who does that anyway? Deciding you know all about someone and how they deserve to be treated with less respect based on your assessment of the way they look? Well, I guess a lot of people do. No doubt I do too, to some extent, but I at least make an effort to watch out for it.

Knowing some facts about Islam is not the same thing as being racist (or rather, prejudiced against individuals because of your generalisations about their religion – I don’t think we have as snappy a word for that, though). Nor does it inevitably lead to it. Islam is shit, but people still deserve to be treated like people, at least, until they actually do something which proves them no longer worthy of that courtesy. And then a bit further than that, too.

If you’re going to say anything especially damning about the religion, it’s worth taking the time to clarify that you’re not seeking to disparage all individuals who follow it, because some people will still misunderstand you even then. Criticism of ideas can often look like bigotry and prejudice, particularly to people who aren’t really paying attention, and never in the history of our species has there been a shortage of those.

But these things can still be said, and sometimes it’s important that they are.

Am I repeating myself tiresomely yet? Hate all religion, love all the people. Same old story.

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Sometimes, “accommodation” can fuck off.

This is one of those times. Mike Adams is despicable scum.

No, not this Mike Adams who’s despicable scum. The other Mike Adams who’s despicable scum.

Maybe it’s something about the name Mike Adams that turns people into hateful pedlars of nonsensical bullshit. Probably not.

In response to the recent tragic spate of teen suicides by young people made to feel ashamed of who they were because of their sexuality, nobody’s paying attention to the most important thing that Mike Adams can think of.

He wants to know: won’t someone please think of the Christians??

He tells the stories of eight people in America being abused and discriminated against (by “homosexual activists” – those gays are always throwing their weight around), who eventually took their lives because of how they were made to feel about being members of the most privileged and popular religion on the planet.

Except, by his own admission, he’s full of shit.

There were no suicides. There were, however, seven lawsuits launched by the Christians being discriminated against.

Gay people feel so ashamed that they take their own lives. Christians feel so entitled that they sue.

I know which group I have no sympathy for.

(h/t PZ and the Friendly Atheist.)

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So, let’s see if I can match my recent success. (I’m guessing not. I seem to have lost my gift for pith since ranting about the Tories. This one’s quite lengthy.)

Yesterday, Gordon Brown had a chat with a lady he met on the campaign trail, who had some pointed questions for him. The exchange and the fall-out looked like this:

Okay, before any political analysis, one non-partisan thing: Surely saying anything you absolutely don’t want people to hear while you’re wearing a microphone is just dumb.

Maybe it’s just easy for me to say that. I’ve never been miked (mic’ed?) up in my life, so I imagine I’ll be very conscious of it if it ever happens. For anyone who spends much time with microphones attached to them, though, it might be easy to get complacent and drop your guard. So, maybe it’s a slightly unfair criticism. But getting caught saying something because you didn’t realise your microphone was still on does seem like a pretty stupid mistake, especially when it’s only about eight seconds since you were being recorded speaking on camera.

Moving on to the video, the first thing I noticed is that he was arguing with her. Which seems like a bad idea. She didn’t say anything objectionable to begin with, really, just explained why she doesn’t feel happy with the current state of things, regarding local policing in particular. And Gordon was trying to persuade her that she’s wrong. Surely this isn’t the time for that. Surely competent politicking at this point, given the number of cameras pointed at him, would involving reining in the bellicosity as much as possible, listening to what one of your voters has to say, reassuring her of your interest in addressing these concerns, and moving swiftly on.

Whether one crotchety old woman decides not to vote Labour doesn’t actually matter to him in the grand scheme of things right now. He doesn’t need to try extra hard to win her round; he needs to make sure the potentially millions of people watching the news don’t end up thinking he’s a cock.

I don’t think this is cynical, or implies that politics is all about superficial perceptions. One of the best ways not to look like a cock is not to be a cock, after all. It’s just about priorities. I’m not saying he should ignore this woman’s concerns, but trying to mollify her right now in the course of this one conversation isn’t a practical aim.

I mean, at one point she asked him: “How are you going to cut the debt, Gordon?” And while I’m pretty sure I’ve way overstepped any appropriate boundaries already in giving this much political advice to the Prime Minster… I’m pretty sure it’s allowed for you to answer a question like that with an answer like: “Well, that’s a hugely complex issue which we’re giving a lot of thought to and making a number of proposals, but it’s not something I can really summarise in a three-minute impromptu chat with some old baggage who doesn’t know her arse from her ISA.”

Okay, maybe the last bit would divide the electorate in ways he would rather avoid, but you see my point.

Anyway, with regard to the relevant, “bigoted” remarks she made, I was surprised how thin on the ground they were. “You can’t say anything about the immigrants,” was about all she managed, and then asked: “Where are they all flocking from?” of the recent Eastern European immigrants to this country. Gordon dithers a bit, and turns the subject back to education. He makes some coherent points about university and tuition fees; she shakes his hand, they have a brief and friendly chat about her grandkids, and they both move on.

And then while he was driving off in the car afterwards, he’s heard describing the meeting to a professional colleague as a “disaster”, and complains about being set up with “a sort of bigoted woman”. And then the video cuts to some journalists playing that clip to her, and pressing her for an outraged response. (And, later, hassling her to get off her phone when it rings, because they want to keep putting her on the live news, and her personal conversations aren’t interesting to them.) She mostly seemed disappointed that his focus wasn’t more on the questions she was raising about financial issues.

Which seems like a legitimate thing for her to be upset about. She spent a few minutes chatting with the Prime Minster about the local and national political issues that are worrying her, and the only thing he seemed to have taken away from it was that she made a brief comment about immigration, which he’s labelled as “bigoted”. Which might be a rather unfair, presumptuous assessment. After all, she didn’t say that much. It may have been a rather illiberal-sounding question, but for the most part she seemed fairly grounded, and extrapolating that she must a raving xenophobe is certainly premature.

Having said that, the overreaction to Gordon Brown’s response was eye-rollingly depressing.

He was on his way somewhere, in the middle of a busy working day barely a week before a major election, when a woman came up to him and started asking him difficult, accusatory questions, while a camera crew filmed it all. He wasn’t expecting it, but out of the blue comes this woman telling him how disappointed she is with him personally, and he knows that everyone in the country will judge him on how he handles it. He answers her questions for several minutes, trying to keep his composure under this abrupt line of questioning and under the scrutiny of the media.

This is probably a more stressful scenario than I’ve ever encountered in my life.

Yes, he should expect to face this kind of thing more than me, since he’s running for so prominent a public office, but he’s entitled to be a little shaken up by suddenly being thrust into a very public confrontation like that. And, based on my own experience of enduring social situations that one finds stressful, I wouldn’t begrudge him the chance to vent about it afterwards.

He was in a private space, speaking privately, to a trusted confidante, in a manner not meant for public ears. He tried to shake off some of the tension and worry that had probably built up during the exchange, by making exasperated noises and complaining about the bigoted woman. I’m not sure if the tape cuts off at that point, or if this particular YouTube clip just stops there, but based on that I’d say he was, if anything, fairly restrained.

If I’d been him, and had somehow held it together throughout such a socially straining encounter, I would have wanted to diffuse some of my own tension too, once I’d got into my car and shut out the world, and retreated momentarily to a safe and private space. And if I’m honest, I might well have used less generous phrases than “some bigoted woman” to describe my feelings of frustration and awkwardness at what had just happened. “Mad old bitch” comes to mind as one example.

And no, that’s not a fair way to describe her at all, but venting like this isn’t supposed to be rational. When my bus gets held up on the way to or from work, I sometimes embark on a lengthy tirade (usually just in my head or under my breath) about how Transport For London is obviously entirely staffed by clueless fucking wankers. I know it’s not, but it would spoil the therapeutic effect to have to admit that at the time.

So I moan and bitch about the horrendous injustice of a simple bus journey from Croydon to Bromley taking nearer seventy-five minutes than forty-five because of some utter dickhead bus-driver, and then I have a cup of tea and feel better.

The point is, what I mutter in between expletives in private moments isn’t representative of how I really think about people most of the time. I have no general pervasive prejudice against bus-drivers. And Gordon Brown probably isn’t actually contemptuous and dismissive of the concerns of ordinary people like whatsherface there. I’m not even close to being cynical enough to think that he genuinely doesn’t care about things like the national debt, or university tuition fees.

What’s wearying about all this is the way the media jumped on it at the first whiff of a potential scandal. Their questions to her were either pointlessly speculative (“Why do you think Gordon Brown said what he said?”) or pointlessly loaded (“Is that what you expect of a politician?”), and they were transparently trying to stir up something they could turn into a story, rather than just reporting on any news that’s already there.

Just as wearying was the way Gordon apparently felt like he had to bow and scrape as much as they demanded in the aftermath. Perhaps sadder still is the notion that, politically speaking, diverting all his attentions away from running the country and toward sucking up to this one woman to apologise for an off-hand comment made in private might actually be the best thing for him to do.

My sympathies are predominantly with the people who see this as a nice fresh angle for creative humour.

Incidentally, the eagle-eyed among you may have noticed that I’ve changed my tune somewhat from a tweet I wrote when I first heard about this. The gist I’d got of it wasn’t quite right, because I hadn’t read or seen much about it yet; I just wanted to join in. So, yes, I’ve been swayed by the facts since then.

A few links to other perspectives before I’m done. The Angry Mob has an interesting take, with some more scrutiny of what the woman actually said. It’s possible her views are genuinely more bigoted than I’ve discussed here, but that seems to me like one of the less pertinent aspects of this whole mess.

Catmachine has some of the same ideas as me, but is less waffley about it.

And finally, Mili is a flocking Eastern European, and I for one am happy to have her. This is worth reading; being a privileged middle-class British native myself, I’d got the whole way through the above rant without considering the place in this fracas of actual immigrants to this country. So, to clarify: whether or not Gillian Duffy is a bigot, or just has some slightly old-fashioned views and chose her words a little carelessly on this particular occasion, the sentiments she deliberately and publicly expressed were offensive to many legitimate citizens of this country. And I’m not okay with that.

So. How am I doing?

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