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Posts Tagged ‘community’

Nine Worlds happened again last weekend. We’re three for three so far, and already booking tickets for next year. I may share my detailed feedback for them here when I get around to putting that together, as it’s not been without its problems, but it still has a lot to recommend it over other similar conventions, and it’s still way better than it could be.

deadpoolSomething that’s been a bit of a common theme for me each year has been feeling a bit disappointed with myself in the aftermath, for not throwing myself into things with a bit more gusto. Y’know, socialising with strangers, and other such nightmare scenarios that I understand are popular at many gatherings of this kind.

It’s really not a forte of mine, spontaneously talking to unfamiliar people and “making friends”, even when they’re clearly there for similar reasons and can be assumed to share many interests with me.

(That’s me in the pic above/to the side, incidentally. I’m the one who genuinely didn’t know what those two were doing behind me and was just following instructions to do some jazz hands. They look like my friends, right?)

But if anyplace was going to be designed to make it easy for me, and provide a range of decent and interesting people who I’d have a good chance of getting along with and who are unlikely to be bewildered and alienated by the concept of an introvert, NineWorlds is fairly close to how it’d look. (TAM London wasn’t bad, and QED may be worth a shot someday.)

NineWorlds is the closest I’ve come to feeling like I’ve found “my people”, outside of being alone in an empty house with a couple of cats (and possibly my wife if I’m feeling especially gregarious).

And I’ve spent way too much time in my life hoping for that “finding my people” feeling, ever optimistic that it really may be about to happen. I’ve gone into many new situations, with some part of me daring to hope that maybe here, at last, I’d finally feel at home, and feel welcome, and not be anxious around my (technically) fellow humans. These people shared my academic interests, or my approach to science and religion, or my sci-fi fandoms, or something else that gave me hope that our interactions would be different, and my feelings of awkwardness would somehow melt away around this particular crowd.

Other people speak of having this exact experience when they click with the right in-group, whether that’s the first other gay people they’ve ever had the chance to meet, or whether it’s LARPers, or whoever. It didn’t seem an unreasonable hope in my case. But every time it’s left me feeling empty and disheartened, in proportion to how different I was expecting things to be.

I’ve not given up all hope that someday I’ll feel less perpetually self-conscious and overly self-critical and not just want to hide whenever I’m around people. But I’m no longer waiting for the right kind of “other people” to make it happen suddenly and all at once. If I make any progress in that direction, it’ll be through slow and steady increments of the kind I’ve been making over the past few years. A brief back-of-the-envelope calculation indicates that, if trends continue, these gradual increments will render me a confident alpha-male just in time for mankind’s colonisation of Betelgeuse.

But aside from being an impractical expectation of the dynamics of social interaction (at least in my case), I’m also not sure whether finding “my people” is the worthiest goal.

I mean, if the people you meet in a gay bar or a goth club or NineWorlds are “your people”, then it follows that everyone else is necessarily not among your chosen extended kin. Now, for some folk there’s a real value in determining who isn’t part of the in-group who are known to be trustworthy, particularly if they’re accustomed to being shunned or hated or abused by others from the out-group. But however valuable a service or sanctuary the tribe might provide, there’s a danger that the same dehumanisation and contempt for “the other” might start going both ways.

I want everyone to be “my people”. That’s what humanism means to me. I’m never going to get along equally with everyone; there’ll always be folk I engage or connect with more readily, and they may share enough characteristics that they could be identified collectively as a tribe to some degree. But I’d rather avoid determining whether somebody new is to be trusted or feared, based on whether they appear to fall into some nebulously defined category. Without being too harsh on people who find that a useful heuristic, it seems worth avoiding if possible.

(Post-script: Actually I think the closest I’ve come to identifying “my people”, moreso than NineWorlds attendees, is “people on the internet who I can’t see or hear in real-time and who aren’t occupying the same physical space as me and who only communicate by text and gifs”. Those people are definitely special.)

(Oh, and double-post-script: I tumbl now, apparently, in the obvious place. Expect cross-postings but also new and original content as I become a master of cross-platform interactive brand management *punches self in face*)

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Too long ago for it to still be topical, Greta Christina asked for some ideas on how the atheist and skeptical communities can “take on social justice”.

It’s a less intensely important question to me than it might once have been. I’ve been drifting a little from the “community” part of atheism and skepticism online lately, more through a reordering of my priorities and time management than any fading of my passion for the subjects themselves. But I’m going to chip in with an idea of what might benefit a lot of online communities, all the same. It’s not a specific suggestion for something which can directly be put into place (which is what Greta was asking for); it’s just where my mind went on giving the question some thought.

Don’t expect everyone to speak with one voice.

On anything.

There needs to be room for genuine, deep, fundamental differences of opinion to be expressed, among people who coexist in a community and share some common goals and interests. That really needs to be a thing that’s okay. Otherwise disputes and disagreements will still be inevitable, but they’ll also be needlessly divisive.

And we need to be very selective in what assertions someone can make which render them persona non grata to us. We need to be very slow and cautious in deciding that somebody’s differences make them such a hostile, destructive outsider that their collegiality absolutely cannot be tolerated, and they must be either forcefully and vehemently corrected or simply cast out.

We spend a lot of time telling religious people that, even though we think they’re completely, empirically wrong about things they strongly believe, and that our beliefs might offend them personally on a visceral level that makes them recoil from our very existence, we’re still people, and we deserve respect. Well, some of the ideological and personal gaps between atheists are at least as wide and chasmic as those between myself and any given god-botherer, so the same logic deserves to be turned inward, too.

To take a completely arbitrary and uncontroversial example: some atheists think that Rebecca Watson was right in the advice she offered after being approached by a man in an elevator in a way she found inappropriate. Other atheists think that she overreacted in a way that was unjustified and sexist.

Now, there are unquestionably some terrible human beings who’ve taken hardline positions on both sides of this argument. But neither of these viewpoints is enough to make somebody a bad atheist. Neither of these viewpoints alone should make someone unbearable for you to be in the same room with. If the single fact you know about someone is that they disagree with you on “elevatorgate”, it’d be a real shame if that meant you could never swap any stories about your experiences of religious persecution with them, or share thoughts on how to discuss your godlessness with deeply religious relatives, or in some other way engage with each other on a topic that’s meaningful to both of you.

And this doesn’t mean that you can’t talk about Rebecca Watson’s courageous feminist activism and/or feminazi misandrist histrionics. If you think the implications of that whole clusterfuffle are important, then of course you should keep talking about it and explaining why it matters. But it’s not a great idea to use a simple yes/no analysis of “Are they on the right side?” as a litmus test for whether somebody really counts as a part of your group.

Now, if you do manage to give up on expecting your tribe-members to all agree on anything, this may make it harder to define exactly what it is that unites you all. But maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe you don’t need to maintain unity among the group even on important matters. Maybe you might have some positive interactions with folk who, for whatever reason, fail to see the heroic/evil Rebecca Watson for who she really is. Maybe, if we try to see people as still being part of our community even when they’re painfully misguided and wrong about some really obvious and important things, then our efforts toward “social justice” could – and bear with me, because this may sound crazy – benefit from an atmosphere of diversity and inclusivity.

So that ended up being less a practical suggestion, and more another restating of my tiresomely idealist philosophies. I make no apology for feeling compelled to repeat myself.

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Even though the sound of it is… well, opinions vary.

The latest big atheisty skeptosphere type thing seems to have started with Jen McCreight (or one of her commenters). Atheism Plus. It’s for atheists who care about more than just the no-god thing. It is the internet’s new jam.

The fact is, most of the atheist community has already been concerning itself with various things beyond the falsehood of religion for some time now – but it’s not implicit in the word “atheist” itself. For many, the factors which led them to atheism are similar to those which compel them toward various kinds of social activism – but there’s nothing to say you can’t be a misanthropic anti-science crazy bastard who also doesn’t buy any of that hooey about Jesus.

Some atheists still find non-belief central to their identity, but want to be something more than simply a non-believer. Insofar as this is prompting people to rally around noble causes, embrace positive values, and find new reasons to feel energised about the possibilities of an atheistic, skeptical, compassionate, engaged worldview, I can totally get behind this.

Personally, I’ve been using the word “humanism” for years to basically describe the same thing, but it’s not a label which suits everyone. Arguably it doesn’t necessarily even imply non-belief in God, so if you want that to remain central to your identity, then it makes sense to keep looking for another label.

Mostly, this seems to be a thing driven by good intentions, aimed at nurturing more positive interactions and encouraging better social engagement among people who have something in common and choose to band together. I think a strong majority of what I’ve seen discussed around Atheism+ is coming from a good place. But I’m still nervous.

The various splits, schisms, and dichotomies among the atheist/skeptical/rationalist/humanist/etc community that already exist are largely artificial and unhelpful. You’re either with the FTBullies or against them, and such like. And I’m worried that Atheism+ might just become one more divide, another way to see people as either part of your in-group or outside of it – and for those on both sides of that dividing line to distance themselves from the others.

Its socially conscious aims are all fantastic, and are nothing new to the atheist community at large. But there’s something about defining them as a whole new movement which I’m not sure is a great idea.

And that’s even before I read this, in which it’s clear that some people are totally on board with the idea of Atheism+ being a divisive issue. That’s just fine, they say, so long as we’re keeping out only the wrong sort of people – misogynists and racists and abusers and whatnot. Just like they‘ve tried to oppress women and minorities and others in the past.

This just seems dangerously wrong to me. There can be opinions which aren’t compatible with your worldview, but once you start deciding that people are just inherently not part of your crowd, even if it’s because they believe abhorrent things, then Atheism+ becomes a potential tool for abuse.

It might be a significant improvement to say “Those inhuman scum don’t support gay marriage”, where once people said “Those inhuman scum think a black guy’s vote should count just as much as mine”… but it’s still not great.

I’d love to see what people do with Atheism+, if they’re inspired by seeing what possibilities exist for people to band together and do good things and spur each other on. I’d hate to see it turn into some sort of litmus test, a requirement that you prove your worth by joining the club, so that the tribe all agree that you belong before you’re deemed worthy of anybody’s consideration.

My darling love has also decided this isn’t for her, and said something which at first made me a bit sad:

I think that the conclusion I’m coming to is that I should give up on the idea of finding a group of “my people” where I can snuggle in and wear the nice symbol on a necklace. It’s a bit lonely not having a tribe…

But then I realised this is actually kinda how I think anyway.

People are getting on board with Atheism+, in part, because they’re disappointed that the atheist community doesn’t wholly consist of “their people”. There are enough profoundly differing views that not everyone can be part of the same tribe, and splits and rifts will naturally form. Throwing your lot in with any one particular identity always has the potential to exacerbate conflicts, which now become about tribes rather than just individuals.

I’ve been a bit more socially withdrawn than some, and had less success in getting deeply involved in the community – but perhaps as a result, I’ve found it easier not to have to pick a side. I follow various people I’m interested in, and agree or disagree with them on an individual level as best I can. This may also relate to the fact that atheism’s never been any kind of a struggle for me, or something I’ve ever suffered for and needed reassurance over; I don’t need the comfort of a tribe the way someone bravely abandoning a lifelong Christian upbringing despite their family’s anger might do.

I’ve also gotten to know what it feels like when my brain interprets Person A’s attack on Person B as a wound against my own ego to an irrational degree. I’m fairly good now at recognising that this means I’m too mentally tied in with Person B, and need to be careful about losing my objectivity.

So, I’m a bit all over the place with Atheism+. I don’t doubt it’s going to encourage people to do plenty of good. I also worry about the potentially stifling effects of setting entry requirements to being part of a conversation.

If it’s all going to be a colossal mess, let’s try and make it a good one.

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