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Posts Tagged ‘prejudice’

Okay, so, if you’re going to mock Men’s Rights Activists with contempt and create Facebook pages devoted to taking the piss out of their ideas, you really have to try not to be the caricature they hate you for being.

I mean, you shouldn’t have to try very hard. But at least check once in a while. Those loons on the other side of the debate stop being so laughably wrong if you start turning into their ridiculous straw man.

Case in point: two people were recently arrested by police officers and ended up in court in front of a judge on a charge of “manspreading“. Which is that thing where a guy on a train sits with his legs unnecessarily wide apart taking up too much room. Arrested. Taken to court.

I don’t really want to bring this case up by talking about men’s rights and feminism. The abuse of authority by state agents grossly overreaching beyond any reasonable interpretation of criminal action is a far more relevant and important angle than the gendered aspect, and it was originally reported in the context of some unsettling data about numbers-driven policing. I should be putting on my anarchist hat for this one and leaving my feminist headwear on the rack.

But it was the feminist blogosphere that drew it to my attention in the first place, and the context of the way it’s been reported there doesn’t seem to go any further than “lol, men”. And this drives me crazy, not because I’m worried about being a member of the most oppressed demographic suffering at the hands of those evil feminists, but because that’s the standard dumb MRA narrative and you’re playing right into it.

The Internet provides a surfeit of wankers who claim misandry at any opportunity, no matter how ridiculous, and who absolutely do not need to be handed any more ammunition. “Feminists want me to be locked up just for sitting down in a way they don’t like” is exactly the kind of ludicrous, persecution-complex nonsense they’d have been saying months ago. And now there are sizeable feminist groups online who seem willing to abandon every other principle for the chance to score a point against those terrible MRAs – but are actually doing unprecedented work to vindicate their victimised worldview.

This isn’t about me shifting from one side toward the other in some notional “feminism vs. MRA” battle. The Men’s Rights Movement has very little to do with men’s rights and is far more interested in misogyny and disparaging feminism at any opportunity. And the people I know who’ve been most effective in actually supporting men’s rights have been strongly-identified feminists, for whom understanding and combating the way men are systematically harmed and demeaned by sexist assumptions and prejudice is an integral part of that philosophy.

But that just makes it all the more important that feminists take stories like “arrested for manspreading” seriously as an issue of government intrusion, and don’t laughingly support the same kind of coercive state power they’ve objected to before, now that they’re finally not the ones getting screwed over for once.

Otherwise what happens is: MRAs see women cheering while men are arrested for a seemingly trivial offense; they post their own pictures of women similarly guilty of taking up unnecessary space; they get mocked and accused of being creepy for taking pictures of women on public transport; they note the disparity in the way the genders are treated and conclude yet another case of sexism against men; the “evil man-hating feminists” narrative is reinforced; and this time they haven’t even had to distort reality to do it.

I’m a feminist because we’re supposed to be better than this.


Two posts in a row about standing up for people I disagree with, because ideological consistency is more important than maintaining tribal bounds. Maybe tomorrow I’ll go for the hat-trick and write about my soft spot for Peter Hitchens.

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Only a brief one, though, which expands slightly on all the excellent, thorough coverage there’s already been.

Lucy Meadows was a primary school teacher who died this week. It’s thought she took her own life. She’d lived most of her life as Nathan Upton, and had only recently made a public transition to a gender with which she identified.

David Allen Green has posted a good summary of the circumstances, in which he discusses the negative attention the mainstream press had often applied to Lucy Meadows, and to people who fall outside of standard accepted gender norms more generally.

That particular round-up notably doesn’t mention a column by Richard Littlejohn, which was published in the Mail last December, but quietly vanished from their online archive in the last few days. Almost as if what they thought they could get away with saying about her while she was alive, suddenly seems grossly insensitive now that she’s dead.

David’s chosen not to focus on Littlejohn in particular, because this diminishes the extent to which numerous other newspaper columnists and editors are guilty of exactly the same cruelty and inhumanity on a regular basis. Also, the Samaritans have been reminding people of their media guidelines for the reporting of suicide, in the wake of some commentators being overly hasty and certain in apportioning a direct causative link, or even absolute blame. Richard Littlejohn may be a terrible human being, but nobody has the authority to reliably declare that he drove anyone to suicide.

Taking one’s own life is rarely, I suspect, a simple decision resulting from an easily comprehensible mindset. Understanding what’s going on in other people’s heads is a challenge at the best of times, let alone when the actions they’re taking are quite so far removed from my own. (I hope that ending your life is a distant and unrelatable premise for all of you reading this, as well. Even if not, I imagine you’re well aware that your demons are your own, and not automatically shared and understood by anyone else who experiences any similar turmoil.) It’s good advice, to avoid being too sweeping in our declarations of what it was that pushed someone we never knew personally over the edge.

But this sensible advice leaves one aspect of the whole unpleasant business not fully addressed.

And that aspect is that Richard Littlejohn is a terrible human being.

I can’t do anything to help Lucy Meadows now. But I can repeat this fact.

I say this without holding Littlejohn the slightest bit culpable for the death of Lucy Meadows. Whether or not his column directly affected her life, or indirectly contributed to a culture of prejudice and othering in which she eventually couldn’t bear to live another day, is not for me to say.

But even if we stipulate that Richard Littlejohn is not responsible for her death – even if Lucy Meadows had managed to live a full and happy life – what he wrote about her would still be loathsome and despicable.

The fact that she took her own life is, of course, the primary tragedy, the one point of real significance. But it’s not the only relevant factor to my assessment of a thousand-word article in a widely read national newspaper, devoted exclusively to demeaning and vilifying a troubled individual who’d done nothing to deserve it.

He asks us to think about “the devastating effect all this is having on those who really matter”, explicitly declaring that Lucy Meadows herself didn’t matter a damn to him. He bewails the primary school children’s being “forced to deal with the news”, as if to give kids a chance to learn about people different from themselves were to inflict on them some form of bereavement or abuse. He calls it “selfish” for her to go back to the same school she used to teach at, rather than moving away just so that her freakish aberration didn’t bother anyone.

This from someone who claims to have “every sympathy” for those who undergo gender realignment surgery. Littlejohn seems to think he’s a compassionate and understanding person, who’s simply standing up against those values being taken too far. When you’re standing up against compassion and understanding because you’ve found someone who doesn’t deserve it, that’s called bullying.

Littlejohn quotes the way teachers discussed things with Mr Upton’s class, and explained that Miss Meadows would be teaching them in the future:

Teachers told them that Mr Upton felt he had been “born with a girl’s brain in a boy’s body” and would henceforth be living as a woman.

If I ever have children, and I find myself discussing transgender people with them, I imagine that might be pretty close to what I say. I think I’d certainly talk about the differences between how you feel inside, and how you look on the outside, the relative importance of each, and the way they can both affect each other – I might use their mother’s tattoos as a familiar example, to talk about your body acting as an adaptable, malleable reflection of your internal self.

I don’t think they’d have too much trouble getting the hang of it. If we’ve raised them well up to that point, and encouraged a basic level of tolerance and acceptance and humanism, then I don’t see why they’d be “worried and confused”, let alone “devastated”. It’s only Littlejohn who still finds it too much to get his head around.

(Exactly the same argument, of course, has been made about openly gay teachers, among members of other professions. I wouldn’t expect a conversation about homosexuality with my kids to last more than five minutes, should the need arise. It’s a lot simpler than many right-wing bigots seem to think.)

The point is: Littlejohn’s article is full of the kind of wilful ignorance that makes the world a worse place, even without laying the death of an innocent teacher at his feet.

The end of the story for Lucy Meadows is awful and saddening. But this article was vile and horrendous on the day it was published, even when she was still trying to forge a new life for herself. You don’t need to wait to find out how the story ends to see that.

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(Reposted from my other blog, which I might just start doing as a matter of course.)

The release of the film The Hunger Games highlighted some worrying examples of othering recently.

Certain responses – from a very limited segment of the fan-base of the books and the film, no doubt – to the casting of black actors in major roles were disheartening, and actually quite shocking. You really don’t expect to hear things like this being said so brazenly in this day and age, except from devotedly hateful extremists.

But the comments listed on that post, and this tumblr compilation, seem to be more lazily thoughtless and tribalistic than actively racist.

Awkward moment when Rue is some black girl and not the little blonde innocent girl you picture

I’m still a bit lost for words at this. I can’t quite get my head around the necessary sequence of events. First, this person must have experienced a feeling of crushing disappointment at realising that a character she’d read about had dark skin (even though, I’m told, this character’s skin colour is explicitly described as such in the book). Further, it must have entirely failed to occur to them that the qualities she originally admired or appreciated in Rue might still be present – that the colour of her skin might be no hindrance whatever to this young girl being innocent, or likeable, or courageous, or charming, or quick-witted, or whatever she’s like.

And then they must have decided that publicly expressing all these unfiltered prejudices was a perfectly fine thing to do.

Some black girl.

Absent but strongly implied, of course, is the word “just”. Just some black girl.

Not, like, a girl girl. Just some black girl.

However you might have told the story to yourself while reading it, I don’t understand how you can have this reaction to encountering an entirely irrelevant racial disparity, and believe that it’s an acceptable reaction to have.

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– Prejudice against individuals based on their religion is wrong. Pointing out the violence and abuse inherent to Islam is not prejudice.

Citation badly needed.

– People who want abortion to be illegal aren’t even opposed to abortion, if you actually look at the practical effects of their policies. They’re neither pro-life nor anti-abortion. Anti-choice is perhaps the only remaining label that fits.

– The state of “science” TV in the States isn’t looking so hot.

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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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…K-I-S- …Wait. Um. What letter rhymes with “Vatican”?

Okay, never mind. This is about The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, part of the Vatican, which sent some sort of open letter to all Muslims not long ago.

It’s possibly a bit weird.

The end of the month of Ramadan offers the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue a welcome occasion for sending you our most cordial wishes, hoping that the efforts you have so generously made during this month will bring all the desired spiritual fruits.

Impressively flowery language aside, I actually went so far as to look up Wikipedia’s page on Ramadan to see if I’d missed something here. Yes, this issue has actually driven me to research. Horrors. Anyway, my largely ignorant assumption was basically right: Ramadan is about fasting and abstinence, and maybe more praying than usual. Quite where generosity comes into it I’m not sure.

But still, it seems an odd thing for the head of the Catholic Church to be wishing for followers of Islam: that their efforts “will bring all the desired spiritual fruits”. So, you hope that their devotion to a false god who doesn’t exist, and their denial of the true Lord Jesus, is bringing them spiritual fulfilment? Huh. I thought those were generally advised against by Christian teachings, so I’ve only done the second one. Do I get a positive wish for spiritual fulfilment from the Vatican as well?

No, evidently not. Because one thing Christians and Muslims have in common is the way they are…

faced… with the challenges of materialism and secularisation.

Oh, right. That’ll be me, then.

Of course, it is possible to be a religious secularist. One can hold religious views, but consider them a personal matter which should not influence state policy or be involved in any official legislation. But it seems clear that what the Vatican’s objecting to is the irreverence against faith often exhibited by those without it.

We cannot but denounce all forms of fanaticism and intimidation, the prejudices and the polemics, as well as the discrimination of which, at times, believers are the object both in the social and political life as well as in the mass media.

Yep. Prejudices and discrimination in social and political life. I’m sure the spiritual leader of over a billion Christians knows just as much about that as the Muslims his office is addressing.

There surely can’t be much that they have in common. What do Christians and Muslims both share, which doesn’t also include atheists (or “secularists”)? It’s not the nature of God, or Jesus, or really any of the big important spiritual questions which they both claim to have answers to. Atheists, though, have at least one thing in common with every religion: they’re the only ones who agree that all the other religions are false.

The right to practice their own beliefs in a way that doesn’t inhibit the freedom of others? The right not to have an opposing faith view forced on you? Secularists are right with you on those.

The only significant unifying factor which atheists aren’t on board with seems to be the idea that believing in some all-powerful divine overlord is good in itself, even if it’s the wrong one – even, in fact, if that belief is completely untrue. Christians, by nature of their religion, believe all Muslims to be wrong in finding the prophet Mohammed’s writings to be divinely inspired – but the fact that they believe untrue things about a fictional god is still somehow seen as a virtue.

What they share is belief in belief.

Which in fact they probably do also share with a good many non-religious, who miss the comfort provided by a religion they no longer believe in. They use “church-going” as a synonym for “morally upstanding”, and so on.

It’s a flimsy connection for two opposing faiths to find with each other, and still fails to exclude the godless in the way they really want to.

(h/t Atheist Revolution)

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Francois Tremblay has a post up about what it really means to tell somebody what they can or can’t do.

Nobody would really deny that we can demand some limits on other people’s behaviour. My right not to be murdered in my sleep trumps anybody else’s right to break into my house at 3am and stab me in the face. But the line isn’t always so obvious, and it’s possible to get quite confusingly tangled up in deciding just when such rules are preserving more freedom than they’re inhibiting.

It’s common to hear complaints about fine upstanding citizens having gay rights shoved down their throats, as if their own person were somehow being violated and assaulted by the presence and free expression of gay people. People who don’t want to endorse any kind of homosexual behaviour often paint themselves as the victims for being “forced” to exist on the same landmass as such perversity.

Of course, “You’re oppressing my right to dislike gay people” is markedly different from “You’re oppressing my right to physically assault anyone whose sexuality upsets me”, and it’s easy enough to identify a position on these which actually supports freedom. But it’s not always obvious where something like “You’re oppressing my right to misrepresent reality to support my claim that all gays are an unnatural abomination” falls in between the two.

Francois rightly highlights the problems with looking at individual actions in a vacuum, and deciding on a moral standpoint without considering the broader context. From his closing paragraph (emphasis mine):

What people do is their own business. But having a healthy functioning society demands that we try to stop people from hurting each other, be it directly (through acts of violence, threats of violence, or hierarchical control) or indirectly (through acts of racism, sexism, and other forms of hatred).

So, while physical assault might be obviously unconscionable, actions that cause indirect harm tend to be seen as acceptable free expression. And yet, certain kinds of hate speech can perpetuate and exacerbate a social environment in which such assaults are common, even if the single act of speaking can be argued not to infringe on anybody else’s freedom.

Denying people the “freedom” to murder or assault others is sensible and important. But denying them the freedom to publicly say words and express opinions is something we should be much more reluctant to do, even when the opinions are repugnant and the words incite violence. Can it be justified by the same reasoning?

This is where I’m not really convinced. It’s true that the less proximal effects of one’s actions are certainly real, and too often forgotten about. But even a well-intentioned insistence that we have the right to restrict other people’s actions, based solely on the indirect harm they may do down the line in a way that’s impossible to precisely measure, is a step down a dangerous road.

I’ve written before about why I’m against banning the burqa. This oppressive religious garb is symptomatic of a serious problem, and the illiberal, extremist values behind such clothing do merit a proactive response.

But Francois seems to be arguing that allowing women to continue wearing the burqa amounts to a tacit endorsement of an oppressive religious regime that subjugates women.

I would say that not allowing women to wear the burqa is a far more explicit endorsement of the idea that we have the right to tell women what they may or may not wear, in the name of fighting sexism, because we know what’s best.

Like I say, it’s tricky to untangle sometimes. But claiming that actions should be suppressed only because they’re known to spur other people to cause direct harm seems shaky to me. Some people are always going to be hateful, but in a free society their ability to harm others should be no more than that of empty words.

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