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Posts Tagged ‘tolerance’

Occasionally I see someone in an internet argument call the person they’re arguing with a faggot, at which point I stop paying attention to anything else that person has to say.

I mean, if you’re the sort of person who not only uses purely demeaning personal attacks in place of actual conversation, but picks “faggot” of all things to try and put someone down, then you’ve just raised the bar pretty high for me to rediscover any interest in your opinions.

Recently I’ve started seeing “cuck” being thrown around as well. It’s an abbreviation of a term for a man whose wife is unfaithful, if you’re not familiar. Yes, it’s something people really do call each other when they want to be mean, even outside of 16th century literature. No, I don’t think that will ever stop being funny.

The most prominent equivalents I can think of that come from my side of the political/feminist spectrum are “pissbaby” and “fuckboy”.

All these terms serve essentially the same purpose: they’re used to sum up in a single word all the negative and dislikable characteristics possessed by the Outgroup, which explains why we should hate them and ignore them and interpret anything they say in a deliberately uncharitable way, and why their sentience and humanity basically doesn’t count due to their stupid shitty opinions about important stuff.

Of course, it’s not exactly the same thing going on in all these cases. Culture is big and messy and complicated, and rarely do two parallel or equivalent things truly mirror each other. And the main difference is that, well, you’re right. You might use these terms sometimes, but only directed at people who really deserve to be put down, because of the horrible and appalling things they do and say. Your epithets are describing an actual, real-world set of behaviours in other people, which ought to be noticed and castigated.

It’s entirely different from the way they just lash out and call people names as soon as they realise they’re “not one of us”.

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Here’s a thing I Facebooked recently:

I got more Twitter attention than I had for ages yesterday, by pointing out that homophobia is silly to people who already knew that. As you can possibly tell from my rather glib phrasing, it felt less than satisfactory or victorious.

It’s definitely worthwhile progress that being gay is coming to be seen universally as obviously completely fine, but I don’t see much of a useful endgame following from enlightened folk like me simply continuing to point it out.

I think I’m troubled by certain inbuilt methods of engaging with those who disagree, and how naturally I slide into those easy patterns. If you want people to learn to love better, and you’re not using love to teach that lesson, surely your methods are flawed from the start. Be the change you want to see in the world, and such. Otherwise your strategy is “Stop hating people different from you, or I’ll hate you for your differences from me.”

If you crush the rebellious, they’ll just learn tyranny & oppression. If you demand they be more accepting, without yourself displaying acceptance in action… Well, I don’t know. Just seems like if I want to be as revolutionary as I want to be, I’ll need to eschew easy options and put in the hours more.

This has been: @writerJames tweets from a nice warm bath while slightly tipsy on the theme of optimising the world through improved compassion and communication, then recaps it on Facebook the next morning.

Surprisingly, not everyone was instantly won over to my proposed hippie lefty love-fest of peace and harmony. I guess they must’ve just been feeling grouchy. Or maybe there’s at least one major proviso which deserves to be added to the above points.

Broadly speaking, I stand by my generalised support for being nice, and I’m strongly inclined to speak out in favour of being kinder to people than they might seem to deserve. Compassion can make real constructive progress between people of differing views possible, in ways that anger and bitterness can’t, far more often than the other way around.

But I can see, on reflection, how something as apparently innocuous at first glance as idly wishing for a charming idyll of universal tolerance might be problematic. As is so often the case, it’s largely down to the context. My context at the time of the above thoughts was a nice hot bath on a comfortably lazy afternoon. Not everyone shared in it.

(In the context of my position of comfort and security, I mean. Obviously no-one was sharing my bath. No-one ever is. Or seems to want to. I’m beginning to think I don’t know how to set up a Facebook event properly.)

The way nobody quite put it to me in the comments was: “That’s easy for you, but some of us are still dealing with shit that we deserve to be angry about, fuckdammit.” Maz pointed out how much fun it isn’t, being told essentially to “calm down dear”, something she’s heard often enough before. She objects to other people’s behaviour, and her audacity for speaking up seems to be reprimanded more severely than the genuinely objectionable remarks that earned her wrath in the first place. While I wasn’t advocating the passivity she argued against, I also wouldn’t dispute the entitlement she claims to her anger.

But my hypothetical commenter summing things up was right about something important. It is easy for me.

And if I’m one of the lucky ones for whom it’s easy, it seems like I have more responsibility than most to make some sort of effort.

My comments were coming from a place of significant privilege. Being a straight white able-bodied male, that’s true of most comments I’m ever likely to make. But the feminists who believe this means my opinions should be ignored or shouted down only really exist in the fetid imaginations of a significant slice of the men’s rights activism movement.

The remark I originally made on Twitter, which my later series of tweets referred to, was about this post by one of the UK’s foremost pitifully watered-down attempts at religious extremism, Christian Voice.

Now, to me, watching a niche outfit like Christian Voice, as they rail against the inevitable march of progress, and bluster about how those gays are undermining all you straight people and your own marriages, no really they are, you just don’t realise it – to me, it’s almost adorable. They’re too quaint to take seriously. They certainly aren’t a threat, but they’re too tragic to really be a joke either. They’re like a doddery grandparent who keeps muttering about how the blacks are everywhere these days doing jobs white people used to do, who you roll your eyes at and gently remind that that we don’t use certain slurs when we talk about people these days.

Their attempt at oppressive bigotry is such a misguided, overblown, tiny little gnat of a thing, it feels inappropriate for me to get all fiery and indignant over it. It’d be like trying to become righteously enraged at the unacceptable behaviour of a toddler throwing a tantrum on the living room floor, flailing at you with their tiny balled-up fists.

And the context of all this is that I’m still a straight white able-bodied male. The thing I know – but didn’t explicitly acknowledge in my original burble – is that for many people homophobia is really not in any way adorable. People are still shamed, humiliated, harassed, brutalised, and attacked for their sexuality. And that’s just in the kinds of progressive countries where these attitudes are obviously on the way out, let alone in somewhere like Uganda. A lot of folk are made seriously fucking miserable by the kind of prejudice at which I sigh and shake my head with weary indulgence.

Now, being aware of that context doesn’t negate the value of bringing compassion to these arguments, or undermine my basic point that fighting hate with hate is a suboptimal method for reaching a conclusion of love and tolerance. But if people are feeling hectored about their tone, I’ve done something wrong.

Judging anyone else’s moral obligation to be kind, patient, and compassionate to people unwilling to return the favour is absolutely not a game I meant to play. However much I might uphold that ideal, I know that berating anyone else for failing to live up to it, without considering their own circumstances and why it may not be a realistic goal in their case, will only add to the world’s level of dickitude. The one person whose situation I’m sufficiently familiar with to make that kind of moral judgment on is me.

I’ll need to eschew easy options and put in the hours more, is what I said. I can hold myself to that standard, while recognising that my straight-white-male-ness is part of what makes this a practical expectation for me, and that not everyone shares those features. It was a pondering on my own capacity for self-improvement that set me off on this road. Which is also why the later comment that “from what I recall of your blogging about religion, you don’t write in the style you’re suggesting here” is quite accurate.

Part of the reason for this apparent double-standard is that, while homophobia has always been almost entirely unthreatening to me, I’ve not always identified with the same privileged position when it comes to religion. I’ve been part of the atheist movement, as it were, and railed against the many and varied injustices of religious oppression as if they were in some way personal affronts. But, if I’m honest, my rights and personal safety have never been under serious threat from any Christian bigots or Islamic extremists or Jain nutjobs. I don’t need to defend my right to my anger the way some people do.

So, I don’t need to be an asshole to outspoken religious people any more than I do to anachronistic homophobes. I don’t need to give them a free pass if they’re going to be hateful or irrational or make the world a notably worse place in any way, but I also don’t need to be hostile in order to stand up for reality and kindness. If you can do that too, then wonderful, I recommend it. If you can’t, then it’s not for me to expect it of you. It may be an unreasonable ask, if these issues are actually affecting you personally and fucking up your life. We’ve all got our own shit to deal with. You’re entitled to work through yours however. I can dig it.

Hopefully that makes a bit more sense of things. Either way I think I’ll stop talking about it now.

Oh and by the way we’ve sold our house but can’t buy a new one yet and it’s all a ridiculous mess.

Bye.

(P.S. I read this only after drafting all the above, which makes a more interesting point more concisely than I did.)

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To nobody’s surprise, I consider it important to be able to empathise with people around us, especially those who are “different”.

It’s something where I try to walk the walk as much as I talk the talk, with varying success. There are a lot of ways in which I do pretty well at accepting and delighting in other people’s differences. The convention I went to on my honeymoon had a fair complement of transgender folk, gay people, bronies, steampunkaholics, to name but a few. I’m not in any of those categories myself; they’re all distinctly different from me in certain ways, but not in a way that presents any problem for me to interact positively with them.

That’s not true for everyone. There are people who are homophobic, or otherwise similarly prejudiced, and who would have been affronted and angered at the very existence of many people I shared a hotel with that weekend.

Comparing myself against them, I come off pretty well. I get to pat myself on the back for being fairly forward-thinking and progressive. But that’s not the most useful comparison I could be making.

I mean, if you’re a gay man who basically likes people and thinks we should all be kind to each other, we’re not really that different. Our values probably overlap a lot, in more interesting and important ways than that one divergent factor of sexuality. It’s pretty easy for us to see each other as part of our respective in-groups.

But the people with whom my interactions are more interesting – the people who provide my loving and compassionate nature with an actual challenge – are the ones who think homosexuality is an abomination unto the Lord, and all fags are going to burn in Hell.

Or who think those freaks getting sex changes need the devil beaten out of them.

Or who think atheists are all immoral Satan worshippers.

Or who think mainstream scientists are part of an academic conspiracy to push their fabricated global warming agenda onto a nation of sheeple.

Or who think they’ve uncovered the evidence left behind by the shadowy organisation who orchestrated 9/11 as part of a plot to bring about a New World Order.

Or who think Sylvia Browne has given them messages from their deceased relatives, and that it’s such a shame how closed-minded skeptics can’t accept anything that goes against their inflexible, set-in-stone ideas of how the world works.

Or who eat Marmite.

You get the picture.

Those are my out-groups. Being nice to gay people is easy. This is where my mettle’s really tested.

If I’m going to claim to be any better at dealing compassionately with others than your average hateful, gay-bashing preacher, then it’s my interactions with these people – the ones whose values truly differ from mine, who are truly “other” to me – which I should be judged by.

It’s no good if I’m lovely to people who are part of my tribe, but sarcastic and contemptuous to any outsiders. That’s exactly the behaviour I complain about in others. It’s just that for them, the outsiders are gay people, atheists, or whoever. For me, the outsider is anyone with an irrational hatred of gay people, atheists, or whoever.

So those are the people I need to try to treat respectfully, if I’m going to be at all consistent. If I start being a dick to someone, it doesn’t get cancelled out if I can prove they started being hateful first.

My in-group values being nice to people, and I will tribalistically defend our values just as vehemently as you’ll defend yours. Because if you don’t share our values of being nice to people then you’re WRONG and we HATE you.

That’s the danger that’s too often missed. Treating kindly those people who are different is the precise thing you’re trying to encourage in others. Being hostile to someone whose main difference from you is that they don’t want to treat other people kindly, is entirely self-defeating.

Yep, I seem to be drawing another lesson from Jesus here. Two in a week. Love your enemy. If I make it three, call an exorcist.

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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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If the skeptics community is going to thrive and grow, it’s essential that no one feel unwelcome or excluded due to race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation.

This line caused a bit of a stir lately after it appeared in an article written by Brian Thompson on the James Randi Educational Foundation website, a major interweb hub (interwub?) of skeptical activity. Ophelia Benson was one of several to find the inclusion of “religion” on a list of valued points of diversity among skeptics to be a tad incongruous.

It’s not like any skeptics are proposing that all religious people be banned from skeptical events like The Amaz!ng Meeting, and the JREF has made a point of not being an explicitly atheist organisation. But religious claims often come within its purview of critical thinking and science education, and you can understand why a skeptical crowd might see more relevance to a personal faith position than, say, a personal gender identity.

Personally, I think Brian may or may not be making a good and important point, depending on quite what’s meant by somebody feeling “unwelcome or excluded”, and quite how we should react against such a thing.

Will people inevitably feel unwelcome as a result of being a minority, amongst a crowd full of people who they know disagree with them? Active skepticism does tend to lead people to reject religious claims, and so any gathering of skeptics is likely to contain a large proportion of non-believers. Many empirical claims are regularly made by religious people with real influence in the world, and it’s important that these are on the table as topics for discussion in skeptical events.

In short, skeptics are going to bash religion a lot, for the same reasons they’re going to bash homeopathy and psychic powers. If any of these are beliefs close to your heart which it would hurt you to hear criticised, then a skeptical gathering might just not be the place for you.

But if the kind of unwelcomeness and exclusion that Brian’s talking about is to do with unfriendliness, unkindness, incivility, hostility, cruelty, and deliberate castigation by a crowd motivated to malice by their objection to your differing beliefs – then I wouldn’t want anyone to feel unwelcome at TAM, or at Skeptics in the Pub, or anywhere that the people I consider “my crowd” congregate. By this metric, I would want the most ardent Muslim chiropractor or astrally projecting UFO abductee to feel welcome anywhere they care to go, for at least as long as they’re not initiating any kind of incivility themselves.

Diversity among people is great, but holding diversity among ideas as a virtue in itself leads to the familiar problem of false balance. I’d want all people to feel comfortable at a skeptical event, but I wouldn’t hold back from criticism of unsound ideas to achieve it.

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But what of my religion? I am a lover of truth, a worshipper of freedom, a celebrant at the altar of language and purity and tolerance. That is my religion, and every day I am sorely, grossly, heinously and deeply offended, wounded, mortified and injured by a thousand different blasphemies against it. When the fundamental canons of truth, honesty, compassion, and decency are hourly assaulted by fatuous bishops, pompous, illiberal and ignorant priests, politicians and prelates, sanctimonious censors, self-appointed moralists and busy-bodies, what recourse to ancient laws have I? None whatever. Nor would I ask for any. For unlike these blistering imbeciles my belief in my religion is strong and I know that lies will always fail and indecency and intolerance will always perish.

The above words were uttered on Radio 4’s Loose Ends, somewhere around the late 1980s, by Donald Trefusis, Professor of Philology at the University of Cambridge and Extraordinary Fellow of St Matthew’s College. The character of Donald Trefusis was regularly written and performed by Stephen Fry, and I read the above section today amidst a transcript of an essay on blasphemy, in a collection of Fry’s writings called Paperweight.

I’m quoting it here because I don’t think I’ve seen it put better in the years since.

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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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