Thin Skins And Male Tears: The Tragedy Of White Atheism

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Richard Dawkins is in the news again. This times it’s the Muslims. In September, Texas teenager Ahmed Mohamed was arrested for making a clock that — mainly due to being next to him — looked too much like a bomb; when Barack Obama asked to meet him, Dawkins speculated Mohamed ‘wanted to be arrested’ for exposure and cash. In the US, where police shoot young black and brown men for breathing too loudly, you’d think posing as a bomber would be high-risk, but perhaps your experience of anti-terror laws isn’t confined to jars of honey on domestic flights.

The last Texan to con his way to the White House had ideas the New Atheists quite liked, and this week Dawkins compared Mohamed to a child filmed beheading a prisoner of ISIL. (That both were Muslims is apparently incidental.) What’s striking about Dawkins and his fans at times like this is their portrayal of critics as fragile, oversensitive flakes in whose world dogma is king and emotion queen, despite flinching at the slightest rebuke. ‘That actually hurts,’ Dawkins told a friend after I called his tweets racist. Some people’s emotions, it seems, just matter more.

Two weeks ago, atheist conference Skepticon hosted speaker Mark Schierbecker, a white student at Missouri whose clips of antiracist protests had drawn right wing media coverage, and who was suing taking action against an academic for pushing his camera out of her face after declining to be filmed. While the session had been advertised as a Q&A, it comprised a half hour interview conducted by his publicist, a former employee of American Atheists — and so when the event was meant to end, audience members, many black, insisted on a dialogue.

Questions were asked with urgency, but few were posed half as angrily as they might have been. You wouldn’t know from the YouTube comments, which liken Schierbecker to a hostage and claim he was attacked on stage. ‘I have autism,’ he says at the end. ‘After this meeting, I will probably go up into my room and cry for about ten minutes, because I’ve had more interaction today and this week than I ever get’ — a description of sensory overload, not bullying, which still appears to have been alchemised into a persecuted wail: black conferencegoers made a young autistic man cry.

The Schierbecker event angered white atheists because it bust two of their favourite myths: that meritocracy has succumbed to tokenism, and that it ever existed. It’s women and minorities who are presumed unskilled, but it was Schierbecker for whom the bar was lowered, event time halved, audience muted, publicist on hand to edit him, while women of colour — Niki Massey, Fallon Fox, Sikivu Hutchinson, Hiba Bint Krisht, Kavin Senapathy — went without help and still performed better. It’s hard to imagine anyone except a white man getting the bar lowered so far.

Yet Schierbecker’s fans believe Skepticon set him up. Of course they do — politically and demographically, he’s exactly who they think must deserve to speak at cons. Why else could he appear ill equipped? In the video, his publicist talks far more than he does, and he seems unsure what to say except that fuck racists, racists are bad; seems not to grasp that someone going outside doesn’t mean media can film close-ups against their will; believes harassing a woman is about his country’s First Amendment, when actually, it’s about ethics in journalism.

I’m not here to attack Mark Schierbecker — he seems too lost to loathe. Watching him didn’t spur hatred in me, but the dead weight of empathy for someone realising, as at some point I must have done, that his own voice isn’t always the one worth listening to, his own pain not the worst. ‘Black people are dying every day’, activist Diane Burkholder told him, ‘and you’re going to have the audacity to fight another white woman?’ This is what the words white tears are about — the idea a young white man crying is more appalling than a dozen young black men shot dead.

Geek culture’s masculine insurgencies

It’s Schierbecker’s supporters this post is about, to whom certain people’s emotions always matter more. Media knows them as angry white males, but they believe unflinchingly that while their own fury is rational, Burkholder’s is unhinged; that their heroes’ tears and hurt feelings make them the victims of injustices, while the presumed anguish of feminists makes them sensitive and thin-skinned — makes raped women irrational, trans women bedwetters, women in academia coddled. Emotions mean you’re wrong, unless you’re a white man, in which case you’re most definitely right.

We’re warned about offence and sensitivity as if sexism is a mouse before which feminists cower atop their chairs, not something they’ve been fighting for a hundred years; taught to hear angry black ladies and scary black men no matter how measured their critique. Most SJWs I know have rhino hides due to nonstop hostility. It’s AWMs, not we, who are hysterical — who blew their lids when Schierbecker met a hostile audience, who think being the angrier or more upset party gives them impunity, who struggle to contain their feelings, indeed who rarely display anything else.

Geek culture’s white male insurgencies are united by their emotional incontinence. Dawkbros, MRAs, Sad Puppies, Slymepitters, Gamergate: these groups rant about a cult of outrage, yet they know nothing else. They have no imagination, no sense of irony or history, no real political philosophy and nothing of their own to say, no reading skills, no writing style, no humour more advanced than a small child’s — no long term goals, no sense of what it is they want, no clue why they’re even angry, except that damn it, they are angry, and progressive culture is to blame.

There’s a reason Dawkins’ fanboys are hostage to emotions they barely notice, why he and Schierbecker dwell on being aggrieved yet fail to empathise. These men have never had to check their feels, or even to acknowledge them — never had to fear sounding unhinged, hysterical, blunt or angry, never been told to remain calm by officials with guns, or that it must be their time of the month; never grown used to non-confrontation under someone else’s power, or unused to telling their story in the third person, convinced reality is however the world feels to them.

Why does a lauded scientist believe a Muslim boy in Texas hoped to be mistaken for a terrorist? Because he doesn’t understand how life treats someone unlike him, or feel a need to try. Why does a young white man see himself as the primary victim at Mizzou? The same reason. This is white atheism’s tragedy: in its quest to decode the world with the throbbing, thrusting hard sciences (compared in The God Delusion to undressing a burqa-clad woman), it fails at the oldest means of uncovering truths beyond those we know: listen and empathise.

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Thin Skins And Male Tears: The Tragedy Of White Atheism

32 thoughts on “Thin Skins And Male Tears: The Tragedy Of White Atheism

  1. 1

    The last Texan to con his way to the White House had ideas the New Atheists quite liked….

    I don’t quite understand this idea. George W. Bush’s ideology seems to me to present very significant contrasts with at least the most prominent New Atheists, most clearly with regard to their divergent perspectives about Christianity.

    Bush was, infamously, fixated on finding a pretext for invading Iraq and deposing Saddam Hussein—an effort that Christopher Hitchens, slightly less infamously, supported. Is that the “idea” you have in mind? (It’s the only parallel between the groups I can think of.)

    As I remember the Oughts, the public face of New Atheism was fairly consistently opposed to the “ideas” being most prominently pushed by the Bush Administration. Not so?

    (FWIW, I’ll say that I have despised Bush since he started running for President in 1998—and I’m presently no defender of Dawkins, Harris, or Hitchens, though I was on-balance a fan of theirs as of, say, the time that Dubya left office in 2009.)

  2. 2

    Alex, I’m normally impressed with you. However using Mark as a casestudy here is off.

    Correct me if I am wrong but wasn’t Mark invited by Skepticon to speak? Ie he was imposed on the audience by the Conference organisors. And having had the hand extended was it no so the audience could hear his particular POV and experience – which everyone knew was connected to but also tangential to the racisim protests?

    And were these not the same organisers who were responsible for ensuring a balanced session or no session?

    And wasn’t Mark being guided by an (albeit white) woman who far from helping turned hostile in reaction to audience vibe?

    And should the tears of an autistic be used to further wider agendas? Is this really the precedent to set?

    This is a missed volley.

  3. 4

    @Cartimandua (#2):

    Correct me if I am wrong but wasn’t Mark invited by Skepticon to speak? Ie he was imposed on the audience by the Conference organisors. And having had the hand extended was it no so the audience could hear his particular POV and experience – which everyone knew was connected to but also tangential to the racisim protests? And were these not the same organisers who were responsible for ensuring a balanced session or no session? And wasn’t Mark being guided by an (albeit white) woman who far from helping turned hostile in reaction to audience vibe?

    I don’t know what point you’re making.

    And should the tears of an autistic be used to further wider agendas?

    Apart from the phrase ‘an autistic’ being one I’d prefer you not to use, my point is they’ve already been. The narration of his tears is what this is about.

  4. 5

    Allow me to clarify, as I was attending Skepitcon.

    Mark’s thing was presented to the staff as a last minute, during the lunch break Q&A session that turned out not to be a Q&A session until the audience started asking questions at the supposed end of it. Most of the people I spoke to were not expecting a PR nightmare of someone trying to prioritize his assault over the needs of the protesters, and that was what we ended up getting. The staff themselves with shocked and freaking out about what was happening before their eyes.

    And for crying out loud, this isn’t about his autism. At all. He got some unexpected pushback, and while I understand it being very overwhelming, it’s kinda what happens when you put yourself out there as some sort of journalist. People are going to push back. And they (I would say “we”, but I walked out the second it was clear that this was more about him, but watched the video later) did just that.

  5. 6

    Love the cartoon.
    Especially how the clock looks like an ordinary wind-up alarm clock, and absolutely nothing like the mess of wires and electronic components that Ahmed really presented as his own creation.
    Let’s imagine two scenarios:
    A) Ahmed tries to fly to Qatar with his ‘homemade clock’ in his luggage.
    B) Ahmed tries to fly to Qatar with a clangy, old-timey wind-up alarm clock in his luggage, like the one in the cartoon.
    Does Ahmed undergo intensive screening because of clock A or B?
    Would that be racism or reasonable caution?
    And would illustrating the cartoon accurately destroy its point?

  6. 7

    Disingenuous question. Ahmed was not trying to fly with his clock, he was trying to show to his teachers that he was able to disassemble and resemble the thing.

    Had he been white, the worst he would have gotten was a “that’s nice, Adam, new sit down and get your homework out.”

    The white fear of brown men with gadgets has been hurting geeks with too much melanin since 9/11. Ahmed is not alone in his persecution.

  7. 9

    Pluto, do you think a white girl, if she’d brought such a thing to school and said “look, I made a clock! “, would have been arrested? Because the answer to that is “no.”

    A white boy most likely wouldn’t have been arrested either. A black boy or girl, slightly higher chance, but a middle eastern girl would probably have been arrested too, because in America we have been trained to associate middle easterners with terrorists.

    So, because a white kid would not have been arrested for the same device. …. racism.

  8. 10

    Two weeks ago, atheist conference Skepticon hosted speaker Mark Schierbecker, a white student at Missouri whose clips of antiracist protests had drawn right wing media coverage, and who was suing an academic for pushing his camera out of her face after she’d declined to be filmed.

    seems not to grasp that someone going outside doesn’t mean media can film closer-ups against their will; believes harassing a woman is about his country’s First Amendment, when actually, it’s about ethics in journalism.

    This! It’s sad and disheartening that a privileged white male student can (mis)use the legal system like this to essentially continue the harassment he started during the protests. He first transgressed clearly established and articulated boundaries including both written signage (“no media safe space”) and repeated verbal announcements that his presence was not wanted there (“you need to leave,” “no we don’t want to be interviewed or photographed,” etc.). Where are the ethics here? After ignoring all that he basically shoves his camera in the face of a respected academic and she rightly pushed his camera out of her personal space. If anything that should be protected as a form of self defense.

    As if that wasn’t bad enough he turns around and sues or presses charges… Truly this is privilege and patriarchy in action. In a more just world she and the other protesters would counter sue for harassment and invasion of privacy.

    Geek culture’s white male insurgencies are united by their emotional incontinence.

    So very well said. Seems they are angry because their privilege and power are being threatened and they can no longer control the narrative the way they are used to doing. It’s like a temper tantrum in a way with a bunch of angry dudebro misogynists throwing a fit because women and minorities are finally gaining a foot hold. They seem to view this as a zero sum game where any gains by someone else equates to their personal loss.

    There’s a reason Dawkins’ fanboys are hostage to emotions they barely notice, why he and Schierbecker dwell on being aggrieved yet fail to empathise.

    Unchecked privilege in action. It’s no coincidence that both Dawkins and Schierbecker are white males and the people they are harassing or insulting tend to be women and minorities.

    This is white atheism’s tragedy: in its quest to decode the world with the throbbing, thrusting hard sciences (compared in The God Delusion to undressing a burqa-clad woman), it fails at the oldest means of uncovering truths beyond those we know: listen and empathise.

    Listen and empathize: beautiful, love it! That’s pithy enough to be used as a tagline or maybe even a Twitter hashtag. Imagine Dawkins being inundated with that message every time he farts out one of his clueless and thoughtless Tweets.

  9. 11

    Cartimandua @2,
    Yes Scheirbecker was invited but the Skepticon organizers have since apologized because the event did not pan out as originally envisioned. It was supposed to be about racism and the protests but it turned into something quite different.

    http://skepticon.org/regarding-the-qa-with-mark-schierbecker/

    Seems like a great case study actually. It illustrates how even folks who are very well intentioned and attuned to social justice issues (the organizers) can make mistakes that end up contributing to rather than alleviating injustices.

  10. 12

    @Rieux #1:

    I don’t quite understand this idea. George W. Bush’s ideology seems to me to present very significant contrasts with at least the most prominent New Atheists, most clearly with regard to their divergent perspectives about Christianity.

    The Bush Administration’s ideas, so far as I can see, include things like endless war against radical Islam, racial profiling in the name of national security, indefinite detainment of suspected terrorists, unfettered surveillance in the name of national security, ignoring the advice of national security experts, pre-emptive strikes on Muslim countries in the name of national security, unfettered capitalism and rampant deregulation, and torture as an effective and ethically permissible means of extracting information from suspected terrorists. Those are all things that one or more of the prominent New Atheists has argued for. The largest differences seem to be a hostility towards gays and lesbians, and an affinity for inserting fundamentalist Christianity into the political decision-making process.

  11. 13

    Not sure why we need to have a scale of victimization with some levels higher than the other. Sure most of the people who “support” Schierbecker will do so because he is a white male and there are others who support him because he was wronged and not just having his camera pushed around. Censorship of the press is serious.

    He was chosen as a scapegoat to the bad or negative press protestors and others in the #BlackLivesMatter movement believe they have received. Instead of rebuking and demonizing a student journalist for the wrongs of the other members of his potential profession how about directing that anger to the people it needs to be directed to – the media.

    If tearing down people is wrong then why is hanging Schierbecker out to dry not wrong?

  12. 14

    Schierbecker hung himself out to dry. But by focusing on specifically you’re distracting from the thrust of the piece, that white people, especially white men, center their own grievances while carrying the grievances of others as irrational.

    We don’t need to play Depression Olympics to put a pushed camera in perspective with shit swastikas and death threats.

    Schierbecker is a prime example of white privilege blindness. Trying to derail discussions of his actions by calling it a rebuke is akin to the gun lobbyists who always claim that it is “too soon” after the most recent shooting to discuss gun control.

  13. 15

    Does Ahmed undergo intensive screening because of clock A or B?

    1)given that I’ve been given “intensive screening” for hair dye, who the fuck knows. Probably both. Hell, most likely someone like Ahmed would undergo “intensive screening” even if he traveled with nothing but stuffed plush animals, because of racial profiling at airports.
    2)this assumes that the response of the school was how schools react to bomb threats, which lolno. When there’s something that someone actually thinks might be a bomb, there’s an evacuation and they call the bomb squad. What actually happened was abuse and a violation of rights under a pretext.

  14. 16

    But by focusing on specifically you’re distracting from the thrust of the piece, that white people, especially white men, center their own grievances while carrying the grievances of others as irrational.

    not so much missing the point as needlessly demonstrating it again.

  15. 17

    “there are others who support him because he was wronged and not just having his camera pushed around. Censorship of the press is serious.”

    I’m not totally sure I can look at a person asking someone with a camera to stop recording them or leave as ‘censorship of the press.’ I thought censorship required some sort of government action? Do movie theaters engage in censorship of the press when they eject people who try to film the movies they are showing? If some random person starts pushing a camera at me on the subway, and I ask them to stop, is that censorship? Can a guy trying to take upskirt photos/vid of women on a subway not call himself a ‘journalist’ and telling him to stop is now ‘censoring the press?’ Sorry to pull out a bunch of more extreme examples, but I think the term ‘censorship’ is getting abused to include what happened to Schierbecker.

  16. 18

    this assumes that the response of the school was how schools react to bomb threats, which lolno. When there’s something that someone actually thinks might be a bomb, there’s an evacuation and they call the bomb squad. What actually happened was abuse and a violation of rights under a pretext.

    This comes up again and again. In a much more extreme example, the killing of Tamir Rice is so filled with “wait, hang on, if you thought this was an actual threat why did you-?” moments and people working backwards to excuse police conduct you wonder if it’s even possible to agree on the basics of what happened. Which of course we can’t because the mainstream (in both these cases white people) will always look to demonize the behavior of the marginalized. But if we point that out we’re race-baiters or devisive or some other made up phrase they use as code for people critical of their privilege.

  17. 20

    Wow, just wow. Are you serious? This was most ableist thing I’ve ever read. So you in fact accuse people supporting Schierbecker of being racists just because they aren’t total assholes and want to create safe space for people with special needs? You should check your neurotypical privilege, because you’re a terrible person

  18. 24

    Pilgrim of the East – No one is talking about “creating a safe space for people with special needs.” The people who were going on about Schierbecker’s autism weren’t advocating for safe spaces for autistic people – they’re defending his racism. These aren’t anti-ableism advocates, they’re anti-social justice trolls.

    Furthermore, there is no reason why a person getting on stage and talking about their involvement in journalism on race issues, especially a person whose work is being featured on Breitbart and Stormfront, is entitled to not have his perspective questioned and his work criticized. Furthermore, safer spaces for neurodiverse people don’t mean those are spaces in which people have the right to be racist or sexist or otherwise hateful. If by “safer space” you mean one in which people are going to be racist without anyone pushing back on that I want nothing at all to do with it.

  19. 25

    Feminace

    someone trying to prioritize his assault over the needs of the protesters

    How dare someone care about a person being violent towards them? I agree that Schierbecker was a pawn (willing or unwilling) in white supremacist media. Criticize him for that (which is what most of the people at skepticon did.) He doesn’t have to forgive violence against him for the sake of any movement. The assault (though minor) wasn’t justified, and neither the professor nor ConcernedStudents1950 have sought to justify it.

  20. 26

    qwints, he can care about the assault all the wants; what he can’t do is make an event that was supposed to be about racism about himself instead; at least not without (correctly) having his ass handed to him for it. He was invited to a Q&A about anti-racist activism and instead made it about how his issue needed resolving before racism could even be addressed.

  21. 27

    Oh and his assault? Someone pushed his camera while he was filming a group who didn’t want to be filmed. He said nothing about being hurt, or the camera being damaged. Wow, such violence. Does he have the right to claim assault over a push by a woman tinier them him? Sure, but I don’t have to give a single fuck about it.

    Sorry if I’m not crying tears of sympathy when the students of color at that school had to deal with much, much worse. Yes, I am more concerned about the needs of the protesters, because they are way more important that his little shove-while-being-an-intrusive-douche issue.

  22. 28

    Does he have the right to claim assault over a push by a woman tinier them him? Sure, but I don’t have to give a single fuck about it.

    Agreed.

  23. 29

    .. in its quest to decode the world with the throbbing, thrusting hard sciences (compared in The God Delusion to undressing a burqa-clad woman), it fails at the oldest means of uncovering truths beyond those we know: listen and empathise.

    I don’t recall reading that analogy in Dawkin’s book. Admittedly been a while since I read it now though. Do you any chapter / page numbers or anything for it please?

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