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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