"Whatever activism gets them excited": A Reply to Andrew Tripp

Andrew Tripp and I were having an email conversation about a piece he recently wrote about priorities in the atheist movement, titled Papercuts: Transmisogyny, Western Atheists, and the Meaning of Oppression. We both thought the conversation might be of interest to other people, so we’ve taken it public. Today’s piece is in response to Andrew’s most recent reply, Responding to Greta: The Scale of the Thing. A complete chronology of the conversation, with links, is at the end of this post.

As I said at the beginning of this conversation: There are some things Andrew says that I don’t agree with, and some of it I disagree with fairly strongly. But I have tremendous respect for him, and in particular for his hard work, integrity, and commitment to his ideals, and am basing this conversation on that foundation.

Okay. So you’re not saying, “Atheists aren’t oppressed.” You’re saying, “Atheists don’t face systemic violent oppression.” Thanks for the clarification. On that, I totally agree — in the United States, anyway.

So a smaller point, and then to the larger one — namely, where the priorities and energies of the atheist community and the atheist movement should be going.

The smaller point is about this: “We atheists have the privilege of being able to conceal our beliefs.” I really hope I misunderstand you here. I assume you wouldn’t tell a gay person, “You can live in the closet, therefore your oppression isn’t really all that bad.” If you wouldn’t say it to gay people, please don’t say it to other atheists. Living in a closet is oppression.

Now to the bigger question: the priorities and energies of the atheist movement.

If your only point were about some atheists playing the victim card while ignoring (and in some cases denigrating) issues outside their worlds… yes, I’m totally with you on that. (I’m pretty sure you know that! 🙂 ) I’ve argued the same thing many times: that both individual atheists and atheist organizations need to broaden our horizons, focus energies on intersections between atheism/ religion and other forms of oppression, look at ways that we ourselves may be perpetuating these oppressions, do alliance work and service projects with/for other social change movements and oppressed groups, look at who we’re not reaching and work on reaching them, etc. (You know: the usual “social justice” line that’s totally ruining atheism.) Like you, I don’t like it when some atheists dismiss and even deride other marginalizations and oppressions, while demanding attention for anti-atheist oppression. And I’ll add that if you, personally, care more passionately about anti-trans violence than you do about anti-atheist oppression, and are more moved and outraged by your trans friends who have died because of transphobia, that is way more than reasonable. That is admirable. I would never try to argue you out of that.

But you’re also arguing (if I understand you correctly) that things like the Times Square billboard and nativity scene lawsuits are a waste of atheists’ money and energy: that these things are trivial compared to things like the systemic violence and oppression of trans people… and therefore atheists shouldn’t be doing them. At all. And there’s where I have a problem.

American Atheists Times Square billboard
So two points. First: I don’t agree that these things are trivial. I think they accomplish important things. The Times Square billboard achieved atheist visibility: times a hundred, I’m guessing, since it garnered enormous amounts of unpaid media coverage, worth way more than the billboard cost. (Slight tangent: I’m assuming that I don’t have to explain to you why atheist visibility is important, but for anyone else who’s following along: Atheist visibility makes closeted atheists feel less isolated; encourages atheists in coming out; undercuts the assumption that everyone is religious; counters myths and misinformation about atheists; fosters and strengthens atheist communities; makes atheists aware of an organized atheist movement; denies the social consent that religion relies on to perpetuate itself; adds to the snowball effect of people leaving religion. Lots of other reasons, but this is a tangent, and I don’t want to keep going on about it.)

I think the Times Square billboard (and other billboards that mock or criticize religion) achieved something else as well. It helps in stripping religion of its armor, its special, privileged, “criticizing us is intolerant and mean and makes you a bad person” status. And I think this plays a hugely important part in dismantling religion and persuading people out of it.

As for the nativity scene lawsuits, I think they achieve both of these things, and something more. I think government-sponsored religion such as nativity scenes are micro-aggressions. And not all that micro, either. They are a living reminder to atheists, every day, that their government does not see them as full, true citizens: that when they go to court, to City Hall, to their school board meetings, they will be treated as other, as less. They bolster and encourage believers in their oppression of atheists, giving them the message that the government has their back and will look the other way. And I think that’s worth fighting. It’s similar to the way people advocate for changes in sexist language, from “fireman” and “policeman” and “mailman” to “firefighter” and “police officer” and “mail carrier.” Is that the most important issue facing feminists? No. But I’m glad people have been taking it on. Growing up as a girl, every time I heard the word “fireman,” it was a barbed little reminder: “You can’t do this work.” I’m glad little girls growing up today are hearing it less. And I want atheists to grow up without hearing their government tell them, “You are not part of this country.”

But you might concede that these billboards and lawsuits do achieve something, something that’s not trivial — and still think they’re less important than issues such as violence against trans people, and therefore are a waste of our time and money and energy.

Which brings me to my second, and probably most important point:

silhouette dancing for joy
I think people should do whatever activism gets them excited.

I am fiercely opposed to the argument that “You shouldn’t do the activism you’re passionate about — you should do the activism I’m passionate about.” And I have serious problems when activists try to get attention for the causes they care about by denigrating the causes other people care about.

Here’s an analogy. Let’s say Chris is passionate about campaign finance reform. Now, a good case could be made that campaign finance reform isn’t as important as global warming. A good case could be made that absolutely nothing is as important as global warming: that if global warming doesn’t get handled, civilization as we know it will collapse, and none of the issues that any of us care about will matter. A good case could be made that every social change activist should immediately drop what we’re doing and devote all our energies to global warming, and that if we don’t, we are being suicidally short-sighted.

But for whatever reason, Chris is excited about campaign finance reform. She writes her Congresscritters about it, she joins organizations working on it, she organizes boycotts of companies who are the most egregious offenders, she organizes lawsuits about it, she organizes demonstrations about it, she does tabling about it, she writes letter to the editor about it, she works to get news coverage about it, she does visibility about it on social media.

Would I rather have Chris do all that?

Or would I rather have Chris do occasional lukewarm activism for global warming, like donating some money to an organization once a year? I would rather have the former. Especially since getting effective campaign finance reform will almost certainly help the cause of fighting global warming.

By the same token: Are there issues in the world that are, by some objective measure if there is such a thing, more important than atheism? Yes. Absolutely. But atheism is what I’m excited about. I can’t entirely explain why (although I’ve tried), but atheism captured my imagination. Atheism got me deeply involved in social change, in a way that no other issue ever did. I don’t know why that is: I don’t think it’s entirely rational, and I don’t think that decision is entirely rational for a lot of activists, atheist or otherwise. But I would rather have me — and others — getting deeply and passionately involved in atheist activism than getting half-assedly involved in something else… or not involved in anything.

Especially since — as with the campaign finance reform/ global warming analogy — I think diminishing the power of religion will help a whole lot of other issues as well, like sex education and science education and homophobia and abortion rights and stem cell research and systemic misogyny in theocracies… and yes, even global warming. It won’t be a magic panacea that fixes all these issues totally, but it will help make them somewhat better. Plus, for a lot of people — especially young people — atheism is a gateway drug to activism generally. (I don’t think atheism is special in that regard, btw: I think any issue that gets you involved in activism at an early age can be a gateway drug to activism.)

And besides: Trying to decide which issue is objectively the most important is a losing, never-ending battle. Yes, an excellent case could be made that trans activism is a whole lot more important than atheist activism. But what about state-sponsored torture? What about slave labor in China? What about the AIDS pandemic in Africa? What about extreme poverty? What about female genital mutilation? What about famine? What about global warming? Do you want people who care about those issues dismissing transphobia and anti-trans violence in the United States as trivial, and trying to talk you out of working on it because their issues are more important?

I think people should do whatever activism gets them excited. (Assuming that the activism isn’t actually harmful, of course: I obviously don’t think that about the National Organization for Marriage or the NRA.) Activism is hard enough when we are passionate about it. The most powerful activism is the one we’ll stick with, because we love it. So I am totally happy to see people work on campaign finance reform, or reforming sexist language, or blocking nativity scenes from public property, or saving the yellow-eared parrot, or funding research for Thripshaw’s Disease because their brother died of it. As long as their activism is fundamentally decent and not fucked-up, I would rather have people do some activism than no activism.

It’s totally reasonable to ask that atheists broaden our horizons, focus energies on intersections between atheism/ religion and other forms of oppression, look at ways that we ourselves may be perpetuating these oppressions, do alliance work and service projects with/for other social change movements and oppressed groups, look at who we’re not reaching and work on reaching them, etc. It’s totally reasonable to ask that atheists quit dismissing other oppressions while demanding attention for their own. And it’s totally reasonable to call atheists out when we screw this up. But I don’t think it’s reasonable to ask atheist activists — and atheist organizations — to stop working on atheism.

Previous posts in this conversation:

Andrew: Papercuts: Transmisogyny, Western Atheists, and the Meaning of Oppression
Me: Is Anti-Atheist Bigotry A Papercut? A Conversation with Andrew Tripp
Andrew: Responding to Greta: The Scale of the Thing

"Whatever activism gets them excited": A Reply to Andrew Tripp

16 thoughts on “"Whatever activism gets them excited": A Reply to Andrew Tripp

  1. 1

    Just a minor point, but I think there is a crucial difference between a closeted gay and a closeted atheist, in that maintaining the illusion is much more costly for the gay person – they’ll have to either hide their partners, or not have any. The atheist merely needs to refrain from philosophical debates (that is assuming the goal is to blend in with e.g. liberal christians, rather than some fundies).

  2. 3

    @1: “The atheist merely needs to refrain from philosophical debates (that is assuming the goal is to blend in with e.g. liberal christians, rather than some fundies)”
    You don’t always get to make that choice though. If you’re working in, say, the school system in rural Middle Tennessee, you will blend in with the fundies, or else. That includes having a ready answer to “What church do y’all go to?”

  3. 4

    Great piece: addresses an issue I was murkily uneasy about but hadn’t really begun to think about.
    One tiny quibble: Andrew has a point about “the privilege of being able to conceal our beliefs” and it does apply also to LBGTQ people, poly folks, political dissenters etc. We can choose whether to be Out in a way that people of colour, women and people with many disabilities can’t do. And I totally agree that it sucks to do so, but I think that having a choice – even one that sucks – is less oppressive than having no choice.

  4. 5

    Oh Greta, didn’t you know that any time you’re not specifically addressing trans issues and concerns, you’re contributing to trans invisibility and are thus part of the problem?

    This particular canard drives me batty, in part because it ignores all of the fronts of activism in which atheists are involved (including trans activism!) but might not be visible as atheist activists because we’re not engaging in activism on that particular issue, and in part because the “with us or against us” fallacy is exactly that: a fallacy. Suggesting that everyone ignore all of the problems with the world except for one that a given individual thinks is the most important is a terrible idea, especially when that problem isn’t going to be solved instantly. All that accomplishes is to end activism on most fronts.

    There is, of course, a legitimate issue with trans invisibility and also with some prominent atheist activists being ignorant privileged asshats who don’t consider things like feminist activism or trans activism or anti-racist activism important (or sometimes even legitimate), but Tripp’s sweeping generalizations with respect to atheists and tribalist framework for activism undermine these points. Still a good message, but some poor delivery.

    I agree with johnstumbles (@4), also: fluidity with respect to read identity categories that allows for closeting is, in fact, a privilege not accorded to some marginalized identities/categories, such as race. While closeting is certainly a sign of an extant system of oppression, the ability to be closeted – the ability to selectively choose to acknowledge or disavow a marginalized identity as one wishes – is a boon. The pressures that lead people to feel the need to be closeted are oppressive; the closeting itself is a survival tactic for navigating oppressive discourses, and it’s not a tactic available to everyone (if the closet itself were oppressive, outing someone could not be seen as an act of violence, but always an act of liberation). An analogous situation might be the claim that public assistance is oppressive. Public assistance programs are a sign of an oppressive system (one in which people are not afforded equal access to material necessities, in our case market capitalism), but they are not themselves oppressive (though one could argue that by mitigating some of the harm of an oppressive system, they enable its continuation; I have a hard time figuring out where to draw the line with that one, so I take my cue from people in the marginalized group under consideration about what they need most).

  5. 7

    @John Hortsman- Just curious as to what’s the point of trying to separate the closet from the conditions that make the closet needed (aside from clarity.) It strikes me as simply a “well it could be worse” tangent that only serves as a distraction from (or dilution of) the oppression that is happening. Couldn’t the same logic be applied to segregated lunch counters, burkas and other tools of oppression. Yes, there may be some positive benefit afforded by the tool of oppression (blacks could get food, Muslim women can maintain anonymity etc.) but that doesn’t change the fact that these things are the poisoned fruit of the existing environment of oppression. Note- I realize the analogy is flawed in that lunch-counters/burkas are forced explicitly whereas the closet is a “choice”, but that seems to me to be only a difference of degree/type of oppression. The gay/atheist still is compelled towards the closet because of the negative consequences they will face if they are out. That is just a more palatable version of oppression designed to help the oppressor (and public) feel better about themselves by distracting people from the oppression that is happening while also allowing the oppressors to place the blame on the oppressed. It seems to me that the subtlety of the matter is precisely what makes it so dangerous because a whole lot of people will not even realize that the oppression is there, or will argue “well at least they have the choice,” or in the worst-case outright deny any oppression and claim that gays/atheists are just belly-aching for attention. Anyways, enjoyed your comment. Got me thinking (obviously) about a very tricky topic. 🙂

  6. 8

    While closeting is certainly a sign of an extant system of oppression, the ability to be closeted – the ability to selectively choose to acknowledge or disavow a marginalized identity as one wishes – is a boon. The pressures that lead people to feel the need to be closeted are oppressive; the closeting itself is a survival tactic for navigating oppressive discourses, and it’s not a tactic available to everyone (if the closet itself were oppressive, outing someone could not be seen as an act of violence, but always an act of liberation).

    John Horstman @ #5: I’ll certainly acknowledge that the ability to be closeted confers benefits. But I don’t agree that this means the closet isn’t oppressive. The experience of being in the closet — of having to hide deeply important things about yourself from the people you’re closest to as well as from society in general, of having to be constantly self-conscious and on-guard about what you say and to whom and who knows and who doesn’t — is very unhealthy and debilitating. Yes, it’s a survival tactic, but that doesn’t make it not oppressive. Especially when the culture pressures you to be in the closet, and punishes you for coming out. (I read somewhere recently — can’t remember where — about an experiment done at a conference, where a group of straight people were asked to spend a day not mentioning anything about their romantic partners, their dating life, what they did on the weekend, etc. — and they reported it as, well, as very unhealthy and debilitating.)

    As for being outed: It’s the unfortunate reality that both being closeted and being out can be bad experiences. So being involuntarily outed can still be a violation: having your choice of two bad experiences forced by someone else, instead of being free to make the choice on your own.

  7. 9

    The “closet privilege” discussion reminds me a lot of Natalie Reed’s columns on “passing privilege”–possessed by those trans persons whose genetics, support network and financial status enabled them to transition early and easily pass as the member of their true gender–to not be ‘clocked’ as trans. On the one thing, it was something all of them wanted to be able to do; on the other, it creates some real divisions within the trans community precisely because those with passing privilege can be cruel (deliberately or accidentally) to those without it.

    There’s one circumstance I can think of where closeting is definitely a privilege–when you’re not merely staying off-radar, but actually acting as part of the oppressive system. Larry Craig, for instance.

  8. 10

    Greta, your 2nd & most important point is a great message about being an activist exactly where your passion is, and more often that passion exists in more than one place, as is the case for anyone who acts on behalf of say atheism for one, and maybe marriage equality for another. I keep noting in articles that have to do with free-thought where other causes are mentioned, such as this one, there is talk about things like gender equality, non-discrimination against the LGBT community, a woman’s right to birth control, abortion, stem-cell research, effective means of combating the spread AIDS/HIV, and you also even mention famine and global warming!

    That’s always great, but what I cannot help wondering, is with all the talk of understanding evolution and the Origin of Species I here in secular circles, obviously most atheists understand that humans have a common ancestor with other primate species. Go back further a few hundred thousand generations and we share a common ancestor with mammals, reptiles, avian and even aquatic species, etc.

    Why then, is there never any mention of compassion toward other species?

    When understanding the Origin of Species, it’s not too difficult to understand then, that other species share our ability to suffer, feel emotions and endure pain. Why then, do we never mention ending the human chauvinistic practices of animal exploitation for food, clothing and entertainment that have been perpetrated for millenniums with religious endorsements. In ancient times, almost always was the slaughter of animals for meat done in the context of a cultist act of worshiping a god in order to be excused for carrying out those unsightly deeds.

    Meanwhile, both moderate and fundamentalist theists accuse atheists of not having a moral code that stops us from killing and raping people at every opportunity. While we can show that we don’t wantonly kill and rape and their allegations are bizarre, there is moral currency sitting on the table for us atheists to grab: Endorse veganism and turn the tables on the godly and show them that their religion never taught them compassion for their creators other species, and their own moral code has failed to stop them from endorsing the endless carnage of animals that are in their freezers or were on their dinner tables the night before.

    With billions of animals raised and confined in small areas and brutally slaughtered for food, clothing, experimentation and entertainment for hundreds, no thousands of years, what bigger proof do we need that this loving, compassionate, omnipresent, powerful God they worship in churches, temples and shrines does not exist?

  9. 11

    Why then, is there never any mention of compassion toward other species?

    peterful @ #10: There is. Lots of it. Half the atheist activists I know are vegetarians or vegans. Check out Jamie Kilstein in particular: he’s rabid on the subject. Also Sarah Moglia.

  10. 14

    I thought about commenting earlier and was just prompted again by Tripp’s reply. Something that seems to be missing from the most recent exchange is that people’s passions change with their awareness. For example, the enjoyment of driving my car to visit family (just enjoying the drive) diminished with my increased awareness of environmentalism and the implications of (improved understandings of) climate change. Similarly, as i’ve learned more about trans* issues in particular, i’ve become more interested in making my skeptical activism more trans*-conscious. Assuming that a general version of this phenomenon applies more broadly, the lack of interest (relative to whatever baseline one wishes) among skeptic/atheist/secular activists in such issues as arise out of steeper axes of power/privilege, while not discreditable on its own, may be indicative of a general lack of awareness even among the more socially conscious among us, and therefore worthy of redress (in the form of awareness-raising, rather than of criticism).

  11. 16

    […] So, my behavior’s been odd for the past several days, irregular sleep, lack of concentration, and it culminated in feeling rather awful when I woke up this morning. There’s a few possible threads feeding into this, but I’ll stick to one for now. I’ve mentioned a few times something I’ve called my “beauty strike.” One day, I’ll have to write about this at length. Except for a couple of emotional outbursts, I’ve avoided discussing body image issues on my blog. It feels so frankly frivolous. Everyone once in a while, someone writes a post questioning why people would spend an effort worrying about problem B when problem A is so much more serious. Frequently, when I read this, especially as it applies to people other than myself or my own problems, I’m inclined to agree with a post Greta Christina put up, “Whatever Activism Gets them Excited.” […]

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