Saturday, June 30, 2012

Responding to Thunderf00t: Part 2

Thunderf00t made a followup video to the one I responded to last week. Apparently, PZ Meyers replied to his blog post in a manner that Thunderf00t saw as being overemotional and beneath his generally freethinking sensibilities. For the record, I don't care about "emotional" drama between PZ and Thunderf00t. I just think that Thunderf00t is STILL missing the mark by a long shot in his view of what this movement is, what it needs and what it stands for. I'm just going to go through some of his assertions point by point and try to address why his previous video and post might have been perceived as "clueless".

1. Conference Harassment = Not Terribly Important

 Thunderf00t says in his video that conference harassment affects "a minority of a minority" and this makes it a virtual "non-issue". I explained in my previous response why this point is bs, but I'll reiterate in short form.

It doesn't matter how significant the minority effected by the harassment is, the harassment is intolerable, full stop. A good community is one where its members feel safe. When a certain subgroup is made to feel unsafe, the community is significantly weakened. The minorities in the secularist movement need to be given special attention because they are very useful and very important contributors to the movement from a long-term strategic perspective. 

Thunderf00t also provides an anonymous anecdote from supposed female compatriots of his who claim that the most recent TAM was the "cleanest" conference yet with regards to harassment. To be blunt, I don't care. Comparing it previous events and saying that things have improved does NOT mean that the problem is solved.

2. The "Conference Scene" = Not Terribly Important

Admittedly, I was a little irked by this argument by Thunderf00t as it really highlights what I mean when I say that he really seems to misunderstand certain significant aspects of this community. Are conferences a good way to reach out to the larger world and spread our message? No. Are they supposed to be? No. Absolutely not. Conferences exist for a couple reasons: Firstly, to bring people together who are already in the movement and secondly, to promote the large, cohesive organizations that are, in fact, the silent supporters of the movement itself. We cannot mitigate the importance of these two goals.

One of the reasons we have a movement in the first place is because there are many, many atheists and freethinkers in this country who, upon losing their religion, found themselves alone. They may even often persecuted by their own loved ones. It is our duty as self-appointed leaders and activists to help these people find care and community. Conferences provide this surprisingly well. For those of us who don't necessarily need the emotional support, conferences give us the opportunity and the platform to share our ideas and concerns with like-minded, equally passionate people.

As for the second aim of conferences, even I have to admit, it's not the most fun or the most interesting. But we all know that a big part of secularist conferences is the plugging of the host organization, often for donations. As dry and old fashioned as it may sound, we need those organizations. Grassroots internet activism is fun, but when it comes to making real impacts, we need to support our secular organizations. Secular Student Alliance, Center for Inquiry, American Atheists, Freedom from Religion Foundation, Volunteers Beyond Belief, etc. keep us together, provide us with essential resources and train our leadership. Conferences are one way these organizations stay noticeable.

In other words, one of the reasons Thunderf00t's blog and videos could be termed "clueless" is because he seems to have no practical understanding of these two points when assessing the importance of secularist conferences.

3. "Crying Wolf" Is Really What's Hurting Us

When addressing the issue of women attending conferences, Thunderf00t partially puts blame on people like Rebecca Watson for publicizing "troll" rape threats and harassment situations. While Watson and I don't always see eye to eye on things, I do think that there is value in a lot of what she brings up. When taken out of context, Rebecca's mentions of things such as rape threats may appear to be a list of complaints. However, she always ties it back to the larger issue. In our society, it is, for some reason, still acceptable to threaten rape, even in jest. This is a problem, especially considering the fact that women in our society often have to walk the streets with the threat of rape looming over their heads. Rape a real danger for a large subset of our population and yet Thunderf00t seems to think that addressing its mitigation in our movement is akin to "crying wolf".

I'd like to think that, as freethinkers, we should question all of society's irrational and dogmatic values. While this may not be thunderf00t's area of interest, our society's view of women is certainly one that should be addressed. If doing so somehow hurts our movement, then the problem is in our movement, not in those who draw attention to the problem.

Thunderf00t also seems to provide a lot of anecdotal evidence to say that rape threats and harassment are not significant issues in the movement. At this point, it's his anonymous friends' words against the words of the people who claim to have been threatened. I'd rather be safe than sorry by making it abundantly clear that threatening behavior is intolerable. Maybe thunderf00t disagrees.

4. What Happens in Bars Apart From Conferences Is Not The Business of the Conference Organizers

I can almost agree Thunderf00t here. My issue here is not the assertion itself, but the fact that it keeps coming up. When we talk about sexism in the movement and harassment at conferences, we generally aren't talking about Thunderf00t's right to chew on a consenting woman's leg. Thunderf00t and his female friends have a great time at secular conferences. People at conference meet, go out to bars, drink, joke, laugh and have sex. I know I do and, much like Thunderf00t, I have a blast. The times I've spend with my atheist activist friends at conferences have been some of the best of my life. Unfortunately, this is not the issue at hand. The problem is that not everyone has this experience. Clearly, some people feel threatened, harassed, even taken advantage of at some of these events. This is not a good thing and it needs to be addressed one way or another. We also happen to be a part of a movement full of passionate and outspoken people who tend to shout very loudly when there's a problem. Perhaps this fact is what Thunderf00t is critical of and maybe he has a point. I simply think that if people are feeling threatened in our "house", so to speak, it's something that merits a little shouting, especially when there are clear examples of people among us who don't care.

What I would ultimately like to know is exactly what Thunderf00t thinks the New Atheist/Secularist/Freethought movement is about. If he thinks we're only hear to de-convert the religious or argue with creationists, he's sadly mistaken. In fact there are a good number of activists who have no interest in these things at all. We are a broad, multifaceted movement. Let's not forget that. More importantly, let's not mistake our multifaceted nature for us being a divided group. We are fortunate to be a movement so rich in opinions and values. Let's use our difference to provoke meaningful discussion. More importantly, if a topic such as womens' issues in secularism doesn't interest you, don't focus on it. More importantly, don't pretend that it's a "non-issue".

Monday, June 25, 2012

I Went To A Conference!

Now that I've gotten my Thunderf00t rant off my chest, I can talk a little about the CFI student leadership conference. Admittedly, I don't have nearly as much to say about this conference as I did about Women in Secularism. This is because I showed up halfway through the conference and then spent a considerable amount of time caring for Michael, who was actually quite sick. Neither of these statements are complaints by any stretch, though. I had a very good time.

The first talk/workshop that I was there for was the one given Saturday morning by James Croft. I will definitely be keeping my notes from that workshop for reference in the coming year. His advice was very practical and touched on a lot of points that I think are forgotten often in this movement. As both Debbie and Michael have discussed with me on multiple occasions, our movement is great at producing charismatic people, but not so good at producing leaders. The Saturday morning workshop focused on leadership qualities that actually go a long way to convince people. I especially appreciated the emphasis on empathy and connecting with audiences even of people who might disagree with us. Vitriol can be fun, it isn't always terribly helpful. I think that's one thing about CFI in general that I appreciate-- they tend to de-emphasize the senseless confrontations. Oh, and I definitely cried when he told the gay rehabilitation therapy story.

Elisabeth Cornwell gave a talk on the evolutionary psychology of emotion after lunch. I have a feeling that a lot of the already worn out conference goers were falling asleep at this point, but I actually thought her presentation was interesting. I'm not sure that it was completely relevant to the other topics that had been discussed up until then, it did make me think about my own behavior and emotions in my own life. Strange as it sounds, I quite appreciated that.

One of the strangely controversial presentations of Saturday afternoon was that of Andrew Tripp. A fair amount of people were iffy about having a white male give a talk on diversity and privilege and diversity. Frankly, I think it was a good idea. A lot of women and minorities in the movement know and understand the effects of privilege in or society and community. The ones who need convincing are the white males. If a Caucasian guy steps up the podium and explains the facts, it's a lot harder to dismiss him as being biased for that reason. I heard one or people complain that Andrew talked a lot of doom and gloom, but didn't present concrete solutions. Honestly, I don't think solution generating was the aim of the talk. It was a good run down on the situation that a large chunk of the population face everyday and that often goes unnoticed by the rest of us. That is surprisingly necessary. 

I missed the evening entertainment, but I heard it was... interesting to say the least. Michael and I could hear Jamie from the library, if that tells you anything. The two of us actually had a pretty interesting time despite not attending Jamie's act. A man from CFI Los Angeles who's name escapes me now (I'll slap myself for forgetting later) told us stories about the early days of the modern movement and of CFI. It's amazing how secularist groups tend to go through meiosis almost compulsively. At the conclusion of our discussion, we all expressed hope that the younger members of the movement will learn to forget the bad blood of the past that keeps us apart and learn to work together.

As always, the best part of the conference was the meeting of people. Brian Engler was especially kind to me at Saturday's afterparty. I can really relate to his general love for the movement. We talked about a lot of serious community issues, but I noticed that he was very good at withholding judgement, even of people with bad reputations. This is something I could learn from, I think. He introduced me to Reba Wooden that night as well. We talked briefly about Humanist celebrant training. Come to think of it, I think becoming a celebrant would be really cool. I haven't spent much time in the humanist side of the movement, but I really think I should. 

Again, I had a wonderful time. It was completely worth the insanity I went through to set it up. Even the ride back Michigan was great. To be honest, the time I spend with Jen, Jeff and Ed was one of my favorite parts of the trip. I taught them how to skip rather than walk. Hopefully, they'll incorporate HappyHappy into their life now. :)

One thing I will never forget is the Center for Inquiry itself. Here's what I wrote on my Tumblr on Saturday. I think it accurately describes my state of mind while I was there:

"This place…
…Is so perfect, so beautiful. It is a paradise of freethought and secularism. Within its walls is a monument in glorification of the human mind. Outside, it’s sunny and warm, far enough away from the outside world to be peaceful, but not so much as to be isolated. I never want to leave."

Why, Thunderf00t, why??


I was going to do a write up about the CFI conference this weekend, but my friend sent me Thunderf00t's latest video last night and it infuriated me a little bit.

Sigh. I definitely have disagreed quite a bit with Thunderf00t in the past, but his lack of understanding of the harassment-at-conferences issue surprised even me. For one thing, I can't believe that he thinks the current flare up surrounding TAM has anything to do with the elevator incident. In case you haven't been keeping up, there is a lot more to this harassment business than drama whoring by particular members of the freethought community. At the Women in Secularism Conference about a month ago, Jen McCreight made a comment during a panel that there are was a well-known but seldom spoken of problem at atheist and skeptic conferences (particularly TAM) with women being harassed. Apparently, the harassment was being perpetrated by some fairly prominent people in the movement and went well beyond socially awkward coffee date requests. This revelation led to serious discussion about the problem during which several major conferences, including Skepticon, decided to begin implementing no tolerance policies for reported harassment. However, D.J. Grothe of JREF took exactly the opposite course of action. He made several comments that dismissed  the harassment claims of women and even appeared to be blaming them for the reported incidents. This is what led to Rebecca Watson to boycott TAM, etc. etc. Clearly, I am oversimplifying. There is actually a fairly comprehensive timeline of the aforementioned events at Freethought Blogs here. I'm only trying to make a simple point: this is NOT elevatorgate and this problem is NOT trivial. It is certainly NOT analogous to debating the coloring on military vehicles during World War II. Frankly, I am appalled at that analogy.

Thunderf00t has been pushing this "house divided" mantra for quite sometime now, but it is quite a flawed one. Our movement is not homogenous and never will be. Even among the educated white men of which the majority of the community is comprised, there are "divisions" by interest and goals. Some people in the movement care about separation of church and state, some care about skepticism, some care purely about atheism while others are more into charity and humanism. All of these areas are legitimate facets of our movement. We cannot simply pick one mission and expect everyone to follow along. We are not an army, we are a community of individuals and we need to find some way to work together while keeping this fact in mind.

More importantly, we cannot trivialize the fact that a significant portion of the population DOES NOT FEEL SAFE in an environment like that of TAM. This issue draws a lot of attention because it should not be divisive. As people who want to build a strong, healthy community of freethinkers, we should be very quick to identify and fix serious problems such as this. Clearly, some of us are not. If the safety of women (or really anyone) at our events is not a priority in our movement, then I don't think this movement deserves to "stand". I don't care how unified we are in our cause, if the movement is corrupt, none of us should want any part of it. 

Not everyone involved in the freethought/secular movement needs to be an impassioned feminist or social justice activist, but that does not mean we shouldn't care about the presence well-being of minorities in the movement. We don't even have to moralize about equality in order to argue this point, we just need to think strategically as Thunderf00t suggests. If we want to eradicate the harm done by religion in our society, eventually we are going realize that women and minorities are often targeted and deeply effected by religion and religious organizations. We cannot use on these people the same strategies as we do on white men, it simply will not work. If we are trying to reach out to, say, an impoverished black woman, what good will the "problem of evil" argument be if she needs the community and service offered to her by the neighborhood church in order to care for her children? What good will talking about cosmology and evolution do for, say, lower class immigrant with little to no science education? The answer is simple: none. We need members of our movement who understand these experiences so that we might reach out to communities under siege. This kind of strategy is what will carry our movement into the future, not the superficial solidarity that Thunderf00t appears to be calling for.

Do I often think that there is too much senseless drama in this movement? Yes. But the current harassment problem does not fall into that category. It is a discussion that needs to be had before we can carry on as a community.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

My Love Rant

The above video was posted by a friend of mine on his Facebook today and it reminded me of how reprehensible the "I have a gay friend" homophobes are. I commented on the Facebook link with my own assertion that the only thing worse than homophobes who cite their "gay friend" as a negation for their bigotry are those who mention their gay family members in the same light. To me, the worst part about these assertions is the fact that they are almost inevitably followed by "and I love them! But..."

I actually had a friend say right to may face once "I have two gay uncles and I love them! They're awesome, but I just don't think they should have the right to get married."

What? I'm sorry, but this is not love. Love involves valuing a person as much as or more than oneself and demonstrating this in one's words and actions. It involves respecting that person, even if they disagree with you. It involves standing up for that person's right to make their own choices even if those choices aren't yours. If you argue against another person's rights or disrespect them for one of their intrinsic qualities, you do not love them, period.

Though this is not always the case, I find that this re-branding of the word "love" often ties in with conservative Christian dogma. For many who make use of this re-branding, the new definition of "love" also includes physically striking one's children for disobedience, turning out said children if they come out as gay or atheist in their teens, eternal torture for those who disobey their deity and misinforming friends and family so that they may never stray from your standards.

This isn't love. This kind of behavior renders the concept of love meaningless. It should be repugnant to those of us who are willing to struggle, sacrifice and put time and energy into our loved ones, even if we don't always agree with them. If you insist on being a bigot, a fundamentalist whack-job or a jerk and then call that behavior "love", you seriously need to rethink your life. You make me ill. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Rambles and Such

After two long months of little productivity, I am happy to announce that next Tuesday I will begin partaking in gainful employment. I'm actually really excited because I've come to realize that boredom is awful for my mental state. The only drawback to this development is the fact that I might have to rearrange my Amherst plans. I am almost certainly going to the CFI Student Leadership Conference in a little over a week, the question is whether not I can go for the whole event, or only half. I've come to realize that spending too much time out of my element and out of my activism in the movement makes me depressed, so my fingers are crossed for being able to be there on the 21st.

In any case, I had a rather interesting conversation with Debbie Goddard last night that continued to make me think about the state of the movement in the United States today. I had had never fully realized just how splintered we tend to be as a community. I guess it's a well known fact that getting a bunch of atheists/secularists to work together is rather like "herding cats", but I can't help but wonder what's going to happen if the trend continues. This is not to say that effort hasn't been made on the part of many individuals and groups to try to improve our community and address problems that separate us. The Women in Secularism Conference gave me mountains of hope. Imagine, though, my dismay when I heard about the appalling comments made by DJ Grothe and Rebecca Watson's reaction to boycott TAM. What's sad to me is that, as far as I can tell from talking to people, the fact that certain big speakers behave inappropriately is one big open secret. And the identities of these individuals are also fairly well known. Yet its the outraged women who are being blamed. This is obscene to me. And don't even get me started on how people seem to be hesitant to remove this useless and unappealing little asshat from their ranks despite his having caused (and continuing to cause) heaps of trouble for his organization.

Alright, alright, maybe I'm just complaining about a bunch of unrelated issues, but let's be honest with ourselves. Our movement is great at generating charismatic secularlebrities. It's not so good at generating genuine leaders. We need people who are willing to bring people together, who are willing to take other people's points of view into account and who actually care about the grunt work of running our organizations properly. Some of these people definitely exist, but I often feel that we tend to give our pseudo-celebrities way too much credit when they really don't do as much good as they appear to on the surface. I think we also need to identify the fact that the ranting about the nonexistence of deities is going to get old after a while. This is why I have been focused so much on SSA and CFI lately. These are broader organizations than, say, American Atheists and I have a feeling that their shelf life is going to be longer than the purely atheist organizations. On that note, go support SSA week!

I'm rambling again. Admittedly, I've been a little annoyed lately. Michael and I had a long conversation about all this last week and decided that someday, we should write a book about our adventures in the freethought movement. For now, I'm eagerly awaiting the Amherst conference.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Transit of Venus

I had the privilege of seeing the Transit of Venus the other day. Though most of you are probably aware of this, the Transit of Venus is an event in which the planet Venus passes between the sun and the earth. It happened 8 years ago at dawn and Tuesday, it happened at sunset. This event will not happen again for another 105 years. Naturally, all of the cosmology geeks came out of the woodwork to see this happen, including my brother, his girlfriend and their astronomy teacher, Mr. Sinclair. They kindly invited me to come with them to South Haven by Lake Michigan where Mr. Sinclair and a friend of his had set up their telescopes. It was a rather chilly evening, so we also had the benefit of a beach to ourselves.

I cannot tell you how wonderful I felt it was to be human that evening. It wasn't just the rare astronomical event, but seeing it in juxtaposition with the tiny people next to the vast lake and empty beach. I felt so fortunate to be able to experience the natural universe around me. I think I need to take more time to remember how fortunate I am in that regard.

Here are some pictures I took from that day (some were taken by my brother). That little black dot you see in front of the sun is a planet about the size of ours. Isn't that wild? I told my brother that the sun looked like it had a hole in it and I wished that I could put a string through it and put it around my neck. One of the kids there replied "I think that'd be a bit big".