Saturday, February 4, 2012

Proselytizing to Deaf Ears

Some people can't read. You'd think with the internet being as text-driven as it is, reading would be a valuable skill. Even for those of us who don't have good reading comprehension, you would imagine that would entail trying to go that extra mile to make sure you don't look like a massive asshole when you jump down someone's throat for something they never said.

Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be the case.

For an explicit point, I give you Froborr's post, The Problem with Proselytizing, made on January 16th, 2012.  This particular post has rocked the boat in a lot of ways, and drew any number of trolls who don't seem to care to read, or don't want to read, to the Slacktiverse.

I was, tentatively, part of that discussion, but I didn't make my voice known immediately. Let me say I had the same visceral reaction to it seems a lot of atheists, especially in other parts of the internet, had. Despite that, I support the piece now more than ever - especially given all of the silencing criticisms leveled at it, and at the Slacktiverse community as a whole, and the fact that, y'know, I went back and read the damn thing.

At the heart of it is one little word - 'evil'. This isn't a word that I use a lot, and it's not a word I use lightly. When the word is used, I use it almost exclusively as a defining trait of the racist, bigoted, misogynistic homophobic Christianist Right. So let's start with that, since most atheists will agree with me that evil does seem to be endemic in a great many things that the Christianists do.

What is the defining trait of any of that? What makes someone openly try to pass racist laws? Attack gay people, and tell them from a public platform that they don't deserve equal rights? Drive gay teens to suicide, and then stand by and do nothing about it? Cause a previously reputable organization like Susan Komen to abandon a worthwhile cause based on lies about Planned Parenthood?

If you answered religion, you're wrong.

The defining trait of all of that is a lack of empathy, and an inability to understand what other people go through. It's an inability to see, and respect, what is at the core of other people's identities. Religion is the mask that this all-too-human trait often wears, but religion itself is not the cause. Religion is a tool, and nothing more. What we see here is a lack of respect for other people.

Now I'm probably the last person on the planet who needs to be talking about respecting other people. I launch into savage verbal tirades against individuals and am a skilled character assassin. However, I feel that any individual, ideology, or organization who can earn my wrath truly deserves it, because they're bringing harm upon others in some way, shape, or form. They lack that respect towards others. And is that not evil - to lack respect for the founding parts of other people's personalities? To treat these parts as if they were unimportant and nondescript? To marginalize things that make them who they are?

That's what Froborr's argument was about. It was the lack of respect that one group displays for another group. It wasn't calling Christina evil. It wasn't attacking the new atheists. It was attacking an action. It doesn't matter what the group is; so long as you're not respecting things that people say are part of their identity, I submit to you that you're doing the same exact thing, just in a different way. I'll take it even further - I'll attack more than just the action. I'll attack the attitude, as well.

That's what proselytizing is. It's an action that is an attack on a person's identity. It's one thing to tell someone that you think they're wrong and then listen patiently when they explain it back to you. It's something totally different to launch right off the board into personal attacks, calling someone a deluded fool (way to be ableist, too), say they're mentally ill, or some other proclamation that pisses them off, pisses me off, and gets nothing done. What were you trying to do again? Because unless it was "make nothing happen except people dislike you," congratulations, you failed spectacularly.

The offender here was the original article by Greta Christina. Let me start by saying that I think she has some good points she brings up. For instance, she describes me perfectly, except for one thing - my goal is to reduce all bigotry and discrimination, not just anti-atheist bigotry and discrimination.

For many atheists, the primary goal of atheist activism is to reduce anti-atheist bigotry and discrimination, and to work towards more complete separation of church and state. Their main goal is to get people to see atheists as happy, ethical, productive members of society, with full and equal rights and responsibilities. They want to see atheists be fully accepted into society, and to have our atheism recognized as legitimate. They want to counter myths and misconceptions about atheists [...]
You know what reducing all bigotry and discrimination means, right? I means that stuff like this -
Many of us don’t just want a world where believers and atheists get along and let each other practice their religion or lack thereof in peace. Many of us want a world where there’s no religion. We don’t want to see this happen by law or violence or any kind of force, of course.
Is not cool.

You know what else is can be harmful to people? Being deaf. Our society is not geared towards the hearing-impaired. Think about it - you can't hear cars if they're coming at you. You can't hear someone if they're shouting at you to get out of the way. You don't hear the barking of the stray dog. But, we're getting better. As technology improves, we get better. Some deaf people now have a choice whether or not they want to remain deaf. As a transhumanist, my goal is to fix problems with the world. As a abolitionist, my goal is to increase the overall happiness and reduce the amount of pain that people experience. To this end, I very strongly support technologies that improve the human (and non-human) condition. Among such technologists that exist today are cochlear implants.

Let me introduce you to a group of people who don't want to hear, and want nothing to do with cochlear implants. The Deaf Community is a very thriving community; they have their own culture. One that they've built from the ground up, in a society that is not geared towards them. Being Deaf is part of who they are. It's part of their identity. To force them to hear is to take away that part of who they are. Christina wants a world without religion. I want a world without deaf people. Way for me to fuck over deaf people and tell them how insignificant this part of their personality is, right?

Oh, but it's different, you say. Religion has a position of privilege in society - deaf people do not. So obviously this is different.

Yes. It does. I'm sure all the Wiccans and neo-pagans who have to fight to get their faith recognized will agree with the fact that they occupy a privileged position in society. Or all of the other religions that aren't Mainstream Christianity in the United States. But unlike Wiccans, you may say, deaf people don't believe anything. Wiccans have beliefs that are demonstrably wrong. Deaf people don't, right? First, you've gotta narrow down what exactly it is that neo-pagans believe as a group. Good luck nailing that jelly to a wall. Second, I could, in theory, demonstrate why it's wrong you don't want to hear. I did above - all of the dangers and things that happen around you, when you loose one of your primary senses. You have the ability to hear, why don't you?

Because it doesn't matter whether you can demonstrate that they're wrong or not. This is something that is very important to them. It's part of who they are - they have this community, they have this identity, they are this way. Of you to challenge that is to attack them on a very personal level. For you to challenge that is wrong. It makes you an asshole. You are never right doing this. Never. You can have all the logic in the world to back you up. It doesn't help any at all, because you're dealing with someone that someone identifies so closely to. To them, you will never be right. Or they might see the logic in it and chose to ignore it anyway because they have so closely defined themselves by this trait. Or maybe, just maybe, they might make a point that you've never heard before.

Which takes me back to Froborr's original point. Would you proselytize to a deaf person about all the wonders of hearing, being as paternalistic as possible, and then call them a "blithering idiot" and "simpering fool" when they decline, because it's part of who they are and they don't want that part changed? No? Why the fuck are you going to do it to someone who's the same way about their religion?

One of the things that the various responses has revealed is that in some corners of the internet, atheists are more concerned with being right than they are dealing with other people. I am right that your beliefs are wrong, and you're a confused, deluded fool for not agreeing with. I am right that you should have a cochlear implant, and you're an idiot for not seeing it. I don't care about how you feel, all that matters is that I'm right.

There is an argument that believing things hurts people. This is true; there's an entire web-page dedicated towards how confused beliefs have hurt and killed people, and all the subsequent economic damages that they've caused. This, I believe, is accentuating the negative. You'll never find one about how beliefs have helped heal people, and created economic booms. To a degree, it's necessary that we accentuate the negative - belief tends to occupy a privileged place in American society (so long as it's the right belief) - and we need to show people that giving themselves over to this belief without approaching it having all the tools necessary is dangerous. Furthermore, how is removing religion going to remove belief? Belief that your country has been slighted by others has killed a lot of people - Nationalism is probably just as dangerous as religion is. Belief that your decision to drive 50 miles over the speed limit on an icy road gets people killed. How are we going to handle that? Doing stupid things get peopled killed. Sometimes it masquerades as religion. Sometimes it doesn't.

That's the difference. I don't care whether or not I'm right that your belief is either false or not. I want to make sure that you have the tools necessary to manage yourself without hurting yourself or others. This begins with education; teaching children how to think critically about things. This continues into adulthood, with movies and shows that continue to cause people to expand their critical thinking. Critical thinking doesn't mean they'll drop that part of who they are. Critical thinking means they'll look at the way they approach that part, and make informed decisions based on knowing this part is important to them - I know I'm deaf, so I need to be careful around traffic. I know I'm a Christian, but there's no reason to believe the world is 6,000 years old. I know I'm a neo-pagan, but there's no reason to believe alternative medicine does anything other than offer false promises.

Christina, and others like her, are doing the exact opposite of this approach. They're trying to tell others that they need the cochlear implants. That they need these things, because somehow they're not thinking critically if they don't. They're just stupid, because they refuse to acknowledge how right I am about these things. It doesn't matter at this point whether or not we're talking "with" or "without" force. It's going to come across as force no matter how you slice it, because this is an integral part of people's personality. To prevent it isn't is as offensive as telling a deaf person they need to hear.

The very first thing to remember is that religion is a social tool and nothing more. People will make decisions. You can criticize them for making decisions; I'm not saying you can't. However, when you attack people personally for believing something that your epistemology suggests has very little backing, don't be surprised when people tune you out. After all, that deaf person, while they can see the argument in hearing, may not want to. They'll approach it from a different perspective - this word, "perspective", is important. Because if there's one thing this whole kerfluffle revealed, is that atheists in some corners of the internet only have one: their own. To hell with everyone elses'.

This attitude - my perspective is the only perspective that matters - is evil. It's pervasive. It spreads, and it undermines our ability to recognize the self-worth of others. This inability to recognize perspective, and be empathetic towards others, is the reason why bigotry persists.

So yes, Christina was right in describing me. I want to see all bigotry gone. From homophobia, to racism, to transphobia to misogyny, anti-atheism and yes, anti-theism as well. And yes, Froborr was right - anti-theistic proselytizing is a form of evil, as it's a form of disregarding a core element of the individual. 

1 comment:

  1. "Hardline" atheism seems to be overwhelmingly an American phenomenon. And it's not terribly difficult to understand why: If the only religion you've ever really been exposed to has been the American version of fundamentalist Christianity, AND you are privileged enough to gain access to a computer and philosophy books, it's pretty easy to think that religion is an evil thing.

    If the Fundamentalists who you can't get away from in meatspace keep equating their particular brand of Christianity with "religion" as a whole, it's easy to make that mistake yourself. And those same Fundamentalists are doing a VERY good job making sure people don't get exposed to the benefits of less vile religions.

    Their logic therefore states, religion is the reason that rednecks vote for morons in cowboy hats. Religion is why the education system is a mess, and people deny basic facts of environmental science.

    And when presented with posts like this, they simply point to the fact that you can get elected to public office in this country by namedropping Jesus every thirty seconds and claiming that gays should be forcibly cured via therapy/Planned Parenthood clinics should be bombed/the Earth is 6,000 years old and no science teacher has the right to tell our children otherwise/the Rapture is coming to whisk us away before we have to face the consequences of behaving like the bad guys from Captain Planet.

    This would be easier to counter if it wasn't true.