California Freethought Day 2017 Remarks

Speech Transcript

I would like to start with a thank you to David Diskin.

And I would like to explain why.

My talk was going to be slightly different today.

I was going to talk about why I don’t consider myself a part of the quote-unquote…movement, as a humanist who these days mostly hangs out in virtual secular spaces. And depending on where you stand on what I represent, if you are familiar with my views, you might be of the opinion that that’s not such a bad thing.

I was going to talk about how I didn’t even think of organized atheism as a movement until I worked at the American Humanist Association in 2015 — and this is just by virtue of how I grew up.

I’d grown up with what I consider the advantage of being relatively areligious except in my family’s devotion to education. I never paid God much mind. The only thing I was certain of was that I felt a personal responsibility to participate in efforts to reduce human suffering whenever possible.

In university I made friends and met lovers for whom lack of religiosity was a larger part of their identity. Often, I found this fervor for atheism was proportional to the amount to which these individuals still felt personally pained by their own history as believers or as atheist participants of a theocratic culture that censored the full expression of their identities.

Their passion was contagious.

And although I am no longer on YouTube watching episode upon episode of the Atheist Experience — although I’m no longer downloading the debates between some figurehead atheist man and William Lane Craig and others — I did at that time in my life become disturbed by the many possible sets of actions and behaviors that result from fundamentalist mindsets

I became disturbed by the way institutional religion and capitalism sometimes act as co-conspirators, to maintain a certain degree of complacency in the face of class immobility in a country where we tell people to believe in a bootstrapping, rags-to-riches American dream that has never quite existed in the form of its mythology for anyone who wasn’t already well-off, well-connected, and well-pigmented.

I was, for a minute, an angry atheist.

Yet, simply because I perceive the fictions of religious belief to be dis-empowering, sometimes discouraging of self-determination, it would never sanction my interference in how another should live their life. To suggest that I know better how another person should live their life is presumptuous, paternalistic, ignorant, unfair, and disrespectful of their very autonomy I supposedly want on their behalf.

It is not my business what moral authorities guide one’s life until one imposes their moral authorities to restrict the freedom of others.

As long as the lives of others could be policed by sexist, homophobic, and racist religious perspectives, I decided I would be concerned.

As soon as private thoughts manifest in policymaking that perpetuate cultural oppression, I decided I would be concerned.

And so I discovered humanism. So I discovered voices of those similarly concerned. And so I acknowledged the…movement.

But still, to me then, I could find it unfathomable that humanism wasn’t just a default state of being. The naiveté is conspicuous today, in the era of a Trump presidency.

But back then, my relative privilege as a person raised in an upper middle-class and white suburban neighborhood where high school sophomores visited college campuses, took advanced placement courses, and for the most part, were funneled into four-year liberal arts institutions after which they — I imagine — were expected to find lasting fulfillment in some stable white-collar profession —

…This class privilege both concealed from me the most violent aspects of white supremacy and perhaps was itself the most dangerous aspect of white supremacy: the kind that deceived me into believing humanism was a default way of being; the kind of white supremacy that insidiously pervades well-meaning progressive spaces where the idea of humanism is preached over putting it into practice; where the idea of humanism is used as a pretext to escape contending with the complex effects of white supremacy in interaction with our various social identities.

My relative privilege concealed from me the kind of white supremacy that keeps itself in power, and that very ability to hide keeps it in power.

And back then, I could still find it unfathomable that humanism wasn’t just a default state of being because I was still just as indoctrinated by gender expectations and gender roles.

I had learned to be an angry atheist.

But I had not yet learned to shed my socialized respectability and be angry for myself, a woman, in a society where my words, my wages, my wishes, and my womanhood are docked, discounted on the man’s dollar.

But what’s all this have to do with thanking David?

I’ll get there. Let’s just say that my talk was going to be a little bit…how do I say it? Angrier.

I was going to talk about my disillusionment with a movement that ought to promote secularism and the use of logic and rationality to build a better world, yet in actuality spends the majority of its time debating free speech at the expense of marginalized folks and yelling at fires instead of trying to put them out.

Time and again, the quote-unquote mainstream movement is plagued with severe sexism.

It is plagued with lack of true inclusion of people of color, of women of color — by which I mean placing people of color in leadership with the power to make decisions — not as token figureheads providing the optics of diversity — and it is plagued with hero worship at the expense of human rights, equality, and justice.

The leadership in its institutions are mostly aging white men, with concerns reflective of aging white men, of aging white male donors, but unreflective of the present and the future.

And despite the dedicated, longtime efforts of freethinkers of color, secular women, femmes, gender-nonconforming, and non-binary individuals — people who are the unseen, uncredited foundation and social glue of secular communities, I still observe that this population is seen as peripheral to a central movement guided by the four horsemen and their ilk.

You may not know this, but there was a man scheduled to speak here who has been publicly accused of sexual harassment. Who is suing several women and an atheist publication for defamation. A man who is still quite beloved.

That is why I was going to talk today about exactly how disrespectful it is to give a platform to someone who uses feminism as part of his own brand while exerting power in anti-feminist ways.

And I was going to make clear exactly what message it sends to me, and to all freethinker, skeptic, atheist, humanist, ethicalist, unitarian universalist women, when a man accused of sexually harassing multiple women, who is silencing these women via a defamation suit, an event widely aired in movement circles is still invited to freethought events.

Let me make this clear. The message this sends me is that women are sidelined. That the humanity of those who are not white men of particular backgrounds is less important, in varying degrees. That women are less important.

And so when I was asked to speak today, I had a dilemma to face: decline on moral grounds to not speak or to use my time allotted to point out the ways power is disproportionately distributed at the expense of women. Were there more than two options? Yes, but these were the only two I felt were strategically within my bounds at the time. You know which one I chose, because I’m here today.

Could I have said to David, hey you’ve invited to Freethought Day someone who is at the very least suppressing accusations of sexual harassment, and if we take women at their word, which time and again, we have proven not to be good at, you’re inviting to Freethought Day someone who is quite possibly actually dangerous to women? Such an action is negligent to our safety. What are you going to do about it? Perhaps I could have said this, but…

To be honest, I thought it must have been such a well-known — and well-publicized — fact among conference organizers and those well-connected in U.S. establishment atheist circles that David could not possibly not know, especially as a seasoned event organizer who I assume vets the people he invites. And as an unknown in the movement, the once-programs assistant at the AHA, an editor at TheHumanist.com, manager of Humanist Press — I was and remain unwilling to give men in positions of power the benefit of believing they will act on a grievance I bring privately.

Yet, instead, today, I am glad I was wrong on my instinct with regard to David.

I am glad, today, to be able to say thank you, instead, for choosing women and disinviting someone who is actively trying to discredit women in the movement at the risk of ending a personal friendship.

Thank you for supporting feminism. Thank you for this concrete action towards building a more equitable movement that is representative of the just future our work informs.

Yet why does this happen when we are a community that espouses equality? That cares about human rights? That wants the best for humanity? Are these assumptions of atheism I should not make?

There is a collective propensity to invite men known to be unsafe to women to speak at events, for men to monopolize space in progressive settings while professing pride in their dedication to fighting inequality, and for the movement to continue to revere, award, or amplify those with homophobic, racist, and sexist views.

The short answer is that: We are racist. We are homophobic. We are sexist.

But that’s not convincing enough. It certainly hasn’t been. Especially not coming from a woman. And it is certainly not an answer our hearts want to accept.

So what is the long answer? The long answer is that what David did — take action to keep this event accountable to women — this is not the norm.

The norm is to tell the harmed that they are making a big deal of nothing, until they start believing it and stop reporting unjust behavior.

The norm is to say that claims of harm are exaggerated and are untrue, until they second-guess each memory.

The norm is to tell the harmed that they are not credible sources — spiteful or resentful, hysterical or irrational.

The norm is to say anyone of a marginalized group is overreacting, as if having any emotions about oppressive acts is symptomatic of irrationality rendering lived truths somehow less deserving of consideration based on how it’s expressed.

The norm is for those in power to ask, how many times must the transgressor explain they have reformed, and how many times must he atone for his transgressions? instead of asking whether healing is taking place?

We are seeing this play out — again — in Harvey Weinstein. I see my guy friends, some who strongly associate their own identity with being supporters of feminist values, struggle to comprehend how their seemingly innocuous actions contribute to rape culture. I know it is not easy to look at normal with a discerning gaze if it has not betrayed you.

But for me, for others like me, normal hasn’t betrayed me because it has never ultimately been established to serve me. And it is time to question the norms.

What are the norms in the way we conduct politics? The ones that Trump him is ignoring in his own civil disobedience? What are the norms of the relationships we have with other people in our lives and what are the kinds of relationships we want to have with other people in our lives? What kinds of relationships do we want to have with our own values? How will be manifest our own values in the world? What kinds of relationships do we want to cultivate the next generation to want for themselves? What types of communities — what types of movements — what ways of being — bring us fulfillment and move us forward?

Because as you know, we live in a time of big problems, with new ones created by this administration or brought to light by witnesses of history in the making every week. We cannot focus on all of them as daunting and complex as they are.

But we can work on fostering and building our own communities, whatever a community means to you. In fact, I would argue it’s not only work we must do, but a form of a self-love.

To engage in nurturing the respectful, emotionally literate, healthy, and safe communities we deserve is a form of self-care. It is a necessary privilege.

How do we do that? Where do we start? Within ourselves. Within our family. With our friends. With our colleagues. With our neighbors.

We have to check whether our use of skepticism, our tools of critical thinking, whether these are fairly applied. We need to check our biases and our emotional resistance to having our biases checked. We need to be aware and sit with our emotional resistance to being denied access to spaces that we are not entitled to.

We need to understand that there that the reason there are more men in this movement isn’t because men are less religious by some immutable characteristic of being a man.

We need to understand that white people are not more rational than people of color because they dominate the narratives in the atheist movement.

We need to understand why, whether we like or dislike the term identity politics, whether we understand intersectionality or willfully disdain it — whatever it means to you now — we need to understand that we are not free of time and space, of history, of geography, of roots, of gender expectations, of generational expectations, of skin color, of personal traumas, of culture.

That we do not live in a societal vacuum where each of us is a blank slate who does not carry the history of the generations before us.

We are not blank slates that haven’t internalized the weight of the injustices of the societies we live in.

And we must understand why we are fraught with emotion at the implications that we need to extend more empathy and be better for communities whose complexities are less carved out in public narrative.

Does it require of us more self-reflection? More self-awareness? Yes.

Does self-monitoring the way we interact with others by holding knowledge of our relative positions in society feel oppressive? Perhaps — if you never looked upon anyone else as an equal.

The visceral reactions usually to a statement like this is offense. But I would like it to be acceptance. When I say you do not look upon me as an equal, I do not imbue this statement with moral condemnation because if I cannot afford to.

Because moral condemnation of the fact that we all have implicit biases leads to dangerous reactions like denial, guilt, and shame, allowing these biases to manifest in harmful ways that continue to contribute to systems and institutions upholding oppression — instead of letting the fact that we are biased exist as fertile ground where change can happen.

Change also requires us to face the truth. We don’t have to become cynical even as we face the realities of living in a country founded on white supremacy, a country that still suffers its ills. There is no washing of this fact to make it less demoralizing.

If we want to get somewhere valid, we must start with accurate premises not couched in euphemisms and pleasantries that wash away the lived experiences of minorities, the deaths of Black and brown people, of the homeless, of the mentally ill, at the hands of government-sanctioned police officers.

We cannot ignore growing up in a country that still suffers the cognitive dissonance between embracing the wide spectrum of human sexuality and the heteronormative beliefs about gender roles that support rape culture, objectification of women, and misogyny.

We cannot neglect that economic inequality is so staggering we can barely understand it or that our institutions of public education teach us only how to accept the status quo.

We need to look at our geographic bubbles and our online networks — and who they are not showing to us.

We don’t have to seek out political ideologies we already know are dehumanizing but we need to hear stories of individuals least heard, not narratives you’ve heard so many times in the media — and we need to hear them from those belonging to communities where these stories take place — believe them to hold truths about how life is experienced — believe them to hold realities that you may never be forced to consider — and we must not let one person’s story define an entire community.

We must not let the one story confirming our beliefs about the world be the only one we choose to take seriously. The world is much too complex for that. We live in -isms and multiple social realities.

It’s difficult because flexibility and open-mindedness and selfless imagination are difficult. But there is a silver lining: having faith in other people is equivalent to having faith in ourselves.

Our society requires transformation and transformation requires exercising our collective imagination, broadening our spheres of empathy, and meditation on how to cultivate communities we hold dear.

If we are capable of transformation, others are. If others are, we must be capable of transformation.

Where do we start? Within ourselves. With our friends. With our family. But I recognize that the personal stakes here are quite high — even if this is where we have the most control.

So maybe we start more broadly, in these new communities that we’re building for this godless world we face.

So today I would like to end with a thank you to David Diskin.

Because today I got to talk about how to create the change we want to see in the world, and how confident I am that we are able to do it together. I’m realizing that I have a place in this movement, too.

And I wasn’t sure about that until now.

Thank you, David.

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