Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Mainstream vs Average and Atheism Plus

I was part of an interesting discussion about the urge by creators to destroy their most awesome creations, which was dubbed the Lucas Principle1 and discussed with respect to Ridley Scott and his repeated attacks against Alien and Blade Runner, with a brief foray into the Card Effect2 and a very interesting discussion of gender neutral pronouns3.

At one point, Roberta Williams was brought up. This is because we were casting about for female creators to put alongside the likes of Lucas and Scott. Williams was (and apparently still is) a video game designer and co-founder of Sierra Entertainment. In the 90s she came under criticism of elitism for stating that she was creating games for more educated and affluent gamers, codified in '99 by the following:

Back when I got started, which sounds like ancient history, back then the demographics of people who were into computer games, was totally different, in my opinion, than they are today. Back then, computers were more expensive, which made them more exclusive to people who were maybe at a certain income level, or education level. So the people that played computer games 15 years ago were that type of person. They probably didn't watch television as much, and the instant gratification era hadn't quite grown the way it has lately. I think in the last 5 or 6 years, the demographics have really changed, now this is my opinion, because computers are less expensive so more people can afford them. More "average" people now feel they should own one.

The fact is that Williams was in part correct. Computers became mainstream just as video game consoles, telephones, and cars have all become mainstream. Her real mistake lay in calling it "average" and in assuming that this was in any way a bad thing. It's really not.

This brought to mind a speech given by Greta Christina as the keynote speaker for the Secular Student Alliance in 2010. The video (embedded below) is about an hour long and she discusses the similarities between today's atheist movement and the history of the gay movement, and what the former can learn from the latter. One of the many things she discusses is actually a warning: atheists should prepare to see themselves become less special.

Once upon a time, coming out of the closet was a guaranteed way to get yourself killed. Oscar Wilde was convicted of homosexuality and his time in prison was so injurious that he never fully recovered and died shortly after his release, spending the last few years of his life penniless and advocating penal reform. Alan Turing, hero of the second world war, was convicted of homosexuality half a century later and committed suicide following the loss of his career and chemical castration. The Stonewall Riots of 1969 were the nucleus around which the defiant Gay Rights Movement was formed.

Because coming out was still difficult, dangerous, and in some places illegal, out gays of the 70s and 80s were a very different group than today. Homosexuality has become mainstream, perhaps even seen as merely a "different kind of normal" rather than dangerous, sick, or criminal. The discussion today is whether gays can legally get married, not whether they should be in prison; and conservative steadfasts have admitted that opposing that is a losing proposition as young conservatives are coming into the fold who don't see homosexuality as a problem to solve.

Where once you had to be an incredibly strong, independent, and indeed fabulous person to withstand the withering hatred of daily life as a gay person, now you may be just another person who simply happens to be gay, who rolls their eyes and says "We're not all like Kurt Hummel." As gays have become mainstream and the mainstream has become more gay, being gay has become less special. Just another kind of normal. This is somewhat sad, but it's victory.

In the same way, Christina reasons, atheists will become less special as the mainstreaming already underway continues. Being an atheist in an overwhelmingly religious society such as that of the United states usually involves growing up in, understanding, thinking deeply about, and ultimately rejecting religion. It means facing abiding discrimination and hatred4, and facing the scorn of your community and even being kicked out of your home. It means being better informed about religion than the religious, and spending far more time thinking and arguing about matters of faith, history, and morality. It means being well-informed and articulate in a way that the population at large is not. In means, in short, being special.

Are atheists becoming not-special? Far from it! Rather, they're experiencing a different growing pain resulting from mainstreaming. They're experiencing a problem the gay community might wish it suffered from in 1975. The atheist community now has minorities. It has women, and blacks, and transgendered people, and disabled people, and all that other stuff. Christina points out that the gay movement still has trouble reaching out to the black community because, as is often the case, the gay movement was led by white men back in the day. As leaders, they were the public face, and that hurt them in reaching out to gays where were not white or not men.

This brings us to Atheism Plus. A number of women and minorities have been clamoring for greater inclusion in the atheism movement. They've also been holding leaders' feet to the fire to get them to be more outspoken about matters not traditionally part of the atheist wheelhouse5. They've been pushing for discussion of feminism, homosexuality, race relations, alternative genders, and other issues in progressive politics. This has received significant push-back from individuals who don't think that that's part of what it means to be an atheist. "The skeptical, fact-based worldview can be brought to bear on other issues." vs. "What we talk about as atheists is the god thing. Stop bugging us!"

About a year ago, atheist blogger Rebecca Watson accidentally set the internet on fire by saying she found it creepy when a guy hit on her in an elevator. What followed was an all-out troll-fest as the misogynists women always have to face when they speak in public piled on, clueless atheist men came in to defend elevator guy or ask what the problem was, other feminist atheists (male and female) spoke up in Watson's defense, and more trolls piled on, names were called, and discussions exploded everywhere6. This firestorm hasn't died down in the 15 months since it started. Other feminist atheists have become more outspoken about how the atheist community isn't and hasn't been friendly to female atheists. Minority atheists have spoken up saying much the same about the community's relationship with non-white atheists. And the whole time, the old guard, from their position of privilege, have argued that everyone needs to shut up, quit whining, and get back to not believing in god, dammit!

The latest development in this ongoing discussion has been Atheism+, atheism plus progressive social issues. A movement which seeks to bring skepticism and scientific methodological naturalism to bear on social issues. I've found it quite informative. I'm not exactly a lurker there, but I'm nowhere near as prolific as some of you might expect. Instead I mostly read and learn. Not all are so reticent to participate. Misogynist and MRA7 trolls have been a serious problem in the weeks since its genesis and it's proved very divisive within the atheist community. Even those who aren't misogynistic assholes8 don't necessarily see the need for a space to discuss these issues safely, don't see these issues as being part of atheism, or think the feminists are assholes themselves, particularly for calling them assholes for not agreeing with the first two points!

Things have been pretty rough over there, in case you're wondering. In addition to a lot of temporary bans to slap down people who've too insulting, hurtful, or hateful, there have also been a number of permanent bans. An average of nearly one a day. In my opinion, all have been justified.

Atheism+ is an outgrowth of the mainstreaming of atheism. It's no longer a club reserved for a very few people, a small, uniform community. It's reached the point where different people, with different interests want to join. Atheism should learn from the history of the gay rights movement and not be a movement just for white men. Avoid the problem by learning to be inclusive. Don't commit the ecological fallacy and assume that a community becoming more average means each member is becoming more average. The community is becoming more diverse, and this will bring in a variety of views, a variety of arguments, and it means there will be more ambassadors to different communities. Gay has become another kind of normal because everyone has come to realize that someone they love is gay. That the black community in America is less gay-friendly than mainstream America is a direct result of the gay movement's failure to be more racially inclusive back in the day. The atheist movement shouldn't make that mistake.

Just in case it's not clear, I'm fully in support of atheism+. My atheism isn't something I keep in a box, away from the rest of my beliefs. I like to believe that it's the result of the same skepticism and scientific worldview as the rest of my beliefs. I'm certain that my worldview isn't as cohesive and self-consistent as I would like, but I'll keep learning and growing and working on it, and I'll try to ensure consistency by not keeping each part in isolation from the others.

So where does that leave us with Roberta Williams? She was factually correct that computers and computer gaming had become more mainstream, more average, and that that meant the market for games had changed. Where she was wrong was in assuming that meant every computer owner was now average. That's the ecological fallacy. The market had become larger and more diverse. Her affluent, educated gamers were still there, still waiting for her kind of game, but there were other gamers as well with different tastes. There's room for Call of Duty, Batman, and Fallout on the shelves at the stores. There's room for heroes who are black, female, or disabled. There are people waiting to hear the stories that all of the creators have to tell. They don't all want the same stories or heroes, but that's okay. It takes all kinds.

Greta Christina's Talk at SSA


1 - Lucas isn't a good writer. He's not the greatest director. He is a man of enormous technical vision and a good producer. Unfortunately, he also thinks he's a writer and director. The Star Wars prequel trilogy isn't good. This is his fault.

2 - When knowledge of a creator's rampant bigotry spoils your enjoyment of earlier works where that bigotry's more subtle manifestations become more apparent. Orson Scott Card is a damn good writer. Unfortunately, he's also a devout member of the Church of Latter Day Saints (a Mormon) and is kind of a rampant bigot and climate change denialist. It makes it hard to read some of his earlier books. You read the Homecoming series and it's like "Oh. This is the book of Mormon but with a sentient computer and Russian astronauts." Or you read The Tales of Alvin Maker and you're like "Oh. This is the book of Mormon, only the guy's name is Alvin instead of John and he actually has magic powers rather than being a misogynist fraud." And his sympathetic homosexual characters become less so when you realize he honestly believes that if they just tried harder the gays could at least pretend to be straight and have families instead of living in sin and burning forever. Yay?

3 - I'm now fully on board with using they/their for the third-person singular when I wish to remain gender neutral rather than torturing my prose; turns out that's the way we originally used our language before yet another British busybody ruined it for everyone else.

4 - Studies have shown that atheists are the most despised group in the United States. Moreso even than Muslims. This surprised the authors because no atheists in living memory have murdered thousands of people in a single act of terrorism. Also unlike gays and minorities and "foreign" religions, bigotry against atheists has been resistant to change over time. How much does the US hate atheists? Half again as much as Muslims, the second most hated group. If America hates Muslims to the amount of 10, it has its atheist hate-meter set to 15.

5 - Traditionally in the atheist wheelhouse: how much god doesn't exist, how alt-medicine is stupid, the continued non-existence of god, how much religion sucks, why we wish people would doing that god thing, and how hard it is being an atheist. Not in the atheist wheelhouse: what it's like being something other than a financially secure, well educated, heterosexual white male, except insofar as being different from that may or may not make you more likely to believe in god.

6 - It didn't help when atheist celebrity Richard Dawkins threw fuel on the fire by posting as a commenter at PZ Myers's old Pharyngula blog at scienceblogs, saying that Watson shouldn't complain about the creepy guy because women have it worse elsewhere.

7 - Men's Rights Activists. They're misogynists but rather than calling you a cunt and telling you to get back in the kitchen, they come in and whine "What about teh menz?!", bitching that feminists ignore the problems men face (they don't) and that men have it worse than women (they don't). They make claims that are exaggerated at best and false at worst, rarely backing them up with links or statistics. In other words, they're like climate change denialists, only they complain about feminazis instead of treethuggers.

8X - Atheism+ isn't just about feminism, but that and gender issues are still the main focus of what I've seen on the fora. It's been branching out in its focus more in the last 10 days or so, I think. It's only about 5 weeks old.

X - Seriously? That's a lot of footnotes!