It’s an unfortunate but increasingly difficult to ignore truth: progressives are ignorant, too. Not all progressives, all the time. But more than we’d like to think. More than can possibly be considered acceptable in a healthy sub-culture, let alone one with a stated aim of leading the world into a new enlightenment. Or even one with the humbler hope of living in that kind of world.
Science fiction fans, for example. Science fictional folk are notoriously liberal: both readers and writers. Roddenberry’s Star Trek envisioned a world of diplomacy first with starship battles (as frequent as they appeared to be) as a last resort, equality as a rule rather than a hard-won exception, and learning as a joy rather than a chore. He imagined that the future could only get better — but through science and humanist values rather than laissez faire capitalism or religious conviction.
Wouldn’t it be ironic then, if someone dressed in Star Fleet duds started sexually harassing women at an SF convention, or telling racist jokes? People who live in the shiny new future are supposed to be better than that. But sometimes they aren’t.
There might be a temptation to stereotype inappropriate behavior in the realm of “fandom” — the world of comic book fans, gamers and bookworms of all sorts — as the expected result of socially-stunted geeks venturing into human-filled spaces they aren’t equipped to cope with. But I don’t think that’s it at all. I think some are quite comfortable in social situations but fall short in their recognition and appreciation of individual women’s autonomy and right to feel safe.
So let’s move over to another notoriously left-leaning group: the amorphous blob of the scientifically-minded, irreligious and self-appointed skeptics. A similar sort of incident occurred with prominent feminist and Skepchick blogger, Rebecca Watson. At “The Amazing Meeting” in the summer of 2011, she was awkwardly hit on by a man who, intentionally or not, had trapped her alone in a small enclosed space at four o’clock in the morning, while she was attempting to return to her hotel room.
Where the sexism comes in is after Watson mentioned the incident, suggested that guys be a little more aware of the female perspective — i.e., smaller, physically less powerful and always aware of the possibility of sexual assault from strange men — because frankly, it might not occur to us how uncomfortable we can make someone if we don’t consciously try to put ourselves in their shoes. And what ensued after her very well-mannered and reasonable suggestion was an absolute firestorm of criticism, mostly from privileged men, surprisingly some from bonafide women, accusing her of all sorts of things, but also making direct threats of sexual violence while telling her she never had anything to worry about.
I liked Amanda Marcotte’s take on the whole thing. Her explanation of “the implication” and rape culture immediately made clear something that can easily be overlooked by even well-meaning men in these sorts of situations. Women have to worry about this stuff; men, by and large, do not.
It can be difficult to see past our own privilege. Most of us have at least one, and perhaps several. Middle income privilege, ethnic majority privilege, cisgender privilege, male privilege — the list goes on. All of us make so many assumptions in our day-to-day life we don’t even realize some of them simply don’t hold up. We try to act as if we’re color blind thinking that’s the way to avoid being racist, when what we need to do is be more critically aware of how race permeates and influences society.
Here’s the question all this has been leading up to: Are left-leaning, skeptical, scientifically-inclined people actually worse, on average, at recognizing and learning from our own worst behaviors than the population at large? How is it that the self-professed Enlightenment 2.0 crowd is capable of such incredible bigotry and general insensitivity without immediately recognizing the twisty logical fallacies and faulty premises we employ — those weak links in a logical chain we so easily ferret out when a libertarian is arguing for laissez faire everything, or a Creationist says the world is 5000 years old?
It may be that some of us are so used to being radically progressive, so used to dismantling right-wing dogma, so used to being obviously right, we can’t even imagine that we’re guilty of some of the same lapses in logic. I wonder if Atheism+, then, is the new inner circle for those who possess the open-mindedness and critical thinking skills to examine their own beliefs and motivations, and not just everyone else’s.
Denigrators seem to be suggesting that this move hurts secular discourse and rational-minded movements in general. But I can’t help but think that this is just the next necessary step forward. Early feminism was critiqued as standing up only for wealthy white women, and later, a newer more inclusive feminism was born.
Likewise, while battling religion-inspired anti-science sentiment and human rights violations was a great start for American atheism as a political movement, it’s frankly contradictory for a bunch of old white guys to pat themselves on the back and give speeches while people of color are marginalized and women receive rape threats when they point out something embarrassing. Traditional values of the worst sort have a certain insidious staying power if they aren’t explicitly rooted out. Giving up god doesn’t make it all better.
And the same goes for other left-leaning political groups, sub-cultures or other loose affiliations of like-minded people. We aren’t there yet. The status quo will not do. It’s not enough to be anti-religion, we need to be pro-humanity. Simple environmentalism isn’t enough, we also need recognition of the economically marginalized. Skeptical inquiry and scientific thinking is great, but we need to apply it equally to our own preconceptions. Perhaps the surest indication that the “plus” is generally a good thing is just how uncomfortable and irritating it is for some people.
Enlightenment doesn’t come whole cloth. I was pro-science before I became much of an environmentalist. I was a social reform advocate for years while failing to “grok” modern feminism. Every year I discover new ways that I am wrong, and every year I try to be just a little bit smarter. But I know I’ll never be done. But I try to welcome every new plus to my critical-thinking, socially-responsible repertoire.
Image credit: Jen McCreight