Disappearance of the “Scarlet A”, and musings on “Atheism Plus”…

AIn October of 2007, if you were a reader of my old blog, you may have noticed my signing up to The Out Campaign; a campaign where atheists donned the now near-ubiquitous (in one form of another) “Scarlet A” – outing or presenting themselves as godless in response to a world where godlessness isn’t always tolerated.

I make no reservations about declaring my “post-atheist” condition; I have never actually been religious; I don’t live in a culture where I am oppressed on account of my lack of religion; I live in a culture where in general, I am tolerated. Unlike some of my fellow Freethinkers from “post-atheist” cultures though, I have no intention of belittling the struggles of atheists in less tolerant climates, even in less-than-tolerant developed nations like the US.

(I.e. I’m not going to play that game).

Back in 2007, I had a Catholic friend who shunned me when I revealed that in fact, I was irreligious. Our friendship was originally fuelled in no small part by our mutual concerns about social justice. And then it was over…

Did I suddenly identify as oppressed? No. However, in a process resulting from this shunning, somewhat like being injected with the proteins of a virus, I was in a sense inoculated against the real thing. I found it easier to empathise with people who were oppressed, or at least marginalised on account of their atheism.

The “Scarlet A” then, was about solidarity.

It’s now 2014, and things have changed. The website for The Out Campaign is clearly no longer properly maintained, at the time of writing featuring broken image URLs. Iterations of the “Scarlet A” have mutated, speciated and in some cases metastasized.

While I don’t object to most instances of the use of the “Scarlet A” still in use, it’s just lost relevance to me. It’s not clear that it symbolizes what I wish to convey by displaying it, so I’ve recently dropped it from my sidebar. Indeed, I’ve been  meaning to do so for some time.

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“Atheist plussers”…

I’ve nothing against the “Atheism Plus” crowd, and I utterly object to the abuse they’ve received – abuse both leading to the creation of “Atheism Plus” in the first place, and abuse directed at them afterward. I wish them all needed respite from this abuse as well. This alone, depending on your definitions, may or may not make me one of them, although I’m not giving you a stake in my identity either way.

My interest in social justice has me holding a number of values also shared by the “Atheism Plus” crowd (“Atheism Plus” essentially being atheism “plus” social justice). This may or may not, depending on your definitions, also mark me as objectively fitting in.

Only, I have next to no interest in identifying, nor being interpellated* as such.

I’ve said it before over the years and I’ll say it again; I’m a lefty before I’m an atheist. While I may have many of the same priorities on my list as “Atheist Plus” atheists, I’m likely to order my priorities differently. Also, given my experiences on the left seemingly being different to that of many of the “Atheist Plus” crowd, I suspect it is likely that there will be concerns I have that we don’t share.

There’s also differences between the American and Australian left to consider. In Australia, we haven’t slid as far down the path of neo-liberalism and anti-unionist culture, and hence aren’t likely to have all the same invisible assumptions about such things – the kinds of assumptions that can be unwittingly adopted even by their opponents.

(I see this to some extent in the small-business-owner-like culture surrounding a number of social-justice-oriented public speakers and writers from the US, not limited purely to those from an atheistic background).

Generally, what’s the “Atheist Plus” take on the Reaganite union bashing of the 1980s, and its spread via globalisation? I don’t know. This isn’t a criticism of “Atheism Plus”, but rather an observation of potential sources of difference of priority.

This may or may not signal a conflict between myself and any given “Atheist Plus” position in the future. And if it does, people involved may want to know where I’ll be coming from should this happen; all else being equal, if it’s a choice between acting on the material left-wing concerns of a unionist/worker who happens to be religious, and entertaining an abstract theological point raised by an atheist who happens to be leftish, I’m not going to be siding with the atheist. (Also, theology doesn’t interest me that much).

(I happen to suspect that there is too much of what could be considered tantamount to class blindness in “Atheism Plus”, albeit not wilfully so. Considerations of class aren’t as prevalent amongst “Atheism Plus” as I’d be happy to see in a left-wing movement/organisation. It all comes across as being a bit too exclusively white collar).

Such a conflict may never occur, however a fundamental difference in the sorting of our priorities remains, even if our values are largely compatible. This matters to me.

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Nothing has fundamentally changed about me regarding these matters over the past ten years. The only thing that has changed is the broader context I find myself engulfed in. I doubt I’m alone in this.

At any rate, I’m not going to make declarations of loyalty to groups that I know in advance that I may not be able to honour. And the “Scarlet A”? Gone.

I will however say this much; I am still an atheist writer, only I’m not just an atheist who writes. Often I will focus on issues from an atheist perspective, however my perspective isn’t solely defined along such lines. This may be a source of future conflict.

Allies who fail to understand this may wind up feeling betrayed. Enemies who fail to understand this risk making themselves look foolish.

~ Bruce

* Also, I don’t think my status as a subject is secondary in the generation of my identity, thank you very much anti-humanists.


Over a year of this crap…

Contextual back-story: Over a year ago now, in South Australian Humanist/Atheist circles, we had what could be called a situation.

Towards the start of 2013, months before this “situation”, I was drafting an anti-harassment policy for the Humanist Society of South Australia (HSSA), during my stint as treasurer. The HSSA, from then and until this day has had a close association with a group now known as the Atheist Community of South Australia (ACSA).

The policy I was drafting drew inspiration from policies enacted by American Atheists, and the Center For Inquiry, with considerations made for local contexts, and a number of rational criticisms of such policies taken into account. The process was supposed to and to some extent did, incorporate criticisms from the floor at meetings – i.e. it was intended to be a democratic process.

(As an aside, I have been informed that the HSSA committee has in the past few months, passed a version of the policy as a bylaw, in lieu of putting it to a vote of the membership. There is of writing however, no sign of the final policy on the HSSA website, nor have I obtained a copy, nor had one sent to me as a member.)

Almost from the inception of the drafting process, there were problems. I was warned by an official of a large atheist group that I shouldn’t attempt it – not from an objection to such policies, but on account of the rubbish I’d have to put up with.

At the very first meeting where I announced the drafting process, I was persistently interrupted by a chap named Mark Senior, who objected to my attempt at a criticism of the attitude behind a t-shirt worn to a convention in the US. What his objection was exactly, can’t be ascertained, given that I never got to voice my criticism for him to respond to in the first place. Suffice to say, it heralded a year of complete horseshit to come.

But yes… the mentioned “situation”. That occurred at first not in the HSSA, but in ACSA, and was noticed by Jason Thibeault of Lousy Canuck fame.

Short version: A bunch of chaps got angry about feminism, “Atheist plussers” and The White Ribbon campaign, a number of these guys also being anxious about the drafting of an anti-harassment policy. Lines were stepped over by a number of parties.

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Response from a “Zionist run internet blog”…

First of all, before I get into the meat of things, I’d like to thank the people who helped promote via social media, my last post which criticised The Mind Unleashed. Rousing Departures is actually a small personal blog that usually attracts very minimal traffic – my traffic stats graph currently has a couple of large columns for the last few days, while the columns for the rest of the month are barely visible, having been squished down to scale.

Indeed, a week ago as of writing, I managed to get nine page views for the day – the past couple of days have seen page views in the thousands. And the Facebook page for Rousing Departures? That currently has less than fifty likes, compared to The Mind Unleashed’s three and a half million… (Keep this in mind, when you consider some of the responses I’ve received, that follow).

I’m currently in the process of trying to organise a collaborative blog with a few other writers, which would have been a far better venue for this discussion, but there have been setbacks. My apologies on that count. Still, this isn’t about blog-promotion – this is about bigotry and bogus medical advice, so I’d better get on with it.

Those of us who have been criticising The Mind Unleashed (TMU) over the past few days, appear on some level to be striking a chord; RationalWiki now has a section on TMU, and importantly, TMU has itself responded…

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If you’re not trolling, and you’re not a bigot, you’ve no reason to ‘like’ “The Mind Unleashed”…

It’s gone off like a pig in a cake shop; the amount of ‘likes’ the viral Facebook page, “The Mind Unleashed”, has attained (currently around two and a half million, with oodles of shares and likes – marketing manna from heaven!) Like many other viral Facebook pages, it lures people in with affirmations, platitudes of dubious worth, plagiarised conspiracy theorist memes, and dangerous medical misinformation served up as wisdom.

The target audience is the superficially-leftish end of the spectrum; the well-meaning but politically naive, and those who just don’t like to see the underdog kicked; from people who haven’t had the opportunity to acquire genuine critical thinking and/or research skills, to the histrionic-sanctimonious; the aspiring George Galloways; the would-be-cult-leaders.

I have a special loathing for the piece of disinformation, beloved of “The Mind Unleashed”, and oft repeated without reference to anything other than anecdote, that cannabis can cure cancer. Aside from anecdote never being a good basis for medical advice, this rubbish is just plain wrong, and could encourage people with cancer to disregard sound medical advice from oncologists. People have already been killed by this kind of thing.

This may be sinister, but it’s not this sinister aspect of “The Mind Unleashed” that I want to draw attention to.

The sinister aspect of “The Mind Unleashed” I want to address belongs to the general category of being-overtly-shit-to-members-of-social-groups. “The Mind Unleashed” is anti-Semitic. To be on board with “The Mind Unleashed”, is to enable the hatred of Jews.

I trust that at least some new-age-type-folk may object to such hatred.

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Plucked From The Nether: ‘”A” is for “Apathy”?’

In November of 2010, on my previous blog, I wrote a post with the title ‘”A” is for “Apathy”?’, ostensibly spurred on by a comment  by Sean of Bookonaut (née Blogonaut) fame. However, I didn’t disclose at the time that I’d already been mulling over commentary on much the same topic, made on Facebook, by a much-loved atheist who went by the name of Candy Hogan. This is what she posted, earlier in November 2010;

“when i go to read my newsfeed often want to scream. I understand the proud atheist thing, but WHY does EVERYTHING have to be about RELIGION? dammit, its boring! u might as well be practicing these religions u claim u hate cuz theyre ALL U TALK ABOUT!! in depth studies of inconsistancies… why isnt it enough to just not believe? new subject PLEASE???”

(Candy Hogan, November 18th, 2010)

I originally considered dedicating my post to her, however, given that I opened by quoting Sean (and that a dedication seemed potentially too familiar), I opted not to. A few weeks later, in early January 2011, after a bout of viral pneumonia, Candy Hogan’s life came to an end.

I’m periodically reminded of Candy every now and then (as I have been again, now) – she was witty, occasionally a little caustic (while still being witty), and thoroughly irreverent. Nobody, including atheists, could be guaranteed immunity from her sense of humour. Discussion, with Candy as a participant, was never allowed to stagnate for long, if at all, and even while for the most part I sat on the sidelines, I considered Candy’s thoughts worthy of attention.

So with the exception of a little spit-and-polish here and there, the following is ‘”A” is for “Apathy”?’ as it appeared in November of 2010, now re-dedicated to Candy. Vale Candy Hogan.

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This dog may look forlorn, but what happens next will surprise you and melt your heart…

dog This dog may appear forlorn, sad, lonely and abandoned, but often things are not as they first appear. Dogs are wonderful creatures, and man’s best friend, so you would think that nothing good that they do would be cause for amazement.

“Selflessness and love? That just what dogs do!”

But this “sad” pooch was only moments away from a revelation that would change his life forever, melt hearts across the world and show that dogs really do have a whole heap of surprises up their sleeves to teach us cynical humans.

Watch below and weep tears of joy…

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“Real men”, plus “hyper” and “toxic” masculinity…

rmdbg A few weeks ago on my birthday, after watching Godzilla with a friend, downing a few drinks and engaging in critique of the movie’s gender politics, discussion turned to the assumptions underlying, or inferred by, a number of terms. Specifically we discussed the terms  “real men”, “toxic masculinity” and “hyper-masculinity” (all while my friend’s copy of “Demonic Males” slowly emerged from her handbag). First, I’ll briefly address the “Real Men Do/Don’t…” meme that’s recently been going around.

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Don’t get me wrong, “buying girls” is shitty behaviour of a high order, and should be strongly campaigned against even if only because people are not objects to be bought or sold. View just technically, before suffering gets taken into consideration, this is a compelling justice concern.

My objection isn’t with this side of the equation at all, rather my problem comes from the part that ascribes the relevant agency to “real men”. What the fuck is a “real man”? (That’s a rhetorical question).

Others have made critiques on the basis of the inferences the “Real Men Don’t Buy Girls” campaign makes about gender roles, and they are critiques that I generally agree with, however I’ll be addressing another problem.

It’s pretty obvious that most people using the term “real men” aren’t arguing that the concept of “men” is more than just a useful fiction in the philosophical sense, nor, obviously, are they arguing that men who buy girls don’t have existence. What they are implying, if not plainly stating, is that objectively “this (not buying girls) is an essential criteria for being a man”.

This is more or less true for all the other instances of the “real men” meme. You can perform a Google image search to find that other essential criteria of “Man” are argued to be the ability to grow their own scarves, to be able to shave with chainsaws, to abstain from quiche, and other such nonsense. Adelaide band The Beards, performs a line in pseudo-ironic, hipster sexism along much the same lines…


Because it’s original and edgy, because sexism hasn’t been around since… the dawn of history… (3:49)

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You can see how this kind of terminology is a problem with only a little thought experimentation.

Say you have before you, an adult randomly selected from the population of people who have been arrested, charged and sentenced for buying one or more girls. Picture them in your mind. Is it conceivably possible that their sex is “male”? Is it conceivably possible that they self-identify, gender-wise, as a man?

If it’s even logically possible for the answer to these questions to be “yes” (and it’s pretty obvious that this is highly likely to be the case in the “real world”), then we have problems when it comes to the wording of the campaign in question. The statement “real men don’t buy girls” is in contradiction with the evidence presented by these scenarios; here you have men who buy girls.

Either we are in error about the offender’s gender and sex, or we are wrong in assigning certain characteristics to the class “Men”; i.e. either “real men” do on occasion, buy girls, beat wives, and so on and so forth, or they don’t, and the people who do these things are… who or what exactly? If they aren’t Men, then what are they?

More importantly, how do you decide, in a non-arbitrary manner, what constitutes an essential gender criteria, or do you instead, like some folk, avoid trying to objectively define other people’s gender all-together?

Speaking practically, this issue can be side-stepped if different rhetoric is chosen by the people designing these campaigns… “Men who buy girls should be policed more aggressively” or “children should not have to live with the threat of being bought by men”, for example.

The fact that all this mess can be side-stepped with so little effort on the part of campaigners, all without compromising on the message of the campaign, means that there’s really no excuse for getting it wrong.

Admittedly, not all men may find this language comforting, unequivocal as it is about the acts of particularly rotten men. But I’m not in the business of consolations. If you want that, I’m sure Alain de Botton probably has a bromide of one sort or another to sell you.

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(Now if at this point, you’re complaining that this is all just an exercise in semantics, it’s possibly because you’re bigot, or at the very least, the kind of person who doesn’t like to consider the consequences of what they communicate to the world around them. Why you’d even be reading this post in the first place then, is a bit of a mystery.)

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The problems associated with essentialism and gender don’t stop there though. Earlier, I mentioned the “Real Men Grow Their Own Scarves” iteration of the meme.

Taken only a little bit seriously, this is clearly ridiculous. Are you really going to suggest, that because someone cannot grow a beard sufficient to function as a scarf, that this, and this alone, disqualifies them from being a man?

No, you wouldn’t? Perhaps it’s just a harmless joke, right?

Allow me to extend this further with another small thought experiment.

You encounter someone who identifies as a trans-gendered male, who may or may not have been designated the sex of female at birth, and they are unable or unwilling to grow a beard sufficient, by your standards, to act as a scarf. Are you going to acknowledge and treat them as a man?

If your answer is “no”, you’re a transphobe. Congratulations.

Of course, being precisely this kind of asshole to transgendered folk isn’t the worst kind of bigotry they are subjected to, and somewhat less so is naively enjoying Internet memes about “real men” and beards. However, you’d be hard pressed to find an instance of harsher forms of transphobia that aren’t also based on gender essentialism, whether that essentialism takes the form of tropes about “real men” or “real women”, or not.

By using the language and logic of gender essentialism, the “Real Men don’t buy girls” campaign feeds into transphobia. Indirectly, perhaps, but almost inevitably once the logic and language of essentialism takes a hold of the way we talk about gender.

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This brings us back to the matter of “toxic” and “ultra” masculinity.

Given events like the recent Isla Vista shootings, back to the less-recent serial killings of the Hillside Stranglers, or the all-too-familiar skews in statistics like those for domestic violence, and all the chest-beating, pigeon-strutting,  violence-signalling, late-night-posturing bullshit that goes along with it, it’s hard not to view the terms “toxic masculinity” and “ultra-masculinity” as pointing to substantive cultural phenomena. And without entirely discounting the role of the biological, I don’t have any great problem in acknowledging that these phenomena exist as cultural phenomena, and that they, as cultural phenomena, present obviously serious social problems.

However, both of these terms do more than just point to the phenomena they are primarily intended to. They carry other inferences, and baggage, in much the way “real men” conveys more than anti-child-exploitation campaigners may intend.

The concept of toxicity is one where something specific, at a certain level or concentration, becomes harmful – what then, about masculinity, is specifically the part that becomes toxic?

Similarly, “ultra-masculinity” implies the ability to measure a quality, or qualities of masculinity, such that their exaggeration can be noticed above and beyond “normal” levels. What exactly are these qualities, and what makes them a part of masculinity, such that masculinity in general, necessarily infers them? Or put more succinctly, why are these qualities essential to masculinity?

“Toxic” and “ultra” masculinity don’t come out and say it, quite as much as does “real men”, but gender essentialism is implied by the choice of words.

If you’re not a person who has a problem with gender essentialism, the problems posed by its logic, or the consequences of its ideological offshoots, then you’re obviously not going to have a problem with these terms. Again, one wonders why such a person would even be reading this.

And I guess that in addition to this, if you’re also feminist, that having these words in your lexicon still isn’t going to be an issue. In this matter at least, you perhaps count yourself as being ideologically in the company of the likes of Julie Bindel and Germaine Greer. It’s not my place to tell you who or with what ideas you must affiliate, but I can make observations.

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I’m not asserting that the phenomena that “toxic” and “ultra” masculinity point to entail gender essentialism, but rather that through baggage and inference, the language does. If you’re the kind of person who seeks to avoid gender essentialism (i.e. not a “TERF”), while criticising misogynistic culture, then I think you’d possibly be the kind of person who’d want to keep the concepts, but ditch the language.

Examples of how the rhetoric of “toxic masculinity” could contribute to transphobia don’t immediately come to mind, but the logic would seem to leave it open to such a possibility. The idea of “ultra masculinity” on the other hand, through the simple idea of men being able to be more objectively belonging to the class “Men” than others, present obvious exclusionary potential I don’t even want to speculate about.

(It shouldn’t need pointing out that the logic in all of this sets a precedent for/necessarily implies essentialism along the lines of “toxic” and “ultra” femininity, and “real women”, with all the potential for re-enforcement of archaic gender roles and trans-misogyny that comes with it).

Stated outright, “toxic” and “ultra” masculinity, like “real men”, despite what people’s intentions may be, are still rooted to varying extents in patriarchal language*. How much of a problem you take this to be is up to you, but for my part, I’m not ambivalent about it.

As of yet, I don’t really have a handle on any neologisms that could act as substitutes for “toxic” or “ultra” masculinity that wouldn’t also generate a good deal of fruitless confusion. I’m stuck with expending extra words each time I want to talk about “harmful interpretations of masculinity” or “patriarchal culture” or “misogynistic ideations” or “rape culture”.

Usually this entails just being clear, at length, about the matter at hand, but the loss of useful-if-problematic terminology isn’t something to be overlooked either; conversations can get bogged down or driven into rhetorical side-alleys without specific technical language. The word-smithing continues.

~ Bruce

* Patriarchies, and patriarchal cultures, being essentialist themselves.