Criticism vs. Censorship

I’d like to address something that came up in class the other day. We were talking about microaggression (a sociology term for covert, as opposed to overt, racism). An example of a microaggression could be asking, say, an Asian person “So when do you go back home?” This assumes that they aren’t from Canada and may elicit the feeling that they don’t belong. The person who said this may not have meant any offense, but their assumption that “Asian = immigrant” elicited a strong emotional reaction in the Asian person because they weren’t sensitive to the fact that just because this person is of Asian descent, doesn’t mean they aren’t Canadian or that they are leaving anytime soon.

So in class, I brought up other forms of covert “racism” — anti-gay and anti-atheist covert insults. Being gay or of a certain religion isn’t always something you can tell about a person right away. We can keep it secret if we want to, as opposed to race. But the thing is, we’re still that on the inside all the time. So when we go through our days, we still have to belong to a world that in some ways doesn’t want us. As such, we’re exposed to a lot of things that remind us that we don’t belong. Such as the constant fight for the right to gay marriage, or the atheist fight to be thought of as moral fully-human beings. Though people we’re interacting with on a daily basis aren’t targeting us purposely, there is an assumption in society that we are “a certain way”, i.e., like them — straight and religious.

So in class I mentioned an example. I said that walking by church signs (and remember this is just an example, I could have said anything: saying bless you, the constant public insult released by various churches, the extra effort needed to go through a wedding, etc) could be considered a different form of religious “microaggression” because they can elicit feelings of confusion, anger, resentment, and unbelonging. Although it isn’t technically “microaggression” (as I understand, this term is reserved for covert racial insults), the feelings they elicit are the same. There were two good examples of this type of “insult” on Friendly Atheist the other day — the way people just assume religion in other people or make assumptions about what atheism is without asking an atheist.

The church signs I was talking about specifically were those that are insulting to people of non-faith or different faiths, but it could also include things like “we’re praying for you” or “Jesus loves you”. Although the latter two may be considered to be positive, they place assumptions on people. For example, if one believes that prayer is effective, by saying “I’ll pray for you” they are saying “I’m going to encourage my magical invisible force to impose something on you that you never asked for and may not want”. The former examples (non-faith or faith-based insults) such as threats of fire and brimstone to all ye who disbelieve, are just plain insulting.

After I bring this up, another student says: “I don’t think that we have the right to restrict free speech or ask the signs be taken down because it’s their property and their message.” I did not say anything of the kind. She didn’t mean to do it, but that is what we call a straw man. It would be ridiculous of me to suggest that churches not be allowed to have signs while I argue that atheists should have theirs. So of course, that was not what I was saying at all. Though I wish churches would be less bigoted (though, they don’t all do it — there are reasonable religious people out there) and I wish I didn’t have to walk by a representation of a bloody dead guy being starved and ridiculed to death on a wooden frame, I really have no right to tell them they aren’t allowed to be bigoted or insensitive. I can, however, criticize and say that they shouldn’t be.

I can also complain when I feel that society acts like atheists don’t exist — even the reasonable religious can assume religiosity in others in casual speech, actions, and manner. This is just as irritating to deal with all the time. It’s the accumulation of all of these things that is so hard to deal with. I don’t care if it’s from a good place, I don’t care if it’s part of the language, I don’t care if Christmas is supposed to be a happy secular holiday for all. I feel imposed upon, as an atheist, and I shouldn’t have to feel that way and I shouldn’t on top of that have to deal with my feelings being invalidated by someone telling me to lighten up or that it’s no big deal. Is “God Hates Fags” a big deal? Then the “God Hates Atheists” attitude is, too, and I can fight it.

Back to the point, which is the common assumption of a lot of people upon hearing criticism. When I criticize something, what am I saying? I’m saying that something is maybe not right, insulting, degrading, against human rights and freedoms, etc. What am I not saying? I’m most certainly not saying that the “offensive” material should be eliminated. I may privately feel that I’d be better off not seeing something, but I can look away. Publicly, we would not be better off with something like that removed, because then we can’t discuss it. If the offending item is gone before it reaches our virgin eyes, we can’t criticize it or talk about it. We can’t raise awareness as to the negativity or insult some of these public statements and ads lead to. For example, in Halifax the argument for not running the atheist bus ads was that it was “too controversial”. That is exactly why we needed to run them! Being an atheist in 2009, and letting others know we’re out there, should not be controvercial — which was the whole point of running the ads. Criticism is not censorship. Censorship prevents learning, criticism is learning.

Fred Phelps and his group of cronies, for example, are vile human beings with disgusting public practices. And though I’m sure I would be better off not knowing that there are people in this world who are so full of hate and anger, their “message” continually alerts me to the plight of gays and what they have to deal with on a daily basis. And although I’m sure that PETA are a bunch of insensitive pricks that think farming is akin to the holocaust, their “message” alerts me to the dangerous and faulty thinking that goes on in some of these groups. So no, Wichita should not prevent PETA from their ridiculous campaign. Let them be public morons.

Most importantly, to any rational person the message of groups like this only serves to alienate people further as they witness the public spectacle that is the “message”. The message, whatever it is, is lost in the insanity of how it’s presented, when it’s presented, and the ridiculous thing it’s trying to argue. In this way, we actually help our cause of rationality and humanism by letting these groups make fools out of themselves.

I reserve the right to criticize anything that someone has the right to say. That does not mean I want them silenced. I want people to be able to read/hear the hateful insanity released by some of these people and to be able to hear our rational responses. We all win when people are allowed to spew nonsense and other people are allowed to call it out as bullshit. Ultimately I would prefer if people weren’t hateful in the first place, but until that happens…

9 responses to “Criticism vs. Censorship

  1. Interesting and excellent points. Censorship only serves to add an air of mystique to whatever the message being censored is. When idiots and idealogues are allowed to spew their nonsense, then “we” can point out the errors and untruths. Sometimes this has unfortunate consequences, but in the long run free speech, free inquiry and free criticism are crucial to an inclusive, progressive society.

    Side note – My favorite instance of something akin to “microaggression” against my (lack of) religion: Though I now call myself an atheist, once upon a time I preferred the term “agnostic.”

    My sister in law (who is Wiccan) would ask nearly every time I saw her, “So, have you decided which religion you are yet?” or variants thereof. Each time, I’d describe that no, I’m not searching for a religion and explain my views. And soon enough she’s ask again if I’d “decided.” Ugh… It’s actually part of the reason I now prefer to call myself an atheist. My actual views have changed very little, but it sounds, you know, more definitive.

    • Kimbo Jones

      Uuuuugh, that sometimes happened to me in high school with my friends before I learned the term “weak atheist” in university. Now because no one knows what that is, I get to explain, but I’m still met with the trite “you’re just as much of a religion as anything else!” Sigh.

  2. benandcoopersdad

    I prefer people underestimate me and simply assume I’m a sheep wrt my religious views. If anyone asks, I’m “not religious.” It’s been years since I’ve been pressed further than that. In a professional environment, it’s not appropriate to bring up religion anyway.

    I guess I don’t see Christians as a threat to my beliefs any more than I see gay marriage as a threat to my relationship with my wife. (Then again, I don’t look at my marriage as a religious rite. Who knows what you could justify if you do?)

    At the same time, I left off trying to convert people to atheism years ago when I finished school and started work, so I’m happy to remain mostly quiet, unless I see my rights or someone else’s trampled on, which I really haven’t.

    In terms of your post, I’m a bit confused. You start off with microaggressions, which I’ve always taken to be intentional small racial slights designed to make someone uncomfortable, but you equate this with an unknowing “bless you.” Isn’t there a difference? If someone knows I’m an atheist (for the sake of argument; that label oversimplifies my beliefs), and they intentionally say “bless you,” that would be the equivalent of racial microaggressions, however, I don’t think that term applies to transparent and unknown differences.

    I think I’m just missing something in your rant, but if someone says I’m in their prayers after a recent family death, or if I drive by a church sign, my thought isn’t:

    “Ultimately I would prefer if people weren’t hateful in the first place, but until that happens…”

    Up for discussion, over to you.

  3. Kimbo Jones

    Re: microaggressions. Which is why I said “Although it isn’t technically “microaggression” (as I understand, this term is reserved for covert racial insults)”. Also, they can be unintentional (as is stated in the wiki I linked to for context).

    It’s not like I live my whole life pissed off. I post on this blog when something irritates me enough to do so or when I find something funny to talk about. I’m simply pointing out here that religious/non-religious issues aren’t taken seriously in society, not that religion is a “threat to my beliefs”. We’re told to lighten up and let the baby have its bottle. Why should we have to do that? Why is the compromise only our responsibility?

    The non-religious are forgotten or treated as an afterthought. I cite Obama’s most recent speech in which he says that all Americans are striving towards Judeo-Christian-Muslim peace (what about all of the other religions?) and to love God (not all of America believes in God). Even the progressive president of the US considers the non-religious and non-Judeo/Christian/Muslim religions below the radar. It’s relatively insulting to not be included in these wonderful sentiments.

    Ont thing that I am not, is a shruggie. The fact that people can publicly say racist-equivalent things towards us without pause for thought is a problem for me. If racism is wrong and sexism and all the other isms are wrong, then “religionism” or whatever is wrong too. So, yes, I get ranty.

  4. benandcoopersdad

    Hmmm. I suppose I just don’t suppose an occasional “bless you” is impenging on my rights. I mostly see these people as “cute” and “quaint,” and I want to pat them on the head. In terms of street-prosthletizers, etc., I learned long ago that you can’t win an argument with a lunatic, nor change his mind, because he isn’t listening. I also don’t have a problem with the church signs, because they have freedoms of speech and assembly.

    What I haven’t seen in a decade or so is anything to make me think I’m treated unfairly in my career (or would be if I advertised). I don’t see where I’m not permitted any civil rights. I can (and did) get married. (I honestly think the right-wingers have a much better argument against atheists marrying than gays.)

    Of course, my life for quite a while has been dominated by work and kids’ functions, and neither is an appropriate forum for declaring your religious affiliation (by anyone), and I’ve not had anyone inappropriately make anti-atheist comments (nor racist, although I’ve pounded some people for mysogynistic comments).

    BTW, I find “God hates fags!” to be an outrage (to god-fearing homosexuals), and “God hates atheists” to be hilarious, or confusing … no wait, hilarious! Wait, what?

    Yeah, I typically find it hard to feel too insulted by haters, because I just find them dumber than a bag of hammers.

  5. benandcoopersdad

    I do agree, however, that someone needs to plant a bug in Obama’s ear that not everyone who voted for him is J/C/M.

  6. Kimbo Jones

    “Bless you” isn’t impinging on our rights and neither is a sign, that’s not what I said at all. I also never said anything about restricting free speech. Again I’m simply discussing the feelings that a constant barrage of religion invokes — the sense of not belonging.

    It’s good that you haven’t had to deal with being personally insulted because of your lack of beliefs, but I have. I live in the bible belt of Canada. I deal with this all the time. I deal with this from people who are otherwise rational, intelligent people. What is hilarious about someone hating me for who I am? I’m sorry, but that’s just the problem I’m talking about. People don’t take this seriously. Hatred because of an arbitrary personal characteristic is not something that should be tolerated in a rational society and certainly not something that should be thought of as “hilarious” no matter how idiotic they are.

  7. benandcoopersdad

    You’re right. Someone hating you for your beliefs isn’t funny. I just saw the idiotic manner of their expression to be quite funny: a fictional character hates you.

    “I’m simply discussing the feelings that a constant barrage of religion invokes — the sense of not belonging.”

    I understand the sentiment. After a family death, someone said something to my six-year-old (the one with autism) about Jesus a few weeks ago, and he looked at her like she’d lost her mind, which was brilliant (on his part) and disturbing at the same time. I get religion from time to time, just not as a barrage.

    I’m interested to get your take on how you are treated vs. believers of minority religions nearby. I’d imagine Hindus, Siiks, Muslims, and others get a similar sense of not belonging, but in the US bible belt anyway, those groups tend to get hatred, while atheists get ignored (also not sure which is worse).

  8. Kimbo Jones

    Not being Hindu etc, I can’t really comment on how they are treated. But I will say atheists are most definitely not ignored. And not in a good way.