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…