Sexists, Skeptics, Symbols, and Sepsis

Why Skeptics?

This is actually more the first part of a two-part post, because “skeptics and symbols” are not that separable for my purposes. However, I don’t want to invoke my spirit animal–the Teal Deer–and so I will cut this into two. The next part should be up on Monday, since I’m going to be out of town this weekend and I’m not sure what I’m doing about weekends, anyway.

This is where it gets slightly more personal: I’m an atheist skeptic. That means both that I do not accept pseudoscientific or paranormal explanations about reality and that I do not believe in a God, gods, or supernatural explanations for reality. This framework works for me because, although I’m pretty damn smart, I’m also incredibly gullible, and I’ve had to discipline myself into not taking every claim at face value. Feminism helped set me on that path (rather than the reverse), and brought me to a place where I was unable to accept not only the supernatural claims of the conservative Christianity of my upbringing, but also the liberal neopaganism that I was assiduously not practicing by the time that my atheism caught me by surprise shortly before I began college in 2009.

Over the past few years, moving from a surprised atheism into a more knowledgeable skepticism, I have had to decide a) what skepticism means to me personally, b) what information I prioritize when it comes to being skeptical, and c) how to integrate skepticism with my overall orientation towards social justice. In the end, this has gone poorly, as I have watched a movement that seemed at first to offer a great deal of promise on the social justice front dissolve into infighting over whether issues of gender, sexuality, race, class, disability, or even religion, a darling chew-toy of many educated white men, qualify as being worth applying skepticism to.

Being primarily focused on social justice, I’ve had to force myself to ask whether atheism is, in and of itself, a vehicle towards a world that will be more inclined to listen to marginalized voices and, eventually, not to marginalize them at all. The answer, as far as I see it, is a resounding no, as the same battles over social justice rage among skeptics as they do in every religious community. Atheism as a means to the end of a more just world is a bad hypothesis. As a skeptic, I have rejected it based on the evidence that is right in front of me.

This leads me to conflict not only with those who fight against social justice in the atheist and skeptical communities (which are different but overlapping, as has become more apparent recently), but with those who fight for social justice in those communities since I may agree with their overarching goals, but not with their chosen vehicle. Let me be clear: I have no problem with the amazing work being done by bloggers and activists who have been at this far longer than I have been an atheist, and I am as supportive of their fight for a more just community for themselves as I am of religious people who wage the same battle in their own spheres. I simply find atheism to be extraneous to this conflict in the larger social arena, and the skeptical community is no longer mine. If a person is skeptical of the preassigned roles assigned to people on account of their various identities then I could not possibly care less whether they are also skeptical of deities, since belief in deities does not, in and of itself, do harm until it lapses into a refusal to acknowledge the roles of human beings in crafting the world that we live in. I understand arguments about slippery slopes. I also know enough good theists to have become intensely disinterested in those arguments.

This is not an atheist blog. It is a blog by an atheist. I believe that god-claims are subject to the same skepticism that applies to pseudoscience and paranormal claims (which I actually believe to do more harm than god-claims on the whole so long as the god-claims do not extend to support odious social norms), and that is why I remain an atheist. In that I agree with the atheist contingent that is still fighting for a seat at the table of the skeptical community. However, I disagree with the atheist contingent as to the importance of atheism. That leaves my position on this topic as: “meh.”

Why, then, skepticism? Why is skepticism still important to me, and important enough for me to discuss it here?

Well, I’m still a skeptic. I may not be a proper skeptic, ready to engage in blistering attacks upon the preferred targets of many skeptical atheists, but I am a skeptic nonetheless because this worldview functions for me. I think that skepticism is important to the dissection of larger issues within our society, and I do not think that it is possible to engage in social justice activism without at least some skeptical mode of operation. If we’re going to leech the wounds, we have to use our critical capacities to do so at every turn, refusing to accept ideas just because they are comfortable or seem right to us, just as we have done with the core identities that have been supplied to us by a hegemonic ideal of normalcy. We must wield the scalpel as eagerly as we would wield the sledgehammer, and this is a particular challenge to me.

This being the case, I must use my full faculties–my techne, if you will–to figure out what trained incapacities exist in (one of) my chosen ideology(ies). If I am going to approach issues on this blog from the perspective of a skeptical intersectional feminist–an ideologic (intersection of ideologies) that works well for me at the moment–then I have to know where its weak spots are. I think I’ve found one, although I’m willing to accept pushback on that because this is pretty much entirely, as far as I have noticed, my brainchild.

Skeptics, as they operate in our society, do not know what to do with symbols. They use them, sure enough, but uneasily, and I want to figure out how to reconcile this, both personally and on the movement level, because I think that this has implications beyond mere rhetorical weak spots. I leave you with that, and look forward to explaining more on Monday.

I want this blog to be a space where readers at all levels of knowledge about feminist theory and social issues can feel safe asking questions, but accomplishing this without inviting in the trolls is a tricky enterprise, so I’m going to mark posts according to whether they are 101 (beginner) or more advanced. If a post is 101 then anyone can ask any question (so long as the asker has read the entire post) and I will attempt to answer or, if I cannot, defer to any patient commenters who may be able to provide a better answer than I can. There is no shame in not knowing something basic so long as you are willing to admit this when you come in. Ask away! I like educating people and I will be courteous; because of the nature of these spaces, I will require that any commenters who are already knowledgeable be courteous as well.

That being said, the provision of 101 posts means that I will expect commenters not to encroach on advanced discussions with 1o1-level questions. Hopefully I will remember to provide links to any relevant 101 (either written by me or by someone I trust) at the beginning of advanced posts but, if I don’t, I will simply link any commenters with questions to the relevant 101. I expect that, since I am kind enough to do this, the questioner will read the content that I provide. Further comments that demonstrate a failure to do so will result in banning. I don’t have the time or energy to deal with people are not willing to comply with basic requests.

Speaking of basic requests: I do not tolerate the use of slurs in my comments.  Aside from the obvious slurs–referring to racial and sexual minorities–I will not tolerate words that refer to women as dogs, women as sexual objects, or the pernicious use of the word “tranny.” Nope.  If you want to bitch-cunt-tranny it up, go somewhere else. You have the whole internet. Quoting someone else is good, but you will end up in moderation if your comments use any of these words or their various censored permutations, so consider yourself warned. In addition, as I said in my first post, misgendering and refusal to abide by requested pronouns for nonbinary and trans* folk (both in the threads and about whom i post) will result in swift and uncompromising bannination.

Considering that, although this blog will be relatively clean of profanity (as opposed to my everyday speech, which is fairly laden with it), I am profoundly comfortable with profanity, understand that it is a huge deal for me to consider a word off-limits in any context. Comments are a curse-friendly space, provided you refrain from ad hominem attacks on other commenters.

Although I am not easy to trigger in general, I will (hopefully) not be the only person on this blog. Because of this, I would request that commenters who are describing physical or sexual assault or who may potentially risk triggering those with eating disorders (fat is a topic that I will be posting about) provide a trigger warning with a brief, nonthreatening description of why. “Trigger warning: eating disorders” or “Trigger warning: rape” should be sufficient. This is a courtesy to readers who may find themselves deeply upset and panicked at descriptions of scenarios that resemble ways in which they have been hurt. I will extend the same courtesy when titling my posts. (Since this is off-the-cuff, I am sure that I will extend the trigger warnings to other things, although this space will not be as picky as some.)

In the skeptical community there was a huge deal recently over Dan Fincke’s civility pledge. Since the title gives away that skepticism is of interest to me, let me assure you now: I do not take the Camels With Hammers Civility Pledge. I understand where Dan Fincke is coming from, but I am disinterested in civility because it a construct that is created and mediated by those with privilege in order to police the speech of marginalized bodies. I am interested in kindness and courtesy; however, sometimes the kindest thing you can do to a person is to jerk a knot in their ass when they need it, and sometimes the most courteous thing to do is to tell someone to shut the hell up before they do further damage to people who already have to live with enough “civil” discussion of their basic humanity. I take no issue with people who have taken the pledge, but I find it contradictory to my personal values and, as such, will run my space according to my own ideas of kindness and courtesy.

Another practice that will get you banned despite its veneer of civility is called JAQing off. Unfortunately, my definition will be rather like the Supreme Court in reference to porn: I know it when I see it. I’ll try to be on the kind side, but JAQing about the basic humanity of marginalized people is going to get you nowhere fast. This space is for education, not for you to “just ask questions” about whether x group REALLY deserves y right. Go ask the rest of the internet.

I ask that basic courtesy be extended on the first comment to anyone who does not flagrantly violate the rules about slurs or JAQing; however, I will lean towards banning as opposed to either eviscerating trolls myself or asking others to do it. Being rather short on time and hoping to find gainful employment soon, I will not have a lot of time to be a patient blogmistress.

If you have a problem with my comment policy, let me assure you that it does not violate your free speech since this blog is a place for me to speak freely, not for you to say whatever you like. Let me direct you towards WordPress, who is kindly providing me with this space, if you have an issue with how I run my blog, and you may speak freely all you like, just as I am.

Rather than introducing myself–because I hope that any potential readers will come to know me well enough over the course of my blogging that a formal introductory post will be unnecessary–I think it’s better to give my reasoning for the title of the blog itself.  So: “Sexists, Skeptics, Symbols, and Sepsis.”  Why are these four things my particular focus here and what do these things have to do with draining the wounds in the body politic?

Why sexists?

I have pulled my first bait-and-switch on you, and I apologize now. I’m most experienced arguing about sexism, but sexists themselves are not particularly interesting to me since we all, consciously or unconsciously, hold sexist views, which means that it is relatively meaningless to assign labels like “sexist” to people as opposed to positions. All of us have been spending our lives stewing in a society rife with unexamined ideologies, all of which inform our identities, and sexism is just the one of these things that I tend to know the most about. This blog will approach social issues from the perspective of intersectional feminism–that is, it not only holds the radical perspective that women are people, but also holds the apparently-even-more-radical perspective that women can have myriad identities, all of which have an impact upon their experiences of womanhood. They are not people in a uniform sense; they are people in the gloriously diverse sense that all people are people, and must be treated as individuals (albeit with some overlapping experiences) as a result. Equally importantly, this blog holds the radical perspective that men are people, with the capacity to experience a full range of emotions and to control themselves around women; to view men otherwise is demeaning and downright sexist. Of note is that it is not possible to hold these views without having room for the diversity of gender expression and biological sex that experiences in the real world, and there will be no question as to the right of nonbinary, trans*, and intersex bodies to define themselves however they wish in this space. Although a separate post on commenting policies is forthcoming, suffice to say that misgendering and refusal to abide by requested pronouns will result in swift and uncompromising bannination.

Some of the deepest wounds in our society are in relation to sexism. Essentialism marginalizes every body it touches, leaving no room for the uniqueness that is part and parcel of every human experience. It demands that every person be woman or man as they are assigned at birth, that every woman be nurturing and kind, that every man be unemotional and strong, that people behave simply as either divine or genetic chess pieces in pursuit of a society of boxed-in, easily-defined identities. We have to step out of these boxes where we feel inclined to do so and, in doing this, we’re going to step on toes. It’s worth facing head-on the fear of being unconventional, though, because doing so shines light on the uncounted bodies who live invisibly, in fear of speaking their deviance, knowing that to do so may be emotional or physical suicide. If we don’t heal society of toxic notions of gender and sex then many people will never have the opportunity to step into the light.

I should say, too, that I am relatively privileged. For disclosure’s sake, I am white, cisstraight-ish, middle-class (but with a brief period of poverty and homelessness), and have a newly-minted, shiny bachelor’s degree that I intend to expand into a doctorate when some of my ducks fall into the right row. Because of my privilege, I may not always recognize when I have firmly lodged my foot in my mouth, so please don’t hesitate to correct me if I screw up (particularly if you’re marginalized in a way that I just don’t have a lot of perspective about).

I look forward to sharing and learning from anyone kind enough to read.


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