So, last week, I wrote a piece about being a female atheist alienated from movement atheism. Then, in response to PZ Myers asking "What can I do better?", I made some suggestions for atheist men who genuinely wanted an answer to that question.
Of course there was the usual blowback—plenty of atheist men eminently willing to prove the point, by telling me to fuck myself, to shut up, to go away, fat cunt, blah blah yawn.
There were also some very nice reactions—lots of women, and a few men, too, who expressed appreciation for my willingness to do One of Those Things which will inevitably obligate the navigation of hateful garbage.
And then there were the atheist men, in most cases ostensibly sympathetic to my position, who piped up to let me know that I wasn't talking about them, that they were one of the Good Ones. Even Myers linked to my list with the curious line: "Melissa McEwan has some Advice to Atheist Men. The long list sounds very good, but I do have one reservation: none of it is exclusive to atheists or men. I think it's more Advice for Decent Human Beings."
I'm not sure why my "long list" (of 18 suggestions) would engender reservations simply because it is not "exclusive to atheists or men," unless one is keen to deflect accountability for being part of the group being urged to decency.
Not a few atheist men, in comments here and in my inbox, were eager to tell me that I was really only talking about a "small but vocal group."
Which of course I knew, because it is always, always, a "small but vocal group" of men who marginalize, harass, and threaten me in response to having said something they don't like.
A "small but vocal group" of atheists.
A "small but vocal group" of comic geeks.
A "small but vocal group" of gamers.
A "small but vocal group" of fat haters.
A "small but vocal group" of antifeminists.
A "small but vocal group" of men's rights advocates.
A "small but vocal group" of men who are rape apologists.
A "small but vocal group" of men who want me fucking dead. And tell me. Often.
Don't get me wrong: I know this is true. I know, in most cases, it is really is a "small but vocal group" of any community who engages in silencing and intimidation.
But of the "large but silent group" of all these communities, who supposedly don't agree with the hostile disgorgements of the "small but vocal group," the people most likely to speak up do so primarily to defend themselves, to distance themselves from that "small but vocal group," to oblige me to reassure them that I know there is a "large but silent group" who is totally on my side, even though their silence indicates otherwise.
They reach out to me, while I'm navigating the expected bile of typical garbage nightmares, in order to seek my assistance in salving their own discomfort of affiliation. Which is exactly as unwelcome as it sounds.
"Hey, the rest of us aren't like those knuckleheads!" is not a comfort. It is a way of obliging me to concede that simply not being a dirtbag is sufficient action to consider themselves my ally.
I will not concede that. Because it isn't.
This urge to distance oneself from the "small but vocal group," and attempt to mask as solidarity what is actually a deflection of accountability, is a phenomenon I've previously described, not coincidentally, in a piece on Christian privilege and being asked to make distinctions between "real Christians" and the self-identified Christians who seek to do harm:
What asking to be granted a disassociation from Christianity's spectrum and history that includes ugly things does on a practical level is expect marginalized people to pretend that none of the bad things that have been done to them in the name of Christianity have anything to do with actual Christians.I get it. I get why someone who is a privileged member of a self-selected identity group feels shitty that there are other privileged members of that group who behave like total fuckheads to non-privileged members. I am a white, cis feminist in a broad feminist community that has deeply entrenched white and cis privilege that manifests in ugly goddamn ways.
In my own experience, that doesn't just mean regularly having to watch people who call themselves Christians argue that my body should not be my own, that my marriage isn't "real" because it wasn't formed in a church, that my LGBTQI loved ones are not deserving of equality, that I and my fellow progressives are traitors to our nation, that I couldn't possibly be moral because I am an atheist, and on and on and on.
It has also meant being targeted by a man calling himself a Christian, being wantonly smeared nationally by people calling themselves Christians, receiving rape and death threats by people calling themselves Christians, having people calling themselves Christians come to my door and dump garbage on my lawn, and eventually being left with no job and no income, all because of people calling themselves Christians.
The "they're not real Christians" refrain rather quickly loses its strength as a consolation to someone barraged by hatred from people calling themselves Christians. Even the liberal Christians I know had a harder time choking out that line after watching Donohue et. al. exact their "not real" Christian terror campaign upon me, because it sounds so hollow when you're telling someone with an inbox full of prayers they'll burn in hell as soon as they die (and hopefully soon).
Frankly, it's hurtful to me when Christians address what happened to me by saying, "Those aren't real Christians," expecting me to salve their discomfort about the baggage of privilege by not disagreeing. People who would never in a million years think to try to console a victim of a hate crime with "All [white/straight/cis/abled] people aren't like that!" nonetheless responded that way to me when I was targeted and threatened by droves of self-identified Christians.
I already know that all Christians aren't like that—and everyone who said it to me knew I was well aware of that fact. But in the wake of large members of a certain segment of Christianity attacking me, most of the Christians I knew felt obliged first and foremost to distance themselves from the group that hurt me, and do it in a way that protected their idea of Christianity, that reasserted their privilege—a privilege that is shared by the very people who attacked me, solely by virtue of their calling themselves Christians.
And they expected me to be comforted by it.
That makes me angry. It also necessitates my vigilance, so that I don't engage in racism and/or transphobia—and acknowledge when I fuck up (and I have fucked up)—and invites me to practice meaningful inclusion, in key management and content roles; and obliges my participation as a vocal ally, so that no one can imagine my silence is a product of support.
It doesn't matter an infinitesimal speck to me how small or large a group of feminists from privileged classes alienate feminists from non-privileged classes. I'm not going to spend my time quantifying how many of us are demonstrably terrible, because that serves literally no purpose but trying to convince someone already hurting that their harm was negligible.
When some feminist asshole writes some anti-X shit in comments, in direct contravention of the posted commenting policy, my urge isn't to beg my X readers to reassure me that I'm not like that. My urge is to slam down the banhammer and draw a boundary that renders that shit unwelcome in a space where I want them to feel as safe as possible.
It's my job to reassure them that I'm not like that, not the other way around.
I do that imperfectly, I fuck up, but reassuring others, not myself, has to be the objective.
So if I have one more piece of advice to atheist men, here it is: Stop obliging me to reassure you that you're one of the Good Ones, and just start being one of them.
That requires more than silence.
This, from a piece I wrote asking men to get involved with the fight for reproductive justice:
Believe me, I know: Getting involved stinks. You're forced to deal with people who, on the best end, are deliberately obtuse bullies and, on the worst end, spam your inbox with pictures of dead fetuses. These are not pleasant folks, and I'd like to avoid them myself.Where are all the atheist women? Well, maybe they're just fucking tired of fighting. The best thing sympathetic atheist men can do is get involved—is get louder than the "small but vocal group."
Unfortunately, that would necessitate closing up shop, putting down my teaspoon, and going silent. And then, somehow, magically not being a woman who lives in a patriarchy anymore.
This is the hard truth for progressive men who care about reproductive rights: When you leave the public fight to others, you're leaving it mostly to women.
I'll give you a moment to contemplate the many ways in which treating the feminist/womanist fight for reproductive rights as "woman's work" is some fucked-up irony, right there.
Now here's the other thing about leaving the reproductive rights fight to the ladies: Misogynists don't respect women. They don't listen to women; they won't acknowledge a woman's authority on her own lived experiences; they're not going to learn anything from women, and certainly not feminist/womanist women.
Misogynist anti-choicers who believe women to be less than need to hear that they're terribly, infuriatingly, and demonstrably wrong from men. Publicly. Passionately. As loud as the loud, so very loud, voices on the other side. One of the ways their self-reassuring bullshit works is via the effective void of male dissension, which supports their erroneous belief that they are the "objective" arbiters of womanhood.
They count on feminist men never showing up en masse for the main event.
Of course, that would mean rendering to the dustbin of rhetorical comforts the convenient, alluring self-reassurance of "Well, at least I'm not that guy."