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Peoples and Persons

The problem with people is that they’re made up of persons, and the problem with persons is that they lump into people.

Bill Maher said something on Twitter recently: “Dealing w/ Hamas is like dealing w/ a crazy woman who’s trying to kill u – u can only hold her wrists so long before you have to slap her” I can kind of see what Bill was going for here,  personalizing groups into the mental image of single persons.

It actually works as an analogy a bit better than I suspect Bill would be comfortable with, because you could say the woman Palestine has been abused for decades by the man Israel, and has come to hate him as a result, and when she finally could take no more and hit back Israel first tried to restrain her and then used his superior strength to slap her down. The extended analogy doesn’t make Israel look like a decent guy defending himself against a crazy woman, but a domestic abuser picking on a woman a fraction his size. 

As an individual Bill Maher has said some stuff that makes it seem likely that he doesn’t hold women in especially high esteem, and does not consider domestic violence against women a high priority among the things he would battle. That makes the other half of the joke, the trivializing of domestic violence, at least as problematic as his view of the politics.

Both are important issues, but not directly what I have on my mind tonight. To lead into that, I’ll mention that a Facebook friend of mine who “always endorsed embracing the word ‘atheist’ to remove the stigma” now hesitates because “thanks to some of the Big Names ‘atheist’ is taking on the stench of sociopathy, misogyny, and Ayn Rand fundamentalism.” He’s not alone, either; FFS, PZ Myers expressed similar sentiments! When PZ Myers hesitates to identify as an atheist, even in jest…

I’m an atheist. I’m also a secular humanist, a skeptic, a non-theist and nonbeliever and all manner of other synonyms and near-synonyms, but amongst that set “atheist” is the label I most readily apply to myself. I do so because there is bad shit going on in this world I care about, a large part of which is related to religion, and there is a subset of that stuff I feel I can affect strongly on a personal basis, almost all of which is related to religion. Religion is the #1 evil that I feel I can do something efective about, so I label myself accordingly: I am atheist, and even anti-theist if you want to investigate further.

Does that mean I necessarily agree with Bill Maher as he expressed himself in that tweet? Fuck no, that’s not even a smart question. I think Bill laid a complete fucking mind-turd with that tweet.  I don’t agree with Bill because I’m ‘white’ or male or straight or cis or usually vote Democrat. It depends on what he says, and when he says shit that is in my view stupid I call him on it, just as I do for Richard Dawkins or anyone else who shares a constellation of random demographic characteristics with me.

I mention Richard Dawkins because a YouTuber named Jaclyn Glenn just released a video that trashed atheists who are also feminists, with particular emphasis on a largely defunct group associated with the labels Atheism+ or A+. Richard Dawkins, a man I consider an intellectual hero in many respects, has an in my view irrational disdain for that group, and called Glenn’s sophomoric straw-manning video “brilliant” in a tweet:

@RichardDawkins : If you take offence at ‘s latest brilliant video you may be getting something wrong.

I responded that with all due respect it was also possible that if Dr. Dawkins thought @JaclynGlenn’s video was brilliant it might be Dr. Dawkins who was getting something wrong. I think he is, but I do still hold a great deal of entirely due respect for the man.

I am not the least bit ashamed to share the label “atheist” with Dr. Dawkins simply because I think he’s wrong here, or with Mr. Maher for his remarks, or with either of them because I think those remarks are representative of attitudes I think those men hold which I find abhorrent.  They are wrong *in those attitudes* and I’ll continue to call them out on them, but the men who unfortunately hold them are still men I admire for the good they’ve done (Dawkins more than Maher – sorry, Bill, not even a contest).

I’m also, incidentally, not ashamed to claim the affiliation “American” even though I have to legitimately share it with the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin and Louis Gohmert and any number of other horrible Americans. That’s because I don’t actually belong to the same America they do. Theirs is strictly tribal, mine is ideational.

Unlike most people I had a choice of  nationalities, US, UK, Ireland, and Japan. I chose the USA as my primary nationality (I still keep Irish as a backup) for reasons having nothing to do with borders or bloodlines; in fact, it was the very fact that America was founded on ideas that made me want to be American.

I chose to be American from my options because it was a nationality based on ideas of free speech, free conscience, rule of law and not men, and all that jazz. America has all too often failed to live up to those ideals, but as a citizen I keep trying to turn it the way I see as right (and I don’t quit easily, friends).

It’s a fluke that I’m entitled to citizenship in any given nation. Every one of them is down to stuff my parents or remoter ancestors did, not me. It’d be absurd to take pride in being Irish because my ancestors were, or British because Ireland was under the British when my parents were born, or American just because they chose to emigrate, or Japanese because America got in a stupid war and my parents were based there during it.

We all make up tribes and nations, but we mustn’t allow the tribes and nations we are part of to be all of us. You and I can and should object to things our countries do, if those things offend our consciences. “America” does not do this, “Israel” does not do that, except as we allow it to happen.

I’m not telling you what to do, in the particular or even the general. I’m imploring you not to let the tide sweep you, to not let your stances and actions be determined only by the collective nouns you belong to, and especially not by the collective nouns you didn’t even choose for yourself.

As I end this rant I’m aware that I may have offended some of my many fans, or even both of you. If that is the case I invite you to persuade me to change my mind.

~ by BT Murtagh on July 20, 2014.

current events, musings, Personal

3 Responses to “Peoples and Persons”

  1. Excellent piece, Brian! I won’t try persuading you to change your mind, as I am right on board with you. Keep up the good work, my friend! You are respected and admired more than you may even know. 🙂

  2. Interesting and well-written description of your brand of atheism, Brian. While I do not call myself an atheist, neither am I a follower of any existing organized religion. And I am most certainly not offended by your honesty and your candor.

    Good job!

  3. Oh good, I didn’t offend either of my fans! 😉

    Thanks for the kind comments.

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