There’s a fun game I like to play called ‘Are you sure about that?’ I usually play it with racists. You let them shout off their ignorant prejudices for a while before getting them to commit to a short statement which is unequivocally their belief. And then you systematically destroy that statement and watch them squirm.
I sometimes play it with my grandmother. She, like a lot of old people, is incredibly racist. After she went on about how Arabs are intrinsically violent and uncivilised, I got her to commit to the sentence: ‘Arabs have not made a worthwhile cultural contribution to the world.’ Then it’s a simple matter of explaining that algebra exists before going on to the massive cultural output during the Dark Ages and how the Renaissance wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for Arabs (including the current theory that Leonardo da Vinci was the son of an Arab). The misconception provides a springboard to have a productive and wonderful conversation and, in the case of my grandmother, a greater interest in Arabic history.
Sometimes it doesn’t work. Here’s SaidSimon having what I like to call ‘Whitey’s Etymology Whinge‘ (WEW) about racism. The argument runs a bit like this:
Bigot: [Something that looks suspiciously like racism]
Me: Ease up on that racism there, good buddy, or we can’t be friends any more.
Bigot: It’s not racism because [group I am slagging off] isn’t really a race. It’s a [culture/sub-culture/religion/ethnicity/group/nationality/&c.].
The above is frequently seen in the comments section to Pat Condell’s YouTube tripe. For the record, I think Condell is both a racist and a terrible human being. I think it’s nothing short of a travesty when people hide behind their State-given right to the freedom of speech to justify marginalising a systemically oppressed group.
SaidSimon used the WEW to claim that the often extremely vitriolic comments made by many atheists toward Muslims was not really racism because Islam isn’t a race.
But what is really a race? The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination states:
In this Convention, the term “racial discrimination” shall mean any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life. [Source: International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, Art.1(i)]
For those of you who enjoy the history of the history of the international treaties and conventions, check out the lengthy, lengthy debates which surrounded this passage. Wow.
The Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (‘CERD’) has not, as far as I’m aware, defined ‘race’ in any useful sense but tend to roll with the bellyfeel interpretation: if it looks like racism, if it smells like racism, if it walks like racism, bets are on that it’s racism.
What was fun was tying SaidSimon to the statement: ‘The Irish are not a race, they are a nationality.’ Unfortunately, he didn’t participate in the conversation much after it was pointed out that, not that long ago, they weren’t considered ‘white’. Similarly, Jews were considered a group unto themselves.
There are two ways through the conversation. The first is to be more rational when it comes to the term ‘racism’. We all seem intuitively to believe that there are racists in the world. At the pointy end, we have people who run about in their haberdashery setting fire to crucifixes. At the soggy, mundane end, we have people who don’t interview people with funny sounding names for job applications. At the same time, our best science has proven conclusively that there’s no such thing as race. What we thought were genetic differences between the tribes who evolved on different ends of the giant land mass turned out to be little more than culturally-fuelled smoke and mirrors. The most rational interpretation of this is to believe that we can have racism without the need for races.
There’s a danger there that we undervalue the importance of the culturally crafted race to an individual’s identity. It’s a short jump from denying race to whitewashing.
The other, probably more productive way, through the landmines is to ask: ‘If I have to justify my behaviour by crafting an snarky argument that I’m not picking on a race but a [culture/sub-culture/religion/ethnicity/group/nationality/&c.], am I really being an awesome person or am I being an arsehat?’
There is a pathological need for a lot of people to avoid being called ‘racist’. In Australia, a bunch of guys did a blackface sketch on national television (which aired shortly after an advert where a white guy appeased a group of blacks with tubs of fried chicken). Even the deputy Prime Minister (now the Prime Minister) had to come crawling out of the woodwork to say: ‘No, it’s not racism; it’s just the Australian sense of humour.’ Our beloved Prime Minister has also said that she understands and sympathises with white Australian’s distrust of the burqa…
Anyway, back to the subject. I can now get people to say, without a trace of doubt, that they feel that being called a racist is actually, factually, 100% worse than being racist.
So if you have to crawl out of an accusation through semantics and witchcraft, you probably shouldn’t be doing whatever it is you’re doing. (In fairness, SaidSimon wasn’t playing with a full deck: he appears to claim that, if you take a true statement and replace a noun arbitrarily, you necessarily get a new true statement).
Which brings me nicely to the question of whether atheists are an oppressed group. There have been a number of posts where I argue that we’re not and that we should stop being such insufferable crybabies. Oh my Higgs boson, you have no idea how difficult it is to be an educated white atheist, dear Internet. I can’t even go down to the supermarket and purchase atheist milk. When I go to the hospital, they don’t give me the special atheist medicine. When I walk down the street, theists don’t even say hello to me. It’s a horrible life. I don’t know how I manage it.
The Key of Atheist let me know a few ways in which I’m oppressed.
I think I’m still unconvinced that I’m a persecuted minority. As if reading my future state of doubt, TKoA cleverly — like a master chess player — used my own citations against me.
Respondents had various interpretations of what atheists are like and what that label means. Those whom we interviewed view atheists in two different ways. Some people view atheists as problematic because they associate them with illegality, such as drug use and prostitution—that is, with immoral people who threaten respectable community from the lower end of the status hierarchy. Others saw atheists as rampant materialists and cultural elitists that threaten common values from above—the ostentatiously wealthy who make a lifestyle out of consumption or the cultural elites who think they know better than everyone else. [Source: http://www.soc.umn.edu/~hartmann/files/atheist%20as%20the%20other.]
I agree with the respondents. I associate most atheists with those things as well.
More relevantly, is this what atheists are whinging about when they claim that they’re persecuted? In fairness, TKoA explicitly states that comparisons to persecuted groups are wrong (unlike The Australian Book of Atheism…). Should we get another bus advert to let everybody know the real incarceration rates of atheists?