There are a lot of reasons to point out media that fail this or that marginalized group. The euphemism “problematic” acknowledges media that traffic in stereotypes, show gut-wrenching physical or emotional violence for shock value, discuss the mere existence of marginalized groups as though it were funny enough to be the punchline of jokes, or otherwise promote the deadly ideals of kyriarchy. It’s largely a matter of public record that it’s not really possible to totally eschew “problematic” media. Our ability to even recognize things as problematic is dependent on the axes of oppression of which we’re aware, so one person’s seemingly innocent pleasure is another’s dehumanization-for-entertainment. Additionally, many problematic tropes are so entirely because they are pervasive, dominating depictions of members of the groups in question, rather than because they are directly insulting or damaging, and so can only be redeemed by other depictions becoming common enough to offset their impact.
There’s something that gets lost in discussions of problematic media, however, and that’s how they can be a necessary stepping stone for people on their way to better things.
My atheist puberty was loud. That loudness is reflected in the story of my deconversion and in this blog’s early subject matter. I picked a lot of fights I don’t have the energy for these days, and specifically antagonized religious people over their support of religious institutions. Lest it be forgotten, those religious institutions are and have been the implements of horrifying evil and have avoided real, effective scrutiny of that evil via the “armor of god.” Religious believers with functioning moral compasses should excommunicate themselves en masse on that basis even if they haven’t figured out that religious claims about reality are generally bunk, because their presence, their support, and their collection plate and tithe dollars fund that evil. I wrote about that philosophical difference at length, which needed to be written and which I neither regret nor repudiate. I probably shouldn’t have repeatedly brought that fight to specific believers who ended up convinced, not to reject their hideous allegiance, but to remove me from their vicinity. I was prodded in this direction by a whole suite of writings that contained, as text or subtext, the notions that atheists have an intellectual edge on theists, that we’re more likely to have sound morals, and that we’re by and large just better and need to bring that light, hard, to the benighted.
First things first: atheists in the West almost all had to reason their way out of a religious upbringing, and that’s a step their theist counterparts have not taken. That’s a specific victory over unreason attained or not attained, not evidence of some innate deficiency. After all, most of us were believers once, and it’s not a mark of mental disturbance to believe things that one is socially reinforced for believing. The nonsensical, magical claims of religions are an utterly ridiculous basis for moral systems, but that doesn’t mean that religious folks’ morals are innately broken. It’s possible to reach the right conclusions from the wrong premises, or to be religious while having a largely secular ethics. While it is not terribly difficult for believers who genuinely do turn to their religions for guidance to push themselves toward evil they could otherwise have avoided, due to defining right and wrong and often the parameters of reality itself in religious rather than empirical terms, this is in no way a guaranteed outcome. The various religious organizations, and people, who effect anti-racist advocacy and otherwise fight the good fight are proof of that.
But I had to get there.
I’d spent years having my conclusions about religion and about religious morality gaslit into silence, and I needed to hear that I’d been right. I’d spent years being surrounded, at best, by people too scared of the consequences of being out to let me know that they too doubted, and I needed to make sure I would not be alone even if it meant making new nonbelievers. I’d been mistreated, and I needed to know that they were wrong. The media I found overreached into elitism, ableism, and even dogmatism, but at least they reached. Plus, this part of me was somewhat new, so it was on my mind and apt to come out in conversation.
The more nuanced media I read now would not have worked then. They would have prodded me toward sad, mealy-mouthed inaction, and continued despair at having any option or possibility of finding close friendships and romantic connections with other nonbelievers. They would have left me making useless, finger-wagging “NotAllX” pronouncements rather than the passionate denunciations of religious evil and religious illogic that I’m proud of to this day. I would have been unable to see the obnoxious retconning of history that queer-friendly churches are inflicting on queer spaces in the UK and elsewhere as a problem. I would have had a much harder time recognizing the horror of religiously-legitimized discrimination. I would have almost entirely kept my nonbelief a secret in the crucial early years when it had the most potential to shape my friend circle, and ended up with a support network dependent on keeping it still further concealed.
Or, worse, I might have kept looking for something to address the ills I actually felt, and stumbled into the creepy depravity of Men’s Rights Activists, Libertarians, and others whose siren song I was then susceptible to for other reasons, and become an utter horror show of a human being, all the while tormented by my gender without the supportive connections who later enabled me to recognize it.
I misbehaved a great deal in those days, but I also started on the path to the person I am now, and avoided mistakes and traps that would have been harder to escape. That media was problematic enough that I actively denounce it now, while quietly squirming in uncomfortable recognition that the media I recommend in its place wouldn’t have done much for me at that early stage. I can always recommend Greta Christina, but I can’t in good conscience point people at Hank Fox, Al Stefanelli, or even PZ Myers anymore, and few writers who occupy comparable niches in the atheosphere avoid their flaws. This is why I’ve made a point to retain much of my older work when Ania and I migrated to this site. I wrote things that the person I was then absolutely needed to read, and I want those things out and about for the next generation of gaslit Catholic-raised atheists to find. That’s also why, even after I’ve said just about everything I needed to say about atheism and religion, I come back to it every now and then, and link back to some of those older works.
I wasn’t ready for Brute Reason, but I can be ready for others like me who come my way.