morality

Baby Problem Steps: Atheist Edition

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.

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The Horror Is Mine

My social circle has been remarkably supportive of the traumas and challenges I’ve faced over the past year.  A few of its members, however, haven’t yet grasped the nature of the rift that has emerged between me and my parents.  They keep telling me to watch how viscerally I criticize them and to intersperse my rage with acknowledgement that the people who raised me are doing “the best they can” to wrap their heads around my situation.  At their worst, they tell me not to “air the family’s dirty laundry,” failing to grasp that one of the foremost weapons against their particular secrecy-based abuse dynamic is the cleansing light of day.

Every time I hear those phrases, my mind flits back to the worst nightmare I ever had, in June 2015.  This was around when my parents first started losing their minds over seeing my long hair and painted nails over webcam, and sent the first of an onslaught of Emails that stabbed directly at what I was going through.  I was terrified that, in their bigotry, they would do something extreme.  They threatened to cut off my financial support if I breathed too loudly in their direction; what “punishment” would they impose for joining what my culture regards as its most outré abomination?  What would I face if I ever again put myself at their mercy by sleeping under their roof, as I did for two weeks every year?

Those are the fears they tell me to put aside when they plead for reconciliation.

Those are the fears I dreamed about that night.

Those are the fears I wept about that morning.

Content note for oneiric horror, kidnapping, and emotional trauma.

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Where is Your Condemnation Now?

TW: For Racism

During the Ferguson protests, during the Baltimore uprisings, during countless demonstrations that took place because black children, black men, and black women, are being murdered, there were countless and endless condemnations by white people of the protestors as being too violent, too angry.

Last night, white people came to a Black Lives Matter demonstration for no other purpose then to commit violence. Their purpose wasn’t to raise awareness, to express anger and hurt over government sanctioned murders. No. They were there to kill people who had the nerve to protest being murdered. They were there because they don’t see PoC as being human beings, as being people. They shot five people.

When the police responded, their response included macing protestors after they had just been shot at.

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Hewing the Heuristic

I know someone who regularly visits the strangest, most extreme corners of the Internet, to experience a kind of macabre bemusement.  They flit from Canadian Association for Equality to A Voice for Men to Return of Kings; they follow trails that start at Fox News and end at Stormfront or r/coontown; they learn about Gamergate by letting Vivian James lead them from TotalBiscuit deep into the places where the movement-that-wasn’t bleeds into these and other right-wing hate groups.

It’s an interesting and rather informative approach.  For people with the stomach to view and cogitate over that level of violence-fomenting hatred, there probably isn’t a better way to see the clear links between the more extreme versions and the ones that more pointedly bring themselves mainstream attention.  It’s a way to remind oneself that the quieter, front-facing versions are direct gateways into deeper wells of horror, and that the worse versions of all these things are worse as a matter of degree, not kind.

The thing is, this kind of searching also leads one into the weird, anti-scientific, decidedly baffling underbelly of many other movements as well, including movements that are utterly benign.

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A World Gone Comfortably Mad

Anyone who has played Dungeons and Dragons with me knows that my favorite themes and monsters always tie back to the aberrant.  The D&D category of “aberrations” is where the particularly bizarre composite creatures, the monsters with mind-control powers, and monsters that manipulate the forms of others tend to be.  Here reside the giant paralytic tentacle-caterpillars, formless multiple-minded masses with the ability to attack through moveable portals, and mounds of flesh that constantly shriek alien curses from their thousands of mouths.  It is difficult to beat their thematic potential and stage presence, even with such iconic creatures as manticores and sphinxes.  Fantasy adventurers who encounter an aberration don’t get to dismiss it as “we fought a dragon”—they always require a description.

In recent years, these strange creatures became not just strange for its own sake, which is good enough, but strange in a cosmic sense.  Recent editions of Dungeons and Dragons, as well as dozens of other fantasy properties, draw on the fictional universes created by H. P. Lovecraft to provide background for their aberrations.  Once upon a time, many of these aberrant creatures simply were, but now, most of them are implicitly or explicitly tied to a distant dimension whose laws bear no resemblance to those of the rest of the cosmos; owe fealty to alien masters that wish to unmake the universe; break the minds of those who attempt to understand them; or otherwise unsubtly nod to the antics of Lovecraft’s creations.

Lovecraft’s fiction first appealed to me as an atheist.  Lovecraft had no fondness for religion, and few of the religious characters and themes in his fiction say anything good about any variety of it.  Deeper than that, though, the central conceit of Lovecraft’s world is that the underlying nature of reality is far beyond humankind.  Lovecraft’s world is not for us.  Earth is a blip in a teeming cosmos; life on earth is the youthful dalliance of an insignificant planet.  A full description of Lovecraft’s universe begins eons before the emergence of humankind and proceeds for millions of years after the last human is forgotten.   Humans are a footnote, tiny against the cosmic impact of creatures such as the Elder Things and the Great Race of Yith, and still smaller against the power of beings like Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep, Hastur, and Azathoth.  These beings command forces utterly beyond the physics known to Lovecraft’s humans, reshaping life into new servile forms and manipulating hidden dimensions of space.  To all of these creatures, humanity is a diversion at best, and a distraction at worst; our irrelevance to them is as the irrelevance of seaside huts to a tsunami, or, sometimes, as deer to a hunter.  Learning that the commanding forces of the cosmos have no affection or regard for humanity and would no more consider us in their actions or goals as an earthquake does is the final straw that undoes the sanity of numerous Lovecraft protagonists, the truth that fills his stories with their supposed horror.

I always found the thought…comforting.

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What Atheist Communities Can Do

I had the opportunity to speak at FTBCon, and one of the panels with which I was involved was one on disability and the need for the atheist movement and community to get involved in approving accessibility.

One of the statements that set off the most discussion is this idea mentioned by Daniel Samuelson, and backed up by everyone else in the panel, that if he were Christian, Danny would not have become homeless. What followed what a discussion on twitter in which others tried to assert that this couldn’t be the case while those of us who experience the poverty related concerns caused by disability and sickness echoed the statement. For those of us who become atheists, the consequences stemming from our disability are direr than if we remained participants and congregants of our former religions.

This is not because religious people are inherently more moral. In fact morality doesn’t play into it at all. What religions have that the atheist movement still lacks is infrastructure and community. More specifically an infrastructure based community that understands that the best way to keep their numbers is to provide services that make it unappealing and at times impossible to leave. The services can be provided officially as part of their organization or unofficially as those organized by parishioners themselves.
In the interest of improving the lives of disabled atheists I want to offer some examples of things that the atheist community can do to help those of us who struggle.

Ride programs

One of the biggest challenges faced by people with disabilities, regardless of their financial status, is a sense of isolation. This is especially the case in winter when mobility might become an issue. A simple thing that atheist communities can do is arrange to provide rides to people, to the grocery store, to doctor’s appointments, and to various entertainments. Arranging for transportation or rideshares to events can also go a long way to improving attendance.
Arranging for regular transportation to major bulk stores like Costco can also be a huge help. Often buying in bulk can be cheaper but can be difficult or impossible for people without transportation. Alternately, arranging for a delivery service of some kind to pick up and drop off people groceries at their homes would also help a lot.

Food Bank Fundraisers

A lot of people with disabilities will make use of the food bank during their lifetimes. The problem is that food banks are not able to cater to special needs diets. Celiac or gluten allergy? Too bad? Lactose Intolerant? Suck it up. It’s not that they don’t want to help with those types of diets, but food banks don’t receive a lot of options to begin with. If you want to as an organization help people in your community who are struggling do a money drive and food drive for your local food banks. Help stock them with gluten free options, get them toiletries, and give them money. Any of these three actions can be a huge help. Many people forget about toiletries when doing food bank drives, but there are many people for whom the only feminine hygiene products they can get are those that come in from time to time.

Meal Program

It can be difficult at times for people struggling with illness to make themselves healthy meals. Either because of the effort in standing, lack of energy, or lack of money to buy healthy foods. Regardless of the reason, this is one action that a lot of churches provide that is very useful. Members of the community make extra meals which are then delivered to the needy in the community. At times, the community buys gift cards for local grocery chains, to help people buy food. Either of these options can be a huge help to someone who is struggling.

Visit Program

I’ve mentioned before the sense of isolation often felt by people struggling with illness and disability. Having a list of people who could use a visit either once a week or once a month from people can go a long way to reducing that sense of isolation. This can be combined with the meal program, or just be organized on its own. This service should be offered to people in the hospital who spend long periods of time by themselves.

Item/Clothes Exchange

One person’s trash can be another person’s treasure. Having a monthly exchange where people can bring in their old furniture or clothing to be exchanged can be very useful for people who can’t afford new things. Having that type of community can also be very helpful when someone loses their home due to a fire, or something along those lines.

Choose Accessible Locations for Events

Having been an organizer myself, I know that this is not always possible. However, I find that often accessibility is the lowest priority for many organizers. Often the excuse is that they never see people in wheelchairs or with canes at their events, ignoring of course that if their events are inaccessible then they wouldn’t would they.
Remember, not every person for who accessibility is an issue is going to be visible. They may not require a cane but have a problem with stairs. They may be able to handle stairs part of the time but not at others.
If your event does have elevator access, make sure they are clearly marked.

Rent a Wheelchair

Last year I was helping plan a protest with regards to the unfair jailing of atheist bloggers in Bangladesh. I did so with the expectation that I would be unable to participate since part of the protest included a march of a few km, something that was outside my capabilities. The organization however, decided to rent a wheelchair for me so that I could be included. It made a huge difference and meant that the protest had one more attendee to add to their numbers. Not everyone who has trouble with mobility will have a wheelchair of their own. They may not even know that renting a wheelchair is an option. By including information about rentals or mentioning that such is available, you open up the possibility of attendance to a lot more people.

Disability Scholarships

Many people who struggle with disabilities also struggle with money. This makes it difficult to attend events, conferences, and other networking type activities. By providing scholarships or reduced cost tickets for people with disabilities, you lower some of the barriers towards attendance.

Accessible Presentation

This is a big one that is often forgotten about. When booking someone for a talk, remind them to make their presentations more accessible. If they are including graphics or pictures, remind them that they have to describe them for people who cannot see. If possible, try to arrange to have the information for sign language interpreters to make it possible for people with auditory disabilities to attend. If you provide these services, make sure to make it clear by including that information on your advertisements.
Make sure you are aware of the procedures regarding service dogs. Run through them if you see one in the audience to make sure that people with the service dogs don’t have to spend all their time reminding people that they should not pet a dog that is wearing its vest.
Include a section for people to make clear their accessibility needs if they want to attend.

More Disability Themed Presentations

Regardless what community you belong to, disability activism intersects. This is especially true for feminism, race activism, and atheism. The intersections of disability, whether physical or mental, are huge. By creating more awareness, you also increase more people struggling with these problems to get involved in the community. ((Self serving yes, but if you are looking for speakers I am available for this purpose))

Hire More People with Disabilities

Often when thinking about representation, people forget about those of us struggling with disability. By hiring more people who struggle with mobility, visual, hearing, or chronic illness issues, you are likely to get a better perspective on how to be more inclusive.
This is not a complete list but includes only a few ideas of what organizations like CFI, American Atheists, and others can do to improve accessibility and the lives of disabled people in their own communities.