Unpacking the Red Pill

I’m actually sort of upset that internet hate groups have managed to co-opt the matrix red pill analogy. It is actually a really good metaphor for social justice and the way that becoming aware of privilege and systemic injustice works.

It really is like suddenly opening your eyes and realizing that everything you thought you were seeing you were actually seeing incorrectly your whole life. It’s incredible. Where the analogy fails is by painting it as a single pill.

The truth is that becoming aware of social justice issues is really like swallowing a whole bunch of different red pills, each one exposing you to yet another level of interconnected systems of oppression. This is why we get some atheist activists, and other social justice activists, falling into this same trap over and over again of thinking that they couldn’t possibly be sexist, racist, transphobic, classist, etc. because they “already swallowed the red pill” so now they could see the whole truth.

There is also this idea that swallowing one red pill makes every additional one easier to see, but that’s not true. Sometimes you can swallow multiple red pills at ones at once. But the truth is that each one is painful to take. Each one produces its own side-effects, its own difficulties. Swallowing the red pill is never easy.

It’s not just one easily exposed system that once you see a part of, you essentially get an idea of the whole. It is more like a self-replicating computer virus that infects different system files. You can cut one out, but unless you get them all, it will just rebuild again.To really solve the problem, you have to root out every single individual corrupted system file. Otherwise, the program rebuilds itself, just using a different pathway, but ultimately yielding the same result.

Take the evolution of feminism throughout the years. Each wave of feminism exposed layers of patriarchal oppression, however, by failing to consider the interconnections of various issues and the level to which the system was self-replicating, rather than fixing the problem is shifted the scope of it. Such as when the response of women trying to prove that they were every bit as capable in “masculine” fields and tasks ended up reinforcing the gender binary. The focus was on showing that women can also do “masculine things” rather than on showing that the division of actions into an either or option was not based on an accurate social model of gender. The resulting surge in femmephobia reinforced a lot of harmful patriarchal concepts that are now that much more difficult to dismantle. It’s not that second-wave feminists went too far, it is that they didn’t go far enough. It failed to take into account how the system is also supported by race, by cis-centrism, by ableism. It failed to look at the matrix as a whole.

Imagine if the matrix actually existed as a series of levels. With every successive pill you see a little more of the matrix. But if you don’t realize there are more pills to take, you might be tempted to think you see the whole matrix. Agent Smith is counting on that, because as long as you believe you are outside the matrix, they can use the parts of the matrix you are still connected to to shift your perception of the world around you.  As long as you are still within levels of the matrix however, you continue to power the system.

If we take the premise of the matrix movie that human beings are being turned into a potato battery, becoming aware of different spheres of oppression is like discovering that your potato battery is charging other batteries and working to shut off those batteries so that your battery doesn’t die. Those are the first red pills you usually take.

The hard pills to take are those that reveal that even while you are struggling to unplug the connections that are causing other batteries to drain your charge, you are recharging your own battery from other people as well. These are the pills that make us choke, that stick in our throats. These are the ones that make us want to fight and reject what we are seeing, because more than anything the matrix relies on our denial that we could be harming people even if we have no intention to.

You didn’t know. The plugs were in your back and you couldn’t see them because you were in the matrix level whatever. But intentionally or not, you have been draining other people’s batteries. Whether you knew or not, you may have been the connection that added just that extra little drain needed to completely empty someone’s battery.

So now you have to make a decision, which do you pull out first?  The ones draining others or the ones draining you? Or do you try to pull them out at the same time? Do you leave others to try and pull out the ones draining them out themselves? Do you go back to pretending you never saw the ones in your back or deny that they’re there? Do you address some but not others? What makes you decide?

The choice you make is ultimately yours, but the one you make says something about you as a person.

My choice is striking a balance between pulling out both sides. I need to pull out my own because I can’t take out the system if my battery is completely dead. But I also need to work on pulling the ones that are charging me. Sometimes, when my battery is draining too fast, I need to take a break. I might need to focus on pulling out my own for a few moments, though I never forget about the ones in my back. Sometimes, I am being drained slow enough that I can forget about pulling out my own for some time in order to focus more on pulling out the ones that I benefit from. In fact, often when I am puling out my own, it is so that I have the surplus energy to spend more time pulling out the ones that charge me.

Everyone is interconnected into the system, but not everyone carries the same number of output and input energy. Some people only have maybe one or two output cabled, while being charged by several sources. Even when this happens, you might not be retaining a high charge, but that doesn’t change the fact that you are still draining others. The opposite extreme also exists with some people being almost completely output cables and none or almost no input cables.

The system is like a web and everyone is plugged into it.

It is essential that we all disconnect and break the system. When you have any system that depends on batteries basically sharing charge in a single continuous system, that leads to combustion. Just ask anyone who has had keys and batteries in their pocket, and ended up with burning pants because the two connecting created a single circuit.

The system is a path to destruction as long as it exists because either your battery gets completely drained or you combust. That’s ultimately why systems of oppression like patriarchy end up hurting even those they privilege.

Worth Less

In my fights for women’s rights, I have been startled to see how often the issue had an important element of disability activism. Take abortion rights and access to birth control.  I am under consideration for being included in drug trials. My participation includes the need not to become pregnant.  In order to ensure this, it is important that I have access to birth control. This means that doctors or pharmacists who choose not to make birth control readily available don’t just take away my rights as a person to make my own medical decisions; they are actively putting my health at risk. In the event that I do get pregnant, having safe and easy access to abortion services is necessary. As long as I am not in remission, being pregnant is a serious risk to my survival.

Similarly, my atheism and skepticism is brought into sharp focus by my struggles with medical conditions. Responding to religious and anti-science pundits is a daily act for those of us who are disabled. We face woo on a personal level, with it directed directly at us from friends, family members, and authority figures. Even non-atheists are harmed by the lack of secular services available to help those in need within our community.

Disability activism highlights the importance of intersectionality since it can be the result as well as the cause of discrimination and marginalization. Many people who fall within the category of being trans, queer, women, people of colour, and so forth live with the very real risk of physical harm and abuse, and as a result are at risk for anxiety, ptsd, depression, and physical impairment resulting from violence.

If we define disability as a physical or mental barrier from successfully and/or comfortable navigating our society, then race, gender, sexual and gender orientation, can all be seen as being disabilities. Perhaps disability activism should be then seen as changing the world in such a way as to make the whole world more accessible to people of all genders, orientations, races, religions or lack thereof, and physical and mental ability. Where potentially other social justice concerns differ from disability is that in the case of the former, the barriers are almost universally external, whereas in the case of the latter there do exist internal barriers as well, which may be further strengthened by the external.

Our society has such a negative attitude towards disability however, that even people that fall into the socially accepted definition of that category struggle against being labeled as such. “I’m sick, but I’m not… you know… disabled.” It is hard to make the argument that disability is in any way a positive. Disability is painful, whether mental or physical. It makes your life harder. It can make it difficult to live a life that is socially deemed as worthwhile or productive.  The personal aspects of disability won’t change, but what can change are the external barriers that exist in our societies. By changing our concept of normalcy from “white cis straight able bodied male who is financially secure” we can begin to change how our society handles differences.

Take mobility impairment for example. Most of our architecture and infrastructure is predicated on the assumption that people can walk. As a result, most buildings, sidewalks, and so forth are difficult to navigate for those of us for whom mobility is an issue. Where mobility disability is taken into account, it is usually in such a way as to be out of the way. Elevators are the most common solution, but of course elevators break down, are not consistently implemented, and in the event of an emergency such as fire, they are inaccessible.  Imagine if we had a paradigm shift and instead based our architecture on the idea that a percentage of the population is not mobile? What if we replaced all stairwells with ramps? True, ramps take up more space then stairwells as they have to have lower incline then staircases do, but such a change would not negatively impact anyone. In fact, it would be beneficial to more than just the wheelchair bound. Parents with strollers, for example, would have a much easier time navigating, as would anyone who relies on wheel-based carriers. There would be a lower incidence of injury as falling down a ramp is less physically intense then falling down stairs.

Our culture’s obsession with ranking relative value and worthiness is at the heart of many instances of oppression; white is more valuable than not-white, male is more valuable than female, cis is more valuable than trans, so forth and so forth. We do this with every aspect of our culture: someone who becomes a janitor or a blue collar worker is seen as less valuable then someone who majors in business. In fact blue collar or no collar work is seen as the domain of “stupid***” people, and anyone who is “stupid” is inherently less valuable.

People with disabilities struggle with the concept of worthiness, or more specifically worthlessness, in particular. Our culture values productivity above many other things and the definitions of productivity can be limiting. When you exist in a body that forces you to spend entire days in bed for no other reason than because the pain you feel makes it too exhausting to get up, it can be difficult to feel like you have worth. When you see your friends and family members have to rearrange their lives around you, you get caught thinking over and over again, is it worth it? You feel like a burden. You feel worthless since by conventional standards you are not a productive member of society.

By the standards of our current society, we are worthless, and we are introduced to this idea every day.  We hear about how people who rely on disability support payments are lazy. Every time someone talks about how they were “useless” because they spent the day in bed or at home, it is like a hot needle of shame shoved in our hearts. It is a reminder that as far as the majority of society is concerned, we are worthless.

Casual ableism is so prevalent in our society that in many ways what many would consider the most benign of insults, are actually terms most often used to marginalize people with disabilities. That’s so lame, dumb, stupid, idiotic, retarded*,  he’s so blind, slow, crazy, such a spaz, all these phrases and more have lost in the social memory the association with disability. And yet, that association exists. Imagine being a non-verbal child who knows that the designation for their impairment is used as a synonym for lacking in intelligence? Why is the opposite of cool or awesome a word that means having mobility impairment?

This casual ableism is prevalent in many social justice communities as well.  Often, little to no thought is given on how a given subject, action, and what not affects the disabled. Marches are organized without thought on how this limits participation by those who have difficulty with walking. Having sign language interpreters is the exception and not the rule. The activist behaviours most accessible to people with disabilities, the creation of online petitions, writing, Facebook posts, is given the dubious label of slacktivism. This term is given without consideration of how for some, these may be the only outlets for social change available to them.  Many in the community see nothing wrong with comparing religious belief to mental illness.

Within the feminist community, when calling out the gas-lighting behaviour that associates the word crazy with women, little to no thought is given to the inherent trouble with using crazy as a pejorative. What about women with bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, ptsd? Is it ok to call them crazy since in some ways they are? Is it ok in that case to disregard what they have to say as unimportant, lacking in reason or merit?

When these concerns are brought up the thoughts are often dismissed as unimportant or at best thought exercises. When prominent atheist activists like Miri of Brute Reason have brought up the negative impact on atheists with mental disabilities to compare religion to one, the matter sparked some debate but no pressure existed to enforce a change of behaviour. The culprits had no fear of continuing their actions, even where they had previously done so to accommodate other social justice concerns.

In other cases where concerns over ableism or inaccessibility were brought up, they were met with hostility and immediate dismissal.

When members of the community are dismissed or forced out from their positions due to their illness, we do not see the same level of public outcry as if someone were let go for reporting harassment, or forced out due to their race, beliefs, or gender expression. The marginalization or discrimination against people with disabilities doesn’t cause scandals. It is as most a blip on the radar evoking the half-hearted response of “that sucks”.

Disability concerns are an after-thought at most, if that. When it comes to activism, disability doesn’t have the sex appeal of issues such as sexual orientation, gender, and race**.  When you are someone who struggles with disability and particularly with raising awareness of the issues as they exist within our communities, this dismissal creates a feeling of resentment. This is particularly the case when an inability to raise awareness on such issues means a continuation of the devastating impacts of living with these disabilities.

When a known member of the community struggled with potential homelessness as a result of their disability and inability to get the support they needed, the response was half-hearted at best despite the money being asked for being less than outrageous. Raising it took a long time, putting pressure on the person in question as homelessness loomed. This occurred around the same time that the response to an unknown preacher losing his job due to a publicity stunt involving atheism raised in the tens of thousands in a matter of days.

We as a community need to respond to the call to arms to support our own members. Members whose everyday struggles are a lived manifestation of the need for atheist and feminist activism; our members whose struggles are intimately intertwined with the professed concerns of this social movement. It is time to examine our own ableism. It is time to let wounded voices have a chance to speak. It is time to show the morality we claim of ourselves. A response to arms means more than just bringing awareness to a necessary social issue; it can quite literally save lives. I call on all those who call themselves humanists, intersecitionalists, to shut up and listen.


*I include the word “retard” here as a strengthening example, with full knowledge that it is becoming less socially considered to be benign.
**It is worth mentioning that when it comes to social justice, race concerns are dismissed more frequently than many of the others and is lacking in representation among our community concerns.
*** My use of the term stupid in this case is to illustrate how the term is used as a pejorative against people who have different types of intelligence. It was included with an assumption that I would continue on to explain how the term affects people with cognitive disabilities, but in the end chose not to include those paragraphs.