Sunday, January 27, 2013

Gender & race wars in the secular movement (1)

As a peripheral observer of the atheist/ humanist/ skeptics/ secularist movement, who only intermittently keeps up with goings-on in the movement and hardly ever reads the relevant blogs, I find my sense of reality challenged by the controversies raging within it, mostly over women's issues but also over racial issues, and of course the two combined. I have always found this movement (in the USA at least) so shallow that I cannot take seriously the terms of these debates, as the very people dissenting from the prevailing order of this movement are interested in claiming an identity in it, and this identity is something I don't believe in in the first place.

To claim oneself as a feminist skeptic or a black skeptic, for instance, to me means in the first place that however one redefines the issues, one has already accepted not only the labels but the tacit conceptual basis for these labels. While I do take seriously the issue of harassment and character defamation of women in the secular movement, I do not take so seriously the framing of the ideological issues within it. Its fundamental premises are bourgeois. This may not be so obvious because the dissenters represent or claim to represent progressive causes. However, the ideological basis of these causes and their relation to the context in which they operate changes over time.

It is difficult to see this because Americans have to confront two historical breaks which have instituted our historical amnesia: McCarthyism and Reaganism.  I gave the briefest outline of how this affects the tacit ideological underpinnings of the explicit ideological assertions of the humanist movement, in my previous post, John Shook & the banality of humanism's dead liberalism. I will quote just one paragraph, in which I distinguish the left liberals/soft socialists of the 1933 Humanist Manifesto from today's "liberals":
 All of these people were products of a different era from the generations that produced the social and cultural revolutions of the 1960s and '70s. In addition to class-based agitation, this period foregrounded the new social movements--black civil rights & black power (along with other mushrooming ethnic movements), feminism, gay rights, environmentalism, etc.  What survives of all this, however, is predicated on the destruction of the old social liberalism that was undergirded by the labor movement.  Hence what passes for liberalism now is not class-based social equality, but the equal right of members of marginalized groups to participate at all levels of class exploitation. Our black president is the logical outcome of this historical trend.
You can read the rest yourself. What I need to add is that the movements of the 1960's and '70s cannot simply be isolated as black, women's, gay, etc. movements. There existed an entire spectrum of political positions associated with each of these movements. And social class was alive as an issue in a different way than it is today, as the old social liberalism (welfare state capitalism cum industrial trade unionism) is dead as a political force. Hence the notion of what it means to be progressive today hinges on fighting the right-wing assault based on their "cultural issues": defending women's rights, black voting rights, the status of Latinos, etc. Of course there is also a battle on defending public service unions and the social safety net. Nevertheless, the framing of the battles on behalf of marginalized and discriminated-against groups is shaped by the overall political context of today.

What remains of the consideration of class is encompassed in the left bourgeois notion of intersectionality and the childish deployment of the concept of privilege. Study of the intersections of race and class and gender and class goes back a long way, but the framing of these issues is a result of the combination of progress and regress since the end of the 1970s: increased consciousness of the issues raised by the new social movements combined with the eclipse of class politics. As for privilege, this notion grew out of the radical '60s in the context of left-wing organizing confronting the labor movement. The concept is now reduced to privileged middle class professionals baiting ostensibly more privileged middle class professionals.

As for the actual marginalization of various groups within secularist etc organizations, others will have to testify. However, the situation is complicated not only by the gatekeeping practices of organizations, conference organizers, etc., and by explicit positions taken by public figures, but by the atmosphere of the blogosphere, social networking, and cyberspace generally. As for the debaters who are recognized public figures, to what extent are the debates artifacts of competing self-promoters as superficial in their pronouncements as their opponents? How much of the alleged "war on women" actually concerns the recognizable organized secularist etc. movement and how much the free-for-all of commenters on blogs and social networks and YouTube wars? The fact that harassment and character assassination should exist at all and must be endured or fought is itself depressing.  Why not just attack someone's half-baked ideas when the occasion arises, if that is what is really at stake, and leave it at that?

The freethought community, on matters of social/political thinking, is as shallow as the rest of American society. Social issues should certainly not be silenced or discouraged, but that doesn't mean everyone who brings them up is a genius. We live in a media-saturated environment in which everyone reacts to everything. but unfortunately superficiality dominates all discussions. It is typical of argument in America: he said-she said. Who wants to participate in such discussions ad nauseam?

No comments: