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Semiformalishmaybe

Thunderfoot, Natalie Reed, and Activism

Natalie Reed, a semi-prominent blogger on FreeThoughtBlogs (which I mentioned removed Thunderfoot after a short stint earlier this summer, and provided my own mixed thoughts on the matter in that post), recently announced that she doesn't want to be thought of as part of the secular movement anymore. I have some mixed thoughts on this, and it does tie to some topics I'm generally interested in, so let's dig in a bit. As with basically anything I comment on ever, I have a copy of the post I'm replying to; if the original ever goes away let me know and I'll either repost it here or provide a link.

In general, I'm not that averse to people leaving movements, even if they still care about a cause, or are best categorised as having a position the movement is trying to push. There is alawys room for more than one movement, and there is also room for people pursuing causes independently. The feminist movement is like this, with its many strands and flavours. Same thing with the socialist movements, and secular movements, and the like. I'm alone in some of these things and in minor factions on others, sometimes because I think a culture has gone rotten or is just uninteresting (I'm bi, but have no ties to the BIGALA communities for this reason), sometimes I have serious issues with how some movements conduct themselves (the "Social Justice" movement is something I deeply oppose because I think it's shrill third-wave rubbish), and I'm alone in my socialism mostly because I haven't found enough people who see things the way I do. Deciding to leave, or join, or split a movement is all fine by me. I primarily want to work through the reasons Natalie gives, and provide commentary. I intend to do this in a way sensitive to the spirit in which it's written; when she wrote it she seems unusually upset, and so let's forgive a bit of hyperbole/excessive phrasing.

Also, as a bit of extra background, Natalie identifies as trans and is, as far as I understand, XY. She's had a fairly rough life in many parts. Not that we should give extra leniency or consideration because of this (the forming of positions or judgement should never be so personal); it's just mainly important for context.

Moving into the meat:

  • She discusses the conflicts relating to DJ Groethe and Thunderfoot as disappointments, primarily because she feels that these should not even be conversations; she believes that secular communities should consider SJ-movement type conclusions as a given, and that people who don't accept the conclusions or discourse of those movements are simply wrong. I think that's way off. The SJ-movement is just one approach to defining justice, and in my opinion it's ridiculously wrong in its theory, conclusions, and discourse style. I don't expect to convince my reader of this in this post, but I hope I can rely on the position that secular movements should not be so specific in terms of theory that are nonessential to secular-liberalism, and that they should be resistant to attempts by the SJ/third-wave-activist crowd to dominate discourse on those topics.
  • She and Thunderfoot have some disagreements over what was said and done around the time he was booted from FTB; she is concerned that her real name will be revealed if Thunderfoot goes through with what she claims are threats to post the contents of the FTB mailing lists. Thunderfoot denies that he threatened or would do this. Not having access to the mailing list, but familiar with this kind of dispute, I strongly suspect there is a lot of misinterpretation of wording from one or both parties.
  • The fear of being outed as XY is a big deal to her. I understand why. The discrimination that people who identify as trans (or gay people, or bisexuals, or poly people, or anyone who's a bit odd in some way) face in some parts can be fierce. Some tiny sliver of it is acceptable in the sense that people don't need to accept the claim of people to be of a particular sex, because people can use whatever gender framework they like. That's it though. People who identify as trans should not be exposed to violence, should not be harassed, should not face a tougher time getting a job, and so on. The difficulty with living in a world where not everyone uses the sex-gender-theory they prefer is on them, but the rest of the world needs to let them live a decent, happy life, loving who they want and with just the regular burden of living in a mentally and politically pluralistic society. They should also be a protected class under hate crimes legislation and general nondiscrimination laws (except insofar as people and organisations might not classify their sex/gender as they prefer). It should not be illegal to out someone as trans, or bi, or gay, or whatever, but making a particular effort to do so with a direct intent of causing harm (rather than incidental intent) to someone should be severely frowned upon, and if the likely harm is imminent, it should be considered forbidden.
  • I can understand her aversion to get involved in horrible discussions, and her frustration with not existing in "safe spaces", which are typically zones of third-wave-activism that operate by standards that are very friendly to minorities, but at unacceptable costs to open discourse. I am not as accepting of her concerns about being called names. That happens to people no matter their politics or identity. We just have to deal with that.
  • She elaborates her preference for a focus on other topics. That's fine. Being categorised as atheist doesn't need to mean identifying as one.
  • And then she gets back to wishing the secular movements she liked followed SJ-movement things closer. To me this is undesirable and unreasonable, and something I will continue to speak against. People like me do want social justice, but we don't define it the same way SJ people do, nor do we seek it the same way. When she calls others zealots for not agreeing with SJ-means, she fails to see that any position, including hers (and mine), easily demands dominance. We either accept that there will be fierce disagreements on some topics if we try to press our particulars too far, or we leave because not everyone agrees with us.
  • She's also unhappy that the culture of the secular movement tends to have a lot of straight white non-trans men, and that contributes to her unhappiness with the movement because it leads to theorising from privilege. I recognise that there is some missing perspective when a movement is too homogenous, but I suspect when she says this it's just more yearning for SJ-type monoculture (even with diverse people) rather than real diversity, and I am not sympathetic to that. Claims of privilege are not a valid way to disqualify people from a discussion (as the third-wavers tend to use the term); they're not a big term, they're a small one that humbly suggests "you might've missed thinking about this particular thing: $thing". Minorities are not right on virtue of being minorities, and endless deference to them is not useful. We will decide things by trying to persuade each other through discussion, not through a search to find the least-privileged-human and make them maximally happy. That said, if she has legitimate complaints of sexism and racism (as seen through a broad, rather than third-wave lens), we should consider fixing them, and at the very least talk about them.
  • She then looks at a few other incidents that she feels the community got wrong (or failed to achieve consensus on the right answer in her eyes):
    • Elevatorgate - No. Rebecca was wrong.
    • Treatment of someone on reddit - No idea what this is.
    • Rosch's all-male atheist-of-the-year list - Haven't heard of this. I wouldn't make a lot of noise if it happened to be deserved for some reason, but I can see why people would be bothered, and this would bear more investigation
    • Use of the word "cunt" to demonise people who speak up on women's issues - Valid point
    • DJ Groethe's worries - I'm not very sympathetic to her on this.
    • Appraisals of the value of women focusing on their appearance - This is a very valid point and an area of major concern.
    • FTBullies - Again, as far as I can tell this meme that she's criticising is entirely valid; I reject Thunderfoot's removal from FTB, and think it shows worrying signs for the community to the extent that I consider it a black mark on the record of people who are still there
    • MRA and Atheist movement overlaps - If she's right on this, this is very worrying. MRAs, in my experience, have rarely failed to be sexist (to my second-wave eyes), and I would prefer they not have much of a voice in the movement. I am worried that Third-wavers, who generally have what I consider an intolerant form of feminism, would classify people and groups as MRAs who would actually meet my baseline definition of feminism, but real MRAs are worrisome.
    • The other things she mentioned are things I generally don't know much or anything about. I neither blame her for including them nor consider them convincing; they'd take more investigation.
  • She expresses that she thought she could change things in the movement in directions she sees as positive, and is frustrated by lack of progress. In some areas I believe she's right to want change, but in others, no. Making the secular movement a third-wave dominated field is something that, as I said before, I will never accept and always speak out against. Making it broad and ideally conformant with just baseline feminism is something I would accept and approve of.
  • She expresses concern that the identity of Atheism, absent substantial commitment to other causes, is too easy and personal for people and neglects other ideas of justice. I think I agree with her words here, even if I don't think third-wave justice is acceptable. Broad commitment to many disconnected movements is healthy, and to the extent that atheists neglect concerns beyond theirs, that's a problem.
Her closing is fine by me.

I don't think she's entirely wrong. Whether she goes or stays is fine, but if she really won't accept a community that doesn't accept third-wave/SJ activism as its primary set of methods and a source of its conclusions, then I'd rather she went. Our commitment to justice should not be that specific. There is room for third-wavers if they stop lecturing everyone else that their gender theory and race theory and the like are the only things worth knowing with their "race 101" rubbish, and if they can get over themselves to the extent that their notion of privilege isn't that unspeakably arrogant "you would agree with my subjective ideas if only you learned more" type claim. If they can't accept pluralism, then they need to be expelled from any social movement in the same way that we'd expel racists and MRAs. We will be a broad tent, and the specifics of your (and my) theory cannot be mandatory for that broad tent.

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