Wednesday, 17 April 2013

The importance of arguing about things that don't matter

It occurred to me today, in the course of trying to explain to a friend my occasional reluctance to describe myself as a feminist, that the life of an atheist concerned with social issues is spent largely in arguing about things that don't matter.

The most obvious example of this is the whole "God" issue itself.  Gods do not exist, meaning they are in themselves almost axiomatically irrelevant... yet I, like millions of atheists all over the world, find myself talking about them all the bleeding time.  How many times have you been taunted about the time and energy you devote to arguing about God X, or to trying to prove it doesn't exist?  Why do we do it?  Because other people believe gods matter.  And because the rest of us have been too damn complacent for too long about letting them justify nastinesses on that supremely nonsensical basis.

But it's not only gods.  The life of a liberal is FULL of arguments about things that don't matter.

Look at sexuality.  I don't give a toss about the sex or gender of the person or people you find attractive, and if you're reading this blog you probably feel much the same about me.  Whether you're straight, gay, bi, asexual or undecided doesn't matter in the slightest to me... but I'm forced to argue about it, to blog and sign petitions and generally get angry about it because for reasons I will never understand it matters to other people.

Precisely the same can be said of arguments against sexism.  When I took part in International Day to Defend Amina earlier this month, I didn't do it because she's a woman.  In principle I don't care that she is a woman, don't consider it relevant to anything... but I care that she is abused, and the fact is that the abuse has happened because she is a woman.  In a sense, I am forced to take a stance on something I consider a complete non-issue... because too many other people, powerful people, think it matters.  If you're not up-to-date with what's happening in Amina's life after the protest, both Maryam Namazie and Ophelia Benson have blogged on the subject.

Incidentally, those who've taken an anti-FEMEN stance on this matter - who feel that we who protested Amina's treatment are (to quote one tweeter) "imposing white, Western feminism" on people against their will - might find it helps to stop thinking of Amina and others as "brown, Eastern women" and think of them instead simply as "people who are being treated really badly by other people for no good reason".

The same is true of arguments against racism, against xenophobia, against the various forms of prejudice based on the circumstances of birth, against a thousand other forms of bigotry and injustice.  It's a little strange to reflect that those of us who don't care about race, sex, social class, gender, sexuality etc. are so often the people most engaged in arguing about such matters.

And that, I suppose, is why despite being entirely in favour of equality between men and women I'm often uncomfortable with the label "feminist".  I'm not "pro-women" as the term has come (rightly or wrongly is a separate question) to suggest, in the same way I'm not "pro-gay" or "pro-transgender" or "pro-black people".  I don't defend women because they're women, I defend people who are oppressed because they are people who are oppressed.  I'm not in favour of gay people any more than I'm in favour of straight people, because I simply don't think the difference matters.  I support the rights of gay people only because others oppose them, which makes me not "pro-gay" but something like "anti-anti-gay".

I suppose "anti-arsehole" might be the best term for the general principle here, if for no other reason than that "anti-anti-black people", "anti-anti-women" etc. gets confusing quickly.

Another challenge we meet over and over again - most commonly from other non-believers in my own case - is "why can't you just live and let live?".  The truth is that I would love to stop arguing about all this stuff that is, at bottom, irrelevant to me.  But the hard fact is that the world is full of people to whom such matters are not irrelevant, and those people collectively have the power to make miserable - or even to end - the lives of others.  If those people could learn to live and let live, to stop caring about non-issues that are none of their business anyway, we would see an end to all sorts of injustices and abuses.  If we are ever persuaded to live and let live, those same injustices and abuses will go unprotested, and their victims will have even less defence against them.

So if you ever catch yourself thinking "I wish these bleeding atheists and liberals would shut up and let people get on with it"... reflect on what the consequences would be if you got your wish, and think on.


  1. This posting exactly mirrors both my feelings and my experiences as an atheist with liberal leanings. So much of what I argue, rant and rave about means absolutely nothing to me personally, it's the inability of others to leave it alone that makes it an issue.

    A friend asked me a while back on a facebook posting what exactly it was that I had against Christians. I tried to explain that my objections to those of all faiths is constrained to their inability to leave the rest of us alone and their use of their religion as justification for some pretty awful laws and customs. Apparently this wasn't reasonable enough though, as I should 'have respect' for their beliefs and basically, STFU.

    So you can't really win can you? That same friend would be the first to denounce the likes of the Taliban for example. If I were to point out the double standard to him I know he would just say 'It's not the same'. His religion can do no wrong, all the others can do no right. So to keep the peace you are tempted to not air the debate at all. So it goes :-(

  2. Making a stand against injustice and religion is laborious and tedious, but I'm glad a lot of people never give up. Causes worth fighting for now will someday be the norm, thanks to campaigners like us :)

  3. Thomas Aquinas quote about religious belief, specifically faith: "To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible," I find to be particularly applicable to non-believers or, 'enlightened' people.

    Those who are religious, sexist, racist, homophobic etc... are often so ingrained in their mentality that no explanation is possible. The enlightened people among us are, enlightened, and so no explanation is necessary.

  4. Super blog post. Point couldn't have been put across in a more concise and clear manner. I know plenty of those "live and let live" folks who could do with reading this

  5. As usual, a point well made. Reflects my opinion on the matter very accurately. Only, you know, a hundred times more eloquently.

  6. The misconception about people like us (I associate myself with all you have said here) is that we are FOR something (feminism, atheism, economic equality, gay rights etc) when in truth we are reactionaries AGAINST things. We are by nature tolerant of most stances except extremes of bigotry and oppression from whatever source. If intolerance and injustice evaporated you'd never hear from us again. I suspect most people feel this way but only a small segment of us get off our arses and try to counter the intolerance and injustice that we see, in whatever small ways we can.

    When I'm accused of being intolerant or hateful or ranting or bad mannered by my opponent I just remind them that I am not naturally like that, they caused this reaction and I'll be pleasant again when they stop.

  7. Wonderful! I shall now be linking this to everyone who asks me why I am so 'obsessed' with religion.

  8. Thank you Christianne. I get the same crap when I argue against religion's influence. Ideology is like the water fish swim in or the air we live in (before Priestly and Lavoisier). WE don't notice it's there. For the believers, the ideology of "God" is invisible, and they don't understand why we humanists see it and have trouble with it.

  9. Thank you for expressing the issue (of non-issue?) so precisely.

  10. Great piece - no need to say any more

  11. I received an interesting response on your behalf:

    1. Sorry Simon, that link doesn't seem to work. Could you screencap or link it for me, do you think?


    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Linking won't work - I'll try a screen grab.

    4. Rather long winded and I've de-personalised it but try here:

  12. Very well written.

    I find the struggle for liberal values is too often discouraging. Those who stand against these values have in large part, after all, already made up their minds. It makes battling for something that doesn't matter seem like it really, really doesn't matter.

    Yet posts like this are inspiring. Keep it up!