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.