Freethought and Bullying

There is a popular website called Freethought Blogs — a meeting point for secular thinkers — that is currently embroiled in a bullying row.

The mudslinging seems to have arisen out of a post or two about sexism within the atheist movement, which in turn prompted certain commentators to disagree that the specific problem was as broad or as bad as key figures on the site made out. This led such commentators to be villified, insulted, expelled, even seriously threatened. Respected secularist figures such as PZ Myers became involved, incurring criticism for abusive language, pulling rank, being arrogant, choosing sides, being irrational, and so on. It seems to be that for some time, popular writers on the site have constructed a status quo, and dissenters from it have been shouted down. This bullying behaviour is now being outed. You can google the subject for more information.

I know I shouldn’t find it funny, but I do.

Firstly, it’s obviously amusingly ironic when a place that names itself ‘Freethought Blogs’ decends into virtual riots over what people are allowed to think or say, and how ‘lesser thinkers’ should be treated. Such a title was always asking for trouble, I suppose.

In any event, I think this all demonstrates that no-one’s thinking (no-one worth listening to anyway) is ever really free; you can be free from one set of norms and restrictions, but you merely adopt another. We think in obedience to different masters. It’s an open question whether your master is better than mine.

Secondly, atheists (rightly) catalogue the hypocrisies of the religious when they behave badly towards unbelievers, so much so that I think they may have started to believe that atheism is a step of evolution beyond ‘less enlightened’ religious folk. It’s nice to see occasional demonstrations that even greats such as PZ Myers can be just as idiotic as the rest of us.

Finally, the truth is probably that both sides have a point, and both sides have reason to claim the moral high-ground when it comes to the the thing that they’re defending (whether anti-sexism or anti-bullying). But it is wonderful to watch the world’s cleverest people injuring themselves in an attempt to learn the principle, ‘The ends don’t justify the means.’

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EDIT: Perhaps worth pointing out that I have no idea who is ultimately right, whether or not PZ Myers, for example, is the good guy or the bad guy, whether he is justifiably harsh, whether party x or y is lying or not. But clearly even clever people can have wisdom failure, being nasty tends to make things worse, and apologising is hard.

EDIT 2: Spelled Myers as Meyers before. Sorry. I think Austin Powers 2&3 broke the part of my brain that likes to spell that surname that way.

Get your problems out the way of my comfort

We naturally dislike people who attend to the bare minimum of their responsibilities begrudgingly and with endless complaint. I no longer shop at certain retailers because asking assistants for assistance earned me bad attitude. There are hundreds of films that feature lazy people who, if they had just gone and done what they were supposed to, none of this would have happened, or who do it with endless grumbles but just in time to avert huge disaster (but I can’t think of a single example right now).

This week, South Africa’s most in-the-news hospital, Baragwanath, left a badly burned man to die, seemingly neglecting the bare minimum of their profession and their humanity. You can read that sad story here (caution: unpleasant pics). However, one of the state doctors today wrote a must-read response arguing that when it comes to lack of care and responsibility, blame should rather be placed on the politicians who have run health administration into a state of collapse. Either way, such lack of care is horrifying.

It is easy to take moral high ground in such circumstances, but sometimes we’re just as uncaring; we’ve just found ways of clothing our selfishness in diplomatic dress. Such as in church this weekend…

In Religion: Speak to God about it (just don’t make your problems mine)

In the church, we’re champions at spiritualising our selfishness. I spoke on the weekend at a church on the subject of relinquishing our wealth as a necessary part of Christian discipleship. Afterwards, a woman apparently in terrible poverty spoke to me about it, claiming that at other churches, she had been told to bring her problems to God and ‘leave them at the altar’; to let God sort them out. She felt unable to speak about her desperate needs to anyone in the church any longer.

Of course, we must trust God, and God is the ultimate provider. However, telling someone to leave their problems at the altar is another way of making sure that they don’t share their problems with you. We can sound spiritual while also telling people not to bother us with their uncomfortable issues.

The Bible should make us very uncomfortable when it comes to our money and the poor in our congregations, because when it tells us that there ‘shall be no poor among you’, it also tells us the mechanism by which this relief from poverty takes place, namely, those whom God has given much must be generous towards those who have little. For example, in Acts 2 & 4, when there was need, the church would not consider their property to be their own, but would sell something so that they could provide for one another. That’s an often-repeated pattern in the Bible for provision for the poor in our congregations.

Now, the Bible is not at all like communism, and it is true that giving handouts can sometimes do more harm than good. Nevertheless, we do not therein find an excuse to avoid our responsibilities as the rich in the church. Be strategic about how you use the wealth God has leant you, and be sure that you use it for the reasons for which He gave it.

In Politics: Look to the future (Don’t remind me what I did in the past)

A third thing this week that illustrated selfish comfort trumping concern for due responsibility was an article in the City Press, written by Alistair MacKay, called How Whites Can Reconcile. He points out that after the horrors of Apartheid, most whites have coasted along in silence (usually, I’d add, breaking silence to complain that the new government is ‘ruining the country’), until now, 20 years later, we become impatient with people who still feel the hurt and injustice of the past system. As MacKay says:

I saw this comment on reconciliation in South Africa from a white guy the other day: “Why are we still talking about this? Haven’t we done enough?” No, we haven’t.

It’s curious that among white people now, it is hard to find a person who was ever racist during Apartheid. We’ve washed our hands of it and ensure that we now deflect away any blame for that system, because it makes us uncomfortable to be associated with it.

In response to the article, many of the comments demonstrated exactly that, ironically confirming the author’s message in their criticism of him.

“Alistair, what I can remember about apartheid was that it oppressed just about everybody. There is a reason your parents, their friends and acquaintances didn’t ‘toyi-toyi’ outside parliament. They did what they could under the circumstances.” (sean.crookson)

“Oh please, look its your opinion but lets face one fact. You cannot continue to cry about the past. If I hear another person say apartheid I will soil my pants. When can people stop. We live for tomorrow not for what happened yesterday! Maybe it was horrible, maybe it wasn’t so bad. Honestly I do not care.” (Mr.T)

“The past was awful yes, but it is not today and we cannot change it other than changing what we think and feel now, so stop focusing on what was wrong and start focusing on what is right.” (WessBergg)

If I were a sufferer of Apartheid, I’d not be experiencing feelings of forgiveness hearing that whites were oppressed too and did all they could; that we should just live for tomorrow. It’s easy to look forward to tomorrow when today was so pleasant. Not everyone can say that.

Three Lessons: #1 Empathy

We can learn a few things from the mistakes of these commenters. The first thing is empathy. Let’s remember that whites in the past 300 years or so took something like 70% of the best land for the white minority and put the black majority in the remaining 30%. In living memory, many South Africans lost homes and land without compensation due to group areas legislation, and were put in new high-density housing areas.

I don’t think I’m too far wrong if I say that black South Africans weren’t allowed to touch the same crockery or toilets as whites, or go to the same beaches and parks. They couldn’t buy houses in the best neighbourhoods. They had to carry passes to be on their own streets. They could have any job as long as it was manual labour, were forced to study in Afrikaans, and couldn’t vote or tell the newspapers if they didn’t like it. That’s besides the daily attitude and abuse from many whites, ‘special treatment’ from the police, continual propaganda that said they were less valuable, less able, less human. I can still remember how unusual it was to see a black person driving a car in the 80s, and how we as whites would normally suggest that he must have stolen it.

Like me, you may have grown up in a home that aimed at being non-racial, but even still we owe the country an apology. If nothing else, there was not a mass exodus of upset whites to other countries, nothing like the one we have seen since Apartheid fell. We stayed and we didn’t fight what was wrong. That’s bad enough. But I can see — even as someone who hated the more overt racism of my classmates — how part of it I was. We were racists, as much as we might hate to admit it now.

But here is an example of how whites still respond to the suffering caused by Apartheid:

“Great article? It’s just another whining, guilt-tripping piece distorting our past. It’s all to obvious that separate development… was a necessity for Whites to survive and shield them against risks for their livelihoods. Any rational person could have seen that. Ultimately this is shown step by step to be true now. Fact is also that Blacks had a fair chance developing their own communities. And that they were supported in this by the then White government. One may say that Blacks were poorer. Really, but why was that? Despite efforts of Whites to lift them up or due to something else?” (andreas.meyer.12327)

That’s right, whites had to be separate from blacks out of necessity for survival, and the white government was trying to uplift black communities the whole time. The fault was somehow with the blacks. That’s the undistorted version of our history.

“Blacks under apartheid were more literate than black Americans. They also enjoyed the highest standard of living of all blacks in Africa. Even in the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission it is stated that 40% of SA’ns claimed that life was better under apartheid (whites constitute about 9%). The tragedy is that modern youth has become so narrow minded, stupid and uncouth that they can’t distinguish between freedom and slavery anymore.” (alan.secreve)

The fact that we can pull narrow statistics to ‘prove’ that we were actually being kind to black South Africans is startling. It’s sad that people still experience terrible quality of life, but hardly stands as an argument that Apartheid was freedom.

So, fellow whites, when our brothers and sisters of other races are still struggling with pain and dire social circumstances created by Apartheid, try to have a little empathy before you decide to dodge how uncomfortable it makes you feel.

True, we can’t go back and fix what we’ve done, and it will take decades to get beyond it. True, we must look forward. But while we’re moving forward, we can stop making hurt worse by parading opinions that range from pretending we had nothing to do with it, to the idea that blacks should be grateful for what whites did for them in Apartheid.

And while you’re at it…

Lesson #2: Count your blessings

We are extraordinarily good at taking all the credit for our personal achievements and claiming that we never received a dime from anyone. Whites are generally under-appreciative of the benefits we had under Apartheid. Years ago this Zapiro ‘cartoon’ offended me into thinking about it:

I could argue that my upbringing was not privileged — we sometimes had to rely on ‘handouts’ to be able to eat, for example — but it was. I lived on a nature reserve on the edge of a quiet white suburb. There was no poverty and hardly any crime in our areas. I was at excellent schools that were cheap and well resourced. I could even play tennis for free.

When I began my tertiary education, I had to work nights and weekends to support myself for much of it, and I eventually got excluded from the course because I couldn’t pay. Yet for all my life, I had the freedom, government support, and social infrastructure to be able to learn and to excel. I am who I am because I benefitted from Apartheid.

But some say:

Sorry but you are saying that we should feel sorry for other peoples lack to move on. I was born in 1983 and had to work 2 jobs through varsity while my black counterparts had scholarships and used the money to drink and party… JUST because your classy English Family benefited from Apartheid doesn’t mean that all whites were as lucky or unlucky as you… I will not feel ashamed and neither will I apologize for working my ass off to get to be where I am today. (R3ndi3r)

Hard work and struggle is what 95% of people everywhere have to endure. Yes, that is true of many whites under Apartheid, but that is a far cry from receiving no benefit. Everything about Apartheid government was structured to give whites the best and to keep blacks weak. If you are white, you received favour and benefit at the expense of the dispossession and cheap labour of everyone else. To complain that black South Africans are now just seeking handouts is to forget that the whole country was previously engineered for your welfare.

David Wong recently wrote an outstanding article called Six Things Rich People Need To Stop Saying that deals with exactly this attitude, but on a more general level. You should read that article right now.

Lesson 3: Make relevant arguments

Maybe there are some reasons for us not to dwell on the past. Feel free to argue for them when it’s appropriate, but make sure you don’t make hurt and division worse by using irrelevant smokescreens to escape taking responsibility. Take this commenter for example:

Most blacks… are made to believe by their “leaders” that all whites fell into bottomless riches during Apartheid. Taking myself and my family… Afrikaners before WW2 were the poorest Europeans on the planet. My late father had to go to the township in the small town we lived in, to go and BEG for food. World War 2 saved him from poverty… When I finished school,there were no money for university. I had to struggle on my own, leaving South Africa, in the hope i can get my foot in the door somewhere… If I see the opportunities black people have today, in the new South Africa, I feel envy. I did not have those opportunities. Every time I went back to South Africa, to find work, the door just became more shut every time I tried… Just in “AA”, racist (ANC) SA that I had this problem. (HenriLeRiche)

It’s a sad story of struggle. I don’t want to minimise that. But it ends with an invective that calls affirmative action and the present government racist, and none of it has much at all to do with the article that it criticises.

There is ample evidence that white South Africans have showed far too little awareness of how bad their behaviour was and how gracious the current government has been in visiting absolutely no punishment upon whites at all. Even affirmative action is not punishment, and we still have (warning: statistics from my sketchy memory) something like 90% of whites employed, versus less than 60% of the rest, and about 50% of the economy in white ownership. The article is about us dodging responsibility for our role in the past. What does it have to do with anything that some whites aren’t rich, or that the Afrikaaner was also poor once? What does present government performance or policy have to do with it?

We all have reason to be apologetic for our role in Apartheid, even if small, and to be thankful for the grace that black South Africa has thusfar shown. Yes, it is an uncomfortable position to be in, but let’s not make things worse by refusing to let pain that we helped cause intrude upon our comfort.