If you are a regular visitor to YouTube, and more particularly if you are a regular at the Atheist or Skeptic communities, you may have heard of an individual calling himself The Amazing Atheist on YouTube. He has some interesting videos on atheism, theism, religion, dogma, etc. However, if you delve much further into his videos beyond that, you will see a much less pleasing picture: TAA’s opinions and rants on social justice. These can be quite nasty indeed, but these two videos in particular caught my attention.
In the first video, TAA answers viewer questions and states that he does not believe that white privilege exists. He makes a provision on that, claiming that he can understand, in politics, that one or two (ha!) white politicians may be racist, and that may be white privilege, but he doesn’t believe it happens on a “systemic level.” To quote him, “I just don’t think it’s that much of a problem anymore, it’s out there, but…” He does later on say that, because he is white, he would be the least likely person to notice white privilege. At least he had that small glimmer of self-awareness, right? Well, you might want to hold onto that, because it doesn’t last for long.
Here’s the thing. “White privilege” and “racism” are not synonymous. Being privileged by any factor does not mean you are hateful or prejudiced, not by definition. It means you have advantages built into being white (being straight, being male, being cisgendered, etc etc) that other groups of people do not, purely by virtue of the fact that you are white and they are not. Whiteness is considered normal. Maleness is considered normal. Cisgendered is considered normal. Can you not see, can you not understand, the place of privilege that that beautiful umbrella that is Normal gives you? Moreover, can you not understand what that umbrella shelters you from?
I am white. I accept, and admit, that I do not always understand exactly what minorities have experienced. But some of their experiences are not so different to the experiences that I have — the experiences of a woman living in a man’s world — and so in some ways, I can relate to that. I can relate to feeling like nobody cares what you say, because either you are just playing the victim by talking about the injustice that has been done to you, or you stay quiet and those injustices continue to happen, but everyone will just ignore them. You can’t win. There are only two options: be ostracized, or be ignored. Those are your choices. You will be playing the race card, or the sexism card, or whatever imaginary “cards” that privileged people feel their privilege is being attacked by, and then if you don’t shut up, if you don’t back down, they will say you’re not allowed to play cards with them anymore, because you cheat by playing cards that nobody else has, so it’s not “equal.”
This brings me to the heart of this post, what inspired me to write it in the first place, and that is TAA’s second video. Unabashedly, it is called “Hate Week 2012.” And what a speech! He goes on to decry equality by creating a total strawman of what equality is, what it means, and then he completely moves around the goalposts at the end to construct a situation that has nothing to do with social justice. And the reason I’m bringing this up anyway — and not just dismissing him as a loser I don’t have to care about — is because I’ve heard this argument before. More than once. Always by white people, almost always by males. In other words: people who don’t have to care about equality, or inequality for that matter, because they have the privilege of not worrying about those things, if they don’t want to. They don’t have to worry about not being hired, not being paid what they deserve, not having all the opportunities possible, or any myriad of other everyday situations that reflect an imbalance of power between men and women, Caucasians and minorities, straight and queer, cis and trans, young and old, disabled and able-bodied, the sane and the insane, etc. Worrying about that kind of stuff may have never occurred to them, and why should it? They don’t have to deal with it on a regular basis. The imbalance of power is only a problem when you don’t have the upper hand, the hand of cards that will always win the game, no matter what the other players have. For every race card, for every gender card, for every sexism card, there is a card that counteracts them all: Privileged Indifference. And most of us have it, because most of us are privileged in one way or another. You may have it for any number of reasons, but chances are, you probably have it in that deck somewhere.
But the problem is that, to many people, the idea that they are privileged is offensive. I know it was to me, when it was first introduced to me, before I started realizing that it was true. There is the misconception that “privileged” means “prejudiced.” No. I have already explained, very clearly, what privileged means. You can be privileged and prejudiced, but then you can also be privileged and not prejudiced, just like you can be prejudiced but not privileged. There are women who hate women. There are gays who hate gays. It may not appear to make any sense, but it happens.
So now we arrive at equality. What does that mean? I suppose this is the question that The Amazing Atheist was really asking, although not in an honest way. Essentially, his argument is that people are not equal. Why not? Well, you may want to make sure you’re sitting down for this one, because it’s seriously something you have probably never heard before: people can be, and are, different. Shocker, I know! I’m not sure I ever could have figured that out on my own! TAA, with that one suggestion, you have totally diffused my years of feminist theory and research! Who knew it could be as simple as people are not really equal because they’re not the same?!
This blog is called The Truth As I Saw It Today. And this is the truth. People like The Amazing Atheist only construct a strawman of equality to argue against because it makes it so that they don’t actually have to care about it, even less than they did before. This is a more extreme level; with privilege, it is easy to just ignore inequality. With this video, TAA actually refutes the idea of equality and he does so by constructing equality with a basic, first-grade understanding of the word: to be the same. That is not what “equality” even means in terms of social justice. And then he expects you to give him a cookie and a pat on the back, for standing up to those nasty minority people, who keep saying they’re being oppressed and wah wah wah, when you know it’s really just them whining for special rights. How refreshing! This is totally different from everything mainstream, hurr durr!
He uses an example of a “regular guy” who lives an amazingly moral, fiscally-profitable life. Then he compares this man to a “bum” on the street, who beats his wife and estranges his kids, and then he asks you, “By what measure can you call these two equal?!”
Uh, TAA, when you move the goalposts around like that, and change the rules to whatever suits you, it’s super hard for anyone else to score a goal except for you. Just, FYI.
I find it incredibly interesting, and convenient, that he quickly switches the situation to being about a comparison between men, and more specifically, being about financial merit, and still more specifically, being about violence. By what measure would you not call them equal? Apparently, in some measure, by how rich or not they are, according to The Amazing Atheist. FYI, man, fiscal gain doesn’t always mean hard work was involved. That’s the dreamland you’re living in, where everyone is considered great or not based on whether they are, you know, actually great or not. Where if we just work hard enough, we’ll make enough to live on. Where if we just stop being so offended, all the time (“egads, a woman’s ankles!”-kind of offended, at least that’s how he makes it sound), we can achieve everything we wanted to and more. Let’s just put aside our differences and be friends, dude! Let’s accept that we are not really equal and just move on!
The Amazing Atheist, here’s a fun fact for you: that world doesn’t exist. Equality does not mean “the same.” In fact, “equality” in terms of social justice does not even refer to the people themselves. It refers to equal opportunities, i.e. getting that high-end job you are fully qualified for, despite the fact that you are (or identify as) female. It refers to equal education. It refers to equal rights that everyone shares — the right to fair trial, the right to marry whomever we wish, the right to freedom of and freedom from religion, just to name a few. It refers to eliminating harmful, destructive, negative, hateful attitudes about people who aren’t part of the status quo (hint: you are part of the status quo), purely based on the fact that they don’t get to stand under your super-special Normal Umbrella, that you were lucky enough to be born under and as a result, have never gotten wet.
Is it so hard to understand how the false equivalent that he has made is damaging? He also points to the fact that some people have a specific set of skills, and others have another, and this makes them unequal. No. Just no. When two people have two different sets of skills, they seek different professions; one suddenly does not have more rights, privileges and opportunities than the other. That is the idea. Equality is a fair chance. It’s fairness. But people like TAA don’t want real fairness, or at least they are okay with the fact that there is not, because that imbalance of power benefits them directly. When people complain about immigrants, about foreigners taking their jobs, it’s because they feel like the imbalance of power is tipping towards the unprivileged minority (hint: it’s not). When men complain about women taking their jobs, it’s because they feel like the imbalance of power that benefits them is tipping. When straight people complain about queer individuals potentially getting marriage equality, it’s because they feel that they are losing the upper hand of power and they don’t like it. That’s what this is all about. That’s the truth. It’s ugly, and all of those privileged people who don’t think they’re privileged (while unconsciously accepting that they are), will deny it to the end — but it’s true. They don’t want to share the wealth because it makes them less wealthy. They don’t want to share the power because it makes them less powerful. Because accepting the inequality exists means they may have to do something about it, and give up some of that privilege, or even all of it. When you’ve always had it, that can be difficult.
When you get out from under the protection of the Normal Umbrella, as I have — as so many people have at one time or another — you get drenched. The world is the worst thunderstorm you’ve ever been in. The Normal People have the only umbrella. Sometimes, when you conform to Normal, you’re invited back under for a while. But eventually, when they realize that you’re not white or not male or not straight or not cis or not young or not any number of things, you will be kicked out. And you will get drenched. And you will realize what it means to be privileged — because you yourself were humming and twiddling your thumbs under that umbrella, oblivious to all the ones outside, forgotten by the rest, soaked to the bone. And then, if you ask, why can’t the rest of us have umbrellas too? Why do we have to stay out in the cold? You will be told, sorry, you’re not the same as the rest. You don’t get one.
The sheer irony of him suggesting that equality means (or should mean) that people are the same, is truly delicious and bitter, because in reality, that is what the privileged group is saying. If you are not the same, if you are not like us, you do not deserve fairness. You just have to work harder. He talks about equality as wanting people to be the same, when actually it is embracing that, fundamentally, people are different but they deserve the same opportunities! It is those that do not embrace a standard of fairness who want the world to be the same and yet not, who want to have their cake, eat it and then go back for another slice. They want everyone to be the same on the surface, but then they also want the inequality there so that they can reap both the rewards of being “tolerant” and then also reap the rewards of being the one on top of it all. And if that’s not absolutely disgusting, I don’t really know what is.
When the moment comes that you find yourself out in the rain, I hope you will remember this post and understand that equality is not the bastardized utopia that people like Amazing Atheist would have you believe, and then give up on. It’s not the idea that everyone has to be the same. It’s the idea that everyone deserves a fair chance, a fair opportunity, to become who they need to be. And that’s what I want anyone to take away from this: the dream that we can all have a truly fair chance may seem far away, but it’s already happened and happening all around us, in small steps. Life will never be completely fair, but we have the power to make it as fair as we can in our own societies. We have the power to open our hearts — and our umbrellas — and shield our fellow human beings from the rain.
NOTE: If you are going to watch The Amazing Atheist, please be advised that he has said some extremely disturbing things, such as threatening a person with rape and hoping that a person would be triggered by what he was saying. This is totally unacceptable, in my view, and his commentary is EXTREMELY vicious. If you would find such things to be triggering — or if you just don’t like misogynistic a-holes — I don’t recommend watching his videos or reading the stuff he says. If you want some great atheist commentary, then I highly suggest Greta Christina at FreeThought Blogs, partly because Greta is awesome, and partly because she really gets it when it comes to these issues.