Tuesday, January 5, 2010

BikeMonkey and Equivalence of Oppression (update)

A certain lovely someone made the point to me that I wasn't particularly clear on a point that I am quite definitely not trying to claim that the bigotry aimed at atheists is like the persecution of the Jews. I am not at all. My entire point was that I have had to deal with some very intense feelings regarding this particular issue. Feelings that are completely valid.

PalMD wrote a rather upsetting post the other day, one that resonated with me on one level and made me spitting fucking angry on another. He finally felt the need to respond to Garrison Keillor's vile diatribe in Salon, trying to put non-Christians in their place in regards to celebrating x-mas. Pal comes from a very different perspective on this than I do, one that I cannot possibly understand, not being Jewish myself. His feelings on this resonated with me not because my experience is the same as his, but because Keillor's sentiments have been thrown in my face as well - sometimes by people who were once my friends and who despite my anger towards them and their bigotry, people I still care about. But that was not my first comment there - my first comment there was an expression of all out rage at something besides Christmas that Keillor ripped from Pal.

I am a musician and a midwesterner raised in Michigan - the same state that Pal hails from. I am not and never have been primarily into bluegrass, but bluegrass and hybrid mountain folk are nevertheless a part of my musical experience - a rather big part. Some of the best times I have had playing music, have been as part of a relatively large crowd of people hanging out and playing bluegrass and folk. Because of Michigan's automotive history and the importation of a hell of a lot of workers from parts of Appalachia, Tennessee and Kentucky, there is a huge presence of this sort of music here. There are professional and semiprofessional bluegrass and hybrid folk players, as well as dulcimer makers who can build instruments to rival the best instrument makers from the aforementioned areas. And I have had the pleasure of playing with a lot of these folks, as often as not, while sitting around a fire.

Here is the thing about bluegrass and folk - no one gives two shits what labels someone wears. If you want to listen and enjoy, you are more than welcome any time. If you want to join in, most folks don't care if you can't carry a tune to save your life, much less care what labels you wear. What matters is that you love music, love the community being fostered right then and there and want to take part - whether by listening or joining right in. That is what bluegrass and mountain music is all about - that is the point of it. Traditionally, folk music of any sort in most cultures has been a great leveler - a chance for everyone in a village or group to be equalized and enjoy themselves freely.

So when I read Pal's heartfelt sorrow at feeling that was taken from him, I got fucking angry as hell - far more angry than I did about Keillor's overt x-mas commentary. And I expressed my indignant anger at the notion that some motherfucker could take something so fundamentally open and inclusive away from anyone, much less someone I like. I was not invalidating Pal's feelings, I was expressing my own - and to some extent expressing my anger and refusal to let motherfuckers like Keillor "put me in my place" as well. Nowhere was I suggesting that Pal's feeling weren't valid or that he should just be able to ignore the bigotry and pretend it doesn't matter. Hell, I wasn't even suggesting that I can do that. Not letting not only people like Keillor or right wing blowhards or people who used to be my friend "put me in my place" doesn't mean it doesn't matter or effect me - obviously it does, rather fundamentally even. I just happen to have a different attitude than Pal does about how to handle it from there - in large part because I have a very different experience from Pal's.

But BikeMonkey, in his infinite wisdom decided that I needed to be put in my place, much like Keillor does - though in a different context. BM doesn't think that my feelings about this topic are valid, because my experience isn't Pal's and my overwhelming privilege means I should just shut the fuck up and pretend it doesn't matter. BM decided that there was some sort of equivalence being made, rather than what actually was happening and assumed he knows all about my great fucking privilege in the face of religious expression. I am going to address this idiot notion of equivalence first, then talk a little about my extreme privilege and experience with bigotry.

There is no equivalence between my experience and Pal's. None. Because I don't actually have a window into Pal's head, I cannot say for sure what he feels, but I do have his words to go by and can assume that this whole situation had a rather profound affect on him. Pal has a lifetime history of being Jewish that feeds his experience of Keillor's diatribe that I do not have and he has feelings that have nothing to do with Keillor that impact what he is feeling about it now. And we have to add to that that he was raised by people who are Jewish and who probably faced even more antisemitic bigotry than he has faced - something that probably had a pretty profound effect on his worldview. There is absolutely no equivalence to our experience, because his is not mine - I didn't grow up with the anything like what he grew up with.

That does not mean that my feelings are somehow less valid than Pal's. They are different - very different. They may not even have the depth of his own, though that is impossible for anyone to judge, because no one has a window into anyone else's head. I don't know what Pal's feelings are or what feeds them - I only know my own and what feeds them.

I am an atheist. I am not an atheist because I wanted to be an atheist, I am an atheist because I finally was unable to perpetuate my faith in the face of so very much evidence to contradict everything I Believed. I feel free now, like a huge burden has gone from me - do not get me wrong - in many ways I feel much better for finally shedding my faith. But that has come only after a nearly twenty year struggle to cling desperately to that faith. I described a great deal of that experience and the abusive nature of my brainwashing here, here, here and a bit here, so I am not going to really go into the abusive nature of my relationship with my faith now - suffice to say, if you do not want to click the links, that like a lot of people I spent a very long time in a very abusive relationship with religion. I will highlight one aspect of that abuse though, because it speaks well to my immense privilege.

Before I do, I do want to be clear that I am pretty cognizant of my privilege. I am privileged and I have benefited from it my whole life. But privilege is relative - it is always relative.

One of the worst abuses my relationship with religion fostered, was my attitude about my neurological issues. At an early age I was taught that I did not have neurological problems - or if I did, it was totally a matter of demonic activity being at the heart of it. I was taught by my fundie mother that it was totally a matter of wholly surrendering myself to her god and following his plan for my life. That if I just believed enough - prayed enough - figured out and accepted her god's plan for my life, I would no longer have any of these problems. On the other hand, I was told by my atheist father that these neurological issues are just as excuse others were making for me and that if I just damned well did as I was told - if I buckled down, I would be ok.

Being a hardcore little fundamentalist myself, this god person was the obvious choice. Not that it mattered, whether my faith was too weak or my will to weak, my inability to overcome my neurological issues without help was entirely my seven year old responsibility. There was therapy in there when I was in middle school, but with a therapist ill equipped to help me, especially given that I was truly convinced by my parents that it was all on my head. Faith or will, it was all up to me and me alone. It wasn't until my entire world shattered around me as a teen, that I changed my view on that - unfortunately it only changed for the worse.

I decided then to embrace my mental illness and in exactly those words. I decided that just as my god obviously wanted me to have sex and use drugs - else he wouldn't have sent the opportunities for both my way so often - I became convinced that this is the way I was made, the way my brain was made and I should just accept it as it was. I decided that the only way I could ever be successful, was if I truly accepted who and what I was, because when my world shattered I didn't stop believing. My beliefs changed to be sure - they changed quite fundamentally. But the Faith was still there - the absolute Belief was still there. Not only that, but it was something that I described as Christian, though I explored all sorts of other beliefs.

I no longer denied that I had atypical neurology, but I didn't believe that I should try to change it - in spite of using a hell of a lot of drugs that did just that. As I learned more and understood more about the world around me and even myself, my feelings about my brain evolved. I accepted eventually that I really would probably do better with help, but help wasn't available and recreational drugs were. But still there was that faith - though even that had evolved further and further.

I should note that I was quite often subject to bigotry from other Christians, because I was not the right sort of Christian and as a rather serious substance abuser and horrendous slut, I obviously did not live their version of a Christian lifestyle. My advocacy for glt rights also counted hard against me, as did my acceptance of evolution.

There were times when I might have let it go, but for the simple stark terror I had of hell and the possibility of hell. That, combined with this belief that there were otherwise unexplainable interventions in my life - the biggest being that I was still alive and relatively coherent. And it was a great comfort when I moved to a new city where I literally had two friends before I moved there. My partner and I had split and I was pretty much bereft of anything approaching the support network that I had developed and fostered back in Lansing. I went to the church that my two friends in Portland were attending and was embraced into a wonderful new family.

Until it all fell apart - until I could no longer reconcile or justify any of it. Then I was rejected by this family I had been part of. I was rejected by people who were an important part of my life and the life of my eldest child - not just in the context of faith, but in a very holistic fashion. I was rejected and my child faced rejection for things he had no comprehension of, by people who were as important to him as they were to me. And ever since, I have either endured rejection from these people or pressure to just read this book or listen to that speaker - and it would all make sense again. Comments that they are still praying for me and have every confidence I will one day return to their god's grace.

And while it is certainly not all, many people I care about find it downright offensive that I would infringe on their holidays and any other aspect of their culture.

Being back in the midwest has brought on other problems. Friends who were my friends in spite of my identifying as a Christian - friends who had been rejected by most people who carry that label, but accepted me because I did not have come to reject me for rejecting any spiritual or religious beliefs altogether. To be sure, I still have many friends - including many gay and transgendered friends. But I have lost as many as I still have.

And I still have to make a lot of decisions about whether or not to admit to being an atheist to whom. There is a very common theme in the midwest (and many places) that people don't care what your spiritual or religious beliefs might be - they just take exception to people who don't believe in any sort of higher power.

I have been soundly rejected by most of my community of friends and loved ones. Was rejected at a time when I was dealing with the trauma of finally getting free of my struggle with religion. As abusive as it was, like many such relationships it was nevertheless a fundamentally important part of my life. It is over and I am free of it, but I am not free of it's influence. I am not only dealing with the hole left by faith, I am dealing with the hole left by many people I love - exacerbated by the bigotry of people I love, the bigotry of strangers aside. And while people can't just look at me and see that I am an atheist, I sometimes have to sit quiet and pretend I am not.

And it is only in the last year, while dealing with this rejection and pain, that I am finally actually getting help for my neurological issues and managing to repair the severe damage those problems have created in my life and in the lives of my children. At thirty three, I am finally getting an education in hopes of pulling myself and my children out of the poverty and near poverty that has been their lot in life.

So no, my experience is not PalMD's experience. His experience may even plumb greater depths than my own, I can only speak for myself on that count. All I can say is that my experience with religious bigotry has had a very painful and profound affect on not only myself, but my eldest son as well. There is no equivalency because Pal's experience and mine are very different and because neither of us could begin to know the depth of suffering the other feels to compare. But just because there is no equivalence, does not make either of our experiences or the feelings fostered by those experiences less valid than the other.


RPS77 said...

Looking at the original thread, it just seems weird. BikeMonkey seems to think that you were trying to minimize or downplay PalMD's emotions on this issue, which is not the impression that I would have gotten from your comment at all.

I also just don't understand the idea, which I've seen in a number of blogs and comments, that mentioning one's own bad experiences is somehow minimizing or justifying the bad experiences of others.

Juniper Shoemaker said...

You forgot to mention, dear, that I strenuously disagreed with BikeMonkey. I read your comments as empathetic to PalMD's reaction to Garrison Keillor's vile diatribe. In fact, I appreciated all the readers (e.g., you and James Sweet) who basically told Pal to never mind Garrison Keillor's sheer idiocy WITHOUT dismissively saying, "Well, I am incapable of understanding what all the fuss is about, so that automatically means that your emotions over this issue are a tempest in a teacup. (And I will sweep down from on high, onto this blog post that no one has forced me to read, to sanctimoniously tell you so!)"* That makes all the difference in the world! You were trying to tell Pal that you might have some understanding of how he felt, and that you were therefore encouraging him the way you might have once wanted encouragement yourself.

I didn't think you were describing your experiences as an atheist in an attempt to compete with him over who's had the more difficult experience. As we discussed, it is true that at some point I thought, "Oh, I can see how one could read those sentences as dodging the question of whether or not atheists face as much discrimination as Jews." But this is where it ends for me. First, I don't think that sharing one's shitty experience is tantamount to denying the shitty experiences of others. Second, I don't know how to discuss "false equivalence of one kind of oppression with another" in any constructive manner/any manner that won't make my head hurt with abject despair and induce me to yell at clueless folks. I am currently not willing to have these discussions. Not in the blogosphere, anyway. I'm not in it for the demagoguery. I've had enough of that.

Third, I don't care about it in this context. I have great sympathy for PalMD's experiences, and I have great sympathy for yours. They are different sets of experiences. I don't feel compelled to limit my sympathy to one or the other.

And, yeah, this take on things reflects my attitude on discussions of multiple kinds of bigotry lately. It's pretty human to want sympathy and encouragement.

*Yeah. Can you tell that there are a couple of regulars who are really getting on my nerves with their breathtaking lack of both reading comprehension and self-awareness? I'm forced to conclude that they actually think the audience is learning something new from them.

alysdexia said...

affect -> effect
it's -> its
whether or not = whether or not whether
it's -> its

fine otherwise