Back to “Burkagate” Again: American Atheist Convention Revisited
July 17, 2010
I actually think the segment is entirely fair. If we don’t want to be portrayed this way, perhaps we shouldn’t behave this way. You see, I was actually there. Back in April, I attended the American Atheist Convention in Newark, New Jersey. After it was over I published a series of reflections on the experience (The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly).
Reflecting back on that experience now, I am so glad I was present. Even though (or perhaps precisely because) Edwin Kagin’s blasphemy session was among the most offensive things I’ve ever seen in person (see: The Ugly), it was a great learning moment for me. I almost didn’t go because, though I don’t believe in God, I intentionally do not identify as an Atheist because I believe it is inherently problematic. It is, to me, an oppositional identity marker. For the same reason I do not identify as “not female” or “not heterosexual,” I don’t call myself an Atheist (not a perfect parallel, but I think it works). But I decided to attend the convention because, as a Secular Humanist doing interfaith work, I wanted to see how the Atheist community was talking about religion. But even with my trepidation, I never expected it would be as bad as it was.
Nightline spent most of its segment focusing on Kagin’s blasphemy session, a moment that to me firmly underscores the oppositional nature of organized Atheism, and I understand why: I too dedicated my most impassioned writing to it. I ended my reaction as follows:
I went to learn. I went because I wanted to know what the current state of affairs on Atheism was. And though there were moments that weren’t as offensive, and models of dynamic and foreword-thinking strategies for promoting Atheistic agendas in a respectful manner, Kagin’s speech was so egregious that I left with little hope for the Atheist movement. The speakers at the convention spent a good deal of time lamenting how disconnected from the rest of the world Atheism is, and then Kagin built up another barbed fence. To me, this community couldn’t feel any more isolated or any less interested in collaboration with others. It is no wonder the rest of the world despises Atheists – we mock them and then stomp our feet when they don’t accept us with arms wide open.
You think religious people are keeping you from approaching the stars, Kagin? Maybe it’s because you’re trying to build a spaceship alone.
After my write-up, NonProphet Status exploded. I was totally unprepared. Suddenly a sizable portion of the Atheist community knew who I — a relatively new blogger with little understanding of how social media works — was. My friends started referring to the strong reaction my piece elicited from the Atheist community as “Burkagate” after I jokingly coined the term. I started getting emails from angry detractors and the comments section of my blog became host to a heated debate between folks of diverging opinions. Then on April 9, the day of my twenty-third birthday, a YouTube video was left in the comment section by one Cambridge Broxterman — the very same woman now featured in the above Nightline segment. Here’s the video she recorded about my reaction to the blasphemy session:
To be embarrassingly honest, her video actually wounded me (I know I shouldn’t let such things get to me, but in this instance I did). I suspect that was her goal so, you know, mission accomplished. In spite of this, I reached out to her. I really didn’t want to but decided it was important. Here is an opportunity for dialogue and to learn from one another, I thought. Reaching out across lines of radical difference isn’t easy but, as I’ve learned in my work, it is often rewarding. The more I mature the more often I do it; with age and experience I am less afraid of confrontation, less afraid of being wrong, less afraid of dialogue with difference.
Cambridge and I decided to enter into an email exchange with the idea that it would be published here on my blog at a later date. The exchange died off and I sort of forgot about it, but after seeing Nightline‘s story and how it featured Cambridge I was reminded of it. Below the jump, the back-and-forth and some concluding reflections:
My outreach email:
Greetings! I hope this finds you well. My name is Chris Stedman and I’m reaching out to you in response to the video you posted on YouTube about my blog, NonProphet Status. Would you be interested in discussing my blog and your response to it? I’d like to if you would.
I’d also like to apologize for not saying something in the moment at the Convention — you may or may not be able to sympathize with this, but I was overwhelmed by emotion and felt it was not in anyone’s best interest to broach the subject at the moment because anything I would have said at that time probably would have been unproductive. I understand this as discretion and appropriateness; you may feel it is cowardice. Here, we may have to agree to disagree.
In any event, please let me know if you are interested in discussing this further – I am happy to in whatever capacity you feel most comfortable with.
Thank you, and best wishes.
Chris Stedman, NonProphet Status
Cambridge responded, expressing friendly surprise that I reached out to her and excitement about having a conversation. After volleying a few emails back and forth in an attempt to decide how to go about an interchange, we agreed to have an email tit-for-tat that would be published on NonProphet Status. Cambridge stated that the “ball was in [my] court,” so I kicked things off:
I should probably start by responding to the issues you raised in your video. As far as I can tell you raised three points in which you find yourself in strong disagreement with me. For ease’s sake, I’ll respond to each.
1. My comparison of “Back in Their Burkas Again” / Debaptism to a Ku Klux Klan Rally
First off, I’d like to reiterate my hesitance to draw this parallel (not aiming to be overly sensational, as I said in my initial posting), and then articulate why I think it is fair, or at least why my expressing it was.
From the start, I hesitated to frame it as such because the comparison is a far from perfect one. After viewing your video I was trying to think through an alternate way of expressing the sensation I experienced in that moment and, as I was, saw a comment made on my blog that I think encapsulates my sentiment precisely:
The comparison to black-face in the last post is instructive, but not quite right. Here is a closer parallel:
Imagine a group of professed abolitionists, who claim to be motivated by concern about slavery. They put on a show in which a group of white people dress up in blackface and do this song and dance number, “Back on the Plantation Again” in front of an audience of people hooting and laughing.
Or, imagine a group professing to care about spousal abuse, bringing up a trio of women made up to look like they have black eyes, singing “Back in the Bruises Again” (a satire!) as the audience hoots and laughs.
You might well cry. And wonder about what sentiment is truly being expressed in that display.
I think this commenter has gotten a bit closer to what I had hoped to express. In summoning the image of a KKK rally, I tried to access the closest parallel I could in that moment in respect to a violent, visceral experience. Was it less than perfect? Yes, I’d say it was. But I stand by it because it was how I reacted in this moment. My blog was a commentary on my experience and how I reacted to what I saw, not a news report.
At the convention, someone compared being religious to being a white supremacist, saying that they felt as compelled to rid the world of racist attitudes as they did religious beliefs. I think that parallel – equating religiosity with racism – is far more sensational than the one I made.
I’d also like to address your sub-point coming out of this – that I have no sense of humor. I’d like to turn here again to another comment left on the blog, who I think offers a worthwhile counterpoint:
What is deemed as offensive is in “the eye of the beholder.” If what you experienced was offensive to you… then it was. For others to try to “justify” their behavior doesn’t make it any less offensive. If Cambridge wants to feel better about her choice to participate in something that offended you by saying “you have no sense of humor”… that reflects lack of personal responsibility to me. ([It] reminds me of when we thought it was ok to mimic some kid in elementary school because we thought “it was funny.”)
This commenter is right in that humor does not necessarily absolve one of responsibility for offensive content. Ultimately there is no way that I can prove to you that I have a sense of humor, just as there is no way that you can claim that I do not without actually knowing me. You’ll just have to take me at my word here. Or, you know, you can go on thinking I don’t. This point is probably the least important, but I wanted to respond to it since it is being used as a way of dismissing my reaction to the piece as merely a lack of understanding of humor or satire.
2. My defense of friends (and I should add strangers) who wear burka / hijab
You’re right – you should’ve saved that point for another video. You find it “amazing” that someone does not feel oppressed by wearing hijab or burka? This suggests to me that you might be operating with a fundamental disinterest in considering another’s experience beyond your own, that you have already made up your mind and decided that you know what the experience of wearing burka or hijab is like for every single person on this planet (which is, you know, impossible). I’d encourage you to open yourself up to the experiences of others and speak with more people who wear burka or hijab. Ask them why they do – you may be surprised by the diversity of responses you get. None of us can know what another’s experience is like, but we can try our best to listen to the experiences of others with empathy and an open mind. For one example of someone who feels empowered by wearing hijab, check out my friend Sayira’s guest post on my blog.
3. My inability to speak up in the moment
This is perhaps the critique I reacted most strongly to, because of all it felt the most like a personal character appraisal. Just as I think that satire like “Back in Their Burkas Again” is overly simplistic and far too charged, I think this point does not account for the diverse ways in which individuals react to particular experiences. Like your assumption that every woman who wears hijab or burka is oppressed, to label my action as “cowardice” implies that you have an insight into my reasoning and motivations when you do not and cannot.
One commenter said in response to your video: “I think it is admirable, not cowardly, that Chris chose not to do anything at the time of the conference. He clearly understands self control and respect.” And while I may not practice restraint and respect as often as I’d like to, I did try to exercise them in that moment. Ultimately, I do not believe that fruitful dialogue occurs until one has taken the time to process her or his experience. I apologize for not approaching you directly at the convention but I was not in a place where I could respond with an open mind and heart at that moment, nor did I feel I could articulate myself in the way that I wanted to. I understand this as discretion and a sensitivity to appropriateness. You may call this cowardice – I cannot change your mind, nor do I wish to. All I want to ask is that you allow for the possibility that the way that you might have responded were you in my shoes is not necessarily the right way for everyone else to respond. It is unfair to say that I had no interest in dialogue with you and the others who performed in the session that I found so offensive; if it were, I would not have emailed you after viewing your video. However, I did not approach you in that moment because I learned at a young age the import of taking time to weigh your immediate reaction when emotions run strong, to see if your reaction still holds true after your emotions have settled, and to offer a measured, thoughtful response whenever possible. This is what I tried to do with my blog, and I am sorry that it offended you.
I agree with you that we are a part of the same community and working for similar things, and I too desire greater unity and less infighting. I simply intended to offer my dissent because, as a member of a freethinking community, I’d like to think there is room for me to freely offer my response to something that offended me and express my desire to hold my community accountable to our claims of trying to make the world a more peaceful and cooperative place. Where we diverge is that I think a negative stance will color how we approach engagement with others, and it is my personal belief that the kind of mean-spirited demonstration I saw that day will only lead to more infighting because it promotes a divisive, opposition-based Atheistic identity. If we want unity in our community we need to seek out modes of unity in every aspect of our lives, and that includes unity with the larger religious world.
Thank you for your time and the opportunity to respond. I hope you enjoyed your weekend and I look forward to hearing back from you!
A week and a half later, I received a response:
I’m so sorry for taking this long to reply! Seems like I have a million things to do at all times 😛
The first thing that stood out to me is the false analogy you made between abolitionists and atheists. Abolitionists are explicitly and obviously on the side of slaves. Yes, some atheists -are- on the side of religion in some manner and you seem to be one of them. However, I am not. Religion is utterly and downright stupid to me and I feel no qualms about actively showing or talking about this. We’re not criticizing the individual because, as you should know, a lot of those women do NOT have a choice in what they wear in public. We are criticizing an actual act of oppression that happens in an actual religion because of archaic beliefs. Was it silly? Yes. Did it make people think about why we were doing what we were doing? Yes. That’s satire. I refer you to Alexander Pope or Johnathan Swift on the matter.
I’ve read your e-mail over and over again trying to think about how I was going to reply. The more I read it, though, it just becomes more apparent that you and I are simply on different sides of the same issue. You want to cohabitat with the religious and I do not. It would be a lie for me to say I respect your stance but I can at least say I understand it. Considering you are the type of person who is less likely to stand up and speak out in a roomful of people (this is not an attack) I can understand your want to live peaceful alongside religious people who have the majority voice at this point in time. I, on the other hand, as you know, have no problem declaring the evils of religion in front of many people.
I agree that me bringing up your sense of humour (or lack thereof) was a moot point. Shouldn’t have been brought up. Any good critical thinker can see that was a relative point.
I will bring up the burka/hijab issue in a different video. It’s much too long to discuss here and I feel like we would be digressing from a very good back-and-forth about the infighting issue.
I am beginning to understand through our dialogues that it simply is not in your nature to speak out in public. I can’t really criticize that because it’s just part of your personality and it would be unfair. But you did post the blog which tells me that you are not as timid as you seem. You talked about needing time to think about your words and called it “sensitivity and descretion.” I still call it cowardice. But that’s also because, were I in your shoes, I still would have confronted someone about the ‘injustice.’ That’s my nature. And so, what it comes down to, is that we are arguing about our natural propensities and that’s just inarguable.
After taking a couple days to consider my response, I offered the following:
Thank you for your response! No worries on being busy — I understand completely. We overcommitted types can surely sympathize with one another. Anyway, here are some reactions I had to your response:
I think we’re just going to have to disagree on what constitutes good satire. Based on the comments on my blog and your YouTube video, some thought “Back in Their Burkas” was good satire, others just found it plain offensive. There was no clear consensus one way or the other, so it’s obviously not just you and I who disagree. But to underline why I do not think it was good satire, I turn to Andrew Fogle’s guest post on my blog, which breaks down very effectively why I don’t think “Back in Their Burkas Again” is good satire. To quote him:
Good [satire] doesn’t mock particular identities… [it] makes tragicomic light of the very structure of identification itself, poking fun at the ceaseless and exhausting cycle of adopting names and roles from the world around us with which we can never, try as we may, fully coincide. “Back in Their Burkas Again” failed to attempt anything like this, treating the category “theocratically oppressed Arab women” like a geographer might treat the category “mountains”: as one more inert fact to be catalogued and manipulated (in this case for the sake of entertainment.) So long as such women are viewed to have stable, self-contained identities opposed to the stable, self-contained identities of enlightened Western atheists, attempts at dialogue will always collapse into self-perpetuating shouting matches. The AAC organizers could have put together something more sophisticated, something that acknowledged the inevitably ambiguous and performative aspects of fundamentalism, something that recognized the institution of the hijab as a massively complicated and irreducibly self-contradictory human phenomenon which always contains at its core of radical freedom the germ of its own self-transcendence, or something that, at the very least, involved strobe lights and Whitney Houston songs. They didn’t, opting instead for a cowardly and un-self-critical caricature of a lived tradition they didn’t bother to try to understand.
Fogle’s said it far better than I ever could. And while I appreciate your referring me to Pope and Swift, both of whom I am quite familiar with, you needn’t to be well read or educated to recognize good satire — satire works because we “feel” it. I, and many others, didn’t “feel” the satire of that performance. So here we are again in disagreement. Ultimately, I think “Back in Their Burkas Again” was a poor vehicle to address the problems of mandatory burka wearing. You say: “Abolitionists are explicitly and obviously on the side of slaves. Yes, some atheists -are- on the side of religion in some manner and you seem to be one of them. However, I am not. Religion is utterly and downright stupid to me and I feel no qualms about actively showing or talking about this.” The analogy was made because if you are claiming to be satirizing theocratically mandated burka-wearing then you are claiming to be on the side of the women who are forced to don burkas. You say you are not on the side of religion — fine. But if you are satirizing this issue, then you are implicitly claiming to be on the side of those oppressed by this specific politicized religious practice. Yet, as Fogle highlighted, good satire does not mock those it is supposed to be in favor of. Therefore, in my opinion, “Back in Their Burkas Again” was not good satire — heck, I don’t even think it was satire — it was a misguided attempt to say something important that wound up being egregiously disrespectful. Offensive or not it just wasn’t well executed, and your refusal to back off of it suggests, to me, defensiveness in place of a willingness to look at the issue critically.
I have to say that you’ve flat-out mischaracterized my desire to do interfaith work with your assumption that I’m just trying to make nice. You say: “Considering you are the type of person who is less likely to stand up and speak out in a roomful of people (this is not an attack) I can understand your want to live peaceful alongside religious people who have the majority voice at this point in time. I, on the other hand, as you know, have no problem declaring the evils of religion in front of many people.” I don’t do interfaith for a reason as simple as the fact that there are more religious people than there are non-theists. I enjoy engaging with the religious because there are things I admire about them and the beliefs they hold. You are interested in seeking out the negative elements of religion, while I look for the good — two distinctly different approaches. That’s fine; they’re probably both important. But don’t write mine off as simply a desire to make peace with those in power when it is much more than that. Religion isn’t some inert, monolithic, black-and-white entity; for all the bad it has done and continues to do, it has also done some pretty incredible things, and as someone who tries to look for the best in others instead of the worst, that is where my eye fixes. Besides, when you say “you want to cohabitat with the religious and I do not,” you forget that, whether we want to or not is irrelevant — we do live among the religious. It is our choice to engage or not and I don’t want to be an isolationist, both because that is a lonely place to situate onself and because the great problems of our world demand collaboration with the widest set of people.
You say: “I am beginning to understand through our dialogues that it simply is not in your nature to speak out in public. I can’t really criticize that because it’s just part of your personality and it would be unfair.” This claim is problematic for a couple of reasons. The first reason it is problematic is you are making a broad assumption that how I reacted at AAC is how I always respond, which is not true. I have been a vocal activist for many years and speak my mind often (perhaps too often, ha). But as I’ve matured I’ve come to learn that there are occasions when speaking up in a particular forum is not only unproductive but can be damaging for all parties involved. The idea that my silence was rooted in an appeal to discretion, sensitivity, self-control and restraint seems to be a point you’re not interested in entertaining, so perhaps we’re best to just leave it in the “agree to disagree” pile.
But the other, more problematic thing you say is that you cannot criticize my action because it is a part of my personality, but then go on to criticize it anyway. The impression I get is that the crux of your reasoning for making your video resides in this claim of cowardice. If you truly think that the burka / hijab piece is best left to another conversation and truly believe that there is space for both of our opinions regarding engagement with the religious in this community, then all you have left is your claim of cowardice. If your offense was really at my “cowardice” and nothing more, then why even make the video in the first place? You say you recognize we have different opinions on the matter, and yet you call me a coward for feeling a particular way that is different than you and responding differently than you would have. Can you not see the contradiction there?
I don’t mean to sound as if I am not interested in dialoguing with you, but I also recognize that sometimes a conversation reduces to a point where it isn’t dialogue anymore. What do you hope to get out of future exchanges with me? Are you trying to better understand my desire to work with the religious? Because you’ve made it clear that you believe we are both in radically different positions on this and that, while you’re okay with that, we’re both firm in our convictions. Are you trying to understand why I was offended? It doesn’t seem so, since you seem bent on educating me on what satire actually is and so we seem to be in solid disagreement on this re: “Back in Their Burkas Again.” Are you trying to understand why I didn’t speak up? Well, no, because you seem to have made up your mind that “timidity” is fundamentally a core component of my personality. So what are we talking about then? I’m not trying to bring this to a premature end, and as an interfaith dialogue facilitator I am of course in favor of discussing things with people who disagree with me. But if you’re going to write off my reactions as “a part of [my] personality” or a desire to play nice with those in power, then it seems to me that you’re not actually listening to me but have already made up your mind. I hope that isn’t so but, if it is, as an equally busy person you may understand my hesitance to continue engaging in a dialogue that isn’t going anywhere. Either way, I’ve appreciated the civil tone of this conversation and, though we may disagree, I will continue to work with you when the opportunity arises to create a more cohesive, less divided secular community.
Thanks, and best wishes!
And… that was it. I never heard from Cambridge again. It’s really too bad, because I think we have a lot that we can learn from one another. But so it goes. As far as I know her mind is unchanged, and I remain resolved that her kind of antagonistic behavior is inherently problematic both in respect to our community’s relationship with the religious and our own intra-Atheist dynamics.
Still, I learned a lot from this whole experience; more than anything, I became less afraid to “speak my truth to power.” This, along with my desire for dialogue, is why I reached out to Cambridge; and though it didn’t necessarily “accomplish” anything, it was a chance worth taking. Perhaps our paths will cross again — I just hope she isn’t wearing a burka the next time I see her.