Skepchick.org writer Amy Roth published an open challenge to atheists and skeptics recently. The challenge is to “do better”, or essentially, to just be nice. Well, I have a challenge for Amy and any of her readership who choose to accept. But I have a few things to say first.
I’m well aware that probably no one at Skepchick.org has ever heard of me or is even likely to find this blog post—unless of course they were paying attention when I dared to assert that people living with HIV/AIDS are innately deserving of human dignity despite what the Supreme Court of Canada has to say about the matter, which subsequently caused the entire atheist and skeptic movement to lose their collective shit over the mere suggestion of taking responsibility for their own sexual health. You see, the Canadian Criminal Code defines someone who is poz (seroconverted, or HIV+) as a rapist by default unless they disclose their status to every potential partner in advance of sexual contact of any kind; and this is regardless of whether or not the person is even capable of transmitting their infection to another human being, and regardless of whether or not the two or more persons involved used a safer sex barrier. I maintain that this is disgusting, and that this is an example of institutionalized discrimination (which I can guarantee will disproportionally impact people of colour, and especially trans* and gender-variant people).
In many states south of the border, the situation for people living with HIV/AIDS is far worse than it is in Canada. Not only have people actually been charged and convicted under terrorism laws due to their HIV status, for non-sexual “crimes” including biting during an altercation; but Kansas also tried to pass a bill in 2013, demanding the arbitrary quarantine or restricted movement of poz people in public spaces. Yeah. Kansas. The same state that just tried to pass a bill this year that would have given public and private service providers a free pass to arbitrarily discriminate against people and couples they perceive to be gay (note: you can’t “tell” if someone is gay unless you walk in on them having gay sex), if providing service would conflict with their alleged religious values.
As a queer and trans person and a former high-risk sex worker, these issues and many others have been intersecting with and creeping up on my personal and political life at a steadily increasing pace for many years already. Currently, one of my poz friends — who was attending multiple funerals a week for the local queer community before treatment for HIV/AIDS was finally released to the public — is receiving end-of-life palliative care in a hospital bed with her lover and closest friends at her side. At the same time, over the past several months, I have been growing very close to people who were nothing short of influential in the local HIV/AIDS advocacy struggle throughout the 80s and 90s, who have been sharing details of their experiences during that time period. I’m learning through my relationships with these beautiful openly queer people, of entire histories which are passed on almost exclusively through an oral tradition. Much of the history of exclusion, segregation, and the collusion between corporations and government agencies to send people to their graves is simply not found in any textbook. Nor is the history of people who had seroconverted, facing a certain death, volunteering to become guinea pigs for drugs that had been stolen and moved through a black market while the US Federal Drug Administration and Canada’s Food And Drug Administration withheld their approval for drugs that would either kill someone who was going to die anyway or could very well have saved countless lives.
It is at this point that I’m hitting the fast forward button and stopping on the challenge issued by Skepchick.org writer Amy Roth. A challenge, to a community that in my experience is dominated by intersecting social privileges and bitter spirits, to be nice people for a change—and then let the world hear all about how awesome atheists are all of a sudden because of it. Well if only clicking the send button on a “supportive tweet” or doing a random good thing and embracing all the accolades of social justice success was how major social change actually happened. Then maybe, when I vocalized disagreement on Facebook that vegetarianism will somehow save the planet, Amy Roth herself would have hesitated before telling me based on that single comment that I have a “do nothing because nothing ever changes” attitude.
Let me tell you something, Amy. If anyone has a “do nothing because nothing ever changes” attitude, it’s a white chick who thinks that vegetarianism is social justice, and who is so high on her own smug that she thinks telling people to be nice and make a point of openly broadcasting how nice that makes them is going to foster critical social change. First of all, there’s at least a couple billion people around the globe who already are vegetarian—primarily because they can’t afford not to be—who don’t go on to assume the knighthood of progress over it. Even those couple billion people in the world whose primary motivations towards vegetarianism are rooted in their spiritual or religious beliefs, and who have the means to at least occasionally choose meat but abstain anyway, openly acknowledge that it isn’t the world they are saving by virtue of their dietary choices, but themselves. Only in relatively affluent white (usually atheist) North American communities does one ever find the argument that vegetarianism produces a net good for anyone other than oneself. This should give you pause to think about why. But don’t worry. If you can’t figure that out on your own, I’m about to spell it out for you.
The idea that one person can change the world — not by changing other people’s attitudes, but by changing a single aspect of their behaviour that results in a zero net change overall in the lives of other people — is like eating fast food. It’s engineered for rapid delivery of a temporary sensation bordering on euphoria, coupled with nearly instant satiety, but it’s loaded with calories (the kind that make your head fat, not your waistline) and shitty politics. I suppose it’s really a matter of priorities, Amy, and apparently relatively affluent white North American atheists like you have placed social justice for animals above social justice for the planet overall and entire countries of human beings working in conditions of wage slavery to put your food on the table every night. You haven’t terminated your personal relationship to animal slavery, exploitation, and violence by choosing not to eat meat, dairy, or animal by-products. You’ve just exported it somewhere else.
You also haven’t made much of a dent overall in your personal carbon footprint, either. Your diet depends on either locally growing exotic and invasive species of plants, or shipping it over long distances from the four corners of the globe. You may not be eating beef that’s riddled with antibiotics to combat a horrific chain of events ending in a factory farm slaughter room, but you’re relying instead on either human wage-slavery or a constant threat to the natural balance of the ecosystem in which you live and grow your food, due to aggressive manipulation of its plant life in order to sustain your choice crops. If you wanted to eat ethically, you would learn to eat indigenous.
This brings me to my challenge to you, Amy Roth, and any or all of your readership who choose to accept it. I challenge you to do better to than vegetarianism, keyboard warriorism, and self-congratulations for good deeds, to advance social justice. I challenge you to spend a year, setting your personal and political identity as an atheist and skeptic aside, being involved in a racially marginalized community for the express purpose of learning as much as you can about what that community needs and struggles with, and teaching your own people—atheists and skeptics—as much as you can about everything you learn and experience. I challenge you to commit one full year to discover the meaning of the term “settler privilege”, and to learn and teach your own people as much as you can about the (largely unwritten) histories of the people who are indigenous to the territories upon which you live. I challenge you to step away from the computer and far outside your comfort zone to walk a mile in an indigenous woman’s shoes, to learn what the meaning of foundational justice is, and why being a nice person in the face of it just isn’t good enough.
I challenge you to make a real difference—not just do a good deed and pat yourself on the back for it.