Why Politically Incorrect UChicago Confessions Sucks

There is a new UChicago-related facebook page created expressly for the purpose of sharing “UChicago-related, politically incorrect thoughts and feelings.” As any rational person might expect, the page sucks. It asked (in its original description) for racism, homophobia and sexism, and it got them. I learned, through perusing this page, that as a woman I’m bad at math and as a Jew I have taken over the University and advocated murdering palestinians. As a liberal Jewish math major often critical of Israel, I was pretty surprised to learn these things. And those comments were far from the worst. As also might be expected, the vast majority of the disgusting comments were about people of color. People of color not being quiet enough, smart enough, English-speaking enough. But I don’t need to explain the precise fashion in which all these comments are offensive. The people who wrote them wrote them because they were offensive, and the people reading them are largely rightfully horrified. What I do feel the need to explain is why the page is terrible, causes harm and should be taken down by any entity with the right and power to do so.

To demonstrate this, let’s ask ourselves why this page should exist. What good does it do? By and large, the answers given are: free speech is important, it’s good for people to have a place to express these emotions so there can be discussion and education, and that it’s good that people express offensive opinions openly so that they don’t go underground and get worse.

First, the ever present free speech argument. Everyone has a right to free speech, at least as far as the federal government is concerned. We do not have a right to the existence of a facebook page, if it is against their policies, nor do we have a right to our university not taking action against such a page, if that is in their policies. So far, my hope is that University of Chicago students are sophisticated enough in their thinking to be on board. The question that follows, then, is, do we want facebook to be a place where such pages exist? My answer is assuredly not, though others’ may differ. Similarly, do we want this page to be part of and affect the University community? Again, in my opinion, no. I will defend both of these opinions later. All that matters here is that everyone agree that these are the relevant questions, and if the answer to them is no, it is entirely reasonable for either facebook or the University of Chicago to take the page down, and if the answer is yes, it is wrong of them to do so. But none of this really has to do with free speech, so much as the question of what the reasonable bounds of discourse in a university community are. That is a much more interesting question, though as far as I’m concerned this page still clearly falls outside of it.

Second, that it’s good for people to have a place to express these sentiments, so that we know who the racists and sexists are, or so that we can shoot down their arguments together as a community, or so they don’t repress their opinions and become more racist and sexist.

Ok, this is where is gets interesting. If anyone said most of the things on the Facebook page in person, most of us would, at the very least, give them a shocked, irritated or disgusted look. We might say something critical or negative about their remark. We might get into an argument with them. All of these actions are ways of indicating the moral paucity that such a comment suffers from. They express social and moral disapproval of the comment. They make use of shame and condemnation to change the behavior and belief of the person making the comment. This is to the good. This is how morality works. We teach and enforce morality through social means. It starts when our parents tell us that hitting is wrong, and it continues every. single. time. we give someone a dirty look for saying something racist, sexist, bigoted or otherwise awful. Because we want people not to say or think such things. This is the way we stop people from saying or thinking such things. And all of us do this entirely naturally, without giving it a second thought. This is how social disapproval makes the world less bigoted.

This social disapproval is what people are referring to when they talk about political correctness and the lack of free speech. What they mean is that they can’t express morally bereft opinions without someone pointing out how morally bereft it is. That, I’m afraid, is what it is to live in a social community with moral standards. What’s the point of moral standards, after all, if we don’t make them known? No one is exempt from disapproval by dint of being part of a community. In fact, it is by dint of being part of a community that you make yourself subject to the moral standards of that community. And in this way, we have already made it clear (so we don’t need to do so again on a Facebook group) that the community does not approve.

Of course, there are other tools, like education and other social pressures, to fight bigotry, and I am in favor of using them, but I think social disapproval is the one with the widest-ranging effects, since everyone is immersed in it their whole lives. I also think that social disapproval does not merely stop people from saying things they believe, but also affects their thinking and attitude towards the world. Community standards have a huge effect on how we are taught to think, and so good community standards can improve a community through changing how it, for instance, sees people of color and women, in addition to removing the harm from people saying or doing sexist and racist things.

But I do care that people have a chance to give opinions that might add something new to the community, even if they are wildly unpopular. Even if they are racist or sexist or awful. But a public facebook page that presents itself as representative of the University of Chicago is 100% not the place.

  1. Firstly, it hurts the people of the community. It hurt me, and all the other women here in math, to learn that some calculus TA doesn’t think women are good at math. And I don’t mean just that it offended us, though it certainly offended me. Stereotype threat is real, and it definitely hurts women in mathematics to learn that they’re not considered good at math. That’s why it’s great that saying that women are bad at math is socially unacceptable. And I really cannot begin to imagine the harm done to the people of color at UChicago to be hearing these opinions, for these opinions to be given a soapbox, so they can hear all of the ways their community doesn’t want them or like them or appreciate them. That is real, tangible, harm, and the creator of this page, as well as the commenters, is responsible for that harm.
  2. Second, public pages like this normalize bigoted opinions. Even with all the critique in the responses to them. We know that having opinions like this publicly and shamelessly expressed makes it seem to others who hold these opinions that they are acceptable and reasonable. That’s not ok. We don’t want people to think that the opinions are acceptable or reasonable. That’s why we have such a thing as social disapproval. I, Chana Messinger, hold bigoted opinions. I have racist thoughts, and sexist thoughts, and all kinds of other thoughts. It is a good thing that I don’t feel comfortable saying them in public. That means that (re: #1) I’m not going to go around hurting people as if it doesn’t matter and doesn’t have an effect, and it also means that I’m going to learn that those opinions are unacceptable.

But I might never know why, right? I might not learn, or get the chance to be educated about my prejudices, right? That’s possible, so here’s where we get back to the part where I do care that people have a place to learn.

  1. Now, firstly, people can always learn on their own. I typed into google “why is it bad to say” and the first thing that popped up was “why is it bad to say you look tired to a girl” and the first result was this yahoo answer with some excellent responses! Hooray, self-education!
  2. Secondly, yes, I am in favor of spaces where people can go and ask “offensive” questions and get charitable, thoughtful, educated responses. Some do exist. They are very clearly very different from this page. Spaces like that have moderators (because speech causes harm!), they have educated people giving educated answers and lots of links to valuable resources. They are places to talk, to discuss, to be educated. They are again, not this page. They are places where the harm from the speech is minimized so that the benefit from educated discourse can outweigh it.

Not only are there online spaces of this kind, but many social spaces as well. Parents, teachers, friends, advisors, people who might think differently but are willing to talk. What’s the difference? The difference is that the person with offensive questions doesn’t end up hurting a whole university community, the atmosphere is much more conducive to productive discussion and most importantly, the person is forced to ask questions in a thoughtful and useful way. They would have to say,

“Look, I’m a calculus TA, and I notice the women don’t do as well in the class. What should I be taking from that?”

instead of

“After TAing for calc 130s for years I can safely say that women, gays, and premeds are terrible at math.”

And then someone could say, “Well, historically women are told that they’re not as good at math, they are pushed away from the field, you’re tutoring the lowest level math which might give a selection bias, it’s bad to say this to others because it will perpetuate stereotype threat etc. etc. etc” and then everyone would learn something. Or they’d have to say,

“Look, I notice that people of color in the library tend to be louder. Is that just my perception? Is there a cultural explanation? What’s going on there?”

instead of

“Not limited to just this subset, but if I direct this at the black girls in the MacLab: shut the fuck up. It’s not a place to socialize, watch american idol, and be loud as fuck. Go back to your dorm/apartment/whatever. Of course if I tell you in person, I’m a ‘racist white bitch.'”

And then an educated person can explain what’s going on. Think that’s a weakened form? Well, I’m happy to have people kowtowing to empathy and accuracy.

And thirdly, anyone is always welcome to express their opinions, even anonymously, on facebook or twitter or elsewhere. The difference is, when there’s not a page encouraging you to express whatever comes to mind in the edgiest, most attention-getting way possible, and especially when your name is attached, you actually have to make an argument. You have to present data and ideas. You have to show humility. You have to admit you don’t know the answer. All of that is good for everyone, and anyone who expressed their opinion that way should be afforded all the charitable and thoughtful responses we can muster.

That’s simply not what’s going on on this page. This page is causing harm, and limiting, rather than expanding, discourse. It’s making our community worse. That’s why the page is terrible, and should be taken down as soon as possible, preferably by the creator themselves.


UPDATE: The creator of the page posted on it, saying, 

Hello everyone,

It has come to our attention that this page has come under attack from numerous parties for “promoting hate speech.” This was surely not the original intent of this page, and we regret that there are many bigoted people out there who chose to abuse the service. We are currently conducting a review of all posts, previous and future, and will remove any that do not comply with the following rule:

“Any content that is considered hate speech or otherwise violates the Facebook Community standards will NOT be tolerated.”

Much appreciated, creator!

Identity Confusion Part 2: Wading out of the mud

I realize that my last post was pretty incoherent, and so I want to write a follow-up piece, one I hope will be shorter and actually have a thesis. In particular, I want to respond to some excellent criticisms that my mother has levied at me.

She pointed out, to begin with, that I didn’t even bother to define ‘identity’ and that’s true. I thought I had good reason not to, given that I was trying to explore intuition rather than give an exhaustive account, but perhaps I was wrong. So to begin with, I’d like to define identity as a composite of three major elements: the psychological and philosophical phenomenon that is a result of memory and consciousness, the sense of ‘I’ that traces out a path through time and space, that is consistent and coherent and develops in a continuous fashion (by the way, note the last sentence of the first paragraph of the Wiki article); the sociological position of existing at the intersection of various communities and societies which help us define ourselves and choose our paths in life; and then the intuitive notion of identity as a deeply significant emergent property which is inherent in us from birth, which comes about as a result of the other two.

The argument I’m proposing is that we gain a better understanding of where our intuitions about identity come from and acknowledge the utility and disutility that come about as a result.

To the best of my knowledge, our psychological and philosophical conceptions of self and identity come mainly from consciousness, that state of being self-aware and having the capacity to recognize an autonomous self, and memory, the capacity to recognize this self as the same self that has existed at other times, in other forms and in other places. This psychological quirk of humans (and possibly other animals) is, one might argue, the defining characteristic of our species. Even if it’s not unique to humans, it is what makes possible the vast majority of what we do. Without a conception of being individuals, of being autonomous beings, I can’t say that I know what humanity would look like. Without a doubt, then, this inborn identificatory mechanism does a great deal of good. Of course, this has a lot of problems. Where, for example, does consciousness come from? Well, the brain, but to be honest, we don’t really understand it (though Dennett thinks he does), and it seems difficult to say what is and is not important. When does someone in a vegetative state cease to be a person? If you are copied and one copy is killed, is it murder? Of whom? More on this later.

Then there’s the sociological conception of identity, in which we are defined by the communities to which we belong, whether we are born into them or we choose them. This could be religion, ethnicity, subcultural interests, place of birth or something else. These are also important to humans, to being human. They give us communities of people similar to us in a variety of ways, they make us feel happy, they give us a sense of belonging. There is no doubt that a humanity without partitioning into subsections based on a number of characteristics would either be a singular community, one that some feel is the future of humans, or a vast network of unconnected autonomous agents, which would probably be undesired by most people. 
So far, everything seems fine. Identity is shown to exist by natural and social sciences alike, it makes us human, and it does a great deal of good. Well, sure, but it’s what we do with that information that begins to disturb me. I mentioned a third aspect of identity above and it’s that one I think I was discussing last time. The intense significance identity holds in our lives bothers and frustrates me when it appears that we are giving it far more power than it ought to have. So let’s problematize the issue. 
Who are you?
Make a list, if you like, of all of the things you are. Maybe they’re nouns, maybe adjectives. Some of them will be capitalized. I’m sure you’ll object that there’s an immaterial general sensation of being yourself that is impossible to convey in a list, and that’s fine, write that down, too. 

Now, let’s play Armchair Philosophical Thought Experiment. If you turned out to be a brain in a vat, would you still be you? If there were a brain in a vat that had all of your memories but was physically distinct from your brain, would that be you? How would you feel about being cloned? Would someone with all of the characteristics on the list be you?
I hope what becomes clear is that what matters is the sense that you are you, not any ‘actual fact’ of being you, and that is really only in your brain. Which does not I repeat does not mean that you are not real, or that your identity isn’t real. As Dumbledore says, “Of course it is happening inside your head…but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”. It just means that given the logical reasoning you’re able to accomplish, your identity is only based on you thinking you have one, having the ability to consider having one. And that means that your identity is a self-constructed object, pulled from selectively chosen and carefully framed memory, tempered and modified as contexts change. There’s certainly something real about your history, but what your mind chooses to recognize as itself is another thing entirely. Or else do you never feel like you do things that are ‘out of character.’ Are you you when you’re drunk, or high? When are you most quintessentially you, then?
More Thought Experiments. What kind of person are you? Are you kind, decent, nice to people? Above average in most ways? Intelligent, thoughtful, prone to changing your mind when you need to? Do you act in approximately similar ways at most times? Are you a special snowflake? Are you good at imagining what it is to be other people? Are you a tolerant, unprejudiced individual?

Well, probably not, or at least not at all times. We think that we’re consistent, but we in fact behave in wildly different ways depending on our circumstances. We hate changing our minds, rationalizing to infinity to avoid it, especially when it challenges any deeply or emotionally strongly held identity. We care about being kind to people in our in-groups more than people in our out-groups. And none of this makes a bit of difference when you’re asked to describe yourself to others. Want more evidence? You’ve probably heard of the study in which people are given psychological profiles, which they rank as highly accurate, not knowing that they all got the same one. We’re all pretty similar, even though we don’t like to admit it, and furthermore, in the ways in which we are different, we just imagine what we would do in any given situation and work based on that. All of these things we consider ourselves to be, all of these traits we pride ourselves on, they don’t appear to be all that true. And you’re probably a racist.

Finally, what do the groups you count yourself a part of say about you? Does being Jewish really say anything substantive about you? What does it even mean to be a woman, or a man, or neither? There are countless words that we use to refer to concepts that seem to be simply indescribable; they simply are, and we associate powerful identities with these things we can’t explain. But given the vast diversity within the people who identify in a certain way (do Democrats all agree? What about neo-Platonists?), what are we really saying? Or are we muddling through, hoping people understand that intangibles we’re trying to get across?
Some answers:

Clearly, we have much more to learn about psychological identity, but it does seem that our intuition does alright by us, that generally our bodies circumscribe our identities, that our brains are the locus of self and that we are the same people as we move through time. So that’s not so bad. We’ve never really had to deal with aliens, Star Trek or teleportation, and so perhaps it doesn’t matter. But it should really be acknowledged that we don’t have good answers to these questions, and so maybe we shouldn’t put so much stock into the answers we have.

As for how we think of ourselves in terms of positive characteristics, there are very good reasons for favorable self-conceptions. It’s how we stop ourselves from being depressed, it’s how we have the psychological immune system that keeps us happy most of the time, no matter what happens. And yet, if we ignore the facts about the ways we think and the ways we treat and think about other people, we’ll never be able to improve ourselves. If we think we’re excellent, rational thinkers, how will we overcome our biases? If we think we’re consistent and need to be, how will we change our minds when we need to? If we think we are the same around different types of people, how will we learn to act appropriately in different situations, or learn not to judge others for doing the same? And if we think that none of us are racists or sexists anymore, then we won’t respond well to being called out on it, and feminism will stay middle-class and white and no one will think objectification is a problem.
Also, while communities and identity labels are important and feel good and give us a sense of belonging, we can’t be giving up anything just to belong to an incoherent cluster concept. Most identities really are empirical dense spots in concept-space, but there’s plenty of variance in there, and while identifying yourself publicly can make an excellent political statement, there’s no reason to subscribe to the whole list just because you already fulfill a lot of it. If you’re a woman you don’t need to dress a certain way, look a certain way, have sex with men. If you’re a Jew you don’t need to believe in Biblical inerrancy just because you believe in god, or be halachically observant just because your mother was Jewish. These get pretty complicated, of course, but the point is that there’s no need to appropriate a whole set of characteristics for yourself just because they happen to be highly correlated over a population.
In the final analysis, identity is an emergent property, and the thing about emergent properties is that they vanish when you dig in a little. They are real, they are important, but they are not unquestionably fundamental aspects of our lives, unless we make them so. For all of the benefits they give us, there are drawbacks, and we should question these identities whenever they unduly affect us.

Speaking Up

The first talk I went to was called ‘Evolutionary Leadership for a Just and Sustainable World

I wasn’t sure exactly why this talk thought it was describing “Evolutionary Leadership,” but it essentially described a sort of classic criticism of the way we live today, that we are not seeing the vast, overarching forces and narratives that in many ways constrain and change our lives. Manuel Manga, the speaker, said that there were impending crises, ecological and economic, and that to have our vision focused narrowly on our lives, for example, allowed us to miss these problems. He directed our attention to the importance of using our capacities to satisfying human needs and also acknowledging our interconnectedness, globally and with other species.

There were few concrete suggestions, but I generally appreciated the overall mood. I was worried about what “being connected with nature” might mean for his attitude towards transhumanism, which is rather important to me. Of course we’re connected with nature, sort of, and we should acknowledge it, especially insofar as we need the environment to work for us and to prevent needless suffering. Past that, though, I’m less sure.

The most important part of the talk for me was when someone asked a question regarding the way one might communicate these ideas to a larger audience. It started innocuously, but then quickly moved into dangerous territory when he ‘worried’ that perhaps it would be difficult to speak to groups where words like ‘paradigm’ for example, weren’t common. And then he used a phrase that has served condescending elitists well for many decades. He said, “What if we have to dumb it down for them?” And it was at this point that I became rather uncomfortable. I mentioned in my last post that I had been worried about the community and the culture that would exist at this conference, and it began to dawn on me that perhaps this population of middle-aged, wealthy, white, very liberal atheists didn’t have all that much in common with me, despite the apparent similarities, because they also seemed to think that they might be better than anyone who didn’t understand the word ‘paradigm.’ Then another woman picked up the phrase, because that’s often how language works, and added “They fall for the hype. That’s what they want to hear” referring probably to either poor populations or largely conservative ones, assuming that somehow they were more prone to cognitive biases than the people in the room. Which as anyone who’s done some rudimentary research into cognitive science knows, is ridiculous. In fact, a few were developing as she spoke: group polarization and conformity. I really didn’t know what to do. So I did the only thing I could; I spoke up.

Manuel had already begun to move on, but I raised my hand and said something like, “I’m disturbed by, during a presentation about being loving humans, an us vs them narrative being created. People respond to hype because we all do. We’re exquisitely sensitive to the context in which we’re brought up, that’s what this presentation is about [creating and educating better leaders]. If people don’t understand us, we’re not being good communicators; it doesn’t mean they’re unintelligent.”

I felt good about making the statement, changing the direction of the talk, and even more so when a couple sitting behind me, whose names I don’t remember [EDIT: I think the woman’s name was Carol Solomon] nodded approvingly. Later, when I went to introduce myself, she congratulated and complimented me, and her husband told me that they’d been fidgeting uncomfortably, thinking exactly the same thing, wanting to say something but that I’d said it better. Then he hugged me.

At some other point, a fellow named Bruce stopped me in the hallway and said I’d made the best comment during the talk, especially the emphasis on self-responsibility [in terms of our responsibility to communicate well]. I completely understood what he meant, and told him about how I’d chosen UChicago over a small liberal arts school like Amherst or Oberlin because I was worried that there would be too much agreement and not enough rigorous justification going around. That might be totally unfounded regarding the schools, but the principle of encouraging heterogeneity rather than homogeneity still stands. I also brought up a fantastic essay I read once about higher education and the opportunities it closes off, in particular the ability to talk to people who haven’t had a college education.

So that was a tremendous ego boost, and it also reassured me that the atheist/humanist community was a place I wanted to be. Nonetheless, that kind of readjustment is important sometimes, and it requires that somebody say something. Otherwise, as Asch’s conformity studies show, even smart people will say things that are very very wrong. It’s a constant vigilance kind of thing, making sure that your actions and speech are in line with your beliefs, and making sure that the world around you reflects the kind of world you want to see.

For a recap of the conference, go here.

AHA 2011 – A Recap

I spent this last weekend at the American Humanist Association national conference. It was amazing. So amazing, in fact, that I have a lot to say about it, and according to JT Eberhardt and Jesse Galef (more on these folks later), I really ought to be blogging more, so there will be quite a flurry of posts coming up.

First, a recap:
As the secretary of the University of Chicago Secular Student Alliance, I get weekly emails from the wonderful Lyz Lyddell. A few weeks ago, it included an interesting tidbit. “Have breakfast with Richard Dawkins (at the AHA conference) for $49 (which is the registration fee for students)!” my email offered me, ever so alluringly. (Hilarious: when told this (minus the parentheticals) at the conference, Richard Dawkins himself said, “I feel like a prostitute!”) Of course, I couldn’t resist, and signed up. I didn’t really know what to expect. I’ve only been to one conference, and that was ISHE (International Society for Human Ethology) with my father last summer, which turned out to be a lot like the University of Chicago all grown up. Nerdy scientists walking around, asking interesting questions and making psychology-related jokes. But what would a conference of atheist activists look like?

As it happens, oddly similar.

I arrived on Thursday evening and went straight to my aunts’ house and caught up with one of my aunts and my cousin while raiding the fridge (garbage salad + ice cream is delicious nighttime snack) and playing monopoly. My cousin, who’s been homebound for a week after knee surgery, has gotten problematically good, but I survived with my Secret Socialist Strategies of making alliances and putting on my puppy face when it looked as if things weren’t going my way. You should try it sometime. Anyway, I got to bed and set my alarm for the terrifyingly early 6:45 so I get get out the door by 7:30 and be at the conference for registration at 8:30. And in fact, that’s what happened, except my aunt drove me part of the way, and the bus came in a timely fashion, and I was at the Hyatt Regency in Cambridge by 8:15. Me? Early for something? I must have been really excited.

I registered, walked to the restaurant to grab some coffee and immediately started meeting people. It was a pretty welcoming crowd the whole weekend through, which was certainly reassuring. I ran into my friend Josh Oxley, who’s the graduate advisor to Rockefeller Chapel back at UChicago. Eventually, it was time for the first breakout session, and on the way there, I ran into none other than Greta Christina. I almost freaked out. That’s a lie; I did freak out, but in general I kept it together. She was incredibly sweet, waving my silliness away when I ‘admitted’ to being boringly cis and straight and even recognizing my name from the comments. We then walked over to the breakout sessions, which varied in topic and quality.

In the middle of the day, I was invited to have lunch with the “Feminist Caucus” which seemed like a good idea, with Serah Blain discussing the difficulties that mothers have in going to meetings and conferences and others bringing in ideas about gender and technology. Unfortunately, it was pretty disorganized, so I have no idea what’ll happen with that.

After the first session of the afternoon, I got to meet Jen McCreight of Blag Hag and Lyz Lydell, Sharon Moss and JT Eberhard of the Secular Student Alliance, which made me really happy. Then, on the way over to the next breakout session, I went by the SSA table and saw Jesse Galef, the Communications Director for the Secular Student Alliance. As it turns out, he’s my second cousin, so I introduced myself and we ended up talking straight through the session and the afternoon plenary. How things work when you read all of the same blogs and have many similar interests.

After the plenary, they brought out fruit and cheese and other nibblings for noshing, and I got to briefly meet the wonderful Debbie Goddard, with whom I’ve been exchanging email for a while. More on her later. Also, Roy Zimmerman. Now, let me explain this. Roy Zimmerman is a liberal satirist songwriter who as far as I’m concerned is this generation’s Tom Lehrer with a more partisan (as a compliment) bent. He’s excellent. I’ve been listening to his songs obsessively for years. And then he was there! In the room! Much taller than expected! Which I told him, in an effort to defuse my overwhelming fangirliness. But he was great, and we had a fun conversation in the midst of a massive swirling of hungry people about the use of music and art to broaden the conversation surrounding political activism (to which Debbie said “We need to be friends”), especially in his series The Starving Ear. I also asked him about the use of satire in difficult circumstances, as in The Sing Along Second Amendment, when he references the Columbine tragedy. He responded that he felt that humor engaged people and challenged them, especially when it was about difficult topics. I was impressed by how much he’d thought about these things, as evidenced by his deep sincerity when we discussed a time when he hadn’t used humor (or perhaps it’s simply black humor), in his song the The Last Man. He just seemed to feel that his humor was his contribution, but also saying that songs often wrote and rewrote themselves, allowing him to just follow along and see where they led. I also complimented him on his measured response to the commenter on that song who seemed offended (though I felt he’d misunderstood the lyrics). To me, it demonstrated that Roy really sees his songs as a medium through which to transmit a message, not just to poke fun at people he doesn’t like. He could certainly get caught up in the idiotic flame wars on youtube in general, but he lets his faithful commenters do that (see: To Be A Liberal).

Eventually, things wrapped up, and because I was on a student registration, I wasn’t invited to the evening banquet, so several of us students went off to try to find food in Cambridge. It ended up being me and Josh, as well as several excellent folks we had met throughout the day, namely Serah, Josiah, Thomas (a 21 year old computer science PhD!) and Kaeleena. We found a pub/bar and started to get comfortable when we discovered that the upstairs, where we had been seated was 21+, which was a problem for Serah, who had forgotten my ID and me, as I had also ‘forgotten’ my ID. When obstacles like that used to come up, it was always strangely awkward, so I was relieved adults tend to handle themselves better. We just up and left and found an Indian place on Mass Ave. Interestingly enough, most of us were vegetarian or vegan, so that was quite convenient. We talked about that as well as the relative benefits of nuclear power all through dinner.

Afterwards, everyone except Tommy and myself went off to have a good time, but he needed to go home, and I needed to get back to my aunts’ place. Given my awful sense of direction, I was lucky that a Green Line station was close, so we both got home just fine. My aunts were still awake, despite the lateness of the hour, so I got to talk to them about the conference and what humanism meant to me. I actually didn’t know what their beliefs were (we’re a family of generally secular Jews, but it varies), so I explained it all in the most diplomatic way possible. They seemed to really take to the idea and were really supportive and interested, which just strengthened my convictions about the worldview I’ve chosen for myself. In particular, I think they took to the notions of the harms of religion towards women and gays and other marginalized groups throughout history. When I told them the statistic about atheists being the most mistrusted group in America, they were genuinely shocked. One of my aunts eventually went to bed and I spoke with the other about the different approached to humanism and atheism, making sure to emphasize the positive elements. Much to my surprise, she wanted to know more about Dawkins, Hitchens and their respective books, so maybe she’ll turn into one of those evil ol’ confrontationists 🙂

The next day, there were more talks. There seems to be a lot of talking at these conferences. I missed the early morning plenary because the Boston public transit system was not nearly as helpful as it had been the previous day. Something to do with it being Saturday, and late, and I had to take a different bus, it was all kind of a mess. Luckily, I have a somewhat intelligent phone, so I downloaded the bus schedule as a pdf and boy does the BTA’s site not have a mobile version. Also, the pdf only showed the arrival time to one stop along the entire route besides the end points, and it happened to be mine. What if I’d been somewhere else? Am I supposed to be able to calculate all that? This is why I don’t like public transportation #firstworldproblems.

Anyway, talks and food (pizza party for the students, at which we got much free schwag from the Richard Dawkins foundation including two A-pins, which I’ve been wearing around everywhere). Because I go to a largely secular university where self-deprecation rules all interactions, no one minds or is offended by the symbol or message (once I explain it), but they all think the ‘scarlet letter’ thing is much too earnest and clever for its own good). Afterwards, I ran into Debbie Goddard again, and I took the opportunity to ask her about the different movements within The Movement, and she told me the story of Skeptics and Humanism and Atheism and Secularism and how those map onto the Council for Secular Humanism, the Center for Inquiry, Freedom from Religion Foundation, Secular Coalition for America and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. We also discussed race and the way in which cultural privilege can blind much of these movements to the wariness of, for example, the black community to medicine and science, which we see as unequivocally good, not having in our cultural narrative Tuskegee and AIDS. She also pointed out that the science as a force for good narrative is also tempered by the great destruction it has wrought, and separating the science from how it’s used isn’t always easy. We transition from all that into our stories, though hers is much more interested than mine. Eventually, we’d been talking about science, secularism, atheism, activism, queer issues, race, genderqueerness, identification and all manner of other things for two hours, and then: more talks!

After the talks, there was yet another banquet, but this time, we students were invited, though with a different (cheaper) meal. Luckily, as a vegetarian, I got this delicious stuffed something or other. And cookies! Then, Roy Zimmerman came on stage and performed a prayer to God or Goddess or Gods or gods or none of the above, To Be A Liberal, Creation Science and few other hits. He was on fire; the crowd loved it. Then Steve Wozniak gave a speech. Now, Steven Wozniak is a very intelligent man, and that’s an understatement. But I’m pretty sure he has no idea how to give a speech. He switched topics every 3 minutes or so, ranging from how you don’t need religion in your daily life (duh) to how morality is the study of ethics revolving around truth (what?) so engineers are the best kind of people (double what?). It was strange, so I left before the Q&A and headed over to the restaurant. There, I had a series of conversations about rationality, morality and religion with Jesse Galef, John Shook, Annie Calicotte, Woody Kaplan and others. The problem with conversations like this is that they last a while, in this case until 2:30 in the morning, when only a few of us were left talking (I think it ended with me, Jesse, Chris Stedman and Josiah talking about community service and interfaith work).

I thought about staying at the hotel, but my aunt had been so sweet as to text me telling me to call her to open the door at whatever hour, so I called a taxi, which failed to come for quite a while, and when it did, had a driver upset that I was asking him to take me to Boston. This left me quite confused and thinking about Mandelbrot sets. Does he want to drive me to the border of cambridge and leave me there to grab another taxi into Roxbury? I think not. Eventually, very late, I got back, crashed, and woke up three hours later for the last day of the conference.

I’d tell you about all the closing sessions, but I don’t know anything about them. Public transportation failed me, coming infrequently on Sundays and then being almost an hour late, so I got to the hotel rather late, and then spent the entire morning talking to Jesse, Jen McCreight and Sandra Korn, who came up from Harvard to see me! We had a good time talking about the importance and drawbacks of outspoken activism, and I got to ask Jen whether group selectionism is actually taken very seriously in evolutionary biology (answer: no) or whether punctuated equilibrium vs gradualism is a matter of some debate (answer: no, they’re just useful for different types of analysis). I also got to express my admiration for the inclusiveness of the community, and how they’d all come together despite being bloggers from opposite sides of the country. Jen acknowledged that the grassroots nature of their work added to the conferences made for deep friendships that easily brought in new people (like me? I sure hope so).

And that’s actually one of my main takeaways from the conference. Atheism, as Debbie Goddard pointed out, doesn’t actually say much. It just means you don’t believe in god or gods. It doesn’t mean you’re a liberal, or scientific, or rational, or political, or an activist, or a humanist or kind or fun to be around. So I was worried that bringing lots of people together under such a minimal banner wouldn’t necessarily create a supportive and challenging and exciting community, and I was so thrilled to realize that, at least in this case, it did. It made me want to get all the more involved and energized and be a part of this excellent, thriving, diverse (somewhat; we’re working on it) community, filled with opinionated people of different persuasions, bringing their experience and thoughts to bear on making our movement broader, bigger and better.

Things started to end around noon, so I said goodbye to all the incredible people I’d met, sad to leave, but excited to go back and bring all of my new ideas to my community. Sandra and I went off to lunch, talking about our blogs and the interaction between rationalism/intellectualism and politics/activism, which she thinks a lot about as well. She took me to Harvard, where she goes to school, so I could see her room and meet some of her friends (many who were Christian, interestingly, but also one “secular, hard agnostic, socially liberal, fiscally conservative Israeli nationalist.”) When they asked about why I was in Boston, I got to grin widely and tell them a tidbit or two about the magnificent American Humanist Association National Conference, and in the case of her friends down the hall, launch into an overly excited analysis of the different words (secular, humanist, atheist, bright etc.) that are used in the movement and what separation of church and state has done for religiosity in this country (Hint: helped, at least according to Tocqueville and many religious people).

After saying goodbye to Sandra, I made my way back to Roxbury, with a fair amount of difficulty and mostly barefoot (my heels and feet were giving out; I’d been doing a lot of walking over the previous days), said goodbye to my wonderful aunts and cousins, got into a cab and got to the airport, luckily in plenty of time. Josh was already there, but he elected to grab some vouchers and stay another few hours, so I got back alone, and didn’t stop grinning for several days.

Who knew conferences could be so amazing? I’ll certainly be going to more in the future.