I am going to my first skeptic convention in October, CSICon in Nashville, TN. I am totes excited at the opportunity given to me by the kindness of an (almost) stranger. My excitement at going seems a bit strange for me because I don’t automatically identify as a skeptic. I try to think skeptically, yes but I typically won’t ever use the term “skeptic” to describe myself. I describe myself as an atheist. I describe myself as a rational person (who sometimes flirts with irrationality). I describe myself as an activist. I don’t describe myself as a skeptic.
Well part of it is that the term “skeptic” as a label is a new concept to me. I live in a small town where almost everyone is a believer in some sort of nonsense. If they aren’t, they are too scared to talk about their lack of belief. I still find it amusing how many atheists live in my town that think they are the lone atheist in this godforsaken town. No one talks about their lack of belief here. I don’t do closets though. Not being good at keeping quiet about the reality of me has subsequently opened the door for all those closet atheists to come out in my company. So I might know most of the non-believers here but it didn’t really occur to me that somewhere out in the big world there was a collection of non-believers organizing to help teach the world how to think critically.
When I found my fellow non-believers, I also found new people called skeptics. I knew what it meant to be skeptical. I didn’t know what it meant to be a skeptic. I learned that most people who identify as skeptic were like me. They used empirical methods for evaluating truth claims in the world. I tried to do that. They made arguments against ESP, cryptozoology, homeopathy, anti-vaxers, tinfoil conspiracy theorists, and a shitton of stuff I already had arguments against or wanted good arguments against. So yeah, I could be a skeptic. It didn’t matter if many skeptics hadn’t made the leap to being similarly skeptical about their god. I mean we all have our blind spots. I just needed to try and be more cognizant of my own.
I was ready to call myself a skeptic. I was ready to go to skeptic cons and hear all these speakers talk about the bits of skepticism they found most motivating. I still was most motivated by atheism. I still found problems with the separation with church and state to be far more taxing than the neighbors who consult the tarot card reader for marriage counseling.
Then Elevatorgate happened. It didn’t deter me from wanting to join the movement but it did deter me from wanting to associate with some parts of it. Hell, it even motivated me a bit to be more vocal about my side. I mean there were problems here I could help address. This was something I could think skeptically about. I had nothing major vested in anyone. Then it continued for a year. I must have read enough about sexism in the atheism and skepticism movements to fill a bookshelf. Comment threads a mile long. I was ready for this fight.
Then people started arguing that skepticism isn’t about battling sexism, isn’t about combating racism, isn’t about tackling transphobia, isn’t about fighting homophobia. That the skeptics trying to address social justice problems in the movement were being divisive. That opinions on social justice were tearing skepticism apart. That those interested in dealing with these things are all well and good but should get off skepticism’s lawn to do so. That the intersection crowd are just trying to impose intersectional dogma upon the True Skeptics™. That we are going to ruin skepticism for all…Deep rifts…etc.
And all of it left me hanging. Do I want to join a movement that seems so Hell-bent on ignoring the things I consider important? If I join will skepticism end up fracturing along the fault line of social justice? Will I help it do so?
UFOs and Bigfoot are the easy shit.* I (we) can lol at it while pulling out the mountain of evidence in opposition. Our opinions though, our opinions are the meat, the heart, the struggle of skepticism. We are racist. We are transphobic. We are sexist. We are the sum of culture’s influence upon us. No person escapes the bigotry and bias of culture entirely.
Looking at those parts of us that are erroneously biased by culture is hard. It requires accepting that aspects of reality are sometimes measured in anecdotes. People are a collection of anecdotes. People cannot be measured in the same sense that liquids are measured. There is no rule book to humanity. Skepticism as it applies to social justice therefore is pretty messy. It is a dance full of nuance, indignation, apathy, and pleas for truces on all sides. Things like bigotry and harassment and trying to define them tends to leave a bad taste in skeptic’s mouths because much of the time the definition is shaped by the victims. The definition is measured by the effect it has on people. I mean that there is nothing wrong with insults except when there is something wrong with insults. There is nothing wrong with sex except when there is something wrong with sex. The definition is defined by experience because the definition is about experience and it is always messier in the middle.
So I get why some skeptics don’t want us to be involved with social justice. I get that social justice movements are sometimes at odds with each other and that examining them skeptically is fraught with difficulties. I understand if it is too complicated for those skeptics to differentiate between wrong and right so they throw their hands over their ears and say “I can’t hear you.” I get it. Change is painful.
What I want to say to those skeptics though is I am still joining this movement and I am not going to stop caring about skepticism as it applies to social justice.
If and when skepticism fractures along the line of crop circles and social justice, I won’t lament the loss of those who decided that admitting their facts were wrong was easier than admitting their opinions were wrong. I won’t look back in regret at the loss of those conservative skeptics. I will be on the progressive side of this movement feeling a little more comfortable in my self-applied “progressive skeptic” label than ever before. I will be over here watching the conservative side die off as it becomes progressively less relevant to the rest of the world.
*I don’t know whether to say thank you or fuck you to ThunderfOOt for the inspiration to finish the article when I got stuck right at this moment.