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Guilt and Language July 2, 2012

Posted by craftlass in beliefs, current issues, politics, women's rights.

I am a feminist and atheist.

These days, those words are treated more like curse words than any term for genitalia. It’s a clever way to try to take the power out of them, it makes a lot of people apologize for being either or both. Language is a living thing, as any writer or English major can tell you, and usage can completely change the meaning of the word.

For example, let’s look at “conservative”. Politically, it used to mean someone who believed in small government, letting people make their own choices as long as they don’t harm other people on purpose, and allowing the market and society to sort things out without government intervention. These days in America, it means people who want to shrink the parts of government that help people, grow those that don’t, think companies are somehow more human and should have more rights than actual people, and want to restrict the rights of individuals if they happen to be anything but straight men. Often, it is also used to describe people who want America to turn into a theocracy, as long as it’s based on the Christian Bible (usually the woman-hating King James version that was commissioned by a man who was probably gay, but let’s not dwell on those ironies beyond a good chuckle).

See? Words are malleable. A century ago I would be a staunch conservative, now I’m a wild liberal simply because I believe in a person’s right to choose how to live her or his own life. I am exactly the same person with the same convictions, either way. It’s the definition that has changed.

I was raised very Catholic (as seems to be the case with many atheists). One of the classic stereotypes of that particular religion deals with guilt. Catholic children are taught to feel guilty about everything, even just being born. Catholic parents, clergy, and teachers often use guilt as a tool and it can be pretty effective. My poor godmother still has the ability to make me feel truly awful about the fact that I’m not Catholic simply by telling me that she thinks it is her fault, that she did something wrong and could have made me devout if she had just done something different. She’s completely wrong about that, it was the Church and the Bible that made me an atheist and the only way she could have changed those was to go back thousands of years to change everything about both. Still, letting her and other family members down is the only thing about my choices that bothers me. I got pretty lucky in the family lottery of adoption and would love to make them all proud in every way but I can’t deny basic truths about myself just to make anyone feel better.

Similarly, I see a lot of women who are strong supporters of women’s equality and rights who are afraid to call themselves feminists. There seem to be two causes for this: 1) They are not quite sure what feminism actually means and don’t want to use a term they don’t understand; 2) The word has a lot of negative connotations these days. The former is a good reason to not use a label and should be inspiration for further study, the latter is a horrifying one. When people demonize feminism and we allow them to take the word away from us we are handing over the power of the word. Isn’t that analogous to handing over all of our power? Isn’t that the exact opposite of our goals?

There is so much misinformation being disseminated about feminism. I think it’s a pretty simple thing, feminists want equality and full participation on every level of society and for women to be able to make their own decisions. What is wrong with that? With the exception of true misogynists I think most people want that, when you boil everything down to the essence. I don’t want women to control everything, I just want over half the population to have an equal voice. This is not how things are at this time. When Congress bans women from testifying about contraception, when state governments relegate the women within them to working only on minor areas of state law, when politicians equate women with livestock… We are nowhere near equal. If anything, we are losing the ground that the generation before mine paved for us.

According to Save the Children, the United States is one of the worst places in the developed world to be a woman (they make it painfully clear that we can not begin to compare the developing and developed world, so please don’t comment that women here have it better than those in places like sub-Saharan Africa, okay? We know that already). We are behind in almost every category they study, from amount of women in powerful positions in government to basic needs like being able to breastfeed our children without reducing our paychecks significantly.

In a country that reveres children to a sometimes unhealthy point isn’t it weird that we care so little about the only people who can bear them? Once again, oppressive people want us to feel guilty for wanting careers, wanting to choose whether and when to get pregnant or not, even down to guilty about what we wear or how we have fun. I recall an old friend telling me about her stint in a mental hospital and how one of the ways to show you are ready to be let out is to do your hair nicely and wear makeup because that is “normal” behavior for women, even if you’ve never owned a lipstick in your life. Really? Should I feel guilty because makeup is something I generally reserve for the stage and fancy nights out when there are real things to worry about? A woman could be crushed under the weight of it all and many are. There are so many levels of societal oppression and even the little things are part of an overall pattern that culminates in things like the War on Women and women who truly believe they are worth less than their fathers, husbands, and even the sons they have raised.

I’m done with all of it. I refuse to give in and feel guilty about who I am and what I fight for. I didn’t get a choice about being born female, intelligent, and with some talents. I do get to choose how to use what I have, though, wherever it came from.

I’m taking my cue from the gay community, who took the insulting meanings out of “gay” and “queer” and turned them into positive ways to identify themselves. Go to any Pride March and you’ll see countless examples of how words with formerly negative connotations are now celebrated as empowering. It breaks my heart when I hear young people using them as insults again, but I think the positive aspects will far outlive any negative ones in time, especially if we keep educating relentlessly about how it’s okay to be whoever you were born as or have been sculpted into by your experiences.

Restricting or abolishing the use of a word never has the desired consequence of eliminating the meaning, but changing the definition can. It takes the guilt and stigma out and replaces it with strength and unity. It takes time and constant effort but it’s one of the few things that can actually change the way people think in the long run.

I am a feminist and atheist.



1. jscotti - July 2, 2012

You know, as different as we probably are, we have surprisingly similar views. I would not call myself a feminist, but I am an atheist (technically, probably an agnostic atheist with a Dawkins 7 point scale rating of probably around 6). I’ve called myself a conservative politically since I was in Junior High, but I find myself liking conservative candidates less and less over time. I have never, in over 30 years of voting, voted FOR a candidate, but rather against the other candidate (Mondale was an idiot!). Other than John Glenn, I have not seen a Democratic candidate that I would have voted for for president. Obama is probably the 2nd closest, though I reluctantly voted for McCain last time around (I would have been more enthusiastic if not for his wing-nut VP). I would vote for Obama before all the Republican candidates this time around except for Huntsman who fizzled early. I’m thinking of writing in Bugs Bunny or Mickey Mouse this time around unless I can find someone like you to write in…. Actually, maybe I’ll write in Neil deGrasse Tyson.

I guess you’ve pointed out the kind of conservative I am – the old style – the less government involvement in most things, the better. Our politicians today are nothing like that and the difference between Dems & Repubs is negligible in the old fashioned Conservative/Liberal ways. Gov’t should only do what it really needs to do – provide a set of rules we can all agree (loosely) on that don’t interfere with basic freedoms; provide law enforcement and defense (though probably not at the levels we see them both today); provide services that only gov’ts can, like a basic form of social security and help for those who can’t help themselves; provide a net to catch those who would otherwise fall through the system (like health care for those who can’t afford it); and of course, provide support for a robust scientific program that can’t ordinarily be funded by private enterprise and can’t provide predictable monetary support of its own.

I was born an atheist and raised in a mildly religious family with all the usual subtle brainwashing that religious folks inflict on their children (often without even realizing it) so that I was somewhat religious as a young boy. I went to a parochial school in the 6th grade, and I believe that was the actual turning point where I seriously started veering away from the superstitious dogma. I was also watching the Apollo astronauts working on the moon and became a science enthusiast by about that time. But it would take me the better part of 10 years to fully extract myself from the superstition and conclude that I was “officially” an agnostic. Since then I came to realize that I was really more of an atheist, but as the scientist I became, I allow for the possibility of whatever might actually really be the truth, though I doubt that that will come from any religion I’ve seen.

I don’t consider myself a feminist, however, I do believe in equal rights for everyone, regardless of sex or race (and I almost said species… 🙂 ). It just seems obvious to me that everyone ought to be on roughly the same footing until proven otherwise (you know, like criminals on one extreme and intellectuals and gifted folks, etc. on the other). I am against abortion for ethical reasons (though I can see many grey areas and in an imperfect world, other problems) but I am completely for birth control right up until a zygote is involved. Of course, we live in an imperfect world where birth control is not 100% and people are stupid in the heat of the moment and so on, so I could probably be convinced of morning after type of birth control despite the zygote already being around by then….

So, before my comment gets to be as long as your original blog, I’ll stop here. I enjoy reading your posts here.


craftlass - July 3, 2012

Hi Jim!

Yeah, that’s exactly the issue with the current uses of conservative and liberal. Frankly, using them as binary positions means many people feel entirely left out at this point. Who represents us? No one, really. I don’t expect to agree with everything any candidate stands for (what two humans agree on *everything* anyway?) but it’s very hard to be completely opposed to at least one facet of all available options. Sigh. I understand why a lot of people don’t vote. I disagree with that option but I understand. Sometimes I joke that I vote simply to have the right to complain. 😉 The truth, of course, is that amazing women stood up and endured a lot to give me that right, and before them, our founders worked really hard to give our republic a bit of democracy and it would be a disservice to the memories of all of them to abstain.

Funny that parochial school seems to play a big role in pushing people out of religion. Isn’t that the opposite of their point? The thing is, the more I studied a multitude of religions, the less convinced I became that they hold any truths. It started with Catholicism for me due to my family, of course, but I spent years studying various Protestant sects, Judaism, Islam, and many pagan belief systems before I came to terms with my atheism. I suspect, as you said about yourself, that I was born atheist and just needed to confirm what I always felt. Pew research backs up this notion, too, they found that those who identify as atheist or non-religious generally know a lot more about religion than even most true believers know about their own. I used to even be able to quote various versions of the Bible since I’ve read it cover-to-cover many times (primarily the Good News and King James versions, both in Catholic school and in a secular school that studied it from a literary perspective as well as later in life for research purposes). I can’t quite do that anymore but it’s an endlessly fascinating collection of contradictions and example of how stories change with every telling.

The real message of this post, I hope, is not that everyone should fall in line with my beliefs and convictions, but that we should all stand up and be proud of who we are. Letting anyone shame you into retreating from a word that fits helps no one except the perpetrator. Taking an insult and wearing it like a badge of honor does the opposite. 🙂 Until we can all be honest about ourselves, how can we even have a debate on anything deeper?

jscotti - July 3, 2012

I can’t say I read much of the bible – a little bit here and there, but never read it cover to cover. Instead, when I was about 12-15, I plowed through the science section of our local library (I lived on Governors Island from 1972-1976 when my Dad was stationed there when I was that age – they had a nice library on the island, right next to the golf course – one of my other favorite hangouts). One thing I did notice about the parts I did read is that anything that even remotely tried to explain the world around us proved contradictory to the science I was learning! Genesis is so screwed up & everything we’ve learned about our solar system contradicts it! Even at 13 or 14, I could recognize those kinds of deficiencies. It’s like looking at the claims by the Moonlanding Hoax Hoaxers! “Duh! Don’t you think about what you’re reading?!?!” Favorite book from about 1976? Carl Sagan’s Cosmic Connections.

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