Opinion

What should we do?

What should we do?

What do we do with the thought that some things are more important than others? Specifically, how do we deal with the awareness that some human problems are more urgent and pressing than others? How do we sort them, how do we rank them, how do we decide which ones we should pay most attention to?

Here are some of the subjects I’ve been highlighting on my blog in the last few days:

  • The trafficking in young girls sold as “brides” in India
  • Signs on restaurants in Saudi Arabia saying “No single women allowed”
  • University students in China going on trial for contributing to a website run by jailed Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti
  • Global reaction to the protests and riots in Ferguson, Missouri, and the US’s less than stellar record on human rights
  • The arrest of popular Canadian radio host Jian Ghomeshi on sexual assault charges
  • The murder of four polio workers in Pakistan
  • Climate change and the grim prospects for the human future
  • The pope talking nonsense
  • Police violence and gun culture in the US
  • The Law Society’s withdrawal of its guidance on Sharia-compliant wills
  • The Texas State Board of Education’s vote on a new set of social studies materials, including a claim that Moses along with Locke and Montesquieu was an important influence on the men who wrote the US Constitution

If I wanted to rank them in order of importance, would I know how to go about it? Not really. I think they’re all important, but they’re important in different ways, for different reasons. That’s one reason I don’t want to rank them, and one reason I find it irksome when other people undertake to rank problems or issues.

I understand the thinking behind good-faith efforts to rank degrees of misery. There is such a thing as being spoiled, and failing to realize the magnitude of one’s good fortune and prosperity. There’s such a thing as shouting the house down about a tiny wrong done to oneself while ignoring massive injustices done to other people. There’s the fact that some of us prosper off the exploitation of others, and that we don’t do enough to find out about it and try to do something about it. There’s all of that and more. And yet – broadly speaking, I don’t think people should be chivvied or scolded for talking about, say, sexual harassment in the workplace when they could be talking about child marriage in Bangladesh.

That’s not because I don’t want the world to pay more attention to child marriage in Bangladesh. I do want the world to pay more attention to that and many things, and that’s why I write about them on my blog. But I don’t want to be the kind of person who tells people to stop paying attention to their concerns and pay attention to my concern instead. I don’t think I’m the judge of that, and I don’t think anyone else is either. Concern isn’t something that can be commandeered. We can offer our concerns for the consideration of others, but it’s futile at best to demand that people pay attention.

There’s been a fad for doing this lately among some freethinkers and atheists who dislike what they take to be contemporary feminism. Richard Dawkins, for instance, told the reporter Kimberly Winston in the Washington Post last week that he is “a passionate feminist”… but with a sting in the tail.

 The greatest threats to women, in his view, are Islamism and jihadism – and his concern over that sometimes leads him to speak off-the-cuff.

“I concentrate my attention on that menace and I confess I occasionally get a little impatient with American women who complain of being inappropriately touched by the water cooler or invited for coffee or something which I think is, by comparison, relatively trivial,” he said.

That’s where I disagree. Of course Islamism is a terrible threat to women, but it doesn’t follow that women can’t or shouldn’t talk about sexual assault by the water cooler. It doesn’t even follow that it’s the responsibility of Richard Dawkins to tell women which of their concerns are “relatively trivial”.

It’s not useful, that kind of thing. It’s not wise or helpful to try to adjudicate the degrees of importance or triviality of other people’s problems. It isn’t other people’s business. By all means talk about what you think is more important instead; by all means try to promote your concerns; by all means donate money and set up foundations to address your concerns. But don’t try to manage or assign numbers to other people’s concerns. It’s not needed. We’ve got this.

Note: The poster used to illustrate this op-ed was produced by The United Nations Population Fund for its “Marrying Too Young” report.

46 responses to “What should we do?”

  1. Daz says:

    Shorter Dawkins: ‘Of course I’m a feminist. I just think women need to be told what to be concerned about.’

  2. This is really a broad topic to discuss. and it is really tough to select which issue to be resolved first.If I only talk about child marriage this issue has been so crucial as it is effecting the future of girls.

  3. Brian Jordan says:

    “It doesn’t even follow that it’s the responsibility of Richard Dawkins to tell women which of their concerns are “relatively trivial””
    Nor, however, does it follow that Richard Dawkins should shut up about things that are not his “responsibility”.

  4. Vanity Unfair says:

    “…being inappropriately touched by the water cooler or invited for coffee or something…”
    These are situations that can be resolved without Prof. Dawkins’s help. That, I think, is what he is saying. There should be established protocols in the workplace to address such matters if they continue after the perpetrator has been warned. These can usually be dealt with individually or by management or trade union. However, “Islamism and jihadism” have to be addressed on a wider front as they affect us all. They might even prevent such encounters altogether.
    And, let’s face it, very few reporters would get a story on Prof. Dawkins’s views on the correct way to ask a colleague to join in a tea party published.

  5. Jennifer says:

    “Nor, however, does it follow that Richard Dawkins should shut up about things that are not his “responsibility”.”
    Fair enough, but I don’t hear much of this. I hear people asking him to stop telling feminists to shut up.

  6. Hunt says:

    I disagree. The usual justification for telling others not to be concerned about ranking inequities is that they don’t constitute a zero sum game, that people can expend efforts to right less significant wrongs and not cut into efforts to correct the truly horrendous conditions that afflict us. This is ultimately false. The entire effort humanity can expend bettering itself IS ultimately a zero sum game. There are only so many resources, so much money, so much time and effort that only so many people can expend. The optimal allocation can only stray so far outside a certain boundary without becoming ridiculous and infuriating to any sane person evaluating their sensibleness. So, sure, expend efforts improving conditions at the watercooler, but not days and weeks and months and articles and books and conferences. It’s absurd to say that this could never become ridiculous, and the public has a right, and I have a right, to speak that opinion.

  7. Daz says:

    “So, sure, expend efforts improving conditions at the watercooler, but not days and weeks and months and articles and books and conferences.”

    The sensible time to stop talking about conditions at the watercooler is when conditions at the watercooler are no longer a problem. Ditto for any other concern.

    And frankly, the absurdity here is that “days and weeks and months and articles and books and conferences” have been devoted to such things, yet women are still harassed at that watercooler. Because “Hey, wouldn’t it be a good idea if a woman could get a drink of water without being touched up and subjected to uninvited sexual innuendo,” should be a trivial statement of the blindingly obvious which everyone instantly agreed to.

  8. Blueshift Rhino says:

    Nice try, PZ, with those last two paragraphs, but you simply can’t have it both ways. You cannot continue to use the derisive label of “Dear Muslima” when someone argues that there are more important issues than the horror of being invited for coffee in an elevator or – even – the outrage of people disagreeing with you on the internet. Either it’s as black-and-white – we at FTB know which issues matter and which don’t, and everyone else needs to shut and listen to us – as you have been claiming for years, or it really is nuanced as Dawkins was saying and everyone who hasn’t drunk your Koolaid has been trying to explain to you since then.

    Why you are incapable of saying that you’ve made a mistake (in the past) and/or simplified matters too much is beyond me. Just take back your response to Dear Muslima and embrace what you, yourself, wrote in the first three-quarters of this column: some problems are worse than others and everyone is entitled to his or her opinion on the rank-ordering. Oh, and while you’re at it, head over to Michael Nugent’s biog and apologize for your indefensible public smears against him,l so that maybe we all can move onwards.

  9. dennis says:

    I care equally about all these and many more. “well what can a poor boy do except to sing for a rock’n’roll band ” hell I am tone deaf but I get to express my outrage and wonderment on this little blog were I feel at ease with other Atheist.

    thanks for the lyric from the greatest band ever ” The Rolling Stones”

  10. SpokesGay says:

    Blueshift Rhino, why are you addressing PZ Myers here?

  11. […] A comment on my piece titled What should we do? at the Freethinker: […]

  12. Tigzy says:

    One might likewise wonder why Ms Benson addressed Blueshift Rhino on her FTB blog, rather than here.

  13. Blueshift Rhino says:

    As O.B. knows, my previous comment was retracted and a request that it be deleted was clicked before anyone other than O.B. saw it. The dishonesty of not mentioning this is unsurprising. The inability to understand that a quick retraction is the correct thing to do when a mistake is made is also unsurprising.

    With that said, my main point still stands. Using “Dear Muslima” as a slur is not only simplistic or ignorant, but often hypocritical.

  14. oolon says:

    roflmao for BR’s comment to PZ, great bit of careful reading before commenting there. But it seems to be predicated on the idea that “Dear Muslima” has some sort of point. It didn’t and Dawkins apologised for it as fallacious.. So how does the hapless Rhino explain that?

  15. Lady Mondegreen says:

    “or it really is nuanced as Dawkins was saying”

    Dawkins didn’t say it was nuanced. In reference to the elevator incident (and all Rebecca Watson said was, “guys, don’t do that”–she didn’t say it was “a horror.” Others made a to-do over the incident–) Dawkins said “it was zero bad.”

    There is a great deal of sexism right here that Dawkins doesn’t see and apparently doesn’t care about. He’s got a right to his own priorities. He’s also got the right to do as he’s done: try and belittle women’s concerns about the sexism in our own backyard.

    And we’ve got the right to criticize him for that.

  16. Blueshift Rhino –

    No, I don’t know that.

    Good lord, you’re not thinking this is my website are you? You really are confused. If you don’t know what The Freethinker is you should find out – it’s interesting and it matters.

  17. Blueshift Rhino says:

    Well, now that you know, what will you do?

  18. Lady Mondegreen says:

    “As O.B. knows, my previous comment was retracted and a request that it be deleted was clicked before anyone other than O.B. saw it. The dishonesty of not mentioning this is unsurprising.”

    Blueshift Rhino, this isn’t Ophelia’s blog, you know. She’s not the one moderating.

    (Stop digging.)

  19. Blueshift Rhino says:

    Hey, I’ve got an idea. Don’t say this: “Oh, OK, if you thought that PZ wrote this post, maybe because you found it via a tweet from PZ, then I’ll ignore the second paragraph of your comment and I’ll reply only to the main point of what you wrote, which is in the first paragraph.” Instead, do this: blog about this silly error of mine on click-hungry FTB while adding some extra bits – you know, to keep your cut-and-paste ratio below 95% – and address those extra bits directly to me, in the first person, whilst keeping your ban on my replying in place. Yeah, I know, this might not score any points with true free thinkers, including the owners of this site, but it sure will please The Horde … what few of them are still left.

    What? You already did that?

    Wow. You really are good at this. Hat’s off.

  20. Lady Mondegreen says:

    “and address those extra bits directly to me, in the first person, ”

    That didn’t happen.

    You really, really need to work on your reading comprehension, Blueshift Rhino.

  21. Ambidexter says:

    Blueshift Rhino,

    While you may have asked that your previous post be deleted, it wasn’t. It’s still there, showing the world how you can’t figure out the difference between Ophelia Benson and PZ Myers.

  22. Lee says:

    First: the irony. Ophelia Benson – who puts up posts on her blog shaming specific people without allowing them an opportunity to reply, and who posts repeatedly about certain people who especially irritate her (including but not limited to Dawkins), to the point where such posting appears obsessive to many onlookers – is telling people here not to “try to manage…other people’s concerns”, and is claiming that she believes people are welcome to “talk about what you think is more important instead; by all means try to promote your concerns”. She omits mention that when other people’s concerns include authoritarian behavior by herself & those to whom she is sympathetic, she pounces.

    Second: Did anyone ask Benson to rank the issues she lists at the top of this piece? If so, that information would be helpful to include. If not, that claim, which opens this article & claims to be its impetus, looks like a strawman.

    Finally: So Blue Shift Rhino made a mistake regarding the authorship of this piece. That’s not a hanging offense, though it seems to have been taken as a convenient reason not to address his/her points, which still merit a reply:

    “You cannot continue to use the derisive label of “Dear Muslima” when someone argues that there are more important issues than the horror of being invited for coffee in an elevator or – even – the outrage of people disagreeing with you on the internet. Either it’s as black-and-white – we at FTB know which issues matter and which don’t, and everyone else needs to shut and listen to us – as you have been claiming for years, or it really is nuanced as Dawkins was saying and everyone who hasn’t drunk your Koolaid has been trying to explain to you since then.”

  23. Blueshift Rhino says:

    Gosh. I wonder why I asked that it be deleted? Is it possible that I figured out who the author of the post was within the five-minute limit of writing the erroneous paragraph? No way. The only possible interpretation is that I cannot figure out that O.B. and PZ are different people. [/snark]*

    Is this what passes for “free thinking” around here?

    * apologies to non-Hordelings who didn’t need the /snark tag

  24. Blueshift Rhino says:

    Over on O.B.’s self-moderated blog (see https://archive.today/kNuYa ), a commenter named H J Hornbeck wrote that I must be an “entitled asshole” for commenting on a post that I originally thought was written by PZ Myers because I am banned from posting on PZ’s blog on FTB. The logic of this somewhat escapes me because I was commenting here on something posted here, so this has nothing to do with PZ’s blog and/or my status there. In fact, this had nothing to do with any FTB blog until O.B. copy-and-pasted what I wrote here to her blog for the clicks. (I know … it’s hard to believe that O.B. would copy and paste something to her own blog, but it actually happened in this case, so chill with the hyper-skepticism.) But, given that I’m banned from posting on O.B.’s blog on FTB, as well, we can leave PZ out of this (which is always good advice when trying to be logical). Even if I hadn’t made the mistake of not seeing who wrote this particular post until three minutes later, we can pretend that I only wrote the first paragraph and addressed it to O.B., even though I’m banned from posting on O.B.’s blog on FTB. This would be the same situation for which H J Hornbeck has called me an “entitled asshole” to which I must ask, in return: if I am an “entitled asshole” for commenting on something written here by an author who has banned me elsewhere, what would be the appropriate label for someone who writes a post that includes several direct questions addressed to a specific person, but does so on a blog from which the target of the questions is banned and the person asking the questions is the one who applied the ban? My suggestion is to simply drop the “entitled” part of your epithet, H J, but I’ll wait for your answer. I’m a patient sort of rhino.

  25. Sili says:

    You may be patient, but you certainly also demand patience of anyone trying to decipher your comments.

    I am not a patient silicious entity.

  26. David Anderson says:

    Slymepitter Blueshift Rhino, YAWN.

  27. Blueshift Rhino says:

    For those keeping score at home, the first derail above earns a tick-mark under “too many words!” and the second under “ad hom by assoc.” Stay tuned for other classics, such as “citation needed!” and “shut up and listen, cis-het northern white rhino!”

  28. Lee says:

    Is it routine for comments to be held in moderation here for 14 hrs?

  29. Daz says:

    David Anderson

    I see your yawn, and raise it by a cup of Temazepam-laced Horlicks and two episodes of Murder She Wrote.

  30. Blueshift Rhino says:

    Whoa. Did you just offer me a cup of a coffee-like but drug-laced beverage? Where were you in June of 2011? Please tell me it wasn’t a hotel in Ireland, because, if so, I’d have some serious apologizing to do.

  31. Daz says:

    No, dipshit, I did not offer to drug you. I claimed that your self-absorbed ramblings are extremely fucking soporific.

    Drama: you is doing it wrong.

  32. Blueshift Rhino says:

    You appeared to be somewhat agitated and yet you claim to be suffering from the affects of a soporific. Are you attempting to provide us with evidence of homeopathy? That’s not going to go over very well around here.

    ps. for those keeping score at home, “you’re boring” is another, classic derail; my subtle allusion to a meme clearly failed to correct this, probably because the clues were too weak – guys, don’t do that

  33. Steersman says:

    Interesting article, and maybe touches on the wider question of “what shall we do”, particularly in terms of the wider purposes, values, and objectives of society.

    However, the logic of it seems highly questionable. For instance, Ms. Benson concedes that “there is such a thing as shouting the house down about a tiny wrong done to oneself while ignoring massive injustices done to other people”. Which any reasonable person, or one not overly focused on grinding an axe, might conclude is evidence that she herself thinks that some things are “by comparison, relatively trivial”, and that she is in fact, “chivvying or scolding” those who engage in the former.

  34. Blueshift Rhino says:

    If we are going to veer back to the actual topic (at the urging of Steersman, no less), then I would suggest that we start with the very last sentence of the post, which was: “We’ve got this.” Who is included in this “we” (other than the author, herself) and who is excluded (other than Richard Dawkins)? If nothing else, I would like to know who is allowed and who is not allowed to ever play the ‘Dear Muslima’ card.

  35. Barry Duke says:

    Lee (and others) My apologies for the hold-up in the comments queue. I lost my Internet connection today, and, being unwell, was unable to leave home to catch up with work at another location. Things are back to normal now.

  36. Blueshift Rhino says:

    Barry –

    You might also want to look into how requests for deletions are handled. In my case, it was not honored and the comment in question then became a massive derail of the conversation, especially after O.B. copied and pasted it onto her own blog (where I was not allowed to reply). Is it standard practice here for such things to happen?

  37. Lee says:

    Mr Duke,
    Thank you. I hope you are feeling better soon.

  38. Blueshift Rhino says:

    Ah, Lee, thank you for that gentle admonishment – intended or not – for my irrepressible crassness. I belatedly join you in your thoughts for Mr Duke.

  39. Blueshift Rhino says:

    While we all wait patiently for O.B.’s decree, I, for one, would enjoy hearing other folks’ ideas on how to discriminate (in the categorization sense, of course) between those who are allowed to have an opinion on the ranking of social-justice issues and those who are not. This is, of course, selfish, as I’m rather curious about my own classification. On the off-chance that the coin comes up ‘Dawkins’ in my case, I also hope to be told the criteria, on the double-off-chance that redemption is possible.

  40. Daz says:

    It’s really quite bloody simple. Everyone is allowed to assign their own personal priorities. We’re even able to argue over what the priorities should be in regards to cooperative efforts. What you don’t get to do is sneer at and belittle people who are trying to address problems affecting themselves.

    You don’t get to grade abuse on your own personal scale, because the effect of the the abuse is subjective to each victim. You don’t tell people to stop moaning because their problems are minor in the great scheme of your own personal assessment of badness-of-effect.

    This is known as ‘good manners.’ Maybe you should try it.

  41. Blueshift Rhino says:

    Thanks for the helpful reply. I will definitely keep an eye on the distinction that you’ve raised (which sounds quite reasonable) and I’m quite sure that O.B. has always followed this “rule.” Maybe you can now help me with the “We’ve got this” part of the original post. Who is being excluded from helping and on what grounds?

    As to ‘good manners,’ please note that I’ve been declared an “entitled asshole” on O.B.’s highly-moderated blog, so not much hope of that, eh?

  42. Daz says:

    We’ve got this: a colloquial phrase meaning “we’re dealing with this issue.” That’d be the issue other people are adamant they don’t want to deal with, or don’t see as important. But hey, I’m guessing you knew that. Arguing in good faith would be a good idea, too.

    Yeah, well, having conversed with you before, I’d say “entitled arsehole” is a perfectly reasonable description. Over-polite, if anything.

    Oh, and if you’re wondering who I am; I’m the horrible nasty person who got you banned from Pharyngula.

  43. Blueshift Rhino says:

    Ah, so when one says “we’ve got this,” one isn’t telling others to stay away; one is only assuring others that at least someone is on it. That’s cool. But it does leave unanswered what a person is supposed to do when reading “we’ve got this” written by someone who has proven herself incapable of dealing with much of anything without making it worse. In such a case, which does not seem far-fetched, a sensible reader would be anything but assured by the sentence “we’ve got this” if it has the meaning that you are suggesting.

    Even more, if we expand the quote in question to capture more of the context, we reach: “But don’t try to manage or assign numbers to other people’s concerns. It’s not needed. We’ve got this.” Forgive my poor knowledge of memes in advance, but that doesn’t really come across as an assurance that a particular issue is being dealt with. Rather, it reads to me as saying that I don’t need to enact the labor of assigning priorities to other people’s concerns because the writer and her friends will be assigning their priorities for them and without my help. To be clear: the “this” in the final sentence seems to refer to the assigning of priorities, not to the actual work of fixing some social injustice (which often requires more tools than the Ctrl key and two others). Which brings us back to the original problem of who gets to decide what the priorities of everyone should be.

    Please, let it not be Dr Richard Carrier PhD. I’m not sure if I’m ready for that.

    As to who you are, it doesn’t really matter. The person who banned me from Pharyngula said that the ban was because I post on a certain website. Between you and me, claiming to be said person is not something to do on this sort of website. It’s about as far from free thinking that one can get, opens the door to people asking whether you run a blog with an admitted child-rapist as a regular commenter, smear nice Irish men and refuse to apologize, and somewhat suggestive of a small mind with many, large insecurities. If you happen to be an American academic, it is also correlated with having a low impact rating (e.g., an H score of 6) and is most-often observed in 50-year-old associate professors at Tier-3 schools who occasionally imagine their students as mythical sea-creatures, possible due to their over-indulgence in hentai. But we digress….

  44. Daz says:

    Digress all you like old chap. You’re doing nowt but engaging in hypersceptical nitpicking anyway.

    Toodles.

  45. Blueshift Rhino says:

    At the risk of verifying the assessment of my behavior as ‘hypersceptical nitpicking’ – but more because of the defamation laws in effect in the UK – I need to apologize for the terrible choice of pronouns in the next-to-last sentence in my previous comment and make it clear that I am not accusing any student at any Tier-3 school in the upper mid-west of the United States of over-indulging in hentai. That suggestion was solely targeted at their professor.

  46. piero says:

    I believe the logic of the author’s argument is somewhat muddled. She says:

    “By all means talk about what you think is more important instead; by all means try to promote your concerns; by all means donate money and set up foundations to address your concerns. But don’t try to manage or assign numbers to other people’s concerns.”

    It is not possible to think some issues are more important without, at the same time, thinking that some issues are less important. For any one person, there is an ordered list of concerns, from the urgent to the trivial. Stating which issues that person deems more important and which are trivial is merely the exercise of free speech.

    It is one thing to say “I believe sexual harassment at the workplace is very important, and you are wrong in thinking otherwise”; it is a very different thing to say “You have no right to say sexual harassment at the workplace is less important than women’s oppression in Islamic countries”.