11 December 2014

Minor things I've written about before

Daily Show came around to the story about the diner in North Carolina. 

I was unpersuaded by the take of many atheists that this a serious problem, or that the type of problem it presented was in somewhat analogous to much more serious forms of discrimination (such as genocidal practices, or really even hiring and firing decisions of companies based on religious non-belief). One can readily acknowledge that it is discriminatory legally. But given that restaurants practice many types of price discrimination already (for the elderly, for college students, for military or police/fire departments and so on), it is not a particularly egregious outrage that they might effectively overcharge everyone for food and then decide to offer a discount for something religious like praying over the meal. It also appears the diner amended its practices slightly in the wake of criticism to allow for non-religious expressions, whatever that implies.

I do think the Daily Show's piece was unfair in its depiction of FFRF and Barker specifically, but my impression has been that the expressions of the FFRF and Barker aren't always all that flattering anyway. They can do enough work digging the holes without help. What struck me first and foremost about the story when I first was presented with it months ago was that it didn't make sound business sense to offer the discount at all. And not that it demanded a very public and in-your-face response for it to be abolished. There was a cheap and simple and much more private way to handle this, such as a personal phone call or meeting with the owner/manager to determine the contours of the discount, accepted practices for receiving it, training or discretion offered to the crew to provide it, and so on. Such a meeting or call probably would have sufficed to show the owner this was a foolish idea, and at least that it came from a highly privileged Christian majority position and that a more generally inclusive or respectful attitude to the population of potential diners and customers might be wiser. Indeed, my impression and understanding of religious practices was that public displays of religious faith by other Christians might have been frowned upon as discriminatory even before atheists as exclusionary, and that other Christians are commonly allies in pointing out these forms of religious exclusion. The piece and previous reporting did not illuminate if this more subtle and personal approach was tried and failed, and a more public and direct response was then used instead to achieve a more desirable result. The Daily Show piece and previous stories on this issue strongly implies that it was not attempted to mediate and explain, so I would submit this is unlikely.

What seems to have been more important was to attract attention to it as an example of discriminatory practices excluding atheists. Of which there are many and many of which can have considerable impact upon the lives of atheists in this country and others and for which the resources of atheists can be leveled and concentrated upon improving and reducing the barriers and boundaries that a still distrustful modern Western society like that of the United States places upon us. But for something like this, effectively burning the bridge in order to draw attention to it struck me less as a well-calculated solution which educated the local diner operator and more as a Streisand effect, demonstrating to the Christian majority the lengths to which atheists may go to exclude religion from public life and resulting in a portrayal of atheists as "dicks" even by fellow secularists such as the Daily Show writers and correspondents for cheap laughs.

That portrayal, which is sometimes accurate and deserved as it is for any group of humans, is hardly the necessary means to make an approach of acceptance and tolerance in broad society which includes a vast quantity of religious adherents. We atheists don't need to be dicks and neither do we need to be nice and lay down all the time. But we should be pragmatic. We are outnumbered and should pick our fury where it is actually raised and a the thing should not stand without resistance. We should also be willing to say, yes, that behavior on the part of another atheist was inappropriate or ineffective as a means of achieving a general goal of acceptance and promotion of tolerance toward atheists and secularists in society. This happens often with Dawkins and remarks on sexism or feminism as an example. Whether or not he intends them as such, they are often offensive and counterproductive to a cause of atheism and secularism that is too easily and frequently depicted as an all-white-male boys only club which is ill-attuned to the social problems of others owing to race or gender.

As such. It does not offend me deeply as an atheist that I would not receive a modest discount for my breakfast at this location because I could go somewhere else that I might find a more accommodating business practice or better eggs and bacon. It would offend me deeply if I were refused service entirely were I to refuse to pray over my meal. Or if to work at such a location, I were required to adorn myself with some religious symbols of the owner's choice and practice of faith. This distinction of the scale and scope of the offense should be factored into our reply. Discrimination is discrimination, but discrimination of this type, economic discrimination through prices, is not like genocide or racial exclusion laws. It scales. It would be entirely appropriate to boisterously and immediately and publicly complain and to demand restitution if an atheist is not given a raise on that basis of non-religious affiliation, or denied employment or service from a company or public official.

I do not even say it is necessary that we pick our battles and that a scorched earth approach to any and all forms of discrimination by businesses cannot be deployed. And thus that this should have been ignored as a "nice old lady" doing something weird. Rather, I am saying that the way the battle is fought sometimes matters to the outcome of the war. Winning ugly is still winning yes, but it often costs later on. We are in the middle of a very long road still with a large portion of the public expressing views of hate or intolerance, and many more expressing indifference to the problems of atheists in America. Atheists will require allies and compassion from others as a minority status in a Christian dominated society, allies who will help fight on issues of church and state separation and forms of discrimination that afflict atheists, or on science education policy and other matters which interest atheists in particular at times. Potentially alienating such allies is foolish. That should be considered when picking out the weapons of choice and against who they are wielded.
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