I used to be a Lutheran, and one Lutheran doctrine that always fascinated me was that Christians are both sinners and saints simultaneously. According to Kathryn Kleinhans of Living Lutheran, the saint part isn’t because of the good we do, but because of God’s grace. She writes, “We are called saints not because we change into something different but because our relationship with God changes as a result of God’s grace.” This always cheered me up whenever I would beat myself up over my imperfections.
Of course it wasn’t until after I became an atheist that I realized how constantly reminding myself that I was a wretched sinner who didn’t deserve God’s love really damaged me. As Hemant Mehta once said in a video, “No one should repent for just being human.” However I still believe in this non-dichotomous way of viewing humankind. We think there are only two kinds of people in the world—good people and bad people, smart people and ignorant people—but the truth is people are way too complex to fit into just two boxes. In my few short years in the atheist community, I’ve seen really smart people believe in bullshit ideas, and I’ve seen good people act like jerks. So even from a secular point of view, we’re both saints and sinners simultaneously. Or as my friend Shiri Eisner wrote in her book Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution, “We are all oppressors and we are all oppressed—and we must all deal both with our oppression and our privileges” (p. 88).
Anyone involved with social justice activism can tell you this is a hard pill to swallow. I used to think that because I’m bisexual and genderqueer, being an ally to other groups would come naturally to me. However, when you live in a society that says, “All people are equal, but some are more equal than others,” you’re going to internalize a lot of racist, sexist, homophobic, biphobic, transphobic, acephobic, ableist, and classist messages, and eventually those messages will slip out of your mouth. You probably didn’t mean any harm, but intentions don’t negate the fact you fucked up. You have to own up to it, say you’re sorry, and learn from your mistake.
I got a rude reminder of this three weeks ago. I got called out for going into two feminist groups on Facebook wanting to be coddled, and then writing an angry blog post when people said they didn’t want my tears. Not only that, but I let MRAs spread their rape apologist fuckery in the comment section while I ignored it. Instead of owning up to all this, though, I got defensive and blocked everyone who was calling me out. I even played the “Don’t call me out because I was severely bullied as a child and now I have anxiety” card. That was a moment when the mask fell off my face and I was exposed. I panicked and decided to take a three-week break from my Bi Any Means podcast and blog while I processed everything.
Now I’ve been known to be overly dramatic, so maybe I made a bigger deal out if it than it is. After all, nobody blogged about it (The Amazing Atheist was the fuckboy of the atheist blogosophere at the time), and no one that I know of unfriended me from Facebook. But the incident made me rethink why I do all this social justice stuff. Do I really care about changing the world, or do I just want the attention? Is this simply another lesson in a life-long process of unlearning oppressive behavior, or am I really just a monster like Dan Lindford?
It’s easy to call out other people’s oppressive behavior, but it’s hard to call out your own. Fortunately, Kai Cheng Thom’s article “9 Ways to be Accountable When You’ve Been Abusive” helped me sort things out. It taught me to own up to my mistakes, not make any excuses, and not beat myself up for it. I tend to be either extremely defensive or extremely guilty, and neither one helps. Another article that’s really helped me out was Jennifer Loubriel’s “4 Ways White People Can Process Their Emotions without Bringing the White Tears.” And wouldn’t you know it, number 3 is “Excuse yourself if you’re having strong emotions.” Well hell, if I had done that, none of this shit would have happened! I guess sometimes you have to really fuck up in order to learn.
In fact, as A.C. Grayling wrote in The God Argument, “It is through failure and criticism that one has one’s best chance of learning the best lessons” (p. 168). I don’t believe in the whole “Everything happens for a reason” crap, but maybe it’s a good thing I fucked up. How else would I have learned how to be a better activist? I know it’s clichéd, but it’s true; you learn from your mistakes.
And I’m going to make more mistakes in the future. In fact, that’s why I no longer call myself an ally for other marginalized groups; instead, I say I’m practicing allyship. As the phrase suggests, you don’t just wake up one day the perfect ally because unlearning oppressive behavior is a life-long process with no magic formulas. The growing pains hurt, but eventually you learn to be a better person.
One of the best ways to practice allyship is to listen instead of talk. That doesn’t mean you can’t have an opinion, but that you need to remember that your opinion might be wrong. I’m not a biologist, so whenever the topic of evolution comes up in online arguments, I share articles from biologists who can explain evolution better than I can. Likewise, I’m not black, so whenever the topics of racism and #BlackLivesMatter comes up in online arguments, it’s best for me to share articles from black people telling their stories.
I used to think that there are only two kinds of people in the world: those who got their shit together and assholes. The truth is everyone is still learning how to be better people, and that includes me.
Trav Mamone is a bisexual genderqueer atheist/humanist writer who blogs about the intersections of secular humanism and social justice at Bi Any Means. They also host the Bi Any Means podcast and co-hosts the Biskeptical podcast with Morgan Stringer. They currently serve on the Advisory Council of the LGBTQ Humanist Alliance, and they regularly contribute to TheHumanist.com.