Someday, probably sooner than you think, there will be a generation of children who grow up never having known a world where gender neutral pronouns weren’t commonly used and accepted. There will be a generation that grows up with gender-neutral pronouns as an obvious cultural given. In the context of that culture, a person who talks about the good old days before everyone had to know all these pronouns is going to look like a backward, irrelevant relic of the past.
This type of cultural change has already happened, and is already happening, all the time. Marriage used to be all about property. These days, the idea of marriage representing an exchange of property seems absurd. More recently than you think, though, it wasn’t.
I think it was Steve Jobs who once said that If you want to be a successful company, you can’t aim where technology is, you have to aim where it’s going.
This lesson applies to culture.
As people, and, in particular, as social justice movements, being socially progressive isn’t just good because it’s the right thing to do. It’s a rational, intelligent decision to make for any person or movement interested in not becoming obsolete. If you’re interested in staying relevant, you have to aim where culture is going, not where it is right now.
Right now, gender-neutral pronouns are not the norm. Right now, rape culture permeates our society. Right now, racism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. permeate our society. But all of these things are slowly changing.
I want the movements that I am a part of to be conscious of all of these issues, not just because I think it’s our responsibility to care about all of the people around us, but because I don’t want the movements that I am a part of to become obsolete. If the atheist movement still has the same problems with misogyny that it has right now a few decades from now, we will have become obsolete. The subsections of feminism that don’t overcome their transphobia will be obsolete a few decades from now. The kinds of organizations that promote marriage as only between a man and a woman will be obsolete a few decades from now.
Organizations that don’t change with the times become obsolete. They become obsolete, and people stop caring what they have to say. They stop being able to do good work, because the ways in which they have become backward act as an insurmountable ball and chain, preventing their voice from mattering to anyone.
Within the next few years, I hope everyone watches closely what happens to geek conventions and harassment policies. Given how fast conventions have been adopting harassment policies lately, particularly since John Scalzi’s harassment policy policy received so much support, I’m guessing it won’t be very long until all such conventions have harassment policies, and the few that don’t find themselves with fewer and fewer attendees.
I would like to think that these conference organizers are adopting harassment policies purely because they think it’s the right thing to do. I imagine this is true for many of them. That said, I imagine that self-interest plays a significant role in the decision as well. The writing is on the wall: conferences without harassment policies are about to become obsolete. Soon, It won’t matter whether some conference organizers think harassment policies are unnecessary. It won’t matter how emphatically they insist that their con doesn’t have a problem. No one will care, and they will cease to matter, and, eventually, cease to exist.
Why is it important that the atheist community call out misogyny, racism, transphobia, etc., when they show up in the movement? Not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s the only way for our movement to matter. It’s the only way we succeed, because it is the only way we will avoid becoming obsolete. If you’re an atheist, and you don’t think the conversations that we’re having right now are important, then you aren’t just doing a disservice to the people who are hurt by misogyny, you are shooting our movement in the foot. The atheist movement cannot succeed without remaining relevant, and it cannot remain relevant without being responsibly socially progressive.
If you don’t think that’s true, then whatever part of the movement you’re participating in is a part that no one is going to give a fuck about in 20 years.
And, as a human being, if you don’t think you should have to learn about people’s personal pronouns, don’t say I didn’t warn you when you become the “racist grandparent”-type stereotype of your generation.