Social justice, at all levels, needs to be radical

With the recent label of Atheism+ becoming all the rage, I have been thinking about things like social justice a little bit more than usual.  As a self-described liberal/progressive, even as a voting independent, I do care about creating a world of fairness and compassion.  But I am hampered by a relative privilege which prevents me from fully, naturally, grasping how badly our society needs to consider social justice as necessary.

This blog is undoubtedly a place where we talk about “first world problems.”  I address the assumption of monogamy, theism, unskeptical thinking, and a host of other intellectual problems which take place at all levels of society, but which are mostly relevant among the educated elite of our world.  That is, the educated Western middle class, which you are likely a part of if you are reading this, are subject to really poor thinking, but their problems are pretty insignificant when it comes to the crippling poverty, violence, oppression, and so forth which some other bloggers address.  But they still matter.

I am under no delusion that most of the things we discuss here at PolySkeptic are of lesser importance than many of the issues which social activists deal with.  But what I am willing to say is that the methods we employ—skepticism, logic, and a willingness to accept challenge—are the methods that we need to employ to solve problems of all levels and kinds.

Take, for example, this article from about PTSD in Philadelphia (it’s quite excellent, so take the time to read it all).  It addresses the cycle of violence, physical brain damage from experiencing violence, and cyclical behavioral effect of said damage on cities such as Philadelphia.  The article takes a scientific approach to the problem, painted with set of narratives, and talks about how we need to approach this on a large scale, as a society.

From the article (page 4):


There’s a solution available—a remedy that might change this city’s funereal culture. But when entire neighborhoods become toxic, the medicine has to be vast in scope. “You really only have two choices,” says Drexel’s Sandra Bloom. “You can remove the person from the environment, or you can change the environment itself.”

So, says Bloom, individual treatment can be helpful, including both talk therapy and pharmaceutical interventions. But big cities like Philadelphia, with large neighborhoods subjected to decades of violence, need to think in broader, more dramatic terms. “To treat large populations and cause a cultural shift,” she says, “we need to look at the kinds of group treatments”—including group therapy sessions and a wide mobilization of mental health resources—“that have been employed in war-torn places like Rwanda and Bosnia.”

Upon first reading, this seems an outrageous statement. In 1994, Rwandans suffered 800,000 deaths in 100 days. But Bloom’s point isn’t that the horror visited upon Rwandans and the murder and injury rates in Philadelphia are statistically equal. Her point is that they are shared experiences of protracted violence that have shaped the way entire communities think and live.


There are so many assumptions, experiences, etc which make up our worldview that we are almost completely unaware of.  We are often so blind, not only to what life is like to others, but even to why we think and behave the way we do, that to try and solve these kinds of problems seems daunting.  Our lives are framed by our experiences, our environment, and we too easily obstructed by such things to see that the problems around us affect us.  We are interconnected in cultural, political, and ideological ways which are usually unseen, but we should try to see them better if we care about solving them.

Whether we are talking about PTSD/violence cycles, poverty and political/legal systems of keeping people poor, religious indoctrination and skeptical skills, or the assumption of monogamy and how that affects how we think about love, relationships, and sex, we have to be aware that any solution will have to be broad and persistent.  We need people aware of the problem and who are capable of helping in some way.

That is what social justice is about.  And now we are starting to see that the atheist movement is being included into the set of social justice issues, and is subsequently willing to group together, as atheists, to lend some hands in spreading ideas, proposing solutions, and hopefully to get our hands dirty in addressing social justice issues.  Many atheist groups have been doing so for years, and now we have a label for such efforts.  I cannot imagine a good reason to oppose this label.

As a community, we have had the discussions, are becoming more aware of the problems, and are realizing we need to create formal and informal organizations to move towards better ways to address the issues which surround and bind us.  Call it Atheism+, call it secular humanism (but perhaps with a generational upgrade), or call it snarfwidgitry for all I care.

But realize that if we are to survive this adolescence of the human race, we need to address some of the fundamental problems, from the crippling poverty, oppression, etc to the lack of application of skepticism to questions of relationships.

We have to be willing to question all of our assumptions, learn to check our blind spots (including privileges), and not simply accept the prevailing wisdom as wise.

In short, we need to be at least a little radical, or we will continue to make the same mistakes over and over again.  Because while we are not inherently Fallen and sinful, we are inclined towards behaviors which are damaging to ourselves and other, and we need to actively work to counteract such inclinations to be better as people, societies, and a species.