Thursday, October 17, 2013

How to Respond to Oprah's Ideas About Atheism

In college I briefly worked as a server in a faculty club. One day, while clearing empty plates at a large table of diners, I asked one, "Would you like me to take your plate?" The man flew into rage, shouting a lecture at me. He roared that it was "basic etiquette" that the placement of the fork and knife on his plate communicated to me that he was finished. Therefore, my speaking to him was unnecessary and rude. I stood there with my gaze down, no doubt with a red face, and felt like an ill-bred kid. Later I grew so angry about the incident that I quit that job. For years the memory popped into my head from time to time, and I fantasized about how I should have reacted. How I should have lectured him back about how it was more rude of him to publicly humiliate me than it was for me to ask if he was finished with his plate. Yes, I had unwittingly caused a breach of etiquette. But his reaction to my mistake turned a teachable moment into conflict and strife.

I can't help but think something like this has happened between Oprah Winfrey and the freethought community. Oprah Winfrey has unwittingly insulted a large group of people, and now instead of calmly trying to understand the mistake within the context it was made and gently correcting it, the freethought community has started yelling.

Before I go on, if you haven't seen the interview Oprah Winfrey did with swimmer Diana Nyad, check that out first:

The Internet has exploded with freethinkers responding to this interview, specifically taking issue with Oprah's disparaging view of "atheism" as being a worldview that negates feelings of awe over nature, beauty, love, y'know, all the big stuff.

The first response I read was that of David Niose, president of the American Humanist Association (AHA). I am a proud, card carrying member of a local chapter of AHA, and have enjoyed conferences hosted by the AHA, and so when I saw the headline Why Oprah's Anti-Atheist Bias Hurst So Much, I was ready to be deeply disappointed or even angry with Oprah Winfrey. But after I watched the interview, I just didn't see anything that I thought justified the harshest of Niose's criticisms. I mean, Niose went as far as to paint Oprah as worse than the Religious Right, saying that she's done more to "perpetuate negative attitudes toward nonbelievers than Pat Robertson or James Dobson ever could."

The Boston Atheists have started an online campaign where they create memes featuring fictional exchanges with Oprah using real atheists' quote. However, even if they are primarily intended to spread the word about how much atheists can be in awe, they do just as much to make Oprah look stupid.

PZ Myers just went right ahead and labeled it "Oprah's bigotry." (Too be fair, Myers sort of has a reputation as a shock jock in the world of atheist blogging.)  

Isn't this all going way too far?

The criticism of Oprah comes across the spectrum of the freethought world. Friendly Atheist blogger Hemant Mehta is critical of Oprah's "nebulous spirituality" and says:
Nyad’s explanation is the same sort of breathtaking awe that scientists will often tell you they feel when they gaze at the stars or look through a microscope. It’s not religious. It’s not spiritual. It certainly has nothing to do with a Higher Power. It’s just amazement at how life, the universe, and everything works — how evolution made it that way and how lucky we are to be a part of it at all.
Mehta glosses over the fact that in the interview Nyad herself calls herself a "spiritual" person, defines that in a nebulous way. More importantly, Nyad opened her atheism up for questioning with her statement, "To me, my definition of 'God' is humanity. And is the love of humanity." It is right after this statement that Oprah says "Well, I don't call you an atheist then!" Didn't Nyad just define "God" as something real (as humanity and love)? Why didn't she say something more like, "To me, God is a presence, a creator, and I just personally don't believe in that." Instead, she went ahead and defined "God" as something everybody knows is real, and Oprah came back with an affirmation that such a definition of "God" is perfectly acceptable. 

Oprah emphasizes this point further when she says "God is not the Bearded Guy in the Sky." Listening to Oprah talk about her type of faith (Oprah calls herself Christian), her beliefs seem more similar to members of Unitarian or Quaker congregations (which generally welcome atheists.) In that she thinks about these philosophical issues and abides by her own conclusions rather than taking a cue from any authority figures, she fits the broad definition of a freethinker. And yet, the freethought community doesn't want to give her any benefit of the doubt. 

Oprah Winfrey likes to emphasize that she is accepting of all faiths, and she acts on this sentiment by bringing on guests who represent many different worldviews. When Diana Nyad explains why she calls herself an atheist by saying that she doesn't believe in a "presence", Oprah takes no issue with that. In fact the only point they seem to disagree on is how the term "atheism" is properly applied. So does Oprah Winfrey have an anti-nonbeliever bias, or is she really just confused about the meaning of atheism? I assert it is the latter.

Let's consider why Oprah might be confused about the meaning of atheism.

Atheism is a dirty word in the mainstream. It isn't just a dirty word to religious fundamentalists. It isn't even just a dirty word to theists. It's a dirty word to a lot of people who are non-God-believers. C'mon. How many people who are technically atheists won't call themselves atheists? How many atheists just can't let go of religious words like "spiritual" and "God" and "soul", and so they re-define them to be broad enough to have a secular meaning? Didn't Spinoza redefine God as nature? Didn't Einstein called the universe God? Atheism has been a dirty word for a very, very long time, and that's not just going to go away. 

It probably doesn't help that now one strain of the freethought movement that has been written about in many mainstream publications is called the New Atheism, and is known for its aggressive criticism and intolerance of all forms of religious belief. 

Is Oprah Winfrey's view of atheism a personal bias against non-God-believers or is she simply understanding the term as it is most commonly used? 

Yes, it is frustrating. Yes, when our own allies use the term in a disparaging way, it confirms the bias of those who truly are bigots against us. To me, the label atheist carries all kinds of wonderful connotations. I associate God with authoritarianism and escapism, and conversely associate atheism with freedom and an embrace of reality despite its flaws. I find labeling myself an atheist liberating and courageous. And it bums me out that most people seem to think we atheists are arrogant, immoral curmudgeons. So, yeah, I'm annoyed with what Oprah said. But over-reacting isn't going to help anything, and it might make things worse.

As I've helped my fellow freethinkers try to build strong communities, I've heard a lot of talk about the benefits of this type of organization. Rarely do I hear talk about the drawbacks. The problem with like-minded people getting together a lot is that we re-affirm and eventually exaggerate each other's views. Just as we strengthen our communities, we insulate ourselves, risk narrowing our perspective and failing to see the bigger picture.

The bigger picture: Oprah Winfrey's not our enemy. In fact, in this instance she's probably helping us out. 

Think about it: Oprah gave a platform to Diana Nyad, a self-declared atheist. She presented this atheist as an inspirational and heroic person. She conducted a friendly, respectful conversation with this atheist. Oprah's comment about Nyad not really being an atheist was followed up with Nyad repeatedly re-affirming her chosen label and further explaining it, so that it was abundantly clear that she lacks a belief in a personal god or divine presence, but is still a person with a deep sense of wonder, awe, as well as respect, tolerance, and love for all of humankind. Seems like an obvious net gain for freethought to me!

Oprah rejects the bearded man in the sky, but how many monotheists do believe in God, heaven and hell, angels and demons, literally? Oprah Winfrey calls herself a Christian, but her faith is certainly not traditional. The type of faith she personally professes would have gotten her burned at the stake five hundred years ago. More theologically conservative Christian have declared that Oprah Winfrey is not a Christian. (Yes, I see the irony in Oprah telling an atheist she's not an atheist when she's had critics do the same shitty thing to her.)

I liked the interview. It reminded me of a lot of conversations I've had with believers. They say silly things to me such as, "I'm so surprised you're an atheist because you're so spiritual..." And then we go on to have a meaningful, casual exchange about our very different perspectives. They learn something. I learn something. That wouldn't happen if I got offended and started lecturing them on how ignorant they are about real atheists. I'm sure I'm ignorant to plenty about their actual perspective, too. That's just how these sort of things go.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Sinead O'Connor and Mylie Cyrus, the Difference Between Art and Porn, and Why Omnipresent Soft-Core Porn Masquerading as Entertainment is Maybe Not So Good

Pop culture matters. There are those who lament that Miley Cyrus twerking gets way more Americans' attention than events in Benghazi or Syria or even serious domestic, state, or local news events that impact public education, the environmental policies, and the health of our economy. Yes, that is true. However, given the level of fact-gathering and analysis that most people (don't) bother doing before expressing strong opinions, maybe it's better that most people are too bored with that sort of news to care. 

Pop culture matters. Trends in pop culture and public reaction to these trends tells us about who we are as a society and help us understand when things take a bad turn in real life. So it's worth it to look at these trends, do a little analysis, reflection, discussion, and critique. Otherwise we'll all just end up merely titillated by spectacle when we're young, and annoyed by those damn kids when we're old. 

It is fun to watch and gossip over the spectacle. Fun to look at parents who are outraged by the new image of Miley Cyrus and think, how the hell did they not see this coming? Fun to watch a pop star switch from a very wholesome facade to an oversexed facade. Fun to mock the people who take these pop stars' brands as earnest, personal expression. Fun to feel superior and enlightened. But now recess is over and I'm yearning for a little deeper breakdown. 

In a recent Rolling Stone interview, when asked about her video "Wrecking Ball', Miley Cyrus commented: 

It's like the Sinead O'Connor video [for "Nothing Compares 2 U"], but, like, the most modern version. I wanted it to be tough but really pretty – that's what Sinead did with her hair and everything. The trick is getting the camera up above you, so it almost looks like you're looking up at someone and crying. I think people are going to hate it, they're going to see my ass and be like, "Oh my God, I can't believe she did that" – and then when we get to the bridge, they're gonna have a little tear and be like, "Fuck you!" I think it will be one of those iconic videos, too. I think it's something that people are not gonna forget. 
Before I go further into Sinead O'Connor's open letter in response to Cyrus's statement, I'd like to analyse it myself. Cyrus is obviously not especially eloquent here, but maybe I can give her some credit and try to interpret what she means. Cyrus has interpreted Sinead O'Connor's shaved head as an attempt to look beautiful in a cutting edge, rebellious fashion. She also admired the emotionally charged nature of O'Connor's video. And she intended to emulate both of those qualities in her video. 

Both songs contain moving lyrics from a woman who regrets a breakup and is expressing her love and desire to rekindle that relationship. Here are the two videos back to back. 

O'Connor looks tremendously beautiful simply because she has a beautiful, young face. In fact, throughout the entire video the only part of her body you see is her face. I presume that's the point. She even covered her neck so that only her face, filled with raw, pained expression is there for the viewer to deal with. When she appears walking around in other parts of the video she is wearing a bulky black outfit, which I take is meant to suggest a state of mourning. 

In the Cyrus video, she does the whole face up close thing, but her makeup is the sort of gawdy stuff that accentuates generically, sexy feminine features such as lips and eyelashes, and distract from unique qualities of Cyrus's face. Her facial expressions while she sings suggest pain, but compared to O'Connor she comes off as overacting. Then there's the rest of the video, which is a lot of her either naked or in underwear writhing around, straddling a wrecking ball, or licking a sledgehammer as if it is a lover's body. In those interludes, she no longer reads as a woman who is genuinely suffering because of a lost love, but rather, like a stripper attempting to sexually stimulate her audience. This works against the song lyrics. The song becomes merely a vehicle for her to perform a strip tease. 

Now I want to be clear about something. Nudity is not the problem. I've read many criticisms of the Cyrus video that simply include "she is naked" in a list of qualities that make the video more like soft-core porn than art, and I feel this is part of the problem. 

My freshman year of college I took my first figure drawing class, which is basically hours and hours of drawing live, nude models. When I brought my portfolio home to show my boyfriend, his little sister (15 years old at the time) reared back and turn her head in disgust at the first drawing of a naked person. When I told her about the class she exclaimed, "That's sick!" But people wouldn't have those attitudes if most of the images of nudity or near-nudity we saw weren't intended purely to arouse. As a fine artist, I feel like the proliferation of soft core porn images have ruined many peoples' perception of the human body. We're afraid to let toddlers run around the beach naked for fear that strangers will sexually ogle them. Hell, some people are generally uncomfortable with little children running around naked. If so many of us can't see a naked body as anything but a sexual object, we have a problem with our visual vocabulary. 

I can easily envision the Cyrus video using nudity in a way which was relevant to the song. Other musicians have done this such as Lady Gaga in Marry the Night and Lena Katina in Never Forget You (although the vast majority of nudity in music videos is really just naked women behaving generically sexy in order to titillate, aka porn.)

Cyrus's song "Wrecking Ball" is about a woman humbling herself after she's been too proud and angry to really open up to her lover and work through their issues. It is easy to imagine using nudity as a metaphor for presenting oneself as vulnerable in order to establish trust. Such imagery juxtaposed against imagery of a fully clothed Cyrus angrily smashing walls with the sledgehammer (instead of doing so in her underwear) could have driven home the swings of emotional extremes people often experience in a tumultuous relationship. In other words, Cyrus had an opportunity to make a video that included nudity for a creative purpose. Instead, she made a video designed to sexually arouse viewers. In other words, she made porn. 

Typically, if we choose to enjoy porn, we do so in private, most often as an aid during masturbation. The amount of porn that a person can enjoy is limited by the amount of private time they have to devote to it. And yet an endless parade of soft-core porn in media can be and is consumed just about everywhere. The idea of what is essentially porn being consumed constantly by youth who grow up in a society where parents are loathed to think about or talk about their kids as sexual beings is unsettling. 

We've basically found a way to be surrounded by sex without having to talk about it or even acknowledge its presence. This was addressed in the South Park episode The Ring. In the episode, Mickey Mouse forces the Jonas Brothers to wear purity rings. He explains: 

Oh gosh, fellas, let me explain this to you one more time. You have to wear the purity rings because that's how we can sell sex to little girls, haha! See, if we make the posters with little girls reaching for your junk, then you have to wear purity rings or else the Disney Company looks bad, haha!
I found the episode hilarious because it was so refreshing to see satirists tackling this issue head on with enough of a sense of humor to make the message palatable. But I was still shocked to find that the Jonas Brothers spraying their audiences down with white foam was a real thing. 

I really wouldn't have a problem with this if people widely acknowledged what this is, but they don't. The lack of awareness is what I find disturbing. If we don't call things what they are, we can't effectively discuss, evaluate, attack or defend them.  

So back to Cyrus and O'Connor. At this point I'm fairly confident in asserting that any influence that Sinead O'Connor has had on Miley Cyrus involves Cyrus only noticing the superficial and completely misunderstanding O'Connor's work. 

That said, probably many if not most of people's enjoyment of the O'Connor video was and is superficial. In other words, they like it because they enjoy looking at O'Connor's beautiful, young face. Had she not been so beautiful, it is doubtful the video would have been so popular. And at the time, people were not praising O'Connor for shaving her head to look beautiful in an edgy way. They were making fun of her, as we see in Gina Riley's parody: 

It is doubtful that any parody of Cyrus's video would poke fun at her hairdo.   

Of course Riley's parody only emphasizes just how seductive the power of a pretty face can be, because while Gina Riley looks rather silly in her bald cap, Sinead O'Connor looked gorgeous. As a fourteen year old girl, I remember reading about how O'Connor had shaved her head so as to avoid becoming a sex symbol, and I remember thinking at the time, but she's even prettier with no hair. Despite her attempts to be appreciated for her musical talent and not her looks (not only shaving her head, but wearing odd and often shapeless clothing), O'Connor's mainstream popularity was no doubt at least partially due to her beauty. After O'Connor aged and gained weight, many in the media pitied her. such as Richard Price here lamenting how she lost her "ethereal beauty", as if her looks had been her best asset, and as if maintaining a woman's looks should be of utmost importance. After losing weight, O'Connor commented, "I only feel better because people aren't being so abusive to me any more about my weight."

Fans who appreciate Sinead O'Connor for her musical talent never stopped loving her and probably didn't give a damn about her changing physical appearance. Fortunately for O'Connor, at least from what she's always said, those are the only fans she ever cared to attract. 

However, the big money is in quantity, not quality of fan base. And thus we are bombarded on a daily basis with images of people (usually women) displayed in a way as to sexually arouse viewers (also known as porn.) I'm so tired of this crap about female empowerment and women's rights to express their sexuality however they choose. That argument has merit when talking about artists as creative, innovative, and personally ambitious as Madonna. But Madonna is a rare bird. Sex sells, but what's cheap and easy usually sells the most. 

Sinead O'Connor responded to Miley Cyrus's comments about her as an influence with an open letter. She started by saying that her letter is written out of motherliness and love, which actually comes off as a bit condescending. She harshly criticizes Cyrus's sexy new image and people in the music industry who will "pimp" her for money and who "don't give a fuck" about her. She suggests that Cyrus doesn't care for herself enough, though also tells her that she is very talented and makes great records. In the conclusion she writes; 

Whether we like it or not, us females in the industry are role models and as such we have to be extremely careful what messages we send to other women. The message you keep sending is that its somehow cool to be prostituted.. its so not cool Miley.. its dangerous. Women are to be valued for so much more than their sexuality. we aren’t merely objects of desire. I would be encouraging you to send healthier messages to your peers.. that they and you are worth more than what is currently going on in your career.

I am skeptical of how motivated O'Connor was out of personal concern for Cyrus. Obviously putting her criticisms out there for everyone to read puts Cyrus in an awkward and embarrassing position. Which leads me to suspect that O'Connor's true motivation was to publicly defend her legacy as a musician who actively resisted being valued for her appearance and to promote her values which are against the sexual objectification of women. 

I'm glad O'Connor wrote her open letter. If there were just occasional images of sexually objectified women in our society it wouldn't be that big a deal, but those images are everywhere, and there has to be some kind of counter from people other than conservative, religious-types who label any sexually active woman a slut and want to go back to before the women's liberation movement. 

Sinead O'Connor has always been an iconoclast with her heart in the right place even if her execution isn't always the most effective. Her most famous act of rebellion is of course her ripping up of a photograph of Pope John Paul II during her appearance on Saturday Night Live in 1992. She did this in protest of the Vatican's cover up of child sex crimes, but at that time it would be ten years before the scandal would be exposed in America. People were horrified and infuriated. Those who even bothered to consider her message dismissed it outright as untrue. O'Connor's popularity with the mainstream public was permanently damaged. 

I was fourteen at the time, raised Catholic, and newly (and still uncomfortably) settled into an atheist/agnostic worldview. I felt sort of lost and alone a lot about my religious skepticism at the time, but I knew I couldn't make myself believe things that seemed obviously not real. When I read about O'Connor ripping up the Pope's photo, I was fascinated and curious. I wondered, what did the Pope do that so upset this musician? The public outcry against O'Connor also showed me just how crazy people when they feel their religion is being attacked. I learned that criticizing peoples' most sacred belief will make them furious long before they ever consider investigating the accusations. People at that time were not even bothering to defend the church. They were just mindlessly aghast that O'Connor would dare to deface a religious symbol precious to so many. They went on the offensive and criticized her. They cared more about the Pope as symbol than what the actual Pope was doing with his power and position. Of course in 2002 O'Connor was shown to be dead on in her criticism of the Vatican. 

Miley Cyrus's response to O'Connor's letter has been to tweet about O'Connor's struggles with mental illness and her ripping up of the pope's picture (because apparently she thinks that is worse than covering up widespread child sex abuse?) I'm surprised she hasn't tweeted unflattering photos of O'Connor when she was overweight. 

Earlier this year Minegishi Minami, a Japanese woman in the popular girl band AKB48, shaved her head in contrition before giving a tearful public apologyHer sin? She had violated the part of her contract where she agreed not to date. Much like the fictional Jonas Brothers from the South Park episode, the handlers of AKB48 have the teenage and young women performers sing songs and make videos that are sexually titillating, but then require that the girls in their real lives present an image of purity and availability. It is easy to dismiss this whole incident as foreign. Japanese culture is different. American women are more liberated, more powerful, more free. Right? 

I'm confused by this idea that an otherwise talented woman engaging in cheap, soft-core porn is her exercising her sexual power and freedom. I thought modern women's lib was about creating a society where women have equal pay, equal work opportunities, and where people doing traditional "women's work" receive due respect and compensation. If we achieve that, isn't sexual freedom a given? None of the defenses of these images of cheap, light-core porn ever address the concern that all these images being out there have the potential to shape the social norms, identities, and behaviors of both men and women. We know that advertising impacts our decisions as consumers, even when we are aware that the advertisements are bullshit. Just because we know something is exploitative doesn't mean we don't internalize the associations it presents, especially when we are exposed to them over and over and over again. 

Edit: Amanda Palmer wrote an excellent open letter to Sinead O'Connor, giving further depth to the conversation. Check it out here.