Friday, December 18, 2009

Arguing on the Internet: Whose Work Is Sarah Braasch Doing?

So I've been thinking about Christian Missionaries Are Doing God's Work, and re-reading it with a more critical eye. I started off liking it a whole bunch, but then again, I started off agreeing with Sarah in the first place. Now, I think the piece (as a stand-alone essay) expects perhaps a bit too much from the reader, or bites off more than it can chew. Maybe both.

I'm not troubled by the initial revulsion at the missionaries on the plane. I think it's an understandable emotional reaction all on its own, and the conversation Sarah relates between her and her friend shows a great opportunity for growth. My issue starts with "The Ghion was a sea of entitled whiteness."

I understand that First World folks can (and do) cop an attitude of entitlement, especially when they think they're helping others and see any inconvenience as ingratitude (or some such horse-shit). But this is never shown, we are simply expected to believe that an attitude exists without ever seeing it in action, rather than presenting it as a reasoned conclusion from any observation that was shared with the reader. Sarah says, "The only dark faces were those of the employees and the babies," but aren't those the people who live in this country? And isn't the point of a hotel to accommodate its guests? And why on Earth is she complaining that children are being taken from an impoverished nation to a home with parents who can provide for them? I understand that the situation these children are being brought into is far from perfect, ideologically speaking; but I think it's a damn sight better than the destitution in which they would otherwise be raised.

Then there's this bit: "I would have been more than happy to forego any creature comforts to not be staying in the same hotel as every other overfed Westerner in Addis Ababa. ... I decided to soak in the tub for a little ablution." Now, maybe she had no choice in terms of which hotel to stay in. I'm just saying, it makes for a rather awkward juxtaposition to say, "I'd sacrifice X to escape Y; but now I'm going to indulge in X without getting away from Y at all!" When you don't have a choice about Y, sure, you may as well do X anyway. Just sayin'.

Moving on, there's the conversation with the other missionary (from a story logic perspective, this would have been an excellent place to capitalize on that aforementioned growth opportunity). Sarah asks, "Why can missionaries and evangelicals and proselytizers sense a former believer like sharks detect blood in the water, like rapists and child molesters can smell the lingering odor of victimization emanating from the pores of the abused?" I didn't know that they could! But in any event, it doesn't seem like this particular one is doing anything of the kind. Sarah, by her own admission, isolated herself - she put herself in a position where she looked lonely, and this other person seemed to be trying to make friends with her. She reined herself in and remained civil, but it seemed unnecessarily strenuous for her to do so. Was she starting off in a confrontational mood, I wonder?

At the end of it, Sarah simply leaves as soon as her cigarette is finished, which is coincidentally when the missionary is at her most vulnerable. Why not take this opportunity to exercise a little patience and do some missionary work of her own? Moreover, what is this Christian likely to say to her friends about the encounter? Would she glowingly recount the friendly conversation she had with the atheist, who wasn't a fire-breathing Satan-worshipping demon but actually a nice person just like her? Or would she probably have something else to say? Perhaps something that reinforces her preexisting notions about atheists?

As for her conclusion and call to action, I'm half with her, half confused. On the one hand, I agree that the actions of missionaries cause direct and real harm, but on the other hand, Sarah doesn't seem to acknowledge how screwed-up the pre-existing superstitions and circumstances of these people often are. It's not like the Christians need to tell these Africans to believe in the supernatural, they do that on their own already. Really, the harm that the Christians do is... well, yeah, by mis-educating them on sex, they actively contribute to the spread of disease. By not correcting misogynist attitudes, they reinforce those attitudes. Christians are throwing fuel onto an already blazing fire of primitive superstitions, and the fact that the transplanted primitive superstitions are linked to the civilized help these people bring makes for a detrimental juxtaposition on the world stage. Sure.

However, I think her point would have been better served if she limited it to showing how the actions of American Christian missionaries are detrimental to their goals. They want to help people? Great! Go help people! Oh, but if you also want to spread your religion, then there's gonna be a problem. 'Cuz, you see, we checked, and it turns out that religion is bad for people. Her points at the end, backed up with some statistics (perhaps links to news stories concerning the torture of witches inspired by missionaries, or wars started over ideas spread by missionaries, or really any kind of data at all), would have admirably served this purpose. But "they are the apocalypse?" Sure, Christianity's a death cult and all that - as Pat Condell points out, the defining moment of Christianity is its founder's death, and all the benefits accrue after death, and so on and so forth - but I think a bunch of unsubstantiated sneering renders such an apocalyptic tenor a bit needlessly hyperbolic. To wax verbose.

So yeah, as I'm sure can be gleaned from the feedback Sarah's received already, the stuff she talks about isn't entirely unreasonable. However, to someone who doesn't have a background of experience that is remarkably similar to hers, to someone who doesn't know about the racism/sexism/elitism/entitlement that often runs rampant in God's chosen cults, this could come off as a bunch of condescending and confrontational bullshit. That objection could easily be removed with the simple inclusion of a few supporting facts, even anecdotes: perhaps a story of a missionary berating a hotel employee, if such a thing did in fact happen. A good piece of activist writing should educate the reader on problems, not simply state them and blame them on somebody. Or it could just be a rant, but then it ought to get the rant tag, so people know to take it with a grain of salt.

4 comments:

Ebonmuse said...

Hey D,

I think some of the criticisms you raise here are quite valid, but permit me to offer a few words in defense of my guest author. :)

Sarah says, "The only dark faces were those of the employees and the babies," but aren't those the people who live in this country? And isn't the point of a hotel to accommodate its guests?

I assumed the point Sarah was calling attention to here was that the luxuries in this hotel were seemingly made available only to foreign guests, while actual citizens of the country lacked them. Granted, encouraging wealthy tourists to come and spend their money is a vital step in the economic growth of any developing country... but I think it would leave a bad taste in my mouth, and it probably did in hers as well. For me, at least, it would be the feeling that I was flaunting my wealth, even if I was trying not to.

Sarah, by her own admission, isolated herself - she put herself in a position where she looked lonely, and this other person seemed to be trying to make friends with her. She reined herself in and remained civil, but it seemed unnecessarily strenuous for her to do so. Was she starting off in a confrontational mood, I wonder?

I don't doubt that she was, between the aforementioned discomfort at her feeling of entitlement and the revelation that she was a human rights worker in a sea of missionaries. I mean yes, of course, we should all try to be the very best ambassadors for atheism that we can be, we should try to be friendly and civil and make a good impression - but I get frustrated and upset too, sometimes. I try not to judge people too harshly for human imperfections; I know I've been guilty of the same thing many times.

That objection could easily be removed with the simple inclusion of a few supporting facts, even anecdotes: perhaps a story of a missionary berating a hotel employee, if such a thing did in fact happen.

I do agree that, for the naive reader, it'd be helpful to list some examples of the harm that missionary-inspired beliefs have done. It's not like we don't have enough examples to draw on: the Christian churches that teach their African members to forsake antiviral AIDS medication in favor of muddy spring water; that encourage parents to beat and torture their own children as witches; that "treat" mental illness by chaining patients to their beds and beating the devil out of them; and then, of course, there's the American religious-right-inspired anti-gay hysteria in Uganda. But it's certainly not as if the facts to support Sarah's argument aren't there!

D said...

Thanks for the comment, and as Sarah and I have already discussed, we're still BFFs. :) But seriously, your "naive reader" point was all I was trying to highlight, it's just kind of all over her entire essay. I started off agreeing with her, so on my first reading, there was no problem; it was only later on that these concerns were raised in my mind, because I realized that that's quite a lot of background to expect of the reader.

Obviously, this doesn't apply to the D.A. community, and the overwhelmingly positive feedback she's received is evidence aplenty of just this (and that's ostensibly who she's writing for, so whatever). But in deliberately looking at this with fresh eyes, thanks to a few conversations with Silver Garou (and I'm sure he'll appreciate those links!), I realized that she could easily be seen as taking the tone of an ideologue.

cl said...

Well, in case you'd like a believer's perspective:

"So I've been thinking about Christian Missionaries Are Doing God's Work, and re-reading it with a more critical eye. I started off liking it a whole bunch, but then again, I started off agreeing with Sarah in the first place. Now, I think the piece (as a stand-alone essay) expects perhaps a bit too much from the reader, or bites off more than it can chew. Maybe both."

Right on, D. I realize you're "BFF's," but that woman scares me. She wants to be an attorney, yet appears so bent against religion and believers that I can't see how that bent couldn't at least threaten to compromise justice.

"Sarah says, "The only dark faces were those of the employees and the babies," but aren't those the people who live in this country? And isn't the point of a hotel to accommodate its guests? And why on Earth is she complaining that children are being taken from an impoverished nation to a home with parents who can provide for them? I understand that the situation these children are being brought into is far from perfect, ideologically speaking; but I think it's a damn sight better than the destitution in which they would otherwise be raised."

From what I've seen, her writing often contains rhetorical devices whose effect is more emotional than cogent. That's not the type of "knowledge" atheists should rest on, IMO.

D said...

Thanks for the comment, cl! I gotta say, you always give me something to think about.