The Muslima problem in atheism

A while back, Richard Dawkins said some very silly things on PZ Myer’s blog Pharyngula [see this discussion at the time for details]. He wrote, in response to justified claims of sexual harassment of women at supposedly progressive skeptical conference, the following:

Dear Muslima

Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and . . . yawn . . . don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.

It went from bad to worse from there, with Dawkins totally tone deaf about his white male western privilege and the very real problem of women in all societies. Despite a very recent and much overdue apology, it is clear that he really doesn’t get it. But that’s not what this post is about.

I want to dub the following “argument” the Muslima Problem:

Because something is very bad in one case, we should not attend with human decency to less bad things in another. And to demonstrate this, PZ Myers himself dropped a smelly Muslima Problem on his blog just recently. He wrote:

I’m sorry to report that comedian Robin Williams has committed suicide, an event of great import and grief to his family. But his sacrifice has been a great boon to the the news cycle and the electoral machinery — thank God that we have a tragedy involving a wealthy white man to drag us away from the depressing news about brown people.

Tone deafness strikes again. One could say just as easily that as tragic as Williams’ death is, let’s not lose sight of the other tragic events. Or note simply that the media’s love of celebrity is causing it to lose sight of those racially charged events. But Paul instead went on to say

Boy, I hate to say it, but it sure was nice of Robin Williams to create such a spectacular distraction. No one wants to think the police might be untrustworthy.

And think of the politicians! Midterm elections are coming up. Those are important! So people like Barack Obama need to be able to show their human side and connect with the real concerns of the American people by immediately issuing a safe, kind statement about Robin Williams, while navigating the dangerous shoals of police brutality and black oppression by avoiding them. Wouldn’t want to antagonize those lovely law-and-order folks before an election, you see.

Now I am not going to plump for the old saying, speak no ill of the dead or anything (which sounds so much more important in Latin: De mortuis nil nisi bonum). PZ did not speak ill of Williams or his death. But it implies that a progressive cannot be concerned about large or small tragedies simultaneously. Williams’ wealth (which he got through hard work and talent, and no small measure of generosity for others, not by inheritance or fraud) is irrelevant. He was loved because he was such a positive influence in so many people’s lives for so long; his suicide is a loss to those he touched this way. My own kids count a dozen or so of his films as seminal influences on their childhoods, and many of his lines are family in-jokes. I am allowed to grieve that the person who gave us these has died. This is no mere cult of celebrity. Williams’ death matters because in the end he was a damned decent person who made my family’s and many others’ lives better.

The implication that we can’t justly be concerned about two things at once is, in the end, profoundly insulting for progressives. It’s like the argument that we can’t enjoy our lives because others are suffering. It’s ridiculous, but given way too much credence among skeptics, atheists and progressive thinkers.

Yes, the media is obsessed with celebrities; it does not follow that every celebrity’s death is unimportant. Yes the media, particularly in America, avoids dealing with police violence, racial profiling and racism in general. It doesn’t follow that the other things they do report are unimportant all the time. This is lazy thinking.

I’ve known (and been involved in many fun mutual insulting matches with) PZ for over 20 years, and I know him to be a decent man, who himself does things that he takes no credit for, to help others. But this was unworthy of him. I am sorry to see him say such things.

We can care about more than one thing at a time, or else we are not decent human beings.

23 thoughts on “The Muslima problem in atheism

  1. I disagree with your take on PZ’s comments.

    Yes, he was confrontational and controversial, but I don’t think his implication was that progressives cannot be concerned about more than one thing at a time, or that Robin Williams death was unimportant.

    The issue is the active avoidance of discussion of a whole set of uncomfortable topics by the media and other “thought leaders”. It is the fact that issues not pertaining to (mostly) white, (mostly) wealthy (mostly) men are actively minimised, dismissed and ignored.

    The impression I get from many in the popular media is that, even though I am sure they were deeply upset by Robin Williams’ passing, at the same time they would have been positively delighted by the opportunity to play all of Robin Williams’ greatest clips (and, again, don’t get me wrong, they really are great).

    As you say “We can care about more than one thing at a time, or else we are not decent human beings.” You’re right, and I think most of the progressives reading PZ’s post are decent human beings who do care about Robin Williams AND correcting social injustice. But unfortunately, I think all too many politicians and media figures, sitting in a position of privilege, don’t care all that much about one of those two things, and as human beings I think they’re pretty f**king indecent.


    1. Yes, that was my take on PZ’s post.

      I agree with those who say that PZ was tone deaf. But I see this as more like his communion cracker stunt than like the “Dear Muslima” issue.

      Additionally, I think PZ supports the right of people to end their own life, so he probably did not see the suicide as a tragedy.


      1. Suggesting that because PZ supports the right of people to end their own life, he “probably did not see the suicide as a tragedy” is very poor form.

        I believe that someone who makes an informed decision about their own life, and decides that they wish to end it, should be allowed to do so, and if need be, should be able to safely and legally request that someone – a family member, a professional, whoever – assist them in doing so. I still think it is a tragedy that anyone suffers from depression, and feels that ending their life is preferable to carrying on.

        You’ll note that our host characterises himself as a Pratchett fan – Terry Pratchett has been outspoken about his decision, in the face of the creeping onset of Alzheimers, to take his own life at the point at which the debilitating effects of this disease become too much.

        I find your implication that PZ Myers, and by extension myself, Terry Pratchett, and all other supporters of the right to die (or whatever term one may use) don’t consider the death of Robin Williams, or that of anyone else who commits suicide, to be tragic, is far more offensive than anything PZ has said, in this post or in any other work of his that I have read.


  2. I labeled this ‘the fallacy of greater evil’ when it was a favorite of opponents of the indoor smoking ban here in the Netherlands: “You can’t even smoke in a bar anymore, but there a still coal plants!” (Exactly the same argument came up again when the EU decided to phase out incandescent light bulbs.)

    Actually at the time, I thought this would be a well known fallacy with a fancy Latin name, but I couldn’t find it on any sites that list common fallacies.


  3. I’m in at least two minds about this. I’ll not comment about the examples quoted because I think positions have become entrenched.

    I’ll agree that the idea of ‘privilege’ has some usefulness even though I think it is incomplete. What I do find distressing though is the call to ‘check your privilege’ when it is used to shut down debate. There are some web sites that I no longer view because although I might share some of the political or social views I don’t buy in to the ‘progressive group think’. People making comments often use the ‘check your privilege’ as a way of enforcing the group identity. Too much emotion and not enough reason perhaps?


    1. That’s as may be – I find the slogan incomprehensible. I know I am privileged in certain ways, so I act accordingly. If I don’t understand some privilege or other, then someone can tell me about it and explain.

      Mostly, though, I was focusing upon the Mulima problem as a general mistake of reasoning.


      1. I’ve always interpreted ‘check your privilege’ (when used in a thoughtful manner, and not as a tool to silence dissenting views) as meaning “you should reconsider what you have just said, because I believe you have failed to take into account the privileged position from which you are speaking” and usually “you are being dismissive of issues that you don’t think are a big deal, but that is because your privileged position has sheltered you from the effects of this issue”.

        It is basically shorthand for what you have just said: “If I don’t understand some privilege or other, then someone can tell me about it and explain.” and should be followed up with some helpful words about why the statement is reflective of a privileged position – although if the statement is glaringly stupid (e.g. ‘if it is so hard to support your family on welfare, why don’t you just get a job?’) I think it can stand alone.

        All that being said, people do often use the phrase in inappropriate contexts, simply to stifle discussion, but the same could be said for just about any argument.


  4. There are privilege issues to consider here. My own perception of the Ferguson killing and the militarization of law enforcement in the USA is shaped by my background, as is my reaction to Robin Williams’ death. I intellectually understand the issues in Ferguson, but I do not feel it in my bones the way I would if I was (for example) routinely stopped by the police while driving purely on the basis of my skin color. At the same time, my emotional reaction to Robin Williams’ death is shaped to a certain extent by the fact that many of his characters resonated with my own background.

    Even if PZ was mostly trying to address the real privilege issues, he did so in such a tone-deaf way that he managed to largely obscure his own points. He did not limit his critique to the media – who often do seem only able to care about one thing at a time. He leveled his critique at everyone who decided to make any sort of pubic expression about Williams’ death, and did by suggesting that it was wrong to care about the death of someone like Williams when there were worse things happening in Ferguson.

    That, in itself, is something I actually found a bit ironic. It’s relatively simply to make a “Dear Muslima”/”fallacy of greater evil argument” that focusing on the death of a single teenager at the hands of a police officer in an American town serves to distract from greater evils elsewhere in the world (wars in the Middle East, for example, or genocides anywhere). In other words, PZ’s decision that Ferguson should be the focus point instead of Williams is itself shaped by his privilege as an American.


    1. Again, I would disagree with this characterisation of what PZ was saying. I’ve read his piece several times, and I don’t think he was criticising your average Joe who was posting their favourite Robin Williams clip on Facebook, or even the fact that his death had been covered by the media. The issue is that what was going on in Ferguson was getting a massively, disproportionately low amount of coverage – even in comparison to news stories from other parts of the world. The middle east conflicts, ebola, third-world poverty, these things do get media play in the US, even if what they are saying is not extremely useful, informing, thought-provoking, or whatever. (For the record, I live in Australia, so I don’t see US media first-hand, but I do read a fair bit about it, and get a perspective from friends who live there).

      As for this comment: “focusing on the death of a single teenager at the hands of a police officer in an American town” — the point is, it is NOT just one teenager, it’s an ongoing, massive problem of implicit, explicit, casual, overt, systemic racism on the part of police, politicians, policy-makers, it is the increasing militarisation of police in America, it is the utter ignorance of so many privileged Americans to the things non-white, non-wealthy Americans face day-to-day.

      And I think, as f**ked as things may be in many parts of the world, the American media do still have more responsibility to address American issues than they do the problems of the rest of the world. They have orders of magnitude more influence, and ability to effect change within their borders, than they do in the rest of the world, and they are abnegating their responsibility.

      Read PZ’s followup post (, it is fairly informative about why this is a huge issue – as someone points out, a black person is killed by police every 28 hours in the USA.

      Despite writing explicitly about his (or her, or their) own privilege, Mike Dunford still manages to boil it down to a single teen’s death, and excessive traffic stops. Read some of the commenters PZ quotes in his second piece – or get out there, and talk with some of the disadvanteged, disenfranchised, underprivileged citizens of America. I spent a short amount of time there about three years ago, and even with that little exposure, the fear and hopelessness that is a part of daily life for so many non-white Americans is palpable.

      I don’t think I’ve ever said this to anyone before, but Mike Dunford, this may be an occasion when you need to check your privilege.


      1. Of course the issues in Ferguson are about far, far more than excessive traffic stops and a single police shooting. Institutional racism’s problems run far, far beyond discrepancies in the numbers of traffic stops. The pain and problems caused by centuries of widespread racism in the United States run so deep that it is not possible to even begin to describe them in less than a book.

        But if you are constructing a good “Dear Muslima*” fallacy, it helps to throw in a bit of strawman, and to emphasize just how lesser the lesser evil “really” is. The problems that Muslima’s “American sisters” have to deal with extend far beyond being invited to someone else’s hotel room at a conference, and the problems created by mental illnesses extend far beyond the death of a single celebrity.

        Intentionally or not, I believe PZ fell into that trap. He may have intended to exclusively criticize the media’s monomaniacal coverage of Williams’ death, but he did so in a way that was dismissive of those who think that it is an important event that should be discussed. The phrase, “a tragedy…to drag us away from the depressing news” can be read as a critique of not just those who were broadcasting the Williams tributes, but also those who were consuming – and sharing – those tributes. Some of PZ’s subsequent comments (e.g. “celebrity culture – fuck it;” “the obsession with celebrity is getting in the way of caring about things that matter”) reinforce the perception that he was criticizing more than just news broadcasters and politicians, and belittle those who think that the suicide of someone who seems to have been a genuinely good man who was able to give freely to others is something that matters.

        For many people, Robin Williams’ death – and the various responses to it – is about much more than the man himself. It’s about the stigma that is associated with suicide, the stigma associated with mental illness, and about personal experiences with both mental illness and suicide. And while Williams’ death itself might not be as important as the media was depicting, those issues are also both subjectively and objectively important.

        This is something that PZ quite clearly missed, as he demonstrated in one of his comments on the original post: “[t]he stories are racial discrimination in Missouri, a war on refugees, a dangerous plague, and a dead comedian. Which one do think has the biggest impact on people’s lives, and which one requires no significant thought or policy decisions?”

        In reality, all of those have impacts on people’s lives. Which has the biggest impact will necessarily vary from person to person. None of them require no significant thought, and none require no policy decisions. The real problem with the media coverage, IMO, is not so much that the media focuses on one problem to distract from others, but that the media is apparently able to focus on no more than one thing at a time. We have many problems at a time, and the media should be able to reflect that. It is absurd that they cannot.

        *The “fallacy of the greater evil” is more descriptive, but I think Dawkins’ repeated efforts to offend virtually everyone by creating a hierarchy of pain have reached the point where he really deserves to have the fallacy named in honor of his efforts.


        1. I have to admit, I didn’t see PZ’s comment where he said Robin Williams’ death required “no significant thought or policy decisions”. I think that is going too far – but, for what it is worth, I haven’t exactly seen a lot of substantial analysis of the issues surrounding depression, mental illness or suicide from the mainstream media in the wake of RW’s death.

          As for the original post, I must have read the whole thing ten times or more now, and I stick by my reading of it – it is clearly directed at media and politicians and the like, not at your average person who may be grieving over the death of one of their heroes.

          If I misinterpreted your comment, and was overly harsh on you, I do apologise. Re-reading it, I do see that you weren’t saying that the Ferguson should be outweighed by greater injustices happening overseas, just equating such an argument with what PZ and Dawkins have said. I just got caught up in responding to your description of the Ferguson incident as a single teen’s death, because describing such things as a isolated events is Item #1 in the Media Playbook of Diminishing the Problems of the Non-Privileged.

          I agree wholeheartedly with John Wilkin’s characterisation of the Dear Muslima fallacy, or the fallacy of the greater evil, with regards to Dawkins’ truly moronic statements, and as a problem among skeptics (and many other groups) in general. But I disagree with its application to what PZ has written (in that original post, at least). The point is not that RW’s death shouldn’t be covered by the media because greater evils exist in the world. The point is that there is a significant issue (or two interrelated issues – continuing institutionalised racism in the US, and the ongoing militarisation of police forces) that are actively ignored or diminished by the groups of people who hold the most sway in America – and one of the main ways by which this is achieved is by saturating us with celebrities, cute animals, and other such fluff. (This is not to say that RW’s work is substanceless, or that his death was not news. Obviously it was. But I would argue that playing endless clips of all his greatest moments is not news. If you are grieving, and you wish commemorate RW in that fashion, get on youtube, or watch some tributes on a non-news channel)

          In this instance, one particularly egregious example of racism and police overreach happened to coincide with Robin Williams’ death. But it could have been any number of other things that could have been the dish of the day for keeping us all in a warm fog of complacency.

          I find it far more offensive that Robin Williams’ death has been drafted into their campaign of distraction, than that PZ Myers was possibly a bit tactless in calling them out for what they are doing.


  5. Polemics aside (famous last words), it really is difficult to discuss moral and political issues that are similar in some respects but differ drastically in scale and intensity. When you compare fanatics throwing acid on the faces of teenage girls in Pakistan with nerds acting inappropriately in elevators in the United States, the opportunities for rhetorical skullduggery are irresistible for either side. I think of it as a renormalization problem. How do you avoid moral hysteria (which is what Dawkins is upset about) without falling into indefensible indifference (which is what PZ is upset about). Not something easy to deal with. At any rate, if it makes sense to talk about the Dear Muslima problem, it should be noted that the greater evil maneuver has an equally fallacious inverse.


  6. What I found more alarming about “Elevatorgate” was not Rebecca Watson’s initial, mild remonstrance in her vlog, nor Richard Dawkins’s ill-judged but, I think, well-intentioned “Muslima” post but the viciousness of the commentary in reaction to both. I had subconsciously assumed that members of the skeptical community would be predisposed to take a more considered and rational view of these issues. That was clearly naive and, I suppose I should have realized that would be the case. A disparate population like the skeptical community will have just as many members prone to violent, knee-jerk reactions as any other. If anything, it is a salutary reminder not to assume we are any better than anyone else which, unfortunately, still sometimes seems to be the case.

    Comments about privilege seem to me to be a step in that direction. Privilege is a relative value. Those of us fortunate enough to live in the small number of relatively wealthy Western democracies are more privileged those who live in poorer South American states, for example. They, in turn, are arguably more privileged that those who live in some of the better-off African states who are themselves more privileged than those on the verge of starvation in desperately-poor sub-Saharan regions. In any event, it doesn’t matter. Wealth and privilege does not necessarily make someone a bad person any more than being poor automatically makes someone a good person. It is what each individual thinks, believes and does that counts. It behoves each of us to try an think and do the rational, decent thing. It isn’t easy. It’s often a struggle with the instinctive, emotional parts of our nature and it deprives us of wallowing in a comfortable, “holier than thou’ sensation. But it’s better than the alternatives.


  7. I think you’re being a bit harsh on P.Z. The killing of the young black man, like so many before it, is enough to make one incandescent. That it was not front and centre because a great guy took his own life and thus allows those in power to have a distraction is a fair point. I’m not sure P.Z. was disparaging Williams, just those who’d use his death to avoid more difficult issues.

    Dawkin’s problems is as you state.

    By the way, nice to see some activity on your blog. I’ve missed your curmudgeonly missives. 🙂


  8. I thought PZ was ridiculing the tendency in US popular media wherein tragedies afflicting white people trumps those in which the victims are people of color.


  9. “Or note simply that the media’s love of celebrity is causing it to lose sight of those racially charged events.”

    Is it the media that loves celebrity or is the media merely giving the public what it wants? I think the latter is clearly the case and hence your framing is misleading.

    I suspect Williams added 1,000 fold more to the sum total of human happiness than boring and predictable PZM could in one hundred lifetimes. As someone who has experienced bouts of depression from a young age, I thank Williams for the times he has cut through the fog and provided some relief.


  10. i think many of you are thinking about this in the wrong way. yes, this kind of abuse is horrible, and yes we are in a better off position than those people (i find it distasteful to use the word priviledge in these kinds of contexts, it reeks of an emotionally driven thought process) so its easier for us to ignore it. the problem is however, that the more pragmatic of us are much more concerned with the issues that are within the limits of our influence, and i think its safe to say that african tribes and middle eastern village people couldnt give a flying fuck about what we westerners think of their practices. the fact of the matter is these issues are only issues for those of us outside their culture (and yes, its quite possible to live alongside and interact with a culture you dont identify with), so unless we want to wage a cultural war (which i personally dont think is a bad thing) we have zero chance of helping anyone either in the short term or the long term, and ultimately all this talk amounts to is moral dick-waving.


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