Because my blog has a social justice context, I thought it important to define some of the terms that I use since not all of my readers might be familiar with the social justice lingo. Below are some of the terms you might see me use throughout my posts with descriptions of what I mean and am thinking when I use them. This is a fluid list I might add to from time to time.
Terms Related to Social Justice
Social Justice – By this I refer to the idea of an equitable society, where groups and individuals are treated fairly and have an impartial share of the benefits of society. I believe that there should not be distinctions in the opportunities people have because of their sex, gender, sexual orientation, race, ability, worldview, socioeconomic class, or other kinds of identifiers.
Privilege – The unearned advantages that individuals have in society because of particular aspects of their identity, such as male privilege, white privilege, heterosexual privilege, and religious privilege. This term was originally introduced by Peggy McIntosh in her essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” (PDF). Allan Johnson’s book “Privilege, Power, and Difference” does well to expand on the topic.
Oppression – Oppression is the opposite of privilege: the disadvantages and inequities experienced by individuals who are not members of a privileged group. My observation has been that there is usually one group that is privileged (such as whites or heterosexuals) and then all other groups are oppressed (Latinos/African-Americans/Native Americans/etc. and gays/lesbians/bisexuals/etc.). As Allan Johnson describes, “Just as privilege tends to open doors of opportunity, oppression tends to slam them shut.”
Microaggression – Subtle insults towards members of an oppressed group, often delivered automatically or unconsciously. An example of a racial microaggression could be if a white person asks to touch a black person’s hair because of its different texture. A heterosexist microaggression would be if a straight person expresses surprise to meet a lesbian who is not butch.
Equity – An upgraded conceptualization of “equality.” Equity is recognizing that there is imbalance (privilege-oppression) in society and recognizing that what is offered to the privileged group might not serve the oppressed groups in a fair way. The idea behind equity is that disadvantages need to be compensated for. Affirmative action, for example, is a policy that promotes equitable hiring and recruiting practices. One of my favorite quotes from Vernon Wall is, “Equality is when everyone has a pair of shoes. Equity is when everyone has a pair of shoes that fits.”
Headless Monster – Any argument that has no merit but preys on the gullibility of the fringe. The Meme Collection features some of the most popular.
Terms Related to Worldview Identities
Worldview – I use the word worldview to refer to the ideas or beliefs through which a person interprets the world, as opposed to referring to one’s “religion” or “spirituality.” “Worldview” encompasses both believers (theists) and non-believers (atheists). I would include existentialism and ideas about one’s “purpose in life” as part of one’s worldview.
Believers/Theists – Individuals who subscribe to any number of supernatural beliefs, including the monotheistic God or any other gods or superstitions.
Faith – The evidence of things not seen. (Yes, I intentionally paraphrased the book of Hebrews.) When I use the word faith, I refer to the idea of holding a belief as truth or holding a commitment to a truth (such as a supernatural deity) without evidence, proof, or rationality. I think that faith and science are opposites and that faith attempts to explain the things that cannot be explained without any good explanation as to why that is necessary or valid. From my personal point of view, I do not have faith in the formal sense of the word; therefore, I try to avoid the informal uses of it. Instead of “I believe…” or “I have faith…” I will use more accurate words such as “I have trust in,” “I have hope that,” “I think,” “I have an idea,” “I anticipate,” “I expect,” and “I know.” (I similarly avoid “believe,” and blogged about why.)
Religion – The cultures in which believers organize themselves. All sects of Christianity, Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism are examples of religions. Note that not all believers affiliate with a specific religion, such as someone who says, “I have my own relationship with God.” It is rare to find such a believer whose beliefs are not still derived from the context of a particular religion, so for the sake of my usage, such distinction is moot.
Non-believers/Atheists – Individuals who do not subscribe to any beliefs beyond the natural world. I distinguish this from what I call “contratheists,” who assert that there is no God. Atheism is not believing differently, it’s not believing. I personally think it is just as foolish to affirm there is no God as it is to affirm there is a God. From my point of view, there is absolutely no evidence to support either claim. See my spectrum of belief for a visual representation. Keep in mind that there are many different atheistic worldviews as well, such as secular humanism and philosophical Buddhism.
Agnostic – I use “agnostic” to refer to someone who is uncommitted to believing or not believing. In other words, to truly be agnostic, someone must believe there is exactly a 50/50 chance that there is a God or not. I used to identify as agnostic until I realized that I was merely trying to hold on to some religious privilege by not wholly affirming that I do not believe. Because I previously identified this way, I appreciate the challenge of working out doubt about one’s worldview. Still, I feel that anyone who identifies as agnostic should recognize that ze is uncommitted and should continue to work out hir worldview identity.
Contratheist – I implemented use of this word to distinguish those who have an antibelief (belief against something supernatural) from those who simply do not have beliefs. See my spectrum of belief for a visual representation and clarification.
Religious Privilege – The unearned privileges and power that individuals in our society have specifically because of their religious/theistic beliefs over those who do not have such beliefs (monotheists vs. polytheists/atheists). Examples of how this plays out is the inclusion of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and the way many laws relating to LGBT rights are overturned to cater to a majority population’s faith-based beliefs. I consider this to be relatively synonymous with what Richard Dawkins calls “undeserved respect,” or the idea that a belief has to be respected simply because it is a belief. (Listen to Dawkins read from his 2006 book, “The God Delusion,” about this topic: Part 1, Part 2)
Christian Privilege – The unearned privileges and power that Christian individuals have over other worldview identities in the United States of America. Consider which religious holidays are recognized by government, media, and retail stores and which are not. While all monotheistic religions have some privilege over atheism and other secular worldviews, Christianity also has privilege over other monotheistic religions like Judaism and Islam. I will not use this term much, because from my point of view as an atheist, Christian privilege and religious privilege are often indistinguishable.
Faithists – Individuals who discriminate against certain worldviews, particularly from a point of privilege. Just like white privilege is maintained through overt and covert racism, religious privilege is maintained through overt and covert faithism. An overt form of faithism would be when a group tries to force hir beliefs onto others (or into law). Covert faithism (faithist microaggression) could be someone assuming that an “interfaith group prayer” is inclusive (because ze would be excluding those who do not have faith and/or do not pray). In May 2009, I blogged about some of the faithist memes that pervade our society.
Terms Related to Sexual Identities
The LGBT/Queer Community – Not all nonheterosexuals and nongender-conformists know each other. The LGBT Community (or Queer Community) is simply an umbrella term for all individuals outside of the heterosexual, gender-binary norm. I will try to not speak on behalf of other people, but I will certainly speak in defense of them.
Gays – Usually “gays” refers specifically to gay men, though I sometimes will use it or “the gay community” to mean “the LGB community.” (Trans issues overlap less often than one might think.)
Queer – This term refers to any identity that falls under the umbrella described above. I will often use it in a general sense to refer to any identity that does not conform to the heterosexual gender binary dictated by our society. Some individuals use “queer,” “genderqueer,” or other variations to define their own personal identities.
Cisgender (Cissexual) – These terms are used to identify people who are not trans, much as “straight” identifies someone who is not gay. Cisgender refers to anyone who is not transgender, and cissexual would specifically apply to those who are not transsexual. This is an important distinction to make, as some may be transgender but cissexual.
Gender-Neutral Pronouns – Because there are individuals who identify outside of the gender binary, I use gender-neutral pronouns to be more inclusive. I use them in my writing when the gender is not clear (instead of the exclusive “he or she” or grammatically incorrect “they”). By using ze, hir, hirs, and hirself in a consistent way, I feel I am doing my part to effect change in the language paradigm. There is no reason we should try to force anyone to conform to the gender binary, and adjusting the language to be more inclusive is a small, simple step I can take towards deconstructing that binary. I encourage anyone and everyone to use these pronouns in regular conversation and writing.
Homosexual – A word you will rarely see me use. “Homosexual” has a history of being used as a clinical diagnosis for a mental illness and dehumanizes gays and lesbians by identifying them only by their sexual behavior and not their sexual orientation. Many anti-LGBT groups, such as the American Family Association, routinely use this word in their literature to continue attempts to dehumanize, demoralize, or simply ostracize “homosexuals” from the (“normal”) rest of society. Conversely, “heterosexual” does not have the same negative historical context and is commonly used to refer to those in the privileged majority who do orient towards the opposite sex.
Heterosexism/Heterosexual Privilege – The idea that heterosexuality is preferable, superior, or should be somehow advantaged throughout our society. Heterosexism is extremely pervasive, and I do not hesitate to use the term. The belief that sexual orientation is a choice is heterosexist (and wrong). The belief that any queer identity is somehow open to moral question is heterosexist (and wrong). Anything short of 100% support, recognition, equity, and respect for people with LGBTQ identities is representative of heterosexism.
Homophobia/Transphobia – Active fear of and discrimination against the LGBT community. All homophobia is derived from heterosexism, but I try to use homophobia to refer specifically to overt demonstrations of heterosexism. Someone who merely votes for an anti-LGBT bill, for example, is not necessarily homophobic, but someone who actively campaigns against LGBT rights likely is. Many people disagree about how this term should be used, so for the most part I use “heterosexism” to describe resistance to LGBT support. Nonetheless, blatant acts of hate and ignorance (which never seem to be in short supply) might warrant my using these terms from time to time.
Other Terms That May Pop Up
Ableism – Ableism refers to the abuse of privilege bestowed upon those who do not have a disability. A simple example of ableism is not providing accommodations for individuals with mobility impairments or a teacher not providing accommodations for an individual with some type of learning disability.
Patriarchy – Refers to the male privilege in society. Patriarchy refers to the fact that our society is male-identified, male-centered, and male-dominated. It is inherently responsible for sexism, heterosexism, transphobia, and the gender binary with its gender roles and expectations.
Poe’s Law – The way I use “Poe’s Law” on my blog varies from how it was originally devised. The original law states that any parody of fundamentalism might be mistaken as the real thing. I often employ it inversely. Often times I find legitimate fundamentalism that is so absurd, one can’t help but wonder whether it’s actually real. Whenever I find an artifact that could easily be perceived as parody but isn’t (or vice versa), I refer to it as simply a “poe.”