Warning: this is negative. I’ll try to perk it up a bit with cute pictures and bitter sarcasm.
Yesterday I was in Manhattan at a Daniel Dennett lecture sponsored by the Society for Ethical Culture and Center for Inquiry. It seemed like a pretty good turnout for a stormy Saturday afternoon — mostly older white fellows, of course, but whatever, I’m used to it. Just before the event began, the seat immediately next to mine was filled by one more older white fellow, who happened to smell like he was wearing a coat made of dirty gym socks. I mean, it was bad. My eyes started to water.
My new smelly friend went on to be one of maybe three men with obvious difficulties interacting with people in social situations, like when he had the nerve to lean into me and yell, “WHAT?” when I whispered something to my companion on my left. The other guys would randomly shout something while others were speaking and just generally be weird. It really made me think about how a new person might be less than likely to return to a group like that, particularly if the new person was of the sane, young, and/or female variety.
I had a lot of time to consider how we can deal with people like that in order to make events more friendly to newcomers, since the first hour of the Dennett event was devoted to playing two episodes of The Atheism Tapes, some kind of incredibly powerful video-based sedative available for purchase. It’s a series of interviews with atheists, and the first episode was Colin McGinn, who seems like a very intelligent and well-spoken man. He went over all the basics of philosophical discussion of atheism, like the ontological argument. It will probably be interesting to some people, but I’ve heard it all before and this format was unbearably dry. By the time that episode was over, the smell and boredom were too much and I left to go shopping. I didn’t get to see Dennett, but I got a really cute dress.
As I exited the Shops at Columbus Circle, I was happy to see a table manned by three guys representing New York City Atheists. We chatted for a little while about how to get more women involved in their organization, before I had to get back to the Dennett talk. I gave them my card and they gave me their most recent newsletter.
Well, today I had a long bus ride during which to read and consider the newsletter. And I am so totally horrified.
If you’re curious, you can read it as a PDF here, or you can just take my word for it, but holy mythical god is this insulting. One large section is the “Editor’s Q and A,” in which Julie from Brooklyn writes:
I enjoyed the performance of your play about Madalyn Murray Oâ€™Hair, The Most Hated Woman in America, on April 13 at Joe Franklinâ€™s Comedy Club but I wondered why there were only a few people there my age. Iâ€™m 27. Everybody in the audience seemed older than me.
Fair enough concern, and one that many people have voiced and tried to solve, when it comes to atheist groups and skeptic groups. The editor (listed as Jane Everhart on the newsletter) responds by first suggesting that the play was about a woman who would be 89 today, and so many of the people who knew of her when she was alive are now a bit older, themselves. A good point, I think.
Sadly she doesn’t stop there. She goes on to list atheists who happen to be old, or who, um, were old before they died, like George Bernard Shaw, Paul Newman, Katherine Hepburn, and Andy Rooney. That sort of makes no sense in regards to Julie’s note, but okay. The editor concludes her list with, “Tell me, wouldnâ€™t you rather converse with Jane Fonda, who has really lived, than, say, a Britney Spears?”
No, seriously, what? What does Britney Spears have to do with anything? And what makes the editor think I have a damned thing to say to Jane Fonda? And why are we talking about this at all?
The next paragraph is all about the notable seniors who were in the audience at the play, including a retired detective, a travel agent, two professors, someone on O’Hair’s board of directors, and three millionaires. Three! Again, had she stopped there, I could have chalked that up to a slightly misplaced desire to inform young’uns that older people can be interesting, valuable members of society. Sadly, she follows it up with this gem: “I suggest you consider the possibility that it might have been more stimulating to talk to these people than to some recent grad on his first entry-level job.”
Oh no she didn’t. (Yes, she did.)
The funny thing is that by this point, I realized that the editor was totally giving us a very good reason for why there weren’t many young people in attendance — because the attitude of at least one older person is condescending and disrespectful. It’s absurd to dismiss a person in his late 20s as “some recent grad on his first entry-level job,” and then suggest that Julie just go make friends with Mr. Burns instead of trying to solve the problem of too few young people attending events.
I happen to be the same age as Julie and I think that I make a pretty good conversationalist. I mean, sure, I’m not ancient, but my inability to recall the Eisenhower administration or dive into a vault of gold coins Scrooge McDuck-style shouldn’t discourage anyone, young or old, from walking up to me and starting a conversation. Unless you smell like gym socks, then please don’t.
The final part of the editor’s answer is perhaps the least connected to reality. She describes “young people,” in general, as jaded, pseudo-sophisticated, confused, too urbane to picket, too embarrassed to march, and too “duped and bamboozled by TV and greed and false authorities to even figure out how a George W. Bush got into the White House, never mind how to get him out.” Yeah at that point I had to stop summarizing and just copied and pasted.
I’ll be the first to admit that there are a lot of problems with the kids these days. Like, Paris Hilton. But, there are also a lot of problems with the olds these days. Like, Dick Cheney. And, there are a lot of good things going on with the kids these days, too. They’re not too embarrassed to march and picket and fight — they’re doing it every damned day, for peace in Iraq, for affordable health care, and yes, for freedom of (and from) religion. Has the editor missed the entire Anonymous vs. Scientology thing, which is entirely the work of teens and 20-somethings?
All this brings me back around to the NYC Atheists asking me how they can get more women involved. The promising thing is that in this case, they acknowledge a problem. Imagine if Julie had written in asking about the lack of women, only to be told that women aren’t cut out for atheism and besides, men have so much more to offer. I’d love to help the NYC Atheists get more women involved, and I hope that in doing so I also help them drop their stereotypes about young people. An organization can benefit greatly from the wisdom of seniors, but it will only continue to grow and thrive on the promise and enthusiasm of youths.