Monday, November 28, 2011

Why I oppose the figurative use of the term "militant" in all contexts

Uh oh, I go and call Bruce Hood a "nice guy", and Bruce himself responds in the comments unfortunately triggering one of my big pet peeves.

No, it's not that Bruce thinks the outspoken atheism strategy is "misguided" and that he doesn't "understand" it -- reasonable people can disagree, and I stand by my point that there is a difference between Bruce, who simply favors a softer approach towards religion, vs. folks like Mooney, Rosenau, etc., who spend a sizeable fraction of their time talking about why other people's approaches are wrong.

What bugs me is Bruce's use of the phrase "militant atheism". The problems with this phrase have been pointed out time and time again, but I'm going to go a step further: I do not think it is appropriate ever to use the phrase "militant" in a figurative/non-literal manner, no matter what group you are talking about.

My reasons for this are threefold: First, the original literal usage -- meaning engaged in or favoring actual military action -- is still quite common. Second, which usage of the word is intended is largely determined by the group to which it is attached. Third, and most importantly, it seems to me that when the group in question is advocating in favor of a historically oppressed classification, they are far more likely to get the figurative usage. And that to me sounds like an attempt to slander and squelch.

If we are talking about a militant Islamist, it is clear we mean one who advocates violence; we do not call Harun Yahya a militant Muslim, even though he is very aggressive about promoting Islam. It would seem incongruous and even libelous to label him as such. This is true for pretty much any religious group one attaches the word "militant" too, as well as for most types of purely political causes, e.g. a "militant separatist" is not simply someone who advocates strongly for independence, but who endorses and/or participates in military action in order to achieve it.

On the other hand, if we are talking about a "militant feminist", it is obvious we do not mean a woman who literally endorses violence against men or against misogyny. That's just absurd. The same goes for "militant atheist" and "militant homosexual", etc. Although I did hear that the Queer Eye guys were thinking about forming a paramilitary group to assassinate public figures with a poor fashion sense. Oh no wait, I didn't.

Now, maybe part of this is simply because there really aren't any militant atheists, feminists, or LGBT people. It just generally doesn't work that way. (Side note: Obviously in some places atheistic communism used violence to enforce atheism, but typically we would not identify those folks as "atheists" first and foremost, but rather as communists/Marxists/Stalinists/etc. If you wanted to call Mao a militant atheist, however, I would not argue with you.)

The situation is somewhat murkier for groups where there are true militants, but which sometimes get the figurative usage anyway. An example might be civil rights activists. Certainly I would not object to labeling some members of the former Black Panther Party as "militant civil rights activists" (although "militant black supremacists" might be more appropriate in that case). But you hear "militant" being used here sometimes just to refer to people who are outspoken and/or uncompromising in their views. Other examples would be animal rights activists or environmentalists, although it seems to me that in those cases, the usage of "militant" is predominantly literal. (Surprise surprise, since they don't deal with a historically oppressed group) I think I've heard non-violent people referred to as "militant environmentalists", but if I have, it hasn't been very often. That term is generally reserved for people who firebomb SUVs and such.

In any case, while the figurative usage of the term is quite common (in fact it is the first definition at, it still feels terribly incongruous when it is applied figuratively to one of the groups for which the usage is normally meant literally. It would seem odd to call James Dobson a "militant Christian", for example, even though he is at least as strident in his beliefs as "militant atheists" like PZ Myers.

(Interesting side note: I googled for "James Dobson militant christian" just to see if anybody actually calls him that -- and in fact many do, for what it's worth -- and the first link that came up quotes James Dobson referring to "militant homosexual groups". I think my point has been made...)

Until that discrepancy in application of the term is resolved, I think the figurative meaning should be avoided altogether. Only call someone "militant" if they specifically endorse or participate in violence. Otherwise, you are falsely equating them with those who do. As long as "militant Islamist" implies someone who kills for Islam, you can't call someone a "militant atheist" without implying the same things about them.

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