Saturday, December 18, 2010

The interminable tone debate

Let's revisit the issue of rabid militant atheists vs sniveling appeaser atheists.  Yes, again.  We'll beat that dead horse until it starts running again, dammit.

This time, I'm beating the horse because I'm interested in doing some cross-movement comparison some time in the future and/or imagined future.  Do activists for other causes have similar disputes over tone?  Of course.  But for now we'll stick to atheism, since that's what we all know and love, and examine some of the underlying issues of the tone debate

1. Different goals

You can't take it for granted that every atheist wants the same thing.  Some want to end religion.*  Some want to end supernaturalism.  Some just want to get on their lives without family, friends, and society constantly bothering them.  Some want to get on with their lives without the religious right making a mess of US politics.  Some just want religion out of science, or out of morality.  Some just want the atheist community itself.

*The fact that this goal is unattainable is irrelevant.  It's okay to work towards an impossible goal as long as small steps towards that goal are considered desirable.  Really, saying "I want a world with no religion" is short-hand for saying "I think any reduction in religion is an improvement."

And let's not pretend that it's as simple as one person wanting to end religion, and another wanting civil rights. If you asked me which goal I'm working towards, I wouldn't know.  I want them all, to different extents.  Most immediately, I just want to maintain this blog, though I'm not sure what it accomplishes exactly.

Though goals are often vague and amorphous, sharp distinctions always seem to emerge in disputes over tone.  We should be nicer to religious people because we can't improve their science education if they antagonize scientists.  We should be meaner because we want to shock people out of irrationality (improved science education will naturally follow).  So on and so forth.

Differing goals can lead to an unresolvable dispute.  What right does anyone have to criticize my methods when they don't share my goals?  Why should I trust advice from someone who does not particularly care about my success?  In the case of extreme goal differences, it's essentially concern trolling.  A concern troll is someone who does not share any of the goals of the atheist movement, but nonetheless advises that it would help atheists if they were to quiet down.  Concern trolls are not well-received.

2. Tone vs Substance

One of my biggest complaints about disputes over tone is that they're always confusing the message with the way the message is delivered.  For some reason, embedded in many tone arguments, are arguments about methodological naturalism.  Or about whether science can investigate religious claims.  Or whether science and religion are compatible.

None of these have any obvious relation to whether we should be angry.  It doesn't tell us anything about whether we should use ridicule or satire.  And yet, these different issues have been made inseparable.

Perhaps it is because the most prominent voices of gnu atheism also hold slightly stronger positions about just how bad religion is.  In fact, that might be my biggest disagreements with them, that they sometimes exaggerate, seemingly for shock or entertainment value.  But then I also sometimes disagree with the Friendly Atheist because I think he's too brief and glosses over details.

The fact is, tone and substance don't always align.  Even agnostics can get really angry.  And even someone with relatively extreme views can be nice.  I probably have relatively extreme views myself, since I have really strong disagreements with the most liberal of believers.  But I can't get angry, and I'm not very good at ridicule.

3. Stereotypes

Let's not ignore the elephant in the room.  The reason we argue so much about this is because the angry argumentative atheist is a stereotype.  Stereotypes screw everyone over.  If you don't match the stereotype, then you encounter a lot of assumptions and unwarranted hate.  If you partially match the stereotype, then you encounter even more assumptions (since it's assumed that you match the stereotype in every detail), and hate from people who think you're worsening the stereotype.

What's worse, how can we counter the angry atheist stereotype without loudly complaining about it?  We could just publicly identify as atheist, and then go completely quiet.  But this is not a viable strategy for a whole movement, and a pretty messed up thing to expect.

The angry atheist stereotype has a few big effects on the tone debate.  First, anger takes on special significance.  When an atheist expresses anger, believers think, "Oh, it's one of those atheists."  Other atheists think, "Those people give us a bad name."  Second, people tend to see angry rabid atheists even when they're not there.  For instance, Richard Dawkins is just about the nicest guy, but he's the poster child of gnu atheism.  I think it's another case of confusing tone with substance, since the substance of what Dawkins says is a bit on the extreme side.

4. Style vs strategy

I rarely use anger in my writing.  Is this because I think it's more effective to argue calmly, or is it because I'm just not angry?  When PZ Myers throws a string of insults at the latest kook, is it because he thinks is the best way to accomplish his goals, or is it because it's the writing style that comes naturally to him?  When Friendly Atheist uses gentle snark in his commentary, is it part of some grand strategy, or is it just the way Hemant thinks?

I for one, am not convinced it was all planned out.  I think most people just argue in whatever way comes naturally to them, and then come up with post-hoc justifications for why they are right to do so.  Or, as is more common, they come up with a justification for why the movement as a whole should use a mix of methods.  That way everyone can do what they like.

Not to say that their justifications are wrong.  I also think a mixed-methods approach is best.  But I also think that's not why we use the mixed-methods approach.  We use mixed methods, because it could not be any other way.  It's a very big and diverse movement; there will always be atheists who are inclined towards angry activism, and those who are inclined towards other styles.  And most of them have the ability to defend their style if criticized.

So what does it mean to advocate a friendlier tone?  Do we actually hope to shift people's styles?  Or is it an attempt to silence the less friendly voices?  Even if I thought the mixed-methods approach was suboptimal, I think I'd prefer it to silencing people on my side.


SlightlyMetaphysical said...

Interesting. And, how shall I put this, surprisingly well-timed?

I think anger is important in a lot of communities. Partly because circular arguments based on contrasting values can go on for decades, and the way to get through to people is often to show them that you're upset with the way the world is. Also, partly because refusing angry people is invariably shunning those who have most emotional need for your community from participating.

Alex said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alex said...

Perhaps not anger per se, but ridicule is often quite necessary.

From personal experience*, the harmless "atheists are the same as believers --we reject all other gods--, we just reject one more god than you do" approach is only effective against people who are very open-minded (read: willing to have their current opinions changed if presented with strong arguments against them); this rules out just about every believer, basically leaving us only with some agnostics and, of course, atheists we enjoy having "i can't believe there are believers when there are 98576038457680937489678 proofs they're wrong, such as ___" conversations with.

* Not a lot of it, i admit, but probably about as much as that of any "passive activist" of atheism.

When arguing with believers**, ridicule is probably the only option. True, if you get angry you probably lose all credibility and they go "oh, you've lost it because you've realized that you're wrong and i'm right". But ridicule has the potential to work wonders***. Letting them know that there are people who think differently from them is one thing, but making them realize that their reasoning is flawed forces them to start wondering whether you were right all along.

** This is about 2/3 of the job. The other 1/3 is arguing with agnostics, which is far easier. Conversations about atheism between two or more atheists serve only as reminders that there's a job to be done (yes, we would all like a godless world, even if some of us recognize that people have the right to believe in whatever they want to).

*** Of course, it also has the potential to make the believer yell at you and kick you out of their house, like when my brother pointed out that what the bible says and what current christians believe are two very different things to some or other member of his girlfriend's family.