Monday, January 10, 2011

Angry activism: a comparison

As promised, it's time to compare how tone is treated in different social movements.  In particular, I'm thinking of the movements that I myself am involved in: the skeptical, atheist, queer, and asexual movements.

Let me preface this with a warning: it is very difficult to argue that one movement should learn from another.  For example, I often see people arguing that atheists should adopt the same tone that skeptics use in countering pseudoscientific claims.  Three problems:
  1. It is naive to assume that skeptics have settled the issue any more than atheists have.  From the outside, every movement looks more monolithic than it really is.
  2. It may very well be that skepticism merits a different tone than atheism.
  3. How do we know the skeptics know better than the atheists?  You could just as easily argue that skeptics should learn from atheists, not the other way around.
And yet, the implicit goal of a comparison is for each movement to learn something from the others.  Just try to keep in mind that we are grappling with a nearly impossible argument.

Let's look at the issue within the structure established in a previous post on atheist tone.

1. Different Goals

The different goals between movements is a pretty good reason to think that the different movements may merit different tones.  Skeptics try to educate.  Atheists try to persuade.  Queers fight for acceptance.  Asexuals fight for visibility.

Focusing on atheism vs queerness, it might be said that atheists should be meaner, because it doesn't really matter if people like atheists as people, just that they reject supernaturalism.  On the other hand, it might be said that queers should be more passionate, because the entire point is to have people accept all queers, not just the ones that have a calm disposition.  Which view do you think is correct?

On the third hand, the goals of the different movements are not quite as different as they might appear.  Recall that all movements have multiple goals, and different people within the movement prioritize them differently.

Atheists also fight for social acceptance.  In college, just as I knew a lot of queers who did not get along with their families or  hid from their families, I knew some freethinkers who were in the same situation.  It's the reason for the OUT campaign, which intentionally parallels the gay rights movement. The queer movement, too, tries to persuade people.  Queers must persuade people of facts (eg conversion therapy doesn't work), as well as values (eg the need for love is more important than the need for complementary genitals).  As we move towards asexuality, persuading people of values is a major component.  The primary message might be that sex and love are subjective values, and that society needs to make space for non-standard relationships.

Skepticism's goals might be a little harder to relate to the others, since self-identity isn't as important.  But skeptics, like atheists, also counter many claims that have wide social acceptance, and where emotions run high.  And while skepticism is superficially just about facts, it is most fundamentally about the values of honesty and critical thinking.  Those may seem simple values enough, but people miss the details (eg paying attention to cognitive biases, not privileging cherished beliefs, knowing the relative importance of different kinds of evidence).  You'd also be surprised how many people expediently question the value of truth once criticism gets directed towards them.

2. Stereotypes

Here's where we realize just how unlucky atheists have it.  There is an angry atheist stereotype, but there is hardly an angry queer, angry asexual, or angry skeptic stereotype.  The stereotype complicates and obfuscates issues.  We might guess that it has a negative effect on the overall tone, though I'm not sure there is any real basis to think so.  But if that's what we think, then atheists should learn from other movements which are not hindered by such stereotypes.

On the other hand, queers have a stereotype with a similar function.  Queers are supposed to be fabulous, over the top, sassy, fashionable, dramatic, hypersexual, in your face, and so on.  These qualities are not necessarily negative qualities (just as anger is not necessarily a negative quality), but they have a profound effect on the group dynamics.  Many LGBTQ people, their fear is to be associated with those people.  Others have come to realize that these qualities are not necessarily bad things, and want to show the world that they are great things.  Still other views span the gamut.

But for some reason there is little discussion about whether queers should be angry, or whether atheists should be sassy.  Perhaps the way I've titled this post, "angry activism" is atheist-centric.  It's not about anger, it's a more general issue of tone, outspokenness, and visibility.  Tone is a big issue in all movements, but it's discussed in different ways.

3. Tone vs substance

In atheist discourse, there is an association between more extreme views and angrier tone.  I don't really see any parallel with skeptical or asexual discourse.  But there is a parallel in queer discourse.  I would define "extreme" queer views as being more radically and actively inclusive of all minorities, even those who do not fit any of the named groups.  My impression is that these views are associated with a harsher and more passionate tone.  They're also associated, not with the stereotype exactly, but with non-normative, non-gender-conforming people who are in your face.

The tone/substance association makes sense, but it also doesn't make sense.  It makes sense that people whose views are further from the norm would adopt a more critical tone, but that hardly seems like the biggest factor.  Talking about tone is a disingenuous way to tackle substance, and talking about substance is an inappropriate way to tackle tone.

And of course, individuals don't follow such trends.  I would characterize my own views on atheism and queerness as very radical, but I'm not particularly passionate person.  (I'm also not actually that playful... haha, awkward laugh.)  I also look very straight and gender-conforming.  That's just the way I am.

4. Style vs Strategy

As explained previously, I suspect that people just adopt whatever tone suits them, and find justification after the fact.  After years of seeing arguments as to why one tone is more effective than another, I remain profoundly unconvinced that anyone has a clue.  A mixed strategy seems prudent, but is it the best of all worlds?

Movements adopt a mixed strategy not because we've agreed that each kind of tone should receive however much weight, but because everyone is just doing their own thing.  Various people may try to achieve a tone that aligns with a strategy rather than their personal style.  But the overall effect on the tone of the movement is random rather than systematic, since everyone has different views on the best strategy.

That is, unless the movement is so small that one view on strategy dominates.  This is what I see in the asexual movement, which is currently very small and centralized.  It's not just that one medium, the internet forum, dominates the discussion, but that one particular forum, AVEN, dominates.  As others have noted, AVEN looks very very polite from the perspective of people with experience in other movements.

I'm inclined to think, though without much basis, that this is a bad thing.  A mixed strategy seems safer, since different strategies reach different audiences, and it doesn't put all our eggs in one basket.  There's also a big concern that a single strategy ends up excluding many people whose natural style just doesn't align.  This is especially important in a movement where inclusiveness is one of the major goals.

Contrast with skepticism, where inclusiveness is not one of the major goals.  While there is something of a skeptic "identity", I don't think of it as a distinct group.  If you asked me how skeptical you have to be to be considered a "skeptic", I'd say, "Sheesh, who cares!"  Skepticism is just a cause, a practice, a set of views and goals, and sometimes there are organizations with members in them.  The primary goal is to get the message out, not to focus on skeptics as a group.  As such, I think it is legitimate to criticize people's styles, even if they are individuals' natural styles.  Same goes for atheism, to a lesser extent.

The problem being that no one actually knows what style is best.  Clearly mine is the best, or that would make me a terrible activist, and I have a cognitive bias against believing that.