Friday, October 10, 2014

Where did the tone wars go?

The most fascinating things I've seen in the internet atheist community was the great "tone war"--and the subsequent disappearance of that war.

It used to be, since I started blogging in 2007, the biggest "schism" of the atheist blogosphere was between those who believed atheists needed to be more diplomatic and accommodating to religious people, and those who believed that the atheist movement is just as outspoken and angry as it should be.  I remember the inter-blog arguments. I remember the name-calling. I remember the mainstream articles.  And then the argument stopped suddenly in 2011.  It basically got replaced by Elevatorgate.

This can be artfully illustrated with the trajectory of the meme "Deep Rifts".  It was originally used by an external critic, who witnessed one of the skirmishes in the tone wars and decided this meant atheism was tearing itself apart:
...atheism was last week rent by disagreement, proving that the need for petty, internecine squabbling runs deeper in the psyche than the need to find meaning in existence. The question that is dividing its leading proponents is how much they should be evangelising about their lack of faith. Should they adopt a live-and-let-live approach to the religious? Or should they be shouting their atheism from the rooftops in an attempt to get all the blinkered throwbacks to see the light?
At the time, PZ Myers (who has participated in basically every controversy in the community) found this ludicrous. There was an argument over the best strategy, but it was hardly new, and not something so major that it would destroy the atheist movement.  Because it was so ludicrous, "Deep Rifts" became a bit of a meme, used to mock anyone who over-exaggerated the tone wars.

Several years later, "deep rifts" becomes a phrase used with complete sincerity.  And now it refers to the feminist/non-feminist split in the community.

If I had to advance a theory as to what happened, I would say that the "outspoken" side of the tone wars won.  The losers fell silent, or they were persuaded, or they're considered outsiders.  And then the winners proceeded to have a much more divisive argument over feminism.  When I think of the big players in the feminism argument, I think of PZ Myers, Rebecca Watson, Richard Dawkins, Michael Shermer, Jennifer McCreight, Greta Christina, DJ Grothe, Sam Harris, Thunderf00t, and so on.  I associate almost all of these people with the outspoken side of the tone wars (even if they've never made a statement about it, it's clear from their styles), and the most notable exceptions are the people involved in organized skepticism (who were frequently in favor of nicer approaches).  Nobody talks anymore about Matt Nisbet, Chris Mooney, or... well, I have trouble even remembering who else was on the "accommodating" side.

As for why the outspoken side won, I'm very biased.  I think they won because that side was more correct, and people were smart enough to realize this.  I think the "outspoken" side successfully framed itself as the more inclusive side, as allowing people to take a variety of approaches, whatever suited them.  I myself take a very polite style, but I'm still on the side of the angry atheists, because I think other people have good reasons to be angry.

But also, I think the criticism of the tone of the atheist movement came from a lot of external critics.  This is no accident, because the winners of the tone war were the ones who decided who is internal and who is external.  But frankly, there were some people who were just always going to be external.  It's long been fashionable in mainstream media to criticize the "strident" tone of Richard Dawkins, just like it's been fashionable to criticize him for not addressing "sophisticated" theology.

One thing to ask is how the tone war affected the current state of the atheist movement.  Is it a good thing that the angry outspoken people won?  It's arguably caused some degree of harm.  Some of the biggest problems with the feminism split come from the harassment campaigns.  People often justify their abuse by saying it's free speech.  If the "nice" side had won, would these harassment campaigns have happened anyway?  If the movement valued politeness, would we be able to slow the harassment down by appealing to that value?  I don't know, it's really hard for me to imagine such a world.

Even though the tone war spanned many years, not everyone knows about it, either because they weren't involved in the movement, or they weren't watching the right parts of the movement, or they weren't there at the right times.  So I still see people criticizing the tone of the atheist movement occasionally.  I don't know what to say about this because we... sort of already won that argument?  And it turns out that when the atheist movement had problems, they were pretty much orthogonal issue to the tone war.