Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The tone argument, in retrospect

In an earlier post, I talked about the "tone argument" in the atheist blogosphere, and how that argument basically disappeared in 2011.  The tone argument accused atheists of being too angry, too mocking, or otherwise uncooperative.  Of course, mockery and anger are two very different things, but all these differences tended to get glossed over, and I'll gloss over them here as well.

Because I saw so much about the tone argument, and because it so suddenly disappeared in 2011, whenever I see anything resembling the tone argument, I think to myself, "Ugh, we already resolved this argument years ago!"

However, this is excessively dismissive of me, and basically amounts to relying on popular opinion.  What if the popular opinion is wrong?  What if it's only popular among the people who remained in the atheist communities?  Furthermore, even if popular opinion is correct, we need to examine the extent to which it is correct.  I have never believed, for instance, that anger is completely correct in all situations at all times.

So here I present a serious treatment of the tone argument, with the benefit of hindsight over years of atheist blogging.

Angry atheism is a stereotype

The key to understanding the tone argument in an atheist context is understanding that the angry atheist is a stereotype.  The stereotypical atheist is rude, strident, loud, smug, and a general asshole.  I can't tell you how many stories I've heard of people who knew an atheist in high school who argued vehemently with anyone who would listen.  I do not doubt these people existed, but it's odd how angry high school atheists become the prototypical atheist, and whenever atheists are nice, it's such a reversal of expectations.

It's easy to see the cultural underpinnings of the stereotype (in the US), even without being a great student of culture. Religion is considered to be a bit of a taboo topic, even more than politics.  It's not something you're supposed to bring up at dinner.  And if you identify as an atheist, you are explicitly saying that you disbelieve all the major religions in the US.  Your very existence is far too impolite, far too loud, far too angry.

The consequences of this stereotype--like the consequences of any stereotype--are far-reaching and complex.  On the one hand, you have people who simply say that the stereotype is wrong.  "I'm not angry!" they say, or alternatively, "Personally, I'm angry, but lots of atheists I know aren't!"

On the other hand, you have people who reject the implicit norm behind the stereotype.  "What's wrong with being angry?" is the question.  And so these people talk up the value of being angry, and in the process become angrier than they would be otherwise.  Additionally, they will be more likely to frame things in terms of anger, even if the same emotions wouldn't be framed as anger in other contexts.  I don't think atheists are any more vocal than US liberals, for instance, but liberals are far less likely to think of themselves as "angry" or "strident" about their views.

So you basically have two groups pulling in opposite directions.  There are atheists who play down the stereotype, because the stereotype is wrong.  And there are atheists who play up the stereotype, because they argue that there's nothing wrong with fitting the stereotype.  The "tone wars" of atheism started out by outsiders applying the angry atheist stereotype to atheists.  And then the conflict burned on because of conflicting ways for atheists to deal with the stereotype.

So whenever you think of atheists as angry, the two questions you have to answer are, "Are you sure that they're as angry as you perceive?" and "What's wrong with being angry?"

Is anger useful?

Besides being an issue of stereotypes, anger (or lack thereof) is also a big part of how a social movement operates.  If you're a rationalist-idealist, you might believe that you can persuade everyone by arguing calmly and rationally, but "rationalist-idealist" is practically a contradiction in terms.  Truly calm and rational arguments would mostly succeed in getting everyone to tune out.  For instance, it takes a very special kind of person who is willing to read loooong blog posts, and blogs already aren't exactly models of rigor.  Anger and mockery are important and necessary tools to get people to pay attention.

And yes, it is true that arguing angrily can turn people off.  I'm sure you can even find some SCIENCE which says as much.  But I am extremely skeptical of the SCIENCE, because it ultimately presents a very limited part of the wide range of settings of a social movement.

Try to imagine the most stereotypical setting where atheists argue against religion.  For me, I imagine an everyman atheist and an everyman Christian arguing over a game of chess.  Or maybe there's an atheist with his Christian family at Thanksgiving, and there's some conflict over the practice of saying grace.  Maybe the scientific studies apply to those sorts of "normal" situations.

But you know, neither of those "normal" situations has ever happened to me.  Arguing with people one-on-one just isn't a thing that happens on any regular basis.  The truly normal setting for me is I blog, and some people freely choose to read it.  Most of the readers are already atheists.

What about other settings for arguments?  Say that you're not talking with religious people at all, but talking with other atheists and trying to build a community.  Say you're not an everyman, but a trans woman, and you're dealing with religious people who insist you're really a man.  Say you're an activist, and you're trying to convince politicos that you're a force to be reckoned with.  Say you aren't using anger as a tactic, you're just genuinely angry, and the ability to express that anger is your main motivation for getting into activism in the first place.

Scientific studies might provide some useful insights about the way people think.  It's good to know a bit about the backfire effect.  It's good to know that expressing anger tends to make you angrier, rather than "venting" it.  But I deny that this means that a social movement should not use anger or mockery in general.

Is anger honest?

Aside from whether anger is effective as a strategy, there's also the question about whether anger is an honest strategy.  We're frequently stuck in this situation where it doesn't matter who is right about the argument, it matters who wins.  But in the atheist movement and rationalist community more generally, we tend to value honesty, and we generally want to win arguments if and only if we happen to be on the right side of the argument.

There certainly appear to be some cases where anger is unfair, or encourages confirmation bias.  For example, anger pushes some people out of the conversation.  And it often appears that angry people are more likely to "dig in" to their mistakes.

But perhaps not everything is as it seems.  While some people would feel pushed out by an angry argument, other people would feel pushed out of a conversation where "calmness" is enforced, especially in the presence of a stereotype which makes them appear angrier than they really are.  Furthermore, when I looked up anger and confirmation bias, it appears that anger tends to decrease confirmation bias.

I am less sure about mockery than about anger.  I have seen many instances of atheists mocking religions where I thought the underlying criticism was incorrect or unfair.  But I could be wrong about that too.  Maybe my perception is distorted, and I simply attribute these things to mockery when they're unrelated.

We can also ask the same questions about whether "friendly" tactics are honest.  One of the most effective ways to convince people of something is to make personal connections and socially surround them with opposing views.  We're used to seeing this tactic used by religious groups.  It's difficult to tell people, stop being so friendly, but it sure feels dishonest in some way that's hard to place.


The tone argument is wrong because it's based on a stereotype of angry atheists.  Not only do people perceive atheists as angrier than they really are, they underestimate the value of anger in a social movement.  Lastly, while anger sometimes appears to be associated with cognitive biases, it's far from clear that it is any worse in this regard than being friendly.

In my opinion, the ultimate reason the tone argument fails is because it overreaches, trying to make a universal statement about the value of anger.  But in a social movement there are so many vastly different contexts that it is difficult to make any universal statement.  If at some point, the "angry" atheists were to argue that everyone should be angry all the time, then this argument would similarly fail.