Tone Deaf

I’ll say this right off the bat: this post isn’t going to be link heavy. I’m talking in generalities, and I’m trying to do it quickly, but I hope my points will be clear regardless. Just consider this a rant, and if you need to dismiss it as such, go right ahead. I’ve long since stopped caring.

There’s a lot of infighting among skeptics right now, with lots of cries that some people or events are “hurting the cause” or “not helping.” It seems that every skeptical blogger and personality has been drafted into the “skeptical movement,” where they are constantly assumed to be speaking for a larger group, and where every action must apparently be scrutinized for its possible effects on how the general public perceives us and how our actions contribute to or against “the cause.”

Ur hurtin teh cause!It’s not quite that bad all over, but the extreme milquetoasts and mollycoddlers have caused folks like me to see even reasonable attempts at discussing tone and tactics as authoritative calls to shut up. It may sound petty to level this complaint, but it’s taken a lot of the fun out of skepticism and blogging. I will shout from the rooftops that science is of primary importance and that we should educate the public and fight against dangerous pseudoscience on every conceivable front, and that passion hasn’t died down. What has died quite a bit is my enjoyment of this whole process. Part of it is that the landscape has changed; we’ve roasted the trolls to extinction, and those who do show up are either looney toons like Dennis Markuze and Graeme Bird, or drive-by commenters who don’t stick around. But part of it, too, is that I have no real interest in speaking for a movement, nor in being told that my methods are “hurting the cause” by people who don’t have a fucking clue what my “causes” are. I’m passionate about skepticism, but blogging isn’t my job. I don’t get paid for this, I do it because I enjoy it. And the more I have to worry about how Internets is Srs Bzns, the less I want to participate.

As I said before, I’m open to the idea that I may be doin’ it wrong, but if you think we should eliminate tactics from our repertoire, if you’re going to claim that someone or some method is “not helping,” then you’d better damn well back it up with evidence. Otherwise, you’re not promoting skepticism, you’re not speaking from any kind of authority, you’re just talking out of your ass.

But to the hardcore tone trolls and the more reasonable group of people who are just concerned with how skeptics represent themselves to the general public and what tactics we use in discussions, I have a few pertinent questions. I don’t expect to get any real answers, certainly not from the people I’m actually frustrated by, but I’d rather post this and get it out of my system for a few days than let it simmer. But if you’d like to answer them, please feel free.

What is ur concernz?The first, and most important question, is this: What are you adding to the conversation? I think it’s trivially obvious, even to those frequently cited as the worst offenders, that one’s content and tactics need to be tailored to the situation and the audience. PZ Myers doesn’t berate the religious students in his Biology classes for being deluded nitwits, Richard Dawkins admitted that he would have been the wrong person to testify in the Dover trial, since he’d have to say that (at least in his case) science leads to atheism. Much like the talk of framing some months and years ago, what I’m seeing from the reasonable tone-talkers is repetition of that basic rule of persuasive writing, and I don’t think anyone disagrees. From my end, it’s as though you’re telling a room of veteran writers “show, don’t tell,” and then repeating it louder when they don’t treat it like a revolutionary concept.

Now, I can understand disagreeing with a person regarding what the appropriate tactics for a given discussion or argument or action are, and what might represent an appropriate tone or effective method. Here’s the problem: in order to say what’s effective or appropriate, you have to measure it against some goal, and different people may have wildly different goals. Yes, as skeptics we generally think that promoting critical thinking and science are major concerns. But that’s pretty much where the assumed similarities end (and depending on how broadly you want to define “skeptic,” there are some folks Bill Maher who might not even fit that latter criterion). We’re individuals, and we all have different interests that often get folded in with skepticism (frequently because we see those interests as outgrowths of skepticism). Michael Shermer puts a priority on promoting his libertarian economic and political philosophies; PZ Myers is generally more concerned with religious woo than cryptozoology; Orac focuses mostly on medical woo and doesn’t care much about promoting atheism; and so forth. In order to talk about what represents an effective tactic, you have to know what kind of effect the person is trying to achieve.

To go back to the Framing debate, there were those (and still are) who claimed that outspoken atheist scientists would hurt the promotion of science by suggesting that science leads to atheism. Well, that might be true. Those who are inclined to reject something because it leads some people to become atheists would certainly be inclined to reject science for that reason (though I can’t imagine how hiding it would help said promotion among said people in the long run), but it seemed that the critics never considered that promoting science wasn’t the only goal at play. Some people, believe it or not, were promoting atheism, or at least promoting the idea that it’s okay to be an atheist, that it’s okay to criticize religion, that religion shouldn’t be beyond critique, and so forth. That goal may sometimes contradict the goal of promoting science to the people who reject it on religious grounds. And that goal may conflict with the goal of maintaining science’s neutral position with regard to religion, as evidenced by the NCSE’s Faith Project Director declaring ID to be “blasphemous” (which explicitly endorses a particular religious viewpoint).

This is why talk of what “helps” and “hurts,” what’s “effective” and “appropriate,” is so frustrating: it relies on the assumption that the critic and the subject of critique share the same goals and priorities, which is unlikely.

I’d be less infuriated by these lines of questioning if it was phrased less “ur doin it wrong” and more “if you’re trying to accomplish [GOAL], then I think [METHOD] is unproductive.” See, this is part of that whole “tone” and “framing” thing: sometimes effective criticism requires you to express some degree of humility, rather than put forth an air of authority (which can seem arrogant and presumptuous).

Even that, though, falls back to my original complaint: saying “If your goal is X, Y is ineffective/counterproductive” is a factual claim. If you’re going to make a factual claim that a person should eliminate some method from their repertoire because it’s harmful (or unhelpful), then you have to show that it’s harmful (or unhelpful). In order to do that, you need evidence. Otherwise, it’s just your opinion, and while you’re entitled to express it, you need to realize what it is and what value it has to anyone else (i.e., none). Without evidential support, your opinion is no more or less valid than your opponent’s.

My final question to those who are concerned about tone and tactics: What is your ultimate goal? What do you want the skeptical movement to be/do? What would your ideal skeptical activist or activism look like? Is there anyone right now who you think is doin’ it right? What do you want this conversation about tone and tactics and effectiveness and appropriateness to accomplish?

Rant over. Feel free to answer, I’d honestly love to hear what people have to say.

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12 Responses to Tone Deaf

  1. Flavin says:

    1. I add nothing to the conversation. That's why I don't blog anymore.2. I would love if, long term, an extended social support infrastructure became a part of the skeptic/atheist community. It seems that's what religion has that we're really missing: the humanistic social aspects of church that get eclipsed by the haze of supernaturalism. […Snipped out long rant. Thought better of it.] I could go into more detail if you don't know what I mean and you'd like to.

  2. Akusai says:

    Flavin,I wholeheartedly disagree with your point 2. The CFI tries to provide that kind of community and, at least in Indianapolis, the results are counterproductive.Personally, I'd prefer to spend time with my friends regardless of their ideologies or worldviews than to join a manufactured community of people who agree with me, and that's what I think of when I hear people calling for social infrastructure for skeptics and atheists.Tom,I agree with all of this. But then, you already knew that.

  3. Akusai says:

    I just had a realization that has never hit me before.A large part of why I react so strongly to the tone-talkers and "ur doin it rong" crowd is my apprehension that they're trying to enforce some kind of homogeneity and/or groupthink on everyone who calls themselves skeptics. I was, until I read this post, only thinking about in on the most obvious level: they're trying to get everyone to behave more alike.There's a second, more insidious level, however, to this drive toward homogeneity: by mounting their "criticisms" at all, they're implicitly assuming that we're already the same to begin with by virtue of the skeptic label. Our label, goals, and priorities are the same as theirs, and therefore our behavior should be the same as theirs.Good heavens, but that's insulting.

  4. Flavin says:

    Akusai,I'm not sure why you disagree with me so strongly. I didn't put much detail in my comment, so I ask you to be more explicit about what impressions you took out of what I said. I can tell you that I don't mean anything like what you spoke out against in your linked post. I don't want to make pseudo-religious rituals or some sort of secular preaching outlet. There may be a revealing difference between my phrase "social support infrastructure" and your phrase "social infrastructure."

  5. Ryan W. says:

    Flavin,I'm not speaking for Akusai (nor do I want to set up any strawmen), but I don't give a shit about the skeptic/atheist "community". I'm not a part of this unless I fit the description solely because I have a critical thinking blog.Being a critical thinker in general is what contributes to my worldview. My only goals are to divert resources away from nonsense into things that work; a goal that is shared by all the skeptics and atheists I have come to be "Nternet friends" with over the past several years.But being a critical thinker is not the only pre-requisite to being my friend. I'm a professional musician and geek. I like to party and travel. Were I to belong to a community made up solely of skeptics and atheists, I'd be missing out on what other people have to offer even though their worldview differs from my own.I also don't mean to put words into your mouth about what "community" means. I'm just saying I have no wish to be considered Ryan the skeptic, just Ryan. Or Rockstar Ryan if you prefer :)

  6. Ryan W. says:

    Oh, and Tom you're quickly taking the 2%er's job of "saying it better than I could".

  7. Akusai says:

    Flavin,Sorry if I read too much into what you were saying. I certainly didn't mean to come off as a dick but I see now that I totally did. Sorry about that. What did you mean by social support infrastructure?

  8. Flavin says:

    Akusai,No worries. I wouldn't dare impugn anyone's tone in a comment to this post.You'd think, given that I've had two full days since my first comment, that I would have a clear sense of what I was even talking about. Well, you'd be wrong. I have a loose, shadowy concept of what I'm thinking, but any time I try to pin down a good example it withers in the light.I'm trying to think of the non-explicitly religious reasons churches/religions interact with people. Mostly charitable activities—AA, homeless shelters, disaster relief, others—but also things like adoptions and foster care,* counseling, and, yes, basic social gatherings. That list could go on a lot longer if I didn't suck at thinking of things to put on it. My dream would be for a secular alternative to exist for every non-religious church activity. I hate to see any person whose life has taken a dive (he's lost his house and job or gotten addicted to drugs) to be forced to go to a church for help. If this hypothetical person is a skeptic/atheist they might be morally opposed to going to a church for help, so they might not have anywhere to go for help. That just seems shitty to me. I would like if there were a way for any person who needs help to find it from someone who isn't trying to sell him a god.It's more than just that, though. Take Ryan for example. He says he doesn't give a shit about community, but he does want "…to divert resources away from nonsense into things that work." Well, that's part of what I mean. Right now there are services where almost all you can get is nonsense. I'd like there to be an alternative that works at least as well as the one clogged with nonsense, but without all that divine aftertaste.Hopefully my shitty explanation has given you some sense of what I'm thinking. I don't want any pseudoreligious wankery and I don't want any arbitrarily manufactured community (though, the way I use the word "community," we're already in one). I do want options to be available. Anything a religious person can get from church, I want to be able to get the same thing (or better) somewhere else minus the bullshit.It's not a very meaty idea yet. Let me know how to improve it, or just feel free to tell me if it's stupid, or both.*I don't know if it works the same way everywhere, but most adoption/foster care agencies around St. Louis are religious. I only know this because my wife works in that field. (She had to wrestle with whether she thought it was okay to lie on a job application that required a statement of faith. Luckily she got a job with one of the few secular agencies in the area.) Having this area entangled with religion can lead to shady shit like Catholic Charities pulling out of DC because the city demanded equality for gay couples seeking adoptions. Fuck that.

  9. Ryan W. says:

    BTW Flavin, I hope it goes without saying I wasn't trying to be a dick either. I always come off that way on teh interwebs.Thanks for clarifying.

  10. Flavin says:

    It's cool. I've got a pretty thick skin. At least, it's thick enough to not easily be penetrated by dicks. (Savor that imagery for a while.)My first assumption in internet discussions is that other people are arguing civilly in good faith. Anything that seems off to me I just attribute to the inability to convey tone through text. I say that to say, I didn't think you guys were being dicks.

  11. Tom-1. I'm sorry to hear that this is happening – I guess I was naive to think that a bunch of skeptics would be clever enough not to get sucked in to this kind of behavior. I like what Flavin's saying, about having an easier way for people to find community help that doesn't have to be Jesus-flavored, btw. Very Catholic up here in Minnesota, donchaknow.2. OMG KITTY!

  12. Pingback: Flush the Movement « Dubito Ergo Sum

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