My Problem with Movements

I started this blog in part because I like to comment on and make fun of stupidity. It’s a shame that most of the stupidity I encounter right now comes from other skeptics. And it all seems to keep coming back to this idea of the “skeptical movement.”

Skepticism is not something I joined. Skepticism is something I use. I apply skepticism to the claims I encounter in my life. It’s a set of cognitive tools that I use to evaluate reality and the claims people make regarding it. Being someone who uses this set of tools makes me a skeptic, and so I share a label and a viewpoint with some other people. Because people are social animals, we gather around any commonality, no matter how small or arbitrary.

And that’s fine, when we’re forming clubs and conferences and message boards and shit. I like going to skeptical events and hanging out with skeptical people and talking about skeptical topics and reading skeptical books and generally promoting skepticism.

The problem is when people assume that, because we share this one thing, we must therefore have other things in common. Truth be told, these assumptions can often be accurate, but it’s a matter of correlation, not necessarily causation. Yes, my skepticism caused me to be an atheist, and while a lot of skeptics are atheists and a lot of atheists are skeptics, there are quite a few people who don’t fit in that shaded area of the Venn diagram. The same can be said for every interest: some skeptics are comic fans, lots of comic fans are sci-fi fans, lots of sci-fi fans love “Doctor Who.” But each of those things represents a different circle on a big Venn diagram chart, and you can’t just assume that all skeptics love “Doctor Who.” This can be a source of conflict and annoyance and hurt feelings; people tend to assume that other people are like them–especially people they like and/or admire–and it can be deflating to find out otherwise. Watch The Atheist Experience for a month or two, and you’ll see this kind of thing in action: some atheists assume that because we’ve all come to the same conclusion on the existence of God, then we must all have the same views on morality/aliens/conspiracy theories/politics/ghosts/drugs/etc. It’s just not something you can assume based on having one thing in common.

This problem is just as pronounced even when it comes to things that are directly related to the shared viewpoint. Just because I agree with other skeptics on the importance of skepticism doesn’t necessarily mean that our priorities or goals or methods are the same. As I’ve ranted before, I tend to think that we ought to live and let live, when it comes to each other’s methods. I think there’s room for a variety of approaches to spreading skepticism, from Joe Nickell-style serious investigations to academic debates to “Get in the fookin’ sack” humor to The Pope Song.

Obviously, there are those who disagree, or I wouldn’t keep beating this dead horse. The problem is the same as the one I mentioned above: the people who say things like “you’re not helping” are making some key assumptions about what the rest of us want to accomplish. Some people explicitly want to make skepticism into a serious academic discipline, some seem to think we’ll change more minds and convert more skeptics by being nice and polite all the time. I have my own opinions on the reasonableness of those goals, but that’s really not the point. The point is that those aren’t my goals. I do skeptical commentary because I’m passionate about it, and because I generally find it fun. I like making snarky comments about apologetic e-mail forwards and tearing alt-med idiots a new one and even doing a bit of serious skeptical investigation. I’m perfectly happy with keeping skeptical activism a fun hobby, and I’m bothered by people who want to make the entire enterprise as fun as writing a term paper. And that’s really just the tip of it. Shockingly enough, my purpose is not always to convert or educate. Sometimes my purpose is to entertain, sometimes it’s to vent, and sometimes it’s for my own amusement. I’m a little tired of “for the lulz” being denigrated as a reason to do stuff.

Even if your goals are changing minds, educating, and spreading awareness, it makes sense to have a multiplicity of methods and styles and techniques. Different people have different interests and are convinced by different things; context and audience are significant factors in determining what methods are appropriate. There is no one size that fits all situations or people. Frankly, that’s Education 101. Different people learn differently, and sometimes it takes time and multiple exposures and different pedagogical techniques to get new information to stick in people’s heads. And that’s assuming they’re receptive to the information in the first place, and outside of a classroom, there aren’t many people who appreciate being lectured to. And again, that’s assuming that education is your primary goal, which isn’t necessarily the case for everyone in every situation.

And that’s the problem with a “movement.” The term “movement” carries some baggage; it implies motion toward something, or at least in some shared direction. Skeptics don’t share such a direction in general, much though the tone police would like to impose one. My goals are not everyone’s goals, and it’s condescending and presumptuous for other skeptics, from the lying asshat behind the “You’re Not Helping” blog to bigger names like Daniel Loxton and even Phil Plait, to tell me that I’m not falling in line with their goals and priorities. I’m perfectly capable of setting my own goals and deciding what tactics and methods best suit them, thank you very much, and so are most people.

If I’m part of a movement, it’s because there are a lot of people individually drifting in the same general direction, but a few self-appointed shepherds have decided that they know the one right way to go. They’re quite happy to lead everyone around, and if some of the flock gets lost along the way, that’ll just improve the quality of what’s left. I’m sorry, but that’s poor shepherding, and I’m no one’s fucking sheep.

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3 Responses to My Problem with Movements

  1. vjack says:

    I'm not sure that what you describe is necessarily a problem with a movement. You are a skeptic; I am a skeptic. We may have little else in common, and I think most of us realize that. Some of us want to organize and become politically active because we are worried about protecting our basic civil rights against what we perceive as an oppressive Christian right. From my perspective, it is important to have a movement devoted to this goal so that those who want to join it can do so. It isn't about pressuring those who want no part of it to change their minds as much as it is making sure it is available to those who want it.Part of the problem is that there are limits to what any of us can accomplish as individuals. I do get frustrated from time-to-time with the "I'm no sheep" attitude simply because I find it shortsighted. Of course nobody wants to be coerced or compelled. But there really is strength in numbers. There really are benefits in coming together to speak with a collective voice on those issues with which most of us can agree. If I am part of a movement, it is because I recognize and appreciate the benefits of numbers and am willing to sacrifice some of my usual "go it alone" mindset in order to reap the benefits of the group.

  2. Akusai says:

    But what of those who aren't willing to make that sacrifice, at least not all the time? We're still subjected to the same standards that we never signed up for. I don't at all appreciate being drafted for something against my will and told what my priorities ought to be.and I have to point out that your "Idiot of the Week" segment, which I love, is inappropriate according to some of the folks Tom is talking about. Will you quit doing it because someone else thinks it's "not helping" because it's insulting?Really, the argument isn't against collective action per se; it's about the presumption that everyone who shares a specific characteristic is interested in that collective action and the setting of ridiculous, often nebulous and vague, top-down standards of behavior for those who are drafted against their will.

  3. Pingback: Flush the Movement « Dubito Ergo Sum

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