Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Science of Persuasion

Twice now Ebonmuse at Daylight Atheism has been used in Republican advertisements as a tool to keep a North Carolina Senate seat in the hands of an anti-atheist bigot. Specifically, the Elizabeth Dole campaign itself, and now the Republican National Committee, have decided that Ebonmuse is useful to them. They have decided to use him to get the people of North Carolina to keep Elizabeth Dole (who would be uncomfortable having an atheist to dinner) in the Senate.

For the most part, Ebomnuse's response (See: In Which I Am Attacked by a U.S. Political Party) is a good response. However, there are two important points that I would like to draw out of it.

Exploiting Anti-Atheist Bigotry

First, Ebonmuse describes himself in his title as having been attacked. Technically, this is not true. The advertisements say nothing about Ebonmuse himself – it only cites some things written in his blog. This is not an attack.

It is, however, a clear attempt to use (exploit, take advantage of) Ebonmuse for the purpose of promoting ends that Ebonmuse himself explicitly oppose. They found Ebonmuse to be a convenient resource – a convenient tool – that they could then use to construct the type of world that they desire, a world in which atheists are second-class citizens who find themselves explicitly excluded from meetings with their elected representatives.

More specifically, Elizabeth Dole and the Republican National Committee are exploiting the fact that anything that come into contact with an atheist is, in the minds of a majority of voters, tainted and corrupt. It is now impure and, like an infected neighbor, must be removed from society and quarantined until the corruption is somehow removed (if possible). They have selected Ebonmuse as the agent of corruption. That which Ebonmuse praises is thereby corrupted, because whatever an atheist praises is bad, and whatever is pure and good is that which an atheist would not praise.

They find this to be an effective tactic because, as a matter of observed fact, most people are prejudiced against atheists. They learn this prejudice, I have argued, from the moment they start school and learn that Americans who do not support 'one nation under God' are as contemptible as those who would support tyranny and injustice for all. They learn it from the money, and in more and more cases from the school room wall, that say, "A person who does not trust in God is not one of us."

This reality, where atheists are a contaminant and anything they are associated with must e rejected, is simply the reality that we live in.

That is the reality that we have helped to make.

The Science of Persuasion

The second point that I want to draw out of Ebonmuse’s posting explains how we have helped to create a world in which atheists are viewed as a contaminant – used to turn people off to anything that the atheist expresses positive value for.

Ebonmuse wrote:

I continue to be disappointed by the lackluster quality of these smear ads.

He then goes on to identify the things that he sees to be wrong with these advertisements.

However, this response fails to respect the way these advertisements are made. These types of advertisements have the best elements of the scientific method backing them up. Those who make these adds do not rely on 'feelings' of 'intuitions' to judge these advertisements. Instead, they cast feelings and intuitions aside and look instead at the observable, objective, fact of the matter. They invest in a great deal of research. If one's feelings or intuitions are 'disappointed' in the advertisements, then one’s feelings and intuitions are out of synch with objective fact.

These advertisements are backed by a great deal of research. Focus groups, surveys, questionnaires, all quality-checked by looking at their ability to yield predictable outcomes, lie behind these advertisements. Each day an army of researchers are at work looking at what will work on those voters who have an opportunity to turn an election from one candidate to another. "How Ebonmuse will view this advertisement" is not a standard that these researchers are at all interested in. "How effective this advertisement will be in causing people to vote for Elizabeth Dole as Senator, or at least to stay home and not vote for Kay Hagan" is the only standard that matters.

I find this to be extremely ironic. We live in a society where the enemies of science and reason put the best tools of the scientific method and objective measure to work defeating science and reason, while the defenders of science and reason think that feelings and intuitions are all we need to judge the effectiveness of an advertisement campaign.

One of the clich├ęs of the last century came from communists who said, "They (the capitalists) will sell us the rope that we (the communists) will then use to hang them with." The irony today is that the proponents of science and reason have given their enemies the tools to effectively attack science and reason.

Responding to Bigotry

This situation needs to change.

We need is a non-profit organization that can collect donations and has a marketing public-relations firm on call so that the instant one of these major examples of anti-atheist bigotry show up, they can immediately launch two campaigns in response.

Fundraising and Coordination

The first campaign would be a campaign to raise money. This group, under the advice of public relations and marketing experts, would immediately put together a package whose purpose is to raise money – fundraising letters, media advertising, contacts with organizations who can pass along a message to their members, all aiming at raising money for a campaign to answer this bigotry.

If that organization existed today, it would immediately have gone to work soliciting contributions for a campaign to answer the bigotry we see in North Carolina. Using blogs, web-based advertising on sites that atheists tend to visit, phone trees, email lists, they would announce, "There is a campaign to promote anti-atheist bigotry and to use this to keep a bigot in the Senate," to as much of the secular community hat they can reach, to gain money for advertisements, to answer this campaign.

This fundraising campaign would be run by marketers with know-how and experience on how to get money. They will put their experience to work to measure the effectiveness of various campaigns and they will use that data to refine their fundraising accordingly.


The second campaign, and the reason for the money, would involve responding to this bigotry. The organization would immediately create web videos, television, radio, and print advertising and send that advertising out to the people who are being presented with anti-atheist bigotry in order to counter that bigotry.

The organization would create press releases, contact the press, and have a set of potential speakers ready to be interviewed on the topic in question. Those speakers would be ready to show up on any news channel – national or local – with talking points in hand ready to point out to listeners and readers what exactly is wrong with the campaign that the bigots have launched. The media company would, in this case, have talked to Ebonmuse and determined if he could effectively speak in his own defense. If so, they would start calling media outlets and arranging for Ebonmouse to speak to the press.

They would contact other bloggers and others who have contact with a relevant part of the intended audience and say, "Here is an issue that we are addressing. We would like you to join us by saying something on this matter." The invitation would be accompanied by a list of talking points.

Somebody like me might look through the talking points, find one or two I disagreed with, and make those the topic of my particular blog. I am not talking about blind obedience to a public relations leader. I would oppose that. However, there is nothing objectionable with a group of people who want to say X finding a way to do so more effectively – in a way that will reach more people and could potentially change more minds than the system we have now.

The Current Situation

The situation, as it exists today, makes me think of a trial in which the prosecutors go to great efforts to present their best possible case to the jury. At the same time, the defense sits at their defense table and mumbles among themselves about how poor this particular piece of evidence is and how that particular witness from the prosecution presents a poor image to the jury.

Yet, throughout the whole trial, they never ask any questions, they never raise any objections, they never call any witnesses of their own or engage in any public cross-examination in front of the jury, They simply assume that the jury, presented with only one side of the story, will see through all of the problems and come to the right decision on their own without anybody pointing out the flaws in the case that the prosecution is making.

Even though juries keep coming back again and again with verdicts of ‘guilty’ – still, the defense thinks that it is sufficient to do nothing but mumble among themselves about how good or how poor certain pieces of evidence is or how well it is presented, and justice will prevail.

Justice will not prevail until the defense team decides to actually put together a defense – which is something we do not currently have.

Will there be any advertisements broadcast in response to the anti-atheist bigotry we see in North Carolina?

There will not be.

The prosecution – the bigots – have full control of the court. In fact, they have the only team actually playing the game. When this happens, it is almost a sure bet that they will win – and keep winning – until an opposition team actually decides to start playing against them.

It is time for a change. It is time to realize that a public defense is very much necessary. It is time to realize that the bigotry exhibited in the campaigns of Elizabeth Dole and the Republican National Committee need to be met with a public response that respects the fact that there are experts in this field who know how to organize a public response – and a willingness to pay the costs that this type of campaign would require.

Either that or we, like Ebonmuse himself, choose to be tools to be exploited in the destruction of the things we claim to value – because we refuse to challenge those whose aim is to create a society in which anything an atheist values – anything an atheist is even associated with – is contaminated, unclean, and to be done away with.


Ben Barnett said...

Wow. Awesome post Alonzo! I'd like to do a link exchange between our sites. I run www.createcognitivedissonance.wordpress.com and I think our readers could gain much from eachother. Let me know if you're interested via my comment lines, and I'll put a link up right away.



Anonymous said...

I was just wondering if anyone believes in destiny?

anton said...


Once again, your assessment of a topic is impeccable. Once again, however, your suggested solution jumps to a "pie in the sky" thought process.

Yes, your solution is valid -- but unattainable without a realistic assessment of the conditions that exist. There is no recognizable Atheist social organization! Why not come up with a "down to earth" approach that would first provide Atheists with their "social" needs? We have had good words on our "side" since Aristotle and I would wager that you, and others in our community, are as good, if not better, than Aristotle and his companions.

Unfortunately, they appeared to have been so impressed with their words that they didn't learn how to "play with kids", "grow cabbages" or "catch fish".

While we champion the cause for separation of "church" and "state", I am disappointed that we continue to separate "philosophy" from "pyschology"!

notreallyalice said...

Excellent post. I am a member of a local atheist social group (of the sort Anton was refering to), and I believe there are many of these around the country. Is there no national Atheist (umbrella?) group that does the sort of things you are talking about in your post? Has someone contacted the ACLU??

trish50 said...

Hello, I am heartened by your words calling for unity but would take it even further, firstly to an international level but I really also think that we need to get organised in counteracting the attempts to evangelise the internet too - this is our main channel of communication and it is being utilised very effectively by the evangelists. This is just one of their strategies; http://ied.gospelcom.net/bridge-strategy.php

There are also training courses which show them how to be tools of the apologeticists on the internet. They actually teach them to infiltrate and not mention god till the fish is on the hook (so to speak haha)

I am a member of a mixed site (international, mainly xtian) and have been there for a couple of years - I enjoy the banter with the 'soul harvesters' as the dialogue gets our message out to people who may be sitting on the sidelines but theres only so much we can achieve with the disorganised, haphazard methods we utilise right now.

Even though Im in England, I have been following the American election campaign pretty closely as it has been very effectively opening my eyes to the politics of fear methodologies being used by the religious right (and so much more too) - if the words and methods of that lot get any further hold of the collective conscience of any nation then theres no hope - I repeat my plea and support for a united effort to counteract them.