Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Secular Community Infighting

Item 4a in Sean Faircloth’s frame for a new atheist strategy calls for a reduction in infighting.

Since the start of the year, I have been going through the elements of Sean Faircloth's new secular and atheist political strategy. He states that we have precious little to show for our political efforts to date, and argues that a new strategy may change that. Item 4a on Faircloth's list of suggestions is the suggestion: Before you start a battle with another member of the secular community, you should contact that person first and make sure you understand their position.

In saying this, he puts a lot of emphasis that this standard applies strictly to members of the secular community - because they are fellow members of the secular community.

He states that, before you post or blog or twitter of say anything critical:

If it is about somebody in the secular movement - if it is about somebody on our team - let us do the evidence-based thing and contact that person directly, and then give them a chance to . . . offer evidence . . . so you might actually know before you click - before you say something negative to thousands of people. It's really important for our movement.

I object.

Faircloth is advocating a double standard. He gives us one standard to use when writing about members of the secular community that prohibits posting things before knowing the facts and making sure that your criticism is true and relevant. Apparently, when we criticize members of the non-secular community, malicious exaggerations, gossip, and innuendo are perfectly legitimate.

Granted, Faircloth does not say that our standards when addressing fellow members of the secular community are to be higher than those we apply to the non-secular community. If pressed, he would probably say that we should apply the same standards across the board. However, this does not change the fact that the argument he presented was one that advocated a higher standard of behavior regarding members of the secular community BECAUSE they were members of the secular community.

I do a lot of criticizing in this blog. It’s an ethics blog – condemnation (along with praise) is inherent in the subject matter. However, I hold that the same standard applies to everybody that I criticize.

This standard includes an obligation to present the other person's view fairly.

I cannot count the number of times that I have written a caustic post condemning some person or group. However, I gave the subject matter another thought before posting and I deleted the post. Or, I get halfway through the post presenting my arguments when I discover that my arguments are no good. Either way, I delete the posting. Which meant that I had nothing to post for that day. When you see a gap in my posting - this is often the reason.

(In fact, two be honest, there was originally a second half to this post. However, I could not make the argument work. In trying to make the argument work, I think I proved my original premise for that second criticism to be flawed. So, I deleted the second half of this post, and resolved to give the premise I would have used more thought.)

This is a standard that applies to everybody - not just fellow members of the secular community.

The main reason why I worry about Faircloth's suggestion - or at least his way of presenting it - is because of the risk of setting up tribes. It is a part of our human nature to divide the world between “us” and “them”, and then treat "us" better than "them". I study history, and I have paid particular attention to what has brought about the greatest atrocities in history. They all begin by dividing the world between "us" and "them", and holding that "us" are somehow entitled to a higher standard of treatment then "them".

This is the main reason why I detest the national motto, "In God We Trust". It is nothing but an expression that divides the world into "we" who trust in God and, by implication, "them" who do not. That it is associated with all sorts of prejudice and discrimination against "them" by "us" who control the political and economic power is inherent to this type of division.

This point also explains the virtue of the motto the founding fathers actually selected for this nation, "E Pluribus Unum". It is a motto that rejects "us" versus "them" divisions.

I want to point out that my conclusion here is not that it is permissible to make derogatory, unsupported claims about other members of the secular community. My point is that we should always go to the effort of making sure that our claims are true and relevant. We should never post unsupported derogatory claims about anybody - secular or non-secular. We should not be dividing the world between "us" and "them" with a different moral standard to apply to each. We should have one standard that applies equally to "us" and "them".

Having said this, I should add that there are a couple of areas where criticism of members of the secular community are common and absurdly stupid. I will discuss these common criticisms and their absurdity in my next post.


I wanted to add a point to this issue of criticizing other members of the secular community.

Because of the anti-atheist bigotry most of us experience as children, one of the effects we can expect is that it simply feels more comfortable to criticize members of the community than non-members.

Lessons like this that we learn as children are learned at an emotional level. We are made to feel comfortable doing that which is accepted, and to feel anxious and uncomfortable at doing those things the society condemns. Certainly, we are given no reason to feel uncomfortable when criticizing atheists.

These emotional relationships we learn as children do not disappear simply because we come to realize as adults that they are groundless. They are not mere propositions to be accepted or rejected. They have touched our likes and dislikes and, in doing so, they touch our behavior.

I suspect that a lot of the criticism of members of the secular community by other members is grounded specifically on a learned prejudice that says that it is OK to criticize atheists.

Yes, I hold that the Pledge and the Motto go a long ways in planting these emotions in children that carry through into our adult lives.

Yes, I hold that I am not immune from these effects. I notice a certain amount of anxiety when it comes to criticizing theists that I do not feel when criticizing atheists. Intellectually, I can know that a planned criticism of theists is deserved. However, that does not make the learned emotional reaction any less real.

Whenever I write something critical of atheists, I ask myself, "Am I choosing this topic because it is easy? Or because it is necessary?"

I think that members of the secular community should be aware of the fact that they, too, might be affected by a prejudice against atheists that makes it easier to criticize other atheists in spite of their feelings.


Villa said...

I think your addendum really highlights why the proposal would help the community. The double-standard is already there.

A lot of the more intense fights have been over comments that wouldn't merit much more than a raised eyebrow were the to come from a theist.

People are willing to be rude to other atheists much, much quicker than they seem willing to be rude to theists.

That said, your first arguments seem reasonable, and there shouldn't be much harm in extending the rule to all posts that are likely to end up creating back-and-forth exchanges.

Kristopher said...

i notice the us and them rhetoric in the athiest community alot and it worries me.

athiests taking jabs at each other on their blogs doesn't worry me at all. i want athiests that will stand up and tell other members of their in-group that they are wrong everytime they are wrong. that is one of the problems with many religous communities is that the "good" members of the congregation don't stand up and condemn the bigotry they see within their own group.

people have a greater reponsibility to condemn bad things in their own group becuase their words hold more power with insiders than outsiders. a certain level of infighting is healthy for a large group of people.

we can stop infighting when all the members of our community are perfect.

yes i am puposefully making almost no distinction between "infighting' and "constuctive criticism" becuase it is so blurred when put into practice. it is never quite clear where on ends and the other begins. it is a classic freedom fighter vs. terrorist distinction. it tends to be thought of as constructive criticism when we do it to others but infighting when they do it to us... i am not saying that the two concepts are equivalent only that they are so confused in practice that a fight against one will inevitably be a fight against the other.

i agree that we should be carefull and accurate when critizing anyone. but thats not much more profound than saying murder is bad. i don't think faircloth should have indluded this section in our stategy.

Joshua Bennett said...

Well, said, Alonzo. I had little red flags go up when Faircloth said that, and I'm glad you jumped on it.