Thursday, March 29, 2012

Media Distortions of the Reason Rally - Part 1

In the wake of the Reason Rally, atheists are experiencing some of the brute and unpleasant facts of living in a culture dominated by media where members of the press are so steeped in prejudice that they cannot see through it.

Much of the coverage of the Reason Rally contains distortions and misrepresentations.

Much of it is deliberate. We have bigots eager to paint their target group in the worst possible light. Unfortunately, this group controls whole networks of media and have direct access to large portions of the population whom they can infect directly with their bigotry. They can easily control the public attitude by being the first and the loudest with their interpretation of events.

That is a fact of the real world, and we are fools if we do not recognize this fact and act accordingly.

However, much of this bigotry is not so deliberate. These are distortions and misrepresentations created by people who have a habit of listening to the first group without question, and who have simply absorbed a culture's bigotry.

If you think about it, many of the people who cheered Hitler from 1930 to 1942 were average, decent people. Many of those who supported slavery before 1860 and in the halls of Congress and the press were otherwise decent people. Many of our founding fathers whom we view as heroes had many admirable qualities - but they could not even imagine giving women the right to vote. Many of these people were substantially indistinguishable from your best friend - except for the bigotry they absorbed from their culture.

I would like to draw your attention to an article, Atheism's New Dogmatism.

I am referring to this article to illustrate some of the elements that identify the author as an anti-atheist bigot. It is not the best or purist example of anti-atheist bigotry. It is, actually, the first one I came across this morning after having decided to write on this topic.

In this article, I am going to look at examples of bigotry, defined as making of derogatory generalizations across whole groups. (Note: In my next post, I will talk about another common distortion - interpreting Richard Dawkins as claiming that atheists should ridicule the religious.)

We find an example of derogatory overgeneralizations here:

This spirit of ridicule and contempt for religion was present in the crowd before Dawkins’ address. Photographs of the rally showed participants carrying placards saying “Not sure if Christian or just very stupid”, and “So many Christians, so few lions”.

I view the "Lions" comment as abhorrent. Ultimately, it is no different than walking around with a sign that says, "So many Jews, so few gas chambers." The latter sign, if it had shown up, would have been brought down immediately by popular demand - as it should have been. This sign should have met with a similar response. It is, for all practical purposes, the same concept applied to a different group.

Of course, my objections to that message - objections that I am sure that others share - do not count. They are not to be mentioned. The bigot cherry-picks his data, selecting those observations that support their bigotry while ignoring anything that seems in conflict with it. The sign supports that prejudice, so the bigot focuses on it as proof that his bigotry is well founded. My blog does not support that prejudice. Rather than refer to it as counter-evidence to the first group, its existence is ignored, so that atheists can be painted as consisting solely of people of that type.

An unfortunate fact of the real world is that the bigot will always find the evidence that supports his bigotry. There is always a "bottom 10 percent". If you get rid of the bottom 10 percent, you only create a new bottom 10 percent. You will always have a "worst set" that the bigot can focus on in order to paint the whole group in unflattering colors.

This is not to say that the bottom 10 percent cannot be condemned. They should be. However, the claim that, "You are to blame for the bigotry that we all suffer from" is not an appropriate condemnation. If not for them, the bigot will find somebody else to represent the poor qualities they want to assign to the whole group. In a sufficiently large group, they will be always that the bigot can fit into that role.

The sign that says that all Christians are "very stupid" also conflicts with the message that I persistently give in this blog. That message, just like this post here, consistently objects to derogatory overgeneralizations - even when the guilty person is an atheist. It is simply not true that all Christians are "very stupid". If we are going to be a group that ridicules absurd beliefs such as trans-substantiation, then we should also be ready and willing to ridicule beliefs such as the one expressed on that sign.

It is particularly ironic that the bigots make this move against the Reason Rally in light of the presence at the rally of the Westboro Baptist Church. This is the famous group that claims that American soldiers deserve to die because they fight for a nation that shows more tolerance for gays than their interpretation of scripture permits.

The anti-atheist bigot has in this an immediate reminder of the moral wrong in painting a whole group with the brush of its least attractive members. However, in a display of pure hypocrisy, they conveniently ignore that lesson. Bigots do not like to follow lines of reasoning that call their bigotry into question.

Another distortion that found its way into the press was the claim that Richard Dawkins told the people to ridicule believers. Though many readers of this blog will already know the truth of the matter, I will put it in its moral context tomorrow.

As a final note, as somebody who knows how the bigot's mind works, I expected something like this. I think it would have been useful to have somebody on the stage anticipating the "nutpicking" remarks about to come out in the press. Perhaps a public participation event - a contest - in which people in the audience are invited to guess the various distortions and misrepresentations about to appear in the press the next time a similar gathering is planned - like "Rock Beyond Belief" at Fort Bragg. You know that similar distortions and misrepresentations will be made of that event.


JoshJ said...

The lion joke isn't comparable with the jews in the gas chamber joke. For one thing, the former actually happened, or at least it happened to millions of people. Also, 'jew' in this context is conflated with an ancestry.

Moreover, both jokes are funny in their proper context. E.g., if you had a comedian such as Jimmy Car use both those lines, you wouldn't think he was making some point. You would think he's trying to be amusingly offensive. There's a history there telling you the sensible interpretation isn't malicious.

Also, you don't even need the personal history for the lion joke. It's obviously a hyperbolic joke not meant to be taken seriously; it's just that some people want to look at such things in the worst light possible.

Anonymous said...

Eid- nice comments and I can agree with you for the most part-- that the Christian/Lion sign and a Jew/Gas Chamber sign wouldn't be ethically equivalent.

But I agree with Alonzo that the sign saying "So many Christians, so few lions" was tasteless and meant only to be divisive and inflammatory. I was at the rally and saw the girl who carried that sign. My first thought was that she was a little too radical and was the kind of person who gives us all a bad name.

Poking Christians in the eye with a claim of rational and moral superiority does our community little good. However much atheists believe it, it's a bad tactic to win support for our cause.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Are you saying that Christians were never sentenced to death ad bestia for the crime of being Christians? That is clearly false.

Or are you pinning your response on the technicality that, with all of the Christians subject to horrendous death for the crime of being Christian - including death ad bestia, and with lions commonly used in these executions, that there is no specific mention of a Christian being executed ad bestia where a lion is specifically mentioned as the best used?

That type of trivia is morally irrelevant.

While it is true that meaning depends on context, we are talking about a context in which people seriously believe that atheists are willing and able to set up another holocaust in which churches are locked and Christians are rounded up and killed.

Furthermore, I have seen more than enough bullies pull this same trick. They seek to threaten and intimidate others and, when somebody objects they say, "I was just kidding! Can't people take a joke?"

This sign defends the wonton murder of men, women, and children. These types of events have happened in the past - not only in Roman times, but in the French Revolution - and as recently as the Holocaust with a different target group.

The claim that nobody has to fear the possibility of some other group rounding them up and killing them has been proved false far too often, even within the past century.

I let others worry about tactics. My worry is about ethics. Threatening indiscriminate violence against a whole population based purely on their belief is not permissible. Disagree with what people think all you want, but never glorify or celebrate the possibility of rounding them up and killing them.