FtBCon – Ashley’s schedule

Life is always easier when you’ve got a schedule to follow.  So here’s mine for the weekend.  I am in on 5 sessions, talking about a variety of subjects from YA lit to video games, but all to do with media and culture.  Which is good because I have a degree that makes people think I’m qualified in that.

TImes here are in EST, but if you go to the site they’ll be in CST.

FtBConscience

As of right now this is a solo talk, but I have feelers out for anyone who might want to join.  If you’re an expert on YA lit, let me know.

Although much of the bestselling YA literature in the last few years has featured female main characters, ofttimes the portrayal of these characters is problematic in terms of gender stereotypes and lack of minority characters. This is a discussion of the ways YA literature succeeds and fails and why it needs to change.

I feel like so underqualified to be on this panel.  I play ukulele cover songs on YouTube and love to sing karaoke.  And I’m on a panel with an actual musician with records and such.  Yep.  Imposter syndrome big time.

Join us to hear a few songs and have a casual chat with ukulelist and FtB blogger Ashley Miller, and Australian singer-songwriter Shelley Segal. In 2011 Shelley published An Atheist Album, and she has played at the Reason Rally, the American Atheist Convention, Women In Secularism and other events. Panel facilitated by Brianne Bilyeu

Jason Thibeault, Russell Glasser, Brianne Bilyeu, Ashley F. Miller, Avicenna, Tauriq Moosa.  Religion and morality systems in video games are often grossly oversimplified, to the point where choices are entirely binary and you’re often forced, as a gamer, to do things that you might otherwise find appalling, like working in service of a god or gods. How are these heady topics handled in the slowly-maturing video game industry? Who’s already doing this stuff right? How can these topics’ treatment be improved?

Jason Thibeault, Avicenna, Brianne Bilyeu, Ashley F. Miller, Rebecca Watson, Lynnea Glasser. Women make up 45% of the gamer population, a number that’s constantly climbing. And yet, female protagonists in games are few and far between — and when games are exclusively fronted by female characters, they get far less marketing budget than their equivalent male-led titles. Why?

JT Eberhard, Rebecca Watson, Heina Dadabhoy, Ashley F. Miller, Hemant Mehta, Xavier Trapp.  TV, Movies, Comic books… our popular culture is soaked in depictions of religious people, but what about atheists? How are atheists portrayed in the public sphere? How can we do better? A panel of atheists gets at the real issues.

 

 

News Flash: Sexism still a huge problem

The following is a screencap of a Facebook conversation happening right now.  It is a lesson in how not to be welcoming to women in the movement.  And I would like to point out that the person who is recievng this abuse is a woman in a position of power.  I cannot imagine what a girl who is not already a member of their group would think when looking at that.  Hey, would you like to join our group, I promise to tell you if you’re hot or not.

Zack Fowler, ladies and gentlemen:

For those who cannot see images, the conversation goes as follows:

Kelley Freeman: Hi SSA at EKU! I’m Kelley and I’m the Volunteer Network Coordinator for SECAA (Southeastern Collegiate Atheist Alliance) and a leader of the SSA affiliate at USC (formerly Pastafarians, now SSAUSC). I’m sort of in charge of helping to facilitate networking between groups within the region and such. I also operate as something of a ‘second’ for Gordon Let me know if you have any questions. SSA at EKU leaders are more than welcome to add me especially. :D

Zack Fowler: 10/10 would bang.

Kelley Freeman: Cool story, bro.

Zack Fowler: Figured you would need a pretty blunt greeting. We’re rowdy and crude and hungry for babies. You’re welcome to stick around and get nasty.

Kelley Freeman: Good to see this group is so welcoming to women.

Katherine Leonard: We’ve had a few feminism discussions now and then :p *thwacks Zack upside the head*

Zack Fowler: What makes me not welcoming to women?

Kelley Freeman: Dunno. Generally when I’m introducing myself with some professionalism, I don’t expect people to comment on my gender or looks.

Kelley is the very awesome president of my university’s SSA affiliate and someone who spends an unbelievable amount of time and energy working for the secular movement.  And this is the shit she takes from people who are on her side when she is trying to reach out to do her job… her job that she does as a volunteer.

This is what the problem looks like.  Can we please all agree that there is a problem and that we should be fixing it?

SCA: Really? Seriously? What are you doing?

The communications director at the SCA has just posted a blog post about the importance of bipartisanship.  In which she somehow fails to mention Edwina Rogers once AND uses stats that prove exactly how wrong she is.  This is a nightmare.

I think that it is more reasonable to say that the secular movement needs to be “non-partisan” rather than “bipartisan”, but I agree with her conclusion — we need to be reaching out to everyone of every party.

However, the statistics she uses only serve to emphasize the point that the Republican party and Republicans in general are much worse on secular issues than others.

But the GOP is not comprised of only conservative Christians. Another recent study found that 34 percent of Republicans (and 51 percent of the general public) agree that religious conservatives have too much control over the GOP.

One cannot use a statistic that says Republicans are far behind the rest of America in thinking that there is too much religion in government as a positive stat on the Republican stance on religion. And you’re just comparing them to a statistic which they are a part of, compare them to Democrats (60%) and you see an even more telling difference.

Then, she points to 30% of nones who are Republican.

As a result, we haven’t been able to reach quite a few on the conservative side who are either nontheists, or who may be receptive to the secular agenda. And there are quite a few. Nearly 30 percent of “nones”—people who do not identify with any religious affiliation—identify as Republican.

To begin with, the nones include atheists, agnostics, secular unaffiliated, and religious unaffiliated.  Oh, religious you ask?  Yes, in fact over 36% of the nones are religious.  So there are more religious nones than there are Republican nones.

But let us move beyond the fact that having a no affiliation doesn’t make you secular, and address the fact that this is still less than a third of the nones. I’m not saying they don’t matter, but to act like this supports the idea that Republicans are not incredibly anti-secular is absurd.

Finally, and this is a horrific misrepresentation of the data, she writes:

Between the Republican “nones” and the 34 percent of Republicans that don’t like where the Religious Right is taking their party– that’s a lot of people we’re missing if we work with only the other side.

Firstly, there is no reason to believe that the nones and the 34% of Republicans don’t overlap entirely.  Secondly, the way it’s worded is incredibly unclear and makes it seem like the 30% nones is a percentage of the Republican party and should be added to the 34%, it at least makes it look like those two things don’t overlap. Finally, it completely overstates the percentage of nones in the Republican party.  Nones make up 16% of the population, and none Republicans would therefore be 4.8% of the population.  36.4% of the population considers itself Republican, making the nones maybe 13% of Republicans.  And again, no reason to think that they aren’t part of the 34% and no reason to think that they are secular.

To pretend that those happy to mix church and state aren’t the vast majority of the Republican party and establishment is disingenuous, at best, and at worst, it is a transparent lie in an attempt to get us to support Edwina Rogers. Misrepresenting statistics is not the way to rally the community around her.  And it wouldn’t hurt to make this more explicitly an endorsement of your new executive director, because not saying it directly makes this seem a lot less honest.

The SCA should stick to their main argument, which is that we should be reaching out to everyone regardless of party.  Instead they’re playing a game of Lying with Statistics and avoiding every opportunity to be straightforward.  I am so very disappointed in them.

And I want to like Edwina Rogers, I really do.  I love the idea of a Republican on our side, I really do.  But the constant dissembling from her and the SCA is making it absolutely impossible to be on their side, and it’s really quite heartbreaking.

What I would like to hear from Edwina Rogers

Yes, I’ve written an imaginary PR e-mail from Edwina Rogers, the controversial new Executive Director of the Secular Coalition for America, based on conjectures and false hopes and a little bit of AbFab.  It seemed the thing to do.

Edwina Rogers, Executive Director of the SCA

“I want to start off with an apology for something I feel like I, and the SCA, have done a poor job of.  We’ve done a poor job of introducing me and an incredibly poor job of reaching out to opinion leaders in the atheist movement.  Undoubtedly, the behind-closed-doors decision to make what was bound to be a controversial hiring decision should have been tempered by a more comprehensive and immediate introduction and explanation of why I, of all people, was chosen for this position.

I have identified as a non-theist for a long time, but I am very new to this movement.  This is not because I don’t care about the issues you care about, I very much do, but they have not been my focus and, because of that, I really didn’t realize how bad things were until recently.  My career and my focus have been very issue centered, some of these issues overlapped with my own secular beliefs, but the fact is that issue-focused work tends to create a very insular worldview.  So, in many ways, I am a recent convert, not to your beliefs, but to your cause.

Which is where I have made another mistake.  This community is very engaged and very well-informed and I have done my best to educate myself quickly, but there are things I have missed on the way.  My recollection of statistics about Republicans from 20 years ago, for example, is not really the best gauge of Republicans now.  Sometimes I forget that that was an entire generation ago, it doesn’t seem that long to me.  And I have to admit that my claims that the majority of Republicans are pro-choice, OK with gay rights, and for the separation of church and state were as much a result of wishful thinking as they were of ignorance.  I have had statistics shown to me that do indeed prove I was dead wrong on this front.

And I need your help on this front.  I am trying, but I just am not as well-educated about this as those people who have focused on this cause their whole lives.  I know the goals of the coalition and am well-versed in those goals and don’t doubt my ability to execute them, but as for the wider culture of the secular movement and the less specific goals thereof, I will need more time to learn the nuances, and I hope you will help me rather than condemning me for my neophyte status.

My final big mistake is that I’ve been trying to focus exclusively on my positives without acknowledging my negatives and without engaging with them openly and honestly.  This is a fault of being in politics, it makes you quite the bullshit artist.  I should have known better in this community than to think I could dance around questions without being called on it.  So let me say that you are right.  You are right that I’ve worked for and support a party that disagrees, in majority but not in totality, with many of your goals.  But I was working for causes that I cared very deeply about, and I will not apologize for doing that.  And I will not abandon my party because other people have taken it in a direction I disagree with.  It is better for all of us if we can bring the party back in line with the goals of the secular community and I really do think that is possible.

So, just to recap, I haven’t done a good enough job introducing myself, I haven’t had the time to educate myself as thoroughly as the community is educated, and I have not been clear on acknowledging that there were some negatives to my background.  That said, I think I bring a lot to the table that I hope you can appreciate.

I am an experienced lobbyist and I know the workings of DC very well.  I have led coalitions in the past and had great success.  Although my work with Republicans is difficult for many of you to accept, it gives me an in to people who might not otherwise be as interested in hearing what we have to say.  And I am legitimately, passionately interested in promoting this cause.  I did not simply apply because I needed a job — I had a job, one that was a lot less contentious — I applied because I have become aware of some of the horrible inequities in this country for people who are secular.  I am just as horrified as all of you at the degree of influence the Christian Right has on the government, and I want to change that.  I have the credentials to do the job from a strictly political side, but I promise you that I am here because I want to be, because this cause is important to me, and because I think that I personally can make a difference through this position with the SCA.

The SCA chose me because I was, in their opinion, the best person for the job.  I wouldn’t dream of asking you to take it on faith that theirs was the best choice, but I hope that you can give me a chance and the benefit of the doubt for a little while.  I look forward to talking with you at conferences and through our local organizations.  Together, I really do think we can change this country in meaningful ways on important issues.

Best,
Eddie”

Religious Child Abuse — Special Rights for Religion means sexual, physical, and mental abuse

Sean Faircloth is the writer of the excellent book that I am currently reading on my kindle, “Attack of the Theocrats! How the Religious Right Harms Us All“.  He also has some very impressive speeches that he’s given over the past several years working with the Secular Coalition of America and the Richard Dawkins Foundation; and he’ll be at the Reason Rally this weekend.

The following is a speech about child abuse at the hands of the religious.

THIS IS WHY

This is why it’s absolutely necessary for secular people to make their voice heard, because it is not being heard by the government.  The government is so overwhelmingly controlled by the religious that they have carved out special rights that destroy people’s lives.  If adults want to throw their lives into the nonsense, that’s one thing, but harm perpetrated against children should be an offense to everyone.

So, I will see you at the Reason Rally.  This is our opportunity to demand a voice.  To speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.

(Another excellent resource about religious child abuse is “Breaking Their Will” by Janet Heimlich.  I read it last year and it was not only a very fair book, in terms of its approach to mainstream faith, but also a very disturbing and necessary book about child abuse and how cults and religions lead to it.)

Do Be a Dick (sometimes): Emotions and Skeptics

This is the paper I wrote as a reference to what I was going to talk about at Dragon*Con, which was itself an expansion on the paper I submitted to TAM9.  What I did at D*C was longer, more conversational, and a bit sillier than this paper is, but it will give you the basic thrust of what I talked about.

My background is in film and media and I’m currently getting my PhD in Mass Communications. I’ve worked in Hollywood, I’ve worked in South Carolina, and other horrible places in between. Film is a powerful medium because it speaks not only in images but also in emotions, and emotions are what I want to talk about today.

When I think about films that I saw long ago, I rarely remember the plots or the character names, though I often remember the actors. What I mostly remember are the moments of extreme emotion in the film. I remember the shower scene in Schindler’s List, the reuniting of the sisters in The Color Purple, the death of Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic, the pain and horror of Sara when she is reunited with her father and he does not recognize her in A Little Princess. We are drawn into movies for many reasons, but they tend to stick with us because of their emotional power.

Movies use a lot of tricks to get this to happen, they use music and lighting, they use editing and writing, they use actors that are famous and that we’re already emotionally attached to, and they use the close-up. Think about how close you have to be to someone to see them as close as you see someone in a close-up. Most people only ever see their family and their lovers that close. The art of false intimacy! I say this merely as a preamble, to show you how easily one can get caught in emotions and to show that emotional manipulation is something that any filmmaker, and furthermore anyone who is trying to engage an audience, should be using.

Last year at TAM, Phil Plait (who I love!) gave a talk about how to successfully argue, and his broad theme was Don’t Be A Dick. As a smart ass, I took this rather personally — I’ve mostly moved on, but I’ve spent the year trying to distill why exactly it got under my skin and it is this: nice doesn’t always work and mean is an effective tool when wielded correctly. Being a dick triggers an emotional response, but not always the one you’re looking for, it is important to use emotion with intent.

What Phil Plait was absolutely right about was this: the skeptic movement doesn’t always take emotion into account when it argues, and it should. This doesn’t necessarily mean being a dick, of course, one can very easily use emotion without invoking dickitude, but being a dick is a tool (lol) in an arsenal of emotional weapons. This doesn’t mean it’s the right tool for every job, in many circumstances being a dick is not going to get the reaction you’re looking for, but that doesn’t mean it never will.

There are two things I want to cover today: why dickishness can work and why emotions are important. These things are interrelated – insults are almost always emotional, and not necessarily negative. An insult brings about different emotional responses in the insultee, the audience, and the insulter themselves. Emotions are not easy and are less scientifically certain than logic, but they are essential to making good arguments.

My Favorite Slide Ever

To bring in someone else’s opinion on the issue, I’ll refer to Aristotle. There are three essential parts of any rhetoric: logos, ethos, and pathos – logic, ethics or integrity, and emotions. I think skeptics really have the first one covered; logic will never be our weak link. Ethos we struggle a little bit more with, not because we’re not ethical, but because oftentimes we are perceived as unethical, particularly the more atheistic your arguments are. This is slowly changing, the more we get out there and spread the message the more people realize we aren’t eating babies. Emotional arguments are an important way to rehabilitate the image of someone, though they are also easily used to undermine someone’s character.

We often see this in ad hominem attacks, these attacks undermine credibility without actually talking about what someone is arguing. To most humanists, and I would guess to most people in the audience, the ad hominem is generally immoral because personal traits shouldn’t be relevant to an argument. And, in terms of being strictly logical, that’s true.

Except, that’s not always emotionally true. When Ted Haggard is railing about the immorality of gay sex and is then engaging in it, that sort of hypocrisy should be exposed. This is a form of ad hominem tu quoque (you also), it remains logically fallacious, just because Ted Haggard had gay sex doesn’t mean his argument that gay sex is bad is incorrect, it just means he’s a hypocrite. But most people care if someone’s a hypocrite a lot more than they care about logic.

This is at least partially why there’s been a large push in the movement towards charity and embracing ideas beyond the traditional scope of skepticism. It’s almost an attempt to rehabilitate the ethos of the skeptics. The Foundation Beyond Belief, for example, does do a lot of good for the world, but it also promotes an image that gives atheists more credibility. In the same vein, there’s also a push from many in the movement, such as Jamila Bey, Greta Christina, Debbie Goddard, and others, to approach more meaningful topics that maybe fall outside the “traditional” range of skeptic issues. How can we develop credibility among people who are not in any way served by us? Why don’t we address issues that are important to people who aren’t a part of the movement, like drug laws and the insane number of black men in prison? Like abstinence only education and the wage gap? I admit that I am very strongly in favor of this, and am therefore biased.

Finally, there is pathos, the emotional side of things. Obviously, all three, logos, ethos, and pathos, are interrelated, but when you focus exclusively on logic you’re still impacting ethos and pathos, you’re just not doing it intentionally. It’s easy to understand how skeptics drop the pathos part of arguments, skepticism is about rationality after all, but my main argument here is that it’s completely irrational not to take emotion into account. Have facts, by all means, have all of them you can find, be smarter than the other guy (or gal), but use emotion to your advantage.

The trouble is that people are not rational. It’s the reason we have trouble winning lawsuits, and it’s the reason that Separation of Church and State groups like the SCA are moving away from Establishment Clause cases, which argue abstract philosophical ideas, towards equal rights cases, which are about people being mistreated. You have to take into account how people already feel AND get people to respond to your arguments emotionally.

Using emotion doesn’t mean lying, it means rationally taking into account the fact that humans don’t respond solely to logic. That’s what makes us human, and we should be glad of it, not try to suppress it. And if we know it’s there, we’re foolish not to take advantage of it, because our opponents are already masters of emotion and therefore have a huge advantage. With facts you have what’s wrong, but with emotion you have why someone should care.

One of the greatest dicks of all time, Cicero, was the king of rhetoric. Cicero is an interesting case study, despite his Machiavellian emphasis on how pliant people are when you’ve appealed to their emotions (or perhaps we should say Machiavelli was Ciceronian?), he is also recognized as one of the fathers of the humanist movement. Civic humanism, the devotion to a public life of trying to make the world a better place for the people who have to live in it, is modeled almost entirely on Cicero’s own dedication to education and ethical politics. Cicero believed that man is set apart by reason and speech, which allows for the formation of society.

Cicero recognized an important distinction that we should recognize as well, when you’re arguing in public, you’re not simply arguing with a person, you’re putting on a display for an audience. This is true regardless of the medium. Obviously I am giving a display to an audience here (Ed. Note: pretend you’re at Dragon*Con), but I could easily insult someone in the front row and make you the audience hearing my insults. I could also insult you and make you both the insultee and audience. This is true of debates that go on onstage, of conversations you see on television shows like Bill O’Reilly or The Daily Show. This appeal to the audience is true even when things are recorded without an audience for broadcast, and true for any argument in any public space.

This is true when arguing on YouTube, or on a blog, or on an online forum. An argument in these places isn’t just meant for one person, though it may be aimed primarily at them, it is aimed also at convincing other readers of your point. It is perfectly possible to make a mean argument that the supposed target will completely ignore but that will convince others that you are right.

Among the many speeches Cicero gave, many were devoted to tearing apart the character of Mark Antony. These speeches were not meant for Antony, they were meant for the audience – the senate and the public, who proceeded to consolidate their support for Cicero. Insult worked here to speak truth to power, but primarily to weaken support of the power in question.

Insults are also entertaining, how else explain the popularity of House MD and Yo Mamma jokes? People enjoy insults as comedy, as clever, as signs of intellectual superiority. An insulter is not necessarily a bad guy – insensitive perhaps, but often the bringer of truth in an entertaining way. When House calls someone a liar, he does so with the kind of flourish that makes you like him – we like him because he’s confident (to the point of delusion, perhaps) and because he is a dick. He is not afraid to speak the truth, preferably in the form of a putdown, and preferably against the prevailing “good manners” of the day. To someone’s insistence on humility, he says:

Humility is an important quality. Especially if you’re wrong a lot… Of course, when you’re right, self-doubt doesn’t help anybody, does it?” (#109)

The entertainment purpose here shouldn’t be underestimated. If you think of the rise in attention to atheists and the massive rise in attendance to skeptic or atheist conferences in the past few years, you can attribute a lot of that to the increase in how entertaining atheists are. To get media exposure one doesn’t need to be right, unfortunately, they just need to be interesting – viewers equal dollars, and almost all of the media has a bias towards whatever makes them more money. Insults are entertaining, and therefore get coverage. And coverage means awareness, and awareness means people can’t pretend we don’t exist – whether they agree with us or not.

I know there’s been a big hullabaloo over the tone atheists take on billboards and so forth, but how much coverage has that earned atheists in the news?

Thomas Conley’s “Toward a Rhetoric of Insult” has brilliant insight and analysis on the cultural impact and importance of insults. One of his most interesting insights is that for an insult to work, the people in the audience have to share the same worldview and values as the insulter – an insult is inherently stating that the speaker is morally or otherwise superior and that anyone in the room, including the insultee, should hold to the same moral standards that the insulter is referencing.

For example, if HL Mencken, insulter extraordinaire, says of Warren G. Harding:

He writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.

He is appealing to the idea that everyone thinks that bad English, wet sponges, and barking dogs in the middle of the night are bad things indeed. Even Harding himself would have to agree.

Insults can also be powerful motivators, think of coaches and drill sergeants, or to take a less warlike example, think of sororities and fraternities, which put people through hazing before joining. This creates, strangely, a very tight bond between the insulters and insultees.

To quote Thomas Conley directly:

[O]ne side of insult calls for shared values and beliefs, rests on a kind of intimacy between insulter and the one being insulted, and can be a way of reinforcing social bonds, not just asserting alienation. Insults can be viewed as indirect celebrations of public virtue and as an implicit recognition of the ubiquity of hierarchy. And insults can be a method of motivating people to do their best-what, I suppose, we might call “the noble insult,” like the “noble lie” in Plato or Quintilian. Finally, insults can be a powerful mode of truth-telling.

There is, perhaps, a huge gap between a troll on a website and Christopher Hitchens, though I suspect many Christianists would accuse Hitchens of trolling them. But the spectrum of dicks doesn’t mean that you either have to be Hitchens or you can’t be a dick, it means that context matters (of course!) and that you should at the very least be aware of what you’re trying to accomplish through the way you’re speaking. This is the art of rhetoric generally, but there is a place for being a dick within that art, precisely because of the skillful way in which dickishness can elicit emotional responses.

So, we’re back to the broader point, emotions good! Use them!

People respond to personal stories, people respond to emotional appeals, and if that doesn’t feel right to you, all you have to do is look at Prop 8. Dave Fleischer did an in-depth case study of the Prop 8 campaign, and what follows is an analysis of the importance of emotion in the arguments, and how the gay marriage side failed to emotionally connect with voters.

The gay movement and the atheist and skeptic movement have a lot in common. Like LGBT, atheists and skeptics are usually an invisible minority in the United States. We face a culture that is subtly and not so subtly biased against us, and we face the fact that people are always shoving their woo down our throats. Like LGBT, no one has to know we’re atheist, we can remain “in the closet”. And the more we do so, the more the untruths and false stereotypes about us are allowed to persist. I say this not to encourage people to out themselves, though they should, but because this is the emotional groundwork laid before we even get to the table. It’s an uphill battle, but we already know what’s there.


For those who don’t follow gay rights issues, I’ll give a brief background of Prop 8. In 2000, a ballot initiative called Prop 22 easily won the popular vote and was created as a law, which for these purposes is less effective than a constitutional amendment. In 2004, San Francisco began offering marriage licenses to same-sex couples, which led to a long series of court battles and in 2008 the California Supreme Court said that same-sex couples had the same right to marriage as heterosexual couples, making Prop 22 invalid. Gay marriage in California began in June 2008, but on the ballot that following November was a constitutional amendment that would take that right away.

Prop 8 was a constitutional amendment for the California Constitution that said that marriage was only between a man and a woman. California, unlike the US as a whole, only requires a simple majority to amend its constitution. The campaign was the most expensive campaign in the history of propositions, and second only to the Presidential election in 2008. The gay rights side failed, and the amendment was passed. 18,000 gay couples got married in the window between the overturning of Prop 22 and the enforcement of Prop 8.

Yes = Protect Kids, No = Something about fairness?

The No on 8 campaign was, in many ways, a horrible mess for the LGBT crowd. Not because it wasn’t well-funded, even though their opposition had a seemingly endless supply of money courtesy the Mormon Church, No on 8 was outspending the anti-gay marriage crowd 2:1, even 4:1 in the final week of the campaign. Their problem was that they let the Yes on 8ers have the most emotional capital in the game. For weeks, Yes on 8 had the major advantage of having better emotional messages without facing effective counterarguments.

The shocking thing is that Yes on 8 didn’t even come up with a SINGLE emotional appeal that hadn’t been used thousands of times before this campaign, the gay rights crowd could have easily guessed what they were going to do ahead of time, and most certainly should not have been surprised when those same Anita Bryant tactics were used once again. There had been many previous campaigns headed by NOM, the Catholic Church, and the Mormons against gay marriage in the decade preceding Prop 8, and the anti-rights crowd used the same tactics they always had.

No on 8 had resources, but their ads weren’t effective because they didn’t use pathos. One of their biggest ads was called Conversation and it was two women looking at photos saying that they weren’t too fond of gays, but taking away “fundamental rights” seemed sort of wrong.

This ad was so ineffective, it actually got pulled early. Why? Because it was boring. And because it made no arguments to support its assertion that gay marriage was a fundamental right. There was no emotional appeal, just a moral appeal to something people weren’t sure was moral or not.

The most effective ads the Yes on 8ers used played on the fear of the voters, and most particularly on the fear of parents. In fact, their most effective ad was called Princes, and it was a child coming home from school telling her mother about how she learned at school that a prince could marry another prince, and she could marry a princess. Then a man says “Think it couldn’t happen here? It already is.”

This played on the subtle message that gay marriage was going to pervert childhood in some way. That’s all they had to do, was just imply it. There’s a similar bias against atheists — all someone has to do is hint at it for it to be negative. And the worst part is that these horrible stereotypes just aren’t true. This ad pulled the support of some 500,000 parents who had been on the No on 8 side — half a million parents switched their votes.  Had they voted the other way, No on 8 would have won.

The ad that most changed public opinion back towards LGBT equal rights came too late in the campaign, and it was just a direct rebuttal to the Princes ad — it unfortunately came out weeks later because the No campaign had been unprepared, but it did come out.

The numbers show that the ad was effective, so even if someone catches you unprepared with an emotional message, you can still reply. It’s not nearly as effective as defining the emotional stakes of the discussion yourself, but it’s so easy to get out on front on these issues when you know that they will be coming.

What this means for skepticism and atheism is this: If you were promoting skepticism on a billboard, which would be the stronger message: “Homeopathy is minuscule amounts of questionably useful substances diluted beyond a trace” or “Homeopathy kills, it’s not medicine, it’s fraud”.

We’ve even got the clever “Homeopathy, there’s nothing in it” stickers, right?  I love these!  They’re delightfully nerdy, and if you’re a big fan of Moles then you’ll love it.  But it doesn’t resonate with most people and why should it? It’s just not that important in the scheme of things, unless you point out that it causes actual harm, not just that it violates all the known laws of physics.

If we protest saying “Under God” in the pledge, no one cares. It just feels petty to people, even though we’re right. If we talk about a kid being bullied by teachers for not saying it, on the other hand, people are more likely to care. Think the “It Gets Better Campaign.” If you can point to harm, particularly to children, that works. Scientologists, Christian Scientists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jenny McCarthy and her anti-vaxxers all deny potentially life-saving medical treatments to children. Talk about perfect targets for insults.

Psychics and Faith Healers, two categories of charlatans I can’t tell apart, have had some of this leveraged at them. James Randi has effectively used the emotion of humor to reveal just how pathetic people like Uri Geller are, teaching through mockery — which is kind of dickish, just to bring this full circle. Earlier this year, atheist and mentalist Derren Brown released a special about faith healing, humorously skewering these people as frauds, grifters and scoundrels (and not the fun Han Solo type).

He exposed their tricks – the facts of the case, if you will – but he focused on emotion as well. These healers aren’t just bilking money from little old ladies, they’re bankrupting them. They’re killing them and blaming their illness on lack of faith. They’re not just tricksters, they’re not just giving false hope, it’s much worse than that.

We need more of these exposures. We need more personal stories of people who have been taken advantage of and who have been hurt by pseudoscience and irrational beliefs. We need to be getting more involved in the community, to be doing public acts of charity, to be engaging with issues that matter to people who aren’t skeptics, who aren’t atheists.  We need to be thinking about how to use emotion, we need to recognize that we’re using it whether we intend to or not, and we need to recognize that there are different tactics and, most importantly, room for people who have different tactics.

It’s hearts and minds, right? We’ve got the facts to win their minds, now let’s not be afraid to use emotional rhetoric to win their hearts as well.

Those Darn Young Atheist Messing Up the Skeptic Movement

I want to like Barbara Drescher’s blog, and I really try, because she’s really smart and usually makes solid arguments and we’re FB friends. She is generally quite knowledgeable and I agree with her a fair amount — perhaps my difficulty is a generational thing, because where I disagree with her, it always feels like a personal attack from her. Her recent series of posts really rankled, despite the fact that I don’t feel like I am accurately described by her general complaints of the new kids in the movement. I really tried to see her point of view, and I just cannot, and reading them just makes me feel irritated and insulted.

My trouble with Drescher is, and always has been, her constant dismissal of anyone who doesn’t have credentials that live up to her personal standards. Anyone who is too young, anyone who doesn’t have the right degree, or a high enough degree, or enough time devoted to the movement, or hasn’t read enough of the “right” books doesn’t have the right to be a part of the movement. It’s academic elitism at its very worst, and if her approach to skepticism was the only one, we’d lose a lot of voices, and with them a lot of people who are interested in the movement.

It’s as though she wants to be the self-appointed arbiter of who should and who shouldn’t be allowed to speak. And, admittedly, wouldn’t we all like to have that power? Perhaps the “old guard” thinks of skepticism as their baby, so when it changes or has an influx of numbers, that change is scary, regardless of whether it is positive or negative. Growth is healthy for a movement, but it also means that it changes in ways that are unpredictable and difficult to navigate — perhaps we’re in second or third wave skepticism.

And this is where it seems the “old guard” should step in and be mentors for new members, to reach out to them, to include them — to educate them about the movement in a way that doesn’t seem to say “I’m better than you, you should shut up.” Hey! Tone! Maybe she thinks being elitist will make people want to be part of the elite too? That sort of makes sense in my mind. Or maybe she’s trying to get people to stop contributing without getting a PhD in Skeptology? I’m not sure what her goal is. And perhaps that is intentional, I am not part of her “we”, I am part of the influx of new people from the atheist crowd who are taking over skepticism for our own nefarious purposes.

She seems to operate under a wish for the movement to remain small, both in number of contributors and in size of impact. Does she dislike the idea of a big movement? I don’t understand it at all. I can’t fathom why someone would want to denigrate the young contributors who are the people most likely to ensure the future promotion of skepticism.

And I literally cannot comprehend, in a way that makes me feel like I must be missing something, this tendency for the “old guard” to want to keep skepticism away from subjects that impact people’s daily lives in massively important ways. I just don’t understand intentionally limiting the scope when doing so keeps skepticism from being relevant to most people.

Maybe this is the crux of the issue. Skepticism to me is an approach to improving the world, a thought process that can be applied to everything, and that should be applied to much more of what happens around us every day. I suspect that Drescher feels the same way, it’s just that we differ on what we think is appropriate to skept.

I am angry because an influx of people who have stumbled upon or been recruited to the work of Skepticism are making it much more difficult. We’re moving backwards. This is happening, in part, because some of these rookies insist that their understanding of that work is as good or better than the understanding of people who have studied and worked in the field for years. Many have little or no education in the basics of science or the scientific process. Some claim to follow the teachings of people whose works they have never read. Some believe that the ‘old guard’ have more to learn from them than the other way around. These people voice their opinions on blogs and in talks, discussing topics about which they consider themselves competent after reading a couple of blog posts, listening to a podcast, considering their own limited experiences, or MAYBE reading a book or two on the topic.

What’s worse, they argue about details with little or no understanding of even the big picture. They believe that their understanding is complete and, therefore, requires no study, no thought beyond the surface features, and certainly not time or mentoring.

And I skept at her claims. I mean, I believe she’s angry, I just don’t believe that we’re moving backwards, that rookies are a bad thing, or that they’re as uneducated as she claims, nor that they are any more convinced of being right than anyone else in the movement — there are a lot of hardheaded people in the movement, including just about everyone in the “old guard”. I also think that the old guard could always learn something from the new kids, because they have a different perspective, and shutting yourself off to that makes you irrelevant quickly. Why is it that people forget what it is like to be young, to be passionate, to want to effect change? Why do they constantly try to bridle that with insults instead of trying to help?  I am really bothered by the dismissal of young people, as though they are not fully-formed people who deserve respect and consideration.

Blog Against Theocracy: How religion controls America

I was fortunate enough, in my myriad wanderings through this world wide web, to come across something that’s going on this Easter weekend, which is Blog Against Theocracy.

So, I’m writing an entry for it, because I’m anti-theocracy, which doesn’t necessarily mean anti-religious, but I am also anti-religious.  I am not, however, against believing in God, or being spiritual, but I have a real problem with the political power structure that envelopes most organized religions.

I feel that religions take advantage of people who are at their most vulnerable, people who are scared, lonely, facing death, grieving, or simply at a loss as to the meaning of life.  These are serious, debilitating issues that everyone faces and religion offers an easy fix for them.  “Don’t fear being alone, Jesus loves you; don’t fear death, for you will go to heaven, and so will the loved ones you’ve lost.  Also, could you please donate a tenth of your net worth so that we can proselytize to help other weak and pathetic people in need and use that money to take advantage of politicians and control the government protect your interests.”

It’s incredibly difficult to live in this country without religious support.  Nothing in the country offers anything like the instant support, acceptance, friendship and network that religion does.  Most fraternities and sororities, the boy scouts, 12 step programs, many summer camps, many schools, and the pledge of allegiance (since 1954) all demand your belief in a higher power.  I live alone in Los Angeles, I don’t have a lot of friends, I don’t have a support network.  I am incredibly vulnerable to the appeal of joining a church or synagogue.  I mean, I’m in the entertainment industry, and I’m not Jewish or a Scientologist, how am I ever going to make it?

Religions are a power structure.  They are cults, they offer you the chance to fit in with a group, to be supported by the group, so long as you toe the line.  You get pressured into supporting irrational ideas, financially and politically.  You get put on the ground to do things that no sane person would do on their own.  They are incredibly political groups that are about self-promotion, self-protection, and getting away with as much as they can.

Who, in their right mind, would go to someone’s funeral to say that that person deserved it, were they not egged on by a group of supporters?  Who would refuse their child medical care were they not part of a group that demanded it?  Who would feel obligated to murder people who had harmed no one if it weren’t for religion?  Who would attack or murder a woman seeking an abortion without even asking her why she was doing it?  Who would refuse two people legal protection of the state, if it weren’t for their small-minded, 2000 year old book?  We’re not talking about isolated incidents, we’re talking about things that happen every day, throughout the country, and all over the world.

The founders were incredibly insightful, separating Church from State, but the problem is that churches are allowed to be states of their own.  They are impenetrable, untaxable, untouchable by the state.  Do I think that churches should be run by the state, no, but I also don’t think they should be above and outside the law.  I don’t think they should be allowed to be engaged in politics and spend millions and millions of dollars to get religious legislation passed.  I don’t think they should be allowed to hide their criminals and pedophiles.  I don’t think God’s forgiveness should remove someone from legal justice.

And so I wait for the US, founded on ideals it never quite lives up to but always strives to achieve, I wait for it to look at its Constitution and realize it needs to do something to protect itself and its citizens from the constant onslaught of religious nonsense.  I wait for it to say that I am deserving of equal protection under the law, that I deserve to be protected from mob rule, that other people’s imaginary friends and ancients books of myths are not more important than science and rationality and basic humanity.