Working Works Ltd


It’s a funny word, “works.” What do people mean when they talk about what works? Well it depends – if they’re talking about a toaster or a lawnmower it’s obvious enough what they mean. But the word is often used when the thing supposed to be working or not working is not a thing at all but something much larger and more nebulous, like a political system or a reform movement or a controversy, and then the meaning of “works” becomes not obvious at all.

I briefly joined in yet another argument with James Croft about his (as far as I can tell) favorite subject: whether or not “the atheist movement” is “working” and how he and his colleagues can make it “work” better by managing the way atheists communicate. After awhile I gave it up, because my joining in made no difference – James just kept on managing. But in the process I wondered, not for the first time, what James thinks he means by “working,” when it’s not as if “the atheist movement” is trying to do anything as simple as cutting grass or grilling bread.

Here’s some of that discussion:

James: The idea that opinions only may be given if they are solicited – a sort of “who asked you anyway” response – seems to me a criterion you would never accept in your own writing. One of the things I appreciate about your blog is that you have a view on almost everything, and are happy to express it. I think I am allowed to express my view too, including views which include some normative element (this is hardly uncommon on the other side of the debate, after all – pretty much every post about Chris, for instance, boils down to “he shouldn’t do what he’s been doing and here’s why”).

So, if anything, I think the shoe is on the other foot – here you are trying to tell me not to talk about certain things because you feel “managed” by my airing a different opinion. Well, I don’t want people to feel “managed”. And I accept I have a way of coming across kind of imperious in my writing (and in my speaking – my mum will tell you it’s been a constant struggle for me throughout my life ;) ). That’s something I’m trying to work on. But the issue of how we communicate our message to the public is, I think, very important. It’s worthy of scrutiny and deep consideration, and I think I have something to contribute to that discussion.

Me: Opinions are different from advice. Unsolicited opinions, good; unsolicited advice, usually not so much. That’s why it’s a phrase – “unsolicited advice.”

Here it is again – “the issue of how we communicate our message to the public is, I think, very important.”

So you want to manage it. But lots of us don’t want to be managed! Lots of us just want to do it however we do it and not be corrected all the time.

We don’t want to be herded into some “we” that “communicates our message to the public” in some pre-determined way.

We don’t want filters. We don’t want rules, especially not rules imposed by, say, you, or you and your colleagues. We don’t want frames we have to fit into.

There is no “we” in that sense. There is no unified body that all “communicates to the public” in one market-tested way. Thank god for that!

James: But no one is trying to “impose rules”. What I’m trying to do is have a discussion informed by evidence to determine what works. If, then, having determined what’s likely to be effective, people still wish to do other things, then fine – who am I to stop them? But to forestall the discussion before it has begun is not what I think we should be about.

Me: But I don’t think “works” is even a meaningful word here! I’ve learned to hate it, because of the way it gets deployed in claims precisely like that one. I don’t care what “works.” I certainly don’t care what the combined wisdom of the Harvard Humanists tells me “works.”

I could see it for one narrow subject like a billboard, say, or an ad like the one FFRF ran. Then it does matter what “works.” But for larger more amorphous activities like blogging? No.

And I think you are trying to impose rules (you plural, not you James). I think that’s the whole point of all this research into what “works.”

That’s what I think. It’s been what I think for a long time. It was what I thought when Chris Mooney was always giving the same kind of (unsolicited) advice, too. I don’t calculate what “works” before I write something, and I don’t want to; nor do I want other people to. I don’t even know what “work” would mean in that context – attract new readers? Not repel existing readers? Cause the pope to become an atheist? What?

I’m not interested. I’m not in sales, and I’m not a campaign advisor, so I don’t have to worry about what “works”; I can just try to tell the truth as I see it, about things that I consider important.

I think the whole idea is an excuse, frankly. I don’t think the advice-givers really care about what “works”; I think they dislike certain styles of writing and talking and want to discourage them, and framing it as about what works makes that seem more acceptable than would just saying, “Hey ew I don’t like your style, do it differently.” Maybe I’m wrong; that’s speculation; but that’s what I suspect.

And I really don’t want to be managed. If I wanted to be managed I would get a real job with a paycheck. I want to be un-managed, which is why I shy away from real jobs with paychecks.

Comments

  1. says

    I’ve been watching that discussion. I think Bruce Gorton hit it on the head with this:

    We do as best we can – in that we communicate in our own voices and do so as honestly as we can. Our criticism of each other should be primarily over whether our claims are honest ones, not on what we imagine the neighbours might say.

  2. Luna_the_cat says

    Seems to me that you can have a “what works” for some social phenomena — like, f’rinstance, discouraging teen pregnancy. There, clear goal. Studies of different types of sex ed/interventions can produce honest statistics which can demonstrate relative outcomes.

    But, this thing with atheism — it’s a lot more nebulous, and even more large. Not even all atheists agree on a clear-cut, simple goal. And more to the point, not everyone is going to have an objectionable opinion about atheism changed in the same fashion — some people respond to genteel argument, some people “get” utter bluntness and passion better, and all things in between and a few completely outside. What “works” is never going to be a single approach. There is no possible conceivable way to please everyone, and no definite way to even get a majority to respond in the way that you want, and to be perfectly honest the “best” way is probably as with any extremely large social movement — protest at all levels with a multitude of voices. Civil rights were not won with genteel argument, nor universal suffrage.

    And anyone who suggests that you should abandon your own, honest voice in order to deliver an effective message, deserves to be smacked anyway.

  3. says

    I don’t think James at least believes that he’s suggesting we lose our own honest voices. But I think that’s a very real danger of being more concerned (as he sometimes gives the appearance of being) with how we present, rather than what we present.

  4. says

    Luna – well quite: discouraging teen pregnancy sums up its goal neatly in three words: discouraging teen pregnancy. But atheism can’t do things that neatly. Plenty of atheists just are atheists, and don’t have specifically atheist goals at all – and some secularists are not atheists. Movement atheists have goals and we can probably agree on many of them – but that certainly doesn’t cash out to one brand of “working” that everyone will understand.

    But especially the last bit. Exactly. Can’t they just leave us tf alone? (No, they can’t. Managers gotta manage. Bleah.)

  5. says

    Agreed, Ophelia.

    Over on my blog, I tried out some different writing styles, different ways of presenting my points. The pieces that I’m most satisfied with are the ones where I wasn’t just trying something new, where I wasn’t so concerned with the how, but with the what. In other words, the ones where I was the most honest.

  6. sailor1031 says

    I know I’m getting on a bit these days, and getting a little forgetful from time to time, but did we have an election for chief atheist or something and I missed it? Could it have been Feb 7Th? – I was out of things a bit that day what with a little IV benadryl and later some Versed……..but I read the papers after I came round and didn’t see anything……

  7. says

    Heh.

    That’s what I kept trying to tell James, but he can’t hear it. This is very odd – he tries to tell us how to do communication, but he can’t even see what a dog’s breakfast he makes of it himself.

  8. says

    Totally will try and respond ASAP to see if I can clarify some things from my perspective – celebrating after the Reason Rally at the moment! But I will say, after reflecting on the conversation Ophelia quotes from, I do think she has a point. I’m really reconsidering how I talk about these issues to see if I can avoid the pitfalls Ophelia has pointed out. I’m rewriting one post now actually to try to find a better way of communicating ideas without “managing” anyone.

  9. says

    . . . what a dog’s breakfast he makes of it himself.

    Dog’s breakfast? So, dry, crunchy, and kinda iffy on the smell?

    At least, that’s my dog’s breakfast. :)

  10. Josh Slocum says

    I think the whole idea is an excuse, frankly. I don’t think the advice-givers really care about what “works”; I think they dislike certain styles of writing and talking and want to discourage them, and framing it as about what works makes that seem more acceptable than would just saying, “Hey ew I don’t like your style, do it differently.”

    This. This. This. This. This. This.

    They may not be consciously aware of it, of course, but it’s projection based on emotional-tone-etiquette squeamishness just the same. If it make them (gasp!) uncomfortable then therefore it must make everyone uncomfortable. To say nothing of the fact that any social change movement needs to make people uncomfortable some of the time. Derr.

  11. Josh Slocum says

    James:

    I’m rewriting one post now actually to try to find a better way of communicating ideas without “managing” anyone.

    That will require a reevaluation of your default position. If the ideas you’re trying to communicate are that other people are communicating their ideas “wrong,” then no amount of rewriting will make a difference.

  12. says

    Josh – could you please outline what you take to be my default position? Understanding how I’m being read will be extremely helpful to me in evaluating where I’m going wrong.

  13. Josh Slocum says

    James, I know it doesn’t seem this way to you, but it does to me. That your default position is that the most important thing to talk about is tone and whether X is too provocative. That it’s more important to talk about whether other people are doing it “right” than it is to simply do your own good work in your own way.

  14. Rieux says

    Quite incidentally, James got his name announced on stage by Reason Rally emcee Paul Provenza, who was bridging time between speakers by reading off tweets sent by members in the crowd. In the tweet, which amounted to a personals ad, James plaintively wondered what it would take for a nice gay atheist boy to get a date at the Rally. It was cute.

  15. Dave says

    This is what happens when the public culture is dominated by the twin evils of commercial PR and political spin. Everything must have a goal, people must be united behind that goal, information must be manipulated into a ‘message’ pointing others towards that goal; the goal is achievable, everyone must get behind it.

    Everything is either a ‘movement’ or a ‘campaign’, directions and purposes are always clear [though who chose them usually isn’t], and you’re either ‘on-message’, yay, or ‘off-message’, shut the f*ck up.

    The result is a pernicious drift from uncomfortable truths towards plausible bullshit – which becomes just one eddy of bullshit in an ever-swirling tide.

  16. Egbert says

    Since the atheist movement is a top-down awareness raising campaign, I’m afraid it is very much about PR. And due to its popularity, it’s become a power struggle at the top.

  17. Luna_the_cat says

    @Egbert:
    Since the atheist movement is a top-down awareness raising campaign, I’m afraid it is very much about PR. And due to its popularity, it’s become a power struggle at the top.

    It IS? Sod that for a game of soldiers. Nobody told *me* that’s what it was, and I ain’t buying it.

    Just a thought, but the Sufragette movement was more organised than atheists, definitely had some formal organisations and structures and was all about PR, and they had people who just wrote letters to the papers or carried banners in parades and other people who chained themselves to railings and set buildings on fire. I don’t doubt that they had arguments over best tactics, but it was still all part of the same thing.

    And, and….”due to its popularity”? O_o

    I like your world, maybe.

  18. says

    Rieux – you were THERE? I could have in fact MET the famous Rieux and net even known it? I’ve always wondered who’s behind the incisive posts. Now I’m always going to imagine that you were one of the people I spoke too…

    And the tweet made me two new friends! So happy!! =D

  19. says

    Since the atheist movement is a top-down awareness raising campaign, I’m afraid it is very much about PR. And due to its popularity, it’s become a power struggle at the top.

    Isn’t that exactly the difference in goals that this is about? One group wants to build a hierarchical power structure with officially declared goals and a marketing department, and the other doesn’t.

    We are basically having the same argument over methods the open source community went through: cathedral or bazaar?

  20. Dorothy says

    dgrassett here (actually dgrasett at rogers dot com)
    off pharyngula ’cause its off topic. Where What When When Ottawa thing???? I can do Ottawa easily and would love to hear you talk. I have a mobility problem so I occasionally use a scooter but I drive OK. I have reservations, tickets et al for the Kamloops matter the second half of May, but otherwise. I find advertisements for Austria and Australia, but Ottawa? What What Where When Yeah Yeah.
    I dont think that I can google it as athiest thing ottawa ontario, but who knows, I’ll try.

  21. Rieux says

    Sure I was there, James; I’ve been posting plaintive, though not quite personals-ad-style, FTB comments of my own for a few days.

    (I basically still am “there”; I’ve just woken up bleary-eyed in Alexandria after some much-needed rest following the rocking American Atheists after-party in North Bethesda. My feet are killing me.)

    Starting on Friday afternoon I got to meet, and in several cases spend significant quality time with, Adam “Daylight Atheism” Lee, Jen “BlagHag” McCreight, Leah “Unequally Yoked” Libresco, Alyson “The Monster’s Ink” Miers, “Skeptically Sara” (whose surname I didn’t catch), Greta Christina (and somewhat more her wife Ingrid, who was less beset by well-wishers), Jessica Ahlquist (and her uncle, who was in a similar situation to Ingrid), Hemant “Friendly Atheist” Mehta, Ed “Dispatches” Brayton, Dale “[multiple things] Beyond Belief” McGowan, Justin Griffith, Jesse Galef, Jessica Kirsner, Sharon Moss, Lyz Liddell, Shelley Segal, David Silverman (who is probably the person most responsible for the whole event), and Paul Provenza… and then several folks I already knew, such as PZ Myers and JT Eberhard, though it was fun to meet the latter’s girlfriend, Michaelyn. It was also great, moving even, to reconnect with the two movement folks in attendance whom I knew from before the Internet days—Ed Kagin and August Brunsman. On Saturday night I realized I should have chatted up Sean Faircloth, but I was too busy socializing with everyone else until it was too late.

    I was unhappy to miss seeing several terrific folks who couldn’t make it—such as Ophelia, Stephanie “Almost Diamonds” Zvan, Natalie Reed, Cuttlefish (who quite possibly was here, but I didn’t knowingly meet him), Jason “Lousy Canuck” Thibeault, and my wife, who is 24 weeks pregnant with our first child and was plunked on a Saturday flight to Britain by her corporate employer whom I’ve decided I really dislike now.

    The most fun, though, might have been my neighborhood within the Rally audience, we who got up early enough to carve out territory ten feet behind the VIP section, stage left/audience right. There I mingled all day with a family of four (kids age 2 and 6) from Charleston, S.C.; Ed Kagin and a buddy of his from Cincinnati; another white-bearded guy who was initially certain that Ed was Dan Dennett; late-twenties members of atheist groups in Wyoming and western South Dakota (!); and scads of college kids, from UNC-Greensboro, UConn, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities (woot!), and some college “northeast of Orlando” whose name I missed. One of the U of M kids raised his hand excitedly at James’s personals ad. Maybe he was one of those friends?

    Anyway, it was a flatly unbelievable experience. I haven’t been to too many atheist events before (and none outside of Minnesota in almost 15 years), but whereas all the previous ones basically felt like a bunch of cool people hanging out, this one really felt like the beating heart, or perhaps the explosive blastoff, of a movement. Massive and awesome.

    Next time we’ll have 100,000.

  22. says

    Hi Dorothy – I’m glad you replied! I checked the Pharyngula thread earlier. Sorry about the extra s! – I noticed that after I’d posted the comment and it was too late.

    It’s a convention that CFI Ottawa is doing next December, and I don’t know much more about it than that yet but they will of course be advertising it. November 30-December 2. I’ve definitely agreed, and I’m probably doing a panel as well as a talk. So mark your calendar, and hooray.

    I wish I could do the Kamloops event – I was invited but it’s the same weekend as Women in Secularism, which I’d already accepted. It should be great: both PZ and Maryam.

  23. says

    Agreed – it was fantastic. I was standing perhaps 20 feet from you, with a group from Harvard and Tufts students (and Greg “Good Without God” Epstein ;) ), right near the barriers of the VIP section stage-left. I too got to meet with all my friends in the movement (although I was disappointed JT and I had to reschedule our planned RENT duet). I wish we could have talked – I think we could have sorted a lot of stuff out. Will you be in NOLA for the AHA conference?

  24. says

    So, I’m going to have to respond to this in a number of bits, if that’s ok, because there’s a lot worthy of a response here and it’s an issue I’ve thought a lot about, particularly since the discussion on Greta’s thread. I take the sort of criticism I’ve received very seriously, not just because I want to grow as a person but also because I think the goals of the HCH are important (otherwise I wouldn’t donate so much of my time to them) and if I can find better ways of communicating about our ideas I want to do that. So I’ve been quite introspective about this, rereading a bunch of my posts and the responses to see whether I can work out where the breakdown in communication is occurring and what I can do to fix it.

    First, I think it’s valuable to offer a couple of clarifications: 

    The writing that I’m doing on the topic of persuasion and communication is part of a book project I’m working on (the Freethinkers’ Political Textbook) which aims to bring the best evidence from communication science and related fields to the specific problems faced by the freethinking movement (this is the term I use for the collection of different groups, organizations and individuals which share the desire to promote secularism and reason, reduce the negative effects of religion, and ensure atheists are respected in society. So this includes the movement orgs like AHA and American Atheists,  blogs like FTB and The Friendly Atheist, communities like Ethical Culture Societies and the HCH etc). An introduction to this book project, which outlines why I decided it might be a valuable use of my time to produce such a thing, and why it might be valuable to the movement as a whole, can be found here:

    http://harvardhumanist.org/2011/12/26/the-freethinkers-political-textbook-setting-the-stage/

    I encourage people to read that post, because I think it contextualizes much of my writing on the issue, and it responds to Josh Slocum’s point:

     “your default position is that the most important thing to talk about is tone and whether X is too provocative. That it’s more important to talk about whether other people are doing it “right” than it is to simply do your own good work in your own way.”

     

    My default position, as I think I explain in that post, is that Freethought orgs and communities have persuasive goals they wish to achieve (I know this because they say so themselves, often in the fallout after a disastrous campaign – “We didn’t mean it to be racist!”, “We didn’t mean to offend anybody!” etc.), and that the way they are communicating their values – values that I share – is frequently not working for them. 

    It is because I presume a bedrock of shared values that I focus my energy in providing assistance for groups which wish to communicate their values more effectively. To be specific: it’s because I share American Atheists’ abhorrence of the support for slavery found in the bible that I want them to be successful in conveying that message to other people. Since I don’t disagree with the values, I needn’t spend a lot of time talking about them – I just move on to talking about how those values might be effectively conveyed, given the evidence.

    The issue, as I’ve said again and again, is absolutely not about provocation. I think we should be provocative. Provocative is good. If we are not provoking, thought, discussion, shifts of opinions, press coverage etc. we are not going a good job at communicating our ideas. There is no such thing as “too provocative”. But there is such a thing as provocative in the wrong way. If we provoke our audience to talk about the value of reason in public life, we’ve done good. If we provoke our audience to talk about how racist atheists are, we’ve done bad.

    So, to a second point: nothing I’ve been writing on the topic of persuasion and communication is really about what people write in their personal blogs. All the posts deal with specific persuasive attempts, like billboard campaigns or online campaigns, which have specific persuasive goals. I make this clear in the posts themselves, even going as far as to say in some “if persuasion isn’t your goal, this does not apply”. 

    I’m not sure how I gave the impression that I particularly concerned with what people write on their blogs. In the thread quoted by Ophelia in this post, for example, we are discussing a billboard campaign – precisely the sort of campaign, with a defined persuasive goal, which Ophelia herself says is open to critique in this manner:

    “I could see it for one narrow subject like a billboard, say, or an ad like the one FFRF ran. Then it does matter what “works.””

    Those are the sorts of subjects I have written about in the Freethinkers’ Political Textbook Series: one post is on billboards, another investigates billboards and Internet campaigns, one explores the issue of confrontation and accommodation through the lens of various persuasive pursuits like panel discussions, speeches etc. None of it is about blogging. Some of the posts link to or quote from blogposts to introduce an issue or to cite useful ideas, but none of them offer an extended critique of someone’s blogging. So, again, I do not know where the idea I am interested in “managing” people’s blogs came from.

    Now, there are cases in which I think it is legitimate to criticize what someone has written in their blog: when someone has made an error of reasoning; when someone has misstated or failed to provide evidence; or when what has been written is harmful to some group or individual (either through direct derogation, promotion of negative stereotypes, reinforcing structures of oppression etc.), for example. There are examples on B&W of Ophelia doing all three, so presumably you don’t object to that. This I see as simply being part of blog discourse – we say when we agree, say when we don’t agree, have a discussion. But when I’m addressing persuasive concerns -when I’m asking the question of “what works” – it is always squarely in the context of some persuasive pursuit or other, like the billboards and ads which Ophelia accepts are open to such criticism.

    Sometimes the lines blur a bit, because in a sense blogging can also be seen as a persuasive activity. But the reason why I haven’t spent lots of time deconstructing blog-posts in my writing on this issue is precisely because I see blogs as more of a personal expression of the writer’s voice, and it isn’t really my business (except in the cases I’ve mentioned above) to offer my opinion on their blogging. Indeed, the people who do spend a lot of time writing about other people’s blogging are people like PZ and Ophelia. There are whole series of blogposts on FTB pulling apart things like Karla Mclaren’s posts, Daniel Loxton’s posts, Chris Stedman’s posts – even Chris Stedman’s Facebook updates! And rather a lot of that discussion is discussion of what I would call “tone” (although I think there is lots of hidden disagreement over what that term means which confuse the discussion).

    I find it difficult to understand why this does not count as an attempt to “manage” the discourse.

    So I do think that the following criticism is inaccurate:

    I think the whole idea is an excuse, frankly. I don’t think the advice-givers really care about what “works”; I think they dislike certain styles of writing and talking and want to discourage them, and framing it as about what works makes that seem more acceptable than would just saying, “Hey ew I don’t like your style, do it differently.” Maybe I’m wrong; that’s speculation; but that’s what I suspect.

    Offering reasoned, detailed, evidenced criticism of specific campaigns run by major organizations is, in my mind, a very important activity, and not really anything to do with discouraging certain styles of writing. Certainly, there are styles of writing that I dislike, and sometimes I might think “I wish X wouldn’t write like that”, but I have not published anything saying that people shouldn’t write how they prefer to write. 

    The only exceptions to this are the above three considerations, and here I think is where some of the criticism of what I’ve written comes in. Clearly, I do have different standards as to what counts as unacceptable derogation when compared with some members of the community. And I am willing, sometimes (and as a proportion of the amount of times I comment on freethinking blogs and websites, it is infrequently), to say, essentially: “You shouldn’t talk about other people like that – it’s hurtful, it’s demeaning, it reinforces a stereotype, it’s ad hominen (or whatever)”. I see this activity as parallel to your posts, Ophelia, on sexism within the skeptical community, for example, or to PZ’s posts criticizing people who stereotype atheists. The only differences I see are the following:

    1. That I place a very high value on civility (not the I’m always perfectly civil – I’m human, I get angry sometimes too!), so perhaps my bar for engaging myself in this sort of criticism is lower than others.
    2. When someone is blogging about other people they’re doing the criticizing, whereas when they comment back on the blogposts that someone is being criticized.

    This second point is where my charge of double standards comes in – it really does seem to me that sometimes the most forceful Gnus are quite happy to dish out very derogatory criticism of others, but respond in the most over-the-top way when they receive criticism themselves – even when the criticism they receive is not at all derogatory. 

    I think the issue of derogation is important in itself, because I think derogation of others genuinely has an ethical component, but also because it drives many people out of the discourse, thus impoverishing our discussions of important issues by effectively silencing people with a different view. For instance, there are many people I speak with with who would be interested in discussing the sorts of issues raised on Pharyngula, but who don’t have the time or inclination to engage in what inevitably becomes a highly unpleasant flame war were they to express a different opinion.

    Now you might respond to this “So what? PZ has created the sort of atmosphere he wants there, and it’s entirely his business.” And to an extent you would be right. But I do think there is an element of hypocrisy here, because I do not believe you can consistently claim to wish to promote freethinking and at the same time create an environment on your own blog which discourages it. 

    Freethinking, as JS Mill points out, requires an environment in which all views are given a hearing, and in which social stigma nor coercion are used to silence different opinions. In my view, social stigma (in terms of extreme name-calling, personal attacks, pseudo-psychological interpretations of your mental state, being mobbed with frivolous and blatant misinterpretations of your writing etc.) and coercion (outright banning) are the primary forces at work in the comments threads there IF you happen to disagree with PZ’s opinion or call him out on some particularly egregious derogation. And this absolutely definitely make some people unwilling to express their disagreement for fear of suffering the same demonization they see others going through, thus impoverishing the dialogue and preventing a truly open expression of ideas.

    Finally, onto this question of “managing”, being seen to want to “manage” other people, and the idea that I am offering unsolicited advice. Here’s where I think Ophelia and others have the best point. I certainly see how the posts in the Textbook series can be seen as, and in some sense are, “unsolicited advice”. I am certainly offering advice, and it’s true that nobody directly asked for it. On the other hand, no one is being forced to read it or, if they read it, forced to agree with my conclusions. There is no attempt at coercion or manipulation here – just an offering of resources to those to whom they might be valuable. 

    I can understand that may seem presumptuous, but here’s why I think it’s legitimate: because what these major movement orgs do (in terms of the persuasive efforts) affects the movement as a whole, and I consider myself part of the movement, and so it affect me and the organization I work for. AA’s slave billboard reflects on me as an atheist trying to reduce stigma against atheists in America, and does so rather directly. Bigoted comments put up on AA’s Facebook page affect me, because they affect how I and the organization I work with are viewed. So I think it is legitimate that I air my view, as long as I don’t try to force people to heed it (which I do not).

    I could certainly air that view in a way that is less likely to upset commenters on FTB, and I’m going to make a strong effort to do so in the future (I’ve even slightly edited some things I’ve already written). But I do want to point out that FTB is only one venue, only one part of this movement, and I receive the sort of criticism that is common here only here and literally nowhere else. The challenges of communicating to this audience in particular are different to the challenges in other movement spaces.

    So, I think that’s my view. I hope it’s clear and respectful.

  25. says

    Quick reply – I haven’t read every word of the comment yet.

    Um…fair point about the billboard. I had rather forgotten that Greta’s post was indeed about a billboard! Mea culpa.

    Why ripping Stedman’s gnu-bashing posts isn’t about management: because the posts are bashing gnus. Management would be telling him how to reach out to gnus (or anyone else) when he hadn’t asked.

  26. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    James

    I read your HCH post linked in #33. I have a problem with one bit:

    As I have argued elsewhere, the Humanist movement seems peculiarly averse to harnessing the arts, narrative, music, imagery, symbolism and, more broadly, the emotions to promote its values and persuade the public. We often seem emotionally tone-deaf when we reach out to the broader public, creating appeals more likely to enrage than to entice.

    Earlier today PZ started a new version of The Zombie Thread and made the comment:

    By the way, you would be amazed at how many Zombie Jesus graphics you can find on the web.

    In the comments I remarked: “I just spend a minute with google. I am amazed.” Google “Zombie Jesus” and you’ll find page after page of Zombie Jesus pictures. There are lots of atheist-themed illustrations. There are atheist songs (Bad Religion and Tim Minchin, both highlighted at the rally, produce those). FSM knows there’s lots of atheist books. In short, atheism is easily found in the arts. I even know of a Marvel comic book hero who’s an atheist.

    Never mind, I forgot. You’re not plugging atheism, your interest is “Humanism”, in which atheism is merely an inconvenient, not really necessary accompaniment, given lip-service only because atheists pout if Humanists are too slighting towards atheism.

  27. Sastra says

    James Croft #33 wrote:

    Freethinking, as JS Mill points out, requires an environment in which all views are given a hearing, and in which social stigma nor coercion are used to silence different opinions. In my view, social stigma (in terms of extreme name-calling, personal attacks, pseudo-psychological interpretations of your mental state, being mobbed with frivolous and blatant misinterpretations of your writing etc.) and coercion (outright banning) are the primary forces at work in the comments threads there IF you happen to disagree with PZ’s opinion or call him out on some particularly egregious derogation.

    A quick note in defense of Pharyngula here: the ‘social stigma’ of disagreeing with the post may seem disproportionate because of the high volume of traffic. In other words, there’s a lot of diversity in the comments section. The “mob” is not a single unit, and different styles and approaches mingle frrely.

    What I see happening a fair amount, however, is that someone who disagrees with PZ will look at the large amount of argument suddenly thrown against them and then deliberately pick out the worst of the name-calling or abuse and focus their attention on that. Maybe it’s shock that it’s there at all, I don’t know. But this makes it look like they came in looking for an excuse to complain — and the flame war escalates. Those who tried to answer the argument only to be ignored (or have the jist of their response ignored) feel as if the newcomer is obviously more interested in style over substance. The more temperate and reasonable thus drop out — or drop off being as temperate and reasonable.

    By focusing on tone, the dissenter quite possibly ends up creating the very environment they presumably didn’t want.

  28. says

    THO #35:

    You make a good point, and then you undercut it with a weird one. Ill take the second point first: sure, I’m promoting Humanism. You seem to think I should be ashamed of that fact, or to suggest I’ve tried to hide it in some way. Nothing could be further from the truth – I’m very clear about the distinction between Humanism and atheism and I am proud to promote Humanism. Your claim hat I view atheism as “merely an inconvenient, not really necessary accompaniment, given lip-service only because atheists pout if Humanists are too slighting towards atheism” is completely false, and you have no evidence of it. I am crystal clear in my writing that I view atheism as a necessary component of Humanism – a necessary but insufficient condition or, as I tend to say, the “back foot” which grounds Humanism in reality. My objection is when people promote atheism at the expense of Humanism, as Dave Silverman has occasionally done. So you are completely wrong on this front – and you demonstrate you have a prejudiced and inaccurate view of my position which is not based on facts.

    Your first point – that there’s a lot of great work which satirizes religion – is a point I myself make when I talk on this subject. I don’t disagree. But the Humanist movement (to the extent the it is distinguishable from the atheist movement) is not as good at harnessing these materials. That is why I directed my comment to the “Humanist Movement”.

    Sastra:

    I think you make a good point that the relative weight of different comments probably pushes some away. But I’d say it’s the place of a moderator to prevent highly personal derogatory attacks of any sort. PZ instead encourages them.
    So the first point I agree with (and have myself made), the second is flatly wrong.

  29. Sastra says

    James Croft #38 wrote:

    But I’d say it’s the place of a moderator to prevent highly personal derogatory attacks of any sort. PZ instead encourages them.

    Sometimes. I think it depends on the nature of the forum — and on what is being interpreted as a “highly personal derogatory attack.” Of any sort? There’s a lot of leeway there, given the fact that religion and faith have culturally been granted an undeservedly high status and equated with personal identity… and given that the scope of the internet requires learning to adapt, and not be too wedded to self-image or ego.

    When people are seen as over-sensitive on an issue and a topic has been typically treated with too much deference, not everyone will want to tone down criticism and make sure the space is “safe” for gentle discussion. That can easily allow everyone to get off-track in a search for harmony. The discussions — and those involved — may be better, and better off, if they become more challenging. Or, at least, if one is aware that they can be more challenging.

    “If you want to fire up lots of lively discussion and encourage expression of multiple viewpoints, the rule should be hands off — not fussing over ‘tone’ (a word becoming about as distasteful as ‘framing’), not worrying about whether manners should dictate what is allowed to be posted. It does make for a rather Darwinian commenting environment, and some people are harshly self-culled…but the failures here are largely the fragile flowers who need their self-esteem propped up before they can express their opinions, and I don’t miss them at all. All you regulars can take pride in the fact that you are the strong survivors, possessing robust egos and good solid voices, who can handle the challenge of an ungentle tone.’

    — PZ Myers

  30. says

    “My objection is when people promote atheism at the expense of Humanism, as Dave Silverman has occasionally done.”

    See, that sounds like managing again – unless you mean more than usual by “at the expense of.” I don’t see why anyone shouldn’t talk about (or promote) atheism without talking about humanism or Humanism. In fact even if you do mean more than usual by “at the expense of” it still sounds managerial and as-if-the-boss-of-atheism. I don’t see how you can think you have standing to “object” when people promote atheism at the expense of Humanism.

  31. says

    There are numerous flaws in PZ’s reasoning here. The first is in his premise: I would simply deny that “If you want to fire up lots of lively discussion and encourage expression of multiple viewpoints, the rule should be hands off”, if by that he mean “totally hands-off”. Of course people will be discouraged from airing their view if they are routinely insulted and spat at rhetorically. And (revealing the second flaw), the people discouraged to post won’t be just those who are insecure and can’t handle criticism, who need their egos “propped-up” (and how’s that for astonishing condescension?), but also people who are perfectly capable of handling reasoned criticism but find it unpleasant to be called names and harangued by people who, quite frequently, make no effort to understand the point of view they are responding to.

    PZ also here commits a classic fallacy of the excluded middle (a fallacy he commits all the time): there’s a range of potential environments on a scale between “too concerned with tone” and “complete free-for-all with unpleasantness modeled and encouraged by the moderator”, many of which, I think quite clearly, would encourage a more lively and more robust form of argument than goes on often in his threads.

    Ggranted, when it comes to religion people are quick to illegitimately take offense, and therefore it makes sense to err on the side of allowing people to give offense rather than silencing criticism in that case. But you could hardly say Greta’s blog, for instance, is too light-touch on religion, and yet she has a very good policy of moderation which prevents the derogation and thoroughgoing nastiness that happens at Pharyngula with depressing regularity.

    Finally, PZ’s stated intentions starkly contradict his practice of banning people with views he doesn’t like – far from encouraging an evolutionary process, he seems (ironically) to favor a form of intelligent design (though how intelligent is up for debate).

    Frankly, the quote, far from encouraging me to take PZ’s view, encapsulates pretty much everything I find wrong with his approach to blogging – brawl away, and people be damned!

  32. Josh Slocum says

    but also people who are perfectly capable of handling reasoned criticism but find it unpleasant to be called names and harangued

    Grow up and stop using “name-calling” as an excuse to refuse to engage substance.

    by people who, quite frequently, make no effort to understand the point of view they are responding to.

    I don’t see a lot of that, although I note that you make this claim frequently. And often about me. I do not go out of my way to read you uncharitably, believe it or not. I simply vehemently disagree with you on some things and your harping on tone is unbelievably boring and endless.

    But you could hardly say Greta’s blog, for instance, is too light-touch on religion, and yet she has a very good policy of moderation which prevents the derogation and thoroughgoing nastiness that happens at Pharyngula with depressing regularity.

    Or you could say her comment-moderation policy is a puzzle considering the things she says in her posts.

    Jesus Christ James, why are you such a wilting flower? You’re bright and passionate—why are you so thin-skinned?

  33. says

    My objection is when people promote atheism at the expense of Humanism, as Dave Silverman has occasionally done.

    I’m going to have to join Ophelia in objecting to this. Not every atheist is a humanist/secular humanist/Humanist. As one example, many identify as libertarians. And still others don’t identify as subscribing to any particular, named worldview.

    1. That I place a very high value on civility (not the I’m always perfectly civil – I’m human, I get angry sometimes too!), so perhaps my bar for engaging myself in this sort of criticism is lower than others.

    And I place a much lower value on civility in my debates and discussions. I’m not sure if you view it this way, but I think some people equate civility to respect. I do not. I think it’s completely possible to respect someone’s humanity without being perfectly civil. In other words, if someone wants to say “Nathan, you’re wrong because X, Y, and Z, and also, you’re a moron and an asshole,” I’m ok with that (it’s probably true that I’m an asshole, anyway).

    . . . also people who are perfectly capable of handling reasoned criticism but find it unpleasant to be called names and harangued by people. . .

    And while I’m ok with being called names, I don’t find it pleasant. But I’m still fine with engaging in the debate. If I really don’t feel like putting up with it that day, I’ll avoid forums where it’s common.

  34. says

    Do you seriously think I’d keep responding on is website if I were thin-skinned? Get real! I Love robust debate, I like the cut-and-thrust of it. But I really appreciate a fair fight, because in a fair fight the best arguments win. It’s thuggery I’m opposed to, not dueling ;).

    Ophelia – I’m seeing the double-standard again. When Dave says that Humanism is a “cop-out” and that everyone, by his decree, must describe themselves as an “atheist” first and foremost (as he did at Skepticon), I call bullshit. If I had said the opposite – “atheist? What a cop-out!” – you know you would do the same.

  35. says

    And Nathan, I think you just made my point:

    “If I really don’t feel like putting up with it that day, I’ll avoid forums where it’s common.”

    Indeed you will.

  36. says

    James – nope – you’re not seeing a double standard again, you’re seeing me not have enough information to go on. You didn’t provide what Dave had said.

    And surely he didn’t say everyone must self-describe as an “atheist” first and foremost. I can’t tell what he did say, from your description, so I’ll suspend judgment for now. But in any case I can better see disagreeing with him that calling oneself a humanist is a cop-out than I can see saying “what I object to”…

    Mind you, I think some people do call themselves things like “humanist” because it sounds Nicer than atheist. I think it can be a cop-out. I don’t think it has to be though.

  37. Sastra says

    James Croft #41 wrote:

    I would simply deny that “If you want to fire up lots of lively discussion and encourage expression of multiple viewpoints, the rule should be hands off”, if by that he mean “totally hands-off”.

    I suspect PZ would deny that he’s totally hands off or in favor of a “complete free-for-all.” People do get scolded, smacked down, or banned. There are also internal criticisms among the commenters when someone goes off the deep end — though this might not be as frequent as you’d prefer. And again, the regulars are not a monolithic block. We argue against each other. It’s encouraged.

    Of course people will be discouraged from airing their view if they are routinely insulted and spat at rhetorically.

    In a large forum, however, people have a lot of choices. They can choose to engage only with the people who are less insulting. Or, they can choose to engage only with the part of an insulting post which has a valid or interesting point. After a while, the insults become less frequent, less noticeable — or placed into a more comprehensible context and taken less personally. They don’t matter — which is the point.

    I’ll suggest this: there is no “thoroughgoing nastiness” at Pharyngula. Like with many things, we get out what we put in, and find what we’re looking for.

    Finally, PZ’s stated intentions starkly contradict his practice of banning people with views he doesn’t like

    I think he’s generally pretty careful about who he bans and why — there are plenty of regulars and visitors who have views he doesn’t like. But I don’t know the specifics of whatever or whoever it is you’re bothered about here, so I’ll drop it.

    Frankly, the quote, far from encouraging me to take PZ’s view, encapsulates pretty much everything I find wrong with his approach to blogging – brawl away, and people be damned!

    Oh, I didn’t post it because I thought you’d agree with it. It’s just that I am cautious about arguments on who is being Bad Atheist which don’t quote the accused.

  38. says

    And Nathan, I think you just made my point:

    Then I must be misunderstanding your point, James. I’ve taken your point -at least as it regards forums like Pharyngula- to be that personal insults and derogatory remarks should never happen, or as close to that as can be managed. I’ve taken your point as “if you can’t say it civilly, don’t say it at all.” And I’m saying that I have little to no problem with people being rude when they argue, and that somedays I’ll engage in those forums, and somedays I won’t.

  39. says

    Well I didn’t give further detail because ’twas a truly tiny point in an enormous post, most of which has been ignored! For the record, Dave did say that to call ourself a Humanist is a cop-out and that nothing but atheism would do, that’s what I call “promoting atheism at the expense of Humanism” (what other sort of thing did you think I could have meant by it?), and I see you accept It’s reasonable to disagree on that point.

    And Sastra, sure people can choose, if they want to, to ignore the insults. But there is a huge distance between “people can choose to ignore reading that they have been called an appeaser, a bootlicker, a fucking wanker and a stooge, and post anyway”, and saying that calling people those things “don’t matter”. Of course they matter. They set the level and the nature of the discussion. They push people like me (if I could still post there) and Nathan (and many others) away from engaging. They reinforce groupthink and irrationalism. And they reinforce stereotypes that atheists are cruel, heartless, vicious and needlessly offensive.

    “X does not matter to me”, and “X does not matter if the only thing we are to consider is the logical form of an argument” =\= “X doesn’t matter”.

  40. says

    I do believe the, but the point I think you proved (and just reinforced) is that people will sometimes choose to add their view to a discussion because thy can’t tand the toxicity, not because they have notng value to add. And that is precisely opposed to the goal of getting many voices into the conversation.

  41. says

    They push people like me (if I could still post there) and Nathan (and many others) away from engaging.

    Just so we’re clear, James, the insults at Pharyngula do not push me away from engaging on that site, except for very specific, not-so-common days. The primary reason I don’t comment there on a regular basis is that I find it difficult to keep up with the sheer explosion of comments that tends to happen there. A secondary, but related reason, is that I can only devote so much time to reading bloggers, and so I have gravitated toward bloggers who’s writing style I enjoy a bit more than PZ’s.

  42. says

    Yikes that was a mess! I’m sorry! You got it right I think. Look, my primary point was about this “managing” issue and about my posts on communication. I notice no one is taking up my points there. Does that mean people are in agreement with that?

  43. says

    Ah, well, then I will disagree with you that insults should never happen. Regarding “managing” and what-not, let me look back at those. I simply got distracted. Also, it’s likely that some who still disagree with you are simply off doing other things right now.

  44. says

    No! Could mean just that people haven’t read all of them yet.

    For the record, Dave did say that to call ourself a Humanist is a cop-out and that nothing but atheism would do, that’s what I call “promoting atheism at the expense of Humanism” (what other sort of thing did you think I could have meant by it?)

    I thought you could have meant talking about (or promoting) just atheism instead of atheism and humanism, or atheism instead of humanism. That was the more obvious meaning – if you say she watches tv at the expense of reading, it means she does the first instead of the second. I didn’t know you meant it was something Dave had said.

    Language is tricky.

  45. says

    All right, took a look at some of the stuff written in this thread by you, James, that wasn’t directly related to Pharyngula and the kind of discourse that goes on there. I also looked at the link you provided where you set the stage for your “Freethinkers Political Textbook.” I’ve come away with a few impressions.

    In that link, you cite advertising and political campaign strategies, saying they are very good at exciting people’s emotions, and that if we want our own campaigns (billboards, and such) to be effective, we should look to them and the expertise that’s been developed in the last century. That’s a hard sell, at least to me. The things I’ve noticed in marketing and politics that excite emotions (or intend to) are manipulative, and full of fallacies (hell, fallacies often work precisely because they activate an emotional response). I would assume you’re already aware of that, and that you don’t support such tactics, but you didn’t really allow for that in your post.

    I’ve also come away with an impression that every time you say the word “wrong,” as in when you refer to doing campaigns wrong or something, that you’re using it in a moralistic sense, and that just rubs me (heh) wrong. No, I can’t point to any one thing that gives me that impression, but the impression is there. Take that as you will.

    I thought you could have meant talking about (or promoting) just atheism instead of atheism and humanism, or atheism instead of humanism.

    Kinda how I took it as well.

  46. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    Finally, PZ’s stated intentions starkly contradict his practice of banning people with views he doesn’t like

    I once had a long argument with PZ. So why aren’t I banned from Pharyngula? My guess is it’s because PZ actually has a very light hand on the banhammer. Someone has to work hard to get banned at Pharyngula.

    If you look at the Pharyngula Dungeon, you’ll see reasons for banning, such as:

    Rape apologist who thought getting called names on Pharyngula was a greater injustice than child abuse.

    Idiot misogynist.

    I have a new criterion for banning: if you feel the need to make dishonest arguments about how “cunt” only means “obnoxious person”, then goodbye. Why do so many people do that? The intent is clearly to insult someone by comparing them to the most odious of anatomical features, a vulva.

    I’ve read the threads in which these three people were banned. The descriptions are both reasonable and apt.

    James, you prefer civility. That’s fine. I’ve got no problem with that. I do have a problem with your tone trolling, your obvious preference for style over substance. Now I realize you’ll claim you’re not a tone troll, but someone who says

    Frankly, the quote, far from encouraging me to take PZ’s view, encapsulates pretty much everything I find wrong with his approach to blogging – brawl away, and people be damned!

    is a tone troll.

  47. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    James Croft #53

    Look, my primary point was about this “managing” issue and about my posts on communication. I notice no one is taking up my points there. Does that mean people are in agreement with that?

    You’re absolutely right. Not once today have I have mentioned how arrogant and condescending you HCH types are. My apologies for overlooking this.

  48. says

    Lol – love that last, THO.

    What on earth do you mean by tone troll. Seriously, people use it in so many different contexts, I really have no clue wht people mean by it any more. Does your recent reference to my arrogance and condescension count, or are you exempt?

    Nathan – read the post in the series called “Go for the Gut” – it addresses precisely the issues you raise and points to further research if you’re interested. The whole discussion of the role of emotions is a long one, but I have directly addressed the points you make here in posts and speeches over the last couple of years, all of which are available online.

  49. Allie says

    The writing that I’m doing on the topic of persuasion and communication is part of a book project I’m working on (the Freethinkers’ Political Textbook) which aims to bring the best evidence from communication science and related fields to the specific problems faced by the freethinking movement[…]

    James, what exactly *is* your background in rhetoric and rhetorical theory? What is your stance of liberatory education (ie, Paulo Freire)? Do you admit–as most rhetorical theorists do–that persuasion is situational and audience-driven, and that, because audiences are continually changing (not just because the make-up of the audience changes, but because people’s thoughts aren’t static), that there is usually not a one-size fits all approach?

    Really, I’m getting at where you’re at epistemologically.

    Second, where do you get the idea that FtB and other venues aren’t “working”? And how do you define “working”? Is it by “being persuasive” and if so, how do you measure that?

    Third, how can you separate specific campaigns (billboards, polls, etc) from the overall ethos of the blog or organization that its attached to? This may be productive if we’re talking about the efficacy of THAT CAMPAIGN SPECIFICALLY but now when you want to broaden the talk to the efficacy of certain rhetorical maneuvers. As Andrea Lundsford would say, everything is [part of the] argument.

  50. Allie says

    Nathan,

    The idea that emotional appeals are manipulative (as if persuasion itself doesn’t manipulate in some fashion, or that manipulation is inherently “bad”) or fallacious is just flat wrong (although it comes from a long tradition of Aristotelian misreading). Emotional appeals work because they connect with people at a gut level…this gut level is not necessarily fallacious. I left Christianity because my best friend came out of the closet and my gut told me he wasn’t a sinner and that the doctrine must be wrong. That was later followed up by years of study, but that moment? That one moment when I was like, “The church has to be wrong; it just has to be!” was purely emotional.

    In a less personal way, the modern gay-rights movement understands that the emotional appeal of having a family member or friend who is gay counts for more than any other argument could. That’s what the Out campaign is all about (and what the atheist out campaign is about as well).

    Sure, some emotional appeals are not so great. But I just want to push back at the automatic, knee-jerk skeptical reaction to emotional appeals as “nope, icky wrongness”. :)

  51. says

    Allie, agreed.

    And I suppose that I wasn’t entirely clear, now that you point it out to me. What I was addressing, specifically, is the type of emotional appeals and manipulation used in most advertising and political campaigns, campaigns which James was advocating looking to for guidance on what’s effective in persuading people. Those types of campaigns have far less of a focus on honest, reasonable argument that also gives you an emotional reason to agree than I can see as ethical, and more of a “truthiness” focus: here’s an emotional focus for you, so we must be right/this product is the best/whatever. Reason hardly enters into it. It’s true that not all emotional appeals are fallacious, or ethically suspect. It is true that many fallacies work primarily because of emotions, however (ad hominem, appeal to pity/force/fear, some forms of straw man, ad populum, to name a few).

    As to the gut, it should be noted that many people’s gut reaction to your friend -even as a friend- would have been that he was a sinner, and they would have felt it as vehemently as you felt the opposite. The gut may not be necessarily fallacious, but neither is it necessarily correct. It’s to your credit that you took the time to study the question, and any other questions that led you to, and eventually leave Christianity.

    Still, rebuke noted. Emotional appeals are not always a bad thing, that’s true. However, I would argue that -if your goal is persuasion- it’s more ethical to make sure that emotional appeals are used in conjunction with appeals to reason, rather than on their own.

  52. says

    Let’s try this one more time, James.

    Premise 1: Your goal is to persuade the maximum number of people to your point of view, which is atheistic humanism.

    Premise 2: “Atheistic humanism” is a chiefly a matter of philosophy, moral views, and prioritized values.

    Premise 3: Progress towards this goal is a matter of fact and thus can be measured empirically.

    Premise 4: You speak as an authority on the topic, and therefore should be more than familiar with the available evidence.

    Premise 5: You understand the difference between examples and scientifically legitimate evidence.

    Premise 6: You are not deceiving anyone and are wholly sincere about your beliefs and goals here.

    Premise 7: You care about actually convincing empirically-minded people and do not want to waste time in emotional debates about tone and semantics merely because of your personal views.

    Conclusion: James will present for us at least one, but preferably several, well conducted scientific studies that show that his preferred marketing approach sell matters of philosophy, moral views, or equivalent values more effectively than those he argues against.

  53. says

    Hi Allie! You raise a series of excellent questions which, I think, deserve a full response, so here we go:

     James, what exactly *is* your background in rhetoric and rhetorical theory? 

     

    I write a little about my background in is field in the first post in the series, because I recognize people have a legitimate interest in my background if I’m going to try to pull this research together. Here’s what I say there:

    In addition to my work as a philosopher at Harvard, I’ve been a political activist since my teens, working with the UK’s Liberal Democrat party in various roles as a volunteer in political campaigns. There I learnt how to go door to door convincing people to put up signs in support of our candidate, how to respond to constituents’ concerns over the phone, how to conduct effective petitions, and the traits of good political candidates. I continued my activism as a student at Cambridge, where I was Education Campaigns Officer for my Student Union. As an actor and singer with over 50 public performance credits to my name, I have honed the art of using my body as an instrument to convey ideas and emotions.  As a high school debater, and later a high school teacher training an award-winning debate team, I learned how to speak effectively in front of a hostile crowd, and win them over.

    Now, in Boston, I’m a board-member of Join the Impact MA (a direct action gay rights activist group), and travel around the country speaking on Humanism as a member of the Speaker’s Bureaus of the American Humanist Association, the Center for Inquiry, and the Secular Student Alliance. I help teach Persuasion: The Science and Art of Effective Influence with Gary Orren at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government – a class President Obama himself took as a graduate student, and which he credited for some of his success. I have studied and helped coach Public Narrative with Marshall Ganz, legendary community organizer who created Camp Obama, the community-organizing training program credited with much of the success of Obama’s Presidential Campaign. My final speech for that class is now used to teach Public Narrative to others, alongside speeches by Obama and Gandhi.

    To give a little more detail on Gary Orren’s persuasion class, which is by far the strongest influence on me in this area: in two intensive weeks (9-6 each day), the class seeks to teach 19 principles of persuasion, each of which have been verified to work through experimental studies, in a very practical way (through lectures, case studies, and numerous small group activities). The principles include things like “authority”, “liking” and “similarity”. We also discuss frameworks for thinking about persuasion, such as Aristotle’s Logos, Ethos, Pathos distinction, and the difference between Conversion, Activation, Deconversion and Reinforcement (different persuasive goals). There is a whole day on the Ethics of persuasion, too. Hundreds of students, including heads of state, politicians, lobbyists, army officers, lawyers, CEOs, and even future presidents have derived great value from it, and I have too. 

    I might also add to this that I’m a published academic in a wide range of fields, including philosophy, performance theory, and social science (I do qualitative work).

    Then you ask: 

    What is your stance of liberatory education (ie, Paulo Freire)? 

    For me, a full answer to that question would be very, very long! I have extremely conflicted feelings about Freire’s writing. Some history: I studied Educational theory as an undergraduate at Cambridge, where I focused in Educational Philosophy. Freire was foundational to my early work as an educator in prisons and juvenile detention facilities (I worked with a group called the London Shakespeare Workout Prison Project for two years while at college). I see education as primarily an act of liberation, and my doctoral dissertation is about the development of intellectual autonomy as a necessary component of individual freedom and a free society – it’s called Free Thinking. If I have a calling in life, I feel I am called to aid people in the development of the capacities required for free thought, so that they might take true control over their own circumstances.

    So, Freire’s work as an educator is a model for what I hope I have been doing in my life and what I hope to do in the future. I actually have, for the past four years, helped teach a class in liberators pedagogy directly based o Freire at Harvard (with Eleanor Duckworth, student of Piaget – if you have an interest in liberation pedagogy you may have heard of her).

    BUT…

    Over time I have become less enchanted with Freire’s writing. I actually think, now, that there are far better proponents of the sort of pedagogy he imagines, who write more clearly, and are less contradictory. I have also found that, in some contexts (and I’m thinking of my time as a high school teacher in West London here), a direct transposition of Freireian tech inquest just doesn’t work. There are so many things he doesn’t take into account in his work, so much fuzziness in his writing, so many examined assumptions. So, suffice to say, I consider Freire and his ideas to be a central part of my educational past, but a more peripheral part of my work today. I recognize this is a sketch which brings up more questions than it answers, but this could be a VERY long discussion!

    Do you admit–as most rhetorical theorists do–that persuasion is situational and audience-driven, and that, because audiences are continually changing (not just because the make-up of the audience changes, but because people’s thoughts aren’t static), that there is usually not a one-size fits all approach?

    I do more than “admit” this – Know the Audience is the primary principle we teach in the Persuasion Course at HKS! I’ve written about this at length:

    http://harvardhumanist.org/2012/01/31/the-freethinkers-political-textbook-know-the-audience/

    So, you’re absolutely right: any persuasive attempt must perforce begin with a close analysis of the target audience, and we don’t want one-size-fits-all approaches. But (and it’s a big ‘but’ ;)) that does not mean that there aren’t broad principles of persuasion which do apply in pretty much every case. Too often then argument from differing audiences leaps from “there’s no one-size-fits-all approach which will suit all audiences” to “therefore every strategy will at times be appropriate”, or ore precisely “there is a type of audience to fit every possible persuasive strategy”. 

    This is clearly incorrect. Some strategies simply lack evidential support. For example, I can’t find a single experimental study which demonstrates that derogating someone (even some third party who is not part of the audience) increases the persuasive power of a speaker. I can find studies which show pretty much no effect, and studies which show that it decreases the persuasiveness of the speaker, but none which show it to be a valuable strategy (I’m pulling all the evidence together into a post on ridicule which I’ll publish in a week or so). So, “audience is queen” =\= “anything goes”.

    Really, I’m getting at where you’re at epistemologically.

    Epistemology has a special place in my heart: my dissertation advisor is an epistemologist (Kate Elgin), I have written on epistemology, and I’d say my main influences are Nelson Goodman, Israel Scheffler, Kate herself and other intellectual descendants of Quine. I go in for a groovy analytical pragmatism, although I recognize some value in certain elements of the continental tradition (Foucault, Sartre), and would like someday to do an analytical restatement of the central ideas of critical theory. Must. Graduate. First!

    where do you get the idea that FtB and other venues aren’t “working”? And how do you define “working”? Is it by “being persuasive” and if so, how do you measure that?

    I have clarified this numerous times in this thread, but here we go again: I am not making any judgment about whether FTB or any other blog “works” – if you check #34 you’ll see that some of this argument stemmed from some confusion about the terms of our initial disagreement over at Greta’s blog. I am writing about specific campaigns with specific goals, which is why my posts on this question focus on things like billboard campaigns, online campaigns etc.

    As for how do I define working, I let the orgs themselves define the goals of the campaign, then I look at the response to the campaign in the media and elsewhere and try to determine if the campaign seemed to achieve the stated goals. It would help enormously if the movement orgs would share any hard data they have on the topic, and would reveal how they measure the success of their campaigns, but none has ever done so to my knowledge. My suspicion is the many orgs who do, for example, a billboard campaign have no mechanisms in place to evaluate its success. This may be unfair, but that is my suspiscion.

    I would also point out that I can only think of one post in the series which actually addresses the question of whether a campaign as a whole “worked”. Usually what I’m talking about is something more like “does this campaign effectively or ineffectively harness X principle of persuasion” which is a judgment one can make independently of (indeed, without making) a judgment about whether a campaign as a whole successfully achieved its goals.

    how can you separate specific campaigns (billboards, polls, etc) from the overall ethos of the blog or organization that its attached to? This may be productive if we’re talking about the efficacy of THAT CAMPAIGN SPECIFICALLY but now when you want to broaden the talk to the efficacy of certain rhetorical maneuvers. 

    That’s a very interesting question. Generally, I’m really not criticizing the general ethos of organizations. I limit myself to talking about specific campaigns. But I do recognize that different orgs have different agendas and different, errr – I want to say “tones” but I know how much people hate that word – different approaches, perhaps? This is why I let the org itself determine the goals of the campaign and appraise it by their stated goals. I don’t put myself in the position, too often, of criticizing whole organizations for having whatever goals. I think I’m pretty much on board with the goals of all the major movement orgs.

    I think you’re absolutely right about emotional appeals. And I think the Freethought movement must get away from the idea that emotional appeals are inherently immoral and manipulative. I’ve been doing a speech about that for, like, two years, and you’re the first person I’ve seen who’s articulated the same view! So happy!

  54. says

    kagerato:

    I’m tempted to challenge premise 7, because it rests, in my view, on a series of misunderstandings regarding the role of emotion in cognition, regarding what tone is and why it is a critical part of any persuasive attempt, and a very odd view of what semantics is (semantics are clearly central to any communicative endeavor). But I will instead simply say:

    Read the series on the Humanist Community Project website. That fulfills, in my view, the challenge made in your conclusions. Those posts are based on a review of countless empirical studies, and each one points you to where you can find those studies. If you follow up with the evidence and still have criticism, post it in the relevant article and we can discuss it there.

  55. Godless Heathen says

    “…on a series of misunderstandings regarding the role of emotion in cognition….”

    Psychology B.A. here. Emotions are extremely important to cognition and decision-making. People who lose the ability to feel emotions also become incapable of making decisions.

    It’s not an either/or thing. They’re related.

  56. says

    People who lose the ability to feel emotions also become incapable of making decisions. It’s not an either/or thing. They’re related.

    Well-put.

  57. says

    Out of countless empirical studies, you cannot cite a single one off hand that shows your point. Or you don’t care to try.

    Do you not realize you demonstrate my conclusion for me?

  58. says

    kagerato: I posted this on the other thread too – it’s getting confusing discussing both there and here! =D

    I think your criticism would be totally valid if this were a single, simple “point” that I am trying to prove to you in this instance. It’s not – I’m not really trying to “prove” anything with the posts. The question posed by echidna, to which I was responding, was whether the claims I am making have been “substantiated”. Now, perhaps we have a difference of opinion as to what counts as “substantiated”, but I think, in a blog post attempting to provide practical advice in a readable format(not, again, a journal article attempting to present or defend any new knowledge), pointing people to a number of books which contain lucid discussions of the specific questions raised in that post is sufficient substantiation.

    Could I provide a lot more? Certainly I could, and as I said above, I may well do so when I have the time in the future. But are the arguments I present sufficient to give an interested reader reasonable grounds for trying out the techniques I write about? I think so.

    If you think not, then give me an example of a specific claim you object to and I would be happy to provide further evidence. At the moment I am not sure which of the many claims I make in the posts you wish me to further substantiate.

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