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.