I’ve just finished a frustrating week banging my head against the wall dealing with a conservative Christian commenter (please remember that I write these posts about a week before they appear on the site – if grassrute has disappeared in this past week, this last sentence won’t make much sense). Despite taking careful pains to predict, explain away, and thereby defuse the predictable “rebuttals” to the discussion of privilege, this person decided to make the arguments anyway. So I responded to those, in spite of my irritation at having to repeat myself (in text… you could have just scrolled up to see why you were wrong!). And then through a combination of goalpost-shifting and selective interpretation of history (almost all of it demonstrably wrong), the fallacies stacked up apace.
It’s frustrating and emotionally draining to have to spend my free time (what little there is) refuting poor arguments. This is, however, my personal blog, and I feel that anyone who bothers to come here and comment deserves recognition for their efforts. My tone may become grumpy sometimes, but I get a giddy thrill every time someone new shows up here. After all, I’m just some asshole with a keyboard and a basic grasp of the English language – why should anyone read what I write? At the same time, the few conservative commenters who have shown up here at various points do irritate me – not because they disagree with me, but because (with few exceptions) their arguments are horrible. They only work if you are prepared to suspend history, psychology, sociology, and the basic rules of logic. I am not.
My colleagues over at Canadian Atheist (two of them in particular) would likely admonish me severely for being so unfriendly to someone with whom dialogue is possible. The problem with me, they’d say, is that I’m too willing to use mean language, which drives away those who disagree with me. This, they say, cements my position as an “angry atheist”, and deepens the stereotype. I’ve already explained why this line of reasoning is crap, so I won’t bother to do away with this argument here. However, it does raise an interesting question: do they think I write this stuff to convince people who disagree with me?
I’ve tried to make it clear from the outset that this blog exists for the sole purpose of throwing my ideas out there, ideas that are open for debate. This is not an attempt to find middle ground with people who disagree with me, or to coax opponents out by cooing sweetly to them in the hopes of using sugar and light to bring them over to my side. I wield a variety of rhetorical tools, but my go-to weapon of choice is (what I hope is) high-minded polemic. In addition to saying what I think, I do my best to show why I think it. This is done as much for me as it is for anyone who happens to stumble across the site – writing my thoughts down in a systematic manner helps me to clarify and shore up any inconsistencies in my beliefs.
My attempt is to persuade, undoubtedly; but I have no illusions that a deliberate, reasoned approach will bring over those who strongly disagree with my position. There are important differences in cognitive frameworks between someone like me and someone like grassrute – I start from a position of doubt and then apportion my belief in any idea to the level of evidence supporting it. If someone could demonstrate to me that a position I hold is either illogical or unsupported by evidence, I will abandon that position; it might take me a bit of time, but I can be convinced. The other cognitive framework is to start from a position of certainty and then look for things that confirm your a priori conclusions. A person operating within this mindset cannot be convinced or persuaded; she/he is convinced of her/his rectitude, and will always find a crevice to hide in when challenged. Attempting to use logic, persuasion, or even sugar and light to move a person like this out of her/his position is, in my opinion, rather a waste of time. No one-on-one discourse will do anything to change that person’s mind.
These two cognitive frameworks are philosophically opposed, but by no means does that mean that an individual is incapable of using both. There are any number of things that I believe in the absence of rigorous evidence, just as I’m sure there are some things that grassrute comes to believe based on facts and evidence. The difference is what happens when our backs are against the wall, so to speak. When my position is challenged, I will be persuaded by evidence (if not by asserted opinion and anecdote). The evidence has to be high quality, obviously – “something a guy told me once” is insufficient to put even a dent in my skepticism, but I can be – and have been – turned around in my stance on feminism, religion, race, pretty much everything I talk about on this blog. I recognize that, on the other hand, people who are not amenable to revising their views will not tolerate being turned around and will find any scrap of pseudo-logic to prop up a failed position. C’est la guerre.
I am not writing for grassrute. I am happy to discuss and clarify my position, using grassrute (or Scary Fundamentalist, or Natassia, or whoever shows up) as a whetstone, but I hold no hope of prevailing over people who fix their opinions first and then justify them later. Some of these stones are rather more dull than others. I am writing for myself primarily, and for those who haven’t given the issue a lot of concerted thought secondarily. I have heard from people – in person, by e-mail, in comments, on Facebook – that I am articulating arguments that they hadn’t really considered before, and their thinking has been subtly shifted. I am intensely gratified by these stories, as it means that I am at least partially successful. However, I am not aggrieved much by my dissenters (especially since they have, almost without exception, failed to articulate a clear and coherent position that isn’t trivially easy to disembowel). My frustration with them has more to do with the poverty of their argument, coupled with the magnitude of their certainty. I am not trying to “reach out” to people who don’t use logic – I am trying to stimulate thought among those of you who do.
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