Hangin’ with Hitchens »« Who am I talking to?

Do we care? Reflections on tone, intent, and my audience

People who know me, know that I am an intractable grouch. I am highly intolerant of other people’s opinions, and staunchly refuse to listen to people who have a different perspective on issues than I do.

People who know me well know that this isn’t even close to being true. I am perfectly happy to listen to dissenting opinions – it’s how I learn. All I ask is that you give me a reason to accept your dissenting opinion. I am not in the habit of simply granting opinions credence simply because someone put them to words. If you have some kind of justification, some evidence, some sophisticated bit of reasoning, to back up your position – by all means share it with me.

This is a propos of something, I swear. A few days ago, in a vain attempt to start an oh-so-much-fun flame war between myself and Daniel Fincke, I said the following:

Ugh. Oh Daniel… we are now in a fight. LET THE FLAME WAR BEGIN! Unless you’re planning on titling #2-#10 of this series “Tips for reaching out to religious believers: Don’t bother, it’s a waste of time.” Then we can totally agree.

I was referencing a post I wrote many moons ago outlining why I think it’s a waste of time and perfectly good consonants to avoid offending believers. They have demonstrated, on multiple occasions, how ludicrously thin their skin when it comes to what they brand as ‘offensive’. Any criticism, no matter how mild or factual, is seen as insult. As a result, I have made it my policy not to bother tip-toeing across eggshells to avoid causing offense.

A reader of Daniel’s showed up in the comments section of that post, and completely kicked my ass:

It seems to me I might be bypassing the point of your 2) and 3), in that they are not there to prove that not offending the religious is bullshit, but to show that Richard Dawkins isn’t “militant” – they are, that’s real militancy. Well, that’s unrelated to whether you should offend the religious – it makes no difference, the only questions are 1) is it effective and necessary 2) is it moral/reasonable, is that who we want to be? Neither of which your post addresses. You still owe me some cookies.

Now while it is unpleasant to have one’s ass kicked, it is also very informative. Because I was interested in refuting this criticism, I had to take the time to go over my position and evaluate it in light of this new line of questioning. As I did, I realized something that has caused me to revise that original stance (although not completely).

Whenever I talk about methods of increasing diversity within the freethinking/skeptic/atheist movement, I always predicate it on one assumption: that we recognize that diversity is a good thing. I have given my justification for why I think it’s a good thing to have many different voices be part of the conversation, but maybe some people disagree. If you honestly don’t care about diversity, or you don’t think it’s worth the effort, then just say so up front, and save us all the time of debating whether or not it’s “an atheist issue”.

While I was trying to craft my refutation, I realized something that made me more than a little uneasy. For the sake of argument, I mentally swapped “women” in the place of “religious believers”, and re-ran the tape. We shouldn’t reach out to women because they’re irrational and take offense at things that aren’t intended as such. Women complain about not being treated fairly, but we’re just holding them to the same standard that we hold all other people to – if they’re offended, too bad.

I really didn’t like where that thought took me. Even putting aside the obvious difference between the status of women vis a vis men, vs. the status of believers vis a vis atheists, it was an ill-conceived position that I wouldn’t tolerate for a second if it came from a “men’s rights activist”. Even if women are ‘too touchy’ (which I don’t think is usually the case, but even if it were), it is entirely within our grasp to find ways of making points without alienating a subset of our audience. Failing to do so is lazy argumentation, relying on innuendo and heuristic rather than the logic and reason we point to as the main tools in our arsenal.

The problem with my original stance on not offending religious people is that it is entirely orthogonal to Daniel’s post. His position begins with the assumption that one is interested in reaching out to believers. If we take that assumption as true (there are many atheist writers who are writing explicitly for a religious audience), then his points are all superb. My problem is that I don’t particularly care if religious people are offended by what I say, or are part of the conversation. They’re not who I’m writing for.

But that’s my problem. Not a problem with Daniel’s position. His ‘tips’, while completely valid, are useless to me simply because we do not agree on that basic, underpinning assumption. He shared in his reply to my comment that he has seen the consequences of failing to adjust one’s approach to the intended audience. I had to admit to myself that while there will always be some people who are looking to be offended, there are also those who are willing to put their beliefs under the eye of scrutiny, and that it is unnecessary to antagonize them through the use of confrontational language.

And so I have to issue a rare retraction of my previous position. It is not bullshit to avoid offending believers. It is a reasonable stance to take if you wish to establish dialogue that doesn’t immediately lead to hurt feelings and angry recriminations. It is, in fact, a sensible approach to not only keep believers themselves listening, but to help undermine the unreasonable yet popular perception that atheists are cruel tormentors of the beleaguered pious.

That being said, I’m not going to change my approach one bit, for reasons I will discuss in my next post.

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