Oh neat! It’s time for one of my rare (but fun) retractions!
Last Monday, I put the boots to James Croft for a conversation we had over Twitter. To summarize, I thought that his advocacy for increasing the use of song as part of humanist gatherings was a) offputting, and b) dangerous. A, because there are a lot of people who identify as humanist after fleeing religion, and that adding secular hymns to humanist functions was going to make those people intensely uncomfortable and unwelcome. B, because the function of liturgical music is to make messaging more palatable by bypassing the rational parts of the brain, and that rationality is what makes humanism more than just “religion for atheists”.
James took his time in responding, but when he did, he kicked my ass:
I have sought to demonstrate here that, based on the best scientific evidence available, and the consensus of the scientific and philosophical community at this time, the idea that the emotions are always threatening to overwhelm our reason, and that there is a “rational part of the brain” which can be unseated by base limbic passions is simply false. It’s bad science. It is bad science which is popular with some in the secular movement, but it is bad science nonetheless. Instead, we must recognize that our emotions are part of our cognitive apparatus, and that they can be epistemically valuable, helping us advance our understanding of phenomena. Further, I have shown that there is simply no evidence that engaging in communal singing poses any serious threat to a person’s capability to reason, and that group singing conveys multiple health benefits on people.
So let that be a lesson to you all – don’t pick a fight with someone who knows a lot more than you about the topic. Especially if you’re trying to bash out 1,000 words over a lunch hour. It will be embarrassing for you.
There are a lot of places where I think James either grossly misinterprets me, or otherwise errs in his monster of a response, but with one notable exception, those errors do not change the fact that he is right and I am wrong. The exception, which I promised I’d expound upon, is his contention that putting someone in a room where everyone is engaging in a behaviour does not qualify as de facto coercion.
James’ explanation went right to the dictionary (which is a surefire way to know that you’re starting your argument in the wrong place), where he explained that absent a threat of violence, no coercion can be said to occur. If I was talking about de jure coercion, he’d be absolutely correct. He then went into a long and rambling explanation about the importance of setting social norms (at one point accusing me of “denigrating” their importance). Hyperbole aside, I think James has failed to understand my point.
Socially normative behaviour is indeed an effective way of enforcing behaviour. Many of those behaviours are positive – etiquette, honesty, and respect are all practices that are enforced more or less exclusively by social pressure. Other behaviours are decidedly negative – nationalist tribalism, racism, and misogyny are all similarly fueled by influence from a peer group (or a larger societal group). Both are examples of situations in which an individual may not necessarily have engaged in a specific behaviour voluntarily, but because ze knows that there is either a) a reward for compliance, or b) a price to pay for deviance, ze will ‘go along’ with what is being done.
James’ argument, as best I understand it, is that the goodness or badness of etiquette/tribalism are not judged based on the mechanism by which they work. That is to say, just because social pressure can be used for good or ill does not convey a value judgment on socially normative behaviours per se. I am certainly willing to grant this; however, that is not the argument I was making. What I was saying is that, particularly in a community in which many members are leery of religious ceremony (James seems to think that they are a minority – I don’t know where he’s getting his numbers from), the use of song as a social pressure mechanism will evoke a strong (and negative) reaction. James seems to think that’s not a big deal, or at least not a big enough deal for him to care about. I disagree, but again he’s not trying to build an inclusive humanism – he’s trying to meet the needs of a specific group who want a specific thing. You don’t like it? Don’t join.
James’ attempt to conflate building of socially normative behaviour with the use of groupsing also falls far short of the mark for another reason. He attempts to use the example of refusing to accept anti-feminist screeds and general misogynistic assholery as vindication for his position:
Shame is just one form of social pressure which encourages norm-following. It is potentially dangerous and should be used sparingly – indeed it is one of the most dangerous forms of non-coercive social pressure – but it is not coercion and is sometimes valuable to restrict harmful behaviors, as Zvan recognizes.
There is, however, a world of difference between restricting harmful behaviours (because they’re harmful) and compelling arbitrary desired behaviours simply because you like them. Group song doesn’t prevent harmful behaviours (unless you’re singing a very specific slate of tunes) or ensure that people in the group can function together the way that norms about etiquette do. Rather, they are simply a mechanism (as far as I understand James’ purpose) to build solidarity for solidarity’s sake. This isn’t ‘setting social norms’, this is ‘enforcing group behaviour’. Punishment for non-compliance, when it happens, does not therefore serve a non-arbitrary end, and the use of (or fear of the use of) social pressures becomes an exercise in engendering compliance. I don’t see this as being qualitatively different from coercion.
There is also the issue of decentralized group norms vs. imparted norms to consider. There is no atheist/feminist pope telling people that they must behave this way or that way. People are merely saying that if we wish to improve a specific situation, we should engage in some behaviours and refrain from some others. I imagine that James’ response would be that each humanist group (in his vision) would have the freedom to decide whether or not (and to what extent) they wished to use group song, in which case this objection does not really apply.
At any rate, none of these objections speak to the fact that I made a number of untrue, unsubstantiated (and in some cases specifically refuted) claims. There is no good evidence that groupsing is inherently harmful, and my objection was spurious. I officially retract my position in the previous post, and thank James for his thorough disemboweling.
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