Divisive: a conversation with Tauriq Moosa


Yesterday, CFI’s Ron Lindsay posted a lengthy discussion of divisiveness within the atheist/freethinker/skeptic community(-ies). If you haven’t read it yet, you should, otherwise much of the following will likely not make sense. Go read it and come back.

Okay? Done? Did you read the comments too? Oh, you probably should. Even though Franc Hoggle is there. Maybe just the first few? It’s okay, I’ll wait.

Okay. Welcome back. Let’s move ahead then.

I took to Twitter and expressed my dismay that Mr. Lindsay had, in my eyes, done a great job of articulating a bad argument. An exchange with South African skeptic blogger Tauriq Moosa followed, which led to the following e-mail (published with Tauriq’s permission):

I wanted to focus on where we disagree – I think – as per Ron Lindsay’s post. You wrote:

False equivalence abounds, and the basic tenet of his thesis is false. Conflates major orgs with “the movement”.

What I don’t understand is this: Are you saying because he “conflates” major organisations with the movement, which I’m mostly on your side he shouldn’t, does this undermine the rest of his points? After all, he made good points on how to read charitably; that devoting resources – in terms of time and money – which organisations like his constantly need, could be “wasted” on something that is only starting; that we shouldn’t tolerate incivility, etc. these are all excellent points that I don’t think collapse even if he’s wrong about what constitutes the movement.

Also, if these already existing movements are bad social justice issues, isn’t the solution to pick up on their broken forms and fix them, instead of create whole new ones? What evidence do we have to suggest “new” ones will be any more effective, as opposed to using the avenues and inroads already created by existing – if broken – ones?

I subscribe broadly to the goals of A+, but I don’t even use the label atheist. I’m not a fan of categorisation since it too easily leads to ad hominem claims and refusal to acknowledge dissenting views (as I think is happening with many people, who are lumped unfairly with labels like misogynist and, according to Myers “irredeemable pest with nothing positive to contribute”; but also those who view FtB as hivemind and conglomerate of one voice, which is also unfair, etc. etc.)

Twitter is like a coiled spring or a collapsed accordion – a blast of a few characters can contain a very lengthy thought process. This was my response to Tauriq:

My reading of the main thesis of Mr. Lindsay’s argument is as follows:

“But if hate-filled comments and threats to women have not been expressly called divisive, it’s because such conduct does not threaten to divide the movement. It has already been repudiated, both implicitly and explicitly, by many, if not most, of the organizations in the movement.”

It is here that I think Mr. Lindsay makes his fatal misstep, particularly in the place I have bolded. His assumption is that atheism+ (and the larger movement toward awareness of anti-misogyny) is focussed on the organizations within the movement is a bad one. The larger atheist community, certainly the online one, has only peripheral ties to the structured organizations that make up the political activist wing of the movement. (I am going to use the word ‘atheist’ a lot here, but I am referring to freethinkers, skeptics, and any other label that may be accurate – I recognize that these groups are not identical and that my grouping them together is somewhat ad hoc, but insofar as the issues under discussion are germane to a variety of communities with some overlap, I hope you will forgive my laziness).

It is certainly the case that “many, if not most, of the organizations in the movement” have spoken out (at least recently) against specific instances of threats against women and other feminists. However, this is irrelevant to atheism+’s argument in two main ways. First, the threats and more egregious statements made against individual members or groups within the atheist community are a symptom of a larger problem; they are not the problem in and of itself. From the beginning, there has been rough consensus among those who decry misogyny within the atheist community that the problem they (we) are having is not unique to atheists – rather, that it is a larger issues that all communities must deal with. The organizations that Mr. Lindsay notes speaking out against threats have not, therefore, done a particularly adequate job of addressing the main part of the argument, which is that misogyny must be dealt with directly rather than simply tamping down its more obvious outbreaks. Hate-filled comments and threats are held up as clear-cut exemplars, but the issue is larger than those.

I would hasten to add at this point that it is my position that there is no real obligation in a practical sense to root out things like misogyny, racism, homophobia, in any organization that is not explicitly concerned with those things. Atheists don’t have to address misogyny within the atheist movement. That being said, there has been consternation in recent years over the fact that women have been reticent to participate in the community. One potential explanation that was offered is that women just aren’t interested, or that they were too shy. When misogyny was pointed to as a more likely potential explanation for that difference, the response was vicious and has perhaps grown more so.

The second reason why I feel Mr. Lindsay’s argument fails is that the focus is not now, nor has it ever been, about the actions of organized groups as a whole. Certain groups have been held up as examples of behaviour that is either helpful or harmful, but since atheists are not, by and large, corralled into these organizations, the focus is not really on them or their actions. It is intensely gratifying to know that threats are taken seriously by these orgs, but the atheist community is much more than those.

It was certainly an error of mine to try to squeeze all of the above into the word “conflate”, but Twitter is Twitter.

Now to your specific points:

“After all, he made good points on how to read charitably; that devoting resources – in terms of time and money – which organisations like his constantly need, could be “wasted” on something that is only starting; that we shouldn’t tolerate incivility, etc. these are all excellent points that I don’t think collapse even if he’s wrong about what constitutes the movement.”

I talked about this briefly in our exchange yesterday, but I would like to expand a bit. CFI, JREF, AA, and even many humanist organizations are not performing the same task that (as far as I know) atheism+ is attempting to do. CFI, for example, is a scientific skepticism organization that has an explicit mandate to advocate for science education in fields like “alternative medicine”, evolution, and church/state separation. Combatting racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and other social justice topics that are listed by the atheism+ folks is an issue that lies well outside CFI’s mandate; and so it should, an organization must stick to its mandate or it loses focus. That being said, there is no room within organizations like CFI for people who are primarily interested in either working on, or learning about, these social justice issues. To say that atheism+ uses up scarce resources that CFI needs is roughly akin to the US Department of Education saying that CFI is horning in on its territory – they are organizations with perhaps roughly overlapping bailiwicks, but they do not focus on the same issues.

I do not think it is a good point, or ever a valid one, to speculate on whether or not atheism+ will succeed, thus wasting money. Atheism+ is sure to fail if nobody puts any effort into it, but for the reasons I outline above, the fact that the major organizations are not doing what atheism+ does is reason enough to suggest that this line of reasoning is empty, at best.

The issue of “civility” is one that I find very tiresome, because it is based on extremely flawed assumptions of de facto equality between groups. To use an extreme example, if a man calls me “nigger” I am not being ‘equally uncivil’ when I call him a “racist cockbucket”. To use a less extreme example, it is not “equally uncivil” to call out someone who suggests that pregnant rape victims should “see it as a blessing in disguise”, even in extremely harsh language. To use an even milder example, it is not “incivil” to identify someone as homophobic when they say that while they don’t “have a problem with gay people”, they don’t think they should be allowed to marry each other because it will destroy society.

There are a number of high-minded and “civil” ways to dehumanize minority groups. There are comparatively fewer ways to mount an appropriate defense that will not be seen as “incivil”. Demanding “civility” often results in a restoration of the status quo of power divides, in which minority groups must sit mutely in the face of politely-worded abuse (or worse, appease their abusers with equally politely-worded responses). The problem that the “incivility” argument has is that it assumes that any level of incivility is equally bad, and that cracking down on it punishes/restricts both groups evenly. In reality, it is somewhat like watching someone defend themselves with their fists against someone with a gun, and deciding that the answer is to simply demand that they stand on opposite sides of the room.

“Also, if these already existing movements are bad social justice issues, isn’t the solution to pick up on their broken forms and fix them, instead of create whole new ones?”

Not always, no. This was much the same argument being made by people during the Occupy movement, suggesting that they should just run as Democrats and/or Republicans if they didn’t like the political system. There are things that can be accomplished by a “third party” that cannot be (or cannot more easily be) accomplished from within the existing framework. New, external organizations are far more nimble and not prone to organizational inertia. Furthermore, I once again return to the fact that many of the large organizations do not have a specific mandate that matches that of atheism+. Turning these organizations into social justice advocates invites a whole host of other criticisms, to say nothing of the fact that stretching an organization too thin often makes it less effective at everything it tries to do. I cannot support this contention with evidence either way – perhaps James Croft has done some research into the topic of organizational effectiveness and structure, but that lies well outside my education.

I’m not a fan of categorisation since it too easily leads to ad hominem claims and refusal to acknowledge dissenting views (as I think is happening with many people, who are lumped unfairly with labels like misogynist and, according to Myers “irredeemable pest with nothing positive to contribute”; but also those who view FtB as hivemind and conglomerate of one voice, which is also unfair, etc. etc.

I am occasionally irked when people use the term “misogynist” in conversations, not because it is “incivil”, but because it is both inaccurate and easily misunderstood. When I say “inaccurate”, I mean that a person who has a specific belief or attitude that is underpinned by misogyny, that does not make them “a misogynist”. Labeling them thusly places the blame on the wrong party. We are products of a misogynist environment and culture – some of us have simply learned specific methods for resisting it. It is, however, extremely cumbersome to continually identify someone as “a product of a misogynist environment who is failing to recognize the flawed assumptions underpinning his argument, and thus allowing himself to reach a fatuous and harmful conclusion”; “misogynist” is far quicker.

The reason I abhor that particular conversational shortcut is that the people who are saying these misogynist things usually don’t understand the fact that their statements are philosophically flawed and disproportionately harmful along gender lines. While the shortcut is useful to the speaker (and any listeners who are similarly clued in to the larger thought process), calling someone “a misogynist” will usually result in outrage and confusion on the part of the identified person, who has a very different understanding of what the word “misogynist” means (an image comes to mind of an unshaven lout in an undershirt and stretch pants, demanding his wife get back in the kitchen and make him a sammich – a caricature of the true face of misogyny).

Of course, the above paragraph assumes that the party making the identification is interested in whether or not the accused person understands why/how he is “a misogynist”. Oftentimes that is not the case – they just want the person to stop saying/doing misogynistic things. And so, these people go away and spin fabrications of shrieking and oversensitive feminazis who scream “misogyny” every time a man speaks or criticizes a woman. From their perspective, that’s what’s happening, because they lack the basic understanding of what misogyny is or how it works. Yes, feminists call people misogynists – when those people do/say misogynistic things. I do not share your assessment that this labeling is “unfair” – I do however think that applying it to a person globally (i.e., “soandso is a misogynist”) is a mistake, and I have said as much several times on my blog.

Obviously, this is a lot to wade through, but I felt it might be useful to people having this conversation in other venues. Tauriq and I are likely to continue this conversation, so expect updates.

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Comments

  1. Rodney Nelson says

    Civility is overrated. It is possible to be devastatingly rude to someone without being uncouth.

    Concerning Mr. Lindsay, I believe he is looking at the situation with rose-colored bifocals.

  2. Nepenthe says

    In reality, it is somewhat like watching someone defend themselves with their fists against someone with a gun, and deciding that the answer is to simply demand that they stand on opposite sides of the room.

    Stopping reading to note that this is a profoundly beautiful sentence on so many levels.

  3. stakkalee says

    I loved this post Crom, and I’m really looking forward to the next one; this is incisive and witty (+1 for cockbucket.) I wonder how much of this brouhaha has been caused by a misunderstanding of terms like “safe space” and “rape culture,” although that doesn’t excuse the continued pushback after it was pointed out. It’s always interesting how civility often means “no swearwords” but is silent on the issues of outright lying and malice; also, the idea that any display of strong emotion is somehow unseemly. The deck’s always stacked it seems. Anyway, thanks again.

  4. says

    Hi Crommunist. First I want to commend you for taking the stand in a previous post that people are not, necessarily, their ideas. I do believe that you can criticize someone’s ideas without denigrating them as a person, but too often folks do that denigration because it is the easy way. It is also easier to remember that someone is “bad” than have to keep in mind some complex set of ideas that got that person labeled “bad.” I am glad that you are applying your position to this issue.

    I agree that Lindsay’s post has many facets that we could go into, and I am also not going to try to unpack that at this moment. I would, however, like to introduce the concept of what is the minimum connection that, IMHO, atheists should care about. I feel that atheists should, at least, care about social injustice caused by religion. Now, I have phrased that carefully, because I have learned (as I suspect you have too) that the general public is not to careful with logic. If I wrote, “Atheists should care about social injustice caused by religion.” some people would think that I am saying that atheists should not care about all the rest of social injustice, even though that is not logically implied, and the two statements are actually logically equivalent.

    Why does that matter? Well, because you can go through lists of social injustice and find all the parts that religion promotes and clearly make a case for working against those, while leaving it to individual people to decide what else they want to take on. IMHO, that is not divisive. It does not inspire anyone to take a “you are either with us or against us” position, that *is* divisive.

    So, is it okay for a group of atheists to decide to get together and take on bigger parts of the list? Sure. If they do, and if they do in a way that invites people in, it will not have any of the down side that Lindsay lists. Perhaps the A+ folks will be able to work themselves into that position. I would (at least) support them, if they did.

  5. Rodney Nelson says

    I don’t know of any Atheism+ people who object to working against religiously inspired and promoted social injustice. However we are concentrating on cleaning up our own atheist house first. If that’s all right with you.

  6. A Hermit (that's "A" with a "plus") says

    This is why I read blogs instead of writing one; it’s so much easier to just link to stuff like this, where everything I was thinking, and a bunch of stuff I hadn’t thought of, are said so much better than I could…

    I did a spit take when I read Lindsey’s comment that ” hate-filled comments and threats to women have not been expressly called divisive, it’s because such conduct does not threaten to divide the movement.”

    I’m shocked that someone so smart and perceptive could be that naive.

    that an the complaint that A+ will somehow deprive orgs like CFI of resources just seem so completely divorced from reality I couldn’t believe they were coming from that source.

  7. Brad says

    We’re not cleaning our house so much as putting in a new room above the garage and not letting people with antisocial views in.

  8. maureenbrian says

    Now, if I may, I would like to take something up with Quine.

    You imply what I think is a false distinction between a social injustice caused by religion, which we should of course fight heroically, and other forms of injustice which are a bit more “iffy”.

    The injustices which we ave been discussing loudly now for over a year include the assumptions that women should keep quiet and that it is perfectly fine to tell them what they think, the automatically negative assumptions about people of colour, the shunning of those with a different sexuality or with a disability.

    Every last one of those prejudices comes from the teaching of one or more religions – the helpmeet role for women, the Children of Ham story, the very ambiguous mentions of what may be gay sex in various texts, the notions of disability as punishment for your own or someone else’s sin.

    Yes, they got mixed up along the way with other daft notions – this weakness of women with the four humours in medicine, skin colour with economics during slavery and colonialism – but they only survived later because they are underpinned, perhaps unconsciously, by religious assumptions.

    It makes perfect sense to me and to others that after we have rightly praised someone for escaping the magic man in the sky we then ask them, “Now may we help unload some of that baggage?” That would be a routine kindness and we, whoever we are, will get a lot more done if we are not constantly falling over backpacks and attache cases.

    Besides – I speak only for myself now – women must be allowed to be human. I am seventy years old, I have done nothing spectacular or very original yet I seem to have been followed about by little creatures – perhaps devised by Dr Swift? – constantly chirping, “But women can’t do that.” Not infrequently my riposte has been, “But I just did!”

    So if I say to you, Quine, or to Ron Lindsay that I am pissed off it is not the most elegant expression I can find. It is the simple truth.

  9. sawells says

    The whole “swearing is just as bad as actual bigotry” argument is just another entrenchment of privilege; it’s a method of not having to hear what other people are saying, because you’ve declared that the way they say it is unacceptable.

  10. troll says

    Agreed. I’ve been poking through the archives lately; Crommie’s prose just gets better and better the longer he keeps this up.

  11. says

    Thanks, maureenbrian. Yes, that is why I took pains to say “at least.” I am addressing the context of the Atheism movement and expressing what can be “at least” justified there. You have extended it to exactly what I would like folks to see for themselves. That is, if one decries some injustice because it is done in the name of religion, should you not see that injustice as bad, in any case?

    In the context of Humanism this jump would be in a single step. There is a basis there in the form of consensus values that would make the idea of Humanism+ redundant. The difficulty with the Atheism context is that it is based on what we *don’t* believe is true. From that context we can agree that values can’t be justified by religious dogma, but don’t have direct chain of reason as to what is.

  12. me says

    Please excuse me if I’ve misunderstood- it sounds to me as if you are saying that it’s ok for atheists to fight for social justice as long as we don’t go overboard expecting the same social justice from our own community. You would support Atheism+ if it ignored or downplayed its own misogyny and racism and classism, etc., and only took on those issues with groups of “others”? That is the definition of hypocrisy.

    What makes you think atheism is a cause worth my fighting for if I am subjected to the same crap by the atheist community that I am by the religious community? If all those who believed in god did so without trying to inflict their world view on me, I wouldn’t much care that they are wrong on the issue of religion. And if those in the atheist community are inflicting a similar world view on me, just managing to do so without appealing to a god for the authority to justify it, I don’t much care that they are right on the issue of religion. There’s not much there for me to fight for.

    A group of atheists who recognize that social justice applies to everyone, and perhaps even more so to a community that purports to be “good without god”, is a group of atheists that I am willing to stand with and grow with and learn from. That’s a fight I’ll join. That’s a fight where I know my contribution will be appreciated, will be worthwhile, and will be the example it should be to those who believe that god is necessary for morality.

  13. says

    I have one — perhaps minor — issue with your post (and it looks like maureenbrian has beaten me to it).

    I feel that atheists should, at least, care about social injustice caused by religion.

    I find that this could lead you into a lot of grey areas. Some might look at the issues of misogyny and say, “That’s injustice caused by culture, not religion. Therefore, atheists do not need to care about this.” Others can (and I think rightfully so) point out that religion has played a role in shaping the culture as well as adapting to cultures to the point where you can probably find religion playing a roll in every social injustice there is.

  14. says

    Me, did you see the reply I wrote to maureenbrian in #8 before you wrote the above? If so, is there something you are asking that she did not?

  15. says

    Buzz Saw, I would also direct you to my reply to maureenbrian in #8 below which was there prior to your comment above. In it I explain why the “at least” is in my position.

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