Target Audiences And Playing Nice

There’s been some really interesting discussion in and around FTB lately about the issues of different approaches to blogging and different kinds of target audiences. A lot of this came up in response to our new blogger Libby-Anne (of Love, Joy, Feminism) making a post in which she requested that the FTB natives maintain an extra level of civility when commenting on her blog as she feels the people who will most benefit from her work, and a group she is specifically trying to engage, are those who are still involved in religious and patriarchal communities and beliefs. She feels (and I agree) that if the same take-no-prisoners approach that’s adopted at a blog like Pharyngula were applied at her’s, it would intimidate or drive away most believers, or simply shut down the dialogue and make it impossible to communicate with them. This would be directly detrimental to Libby-Anne’s goals for her work.

I’m completely and totally with Libby-Anne on this. It’s her blog, her house, her rules. If she has certain goals, and needs to set a certain tone in order to pursue those goals, she has every right to ban or moderate commenters who aren’t willing to adapt to that tone. See, one of the main things that bugs me about accommodationists like Chris Stedman is their insistence that there is only ONE possible way to go about atheism… their way. The rest of us, to them, are doing it wrong. I believe our movement is strongest when we recognize the value of multiple approaches, multiple specific goals or priorities, and multiple perspectives. Even if we focus strictly on the micro-issue of attempting to deconvert individual believers, different believers are going to respond best to different kinds of approaches. It’s kind of like how a bio-diverse ecosystem is a whole lot more likely to survive than a homogenous one if there’s a significant change in the environmental conditions.

It’s one of the things I love about Freethought Blogs. We have an extremely diverse set of writers, each coming to this from different angles, with different backgrounds and specializations, different identities, experiences and perspectives, different priorities and interests, different skills and styles and tones, and each doing certain things particularly well in particular ways. It’s like a good, functional Dungeons & Dragons party. You’ve got your fighter, your wizard, your thief and your cleric, each playing different roles… killing goblins, lighting darkened passages, picking locks, and healing the goddamned fighter.

So why am I commenting on this, if this is just one of those little happy things I’m totally cool with? Well, lately things have gotten kind of strange. John Loftus, former FTB blogger, has recently written a number of vague and somewhat nasty (in the JREF Steve Cuno “sea monkey” kind of way) comments over at Camels With Hammers about the “mean-spirited” atheists back here at FTB and has openly threatened to “turn his guns” on such atheists. This is where things stop being cool for me.

Basically, Loftus is moving in the Stedman direction; assuming his approach is the best and only and ideal approach. His comments contained several references to how much he’s “making a difference” and implying that directly reaching out to a theistic audience is the only way, or the only good way, or the best way, of doing this. It’s rather insulting in that the implication is therefore that those of us who aren’t attempting to directly address a religious audience aren’t making a difference, that our efforts are pointless or wastes of time. Just preaching to the choir, so the insufferable cliché goes.

It wasn’t long after hearing about Loftus’ comments that I started bristling with all kinds of little questions and things. I mean, even if we leave aside the presumptuousness of assuming that deconversion and interfaith dialogue is the ideal form or goal of atheist activism and writing, do all of us even have the luxury of being able to reach a religious audience? Loftus has the benefit of coming from a background of having been a protestant minister, and that steeps him the language and thought, making him especially well-suited for this approach (just to make it extra super clear: I have no problem with this approach, I only have a problem with assuming it’s the only worthwhile one). It’s a bit suspiciously convenient that he’d claim supremacy of the methodology he happens to be best suited for. But beyond his background, there’s the whole Older Straight Cis White American Guy thing. Like… let’s assume that I did believe deconversion and engaging in dialogue with theists were the best approach. Or easier, let’s just assume that I personally prioritize that approach and want to pursue it. So I adopt a somewhat accommodationist approach, play nice, make it an explicit part of my comment policy that atheists are not to be uncivil towards believers, and adapt my writing style and subject matter to reach out to believers and get them interested in my blog. Do you think they’d be willing to take me seriously, given who and what I am? Given my own background? My gender, my experiences, the myriad little stigmas I carry around with me?

And although someone like myself may be an extreme example, I think this could apply to many atheist writers and activists. It’s hard enough to be accepted as a blogger even within a left-leaning and more or less socially progressive community like skepticism, atheism or humanism when you have some kind of tick against you in terms of identity: female, black, queer, transgender, young, ex-muslim, not-from-the-USA, spent-twenties-doing-drugs-instead-of-grad-school, etc. We’ve all seen the enormous difficulties that come with these kinds of things, and the uphill work that is required in order to be taken seriously when you aren’t coming from a “neutral” / “objective” (read: privileged) subject position. Now, when you’re attempting to address a community that has codified sexual, religious and ethnic bigotry (amongst other variants), typically leaves them unquestioned, and is directly complicit in various forms of discrimination and oppression (perhaps most notably against women and LGBTQ), it becomes a very serious problem. For many of us, the failure to be accessible to a religious audience is a foregone conclusion, regardless of the tone we adopt.

Then there’s the fact that there isn’t some enormous empty gap between those who are committed atheists who have invested themselves in the value of our community and movement and people who are still religious believers. There’s an immense population of people who are on the fence in some way. There are people who still identify as religious and go through the motions but don’t really care all that much. There are people who don’t have faith but still believe that religious institutions do more good than harm. There are people who are agnostic and have opted out the issue. There are atheist accommodationists and apologists. There are nihilists who’ve given up. There are people who’ve rejected religious beliefs and structures but haven’t embraced the value of skepticism and freethought. There are post-modernists who beautifully and fully understand how to ask the right questions but don’t yet believe in the possibility of answers. There are atheists who haven’t yet grown to the point of trying to construct new dialogues and are still just caught up in laughing over God’s corpse and picking the low-hanging intellectual fruit. And there are too many others to name. All of these people are just as worth reaching out to, and engaging in discussion, as anyone else.

And which religious believers are you going to reach out to? Even if we accept and embrace Loftus’ approach as The One True Path, how is it possible to simultaneously engage all forms of religious belief, or even all forms of theistic belief, and engage all the various arguments, in terms that will be meaningful to all of the disparate, individual members of your audience? The presumptuousness of his comments, and the assumed supremacy of his own priorities and goals, is reflective of exactly the danger that exists in building our movement only around ex-Christians and only in response to Christianity. You start thinking religion just has one, simple, directly addressable form. It. Does. Not.

And is religion the only issue that needs to be discussed and better understood by the atheist movement and community? Not really.

It’s not like the question of accessibility is totally lost on me. When I do writing that isn’t interested in accessibility, and is just for my own sake, it tends to look like this:

The duel position is not the relation.
Adorned to be in ideas of relation.
Organisms disorganize and desire.
You can offer up your camaraderie in the circling about.
Double to loveliest enmity.
(Actual articulation would not be achieved,
Except feeling cute and sexy for the sake of your thoughts on it.)
To compare to only worlds of ornament.

*

place an image: whole arms and torsos in adoration so adornment falls apart.
place an image: tools by which adornment comes to be, also subject to decay.
place an image: tool is useless while the object of its use is absent.
image: the ocean. It can be placed everywhere.
all now:
in their home they slept naked on blue sheets.
specific in skin.

*

regarding—
pull it all apart again and look at the sky.
prairie scope of the grass, all directions to family
running home.

(as in it tends to look ludicrously pretentious…. if it eases the pain at all, you should know I wrote that five years ago.  I no longer butcher the english language in that particular way)

*ahem*

I pride myself very much on working to help bring people who are interested in gender theory and trans-feminist stuff into skepticism and atheism, and make the importance of those things to trans-feminism and the progress of that movement, or at least just the value of critical thought, apparent. And while I do that, I also try to help atheists and skeptics better understand trans issues, and feminism, and gender theory, and queer issues. I try to help them understand how those are important and worthwhile pursuits.

And I try to get everyone to love My Little Pony and Doctor Who, of course.

I feel very proud of having been able to help cis people learn more about trans stuff and trans people learn more about skepticism. I really am. And to see that disregarded, the value of this kind of work dismissed, to see someone imply that I’m not making a difference because my goals and approach aren’t just the same as his… even if they could be… well, that gets me mad.

If this is the path you want to take, and you want to begin publicly shaming others for not sharing your precise approach and values…if you want to “turn your guns” on us, we will reciprocate the attitude you’ve adopted and not hesitate to return the criticism. I may not have the experience, stature, influence or power of men like Loftus within this community, but I do fairly well with what I have.

Or we could point to some of Loftus’ less flattering public remarks lately and let him do that work for us. I’m pretty narcissistic myself, but at least have the courtesy to balance it against some good old fashioned insecurity and self-loathing.

I’m happy to have Libby-Anne here, really, and fully support the work she does and her decisions about tone (and I’m a bit disappointed in those commenters who’ve shown so much disrespect for her request). And I’m immensely happy to be part of such a wonderfully diverse and awesome group of bloggers. The diversity, the varying approaches, priorities and goals… that’s an asset, not a liability. It’s one of the best things we’ve got going for us.