It’s time for another trip to the ruins of New Atheism, to scavenge for clues about its downfall. Today we examine Poe’s Law, an adage that states that there is no parody of religious fundamentalism so extreme that it won’t be mistaken for the real thing.
This episode was inspired by a video by Sarah Z (1 hr), about a seemingly unrelated topic: made up stories on Tumblr. The central thread in her video is an obviously fictional story on Tumblr about a woman giving money to a homeless man, and being interrupted by a fedora’d dipshit. And with one thing and another it ends with a Gangnam Style dance number.
This tumblr story was posted to Reddit, where it was a joke about tumblr SJWs make shit up to reinforce their own persecution complex, and have so little attachment to reality that they believe their own nonsense.
The story isn’t just fake though. It’s a fake fake story. The story was not created by a tumblr SJW, and was in fact never posted on Tumblr in the first place. The screenshot was engineered by an apparently anti-SJW redditor who habitually created fake screenshots along similar lines. So in truth, it’s a story about how anti-SJWs make up shit to reinforce their own worldview, and have so little attachment to reality that they believe their own nonsense.
As Sarah discusses, parodies like this were all over the place in anti-SJW communities, such as the TumblrInAction subreddit. I remember that subreddit! My impression was that they were devoted to finding the most absurd statements on Tumblr, in order to mock them. And as a person who was on Tumblr myself, and as a lifelong complainer, I definitely had complaints about Tumblr culture. But the TumblrInAction criticisms were usually widely off the mark, focusing on highly unusual viewpoints instead of, say, Tumblr’s seedy underbelly of TERFs. Anyway, apparently a lot of that shit was made up.
According to Sarah, if you pointed out that the parodies were parodies, they would turn that around and say, “it goes to show how ridiculous Tumblr SJWs are, that we can’t tell them from parodies.” Which finally brings us back to Poe’s Law.
In my experience, Poe’s Law was usually invoked in similar situations. An atheist blog writes about Christians being ridiculous, and links to Landover Baptist Church. Commenters point out that Landover Baptist Church is a known parody website. Other commenters invoke Poe’s Law, saying, it just goes to show how ridiculous Christian beliefs are, that anyone was fooled by this parody. Then another commenter looks around on the internet for a Christian who sincerely expresses a similar viewpoint. Then everyone nods their head saying, yes, Christians really are that ridiculous.
In short, invoking Poe’s Law transmutes a potentially embarrassing situation where you were fooled, into more feelings of superiority. It revels in one’s inability to understand opponent’s views. It incentivizes a search for the most extreme viewpoints expressed on the internet. It promotes making stuff up, because after all, there’s nothing you could ever make up that would be worse than the real thing. Poe’s Law is detestable.
I’ve definitely seen many cases where I felt it was clear that something was a parody rather than sincere, but other atheists were fooled. This left me with the impression that the difficulty of making the distinction was not always a property of the text, but often a property of the reader. It was frustrating and embarrassing. We have this whole community dedicated to fighting the evils of religion, and yet most people aren’t sufficiently familiar with what they’re fighting with to distinguish it from parody? And people were proud of this?
And it’s one thing when it’s applied to fundamentalist Christians. But when that became the modus operandi of anti-SJW atheists… Truly the seeds of destruction of the atheist movement were there all along.
In my research I found a 2012 paper by analytic philosopher Scott Aikin analyzing the consequences of Poe’s Law. I recommend it, take a look, or see this blog post if you want something shorter. His analysis is more careful and systematic than mine, examining multiple versions of Poe’s Law, and multiple responses to it. He concludes that Poe’s Law is both reflective of, and a contributor towards group polarization.
those who invoke Poe’s Law in a discussion are claiming that there is evidence that an opponent’s view fails a minimal standard for seriousness: either the speaker is an insincere parodist or the view represented is unredeemable and unworthy of substantive response other than parody.
The story unfolds as follows: A vivid and powerful case of religiously extreme views comes to a subject’s attention, and subjects are then primed to detect further examples. As they are primed to detect extreme examples, many moderate, reasonable examples of the views they reject do not register.