Call-out culture: a meta-meta-commentary

A couple years ago, I made this linkspam on call-out culture. “Call-out culture” refers to a pattern in social justice activist spaces of jumping on, and piling upon other activists who are perceived to have made a mistake. It’s an issue when it turns into bullying, or when it just scares people away from communities that they need.

This is a really difficult problem to address, and to be honest, I think I am uniquely unsuited to address it. I don’t have personal experience calling people out, or being called out, or at least not in any way that meaningfully impacted me. I am not a very anxious person, and it is very difficult to scare me or burn me out. My interest in this topic is purely based on compassion, and an interest in the meta. So for several years, I’ve wanted to say something, but couldn’t figure out what to say.

After thinking about it a lot, here’s what I want to say: Most articles on call-out culture are bad. That’s right, I collected a bunch of links in a linkspam, and I think most of those links are bad. I mean, they’re good. But they’re also bad, especially after reading several of them. They often fail to say anything novel or meaningful. And the bottom line is that they’re not having the impact they need to have.

The coopter threat

Just the other day, I read a new article that seemed to epitomize the “call-out culture article”: Righteous Callings: Being a Good Leftist, Orthodoxy, and the Social Justice Crisis of Faith. It’s by Kai Cheng, a former writer at Everyday Feminism. And it follows a particular structure. First, the author establishes “insider status”, making it clear that she is a certified social justice activist critiquing her own culture. Then a list of grievances. And in the conclusion, a rebuke of those who would coopt this criticism to reject social justice entirely.

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Can we dispose of the four horsemen?

A comic panel showing the four horsemen on horses. Dawkins: We held a calm, rational debate and came to the consensus that we should initiate doomsday!! For we are the four horsemen of the atheist apocalypse! The world as you know it ends this day!

Source: Virus Comix. This is from circa 2008, and you can judge for yourself how well it has aged.

“The Four Horsemen of Atheism” is first and foremost, a marketing term. The term was coined almost exactly a decade ago, in 2007, in order for the horsemen to sell recordings of themselves.  From there, the term had runaway success.

It appears that the reason that Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens were chosen (instead of other well-known atheists) is that they were all best-selling authors of atheist books in 2007. It also arose from media coverage, such as the famous 2006 Wired article, which coined the term “New Atheists”, and interviewed Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris. (Hitchens hadn’t published his book until 2007.)

But for me, it was never the books which were important, it was the blogs. I started reading Pharyngula in late 2006. I only ever read one of the books, and I read it in 2008 and didn’t care for it. To me, it has always seemed odd how much we venerate book authors. There are other media outside of books, after all! What about bloggers, journalists, youtubers, podcasters, and artists? Or for that matter, any more recent authors?

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Scientism in the atheist movement

Larry Hamelin pointed me to a recent Existential Comic which criticizes Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris for scientism. The explanatory text below the comic goes on to criticize the New Atheist movement as a whole. It argues:

The real goal [of scientism] is often just to draw a border around what we should or shouldn’t question, because they don’t want any of the fundamental aspects of society to change.

Larry Hamelin has a couple good posts responding to the comic commentary, and looking back on the New Atheist movement as a whole. Partially following Larry, these are my critiques:

  • Harris and Dawkins don’t represent the atheist movement. Harris and Dawkins are widely criticized within the movement, and many (myself included) are positively disposed to philosophy.
  • To the extent that scientism is or was present in New Atheism, it was not motivated by an attempt to maintain status quo. I believe that scientism was primarily a reaction to the way people would hide behind the authority of philosophy, insisting that there exists a complex and subtle defense of religion or belief in God. Of course, the complex and subtle defense did not materialize, and failed to address religion or belief in God as they are popularly practiced.
  • Of all the strengths of philosophy, I do not think effecting social change is one. Certainly academic philosophy is not a force for change. And though my writing is often infused with philosophy, that just makes me a more effective thinker, not a more effective activist.

This might be a bad idea, but let’s read the comments on this comic to see what other people are saying.

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If you think there’s no atheist movement, tell me why

One of my pet peeves is when people say that there is no atheist movement. At many times, I’ve reacted angrily to the suggestion. I don’t understand how anyone could believe that, especially when I hear it from people who are involved in, or interact with atheist organizations.

Dear readers, help me understand. If you don’t believe there is an atheist movement, please explain your thinking in the comments. I will listen, and as long as you are polite to me I will be polite to you, setting pet peeves aside.

Here are some questions which you may use to guide your responses:

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Three views on social justice in atheism

Previously, I wrote a post framing social justice as a meta-movement, a movement which seeks to change how all other movements are run. Here I’ll talk about how that applies to atheism.

Why should the atheist community pay attention to social justice? The reasoning is quite elementary: The atheist community is a community. All communities should pay some attention to social justice. Therefore the atheist community should pay some attention to social justice.

Some atheists like to argue that social justice is beyond the scope of atheism. The argument goes that the community should take a neutral position, thus being inclusive of people with various relationships to social justice. However, this is missing the point. The “scope” of the community doesn’t really matter for the argument. All that matters is that it’s a community. As I said before, the same argument applies to the physics community, despite it being obvious that social justice is outside the scope of physics. The “neutral” position is not really neutral, but directly in opposition to the goals of social justice.

However, there are various degrees of “pay attention to social justice” which I describe below.

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Practical advice for struggling atheist clubs

Following my bitter retrospective on 9 years of participation in atheist university groups, here are some concrete tips for how you can do better than what we did. They are roughly in order from high priority to low priority.

1. Have a mailing list and a Facebook group. Announce every meeting and event through both channels.  Don’t have more than one.

2. Register your group with the university, and keep it registered every year.

3. Reserve room space for regular meetings. Weekly meetings in the evening are common practice. This must be done far in advance.

4. Know the dates of the activities fairs at your university. You probably need to register for them far in advance, so look it up immediately. The minimum requirement for the activities fair is a large sign and a sign-up sheet for your mailing list.

5. Make a good impression at the first meeting of the year. The first meeting is often the one with the most people, so make sure you know how to run discussions for various group sizes (see below). You may think that it will be exciting to discuss your upcoming plans for the year, but it usually comes across as sharing boring administrative details, so don’t do it unless it’s absolutely necessary. Your main objective is that students should meet each other and make positive social connections. That means that each person should learn, and remember, the name of one or two people who are not in the leadership.

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Are atheist clubs dying?

I’m now saying my last goodbyes to the local atheist student group. This is a significant event. I’ve been atheist student groups since 2008.  I first joined the UCLA skeptical group as an undergraduate, and then I participated in the UC Berkeley atheist group for the entirety of my PhD.

As I reflect back on 9 years, how do I justify my participation?  I don’t think I can.  Even when the leadership has been good, I have never felt they produced any sort of effective activism.  I was resigned to using the group just to have a few interesting discussions and meet a few new people.  Even so, I spent a lot of time being dissatisfied or angry with them.  This last semester, I skipped a lot of meetings (since an origami group competes for the same time slot), and I mostly felt it improved my life.

I’m saying goodbye because I intend to graduate before fall semester.  But also, the club is dying.  Right now, there is nobody to lead the group in the fall.  After years of struggling, maybe it will finally disappear.

This is a post where I present no evidence, and instead brazenly generalize my personal experiences.  Our atheist club is dying.  Are all atheist clubs dying?  Clearly not.  I’ve always heard that atheist groups in the southern US are more active than their counterparts on the coasts.  And lots of local non-student atheist organizations are still active as far as I know.  Even so, if the atheist group at UC Berkeley dies, it feels like an indicator of a broader decline, and a herald for the death of other atheist groups that now prosper.

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