AACon13: An object lesson in building communities

I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to share my experience of the convention with people. I figure that even if few people read them, I’d like to look back at these posts in a few years and remember how enjoyable it was. In case you missed some, here are the recaps of:

In case it wasn’t obvious from those four posts, I had an amazing time. I don’t regularly get the opportunity to travel out of town for these conventions, and it was kind of American Atheists to host this particularly enormous event in my home town. I loved the speakers, but just getting to meet and swap stories with people who have influenced me or been influenced by me, was really enjoyable.


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Social graces, who needs em?

Russell here. I haven’t really thrown myself fully into the Watson / Dawkins dust up, apart from a Facebook thread and a few choice remarks in comments. Rest assured, though, that I and pretty much every Atheist Experience participant I’ve seen in email agrees (as far as I can glean) with the main thrust of Martin’s post on the subject, to wit: “Dawkins is wrong, Rebecca is right.” We’ve gotten email trying to insist that we should inject some fake balance into this discussion, saying both sides have blown it out of proportion. Nope. IMHO, they haven’t, all the proportion blowing out of has been in one direction.

A thread that is pushing towards 400 comments probably doesn’t need more people repeating what’s already been said, but I want to take some time out to address one of the most… confused… comments that I saw thrown out and repeated a few times in there. It’s this:

This is embarrassing. I feel the need to comment on this because Martin, Tracy, and Matt are clearly being hypocrites here.

“Lets make a TV show where we call all religion false. People will feel offended/threatened/fearful for viewer’s salvation, but in the name of free discussion, its worth it. After all, people don’t have right not to be offended.”

And now look whats happened. “Its good for Rebecca to set incredibly subjective social rules for all men (applying to all women as well) because she might be frightened.”

Of course people don’t have the right not to be offended.

And by the same token, people don’t have the automatic right of association with people that they’ve offended.

Look, I don’t spend time talking about atheism because I think it’s naturally fun to offend people. I talk about atheism because I feel that it’s an intelligent point of view which has been unfairly misrepresented by a large number of religious people. When I’m on the show I have different goals depending on who I’m talking to. The three most common goals, for me, are as follows:

  1. Hello, fellow atheist! Don’t feel bad that you’re an atheist, because many other smart people agree with you and have good reasons for doing so! We support you and appreciate what you’re going through.
  2. Hello, theist! We may disagree with you, but we’re not a danger to you. We have values, we don’t harm people, and we aren’t on a mission to destroy your freedom to believe what you want. We think your beliefs are wrong, but we’d like to discuss why rather than drawing the knives. Yay for pluralism, am I right?
  3. Hey, audience! Get a load of this guy! His religion has caused him to have an extraordinary number of obviously false beliefs, so hilarious that they are transparent even to his fellow religious people! Let’s all enjoy him for entertainment value, since it would obviously be a waste of time to try to convince him of anything.

That’s the formula in a nutshell, and all three types of caller are valued. Caller #3 is the most likely to be “offended” by our topics, but that’s okay with me. He is free not to watch, and if he watches anyway, well, offense is part of the package deal.

But I also don’t expect to hang out with those people. I usually don’t come into their church, tell them things from their pulpit that will offend them, and then get angry because they don’t immediately hire me as the new pastor.

So the question is: do we, in fact, give a crap about having women like Rebecca and Tracie and and Greta and Jen Peeples and Jen McCreight feel comfortable as a part of the atheist activist and outreach community, or don’t we? If several of our existing activists explain what it is that is making atheist conventions a potentially uncomfortable environment, are you gonna say “Suck it up, babe, I have the right to offend you”?

Well, yeah, you have the right to do it. But you’re kind of like a guy who is sitting in a public place for hours making armpit fart noises. It’s not illegal to make armpit farts, it’s probably not “threatening behavior” per se, but you can rest assured that the vast majority of people will find you annoying and stay far away from you. Some might even approach you and say “Please stop doing that, it’s obnoxious.” As Richard Dawkins might point out, the amount of discomfort it causes people is quite trivial compared to what oppressed women in the Middle East have to go through, but it doesn’t change the fact that it will cause a lot of people not to like you.

So if I say “Please stop with the armpit farts,” I am not curtailing your free speech. And if you insist on your “right” to do it, and then as a result I choose to avoid you, I am also not curtailing your free speech. And if I later throw a party, and I say “Don’t invite him, that’s the armpit fart guy,” I am still not curtailing your free speech. I’m just exercising my freedom of association because I don’t like you.

Sometimes in the past I’ve talked about debating atheism as being a kind of competitive game, much like chess or poker or Starcraft II or football. In all competitive games, there is a certain amount of luck involved with the circumstances under which you play, but the main way to increase your skill is to play a lot. When you lose, you observe what your opponent did and see if there is anything you can specifically borrow from his style so that you improve the next time. When you win, identify why you won and keep doing that, but also review where you were weakest and how you can stop doing those things.

Being socially effective and well liked is no different, but this is a difficult thing for some atheists to get their heads around because a lot of us are — show of hands, please! — nerds. It’s not a coincidence that there are strong nerdy tendencies among a group that emphasizes intellect, rationality, and scientific literacy. It comes with the territory. I’m a nerd, I’m engaged to a nerd, I love talking to nerds.

But one thing that characterizes some nerds is that they care more about their chosen area of passion — whether it’s physics or Greek poetry or getting really good at Starcraft II — than about their personal interactions with other people. And that, of course, leads to frustration when they recognize that social acceptance doesn’t come for free; you have to work at that too.

Let me throw out a chess analogy here. I prefer to use chess rather than other games because I feel most people (particularly nerds) are likely to have at least a little bit of familiarity with it. At all skill levels, most players start the game by moving the king’s pawn. A smaller number move the queen’s pawn first, often as part of a queen’s gambit. It’s also possible to open with any other pawn or even a knight, but it’s very rare for good players to do this for a lot of reasons: you give up early control of the center, you delay your ability to move out key pieces on the board, etc.

Now suppose you’re just learning to play chess, and you decide that you want to open every game by moving your rook’s pawn, way over on the side of the board. After I watch your games a bit, I say “I think you should stop using that as your opening move, try something more traditional.” A player who wishes to improve at chess will seriously consider this suggestion and most will eventually recognize it as correct. This improvement comes in two stages: first unders
tanding the reasoning behind the strategy, and second, trying it out and observing that, yes, you win more when you do it.

But another reaction to this advice would be to throw a temper tantrum, saying “What an unfair demand! That’s the problem with this dumb game, it’s so rigid and has all these unspoken ‘rules’ that I’m expected to follow even though they aren’t part of the official rules of the game! I think you’re just imposing on my freedom to open with the rook’s pawn, and you can go fuck yourself.”

That player is always going to be bad at chess. He’s right, of course, to think that you “have the right” to make a rook pawn opening. But what he’s missing is that you don’t have the right to open with the rook’s pawn and then win the game. Being good at chess is not a right.

Forgive the incredibly convoluted analogy, but I do have a point. There is a way of acting which will be regarded as offensive and out of line by most people who give any actual thought to the matter. People who insist on their “right” to act this way do not have the right to be respected or appreciated for their independence, which would constitute “winning” the social game.

Periodically we’ll see discussions going on about why there are so many white dudes in the atheist activist movement. Atheist men would like to have more women around. Atheist women, minority that they are, would like to have more women around. Black atheists, and non-racist white atheists, would like to have more black atheists around. We don’t want that so that we white men can have more chicks to hit on, or so we can smugly say “I have some black friends!” It’s because we would like atheist activism to be an open and inviting community for all people of like minds to be comfortable congregating and exchanging ideas. We don’t want to be forever hiding our atheism because Christians are the only ones who know how to apply social pressure.

Because, see, Rebecca Watson does not presume speak for all women; but if you look around at the reaction to her story among female bloggers, you’ll see that she obviously speaks effectively for a lot of them. The atheist community is either going to be a place that welcomes and embraces guys being obnoxious douches for the sake of celebrating their freedom to do what they want… or it’s going to be a place where women like to be. It can’t be both. You can offend people if you want, but you can’t be aggressively, unapologetically offensive to people whom you then also hope will like you.

Those are the rules of the game. Sorry if it cramps your style. Learn to play or go find a different game that you’re better at.