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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