Thursday, August 16, 2012

Communication Breakdown

Rawls: I'm a reasonable guy. In fact, everywhere I go, people say to me: "Bill Rawls, you are a reasonable fucking guy." Am I right, Jay?
Landsman: You are reasonable, sir.
Rawls: Yes. Yes, I am.


The point of this list, I hasten to say, is not that the opinions that I have expressed on these topics are necessarily correct, but rather that a good number of people in the CoR, including several leaders of the movement(s), either hold to clearly unreasonable opinions on said topics, or cannot even engage in a discussion about the opinions they do hold, dismissing any dissenting voice as crazy or irrelevant.

As you can see, the above is a heterogeneous list that includes scientific notions, philosophical concepts, and political positions. What do the elements of this list have in common, if anything? A few things, which is where I hope the discussion is going to focus (as opposed to attempting to debunk one’s pet entry, or deny that there is a problem to begin with).

B) The “I’m-smarter-than-thou” syndrome. Let’s admit it, skepticism does have a way to make us feel intellectually superior to others. They are the ones believing in absurd notions like UFOs, ghosts, and the like! We are on the side of science and reason. Except when we aren’t, which ought to at least give us pause and enroll in the nearest hubris-reducing ten-step program.

C) Failure of leadership. It is hard to blame the rank and files of the CoR when they are constantly exposed to such blatant and widespread failure of leadership within their own community. Gone are, it seems, the days of the Carl Sagans, Martin Gardners, and Bertrand Russells, and welcome to the days of bloggers and twitterers spouting venom or nonsense just because they can.

...Do I have any practical suggestions on how to move the CoR forward, other than to pay more attention to what the people just mentioned say, and perhaps a little less attention to what is spouted by some others who shall go unmentioned? At the risk of sounding somewhat immodest, yes, I do. Here are a few to get us started (again, discussion on how to improve the list will be most welcome). Once again, the order is pretty much random:

i) Turn on moderation on all your blogs, this will raise the level of discourse immediately by several orders of magnitude, at the cost of a small inconvenience to you and your readers.

ii) Keep in mind the distinction between humor and sarcasm, leave the latter to comedians, who are supposed to be offending people. (In other words, we are not all Jon Stewarts or Tim Minchins.)

iii) Apply the principle of charity, giving the best possible interpretation of someone else’s argument before you mercilessly dismantle it. (After which, by all means, feel free to go ahead and mercilessly dismantle it.)

iv) Engage your readers and your opponents in as civil a tone as you can muster. Few people deserve to be put straight into insult mode (Hitler and Pat Robertson come to mind).

ix) Keep in mind that even the very best make mistakes and occasionally endorse notions that turn out to be wrong. How is it possible that you are the only exception to this rule?

This seems to be a recurring theme on several of the blogs I read. What's with all these intelligent, deep-thinking people going for each others' throats lately, needing to be restrained and sedated? I blame the heat. Fucking summer. It's good for nothing, I'm telling you.

I snickered a little at the pains he was taking to be coy about which bloggers he thinks are spouting venom and failing to provide examples of leadership. It reminded me of something I read a while back:

Walter Sobchak: Am I wrong?
The Dude: No, you're not wrong.
Walter Sobchak: Am I wrong?
The Dude: You're not wrong, Walter. You're just an asshole.
Walter Sobchak: Okay then.

Ahh, no, it wasn't that. Close, but no, it was something else...

So when people, atheists and theists alike, complain that I’m obnoxious, I feel good about it. There’s the fact that most of the people doing the complaining are not the sort I have much respect for, so I take pleasure in pissing them off, but also that I’m fulfilling my responsibilities. I make people aware that where I stand, there stands an atheist, and not some simpering milquetoast making apologies for his temerity in disrespecting religion, but someone who is proud of his beliefs.

Pigliucci complained about the arrogance of some atheists who think all believers are dumb, which is a common complaint, and one you hear from believers as well. But they’re wrong: I don’t think I’m smarter than everyone else.

I just think I’m right.

That’s important. Atheists should have a feeling of unrepentant confidence — we are on the right side of reason, the right side of history, and the right side of the evidence...And anyone who’s bothered by my cockiness should have a little more self-awareness: we all think we’re right, or we wouldn’t be doing what we do. Yeah, the faitheists and believers think I’m a bad guy, for the reasons above (and I’m OK with that). My other sin, though, is that I encourage other atheists to join me, I reinforce my kind of rudeness in a large group of people, and I do that community building stuff. I foster my tribe. We grow stronger and louder and bolder, we are all bad guys together.

...If you aren’t angry, there’s something wrong with you.

Religion is not some mild happy recreational activity; it is a poison of the brain that taints the vast majority of humanity. It is bad shit. I will not support it in any way, and I resent the complacent schmoes who urge us to close our eyes to it. One the one hand, we’ve got the moderate academic types who like to tell us it’s mostly harmless and we’ll never be able to get rid of it, anyway; to them I’d say that, as people who are supposedly dedicated to learning the truth, you ought to be the first to deny religion because a) it’s wrong, and b) it’s a fallacious way of learning about the world. On the other hand, we’ve got the happy progressives who want us all to do interfaith work, and tell us that the fundies might be bad, but we share common cause with liberal Christians; to them I say that a mind addled by liberal opium is just as faulty as one fired up on conservative crack.

Deep sigh, rub hands over face, run fingers through hair. Okay. Being that we write as cultural Christians for the most part here, it's fine to grapple mostly with monotheism. Most of the religion that affects our lives is "of the book". But it's also true that there are a few billion other people in the world who don't experience religion as an inferior version of science, as propositions aiming to become workable theories, as statements of metaphysical facts that you must accept on faith. As some of those in the nascent field of evolutionary religious studies can tell you, for those people, religion is what you do rather than what you think. Telling them that their religion is "wrong" would be like telling someone that art and poetry aren't "true" (of course, we don't know anyone that ridiculously literal-minded, do we?) And even here in the cultural shadow of the cross, plenty of people "do" their religious practice in a way that no reasonable person should find fault with. Religion is just one particularly ancient and widespread way people have of solidifying tight bonds within groups. If religion as we know it disappeared completely, human beings wouldn't suddenly become hyper-rational lone wolves; something else would serve as the anchor for people to band together and exclude outsiders.

I hate a group of people who have a common purpose, because pretty soon they have little hats and arm bands and fight songs and a list of people they’re going to visit at 3 AM. So I dislike and despise groups of people, but I love individuals.


Lately I've been interested in things like the differences in individual versus group psychology, as opposed to the less-interesting ideological distinctions. It's especially interesting to see those differences in the context of a movement which generally prides itself on being above such atavistic irrationality by virtue of its heightened focus on reason. But honestly, if you read comment threads on posts like those above from the vantage point of a bystander with no particular sympathies, you can't help but notice that the participants sound indistinguishable from any other bunch of assholes fighting on the Internet. Cheap shots, non-sequiturs, sarcasm, posturing, and various other rhetorical fleurs du mal sprout up even in what you'd think would be the inhospitable soil of rationality.

As we were just talking about the other day, the nature of our thinking and the tenacity with which we defend our conclusions changes simply by doing so as part of a cohesive group. The Internet, by facilitating instantaneous communication between people separated by the superficial differences of geography and personal idiosyncrasy, makes it easy to believe that one's intake of news and information is more diverse than it really is. The old conversational topics we were taught to avoid in polite company, like religion and politics, are especially prone to gravitate toward balkanization and echo chambers when individuals in a more distant, impersonal medium can easily avoid having any substantial interaction with people who don't fit their customized preferences. And even with the best of intentions, the imprecise nature of language itself, combined with the flawed rhetorical and written talents that most of us have at our disposal, turns any mass communication into the children's game of telephone.

I doubt this would be news to anyone. And yet, there we have PZ in full stride, taking criticism even from allies as confirmation of his righteousness and as encouragement to be even more recalcitrant and hostile; using phrases like "the right side of history" in complete, uh, unscientific earnest like any good Christian or Marxist; proudly bragging about "reinforcing" his rudeness among his "tribe"; and circumventing reasonable consideration by using selective, highly inflammatory examples of religion at its worst in order to make a naked appeal to raw emotion in the form of bumper sticker platitudes about how not being outraged means not paying attention. I guess he believes that he and his tribe have already done all the important thinking that needs doing, or else they can always hit the pause button on the amygdala and rationally sort through their conclusions every now and then to make sure they're all still valid. Sounds likely. So, when the last reactionary has been strangled with the guts of the last priest, I take it that no one will ever need to act like an obnoxious jackass ever again? Why am I not optimistic?

But as I've said many times, being offended is not such a terrible thing, and can even prove useful. Sometimes my feeling offended is actually a case of being embarrassed over being jolted out of my complacency. And in some contexts, such as the slightly-removed environment of the online world, a person can feel offended or attacked without feeling overly defensive, as would be the case if they were being insulted in person in front of their friends, thus allowing them to change their mind rather than entrench themselves even more firmly in a desperate attempt to save face (it's at least possible, if not likely). What I actually find most tiresome about his shtick is the way he's turned his attention to sociopolitical issues with the same ham-fisted subtlety he uses in reminding us that creationism is wrong. Reasonable people can disagree in good faith over age-old arguments about where to draw the line between liberty and equality, over how important it is to have X-amount of racial/sexual diversity at conferences, over exactly what feminism entails now and what the best means of achieving its goals should be, or, indeed, over whether any of this naturally follows directly from atheism as a given, but he acts as if all that's needed to solve such problems is "reason", delivered with the brash certainty of loudmouthed adolescence.