Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Titanomachy

Adam Lee:

Where do we go from here? I honestly don't know. I don't think Richard Dawkins should be blacklisted or any such thing. I do know that I'm probably less likely to buy his books or to watch his speeches than I was before, and I'm certainly less likely to recommend them to people who aren't familiar with atheism. I'd like to see him enlightened, but I think it serves little purpose to attack him. Our time would be more constructively served by finding and promoting people who are better suited to be the public face of the atheist movement.

We're not going to blacklist him, we're just going to quarantine him behind a wall of silence and speak of him, if we absolutely must, only in the past tense, like parents who tell strangers that their rebellious black sheep of a son actually died fighting nobly on a far-off battlefield. Ahahaha. It's almost like Dawkins' strict adherence to science and atheism blinded him to the oblique truth to be found in, oh, the irony, mythology. Honestly, you can't script this kind of entertainment.

You know, though, if there were one principle that you would think atheists and rationalists might be uniquely suited to defend, it would be the imperative to discuss ideas on their own merits in specific contexts, to refuse to countenance the underhandedness of ad hominem dismissals of an argument. If Dawkins is indeed a sexist dickhead, that would present a perfect opportunity to demonstrate that, unlike the conventional, irrational attitude which treats heretical opinions as contagions which will infect anyone foolish enough to engage with them, we are calm and composed enough to separate the grain from the chaff in his writings, rather than cast it all aside in the vain search for ideological purity. "Here's a good book about atheism by Richard Dawkins. Yeah, he's got some stupid opinions about feminism, but that's irrelevant in this context. Just read the arguments he makes here." What's so hard about that?

Nothing—unless you're trying to build a brand. And as any marketers and advertisers are happy to tell you, perceptions and slick PR are what matter, not truth. No doubt, the A-plussers are telling themselves that unlike every other would-be revolutionary group that has sought power and influence, they'll never compromise their principles in the process. It may be a moot point, of course—time will tell if they come out of their ideological purification rituals intact, or if they end up, like in Monty Python, as a bunch of competing Popular Fronts of atheism consisting of one or two members apiece. But if they're that eager to jettison Dawkins for inconveniencing their rebranding efforts, you can expect many more such sacrificial measures, should they actually achieve their goal of becoming a viable force in American society.

11 comments:

Shanna said...

Ok, okay. We won't black list Dawkins for being an asshole. But can we blacklist the FTB for monumental stupidity? Every time I read anything about A+, I have the intense urge to go knock some fucking heads together, and it's harshing my buzz.

The Vile Scribbler said...

That would be irrational! Being irrational would make you an asshole and a douchebag! Be rational or GTFO!

noel said...

Dawkins is clearly being a dick, but they're taking the most hostile interpretation of his words possible. Which makes FTB look like the Institute for Political Correctness and a total bore.

The Vile Scribbler said...

A bore! Bite your tongue, sir! I haven't had so much fun in a long time!

I don't know what my favorite part of this is. There's the emo wail about how "this is why we shouldn't have heroes!" You guys are crestfallen that Dawkins turned out to not be the image you projected onto him? I've gotten so used to the idea that the most valuable people to think with are precisely the ones who you disagree with half the time, that challenge and provoke you, that it really struck me dumb to see this dejected-true-believer pouting. Good thing Hitchens had the courtesy to die before this thing got started, or they'd be tying themselves in all sorts of knots over his personal and ideological sins. Maybe they can posthumously disown him, like Mormonism in reverse.

Then there's the petty way he doesn't link directly to Dawkins' tweets, but to FTB bloggers talking about his tweets. Almost like saying to someone else "Please inform Richard I'm not speaking to him anymore" while standing right in front of him and looking in the other direction.

Also, the commenters on the FTB posts seem to have largely gotten the message: "Yeah, I was never that big a fan of his anyway... yeah, he served his purpose, we don't need his curmudgeonly ass anymore..." What have you done for me lately, indeed...

I give the movement another few weeks before they're all sitting with arms folded across their chests and their backs turned to one another.

noel said...

I don't go there anymore except for Camels With Hammers, but I guess I enjoy a train wreck as much as the next guy.

The Vile Scribbler said...

Yeah, I still read Fincke sometimes.

Oh! How could I forget: the fact that Dawkins hinted at an ad boycott of FTB, which apparently is dirty pool if not being used against right-wingers.

TauriqM said...

Parts of Adam's post don't make sense to me: I do understand that writers could hold such horrible views that I don't want to read something of theirs too quickly: but that would be for views that warrant disparagement, such as actual misogyny, actual sexism, actual racism, etc. Dawkins does care about people, but can make absurd and unhelpful statements given the climate.

No one needs to agree to the climate or what's being said. For example, even if you hate what a female blogger writes or defends, if she's receiving death and rape-threats, maybe now is a bad time to sarcastically indicate how silly A+ is, maybe it's a bad time to talk about how you as a woman have never been harassed at conferences. As I wrote in my latest two posts about online civility, even if we're in the right in terms of arguments, we can still be in the wrong when it comes to timing.

Dawkins has failed, I think, at timing and attitude. I don't think he's done or said anything that warrants either Adam's response or Rebecca Watson's of boycotting. Sure, he's mistaken: but to what extent, how much, etc., that warrants this response. I don't think it's proportional.

Perhaps we could claim that because he's a major figure of this "movement", we should be seen to have "major" responses. We are showing that we won't tolerate such privileged views that undermine fights for women's equality. I think there is some merit to such a view, and perhaps that is what Adam's doing. I think framed in this way, it makes slightly more sense than simply he is a silly old man, who doesn't get why women's rights defenders are upset (well, those at Freethought Blogs, and elsewhere).

I am not hopeful at all for A+ and have seen it increase tribalism even for people I otherwise would've expected otherwise (Carrier remains the lightning rod example, but there are others that I'd rather not mention). I suppose those that I just don't think we should be speaking to other like this anymore: http://freethoughtblogs.com/kagin/2012/09/06/there-is-no-such-thing-as-new-atheism-either/#comment-8220

anything that increases such horrible communication in disproportion to reaching good goals (which A+ does have, with values I highly recommend in a broad way), is not something I can support or be behind. Most A+'s aren't like this, but that is, I think beside the point.

Shanna said...

Interesting comment, Tauriq. But it reminds me of the cry after the Aurora shootings "It's too soon to talk about this." Perhaps it's only a matter of degrees, but I think to disagree with the substance of the argument is to be obliged to speak up, no matter how unpopular it will make you. Oh course, if you hope to convince people, you should probably lay off the snark.

Personally, if I didn't know Scribbles so well, I would have thought he was a shocking misogynist for disparaging the Sarkeesian project, and for saying "Well, it's YouTube. Of course YouTube comments are terrible." I don't think he understands quite what female bloggers and gamers go through, but I'm satisfied he's not lacking empathy in this matter, and his points have merit. But until I was convinced of his empathy, if not his understanding, it wouldn't matter what his points were, if his premise was that women were just making a scene.

To me the most frustrating thing is all these supposed rationalists shouting right past each other. "You don't support my rights as a human being! You're the worst kind of scum." "Shut up! Of course I do, I just don't see what it has to do with atheism, and we're a little light on the details of what actually 'being' A+ would entail" "You're just concerned with retaining your white male privilege. Anything that doesn't threaten that is fair game." "If you're so interested in social justice, why won't you ally with the liberal Christians? Seems like you're more interested in posturing"

All of which is to be expected in any contentious group of humans. It's just that THESE humans pride themselves on their rationality, and it makes me want to put my fist through the wall.

The Vile Scribbler said...

No argument there, Tauriq. It's like people who proudly identify as being "brutally honest"—when I hear that, I prepare to hear an incredibly self-centered ass who can't be bothered to tailor their responses to the context or the audience.

But I do agree with what Shanna seems to be getting at: given the heightened emotional temperature and the extremely moralistic tribalism in spats like these, as well as the notoriously shapeshifting rules of what constitutes support or opposition, I don't think the A+ crowd will ever decide that it's a good time to criticize each other. Watson, et al, will always be able to point to obnoxious trolls and threats as proof that circling the wagons takes priority right now. Once two sides define themselves in such violent opposition to each other, the argument between them tends to become the sea level of the discourse, and the gravity of it tends to draw more nuanced views down one side of the hill or the other. Personally, that makes me all the more determined to claim a perspective from higher ground, if I can (I can afford to, because I'm a nobody and no one's listening to me anyway).

Shanna referenced the Sarkeesian thing, so to digress and elaborate a bit—when I first saw mention of her campaign soliciting funds, I rolled my eyes at what I thought was the silliness of it. I think most varieties of critical theory are unadulterated manure, and a self-indulgent way to appear to be doing something vaguely political by "interrogating" the contents of your TiVo or your mp3 collection for signs of bigotry, or, in her case, deconstructing video games to illustrate supposedly harmful tropes about women. Like I said, I thought it was silly, but if she wants to spend time on it, and other people want to freely give her money to film herself doing it, whatever.

Then the FTB crowd started getting on the bandwagon, adopting it as a feminist cause. I saw it being presented as a way to make video games "better", without even bothering to define what "better" meant in this context, or explaining why the audience couldn't be trusted to see through the cartoonishness of the game characters themselves without being lectured, or offering any proof that being exposed to such "tropes" actually impacts anyone's thinking in any meaningful way.

And so when she started receiving an abusive backlash from gamers and YouTubers, the rush to show unconditional support meant that her cause, such as it was, was fully adopted by the future A-plussers as being righteous and correct, because of the nature of her enemies and the fog of war which ensured that no one was going to bother quibbling over nuances. Can't you see how awful these people are?!?! Show your support!!!

My guess is that once the dust settles and the misogyny subsides to a dull roar, it will have become cemented in conventional wisdom that Sarkeesian was on the side of the angels, and anyone who disagrees is the scum of the earth. Her name will serve like a flashcard of tribal identity: "Anita Sarkeesian! Quick, for or against?! Whose side are you on?!" And by that time, arguing about the particulars will become largely a lost cause. That's why I would argue that holding one's tongue for a "better time" might be a pipe dream after all.

But getting back to this particular brouhaha—regardless of who went overboard first, it strikes me that if all the primary antagonists can't agree to set aside an afternoon, in person or in a private video chat, to hash out their differences and at least agree on how to present those differences publicly for the good of the larger movement, they might as well stop kidding themselves that they'll ever be able to persuade tens of millions of other people, who aren't at all inclined to be charitable to them, to accept their worldview.

TauriqM said...

@Shanna

I'm confused by your "but". I'm not sure how saying "if you accuse people of misogyny, you're going to see them everywhere" - which is true - is worth saying to someone who HAS just received a rape-threat. While true - and maybe she's done it - does it actually help right then to say it?

I agree we need to say it and shouldn't let emotions silence us. But there are times to do so and indeed venues. I do also think there are ways of phrasing arguments that don't reek of snark and dismissal.

Interesting what you say later, since I've been involved in a conversation on this elsewhere: http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=5757

My worry is not their claim to reason: my worry is (1) there are important groups, like CFI, IHEU, etc. which have done and continue to do good work, in terms of social justice (marriage equality, women's rights, etc.) that you could devote your resources too, like your efforts and money, instead of some new thing which claims to want to do the same thing; (2) it is quite clear that many of these people don't know how to handle discussion: as is evident by many comments, if you bring up topics of social justice that doesn't aling perfectly with prevailing opinion, you will get yelled to silence. Are these the types of people I want advocating equal rights for the LGBT community? No. However, if they channel their goals through proper advocacy groups who know how to get the job done, there's a higher chance their "snark" and "abusive" language can be tamed somewhat to remember the goal.

I urge you to read the discussion I linked to above, as it ties in somewhat with your statement RE Sarkeesian and sexists.

Shanna said...

" I'm confused by your "but". I'm not sure how saying "if you accuse people of misogyny, you're going to see them everywhere" - which is true - is worth saying to someone who HAS just received a rape-threat. While true - and maybe she's done it - does it actually help right then to say it? "

I rarely think tact is out of place, but that you shouldn't be able to shush people by saying they lack propriety. Speak up and devil take the hindmost-- if you are perceived to be promoting your own aims at the expense of victims, you'll take enough flack that your opponents gain no benefit in warning you off-- unless they fear the substance of your remark will undermine the actual situation at hand.

I think the main thing is to establish empathy, something the A-plussers are failing miserably at. You mention the principle of charity. I assure you, I am being most charitable in assuming that the A+ are at least as interested in social justice as they are of attaching the word "atheist" to a social justice movement. I'm hoping that the most charitable interpretation of the facts is true; that in atheism they see an intelligent and energetic group of people whose efforts ought to be applied to the biggest social issues of our time-- instead of petulant narcissists who refuse to do something good if they have to do it alongside those lame Christians.

If they were at least honest about their desire to rebrand "Hey guys, enough of our splendid isolationism, let's show a world of religious folks that atheism can be a force for good." but instead they're just making bad arguments in justification and scream in outrage about it when their rational, earnest compatriots say, "Look, mate, it's not that I disagree with you, but your arguments need work."

I want atheism to be a force for good in the world, too, but you can't just say, "Look, we're against sexism, racism, and prejudice of every kind because we're atheists. A)what kind of reasoning is that and B)even if we let it stand, what does it mean for how we operate in the world? How PZ et. al. thought they were going to smuggle that past a group of rationalists is beyond me.