Okay, everyone knows that there’s been a massive … schism, maybe? … in the New/Gnu Atheist movement. Honestly, it started a year ago with Elevatorgate, and has continued on this year with the new fight over TAM and all of the stuff over that. And you have atheists griping about FTB, atheists on FTB griping about each other, people griping about Skepchicks and Rebecca Watson, and everything in-between. People are blocking and banning and treating as the enemy people that they used to like and respect, and saying that now they know what the person is really like. Russell Blackford — who, despite his tendency to say really incorrect things when he gets angry — has now been declared essentially persona non grata for a, well, tirade that’s both right and wrong all at the same time.
Since I’m not a theist nor a skeptic, if I was the sort of person to take pleasure in the problems of my opponents or who thought of opponents as enemies, I’d be laughing right now. As it is, I’m going to settle for saying “I told you so”.
So, a little background. I’ve posted on various forums in my life, from ones that talked about feminism to ones that talked about shyness to ones that talked about religion and atheism. And there is one thing that I’ve seen that’s been a constant. On all of them, you will always have the people who are aggressive, angry, mocking, sarcastic and strident. In other words, the perfect “Gnus” as opposed to the accommodationists. And, not surprisingly, their tone will offend people; it’s generally never pleasant to have to wade through mounds of vitriol and insults to get to what might be a decent argument, and even worse to have to see those responses when you were having an interesting discussion with someone else. But those people will get laughs from the people on their side, and dismissive complaints about what would be tone trolling if someone complains. Ultimately, the answer will be the one that the Gnus give to accommodationists: suck it up and take it.
And then one of those people defending the “Gnu attitude” will disagree with one of these strongly “Gnu” people.
The “Strong Gnu” will, of course, pound on them in the same way as they pound on anyone else they agree with. They’ll use the same insults, mockery and same “if you’re not with me you’re against me” attitude as they use on the other people. Except that invariably the person targetted doesn’t find it funny anymore, but is in fact offended. And the people who agree with the “Strong Gnu” will defend their insulting that person in the same way they defended them before … as long as they agree with them. Otherwise, they’ll end up arguing that the “Strong Gnu” is just being a jerk, being mean, is out of line, isn’t addressing arguments, is relying on ad hominems, etc, etc.
And the people who were formerly the targets can only think “Now you know how we feel when they do it to us”.
This is exactly what’s happening in the “Gnu Atheist” movement. What we have is a serious disagreement over how things should work, and both sides are jumping on each other, and treating each other in the ways that they used to only treat theists and accommodationists. And, surprise, surprise, they don’t like being treated that way. And so they get offended, and fire back. And things escalate.
But the key is this:
ERV is just treat Watson like she treated everyone else she disagrees with.
Myers is treating those he disagrees with the way he treats everyone he disagrees with.
Watson is treating everyone like she’s always treated everyone.
Stephanie Zvan is treating everyone like she’s always treated everyone.
Thunderf00t is arguing the same way he’s always argued.
Jason Thibault is acting like he’s always acted.
Chris Hallquist is acting like he’s always acted.
Ophelia Benson is acting like she’s always acted.
Greg Ladon is acting like he’s always acted.
Essentially, everyone is acting just as they’ve always acted, arguing in the same ways they always argue. So, if you now see them as being void of content, impossibly missing the point, and acting like jerks they always did that. You just didn’t notice because you agreed with them, and you were then happy to see the people you also disliked get slapped around by them. But now it’s different. Now, you don’t agree with them, and now it seems to you like they’re building strawmen, mocking instead of arguing, and just being jerks. They haven’t changed; all that’s changed is whether or not you agree with them.
And look how “productive” those exchanges have been. The number of people who have changed their minds in this debate is vanishly small. Instead, for the most part, people have entrenched and doubled down. If anything, they’ve become less willing to listen and respond to arguments, or even make their own. Yes, there has been some progress on the harassment front, with some conferences adopting policies, but the divisions in their “movement” haven’t shown any sign of healing. In fact, they’ve grown deeper and wider.
So, what about the vaunted “But our style works and is needed” reply? Well, it doesn’t work. Sure, you can browbeat some people into agreeing with you or choosing the path of least resistance, but those aren’t rational conversions, but are essentially bullying. Essentially, sure, the uber-aggressive style works, but it only works — to quote Star Wars — on weak minds, on people without the will to withstand the aggression and hold the line on rational grounds. The precise people that it would most suit at least these “Gnu Atheists” to convert are those who are rational and willing to be rational, who will not be swayed by emotion but only by arguments … who will then entrench when they are faced with passion instead of substance.
The fear of accommodationism — of the sort of the “Don’t be a dick” of Phil Plait — is a fear of arguing only in a milquetoast fashion that is devoid of committment and passion. If the “Gnu Atheists” want to change the world, they are right that you don’t do that by acting as if the issues aren’t important to you. Passion is required, at times, just to let people know that the issue is important to you. But passion isn’t to be used as a strategy. You shouldn’t replace argument with passion. Passion is used for emphasis, not as the constant state. Sometimes, yes, you need to get angry. Sometimes, yes, you need to rant. But all of this should be done almost apologetically, with an understanding that simply insulting or mocking or being angry isn’t the rational approach, but that being human and really caring we can’t always restrain ourselves to the arguments. Trying to win an argument through anger is nothing more than trying to win an argument through browbeating, and when it works it’s bullying and when it fails, it really, really fails.
The worst sin of them all is polarization, the treating of opponents as enemies. People who disagree with you are … people who disagree with you. You may agree on many, many things … just not this one. They are not an enemy to be overcome through any means necessary, but are instead someone that you want to come to a consensus with. At work, I often disagree with people, and always get annoyed at dismissive answers that try to ignore or unilaterally settle the disagreement. If two people who both have the best interests of the product in mind don’t agree, there are reasons for that, and we have to figure out what those reasons are, and then settle it knowing what’s at stake. The basic starting point of intellectual charity is to always remember and assume that the person you are reading or listening to has reasons, and that the goal is not to win, but to find out those reasons and see what they’re really saying.
The schism in “Gnu Atheism” strikes me as indicating the failure of the anti-accommodationist stance, as it demonstrates clearly that when calm, rational discussion is required the anti-accommodationist stance simply can’t provide it. Thus, anti-accommodationism is nothing more than a way for bullies and jerks to wrap their bullying and jerkiness in the cloak of respectability and good of all, and thus allow themselves to hide from the fact that they really are nothing more than bullies and jerks for just a little while longer.
For rational discussion, we don’t need it. We can be passionate without being insulting, show we care without giving in to anger, disagree without becoming enemies. Anything else is irrational, useless and dangerous … as the recent kerfuffle as amply demonstrated.