So, as promised last time, I’m going to talk about the great accomodationist debate … or, rather, the great accomodationist debate that was the “Don’t be a dick” debate as opposed to the “Science and religion are not compatible” debate. On the one side, you had atheists who preferred a more confrontational and aggressive approach, and on the other side you had those who said that that approach was too confrontational, and was causing problems for the movement.
So, just as in the discussion of sexism, there are two questions to answer here: the descriptive and the normative. For the descriptive question, we have to ask if even the more aggressive atheists are, in fact, more “dickish” than anyone else. So, if you read around the Internet, are even the more aggressive and downright insulting blogs and blog comments of these atheists any worse than the comments you’d see on any other blogs or on any other topics? Well, even speaking as someone who is at least in the general group that the comments are aimed at, I have to say that the answer to the descriptive question is unfortunately “No”. The Internet and society in general is full of people who take strong views on things and treat those who disagree as enemies, who they then insult and bash and then chortle over having “beaten” their opponents. Even the worse cases — like what you’d see in the comments sections of Pharyngula — are pretty much just standard these days.
So, again, it doesn’t look like the atheist movement is any worse than any other group when it comes to being jerks. But this debate has always been about the normative question: should tbe atheist movement be more or less aggressive and “dickish”? The accomodationists have argued that being more aggressive alienates potential allies, causes the people you are arguing with to close their minds to your arguments, and generally makes atheists look shrill and angry. The counter is that there is room in the atheist movement for both approaches and that for any movement that wants to change things the very civil and polite approach doesn’t work; you don’t ask politely for your rights, but have to fight for them.
The counter that there is room for both approaches doesn’t quite work, because people will see the movement as at least a semi-unified whole. So if you have atheists who take a very strong approach and offend people, then those who don’t like that approach will always end up having to answer questions about whether they agree with what those more aggressive atheists say, usually instead of being able to promote their own ideas. Thus, the aggressive atheist approach is liekly to have an impact on the approach of the “accomodationists”, one that isn’t likely to be vice versa. So accomodationists have more reason to complain that what the aggressive atheists are doing is hurting them rather than the inverse.
But, the counter that all movements need confrontation and anger is not a bad one. The reason is that in order to change things, you have to convince the peolpe who don’t feel strongly about either side that they should, in fact, feel strongly about the side you want them to support. So that does require passion, making it clear that you do, in fact, care about the issue and that the issue is critically important to you. And it is definitely the case that getting angry over things, particularly perceived injustices, does express passion.
Martin Luther King Jr., and his famous Letter From a Birmingham Jail, is often cited in these discussions. The accomodationists claim that King is a perfect example of someone who achieved his goals without being a jerk, while the non-accomodationists point to the letter and say that he could be confrontational and aggressive at times. And I think that this does reflect the truth about this issue: anger can express passion and expressing passion is good, but it isn’t always a good thing to do that. In fact, there are some cases where it is generally bad:
1) If it comes across as someone more interested in being insulting than in actually making the argument. Take Myers’ Crackergate: it could easily be seen as Myers wanting to tick off people and using the incident as an excuse to do so. This is because what he did works better to insult people than it does to make the point that he was trying to make; there were certainly other ways to demonstrate that people were overreacting without deliberately insulting even those who weren’t overreacting. So while, as the non-accomodationists argue, some people will be insulted or offended by any criticism of their views, that doesn’t mean that one should therefore strive to cause as much offense as possible. All that does is make everyone angry. So, one should choose the methods that are likely to cause the least offense as possible while still getting your point across.
2) If it is constant. If you express that level of passion over every little offense, no matter how trivial it might seem to everyone else. For example, if you look at cases where there’s a small prayer that’s been in a school for years for other reasons, or where a council has just always started with a prayer, if the reaction is that this is an incredibly egregious offense to atheists, and the reaction is therefore with strong anger and passion, people will start to think that atheists get angry and complain over every little thing, and so ignore them when they express passion over more serious things. The reason, for example, that few really take the protests of university students all that seriously is that they tend to protest over everything, making it that much harder for them and requiring them to take far more extreme measures to express their passion. So, passion must be measured: it must be appropriate to the severity of the issue.
3) If it’s seen as being a strategy. If people think that you aren’t really angry, but are merely using confrontational tactics as a strategy, then they won’t believe that you are really passionate about the issue … and so your passion won’t come across and so they won’t take it seriously, and so your strateg will fail. And a number of non-accomodationists have defended it as being a strategy, which thus hurts their own cause.
For passion and anger to work, it has to be seen as a genuine reaction to issues. If it is, then generally it will be measured and a reflection of the perception of the person getting angry. If one is getting angry and being confrontational constantly, then that might reflect something about them … and hurt their own cause.