Did I use ‘offing’ correctly? Strange word.

Anyway, Mike Haubrich has pulled off another coup at Atheist Talk Radio. He has arranged for a conversation to happen, live, between Desiree Schell and yours truly. This will be in early June (details forthcoming). We’ll be talking about multiple strategies for effecting change, especially with reference to things like skeptical (in a good way) thinking, science, and so on.

This is very timely because we are quickly approaching SkepchiCON (click here to donate), at which this will be one of the topics discussed in the track organized by the Skepchicks. In fact, Desiree is one of the participants in that track this year, as is PZ Myers, a bunch of other people, and me. Watch this spot for more details on that as well.

In the meantime, the latest posts on this topic are:


The two species problem of New Atheism


The Accommodationism Challenges

What do you do when the person next to you on the plane is reading Deepak Chopra?

… And earlier posts are linked to here.

Comments

  1. #1 Doug Alder
    May 11, 2011

    What do you do when the person next to you on the plane is reading Deepak Chopra?

    1. Get airsick and puke all over their book then offer to lend them one of your Dawkins’ books
    2. Ask the flight attendent if you can move because anyone stupid enough to read Chopra is clearly mentally challenged and capable of doing almost anything
    3. look at them and ask “you don’t really believe that crap do you?”
  2. #2 justawriter
    May 11, 2011

    I didn’t know this, so it is a good day because I learned something new.

    offing
    in phrase in the offing, 1779, from nautical term offing “the more distant part of the sea as seen from the shore” (1627), from off (q.v.) + noun suffix -ing. Originally the phrase meant “in the distant future,” modern sense of “impending” developed 1914.

  3. #3 Mike McRae
    May 12, 2011

    Any chance if this conversation is going to be recorded? :) That’d be one I’d love to catch.

    Evelyn’s account is a great example of a discussion over a skeptical topic. I actually think that most people would either avoid discussion altogether, or be polite. I don’t think confrontation, ridicule, and directed aggression is the norm. Rather, most who advocate it rant, posture and blow off steam online, and are meek and reserved in reality. Thankfully.

    What troubles me is that in an age where the online world is becoming more influential on non-online events, with social media, forums, blogs and the like taking on new strengths, the culture of confrontation is becoming more acceptable. Where sitting on a plane, mocking somebody isn’t acceptable, cyber harassment is fine (or even encouraged), for example.

  4. #4 Greg Laden
    May 12, 2011

    It will be recorded as a podcast, and I’ll be sure to post all that info.

  5. #5 Stephanie Z
    May 12, 2011

    What troubles me is that in an age where the online world is becoming more influential on non-online events, with social media, forums, blogs and the like taking on new strengths, the culture of confrontation is becoming more acceptable.

    The culture of the flame war predates the modern internet by quite a bit. It has been accepted by those in the thick of things, simultaneously rejected and overdone by the n00bs, and excluded by fiat in certain areas in ways that have an interesting effect on the overall discourse. All these things exist side-by-side, and they’re all environments you need to deal with if you want to reach the broadest audience online.

  6. #6 Greg Laden
    May 12, 2011

    An early flame war: http://tinyurl.com/dmt7k

  7. #7 Stephanie Z
    May 12, 2011

    Heh. I’d been thinking about that, but I didn’t have time to check to make sure it fit in the way I thought it did.

  8. #8 Mike McRae
    May 12, 2011

    @Stephanie: Nothing in what I said suggested that flame wars are new. Such conflict itself is not novel – but aspects of internet culture are.

    The speed of communication, the ease of searches, access to a wider demographic than ever before…all contribute to a landscape that presents new resources and new challenges to a more diverse society. It’s far easier to select how you interact with other social groups and see the world through an online lens today than it was in an era of print. You might be able to hide away and rant at the radio in decades past, but the feedback through online discussions with a wide audience is relatively unprecedented on the modern scale. This is useful in reaching out to new people, but if you spend your days locked in an online bubble that supports the idea that it’s ok to insult the guy next to you for reading Deepak Chopra, I don’t think it bodes well for your interpersonal communication.

  9. #9 Stephanie Z
    May 12, 2011

    Well, Mike, I see a lot of evidence-free assertions from someone who doesn’t study atheist communication and doesn’t have the time. Care to back that up with anything?

  10. #10 Mike McRae
    May 13, 2011

    @Stephanie: Try ‘Internet and Society’ by Christian Fuchs. It’s been a while since I read it, but from what I recall it’s a good starting point.

    Unless, of course, you weren’t really interested, but simply wanting to take the opportunity to again show everybody how much it irritates you that you might be asked to engage in discussion without resorting to snarkiness. :P

  11. #11 Mike McRae
    May 13, 2011

    …then again, maybe going by the fact the comment I made on your blog linking my response to your ‘challenges’ has been deleted, maybe it’s not dialogue you’re after, but merely letting the world know you’re upset because people dared criticise something you do.

    I gave the benefit of the doubt that maybe, just maybe, you had something to offer behind the condescension and arrogance. Your insinuations of understanding something about the role of privilege and politics made me suspect that perhaps you had some interesting insight, some sources, hell, maybe even solid information beyond the usual assertions. I was willing to ignore the attitude for that.

    I’m not sure why you bother. In any case, I don’t see much point in wasting any more time on a dead end.

  12. #12 Stephanie Z
    May 13, 2011

    Mike, pay attention to the internet, please, if you’re going to engage on it. Blogger has been down for about 14 hours at this point.

  13. #13 Mike McRae
    May 13, 2011

    Pay attention to the internet? Because there’s a sign somewhere that says Blogger is down? Sorry, I saw my comment, and then it was gone, so I assumed you’d deleted it.

    I apologise if that wasn’t the case.

    Nonetheless, the condescension without substance is getting tiresome. I see little point in bothering with it since the chip on your shoulder isn’t really hiding anything like I’d hoped.

  14. #14 Stephanie Z
    May 13, 2011

    Mike, you’re on Twitter. Bitching about Blogger is all over the place there. But that discussion is very dull.

    Internet and Society is interesting, but it’s all theoretical. It doesn’t contain any information to support the idea that me talking to Doug (whom I’ve gotten to know well enough here to know when he’s being hyperbolic) is going to mess with my interpersonal communication skills. It doesn’t do anything to counteract the idea that even less than ideal practice of communication is still practicing communication and, thus improves skills (see recent study on the effect of texting and writing skills). What it does do, however, is give support to a phenomenon that you were poo-pooing, namely, gathering like-minded groups.

    The public sphere is not a single system but a whole that is made up of spheres of political communication that emerge in everyday life wherever people engage in political arguments and controversies that are open for others to join. Nancy Fraser (1982) has pointed out that the bourgeois public sphere has excluded women, workers, and ethnic minorities and that hence counterpublics have developed that, on the one hand, “function as spaces of withdrawal and regroupment; on the other hand, they also function as bases and training groups for agitational activities directed toward wider publics” (Fraser 1982, 124). Counterpublics are alternative public spheres in class-segmented societies (class employed in the multidimensional Bourdieuian sense of the term) that allow dominated groups to voice their opinions in public.

    I mentioned the withdrawal and regroupment concept here: http://almostdiamonds.blogspot.com/2011/04/support-of-new-atheism.html

  15. #15 Mike McRae
    May 13, 2011

    Again, you misrepresent. I never ‘poo-pooed’ the gathering of the like minded. In fact, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve claimed it as a positive action. Please, feel free to criticise (in fact I invite it), but it’s a lazy discussion if you’re going to insist on simply presuming what I’m saying.

    My point had nothing to do with the faults of the gathering of the like minded, or poor communication, but rather that the gathering of the like-minded online exacerbates the extremism of beliefs (doi: 10.1177/1461444809342775). I admit it’s conjecture on my behalf (hence my phrasing ‘I fear it will’ – not a claim, but a hypothesis which could well be wrong) whether this leads to offline consequences of more aggressive communication. But the fact it occurs is demonstrable.

  16. #16 Stephanie Z
    May 13, 2011

    What extremism are you suggesting occurs where to be exacerbated? Where are these extreme atheist groups? Where can you even find a group of atheists that doesn’t spend a bunch of time squabbling amongst themselves?

  17. #17 Mike McRae
    May 13, 2011

    I’d find PZ’s community of followers contain a fair few extreme atheists, given a spectrum. The point is less that the community is defined as extreme, but that extremist thinking is exacerbated as a result of group polarisation.

    As for infighting, how does that negate reinforcement of shared beliefs? There isn’t a group around that’s free of squabbles, atheism or other.

  18. #18 Stephanie Z
    May 13, 2011

    Find me a community that doesn’t contain a few extreme people. The presence of a few extreme people in a community is not the same thing as an extreme community. An atheist site that has a few hyperactive geeks on it is not comparable to a neo-Nazi website.

    Also, a major, ongoing disagreement over what atheism even is does not equate to a “squabble.” There is healthy, vigorous debate among various atheist groups, as well as between them, as you would find out if you spent as much time actually studying atheist communication as you are doing opining about it in the absence of knowledge.

  19. #19 Jason Thibeault
    May 13, 2011

    It’s sad that the guy proposing to be the person with the proper “outreach” position has basically cried foul play on every single counterargument made against his position, and on a number of easily verifiable issues like Blogger’s downtime, reversions and commenting read-only status (just click “add a comment” and you’ll have all the proof you need that Blogger’s borked). It suggests to me that his version of “outreach” is unidirectional.

  20. #20 Mike McRae
    May 13, 2011

    @Stephanie: This is tiring, and pointless. Nothing in what I said was exclusive to atheism. You’re right – there are always extremes in groups. So what? My point was that online communities exacerbate extremes. The Nazi-sympathist study looked at increases in extreme behaviour; there’s no reason why this can’t be extrapolated. But I guess unless there is a precise study on this very particular situation, you’ll be happier with gut feelings than with anything else. Your gut feelings just don’t cut it for me, but hey, nobody’s taking your soapbox away.

    @Jason: Ah, more made-up stuff. I never claimed to have the ‘proper’ position. In fact, that’s one of the criticisms leveled against me, that I’ve asked for reasons to believe certain methods and actions are working without proposing a replacement model. Damned either way, it seems.

    There also have been very few ‘counter arguments’. A lot of judgments that something is too theoretical, too different, too general etc. That’s Stephanie’s right, of course, but I can only disagree without a more precise argument. A whole lot of vague insinuations, condescension and assertions. Some challenges (which I at least attempted to answer).

    I’ve also not questioned whether Blogger was down. I couldn’t care less, to be honest. I’d assumed that a comment that was there one day and gone the next had been deleted. I don’t see how Blogger being down might delete a comment which looked like it had been accepted, but I’ve given Stephanie the benefit of the doubt that she did no such thing, and even apologised if that was the case.

    So, anything constructive to add? Or would that require you actually reading something I wrote rather than presuming my position?

  21. #21 Glendon Mellow
    May 13, 2011

    Just to ask, is PZ’s blog the only one with “extreme” atheist commenters? It’s the one I always see held up as an example. It also has the highest comment traffic. I would also offer that on a given post it will have more supportive, informative comments than most blogs. Both of these are in part due to the high volume of comment from a broad spectrum of atheists.

    When I was first realizing I no longer believed in spirituality, the supernatural or religion, PZ’s blog was the clearing in the forest where I could find some nourishing sunshine. Room to breathe. Stretch my arms. Be inspired.

  22. #22 Stephanie Z
    May 13, 2011

    Mike, yes, talking to someone who doesn’t have the time to study atheist communication but doesn’t let that stop him from concern trolling about it specifically is grossly pointless. Now you know why people don’t bother with you.

  23. #23 Stephanie Z
    May 13, 2011

    Oh, and this?

    …I’ve given Stephanie the benefit of the doubt that she did no such thing, and even apologised if that was the case.

    Fuck you very much. I already told you it was the case. Jason has told you it was the case. It’s been easily verifiable for hours upon hours, and you still make your apology contingent? What kind of creep are you?

    http://buzz.blogger.com/2011/05/blogger-is-back.html

    Now, fuck off.

  24. #24 Jason Thibeault
    May 13, 2011

    I’ll go on presuming your position, Mike, so long as you’re presuming that the low amounts of noise in a high-signal place like Pharyngula actually paints the entire group as extremist. I’d no sooner believe that Greg Laden’s Blog is accomodationist just because you’re here in the comments.

    This is a discussion atheists have been having for a while. If you want to put your two cents in, it behooves you to catch up to where the rest of us are. And provide specific examples. As long as you’re not willing to provide specific examples, I’m not willing to provide specific examples either. Except to call you out on crying foul on every bloody comment. Including your reply to me just now.

  25. #25 Brando
    May 14, 2011

    What exactly does this extremists element of PZ’s blog do that is extremist? Have there been atheist bombings or attacks on the street I am unaware of?

    Or are we using the word to mean extremely rude, or abrasive, or profanity prone?

    Or maybe you mean it in the extremists fundamentalist dominionist way. As in they are extreme in their devotion to… what, their faith in critical thinking. Non-belief? Occam’s razor?

    This may seem like a snarky post – because it is – but I am genuinely interested in what the fuck is so extreme other than the tone over there.

  26. #26 Greg Laden
    May 15, 2011

    Bando, I think it is a perfectly valid question to ask for a definition or description of what is meant by “extreme.”

  27. #27 Mike McRae
    May 15, 2011

    @Glendon: I’d say it’s the one with the least community control for it. If you dare speak up about something the community disagrees with there, or question something, you’re pretty quickly jumped on. I wouldn’t say there are more ‘extreme’ atheists per se, but definitely fewer commenters on the more critical end of the spectrum.

    @Stephanie: Ah, ‘concern trolling’. When somebody asks for more evidence than intuition, it’s trolling? You’re right, I don’t spend a lot of time studying atheist outreach, outside of where it crosses over into science communication. You’ve suggested there’s differences where it’s political. Great. But you’ve done nothing other than that other than to suggest I look and read past discussions…which don’t seem to say much other than insinuate, assert and go with gut feelings. And on the circle goes.

    And yes, it is a contingent apology. I never question Blogger being down. I questioned how a comment that seemed accepted was then no longer there – I’ve never had comments disappear in WordPress. Maybe Blogger’s different? Really, it doesn’t matter. If you didn’t delete a comment, I apologise for accusing you of it.

    As for ‘nobody bothering with me’, what a cop-out. Seriously, do you know how this could have gone so much smoother? ‘Mike, you don’t seem to have much information on the political science behind atheist outreach. Try reading books/papers/reports by X,Y and Z on the history of it for a good grounding in how confrontation has been demonstrated to be successful in achieving goals A,B and C.’ Or something similar. What happened instead? A lot of ranting, condescension and aggression at the sheer audacity that somebody might want more than just your word on it.

    You might be a sage in your own bubble, Stephanie, but I don’t know you from a bar of soap, so sending me back to your personal rants and insinuating past discussions doesn’t cut it for me. But now that I know you don’t have any more, I know it’s a dead end. Ta.

    @Jason: Try not to skim read. This is the second time you’ve not read something. I actually didn’t generalise Pharyngula as extreme, but referred to it containing a fair few extreme atheists. And I will ‘cry foul’ on comments that are easily demonstrated to be wrong, Jason. If you want to make shit up about what is said, go for it. And I’ll show it’s not what I said. Yup, foul.

    @Brando: Greg’s comment is good advice. Instead of a tirade, which obviously shows me you’re really quite pissed at something you demonstrably don’t even have a definition for, try asking for clarification. As it stands, it seems you’ve already got your mind made up on something that hasn’t even been stated.

    Why does an extreme position necessitate violence? I’ve never seen a definition for the term that means anything other than a position relative to the rest of the community. If you take all atheists in the world and line them up, I’d say most are pretty quiet about it, for various reasons. So, yes, those who express their desire for harm or retribution against people of faith, who get angry, mock, rant etc. are at the more extreme end of their ideology, regardless of whether they do so in the solitude of their own bedroom or not.

  28. #28 Mike McRae
    May 15, 2011

    And now I’ve become a snarky, condescending asshole as well. How the fuck is any productive discussion to come out of a group of people trying to enter a pissing contest of rudeness and intimidation?

  29. #29 Stephanie Z
    May 15, 2011

    Mike, you’ve never asked for more. You simply said I don’t have it because I’m not making citations in the middle of comments. You can do that, but to do it at the same time you’re both making citation-free claims about the nature of atheists groups and telling it isn’t something you’ve studied isn’t going to be productive. Do you need to make citations for everything, or do I get to talk about things in general until you need them followed-up because you’re unfamiliar with the literature? Pick one.

  30. #30 Mike McRae
    May 15, 2011

    Stephanie, let’s take a step back for a moment and restock. I mean, for the both of us.

    I’ve admitted I approach atheist outreach from a science communication point of view. You’ve claimed that this is narrow minded as atheist outreach is political, which contrasts heavily with science communication. If I have that wrong, please tell me. But that’s what I’ve gathered from what you’ve said.

    I’m willing to agree. In fact, the essay I originally wrote differentiated between different types of outreach by pointing out there is a difference between process and product minded communication, where the former is to get people to think about how ideas are formed, the latter about simply getting some form of behaviour change. I claimed, with what I feel constituted evidence, that aggression can work in the latter part but not so much for the former. It seems as far as that goes, we might even be on the same page. Hence why my being accused of generalising that ‘ridicule never works’ pisses me off as a straw man argument.

    You’ve had ample opportunities to provide something more on the topic of political change and confrontation. You’ve spent a lot of time working on challenges, accusing me of hypocrisy, and trying to misrepresent my views. Telling me ‘I could have just asked’ when it’s been crystal clear that I’ve wanted more than just your opinions is disingenuous to say the least.

    My argument is pretty simple:

    If somebody chooses to communicate in a particular way and claim to do so because it is productive, in spite of reasons to suspect otherwise, I expect evidence beyond assertions that it is so if I’m to believe you. If you do so because it makes you feel good, I ask that if there’s a risk of it being counterproductive, and why not address its usefulness in a more reasonable manner? That’s it!

    There are a few categories of response I get. Most don’t address what I’ve said, but are a hostile to the fact I’ve dared to be critical and ask me to provide evidence for claims I never made. Those who admit they’re aggressive simply because it makes them feel better to express their anger, and they don’t care what changes as a result, are the most honest ones. There’s not much I can say to them other than, ‘Best of luck’.

    Not many say that, however.

  31. #32 Stephanie Z
    May 15, 2011

    Mike, I’ve mention numerous things that are fairly common knowledge in my circles. Which ones do you want further reading for, and which ones do you simply think aren’t relevant or think are already incorporated in your position? There are things you’ve said you don’t doubt there’s evidence for but don’t really understand. Are you looking for citations for those? There are things you’ve treated as irrelevant. Are you looking for citations for those? You’ve characterized atheists groups in different ways than I have. Do you want to be pointed to specific instances or discussions? I really don’t know. You’ve argued with me, but you haven’t said specifically what you want from me, just been frustrated in my general direction. Seriously, if you want something specific, ask (and then wait a bit because we’re on very different time). And never assume what is clear.

    There are reasons to believe an accommodationist strategy will work at the intersection of politics and religion. There are reasons to believe it will not. There are reasons to believe a confrontationist strategy will work. There are reasons to believe it will not. There are no comparative data on which actually works better, whether both are required, or whether both are doomed. Both approaches can be used in a complimentary fashion (the good-cop/bad-cop strategy Greg mentioned). Each approach can get in the way of the other, one by reinforcing religion as a legitimate reason for applying political power and one by making potential allies uncomfortable. That’s the complexity of the situation.

    You also have to be aware that you’re being used as a pawn in an ongoing argument. (So am I, for that matter.) The people you see responding to you have been sent to see your commentary as part of being told that they’re doing something wrong, wrong, wrong. Even when they’ve responded to arguments like yours with examples and citations several times, somebody is still popping up to point them to your posts as though no one had ever made that argument before. Unless you find something truly new to say, which is damned hard when this much argument has already gone on, the response will not be, “Oh, yes, but have you seen these studies and that survey and this analysis of similar campaigns.” Through no fault of yours or theirs, the response will be, “This again? No, I’m not going to all that work.” It isn’t because it can’t or won’t ever be done. It’s because it has.

    You’re also a bit screwed walking into an argument like this late because there are going to have been people who have burned up all the trust required for a productive discussion. There will be people who made arguments like yours. People will have said, “Interesting point, but there’s also these and that and this that change the equation somewhat.” Some of those original people will have said, “Hmm,” and thought about things and possibly had enlightening discussions. Some of them, I’m sad to say, have observably said exactly the same thing over again later as though none of the rest of the discussion had occurred. You can’t do anything about the situation, but you also can’t take those responses as a measure of general willingness to engage. They’ve engaged. They’ve gotten burnt, or they’ve seen it happen to others.

    That’s a big part of why my Challenge 1 was what it was. Nobody walking into this argument is walking into anything clean. There’s a lot of ground already covered and a lot of blood already spilled, and nobody knows how much of it you’ve already seen.

  32. #33 Mike McRae
    May 16, 2011

    @Stephanie: Thank you for perhaps the most frank, honest and clear response yet. I don’t mean that at all in a snarky way (if that’s how it reads). I do appreciate it. I felt I was clear, however I can also see how framing might misrepresent my views.

    When I say I haven’t studied much atheist outreach, I don’t mean I haven’t read much of the discussion. While I’m by no means in the thick of it, I wouldn’t say I’m as ignorant as you seem to think. I mean outside of where it has something to do with the teaching of evolution in a religious context, I’ve not spent as much time trying to find research on it. I’ve relied more on extrapolating – for good or bad – from what I know in the sci-com field, by talking to people there and discussing strategies on that front.

    Perhaps there are specific instances where somebody has defended their actions through referring to some specific precedent, study, or report. Maybe there have been expressions from atheists wanting to evaluate specific efforts, such as the atheist Xmas billboard. The few times I’ve asked about such things, the response has not been ‘we’d love to – we’re trying to raise some money to see if that works’. It’s been ‘of course it works – look at how much press it has been getting!’. That’s not to say the former doesn’t happen – it means I’ve not come across it.

    Anyway, what specifically could you provide me with in this instance? Being fair and going from what you’ve said, I’d be most appreciative of a in research on how confrontation has worked in the past with regards to comparable social justice movements. To be honest, I can’t see how the gay rights movement would be where it is today if it was presented in an aggressive, confrontational light. Is there anything on that topic? I’ve not found it in brief looks, nor has anybody sent me in a useful direction.

    In short, I want to know what convinces you or others who advocate an aggressive approach (if it is, at all, your position) that directing language in a way that intends to offend, ridicule or cause emotional harm etc. in a particular demographic, is more successful at changing behaviour than through less confrontational means.

  33. #34 Mike McRae
    May 16, 2011

    “appreciative of a in research” = “of any research”

  34. #35 Stephanie Z
    May 16, 2011

    Gay rights and radicalism/confrontation I can give you a bunch of reading on, at least in a U.S. context.

    A commentary on the changing nature of gay rights legal action and the personal story of one high-profile court case, with some food for thought about finding test cases (pdf): http://classes.lls.edu/fall2006/conlaw2sec3-west-faulcon/documents/Handout1.pdf

    A history of homophile group experience with 50s assimilation and 60s radicalism (pdf): http://www.salemstate.edu/~cmauriello/Demilio_Sexual%20Politics.pdf

    Documentation of the confrontational tactics of the Gay Activists Alliance: http://www.glbtq.com/social-sciences/gay_activists_alliance.html

    Some of the positive political steps achieved by the GAA: http://microformguides.gale.com/Data/Introductions/20240FM.htm

    Sadly, I can’t find a full-length version for this, but you might have access. Documentation of the wider practice of “zaps” and other confrontational tactics in the movement: http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/sex/summary/v012/12.2beemyn.html

    Stonewall, the riot that was the birth of a modern movement (and the occasion for observing Pride in June in the U.S.): http://news.change.org/stories/the-importance-of-stonewall

    An analysis of how ACT UP’s work to turn shame and grief into “an outward-directed, action-oriented anger” remobilized a community that had become somewhat passive by the early 80s and built the modern queer identity (pdf): http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.130.27&rep=rep1&type=pdf

    Some of the successes of ACT UP are documented on their Wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AIDS_Coalition_to_Unleash_Power

    A reminder that many thought the push for gay marriage in Massachusetts was too confrontational and would lead to a backlash that would put marriage out of reach for years to come, a fear that hasn’t panned out: http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/02/when-gay-marriage-came-to-massachusetts/71635/

    A very modern example of how the practice of reacting to homophobia and discrimination quickly, angrily, and loudly shapes the general course of American politics: http://www.mediaite.com/online/targetbest-buy-gay-rights-boycott-tests-citizens-united-decision/

    I hope that helps.

  35. #36 DuWayne
    May 16, 2011

    Mike McRae –

    If somebody chooses to communicate in a particular way and claim to do so because it is productive, in spite of reasons to suspect otherwise, I expect evidence beyond assertions that it is so if I’m to believe you.

    What reasons to suspect otherwise? Because your gut tells you it must not be productive?

    First, you need to understand that productive is in the eye of the beholder. Expressing the opinion that you’re a fucking asshat may not be productive in terms of getting you to like or even agree with me – but that presupposes that getting you to like me is my goal. Likewise, being snarky with someone who is engaging in some manner of bullshit may not be productive if the goal is to change their opinion – but that presupposes that such is the goal in the first place.

    More importantly, you should understand that different demographics respond to different stimuli. Part of what helped me finally get past religion, for example, was very clever people being frank and aggressive in their criticism of my beliefs. At the same time, I probably would have had an easier time dismissing them if it weren’t for people who were more willing to accept me as I was.

    I am hardly alone in that experience.

    In short, I want to know what convinces you or others who advocate an aggressive approach (if it is, at all, your position) that directing language in a way that intends to offend, ridicule or cause emotional harm etc. in a particular demographic, is more successful at changing behaviour than through less confrontational means.

    You’re assuming that not being accommodating necessarily means being cruel, offensive and/or harmful. For my own part, I am quite voraciously averse to putting up with religious nonsense. I am aggressively critical when religion happens to be the topic of discussion. That doesn’t mean I am mean about it. I can be, but only tend to be when people make willfully ignorant, stupid and/or offensive comments to me.

    The two more important ways that people who are religious can piss me off, is by either making references to “you [insert atheist related term]” or by explaining that if I only read/listened to/prayed more, I could get right with their god and/or assuage my doubts. The former is no different than other bigoted language, while the latter assumes that I didn’t spend nearly thirty years reading/listening/praying my ass off. The latter in particular pisses me off because it comes with arrogant and condescending presumptions about what I have gone through in the name of Christianity.

    So when people choose to go there, or make the associated claim that I can’t possibly know what they are talking about, because if I did I wouldn’t be an atheist, I get fucking angry about it and am prone to be unpleasant about it. What I get out of it is simple. I give myself and sometimes others the affirmation that religion doesn’t, in point of fact, inherently deserve special treatment in the pantheon of ideas and assertions. This is important because there are a lot of people who stick to religion and magical thinking, because they are convinced that if so many people – clever or not, are able to accept it, there is likely something to it.

    All this is to say that how people decide to communicate about anything is complicated. There are many factors involved in the decision making process, most of which are unknown to the target and recipients of said communication. To say that something is effective or not, is to assume that you can actually know what the motivating factors behind that decision might be. You don’t, can’t know. Considering the originator of a given communication is unlikely to know why exactly they chose to communicate in a given fashion, assuming that you do is beyond presumptuous.

  36. #37 Mike McRae
    May 16, 2011

    @Stephanie: Thank you. :) That’s a fair bit of reading (a good thing, not a complaint), that will take me some time to get through, especially as I’m mid way through an anthro assignment at the moment. But I will make an effort to use it to evaluate my views on when and where confrontation might be useful in a political context. I don’t think it will change my mind on why we can’t endeavour to be more polite and less assuming in conversations such as this (including myself), but as for the bigger picture, it’s a great start to balance what I understand from a science communication angle.

    Appreciated.

    @DuWayne: There’s a fair bit of irony in this, given Stephanie – quite fairly – pointed out how jumping into a conversation without reading what has already been said before isn’t ideal. I’ve already said a few times that my background is in science communication. There, it’s fairly clear that if you’re eagre to change how people think critically, and accept what you’re telling them, being confrontational risks exclusion and polarisation. That’s not my gut feeling – that’s backed up by experience, research and expert views on education and science outreach.

    Stephanie challenged this by stating that atheism is more than just science outreach. I hadn’t disagreed (in fact, have made a distinction earlier, but not in the same language admittedly), but have had less research and experience to qualify her argument. In the past, every time I’ve asked for more information on it, it has been met with challenges, a rather odd demand for my own evidence and basically aggression over how I dared criticise what obviously worked so well. In other words, only a lot of gut feelings. This is from people who seem to promote a rational, science-based view of nature, who aren’t interested in putting forward anything other than intuition when asked about their communication efforts.

    “You’re assuming that not being accommodating necessarily means being cruel, offensive and/or harmful.”

    And you’re assuming that I’m assuming that. Incorrectly, mind.

    In fact, I’ve never had much to say on accommodationism. The very reason I spelled out ‘aggressive language’ in such a way is because that is precisely what I’m referring to. Not just people speaking their mind, or standing up and saying they’re an atheist. I refer specifically to instances of name-calling and ridicule that are intended to cause offence or emotional harm in a person.

    Please don’t assume my position based on what you presume accommodationists might or might not have to say. I’m not a label – I have my own questions and views.

    “I can be, but only tend to be when people make willfully ignorant, stupid and/or offensive comments to me.”

    And do you respond in kind because you’re upset and angry, or because you really want to change their mind and their behaviour? I can understand both reasons – even in this thread, it’s clear I can retaliate with snarkiness when I feel I’m dealing with ignorance, misrepresentation and condescension. Not my finest hour, sure, but I don’t blame anybody for getting pissed off.

    I do, however, ask for evidence if it is claimed that this is a successful way to change minds. If you call a Christian names and feel it has done something beyond just satisfy your urge for payback, then I’d need to know why beyond your intuition.

    “To say that something is effective or not, is to assume that you can actually know what the motivating factors behind that decision might be. You don’t, can’t know. Considering the originator of a given communication is unlikely to know why exactly they chose to communicate in a given fashion, assuming that you do is beyond presumptuous.”

    And again, a claim. Which is demonstrably preposterous. Now, if we were debating the precise extent and context for how much we can determine about behaviour and motivation, it might make for a complicated discussion. But many people base successful careers on knowing how to motivate and change behaviours, in individuals and demographics. There are certainly some ways to ensure your communication can fail to change minds, and some ways to bias a good chance of success. Saying there is no way, therefore you feel entitled to justify your sense of aggression as a potentially useful form of communication, is nothing more than comfort thinking.

  37. #38 DuWayne
    May 17, 2011

    Mike –

    Apologies for the long delay, I’m a single mom of a nine and three year old boys – and trying to finish assembling our kitchen.

    There’s a fair bit of irony in this, given Stephanie – quite fairly – pointed out how jumping into a conversation without reading what has already been said before isn’t ideal.

    I actually avoided commenting before, because I hadn’t read the entire conversation. My comment was made in the context of this particular discussion. Your background is largely irrelevant to me or my comment.

    There, it’s fairly clear that if you’re eagre to change how people think critically, and accept what you’re telling them, being confrontational risks exclusion and polarisation.

    Of course it does, that is what confrontation is about. And I am well aware of what the evidence has to say about confrontation. That does not preclude aggression as a useful tool, given the proper context. While it may foster polarization and exclusion, it also may and likely will, foster some doubts. Humans are complicated and often engage in bizarre cognitive dichotomies. The inclusion of doubt into even very central, defining beliefs is very common.

    I am also willing to risk polarizing and exclusion, because people who are part of the very hard core of fundamentalist thought are already polarized and have already excluded themselves. People who are not, people who are more open to altering their beliefs, are more likely to think about why some people feel as strongly as they do – even as they are pissed that someone was as aggressive as they are, in defending their position.

    In other words, only a lot of gut feelings. This is from people who seem to promote a rational, science-based view of nature, who aren’t interested in putting forward anything other than intuition when asked about their communication efforts.

    I would have happily provided evidence, had Stephanie not done so already. I would ask though, that you consider the history of dissent and revolutions of thought. Think about the combinations of tactics that changed U.S. American culture, in terms of race, sex, gender and sexuality. Those movements consistently used combinations of cool, quiet rationality and serious fucking rage. In all of those cases both ends of the spectrum failed to accomplish anything, independent of the other, while they accomplished a great deal when working in tandem.

    And you’re assuming that I’m assuming that. Incorrectly, mind.

    My apologies, that was sloppy reading on my part.

    The very reason I spelled out ‘aggressive language’ in such a way is because that is precisely what I’m referring to. Not just people speaking their mind, or standing up and saying they’re an atheist. I refer specifically to instances of name-calling and ridicule that are intended to cause offence or emotional harm in a person.

    This is where things are rather complicated, because the line between aggressively responding to ideas and ridicule, offense/emotional harm is neither static or finite. Whatever the speaker’s intent, it is how a given statement is perceived by the receiver that matters. When I aggressively criticize a given belief, it is often perceived as being an attack on a person, when nothing could be further from the truth. And when I attack a given person, I am cognizant of how others who are paying attention to a given exchange might feel about it. I also try to maintain an awareness of how I am reacting to criticism of ideas that I think are important, with a particular focus of whether I take it personally. I am not always successful, but I try not to respond to criticisms aimed at ideas and not me personally, if I am personalizing them too much.

    Please don’t assume my position based on what you presume accommodationists might or might not have to say. I’m not a label – I have my own questions and views.

    Yes, you are a label. Indeed you’re a whole hell of a lot of labels and there is nothing wrong with that – all of us are. Being defined by a given label doesn’t preclude having a nuanced position that renders a given label less accurate than it might be, it just means that things are more complicated than simplistic definitions can account for. But that is the case for all labels. We are nuanced animals, something that I think is an important aspect of being human.

    Take my own label of father. On first glance that is pretty fucking simple – in tandem with a particular woman, I have reproduced. But that simplistic definition doesn’t come close to the reality of my situation. I am the only parent of two boys and being father also means being mom. Because of the immense emotional trauma my nine year old son has gone through, as well as basal mental illness, being a father also means being a facilitator of his care. And that’s just what being Caleb’s father means – being David’s father is a whole different set of complications. One of the biggest being that as a father, I have to learn his language (he’s three) and translate for others, as he has his own set of problems.

    My point being, what defines me as father, is very different than what defines any of my friends as fathers. Likewise, what defines each of them as fathers, are a lot of unique characteristics.

    Since you prefer not to be described as accomodationist, I will refrain from using that label to describe you – though for all of your own ideas and questions, it would seem an accurate assessment.

    And do you respond in kind because you’re upset and angry, or because you really want to change their mind and their behaviour?

    This is exactly what I mean about motivations being complicated. This isn’t an either/or proposition. Of course some of my motivation is because I am upset – the moreso when it comes from people I care about. Some of my motivation is also because I want to change their mind and behavior – though not necessarily because I want them to believe what I believe. Some of my motivation is not even about my communication with the person I am addressing, rather being intended for other receivers of that communication.

    And then there are hidden motivations, most of which *I* am not even aware of. Some of it stems from my experience, in some cases years past. Some of it stems from factors that are completely unrelated to the conversation at hand. Some of those motivations are motivations that I am only partly aware of, or may even contradict what I assume is motivating me.

    That is how communication works.

    I can understand both reasons – even in this thread, it’s clear I can retaliate with snarkiness when I feel I’m dealing with ignorance, misrepresentation and condescension. Not my finest hour, sure, but I don’t blame anybody for getting pissed off.

    But you are failing to see your own condescension and ignorance here. You assume that because people don’t instantly come out with evidence to support a given assertion, that they don’t have any. For my own part, I have too much evidence to support the need for multiple approaches to a given issue. I don’t have the time to flip through the bibliography of communication to throw you a bunch of citations. As a student, I have read reams of papers on the topics of communication, culture and psychology that are relevant to this discussion.

    What I have learned would indicate that in formal settings – whether in a presentation or formal forum discussion, it is an extremely bad idea to get angry and insulting towards people you are trying to reach out to. But it would also indicate that in informal settings – or in formal debate settings, a variety of approaches are generally going to be useful. While there is no question that if all a person hears is derision, they are very likely to be turned off, if they recognize that some people get very impassioned about this for a reason, while also seeing people being more polite and understanding they are more likely to actually consider an idea seriously – especially if they get both from the same person.

    If you call a Christian names and feel it has done something beyond just satisfy your urge for payback, then I’d need to know why beyond your intuition.

    Would you like me to point you towards discussions and forward you some emails I have gotten? Keeping in mind that I am not talking about insulting people out of hand – I rarely engage in that sort of behavior. When I am on the offensive, I will make very clear statements of derision that express exactly why what the person I am responding to is so fucking absurd. I can get extremely aggressive, even mean. But I do so constructively. As such, I have often garnered a positive response from other receivers of a given communication – including people who merely needed to have the offensiveness of what that other person said, pointed out to them.

    But many people base successful careers on knowing how to motivate and change behaviours, in individuals and demographics.

    You are missing my point. There are always underlying motivations that drive people to communicate a certain way, about whatever topic they are talking about – including why they are talking about a given topic in the first place. In your first sentence of that paragraph, you dismiss my point out of hand, as though it has nothing to do with the quote I posted just above. It is most certainly relevant, because no communication occurs in a vacuum.

    I know a lot of very powerful communicators (what might surprise you, is that I am well on the way to being one myself, my profane assholishness not withstanding) and absolutely love to pay very close attention to the very best. Whether they are salespeople, ministers, motivational speakers or particularly talented instructors, there are multiplicities involved in why they communicate the way they do and for what reason they communicate particular content. Inevitably, when you really break down their motivations there is a lot more going on than even they’re aware of.

    Saying there is no way, therefore you feel entitled to justify your sense of aggression as a potentially useful form of communication, is nothing more than comfort thinking.

    That is not what I am saying at all. I am saying that it is impossible to disseminate motivations not because I want to excuse a given behavior, but because it is relevant to why someone uses a given behavior and in that context, determines whether it is useful or not.

    I would just add that shame is a very powerful tool – not one that should be wielded lightly or with too heavy a hand, but which has power nonetheless. When it comes down to it, I have no qualms about using shame and peer pressure tactics to achieve a given goal. That is not to say that I want to go out and make people feel like shit about themselves – I want to make people who are engaging in shitty behaviors, feel like shit about engaging in a given behavior.

    Unless of course they piss me off enough, are intractable enough, that I just want to smack them upside the head with the rhetorical 2×4. An example that stands out through time, was a Christian who believes that atheists can’t love – he used “you people” language and claimed many shitty things about people who don’t believe what he believes – all the while pretending to “care” about them.

    But just to clarify, in case I didn’t really make it clear enough. While I use a lot of aggressive language, I generally use that language to criticize ideas, not people.

  38. #39 Mike McRae
    May 17, 2011

    “Apologies for the long delay, I’m a single mom of a nine and three year old boys – and trying to finish assembling our kitchen.”

    :) That’s a far more important job than any online discussion. No need to apologise.

    “Your background is largely irrelevant to me or my comment.”

    But it’s not, given your assumptions that are extrapolated from what I’ve said here. You still seem comfortable labeling me as an accommodationist and using that to assume my position on things, which I simply don’t hold. I certainly don’t expect you to read up on my views, but I also think it’s a mistake to feel that because some of the things I’ve said don’t seem to support a New Atheist label, I must hold the other camp’s perceptions.

    “That does not preclude aggression as a useful tool, given the proper context.”

    Hence my point – I agree with you 100% in this statement.

    “While it may foster polarization and exclusion, it also may and likely will, foster some doubts.”

    Ah, and here’s where we get into the nitty-gritty. You make a fairly strong, confident claim here; ‘And likely will’. Now, in dealing with teaching and promoting science, I’ve found this to be unlikely. In fact, group polarisation does the opposite; it reinforces a belief. So, this particular claim needs something additional to show it has merit, as currently I’ve seen it asserted many, many times, but am yet to see it be more than wishful thinking.

    “Humans are complicated and often engage in bizarre cognitive dichotomies. The inclusion of doubt into even very central, defining beliefs is very common.”

    There’s something of a non-sequitor in this statement. Yes, humans are as complicated. But that doesn’t mean all bets are off. If you state that aggression can create doubt in more cases than it polarises people into reinforcing their beliefs, OR that you can identify when this is more likely to occur, I’d need to see something more than just your claim that this is true.

    “You assume that because people don’t instantly come out with evidence to support a given assertion, that they don’t have any.”

    I’ve got no problem with being politely told to wait, or even told that I’m not exactly worth the time and effort, believe it or not. But how would you perceive it if time and again when you asked for something to back up a claim, it was consistently evaded, avoided, dismissed or ignored; would you take somebody’s word for it, or start to suspect that there was a good chance that they actually don’t have anything other than their intuition?

    You claim to have ‘reams’ of evidence. I can understand the complicated nature of having academic experience in a topic that means no single paper or book can be definitive. But given the number of people who hold your position, that there is an overwhelming amount of evidence to support it, and that those who support an aggressive approach get so damn pissed at being criticised for it, that there doesn’t seem to be an attempt to make the time to pull together something more robust than conjecture to say ‘this works’.

    I’m not asking you to do it, but by the same token every time I receive vague insinuations of this evidence without anything more solid, I can’t distinguish it from an evasion.

    “I can get extremely aggressive, even mean. But I do so constructively. As such, I have often garnered a positive response from other receivers of a given communication – including people who merely needed to have the offensiveness of what that other person said, pointed out to them.”

    How much of this could be down to confirmation bias? What of those who claim that such offensiveness has turned them off? What features are there of individuals who respond well to being insulted or offended? How necessary was the offensiveness in each case? How can you be confident that this wasn’t a case of group dynamics intimidating somebody into agreeable silence?

    These are significant questions if you’re to make the claim that using aggressive language forms a necessary and vital component of changing minds. Various cognitive biases make it all too easy to select for success, don’t forget. I can’t say it doesn’t work, but I can ask what gives you confidence that your perception isn’t suffering from similar biases that affect every other human on this planet.

    “There are always underlying motivations that drive people to communicate a certain way, about whatever topic they are talking about – including why they are talking about a given topic in the first place.”

    That’s true. But I still don’t see the relevance, sorry, unless you’re still assuming I’m asserting a single correct way to communicate. I’m not.

    I am claiming that given the multiple motivations, some will potentially conflict in achieving their objectives. If you’re angry, ranting will alleviate it, but it might piss off your audience. If you then claim to be wanting to change their mind, you can’t have it both ways. Impression management comes into play and creates mutually exclusive outcomes – for example, you can’t typically intimidate somebody into liking you.

    That’s where the scattergun ‘multiple approaches’ strategy can run into problems if it is proposed lazily. Another example is that I shouldn’t expect you to think critically while reinforcing group-think through ridicule. Multiple motivations and complex reasoning are indeed present – what is a problem is when we presume that this isn’t ever a problem.

    “I am saying that it is impossible to disseminate motivations not because I want to excuse a given behavior, but because it is relevant to why someone uses a given behavior and in that context, determines whether it is useful or not.”

    It is relevant to a point. Emotions can be quite a strong motivator, but also rather confounding in reasoning. You might be angry, and through that irritation think that punitive reprisals are a successful way to manage behaviour. I used to be a teacher, and saw plenty of examples of educators who really were convinced that corporal punishment and punitive measures were the best way to get their kids to behave and learn…in the face of all evidence that contradicted their claims. Having taught in some pretty tough London schools, I demonstrated far more success – evidenced by improvements in grades and attendance – with an approach that contrasted with previous teachers who’d failed (yet remained convinced every kid just needed a swift slap around the head).

    “I use a lot of aggressive language, I generally use that language to criticize ideas, not people.”

    Be as that may, how many people do you think can depersonalise their ideas?