Academia and teaching Politics Science Secularism

“World-views” and secular education

imagesFourth-year medical students at a local university were yesterday witness to a panel discussion on various world-views, with the intention of familiarising them with some of the different points of view that their patients might one day hold. I was invited to participate in this panel, which I gladly did, seeing as these sorts of public interventions are one of the values we can easily, and cheaply, give to “the cause”, as it were.

Joining me on the panel were an Imam, an Anglican priest, a Hindu doctor and the daughter of an African traditional healer (who was also a student in the class). The point of the panel wasn’t to debate who was right and who was wrong, but more to sensitise the students to the differences, and to prompt them to how they might approach sensitive topics of conversation with these various sorts of world-views.

It was an interesting experience, partly because it again brought to the fore just how normal, and just how abnormal, a largely materialist, or naturalist, point of view was – even in a room of about 200 people trained in the scientific method. The student who arranged to have me invited to participate reported that around 70% of his classmates were religious, and after yesterday, I fear that might be an under-estimate. One horror-story he told me is of a group of students training in psychiatry who decided to pray over someone that was clearly experiencing some sort of mental episode, rather than getting her to somewhere she could be diagnosed and treated.

But it’s not only the uncommonness of a naturalistic outlook that struck me – it’s also how alien it seemed to be to the audience. The tenor of some of the questions seemed to regard me as some sort of curiosity, or exhibit – a rare creature from a strange and distant land. Over and over, for example, I had to repeat the point that they should think of me as representing the “secular” world view, because religious folk can be secular too. Secular doesn’t mean lacking in belief, it means leaving your (metaphysical) beliefs at home when you go to work, especially in the public sector.

Then, the usual questions also came up: how can love just be in the brain (well, it is, but that doesn’t make it any less special); where do you get your morals from (the same place as you, the same place as the apes, etc.); what is your purpose in life (that question loads the dice – I reject the need for an “ultimate” purpose).

So, when I sat at the end of the panel to talk to the local atheist and agnostic society about how to grow their society and build capacity, I stressed something they could do, that I fear many smaller, community-based groups forget: education. Take your core membership, and have them learn about the history of skepticism/secularism/humanism/etc. – and not simply learn to recite cutting lines from Hitchens, or the names of a bunch of logical fallacies.

We need people to go out there are dispell myths and misconceptions, and that requires the knowledge to do so. If you’ve got some of it, and also have access to a younger group of people wanting to promote the secular, scientific, humanist world view, help them to learn how to educate others about what we believe and don’t, but more importantly, why we believe and disbelieve. Even when you don’t persuade, the conversations will nevertheless be far more interesting as a result.

Daily Maverick People Politics

You’re only 1% if you don’t Tweet

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

Perhaps – and only partly – as a consequence of the incredible volume of content generated on the Internet, it sometimes appears that we all have something to say. Not only through producing content such as opinion columns, but also in commenting on them and in passing them on to others via mediums like Twitter.

As I’ve argued before, this democratisation of knowledge – or at least opinion – comes with costs and benefits. Being able to participate in the conversation entails crossing a very low threshold, in that everyone with access to the Internet, even simply via their mobile phones, gets to have their say.

However, the noise can sometimes drown out any signal. More importantly, we can forget that while everyone is entitled to their opinion, nobody is obliged to treat an opinion with more respect than it merits – no matter how forcefully it is presented, or how much passion underlies its expression.

Twitter is beginning to present a problem in this regard. You might think it always has, and perhaps you’d be right. But I think it’s getting worse. The confluence of a 140 character limit, the attention economy, and our feelings of all being equally entitled to have our opinions creates endless fights, factions and frustration – at least for those listening in, trying to understand what the fuss is about.

Mostly, though, these factors can conduce to a bizarre sense of self-importance. Some Twitter users take delight in being inflammatory, with mini-revolutions started every hour and then forgotten when some new outrage comes along. The problem, however, is that these revolutions are usually against a caricature, a headline, or a set of assumptions about a person that might well be defamatory if they were spelled out in an op-ed.

But while they are underway, with hundreds or thousands of people endorsing your call to action, perhaps you can feel like you’re achieving something – even if that achievement later turns out to only be X more or fewer followers. And even if your call to action ends with a re-tweet, rather than with a portion of your audience changing their vote, changing their bank, or saving some endangered iguana.

Just as the weak and unprincipled parts of mass protest can drown out the voices of those who have something meaningful to say, social media allows one to get by with unsubstantiated rumour or even thinly-disguised character assassination. And when you get it wrong, it doesn’t matter. Nobody remembers, and nobody ever needs to apologise.

While these attempted revolutions are underway, they can seem significant enough to gain some traction. Last Sunday, for example, some Twitterers attempted to incite their audience to believe that the regular sarcasm emanating from Helen Zille’s Twitter feed somehow entailed a reason to never vote DA. Examples of her alleged lack of fitness for high office were Tweeted and re-Tweeted, all in an effort to justify inferences such as her having no respect for those less educated than herself.

Even if this inference were true, you’d still need to build a pretty impressive bridge to get from there to anything relevant to a rational voting strategy. The same people who, for example, argued that Mogoeng Mogoeng’s defensiveness or religious beliefs had no relevance to his suitability as Chief Justice were now claiming that a rude person (on their terms) could not govern well.

The fact is that these are separate issues. You don’t need to like someone to think they can do a good job – even if it’s indisputably true that our feelings regarding someone’s character do influence those judgements. So if you want to play it safe, it’s perhaps best to stick to bland, uninteresting contributions like those from Jacob Zuma’s Twitter feed. It’s impossible to find those objectionable – mostly because they rarely involve any substantive content.

The thing about Tweeting and politics, at least in a South African context, is not only that our memories are short but also that we’re mainly just talking to ourselves. It doesn’t seem plausible that any significant number of votes will be shifted, simply because the vast majority of voters aren’t on Twitter. This statement is not, I think, a result of selection bias as a consequence of only justified by the people I pay attention to – if you search for the hashtag of any emerging political story, the vast majority of Tweets are in 1st-language English.

We’re all still muddling our way along, trying to figure out how best to use resources such as Twitter. Now there is immediate access to people we’d previously have had to apply to meet in triplicate, and much of the time, they feel compelled to respond. And when they don’t, that’s another instant indictment of their characters.

But all of this is prone to over-reaction, and a sense that we and our Tweets are more important than they actually are. The space allows for conversation and for frivolity, and it can be enormously valuable in providing not only access, but also news at a faster pace than we’ve ever benefited from in the past.

We shouldn’t, however, mistake it for rigorous and reasoned debate. And we shouldn’t mistake people for activists, just because they can be shrill and condemnatory in 140 characters or less.