There is a hierarchy of ‘badness’ in the world – there’s no question in my mind that various ethical lapses can be categorised as trivial or profound, even if there might be many cases that don’t admit to easy categorisation. Shoplifting is far less wrong than murder, and shoplifting to feed your starving family less wrong than shoplifting the latest Rihanna CD.
But when discussing some of the hot-button issues of the day – often, these days, social justice or related issues like racism, sexism, homophobia or transphobia, it sometimes seems that there’s less room for nuance than there should be. You’ve no doubt heard the phrase “I’m not a racist, but…” many times, and that phrase is often a sign that the person speaking is in fact a racist. This doesn’t mean that our endorsements of an overall message can’t ever come with a ‘but’, though.
Emily Yoffe has had to do a lot of explaining of this point in recent days, on the same topic (risk-mitigation versus victim-blaming with regard to rape) where I’ve experienced similar outrage for making the suggestion that any method for decreasing the incidence of rape should be a possible subject for discussion, no matter how unfair it is that some groups (women, mostly) bear a disproportionate burden in this regard. We need to fix that unfairness, yes, but while we do so, we can (and should) simultaneously acknowledge how it might play out in terms of practical solutions for reducing rape.
In the past week, I’ve also been told (in response to this piece, identifying the plagiarism in a blog post on white privilege) that it matters not whether there is plagiarism in the piece in question, because that issue detracts from the main issue, which is white privilege. And, a few racist South Africans have found glee in the columnist in question being caught out, then somehow thought me an ally despite all the public evidence to the contrary.
And such is the intellectually vacuous nature of the blogosphere and social media that people take both of those positions seriously, despite the fact that they are both obviously flawed. This is what treating a particular cause – no matter how just – as gospel does to debate: it dumbs it down to headlines and hyperbole, where the long-term goal of getting everyone to think about what they believe, and why, is done a tremendous disservice.
Yoffe shouldn’t have had to explain her position (even though she did so very well, in the end), and the explanation might not help in any event, because the sorts of misreadings we’re talking about are incredibly motivated, and typically unfalsifiable (conversations about them are a textbook example of goalpost-shifting, ad hominem argumentation and the like).
There is a danger in groupthink (in that it is an obstacle to thinking), and one can agree on a position in a way that doesn’t involve groupthink. Especially when the stakes are highest, and the potential harms the greatest, we should remind ourselves of this. And, allow ourselves to be reminded of it.
So, the battle lines are now being drawn – at least according to some. Yesterday, Richard Carrier posted this:
In the meantime, I call everyone now to pick sides (not in comments here, but publicly, via Facebook or other social media): are you with us, or with them; are you now a part of the Atheism+ movement, or are you going to stick with Atheism Less? Then at least we’ll know who to work with. And who to avoid.
There’s much more to his post, and much of it is very good, very thoughtful and not at all disagreeable to me. So I’d encourage you to read it, and not to read this post as a rejection of what Carrier said. But I do want to reject his conclusion, and try to explain why it’s important that we all should reject it. The reason for this rejection is not simply the logical fallacy it seems to contain – namely asking us to embrace a false dichotomy – but more because it’s premature to ask for us to choose between poorly-defined (and potentially undefinable) alternatives.
But first, a backwards step, seeing as many of you might not know what I’m talking about. On August 18, Jen McCreight published a post that called for a new wave of atheism. Three posts since that one have sought to define what Atheism+ is (or should be), and have repeatedly emphasised the communitarian aspect of this definitional process – we are all encouraged to chip in with our ideas and suggestions. There’s plenty to love about all those posts, and I heartily endorse the sentiment of Atheism+.
What is that sentiment? As the name implies, it’s atheism, plus a focus on other things. To quote McCreight’s second post in the series:
We are… Atheists plus we care about social justice, Atheists plus we support women’s rights, Atheists plus we protest racism, Atheists plus we fight homophobia and transphobia, Atheists plus we use critical thinking and skepticism.
That’s a good list, as I’d imagine that most readers of this blog would agree. But we wouldn’t necessarily agree on how to care, support or protest those things. We wouldn’t even agree on how to define the things we’re supposed to care about, protest or support. We’d agree about being decent people, in other words, but not necessarily agree on how to do that. And while reaching agreement on how to do that might be an important task, it’s not clear that it’s atheism’s task. To put it more clearly, I’m not sure that all of those (and other) worthy goals can best be accomplished under the banner of “atheism”. Especially not on Carrier’s terms, because – as someone who cares about social justice, for example, I’ll be damned if I’ll let him tell me that I can’t collaborate with a Methodist (not an A+ person, so someone “to avoid”) to address some issue of gender discrimination in a community.
Carrier might of course simply be indulging in a little hyperbole, which is understandable given the battle-ground I recently alluded to. I doubt that he’d have a problem with my collaborating with a Methodist – he’s rather asking us to take a stand against people who are unsympathetic to those goals. Certainly, at least those people described by Jean Kazez as
people who are seized by a desire to attack women when there’s the least hint of a question about male behavior at blogs and conferences. The notion of codes being imposed on their behavior sends them into a rage. These are the people whose existence you have to find surprising … and very disturbing. At the very least, they’re seriously lacking in empathy. Some of them even seem to feel an awful lot of hatred. I don’t know how numerous they are, but too numerous–and their ranks seem to be growing too.
But others also, like the “subtle trolls” I spoke about in my previous post on this topic area. And, those who enable or support the people Kazez describes above, or those who don’t denounce them. There’s a range of people who could be included in those who should be ostracised. But the problem is that it’s not always easy to identify them. One commenter on Stephanie Zvan’s site seems convinced that I’m one of the enemy camp, and I’m of course certain that I’m not. How will these decisions be made? A tribunal, or a democratic vote perhaps? And how does one repent after being exiled, and who gets to do the forgiving?
That’s somewhat facetious, I know. But the terms that this debate is quickly taking on lends itself to that. People are working towards what will quickly become an orthodoxy, and it’s going to happen too rapidly to be carefully thought out. Or, it’s simply going to be forgotten in a few months, as Notung argues here. As mentioned above, I’d have to agree with the 3rd point he makes – that it’s unclear exactly which issues should follow the ‘plus’. As for then deciding how to define those issues, I don’t think we can be complacent or confident (as some commenters at McCreight’s posts seem) about how difficult that might prove to be.
For social justice projects or strategy, we’d need to agree on an economic policy. As polarised as this issue is in an election year in the US, just after/during a global financial meltdown, while #Occupy rhetoric is still fresh in our minds… what chance is there of agreement on this? If we’re going to include a concern for the environment, can we simply throw climate sceptics out of our “circle of trust”, or do they get a chance to make their arguments? For feminism, what about people like me, who support it only as a contingent, necessary evil, because I hope to one day live in a world where race, gender, sex and so forth make absolutely no difference, so am loath to emphasise any such features, even in the short term?
My concern, in short, is that if we’re going to reach agreement on any of these issues, we might only get there through ruling certain question as out of bounds – perhaps even bullying them off the table, a phrase I think I owe to Jean Kazez. And if we’re forced to choose sides, a consequence might well be that all we succeed in doing is to institutionalise the current disagreements in the freethought community, rather than to get closer to solving them. In the meanwhile, there are groups already in existence that support those “plus” goals, or at least most of them, and who can probably be persuaded to support a larger list if a case was made.
I think, for example, of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, or the Council for Secular Humanism. They’ve been working hard for quite some time on a closely overlapping set of goals to those of the “Atheism +” movement. The question I’d urge the A+ supporters to consider is whether they’re not reinventing the wheel to some extent here, and also making life significantly more difficult for organisations like these – who often already struggle for support and funding. Just the sort of organisations, then, which could do with the ideas, energy and insight of all those who are currently enthusiastically talking about starting something new.