A Reply to James Croft

My new Patheos colleague, James Croft, has written a post welcoming me to the site and inviting me to a rhetorical face-off. I’m never one to pass up an invitation to a cordial debate, so let’s have at it!

James’ post concerns my speech at the 2012 SSA conference, where I laid out my strategy for effective atheist activism. He has responses to several of the points I made, which are under the headings below:

The Importance of Anger

I spoke about why anger is a valid and important motivation for activism. James had this to say:

But Lee takes his case too far in seeming to suggest that it is only anger which can motivate successful political action. Many other moral emotions can also spur action: shared suffering, compassion, empathy, solidarity, love: many other emotions can spur people to work for social change, and all can convey conviction and sincerity.

In political terms, I think that anger and compassion are two sides of the same coin. As I’ve argued, anger at its best is motivated by recognition of injustice, and obviously for me to recognize injustice, I have to have compassion for the people who are affected by it. If I’m angry that same-sex couples are denied the right to marry, it’s because I can imagine what it would be like to be in that position and I feel empathy and solidarity with people who are being unjustly treated. James says as much himself: “I would go so far as to say that anger which is not based in love for others is very suspect.”

It is simply not the case that everyone who objects to a certain communication strategy because they judge it to be counter-productive is a “concern troll” trying to “rob the movement” of an “effective weapon”. They may be making a serious and thoughtful judgment regarding a particular campaign or persuasive technique. Lee’s construction of a false dichotomy can serve to shut down useful discussion over strategy.

To be clear, I’m not saying that every expression of anger is sacrosanct. Certainly, anger can sometimes be inappropriate, and sometimes hostility does more harm than good. I’d be glad to discuss how we can identify those times.

I was aiming this argument at a different group: the guardians of tone who seek to draw a contrast between those crazy, radical, angry atheists, and the good atheists who always strive to be polite, nonthreatening, and inoffensive to anyone’s faith convictions. In other words, I was criticizing people who claim that anger is by definition harmful to a social cause, which I think couldn’t be farther from the truth. I want to plant my flag on the ground that anger isn’t just legitimate, but necessary for overcoming prejudice and bringing about social change.

Is Mockery Effective?

I also made an argument for the importance of satire, mockery and ridicule as a means of changing minds. James:

While it is true, as Lee says, that “nothing gets someone on your side like making them laugh”… [t]he argument relies on the joker and the audience seeing themselves as being on the same side, laughing together at something else.

I agree with this! Whenever feasible, I try to use humor to drive a wedge between a person and their beliefs, encouraging them to realize the ridiculousness of what they profess, as opposed to mocking the person in a way that makes them feel that both they and their beliefs are under attack. It’s the difference between “These beliefs are ridiculous and you’re a stupid person for believing them” and “These beliefs are ridiculous and you’re smarter than that.”

The real question arises when a person considers themselves inseparable from their beliefs, such that any mockery of the belief is treated as a personal attack. We’ve all met believers like this, I’m sure. And in that situation, my answer is clear: Do it anyway. To do anything else is to grant the most thin-skinned and unreasonable people a heckler’s veto (a point I’ve made elsewhere as well). It may further entrench that person in their beliefs, but you probably weren’t going to reach them anyway. What’s more important is that you can reach fence-sitters and other third parties, to whom all my arguments about the effectiveness of satire still apply.

The Overton Window

I invoked the metaphor of the Overton window in my talk, and argued that we should “stand outside [it] and pull” – in other words, fearlessly advocate the policies we favor, regardless of their popularity or current political feasibility. James says I’m making the metaphor do more work than it was originally intended for:

Further, as far as I can tell neither Overton, Lehman nor the Mackinac Center have anything to say about whether it is better to shift the Overton Window from “inside” (pushing for a change in policy to another policy within the window which is closer to your desired position on the scale, hoping that the window itself will shift once that change is achieved) of from “outside” (pushing for a policy which, at the time, is politically unacceptable, in the hope that the window will shift in your direction over time).

It’s true that the basic metaphor of the Overton window doesn’t address how best to shift it. But I stand by the argument I made in my talk, that the best way to do this is to “stand outside and pull”. I have three reasons for thinking this:

First, arguing from within the Overton window is waging the debate on your opponent’s terms. For example, the great 20th-century liberal humanists sought to wrap a progressive message in traditional religious language to make it more palatable. But by doing this, they unwittingly reinforced the consensus that religion was an essential component of morality, which set the stage for the later rise of the religious right who used the same message as a bludgeon. This is a mistake we should take care not to repeat. Taking pains not to challenge the social consensus can further entrench it and make it even harder to move in the future.

Second, pushing from outside the window strengthens your bargaining position. Most social justice movements, even the successful ones, end up having to compromise to some extent. And when you expect to compromise, it makes sense to start out by asking for as much as possible, to put yourself in a better bargaining position. Starting out by asking for less than you want means you’ll probably end up getting even less than that.

And third, it’s more ethical to argue for what you legitimately believe. If I believe that more people should adopt atheism as a viewpoint (and I do!), shouldn’t I say that, even if that notion is shocking or upsetting to many people? The only alternative I can think of is to censor myself on the grounds that people “aren’t ready” to hear my real opinions. This smacks of the condescending “noble lie” philosophy that although the elite may doubt religion, the ignorant masses have to be deceived for their own good. I think it’s more respectful to treat other people as rational adults who are capable of hearing my honest opinions and making up their own minds. Be forthright, be fearless, and I believe the argument with reason on its side will win the day more often than not.

Image credit: stanhua, released under CC BY 2.0 license

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