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

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • fwtbc

    As I was reading this, it was reminding me of a talk I saw from Imagine No Religion 2, and that was even before you mentioned the Overton Window.

    The talk was by Desiree Schell, the host of the Skeptically Speaking radio show/podcast and her experiences in labour unions and related fields. She talks about the need for the more aggressive and confrontational people in the community, the firebrands, who get noticed, and then the more moderate people, the diplomats, who can then go about communicating a message without scaring everyone away.

    The talk can be watched here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9765g5IK1MU

  • Figs

    I’m sure some people who’ve read both sets of posts will look at the last point you make (about advocating for your true beliefs in full) and contrast that with your pragmatic take on third-party voting. I think it’s self-evident why voting is different than advocacy, personally (namely, voting is the end point of advocacy; once the advocacy is done and the debate ended, you vote on what you can get).

  • http://unhappilyagnostic.tumblr.com/ Unhappily Agnostic

    “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 thing about mockery, satire, and so on, is that they can be employed against almost any position, regardless of the level of understanding the mocker or satirist has of the position they mock or satirize. Furthermore, neither mockery nor satire are arguments–the perceived absurdity of a position, in perhaps the majority of cases, has far, far more to do with cultural background of the perceiver than with the truth of the position in question. (Unless you’re going to go all Platonic and say that there is an “absolute absurdity” that anyone can see. Right.)

    Given the above, if I see someone mock or satirize a position I will feel less inclined to agree with them–at least less inclined to take them seriously. Their argument (1) is one that requires no particular understanding of the thing they criticize and (2) has little to do with the truth of the position they criticize. It is an exercise of rhetoric, not of argument and intellection. And if you want to spread what you think to be true through non-rational means, then at least in that respect you’re basically in the same position as the religious individuals you criticize.

    So there is at least one third-party who will not attend to your arguments.

  • James Croft

    So there are lots of considerations here which merit a response. In general it seems that there’s a lot more agreement here than I might have expected, which is great!

    On Anger:
    As you were “criticizing people who claim that anger is by definition harmful to a social cause”, we are in agreement: it is only my position that it CAN be, not that it always is. We agree, too, that it is often essential and healthy.

    On Mockery:
    Agreed, too, especially with the last part – no heckler’s veto. There will be people who are unpersuadable in any audience, and you should not target your message toward them or dull its effectiveness for their benefit. The idea of “driving a wedge between a person and their beliefs” is exactly right, in my view.

    On the Overton Window:
    Here I still think you have a problematic muddle. Essentially the problem here – and it was one of the problems I was trying to tease out in the articles I wrote about Overton – is that you’re confusing position with messaging. The Overton Window is a hypothesis about different policy positions and their place on a spectrum of potential positions, only a few of which are in the current “window” of political feasibility.

    When you talk about the problems of Humanists like Dewey using God language to frame their progressive views (a practice which I agree is deeply problematic), you are not saying anything about his position – you are objecting to his messaging (the way he PRESENTS his position). Many of Dewey’s social positions were outside the window of political feasibility but, as you say, he packaged those positions in more palatable language (the language of God). He WAS “pulling from the outside”, while using the language of those “inside”. This can be an extremely effective strategy, and it can backfire (in this case I find it hard to make a judgment. I’ll need to reread Niose’s argument on this to make a clearer judgment, but I think he may have omitted a number of important considerations here which would alter my view).

    The second point you make seems to me essentially a point about effective negotiation strategy. I’ve read many different positions on this but from what I’ve read there are two potentially effective strategies: ask for more than you want so you get what you actually want, and ask for what you know you can get and ramp up from there. Both have been shown to work experimentally in one on one negotiations. Scaling these studies up to the level of social change is super tough, though…

    Whether this is really a point relevant to the Overton Window I’m not sure – it seems to me more relevant to talking about the size of a request, rather than its political feasibility as a policy per se (although these are obviously related to some extent).

    On your third point, I entirely agree – one must advocate for a position one actually supports. Again, though, I don’t see this as an Overton issue: it’s really got nothing at all to do with ‘upsetting people” and is simply about “is this in the realm of political possibility right now”. There are plenty of innoffensive policy positions which are nonetheless way outside the window (for instance, policy positions which don’t contravene any deeply held value but which are just not well-understood yet or lack empirical support to the extent required).

    So I think it’s only the Overton Window where there’s some lingering disagreement :)

  • Figs

    UA, I don’t think it’s rational of you to dismiss arguments that use mockery in their deployment. That’s an emotional response that doesn’t really ground itself in the facts at hand. I believe what Adam means is that mockery is a totally acceptable tool in the course of making an argument–NOT, as you seem to have concluded, that arguments can and should consist ENTIRELY of mockery.

  • Figs

    James,

    Good points. As far as the Overton Window, I think the thing I would say is that there’s a difference between espousing radical points using muted language, to move people from the inside, and what Adam is advocating, which I’d see more as advocating more strongly from the outside to give the people on the inside more freedom to move. If that makes sense.

  • James Croft

    Figs:

    “As far as the Overton Window, I think the thing I would say is that there’s a difference between espousing radical points using muted language, to move people from the inside, and what Adam is advocating, which I’d see more as advocating more strongly from the outside to give the people on the inside more freedom to move.”

    I think the challenge for me here is that my understanding of the Overton theory as proposed by Overton himself is not in alignment with your description. As far as Overton was concerned, the language you use to make your case – whether muted or explosive – does not affect whether your policy proposal is inside the window or not. Someone espousing a point considered “radical” is outside the window whatever the sort of language they use – their actual position determines their in/out status rather than their messaging.

    Another way to look at this is that there are actually two axes at play here which are being conflated: there is the “position” axis: how “left” or “right” is a given policy proposal? This is what Overton is concerned with. Then there is the “messaging” axis: how combative or ameliorative is your language? The Overton Window theory has nothing to say on the latter point.

  • Figs

    Sure, I’ll agree that it’s not exactly analogous, but that’s not really what analogies are for, right? And in some sense, I think part of what’s being said here is that the messaging is a fundamental and irreducible part of the message. Softening messaging can and does soften the positions taken (or in some cases obscures those positions, which is another piece of this). I think ideally there would be a policy axis and a messaging axis, but in reality, I think those two are correlated to a much greater extent than you’re making out.

  • James Croft

    Thanks an interesting possibility – I don’t know that I agree but I haven’t really thought it through. Could you give an example of how changing one’s messaging might change one’s position?

  • http://unhappilyagnostic.tumblr.com/ Unhappily Agnostic

    Figgs, you’re right that it would not be rational to dismiss arguments just because they involve the use of mockery. One can make a good, truth-indicating argument and then employ mockery of someone else to explain it. So completely ruling out someone’s arguments because of their use of mockery would be a bad idea, and the last sentence I wrote is unjustified.

    It would be more accurate to say that I am going to be more unwilling (ceteris paribus) to examine someone’s arguments if these arguments often use mockery, because the ROI (to mix metaphors) of such an examination is probably going to be lower than the ROI of investigating a non-mocking argument, for the reasons I outline. So most uses of mockery indicate that the author is willing to appeal to something within me other than evidence and reason–and the more an author indicates this, the less reason I have to read him.

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

    Well, considering how much of this is tied to emotion, you might guess how I would feel about it …

    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.

    Um, no. This is very, very, very bad. A recognition of injustice MUST be dispassionate, or else you risk not considering something an injustice because it happens to someone you dislike, or you justify them being treated unjustly due to them having done things in the past to others that were unjust. You even run into the issue that empathy has in general where if you don’t understand the person you won’t consider the situation unjust because it doesn’t seem as problematic to you as it does to them. That’s why you need a set criteria that takes all of the relevant factors into account and doesn’t rely on any subjective judgement, or at least as little as possible. This even applies to your example: if I don’t think that legal recognition of marriage is at all important, then I couldn’t consider not allowing same-sex marriage to be unjust by your argument, or at least not in the strong sense you hint at. Or, I could take the argument that it is an unjustified distinction and conclude that it is unjust, and if I strongly dislike injustice I might even be able to get angry about it, too.

    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 think this gets the idea backwards. You seem to be starting from “Anger is generally good, but sometimes it isn’t” and I think that it’s really the case that anger is bad, but sometimes can be reasonable/useful. Ultimately, the one key thing is that for any social or political movement to take off, it has to make itself seem like something that people do and should care about. It needs passion, then. And you can get passion through anger, because if you get angry over something it’s clear that you care deeply about the issue and so it becomes reasonable to assume that it is something important enough to care deeply about. But while anger is one of the easiest ways to build that impression, it’s also one of the worst ways, because anger is an exceptionally strong emotion tied deeply in with action, which means that it clouds your judgement and encourages to do or think things you really shouldn’t far too often. It promotes aggressive actions. It leads you to define opponents as enemies as opposed to people who disagree with you. It rejects compromise. It’s a bad emotion to try to use strategically to aid in movements.

    So, anger shouldn’t be used as a strategy, for a number of reasons. First, anger is an emotion that risks screwing up too much to be used frequently; it’s best used sparingly for effect. Second, anger needs to be seen as being genuine in order to have its impact, and overuse dulls it. One of the reasons that people don’t take student protests very seriously, even if they are expressed angrily, is that they are so very common, even with that degree of anger, which means that it has less of a “Wow, that’s important, we should pay attention’” and more of a “They’re just spouting off again” vibe.

    Thus, to use anger properly it should be seen as a natural reaction, and something that the angry person feels BAD about having. If you’re in a discussion with someone and you are disagreeing over something that’s really important, then you might get angry as part of that discussion, but you should feel bad for getting that way, at least if you think they are being honest. Even if they aren’t, feeling bad about losing your temper highlights that the issue is important but that anger itself isn’t the driving force behind your arguments, but the arguments and the responses are the driving force behind your anger. All of this precludes using anger as a strategy, but instead just leaves it as an understandable but not ideal reaction … which is where I think anger will do good, if it ever can do good.

    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.”

    What you miss here is precisely the problem with mockery: what if they don’t think the beliefs are ridiculous? Where can you go if you just mock the beliefs as obviously ridiculous when they don’t agree? It adds nothing, puts their back up, and can easily turn into you de facto considering them a stupid person if the mockery is presented as revealing that the beliefs are so stupid that no intelligent person could believe them. Since THEY do, the conclusion is obvious, and that sort of starting point is not going to get them listening to your REASONS for why it’s stupid. Good satire, it seems to me, is aimed not at simply saying “This is stupid” but in putting the beliefs in a ridiculous context to show a different perspective that REVEALS their issues. It doesn’t try to define the beliefs as stupid and then proceed to make fun of them, but instead to make fun of them — or, usually, a situation like them — to show how they ARE, at least, wrong or problematic. In fact, trying to prove a belief ridiculous instead of trying to prove it wrong is probably a bad idea in the first place … and will lead to you not being able to convince people through your mockery.

  • GCT

    Either VS has extremely poor reading comprehension skills or is making the most uncharitable interpretations in order to erect straw men so that he can hear himself speak. We get it, VS, you love to masturdebate.

  • Adam Lee

    Hi James,

    Thanks for stopping by! I think we do, indeed, agree on more than may have seemed initially apparent (although I got that impression after seeing your talk at the last Skepticon, which I greatly enjoyed).

    Since I think we have a consensus on the first two points, let me address the third:

    When you talk about the problems of Humanists like Dewey using God language to frame their progressive views (a practice which I agree is deeply problematic), you are not saying anything about his position – you are objecting to his messaging (the way he PRESENTS his position).

    I realize the Overton window was originally invented for public-policy issues where there’s a spectrum of government intervention, but I think the concept is useful and can be generalized, and that’s what I was trying to do here. For instance, when debating how to persuade a religious public, I can imagine a spectrum of views that runs from strong theism to strong atheism, with some slice of that spectrum constituting what’s currently considered “mainstream” or “serious”. (Here’s the thought experiment I use to delineate the edges of the Overton window: What kind of religious views does a person have to have to stand a serious chance of winning an election?)

    My view on Dewey’s strategy is that he was trying to move the window from within by finding the place that was closest to the average person’s view, and pushing from there in a more humanistic direction. As I said, I think that was a mistake. He treated the outer edge of the window as a boundary line that he dared not cross, and by tacitly accepting the terms of the debate in this way, he helped to entrench them.

    When I say that the “Overton window” of theism versus atheism is best pushed from outside, I mean to encourage nonbelievers to advocate for a strong and unapologetic atheism, even if that’s not currently considered a “serious” position. If you do it effectively, it will make your viewpoint familiar and normal, and in that way, the boundaries of the window can expand to encompass a position that was once unthinkable. That’s just what I think the New Atheists are accomplishing.

  • James Croft

    OK – I see how you’re applying the model now. I actually don’t interpret Dewey in the way you do. I think he’s pretty clearly a full-throated atheist (he is explicitly clear on this point) – he is just using language which makes that idea more palatable. I.e. he is using messaging to make his out-of-the-window view sound less extreme. In my view, trying to push the window from within, at that time, would have been something like taking a deistic position or a unitarian one. But Dewey is an outspoken naturalist with no time for supernatural conceptions of God. He still uses God language (messaging) but he does not believe in God (position).


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