As much as I appreciate and sometimes admire the work of think tanks and advocacy groups, I’m automatically a bit leery of what they have to say.
If your job is, for example, to advocate against sexual violence, and the time comes to write your organization’s annual report, you’d probably have a hard time concluding that things are getting better instead of worse. Understandably, perhaps, you’d look at one set of sexual-assault stats (let’s say, the National Crime Victimization Survey, which claims that the incidence of rape is relatively low), and you might decide that the Department of Justice Campus Sexual Assault Study, which proclaims rape to be almost epidemic, better fits what you believe to be the truth.
This confirmation bias is all around us (there are no doubt instances of it on this very site). Whatever the statistical trend, I don’t think you’ll ever hear Greenpeace executives say that this year, humankind has made great strides in avoiding ecological disaster. Nor are you likely to hear the folks at the American Enterprise Institute touting studies that show that the government has shrunk, and that the free market is on an inexorable upswing.
Too much is wrapped up in continuing the narrative that things are, from the organization’s standpoint, getting worse. A good dose of pessimism, whether warranted or not, does at least six internally beneficial things:
- Preserves the ideological message within the organization (“we’re fighting the good fight”);
- Makes its workers and followers more cohesive (“we’re all in this good fight together”);
- Makes workers and followers more motivated (“the organization needs my moral and intellectual support”);
- Helps greatly with fundraising (“the organization needs my financial support”);
- May therefore allow the organization to grow its payroll or projects, or both;
- Increases the organization’s access to news media (because bad news “sells” better than good news).
This little riff is not meant to disparage the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), which yesterday released a 539-page report — the real subject of this post — on how the rights of non-religious people are under increasing attack.