When the people you’re trying to reach say stupid things

About a year ago, I took part in a campus atheist group’s “ask an atheist” day. We stood out on the sidewalk in a well-traveled part of campus with a table, signs, and sidewalk chalk to announce what we were doing. Unfortunately, we didn’t so much get people with questions as people who wanted to argue.

One comment that sticks in my head is the guy who told us we were “militant” for doing this. I wasn’t really in that conversation, but I heard the comment, so I immediately butted in: “yes, clearly, because this sign is a bomb that I’m going to use to blow up that building over there.” Which I guess was kind of a dick move. I didn’t call the guy an idiot, but I certainly did imply it.

I’m writing about this now because of this discussion, where I said:

But there’s an important distinction to make between intimidating someone into silence and having them leave the conversation because they decide you’re not worth talking to. I think it is true that by insulting someone to a large extent you signal that you don’t think they’re worth dialoging with, and once you’ve signaled that, they’re apt to conclude the same about you.

To which commenter Beth responded:

When those who hold differing opinions are considered not worth dialoging with and have walked away from the converation, what is left is an echo chamber populated by the choir.

Such spaces can be valuable, but they aren’t what I’m looking for when I participate in internet conversations. Is that what you want?

Which suggests I maybe shouldn’t have been so quick to make fun of Mr. You’re Being Militant. Had I wanted to be polite, I should have started off by asking, “what do you mean by that?” Come to think of it, Mr. You’re Being Militant may have answered that question, with something like, “Well I don’t see why you have to do this, you’re just like religious evangelists.” To which a good educator, who was trying hard not to insult the guy, might have said:

We’re not trying to evangelize. We’re just trying to inform people. There’s a lot of misunderstanding about atheists, and we’re just giving people an opportunity to ask us questions, to correct those misunderstandings.

Had I been trying for “educate” mode, I probably would have added:

And things like your ‘militant atheism’ comment are part of why we have to do this. Too many people automatically assume the worst about atheists, like you did when you called us ‘militant’ merely for giving other people a chance to ask us questions. We need to educate people so they learn to stop saying stuff like that.

Though a person who was very committed to being nice might have avoided saying that.

Even then… I generally prefer to just slap down stupidity. Will it get people to change their minds on the spot? No, but then being nice won’t either. The advantage of slapping down the stupid is that when people repeat stupid lines like about “militant atheism,” generally they know better. They don’t need to learn anything about atheists. They need to learn they won’t be rewarded for repeating stupid cliches that they could identify as stupid if they thought about them for two seconds.

Too often, really stupid anti-atheist cliches are treated as the height of wisdom. As a result, people act like they expect a cookie for repeating them. When they do that, I think the most important thing is to make them realize “no, you don’t get a cookie.”

But I could be wrong about this. Soon-ish, I expect to be posting another partial chapter draft, and it will include a treatment of the “militant atheism” thing. So people’s input would be greatly appreciated.

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