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.

  • http://rockstarramblings.blogspot.com/ Bronze Dog

    There’s no One True Way of Speaking, since humans are diverse creatures. Being diplomatic may have intuitive advantages in some circumstances, but people shouldn’t underestimate the counter-intuitive benefits of ridicule and insults.

    Ridiculing the notion of “militant” being used to describe question-answering may very well have shocked someone into thinking about how they abuse the term. One instance might have made him walk away, but if several people ridicule him for describing non-violent atheists as “militant,” he might start questioning himself, even if it’s just a realization that there’s no zinger value in calling an atheist “militant.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=597316935 ashleybell

    My rule: I refuse to act respectfully to anyone who doesn’t engage in good faith. Pre-fab parroted slurs do not engage in good faith. “Ooooo. Militant atheism! Gee did you come up with that all by your wittle self? You’re soooo smart, I’m SURE your catch phrase comes with a well reasoned argument….”

  • Matt Penfold

    There is generally no requirement to be polite to people who are rude. And let us be in no doubt that when that man said you were being militant he was being rude. Maybe he was ignorant, but ignorance does not excuse rudeness of course.

  • RW Ahrens

    Audience. It’s all about the audience. The tone and language you use should be adjusted to the audience.

    Some folks need that shocker of ridicule or sarcasm to make them think, others will respond fine to a polite rebuke combined with an explanatory remark.

    It’s why there is room in this fight for all kinds of speakers, writers and approaches. Some theists you won’t reach at all, and it will take the complete collapse of their religious ecosystem to make them see how hollow it all is. Some never will.

    Most can be reached by one approach or another, but remember, it will take time, no matter which way you talk to them. You most likely won’t ever see their conversion, since it won’t happen after just one conversation.

    Just keep up the good work, and someday, we will see the results.

  • jamessweet

    Different people respond to different things. Some people making that comment would have been put off by your “bomb” quip, but would have responded to a patient dialogue examining what was wrong about their thinking Other people might have responded to a patient dialogue with more bomb-throwing (pun incidental) but by contrast the quip might have been just what they needed to shock them into another mode of thinking. Furthermore, as has been discussed ad nauseum, the person being spoken to is not always the target audience: Perhaps nothing could have convinced the “militant” guy, but perhaps a bystander who was sympathetic to both sides would have heard the “bomb” quip and been like, “Oh yeah, calling this ‘militant’ is just stupid.” Or maybe there was a bystander whose misperceptions about atheists were reinforced by the bomb quip, but who would have been really impressed if you’d gone the “patient dialogue” route.

    The bottom line is, you just can’t really tell, so you gotta be yourself.

  • bubba707

    I got tired of being nice and giving polite explainations long ago. Why in hell should I be nice and polite to assholes that are nothing but rude and insulting to me. Now I just tell em they’re not worth the breath to talk to and until I can get back the time I’d waste talking to them I won’t bother.

    • mnb0

      So did I. You can explain as much as you want, such people never give in as I recently experienced again.
      Someone called me a New Atheist. I don’t consider myself to be one as the differences with Dawkins and co are too big. I explained to him politely with several reasonable motivations. Zero result. He was just not interested.
      I still have to meet, be it in real life or on internet, the first person who calls me whatever to withdraw his/her words after a polite explanation.
      Such people only do so because they want to unsettle you. Sarcasm is the only remedy.

      • bubba707

        Since I’m 62 I can tell em there’s nothing new about me. ;)

  • http://peicurmudgeon.wordpress.com/ peicurmudgeon

    I’ll have to admit to an inconsistency on this. There are days and times when I have the patience for a polite dialog and other times when I am rude and abrupt.

    Sometimes it has to do with the attitude of the other person and sometimes it’s just me. Which is best? I don’t know.

    • Jon H

      I’m with you on that one. I may have lofty goals about elevating the conversation, but I’m human and as such can be emotional. Still, I try and match the tone the other person sets, if someone is trying to be civil I try to return the favor, but if I feel I’m being disrespected then fuck ‘em.

  • John Horstman

    It’s entirely context-dependent, primarily on the basis of one’s audience and one’s aims. You’re probably correct that mocking/confrontational was a reasonable course in the instance you describe, since the member of your audience had already adopted a confrontational demeanor and was therefore significantly less likely to be open to honest dialogue and ideas that challenged his preconceived notions. The people who are best to handle with a soft touch are those who haven’t actually considered the epistemological questions concerning their religion and are among the faithful because that’s just what everyone in their communities does (Socratic method works well by getting them to challenge their beliefs themselves). Those who are honestly seeking the Truth of existence and have concluded (due to Bad reasoning or bad evidence) that something like Christianity is the best explanation tend to be met best with robust (and good-faith) debate. Trolls who will not change their minds deserve nothing other than to be shut down completely – mockingly or otherwise. I think creating a social climate hostile to trolling is an active good. Reading one’s audience is a skill one can develop, though it’s never going to be 100% accurate, but the way someone approaches you (rhetorically) can be a pretty good indicator.

    The fact that different people are going to respond most positively (in terms of outcome) to different tactics is one reason why having a movement composed of segments that employ a number of different tactics (conciliation, civil challenges, uncivil challenges, and outright militancy) tends to be more successful than a movement that uses just one tactic (with the added bonus of plausible deniability when needed). This may seem disingenuous (though the appearance of disingenuity is mitigated somewhat by the extensive internal debates that try to reach a consensus on these points – something I think is ultimately futile, though the debate is intrinsically valuable, even if it resolves nothing), but for a social/discursive engineering project on the level of trying to purge the religion meme (or, more specifically, the tendency toward unreasoned, uncritical belief and credulity) from humanity, it’s necessary to deploy all available tools.

    I actually think that, generally, trying to change the minds of true believers is a waste of energy. The fact that religious non-affiliation has been on the rise among the under-25 crowd at 5 times the rate of older people for the past decade+ suggests to me that where we’re most effective is preventing the sort of total indoctrination that necessitates extensive, direct effort for de-conversion (and leads to bad-faith engagement in discussions) in the first place. If we focus on preventing religious memes from taking hold in the minds of the young, all of the present hosts will eventually die off.

  • kagekiri

    I was greatly helped along to deconversion by the utter demolishment of my creationist arguments in a forum that made me feel like a total idiot, but results probably vary, as my beliefs were already pretty fragile.

  • Beth

    Which suggests I maybe shouldn’t have been so quick to make fun of Mr. You’re Being Militant.

    No, I don’t think it does. As others have pointed out, it’s very context dependent. What was your purpose in being on campus? Do you think your reaction was helpful in achieving that goal?

  • mnb0

    “Unfortunately, we didn’t so much get people with questions as people who wanted to argue.”
    Exactly my experience on a Dutch christian forum. I specifically gave an unbelievers confirmation to give them everything they needed to attack my opinions.
    Hardly a reaction.

    “being nice won’t either”
    Exactly. So I’m all for slapping down by sarcasm etcetera. There is always the possibility that they think twice to say something stupid about being “militant”.

  • Mori

    At our Ask an Atheist events, we’ve found that the mixed approach works best. Someone with a genuine question gets referred to the person with the relevant knowledge. For example, as an anthropology student, I get the questions on evolution, culture, and so-called archaeological evidence. Our history students get those questions, and so on. Anybody who just wants to argue and spout stereotypes goes to the one guy who’s willing to be confrontational.

    But I’m pretty sure these things are altered by general atmosphere, so the best approach probably differs.

  • Jon H

    Could it be possible you’re thinking of the term militant as necessarily violent?

    I think the man you were talking to might have been using militant under the definition I see on my online dictionary, “vigorously active and aggressive, especially in support of a cause.” I think your actions in your story could be described as militant under this definition.

    • mnb0

      Eh? Standing on a sidewalk behind a table, waiting for people with questions, is “vigorously active and aggressive”? Beats me.

    • http://oldtimeatheism.blogspot.ca/ andyman409

      I don’t see how Chris’ actions in the story could be described as “vigorously active and aggressive, especially in support of a cause.” They were trying to educate non-atheists on what Atheism actually is. Keep in mind that Atheists are the least trusted group in America.

      Now, in UTM, an incident occurred in which a bunch of students dressed up as nuns and faked orgasims. That seemed like the sort of thing you might call militant atheism, not what Chris did.


    • jamessweet

      In addition to the stance others have taken, I actually oppose the use of that definition of the word “militant”. I have explained why in detail here. In a nutshell? The “vigorous action” definition is primarily used to tell historically silenced groups to shut up, whereas for groups that have not been historically silenced the term is only ever used to mean “violent”.

      I just don’t think the term is useful when used that way, except to create unwarranted associations. I think it should be avoided in all contexts.

      • Stacy

        Hey, excellent point. I’m embarrassed to admit I never noticed that before. Thanks, jamessweet.

  • Sabrina

    I sympathize with you on this. It’s probably better for you cause if you could simply answer the comments and questions without emotion. Unfortunately, it’s emotion that compels me to defend myself against attacks (or perceived attacks) without considering how I could respond in a more effective way. I say learn and move on. You will probably have another opportunity to try again and do it better. Just try to keep in mind what your ultimate goal is. Good luck!

  • Sam C

    Conversations are difficult, eh?

    My understanding of the word “militant” comes from knowing that it is derived from the Latin word for “soldier” (miles, plural milites is memory serves, but it was a loooooooong time ago), same root as the word “military”.

    BUT… I know I cannot assume that other people intend the same meaning. I suspect some just use the word “militant” to mean “activist” whereas some will be including assertiveness or even aggressiveness in the mix, and others including a big whiff of anti-socialness.

    As with all concern trolly things about tone, I think the answer is simple (and both sides of the tone argument are correct!): some listeners will respond best to quiet reasoned dialog, some respond best to a shouting match, some want to fight, some want to walk away. It matters to identify which works for the present audience if you are keen to sell your idea to them (that’s marketing, folks) but if you see yourself as exercising your free speech, then it’s your choice whether to simper or shout.

    There is no one right answer to how to inform people or debate with them – just don’t get into a fight.

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  • Alex

    In my experience, conservative Christians in the U.S. generally use “militant,” in reference to atheists or LGBT people, to mean “any such person who isn’t closeted and refuses to acknowledge my moral superiority.”

  • Jasila

    What’s hilarious is that you’re attacking this guy for being ‘stupid’ yet you don’t appear to understand the usual meaning of the word (or are playing dumb as it suits your point). Such feigned ignorance doesn’t make it look like *he* failed to communicate, but like you did.

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