BS outrage and the atheist blogosphere

A few days ago I stumbled across an article by David Wong titled “5 Ways to Spot a B.S. Political Story in Under 5 Seconds.” One item in particular was uncomfortably familiar: “The Headline Is About a ‘Lawmaker’ Saying Something Stupid”:

A low-level politician with no power said something incredibly stupid, and the opposing party is trumpeting it from the mountaintops to make everyone in the low-level politician’s party look stupid.

Here’s one: “Kansas Lawmaker Says Women Should Plan Ahead for Rape: ‘I Have a Spare Tire’”

Now, that story is true. The guy did say that. But now we need to ask ourselves a two-letter question:

“So?”

In every single group of human beings, you have a certain percentage of crazy shitheads. Find me an organization of a million charity workers who have devoted their lives to saving homeless golden retrievers, and I’ll bet my life that within that group I can find a faction of crazy shitheads. Hell, I’ll bet I can find at least one in any group of a dozen people. Liberals, conservatives, moderates, weed advocates, anti-drug advocates, cupcake bakers, window washers. They all – all – have their crazy shitheads that can be pointed out. I bet I can find at least one in your family.

Therefore, their existence proves nothing about the group as a whole. And, therefore, it is always wrong to dismiss a political movement by simply pointing at their craziest shitheads and saying, “See! That is what (insert group here) is REALLY thinking.” It’s a cheap shot, anybody can do it and it’s an outright lie.

[snip]

See, headlines tend to use that word “lawmaker” for a reason — if he were a U.S. senator, by God it would say “U.S. Senator,” and if he were a member of Congress, it’d say he was a congressman. They use “lawmaker” because it makes him seem prominent, like he should somehow matter to people who don’t live in Kansas. Now, don’t get me wrong — if the Kansas legislature collectively passes some atrocious rape law, that’s news — a lot of people are affected. But the fact that their legislature is 1/165 crazy shithead is not news.

Wong goes on to point out that “there are literally high school class presidents who garnered more votes” than some state legislators, along with the even greater absurdity of reporting on things Ted Nugent has said.

If you spend a lot of time in the atheist blogosphere, does this all sound way to familiar to you?

It does for me… and I hate where that line of thought leads me for a lot of bloggers I like. I generally like Ed Brayton, but he does like two posts a day on crazy stuff said by people I’d probably have never heard of if I didn’t read his blog. And Hemant Mehta generally lives up to his “Friendly Atheist” moniker, but he does a fair amount of that kind of stuff too–just two days ago he dedicated a blog post to something some random “Chrisian pastor” said.

On top of this, today I came across a book excerpt from last July on BoingBoing, which told a couple stories of one particular Jezebel writer ginning up outrage through completely bogus stories, including one case where a few posts about a bullshit controversy involving the Daily Show generated 500,000 pageviews.

500,000 pageviews with a few posts? Crap, if I could do that on a regular basis I’d be set, financially. But I won’t do it by generating fake controversies. Maybe I’m in the wrong line of work.

I’ve written before about how I “never got into doing the ‘look at this horrible thing some religious believer said’ posts,” but that was mainly on the theory that we should have low expectations for fundamentalists so those stories really aren’t surprising. In light of Wong’s article and the exceprt on BoingBoing, though, this tendency in the atheist blogosphere is starting to look a lot darker.

Again, maybe I’m in the wrong line of work. One of the challenges of being an atheist blogger is that any kind of periodical writing is supposed to be timely, but how do you do that writing about atheism? “In today’s news, God continues to not exist…” Manufactured outrage really is one of the obvious routes to take.

And I wonder about the effect of these tendencies on the health of the atheist community as a whole. When outrage is your default mode of blogging, you stop having friendly disagreements with other people in the atheist community and instead start turning everything into an outrage that we need to have an extended flamewar over.

  • http://twitter.com/blamer @blamer

    I’d suggest that berating individuals –including publicly shaming them– is an important feature of how we humans do morality. Including inside these text-based echo chambers we call blogs.

    Bloggers who’re (intellectually) criticising those they disagree with –for their sexism or republicanism or monotheism or tone or whatever– really couldn’t build their arguments without those underlying emotions & value judgements & ethical frames. Even if they earnestly trying for stoicism, their status as active bloggers means they fall short of any amoral vow-of-silence.

    I don’t think we need to spend our hours addressing those spending their hours naming & shaming those caught misspeaking / being crazy shitheads. Though I think it’s good to note the phenomena periodically to keep these moralizing discussions going in (sl)activists circles… because that’s another key aspect of those who’re energetically pushing for progress as an increasingly hi-tech species of moral face-talkers: bloggers want their outreach to stir up the frustratingly apathetic.

    • Chris Hallquist

      I’m not entirely sure what you’re trying to say with all of this. Some of what you say is true to an extent. What I worry about is:

      (1) Too much focus on trying to find things to be outraged over, even if the target of the outrage is someone who really doesn’t matter.
      (2) Bloggers who only have “one setting,” so to speak, for dealing with disagreements.

      For example, a huge portion of the book I’m currently working on is about shaming people for really awful defenses of religion, but I’m mostly talking about academics who are prominent in their fields, and in many cases have done things like gotten invited to write high-profile reviews of atheist books or whatever. I sometimes discuss a few exceptionally prominent non-academics (Bill O’Reilly, Josh McDowell, Dinesh D’Souza), and totally ignore the nobodies.

      And while I don’t hold back laying in to William Lane Craig, I recognize that most people aren’t at his level of awful.

    • baal

      The problem with the intention use of shaming as a technique is that it’s inherently trying to hurt someone emotionally. I’m not saying that it’s always a bad thing but all too often I see folks go the shaming route when they have good compelling arguments to make instead. I repeat for clarity, doing harm is morally bad. If it’s justified, it’s incumbent on you the shamer to provide a positive rule (positive = put forth) of general applicability that makes it clear why *this* specific act of shaming is called for.
      Since I allow for 1 exception to every rule, I do allow that you don’t need to justify shaming of specific individuals when their culpability is known to more than an in-crowd of a low population group. Rush Limbaugh is a good example. Pretty much everyone knows his record so there isn’t a need to explain why he’s earned his shaming.

      Secondly,
      shaming is a complaint about someones ethics. The problem with ethical complaints is that you need ‘clean hands’ to make them. You’re otherwise open to a claim of being a hypocrite. If you go about shaming all the time, you had better also not be engaging in behavior that someone else considers shameful (like using shame when it’s not justified).

    • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com miller

      Who exactly are we trying to shame? Whose ethical beliefs are we trying to change?

      Are we trying to shame the very individual we’re criticizing? Who cares about the ethical beliefs of a single uninfluential individual? And even if we did care, I’m inclined to think it’s ineffective. People resist changing their minds when they’re in the public spotlight.

      Are we trying to shame people with beliefs similar to the individual we’re criticizing? If so, then it would be better to pick an individual whose beliefs are more mainstream. That gives us a wider target.

  • vorjack

    We used to call this “nut-picking,” singling out the cranks on the other side and writing them up as if they represented something substantial.

    Problem is, when it’s someone like Bryan Fischer, who is the spokesman for an $18 million dollar organization with major media access through right-wing and Christian radio, can you really afford to ignore him? At what point does someone cross the line from being a lone crank who can be safely ignored to being a spokesman for a crazy minority that needs to be dragged into the spotlight?

    • Chris Hallquist

      “Nut picking.” I wish I’d known that word earlier.

      Yeah, once people reach a certain level of prominence, have at them. I’m not entirely sure where that line should be. Is Brian Fischer as important as Jerry Falwell was in the latter’s heyday? I don’t always have a great sense for those things. But “Alabama teacher” is probably on the wrong side of that line.

      • http://winter60.blogspot.com Lausten North

        I can think of a couple good reasons to NOT wait for someone to rise to prominence. We would be a lot better off if Michelle Bachmann had been given more exposure earlier. She could have been stopped at the State level. The Texas school board that is rewriting High School history books is another good example. Getting people in at these local levels, where it only takes a few thousand votes is a known strategy used by conservative groups. You ignore it at your own peril.

  • Daniel Browne

    If these stories are true, is there not a place for a website collecting them as a way to gauge the attitudes which are prevalent throughout a particular movement? The Right Wing Watch website springs to mind. I agree bloggers need to be clear about their aims (eg. who are they targeting, are they lumping too many groups together, etc…) and readers need to be careful that their responses are well reasoned (eg. don’t flame, try to understand the larger context, etc…), but if there really are 200 stories a minute about members of a certain group being terrible human beings then isn’t collecting these stories one way of getting a better feel for the group as a whole?

    • Shaming is a not an appropriate response to political disagreements

      Um, if someone hates people that disagree with them so much that they need to stare at a list of things they do that piss you off everyday then yeah, they are just being a dick and probably need psychological help. Also, as an independent and sa survivor I am disgusted with a the liberal pettiness this last election season. I have voted dem all my adult life but I WILL NOT vote for either of the two main parties until they stop this petty shit throwing about r*pe.

      I am not a fan of republicans generally, but I know what to expect from them and I don’t need some “white knighting” liberal to ruin MONTHS of my life by putting up “republicans are pro-r*ape” stories all day and night long so that my rss feeds are filled with nothing but r*pe stories (very triggering for survivors, not that the liberals care about how actual sa victims feel when they are getting a dig in at the old republicans!).

      I voted straight 3rd party this year because both parties dropped the ball and exploited victims of violent crimes: so what if the republicans said “horrible things”? The democrats want me to vote for them because they say “r*pe is bad” when they really mean “we hate republicans so we are going to use people’s deeply personal tragedy to garner votes and throw shit at our opponents.” Yeah, I and other people who have suffered see right through that shit. The republicans are generally pretty nasty on women’s issues, but dems made themselves look like evangelicals this year with their “moral outrage” crusade. Funny, they weren’t too morally outraged about r*pe BEFORE the election season but now oh, they CARE. Yeah, they care about getting votes and clicks and hating on republicans, that’s about it.

      The republicans may be assholes, but the democrats lost me as a voter because last season they acted like petty exploiters. Also, I really hated that whole Leah Durnum crap about making voting a sexual metaphor. It was really embarrassing and uncomfortable to walk by those signs everyday( and it kept me from visiting the dems voting office which I would have done had it not been plastered in sexual sighs which I found triggering), but they didn’t care because it upset the republicans (heheheee sex heeehehe) and that is ALL they care about. Until the dems grow back a real heart instead of being evangelical liberals who think SHAMING people is an appropriate way of dealing with political disagreements, I’m out. Sorry, you may hate what republicans have to say, but if you feel it’s your duty to publicly shame them for it, you are acting no better than the evangelical jerks you hate. 2c.

      Some republicans are real assholes, but

      • Shaming is a not an appropriate response to political disagreements

        Sorry that last sentence was a repeat (and that first sentence was “you probably need” psy help). But my main point is, leftist “outrage blogging” has gotten really out of hand since the last political season, and people are using really disgusting and horrible crimes to get clicks, while pretending to be sympathetic to victims. The problem is, by ignoring the fact that they are upsetting and re-traumatizing victims, and blowing off our concerns by saying “we are doing this for you” while politically campaigning and making ad revenue off the clicks is disingenuous and exploitative. Period.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Yes, but:
    # How do members of the group respond when you point out that one of them is a crazy shithead? Do they all edge away and disown him? Or do they rally around and defend their in-group from the out-group?
    # Is the crazy shithead really out of the mainstream of his group, or does he just lack the wisdom to self-censor what all members of the group are thinking?
    # The argument for political parties is one of numbers. “We are the Tea Party. There are millions of us. You must pay attention to us.” But if a sizable portion of that group is crazy shitheads (birthers, racists, those who want the gubmint to keep its hands of their medicare), then the argument from numbers is undercut, because any sane members of the group want you to know that they themselves are not crazy shitheads, and yet the group still has numbers…

    • Chris Hallquist

      (This is also a reply to M, below.)

      The problem with the “how does the group respond” question is that the group may not respond at all. Yeah, if a whole bunch of people are rallying around a crazy shithead, that’s significant, but a lot of the time they’ll just ignore him. And to interpret that as an endorsement is bullshit, as Wong points out: maybe they just have better things to do than denounce crazy shitheads all day.

  • http://thebronzeblog.wordpress.com/ Bronze Dog

    One reason I see to hammer the nuts is to prevent them from gaining more influence. If a nut becomes famous for saying something reprehensible among people who might otherwise take him seriously, he’s less likely to gain influence, and it sends a message for his party to police its own. If enough reprehensible messages get out there without criticism, some people are going to start thinking the ideas aren’t all that bad, citing the absence of widespread backlash. It can also bring attention to issues that are otherwise simply ignored in the mainstream.

    Mainstream immorality certainly needs priority in roasting, but roasting the obscure before they become mainstream still has value.

    • eric

      I absolutely agree. Many movements and parties will send out test messages to see how they play. Even if this isn’t done intentionally, politicians will pay attention to how the public responsds to other politicians and thus do it unintentionally. So, if or when we ignore the Akins as “just one nut,” then pretty soon Akin’s position becomes the norm for his party. To stick with the legume-themed analogies, politics is one show where you really do need to throw peanuts at the bad actors.

      Lots of people like to quote the old ‘solution to bad speech is more speech.’ But that comes with an obvious price, which is you have to do more speaking.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com miller

    Yes, I agree. And I think it plays into the narrative that atheists just focus on crazy fundamentalists. Sometimes it’s really true, we’re giving undue attention to some random pastor in Arizona. Other times we’re talking about people like Jerry Falwell, who is hugely influential. But many religious people are unaware of Falwell’s influence, so it seems like we’re just talking about crazy nobodies all the time.

    I think of it as a rhetorical strategy, and not the most honest one. The Westboro Baptist Church is some tiny little church that inspires far more backlash than sympathy. Why not capitalize that? By opposing WBC, we immediately get everyone on our side, and we get to talk about anti-gay Christians and the doctrine of hell. It’s way better than the headline, “Belief in hell still horrible”, plus it has the human interest factor.

    Screw timeliness, I’m absolutely fine if you just write stories about how gods still don’t exist today.

  • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ M

    The thing is, if someone is a crazy shithead (to use the language of the post), it matters how other people in that group react to the person. If the response is “Oh what ze said isn’t that bad” or “Ze was misquoted” or “Well we’re not all like that”, then the group has a problem. The correct response to something like “women should plan ahead for rape” is “fuck you, shape up or ship out”. No one should want to be associated with someone that vile.

    It’s also meaningful that while state legislators have limited power, they don’t have no power. They were elected, even if some of them represent very small districts. State laws affect a lot of people and set the tone for future national laws- if a bunch of states have similar laws on something, it’s far more likely a national law will standardize things or the Supreme Court will use that to take the political pulse of the country. State legislator is also the stepping stone to a lot more powerful positions- US Congressperson or Senator, Governor, etc. Doesn’t it make sense to stomp out the crazy before it gets too powerful?

    Additionally, these types of crazy quotes all seem to be coming from one party. At some point, that becomes meaningful in aggregate. I’m sure you can find batshit crazy leftists- I’ve met plenty in college and while working for an environmental group. But you know what? Those people aren’t lawmakers of any kind and usually have absolutely no power over anyone else. The people saying stupid shit about rape are the same people passing restrictive laws on abortion, not testing rape kits, cutting early childhood education, cutting welfare and medicaid payments, and generally making the lives of women as miserable as they can. The attitude and the actions are tied together.

    • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com miller

      Additionally, these types of crazy quotes all seem to be coming from one party.

      Has it occurred to you that this has to do with which media sources you pay attention to? I bet if you read right-wing blogs, they’d agree that it’s all coming from one party–the Democrats. Clearly, this is a delusion. But there’s something odd about thinking the other side is completely deluded in a particular belief about us, while we are completely right to hold the same belief about them.

      • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ M

        My news comes from The New York Times and The Economist mostly. I read some of the Patheos blogs, but I’ve usually already seen the political stuff. I do watch the Daily Show sometimes, but they do a pretty good job of skewering both sides for saying horrible things. And I have a bunch of really conservative friends who post things to Facebook all the time, so I wind up reading those links a lot.

        In short, I’m well aware of the media bubble people can put themselves in and I try to avoid it. I certainly don’t think ALL Republicans believe things like this guy does. His party is, however, putting into place policies that jive with his attitudes. His statement isn’t major news only because it’s so common for Republicans to say things like that! I object most strenuously to your characterization of my post as just simple-minded demagoguery and your false equivalence between saying what I said, which is “the group has a lot of problematic people in positions of power and no one is calling out the bad ones” and the type of statements I’ve seen on the right-wing sites my friends send me to. I’m attacking the people saying and doing bad things and the people who defend them or at the very least, don’t say anything. I’m showing the links between the attitude towards women expressed by a minor politician and the policies he and his party espouse. I’m not attacking all conservatives, all Republicans, or everyone who disagrees with me.

  • MNb

    Personally I prefer mocking to outrage. That applies to stupids like Tod Akin as well. We have a Dutch version, be comforted in that respect – a member of parliament nonetheless!
    Too much outrage too often is tiring, there are just so many ways to express your anger. Joking never tires though.

  • Patrick

    I’m with David Wong, up to a point.

    For example, every so often you see a news story that reads something like, “Congress proposes insanely stupid and evil piece of legislation! Oh noes!” And even a cursory review, coupled with a tiny bit of knowledge of US law, tells the informed reader that this piece of legislation is a dead letter, probably proposed only to make a small political constituency of nutcases happy.

    If the article highlighting the proposed piece of legislation frames itself in terms of a need to get outraged and in terms of a need to rile oneself up in opposition to the legislation in question, then that can be a bit unfair. That can amount to an attempt to mislead the reader into believing that the world is other than it is, i.e., into believing that the world is one in which laws of the highlighted sort have a legitimate chance of coming into being, and must be opposed.

    But if the intention is only to remind people that there are, in fact, small but highly dedicated groups of vile lunatics out there, and that we should remember to keep our guard up, that’s fair. That’s a legitimate and true statement. If these groups were truly powerless, they wouldn’t be able to get politicians to humor them.

    Plus, sometimes its hard to know where the line is between dead enders making noise, and actually influential people or ideas. There have been plenty of times that I’ve seen ideas that I thought would never get anywhere turn out to actually become law. A few elections ago my state tried to make life harder for gay people. In the process of doing so, the drafted law that was presented to the public did some collateral damage to heterosexual couples- specifically, it made it harder to prosecute people for beating up their girlfriends. I figured that this was a mere matter of drafting the law properly, and that it would get ironed out before the law was passed. The groups that proposed the law claimed that this wasn’t their intent, so, I felt that attacking conservatives for not caring about domestic violence victims was unfair. Then it passed into law as it was, and when abusers used the law to try to get out of convictions, the conservative groups that promoted the law submitted amicus briefs supporting the abusers interpretation of the statute.

    So apparently I was the idiot there. The seemingly unfair attack on conservatives that emphasized the seemingly marginal views of their nutcases was, in fact, mainstream. Conservatives actually are horrible people who don’t mind hurting domestic violence victims and aiding abusers if doing so facilitates hurting gay people.

    Which is a long way of saying… don’t assume you know who the inconsequential nutcases are. You’ll be wrong some of the time, and you’ll regret it.

  • Dave

    On the part of the atheist blogger reporting negative religious concepts, I think that is an important task. It is important to remind the religious that it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, and some facets of their faith is evil. They may choose to ignore it, but others are validated in disagreeing with them, and it is fair game when on the receiving end of the religious.

    However, respect for others as people goes a long way. I think that is the biggest issue I see in today’s debates. Religious are set in their ways and view those who disagree as lesser people. It is the same in the other direction. Political affiliation only exacerbates the situation.

    Love your friends and neighbors, respect your associates, and hold your politicians to task OUTSIDE of faith based belief. We are inherently good…let the crazies go be crazy elsewhere.

  • http://www.winter60.blogspot.com Lausten North

    Did you see JT Eberhard’s story about how pressure from outside of a small town led to the resignation of bigoted mayor? Because we could not or did not bring that kind of pressure in the past, small towns could be ruled by just a mayor and police chief or judge. I think you confuse the intention of “look at this member of a group, he represents larger group X” with, “Hey, larger group X, is this who you allow as a member?”

    • Chris Hallquist

      Okay, I can make an exception for actual efforts to bring national pressure to bear fixing something at the local level.

      But the idea of saying, ““Hey, larger group X, is this who you allow as a member?” is a bad one, for reasons Wong explains and I explain in my last comment on this thread. If, I dunno, Michael Moore says something crazy, I don’t have the power to take away his liberal card. Even Barack Obama doesn’t have the power to take away his liberal card.

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