Fellow Patheos blogger Chris recently had an interesting post about blogging, the internet, and outrage.
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:
In every single group of human beings, you have a certain percentage of crazy shitheads.
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 “ Christian 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 think Chris’s point is worth thinking about. I do sometimes wonder if blogger activists, whether feminist or atheist or both, don’t sometimes do more harm than good by giving voice and credibility to fringe individuals no one listens to anyway.
This brings up a question. When should we, as bloggers or simply as people plugged into social media, ignore an outrageous statement or incident and when should we shine a spotlight on it? I suppose I personally have a two-pronged litmus test. First, is it an individual who has actual influence? For example, if James Dobson or Rick Warren says or does something particularly outrageous, that’s more worth talking about than if some random fundamentalist pastor no one knows or cares about says something hateful. And second, is there some greater constructive critique or point I can arrive at by discussing this remark or incident? If the outrageous statement of some unknown pastor gives me the chance to do some interesting thought work or consciousness raising, then it’s worth discussing regardless of whether or not he personally has any influence.
Still, even with this two-part formula, it’s not always completely obvious to me who matters and who doesn’t. For a while I’ve wondered if it’s even worth ever responding to Douglas Wilson, given how far out of mainstream evangelicalism most people consider him. Then, last week, while perusing Wilson’s blog I came upon this advertisement for his latest book:
Wilson is using the endorsement of Mark Galli, editor of Christianity Today, to tout his book. Christianity Today is pretty much the essence of mainstream evangelicalism, and an endorsement like this gives Wilson credibility. And that’s bad. Why do mainstream evangelicals get suckered into things like this?
Similarly, I recently came upon an article by James Dobson in which he has a footnote to an article by the American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer. While James Dobson, who founded Focus on the Family, has long been at the center of conservative evangelicalism, I had always thought Fischer was a fringe element whom no one really listened to. Now I’m having to rethink that, because apparently James Dobson listens to him, and conservative evangelicals definitely listen to James Dobson.
Debi Pearl’s books, for their part, are highly influential in Christian homeschool circles, as well as in many smaller fundamentalist churches. Mainstream evangelicals generally favor slightly less extreme how-to manuals for being submissive wives, but those in fundamentalist churches or those involved in the Christian homeschool movement sing Debi’s praises. She has influence in those circles, and that makes her worth talking about. And beyond simply that, looking at her writing gives me the chance to examine the myriad of themes and ideas that transcend just her.
I think the solution to the problem Chris poses is to make sure that we are purposeful about who we give time and space to, and about who we think merits our time and energy. It’s not that we should stop critiquing the writing and ideas of pastors, politicians, or leaders whom most people consider loony, but rather that we should make sure we have reasons beyond shock value for doing so.