You will perhaps have noticed that Adam Lee of Daylight Atheism has recently joined our little network here – go him! His blog is great: his writing cogent and lively, his views well-formed, and his speeches interesting and feisty So, obviously, I’m going to pick a fight with him. Well, not a fight exactly: let’s say I wish to engage in a mutually productive exchange of honest views.
I recently listened to Lee’s talk from last year’s Secular Student Alliance Annual Conference on secular activism, “Moving Mountains”.
The talk is right in my wheelhouse (that’s a charming expression I’ve been hearing everywhere recently): as a speaker, teacher, and activist I’m deeply concerned about how we effectively mobilize people to make change. I’ve written reams and reams on what makes for effective secular activism, and I’ve delivered a few workshops and speeches on the topic too. This is what I do, and what I love. So, no surprise that I found parts of Lee’s talk fantastic (the call for atheists to be open about their atheism, and to engage in service work, for instance), and other parts provocative. Because agreement makes for dull blogging, I want to prod at some of the parts of the talk I found problematic.
Let’s start with anger. Lee argues:
“righteous, passionate, peaceful anger is the backbone of every successful progressive movement. Anger is what motivates people to take action. It’s what gives us passion, what gives us courage to stand up to ostracism and threats. Anger is what makes people understand our conviction and our sincerity.”
So far, so OK. I agree absolutely that anger can be and often is an essential motivator (I’ve written about this here). The caveats Lee provides – anger must be righteous and peaceful – rules out the sort of rageful, dehumanizing anger which can seriously do damage both to a cause and to other people (I make a distinction between anger and rage here). But Lee takes his case too far in seeming to suggest that it is only anger which can motivate successful political action. Many other moral emotions can also spur action: shared suffering, compassion, empathy, solidarity, love: many other emotions can spur people to work for social change, and all can convey conviction and sincerity.
One of my problems with the modern secular movement is not that it is sometimes angry, but that anger is such a large part of our emotional repertoire. Certainly, there are times and places to be angry – but there are also times and places to be kind, times and places to be compassionate, times and places to be loving. I would go so far as to say that anger which is not based in love for others is very suspect. Anger is certainly not the only moral emotion which can rouse people.
This is a small point, though, compared with the next. Lee says:
“You may hear people say that if we seem to be angry, we’ll turn the undecided against us, and cause more harm than good. These people are concern trolls trying to rob us of our most effective weapon. Don’t listen to them.”
This sort of talk annoys me because it serves, frankly, to dumb down the discussion of strategy which our movement really should be having. As the number of nonreligious people in America grows, we will need more and better discussions of how we communicate our ideas to the public, and these discussions will have to be nuanced and sensitive. It is simply not the case that everyone who objects to a certain communication strategy because they judge it to be counter-productive is a “concern troll” trying to “rob the movement” of an “effective weapon”. They may be making a serious and thoughtful judgment regarding a particular campaign or persuasive technique. Lee’s construction of a false dichotomy can serve to shut down useful discussion over strategy.
Lee encourages his audience to “use satire, mockery, and ridicule”:
“Again, this is a point where concern trolls often make themselves heard, saying that we only arouse greater opposition if we make fun of people’s cherished religious convictions.”
“If I can get you to laugh with me, you like me better, which makes you more open to my ideas. And if I can persuade you to laugh at the particular point I make, by laughing at it you acknowledge its truth.”
Drawing on the universal bond of Britishness which connects myself and Mr. Cleese, I think the Monty Python star would be frustrated to see his wise words being misused in this way. While it is true, as Lee says, that “nothing gets someone on your side like making them laugh” (it is a widely accepted and experimentally demonstrable fact that being funny makes you more persuasive), look at the Cleese quote more carefully, and there’s a fly in Lee’s argumentative ointment: Cleese says “If I can get you to laugh with me, you like me better”. The argument relies on the joker and the audience seeing themselves as being on the same side, laughing together at something else.
While it’s perfectly possible to wield humor so skillfully that our ideological opponents laugh with us (and effectively at themselves), much atheist humor is simply not that good. It involves the us-them tribe-building work of getting other atheists to laugh at religious people, not the persuasively valuable process of getting religious people to laugh with us at ridiculous beliefs. And this distinction is very often what “concern trolls” are pointing to when they object to some of the ridicule which occurs within our communities. Just like anger, humor must be used in a sophisticated way to be effective. There are more considerations that Lee allows, and some uses of ridicule, just like some uses of anger, are genuinely counter-productive.
The Overton Window
Lee repeats a lot of the stuff I’ve written about before on the Overton Window – basically, I think this theory is massively misunderstood by secular activists (and other activists too). Check out post one and post two on this topic for more.
At one point in his talk Lee states that “The most important thing is to make yourself heard”. I disagree. The most important thing is to make yourself heard in a way which is likely to affect the audience in the manner you wish to affect them. This means asking difficult questions about your message: is your anger actually productive, or destructive? Is your humor getting the audience to laugh with you, or is it likely to alienate them and make your persuasive task more difficult? Asking these questions is challenging, and the answers are not always clear. But only by taking responsibility for our message and how we convey it can we become more effective activists and move freethought forward.