Welcome, Adam – Let’s Fight!

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.

Anger

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.

Ridicule

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.”

Lee responds with an excellent quote from John Cleese:

“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.

To Conclude

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.

About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.

  • baal

    I look forward to Adam Lee’s reply and hope that he addresses the points you make.

    “These people are concern trolls trying to rob us of our most effective weapon. Don’t listen to them.”
    This quote sums up for me why I stopped reading Lee’s blog. While you don’t have a duty to agree or give equal time to your critics, they are the ones most likely to point out the weak spots in your position. You owe yourself to have decent well formed arguments that answer the primary criticism of your view.
    Adam Lee’s solution of “well just shut them out of your mind” echos so much of the christian rhetoric (idiolog is idiolog?) that I’m seriously put off by speach and likely would have walked out in protest.

  • JRS

    James,
    Very good commentary and observations. As will baal, I also stopped reading Adams blog, but for a rather longer list of concerns that are echoed within certain parts of the skeptical community and is related directly to the so-called ‘schism’. Rather than repeat a lengthy laundry list of complaints, which tend to fall on deaf ears anyway, I will provide a link to an article which I found extraordinarily enlightening. When the schism first came to my attention, I was rather overwhelmed with the utter surprise of what was taking place. I have since regrouped and dug into the matter in an attempt to understand how such a large part of the skeptical community could become so, well, unskeptical and ideological. I had already formulated a number of observations and opinions when I was fortunate enough to discover the following article. It is a brilliant analysis of what has changed in the nature of discourse, and provides a literal checklist of the very specific changes within skeptical discourse, driven by a clearly identifiable subset within the skeptical community. It is notable that the change is actually well underway in the general public discourse as well, but the liberal left (which most of us atheists are in varying degrees) is particularly vulnerable to its effects as you will see when you read it. This speaks directly to the majority of my issues with Mr. Lee’s blog and how it has changed over the last year, but it applies equally to a very specific group on one side of the schism. With that in mind, I present for your consideration:

    http://arts.uwaterloo.ca/~kwesthue/regiftedxmas12.html

    • James Croft

      Thanks for the fascinating link, JRS. For me, while I appreciate the distinctions made in the linked essay, I don’t quite see how it maps onto discussions within the freethought movement – could you help me out?

      Also, one of my struggles over my few years working on my dissertation is the increasing recognition that there are elements of value within both what are described as the “modern” and “postmodern” modes of discourse. For instance, despite the author’s clear preference for the former, the point that “persons and positions are ordinarily closely related” is in my mind undeniably true and essential to really understanding modern discourse itself. One of the first questions I ask when encountering any philosopher, for instance, is “who is this person? What is their context? What do they care about?”

      Further, one of the fascinating things for me to witness within the atheist movement is the potential for what is described as “herding” within a movement explicitly committed to “modern” discourse. I.e. freethought is seen almost inherently as an Enlightenment set of values, and yet at the same time freethinkers often react to criticism in a way similar to how “postmodern” thinkers are described doing in the piece. This suggests to me that finer distinctions need to be made.

  • JRS

    “Further, one of the fascinating things for me to witness within the atheist movement is the potential for what is described as “herding” within a movement explicitly committed to “modern” discourse. I.e. freethought is seen almost inherently as an Enlightenment set of values, and yet at the same time freethinkers often react to criticism in a way similar to how “postmordern” thinkers are described doing in the piece. This suggests to me that finer distinctions need to be made.”

    James,

    In fact, it maps to the freethought movement exactly as described, much to my dismay. My comments presume you are ‘up to speed’ on the nature and presence of the schism within the atheist/skeptical community. I have tried to keep my comments general, to avoid finger pointing, but getting more specific as you have requested may require I go the extra step.

    But, first, your comments regarding source, agenda, et all are relevant and something I do myself. Perspective is often important. I also try to take the subject at face value and compare that result with the the former, to see if there are changes in perception that might take place. I find this neutral approach often gives a more nuanced understanding of the information being provided and how much it should be weighted. With that in mind, I found the linked article particularly fascinating in that it passed through multiple sources and modes of belief to arrive at the same observation/conclusion. Quite remarkable, really. This will become more apparent if you click through to the sources linked in the primary article. (I’m still reading some of those myself) Further, it takes little to verify the observations in practice within the skeptical community, although historical observation would have made it much simpler and self-evident.

    With that in mind, lets see if I can provide real life, timely examples within the community without too much fuss. Remember, you can actually use the ‘checklist’ provided in the article to verify the observations. The most prominent example would be Freethoughtblogs, along with the other associated popular blogs within that community, most notably Pharyngula. The practice of ‘herding’ seems to have started here with the practice of ‘pharyngulation’ of online religious polls. The idea was to generate a mass response focused on the poll that would destroy its purpose and or effectiveness. It worked, as the popularity of the blog allowed it to direct considerable numbers (thousands!) of online attention towards the intended target – hence the resulting term ‘pharyngulation’. These energies were re-directed after a change within the FreethoughtBlogs community, when feminism took over as the predominent interest within the group, rather than atheism vs theism. Instead, after certain events took place (google elevatoregate if you are not familiar with it), the subtle changes within the community became more openly ‘postmodern’, with open, public attacks against any person or group who did not precisely toe the new ideological feminist line that was now the clearly predominant driving force at Freethoughtblogs. No longer accepting of open discourse as per ‘modern discourse’ or debate, to disagree was to call down the wrath of the mob upon oneself. They quickly recognized benefits, by way of high profile attention, could be gained by attacking the old, established, popular ‘modern’ establishment. The first was Richard Dawkins, who fortunately was solidly established enough to ward off the threat. Not so for people newer and with less established reputations, such as Justin Vacula, who chose to resign his position rather than face the onslaught created by a single petition within the Freethoughtblog group. The latest iteration is the attack on Michael Shermer from people within the same group:

    Part #1
    http://www.skeptic.com/eskeptic/12-12-12/#feature

    Part #2
    http://www.secularhumanism.org/index.php?section=fi&page=shermer_33_2

    bonus article: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-liberals-war-on-science

    This is a good place to start to see the mechanisms in play, but there is a long, involved and very ugly history leading up to this latest skirmish. For your purposes, you should examine the nature and quality of the exchanges linked above. Shermer = Modern discourse. Ophelia Benson, et all, are ‘post modern discourse’. Doing a broader search, especially within the Freethoughtblog community on this single topic will keep you busy for some time. I will check in from time to time to see what you can make of it.

    For my own part, I am primarily disappointed to learn that the skeptical community is no better than any other group within human societies when it comes to maintaining a certain degree of rationality (as compared to ideology). I had once hoped that skepticism was the hope for the future, but the recent history has illustrated just how misdirected that hope was. The skeptic community is just as subject to takeover by ideology as any other group and presently reflects the similar breakdown taking place across the western societies as a whole.

  • http://muirnin.wordpress.com David Philip Norris

    “The most important thing is to make yourself heard.”

    I too disagree with this. There are plenty of people already trying to make themselves heard in the marketplace of ideas, and the only result is the cacophony of voices trying to shout over each other, competing to be heard. To quote Saint Francis, “grant that I may not so much seek to be understood, as to understand.” There may be an unwillingness on the part of the audience to listen, but we ought always to be doing our due diligence in both trying to understand and to communicate clearly and honestly. Part of the effectiveness of the Pythons is that one never got the impression that they were ever jeering at the material they satirised, or their audience. They laughed at themselves as much as they laughed at anyone or anything else, and that made us trust them, because they weren’t out to attack. The sense that one gets from Adam Lee is that, knowingly or unknowingly, he’s out to aggressively win people over. And when people know that you view them as a project or another potential notch in your belt, they’re much less likely to be receptive to your message or coming over “to your side.”

    Great post, James!

    • James Croft

      I love your point about the Python’s humor – I think that’s spot on. The level of absurdity and self-deprecation they brought to their work gives it all a whimsical quality and makes the barbs seem to sting less, such that even devout Christians love Life of Brian, for instance. Many satirists simply aren’t that good, and end up provoking defensiveness instead of encouraging thought.

  • JRS

    James,

    I wanted to focus just a bit on this comment as an aside from the rest of the discussion above, as it is especially important:

    “Also, one of my struggles over my few years working on my dissertation is the increasing recognition that there are elements of value within both what are described as the “modern” and “postmodern” modes of discourse. For instance, despite the author’s clear preference for the former, the point that “persons and positions are ordinarily closely related” is in my mind undeniably true and essential to really understanding modern discourse itself. One of the first questions I ask when encountering any philosopher, for instance, is “who is this person? What is their context? What do they care about?”

    The primary different between the two types of discourse involves the degree of ‘personal investment’ in one’s position. Even without delving into the types of discourse, I think you will readily agree that having a cherished belief or position on a subject proven wrong, such that you have to publicly admit being wrong, is usually an extraordinarily difficult thing to do for most people on the best of days. One of the theoretical advantages of modern discourse is the supposed ability to distance one’s personal investment in a particular position or conclusion. One is supposed to be ready to be proven wrong and accept what the evidence dictates. Of course, in practice, this tends to be a bit more difficult for most, especially if one has years invested in a particular position or belief, but it tends to work, even if slowly and reluctantly.

    With post-modern discourse, the individual (or even the group) tends to take the position as a personal thing, they are the concept/idea/belief. Such is the foundation of ideology – it is no longer an idea held at arm’s length for scrutiny and examination, rather it is held closely and protected and cherished. Any conflicting idea or data is seen as a direct personal threat and must not only be dismissed, but openly and aggressively attacked. This is the factor that you take issue with in your article above, and why it is directly related to the move from modern discourse to post-modern discourse.

    • James Croft

      Right – I agree that there is a desirable level of detachment one must attempt to cultivate. But I’m not sure the linked article really does justice to postmodern thought. Frankly, I think it sets up something of a straw man. Part of the importance of postmodernism was the continued reminder that there is no “objective” viewpoint. This is now widely accepted to be the case even within “modern” areas of discourse, but it wasn’t always so. A more nuanced and sophisticated recognition of how who we are affects what we think is a very important fruit of elements of postmodern inquiry, in my view.

      • JRS

        “Part of the importance of postmodernism was the continued reminder that there is no “objective” viewpoint. This is now widely accepted to be the case even within “modern” areas of discourse, but it wasn’t always so. A more nuanced and sophisticated recognition of how who we are affects what we think is a very important fruit of elements of postmodern inquiry, in my view.”

        Interesting. I agree that this is a valid, even important addition. Is it ever possible to fully separate one’s self from one’s method of perception (ie: pure objectivity)? Of course not. The best one can hope for is an honest attempt at being aware of how those inherent perceptive biases will affect observations and conclusions. I would posit that the peer review helps resolve a good deal of this effect, but even that can be limited to cultural constraints. The global nature of review will get us a bit past that, but then we hit the wall of uniquely ‘human’ perceptive biases. I don’t see a way around that limit at the moment. ; )

        This does nothing to address the main points of post-modern discourse that effectively degrade, if not outright destroys, contructive intellectual discourse via engaging in constructive debate. Constructive debate cannot exist when the nature of the discourse devolves into personal attack, which is the current operative identifier of this particular mode of discourse. I would posit that this element exists independent the “recognition of how who we are affects what we think”. Your quoted addition has the potential of a broadly applied positive, the former only an individually focused destructive negative.

        BTW – thank you for engaging in this discussion. I’ve learned something new. Hopefully I’ve given something to consider in return.

  • Tom_Nightingale

    Hi James,

    New reader to your blog, glad to see you here!

    Your point at the end of this post really resonates with me: “Is your humor getting the audience to laugh with you, or is it likely to alienate them and make your persuasive task more difficult?” I find that so many in the modern secular movement are not so much concerned with persuasion, but achieving relief from the influence religion has on their lives. This has proven to be very hard to achieve, and I’m afraid that many feel that if we as an organized movement can become an influential player we won’t have to persuade much of anyone. In a sense, engage in the same strong-arm tactics every group with influence engages in.

    It’s hard for me to get the sense that many of those who are involved in the secular movement see religious people as anything other than an obstacle in the way of their own version of progress. Not as misguided fellow humans who deserve a hand, but useless objects, often looked upon as stupid or lesser-than.

    This is a problem of empathy. Since I stopped believing in god and joined the discussion 8 years ago, I have felt disturbed by the consistent disinterest in the state of what is going on in the other (religious) person’s head / self. This is the main criteria for empathy.

    The moment I threw my fist in the air and cursed at a god , who in that moment for the first time ceased to believe in anymore, I was responding from a state of pain. And anger. But soon after, one of the greatest senses of peace and fulfillment overcame me, and I decided that the most important thing I could do for someone else was to help them achieve the same thing. I resolved to find others who felt the same way, and I’ve felt quite alone in that ever since. When I found and contacted Greg Epstein, and then met him and the wonderful people at the first New Humanism conference, I grew in hope that I really wasn’t alone. I think those people, and those working so hard on the community at Harvard and elsewhere, are building a compassionate presence that will need to speak up on behalf of those whom some consider to be our “obstacles”. I used to be one myself.

    • James Croft

      Hi Tom! Thanks for saying hello :)

      I agree with you that one of the things we must foster is a deep sense of empathy and a commitment to the wellbeing of religious people (indeed, of all people). Too often I, like you, do not see that level of care in the freethought community. Sometimes, this is understandable: there are many who have legitimate grievances against religion which they are still working through. Oftentimes, it seems a manifestation of an essentially tribal mentality which is deeply problematic.

      I make it a priority in my work to try to break down this sort of tribalism and infuse our discourse with a Humanist ethic.

  • http://ms_daisy_cutter.dreamwidth.org Ms. Daisy Cutter

    I would go so far as to say that anger which is not based in love for others is very suspect.

    What absolute, po-faced, smarmy, self-righteous horseshit. And dangerous. Unsurprising that it was written by a man, who has never been policed for having “unladylike” emotions.

    • James Croft

      I would be interested to hear the case you would make in support of your judgment. I think it important for me to stress that if something is “very suspect” that does not mean it is necessarily unjustified: merely that, in my view, it should be carefully examined as a component of activism and persuasive attempts (which is, after all, the context of the post).

      • http://ms_daisy_cutter.dreamwidth.org Ms. Daisy Cutter

        You posted it on Twitter as a stand-alone statement, which is encouraging people to divorce it from the context of activism.

        I don’t feel obliged to justify my emotions.

        • James Croft

          Actually I did not – that was someone else, and it was linked to this piece, which provides the necessary context. I did not ask you to justify your emotions but your judgment. I chose my words quite carefully to avoid asking you t o justify your emotions.

          • http://ms_daisy_cutter.dreamwidth.org Ms. Daisy Cutter

            OK, my bad. It’s still a highly questionable statement.

          • James Croft

            That I am willing to grant. This discussion is making me rethink it :).

      • HappiestSadist

        Yeah, as a standalone statement, it’s really horrific, though. I mean, especially to, say, survivors of abuse and sexual assault. And relatedly, that’s really a messed up statement when applied to POC antiracist activism, as it comes up against the white supremacist stereotype of the angry POC.
        And now you’re defending the sexist implications. Really, dude?

        • James Croft

          I think that’s one reason why it’s so important to read the whole context of what I wrote. It isn’t a standalone statement, but a piece of a fuller argument relating specifically to activism and persuasion. In that context, does it disturb you so much?

          • http://ms_daisy_cutter.dreamwidth.org Ms. Daisy Cutter

            Did you read HappiestSadist’s comment? They said it’s a messed-up statement when you consider antiracist activism, considering all the stereotypes of the Angry Black Person and how white people perceive black people standing up for their rights at all to be “angry.” And the same applies to feminism and women fighting for our rights.

            As for the “universal bond of Britishness,” I’m just a poor ignorant colonial, admittedly, but I’ll take Billy Bragg and Johnny Rotten over John Cleese here.

          • HappiestSadist

            Yeah, did I not mention how incredibly messed up it is to deny marginalized people their anger in activism? Especially given the stereotypes you’re totally giving a pass to. I get what you’re trying to say, but you’re ignoring a lot of power differentials and histories that are absolutely important, still ongoing and a vital part of activism.

          • James Croft

            So clearly I’ve touched a nerve here, and I want to take some time to reflect before I give a fuller response to the criticisms raised. I take concerns such as these very seriously and if there’s something I’m missing due to my position of privilege I’m hoping this discussion will help me discover it.

            To begin this process it would be helpful to me to understand better how you both are interpreting what I wrote. Would you be willing to briefly lay out what you believe to be my position on anger and its relationship to activism, so that I can better consider your critique? For instance, I would greatly appreciate understanding better in what sense you think what I’ve written here ” denies marginalized people their anger in activism”.

          • http://ms_daisy_cutter.dreamwidth.org Ms. Daisy Cutter

            I appreciate your willingness to reconsider what you are saying.

            Unfair as this may be, I do not think I can read your OP here without my reading being colored by your history of scolding people who are critical of the accommodationist approach to atheism in particular and activism in general. I don’t think “scolding” is too strong a word, either.

            Also, and this is not unrelated, I am side-eyeing JRS like a flatfish. He pretends that Shermer and Vacula are the poor, hapless victims of FTB bloggers, and he completely omits to mention the virulent hatred, stalking better said, aimed against said bloggers and especially against women bloggers at FTB.

            “Skeptics” who rail against “postmodernism” as “degrading” discourse don’t want to acknowledge that identity profoundly affects how we experience the world, and that therefore being unmarked (as most of them are) grants them a form of privilege. It would overturn their image of themselves as avatars of pure, detached, emotionless reason, devoid of anything as crass as “identity.”

            I say this is not unrelated because when you tut-tut at the anger of people on any axis of oppression, you are encouraging these sorts of “skeptics” to position themselves as such avatars of rationality, in contrast to the rest of us, who are painted as irrational, emotional, hysterical, censorious, and so forth.

            As for your OP itself, the second paragraph after the first blockquote seems to suggest that Adam Lee-style atheists do not go in for being “kind,” “compassionate,” or “loving.” This has absolutely not been my experience. I have seen funds raised on Pharyngula numerous times for people in dire straits who needed help with medical bills, the rent, or to escape a dangerous situation.

            You also minimize the severity of the issue of concern trolling. It is a major problem in all activist movements. Martin Luther King, Jr. described it well in Letter from Birmingham Jail. Before that, Phil Ochs in his song “Love Me, I’m A Liberal.”

            Finally, as for atheist humor, the quality is rather subjective. Some jokes fall flat, others succeed, but overall I find it funny so long as it’s not mocking the powerless. I don’t really care if it sets up an us-vs.-them dynamic if “they” are stumping for young-earth creationism or advocating anti-gay legislation. If “they” are simply attending church, any church, labeling them all “dumb” fails to take social forces into consideration, and I’m not okay with that.

            I am not an activist, not being cut out for such work (except for some behind-the-scenes helper work that I don’t really think counts as activism). However, it seems to me that if you’re all too willing to accommodate your opposition, you don’t go anywhere. GLBT rights have advanced in recent years because of the sort of activist style seen in ACT-UP in the 1980s. On the other hand, reproductive-rights activists bought into the framing of abortion as “tragic” and that it ought to be “rare,” they tried to have “dialogue” with anti-choicers, and here we are in 2013 with abortion access and legality deeply endangered in most of the U.S.

            I would recommend reading “The Privilege of Politeness,” “Feminist 101 on Anger,” this personal essay from a Duke student, and this brand-new Jessica Valenti essay on why feminists are so angry. You might get some clarity on why questioning anger is unhelpful at best and downright dangerous at worst.

            Also, finally, to tie in what HappiestSadist said about survivors: There is far, far too much pressure to “forgive” one’s attacker, ostensibly “for your own good.” The real reason is that the anger makes other people uncomfortable; often they want to forget all about what happened and continue to be close associates with the aggressor. This is especially prevalent in many Christian communities; sometimes the victim is even made to stand up in church and pressured to publicly forgive their assailant.

          • James Croft

            I’ve taken some time to consider your comment and to read each of the articles you linked: thank you for those. They were powerful and interesting, although I did not agree with all the points in all of them (perhaps this is something I might examine more deeply at a later date).

            I think the response I want to offer at this time is to reaffirm a few things I said in the post to which you are responding, and some things I’ve said in my past writing and in my activism. And, for the sake of optimal clarity, I’m going to do this by making a series of numbered points – apologies if this seems formal but in these situation I feel it is best to be very clear:

            1. It was not my intention in this post, nor has it ever been my intention, to “scold” anybody for being angry (or, indeed, for anything). My intention was to express disagreement with a fellow blogger on this network regarding a number of very specific points – points which I enumerate in the OP.

            2. On the point of anger, the articles you chose to link seem to me only to make sense as a response to what I wrote if you were taking me to say that anger is not a productive tool for activists or an appropriate response to oppression. To be absolutely clear: it is not my position, nor is it stated anywhere in the above post, that anger is either necessarily unproductive or unreasonable. Indeed I explicitly said the opposite in the OP: ” I agree absolutely that anger can be and often is an essential motivator.” You can find writing of mine actually recommending the inculcation of righteous anger as a legitimate and healthy response to injustice at this link:

            http://rousethem.com/inspired/the-eight-elements-of-inspiration-injury

            A longish quote from this piece expresses my view of the uses and appropriateness of anger as a response to injustice:

            “often an effective conveyance of how people have been and are being injured by a particular policy, practice, or approach is merely a side-effect of telling the truth. When genuine injury is being caused, it is our responsibility to bring it to light in the most gripping way possible, to give voice to the injury so that we can do something about it. So, when it comes to the element of injury, caution is warranted but avoidance is not.”

            As you can see, in my work, far from “scolding” people who demonstrate anger at injustice (as Kaya Massey and Jessica Valenti are), I actively recommend that they use their own anger to generate anger in others in the service of social change.

            Where I disagree with Adam is his quite explicit statement that anger is the ONLY way to generate social progress, and that ANY criticism of anger is “tone-trolling”. I believe both these statements to be false for the reasons I present above – and not just false but detrimental to our discussions of ethics and activism as a movement. In other words my disagreement is not with the value and appropriateness of anger, but on the universalizing generalizations Lee makes.

            3. I make, in the OP and in the pieces I link in it, a very critical distinction between what I call “anger” (or “righteous anger”) and “rage”. I think this distinction is important, because I believe there are unethical ways to respond even to great oppression. I, as a gay man, suffer legal discrimination in this country and certain forms of social approbation. And yet there are forms of anger – violent anger, for instance – which I would consider inappropriate except in extreme and prescribed circumstances.

            The anger being described in all four of the pieces you link seems to me to be of the first kind – the kind I explicitly endorse and encourage activists to cultivate. I also think the same can be said of activist organization like ACT UP (I’m privileged to know at least one of the early ACT UP organizers myself, and from what he says there was so much joy amidst their righteous fire!). So I think our position is rather closer than you imagine.

            4. You say tha “the second paragraph after the first blockquote seems to suggest that Adam Lee-style atheists do not go in for being “kind,” “compassionate,” or “loving.”” I’m not sure how you interpret what I wrote that way – this is certainly not my view. Indeed it is precisely because I have seen atheist activism motivated by kindness and love that I take issue with Lee’s statement. What he says is the following:

            “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.”

            It would seem to me that in fact you should be arguing with him! Here’s how I’d reformulate what he wrote so it would fit with my view (and, it seems, yours):

            “righteous, passionate, peaceful anger is the backbone of MANY successful progressive movements. Anger is ONE OF THE EMOTIONS WHICH motivates people to take action. It CAN give us passion, give us courage to stand up to ostracism and threats. Anger is ONE EMOTION WHICH makes people understand our conviction and our sincerity.”

            As you note, other emotions can do the job too: the funding drives for people in medical straights, for instance (some of which I’ve been happy to donate to myself), were almost certainly not driven by anger – and this seems to make my point, not Lee’s.

            5. On accommodationism: I find it very difficult to know, now, what people mean when they use this term. I do not use it to describe myself and, given how some of the people who criticize my work use it, I do not recognize myself in it. I honestly think that this point raises a set of larger issues which are not particularly germane to this post, but for the record: when it comes to activism I’m for ethical effectiveness. I think we should do the most effective things possible while remaining ethical. I do not believe that makes me an “accommodationist”, but then again I’m not sure what that term means any more.

            6. On the quote which started this discussion: when I suggest that anger which is not motivated by love is suspect (not necessarily wrong, just suspect), I am using love in a broad sense informed by my understanding of the requirements of social justice, Meaning, I believe our aim should be to liberate ourselves from oppression, yes, but in so doing also liberate the oppressor too. My righteous anger against the conditions which perpetuate homophobia, for instance, is motivated in part by the desire to save those who benefit from heterosexism from their position in a hierarchy of oppression, and therefore by a form of love.

            7. On survivors: it was not my intention in this post to raise the issue of “forgiving” attackers. I completely agree that pressure to do so is deeply problematic, and that anger is a legitimate response to aggression. I don’t believe there is a difference of view between us here.

  • http://ms_daisy_cutter.dreamwidth.org Ms. Daisy Cutter

    James, I replied to your request. I am guessing that the several hyperlinks in the comment shunted it into the moderation queue.

    • James Croft

      It got spammed – I’ve now approved the comment. Thank you for the detailed and thoughtful reply.


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