Thursday, 23 August 2012

An attempt at being constructive regarding this whole #FTBullies thing

The purpose of this blog is to try and offer a hopefully new and constructive perspective to the increasingly bitter debate currently ongoing within the skeptical/atheist community. I am a relative newcomer to this issue having only caught up with it over the last few days; I'm hoping my relatively outside view might be of some value to someone. First though, a little context is needed to try and minimise the seemingly inevitable (potentially from both sides), knee-jerk, distinctly un-skeptical responses that may ensue.

I've considered myself a skeptic for many years. I hold to no pre-packaged political viewpoint. I like to think that I take each issue as it comes, listening to logical arguments on both sides and trying to form an opinion for myself based on the evidence available. Yet I know as well as any that not I nor anybody is infallible, and so if you find reason to disagree all that I ask is that you reply with evidence, logic and respect in a manner befitting the term skeptic. Straw is for horses.

This is my first blog for nearly a year. During that time I have been feeling somewhat adrift, for reasons that may colour my perception of what is going on (consider this a disclosure). Last year, in the wake of the rise of Occupy, I sought to debate politics with my fellow skeptics. In return, I got insults, strawmen, prevarications, and the kind of trollish behaviour we usually criticise our opponents of. On the one hand I had Brian Dunning claiming that politics couldn't be assessed skeptically because it was 'value-based', while on the other hand I had DJ Grothe proclaiming the exact opposite. It suddenly occurred to me that all one needed to do to break the skeptical consensus on organised religion was to ditch the metaphysical stuff and call it politics. The realisation that within our community, beyond religion, alternative medicine and claims of the supernatural lay ideologies as deeply entrenched as any that we seek to counter was a shockingly painful one.

Anyone who believes that the skeptical community possesses a rational quality that puts it above such things as ideology, ignorance and “pointless” schisms, as I once did, are simply being na├»ve. Don't get me wrong, we are in good company; the vast majority of intellectual thinkers since the enlightenment have made the same, relativistic mistake. But I'm not writing this to point fingers, cast blame and root for one team over another. It isn't constructive in an environment such as this. My area of interest lies in networks and power relations, and their relationship with culture and cultural evolution. So, in order to try and explain this in as objective a manner as possible, I shall try to stick to that framework to briefly explain why I think this situation is for the best.

The basis for any community is shared culture. How that culture is produced, disseminated and consumed determines the social power structures that emerge. At one end of the spectrum we have the cult, a strictly top-down model of cultural creation and dissemination, resulting in a group of individuals bound tightly together by virtue of having consumed an all-but-identical shared culture. At the other end we have something like the skeptical community; a far more networked collection of (often grass-roots) affiliated organisations and individuals. Furthermore, thanks to the internet we have developed this community largely through a democratised meritocracy of cultural production, something that has allowed people of independent minds to create bonds without the need for a centrally-derived shared culture.

However, there is another kind of power dynamic that hasn't been addressed by this unprecedented (in scale and rate of iteration anyhow) model of community. Within any growing community, there will always be a relative disparity of power between those that have risen to positions of authority and influence, often the 'veterans', and those that are either primarily consuming or else simply new to the scene. As the creators of the overwhelming majority of the communities universally shared culture, these influential people. to a large extent, determine the discourse and, as good skeptics should, they primarily discuss that which they know: alternative medicine, religion, pseudoscience etc. However, it is my opinion that as well as being a handy rule to keep in mind when embarking on a debate, limiting oneself in this way can also be used to justify ignoring issues that fall outside of those established within the shared culture, and/or conflict with one's concepts and beliefs derived from other spaces entirely, outside of the skeptical community (family, local 'real-life' community values etc). This creates a naturally emerging, unsystematic top-down element in the creation of our shared culture and, as a result, there is a group-think dynamic at play that is far more ingrained in some than others. This is where the split lies in my view. We have a group of people that can see the elephants in the room, people who's values from other communities cannot be so easily compartmentalised-away and who cannot, for whatever reason, maintain the self-censorship/denial necessary to maintain this veneer of complete unity. And, as with every community that has ever come before us, we also have a group that denigrates such up-starts as trouble-makers and upsetters of the natural order.

Oh the irony.

The important thing is the veneer has been stripped away. Now should be the time for all the major-players to face up to the fact that there are fundamental aspects of skepticism that have yet to be addressed. On this, you would all come to us as equals. It is simply ridiculous to say that politics and social issues are not the realm of skepticism; that may be the desire of those that wish to maintain the illusion, but discourse and method will emerge soon whether you like it or not. Social science may not be as empirical, but that doesn't mean the answer is to simply ignore social issues or, worse yet, to seemingly actively discourage its discussion to a sometimes obsessive degree. Only through the influential people openly discussing these issues sensibly, skeptically (no more ad-hominems, no more strawmen, no more disrespect), and with no taboos, can we hope to sustain this community in a way that can act as an effective force for good. Create and systematise tools to facilitate this communities evolution, or die (metaphorically speaking, of course). This is what must be done if you want to try and keep this movement together, though in my heart-of-hearts I doubt if it is either possible nor even desirable. If one thing has come out of this for me, it is a feeling of confirmation that this movement, like all before it, does not have what it takes to be truly unprecedented. While the wider societies in which we all live continue to propagate radically different, largely segregated cultural concepts, we cannot expect to maintain a community through simply ignoring it. If that's what you want, call it a club.

This has gone on long enough. In my own personal opinion, if you cannot resist partaking in this runaway tit-for-tat behaviour, launching strawmen and ad-hominem attacks, gleefully interpreting emotional and distressed individual statements as representative for an entire group (and this goes to both sides), then you do not deserve to call yourselves skeptics. As you might have guessed, and for the reasons I described in the beginning, I find my sympathies lying with those that want more from a community than possibly the most ironic case of group-think likely to have ever existed, those that cannot separate their skepticism and their social conscience Therefore I offer them some, in my opinion, much needed advice, should they desire it.

    • Do not simply make the same mistake again and think for one moment that this time the community is going to be perfect. We are all the product of a shit system, and we all bring issues because from it. Reinforcing an us-versus-them narrative merely takes you along a well-trodden path to a place you don't want to be.

    • If the energy and enthusiasm is genuinely there then you do have an opportunity to create something special. The world of politics in all its forms is crying out for skeptical discourse.

    • This should probably be titled rule number one, two and three: beware your own hidden ideologies and confirmation biases. Actually put in effort at self-reflection, mainstream and systematise it into forums and debates and discourse. Learn about facilitation and conflict-resolution. Skepticism and social issues has a bad track-record; don't be complacent and assume that it won't be you next. 

    • Also importantly, apologise for errors, things said in the heat of the moment, strawmen and the like. Try and develop a shared culture of meticulous debate etiquette: if the group-think and underlying ideologies of those shouting loudest are as deeply held as I suspect, then it isn't them that you are appealing to . It is that majority that primarily consume that are the most reachable. I genuinely think that on the larger issues you guys have the moral high ground. Make sure you act like it.

    • If you want to be truly unprecedented, there is a good rule of thumb to keep in mind (the simplest there is, in my view). Facilitate cultural evolution. This means creating discourse to find ways to systematise checks and balances against group-think and the development of dogma: always actively seek greater diversity; if in a position of high influence, accept the role with humility and act primarily as a facilitator, promoting as many voices as possible whilst ensuring one's own voice is not dominating multiple discourses; create an environment where people can be comfortable playing devils advocate (far more constructive for the neutral reader should the current level of debate out there remain so toxic); actively resist attempts to create an us-versus-them culture, a breeding ground for the development of group-think; and do not be afraid to remind and correct those who share your (at present) beliefs when you feel that they are out-of-line or in need of some self-reflection.

      UPDATE: There is a good critique by Massimo Pigliucci, with lively comments, to be found here: 
      ... is a reasoned blog by Alonzo Fyfe addressing some of the flawed responses to #atheismplus as well as a critique of the current circumstance.


Smhll said...

Better internet discourse tools and better internet discourse manners would probably help us move towards better discourse.

Ben King said...

Oh absolutely, though I don't really see the need to distinguish between internet discourse and other discourse. Other than the internet needing much more work in that regard.

smhll said...

I was thinking shiny tech tools. For instance, there are times that I dream of shunting all side conversations on to separate threads.

Sometimes I'm sad that I can't mute, filter or block folks in real life. (I end up just leaving the room a lot if conversation gets too loud for me.)

What real life really needs is a pause button.

Ben King said...

There is still a hell of a lot of innovation still to come with regard to virtual tools for facilitating debate. What I really crave is a culture that embraces debates like rappers to battles, with an emphasis on etiquette, real-time audience-led facilitation with visual representation of crowd-sourced reactions to each argument and counter-argument... the possibilities are endless.

When you consider what we lack currently: tone, body-language, structure, shared and applied rules... in a hundred years we will wonder how we managed to get through a single day without starting wars all over the place.

Thanks for commenting btw you two!

Shiller said...

I don't disagree about the need for rational discourse, both amongst skeptics/atheists and with even the most aggressive and dogmatic theists. Regrettably I don't follow that advice with the latter group and often use Twitter to vent spleen I could not in face to face conversations.

I find the sniping amongst atheists and agnostics about the minutia of how we define ourselves to be laughable and disturbing. Dogma in the making.

I think even defining skepticism/atheism as a "movement" might be considered arrogant and dangerous.

My sole position is that religion is, on balance, a negative influence on humanity with consequences that range up to and including global war and environmental Armageddon (with apologies for the religious imagery!).

In that regard I am interested in empowering atheist and agnostic individuals to self-identify and make their voices heard since religious institutions have had free reign to vilify and create false images of "us" for centuries and since only in this way will we begin to have avoide in public policy and views.

In summary, I agree that finding ways to promote and enable effective, rational and civil discourse will be beneficial to MY objective, I do not support the concept that there is or should be a broader movement of "rationalists" as our respective views and beliefs are too divergent, IMO, and it will lead to dogmas and orthodoxies like the ones most of us, I think, despise.

Excellent article. Thanks for doing it!


Ben King said...

Nice reply. I agree Steve, though the focus on religion at the expense of politics (except where religion appears a motivating factor) is imo the most dangerous aspect of the group-think involved in the skeptical and atheist community. I seriously worry that as time goes by, it will be ever harder to ignore and become a source of constant conflict. As things stand, influential skeptical thinkers can't even agree whether skepticism is even applicable to politics!

Regarding new dogma emerging, I think at this stage it is still almost inevitable. My own preference is for a community whose only *consesus derived* shared culture, the minimum entry requirements if you will, consist of optimally reduced axioms designed to do nothing more than to counter group-think and establish grounds for respectful debate. No conceptual 'content' should, imo, be made inviolable and dogmatic from the out-set: no taboos, nothing off the table. Such agreements must be the result of emergent consensus derived fron reasoned debate of the evidence.

Dave said...

Ben, add alonzo's recent Atheist Tribes, wherein he says "I told you so".