Christian apologists must be getting lazy not to notice the big, fat, atheist-bashing rhetorical club that certain leading atheists are constantly offering them. I’m talking about the awful ways that some people talk to (and about) each other.
Earlier this week I ran across a reference to Sara Mayhew “standing up to” Rebecca Watson. There’s something enticing about a fight… so I guiltily succumbed to temptation and visited both Mayhew’s blog and Skepchick. Among other things I found this, a tweet from Watson in response to Mayhew:
Welcome back to middle school. Never mind what the argument was about. The first sentence alone is enough: This is how a prominent conference speaker in the skeptic/atheist movement publicly addresses another human being, who in this case happens to be another prominent young skeptic.
But this is not going to be a Rebecca Watson-bashing post. There’s too much bashing going on generally, and Watson is herself the recipient of plenty of it, some of it downright vicious.
Disagreements are inevitable, especially among people who value freethought. But it’s this constant childish bickering that I’m getting sick of. If you follow the atheist/skeptical blogosphere at all you know what I’m talking about. PZ Myers vs. Sam Harris. Ophelia Benson vs. Michael Shermer. Thunderf00t vs. Freethought Blogs. Etc., etc.
I’m not saying that all of the above are equally guilty, but can we at least agree that there’s a lot of room for improvement in how we disagree with each other?
Not to rehash Elevatorgate for the millionth time, but suppose that Richard Dawkins had written in reply to Rebecca Watson’s “Guys, don’t do this” video, something like, “I think she is making too much of this. The man in the elevator probably had good intentions, and since women differ in their expectations, how could he know without asking her?” Now you could agree or disagree with that (myself, I can see how a woman would feel vulnerable in that situation), but that would’ve been a way for Dawkins to start a discussion rather than picking a fight.
But instead he chose to insult and demean and, more importantly, never backed down from it.
Hold your thoughts about the issues of Elevatorgate. What’s most important in these online feuds isn’t who’s right or wrong about the issue at hand. What’s most important is that we learn to have conversations in such a way as to avoid needless feuds, and that we learn when to listen, when to clarify what the other person is saying, when to back down, and when to apologize.
Part of the problem is Internet culture itself, because it’s emotionally easier to write harshly from a distance than it is to speak harshly to someone’s face. TV political culture hasn’t helped either, because it has normalized public vitriol.
Then add human cognitive traits such as self-justification and cognitive dissonance, plus our tendency to respond to perceived aggression with a perceived equal measure of aggression (which in reality is predictably a greater level of aggression) and you get spiraling feedback loops of anger and recrimination, which then ripple outward through the blogosphere when partisans of each camp fire volleys of wholesale condemnation at each other.
For people who crow about rationality as much as atheists and skeptics do, we sometimes demonstrate a comical lack of self-awareness.
I’m truly surprised that more Christians haven’t picked up on this. I can just hear them saying, “See? This is how people without God treat each other.” (Take note, Christian apologists: this would actually be more rhetorically effective for you than trotting out the latest lipstick-on-a-pig iteration of the cosmological argument.) Sure, those of us who’ve come out of Christianity could respond with juicy tales from the passive-aggressive world of church politics, but do we really want to have that conversation? When do we get to the part where we talk about the world as we’d like it to become?
So what do we do, those of us who don’t have much of a platform, but whose combined voices could make a difference? Here are some ideas:
1) Before responding angrily, clarify the other person’s ideas or concerns. Carl Rogers taught psychotherapists to restate a client’s ideas and feelings back to them in your own words. This ensures that you understand the other person (so many bitter arguments begin with misunderstandings), plus it shows the other person that you’ve heard them. Don’t underestimate the importance of being heard. Even when disagreements are major, sometimes all it takes to prevent a feud is to demonstrate that you’ve truly listened to the other person and acknowledged their feelings.
2) Respond to perceived aggression with less aggression than you think warranted. Again, reflecting the other person’s concerns is a great way to do this. Admittedly, this is hard. And sometimes you’ll realize after a few rounds that the other person is just being an asshole, but at least this way you won’t jump to that conclusion. (And more importantly, you won’t be one yourself.)
3) If it becomes an argument, fight fair. Criticize ideas and behaviors. No name calling. Say “you did this” rather than “you are this.”
4) If you’re out of line, apologize as quickly as possible. Because it doesn’t get easier if you wait. And if the insult is public, the apology should be too.
5) If you’re a bystander, don’t join the fight. When you see an honest argument crossing the line into personal feud, encourage the participants to consider the above points. But if they don’t, treat them like misbehaving children rather than evildoers. When I was in seventh grade, I got into a hallway fight with another boy. We traded a few blows, but mostly stood with fists ready, talking trash and daring each other to bring it on. Finally a girl said, “Do you guys realize how stupid you look?” Well, we did then, and we slunk away muttering empty threats at each other, but the fight had gone out of us. We became friends after that.
Will any of the above help? I think so, if enough people start treating these and similar practices as basic expectations of adult interaction.
Oh, and one more:
6) Make it a personal rule to wait a given amount of time before posting anything angry or accusatory. Or have someone read it first who will tell you the truth.
And if you’re prone to outbursts, do everyone a favor and cancel your damn Twitter account.