How to lose friends and influence fewer: on being good allies

September 15, 2015

About thirteen years ago I wrote about the culture wars we faced and their roots in the Dominionist movement. Much has changed in that time, and it seems that we are winning against those forces -- those who would try to undo secularism. Through victories big and small, in courts, legislatures, and by slow cultural change, we have successfully pushed back in many ways against the onslaught on secularism, although some exceptions remains, there are battles still to be fought. It is at times like this that movements become vulnerable. We are vulnerable.
Our mission and our goals remain the same: continue the project of the enlightenment, ensure safety for secularism, continue to critique religion and superstition and promote the methods of empiricism, naturalism and humanism. There are many who share some of the same goals, and those of us who work even within the same institutions have differing views on how to pursue those goals, or even differing visions of those goals. As with any “movement” it shifts and sways, alters course and accommodates changes, becomes more or less urgent depending upon the cultural milieu. And as with any movement, it depends upon groups of individuals, and individuals are prone to their own interests and concerns. 
All of this is fine. That’s how humans are. We have self-interest, and we often have common interests and find ways to work together. Sometimes we do not. For whatever reason, personalities clash, egos get bruised, we simply get annoyed with some people. Sometimes that leads to dynamics that can threaten progress. One method that governments have employed for at least a century to try to quash dissent is infiltration of dissenting organizations with the intent of sowing dissent within that organization. In the case of secularists, humanists, atheists, etc., that hardly seems necessary.
It is natural for us to dissent from one another. We are freethinkers. We have our own ideas, our own visions, and at our best we encourage open debate. At our worst, we attack our allies, demonize those who disagree with us, and splinter our forces and efforts needlessly. It seems that every minor ideological or procedural disagreement we have with one another becomes an opportunity to attack, to lambast, to shun, or worse – purge our ranks. This is a tremendous strategic mistake. The culture wars are not over, and the bastion we have begun to build is always capable of being undermined. 
I have lost friends over very minor disagreements, friends who still share many of my same interests and goals, but who shut me out because we didn’t agree. I have seen good people torn apart for what amount to doctrinal differences in a movement that ought not to have doctrines. I have seen people demonized and publicly shamed for honest discussion of differences in approach or priorities, or even over tangential issues, despite largely sharing our overarching goals and having apparently the best of intentions. I am dismayed by this and I suspect that many who share the interests of our “movement” such as it is are dissuaded from joining us, working with us, or even just socializing with us because of the vitriol and anger that spews in social media and bitter public infighting that makes us often look petty and spiteful.
Perhaps because we feel like we’re winning, some feel that this sort of movement cleansing and doctrinal purges or airing of personal disagreements out in the open is worthwhile or harmless. It isn’t. Our potential allies are increasing in numbers, but the image of a group of spiteful splintered individuals, or groups vying for preeminence, is off-putting to say the least. We need allies wherever we can find them, and turning against our allies will only ensure that those who oppose us will be fighting fractured forces. 
We need not all agree on everything, and when we do disagree we can do so agreeably. I have said this before, and I’ll keep saying it until we act less divisively, behave more civilly, or until I too get shunned, shamed, or purged. And even then, I’ll say it to whomever will listen. The culture wars are not yet won, and our project cannot afford to falter over egos and personalities. There are much more important ideas at stake.


#1 Tim P. Farley on Tuesday September 15, 2015 at 8:46am

Thanks for writing this. I’ve been thinking quite a bit about this very issue lately.

My own small contributions to skepticism are done of my own volition on my own free time. And frankly the divisiveness and infighting (particularly on the blogs and social media) has worn me down.  It is to the point where I find it hard to motivate myself to contribute most days.

#2 David R. Koepsell on Tuesday September 15, 2015 at 9:03am

Thanks, Tim. I’m afraid that happens all too often. We need to work on that, somehow, IMO.

#3 Kim Rippere (Guest) on Tuesday September 15, 2015 at 3:20pm

David - there are some things I agree with and others I do not.  One thing to consider is how you value the topic of these disagreements.  You might characterize them as minor, are you sure your previous friends would?  Seems like these point(s) might have been more important to them than to you.  Do you understand why they were willing to talk away from your friendship for these points?  If not, why not? (this is just for you to consider, I don’t expect and answer)

If there was a history (within this diverse movement) of listening to minority groups and finding ways to change and be inclusive this wouldn’t be happening.  This is happening precisely because minority groups have been told to be quiet for the greater good or a big tent where we are supposed to sit in the corner. 

There is a consistent history of devaluing experiences that don’t comport with the historical narrative of who is an atheist and what they value. 

We seem to value science, but not necessarily women’s rights.  Why is that?  Science is no more inextricably intertwined with atheism than women’s rights.  But, women’s rights have been brushed aside in favor of science.

As our community grows the establishment will either find a way to be inclusive, we will not have community, or community will be create and established organizations will be left behind.

#4 David R. Koepsell on Tuesday September 15, 2015 at 3:26pm

Dear Kim,

Your points are very well taken. I agree with you rather completely that if we don’t find a way to tolerate some dissent in our ranks and be more inclusive, we won’t have a community at all.

#5 Aneris on Wednesday September 16, 2015 at 9:07am

It’s an important topic and you rarely see the other side. Here you have my take.

The conflicts in this movement runs across a similar line inside as it does outside of it, and is exactly the same as it is in many other other areas of special interest. The first problem has been that the adults at the table, those who professionally work in the movement, have been unable to even accurately describe what is going on. And far beyond that, failed to protect people within the community as referees from extreme attacks. CFI for example found it okay that members in the audience were accused of “laughing down rape victims”. Such things are probably forgotten by now. This isn’t helped by the fact that certain interested sides don’t like it when others take the prerogative of interpretation and write what they think the whole thing “is about”. This is characteristic of these conflicts in general (it may be impossible to describe it impartially).

Let’s spill it out: a Zeitgeist is haunting the anglo-american liberal left that seeks to bring about changes in an increasingly authoritarian manner, through imposing speech codes, trigger warnings, by seeking to protect people from offence, through what is called “safe spaces”. This is done in the interest to abolish of what is perceived to be a “rape culture”, or more generally a dominant culture of white (male) imperialism. With it comes a form of ideology and behaviours that have been at times, halfway jokingly, described as “Tumblrism”. In many ways it is a close cousin of the 1990s post-modernist wave. The internet has termed the people associated with the Zeitgeist “social justice warriors” which is actually a tame and fairly descriptive term, even if typically used pejoratively. And it is not the same as social justice activist.

This new trend is explicitly about attacking what is perceived to be the dominant “unsafe” culture, and not as posters above claim a measured way to bring about improvements. Since this takes part in the liberal left sphere, you see this in activities that are typically associated with the left, like fiction writing, atheism, or video games, to name three battlefields. The method of such social justice warriors is to leverage the liberal majority position in these subcultures to install authoritarian methods that ensure that cultural products remain in the enclosed fence they (often the more radical members) prefer. This rests on the assumption that media and people in the public eye determine “what is”. A more extreme, though not uncommon, position is that humans are blank slates and therefore it’s instrumental that they are inscribed with the right content. The aim then manifests itself in no-plattforming of positions that are well within the pluralistic spectrum (and of even comedians), imposition of speech codes, authoritarian-controlled “safe spaces” and so forth. Social justice warriors portray themselves as the underdog, despite that they in fact gain the mainstream quickly, from where they chastise and “call out” products, and people that threaten their status.

None of this should be controversial. Slogans from “Listen and Believe”, to “Shut and Listen” to concepts like the “Safe Space” make it very hard to deny this interpretation. Spend some time in the trenches of the blogs and their comment section and that will paint a much more vivid, and often more frightening picture. And this is merely the surface level of conflict, which sparks a lot more battlegrounds. To name a few:

Prerogative of Interpretation: social justice warriors seek out and use top-down influencing methods, in line with their ideology. In the atheist-skeptics movement we had the concentration in blog networks who frequently determined what was going on, what each side allegedly wants and what the conflict “is about”. And they weren’t exactly impartial about it. This is an understatement, comparable to claiming the Mauna Kea was a “hill”. From them we got a story about an eternal battle between Good and Evil, often so grotesque and comical that these story-writers have garnered enthusiastic anti-fans, who are more interested in the secular movement as a sitcom by now. This setup has also created, in fact, two alternate realities. The “official” secular one, largely written by fairly centralized, and prolific social justice bloggers, undisputed and riddled with comical falsehoods and dubious interpretations and tacitly supported also by the CFI, in contrast to a body of alternate takes that at least acknowledge the facts but which are lesser (or not at all) known. The CFI, the “Center for Inquiry” has been consistently on the side of the duped. For example, you supported an art project with the central motif that Richard Dawkins unleashed trolls and death-and-rape threat writers.

In fairness, Ron Lindsay once tried a different tune, but was quickly forced back to line. But you aren’t alone, other organisations, notable American Atheists share that with you, (through involvement every now and then of David Silverman or one time of Kathleen Johnson, VP). The damage in reputation and trust is enormous. I’m unimportant for sure (I’m not even american), but I see on the social networks how people no longer have any enthusiasm and are disillusioned with the state of affairs who were highly involved, and it isn’t the normal “churn” (over time everything gets boring). The drift of social justice warriors “upwards” towards the metas is also visible in the speech, which is metaconcepty and open to interpretation. It only becomes concrete in the “call out” culture. But even after years, nobody knows what “listening to marginalized de-legitimized experiences” and such drivel even means. The overwhelming impression is that these people are incompetent or unwilling to do anything, despite stages and podiums and networks and access to privileged positions, but drone on about how unfairly they are being treated.

Science Wars: there is a distinct element of science war between the humanities, here represented in theories about human nature that are in opposition to what is generally assumed in the natural sciences. Social Justice Warriors in our community for example reject Evolutionary Psychology, because they follow roughly what has been named the “Social Science Standard Model” of blank slate humans. Not all positions are equally extreme, but the general drift is notable. Further, on the humanities side are various positions that are mutually exclusive and often post-modernistically superimposed (which is then used as a weapon when someone picks the wrong interpretation). This has been described as a “minefield” at times. Such conflicts explains the fallout between Ophelia Benson and her former friends and followers (together with other points).

Acommodationist War: in the special variant of Islam Accommodationism. Social justice warriors suspect Islam is criticised by atheist because of “islamophobia”, which they see as a subset of racism. This of course sits on assumptions that the evil white man is to blame for whatever heinous Muslims are doing in the name of Islam. Notably, this characterizes the conflicts around Sam Harris in particular. Like before, it all drifts meta: not the issue is discussed, but the people who are now “racists”.

Safe Spaces: social justice warriors want solidarity and support and a number of contentious ideological belief unassailable from inquiry. Safe spaces are little churches that don’t protect from child molesters, but from criticizing the Bible (yes, there is even an example case). The secular clergy wants to be heard and taken seriously, but doesn’t want people discussing the matters. That in itself is a conflict, and another one is between community design. The traditional discussion culture is incompatible with “safe space”. “Freeze Peach” is one keyword that often shows up, and also interacts with the points above. This is yet another term coming out of a position of prerogative of interpretation. In reality, comments are often deleted that are perfectly viable, but disagree with central ideological tenets or that show that the blogger is wrong. When people then complain elsewhere, the bloggers invent reasons why some people have been barred from commenting, typically attributing – at mildest – that other people were allegedly free-speech absolutists.

Discourse: Traditionally, discussions are about learning what other people have to say, and perhaps taking a way a few things. It is likewise the modest hope that other people adjust their views. Social justice warriors interactions are starkly characterized by the “meta” (prerogativer of interpretation) and accusations and what’s called “kafkatrapping” (I won’t go into this). Other favourites are the Deliberate Offence Gish Gallop, also known as dogpiling. In stark difference to what is traditionally assumed in an interaction, social justice warriors don’t see the interlocutor as a person with views, but as a keyword dispenser which are then twisted around and rewritten. Their focus lies on other social justice warriors, who form the audience, whose approval is sought and who then praise “fighting the good fight” in return. This generates status within social justice safe spaces. In the wider culture we see how social justice warriors for example believe that it’s a good thing that someone was falsely accused of e.g. rape, because that teaches them a lesson. Let’s spell out the dehumanizing aspect in this, because individuals are disposable and unimportant. They can be mass-blocked and banned. Importantly, social justice warriors need foils as they need the social justice audience. Historically, the first foils were creationists. When that dried up, and social justice zeitgeist began to blow, the new targets were unsuspecting newbies. Now that everyone is used up in one way or another, these communities start to consume each other.

Temperamental differences: Take a look at the texts by social justice warriors. They are marked by an emotional tone and appeal to emotions. The counterpart they see is the Straw-Vulcan, who may exist somewhere. This may suggest that social justice warrior audience are temperamentally more “feelers”. However they illustrate perfectly that Feeler personality structures aren’t about empathy. Such people are persuaded rather by rhetoric than by evidence and facts, which once more ties into the meta-top-heavy drift. Consider the talk about “justified anger” where the mode of expression is seen as valuable, if not more important than the content.

The Fox and the Hedgehog: Some people have one Big Idea and they might be really good at it. They are the hedgehogs. And there are other people who have many, but little ideas and shifting stances and viewpoints. They are the foxes. The metaphor has a cultural history by now and it’s not without merits (see e.g. Phil Tetlock). I have presented a plethora of approaches and angles by now. By contrast, social justice warriors flock around one big idea, which is about gender and patriarchy. This, too, feeds into some other points, e.g. interpretation (point 1) and a source of conflict. Because other people may not always want to reduce everything to a War against the Oppressors, Teh Patriarchy™

Politics and Society: finally coming to the end, a point that includes the above but goes a step beyond. Social justice warriors want to erode the presumption of innocence. Read Stephanie Zvan’s “The Elided Rights of Accusers” or Jason Thibeault’s “Null Hypothesis” as just two examples. This matches the callous behaviour on social media, where often severe accusations are thrown around. But we can sum up, erosion of the presumption of innocence, no-platforming of pluralistic views, control and banning of art, control of even personal preferences and attitudes (e.g. positions such as that not being sexually attracted to trans persons was transphobic), seeing humans not as individuals but almost exclusively as representatives of races or genders (even if modified by the intersectionality idea), top-down media control and control of the prerogative of interpretation and much more. In sum, this is an authoritarianism that goes hand-in-glove with scholar work about the so-called “Right Wing Authoritarian” type (another dimension that has to do with temperament and personality). For example, tribalism is a key characteristic as well as hypocritical behaviour. The other points are sufficient already to give a hint why some people have compared this mindset to totalitarianisms, and I believe correctly.

I’m only around for less than three years. I found a movement torn apart, where extreme accusations were coming from one direction fired constantly into another corner, routine demonization from a position of power and influence and once you look under the surface of the claims, you find a much different story than what influential people, including CFI, are propagating. The secular movement has presented itself as unreasonable, critical thinking and empathy-challenged, ideological, and certainly unethical and has, in my view, betrayed the values of the Enlightenment. If you cannot bring yourself to find strong words adequate to the situation, you have said nothing at all.

#6 Aneris on Wednesday September 16, 2015 at 5:33pm

Even the president of the United States felt to say something on the matter. The utter failure of the secular movement in this regard becomes even more apparent with this.

#7 David Koepsell (Guest) on Wednesday September 16, 2015 at 6:05pm

And so, after the anger and vitriol, finger pointing and blame, how to solve this? That’s my concern. Stephanie Zwan at her blog asks in response: who will unite us? I say, us. we must. each of us.

#8 Aneris on Thursday September 17, 2015 at 2:01pm

David Koepsell wrote: how to solve this? That’s my concern. Stephanie Zwan at her blog asks in response: who will unite us? I say, us. we must. each of us.

And how does that work in practical terms? Maybe there is something among Americans I cannot understand, maybe you know what this means: “minority groups have been told to be quiet for the greater good”. Maybe you could improve on it. Likewise, this is unintelligible to me: “[t]here is a consistent history of devaluing experiences that don’t comport with the historical narrative of who is an atheist and what they value” and I know even less what I could be doing about it. There is no offer and there is no way to sign up. Everyone with a name is just spouting platitudes, or in case of social justice warriors comical post-modernist metaconceptese and expects magically that something happens.

In my opinion, you can only move beyond conflicts by an invite and an offer, and then see how it goes from there. I made the suggestion to the “other side” a long time ago, and that was one of many attempts to get over some conflicts, and here is it again.

{1} Create a motto that would be a shared project for one week. Think “Shark Week”.
{2} Brainstorm a few leads what you expect from the project.
{3} Invite some opinion leaders, or groups to participate. Have a concrete way how they can participate.
{4} Make it the rule that their participation happens under the motto, that this is communicated at all times
{5} Ask them to involve their communities, friends, groups, followers etc. and ask them to bridge to other participations (e.g. refer to it, discuss it, mention it et cetera).

My concrete example was to Greta Christina of the other side of the Deep Rift™  (who once asked about crowd-sourcing) to kick off a “Purity Week”. The topic would be “Purity Balls”, which I picked because I think it’s an area where social justice, feminism and standard atheism could get together in a good way, and which is less contentious than Richard Dawkins’ “Dear Muslima” request. Let’s run through the list as one example. My project here is about the blogosphere, and the project is about raising awareness (hopefully in a constructive way):

{1} The motto is “Purity Week” and is about the dubious purity ball movement and various tangents.
{2} Leads are Atheism: religious indoctrination, especially of girls // religion history, what’s up with virginity in religions? // Feminism: critique of traditional gender roles, here in an extreme variety // Atheism/Sexuality: YOLO!? Committing to a person you barely know, especially not in the bedroom // These are just off the top of my head. I am sure there are many more possible angles that could be done under the motto, so that everyone finds some way to interact with it.
{3} Send a roundmail to opinion leaders on Youtube, on Patheos, FTB, SkepChicks and ask big name people if they could dedicate a row of tweets, or perhaps a comment (even better when they can sneak a longer commentary into a mainstream outlet), and coordinate that. It should all appear in this one week. When you have some names on board, announce that and ask the countless rogue bloggers to participate too. The bigger names are of course to draw and activate the wider community, and if they could directly ask their followers, readers, subscribers, even better. And please arrive at 2015. Include the bigger and longstanding vbloggers as well. RDFRS does this a little bit already, but not in a more organized and targeted fashion.
{4} Everyone who takes part is asked to mention the motto. You can even enlist the community to create a small banner graphic, or a button, or even an avatar-overlay the people can add to their avatars for the week. In this example a banner / button would do it, which would be packed into a small press-kit and distributed to everyone. Also enlist the satire-meisters, the dreaded photoshoppers and meme makers.
{5} Keep an eye on the whole thing when it is running and curate, highlight, promote, cross-pollinate.

Maybe there is a slim chance that people have a reason again to refer to fellows in a positive way, because that person from the other side covered one angle in a good way. But that won’t heal severe smears and dissociations, doxxing and workplace harassment and all the other things that happened and which you simply ignore. Michael Nugent has asked many times to have baseless accusations retracted, yet nothing was forthcoming. Likewise, he initiated a dialogue long before that, and the social justice side sabotaged it. Likewise, there is no interest of the social justice side to reconcile or look past differences, because they believe their Kool Aid and have invested substantially into it. Richard Dawkins, or Michael Nugent, representing countless more people won’t exclaim: “I made my peace that the Americans called me rape apologist, supremacist, sexist, or racist because that David bloke at CFI really wants us to work together! His unspecific, nameless, vague article convinced me”.

And for small people like myself, there is anyway nothing that could be done, because the setup is already asymmetrical. I don’t bear grudges and often would interact and discuss in a constructive manner with others (it’s also more interesting with views that are different form mine), but that’s not possible when they categorically ban, block and moderate away. There is also a quasi-physical dimension to it: the different sides are separated by digital walls, erected of course with the “safe space” rationale.

#9 David Koepsell (Guest) on Friday September 18, 2015 at 9:01am

Dear Aneris,

I appreciate your contribution to the dialogue, given that in about 700 words of blog post one has to be rather “unspecific” and “vague” and that through the ensuing discussion, perhaps, specifics will emerge, as you attempt to provide. Glad it worked for you and hoping others pitch in. Hope it continues until we find something we can do.

#10 Robert D. Carl III (Guest) on Friday September 18, 2015 at 2:27pm

This all reminds me of the petty differences among the various Protestant groups in the 16th and 17th centuries.  An earlier example would be the Christians in the 4th and 5th centuries.

Let’s leave heresy to those who know it best: the religious and open reason to all.

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