May 11, 2011

The Accommodationism Challenges

Mike McRae, Tribal Scientist, indulged me in a discussion of his goals surrounding his latest salvo in the accommodation debate.

There are frequent olive branches thrown down in request of a ceasefire. Perhaps the most common is the plea for diversity. This call seems democratic, inclusive and reasonable. After all, if there are many different problems and many different audiences, there must be a need for many different methods. Let’s all live and let live, right? If one approach doesn’t work, another will.

The mediators are somewhat like a ring species for Accommodationis warminfuzziness and Newatheist confrontationist.

Yet there is an element of intellectual laziness in this view. Of course, no one approach in communication will reach all demographics, or solve all problems. Diverse approaches are indeed necessary. Yet this is not the same as saying all approaches are necessary. Some will conflict. Some will be resource hungry and have no hope of success for one reason or another. Identifying solutions to the problem of how best to communicate science in the face of religion will take more than guessing, hoping and shouting into echo chambers. Like anything in science, it demands research, critical thinking and evaluation. No act of communication should be above criticism or beyond the need for evidence, clarity and precision.

I wanted to know why he put up a snarky post. I wanted to know why he generalized his criticisms to the group instead of making them specific to particular behaviors and people. Basically, I wanted to know why someone critiquing communication was engaging in such nonconstructive criticism. His response:

You ask what I hope to accomplish? Culture change. Encouraging atheists to see that if they want to defend their choices, those values they appreciate so much in science don’t suddenly disappear and allow them to have robust opinions based on gut feelings and wishful thinking.

Based on the rest of my conversation with Mike, I'd like to offer a set of challenges to those advocating that "New Atheists" be more accommodating of others in their communications.

Challenge 1: Decide whether this is important to you.

Is confrontation as a tactic among atheists an issue you think needs to be addressed? Will it really change the world if you can get a few people to follow your advice? Or are you annoyed by some people who have stomped on your feelings on the blogosphere?

These aren't frivolous questions. You've got work to do. They've got work to do. And change, as you already know, is hard. You should also know that if you do this wrong, you're going to entrench the bad blood over this issue even further. Every little thing you (and everyone else with any kind of platform) say on the topic goes on record these days. If you don't care enough to do this right, maybe it's time to shut up about it, at least in public.

Challenge 2: Know your audience.

Who are you trying to reach? Are you talking to published "New Atheist" authors? Are you talking to atheist groups that sponsor ad campaigns or social meetups? Are you talking to groups that lobby and pursue legal action? Are you talking to blog commenters? Are you talking to forum campers? Are you talking to unaffiliated atheists who just want religion to leave them alone?

These types of groups have very different goals. They have different tactics. They have different degrees of centrality and authority. They have different religious backgrounds and degrees of education. You have to take the time to understand them--ask them real questions and listen to the answers--if you want to know what language to speak and what problems you're going to offer to help them solve.

You also have to understand that you frequently can't address multiple groups using the same message. They're just too different. Being an atheist only gives you so much in common with other atheists. At the same time, however, any individual atheist may belong to many of these groups. You're never going to have the luxury of addressing just one set of concerns at a time, and you're going to have to go to extraordinary lengths to keep from generalizing between groups based on the cross-group memberships of certain individuals.

Challenge 3: Learn to see privilege.

Being an atheist won't get you killed very often. In many environments, being an atheist is entirely invisible. In some, it's perfectly respectable. That does not put atheists on par with the religious. Unless you understand where the differences are, you will never be able to effectively address the concerns of atheists.

Read a privilege checklist or two. Understand what it means to have an area of your life that you choose to keep hidden because there are consequences of doing otherwise. Understand what it means to be watched for signs that you represent a degenerate type. Understand how much time and energy it takes to answer questions whenever you identify yourself. Understand how much it takes to run constant calculations on whether to go with the flow or upset the social order. Understand what it means to watch people take the time to decide whether they really knew you at all when you come out. Understand what it means to hear political debates on whether you're ruining modern life.

Only once you get all that can you actually understand what you're asking otherwise.

Challenge 4: Recognize the limits of your own expertise.

There is a fair body of cognitive science having to do with communication. It doesn't begin to approach the complexity of real-world (meatspace and electronic) communications. There is a lot of information to be had from these studies, but this is a very new science, given the size of the topic. It can only tell us so much.

One of the things it can and has told us is that the power, privilege and out-group status of the speaker have an effect on how the speaker's message is received. We know that whether we are trusted or even heard as speakers is often largely out of our hands. What we don't know, what cognitive science, or at least those presenting the cognitive science, has yet to tell us despite our very real need for the information, is how to overcome this problem.

Until that happens, asking people to understand the cognitive science is reasonable. Asking people to replace current behavior is not. Confrontational tactics for minority groups may not be supported in the cognitive science literature, but neither are they shown to be worse than any other tactics for minority groups. In the presence of privilege, we simply don't expect any communication tactic to have a high rate of success. (Legal tactics, on the other hand....)

Meanwhile, there are other disciplines that do suggest the confrontational approach has merit. The history of social movements is plastered with groups taking approaches that make people feel uncomfortable and threatened. It is also plastered with groups succeeding with approaches that make people feel uncomfortable and threatened. And frankly, familiarity with this sort of social history shows just how mild "confrontational" atheists of the current sort are by comparison.

Even if you aren't concerned with social change directly, recognize that attacking the privilege problem directly is a communication tactic with the potential to succeed. Privilege gets in the way of effective communication. We can go around this with the appropriate tools when cognitive science gives them to us. Until then, we can do our best to go through.

Challenge 5: Recognize others' work and expertise.

This is the point where I tell you to drop the word "but" from your vocabulary. Atheists, even highly annoying ones (whichever set that may be for you), have made major accomplishments in the past couple of decades. Best-selling books, wide blog readerships, social mobilization for political action, communities that support out atheists and those who have left religious communities, successful events at the regional to international level, cogent social criticism, historical scholarship, increased visibility of abuses of power despite a hobbled press.

Is there crap being produced as well? Of course. Sturgeon's Law. That doesn't make the accomplishments I just mentioned any less real.

It also doesn't exempt anyone from the requirement to deal with the accomplished as, at the very least, people with as much to teach as you believe they have to learn. The lessons they have to teach may well include the fact that what they do is so more difficult than it appears on the surface--requiring extraordinary timing, wordsmithery, and humor--that most people may as well not try. You'll never learn it if your approach is to say, "Yeah, they wrote a best-selling book, but it's only because...."

Challenge 6: Offer something better.

The problem of addressing religious privilege while simultaneously working around the bald fact that the religious hold most of the political power is tough. It's ugly. Nobody who is trying to do both thinks it's simple. Your final challenge is to deal with the real difficulty of that problem.

However, the people who are tackling that work aren't going to be lured by a message that is, in essence, "Ignore the privilege problem in order to solve problems that require political power." Privilege is power. Your audience knows that solving individual political problems while allowing the privilege to persist is fighting a hydra. Offering a sharper sword only makes the heads multiply faster.

However, offer the equivalent of a torch, and you've got something. If you want to shape how atheists communicate, figure out how to offer them something that undermines religious privilege at the same time.

No, I don't know what that is either. All I know is that if you offer something short of that, you're offering less than what atheists ultimately want and need, and that won't work. That's why you need to decide up front how important this is to you. That's why it's a challenge.


Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, my extended response keeps getting clogged in the pipes.

I've instead chosen to host it on my end:

Anonymous said...