September 2, 2015

When Religious Belief Limits Our Effectiveness

The Day After Tomorrow"Why do you damned atheists care so much what we Christians believe? Why is it any concern of yours? Why do you continue to obsess about religion at all if you don't believe it?"

I finally got around to watching The Day After Tomorrow. For those not familiar with this film, the plot involves global warming resulting in catastrophic weather which ultimately leads to the next ice age. Despite the impressive special effects, it wasn't all that great and certainly doesn't break any new ground. However, watching it did get me thinking about how people would actually respond if something like this were to happen.

Aside from the universal panic and all that would come with it, it seems that there would be at least two rather different ways of understanding such a predicament and responding to it. First, there might be the sort of response depicted in the movie - a fairly rational, scientific sort of understanding leading to pragmatic action (e.g., evacuations, planning for the future, use of technology, etc.). Second, I have little doubt that there would be a religious response. Many Christians in the U.S. would view such an event in biblical terms (e.g., end of the world, second coming, etc.) and act in accordance with this perspective (praying, attempting to appease their imagined gods, etc.). It is difficult to imagine how this would be even mildly productive; it is easy to imagine how it would interfere with the former approach.

September 1, 2015

Cultural Libertarians

There's no question that labels can be problematic. If we rely too heavily on them, they can take on too much meaning. We can end up reacting to the label rather than the person or persons we are using it to describe. It is easy to see that labels can fuel tribalism, increase polarization, and drive conflict.

On the other hand, labels often facilitate communication. They give us a shorthand way of saying a great deal with maximum efficiency. Once we have defined a particular label, we can communicate considerable information through its use. If you and I have a shared understanding what humanism means, I can tell you that someone is a humanist without having to list every attribute this entails. When you hear me describe someone as a humanist, you will know a great deal about the person I'm describing thanks to the label.

Another benefit of labels is that there can be something empowering about naming something that is otherwise amorphous. Putting a name on something imbues it with meaning. For a recent example of what this looks like, you might ask yourself what we would call someone who values reason, personal freedom, and the free expression of ideas; someone who chooses facts over feelings and is willing to laugh at the absurd; someone who rejects political correctness, identity politics, trigger warnings, the behavior of social justice warriors, public shaming, and perpetual outrage? What might we call such a person?

August 30, 2015

Defending Allies and Avoiding Hypocrisy

Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
When someone we like and possibly even respect as a worthwhile contributor to secular activism is shunned, boycotted, demonized, and/or publicly shamed, we tend to come to this person's defense (here's an example of something like this from a few years ago). As we come to such a person's defense, we might believe that some of what he or she has said could have been said better or that he or she made some mistakes along the way and might even owe some apologies. But many of us oppose the application of social pressure by those seeking to marginalize such a person.

One question worth asking ourselves is why we tend to oppose such efforts. Do we oppose these efforts just because we like the person at whom they are aimed, or do we oppose these efforts because we believe that they are misguided, counterproductive, or even dangerous to freethought regardless of the target? Are these tactics wrong when they are directed at a member of our group but perfectly fine for us to direct at a member of their group, or are they things we should avoid altogether?

I am of the opinion that attempting to suppress the free expression of ideas is problematic regardless of who is doing it to whom. I also think that the application of social pressures aimed at marginalizing individuals (e.g., seeking to damage someone's reputation through public shaming) for saying things with which we disagree is problematic regardless of whether it involves them doing it to us or us doing it to them.

August 27, 2015

Ignoring #GamerGate Was a Mistake

Anita Sarkeesian 2013I really missed the boat on #GamerGate. I made the choice not to comment on it because I did not feel like I knew enough to say anything remotely useful. Not being a gamer or someone familiar with gaming media, I figured I was the last person who should speak on the subject. Moreover, I was exhausted by what seemed like similar efforts by social justice warriors to disrupt atheist/skeptic/secular communities. I had outrage fatigue, and I wasn't eager to investigate these tactics in another context. I don't regret refraining to comment on something about which I was uninformed, but I do regret not making more of an effort to become informed. It led me to miss one aspect of #GamerGate that I have since found to be quite interesting.

I must acknowledge at the outset that I probably still don't know as much about #GamerGate as you do in spite of reading quite a bit about it and watching several videos, including both of the SPJ Airplay panels. What I have learned is that there are at least two important parts to it, only one of which I felt like I understood previously. First and foremost, at least in terms of where things started, #GamerGate is about ethics in journalism. Gaming journalism was the beginning, as gamers became frustrated over blatant conflicts of interest (e.g., a gaming journalist writing a positive review of a game developed by a close friend or partner without disclosing the relationship). Concern over journalistic ethics would soon spread beyond the gaming media to include many mainstream news outlets who reported on only one side of the second part of #GamerGate.

August 26, 2015

Offending for the Sake of Offending

The building housing the Danish embassy in Dam...
The building housing the Danish embassy in Damascus, Syria burning after being stormed by demonstrators. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I support the free expression of ideas. This includes ideas with which I disagree, and it certainly includes ideas which many people consider to be offensive. In fact, I'd suggest that the free expression of ideas has little value if it does not include the freedom to express ideas which many people find offensive (e.g., the criticism of cherished religious beliefs). If we allow fear of causing offense to limit the expression of ideas, we are not sufficiently free and are doing a poor job of protecting our right to free expression.

At the same time, I acknowledge that there is a difference between expressing ideas which many people regard as offensive and deliberately trying to offend merely for the sake of offending. Admittedly, this is not always an easy difference to detect. For that reason, I'm inclined to err on the side of free expression even when confronted with cases where it appears that the only goal is to offend. That is, even if I'm not sure that the person expressing himself or herself is trying to do anything more than offend others, I support his or her right to do so.

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