August 28, 2012

How to Disagree in the Atheist Community

Someone on the internet is wrong2

Most atheists, secular humanists, freethinkers, and skeptics pride ourselves in making an effort to be rational in our thought and communication. We do not always succeed, but we generally try. Or do we? In looking at a number of blog posts on prominent atheist blogs, comments left on these blogs, and Twitter interactions by well-known atheists, one could be forgiven for asking.

We have discovered that the Internet is ideal for one-directional forms of communication (e.g., videos, blog posts) and not well suited for complex argument. Dueling blog posts where two or more bloggers respond to each other over a length of time may be interesting to some but are likely to lose many others. Moreover, they are almost certain to attract trolls. Facebook and Twitter have a way of dumbing-down communication, often reducing things to crude metrics (e.g., "likes" or retweets) and oversimplifying to the point where communication breaks down. So much of what begins with lofty goals ends in childish insults.

Perhaps it is silly to blame the various technologies of the Internet. It is still us who are doing the typing and clicking the buttons. Maybe we've simply forgotten how to disagree. To the degree that we value a rational community, it makes sense that we would all have a stake in elevating our discourse.

How to Disagree

Back in 2008, Paul Graham wrote an essay titled "How to Disagree" in which he presented a hierarchy of disagreement. The levels of Graham's hierarchy, ranging from most primitive to most sophisticated, are as follows:
  • Name-Calling
  • Ad Hominem
  • Responding to Tone
  • Contradiction
  • Counterargument
  • Refutation
  • Refuting the Central Point
He describes precisely what each level means and provides examples. It really is an interesting read, so I urge you to check it out, especially if you've been been feeling frustrated lately by what passes for discussion in the atheist community.

Graham notes that although his hierarchy describes different forms of disagreement, it omits one important consideration: it does not evaluate the truth of various claims. That is, something presented as a refutation could be based on false claims. So we still need to keep the matter of truth in mind.

How might one use Graham's hierarchy? Here's what he suggests:
The most obvious advantage of classifying the forms of disagreement is that it will help people to evaluate what they read. In particular, it will help them to see through intellectually dishonest arguments.
I agree completely. For those of us still concerned with the promotion of reason and critical thinking, this could indeed be helpful. Whether you are reading a blog or perusing Twitter, Graham's hierarchy could give you a mechanism to evaluate what you are reading.

I also think Graham is correct when he says that evaluating what we read may be the most obvious benefit but is probably not the primary one.
But the greatest benefit of disagreeing well is not just that it will make conversations better, but that it will make the people who have them happier.
Absolutely. To the degree that we want conversations to be productive, it makes sense to shift our communication to higher levels of the hierarchy and avoid the lower levels. In the past couple of days, I've had a few Twitter conversations with atheists with whom I have strongly disagreed. I can tell you that I felt much better following those that remained free from name-calling, ad hominem attacks, and mockery. I actually felt like we had accomplished something by providing each other with opposing points of view.

When to Walk Away

Clearly, not everyone in the atheist community is interested in being rational or in having civil discourse with those who might disagree with them. I have encountered several people in our community who seem more interested in pushing emotionally-charged agendas of one sort or another no matter where they might lead. Some are hateful trolls who do little more than engage in personal attacks and character assassination (see this post from Elevatorgate for an example). They are not mounting any sort of argument; they are simply peddling in childish insults. Others include prominent bloggers and their supporters who are quick to demonize those who dare to disagree as misogynistic "rape apologists," dismissing any dissenting views as hateful attacks. They claim to be champions of social justice but give the trolls a run for the money when it comes to insulting their critics, condemning those with different opinions, and ineffectually attempting to hold up others as examples of irrationality when doing so only exposes their own blindness (for an example of the latter, see this post from Lousy Canuck).

One option when one is confronted with this sort of thing is simply to walk away. I think it is healthy to seek out and engage persons who may challenge us and with whom we may disagree, as this is how we grow. But there is a difference between those interested in - and capable of - rational discussion and those who are not. Walking away from those who condemn, demonize, and insult without offering even a difference of opinion is a viable option. We can unfollow them on Twitter, unsubscribe from their blog feeds, etc.

For many of us, walking away is more challenging when those engaging in this behavior claim to represent the atheist community. We wrestle with the question of whether it is our responsibility to publicly address this behavior just as we ask liberal to moderate Christians to do with their extremists.

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