December 10, 2012

Shunning and Boycotting Fellow Atheists

boycottI've read Ron Lindsay's post on atheists shunning and boycotting other atheists again since posting a brief mention of it, and I want to come back to some questions it raised from a somewhat different angle now. I am happy to see that it has already generated quite a bit of discussion, as I think that is potentially quite useful.

Shunning and Boycotting

Lindsay defined both shunning and boycotting in the context in which he discussed them, so I will use his definitions even though I find his view of boycotting a bit different from how the term is usually used. He defined shunning as:

…deliberately avoiding association with an individual, even when the association is as attenuated as attending an event or conference where the shunned individual is speaking.
He defined boycotting as:
…deliberately avoiding association with anyone or any entity (such as an organization that sponsors an event) which does not support one’s shunning.
I am going to set aside Lindsay's argument that the organization he represents, the Center for Inquiry, should not acquiesce to requests to bar particular speakers. That can be debated another time. Instead, I'd like to examine the question of whether it is ever appropriate for atheists to shun or boycott other atheists. Admittedly, this is a question which Lindsay does not directly address apart from his organization. However, I have seen a few other blog posts addressing this broader question, and so I'd like to give my opinion.

Appropriate Shunning

With shunning defined as "avoiding association with an individual," I would argue that there are many times when shunning someone, including a fellow atheist, is perfectly appropriate. I unfollow people on Twitter, regardless of whether they are atheists, who excessively tweet that they have liked a YouTube video, list their present location for no apparent reason, or who engage in a whole range of behaviors I find annoying. Because unfollowing them is one form of avoiding association with them, it easily meets Lindsay's definition of shunning. I view it as preferring not to waste my time with someone whose tweets I do not find interesting, but it is still shunning.

And how about Facebook? I've de-friended a few people with whom I attended high school after they made racist or homophobic comments. By avoiding association with them, which is exactly what I did, I shunned them. Why wouldn't I?

Appropriate Boycotting

As I mentioned, Lindsay's definition of boycotting is a bit different from the usual definition in that it seems to require shunning as a prerequisite. If I boycott Walmart because I oppose how they treat their workers, there is no shunning taking place and so that would not appear to fit Lindsay's definition. What would fit his definition would be a case where I cut ties with a third party (i.e., an organization) for not supporting my shunning of an individual in some way. I imagine what he's talking about here are the cases where one would refuse to attend a conference that had invited an objectionable speaker, so let's stick with this.

To bring things back into the context Lindsay is addressing, let me clearly state for the record that I would not hesitate to skip an atheist conference (or any other sort of conference) that brought in a speaker I considered to be extremely objectionable. Were a professional association to which I belong to invite a speaker to extoll the virtues of "reparative therapy," there is no way I would attend. I would not want to be associated with an organization that promoted something like that, and I would seriously consider ending my relationship with such an organization.

If the scenario I have just described sounds unrealistic to you, consider that I know more than a few professionals who left their professional organizations over the refusal of these organizations to condemn torture and to bar organization members from being present while torture was taking place. This sort of thing is not as rare as one might suspect.

A Matter of Priorities

If one wants to use different definitions for shunning and boycotting than those Lindsay provided, I can easily imagine how these terms could be redefined so they'd almost never be appropriate. But if we stick with Lindsay's definitions, I can imagine many circumstances where either or both would be appropriate.

Given that every one of us has limited time and resources, it makes perfect sense to me that we would need to prioritize the conferences we attend, the people we follow, the blogs we read, etc. Cutting ties with someone who behaves badly or consistently expresses views with which we would rather not contend is something nearly all of us do without giving it a second thought. It is just like turning off Fox "News" because we would rather not subject ourselves to what they are selling.

Of course, there is a danger of doing too much shunning and boycotting: we could find ourselves in a bubble, shielded from any opposing viewpoints. Carried to the extreme, this could be unhealthy. While we need to monitor this tendency in ourselves, I think that skipping some atheist conferences because they insist on inviting someone to present on a topic they might not be qualified to address is quite a ways from living in such a bubble.

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