March 19, 2014

Atheists Shitting on Your Parade

Ashwaubenon High School Marching Band, 2011 NYC St Patrick's Day Parade 2

There are many simple but unpleasant truths in life, truths that can be expressed in a single sentence. Here is one of them:
It is far easier to shit on someone else's parade than it is to organize your own.
What does organizing a parade have in common with writing a book or a blog, doing a podcast, making YouTube videos, recording a song, designing a billboard, cooking a meal, or practically any other activity that involves the intentional production of some sort of tangible outcome? They all require an investment of time, effort, persistence, and creativity. But this is not the only thing they have in common. They also seem to attract a particular type of critic - the sort who complains without offering anything of value or who criticizes without trying to be even remotely constructive.

If there is one thing the Internet attracts, it is people who seem to thrive on this sort of criticism. Everybody wants to be a critic, but few want to do so in any constructive sense. They want to tear down, not to build up. They are quick to shred the ideas of others and reluctant to provide any of their own. It is understandable why this would be the case, but it is unfortunate that so much of it goes on among people who claim to be working toward at least some common goals.

In this post, I want to offer some thoughts on why this sort of "parade shitting" is as common as it is among atheists, highlight one of the costs we may not fully appreciate, and suggest a few alternatives.

Atheists Shitting on Your Parade

One of the negative ways in which many religious believers report experiencing atheists is as individuals who are opposed to practically everything but reluctant to offer many alternatives. Whether this depiction is fair or not, it is understandable why a religious believer might form it when one examines the behavior of many atheists. We certainly do criticize religion, and we do not always do so in a particularly constructive manner. We tell ourselves that it is okay not to be constructive here because we are generally not interested in improving religion or in creating alternatives to religion. I'm not suggesting we should; I'm simply noting that this is not usually our aim and that this may be part of the reason we interact with religious believers the way we do. The point is that I can see why many religious believers might experience atheists as doing little more than shitting all over their parade.

But what about how we atheists interact with one another? If you are actively producing content of some sort for the atheist community (e.g., writing books or a blog, recording a podcast, making YouTube videos), I would guess that you know what it is like to encounter other atheists who seem to have nothing positive or constructive to say and merely want to criticize everything you offer while offering nothing of their own. They come by and tell you that what you are doing is worthless but provide no alternative suggestions. They try to poke holes in what you are sharing, sometimes without even bothering to read, listen, or watch your content before doing so.

Why do they do it? I imagine that there are more reasons than I could possibly list here. In all likelihood, some are immature, too lazy to provide meaningful criticism, and/or do not know any better. Some are probably trolls who crave argument and have no interest in any sort of productive communication. Insulting your work may make them temporarily feel better about themselves and their shortcomings. Others are generally angry people who seem to be stuck in attack-mode on the Internet without ever bothering to think about how their behavior affects others. Some comment on your work merely as a form of spamming. Others have deficient cognitive and/or social skills, and at least a few are just assholes.

The Cumulative Impact of Parade Shitting

If you are someone who is producing content, I imagine that you will be able to relate to what I am about to say at least to some degree. I believe that the cumulative impact on an individual content producer of chronic parade shitting can be summed up with a single word: disillusionment. For most of us, it is easy to shrug off individual parade shitting comments, periodic trolling, and the like. We are not so overly sensitive that we are going to become distraught every time someone calls us names on the Internet (yes, I realize there are exceptions). But if you imagine this sort of thing becoming pervasive and lasting long enough, it is tough not to feel like maybe one should just give up.

I don't know anybody who has been an active producer of content in the atheist community for a substantial period of time who does not occasionally have the thought of hanging it up. Almost every atheist blogger I read regularly has expressed such thoughts. They look at the type of comments they receive on their blogs and through social media, and they ask themselves, "Why do I even bother?" I'd be willing to bet that the pervasive parade shitting is part of the reason why.

Being on the receiving end of parade shitting initially did not initially bother me. The ratio of excellent commenters to parade shitters was such that it was easy to dismiss the parade shitters as rare exceptions. I found the ignorance on display from some to be disappointing, and I remember thinking that it was unfortunate that more atheists/humanists/skeptics didn't at least try to learn something while on the Internet. But their presence had little impact on me. I can't pinpoint exactly when that began to change because it did so over a couple years. The parade shitters became far more prevalent (especially on social media). It became exhausting after awhile, and the temptation to say "fuck it" and walk away appeared for the first time. I started to feel disillusioned and embarrassed by some of what was taking place in the atheist/secular community, and I'm certainly not alone.

Alternatives

We've all been tempted to shit on someone else's parade, and many of us have done so. We sometimes seem to forget how to rationally express disagreement with something we don't like. I'd like to suggest three alternatives that we might want to consider before we shit on someone's parade. I am sure there are others, but these were the first three that occurred to me.

Move On

When I encounter content I am not crazy about during my travels around the online atheist community, I would estimate that I simply move on about 90% of the time without leaving any sort of negative comment. I ask myself whether I think my disagreement or dislike is important enough to address in some way and whether I have some ideas for the content's producer about how to improve the content. If not, I simply move on. I see little to gain by shitting on someone's parade, and if I decide that my disagreement or dislike really is important enough, I'm going to choose one of the other two alternatives. This is the one I'd pick when it isn't that important.

Do It Better

Don't like what someone else has done? Great! Go do it better. Instead of complaining, provide a superior alternative. Show them and everyone else how it is done. I really don't mean to sound flippant here. I cannot tell you the number of times I have run across something someone else has written that inspired me to write about the same topic here. And at least some of the time, I did this because I felt that the other party left something out that should be considered. The advantage of this option is that one ends up making a positive contribution.

Constructive Criticism

Constructive criticism is both difficult and time-consuming. This is an important part of why we do not see more of it. Not everyone knows how to provide constructive criticism. It is not something that comes naturally; it is a skill that must be developed. It also requires effort, more effort than many people are willing to put into it.

When someone offers constructive criticism of something someone else has created, he or she is trying to help the creator improve the work. Constructive criticism comes from a place of genuinely trying to be helpful. This is one of the reasons one does not expect to see atheists providing much constructive criticism of religious claims to religious believers. We typically hope they will outgrow the beliefs that lead to such claims, and so we have little desire to improve them. There are exceptions, and many atheists will tell you that they are interested in helping religious believers improve their thinking in some way, but this is a bit different than what we're talking about here.

To pick something to which we will all be able to relate, consider the example of a blog post. You visit a new blog to read a post because the title grabbed your attention or another blogger linked to it. In reading the post, you detect something about it you do not like. Perhaps you feel that the author missed something important. Constructive criticism might look like a genuine effort on your part to bring this perceived oversight to the attention of the blogger and suggest how it could be improved. Again, your motive in doing so would be to help the blogger improve the post and/or his or her thinking about the subject. Intent matters, at least at least some of the time.

Summary

Much of the online communication taking place in the comments sections of atheist blogs and YouTube videos, as well as on a variety of social media platforms, seems to involve little more than shitting on someone else's parade. This is far easier than creating our own content or offering constructive criticism, but it has a downside. The cumulative effect over time leads to disillusionment and may prompt some to stop producing the content many of us enjoy. Fortunately, there are at least a few alternatives to consider.

For some additional thoughts on how to improve the manner in which atheists interact with one another and the religious, I refer you to a post Notung wrote back in January.

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