November 26, 2014

When Shaming and Outrage Drive Away Potential Allies

Warning sign for police brutality.
Warning sign for police brutality. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
We live in a world that often seems to be characterized by rampant unfairness. The supply of things that should upset us seems endless. Church-state violations, sexism, efforts to restrict free expression, legal discrimination against LGBT persons, Christian privilege, racism, massive corporations that refuse to provide employees a living wage, police brutality, animal cruelty, and so on. There are plenty of things over which outrage is a perfectly valid reaction.

Unfortunately, none of us can devote equal time, attention, and effort to everything that outrages us. As a result, we have to prioritize. If we cannot prioritize, we burn out and give up. And what happens when we prioritize? The upside is that we become more effective as we focus on our priorities. The downside is that we are inevitably attacked for not having the right priorities.

If I had to select the one thing that most irks me about those I encounter on the Internet who earn the social justice warrior label, it would be their refusal to accept the fact that having different priorities does not make someone a bad person and their willingness to shame and even demonize those who have somewhat different priorities than they do. This behavior serves to undermine social justice, leading people to disengage and stop listening. This is the paradoxical effect of outrage culture - it damages the very agenda the outraged claim to have.

I am still too pissed off about the situation in Ferguson to want to address it yet, and so I will not attempt to do so. Besides, I have little to say at this point that hasn't already been said much better than I could say it. But I have already grown so tired of those attempting to use guilt and shame to convince atheists and humanists that we need to pay more attention to race and the other issues raised in Ferguson that I am tempted to tune the whole thing out. Many of us recognize that racial inequality and police brutality are serious problems, and many of us include these issues along with our other priorities. Of course, these are not our only priorities, and we each differ as to how high they rank on our long lists of priorities. Instead of trying to shame us into make this a higher priority and having us tune you out, give us some concrete suggestions on how we can help.

It seems that every group of atheists wants to condemn the rest of us for not making their pet issue our highest priority. Atheism has a problem with sexism because some of us are uninterested in making sexism our #1 (or only) priority and devoting all our attention to #GamerGate, #ShirtStorm or Mark Zuckerberg's t-shirts. Atheism has a problem with race because some of us are unwilling to make racism and/or police-community issues our top priority. Atheism also has problems with every other valid source of outrage for the same reasons. How about recognizing that not everyone can be expected to share your priorities, just as you don't share theirs? How about wrapping your head around the notion that our priorities might be equally valid?

I get that people want to persuade others to make their concerns a higher priority. The way to do that is with good arguments and not with shaming tactics and name-calling. Convince us, for example, why we should make your radical feminism a higher priority for our time than secularism. Do this, and you will gain allies. Show us why we should make the despicable manner in which some police treat Black men a higher priority than same-sex marriage, reproductive rights for women, and every other important priority on our list. Do this, and you will have more support for your cause.
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