Criticizing Prominent Christians and Atheists

Foot in Mouth Disease
Foot in Mouth Disease (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
When a prominent Christian says something stupid, we atheists are all over it. We post YouTube clips on our blogs, we share screen captures of the Christian's Twitter feed, and we quote the Christian's words. Here's a great example of all three in one post dealing with Pastor Mark Driscoll. See what Hemant does here? He shares a video, quotes Driscoll, and provides a screen capture of a Twitter conversation. Perfect! Assuming that you agree with me that it is acceptable for Hemant to do this, here's my question for you: why is it okay for Hemant (and the rest of us) to do this?

I'd like to suggest here that the reason this is okay, and I do believe it is okay, is not simply because Pastor Driscoll is a Christian. That might make covering him more relevant for some, but it is not why we regard it as acceptable to write a post like Hemant's focusing on him. Instead, I think the reason we find this acceptable boils down to three facts about Driscoll:
  1. Driscoll is a public figure.
  2. Driscoll has elevated status within a community.
  3. Driscoll is using public media.
The fact that Driscoll is clearly a public figure makes criticism far more likely. Moreover, the fact that he's a public figure leads us to be more tolerant of this sort of coverage than we would otherwise be. If Driscoll was just an average nobody, Hemant probably wouldn't have bothered with him, we probably wouldn't be interested in reading about him, and we might even feel sorry for him if he were to be covered in this manner.

Driscoll's elevated status within a community could probably be subsumed under #1. I listed it separately here because I think it goes both to relevance (i.e., his elevated status means we are more likely to pay attention) and hypocrisy (i.e., we generally expect someone with elevated status to be a bit more capable of behaving well and avoiding misstatements). If Driscoll was a nobody, our expectations of him would likely be less than what they are. If he was a 12 year-old kid, our expectations would be considerably lower. Our expectations are related, at least in part, to his status within the community he occupies.

Last and most important of all, it is appropriate to write the sort of post Hemant did because Driscoll is using public media. Hemant did not hack his private Twitter account; the account is public. Hemant did not go through the man's garbage to find incriminating evidence; he relied on publicly available videos and Driscoll's own words. Had Driscoll not wanted to be quoted saying stupid things, he should not have said stupid things in public.  

A General Test

What I have said above about Pastor Driscoll is not specific to him in any way. In fact, the criteria we used to determine that is was appropriate to write the sort of post Hemant did in this case can be extrapolated to anyone. And yes, this includes atheists.

We have seen many cases where a prominent atheist says something stupid or behaves badly in public, only to find that his or her statements have been screen captured, quoted, and/or shared on Storify. Strangely, a few have even objected to this and attempted to characterize it as harassment. To judge the merit of their objections, the example of Pastor Driscoll is instructive.
  1. Is the person a public figure?
  2. Does the person have an elevated status within a community?
  3. Is the person using public media?
These are all fairly easy questions to answer. If an atheist presents himself or herself to the larger atheist/skeptic/secular communities as a public figure, it is probably fair to regard him or her as a public figure. While we can quibble about exactly where to draw this line, one thing seems quite obvious: an atheist who regularly accepts invitations to speak at atheist/secular/skeptic conferences is a public figure and clearly has elevated status in our community.

On the question of status, we can look at popularity in the form of blog traffic, YouTube hits, and the like. But again, there is an even easier metric. An atheist who regularly accepts invitations to speak at conferences has elevated status. When conference organizers actually promote their conference with the speaker's name, it is clear that the speaker has high status. Their presence is considered a draw.

Just like with Driscoll, it is important that any information shared about the atheist figure be publicly available. We cannot excuse or condone the disclosure of truly private information (i.e., doc dropping). But statements made on a public Twitter account are certainly fair game, provided the person sharing this information is not doing so in a misleading manner. That is, the quoting must be accurate and complete and cannot be used to provide an intentionally distorted picture of what someone said.

An atheist who is a public figure with elevated status within our community cannot say stupid things in public and not expect to be called on it. An atheist who is a public figure with an elevated status has no reasonable expectation that their tweets made using their public Twitter account will not end up on Storify.  

But What About Stalking and Harassment?

As I noted previously, some atheists who happen to be public figures with high status using public media have claimed that sharing their public tweets via Storify is "harassment," "bullying," or "stalking." Perhaps Storify and any form of screen capture could be used in this manner. I'm not quite sure how that would work, but that is a bit different from what has been claimed. Their claim has been that any use of their public tweets is problematic. This is simply wrong. If posts like Hemant's are acceptable (and they are), there is no problem sharing the words of atheists who are public figures with elevated status using public media.

The disclosure of truly private information (i.e., doc dropping) is certainly problematic, as would be deliberately providing an incomplete or distorted picture of what someone said (e.g., omitting the part of a Twitter conversation in which the atheist apologized). However, the mere use of screen capture or Storify to highlight something such an individual said publicly is perfectly acceptable.

But We Should Not Trash Other Atheists

Hemant's criticism of Pastor Driscoll was perfectly appropriate, and atheists are often able to criticize one another's statements in equally appropriate ways. I know that some are fond of claiming that we should "look out for our own," and I do not disagree with this until looking out for our own means ignoring behavior among atheists we would never ignore among the religious. We ought to be able to criticize one another without such criticism being labeled as "trashing" or "harassment."

I will leave you with this thought, one I am not completely sure about but think is probably more likely true than not: A prominent atheist (i.e., a pubic figure with elevated status in the community) using a public platform to spout nonsense can do more damage to our community than someone like Driscoll.