June 8, 2014

Mischaracterizing the Atheist Movement

Feminist Suffrage Parade in New York City, May...
Feminist Suffrage Parade in New York City, May 6, 1912. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Some errors in reasoning are innocent in that they are unintentional and made out of ignorance. When we engage in confirmation bias, overgeneraiztion, dichotomous thinking, and the like, we do not always realize we are doing so. We may only realize our error in hindsight or when others bring it to our attention. Assuming we are serious about striving to be more rational, this can be a corrective process. But not all of us strive to be more rational. Some of us have very different motives for what we do or say. We may refuse to acknowledge our errors in reasoning, and in some cases, what appear to be errors might even be intentional tactics to accomplish other goals (e.g., provocation, attention-seeking).

Suppose that a major newspaper such as The New York Times ran a story about a national feminist organization firing their director after a couple employees were caught embezzling funds. Now suppose that I were to tweet something like the following with a link to the story:
hahahaha the feminist movement is such a joke
I'd be guilty of overgeneralization, wouldn't I? The fact that this one organization fired their director or that a couple employees broke the law is inadequate to support my characterization of the entire feminist movement. Even if I had solid evidence that this organization was thoroughly corrupt at every level, it is still just one organization. Even this would not be sufficient to paint the entire movement as a joke. It is difficult to imagine that anybody would rush to my defense if I was to publicly say something so ridiculous.

If I were to make such a statement, I would have to expect that I might hear some disagreement from at least a few of the people who were part of the feminist movement I had just mischaracterized. I'd have to expect that they would take issue with my statement. Some would undoubtedly feel that I had just insulted them and everything they have worked for. I'd owe them an apology.

But what if I really didn't want to apologize? What if I decided to double-down instead? When the unfair nature of my generalization was pointed out, I might respond with something like this:
I don't think it's a generalization to say that every single org has done very unprofessional things (&gets away with them)
I have just claimed that I have witnessed every single feminist organization do "very unprofessional things" for which they experienced no real consequences. Every single organization? Is this even possible? Organizations are made up of people, and it does seem like anytime one gets enough people together and gives them enough time, one can expect that someone will eventually do something unprofessional. In that sense, I suppose it might be possible. On the other hand, if I went on to insist that I had witnessed all these "unprofessional" things "firsthand," that would seem to require that my listeners abandon common sense.

Even if I had 10 concrete examples of blatant wrongdoing scattered across various feminist organizations, I am not sure this would entitle me to paint the entire movement as a joke. Think about all the feminists doing great work in their communities. Is it really fair of me to shit on them even if I'm correct that several of the national groups have problems?

My best bet, if I really don't want to apologize for my unfair generalization, would probably be to turn the tables and attack those who dare to question it in the first place. I could claim special knowledge and deflect any criticism that came my way by saying that my critics were attacking me while ignoring all the "unprofessional things" I have alleged without elaboration. If that didn't work, I could suggest that those upset with my statement were harassing me. I could try to shift the focus from my statement to how I was being treated. And if I was really smart about it, I might be able to convince some people that how I was being treated was evidence that my unfair generalization was not so unfair after all.

What the hell am I talking about here? If you haven't figured it out yet, you can see what prompted this post here. For the record, I do not think that the atheist movement is a joke. I have little doubt that there are significant problems at some atheist organizations, but I find it absurd to characterize the entire movement as a joke on this basis. I fail to see how doing so brings us any closer to fixing the problems.

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