October 27, 2019

Reducing the Negative Effects of Atheist Drama and Division

conflict on the chess board

Something popped into my head as I was reading a recent post at Conservative Skeptic titled "Why Do Atheists Perpetuate Division?". That's a damn good question, by the way. I had just finished the part where he notes that division is found in most groups but that it always seems to become very public when it occurs among atheists. I found myself wondering why that is the case, and that led me to think about how I usually handle conflict in my real (i.e., offline) life.

When I become upset with someone for something they've done or said that I perceive as wrong, I start by giving myself some time to calm down. It rarely takes more than a few minutes, but I find that this is an important step that prevents me from saying something I may regret. Once I've calmed down a bit, I almost always start by talking directly to the other person. I approach them and explain why I am upset. I listen carefully to make sure the whole thing wasn't a misunderstanding on my part. Because these things often are based on misunderstandings, I make sure to consider this possibility carefully.

In cases where it was a misunderstanding, I allow myself to be set straight and quickly get over myself. If it wasn't a misunderstanding, I accept any apology the other person may provide, quickly get over myself, and move on. I would estimate that things are resolved in one of these ways more than half of the time. For the rest, some level of conflict remains. In these situations, I try to talk things out with the person to make sure that we both understand each other's position. Either of us may be wrong, but this usually isn't about trying to figure out who might be wrong. After all, it is going to come down to differing opinions and values most of the time and not the sort of thing that can be resolved with simple fact-checking. I try to reach the point where we know each other's position and agree to disagree agreeably. I consider that a success even if it means that neither of us changes our mind.

Of course, this doesn't always happen. There are failures in the process, and the most common one is probably the scenario where one of us does not remain calm and adopts an accusatory tone that provokes the other party. Things escalate quickly, and we both leave the interaction feeling worse than we did initially. This is the sort of outcome that often leads to resentment and ill-will. In time, at least one of us usually gets over it. If not, we may decide we do not like each other and begin avoiding one another so as to minimize future conflict.

When it comes to the sort of conflict we see among atheists online, very little of this appears to happen. That does not necessarily mean that some of it might not be taking place out-of-sight, but the portion we see rarely looks anything like this. Instead, it appears that the person who was initially upset immediately goes online and calls the other out in a very public and accusatory way. It is difficult to imagine the party being called out responding with anything other than denial, defensiveness, or retaliation. They've now been treated poorly in a very public manner, and they are bound to be upset by this. If they have their own online platform, they are likely to use it to respond. Things escalate in a very public way.

I recognize that it is much harder to approach some random online atheist personality one has never met and behave as I said I try to behave in cases of offline conflict. One does not necessarily have easy access to such a person. Even if one does, one may reach out and get no response. But are most people in these situations even trying? It does not look that way. It often looks like the upset party is attempting to benefit from calling out the other party publicly because he or she is aware that angry attacks and controversy bring attention and/or traffic. The rest of us seem to be insatiable when it comes to public conflict, especially when it involves high-profile figures. We can't get enough of the stuff, and this may be one of the reasons we are served so much of it.

Suppose a high-profile atheist says something that pisses me off. Instead of making any attempt to determine whether I understood them correctly, I go into call-out mode and write a scathing post in which I condemn them based on little more than the fact that I disagree with something they said. The worst-case scenario is that the post ends up being very popular, generating lots of comments and social media shares. The best-case scenario is that the high-profile atheist and/or some of his or her supporters with much higher profiles than mine respond. This brings far more attention to my post. Even if much of it is negative attention, I may decide the massive bump in traffic is worth it. And if at least a couple of these high-profile sorts and their supporters descend on me like a mob, I'm bound to attract the support of large numbers of people who do not like them for whatever reason. As long as I am willing to put myself ahead of the goals many of us share, this sort of thing will be good for me.

Assuming that some of us still care about making progress on our shared goals, what is the answer here? First, more of us need to be able to get over ourselves and act like adults in situations where we encounter someone saying something with which we disagree. Specifically, we need to focus more on our secular values and what we are trying to accomplish and less on short-term personal gain that may bring benefits to us while harming secular activism. I'm not saying we should hold our tongues; I am saying we should utilize conflict resolution methods other than reflexive public call-outs. Second, more of us need to recognize that the public drama is often counterproductive and stop rewarding it. Destructive conflict is as widespread as it is, at least in part, because we have been rewarding it with our time, our attention, and or social media shares. We need to stop doing that. Third, all of us would probably benefit from examining how we interact with others online and asking ourselves whether we are happy with it. If we cannot honestly say that we wish more people behaved like we do online, it might be time to make some changes and review the principle of charity.