April 15, 2020

Undermining Tribalism by Being a Counterexample

dog on the beach

Many of you are familiar with street epistemology as a method for atheists to encourage critical thought among religious believers. In this post, I'd like to describe a far simpler approach for undermining tribalism by using oneself as a counterexample to challenge the negative stereotypes many people have about various groups. I have used this method extensively on social media, mostly around challenging the negative stereotypes many conservatives have of liberals. While I won't pretend that it is always effective, I can say that I have received far more positive responses than negative ones.

The approach could not be much simpler. When I see someone ranting about how all liberals love Muslims, are pro-censorship, obsessed with identity politics, or any other inaccurate stereotype that does not apply to me, I explain this in a calm and non-defensive manner. Specifically, I use myself as a counterexample to question the claim. Here are some brief examples of what it looks like:

  • "I'm a liberal, and I think you are right that Islam should be criticized by more on the left. I think it is a serious mistake to equate the criticism of any religion with racism or bigotry."
  • "I'm a liberal, and I agree with you that free speech is important. I consider this a core liberal value and one that is far more important than protecting people's feelings."
  • "I'm a liberal, and I think you raise a great point about the destructive nature of identity politics and political correctness. Many of us on the left have recognized this as a problem and are hoping to fix it."

As you can see, I usually start with some variation of "I'm a liberal, and I agree with you..." Not only is this an accurate statement, but it provides a direct challenge to their inaccurate generalizations about liberals, atheists, or whatever other group we're talking about. They've been asserting that liberals hold these views, and I use myself as an example of a liberal who does not. Sadly, this may be an experience they have not had before.

I have received far more positive responses to this than I expected I would. Some have even thanked me for commenting and said something about how nice it was to encounter someone from "the other side" who was civil. This shouldn't be a surprise. After all, I've had similarly positive reactions when people have challenged me in this way.

You've probably heard the quote often attributed to Gandhi: "Be the change that you wish to see in the world." Regardless of who said it, I think it is a good statement. For those of us who would like to see reason, freethought, and civility win out over faith, tribalism, and polarization, I think we should strive to serve as examples of these things in our interactions with others.