Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Subject Zedding

Criticism of the 2012 Global Atheist Convention has been, on the whole, pretty mild. Most of it has come from commentators who werent there, which is a benign sneer that one is kind of obliged to find adorable. Dave the Happy Singer tweeted a lovely, punchy comment about it:

So naww, thanks everyone that didn't go because 'lol, celebrating belief in nothing? RIGHTO THEN!'. You've made your point. Thinking too long about things hurts your brain.

I did, however, come across a few articles from convention goers who have bothered to blog about their experiences. They ranged from those that seemed to make a genuine effort to understand to those that were just looking for an excuse to put the words 'So-Called' in front of terms like 'Freethinking' as many times as they could. And then, there was 'Daniel Survives'.

Please, go ahead and read it. It's ... beautiful, in its own way. It is a piece that really shows off David Palmer's Academics Degree from the Presbyterian Academic Academy of Academics, majoring in Academia. Something that none of us Atheists can boast, because, as he quite rightly takes note, there is ...

Certainly no Richard Dawkins Atheist Academic Academy. -- David Palmer, OnLine Opinion, 2012.
Criticism of something like the Atheist Convention comes in two forms. The first is honest, well-reasoned disagreement with the content of that convention. That's something that any atheist, freethinker or skeptic will gladly accept and spiritedly debate with literally anybody that wanted to. This kind of criticism is welcome, and not only welcome, but welcome in italics. When an article says 'Lawrence Krauss was interesting but here's a counter argument', then fine

The second kind of criticism is what this blog post is all about. I'm in a bit of a unique position in that I've come across it before in other sectors of life, so I'm fairly confident that I can recognise it when I see it. This kind of criticism involves building up a false notion of the thing that you'd really like to criticise and then blaming it for not filling your expectations. It's a deceptively reasonable-sounding form of criticism, too, in that it asks seemingly reasonable questions about the responsibilities and priorities of an interest group. The trouble is, those responsibilities and priorities are the domain of other groups, not the one being criticised. The formula looks a bit like this:

'Why does Group A always talk about Subject A? Why don't they ever mention Subject Z?'

From here on out, I'll call it Subject Z Criticism, and I'll try to give some examples.

A friend of mine, while doing her PhD, spent two hours in a classroom arguing about queer rights with her fellow doctoral candidates. The mood was generally supportive, she assures me, and consensus was made on several topics. One of the criticisms that they all universally arrived at of the queer movement was that, while their cause was just, they spent a lot of time talking about queer issues and not so much time talking about other important things, like climate change or whatnot.

Being a gay gent myself, this is a criticism I've heard before, and it is a prime example of Subject Z Criticism. I've actually written about it before in this post titled 'The two most irksome objections to gay marriage that even intelligent people make'.

The logical flaw with this argument is apparent after only a few seconds of thinking, but those few seconds are very rarely ever invested because the original criticism sounds so reasonable.

People involved in the Queer Movement do talk about other things, like climate change, like asylum seekers, like atheism, all the time. It's just that when they do, they're not a part of the queer movement any more. They're a part of the green movement, or the industrialist movement, or the new atheist movement. One is not obliged to declare 'I'm queer and I'm here to save the whales', one needs merely to declare 'Save the Whales'.

Asking those involved with the Queer Movement why they don't do more to stop Climate Change is Subject Z Criticism. 'You focus too much on Queer issues, why don't you concentrate on Subject Z instead.' The essence of Subject Z Criticism is a bait and switch to make a group look like it is self-centred, arrogant, or selfish. It is to declare that a focus group should feel bad for focusing on the very thing it is centred around.

Think about it. One does not approach the Breast Cancer Trials Group and say 'You know, you guys are always banging on about breast cancer. It's like you don't even care about the carbon tax.'. Nothing says that a person can't be an advocate of Breast Cancer Awareness and be concerned/supportive of the carbon tax.

All those people at that huge youth music festival over there? Why the hell aren't they developing solutions to the housing crisis? Shut down that damn music festival right now. I can't believe alt rock fans hate the homeless so much. What's the world coming to?

Group A was formed to focus on Subject A. It would be freakin' weird if they spent a bunch of time talking about Subject Z.

The only thing to be said for Subject Z Criticism is that it means that the criticiser can't really find much wrong with what you're doing. All they want to talk about is what you're not doing as though that were some kind of indictment against the fact that you belong to that group in the first place.

Atheist Conventions - and atheism in general - is a rife target for Subject Zedding. Here's a quote from the 'Daniel Survives' article:

      The point I want to make on the evidence of what I heard at the Convention is that Atheists are not morally serious. Atheists judge their goodness in terms of their support for human rights, i.e. other people held at a distance. So they support things like the feminist cause, equality for homosexuals, they are against racism, they are for the Palestinians but against Israel, and so on.
      But what did they have to say about the issues that touch people closer to home. In the 1960’s we had the cultural revolution which brought with it cohabitation, no fault divorce, freely available abortion, all generally to the disadvantage of women and their children. We live in a society today with multiple broken relationships, failed marriages, children being fought over, boys without fathers modelling what it is to grow into manhood. We have unprecedented crime levels so that we lock doors, install alarm systems, drive children to and from school, install cameras on trains and in shopping malls, every public space covered in graffiti.
      Did the Atheist Convention address any of these issues?
      Did we hear of the philanthropic interests of Atheists? Well, we did hear of a school for 200 students in Uganda, but that was it. Certainly no Richard Dawkins Atheist Academic Academy.
First up, you need to forgive a number of flaws in these paragraphs before we can continue. I don't know any two atheists, for example, that agree precisely on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. The list of 'closer to home' issues that the author is so very worried about is entirely unsupported and subjective (in fact, all evidence indicates that we are living in the safest and most secure time in human history, ever). And of course, Richard Dawkins does have an entire philanthropic foundation (that, it was mentioned, raised over half a million pounds for Haiti after their troubles there). Does it go without saying that 'Academic Academy' is a tautology? I hope it does.

Once you get beyond all of that, you can see that we're dealing with a clear case of Subject Zedding here. Nobody at the atheist convention mentioned the problem with graffiti on public surfaces, ergo atheists are not morally serious. That is the way of it from just about every source. We didn't deal with the specific issues that one commentator had imagined we should, hence the Global Atheist Convention proves that atheists are not morally serious.

This year, I went out with a bag on Clean Up Australia day and cleared away rubbish from a park near my home. If there had been a graffiti clearing task force on that day, I'd have happily joined it. I would not have taken the time to explain to the organisers of that task force that I was doing this because I am an atheist, and I want it known that my efforts vindicate the morality of all godless folk everywhere.

Then again, even if I had, that would just mean that the queer movement didn't take public order and cleanliness seriously, wouldn't it?

Readers, don't ever fall for Subject Z Criticism. It's not a good argument. It's not even a bad argument, it's just a false attribution of responsibility. If you're doling it out, I will call you silly.

It's fine to criticise things, but please have a care to do it in a way that is defensible. That's the beauty of criticism - it gives you a chance to respond, refine and prove your argument in the face of contrary evidence. The entire Global Atheist Convention was a celebration of that principle. Fight us on the issues at hand, don't invent ones that are beyond the mandate of the group and judge us on our failure to deal with them. We aren't psychic, after all.

Nobody is.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Ideas Evolve

The Christianness of our past is constantly brought up as an argument in favour of our Christianness of our present. Here's a pretty recent article that does just that.

If you don't have time to read it, let me highlight what I think is the crux of the argument:

To acknowledge the religious heritage of the modern world is to say nothing about religious ''truth''. But while our age may be secular, it is, at the same time, still a deeply Christian one. If atheists feel they must rip up everything that came before them, they will destroy the very foundations of that secularism.
 Chris Berg has a good head on his shoulders, so it baffles me why he'd make a claim like that. The origins of an idea matter very little, especially in this context. The basis for the idea has completely changed. The entire notion of human rights has evolved, to divert to the parlance of Biology, and no longer requires 'foundations'. Ideas aren't like buildings. They're far more like a living organism.

I can't imagine, for example, the same logic being applied to meteorolgy. We no longer believe that performing a certain kind of dance can bring on rain, nor do we believe that human sacrifice will reap a good crop of food. That does not mean that, when faced with somebody who does believe those things, we have to put on a polite veneer and make meek noises about disagreement-with-no-hard-feelings. We might call them foolish for putting their faith in a dance-weather relationship, or at least use our outdoor voices when condeming their penchant for killing their fellow man. To call Twelver Shi'a Islam dangerous because it believes that the Twelfth Imam will return amongst nuclear fire is not to destroy the very foundations of algebra, a concept developed by an Islamic mathematician.

It doesn't matter where the ideas came from. We have a better basis for them now. We have evolved the concept beyond its original purpose and have very well-reasoned, well-accepted notions of why we ought to value them.

Heinrich Heine put it pretty neatly.

...in a pitch-black night a blind man is the best guide; he knows the roads and paths better than a man who can see. When daylight comes, however, it is foolish to use blind, old men as guides.
Respect the origins of an idea by all means, but don't pretend that the originator deserves ownership of that idea in perpetuity. There's a large difference between knowing where ideas come from and dispensing with the baggage that brings.