Sunday, December 21, 2014

Gangs and heroes

When I was in primary school in Scotland, forming "gangs" was one of the games that seemed to be pretty much universal. Someone who wanted to start a gang would link arms with a friend, then walk around the playground chanting "Who wants to be in our gang?" and collecting prospects. These gangs tended not to last more than one lunch hour, but the allure of joining up (even for such a limited time) was potent. 

There seems to be something fundamental about humans that means we find being part of a group very seductive, and that seems to make us vulnerable to "hacks" that exploit this impulse to get us to do things, or be less critical of our stated beliefs*.

This is what sticks out for me from my friend Daniel's recent post about the kind of religion he objects to, and is sort of in the background of his most recent post about meme-responses to the situation in Ferguson. In both cases, it seems to me that people's membership of particular religious or ideological groups is blinding them to the unpleasant implications of things they believe. Of course, in relation to religion, this isn't a new idea. In fact, part of the core of the New Atheist suite of arguments against religion is the idea that religion makes people particularly vulnerable to this kind of hack.

Where New Atheism seems to me to fall down, is in the assumption that doing away with religion will do away with this quirk of human thought. You can see this in the way that New Atheism has itself become a gang of sorts** and begun to suffer from some of the problems that gang-ness tends to cause. In the case of the New Atheists, I'd characterise these as a tendency toward gatekeeping, the construction of various folk devils***, and falling in love with heroes. If you want more on gatekeeping or folk devils, Fred Clark at Slacktivist and the guys at Nonprophet Status do a pretty good job respectively****.

What I want to talk about right at the moment is heroes.

A hero is a person who, as a result of their achievements or statements, has been acclaimed as great and adopted as a representative of a certain group or ideology. This makes them slightly less human (in the sense of being a complete person with virtues, flaws, and frailties) in the eyes of their admirers, and tends to give their views more weight than those of the average person.

This can happen at a variety of scales, so you can be a globally-recognisably Hero of New Atheism or Feminism or Socialism, or a local hero like a parish priest or the leader of a chapter of the International Socialists. The most complete form of this, I would call something like "sainthood" - the point at which someone ceases to be human at all (usually after their death) and is pretty much pure symbol. I'd call Ghandi, John Lennon and Martin Luther King examples of this.

The problems inherent in having heroes are pretty clear, when you examine how this tends to work.

The first issue is that heroes tend to get more allowances for bad behaviour, because their status as group representatives makes them more valuable than the rank and file members. The most famous example of this is the sexual abuse problems within the Catholic church (and in that case it was exacerbated by Church policies designed explicitly to minimise scandal and thereby protect abusers) but anyone who's been a member of a group with an abusive but important member (anecdotal examples I've heard include socialist groups in Wellington, kink communities in the US, and a university pagan/shamanic society) knows that this is not a purely religious problem. There are also more public secular examples like the recent revelations about the BBC and British Conservative Party.

The second issue is that heroes tend to have their pronouncements heard and promulgated regardless of their merits. Having said something intelligent once is no guarantee of continuing to do this indefinitely. For example, I think Richard Dawkins is entirely correct about the logical extreme unlikeliness of God (at least in the majority of Church-doctrinal conceptions) existing. Meanwhile, his pronouncements on any issue relating to rape, sexual harassment (really women in general) or the relative danger posed by non-majority-white-people religions are woefully off-base, and yet are received as wisdom on the basis of his atheist thinking.

This is also true of other New Atheist heroes like Sam "torturing Muslims is super-cool" Harris and Christopher "the war in Iraq hasn't killed enough people, and by the way did I mention how women are biologically destined to be unfunny (whoops sorry that was a joke or maybe a secret plan to get more women being funny)" Hitchens. This is dangerous, because while there's no earthly reason for atheism to be associated with racism or sexism, an uncritical admiration of racist sexist people due to their status as atheist heroes is starting to build those links - at least in the minds of the wider public.

Did you notice, by the way, that in these previous two paragraphs I've stuck with the view that atheism is in and of itself a rational and logical point of view? It's entirely possible for a person to be right about (or good at) one or more things (and receive appropriate acclaim for that) while still being wrong about other things, or even an actually terrible human being. This brings me to my final problem with heroes.

Communities who have heroes often feel the need to defend them, because of their status as community representatives. More than once when I've raised Dawkins' or Hitchens' problems with women, or Harris's racism in a discussion, I've been told that I'm attempting to smear them in order to discredit their advocacy for atheism (and presumably by extension atheism as a point of view). This is not an uncommon phenomenon in comment threads around the web.

I was really taken with the article "How To Be A Fan of Problematic Things"***** and I think that probably has the core of the principle you need for dealing with problematic thinkers. Unfortunately, heroising someone tends to short-circuit the capacity for that kind of critical analysis.

* I'm not going to go the route of suggesting that intelligent, well-educated people can't genuinely believe in, say, the Biblical account of Creation (as interpreted by Ken Ham) and must therefore be lying. I do think though, that there are probably different levels or classes of belief depending on how much conscious attention has been put into squaring them with the world we live in and their implications for your other beliefs. I think that humans are capable of holding sincere yet contradictory beliefs so long as they don't pay too much attention to the contradiction. There's something disingenuous about pouring mental effort into ignoring or handwaving those contradictions, but I think there are people who simply aren't fully aware of them. Of course, there are also people who deliberately espouse beliefs they don't really hold for reasons of Magic.

** In a recent internet argument I got told that I was wrong to think of atheism as a movement and that I was trying to pull the classic Christian apologist swifty of claiming that atheism is a religion and therefore atheists are religious and should go and vanish in a puff of logic or something. While it's true that atheism per se is actually just a single component of a wider worldview, I think there's such a thing as New Atheism which tends to include a specific set of views in addition to disbelief in god(s). I also think that once you have conferences dedicated to your interest or point of view, you can safely be called a movement or at least an informal organisation.

***At some point this will be a link to another post where I unpack this idea a bit. In the mean time, what I'm talking about here is a form of demonisation strawman where you construct a position so vile or ridiculous that opposition to it is a basic human response. You then justify your own extreme statements or actions by claiming that you oppose the folk devil that you've built (and covertly including a much wider group under the same umbrella term). Classic examples include "the humourless PC brigade", "delusional religious people", "lazy welfare queens" etc. It's important to understand that I'm not claiming that examples of these classes of people don't exist - just that they're rarer in their purest forms than the constructers of folk devils like to admit.

**** Fred Clark tends to talk about gatekeeping in an American white evangelist context, and the NS fellas talk more about islamophobia than other classes of folk devil, but they'll both give you some grounding in the ways these concepts work.

***** For bonus points check out this article about what happens when things that didn't start out racist become racist in a new context.


  1. I do point out, in that religion post, that religious movements typically last about ten times as long as similar movements (Utopian communes, 20 years vs 2 years; repressive regimes, centuries vs decades) founded with secular motives. Something is making that difference, and it's not tribalism because tribalism is not unique to religion.

    1. Yep, that's legit. I do think you could make an argument that religious ideas can adapt to their host societies (it's impossible to claim that modern Catholicism is identical to the Catholicism that began in Rome, for example) and that tribalism is one of the things that slows that adaptation. Fred Clark argues (pretty convincingly, I think) that the primary thing pushing American Evangelism further and further out of touch with modern US social mores is a tribalistic attempt to hold onto a very specific hermeneutic that was specifically invented to provide a "biblical" justification for slavery.

      I guess what I'm trying to say is that the longevity of religious movements when they're terrible certainly intensifies their terribleness, but that I don't think the terribleness and the longevity are connected. There are intensely terrible religious sects who haven't lasted all that long, and fairly un-terrible ones who've been around for centuries.