On Oversimplification and Certainty
Responses to requests, demands, and criticism in the blogosphere in recent months has prompted a great deal of discussion, most of it terribly unproductive. In fact, most of it has been downright silly – a childish back-and-forth which, to an outsider, might appear to be violent agreement. In other words, camps do not appear to disagree, in general, about foundational issues, yet the bloodshed continues. Need I provide examples? I don’t think so*.
I hate to harp on a point (I really do), but oversimplification and shallow treatment of issues appears to be at the source of so much of the animosity that I think that rational discussion could be had if a short checklist were followed which included keeping one’s mind open to the possibility the other person is not evil simply because they criticized something or failed to submit to demands.
I am short on time and not prepared to discuss “Atheism Plus” in detail at the moment, but the discussion of it provides an excellent example or two that I think provide some insight into how discussions devolve into battles.
First, there is a slippery slope involved which is accelerated by crowd behavior and by unproductive reactions to criticism. We may, for example, start with a civil discussion about whether or not gender disparity in local groups can be attributed to a barrage of unwanted sexual attention women may receive at meet-ups. A number of views will be expressed, some with comments about their own experiences:
Person A: “I don’t do that.”
Person B: “I’ve been groped at meet-ups and it made me feel powerless and alone.”
Person C: “That’s never happened to me.”
Person D: “I think we should ban people who do that kind of thing.”
Person E: “So, I can’t ask a woman out at a meet-up?”
Person F: “Wait, I go to meet-ups to meet men and I like it when they grab me. I can take care of myself and I don’t want that behavior banned.”
Person G: “I’m not going to attend meet-ups anymore if people think that groping is okay.”
…and so on.
None of these views should shut down discussion. The refusal to concede that one’s own view may not be “right” is what turns discussions like these into battles of wills. Note that the original talking point was simple and there are small steps away from it as people talk rather than listen or make assumptions about what was said rather than ask for clarification. Those small steps add up. One day, a woman casually asks that men put a little more thought into when and how they proposition women and a few months later dozens of people are painting everyone who doesn’t support a rather specific call to action as a misogynist or ‘gender traitor’ while some of those called misogynists and gender traitors have dismissed the original problem altogether. This helps no one.
Those promoting “A+” have painted critics with a broad brush; we are “haters” who are “against social justice”. A post by Greta Christina on the issue of inclusiveness provides some insight:
An atheist movement cannot be inclusive of atheist women… and also be inclusive of people who publicly call women ugly, fat, sluts, whores, cunts, and worse; who persistently harass them; who deliberately invade their privacy and make their personal information public; and/or who routinely threaten them with grisly violence, rape, and death.
An atheist movement cannot be inclusive of atheists of color… and also be inclusive of people who think people of color stay in religion because they’re just not good at critical thinking, who blame crime on dark-skinned immigrants, who think victims of racial profiling deserved it because they looked like thugs, and/or who tell people of color, “You’re pretty smart for a…”.
In addition to holding up the reprehensible behavior of a few trolls as representative of the community as a whole, these statements are so full of subtext that they cry out for scrutiny. There are clearly false dichotomies buried in there as many of the proponents of A+ and many of their readers have expressed the desire not simply exclude the asshats who “publicly call women ugly” or “who deliberately invade their privacy”, but also anyone who dares to question whether such things have actually happened in given situations.
As has been said many times, we should be charitable when someone’s meaning is not entirely clear – give them the benefit of the doubt when we have little evidence of malice. This requires empathy. It requires us to resist defensive reactions and reconsider our views when we realize that we have failed in that regard.
Greta also notes that to provide a safe space for people of color, they must exclude “people who think people of color stay in religion because they’re just not good at critical thinking”. I found this particularly interesting in light of the fact that the belief that everyone with faith in a deity of some sort is “not good at critical thinking” is a widespread view among atheists (and skeptics, unfortunately). PZ Myers, one of the founders/owners of FreeThoughtBlogs said this of the religious in a debate a few months ago (one I urge you all to watch: http://youtu.be/ZsqqFpWh7m8 ): “There’s something wrong with their braaains!”
It may be that Greta meant to refer to those who claim that people of color are generally poor critical thinkers and this explains lower rates of atheism. However, the math does not add up. Try constructing a syllogism from these statements. The proportion of believers in the population of people of color is higher than the general population. Believers are poor critical thinkers. Therefore…
So, who is right? Well, neither is right. Or correct.
Out of curiousity, I watched a recording of a few people discussing “Atheism+” [A+]. Much of this particular discussion involved defending the approach of A+ and suggesting that critics are somehow against social justice in general. I won’t got through the entire discussion; many of the arguments were straw men, which are not relevant. However, many were based on unsupported assertions (assumptions) and that is directly relevant.
One of the participants, Debbie Goddard (of CFI On Campus) attempted to address real criticisms rather than discuss those straw men and from her comments the disagreements became more clear. At one point, Stephanie Zvan criticized skeptics for ignoring evidence, noting that “We have mountains of evidence that ‘treating people equally’ is not treating people equally.” Debbie clarified this by expressing her belief that “color-blindness” is wrong.
That is when I realized that what they are talking about here are legitimate and rational disagreements over how to approach social injustices.
Legitimate and rational disagreements. Meaning that neither view is so well-supported that they can claim to know what’s best.
Yet people attempting to discuss these things rationally have been vilified and views have polarized. And the people who were speaking in this recording were doing so with such certainty that they were “right” that they failed to see that legitimate and rational disagreement was even possible.
And this has happened with many on both sides of the issue with most of the ‘dust ups’ in the community. I think a lot of the problem lies in treating these topics as simple when, in fact, they are not. As Ron Lindsay stated in a recent post on A+:
Social justice is great. After all, who’s against social justice? It’s when one starts to fill in the details that disagreements arise.
And it’s the details that matter here.
There are some who argue that, because minorities are at a disadvantage due to a history of oppression, they require special protection in order to reach equality. There are others who argue that such protection is both unnecessary and racist/sexist/___ist in and of itself. And there is a full spectrum of positions in the grey area in between these two views.
What Stephanie claimed is that science tells us that the first view is “right”. Her certainty in that conclusion is clear from the video. Yet, she is wrong – sort of.
There are three details that we should consider. I am going to ignore one which comes from that grey area because it is extremely complicated, and that is the question of whether equal opportunity or equal outcome should be the goal. In other words, what “equality” means [If you claim that the answer to that question is no-brainer, you are making my point]. The other two major issues are the evidence for the claim and the evidence which suggests the best courses of action to correct injustices, which is the whole reason for asking the question in the first place.
We all know that stereotypes exist and that racism, sexism, any-ism, are alive and well in our society. And there is plenty of evidence that implicit biases exist. In fact, they are impossible to eliminate. We favor people whom we view as “like us” in many different ways. Depending on one’s definition of “ingroup” in a given context, we favor those who fit it. However, we are capable of making choices and taking actions which render such favor powerless. We are capable of overcoming these biases just as we are capable of overcoming other cognitive biases. Not eliminating, overcoming.
So science tells us that we have implicit biases which require a special effort on our part to overcome. Stephanie is right, no?
Not so fast.
Science may be able to tell us if affirmative action has contributed to the huge reductions in racism and related outcomes which have occurred in recent decades, but it cannot tell us if affirmative action is a good idea today simply based on the knowledge that we need to make a conscious effort to overcome biases. Even the first question is difficult to assess confidently, but I suspect it can be done and I suspect that the answer will be, “Yes. Yes, it has.”
But this is an extremely complex issue and it is further complicated by the fact that we all have dog in the race. We all care about it because we all identify with one or more of those man made categories we sum up as the variable “race”.
My personal views about special protection are like most of my political views (this IS a political issue, after all): very centrist. I believe that we need to pay attention to things like gender parity if we are interested in decreasing it. I am not convinced, however, that quotas are entirely appropriate in all situations. And if you think that science has the answer to whether my views are “correct”, I challenge you to prove so.
And here’s where I say that in my view, both Stephanie and Debbie are wrong. What I won’t do is reject their views outright and wonder why they can’t just see the truth that I think is written in “mountains of evidence”. I won’t do that because, although I am confident in my own conclusions, I am open to the possibility that I am wrong about this very complex, emotionally-charged issue.
Why I think they are wrong:
The goal is not to place blame for disparities, but to reduce them. If the major source of disparity is discrimination, then the act of discriminating needs to be reduced. Science does provide us with information which is useful in efforts to reduce interracial and other inter-group tensions. What the evidence suggests is not the multiculturalism approach that Debbie believes is best, but what she rejected: color-blindness (and gender-blindness, etc.). Or perhaps a better term would be color-not-noticing, but that doesn’t roll of the tongue very well.
We all have multiple identities. I am a woman, a scientist, an educator, a skeptic, an activist, a blogger, etc. There are always people with whom I share some identities and not others. When the context focuses on a specific value or identity, those with whom I share that value or identity are part of my ingroup. Ingroup/outgroup classification changes with context, but some are more flexible than others.
Decades of applied research has failed to demonstrate that interracial tension in schools can be reduced by increasing discussions of cultural differences and celebrating diversity. This should not be surprising given the mountains of research that Stephanie mentioned about ingroup/outgroup mentality. Attention to differences increases that tension.
What reduces the tension? Focus on similarities, seeing people as part of the ingroup and ignoring the differences which are present in a given context. Reducing the amount of “othering” we engage in. The best way to do that is to focus on commonalities. For example, the work that Chris Stedman, author of a soon-to-be-release book entitled Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious does has been criticized by PZ Myers and others because it brings people of different religious affiliations (and none) together to work toward common prosocial goals. Just yesterday a group of interfaith activists (as they call themselves) spent the day picking up trash on a beach to make it safer and cleaner.
Am I suggesting that people suppress parts of themselves about which they are proud? Let me make this clear: Hell, no.
If that is what you’re taking from this post, you need to look outside of yourself and try to see the bigger picture. What I am saying is that my gender identity should have zero bearing on whether I am hired for a job or asked to speak at a conference or viewed as a sexual object in a professional context. Does that mean that I should not be proud to be a woman? Of course not.
Interfaith work does not suggest that people ‘check their religion at the door’, either. The work benefits more than just the likelihood that they will accomplish common goals. Working together exposes each participant to people with whom they both share ideology and differ in ideology. Focus on the common ideology reduces the tensions caused by differences in other views and that reduction spreads to the differences themselves.
For example, a 2009 Gallop Poll result which most will find unsurprising is that people are much, much less likely to oppose same-sex marriage if they know someone who is gay/lesbian. There are certainly problems with drawing causal conclusions from such a study, but the effect is large and the findings are consistent with many lines of research which converge.
As I stated before, this is a complex issue. You may completely disagree with my argument, but to dismiss it altogether would be ludicrous, not to mention closed-minded and, dare I say it?, anti-intellectual.
I prefer to be recognized for my work rather than patronized because I am female. You may not see the issues the way I do, but calling me a misogynist for that disagreement is not only outrageous, it’s insulting and wrong.
When you speak with such certainty about how right and moral you are in relation to your critics without considering the possibility that you may be missing a nuance or two, you cannot hold any sort of moral or intellectual high ground.
My purpose here is not to argue about the topic of social justice, but to make the point that certainty, particularly about moral questions, is something we all need to be careful about. Too much (more than what is warranted) and it gets in the way of rational discussion. Too much and it divides people when no division is necessary. Too much and it is counterproductive. Too much and it is not confidence; it’s arrogance.
NOTE: Before you start commenting that Atheism Plus is about “allowing these discussions” because nobody else will, let me remind you that nobody ever said that discussions about evidence were outside the scope of Skepticism (one of the primary reasons put forward for the founding of A+) just because they relate to issues of social justice. In fact, quite the opposite is true and I think that this post is a good example of how science and skepticism can be applied to those areas.
*For those not following the ‘rationalist’ blogosphere, I apologize for my lack of links to the incidents I mentioned here. Frankly, there are too many and it’s difficult to know where to start or to choose one link which clearly demonstrates what’s happened. It seems to me that one does not need the background information to understand the example, but I cannot tell for certain.