I’ve had quite a lot of email in response to the recent post I wrote about not being attracted to the ‘sceptic movement’. A ‘lot’ by the piddly standards of this piddly little blog, at any rate.
None of it is hate mail mind you, and there’s no hint of yet another groan-inducing flame war brewing in this quarter of the blogosphere. I take it as an in-road to meaningful discussion.
There does however seem to be an over-arching kind of confusion, one that ties into something else I’ve been subjectively observing of late; the creeping erosion of the concept of ‘respect’.
Before you go all Professor Crystal on me, and propound the reality of the changing nature of language; I already accept that as fact. This does not detract from my concern.
It’s not that ‘respect’ is changing, and that as some kind of conservative I’m digging my heels in and huffing, ‘it’s gone too far!’ Change per se, does not bother me. I’m not a conservative. There’s no nostalgia for old values here.
There is a risk I think, in the careless use of the appearance of respect for short-term gain.
The risk not being that the term ‘respect’ is changing from denoting one kind of respect, to some newer, progressive, more articulate re-valuing of respect, so much as a change from denoting an important concept, to denoting little if anything other than cliché.
You do have to be a little sceptical when someone gives a great display of respect, with disproportionately little reason, especially when they do it with such ease. Wouldn’t you make an effort, if you really respected someone and wanted to make a point of showing it?
The confusion in the emails I’ve been sent, fixates upon my apparent dislike and lack of respect for Phil Plait. It was even suggested that I at least make some sort of gesture.
I didn’t make a gesture then, and I emphatically chose not to do so now. Not because I want to convey disrespect (I don’t believe that’s the case), but because respect is beside the topic of discussion, and moreover, the expectation of gesture is an expectation of meaningless posing.
Hollow gesture is very much a part of the cliché cavalcade I wish to avoid, thank you, so I just won’t do it. I refuse.
(‘Je refuse‘, while more tempting, is also part of the cavalcade).
This expectation that criticism is to be laced with saccharine suffers a particular insufferable mentality; the one where Glenn Beck cries detergent tears into his hanky, expecting the evil modern world to say sorry; the same mentality where angry children backed into a corner when sound reasoning from the elders runs against their sense of entitlement, tell their parents ‘you hate me!’
Children, unlike the mentioned hysterical host, are typically very good at spotting unfairness, with jarring regularity being quite correct when objecting ‘it’s not fair’. So much so that it’s disappointing on those occasions they choose to voice obvious red-herrings and confected victimhood. Even if youthful egocentrism makes such outbursts against their better natures statistically inevitable.
Adults are for the most part more complex, especially when it comes to kidding themselves. But is it too much to ask that this part of the display, the oh so earnest posture, can be left out of mature discussion and back in the supermarket check-outs and playgrounds where it isn’t nearly as disruptive and degrading?
Back to the post in contention…
Why take a discussion about problems involving scepticism-as-movement, instrumental to societal change, then re-frame it tantamount to erecting a shrine to a popular sceptic mid-article? Seems like a lot like “Whaaa! You hate Phil Plait!”, to me.
Or fan-wank. Or both.
The real ‘tell’ of course, specific to the post in question, is just how out-of-whack the priorities are.
The post in contention was authored with these priorities…
I focused on a need to emphasise the human impact of woo, and to focus at an organisational level upon those particular forms of woo with disastrous impacts and how this would attract my participation. In the kind of broad-topic, sceptical-critical organisation able to reasonably demand my support, UFO belief wouldn’t be assigned anything close to the same imperative as AIDS denial, because the consequences of the belief in UFOs aren’t even remotely as serious as the consequences of AIDS denial.
‘What is the goal of the sceptical, critical thinking movement?’, went the great question in Phil’s infamous speech.
The implicit attitude, the floating rationale in response to the question, is ‘whatever takes your fancy, just as long as you’re clear about the answer’. Essentially, be sceptical, and be critical, if and when it hits your g-spot.
It’s the difference between telling Meryl Dorey she’s wrong about vaccination because you don’t want children and families to suffer, and telling Meryl Dorey she’s wrong because you enjoy telling her she’s wrong. The difference isn’t trivial and I’m not okay with the point being acted upon as if it is – at least not if I’m to affiliate.
Yet apparently, I, and by extension others, are expected to divert attention away from this kind of critique, to make time for the received wisdom that prominent sceptics (and other idols of adoration) want a pat on the head and a wipe under the chin. Even if they do (and I doubt it), I wouldn’t.
Callow displays of respect in such instances are non-binding conventions and nothing more. They don’t convey actual respect, they just numb people to genuine expression, making it harder to convey actual respect.
In such a climate, respect becomes a cliché.
‘But you win more bees with honey, than this kind of vinegar!’
Just like you win more flies with this kind of shit.
I’m not at all opposed to treating people well, and I’m not at all opposed to political sensitivity being instrumental to progressive change, notionally or in practice. Empathy that is, not confected sympathy, political deception even less.
People aren’t bees. It’s not so black and white that you can just spread sugary goo into every crack and crevice of your interlocutor’s psyche, and it’ll be alright.
People can counter-manipulate. People can counter-intuit.
You know when you’re studying and you come across a theory for the first time that seems to explain everything?
Suddenly the fog clears, the sun shines, the landscape lain bare and bright… Then, if you’re still of critical mind, the glare of illumination subsides and you’re able to make things out in greater detail. Exceptions come into fine contrast; context fleshes itself out in a broad range of hue and colour.
You notice the light doesn’t really shine into every corner, every bend, every fold, and while this reduces the (illusory) certainty, it makes things more interesting for the curious of mind, and knowledge more amenable to practice.
Some people stay bedazzled. Some people, having found the answer, don’t need to go any further. What’s scepticism for, what do you want to do with critical thought? The bedazzled no longer have a use for it, not at this particular juncture, at least.
Part of the problem with respect and how to swing it is like this.
‘You win more bees with honey!’, the easily bedazzled are told for the first time.
‘Wow! It’s all so clear now! I’m going to base all my analysis on this single axiom! Can I have my political science degree now?’
The complacency sets in with moral posturing. The moment of illumination, the point at which the forum-bound sceptic risks abandoning epistemic scepticism, is when they, for a split second, appear to have an element of moral superiority over their Internet interlocutor.
‘I win more bees with honey!’
‘But nobody wants to read your stuff. It’s patronising and unoriginal.’
‘I don’t alienate religious people and other woo-meisters!’
‘Dawkins sells more books to religious people than your role-models sell to anyone. Do you think every theist needs their ego soothed? Do you think every theist reads like an eight year old?’
‘I… I… I… win more bees with honey!’
To those of an advanced literary disposition, Dawkins may be a bit crotchety-classicist, dry to the point fossilisation and undoubtedly politically naive, but I suspect that while understated, through his respect for the faithful, his engagement is more genuine than could otherwise be achieved though the modus operandi of those Ophelia Benson calls ‘the party of nice’. Even if noses will be put out of joint.
A case of genuine political naivety, instrumental to genuine political effect. I think it’s what makes Dawkins interesting as a writer.
The Dawkins case, in respect of what we’re talking about here (respect), puts the lie to the ‘wisdom’ of bees and honey. Although if that were the axiom that gets you though from day-to-day, posturing on the Internet, I guess you wouldn’t have much incentive to admit it.
What’s a regular product of entertaining confected victimhood after pushing an idea from outside the Overton Window? More confected victimhood!
‘I respect the norm and the people of the norm, but…’
If you don’t bow and scrape enough, or if you’re just too different, you can be written off as disrespectful or otherwise politically nasty, irrespective of fact or argument. And if you do bow and scrape enough, you can be written off as nice-but-misguided, irrespective of fact or argument.
Hell, even if you do bow and scrape enough, you can can be written off as disrespectful or otherwise politically nasty, irrespective of fact or argument.
‘Prometheus’ hatred of God and all He stands for is the soul and substance of modern anti-theism. This is why the name “Prometheus Books” was chosen for the major publisher of infidel literature. The truth of this observation is obvious because only a strong emotional antipathy toward God could fuel the zeal and enthusiasm of Paul Kurtz and his unholy crusade.’
(Robert A. Morey, 1986)
Paul Kurtz has, as a moral imperative, been on ‘the scene’, advocating the philosophy of ‘nice’, longer than most atheists have spent on ‘the scene’ in any capacity. He has a history as a humanist bridge builder, not a bridge burner, even if his bridges can lead to nowhere, or even invite hostility. If there’s a founding father of ‘the party of nice’, Paul Kurtz is possibly the only candidate.
He’s gone to great lengths to demonstrate just how much he respects religious people, how nice we atheists are, and have to be, in line with a stated intent of giving an atheists a good image. This in intentional contrast to the ‘New Atheists’, who in recent years Kurtz has sadly gone to lengths to distance himself from.
Ingratiating so. Disingenuously so.
For all his great displays of respect for religious sensitivities, Paul Kurtz should know a lot better than to pander to this mentality.
When Robert Morey writes hysterically of Kurtz’s ‘hatred of God’, one needs to be particularly wary of the adjoining ‘all He stand for’. ‘He’ stands for freedom, and babies, and rainbows and apple pie and patriotism. Naturally, those of the ‘unholy crusade’ want to crush all of this – crushing makes the babies more edible.
The above quote maligning Kurtz, is from Robert A. Morey’s execrable The New Atheism and The Erosion of Freedom.
‘New Atheists’! From 1986 no less! Not so new!
If you read the book, you’ll find that despite the decided right-wing flavour you’d expect of someone who called for Mecca and Medina to be nuked, if you look past the knuckle-dragging prose, the argument is flawed in many ways similar to that published by McGrath et al.; Stalin-Hitler-Mao, ‘They’re coming to take our rights away!’, etc. Not so new!
Again, Kurtz should know better than to play to this kind rubbish. He’s participating in the othering of today’s ‘New Atheist’, the kind of smear he was a target of back in the day.
All out of respect, of course. That’s my point.
I’ll return to the casualty in all of this that goes beyond the whole atheist/sceptic thing, not to avoid boring you with the standard pabulum, but to emphasise the scope of the cliché.
The casualty, the death of respect, that occurs on popularly on the political scene.
The ‘Rally to Restore Sanity’ abused the idea of respect in much the same manner as I’ve discussed, and was a failure for it. It appealed to the worst in American politics, making great displays of respect for the politically insane; throwing the whole of the liberal-left under the bus in the process by claiming that the left partook equally of conspiracy theory, and political violence.
Birther nonsense, ‘death panels’ and so on, are the stuff of the mainstream American Right. As of writing, there isn’t an equivalent extant in the mainstream American left.
Yet implicit in the ‘Rally to Restore Sanity’, was an implication along lines that an Alan Colmes could be viewed as a left-wing Glenn Beck, if you squinted just right – and you have to squint just right to be non-partisan, sane and respectful.
Respectful, self-denying and overly graceful to the spread of the political spectrum that in return, by way of enabling at least, graces the world with the ideas of God’s force-field-over-America, ‘shooting them in the head’ and re-runs of The Protocols of The Elders of Zion in drag as criticisms of George Soros. (Thanks again Glenn Beck, you poisonous polyp).
And for pity’s sake, if you want to respectfully extend an olive branch to moderate Muslims, don’t get Cat ‘Kill Salman Rushdie’ Stevens up there to sing; get him up there to apologise to Rushdie, while apologising to Muslims for being a shit spokesperson.
Treating people as if they’re stupid like this, belittles them. And even if people are this stupid (which I doubt), implicitly belittling rubbish like this can’t be done in the name of bi-partisan, pluralistic respect, without belittling the very concept of respect.
When put like this, respect is so very saccharine; more sickly pound-for-pound, with none of the substance of the real thing.
Where the hell is people’s scepticism when it comes to respect?
When someone says ‘I’m not a racist, but…’, the first instinct for reasonable people is to check the claim that follows for consistency with the avowed non-racism. ‘I’m not a racist, but… I don’t want A-a-a-a-a-a-sians taking our jobs away’.
‘I’m not a misogynist, but… women really need to cover up. I want women to be safe because I love them.’
You get the picture? Too many don’t.
‘I respect Billy McButthurt over there, but… really, I think he needs to choke to death on a camel’s cock, slowly, with gasping, rasping bubbles of Billy-saliva, and lashings of camel-cum.’
‘See! They respect Billy! They said so! Hooray!’
Where respect is concerned, credulity seems to reign. With all this forged respect in circulation, the currency is devalued.
I use my respect, real respect, to purchase esteem, mostly for others but with a just little for myself.
The forgeries, the fake, oh-so-earnest ‘respect’, makes this harder.
The forgeries make it harder to avoid being miserly with my respect. The forgeries mean purchasing less esteem for the people who rightly deserve more. Respect doesn’t seem valued as it should be.
Is it wrong of me to resent this?
* So often these innocent moral objections ventured by children are accompanied by wonderful observations of inconsistency on the part of the parent or guardian, like some kind of hard-wired inner-Socrates driving the parent to a state of aporia, or akrasia, or fury, or all of the above. If you have more than one child at the age of primary school, consider the prospect of taking them to the supermarket, and buying just one of them a chocolate at the check-out, and you’ll get my meaning.
(Photo Source: William Cheselden, Osteographica, 1733.)