Okay. This one’s going to stretch me.
That’s what she said.
I’m going to try really hard not to let this turn into an angry rant. I know I like angry rants, but I think it’s worth exploring whether I can channel that same vehemence and passion into something less dickish.
No, I haven’t had an irritable personality transplant, or found Jesus down the back of the sofa, or anything else that might have inexplicably mellowed me out. I’m just experimenting with a more calm and measured debating style, and I’m aware of the irony that would result if I took my usual approach and ended up shouting “BE MORE DIPLOMATIC AND LESS FUCKING HOSTILE, YOU CUNTS!!”
…Okay, that one doesn’t count, because I was quoting the kind of thing I’m not going to say here.
(By the way, having seen in advance how this turns out, I should warn you that it’s long. Stupidly long. I’m much more succinct when I’m allowed to just swear at people, but I’m not editing it down again now. Also, there are still liberal smatterings of sarcasm. If I tried to go without sarcasm or gratuitous personal abuse for this many words, I’d probably asphyxiate.)
So. What got me going on this theme was this article. It’s not the first article ever to express this particular message, and it’s certainly a long way from being the douchiest thing on the internet, but it’s the one I happened to read most recently, so it’s the one I’m going to address directly now.
In this particular diatribe, the author invites atheists, by the clever use of an internet-friendly series of initials, to “S(hut) T(he) F(uck) U(p)”. He expresses weariness with “evangelizing atheists” and their tendency toward “fervent anti-religion diatribes”, because of which the author and his many friends from varied religious backgrounds have all agreed that these atheists “are pretty much a gang of annoying douchebags”.
My first intention was to respond to this article in kind, by asking the author to please STFU, levelling various accusations of extremist irrationality at him, and then demanding something like: “See how you like it??”
But instead, I’m going to see whether I’m capable of a more tactful approach, and demonstrate how the author could have approached this thorny matter in a way that wouldn’t just make the people he’s talking to think he’s a cock.
Hello there, Mr Kinsman! I hope this relaxed and friendly missive finds you well. How are things in Albuquerque, this fine day? Gosh, it’s almost like we’re in a musical. I can tell we’re going to get along just fine.
Since we’re already such good friends, I hope you won’t mind my raising a slight quibble about the tone of one of your recent complaints. You wrote something of a diatribe recently titled “dear atheists”, in which you rather laid into non-believers for a certain kind of arrogance, and requested as politely as you know how that they “STFU”. And while I think I can see whence your frustration originates, I also think you could have done a better job of expressing it in more reasonable, accessible terms.
For a start, for whose benefit are you writing? Is it really the people you’re addressing?
What I mean is, saying “Dear so-and-so” at the head of a piece of writing can be a handy rhetorical advice, even if you don’t intend it to be read only by the people you’re ostensibly writing to. Hell, I’m doing it myself in this very essay. But is that what you’re doing? Or are you honestly trying to communicate something to the very atheists who have so gotten on your wick?
If it’s the latter, then I think a more diplomatic approach is really going to be necessary if you expect to get anywhere. I know you disapprove of some aspects of how these people behave, but how do you expect them to respond to a letter that begins, in no uncertain terms, by instructing them to shut the fuck up?
If someone used those exact words to open a dialogue with you, in which they proceeded to explain the many ways in which your own behaviour displeased them… would you really be inclined to listen, and to obediently stay quiet and keep your opinions to yourself in future? Or would you wonder who this person was, and where they got off telling you what to do?
I think you’d find yourself very inclined to take the second option, and rightly so – so you may want to rethink your approach if you expect any atheists to respond to you with anything other than antipathy and hostility.
What you’re trying to do isn’t going to work, in short.
Secondly – and I hope this doesn’t come across as obnoxiously sarcastic or patronising – are you sure you really know what the word “atheist” means? Or at least, what most people who identify themselves with that word mean by using it? There are a lot of honest misconceptions on this subject, and it might be that you’ve just got the wrong idea about some things.
Or, think of it this way: if you wish to directly address a particular group of people who irritate you, are you sure that “atheists” is the most accurate way of referring to them? Because the views you seem to find so abhorrent are actually held by a much smaller demographic than I think you recognise.
Allow me to analogise. You’ve probably noticed that the Catholic Church has been in the news quite a bit recently, due to some shocking revelations that have rather brought them into disrepute. Now, if I were to fail to make some important distinctions, and write a blog entry entitled “dear Christians”, in which I asked the members of your religion to “please stop raping children”, and embarked on a lengthy discussion of the cruelty and evils of sexual abuse and the many ways in which Christians ought to stop interfering in my affairs and those of innocent minors… then I think you might take issue at some of this.
Specifically, you might object to my tarnishing all Christians with the same brush, and failing to distinguish a minority of awful sex offenders from the majority who would never do anything so terrible. And you’d be right. If I want to address this issue, it’s not enough for me to casually blame the problem on all “Christians”. I’d have to be very clear on who’s actually guilty of the things I’m objecting to.
Well, I would raise a similar objection to your own piece. I’m an atheist, and probably even a proselytising one – I keep a blog in which I often debate philosophy, dissect the arguments for the existence of a god, and explain why I don’t accept them. I have no compunctions about letting people know that I’m an atheist, and that I think they should be too. But in your post, I seem to be getting painted with the same brush as some very scary radical extremists. So radical, in fact, that someone who’s been immersed in the atheist movement as long as I have has somehow never encountered one. It’s virtually a complete straw man.
You say to the people you’re talking to: “You’re not just satisfied to disagree; you want all religion banned, outlawed, eradicated.” Clearly this doesn’t refer to me, because I don’t want any of these things. And yet, the tone of your piece makes me feel as if I ought to suffer in the collective guilt of those who do, because of the many things I share in common with them as a proselytising atheist.
This doesn’t feel fair, either to myself or to atheists in general, who I think deserve more than a very brief disclaimer at the top of the page acknowledging that some of us are fine. If I object to the rhetoric of the Westboro Baptist Church, you’d probably prefer that I choose my words more carefully than to say “Dear Christians, please shut the fuck up about how God hates fags.”
You’re certainly right that anyone holding the views you describe is an “enem[y] of freedom of speech and freedom of thought”. But they’re not simply “atheists”, whoever this fringe group of lunatics are, and they can’t really be held up as an example of the douchebagitude of atheists any more than Rush Limbaugh can be said to prove that all Americans are obnoxious bigots.
And when you attack such a tiny fringe position so vehemently, it makes me wonder quite why you find yourself so enraged by this particular target. Maybe you were simply having a bad day and felt the need to get some things off your chest – a personal blog is a great place to do that. But if you want your blog to engage with the rest of the world, then it kinda falls on you to choose your wording more carefully than if its use were entirely personal and therapeutic.
What I mean by this is that your choice of focus may be indicative of your personal feelings. “STFU” is what you lead with, and most of the entry continues on this irascible theme – again, no doubt very therapeutic, but not exactly tailored to strike a chord with anyone in disagreement. Any kind of sensitive diplomacy is breezed through rather carelessly in a barely noticeable clarifying paragraph, which does little to moderate the overall ranting tone of the piece.
In fact, speaking as an atheist, the impression I come away with on reading your piece is not that it’s only those other atheists you’re talking about, with views that I myself would find abhorrent, and that you might be perfectly tolerant of my own views. Rather, the feeling I get is of being told, by you, what my opinions are and how much they offend you. This is the way it comes across to me; as if I’m being unfairly dressed down, even though I share almost nothing in common with the extremist niche demographic you describe.
And if I weren’t being deliberately careful in my choice of words here, this would result in my expressing some decidedly uncharitable feelings toward you.
What your article looks like is a very direct, focused attack on atheists in particular, without any real context. It doesn’t look like you’re keeping a religiously themed blog. I couldn’t find any posts in your archives about the Catholic rape scandal, or any other breeds of zealot who ought to shut the fuck up. If evangelising atheists are annoying douchebags, then are evangelising Christians also universally annoying douchebags? If not, what’s the difference? Is it just that the atheists are evangelising something that you don’t personally agree with?
I have to say, this is how you’re coming across to me. Not like someone with a legitimate complaint, but like someone who just personally doesn’t like the idea of outspoken atheism. And that’s not a position that I can imagine many atheists feeling much sympathy towards – even the overwhelming majority who would be entirely on your side taking a stand against anything as oppressive as an attempt to outlaw all religion.
Perhaps you’d like to consider how your words would sound if pointed in a different direction, with only a slight change to the specific details, but with the tone and rather careless overgeneralisation intact:
(And I mean the flamboyant gays, not the lovely people that I know who are for the most part rational, reasonable, and don’t keep shoving their sexuality down your throat,)
I understand that you don’t find people of the opposite gender sexually attractive. You have a right to not feel what you don’t feel, but your fervent anti-hetero diatribes are humorously (and frighteningly) close to the preachy, hate-mongering speech of the very sorts of homophobic bigots you claim to hate. You’re not just satisfied to disagree; you want all straight marriage banned, outlawed, eradicated. You’re enemies of freedom of speech and freedom of thought, not just freedom of sexuality, and that pisses me off. Evangelizing gays are pretty much a gang of annoying fags.
(And I mean the proselytizing women, not the lovely people that I know who are for the most part rational, reasonable, and stay in the kitchen,)
I understand that you sometimes feel oppressed by men, and that you often have trouble being taken seriously because of your gender. You have a right to not possess whatever genitalia you don’t possess, but your fervent anti-male diatribes are humorously (and frighteningly) close to the preachy, hate-mongering speech of the very sorts of chauvinistic bigots you claim to hate. You’re not just satisfied to disagree; you want all men banned, outlawed, eradicated. You’re enemies of freedom of speech and freedom of thought, not just freedom of Y chromosomes, and that pisses me off. Evangelizing women are pretty much a gang of annoying bitches.
Dear black people,
(And I mean the uppity black people, not the lovely people that I know who are for the most part rational, reasonable, and know their place,)
I understand that you’re still struggling to overcome centuries of oppression. You have a right to possess as much melanin as your body can produce, but your fervent anti-white diatribes are humorously (and frighteningly) close to the preachy, hate-mongering speech of the very sorts of racists you claim to hate. You’re not just satisfied to disagree; you want the entire white race banned, outlawed, eradicated. You’re enemies of freedom of speech and freedom of thought, not just freedom of sun-tanning, and that pisses me off. Evangelizing blacks are pretty much a gang of annoying… um, let’s play it safe and stick with douchebags.
How does that look now?
I expect you might find yourself having an opinion or two at this point. You might be reminded, for instance, of certain homophobic rhetoric you’ve probably heard before, from people claiming not to have anything against gay people but to object only to having it “shoved down our throats” all the time with all these parades they seem to keep having.
I hope it’s clear why I call that kind of rhetoric bigoted. The problem has never been gay people being too flamboyant; the problem is people who, due to their own insecurities and prejudices, get far too easily offended by people expressing things they have every right to express.
And a group of people who have historically had their ability to express such things – deep and personal aspects of themselves, like who they happen to be sexually attracted to – severely restricted, by other people who didn’t want to hear it, might feel compelled to go further than simply expressing these things. They might wish to rejoice in it, to defiantly shout to the world who they are and what rights they’re entitled to, as in the case of gay pride parades. It’s an important way of taking a stand against the pervasive hatred typified by my hypothetical quotes up there.
I should make it clear that I’m not claiming atheists have just as rough a time of it as gay, female, or black people. There’s not nearly such a weighty history of institutional oppression in our case, and very little actual violence. Atheists are under-represented in much of society, and widely viewed with unwarranted suspicion and disrespect; black people were owned as property by other people on a worldwide scale and still suffer the remnants of that prejudice. Atheists certainly don’t have it as rough as all that.
But, with that caveat, I’d argue that it’s not totally out of line to make the comparisons that I’m making. The discrimination has similarities in quality, if not quantity. It’s the same type of thing, even if it’s not on the same scale.
And I hope you’d agree with me that my above examples – “Dear black people,” and so forth – would be appalling and offensive if written sincerely.
It’s certainly not the case that these groups – women, black people, LGBT folk, atheists, and other discriminated minority classes – should be immune to criticism. For instance, while I consider myself a feminist, some people associate that word with the extreme man-hating fringe of the movement. No doubt some in the atheist community take things way too far as well. But if you intend to write an article that comes this close to insisting that an entire oppressed demographic stay oppressed, I suggest that the onus is squarely on you to make it over-abundantly clear just who it is you’re referring to, and who you’re okay with.
It’s not all women or feminists I have a problem with. I consider myself a feminist. The problem is with sexist prejudice against women, and – at the other end of the scale – with those who hold extremist ultra-feminist views so rare I can’t even remember hearing them seriously expressed since a 1968 manifesto.
It doesn’t seem to be all atheists you have a problem with. It seems to be those who hold extremist views that I’ve only seen honestly expressed very occasionally, in rare corners of the internet, where they tend to be most loudly rejected by other atheists.
So I really think it’d be a worthwhile idea to think a bit more about who it is you’re chastising – and who’s likely to feel like they’re being chastised.
At least one of your atheist friends left a comment in agreement with your post – and it’s great that they’re secure enough in their non-religious identity that it’s no big deal for them. They seem to feel that atheism can take a few hits like this, and indeed may benefit from being taken down a peg from time to time. Which is awesome for them – but coming out as an atheist is still a big deal for a lot of people. Acceptance is often far from assured, even from one’s family – and when a demographic has a history like this, and faces a lot of societal oppression in response to its attempts to be heard, I think you need to be really, really careful about telling them to just shut the fuck up.
You don’t seem to have much of a problem with anything that any atheist has done, except that they’re too loud for your liking. Well, as outlined above, sometimes people need to be loud, and this need is only exacerbated when it’s clear that other people don’t want them to be heard. Your only complaint about what atheists have to say, it seems, is that you don’t want to hear it – but if I went around telling everyone to shut the fuck up who had something to say that I didn’t want to hear, my throat would be raw before I even finished breakfast every morning.
So you could probably just learn to live with the fact that sometimes people who think differently are going to want to say what they like. But if your intent is to help them refine their message, and compromise on some more reasonable arguments that you find less offensive, then I have to say that your current approach seems very unlikely to be effective.
Well, that was interesting. For me, anyway. You’re allowed to have found it dreary and long-winded. It felt like good practice, even though I don’t really intend this particular post to have any direct effect on its subject matter.
Aside from the unwieldy length of this drivel, any thoughts? Is there some value in the effort to be approachable and conciliatory, sometimes, rather than going all-out snarky from the beginning and just telling him to fuck off, as I was extremely tempted to do?
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