The new isms.

October 27, 2010 § 1 Comment

The “New Atheist” movement is home to ongoing debate about several isms, not the least of which is the “New Atheism” label itself. As my first real post I thought I’d deal with the important ones. “New Atheism” doesn’t qualify as important because a) It’s irrelevant to me whether  any kind of atheism is or is not new and b) The term is easy enough to avoid and doesn’t take up that much time in-movement.

The twin labels of “accommodationism” and “confrontationism” do take up a lot of time though. A lot of time. For anyone who doesn’t already know (basically if you somehow wandered in from the five-hundredth page of google results): “Accommodationist” is a word atheists and skeptics use to describe other atheists and skeptics who they think are being too polite or timid. “Confrontationist” is a word atheists and skeptics use to describe other atheists and skeptics who they think are being too abrasive and hostile. Already, I’m tempted to say the entire distinction is complete garbage. Don’t worry, I have reasons.

Reason one: This is a pair of labels that two sides of an argument coined to label one another. As a rule, I tend not to trust people who are fighting to label each other in helpful ways. I think the results of this nomenclatural misadventure support that attitude. These words were coined for the primary purpose of grouping people together in order to criticize them. This does occasionally work out (the word “fundagelical” is a meaningful designation even if it is simplistic and uncomplimentary) but more often than not the result is less than instructive.

Reason two: The labels “accommodationist” and “confrontationist” presume that one’s outlook on activism must be so heavily biased toward either of these outlooks that the result can be reasonably described as a trait rather than as a selectively applied strategy. Greta Christina is dead-on when she says that movements need both. She’s also dead-on about a whole bunch of other stuff but that’s neither here nor there. Of particular note is this passage:

“Some of us are good at passionate, confrontational idealism; while some of us are good at sympathy with our opponents, and at compromise. (And some of us are good at balancing these approaches, or at using different ones at different times.)”

The only thing I have to add to Greta’s post is that I think the third option is actually an ideal toward which we should all strive. It’s not just another option, it’s by far the best.

This is because reality doesn’t sort through possible situations and hand us the ones best suited to our preferred MO. What this means to me is that the most die-hard idealist should be prepared to check the agression if it’s pragmatic, compassionate, or both. And it very often is. Similarly, even the warmest and fuzziest diplomat should be prepared to go on the offensive when the opposition demands it. And they very often do. As Greta says, accommodation and confrontation exist on a spectrum and historically they work well in combination. But I don’t see any value in restricting myself to either one, even if I know there are people who specialize in the other. Large organizations might need to make a judgment call and assume one role in the public sphere, but I don’t think individuals or small groups have any reason to operate that way.

I expect that viewed through the filter of these isms my posts here will seem to come down on opposite sides at different times. I hope that’s the case, because if it were easy for people to view me as entirely in one camp or the other I’d be worried that I was doing something wrong. Some people should be accommodated. Some should be confronted. Most people I know should be confronted about some issues and accommodated about others. I’m going to try and make all of my arguments about strategy based on specifics. If I start dealing in generalizations about how everyone in the movement should act at all times or even on average, I’m confident I’ll be smacked down quickly and thoroughly. I hope that the trend will shift and this will apply to other people as well but I’m not very optimistic about that prospect.

To be fair to isms, I’m not against all of them. Some are helpful labels. They may be complicated, hotly disputed, and distressingly ambiguous but to some extent they highlight a meaningful set of ideas and actually aid the discussion of those ideas. But confrontationism and accommodationism haven’t shown good results, and they don’t even really show any promise. They shift the conversation into an invented realm of who people are instead of focusing on what they are doing. So here’s one generalization I do feel comfortable making: The sooner we can get over these lazy and empty simplifications, the better off we’ll be.

So there’s my first post. Hello world and all that. I have more lined up but I have this terrible compulsion to edit stuff until it’s readable.

Edit: This post on Daylight Atheism touches on similar points although I maintain that the entire dichotomy is essentially a red herring. More to the point, the false categories actually provide the entire justification for Nisbet’s entire idiotic objection to PZ being booked. If we weren’t using invented language that is fundamentally disconnected from reality (which as skeptics we should not) we could have a real discussion. It’s at least theoretically possible to make a coherent argument that CFI and the Council for Secular Humanism would do themselves more harm than good by booking PZ Myers for a talk. But because the Confrontationist/Accommodationist taxa have been legitimized by repetition Nisbet is able to use them as shorthand:

Oppenheimer’s article provides evidence for these fears.  His report describes a panel at the event featuring the accommodationist Chris Mooney, a science journalist and blogger, and the confrontationalist PZ Myers, a bomb-throwing blogger and biology professor at the University of Minnesota-Morris.

Nisbet isn’t demonstrating that Myers is a liability, he’s just presuming it from the outset. This isn’t really anything new, but I think the fact that the rhetoric is so widely accepted makes the lazy assertions seem more legitimate as well. So while I agree with Daylight Atheist that the Nisbet article is trash, I think the best way to attack it is to call attention to the unreality of the alleged Confrontationist/Accomodationist divide.

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