There is a terribly unfortunate trend in social media to mock and humiliate other people.
This is possible for the same reason it’s so easy to drop bombs on people: You don’t have to look at your victims. They’re abstract, not real people. Indeed, it’s often said that you should never say something on social media you wouldn’t say to someone’s face, but this common sense rule of etiquette is all but ignored online.
While I object to it on all sides, I find it particularly hypocritical when purported agents of reason resort to these tactics. There is no rational defense for them, but I see atheists tying themselves into knots, as contorted as any theist, trying to justify the bullying and mocking of others. They enjoy mocking people (we all do, I enjoy it at least as much as the next person. It’s self-aggrandizing and fun), and therefore attempt to justify it.
Indeed, no rational agent can deny that if you enjoy doing something, you must double and triple check yourself when doing it, because your pleasure at it will override your rational thought, it will tip the scales—you’ll be LOOKING for a chance to do it.
And while many atheists tell me that they only reflect back what is given to them (the “well they started it” defense), most of the people who say that can be found combing through tweets looking for anything to take offence at. They assume the worst possible interpretation of anything that is said to them, and take it as an attack so that they may engage in a “justified” counter attack. This is easily the vast majority of interactions I see on social media, where they defend mocking as a means to “educate people” (point this out, and again, they get as defensive as any theist). Nevermind that no social scientist ever found mockery as an effective form of education; Freud, Piajet, Jung all said it had the opposite effect (and thirty seconds on twitter confirm that.. it entrenches people in their beliefs)… Everyone wants to be Christopher Hitchens, whom they deeply misunderstand; they apply insults like atom bombs, where he applied them with a scalpel.
Humor and mockery are spectacular weapons against bullies and authoritarian figures (one reason making fun of the dear leader is one of the first things banned in dictatorial regimes). We here on the codex use both. Nobody is suggesting they’re inherently good or bad., and I tend to agree. But one must know how and when to apply it, and do so deliberately. While Christianity is, I think, a fascist and dictatorial system, a nice old Grandma offering five kind words a day on twitter isn’t Mussolini. 95% of individual Christians aren’t on social media aren’t the ones who need to be attacked, they’re the ones who need to be educated and deconverted, and that’s a process requires trust and reason.
Hecklers and troublemakers in general are also most vulnerable to mockery. People looking to agitate, looking for attention, and with absolutely no genuine interest in anything other than causing trouble. These people are, as far as I can tell, best disposed with mockery, and certainly we on the codex consider that one of our staple tools when dealing with such people. There is nothing more frustrating to an agitator than finding humor in him. But I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen someone, even on twitter, with no other agenda than to cause trouble.
But because there are legitimate and important uses for open mockery, the vast majority of atheists I see rationalize putting every theist they can into those boxes, trying to get round pegs into square holes. They’re addicted to hurting and belittling others, and do so not when reason dictates, but when they need a fix.
I’m a huge fan of mockery as an effective tool. Jon Stewart does it brilliantly, so does John Oliver, Stephen Colbert, and many others. But here’s the thing… you see them doing it against presidents, against corporations, against powerful people like Michelle Bachmann and Bill O’Rilly, powerful people. They’re not mocking everyday people you’ll find on social media. Their targets are carefully picked. Further, you may note that these political satirists aren’t trying to educate the people they’re mocking; the subject of the mockery is not the audience (and you want to see an audience turn on a comedian? Let the Comedian mock his audience. Oliver mocked the Patriots during a stand up in New England… he won’t make that mistake again). It’s insane to be on twitter, mock the person you’re having a convo with, and think that’s going to help you get your point across.
What’s more, have you seen what happens when a political satirist actually is trying to effectively communicate with a hostile guest? What happens when O’Riley or Bachmann goes on The Daily Show, or when Colbert is interviewing someone with deep political differences? The host goes out of his way to be polite. He tries REALLY HARD to use reason. They might take the occasional jab in, but it’s is a comedy show, they have to, that’s what people tuned in for. But when John Stewart has a proponent of the 2nd amendment on his show, do you see mockery being used as a tool to reason with him? Or is he as respectful as possible while positing his own opinion? And when he fails, does he sign off with insults and humiliation, or with respect, so that an honest conversation can continue some other day?
So, what happens when Jon Stewart has Bill O’riley on his show? He treats him with respect and dignity, and tries to have an honest conversation with him. Are there a few comedic jabs? Yes, it’s a comedy show. But watch how serious Stewart gets when he’s talking to O’Rilly, watch him use reason, NOT insults and mockery. He tries to get a meeting of the minds. And he tries HARD. And when he fails, he tries again.
The Big Four (Well, three of them):
So how do the (arguably) most successful atheists deal with these things? Well, historically, from Socrates to Russell, while all have used humor, they all found a reasoned argument to be their best tool. And the modern atheists are respectfully too. Look at Dennett, Harris, and Dawkins. Harris has many debates, and reason and civility are cornerstones (When Ben Afleck attacked Harris on Bill Maher, Harris didn’t even call it an attack, he said that Afleck “expanded into that space”).
Do these people use jokes to lighten the mood, disarm, or make a point? Absolutely! Harris once said “If I sprinkle a little milk on my corn flakes and say it’s the body of Elvis Presley, I’m obviously crazy. If I do more or less the same thing over some crackers in a church and think it’s Jesus, I’m just a catholic”. This is hilarious. But that was a formal debate, and he wasn’t trying to educate or deconvert the other side, his audience was the crowd watching. I’ve seen him actually arguing with people, and never seen him say something like that to an individual he was actualy trying to communicate with.
The difference between the two, the context, is miles apart. As are the goals.
Christopher Hitchens (He did it right!):
Now most atheists would say “Ah ha, but Hitchens, look at all the success he got with mockery!” Well, the fact that they think that only highlights every point I’ve made above. People who use him as a defense like only to look at what he said, and completely ignore the context in which he said it, and what his goals were. What made him so successful was his extremely careful application of vicious mockery and insults. It looks like he’s attacking anything that moves. But like an expert in any field, he makes it look easy, when even a modest examination revealed careful and deliberate precision.
The examples of this are endless, all over youtube, but the best example is the documentary “Collision”. This film chronicles a year of debates with the theologian Douglass Willson. In it, you can see Christopher at his usual, abrasive and humerious self. But once again, he saves all his insults and derision when he’s not trying to convince the people he’s mocking, when he’s not trying to deconvert his opponents or change their opinions. They are not his audience, they are not the ones he’s speaking too (even when talking to them directly). These are huge public debates, and he’s speaking to the audience. These are oratory skills he’s using. He is trying to score points with the audience, the judges… not with the people with whom he is having the actual conversation.
This is a staggering difference, overlooked by nearly everyone who appreciates the amazing work of Hitchens.
But look at what happens when Hitchens’ audience is the one with whom he is actually arguing, when he wants to engage the person, and not the audience, when he’s trying to directly affect the person with whom he is talking. In Collision, this is what happens between him and Willson between the formal debates, at arguments over dinner or in a pub. And then what happens? Hitchens becomes respectful, engaging, and he genuinely listens, with both ears. The deliberate and intentional strawmaning and condescending assaults of the debates are gone, and you see genuine and honest dialogue with a man I daresay, just maybe, he respects. Is there joking? Sure, but the mockery is almost entirely left at the door (except, most often, when it’s a joke they can share. In that case, there is indeed playful ribbing. It’s not the same thing)
That’s what made hitch great. He knew exactly what he was doing. He was a master orator. But he was disciplined, used his wit like a scalpel, not an atom bomb, and always deliberately and fully aware of who his audience was (which was rarely the person to whom he was speaking) and what his goals were. Self-adulation and aggrandization were rarely his goal. I can’t say the same of most atheists on social media.
When sitting back and watching a convo on twitter, you can clearly see both sides just itching to pounce, each looking for an excuse to abandon reason, claim some moral high ground, and then go ad-hominym on the other. Wherethe process of conversation and education of theists is something one can expect to take years, most atheists say “well, I tried, they won’t listen to reason” after about fifteen minutes. That’s “patience”.
What do I care?
Theism is a tyranny which must be overthrown if our species is to survive. So when I see an atheist presenting the worst side to our position, this sense of self superiority, as if we are above making mistakes or using crutches, as if we are perfectly rational and never do something stupid, as if we are in some way genuinely superior, instead of the same mammals as the theist… when I see very little difference between the theist and the atheist, and when I see this behavior entrench the very theist I would see deconverted, then I see the atheist as much an obstacle in overcoming theism as the theist. Therefore the atheist who blindly or clumsily attacks theists must be opposed, and are as anathema to progress, as any theist.