Can Our Leaders… Act Like It?

10 Jul

Ted Meissner

If you’ve not had the details about the recent… well, let’s call it a “discussion” for the moment… between Rebecca Watson and Richard Dawkins, there’s an unfortunately public article about it on the Atlantic website.  That should get you up to speed pretty quickly, and it has links to all the gory details.

This post is going to do something a bit different, in that I’m not going to go overmuch into who’s right and wrong.  There’s quite enough talk about that already, and you’re wearing big boy pants, you can form your own opinion based on the threads.  I’m just going to say it’s bad all around, wish things like this didn’t happen, and move on to the point of this post.

The skeptic community is pretty active online.  We tend to be not averse to computers and technology, we like to network, and can be thought of as social creatures.  And we’ve recognized that “skeptic” as a word tends to have some connotations with the rest of our culture that may not be accurate, or at least how we see it.  We get mixed up with “cynics” all the time, and our engagement with life seems to be anything but cynical — we love life, art, our families, just like others who may not be as skeptical.  Seems like we should be happy, moving in the same direction, friendly with each other people.

Unfortunately, this recent fight has become exactly that, a fight.  Normally, I wouldn’t really care.  People have disagreements, and yes they even fight, that’s going to happen.  And when the people involved both have good points, however they may be poorly communicating those points or disagreeing about their importance, they stick to their guns and won’t budge.  Maybe they shouldn’t.  I’m not an accommodationist, and neither are Rebecca or Richard.

The problem is that this fight has become quite divisive in the community, one that’s already very fractured by differences of opinion on religious matters.  Some are quite aggressively opposed to any kind of engagement with or even tolerance of religious views, others are more accepting.  And here we have another deep fracture growing by the minute.

What I would love to see — and likely will not — is the recognition from the leadership of this movement (and that’s far more than Rebecca and Richard) that how they interact can help or hinder skepticism.  Well, perhaps there is recognition of that, but not much action or words to that effect.  I don’t see a great deal of teaming or (dare to dream) friendliness on the part of our leaders.  I see bickering, antagonism, and no interest in anyone stepping up and saying, “Hey, I’m sorry.  We have different opinions here, and clearly have different backgrounds that may be contributing to that difference.  But that difference doesn’t mean I don’t respect you, or admire other things about you.”  What I see is single-issue (or single attitude) decision making about the totality of a person and their life, on all sides of this situation.

Yep, it’s trite, but really, can’t we all get along?

Either way, TAM should be interesting next week.  And we shouldn’t have to feel like it’s going to be an iron cage match, or a test to see if this national level movement is worth spending time on.  Right now, I’m not so sure.  The JREF can’t seem to get away from hateful barbs against people with — oh no! — spiritual practices in the past year or so, no matter how secular and naturalistic they are.  DJ and Randi deny that trajectory (very quickly when my renewal of membership wasn’t forthcoming), but even their recent co-email about TAM each had antagonistic threads in them.

So, sadly, this is yet another test.  Is TAM going to be filled with hateful words and derision, or meaningful investigation of assertions and the evidence (or lack thereof)?  We’ve seen Phil’s DBAD, and that’s either gone ignored or simply elicited a change of tactics.  Is there going to be a growing rift because of this recent fight?  *sigh*

Done with it, if that’s the case.  My local group may have disagreements with one another, but at the end of the day, I’m going to do my damndest to let them know I’m still on their side.

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19 Responses to “Can Our Leaders… Act Like It?”

  1. Mully410 July 10, 2011 at 7:00 pm #

    I sure hope you have a good TAM. I feel the chances of radical drama are high, which is too bad. TAM should be a celebration of science and learning, not a divisive tit-for-tat choose sides or I hate you event.

    The more I hear of reactions like this elevator-gate thing the easier it gets for me to back off my passion for skepticism. Yes, there are debates and hateful criticism in the photography world (Canon vs. Nikon, for example) but when I’m out at the Wildlife Viewing Area, hiking some park or processing my photos, I’m happy. When I’m reading comment threads, whether it be skeptic or photography, I’m less happy. So much hate.

    My path away from the “skeptical community” started in the aftermath of TAM7 with the Skepchicks. I haven’t read their blog for more than a year. I think they way over-reacted to a comment Bill Prady made. I don’t like the prolific name calling and indignant attitude I saw on their blog so often. If I wanted that in my life, I’d go back to church. I know very little about the current “controversy” and plan to keep it that way. I don’t know if this is the case in this situation but I feel some people really like to get all hopped up on adrenaline by being pissed off. They seek out situations where they can be angry.

    And I wish the over-zealous religion hating atheists would put a sock in it. They sound just like the worst of the evangelical Christians.

    If it wasn’t so gawdawful hot out today, I’d be outside instead of commenting on blogs. Ok now, lets all go find Bigfoot.

    • The Secular Buddhist July 10, 2011 at 10:05 pm #

      Yep, sadly, that’s the effect: it pushes many of us away from actively participating in the national dialogue.

      Good thing we have such a terrific local group!

  2. Melissa Lee July 10, 2011 at 8:39 pm #

    Oh no. This makes me sad to hear. Are you really both feeling so fed up with certain issues within the skeptical community that it’s making you feel disconnected? With no confidence in our leadership?

    Forget the elevatorgate thing. It’ll blow over. Can you even recall what the previous “gate” was? And I have confidence that they’ll work it out – perhaps at TAM. The idea of Dawkins being on the live SGU taping for a Q&A with Rebecca was brought up. First of all Dawkins would be a fool not to do it and second of all, what an awesome learning experience it would be for people on both sides of the issue! Think positive. Yes this is me talking!

    Ted, I had no idea you felt hateful barbs coming from the JREF regarding your spiritual practices. We will have to talk more about that at TAM.

    And Craig, you know how I feel on this issue. Pretty much all of you do. But I will say this – I’m learning. And I’m glad to be learning. And I’m glad I can still keep an open mind even when it’s something that, on the surface, annoys the shit out of me. I think that’s a huge part of being a skeptic that people tend to forget.

    • Mully410 July 10, 2011 at 9:51 pm #

      I don’t really think there is a “leadership” of the skeptical community. Of course you are our leader of MN Skeptics but as a global group, there really isn’t a leader I can find. There are some who are far more popular than others so perhaps those are leaders. I like Phil Plait and Steve Novella but I loath PZ (on his blog although he seems nice in person) and certain Skepchicks.

      For me, it might not be a disconnect with only the skeptics. I’ve been disconnecting with most negativity in my life lately. I recently had the opportunity to get rid of a black hole of negativity…don’t want to detail it here but we talked about it. It was liberating and super cool. Things that weren’t fun are now fun again. I’d rather hang out with people who want to talk about what’s right in the world rather than what’s fucked up. I think humanity would be better off if we focused more on what works and work to replicate it.

      • The Secular Buddhist July 10, 2011 at 10:07 pm #

        See, this is one of the reasons I meditate, that is what helps turn things around as you’re describing, for me. We can still solve problems without drowning in them.

    • The Secular Buddhist July 10, 2011 at 10:18 pm #

      Right now let’s say my confidence in their ability to lead, let alone sort out personal differences like respectful friends, is pretty low. Still very much a skeptic, but these recent barbs…. Well, having made these mistakes myself many times, I’ve developed an aversion to them. We’re just being human, and I need that reminder. Thanks.

      We can certainly talk more at TAM (we’d better!), but it’s not anything felt directed at my practice. I’m not Christian. But the attitude makes antagonists out of those who really shouldn’t be, and seems to show some folks are perfectly willing to throw out critical thinking if it’s in conflict with their aversion. We’ll see how that panel on Sunday on spirituality for atheists goes — but I’m not exactly filled with buoyancy about it. I’m, well, skeptical 🙂

  3. Benjamen Johnson July 10, 2011 at 8:56 pm #

    I get disappointed when respected skeptical leaders like Massimo Pigliucci and PZ Meyers make fun of anybody who isn’t a liberal. Skepticism is a process not a political affiliation.

    I get disappointed when respected skeptical leaders like Randi step out of their expertise and deny global climate change.

    I get disappointed when respected skeptical leaders like Richard Dawkins puts his foot in his mouth and won’t apologize.

    Then I try to remember that we’re all just humans trying to be rational against all of our instincts. I ask myself, “would I do any better?” and wonder if maybe we can learn from our leader’s mistakes and grow as skeptics and as people.

    You know being a father, I’ve learned that I have to verbally acknowledge what my kids are saying by repeating it back to them before they will listen to what I am telling them. Maybe this could work with adults too.

    • Mully410 July 10, 2011 at 9:57 pm #

      I agree. The politics are very annoying. It seems it’s getting more difficult to steer the conversations away from politics at our meet-ups. If I stacked up my stances on the issues, I’m not a liberal. I’m tired of the super left as much as I’m tired of the super atheists and super christians.

  4. Bjorn Watland July 10, 2011 at 10:06 pm #

    Here is one member of the local community who respects you and values that you share your opinion, even if people may not agree with you.

    If I disagree with you on something, I promise to understand your point of view before engaging in contentious dialog.

    • The Secular Buddhist July 10, 2011 at 10:08 pm #

      And that is one of the many reasons we have such beneficial engagements with you.

  5. Melissa Lee July 10, 2011 at 10:33 pm #

    BTW, if you’re not going to TAM, you’re a weenie. 😛

  6. Reed Esau July 10, 2011 at 11:59 pm #

    What’s strange about skepticism is that our “leaders” don’t always rise to their prominence through a demonstration of a competence of leadership. Rather, they gain their position through their activism, their blogging or podcasting prowess, by being a celebrity from another domain who dabbles in skepticism, or simply by holding down a paying job as a ‘pro’ skeptic.

    As such, it’s a bit much to ask them to be thoughtful and skilled leaders, capable of admitting fault, acting with civility, exercising constraint, rising above squabbles, etc.. Most are amateurs as ourselves.

    What’s maddening is that many (most? all?) of our skeptical leaders carry themselves as professionals while at the same time excusing and rationalizing amateurish failings among themselves and their peers.

    Looking forward to TAM nonetheless. :^)

  7. Erica M. July 11, 2011 at 3:30 am #

    I take no issue with anything anyone has said on this thread. In fact I think I agree with all of it… except (AHA! you KNEW that was coming!) that little part Ted, near the beginning, where you say that there is quite enough talk already about the issues of “elevatorgate” (for lack of a better term). I know that this was not the crux, nor even a major issue in your post, I just thought this would be a good opportunity to address something that I am bothered about. I have seen several calls now all over the place for people to just drop it, that there is no point fighting more about this. That it is a dead issue.

    Well, I think that none of this, not what happened in that elevator, not what Dawkins said, not the threats Rebecca has received, not the open hatred and hostility (on both sides), not the fact that Feminism has been continued to be used as a weapon (again, on both sides), not the calls for action or inaction at TAM, etc, are trivial things. I, of course, am not saying that anyone here thinks that these are trivial matters. Nor am I saying that everyone should see any of these issues as being earth-shatteringly important and all must spend oodles of time reading everything written or engage in debate for debate sake.

    What I am saying though is that the debate needs to go on. It shouldn’t be encouraged to be shut down. But steered into a better direction, much like what you do talk about in this article. And calls like Mully’s to be less hateful and dogmatic are the key. (No, I am not talking about DBAD… what has been going on in the blogosphere is so far beyond that). What saddens me most about all of this is seeing people on the national level who were ostensibly drawn into a community of critical thinkers because they liked to engage in critical thinking and debate, are puddling themselves down into vitriolic rhetoric. This is no way to continue a discussion or to promote learning. It smacks so dangerously close to what national politics has become… “if you don’t agree with me, I hate you, and will call you names, and take my toys and go home…”

    Now, so far the Minnesota Skeptics have avoided falling into the trap of name-calling, belittling and hateful speech. (*sniff* *sniff* I love you guys! *group hug*) and I don’t see any danger of that happening soon so I am not speaking to anyone in our group – just to be crystal clear. And I can totally see some differing opinions amongst ourselves on any bit of this, but like Ted said, we have a terrific local group and we may not see eye-to-eye, but there is enduring respect. Just asking that we not encourage people to stop talking about these issues. It is incredible the amount of misinformation and blinded opinions there are out there about this. This is not, and should not be a dead issue. Much of what is being brought to the fore is important. If you are tired of the discussion, change the channel, or just walk away.

  8. Erica M. July 11, 2011 at 3:52 am #

    Crap, I didn’t mean it to sound like I thought Ted was saying that there was enough talk on the issues and that he was calling for an end. I realize what he did say was that there was quite enough talk about who was right and who was wrong. Something a quite a bit different… (SEE I can read and comprehend at the same time) I just meant, and what got lost in my failure to proof-read, was that his comment reminded me of what OTHERS outside of this blog are saying about the ISSUES as being over-debated and that everyone has had to put in their two cents and that it is enough already. That attitude – out “there”, in the blogo-twitter-sphere, is what I was addressing above.

    • The Secular Buddhist July 11, 2011 at 6:04 am #

      Totally agree. The discussion is certainly worth the engagement, just in a more fruitful direction.

  9. Hyperion July 11, 2011 at 5:02 am #

    May I point out that the religious are laughing their backsides off at you lot? The general attitude is “Hey, you guys had us worried there for a minute! But seeing as you’re driving to tantrums and throwing your toys around by offers of coffee – we’ll be fine for a long while yet”.

    They’re right. Goodness me, what a pathetic showing.

    • The Secular Buddhist July 11, 2011 at 6:10 am #

      Yep, you’re right, it is! Every large group of some kind goes through this. Even the religious ones — give it a week, there will be something to follow it, some bit of irony yet to come from the faithful.

      But instead of laughing at you, maybe we won’t act like jerks for a change, and instead exercise some lesson learning about human behavior.

      • Erica M. July 11, 2011 at 2:09 pm #

        Yeah, I have to agree also. The discussion has put the community in an unfavorable light… mostly though because people keep getting the erroneous message that it all started because Rebecca complained about a guy asking her to have coffee with him.

        Why do people continue to be so obtuse and seem to purposely misconstrue the issues? It is a great tactic for getting off topic and to make the debate seem as if it is about something ridiculous…

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