Thunderf00t posted a YouTube video that quickly drew the fire of people like Atheist Experience host Matt Dillahunty, because it used outdated screenshots, retracted quotes, and lecture slides used by PZ Myers in a talk which he later acknowledged were unhelpful in the way they were phrased, which he later amended.
Thunderf00t’s basic point seems to be that while the skeptic community is busy arguing amongst itself about the sorts of behaviour that should and shouldn’t be sanctioned / encouraged / prohibited at conventions and so on, it detracts from the actual point of banding together in the first place, which is to challenge prejudice and assumption-based thinking in our political and social discourse.
The problem isn’t so much with what Thunderf00t is trying to say, but the way in which he’s saying it; using language against PZ and others which suggests they are being hypocritical and even downright dishonest, when in reality they’re merely taking a different approach to the debate than the one Thunderf00t would prefer.
I’ve long suspected Thunderf00t to be more in it for Thunderf00t than in it for the purpose of educating and informing the general public on what atheism / skepticism / humanism is actually all about. That’s not to say he isn’t right to jump on some of the topics he chooses to address; just as he is right to point out that feminism’s crossover with rational skepticism shouldn’t mean that skeptics are barred from commenting on some of the problems which result from being overly sensitive towards these issues; looking for sexism wherever you turn, regardless of whether or not it is being intentionally aimed at any one individual or group.
“Right-on” attitudes held for the sake of being “right-on” are never going to produce healthy results. The lesson to be learned here is that our cousins, brothers and sisters in satire and standup comedy have already put themselves through this often tortuous process of identifying what to explicitly say you stand for, while leaving other things open for the audience to work out for themselves.
In the case of political correctness, for example, this idea that “you can’t say anything these days” was ridiculed almost out of existence in the late 1990′s, when Sacha Baron Cohen’s catch-phrase “is it because I is black” saw luminaries of the liberal inteligencia turned unsuspecting targets of the urban gangster character Ali G, blushing their way through spoof youth TV interviews, too embarrassed to point out that Cohen is very much of the white skinned persuasion.
Similarly, the alternative comedy scene which emerged from Thatcher’s 1980′s Britain, which began with no more lofty an ambition than to tell gags that made people laugh at their own failings, rather than the weaknesses perceived or imagined in other people. Despite starting out with good intentions, by the time alternative comedy made it to television, with after-the-watershed edgy ‘yoof TV’ such as The Word and Friday Night Live, Harry Enfield was reeling out clichés about immigrant kebab shop owners, and all Ben Elton had to say was “Thatcher, oops, little bit of politics there” and everyone in the audience whooped and cheered as if part of some new-wave, on-message revolution in social attitudes; when in reality they were merely swapping one outdated stereotype for another, and dressing it in even gaudier spandex.
I’ve said on numerous occasions on the podcast, and on here, that the danger with taking an organised approach to not being religious is that it leads, however unintentionally, to exactly the sort of pack-mentality of which we rightly accuse our detractors. There’s nothing wrong with being a joiner. Americans are exceptionally good at it, and some issues do need to be addressed in a well organised way. The campaign to stop a fundamentalist preaching of the bible in science classes for example, is a perfectly good thing to be on-board with, and speak out against, with one voice.
But the issues which have arisen here, between Watson and Thunderf00t, are in most part to do with this assumption among a small but vocal group, that joining something which is by definition opposed to the whole concept of needing to join something simply to have a voice at all, gives them carte blanche to dictate the terms by which that group begrudgingly operates. And what both parties seem to have lost sight of, is that having a popular YouTube channel is completely different to having the right to tell other people how they should react when they feel as if they’re being marginalised or set aside for special treatment.
Sam Harris warned of this several years ago, when he said that for as long as we define ourselves according to conventions laid down for us by the very system of group-think we identify as dysfunctional, we should expect for it to produce nothing more than we could have achieved as individuals, and in most cases considerably less.
It’s a shame that he’s been proven right, but in another way it might hopefully signal a shift in the way we (and I use the term in the loosest way possible) go forward, in our individual efforts, in tackling the religionist threat to all of us; regardless of what we do or do not believe about what greater gravitas our words and actions should afford us, simply because of our particular gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or view-count.
This shouldn’t be about how many people we have on “our side”, it should be about nothing more ambitious than noticing fewer religious encroachments into our day-to-day lives, as a result of our expressing displeasure with them. If you expect it to be more that that, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.
It should be about no longer being expected to say grace before meals, when visiting the house of religious friends, because they know it offends you. But it should also be about being perfectly happy to sit in silence when they sit down and say grace amongst themselves, without feeling the need to leap onto the table and take a shit in the gravy boat.
It should be about respectfully allowing people like Rebecca Watson to make her point, and take on-board what she has to say, without feeling the need to over-compensate, simply to make it clear you’re not one of the men she’s talking about.
Most importantly of all, it should be about pointing and laughing at organised charlatans and profiteers, while exposing how their methods work. They’re not targeting only women, or men, or black disabled albino lesbians living on council estates and claiming benefits for sixteen multi-ethnic kids; they’re targeting everyone — particularly the vulnerable; and these are the people we should bear in mind, when we fracture into petty little squabbles about the sorts of slogans people should and shouldn’t be allowed to have on their T-Shirts, when they attend rallies and conventions, which are only necessary to begin with because no-one else was saying what needed to be said.
“Please! This is supposed to be a happy occasion. Let’s not bicker and argue over who killed who.” – Michael Palin, King of the swamp, Monty Python and The Holy Grail.