Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Provocation and Persuasion

On a discussion forum concerning the most recent Reasonable Doubts podcast, in which the subject was accommodationism and the guest was Chris Mooney, a fellow commenter drew an analogy from politics:

If we're using racism as an analogy here, I think a more accurate analogy would be like arguing since political cartoons are a legitimate form of satire, we should draw cartoons of Obama as a witch doctor because all forms of ridicule are legitimate debate tactics. If all forms of ridicule are legit, is it acceptable to draw cartoons of Obama as a witch doctor like some Republicans did?
It is "acceptable" in the sense that people have a right to advance that kind of garbage if they feel moved to do so. They do not have the right to be loved or agreed with when they do so. They do not have the right to be considered funny, witty, insightful, charmingly trenchant (or what have you) if they do so.

Atheists are not -- or I should say, they should not be, and to my knowledge are not -- declaring both (a) we have a right to trample on, ridicule, and uncompromisingly criticize religious taboos and (b) we have a right to be adored for doing so. We are saying (a) but not (b).

To carry the analogy forward, maybe they think satirizing Obama as a witch doctor is a means of provoking people to think more carefully about his origins on the exotic, mysterious island of Hawaii. And who knows, maybe some people are still dumb or deluded or crazy enough to think Hawaii is some kind of 'lost world' or cannibalistic outpost or Muslim caliphate or something (I'm honestly not clear on the underlying theory -- it appears to be to hope that large numbers of people are deeply ill-informed and ready to fill their heads with noxious, easily-refuted falsehoods, or in other words, regular FoxNews viewers).

The disanalogy lies in the fact that the idiotic racist swipes against Obama will play out in the realm of electoral politics, where the aim is frequently nothing more than vilifying politicians -- vilification is an end in itself. Such attacks are not intended to raise awareness or inform or enlighten, but to sully reputations.

Whereas in materialistic science versus faith-based religion, there are genuine questions of truth and method at stake. The hope is that any outright provocation done in this space will inspire people to look past the charged rhetoric and dig down to the truth of the matter.

Whatever Chris Mooney and other "framing" pros might say, this can work. In fact, it might be the single oldest trick in the book. A rhetorical boot to the face is a tried-and-true means of alerting the audience that the stakes are high, that judgments will need to be made, that thought and consideration of basic questions have been demanded. Here's familiar and entertaining instance -- entertaining when you're not one of the new recruits:



There's perhaps nothing more tedious and misleading in this context than the implication that atheists are the ones bringing all the nastiness to these conversations, as though Christopher Hitchens invented iconoclastic invective in the pages of God Is Not Great. Religious evangelizers are perfectly willing to use threats and taunts to provoke bystanders; they're perfectly willing to declare to the entire human population that doesn't share their particular creed: "you will burn in hell forever, and when you do, it will be god's justice."

As bruising as Hitchens might have been in the immediate aftermath of Jerry Falwell's death -- fat jokes and so on (good ones!) -- his barbs don't bring anywhere near the volume of hatred carried in "it's going to be god's perfect justice when you're still suffering seventeen trillion years from now."

Provocation is not, in and of itself, persuasion, but it can be a powerful prompt to spur thinking.

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