Unapologetic Atheism: 'Aggressive Civility' and strategic anger
Dr. Peter Primavera, PhD of Heresy, Doctor of Disbelief, Chair of the Department of Heretical Anthropology, of (the awesome!) Logidea University writes against the use of 'angry confrontation' as a strategy for atheist activism:
PZ Myers is at the heart of the faction that wants aggressive confrontation, not violence, but it appears anything short of that is fine with him. ... There is another faction who is seemingly much more conciliatory, even looking for allies among liberal believers.
From the perspective of the anthropological literature I find it difficult to support either faction. ... The religious belief systems are clearly held in the heart (or the limbic system, or whatever), much more often than the mind. ...
I think our movement is lacking in anthropological education and perspective, and this shows even among some of our most respected thinkers like Hitchens, Harris, and Dennett, none of whom I who dare to imply criticism. ...
The anthropological perspective is not simply historical, but truly holistic in its approach to understanding culture and the behaviors within. Confrontation with a believer, as Steve Pinker has described, is a deeply emotional and physiological chemical explosion. How could the believer be expected to argue, listen, or understand sensibly in that condition? ... A confrontational strategy that elicits that brain chemical torrent is simply going to be rejected by humans, very simple.
Here is a recent idea that I like very much from the perspective of the culture clash, and it absolutely is. This is going to be a long fight. Homo Sapiens and probably our hominid ancestors have been consciously fearing the unknown for the better part of a million years and probably much more. I think that is conservative based on the most recent paleo-anthropology and genographic work. So, is it realistic to think we are going to change this deeply seated, physiologically accommodated, habitual behavior and belief soon? Will we change it with angry conflict? That has never worked in any social or cultural change before, so why now? The disbelieving community constantly thinks of itself as the smart ones. Nonsense and I am sure Hitch will back me up on that. Clearly the answer is no, and the deduction leads us not to the other extreme, but to a strategy that takes into account the primate we are dealing with here. The use of reason and logic alone required that emotion is largely or completely removed from the strategy, on both sides! When was the last time you debated such a serious issue without emotion?
Dr. Primavera then challenges:
So let’s have your thoughts…..take me to task, but see if you can do it without emotion my fellow primates.
I reply (tl;dr version: Anger, without need of violence or threats, is actually crucial for any social movement, including ours, or, "We're mad as hell and we're not gonna take it anymore!" ):
Dear Doctor Professor Dr. Peter A. Primavera, PhD of Heresy, Doctor of Disbelief, Chair of the Department of Heretical Anthropology, of (the awesome!) Logidea University,
I accept your challenge, and in the process I will defend the strategic use of strong emotion -- specifically anger -- in social movements, and specifically in the GNU (Galvanized, Non-violent, Unapologetic) Atheist movement.
First, let me point out an apparent contradiction in your claims:
"Will we change it with angry conflict? That has never worked in any social or cultural change before, so why now?"
"Incredible persistence, patience, and yes confrontation have marked all social and civil movements."
How is 'angry conflict' (without any violence or threats) not a variety of 'confrontation'?
Now I'll ask a related rhetorical question: What social or civil movement has succeeded without angry confrontation? It appears to me, simply by surveying history, that angry confrontation is an essential component of successful social movements. Anger is, after all, a highly motivational emotion, and does, in fact, have many practical and strategic applications (see research referenced in Anger: As a strategy, Wikipedia).
I can't find the reference right now, but I recall a study of emotion that showed that people who cannot feel strong emotions were unable to take significant actions, and even to have the motivation to take care of themselves. Emotion is an essential component of human life, and it is not really possible to do much of anything 'without emotion' as you requested. After all, the very definition of apathy is 'lack of emotion'. Therefore, I'll interpret your request as meaning 'without obvious expression of strong emotion, and without using appeals to emotion as an argument'.
I will, however, refer to other proponents of angry, non-violent confrontation who happen to use some appeals to emotion in their arguments. Please note your own emotional response, for example, on reading Letter from Birmingham Jail, by one Martin Luther King, Jr. Do you, for example, feel empathy for King's carefully expressed anger, and are you, perhaps, the slightest bit persuaded by it? Take, for instance, this quote:
Before closing I feel impelled to mention one other point in your statement that has troubled me profoundly. You warmly commended the Birmingham police force for keeping "order" and "preventing violence." I doubt that you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes. I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together. I cannot join you in your praise of the Birmingham police department.
My argument is not that this quote should rationally convince you of anything. My argument is that: The fact that it does convince people of King's point is evidence that social movements of the past have benefited from non-violent expressions of anger. Anger is persuasive, despite your claim that it is not.
Non-violent expression of anger (King refers to 'resentment' and 'frustration') is also strategically useful in preventing actual violence, as King explains here:
Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained. Consciously or unconsciously, he has been caught up by the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the Caribbean, the United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice. If one recognizes this vital urge that has engulfed the Negro community, one should readily understand why public demonstrations are taking place. The Negro has many pent up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let him go on freedom rides -and try to understand why he must do so. If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history. So I have not said to my people: "Get rid of your discontent." Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action.
It appears to me that most arguments against anger and other strong emotion are motivated (somewhat ironically) by a strong emotional desire to avoid or reduce crisis, conflict, and/or tension. King argues that a certain level of tension is necessary in order to facilitate successful negotiation of social change. In fact, he attributes most of the success of the civil rights movement to the creation of crisis, not the prevention or reduction of such:
'You may well ask: "Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?" You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue. ... My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure.
King's view is substantiated by actual scientific evidence (see research referenced in Anger: As a strategy, Wikipedia).
Furthermore, there are several other good arguments for using anger as a strategy, such as the concept of 'shifting the Overton window', which are discussed at length in several good articles and comment threads, e.g. comments here regarding this article by Ajita Kamal (who is, sadly, not a doctor, as far as I'm aware).
Finally, I'll counter a specific claim you made:
The use of reason and logic alone required (sic) that emotion is largely or completely removed from the strategy, on both sides!
Unfortunately, you cannot dictate to the other 'side' that it respect reason and logic, and that it should leave emotion out of the debate. As many have said before, you shouldn't expect to be able to reason somebody out of a position that they did not reason themselves into in the first place. Religion is inherently unreasonable and illogical. Pure reason and logic alone are not enough to change the minds (or, as you aptly noted, the 'hearts') of religious believers. You need to apply emotional persuasion in order to open them up to the possibility of resolving their cognitive dissonance with reason and logic. Otherwise, they are simply closed to reason, often protecting their religious beliefs from self-scrutiny by a mechanism known as compartmentalization.
Without shaking a person out of their complacency with their own beliefs, you will be unable to progress very far in a logical, rational argument. At the first sign that their 'deeply held' beliefs are being threatened by the dialogue, a wide assortment of psychological defense mechanisms (many contrived specifically by their religious dogma in order to protect itself from invalidation) will activate, their reasoning mind will shut off, and you will begin to hear the tried-and-true cop-outs to "Well, I just have faith that it's true." As long as they do not see their beliefs as potentially harmful (for example, by hearing the anger expressed by outspoken atheists), they will have no motivation (no reason) to care to change them. In this sense, 'reason' itself is supported by 'reason' of our anger, and by others' empathy with our anger. Anger is the reason we are outspoken about atheism in the first place, and it the the reason people are beginning to listen to us.
My chosen approach -- which I think aptly expresses the controlled, non-violent expression of anger that I'm arguing for here -- is unapologetic atheism (see The word is: Unapologetic). I like to think of the Gnu Atheist movement as 'Galvanized, Non-violent, Unapologetic Atheism'. I have personally found it very effective tactically speaking, and if we look at the recent success in the raising of visibility and consciousness of atheism world-wide, combined with the historical perspective of various social movements in the past (not only civil rights, but also the LGBT movements, Gandhi's non-violent expulsion of the British, et al), then it appears to me that the weight of evidence is strongly in favour of the use of anger and other strong emotions as valuable strategic supplements to solid, rational, logical, evidence-based, reasoned argumentation.
I wouldn't discourage you from following your own preferred approach, since I think that a variety of approaches is more likely to succeed than a single uniform approach. However, I do think your argument against strategic anger is flawed and unsupported by evidence.
"The supreme task is to organize and unite people so that their anger becomes a transforming force." -- Martin Luther King, Jr.
"I have learned through bitter experience the one supreme lesson to conserve my anger, and as heat conserved is transmuted into energy, even so our anger controlled can be transmuted into a power which can move the world." -- Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (also, unfortunately, not a doctor)
How was that?
P.S.: While it is undoubtedly true that "Homo Sapiens and probably our hominid ancestors have been consciously fearing the unknown for the better part of a million years and probably much more", I have argued that fear is only one response to the unknown, and that it is both possible and worthwhile to respond instead with wonder, courage, and philosophy (literally, love of wisdom).