Wednesday, May 29, 2013

On well-poisoning and letting "the team" down

(Alternate title: Your fellow ideologues are idiots and there is nothing you can do.)

Ever gotten into a political discussion and then someone who agreed with you started calling your opponents names and playing buzzword non sequitur bingo and making your side look like jerks? Yup. That's pretty much reality.

No matter what you believe or how reasonable you think your views are, there is some utter waste-of-a-first-world-life asshole out there who agrees with you.

I spent a lot of years self-identifying as not an atheist, just an agnostic, not because I believed in the supernatural to any significant degree, but because I wanted to stay the fuck away from the assholes who currently represented the atheist label. You know the type. Richard Dawkins. Wannabe nihilist teens with unlimited access to black hair dye and a painfully feigned understanding of Nietzsche. Self-important private school intellectual hipsters saying I knew there was no God the moment I found out Santa wasn't real.

(I mean, seriously? How is [the Judeo-Christian] God's existence contingent on whether Santa Claus is real? Santa Claus is a European mythological figure, transformed into a marketing device over the course of the last couple of centuries. His non-existence is perfectly reconcilable with Abrahamic religion. Hell, his non-existence is mild support for the one and only God thing... if there was/is a Christian God, do you think that She would let some consumerist deity run around in a sled on Her watch?)

I got around to being more comfortable with the atheist label eventually. Realising it was compatible with agnostic helped, sure, but so did meeting atheists with a basic grasp of logic, manners, and all that other pleasant stuff.

(Pet peeve: people who believe the right things for the wrong reasons.)

And of course this happens in so many other contexts.

You're trying to explain evolution to a semi-devout Muslim and suddenly someone sitting next to you declares anyone who doesn't believe the science is a fucktard, and from that moment on, it's no longer a conversation, it's an argument.

You're having a spirited conversation your left-wing uncle over lunch about your respective views on free markets, when your elder sister calls him a commie terrorist, and from that moment on, it's no longer spirited, it's hostile.

It's common sense that being a jerk gives your opponent no option but to disagree with you (because no way are they going to let a jerk like you be proven right), but it'll do more than that. It'll scare off people who were just about to join your team.

You meet Catholics who are embarrassed about their religion because of the actions of the movement's leaders.

You meet people who refuse the atheist label because the movement has public faces like Richard Dawkins, an unrepentant misogynist.

You meet people with right-wing views who keep quiet about them because they really don't want to be associated with Romney or Thatcher or Abbott or whoever.

You meet women who say I care about equality but I'm not a feminist.

Aside: that last one's obviously more complicated... Sure, there probably were one or two first-wave feminists who took things too far, whether by marginalising the LGBT community or by fighting hate speech with hate speech. But a little anger and overreaching is perfectly expected/justified when a group is finding its voice for the first time. See also the way that some vocal demisexual writers border on slut-shaming. As Sabrina sophiaserpentia writes: Finding your voice after a lifetime of having your concerns shoved aside can be an awkward and difficult process. The fact that some progressive-minded pro-empowerment women see the feminist movement as a negative example speaks, not to any inherent problems with feminism as a movement, but to the overwhelming success of the negative propaganda that the mass media has spread about feminism.

(To anyone on the fence? Identifying as a feminist doesn't force you to disown your male friends, stop expressing femininity in ways you enjoy, or go around handing out flyers for communal bra burnings. That is complete bullshit and you deserve to know that.)

Whatever the case, you see the same thing happening all the time. Sam believes in \(X\). But there are nearly no good role models who believe in \(X\), and plenty of bad ones. So Sam never ends up associating with the \(X\)ist movement, even if that's what Sam really, really would have liked to do if the people were a little less awful.

I suspect the effect is not as bad the closer to real action you are. If you were Jane Doe, an MP for the Phlibertarian party, and you really, genuinely believed in the wisdom of letting the free markets do their thing, letting people marry whoever they want, and replacing all fs with phs, then no matter how infantile and douchey your colleagues were, you'd keep doing what you were doing, not least because you'd be making a difference.

But if you're a first-year uni student with a slight interest in politics, who also believes in letting the free markets do their thing, letting people marry whoever they want, and replacing all fs with phs, and 99% of the Phlibertarian campaigners on your campus are mean-spirited name-calling bullies who use pressure tactics to force people to engage with their views? That's going to be a serious turn-off to becoming engaged with student politics.

The difference between these examples? In one of them, it's much easier to justify being intellectually associated with people you don't like. Because maybe you'll make a difference.

Hey, you know why this generation of Aussie uni students are disengaged with politics? I don't, but I know at least one reason: the people they meet who are deeply engaged — the campaigners, the student politicians — come dangerously close to making the other students feel bad for not doing more. That is not how you get someone on board.

(Psst, if anyone's listening, tell the Socialist Alternative to take a serious look at who they're sending out to represent them. The student parties in Australian universities that are not-so-secretly backed by major political parties don't make this mistake nearly as much... probably because they realise that whatever goodwill they lose in student elections translates at least partially to real elections. Whereas a friend of mine [who shall remain anonymous] went to a couple of SA on-campus meets, had all of her questions met with the same vague talking points, and had anything she said that was less than one hundred percent gung-ho interpreted as dangerous right-wing propaganda. Said friend is one of the most left-wing people I know. SA? You just might be doing something wrong.)

If I could spin all this into something positive, it would be this: There's more to your beliefs and convictions than the people who share them. Go join that left/right-wing student party (even if they're mostly extremist Marxists/fascists over there). Go apply to art school, even if Hitler did the same thing. Come out as religious or as atheist (provided you live somewhere where it's safe to do so), regardless of whatever despicable people are like that. There's more to life than high school cliques and tribal warfare, and the people who superficially resemble you only matter if you want them to.

Besides. There aren't just jerks in the camp where you want to be. There are jerks everywhere. Stick to what you believe in, and when you finally get lucky and meet a few non-jerks, you just might have some common ground.