Conservative Atheists, Political Correctness, Thought Crimes, and Misinformation
The Fresh Perspective Podcast - Episode 21
How’s it going everyone? I’m Nick and you are listening to the Fresh Perspective Podcast.
We have some mail! Many of you have accepted our invitation to continue the conversation in the comment sections across our social media, and I really do appreciate you adding your perspectives on each issue, especially when they deal with current or controversial ideas. In this episode, I will reply to a novel of a comment we received on Reddit responding to our Episode about Rationality Rules, Trans Athletes, and the Atheist Community:
That has more likes and dislikes than any of our episodes, which is to be expected, since, in it, I covered a few really controversial current political issues. It isn’t the controversy that draws my attention, it is the subject matter, and the role these ideas play in our culture. Join me as we continue the discussion about political correctness, intent vs. outcome, presuming ignorance before malice, political thought policing, online misinformation, social justice, Atheist Conservatives, and more.
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When I create each episode of this podcast, I try to go by three rules. First, I do what I can to ensure that the content I provide you is factually accurate within the limited timeframe I have to prepare it. Second, I hope I accurately represent the values of the organization to which I belong, rather than just share my personal opinion. (If any of my fellow Free-Thinkers out there listening disagree with how I represent our forum, please let me know.) Third, I do my best to give you information that is relevant, useful, and meaningful.
With all that said, I am totally open to the possibility that I have shared incorrect data, misrepresented the stance of the Free Thought Initiative on an issue, or have chosen subject matter with little utility. With your feedback, I hope we can all improve what we do. It is in that mindset that I decided that I should share, in this and possibly in future episodes, some of the elaborate and thoughtful replies that I have received from you. Please let me know if you like this kind of episode or not. Doing so will give me an idea of the kind of content you want to hear the most.
The atheist community, in particular, had a lot to add to our conversation about Rationality Rules, Trans Athletes, and the Atheist Community itself, including Reddit user WatermelonWarlord. Their comment, at least the first half of it, is the one that will be featured today. It is pretty long, so I will reply to each section of it as we go. WatermelonWarlord began with the following:
“This little bit of YouTube drama has stirred up a fair amount of issues I have with the atheist community at large that have been present for years, so I wanted to make a reply to your video. Interestingly, your video isn't just about Stephen; it's only partially about him, with other issues (many of which touch upon exactly the kind of ideas I take umbrage with in the atheist community) thrown in.”
I agree, and you are correct. I find that the more we think about and discuss controversial current events, the more we are reminded of similar events, and the more our values relating to the issues are exposed. This situation with Steve I think makes a great case study of the kind of things I discuss in the original podcast. Likewise, your comment, WatermelonWarlord, has given me a lot of great ideas to chew on and rift-off of in this episode, leading me to related issues and concepts.
“For organizational purposes, I'll address your points about Stephen first, then move on. Your points, as best as I could collect them, are:
[You said that] He isn't a transphobe
I don't think Stephen holds actual vitriol in his heart for trans people. But this doesn't matter when it comes to the effects of his words or the quality of the things he advocates. If I argue that black people shouldn't be able to vote by spreading the lie that they aren't intelligent enough to do so, even if I genuinely believe it and hold no ill will towards black people, I am still advocating for the removal of their rights under false pretense. This is a racist viewpoint. You can hold bigoted views without vitriol or ill intent.”
I agree with you, Watermelon, that Steve probably has no vitriol or hatred toward trans people. In my book, that means he isn’t bigoted toward them. Plain and Simple. A racist or bigot is a racist or bigot because they hold racist or bigoted beliefs. Calling them such based upon the demographics of people injured by their ignorance is nonsensical. Let’s say a man reaches over to cuddle with his wife at night and accidentally pokes her in the eye. If she is white, that is just a simple accident. If she is Asian, then her injury makes him a racist. Is that the kind of argument that is being made here? That the outcome of one’s actions determines their status as a racist, not their intent?
I suspect I value intent and motivation more than you do, and you value the effect and consequences of someone’s actions more than I do. Let’s say you did advocate that certain people shouldn’t vote based on something like IQ like you suggested, even though you have no ill will towards them. Then you would be making a logical error, one that, I agree, would have terrible ethical consequences in our society. However, I wouldn’t call you a racist or a bigot. You would simply be wrong, and the remedy to this situation isn’t to call you out as some kind of racist. The remedy would be to expose the errors in your argument and make it plain and public how mistaken you really are. Now, what about your conviction? You would be guilty of being incorrect, and a proper punishment or recompense would be for you to publically admit that you were mistaken and do what you can to educate the public about the reality of the situation.
I feel like we would all do better to focus on the facts in these issues, rather than our fears that it may be worse than it appears to be. Fear tends to cloud our judgment. Being wrong about something is human nature. On every single issue, we start our lives completely ignorant of the facts. Even as adults we are, all of us, gravely mistaken when it comes to something. A good rule of thumb is to assume ignorance before you assume malice. To me, intent really matters. If someone means well, but they say tremendously hurtful things, then they are ill-informed and should be met by a tsunami of facts and counter-arguments debunking their viewpoint, not hate because of the possible unintended harm done. Ideally, the argument against their views should be so convincing that they voluntarily let go of their false beliefs. They should not be turned into monsters in the eyes of the public. We should not begin with assuming ill-will, or act as if a bad consequence is somehow equal to ill-will. Doing so would have terrible societal consequences. That would lead to a world in which everyone is too afraid to think critically or speak their minds because of their fear of being ostracized and accused of being someone filled with hate, even when there was no hate in their hearts, and everyone knows it.
If we feel like we should be passing out judgment, then I’m sure that you would agree that the punishment should fit the crime. If your crime is ignorance, you deserve to be corrected. If your crime is genuine hate, then you should expect no one to wear kid-gloves when dealing with your rhetoric. These two punishments are very different, and we should never confuse the issue by mixing them together.
Here is another hypothetical to consider (for those who disagree with what I am saying). Let’s say you are a 9-year-old and belong to a big family, out camping in the woods. You are exploring with your younger sister who is complaining about being terribly hungry. Before long, you come across a patch of mushrooms. You vaguely remember seeing your parents buy mushrooms at the store, so you tell your sister that she can eat the wild mushrooms. She enjoys plucking them and eating them, but soon, starts to vomit and you run to get help. Before long, the entire vacation is ruined, as it ends in the emergency room.
Now, how severe should your punishment be? If you ask me, your discipline should look something like this: Your parents sit you down in the hospital hallway, and ask you to recount the whole story. They ask you questions along the way, leading you to seriously consider your choices. They explain with precision the natural consequences of your choices and tell you that it is dangerous to eat mushrooms in the wild because some of them are poisonous. In fact, a child shouldn’t eat anything they find in the wild. After this serious talk, you are left with the guilt concerning your role in your sister’s sickness, and a valuable lesson.
Now let’s look at the other side of the argument. Because the sister was gravely harmed, then the 9-year-olds’ intent is a moot point. Perhaps the proper consequence would be to have all the child’s privileges taken away, for their story to be spread and ridiculed all over social media, for the other kids at school to bully them, or other things more severe.
This kind of overreaction doesn’t teach the child a valuable life lesson. Instead, it may embitter them against involving their parents in a crisis, against telling the truth to authority figures, or may even cause hatred toward their sister to fester. All sorts of unnecessary damage can be caused by disciplining a child poorly.
I don’t see adults as all that different from kids when it comes to our ignorance of complicated issues. We really should let the punishment match the crime. We would all do well to assume ignorance before malice.
“[You said that] He did nothing wrong (‘made no moral mistake’)
If you make bold and false claims about a minority group and then overtly call for their exclusion based on those false claims, that is a moral mistake. Content creators with a large audience have a moral responsibility not to spread misinformation about already-marginalized minority groups. Woodford caused harm by spreading the fear that trans women would be the end of women's sports, which he himself admitted to. This is a moral mistake.”
I am not sure I follow your reasoning here, Watermelon. You began by saying “If you make bold and false claims…” and then went on to add many other qualifiers. If someone, be them a content creator with a large audience or a coworker by the watercooler, says something false, then the right thing to do would be to point out that they are wrong about something. I suppose a lot can be said about politeness, tact, friendliness, professional discourse, and a mess of other things, but I digress. Yes, if someone is making false claims, they are making a mistake. We agree there. But, for the sake of argument, let’s take out the obvious qualifier that the claims are false, and look at the second part of that statement. Here is the edited version: “If you make bold claims about a minority group and then overtly call for their exclusion based on those claims, that is a moral mistake.”
I completely disagree with that part of your argument. Just watch, I’ll do that right now. Here is my bold claim: “Pedophiles should not work around children, and therefore should never be hired as school teachers, daycare workers, or religious clergymen.” The minority group in question is the pedophile community. I overtly call for their exclusion. However, this is not a moral mistake. I suspect that most of my listeners will agree that that is a reasonable and moral position to hold. Now, I obviously took your quote out of context, but if you put the phrase “false claims” back into your sentence, then everyone will agree with you based on the definition of “false.” Yes, false claims are false, and making them is a mistake.
Watermelon said, “Content creators with a large audience have a moral responsibility not to spread misinformation.” I suppose I agree in part, but here there is a problem. Sure, everyone should do what they can to spread accurate information, but I have my idea of what qualifies as “misinformation,” and you have yours. Everyone has different ideas of what is true, and what is false. Science is a great tool that can unify our ideas about the true nature of reality, but the scientific community itself is not immune from making false statements from time to time. Who exactly is in charge of deciding which content creators are spreading misinformation, and which are not? I think this problem is best solved with the “open marketplace of ideas” proposal. Let everyone say what they want to say, and let their listeners refute false claims on a case per case basis, informed by each individual’s sense of reality. This approach allows for rich conversation and debate which can lead to a broader understanding of the facts. I have faith in humanity. I trust that the average person, after hearing the best arguments from all sides, can reach reasonable conclusions.
When we go so far as to say that a content creator is making a moral transgression because they unknowingly shared false information, then we cycle back to the argument that I made previously.
“[You said that] He expressed his views articulately and boldly
Why do you say that? Because he spoke calmly with a diction above that of the average high schooler? He used Joe Rogan as a clip in his original video. He did very little research. He didn't consult trans people on this before talking about it. Him being bold and articulate only serve to grant him false credibility; they are not points in his favor and are irrelevant to the substance of what he is discussing, of which he provided little of value.”
I paid this compliment to Steve because I sincerely do think he presents just about all of his arguments articulately and boldly, compared not to high schoolers but compared to most online content creators. That has little to do with my commentary on the validity of his claims. I was merely impressed by his style and wanted to bring it up. As far as using a Joe Rogan clip, I really don’t see the problem there. Joe Rogan is one of the most well-known podcasters on the planet, so sampling him on any given issue can be a helpful demonstration of public opinion on that issue.
You (I suppose I am addressing Watermelon directly now) brought up that he didn’t consult trans people before talking about trans issues. Again, I don’t see the problem there. Facts are facts no matter who is saying them. A non-trans person can have an opinion about trans issues. Anyone can have opinions about anything. We aren’t exactly breaking new ground with that. But more to the point, we can’t all be expected to belong to all of the social-identity-groups we wish to discuss. Does this mean that Atheists can’t talk about Christianity because they aren’t Christians? Should you have to consult a citizen of Germany before you say anything about Germans? Should I be expected to interview an immigrant every time I want to talk about immigration? Should you be expected to consult with Steve before talking about him? This is a really strange rule to throw at Steve. If he wants to interview trans people when discussing this issue, that would be his choice. When you create a bit of public commentary, you get to decide which sources you want to use. No one is beholden to consult with a member of “community X” before talking about “community X.” That is a silly rule, and one, I promise, almost no one follows.
But I can concede with part of your point. Would bringing a trans person onto Steve’s show to add their commentary on the issue possibly add to the conversation in helpful ways? Maybe, but here is a counter-point. All trans people don’t think the same. Just like with the atheist community, trans people come from all walks of life and live on all parts of the political spectrum. If he asked a trans person to share their opinions on this issue before making his video, how could you be sure that the trans person would agree with your ideas of what a trans person “should” say?
“[You said that] The ACA takes live callers that can upset the sensibilities of viewers
And Matt often hangs up when they get hateful or disgusting. Additionally, the atheists taking those calls make sure to challenge those beliefs and don't reinforce them by supporting the ones spewing them. There's a massive difference here.”
I don’t think Steve said anything that anyone is calling hateful or disgusting while he was on the show. What struck me as odd is that the ACA decided to take action long after the fact, based upon his work on YouTube. But back to your point, you say that Matt hangs up on people AFTER they get hateful or disgusting. Sensitive viewers are still exposed to and potentially triggered by these ideas before the call is ended. If your main argument is that the ones taking the call take it upon themselves to refute offensive beliefs, then it would follow that they would bring Steve back on, and challenge him on his positions on the air. But that isn’t what they did, was it?
“[You said that] He admitted his mistakes (inspired by his show of humility)
He made himself into a martyr. The art for one of his videos is his face over Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition. He has painted himself as a victim from day 1 despite him being the one that spread harmful misinformation about trans people and overtly supported their exclusion. His admission of his mistakes comes only with a heaping dose of self-pity and rhetoric of victimization, which is a far cry from humility.”
I disagree. True, he played up the whole controversy and commented on it, but I feel like that has more to do with his sense of humor and his coping mechanisms after being thrown under the bus by his heroes and peers. Look at what he said in his videos, and how often he said it. He is specific. He gives exact quotes and examples and explains how he was wrong. He apologizes several times to the camera. If that isn’t good enough for you, then I don’t know what kind of an apology would be good enough. In my experience teaching kids, it is far better to accept a seemingly weak apology than to demand a superhuman one. That is the only way we can move on and not be mired in grudges and bitterness for the rest of our lives.
“Next, I'd like to address some miscellaneous points you make that are off-topic but lead me inexorably to think you have a certain political bent.”
Well, of course, I have a political bent. Everyone has a political bent. How in the world can you consider important social issues without coming away with a political bent? That is like saying I have a bias. Of course, I do, everyone does, whether we like it or not.
“The reason I bring this up is that I see a lot of atheists insist that their points aren't political, but rather are based on "reason and logic", and yet always align with right-wing talking points…”
I see what you are saying but I have to admit that that comment is pretty hilarious. When other atheists are being reasonable and logical, that makes you think they are conservative? Does anyone else hear how funny that sounds?
“(note: I'm not calling you right wing overall. I'm saying the views you espouse align/prop up right-wing ideas, and that you might lean more right than you'll admit on some issues).”
You are probably right. We all lean left or right on many issues and may not even know it. I’ll grant you that, 100%. It’s odd, though, that you bring this up. I certainly do lean left on some issues and right on other issues, but so what? If I was completely right-leaning, what does that matter in our current conversation? I feel like most of the time, someone’s political preferences is a Red herring. Their argument itself is what really matters. Things like their race, age, sex, social status, religious belief, and even their political leanings should be left out of the conversation. Dismissing someone’s argument because they are a Buddhist, a centrist, or because they are Hispanic are all morally repugnant things to do, in my opinion. Why would you dismiss my argument just because I may sound right-leaning? This calls back to the point I made in a previous episode about “purity tests.”
How “right” or “left” I sound on an issue really doesn’t matter to me. In the words of Black Panther, “I don’t care.” I really don’t care. My philosophy is that I should try to believe in what is real and what is moral, whatever that is. The facts of reality and the best moral arguments is what matters most. If that makes me sound liberal or conservative, then that is just how the cards fall. If the left has better arguments, then I hope I would lean left on a given topic. If the right has better arguments, then I hope I would lean right on a given topic.
“I feel stuck in this weird world where I can admit I'm on the Left, but conservative or reactionary atheists always just want to call themselves some euphemism like "skeptics" to make it seem like their very political beliefs are just common sense and aren't political at all.”
Hey Watermelon, you may be right about that. Now the question is, why would right-leaning skeptics and atheists feel like they would have to hide their political preferences from the wider atheist community? I feel like my previous episode touches on this issue. My guess is that the atheist community, by and large, attracts mostly left-leaning people. When the majority of people believe a certain way, it can be hard to be in the minority.
I have worked years as a closet atheist and liberal at public schools which were staffed almost uniformly with conservative Christians. I feel like this is a completely relevant point since we have been bringing up trans people. It is a hard way to live life. When you are a minority, you tend to hold back any information that the majority could use to mistreat you. Because it seems like they almost always will. The moment I came out to my coworkers, every single one of my professional relationships suffered, and things got crazy awkward. The word spread like wildfire. Students were pulled from my classroom. Much of the staff just stopped talking to me. And after years of dedication, my career at that school began a downward spiral. For all of you who think I’m being hyperbolic, allow me to say that in some parts of our country, and in some parts of the world, people behave as if it is still the 1950’s. The experience taught me a great deal and has given a small taste of how other people must feel in similar situations.
If atheists are afraid to come out as conservative, then they have my sympathy. If any of them are afraid to come out, then that means that the community at large is probably not very open or accepting. It means that the atheist community at large can be a close-minded group that is quick to judge and slow to accept counter-arguments. This is dripping with irony because that is exactly how many atheists see religious groups. I think that was a point I touched on in my original commentary on the situation with Rationality Rules.
With that said, you may just be attributing a right-slant to everyone who you hear speaking rationally, skeptically, and reasonably. If that sounds conservative to your ears, then maybe you are the closet conservative.
We are only about halfway through WatermelonWarlord’s reply, but we are out of time! They make some great points in the latter half, so if you are interested, I’ll make a “part 2” to this episode sometime in the future. WatermelonWarlord, if you have been listening, I want to thank you for adding your ideas to the conversation and giving me so much to think about. We obviously disagree on a lot, but I think disagreement is healthy and is an important part of the sincere search for truth. I hope more of you can add your voices as well. I think that more perspectives give us all a more rich experience when talking about these big issues.
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That is all I have for you today, but the conversation continues across social media and in the comment sections below. Do you agree with today’s message? Am I mistaken about some detail? How can I better elaborate on this topic in the future? Feel free to share your perspective!
Written By Nicholas Burk, Executive Board Member © 2019 Free Thought Initiative