23 March 2006

Getting our act together ... not

When it comes to the art of group persuasion, you first have to get your own act together, yes? Well, maybe not.

I was struck the other day by the similarity between two debates. Exhibit A is the never-ending argument among scientists over the role, if any, of atheism in the evolution-versus-creationism battle. Meanwhile, we have Exhibit B: the progressive political community's inability to decide how to address the less patient elements among them as they desperately search for a winning strategy for retaking Congress and the White House.

Josh Marshall, he of the widely read Talking Points Memo blog, complained the other day about the way the Democrats are handling Sen. Russ Feingold's attempt to censure the president for misleading the country into a war, among other things. He wrote that it's "really not that surprising that not every Democratic senator would want to jump on the bandwagon," given the party's dismal performance in opposition, but
..the bigger problem for Dems is not the things they do but the very public hand-wringing and navel-gazing about how people might react to the things they do. That doesn't look good. And it doesn't look good because it really isn't good. .... So 'censure' him. Or don't censure him. But most of all don't get all bent out of shape or whiny about whether it might make some Bush supporter unhappy or might prompt some scold on the WaPo oped page to say tut-tut.
In other words, do the right thing.

A few weeks back, David Roberts, whom I believe is a staffer at the environmental web magazine Grist, left a comment on Chris Mooney's Intersection, in response to a post exploring the email spat between Dan Dennett and Michael Ruse (on which I have written my own take). David, it would seem, is just as tired as Josh over endless teeth-gnashing:
I for one am getting sicker and sicker of the tendency of progressives to endlessly worry over their "message," tweaking it and triangulating it and fussing endlessly over whether it's going to offend anyone.... Who would want to sign on with a bunch of wankers who spend half their time discussing exactly how to talk and what words to use instead of just believing and acting on their convictions? Would you (for instance) entrust your national security to a group of people who spend half their time talking about how they can convince people they care about national security?
Some quick blog-trolling produced numerous relevant posts on this subject, much of it coming from the release of Dan Dennett's latest book, Breaking the Spell, which doesn't exactly treat religious belief with a whole lot of respect.

First, here's PZ Myers of Pharyngula:
You can't be a plain-spoken advocate for common sense and the avoidance of absurd superstitions, no matter how hallowed by time and tradition, without getting called "strident", "dogmatic", and "fundamentalist" over and over again.
Then we have Jason Rosenhouse of Evolution Blog:
Arguing that strident atheism hurts the cause is remarkably condescending towards religious people. It's saying that they are too emotional to understand and think seriously about the evidence.
Going to back 1999, there's this from Richard Dawkins:
The desire to have it both ways is not surprising in a good propagandist. What is surprising is the readiness of liberal agnostics to go along with it, and their readiness to write off, as simplistic, insensitive extremists, those of us with the temerity to blow the whistle.
And from Alex "Corkscrew" Labram:
Isn't it misguided to attack the symptom (anti-evolution) rather than the cause (blind faith)?
Now, back to politics, thanks to science fiction author turned political analyst David Brin:
Many liberal activists foresee just such a "memic" victory -- or a triumph in the battle of ideas -- "if only we refine our message." Such people appear to be willfully ignorant of countless other requirements needed, for this to be achieved. The neoconservative movement spent decades and close to a billion dollars reinventing itself during its long exile from power, after defeats in 1964 and 1974. Democrats may need to be just as inventive.
Much of this is referring to the latest political trend: framing. George Lakoff wrote a book a couple years ago arguing that Democrats lost power because they didn't have an attractive "frame" while the Republicans did. Something about a friendly, paternal approach around which they hung an entire campaign. Now everyone's talking about framing this and framing that. Everything needs a frame. How can you even consider campaigning without a frame?

To which I say, nonsense. Not everything needs a frame, which is really just another way of saying a simple, or simplistic, metaphor. In fact, the more complex -- or as scientists might say, heterogenous -- a philosophy, scientific theory or political movement might be, the less amenable it will be to framing.

Frame analysis is a great way to look at someone else's propaganda. Matt Nesbitt's site is a good example. The problem is that the real world scientists deal with is a very messy and complicated place. You have to tolerate the occasional contradiction. Evolutionists have to work hard to embrace both competition and altruism. Those who study particle physics are still trying to wrap their heads around the particle-wave duality of the quantum theory. But do they apologize for the apparent failure to reconcile such ideas? No, they just shrug their shoulders, maybe mumble "deal with it" and get back to work.

Some scientists and many progressives seem to have forgotten that messy is good. Diversity is strength. Any ecologist will tell you that the most robust ecosystems are those with the most species. And I suggest that the political landscape shares that nature. John Ralston Saul, for example, argues that the perpetual battles between centralist and decentralist powers in Canada is anything but a liability; it's precisely what makes the country so successful (at least, in the past).

The challenge is not to convince those you're trying to persuade that your side speaks with one monolithic voice. It's to convince them that a little internal conflict is what a governing party or an administration needs. It's not black versus white. It's black-and-white versus color. [Warning: frame proximity alert.]

I know. "Up with heterogeneity" isn't exactly a good campaign slogan, but I'm arguing that you don't really need a slogan. Not if you're trying to rid our schools of creationist claptrap and not if you're campaigning for votes from the side that champions reason.

So what if atheists offend some sensibilities? Get over it. People are always going to get offended by something. And what if some Americans are going to take offense at rebuking the president while we're allegedly at war? Get over it.

And stop apologizing.


Blogger A little night musing said...


I am a religious person. I am applauding your cry for people to be brave and true to themselves and not to tie themselves into knots over the thought that they might offend someone.

I am also a scientist. I have no trouble with my dual identities (BUT I don't require everyone to understand how I reconcile them either).

Today I had to listen to one of my (atheist) colleagues explain to another colleague that he should not post on [free posting, anyone can post] bulltin board anything political, because it might "hurt the feelings" of people who disagree.

Seems to me the academy should be a place where we can endure the clash of ideas. No?

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