For many years I have thought that through determined effort, rational thinking, and patience, it was possible to change people. And sure, people change their minds in the face of facts, or more likely experience which includes emotion and reflection, but this happens through appealing to a central set of values, inclinations, and other emotional considerations. I once thought that it might be possible to actually change the core emotional values people have; to make them more prone to caring about self-improvement, authenticity, and thus to become better skeptics (and thus better people). Granted, I never thought this was possible for all people, perhaps not even most, but now I think such a thing might be impossible, or at least vanishingly rare.
Much of what I have written here at polyskeptic.com, even before the creation of that newer URL nearly a year ago, has been in the hope of making an argument for the application of self-challenging skepticism in order to show that faith is perhaps the worst human trait, as well as to explore the social and cultural predominance of an often stifling and broken view about sexuality and relationships. I was hoping that through a combined application of rational argument and a perspectivist’s critique of cultural norms, I could demonstrate that skepticism was a tool for our improvement as people, and hopefully create some new atheists and polyamorous people, because I believed that the truth of atheism and the promiscuous inclinations of the vast majority of humans was universal and that more people should be able to see that.
And while such actions may create new atheists and polyamorous people, what I am leaning towards concluding is that the underlying skepticism is harder to inspire. There are certain sets of inclinations, desires, and fears which either make a person more or less likely to utilize skeptical thinking, and if some personality traits are not present, you might as well try and yell down a wall.
So, as a result of this leaning (which is even more cynical than I have been previously), I am leaning towards an updated approach to writing about the topics of religion and relationships. The casual reader may not notice much of a difference, but anyone who knows me will notice the importance of the subtle distinction. Rather than try and find people who are stuck in the cultural milieu of theism and monogamy, and try and convince them that they would, perhaps (and probably), be happier giving up such things, I want to focus on finding people who display certain personality traits, in order to grow a better atheist and/or polyamorous community. Rather than transform people, I want to cultivate certain types of people in the hope of finding ways to educate and inspire them, while looking for others to inspire me as well.
Because in many cases, such communities have done a fairly good job at growing (especially the atheist community in recent years), but in doing so it seems we are more interested in quantity, rather than quality.
Build Quality Rather Than Mere Quantity
Here’s the thing; the atheist community has become a cultural phenomenon. it’s not quite mainstream yet, but it is on the path towards it. But many people seem to think that we just need to grow, rather than actually improve, what exists. The goal is not to create more atheists per se, the goal should be to find and cultivate better people, and better people will become atheists because atheism is rational (and if it isn’t, those better people will discover that). Similarly, the goal is not to create more polyamorous people, it is to have people better understand their own romantic and sexual desires, and show them how to find a more healthy way to explore and express those desires. Thus, better people will tend towards polyamory (or accidental monogamy).
Getting numbers for our communities is an important part of the larger cultural shift, and I will not disparage it altogether as a strategy, but there is a point when the community needs to pause and take note of the shape of the community, rather than its mere size. What values do we have? How skeptical are we being? Are we keeping in perspective the larger goal of cultural improvement, rather than merely caring about our immediate concerns? Etc. And I think that many in this community have got caught up in squabbles about stupid shit, and frankly I don’t want to associate with some of them who do not display traits worth wanting.
So, having said that, what types of qualities do I want to seek out and help cultivate in our communities?
1) Attention and empathy.
You know, like mirror neurons and shit. I want to seek out people who have the capability, and desire, to see the world through the perspective of others. This means listening, yes, but more importantly trying to understand concepts like privilege and cognitive biases. By empathy, or even compassion, I don’t mean merely being nice and gentle with people, because sometimes people need a (metaphorical) kick in the ass, and accommodating is not always a good solution. I mean that we need to make a genuine attempt to understand what is being said, including the context of those ideas, so that when we do unleash our raptor-like wit and eviscerating critiques, we can hit as many of the actual weaknesses of their position, as well as be aware of our own weaknesses.
Also, it’s possible that we are wrong, or at least partially wrong, and understanding the argument of others might actually teach something about ourselves, including our own privileges and cognitive biases.
In short, the best means to criticism is to make sure you understand the other positions as well as they do (if possible), and the best way to know such things is to listen carefully and try to understand their perspective, especially if it seems ridiculous. Makes me want to quote some Sun Tzu or someshit.
We need to be able to be authentic concerning what we think, and be honest with our conclusions (tentative as they may be). We need to exercise our abilities to discern rationality from irrationality, rationalization from explanation, and good from bad.
There are bad people in the atheist community. There are bad people in the polyamorous community. These people have bad ideas, treat people badly, and make rationalizations and excuses for why they are not bad, and for some reason people follow them. Yes, those people are still part of the larger community, but they should not be our inspirations. But mostly, there are people who have a mix of bad and good ideas and behaviors, and we need to be able to separate those things. There are many people who have contributed very much to our success as a community, but who maintain ideas which are damaging. We need to be able to criticize them without eschewing them, but we should be able to eschew when necessary, at least in terms of our support or respect for such people.
We need to encourage good ideas and criticize bad ideas, and be able to not divide into camps which no longer talk with each other because of disagreements. We need to be able to take judgment, give judgment, and not create battle lines because of judgments made against us. In short, we need to accept judgment as a good thing, rather than as a thing which divides us.
Judgment being a bad thing is a religious idea, more often than not, and we need to re-appropriate it for our use as a tool, not a weapon.
3) Expanding our domain of understanding and concern.
Battle lines create quasi-dogmas. It prevents communication, yes, but more fundamentally it prevents us from taking seriously the perspectives of others. We need to be perpetually broadening our arena of concern, even if our actual arena of action remains small. That is, we might only fight for the rights of polyamorous people in the workplace, church state violations in your state or city, or focus on the relationship between race and religion in your culture. All of these things (and many more) are worth doing, but if you are doing those things, it is important to be aware of how the concepts that you use in your work map onto other parts of our struggle for social justice. And yes, you should care about social justice in general, and apply skepticism to such questions. If you don’t care about such things, then there is no point in talking to you, is there? I can’t make you care about something that you don’t care about. Similarly, if you don’t have the basic emotional capability to empathize, talking to you about morality would be futile except as an intellectual exercise.
The idea that religious people have a privileged status in American culture is not exactly like the privilege that men have, but the concept is transferable to some extent. How some people understand one while rejecting the other makes no sense to me, and strikes me as a fundamentally conservative mind-set which acts to undermine the larger goal of improving our culture.
Self-improvement is not always linear, in the direction of your personal goal, it is more like a network, where concepts and efforts that we use are related to other things around us, and we should see that the effort to solve issue X is related, in some way, so solving Y and Z. Skepticism is a tool to be applied to religion, astrology, and homeopathy for sure, but also to gender, relationships, and many other cultural concepts that are too often unquestioned or not analyzed.
There are some people I don’t want at my party. They simply don’t care about the perspective of others and are unable to comprehend the problem and so they mock it, they either judge in only one direction or pretend not to judge, or they see no reason to expand their scope of applying skepticism and rational analysis to their lives. Whether it’s fear, apathy, or simple cognitive or emotional inability to understand, there is no point in exerting much effort on some people; they just don’t want the discussion, and it will just be time wasted on your end. The resources will exist, on the internet, in books, and in your head, if they start to care, but before they do care it’s not really worth the effort.
Such people may still be atheists, they may be non-monomagous, they may be skeptical about some things. But they are probably not worth my time when it comes down to explaining nuanced concepts which they will not retain even if I tried. We have to be willing to cut our losses in some cases, and realize that some people simply are not equipped to be real adults with the ability to understand certain concepts.
I’m not wasting much of my time fighting them anymore. If you want to, then by all means do so. But I wash my hands of people who don’t have the fundamental values and desires to make themselves better people. They won’t be going anywhere, it’s just that they are not worth arguing with so I leave them to others who still feel like they can do something to get through to them. I certainly did for many years, and I can’t change their mind for them either.
I want to see more effort in improving what community we have, rather than merely get more attention and attract more people. Yes, we want more people, but we should make sure those people are worth wanting.
Meh, call me an elitist if you will, but I think that many people just are not capable of being good as people. I view relationships the same way; some people are not really worth pursuing. Why would I try to date a person who I didn’t respect (or wasn’t attracted to)?
This is not a universal creed, it’s just where I stand on this issue at the moment. And like I said before, I will not decry anyone who wishes to howl at the moon or yell down walls (hell, it sometimes even works!). I’ll just be watching, paying close attention, judging openly or quietly (depending on the circumstances), while trying to expand my own understanding so that I can keep growing myself.
I’ll hope to meet others doing the same.