Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Rules for Ridicule

"Ridicule is man's most potent weapon."
          -Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals

"Ridicule doesn't convince, it engages."
          -PZ Meyers

"By insulting, ridiculing or demeaning our audience we make it more difficult for them to hear our arguments, let alone accept them."
          -James Croft

Saul Alinsky
I bring my video camera to public events where hot political issues intersect with strongly held religious beliefs and record the participants as they make their arguments. I started doing this when my niece, Jessica Ahlquist, contested the presence of an illegal prayer banner on the wall of her high school in Cranston RI, and I continue to do this on issues such as the present debate over marriage equality.

My feeling is that the average viewer will see the outrageous, illogical and emotional rantings of some religious believers and contrast that with the heartfelt and reasoned arguments brought by those with a more secular perspective. I try very hard to ensure that my videos convey exactly what was said and how it was said: no editing, no commentary- Just the raw video presented in such a way as to let the viewer make up their own mind.

This appeals to me because I think it is the essence of the Socratic method, that is, give the opposition enough time to speak and they will weave enough rope to hang themselves. (Of course, Socrates would ask leading questions and despite his protestations to the contrary always had strong idea of where he wanted to lead the conversation, but the comparison is mostly valid.)

Recently Nick Morgan appropriated one of the more popular videos from the prayer banner meetings, the one featuring Lisa French, and added a laugh track. Lisa French is loud, obnoxious, ignorant and unafraid to appear extremely foolish in public. The laugh track transforms her testimony into a comedic performance, highlighting the absurdity of her arguments. I like it quite a bit.

This got me thinking about the function of ridicule.

Ridicule is indeed a potent weapon, but we should be clear about the uses to which Alinsky deployed his weaponry. Alinsky was interested in taking power from the elites and giving it to the working class and the underprivileged. Alinsky wasn't interested in persuasion. How do you persuade a multimillionaire to give up a cushy salary, fabulous mansion, luxury yacht and gold standard health plan? You can't. (Rare exceptions to the contrary are exactly that, rare and exceptions.)

Alinsky, like Prometheus, was interested in stealing the fire of the gods and sharing it with mankind. But Prometheus didn't bother wasting his time trying to convince the gods to give up the fire on their own. The gods were quite content with the status quo.

Alinsky formulated a series of "rules" by which power could be taken. He suggested that ridicule be used to infuriate the opposition, like a basketball player trash talking his opponent on the court. Ridicule is not a tactic of persuasion, it's a tactic of power, and when viewed in this way, we can see why it is so attractive to many atheists.

Alinsky's sixth rule is "A good tactic is one that your people enjoy." As we know, ridicule is kind of fun. When I describe the pope as an old man in a funny hat wearing a dress, it makes me laugh. It allows me a sense of superiority to not only the Pope, but to those millions of believers who take his playacting seriously. (See what I did there? I equated the Pope's job to playacting. That's ridicule.)

This psychological reaction to the ridicule of our cultural opponents does little to convince our opponents of the righteousness of our arguments. What does the Pope possibly care about my opinion of him? What does a hard-core Catholic believer care, for that matter? Certainly there is no attempt being made with the above ridicule to persuade Catholics of anything, and this blog post is not directed at anyone outside a limited number of interested atheists and humanists. So what's the point?

Ridicule, in the form of such jokes at the expense of the opposition, builds community. These jokes become part of our culture, and they allow us to unite in good humor. There is no persuasion in my message because I am, in a sense, preaching to the converted.

The real reason for the popularity of ridicule is that it allows some people within the movement to aggregate power to themselves. Ridicule is a rhetorical device that strengthens the emotional connection between speaker and listener. Those who best use the tactic of ridicule will accrue followers. In blogging terms, those who become most expert at the use of rhetorical devices such as ridicule will attract the most readers, which translates into money and power within the atheist/Humanist community.

For a blogger, a great number of readers leads to sizable monthly paychecks. This leads in turn to paid speaking gigs, free travel, meals and hotel rooms and possibly book deals, media stardom and celebrity status.

With such power and status comes the ability to shape the nature and direction of the atheist/Humanist discourse. Currently, certain issues, such as separation of church and state and marriage equality are in, while issues of poverty, class and wealth distribution are out, or lingering at the margins. Those who help shape the nature of the atheist/Humanist discourse are often those best able to employ the tactic of ridicule.

PZ Meyers arguably runs the largest and most profitable atheist blog, and he openly engages in and champions ridicule. He sees ridicule, if the quote above is still representative of his opinion, as a tactic for engagement with the enemy, a means of communicating his opinions with force and verve, and as a way of letting the opposition know that he truly means what he says. In a word, ridicule lets the opposition know that he is uncompromising.

Alinsky did not see it this way. Alinsky knew that, "It is almost impossible to counterattack ridicule." Alinsky was not using ridicule to engage the opposition. He was using it to anger and incite the opposition while simultaneously strengthening the in-group bonds of his coalitions.

This, I think, is why arguments over the use of ridicule in the atheist/Humanist community miss their mark. Both sides maintain the appearance that we are seeking to persuade others about the righteousness of our cause. James Croft's quote above comes from a work that seeks to understand and utilize the best practices of persuasion, and if persuasion is our goal, then we should certainly be giving his ideas and the work of writers like Chris Mooney a closer look.

Persuasion is not the purpose of ridicule, but those who utilize the tactic have no reason to alter their use of it. Just as I pointed out that Alinsky would not bother trying to convince a rich person to give up their mansion and their trust fund, so is it also not practical to try and convince bloggers to give up ridicule, given how profitable such a tactic has become.

I should now backtrack a bit here and say that I am far from opposed to the use of ridicule. I think as a political tactic it is an important weapon. I think as a tactic to build in-group solidarity it can serve a useful function. Psychologically it feels good, even when it borders on schadenfreude.

But ridicule has a dark side we are all well aware of. It certainly doesn't appeal to what is best in us. Sometimes there is a thin line between the ridicule of a public person and the bullying of a private person merely stating their opinion. Deeply held beliefs, when subjected to ridicule, can become more entrenched, and more difficult for people to give up. It can lead to imprecise, ad hominem attacks. And finally, ridicule, after a while, gets old. Eventually we want to get past the jokes and the put downs and get going on some constructive talk.

Alinsky's seventh rule is particularly telling and perhaps prophetic:

"A tactic that drag on too long becomes a drag. Man can sustain militant interest in any issue for only a limited time, after which it becomes a ritualistic commitment, like going to church on Sunday mornings."

Let's face it: That's the last thing we want in our atheist/Humanist world.

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