A few nights ago I was chilling with my friends and my boyfriend, eating dinner and talking about nothing in particular. I live with a pile of atheist/feminist/heathen types who are all very much on the same page in terms of politics and values. Somehow we ended up circling around topics like euthanasia and abortion (as we are wont to do), and some people started using the phrase “they believe” to describe the stated values of some local pro-life organizations. My boyfriend, while a social justicey type himself, is not quite as deeply integrated into the feminist and atheist movements as the rest of us are, and it appears he has some natural skepticism left.
“They who? Who believes that?” was his response to most of these assertions.
This particular conversation ended well enough, with some specifications about the particular group we were discussing and some viewpoints that tend to pair together in conservative circles, but I was reminded that it’s all too easy when you’re with an in group that clearly identifies themselves in a way similar to you to get sloppy with your thinking and your speech. As skeptics, we expect that people who disagree with us should avoid generalizations and be clear about who believes and says what, preferably with some citations or evidence (of course this isn’t always necessary when you’re just shootin the shit). When we overhear a religious individual saying “Well atheists think…” we get riled up because we know that we are a diverse group of people who don’t always think the same things.
Especially when it comes to the more extreme atheist viewopints, we’re careful not to lump ourselves all together. “I’m not like Richard Dawkins, I’m not Islamophobic!” we are quick to specify.
So why is it that so many feminists/atheists/skeptics get so sloppy when they’re talking about viewpoints they don’t hold themselves? I’m just as guilty of this as the next person, playing the “mock the MRAs game” whenever possible. Usually this parody includes peacocking, a fedora, and living with mom and dad. Is this necessary? No. Is it accurate? Probably not. There are more than enough real life MRAs who say and do horrible things. I don’t need to create a punching bag for my own amusement, particularly not if it means that I am unfairly representing other human beings and overlooking the complexities of human life.
It’s easy enough to call for the benefit of the doubt when you’re the one who’s being judged unfairly. And it’s easy to say that we don’t need to extend that courtesy to those with differing opinions when they’re the ones with all the privilege. It’s easy to think that this is some kind of argument about civility or taking the high road. It is none of these things. It is about intellectual honesty, and true curiosity. If you can point towards someone’s words and actions and truly see that they are shitty, then please, mock away. Rip them to shreds. Get angry. But vague statements about “them” and what “they” think, or generalized categories like “conservatives” don’t help us reach our goals. They muddy who is doing what and who those actions harm. When we say “MRAs are shitheads”, we don’t have any clue who we’re talking about or what they’re doing. We don’t end up with a plan of action. We just remind ourselves that we’re better and righter.
And yes, sometimes in group commiseration is important, sometimes these statements serve an emotional purpose rather than a practical one. Sometimes these generalizations are a rhetorical strategy (one tumblr post suggested metonymy, although metonymy is usually an attribute of a thing substituted for the thing rather than a thing substituted for an attribute). But there are better ways to fulfill these functions. There are absolutely ways to gripe and signal that you’re part of a community and blow off steam that are a little more concrete (we have a million Richard Dawkins examples to pick from). It’s certainly harder to be specific and careful with your words when you’re speaking emotionally, but overall I think we’re better served by practicing healthy thought patterns. And if your rhetorical strategy leads to confusion among your audience about what you’re actually saying (who are you really referring to) you can probably find a more effective way of saying what you’re saying.
I want to do better. I promise from now on that I will try to make my bashing of patriarchal assholes reality based. It’s not like I have a lack of material. Seriously, fuck this guy.