09 August 2008

Image and Personality Problems

Matt Nisbet is inexcusable. His latest effort is an absolute hit piece on PZ Myers, disguised as an attempt to give advice to the atheist community: Two Images of Atheism: Hate versus Community

I tried posting a comment there yesterday, but it hasn't made it through moderation yet (and as more than 50 comments have since been posted, I doubt it ever will). So I'll take my points and expand them into a blog post.

My first and most salient point is not just about the attacks on PZ: Nisbet does not appear to have a very high opinion of the atheist community as a whole. Maybe he's just communicating poorly, but the guy is purportedly a communications expert. Nisbet says we atheists have an "image problem," and I doubt most people would disagree, in the sense that atheism is by and large still stigmatized. But Nisbet's whole post feeds into and reinforces those stigmas.

Take the very opening to his post:
Atheists have a major image problem. There's a reason that when people ask me what I believe I have to say with a smile: "I'm an atheist...but a friendly atheist."
If actions speak louder than words, then this line renders null everything else Nisbet tries to say. Remember, his whole excuse for this post was to offer his communications expertise to help us solve atheism's image problem. His own personal response, however, accepts and fortifies that very negative frame. It's the "but" that does it. It implies, "I'm a friendly atheist, unlike all the others." It's no different from saying, "I'm a Jew, but not a greedy Jew." He may think himself rather noble, setting an example as a paragon of peace and virtue. But rather than establishing himself as a counterexample to the stigma, he's content to make himself an exception to it. In doing so, he leaves the stigma unchallenged and throws the rest of us under the bus.

But then, it never really was about helping the atheist community, was it? Nisbet just wants to help himself (and maybe a few of his friends, like DJ Grothe), and has cravenly decided to do so at the expense of PZ (and the rest of us by extension).

You see, what Nisbet describes in his post isn't an image problem, it's a personality problem. He thinks religious people view us as mean and nasty because we are mean and nasty. And to illustrate that, he tries to drag PZ through the mud.

First there's that ridiculous picture of PZ looking jolly but disheveled at the top of Nisbet's post. PZ's own take:
My opinion of that photo: it's a bad photo that makes me look even homelier than usual, but it's a picture of me laughing and holding a toy panda.
I'm not angry, I'm not slapping small children, I'm not even stabbing any crackers -- so what exactly is Nisbet's point? That the face of atheism should be pretty and have good hair?
The only other notable thing about the photo is that PZ is wearing his Scarlet A t-shirt. So maybe the problem with atheism is that it identifies itself as atheism? Real helpful. But then, Nisbet's post ends with DJ Grothe in a sport jacket lecturing a bunch of bored-looking teenage girls. So maybe it really is all about the hair.

He calls the "New Atheism's" leading voices "usually angry, grumpy, uncharismatic male loners with a passion for attacking and ridiculing religious believers." Is he seriously trying to call the likes of Richard Dawkins (a smiling figure who's been frequenting British TV, including a guest appearance on "Doctor Who") and PZ Myers (who is at this moment joining some of the world's nicest, smartest skeptics on a cruise to the Galapagos) a bunch of "grumpy, uncharismatic... loners"?! That alone should make Nisbet a laughingstock.

He quotes the National Catholic Register, and buys into the bias instead of asking what we can do to dispell it.

Furthermore, by trying to equivilate PZ with hate for religious people, Nisbet is undermining a vital message that our side has to get across. As PhysioProf put it, expanding upon Greg Laden:

I mention this because it seems to be part of PZ Myers philosophy of critical tolerance. It is this part of his approach that allows vehemence and compassion about the same issues and the same people.

It is really, really, really important to understand that this principle applies in a more general way. One can simultaneously be angry about perceived flaws in something and yet care about it very deeply, and even love it. The idea that expression of harsh criticism entails that one “hates” the thing one criticizes is a pernicious rhetorical trick used to discount valid criticism and marginalize the individual who brings it.

So Matt Nisbet can go soak his head, and enjoy his status as the biggest concern troll of the hour. The image problem that atheism really faces is that we are perceived as being mean and nasty, when we really aren't. If Nisbet really want to help, he needs to offer something better than, "Stop being mean and nasty!

"And get a haircut, hippie!"


Blake Stacey said...

As I suggested at Tyler's place, maybe we should stick in a rel="nofollow" attribute when we hyperlink to Nisbet's blog. I know it sounds awfully petty to avoid boosting his page rank, but screeds like these suggest that he deserves it.

physioprof said...

Thanks for quoting and linking PhysioProf, dude!

Aaron Golas said...

Sounds fine to me, Blake. Consider it done.

Mike Haubrich, FCD said...

Well put, Aaron. Matt is becoming an "Uncle Tom" atheist, and I resent that he had to drag DJ into the mess.