Stuck in the Middle with You: The Awkward Sidelines of Skepto-Atheism’s Internal Battles

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Mommy and daddy are fighting, and they’re ruining Christmas. This is pretty much how I feel most days when I glance at my Twitter feed or peruse the blogs of the skepto-atheosphere. People I like and respect making each other miserable, attacking each other, and each more or less defining the other as either a monster or a bucket of spit.

Despite my best intentions, I fear that I often come off as “above it all,” in the snootiest sense of that term, as I tend to avoid mixing up with myriad debates and wars. First and foremost, this has to do with my job, where it would boot little for me or my organization for me to paint myself, and then by perceived association my employers, with one particular faction’s colors. I have not always succeeded in avoiding doing so, but it’s what I try to do.

Another major factor is my own aversion to conflict. My self-loathing is deep enough that being on the receiving end of attacks, or even perceiving myself to have dropped in the estimation of someone I like, is enough to send me back into therapy. (I actually am back in therapy but that’s unrelated to this little rhetorical flourish.) Few are the hills I feel are worth dying on. So unless the issue in question is of such significance to me that I feel I have to get over my anxiety, I tend to stay out. One example is my recent post on violence against women portrayed in video games, which I was terrified to post, and I kept in a draft state well after it was finished, and even then I didn’t tweet the link or post it to Facebook, just so I could delay any blowback.

But perhaps the most galling part of this is when the war of words is, as I mentioned before, between people I like and respect, people who I believe to be on the same side in almost all things, to have more overlapping goals than opposing, and to be coming from equally principled and well-meaning points of view. And regardless of where I personally come down on a given issue, I can recognize the validity and wisdom in aspects of those positions I don’t agree with. Like I was taught in retail, I begin by assuming positive intent.

(Let us also assume I’m not talking about plainly malicious trolls, and give me the benefit of the doubt that I would not consider genuine harassers who mean harm among my friends, or among those I respect. Okay?)

The current kerfuffle over Ayaan Hirsi Ali is one good example. I have my own opinion about it, friends and colleagues of mine have opposing opinions, and the argument over those opinions immediately became not only personal but all-encompassing. Someone who holds the opposite of one’s own opinion on the issue is not only wrong, but probably an awful person all around, and therefore deserving of awful treatment.

Name any issue about which our community has argued, and this template will probably apply. So what’s one to do?

No really. What should I do?

Here’s what I have done. I haven’t always been weirdly silent. Again, my staying on the sidelines is often necessary for reasons that are bigger than me. Other times, I feel compelled to speak despite the discomfort. In some of those occasions when people I like and respect are locked in Twitter or blog combat, and I note that one of the combatants is going over the line and causing genuine distress, even if I agree with them on the issue, I will contact them privately to ask for a change in their behavior, to mitigate their wrath or gleeful pillorying of their opponent. I try to remind all involved, privately, that we’re all coming from the same place of wanting freedom and equality, even if we don’t agree what that looks like. I try to remind all involved that the person they’re arguing with is a flawed human, with feelings. I think once in a while it helps.

It makes keeping these friendships challenging. When holding the wrong opinion (on what to the outside world might seem a niche concern) is all that stands between me and total outcast status, getting involved at any level in these arguments fails any cost-benefit analysis for me. Worse is when those I do agree with are being dicks about it, where I want to defend one side intellectually, and the other personally. And those differences are excruciatingly difficult to parse, particularly on Twitter, but on any medium.

There’s no solution proffered by this post (sorry!). If anything, I think I just want to convey that there are many moving and changing parts to all of our arguments, and it’s too easy to turn respectful disagreements into the casting of others as villains and sops. I think, and this is an opinion, that to truly hold to the principles of skepticism and rationalism as well as humanism and compassion, is to recognize these nuances, and to make an effort to perceive the moving parts for what they are. It’s to resist the urge to demolish, and to consider the humanity of those with whom you argue.

I mean, really, we can’t all be monsters.

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