When I was young I would often get into fights with the kids from other streets in the village I grew up in. The kids in my street would considered ourselves to often be ‘at war’ with the kids from the next street over and I can remember my parents constantly telling me off after fights and explaining how the best action was to ‘ignore them’. I would try, of course, but it didn’t mean they went away. We’d still see them taunting us, hear them shouting at us, and they’d throw stones from no mans land (the alley that linked our streets).
My friends and I would talk about how stupid they were and what they were probably plotting against us in secret, and each group of kids would get so wound up by the other group that eventually we would fight, call each other names and kick each others bikes. Our parents would pull us aside (often by our ears) and tell us to ‘ignore them’ all over again. We were kids, we were immature and petty, but eventually we wised up and learned to move past our differences. Years later my mum would admit to me that ignoring people didn’t necessarily solve problems, but that their advice was a temporary measure until we were mature enough to realise what the better course of action was.
In an open letter posted to the CFI website today, secular community leaders in America such as David Silverman, Rebecca Hale, Ronald Lindsay, Margaret Downey and D.J. Grothe called for people to reconsider their on-line behaviour by outlining some useful things they plan to do to make their own on-line communities ‘a place where ideas can be exchanged instead of insults.’ The actions listed were
- Moderate blogs and forums.
- Go offline before going on-line: pick up the phone.
- Dial down the drama.
- Be more charitable.
- Trust but verify.
- Help others along.
By improving our on-line culture, we can make this movement a place that engages, fulfills and welcomes a growing number and increasing diversity of secular people.
I want the communities I am part of to be welcoming and diverse and constantly expanding and I think they largely are already – but hey, there’s always room for improvement. I think that each of us who wants to achieve these ideals must work towards making out communities the best they can be, but being a rationalist means turning critical thinking inwards as well as outwards – not only to ourselves but to the social groups we belong to as well.
However, what has become clear to me in the many years that I have identified as a skeptic, as an atheist and as a secularist is that not everybody wants to engage with other people, and some people get gratification from hurling insults and driving wedges between like minded people – just like us kids in my village used to. I’ve watched perfectly intelligent people who have practically the same values and would make great allies trade bitter words and bitch about one another simply because of things that happened in the past or to other people – just like the kids in my village used to. I’ve seen petty behaviour dished out that isn’t tolerated when handed back – just like the kids in my village, and I’ve seen people loosing hope that this will ever stop and we’ll ever be able to move past these conflicts – just like the parents in my village used to.
We did move on though – or, at least, those of us who wanted to move on did – those of us kids who realised that nothing productive would come of our fights and that if we couldn’t make friendships work, then we could at least just leave each other alone. There was always those few kids who still threw stones from the alley or called out names and insults, but they became the minority, the smaller voice – and suddenly their actions didn’t have such a large negative impact.
The infighting and conflicts within secular, skeptic and atheist communities has often reminded me of the conflicts in the village among the children I grew up with, and I’m not so sure that’s a good thing. I try to stay out of the conflicts and prefer instead to focus on the positives and the areas in which I can make a positive impact, but often I sit and watch people I respect get so wound up in viscous online fights and bitching sessions, and I’ve come to suspect they don’t even realise how caught up in a cycle they are. It reminds me somewhat of ghost hunters I often encounter who are so completely engrossed in waving around their EMF meters and talking to invisible beings that they see nothing wrong with what they do because ‘that other group are much worse because…’ – despite exhibiting the same deluded and negative behaviour they only focus their critical thinking outward and not inward!
What am I getting at with this example?
I love that the community leaders in the US have come together to say that they want to make positive changes but I’m not overly optimistic. Before you can change the world around you, you have to change your own world first, and some people are perfectly comfortable just as they are.