Saturday, September 29, 2012

The state, violence, and Steven Pinker

Vercingetorix throws down his arms at the feet of Julius Caesar
Wikimedia commons

Another one on scienceness and history--I recently picked up a copy of Steven Pinker’s latest book, The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Pinker 2011a).  I didn’t finish it.  I made through the first two chapters, flicked through the rest, and reshelved it.  It was enough to convince me that reading the rest of it would not be a productive use of my time.  [Edit: I did finally finish it, but I begrudge every minute I spent on it]. Life is too short for bad beer and this book is Coors Light, and at 835 pages, a 55-gallon drum of Coors Light. I don’t like calling a 800+ page book lazy, especially when I have never written a book, but somehow I feel compelled to do so.  The energy that went into all that writing could have been better directed into research.  A smaller book, but a better book.

To start, Better Angels is Whig history writ large.  There is a progress and a direction to human history, of which the European and North American liberal democracies are the current highest development. Nothing new there, except that Pinker is bringing the cachet of science.

His basic argument is that violence has declined throughout human history.  He has a six-part periodization—the growth of the state, the civilizing process (after Norbert Elias), the Enlightenment, the post –WWII “Long Peace”, the end of the Cold War (post 1989) and the Universal Declaration of Human Right (post 1948).  It’s an odd set of trends, what with everything piling up after WWII.  Pinker’s own lifespan is when historical inevitability really starts kicking into high gear.  “Panglossian” doesn’t begin to describe it.  Possibly there is a brilliant argument making this case later in the book.  I wouldn’t know, I didn’t read that far. 

I couldn’t find where Pinker defines “violence.”  And according to his FAQ, he doesn’t, or rather he just goes with the dictionary definition,  in which ”physical force is exerted for the purpose of causing damage or injury.” As an aside he notes that economic inequality is not violence--“the fact that Bill Gates has a bigger house than I do may be deplorable, but to lump it together with rape and genocide is to confuse moralization with understanding.” While his reduction of economic inequality to Bill Gates having a bigger house than Steven Pinker is jaw-droppingly callow, one can agree that economic inequality is not the same as rape and genocide.  By his criteria, however, a parking lot shoving match is like rape and genocide, while slavery is not.  In this light, his statement about confusing moralization with understanding is disingenuous. 

The key chapter for me was Chapter 2 “The Pacification Process” where Pinker lays out the role of early states in reducing violence--the transition from the “anarchy of the hunting, gathering, and horticultural societies” to the first civilizations. (Chapter 1 is disposable—a series of scene-setting luridly violent vignettes from the standard Western Civ. timeline).  Chapter 2 is key for my purposes because it is where Pinker arrays his archaeological and anthropological evidence.

Nature, culture, and the "Primordialist Fallacy"
He is also making an unusual argument for evolutionary psychology—the transition from non-state societies (which Pinker gratingly refers to as being in “a state of nature”) to state societies is the transition from biology/human nature1 to cultural processes2 as the driving force of history.

So, to give Pinker his due, he does not see culture as just “noise” disguising true human nature.  Better Angels is about the positive role culture (in the form of “civilization”) plays in improving the human quality of life by controlling human nature.  Unfortunately, ability of humans to control their animal natures doesn’t kick in until we have militarized states.  For Pinker, culture is not a factor in non-state societies—they live, after all, in “a state of nature”.

There is a popular idea that if something is older it is more basic to human nature.  I am not sure if the Primordialist Fallacy is an officially-recognised fallacy, but it should be. Once we see culture, learned human behavioural variation, we need to be very cautious about identifying particular behaviours as  primordial rather than cultural. Until we know better, we have no reason to believe humans 3000 years ago were more “natural” than humans 2000 years ago.  It is possible, it is a topic for careful research, but it is not something we can assume.  And primordial human nature is certainly not something we get at, as Pinker does, by drawing a line through state/non-state societies, with human nature on one side and culture on the other.  

Hobbes/Rousseau (like you didn't know that was coming)
A convenient if rather lazy framework for writers on violence and warfare is the contrast between Hobbes and Rousseau.  This contrast provides a tidy narrative and easily defined villains.  Pinker finds the lure irresistible, especially given his propensity for straw-manning potential critics.  So we are treated to a mysterious group of Rousseauian “anthropologists of peace” and even a “peace and harmony mafia” that persecutes dissenters. 

In contrast to Pinker’s Hobbes/Rousseau dichotomy (which, to be fair, he inherited from other authors, particularly Lawrence Keeley and Azar Gat) the mainstream anthropological take is that human violence is a complex and variable phenomenon, and that the prehistoric evidence is spotty and inadequate, no matter what you are arguing.  The evidence is sufficient to say that incidents of violence existed somewhere in the world at certain times.  We will no doubt keep pushing the “earliest  violence” back in time as we discover more.  But does this really tell us something about human nature that we didn’t already know?  Humans have the capacity for violence.  We know that.  But if we want to talk about the scale and intensity of prehistoric violence, or make extravagant claims about its universality, then we need to do some careful research. 

Pinker didn’t do this research, not really. What he did do was trawl a couple of sources (precisely two in the case of the archaeology) for numbers (any numbers) that might support his thesis, no matter how ludicrous they might be.  For example, in later chapters, Pinker’s sources and numbers for the An Lushan revolt (a death rate he claims that amounted to 1/6 of the world’s population) have set off some sniggering on the internet (Quodlibeta: Steven Pinker and the An Lushan Revolt) and even on the staid (and awesome) BBC 4 radio show In Our Time.  It’s not enough to just have a number.  You need to be aware of how that number was generated and why it was generated. 

Where we have good chronological control we can see temporal variations through time and by region (e.g., Lambert 2002). No surprise there.  For example, where we usually have lack of evidence for violence, it is either in the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic, among “simple” hunter-gatherers, or bands. The relative lack of inter-group violence among bands is true ethnographically as well (Fry 2007). The spottiness of evidence for violence in the Paleolithic/Mesolithic is certainly in part due to the nature of the evidence—since we don’t have settlements and fortifications we must rely on skeletal evidence and some rock art.  Even just considering the skeletal evidence, we can see regional and chronological variations.  Some regions, such as Portugal, seem relatively peaceful, while others, such as Scandinavia, appear violent  (Thorpe 2003; 2005).

In Chapter 2, Pinker’s primary evidence is presented in a chart (Figure 2-2) that supposedly shows the decline of human violence from non-state to state societies.  He divides the chart in prehistoric (archaeological) non-state, ethnographic non-state, and (presumably) "state" societies.  The chart is available in Google Books, but a version is also presented in an Edge talk Pinker gave, which is the one I have used here.
Pinker's slide for the History of Violence Edge Master Class, 2011

Pinker arranged the data in this chart to give an impression of declining violence, presumably through time, although we are not sure quite what the X axis represents beyond “Non-comparable things Pinker is comparing”.  There is no particular reason not to arrange them the way he did, but it does serve to wash out variation, to make a complex situation very neat.  I think this probably has something to do with unease evolutionary psychologists have with human variation. They are, after all, in pursuit of a cultureless (i.e., invariant) human nature.

 In the following graphic I have arranged same data roughly chronologically and roughly geographically.  It no longer looks so neat.  Now we see hints of regional variation and sudden wild spikes in violence that might indicate exceptional events, such as wars and battles.  I will be drilling down on this chart in a future post.  There is so much wrong with it that it requires its own post.

Conceptual problems with comparing state/non-state violence
The evidence we have indicates violence varies geographically and temporally.  That makes a simple direct comparison between state and non-state societies a problem.  It seems to be a true observation that states are less violent internally. Elites do have an interest in maintaining a monopoly on violence within the state.  But also states operate on different spatial principles than non-state societies.  In many non-state societies, every group is “on the front line” simply because there is no front-line.  States concentrate violence on their borders, at least if the state is not in crisis. 

1) So if you want to look at the violence of states as measured by death rates, you do not look within the state, you look at the borders and beyond.  We must consider that sometimes a high death rate within a society is not because that society is inherently violent, but because they had neighbours who were inherently violent.  Non-state societies on the borders of states usually experience high rates of violence.  That rate of violence is not because they are a non-state society, but because they border a state society.  They will have a high death rate and the state society will have a low death rate.  States can build up high population densities in areas of low violence.  Non-state societies cannot do this so easily, especially when confronted with a state.

For example, Pinker uses the US in 2005 in the chart because it was one of the countries "worst years for war in decades, with the armed forces embroiled in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Together the two wars killed 945 Americans, amounting to 0.0004 (four hundredths of a percent ) of American deaths that year" (Pinker 2011).  As an example of the US' lack of violence, this rather misses the point.  The violence in Iraq in Afghanistan falls primarily on Iraqis and Afghanis--and is caused by the US state. Pinker is looking in the wrong place.

2) Beyond the historical consideration of who is “delivering” the high death rate, there is also the question of comparability.  Violence in non-state societies is “decentralized”, diffuse, and dispersed through out the society.  Everyone has a roughly equal chance of death by violence.  States concentrate violence and are capable of delivering it on a massive scale in a geographically limited area. They “project power” to use the lingo.  In essence the geography of violence in states is unevenly distributed.  The violence of states is not reflected by the death rate within states.    

3) Violence in states is also bureaucratized.  The people who commit the physical act of violence are relatively few but are backed up by often quite massive organizations dedicated to ensuring that that act of violence happens.  For example, after the 3rd century, the Roman state was little than a life support system for the military, a pattern that we often see historically.  What does it mean to say a state, such as Assyria or the late Roman Empire is less violent than a non-state society?  Is the dictionary definition of violence really an adequate metric?

I admire “Big History” and we need more of it.  I, however, don’t do it and I never will.  I work at the academic coalface.  I generate data more than synthesize it, and have to struggle to link archaeological data to broader archaeological and historical issues.  I know my specialty within archaeology, and get uneasy when I am too far from it. So  I don’t have then panache, the devil-may-care disregard for…oh…the niceties of clean comparable data sets that sweeping historical syntheses take.  Nor do I have the time.  But I see the need for big comparative studies, and accept that the data is going to be rough.  Otherwise we just stay mired in the small stuff. But to pull it off you need to do  It is not sufficient to grab other people’s data (i.e. numbers) out of context and shovel them into an ideological hopper without any effort to understand what those numbers represent, and, more to the point, what the potential problems might be.  You need to know what you are doing and you need to know what your data represents.  There is a fine line between devil-may-care and not giving a damn. Pinker doesn’t merely cross that line--he soars over it with an indifference that is almost majestic.
1The relevant components of human nature are five “demons” (instrumental violence, dominance, revenge, sadism, and ideology (ideology?), and four “better angels”— Empathy, self-control, a moral sense, and reason.

2The cultural/civilizational forces are a bit of a grab bag (1) Leviathan— the state, with its monopoly of force and legal systems, (2) Commerce— which, as we all know, is a “positive sum game” which expands circles of interes, (3) Feminization— an odd one, but it wouldn’t be proper evolutionary psychology without it. It is the growing influence of female nature on violent male culture, (4) Cosmopolitanism—the expanding awareness of other cultures,nations, peoples, etc.  through literacy and mass media, and (5) The escalator of reason— the “intensifying application of knowledge and reason to human affairs”
References Cited

Fry, Douglas P.
2007    Beyond War: The Human Potential for Peace. New York , NY, Oxford University Press, USA.

Gat, Azar
2008    War in Human Civilization. Oxford, UK, Oxford University Press.

Keeley, Lawrence H.
1997    War Before Civilization. Oxford, UK, Oxford University Press.

Lambert, Patricia M.
2002    The Archaeology of War: A North American Perspective. Journal of Archaeological Research 10(3):207–241.

Pinker, Steven
2011a    The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Viking, New York, NY

2011b    A History Of Violence Edge Master Class 2011 | Conversation | Edge.

Thorpe, I. J.N.
2003    Anthropology, Archaeology, and the Origin of Warfare. World Archaeology 35(1):145–165.

2005    The ancient origins of warfare and violence. In Warfare, violence and slavery in prehistory : proceedings of a Prehistoric Society conference at Sheffield University, Michael Parker Pearson and I. J. N. Thorpe, editors, pp. 1–18. Oxford, UK, Archaeopress.

The Glenwood Erratic petroglyph vandalism: some red flags

The Glenwood Erratic
From The Pincher Creek Voice (C. Davis Photo)

News of unusual vandalism of a petroglyph site (the Glenwood Erratic) in southern Alberta has been making the rounds.  It is not the fact of vandalism that is unusual (unfortunately vandalism of Native American sites is not unusual), but the nature of the vandalism. The vandals reportedly used a power-washer, powerful acid, and a rock drill to destroy the petroglyphs, as well as supporting materiel—a truck, portable generator, and a 16 ft ladder.  That’s not casual vandalism.  It was reported in The Indian Country Today Media Network--“Aboriginal Petroglyphs Destroyed By Vandals Armed With Acid and a Drill.” The Indian Country article is based on a report to the Pincher Creek Voice by one Stan Knowlton, who identified the vandalism ("Local history drilled out and washed away? Update"). This article gives some insight into what might be going on here.  The photos are particularly informative. 

One interesting development is the RCMP, the Alberta Archaeological Survey, the Royal Alberta Museum, and the Writing on Stone archaeological department (the what?! The Writing on Stone Provincial Park  archaeological department) found no evidence that there were petroglyphs at the site or that any vandalism had taken place. 

I can’t reach any solid conclusions about what went on at the Glenwood Erratic, not off a couple of newspaper articles, but there are certainly some red flags in the articles that indicate something odd is going on.
Red Flag 1: An unknown form of writing
Knowlton pointed out in his report that this is just the latest in a string of vandalized pictogram and petroglyph sites in Alberta and thinks someone is out to destroy evidence that could prove the Blackfoot First Nations had a written language before European migration.
“I suspect the link to this destruction is to nullify my long held claim that the Blackfoot had a written language before missionaries arrived, which could force archeologists to rewrite history,” Knowlton wrote in his report.
The writings on the erratic—a rock that differs in size and shape from the rock surrounding it, having been transported from its place of origin by glacial action—were highlighted and preserved using red ochre.
“Blackfoot/Cree Blackfoot is the older version of syllabic writing,” he told the Pincher Creek Voice. “This glacial erratic was dropped here about 10,000 years ago. It’s hard to date the writings. It would have been possible to carbon date the oils in the red ochre.” (ICTM)
 The idea the Blackfoot had a written language, a syllabic one to boot, is a big claim.  Full-blown writing systems are usually associated with militarized states, which is unsurprising since writing probably developed out of record keeping and taxation. 

Even more surprising is Knowlton’s claim that he can read this hitherto unknown language
As the lichen crust was so thick it was hard to get a good image of the entire rock surface. Several places were covered in a thick layer of sahm (Red Ocher) and the syllabic characters were partially exposed. The best I could make out was NA WE NI T_ __ __ __ O ^. The whole surface was a face and the syllabic characters were in or near the eyes. [Knowlton 2012]
Since whatever Knowlton claimed he saw is no longer there, and since he made no record of it when he did see it, not so much as a cellphone photo, we can't say much.  Previous claims of precontact writing systems in North America have not panned out.  Probably the most notorious one is Barry Fell and his identification of something called “Punic Ogham” all over North America, pretty much anywhere he found parallel scratches.

Knowlton’s claim that red ochre survived for hundreds, possibly thousands, of years on a very exposed erratic on the prairie also needs to be examined carefully.  It seems unlikely. 

Red Flag 2: The Evidence
Obviously there is no evidence for writing (since it has been destroyed) but the evidence for the vandalism itself, at least as given in the photos, is not convincing.  The staining and discolored depression supposedly caused by acid is visually indistinguishable from natural weathering and water staining.
Acid/detergent damage
From The Pincher Creek Voice (C. Davis Photo)
The drilled section looks bad until you realise it is only an 8x4 inch area.  They are not drill holes, but core holes.  They were made by a hollow drill.  This looks like geological sampling, which is what the RCMP investigation concluded. 
Drill damage
From The Pincher Creek Voice (C. Davis Photo)
There is apparently a second drilled area, but since this is the one that is appearing in the media, it is safe to assume it is the more dramatic example.

The amount of work Knowlton is claiming the vandals put in is also eye-raising.  Who hauls out a generator, lights, a drill, 100+ litres of detergent, and powerful acid to destroy petroglyphs?  What the hell is wrong with using a hammer?

Red Flag 3: Conspiracy theory
I am not sure what evidence Knowlton has for his writing theory, but one thing we do know is that what evidence exists is being destroyed by a cabal of archaeologists (of course).
 After spending an hour or two at the Glenwood Erratic site, Stan Knowlton took us on a lengthy tour of another site on the Piikani Nation. Following a path that he said was the original pioneer highway for wagons running between Fort Macleod and Pincher Creek, we came to an area that demonstrated the systematic destruction of a culture.  Huge holes left behind are now all that are left of the erratics there and pillars that were deliberately dynamited in the 1920's in an apparent attempt to remove any and all references to the culture that existed there before the europeans came.  Historian George Classen wrote "Stonehenge of the Foothills" about this site. [Davis and Lucas 2012]
 And in Knowlton's own words:
In 1884, George Dawson records petroglyphs located on the bank of the big bend in the river west of Monarch, they are gone now. In the 1960's the Big Rock at Okotoks had petroglyphs and those were drilled out and recently sanitized. Now, Glenwood. George Classen stated in 1993 that these type of arky site were "slated for destruction." We must now find whom and why these Archaeology sites are being targeted or nothing in Alberta is safe. [Knowlton 2012]
Today, September 13, 2012 I found a well-dressed Man from Edmonton washing down Big Rock graffiti.  This man claimed to belongs to a group of four under a supervisor that also does graffiti cleaning as well.  They have their own pressure washer but must get approval from the Head Archaeologist before they can use acid or special detergents.  This interesting gentleman claimed they have a data base of over eight hundred sites across Alberta, including Glenwood. The crew is said to have been visiting sites in Southern Alberta over the last few days.
There are pictographs at Big Rock as well as petroglyphs.  A lot of the pictographs have been destroyed by harsh chemicals and the pictographs have been covered over with epoxy cement.[Knowlton 2012]
"I suspect the 'link' to this destruction is to nullify my long held claim that the Blackfoot HAD a written language before missionaries arrived, which could force archaeologists to rewrite history". [Knowlton 2012]
Knowlton also does not explain how the representatives of the International Archaeological Conspiracy ™ (IAC) found out about the his petroglyphs when he was the one who found them. I suppose he may have reported them, but if he didn’t have photos I doubt anyone at the IAC would have been worried about having their theories overturned.

And let's get real,if these guys are well-dressed as Knowlton claims, then they are probably not archaeologists.  QED. 

When people start using conspiracy theories to explain their lack of evidence you don’t need to listen to anymore. This is true in any field. The bigger and more elaborate the conspiracy, the less likely it is, especially if the conspirators are archaeologists—nobody wants a conspiracy of garrulous boozers.   

Supposed unknown writing systems, maps engraved in rock, monumental architecture, and the like, that are actually natural features are pretty common.  The proponent usually has something he is pointing to, even if it is natural.  The unusual thing about this case is the claim that the evidence had been destroyed, when, apparently, it hadn’t—it was just never there.  I am not sure what is going on there. 

In the end the problem here is not with the archaeologists, it is with Knowlton.  By his account he knew those petroglyphs were there, and he didn’t record them when he was there, not a cellphone photo, not a drawing.  That’s not responsible, especially since he thinks there is a concerted conspiracy to destroy such petroglyphs.  Instead we get a unsupported story of them being destroyed the night before he was going to go out there and record them. 

Vandalism of Native American heritage is common enough that the police are often surprised to find out that there are often laws against...if they bother to check at all.  My first reaction when the articles about the Glenwood Erratic starting showing up in my feeds was that the vandalism happened and that the vandals were unusually determined.  I wondered if there was some personal animosity involved. I didn't pay much attention to the red flags until I heard the RCMP and the relevant archaeologists hadn't found any vandalism.  When I went back and looked again, the problems with the claims (as presented) were obvious.  There's a lesson there.

It's also a shame that it is a dubious case like this that is getting such coverage. But then, what makes it dubious is probably what is getting it the coverage. 

References cited

Davis, Chris, and Toni Lucas
2012  "Local history drilled out and washed away." Pincher Creek Voice, September 17, 2012

ICTM (Indian Country Today Media Network)
2012 "Aboriginal Petroglyphs Destroyed By Vandals Armed With Acid and a Drill" The Indian Country Today Media Network, September 18, 2012.

Knowlton, Stan
2012  "Desecration of the Glenwood Erratic." Pincher Creek Voice, September 17, 2012

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

And archaeology science?

And we have a resounding “NO!” from Willie Mc Loud of Life in the Universe. In fact archaeology’s not even history either. Harsh.

This is old ground, and I don’t have the burning interest in the topic that I used to, but  I was interested in what Loud had to say because he isn’t an archaeologist, but a physicist, one with, apparently, an interest in archaeology. Now I do think if you are going to criticise a discipline, it behooves you to get up to speed on the basics of that discipline, at least enough that the criticisms make sense. Loud stumbles in this regard. For example, his criticisms of archaeological dating made no sense to me until I realised he was unaware of the difference between dendrochronology and radiocarbon dating. Mistakes like that are a red flag, and make it hard to exercise the principle of charity.  But we must.  

Loud has some definitional problems.  His take on the goals of archaeology, and history for that matter, is pretty limited. His interest is Mesopotamian archaeology, and I suspect he, as with many buffs, is interested in archaeology insofar as it can fill in gaps in a rather conventional history. In his examples he judges archaeology on whether it can identify the reign dates of Naram-Sin, the occurrence of a historically recorded “great rebellion” against the aforementioned Naram-Sin, the existence of the Akkadian Empire, or the presence of Assyrian colonies in Anatolia.  This is “pots=peoples” archaeology failing at “big men, big battles” history.  Archaeology does not excel at this kind of history.  In fact history does not excel at this kind of history.  

His other definitional problem is what he means by “science”.  He’s a little slippery here, conflating “empirical science” (which is in reality all science) with experimental science.  An experimental science is one whose findings come from controlled repeatable experiments.  By this definition, psychology is a science, but astronomy, geology, evolutionary biology, and, yes, archaeology are not. Obviously not all sciences are experimental sciences—there is an important distinction to be made here between experimental and historical science, in which researchers use  pre-existing evidentiary traces to discriminate among hypotheses (e.g. Cleland 2002). If archaeology is a science, it is a historical science, not an experimental one (setting aside the subfield of experimental archaeology).  
Loud also criticises archaeology for problems that are general in science.  He notes, for example, that “archaeological data is provisional in the sense that there is always the possibility that new data will be found that could (even dramatically) alter the picture.” I assume he means archaeological interpretations or theories are provisional, rather than “data”.  Regardless, it seems an unfair observation, since provisionality and a willingness to revise theories in the face of new data are hallmarks of science. 

He is careful to note that scientists that scientists approximate reality rather than discover it, writing that “although reality exists, we do not know - and would probably never know - what it truly is like.  There is absolutely no way to establish whether any model describes reality as it really is - the best we can hope for is that models provide reliable results when tested against reality. ”  Of course this phrasing raises the question of how one “tests” models against an unknowable reality. What we actually do is test models against human interpretations of the effects (”evidence” or “data”) of that unknowable reality.  This is an important distinction, since he then goes on to state that archaeologists cannot test models since the reality they are approximating no longer exists. There are a lot of criticisms I can make of Loud’s idea that the particular reality under investigation needs to be coterminous with the researcher to be available for testing. But the simplest one is that it doesn’t, not in the historical sciences. For examples, nobody deals with long-gone realities like astronomers do.  The effects of the bygone reality are still present, and that is what we test against.  I also wonder at the practical difference between testing against the effects of an unknowable extant reality, and testing against the effects of an unknowable extinct reality. The practical difference between the two is non-existent.  

The question of whether archaeology as a whole is science is not one I worry much about anymore.  A lot depends the questions the archaeologist is asking—some variation no doubt of Christopher Hawkes’ “Ladder of Inference”.  When humans first migrated into the Americas is a scientific question.  How a group of people uses material culture to assert (or deny) group identity is less so, but nonetheless still worth exploring.  We can’t just look where the light is strongest.  Also archaeology, like history, is a form of social memory and thus embroiled in contemporary politics in a way that physics and geology are not.  

For the most part I agree with Loud that the kind of archaeology and questions he is interested in are not science. I just disagree with his reasons, and that his experience of archaeology is sufficient to take on the whole field.  Maybe a more limited title?

References cited

Cleland, Carol E.
2002    Methodological and Epistemic Differences Between Historical Science and Experimental Science. Philosophy of Science 69(3):447–451.

Loud, Willie Mc 
2012    A critique of archaeology as a scienceLife in the Universe.  Posted 19 August 2012. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Atheism+ as a threat to community

The reaction in the atheist community to the formation of Atheism+  is not surprising. There has been the predictably enraged response from men’s rights activists, who comprise a surprisingly significant population in the atheist movement.  The MRAs, Dawkins aficionados, and their ilk operate under their own logic.  But the reaction of the more intellectually-inclined elements, even the more liberal ones, has also been negative.  This is also not surprising, but in an understandable way.

In part this is territorial.  While Atheism+ is loose grassroots setup at the moment, really little more than a forum, it is potentially a new organization that might compete for membership.  So here we see many Humanists claiming Atheism+ as their own.  The philosophical arguments are not necessarily wrong here—the two groups do share many of the same values. But there are practical differences. 

Atheism+ can also be seen as a rebuke to existing organisations, in that it implies a purpose that they have not been fulfilling. 

Atheism+ also explicitly reconnects atheism to political and social values.  For established atheists, this has a number of consequences. There is a pretty consistent set of arguments: Atheism+ is just Humanism, you can’t derive values from the definition of atheism, and it is divisive. I think the last one is actually the real argument for most of the “old boy” atheists. Whatever argument is being made it is nearly always prefaced with an overwrought statement about how Atheism+ threatens the fabric of the atheist community (although rampant bigotry apparently does not).

I think there are three main actual concerns.

1. Atheism+ may lead to factionalization. There is now a segment of atheists organizing on the basis of political and social beliefs.   Can further factionalization be further behind?  Will Libertarian atheists form their own group?  Ayn Rand devotees? MRAs? Most people would not see this as a bad thing.  The existence of interest groups within large organizations is standard operating procedure.  I have lost count of how many interest groups the American Anthropological Association has, but it trundles along regardless.  However ut older atheists see this as splitting up their community—the single large club they are used to may dissolve into many clubs. 

2. Athesim+ threatens old friendships. Atheism+ formed after at least a year of vicious harassment of women by bigots. This sounds simple enough, but the online struggle soon sucked in other members of the atheist community who are not necessarily bigots but who, for whatever reason (cluelessness, friends who are bigots, resentment over being roughly handled in comment sections, etc.), ended up aligned against the atheist feminists.  The formation of Atheism+ calls out a number of prominent atheists who have been critical or dismissive of feminists in the atheist movement  by either denying sexism exists in the movement or blaming feminists for the problem of sexism.  This confronts many old boy atheists who  might otherwise agree with the goals of Atheism+ with the problem of choosing between friends or supporting a bunch of loudmouthed upstarts. 

3. Atheism+ undermines value-neutrality.  A persistent argument against reconnecting atheism and values is that you can’t derive any values from the definition of atheism. I haven’t considered this a good faith argument—it’s trivially true in one way, wrong in every other way.  But I now think it is sincere in that it does cover a deeper anxiety. Whether value-neutrality is viable or not, it is important as a unifying ideology of the atheist movement. Atheism’s self image is that of an embattled community of rationality. For many atheists a crudely scientistic understanding of reason provides an identity, providing membership in a select group—those who have penetrated the veil that blinds the sheeple. Atheism+ may come across as an attack on what many atheists see as either a core value or an important social glue. 

I have no idea how Atheism+ will develop. Right now it is simply a “safe” place for a subset of atheists to thrash out ideas without having their right to do so continually challenged or sabotaged through trolling and harrassment. It may become something more formal, it may not. It may just peter out, although the change it has set in motion will probably continue—it is no longer so easy to ignore the scale of bigotry in the atheist community. 

If Atheism+ continues on the present course of just being a place for progressive atheists to interact, I imagine the overheated rhetoric on the part of established bloggers, etc., will end once they no longer see Atheism+ as having a negative impact on their community and relationships. Debate over issues such as value-neutrality will no doubt continue, but, one hopes, a little more rationally once the fear of communal disruption is alleviated. One always hopes.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Atheism, and atheism with values

I am an atheist, more precisely an agnostic atheist.  Usually I identify as a Humanist for various reasons.  Humanism has a positive ethical stance that replaces religious morality, and there is a little more going on there than talking about how many ways god doesn’t exist.  However, the atheist movement has a much more vigorous on-line presence than Humanism, and is much more given to debates and controversies. More fun than Humanism in some ways, much more unpleasant in others.

I like the vocalness of the New Atheists and that they have undeniably broadened the appeal of atheism. But their critique of religion often veers off into xenophobia and, when it came to Iraq and the “Global War on Terror,” resulted in atheism being associated with some of the most unhinged elements of US politics.  I felt a little more comfortable politically with the Humanist movement than I did with a movement dominated by figures such as Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, and  Sam Harris. 

Atheism obviously did not begin with the New Atheists (although it does for many). Atheism and free-thought have a long history in US Left and progressive history.  But at some point, I am not sure when, US atheism largely lost its leftist ties.  This happened somewhere in the period from the 1920-1960, basically from the Red Scare to McCarthy, when atheism and communism became practically synonymous. As a result, US atheists focused on constitutionally safer issues, primarily church-state separation, and dropped the left-wing politics. Oddly enough, the growing popularity of Ayn Rand may have legitimated atheism in some way, by associating it with right-wing politics. 

The New Atheists’ contribution was latching atheism to science and skepticism, bypassing atheism’s fraught political heritage with a hefty dose of scientific objectivity. This move went a long way to giving atheism a respectability it had always lacked.  The appeal to neutrality, science, and rationality dovetails nicely with middle class attitudes to technical rationality and distrust of political extremism.

However, the illusion of value neutrality, of regarding my own position as the norm or the default from which other people deviate by adding extraneous factors (such as their values) is an old trap, and one that has insidious consequences.  If my culture is the  dominant one, it becomes easy to see my cultural attitudes as the absence of culture, in much the same way that whiteness is seen as the absence of ethnicity. And when I see my cultural assumptions as simply the disinterested functioning of science and rationality, the possibility of debate evaporates. Everyone else is irrational and unscientific. Thus we have the thunderous declamations of the New Atheists about other cultures, particularly the treatment of women in Islam, but deafening silence about women’s issues at in their own culture, a culture which is of course, more rational, scientific and value-neutral than any other. Probably the most infamous example of this is Richard Dawkin’s “Dear Muslima” letter to Rebecca Watson, in which he cynically used the status of Islamic women as a tool to silence Western women. 

This missive was a shocking and unexpected response to Rebecca Watson’s mild comment on the etiquette of picking up women at conferences—”Guys, don’t do that" ("that" being hitting on a lone woman in an elevator at 4:00 AM). It unleashed a completely unproportional firestorm of vituperation that engulfed Watson  and then rapidly expanded to any outspoken woman in the atheist movement.  The scale and fury of the response to such an innocuous statement suggests a resentment that had been building for a while.

Predictably, although I think much to Dawkins et al.’s surprise, the women in question did not shut up, but closed ranks. I cannot begin to cover the ins and outs of the controversy, but the net result is that over past year or so the skeptical and atheist community has been engaged in internecine warfare, primarily over feminism and misogyny, but also racism, homophobia, transphobia, and whether atheism should be involved in social justice issues.  To say the least, the controversy has exposed out a very unpleasant misogynistic streak in the atheist movement, similar to that flushed out of the gaming community by Anita Sarkeesian

The sources of this outburst of misogynistic resentment would be well worth analysing at some point. Right now, the reasons and motivations behind the attacks are pretty opaque.  As with any event on the Internet, the communications we see are not even the tip of the iceberg. I can’t deal with the crazy misogynistic end of the spectrum--I am not sure what is going on there. The prevalence of trolling and anonymity don’t make the motivations any clearer. I am not sure many of the attackers know their reasons themselves; they are just reacting. There may well be a Tea Party phenomenon at work here, angry white guys responding to erosion of their privileges as other groups assert their rights. 

A more comprehensible factor may be the changing demographics of a homogeneous, rather clubby, community.  Atheists are not the most diverse group.  There are a lot of reasons for this, many of which have nothing to do with the atheist movement.  Regardless of the reasons, if the atheist movement piled into a big room, it would look like the GOP convention. And sound a lot like it since it shares the same somewhat absurd sense of oppression. It comes across as a white man’s movement with, at best, a bunch of auxiliaries.  One blogger, Natalie Reed, made the interesting observation that atheism serves as an ersatz civil rights movement for white men. They can be rebellious and take a bold stand that, for most atheists, has very few practical consequences (although not always) . For me, Natalie Reed’s observation has a ring of truth.

But this has been changing, the movement has been getting larger and more diverse. Partly this is due to canny use of the internet, but also to historical factors like 9/11, increasing secularity, and the threat of the Christian Right.  As a consequence, people who were not white men became more prominent—young women, such as Rebecca Watson who founded Skepchick, or Jen McCreight of BlagHag, who kicked off Boobquake, a huge p.r. coup for atheism and skepticism. There is an element in the push back of putting upstarts in their place.  

The upshot of the whole debacle has been the launch of Atheism+, a movement that maintains the scientific/skeptical element of the New Atheism but reconnects atheism with social justice (”Atheism+social justice”).  Right now it consists of a forum for people interested in social justice issues to thrash things out without having to deal with a horde of commenters who object to the very idea that these topics are being discussed.

It’s regrettable that it is necessary for a group of atheists to demarcate themselves in this way, but given the situation it is a reasonable, in fact necessary, response.