Thursday, July 26, 2012
The Art of the Five-Finger Down Punch
Thank the gods, I am a tiny cog in the freethought movement. Don't have a significant audience, or an associated blind spot as to what it must be like to go through life without carrying around massive audience privilege like an invisible backpack with protective powers. As a small cog, I am well aware of the disparity in informal social power between those who have a large audience and those who do not. When it comes to power and influence, I'm almost invariably punching up rather than punching down. This is doubly true when it comes to pursuing (probably pointless) palaver and associated argy-bargy on the internets - which is most likely for the best, because I can be kind of an fuckwad online.
If I somehow attained a much larger audience, I'd have to seriously consider the possibility doing so would burden me with a moral responsibility (rooted in the ethics of secular humanism) to avoid leveraging my newfound audience privilege in an attempt to make those with vastly less of a platform look like fools. I'd be aware that my own message would be widely read and discussed, while answering counterpoints from my target of choice would go relatively unnoticed. Even if I took the effort to link to responses, the odds are good that most of my readership won't be terribly keen on reading opinions that run contrary to those they are used to hearing on my site. Freethinking may be contrary to group-thinking in theory, but certainly not in practice.
All that said, it seems to me that many of the leaders in the movement seem completely oblivious to the inherent imbalance in punching down at those not in a position to answer in kind. Lately, this has become sort of a fashion over at the largest platform in modern freethought, where we've seen posts directed against relative unknowns such as: Bryan Pesta, Stephen Packard, John Hembling, Kyle Hill, Paula Kirby and Peter Leschak (more to come). No doubt some of them deserved to be called out more than others, and some of them doubtless have somewhat of an audience of their own, but too often all that is accomplished by these 'down-punching' posts is to either feed the trolls or unleash the flying monkeys, rather than provoke a factual or moral debate about the proper means and ends of freethought. On most such occasions, it would have been simple enough to make essentially the same substantive arguments without making personal attacks, but probably that would have been less gratifying to our tribalist instinct to line up and take sides.
There are exceptions, of course. Some public figures (e.g. Scofield, Stedman, and Croft) have significantly fewer readers than the Freethought bloggers, but are deliberately engaging them in a public debate over the future of freethought. More distressingly, sometimes someone prints something so profoundly odious that punching down is the only appropriate response, other than perhaps crashing the server. There is no possible way to engage in a substantive debate or productive exchange of ideas with those who open the conversation with dehumanizing threats.
No doubt the enthusiastic supporters of Freethought Blogs will find some way to justify each and every instance of bullying from the FtB pulpit. That's how people generally work: tribal allegiances first, post-hoc rationalizations thereafter.