Background Probability

The Agnostic Popular Front has moved to its new home at Skeptic Ink, and will henceforth be known as Background Probability. Despite the relocation and rebranding, we will continue to spew the same low-fidelity high-quality bullshit that you've come to expect.

Friday, June 1, 2012

A general theory of in-group kerfuffles

Probably someone with a background in psychology has already done this, with more data, more rigor, and more eloquence, but I'm going to give it a go anyhow. Having experienced an undue amount of interpersonal drama throughout the month of May, I have often found myself wondering: Is there a general pattern to the incidents which divide the freethought community? Can we generalize from major controversies such as Elevatorgate and Gelatogate to the smaller incidents which go on at a grassroots level? Some have said that we shouldn't reopen old wounds, or fan the flames, or [insert unpleasant analogy of choice], but please understand that this is not at all my intention. To the contrary, my hope is that once we begin to recognize the general pattern at work, we will start to catch ourselves before contributing to the next blow-up, however big or small.

All that said, here is the general framework which I've come up with so far:

1) Offensive action
2) Defensive reaction
3) Commentariat takes sides
4) Repeat until well and thoroughly bloodied

Some examples of step (1) might include propositioning a woman at a conference, or giving a satirical sermon peppered with blasphemy and vulgarity, posting a potentially offensive photo or suggestion to a private message board, or refusing to take down certain offensive threads.

Corresponding examples of step (2) might include editorial blogging about the propriety of sexual propositions in a given context, attempting to unwelcome unbelievers from a gelato shop, moderating posts which are considered offensive or otherwise inappropriate in a private forum, or creating a blacklist of speakers with which one refuses to share a stage.

So far, so good. Someone has expressed themselves, and someone else has done so as well, and both parties are probably feeling a bit rejected or affronted. Step (3), however, is where we provide redundant evidence that humans are just a chromosome away from flinging shit at each other, as we line up to take sides with the party from step (1) or step (2) and gradually slide down the path from rational arguments to personal attacks. Eventually, we get to the point where third-parties are attacking each other based on guilt by association, in a sort of virtual family feud.

Note that I'm saying "we" because I am not nearly above the fray, and I've personally been guilty of every misstep described herein. Notice also that I'm greatly oversimplifying for the sake of the model. In reality, steps (1) and (2) may be interchanged depending on point of view, and they will often engender a series of spinoff discussions which recapitulate the entire process repeatedly, nesting loops of mutual recrimination between third parties and thus giving rise to step (3).

Finally, I have to note that steps (1) and (2) are to some degree inevitable. The freethought community will always have members who lean towards untrammeled free expression (however shocking it might be) and others who prefer a more humanistic approach of carefully tailoring speech to the sensibilities of the audience. Even those who acknowledge that a balance must always be struck between free expression and consideration will inevitably be tempted to take sides in particular cases.

What, then, can we do?  We must learn to recognize when we are giving offense, taking offense, reacting defensively, or otherwise engaging in a vicious cycle of emotional escalation. We must learn to recognize when we are taking sides in a controversy and assigning guilt by association to those arguing for the other side. We must learn to recognize the signs of online disinhibition and compensate accordingly. Within our local groups, we must recognize that the leadership and moderators are trying their very best to balance the interests of all sides, and give them more credit than grief for doing so, even when things don't go our way. Above all, we have to keep our minds open to new evidence and to the possibility that we are missing salient facts, miscommunicating our position, or just plain wrong.