On Avoiding The Infinitely Regressive


My friend Michael Nugent, who is the Chairperson at Atheist Ireland, speaks regularly at the United Nations, at the Council of Europe, at our own parliamentary committees here in Ireland, and at various conferences. Most recently, he was a contributor at the International Network for Hate Studies conference. Shortly before that, he spoke at a conference on Inter-Belief Dialogue and at the World Rationalist Conference in Estonia.

One talk that I have watched Michael give several times, relates to the difference between keyboard warriors engaging in flame wars, as compared to genuine activism that can contribute towards achieving real change. For example, he was asked about some of these issues when he was interviewed on The Saad Truth, in terms of how NGOs can work most effectively within the United Nations. I was also reminded of Michael’s recommendations by President Barack Obama recently, during his commencement address at Howard University. POTUS may have more speech writers than Michael, but their core observations have many similarities:

“I want you to have passion but you also need a strategy. Not just awareness, but action. Not just hash tags, but votes. Change requires more than righteous anger. It requires a program and it requires organising.”

Whereas there seems to be the clearest possible distinction between explaining to a legislator why a specific Bill should be changed, and explaining to strangers on Twitter why they should “fuck off”, I have found that these boundaries can be blurred. On the one hand, it is good for any NGO to be open, accessible and responsive to criticism. On the other, there must be a way to avoid an infinite regress down every rabbit hole that every Internet commenter insists on leaping headlong in to.

Some commenters (in my experience, most) are benign and well-meaning. Their views may be entirely reasonable and logical, while still antithetical to those held by me and the organisations that I represent. This should not be a surprise in a complex world where few contemporary questions of any real import, have one single correct answer. Other commenters seek to maintain a benign pretence, while remaining determined to find any excuse, to throw ridiculously ill-informed accusations around. How can we work towards change, without being distracted by an infinite regress towards ever more angry rhetoric? How can we organise the programs we require, without being distracted by ever more regressive hash tags? We need to find a bright clear line, when open accountability starts to blur into the indulgence of keyboard warriors.

Keyboard Warriors
Keyboard Warriors

Many of the fallacious arguments that abound within flame wars, aren’t unique to Internet domains either. Recently, I was party to legal hearings as a plaintiff, in a case of religious discrimination against a public body in Ireland. I was hugely grateful for the help of my friends and colleagues, but our side of the table consisted only of NGO volunteers, without any legal representation. The other side of the table included a well-funded public body, a solicitor and a barrister. I heard several arguments used during these legal hearings, which were similar to those that I have observed online recently.

At one point of the hearing, the barrister held up some pages that he had printed from the Atheist Ireland web site. Unsurprisingly, he was able to find some content there, which undermines teachings of the Catholic Church. Part of his argument was that those who criticise the tenets of Catholicism, might expect to be discriminated against by Catholics who are working within civil structures of the State. The term ‘victim-blaming‘ was coined in the 1970s as part of the debate about racism and the legacy of slavery in the USA, but of course, it can be correctly used in many other contexts today and it no longer refers only to issues surrounding race. Victim-blaming is still wrong-headed when it occurs in contexts that don’t involve the same loss of life that slavery caused. It is not difficult to find examples online, where those who are the subject of unjust maltreatment, are said to be responsible for any friction that arises when they object to it.

Bailey Parnell, Ryerson University, Canada
Bailey Parnell, Ryerson University, Canada

Another aspect of these legal hearings, related to information tables that volunteers at Atheist Ireland have established around the country. In addition to long-standing Dublin events, my friend Ashling O’Brien has established such services in Cork, Galway, Tralee, Limerick, Sligo and Athlone. The opposing barrister who was defending the religious discrimination during the hearings, noticed that two of these events on our web site, had no associated date during the current calendar month. He then offered this as evidence that those events had never happened. This is called the Argument From Ignorance, which includes statements by people that they propose must be true, purely on the basis that they are personally unaware of any contrary evidence.

A common online variant of this fallacy, involves accusations that those who haven’t been seen to regularly oppose an odious position, must therefore hold that position. For many reasons, it is astonishing that such arguments are still often made, either by keyboard warriors or barristers. Nevertheless, readers may observe that every minute they spend looking at this blog, is a minute they spend not denouncing the KKK. While this is entirely true, it does not imply that all readers are then racists who must support the KKK. More obtuse still, are allegations that a failure to attend a specific event is evidence for holding an imagined contradictory position to those at the event. For example, it would be ridiculous to suggest that anyone who failed to attend an historic public meeting involving a minority Muslim community, must therefore be an anti-Muslim bigot.

Representatives of Atheist Ireland and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community
Representatives of Atheist Ireland and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community

Whereas, I have observed a lot of commonality between arguments made online and arguments made by legal counsel during recent hearings, there is one very obvious difference. The legal hearings included a judge. Without a judge, arguments between plaintiffs and defendants would become as interminable as some online discussions. After the judge drew our recent legal hearing to a conclusion, my friends and I spent much of what remained of our day-off work, discussing how to get the Information Commissioner to vindicate our right to access documents within another public body. Keeping in mind Michael Nugent’s distinction between flame wars and activism then, I’d like to spend less time answering critics online, and more time on this kind of productive work towards addressing discrimination and achieving secular progress.

This is not to say that many critics don’t have reasonable and well-argued points, but if I disagree with them and the organisations that I represent have good reasons to support alternative views, we need the equivalent of a judge so that we don’t end up arguing forever. None of us are accountable to any online judge but I am accountable to the membership of the organisations that I represent … and there is where I propose to draw the required bright clear line. So with apologies to the majority of well-meaning and rational critics, the next time such people shout “you won’t respond to criticism!” at me (which has been very often) they will be entirely correct.

I will respond to the members of the organisations that I represent, but not to egg avatars. Rather than explain to people that I’ve never met, that after careful consideration I’d really rather not “fuck off”, I will instead invest my time explaining to legislators what the benefits of secularism are. This doesn’t mean that even infinitely regressive voices can’t hold people to account. It just means that they’ll need a strategy and not just anger. They’ll need actions and not just hash tags.

Join an organisation. Pay your membership subscription. Propose a coherent strategy. Convince others to vote for your policy position to be adopted. Lobby for those policy positions towards legislators and within other areas of public discourse. Alternatively, please know that when you tell me and my friends at Atheist Ireland to “fuck off”, these are the kind of actions that I will be taking. These are the strategies that we will be following to help achieve secular progress.

When my kids are old enough to ask me “What did you do during the flame wars, Daddy?” … I’d like to be able to tell them that I spent my time constructively, trying to ensure that they have a more secular and progressive country to live in.

John Hamill

National Committee, Atheist Ireland

Secretary, Atheist Alliance International

Christopher Hitchens
Christopher Hitchens