That Cenk Uygur thing

2005-10-25 05:44

So, lots of people have pointed me at If you’re a Christian, Muslim, or Jew – You Are Wrong.

It’s a beautiful rant. Absolutely beautiful. One atheist friend of mine said it made him want to stand up and cheer. It should. It’s designed to.

Nearly any reasonably competent writer can do this. Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter write things that make conservatives want to stand up and cheer. Al Franken and Michael Moore can count on standing ovations from the leftists they pander to. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell can bring conservative Christians to tears of joy or cries of anger with less effort than it takes most of us to stumble out of bed in the morning.

What these things have in common is a way of approaching differences that hits straight to the core of our primate instincts. We know, deep down inside us, that resources are limited and we have to compete for them, and that the best thing to do is pick a group and support it. Ideally, a group like you; they probably share more of your genes.

To do this, you have to be able to think of the other side as a little less human than your side. They have to be wrong. They have to be stupid, or evil, or both. But the fact is, no large group is composed entirely of malicious fools, and we all know that. But knowledge is intellectual, so you make the appeal to emotion, and it works better.

Chairman Mao’s incredibly effective purges relied on demonizing the bourgeois. Saddam Hussein did fairly well by demonizing America, and Bush did fairly well by demonizing Hussein. That last bit is particularly important; people playing this game feed off each other. Cenk’s blog post gives Robertson nasty atheists to whine about, and plays into the frankly silly persecution complex many American Christians have. On the other hand, Robertson’s surrealist spewing of hatred certainly gives ample fodder to people like Cenk.

It’s all the same game. It’s about emotion, not reason. It’s about demonizing others. It’s about livejournal blog entries about how most religious people are stupid and religion is the cause of all the trouble in the world, and other livejournal posts about how most atheists are stupid and atheism is the cause of all the trouble in the world. Part of how we dehumanize people enough that we can act to harm them without guilt is by saying they hurt us first, or more. Of course, most people will never harm us; we have to blame them indirectly, and that means blaming the group they’re in.

Cenk’s post relies on the same exact techniques he so decries. This is not an accident. It is not a coincidence. It is not happenstance. It is the nature of the beast; if you want to preach about how you are better than other people, there are only so many buttons to push.

Let’s compare rhetoric to reality. Just once.

We live in a twisted world, where right is wrong and wrong reigns supreme. It is a chilling fact that most of the world’s leaders believe in nonsensical fairytales about the nature of reality. They believe in Gods that do not exist, and religions that could not possibly be true. We are driven to war after war, violence on top of violence to appease madmen who believe in gory mythologies.

This is a beautifully emotive piece. Only Mao and Stalin never believed in any of these alleged fairytales… And many of the religious people out there are rather different from Cenk’s willfully myopic description. Ever heard of American Friends Service Committee? Ever wondered who invented the notion of conscientious objector status? Who provided lepers with food when most people were afraid of them and wouldn’t even come near them?

But that’s the thing. It’s about calling names, using strong and emotive language. It’s about picking the silliest possible words to describe the people you’re trying to get people to stop respecting. Cenk’s post is like a Kent Hovind lecture on the support for Creationism, which never really does anything but use clever soundbites and misquotes to make fun of evolution. To a young-earth creationist, it sounds great. It makes you want to stand up and cheer. But it’s got nothing to do with evolutionary theory, and it offers no support for creationism. Likewise, Mr. Uygur has offered a beautiful rant that hasn’t got a thing to do with the beliefs of most religious people, and offers no support for whatever alternative he intends to propose.

Writing like this feels good to read, if you agree with it. It intentionally subverts all your checks and balances, gets past everything you know about fairness and judgment and respect, and gets right to the point, pushing the button that makes you be proud of your tribe and hate the other tribe so much you don’t even think about whether they feel pain. Of course it seems reasonable! It’s supposed to. This is why our language has the word “insidious”.

The fact is, the problems he describes are real problems, but they are not problems with religion. They are problems with human nature, and it is exactly that part of human nature that he is appealing to and surrendering to in his zeal to eliminate competing monkeys. His post does nothing but make the problem worse. It doesn’t enlighten anyone, it doesn’t correct misunderstandings; it promotes lies and strawmen for the sheer joy of seeing people hurt. It is the same thing that Robertson and Falwell have to offer, and I, for one, don’t much appreciate it.

One of my atheist friends made the comment:

You and Mujahid aren’t used to your ox being gored like this. But we unbelievers get this on a daily basis.

In fact, I get it all the time; I moderate at Internet Infidels, where I can see a dozen posts in similar tones any day of the week.

What scares me is that people like the above writer (whom I consider a friend) are being suckered in by Cenk’s screed just as easily as my Republican friends fall for Coulter’s deliciously catty (but nearly always false and malicious) humor, as my Democrat friends fall for the hilarious hijinx of Al Franken bashing right-wing people… The one thing I generally respect about atheists as a community is that they are disproportionately likely, most of the time, to try to think for themselves and pay more attention to the real semantic content of what they read. It is disturbing to find that all they needed to turn nasty was a better writer.

Peter Seebach

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Comments

  1. After all these years, seebs, you still don't get it. You ARE my enemy. It IS us vs. them because bigots like you have made it about us vs. them.

    When is it going to sink in?


    — Goliath · 2005-10-25 06:17 · #

  2. The biggest thing you learn in high school/college debate (after the basics of Nuh-uh, you're wrong, here's why) is that you can be the very best rebuttalist ever. You can eat arguments for breakfast and shit glowing refutations sometime in mid-afternoon, but you still might lose.

    You learn that in the realm of a debate where it's you vs. them and there is a cheap plastic trophy and the adoration of hundreds on the line, to win, you play dirty.

    It's not about everybody getting their say in and actually explaining their position, it's about cutting the other person out before they can do the same to you, but doing it in a way that they follow along with you without realizing it.

    Of course Cenk thinks he/it/whatever is right. That's how this debate has been framed.


    "One of my atheist friends made the comment:

    You and Mujahid aren't used to your ox being gored like this. But we unbelievers get this on a daily basis."


    I don't know where this person is hanging out at, but I can't ever seem to go three feet without tripping over another fellow atheist who has very defined views about what everybody else should believe. Maybe I just have thick skin, but lately I've mostly been seeing it go the same direction as Cenk. And I used to cheer.

    Of course, I also used to be 13.

    :( It's sad that so many people are missing the point.

    Keffy · 2005-10-25 07:14 · #

  3. Goliath: I don't know what you mean by "enemy". I mean you no harm. I think you're way cool. I have consistently enjoyed interacting with you, and I have found you to be a man of integrity and no small brilliance.

    Every time those fuckers at Best Buy and Suncoast and everyone else try to pitch my 8 free weeks of Entertainment Weekly, it's all I can do to keep from busting out laughing after your beautiful description of the scenario at FF.

    So I don't know what you mean by "enemy". There are very few people out there who, if they got into power, would treat me better than they'd treat you. The wannabe theocrats fear and hate people like me, and perhaps wisely so.

    seebs · 2005-10-25 07:57 · #

  4. Seebs: That was a great rebuttal of an article which sorely needed rebutting.

    Sometimes I despair that we can no longer discuss issues of substance without it devolving into a shouting match. When you don't respect someone who disagrees with you, then there's little hope for a meaningful dialogue and changing hearts and minds.

    But this is nothing new: Victorian etiquitte books advised that politics and religion were not topics for discussion in polite company. Socrates so infuriated the Athenians by questioning their core beliefs that they forced him to drink hemlock.

    We've always had two ways to solve disagreements: through dialogue and through conflict. When people are so far apart that dialogue is no longer possible, then conflict is necessary. And conflict demands no respect for the enemy.

    Personally, I think civilization has come a long way in that nearly all of our conflicts are now rhetorical or legal, rather than physical.

    Shivering Timbers · 2005-10-25 14:38 · #

  5. Seebs,

    "I don't know what you mean by 'enemy'."

    It's unbelievably simple: you are not my ally. Not now. Not ever.

    Got it, yet?


    — Goliath · 2005-10-26 06:35 · #

  6. Hi there, Seebs!

    The article (Uygur's) is interesting, if only for the fact that it shows professedly faithless people making a faith position. Namely, that if only religious belief were purged from humanity, there would be all peace, love and flowers. It reminds me of a Sec Web Kiosk article called "Communism is a Religion" - see, if they get pointed out for the millions killed under Stalin (no, I'm NOT saying atheism is to blame for that) they weed out of it by calling communism a religion. Instead of trying to find the way of thinking shared by Stalinism and Fundamentalist Islam that prompted those mass murders.

    "Us vs Them" is ... emotionally attractive. You feel the adrenalin coursing through you, you feel part of something bigger and better, you feel like you're rooting for the winning football team. I know that, I've been through it through lots of forms, whether Orthodox Jewish or atheist or pagan or what not. In the end, though, you realise you've become just a cog in the machine, "all in all another..." (as in that Pink Floyd song), dropping the inconvenient procedure of actually getting to know people before judging them, instead going the easy way of knowing all about them just from their label.

    I'll tell you more by e-mail.

    Blessings,
    HD

    — Heathen Dawn · 2005-11-01 07:26 · #

  7. "Namely, that if only religious belief were purged from humanity, there would be all peace, love and flowers."

    Where did Mr. Uygur make that claim?


    — Goliath · 2005-11-02 12:28 · #

  8. I retract everything I've said in this thread of comments.

    Life is too fucking short...


    — Goliath · 2005-11-06 01:06 · #

  9. Seebs, I'm glad you wrote about this. Demonization of the 'enemy' is everywhere. Too many people do not realize what they're being sucked into.

    ps139 · 2005-12-29 15:57 · #

 
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