On Communicating when Cataloging Religious Violence

[I had this post in my drafts, half completed, when I read and wrote about the Conan O’Brien tweet. I have left the original material intact. Everything that’s new appears in the Other Thoughts section.]

Terry Firma is getting more criticism from fellow atheists about his posts on religious violence and harm. This time, it is coming from PZ Myers.

The story at the heart of the back-and-forth between Myers and Firma is recent news that Al Qaeda-linked rebels in Syria beheaded an ally by mistake. Myers takes Firma to task for “celebrating a decapitation”. Myers suggests that Firma “dehumanize[s] people by calling them diseases” (emphasis in original). Lastly, he faults Firma for “using the Bible to justify violence.”

Though he may be my rival, I feel the need to come to the defense of Firma on this account. It seems to me Myers greatly misrepresents Firma’s original post. Though it may be fair to say the post delights in the irony of the situation, it seems an exaggeration to suggest Firma is “celebrating a decapitation”. Moreover, Firma does anything but “[use] the Bible to justify violence.” Firma quotes “live by the sword, die by the sword” to note that there is little shock in the fact that a violent extremist would meet a violent end, but this is hardly a justification.

Myers’s critique is perhaps on firmer ground regarding his suggestion that Firma “dehumanizes people by calling them diseases.” In the final paragraph of his original post, Firma says the following:

“Mohammed Fares [the man beheaded] was another Islamist boil on the ass of humanity. It’s an unpleasant procedure, but boils need to be lanced. Or beheaded — same thing.”

Myers is correct to point out that Firma equates Islamists (i.e., people) with boils. Being strict to form, Firma’s wording suggests we need to behead Islamists. But this is a rather ungenerous reading of the line. I don’t think it is a stretch to understand this to mean that humans need to rid themselves of violent religious extremism. I may want to make a stylistic critique, but I agree with the substance.

Other Thoughts:

Firma wrote a response to PZ Myers. It contains an update in which he quotes Myers using a similar tone. Firma is on strong grounds to call Myers out on this. I don’t comment on Myers because I very rarely read his blog. But, back in the “accommodation wars” of 2010, Myers was often critiqued for the exact same approach Firma took in this post.

At its most basic level, my issue with Firma’s (and Myers’s, for that matter) writing is stylistic. I’d never read him until he was appearing on the Friendly Atheist blog. As I noted in the ‘Other Thoughts’ of my previous post, I think a large part of my issue with Firma is that his style and tone are very different from that taken by Hemant Mehta, and Mehta’s tone and approach are a large part of why I read the Friendly Atheist blog. My “rivalry” with him, at heart, is a self-mocking acknowledgment of this.

In most cases, I am neutral or in agreement with most of the points Firma makes, but I often dislike his style in expressing these points. I only comment on his posts when I have a substantive disagreement with him because there’s no point in simply railing against someone’s writing style.

Interestingly, in his response to PZ Myers, Firma also notes that he does not consider himself a Humanist (as he defines- “stressing the potential value and goodness of all human beings”). This, for sure, puts some perspective on his stylistic choices. In rejecting the “stressing” part of a humanist ethos, light is shed on why I often find his tone uncaring. I don’t mean to suggest he is uncaring, but he is not going to make an effort to stress care.

In my post on out-group shaming, I discussed that I understood a place for websites that aggregate negative stories. Firma’s Moral Compass site is an example of this.  As a reader, because the content is focused on pointing out and criticizing negatives, one can become prone to read a certain delight or enjoyment into the authors motivations. It is easy to see their focus on negative stories as them actually taking pleasure in pointing them out. It is important to remember, as a reader, to not add motivations where they are not expressed. I say this as a personal reminder as much as a general reminder.

Finally, in his response to Myers, Firma notes that commentors on Myers’s post call Firma an Islamophobe. I have, likewise, noted that I find some of Firma’s posts borderline Islamophobic. Now, some of this comes down to style. It is easy to read more into Firma’s tone due to his style of writing. As noted above, PZ Myers has received plenty of criticism as having outright disdain for the religious because of his style of writing (see Firma’s update for a good example).

However, even if the author is not and never intends to write something bigoted or disdainful of a people, the combative style risks getting there anyway. Firma’s post on the Conan O’Brien tweet is, to my mind, a good example. To be completely honest, in the first draft of my post on the joke, I called Firma a bigot, outright. I reined in the language, obviously. However, I still clearly draw the connection. And, to my mind, for good reason.

The paragraph starting with “Muslims and their humorless advocates,” in context, is vile. If he removed or reworked that paragraph, I’d still disagree with his take on the backlash to the tweet, but his post would feel a lot less disdainful. When you skirt that line with your language and tone, you will cross it. It may not be intentional, but the effect is there, all the same.

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4 comments

  1. Terry Firma · November 22, 2013

    You’re right that Hemant’s style differs from mine. Luckily for me, he seems to like my writing enough to tolerate / encourage my submissions.

    Incidentally, I think that even without my now-daily appearances at Friendly Atheist, you might observe that Hemant (in my view) has drifted to a slightly less accommodationist stance on religion in the last couple of years. Maybe I’m imagining things, but to me he’s now a semi-friendly atheist, if you will; I, by contrast, am the outright grumpy and sarcastic one.

    To me, that dynamic is fine, complementary, even refreshing (I hope), but I accept that the increased overall contentiousness is perhaps a shock to people who come to the site expecting a surfeit of love, kudos, and a spirit of conciliation between believers and non-believers. To me, that ship sailed on 9/11, a date that gave rise to the New Atheists with whom I predominantly identify (especially the brilliant Hitchens, a reflexively combative polemicist whose death l still feel as a great loss).

    By the way, in real life, I break bread with believers all the time. My wife is a Christian; one of my best friends is a missiologist (of all things); two of my other best friends run a church-financed Christian conference center together; my quite wonderful in-laws are born-again evangelicals, and so on. They all know that I’m an outspoken atheist, but they also know my bark is worse than my bite.

    Terry Firma (a pen name) is, to some extent, a character I made up, although he is very close to my “real” persona — amped up 10, 20 percent.

    Not that that matters a great deal. My readers must (and can) judge me only by my published words, as you do. It’s nothing new to have people vehemently disagreeing with me; even my political choices are seen as half-peculiar, half-upsetting by my friends on the right, who think I’m a dangerous pinko, and by my friends on the left, to whom I’m a Randian wingnut. I’m used to it, and I’ll take my lumps.

    Thank you for a mostly fair assessment in your post. I do take exception to the charge of Islamophobia (and have explained why in the article about PZ Myers you linked to), but I doubt I’ll be able to convince you on that score — considering I haven’t already. It probably confirms your dim view of me that I don’t actually feel slighted by the tired accusation. You can call me whatever politically expedient label you choose. I know how I see Islam, and true to form, I express that view bluntly but not without nuance. If others’ representation of my feelings or arguments are the result of a stubborn misunderstanding (or of jumping to erroneous conclusions, as you did and then acknowledged yesterday) despite the clarity that I tried to bring to the subject, I can at least say I’ve done my best, and that my conscience remains clear.

    All the best,

    TF

    • thecaveatlector · November 22, 2013

      Thank you, again, for responding.

      When I discuss the stylistic difference between yours and Hemant’s writing, I mean that as much for self-analyzing my reactions as I mean it for anything else. And, I agree that Hemant’s tone has gotten a bit more combative, but I don’t think his style has. For example, comparing Islamist extremists to boils. I don’t see Hemant doing that. That, to me, is a stylistic difference.

      Truthfully, I don’t object to your style. It just doesn’t suit my taste. And, you are correct that the varying styles of the regular writers on the Friendly Atheist add to the blog’s dynamism. As with other bloggers that, to my mind, have a similar style to yours, I would just not read those blogs. Because your writing was appearing on a blog I frequent, it was hard to avoid. That may be an existential problem for me, but it should be no concern for yourself, Hemant, or anyone else.

      Moreover, I think that you should take exception to charges that you are an Islamophobe. To be honest, I would be surprised if you didn’t. However, the substance of one’s writing can have a different feel than one’s personal sentiments and one’s intentions. In the two post’s of yours I’ve primarily taken issue with: the first exaggerates the implications of a poll and mislabels many Muslims as more supportive of violence than they actually are. The second unnecessarily links understandable backlash to an off-color joke with institutional censorship and violence. The content of those posts, to my mind, were lazy in analysis and relied too heavily on generalizations. As a result, they read as stereotyping all Muslims as violent (a particular problem faced by Muslims in the US) and voicing a certain disdain for Muslims. This is why the posts feel like bigotry.

      But, that does not mean the author is a bigot. There are a lot of reasons why a piece of writing can take on a feel that far escapes the intentions and sentiments of the author. One, for example, is tone and style. That’s what I was talking about above in reminding the reader (and myself) not to place intentions on the author that are not directly expressed. Furthermore, it can also result from needing to be expedient in writing. Heck, it can simply be a matter of an author, knowing his intent, not seeing a different perspective on his writing. As such, it is important to not simply throw around labels like “Islamophobe.”

      I do, honestly, try to maintain this barrier by referencing the content and using phrases like “I feel,” and “It seems to me.” I want to make sure that the ownership is with me. However, I fully recognize that my post on the twitter joke did a poor job of drawing this distinction and outright failed at times. On this account, I apologize. Also, when someone gets a label like this, it can be hard to shake. That sucks, and I apologize for any role I’ve played in that. I appreciate you sharing some of your personal background, as it helps provide perspective on who you actually are.

      My primary piece of feedback is this: be careful, when analyzing and writing about stories, to not overly rely on larger criticisms of religion or religious groups. It can over-simplify stories by reducing the group to some stereotyped monolith. When this happens, your writing can have a feel of bigotry. As you said, your bark is worse than your bite; however, your bark can still harm, even if it is unintentional.

      Lastly, I always figured ‘Terry Firma’ was a pen name, but I secretly hoped your parents were lovers of Latin who took advantage of an opportunity. Dream shattered.

      All the best,
      Jeff

  2. hitchens67 · November 22, 2013

    Reblogged this on hitchens67 Atheism WOW!! Campaign and commented:
    PZ is gettin’ a little cray-cray!

  3. Terry Firma · November 23, 2013

    Jeff:

    Noted, and appreciated. Due to circumstances that have nothing to do with these two specific posts of mine, I have a period of reflection ahead of me, and will throw this into the mix. Thanks.

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