Why the vitriol? September 10, 2012Posted by ubi dubium in Brain Glitches, Rants.
Tags: A+, atheism, BlagHag, Boob-Quake, Carol Tavris, Cognitive Biases, elevatorgate, feminism, FTB, Greta Christina, Jen McCreight, MRAs, Rebecca Watson, stupidity, Surly Amy, twitter
I’ve been looking at quite a few posts and comments in the Atheosphere complaining about the whole idea of Atheism Plus. A few of these are thoughtful, some are just whiny, but many are downright nasty. Where is all of this spite coming from? If it were a new website for atheist knitters or a club for atheist baseball fans, I don’t see that there would be this kind of outcry. So why such outrage? I’ve been thinking about this rather a lot, and I have some thoughts on the subject.
I’ve been reading a lot over the past years about cognitive biases, and I think I may have gotten some what is going on here. First, I recommend a talk given at TAM9 by Carol Tavris:
The part I want to focus on is her discussion of the pyramid metaphor. Two people who share very similar opinions are faced with an ethical decision to be made. (They are shown near each other at the top of the pyramid.) Her example was cheating on a test, and in this example, one cheats and one does not. After the fact they each begin to rationalize their decisions, to find reasons to reassure themselves why the decision they made was the correct one, and why the other decision was wrong. In the case of the student who cheated, they are faced with a cognitive dissonance: either they must admit to themselves that they took an action which was not consistent with their self image of an ethical person, or they must create reasons why their action actually was ethical. Nobody wants to admit to themselves that they are less than a good person, or that they made a mistake. Rationalizing is easier and less painful. And so both of these students later wind up quite separate in their opinions, even though they did not start out that way. (Shown as each student now far apart at the bottom of the pyramid.) And each may now harbor hostility towards the other, even though there was none there to start with.
Also involved here is the Backfire Effect. Once someone stakes out their position, evidence to the contrary makes them dig into their chosen position all the more. This even happens to those of us who try to be good skeptics, and always approach problems rationally. We still get caught by this problem.
So now I’m looking at the storm that erupted over elevatorgate, and that has only intensified since. Before women started speaking up publicly about this issue, there were probably a lot of guys who casually made inappropriate comments, or advances, or any of the other things were are now saying are part of the atmosphere of harassment we are fighting. Or maybe they didn’t do any of that, but just made comments in support someone else who did. At the time, it might not have seemed wrong, because there was a general atmosphere that this sort of thing was OK, and there was a lot of it going on.
Now we are finally speaking up, saying that it wasn’t OK, it’s a big part of the reason that women have been avoiding events, and that it’s time for it to stop. And so now any guy who has behaved in ways that we are now defining as unacceptable, even if he didn’t realize at the time that it was offensive, is faced with that cognitive dissonance. Either he has to admit to himself that his actions might have been inappropriate and say “I didn’t realize, I’m sorry, I won’t do that anymore”, or he has to say “What I did was totally OK, and here’s all the reasons why it’s OK, and you are horrible whiny people for saying it wasn’t OK.” It’s hard to for anybody admit that they were not the perfect paragon that is their mental image of themselves, but it’s easy to argue. We’re all very good at arguing. And the more we point out that this kind of justification is part of the behavior that has been the problem all along, the harder they dig into the position that they are in the right, always were in the right, and have nothing to be sorry about. Which has now escalated into name calling, abuse and threats.
So what can be done about this? I don’t have a solution, except to talk about cognitive dissonance in hopes that a few people may recognize it in themselves. If there’s another answer to this problem, I’d love to hear about it.