Sunday, August 06, 2006

On shame and religion, and their respective values (or lack thereof) for the politically progressive

This is a work in progress; it started as a response to this archived post at PunkAssBlog ("The value of substantive insults like godbags") As I'm looking at it it's really more of a riff, because I've been meaning to talk about these things for a while.

What I said there was this. (Bear in mind that I'm coming in a month after a conversation that was itself a response to an older conversation; this is probably more representative of my own process than an entirely fair or accurate reading of what was going on there). Anyway:


Mm. Two points here. First of all, I think shaming has very limited political value except as a temporary consensus-building/strengthening tool (let’s you and me bond over the fact that at least we’re not as stupid as this fuckwit over here). It also provides a nice warm glow, which in turn can bring a much-needed boost of energy, because, let’s face it, mocking people as a group sport feels really good. Which, because i am a meen bastard, in itself I have no problem with–to a point.

But I don’t believe it does, in fact, bring on-the-fence people over to one’s side, no. in fact I’d say lately I’ve been seeing rather strong evidence to the contrary–people think, oh, fuck, well, that sounds like they’re making fun of -me,- now…well, I have the choice of either abandoning these things that are deeply important to me and have been for a very long time, or abandoning these people/ideas I’ve only fairly recently discovered and have been trying to decide whether or not I agree with them. Know what? Screw you, new guys/ideas; I’m goin’ home.

And once they’re home, of course, they’re far more likely to indulge in whatever the “shamed” behavior is. Particularly if the behavior in question is not in fact a social no-no (fuck, I caused damage when I did that, I can see exactly how, or at least kind of) but is something that -isn’t- immmediately obviously hurting anyone else (goes to Mass, stays at home with the kids, wears microminiskirts, likes consensual blowjobs, whatever).

Far more important, they're probably gonna associate whatever cause it is you've been trying to win them over to with "those people who tried to make me feel bad for blahblah." Which means in turn that chances are? the other, more crucial aspects of whatever cause you were trying to sell will -also- be associated in their minds with the nasty shaming behavior.

And if you -do- win people over to your side by shaming them for being a superstitious fool/brainwashed sexbot/cultureless hick, you know something: it’s a hollow win. Because deep-down people always know that you’ve made them feel like shit, and they’ll resent you for it. And if they’re the kind of people who respond primarily out of wanting to avoid feeling like shit–you’re gonna have to work hard to keep them, especially if you’re any kind of progressive and particularly small-d democrat. Because frankly, authoritarians are better at that bullying (for that is what that is) game. Always have been.

And, too, we're still just talking about tactics with a cold and calculating eye. Let's not even begin to start speculating about what happens to one's idealism after one has been at this game for a good while. Or what kind of new society you were planning to build.

Now: if you’re saying you can win people in the great middle over by holding up the excesses of the truly deranged for ridicule, that’s something else. Sure. Happens all the time. And by all means, no mercy for the truly irredeemably when they (finally, blessedly) fuck up. But the thing is, in that instance, -they- did all the work for you. All you have to do is turn the spotlight on them; at most, feed them some more rope.

So if you call extremists funny names that actually have the potential to make certain people in the great middle of that demographic think, “hey! are they talking about -me?-”–well, as long as you do it with the understanding that there’s an excellent chance you’re gonna lose a goodly chunk of those people. If you don’t mind, then full speed ahead.

And what I hear you saying here is that you don’t particularly mind offending religious folk.

I may be misunderstanding.

But if that’s the case–well, personally? I don’t think the left can afford it. Not in this country.

And lord (ha) knows I have no love for the theocrats. and no, I’m not always so careful–nomenclature’s a bitch, I know who I’m talking about, no doubt someone else might not. I know I used to use “godbag” fairly frequently. As terms go I actuallly think that one’s potentially useful–provided you do, in fact, use specifically for people who are using their supposed piety as a cover for the fact that they're basically just being 'bags. Blowhards. Bullies. Yes.

But here’s where I part ways:

As I see them, most religions promote outdated, ugly values. They tend to subjugate women, endorse magical beliefs over empiricism, and seem to discourage critical thinking at certain times. Yuck. Not only does it express these values, but it has _institutionalized_ them. They are accepted by our culture as a-ok. I think that stinks out loud.

Moreover, that institutionalization has led to the development of two distinct classes of people: those who follow religious leaders (sans much critical thinking when it comes to their values) and those leaders themselves, many of whom I believe to be corrupt, or at least manipulative. This allows the leaders to promote values and causes that harm our society (in my opinion) while releasing a whole flock of people to go forth and spread these ideas without questioning their correctness.

I think it’s not nearly that simple; and I think that dividing people roughly into “people who have critical thinking skills” and “people who follow religious leaders and/or partake in religious institutions” is both inaccurate and impolitic. Allowing as to how some of the latter are no doubt nice people isn’t enough. That’s hardly the point; and -that- -is- a pat on the head. No one needs or wants pats on the head.

But we do need the religious left and even middle.

I don’t have time or energy to get into all the reasons why–it’s been a major thesis of mine for quite a while. For now I’ll just point to the work of Sojourners and Tikkun and the National Council of Churches, among others. These are smart and passionate and funny and skeptical people who, on the whole, are indistinguishable from their “secular” counterparts (belief in the separation of Church and State pretty much included) except for the fact that they see their politics as stemming from their faith.

And faith, you know, really can move mountains sometimes.

Would Martin Luther King have been more successful if he’d abandoned the pulpit entirely? I doubt it. I doubt it very much.

Anyway, back to the main point: I agree that insults are not oppression, no. I also agree that they aren’t really criticism either. They’re nasty & handy little tools for the toolbox, is all. Use ‘em or eschew ‘em; but I don’t think anyone’s ever built a lasting movement based on them alone.


I want to say a lot more about the religious left at some point.

Right now, though, I'm also really interested in the notion that shaming is an effective tool for winning people over to your side.

The funny thing is, I'm fairly certain that the religious right has, if not an actual patent on the tactic, a black belt in wielding it.

Which is why it always strikes me as funny when people who are adamantly against the "patriarchy" or "godbaggery" or somesuch are apparently possessed of the belief that this is a really good tool to tear down the edifice in question. Even more strangely, that it can be constructive, in itself, somehow.

It's not. I use it, I know. Hell, you can scroll down just a post or two and see me gleefully using that sucker (see above re: meen bastard). But it's not. In the long run.

It's a good tool for tearing down people. A weapon, in point of fact.

I believe that sometimes, some very specific ideas and movements and even individuals do indeed need to be taken down, politically speaking. When it's too dangerous to do anything less. For such occasions, shame can work very well indeed. And sometimes, true, you might just be feeling fine and feral and fucked-off and figure, hey, I need some target practice. That can work, too, in less honorable ways. If you choose carefully and aim well.

And of course, take into account that it can always backfire.


update/edit the twenty-third or so: in response to a response over there, I said:

but also I do think there’s a fine line between “mock your enemies effectively enough so that they look bad to reasonable people” and “shame your allies in an attempt to bring them back in line.” not saying the latter’s being done here; like I say, two separate themes I’m working out here. also not saying i walk that line particularly well myself.


I am now wondering if this isn't really about my own ambivalence about human beans, on the whole.

when I was over there I mentioned Obama wrt religious progressives and/or the not alienating of such--I get that people have had other issues with Obama; I could've said MLK.

I mean, religion per se be damned; I really admire that level of compassion and empathy (that's genuine spirituality); and I think it's been sorely missing from the discourse for quite a while. and i have been trying to develop it myself.

at the same time, like I said: I am a meen bastard. and i am not entirely sure to what degree my indulging of this is a genuine belief that sometimes, indeed, it is a valuable and necessary weapon (if nothing else it beats the hell out of more literal ones, I feel); and how much of it is a rationalization, because I enjoy it, because I am so very good at it and can make people laugh. I go back and forth a lot.

but also, I have observed that, I think, this is not just me; there are quite a number of people who both genuinely want all the best for the human race and at the same time really can't stand most of the disappointing, disgusting little fuckers.

I relate. A lot. And I kind of don't want to, because I feel like it's led to a...stuck place. Both personally and politically.

at any rate, I both believe it and look at my own schadenfreude with a jaundiced eye when I say to myself, "they deserve it."

because I do think that -some- people---not- "most" people--are geuninely awful, even evil people, because of the damage they do to others; and that no amount of Kumbaya and "come, let us reason together" is gonna get through to them, and therefore they must be stopped some other way.

but it's a really really fine line between holding to that, just that, and indulging my own appetite for destruction for its own sake.

it's hard enough developing the ability to tell the difference between the people who can be reached, ever, and those who can't, without that factoring in.


Cheryl said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Cheryl said...

[Shit! Let's try again, shall we? (Sometimes I hate computers and the internet!)]

I tried to respond here but the damned thing grew tentacles and was threatening to take over the joint. Mind if I comment in a post over at:


belledame222 said...

cool, thanks, going over to read.

belledame222 said...

Cheryl, I dunno if it's my browser or what, but the formatting on your most recent post looks all wonky from here. (doubled-up print and a photo on top of it)

Alon Levy said...

I'm not sure if you're talking about feminist-cum-atheist bloggers like Twisty and Violet, or about predominantly atheist bloggers like PZ Myers and my UTI cobloggers. The criticism you present is something that has been said to PZ many times, but on the other hand I've yet to see any of the Carnival of the Godless people use the word "godbag" (though a lot of us do refer to religious people as "godders").

I don't know about all atheist blogs, though the ones I've seen tend to be incredibly tame (if they were feminist, they'd be like Majikthise or maybe Pandagon, and not like IBTP or Alas or even Feministe). What I do know is that PZ Myers, who can be extremely incendiary when talking to his echo chamber, is also very soft, calm, and alliance-seeking when talking to people who don't already agree with him.

belledame222 said...

here specifically riffing off an old post at PunkassBlog, which starts off (or rather i gather the therad inspiring this one did) specifically addressing use of the term "godbag."

I'm responding to two different ideas in there (at least), I think: first, the idea that judicious use of insults/ridicule is an effective tool that should be used, which was the primary point; second, pm's own notions about religion, which I quoted here and are far from unique to him, I think.

like I said: work in progress. and it's not really about that particular post, either; and it certainly isn't about dissing atheists or atheism.

there are two (three! three ideas! no one expects the Spanish Inquisition...) things I'm trying to address at once here, I think; it makes it difficult.

besides the general application of shaming/insults as a political tool, I feel that for realpolitik purposes, it's gonna be crucial for the not-necessarily-religious rest of us on the left to recognize the importance of groups like Sojourners and Tikkun, and the people they in turn can reach.

I also have my own personal shit about spirituality and religion; but by and large I think it's pretty tangential to this particular discussion. except insofar as I recognize my own buttons getting pushed.

belledame222 said...

anyway in answer to your question: yes, I'm sure they got that from Twisty; but in this instance it's not specifically referring to a radfem context, I don't think; rather an overall left-political context.

Alon Levy said...

I don't think we disagree on principle at all... I definitely think shaming potential allies is a horrible, horrible idea. At the same time, it makes sense to confront them when they are insufficiently supportive. The exact line between the two is fuzzy, but just so that you get a rough idea, MLK's attacks on "the white moderate" are the latter, whereas Malcolm X's "white devils" rhetoric is the former.

In particular, MLK made it clear he was not attacking whites in general, but at the same time had no compunction about attacking excessively moderate people. I try to follow the same route in attacking fundamentalism: I seek out religious allies, and praise religious people who talk about the need for separation of church and state, but at the same time I freely attack those who refuse to support it in practice.

For example, you brought up Obama in your post (or Punkass Marc did - it's hard to tell which parts are yours and which are his). I think Obama supports separation of church and state in theory but not in practice and have attacked him for it. In particular, I don't think there's anything wrong with pointing out that his "I didn't mind pledging allegiance to a nation under god, so why do all these atheists mind it?" argument is dumb.

About the term "godbag," I honestly don't know how useful it is. I don't use it because the established terms "fundamentalist" and "fanatic" are at least as pejorative. But then again, I'm not going to start any personal crusade about it, unless convinced (for example by a religious liberal) that it's offensive to all religious people.

On a completely unrelated note, do you know where I can buy a fan in New York? My dorm room has no AC, and it's really hot here. I live in Morningside Heights, but if it's anywhere I can get to by subway, I'll be happy.

belledame222 said...

>I don't think there's anything wrong with pointing out that his "I didn't mind pledging allegiance to a nation under god, so why do all these atheists mind it?" argument is dumb.

Yeah, I agree he was out of order with that one.

I go back and forth on him. I think--well, more on Obama later.

and hey, welcome to NY!

per fan: don't know right around there. PC Richards is a chain that sells fans and such; there might be one near you.

here's a general guide I use sometimes:

look under electronics and department stores. Sharper Image would have stuff and are near you; they're not super-cheap, I think. Oh yeah, and Bed Bath and Beyond.

Your nearest would probably be Lincoln Square. And there's a KMart down around Astor Place, which might have better prices.

anyway, happy move-in! drop me an email when you get settled in.

Alon Levy said...

Oh, thanks... so now I have a fan, even though it cost almost twice as much as I expected. And P.C. Richard and Son's has no adapter, so I need to find a store that sells one. But apart from that, I'm all but fully settled in.

belledame222 said...

>even though it cost almost twice as much as I expected.

Welcome to NYC...

Alon Levy said...

Thanks for the welcome...

I think I'm pretty much settled in, except that I still need that FSM-damned adapter. But it's no biggie - it's just something I need for my sound system right now.

I'm still passively looking for a name and a good software for my blog, though.

Spill The Beans said...

Thanks for visiting my blog.

I'm not religious, but I am fiscally conservative and socially liberal. So, I guess I am one of those people smack dab in the center of politics. You might also refer to me as a "blue dog Democrat."

For instance, we have a rather conservative Democratic representative from our district in congress right now, and he suits me just fine. He's not a religious conservative (ugh), he's just kinda typical of folks around this part. I sat by him on a plane flight a couple of years ago, and he reminded me of no one more than my dad.

What I will say is that I worked as a Democrat for ten years in a religiously conservative state. It is possible to woo religious conservatives over to a potentially liberal stance IF (and only if) you learn to sell things to them in their terms.

Your point, in the center of your post:

And if you -do- win people over to your side by shaming them for being a superstitious fool/brainwashed sexbot/cultureless hick, you know something: it’s a hollow win. Because deep-down people always know that you’ve made them feel like shit, and they’ll resent you for it. completely true. My dad always said, "Missy, you win more flies with honey than you do with vinegar."

At the end of the day, persuading someone politically is really sales. You are selling them a concept or an idea. You have to consider the same exact things that you would think about if you were selling them any other product. Their primary consideration will be themselves, their paradigms, their needs. You have to put it into terms that let them see that your idea will ultimately benefit them, and their constituents, family members, neighbors, etc.

And, if you can make them feel good about it, then everyone wins.

The politics of alienation serve only to create bitter and entrenched enemies, and a backlash of negative sentiment against the people who engage in them.

Look at the religious right. They still wield a tremendous influence amongst their flock...BUT...everyone else (and it's a not insignificant amount of people) hates them.

People speak of them with contempt and disdain.

One fear I have, as someone who has been a democrat for 22 years now, and worked on the Dukakis and other ill-fated campaigns, is that the radical left is alienating the center JUST AS MUCH as the far right is.

As I currently believe the far left is the tail wagging the Democratic party, I find that disheartening and sad.

Progress through a more centrist mentality may happen more slowly. But, it's far better than creating a conservative backlash (i.e. issue of gay marriage) that may set us back for years.

Average people will usually do right if you give them the information in a way that means something to them and shows them how what you are proposing makes sense. But if you hold average people in contempt, everything you do will ultimately end up alienating the very people you need to woo.

belledame222 said...

Yeah. I tend to look at it somewhat differently, ideology-wise: it's not that I think the "radical left" (whatever that really is these days) is influencing the Democratic party; it's that I think the movement as a whole has kind of lost the plot. There doesn't seem to be a cohesive set of assumptions holding us--well, the D party and/or the loosely-defined left-of-center, I suppose-together, other than "well, at least we're better than -them.-" There's been a bit of life in tackling this these past few years, but...I dunno.

actually in a way I'm thinking we need -more- radicalism, in the sense of "need to go to the root of things and dig around for new theories and new solutions;" it's time.

What's happened instead is that people get increasingly polarized as the loud and the crazy manage to call attention to themselves (the loud and the crazy have a way of doing this); and everyone else gets numbed out or burned out by the constant craziness; and, with nothing coherent to offer instead, are often mistaken for "apathetic;" they're really not.

anyway I'm realizing that this has been my issue with the femblogosphere: it's not that I don't want the "radical" (one can quibble about what's radical and what isn't, or whom)--school to not exist or have a say; it's that I think they've been having a disproportionate influence. What's lacking in numbers can be made up in passion; which in itself isn't necessarily a bad thing; thing is, if you're gonna be "my way or the highway," most people are gonna take the highway. It's just how it works.

Unless, as I was saying earlier, you -do- openly want to be an authoritarian movement; but the right wing already has a patent on that.

Authoritarian tendencies + superficial commitment to egalitarian principles=Peoples' Front of Judea vs. Judean Peoples' Front vs. Popular Peoples' Judean Front. "He's over there."


Alon Levy said...

Progress through a more centrist mentality may happen more slowly. But, it's far better than creating a conservative backlash (i.e. issue of gay marriage) that may set us back for years.

On the contrary, a centrist mentality shifts the center to the right. When one party is conservative and the other is moderate, the center becomes moderately conservative, and people realign their views accordingly.

On the other hand, a liberal mentality helps shift the center left. The gay marriage issue didn't create any real backlash, considering that the states that passed anti-SSM laws never had any SSM to begin with. However, it did make gay adoption, gays in the military, and single-sex civil unions the centirst positions.

belledame222 said...

well, of course we may all have different ideas of what actually goes under "leftist," "centrist" and "right," here.

I do think that the Democratic party has been sliding steadily rightward for a while; and am hoping that the Lamont/Lieberman business is at least somewhat of a sign that there's a line in the sand.

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