The Case for Kindness

I’ve contemplated writing about this for a long time. As some of you will recall, I wrote a post back in July basically calling all atheist tweeters assholes (what do you want, I was drunk!). Since then, I’ve spent some time thinking in more depth about what we “do” on Twitter.

Let me start with the obligatory disclaimer: I am not here to tell anyone what or how to tweet. At all. Ever. Under any circumstances. In fact, if anyone DOES tell you how to tweet, I suggest you tell them to kindly fuck off. It’s your account- of course you should do with it as you see fit. But, as you are no doubt aware, I have opinions, and tend to take to my personal blog to express those opinions. I don’t expect anyone to necessarily agree with me, but if this blog greatly offends you- too goddamn fucking bad. Fuck off back to twitter with your hurt feelings.

As you all know, there is a very common “method” used by atheists on twitter- to seek out theists who have said something dumb about atheism, to quote that dumb comment, and add their own comment- often mocking, or correcting, what that theist has said. We’ve all seen this. Most of us have done it at one point or another. I have followed and still do follow many people who employ this tactic.

Some will tell you they have the pure as fucking snow intention of simply trying to educate or change minds. That’s a lovely goal, if you have it. However, I am unconvinced that finding a dumb statement, and adding “#Moron” or “Have you hit your head?” or “Are you on drugs?” is actually said with any intention of “educating”. These tweets are clearly made in an attempt to be funny. There’s nothing wrong with that. But don’t piss on me and tell me it’s raining. If this is your style, then by all means, carry on. But at least have the honesty to admit what you’re doing- making a joke. Not trying to educate.

I used to do this. However, I came to the realization that making these jokes was not worth it for the result I saw quite commonly- the theist in question was suddenly the centre of obviously unwanted attention, and being tweeted by people they’d never spoken to about some off the cuff remark they had made and probably thought nothing of. As you know, these responses from other atheists are sometimes quite rude, insulting, etc- which obviously none of us want. But other times it’s just them being infiltrated with mentions they have no interest in seeing, whether they are insulting or not. Why would I want to be the reason they were exposed to that unwanted attention? I don’t. It doesn’t sit well with me- so I don’t do it. If you draw the line somewhere else, that’s understandable. Obviously, I am not responsible for what other people tweet, and neither are you. But I can recognize that if, for example, I hadn’t quoted that theist who said “Atheists are angry!”, they would not have been inundated with dozens of unwanted tweets and unwanted attention.

Apparently, the opinion that we can all be nicer, is a rather controversial one. Here are just a few of the responses I have seen to it:

“Twitter is a public forum! If you tweet, you want your tweets seen by as many people as possible!”
Yes. Twitter is public. We all know that. However, I’d doubt that most people would expect, after tweeting a poorly thought out statement about atheism, to be ridiculed, mocked, and insulted by a barrage of ‘angry’ atheists. In many cases, I doubt they expected anyone besides their 100 followers to see it. Very, very few of them are hurting anyone, and I can’t understand why we can’t just leave them be.

“Then they should lock their accounts or write in a diary!”
I won’t lie- statements like this irk me. Everyone should feel free to tweet their thoughts on their own personal twitter page. For us to seek them out, mock what they’ve said, and then tell them essentially to suck it up or get off twitter, screams “bully” to me. I know, atheists are terribly offended at the notion someone thinks they display bullying behaviour. Well, sorry, but I don’t really give a fuck. That’s my opinion. You may well harbour a different view- that’s what makes us all individuals. It’s also rather ironically amusing to see people complaining that subtweets and rants are “mean”, while consistently badgering theists who are minding their own business and really hurting no one by saying something silly about atheism. I guess I’ve come to see that in some cases (not all, to be sure), we are more than willing to dish out the criticism, and justify it by saying “twitter is a public forum”, but can’t handle that same criticism when it comes back to us.

“Mel, your tweets get RT’d into theist timelines and they are probably SUPER offended!”
I’m sure they do get RT’d into theist’s TLs from time to time. If a theist happened upon my page I have no doubt they’d be offended at the things I say about religion. The point is that we all have personal boundaries that we draw for what we feel is acceptable and unacceptable. I feel I am well within reason to tweet whatever the fuck I feel like on my own page- whether that be pointing out absurdities in religion or making fun of facebook and Nickelback- as is anyone else. That is my entire point- we should all feel comfortable tweeting exactly what we want on our own pages, whether we are atheists, theists, or anyone else. I do not feel like it is reasonable to seek out people who are minding their own business, albeit saying something silly about atheism, and mock them, or expose them to people who will no doubt mock them. To my mind, there is a very clear and obvious difference, here.

“You tweet Joyce Meyer and the Pope all the time you dumb hypocrite!!!!!”
Yes. I do. This is another situation in which I feel the line is quite obvious, but allow me to explain. For one, I doubt very much any of the relatively “famous” theists I tweet even run their own accounts, let alone sift through the no doubt thousands of mentions they get every day. Second, these people are in the public eye, and face this kind of opposition frequently. Lastly, and most importantly, many of them profit off of this kind of misinformation. Many of them expose others to the ignorance they proudly parade on Twitter, and suck them into that same vortex of ignorance. These people have carefully considered their positions and would no doubt stand by them when challenged. These are not 18-year-old theists who tweeted something without thinking to their 75 followers and are suddenly inundated with unwanted attention. Again- this is a clear and obvious difference, to me.

I, like most of you, am constantly trying to make myself better. I am not perfect. But I’m trying. In this case, I have reached the conclusion that the benefit of having people laugh at a joke I’ve made at the expense of someone else is not worth the cost of potentially upsetting that person or giving them unwanted attention. And to be quite honest, I’ve found that people respond far better to well thought out or amusing stand alone tweets than any tweet making fun of a theist.

So, what’s my point? My point is we can all stand to be kinder. We can all stand to be more mindful of what we say, who we say it to, and what our personal motives are for saying those things. We can consider what the benefits and costs are of mocking complete strangers online. And overall, my point is that minds do change. They change through intelligent discussions, through education, and through experience. But I remain entirely unconvinced that they change through mockery, insults, and ridicule- on Twitter, or anywhere else.

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24 Responses to The Case for Kindness

  1. Phillip says:

    As an atheist I see this kind of thing a lot. I have several atheist “friends” on twitter so it comes with the territory. I however , consider myself a true atheist, I don’t hide it, but I don’t flaunt it either. It is my business, I have NO desire to educate or convert anyone. I stay out of these insult wars, I’ll admit I do laugh. My point is I do not want to be lectured on the fact I’m hell bound, so I do not participate. One example, I don’t hide it, but I don’t tweet @ anyone in an effort to provoke and no one on the other side has ever done it to me. You reap what you tweet.
    It’s my belief or lack there of, I don’t give a fuck what anyone believes. I actually encourage my daughter to seek out her own beliefs, I don’t want to “teach” her what she should believe, she chose god, I’m fine with that. So you will not hear me trying to reason with a believer, it’s there way, not mine, so be it.
    To sum it up, just like the most radical, vocal Christians ruin it for everyone, also the most egomaniacal, vocal atheist ruin it as well. Atheism is NOT a religion, we have no need to organize and spread the word, what’s sad is I’m quite lonely in that assessment .
    If I’m wrong, I’ll see you hell!

    • Priest_Of_Ramen says:

      I disagree that we have no need to organise and “spread the word” (by which, I take it that we have no need to challenge religion’s claims). Religion, and religious thinking, does demonstrable harm in society and should be challenged just as with any other idea.

      That said, responding with abuse or mockery is, in my view, counter-productive and self-indulgent. If people want a discussion and are responding to a tweet with that in mind then that’s what Twitter’s for. But there’s no need to pick out random people with 100 followers and call them a moron.

    • Phillip, of course you’re entitled to a nonparticipatory expression of atheism, but these days people like Sam Harris make really strong arguments about the urgency of actively fighting theism. Besides the whole issue of destroying the species or planet, there’s the threat of theocratic weeds growing in democratic gardens, like the anti-gay rights movement in the US. These are reasons to care deeply about others’ beliefs and try to educate them. Trying to help make the world a better place is not “flaunting” atheism or not being a “true atheist”. Atheism can be a passive lack of belief, but for most of us it’s an active belief that theism is wrong and dangerous, and we see an ethical motivation to express our views.

  2. Phillip says:

    PS, Mel I’m going to follow you and thank you for a great post!

  3. Priest_Of_Ramen says:

    Great post. I can agree with much of it but I beg to differ a bit regarding responding to theists’ public tweets.
    I think much of the problem here is a misunderstanding that most people have regarding the nature of Twitter. They treat it like Facebook, when in my view the whole point is to engage in a global conversation with anyone, and to have anyone respond to your tweets. I don’t see why we shouldn’t publicly respond to their tweets just because they may or may not understand this.

    However.

    Those who command large followings and regularly respond to tweets with quote-tweets and a polite response often ignore any resulting abuse that a theist might receive and their only comment on it is that they’re not responsible or answerable for what their followers do. But if even a tiny number your followers will behave in a predictable way as a result of an action you you take – ie, if you can predict that someone will receive abuse from someone else as a result of something you do – then in my view that does make you partially responsible for that abuse. Not necessarily because you took that action but because you said and did nothing against those writing abusive tweets; in my view, it’s guilt through inaction.
    I’m not sure what a solution to that would be – perhaps a note on a bio asking followers not to respond to quote-tweets with abuse, and blocking anyone who does so that they can’t see future quote-tweets? As with much of the Internet and Twitter it’s not a clear-cut thing and etiquette and boundaries are still evolving; while we can all see the problems, solutions are harder to think of.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I agree and have posted similar thoughts on my own blog.

    But having said that, I do think that it is strange that the Christians who bristle at rudeness and respond with “why can you just live and let live” are not very enthusiastic when I use that opportunity to thank them for their support of gay marriage.

    Because to me, that’s what the atheism debate on twitter js all about. It is fun to debate the existence or non-existence of god with strangers. But in reality, who cares? What does it matter? And the answer is it only matters when a group of people are using their own beliefs to try and justify the oppression of some other group. God may or may not exist. That is debatable. But that someone should be allowed to dictate to me (or anyone else) how I can or can’t live my life based on their own personal sense of right and wrong (with the claim that it is Divinely justified to boot) is simply outrageous. The debate with religious folks is not ultimately about what they believe. It is about how they use those beliefs to restrict the freedoms and opportunities of others.

    • phillip says:

      “The debate with religious folks is not ultimately about what they believe. It is about how they use those beliefs to restrict the freedoms and opportunities of others.”

      This is where things get cloudy. As I stated earlier, I dont care what anyone believes and generally leave well enough alone, unless provoked or preached to. In the case of the above quote, no amount of educating, or “converting” or bringing the christians around to my view, will change any thing related to freedoms or opportunities. At that point, its not about religion, its about power, politics and control. Making strides to enforce the separation of church and state and continued exposure of the phonies in office who use church doctrine for personal gain is a more obtainable goal than convincing the masses that their is no god. I dont think either scenario is achievable.
      The majority of the religious view atheism as evil and wicked, and we all know the ignorant portion even think we worship Satan. Converting them for the reason of silencing a bullshit politician or leader or figurehead, lawmaker etc. is damn near impossible. The other problem is, if you point out this “leader” is using the word of god as a foundation to deny the rights of some of gods children, and provoking others in the name of god, you will most probably get this response: “I dont believe in gay marriage either”
      Im sorry, this post is going nowhere. The religious takeover of our government sickens me. I cant seem to say what I mean. I just know that calling Christians fucking idiots and calling Muslims late on the made-up-myth scene is counter productive and enlightens no one. I think we have an only slimmer chance of shining a light on our shameless politicians and saying to Christians “How is this a God-fearing leadership? These fucks dont fear God, they make shit up and say God said it in the bible, create a law, then sneak an attachment on the end that deregulates something that they own stock in. They dont fear god, the way they act, they are the real atheists, because they sure dont have a fear of final judgement.
      Things will remain the same with or without my help. The only thing I take good from this is that the muslims have shown the world they are crazy, and christianity, at least in the US, is imploding slowly. A message of peace and tolerance has been replaced with one of strong intolerance and vocal ignorant pride in that intolerance. Some long time christians are going to start going to church less and less to avoid the noise.
      One of the funniest religious products in recent years was obviously for profit only. Here is what and why. W.W.J.D. What Would Jesus Do? Clever marketing, stickers, hats, shirts, jackets, and countless other things, everyone wore that shit, but NO ONE thought about the question. Well … he would not do many of the things his church has evolved into doing. Hateful, judgmental, political endorsement, making worship a business, diddling little boys….. Actually, his religious piers would most likely call him a liberal elitist behind his back and hope he goes away. I dont think he would be liked by the Righteous Leaders of today. If he had existed.
      Enough, Im sorry guys for the long and pointless rant. I just know you can spell Government without god.

  5. Keith @Grim_Atheist says:

    Great post, I agree wholeheartedly. While I’m all for speaking out against religion, to just be an ass about it is counterproductive and reinforces the negative stereotype that we as atheists are already fighting. It helps to remember that in many cases, this is the only interaction with atheists that these individuals have ever had.
    I myself try to be respectful in debating as long as it’s reciprocal. Then again, I don’t really do keyword searches and 99% of time the religious that I interact with are amateur apologists spoiling for a fight & not the aforementioned unsuspecting theists.

    • I don’t think we should be worried about how people perceive atheists in general. After all, we are not a unified demographic. We only share a very simple, small piece of knowledge. We shouldn’t get caught up in politics, perceptions, stereotypes, etc. We should just focus on that key tidbit of knowledge, the fact that gods are fictions. Some of us will act like assholes because we really are assholes and it’s our natural mode of communication. Some of us will be kind and gentle and euphemistic because it’s our disposition. I think most of us feel comfortable along a wide swath of that spectrum depending on the situation, who we’re addressing, the specific topic, etc. So in the end the only admonition I could make is honesty. Being an angry atheist tearing into some random person on the internet doesn’t change the facts about theism. We can’t expect theists to change their mind based on any one individual tweet or interaction. Such changes appear to be drawn out and convoluted, especially if theists have already reached adulthood. In the end, they will reach their conclusions based on far more than our little bit of input, and if they wind up agreeing with us, they may empathize with the emotion of anger we conveyed to them. And they will understand that there all sorts of personalities and levels of intelligence and communication abilities among atheists, just as among theists. If you’re always honest, you always have a nonzero chance of transmitting useful information. If you censor yourself, you lose any chance of that.

  6. You have made me see things in a different light. Thank you. I knew following you was worth it.

  7. Joel Osteen says:

    What I get from this is that it’s okay to abuse the fuck out of people if they’re famous but if you’re not famous you’re not capable of defending ridiculous statements so people should treat you with kid-gloves.

    Combining this blog with looking at your time-line on twitter it looks like you’re saying it’s ok to abuse groups of people, insult them, call them cunts, call them dumb and tell them to shut the fuck up – as long as you do it behind their backs. If it happens to be shared to them and they get upset, well that’s just too bad for them. Kindness can only extend so far I guess.

    But when you’re someone who tells their entire time-line something they already know and then tells them to stfu about it I guess being kind to those not following you is not really an option is it?

    You say “I’ve found that people respond far better to well thought out or amusing stand alone tweets than any tweet making fun of a theist.” Your time line is almost exclusively making fun of theists, you just happen to not say it directly to them. If someone wanted to have a dialogue with an atheist who appears theist friendly or who champions “minds do change. They change through intelligent discussions, through education,” they’re not going to find that on your time-line. They’re going to find abuse, mocking, name calling, foul language and someone being very unkind to everything they hold dear.

    This blog is called The Case for Kindness but I think a more accurate title would be The Case for Kindness – but only when the people you want to be kind to are looking.

    • atheistmel says:

      Hmmm, someone from Melbourne who disagrees with me… well, who on earth could that be!

      Thanks for the comment. All opinions are welcome. But I thought you were the sort of person to confront people to their faces, now? Oh dear! I guess that only counts if you can’t disguise your identity. How “brave” of you 😉

      • Ricky Gervais says:

        LOLing at ‘Joel Osteen from Melbourne’

        It’s almost like someone recognized themselves in the blog or something.

      • atheistmel says:

        Now, now, Ricky. Be nice. We are working with a skewed definition of kindness, here.
        I expect our friend Joel Osteen from Melbourne thinks tweeting as I do is “mean”, but sending threatening emails is as sweet as sugar! Cut the guy a little slack, eh?

    • @JoleOsteen says:

      I hate to go reducto ad Hitlerum on you, MrOzA…I mean, Joel, but your first paragraph is like saying that if 15 year-old brainwashed Hitler Youth kids weren’t prosecuted then the Wannsee Conference attendees should get off scott free.

      And on your para 2, if you can’t see that there’s a difference between talking about a belief and talking to someone about their belief who doesn’t want to talk to you about it then I’m really not sure what to say. And I’m not sure how talking about or insulting a belief or set of beliefs, or insulting those who hold those beliefs, without directing it at someone is talking behind someone’s back, either. That surely only applies when referring to individuals. Which is probably why subtweeting can be so irritating.

      Perhaps the blog could be called “The Case for Kindness – when it’s deserved”. I’m not sure Mel, or any of us, should care about being nasty to televangelists. But I do think there’s a case for being kind to random theists minding their own business, tweeting their nonsense to their 100 followers.

      • Ricky Gervais says:

        Well said Jole. Unfortunately our friend Mr O… i mean Joel from Melbourne, won’t see it like that.

        Far more likely he’ll just carry on actively facilitating the abuse and mockery of ill-educated 16 year olds and the feeble minded. And if he can’t facilitate this mockery in public his other fav hobby is to send abusive, threatening emails to his friends. Such a swell guy!

        That he manages to do all this while retaining such a poorly misplaced sense of smugness in his own abilities is all the more remarkable.

  8. Devtard says:

    I agree, kind approach is probably the best one.

  9. Vol-E says:

    “Pick your battles” is a favorite motto of mine, and so is “pick your target.” A person musing about how good God is to them and how the bible has taught them kindness is not someone that I think deserves ridicule, even if I don’t agree with their theology. Same goes for people who say meditating 30 minutes a day is getting them that much closer to Nirvana. These are personal opinions that have zero effect on my life. However, when someone quotes the bible or the quran and uses it to justify seeking laws that curtail a woman’s right to choose or same-sex couples to have equal rights, then it’s open season on the ignorance that fuels their remarks.

  10. Pingback: How to Change the World « DespicableNick

  11. I think I have the polar opposite opinion about this topic. The method of attacking random statements by theists seems great to me. The goal is not to educate or to amuse. The goal is to let them know that there are people who think they’re idiots, to expose them to the social reality of dissenting opinions, to get their attention for a moment, to offend them, to piss them off, to trigger some new thinking on their part, to put dissenting opinions on the record in black and white, to tie an abstract message to a specific topic or situation to make it vivid, to protest their ideas. That in itself has a great value, and you missed this point entirely in your post.

    I have just started using Twitter for the first time and my biggest motivation is the opportunity to help make a difference in the world by promoting atheism, because my belief is that theism is factually wrong and dangerous in many ways. I hope to become one of the tweeters you disapprove of here.

    Also, the general method of responding to stupid statements is wise. Correcting other people’s mistakes can be more efficient and productive than generating new content. I hope people will continue to pounce on theists and other fools whenever they make false statements, because it increases the percentage of reliable information in the world.

    As another big point, the injunction of being polite and kind is benign enough, but it misses the point that the internet allows honest exchanges between strangers without the filter of politeness. This has great value. It’s a more effective method of communicating the real ideas without the baggage of social context. We should welcome the opportunity to be brutally honest with idiots on the internet. The more they are offended, the more likely we have communicated effectively.

  12. Gotcha says:

    As a lifelong theist who has been patiently pursued by a few earnest atheists truly intent on educating me and helping me to see where my YEC claims fail to stand up to scientific scrutiny, I can tell you that the “toss a meme and scream” version of “brutal honesty” would not have gotten me to my current open-eyed willingness to challenge my foundations.

    Thinking I was sharing with a like-minded audience of fellow believers, I came to their (unwanted) attention through RTs and hashtags of atheism and evolution, and each of them participated in several large “swarms”. But these gentlemen followed up after the flurry and took the time (many weeks and months) to send me articles and engage in conversation–not just tell me I’m an idiot, demand that I take a science course, or send Daniel Dennett memes declaring my life a folly. Asking me to articulate my beliefs and provide legitimate source material forced me to recognize how much I didn’t know about how much I thought I knew. I certainly would not have spent as much time on twitter without their active involvement, which has opened me up to a steady barrage of atheist material from them and others, which has had an impact.

    I still see intelligent design and still have a creationist mindset–to the despair of @AtyHans, who has invested considerable time and effort in sharing the elegant simplicity of evolution–but I also recognize that I need to beware of the logical fallacies and arguments from incredulity that he articulates very well on his blog. The Galloping Continents Batman! meme produced by @karlmeyer was an eye-opener, and @Atheist_Eh and @davestewart4444 have been particularly kind and committed to being atheism’s “good guys”. Credit also goes to @deathsquadgr420, @e1ais and @spikeinthemidge for lasting longer and trying harder than dozens and dozens of others.

    • Gotcha says:

      I have referred to the above post many times in the past couple of months that I’ve been tearing myself away from Young Earth Creationism and Christianity. I’ve challenged myself to occasionally challenge the hundreds of Christians that I follow, trying to incite dialog and reasonable discussion in response to their Bible tweeting (for some reason they only tweet the happy stuff, not the raping, pillaging and murdering on command from the god they insist we all must worship because he loves us and is worthy of our love in return).

      Credit for ripping open the fallacies of YEC and exposing my arguments from incredulity also go to @TheWoodman2 on Twitter, and John Thomas, Skepticat, and Suzanne Cummings, who posted polite thought-provoking replies to many posts on my website, theplaydoughpoem.com.

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