Part of a Series: The Freethinkers’ Political Textbook
Update: Ernest Perce V has responded to the criticism of his statement in this post to clarify that his words were directed to an individual Muslim judge who, he claims, justified the not-guilty sentence handed down to an individual who had attacked him by referencing his own beliefs, even pulling out a Koran during the trial. You can find the audio of the Judge’s remarks here, which was released only yesterday (after this post was written). Clearly this is highly irregular and unacceptable behavior for a Judge, and it should be challenged. I have called Judge Mark Martin’s office today to express my disbelief at this unacceptable conduct, and encourage you to do so too.
However, none of this changes the essential elements of this post. Although this new information makes Perce’s statement more understandable, it does not make it more effective. Because, even given the context, I submit Perce would have still been more persuasive had he stuck with steel and velvet rather than going for the extreme, derogatory, imprecise raging that he responded with. This is especially true given that Perce at that moment knew he was speaking to a Muslim. As a matter of strategy, Perce’s spectacularly backfired. So while I have enormous sympathy for his plight, and think the judge acted disgracefully, my point still stands.
Disagreements over how to challenge religious claims, confront religious practices, and relate to religious people are common in the freethinking community, sometimes becoming acrimonious and personal. On occasion, representatives of different viewpoints attack each other’s motives and commitment instead of focusing on the central strategic questions: what works and what’s ethical? When the discussion remains civil and strategic, too often recommendations are made without a full understanding of the available evidence. Activists are categorized into different compartments, accusations of “intolerance” and “fundamentalism” fly, and the movement suffers.
We can do better – we simply need to look to the evidence.
Steel and Velvet – Lincoln Leads the Way
As some have noted (Ed Clint’s talk for the Secular Students Alliance is helpful), the dichotomy which has held-sway in our community for so long between “Accommodationists” and “Confrontationists” is false. So is the contrast between “firebrands” and “diplomats”. These dichotomies also obscure essential distinctions, as Jen McCreight has noted: sometimes the labels delineate differences of opinion as to what makes for an effective communication strategy, while sometimes the monikers are used to distinguish between those with fundamental differences of view.
In this post, I will be discussing communication strategy, from the perspective of someone who believes that faith and reason cannot ultimately be reconciled. I will argue that highly effective persuasion requires the use of tactics favored by both confrontationists and by diplomats. As Prof. Gary Orren of the Harvard Kennedy School teaches in his legendary class on persuasion, President Lincoln was once described by biographer Carl Sandburg as a man of “steel and velvet … hard as rock and soft as drifting fog.” In our terms Lincoln, one of the most effective persuaders in history, was a firebrand and a diplomat. He was able to accommodate and confront – often within the same speech. He was steel and he was velvet. He was, to coin a phrase, an honorable duelist.
This is a model freethinkers could emulate and, I believe, should seek to do so. There are ways of conveying our values that are both strong and civil, which avoid insults and (except in certain cases) ridicule without giving one inch of ground on the battlefield of our core values. All the evidence shows that this hybrid approach is more effective than simply seeking to be likable, or relying on confrontation alone. Combining steel with velvet is the subject of this post.
Steel: Assertiveness, Authority, Principle
Effective persuaders are assertive. They have a clear point of view, and they articulate it in a forthright manner. Without being dogmatic, they make clear what they believe, and convey their ideas with confidence and conviction. They don’t waffle, obfuscate, or equivocate. Most important, they stick to their principles, and are willing to say honestly what they believe even when they face a hostile audience. People with steel never pander – they never say something they don’t believe, or hide their true opinions, in order to curry favor with a crowd.
These traits are important because of the principles of persuasion they activate. A clear, unequivocal stance is easier to understand and to remember than one that is shifty and hedge-betting. Someone who sticks to their principles gains authority in the eyes of an audience: case studies cited by Orren show that people find someone who clearly and with principle asserts an unpopular point of view is likely to be more respected than someone who presents a more popular view in a less principled manner. This was clear in the eulogies which followed Christopher Hitchens’ death: many religious figures responded with variations on “I didn’t agree with him, but I knew where he stood, and I respected him as a man of principle.” And we all know the fate of perceived flip-floppers: John Kerry was sunk by the charge, and Mitt Romney struggles against a similar narrative – we don’t know where they stand. They have too little steel.
Showing steel is not primarily about tone (an important message to those who respond to almost any criticism of how freethinkers express themselves as “tone trolling”). Sometimes steel is shown in a calm, firm reiteration of a principled stance: Sam Harris is a master at this. Sometimes steel is wielded in righteous anger, as when attacking a vile practice or damaging belief. You can even shine your steel with laughter, as Christopher Hitchens did when he delivered devastating points with such wit that even his opponents laughed.
Freethinkers show steel when they refuse to hide their religious skepticism in an environment hostile to their views. They demonstrate assertiveness when they criticize specific damaging religious beliefs and practices, even when they know the reaction from some quarters will be negative. They flash their steel when they take an uncompromising view when it comes to science, arguing truthfully that a full understanding of the available evidence doesn’t leave room for belief in God.
The most effective persuaders, however, recognize that steel must be wielded carefully. Though we may speak in anger, we never speak in rage – this way demagoguery lies. If a speaker is perceived as too angry, or if their anger becomes seen as a character trait rather than a reasonable response to a particular situation, their authority drains away (Drew Westen gives the example of Howard Dean’s infamous Iowa “Yawp”, which defined his candidacy and his character as rageful). Rash, general attacks on individuals and groups do not convey strength as much as lack of control and an inability to be discriminating. Slashing your blade around wildly may seem impressive, and may indeed dazzle some of your supporters, but it is a waste of energy, and leaves you open to counterattack from those with greater precision. An effective attack is direct, precise, and delivered with the exact amount of energy required: no more, no less.
Steel Well- and Ill-Wielded – Examples
Greta Christina’s Righteous Anger
Greta Christina’s speech “Atheists and Anger” is a fantastic example of steel wielded with precision, grace, and power:
Note how Christina makes her argument here. She certainly compromises none of her principles as she steadfastly enumerates many specific reasons why atheists are rightly angry about many of the damaging practices and beliefs of the religious. She shows real anger when she decries the hypocrisy and venality of the Catholic Church, and its protection of child rapists. She pulls no punches in her criticism, even though some are likely to take offense. She doesn’t hide or veil her views.
At the same time, she is not consistently raging. She doesn’t yell, or scream, or rant. She targets her criticism at specific beliefs and practices, and doesn’t wildly slash at all religion or at all religious people. Her tone is one of controlled, righteous indignation, not wide-eyed rage. She uses humor effectively throughout the talk. I believe she conveys conviction, self-control, and strength, without conveying rashness, volatility, or lack of perspective. When she says “most of the time, I am not an angry person”, I believe her – which makes her displays of anger in the speech more effective. This is principled criticism at its finest. The enthusiastic response of the audience seems to demonstrate the effectiveness of her approach.
Ernest Perce’s Wild Rage
This is the dark-side of steel. Instead of anger, rage; instead of precision, wild flailing; instead of assertiveness, dogmatism. This statement by Ernest Perce V (and I call-out specific counter-examples because I believe in open and honest criticism), PA State Director for American Atheists, Inc., captured on their official Facebook page, is a classic example of steel wielded poorly:
I will say to you Islam, “I do not respect your filthy, repugnant, and vile views. I will not allow you put fear in my mind or those whom I know! I will not be silent with my disdain and disgust for your culture or your terroristic ways. I am an American Atheist, and I am not afraid to deal with you openly and in the same manner that I treat christianity. I am not afraid to publicly blaspheme your pedophile prophet Mohammed of Islam. I will do this on a corner, in a crowd or a parade! While so many others draw mohammed, I am Mohammed in open public! Am I worried about being attacked or death threats? I’m more worried that if I stay silent that the energy and emotion within me will be worse to me than being attacked or even death threats! So do your worst and I will do mine.”
This statement caused a predictable firestorm of criticism from atheists and believers alike. The use of extremely charged words like “filthy” and “repugnant”, common to race-baiting, makes a sensitive reader immediately distrustful of the character of the writer. The lack of precision in the attack, with phrases directed at “Islam”, “your culture”, “you”, and “your” – to whom precisely is this all directed? – makes the reader wonder if the author knows what he’s talking about. The repeated exclamatory statements, in combination with the heightened rhetoric, give a wide-eyed, froth-mouthed sense to the statement, further draining the speaker’s authority. The stated lack of emotional self-control in the penultimate sentence makes you question the writer’s stability of mind. The bizarre nature of the phrase “I am Mohammed in open public!”, and the inconsistent capitalization of “Mohammed”, makes you wonder if the speaker can convey themselves clearly. All these elements drain authority from the author. Though the language might seem “strong”, it is in fact extremely weak: it comes across as a wild display of mis-targeted bravado rather than as principled, authoritative criticism.
To achieve his persuasive goals Perce needs to be more careful with how he wields his steel. His rhetoric is sometimes powerful, but without a well-chosen target it is wasted energy, and leaves him open to charges of stereotyping and bigotry. He comes across to me, someone inclined to agree with him on many substantive issues, as incensed (more than angry), uncontrolled, and difficult to take seriously. The steel flashes but fails to cut.
A crucial point: my criticism of this post is more than an expression of personal taste, and is certainly not a representation of personal animus (I have never met Mr. Perce or had any personal encounter with him). It is an analysis of the words used and their likely effectiveness in achieving a persuasive goal, based on the best evidence available, and on years of experience. If Perce wishes to persuade his readers (and not just communicate with those who already agree with him) he needs to consider more carefully how he presents his message. It’s of little use to say “That’s not what I meant!” While it is certainly possible for readers to misinterpret a work, if numerous fair-minded readers take you to mean something other than what you wanted to convey, the fault is with the writer, not with the reader.
Velvet: Likability, Humor, Emotional Intelligence
As important as being assertive is being likable. Likability is not a matter of “being nice”, of fawning over someone and debasing yourself to please them. People don’t like pushovers and they don’t like sycophants. Rather, likability is a complex mixture of factors which includes a person’s blend of positivity and negativity, their similarity to the audience, their use of humor, and their ability to demonstrate that they understand their audience’s point of view (more on the importance of knowing your audience here). Having strong principles which you stick to is also a component of likability (thus steel can support velvet).
Studies show that people are more likely to be persuaded of a point of view by people they like (Cialdini details numerous such studies). Conversely, if someone is disliked by an audience, they will be less persuasive. This seems so obvious as to not bear pointing out, but in the freethinking community it is not uncommon to encounter the point of view that ridicule, insult and belittling is a good method of achieving our goals. Certainly, it is not uncommon to encounter blog posts, magazine articles, books and podcasts which engage in such practices. Sometimes it seems like our community understands steel, but disdains velvet.
Setting aside any moral concerns we might have with such tactics, the evidence shows that they are unlikely to be successful if our aim is persuasion. By insulting, ridiculing or demeaning our audience we make it more difficult for them to hear our arguments, let alone accept them. It is much easier to dismiss the point of view of a person or group we dislike than one we respect or admire. Indeed, this factor is so important that Westen puts likability at the top of his list of desirable traits for a political party and candidate.
Furthermore, likability has no downside. There is hardly any cost to trying to seem more likable to your audience by using humor, by trying to understand their point of view, by demonstrating your similarity to them, and by being positive and upbeat – as long as you sacrifice no principles in doing so. When velvet is so powerful and so inexpensive, it’s surprising it isn’t used more often.
Again, clothing our appeals in velvet is not about pandering. It is not about hiding our principles for fear of giving offense, or about saying things we don’t believe to curry favor with our opponents. I am not advocating obsequiousness. When we sacrifice our values for a cheap laugh, or fail to raise a vital criticism for fear of alienating our audience (or our friends), we sell our soul to burnish our image, and diminish our cause in the process. Rather, velvet is about presenting our most profound values in the most appealing way.
Velvet and Velour – Examples
Carl Sagan, Master of Velvet
Of all freethinking advocates I know, Carl Sagan was the foremost master of velvet. While he never betrayed his principles, and was always willing to strongly criticize foolish and dangerous ideas, he conveyed himself and his ideas in a way which was immensely likable to religious and nonreligious people alike. His boundless enthusiasm for science and the natural world, conveyed in evocative metaphors and richly poetic language, turned millions onto science and critical thinking. His humor, grace, and positivity swayed many to listen to the voice of reason who otherwise would have closed their ears to it.
He was also, often, intensely sensitive to the thoughts and feelings of those who disagreed with him. In his writing, while not pulling any punches in the critique of dangerous ideas, he takes pains not to demean or belittle others. He wasn’t afraid to talk about religious experiences, saying in one lecture “I do not mean in any way to reject or deride religious experiences”, before going on to offer a naturalistic account of them. He liberally used language and concepts more common to the religious, speaking of his “worshipful” “reverence” of nature, of the sky “calling to us”, and of a coming “religion of science”. He encouraged people to engage in “the religious sensibility” by looking up at the stars. His portrayal of religious figures in his works is both critical and sympathetic (showing a fantastic combination of steel and velvet) – think of Contact with its Luddite fundamentalist contrasted with the passionate, visionary (and totally hot) moral voice of Christian Palmer Joss.
I believe Sagan’s approach gave the religious, and those not disposed to engage with science, the feeling that, in some sense, he understood them, their passions and concerns. He spoke in their idiom and, in response, they listened to what he had to say.
Not Velvet but Velour? Eugenie Scott, the NCSE, and Accommodationism
If the dark-side of steel is raging, the dark-side of velvet is pandering. We pander when we sacrifice our own principles in order to please others who do not share our views or values. Perhaps we claim some similarity with our audience we do not truly share with them, or modify our position slightly in order to win a debate. When we make such concessions – however small – if they are dishonest, we sacrifice of our integrity. And a speaker perceived of having no integrity by a particular audience has no authority with that audience. Our persuasiveness plummets (Greta Christina has written an excellent post in which she outlines the difference between what I would call velvet and pandering).
Much of the criticism of Eugenie Scott‘s (Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education) stance on the compatibility of evolution with religious views of creation is essentially a discussion of the problem of pandering. In a panel on “Confrontation vs. Accommodation” at Skepticon 3, prominent figures in the freethought movement discuss this problem (watch from around 12:00 for the relevant discussion):
Intriguingly to me, Richard Carrier gives Scott a pass for (in my terminology) pandering to religious audiences to gain support from evolution, saying “I don’t mind Eugenie Scott doing it because she has to achieve certain political objectives. I don’t mind politicians who lie to get things done as long as they’re doing it in the interests of the people instead of their own interests”. I do object to this, not just because I think it is unethical, but because it is likely to be ineffective. The very fact that the NCSE has lost a lot of credibility among one of its core audiences – skeptical, science-friendly people who might be at Skepticon – is a clear demonstration of the dangers of pandering. It is harder to persuade an audience who thinks you have no backbone and will say anything to get others to like you.
PZ Myers is more direct with his criticism. Although he encourages people to support the work of the NCSE, he also states: “I think they’re hurting the cause. What they’re doing…is peddling a load of bullshit about science and religion. They’ve been falsely stating that there is no incompatibility between the two.”
The charge, essentially, is that Scott is pandering: she is telling lies in order to get religious people to support science. She is compromising her own views and principles to achieve a wider aim, and although we support the wider aim we cannot support the sacrifice of principles involved in achieving it.
Critically, whether Scott is indeed pandering depends on whether or not she sincerely holds the view that science and religion are compatible in the way she advocates. If she truly believes the message she is presenting, this is not pandering. In such a situation, she disagrees with PZ that what she is saying is “bullshit”, and is honestly presenting her view. However, if she in fact believes that science and religion are not compatible, and yet she is claiming that they are, she is pandering – and we should object to that on ethical and strategic grounds, as it will make the NCSE less persuasive, not more. We want velvet, not velour.
I have argued here that effective persuaders combine steel and velvet: authoritative language, strong arguments, and principled criticism with emotional intelligence, positivity, and sensitivity to the audience. The dichotomy between “firebrand” and “diplomat” thus breaks down, in favor of a more nuanced, evidence-based conception of fiery diplomats who can pierce with steel and caress with velvet, battling with precision and principle, strength and style. It is time for a new label: long live the honorable duelist!
Influence: Science and Practice (5th Edition), Robert B. Cialdini, 2009
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert B. Cialdini, 1993
The Political Brain: How We Make Up Our Minds Without Using Our Heads, Drew Westen, 2007
Persuasion: The Art and Science of Effective Influence, Gary Orren, Course Taught at Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Book Forthcoming
The Varieties of Scientific Experience, Carl Sagan, 2006