I write from time to time about the use of rhetoric in communication. When most people hear that word, they think of empty phrases that have no real substance behind them, but that’s not correct. Yes, there is a lot of empty rhetoric out there, but the vast majority of it – even when people don’t realize they are utilizing it – is really an art.
I was thinking about this earlier right around the time I was also thinking about PZ’s posts on feminism. He uses rhetoric which stays within his general style of being brute and harsh, but I don’t think that’s a good thing at all. It isn’t that I’m being a tone-troll – people can swear and curse and insult and say whatever other mean things they want and I don’t mind. The issue here is that I don’t think PZ is being effective.
In my view, the core point of rhetoric is to communicate a particular idea to someone in a way that meets a goal. Generally the goal is to convince another person that Concept X is correct, but that isn’t always the case. Take for instance the harsh rhetoric of Gnu Atheists. It can be cordial yet forceful, and when that happens I think the point is to convince a person to believe a particular idea. But when the rhetoric is rougher, more insulting, less kind, the (primary) point is not necessarily to get a person thinking, “Oh, yeah, that guy is right.” No, instead the point is to break taboos. Referring to God as a sky-daddy or calling religious thinking irrational and silly goes against the grain because it is expected for one to respect and accept beliefs if they are religious beliefs. That’s horseshit. Breaking that taboo is important in breaking the hold of religion; make it okay to attack religion and maybe it won’t be held in such unjustified revere. PZ is good at doing that, just as many other Gnu Atheists are. (Richard Dawkins even begins The God Delusion by talking about undeserved respect.)
But when it comes to promoting feminism, PZ is not usually effective. He often blames men, calls people sexist merely for not agreeing on controversial, nuanced topics, and sometimes he even lies. This is par for the course when it comes to caricature feminists; all those things people stereotype feminists as being come to the surface, and that is harmful. Confirming false ideas which many people see negatively does not demonstrate effective rhetoric.
This would be fine, though, if PZ could justify his rhetoric as getting at another point like with the Gnu Atheists. But I doubt he can. What more could he want, after all, than to promote equality for women? He may do that in some ways, but when he uses bad rhetoric, he overshadows his primary goal. And if he isn’t achieving that goal, he is not helping women. In fact, his failure to achieve his goal goes to the left on the chart: He is actually hurting women because he is confirming stereotypes and putting a stop to productive discussion.
To use an anecdote, I’ve had my run-in with feminists. I still stand by my core arguments on some issues (a picture of fat women objectifies obesity first – and that is a good thing, anyway), but on other issues I have become more aware of my biases. And the reason has absolutely nothing to do with the caricature feminists who say men who disagree with them are promoting rape and other absurdities. No, it has to do with the people who actually took the time to explain their arguments. It’s weird, but women acting hysterically somehow does not promote viewing them as rational.
Now take this recent post by PZ. He says atheism has a sexism problem which is being denied, but he doesn’t go off the deep end. He focuses on things like female leadership and the need to be more aware of a lack of women at events and conferences. He does say obtuse men (and, surprisingly, women) are an obstacle, but he specifies that it is a small minority, not all men (or women). I agree:
Our one obstacle? The small number of indignant people who will be in denial, and take recognition of a common problem as an insult. Get over it. Appreciating women as partners actually doesn’t hurt, and the only insult here is the bizarrely obtuse attitude of some men and women.
He is almost trolling by calling people out for being in denial – I haven’t read the comment section, but given that it is nearly 700 posts deep, I have no hope for it – but the important thing is that he hasn’t gone and blamed men or atheists in general. The issue, in part, is a lack of awareness, and that does not place direct blame on people. (Also at issue is a legacy of society where men rise to higher positions more often than women – most Gnu Atheists spokespeople are accomplished in academics – and that is beyond the scope of atheism.) He points out ignorance, communicates a precise issue he has seen in his class (see post), and promotes the talent of women. This is hopeful because rather than attack others, he has taken a positive position. That is what is needed if PZ actually does want to help women.
It’s just effective rhetoric.