I recently read this article from Nottinghamshire Skeptics. It’s about a talk they put on recently and the reaction they received. It’s neither uncommon nor surprising, but something about this story riled me up to write down some thoughts that have been growing inside me for some time. They’re cynical thoughts, but I think they’re true. They’re depressing thoughts, but I think they point the way to how we can all be better. You can click the link and read the whole story if you want – but I’ll summarise it here to keep my blog post self-contained:
Skeptic group puts on a talk about fracking, featuring a Geologist as a speaker. Anti-Fracking group turns up, outraged that a Geologist has been allowed to speak. Wouldn’t want to let actual science get involved, would we? Anti-Fracking group then proceeds to get massively hostile at the meeting then attack the speaker for being a Geologist on twitter, despite the fact that the Geologist’s personal views (which were only mentioned briefly) were as follows:
“Well….it’s another dead dinosaur fuel, isn’t it? That can’t be good. Will fracking postpone any much needed research into renewables? That’s my top concern.”
Apparently, though, there was too much actual science in the presentation, and not every single accusation ever thrown at fracking held up – so it was abuse time.
I have a message for these anti-fracking campaigners:
If you deliberately avoid any discussion of facts, evidence, and science, then it’s going to make you look to any observer like you know you’re wrong. Climate Change deniers, in the main, avoid discussion of facts and evidence and instead attack climate scientists. Evolution deniers mainly avoid discussion of facts and evidence and instead attack biologists. It’s always the same. If you actively avoid factual investigation, you look like you’re wrong and know it.
This tweet, from a member of the audience, is apt:
“Tonight’s talk on fracking at @Notts_Skeptics didn’t swing me either way on the fracking debate, but did teach me anti-frackers are mean”
If you happen to be a repeat visitor to my blog, you might know that I’m cautiously pro-fracking. Just about. In certain circumstances. Within certain constraints. I’m nowhere close to sure about this, and I’m still searching out more evidence that may well end up swinging me the other way. You’d think that, with the depth of feeling either way on this issue, people would be flinging facts at me left, right, and centre. But the actions of these Notts anti-frackers seem pretty much par for the course as far as I’ve seen. When they’re not blatantly making up evidence (one page I got linked to by an anti-fracking friend was just a gem – a crash-course in how to lie with statistics – it ended up claiming that fracking will cause cancer through radiation exposure), the anti-fracking line seems mainly to be that of attacking people personally, shouting a lot about vague corporate evils, and shutting down any investigation of the real dangers of fracking.
The fracking issue is just the latest in a stream of political issues which has caused me to become totally disillusioned with the activist scene to which I heartily signed up back around the time of the last general election. I was fresh-faced, idealistic, and full of hope. Here I was, I thought, about to immerse myself in a culture full of people who care about their fellow man, who are dedicated to searching through the evidence to find the best ways to help people, the best ways to run the country, the best ways to save the planet. I was heartily confused as to why everyone wasn’t on-board. I was baffled at the negative responses the scene seemed to get from people outside it. We haven’t even had a full election cycle, and already I’m fed up to the back teeth with the political activist scene in general, and fully aware of why everyone finds us so bloody annoying.
The day it really hit me, when the most violent yanking away of the veil occurred, when I found myself most disillusioned, most disappointed with the movement to which I’d signed up, was the fateful evening when the EDL came to campus. The Islamic Society at Reading Uni had decided, as part of their “Discover Islam” week, to invite a notorious homophobe to speak. This man had previously openly advocated the killing of gay people. The SU, of course, being Reading Uni SU, were fully on board and even put out a statement commending the Islamic Society. A protest was organised. We didn’t want to disrupt the event; we just wanted to make it clear, by peacefully protesting on campus, that we really weren’t happy.
However, the EDL Berkshire Branch started making some noise, and RUSU folded faster than a napkin in the supple hands of an origami master and called off the event. This also called off our protest – and I could write a whole essay about how this is a perfect example of how censorship also censors counter-speech and how free speech is awesome but I don’t want to get sidetracked.
We, the protestors, were feeling a bit dejected. But then, we got word that the EDL were turning up anyway. Our planned protest had suddenly become a counter-protest. A group of around ten of us headed up to the edge of campus to head off the EDL and get all tolerant in their faces. It was very exciting. When we arrived, the EDL turned out to be one amiable middle-aged man handing out leaflets and, oddly for an EDL member, not really being at all racist. He seemed very much up for a frank exchange of views. This was brilliant! A real chance to talk, face-to-face, with a real live EDL member, who seemed to be genuinely misguided, rather than evil, had presented itself.
He was incensed by the homophobia and sexism of the speaker who had been slated to attend the Islamic society, and seemed to have been taken in by the idea that right-wing organisations such as the EDL offered the best response to such evils. Given the shameful response of many of my fellow lefties and organisations such as Universities UK and the NUS to such issues, one can see where this idea might come from. This was coupled to a bit of conspiracy-theory nonsense about building mosques near military bases. He wasn’t a “Britain for the British”, “Muslamic Rayguns” kind of operative and, though clearly misguided, he looked like he could be talked to sensibly and would listen to reason. Maybe he wouldn’t have listened. But he was never given the chance. In one of the most shameful debasements of political activism I’ve seen, the group of which I was a part simply started shouting at and insulting the guy. Caught up in the moment, I joined in with the first few chants of “FASCIST FASCIST FASCIST; OUT OUT OUT”. Go Activism!
I became increasingly uncomfortable and embarrassed, however, as it became more and more obvious that the guy was not even remotely fascist, not obviously racist, and was attempting to have an actual discussion with us about a serious and complicated issue, whilst we just stood there yelling at him. Anyone passing by would have observed an amicable old man trying to talk to a group of students who were intimidating and insulting him. I admire the guy for sticking it out. I eventually managed to strike up a conversation with the guy, as most of the more vocal members of our group were getting a bit tired of singing and yelling. I said a few things, he said a few things, and the possibility of a decent back-and-forth developed. Maybe views could be exchanged. Maybe something could be learned.
But no. The almost comically horrific group of people behind me were adamant that nothing positive would come of this meeting. The two most ridiculous of the group started up some kind of ludicrous comedic back and forth. The guy would say, for instance “I support women’s rights”. Then we’d hear this:
“Oooooooh, supports women’s rights, does he Jim, how intriguing.”
“Do you reckon he does though, do you reckon he does, John?”
“Naaaaah Jim, I think he’s a lying fascist scumbag, don’t you John?”
“Ooooh most definitely John, a lying fascist he most definitely is.”
I’ve changed the names, and those probably aren’t the exact words, but you get the idea. It went on for ages. Between these morons, and the odd cries of “FASCIST SCUM” and suchlike from a few of the others, any possibility of a reasonable conversation was jettisoned. It was excruciatingly embarrassing. It was clear that nobody was interested in finding out what this guy actually thought or why, or with engaging with his arguments (which could easily have been defeated). All anyone was there to do was shout abuse. And when the object of the abuse turned out not to be a fascist at all, it only got more intense.
One of the most telling features was the contempt with which the man’s claim to supporting women’s rights was held. Clearly, seemed to be the obvious prevailing truth, this man is in some way a right-winger, so he can’t possibly be a feminist. Such tribalist nonsense further belies the true nature of such “activism”. Leftists don’t own feminism. Someone might be a feminist but also an economic libertarian, or might be a feminist but also a racist. But the attitude of this group was that this guy was one of the bad guys, therefore couldn’t possibly have a single good bone in his body, and was suitable only for insulting and harassing. It was shameful, disgusting, and eye-opening.
Following the event, a few of those involved put together an article on the protest for their magazine. The short section on the actual confrontation with the EDL guy read like the Daily Mail on steroids. It was nothing more than a disgusting, personal attack on the man himself. I voiced my opposition to such ad hominem argument and shoddy, tabloid journalism, and received a torrent of abuse myself. From that day onwards I have, too, been treated as one of “the bad guys” by these former activist friends. But I don’t mind anymore. The bread and butter of that whole scene is bullying, intimidation, ranting, personal attacks, tribalism, and moralising, jingoistic nonsense that achieves nothing and helps nobody. Evidence-gathering, rational debate, and real commitment to helping effect genuine change in the world are antithetical to the whole movement.
I’ve sadly come to realise that so many of the people who claim to care about the things I care about: social justice, civil freedom, the alleviation of poverty, the protection of the environment, etc., actually don’t care one jot for any of those things – they’re just loudmouths who are spoiling for a fight, and don’t want the nitty gritty work of sorting through evidence and working out how to best help people, save the planet, protect freedoms, etc., to get in the way of a good shouting session. Whatever side of whatever issue they choose to “fight”, (and fight is what they do) – whether they be taking on the guise of an environmentalist supposedly concerned about the planet, a leftist supposedly concerned about poverty and inequality, a Kipper supposedly concerned about the harmful effects of immigration on the working poor, or a right-wing culture-warrior supposedly concerned about the moral decay of society, they’re all basically the same. They shout different slogans, listen to different music, wear different clothes, and hate different people (and often each other,) but they’re all the same underneath. They all care firstly about having a good fight, a good shout, and a good dose of moral superiority and group-think. They don’t for one second really care about the issues they claim to be fighting for. If they did, they wouldn’t actively suppress activities to really get to the root of problems, or work out how to solve them. They wouldn’t react with anger if it were pointed out to them that some issue they were getting all het up about might not be as bad as it seems, and effort could be better used elsewhere. Such reactions can only be the product of a first priority of a tribal battle, and with any real social or political concern merely a servant to that urge to fight.
It is, thankfully, far from all of us “political” people out there who are like this, but it’s a lot. I’ve probably been guilty of some such behaviour myself in my earlier days in the movement. From my experience, though, it’s a majority. Those of us who care first about the issues will change our minds in response to evidence, and will really search for solutions, rather than caring first about forming groups and shouting a lot. But we’re marginalised. When I raise my hand in a group of fellow lefties bemoaning the state of social justice to question “hang on, is that statistic we’re using actually right, are we focussing our energy on the wrong target here?” I’m generally shouted down and pushed aside. “Pesky facts. Who cares about pesky little facts? We’re fighting a WAR here, which side are you on?” It reminds me vividly of when I used to ask tough questions growing up in a Pentecostal church. “Hang on, are we sure this is actually what the Bible says here? Isn’t this new slogan for our youth events week actually in disagreement with one of the foundations of Jesus’ message?” I would ask. “You’re always splitting hairs! We have to be united! Who cares about the little details!” was the inevitable reply. My questions over actual theology were considered irrelevant in the overall “fight”, just as my questions about actual economics and evidence are considered irrelevant in the overall “fight” that many of my fellow lefties are engaged in. I imagine it’s much the same for those involved in the similar groups that adopt a different set of political views as a vehicle for their tribes.
I always used to be confused as to why ordinary people tend not to like “political types”, why they tend to find us annoying and unhelpful. How, I thought, could people who put extra energy and effort into improving the world around them be so disliked? How the scales have lifted from my eyes over just a few short years. It’s because most of us “political” people, and certainly the ones of us making the most noise, are like this Nottingham Anti-Fracking group, or my shameful band of anti-EDL protestors back in Reading. Anti-Evidence, Anti-Science, campaigning more to prevent those we disagree with from speaking (despite superficial claims to support freedom of speech) than trying to answer or counter their views (recent shouts of “YOU WILL NOT BE HEARD” from a “Yes” supporter at a Scottish Independence discussion come to mind), attacking experts and laypeople alike personally rather than providing answers or countering statements, living in a delusional fantasy role-playing universe in which they are the only defenders of the good against the forces of evil, and, most critically of all, deliberately avoiding searching for the truth in preference to getting a good invigorating shout going. Well, I can certainly see why most people don’t want to come near us or our “activism”.
Maybe it gets better as one gets older. Maybe my view of this is skewed by being mostly in the university political activist scene. Maybe not. But now I have an answer for every shouty faux-activist out there when they lament “Why are people so apathetic, why don’t they get involved?!”
“Look in the mirror”.