Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Tone trolls

I don't know what it is about atheism, but we sure do get a lot of tone trolls. A 'tone troll' is like a concern troll, but is especially concerned about the lack of civility in the discourse. The tone troll wants everyone to be nice. That, and to make everyone else be the same kind of atheist that he is.

I've had to deal with atheist tone trolls, and even a theist tone troll or two. Here's how this plays out.
Atheist tone troll: Atheism can be polarising. Don't make it 'us' vs. 'them' -- they'll only resist us harder. We need to take a more conciliatory approach. We need to work together with people on issues where we agree.
That's a good aim. If someone wants to take that approach, I think that's fine. We need more 'nice atheists'.

But we also need 'mean atheists' like me, who take opportunities to call out religious foolishness with ridicule and a sledgehammer, and who explain about good reasoning and critical thinking. (Of course, you pick your battles, and sometimes the best thing is to say nothing. I don't always walk around in my stomping boots, but I'm not afraid to pull 'em on if I think the time is right.)

Think of these approaches as complementary. Or perhaps evolutionary. We don't know what will work in each case, so let's try everything. I want lots of atheists putting the heat to religion in all kinds of ways. Mockery, sympathy, calumny, there's no wrong way to do it.

The wrong thing to do, however, is wring one's hands in dismay, and lecture other atheists on how they're doing it wrong. Oh, my ears and whiskers! How teddibly uncivil! Theists will never agree with us if we challenge them! (See also: 'I'm an atheist, BUT...')

Well, frankly, not challenging them doesn't do much to move their opinion either. How well did not challenging them work for the last 50 years? Dumping your religion and becoming an atheist is hard. What could possibly be the impetus for someone to do it if all they hear is comforting church hymns, along with the song of the non-confrontational atheist? I know people don't like hearing that their religion is wrong. But I do say it from time to time because I think it's important to keep pushing the Overton Window in that direction. I don't know whether my sledgehammer wakes people up, or whether it just attracts the newly awakened, but more and more people are becoming aware of the absurdities of religion, and we're forming a vibrant and noisy community of non-believers.

I also had to deal with a theist tone troll once. It went like this:
Theist tone troll: You can say whatever you want. But you should realise that it's not respectful to say mean things about religion. It hurts people's feelings. It's your tone I object to.
I don't worry too much about these folks. There's literally no way to talk about religion in less-than-laudatory terms without some people getting butthurt. The only thing they want is for atheists to shut up.

Pick your approach. Choose the kind of atheist you're going to be. But having chosen, please spare the rest of us the lecturing about tone. It's just a way of trying to control the communication of other people. Letting go of that need for control can be freeing.


  1. Fundamentalists may not be de-convert, but there are many fence sitters out there. Logic is bound to push many of them off.

  2. OK. Guilty. But I don't think I have done it in a long time. and I am not sure I like being called a troll. Sounds like the wrong tone to me. :)

  3. Being a 'nice atheist' is not being a troll.

    The trollishness lies in calling people out for taking the 'wrong approach'.

    You're not a troll.

  4. I think that you've got a good balance going between being a 'nice atheist' and a 'mean' one. As for myself I seem to lash out on my blog and then get all worried about having hurt people's feelings. Whilst I really, really want to be 'nice' to people (where the hell did I get that from!?) I am trying to accept that at times I need to be blunt.... and I need to accept that not everyone is going to like me (where did I get THAT one from!!).

    I hope I haven't tried to edit your tone either. (Damn, am I trying too hard to be nice again).

  5. Oh and 'Butt Hurt report'... classic!!

  6. I think my problem is that I always assume that people are trying to *convince* other people.

    And if that is the case, I think the issue is that being "mean" or "inflammatory" doesn't convince people. It *does* build up walls and make people resist -- even when they are wrong and begin to suspect that they are wrong.

    (On the other hand, I guess I can completely see the value in "mean" or "in-your-face" atheism for rallying the base. Which is not an ignoble goal).

    I try to think with my conversations with non-LDS theists. They tried so hard to show me the ills of Mormonism, but they did so in a cruel, mean-spirited way. What did that do? It made me want to research more. But not in the sense, "Oops, I just found out something that broke my faith." In the sense, "I want to become an apologist -- with every one of their tricks, because I cannot STAND to let them get away with any of these arguments."

    Even now, particularly uncharitable arguments against Mormonism will turn me -- a nonbeliever -- into an apologist. It's kind of a, "No one can make fun of my family but me" sort of deal.

    Not only that, but I don't even think that being mean/hard-hitting feels good. When the discussion escalates, everyone feels bad.

  7. And even if convincing people were the goal, I don't know what it is that convinces people to change. It's probably not even the same for everyone.

    I think humour and satire probably work well. Ridicule with enough accuracy to evoke a sting of recognition.

  8. "kill people with kindness."

    "people won't care how much you know until they know how much you care."

    I dunno. I guess I'm just a sample of one. But I've been MUCH MUCH MUCH more prone to listen to a person's message if I get the sense that they care, are going to be nice and "soften" whatever blows that will come.

  9. True. Still, sometimes I think the message needs to be sent out with a bit of a punch, especially when you're describing crappy things that happened at church. The message can be raw but the personal comments are best kept civil.

  10. Will I be ex-communicated for becoming a tone troll? ;)

  11. Here's a rhetorical question for you: WHY do you like to trash theists? Is it because you love Truth so much? If that were really the case, then are you also combatting Untruth in its other manifestations?

    I offer this hypothesis for you to consider: that your attacks on theists are motivated by the pleasure you derive from verbally injuring people whom you disagree with. If this hypothesis be appropriate to you, then two questions arise: 1) why do you derive pleasure from verbally assaulting people? and 2) why must you associate religious ideas with religious believers? It's a common human error to transfer our repugnance for an idea to the person espousing that idea.

    Certainly the fact that you use a pejorative term such as "tone troll" suggests that you conflate people with ideas.

  12. Hi, Chris.

    As one would find by reading the post, the term 'tone troll' does not refer to theists, but rather atheists who complain about the tone of other atheists.

    WHY do you like to trash theists?

    I don't. I trash religion. Which means that the only one conflating people with ideas here is you.

    are you also combatting Untruth in its other manifestations?


  13. The question I asked is rhetorical; its purpose is to elicit reflection, not to demand an answer. Note that your response reflects some hostility. The same rhetorical question arises: why do you respond with hostility?

    I'm not going to attempt to answer these questions for you, because I don't know you. But I'll add one more rhetorical question: do you really think that 10,000 years of civilization have done anything to change the emotional makeup of a species that spent 5 million years living a hunter-gatherer lifestyle?

  14. You ask a question around here, you get an answer.

    Note that your response reflects some hostility. The same rhetorical question arises: why do you respond with hostility?

    Tone troll.

  15. OK, I'll depart with the tone-trolliest sign-off I can think of, a truly vicious example of tone trolling at its very worst:

    Best wishes.

  16. Hey Daniel! I found your blog when I Googled "tone troll". You're the second hit; the article you linked to is the first. I know it's too late in the game for anyone to ever read this, and apologies if someone else covered this already, but...

    ...if I understand your post, then I think you're using too broad a definition of troll. The hand-wringing accommodationists piss me off to no end, but if they're sincere, then by definition, they're not trolls. Well, at least not by any useful definition of "troll".

    See, if the term "tone troll" is being used by analogy with "concern troll", then isn't a tone troll someone who is actually trying to undermine atheists by getting us to water down our rhetoric? And doesn't that mean that a sincere person whose kumbayaish advice accidentally ends up hurting our cause isn't a troll?

    A minor point, I know, but I think precision of language is important.

    I'll pray for you. (Kidding!!!)

  17. I'm with Maureen. I thought I was the only one with an ongoing internal conflict about ripping into people but not wanting to hurt their feelings.

    As for appropriate tone, I think it differs with circumstances.

  18. I just watched Tim Minchin's documentary 'Rock and Roll Nerd' and was very surprised to discover how sensitive he is to peoples interpretations of his work. There were a few examples throughout the doco of how people have taken offense to what he has said.

    Two that stick out are:

    1. A reviewer gave him a crap review when he was only just starting out in Edinburgh. Every other review was pretty much a rave but this one bad review really got to him. So much so that it in his tour 'Ready for This' he has a song about the reviewer with lines like "I hope that something you love catches on fire" and a line about choosing a line of work more suited to him than journalism, with the suggestion being shooting himself.

    2. He uses the 'N' word in his second show and gets labelled a racist. Although he has quite clearly spelled out in the song that he is not racist. He experiences people angrily coming up to him in public and calling him racist. You can see that it is really affecting him and that he feels torn between loyalty (?) to the integrity of his work and the feelings of his viewers.

    By trying to bring attention to things in society that probably could do with a spotlight on them he then has to deal with the inevitable backlash of people misinterpreting his work. I for one was very surprised to see him agonise over the criticism he received.

    So in trying to understand what a tone troll is, I guess this doco kind of helped me out. I feel that there is a great need for people to push the boundaries of being 'politically correct', a great need for it. I love Tim's work. Even as a TBM I liked what he was doing even though I obviously found myself conflicted when he ragged on God etc it still made sense to me and was kind of interesting to me on some level to 'see' how other people think.

    Oh and the other thing I have been thinking a lot about lately is that I feel that religion f***ed me up so much that I do feel justified in spewing vitriol about it. I hate the god damned lie(s)! I believed entirely in god and heaven etc and was devastated to discover the lies. It has been f***ing traumatic.

    So I am fine with people ripping into religion and any other shady institutions. As for choosing 'an approach' for voicing your hurt, anger, disgust etc I think that more than enough damage has been done by assholes in positions of power and that the people need to shout louder en masse!! I'm sick of the f***ing freak show of politicians and popes!!!

  19. Hi Daniel,

    I'm an atheist often seen as "accommodating" or "apologist", but I'd like to argue a different angle. eg:

    It's not a matter of being "nice" or "fence-sitting" - with objective factual issues it is necessary to be brutally honest. I appreciate the "New Atheist" gloves-off agenda as well as the next person.

    The point that gets overlooked is legitimate scientific / rational / logical issues get buried in the baying mob "ripping into" the ignorant and misguided. There simply needs to be a balance of participants prepared to respond constructively as well.

  20. Hmmm, looks to me like not only do you begrudge people preferring a different approach to the disputed foam and rant method of de-converting sheeple via ridicule but also that you are willing and able to put aside your stringent application of skepticism when it comes to hosting ads for woomed on your front page. Why is that?
    Why so easy on bullshit pseudo-science whilst getting pissed enough to blog it at people that espouse a less aggressive approach to religion?

  21. I don't have much control over the ads. Google chooses them automatically based on the word content of the page.

    It's annoying, but I take comfort in the idea that woo-sters are wasting their money running ads on my blog that (hopefully) no one will read.

    What was the ad, anyway?

  22. it was for some super mega life changing supplement incorporating natural blah blah blah.

  23. I've never told anyone that I want them to suffer in eternal agony for all time, fuck religitards.


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