Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Subject Zedding

Criticism of the 2012 Global Atheist Convention has been, on the whole, pretty mild. Most of it has come from commentators who werent there, which is a benign sneer that one is kind of obliged to find adorable. Dave the Happy Singer tweeted a lovely, punchy comment about it:

So naww, thanks everyone that didn't go because 'lol, celebrating belief in nothing? RIGHTO THEN!'. You've made your point. Thinking too long about things hurts your brain.

I did, however, come across a few articles from convention goers who have bothered to blog about their experiences. They ranged from those that seemed to make a genuine effort to understand to those that were just looking for an excuse to put the words 'So-Called' in front of terms like 'Freethinking' as many times as they could. And then, there was 'Daniel Survives'.

Please, go ahead and read it. It's ... beautiful, in its own way. It is a piece that really shows off David Palmer's Academics Degree from the Presbyterian Academic Academy of Academics, majoring in Academia. Something that none of us Atheists can boast, because, as he quite rightly takes note, there is ...

Certainly no Richard Dawkins Atheist Academic Academy. -- David Palmer, OnLine Opinion, 2012.
Criticism of something like the Atheist Convention comes in two forms. The first is honest, well-reasoned disagreement with the content of that convention. That's something that any atheist, freethinker or skeptic will gladly accept and spiritedly debate with literally anybody that wanted to. This kind of criticism is welcome, and not only welcome, but welcome in italics. When an article says 'Lawrence Krauss was interesting but here's a counter argument', then fine

The second kind of criticism is what this blog post is all about. I'm in a bit of a unique position in that I've come across it before in other sectors of life, so I'm fairly confident that I can recognise it when I see it. This kind of criticism involves building up a false notion of the thing that you'd really like to criticise and then blaming it for not filling your expectations. It's a deceptively reasonable-sounding form of criticism, too, in that it asks seemingly reasonable questions about the responsibilities and priorities of an interest group. The trouble is, those responsibilities and priorities are the domain of other groups, not the one being criticised. The formula looks a bit like this:

'Why does Group A always talk about Subject A? Why don't they ever mention Subject Z?'

From here on out, I'll call it Subject Z Criticism, and I'll try to give some examples.

A friend of mine, while doing her PhD, spent two hours in a classroom arguing about queer rights with her fellow doctoral candidates. The mood was generally supportive, she assures me, and consensus was made on several topics. One of the criticisms that they all universally arrived at of the queer movement was that, while their cause was just, they spent a lot of time talking about queer issues and not so much time talking about other important things, like climate change or whatnot.

Being a gay gent myself, this is a criticism I've heard before, and it is a prime example of Subject Z Criticism. I've actually written about it before in this post titled 'The two most irksome objections to gay marriage that even intelligent people make'.

The logical flaw with this argument is apparent after only a few seconds of thinking, but those few seconds are very rarely ever invested because the original criticism sounds so reasonable.

People involved in the Queer Movement do talk about other things, like climate change, like asylum seekers, like atheism, all the time. It's just that when they do, they're not a part of the queer movement any more. They're a part of the green movement, or the industrialist movement, or the new atheist movement. One is not obliged to declare 'I'm queer and I'm here to save the whales', one needs merely to declare 'Save the Whales'.

Asking those involved with the Queer Movement why they don't do more to stop Climate Change is Subject Z Criticism. 'You focus too much on Queer issues, why don't you concentrate on Subject Z instead.' The essence of Subject Z Criticism is a bait and switch to make a group look like it is self-centred, arrogant, or selfish. It is to declare that a focus group should feel bad for focusing on the very thing it is centred around.

Think about it. One does not approach the Breast Cancer Trials Group and say 'You know, you guys are always banging on about breast cancer. It's like you don't even care about the carbon tax.'. Nothing says that a person can't be an advocate of Breast Cancer Awareness and be concerned/supportive of the carbon tax.

All those people at that huge youth music festival over there? Why the hell aren't they developing solutions to the housing crisis? Shut down that damn music festival right now. I can't believe alt rock fans hate the homeless so much. What's the world coming to?

Group A was formed to focus on Subject A. It would be freakin' weird if they spent a bunch of time talking about Subject Z.

The only thing to be said for Subject Z Criticism is that it means that the criticiser can't really find much wrong with what you're doing. All they want to talk about is what you're not doing as though that were some kind of indictment against the fact that you belong to that group in the first place.

Atheist Conventions - and atheism in general - is a rife target for Subject Zedding. Here's a quote from the 'Daniel Survives' article:

      The point I want to make on the evidence of what I heard at the Convention is that Atheists are not morally serious. Atheists judge their goodness in terms of their support for human rights, i.e. other people held at a distance. So they support things like the feminist cause, equality for homosexuals, they are against racism, they are for the Palestinians but against Israel, and so on.
      But what did they have to say about the issues that touch people closer to home. In the 1960’s we had the cultural revolution which brought with it cohabitation, no fault divorce, freely available abortion, all generally to the disadvantage of women and their children. We live in a society today with multiple broken relationships, failed marriages, children being fought over, boys without fathers modelling what it is to grow into manhood. We have unprecedented crime levels so that we lock doors, install alarm systems, drive children to and from school, install cameras on trains and in shopping malls, every public space covered in graffiti.
      Did the Atheist Convention address any of these issues?
      Did we hear of the philanthropic interests of Atheists? Well, we did hear of a school for 200 students in Uganda, but that was it. Certainly no Richard Dawkins Atheist Academic Academy.
First up, you need to forgive a number of flaws in these paragraphs before we can continue. I don't know any two atheists, for example, that agree precisely on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. The list of 'closer to home' issues that the author is so very worried about is entirely unsupported and subjective (in fact, all evidence indicates that we are living in the safest and most secure time in human history, ever). And of course, Richard Dawkins does have an entire philanthropic foundation (that, it was mentioned, raised over half a million pounds for Haiti after their troubles there). Does it go without saying that 'Academic Academy' is a tautology? I hope it does.

Once you get beyond all of that, you can see that we're dealing with a clear case of Subject Zedding here. Nobody at the atheist convention mentioned the problem with graffiti on public surfaces, ergo atheists are not morally serious. That is the way of it from just about every source. We didn't deal with the specific issues that one commentator had imagined we should, hence the Global Atheist Convention proves that atheists are not morally serious.

This year, I went out with a bag on Clean Up Australia day and cleared away rubbish from a park near my home. If there had been a graffiti clearing task force on that day, I'd have happily joined it. I would not have taken the time to explain to the organisers of that task force that I was doing this because I am an atheist, and I want it known that my efforts vindicate the morality of all godless folk everywhere.

Then again, even if I had, that would just mean that the queer movement didn't take public order and cleanliness seriously, wouldn't it?

Readers, don't ever fall for Subject Z Criticism. It's not a good argument. It's not even a bad argument, it's just a false attribution of responsibility. If you're doling it out, I will call you silly.

It's fine to criticise things, but please have a care to do it in a way that is defensible. That's the beauty of criticism - it gives you a chance to respond, refine and prove your argument in the face of contrary evidence. The entire Global Atheist Convention was a celebration of that principle. Fight us on the issues at hand, don't invent ones that are beyond the mandate of the group and judge us on our failure to deal with them. We aren't psychic, after all.

Nobody is.


  1. Talking about subject-changing is all very well, but it's not exactly our biggest problem, is it?

    (Insert appropriate tag here - </sarcasm> doesn't quite fit )

  2. Too right, Zoe - atheists biggest problem is our failure to deal with the supermarket price wars driving Aussie farmers out of business!

    I can't believe every talk at the convention wasn't explicitly about that.

  3. Great piece!

    I think you'll find that not only do the atheist and queer movements deal with Subject Z Criticism, but HOLY MOLY is it ever a problem in the feminist movement.

    "The only thing to be said for Subject Z Criticism is that it means that the criticiser can't really find much wrong with what you're doing."

    Not necessarily. It's the derailing tactic that I see most often when talking about feminist issues-- when talking about FGM, why aren't we trying to stop male circumcision? Or when talking about single moms, why aren't we fighting for father's rights? It's frustrating because it basically says that our struggles aren't important enough to focus on.

  4. Thanks Audley! You're absolutely right - I think this could be applied to just about any so-called controversial interest group, but I've seen it in full force when used against feminists.

    A little while ago there was a video released of Daniel Craig wearing a dress for International Women's Day. I saw it and liked it, and should have stopped there. But the Youtube comments, not to mention tweets, were mind-boggling and were dominated by one thing:

    Men - childish, brutish, dickless men - whining about men's rights, and demanding to know when International Men's Day was. I replied to as many as I could, suggesting they were simply being combative, blind to privellege and a total wanker besides. When they challenged me on it, I put the full-stop on my argument with a link to the following page:


    There is an International Men's Day. It's November 19th. They didn't WANT an international Men's Day. They just didn't want women to have an International Women's Day.

    It's a slightly different thing to Subject Z Criticism, but it's very similar, and any time I come across this kind of thing I'll do my best to call it out. If we all do the same people won't be able to get away with it for long. Or so I hope :-)

    1. Yeah, they're definitely connected. I think I was thinking about your post a little too narrowly, if that makes any sense.

  5. Fantastic piece, well said!