Sunday, 13 May 2012

Some Thoughts On Tone

I've always been the sort of person who values substance over style. Whatever the cause, in my mind, there exists a fairly unambiguous demarcation between what someone says and how they say it.  I can nearly always separate these two elements, in order to consider them individually, and usually with very little (if any) conscious effort.

Early on in my marriage, this attribute tended to get me into trouble from time to time.  I remember saying to my wife, on at least a handful of occasions, "for right now, I want you to just listen to what I'm saying and ignore how I'm saying it".  This seemed to be a nearly impossible task for her.  At first, I found that exasperating; why couldn't she allow me to be a little rude sometimes, when I was angry, but still hear and respond to the actual words that were coming out of my mouth?!  Finally it clicked with me that, for her, the "how" WAS the greater issue.  She wasn't ready to hear the what because she couldn't get past the how.  In other words, my tone mattered a great deal; more than I had initially realized.  Over time, I came to view a careful and deliberate tone as, essentially, a prerequisite to any fruitful conversation.

I think this personal anecdote has application in the atheist movement.  Atheists, by their very nature, are content focused.  And this is perhaps especially true for those of us who used to be deeply committed to faith.  To reject a "personal relationship with Jesus", that you once heartily embraced, is to, in effect, de-emphasize your own emotional triggers (God loves me and has a special plan for my life, I know I'll see my grandmother in heaven someday etc.) in favor of a heavier emphasis on the rational and the empirical (the evidence doesn't support these conclusions, therefore I must reject them, and so on and so forth).

I believe that a lot Christians have the same problem, with many atheists, that my wife used to have with me during certain of our disagreements.  They can't hear what atheists are saying, because of how atheists are expressing themselves.  Now, some might take issue with my use of the word "can't" here.  Surely Christians are mentally capable of separating style from substance, aren't they?  Maybe such believers just don't want to consider what atheists are saying, so they use how something is being said as an excuse to dismiss it.  I happen to think this is exactly true, but it only further underscores my point.  My fellow atheist, do you want Christians to ruminate on the content of what you say, or would you rather they focus on (what they don't like about) your style?  You have to make up your mind.  If your goal is to reach across the divide, as mine is, than you need to pay close attention to tone.

Dan Savage's recent talk will serve to be a great illustration of my main premise.  I recently overheard some Christian friends of mine discussing his comments.  At first, I actually got a little excited about will they respond to Savage's contention that the Bible contains "bullshit", I wondered?  What specific evidence will they bring up, to counter this claim, and show the reliability of the Bible?  Or how about his suggestion that "we can learn to ignore" what the Bible says about homosexuality, just as we have done with the issue of slavery?  Notice that each of these thoughts is content focused.

But, as you've probably guessed by now, fully 100% of the interaction, between my Christian friends, focused on Savage's tone.  Not once did they so much as even bring up the potential merits, or lack thereof, of literally anything that he had to say.  They talked exclusively about how he said it.  To put this another way, Savage's tone distracted from his message. This is immensely frustrating to someone in my shoes.  When the believer can (justifiably) accuse their opponent of being rude or, in this case, even hypocritical it feels like nothing short of a checkmate to them.  It really does.  In the believer's mind they have "won" the argument right then and there. As Dr. Phil often says, perception is reality.  Their reality, in this case, was a "win" for team Christian (who stood by their convictions by walking out on Savage) and a "loss" for team atheist (who just proved, once again, how hateful and spiteful they are).

Friendly Atheist hit the nail on the head, "...when you're giving a talk about how gay people get treated like shit, don't use words like 'pansy-assed' to describe the reaction of the kids walking out on you - it just makes you look like a bully yourself, even if you're not."


I also agree completely, with people such as Greta Christina, who say that atheists have legitimate reasons to be angry.  There's no question about it.  But, as Christian speaker and author John C. Maxwell points out, "people don't care how much you know, until they know how much you care".  This may sound a little cheesy, and frankly it is, but it's also true.

Dan Savage made some valid points, that Christians ought to really think about, but sadly they're very unlikely to do so simply because he didn't choose his words carefully.

So, to the atheist, I would close by asking you to reflect on your personal goals.  Do you want Christians to consider the things that you say?  If so, you've got to keep your emotions in check. To not do so is to heavily reinforce the prominent "angry atheist" stereotype, in the mind of the Christian, which is a close cousin to the terribly misguided "deep down they know there's a God, and are just rebelling against him" line of thought.  It's akin to shooting yourself in the foot.

To the Christian, I would ask you to look beyond your gut reaction to controversial comments, like those made by Savage, to hear what is really being said.  It might be something worth taking seriously.  If you focus on the how, to the exclusion of the what, you are simply distracting yourself from deeper thought on the issues at hand.  And Savage is right about those.


  1. Great post, Respectful Atheist! Couldn't have said it better myself.

  2. One of the most common replies to this argument is that while the tone can be distracting to a listener, often this is juts an excuse. And I know, the goal here is to remove the excuse so that this becomes irrelevant, therefore forcing the listener to deal with the substance.

    It all sounds great on paper (Or hypertext...).

    The issue is that is very rarely actually makes a difference. Have you seen the ads that were proposed to some mass transit company (I think) that simply said "atheists"? THey were offensive.

    The point is that for many people it is the substance which is off-putting, and not the tone.

    As Dennett has said (I'm paraphrasing) there is no nice way to say that you think someone's worldview and opinions about the nature of reality are wrong.

    Tone, therefore, is a red herring. I appreciate your intention here, but I think you will find it impotent in real discussions, except with honest, intellectually honest, and mature people. And with them you likely have a person who can see past the tone.

    1. I mostly agree with these thoughts, Polyskeptic, save your very last paragraph. I do believe, as you do, that many Christians are offended by the mere existence of atheists (as the "atheists" ads clearly demonstrate). There's no question in my mind about that.

      But I also feel that there are "intellectually honest, and mature (Christians)" who are indeed put off by the angry tone of some atheists. My wife would be one example of such a person. When communicating with her, about my newfound atheism (while she was still a Christian), I was careful to only expose her to those speakers and authors that had a respectful way of presenting their material. (When I didn't do this, she simply shut down or got overly defensive.) I think there are other Christians like her.

      I also think it's important for us atheists to not play into the hands of larger stereotypes generally. If we are viewed as "angry", by the culture at large (which we are), than it becomes all the more important for us to control our emotions in public discourse. I realize there's a temptation to look at something, like the "atheists" bus ads, and just say "screw being polite!", because it doesn't work. But we also don't want to fall into the trap of thinking that all Christians are exactly alike in that respect (ie. offended by the substance only, and completely able to look past tone).

      I can only speak for myself, and the Christians that I know well, and it seems to me that most of them are put off by the substance AND the why not remove at least half of the excuse? This way we can get down to the business of discussing the other half, which is all we really wanted it the first place.

    2. I would agree, Respectful Atheist! When I was leaving the church I had an open mind to these things but still found a lot of Atheists off-putting. I barely got through Dawkin's book and couldn't finish Loftus' book no matter how hard I tried.

      It's one thing to say a theist's views are wrong. It's quite another to say their views are bullshit and, whether real or intentional, imply they're too friggin' stupid to figure it out.

  3. While I appreciate the sentiment, it becomes a problem of line drawing. At some point, I (as a hypothetical atheist) am going to have to say that I think the things you (as a believer) are wrong. In fact, I think they are so wrong that they cause harm, both intellectual and physical. That in and of itself is taken as offensive. Should I say it softly? Should I say it with honeyed words and with deference to all religious sensibilities?

    I'm inclined to agree with Polyskeptic; those put off because of word choice are looking for excuses to be put off, and changing "I think that's bullshit and here is why" to "I think you are wrong and here is why" won't make the slightest bit of difference.

  4. When I was de-converting, I bought some books on Atheism and was very put off by their tone and was also uncomfortable with atheist websites for the same reason. But the message still came through. I think the message took longer to sink in because I felt disrespected as a questioning Christian by these atheists and I wondered if all atheists were angry. But I looked past the tone and implied insults. Mainly I read people who wrote in a more respectful, matter-of-fact way, like Bart Ehrlman. I don't think the objection to tone is an excuse, I think it is a real reaction to someone's negativity and harsh language and can be off-putting.

    BTW, another way to put, "I think you are wrong and here is why" is to say, "I think the Bible is in error" or "I disagree with the Christian belief that..." or "I know that..." People can be quick to go on the defensive and then you might as well talk to a goldfish.