Don’t Criticize the Tribe

by Luke Muehlhauser on June 12, 2009 in How-To

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Want to be popular? Suck up to your core audience. Tell them they’re great. Tell them they’re superior to everybody else. Admit that we all make mistakes, but never write about the specific mistakes of your core audience – write only and often about the flaws of your opponents. Encourage ‘Us vs. Them’ thinking and become a demagogue and figurehead of your ideology. Never say “I don’t know.”

And whatever you do, don’t criticize the tribe. They don’t like it. Stick to the spirit of Ronald Reagan’s 11th commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican.”

I’m surprised (but of course pleased) that this blog has become so popular so quickly. First, because I often write in-depth articles about complex topics. (Clearly, I’ve not learned anything from the success of Pharyngula.) Second, because I regularly criticize groups you would expect to be my core audience – atheists, liberals, and moral realists. (Again, I’ve learned nothing from Pharyngula.)

I’m not the only person who knows the trouble of criticizing the tribe. Here’s Alonzo Fyfe:

I have also noticed that my readership takes a massive hit whenever I say something bad about liberals.

I am not talking about some subtle shift in the numbers. I am talking about a nose-dive every time I point out that some liberal organization lied or they are using arguments not unlike the arguments they criticize when Republicans or Conservatives use them.

These reductions are serious and significant – and it takes a while to build readership back up again. I have found that “successful” blogs seldom say things that would antagonize the tribes that make up the bulk of their readership. They will criticize dishonesty, but will not criticize a member of their own faction for dishonesty. They will condemn hypocrisy, but not suggest that there is anybody on their side who has ever been guilty of this.

I can see why. All a person needs to do is see the effects of doing something like that once and, if he has any interest in running a successful blog, he learns, “never criticize the tribe.”

I am not accusing these people of insincerity. I think that the mind works in more subtle ways than that. I think it has more to do with the phenomenon I discussed yesterday – an ‘uneasiness’ that causes a person to think that there is something more important that needs doing – something other than criticizing the tribe.

But this isn’t going to stop Alonzo or I from criticizing the tribe when appropriate. I have many celebratory things to say about atheists, liberals, and moral realists. I also have many critical things to say.

In the end, I can be critical because it’s not my ultimate goal to be an uber-popular atheist blogger. No, I have other goals.

plato_aristotle1The readers who stick with this blog are likely to be exactly the kind of audience I want. They are careful thinkers who are more concerned with truth than with party loyalty. They like to have their own beliefs challenged, and they like to challenge mine. They have insightful things to say because they have spent time honing their critical thinking skills.

So here’s a shout-out to my wonderful readers who have made me think, who have allowed me to make them think, who have changed my mind about some things, who have informed my opinion on many things, who have made me laugh, and who have inspired me. Love ya! Thanks for reading. Thanks for taking my harsh criticism. And thanks for throwing it back in my face when appropriate. Keep up the good work.

But that’s enough praise for now. Now, look forward to more criticism!

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Reginald Selkirk June 12, 2009 at 6:23 am

Self-criticism is good. Glad to see you’re on board with that. Ronald Reagan introduced the commandment of Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican. An organization which cannot criticize its own is destined for corruption. I hope that other prominent political parties do not follow his lead.

Here’s a candidate for criticism: June Geoffrey Berg. It’s a bit of low-hanging fruit though.

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lukeprog June 12, 2009 at 6:48 am

Reginald,

That Reagan quote is too good to be true, but it is! I couldn’t resist adding it to my post.

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Reginald Selkirk June 12, 2009 at 7:56 am

That point came up recently when Newt Gingrich criticized Obama for calling himself a “citizen of the world” – presumably unaware that Reagan had used the same phrase.

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Jeff H June 12, 2009 at 8:27 am

How dare you! Atheists are a beacon of light and reason in this dark, dark world! They can do no wrong! Their logic is always impeccable! And most importantly, they are all ridiculously good-looking!

Lol but seriously…this is one of the reasons I like this blog. I hate being on bandwagons of any kind, even though I find myself on them far too often. I admire anyone who searches for truth to utter disregard of whether it is popular, convenient, or accepted. Such people are far too rare. So Luke, keep up the great work here!

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Reginald Selkirk June 12, 2009 at 8:46 am

Jeff H: How dare you! Atheists are a beacon of light and reason in this dark, dark world! They can do no wrong!

Point offered in disproof: Larry Darby.

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Jon S June 12, 2009 at 12:02 pm

I really like this blog, and I have it on my blog roll, but I must say that you often come across as a “superior”, instead of a “friend among friends”. You’re the “teacher” and we’re the “students”. You have “wisdom to impart” to your “listeners”. Of course, as soon as I write this you’ll be quick to point out that you regularly ask for input and to be challenged, and that you’ve even learned from “us”. But I still stand by my point. 

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Ben June 12, 2009 at 12:18 pm

You are definitely my favorite atheist blogger, Luke.  And I’m extremely picky.  So be complimented.

Ben

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NiroZ June 12, 2009 at 12:33 pm

Heh, pharyingula hasn’t quite insulted its core audience, but it’s come close. It was PZ who made the blag hag famous by linking to her post tearing to shreds an atheist book.

But yeah, I wasn’t really that into the atheist ethicist until I discovered that he’s willing to criticise everybody.

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exrelayman June 12, 2009 at 1:20 pm

Jon S

“You’re the “teacher” and we’re the “students”. You have “wisdom to impart” to your “listeners”.”

All of that is fine with me.

Luke teaches me new knowledge. Luke imparts to me much that I would otherwise never be exposed to. My initiative and aptitudes would never have taken me there. I am grateful.

Luke teaches me by example. He is not perfect (who is?) but I have seen him suffer fools much more patiently than I ever could. Keep it up Luke! If seeking truth steps on a few toes, those toes should maybe be a little less sensitive (even if my toes)! If we do not criticize our own thinking, how can it improve?

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Haukur June 12, 2009 at 3:41 pm

Intelligent, fair criticism of atheist positions is what I think is the most valuable thing on offer in this blog. Discussions on the deficiency of atheistic meta-ethical theories have been especially valuable and enlightening to me.

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Lorkas June 12, 2009 at 5:33 pm

Jon S: I really like this blog, and I have it on my blog roll, but I must say that you often come across as a “superior”, instead of a “friend among friends”.

Er… I don’t really get that at all. On the contrary, I feel like I identify with the author of the blog quite a bit more than many other blogs I read. Obviously Luke expresses his opinion on this blog, but it would be quite boring if he didn’t, don’t you think?

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lukeprog June 12, 2009 at 6:20 pm

Jon S: I must say that you often come across as a “superior”, instead of a “friend among friends”. You’re the “teacher” and we’re the “students”. You have “wisdom to impart” to your “listeners”. Of course, as soon as I write this you’ll be quick to point out that you regularly ask for input and to be challenged, and that you’ve even learned from “us”.

Um, yes, that is exactly what I’ll point out. :)

I also admit to mistakes quite a lot, and fix my mistakes. So, yeah – sorry you’re getting that vibe, but I’m not sure what to do about it.

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Asa June 14, 2009 at 9:38 pm

When ‘Lorkas’ first showed me your blog it made me uncomfortable, especially when you pointed out that most atheists were just as narrow-minded as theists. But I really wanted to know the truth, and you made me think so much I just couldn’t stop coming back. I still haven’t read your book on ethics, but I will soon.

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lukeprog June 14, 2009 at 10:17 pm

Great, Asa. Please do feel free to contribute!

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