By Gary Berg-Cross
The choice of vocabulary is central to favorably framing an issue. Framing things from one point of view can be like taking the high ground and letting others climb a hill to get close to a fair conversation. Recent examples include calling the health reform legislation Obamacare. It’s official, and more neutral name, is the Affordable Care Act. The “right to life" is a good example of older, glib positive phrasing for one side of a complex topic. It seizes the high ground of an issue by siding with life. Aren’t we all for life? It’s a conservative slogan that packages lots of assumptions into it and encourages a defensive, catch-up conversation by the other side. Indeed since there is usually more than one side to an issue, as I discuss in my Binary Thinking habit blog, one value of a frame is to create a false dichotomy that buries the idea of shades of grey and nuance to an issue.
Being shoved around by a neat framing vocabulary makes it pretty easy to get into an argument. We can disagree just based on how we label things. Labeling one side of issue in a negative way often produces such misunderstandings and disagreements. It evokes negative connotations. Some call this a dog whistle to a group that hangs on emotional phrases. I saw what I thought was an example of this in the recent blog discussion of education where I was surprised to read the phrase “government education”. This labeled what I usually think of as “public education”. To conservatives calling it “government education” dog whistles in Milton Friedman-like overtones of government control, intrusion, carelessness and inefficiency (as observed in my blog contrast Scientific and Political Culture in the Capital views of life inside the Beltway).
It’s pretty hard to avoid running into frozen frames in most conversations and they abound in debate since they are powerful weapons to seize audience attention. One of the powerful ones is attaching the adjective “flaming” to a person. It seizes the attention and in today’s social network we run into that term and to real instances of flaming rhetoric. The old exemplar use of the phrase probably comes from calling someone a flaming a-hole. Not a complement. Some might use it in pejorative way as in discussing a topic and requesting that no flaming Xes (pick a category) participate. They say that flaming Xes just aren’t nice enough or tolerant of others beliefs. Flamers scorch up the conversation with put down phrases such as:
"obviously you don't know what your talking about....."
“You are both incredibly rude & incredibly misinformed, which is a deadly
Applying the adjective “flaming” to such rhetoric seems apt. But, back to semantics again, flames can have other, softer characterizations. Flaming could mean just TOO passionate, as in controlled by emotions rather than intellect. But it can be a judgment, since some arguments have both passion and reason.
I recently heard the term “flaming atheist” tossed about as a label. It’s simple enough to understand that the term used to characterize someone who is a passionate atheist. Indeed some atheist blogs use the term in this way. The Blog site thespitfiredragon's Flaming Atheist is an example. The fire dragon offers spirited but reasoned arguments which she explains this way:
“Logic and reason have led me to reject any and all belief in the supernatural, whether it's gods, devils, angels, demons, vampires, ghosts, werewolves, fairies or leprechauns. Since 2007, I have worked to discuss the fallacy of supernatural beliefs with as many people as possible in an attempt to ignite the fires of logic and reason in stymied religious minds in the hopes of making the world a better place for the coming generations.”This is a flame I can live with, although I recognize that it is not impossible to imagine that there are some atheists whose emotions and conversational dynamics are vaster than their knowledge and thought. Atheists can be passionate about labels and what they mean too. I’m often in a discussion where different ideas and labels come up and someone says, “Well that’s just a question of semantics.” If semantics is about what things mean then that’s not just a simple thing of being bogged down in a word like say “tom-ato” vs “to-mato”. It is central to understanding what one is really talking about. What I think most people mean by the “only semantics” statement is that people are focusing on some framed vocabulary that is getting in the way of mutual understanding. This is even true when the atheist-secular humanist community talks about proper labels. What do we call ourselves? Is atheist best? Is it inclusive? How about skeptics, brights or freethinkers? Are they included in a broad term like atheist? What’s the best term or label? Any term may quite different things to different people. To some atheism means Militant atheism which implies an action oriented anti-theism. This means not only being philosophically opposed to theism, but actively working to end it.
We may use atheist as a means of distinguishing passionate belief from a "weaker spirited” freethinker, an agnostic or perhaps a secular humanist. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins formulated a 7-point belief scale that formalizes some of these ideas so that there is less confusion. The scale goes from:
1 Strong Theist: I do not question the existence of God, I KNOW he exists, to
7 Strong Atheist: I am 100% sure that there is no God.
In between (2-6) are people who feel they cannot be certain, are very uncertain about God or non-God; with a 4 being a Pure Agnostic - God’s existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable.
I like the scale, but I’ve known some strong atheists who feel this scale is foolish. To them agnostics are wimpy, afraid of a fight and not willing to peruse an argument with the ultimate truth as an objective. To others flaming atheists are too certain. For still others it is more logical thing to be is skeptical, since you can prove or disprove every idea that comes up. To them it is wrong to choose a side if not enough evidence is presented and not enough proven.
To me it is very interesting to have conversations with people along the scale particularly 3s-7s. Some passionate religious folks (1s) prefer to have a conversation with a polite ardent atheist (7) than someone who is agnostic at a 5 or 6. They say that it’s just easier to dialogue about religious matters since they both know where they stand. But to me I hear more of 2 framed vocabularies passing in the night with little real interaction. I prefer conversations where there’s a good chance that the group will come out knowing and thinking about more than when we started. This often means that we have come to appreciate honest differences of vocabulary and the model behind it. But that’s just the intelligence I expect in a secular humanist community, or whatever term you prefer.