Empathy, Sympathy, and Activism: When Confrontation Fails

I’ve been thinking about the ethics and benefits of confrontational activist strategies lately. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday remembrance, amid the ongoing protests over police abuses in Ferguson and elsewhere, shaped those thoughts, as does NCSE’s success using non-confrontational approaches, as well as some confrontations that have backfired.

Disruptive protests have a long and successful history, including sit-ins and protest marches in the era of Selma, and picket lines in labor battles. Critiques of those approaches have a long history, too. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail addressed such criticism, acknowledging but rejecting those critiques, emphasizing that such action is appropriate when no alternative exists, and that such direct action must be strategic, creating conditions which lead to peaceful settlement:

Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.

While my inclination, and NCSE’s general practice, leans against disruptive and hostile protests, sometimes they work, and indeed are necessary. I’ve been trying to suss out how to draw those lines. I’d like to start with some ways that confrontation can go wrong, and then explore how confrontation can work.

Billboards from American Atheists, FFRF, and United Coalition of Reason, showing confrontational and nonconfrontational approachesTwo confrontational billboards from American Atheists, and less confrontational approaches in billboards from Freedom From Religion Foundation and the United Coalition of Reason billboard campaign. Which approach seems more likely to acomplish the goals of helping people come out as atheists and encouraging nonatheists to view atheists favorably?

Philosopher of science Massimo Pigliucci makes several cogent arguments against confrontation, specifically addressing self-described “firebrand” atheist billboard campaigns:

the older I get the less I think that being offensive on purpose gets you anywhere. Few will listen to you if you start out the conversation by telling them that they are idiots.

[S]econd… since I consider it a moral failing when religious fundamentalists behave in a “firebrand” fashion, coherence leads me to make the same judgment call when it is my fellow atheists who do it.

Third, I think in-your-face atheism is pernicious because it projects exactly the wrong image of atheism to the rest of the world, reinforcing the already prevalent stereotype of atheists as callous, self-righteous individuals who are out to destroy civilization as we know it.

To expand on and generalize that last point, I think that wise and effective tactics are those that encourage sympathy, and hopefully even empathy, from the protester’s audience, and ideally from the targets themselves. To be clear, I’m distinguishing sympathy—understanding someone else’s feelings—from empathy—feeling someone else’s feelings as one’s own. I think that a crucial element of successful advocacy is an attempt to elicit empathy, in this sense, to put the audience and the target of your protest in your shoes. That’s what generates the crisis King refers to, an internal crisis that must be resolved through external action.

We see how confrontation goes awry in a Daily Show segment poking fun at a civil rights fight in North Carolina. The Freedom From Religion Foundation put pressure on a diner in North Carolina, asking them to stop a policy which gave people a 15% discount if they prayed before they ate. FFRF rightly objected that this policy would tend to discriminate against atheists (and Christians who take Matthew 6:1-6 seriously), thus violating the Civil Rights Act of 1965. FFRF’s Dan Barker, interviewed by Daily Show correspondent Jordan Klepper, compared his group’s effort to key moments in the desegregation battle of the ‘60s: “Under the law, Selma and a 15% discount are the same thing,” he said, to much mockery. He also drew a misplaced analogy to genocide (to make the simple point that a small violation of civil rights is still a violation of civil rights). In the end, FFRF, which was trying to do the right thing, came off looking (to put it mildly) unsympathetic—it was hard for viewers to understand the feelings behind Barker’s objection, much less to take them as their own—and the performance may harm the organization’s image.

Even FFRF’s allies had trouble standing by it. Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist, summarized: “The segment didn’t make atheists look good, and it wasn’t entirely the result of editing. Barker gave the writers the red meat they wanted. He shouldn’t have.” Barker’s approach didn’t engender empathy or even sympathy in the viewer, and I think it’s in large part because the tactics FFRF used and the interview clips of Barker display no empathy for the diner owner.

The diner changed its policy, so FFRF’s approach worked in a sense, but I can’t help wondering what might have happened if they'd taken a softer approach. For someone who says grace before a meal, that act seems wholesome and inclusive and worth celebrating, and while I don’t share that feeling, I understand the desire to reward such behavior. An owner who doesn’t know people who don’t say grace might never realize that others don’t do the same, or don’t feel the same way. She may never have considered how her policy made her customers feel. Legal threats might scare her into changing policy, but create the wrong sort of crisis, making her see civil rights activists and atheists as the enemy, as an obstacle to get around, not as people to understand. If someone who doesn’t say grace had a personal chat with her about the policy, it might have led her to revise the policy because she understood that person's feelings. It would have been a learning experience that  made her more sympathetic to the situation of atheists and other religious minorities. She would have made their crisis her own, and changed the policy because she wanted to, not because she was scared.

Naturally, the same calculus applies to conflicts over teaching evolution or creationism. Many teachers who present creationism—and parents opposing evolution—assume everyone sees the world through the same religious and cultural lenses. They don’t realize that other views exist, and how their actions harm others. (Then again, some know exactly what’s afoot and do it anyway.) Having a polite conversation with the creationist in that scenario is sometimes enough to resolve the issue, especially if you take time to show empathy toward them: asking what their concerns are, being open to possible solutions, and honestly sharing how their actions are hurtful.

That’s how NCSE generally proceeds, and we urge others to take this approach in a crisis. It won't take lawsuits or other more aggressive actions off the table, but it lead to a compromise that protects science education and opens the door for someone who rejects evolution (or climate change, etc.) to see things differently. Confrontation might prevent science denial from sneaking into the classroom, but does it make people share our desire to support great science education?