America is a nation of missionaries. Not necessarily in the religious sense, although certainly there are plenty of scrubbed young men in white shirts and ties going around pounding on doors. But there are also many other causes that people are passionately attempting to recruit for. It has become a national trend for just about any conviction or set of values to be an object of religious fervor and persuasion. Just look at all the billboards, bumper stickers and Facebook soapbox updates.
Being a nonreligious person, I’ve always been lectured by Good Christians about how I’m going to hell if I don’t adopt their beliefs. As a vegetarian, I’ve been lectured by meat devourers about how I’m going to wither away if I don’t get some animal flesh into my system, and just who do I think I am for not liking hamburgers anyway. (You might think that vegetarians are more likely to preach; but if my own experience and observation are any indication, it’s carnivores by a landslide.) As a gunless citizen, I’ve been lectured by gun fanatics about how they have a constitutional right to own guns, and guns make us safer, and I’m being anti-American by questioning either tenet. As an essentially apolitical person who’s only voted twice in my life, I’m lectured by “conservatives” about how if I love my country and want to save it from certain destruction and save us all from certain enslavement, I have to vote Republican. (Democrats also have their missionary element, of course; but it’s not nearly as extreme, as abrasive, as apocalyptic, or as deranged.)
That missionary zeal is often accompanied by a strong identification with the values in question, to the extent that when someone is opposed to those values, the zealot feels that his/ her intelligence or integrity is being impugned. Which is to say, if you reject someone’s religion, politics or whatever, they take it as a personal insult, or react as if you’d raped the Statue Of Liberty. Quite often you don’t even have to criticize; all you have to do is fail to live by someone else’s principles, and that will be interpreted as stepping on someone’s toes. American ideological fanaticism seems to be connected to the world’s most tender toes.
But this phenomenon is not limited to ideology. It also spills over to personal preferences of any kind, such as taste in music or TV shows. When I was a film critic, it was not unheard of to receive death threats for panning the wrong movies. And then, God yes, there’s sports. Spectators have been known to attack and even kill each other over soccer matches or Little League games. In 2011, a baseball fan wearing San Francisco Giants attire to a game at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles was jumped by two men in the parking lot who brutally beat him and left him unconscious – he spent several weeks in a coma and was left permanently disabled. Not to be outdone, some Giants fans got into an altercation with Dodger fans outside a bar near the San Francisco stadium, and one of the latter was fatally stabbed.
Which brings us to the real problem: missionary zeal sometimes morphs into crusader zeal; in which case the zealot is no longer content to convert or assert by persuasion, but resorts to force. On those two or three occasions in the past when I tried sporting bumper stickers myself, I had people throwing eggs and lighted cigars at my vehicle, and honking as they drove past so I’d be certain to observe them presenting their middle digits for inspection.
How did we get to this point? Is it the fast-pace, intensely competitive, angst-ridden contemporary lifestyle aggravated by the threat of terrorism? Is it confusion, alienation, and/ or just plain boredom? Is it an impressionable public whipped into an irrational froth by trash-talking media? Well, perhaps, but there’s certainly nothing new about being patronizing and/or antagonist toward The Others. There was a time when “heretics” could be horrifically tortured and murdered for deviating even one hair’s breadth from official religious dogma. This kind of savage behavior has been around for a long time. Still, it seems likely that whatever remnants of it linger in modern American culture are either exacerbated by Limbaughism, or else Limbaughism just makes it appear worse than it really is. Or both.
Sorry to break the news, but the world is not holding its breath to hear your beliefs and convictions. Other people have their own, and are none too eager to have them compromised. If we lived in a rational world, people would gather all the information they could before committing to a belief. This is not a rational world. And most people first decide what to believe, then zero in on facts that seem to support the belief, while tuning out those that don’t.
Meat eaters are not interested in hearing how their habits are damaging their bodies as well as the planet they live on. Gun enthusiasts are not interested in hearing that guns mostly just create the illusion of safety — or that the so-called “constitutional right” to be armed is founded not on what the Second Amendment actually says, but on a highly subjective speculation about what the framers were thinking when they wrote it. “Pro-life” activists don’t want to hear that banning abortion is ineffective and probably even counterproductive. Climate science deniers and anti-vaxxers aren’t interested in scientific or medical research (except the “research” pushed by crackpots and quacks). Fox “News” devotees don’t want to hear that they’re being played like a cheap fiddle at a barn dance.
If and when people decide it’s time to reevaluate their convictions, they’ll do so without being prompted. In the meantime, there is nothing to be gained by telling them what idiots they are for not seeing eye to eye with you. Proselytizing is pointless unless the recipients are ready to make a change, and you just happen to be offering the change they’re looking for. (Actual missionaries tend to target people who are so desperate they’re willing to try just about anything.)
Which is why this blog is addressed to an audience of fellow skeptics, iconoclasts and freethinkers rather than an audience of die-hard ideologues or even the general public. My purpose is just to present information and ideas for people who might be interested. I have little interest in trying to change anyone’s mind about anything — I know how futile the attempt is. I have no cause to promote except uncovering the truth.
But surely it won’t be a contradiction of that directive to make a modest proposal with regard to both preachiness and thin-skinned toes: just lay off already, will ya? Why do you feel you have to let people know if you are offended by whatever they say about your beliefs and preferences? Why do you have to feel offended at all? How exactly do their words have any impact on you? Either they’re right, in which case you should reflect rather than react; or they’re wrong, in which case they’re exposing their own ignorance rather than any flaw of yours; or they’re neither right nor wrong, in which case you’re just two people agreeing to disagree, which is one thing that made America great.
And why would you feel that the rest of the world is entitled to your opinion? Perhaps you should consider that your own life is your best PR. In other words, if your values and convictions are really as great as you think they are, it will show; people can’t help noticing, so you don’t have to bring it to their attention.
Whatever your cause may be, you’re not helping it any by smearing it in people’s faces. Or by throwing a hissy fit when someone fails to go along with it.