This past Sunday, Mark joined Paul from the Quranify Me podcast on Thought Prophets to debate the value of the hashtag. Paul had previously posted a video of his own on YouTube more or less discussing what he did not like about #NormalizeAtheism.
Now, before I go any further, I feel it necessary to point out that I adore Paul and the fact that I disagree with him on this in no way diminishes the fact that he is top notch people and the sort of person you want around for life. Paul was the only person willing to talk to me about Mubarak Bala’s situation that first night we got Mubarak’s plea for help. It was literally he and I, late Sunday night, hashing out what the fuck to do to help him. Paul has since supported every effort of activism I have engaged in, given me forum on his podcast to plug my causes and is cheerful all the fucking time, even when he’s ranting about shit he doesn’t like. We loves Paul. We loves him very much. Onward.
Contrary to what Paul expressed in both his own video and the Thought Prophets podcast, I believe the hashtag #NormalizeAtheism is a great thing. I think Mark has really hit on something here that resonates with many atheists. It has already and will continue to expand the conversation and awareness of atheism and there is no way, ever, that you could paint that in a bad light. It will, if it has not already, result in more atheists openly identifying as such and more theists considering the merits of what we have to say.
The #NormalizeAtheism campaign has my support. Here are 3 reasons why:
How it works in marketing, is by utilizing what is referred to as brand recognition. By branding everything you say, do, and create online, you’re creating impressions or views. The vast majority of these impressions will not be acted upon, however, with repetition, eventually it will. It even works on people who say out loud, “this is so annoying! I see this everywhere!”. Subconsciously, a familiarity is being created. When it comes time to need or recommend the services, products or ideas presented by the brand that has become familiar (even annoyingly so) 9.9 times out of 10, the consumer will select the familiar brand.
This works. Every. Single. Time. If you have the power to create repeated impressions, you have created loyalty that is hard to break.
That is the exact cause behind how the internet has facilitated the coming out and deconversion of many people who are now openly atheist.
For myself, in particular, I believe I have mentioned a few times now, that I never identified as atheist per se, I had always just referred to myself as “not religious”. Then Reddit happened. I lurked for the most part. I didn’t even subscribe to any atheist subreddits at all. But slowly, atheist memes and photos would trickle into the feed in r/AdviceAnimals and r/Funny and r/pics. I didn’t even realize it at the time, but I was connecting with them. They were pinging something deep in the recesses of my subconscious. I didn’t upvote them, I didn’t comment on them and I certainly didn’t share them. I just saw them pass by in my feed. Eventually, I researched some of the quoted people (who is this Sam Harris fella? he seems to say a lot of shit that makes sense), and began to watch Hitchens and Dawkins on YouTube. I finally subbed to the atheism subreddits and in very little time after that, I was openly saying I was an atheist. This is the same process for many people. It’s the repeated impressions, over and over, no matter how annoying you think it is, that make the difference. 9 impressions go by with you thinking, “fuck, can’t they talk about anything else?” and then the 10th time, you click, figuring there must be something to this.
It’s the very same reason why, when you listen to your local radio station on your commute to and from work, it feels as though you hear all the same ad spots over and over and over again. It’s because you do. This is not because the advertiser didn’t think to purchase spaced out advertisements. It is precisely because they know you will likely be in traffic during those times and constant repetition is what will get you.
The familiarity factor is exactly what #NormalizeAtheism is about. Normalizing it, making it familiar, stripping it of it’s shock value. What better way to do this, than to create familiarity? Familiarity morphs into curiosity. Curiosity turns to loyalty. And just like that, a new atheist is out.
2. It’s not always about specific actions, it’s about awareness. I had this job once where I was tasked with planning a charity marathon almost entirely by myself. I had a team of semi-braindead volunteers, who were really good at cutting and pasting and going to the shitter. I was pretty much on my own.
My boss, however, was a money pit. He told me flat out, we don’t need donations; we only need awareness.
Children’s Hospital Awareness Campaign
The charity, a recovery program for those with addiction problems, was attached to a not-for-profit grocery store. So, I designed a running shoe in Illustrator, printed them out on card stock and sold them at the tills for a buck a piece. The purchaser got to put their name on the shoe and stick it to the wall near customer service. This is a method you’ve probably seen a million times in your own local chain stores for various causes.
I was pulling in $2.8k per week for the two months prior to the marathon which was chump change for my boss. Obviously, that was not the value in it. The value, was in the exchange between our cashiers and the customers. As they explained what the shoes were for, where the money went and when this was all going down, the customer, who had shopped in the store for years, was suddenly aware that not only was this store not-for-profit and supported those in recovery, but that we were having an exciting event with live entertainment, free food and all sorts of prizes.
The year before, without me, the event had 30 registered runners, all of whom were associated with the foundation in some way or another. When I planned it, we had 283 registered runners and thousands of people including many of our loyal shoppers, showed up at the event to enjoy it.
The event cost us far more than what we raised selling the shoes, but it would not have been a success without that constant interaction between cashiers and customers, talking about the event and reminding people to attend. What’s more, it created a deep and unshakeable loyalty in our customers who now knew that the money they just bought pork chops with was going to help someone live a life without drugs.
It’s not always an action we need from people. It’s the awareness. How many people have you heard say, “I knew I didn’t believe in God, I just didn’t really know there was a word for it.” or “Growing up I was taught that atheists were basically devil worshipping evil-doers. I had no idea all it meant was they don’t believe in God”? In my Your Stories of Atheism series, I’ve heard it plenty of times and I have an inbox loaded with dozens more stories full of those statements as well. Those two misconceptions are easily destroyed with simple, easy and free awareness.
3. Repetition Equals Normalizing. Paul said in the Thought Prophets podcast that people who are inundated with the message of normalizing atheism, will shut out the message or become bitter to it. I agree, and generally speaking, this is how many people react to things that make them uncomfortable. However, it’s only temporary if you continue and are relentless.
Ellen comes out
Take the LGBT community for example. Remember when Ellen was cancelled and fired for coming out on her TV show? Can you even wrap your mind around a time when people hated Ellen? They did. Advertisers were nothing short of completely enraged and pulled out of her show, forcing its cancellation. She didn’t work steadily for years after that. No one wanted to take a chance on the gay lady.
She didn’t give up though, and more men and women came out publicly after seeing her bravery. More men and women showed pride in their partners and kissed them in public and held hands. More gay characters appeared on TV shows and the LGBT community pushed and pushed and made themselves known, taking pride in who they were.
It went from shock and outrage at the first person to come out on-screen, to testing the waters. Put a gay man on Survivor or Big Brother and it was still one of the central themes discussed during the entire season. Then it went from testing the waters, to literally every fucking show having at least one gay character, and some shows even having exclusively gay casts. Now, when a gay man is on Survivor, no one fucking mentions it, because no one gives a shit.
Not to mention the fact that now, few people are as adored with absolute devotion as Ellen.
That is precisely the process of normalization. More, more, more, relentlessly and unendingly more until it’s everywhere and you can’t see anything else and suddenly, it becomes… the norm.
As for #FreeMubarak, there is a reason I came up with the idea of a hashtag. While the final hashtag was not my idea (and I am glad we changed it, because my idea was stupid), the idea to have a hashtag was. I wanted to utilize this as-yet, largely unharnessed power to get the attention of people who had the influence to affect change. And we did. The hashtag got the attention of Bob and IHEU, who facilitated much of what led to Mubarak being released. The hashtag got the attention of Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss, and even Russell Glasser and Matt Dillahunty, even though they had their doubts. The hashtag is the reason we were successful, because it brought to us people who act, who we would have not connected with otherwise.
The bottom line is, hashtag campaigns do work to achieve multiple goals. If they didn’t, huge, multi-billion dollar corporations the world over would not invest in them. Planning a successful social media campaign can take months of grueling research, polling and just observing the behaviour of your online audience. It can involve painfully long meetings, presentations and the dreaded conference calls. Corporations that have all the science of marketing sitting in their lap and are almost omniscient of what works and what does not, are willing to pay the steep salaries of highly skilled personnel to sit through these meetings and polls and conference calls. Why? Because it fucking works. It is worth pouring millions into.
That then begs the question, why would we let something so profoundly effective slip between our fingers? Why would we leave it as just another tool for the giant, faceless corporations to use to manipulate us into perfect little consumers and exponentially increase their profits? It costs us nothing and has more power than the shit Don Draper does in Mad Men. So why? Why is it just a tool for the for-profit ventures that won’t help us change the world in the least? Why not use it to our advantage? Why not use it for good?
It is literally, like Yoda and Luke and Han and Leia saying, “You know what? Nah. Let’s leave the force for just Darth Vader and his gang of unruly bad guys.”
Fuck that, homeboy. I love ya, but #NormalizeAtheism.