So, with Camels With Hammers down from Monday afternoon until yesterday afternoon, I went and wandered the internet. Before too long I wound up spending a good deal of time at Ophelia’s place after I responded to a post in which she did a superb job summing up the core value judgment that motivates my own willingness to argue so much about religion. On the subject of “framing” in public discourse (like, for example, the accommodationsists’ desires to “frame” the issue of science and religion in a way that implies there is none to little genuine conflict between them), Ophelia wrote:
I dislike all the manipulative “professions” – advertising, PR, political operative stuff. I dislike trickery and pandering. I dislike them in an objective sense; I think they’re harmful. I can see their utility for some purposes, but I think they do some harm in the process even so. For some jobs and vocations, they’re simply disastrous – they’re the exact opposite of what people should be doing. Scholarship, teaching, and journalism are among those vocations.
And that perhaps explains why I dislike them even more in a subjective sense – why that’s not what I want to do. I want to spend my time trying to tell the truth about things, to the best of my ability, as I see it, and all the other qualifications. I want to do that, I don’t want to coddle or manage or mollify. I also don’t want to be coddled or managed or mollified.
And I think that’s a reasonable commitment. I think the opposite commitment is more dubious, because it’s more apt to damage people’s cognitive abilities. I think in general clarity and honesty are better than tactful arrangement when it comes to public discourse.
This led Russell Blackford to point out how integral avoiding unpleasant truths is to much of our lives and generally take the view that the problem is the political consequences of certain bad beliefs, rather than their falsehood per se. And in this context the problem becomes clear. For many—not Blackford but “accommodationists” who want to downplay all appearance of conflict between science and religion as falsely dichotomous thinking or advance “non-overlapping magisteria” notions—religious beliefs are just a private sphere issue. It’s rude in the private sphere or the public sphere to call someone fat, regardless of whether it’s an obvious publicly accessible truth. Telling people their religion is false is a similar matter to a lot of people. Whether or not you can plainly see it, it goes in the bin of things you don’t mention publicly and which you let people delude themselves about. In this way, unlike me, they just don’t recognize the question of religion as a vital conflict over truth and institutional religious powers’ illicit, unjustified, and regressive claims to authority in serious moral and epistemological matters.
Essentially, to many mainstream Americans, atheists simply challenging the rationality and authority of religion is tantamount to calling them “stupid”, “idiotic”, “moronic”, “retarded”, “delusional”, “brainwashed”, etc., where such an opinion, even if suspected to be true should be kept as quiet as your view that someone is fat. (And before I get e-mails on this one, I know I am fat, thanks!) This is for several reasons. One is that there is a dispiriting tendency for people to associate themselves and their ideas too closely. As a philosophy professor I am always on guard against this because I am aware it is a natural tendency for inexperienced thinkers to think that when their idea gets shot down they are getting shot down personally. When most people hear that their ideas are wrong, they hear that they themselves are wrong. If you call an idea stupid, many people hear you call them stupid. If you ridicule their idea, they feel personally ridiculed.
Now, this is an immense road block to successful thinking since all true thinking requires constantly improving one’s ideas and shedding one’s own failed ideas as part of that process. We have to be able to point out the wrongness, the stupidity, the ridiculousness, the embarrassment of bad ideas or we will never be able to get away from them. Professional thinkers get this and for the most part, we are able to have our ideas challenged and even shredded to pieces and still not take it personally (for the most part). The more you get used to interchanging ideas and replacing bad ones, the less you are going to feel you and a given idea inextricably must go together.
And so we need to be able to root out the worst religious ideas, call them false, expose their ridiculousness, denounce their perniciousness, and replace their obsoleteness, as the case may be. We cannot go soft on bad ideas just because people are attached to them. In fact it is especially because people are so emotionally and irrationally attached to false, ridiculous, pernicious, and obsolete ideas that we have to seriously and aggressively challenge them, lest they prevent a great deal of intellectual, emotional, social, political, technological, and artistic progress for individuals and whole cultures and societies.
But the challenge is to attack these ideas without attacking the people who hold them personally. Even to the extent that we might judge (as I do) that there is moral and intellectual culpability in adhering to beliefs which are either undermined or drastically undersupported by evidence and logic, we nonetheless need as much as possible to make our criticisms impersonal. It is not people but their beliefs and their practices which are the proper targets of criticism. People are capable of better beliefs. People are capable of better practices. People do not need to be targeted as the objects of derision and scorn. The hopelessly failed beliefs and practices are what deserve to be attacked. And, most importantly, people are not their ideas and need not continue in their present practices. So while we may and should justifiably call false ideas false and ridicule ridiculous ideas, we should never, unless we are equal opportunity comedians, mock people themselves for their dumb ideas. Having an idiotic idea does not make someone an idiot en toto. I’m sure we all, no matter how smart and educated we are, presently have and in the past have had plenty of idiotic ideas. This does not make us idiots. And even if it did make us idiots, it would not make it either acceptably polite, morally decent, or rationally persuasive to call each other idiots.
We can make vigorous, rigorous arguments to refute any bad ideas as necessary without resorting to adding superfluous epithets. If I can prove my point with the facts and with logic, then adding, “you idiot” to the end of my argument adds nothing but gratuitous insult that is more likely to hurt your feelings and make you defensive than to increase your receptivity to the case I just made. And even when it is persuasive to emotionally bully someone with abusive name-calling, the name-calling itself serves as a decidedly irrational, emotionally manipulative way to coerce agreement that should repulse rationalists. To a rationalist believing the right thing is not enough, but believing it for rational reasons is.
Now, we can employ emotions in persuasion. But we must do so rationally. Mocking absurd ideas helps people concede the logical point that the beliefs need to be abandoned by tempting them to laugh at it. If they laugh, they involuntarily admit a point they were willfully trying to ignore but knew was true. Genuine, defensible, logical, moral outrage at pernicious beliefs or the invidious implications of beliefs helps awaken appropriate moral responses to those beliefs in people. Sometimes cornering someone intellectually and confronting them precisely where their ideas contradict each other helps them feel their cognitive dissonance as a palpable frustration with their inability to explain it away and get you off their case. These techniques can each be done abusively or in ways that make people uncomfortable in a good way. It requires us to be sensitive human beings if we are to help each other grow more rational through challenging one another instead of provoke each other to retreat to our shells when intellectually threatened.
In a nutshell, true respect means giving people the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth—but with no name calling.
It means not demeaning them, not calling them abusive, non-descriptive names. If someone says something misogynistic you can describe it accurately and call what they said misogynistic. If someone belongs to a religious tradition with a centuries or millenia old history of prominent misogynistic dimensions that you can argue overwhelm whatever other pro-women dimensions they may have within them, then you may call that institution generally misogynistic. Similarly, if someone says dishonest things call them dishonest, if they argue in bad faith say so, if they have authoritarian ideas call their ideas authoritarian or say they sound authoritarian if you want to be diplomatic and invite dialogue, etc. You can associate individuals with specific, bad traits when the facts clearly warrant it, but calling someone an “idiot” is not descriptive, it’s simply abusive and demeaning. Describing someone as ten demonstrable awful things that you have a factual basis for characterizing them as is even better than lobbing one non-specific cruel insult.
Decent, moderate, uncertain people in the middle will assess your descriptive terms as fair if they are fair. But they will see your epithets as the equivalent of an emotional assault. And if they are not fully aware of the facts and need to trust one of your characters or the other, they may be tempted to side against the person whose bellicosity implies they are a mean and possibly untrustworthy person who is possibly resorting to abusive language to compensate for a weakness of intellectual ammunition. Don’t undermine your good arguments by giving the impression you need the crutch of emotional bullying to win an argument.
People need to stop thinking that criticism of their ideas, religious or otherwise, is, all by itself, an unacceptable personal assault against them. Intellectually and morally, I think we have obligations to distance ourselves from our ideas and be willing to subject them to scrutiny and let others scrutinize them, however painful that may be for us. But it is also intellectually and morally vital that we not exacerbate the conflict and pain in this process anymore than necessary by resorting to non-descriptive epithets that only confirm their suspicion that all harsh criticism of ideas is personal criticism of people.
We cannot allow people to conflate honest, scathing, truth-revealing criticism with personal cruelty and belittlement anymore than they are naturally inclined to do so. That does not help the cause of reason at all.
Just as any skeptic worth her salt does not judge a person’s commitment to morality by his declarations of moral principle but instead by his actions, similarly non-atheists are constantly judging atheists’ insistence that we support rationalism and reason itself not by our words but by whether or not we truly reason where others merely emote, cajole, and manipulate on behalf of their prejudices and their herd. We prove our commitment to reason in the reasonableness of the way we engage people, as much as in the rationality of what we say.
More comments along these lines can be found in my replies to Ophelia’s post: here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. I had several good interlocutors to keep up with.