We at Freethought Blogs spend a lot of time talking about blogs and people we like a lot and would love to bring on board to blog with us. From the first of those discussions that I was a part of, I was a strong proponent of our finding a good blogger who escaped the Christian patriarchy movement. More broadly others have talked a lot about the potential value of having blogs addressing escapees from a variety of different repressive religious environments.
But before we could ever ask her, one of the excellent atheist bloggers who comes from a Christian patriarchy background expressed that she didn’t see it as plausible that she could come over here without scaring off many of the women who need her blog the most—women who are in relatively early stages of either leaving the Quiverful movement or who are still not quite atheists, etc. Freethought Blogs is understandably a forebidding environment to a lot of such people. For a long time this kept us from having someone to fill this vital educational niche.
Similarly, John Loftus packed up his Debunking Christianity blog and left FTB after just two months here, in no small part due to his worries that the Christians his blog was designed to address were not as inclined to participate here at Freethought Blogs with more predominantly Freethought Blogs commenters.
Now, this worries me a bit because the last thing I want is for our blogs to become unable to reach audiences beyond the already deconverted and otherwise non-believing. Don’t get me wrong, it is awesome to have such a vibrant community of atheists and to be a resource for atheists. But, what we have to contribute to the broader cultural and political public debates is, I think, too important to be ignored outside our community.
So now we finally have Libby Anne, an exciting new FTB blogger who broke free from her upbringing in the repressive Christian patriarchy movement. She is now a full fledged atheist, feminist, and vigorous critic of authoritarian religion. Ophelia Benson profiled her work numerous times last fall and I was very enthusiastic about it, and so I was extremely happy to see her sign on with us. But she is concerned to set a tone and an atmosphere on her blog that won’t scare away the religious women who she is used to dialoguing with there. So, she put up a post yesterday morning requesting that commenters going forward help her create an environment that is both unapologetically atheistic and also hospitable to religious people.
This seems to me like an extremely reasonable request. We all hopefully understand how to moderate our tone and our liberties to accommodate people on a respectful interpersonal level in the real world when they are around and when this is the only way to have a productive interaction with them and when doing so is consistent with keeping our dignity and conscience. This is not the same thing as accommodating false beliefs or fallacious habits of thinking by pandering to them or by giving them any undue credence in matters of truth. It’s a matter of politeness, but not dishonesty, at least ideally.
But already Libby Anne has gotten some indignant pushback from readers who don’t like being told to play nice with anyone.
Now, I get it that atheists and feminists are quite understandably tired of being told to tone down their self-expression. The silencing of the dissents of atheists and feminists has long been indispensable to the power of Christianity and patriarchy in all their myriad (and frequently mutually intertwining) forms in the Western world. But Libby Anne’s concern was not that atheists or feminists be silenced or not argue vigorously. The concern was only that they do not gang up aggressively against non-atheists and non-feminists or use carelessly abusive anti-theist language when they vent since it is only going to shut down theists from engaging.
The concern is not that every blog has to be religious-friendly or non-feminist friendly. Libby Anne didn’t call for any changes to Pharyngula or Butterflies and Wheels. And she didn’t call for a friendliness of disingenuousness. She simply called for her blog to be the kind of relatively safe space where the religious women coming out of repressive mindsets, the women who most need to be reached with her blog, will feel most comfortable to participate in discussion and not feel threatened away.
There’s plenty of room for blogs which are safe spaces for atheist and feminist anger. There is certainly a lot of need for forums where atheists and feminists can feel free to vent their frustrations with religious privilege and with the seemingly all-encompassing reach of cultural patriarchy. This is why even though I am against verbally abusing and exaggeratedly demonizing religious people in all cases (and not just in some forums), I nonetheless am fairly indulgent of the occasionally venting, over-the-top anti-religious comments I will get. Even if it’s not ideal, it comes from an emotionally honest place which has partial justification and which is healthy to get out (even if I think the anger sometimes needs to be focused and targeted more specifically and more constructively than it might be in a given case).
There is even some room for spaces where it’s not at all about debate but just about a safe community which tends to people’s emotional needs as atheists or as feminists, without need for constant justifications and defenses to be given to the religious or to those skeptical of feminism. That’s all valid. If you’re passionate about that and you don’t think there are enough such forums or if you have an idea for an especially good one, then get cracking on creating that forum somewhere online asap!
But Libby Anne wants a different kind of forum: one that serves other invaluable purpose with exciting possibilities, i.e., one that can be a resource for seriously at risk women, who might be suffering any manner of psychological or physical or spiritual abuse and who may be at risk of losing greater and greater amounts of their reason and autonomy to religious authoritarianism. And she thinks that coaxing those women to engage with her involves not having atheists prone to angry venting there to turn them off to the blog or to participation in its comments section.
Now, if some readers realize that it would be just too hard for them to make nice with religious people under any circumstances—if they need the internet to be their place to vent and be freed from daily pressures to accommodate religious privilege, then by all means they should just politely decline from participating in that particular forum as not a place that would serve their needs.But I don’t understand the need of some to voice an angry protest about Libby Anne’s requests for a certain tone in her comments. Instead of just saying, “okay, so this place is not ideal for me to comment at” some people have both directly and indirectly seemed to want to pressure her to stop making them feel so excluded. She’s not trying to exclude anyone. She’s asking for some mutual concessions in interpersonal sensitivity to make a rigorous debate about ideas and practices possible without anti-theist hostilities precluding Christian interlocutors from being there from the outset.
I don’t think this should be controversial at all. And I don’t think it helps when anyone conflates a request for a generally genial civility towards religious commenters with a call to capitulation to falsehoods or evils or the silencing of dissent. It would be fantastic if one or more of our blogs had greater religious readership and participation. That’s what we should want if we want to persuade people out of their faith beliefs.
A relatively emotionally safe environment encourages people to be riskier and more aggressive intellectually. In my experience, the less I feel emotionally vulnerable, insecure, bitter, or defensive against personalized attacks, the more magnanimously I can take the most unrelenting intellectual assaults. It’s perfectly reasonable for Libby Anne to want to create the emotionally safe environment in which every one feels liberated to speak freely and debate productively. Again: this is not the same thing as a request that anyone pretend falsehoods are more likely to be true than they are.
On my blog, I trust the laws of natural selection to determine who my readers are or are not. I only enforce a civil tone insofar as I worry about incivility discouraging away many smart people who are used to vigorous, but genial or impersonal, intellectual debate and who would find a mud pit decidedly not worth their efforts to join. I encourage civility insofar as I think excessive incivility (and most name calling especially) is counter-productive to people feeling free to put themselves out there philosophically, speculate adventurously, and risk being wrong without fear of abuse. I encourage civility in that I think that honest and intellectually scathing philosophical disagreements are more possible and more enjoyable when they happen in an underlying spirit of interpersonal respect or (ideally) friendship.
But as long as the general spirit of the blog and the comments section is intellectually sincere and well-meaning and philosophically curious, I’ve happily tolerated (and myself engaged in) many forms of moderate incivility and polemic that are also a natural and enjoyable part of passionate and honest debate.
Spammers aside, I’ve only ever deleted about 5 comments that I can remember in Camels With Hammers’ 2 years and 7.5 months and in most of those cases it was just unambiguously bigoted, dehumanizing hate speech against marginalized groups that I canned. I’m not letting Hitlers comment here. The other two were a disgustingly demeaning and substance free bit of personal abuse aimed at me which tried to impersonate someone associated with another FTB blogger, and a comment featuring a stream of schoolyard epithets and expressing the wish that another commenter be raped. Those are the only 5 times anyone “crossed the line” badly enough that I censored them.
And only yesterday did I ban my first commenter. And it was simply for sock puppetry, not incivility. (It was in the thread about the dad who shot his daughter’s laptop. You can read numerous sock puppeted comments, all from the same person, which I’ve marked for you.)
So things are relatively freewheeling here and I just hope that my philosophical nature draws people who appreciate that kind of discourse and can productively contribute to it.
But if Libby Anne’s judgment is that her blog will thrive best where her commenters are asked to pay a little special attention to creating an emotionally welcoming environment where harsh intellectual challenges can be taken as easily as well as possible on a personal level, then I think it’s in all our interests to cooperate with her wishes.
I’ve written more posts on the importance of civility. One of my favorite on the topic is Who Are You Calling Stupid?.
More related posts on various aspects of the topic: