I feel a lot of pressure from all sides of the atheist community to denounce the specific behaviors of this or that specific person or group of people.
But I really do not want to. I don’t want to make fights about ideas and values within our community any more personal than they have to be. I think all the personalization and individual recriminations have nearly completely stalled any constructive dialogue in the community. My only interest is in saying the following three things:
1. I disapprove of anyone using insults (including allegedly benign ones like “asshole”, “stupid”, or “douchebag”) or slurs against any one else (and I include words like “cunt” and “bitch” in that category).
2. I don’t hate or think monstrous the people I disagree with, and I will not abandon my friendships with people over their resorting to insults, even though I think that’s wrong.
3. What I am against is hatefulness in all its forms. I think that interpersonal and inter-tribal abusiveness is fundamentally what is destroying the solidarity in our movement. Misogyny is a terrible species of this poison, but the the poison is deadly in all its forms. The only true, honest, and rationalistic solution is for there to be a unilateral ceasefire from abusiveness.
For a lengthier articulation of my position, which I know is depressingly likely to go largely unheeded, see below:
Since January of 2011, I think I have made my official stance pretty clear and unequivocal. I am against abusive language, including insulting epithets, having any part in public discourse. I do not think I am merely expressing my personal opinion on this issue, but a rationally defensible moral judgment.
Though I am fairly conscientious (and increasingly so in recent months) about not personally sinking to engage in the abusive behavior I outspokenly denounce, I of course am not a perfect human being. If you would like to comb my blog’s archives for times when I crossed the line from harsh, civil, moral and intellectual criticism into treating other people abusively and with insults or gratuitous cruelty, feel free to point them out to me and, assuming I agree with your assessment, I will apologize. I don’t expect people to be perfect–especially on the internet!–but I do expect them to listen to reason and apologize for their acts of cruelty and unnecessary divisiveness. I am happy to lead by example in this regard.
There are a lot of people who think that it’s okay to abuse other people as long as they are bad people. The astonishing and repulsive self-righteous and often self-serving judgmentalism of this irks me to no end. While I study moral philosophy, vigorously propound my own ethical theory, and offer moral judgments on any number of abstract topics or stories in the news, I am deeply suspicious of moralism. I do moral philosophy because we must do moral philosophy but not because I like what a sense of moral superiority does to corrupt a person’s character.
We will do moral philosophy, whether explicitly or only implicitly, whatever we do because we are human beings and all human beings make judgments about better and worse behaviors and inevitably enforce them on themselves and each other.
The way I see it, we have an inescapable choice.
On the one hand, we can be scrupulously conscientious about our moral judgments. We can rigorously examinethe rational worth of our every moral belief and of every action which has any consequences that affect other people. And beyond that, we can be sufficiently thorough and introspectively and unsparingly interrogate every one of our own personal motives and methods of judging and punishing other people.
Or we can be unscrupulous and unconscientious. We can let our moral laziness lead us to haphazard moral judgments. Or worse, we can allow our malice, cruelty, vindictiveness, jealousy, bitterness, and self-righteousness to perpetually corrupt our moral judgment such that we only ever see ourselves and our cause and whatever pain we cause to others as just. We can alternate between heroizing and pitying ourselves and pitilessly demonizing those who are against us.
So I see all of moral philosophy–from the most highly technical and abstract kinds that specialists engage in to the most urgently pressing everyday kind of moral reasoning that all humans engage in–as being vital. And I think it is vital that it be done scrupulously and conscientiously.
And, being highly influenced by Nietzsche, I am dubious of all the temptations to immoral behavior that arise when we anoint ourselves the moral judges of other people or, even, of whole systems of human interaction. While I think that it is possible to overcome the situation where our moral judgments are mere expressions of our feelings or of our cultures and actually be able to assure ourselves that they are rationally defensible too (or instead), nonetheless there is a great temptation to have our value judgments determined by self-serving feelings or by the interests of larger systems that have us in their thrall.
And when we think we are in the moral right, we are oh so tempted to start venting all the darkest, nastiest, and cruelest parts of ourselves with a good conscience. And this is why moralistic people are scary. Because too often the only thing separating them from their enemies is their drug like feeling of being the righteous ones. Their hatred can be just as strong. And if they stop being restrained by deference to abstract forms of justice that keep them in check, their actions can be just as harmful to those they hate.
This is why my moral stand in the controversies that embroil this atheist blogosphere is against hatred. This is why I fight myself daily to avoid demonizing my enemies or denouncing my friends when they make errors. I don’t think all the personal acrimony is worth it honestly. I feel all those frustrations and angers of course. I am a people person by nature. I can’t tune out the emotions people send my way as though they weren’t coming from real live human beings.
I am heartened though in that every time in my comments section that I calmly, cooly, and clearly reply to someone losing their temper that they seem to relax and engage me rationally. It’s this way in real life too. Responding to hate with peaceful reason is powerful. Responding to hate with more hate is explosively destructive.
Some good people are getting death threats, rape threats, and a wide range of almost unimaginable abuse for expressing their opinions. The hate is unbearable for them. People judging them cruelly and calling them bullies when they are lashing out in return need to stop. Escalating is not helping.
And those lashing out need to be more compassionate too. I don’t know what to do about the seething misogyny that many people in our movement feel. I don’t know what to do about the callousness that makes others seem incapable of feeling. But I do know that self-righteous abusive language that calls people names or threatens them with expulsion from the movement has done nothing to quell the hatred of the most venomous among us and it has alienated people of good faith who feel terrified that a single verbal miscue will lead to torrents of abuse from people with high profile blogs.
A lot of rational people who ostensibly share the same values in theory are tense, are on edge, and are spoiling for a fight. On both sides, they feel bullied and threatened and imposed upon. Perpetually responding with bellicosity is not helping. The animosity only grows. Whether or not the abuses of the one side are genuinely worse than the other is not really relevant.
What’s relevant is a community that trumpets reason is failing to show any skills at reasoning through disagreements together. It’s an appalling embarrassment for all of us. And it will not end with more rounds of accusations. It will only end with mutual uncoerced apologies from everyone. Only when we are really willing to look at ourselves and really ask, “Am I being hateful and defensive?” “Are any of the criticisms of me well-meaning and based in some kind of reality?” “Are there any places where I can at least say, ‘I didn’t mean to hurt anyone but I acknowledge I did and would like to take responsibility so we can move past this constructively?’”
Everyone could defend themselves and say, “These are the values I stand for and here are the reasons I will continue to stand for them” as long as they were also willing to say “And here are the ways that my emotions or my commitment to principles over people have let me become abusive or combative in divisive ways” or “Here are how even my best intentioned deeds hurt people in ways that I had might as well say I am sorry for.”
Then all sides could forgive each other for being human and impetuous and self-righteous in whatever ways they have been. And then we could look at each other’s statements of our values and have some good faith discussions about why our interpretations of them and of how to implement them are so different and how exactly to get them to align. And maybe we could do this without every discussion shifting to insults and accusations and endless hypocrisies.
And if that were happening around the blogosphere on all sides, we would see who the hold outs were who kept hurling abuse even when a truce was called and we would know who should be ignored as people more committed to hating than to solving disagreements using reason.
I am so used to chronicling the abuses of religious people and institutions and thinking on such a daily basis that I almost have to do a double take when I see that they actually did something genuinely self-sacrificial. In their own minds most religious people think their religions simply stand for love and justice and peace and truth and the good. And yet we adamant atheists see all the hate they propagate in spite of that, so often while being so blinkered by their own self-righteousness. And we also miss all the daily good bound up with their religious lives in that same process.
We are no less capable of enormous hate no matter how convinced we are that we do only enormous good. Our enemies will surely attest to our capacities for hate, if we are not ourselves convinced. And on both sides of the aisle, most of us are also well-intentioned people who do a greater preponderance of good than evil.
Some people, some with a genuine commitment to justice and others with an equal or greater attachment to their hatreds, will only focus on the equivalences here and be enraged. “Their abuses are far greater than ours!” is all they probably thought as they read this whole thing (if they even read this whole thing).
To them all I have to say is this, even if it will never be enough for them: Depending on which side you are on, I might agree with you in principle. And insofar as your abstract moral and political beliefs are vitally important, I encourage you to speak out for them as effectively as you can. And if I agree with them, I will join you as passionately as I can. There are great injustices, many of them literally lethal, many of them profoundly violating, and many of them systemically administered so that those who passively perpetuate them don’t even know or care about their roles in hurting others. It makes my heart sick as a wide range of types of oppressed, victimized, alienated, abused, starving, dying, and dehumanized people race through my mind.
All I am saying is this. Fight for them with peaceful, persistent, steel-trap logic. And direct all your hatred towards injustice rather than towards other people. Don’t let your hate turn you into an abusive person who refuses to ever introspect for as long as someone else out there has done a worse deed. That’s a recipe to never say you’re sorry about anything. Instead I implore you to do as I do and always remember Nietzsche’s warning that “he who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster”.
As someone else (I’m told Kant, but I’m not sure) said, we should aim first and foremost to make each other happy and ourselves good, rather than the other way around. I personally think that that mindset is the only way to even make ourselves truly happy or truly good.
And in the context of acrimonious interpersonal conflicts, that means admitting to our own wrongdoings in a spirit of reconciliation and then ceasing them so that our enemies have no legitimate case against us. In which case they will either stop being our enemies or become irrelevant to all the decent people who think good faith apologies and attempts to reform should be welcomed.