A week ago I wrote a post that both laid down to explicit rules for commenters at Camels With Hammers and made more general arguments about the more general wrongness of using epithets and incivil language, and of personalizing intellectual disputes before giving one’s interlocutors room and benefit of the doubt to be reasoned with and correct themselves.
In response I have received a lot of very thought provoking and clarifying feedback. I have realized many points needed to be made explicit or clearer and that many philosophical issues need to be addressed in future posts. I also have learned from some of the criticism about certain nuances and qualifications that I need to add to my positions.
Now, since there were a large number of issues that arose, it is difficult for me to address them all in one post. So I am writing eight posts, each of which will address a major objection that I have received. Five of the posts are already significantly drafted. I ask that you please be patient as I roll these posts out over the next few days or week, and that in each case you address the narrow topic of that post, rather than get ahead of the discussion or evade the points made in the specific post at hand.
Below, in the spirit of charitable attempts to understand one’s opponents before criticizing, to the best of my ability I have summarized the eight major general objections that my coming posts will respond to. Please be patient as I try not to overwhelm readers with 8,000 words of writing in one day. I will get to each of these strong objections one by one. Also note that I do not fully disagree with everything in every objection. I agree with many of the concerns in the objections. I only disagree that epithets, incivility, and uncharitable interpretations of each other’s words and motives are the ways to meet the needs that the objectors are worried about.
Objection 1: My policy against the use of epithets is legalistic. It censors words when the real problem is not particular words but dishonest arguments. Dishonest trolls will be able to game the rules by not using insult words but nonetheless goading sincere debaters into lashing out harshly such that they unfairly get banned.
Objection 2: My policy underestimates the value of passion in debates and in political fights, and it is calling for unrealistic Vulcanism. Worse, it is unfair because some subjects that may come up for debate are not merely academic. They affect people’s lives. Those affected are entitled to their emotions. I am a privileged white male heterosexual cisgendered neurotypical American college professor with a PhD and no physical disabilities. I have never been sexually or physically assaulted, meaningfully impoverished, physically debilitated, or substantively marginalized based on either my immutable characteristics or my morally approvable, healthy, and/or necessary life choices. It may be easy for me and others similarly situated in any of the above respects related to any topic under discussion to treat topics with philosophical detachment but this is an unfair demand to make of those for whom the results of a given debate are not merely academic but vitally consequential.
Objection 3: We live in a truly fucked up, unjust world in which members of numerous marginalized groups have to cater to the whims and feelings of an unfair majority that in turn abuses them. Even in what purport to be “fair” environments, inevitably the power structures in which “free” debate occurs favors those with the prejudices taken to be “common sense” and the experiences of members of privileged classes. Members of marginalized groups already struggle to find their voice and articulate their experience. It is too onerous to demand that they tiptoe around the feelings of the members of groups that oppress them even on putatively progressive blogs that explicitly aim to be friendly to them. They need safe spaces. They also need room to be around people of shared values and understanding so that they can (a) vent, (b) do the constructive work of socially and emotionally supporting each other, (c) reason together about new issues without having to justify all their core beliefs, values, or basic humanity all the time, (d) worry about the feelings of those who cause them so much psychic misery in the real world, (e) coordinate political action and social institutions, and (f) avoid their tormenters’ presences.
Objection 4: It is pointless to debate with religious people and non-progressives since they never change their minds anyway. So why bother being nice to them or creating a hospitable environment for them?
My reply: Debate is Not Pointless
Objection 5: Words like “stupid” are not as bad as slurs against groups and so it is offensive and a counter-productive false equivalence to lump them in with slurs. It underestimates the extent of the harm caused by the slurs to lump them in with words nearly everyone uses and can tolerate, like “stupid”. Slurs do not just hurt people’s feelings but are part of literally violent and literally destructive social and political and religious systems. Slurs also target and abuse entire groups of people and not just the individuals taunted with them in any specific case. Some slurs also cruelly and irrationally turn immutable traits or morally good choices into the standards for badness itself. “Stupid” does not do any of this, so it should not be put in the same category with those other words.
My reply: Stop Calling People Stupid.
Objection 6: Epithets like “asshole” and “douchebag” are important words for social policing. Moral and social norms are inculcated into people by social approval and social disapproval. These words are harsh in a good way in that when used against someone whose behavior is reprehensible they signal to that person that there will be a social cost for their behavior. It is especially important for members of marginalized groups to have recourse to such words as a form of non-violent verbal and cultural self-defense.
As members of these groups are subject to all sorts of unjust social policing in the forms of slurs and the imposition of damaging norms upon them, they need recourse to strongly condemnatory language that helps them establish their own, juster, ways of feeling as normative instead. Fucked up cultural norms put tremendous amounts of unfair pressure on people. Those most affected by unfair pressure need to use equal pressure to push back.
The creators, active perpetuators, and passive beneficiaries of unjust norms all have the luxury of treating their behaviors and ideas and institutions as dispassionate matters. Members of marginalized groups need to have the right to shock and offend the complacent privileged classes with language that defiantly unsettles them and warns them that if they do not start taking the marginalized groups’ basic humanity and basic needs seriously they will start being the ones who suffer great social costs.
This is sort of an opening salvo through a language assault that effectively says “You cannot go on, privileged person, thinking that other people’s basic rights and dignity are just an academic matter while they are having harmful consequences. We are going to make this personal for you too so that you will be emotionally forced, through new social norms we are creating and policing with, to stop participating (however actively or passively) in the coercion of the marginalized and to start respecting them.”
Objection 7: Politeness is not respect but dishonesty. My entire call for civility is an abdication of the concern for truth that elevates concern for feelings far too high. Harsh honest words are more respectful than ones censored for the sake of politeness. Those who tell you you are stupid or an asshole pay you the respect of straightforwardness. We do not all respect each other, so we should not act like it.
Objection 8: Some people simply do not deserve respect. The consequences of their actions are too dangerous. They genuinely are too evil or too stupid to be treated otherwise as a courtesy.
So those are 8 challenges that I think make a lot of excellent points, but which nonetheless fall short of convincing me that epithets, incivility, and uncharitably personalized debates are worth tolerating morally. I will explain why, point by point, over the course of 8 posts.
In the meantime, Your Thoughts?