I believe that how we engage in debate with other people is an ethically serious matter. When I wrote my moderation policy for this blog this past summer, I did not just aim to lay down the rules for this blog but I also aimed to express my broader ethical judgments about the impermissibility of insulting other people generally.
The strongest defense of non-descriptive words that express hatred and contempt for someone of objectionable moral character was the following:
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.”
Reply 6: The last thing I want to do is to further disempower people who are already disadvantaged by unjust social structures and cultural attitudes. There are certainly many times in which the dominant moral feelings, institutions, norms, and language are structured either explicitly or implicitly so as to systematically exclude various Othered groups.
When a system is unjust, it is easy for those who benefit from the system to say to those Othered by it that they should simply abide by its rules. Those rules are rigged against the Othered in the first place and will always work against their interests and reinforce the dominant class’s interests. It is unconscionable that in such cases the Othered be denied their moral right to protest by breaking with those very orders of morality, law, and politeness that do systematic violence to them.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was quite right to prefer disobedience to orderliness when the orderly channels were imposing unjust strictures upon black Americans, particularly in the South. He made things extremely uncomfortable for the powers that be. But he did it through disobedience which was scrupulously civil and which assiduously maintained the moral high ground.
King, in keeping with a long tradition of moral thinking, reasoned that an unjust law was not a law and so that violating it was not wrong. When protestors would try to do peaceable exercises that should clearly be seen as morally approvable and would be met with violent force in return, they exposed the inherent, implicit violence of the unjustly ruling order. They baited the unjust order to make its implicit violence explicit in order to maintain and assert itself. And, thanks to television, more people than previously could see this violence clearly for what it was.
Calls for order and civility that operate within a moral, legal, or linguistic system that is inherently unjust are calls to surrender to an unjust system and should be resisted with civil disobedience or–if the oppressive regime is too physically violent–violent revolution as a last resort.
But this does not mean that legal systems that have within them just mechanisms for fairly adjudicating disputes, wherein the marginalized have legitimate forms of recourse should be met with civil disobedience or with violent revolution. In those cases, citizens should avail themselves of the peaceful means of power however they can.
And similarly, within justly and ethically carried out debates, people should feel no need to defy the rules. Ethical rules against denigrating one another in debate and discourse are not at all the linguistic equivalent of laws that make some people second class to others based on unfair considerations. Rules of discourse that call for each person to be treated respectfully and neither goaded nor insulted do not even do any linguistic violence the way that, say, use of gendered or otherwise marginalizing forms of language might. Rules of discourse that require everyone be treated with basic civility do not put any one at an inherent disadvantage and so they members of marginalized groups do not need to take recourse to incivil language to correct for any such disadvantage.
But, my opponents will protest, discourse that is outwardly neutral is internally unbalanced nonetheless. This is because the prejudices of our current language and dominant morality and dominant norms of politeness all make various forms of microaggression against marginalized groups seem much more innocuous. It is easier to goad marginalized groups in subtle, implicit, deniable ways that you can always claim you did not intend. Making offensive allusions, trading in “common sense” stereotypes, picking at fresh wounds of the marginalized in the name of “just asking questions” about whether various bigoted beliefs that stigmatized the marginalized are true, mocking marginalized groups using standard tropes or negative implications under the socially acceptable guise of “just joking”, etc., etc. All of this can be done in a “civil” way and so civility is not neutral. The marginalized, who are vulnerable to all sorts of Othering that is treated as simply humor or common sense or abstract inquiry can be repeatedly insulted and made to feel unwelcome in the most superficially polite ways.
I understand this worry and that it is founded in a lot of realities about our discourse which must be vigilantly countered. We should call people out for jokes that contribute to social marginalization. We should query people about whether they are implying harmful stereotypes are true when they casually allude to them. We should constantly be drawing attention to all the invidious assumptions that might be loaded into each others’ beliefs and practices and be asking those people to either renounce those implications, justify them as true or good, or face fair moral and social consequences if they neither renounce them nor prove them true or good.
So within the realm of civil discourse, superficially polite but actually harmful language can be spotted and queried, with no recourse to insults necessary. And there are two major reasons for this. One is that is marginalized groups already do have powerful weapons available in the forms of harsh moral condemnatory language specifically designed to stigmatize bigotry. In our culture, bigotry is considered one of the greatest evils. Even many racists, for decades now, have tried to refuse the label. In just the last twenty years I have heard some fundamentalist Christians who think sexually active gays are sinners move from denying the existence of homophobia to acknowledging its existence but denying they suffer from it. Neither do misogynists proudly accept themselves to be misogynists.
While I think ethically we should be careful not to carelessly toss around charges that others have bigoted characters (rather than that they said or did a particular thing that has racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, etc. connotations), the threat is implicit in our discourse. When someone civilly say something that has the potential to reinforce unjust social systems and silence or otherwise Other a marginalized person or group, our standards of civility allow for that person to be called out with probing questions that have equally hostile connotations.
This is a part of why there is so much defensiveness among conservatives. The mere questioning of their words’ meanings, assumptions, hidden implications, and intended effects for their possible racist, sexist, or homophobic undertones threatens them with severe moral charges.
And it’s not just conservatives who feel this way. Most of us are in a position of privilege to at least a couple of marginalized groups and, as such, we probably all know how careful we need to be in choosing our words when coming even remotely near certain controversial topics. And we all probably know the sickened feeling after we’ve put our feet in our mouths and start to get called out or to fear we will be called out.
Charges of bigotry, while not dehumanizing as the slurs the worst bigots use are, are high stakes moral charges. They’re upsetting. They’re emotionally threatening. They come with potentially high social costs. Those costs are higher than words which are not at all descriptive but simply abusive (words like “asshole” and “douchebag”). These words are stronger weapons. And as long as normal social norms against bigoted or sexist language are operative and as long as there are acknowledgments of the ways that hostile environments can be created for marginalized groups in subtle ways, members of marginalized groups do have recourse besides insults in asserting their own dignity and pushing back against subtle digs.
Now this does not mean that in every context, marginalized people are actually able to speak up. They routinely are forced to bite their tongues when their bosses, their teachers, their parents, their clergy, or any of a number of other people with social, financial, emotional, ecclesiastical, institutional, or physical influence over them “civilly” insult them using no epithets but only demeaning implications. This is a horrible reality. I do not mean to minimize it in the least or to say that our rules of civility are perfect for as long as they are unable to root out all the fucked up parts of language or received “common sense” or received values that power structures reinforce.
But in those situations of abusive power dynamics, the problem is not that the marginalized have no recourse to the words “asshole” or “douchebag”. The problem is that they do not even have recourse to those forms of correction that are perfectly civil and which have equalizing power. The problem in those cases is not our basic rules of civility themselves, it’s that others are exploiting their positions of influence to unjustly dominate and are using minimally civil tools to do it in a deniable, passive aggressive–or micro-aggressive–way. That’s another problem, one that will not be solved by venting torrents of insults where not even the normally socially acceptable assertion of one’s viewpoint and queries of the other’s meanings are available.
When we choose not to stand up for our own dignity and for the true and the good in civil ways, we rather enter into the realm of coercion. Yes, as noted in the case of unbalanced interpersonal power situations, people with advantages can coerce even in civil ways. But that’s because of their other abuses of power. The normal sphere of civil discourse allows for power equalization insofar as it allows the rights to make moral protestations and to interrogate each other’s ideas and implications when they say potentially offensive things.
When people go beyond that, in debate forums with equalized power (i.e., ones where there are not interpersonal interconnections that enable general silencing) and start taking recourse to insults rather than sticking to arguments, and start assuming the worst of their opponents rather than trying to engage them in good faith dialogue first, they start to move into the realm of coerciveness themselves. When people set themselves up as the “social police” or the “moral police” in such a way that they stop reasoning with others and simply making moral arguments and accusations to demeaning or demonizing their opponents with epithets, they cross the line unjustifiably into bullying.
If this is a matter of occasional frustration, we can of course be sympathetic, especially when the people losing their tempers are dealing with wholly unjust pressures within the larger culture. But losing one’s temper and resorting to denigrating, dehumanizing attacks on others that call them abusive names and express hatred should never be recommended or condoned as a routine tactic.
And the downside is harsh and underestimated by many of my interlocutors on these issues. When people resort to trying to insult people into agreement or submission, those people typically respond as they would to any other acts of force–with hostility. People listen not only to each other’s reasons but each other’s wills. If you express a will to force and push people to submit where their conscience and reason are unmoving, they respond to you as someone who has no respect for their own reason or their own rights to form their own moral consciences. You start to say, “my position is so valid that I am going to make you subject to it regardless of whether your mind and conscience agree to it”. And in response to that, the authoritarian spirit you express will overwhelm the rational content of your ideas and signal you as someone they don’t want having power over them. People listen to wills, not just words. They listen to whether you argue with reason or try to force your will on others. Reasonable ideas become stigmatized as too radical when their chief proponents seem like people willing to use whatever radical means necessary to impose them.
Being civil with people who hold views we find despicable acknowledges their moral right to freedom of thought and conscience. We don’t need to be friends with people with whom we don’t share values. We don’t need to associate with people whose behaviors, values, and practices will put us in situations where our own autonomy or right to be treated according to our own values will be contravened. Insofar as we are all forced by circumstances to interact with other people, we need protections so that we are neither violated nor unfairly marginalized by people whose values are domineering and harmful to our own flourishing. We need the law to protect everyone’s ability to flourish unencumbered by others’ prejudicial values systems.
But on an interpersonal level, we cannot treat other people by a rule that says, “share my private value judgments or be subject to unrepentant, proud, self-righteous, bullying verbal abuse”.
Religious fundamentalists are so widely loathed because of such selfish cruelty so opposed to freedom of thought. They feel themselves unambiguously to be on the side of the moral right and justified in denigrating all outsiders to their values as unrepentant sinners deserving of hell and doomed to go there. They do not offer reasons (or at least not independently compelling ones) for their beliefs but try to impose them on others with threats of moral condemnation, demands that others submit to their God and their beliefs, and that others simply believe despite a lack of evidence. By sheer force of will they denigrate others’ consciences and reason and make discussion of fundamental beliefs matters of bullying and disrespect. It is these attitudes and behaviors, these expressions of tyrannical wills, that make the average Western person, who is usually otherwise quite sympathetic and tolerant to religious belief and maybe religious herself, so put off by fundamentalists and evangelicals. It is not the falseness of their beliefs that make fundamentalists so disliked and distrusted among the general populace.
Those of us who are in the business of moral argumentation should never be their analogue. We should never ourselves become so certain of the rectitude of our thinking about morality and justice that we feel entitled to treat the judgments of their consciences so bad that we can disregard their rights to them morally. We should never become so judgmental of their moral errors that we treat them as damnable sinners worthy of dismissal as subhuman and treated with no dignity, but rather only abuse.