Research Suggests Verbal Abuse Hinders Brain Development

Psychology Today reports on a forthcoming study in the American Journal of Psychiatry:

Young adults, ages 18-25, with no history of exposure to domestic violence, sexual abuse, or parental physical abuse, were asked to rate their childhood exposure to parental and peer verbal abuse when they were children, and then they were given a brain scan.

The results revealed that those individuals who reported experiencing verbal abuse from their peers during middle school years had underdeveloped connections between the left and right sides of their brain through the massive bundle of connecting fibers called the corpus callosum. Psychological tests given to all subjects in the study showed that this same group of individuals had higher levels of anxiety, depressionanger, hostility, dissociation, and drug abuse than others in the study.

Verbal abuse from peers during the middle school years had the greatest impact, presumably because this is a sensitive period when these brain connections are developing and becoming insulated with myelin. (Myelin is formed by non-neuronal cells, brain cells that are also known as “the other brain”, or glia.)

The environment that children are raised in molds not only their mind, but also their brain. This is something many long suspected, but now we have scientific instruments that show us how dramatically childhood experience alters the physical structure of the brain, and how sensitive we are as children to these environmental effects. Words–verbal harassment–from peers (and, as a previous study from these researchers showed, verbal abuse from a child’s parents) can cause far more than emotional harm.

As I have argued several times before, ethically conscientious adults are not (or should not) be nearly as blithe about verbally abusing each other as many of the people one encounters online are. We should not be repeating the cycles of abuse that have already done legitimate damage to people growing up and have all sorts of potential to continue to harm them. And if we were verbally abused as children we should be scrupulously introspective about whether we have not been conditioned by bullies to replicate in ourselves the same abusive, hatefulness that victimized us, possibly to the point of hurting our brain development and causing many of our emotional anxieties. We might be especially blind to this if we solidified self-righteous narratives about ourselves wherein we are inherently only victims and all our own hostility, no matter how reckless, is always justified retaliation against our numerous oppressors. As Nietzsche warned (and I discussed at length in my post against hatred in the atheist community), when one fights monsters, one runs the risk of becoming a monster. Recently I dubbed this corrupting dynamic “The Abuser’s Dialectic” and analyzed it thusly:

When you are subject to some form of abuse and are disempowered by that abuse, you risk coming psychologically to understand power as being that form of abuse. Think of the kid who is beaten by his parents who then takes to beating up other kids. It seems reasonable to assume that he is feeling like the way to attain the power that the beatings take from him is to become a bully himself.

Rather than learning to assert himself in ways that respect others and cultivate healthy mutual admiration and collaboration, he takes self-assertion to simply be brutally dominating and demoralizing others, physically and emotionally. Rather than coming to affirm himself positively and become independent of his abuser’s opinions and maltreatment, he displaces his rage at feeling powerless onto others, he spoils for fights in which he can vent the rage meant for his abuser, and he repeats his abusers’ ugly pattern of behavior in his own life, thereby letting his abuser live on through him, consume him, and determine his own character.

None of that is healthy. And it’s not healthy either if the sexually abused become sexual abusers, the emotionally abused become emotionally abusive, the socially abused become socially abusive, etc.

I think a healthy and flourishing sense of power and pleasure comes from creativity, autonomy, personal independence, love, and the ability to empower others through what one does. This is because we are most powerful when we make others powerful. In these cases, their power is to that extent owed to our influence and is therefore a multiplication of our own power and an extension of it–in all of which we can justifiably take pride. By contrast, when we damage, distort, or outright destroy others’ abilities to function powerfully, this is, in most cases, only our ability to decrease the powerful, constructive, healthy functioning in the world, and that is to our ultimate discredit, on the ledger of power itself, and so it is our own ultimate loss.

Healthy power is creative, not reactive. True social and emotional power is in the ability to redeem the potential for growth within as many others as possible, including even your erring enemies so much as that is possible. It is not solely to mitigate the damage they do by whatever means necessary. Damage to others’ powerful functioning has to be prevented wherever possible. To the extent that doing this means embracing a degree of conflict in struggles for control against those who use their control to harm others, then powerfully empowering people need to be willing to get involved in such fights.  But even as we fight hard for vital principles and ideals and for the empowerment of all, and in particular for the especially disempowered, we must be careful that we avoid as much as possible the urge to destroy our enemies rather than redeem them, insofar as this is ever our choice.

In all things we should have our enemies’ good in mind as much as possible, lest we become them, and thereby fall into the dialectic of abuse, according to which we confuse power itself to be the ability to hurt others in perversely satisfying ways that express displaced, sublimated, uncontrolled rages given to us by our abusers.

We are of course right to feel satisfaction and self-assurance in our willingness to uncompromisingly affirm our personal dignity and our personal pride against the most fundamentally unfair assaults on them. In more vulnerable and more emotionally immature days, if my only psychologically realistic choice was between lashing out to defend myself or feeling disempowered, then it is for the better that I went through this “lion” stage, this liberatingly defiant “no-saying” stage of personal development. If I really needed this to be the rebellious, self-discovery stage that I missed as an overly obedient adolescent and to extricate myself from a deceitful and manipulative religious institution, then sobeit. And, I get it when others, in the process of liberating themselves from their own demons, go through this dark stage of lashing out. I don’t begrudge them this, even as I encourage them, like I encourage myself, to extricate themselves as much as possible from the abusers’ dialectic as they can and never turn their abusiveness itself into a point of pride or principle or identity or indifference. It’s for many an unfortunately unavoidable dialectical stage of growth, but one to overcome and outgrow.

Ultimately, healthy growth requires getting beyond the emotional influence of abusers and not living in perpetual reactivity, in thrall to them, determined by them to pass on their emotional, physical, or social violence to others. It means thinking creatively and constructively. When one is in the “No-saying” stage, one winds up often unable to affirm numerous things except as also simultaneously gestures of denials of one’s abusers. And out of a counter-corrective response, one gets tempted to jettison as irredeemable every good thing that the abuser contorted. When the internalized abuser in one’s own mind, the side of oneself that torments you and others on the abuser’s behalf, can finally be exorcised, you can affirm again freely, without associating everything with the connotations the abuser gave to it.

In the rest of that post, I describe some of my own personal struggles to overcome the abuser’s dialectic.

Part of rejecting the abuser’s dialectic means not leveling charges of “stupidity”, which are a staple of childhood bullying. I argue elsewhere that

“stupid” is an ableist word that harms more than just its immediate target as it degrades people with less natural or developed intellectual skill. It reinforces their insecurities and their marginalization. In many cases this word blames people for what they cannot control, discourages their participation in intellectual activities, and demeans them by turning them into a standard for badness.

People have dropped out of school over being called “stupid”. They have lost their love of learning over the word “stupid”. They have been emotionally abused by their parents, their lovers, their friends, their schoolyard’s bullies, and their colleagues, by this word. While slurs affect fewer people but in a potentially more dramatically damaging ways, abusive attacks on people’s intelligence is a routine form of harm that affects a greater number of people, in a range of ways with a range of varying degrees of harm. Quite possibly more bullies have verbally assaulted others with the word “stupid” than any other word.

As our consciousness continually increases about the pervasive bullying that makes so many children’s social lives sheer misery, we need to recognize how much this word is a part of the problem and how much it continues to affect those children into adulthood. And who knows, possibly more bullies have been created by the word “stupid” being hurled at them than by any other single word. When we adults use this word, we are just continuing bullying patterns we did not unlearn from childhood. I am not exempt from this. I used to casually refer to people as idiots all the time. I’m conscientiously learning to undue this routine socialization into casual cruelty, just as much as I am trying to undue my routine socialization into sexism, homophobia, transphobia, racism, etc.

When the less educated who are religious hear highly educated and otherwise privileged atheists call religious people “stupid” they hear a huge dose of elitism and condescension that they resent and which causes them in many cases to close their minds to us.

It is a disastrously insensitive choice of words.

And later on, I talk about how the word affects at least some adults:

I have always been reasonably good at picking up on other people’s social anxieties. I have been embarrassed and frustrated by the ways that people who are intellectually insecure respond to me when I do nothing more malicious than make sophisticated arguments that are beyond their own capabilities, or even if I merely mention that I am a professor or that I study philosophy.

People have a lot of intellectual insecurity. Sometimes they project it onto me and accuse me of arrogance or belittlement that is simply not there. I passionately say something out of my concern for the truth or to correct their errors and in their sensitivity they are only intimidated by how smart it sounds and so they hear only “you’re stupid”. I try to mitigate against this as sensitively as possible. The whole atheist community should be conscientiously doing likewise if we are to be more rational, more inclusive, and more humane.

Read my whole case against the word “stupid” (and its synonyms) in that post and in the related posts “But Aren’t Some People Actually Stupid?”I am not against “dirty words”. I am against degrading words that have malicious intent and functions built into them, and Who Are You Calling Stupid? Also see my case against using words like “asshole” and “douchebag” as words for moral condemnation in the post on whether marginalized people need to be insulting in order to be empowered.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://callmeem.wordpress.com (e)m

    Honestly, there are several issues here that need to be broken down and discussed on their own.

    1. I am against abusiveness, however, using certain language can be a wake up call to people. It grabs their attention and makes them engage. This is different than hammering them repeatedly with said language. This usually isn’t my approach, but I have seen it be a very effective rehtorical tool.

    2. If I am using terms like asshole and douchebag, I back them up. Usually, I will say something like, “if you do [x behaviour], Then you are being a [y-ist] asshole.” Or, “my co-worker is a racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic jackass.” where jackass has a specific connotation of being obnoxious. Normally, examples like the last one are irrelevant to debate, but when talking about lived experiences are quite useful. Or for another example, “don’t be a jackass, I don’t give out personal information” on the ask section of my blog. It is discouraging a certain unacceptable behaviour by using stronger language. It puts conditions on the term.

    3. Insults that don’t reinforce marginalization of already marginalized people are acceptable to me as ways of venting anger and frustration about the people who are acting in an oppressive manner. I will not police how marginalized people express their anger. This does not make them useful for debate, but the purpose is not to change someone’s mind in that case.

    4. I find that most people misuse the word stupid. Most of the time they would be better off using the word incorrect. If someone persists in holding incorrect veiws after being shown contradictory evidence, then they are being willfully ignorant. Stupid is just not precise enough for my usage. It doesn’t convey what I want it to convey, so I’ve taken it out of my vocabulary.

    5. Honestly, I think the argument about the word stupid is a distraction in the case of abusiveness in arguments. The term stupid is just not useful or accurate, so it is irrelevant whether or not it is abusive. And honestly, comparing it to actual oppressive terms which reinforce systemic marginalization is inaccurate. While both can be used to hurt an individual, only one reinforces a bigoted system that marginalizes entire groups of people for what are mostly inherent characteristics that they cannot change.

    6. Could you put a link to your comment policy up with all the other links at the top? I can’t seem to find it anywhere, and I don’t want to misstep.
    Your thoughts?

    • baal

      “are acceptable to me as ways of venting anger and frustration about the people who are acting in an oppressive manner. I will not police how marginalized people express their anger. ”
      I’m in full agreement with Dan and strongly disagree with your point 3. I may be more understanding of why an marginalized person express anger but everyone (means everyone) is responsible for how their actions and words impact other people. Harm is harm and being oppressed is not justification for being harmful. Further, it’s somewhat patronizing to hold marginalized folks to a lower standard. They can and should be treated like everyone else and not singled out.

      Necessary caveat now for folks like e(m) (everyone else can stop reading): I’m fully in support of affirmative action to 1)right historical wrongs 2) allow for threshold / critical mass effects 3) increase diversity. Notice that these are all positive efforts and not allowances for negatives.

    • http://callmeem.wordpress.com (e)m

      @ baal
      1. It’s (e)m not e(m).
      2. “Necessary caveat for folks like” (e)m. This phrasing is extremly condesending and is saying that I am someone that you think is unreasonable. I’d rather you just call me a stupid asshole. It’s more honest.
      3. We aren’t debating affirmative action, or other policies, we are debating language choice. I don’t understand why you brought that up.
      5. If you could please clarify, what harm is being done by calling someone who thinks that I should not have rights an asshole? I would say that is a pretty accurate description. Again, it isn’t for the purposes of debate, but for venting anger.
      6. Marginalized people are repeatedly told that they cannot express anger with0ut hurting the case for their own equality. Non-marginalized people do not get this treatment. That is the context in which my original point three was made. For example, a straight person doesn’t get told that their right to get married is contengent on them being polite and not getting angry. Do you still think in this context that it is patronizing to say that marginalized people should be able to express their anger towards their oppressers?
      7. harm is harm. I agree.
      8. Do I need to clarify any of my points? I am not very good at explaining what I mean sometimes.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      (e)m, please respond to this post: Do Marginalized People Need to be Insulting In Order to be Empowered?

      It’s a long post that makes a lot of arguments and distinctions. But, from the end, here is a key takeaway:

      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.

      My moderation policy was first laid down here and then I explained how I will enforce it here.

    • Baal

      @ (E)m
      1. Apologies on the misplacement, it was inadvertent. I’m minorly dyslexic and often mis-sort my output.
      2./3. I was trying to head off a non-substantive dismissal that I get from people who hold views similar to your own (pretty much every time too, it’s very annoying to get dismissed out of hand endlessly when my primary flogged issue is that harm avoidance is undervalued). For my insistence that there is a difference between being hated for being a jerk and being hated for reciting a fact someone dislikes, I get lumped in with bigots and conservatives. I’m not there. I don’t think you’re a stupid asshole. I think you have mental blinders from not adequately valuing harm avoidance or being
      rigorous in justification.
      5. I find little value in name calling. I do it from time to time but there are two questions. 1. Do I want or need the other person to do something or think differently? If so, most folks have already been yelled at for their views (regardless of what the view is) and still persist in them. Registering one more (or even a few hundred more) protests has little to no impact on them and can even harden them in their views. I talked with a (R) State house member who was on the wrong side of a food stamp protest. It was a big and loud protest (and worth doing for other reasons) but for that (R), the protestors were both fat and he lamented their lack of even (or ever) trying to talk to him. 2. If you do have someone who hasn’t really heard about it, name calling sets you up as oppositional and they then mentally frame themselves into the position against yours. So vent away, you’re not helping yourself (other than personal mental stress relief).
      6. My first reply was “I reject your foundation” but this (especially with my point 5 immediately above) somewhat proves your point so I’ll be more nuanced. You have a right to be angry and express that anger. You do not have a right to take it out on me. You do have a right to take it out on me were I responsible in someway. If my responsibility is because I fit a demographic or support a group, then you need to tell me that’s the basis of your right to give me hell. I still think there is a valid distinction between being angry (personal state) and taking out your anger on others (impact of your expression) and that this distinction applies to everyone. I think the word ‘oppressors’ assumes a conclusion that the people you’re angry at are in fact the responsible people. I need more facts than that as I feel folks very often get wrong who is blameworthy and how much (idea of proportionality).
      8. I also apparently suck at writing :).
      9. I appreciate that you took the time and effort to respond.

  • http://callmeem.wordpress.com (e)m

    Well, this is going to be long, but you asked me to read through and respond to the post.

    And similarly, within justly and ethically carried out debates, people should feel no need to defy the rules

    The key phrase here is ethically carried out debates. Your blog is one such place where this is possible. Hence refraining from such tactics here. I don’t object to maintaining rules of discourse for any particular space. I do make a distinction about 3 seperate issues. Venting anger, ethically carried out debates that are fairly moderated, and rhetoric that is meant to cause someone to engage with you, when they normally would not respond.

    So within the realm of civil discourse, superficially polite but actually harmful language can be spotted and queried, with no recourse to insults necessary.

    An example of me doing this is in my reply to baal above. The way they talked down to me was worse than calling me a stupid asshole, because it was treating me as such, and expecting me to be too ignorant to notice. Now I know that I’m the least intelligent person at the table here. I’m used to it. I’d rather have a plain spoken insult than a sly implied one. It makes it easier for me to respond to someone’s actual debate points.

    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.

    You must not live where I do. I have heard people loudly and proudly label themselves as racists in the company of other white people, and try to convince those of us who disagree with them that racism is the correct way to be. Yes they are a minority, but they do exist. The people who are proudly homophobic are even more prevalent. And I have been told directly by people who don’t know that I’m transgender that they wish the word transphobia didn’t have such a negative association, because they believe that transphobia is the rational response to trans* people. That last category is a vast majority. These same people, and others as well, will say that “forcing companies to buy birth control for their slutty employees is bigotry against christians.”

    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.

    We need to make a distinction here between people who say or do a particular thing, who are not actively bigots, and people who are actively bigots who want not just to keep the status quo, but to actively oppress marginalized people. And as I gave example of above, these people have redefined the word bigot to be essentially meaningless, so what word would you use to describe them?

    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.

    But these social norms are not always in place. and it isn’t always about pushing back as much as it is a scream of frustration after pushing back repeatedly and getting nowhere.

    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.

    Yes, and after having to constantly deal with these people day in and day out, I think a little leniency is called for if the person who has no recourse wants to go on to a forum where they do not have to deal with those abusers and call them assholes. Again this is about venting frustration and anger, not civil debate.

    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.

    The normal sphere of civil discourse is something that is very rare to find.
    “i.e., ones where there are not interpersonal interconnections that enable general silencing”
    There are other ways of being dismissive and silencing, even while being polite. http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Silencing

    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.

    You can call someone an asshole, and dismantle their argument with evidence at the same time. It isn’t an approach that I take, but I have seen it multiple times before.

    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.

    I think mythbri gives a fairly good counterpoint here.

    Not everyone, though. I typically don’t come out of the gate swinging at people who come in saying objectionable and privileged things. But you know what? My reasoned, thoughtful and civil arguments don’t get responses from from those people. They pay absolutely no attention to them whatsoever.
    They do tend to respond to the commenters that include insulting language, however.
    So the language is not empowering because it inherently equalizes, but because it’s a means of forcing those kinds of commenters to engage with people as equals, rather than remaining aloof and silent toward polite disagreement.

    “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.”
    Privileged people respond to any questioning of their privilege, no matter how politely stated, the same way typically. They see it as a personal attack and respond with hostility.

    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.

    and they often react the same way to any questioning of their position.

    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”.

    On the question of whether or not homosexuals should be put to death for their sexual orientation, I am OK with that. That might be a moral failing of mine, but I’d rather people have to submit to dealing with their conscience bothering them, than gay people having to submit to the death penalty.

    . They listen to whether you argue with reason or try to force your will on others.

    Most people do not listen to reason. They react to emotional stimuli. That is why coming out has been such an effective tool for gsm folks, because it puts a face on the people you are demonizing.

    Reasonable ideas become stigmatized as too radical when their chief proponents seem like people willing to use whatever radical means necessary to impose them.

    Reasonable ideas become stigmatized as too radical anytime they question the status quo.
    Reasonable ideas become stigmatized as too radical anytime someone has a stake in maintaining their advantages.
    Reasonable ideas become stigmatized as too radical anytime they require sacrifices.
    Reasonable ideas become stigmatized as too radical anytime they don’t conform to someone’s pre-existing prejudices.
    And something being radical is not an argument against it.
    “Being civil with people who hold views we find despicable acknowledges their moral right to freedom of thought and conscience.”
    I can acknowledge that someone has a right to freedom of thought while telling them that I find their views despicable. As for freedom of conscience, I see that too often used as a way to weasel out of obligations. Does a catholic hospital have the freedom of conscience to do what was done to Savita Halappanavar?

    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.

    We don’t have those protections. We don’t have those laws. And people are opposing them based on their right to conscience and calling those of us in favor of those laws bigots.

    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”.

    Telling a bully that they are being an asshole, and that they should stop shitting all over everyone else, is no more bullying than the U.S. entering the second world war and fighting the German empire that was trying to control the whole region and force them to comply to their morals. Or are you arguing that force is never called for?

    Religious fundamentalists are so widely loathed because of such selfish cruelty so opposed to freedom of thought

    This must be a regional thing. Where I live, religious fundamentalism is the norm. We have killings called bible rage where two people of the same sect get so mad over arguing over the interpretation of a particular passage that they get into a fight that results in death.
    And I would say that most religious liberals are more embarrassed by them than loathe them. Oh, and don’t forget, it’s only fundamentalism if “it’s not my religion.”
    I would say that the majority of people that loathe religious fundamentalism is because fundamentalists want to enforce their bigotry and religion with the rule of law, not because they are trying to change the cultural mindset.

    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.

    And I’ll say again, calling someone an asshole, and giving evidence that they are incorrect in their assertions are not mutually exclusive.

    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.

    No, most of the people that are religious that are put off by fundamentalists are put off because they expose the underbelly of religion. They don’t like being associated with people that they consider to be assholes because, for one example, though they agree with them that gay people are going to hell, it is impolite to say so. Because we’ve made it impolite to say so. In other words, stop embarrassing us by explicitly stating beliefs of ours that are unpopular. The other difference is that while a liberal religious person cannot prove their beliefs, YEC for example has been plainly contradicted by evidence, and the liberal religious person does not want to be tarred with the same brush that shows YEC to be plainly false. In other words, a liberal religious person will conform to facts proven, but still posit assumptions as facts until proven false, because they think that is reasonable, whereas a fundamentalist will deny proven facts.

    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.

    I agree. But I also agree with Giliell here:

    Abusive. I don’t think that word means what you think it means. It’s a slap in the face of people who actually do get abused if you tell them that calling their abusers “A…holes” is abusive and dehumanizing their poor abusers.

    I empathize quite a bit with the tendency to swing in the direction of full blast anger after it’s been bottled up and denied to you. I don’t mean to demonize you or anyone for your anger or your expressions of it.

    Except when you tell me that I’m abusive and dehumanizing. Empathy is something different. The word you’re looking for is “chastizing”

    But we have to get behind a dualistic either/or where anger is all evil or all good. It’s not that simple. There are healthy ways to use anger and abusive ones.

    Sure, only that you’re drawing the line in a place that hurts marginalized people and shuts them up.

    I will always encourage people in their healthy and productive uses of anger but not in their abusive ones.

    Wrong. You’re shutting them up. Because you place yourself to be the arbiter of what’s abuse and what’s healthy and you don’t give a thing about what those marginalized already have to say on the matter. You draw the line of “what’s productive” solely on basis of your individual taste. You completely ignore the fact that we have already seen that polite doesn’t work, that rude indeed gets results and that there are many roads that lead to a goal. People who know me on FTB know that I’m quite capable of using different approaches in different situations, but i don’t think that there’s one gold-standard or that mine is the one most effective at the moment.

    I also agree with smrnda here:

    When you mention Martin Luther King Jr, don’t forget that he was not the only visible leader in the civil rights movement. Others advocated much less civil forms of disobedience, and I’m inclined to think that riots and violence, though I don’t think they are great, sometimes got the job done and are sometimes justified.

    I also agree with daenyx:

    The moral ideals of avoiding personal attacks/insults in resisting oppression are pretty, but ultimately not very useful in this application. Permission to call someone a bigot, but not an asshole (the latter term, I’ll point out, *also* describes a pattern of antisocial behavior in most colloquial usage) doesn’t remove any actual vitriol from my response to the hypothetical malefactor in question. It just places an arbitrary restriction on the language I can use to respond to oppression.

    It doesn’t make me less angry, and it doesn’t make me want to drive that point home any less. (And in many cases creates another pool of anger directed at you, the person in a position of privilege who determines what I may and may not say.) It does not diffuse the situation, and if anything, exacerbates it.

    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.

    “Asshole” and “douchebag” *are* descriptive. They are colloquial shorthand for “person who does not treat others morally.” And I don’t think, on a practical level, that you are correct about “bigot” having a higher impact as a blanket rule. It may well have a higher impact on some! But to others, it could just as easily be a word that becomes white noise, the clamoring of the liberal whiners who are trying to Destroy The Moral Fibre Of Our Great Nation (or something like that), while they simultaneously place great importance on being perceived as a “nice,” and yes, “civil”, and will therefore respond more readily to a generalized expression of disdain. (Yes, that assertion is based on anecdata and extrapolation – just like yours about the relative impacts of the words.)

    So from a utility-oriented viewpoint, there is a possible/probable net harm from attempting to restrict language in this way,

    ischemgeek makes a powerful point here:

    I have to suggest that there is no such thing as a debate forum with equalized power. Those who have more power by nature of who they are have been raised to such power and taught that they should have power and people should defer to them by virtue of arbitrary external characteristics. Likewise, those who have less power in society have been raised to that position and had it enforced on them – sometimes brutally.
    One cannot escape such conditioning. For someone who is underprivileged to stand up to someone who is privileged is a very hard thing to do. The privileged person, by nature of their privilege, will assume that the underprivileged person is wrong. Any underprivileged person you speak to will so many stories they’ve lost count of them of situations where privileged people assumed they were wrong even about their own life experiences, such as the symptoms and impact of a chronic condition, such as whether someone making a racist joke was really marginalizing, and so on. This is how much privileged people are raised to believe they are right and better than those without such privilege. Their reaction to being challenged by someone who they were trained to think of as worse than them is typically one of denial and anger that the other person would dare to contradict them – even when the person in question expressed themselves in a very civil and uninsulting way. Consider, as a case in point, the attacks on Olympic Gold Medalist Gabby Douglass for discussing her experiences with racism during training.
    By contrast, someone who is underprivileged is conditioned to think of themselves as wrong and worse than those with privilege. In arguments with those in privileged positions, those who are underprivileged feel not only the weight of another person’s disapproval, but also the weight of society’s disapproval. How dare they challenge someone higher in the social order? This leads to guilt and self-doubt that cannot be alleviated by saying, “Everyone is equal here.” Because the reality is that we’re not.
    Furthermore, social norms reinforce these thought patterns, so that most people will on a subconscious level act in accordance with them, implicitly associating those in privileged positions with rightness and goodness, and those in underprivileged positions with wrongness and badness (see, for example, Project Implicit, which studies such phenomena). For this reason, in conflicts between those with privilege and those without, people in general will tend to side with those with privilege. This includes those who are themselves without privilege who are taught to justify the system which oppresses them (the study of this phenomenon is, appropriately enough, called System Justification Theory, about which Ian Cromwell has an excellent series of articles).
    This colors all interactions that the privileged have with the underprivileged, even if someone declares that everyone is equal and their voices will be given equal weight. The reality of privilege and ingrained prejudice in our society is that they won’t.

    I’ll also quote Nepenthe:

    Have you ever encountered a person who was reasoned out of the belief, for example, that women are like perpetual children and shouldn’t be allowed to vote?
    It seems that the fundamental mistake that the civility police are making is to assume, naturally, that discourse and the style of discourse should be catered to the privileged party in the discussion. That the discussion among feminists and sexual minorities (for example) is focused primarily on the people are not parts of those groups, as opposed to being valid discourse in itself. After all, if a dyke speaks to a dyke, does any one hear if there’s no straight person or man present?
    To say that telling a person who has just come into a discussion among feminists of rape and claimed that, if that second pink bar had shown up, that I should have been strapped down, force fed, and forced to bear a rapist’s spawn to go f*ck themselves is an immoral act is patently ridiculous. This is real to me. This is a real assault. This is not a mere theoretical exercise. When you are violated, one is morally allowed to fight back. There is no calm and rational argument that I can pull out that will convince this person that, no, it would not have been acceptable to torture me.

    I would like to point out that B-lar called everyone who disagreed with you in that thread stupid without using that word. “I am seeing you as a master who is trying to explain a difficult technique to an novice. The novice simply is not equipped to understand the mechanics let alone apply them successfully.”
    I also agree with Carlie:

    I sat and thought awhile, trying to figure out why I “police” the use of sexist/ableist/racist/homophobic/transphobic slurs so much, but bristle so much as being policed on the use of terms like “asshole”.

    I think what it comes down to is the function of those words. Insults serve as designators of bad things; they are a label applied to people in order to shame them in front of others for something the overall society wants to tamp down. In the case of the slurs I oppose, what is being shamed is who someone is, and that’s just wrong. But in the case of behavior, there are definitely behaviors we want to discourage, and those are the behaviors that, when people use them, get labeled with the terms “jerk”, “asshole”, “douchebag”, etc.

    That does mean, I admit, that I have to agree with you on “stupid”. It does refer to what someone is, rather than how they are acting, so I’m going to try to substitute “willfully ignorant” or the like to describe the obstinate behavior rather than the lack of understanding. So you get a win there.

    HOWEVER, I think the other insults (jerk etc.) actually serve an important function in society, because those describe people displaying negative behavior, and we want people behaving in those ways to STOP, and for it to be visibly, obviously socially unacceptable to behave in those ways. Yes, the language is strong, but that’s because if it’s couched in “polite” terminology, then the chastisement might not be noticed, and would therefore not serve its function of deterrence.

    I would like you to respond to scarfbrush:

    You’re ignoring the implicit insults and dehumanization in an argument for oppressive practice.
    For example, if someone says, “women should not have a right to abortion, no matter what.” They are implicitly arguing that women should be forced to give birth by any means necessary. That implies that somewhere, some rape victim should be imprisoned and strapped down, because she will be so desperate to induce a miscarriage that the only way she could be forced to give birth would be through these extreme measures. And that implies that women are not entitled to even the most basic bodily integrity, that it is morally acceptable to torture us, and that we don’t deserve basic human rights. And that implies that we are not human.
    So, just to be clear, you are arguing that people ARE allowed to say that women are not fully human, but we can’t respond by saying, “You are being kind of a jerk right now.” Just to be clear.

    And I completely agree with onamission5:

    In a situation where I am not being treated as a person, a calm and swear free argument is not going to be heard. Trying to take the high road is disempowering and gets me trampled. I need to be able to use my ire as a tool. I need to be able to say “Fuck that bullshit that you just said/did.” It’s not because that makes the other person or people more willing to hear my argument, although sometimes an authoritative stand does accomplish those ends, it’s because I’ve got little alternative recourse. If we were on equal footing from the start then sure, I’d be behind the idea that unabrasive conversation is more effective, but we’re not. You don’t know how many times I’ve been outight ignored because I was trying to stay calm and reasonable with my arguments that I have the right to be treated like a person. In that situation, a hearty “fuck this” gets attention more effectively than “please treat me like a person.”

    I am frustrated with a lot of this push regarding language over content. I hear your argument, and agree with parts of it, but I can’t get behind it 100%. I think that the hyperconcern over certain words distracts from the real issues. I worry that once the words douchebag and asshole are struck from the activist lexicon, our opposition is going to focus on those other words next– the ones you think are more powerful because they aren’t swears. I’m seeing it happen already, in fact, on a board where asshole and douchbag have been more or less banned, disingenuously started debates over use of misogyist, racist, and bigot are sidelining conversations on how to deal with misogyny, racism, and bigotry. There’s even arguments about the veracity of the word privilege when used to describe privileged people, FFS, and it’s keeping us from addressing the issues. People who are loathe to give any ground are not going to give ground no matter how nice I am to them, and being nice to them takes away my only tool for self defense.

    I think that the main point you’re missing is how much backlash (for example) someone like me gets for not being ladylike. Don’t be so angry. Be polite. These statements and attitudes have been used to keep disempowered people within the boundaries set up for them by the power group, the threat of not hearing our arguments unless we’re ridiculously polite, when the fact is, they aren’t going to hear our arguments andway and being poilte only makes it that much easier to ignore us. Anger is a tool, and power groups know this. Calling an angry person out on their language is just another way to shut them up and invalidate their rightful indignation.

    Forget the words that disempowered people use to describe the way being disempowered makes them feel. Stop trying to police the way they describe their own disempowerment. Focus on the content of their message. When someone’s standing on my head, asking them, “Please sir, that causes me pain, will you please get off my head?” isn’t going to be half as effective as “Get the fuck off me!” and coming out swinging. Being polite about getting my head crushed just isn’t something I am willing to do just so other people can see how bad the head crusher is.

    I will agree that if another person is making a good faith argument, cursing them out for not understanding a particular point is probably going to put them on the defensive and render then unable to accept whatever else I have to say after. There’s got to be an end point to that, though. This is my LIFE I am arguing for, not a hypothetical, not a theoretical. It directly impacts me on a personal level at every moment.

    It seems to me that the people who are most concerned about the choice of words used to combat oppression are often the people with the least to lose.

    Well, That took a long time to read through. But you asked me to respond, and I haven’t seen you address most of the people who responded to you, so I thought I’d be thorough.

  • B-Lar

    (e)m, Whatever you might want to read into my words is your business. I didnt call anybody stupid, even subtextually. I opined that people who havent thought about this problem in any depth are not going to be able to immediately grasp its subtleties. How can you grasp a subtlety if you dont even know it exists? This is surely true for any discipline. Novices are not stupid. They are just novices.

    Maybe the person has thought about the problem in depth but decided to ignore possible knock on effects by virtue of the decision that their usage of epithets is righteous. They might not be a true novice, but compared to someone who has objectively considered all the factors they are certainly a relative novice.

    I think Dan has an important point which is rationalised away in a “yeah, but… actually no” way because some people want to hold onto the right to insult and the perceived power it gives them.

    I only swung by on a whim today. Im glad I did. I will check back later.

  • Baal

    1. Fwiw I find Giliell and several others on that list abusive. You don’t get to endlessly negatively comment in stark terms on other people and still be thought of as not abusive. The way out of that sticky label is to treat most folks like they are people, not be consistently vicious or to show you’re being proportional. My mother used to spank me – well did until I was 11 or so and could hit back. She never did give up her rage, however and raged about everything she disliked all the time. It wasn’t usually directed at me but being around a rage driven person is unpleasant. I didn’t have all that bad a childhood (and especially in light of others having had much worse childhoods) but consider her abusive for not keeping her emotions in check. Similarly, when a given nym on the net is nothing but rage, it is abusive and the label sticks.

    2. The recent firestorm of responses by atheists to the offensive and awful political statements by Mike Huckabee (and others) provide examples of a range of emotional, rational and harmful responses. There were comments that suggested Huckabee should be shot and other comments that clearly showed the anger and the outrage of the commentors without the use of violent imagery or wishing of physical harm to Huckabee and his ilk. There was little doubt of where the non-violent commentors stood and that they were using the harshest language available. Their (and my) outrage and pushback were clear and effective without name calling or violence. (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2012/12/16/mike-huckabee-the-shooting-is-the-fault-of-churchstate-separation-advocates-and-gay-rights-supporters-and-obamacare/) I’m not saying there is a duty to be great and wonderful all the time rather that it is not necessary to use directly harmful statements to get your points across. I disagree that it’s unfairly silencing to consider harm (or to include justification) when expressing anger.

    3. It would be bad to accept the general rule that harmful expressions of anger are acceptable. That position will be (is) used by hate groups as social permission for inflicting physical harm on minority groups. The hate groups see the mere presence of gays as an infringement on their rights to be macho – thugs. Having their rights infringed, they get angry and then they also get violent (verbally and physically). This is not rational on their part but they do it and admit to this line of thinking and emotion when asked (in a what they perceive to be a safe-space for their hateful views).
    4. I see you saying that it’s acceptable for the oppressed to be harmful for at least three reasons. A. to avoid silencing of minorities B. Minority groups are low in numbers (definition of minority) so harm is limited (de minimus) C. The majority is already harmful. To A – see 1. There is a range of possible expression w/o harm that is still expressive; that thread I link is a really good example. To B – harm is still harm, ethically you need to not harm or have a justification, the right to not be harmed is not changed by fewer folks being impacted. Said in the other way, a minority group is perfectly capable of inflicting non-trivial harm on a majority. To C – I agree fully and support a host of remedies but do not include retribution as a solution. Also to C – the majority can make your life suck or they can make it a living hell. If you’re of the position that it can’t get worse, then I’ll grant your position. I suspect you’re not correct, however and that the majority can and will be worse to you and yours if you inflict enough irrational or disproportionate harm. I’ve used the example of the Arab spring in other comment threads. In the non-violent cases (though the protests weren’t always calm), the protest only countries were able to get about the same level of change as the civil war countries but with many fewer deaths.
    5. I use male pronouns. When I’m referred to as “they” I get the urge to speak in the royal “we”.
    6. I wasn’t intending to talk down to you and apologize for having induced that feeling in you. I was preemptively heading off a particular attack that’s unreasonably leveled at me. I cannot promise to not use similar language in the future as it’s integral to who I am to try to blunt the most common attacks directed at me.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X