Elitism, Incivility and the Word Stupid

To my disappointment, few in the atheist community have explicitly backed me in saying that calling people “stupid” is a form of elitism, ableism, and classism that we should repudiate. Few have bothered to take a stand against pillorying the religious, who are statistically more likely to be poorer and less educated, as “stupid” and thereby abusing them for their ignorance, which is often created by unjust social and political structures beyond their control, and making them rightly resentful of atheists.

So I appreciate quite a bit that the Mellow Monkey sees my general point about the perniciousness of the word stupid. And I appreciate that he or she is willing to criticize my civility pledge within this shared ground (even if I wish he or she didn’t treat me like an enemy but acknowledged me as an ally in the process). Mellow Monkey begins:

The problem is that he’s fighting a word that’s used against people for failing to meet certain standards, while creating an environment that’s incredibly hostile to those most hurt by that word.

By focusing on mental gymnastics and carefully parsing words and Deep Debate, an environment is made that makes people with intellectual insecurity (whether deserved or not) really fucking uncomfortable. So he champions against the word “stupid”, but has no idea what it actually means to someone who has been hurt by that word.

He does not know what it is to be eight years old and trying to communicate, but having it come out garbled in a way so that people will casually talk about the poor stupid retarded child in front of you, assuming that because they can’t understand you, you can’t understand them. He doesn’t even try to grasp that every time he pulls the “I’m a great philosopher and shall dismiss your protests while once again explaining my rightness” card, he’s drawing on a huge amount of privilege.

So, yes, Dan was right: there is a huge problem with elitism when it comes to language and references to intelligence or perceived intelligence. That problem is present all over the Internet, including here. The trouble is, that problem is not the word “stupid.” The problem is when people try to dance these semantic salsas that actually close discussion to people who don’t have that same gift. The problem is perfectly civil, polite “teasing” or “correction” against the person with dyslexia who misspells something, or the working class poster who doesn’t have the background to keep up with such discussions and has hir point completely erased because xe isn’t an armchair linguist, or the poster who can’t argue in the language of formal logic and has their protestations and hurt erased because a wordsmith thinks they’re just too simple-minded to understand the argument.

Give me someone calling me every profanity under the sun over that. Call me stupid, but listen to what I’m saying. When people sit around carefully parsing every word for meaning and picking apart arguments because the language is just too simple and colloquial and understandable to the laymen, that’s when they’re practicing ableism against us poor, ignorant, stupid people. That is more far hurtful, damaging and silencing than just fucking calling us stupid.

And that’s the problem with civility. It focuses on the language, instead of the damage. It focuses on being polite, instead of recognizing everyone–yes, even us “stupid” people–as fully human.

Mellow Monkey is very right that environments in which people make a lot of technical distinctions intimidate intellectually insecure people. But I don’t think the solution to that problem is to not have rigorous debates in the public square. We have to clarify our terms. We have to make important moral and conceptual distinctions. You wouldn’t blame a scientist and call her arrogant for simply going over some laypeople’s heads. It’s irrational to do so to philosophers. I use as accessible language as I can. I do not use jargon.

I do not ever say such arrogant things as “I’m a great philosopher and shall dismiss your protests while once again explaining my rightness”. In the summer I wrote a whole post just giving what I took to be strong formulations of my opponents’ views as I had been hearing them, before presuming to refute them. I let that sit on my blog possibly persuading people who to disagree with me before I ever got my replies up. I cannot be faulted for still saying, I disagree and here are my reasons. Who else are you demanding just be silent because someone disagrees with them? I think I’m right, I argue for my positions. How is this especially pernicious in my case but not in yours or in any other blogger or commenter’s case? And if you wouldn’t disparage a biology professor for offering biological arguments as though she were an expert, why do you disparage an ethics professor for presuming to make moral arguments? I presume no special authority to be above criticism. But I have quite earned the right to forthrightly express my views on the subject I have devoted sixteen concerted years to studying; ten years of which I have also spent teaching it.

But to the very well motivated complaint’s substance. On a daily basis my job teaching introductory philosophy courses involves taking people who feel very insecure in a new, abstract, and technical subject matter and making them comfortable practicing engaging with it for themselves. The techniques in the civility pledge are precisely those that make intellectually insecure people more comfortable. Contrary to popular misconception, the civility pledge is not about word-policing; the only words it bans are slurs and insults. It is also not about hanging people on their inarticulate malapropisms. It is precisely arguing for the opposite.

The pledge is precisely about being an active listener. It encourages not jumping on the worst interpretations of people’s words but the best ones. Point two of the pledge is explicitly about finding common ground and common values by asking people really mean before disagreeing with them. It is about trying to figure out what part of their experience one’s interlocutor is mistakenly interpreting and saying, essentially, “I see, you’re concerned with this kind of experience. Great, that’s really a thing. Let’s talk about why we interpret that differently.” Or instead of treating them like they want to willingly cause harm when they advocate for something you think is harmful, you say to them, “Okay, I see that what you want is not harm but good. Specifically, I think you’re aiming at this particular good. Is that right? Okay, here is why I think we can achieve that good better this different way. Here is also how even though you mean to be achieving that good, what you’re saying leads to this other harm in this or that way.”

This is precisely the process of not jumping on and twisting someone’s words. It is not jumping on a racist implication of their words and saying “You racist piece of shit!” It’s compassionately trying to understand how a well meaning person can get confused about the truth or the good, and treat him or her with the respect of trying to understand and reason with them to see how they inadvertently believe what is false or support what is bad.

The alternative is to self-righteously decide that because someone is advocating something harmful they must be verbally assaulted into submission. My policy is to explicitly distinguish between when people’s racism, sexism, homophobia are unwitting, are matters of passively received unexamined beliefs or attempts to actually apply moral principles in ways that are crude or to be faithful to authorities they are deceived into believing are the source of all ethics, etc. These are precisely the places where the opponents of civility are arguing not to be compassionate but I am arguing to treat people like individuals whose errors can be corrected through listening rather than snap judgments.

The pledge is also specifically about holding oneself to the standards rather than focusing primarily on whether others do. It is opponents of the pledge who often say that they refuse to engage with others with the kind of goals of mutual understanding, with charitable interpretations of others’ arguments, and holding off on insults, until or unless their opponents do the same.

Me? I am arguing that we do not wait for our interlocutors to sound like well-trained philosophers capable of polished arguments and disciplined self-restraint in order to raise the standard of how we treat others. I am calling for us to act like rationalists, like people who believe in reason to persuade rather than insults and emotional bullying.

We have to have sophisticated discussions about sophisticated issues. The way to be as inclusive as possible is to do as the civility pledge requires and that is to actively look for what is good and true that one’s interlocutors are trying to get at, rather than pummel them for their errors and demonize them for all the negative implications that their words could possibly have. It is about very patiently trying to focus on bringing about agreement through treating one’s opponent as a person who means well until proven otherwise.

And, again, contrary to popular misconceptions, the pledge has mechanisms for making substantive moral charges and calling out disingenuous behavior, etc. If it becomes clear that someone really is motivated by malice rather than ignorance. It just calls for people to assume ignorance first and to treat even the malicious by a higher standard of civility rather than to sink to their level.

Also, I will note that where Chris Clarke completely unfairly attacked civility on the irrelevant grounds that you could order racist internment of people in a way that uses no abusive terms (as though just because bad things can be done civilly, routinized uncivil discourse is our only recourse to prevent that), he has not condemned Pharyngula’s routine use of the word “moron”, a word coined by racist eugenicists to justify equal atrocities against those deemed too intellectually inferior to have civil rights (even though he blogs at Pharyngula). There is an dehumanizing word that coined as part of a movement that did documentable damage to marginalized people and he is indifferent, apparently to the screams of those people while he paints me with no justification as a silencer of the oppressed simply because I advocate reason rather than bullying as the method of persuasion among professed critical thinkers and defenders of reason in the public square.

Here I have explicitly taken up the cause of a group I have great social privilege with respect to–those educationally underprivileged–where few other atheists or prominent social justice advocates in the atheist community ever bother to, where such atheists actually only mock me contemptuously, and Mellow Monkey chastises me over supposedly not going far enough to reach out to the undereducated? He or she does this when my pledge spends an entire bullet item trying to raise consciousness about our pernicious treatment of the educationally under privileged? When another point of the pledge also commits people to acknowledging their social power with respect to marginalized people (including the under-educated) and to allowing them more latitude to get emotional when they have greater stakes in debates? When that same point of the pledge stresses that we need to actively oppose hostile environments that create non-level playing fields that disadvantage the already marginalized? All those gestures calling for reaching out to the ignorant rather than excoriating them, and Mellow Monkey has no problem with the blog that routinely features a privileged tenured professor publicly calling his intellectual inferiors contemptuous names, trying to bully them into intellectual submission by manipulating their intellectual insecurities out of apparent contempt for the possible effectiveness of reasoning with them to change their minds?

While I feel strongly with Mellow Monkey that we must do everything in our power, much more even than just banning words like “stupid”, in order to include the educationally underprivileged in our discourse (that’s part of why I blog for the public rather than write for academic journals when the latter is far more in my personal career interest in the ivory tower), I think his or her animosity towards me in the stead of an appeal to my sincerity is misplaced.

I hope he or she will reconsider it and we can dialogue constructively together about our shared goals. The same goes for PZ Myers and Chris Clarke and all others expressing contempt for me and carelessly strawmanning me instead of reasoning with me about our ostensibly shared values in the past week. These are good, well intentioned people who I think are wrong but still treat with respect. I would appreciate the same good will in return that we all might learn.

Your Thoughts?

To read what my actual civility pledge says rather than the superficial misconstruals of it, go here. For more on the word “stupid” and my views on respecting the marginalized read these posts:

Stop Calling People Stupid.

“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.

Who Are You Calling Stupid?

Do Marginalized People Need To Be Insulting To Be Empowered

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.

  • Matt Penfold

    Er, making false accusations about being straw-manned is hardly civil is it ?

    But I suppose given you happily allow your blog to be used to spread falsehoods, it is a little much to expect honesty from you.

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

      Er, making false accusations about being straw-manned is hardly civil is it ?

      They’re not false accusations. Characterizing my express repeated insistence on treating all people with respect and not abusiveness as the kind of thing that lets racist internment orders happen without objection is blatant strawmanning. All the numerous reductions and out of hand dismissals of my numerous explicit distinctions about the nature of civility to simplistic “no name calling but everything else is okay” is strawmanning and it’s happening all over the place.

      But I suppose given you happily allow your blog to be used to spread falsehoods, it is a little much to expect honesty from you.

      No, I do not “happily allow my blog to be used to spread falsehoods”. People came in here personally feuding against the express rules of the blog. I let them do it for the one thread as their protest to the civility pledge. I cannot be the arbiter of every claim everyone made. I was away from the blog for hours and they all accumulated, all the accusations. Then everyone wanted to rebut everyone else, and then I told them to knock it off. That was it. Over. This blog is not and has never been about personal feuds or misinformation.

    • Jacob

      Civility is for cowardly atheists who are too chicken to tell Christians what ****** ** **** the are.

      I look forward to the day when a majority of Supreme Court Justices are athiests…like the great Oliver Wendell Holmes…and they interpret the Consitution to allow us to eliminate religion.

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

      Civility is for cowardly atheists who are too chicken to tell Christians what ****** ** **** the are.

      I look forward to the day when a majority of Supreme Court Justices are athiests…like the great Oliver Wendell Holmes…and they interpret the Consitution to allow us to eliminate religion.

      I censored the abusive characterization of Christians in this comment. I am glad that it is exceedingly rare I come across atheists with views this authoritarian and hateful. I am not interested in using my blog to foment such dangerous nastiness by letting people get in good practice mistreating their religious and/or political opponents.

  • http://daisysdeadair.blogspot.com/ DaisyDeadhead

    I live in a very obstinate area of the south (home of Bob Jones University, our local nemesis that also controls regional politics) and I have learned how to argue with them on talk radio… so much so, that they once put up a whole Facebook hate page about me. In my experience, focusing on what they DO and don’t do, is the way to make inroads in these arguments. (Admittedly, that could also be because I am an ex-Catholic and I know very well how to argue about “works”.) In many cases, “stupid” goes right over their heads or even engenders a perverse sort of pride: “Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” They take that verse as a blessing of the stupid. Really. “You poor thing, you think your brains will save you”. People not versed in fundamentalist Christian dogma are playing right into it, and they don’t even realize it.

    Whereas, if you demand to know when was the last time they visited a person in prison (Jesus told em to, you know), they will blanch and turn pale. Then you can say, well, you don’t obey the Bible either, do you? This will make them freak right out. (In addition, this quickly establishes that they can’t quote the Bible to you, since you ALSO know what it says.)

    This is why I say to atheists, please study the Bible, and I don’t mean just memorizing the horrorshow verses of the OT, which they totally write off. Really study the history of religion, and ascertain quickly which kind of Christian you are talking to, and use denominational and dogmatic differences against them. (this is called “divide and conquer”) It makes a much more immediate impact. Demanding that they explain all the differences in Christians and why they don’t agree with Rev Al Sharpton (he’s a reverend too, isn’t he?), will necessarily mean they unwittingly insult their other Christian allies–divide and conquer.

    Dan, I like that you know your religion…you have likely winced as much as I have, in hearing the “wrong” atheist arguments made against Christians (i.e. anti-Catholic arguments made against Baptists, or vice versa) as I have. It’s been a pleasure to read your deconversion series, although I have to say, I don’t know anyone personally who was deconverted by philosophy… I am from the demographic of people deconverted by crazed abusive parents, LSD or sexuality, LOL. But very nice to make your acquaintance and read your blog.

    BTW, on “stupid”–we could easily say someone making anti-Catholic arguments to a Nazarene or Pentecostal is stupid too, couldn’t we? But somehow, to many of the New Atheists, its okay to be ignorant of religion and religious history and it somehow doesn’t make you stupid. Be assured, this religious stupidity is not lost on the religious, and the ones who aren’t smugly taking it as a compliment to be simple-minded, are thinking religiously-illiterate atheists calling them “stupid”–are DAMNED funny. This is why I love to read the atheists who come from religious backgrounds… especially those who were as hard-core as you were. Believe me, its their WORST NIGHTMARE!!

    Peace.

    • http://aphilosopherstake.com/ Justin

      Yes! What daisy said.

    • http://valprehension.wordpress.com Kasey Weird

      Hear hear! All of this is so very correct. You can’t have a civil dialogue with someone when you won’t even make the effort to understand where they’re coming from – this is something I sometimes have trouble with, but in my heart I now that at least trying to meet someone halfway is really important (even if they won’t put in the effort required on their part to meet you there), and it’s something I’ve been working on.

      Also, your willingness to get involved in the talk radio horrorshow kind of makes you my hero for the day!

  • Matt Penfold

    Oh, and I would point out PZ Myers has not written a blog post about your pledge. I suspect you are thinking of the post written by PZ’s co-blogger, Chris Clarke.

    Hardly very civil of you to mis-identify the author.

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

      Oh, and I would point out PZ Myers has not written a blog post about your pledge. I suspect you are thinking of the post written by PZ’s co-blogger, Chris Clarke.

      Hardly very civil of you to mis-identify the author.

      I clearly identified the author as Chris Clarke. I held PZ Myers responsible for his own enthusiastic endorsement of Clarke’s words and for their running on PZ’s blog.

  • Matt Penfold

    Oh, and why the appeal to sincerity ? Tony Blair keeps telling us he was sincere in his belief that Iraq had WMDs. Of course, he had no right being sincere about such a belief. So please, unless evidence can be offered to support sincerity, it is a meaningless concept best avoided.

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

      Oh, and why the appeal to sincerity ? Tony Blair keeps telling us he was sincere in his belief that Iraq had WMDs. Of course, he had no right being sincere about such a belief. So please, unless evidence can be offered to support sincerity, it is a meaningless concept best avoided.

      Where did I say we should not counter claims with evidence just so long as they are sincere?

      I am saying that I have a number of people who with no evidence assume I am insincere in my goals and secretly want to silence people or are indifferent to the suffering of marginalized people. My sincerity is challenged, I defend it.

  • moblues

    First sentence in a paragraph generally states the intent:
    “I do not ever say such arrogant things as “I’m a great philosopher and shall dismiss your protests while once again explaining my rightness”.”
    Ok.
    Whinging in the middle bit:
    “Who else are you demanding just be silent because someone disagrees with them?”
    I can’t seem to find the bit where mellow monkey is trying, or is able, to silence you though. I can, however, see another futile attempt to explain that civility is worthless to someone who is not regarded as fully human.
    The last sentence generally restates the intent:
    “But I have quite earned the right to forthrightly express my views on the subject I have devoted seventeen concerted years to studying and ten years to teaching.”
    Quite agreed, this is your platform have at. But don’t expect your readership to be strongly represented by the sad underprivileged groups that you will strain to understand and take great care to respect. (I think Natalie Reed has a post up about being an ally even when it isn’t all rainbows and kittens, you should read it.)

  • http://alephsquared.wordpress.com aleph squared

    Also, I will note that where Chris Clarke completely unfairly attacked civility on the irrelevant [1] grounds that you could order racist internment of people in a way that uses no abusive terms (as though just because bad things can be done civilly, routinized uncivil discourse is our only recourse to prevent that[2]), he has not condemned Pharyngula’s routine use of the word “moron”,[3] a word coined by racist eugenicists to justify equal atrocities against those deemed too intellectually inferior to have civil rights (even though he blogs at Pharyngula).

    [1] You are arguing that civil discussion is a good in itself, that speaking civilly is always better than speaking uncivilly. It is thus not irrelevant to note that immoral, dehumanizing rhetoric can be phrased civilly as a response to your argument.

    [2] Your pledge is not only against “routinized uncivil discourse” but against all “uncivil” discourse. So your point that Clarke’s comment does not directly support routinized uncivil discourse is irrelevant to his disagreement with your pledge.

    [3] I’m not sure if this is a variant of tu quoque or some other logical fallacy, but a fallacy it certainly is. Whether or not Clarke is behaving hypocritically as you are attempting to imply is irrelevant to whether or not he is correct.

  • http://songe.me asonge

    I’m friends with a Poli Sci professor on FB who specializes in 3rd party politics, and treats his FB account as an open forum to reflect on the stories he posts on his wall. One of my mutual friends on his posts messaged me one day whining about the safe harbor sometimes given when people were at the end of their ropes in the FB threads. It was then I realized that the prof was using civility to maintain the openness of his forum. Everyone there was of different education levels…some post-grad, some “know-it-all” dropouts (me), and probably some people with no university experience; but what we did have in common was everyone there seemed interested in good arguments. In his posts, there’s a mutual sense of respect and space for bringing in arguments from very different angles outside the political mainstream, as well as arguments that appeal across political philosophies. I don’t really understand how he does it so well from the sheer force of his personality, because he really doesn’t do much moderating within the discussions.

    So, it seems that a common criticism here is that civility isn’t for maintenance for the forum…the creation of safe space…it’s just merely a thin veneer that gains you respect. And part of “telling truth to power” is to remove that veneer to reveal the ugliness inside. Civility is just a mask for very ugly ideas that need them.

    Obviously, calls for civility can be abused, and people can set certain topics as out-of-bounds and then use civility to do some really outrageous stuff, but such bad-faith arguers don’t seem at all relevant to how I should act towards most people. My audience tends to be people, who if they are not out for truth, they are at least for understanding different viewpoints so that points of disagreement are clear and concise.

  • http://alephsquared.wordpress.com aleph squared

    Also, I’d like to quickly note that Mellow Monkey was not, in my opinion, referring to problems with *you* taking the pledge. You are correct that there is nothing elitist in you, personally, pledging to engage people in this specific way. But that’s all your response amounts to: pointing out how this pledge will help you, in your situation, avoid certain traps of elitism and privilege. But you expect *everyone* to take this pledge, you consider it (as far as I can tell) a moral obligation to communicate in this manner. And that, I believe, is what Mellow Monkey was objecting to. Not everyone is capable, in general or on specific occasions, of following this pledge. And while you are admirably open to hearing any argument, your insistence on only hearing those arguments presented in certain ways (from OTHER people) is what (I believe) Mellow Monkey was objecting to.

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

      Also, I’d like to quickly note that Mellow Monkey was not, in my opinion, referring to problems with *you* taking the pledge. You are correct that there is nothing elitist in you, personally, pledging to engage people in this specific way. But that’s all your response amounts to: pointing out how this pledge will help you, in your situation, avoid certain traps of elitism and privilege. But you expect *everyone* to take this pledge, you consider it (as far as I can tell) a moral obligation to communicate in this manner. And that, I believe, is what Mellow Monkey was objecting to. Not everyone is capable, in general or on specific occasions, of following this pledge.

      I didn’t demand anyone take the pledge. I recommended it and give moral arguments why people should. Even if some people feel that they cannot live up to that yet, they should aspire to do so and I am trying to help them aspire to do so and spell out the details of what is involved for them to think about. I am not judging people for not signing on. I even showed openness to people offering their amendments and dissents right in the post itself. I don’t see why these are not moral ideals. No one has convinced me they are not. Being hard does not make them moral ideals.

      And while you are admirably open to hearing any argument, your insistence on only hearing those arguments presented in certain ways (from OTHER people) is what (I believe) Mellow Monkey was objecting to.

      The pledge clearly expresses, as I reiterated in this post, that I am willing to meet some people where they are rather than demand that they all conform to the pledge. I am putting the onus on me to be civil and be responsible for constructive debates happening rather than waiting on others.

    • http://alephsquared.wordpress.com aleph squared

      I didn’t demand anyone take the pledge.

      I didn’t say you did. Reread my comment. I said you consider adhering to the pledge a moral obligation, and you think everyone should adhere to the pledge. I never said you demanded it.

      The problem is this: you claim that we must permit discussion of any idea no matter how dehumanizing/offensive/whatever but you want to limit who is allowed to join such discussion to only those capable of or interested in discussing them in a certain tone.

      Is this not the case? Do you not want to require people (in whatever ways and spaces you can) to adhere to this pledge? Do you not propose that other spaces should adopt similar pledges?

      Perhaps I have misread you then. If this is indeed merely a personal pledge that you do not argue should be used by other spaces and other people, then I’ve severely misunderstood. But I don’t think that’s the case.

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

      The pledge makes clear that there is a difference between debate spaces and safe spaces. The issue is not “tone” (though that’s one way to interpret it) but rather civility. The issue is that in any spaces we are in that we treat each other as interested in (and capable of attaining) truth and goodness and arguing in good faith with each other. The point is that in all spaces we should argue in this way. It’s not that all spaces need deal with all topics by any means. I specify before the pledge my own desire to have a philosophically open ended discourse space. I clearly talk in the pledge about respecting others’ legitimate desires for safe spaces. The moral imperative is not to participate in controversial discussions, it’s to not personally abuse people, in all the ways described, wherever one should find oneself debating.

    • http://alephsquared.wordpress.com aleph squared

      Have you ever participated in a safe space online, either as a member/commenter/poster who required the space or as a moderator?

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

      no

  • Mattir

    I have stopped using the word “stupid” in online discussions, having concluded that the phrase “maliciously ignorant” better captures the deliberate refusal to learn that is often labeled “stupid.” And as the parent of a severely dyslexic kid, I am very aware of how his disability prevents him from participating in most online atheist/secular forums.

    I do generally adhere to the terms of the civility pledge you posted, but I will not sign it – as I’ve said earlier, I have encountered far too many people who respond to any discussion of social justice issues with a reflexive “You’re so emotional/angry/strident/irrational/focused on the wrong things/UNCIVIL.” While it was not your intention to create a magic word whereby those speaking out on social justice issues can be silenced, I will not set myself to have accusations of incivility (and violating my “pledge”) used to derail discussion any more than it already is.

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

      I have encountered far too many people who respond to any discussion of social justice issues with a reflexive “You’re so emotional/angry/strident/irrational/focused on the wrong things/UNCIVIL.” While it was not your intention to create a magic word whereby those speaking out on social justice issues can be silenced, I will not set myself to have accusations of incivility (and violating my “pledge”) used to derail discussion any more than it already is.

      I understand and respect your concern. What I am trying to do is explicitly argue for a conception of incivility that explicitly makes space for the marginalized. It’s all there in point 4. It’s just not a license to be completely unfettered and be actually uncivil, which all of us may wrongly do sometimes.

      I support your replacement of “stupid” with “maliciously ignorant”, at least in cases where there’s sufficient evidence of the malice.

  • mythbri

    Dan, do you specifically know Mellow Monkey’s gender? I don’t recall ever reading one of their comments where they were explicitly candid about their gender identity.

    Because if you do not, that’s a huge assumption that you’ve just made.

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

      Dan, do you specifically know Mellow Monkey’s gender? I don’t recall ever reading one of their comments where they were explicitly candid about their gender identity.

      Because if you do not, that’s a huge assumption that you’ve just made.

      Good point. My apologies.

    • mythbri

      Thanks for the acknowledgment, Dan. I think that a correction to gender neutral pronouns would be appropriate.

      You strike me as being too careful, in general, to make such an easily avoided mistake as to make such assumptions. I grow tired of the trope that there are no women on the internet.

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

      Thanks for the acknowledgment, Dan. I think that a correction to gender neutral pronouns would be appropriate.

      Indeed, I intend to edit, as soon as I’m done moderating comments.

      You strike me as being too careful, in general, to make such an easily avoided mistake as to make such assumptions.

      Nobody’s perfect. I will try to do better.

      I grow tired of the trope that there are no women on the internet.

      Me too.

  • http://theotherweirdo.wordpress.com The Other Weirdo

    While I feel strongly with Mellow Monkey that we must do everything in our power, much more even than just banning words like “stupid”, in order to include the educationally underprivileged in our discourse

    I don’t think you realize how elitist you sound with this statement. What is “educationally underprivileged”? Who gets to decide that? Is it going to be you? You have a PhD; to you, everyone below is educationally underprivileged. I bet there are PhDs out there who don’t consider a PhD in philosophy to be any great achievement. Should we then allow those who consider themselves to be our betters to dictate inclusive word usage to us? We don’t let churches decide our morality for us; why should we allow the language police to do that?

    Languages evolve and words change meaning. Entire cultures decide that some words are now bad and polite company doesn’t use such words. The word ‘nigger’ comes to mind. In the Ukraine(probably Russia, too), the word “zhid” holds that honour, though that particular culture hasn’t yet decided that polite company doesn’t use the word, to my knowledge. They know it’s a bad word(‘nigger’ equivalent for Jew), but they still use it.

    I have, personally, never used the word ‘stupid’ to refer to children or to those with reduced mental faculties. It’s rude and insulting. If I’m in the vicinity of someone who is doing that, I’ll correct them. That’s what society is: evolution. An evolved society shouldn’t have to ban words: dictators do that, by banning words.

    I am all for civility. I am not for banning words and therefore entire avenues of expression. But maybe I am just too educationally underprivileged to know what’s good for me.

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

      don’t think you realize how elitist you sound with this statement. What is “educationally underprivileged”? Who gets to decide that? Is it going to be you? You have a PhD; to you, everyone below is educationally underprivileged. I bet there are PhDs out there who don’t consider a PhD in philosophy to be any great achievement. Should we then allow those who consider themselves to be our betters to dictate inclusive word usage to us? We don’t let churches decide our morality for us; why should we allow the language police to do that?…But maybe I am just too educationally underprivileged to know what’s good for me.

      These are exceptionally hostile and uncharitable readings of my words. There are people who are undereducated and ignorant on that account and I am arguing that they should not be abused on that account. That is all. I am not singling them out anywhere as especially in need of advice about language. My direct targets are the better educated who imply contempt for those less educated than them with the word “stupid”. That was who I was addressing. Nowhere did I imply that one had to have a PhD in philosophy to be adequately educated. And nowhere did I show anything but sympathy and confidence in the educability of those who for one reason or another are presently ignorant and unjust targets of the word “stupid”.

    • http://theotherweirdo.wordpress.com The Other Weirdo

      Daniel,

      And as I said, I am all for not abusing people who are less educated, less intelligent or downright mentally handicapped. I am not for “banning” words. There are people who are highly educated, highly intelligent and in no way mentally handicapped, and yet they often deserve the label “stupid”. To ban that word is to ban an avenue of expression. Is it a label we should apply to everyone we disagree with? Of course not. But it does apply in many situations.

      If you hook up the back of your truck to an ATM and then try to rip said ATM out of the wall and drive away, leaving your bumper and license plate for the police to find, you’re stupid. I am sorry if it offends, but it’s true even if you’re fully educated.

      If, after a century of effort, every single communist system has been a dismal failure and yet you think that you’ve got the One True Way(tm) to make it work, you’re stupid. That’s not persecution or abuse, that’s stupidity, plain and simple.

      The people who are your targets in regards to the use of the word ‘stupid ‘are not going to be deterred by banning language elements. Once you start down this path, forever will it dominate your thinking.

      Yes, it is true that some people need protection from verbal abuse, but by reducing the language to that which is least offensive to the most vulnerable, you’re harming the rest of us. In effect, you’re criminalizing, if I might use that word, people who have committed no offense. Instead of banning words, we should be more focused on educating the offenders and on empowering the weaker individuals to defend themselves.

      You can see the effect of banning expressions or thoughts out in the wild. It comes up whenever women’s rights come up in conversation. “Don’t you dare express an opinion of abortion rights unless you can get pregnant.” Or, “How dare you express an unpopular opinion about the Holocaust? You’re not Jewish, what do you know?!” As a Jew, I find the second one highly insulting, and as a man, the first one.

      I don’t want to ban expression of even Holocaust denial, and I definitely want to have–and share–an opinion on abortion even though I am a man. And I definitely want the continued ability to call someone stupid when they damn well deserve it.

      In summary, my objection to this isn’t that you want to ban the word ‘stupid’. It’s that I see it as a banning of thought. Maybe I am paranoid, but I can’t bring myself to believe that it would end there.

  • Sally Strange

    It’s not civil to misgender people.

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

      It’s not civil to misgender people.

      If I’ve done so, please let me know where and I will correct it. It was not intentional, it was a careless oversight. It is uncivil to use common oversights as cause for accusing people of ill will and incivility. Did I misgender Mellow Monkey as someone else suggested?

    • http://theotherweirdo.wordpress.com The Other Weirdo

      What does misgender mean?

  • Dave B

    For what it’s worth, I think you’re doing very important work with this pledge, Dan. Priviledged or not, far too many people treat disagreements like battles and arguments like soldiers (credit to Eliezer Yudkowsky for that excellent metaphor). I think it would be hard to underestimate the value to be gained if more people started putting forth a real effort to undersand each other’s perspectives instead of just trying to “defeat” them.

  • Kay Burnett

    I think the leaders of religion are diabolically genius. It is the best model of evil ever invented. That the followers gleefully follow along as self-professed “sheep”, demonstrates its effectiveness. Believers, are brainwashed to the very being of their core. I feel believers are better categorized as victims.

  • Phil Yandel

    I have to agree that it is not so much the actual words being used, but the attitude behind those used words. In my limited experience, it seems that when the actual communication channels begin closing down is when the personal attacks and belittling begin. And once you put a person on the defense by attacking them personally, then whatever else you have to say will not be easily accepted. If your goal during a discussion is to be the winner, then personal attacks may give you that feeling. But if your goal is to communicate and exchange ideas, to give (and receive) food for thought, then mutual respect is absolutely necessary.

  • trinioler

    Hey Fincke, I think you’re kind of losing sight of the forest for the trees.

    http://atheismplus.com/forums/viewtopic.php?f=20&t=4002&p=70874#p70872

    This is a perfect example. Scenario takes issue with the word ‘halfbreed’ rather than the EXECUTION ORDER.

    This is kind of how you’re being looked at Dan. You care so much about the protocols and very specific words rather than the overall FOREST. And you show signs occasionally of actually seeing that forest, of understanding how systems of inequality serve to continue marginalization. That makes it even more frustrating, because you’re not entirely clueless.

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

      Hey Fincke, I think you’re kind of losing sight of the forest for the trees.

      http://atheismplus.com/forums/viewtopic.php?f=20&t=4002&p=70874#p70872

      This is a perfect example. Scenario takes issue with the word ‘halfbreed’ rather than the EXECUTION ORDER.

      This is kind of how you’re being looked at Dan. You care so much about the protocols and very specific words rather than the overall FOREST. And you show signs occasionally of actually seeing that forest, of understanding how systems of inequality serve to continue marginalization. That makes it even more frustrating, because you’re not entirely clueless.

      Why can’t we be interested in both execution orders and the demeaning conceptualizations of people (encoded in language) which enable them? I hope you would consider my points in this post.

      Thank you for appreciating that I am not clueless and for continuing to engage me even though you find me frustrating. That is the most I can ask of anyone. I hope we can have fruitful exchanges in the future.

  • Nick

    From what I can tell, Mellow Monkey’s concern is essentially entirely empirical. What I mean is that you can justify your reasoning behind your policies all you want, but if, in practice, they actually don’t make the educationally underprivileged feel better then it’s still not a good approach. Mellow Monkey seems to be contending that your approach doesn’t make him/others feel better, and as far as I can tell you turned to justifying your policies further rather than addressing the heart of that concern. How confident are you that your approach to the educationally underprivileged will work? If you’re pretty confident, then does that stem from your policies making sense or from your policies actually already working?

    I know from experience, as someone who is regularly very fearful that I can’t rationally evaluate arguments and that even when I can do that I can’t express my thoughts on it and that even when I can do /that/ it I’ll be wrong anyway, that your pledge does little to make me feel better–it just gives me a whole new way to be irrational, so that now I will think everyone over at Camels with Hammers is busy ascending to rational-and-civil-discussion godhood and will be busy curing philosophy cancer (if there is such a thing) while I sit on the sidelines believing despite /wanting/ to believe differently that I cannot contribute anything worthwhile.

    Put simply, I don’t think your pledge addresses the heart of why people feel intellectually insecure, and I think that feelings like that will only persist, if under a different guise.

    I think that you sort of responded to this when you said that “On a daily basis my job teaching introductory philosophy courses involves taking people who feel very insecure in a new, abstract, and technical subject matter and making them comfortable practicing engaging with it for themselves.” But online debates, even and maybe especially civil and rational debates, do not make me feel comfortable. As I said above, they only give a new way for intellectual insecurity to manifest. I’m not sure how many others feel this way but given Mellow Monkey’s response I’m inclined to think that they exist.

    Of course you pose the question of how Mellow Monkey could be comfortable with a “blog that routinely features a privileged tenured professor publicly calling his intellectual inferiors contemptuous names, trying to bully them into intellectual submission by manipulating their intellectual insecurities out of apparent contempt for the possible effectiveness of reasoning with them to change their minds” but I think that it makes sense in a way to be more comfortable with that than the New Order that acceptance of your pledge might bring. I don’t want to be saddled with even more fear than I currently have over this stuff and I’m at least used to that sort of attitude from some people so I can write it off as just the same old behavior if I end up wrong and get called out on it. I /can’t/ do that if my opponent is committed to rationally explaining why I am wrong to the ends of the earth and back again.

    This reply seems really unhelpful but I don’t see how I can suggest your pledge be improved because it seems to rely on ignoring your interlocutor’s possible insecurity rather than addressing it, which I contend worsens it. And I don’t see an easy way to address and root out insecurity in the context of public discussions or something. I don’t even see how you can properly respond to me because I’ve effectively disagreed based entirely on my own personal experience. I’m sending the reply anyway, though.

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

      I appreciate your feedback, Nick. I wish I had easy answers. I think abandoning a commitment to civility would be a superficial and counter-productive one. I try to make my blog as accessible as possible but I accept if that has limits given the nature of its subject matters. I don’t think the rest of the internet has to be as focused on occasionally esoteric and technical topics as mine, and I don’t see how incivility is itself an aid to accessibility.

  • “Uncivilized” disabled chick shitting up your blog

    Way to fail spectacularly to get the point. Good job. Enjoy that ivory tower

  • Peter

    No matter how good your intentions may be, civility is going to be used on the internet as a club against the marginalized and those outside the status quo. No matter how many thousands of words you throw into your pledge trying to dance around that fact, someone else will be out there saying “why can’t you be more civil?” when what they mean is “shut up!”, and your pledge will be encouraging them.

    That’s why I’m with Chris Clarke. That, and the fact that I’m not going to be the one to tell someone who’s been standing outside looking in their entire life how they can or can’t express themselves.

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

      I reject this false dichotomy. Anyone signing onto my pledge is, among other things, signing on to this part in which they foreswear tactics that marginalize and create hostile environments:

      I will be extra cautious to learn from traditionally marginalized people about what disparately affects them in negative ways and about how to make discourses and other environments more inclusive to them. I will pay close attention to how hostile environments are implicitly created that exclude, silence, or otherwise adversely affect traditionally marginalized people, especially under the aegis of a perniciously false neutrality.

      Read the links contained therein. I understand your concerns and share them quite deeply. The solution is not incivility but a better definition of civility, something I have tried to accomplish with this pledge.

    • Peter

      Reject what you like. Shout orders at the tide, too: it’ll have much the same effect. People will take your pledge, ignore whatever they find inconvenient, and hold the pledge up like a flag all the while. Then your lofty ideals and grand intent will be used to hurt people, while you stand there quoting sections of the pledge and saying that’s not what you meant.

      Oh, and speaking of false dichotomies, the choice isn’t between your pledge and nonstop incivility. But you knew that, of course.

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

      Oh, and speaking of false dichotomies, the choice isn’t between your pledge and nonstop incivility. But you knew that, of course.

      With the way incivility escalates, I do not have much confidence that giving incivility much latitude is possible.

  • Elemenope

    Well, part of the problem might stem from that fact that while it may be morally problematic to socially punish people for ignorance due to situation or resources, the people who do so are often punished in turn *by* those peoples’ ignorance, not least because as the mass of people they hold and wield political power and make choices consonant with their ignorance-predicated notions. They see nothing wrong with inflicting their notions on others, and there is a danger that by concealing the emotional damage that the injury their ideas have inflicted in the name of comity and good conversation, whether to seek truth or merely to be amiable people, they fail to understand just why their notions are dangerous.

    I guess my point is that there is an experiential characteristic to the situation that is stripped out when one goes in search of a gentler way of conversing, and by removing that element we do a disservice to another goal, which is to get people to understand why their beliefs, when acted upon, are harmful to others, with the hope of that understanding leading to mitigating that harm. People make decisions about most things based on the emotional texture of their experiences, and only afterwards justify them through reason; removing language that may offend in the name of improved discourse diminishes the discourse of the very thing that might move your interlocutor to change.

    The other issue is, if an interlocutor reaches and comfortably resides in one of those rarefied discussion spaces such as what Mellow Monkey described, it is unlikely that they can plausibly claim ignorance as a beg-off for holding thoroughly stupid ideas. This somewhat diminishes the force of the imperative to eschew the term in the first place, because when one encounters seemingly stupid notions in such a space, chances are far greater than normal that they result from actual willful stupidity rather than ignorance. Thus it is not particularly elitist to call it out as such.

  • mythbri

    Dan:

    I posted a comment earlier pointing out that you made an assumption when you referred to Mellow Monkey here as male. This comment is apparently still in moderation, even though I was perfectly civil in pointing out this error.

    I would appreciate it if you addressed this.

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

      I have now addressed it. It was in moderation for many hours because I was away from the blog for many hours and unable to look at the posts that went to moderation. Nothing more than that. As I said with respect to the other post, I apologize for assuming gender when none was indicated.

  • MNb

    OK, here I explicitely back you. I never call people stupid. I call their arguments stupid and, that’s fundamental, explain why. Sometimes I formulate sloppy though; but when I call someone stupid I always refer to their arguments. Burden of proof and such things.
    Still I won’t sign your pledge about civility. Maybe my conclusion is stupid – if it is you should explain why – but I read it as a plea for not calling arguments stupid either.

    “about holding oneself to the standards”
    Oh, signing your pledge or not will not make the slightest difference for me in this respect. But to me it looks like your standards are stricter than mine. Before I sign you will have to convince me they aren’t. You see, honesty is one of my scarce virtues. And I want to retain the freedom to state that X produces manure on subject Y – if I can back that up. Also I want to retain the freedom to mock and spoof if I feel like.
    Now I respect if you don’t want that on your blog. So the consequence is that I won’t react too often. I can be nasty if I want, but I am not a troll. Internet is big enough for all of us.

  • loyalb

    Sorry if this is a little nit-picky, but the phrase “educationally underprivileged” is itself elitist (ditto the word “undereducated”). If you mean to describe the people who don’t have access to the level of education they would choose for themselves, I could see that being appropriate, even if it’s still pretty patronizing. If you mean to say some people are “undereducated” relative to you because they don’t have the same degrees… that’s problematic.

    There has to be a better way to describe the group of people (of which I’m a member) who don’t have or want a higher education. I appreciate what you’re trying to do. I’m with you on principle. But when you say you’re taking up the cause of the “undereducated” by fighting against things like the use of the word “stupid” (rightfully so), it sounds kind of bad.

    Thanks for bringing the civility issue up. We’ve needed to have this conversation for a long time. I think one of the core messages of New Atheism — that we shouldn’t blunt our criticism of religion for fear of offending the religious — got twisted somehow into “it’s only really criticism if it’s really offensive.” Maybe we didn’t mind so much when that philosophy was applied to religion, but now that it’s been turned inwards hopefully people can begin to see the problems with it.

    My comment on the other thread got eaten, so my bad if I crossed a line that I didn’t mean to.

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

      I am open to any suggestions about the best word to use. I understand your concern and was not trying to disparage. I apologize for not thinking it through better when I came up with the term.

    • loyalb

      No apology necessary. I didn’t think you were trying to be disparaging, I just thought it was an awkward phrasing.

      I think simply “less educated” would be better, in this case. No value judgements, just a simple statement of fact. Trying to make it more PC just seems to make it even less PC.

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

      Thanks. I think that sounds right.

  • tvanvonprag

    Clarke is happy to equate between “a person who is plainly wrong” and “professional philosopher”. Up to this day I thought he is a pretty sensible guy. How wrong a man can be. Here is a list of women active in philosophy of mind and related areas such as philosophy of cognitive neuroscience: https://sites.google.com/site/philmindwomen/home.
    I suggest he informs them, via e-mail, of his peculiar view of their profession.

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

      I missed or forgot him saying exactly that, where was it?

    • mythbri

      Why would you suggest that Chris Clarke should inform only women philosophers of this “equivalence”?

      It seems pretty clear to me that Chris was making a dig only at Dan – whether or not you think that’s justified, I don’t understand the leap from an “equivalence” between “a person who is plainly wrong” and “professional philosopher” to sending that message to women philosophers only.

  • tvanvonprag

    “I don’t like the word “moron” and wish we would all use something else non-ableist to express our disbelief at a person’s sheer wrongness. Suggestions for alternatives: doofus, fuckwad, jackanapes, buffoon, professional philosopher.”

    Dixit Chris Clarke, yesterday, here: http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2013/02/19/actually-i-hate-the-word-moron-used-as-an-insult-thank-you-very-much/

  • Ariel

    Hello Daniel,

    My last post in your thread “Civility pledge” didn’t go through somehow, which is perhaps for the better. I’m not planning to reproduce it; just a few thoughts provoked by the discussion.

    You received a lot of harsh criticism, some of it misguided (quite clearly, in my opinion); some small parts of it justified. Just two pieces from each of these categories, which are repeated very often – so often in fact that perhaps you would like to react.

    A misguided and popular criticism (see aleph squared above):

    You are arguing that civil discussion is a good in itself, that speaking civilly is always better than speaking uncivilly.

    This is being repeated over and over again on FTB. It seems to me that it’s incorrect given what you write, e.g.

    For truth’s sake and for freedom’s sake, I want no controversial topics to be made taboo in all discussion forums and I want no disputable propositions whatsoever to be shielded from all sincere and thorough rational interrogation.

    Here it is truth and freedom which are proposed as values, with civil discussion being a tool to promote them. Consider also this fragment from Daniel’s original piece:

    It is, in the vast majority of cases, unethical to verbally abuse or otherwise attempt to emotionally bully others, no matter how right I might feel myself to be or how cathartic I might find the experience. Self-righteousness is a dangerous, blinding temptation. It leads to hypocritical double-standards, remorseless cruelty, smugness, authoritarianism, and false beliefs held with self-satisfaction.

    Here the emphasis is on the costs of incivil “discussion”, including self-righteousness and cruelty. Again, not an end in itself.

    All in all, the objection looks like strawmanning to me. But since Daniel’s readers keep repeating this, perhaps some reaction from Daniel would be useful.

    Now a piece from the second category, where I spot a real problem see here:

    I find Daniel Fincke’s writing to be incredibly difficult to read. I find my eyes just sliiiiiding along the sentences without actually registering the words. At the end of the paragraph, I have no idea what it’s about.
    It’s a very odd experience.

    This is also a type of remark which you see quite often. Another example is Shira’s comment from the original thread with the pledge:

    I agree with these principles … but my goodness, there are a lot of words there. I tend to keep it simpler.

    To which Daniel answered:

    There are a lot of would-be lawyers online. I wanted to be precise as I could manage.


    In my opinion: bad idea, and I would advise you to treat these reactions seriously. The sheer frequency of such comments indicates that you managed to alienate quite a lot of readers – there is a danger that with such an approach no one (with a possible exception of the lawyers) will really read what you wrote. IMHO: what you are trying to do here belongs primarily to the realm of politics, not law and not philosophy. In such contexts a shorter message is more efficient, with the explanations for the lawyers transferred perhaps to the comments section. You behave like someone who insists on supplementing a social campaign poster with one hundred footnotes on the very poster itself (for the lawyers perhaps). Bad idea.

    Just one more thing. In my missing earlier post I described the dialogue between you and your opponents in the following way:

    Daniel: Houston, we have a problem! We entered a forbidden Interwebs zone. I perceive an alarming level of self-righteousness in our cohorts! We are on a slippery slope, continually enlarging the sphere where an insult counts as admissible (or even praiseworthy) reaction. This sphere is already too large! It’s very dangerous, it’s wrong and we should stop it now … together with everyone else of course, didn’t I mention that?

    Your opponents: Hello dear philosopher, this is Earth speaking. What problem? What self-righteousness? What Interwebs?

    It is still my impression that a bulk of harsh reactions you are complaining of stem from the reluctance of admitting that the “progressive” camp (or ftb in particular) has any problem at all. Your opponents seem to think that: (1) uncivility is a tool which can be used for the greater good (2) they are using this tool just as it should be used, with (3) possible exceptions being relatively rare and easily corrected. That’s my impression. But it’s never stated explicitly, so just in case, here are my questions to your critics:

    1. Do you believe that the phenomena mentioned by Daniel – incivility, bullying and self-righteousness – are rare enough not to be diagnosed as “problems” in your camp?
    2. Do you think of your group as treating the outsiders as they should be treated?
    3. In determining the answer to question 2, how relevant would be to you the opinion of the outsiders themselves – e.g. the people trying to voice unpopular opinions on Pharyngula blog?
    4. Confronted with negative opinions of outsiders, how ready would you be to dismiss them on the spot with phrases like “Oh, they are misogynists/racists/whatever, so their opinions don’t count”? And if you are inclined to react in such a way, how instinctive is this reaction?
    5. Do you find questions 1-4 insulting?

    I’m very curious especially about the fifth question :)

    Cheers

    • B-Lar

      Ariel, your questions will not yield answers that you find acceptable.

      1: People can feel bullied when they are simply being disagreed with. When people double down after having something explained to the, they rationalise that, rather than occupying a flawed position, they are instead being bullied by rude, self righteous lackwits. Bundling incivility, which that camp treasures as being an effective social justice tool, in with bullying and self righteousness (something of which that camp is often accused) is not helpful, and indicates to me at least that your questions are not in good faith.
      I have brought this up there too, and I think that they are diagnosed as “acceptable losses” rather than problems. You will find that if you argue in good faith then you will receive respect. You will not receive respect if you do not use your brain and read for comprehension. Those who are not willing to engage in good faith are laughed out of town with the contempt they deserve.

      2: Again, “outsiders” is very “us and them”, and it makes your questions even more suspect to me. Nonetheless. Yes. If someone refuses to engage with you in good faith, then you can walk away. If they come into your house and refuse to engage with you, you can tell them to fuck off. If they fuck off, and then go and tell others about the story and how they were just told to fuck off for no reason, you can complete the story, and legitimately call them out for being a liar (or at the very least a deluded fantasist). They should be treated like someone who wants to be called a skeptic but doesnt take their bias seriously even when it has been pointed out to them.

      3: The opinion of someone who is complaining that they should be able to piss on any carpet they damn well choose with no negative consequences (FREEZE PEACH!) is not very relevant. Unpopular opinions can be voiced at pharyngula (and they are all the time), but they have to be thought through and made in good faith. If they are not, then they are like a theologian in Hitch’s headlights. Simultaneously brittle and squishy.

      4: I would be very interested if you can show a single instance where someone has written “oh, they are x/y/z so their opinion doesnt count”. The Horde will make judgements about someone based on their comments (so, if you carelessly trot out some line which is classically used by rape apologists to justify why what their mate did isnt actually rape, then you should expect to be called a rape apologist EVEN IF YOU DONT THINK RAPE IS AWESOME) and for some of the long-time commenters , I think this is instinctive. The crucial thing to remember is that its not a complete dismissal. You have the chance to clarify or double down. I am willing to bet that you are a double-downer.

      5: Of course not, because only insightful questions can be insulting (at least to me). I wouldn’t say I am one of The Horde though…

    • mythbri

      I’ll attempt to answer those questions from my own perspective – I would never claim to speak for everyone who has been critical of Dan’s civility pledge, as they are diverse individuals with different specific criticisms.

      Q1: Do you believe that the phenomena mentioned by Daniel – incivility, bullying and self-righteousness – are rare enough not to be diagnosed as “problems” in your camp?

      A1: I would want you to define how you’re using the word “problem” in this case. Also, a definition of the words “your camp” would be good, since you (so far) only specifically mentioned FTB in your comment. Do you equate FTB with Pharyngula, or do you acknowledge that there are multiple blogs and bloggers in the network, many of whom haven’t said a single word about Dan’s pledge on that platform?

      With these definitions, I might be able to give you a more accurate answer. But in general, speaking out passionately and at times rudely against comments that convey racist, sexist or other bigoted attitudes has an advantage of not alienating a lot of the people who are harmed by such attitudes. In my own personal view, if I must alienate someone (and no matter how civil I am, I must – such is the nature of human interaction), I’ll choose to alienate people with harmful bigoted ideas more often than I alienate people who are harmed by them. Is this a problem?

      Q2: Do you think of your group as treating the outsiders as they should be treated?

      A2: Again, definitions would be helpful here. Who is “your group” and who are “the outsiders”? I’ll again point out that even if you define “your group” to be FTB, FTB is not a monolith and the contributors to the blogs often disagree with each other about a variety of things.

      Do I think that people who intend to promote bigoted ideas should be told that those ideas are not considered to be socially acceptable in some places? Absolutely. Sometimes this is done civilly. Sometimes it is done uncivilly. It really depends on the individual commenter. Usually it is done in keeping with the commenting policy of the specific blog.

      Q3: In determining the answer to question 2, how relevant would be to you the opinion of the outsiders themselves – e.g. the people trying to voice unpopular opinions on Pharyngula blog?

      A3: Ah, now with the specifics. If you meant Pharyngula in your previous questions, you should have specified, or been more clear in your definitions of vague terms. This question is most easily answered in the context of the specific blog and specific outsiders, of course, but as you’ve mentioned Pharyngula, we can go from there.

      Pharyngula has an established commenting community. My impression is that they care not a whit for the opinions of outsiders, because Pharyngula is just one tiny corner of the internet. It is a loud and sometimes influential corner, and certainly a lot of people talk about it, but Pharyngula is not the entire internet, nor even the entirety of FTB, or the entirety of atheism/skepticism/whateverism. They have a community that works for them. I’ve never felt unwelcome there, though of course I have observed people being made to feel unwelcome. Debates and discussions between regular commentors happen all the time, sometimes civilly, sometimes uncivilly. Kind of like the interactions had with “outsiders” as you call them.

      Q4: Confronted with negative opinions of outsiders, how ready would you be to dismiss them on the spot with phrases like “Oh, they are misogynists/racists/whatever, so their opinions don’t count”? And if you are inclined to react in such a way, how instinctive is this reaction?

      A4: Negative opinions about what? About the specific blogging commenting communities? Or negative opinions about women? Or gay people? Or people of color? Or poor people? Or mentally ill people?

      As far as the dismissal goes, that seems to me to be a combination of tu quoque and ad hominem fallacies, which I’m not saying NEVER happen. If it was indeed the case, however, that a majority of people’s “negative opinions” are dismissed because they are “A sexist” or “A racist”, then that would involve fallacies. However, if the “negative opinions” in question are sexist or racist in nature, then no such fallacy exists. I’m perfectly content to dismiss an opinion that implies that women are inferior to men, or that white people are superior to all people of color, etc. It would only become an ad hominem if I were to say, “You are a racist, therefore your opinion that the sky is blue and water is wet is wrong.”

      Do I instinctively reject and/or dismiss opinions – particularly when they lack credible evidence – that are racist or sexist in nature? Absolutely.

      Q5: Do you find questions 1-4 insulting?

      A5: No. Did you intend them to be insulting?

  • Laurent Weppe

    The alternative is to self-righteously decide that because someone is advocating something harmful they must be verbally assaulted into submission.

    i think that’s where the problem really lies: you don’t want to beat into submission the people you judge to be harmfull. Some people want to beat into submission those they judge most harmfull. It’s not merely a difference regarding the means, its a difference regarding the end. Your pledge of civility is therefore going to be seen by some as demands that they abandon their ultimate goals, their very raison d’être, so it’s no wonder that it’s going to be treated in some circles with open hostility.

  • ACuriousMind

    Having read the comments over that Pharyngula, their main accusation seems to be that you are still arguing from an ivory tower where every contribution to a discussion is made in an earnest attempt to discern truth (aside from several snide comments about you being long-winded and inintellegible, which I can definitely not share), while their daily experience is that they are confronted with bigots who do not seem to be interested in real discussion. From there, they jump to “uncivil phrases” as the only means to vent their frustration and make clear what they think of such behaviour, while not recognizing that, while understandable, such utterances do nothing to further discussion – even if someone is not earnestly pursuing truth, insulting them yields no gain, merely telling them not to be so obstinate might achieve the same (most often nothing, resulting in the moderator banning them sooner or later – problem solved, isn’t it?)
    While highly idealistic, I fully support your goal to refrain from using insults of any sort in our arguments, though we will always somewhere fall short of that goal in a lapse of judgement, or merely by unthinking use of some words. It sure is an academic view of discussion, but something worth adhering to.

  • John Moriarty

    Hi Dan,
    perhaps you would be less disappointed if you shortened your posts. We don’t all take the time to be as thorough as you, for varying reasons, some quite justifiable, others maybe less so. Or you could supply an executive summary:)

  • http://daisysdeadair.blogspot.com/ DaisyDeadhead

    As one who argues with the local religious right frequently on talk radio (here in “the most conservative county in the USA”–according to Rick Santorum’s former campaign manager, who should know) –I just wanted to make the point that sometimes calling a fundamentalist “stupid” is perceived by them as a badge of honor. ‘Ye must be as little children to enter the kingdom of heaven’– and you have just compared them to children. This makes them 1) think they are doing it right, 2) pity you for thinking ‘your brains will save you’, and 2) reinforces their view of atheism as something only for pointy-haided intellectualsm, instead of regular working class people who don’t have advanced educations.

    Is any of this your intention? Then by all means, keep calling them stupid.

    If keeping atheism the territory of only the highly educated is your project, there are plenty of blogs that seem dedicated to doing that. Dan seems to be trying to branch out… and I am truly puzzled why other atheists don’t think that is a good idea.

    As one who has been eaten alive (“stupid” is the least of it) by some of the blogs/bloggers mentioned right here in this thread, let me say, I think his efforts are a step in the right direction.

  • tvanvonprag

    To mythbri: “I don’t understand the leap from an “equivalence” between “a person who is plainly wrong” and “professional philosopher” to sending that message to women philosophers only.” That leap, of course, would be silly. Most professional philosophers still are men. I just like to correct, when I can, the usual misconception that philosophy is “a guy thing”. I came across the list of woman philosophers recently and love to distribute it. Plus, obviously, I cannot send to Clarke the list with names of literally all the philosophers, so I gave him instead just a very small sample. But you are right, my restriction to woman philosophers was confusing. I should have been content with pointing out the absurdity of Clarke´s claim. Which brings me to your: “It seems pretty clear to me that Chris was making a dig only at Dan” – well, that is my reading, too, though I am not as clear about it as you are. I was just pointing it out as an example of “splash damage” that I, as a professional philosopher, I am especially tired of.

  • Ariel

    B-Lar and mythbri, thanks for bothering to answer my questions.

    Ariel, your questions will not yield answers that you find acceptable.

    True, but it wasn’t about me accepting your answers. I was curious about your self-image and my primary perspective here is whether your answers are cliché/expected/unexpected/surprising – that’s it. I expected a very high group self-assessment (Q1), inability to recognize dark aspects of the group’s behavior (Q2), disregard for the outsiders (Q3 and Q4), and high sensitivity to even a mild or imaginary provocation (Q5). Whatever in your answers goes beyond this, was unexpected to me.

    How do your answers score on such a scale? Very few surprises for me, but the readers can make their own assessments. From me just a few remarks of a different nature. The “questionnaire” (if it deserves such a name) was of course quick and crude; mythbri in particular identified some difficulties. First of all, what group? Good question. No, I do not identify FTB with Pharyngula; I know also that some bloggers remain silent about Daniel’s pledge. In fact I was thinking mainly of the gnu blogs where the pledge received a lot of negative (and similar, notwithstanding the professed ‘diversity’) feedback – this comprises not only Pharyngula, but also some others, quite influential ones. In your answers you steered in this direction anyway, so I gather that it wasn’t much of a misunderstanding.

    As for “outsiders”, this was for me a quite broad category, comprising e.g. Christians and other theists, accommodationists (yes, they are also “outsiders” in a gnu environment), men rights defenders, libertarians (that’s my impression at least), Rebecca Watson critics, slimepitters … I guess you will be able to think of more examples of your “acceptable losses”. (Staunch defenders of Daniel’s pledge perhaps? Hmmm …) An empirical criterion could be: ten critical and/or snarky answers each time they write something :-)

    As for my definition of a “problem” (mythbri’s answer to Q1), the whole thing is that it wasn’t about problems in my sense. I meant it as an open-ended question, permitting you to decide what you want to call a problem.

    Thanks once again.

    • B-Lar

      OOOH! The aloof game! I used to be quite good at that! Alas… not so much anymore…

      To reiterate, those who fail to argue in good faith and are subsequently run out of town are acceptable losses. This can be justified with the adage: “If they cant be bothered then why should I be?”. So, those on your list who would be considered acceptable losses to me are: most theists, some accomodationists, most libertarians (from what I have seen, libertarians are not very reliable, seeming to cherish and nurture their various biases), all RW critics/slimepitters (see “libertarians”). Mens rights defenders are tricky… the vocal ones seem to not really be doing any mens rights defense at all… they appear to have comandeered the term under the flag of anti feminism, and therefore are starting from a position of bad faith.

      Your empirical criterion is bogus, because each time someone argues in bad faith and then doubles down on it they legitimately open themselves up to criticism/snark, and also, unless they have been “lost” they cannot be an acceptable loss. A better criterion would be each flounce that sticks.

      As an intellectual excersise, why dont you answer your 5 questions as if you were your realised perception of a pharyngula commenter. I am now even more curious about YOUR self image.

    • Ariel

      B-Lar

      As an intellectual excersise, why dont you answer your 5 questions as if you were your realised perception of a pharyngula commenter. I am now even more curious about YOUR self image.

      No problem with that, but I’m afraid that my answers, realizing my perception of a pharyngula commenter, would be very similar to yours (less so to mythbri’s). In fact this won’t tell you much neither about my perception of Pharyngula, nor about my self image … so instead of doing it, I choose to answer you more directly. (If you are not satisfied with this, in the next post I can answer these 5 question, with the risk of boring everyone to tears.)

      So well … perhaps a surprise first. I like Pharyngula. Pharyngula is fun. Pharyngula is kink.

      I think of myself as staying in a monogamous relationship with Greta’s blog :) But as Greta taught me, monogamy comes in degrees, so it doesn’t prevent me from having a beer or two in a looser, extramarital setting (Daniel’s blog), being open about some other attractions (Ophelia), and also yes, being drawn by kink (Pharyngula).

      For someone like me, commenting on Pharyngula (this concerns also other blogs, but in a far less extreme form) is like dancing on a minefield. Or like visiting a beleaguered fortress. You expect an explosion any time, you don’t know what may trigger it, and when it happens … oh my. Good luck in discussing with a machine gun! Mix it with my sympathies for accommodationists, my strong prejudice against the left wingers, add some emotional problems, and I guess you will start having a picture. Just to repeat: I love it.

      All in all, my own experience with commenting on Pharyngula (quite a while ago) has been a good one. I don’t do it anymore: incredibly time consuming. Trying to answer sooo many charming comments while trying to be equally charming myself (Daniel is an angel, I am not) can easily take whole days. Maybe when I’m retired. Maybe then I will try to beat noelplum’s achievement of over 4 months without a banhammer … who knows!

      (And that’s my personal problem with Daniel’s pledge – signing it would be like forswearing kink forever. Of course as an argument against the pledge it sucks, you don’t have to tell me that.)

      All of the above are just my idiosyncrasies, active with the fun mode turned on. When I turn it off, I don’t like what I see. I don’t buy your flattering self-image of a community which uses insults in a responsible manner against insincere “lackwits”, sexists and racists. I think rather that the Horde ruling the place became drunk with being right (and with power they have in their tiny corner of the web). I think their use of this weapon enhances the group’s coherence and promotes their particular self-image, but not much else. You value good faith? That’s my good faith answer. As a group they are horrible. But they are also intelligent and fun to be with.

      Let me add only that I’m anonymous, I’m nobody in the movement, without any aspirations, which makes it easier for me to treat it lightly. That’s my privilege. I can afford to think that it’s just internet, that these group has no real power, nor there is a chance of them having any power over important sectors of my life. I’m aware that other people’s position might not be so comfortable.

      I hope this fits better your question than any make-believe answers to 1-5 which I might produce.

      Cheers

    • B-Lar

      Ariel,

      I can understand that you would think that way. I dont like that anyone is being dismissed as an acceptable loss, but realistically a line has to be drawn in the sand somewhere for the sake of intellectual and emotional integrity; the alternatives allow bogus bad faith ideas and bias into the equation, and if truth matters (oh it does… so very much) then these things must be kept out of the discussion.

      The Horde knows the difference between respecting an idea and respecting the person. This is the crucial factor in my opinion. Also, they self-police far more vigorously than anywhere else I have seen online, and when I read the threads, I mostly see people who care about being right rather than feeling righteous.

  • Edward Gemmer

    I think this could be boiled down to: “I pledge not to insult someone unless I have a damned good reason.”

    It strikes me that most of the insulters have a hard time distinguishing between their own feelings and the facts, and aren’t used to or aren’t comfortable with having their beliefs challenged.

    • mythbri

      The irony is strong with this one.

  • Annie

    Ideas without support are stupid. People may or may not be stupid, but I am generally not in a position to judge a person’s stupidity based on a few lines of text. And if they were truly stupid, I should feel pity, primarily.

    However, I would reserve my right to courteously point out that certain ideas are stupid.

    As someone who believed in a religion for far too long, I know that it’s not stupidity that causes many people to cling to their ideas, but childhood indoctrination along with a culture that largely takes the existence of a deity for granted (and promotes it on the currency, the pledge, the President’s oath of office, and many other ceremonial occasions). I’m a member of Mensa, and was living with an atheist for probably 5 or 6 years before I became an atheist. And then it was not something that he said (I avoided discussing god with him because I thought – correctly as it turned out – that he would “spoil” things for me) but because I took a religion class in order to study for the ministry.

    IMO, believers are typically indoctrinated, invested in their current world view, and afraid of what they might find out and what that would mean to their world view.

  • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave

    Dan wrote:
    > You wouldn’t blame a scientist and call her arrogant for simply going over some laypeople’s heads.

    Well, actually, Dan, lots and lots and lots of people would.

    As you know, I am a Ph.D. physicist; I know a decent amount about the science behind the “global warming” issue. And, again and again and again, when I have tried to point out some of the actual science that shows that both the Denialists and the Catastrophists are oversimplifying more than a bit, “arrogant” is the least of the insults hurled my way.

    When they accuse me of being an elitist, whether a tool of the International Environmentalist Conspiracy or of the International Big Oil Conspiracy, am I really in the wrong if I point out that they are stupid?

    Most of these people are not deprived near-illiterates: they are commonly college-educated people who just do not want to believe that maybe scientific details are relevant to scientific issues.

    In fact, I usually refrain from calling them “stupid,” because that would be too easy.

    But, I am sure that they do figure out that I have a negative opinion of their low level of mental functioning.

    And, considering that their initial insults towards me are not veiled at all, I am rather pleased knowing that they realize I have contempt for them.

    I am not a Christian: I do not believe in turning the other cheek.

    Incidentally, “global warming” is one of many examples. Once, for example, I posted some help to a kid on his physics homework assignment, and some other guy, for no discernible reason, started attacking me. I have had similar experiences when I briefly mentioned some fact about relativity or other matters in physics that have no religious or political implications that I know of.

    There are in fact a lot of people on the Web who lash out bizarrely at people who have actual knowledge, and merely to respond by calling them “stupid” would show a good deal of self-restraint.

    On the other hand, I will grant that lashing back is almost always a waste of time: it is probably best to reply to such people with “I have no respect for your behavior and will not respond further. Bye.”

    At any rate, let me assure you that complete strangers will indeed thrust themselves into conversations on the Web and insult us scientists again and again and again as evil arrogant elitist monsters simply because we mention something about science that one would not even think was controversial.

    The same thing happens to us scientists in the real world (my most recent experience with “global-warming” science to which I alluded above actually occurred in the real world), though, thankfully, real-world etiquette still has slightly higher standards than Web etiquette.

    Dave Miller in Sacramento

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

      Hi Dave. Yes, I know that there is this hostility even to scientists. I was specifically trying to appeal to a reader of PZ Myers’s, thinking that such a person would not show scientists contempt the way others might.

  • PhysicistDave

    Well, Dan, you’ll be happy to know that quite a few of PZ’s denizens are indeed happy to show contempt towards scientists — it’s happened to me, when I mentioned something about global warming that most of them did not want to hear, when I said something on politics that annoyed some of them, etc.

    There is a fair amount of diversity at PZ’s, so it has never been the case that I felt that everyone there hated me, but, yes, quite a few of the guys at PZ’s get pretty nasty towards *anyone* they disagree with.

    Personally, I find that behavior rather beyond normal American standards, whether directed at me or at Christians, and I tend to post on PZ’s only when I am feeling especially thick-skinned. But they do not do it only to Christians.

    On the other hand, I myself am much more hostile to clear, blatant pathological liars (the sort that will attribute something in direct quotes to someone that the person did not say, and then not even admit what they did even when anyone can check it) than most of PZ’s guys: I think all such people should really drop dead. I have similar attitudes towards people who actually favor the Holocaust (not Deniers but actual supporters!) who favor executing people for blasphemy (check out the “Orthosphere”), etc., though I do not use potty language in condemning such people, as PZ’s guys do.

    So, it seems to me that the issue is a complicated one.

    Perhaps one point on which you and I do disagree with many of the guys at PZ’s is that I do not hate or despise Christians simply because they are Christians: I disagree with them, but I do not hate them. In fact, I like the vast majority of Christians I know, many of whom are friends, relatives, and neighbors. Indeed, as far as I can tell, I like about the same fraction of Christians as of atheists.

    Dave

  • Kristen inDallas

    Dan,
    First off, I wanted to applaud your intentions here and with the civility pledge. How to communicate, how to treat each other with dignity and respect, are topics worth talking about, even if we don’t agree on every method. One thing I am particularly interested in, are the differences (and sometimes the lack of differences) between the words “stupid” or “moron” vs. the implication that someone is ignorant.

    I’m not really attempting to engage the people who are defending the use of abusive language (we’re not likely to see eye to eye on that). But there are a few commenters here who I see backing off of the obviously offensive phrases and opting instead for the more academic use of “ignorant.” And I am seeing others (like Mellow Monkey and LoyalB) reacting against this implied preference towards more polite phrases like ignorant, undeducated, less priveledged, etc. I think that a big part of the problem is in applying those labels (the nasty ones or the polite ones) to individuals we only *know* via an internet handle or to entire groups of people who may not have anything in common other than their philosophical worldview. In order to count someone as “ignorant,” we have to make an assumption (and in online discussions it’s almost always an *ignorant* assumption) about what the person we’re talking to has or hasn’t read, knows or doesn’t know, or doesn’t understand.

    The brain is a funny thing- it’s not just about having some particular chunk of information, it’s about how many connections exist between those chunks and all the other chunks and the emotions that all those connections trigger. Suppose an atheist and a believer who have read all the same books, got the same grades in science, and have even expirienced the same music. It’s still possible to disagree – perhaps they read the philosophies with a different mindset, maybe one learned the scientific method in a textbook and the other practiced it in a lab, or maybe one just can’t hear Bach without remembering some crotchety old piano teacher and an unforgiving metronome.

    I can imagine a illustrative dialouge between someone like you and someone like Marc Barnes: “But Empiricism! But Rationality!” “But, But Beauty! But Love!” It would be wrong in that scenario for you to assume he is ignorant of the philosophical arguments, just as it would be wrong for him to assume you are ignorant of true love. Sometimes (I’d go so far as to say most of the time when it comes to Patheos commenters) it isn’t a matter of not undersatnding the argument being made so much as the argument simply not being good *enough* to trump the person’s real reason for believing or not believing in the first place.

    Anyway, I’m not intending to undermine the call to civility. I think that’s a good first step. But I do think that real and meaningful discourse requires more than just being civil. It requires genuine respect for another person’s ability to learn and to understand, to discern their own meaning,and sometimes to reject yours.

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

      I do think that real and meaningful discourse requires more than just being civil. It requires genuine respect for another person’s ability to learn and to understand, to discern their own meaning,and sometimes to reject yours.

      Much of the civility pledge is concerned with how to at least act as though you genuinely respect their ability to learn and understand.

  • DSimon

    Perhaps the issue is simply this: “Civility Pledge” isn’t a good name for the document. It’s about something both more specialized and larger in application than acting like a civilized person. Reading the document clarifies this, but it’s quite long! A better title might make it easier to take it at its intended meaning.

    Maybe the “Charity Principle Pledge” or the “Never-Troll Pledge”, or perhaps the “Steel-Manning Pledge”? Those aren’t great titles, but I hope you can see what I’m getting at.


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