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

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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.