Intent Is Not Magic, But It Still Matters

Sometimes we hurt others without intending to do so. Often in these cases, we typically feel it a matter of paramount importance to clarify our intentions and demonstrate that they were not malicious, and that the harm our actions did was accidental. This makes sense and is legitimate in that whether we are perceived as a good willed or an ill-willed person is a serious issue. It is inherently unjust to be seen as someone willfully cruel or indifferent to others when one is not. And if one gains a reputation as malignantly motivated, one risks serious social repercussions too.

On the other hand, when others hurt us, we typically want them to acknowledge that they hurt us, show that they both understand and take seriously the wrongness of what they did, demonstrate sincere remorse for having hurt us, and convince us they have either learned or are actively taking steps to be reliably better to us in the future before we will trust them again.

So when one of us unintentionally harms another these sets of priorities tend to automatically activate in the respective parties’ brains. The one is often primarily concerned to make clear, before all else, that no harm was intended. The other is often primarily concerned to get a remorseful and repentant acknowledgement of wrongdoing. Ideally, and in many actual situations, these two aims are compatible. The offender can convey they didn’t mean harm but that they understand how what they did was genuinely wrong and hurtful and are sorry for it on that account and how they will rectify their future behavior as much as they can to avoid recurrences. The wronged party can then be satisfied that the person they are dealing with means well, has taken responsibility for failure to do well, and will be more conscientious in the future.

But sometimes this goes off the rails for one of a couple of reasons.

Sometimes the offended party treats the offending party with the kind of interpersonal hostility owed only to a willfully chronic wrongdoer and this makes the offending party defensive. They didn’t mean to cause harm. So while they can be persuaded to see themselves as someone who makes mistakes worth the other being upset about, they are quite justifiably disinclined to see themselves as a generally bad person, and they strongly do not want to be treated like a terrible person because of an honest mistake. They do not have malicious motives. They are not indifferent to others’ well being. They quite rightly do not want their whole character falsely impugned because of an error of judgment. People should criticize behaviors without leaping falsely to the conclusion that those behaviors are the sum of what a person is and they should criticize harms without assuming bad intentions. They should direct their anger at bad behaviors or bad effects and not at the characters or motives of people who only accidentally do bad.

Sometimes those who bear the brunt of too much personal hostility relative to their actual badness of intentions or character will let excessive onslaughts slide to one extent or another because they are sympathetic to the other’s pain and anger and see that the pain and anger themselves are justifiable, even if their expressions of them are excessive or unrestrained and the judgments they are making are becoming unfair. Or sometimes they will assert themselves and apologize strongly for the bad deed, defend their character, and try to talk their accuser into believing their motives were not bad and into seeing the bigger picture.

Now, sometimes the offended party will have cause to make character accusations. They will be able to observe a pattern of mistakes that they will take to be symptomatic of a deeper character flaw. Or they will be justifiably frustrated by repeated mistakes of a certain kind they have complained about before only to see continue. With increasing evidence of poor character it becomes increasingly justifiable that criticisms move from behavior to character assessments and someone’s motives become less relevant. It becomes important that the serial offender be more proactive about changing and more proactive about figuring out in advance what will cause harm. Failing to do so makes accidental mistakes into morally culpable negligence that does reflect poorly on your general character in a way that other misfires of judgment or momentary weakness do not. I do not think that this is cause for the offended party to be abusive and call someone derogatory names like “asshole” or “douchebag” or “stupid” or to employ sexist or racist insult words, etc. But there is a place for not mincing words in naming vices and saying that “you are demonstrating yourself to be very selfish” or “thoughtless” or “irresponsible” or “greedy” or any of an enormous variety of specifiable types of bad. (For more on how we are responsible for how we cultivate our attitudes and feelings see: Yes, We Can Blame People For Their Feelings, Not Just Their Actions.)

The really hard situations come in when we not only hurt someone unintentionally but we see nothing wrong with what we did. We do not think that they are right to feel hurt and offended. Or some people say to others “you have a right to feel offended but not to insist I care”, meaning there’s no right and wrong in how someone feels but when you’ve done nothing actually wrong you don’t have to feel sorry. I prefer the former option. I do not think people who have not genuinely been wronged have a moral right to feel offended (though of course it is trivially and uncontroversially true they have that legal right). So, to me it’s not a matter of saying, “I don’t care whether you’re offended”. I do care. If you are offended for a good reason, I should apologize. If I think you are offended for a bad reason then I think you have made an intellectual and emotional mistake somewhere and I should challenge you (to whatever extent it is going to be productive) to reconsider the rationality of the moral judgment that has made you angry. It is important that we hash out our differences over what feelings are fit to what situations. These debates are invaluable to training our thoughts and emotions and behaviors to be the most mutually constructive in the long run. We need the input of other people into our considerations. (For more see: No, Not Everyone Has A Moral Right To Be Offended.)

And of course we might very well be wrong when we think an offended person is mistaken in being offended. They may be making a  more justifiable moral judgment than our own. They now need to convince us to see things their way. Now this is where things get very subtly tricky in ways that need to be teased out carefully if we are to have more productive discussions on social justice issues where these differences lead to ever-escalating acrimonies.

First, there are two crucial things we need to keep in mind before challenging others’ feelings of offense. The first is to seriously take into account ways that their experiences may be drastically different than ours that make certain statements or actions far more consequential and upsetting to them for understandable reasons. What would not bother us might not bother us because we do not have to deal with things they have to deal with that make it rightly bother them. We have to pay serious attention to this as our first priority. We have to deliberately contemplate all the possible ways we might be wrong, even where the person who is indignant may not be able to spell them all out themselves. We have to pay extra special attention to learning about aspects of their experience that we have no personal analogue to even grasping and aspects of their experience that, not having had it, are closed off to us nearly entirely except by listening carefully to them. Being conscientious means resisting the temptation to let our concern with the purity of our intentions cloud our ability to investigate thoroughly whether we might still be wrong in one way or another.

The other thing we need to do is be proactive before we ever get to the point of offending anyone. Anyone who claims that sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, ableism, etc. do not exist or do not infect our thinking, our institutions, our culture, etc. in deep and sometimes untraceable ways is being pretty willfully blind. That is not to say that these are the only causes of problems (even for the marginalized themselves). That’s not to say that white straight cisgendered able-bodied males who belong to majority groups have no problems or that there are no specific disadvantages that members of dominant groups sometimes have that are unique to them. It’s not to dismiss the experiences or hardships or injustices suffered by members of the more “privileged” groups to admit that there are groups that suffer marginalization that is systematic (whether diabolically intended or just culturally self-perpetuating) and real and tangibly injurious.

And since we know these things exist and that they do not require evil motivations or a desire to be a bigot in order to affect a person’s thinking, speaking, and behaving, we have a positive responsibility to research how we ourselves participate in and passively perpetuate these injustices. We should seek out literature where we can learn what kinds of language choices, attitudes, behaviors, etc. have marginalizing effects on others and why. We should figure out if there are ways we can modify our behavior and patterns of categorization in advance to avoid unintentionally offending people who already have a ton on their plate to deal with because of the effects of systemic marginalization.

And when we have failed to do this conscientiously in advance, it does make us somewhat culpable when we wind up making preventable mistakes. We know we live in societies with downright evil disparities in not only opportunities but in real outcomes. We know these are to one extent or another outgrowths of patterns of unfairness that have roots in old, unjustly discriminatory and marginalizing, explicitly oppressive social arrangements and attitudes. It is our responsibility to be scrupulous about not perpetuating those injustices. So even where we deserve some slack and not to be excoriated as malicious when our intentions are benign, it is incumbent to remind ourselves that part of the anger we encounter (even when it is excessive) is owed to our own negligence and, so, to that extent deserved. It is at least worth an apology that acknowledges that we benefit from things that hurt them.

But what about when we are the offended party, because we, or those we are offended on behalf of, have been wrongly insulted?

Like we said at the top, when people didn’t intend to hurt anyone, it is often of primary importance to them that this be acknowledged. Even when people are happy to acknowledge wrongdoing, they are often at pains to also make clear they lack malignant motives. Now in modern Western culture, bigotry is considered one of the greatest evils. Being a bigot is considered one of the most monstrous character traits and being motivated by bigotry is scorned as the least reputable of motivations. And many people think that for something to be bigoted, it has to come from a place of malice towards the group suffering bigotry. It’s as though they think that one can’t accidentally be the worst kind of perpetrator of immorality. Racism, for example, is construed by many as only either a hatred of members of some one or many other races or a belief in the superiority of one race to others. A racist is assumed to have ill-intentions and specific kinds of ideological racist beliefs. So, to many people’s minds not intending anything hateful is not doing anything hateful and so should not reasonably be taken as hateful or as a cause for pain and anger.

And since, to this thinking, the whole harm in racism is in the hate it expresses, nothing can be racist and hateful if it comes from an intention that is not racist or hateful. And so, according to this mindset, anyone taking offense at what was not intended offensively is misunderstanding the motives and or the character of the accidentally offending party. And add to this the natural defensiveness when we didn’t mean harm. If not only our action is being called bigoted but we or our motives are explicitly being called bigoted, then we are going to be tempted to become primarily focused on how we are not bigots and on how our action should not be interpreted as bigoted either, by extension. Our honor is on the line. We are not going to be painted as malicious when we weren’t. And insofar as admitting the action had marginalizing effects would give fodder to those who are charging us with being bigots, we are now quite likely to dig in our heels against any interpretation of even the action as having negative implications, even if only mistakenly. In other words, we become less likely to even admit “my action is wrong just mistakenly” in these kinds of cases, though we might readily do so in any number of others.

This is why it is vital to me that we distinguish between bigoted character, bigoted motives, and the effects of pervasive systematic marginalization that all of us participate in and perpetuate, even when only unconsciously or against our explicit wills and desires. And to get someone to consider that what they have said contributes to people’s oppression, the first priority has to be to assuage their agitation to defend their personal character and motives, so that mentally they can take them off the table and get them out of the way. As maddeningly unfair and overly considerate of the feelings of bigots as this might sound, the person who needs to have their mind changed here is the one in denial they are saying or doing anything with bigoted connotations or effects. Dealing with what is going on in their minds as sensitively, shrewdly, and strategically as possible has to be a high priority if we want them to change. Leaping straight to charges against their character or motives risks alienating them. Most of them do not see their character that way. They do not see their motives that way. They live in their own minds and hearts and even if they in fact misunderstand themselves they will indignantly insist that they have better access to what goes on in there than you do. They will feel misrepresented and misunderstood and maligned and threatened.

This is also the case if they are being disingenuous and claiming they’re ignorant when they are not (or are not fully). It is strategically best to give them the benefit of the doubt (at least outwardly) if we are to focus the attention on why what they did was wrong and why they should not do it in the future and keep it from being a debate about them as individuals. They have much more psychological, moral, and social stake in defending themselves and their basic goodness as a person than they have in defending any given statement or action. So giving them ample room (even sometimes more than they might deserve) to disassociate from a statement or action frees them up psychologically to reject it more safely. And even where they are knowingly bigoted, they may feel they have justifications for this that are unjustifiably suppressed and be resentful that their whole character is being impugned because of false social standards imposed on them. It’s best to focus on how what they do actually does harm or is irrational if a dent is to be made.

So the more you make it about them as people, the more they will lose psychological incentive to reunderstand their action as having anything whatsoever to do with bigotry. In their defensive state, it will become all the more important to disassociate their action from having any reasonable connotations of bigotry lest these charges against their character and motives gain traction and they be judged a terrible person. The more you help them disassociate the core of their being from the action, the more they are free to listen to criticisms of it.

So, talk to them about how things can be hurtful even if unintentionally–something everyone admits and understands. Stress to them that they have a responsibility to pay attention to how things hurt others and that it is not always on others’ shoulders not to be sensitive. Again, this is a principle that can be argued for with plenty of examples everyone accepts. Make clear to them that assuming their intentions are non-malignant is not the same thing as claiming their action is not of a type that has hurtful effects. We have to make the case for why we in this particular case have good justification to be sensitive by explaining how the offending remarks or behavior perpetuates unjust systems or attitudes, makes people feel excluded, implies nasty things, etc. We also have to stress the ways that more than just we (or whoever the offended party is) feel this way and most importantly we need to stress to the person whose actions we are criticizing that they are responsible going forward if they intentionally continue to do what they just did now that they know it has these hurtful implications. We can do all this by not getting more angry with them as individuals than their ignorance or intentions merit.

If you can make your complaint not about the past, you can stress to them that in the future they will be culpable if they act like they don’t know better now that they’ve had it explicitly explained to them. And then if they show a dismissiveness, you can have grounds for making more serious moral charges about their motives.

But in the meantime, reaffirming that you are giving them the benefit of the doubt and just talking about the nature of the action opens them up to consider the action itself without the emotional investment of themselves in the action. If they are not being accused of willing all that is wrong with what they did, they will be less invested personally in declaiming all wrong in what they did. They can say, “Oh, I see, here’s the part which was me, which was not wrong, but here’s the part I didn’t understand and that part was wrong”. Now they are much freer to unqualifiedly denounce the action, which is precisely what is important going forward. It’s important that that action be stigmatized, not that particular person. (Or that implicit attitude or saying or unjust structure they were perpetuating, etc.)

When the focus is on the future you are essentially saying to them, “I am not going to call you a terrible person for your mistake as long as you agree to not repeat it.” This forces it upon them to either defend their future self hurting future people or to reject the action. If they admit they’re willing to go on hurting people in the future then you have a much stronger basis for challenging their motives and their character because they are owning it. It doesn’t matter they only accidentally hurt you this time if they’d willfully do it again! So if they go that route you can dismiss their whole insistence that their intentions are pure as disingenuous. You can say, “Even knowing you will hurt people and even having seen this evidence of how you will hurt people, you don’t care, so your intentions are willfully negligent to others’ feelings or outright malicious.” 

Now they could have reasons that are potentially sincere for still being willing to risk hurting others’ feelings. There may be other principles that could plausibly be more important. Or they may have minimally good enough arguments that others are not right to feel offended. In those cases, you might give them the benefit of the doubt that while they disagree, they’re not malicious at least.

But you should still stress to them that, as a matter of practice, it is only civil and respectful to minimize offense as much as possible consistent with advancing what one takes to be the true and the good. While all of us should feel entitled to argue abstractly and adamantly for why something should not be a matter of offense, for as long as people with reasonable arguments (or a significant number of people) really think it should be seen as offensive, we should at least honor our antagonists’ feelings in our behavior and word choices as much as possible, even if we cannot honor them with the honest content of our ideas.  For example, I think insults from “stupid” to “cunt” are all abusive things to hurl at people and should be unacceptable in arguments. But I can tolerate people defending the terms for as long as they’re not using them at me or others as part of the debate about them. And while I will argue until I’m blue in the face that there should be nothing inherently offensive about criticizing theological beliefs as false, in the process I shouldn’t make the point by personally denigrating my defensive, theologically inclined interlocutors themselves.

Finally, if you think I am naïve or you think I am just interested in accommodating bigots, I encourage you to read my post civilly calling out someone for a racist action last month and then take careful note of just how many of my points he conceded about why what he did was wrong in his apology. I followed precisely the recommendations laid out above to (with the help of others) elicit that relatively thorough recognition and denunciation of what he did wrong.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

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

  • Ace_of_Sevens

    I think the main problem with “intent isn’t magic” callouts in practice is that the person saying they didn’t mean anything bigoted isn’t saying they should get a pass because they didn’t have ill-intent; they are saying that they are being misinterpreted. These aren’t the same thing at all.

    Or, to put it another way, when people say “intent isn’t magic” it often comes across as a claim that there’s no such thing as taking offense unreasonably, which as far as I can tell, no one actually believes.

    It comes across as trying to assign someone responsibility for something that they don’t believe they said, which of course makes people angry for roughly the same reasons as silencing.

    Like privilege and other social justice concepts, it was invented to talk about an important issue, but some people glommed onto it as a way to score points in arguments, which leads the inattentive to think the whole concept is bullshit.

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      Yes. This post is my little drop in the bucket to try to clarify the issues.

  • cripdyke

    to get someone to consider that what they have said contributes to people’s oppression, the first priority has to be to assuage their agitation to defend their personal character and motives, so that mentally they can take them off the table and get them out of the way. As maddeningly unfair and overly considerate of the feelings of bigots as this might sound, the person who needs to have their mind changed here is the one in denial they are saying or doing anything with bigoted connotations or effects. Dealing with what is going on in their minds as sensitively, shrewdly, and strategically as possible has to be a high priority if we want them to change.

    and

    This is also the case if they are being disingenuous and claiming they’re ignorant when they are not (or are not fully). It is strategically best to give them the benefit of the doubt (at least outwardly) if we are to focus the attention on why what they did was wrong and why they should not do it in the future and keep it from being a debate about them as individuals.

    add up to something that you’ve probably addressed elsewhere, but I haven’t seen from you – the assumption that those people calling out oppression and/or confronting bigots are interested in changing the minds of those bigots.

    A number of times recently I have had arguments I’ve made entirely dismissed with mere accusations that I’m too upset/angry/emotional. I’m not interested in engaging someone who sees a clear argument on the screen, but dismisses it **and then** takes time to make sure they tell me that I’m too hysterical to have my argument considered.

    I’m not interested in changing the mind of someone who thinks the ladies can’t argue – even when they’re arguing – because some real or imagined emotion is perceived in my writing.

    I know that there are bystanders. The internet is different from real life. In real life I can judge from a million factors whether the person in front of me is open to new information. Online I can’t do that. But online my words have staying power and will be read by many beyond the ostensible conversation partner. In person oral conversation is ephemeral, and may never be experienced by anyone other than the myself and one offending party.

    If I portray as reasonable the position of someone who thinks a reasonable response is, “Chicks are hysterical” to my factual and logical response to ableist assumptions regarding assisted suicide, there are different consequences in an online conversation and an in person conversation.

    In person, if I respond to that person I must accomplish my goals assuming that only 2 people know of my response – myself and the offending party.

    Online, if I respond to that person, I can assume that more parties not implicated in the response will read it than parties implicated in the response. Indeed, there are many times more people reading that are not implicated than those that are.

    While bending over backwards to assume good character can be useful if I am desiring to bring about change in the offending party, it can be counterproductive if 100 other people read it and conclude that there’s nothing wrong with going through life believing, “Chicks are hysterical” is a reasonable thing to say.

    Moreover, people have attributed to me positions that I expressly contradicted in the first sentence of a post, while accusing me of being too emotional to make an argument. Acting as if it is reasonable to assign to a person a position opposite to that which they have expressed also leads to bad results – even in the “clean room” of space specifically carved out for reasoned debate on emotional and/or controversial topics.

    Ultimately, I think that in debates with large numbers of witnesses, the “benefit of the doubt” proposition that ignores the fact that while we individually may not have called them out on such a thing before, our culture provides innumerable opportunities to discover such basic rules as, “Don’t ignore a woman’s argument and then say, ‘Chicks are hysterical,’ as your rationale for such a dismissal”.

    To say that the person is only morally culpable after we, personally, have given them information on this point is to give 3.5 billion persons a free pass to do this 3.5 billion times.

    In other words, your formulation creates hugely more room for exactly the negligence that you decry. As someone who assumes that most of the minor, quotidian expressions of oppression are negligent, I disagree strongly with your advice in the context of public debates such as occur online. Even if the subject of my response doesn’t like me, others are doing exactly what you want – considering the wrongness or rightness of an action without themselves being in the equation. If I bent over backward to say I could be wrong, those 10s or 100s of people reading along wouldn’t be motivated to actually engage my critique.

    “Oh, even the proponent of not saying ‘Chicks are hysterical’ concedes that it might not be morally wrong, so I certainly don’t have to spend time examining the question.”

    Finally, there’s *me* to consider. If I feel sick at the end of the day because my bend-over-backward-to-assume-good-intentions-in-a-way-that-ignores-the-overwhelmingly-common-truths-of-our-society approach has been misread [or I fear it has been misread] as less than a strong condemnation of the behavior and a solid expectation that people in public fora ought to already know not to say, “Chicks are hysterical”, then preventing that illness is an end I may pursue on its own.

    I don’t assume that changing the offending person’s mind is the goal.

    I don’t assume that working hard to change that one person’s mind is a good thing to do if it slightly increases the risk of negligence by many others in order to significantly decrease the risk of negligence by the person I’m visibly addressing.

    i’m happy you’re addressing negligence, but it seems that you believe that it’s unreasonable to hold someone accountable for that negligence unless you’ve personally warned a person about a specific oppressive behavior.

    Frankly, I think it’s more respectful of people to assume that they are competent adults who could have learned not to be sexist jerks had they been so motivated.

    • Ariel

      In other words, your formulation creates hugely more room for exactly the negligence that you decry. As someone who assumes that most of the minor, quotidian expressions of oppression are negligent, I disagree strongly with your advice in the context of public debates such as occur online. Even if the subject of my response doesn’t like me, others are doing exactly what you want – considering the wrongness or rightness of an action without themselves being in the equation. If I bent over backward to say I could be wrong, those 10s or 100s of people reading along wouldn’t be motivated to actually engage my critique. (…) I don’t assume that changing the offending person’s mind is the goal.

      I think you are right in stressing the importance of the bystanders’ (or readers’) reaction. You are also right that quite often our primary motivation is not to convince our interlocutor, but to reach other people.

      This said, my own position would be probably somewhere in between yours and Dan’s. I appreciate what you wrote; there are good observations there. But from my point of view, there are also some important elements missing in your account – elements which are (imo) quite crucial. These are: (1) the sort of an audience you are trying to reach; and (2) how compelling your arguments are, especially as directed to the intended audience. To illustrate the problems, consider two examples.

      First. Did you know that they have religion on Mars? Sure they do. But recently a particularly angry and insolent kind of atheism emerged there, gathering a lot of support. These atheists started mixing criticism of religion with a lot of taunting, mocking, insulting and ridiculing. Not civil at all, believe me. And they were successful! What they did came as a shock to many, and quite often it was exactly that kind of shock that was needed. The audience was ready for this. The criticism was incisive and good, often difficult to answer; the dire problems plaguing religion were felt as real. To a large degree, a success story. Why not try to reproduce it in other areas? Well, why not?

      Second. On Mars they have blogs as well. One particular blog became famous for harsh treatment of “jerks”. If you go there and say something not to the liking of the commentariat, be prepared to change your mind quickly, otherwise you’ll be buried under a large heap of insults and derision, with decisive action taken against you. Asshole, shithead, jerk, douchebag, almost anything goes (except slurs). Gnu strategy generalized! We are nerds, we are wet, we are very, very upset! After all, once successful means always successful … right? And the whole thing is not about convincing a given jerk, it’s about getting the message to the bystanders, exactly as you say. A foolproof, proven recipe! How could it fail?

      But cripdyke, from what I see, there is trouble on Mars. Not a PR disaster perhaps (or maybe it’s already a disaster, I’m not sure), but something heading in this direction. Here are the basic problems, as I see them.

      First, it seems to me that they misjudged their audience. Their main (or at least the most vocal) audience was composed of the gnus themselves, people well versed in that sort of a strategy and quite ready to go to extremes in applying it. In effect things got out of control. A substantial part of the audience refused to be quickly convinced (miscalculation?) and reacted badly. Sticks against arrows turned into arrows against muskets, then into muskets against machine guns … and so on, and so on. Classical escalation. People ridiculing religion (and having an easy ride with it) became themselves targets of harsh and cruel ridicule and – forgive me this remark – many of them started looking pretty helpless against determined opponents wielding this powerful weapon. Quite a change, which illustrates also how copying a successful strategy can lead you nowhere, if the circumstances are different enough!

      Second, the shock value of harsh language, which (as you quite correctly stress) can be so motivating for those who are ‘reading along’, seems to have been largely lost somewhere on the way. More and more often you get reactions like “oh, invectives and comparisons to serial killers again? Yeah, sure. The same as every day at this place”. In short: the more you use it, the more devaluated it becomes and the more often you can count on a shrug, instead of a serious engagement, from your readers.

      Third (and this is the place where I would quarrel with Dan as well), invectives and harsh language have (imo) their place when you are pretty damned sure that (1) your standpoint is both morally superior and very strongly justified; (2) your opponent is dishonest or harmful beyond the pale, or anyway s/he doesn’t count, because (3) it is the bystanders that matter. But there is a problem with providing this as a justification of using such a language on a regular basis. It creates an impression that being “pretty damned sure” is your normal state of mind (given your audience, an almost unforgivable sin). It creates also an impression that individual people (as opposed to groups) do not count to you. Just to be sure: I’m not attributing here motives and thoughts to these Martian commenters (we are on Mars, remember?) Rather: I try to assess the bystanders reactions, and that’s what I see. It looks like the Martian blog started to be perceived in this way. And from here it’s really a short road to a PR disaster.

      To tell you the truth, I don’t read the Martian blog (or at least it’s comment section) anymore. On top of all of the above, there were some rather nasty incidents and after one of them (the “friendly fire” incident) I felt that enough is enough and I decided to stick to Earth. Naturally, I can’t be completely sure about Dan’s motivation behind this whole civility business, but if it’s a part of it, I sympathize.

    • cripdyke

      First, I don’t think that there’s anything to be gained by labeling Pharyngula or FtB or any other specific formulation you want to use “Mars”. Either you have a real example in mind, or you don’t. If you do, pointing to the actual evidence is great. If you don’t, what were you talking about again? Saying, “Mars” instead of whatever blog (or blog network) you happen to mean is worse than unproductive. It encourages people to believe that they may know what you’re talking about when, in fact, they don’t.

      For instance, you may be speaking generally of FtB. But someone reading you may be thinking Pharyngula specifically. Your criticism may ring true because **your reader is trying to think of an example consistent with what you’re saying**. You are asking the reader to supply your evidence, and providing no quality controls to ensure that the evidence supplied by your reader actually supports your argument. But you are doing it in such a way that, wink wink, we are encouraged to pat ourselves on the back for being in the know, so your readers are discouraged from checking in with you about this as well.

      You may feel it takes courage to criticize some blog or other. And maybe it does. But I assume we’re talking about very useful things, and for me getting those things right is worth the risks that are necessary to avoid the code-talking errors your “Mars” language risks.

      Second, where are you disagreeing with me? I criticize Dan not because I don’t believe in civility – I do. I believe it’s a tool. I believe that it communicates very specific things. I believe it encourages very specific things. When I want to communicate those things or encourage those things, yay! I’ve got civility on hand. But if I decide a priori that I must always and only use the civility tool, then when civility encourages things I think are bad or communicates things I don’t wish to communicate, then I can only shut up or act counter to my own interest. And when oppression is being furthered, shutting up acts counter to my own interest (regardless of whether I am targeted by the specific oppression furthered).

      This in no way implies that I am for calling people names. There is a difference between being pro-choice and pro-abortion. I find it odd that so many people can see that on the abortion issue but can’t at all see that on the civility issue.

      You may indeed have evidence of something that I’ve done with which you disagree, but you haven’t provided it here and seem to be assuming without evidence that my position differs from yours.

      Why?

      Did you have some feeling that I’m anti-civility instead of merely anti-civility pledge? Why?

      If you’ve read me elsewhere, you’ll know that I do attribute motive or characteristics when I have evidence. When someone makes a truly horrible argument, I have said things as serious as “What kind of idiot are you?” but only in a situation where I immediately went on to spell out that the argument is contradicted by public and ubiquitous evidence in addition to common sense. In context, I said, “This argument is idiotic and you look an awful lot like an idiot for advancing such a thing.”

      Not my finest moment, sure, but not at all the same thing as simply calling a name that is unrelated to the evidence before us – I attributed a characteristic for which I had evidence. As well, I didn’t shout the person down, I showed that the argument was laughably wrong.

      But usually my willingness to attribute motive is about deception and arguing in bad faith – and this takes several posts, but when someone argues something that they clearly don’t believe themselves, I call them on it.

      It may be that they simply are typing without thinking about what they’re saying. It may, in fact, be more generous to think of them as incompetently arguing rather than arguing in bad faith. However, I don’t see the difference, really. Engaging in an argument about what is right or true without being willing to use your brain to make sure your own statements conform to the minimum standard of actually being what you mean to say is pretty crappy behavior. I thought we were in a debate about something important. The other party thought just randomly saying “you’re wrong” was a useful contribution.

      Yuck – how does that make a person feel about the value of the time used. It discourages thoughtful debate at least as much as being called a name you think you don’t deserve. After all, with the first you engage in time-consuming debate participation to find debate participation useless. In the second (even if you do deserve the name) your belief that you don’t deserve to be referred to with a given epithet makes you believe that the other party isn’t debating – not that they were debating and you can’t tell until a lot of effort was put in that the debate was all in vain.

      But this is the extent of my willingness to assign motives and to categorize people. I call out negligence, I call out stupid arguments, and I call out arguing in bad faith. And when I do, I assume that the people whose nyms are attached to the statements are responsible for those statements. Infrequently, I will refer to people as having the qualities of their statements.

      But did you actually know any of this when you were writing that you disagree with me? How is any of that an unwillingness to consider audience and which methods are effective. If you look at my earlier comment, it is **all about** choosing the audience (not assuming that there is only one audience), analyzing the chosen audience, and determining that in some circumstances following Dan’s assume-the-best formulation is not actually appropriate to the intended audience. I don’t know how my analysis could be more in tune with yours.

      Anyway, I think if you wish to criticize a blog you should do it on that blog. If you wish to talk about what strategies are actually counter-productive, you should talk about them and give examples. And I think if you’re going to assume that I disagree with a proposition, you should have some evidence of that.

      Although I didn’t have a statement as specific as, “Let me first say that I believe that a message has to be tailored to an audience and that empirical evidence about past attempts to influence audiences is a good source of information to be used in the process of such tailoring,” at the top of my comment, it feels bizarre that you could get out of that comment that I somehow disagree that message tailoring and audience-choosing and outcome-monitoring were not top concerns for me.

    • Ariel

      First, I don’t think that there’s anything to be gained by labeling Pharyngula or FtB or any other specific formulation you want to use “Mars”. Either you have a real example in mind, or you don’t. Saying, “Mars” instead of whatever blog (or blog network) you happen to mean (…) encourages people to believe that they may know what you’re talking about when, in fact, they don’t.

      Fair enough; it was nothing deeper than playfulness on my part (I must learn to control the urge). I thought the message was clear, but since evidently it wasn’t, here it goes: I meant Pharyngula, not FtB. Many FtB blogs are (imo) interesting and valuable and my remarks as applied to them would be unfair even by my own standards.

      You may feel it takes courage to criticize some blog or other. And maybe it does. But I assume we’re talking about very useful things, and for me getting those things right is worth the risks that are necessary to avoid the code-talking errors your “Mars” language risks.

      Ok, no playful code-talking any more. As for courage, it seems to me that confronting such a group in real world would require a lot of courage. On the web, a lot depends on the vulnerability of the critic. In my own case (if that’s what you were really alluding to) there is very little risk and I definitely don’t feel like a bravehero.

      Second, where are you disagreeing with me?

      After reading your reply I’m not sure if there is any substantial disagreement between us. But more explanations below.

      You may indeed have evidence of something that I’ve done with which you disagree, but you haven’t provided it here and seem to be assuming without evidence that my position differs from yours.

      Why?

      It’s quite possible indeed that I’ve read too much in your remarks. Some bias might have been at work. Let’s see it, shall we? Here it goes:

      I remembered you as a Pharyngula commenter. I remember also Pharyngula as a source of the strongest opposition against Dan’s civility pledge (the “other side”, i.e. the pit, rather ignored than attacked it – that’s at least my impression). I noticed also that your main argument against (unqualified) civility – i.e. that in practice it forces the oppressed to shut up – is the one coming from exactly this source.

      My bias now: after the incident with Ellen Beth I stopped reading these people. I stopped also taking them seriously, at least as a group. Both the treatment she received and the later effort of rationalizing away the ugliness (please note that the last one was for me a quite crucial factor), all this patting each other’s back and assuring each other that everything is fine and nothing happened, ended efficiently my adventure as a sympathetic reader of this site. At the moment it requires some conscious effort on my part to consider arguments stemming from this source purely on their merit. That’s how biases work, I know; I can only say that sometimes I’m making this effort. Nevertheless, I must say that I treated Pharyngula’s attack on civility pledge primarily as a defense of their status quo. In my eyes it was their way of saying “what we are doing here is excellent, and we won’t change a bit” – in other words, their way of saying that the abuse will continue exactly as before. No code-talking, as you requested.

      To some extent, this bias might have been at work when I was replying to you. I should think of you as a person, not as a representative of a group. I didn’t make a clear distinction between the two; my apologies for this. Reading what you wrote at face value, there might be indeed not much of a difference between our standpoints.

      Two remarks however.

      Although I didn’t have a statement as specific as, “Let me first say that I believe that a message has to be tailored to an audience and that empirical evidence about past attempts to influence audiences is a good source of information to be used in the process of such tailoring,” at the top of my comment, it feels bizarre that you could get out of that comment that I somehow disagree that message tailoring and audience-choosing and outcome-monitoring were not top concerns for me.

      Fine. In such a case, try to read my earlier comment in a different manner. As you said yourself, “online my words have staying power”. Online it’s not important what you thought or assumed. It’s what stays that’s important. In particular, I think that qualifications concerning the audience are important enough to be stated explicitly, not just silently assumed. Here is an additional explanation.

      I see the large part of your discussion with Dan as concentrating on dangers. You indicate drawbacks of civility; because of these drawbacks you don’t want civility to be propagated (much less adopted) as a universal approach. Treat my comment as indicating dangers of propagating the approach “civility is not that important”. Treat it as indicating what can happen – or what actually happens – when groups (not you personally) take such an approach as their own; what can happen if messages about qualifications, tailoring to the audience, and yes, about humiliation and cruelty as well, are (at best) “assumed as obvious” by policy proponents instead of being explicitly formulated in bold print. As I wrote earlier, what happens is (1) escalation (2) devaluation (3) PR disaster. I’ve just added to that humiliation and cruelty. Is it a difference between us, or not?

      Anyway, I think if you wish to criticize a blog you should do it on that blog.

      It was contextual, not a criticism for its own sake. I hope at least the intent is clear now. Apart from that, I disagree. If you wish to criticize a church, you should do it in that church? If you wish to criticize a newspaper, you should do it in this newspaper? C’mon, blogs are not that special.

      In addition, I don’t trust these people as a group and I think that with such a criticism I would have as much chance there as a snowball in hell. Individual conversations on some neutral ground seem to me a far better option.

    • Ariel

      I messed it up: the above is an answer to cripdyke’s comment below. Can you change it Dan? Thanks.

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      “I messed it up: the above is an answer to cripdyke’s comment below. Can you change it Dan? Thanks.”

      I’m sorry, I have limited abilities in that regard because of Disqus’s set up.

    • cripdyke

      Thanks. I think we are in substantial agreement.

      Also, I clearly made an error. You say,

      If you wish to criticize a church, you should do it in that church? If you wish to criticize a newspaper, you should do it in this newspaper? C’mon, blogs are not that special.

      I guess what I should have said is that

      **if you want the blog to change**

      then you should be in dialog with the blog. Commenting there is the most direct way to do it. But if you know your own blog is sufficiently read by people from the criticized blog, that’s a way to do it, as is e-mailing the blog proprietor, etc.

      I was merely trying to make the point that you seemed to be stuck between 2 positions – were you criticizing the blog in hopes of changing the blog? In that case writing what you did here would be ineffective. Were you wanting me to agree with you about something/change my mind using an example of the blog? Then I need to know more specifics. I think that many criticisms of Pharyngula have deep merit [though not all, and I wouldn't attempt to change Pharyngula b/c it's not my house and it serves a role for quite a number of people and if people don't like it, well they don't have to go there], but there are ridiculous criticisms of PZ and Pharyngula as well, many extended out to FtB in toto. I can’t learn from you without having a concrete example.

      I was trying to say that your rhetorical device wasn’t working for either of those motives, and ended up making a statement that was just wrong. It was about effectiveness given a certain motive. I made this point so badly as to be unrecognizable. Apologies.

      If your motive is whimsy and fun, hey, you can best judge whether you got out of it what you wanted, but I’m a big fan of whimsy & fun so I’m not criticizing the motive at all.

      I think we are on the same page.

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      When the onlookers who need their minds changed share the perspective of your interlocutor they are likely to simply identify with that person and be put off by your tongue lashing as much as the target will. Reaching the onlookers means getting them, the less emotionally invested, to see that you’re the one rationally on point and focused and able to take everything thrown at you. If you get frothing they are likely to judge you by your froth as the real message of who you are and tune out what you’re saying. And they’ll especially do this when there are already marginalizing narratives that their confirmation bias will see evidence for in your aggressiveness. If you are going to add clear, evidential arguments to your remarks about “idiocy” then you really don’t need the charge of “idiot” to just make the whole thing acrimonious and personal and abusive. You can let your points stand. Once you throw into the ring where the verbal abuse is supposed to be fair play then others feel quite free to employ verbal abuse as somehow legit too and you lose the moral high ground to those actually interested in the arguments or who could be made to look at arguments if they didn’t have an excuse on a platter to see you just an abuser in a fair abuse fight.

    • cripdyke

      1. The onlookers don’t necessarily share the perspective of the interlocutor

      2. Why do you assume tongue lashing? I specifically stated that I shy away from that. I am disagreeing with your assertion that giving the benefit of the doubt is good policy generally, and not merely contextually. While I admit that I’ve attributed “idiocy”, I didn’t endorse it and specifically said it was not my best day. There are miles between saying that it is counterproductive to assume that persons’ statements are not evidence of qualities in that person to saying that “tongue lashings” are desirable.

      3. “Reaching the onlookers means getting them, the less emotionally invested, to see that you’re the one rationally on point…”

      Absolutely not true. There is mountains of work in this area – especially in the area of political campaigns [not just elections but also effectiveness on issue campaigns such as referenda] – that shows that Polite Spock is not the most effective mind changer in every case. I’d have to read the research, but my admittedly flawed memory tells me that Polite Spock isn’t even the most effective mind changer in a major minority of cases.

      4. “Once you throw into the ring where the verbal abuse is supposed to be fair play”

      Dan, I really think you’re better than this. I assert that it is reasonable to assume that English-fluent adults have already encountered the idea that it is inappropriate to say,”Chicks are hysterical” and that thus I don’t have to wait until the second time to use the statement as evidence of the type of negligence you decry.

      You imply I’m endorsing “verbal abuse”. Is there nothing in your conception between Dan Fincke’s version of civility and actual abuse? If there is, why are you assuming I’m endorsing abuse? If there isn’t, then either your civility standards are really, really loose or your definition of abuse matches with no other definition I’ve seen.

      Do you stand by your conflation of, “I believe I can draw conclusions about the person who uses ‘Chicks are hysterical’” and “verbal abuse”?

      If yes, why?

      If not, why did you use it in the first place?

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      Someone saying “Chicks are hysterical” really doesn’t qualify as the kind of person I’m talking about here, someone who had no intentions of being antagonistic/sexist/racist/homophobic/transphobic, etc. and so is defensive on that account, so I really don’t understand the relevance of an example like that.

      I didn’t accuse you of engaging in tongue lashing. I took you above to be defending calling people idiots. To me that is tongue lashing.

    • cripdyke

      Fair enough about tongue lashing.

      For the record, I wasn’t defending it per se. I was admitting to the worst of my behavior.

      On the proposed strategy of assuming the best even when the person is doing something that we think is negligent…and according to your writing, may be being willfully bad in language/behavior, though they are denying any willful aspect…if that doesn’t apply to things like “Chicks are hysterical” [which I was using as a non-quote stand in for all the different ways in which a person could dismiss a woman's contributions by asserting that the woman's response was overly emotional, I hope that was clear], then it seems like the pledge doesn’t apply in quite a lot of situations where people can reasonably see themselves as having good motives.

      Like it or not, there are quite a number of folk who are able to justify quite a lot of oppressive thoughts & behaviors, really believing that they are magnanimously aiding us by, for instance, warning the chicks to be on guard against the hysteria. If you really believe women are prone to hysterical reactions, wouldn’t it be a good thing to point out those occasions where hysteria is creeping in so those women could learn to recognize their own hysterical impulses & hopefully act on them less?

      **that** is the relevance of such an example: people really say outrageous things, horrifically negligent things in the sense that the vast majority of folk really get it that such formulations are rude and/or follow from oppressive stereotypes. Is this negligence or is it not? It’s hard to tell from what you’ve been saying. It’s been harder for me [though this latest post seems more clear] to tell what it would mean practically for implications regarding the pledge.

      I say this because I actually think we’re creeping closer and closer to each other. You have a pledge with practical impacts [like assuming the best of a conversation partner], but you seem to be conceding more and more situations where it would not apply. I simply say that I prefer to see friendly debate, but I’m not going to pledge to only use civility in communication.

      We seem to get to the same end – one with a rule that has large exceptions, the other with a refusal to sign on to a rule, but is happy to sign on to a goal.

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      I’m not saying the pledge doesn’t apply to blatant bigots. There is no need to verbally abuse them. But all my writing on these issues has been clear that you can call out bad behavior you have evidence for with appropriate specific words. I have always maintained you can even call people racist, homophobic, misogynist, etc. where there’s blatant evidence that this reaches to the point of their character. The post above even talks about this a bit, though it doesn’t mention those specific words for calling out bigoted characters:

      Now, sometimes the offended party will have cause to make character accusations. They will be able to observe a pattern of mistakes that they will take to be symptomatic of a deeper character flaw. Or they will be justifiably frustrated by repeated mistakes of a certain kind they have complained about before only to see continue. With increasing evidence of poor character it becomes increasingly justifiable that criticisms move from behavior to character assessments and someone’s motives become less relevant. It becomes important that the serial offender be more proactive about changing and more proactive about figuring out in advance what will cause harm. Failing to do so makes accidental mistakes into morally culpable negligence that does reflect poorly on your general character in a way that other misfires of judgment or momentary weakness do not. I do not think that this is cause for the offended party to be abusive and call someone derogatory names like “asshole” or “douchebag” or “stupid” or to employ sexist or racist insult words, etc. But there is a place for not mincing words in naming vices and saying that “you are demonstrating yourself to be very selfish” or “thoughtless” or “irresponsible” or “greedy” or any of an enormous variety of specifiable types of bad.

  • Liralen

    Generally I agree with homilies like “only a fool takes offense where none was intended”. However, I’ve found that some people will rationalize doing some terrible things “for your own good”. The very essence of patriachary makes this delusion common. After all, what’s so bad about wanting to protect women and even putting them on a pedestal? It’s for your own good!

    In the early days of the women’s rights movement, such an attitude may have been excusable. Men were taught to protect the “weaker sex”, a term that wasn’t considered derogatory in those days. Patriarchy hadn’t been fully exposed as the protection racket that it is.

    Several decades later, there is little excuse for sexist behavior, so assuming malice rather than incompetence may be reasonable. Men who make patronizing, condescending comments these days really can’t be that stupid. Unlike a lot of other issues that I disagree with other people on, I don’t want to believe that they are that stupid.

    On the other hand, your racism example does demonstrate that incompetence may be a reasonable conclusion for even very well-known social justice issues. And I completely agree with you that ad hominems are counter-productive if you want to persuade someone to your point of view. But it’s also possible that when social media is already well-saturated with the counter-arguments, you can get tired of hearing the same ignorant comments over and over again. There are so many thugs out there trying to protect their profit centers that it’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys.

  • http://deutschlanduberelvis.com The Honourable Husband

    Dan, the subject you cover in this post is so basic to life in civil society, it should be taught in schools. It’s a basic tenet of emotional intelligence.


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