For at least three years now, I have become a stauncher and stauncher supporter of civil discourse in the atheist community. In October 2011, within just a month of joining Freethought Blogs I wrote a series of posts calling for atheists to stop demonizing religious people and stop calling them stupid. Then last summer I made broad remarks against being personally abusive to anyone when I laid out my comments moderation policy and was vigorously attacked by various proponents of social justice who insisted that marginalized people need recourse to interpersonal abusiveness in order to defend themselves. Eventually, I wound up writing a civility pledge that I and a few others signed onto to try to lead by example on these issues.
In all of this time, I have not personally disowned the people who defend the kinds of argumentative tactics that I think cross the line to being unethical. My interest is in trying to reason with those I disagree with and finding as much friendship and common ground as possible with anyone I can. That’s how I think we grow, by learning to get along with people who we disagree with, even on serious ethical issues some times. Obviously, some people I just have personality conflicts with and so I don’t want to see them when I log onto Facebook or something. But simply disagreeing with me is not enough to get me to cut you out of my life.
Now, one of these aggressive people I am friends with is JT Eberhard. Not only is JT a friend, but I consider him a close friend. This is despite the fact that JT has prided himself on taking a less merciful approach to his enemies in public discourse. Relatively frequently his digs at religious people will cross what I think are ethical lines. And though I rarely if ever mention this publicly, it bugs me almost every time. Now even though I don’t air this publicly usually, I have mentioned this to JT. A lot. Like, so insistently that when recently I had a rare chance to sit down with him face to face at American Atheists I took some of those rare in-person moments with my close friend to harangue him about the issue. Again.
I bring this up because after our last time debating these issues, I felt really appreciative to JT. Because I thought to myself, he takes criticism really really well. While I completely stand by the principles I argue for and think I’m right to make them such a big issue, I also realize that he could completely find me to be a nag. But he doesn’t. He’s never treated me like a self-righteous scold. I’ve never tried to be one either. And he knows that. He has never let our disagreements, even about core values and behaviors, stand in the way of his willingness to be my friend. And I’ve never let these things stand in the way of my willingness to be his friend. That’s not to say JT is as kind to everyone he argues with. And, again, I don’t support JT in every one of his personal feuds. And he knows that. He doesn’t condition our friendship on me making enemies of his every enemy.
I learned the hard way about what it’s like to be pressured to choose between people you love. My parents are divorced. I’m not going to be specific about this because it’s not my place to air my parents’ laundry in public. But I will say this. At fourteen years old, I resolved to love both my parents with all my heart and to actively work on my relationships with them both regardless of their recriminations against each other. To this day I am proud of the days when the only person in my family who was on speaking terms with every other member of the family was me. I am proud of the day that I ended a years long estrangement between my brother and my father by insisting on not choosing between them. I take pride when I see how close my father and my brother are today.
And that’s how I am trying to approach my whole life. I am about reconciliation. I am of course extremely frustrated when I see people I share a movement with doing things that I think are embarrassing or shameful. Of course it pains me to have deep values disagreements with people I want to fight in common cause with. But as much as I possibly can, I resist the urge to lose sight of the fact that these people, just like me, are saying what they are saying because they think it is the true, the just, and the good. On that most important rock, I can find common ground with a far greater number of people than I could if I only agreed to talk to or to respect those who agreed with me on everything–which would probably only be me, and even that not all the time! For cripe’s sake, I love talking to myself and all, but I don’t want to be the only person I talk to.
I bring all this up because JT is being accused of being a hypocrite for criticizing the ways that other people have acted in their justifiable anger. The allegation is that JT himself never took kindly to being criticized. But that’s false. I have criticized him all the time and he has never been anything short of gracious to me.
Update: I have commented about more aspects of the JT’s behavior and criticism of it in a follow up post, The JT and Bria Conflict and Why I Usually Don’t Blog About Interpersonal Conflicts.