Last night I was a participant in the pre-recording of a podcast (now available to listen to here) called Faith and Skepticism, with a lot of people, the majority being Christians, to talk about the movie God’s Not Dead. And I wound up very livid and shouting a lot. Basically, if you’ve ever been listening at home to your ideological enemies on the radio or the TV or a podcast and they’re saying some things that you just want to yell back at them for… I did that. And I was on the show.
I didn’t personally insult individuals or call them names, that I remember, but I was nonetheless uncivilly verbally aggressive and uncharitable. I was very angry at what I took to be a calmly stated expression of all too common Christian bigotry towards Muslims (not Islam but Muslims, expressed with a “I’ve been around these people and I know what they’re like” kind of crudeness) that should not be acceptable in “polite society”. Then I was further angered by what I took to be a dangerously irresponsible blasé lack of introspection by Christians on the show about the ways that other Christians hurt their atheist and LGBT kids. I escalated extremely fast at that point.
I was mad from the stream of stories I hear on a daily basis from atheists and LGBT people in anguish over the mistreatment they suffer from their religious friends and families. I was mad about the authoritarian streak of Christian culture that leads to the popularity of the books by influential Christian parenting author Michael Pearl which effectively promote child abuse. I was mad that even apart from the extremes of Pearl, evangelicals are “considerably more likely” to spank their children than non-evangelical counterparts. I was mad at the authoritarian streak of Christian culture that makes evangelical Christians the biggest supporters (over 60% in favor) of torture in America, out of all religious groups. I was mad when a Christian on the show started to imply that when young people become atheists it’s only because they’re “rebelling” and parents need to look into whether this is coupled with drug use and other signs of rebellion. I was furious because I know what so many young atheists go through having their minds invalidated and their hearts relentlessly attacked by their Christian friends and family and churches who want to pick over their sex lives or their spiritual lives or some other symptom of “rebellion” by people who religiously refuse to face it that their atheism, a position shared by a large majority of qualified experts in the subject (professional philosophers), is actually an intellectually respectable viewpoint that likely has intellectual causes worth treating seriously and being respectful of.
And so, in a hasty instant, I verbally got loud and aggressive in a way I shouldn’t have and I stayed hostile for much of the rest of the show, even giving a couple of rudely interrupting or harshly toned responses to simple challenges.
While I am pretty sure when I hear back the content of what I said, I will stand by nearly all of it, I am sincerely sorry to have been so short tempered and to have made the discussion so uncomfortable. I behaved like a bully. I am also sorry to disappoint my hosts who were kind enough to let me on their show when I asked. I especially apologize for betraying their confidence in me owed to my civility pledge, which I went on to violate on their show. And I am sorry to my fellow guests for raging at them like that, for overwhelming the show, and making everything about me. The audio is expected to be out later in the week, so you will be able to hear it all for yourself.
While I spend most of the year in philosophically vigorous arguments, it is only a small, relative handful of times a year that they descend into such serious incivility. Most of the time my arguments are civil, sometimes they’re even genial, amidst a great deal of controversy. I do this for a living and usually am better than most at being equanimous and sanguine in debate. I really am committed to the civility pledge I wrote with others. I still encourage others to abide by it too, and I do so because of ethical reasons, not because I am a perfect person. It’s just the right thing to do. I could fail at the civility pledge daily (which I don’t) and nonetheless it would still be the right thing to uphold, as far as I’m concerned. (I would just be a pretty bad person in at least certain areas.) I don’t make a habit of disparaging people for their occasional slip ups. I just want to use whatever power and influence in the small forums where I have some control or am listened to in order to help civil, constructive, passionate, ethical arguments about the most important issues happen.
My own occasional temper tantrums do not invalidate the ethical principles my commitment to civility is based on. Nor does my, or others’, proneness to occasional outbursts in response to real injustices, and the entrenched dogmatism that supports them, justify a self-righteous ethos in which “being right means never having to say you’re sorry” or in which verbal abusiveness, demonization, personal attacks, and feuds are a routinized form of discourse. I get angry (and that’s not only fine but at least sometimes appropriate in response to injustices) but when my anger leads me to crossing the line into mistreating people, I’m not going to just say “they had it coming” and double down with more and more abusiveness as my regular way of discourse. I think I have written numerous pieces which express anger against unjust ways of thinking and behaving which can amply show that it is possible to stay within the bounds of civility while being angry.
Almost always my outbursts are provoked by someone seeming to me to be willfully refusing to acknowledge logic, or to be willfully apathetic and blithely unscrupulous about the injustice of what they’re implicitly or explicitly supporting. Sometimes when someone comes off as completely indifferent to a logical contradiction or an injustice, I resort to emotional force to try to back up reason’s force when they’re just not feeling it from the logic itself.
Using emotions in this way is justifiable to a point–we are emotional creatures and getting people to grasp the proper emotional responses to injustice or illogic is important. Part of how we do that is by modeling emotional responses ourselves and creating the right emotional climates around various ideas, ones corresponding to their actual goodness or badness. Emotions are a way of stressing “this is important”, “you should be averse to this”, or “it’s vital you care about promoting this”. Brains can pick up on that. But one can do that without getting as loud and aggressive and domineering as I wound up being on that show and in a few conversations spread across any given year. That’s not something I recommend embracing and cultivating in myself. While I can forgive people the occasional verbal blow up and only hope others will forgive me mine, they’re still a problem to be worked on, rather than celebrated. I have, because of this, tried to be very upfront and honest about my occasional verbal temper problem.
It’s also important to stress to those inclined to support my actions that by acting in the bullying way that I did, I likely sabotaged the ability of both the Christians on the podcast with me and those listening at home to receptively hear and internalize the important points I was trying to make. The downside of that is that I may have only further entrenched some Christians in their bigotries towards atheists, rather than dispel them, and in their homophobic antipathy to the LGBT community, who I was so passionately trying to defend. I tried to shout irresponsible Christians out of their destructive dogmatic slumbers and may have, through activating their defenses, only made their sleep that much deeper. For that, I am not just very regretful but outright ashamed.
For these mistakes I apologize to the atheists I poorly represented, the vulnerable LGBT teens I may have failed, and the Christians I chose to berate rather than educate.
I only hope that this more measured, but still morally impassioned, follow up blog post makes clear the extent of the injustice that made me so livid and does so in a way that actually helps the cause of ending it.
I am still committed to rational, civil, compassionate dialogue and still believe that you can express appropriate moral passion without being overbearing and disrespecting your interlocutors’ rights to think for themselves. I will try harder next time to prevent there from being a next time failing at this. In the meantime, I am sorry.