From the archives: It’s not about tone

I was totally caught off guard by all the people who interpreted my criticisms of Richard Carrier in yesterday’s post as being about “tone.” Therefore I decided it might be worth reposting this post from July 2011.

I’ve written before about the relationship between content and tone, but there’s an angle I didn’t cover there: when people respond to criticisms of their content by saying “he shouldn’t complain about my tone because…” For example, here’s Ed Feser:

Rosenhouse has a helluva nerve complaining about my aggressive tone. In the post that began this series of exchanges between Coyne, Rosenhouse, and myself, Coyne dismissed theology as “drivel” and said that he was starting to believe that the “obscurantism” of which he accuses theologians is “deliberate.” In his own first post, Rosenhouse characterized theology as “sewage” (!) and then dismissed my response to Coyne as a “temper tantrum.”

But Rosenhouse never complained about Feser’s “tone.” What Rosenhouse actually said was “if you are going to throw around words like ‘sleazy,’ ‘slimy,’ and ‘contemptible’ you had better have the goods to back them up.” Not “don’t say those things because they’re mean” but “don’t say those things unless you can back them up.” Then he went on to actually argue that the justification Feser gave for them was ludicrous.

I’m inclined to see this as a symptom of something bigger, something that worries me a hell of a lot in public debate. We have a fairly strong norm against saying negative things about people. What we need and don’t have is an even stronger norm against saying untrue or unsupported negative things about people. That should be obvious as a matter of honesty, but a lot of people act unaware of it.

This creates a situation where once the first norm has been violated, people think that then anything goes. I don’t think Feser would actually say that in a reflective frame of mind, but it’s what his “you’ve got a helluva nerve complaining about my tone” amounts to–Feser is acting as if “you’re mean” is the only possible thing Rosenhouse could have been saying.

But if you think “mean” vs. “nice” is the only issue, you’ll also wind up thinking that once you stop playing by the “don’t be mean” rule, you can say whatever crap you want about your opponents and not be accountable for it. But that’s not how it works–just because you don’t have to be nice doesn’t mean you don’t have to be honest.

  • vinnyjh57


    I understood that you were referring to something more than tone when you wrote, “These are just two examples, but having read both blog posts, I’m convinced that on every point, Carrier’s accusations of incompetence etc. are unsupported.” My problem in responding was that I pretty much agreed with you on those two points. On my own blog, I called one of them in Ehrman’s favor and the other one was too close for me to call just because I lack the expertise. However, on most of the other points, I thought Carrier had the better arguments even though his confrontational approach might certainly be questioned.

    I suspect that the comments focused on tone mostly because you chose two examples that required a lot of expertise in history to critique.

  • Bundy

    We can be thankful that atheists never deliberately try to smear people.

    • Philip Legge

      And trolls never contradict themselves by saying things like,

      Carrier is also good at insults, ridicule, and confusing name calling with argument.

      with this as a follow-up:

      Guys with faces like Carriers should not talk about penis nosed statues so much.

      Obvious troll is obvious.

  • ‘Tis Himself

    All too often I see complaints about tone to be used in place of refutation of arguments. Tone trolling can derail a discussion faster than almost anything else. “Wah, you hurt my feelings, so your argument is wrong” is a logical fallacy.

  • mnb0

    Me being Dutch and the Dutch being famous for their rude manners don’t mind a rude tone at all. Anyone though who is rude for the sake of being rude – like that example Philip Legge gave above – makes him/herself completely ridiculous in my eyes. Me being rude ánd mean quite often try to provoke people.
    So I guess I am partly guilty too. At the other hand I always try to be honest.
    And I am very honest when I compare the logical fallacies of Jesusmythologists with those of creationists (or Holocaustdeniers, for that matter). If that upsets people, well, I’m only amused. Blame it on me being Dutch.

  • J J

    I think I am probably one of the people that referenced “tone” that this post is referring to, so I thought I should I respond.

    The reason that I thought non-historians were responding to tone and not historical arguments, was that I didn’t see Ehrman (nor any his supporters) making historical arguments in their response to Carrier (just going from the excerpts that were cited, I didn’t pay the fee to get past the firewall).

    So first let me state my position clearly: The question of whether or not there was a person walking the ancient Levant in the first century C.E., named Jesus, and as described in ancient literature, is an historical question. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. I have seen sufficient evidence to be convinced that historical methods are the best way of determining what actually happened in the past based on written documentation. If someone wants to argue that literary criticism or quantum physics would be a better method, then that can certainly be a different conversation. But, if we accept the consensus of historians as to what the best methodology is of discovering historical truth, then the arguments must be made using the using accepted methods of historiography.

    Here were some of the replies by Ehrman that were cited and why I don’t think they measured up to historiographical standards:

    “[Carrier] indicates that I received this information entirely from an article by Jonathan Z. Smith, and that if I had been “real scholar” I would have looked up the ancient sources themselves. “

    Without having Ehrman’s book I can’t say for sure why Carrier makes this assumption (was it the only source cited?). But, I can tell you that Ehrman totally neglects the damning crux of Carrier’s critique, the one that to an historian would certainly require rebuttal: “If Ehrman had acted like a real scholar and actually gone to the sources, and read more widely in the scholarship …”. Carrier is stating clearly here, that there is an established historical question (or consensus) on this issue and Ehrman is disregarding it without warrant. Misrepresenting the positions of competent historians is serious. Ehrman ignores that competency claim and instead rebuts with, “But my views do not rest on having read a single article by Jonathan Z. Smith and a refusal to read the primary sources. ” He further reinforces this interpretation with the statement, “In my reading of the myth of Osiris…” History is not textual criticism, countering an assertion that you’re going against a serious position held by scholars with, “but the way that I read it is…,” is not making an historiographical based rebuttal. I don’t know what point Ehrman wants to make with his rebuttal, but it’s definitely not an historical one. And yes, using “my reading” as the salient argument against an argument that one disregarded significant historical opinion, would be a sign of incompetence in an historian, maybe not in a literary scholar.

    Ehrman’s next rebuttal;

    “To the first charge I plead guilty.  Yes, when I said letter 10 I meant a letter in book 10.  This is what you might call a real howler, a cock-up (not in the Peter sense).   I meant Book 10.  This is the kind of mistake I’m prone to make (I’ve made it before and will probably make it again), that I should have caught.”

    Well, if there is a more damning argument for doubting someone’s credibility in the field of history (or any other knowledge art for that matter), I can’t imagine what it would be. Historians cite well known sources in very specific ways (I found that true amongst physicists and mathematicians too). There is a reason for that: It allows others in the field to quickly locate and verify the source information, to recognize errors, and verify that the quotation fits the overall context. To say, “Yeah, I don’t cite my sources in a way that honest scholars can easily find and verify, and I will probably continue to so,” is pretty much saying, “I’m not an historian and have no intention of becoming one.” Furthermore, Carrier indicates that the poor attribution of sources allows Ehrman to conflate what is in the original text, with what has been interpreted by historians. Again, this is the more the serious charge against an historian, and one that Ehrman has chosen to ignore. All fields have their own languages and own ways of alerting readers as to what is in the raw evidence and what is inferred from it, to not clearly differentiate the two, in the case of historiography, is a sign of incompetence.

    And then Ehrman basically comes right out and states that he is not making an historical argument for the historicity of Jesus (read that previous statement again and let that sink in). Here is the pertinent statement that Ehrman gives, “The problem here is simply that I was trying to summarize briefly a complicated account in simple terms for readers who frankly, in my opinion (right or wrong) are not interested in the details about Pliny, Trajan, provincial disorder, and fire brigaids when the question is whether Pliny knows about Jesus or not.” He is basically saying that he is giving readers his opinion by fiat despite the fact that he states early on in the book that arguments of competent mythisists deserve serious answers. Competent historians are required to do one or the other. If you’re writing to give your opinion of something, fine. State that and do that using the rules of good opinion prose. If you are writing to refute professional historians’ research on a subject, state that and do that using the rules of evidence of historians. To state the latter and do the former is a sign of incompetence (or down right malpractice) in an historian.

    As I said in my previous comment, I’m not an expert in the ancient Levant and I don’t even care if there is or is not an historical Jesus as far as divinity goes. But I do I care how evidence is presented, and the rebuttals presented in Ehrman’s defense against Carrier’s review fail. And, from what I’ve read in those rebuttals, I’m certainly not going to go to Erhman as an historical source on the subject. Additionally, anyone arguing that Carrier misrepresented Ehrman’s competence as an historian in his critique should probably reevaluate their position.

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