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.

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