Assorted Thoughts on Civility

I have a bunch of stuff in my mind right now and I sort of want to just dump it all out here in a semi-organized fashion. After this I’m planning to take a hiatus from writing about civil discussion and tactics because, to be honest, I find it fairly boring compared to what I usually write about. Before I get started, I want to make it clear that I am off of whatever high horse I sometimes get on (sorry!). This is just me trying to sort through this in my mind, and I’m most interested in your input. I’m still formulating and sorting out my thoughts on this topic.

Why Have This Discussion?

Here’s a quote from reader Ibis3:

This topic really drives me crazy. I don’t know why advocates of a more gentle approach can’t just do what they want to do, what works for them, and leave the advocates of a harsher approach to do things their way. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the firebrands trying to convince the diplomats to forego their gentle tactics. Perhaps you could do a post laying out the case for why you feel it necessary? I’d like to understand.

Here’s a quote from a recent post by James Croft in which he addresses this very question:

This sort of talk annoys me because it serves, frankly, to dumb down the discussion of strategy which our movement really should be having. As the number of nonreligious people in America grows, we will need mre and better discussions of how we communicate our ideas to the public, and these discussions will have to be nuanced and sensitive. It is simply not the case that everyone who object to a certain communication strategy because they judge it to be counter-productive is a “concern troll” trying to “rob the movement” of an “effective weapon”. They may be making a serious and thoughtful judgment regarding a particular campaign or persuasive technique.

In other words, there is nothing illegitimate about discussing strategy. Were we generals in a war, would we say “hey, just use whatever strategy you like best and I’ll use whatever strategy I like best”? No. If you became convinced that the strategy another general was using was doing more harm than good, wouldn’t you think it important to bring that up? There is nothing inherently wrong with having a conversation about which tactics, and in fact, I would argue that having conversations about tactics is actually extremely important.

Yes, This Is Complicated!

“Tone arguments are used to silence the underprivileged.” “It’s not my job to educate those with privilege.” “We’ll be accused of ‘just being angry’ no matter what we do.” Well, yes. Absolutely yes. Just recently a reader pointed me to one of the many posts and articles addressing all this, titled “The Privilege of Politeness.”

One thing that is very true is that in any conversation in which the first party has a lot on the line and the second party is detached, the first party will expend more emotional energy in the conversation and have a harder time staying calm. If the more invested party responds by becoming visibly or audibly angry, the detached party often uses that to claim victory. I’ve experienced this myself, and it is maddening.

Beyond this, it’s also very true that being expected to be always educating those with privilege on this issue or that can become exhausting, especially when the privileged person isn’t making a good faith effort to understand or listen. This sort of “it’s your job to prove to me that that’s sexist or I don’t have to believe it” attitude is especially maddening when you consider that it’s usually combined with the sort of emotional investment that makes the conversation difficult in the first place.

But even with all this, there are a few things I just keep coming back to. First, while it’s true that we don’t have to educate those who are privileged, it’s also true that someone ought to be out there educating people. In other words, the fact that it’s not required doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be doing it anyway. (I actually really appreciate it when allies take up some of the burden of educating, because they can have these conversations without the emotional rawness underprivileged groups bring to these discussions.)

Second, while some people will never change their minds, there are people out there who may make sexist comments or hold anti-LGBTQ rights positions but who are actually open to changing their minds. In other words, there are potential allies out there, and if we simply decide to stop having these conversations and opt to instead take our anger out on anyone who makes a sexist or racist or homophobic comment, we risk alienating these potential allies. At the same time, there are plenty of people out there who will never stop holding sexist or racist or homophobic views. The trouble is that it’s not always easy to tell the two apart.

Third and finally, I don’t think calling for civility means demanding that people not be angry. For instance, the post I linked several paragraphs up contains this bit:

I’m not saying it’s okay to say ‘You stupid shit how dare you write this!’ There is a difference between being angry when addressing racism (or sarcastic or “rude”) and insulting people.

You see what I’m saying? Being angry is not the same thing as simply resorting to insults and abusive language.

Fourth and finally, I think we need to be clear about goals. In a given instance, is the goal to shame and alienate those who hold a certain set of beliefs, or is the goal to change their minds? It should be obvious that the answer to that question ought to affect the approach we take. This actually leads into my next point…

The Bystander Effect

When I posted about my concerns about some of the displays atheist groups were putting up beside nativity scenes outside of county courthouses, a lot of commenters pointed out that even extremely civil and intentionally noncontroversial atheist billboards stir up controversy and are sometimes vandalized. These same commenters were often the ones pointing out the affect harsh tactics can have in influencing bystanders: hurling invectives at a young earth creationist speaker might lead young earth creationists listening in to give their beliefs a reexamination, they informed me.

So let’s combine these two points. In order to do this, I’m going to have to introduce a couple of characters. Tom is the leader of the local atheist group, which wants to put up a billboard. Tracey is a moderate Christian who hasn’t spent much time thinking about atheism or what it might be like to be an atheist in a Christian country. Adam is a fundamentalist Christian who thinks atheists worship Satan and are threatening the moral fabric of America. If Tom puts up a billboard reading “Don’t Believe in God? You Are Not Alone” and Adam burns it down, what message will that send to Tracey? In contrast, if Tom puts up a billboard reading “All Religions Are Fairy Tales” an Adam burns it down, will the message Tracy receives from the incident be different? I would argue yes.

In other words, the fact that some people will react negatively to what you’re saying no matter how you say it, whether you’re discussing atheism or feminism or LGBTQ rights, is no reason to determine that you might as well abandon civility.

But What Do You Mean by Civility? 

A few weeks ago, a reader left the following comment:

Actually, I think more discussions that are focused on “Where to draw the line?” on the gentle-versues-harsh question, instead of the “Gentle or harsh?” binary, would be really helpful. A lot of people are afraid that putting down shaming and mockery and similar tactics would mean accepting an overwhelming obligation to stay gentle in the face of being hurt, and a lot of people are similarly concerned that accepting harshness means a license for unlimited cruelty. Getting away from the binary could help correct these misperceptions.

I think this is an excellent point. I also think that making the discussion about “where to draw the line” rather than about “gentle or harsh” has the benefit of dispensing with the idea that people who talk about tactics are suggesting that everyone has to do exactly what they’re doing.

For the simplest explanation of what I mean by “civil discussion,” I would point to my comments policy. I actually only have two rules:

1. Attack arguments rather than people. In this vein, refrain from personal insults and avoid needless vulgarity.

2. Engage other commenters in good faith and with the goal of understanding. In other words, no trolling and no proselytizing.

That’s it. I’m really and honestly not trying to make this complicated. That really really really is all I’m talking about.

I have to say, as a blogger, one of the things that makes me happiest is seeing conversations in my comments threads in which a person will engage with other commenters to argue against a given point and end up stepping back and saying “oh, I’d never thought about it like that.” Or, “thanks, I’ve learned something.” In contrast, one of the hardest things for me to see is when a reader engages with other commenters, and ends up bowing out and disengaging with mind unchanged or opinion hardened because the conversation devolved into insults. This doesn’t happen often, but it’s difficult to watch when it does (Here’s an example).

One common argument I hear is that unscrupulous commenters will find ways to twist and abuse the rules no matter what, thus gaining an upper hand. I’m really not entirely sure where this idea comes from. I would offer, as a counter to this point, the case of a commenter named JW. JW was a frequent commenter on my blog for the entirety of 2012. Whatever comment he made, he always seemed to find away to make it offensive, and he always claimed innocence and ignorance when called out on it, which was often. He usually played by the rules, but I finally had to lay down the law last month because he violated my comment policy by personally attacking readers rather than addressing their arguments (in his case, he had made a habit of responding to criticism by calling his detractors were being angry and mean when, for one thing, they weren’t, and for another thing, violated my comment policy as stated). And in fact, JW had a second violation as well: he admitted to posting comments designed specifically to rile people up, which is in violation of my comment policy’s requirement that people argue in good faith. I called JW out and told him he would have to change his ways and follow my comment policy if he wanted to stay, and he responded by leaving. In other words, I don’t think it’s true that comment policies like mine protect the abusers or give an advantage to the privileged.

Can You Graph That?

This morning as I was thinking about this issue I realized that it might be possible to make a graph of what I’m trying to say. Actually, Sean came up with the graph idea, which is actually typical. But anyway, I thought it was interesting and wanted to present it here. I’m totally open for suggestions for improvement.

The graph is intended to represent the way one approaches disagreement. It has two axes. The x axis represents the way a person approaches people with whom he or she disagrees while the y axis represents the way a person approaches ideas with whom he or she disagrees.


One thing to remember is that the place where you will fall on this graph will vary depending on the argument with which you are disagreeing and the person making the argument. If you are discussing whether cats or dogs are better, you might end by saying “I disagree, I think dogs are better, but then I realize it’s all relative.” That would put you toward the bottom of the graph. On the other hand, you might say “I am mortified by your suggestion that cats are better than dogs, when it’s manifestly clear that cats are lazy and selfish while dogs are caring and loyal.” That would put you toward the top of the graph. Similarly, if you had a disagreement with President Obama, you would probably fall toward the right side of this graph while if you had a disagreement with Fred Phelps, you might fall toward the left side of this graph.

I think one thing this graph does is to point out that there is no one position that is always best, that the way we handle disagreement depends on the manner of the issue at hand and the manner of the person with whom we are agreeing, and that it would be silly to expect everyone to approach disagreement in the same way. I mean, look at the graph and imagine where you would fall if you were disagreeing with the following statements:

“Jews are unfit to live.” -Adolf Hitler

“Evolution is not science.” -Ken Ham

“The answer to violence is more guns” -Christopher Hitchins

“Hot dogs are better than bacon” -your best friend

Another interesting thing about the graph is that you could also argue that for any disagreement, there is a circle that contains all of the acceptable responses. For example, I think we can agree that it would not be acceptable to fall toward the “relativistic” side of the y axis when disagreeing with Hitler’s statement above. It would also likely not be acceptable to fall toward the “verbally abusive” side of the x axis when responding to your friend’s preference for hot dogs over bacon. Of course, since there’s no objective standard here, I don’t think everyone would necessarily agree on what circle of response is acceptable in a given situation.

This is also where ako’s statement about making the conversation about where to draw the line rather than about a “gentle or harsh” dichotomy comes in. When it comes to disagreeing with a sexist comment, or a homophobic comment, say, I would absolutely say that responding with “I disagree, but that’s okay, your position is just as valid” is wrong. But I would also argue that responding by heaping the person with insults and verbal abuse is wrong. In other words, it’s not about any one response being correct but rather about a range of responses being acceptable (based on whether they are productive, or ethical, or whatever standard you happen to use) while responses outside of that range are not.


So there you have it: my random and jumbled thoughts. This is the last I plan to write about this issue for the foreseeable future, though I’m quite open to hearing your thoughts in the comments. In the meantime, I’m just going to go on doing what I do and moderating my blog as I’ve always done. Thanks for listening!

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