Sometimes We Cannot Be Civil. But I Can.

Thanks to commenter Giliell, whose comment on this post inspired me, to Dan Fincke for much writing on this topic, and to Ethan, for discussing these issues with me last night.

I am for civil discussion. I oppose the use of demeaning language and rhetoric in every situation, against every foe. I believe that we must hold the humanity of the other in mind even if we passionately disagree with them, and seek to engage with each other as equals in dignity and respect even as we battle over our deepest values.

But.

Sometimes we cannot be civil. If you say to me that I am not entitled to the full respect of the law, to full equality as a citizen, we cannot have a civil discussion. If you claim that you have rights that I do not, we cannot have a respectful disagreement. Whatever language you use, however sweet your tone, we are no longer engaged in civil discourse. 

Your very views demean me.

There is no respectful way to say “You are not a person.” There is no way to assert my dignity and my inequality. You cannot be civil and hold that, in civil society, I should be considered as something less than you. So we cannot have a civil discussion.

Yet.

Though you do not recognize my full humanity, I will strive to honor yours. However small you see me to be, I will work to be that much bigger. Because, ultimately, I care not only for my own liberation but for yours as well, and I long for the day when we can stand together as equals not only in my mind but in yours too.

So.

If you say I cannot vote, cannot make my own decisions, cannot do the same jobs, cannot marry the one I love, cannot wear what I please and think what I like, then we cannot be civil. Yet I will be civil, even when we cannot.

Our humanity demands it.

About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.

  • http://nathandst.blogspot.com NathanDST

    Is this a moral imperative for you, as I think it may be for Dan Finke, or simply a personal choice?

    • James Croft

      I am making more than a case regarding preference – I’m making a judgment of what is moral or immoral. I don’t think it’s ever right to dehumanize other people.

  • Giliell

    Well, it seems like you put a very high value on being civil.
    I don’t. I know that there are different opinions about that, but I really don’t think that calling somebody an asshole means to deny their humanity (actually, being an asshole is a very human quality. Never met an asshole rabbit). And yes, calling somebody a rape apologist is most often to call a spade a spade, even though the person called that will most likely object and be shocked at me being so uncivil.
    This discourse most often boils down to the demand on the side of the marginalized to be perfectly nice and kind to people who are denying my humanity and your humanity.
    You say you can remain civil. Fine. I can’t.
    I can perfectly accept that I need to respect your rules on your blog. I’m fine with that. But I think it’s time that you, and Daniel and a lot of other people need to realize that other blogs and people have different approaches and that they have a value, too.
    Something you will find quite often on Pharyngula is people coming forward with their stories, often stories of horrible abuse. And they feel ok to tell them there because they feel safe in the shark tank. Or they come forward thanking people for creating a space like that. And yes, you also get the people coming forward telling us that they actually finally learned something they never learned when people were being nice to them because they still thought you were having reasonable differences of opinion.
    I don’t want you to give up your approach, I’m just annoyed at people acting like it’s the only valid one and we’re being horrible people for not following it.

    • James Croft

      Perhaps you didn’t see my reply to your in the previous post in which I clarified what I mean by “civility”. Again, it is not about “nasty words”. Calling someone an asshole or telling them to “fuck off” is rude but it is not necessarily demeaning to their humanity (unless it is part of a wider campaign of bullying).

      Dehumanizing people is to speak of them as if they are less than human: to call them contemptible, scum, vile etc, or to attack some core aspect of their identity in a demeaning way: their sexual identity, their ethnicity etc.

      Again, please do not reduce this to a question of “bad words”. And don’t tell me I am trying to silence you – it is not true.

      I note, also, you make no mention of the first major point in the post, which I hoped you might agree with.

  • Giliell

    Your first point, yeah, mostly
    Dignity, yes, respect, no, unless you’re referring to the basic minimal respect given to any human being. Anything above that is earned, not demanded.
    “Dehumanizing people is to speak of them as if they are less than human: to call them contemptible, scum, vile etc, or to attack some core aspect of their identity in a demeaning way: their sexual identity, their ethnicity etc.”
    See, you’re mixing two things, I think.
    At least contemptible and vile are exclusively human “qualities”. No contemptible newts, no vile squirrels. Scum is different as it refers to something non-human, yet using non-human terms for people is hardly unique to insults.
    You say it isn’t about “bad words” and it’s good to hear that because others definetly draw the line there already.
    Demeaning somebody because of their race, sexual orientation etc is a completely different thing that treating somebody with contempt for the things they say and do.
    And you will not find that kind of behaviour amongst the Horde, it’s the thing they actively fight against and fiercely so.
    So, what do you have for Tod Akin? Respect or contempt?
    And I’m actually a bit confused as to what your point is. What is it you oppose so much? I understand, you oppose the dehumanization of people, that’s the principle, I’m not so sure what you think is so in concrete.

    • James Croft

      Yes, I mean precisely the basic respect everyone deserves merely by virtue of being human. We may disagree about what it means precisely to manifest such respect, but it’s good we can agree that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and basic respect.

      I’m also glad you are willing to admit your confusion, because now we can begin to understand each other better.

      The disagreement here seems to be about what exactly constitutes dehumanization. And your position seems to be that as long as we are using words which refer to exclusively human qualities we are not dehumanizing people.

      I understand how someone might hold that view, but I want to draw the boundaries in a somewhat different place. First, I want to point to the idea, which I stress in the post, that it is also wrong to truly demean people. And I want to suggest that some forms of aggressive othering are demeaning and, ultimately, traduce the basic respect and dignity a person is owed.

      I do not know exactly who “The Horde” refers to. I can only speak to my own experience on some blogs. At times – very infrequently, but sometimes – I have felt demeaned by the way I have been treated there. The repeated abuse and personal attacks, over and over again, do not make me feel like I am being respected fully as a person. They make me feel, rather, that my whole person is subsumed into whatever point I am making, and that I exist not as a person but as an entry on a comment thread. And that I think is a way of dehumanizing someone.

      And, on rare occasions, I think specific comments by leaders in our community have been dehumanizing. When PZ said he holds all Christians in contempt, or when they did the little Muslim jig at the American Atheists conference, or when people paint principled disagreement in terms of loyalty and traitorship – you’re one of us or one of them – I find that morally problematic.

      • Giliell

        Well, this took a while, meatspace getting into the way of pleasant internet conversations.

        “. We may disagree about what it means precisely to manifest such respect, but it’s good we can agree that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and basic respect.”
        Well, here lies the problem. What’s that basic dignity and respect? We seem to disagree mightily on what that means.
        “And your position seems to be that as long as we are using words which refer to exclusively human qualities we are not dehumanizing people.”
        It’s not that simple. No, I don’t think that calling somebody an asshole, a vile human being or a cupcake dehumanizes them. I draw a strong line against slurs. Words have a history. Just because someting has a literal meaning that is “thing” doesn’t mean it dehumanizes somebody. While other words that refer to humans only do (such as N****).

        “And I want to suggest that some forms of aggressive othering are demeaning and, ultimately, traduce the basic respect and dignity a person is owed.”
        Here’s a confession: I truely want to other some people. The homophobes, the racists, the misogynists, I want them out. I don’t want a place for them to hide. They can come back once they learned some basic lessons.
        They’re still people. They might be people I wouldn’t weep much about if they died, but I don’t want them to suffer.
        “I do not know exactly who “The Horde” refers to. ”
        Oh, they, we, are the regular commenters over at Pharyngula whom it is fine to vilify and trash-talk everywhere, treating us as one big monolith with no individual ideas. Basically, we’re PZ’s echo-chamber and sockpuppets.

        “The repeated abuse and personal attacks, over and over again, do not make me feel like I am being respected fully as a person. They make me feel, rather, that my whole person is subsumed into whatever point I am making, and that I exist not as a person but as an entry on a comment thread. And that I think is a way of dehumanizing someone.”
        That’s a bit contradictory, I think.
        Are people hurling abuse? Yes. With the caveat of it being really personal but no slurs.
        Are they often a bit trigger-happy? Absolutely.
        But they are usually careful to make a point. They might call you an asshole, but they usually tell you why. But there’s a problem here: Is it about you being attacked as somebody making points on the internet just based on those points, or is it you being attacked for you being you?
        People only know about you what you write and they will not be nice to you just because you are you. Really, we’ve had enough of people whining about “why aren’t you nice to me I’m a good person” with no evidence whatsoever except of this assertion.

        ” or when people paint principled disagreement in terms of loyalty and traitorship – you’re one of us or one of them – I find that morally problematic.”
        Well; I’m wondering who that is. Seriously, it’s one of those things I hear time after time again yet i hardly ever see anything about it.

        • James Croft

          I think your reply here neatly points out our differing moral priorities. I don’t think that you get a pass for personal abuse and attacks simply because you’re “making a point”. The moral problems with personally abusing people don’t go away because you have a good point to make. Your ethical responsibility still stands regardless of how good a point you think you are making.

          • Giliell

            Yes, your definition of what that basic human dignity entails is much wider than mine. And I find it problematic, because it’s something that time after time again is used to keep the staus quo.
            You may be personally able to remain nice and polite in the face of people denying your humanity, I can’t, and I refuse to make being nice my top priority over fighting bullshit and defending my rights.
            Time after time again your arguments have been used to justify oppression against those who are underprivileged and *scary music* incivil.
            Workers, whose education didn’t enable them to make “polite conversation” and whose style and culture were less sophisticated were denied rights on exactly that basis.
            Black people were denied their human rights on the basis of pointing out that they weren’t respectful and civil enough, and don’t get me started on all the complaints about those flamboyant gays who need to rub their sexuality into everybody’s face.
            You might not want to engage in that long tradition of silencing, but by setting your priorities that way you effectively do. I give you credit that you are actually not one of those people whose only occupation is to complain about us rude people but that you do something else as well. I accept and respect that there’s a plurality of approaches and tactics and I think that they all have their place and value.

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