Dan Fincke of Camels with Hammers put out a blog post recently calling on people to sign a civility pledge. A lot of it is completely fair and how we would hope people would behave. In fact, on my first read-through, I didn’t really see anything that I objected to. I try to be charitable, patient, and kind when I disagree with people, so this fits the way that I attempt to go about things anyway. It is a lengthy post and Dan put a lot of thought into it. I can’t address every single thing in the pledge, but I will share some of my thoughts and criticisms of the goal.
When I think of an uncivil person, the first one to come to mind is that of my close friend, Kassiane. Kassiane is not polite. If you say something sexist, racist or ableist she calls you on it–harshly. It is that bluntness that has helped me realize some of the harmful things I used to do, such as using “retarded” as synonymous with “stupid” or “bad.” You can make a long, polite syllogism about why ableism is bad, but sometimes you need to have someone tell you to fuck right off in order to call attention to the harm that such behavior causes. If Kassiane had been civil when she corrected my behavior, I may have mistaken it for a harmless difference in opinion and continued being a douchenozzle. I don’t want to be coddled. I want people to take me out of my comfort zone. It is painful at times, but if I am hurting someone, I want to know about it in no uncertain terms.
Privilege is difficult to see if you are the one possessing it. When you’ve lived your whole life as a straight, white, able-bodied male, it is easy to not understand how easy you have it.
I can’t accuse Dan of being completely oblivious to this issue though, as he does address privilege and marginalized people on point five:
I commit that I will go out of my way, if necessary, to remember that members of traditionally marginalized groups and victims of abuse have experiences that I may not have and which I may have to strain to properly weigh and appreciate.
Uncivil criticism, at least with me, helps to break the spell of privilege. The benefit to the recipient of vitriol is not usually appreciated when we discuss civility. We’re used to seeing venom spewed forth by bullies, so it’s easy to forget that sometimes it can help people wake up. Of course, the response to that is, “Why can’t they just ask people to improve nicely?” Sometimes they do. Jay Smooth is certainly adept at very politely addressing injustices. It can be done. But you have to have either a lot of patience or be lucky enough to belong to a group that isn’t routinely ignored.
I applaud Dan for the thoughtfulness of the pledge and I am convinced that his intentions in urging civility are just the best. However, intention is not magic, and calls for civility often have a way of silencing people who need to speak out. Not only with marginalized groups on a societal scale, but also within the various subcultures. For a long time before sexism was the internal focus of the secular community, tone was. And the arguments never came down to a substantive disagreement on the facts, but rather a distaste with how the facts are delivered. And calls for the abrasive types to just shut up already. Like many of you, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins is one of the reasons I started caring about atheism as a movement and skepticism as a toolset. His tone was not off-putting to me at all, but rather helped me realized that the kid gloves I had been using with people’s religion was not necessary and in fact helped to perpetuate the problems of religion.
I cannot sign on to the civility pledge. I think it is orders of magnitude better than any other manifestation of this desire that I’ve seen yet, but I’m not convinced that it will actually help improve the nature of our disagreements and could potentially hinder it in some regards. I try to remain civil as a personal guideline, but it’s becoming clear to me that this is a luxury that not everyone has and it won’t always get the job done.
(The civility pledge is a very long post and the criticisms and praises for it could go on much longer than this. For the sake of brevity, I limited my response).
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