Civility

Steven here…

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.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TG4f9zR5yzY

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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  • Glodson

    I think the Pledge comes from a place of good intentions, but I cannot sign it either. People hide behind civility, some people like to act like discussing savage ideas civilly makes it a talk rooted in academia.

    I think I prefer being honest and compassionate, rather than lying to myself and other with the thin veneer of civility.

  • Nate Frein

    I think the pledge is one long example of privilege.

    • guest

      this.

    • Art Vandelay

      Couldn’t have said it better.

      I also agree with everything that Steven wrote.

      I don’t even have to think here!

    • http://considertheteacosy.wordpress.com Aoife

      Yepppp.

  • guest

    I feel offended every time someone claims the word “retarded” is ableist. I would never ever call a mentally disabled person “retarded”. That’s incredibly offensive! (But I’m working on it, since I am not disabled my feelings come second to the person who might actually feel addressed by such a term)

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/brutereason Miri

      Do you disagree that the word is ableist? Just because you would never use it that way doesn’t mean that that’s not what it refers to, and that it’s not a degrading term for someone with a mental disability.

    • Glodson

      What?

      The word “retarded” is directly related to the idea of mental retardation. The whole idea is that you are likening a person who just said or did something stupid to a person with a mental handicap. By using the word, you are invoking this idea, whether or not that is your intent.

      It is like calling a person a gay slur but justifying it by saying that you would never use the term to refer to a gay person. Or using a racial slur as such. Or a gendered slur.

    • “Uncivilized” disabled chick shitting up your blog

      You don’t have a right to be offended by that claim. It is ableist, regardless of what your able little feefees say about it.

      (see, wasnt that faster than being all finkeian about it?)

    • Kate Donovan

      The problem is actually that people use the word to call non-mentally challenged people names….implying that being mentally challenged is synonymous with bad.

  • http://boldquestions.wordpress.com Ubi Dubium

    Civility is a tool I use, and I use it a lot. Most of the time, as Richard Wade says, if you want to help someone see more clearly, it’s best not to start by poking them in the eye. It’s rare that I would say anything out of line with the civility pledge.

    But there are definitley times when incivility is called for. The best I could pledge is that, if I am uncivil, it’s deliberate, and to make a point, and because I think that it’s the best way to accomplish my goal. I could pledge that I will try my best to never be uncivil by accident, or as an emotional response. I could pledge that before I post, I will read over my post to be sure that nothing might be taken as an attack or an insult, unless I specifically meant it that way. The fact that I am usually so sweet and polite, and almost never swear, makes the rare time that I do let somebody have it have more punch.

    • Stogoe

      I don’t see ‘incivility’ it as poking them in the eye. I see it as grabbing hold of their blinders and giving them a good shake. It can be disorienting, but it can also expose the existence of those blinders to the person wearing them.

      • http://boldquestions.wordpress.com Ubi Dubium

        It depends on how you use it. The problem is the backfire effect: when people are confronted with information that contradicts what they already think, instead of rethinking their position they tend to just dig in harder on what they already think. I think a constant barrage of what they perceive as “attacks” only makes this problem worse. So figuring out when to be uncivil is the trick. When will that good shake produce a better result than a series of gentle nudges? Not easy, but I’m pretty sure that constant incivility is counterproductive.

  • http://www.ziztur.com Christopher Stephens

    I disagree with framing it as a “pledge,” fust because I don’t think that anyone has an obligation, ethical or otherwise, to be civil. As a means of effective communication, though, I basically entirely agree with it.

    The criticism of the pledge that I’ve seen is almost always “sometimes privileged people need to be told to fuck right off” and the variation we see here, “as a privileged person, sometimes I need to be told to fuck right off.”

    I’m not going to tell anyone that my experience applies to them, but I honestly can’t come up with a single example of a time that a person being uncivil with me helped me, and that includes times that I was absolutely being completely stupid about the issue in question. If I get a “fuck right off” without an actual argument, … well, I’m not going to be convinced. Which I would think would be obvious. And if an insult does come with an argument, it’s not going to make me take the argument more seriously, if anything, I’ll be taking it less seriously.

    I’m totally going to take it at face value that lots of people, like you, Steven, absolutely have that experience of a blunt, uncivil calling-out that helps you learn, but it doesn’t make sense to me.

    • Nate Frein

      One word:

      Stonewall.

    • John Horstman

      And race riots and slave revolts and sit-ins and the French Revolution and the American Revolution and anti-apartheid activism and ACT UP and the Indian Revolution and SlutWalks and… do I need to keep going?

      ‘Civility’ is problematic because it’s always defined in terms of cultural consensus with respect to the status quo, which is inevitably the preferences of the dominant group(s). It is always the case that calls for “civility” are people inflected by some forms of privilege insisting that everyone else do things their way, because “civil” is defined as “not offensive to the sensibilities of the dominant class”. For example, if I say “fuck” a whole lot, no one in ANY of my social groups bats an eye, but that is often considered ‘uncivil’ language by others; in my groups, the dominant conventions consider “fuck” perfectly appropriate in ‘civil’ conversation, while in other groups this is not the case.

      Fincke has been on about this one for AGES, and we really ought to just keep ignoring him; maybe he’ll eventually go away and tone-troll somewhere else.

      • http://www.ziztur.com Christopher Stephens

        So … reread what I wrote. Again, no one has any obligation to be “civil” with someone else. I completely agree that people, especially people who are generally oppressed in a given context, don’t owe anyone any degree of “polite” communication.

        As for this specific argument, though, I’m going over the pledge again with your examples in mind, and I honestly can’t find a single example that you give that offends the pledge in any way. I could totally be missing something, though, and if so, I want to know about it!

        The Stonewall Riots, the American race riots that I believe you refer to, slave revolts, etc. are obviously in direct response to violence and physical threat, which Fincke explicitly allows for in the pledge. I don’t find Slutwalks to be uncivil, because I don’t find women’s bodies or feminism to be uncivil, and again, I see nothing about the Slutwalks that violate Fincke’s idea of civility. Do they violate a traditional, conservative notion of civility, defined as always deferring to the status quo? Hell yes. But that’s obviously not the notion of civility that Fincke is working with, here.

        “‘Civility’ is problematic because it’s always defined in terms of cultural consensus with respect to the status quo …”

        That is emphatically not how it is always defined, and Fincke goes to great lengths to define it as forbidding abusive communication, especially that which is aimed at oppressed or marginalized persons. Honestly, it sure looks like critics are arguing that since “civility” has absolutely been abused by oppressors in the past, there is no place for the concept of refraining from abusive language. Not to put too fine a point on it, but science has similarly been abused to make it into a tool of oppression in more ways than we can count; does that mean that we should discard the concept of science?

        • Nate Frein

          That is emphatically not how it is always defined, and Fincke goes to great lengths to define it as forbidding abusive communication, especially that which is aimed at oppressed or marginalized persons. Honestly, it sure looks like critics are arguing that since “civility” has absolutely been abused by oppressors in the past, there is no place for the concept of refraining from abusive language. Not to put too fine a point on it, but science has similarly been abused to make it into a tool of oppression in more ways than we can count; does that mean that we should discard the concept of science?

          No, the point is that the pledge is meaningless and pointless, and Fincke’s words carry no weight when he’s shown by his actions that he has no problem giving shelter to people who do far greater harm than being “uncivil”.

  • http://www.dougberger.net Doug B

    Civility codes is used too often to silence people. I want to hear from the sexist (or whatever) to have a conversation with them. They aren’t a victim yet if they are silenced then they become as much a victim as the people they oppress with their sexism. Why do they get to do that?

    A civility pledge is not going to stop the current flame wars going on. It will need to fade away as people grow up and realize the waste of time it is to be uncivil.

    • Azkyroth

      Too often? The only fucking purpose of “civility” (insofar as it is not better expressed as “treating people fairly”) is to silence people – prevent exactly this:

      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.

      from happening, and protect the privilege of the people who benefit from it.

  • http://raisinghellions.wordpress.com/ Lou Doench

    I think that Dan is coming from a position of almost terrifyingly clear intent, almost to the point where I despair at being able to live up to his pledge. I “signed” it provisionally, but I share many of the same reservations as Steven. I think Libbey Anne’s response was very well written as well.

    • Azkyroth

      I don’t agree. You could argue that he clearly “want[s] crops without plowing up the ground…[w]ant[s] rain without thunder and lightning…[w]ant[s] the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. ” But it’s certainly not clear to me that he wants any of those things at all.

  • Konradius

    You know, I think the pledge is a good role model for a perfect world.
    And I have seldom damned something with an equal amount of faint praise.

  • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ M

    I think that a harsh response, followed by an explanation, gets through to people a lot better than either in isolation. The emotional response of “that hurts, you jackass!” followed by “this is why you shouldn’t do/say that, look at everything that word/phrase/action means” is pretty effective. The emotive response breaks barriers and makes it clear that this isn’t a subject for polite disagreement. We can’t agree to disagree on this one because I, at least, have emotional investment in this subject.

    The explanation afterwards serves two purposes. First, it shows that it’s not a purely emotive, “hysterical” response. It’s not right or fair, but people have a tendency to dismiss emotional appeals as overwrought and unthinking. It’s not enough that something is hurtful; there has to be a reason why it’s also inappropriate. Second, it really hammers home to the offending person why what they did is wrong at a time when a lot of their mental barriers are down.

    So an example might be, “Hey, fuck that! You do NOT say that shit!” *Deep breath* “I mean, hell, think about what you just said. You just called that person retarded. There’s actual mentally retarded people out there. Being stupid and having a brain problem are two very different things, and I certainly wouldn’t want to be associated with [insert idea here] because my brain worked wrong or differently. So just call it stupid, or cruel, or inane. But not retarded, that’s something else entirely!”

  • Compuholic

    I cannot sign up for this civility agreement.

    Although I agree that civility goes a long way in debates there comes a point where civility is actually holding back the debate. Especially when one side of the debate is being dishonest and is exploiting the civility of the other person.

    I often see this in religious debates but also in debates between politicians. When someone is misrepresenting what you just said you may first politely correct him. But when this happens more than a few times it becomes clear that the other person does not want to have an honest discussion. And I don’t see that civility is warranted here. At some point I would simply call out the person for what he/she is: a fucking liar.

  • baal

    “I am hurting someone, I want to know about it in no uncertain terms.”
    Ok, Stephen, fuck you.***

    Part I: Tiny Ask
    When someone has a small ask and the answer is a HELL NO!, I’m making ‘huh?’ eyes at the Boehner clone not the person making the ask. I’ve followed Dan’s pledge and it’s orbita carefully. At the end of it, he’s really only asking that you not start at the position that wholesale abusiveness is a good thing. So far as constraints go, it’s really really mild. I’m being more and more of the opinion that if you can’t manage to control when you’re abusive or not (or argue endlessly that it doesn’t matter) I don’t need to respect you or anything you say.

    Part II: Where is the outer limit?
    All this “Rah, Rah Don’t put me in a box” (I can’t promise to do what I always do anyway) rhetoric fails for want of a critical distinction.
    1. Sometimes I should hit people to get them to pay attention / wake up / defend myself / scale to a huge outrage.
    2. Each and every time I beat the crap out of people, you don’t have a right to say I’ve lacked civility or decency.
    Too many of the arguments (including OP) don’t seem to make the distinction or even understand how they could be confused for #2. Or suggest that unless you are free do to #2, ‘the man’ (or the platypus underneath the table) is oppressing you or since systematic oppression historically relies on biased use of ‘politeness’ all calls for it oppress me or something like that. Intent is not magical for you either. You may always be intending #1 but it’s just as likely you look like you’re arguing for #2.

    Part III: Simpson’s analogy***
    To belabor my point, I’m explicitly saying you’re like Homer Simpson in Season 11 Episode 5 E-I-E-I-(Annoyed Grunt). In that episode, Homer glove slaps (challenges to a duel) Spike. Spike then runs away (good! Spike is a harmful person). Homer then goes around slapping everyone willy-nilly and enjoys line jumping and other perks for breaking the social contract (rules are for squares).

    Part IV: Call to set an outer limit, what would you accept?
    So my question is, is there any constraint on behavior (‘harsh language’) that you can accept?

    Part V: Safe Spaces? Illusions or reality. Personal motivation (so you don’t have to freaking guess).
    My dog in this fight is that I don’t want anyone subjected to unfair standards and I want to minimize the harms everyone suffers. To that end, I do not accept localized bullying, ‘harsh language’ or other punitive enforcement of social norms to create ‘safe spaces’.** Under that model, should everyone do it, life would freaking suck for everyone.

    I was once at an upscale mall in India. The were guards armed with rifles at all of the entrances. I was repeatedly told by everyone that it was the best mall and I should feel extra safe with the abundance of safety. Know what? I did not feel safe. There were people with guns all over the place!* That at least raised the possibility that the site was a suspected target for something in the range of a terror attack or pick pockets.

    * it’s a FN but I felt much more safe in most of that city and country side than I do in the U.S. In particular, I visited a rural temple. Tons of people, limited cell phone connectivity, aggressive holy monkeys with rabies (who were scared off by folks who hit long metal poles). Not one person of the thousand there triggered my personal safety alarm and thanks to years of martial arts, I’m (still) on a bit of a hair trigger.
    **I don’t think of screening activities as punishing even though some screened folks don’t like it. ex, human walls blocking the phelps from funeral goers, trans* only events, invitation only event to my backyard BBQ etc.
    ***I’m being intentionally overly dramatic and being intentionally bitter and ironic with use of ‘harsh language’ and demeaning analogy. Your (OP) post is at least making some recognitions of Dan’s attempt at understanding his detractors, for that kudos. I do fault you, however, for being an apologist for the “no outer limits” crowd. I have looked with keen interest in seeing some signs for what is the outer limit if Dan’s pledge is too much. His detractors have failed to state what they could live with.

    • Nate Frein

      Part I: Tiny Ask
      When someone has a small ask and the answer is a HELL NO!, I’m making ‘huh?’ eyes at the Boehner clone not the person making the ask. I’ve followed Dan’s pledge and it’s orbita carefully. At the end of it, he’s really only asking that you not start at the position that wholesale abusiveness is a good thing. So far as constraints go, it’s really really mild. I’m being more and more of the opinion that if you can’t manage to control when you’re abusive or not (or argue endlessly that it doesn’t matter) I don’t need to respect you or anything you say.

      I dislike this because it assumes every one of these “little questions” exists in a vacuum. They don’t.
      When that “tiny question” is:
      -Asking harmful questions in an innapropriate manner
      -Asking questions that have been well answered in many other places
      -Disingenuous JAQing off
      then the question itself is abusive (whether intentional or not, because intent is not magic). A forum dedicated to (insert minority here) rights should not have to explain 101-level stuff patiently and intelligently to every new reader who stumbles onto the site. Search engines exist. Using them to get a basic grounding in social issues is the “respectful” thing to do.

      When a sockpuppet joins a discussion in order to derail things with dishonest questions (JAQing off), that person has already disrespected the people in the forum, no matter how “civil” the language used.

      Part II: Where is the outer limit?
      All this “Rah, Rah Don’t put me in a box” (I can’t promise to do what I always do anyway) rhetoric fails for want of a critical distinction.
      1. Sometimes I should hit people to get them to pay attention / wake up / defend myself / scale to a huge outrage.
      2. Each and every time I beat the crap out of people, you don’t have a right to say I’ve lacked civility or decency.
      Too many of the arguments (including OP) don’t seem to make the distinction or even understand how they could be confused for #2. Or suggest that unless you are free do to #2, ‘the man’ (or the platypus underneath the table) is oppressing you or since systematic oppression historically relies on biased use of ‘politeness’ all calls for it oppress me or something like that. Intent is not magical for you either. You may always be intending #1 but it’s just as likely you look like you’re arguing for #2.

      You’re equivocating reactionary rhetoric to the abuse that inspired it.

      Part III: Simpson’s analogy***
      To belabor my point, I’m explicitly saying you’re like Homer Simpson in Season 11 Episode 5 E-I-E-I-(Annoyed Grunt). In that episode, Homer glove slaps (challenges to a duel) Spike. Spike then runs away (good! Spike is a harmful person). Homer then goes around slapping everyone willy-nilly and enjoys line jumping and other perks for breaking the social contract (rules are for squares).

      Nope. In fact, strictly abiding to a pledge works in the opposite way. Rules become used to silence those without power. Case in point: The original comment thread to Dan Fincke’s pledge in which “civil” lies about multiple FTB bloggers and commentariat were allowed to stand because Dan Fincke fluttered his hands and simply blocked commenting for a significant time. When he did reallow commenting, he took both sides equally to task.

      No. I have no respect for Dan Fincke, nor for you, for this false equivocation.

      Part IV: Call to set an outer limit, what would you accept?
      So my question is, is there any constraint on behavior (‘harsh language’) that you can accept?

      Reaction based on initial abuse, which is all we’ve seen. Even your “small questions” when taken in context, represent a long-standing effort of silencing minority speakers.

      Part V: Safe Spaces? Illusions or reality. Personal motivation (so you don’t have to freaking guess).
      My dog in this fight is that I don’t want anyone subjected to unfair standards and I want to minimize the harms everyone suffers. To that end, I do not accept localized bullying, ‘harsh language’ or other punitive enforcement of social norms to create ‘safe spaces’.** Under that model, should everyone do it, life would freaking suck for everyone.

      I was once at an upscale mall in India. The were guards armed with rifles at all of the entrances. I was repeatedly told by everyone that it was the best mall and I should feel extra safe with the abundance of safety. Know what? I did not feel safe. There were people with guns all over the place!* That at least raised the possibility that the site was a suspected target for something in the range of a terror attack or pick pockets.

      The rifles in your analogy are enforced social rules which serve to silence minorities. In other words, Dan’s Civility Pledge only serves to arm the guards on the mall.

      • Azkyroth

        You’re equivocating reactionary rhetoric to the abuse that inspired it.

        This is an unfortunate consequence of being histrionic and privilege-drunk.

        …damn it, and I’d seen Baal being sensible in one or two places in the last few days. This is disappointing.

      • John Horstman

        The other issue is the total context-blindness, which doesn’t really surprise me coming from Fincke (I, like you, have no respect for him – for me, he lost it all when he tried to argue an essentialist defense of logic as an integral part of the universe that exists without conscious minds to construct it as an abstracted model – his tendency toward essentialism and universals shows up all over the place). For example, take this really problematic section:

        I want to argue for what I think is true and good without hesitating over concerns that my views are too unpopular or unpleasant, and I want others to feel free to do the same.

        Trigger warning – discussion of rape and rape culture
        Yeah, I categorically disagree with that. I very much want others to shut the fuck up if the ‘unpleasantness’ they’re spouting functions as part of institutionalized, systemic harm visited to vulnerable persons, especially marginalized person. Take rape culture as an example. Protecting rape apologism perpetuates a system in which the meanings of rape and concepts of consent are twisted beyond recognition. This allows many rapists to rape without legal or social consequence because both rapey (coercive, lacking consent) behavior is normalized as ‘romantic’ behavior (stalking becomes persistence, ignoring boundaries becomes confidence, verbal harassment becomes flattery, etc.) and the actual incidences of rape are confused or greyed (with a big heaping does of victim-blaming). I very much do NOT want rape apologists to feel comfortable voicing their views; shaming and silencing them is very much the right thing to do.

        At a larger scale, this is more or less the same impulse behind such things as universal calls against shaming or bullying or violence. It’s lazy thinking. It’s a lot easier to come up with a universal behavioral prescription or proscription than it is to work through all of the contextual nuance of a given situation for every given situation. Universally applied, these pretty much just turn into giant, “Please exploit me!” signs; without the threat of violence or social marginalization or even shame, why exactly are people who don’t think I’m fully human and deserving of equal status listen to me, let alone do anything I say? In some contexts, hostility, shaming, bullying, violence, etc. really are the ‘best’ or most ethical actions.

        The mistake is to assume everyone always has noble intentions, and it’s simply a matter of confused or incorrect information and breakdowns in communication that cause all problems. This is demonstrably not the case: while most people have good intentions, there is a sizable majority (hell, in normative USA culture we idealize sociopathy in many cases) that really just does not. They know they’re exploiting people making their food and clothes, for example, and think it’s awesome because it means material wealthy for them. They know needlessly driving SUVs around the suburbs harms the plant, but they just don’t care. The motivations of the people with whom one is dealing is part of the context. Universal pre/proscriptions are problematic because they completely elide context. Civility strikes me as a reasonable approach to take by default until one has more information about the specific context, but to call for it universally is simply to re-assert extant discursive privilege, and it’s utter bullshit.

        • John Horstman

          Hmm, I missed a “going to” in one sentence and said “plant” instead of “planet” in another, though that one actually still sort of makes sense. I can see some of the advantages of short posts. :-)

  • John-Henry Beck

    I think I agree pretty closely with Christopher Stephens and M up above.

    The harsh or uncivil language is a tool that has good uses. But if you want good communication it’s a tool you need to be careful with to use effectively. If someone is just going to lash out with invective I’m much more prone to just writing them off. But as the example M gave, you do sometimes need to speak up loudly to get attention that something is really not acceptable.

    To be clear, I don’t think that simply avoiding particular ‘bad’ or ‘harsh’ words makes something civil. Being civil requires treating others with some respect and being rational. I’ve seen plenty of cases where people are using rather polite or civil language to say some very awful things, and that is not something I consider civil or rational discourse.

  • Ariel

    From the OP:

    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 […] Uncivil criticism, at least with me, helps to break the spell of privilege.

    On the face of it, it’s difficult to disagree with such a remark. You read it, you absorb it, you swallow it smoothly, and that’s it. The problem begins when you start to consider the stuff hidden behind it.

    So let’s begin with the obvious. Privilege is a relative thing. You can have it in one context (say in one group); you can be helpless and vulnerable in another. Take a Christian living in a strongly Christian community. Indeed, it may well happen (exactly as you say) that he will be blind to problems facing non-Christians in the very community he is supposed to know so well. But on the other hand, take the same Christian leaving the boundaries of his group. Oh well … imagine him going to some liberal college. Or visiting Pharyngula for that matter, if he is crazy enough :-) In such a context, in a confrontation with the well entrenched crowd, it is him who becomes vulnerable, and it is them – the members of the crowd – who occupy the privileged position. How will they treat him? Will they recognize their own privilege in this context, or maybe they will remain blind to it? Will they reason with him? Seduce him? Shout him down? Abuse him? In this context it’s really up to them. They are the powerful, they are the privileged ones, it’s their kingdom, and he is weak and out of his place.

    You see, I refuse to treat it as a black and white story. It’s not “Me always Tarzan, you always Jane”. Privileged where, that’s the question. Shifts of perspective happen all the time. It happens also to people wandering to your blogs and discussion sites. It’s shocking really and hardly believable … but yes, sometimes strangers do visit you. I can’t imagine why?!?* Evidently some strangers are crazy or uncautious enough to want to discuss feminism with you, or maybe they ask these 101 questions which you detest so much. In such a context it is you that are the privileged ones, not them. And my impression is … hmmm … that privilege is difficult to see if you are the one possessing it. (Infringement of the copyright, I know. Sue me.)

    [*It’s so weird indeed that ill will on their part is probably the only possible explanation. Yessss my preciousssss, they hate us!!]

    A few words now about the second part of the initial quote. Just to remind: “uncivil criticism, at least with me, helps to break the spell of privilege”. The same story: initially I find it difficult to quarrell with. It is the same with me after all! Oh, but on reflection … it depends. I can appreciate a spontaneous (uncivil!) emotional outburst. I agree also that it can be an eye opener. However, “spontaneous” and “emotional” are the keywords. If uncivility is applied as a cold blooded naming and shaming strategy, it has the opposite effect, at least on me. Emotional, justifiable insults coming from a victim – yes, the effect can be sobering. But insults from a well entrenched group, which uses abusive language on a regular basis, with a lot of rationalization and self-congratulation? I don’t know, Steven. My gut reaction would be to treat them like a group of Hongweibing – avoid them whenever possible, fight them as you can when they become dangerous, don’t even try to discuss with them. And please, please, before you dismiss completely such a reaction, try just for a moment to turn off your privilege and view such a group with a weak stranger’s eye.

    A consolation, if it is one: I’m afraid that civility pledges are pretty ineffective weapons against such groups. If you feel like a member of one, you may sleep well.

    • Nate Frein

      So let’s begin with the obvious. Privilege is a relative thing. You can have it in one context (say in one group); you can be helpless and vulnerable in another. Take a Christian living in a strongly Christian community. Indeed, it may well happen (exactly as you say) that he will be blind to problems facing non-Christians in the very community he is supposed to know so well. But on the other hand, take the same Christian leaving the boundaries of his group. Oh well … imagine him going to some liberal college. Or visiting Pharyngula for that matter, if he is crazy enough In such a context, in a confrontation with the well entrenched crowd, it is him who becomes vulnerable, and it is them – the members of the crowd – who occupy the privileged position. How will they treat him? Will they recognize their own privilege in this context, or maybe they will remain blind to it? Will they reason with him? Seduce him? Shout him down? Abuse him? In this context it’s really up to them. They are the powerful, they are the privileged ones, it’s their kingdom, and he is weak and out of his place.

      A good majority of the commentariat at Pharyngula are rape survivors who post there because they have created a safe space for themselves, mainly because of their decision to treat bigotry with all the anger it deserves.

      To suggest that they have “privilege” when someone decides to invade that space is absurd. If a person were to walk into a victims’ support group and start asking bigoted questions (no matter how nicely) then that person deserves every invective the members throw at him.

      This bloody false equivocation between a minority group trying to hold onto a safe space for themselves and the privileged assholes who want to take over that place needs to fucking stop.

      • Ariel

        The idea of the Horde as victims’ support group sounds … really fresh. Does PZ know? I think you should inform him immediately. He may want to include this information on his blog, modify it in this direction, so there is no further misunderstanding. That should solve (to a substantial degree) the problem of unwanted “privileged assholes” … I guess. Don’t be shy Nate, tell him.

        Until then please be informed that you are not received as victims’ support group; moreover, there is no reason I know of to receive you in such a way. You are seen rather as a group promoting quite specific political agenda. Far more than a “safe space” as well: you look rather like a group fighting for influence in the external world, promoting solutions which – if implemented – would change the life of a lot of people. You react to political events, you try (as much as you can) to shape some events, you call out public figures for not conforming to your standards. Of course it’s all ghetto-like, but it is a ghetto with a lot of ambitions. Please don’t insult my intelligence pretending otherwise.

        But if this is so, waving the “safe space” standard is like an attempt to eat the cake and still have it. You want influence? You reach to the external world, trying to change it? So you are not a knitting circle? Fine, that’s your right. But then people from the external world will come to see who you are. They will want to know whether they want the changes advocated by you. And inevitably the way you treat them will be an important factor in deciding whether you are trustworthy enough to go with you, some of the way perhaps. Sorry Nate, but trying to gain influence is not compatible with being a “safe space”, where you are not bothered by anyone. Demanding this is like demanding a free ride. You won’t have it, nor you are entitled to it.

        • Nate Frein

          Either you are an idiot or you are being deliberately obtuse.

          Any number of posts by the commentariat there, to include Gilliel, SallyStrange, Ogvorbis, et al support my statement. That Pharyngula advocates as well doesn’t matter.

          • Ariel

            Either you are an idiot or you are being deliberately obtuse.

            It’s very pleasant to talk to you, Nat.

            Any number of posts by the commentariat there, to include Gilliel, SallyStrange, Ogvorbis, et al support my statement.

            Which statement? That the Horde is a victims’ support group and the “privileged assholes” want to take over their safe space? You understood nothing from my last post.

            That Pharyngula advocates as well doesn’t matter.

            Because Nat says so. Great. Now I get it.

            For anyone who reads it (although definitely not for you, Nat :)) I will recapitulate my main points.

            1. If you want to function as a victims’ support group, you can say it explicitly. That’s what such groups usually do. There are plenty of such places on the web, with a clear information being presented on the main page.
            2. If for some reason you decide not to say it explicitly, don’t expect the others to treat you as a victims’ support group. Posts by the commentariat are not enough. You can’t reasonably expect anyone to sieve thousands of comments, calculating how large part of the authors made declarations to that effect.
            3. If your site is actively engaged in broadly conceived political activism, people will want to check who you are, especially if your agenda involves changing their lives as well. In particular, they will be judging you according to how you treat them. It is perfectly normal and it is to be expected.
            4. Political activism concentrated around a given site is hardly compatible with this site becoming a safe space.

            Have a nice day Nat. Believe me, all the pleasure from our “discussion” is mine. See you sometime.

          • Nate Frein

            Yup. Deliberately obtuse it is.

  • http://considertheteacosy.wordpress.com Aoife

    I’m not normally one to go plugging my own posts in other people’s blogs (hello, how rude can you get?), but I spent a few days going over this over at my own little corner of the internets a couple weeks back:

    If you tell me that I do not merit the same legal rights as you do, it does not matter in the slightest how softly you phrase it. It does not matter how friendly your tone is, how polite and how much you assure me that you are rather in favour of me as a person. You have still told me that you see me as fundamentally inferior to you. Even if you state that that is not what you mean at all. It is what your views mean. You don’t get to have those views and also have my courtesy, my affability, my friendliness or my reasonableness. Because there is a difference between you and me, and it is not simply our opinions. Your opinions directly harm me. You hurt me. You hurt people who I love.

    The consequence of your opinions in my life is that I have to deal all the goddamn time with people and social structures that treat me as inferior or as a curiosity. The consequence of my opinions in your life is that I say some unpleasant words to you. It’s a tiny consequence. And it’s one you deserve.

    My anger and my upset, by the way, do not invalidate my arguments. My anger and my upset are consequences of the harm that you cause me. Tone does not fix intent.

  • Improbable Joe

    “Civility”?

    Here’s how it looks to me: you’ve got people engaging in sexist harassment, abuse, stalking, obsessive behavior. You’ve got the people who are the victims of that behavior. And then you’ve got Fincke, who doesn’t think abusive behavior is all that bad, and doesn’t give a damn that victims are suffering. All he cares about is tone. He might say otherwise, but in practice that’s how it shakes out.

    And of course, bullies are EXPERTS at tone. They’ll thump you on the back of the head for weeks, and say the most terrible things imaginable, and then when you get into the principal’s office they are sweetness and light and lie and deflect. In fact, they are an awful lot like fundamentalist Christians hounding and harassing students who try to get prayers out of schools. They send death and rape threats, make nasty phone calls and engage in cyber -bullying… and then when they get in a public forum they put on a tie or a nice dress and say “We’re just trying to protect our rights from the extremist political activism of atheists! We don’t want a fight, we just want things to go back the way they were. Atheists are the real bullies here. And they probably sent themselves the death threats to make us look bad!”

    Look familiar?

    • Nate Frein

      According to Ariel here, they deserve it because they went asking for trouble.

      • Improbable Joe

        I’m guessing a look into the history of the issue would find Ariel clearly on the side of people who use sexist slurs and photoshop their heads onto porn. That’s the biggest part of the problem with “civility” Fincke-style: bullies with a history of bullying can use his website to further their agenda, knowing that the boss of the website will side with them when they keep their cool while their victims do not.

        Being civil in one forum doesn’t erase what you do in other forums. If you harass someone for months, and insult and criticize everything they do all over the Internet, and then act “civil” on one website, your history isn’t erased. That’s what Fincke has provided for the bullies though… and he has had that pointed out to him, and he doesn’t care.


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