I Am Not Against Emotions. I Am Against Insulting Epithets.

I Am Not Against Emotions. I Am Against Insulting Epithets. August 5, 2012

I recently unveiled a comments moderation policy that outlawed epithets and personal attacks. In response I received both a lot of support and a number of objections. I summarized 8 of those objections in my own words and now I am publishing replies to them.

Objection 2: My policy underestimates the value of passion in emotions and is calling for unrealistic Vulcanism. Worse, it is unfair because some subjects that may come up for debate are not merely academic. They affect people’s lives. Those affected are entitled to their emotions. I am a privileged white male heterosexual cisgendered neurotypical American college professor with a PhD and no physical disabilities. I have never been sexually or physically assaulted, meaningfully impoverished, physically debilitated, or substantively marginalized based on either my immutable characteristics or morally defensible life choices. It may be easy for me and others similarly situated in any of the above characteristics related to any topic under discussion to write with philosophical detachment but this is an unfair demand to make of those for whom the results of a given debate are not merely academic but vitally consequential.

Reply 2: Let me be unambiguously clear about the following points:

First of all, I am indeed privileged in all the respects listed above and that is why I greedily read and listen to people from important perspectives I lack that I may vicariously inhabit and learn from them. As a Nietzschean, if nothing else, I  reject all attempts to make an absolute dichotomy between reason and emotion as deeply false and counter-productive. I agree with Nietzsche that the best rationality accepts that we are always perspective bound. We can never abstract ourselves from all limitations of perspective and, even if we could, detachment would obscure as much of reality as it would show us.

So my interpretation of objectivity is not that it is an exercise of removing oneself from perspectives and emotions but rather of constant varying them. What I think we need to do is to see and to feel from as many perspectives as we can, both personally and vicariously through others, that we may then understand issues most fully when we take the critical perspective of cohering the data gleaned from each perspective. That is why I ask a lot of questions of a wide range of people and why I take very seriously people’s experiences which are different from mine. (See my post On Zealously, Tentatively, and Perspectivally Holding Viewpoints.)

Ultimately, I have to think for myself and assess what anyone tells me rationally. But the experiences and emotions of other people are crucial data for me to incorporate into any reasoning process, even when I ultimately come to different conclusions about the meaning or moral relevance of what someone has to offer me that I could not have learned without them. So, I am grateful to the innumerable ways that members of all groups, including marginalized ones, have vastly improved and nuanced my own thinking, even if I will not wind up agreeing with any other person down to every detail.

As much as I am very philosophical by nature and by discipline, I am also a deeply passionate person, and the two traits are inextricable in my personality and inextricable from my personality. I often argue with emotionally informed urgency and rhetorical flourish and am proud to do so. Of course I do not do this all the time. Sometimes cool detachment of presentation is much more effective and clarifying. But it is my passion for rigorous, detached clarity that is driving me even in those cases. But sometimes, excellent communicators use emotions to help their audience feel the way they rationally should given the goodness or the badness of the thing under discussion.

And in a great deal of my writing, I am constantly varying perspectives. I am constantly getting into the way of thinking and feeling that opposing viewpoints entail to try to put them into dialectical tension and generate new insights through that process. When I read other people, I let myself enter into their attitudes vicariously and try to incorporate them into my own thought that I may find what is true in them and correct what is false with the input of competing attitudes I have also picked up from others or found within myself. I am always reasoning not only as informed by emotions but by whole perspectives I am shifting between.

Emotional appeals can also mislead. But so can dispassionate, calm, and merely abstract ones. You are perfectly free to be passionate here or dispassionate. Emotion should never be a substitute for good reasoning and people should never be swayed by an emotional appeal that is irrational but it is up to readers and not me to decide whether an emotionally enhanced argument is rationally persuasive and likely to be true or whether it is subverting reason emotionally. The only kind of emotional appeal that I will rule out of bounds is the one that explicitly attacks the hearer as a person and tries to use emotions to interpersonally bully them rather than persuade them. (For more on this, see Force and Reason.)

Since my primary philosophical interest is in moral philosophy, we talk here about both abstract moral theory and practical ethical topics quite a bit. While I do not think emotions are the final word in ethics, quite often they are a helpful tool for guiding us to important, ethically relevant aspects of situations. The emotions help guide us to prima facie judgments of right and wrong, which we can then either refine or reassess, using critical reasoning. Sometimes emotions alert us to the seriousness of a problem even if they do not give us a clear feeling about the right solution. So in moral philosophy (and of course in matters of social justice) arguments which incorporate appeals to emotions are very important as a practical matter and sometimes even as a theoretical one.

Also, describing one’s emotions is perfectly valid and permissible in almost any context, as long as they do not amount to unnecessarily hostile interpersonal behavior. Bring up your emotions explicitly when they are relevant to a debating point or if someone is mistreating you and you need to assert yourself. Describe how rude commenters make you feel, preferably dispassionately if you can manage, and I will take it seriously.

When we both describe and appeal to our emotions and experiences this can be vital to a number of topics. If you come from a group with an unusual life experience of any kind that gives you a vantage point on the way that a philosophical, moral, social, or political issue affects people from your background, then it is crucial for the rest of us that you contribute what you have to offer. And part of what you have to offer is both reports on how things affect you emotionally and also constructive expressions of your emotional investment in the issues. There is not only nothing wrong, but often something vitally valuable about conveying your feelings in order to stress the importance of what impacts you or those you live with and love.

The last thing I want is to further marginalize those who come from less privileged situations than I do in any particular area. I earnestly want your input. I want your emotions to have a fair hearing. I just don’t want you to displace your anger on other commenters. I will do my best to make sure that even when we get into areas that hit close to home and people ask questions with the possibility to offend any marginalized groups, that your fellow commenters address the related issues as civilly and sensitively as possible, and do not dismissively treat your accounts of your emotional experiences or try to invalidate your points by simply noting the emotion with which you make your arguments.

Also, in keeping with my rules’ emphasis on interpersonal respect, I won’t allow language choices, whether direct slurs or implicitly insulting phraseology, that creates a hostile environment with the power to stealthily demean, goad, or threaten vulnerable groups.

I just want you to passionately convey your ideas and your experiences through stories, ideas, and arguments, rather than through venting at other people here, or even at whole groups of people you disagree with that others reading may belong to. You may morally condemn harmful or otherwise bad words, behaviors, attitudes, institutions, systemic effects, political groups, etc. with specific moral, intellectual, or otherwise critical kinds of charges that are open to substantiation.

You can explain that a social group or a public person has created or perpetuates ideas, attitudes, behaviors, institutions, systemic effects, etc., that are reprehensible, cowardly, cruel, dishonest, callous, malicious, vindictive, unfair, authoritarian, careless, bigoted, misogynistic, racist, homophobic, transphobic, inegalitarian, sexist, privileged, merciless, disgusting, irresponsible, hateful, damaging, counter-productive, irrational, poorly reasoned, false, insensitive, illogical, prejudicial, etc.

There are plenty of harsh words which carry significant emotional weight that you may use. I am only against personal attacks against your discussion partners here when they have not yet behaved uncivilly to you and I am against epithets in nearly all cases on the blog. When you encounter what you take to be sexist ideas, you can charge them with being sexist. When someone’s ideas, attitudes, and reported behaviors prove persistently sexist, you may complain that they are coming off as a sexist. So you do not need to call them “douchebags”. You do not need to call someone an “asshole” when calling them a “bigot” is more accurate, defensible, capable of substantiation, and even carries greater emotional charge and social consequences.

So, epithets are, to my judgment superfluous. And since they are also intrinsically abusive and consequentially harmful to the atmosphere of collegiality, there is already prima facie reason to discourage such unproductive, counter-productive and hateful words altogether. This is entirely consistent with a wholehearted appreciation of the value of emotions in good reasoning.

I am trying to rein in the human tendency to turn our disputes over the true and the good into interpersonal fights. I am not at all trying to suppress righteous anger aimed at bad ideas or harmful effects. I am not here to invalidate your feelings or to repress your anger. I am only asking you to channel it into productive outlets for the purposes of this blog. Please respect the ways that personal attacks put your opponents on the defensive, cause them to keep to themselves what they honestly think instead of subjecting it to rational scrutiny, and corrode the atmosphere of good will and shared inquiry.

If we cannot treat each other as mutually concerned with the projects of discovering truth and creating justice then we will not trust each other and this will not be a space where people dig for truth as deep as they can but instead one where they dig in their heels on what they already think as deep as they can. If the latter happens, this will only be a place where people either agree with each other or attack each other’s points of view without any interest or ability to learn from each other. I want this place to be one where everyone is so comfortable to think and write honestly that they can be honest about their confusions, have their misconceptions debunked, and take fruitful open-ended intellectual risks.

I am only going to get worried about your anger if you personalize disputes prematurely. So as soon as you feel like you are being treated dismissively in a marginalizing or objectifying way by another poster, report it to me (preferably privately) and I will work to nip it in the bud if I have not spotted it already. I want us to host difficult moral and political and social difficult debates here. I want us to be as rigorous as possible consistent with being as inclusive as possible. This means trying to create an atmosphere where the ideas can, if necessary, conflict the most possible while the people interpersonally conflict the least possible given that circumstance.

If you are not up for difficult debates where what you have at stake will be interrogated in a vigorous way by others, then that’s fine. Not every blog is for everybody. But some blogs and some other forums need to have these debates if we are going to have values that are grounded in reason, subjected to rational scrutiny, and defended to others rationally and fairly. When you contribute your experience, including your emotions, to that process, it is a net benefit for everyone else. So I want you to be here if you can and I am only asking that you not use epithets or hastily personalize intellectual disputes with your fellow commenters. You do not have to hold back anything else in terms of your passions to participate here. You have to be as patient and generous as you can when your views are attacked. That is just an inevitable part of honest, constructive debate and dialogue.

I perfectly understand if you personally do not want to educate strangers online who are going to ask relentless questions and otherwise skeptically examine issues that are settled matters of core values or basic existence for you. I will address that complaint over the course of future posts. For now, let me just make clear that I think that it is good that there are blogs where people of shared values can assume their common ground and work from there to support each other, reason within their shared framework, get refuge from oppressive social forces and opposing philosophical viewpoints, and/or coordinate political action.

While those four goods have always been a big part of this blog’s role, when philosophical disagreements break out those are given precedence over nurturing members of our in-group here. The reason for that is not at all because I am uncommitted to social justice but rather because I am a philosopher and this is a philosophy blog. And on such a blog, philosophical debates that clarify theoretical issues of crucial eventual relevance to how we understand the good, live our lives, and structure a just society are paramount.

In order to do that, many values and beliefs which are fine to take as shared assumptions at other blogs are opened up for vigorous refinement and reassessment. This sort of clarification project is vital to the advance of good thinking and good thinking is vital good actions and good institutions. Good thinking requires taking intellectual challenges as seriously as possible so that we have a better understanding of whatever truth they may contain that we have not yet incorporated into our own thinking.

By all means stay when the topics turn to matters of first order inquiry. By all means argue passionately in such cases and bring all your knowledge and unique experiences, perspectives, and needs to bear. Just don’t sabotage the discussions by abusively attacking those who disagree with you.

Your Thoughts and Emotions?

For much more detail on how emotions play a positive role in reason and on how to curb their potential to undermine rationality and fairness, see the following posts:

On Zealously, Tentatively, and Perspectivally Holding Viewpoints

Force and Reason

Rational Passional Persuasion

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