I have been arguing, on both ethical and strategic grounds, that we should not use insults or other forms of personal attacks against people in arguments. I do think we can level harsh, specific moral criticisms, but that we should do so only after first focusing on specific words or behaviors and giving people chances to correct themselves, and then accumulate significant evidence that they really are ill-intentioned or incorrigibly negligent about examining or correcting their behavior. With the help of others, I recently codified these and many other notions of how to treat others in debates about tense subjects in a “civility pledge”.
Below are responses to three defenses of emotionally assaulting and insulting people that I often hear:
Objection 9: Sometimes you need to hurt people’s feelings in order to shock them into paying attention.
Reply 9: Ideas which fundamentally challenge people’s most cherished and/or culturally normalized assumptions are inherently shocking and upsetting to them. People will reflexively mistrust you when you go after their fundamental beliefs, assumptions, values, and identity. This alone marks you off in their mind as a threat, a fool, or both–regardless of whether you personally attack them. We need not personally attack people to make an impression, we need merely disagree with facts, forthrightness, and philosophical rigor.
Objection 10: Since they are going to get defensive and charge you with incivility anyway, even when it’s not justified, there is no point in being nice to them.
Reply 10: When you start to make people think and feel things that they don’t want to think and feel, they will experience an extremely unpleasant cognitive dissonance. How they interpret that unpleasantness is variable. They will not want to think they are experiencing cognitive dissonance. Automatically many people will instead cast about for any other explanation for their irritation. One of the first hypotheses for why they are so uncomfortable will be that you are just an obnoxious person. In their mind usually that’s going to be a far more preferable, convenient, and satisfying explanation. It’s going to let them off the hook without doing any difficult thinking and feeling. They’re going to run with it if they can convincingly get away with it. “It’s your fault they’re uncomfortable. And it’s not because of your arguments, but because you are a rude person.” Now they can leave the conversation feeling good about themselves and thinking about how bad you are.
So this is what many many people are inclined to do, automatically, when challenged to change their minds. Brains do this. Even very rational people’s brains do this. (If you don’t like my views, your own brain may even be doing this right now as you read me!) We have no choice but to work with this reality the best we can.
So given that people have this regular tendency, when you actually behave in a way that tries to emotionally push your interlocutors around, rather than reason with them, you only confirm their preferred hypothesis: that you are an obnoxious person. This validates the narrative they want. It immediately encourages them that they are right to attribute their discomfort not to your reasoning but to your personal behavior as the best explanation. You make this dodge really easy for them. You validate their feelings that they are under personal attack. And you give them a true, ethical reason not to like you and instead to denounce you (even if you are also right on the facts they’re ignoring).
But if you were to stick scrupulously to arguing with reasons, fairness, and charitability, then you would be able to stop them when they try to personalize things. You can point to all the evidence of your fairness and insist that they focus on the arguments that are making them uncomfortable rather than shoot the messenger. You can explicitly show empathy for their frustration and affirm that you mean them no ill will, that you wish you didn’t have to have such a difficult disagreement with them, but you do because it’s a matter of the true or the good.
Whereas if you just personally attack them, you lose the ability to say that they are only making accusations against you in order to avoid your arguments. You give them something true to change the focus with and to personally accuse you with. Being philosophically or politically right is not a moral justification for cruelty. They will have a morally valid complaint against you. Even if you would rather stay focused on the facts of the matter, you have given them a valid, different point of contention to change the subject to. If you want them to stay focused on the facts and not change things to the subject of your tone, then don’t go and make yourself an issue in the first place with personal attacks or abuse. When you make things personally confrontational, your personal behavior becomes a legitimate topic to raise.
Many people hostile to atheism want to accuse us of just being meanspirited and condescending know-it-alls who call less educated people “stupid”. So why actually call them stupid or treat them in other belittling, elitist ways? This totally undermines our claims that we are only trying to get them to look at our arguments because we sincerely believe them to be true.
The worst of this is that we can also risk falsely confirming in our opponents their prejudices and false perceptions. Many people hostile to feminism falsely think that it is a form of female supremacism. So if, specifically, you use a gendered insult against such a man who is resistant to feminism (or if you make negative generalizations about men too loosely without specifying that you mean only men who engage in some specific bad behavior, etc.) he will interpret this as “Exhibit A” that feminism isn’t really about equality and overcoming sexism, but rather about replacing one form of sexism with another.
Why do superfluous things like that when they are unnecessary to proving your points and when he and others will immediately interpret, within their existing prejudices, as prime evidence of your “true” sexism, and your supposed sexist supremacist political and social goals? Why, if you are a woman, would you angrily berate him with insults (if you can at all help it) if you know that he is in all likelihood going to unfairly take this as evidence that women are too emotional to reason with and dismiss you? There are important ways women need to be able to say to men that they do not understand certain issues because their privilege obscures their having experiential access. It only undercuts women’s abilities to make those important charges when they mix in gratuitous potshots like gendered insults. This makes it easier for anti-feminists get away with calling all arguments that have any gendered dimension sexist, even though in some cases one’s gender does matter to one’s ability to speak with credibility on what something is like.
I am not blaming people, especially marginalized people, who give angry torrents of insults in self-defense in response to serious goading. In my discussion of my approach to moderation I explicitly say that when marginalized people are personally antagonized into lashing out I will reprimand those doing the goading, even as I will request the thread return to issues of the true and the good, rather than escalate personal attacks. I understand the impulse to defend oneself and that sometimes people feel their dignity requires it.
But as a matter of our explicit ethics and explicit strategy, we should not aim at being interpersonally hostile as a goal or a strategy. The more that we can commit to constraining ourselves and our justified emotional responses within the formal limits of civility, the less ammunition we will give our opponents and the less we will risk becoming abusive people.
Objection 11: People are not logical robots, you need to appeal to them emotionally to get through to them.
Reply 11: There are abusive and non-abusive ways to argue passionately and to appeal to people’s emotions. Just because some uses of emotion are appropriate does not mean that name-calling, personal attacks, bullying, belittling, subtly goading, or any other abusive behavior is acceptable. Just as in the rest of life, emotions are a good thing but not every use of them is either strategically wise or morally acceptable.
In a debate context, verbally assaulting and personally attacking people makes them more likely to shut down to our ideas. Appealing to our common ground with our interlocutors and affirming them emotionally in small, truthful ways sends the message that you’re not their enemy. This quite often will open them up as much as will be possible.
Thinking about the emotional comfortability of our philosophical/political opponents is not inherently any sort of capitulation to them as superior to us, though it seems that some who have in the past been forced to defer to others in unjustifiable ways reflexively fear this. It can rather be simply an affirmation of their basic human equality with us and can actually usually be the best avenue for actually reaching them where their brain and heart presently are. Thinking about making them feel good is the best strategy for making them feel good about us and about what we have to say. People like people who make them feel good. Most people, most of the time are more concerned with how they feel than what anyone else is actually saying. Stopping to think about what will make others actually feel good, and in turn receptive to us, goes contrary to our first inclination, which is to concentrate on making ourselves feel good. Counter-productively making ourselves feel good in the short term can sometimes be a cathartic venting that costs us more hateful opposition in the long term.
Using social skill to win their intellectual cooperation, their moral capitulation, and their personal admiration, without sacrificing our commitment to the true and the good, is a far greater satisfaction than simply telling someone off while effectively alienating them in the process. Having experienced both things, I can say there is just no contest as to which is greater.
There are many more objections to deal with, especially as many blogs have been so good as to provide criticisms of the civility pledge that I would like to deal with in the coming days. For now I hope this suffices to forward the discussion. In the meantime, for more objections to my position, with links to my key replies to them, see this post. For my summary of justifications, strategies, and ethical ideals for civil discourse, see “The Camels With Hammers Civility Pledge.”