The Camels with Hammers Civility Pledge

The Camels with Hammers Civility Pledge February 15, 2013

Dan Fincke of Camels with Hammers has written a civility pledge. He has requested that interested bloggers repost the pledge, following it with any amendments or caveats they would add. So here’s Dan’s pledge, followed by my thoughts:

The Pledge:

1. I commit that I will engage in all public arguments with a sincere aim of mutual understanding, rather than only persuasion.

I will make being honest, rationally scrupulous, and compassionate my highest priorities. I will conscientiously remain open to new ideas. I will consider the well being and growth of my interlocutors more important than whether they simply agree with me at the end of our exchanges. I am under no obligation to respect false or harmful beliefs or to hold back from expressing my own views or reservations forthrightly. I may even express them with passion and conviction where such are justifiable. Compatible with this, I will always respect my interlocutors as people and their rights to express their own views without personal abuse, even when I find myself riled up by them. I will cut off communications that are counter-productive to others’ well being or my own. I will respect others’ attempts to bow out of debates on particular topics or with me in particular. If I feel that I am in a position where my anger and frustration at the behavior of others, even entirely legitimate anger and frustration, is making the conversation less capable of constructive progress, I will remove myself and come back only at such time as I can be constructive again.

2. I commit that I will tolerate the existence of people with dissenting ethical, religious, or political views.

I will focus on understanding and appreciating what actual goods my philosophical or political enemies may be mistakenly trying to achieve and what genuinely occurring features of their experience they are inadequately trying to do justice to in their false beliefs. I will try to discern and appreciate what genuinely valuable moral and intellectual principles they intend to stand up for, no matter how wrong I think their ultimate ethical or factual conclusions might be. Wherever possible, I will try to find and affirm their good will, reasonableness, and any other potential sources of common ground, and work from there in order to persuade them of what I take to be their errors. If this proves impossible, I will simply stop engaging them directly and attack their ideas in the abstract, rather than make things acrimoniously personal.

3. I commit that I will always focus first on the merits of other people’s arguments and not disparage them personally for asking unpleasant questions, taking unpleasant positions, or simply disagreeing with me.

I will not assume the worst of all possible motives when people advance theses that I find false, morally repugnant, and/or potentially harmful. I will refute their arguments on their merits. I will discuss with them any harmful real world implications that I think would come from the promulgation or implementation of their ideas. I will not accuse them of wanting to perpetuate evils unless there is specific evidence that their ends are actually so malicious. I will try not to personalize intellectual disputes any more than is absolutely necessary. I will keep any personal fights that erupt limited to as few people as possible rather than incorporate more and more people into them.

When I am having a personality conflict that is making progress in understanding seem impossible, I will drop communications with that person–with or without explanation as seems most potentially constructive. I will not escalate unproductive arguments that are becoming interpersonally acrimonious. I will not participate in ongoing interpersonal feuds between other people but only participate in discussions that stay focused on what is true, what the best principles are, and how such principles may be most fairly and efficiently implemented in the world. I will correct injustices, bad principles, and bad ideas in ways that are maximally productive for changing minds and real world policies while also minimally likely to create or escalate distracting counter-productive interpersonal feuds.

4. When I feel it necessary to call out what I perceive to be the immoral behaviors or harmful attitudes of my interlocutors, I commit that I will do so only using specific charges, capable of substantiation, which they can contest with evidence and argumentation, at least in principle. I will not resort to merely abusive epithets and insult words (like “asshole” or “douchebag”) that hatefully convey fundamental disrespect, rather than criticize with moral precision.

I will refrain from hurling hateful generalized abusive epithets and insults at people. I will refrain from leveling vague, unsubstantiated charges of terribleness at people. I will give them fair opportunities to explain themselves. I will challenge the wrongness of their specific actions or apparent attitudes rather than hastily cast aspersions on their entire character. Before ever making moral accusations, I will civilly warn them that something they do or say strikes me as morally wrong and offensive, and explain to them why.  I will give them a chance to retract, restate, and/or apologize before taking moral offense. I will analyze with self-directed skepticism whether my offense is rooted in a morally justifiable anger at provably unjust treatment, or whether it is just my discomfort with being disagreed with.

I will always seek to maintain positive rapport with those who disagree with me as much as they enable. I will focus my criticisms on people’s ideas first and only if necessary criticize their attitudes, behaviors, or apparent character. I will not demean them fundamentally as a person. I will not uncharitably and hastily leap from specific bad thoughts, attitudes, or actions to wholesale disparagements of their entire character until there is overwhelming evidence that I am dealing with a fundamentally immoral person. And if I am dealing with such a person, I will use any of a wide array of highly specific available words

to make moral charges soberly, constructively, descriptively accurately, and succinctly as possible before cutting off communications with them. And I will not take unnecessary recourse to abusive terms when plenty of civil and accurate words carrying heavy moral force are available to me.

5. I commit that I will go out of my way, if necessary, to remember that members of traditionally marginalized groups and victims of abuse haveexperiences that I may not have and which I may have to strain to properly weigh and appreciate.

People who have been personally abused or systemically discriminated against in ways that I have not may also be acutely aware of a social power differential with respect to me of which I may be unaware. This may make them feel frustrated and intimidated from speaking frankly, as well as more sensitized to potentially silencing and Othering implications of my language and ideas. I will be as sensitive to this reality as possible and as careful as possible with my language to reduce rather than exacerbate their feelings of social disempowerment. I also will take into account and accommodate the reality that people with high personal stakes in the outcomes of certain debates about values are, quite understandably, more prone to emotional intensity in their arguments and especially likely to bring unique insights that are indispensible to understanding the issue adequately.

Of course none of this means I should feel compelled to surrender my own rational right and need to independently and rigorously assess what anyone says for its truth or goodness. I should not feel compelled to always and unconditionally agree with someone who has an experience or life situation different from my own. And I should not pretend to already fully accept beliefs or values of which I have not yet been satisfyingly convinced. I should also not tolerate normalization of emotional appeals of the kind that cross the line into bullying. But nonetheless, I will be extra cautious to learn from traditionally marginalized people about what disparately affects them in negative ways and about how to make discourses and other environments more inclusive to them. I will pay close attention to how hostile environments are implicitly created that exclude, silence, or otherwise adversely affect traditionally marginalized people, especially under the aegis of a perniciously false neutrality.

On the other side, I will also be sensitive to preempt counter-productively defensive feelings and reactions of people in traditionally advantaged groups by carefully avoiding even the appearance of prejudicially disparaging them all as malicious oppressors. I will distinguish carefully between those motivated by animus and those who are in the main only passive beneficiaries and unwitting perpetuators of injustices, or biased in unintentional and unexamined ways. When rightly calling out such injustices and prejudices I will frame my criticisms and calibrate my level of antagonism with respect to how generally good or ill willed my interlocutor actually is. I will scrupulously distinguish criticisms of harmful systems from criticisms of individuals. I will criticize harmful behaviors without hastily assuming people have malicious intentions or morally repugnant character. I will always respect others’ rights to disagree with me, regardless of their race, color, creed, sexual orientation, gender identity, abilities, disabilities, sex, and unearned privileges (or lack thereof). I will avoid all disparagement of people based on such core identity-forming traits, whether it be disparagement aimed at members of groups with lesser or greater social power. I will neither flippantly nor seriously disparage people based on such kinds of traits or try to invalidate their experiences, even should I think that they are misinterpreting the significance of their experiences, or even should I believe they are more advantaged than most people and should be able to take harsher treatment on that account.

6. I commit that I will not use any language that I know is offensive to either a subset of a marginalized group or to members of that group at large, for whatever reason.

I will not use racial or ethnic slurs (like “nigger” or “kike”), gendered insults (like “bitch”, “dick”, “cunt”, “slut”), homophobic slurs (like “fag”), or transphobic slurs (like “tranny”). Regardless of my private standards or understandings I have with my friends or customs within my local culture, in public forums I will respect that such terms make at least a noticeable number of members of marginalized groups feel hated and unwelcome. This risks silencing them in unjust ways. I will err on the side of caution and maximum inclusion by removing such words from my public discourse as superfluous, potentially harmful, exclusionary, and counter-productive to my goals of rational persuasion. The English language is huge; I can find countless better words to use.

7. I commit that I will not use any ableist language that disparages people over physical or mental limitations or illnesses.

I will not falsely imply that people are in the main uneducable or incapable of rationality simply because they either disagree with me, have major intellectual blindspots, make huge intellectual errors, or prove generally unlearned in some specific area. This means that I will not call my interlocutors “retarded”, “stupid”, “idiotic”, “deranged”, or similar terms that convey with contemptuous hostility that I believe them beneath reasoning with and beneath treating as an equal, simply on account of what I take to be some major errors or areas of ignorance. All people can learn. All people can teach. Specific intellectual limitations, errors, and/or ignorance of a particular area of knowledge do not amount to “stupidity”.

Calling people stupid is not only usually false and woefully imprecise, but it threatens to hatefully discourage people from learning and to destroy the hope for dialogue with them. It also disrespects the undereducated (many of whom are financially disadvantaged or otherwise socially disadvantaged and disempowered) and makes them justifiably resentful. For some it continues a pattern of abuse suffered from parents, peers, partners, and others in their lives who damaged them during childhood and have harmfully misled them to underestimate their actual intellectual potential. It also irrationally ignores the reality that all of us are regularly victims of cognitive biases and institutionally inculcated deceptionsthat to a large extent account for their errors. They deserve education, not derision.

My interlocutors and I will both learn more if I try to understand the rationally explicable reasons for their errors and figure out how to most effectively correct them. I will also learn more if I conscientiously try to think up and refute the best arguments for my opponents’ views rather than seize on their arguments’ weaknesses and dismiss them categorically as “stupid”. I can point out the nature of mistakes more precisely, and with better hope of correcting them, if I engage in thinking together with people rather than disparaging and bullying them.

8. I commit that I will always argue in good faith and never “troll” other people. I will respect both safe spaces and debate spaces and the distinctly valuable functions each can potentially serve. I will not disrupt the functioning of either kind of forum.

I will respect that some venues are designed to be safe places for members of marginalized groups or abused people to seek refuge from abuse and certain forms of disagreement that they are, for good reason, not emotionally able to deal with. I will respect that these, and other venues designed for people with a shared ideological or philosophical disposition, are valuable. It is constructive to have some spaces where likeminded people can work out their views amongst themselves without always having to be distracted by calls for them to defend themselves on fundamental points.

I will not deliberately troll or otherwise attempt to disrupt forums that exclude me on such grounds. If they refuse debates with people of my philosophical views, then I will not try to participate in their venue. On the flipside, if I desire to make a certain conversation or forum, even a public one, into a safe space where some types of arguments are not permitted, I will make that clear as early as possible. And if I am engaged in a debate in a public forum not designated as a safe space, I will accept that not everyone present is going to share my basic beliefs, knowledge base, values, or concerns, and I will not treat them with hostility on account of their disagreement with me about fundamental matters.

Regardless of forum, if I decide to play devil’s advocate in hopes that it will help make a position’s merits clearer to me, I will be upfront about what I am doing so that I do not come off as obstinate or excessively antagonistic or in any other way a disingenuous “troll”. I will desist if others do not want me to play devil’s advocate to them whether because they find it badgering or trivializing of something important to them or for any other reason.

9. I commit that I will apologize when I hurt others’ feelings, even when I do so unintentionally and even when I do not think their hurt feelings are justified.

If I want to defend my actions or contest the moral justifiability of an outraged person’s feelings of offense, I will do so respectfully and always with an aim of mutual understanding. I commit to not treating those who accidentally upset or offend me as though they intentionally did so. I will accept sincere apologies that take adequate responsibility without requiring groveling and total surrender on all points of contention (especially if some matters at stake are distinctly separable from the offense and are rationally disputable). I will foster environments in which people feel comfortable expressing when their feelings are hurt because everyone regularly offers, and receptively takes, constructive criticisms. This happens where criticism is regularly free of hatred, demonization, and implicit or explicit purity tests and threats of ostracism. So I will oppose all such things.

10. I commit that I will hold my allies and myself to the highest standards of civil, good-willed, compassionate, and reason-based argumentation and ethical conduct, regardless of whether our enemies do the same, and regardless of the rectitude of our cause.

I will not defensively interpret sincere criticism from my allies as personal betrayal. I will be as above reproach as possible with respect to all charges of bullying, feuding, escalation, bad faith argumentation, ad hominem tactics, well-poisoning, trolling, marginalization, strawmanning, sock puppetry, tribalism, purity testing, sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, classism, ableism, goading, micro-aggressiveness, passive aggressiveness, and personalization of disputes. While not compromising my intellectual conscience for the sake of politeness, I will manage to model a conciliatory and reasonable spirit. While I may advocate forthrightly for ethical debate and treatment of others generally, I will spend as much or more of my energies scrutinizing my own public contributions for ways I can make them more rational, civil, compassionate, and persuasive than I will policing the behaviors of others I encounter.

11. I commit that I will not make accusations of guilt by association.

I will neither assume that one’s association with another person implies agreement with any specific belief, action, or behavior of that person, and nor will I assume that someone’s agreement with another person on a specific point implies agreements on any other specific points. I will hold people accountable only for their own expressed views and not for the views of everyone with whom they associate. I also will not assume total agreement and endorsement of all the ideas in books, thinkers, or links that someone recommends as interesting.

12. I commit that I will not use mockery and sarcasm in ways that try to belittle other people.

I recognize funny and perceptive satire’s indispensible and unique abilities to illumine truths and rationally persuade people. And I feel free to humorously point out apparent absurdities in others’ arguments or beliefs during discussions. But I will draw the line at using humor to personally attack, harass, or silence individuals with whom I am engaged. I will be cautious that my ridicule during discussions is aimed squarely at beliefs and does not have the likely effect of making my interlocutors feel like I am flippantly contemptuous of their reasoning abilities en toto or of their worth as people. In short, I will use humor to challenge and persuade others, rather than to abuse and alienate them.

13. I commit that I will empathetically, impartially, and with reasonable mercy enforce the standards of civility and compassion laid out in this pledge in any venues (including but not limited to: blogs, Facebook pages, subreddits, and discussion forums) where I have moderation powers with sufficient latitude to set and enforce standards.

Even in safe spaces where debates on certain kinds of topics are understandably restricted for people’s well being, I will still adhere to all the rest of the principles of compassion, charity, and civility in arguments here laid out.

I might quibble with wording here or there (there are a lot of words in it, after all!), but in general, this pledge does an effective job encapsulating much of what I aspire to when I engage in argument and discussion with others. In some sense, it is a highly expanded version of my very short and concise comment policy.

Having discussed civil discussion before here on the blog and having very much appreciated all of your comments on the topic, I want to add several caveats here. I should point out that these caveats aren’t necessarily issues I have with the text of the pledge itself or with Dan. In fact, I know for sure that Dan would agree with me on at least some of these points. In other words, some of them are more points of information than they are caveats regarding the pledge itself.

1. No pledge should be a weapon. 

It is because I don’t want to see this pledge become a weapon to be used on people that I speak of it as encapsulating what I personally aspire to when I engage in discussion rather than of “signing” it. I can see some people feeling a sort of double bind: endorse the pledge and then have people jump all over you watching for the smallest infraction in order to discredit you, or refrain from endorsing the pledge and be accused of being against civil discussion. And that’s not cool. For one thing, it’s unreasonable to think that even someone who absolutely endorses everything in the above pledge will never violate it, and second, it’s silly to assume that someone who doesn’t sign the pledge must be “against civil discussion.” Since nitpicking for people’s smallest infractions smacks of the evangelical obsession with even the slightest sin, and since I am so over requiring people to recite creeds, I’m really not okay with anyone using this or any other pledge in this way.

To be clear, I am sure Dan would say that using the pledge in this way would violate the spirit of the pledge, so my quibble here is not with him.

While the sentiments expressed in the civility pledge as quoted above are definitely things I personally aspire to, first, I don’t always live up to my aspirations, and second, I definitely don’t believe in legalism or in painting myself into a box (remember the purity pledge I made at thirteen?). Ethics are personal and flexible and sometimes situational, and I don’t want to pretend they’re rigid. Further, I don’t want this pledge to be used to tone troll people, and I definitely won’t use it that way. I’m not going to try to force anyone else to follow it (except inasmuch as the ideas it puts forward are reflective of those in my comment policy, of course). That, once again, would smack of the coercive religious beliefs of my upbringing. I personally try to follow the ideas put forth in the above pledge and have been doing so here since I started blogging, and my (much shorter) comment policy here reflects the core of these ideas, and that’s it.

That said, I want to move on to some additional thoughts I have on this issue, thoughts born both from previous comment discussions on posts I’ve written on civility and from my reading of Dan’s civility pledge. So the next point we come to is:

2. The playing field is not level.

This civility pledge is about engaging in public arguments and discussions, but it’s really hard to engage in public argument in discussion when the question at hand is your own rights. I find I have no problem engaging in a vigorous yet civil discussion of creation and evolution, but if I’m discussing, say, women’s rights, it suddenly becomes super personal and emotionally charged for me, but not necessarily for the other person involved. This can make discussion really difficult, and in this situation I sometimes find myself almost literally choking on my words, my body full of feeling as I try to figure out how to best respond—or simply whether to do so at all. The same thing would hold true for LGBTQ people discussing LGBTQ rights, or for racial minorities discussing issues of race.

This is not to say that the very personal and emotional investment the underprivileged have in discussions involving their very rights means that they should therefore be abusive toward the privileged, but I don’t think the disparity in how greatly people are personally affected by these conversations should be ignored or overlooked. If a straight person and a lesbian are discussing gay marriage or laws against discrimination based on sexual orientation, the playing field is not level. The straight person has nothing at stake, but the lesbian has a great deal at stake. It’s like playing poker but only requiring one player to buy in. In the same way, when a man and a woman are discussing women’s rights, or when a white person and a black person are discussing race, the playing field is not level. And when the rights of the underprivileged are being not simply discussed but actively debated, this is only more true.

Also, related to all of this, even though I’ve often spoken about the importance of trying to understand others’ views, the wording in the very first line of the pledge—that the goal should not be persuasion rather than mutual understanding—brings me up a bit short. It’s not because I don’t think it’s important to understand other’s views, even views we consider vile—understanding is key to countering them, after all—but rather that there are some key issues, such as gender equality, where my goal absolutely is persuasion. It can’t really not be. But then, I suppose that’s why the phrase was not that the goal should be mutual understanding “rather than persuasion” but instead “rather than only persuasion.” While the wording initially rankled slightly, in the end I suppose I can get behind that.

3. Let’s talk about goals.

The pledge begins by discussing “mutual understanding” and “persuasion” as goals of engaging in public argument. While it is not stated, the suggestion appears to be that these are either the only goals of those engaging in public argument, or at least the primary ones. I want to suggest that viewing these as the only two possible goals is potentially problematic. Now perhaps the key here is that these ought to be the only goals if one is involving in “public argument” or “civil discussion” with others, but I think it should be remembered that we come in contact with people we disagree with, and interact with them regarding that disagreement, in a huge variety of situations. This contact does not always begin with two people choosing voluntarily and without coercive factors to engage in discussion on this or that issue.

Therefore, when an underprivileged person engages with a privileged person, that underprivileged person will likely have things in mind besides the two goals of (a) understanding where the privileged person is coming from and (b) persuading the privileged person to change her or his mind, and very naturally so. One such goal may be making it out of the situation without undergoing undue emotional or psychological pain or distress, for example. And that’s just the start. The idea that anyone who engages with someone else on a point where there is disagreement will only be thinking about understanding the other person and/or persuading them, or that they should only be thinking about that, simply does not reflect reality, and with good reason. Again, that doesn’t mean that anything goes or anything is moral or right, but simply that when we talk about what is or is not “productive” we need to be clear about the goals. Further, if we only think in terms of attempts to understand the privileged or to persuade the privileged on a given point the exchange becomes focused on the privileged and her or his needs and feelings rather than on the needs and feelings of the underprivileged.

Again, it may be that this whole problem is fixed by defining civil discussion as times when people come together to discuss issues, and not the millions of times people are thrown together on this issue or that over the course of everyday life. Still, I think if we limit our definition of public argument to times when individuals engage in some sort of informal opening ceremony, I think we become too reductive. I think it’s probably simpler and smarter to remember that there are more possible goals held by individuals in a given exchange than simply understanding the other individual or persuading the other individual.

4. Who deserves respect?

One basic underlying idea of the pledge is that all individuals deserve respect as people, regardless of how vile their views are. On one level, I absolutely agree: there are plenty of people who hold incorrect or harmful beliefs but not necessarily out of malice. We shouldn’t automatically assume that someone who disagrees with us or holds views we deem harmful is worthy only of personal attacks and smears. We also shouldn’t assume that the fact that someone holds harmful views, or even ones that appear hateful, automatically means their motives are rotten—it is completely possible to do bad things with good intentions.

But the idea that I should respect every person as a person regardless of how vile their beliefs and, yes, motives may be? I’m not so sure about that. Is respect something that is innately deserved or is it something that has to be earned? Is one’s right to respect something that can be forfeited? I supposed I am reminded of being taught growing up that a husband is always deserving of his wife’s respect, no matter what he does or does not do to earn that respect.

Perhaps the confusion on this point has to do with the definition of the word “respect” and what it means to respect someone “as a person.”

5. Let’s be careful about shutting people out. 

Finally, not everyone is privileged enough to be well educated or well equipped to carry out sophisticated discussion and debate. I was privileged enough to be given a good education, and also privileged enough to participate in a (homeschool) debate league in high school. I am today working on my PhD in a humanities field. When it comes to discussion and debate, most people don’t have these advantages. Again, I don’t think this means that those who don’t have this privilege should engage in abusive tactics to make up for not having more formal training in discussion and argument, but I do think this disparity in privilege should be recognized and that the extent to which calls for civil discussion can be privileged needs to be borne in mind.

So, what are your thoughts?

What do you think of Dan’s pledge, and what would you add to what I’ve said here?

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