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Posted by on Feb 15, 2013 in Secularism | 6 comments

Civility and Its Discontents

He learned it from watching Dad

On Wednesday, Dan Fincke of Camels with Hammers posted his proposed civility pledge. I signed on almost immediately, despite some inner quibbling over points 9 and 12. Later that day, Russell Blackford affirmed many of the fundamental principles within the pledge without committing himself thereto, while providing a constructive and nuanced critique thereof.

On Thursday, Chris Hallquist (Patheos) and Chris Clarke (Freethought Blogs) and Ed Clint (Skeptic Ink) came out with their own critiques of Dan’s idea, which were pretty much non-overlapping. Of these, Ed brings the best points to the table, though none of them seem to me unanswerable.

If there is indeed a need for interpersonal incivility, it should not be difficult to point to specific cases in which it proved necessary, and I don’t think that’s too much to ask. Can anyone come up with just two or three actual examples of online interactions wherein the following conditions held true:

  1. The proposed pledge was substantively violated at some point (please be specific),
  2. In the course of “public discussions about ideas” within the freethought or skeptical movement,
  3. The specific transgression was necessary to move the discussion forward in a constructive manner,
  4. So as to fulfill the stated goals of humanism, skepticism, or secularism.

Considering the sheer volume of incivility which has poured forth from our keyboards over the last year or two, it really shouldn’t be too hard to come up with bucketfuls of examples to demonstrate that incivility may prove indispensable, or at least ineluctable, in the pursuit of worthy goals. Until someone can do this, however, I’m not going to be convinced by any amount of hyperbolic hypothesizing. For example, the “cries of the wounded on a battleground may be very unpleasant and uncivil indeed” but they aren’t remotely relevant to our online interactions.

 

 

  • Chas Stewart

    The last quote from Chris Clarke was particularly revolting. As if allowing those that feel oppressed to yell and berate others (“indecorously bleeding”) is figuratively wrapping their wounds! The self aggrandizement is stomach turning and has no grounding in reality. If these people are truly oppressed then they can either treat others bitterly (who could be possible allies) or try to persuade others that their pain is true and needs rectifying.

    And how at all is this part of what Fincke is doing: “Tossing basic civil rights under the bus in order to maintain a jury-rigged superficial peace in a single-issue movement is a bad bargain.”

    • http://www.skepticink.com/backgroundprobability/ Damion

      I’m going to try to avoid martial metaphors altogether. Yet to meet a vet who thinks they really work.

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  • DrewHardies

    Would the various bus advertisements (http://tinyurl.com/79oy5kx) meet your conditions? They’re seen as civil by the people putting them up, and incivil or hurtful by many listeners, so they seem to be relevant in spirit.

    As to your four points:

    1. The bus ads were put up because they would cause (self-reported) offense. This was intentional, in part to highlight the absurdity of the opponents position. Because the atheists felt that the hurt wasn’t justified, so no apology was given. This violates point #9 in the civility pledge.

    2. Clearly part of public discussion of ideas related to our movement.

    3. The point of the ads is to generate controversy that makes atheist look good. So the hurt-feelings (and lack of apology) are necessary.

    4. The advertisements, I’m told, were successful at getting good press and new members for the organizations behind them.

    I recognize that the example feels quasi-unfair. Bad-faith cries of “I’m offended” aren’t really what ‘civility’ is meant to address. However, the civility pledge is being put out as a response to an increase in privilege-checking and semantics scolding. I see much of this as just a socially-acceptable form of bullying and piety-plays. (It happens outside our movement and is well-described here http://offbeatempire.com/2012/10/liberal-bullying )

    However, the civility pledge is notable in that it declines to ask “is the listener’s objection reasonable?”. I think the bus-ads show why that question needs to be asked, before we moderate our language based on some listener’s self-reported offense..

    • http://www.skepticink.com/backgroundprobability/ Damion Reinhardt

      Point 9 in the pledge is the weakest point thereof (Dan has admitted this elsewhere, on Facebook IIRC) and it exists in tension with one of the fundamental goals of the pledge, that we strive to ensure that “no disputable propositions whatsoever” will “be shielded from all sincere and thorough rational interrogation.” To the extent that people will attempt to leverage their hurt feelings to prevent disputable propositions from being openly discussed (as in the case of those adverts) I must elevate the fundamental goals of open discussion over the useful techniques of deescalation described in point 9, which were primarily directed at intra-movement interactions online, so far as I can tell.

      Had you picked more deliberately provocative adverts, such as those run by American Atheists, we’d have a closer case to examine. In such cases, however, opening a dialogue about ideas is rarely the goal.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Thaumas-Themelios/100001074236927 Thaumas Themelios

      DrewHardies brought up some good points for thought.

      I think that for me, any civility pledge I’d consider must be able to withstand the example of intentional but non-violent/non-destructive/non-harmful blasphemy. For example, Everybody Draw Mohammad Day, or International Blasphemy Day. That’s pretty much the core of the argument over civility/gnu atheism right there. If people would actually apply that same principle, especially the non-harmful part, then we’d basically never have experienced the recent infighting we’ve been seeing. It’s when people go a step too far and cross the line, not of ‘civility’, but of actual harm, that I see as the real problem. For me, civility would be useful *only* to the extent that it prevents actual harm. And indeed I believe that it can and it does prevent actual harm, in many cases. But it can also be overdone, and that’s when the standard of ‘harm’ vs. ‘no harm’ becomes important. IMO.

      ETA: Forgot to say: Blasphemy is a victimless crime!

    • http://www.skepticink.com/backgroundprobability/ Damion Reinhardt

      It’s important to bear in mind that one of the primary goals of civility is to facilitate discussion between parties, whereas the point of a highly public cunning stunt like Blasphemy Day or BoobQuake is to demonstrate that other people’s superstitions and rules hold no power over us and should never be allowed to do so. These are very different goals, and I’m comfortable pursuing only one of them at a time.

      (I can’t find my old Mo drawing, but it’s somewhere on the webs.)

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