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Posted by on Feb 14, 2013 in Culture, Debate, Law | 17 comments

The Camels With Hammers civility pledge

Dan Fincke has published a useful post about civility, inviting us all to take a detailed pledge. In turn, I invite you to have a look at it and consider whether you’d like to sign on.

I’m good with just about everything Dan says in the post. That doesn’t mean I’ll sign the pledge myself. I think that I’ve largely conformed to it in the past and am likely to do so in the future. However, to be honest, I’m not big on this kind of detailed code of conduct.

In the comments, someone says that “there are a lot of words there” and offers a paragraph which is much simpler. Dan replies that he wanted to make it as precise as possible, since there are a lot of would-be lawyers online.

I want to respond to that exchange because, as an actual (though non-practising) lawyer, as a seasoned courtroom advocate who has encountered many real-world situations, and as a philosopher of law, I’ve had a different experience. Unfortunately, lengthy codes of conduct don’t necessarily make things clearer and more precise. Sometimes they can do the exact opposite.

Admittedly, if I pledged simply that I will “act reasonably and with appropriate civility” this would be very open textured indeed. There could be also sorts of debates about where we draw the line as to what is “reasonable” and what is “appropriate civility”. You might think it better, therefore, to spell out what these mean in the context of online discussion so that there is less room for disagreement in any particular case. Unfortunately, however, writing a much longer code of conduct can simply lead to numerous other words being contestable. E.g. what counts as “bullying”, what counts as “funny and perceptive satire” (not some other kind), and so on?

I actually think that Dan has done quite a good job with this. E.g. in some instances he has given specific examples of common behaviours that should not be used, such as calling someone an “asshole”. Generally I agree with these examples. Some are quite important, such as not going into a designated “safe space” where it is a groundrule that certain alleged truths are not to be disputed… for the purpose of disputing those alleged truths. While I’m not a fan of safe spaces in that sense, they probably have their uses, and if a particular forum is designated in that way I don’t know why I’d want to go there to dispute its ground rules. Even if a place is not designated as a safe space, I am likely to respect its groundrules – for example I would normally see no point in going to a creationist forum to advocate for biological evolution. Again, I make it a practice never to post on Christian blogs. If I want to criticise Christianity, I’ll probably do so here or in another of my own forums.

So there’s a degree of useful specificity, but this won’t render the code as a whole impervious to all language bargaining/word lawyering. E.g. what I regard as bullying might not be so regarded by others – and if Dan tried to settle this in the code itself I think he’d find that what he has written is suddenly more controversial.

Often, in fact, the law requires that we do very vague things such as acting “reasonably”. This approach is actually defensible. What the law does in these cases is not to set out new and specific behavioural requirements. Rather, it attaches consequences to acting in ways that fairly clearly go beyond ordinary social standards of “reasonableness” (and it provides procedures whereby such actions can be litigated by people who are harmed by them). Those standards may be given some specificity, as in the famous calculus of negligence (i.e., when you decide whether someone has acted “reasonably” you are expected to take into account such things as the damage that could foreseeably be caused by their behaviour, the anterior probability of that damage eventuating, the social utility of what they were doing, and the cost to them of modifying their behaviour to various degrees or in various ways), but even this may leave various terms that are open-ended.

Many modern statutes leave it to the courts to make decisions based on a list of statutory indicia – factors they are supposed to take into account – but leave it to them how much weight to place on various indicia in a particular case. For example, there are several indicia that apply in trying to work out whether someone is an employee or an independent contractor, though in a particular case one might be clear-cut and determinative.

In many cases, e.g. in negligence law, the law is not mainly there to tell you things that you don’t already know (people are assumed to have a fair idea of what is, for example, taking “reasonable care” or keeping “a careful lookout” when driving a motor vehicle), but rather it puts pressure on you to act in accordance with the knowledge that you’re presumed to have of ordinary social standards – and it gives redress to people who might have been harmed by your failure to follow those standards.

I suppose this may seem unsatisfactory to individuals with backgrounds in, say, science or engineering, but the law is riddled with this sort of thing and it’s more or less inevitable. Even a detailed code, such as the traffic regulations or a set of occupational health and safety regulations, will contain a mix of specific requirements (use this kind of fencing for this kind of machine) and more fuzzy requirements that lean on a background of tacit social standards (provide a “safe system of work”). Sometimes drafters of provisions go wrong when they write something that they think is specific and narrow but that is actually quite broad when you read it literally – which will then mean that the provision is “read down” (given some narrower meaning than the literal words) or ignored, or else applied in a literal manner to inappropriate cases.

So, in the end, my own pledge is not to follow the code of civil discourse that Dan has offered us. It is merely to be as civil, reasonable (i.e. able to compromise, see someone else’s viewpoint, and so on), and charitable (trying to look at what someone else has said in a good light if there is room for ambiguity) as I feel I can in any particular situation. Even if we all just kept that in mind, it would raise the standard of discourse enormously. If we did that much, we could at least avoid defaming, vilifying, trashing, and mocking, and often hurting and intimidating good people. We might also be able to avoid some of the more ridiculous (yes, another open-textured word!) levels of language policing, and so on. We could all relax a bit more about what we say, knowing that we are unlikely to be unfairly trashed for it, while acting on our own best impulses by treating others kindly.

That’s enough for me. Of course there’s then a question of whether we must be civil, reasonable, and charitable to the recalcitrantly uncivil, unreasonable, and uncharitable. In any event, if you feel that you can sign on to the entire pledge that Dan Fincke has written then by all means do so. If more people did, and meant it, I’m sure it would be beneficial. At the very least, a document like this can help you think about your own standards of discourse.

  • http://www.www.skepticink.com/incredulous Edward Clint

    It isn’t clear to me what “safe space” as used actually refers to. The term (so far as I know) originates in very particular program environments, such as Alcoholic’s Anonymous and other support group-type programs. The meaning there is clear: don’t be mean or judgey.

    But then you have this usage applied to, for example, the A+ forums. Now it gets confusing because forums are places for discussion, not merely sharing stories and mutual support. Meaningful, relevant discussion simply can’t be had in a “safe” space where argument itself is proscribed. It isn’t even a coherent idea.

    In practice, (again I cite the Atheism+ forums) “safe space” is just a code word for “dissenters will be prosecuted”.

  • http://twitter.com/thewildlifer wildlifer

    A “safe space” is like an anti-vaxer forum where they can safely play inside their bubble by banning anyone who challenges their dogma, isn’t it?

  • http://twitter.com/JakCharlton Jak Charlton

    Your second to last paragraph sums it up for me too

  • http://athmorality.blogspot.com/ Katie Graham

    I agree. On the internet, it’s not practical to have a “safe space” that excludes argument or dissent while keeping an open, public forum. Doubly so if said forum claims to be made up of people from the skeptical community.

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  • http://twitter.com/danielwaddell17 Daniel Waddell

    I think all this talk of tone and language is masking the real underlying problem. That is political ideologues demanding that Atheists/Sceptics swallow their dogma. They’re prepared to use any tactics they deem necessary ” defaming, vilifying, trashing, and mocking, and often hurting and intimidating good people. “

  • RussellBlackford

    The “safe space” point seems to be getting the most comment so far. First, note that this blog is NOT a “safe space” in the relevant sense. You are all free to disagree with me, even on fundamentals. As I said, I am not a fan of “safe spaces”. Indeed, I have a lot of problems with the idea and will even make fun of it in certain moods.

    But all that said, I will not go into a designated “safe space” to argue about its assumptions. People are entitled to set up a space that is only for commentary that agrees with certain ideas. If I disagree with those ideas, I’ll keep out (while feeling free to argue against them here or wherever else I write).

    An example of a site that seems to hold itself out as a safe space in the relevant sense is the comics site Scans Daily. This site assumes a whole lot of political ideology that I consider extreme, implausible, and, to a degree, even absurd (much like the A+ forum). For all that, it is a damn good source of information about comics. So I read it for that purpose. I would, however, never go and comment there for the purpose of disputing its political assumptions.

  • RussellBlackford

    Yes, there’s an element of that going on.

  • RussellBlackford

    Thanks, Jak. And of course we already have a pretty good code of conduct on this network.

  • http://twitter.com/noelplum99 Noel Plum

    I think a lot of the issues, perhaps in a way the kind of overrarching meta-issue, that has made such things as pledges of civility seem like good ideas, is at root people not cutting one another enough slack. I think this cuts across many issues, whether it is cutting slack to people on the grounds of the viewpoints they hold, the language they use or their experiences or characteristics.

    So much of it stems from this basic rigidity which then feeds back on itself. Perhaps a rigid perspective on an issue leads to overhostility in response to someone else (sadly often to someone sharing the same goals but seeing different means to achieve similar ends), that overhostility in response leads to claims of offence greater than that which was really felt and so the whole atmosphere goes from what could have potentially been one of good faith to a point-scoring nit-picking exercise requiring codes of conduct and rules of engagement.

  • Vic

    A “safe space” is by definition an exclusive community.

    A safe space is meant to be protective, its positive value is derived from its targeted objective and its method: what is protected and how?

    A meeting room for alcoholics, drug users, abuse victims or politically prosecuted persons is a good safe space in terms of objective, but can a bad one in terms of method, if the address and the date of the meeting are public and the doors are wide open.

    A internet forum which bans users with disagreeing opinions can be a good “safe space” in terms of method, but questionable if its objective is the protection of opinions instead of people.

    Those who try to extend the term “safe space” to include their ideological circle jerks are hijacking a good intention and slander the efforts of those who try to give shelter and protection to those in need of safety due to physical or psychological reasons.

  • SmilodonsRetreat

    I’m guessing (because this is what has happened before) that if a skeptic doesn’t sign, then they are free to be vilified by certain aggressive elements. Of course, if they do sign and then say anything that can be taken out of context, then they can be safely labeled a hypocrite and shunned/attacked/maligned at will.

    I only think this because it has happened before.

    It gives the illusion of the ‘high moral ground’ and to someone not familiar with the group or members, then it sounds pretty good.

    Never the less, this is a good way to act on the internet (or in person), but I won’t sign. I can manage that pretty well on my own.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Chris-McLaughlin/100000447965254 Chris McLaughlin

    Is it just my interpretation, or is Dan’s code of conduct asymmetrical? It seems that a person could write something that appeared to follow all of the rules and still be intentionally or unintentionally provocative of a response that would break the rules. The one provoked would be considered a rule-breaker, but the provocateur would, under the rules, be held blameless.

    It seems to me that anyone entering into a dialog needs to have a thick enough skin to do so. Shouldn’t there be a rule to the effect of, “If someone responds to you in way that you don’t like, take some responsibility onto yourself, and learn to ignore them if you must.”

  • http://www.www.skepticink.com/incredulous Edward Clint

    Yes. I am much more interested in a person’s intent or sincerity than I am in whether or not they used the particular word “asshole” or made an off-color joke.

  • http://www.facebook.com/colin.gavaghan Colin Gavaghan

    I would also have a problem with No.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.’

    An apology, as opposed to a statement of regret, involves an assumption of responsibility for the outcome. If that outcome was both unforeseeable and unreasonable, then it is far from obvious that an apology is either necessary or appropriate. A more reasonable position, I think, would be to undertake to consider whether I hurt others’ feelings unnecessarily or culpably, and whether an apology may therefore be merited. But apologising every time anyone takes offence at anything I say would rapidly see apologies become a thoroughly debased currency.

  • qbsmd

    The way I’ve seen “safe space” used in context, it appears to mean that some ideology is accepted as infallible and cannot be argued with. If people want to have a forum where they don’t have to see their ideals questioned, fine. But I think that if a “safe space” is used to argue for the ideology it considers unarguable or argues against people who disagree, then it forfeits its status as a safe space.

  • keddaw

    “Worst of all, self-righteousness tempts us to become like the hateful people we start out opposing.”

    Yep, being completely dismissive of a holocaust denier/racist/YEC totally makes me like one.

    And some topics should be socially taboo while open season should be declared on some currently taboo topics. I’m thinking here of mainstream religion and incest respectively. Or horoscopes and differences between genders/races (if such a thing can be meaningfully said to exist – genetically disparate population groups might be more accurate).

    “Outside of the most extreme life and death circumstances, I should not consider the cause of winning people to my side philosophically or politically to be so important that I am willing to treat others abusively.”

    So when your kids are being taught creationism because you were not willing to ridicule the Biblical literalists that’s OK because it’s not life and death? When the laws are changed to force women to cover up that’s also OK because it’s not life and death? Sorry, but some ideas, life the one quoted, are so abhorrent, so childishly naive, so dangerous, that abuse of those proposing them is not only justified, it’s practically mandated.

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  • http://twitter.com/JakCharlton Jak Charlton

    And traits “not having a sense of humour”, “lacking perspective”, “pedantry over pragmatism” … all of which lead to feedback loops and descent into hardened position.

    If you can’t laugh at yourself and your own beliefs, you’re pretty much doomed to see everything as an attack.