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Posted by on Feb 14, 2013 in skepticism | 23 comments

Lemon pledge

Dan Fincke has invited discussion on his post titled The Camels With Hammers Civility Pledge, so here are my two cents. You might also like to read responses to it from Damion (1, 2), John, Russell, and Notung and Chris Hallquist of Patheos. It’s hard to not appreciate the spirit of the writing and most of us would agree with many of the items as good guidelines, but I nonetheless find it flawed.

First, I find the writing preachy and pretentious, even though I am sure that he did not mean it to be. Dan has come down from the mountain with a list of sins, and we’re asked to obey (that is, to “take the pledge”). At least Dan gives us examples; a simple “thou shalt not kill” has turned out to be highly ambiguous for many theists. What if we fail to agree to these rules, I wonder? Will we be shown empathy and respect, even in our disagreement? I suppose that I will find out by continuing  along to problem number 2.

Infantalizing
It’s infantalizing in several points. Evidently Dan would welcome the social outlawing of the use of words he does not like, such as “dick” or “cunt”. Dan has decided for us what words can be used. We’re not permitted to decide for ourselves if those words are harmful in a given situation, they’re simply always “potentially” harmful; and thus, too risky, no matter what. This goes for “ableist language”, “trolling”, and even joking. It isn’t clear what jokes will be OK, so I suppose we just have to submit them to Dan and ask. Parents tell their children what words not to use, knowing that children aren’t yet capable of expertly parsing social contexts and exercising self-restraint. For adults, however, purpose and sincerity should matter, not use of a particular word from your banned-words list. It is immoral and uncomprehending to confuse the two.

Number 9 further reduces us all to children by insisting that we apologize to others, even if we’ve done nothing whatever wrong. This is offensive to both parties. It requires that the first unreasonably entertain any standard of offense, no matter how absurd or inauthentic. It simply is not the case that hurt feelings always merit a personal apology. Perhaps a Christian is offended by my atheistic rejection of Jesus Christ. I will not be apologizing for that. I suspect Dan here means that we should show some empathy if/when someone has hurt feelings, and I agree with that, but an apology is not the required course in every situation. Again, we are not children and do not need the social training wheels.

Is this perceptive satire? Maybe not.

Self-expression in an impactful, clear way can be a little hurtful or upsetting. Sometimes it should be. As adults, we should be capable of enduring momentary discomforts that come with communicating with other human beings whose ideas and feelings are not always rated G. Perhaps with Dan’s nerfing of the language you get safety and comfort, but you lose depth, clarity, and humanity. We should aim not to offend people needlessly, but I will not blithely trade those things away.

Vagueness
My Skeptic Ink cohort Russell Blackford (a for-reals lawyer) has already noted that in spite of the verbosity, some points are not clear at all. I agree. Two quick examples.

I recognize funny and perceptive satire’s indispensible and unique abilities to illumine truths and rationally persuade people. 
Which satire is funny and perceptive?

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.
So, people need to work out their views, but only if some agreed-upon list of dictates (fundamental points) is dogmatically adhered to? This is what you call “constructive”? The people are likeminded enough that they all agree to the fundamentals, but not so much that they have nothing that needs to be worked out? And potentially, if you err on either side you are a “troll”? This space doesn’t sound very safe for anyone but the bouncers and their friends. There’s nothing wrong with real safe spaces, it just isn’t where rigorous discussion can happen.

Pledges don’t do anything
Which might be the kindest thing to say about them. This is really the meat of it. The pledge that everyone in the US knows best is the pledge of allegiance. That’s the thing where we force children to mouth a loyalty oath sort of like they do in North Korea or the old Soviet Union, because little Billy or Jane might defect from God or Country. The second thing that comes to mind are service or product pledges from corporations who want my money, and are likely lying to me for it. Since we both know they’re lying, they start offering promises in writing and sometimes call it a pledge (but it’s often still just a lie). We’re not off to a good start here. What could be wrong with trying to follow an outline of ethical behavior? Well, pretending the above objections didn’t exist, it just doesn’t work. There’s not a whit of evidence from social science that easily-made promises have any effect and some evidence to the contrary. There are several keys to self improvement… education, experience, reflection, et cetera. But pledges and promises? No. At best, they’re a result of a particular disposition or ethical mind, not a cause.

The grey knight
I’m not one of the good guys, and I’m not particularly interested in trying to be. It isn’t just that “good guys” is a fantasy ideal that may not even be a coherent idea. It’s also that trying overtly to become something like “good” might be pointless or even detrimental, and that the idea that this can be done might be self-delusion. It’s a bit like the hedonistic paradox: the more direct effort you apply to pursuing pleasure, the more elusive it somehow becomes. Viktor Frankl wrote,

The more a man tries to demonstrate his sexual potency or a woman her ability to experience orgasm, the less they are able to succeed. Pleasure is, and must remain, a side-effect or by-product, and is destroyed and spoiled to the degree to which it is made a goal in itself.

Maybe Dan is failing because he is trying so very hard. I don’t want you to think I don’t care about ethics or morality, or that it does not require thought and effort. Like good sex, planning and effort are ingredients. But in the end, they really are functions of your passion and empathy, not your manifestos and dogmas. What I find personally constructive is not listing idealized ways to interact, but to strive for consistency with my own feelings, to “hear” them better. Even Dan’s list is not the cause of his impulse to good conduct, it is the result of it. Then what does he need it for?

  • donsevers

    Really great piece, thanks, Ed. I think you’re right about pledges, but I’m still glad Dan put his thoughts down. He’s a thorough and deep thinker. I find it hard not to sound parental when talking about values, so I forgive him for that.

    Together, his piece and yours have improved my thinking on this issue.

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

      Thanks, Don. Also, I agree with you re: the content of his thoughts. Discussion about what ethical intellectual intercourse looks like is valuable and important, and Dan has loads of great things to contribute. Some of it has practical value as “rules of engagement” boilerplate, but not as promise fodder.

  • http://twitter.com/Eshto Ryan Grant Long

    Considering that a consequence of the infighting has been good people being accused of beliefs or behaviors they don’t hold and haven’t engaged in, I think apologizing is totally inappropriate in many cases. I’m not going to dignify someone’s lying accusation that I am a “rape apologist” by apologizing for it.

  • qbsmd

    “Again, we are not children and do not need the social training wheels.”

    After watching the atheists and skeptics community for the last year or so, it has to be asked: are you sure social training wheels aren’t necessary or at least beneficial?

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

      Drole, but actually, no. For example, such wheels have never been needed here at Skeptic Ink, nor during hundreds of exchanges I have had with big and small folks in the movements in recent years.
      A small, loud minority might so benefit.. but then, they’re not ones to take suggestions.

    • http://www.facebook.com/RevOxley Matt Oxley

      It’s been my experience – as both a member of the godless community and an observer – that yes, by and large these training wheels are very often necessary. Considering that such a large number of the atheists you and I might encounter online act as juvenile as they frequently do and are still in the closet about their lack of belief in the Real World – the anonymity granted by the internet relieves them of any sort of accountability for what is often a lack of empathy.

      Personally, I could make fun of the ideas that I find to be silly, but I have to remember that I was at one time as neck deep in the delusions of my former faith as many of my current Christian detractors. Using language that is anything other than inspiring and insightful surely isn’t helping anyone and doing so is hypocritical to say the least.

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

    “Perhaps with Dan’s nerfing of the language you get safety and comfort, but you lose depth, clarity, and humanity.”

    Can anyone think of an example where calling someone a “dick” or a “twat” (or some other even more cutting slur, like “misogynist” or “rape apologist”) adds any depth and clarity to online discourse? It adds a dose of humanity, to be sure, but not all human impulses are worth digitally immortalizing.

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

      ? Some actions really are misogynistic. Some people are rape apologists. Of course those are the terms I would use to represent those meanings. Phil Plait titled his talk “Don’t be a Dick” and whether you agree with his thesis or not, I think it made the meaning clear enough. I also read no sexism into it. I reject the claim that such a word is categorically a slur.

      ” It adds a dose of humanity, to be sure, but not all human impulses are worth digitally immortalizing.”

      Maybe they aren’t, but maybe they are. At least give people the benefit of the doubt. Give them the basic respect that they have their own judgment and that yours is not so superior that you get to declare what words, the most basic bits of language, are fit to be used.
      It is not your right.

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

        The pledge only applies to oneself and the spaces one personally moderates. If you wanted to prevent people from hurling certain forms of invective around in your comments section (for example) then surely you have the right to do so.

        Suppose that someone gets on one of your EP threads throwing around the n-word and making all sorts of racist arguments. Is it your right to moderate for civility in that space? Do you get to declare what words, the most basic bits of language, are fit to be used therein?

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

          re: applicability

          Sure, and I define this site, Incredulous, (for example) as a venue for a well-delineated type of discourse. This is all fine, so far as it goes.. but then I have not asked everyone of every sort of “discourse” to do the same. Dan has. To give you an example of what I mean, I went on the Skeptically Yours and Ardent Atheist podcasts. Both are comedy shows featuring swearing, raw humor, and at times scathing commentary. I see nothing wrong with any of that. The writings that Dan links and cites re: appropriate behaviors also lead me to believe he aims for his ideas to apply broadly, not narrowly. That gives me a bit of pause.

          “Do you get to declare what words, the most basic bits of language, are fit to be used therein?”

          This is a good example, thanks for bringing it up. The answer is no. But your examples don’t refer just to words, but to intentions. You use the language to “throw around” the slur, suggesting a callous or haphazard usage which is likely to be racist or hateful. Similarly making “racist arguments” also necessarily includes nefarious intentions.

          Appropriate usage of words like “nigger” include reference (as in this sentence), instruction (such as when linguists are discussing “swear words”), and comedy (see Richard Pryor, Louis CK, etc..,). All are minus the negative intent. Conversely, disgusting ideas can be expressed with no bad words. All of this being the case, it is not the words that we should respond to, but the meaning someone is conveying.

          • http://www.bynkii.com/ John C. Welch

            Or to quote carlin, who really handled this issue better than anyone:

            “There is nothing wrong with the word “nigger” in and of itself. It’s the racist asshole USING the word you should worry about, not the word.”

            This idea that somehow banning certain words creates elevated discourse is ridiculous. My dad once showed me how, in terms of racism, the only way the North was better than the South was in terms of rudeness:

            “In the south, a black family trying to check into a hotel will be told “We don’t serve niggers here.” It’s rude, it’s mean, it’s demeaning, but it is upfront, and has a certain honesty. There is no attempt made to draw it out. You’re black, get out. Same thing with jobs, housing, etc.

            In the north, they’d never say that. But the hotels would just never seem to have a vacancy, gosh we’re sorry. Oh, we just filled that position, terribly sorry. That house? Oh *that* house, we just sold it. Perhaps another neighborhood? Over and over. The North is just as racist and despicable as the south. The difference is, the North is smart enough to couch it in civility. But the end result is exactly the same.”

            Alan Turing’s trial and sentence happened, I am very sure, with out a single bit of rude or profane language. What difference did that make? Not a whit. So people can have all the civility pledges they want. If all it does is create prettier language for ugly actions, I don’t want a fucking thing to do with any of it.

          • jjramsey

            The argument that you’ve presented seems to be that since people can do bad things while being civil, civility is pointless. I hope that isn’t the argument that you meant to offer, since it’s obviously nonsense.

            Also, while banning certain words from discourse obviously doesn’t *create* elevated discourse, it can remove barriers to it. If someone is calling me an asshole, that (1) makes me more defensive and less wanting to back down, and (2) means that the other person has a harder time backing down without losing face. That makes it less likely that one of us will persuade the other.

          • http://www.bynkii.com/ John C. Welch

            If someone is calling me an asshole, I find that allowing for the possibility that in a given instance, I AM being an asshole is helpful. I also find that not allowing a name that someone I most likely don’t know called me to change my emotional state to be rather handy as well.

            I also don’t approach everything from a “(don’t) persuade” POV. That right there tells me you’re in it to win (persuade) it. Even if I walk away disagreeing, that doesn’t make me or the other person wrong. it is entirely possible for there to be multiple opinions on an issue and none of them be “right” or “wrong” in that highlanderist way people are so fond of.

            I don’t view all of this as a need to “persuade” anyone. I say what I think in the best way i can. If people agree, great, if not, no skin off my nose. In addition, not viewing everything as win/lose or (don’t) persuade means it’s easier to read a disagreeing opinion and not worry about “losing” or “not persuading” anyone.

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

            It sounds to me like your problem with point (6) lies primarily with Dan’s inclusion of the blanket clause “for whatever reason” at the end. That’s a caveat that I can easily get behind, and Dan welcomes such caveats.

            Let me ask you this: Can we agree that using group slurs as such (with the intent to slur someone as a member of a group) does not promote a venue for the well-delineated type of discourse that leads to constructive debate?

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

            I disagree with the fundamental assertion in point 6 that these words are definitionally always “gendered insults” or “racist slurs”.

            Slurring someone as a member of a group is proscribed by our discussion policy.

    • http://www.bynkii.com/ John C. Welch

      Sometimes “dick” is the perfect word to use. It’s also highly amusing to see the reaction when you call a woman a dick.

      Are there other words that *can* be used? sure, that’s always true. But “banning” certain words is essentially an attempt to control thought. That’s what language is used for, to express thought. Sometimes they are nice thoughts, sometimes they are bad thoughts, sometimes neither. But when you say “you can’t use those words” then you are telling me how I am allowed to describe my thoughts, how I am allowed to communicated, and that is where the line is not just crossed, it is *jumped*.

      If a theist told you that you’re not allowed to use words they find objectionable because they “add neither depth nor clarity to online discourse” you’d laugh at them. The entire atheist community has lined up to do this for over a decade at least.

      Why the double standard?

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

        Who said “you can’t use those words” John? Last I checked, the pledge was entirely voluntary. Let’s not conflate self-restraint and censorship.

        • http://www.bynkii.com/ John C. Welch

          please.

          The entire thing is pretty clear: if you use “bad” words, you are therefore “not civil” and what do you think the people who really take this pledge seriously going to do with arguments and opinions that “aren’t civil”?

          Somehow, I think “looking past the tone and examining the content” won’t be the answer.

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

            I somehow missed the part where Dan said that ‘bad’ words are barred even when not used to slur or insult one’s opponents in lieu of making an argument. Can you kindly point it out?

          • http://www.bynkii.com/ John C. Welch

            really? Okay. Point 6. It’s really specific. Using certain words is inherently uncivil. Note, there is no allowance in point 6 for context. Those words are bad, and civil people will not use them.

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

            Dan has addressed this issue before, it’s not about ‘dirty’ words but how you use them: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/2012/09/how-words-themselves-can-be-ethically-wrong/

          • http://www.bynkii.com/ John C. Welch

            to use a phrase rather common of late: “Intent is not magic”. I don’t know Dan. I’ve never interacted with him at all. I’ve never read any of his other postings, so *all* I have to go on are the words in this post, and going by what he actually wrote, my point stands.

            If he meant something else, then he should have written that point better.

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

            I don’t think it’s worth quibbling on this point (when the words are worthwhile) if we can agree that using slurs *as* slurs is a bad idea, that is, counterproductive to the kind of conversations that Dan is hoping to promote.