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.
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.
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.
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?