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Posted by on Feb 15, 2013 in Philosophy, Reason and Argument | 8 comments

A Civil Response to Dan Fincke

 

I want to follow Damion (1, 2), Ed, John and Russell on this network and respond to Dan Fincke’s Civility Pledge, as I won’t be signing it. That’s a shame, I think, because I believe civility to be an indispensable component of a productive discussion. If we’re going to talk about important or interesting things, we should strive for worthwhile dialogue. Mud-slinging and online flaming might work to discourage your opponents and create a cosy bubble of agreement for your own side, but nothing is advanced; each party simply carries on believing what they opined before.

So why won’t I be signing Fincke’s pledge? Firstly, for the simple reason that I don’t agree completely with every idea contained within it. The more ideas you ask people to agree with all at once, the less likely it is they will do so, and this seems to be Fincke’s biggest problem getting people to sign. Secondly, the pledge seems to assume that most of these arguments concern victims of abuse and oppressed minorities. It seems rather (as Ed Clint puts it) ‘infantilising‘. No doubt the reason for this is the recent wave of ‘social justice’ hobbyists in the online atheist hubs (‘social justice’ in this context seems to mean something very different from what political philosophers mean when they talk about it). Still, I don’t want to define my conduct in terms of a temporary irritation – I’d rather adhere to something that can be applied universally. Thirdly, I don’t feel that I can, in all honesty, really pledge to act civilly. I can do my best, but of course there will be times when I transgress. So, I won’t be editing Fincke’s pledge or creating my own. Instead, I aim to conduct myself  as described by Russell Blackford and:

…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.

Still, regardless of whether or not it is signed, the pledge is a stimulating read and I will enjoy engaging with it here.

 

The Good and the Bad

I agree with the core message of the pledge, and share what I think are Fincke’s motives. I try to run this blog on a principle of civility and reasoned discussion, as I have outlined before:

If we do not stick to the arguments but instead prefer to attack opponents personally, we distract the conversation with irrelevancies. Furthermore, if you or your opponent get needlessly riled up, then emotion takes the place of reason and the quality of the arguments diminishes. There is no good reason not to be civil. If the arguments are poor, then the surest way of demonstrating this is with a reasoned rebuttal, rather than with invective. If they are ‘trolling’, i.e. posting comments of little substance merely to anger people, then they may be justly blocked from commenting in order to prevent the discussion from breaking down and suffering a catastrophic loss of productivity.

 

However, I disagree on some of the points that I feel are superfluous to this central message, and I will go though each point one-by-one. To save space, I won’t bother quoting whole chunks, so please read these on Fincke’s original post.

The pledge starts well – I agree with points 1, 2, and 3, although I think point 3 could have gone a lot further in discussing the principle of charity, without which discussions tend to stagnate, getting caught up on irrelevant particulars. Again, I refer to my old post to argue that we should adhere to this principle.

Point 4 concerns itself with ad hominem claims, and as I’ve noted before I’m not in favour of these. I think they should be off the table altogether if we’re aiming for a productive discussion, unless of course the topic of the discussion is that particular ad hominem claim! From this point we can at least take away the idea that:

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.

Insults like this don’t really have any meaning of their own. All that “you are an asshole” can convey is “I hate you” or “I disapprove of you personally”. I’ve yet to hear a convincing defence of the idea that this does any good at all, if one’s purpose is to have a meaningful discussion. So I’m with Fincke on this.

I agree with 5, but it again seems to be talking about very specific cases when we might make it a more universal principle. In fact, Fincke himself covers this in point 1. If we are to sincerely aim for mutual understanding, then we should strain to weigh and appreciate the relevant experiences of others (whether they are in a ‘traditionally marginalised group’ or not). So I don’t really see why point 5 is needed if we’ve already agreed with point 1.

Similarly, we’ve already agreed that insults are not conducive to a productive argument, and so I don’t see why at this point we need a list of particular insults that we should avoid, as Fincke seems to require for points 6 and 7. We should simply avoid insults altogether. I also don’t know how we decide where this list begins or ends. Who decides what words are on the list? How many people need to be offended by a word for it to count as ‘offensive’? And so on.

I agree with 8, even though talk of ‘safe spaces’ conjures up images of probably the most bigoted and absurd places on the atheosphere- the ‘atheism plus‘ forum.

Ed Clint has covered point 9 well. I might apologise, but only if I feel I should do. If I don’t then I won’t. I might also offer a false apology to pacify someone or stop them complaining, and I wonder if this is what Fincke really means. After all, if I feel they are unjustified in being upset by what I said (a situation which Fincke still thinks requires an apology), then I don’t see how I’m capable of a sincere apology. It just seems like a contradiction. But requiring that we apologise falsely to someone whose hurt isn’t justified in the first place seems rather condescending to that person.

I like 10 and 11. As for 12, as Ed Clint, Russell Blackford and others have argued, one person’s “funny and perceptive satire” is another’s “bullying harassment”. This is rather subjective and so it is difficult to draw boundaries. I feel the same when someone says “yes we should have free speech – but that just wasn’t funny“!

Point 13 doesn’t really add anything else, so I think I’ll stop there.

The discussions on my own blog have generally been civil and productive, so I’m pleased with that. I don’t get many comments per post, so perhaps that’s part of the reason. I also try to keep ‘drama’ to a minimum here (i.e. using the blog to discuss ideas themselves instead of as a megaphone for interpersonal feuds), so those people spoiling for a fight tend to tilt at windmills elsewhere. If I start getting lots of comments and incivility starts to creep in, I’ll draw up a comment policy to nip it in the bud. Until then, I’ll continue reading and responding to the interesting comments that people are kind enough to leave for me (hint hint!).

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

    Doesn’t sound to me like you disagree with much of the substance of the pledge, but given the way you’ve com

  • http://www.skepticink.com/notung Notung

    For me, the apology part reminded me of those posts where people write things like “if someone points out your bigotry, don’t double down. Instead, take a moment to listen and apologise.” Perhaps I’m being unfair on Dan…

  • Chas Stewart

    Usually I apologize for my tone if things get heated to attempt to settle any rancor but I won’t apologize for having a differing opinion or that opinion’s offense to others. I think that would be jive with Dan’s pledge.

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

    If I were to say (and genuinely mean) the following, “I’m sorry that what I said was upsetting to you. Please understand that was not my intent. I will try to get my point across better next time,” I’m pretty sure that would count as an apology in my book and still be taken as doubling down in some circles.

  • http://www.skepticink.com/notung Notung

    Yep, that sounds diplomatic enough. Though I think between adults committed to rational discourse, this situation is unlikely to happen in the first place.

  • RussellBlackford

    Folks who’ve been reading my blog for a long time (i.e., over on its original site) will know that I apologise fairly freely if I misunderstand something or contribute to a misunderstanding. I’m often happy to do this even if I don’t feel I’ve been especially culpable – merely an imperfect victim of the inherent ambiguities of language, conflicting demands on attention, etc.

    So it’s not that I’m necessarily against a mild apology, such as, “Oops, sorry – I didn’t mean it that way” (followed by some sort of clarification), in quite a wide range of circumstances. Being prepared to take that kind of action is pro-social behaviour.

    But I’m not prepared to pledge to do so. That’s partly because circumstances vary widely in so many ways. It’s also because this kind of mild apology, which is partly an admission of imperfection but mainly just an expression of regret, is not going to satisfy some people. Often, it seems, something far more grovelling and self-flagellating is being demanded. Also, the current Salem-like atmosphere in the secular movement doesn’t make me feel more willing to give anything to critics who I think are being unfair to me, hypersensitive, or simply obtuse.

    I’ll probably go on making those sorts of apologies reasonably freely, but I won’t pledge to do so. I’ll use my own judgment and discretion.

  • DrewHardies

    I agree that quickly apologizing could be a useful deescalation technique. But, I feel like there’s a call-out-culture (this article http://offbeatempire.com/2012/10/liberal-bullying has a great description) that takes advantage of people’s willingness to apologize.

    Sometimes, “I’m offended by that language” is a legitimate expression of hurt. Other times, it seems like an attempt to hijack an author’s audience for a discussion about some social issue.

    So, I agree that legitimate hurts should get legitimate apologies. But, a lot of the time, silence is going to be the best option.

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

    I will apologize for hurting someone’s feelings, but I’m not going to let anyone use their feelings as a cudgel to squelch my speech. If they continue to take offense no matter how innocuously I’ve phrased my points, I am not going to continue to engage with them.