• PZ is not the problem

    Atheist Ireland has recently publicly distanced itself from the hateful and harmful rhetoric of PZ Myers. Various bloggers have weighed in supporting this move, including Hemant Mehta and JT Eberhard at Patheos, along with Skeptic Ink authors Peter Ferguson and David Osorio. I support this move as well, naturally, but I feel compelled to note that PZ is not truly the heart of the problem here. If PZ converted to Catholicism tomorrow and spent the rest of his days cloistered away from the secular world in devotional quietude and meditative prayer, the problem would not go away, because it is rooted in human nature and culture.

    The problem is this: It is easier, faster, and far more emotionally satisfying to discredit someone by attacking their character than by civilly dissecting their arguments. It requires a certain character and a modicum of mental discipline to avoid the former path in favor of the latter, especially when you can be confident of being praised by the in-group for choosing the dark path of argumentum ad hominem.

    PZ has surely done freethought a great disservice by elevating the politics of personal destruction to a high art, and by consciously cultivating a commentariat that takes sadistic joy in pulling their knives and rhetorically flensing the speaker rather than straightforwardly addressing their argument. PZ’s allies in the social justice blogosphere have followed in his footsteps, such that by July 2011 it had become clear that “a relatively small and extremely vocal contingent of bloggers act as if any atheists or skeptics who disagree with their political views are useless and slur them every time they get the chance.”

    The slurs have continued from that day until today, and they show no sign of letting up. Over at Skepchick, for example, the commentariat has reacted to Hemant’s recent post with the usual guilt-by-association smears:

    Hemant Mehta has proven himself to be a liar and a now a promoter and endorser of misogyny-based harassment campaigns against atheist feminists. I formally disassociate myself from Mehta and any group of which he has a leadership position.

    It is very difficult to see where exactly he ever promoted such a campaign, but why let pesky things like facts get in the way of a good personal attack?

    The “misogyny-based harassment campaign” referenced above is actually a minimally moderated forum where we have seen several indefensible personal attacks posted, oftentimes without significant objection from other commenters. As you might well expect, most of the posters there are pseudonymous and none of them are ever invited to speak at international atheist conferences; it isn’t exactly fair to compare well-known public speakers and their coteries to obscure anarchistic web boards, at least in terms of impact on the community. Nevertheless, for the sake of fairness it has to be noted that personal attacks and other such weaponized rhetoric are not remotely the sole purview of one side in the atheist rift wars.

    What, then, shall we do? How can we discuss all manner of sensitive issues without getting perpetually mired in the politics of personal destruction?

    Here is the mode of engagement preferred by Salman Rushdie:

    At Cambridge I was taught a laudable method of argument: You never personalize, but you have absolutely no respect for people’s opinions. You are never rude to the person, but you can be savagely rude about what the person thinks. That seems to me a crucial distinction: People must be protected from discrimination by virtue of their race, but you cannot ring-fence their ideas. The moment you say that any idea system is sacred, whether it’s a belief system or a secular ideology, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.

    Ideas may be (and sometimes must be) flensed ruthlessly, but individuals must be treated with dignity.

    These are the same principles which underlie our discussion policy here at Skeptic Ink:

    Invectives that demean individuals on the basis of ethnicity, race, sex, religion, sexuality, gender identification, appearance, or age will not be tolerated. We will focus on the arguments rather than individuals. Sensitive commenters should be warned that poor arguments may be called out as such, and that it is our obligation to do so, even if it is upsetting to the person we argue against. No position worth defending requires the sacrifice of either manners or respect for other people. We seek a calm, thoughtful debate on the issues that divide us or none at all, and we expect the same from our commentariat.

    Finally, here is some timeless advice from David Gorski:

    …could you guys do everyone a favor and both keep your personal animosity towards each other to yourselves, rather than inflicting your extreme distaste for each other on your readers?

    He provided this advice in the context of a particular personal dispute, but it works perfectly for the atheist rifts in general.

    Category: AtheismCurrent Events

    Article by: Damion Reinhardt

    Former fundie finds freethought fairly fab.
    • Outwest

      The circus continues.

    • Kirbmarc

      I agree only in part. On one hand mocking the physical appearance, the sexual tastes, or the overall intellectual abilities of a person is pointless and rude if you want to criticize their ideas.

      On the other hand there are cases where personal criticism is perfectly relevant to the discussion of the idea in question, because the person is using their identity to justify their ideas (i.e. “I’m an Oppressed Person, therefore I am right” “I’m poly, therefore my cheating is justified”) or is making sweeping generalizations about their enemies which are clearly hypocritical (i.e. “Look at those unlovable obese neckbeards” said by an overweight woman who describes herself as “oppressed by fatphobia”). Even in those cases there’s a way to keep the personal attacks to a minimum (i.e. “Is poly is the new cheating” or “Fatshaming is oppressive for me, but not for thee”).

      Of course it’s always better to keep everything as polite as possible and to limit yourself to parody and relentless mocking of ideas, but even personal remarks, no matter how uncalled for, are much less heinous than threats of violence.

      “Die in a fire” is inflammatory (pardon the pun), violent language. “Old cobweb cunt” might be incredibly rude, unpolite, and irrelevant to the discussion, but it isn’t an “attack.” It’s still best to avoid it and to focus on discussion, parody and mockery of ideas, but classifying rudeness as “attacks” is inappropriate.

      • There are indeed instances when an individual’s character is unavoidably entangled with the argument at hand. For example, we have had a couple of recent plagiarism scandals within the freethought movement, one of which had serious consequences for the writer involved. For another example, consider the generous offer recently made by Todd Stiefel to We Are Atheism, conditional upon an array of organizational fixes and safeguards. There is no way to discuss these issues without implicating the individuals involved, but we can do this with an eye towards reconstruction and reconciliation rather than excommunication and execration.

      • Steersman

        Generally a good post which I largely agree with, and I also agree here with you that “an individual’s character is [frequently] unavoidably entangled with the argument at hand”. Don’t know if you’ve ever noticed or not but there’s a section in the Wikipedia article on ad hominems that notes:

        Doug Walton, Canadian academic and author, has argued that ad hominem reasoning is not always fallacious, and that in some instances, questions of personal conduct, character, motives, etc., are legitimate and relevant to the issue, as when it directly involves hypocrisy, or actions contradicting the subject’s words.

        Which I think more people should be aware of as many seem all too quick to cry “foul”, to attempt to shut-down a debate with accusations of “argumentum ad hominem”, when “persononal conduct and motives” are frequently the crux of the matter. And one might argue that any argument that relies substantially on “feels” is a prime candidate for an analysis from that perspective.

    • I’ve never been accused of wishing blessings upon the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. At least not since I turned six.

    • An Ardent Skeptic

      Having attempted numerous times to stop the personal attacks while suggesting that people focus on discussing ideas during my 4 year history of posting on the internet, I have learned how to respond in an internet appropriate fashion to your “heart of the problem” assessment…

      Damion, you’re a tone troll!!! A hanky-waving southern matriarch!!! A pudgy pink moron!!! And, a hyperskeptic!!! You should stick a rotting porcupine up your backside while fucking yourself with a rusty chainsaw after being kick in the nuts by a man (which I’m not so, obviously, this is purely hypothetical and, therefore, should not be an objectionable sentiment to express).

      And with that response, I have now graduated from internet tenderfoot to a member of the internet creme de la creme. How did I do, Damion?

      On a more serious note…Let’s discuss the idea I often hear that most people are “good” because, IMO, that’s really what is at the heart of this problem.

      I don’t agree with the assessment that most people are “good”. IMO, most people are self-centered as it was an evolutionary “good” trait for survival. Cooperation was also an evolutionary “good” trait for survival, therefore, people developed the ability to cooperate out of self-centered self-interest. So, people put on a facade of “goodness” when “goodness” is most likely to get others to cooperate. However, when being “good” is not deemed necessary in obtaining what is in one’s self-interest, then the being “good” facade disappears and it is only self-centered self-interest which people exhibit. Fear works even better than “goodness” in getting people to “cooperate” because fear plays heavily on the self-centered self-interest to survive.

      I’ve often wonder what I would do if I lived under some dictatorial regime where people who refuse to “cooperate” will likely die. We all like to think that if we had been living under oppressive regimes by the likes of Hussein, Pol Pot, Stalin, or Hitler, we would be part of the resistance movement working to overthrow these tyrants. The reality is that most of us would choose our own survival over resistance. And, we would be masters at justifying our self-interested choice. Self-justification is what people seem to do best.

      • “How did I do, Damion?”

        I see you’ve been reading the comments. Spot-on, grade A, etc.

        As to the other thing, ask me about SERE training sometime. People fold like origami masters under the slightest psychological pressure.

    • Edward Gemmer

      It’s a challenging issue. Yes, insults are a big part of discourse, but even deeper than that, feelings about a subject matter seem to trump the subject matter itself. I can’t watch cable news these days, because often it seems the public’s feelings about a topic, say Obamacare, are more widely reported than the actual law.

    • kraut2

      I have read too any personal attacks against other atheists (horse man envy?) by Myers, Canuck, Tequila Girl, Benson, Carrier and a host of other FTB sjw hatemongers and “it is free speech only if I say so” vitriol spouting bloggers to not consider that whole site a problem and worthy of rceding into the garbage dump of history.
      It was a worthwhile effort – years ago, but deteriorated into the real slimepit of intolerance, vitriol, strawmanning, hate. I do not regret having spent tme there – but I also knew when it was time to eliminate it from my favourite link list.

      • That is very true, it’s free speech only so long as it agrees with them. Any other opinion, or worse yet, any opinion that directly disagrees with them is hate speech and must be stomped out. This is common, not only among the SJW crowd, but among theists as well, from whom the SJWs take their playbook. As Rushdie says above, don’t attack people, attack ideas. Unfortunately, this is simply impossible for the SJWs because these people are defined by their ideas. Any attack on their ideas is seen as a direct personal attack on themselves, just as any attack on Christianity is often seen as a direct personal attack on Christians. That makes having any kind of rational debate over these ideas impossible with these people, they are entirely incapable of critically evaluating what they believe, it’s a matter of blind, fanatical faith, nothing more.

      • kraut2


        Damion is of course right – so am I: PZ isn’t the problem alone – it is his sycophants he collected around him as well

    • Part of the problem seems to be an adamant refusal to admit that one might be wrong. Once that door is completely closed, one loses any motivation to consider what one’s critics are saying. Anyone who disagrees must be wrong. The other part of the problem, clearly exemplified by FtB, is that it isn’t good enough for one’s critics simply to be mistaken. They also must be wrong in the moral sense. Those who disagree are not simply wrong; they are evil misogynists, rape apologists, MRAs, and the like. This level of irrationality makes it difficult to expect meaningful dialogue.

      • It’s been almost a full day since the last time they called me a rape apologist over there. 😉

    • Nice post, I find the biggest problem for me is that I can only butt my head against a wall a certain amount of times before I call a person an idiot and walk away. Not the best course of action I agree, but everyone has their limits.

    • Unhiddenness

      I have to admit that I quite enjoyed the FtB site overall, but the dismal reality of having to self-censor in order to avoid offending someone wasn’t my cup of tea.

      One reason it is so hard to avoid being banned there is that displeasure can be aroused for trivial or obscure “offences” (praising the idea of human space colonies), or engaging intellectual topics beyond the mental capabilities of The Horde, such as philosophical conundrums.

      • I’ve been banned from all the usual social justice blogs over there (Pharyngula, Lousy Canuck, Almost Diamonds, etc.) but I try not to let it get me down. They still have Rock Beyond Belief Camels with Hammers A Million Gods Ashley Miller, thank god.