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Posted by on Feb 21, 2013 in Culture, Debate | 7 comments

Ben Radford on lack of charity

For some time now, I’ve worried about the lack of charity, civility, and reasonableness that we see from some quarters of the broad secular movement when we have discussions among ourselves about important and controversial issues. I’m not the only one: for example, this has been a concern of Daniel Fincke’s, leading to his recent proposal of a civility pledge. While I think that pledge is too detailed, and is open to manipulation if someone wants to argue about specific behaviour, proposing it is at least a step in the right direction.

For myself, I think it’s adequate to make some attempt to be civil, charitable, and reasonable (in the sense of being prepared to compromise, try to see the other person’s viewpoint, etc.). It’s something to try to keep in mind as we discuss issues with our peers. Even this much would greatly lift the intellectual standard of the discourse that goes on, as well as creating a kinder, more pleasant, less intimidating environment in which to exchange perceptions and opinions. This doesn’t mean that we must never resort to denunciation, satire, or mockery, no matter the target or the circumstances, but they should be tools that we’d rarely use when engaging with people who are, on the face of it, honest, generally decent, and evidently willing to reciprocate civil, charitable, reasonable behaviour. At some point, we might decide that individuals who are recalcitrantly uncivil, etc., or show that they simply don’t value civility, charity, and reasonableness, don’t merit much consideration from us – so they become fairer game for our mockery, scorn, and anger – but that should not be our starting point in discussion with evidently good people.

Too often, though, we see an immediate impulse to smear, trash, dogpile, and (attempt to) shame people for having the “wrong” views on a difficult topic, or for expressing their views in the “wrong” way, or for adopting the “wrong” attitude to a topic – by, for example, looking at different sides and offering dispassionate analysis (someone has to) of issues that push emotional buttons, etc. Where the individuals who show this impulse use a large platform to express it, other people with considerably smaller platforms can find themselves with their reputations ruined and little chance to do anything about it. This is, of course, a tactic of intimidation and it deserves nothing but our contempt.

Ben Radford has been a recent victim of the kind of smearing, trashing, dogpiling, etc., that I am talking about, and he has responded with a post lamenting the lack of charity online. His post provides you with the links that you need to get the full context. I hope that Radford’s post will be widely read. It’s detailed, but very easy to follow, and it’s the kind of thing that needs to be said over and over. It often it seems that we have to re-invent the basics of civil, charitable, reasonable discourse from scratch – these had to be worked out gradually in print-based controversies, where the impulse of pamphleteers in earlier centuries was to reach very quickly for accusations of ignorance, malice, bad character, and bad faith. A hard-won wisdom was eventually gained, and intellectual controversy in modern-day books, magazines, and journals is usually a fair bit better than this. In the hurly-burly of internet debate, however, all that hard-won wisdom often seems to be missing. It’s something worth standing up for.


Postscript: This new post by Steve Neumann is also relevant to the discussion. Check it out.

  • Laurence

    Massimo didn’t write that post. Steve Neumann did.

  • corpsepants
  • RussellBlackford

    Good point. Duly corrected.

  • Reginald Selkirk
  • RussellBlackford

    Hi Reginald,
    I don’t know whether you’re being sarcastic or whether you’re on Radford’s side in this dispute… but either way, let me comment on your link. It looks to me like someone responding with fairly good-humoured (in the circumstances) satire to the sort of trashing, dogpiling, vilification, etc., that I’ve been talking about. I would have either kept my peace about it or been much more forthright and angry.

    You may not agree with me (or perhaps you do!), but, frankly, I think PZ Myers is one person who is way, way past deserving any charity. To borrow terminology from elsewhere, Myers and his pals act like a bunch of slavering dogs whenever they encounter someone with views that they disagree with. They are intensely uncharitable, destructive, and just plain nasty people. I have no time for them, even if some (like Myers himself) have shown a modicum of talent in the past.

    I don’t think we need to show much charity to people who are, themselves, so consistently and recalcitrantly uncharitable, uncivil, and unreasonable to others as the likes of Myers. It’s a reciprocal thing. Myers has made very clear that he does not much value charity, etc. He’s not interested in the sort of discourse that I value and which we manage, at least to some extent, to achieve here.

  • RussellBlackford

    And whoever’s side you’re on… you’ve gotta admit Radford’s piece is actually funny. 😀

  • There’s a reason why it’s called the Pharyngula Horde (skewing Internet polls showing them what they’re worth, for example). I was a fierce commenter there, from the begining of Science Blogs all the way through “Crackergate”, and for some time beyond. PZ was proud at that time to have a comments section with as little moderation as possible. He happily called it a “Bear pit”. Having only gone back a few times to FreeThought Blogs, I’ve noticed the introduction of levels of moderation, all for the good, I say.

    The “everything is nail, so the hammer is our only tool”, was somewhat justified when all the resistance was from creationists. However when the supply of outright creationists abated, this style of attack, defensible against these interlocutors, sadly became the same style of attack turned inward.

    While I could defend such a style against the wildly religious and regressive, such a style being the norm against those who agree on 95% (or more) of the issues raised, seems to me not just counterproductive, but in fact, morphing into the tribal worldview of those they despise. It’s what Hitchens referenced as the “Narcissism of the Small Difference.”

    This is an idea the entire atheist movement (if there really is such a one, which is debatable) should memorize so that we don’t fall to predictable human impulses, which history shows our species is ever prone to.