Of Foxes, Hedgehogs, and Radicals

There is a famous essay by Isaiah Berlin about hedgehogs and foxes, based on a line by the ancient Greek poet Archilochus, “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

Hedgehogs, as Nate Silver describes them in his The Signal and the Noise, are people who “believe in Big Ideas–in governing principles about the world that behave as though they were physical laws and undergird virtually every interaction in society.” He asks us to “Think Karl Marx and class struggle, or Sigmund Freud and the unconscious.” They are essentially narrative-driven thinkers.

Foxes, on the other hand are “scrappy creatures who believe in a plethora of little ideas and in taking a multitude of approaches toward a problem. They tend to be more tolerant of nuance, uncertainty, complexity, and dissenting opinion.” Presumably we’re here asked to think of, oh, say, Nate Silver.

I think these adorable animals can help us answer what to me is a burning question: What is the difference between radicals and non-radicals?

For instance, what differentiates Sheryl Sandberg of Lean In and PIV-critical, kink-critical tumblr feminists?

Or, what is the nature of the gap between this “neutral” response to Politically Incorrect UChicago Confessions and this criticism of the very idea of neutrality?

And even, what is the difference between Christians who wish to legislate from the Bible and those who take a more secular approach to government?

If we’re talking about good forms of each argument, then I think what we’re looking at, broadly speaking, is hedgehogs and foxes.

(Note: Of course, this is an oversimplification. In practice, most people do have multiple ways of looking at the world. This is a typology, not a dichotomy.)

Non-radicals, sometimes called liberals (as in liberal feminists versus radical feminists), sometimes simply moderates, see facts about Big Issues like racism, sexism or God as facts among others. Certainly, there is truth to be discerned on an issue like racism: an empirically verifiable history of discrimination against people of color, internment camps, studies demonstrating the relative likelihood of employers hiring people with “black” names versus “white” names and so on. There are also facts about how to change the facts. Does affirmative action work to promote the economic and cultural success of people of color? How about job training?

There is plenty of disagreement over these facts, to be sure, but the fact remains that these questions are empirical ones that have factual answers, and non-radicals tend to treat them as such. Non-radicals also see the facts of the case, whatever they may be, as just that, facts. They are part of a universe that also contains facts about consciousness, facts about political realities and facts about organic molecules. All facts need to be worked together and be weighed against each other. The facts of racism must be balanced against the facts of the costs of anti-racist public policy. The facts of sexism must be considered along with the facts of the way that economies respond to regulation. And my guess is, for some theists, the facts about God’s law must be taken side-by-side with the facts about living in a pluralistic, generally progressive country like America. This is a fox-like approach.

But of course, that doesn’t make sense to some people. It doesn’t really make sense to me. If you really believed that racism was deeply enrooted in our political realities, how could you then say, “Ah, but there are other things to take into account”? If you truly thought that sexism affected every social interaction, would it be rational to say, “But perhaps the costs of fixing that are too high”? And if you thought that God wanted a certain vision of America, would you, could you, tell yourself to wait until a more favorable congress? There seems to be something deeply wrong with that.

From this way of thinking we get hedgehogs. Hedgehogs, or radicals, ask us to take all of the facts we have in our arsenal, and build something deeper, more powerful with them. There aren’t just facts about how, on average, certain sectors of people of various non-white races have been treated in America; there is, above and beyond those facts, a long-standing history of deeply entrenched racism in almost every facet of American life. Facts about sexism, the pay gap, misogyny, rape statistics, aren’t simply listings in the Great Morally Neutral Book of Facts About the World; they tell a broader story about the treatment of and attitude toward women. And the existence of God, if true, cannot possibly just be an isolated fact about the universe. I’m reminded of a conversation from Orson Scott Card’s First Meetings in Ender’s Universe:

John Paul digested this. “Some people think God doesn’t exist.”

“That’s true,” said the woman:

“Which?” he asked.

She chuckled. “That some people think he doesn’t exist. I don’t know, myself. I don’t have an opinion on the subject.”

“That means you don’t believe there is a God,” said John Paul.

“Oh, does it?”

“St. John Paul II said so. That saying you don’t know or care about God is the same as saying you believe he doesn’t exist, because if you had even a hope that he existed, you would care very much.”

Indeed, radicals care very very much about their given causes. And at least part of the reason why, I think, is that their deep stories, their overarching narratives, are not and cannot be value neutral. A non-radical may consider Larry Summers’s comments about women sexist, but not feel compelled to take action as a result. A radical cannot. Seeing sexism in every part of society: law, politics, employment, family, and more, and acknowledging its virulent harm demands a fight to end it. Same with racism, and presumably, the same with sin.

These are the characteristics of a hedgehog. Sin, bigotry, environmental negligence, injustice, or fill-in-the-blank; there are Big Governing Principles of the world. Not only are these principles more than just mere facts, they are the lenses through which all other facts may be understood. Sin explains all degradation and harm and moral decay in the world. Feminism gives us the framework to fully understand social and political interactions. And so on and so forth.

Nate Silver doesn’t much like hedgehogs, as we saw above, but I don’t think these views are wrong, necessarily. I do think they are risky. Anti-racist hedgehogs may well be right about the world we live in. Racism and race relations may well be the only (or the primary) lens that properly makes sense of my experiences and known empirical facts. After all, I am white, which gives me privileged status in American society. So all of my experiences are affected by that fact. My experiences in stores, not being followed around. My experiences in classrooms, being listened to more seriously. And so on. I agree with all of this.

And yet, there is the risk. Because what we end up getting from hedgehogs, in fact, is a kind of deontology. The fact of your moral obligation to oppose racism is a logical deduction from properly understanding racism. Any other approach cannot account for this rigid logical connection, so it cannot be trusted. Therefore, anti-racists have to be absolutely right about the nature of racism and the effects it has and its primacy as the lens through which I should understand the world, or they have thrown away all other possible forms of analysis in vain.

This deontological radical position compels me to certain political and social stances on issues even before I have examined them individually. If an issue involves race/sex/religion, my position is known. It cannot be otherwise, because I have a largely unchanging approach to the world, and that approach morally demands my backing whenever it is called into play. Because I am against racism and I am against sexism and religious people are against sin. And that might be right! If we really had a Theory of Everything, we wouldn’t need to analyze individual cases! Absolutely!

But this is a very troubling approach.  Because these lenses, these Big Governing Principles, might fail me, and I will have rejected any other – science, utilitarianism, political pragmatism, hell, even virtue ethics – that might have helped me or given me another perspective. And then it would be incredibly difficult to admit the the Big Governing Principle has failed. The list of men’s rights issues feminists care about in this otherwise great article demonstrates this perfectly; some of them are completely correct, but some of them push far beyond what I think is reasonable, in what I see as an attempt to bring all facts into the same explanatory rubric.

There are many models of how the world works, and blending them in just the right way is part of the difficult work of building a worldview. If you have one that works for everything, whether it’s simply your chosen approach towards the world or one built on other principles (like reason or empiricism), more power to you. If you’re right, about God, about power dynamics, about the unconscious, then you’re going to get all the answers right, and well done.

But I’m skeptical. I think all of us would be much better served by becoming more foxlike, by being comfortable with many different types of thinking and models of the world, and then using models only where they’re best suited and throwing them out where they’re not.

I’m a feminist, sure, and that helps me analyze all kinds of situations in the world I couldn’t without feminism. I think racism exists, too, and ditto. Intersectional social justice activists have been doing excellent work on blending these types of models, and acknowledging that they don’t all work all the time. But I’m also a utilitarian, and there’s a point where, for instance, I wouldn’t support public policy that could help women but might overly hurt the economy. The world is a complicated place, with many competing interests and an overabundance of competing narratives. The truth is that all facts are relevant facts, and we have to learn how to balance them effectively. If our thinking is primarily narrative-driven, we’re likely to be led to wrong answers that we can’t account for and then can’t adjust to correct.

I, for one, would rather be a fox.

Stop FAPing!

If a female Graylag Goose sees an egg outside of its nest, she will initiate a series of behaviors intended to get the egg back into the nest with her beak. She will complete these same actions if she sees an egg-shaped object outside its nest, like a golf ball or a door-knob. But far more hilarious than that, if the goose starts bringing the egg into her nest, and the egg is taken away during the process, the goose will not stop until she is done bringing the invisible egg into her nest. It’s behavior that simply does not adjust to new stimulus. This is what’s called a fixed-action pattern (FAP).

You may think you’ve never seen such a bird in your life, but I assure you that you have seen a very similar behavior, which I call a fixed-argument pattern (FAP). You see, if a FAPer sees a conversation or argument taking place about a topic on which s/h/ze has a strong opinion, s/h/ze will make their favorite argument. Even if the argument is actually only shaped or colored like the argument they thought it was. Even if the argument ends, or becomes about something entirely different. It doesn’t matter. A FAPer will continue to make the same argument they always make, bravely undeterred by the inappropriate context or situation. Now I bet you’ll agree that you’ve seen this kind of FAPing going on in all kinds of arguments and discussions, on-line and off-line.

That guy on facebook who comments on every atheist-related status or discussion with an extended analysis of how you are sure to find God eventually or why the dinosaur bones are there to trick us, even if you were talking about North Carolina trying to institute a state religion or the importance of Bayes’ rule?


The woman in your social circle who always manages to work into a discussion that the Democratic and Republican parties are identical, corporate-owned cesspools of hypocrisy and mendacity, even if you were talking about comparing the intervention in Libya to that in Bosnia, or whether or not Hillary Clinton will run in 2016?


The genderqueer person you know who, seemingly upon hearing just the phrase “power of suggestion” will start quoting Tim Minchin’s Storm at full volume and railing against New Age things, even if you were having an utterly different conversation about the incredibly interesting world of nocebos, or harmful placebos?


What all these people have in common is that when they see a discussion going on about a particular topic, they seem to think to themselves “I know an argument about that topic!” and then proceed to give it, whether or not it’s appropriate or relevant. FAPers see making their argument as so important that it doesn’t matter whether it adds to the discussion or not.

It’s often with good intentions. I’m sure that the Christian in the first example really wants to save my soul, even at the cost of my conversation, which he’s just irritatingly derailed. I see feminists on the internet all the time giving Feminism 101 lectures in cases where it wasn’t appropriate, or where it would have been better to address more specific or nuanced points. Of course they want to convince others of their entirely valid points, and for good reason, too. It just may not have been the occasion.

In fact, we’re probably all guilty of FAPing at some time or another, because we thought we had a point that was too important not to say, even if it was only tangentially related to the argument at hand. But even when it comes out of good intentions, FAPing is a bad habit.

Why FAPing is Bad

1. It is selfish. It makes the discussion entirely about the argument the FAPer wants to make instead of what has organically come out of the group up to that point.

2.  It confusingly and irritatingly violates the Gricean Maxim of Relevance, in which we all tacitly agree to only add to conversation with relevant things.

3. It’s really bad and unproductive arguing. FAPers fail to listen to what other people are saying, and as a result, don’t address any of their arguments. People tend not to get convinced that way. FAPing also often demands an all-or-nothing approach, where the opponent must agree immediately or be subject to a repeat of the fixed and unchanging argument.

4. FAPing is way less interesting than thinking about how to address the specifics of a particular argument. FAPing may as well be just copy pasted from a google doc, or a playing of a voice recorder. As a result, FAPers tend not to learn new things from arguments, since they’ll say the same thing no matter what.

4.b. I think FAPing can add to burnout, since FAPers are guaranteed to have the same arguments over and over again, since they’re making the same arguments over and over again. People who are responding to the particulars of the argument they’re in are probably going to be less frustrated with the miserable and unproductive monotony of never having a novel argument.

How to Fix It

If you notice yourself making the same arguments over and over, or being accused of saying things irrelevant to the argument, try to stop yourself. Even if you think what you have to say is really important, if you find yourself thinking of how to shoehorn your point in, rather than thinking about to respond to what’s going on, take a step back. You might be FAPing. How to stop yourself? Think about what’s going on in this argument, not all the similar ones you’ve seen and been in, even if you know exactly where the argument is going. Try to respond to the argument this person is making, not all the ones it sounds like. I promise it’s more interesting that way.

If you notice others FAPing, ask them (charitably, kindly) to respond to the arguments that you or others have made that they haven’t responded to. Make sure to ask people on “your side” as well! Ask them what their opinion on the particular issues at hand are, and ask them to stay on topic. If they continue not to, delete!

So let us go forth, and FAP no more!


For another random animal-related piece of rationality advice, check out Julia Galef’s video about Sphexing.

Why Politically Incorrect UChicago Confessions Sucks

There is a new UChicago-related facebook page created expressly for the purpose of sharing “UChicago-related, politically incorrect thoughts and feelings.” As any rational person might expect, the page sucks. It asked (in its original description) for racism, homophobia and sexism, and it got them. I learned, through perusing this page, that as a woman I’m bad at math and as a Jew I have taken over the University and advocated murdering palestinians. As a liberal Jewish math major often critical of Israel, I was pretty surprised to learn these things. And those comments were far from the worst. As also might be expected, the vast majority of the disgusting comments were about people of color. People of color not being quiet enough, smart enough, English-speaking enough. But I don’t need to explain the precise fashion in which all these comments are offensive. The people who wrote them wrote them because they were offensive, and the people reading them are largely rightfully horrified. What I do feel the need to explain is why the page is terrible, causes harm and should be taken down by any entity with the right and power to do so.

To demonstrate this, let’s ask ourselves why this page should exist. What good does it do? By and large, the answers given are: free speech is important, it’s good for people to have a place to express these emotions so there can be discussion and education, and that it’s good that people express offensive opinions openly so that they don’t go underground and get worse.

First, the ever present free speech argument. Everyone has a right to free speech, at least as far as the federal government is concerned. We do not have a right to the existence of a facebook page, if it is against their policies, nor do we have a right to our university not taking action against such a page, if that is in their policies. So far, my hope is that University of Chicago students are sophisticated enough in their thinking to be on board. The question that follows, then, is, do we want facebook to be a place where such pages exist? My answer is assuredly not, though others’ may differ. Similarly, do we want this page to be part of and affect the University community? Again, in my opinion, no. I will defend both of these opinions later. All that matters here is that everyone agree that these are the relevant questions, and if the answer to them is no, it is entirely reasonable for either facebook or the University of Chicago to take the page down, and if the answer is yes, it is wrong of them to do so. But none of this really has to do with free speech, so much as the question of what the reasonable bounds of discourse in a university community are. That is a much more interesting question, though as far as I’m concerned this page still clearly falls outside of it.

Second, that it’s good for people to have a place to express these sentiments, so that we know who the racists and sexists are, or so that we can shoot down their arguments together as a community, or so they don’t repress their opinions and become more racist and sexist.

Ok, this is where is gets interesting. If anyone said most of the things on the Facebook page in person, most of us would, at the very least, give them a shocked, irritated or disgusted look. We might say something critical or negative about their remark. We might get into an argument with them. All of these actions are ways of indicating the moral paucity that such a comment suffers from. They express social and moral disapproval of the comment. They make use of shame and condemnation to change the behavior and belief of the person making the comment. This is to the good. This is how morality works. We teach and enforce morality through social means. It starts when our parents tell us that hitting is wrong, and it continues every. single. time. we give someone a dirty look for saying something racist, sexist, bigoted or otherwise awful. Because we want people not to say or think such things. This is the way we stop people from saying or thinking such things. And all of us do this entirely naturally, without giving it a second thought. This is how social disapproval makes the world less bigoted.

This social disapproval is what people are referring to when they talk about political correctness and the lack of free speech. What they mean is that they can’t express morally bereft opinions without someone pointing out how morally bereft it is. That, I’m afraid, is what it is to live in a social community with moral standards. What’s the point of moral standards, after all, if we don’t make them known? No one is exempt from disapproval by dint of being part of a community. In fact, it is by dint of being part of a community that you make yourself subject to the moral standards of that community. And in this way, we have already made it clear (so we don’t need to do so again on a Facebook group) that the community does not approve.

Of course, there are other tools, like education and other social pressures, to fight bigotry, and I am in favor of using them, but I think social disapproval is the one with the widest-ranging effects, since everyone is immersed in it their whole lives. I also think that social disapproval does not merely stop people from saying things they believe, but also affects their thinking and attitude towards the world. Community standards have a huge effect on how we are taught to think, and so good community standards can improve a community through changing how it, for instance, sees people of color and women, in addition to removing the harm from people saying or doing sexist and racist things.

But I do care that people have a chance to give opinions that might add something new to the community, even if they are wildly unpopular. Even if they are racist or sexist or awful. But a public facebook page that presents itself as representative of the University of Chicago is 100% not the place.

  1. Firstly, it hurts the people of the community. It hurt me, and all the other women here in math, to learn that some calculus TA doesn’t think women are good at math. And I don’t mean just that it offended us, though it certainly offended me. Stereotype threat is real, and it definitely hurts women in mathematics to learn that they’re not considered good at math. That’s why it’s great that saying that women are bad at math is socially unacceptable. And I really cannot begin to imagine the harm done to the people of color at UChicago to be hearing these opinions, for these opinions to be given a soapbox, so they can hear all of the ways their community doesn’t want them or like them or appreciate them. That is real, tangible, harm, and the creator of this page, as well as the commenters, is responsible for that harm.
  2. Second, public pages like this normalize bigoted opinions. Even with all the critique in the responses to them. We know that having opinions like this publicly and shamelessly expressed makes it seem to others who hold these opinions that they are acceptable and reasonable. That’s not ok. We don’t want people to think that the opinions are acceptable or reasonable. That’s why we have such a thing as social disapproval. I, Chana Messinger, hold bigoted opinions. I have racist thoughts, and sexist thoughts, and all kinds of other thoughts. It is a good thing that I don’t feel comfortable saying them in public. That means that (re: #1) I’m not going to go around hurting people as if it doesn’t matter and doesn’t have an effect, and it also means that I’m going to learn that those opinions are unacceptable.

But I might never know why, right? I might not learn, or get the chance to be educated about my prejudices, right? That’s possible, so here’s where we get back to the part where I do care that people have a place to learn.

  1. Now, firstly, people can always learn on their own. I typed into google “why is it bad to say” and the first thing that popped up was “why is it bad to say you look tired to a girl” and the first result was this yahoo answer with some excellent responses! Hooray, self-education!
  2. Secondly, yes, I am in favor of spaces where people can go and ask “offensive” questions and get charitable, thoughtful, educated responses. Some do exist. They are very clearly very different from this page. Spaces like that have moderators (because speech causes harm!), they have educated people giving educated answers and lots of links to valuable resources. They are places to talk, to discuss, to be educated. They are again, not this page. They are places where the harm from the speech is minimized so that the benefit from educated discourse can outweigh it.

Not only are there online spaces of this kind, but many social spaces as well. Parents, teachers, friends, advisors, people who might think differently but are willing to talk. What’s the difference? The difference is that the person with offensive questions doesn’t end up hurting a whole university community, the atmosphere is much more conducive to productive discussion and most importantly, the person is forced to ask questions in a thoughtful and useful way. They would have to say,

“Look, I’m a calculus TA, and I notice the women don’t do as well in the class. What should I be taking from that?”

instead of

“After TAing for calc 130s for years I can safely say that women, gays, and premeds are terrible at math.”

And then someone could say, “Well, historically women are told that they’re not as good at math, they are pushed away from the field, you’re tutoring the lowest level math which might give a selection bias, it’s bad to say this to others because it will perpetuate stereotype threat etc. etc. etc” and then everyone would learn something. Or they’d have to say,

“Look, I notice that people of color in the library tend to be louder. Is that just my perception? Is there a cultural explanation? What’s going on there?”

instead of

“Not limited to just this subset, but if I direct this at the black girls in the MacLab: shut the fuck up. It’s not a place to socialize, watch american idol, and be loud as fuck. Go back to your dorm/apartment/whatever. Of course if I tell you in person, I’m a ‘racist white bitch.'”

And then an educated person can explain what’s going on. Think that’s a weakened form? Well, I’m happy to have people kowtowing to empathy and accuracy.

And thirdly, anyone is always welcome to express their opinions, even anonymously, on facebook or twitter or elsewhere. The difference is, when there’s not a page encouraging you to express whatever comes to mind in the edgiest, most attention-getting way possible, and especially when your name is attached, you actually have to make an argument. You have to present data and ideas. You have to show humility. You have to admit you don’t know the answer. All of that is good for everyone, and anyone who expressed their opinion that way should be afforded all the charitable and thoughtful responses we can muster.

That’s simply not what’s going on on this page. This page is causing harm, and limiting, rather than expanding, discourse. It’s making our community worse. That’s why the page is terrible, and should be taken down as soon as possible, preferably by the creator themselves.


UPDATE: The creator of the page posted on it, saying, 

Hello everyone,

It has come to our attention that this page has come under attack from numerous parties for “promoting hate speech.” This was surely not the original intent of this page, and we regret that there are many bigoted people out there who chose to abuse the service. We are currently conducting a review of all posts, previous and future, and will remove any that do not comply with the following rule:

“Any content that is considered hate speech or otherwise violates the Facebook Community standards will NOT be tolerated.”

Much appreciated, creator!

Anonymity, Harassment and Blog Moderation

At SkepTech this last weekend, I moderated a panel on Anonymity and Harassment, which is now available on youtube! If anyone is interested, the document I was looking at on the computer which has the questions I prepared is here.

So, what do you all think? Did I do a good job? What do you think of what the panelists said?

My Thoughts on the Panel

 > I had a ton of fun writing the questions based on emails the panelists had sent me about their views. I was glad that there was a good diversity of opinion on the panel.

 > I think panels are most interesting when there’s some back and forth, so I’m happy that that ended up happening a few times.

> When Beth was talking about blog readers being customers, several people got irritated on twitter about “capitalism ruining everything” and similar ideas. I think this is both untrue and a misinterpretation of what she said.

 – As she noted at the beginning of the panel, her experience with online communities is fairly limited; she was invited to be on the panel because she can bring a marketing perspective to the current discussion in the atheo-secular-skeptic movement about harassment, anonymity, moderation and tone, and I think that perspective is valuable. I think many of us, when thinking about whether a certain moderation policy is fair or reasonable, or thinking about the benefits of having people say awful things so we can all respond to them, think about the issue only in terms of oppression, free speech, harm to the readers and the value of openness. Those are really important factors, of course, but I’ve never heard anyone talk about how it affects the broader community to have new people see blog comments and get freaked out or frustrated and not want to come back, and I’m glad she brought that to the table

 – Second, thinking of blog readers as customers is a metaphor. It means that instead of writing whatever we want and hoping our readers respond the way we want (and then either blaming them or ourselves if they don’t), we should be more thoughtful about how our blog comes across and what space it creates. As Kate and Zach said in the panel, different communities need different types of spaces, and when there’s a disconnect between the community and the appropriate space created, there are problems.

So news sites (as well as bloggers and science sites, as Tim Farley said) should think carefully about whether or not they want to have comments at all, and then whether they want to have anonymous comments. They should do this by considering what community they’re looking to create, thinking of what that kind of readership is looking for, and providing it. Greta Christina and Leah Libresco come to mind as examples of bloggers who do an excellent job of moderating and setting the tone of their blogs. New readers quickly get a sense of what that space is and isn’t, and whether its right for them. All bloggers should look at their space from the outside that way, to be sure it’s presenting what they want it to. That way of thinking is not unique to businesses and money-making enterprises, but it is currently woefully lacking in the blogosphere, since people seem to assume largely that spaces will create themselves. Hence the usefulness of the metaphor of customers.

Sometimes, of course, it’s not a metaphor.

> People got similarly annoyed over Tim Farley’s suggestion of “gamifying” online communities. One person thought it was cynical, and others worried that it would suppress minority opinion, or conversely, unfairly favor it. I think given the complexity of the issues discussed in the panel, it’s important to keep an open mind to all solutions. As the panelists said, the questions are tough to answer. How do you get the benefits of people being able to say unpopular things without personal retribution without the harm of bigots derailing a thread because they feel entitled to express any and all opinions? How do you make sure not to normalize horrendous ideas without censoring them entirely? How do you apply social pressure to the degree that hateful comments don’t pass by without mention but without the negative consequences of sending that hatefulness underground to fester? What are the harms of under or over moderation, and which should we be more concerned about? Are any of these questions ethical, or are they all simply practical?

In a world this complicated, I don’t want to stick only to the approaches we already have, like banning comments or allowing full anonymity. I want to think about the pros and cons of psuedonymity relative to anonymity, and how the tiniest difference in the difficulty of creating a new reddit account versus a new gravatar account can totally change the feel of a blog space. So maybe upvoting and downvoting comments is a good idea, and maybe it’s  not. But I haven’t seen any data on it, and I think it’s irresponsible to assume from the outset that there’s no good in them. I want to be able to tweak and fine-tune all the settings of our blog world, ruling out none before we’ve even started, and see where we end up. I want internet communities to be intelligently designed.

> Finally, not that anyone asked me, but my own personal opinion regarding moderation and the back and forth between Kate and Zach is that regarding tone and feel on blogs, different standards for different communities makes perfect sense. Pharyngula is a place where people will mock you and criticize everything you’ve ever said, Brute Reason is a place where if you’re uncharitable and obnoxious to the author, you might get a sarcastic gif sent to you, etc. That’s all fine.

But I think that in the case of sites that are intended to report facts, like news sites and science sites, the best study we have indicates that if there are comments at all (probably a bad idea) they should be heavily moderated for tone and quality of argument. Otherwise, the site has undone its very purpose of communicating ideas to the public. And in the case of hateful or bigoted speech, I think the harm those comments do individually to anyone who reads them, the harm they do more broadly by potentially normalizing those types of opinions, the way they derail comment threads and the unlikeliness of publicly changing that person’s mind about how it’s appropriate to talk makes it a very likely ethical obligation to delete or edit those comments on one’s own blog or internet site.

What do you all think of the panel and the issues? How do you moderate your own blog, if you have one? What is your impression of other blogs?

Also, Kate’s recap of the panel is here.

Why I Support the Open Letter to the Secular Community

I am really thrilled that a group of secular organizations came together and wrote an open letter to the secular community about online communication. They’ve called for a change of tone and substance in online argumentation, in the hopes that arguments will become less personal and more productive. Like everyone else, I have no idea whether it will make any difference, but I’m really glad to see more and more people and organizations publicly supporting a certain type of discourse. I happen to believe that productive and useful discussion is a good idea on a practical level, helping us win arguments and learn more, and I also think there’s an ethical dimension to how intellectually honest we are about other people’s arguments and to how we’re treating other people. But more than that, this is a community issue. Everyone knows the internet is kind of a cesspool, but these organizations aren’t speaking out publicly to talk about the internet at large. They’re talking about to atheists, agnostics, the “nones”, we nonreligious folk who make up this community. It’s a motley crew, to be sure, and the community in online form is a very loose collection of secular, atheist and skeptic networks, blogs and forums. But it’s still there, and insofar as it’s a metaphorical space that we inhabit and use to interact with each other, meet people, plan events, engage in activism and talk about issues, it’s worth protecting. Right now, one of the threats to the ability of the community to act like a community is the way that online discussion is happening. Is this an existential threat? No. Is it the only threat? No. But it’s one we can and should do something about. So thank you to Jesse Galef and Dan Fincke, for talking about this stuff starting years ago, and thank you to these organizations, who are trying to get us all back on track.

I also happen to love a lot of the specifics they’ve put into their letter. I’m more and more coming to the opinion that moderation of blog comments is crucial. It simply creates a better space for everyone, and doesn’t allow support for trolls or harassers to accrue. Communicating privately with people to clear up misunderstandings before lambasting them online is brilliant, and it’s an idea I’ve loved since I heard Hemant Mehta talking about it at Chicago’s skepticamp. Why wouldn’t we want to clear up misconceptions before they adversely affect our opinions or writing? And of course, listening and being charitable are important practices that are very close to my heart. Go ahead and read the whole thing.

Of course, there’s been plenty of criticism of the open letter, and that’s great. Nothing is perfect, and discussion helps us learn more and more. However, I think most of the criticism is off the mark, and I’d like to explain why, in a few posts.

But before I go into specifics, what I’d like to tell everyone who doesn’t like the letter is: The Open Letter is probably not talking about what you think it’s talking about.

That is, it probably (probably) isn’t calling for the end of the online comments you want to see around. Up and down the Friendly Atheist comment sections were people grievously concerned that they weren’t going to be allowed to criticize certain bloggers or ideas anymore. Leaving aside that this open letter and these secular organizations have no ability to forcibly stop anyone from saying anything on the internet, criticism isn’t the problem here. Content generally isn’t the problem. It’s not an issue that people want to say how much they hate Freethought Blogs or various prominent people or whomever. It’s that to do it, some people make false accusations, state claims based on rumors, call people feminazis, femistasis and worse, harass by email, comment and blog, and send illegal and despicable rape, death and other violent threats. If you’re not doing those things, you’re probably not the problem, and no one is trying to curtail your free speech.

(On that note, and I can’t believe I have to say this, blog moderation is only censorship under the broadest possible definition, and it’s a totally reasonable form of it, social disapproval doesn’t infringe on free speech and calling for a higher level of discourse isn’t fascistic. Everyone on board? If not, let’s talk in comments.)

Similarly, to those who felt the open letter didn’t support feminism strongly enough, you may be right, and I’ll address those specific concerns in my next post. But one concern I saw over and over again was that the kind of behavior the open letter wanted to see stopped was the kind of behavior that victims of harassment and marginalized people take on their own behalf, and so the open letter served to perpetuate both harassment and marginalization by criticizing those who speak against it. Again, I really don’t think that’s what these organizations are talking about. They’re not talking about people who get angry because people are awful to them. They’re not talking about people and ideas being called out for being insensitive or offensive or cruel. They don’t want people to stop standing up for themselves or stop pointing out problems or stop making legitimate criticisms. They want people to stop being considered enemies because of who they associate with, and people who are asking sincere questions (even if thoughtless) to not be treated as if they were malicious, and claims not to be trusted without verification. Generally speaking, if you’re not doing that, it’s not a problem. That, anyway, is my interpretation of the letter.

By the way, it’s a good place here to say that I DO NOT think these problems are on the same level. Insults and harassment and rape threats are orders of magnitude worse than being someone being misinterpreted and thought offensive when they meant no harm. What they have in common, though, is that they do harm to discussion and to the community.

That harm is what the writers of the open letter would like to see ended. And everything else they speak out against is what everyone should be against. It doesn’t matter what you believe or what “side” you’re on. There is a basic level of discourse which must be present for anything productive to take place. Of course skeptics should “trust but verify.” Of course as atheists, many of whom were once religious, we should all remember that not everyone knows what we do. I’ve argued before that of course all of us should be charitable, if not to our interlocutors, then to their arguments, and if not for their sake, then for all the observers. Of course we as internet users should care about the kind of space we create. And of course as intellectually honest people we should take care to only write things that are true and not spread misinformation.

For instance, yesterday, in the Friendly Atheist comment section about this very issue, the following exchange took place,


Person A, do you really think this is groupthink? I think the idea is to come together and really work on improving the community. Isn’t that the same kind of thing you write about?

Not Person A:

“i don’t need “improvement” thank you very much.

people tell me all the time that there is something wrong with me, and that i need “fixing.” you know who?

anti-gay religious groups and racists, to name just a few. do you really want to join those ranks? you’ve already made several statements on this thread that i disagree with, am i better positioned than you such that i should decide what is best for you, in the name of “the community?” it seems to me like that is what you, and this letter, proposes to do.”

This is the kind of thing the letter is talking about. I got compared to anti-gay religious groups and racists in a way that was ludicrously out of step with what I said. This is bad discourse. This is the kind of thing that should end. Not feminism, not standing for yourself, and obviously not free speech.

Whatever we believe, I think the ideas in the open letter are ones everyone should agree with. They’re basic due diligence. They’re the foundation of our ability to talk to each other. And I want to make sure we can keep talking to each other.

That’s why I support the Open Letter.

The Morality of Emotional Life

I kind of rambled the other day about how emotions matter and so changing them might be important. But I didn’t really address the fundamental question: what is the relationship between morality and emotions?

To clarify an important point from my last post: I did not make (or rather, did not intend to make) any independent moral claims about emotions, for instance some being morally better than others. The case I intended to make was that, if you already believe in morality or moral standards, or have any opinions at all on the morality of certain actions, then it’s reasonable for you to believe in the morality of cultivating certain emotions in yourself and other people. These emotions will not only make the moral activity easier and more likely, but they will also create social approval for the kind of activity that is desired. This analysis applies utterly regardless of what morality is at stake. Christians should (and do, by the way) want people to love God and therefore want to do what God commands of them. Utilitarians should want people to desire the most good, to feel that it’s the right way to think about the right thing to do. Pro-lifers want people to be disgusted by abortion, pro-choicers don’t, even though disgust (or a lack of disgust) isn’t required for being pro-life or pro-choice.

I cannot tell you how many tumblrs there are dedicated entirely to beautifully lit and faded pictures about god, Jesus and Christianity.

(Of course, part of this can be explained by the fact that some moral systems contain within them moral claims about emotions, like loving God or having a Good Will. All that means, as far as I’m concerned, is that other, smarter, people came up with my idea long before I did.)

This applies both to what we might call moral emotions and nonmoral ones. Certainly, moral emotions fit in very strongly here. What we’re attracted to or repulsed by makes up an enormous component of our morality. Murder, for instance, disgusts us, and we are highly disturbed (another moral sentiment) when it does not disgust others. We tend to call those people psychopaths. In fact, I would argue, though this is unrelated to the other claims made in this post, that it is that disgust which forms the basis of most of our morality in the first place. Of course, lots of other things disgust us as well, from vomit to incest, so we have to engage in both intellectual and emotive arguments about whether to feel that way about these things. And if we decide we shouldn’t, then we can work towards making ourselves not feel that way, through a number of methods. As a friend put it,

“For instance, there’s no moral value in being repulsed by a deformed child or a person with severe facial burns. On the contrary, that’s a (natural) impulse that we should try to overcome — and that we can overcome by educating ourselves. The same might pertain to differences in sexual identity or orientation. Educating ourselves, befriending people who differ from ourselves, and appreciating their humanity can go a long way toward overcoming revulsion.”

And we can certainly work on making others not feel that way. Citation:

So while we might object on a number of grounds, to the approach and methods of an organization like, for instance, PETA, I think it’s a matter of intellectual (and emotional) honesty that we acknowledge that videos and pictures meant to engineer disgust for the treatment of animals is an utterly reasonable, nay, obligatory, result of their beliefs. You don’t win public debates without winning hearts and minds, as so many others have noted. But more than that, part of what you want out of winning a public debate is that people feel the way you do. That’s part of what you’re fighting for.

But I also think that the analysis of moral questions applies to nonmoral emotions (if there are such things). If you have a morality already, then perhaps you’d want to be happy to follow it, not reluctant, and you’d want the same from others. You’d want a friend to be thrilled to help you in a time of need, not to seem unhappy or irritated at the prospect of performing an amicable duty. That’s partially because it would make you unhappy, and it might make you question the friendship, and those are nonmoral emotional considerations, but it’s also that case that many would think that it’s part of being a moral person to be happy to help others.

And, then, I think this entire approach is applicable to utterly nonmoral questions, questions that concern themselves only with utility and advisability. There are many reasons why some emotions are better than others, just as there are many reasons why some actions are better than others. It might be a good idea to like cleaning your room, just as it might be a good idea to clean your room on a regular basis. It might therefore also be a good idea to inculcate a love of cleaning into your children and anyone else you have an influence on. In this case, we can call the emotions people would rather have “adaptive”, a word I’m here borrowing from the mental health lexicon.

But just as a final note, I also think we shouldn’t jump too quickly to make the sharp distinction between moral and nonmoral questions. The case of polyamorous relationships clarifies this nicely (primer on polyamory here). Being polyamorous means, generally, having the understanding that your partner may have other partners. It does not, generally, mean that you lack jealousy. Thus, a lot of work often goes into cultivating a lack of (or at least a minimum of) the kind of jealousy that makes your life as a poly person harder to deal with. Now, this is not in and of itself a moral question. Jealousy isn’t necessarily good or bad. It can alert you to a problem in your relationship, which is valuable, or it can take over your life and make you miserable, which isn’t. It’s simply the case that if you’ve already decided to be in a polyamorous relationship, it’s very useful to you to not feel sick and violated every time your partner goes on a date with someone else. It’ll just make your life better. No one would fault you morally if you end up feeling jealous despite your best efforts. That said, since you are in a polyamorous relationship, and your partners, as well as your partner’s partners, are going to be affected by how you feel (from feeling guilty to being sad that you’re sad to being frustrated at not being able to help), it may be part of your obligation to them to work on jealousy, especially if it’s so severe as to be causing problems. All of a sudden, it’s a moral consideration. Our emotions are always going to affect other people, whether through our actions as a result of the emotions or simply the knowledge of those emotions becoming public. Anything that affects others will have a moral component, which means that the forms of analysis I’ve laid out here are not distinct, but rather inextricably intertwined.

Emotions give us our moral intuitions, they cause us to do moral things or immoral things, they can hijack our rational faculties, and as I’ve laid out here, they can themselves be up for moral critique. The question is really just, what kind of moral critique, and how do we make it?