Huzzah Better Arguing!

The atheist community has seen its share of controversy and Big Issues and Deep Rifts. Every week, it seems, some event, from the smallest comment on a facebook thread to a public address at a major conference, sparks an internet conflagration, spawning tweets, blog posts and facebooks statuses galore, and further entrenching the “sides” we keep seeing over and over again. As Cliff says (though about something else), “It’s bizarre and disturbing the way an issue becomes a Designated Controversy,” and I agree. It’s sad to me to see the same blowups and the same arguments, when I want so much for us to move forward and to engage more productively with each other.

But sometimes, things don’t go wrong. Sometimes, people react and respond reasonably and thoughtfully to each other. Sometimes, people argue and the internet doesn’t explode. And since the internet is a volatile substance and charitable argumentation can be incredibly difficult, I think we all ought to be honoring and praising the people involved when Things Go Well.

So, Richard Dawkins and Miri Mogilevsky: really, really well done.

It all started when Richard Dawkins went to twitter to discuss the British public shooting and in the ensuing conversation, got called an “insufferable smug white male making snide comments in loafers.”

The conversation then turned to what racism and sexism are, whether they can be said to happen to white people and men and how important definitions are. Obviously, this is a topic that incites a lot of anger and strong opinions, and all of these were easily findable in the twitter discussion that emerged. (Though I must say, from what I can tell, the tweets that flew back and forth where rather more restrained than they might have been, and all those responsible for that deserve praise.)

Miri observed this minor brouhaha, and as a blogger, decided to blog about it, resulting in the great post On Useful and Not-So-Useful Definitions of Racism. This post went over what had happened and then gave an analysis which, while richly and thoroughly critical of Dawkins, was compassionate and thoughtful. Here are some of the things I think she did well:

“Dawkins sounds eerily like my high school self here–desperate to stick to his own definitions of things and reject the definitions of others, all while claiming that everyone needs to be using the same definition in order for a discussion to be productive. Dawkins assumes that a dictionary definition is by default more legitimate than a definition provided by people who actually study the subject in question and presumes that what is written in a dictionary is “true” in the same sense as, say, the periodic table or the speed of light.”

  • She engaged with Dawkins’ understanding of the word racism and instead of dismissing it, explains why she thinks it’s not useful (and by the way, arguing that certain definitions are more useful than others rather than more right than others is infinitely more productive).

“It is true that if you define racism as “not liking someone based on their race,” then people of color can be just as racist as white people…But the fact is that this isn’t a very useful definition. You might as well make up a word for “not liking someone based on the color of their hair” or “not liking someone based on whether they wear boxers or briefs.” I don’t deny that it’s hurtful when someone doesn’t like you based on something arbitrary like your skin color, but when you’re white, this doesn’t carry any cultural or institutional power.”

“As a scientist, Dawkins must realize how difficult it is when people take technical terms and use them too generally. For instance, a “chemical” is any substance that has a constant composition and that is characterized by specific properties. Elements are chemicals. Compounds are chemicals…Yet most people use “chemical” to mean “awful scary synthetic substance put into our food/water/hygienic products.”

These tactics and writing approaches are wonderful. They are thoughtful, productive and charitable, and yet they remove none of the critical bite that makes up the backbone of this piece. I think I can say that even someone who started out being fairly sympathetic to Dawkins could have read the piece and taken the criticism to heart, without immediately feeling defensive or attacked. In fact, I happen to know someone did. Who was this mysterious person sympathetic to Dawkins’ position?

Richard Dawkins himself.

That’s right. Richard Dawkins commented a blog disagreeing with the author and everything didn’t go wrong! (Those of you familiar with some atheist movement history will likely be quite surprised) In fact, he was pretty damn reasonable. You can see the full text of what he said here, but again, I’d like to point out some of the important aspects of his comment.

(6). Where annoyance spilled over into outright pain was the implication that, because I felt strongly about (1), (2), (3) etc, this must make ME a racist. That pissed me off royally and actually hurt. Indeed I find it all but unforgivable.

People tend to become angry when called racists, which I’ve talked about before. I don’t think it’s a very good strategy. Again, pretty understandable, and again, it gives us important information.

  • He explained why he was bothered by others refusing to engage with his definitions and usage of language, and clarified his position on dictionary definitions.

(3). Because, for brevity, I quoted a dictionary, simply to show that the sociological technical term was not universally agreed, I was annoyed that people gave vent to a sort of anti-dictionary prejudice, even calling dictionaries a tool of white, male oppression (reminiscent of a famous feminist who called Newton’s Principia a “rape manual”)! Actually my feeling is that whether or not we use the DICTIONARY definition of a word is less important than making sure we use the SAME definition as each other…But I was accused of a kind of naive dictionary worship, which was grossly unfair.

Now, no one has to agree with Dawkins here, or even be more sympathetic to his position. I think the comment after his gives very good rebuttals to most of his points. But I do think, no matter our opinions on the content, that we have to admit that Dawkins was being restrained and reasonable, and given how much he was being attacked (even rightfully!), it was extremely commendable of him to do so. As a result, there hasn’t been a blowup! I imagine Miri’s comment thread is a little ridiculous, but I haven’t heard anything about loafergate, or Mirigate, or elevatorgate II. And that is thanks to Dawkins being reasonable here.

But why was he able to be reasonable? I am pretty sure that he would not have been nearly so restrained (even given that he was likely doing damage control) if Miri’s post hadn’t been so wonderfully thoughtful.

What we see here is a story of success. We see people who disagree about the values and facts of a case, who are criticizing and rebutting each other, who nonetheless made thoughtful, reasonable points, engaged in good faith and a result were able to turn what could have been a Big Fat Controversy into an everyday disagreement. That’s a testament to civility, and it’s also a testament to Miri and Professor Dawkins, who kept their cool and made the internet, and the atheist movement, a nicer place to be.

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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,

Me:

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.