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.