Thursday, February 21, 2013

More brief thoughts on civility

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Bad language

Godless ethicist/philosopher Daniel Fincke is once again rankling feathers around the atheist blogosphere, this time by proposing a civility pledge to encourage people to moderate the tone of their arguments when addressing individuals or situations they disagree with. Predictably, there’s plenty I wholeheartedly agree with and a fair amount I take exception to for various reasons (though none of which amount to dismissing it as “tone-trolling”, an accusation flung around far too casually and inaccurately these days). In short, I believe it depends entirely on who is being addressed: those who are open to new ideas and reasonable disagreements, versus those who have a priori closed off their minds to any different perspectives in their zeal to discriminate against others because of their ethnicity, sexuality/gender identity, religious beliefs, and so on.

As is usually the case, the always-level-headed Ed Brayton best summarizes my feelings on the matter:

There are hard bigots and soft bigots. Ten years ago when the first court ruling on same-sex marriage came down in Massachusetts, 70-80% of Americans were opposed to marriage equality. Now it’s about 55-45 in support, and a much higher percentage support equal rights and protections for gay couples as long as you call it a civil union rather than a marriage. And in another ten years, I have no doubt that the numbers will reverse themselves completely and it will be about 70-30 in favor of equality. Why? Because most of the people who were initially opposed to it weren’t really bigots, they were just ignorant. They didn’t hate gay people, they just didn’t really know any and they were scared of such a big change so quickly. Once they started seeing that same-sex marriage didn’t really change anything and that gay couples were no different from them in any meaningful way, they changed their minds. So I think that soft bigots need to be talked to in a reasonable and civil manner.

But Tony Perkins? Joseph Farah? Eugene Delgaudio? These are hard bigots, people who are absolutely committed to hatred and discrimination and will do whatever it takes to maintain their hegemony. A civil discussion with them or about them will achieve nothing. For them I reserve nothing but ridicule. And while I do take the time to break down their arguments and show why they’re irrational, I also reserve the right to call them what they are: bigoted, authoritarian assholes.

Heads and nails, as he would say himself. Those who are honestly ignorant (as opposed to dishonestly so) and simply haven’t encountered or sought out anything that might change their minds should be treated with civility, at least when making a first approach. More often than not, being introduced to new ways of thinking – usually by encountering the very people they know little about and seeing how perfectly decent and harmless they are – is the ticket to getting them to see the light.

But those who truly are filled with inflexible prejudice and who are eager to see minorities stripped of their rights absolutely deserve either a contemptuous dismissal or being blasted with all the rhetorical firepower that can be mustered, if not for the entertainment value (which I certainly cherish), then for the possibility of educating anyone else who may learn from seeing their bad arguments exposed and dismantled.

Good people make mistakes, and that includes what beliefs they happen to hold in the present. All that matters is that they are able to see reason when confronted with reality. Those who do so shouldn’t be mocked and scorned, as this only delays (if not outright prevents) their conversion. That’s why I’m always certain to treat even the most woefully misinformed newcomers in this blog’s comments section (depending on their attitude, of course) with basic politeness when addressing their false claims and wrongful thinking. Even with the low trickle of feedback this blog generally receives, I’m still surprised at how many times I went into an argument expecting the worst and instead ended up having a thoughtful and interesting discussion, even if we didn’t end up seeing quite eye-to-eye. And that really does make it worth it, at least to me.

In the end, there is always a use for civility, but the same is true for all other types of rhetoric, including the incendiary one reserved for puss-brained assholes who simply do not deserve any courtesy.

(I wrote something to a similar effect almost three years ago, and I still regularly refer to Ed Brayton’s excellent comparison between profanity to the use of seasoning in cooking.)