A few weeks ago, CFI Transnational, along with several other large skeptic/atheist organizations, released a statement calling for civility in online discussion and vigorous use of the principle of charity.
“The instantaneous and impersonal nature of online communication also makes it much easier for these misunderstandings to escalate, or for civil arguments to turn into bitter fights.”
“Insults, slurs, expressions of hatred, and threats undermine our shared values of open and candid discussion because they move us away from an exchange of views supported with reasons.”
Translated, this means “stop being so damn belligerent online and for the sake of the flying spaghetti monster, assume that the person you’re mad at wasn’t trying to be dunder-head and instead of being mad, take a moment and give them the benefit of the doubt!”
It’s an entirely reasonable position to take. You may have noticed that the skeptic community has a tendency to be a bit prickly at times. Arguments of scope or tone or even interpretation of claims – has and continues – to cause divides and occasionally deep rifts. This could be because the “movement” seems to communicate with itself primarily online, which leaves much to be desired in terms of optimal communication. It’s a lot easier to rage at someone on a blog or Facebook or twitter then it is to their face.
Not to long ago, there was a recent debate on the nature of skepticism between Steve Novella and PZ Myers, two fellows who have a lot to say on the subject. Their back and forth conversation spawned several blog posts, hundreds of comments, and most likely long ripples throughout the community. One point that came up was this concept of charity. Basically, the goal here is to try really hard to give someone the benefit of the doubt, don’t assume the worse about them or their argument. You can take this further by giving whatever they’re saying the best chance to be heard and considered. When someone makes an argument, examine it under its best circumstances.
To quote Steven Novella:
“Before you set out to criticize someone’s claim or position, you should endeavor to grant that position its best possible case. Don’t assume the worst about your opponent, assume the best. Give them any benefit of the doubt. At the very least this will avoid creating a straw man to attack, or opening yourself up to charges that you are being unfair.“
To give you an example of this, suppose you are arguing about capital punishment, and your opponent gives you scenario that’s unlikely or rare – don’t slap it away (at least at first) your position will ultimately be strengthened if you can argue against their “best case” scenario. Decide to talk about the so-called slam dunk case, like Hitler. You have a criminal who has admitted their guilt. Lots of evidence, lots of witnesses, literally zero chance this person was innocent. Under these circumstances, discuss why capital punishment would be wrong.
While the principle of charity and a willingness to be civil are both great concepts, we must also be skeptical about the overall tone of the message delivered by the skeptical orgs, in addition to the content and meaning. There should be a clear difference from tolerating a disagreeable argument to accepting that there are “two sides” to the issue of sexism in the skeptic movement. Skepchick’s Rebecca Watson wrote a response to the open letter that’s worth reading.
There are two problems I see with such call for civility:
- Phrasing the request in terms of a debate i.e “The Debate over Sexism and Feminism” There is no “debate” over sexism. Sexism is bad. It exists. It has to stop. I realize there aren’t people debating that sexism is good, but disturbingly, there are people saying that sexism doesn’t happen and responding with frothing rage at the mere suggestion that it does. Phrasing this like a “debate” is an insult to debates. Historians don’t call Holocaust Denial a debate, scientists don’t call conspiracy theories debates – those examples are just small vocal groups screaming at reasonable people.
- As a matter of principle, the skeptic/freethought/atheist community should get along… except for those times when we shouldn’t. I’ve long been a advocate for co-operation in the movement. Atheist, skeptic, humanist, feminist, whatever you call yourself – your welcome at my event. That being said, if an atheist shows up who thinks that climate change is a big conspiracy by Al Gore, or your a skeptic who thinks that history is bullshit, or a humanist who doesn’t like Doctor Who… you’re going to hear about it from me. And that’s not to say I’m going to yell at you and call you names, but if you’re wrong about something, I’m going to say so. Likewise, if an organization does something that is wrong, they should be called out on it.
There are obvious examples where we are not going to give someone the benefit of the doubt. Harassment, death threats, etc; we are not going to sit down and have a conversation over. And lets be intellectually honest with ourselves… most of the bullshit like name calling, harassment, threats, are coming from only side in the whole “sexism debate” and its not the feminists. (And those are ironic quotation marks, by the way)
However I think that there is something to be said for trying private diplomacy were applicable. To use a real example, the situation between Harriet Hall (the Skep-Doc) and Surly Amy, looked irreconcilable, however after some of the emotion died down, they were able to mend fences. Direct communication, without an audience, can lead to promising results. Honestly, I’ve been saying it for so long I’m starting to sound like a broken record: But there are many methods for achieving our goals. Some methods will work well with situation A, but sometimes you’ll have situation B which will require a different method. This applies as much to skeptical activism as it does to group dynamics.
Doing a podcast like Radio Freethinker works for me. It might not work for others. That doesn’t mean I’m right and they’re wrong. CFI’s organization and structure works well for me. That doesn’t mean it will work well for you. If it doesn’t, that doesn’t imply that there is anything wrong with CFI or for that matter, you or me.
Different methods for different situations for different people.
Sometimes a phone call or email to an individual is warranted.
“Hey, what did you mean by that statement you made about X? It sounded rather dismissive, and given that I know you know how much work I put into this, it caught me a little off guard.” As oppose to posting a rant on Facebook or writing a blistering blog post.
Sometimes a phone call is not the right thing to do.
“Hey, I got that rape and death threat you sent me. U mad?”
So look, lets all get along. And when we don’t, lets take a few minutes to figure out the best way of responding. Let’s call out bull shit when we see it and be aggressive and confrontational – when we see that it’s the right call.