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Aug 01 2012

The Cost of Education

As part of the ongoing discussion around Dan Fincke’s suggestions that the comment policy for his blog should be the general way arguments are conducted in the world, Crommunist posted a link on Twitter yesterday.

The perspective that @ and countless other "politeness crusaders" are missing: http://t.co/pl4QCWl3
@Crommunist
Crommunist

A brief snippet from the post linked:

Let me tell you something: as someone who faces sexism on a very personal level, I have no interest in politely trying to educate misogynists when we live in a culture in which their misogyny has no repercussions. Our government is introducing bill after bill of offensive, woman-hating legislation, murder is still the leading cause of [death of] pregnant women, and rape is under-prosecuted at staggering numbers. Birth control is up for debate, governors are rolling back equal pay laws, and you think I have the energy to be polite to these people?

No.

Because it doesn’t do any good.

Daniel responded at some length, but there’s one tweet in particular I’d like to respond to.

@ All my life I have been learning and changing through rational discourse.I reject that article's lack of confidencein its power
@CamelsHammers
Dan Fincke

And one more tweet from Crommunist for context.

@ - you can expect yourself to adopt the mantle of 'educator'. It is NOT reasonable to demand same of others. That's the point.
@Crommunist
Crommunist

Here’s the thing. I do educate, and I still disagree with Daniel on this. I don’t disagree about him setting a comment policy for his blog. It’s his blog. I do disagree with any suggestion that people need to adopt his policy more universally. For my overarching reasons why, I recommend reading what I’ve had to say on accommodationism in the past, most briefly summed up here, here, and here.

Convincing people does happen. It may even happen sometimes in online spaces where everyone is very nice and refrains from any naming and shaming in conversation. I don’t know. I see very few of those places. Though they’re often touted as the ideal, they are far more rare than they think they are. The ones I do see have a far more restricted commentariat than we get around these parts.

Still, convincing people does happen, and it even happens through reasoned argumentation. That convincing comes at a cost, however.

What you must remember is that most of the argumentation we’re talking about here comes as a response to attacks on the well-being of groups of people. Much of the argumentation comes from those who are being attacked. That means we often don’t have the luxury of waiting for most of the fuss to blow over before we present our arguments. We don’t have the luxury of hoping someone will notice us long enough to see we’ve made an argument, take it in, mull it over, chew it over with us, then make up their minds that we’re right. We don’t have the luxury of not having our arguments stand out.

There is a direct cost to having these attacks treated as a matter for formalized debate. “Your well-being, pro or con. (White, gender-conforming, non-poor, dispassionate) gentlemen, have you prepared your talking points?” The truth is that the antis have a team feeding them information, and the pro side is usually prepared to argue until time is called–or a squirrel comes along for distraction. This is the truth because only one side is usually that invested in the outcome.

There is a direct cost to having these issues confined to the language and manners of the leisure class. Leisure is just that, and not many of us can afford it. That language, in itself, discourages unseemly haste. The time taken to mull things over is time we continue to be attacked.

There is a direct cost to attempting to eliminate shame from our dialog. We are being shamed, and those who shame us rarely even know they’re doing it. They don’t have to be direct; they have the weight of a culture that shames us behind them. All they have to do is let a tiny portion of that shine through their words, and they have the moral weight of that culture behind them. That won’t be eliminated if we police ourselves and the stronger, more direct shame we are forced to apply.

There is a direct cost to eliminating labels and names from our dialog. Those of us who have the energy to educate and argue while under attack are relatively few. Those who are afforded that energy because they are not under attack are many. Nor do they treat our time and attention as anything of worth in itself. If they will not learn from those we have already spoken to (they will not), if they will not organize themselves to collectively listen when we speak (they will not), sometimes our answers must be in shorthand. Sometimes they must be stung to listen or to simply put some substantial fraction of the energy into the conversation that we do. Sometimes names and labels accomplish that.

There is a direct cost to being inclusive in our communications. We are not just under attack, but under frequent attack. What we do can be exhausting. It can lead to burnout. It can warp our perspectives to deal with those who insist they are the default and we are other. If we communicate always for those who need educating, we don’t ever communicate only for ourselves. If we communicate always in the language of the leisure class, we are not giving our own words, our own perspectives, our own emotions, their due. We are eating ourselves up in the service of educating a few people, here and there, and that is not acceptable.

There is a direct cost to setting aside emotion. I can as easily debate the meaning and symbolism of Kids in the Hall sketches as I can social justice issues. However, it is imperative that I do not treat these topics as equivalent. One of them is entertainment, the other is vital, with direct consequences to other people. Infusing my arguments with emotion is one of the ways in which I help you tell which is which. Emotion will not tell you that I’m right, but it will tell you that there are consequences to debating this topic for sport.

Does that mean any of those things should be used universally or exclusively in education? Does that mean any of those things come cost free? Of course not. Daniel’s rules can apply to Daniel’s blog, because Daniel wants to have a particular sort of leisured examination of issues there. What it does mean is that simple education is not everyone’s goal or the primary or sole goal of everyone who does engage in it.

It can’t be. Education will only get us so far. The writer of the quote above was right about that. Education is a good thing that has the potential to shape the world in the long term, but in the short term, people are under attack. Changing the world in the short term is something that can be done alongside education, and it is–fascinatingly enough–a result that serves education. We have a number of cognitive biases that support the status quo. Reshaping the world to be more rational means that educators have less work to do fighting those biases.

So if you want to be super patient and super nice, that’s cool. There is always more room for education, and if you can get folks to engage using those methods, more power to you. As for me, I’ll do some of that. I’m good at it.

It’s going to be accompanied by a lot of work to change the world more quickly, though. I won’t be leisurely about that. I won’t be unemotional. I won’t hide what it costs me. I will weigh the relative merits of being inclusive and getting things done for any given action as I go.

And nobody gets to tell me that I should stop doing any of that in order to focus on educating the leisure class.

60 comments

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  1. 1
    carlie

    *stands and cheers in agreement*

  2. 2
    Dunc

    Dan Fincke’s suggestions that the comment policy for his blog should be the general way arguments are conducted in the world

    Wait, I missed that bit… Where did he say that? Admittedly I haven’t read all 240+ comments on that thread, and I don’t follow Twitter… But did he really say that? I can’t find it.

  3. 3
    Stephanie Zvan

    Explicitly, the argument happened in my kitchen just before SkepchickCon. I think the implications of a number of comments, including those on Twitter, amount to that, however.

  4. 4
    Dunc

    Hmmm… Well, that’s a little disappointing. I was entirely OK with his ideas on this topic as long as they were restricted to the comments policy of his own blog, but you can’t treat the entire world like blog comments.

  5. 5
    Jessie

    Beautifully written – thank you.

    Whenever anyone insists on the softly-softly, non-confrontational approach, I think of Martin Luther King’s ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’.

    Different people may respond to different approaches and there is room for more than one. I won’t be told how I may or may not deal with issues which have a direct effect on my wellbeing and that of my family.

  6. 6
    ischemgeek

    Wait, I missed that bit… Where did he say that? Admittedly I haven’t read all 240+ comments on that thread, and I don’t follow Twitter… But did he really say that? I can’t find it.

    In the first few comments, he said in so many words that insulting someone who is arguing for some rather abhorrent things and behaving in a vile manner (threats and insults directed against vulnerable groups) was sinking to the level of the other side under any circumstances and that it was never okay. I think he was in an exchange with Stephanie Zvan at the time.

    I think that may be what the OP was referring to.

  7. 7
    ischemgeek

    On the topic of Dan’s blog comment rules:

    Initially, my attitude was one of “pshh, your blog, your rules” but I’ve went away and thought about it a bit more and realized that while I do agree with him on some issues (I feel stupid is an ableist insult, for example, and therefore does target a vulnerable group), I can’t agree with the attitude he’s presented in the comment threads. I can’t agree that his blog rules are the best approach to creating a safe debate, nor can I agree with a lot of the moral judgements he made in that thread. Particularly, I take issue with his insinuation that by insulting someone who just launched a prejudiced attack, you are acting as badly as the person who is engaging in bigotry; his insistance that vitriolic rhetoric is a moral wrong regardless of context or content; and his insistance that a dispassionate debating environment creates a safer space for debate and inclusive discourse.

    As I said elsewhere in his comment thread, tone is a tool. If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, yes, but that is not an argument for throwing away hammers. It’s an argument for making sure you have more tools in your toolbox.

    More plainly: There is an argument for ensuring there are super-ultra-patient areas of the internet to educate the almost-completely-oblivious (I say that as a descriptor, not as a perjorative: I refer to those who only have a vague idea that the issue even exists, let alone knowing what it’s about and who largely think it doesn’t matter much). That does not mean that we should do away with the wide variety of other sites on the internet, nor does it mean that the super-ultra-patient is the be-all and end-all of internet communities.

    Besides that: Not everyone responds well to super-ultra-patient if we need education. I, for example, tend to be almost terminally oblivious to issues that don’t affect me until someone gives me the metaphorical wake-up slap across the face.

    My final point returns to what Ian was saying: Insisting on great patience and a Vulcan-like suppression of emotion stacks the deck in favor of voices not affected by an issue. If the topic is, say, racism, how likely is it that people of color will be proportionally represented? We know that people of color tend to have to work harder and more for less money and less advancement. This means they have less time to participate at all and even less time for the editing, re-editing, and agonizing over whether this word is dispassionate enough that such a community would require. Then add in the fact that those with a stake in the argument are often emotionally invested, so they may find it impossible to write with the level of dispassion that Dan is requiring.

    In my case, I’m like that when it comes to bullying. I was bullied horribly for eleven years of my schooling and I cannot be dispassionate about the subject anymore. Even when I try, my language becomes charged. Same goes for the topic of education because I had the misfortune of being subject to a very small number of spectacularly bad, mean-spirited and malicious teachers. Drunk driving is another: a close friend of mine was killed by a drunk driver less than two years ago. And so on. These subjects are too personal and too raw and open up too many bad memories for me – plus, in some cases, I find it hard to talk about them separately (for example, education and bullying. Primary and secondary schooling = bullying and vice versa on an emotional level for me and it takes a great deal of time and energy for me to separate them when writing about them – time and energy that I don’t often have). Everyone has topics on which they find it hard to impossible to remain dispassionate and divorced from emotion, and when it comes to social justice issues, those people will likely come from those who are on the losing end of the privilege equation because they’re the ones who are wronged most by the status quo.

    So, in debating social justice in Dan’s patient and dispassionate environment, there is a situation where those who are already disadvantaged are unable to easily participate and in effect silenced due to time constraints and the unreasonable expectation of dispassionate discourse on emotionally charged issues. Unintentionally, to be sure, but that’s the consequence of insisting on that sort of an environment: You’re asking people to make academic a subject which to them is not academic in the least and telling them they’re engaging in social violence if they fail to abstract it to themselves enough. Which is why that sort of environment is great if education of the ignorant is your goal, but (I think) not so good if inclusivity and discourse is your goal.

    And in all honesty, I do believe that discussion and education are to some extent mutually exclusive: I wouldn’t expect first-year chem students to take or contribute much to or from a discussion on the degree to which London dispersion forces affect the supramolecular chemistry of molecular ionic compounds, and it would be unrealistic to stop and explain every concept as I have such a discussion with my peers for their sake. It’s so above their heads as to be beyond their current level of understanding. I might be able to break it down into a cliff’s notes version for them, but then I’d be making the conscious choice to simplify my talk and switch to educator-mode, and I would have to set aside the debate in favor of education.

  8. 8
    Simon

    Am I being cynical or does this discussion have a lot of overlap with the gnu vs accommodation debate? If so, I fear that not much will come of it.

  9. 9
    Stephanie Zvan

    ischemgeek, I’m going to have to think about that discussion vs. education dynamic some more. Thank you.

    Simon, topically, it has quite a bit of overlap. I’m not sure about the participants, though. Some, yes, but a lot of the religious accommodationists just don’t have a dog in this fight (which is a little sad in itself).

  10. 10
    Cthandhs

    This reminds me of something I saw recently. I was following a link from Skeptchick Quickies to a feminist blog essay. Skeptchick seems to be very education focused, in that frequently people comment asking for information or clarification and other commenters or the post author obliges. The posts are full of links and references, etc. Feminist blogs can be quite different, since they run the gamut from organizational blog to a person writing about his or her own experiences. This blog was the later. Someone who appeared to have followed the link over made a comment asking for references. On an education focused blog, that’s not unusual. On someone’s personal website, particularly from a traditionally oppressed group, “asking for evidence” can be silencing or derailing.

    There is no one comment policy to rule them all, and as blog participants, we need to understand that when we hop from place to place, the rules of acceptability change.

  11. 11
    stakkalee

    The ability to intellectualize an argument is another form of privilege. I wish more people would realize that.

  12. 12
    Jason Thibeault

    Ethos, pathos and logos. Without all three, your argument is hamstrung by design.

  13. 13
    ischemgeek

    Stephanie, I’m very sorry. I had both your blog and the Crommunist Manifesto open at the time I wrote that comment and for some reason forgot which I was commenting on when I wrote my post @#7. I was referring to you there, not Ian Cromwell. I’m really sorry for the mixup. I didn’t even notice the mixup until I checked back.

    And glad to give food for thought… I’m still pretty new to a lot of this, so it’s cool when I contribute something worthwhile! :)

  14. 14
    D. C. Sessions

    And you’re not mentioning the cost that of the stress involved:

    The confusion caused when ones mind overrides the body’s natural desire to choke the living shit out of some asshole that desperately needs it.

  15. 15
    Jeff

    Whenever I hear someone say something like this, I can’t help but think of “Clampdown” by The Clash:

    Kick over the wall ’cause government’s to fall
    How can you refuse it?
    Let fury have the hour, anger can be power
    D’you know that you can use it?

  16. 16
    D. C. Sessions

    The ability to intellectualize an argument is another form of privilege.

    Which calls to mind the cartoon of the torturer with a screaming victim on the rack, telling the victim: “I’m sorry, but if you can’t tell me clearly and precisely what’s wrong, there’s nothing I can do to help you.”

  17. 17
    beth

    Why is a policy forbidding the use of abusive languange attacking other commentors conflated with a policy of suppressing all emotion or a requirement for infinite patience?

    And nobody gets to tell me that I should stop doing any of that in order to focus on educating the leisure class.

    Who told you that you should stop doing any of that in order to focus on educating the leisure class? Even if you feel that the Camels with Hammers comment policy is equivalent to that for you, that only implies that you shouldn’t be commenting on his blog, not that you should stop doing what you are doing.

  18. 18
    Stephanie Zvan

    beth, that’s already been covered in the comments.

  19. 19
    Stephanie Zvan

    Let us watch as Stephanie reads[1] D. C.’s comment…

    And you’re not mentioning the cost that of the stress involved:

    Well, I don’t think I used the word, but I’m pretty sure the implication is there in–

    The confusion caused when ones mind overrides the body’s natural desire to choke the living shit out of some asshole that desperately needs it.

    *snort* Oh. That. Yes, that.

    [1] Actual real-time experience not provided.

  20. 20
    smhll

    Ian, I am once again in awe of your clarity. I’m kind of worried that if I disagreed with you, which I don’t, you would be able to sink my arguments one after another, like a pro running the table at pool.

    I’m going to need to take an hour and read your prior posts about accomodation, because I’ve been trying to go down the accomodationist road (because I think Dan F. is acting in good faith), but it is a strain, and I’m doubting my tactics. I think by the day after tomorrow I will emotionally exhausted myself and more empathetic to my allies.

    I know that I could not successfully try to edge over to the moral high ground and play the less controversial role of “good cop” without the unrelenting covering fire from the cadre of bad-ass cops who are shielding me from the harshest consequences. Without them, I’d be hiding under my bed sucking my thumb.

  21. 21
    smhll

    Whoops, I think I am confused about who wrote what. Hats off to Stephanie.

  22. 22
    Beth

    @ Stephanie:

    Not that I’ve seen. Could you either indicate what you are referring to or repeat yourself? I honestly don’t understand why people consider a policy of ‘no personal insults’ equivalent to being told not to express any emotion and Dan had stated explicitly in the comments on his thread that that wasn’t what he meant.

  23. 23
    Stephanie Zvan

    Beth, see comments 3 and 6.

  24. 24
    John Morales

    Stephanie:

    I don’t disagree about him setting a comment policy for his blog. It’s his blog.

    Noted.

    ischemgeek:

    My final point returns to what Ian was saying: Insisting on great patience and a Vulcan-like suppression of emotion stacks the deck in favor of voices not affected by an issue.

    I quote Dan responding to Improbable Joe

    Please stop falsely equivocating what I am talking about—emotional abusiveness—with emotions in general. It is missing the point entirely when you (and many others) do that. I use passion and I encourage passion. Passion=/=Abusiveness. Passion=/=Personalizing Debates so that they are hostile to one’s interlocutors.

    (Frankly, I think he’s being misrepresented, and I think this unfair)

  25. 25
    Deen

    Even an educator must be prepared to discipline its students.

  26. 26
    ischemgeek

    John, did you see the way he replied to Natalie Reed in the thread? I quote: “Your hostile, threatening attempt to silence me with emotional vitriol is not appreciated, Natalie.”

    Natalie stayed away from the sorts of insults he was taking issue with. She was, however, too emotional in her writing for his tastes. That, coupled with his comments in the post elsewhere in the thread (particularly those contrasting challenging, good, substantive and/or dispassionate writing with emotional writing, falsely creating the impression that emotional writing is by nature not good, challenging or substantive while dispassionate writing is) and his equation of making people feel bad with violence creates an environment where emotion in argument is discouraged.

    In a discussion about the environment he’d like to have in his blog comments section, he created one where dispassionate = good and emotional = bad, even if that wasn’t his intention. Together, these all create an impression that being emotional is discouraged because 1) dispassionate arguments are seen as by nature better than emotional ones and 2) emoting unacceptably = violence. As what is acceptable emotion has not been established by Dan’s actions (and, further, his accusation that Natalie was being threatening and intentionally trying to make him feel horrible counteract the passage of his original post where he claims that emotion is not on its own bad), it is safer to assume that emoting at all is not safe and therefore you should suppress emotion in your posting, lest you be seen as violent and aggressive.

    That is why I was referring to the Vulcan-like suppression of emotion. I wasn’t talking about what he was formally calling for, I was talking about the environment he created through his actions. While I understand this may not be what he was aiming for, this is the environment his actions created. With the principle of charity in mind, I assume this was not his intention and that he was simply trying to create a safe and respectful environment.

    But the principle of charity does not mean you ignore the real effects of an action. Consequences matter: With rare exceptions, people don’t intend to cause car crashes, but we still have accident liability. If you cause a crash accidentally, you’re still the one who will pay the damages. In this case, Dan may not have intended (and, I assume, did not intend) to create an emotionally-suppressive environment, but he did. If that is not what he was going for, he should act in a manner less disapproving of displays of emotion and emotion in writing. Particularly, he should take care not to conflate emotional writing with poor writing, abusive writing, and violence as he has in that thread.

  27. 27
    John Morales

    ischemgeek:

    John, did you see the way he replied to Natalie Reed in the thread? I quote: “Your hostile, threatening attempt to silence me with emotional vitriol is not appreciated, Natalie.”

    You may safely assume I’ve perused the whole thread; indeed, I have participated.

    That said, do you see Vulcan-like suppression of emotion there?

    Natalie stayed away from the sorts of insults he was taking issue with. She was, however, too emotional in her writing for his tastes.

    Thus the passionate reply.

    At no point did he even look like suggesting that she was anywhere breaching his rules.

    (Probably because she wasn’t)

    In a discussion about the environment he’d like to have in his blog comments section, he created one where dispassionate = good and emotional = bad, even if that wasn’t his intention.

    Ahem.

    Proof by contradiction: did you really see Vulcan-like suppression of emotion in the retort you quoted, above?

    While I understand this may not be what he was aiming for, this is the environment his actions created.

    Please. You reiterate repeatedly.

    In this case, Dan may not have intended (and, I assume, did not intend) to create an emotionally-suppressive environment, but he did.

    I put it to you that the evidence you put forward counters that very claim.

  28. 28
    Stephanie Zvan

    John, you’re arguing that Dan is not against emotions, just emotional abusiveness. You quote him saying that emotions (“passion”) do not equal abusiveness (debates that are “hostile to one’s interlocutors”). Yet you don’t treat Dan’s statement that Natalie was being “hostile, threatening” as an attempt to shut down her passionate argument. I’m not following your reasoning here. How about some discussion of your position instead of an attempt at fisking.

  29. 29
    John Morales

    Stephanie,

    John, you’re arguing that Dan is not against emotions, just emotional abusiveness. You quote him saying that emotions (“passion”) do not equal abusiveness (debates that are “hostile to one’s interlocutors”).

    Yes, I quote him, but I’m not making that argument, I’m noting he is making that argument and it should be acknowledged, as you’ve just done.

    Yet you don’t treat Dan’s statement that Natalie was being “hostile, threatening” as an attempt to shut down her passionate argument.

    That’s because I haven’t made any other claim than that it was a passionate comment, and the clear implication that Dan considers his own comments within the rules means that it’s kinda pointless to claim passion and expression of hurt is disallowed.

    How about some discussion of your position instead of an attempt at fisking.

    My position is that I’ve shown ischemgeek’s claim wrong via evidential means by showing their claim is not universal; my opinion is that Dan is being misrepresented.

    (What part of what I wrote was unclear to you?)

  30. 30
    ischemgeek

    1) Allowing a comment through is not the same as being approving toward it. He allowed the comment through and admitted it did not break his rules to his credit, then used the weight of his position as blog owner to express disapproval for her emotional rhetoric while for the most part ignoring her point.

    2) Proof by contradiction does not apply here. One female executive on a business board does not negate an overall trend of underrepresentation. Likewise, in Dan’s thread, a few slip-ups on his end does not negate an overall trend of disapproval of emotional writing, particularly in light of his attempts to shut down people who were being too passionate, his equation of emotion with violence, and his implication that dispassionate writing is better writing than emotional writing.

    3) Explain how the evidence I put forward suggests that Dan was not suppressive of emotional displays? Saying it is so does not make it so, and I do not at all follow your point there.

  31. 31
    John Morales

    [meta]

    ischemgeek, I apologise, but I’m not going to respond further—unless Stephanie specifically requests it—I’ve noted what I wanted to note and am happy for others to have the last word.

  32. 32
    Beth

    Stephanie,

    Thank you for being more explicit about what you were referring to. I agree with John Morales about Dan being misrepresented regarding his blog comment policy. If Dan is expecting the same in kitchen conversations, that’s different. RL conversations do not allow one time to go away and come back later, when one’s emotions are under better control.

  33. 33
    Stephanie Zvan

    No, what Dan made clear in my kitchen is that he expects the same standards he created for his blog comments to apply in what other people write on their own blogs.

    What happened in Dan’s comments is that Natalie commented in ways that did not violate Dan’s stated policies but were passionate. He still labeled those comments as “hostile”, which is his definition of abusive. So Dan is equating some “excess” of passion to abuse. Whether he applies a differnt standard to how much passion he can show versus how much he allows to be directed at him is another matter.

  34. 34
    Wes

    Is there a balance to be struck between disallowing all name-calling and encourage flame wars? I’m often frustrated by the speed at which people resort to personal insults and charges of bad faith in online discussions, but Daniel’s policy seems to go too far. Is there a general rule that people find acceptable?

    I like JT Eberhards “your insults must be attached to an argument” policy, but haven’t seen that used elsewhere.

  35. 35
    Stephanie Zvan

    There are lots of balances to be struck. I wouldn’t expect any of them to be universal.

  36. 36
    fmcp

    As an absolute newbie, I’d like to say that it is genuinely a pleasure to read this disagreement between intelligent, passionate writers – it is a vehement disagreement, but still well argued. I can’t quite make up my mind where to stand on this, and I’m happy to be intellectually challenged by the debate. (Of course, it’s entirely different when the debate is ridiculous – I don’t care how well spoken someone is when defending bigotry of any kind. That person is an asshole. I just don’t know if it’s effective enough to be worth the energy to point that out when they’re obviously incapable of thought.)

    I’d like to argue, though, that sometimes education is not about the person on the other side of your debate. In a public forum, there are always third parties eavesdropping. I am, by nature, a lurker, so a lot of what I’ve been wrestling with in terms of atheist politics has come to me through this kind of online eavesdropping. Part of why I’m drawn to ftb is that there is always passion here, but usually also a sincere attempt at education. I guess what I’m trying to say in Dan’s defense is that there are practical, Machiavellian reasons to use insults judiciously, if at all. To be honest, my niceness has always been an effective manipulative tool for me, because no one who overhears my conflicts can walk away with an excuse to call me an asshole. It doesn’t work in every context, but it works for me. (Of course, as soon as I have a moment of privacy, I use every nasty word in my considerable vocabulary of swearing in a way that would make my Irish family proud. It’s like popping a pimple of hate.)

  37. 37
    Wes

    Do you think it’s worth having a general rule for how one ought to conduct an argument, which then gets adapted depending on setting/context/rules of the forum? I find it more useful, like with most socializing, to have default rules of engagement, and make exceptions once boundaries are made explicit.

    Most blogs have explicit comment policies, so most of the time there is no need for default rules (since the rules are clearly stated), but in other settings where the rules aren’t clear, I tend to favor a default way of operating that isn’t too far from Daniel’s policy.

    This is not to suggest that you disagree with any of that. What I’ve described above is clearly not a universal ruleset. I’m just wondering if you have certain rules of engagement that you would favor as a default, and if that has significant differences with Daniel’s comment policy?

  38. 38
    beth

    I can’t comment on what Dan said regarding other people’s blogs. Clearly he has no right to demand anyone else adopt his standards for their blogs.

    Natalie’s post seemed like a personal attack on Dan, but as Mr. Morales pointed out in comment 27, it was not in violation of his policy and Dan did not suggest that it was nor did he not allow it. I don’t recall him equating ‘hostile’ with abusive either, but perhaps I skimmed that part and missed it.

  39. 39
    onion girl, OM; social workers do it with paperwork

    Dan’s concept of passion not being equal to personalizing debate is a very easy position to take when the argument isn’t personal. If one has never experienced, say, penis in vagina rape, as someone with a vagina, one may find it perfectly rational to discuss the topic clinically and dispassionately. if, however, one is a survivor of rape, the subject IS personal, and its a hell of a lot harder to “calm down”, “relax” or “take it easy” when someone is making light of or dismissing your experience.
    Thank you for writing this, Stephanie, it’s a really good point, and I’m glad you and Crommunist, among others, are addressing the problems with the “rational” argument.

  40. 40
    smhll

    I support Stephanie’s autonomy to have her own blog policy as she deems suitable, and don’t really think Dan or I should be telling her what it should be.

    While supporting Stephanie’s policies (and right to change them), I want to set that aside (as a topic) and share some thoughts about Dan’s policies. I’m trying to be understanding of his motivation, while reflecting on what I think the likely consequences of his policy are.

    I’m drinking my morning beverage out of a Gandhi mug today, so I’m trying to “be the change [I] want to see.” in the world.

    I liked ischemgeek ‘s whole post, and I wanted to add what I hope is a charitable insight on top of it. (I like this whole “standing on the shoulder’s of giants, thing.)

    As what is acceptable emotion has not been established by Dan’s actions (and, further, his accusation that Natalie was being threatening and intentionally trying to make him feel horrible counteract the passage of his original post where he claims that emotion is not on its own bad), it is safer to assume that emoting at all is not safe and therefore you should suppress emotion in your posting, lest you be seen as violent and aggressive.

    That is why I was referring to the Vulcan-like suppression of emotion. I wasn’t talking about what he was formally calling for, I was talking about the environment he created through his actions. While I understand this may not be what he was aiming for, this is the environment his actions created. With the principle of charity in mind, I assume this was not his intention and that he was simply trying to create a safe and respectful environment.

    I think its human nature, when creating something like a discussion space, to create exactly the discussion space that personally suits us. And I don’t think it comes from selfishness, I think it comes from the fact that our self-knowledge far exceeds our other knowledge, so our ideas about how to make something “good” or “better” come from what rubs US the wrong way in existing spaces. Even if we listen a lot to the opinions of others, we hear our own opinions constantly, so those opinions tend to dominate our ideas.

    If I was designing a discussion environment, it would probably be tailored to smart, enthusiastic extroverts who talk really fast, like to interrupt or talk simultaneously, who are snarky and liberal and can’t stop oversharing with strangers. Most of the people in my ideal discussion room would be people that agree with me. Anecdotes and bizarre analogies would be popular in my space. Unempathetic people would have to sit in the corner. People who use irony would be constantly told by me to repeat themselves, and I would make the lack of comprehension face at them, as I am blind to irony. (People in my discussion room would see each others faces, apparently.)

    It seems to me that Dan wants a discussion space that is “just right” for a philosophy professor. And he probably has made allowances, based on his experiences with students, on tailoring the environment a bit to the needs of students, as well. Coincidentally, the space being created for philosophical discussion that “suits” professors is highly tailored to the preferences of educated white guys.

    I understand, in a visceral way that may be harder for Dan to grok, that women and minorities are shouted down or drowned out many, many places on the internet and in the world. I see that he is, despite good intentions, coming close to mirroring AFAIK a philosophy department, or the skeptical movement before diversity came in. I am pleased that Dan is going to kick blatant trolls and bigots to the curb. On the other hand, I am concerned that sneaky trolls and subtle bigots will be a pain in the ass problem.

    When Natalie first posted on Dan’s thread about this topic, I would describe her comments as “heated”. I would NOT use the word “vitriol” that Dan did. Being as charitable as I possibly can with Dan, I think he may have considered her criticism as “unprovoked”. I know that that is outrageous, but I think he is narrowing his context to unprovoked within that comment thread at that time. Subtracting out all of the provocation (that I assume Natalie receives in the wider world) to simplify the discussion, as one would simplify a math problem, is grossly unsuitable for her.

    The crucial “privilege” that comes into play when discussing social justice issues is the privilege of not being in pain right at the the very beginning of the discussion.

  41. 41
    fmcp

    Onion girl, I’ve had arguments with people over issues that are tremendously, personally painful for me. I’ve argued through tears, while leaving fingernail marks in my own palms, and it’s bloody exhausting. I absolutely agree that the personal cost is brutal. That’s why I would rather eviscerate than explain if I believe the other party is beyond help. However, when I have reason to believe that I’ll get through to that person, and if it’s a time when I feel like I have the resources to fight, then I’ve found it’s more effective to argue ideas instead of going on the attack. To be clear, I’m not at all talking about going Spock, and there are many days when I just can’t do it. I still believe that it can be the right tactic at the right time, though. And as much as I enjoy to eviscerate someone who deserves it, I’d ultimately rather educate someone who can benefit from it. (Of course, it’s maddening if and whenI realize I’ve guessed wrong about that person’s ability to learn.)

  42. 42
    onion girl, OM; social workers do it with paperwork

    smhll:

    The crucial “privilege” that comes into play when discussing social justice issues is the privilege of not being in pain right at the the very beginning of the discussion.

    I was training my volunteers all day Sunday, and our last section is on diversity (which I consider to be one of the most important parts of our class, because the volunteers are being trained to observe and take *objective* notes on how other people’s parenting–can’t be objective unless you know your *own* bias)–the last line on the last slide: the ability to ignore privilege is the most insidious privilege.

    And as much as I enjoy to eviscerate someone who deserves it, I’d ultimately rather educate someone who can benefit from it.

    I wouldn’t have read enjoyment in ‘eviscerating’ anyone from my comment, but I wrote it from my crappy phone while sitting in court, so I may have been unclear.

    But I agree that there are different tactics at different times, and I think a personal, angry argument IS the right tactic at certain times. And even when it’s not the best tactic, it’s easy to tell someone not to take it personally when it’s not personal for YOU.

    Sometimes the anger and depth of feeling is persuasive on its own–at least, if you have at least some degree of empathy. On the other hand, those without empathy can manipulate ‘rational’ arguments more easily.

    I see this dynamic being played out all the time at work. Particularly in domestic violence cases, where the abuser is always the one in control, calm, engaging, rational and persuasive–and the victim is an absolute wreck, crying and desperate to be understood.

    The judicial system is weighed toward making rational arguments, and the privilege of being able to be rational is an advantage. I actually had a case once where the abuser was testifying on the stand, and was absolutely perfect at it. Earnest, sincere, just enough emotion but not too much–in contrast to the victim, who completely went to pieces on the stand, breaking down multiple times, trying to speak over objections, and even calling the abuser a bastard and an asshole. He kept watching the victim as he testified, as she reacted emotionally every time he lied, and her attorney tried to keep her calm and not crying out in frustration.

    He got down off the stand and had a very visible erection–he completely got off on watching her reactions.

  43. 43
    ischemgeek

    Also, I just realized that my other posts here may have obscured my view of his comment policiy: I still have an attitude of “his blog, his rules”, but it’s more measured now.

    I disagree with some of his opinions and his reasoning for establishing some parts of his comment policy. I feel he may not have taken as nuanced a view on the topic of insults as many of the commenters would like to have seen (ie, the whole thread with Stephanie could have been avoided if he’d stated explicitly in the OP that while certain insults tend to do more harm by targeting vulnerable groups, he would like to avoid harmful insults in their entirity and that he would like the community to bring abusive commenters to his attention and let him deal with them rather than responding in kind – which is what I think he was going for). I still disagree with his broad moral judgments – insults are always wrong under any cirumstances, for example. Further, I worry his policy as written and further clarified in the thread will exclude disadvantaged voices for reasons discussed above by myself and others.

    All that aside, it’s still his space and it’s his right to create the environment he desires. I do not take issue with his attempt to build the environment he wants at all. I just worry that the environment he says he desires (one that is safe, civil and respectful) and the environment he’s creating (one that feels emotionally repressive on issues are charged by their very nature) are two different things.

    As a final note: I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with creating a highly academic and abstract environment, if that’s what you want. My issue comes when you make sweeping moral judgements and act as if your personal taste in discussion environment is not only the subjective best for you (that, I have no problem with), but also the moral best. When you start saying that consenting activity that is not harming anyone else with splash damage (ie, avoids insults that target vulnerable groups) is morally wrong and that environments where heated/vitriolic debate is accepted or even encouraged shouldn’t exist, I have a problem.

    To draw a martial arts analogy: You may as well say that sparring in a karate club is morally wrong because it causes injury. Sure, people get bruises from sparring, but we consent to it ahead of time and there’s an explicit agreement that if a hit is too hard, we stop or ease up as appropriate.
    If I or my sparring partner accidentally gets significantly hurt, we stop, apologize and either recover with adjustment for the injury or if the injury is too severe, we stop because consent for continued sparring has been revoked the moment someone says anything that means, “No, I don’t want to spar anymore,” for any reason. Further, in a responsible club, others will step in and stop a match if we feel it’s unsafe to let it continue and those who spar recklessly or with the intention of causing real injury will be disciplined or ejected when necessary. We don’t drag people in who want nothing to do with sparring and make them spar, we’re not sparring in the middle of a busy street where bystanders can be hurt, and any reasonable person who comes to a karate club knows what to expect. It’s a karate club. Sparring happens there. Some clubs are rougher than others, but if you go to a karate club, you can safely expect there to be some degree of sparring. If you don’t like it, don’t go to a karate club. You can go to a non-combative club like, say, a tai chi club instead. And if you’re setting up a non-combat school like some types of tai chi, feel free to make it known that your club has a non-combat style and the most you’ll tolerate of people conflicting is pushing hands – no sparring. But don’t tell me that I’m morally wrong to spar with people and that karate clubs shouldn’t exist. It’s a different space for a different activity.

  44. 44
    Illuminata, Genie in the Beer Bottle

    The ability to intellectualize an argument is another form of privilege. I wish more people would realize that.

    Bingo. I was on board with his policy until I read some of his own comments. He’s dripping with privilege and thinks that makes him more reasonable than targets of bigotry. No big deal – his blog, his rules. And thank *gawd* I don’t have to read it.

  45. 45
    D. C. Sessions

    Some of those who know me know that I personally tend to adopt the detached “philosophy professor” voice myself [1].

    Which is what that is: a voice. I am not a soloist, and discussion boards are not venues for soloists. A discussion requires multiple voices, sometimes harmonious and sometimes discordant.

    Please, within the terms set by Our Most Gracious Hostess, explore the power of your own voices — I prefer choral discussions.

    [1] And that there are exceptions.

  46. 46
    Improbable Joe, bearer of the Official SpokesGuitar

    I found Fincke’s attitude toward Natalie Reed to be inexcusable. He’s welcome to claim false equivalence all he likes, but it doesn’t make him right. He favors dispassionate discourse regardless of the content, and rejects arguments stated too passionately regardless of the validity of the argument.

  47. 47
    fmcp

    Sorry onion girl – you were totally clear, but I leapt to evisceration because it’s so hard for me resist the temptation to destroy when I’m upset.

    Your example is devestating. I can’t imagine the strength that you and your clients have to summon.

  48. 48
    Daniel Fincke

    Please forgive me for skipping reading the other commenters. I just want to clarify a couple of points: I’m not at all against emotion, just being insulting and personally attacking one’s interlocutors. I am still at a loss as to why that is necessary. I also am not against shaming. My comments policy gave just a partial list of the numerous words for a wide array of moral failures that you could bring up and charge people with if necessary. Included in that list were words like “bigot”, “misogynist,” “homophobe,” etc. If you can call someone those things, why do you need to call them an “asshole”? What exactly am I suggesting you be deprived of that you really need?

    One other quick point for now: I think it’s totally fine that not every public forum be open to everyone in the same way. I get the idea of “safe spaces” where you are not going to have to justify your core values or your very dignity to every passer-through and where people who already share beliefs and values can work constructively on new questions, and even where groups marginalized in the larger culture can have a haven where their outlook is the assumed one for a change and they can live freely in that context.

    What about any of this is incompatible with saying we should not cultivate in ourselves the hateful tendency to use dehumanizing, denigrating language about others like epithets or ableist charges of “stupidity” involve?

    It is just false that truly rational discourse requires no passions. The best rational discoures uses emotions wisely. And I reject the notion that being against epithets is somehow a matter of being against emotions.

  49. 49
    Improbable Joe, bearer of the Official SpokesGuitar

    Thanks Dan, for that comment. It showed me exactly where you’re wrong, which is AWESOME! :)

    Let’s look at the relevant bits, shall we? First you say:

    My comments policy gave just a partial list of the numerous words for a wide array of moral failures that you could bring up and charge people with if necessary. Included in that list were words like “bigot”, “misogynist,” “homophobe,” etc. If you can call someone those things, why do you need to call them an “asshole”? What exactly am I suggesting you be deprived of that you really need?

    And then at the end:

    What about any of this is incompatible with saying we should not cultivate in ourselves the hateful tendency to use dehumanizing, denigrating language about others like epithets or ableist charges of “stupidity” involve?

    See, you have it absolutely backwards. Strictly policing the use of heated emotional language used in discussing human social interactions is dehumanizing, in that it treats the discussion like some sort of abstract philosophical word game with little actual meaning. By contrast, the use of emotional language including insults, including calling people assholes, is ultimately humanizing. It says “I am a person, and you’re a person, and you’re being a bad person by hurting me, by minimizing me, by attacking me or trying to muzzle me.” Especially for people who are marginalized by society, it is important to be able to stand up and call out people when they are being assholes.

    And, of course, some things aren’t really up for debate. “Are all types of people really human beings who deserve equal treatment” isn’t up for debate, and if you think it is then you’re a fucking asshole.

  50. 50
    Stephanie Zvan

    I am still at a loss as to why that is necessary.

    No. You can do better than this. You have the resources. Use them.

    This post has three major premises by my count. Figure out what they are. Figure out whether there are any of those you disagree with. If so, argue with those. Don’t just tell me you don’t understand. That says to me that you’re just fighting against this because you don’t feel it viscerally.

  51. 51
    smhll

    Dan – Some of the answers you seek are in the comments. I hope you read them. And Stephanie’s post is crystal clear and really rocks. Try detaching yourself and reading it impersonally. (My lips are twitching, but I am not snickering, I swear.) Read it as if it’s about the blog policy for some new atheist/skeptic organization with a vague agenda, rather than your blog and your specific agenda. Think about it abstractly.

    At this point, I don’t think anyone is trying to control you. Lots of people have allowed that “your blog, your rules” is reasonable. This is more about what has happened consistently in the past when strict rules are enforced on an unlevel playing field. No matter how nice the moderator is, and even if zie tries quite hard, zir ability to draw a line as to what is offensive beyond the simpler area of direct slurs or insult will reflect zir POV and biases. It is almost certain that not everyone on a given blog will act in good faith and some of their arguments will be felt as attacks and will do harm in ways that someone with a different cluster of privileges will be somewhat blind to.

    At this point we are taking the generic form of the issue and distilling what we think is the emotional truth here. I do not think your drive towards a civil environment can simultaneously succeed in creating a fair-to-everyone environment. (Unless perhaps moderation is diverse.) I want to see what happens, since forecasting is not evidence.

    It’s hard for me not to talk AT you, and I will try to stop that. I am frustrated that it’s hard to get our point across. It’s very tough to relate to people who see the world differently because they live in a different world.

    The total amount I have written on this topic is about 10 pages. (Short for you, long for the internet.) Most of what I wrote I really wrestled with, was careful with inclusive language, anticipated misunderstandings. I wrote and rewrote, more than four drafts for each of my previous posts. I sweated what I wrote. I need you to try harder on the reading, because I can’t try any harder on the writing.

    Other people that we write for on message boards aren’t trying at all.

  52. 52
    shockna

    The ability to intellectualize an argument is another form of privilege. I wish more people would realize that.

    Can someone explain this statement to me? I seem to be getting the idea that it means that one who hasn’t had the same negative experiences in an area can more easily look at it without emotion, but I sense this may be an incomplete understanding.

  53. 53
    John Morales

    shockna,

    Can someone explain this statement to me?

    I can tell you how it seems to me: special pleading that some set of people should be allowed to use insults and personal attacks, because they’re less privileged or more victimised than their (dispassionate?) interlocutors and because without such they would not be able to fully express their beliefs and make their case.

  54. 54
    Stephanie Zvan

    John, can you please point me to anywhere that anyone has said there should be two sets of rules for different participants in any given discussion?

  55. 55
    Illuminata, Genie in the Beer Bottle

    Stephanie – That’s just those on the easy setting whining about not being allowed to call us cunts. THEY “have” to edit THEIR language, so now they’re desperately grasping for straws as to why we should have to do the same. Even though being called “asshole” is in no fucking way the same thing as being called nigger/cunt/fag/retard/etc.

    That’s what “different rules” means. If they* can’t attack us for being female, so they doesn’t want us to attack them for being assholes.

    See? TOTALLY the exact same thing.

    To a white dude.

    * – collective and non-specific.

  56. 56
    John Morales

    Stephanie, I see three possibilities:

    1. Nobody may use insults and personal attacks.

    2. Some people may use insults and personal attacks when they are justified.

    3. Everyone may use insults and personal attacks.

    Dan’s rules amount to 1 and those are the specific rules you and others find problematic; specifically, you “do disagree with any suggestion that people need to adopt his policy more universally.” and ischemgeek considers “I can’t agree that his blog rules are the best approach to creating a safe debate” — this implies that 1 is not appropriate, leaving 2 or 3.

    If the claim is that anyone may use insults and personal attacks as per 3*, then I admit I’ve misread what the arguments here adduced against Dan’s policies amount to.

    That leaves 2**; that’s the sentiment I’m getting from reading the claims people are making, and if that is what you’re arguing, then given the justification bases I’ve seen so far my #53 is accurate.

    * This is PZ’s stance.

    ** This is JT’s stance, though his justification basis is different.

  57. 57
    Stephanie Zvan

    John, you didn’t respond to my request.

  58. 58
    John Morales

    Stephanie, no, I can’t point to where people have written there should be two sets of rules.

  59. 59
    Stephanie Zvan

    That’s because no one is advocating for that.

  60. 60
    smhll

    Stephanie, I see three possibilities:

    1. Nobody may use insults and personal attacks.

    2. Some people may use insults and personal attacks when they are justified.

    3. Everyone may use insults and personal attacks.

    Dan’s rules amount to 1 and those are the specific rules you and others find problematic

    John, I think Dan is actually suggesting “2″ or a variation on “2″. Even his title suggests that when egregious behavior has been exhibited, snapping back is acceptable. (But, the rule would have to be phrased to say “all people… when justified…”

    I think a good egregious behavior example that we can almost all agree on is fairly early on in the comments on Al Stefanelli’s thread about harassment about the purse he carries. Someone wandered by and post something mean on top of the harassment. There was then a very delightful troll smackdown post.

    Dan’s policy will work well in cases where everyone can agree that behavior was egregious. Where this type of policy has failed in the past is when there is behavior that IS offensive to some people but it is free of obvious insult and is either more snide or has horrifying implications for a subset of people in real life, but privileged people are immune to the consequence. (People differ in what they find insignificant or inconsequential when consequences are applied preferentially.)

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