With each one, I’ve been looking at the disproportionality of the response. I talk about the consequences of someone’s behavior, and I get compared to the great villains of the 20th and 21st centuries. It’s always seemed like overkill.
Then I noticed that Michael Shermer has invoked Niemoller against me.
To date, I have stayed out of this witch hunt against our most prominent leaders, thinking that “this too shall pass.” Perhaps I should have said something earlier. As Martin Niemoller famously warned about the inactivity of German intellectuals during the rise of the Nazi party, “first they came for…” but “I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a…”
That was when it clicked. This isn’t overkill per se. It’s horrendously bad argumentation.
To quote someone whose words have likely been repeated more frequently than Niemoller’s and likely with more understanding:
With great power comes great responsibility.
No, that’s not Uncle Ben, at least not ultimately. That’s Voltaire, talking (apparently) about French politicians.
Look at that list of characterizations again. Six terms, four of them explicitly relating to governmentss. The other two relate to religious power, particularly in times and places where religion actively and effectively compete(d) with the state for control.
We’re not talking about happy democracies with power-sharing strategies either. What happened to opponents of the powers listed above? They had their livelihoods taken away. They were locked up and forced into labor. They died. They were killed.
That’s the kind of power Michael Shermer and others and who have used those terms claim for me. It seemed bizarre until I realized that this was an argument about how I’m supposed to behave if I want to be allowed to continue in these movements.
You see, I’m supposed to be circumspect to the point of sitting on my hands when we talk about rules that could ever be misinterpreted or misused in any way–despite the fact that the lack of rules has been badly abused. I’m supposed to settle any difference I have with a public figure with closed-door diplomacy–despite the fact that they speak about me, individually or as part of a group, from stages and in magazines that function as the mouthpieces of organizations. I am ever supposed to hold my temper–despite the people who take to the airwaves to yell about me.
I’m being told I should act, not as though I were submissive, but as though I held all the power in the world.
Just a note: It isn’t going to happen. If you want me to behave as though everything and everyone trembled in response to my whims, you’re going to have to give me the unassailable power to make that happen. Then you’d have to convince me to take it. Frankly, I don’t think anyone is offering.
That isn’t to say I have no responsibility. I do have some power. Any piece I write here may (no guarantee) be read by thousands of people. Some smaller number of those people trust me enough that they don’t click on links. Another subset relies on me to articulate their positions. I have a responsibility to get things right.
I have a greater responsibility to accurately represent any person I write or talk about, even if my audience is small. That’s a direct responsibility, though it too scales with power. No one will go knocking on the door of someone because I get something wrong. I still work to get it right.
Of course, the people with more readers, listeners, viewers, and constituents have an even greater responsibility on these scores. The people who have a crowd of fans ready to harass (no, not criticize, not disagree with–harass) have a heightened responsibility to be accurate when they speak about me. They have power, even if it isn’t power they asked for, especially when it is power they haven’t tried to undermine by, say, telling people that the currently ongoing harassment is unacceptable.
My power, however, is quite limited, and any argument that relies on the idea that I have more than I do is flawed. If you can’t explain how and why I’m awful without assigning me the massive political power I obviously don’t have, I don’t see your point. At that point, the most I am is persuasive. And if a best-selling author can’t develop a more persuasive counter-argument than “You should act like you’re a government”, nobody’s shaken my confidence in my own argument.
As I write this, Shermer’s full article has been placed online. “Inquisition” is added to the list at the start of this post. He invokes, as others have before, the concept of “innocent until proven guilty”, which is a check on governmental powers of prosecution. Similarly, I apparently have recourse to have someone “pilloried”.
All Shermer’s article tells me is that, if I were someone other than who I am, if I had power I do not have, I should behave differently than I do. It contains not one single statement about why I, a single, private individual, should not point out that his behavior has consequences for the participation of women in the atheist and skeptical movements. It gives no reasons why other individuals should not agree with me or why any of us should not express any emotion invoked by those consequences.
It contains not one argument relevant to the circumstances in which any of the criticisms he lists were made. It has a lot to say about governmental power, and it lists a bunch of things Shermer doesn’t like. It makes no effort to explain the connection between the two.
Should those in the government, de jure or de facto, limit their behavior? Absolutely. So what?
I am not the government. Using words that claim I am does nothing to make me rethink my behavior. It only makes me wonder whether you have any valid argument at all. This one didn’t cut it.
Image Credit: “The Pillory – Clink Museum” by Frankie Roberto. Some rights reserved.