On civility and its boundaries

Okay, I want to say a few words to both Martin Wagner and Yomin Postelnik, but the main thrust of the message for both parties is: stop acting like children.

Yes, I chatted with Yomin on the phone last night. He tried to get in touch with Martin first, couldn’t find him and then looked me up as the other main posting personality around here. Yomin wanted me to give him Martin’s contact info, but I said I wouldn’t invade Martin’s privacy unless Martin told me he wanted to talk. Martin declined.

I told both Yomin and Martin my take on the situation, and now that they’ve both decided that this would be best aired in a public forum, let me repeat it for the whole class. Yomin is an obscure conservative columnist. He does not write primarily about atheism, but in this case he did write something that was chock-full of basic misunderstandings about both philosophy and science. Martin wrote a lengthy response to this, of which I feel that the content was spot-on. Yomin and I did not discuss the content at length.

At the same time I feel, as I have in the past, that Martin does not make this blog look good by engaging in, IMHO, excessive trash-talking. In my opinion, the original post would have been vastly improved by the omission of words such as “ignoramus,” “assclown,” “tards,” “verbal diarrhea,” etc. I am not saying this to appease Yomin in any way. It is something that I think in general. It’s a matter of presentation, not substance, but I think it’s important.

“But Kazim, you raging hypocrite!” I hear you cry. “You guys use that kind of language on The Non-Prophets all the time, and you actively defend this behavior when people write to complain about it!” That’s a fair point, but in all seriousness, I think the difference is largely a matter of context and degree. If you search through my own posts, you will notice that I almost never use that sort of language here on the blog. You’ll also notice that we try to avoid that sort of thing on the TV show.

What’s the difference between the TV show and the audio podcast? Simple: the former is intended to be for a general audience, while the latter is preaching to the choir. Even on the Non-Prophets, if somebody writes to us personally and we know that they’re listening to the show, then we will usually go out of our way to be at least a little bit polite even when they’re saying things that are clearly clueless.

Same applies in spades to the TV show. Remember this infamous clip of me and Matt fielding the question of why we don’t get electrocuted in the shower? A lot of people have accused us of being rude or condescending. Even so, note that while we joked about what he was saying, we never really called him names. If the Atheist Experience is our attempt to promote positive atheism, we don’t want to hinder that goal by saying something overly emotional that is begging to be yanked out of context.

So, that’s the end of the “Kazim scolds Martin” section, which I present in the spirit of respect and constructiveness to my good friend. Now let me turn back to Yomin.

When your name is “Yomin Postelnik” and you don’t already have a strong presence on the internet, one attention-getting post making fun of you is very likely to jump way up in the search engine. That’s just an obvious fact about how search engines work. A Google search for Yomin’s name now has Martin’s post at spot number two, right after Yomin’s Wikipedia page, which he mostly wrote himself. Further down the list, we see a variety of other columns and debates that Yomin has engaged in, many of which make sweeping generalizations about atheists, liberals, journalists, and other groups.

Yomin is afraid that Martin’s attack is going to hurt his business by generating bad publicity when potential clients search for him. I might even say he has a point. But as Matt correctly remarked to me, if I were in Yomin’s line of work then I’d already be concerned about hurting my own business by writing public rants with so many basic errors about science in them. Those are ALSO out there for potential clients to see.

So okay, I sympathize with the fact that a search for your own name yields a highly visible page that calls you an assclown. I wouldn’t like that either. But I wish you would listen to me when I say that threatening the guy who mocked you with a lawsuit is not, in any way, going to clear up your image problems. I have never heard of a case where this (a) succeeded, or (b) didn’t make the instigator sound ridiculous. And as with Martin, I say this to you with respect and constructiveness, and I wish you’d have taken my damn advice in the phone call.

Let me give two illustrations that show how I know this. As exhibit A, I present Penn Jillette speaking about his popular show, “Bullshit”:

“You’ll notice more obscenity than we usually use. That’s not just because it’s on Showtime, and we want to get some attention. It’s also a legal matter. If one calls people liars and quacks, one can be sued and lose a lot of one’s money. But ‘motherfuckers’ and ‘assholes’ is pretty safe. If we said it was all scams, we could also be in trouble. But BULLSHIT, oddly, is safe. So forgive all the bullshit language. We’re trying to talk about the truth without spending the rest of our lives in court because of litigious motherfuckers!”

Then there’s exhibit B, a humor site that I occasionally enjoy called “Something Awful”. SA derives some of its humor by making fun of other people and web pages, and therefore they get legal threats all the time. What do they do with them? Why, they post the letters for all their readers to enjoy, thereby turning the instigator of the threat into an even bigger joke. And as far as I know, no one has ever actually managed to sue them. They don’t have a case.

Calling somebody names is an opinion, and therefore not actionable. It is not something you can prove or disprove in court, although I’d love to watch you try. (“Your honor, the evidence will clearly show that I am not a motherfucker.”)

On the other hand, calling somebody a child molester IS a malicious statement about a subject of fact, and it CAN get you sued, and you probably WILL lose. Ask your lawyer about that while the two of you are trying to draft scary letters to Martin. Pay some freakin’ attention to what you’re trying to accomplish, will you?

My polite assessment about the matter is that both parties should have STFU several posts ago. Getting in a mud-slinging match on the internet doesn’t make either party look good, it just covers two people in mud. Publicly threatening to sue somebody who hurt your feelings will make you look more ridiculous than before. And finally, getting involved in Wikipedia edit wars is flat-out childish. (Although, for the record, I have reverted Yomin’s edits from Martin’s page, and will take the matter to the moderators pronto if he keeps trying to make them. I have some experience in this territory, and the policy for dealing with Wikipedia vandals is pretty well established. So get a clue.)

The internet is a silly place, Yomin. The only real insurance against conflict is obscurity. The more popular you ge
t, the more people will openly disagree with your opinions. What are you going to do? Sue them all? And anyway, aren’t conservative writers always complaining about evil lawyers who bring frivolous lawsuits? Do you want your friends to see you as that kind of person?

And Martin, whether it is “official” or not, this blog is a public face of the ACA — people at least have the perception that posts come from our organization. I am not in the least bit scared of getting sued by angry commenters. I am interested in making the blog another example of positive atheism. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t mock articles that are wrong. It just means that I feel you can do it better by talking about the content of the article alone, without adding personal remarks.

This has been Kazim’s own opinionated and ill-informed rant for the day. Over and out.

Yes, I know, it’s been rather quiet

That’s because it’s been a rather busy last week or so for me. But I can announce at least one exciting thing to look forward to in June, which is that I am, in fact, attending The Amaz!ng Meeting 6 in Vegas!

Last year’s meeting was an experience I’ll always remember (and you can read my reports about it — which I sadly didn’t get to complete fully, but still — here), not just listening to such fantastic speakers as Phil Plait, Scott Dikkers, Neil Gershenfeld, Mike Shermer, Lori Lipman Brown, Adam Savage, Penn & Teller, plus South Park dudes Trey Parker and Matt Stone, but also getting to meet and chat with Phil, Richard Wiseman, and old Randi himself. This year, guys like Shermer, Savage and Wiseman are back, while PZ will be one of the speakers and the keynote address is given by none other than Neil DeGrasse Tyson! Yes, I’ll be blogging the whole conference once more, with photos.

It’s an expensive vacation to take, especially in this year of soaring gas (and everything else) prices, but it’s one I’ll try never to miss, as it’s simply too fantastic to get to hang out with such a great group of skeptics, scientists and thinkers from all over the world in one spot. Onward to Lost Wages!

And a happy new year to you all!

It will be a busy one, I know. For instance, in January, the Texas State Board of Education is slated to “review” science education standards, and we already know the creos are hard at work to undermine them. The pro-science community dealt with this handily back in 2003, and now we’re going to have to deal with it again. Sigh. They never learn. Such is the power of myth over minds.

I’ll be taking a blog break of about 5 days or so. See you soon.

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