Comparative memorialization »« One rule for thee and another for me

Christopher didn’t wait his turn

Yesterday I expressed (via Katha Pollitt) reservations about a certain kind of combative anger that Hitchens sometimes deployed. Daniel Dennett talks about when rudeness is necessary.

He starts with an example.

We were both appearing in a debate as part of the program of Ciudad de las Ideas, an excellent gathering held annually in Puebla, Mexico. (It’s modeled on TED-I call it TED Mex. Go. It’s well worth the visit.) One of the speakers for the other side, the God side, was Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, and after our short set pieces, the rebuttals started with the rabbi. We each were allotted four minutes only for rebuttal, and the rabbi launched into a series of outrageous claims trying to besmirch Darwin and evolutionary biology by claiming that Hitler was inspired by Darwin to organize slaughters to ensure the survival of his race. I sat there, dumfounded and appalled, and tried to figure out how best to rebut this obscene misrepresentation when my turn came.

Christopher didn’t wait his turn. “Shame! Shame!” he bellowed, interrupting Boteach in mid-sentence. It worked. Boteach backpedaled, insisting he was only quoting somebody who had thus opined at the time. Christopher had broken the spell, and a particularly noxious spell it was.

Why hadn’t I interrupted? Why had I let this disgusting tirade continue, politely waiting my turn? Because I was in diplomacy mode, polite and respectful, in a foreign country, following my host’s directions for how to conduct the debate. But what Christopher showed me–and I keep it in mind now wherever I speak–is that there is a time for politeness and there is a time when you are obliged to be rude, as rude as you have to be to stop such pollution of young minds in its tracks with a quick, unignorable shock. Of course I knew that as a general principle, but I needed to be reminded, to be awakened from my diplomatic slumbers by his example.

Definitely. (And for what it’s worth, I think Katha would agree too – she’s definitely not opposed to all blunt anger, and she expresses plenty of it herself. Her examples were of people with much less standing than Shmuley Boteach, as was mine – the guy in Kensington Gardens was just a random bystander.)

We have all heard, endlessly, about how angry and rude the new atheists are. Take a good hard look at their work, at the books and talks by Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris, and you will find that they are more civil, less sneering, less given to name-calling than such religious apologists as Terry Eagleton or Alvin Plantinga or Leon Wieseltier. It is just that many people are shocked to see religious institutions, ideas, and spokespeople challenged as intensely as we expect banks, big pharma, and the oil industry to be challenged.

Of all the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” Hitchens was clearly the least gentle, the angriest, the one most likely to insult his interlocutor. But in my experience, he only did it when rudeness was well deserved–which is actually quite often when religion is the topic. Most spokespeople for religion expect to be treated not just with respect but with a special deference that is supposedly their due because the cause they champion is so righteous. Then they often abuse that privilege by using their time on the stage to misrepresent both their own institutions and the criticisms of them being offered.

Don’t. they. just.

 

Comments

  1. sailor1031 says

    Wieseltier is german for ‘weasel’. Seems highly appropriate.

    Rudeness is not to be confused with assertiveness which is frequently necessary to penetrate the thick armour of accumulated privilege and isolation from common sense of christian apologists.

  2. Rrr says

    Wieseltier is german for ‘weasel’

    And Leon means … ? The guy must be a regular Chimera, kinda like a Griffin! I had no idea they even made those nowadays.

  3. Jurjen S. says

    Strictly speaking, Wiesel alone means “weasel”; Wieseltier actually means “weasel animal,” which seems oddly redundant.

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    By cosmic coincidence, I moved from FTB to Talking Points Memo after reading the above, and encountered

    Newt’s Campaign Comes Down To Earth As Iowan Calls Him ‘F–king A–hole’ To His Face

    When a man in a camouflage coat grabs your hand in an Iowa grocery store and calls you ‘a fucking asshole’ to your face, it might be time to take stock of your position in the state. For Newt Gingrich, who was on the receiving end of the unorthodox greeting Tuesday, it was a sign that his campaign is returning to earth after having rocketed since Herman Cain’s collapse. …

    The vocabulary and style may not reach St. Christopher’s level, but the directness and sentiment may be called positively Hitchensesque.

  5. rbh3 says

    Pierce wrote

    By cosmic coincidence, I moved from FTB to Talking Points Memo after reading the above, and encountered …

    By an equally cosmic coincidence, I came here directly after watching that same clip on TPM. Hence, I conclude, the universe is designed to be symmetrical in browsing direction. :)

  6. says

    If the participants did not feel strongly about the issues, they would not be there. This in turn can lead them to make extravagant claims, as Rabbi Shmuley Boteach clearly did. But as a member of the audience of such debates from time to time, I feel I have a right to hear what each participant is saying free of interruptions from the opposition. (And to have my intelligence respected. I know crap when I hear it.)

    Once a speaker drops into the habit, they find it hard to give up, as there are inevitably excellent justifications for doing it. Thus we get: ‘Of all the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” Hitchens was clearly the least gentle, the angriest, the one most likely to insult his interlocutor. But in my experience, he only did it when rudeness was well deserved–which is actually quite often when religion is the topic.’

    If there has to be a slanging match, why not go all the way and arm the participants with rotten fruit, custard pies, etc? As the old showbiz maxim has it: ‘best to leave them laughing’.

    (NB: And having said that, it disturbs me that this Freethought Blogs site is such a bugger to visit. Perhaps is it just because it is Christmas, but it takes ages to load, and then you have to fight your way past all those pop-up ads. Hate complaining, but I think that the old site was much better.)

  7. Midnight Rambler says

    Ian, you might want to run a malware check. I don’t get any popups even with my blocker off (why isn’t your browser blocking them anyway?), and it loads pretty fast.

  8. says

    Midnight Rambler:

    Thanks.

    I usually go online (like right now) with my little palmtop that runs on Linux. As far as I am aware, nobody writes malware or viruses for Linux: one reason it is usually far faster than Windows.

    But you may know something I don’t.

  9. Josh Slocum says

    (NB: And having said that, it disturbs me that this Freethought Blogs site is such a bugger to visit. Perhaps is it just because it is Christmas, but it takes ages to load, and then you have to fight your way past all those pop-up ads. Hate complaining, but I think that the old site was much better.)

    Try Chrome. Or some other browser than what you’re using. I have trouble loading FtB a few times a week, and I’m sure there are server problems here that haven’t been fixed yet. But if you’re running a browser that allows pop-up ads, that’s all on you—it’s a user problem, not an FtB problem. You don’t have to put up with ads, and it’s not hard to figure out how to get an app that blocks them.

  10. Aquaria says

    But as a member of the audience of such debates from time to time, I feel I have a right to hear what each participant is saying free of interruptions from the opposition. (And to have my intelligence respected. I know crap when I hear it.)

    It was perfectly appropriate to tear that bullshit down, right from the beginning.

    1) So you’d stand there and let someone tell not only a falsehood, but a defaming one?

    Sorry, but Hitchens on that occasion was no different from Joseph C. Welch, who, when Senator Joe McCarthy attacked a recent law graduate, said to the scumbag McCarthy, “You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

    It’s the voice speaking out against hate and lies. THAT IS NEVER WRONG.

    NEVER.

    2) Hitchens established right from the beginning that bullshit and blatant dishonesty was going to be called out.

    3) He probably stopped a Gish Gallop dead in its tracks.

    More people need to have Hitchens’ refusal to let hate and lies stand pat in the name of “politeness.”

  11. says

    Ian – well, I know; aesthetically I’m a little nostalgic for the old place too. But there are huge advantages to being part of FTB, which entirely outweigh the nostalgia.

  12. says

    Aquaria, I did not say that hate, lies and bullshit should not be responded to. But I have seen quite a few forums disrupted to the detriment of everyone concerned because some participant does not want to go by the normal rules.

    The claims made by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach were nothing new, having been around for years. They are probably also true, in the sense that Hitler siezed on anything he could to justify his own racist prejudices, and are ludicrous as a case against Darwin himself.

    Dennet’s response was “I sat there, dumfounded and appalled, and tried to figure out how best to rebut this obscene misrepresentation when my turn came.” Having seen Dennet in action live, I have no doubt that he would have chosen an excellent rebuttal, and would have wiped the floor with the pathetic rabbi. But every such forum considers issues taken seriously by many, and indignation is easily roused in most of them, righteous and otherwise.

    Dennet conclusion from this is ‘when in doubt, shout’. But I am not sure that it is the best one. I can see where it leads.

  13. Chris Lawson says

    Ian, “when in doubt shout” was not Dennet’s conclusion. He concluded, “there is a time for politeness and there is a time when you are obliged to be rude, as rude as you have to be to stop such pollution of young minds in its tracks with a quick, unignorable shock.” Very different statements.

    I agree that one should generally stick to the rules of debate — but there are some important caveats, the first being that rules of debate vary and may include the right to interject with cries of “Shame!” or “Hear! Hear!” as in parliaments. Even more important, it is an assumed rule of debate that one does not spread malicious lies. Rabbi Boteach was doing just that, and as indicated by his immediate backpedalling, didn’t even have the courage to stand by his malicious lies. Hitchens did exactly the right thing with two loud syllables.

  14. Chris Lawson says

    Ian,

    The fact that the Darwin->Hitler lie is often bandied about makes it more important to stand up to, not less. Plenty of research shows that negative opinions, once established, can be very hard to eradicate — even in the face of overwhelming evidence. That is why mud-slinging works in politics. And it’s exactly what Rabbi Boteach was hoping to achieve. Slander Darwin and evolution knowing that even a robust rebuttal by Dennett will do nothing to unravel the lie in many minds.

    And even on this small example, where Boteach was stopped in his tracks, he was partially successful. I say this because it has worked to make you, a pro-evolution anti-fascist say “The claims made by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach…are probably also true, in the sense that Hitler siezed on anything he could to justify his own racist prejudices, and are ludicrous as a case against Darwin himself.”

    You see, in all of the hundreds of thousands of words we have archived on Hitler’s writing, his speeches, his letters and so on, he never mentions Darwin or evolutionary theory once. So Boteach’s claims are not “probably also true”. They are demonstrably false. And yet Boteach has successfully implanted the idea in your mind as needing a second-order defence (that Hitler misrepresented Darwin) when a first-order defence is more apposite (Hitler never mentioned Darwin at all).

    I say this without anger and without meaning to insult you, Ian, but I think this is an excellent example of why Hitch’s approach was better in that situation because he got to show the audience that Boteach himself was not comfortable defending the lies — much better than waiting calmly to take your turn to dismiss an argument that should never have been made in the first place and which will become accepted by many no matter how brilliantly rebutted, and using up your allotted debate time in the process.

  15. says

    Chris,

    What you say about Hitler’s published stuff surprised me at first, but I take your word for it. Hitler would appear not to have read any Darwin, possibly through lack of interest or opportunity. Then again, it is hard to credit that he had never read ABOUT Darwin, or even heard of him. I would say that he probably found the proposition that his ‘master race’ shared the same primate lineage as the rest of humanity rather distasteful. Better maybe some sort of supernatural origin supervised by a Norse god or two.

    (Though he was born and baptised a Catholic, and was appealing for support to a largely Christian population, I cannot recall reading any attempt he may have made to base his theories on the Bible either.)

    Dennet said: ‘I sat there, dumfounded and appalled, and tried to figure out how best to rebut this obscene misrepresentation when my turn came.

    ‘Christopher didn’t wait his turn. “Shame! Shame!” he bellowed, interrupting Boteach in mid-sentence. It worked. Boteach backpedaled, insisting he was only quoting somebody who had thus opined at the time. Christopher had broken the spell, and a particularly noxious spell it was.’

    I put it to you that the moral of this story as told by Dennet is ‘when in doubt, shout’.’

    ‘The spell’ cast by Boteach, had on his own admission, engulfed Dennet too, and he will no doubt be more vociferous in future. But recalling my youth, when I was a keen member of the Australian Labor Party, I would like a dollar for every time some participant in a heated meeting found a statement to be TOO outrageous (NB: interesting word) and whoever was in the chair had to rise above the din and attempt to restore order.

    That is why political parties and parliaments have rules of debate. Otherwise, it descends into a free-for-all, with not only spells being broken, but the odd chair as well.

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