Passport? Boarding pass? Assault? »« The (un)Friendly Atheist

The “tone” thread

I used the word ‘idiots’ once in my previous post, and now I am being upbraided for defending bigoted language used to assault gay activists. This morning’s post was not in any way about the use of nasty language, but in the interest of giving tone trolls a place to vent, I am creating this thread.

I am not an advocate of using language to belittle or demean an opponent instead of expressing a legitimate position. I think I increase my credibility as a rhetorician when I represent the opposing side fairly and accurately, and then tear hir a new asshole. That said, I am also of the mind that “if the shoe fits”, then it’s fair game. If the opposing side can be demonstrated to believe in things that have no rational justification, I do not shy away from the word ‘deluded’. If the opposing side wishes to restrict the rights of other people based on an attitude borne of privilege, I will let fly with the word ‘bigot’. If someone’s argument is founded in poor logic, shopworn memes, and invalid evidence, I am not going to feel bad about calling it (and occasionally them, but not usually) ‘stupid’.

There are those who refuse (I can only assume) to distinguish between content and style. They believe that what you say and how you say it are equally important. I think someone needs to find the zombie of Marshall McLuhan and double-tap it in the head. I am from the school of George Orwell, where words are a mechanism by which we exchange ideas, and that futzing over style can be an impediment to comprehension. I do not accept the oft-asserted notion that one must be ‘civil’ in order to be an effective communicator. I have delved into this idea at some length.

This should not be (although it undoubtedly will be) read as a statement that everyone should feel free to use whatever language they like at all times. Words have meanings, and they have consequences. When conversation devolves into an exercise in slinging barbs without making points, then discussion has ceased. However, a judiciously-placed insult can act as the sprinkles on top of a well-built ice cream sundae of an argument. When I show you the multitude of ways in which you are incorrect, and cap it off with “you boob”, that is a justified flourish. It is not me ‘losing the argument’ because I ‘stooped’ to using ‘ad hominem’. It is you failing to address the <i>content</i> of my argument and instead tap-dancing on the pinhead of tone as an attempt to deflect how thoroughly you’ve been eviscerated.

There are many who are aching to have this conversation, and although I find it the height of tedium, I’d rather it happened here rather than on a post that has nothing to do with name-calling at all. Have at it.

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Comments

  1. julian says

    There are those who refuse (I can only assume) to distinguish between content and style.

    Reading over your argument with James Croft, I think the issue is (as he says) the content. Rightly or wrongly he views much of the type of insults and ‘sprinkles’ as sexist and homophobic.

    Whether he’s right (the offense seems genuine) it does seem to have the affect of destroying any conversation about Chris Stedman.

  2. EmbraceYourInnerCrone says

    And you get 2 points for the reference to Rule Two of Zombieland! I hereby award you 2 Twinkies. And Thank you for this post, the “tone” argument always bugs the hell out of me.

  3. Josh Slocum says

    Ian,

    Be aware that James Croft is conflating and exaggerating when he makes claims about “homophobic attacks”, and I say this as a gay man who earned that accusation from him myself at one point. His disproportionate reaction to criticisms of Stedman is clearly motivated by emotional special pleading, which seems evident to everyone but James. I suspect this is—whether deliberate or not—a means for him to avoid the unpleasant reality that some of us really do think the people he defends have done truly wicked things.

    I won’t clutter up your thread, but I explained some of this at Hemant’s place:

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2012/02/29/those-atheists-you-hate-arent-really-all-that-bad/#comment-452611943

  4. Brownian says

    My isse with the accommodationists is that they’ve demonstrated fairly reliably that they don’t care about truth (both in the sense of whether the truth of religion matters and whether one can feel free to simply lie about one’s opponent) so long as no-one says ‘fuck’ or ‘idiot’.

  5. Josh Slocum says

    Rightly or wrongly

    Wrongly. And deliberately. Croft is desperate to distract from substantive critique about Stedman, and he’s not above this kind of nonsense. Please don’t indulge him!

  6. says

    I am sure that he is not talking about anything that I have said to him or anyone else, and he has indicated as much. I consider the entire “tone” issue a massive derail, and I am treating it as such. Rest assured – I have my guard up.

  7. P Smith says

    What is deemed “insulting” is not just obvious words but perception or intent. And that’s where it gets nebulous.

    Calling someone “stupid” will be perceived by anyone as demeaning. Calling someone “ignorant” may or may not be an insult, or the recipient may try to misconstrue it as an insult. Most reading this would not call it insulting to say, “A creationist is ignorant of evolution”, but some people – wrongly – see “ignorant” or “uneducated” as being equivalent to “stupid” when describing others.

    And that’s just one possible example.

    .

  8. MichaelD says

    When it comes to idiot I feel I’ve been one in the past and I’ll probably do something stupid in the future. I’m personally ok with the idea that you can be an idiot on an issue and still be smart at other times and places.

  9. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    Some time ago, and of course I can’t find the thread, I said some unkind things about Stedman and his lying about gnu athiests. James Croft accused me of gay bashing. At the time I had no idea about Stedman being gay and, then as now, I don’t give a rat’s ass about it. I used no homophobic terms (not even “pearl clutching,” which Croft has unilaterally decided is homophobic), but I did accuse Stedman of misrepresenting (the polite way of saying lying) gnu athiests’ positions.

    Croft has interesting and intelligent things to say on almost any topic, as long as his buddy Chris is not being attacked. But call Chris Stedman a lying asshole, which he is, and Croft will accuse you of being a gay basher, even if there isn’t a hint of homophobia in what you say.

  10. John Morales says

    Are you also OK with the idea that someone can be a liar about an issue and still be truthful at other times and places, and therefore that person doesn’t merit being called a liar? :)

  11. upagainsttheropes says

    Are you OK if you find yourself being isolated over time because of a self-inflated sense of moral superiority that it can be referred to as natural selection? “”<–insert smiley emoticon here

  12. Carlie says

    Gosh, why aren’t there any comments yet by all those people who want so badly to talk about how awful it is to use mean words? It’s almost as if they only want to talk about it when it serves as a way to deflect attention away from a more substantive topic.
    Hmmm.

  13. says

    There are three things people on the “don’t use bad words” and people on the “only kids have bad words” sides willingly conflate

    Please bear with me when I clarify what I mean by that.

    1)Slurs
    Be they racist, homophobe, misogynist, ableist, transphobe, antisemitic etc in nature.
    They have no place in a debate or discussion.
    It’s not because they are “bad words”, but because they serve the larger purpose of cementing privileged structure and to demean whole groups of people.
    The “only kids have bad words” brigade willingly ignores that and claim that people have a double standard if they call somebody who uses “cunt” a douchebag.

    2) Insults. The “bad words” John demands us not to use.
    Yes, they are insults. they’re meant to be. If people demonstrate why they think them justified it’s not an ad hominem. So, if you behave like an idiot, I’m going to call you one and I’m going to tell you why.
    If you can’t live with that, better don’t give me a reason to do so.

    3) Classism, pure and simple.
    Probably every bright kid from a good home found out some time during adolescence how to deal with less bright kids (or smaller kids) from not so good homes: You used “good” language, but you were actually so demeaning and insulting and teasing that after some time they’d lash out, either by hitting you or by using those “bad words” and you would have gotten what you want: they got into trouble and you were the innocent victim.
    That’s what I see people like de Botton and their like are doing: They say extremely demeaning and dehumanizing things in elaborate, polite language and then people get upset when they’re called the assholes that they are.
    Not using “bad words” doesn’t mean you’re playing nice, but that’s what the ” don’t use bad words” brigande wants us to believe.
    Assholes.

  14. says

    I don’t remember this incident, and I’m going to call it out here as false. If you can substantiate it, fine, but I certainly do not let fly with accusations like that lightly.

  15. says

    I think Gilliel hits the nail on the head here. I think there is a difference between reasoned, legitimate criticism of others’ views and unreasoned, excessive attacks on other people. I support the former and object to the latter. I understand that people might draw the line between the two in different places, and in some situations the difference is unclear. But it is frequently clear as crystal, and I try to be someone who will stand up against demeaning and hurtful language.

    On the issue of “tone trolling”, I simply find the charge to be irrelevant. It’s used so often to silence what I see as legitimate critique of demeaning language that I ignore it now. But to engage it head-on, why is tone irrelevant to how one communicates? Why is it that people should be asked to ignore the way in which you address them? I have detailed at length elsewhere how damaging slurs and attacks are to the credibility of an author (just as Crommunist explains in this post). So tone affects effectiveness. It’s also a matter of ethics – I consider civility, a basic respect for the humanity of the person you are speaking with, to be a bedrock ethical concern. A fundamental requirement.

    Do I always achieve that? No. But I sure am ashamed of myself when I do not.

    I am for reasoned, robust debate and open, honest criticism. At the same time I am for kindness, I am for compassion, I am for the courage to be positive toward someone who disagrees with you. Those are not contradictory positions, though they are often difficult to hold together.

  16. says

    I feel the same about authors like PZ. I think he;s demonstrated numerous times, to my mind, a cavalier attitude toward the truth. Do you call him out on it?

  17. says

    Josh – I’ve engaged in substantive critique of Stedman myself. I hardly try to avoid it when I jump right in. What I’m pointing to here is a different issue: the extremity and compassionless nature of the critique. I think that’s fair to object to, and it’s a separable question to the question of whether the critique is justified.

  18. Josh Benton says

    You don’t have to provide any evidence for why you think an insult is justified for it not to be an ad hominem. An insult is only ever an ad hominem when it is a substitute for an argument. “He’s an asshole, so nothing he says is worth listening to,” would be an insult as ad hominem. “He’s an asshole,” on its own isn’t an ad hominem.

  19. says

    It’s used so often to silence what I see as legitimate critique of demeaning language that I ignore it now.

    No, it’s used to prevent the repeated attempts to derail criticism by hopping up and down demanding that people use the proper words before you’ll address their comments. Yesterday’s post was not in any way about the language that Hemant or PZ or JT used – not even Hemant’s post was about that. You (James) showed up here and decided to throw around aspersions of gay-bashing and verbal assault. That may have been what you wanted to talk about, but it was not the subject of any post that I’ve written for the past several months. That is quintessential trolling, and I have little patience for it.

    But to engage it head-on, why is tone irrelevant to how one communicates?

    This is a straw man. At no point have I said that tone is irrelevant – what I said is that if you are asking me to prioritize tone over accuracy, tone will lose every time. You seem to wish to make it the primary concern – a futile exercise that seems to interfere with communication more than it enhances it.

    And while you’ve planted your flag on the bedrock of avoiding vicious personal attacks in the place of substance, you (and those who make this argument) continue to fail to produce examples of anyone (and certainly me) engaging in this practice. In addition to exacerbating power imbalances (at least in some cases), ad hominem is a bad argument because it is fallacious. If your point is “don’t use ad hominems” then congratulations – you’ve caught up to where this conversation was a few centuries ago.

  20. says

    I’m very confused here. Your post was certainly about “the language that Hemant or PZ or JT used”. It began with a quote from Hemant which was about the sort of language used to describe Stedman:

    If you read the blog posts and Twitter comments about Chris [Stedman], though, you’d think he was a religious man in atheist clothing. Or that he’s delegitimizing our work. Or that he’s undermining our goals.

    You criticized this quote. Then you started to talk about the reasonable uses of certain sorts of language:

    I’m not above a little hyperbole for the purpose of illustration or ridicule, but I’m also aware that if I am going to disagree with people who are otherwise my friends, it’s usually not a good idea to straw man their position.

    Then you quote again a piece which talks about language, name-calling etc:

    They’ll call you names* or take your statements far more literally than you intended so that you’re thoroughly humiliated in front of people who will never read your works for themselves. (Though, to be honest, if you offer an opinion of any sort online, people are going to go after you.)

    I engaged that point of the post (the post you made) because that is where I have the strongest disagreement. It’s directly relevant to the quotes you pulled.

    It seems to me that

  21. says

    Gah truncated reply =P

    Look, no one is criticizing you for these activities – I haven’t seen you do any of them. But you raised the issue of language and name-calling on your blog and I think it’s worth talking about. My question to you about tone is not a “straw man” – it’s not an argument at all, let alone an argument falsely attributed to you. It is a question, which I wanted you to answer.

    I’m fully on-board with the idea that discussions of “tone” should not become a way to avoid the core issues. That’s one reason why controlling tone is so important: because core issues are needlessly obscured when people fail to control their tone. So far from that point being a point against me, it works in my favor. The discussions on sites which control the tone of comments through a mutual atmosphere of respect are much more fruitful.

  22. says

    You REALLY can’t distinguish between tone and content, can you? Like, it’s a physiological issue or something. Pointing out a straw man argument (say it with me folks) is not an issue of tone. It is about whether or not the statement is (say it with me again) accurate. Hemant’s post was not accurate. It was factually incorrect. That was my criticism of it. It would not have been made more accurate if he had used different words to make the same point.

  23. says

    Furtherm don’t try to portray this as me coming onto your blog and derailing a conversation. That conversation is still going on strong. I was responding to another commenter myself, and to a point you made about calling people idiots. So your attempt to frame this as somehow a fringe issue which I introduced is rather shifty.

  24. says

    because core issues are needlessly obscured when people fail to control their tone

    I love the passive voice here. “…are needlessly obscured” BY YOU! By people who discard content in favour of doggerel arguments about being ‘respectful’. If I am disrespectful to your position, and you take it personally, it is not my fault for failing to fawn obsequiously over your dog’s breakfast of an argument; it is yours for a) failing to make an argument worthy of respect, and b) failing to separate criticism of your ideas from personal attack.

    The discussions on sites which control the tone of comments through a mutual atmosphere of respect are much more fruitful.

    Holy fuck citation needed!

    I’m fully on-board with the idea that discussions of “tone” should not become a way to avoid the core issues

    Good. Then we’ll stop doing that.

  25. says

    Yikes this is getting tough to follow. Someone needs to invent a really clever way of making blog comment threads readable and simple to navigate. I would pay money for that!

    I think perhaps we have a disagreement over what counts as “content” and what counts as “tone”, because I kind of think we’re agreeing on the principles here but still coming to different conclusions.

    I want to be clear, particularly because I think you’re a very good writer and a great voice on this community blog:

    1. I’m not saying you’ve engaged in any objectionable practices.

    2. I was responding to a long list of really quite extreme language I’ve seen used by commenters here and elsewhere over the course of a number of years, and Hemant’s post seemed to provide a good opportunity to address this issue.

    3. I object to people avoiding criticism and open debate by saying “you hurt my feelings!”.

    4. I also object to people using genuinely demeaning language to talk about each other. While this doesn’t alter the logical content of an argument, it does potentially harm another person, and I think we should try hard to avoid that.

    I don’t think any of those points are unreasonable, and I’m constantly surprised by how they are met with such resistance.

  26. says

    Yeah, the comment threading is tough, but it’s either that ore we shrink endlessly until we are at a single character per line. Such are the limitations of WordPress.

    My objection comes with point #4: “I also object to people using genuinely demeaning language to talk about each other. While this doesn’t alter the logical content of an argument, it does potentially harm another person, and I think we should try hard to avoid that.”

    The problem is that the line of ‘demeaning’ is one of personal preference. I know what I consider offside in the space of a debate. Many think I am a horrible, vicious monster. At the same time, I have been upbraided for asking for civility in conversations here (not recently, and pretty rarely) when I see things getting personal rather than constructive. That being said, I do not enforce a ‘civility’ rule, nor do I tell others that they’re “doing it wrong” or “hurting the cause” or “being counterproductive” when I think they’ve crossed the line. I just know where my own boundaries are, and I ask that they be respected.

    You are certainly not the worst offender I have encountered in this, but I have had too many conversations get dragged off topic due to protestations of hurt feelings to be anything but punchy when someone addresses the words I use rather than the substance of my argument.

    Statements that are racist, homophobic, misogynistic, anti-trans, ableist, what-have you, are bad in argument because they prop up power imbalances and are often ad hominem attempts to injure the speaker rather than point out their folly. It is because of their substance that I object to them. Yes, hurting people’s feelings is not necessarily desirable, but sometimes it is a useful rhetorical tool. I do not support a policy of generally avoiding certain kinds of language simply because it has the potential to make people upset.

  27. says

    OK – so I’m glad we have clarified the area of disagreement. I think there’s not much further we can go with this. I, as someone who has been subject to bullying for a variety of reasons and in a variety of settings, put a very high priority on civility. I don’t expect everyone to put the bar in exactly the same place as me. But I do think that we all should seek to put it somewhere, and that it is currently placed too low on blogs like Pharyngula. I think we can disagree over precisely where it should be placed but also agree, perhaps, that sometimes it’s way too low.

    I also am not sure that it is that difficult to tell the different between a firm but civil critique of a persons views and even their character (I’ve subjected PZ to that a couple of times) and an uncivil, demeaning attack on a person. And the sort of language regularly used to describe Stedman is, in my mind, very clearly way over that line.

    One further point: I do find it ironic and disheartening that, when other figures who are NOT atheists, or not considered NEW atheists, criticize New Atheists (or any atheists at all), even in quite a measured way, they come under blistering attack . Whereas when some self-identified New Atheists want to attack other people in their own community, there is essentially no standard of decency whatsoever that can be appealed to. I think that’s an unfortunate double-standard.

  28. says

    One further point: I do find it ironic and disheartening that, when other figures who are NOT atheists, or not considered NEW atheists, criticize New Atheists (or any atheists at all), even in quite a measured way, they come under blistering attack .

    Example? I know you’re not talking about Stedman and de Botton here, because nothing besides their smarmy, condescending tone can be described as ‘measured’. And again, this gets into the issue of what you say vs. how you say it. I’ve seen Ed and PZ tear into each other with wild abandon. Same with Jerry Coyne. But they keep it on topic. Stedman doesn’t, de Botton didn’t, Bryan Appleyard doesn’t.

    And yeah, when you live by the sword you die by the sword. The Gnus don’t need to set a standard of decency – we care about a standard of accuracy, and that’s usually enough.

  29. says

    One final point – I’ve just followed the link to your “normalizing belief” series and I think it’s excellent. I don’t agree with all of it, but I think it deserves wider play – great stuff.

  30. says

    The Gnus don’t need to set a standard of decency – we care about a standard of accuracy, and that’s usually enough.

    Do you seriously believe this? Or, what precisely do you mean by it? You can’t mean that you are entirely indifferent to the decency of what you say as long as all the propositions contained in a statement are strictly true, can you? I just don’t see why you would disavow all responsibility to be humane to another person (if that is what you’re saying).

  31. says

    You can’t mean that you are entirely indifferent to the decency of what you say as long as all the propositions contained in a statement are strictly true, can you?

    Give me an example of an entirely accurate statement that you would consider offside. I am having trouble thinking of one.

  32. says

    I’m more thinking of insults which have no epistemological content at all. So the difference between:

    “Your appearance at Pride Interfaith Services as a Humanist serves to reinforce religious privilege and damages attempts to dismantle the illegitimate power religion has in US Society.”

    and:

    “Listen, you fucking wanker: when you peddle your accommodationist bullshit at “interfaith services” alongside Christards you reinforce religious privilege and damage attempts to dismantle the illegitimate powerful religion has in US Society, you atheophobic lickspittle hegemon-stooge. You closet faith-heads make me want to vomit.”

    I think the difference is quite clear.

  33. says

    So you’re saying it’s accurate to call you an “atheophobic lickspittle hegemon-stooge”? :P

    As far as I’m concerned, the only difference between the two is that one is longer. But yes, throwing in insults that do not contribute to the argument is a waste of perfectly good consonants. It does not make the argument any less valid, and when used judiciously, insult adds quite a bit to the power of rhetoric.

  34. says

    As far as I’m concerned, the only difference between the two is that one is longer.

    LOL. I have to laugh. I doubt we’ll agree if we can’t agree on this. I’m beginning to realize my ideas about what’s acceptable in discourse are very different to many others’ =P.

  35. says

    I think you’re really not understanding me.
    I have absolutely nothing against a well-hurled insult. I’m saying it should be accompanied with a good reason why you think somebody is an asshole.
    And reading what you’re complaining about, I think we have very different views on that.
    What you think to be unreasoned, extensive personal attacks is what other people think is content.
    If people actually only called people names and attacked them because they’re fat/slim/guy/woman/gay/bi/trans/black/ginger (re: slurs), living in Minnesota/Texas/Washington, having a cat/dog/gerbil, you’d have a point.
    But that’s generally not what they’re doing. They’re criticising the content, they criticise people for what they do and they do season it with a decent number of cupcakes.
    And yes, tone-trolling does nothing than derail from the substance in favour of the style.
    It’s like saying that you can serve the family bovine excrements à la merde as long as you use grandma’s fancy china and posh words.

    Also, GilieLL

  36. MichaelD says

    Nope I’m fine with calling some one who’s lieing a liar just like I’m fine with someone being called an idiot when they’re acting like one. Note I never said you shouldn’t. Similarly to objections to ray comfort I don’t think that just because you’ve lied once you’re a horrible person.

  37. says

    When my sister was younger, she used to play the ‘I’m not touching you’ game where she’d invade my personal space and hold her finger half an inch away from my ear or nose or hand while I was doing something. She’d keep it up sometimes for an hour, thoroughly distracting me from whatever I was trying to do at the time until I finally yelled at her or smacked her.

    And then off course, my mother would get angry at me and make me out to be the bad guy, pointing out my sister hadn’t yelled at me or even touched me and furthermore, I was the older one and should thus handle the situation in a more mature manner.

    Since my sister and I shared a room, walking away wasn’t an option until I turned seventeen, went to college, got a job, spent my first couple paychecks on a vehicle, and generally just stopped being home. For which I was further criticized for ‘not doing my share around the house’.

    Of course, of my siblings, I’m the one with the college degree, the house, the job, and fifteen years later, still the only one to actually have purchased a vehicle all on my own. My baby sister still lives at home with Mommy paying the bills.

    Folks like Stedman are the younger siblings of Atheism, still ingratiating themselves with Mama religion and Daddy patriarchy. They do this because Mommy and Daddy take care of them and that way they don’t actually have to be independent and think for themselves. They remain, secure and comfortable, on their apron strings. In short, they took the easy path instead of growing up.

    Wait, I’m a ‘gnu atheist’…gotta stick to the stereotype…

    Shit, fuck, something homophobic, goddamn, and death to believers.

    Did that cover it, or did I forget something?

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