The Pros and Cons of the Civility Pledge

Much has been said and written over the last week or so about Dan Fincke’s proposed civility pledge. Some may be wondering what I think about it. So here it is: No, I won’t be taking the pledge (as I’ve told Dan directly), but that doesn’t mean there isn’t some merit to it and a lot of good ideas in his post about it.

Dan is a good guy. A really good guy. And an incredibly intelligent and thoughtful guy. I not only like him personally, but I think very highly of him (which isn’t necessarily the same thing). And I take him seriously on this matter and understand where he’s coming from and why he thinks it’s important. I even think his position is correct in many situations and contexts. But I’m still not willing to be civil to all people at all times. I simply don’t think some people deserve civility.

I don’t think that bigots deserve my civility. That doesn’t mean that one should forego making rational arguments against their positions, of course. But if someone spends their time actively seeking to foment discrimination and hatred against people because of their race, gender, sexual orientation and so forth, they deserve my scorn and my ridicule and that is what they will get. At the same time, I think we need to recognize that disagreement is not necessarily a sign of the kind of bigotry I’m talking about.

There are hard bigots and soft bigots. Ten years ago when the first court ruling on same-sex marriage came down in Massachusetts, 70-80% of Americans were opposed to marriage equality. Now it’s about 55-45 in support, and a much higher percentage support equal rights and protections for gay couples as long as you call it a civil union rather than a marriage. And in another ten years, I have no doubt that the numbers will reverse themselves completely and it will be about 70-30 in favor of equality. Why? Because most of the people who were initially opposed to it weren’t really bigots, they were just ignorant. They didn’t hate gay people, they just didn’t really know any and they were scared of such a big change so quickly. Once they started seeing that same-sex marriage didn’t really change anything and that gay couples were no different from them in any meaningful way, they changed their minds. So I think that soft bigots need to be talked to in a reasonable and civil manner.

But Tony Perkins? Joseph Farah? Eugene Delgaudio? These are hard bigots, people who are absolutely committed to hatred and discrimination and will do whatever it takes to maintain their hegemony. A civil discussion with them or about them will achieve nothing. For them I reserve nothing but ridicule. And while I do take the time to break down their arguments and show why they’re irrational, I also reserve the right to call them what they are: bigoted, authoritarian assholes.

Having said that, I think Dan makes a lot of good points in the long essay laying out his pledge. I hope you read the whole thing. And I hope you don’t have a kneejerk reaction to it. I especially think his call to hold our allies to the same standards we hold our opposition to is very important and I try to do that at all times (though I certainly fail at it on occasion).

For myself, I will pledge only to lob bombs at those who really deserve it, while at the same time offering rational reasons to reject their positions. That’s really the best I can offer. And I think it’s enough.

36 comments on this post.
  1. eric:

    For myself, I will pledge only to lob bombs at those who really deserve it, while at the same time offering rational reasons to reject their positions.

    This is somewhat relevant. And the examples are amusing. While its very standard in internet debates to complain that any personal insult is an ad hominem and therefore undermines the person’s argument, the sort of response that Ed describes isn’t one, and doesn’t undermine his points at all. From an argument perspective, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with attaching editorial commentary to an otherwise solid point. Socially you might turn people off, which I think Dan is more concened about. But from a debate/rhetorical perspective, lobbing bombs while offering rational reasons to reject an opponent’s position is perfectly legitimate.

  2. eric:

    Ack, that first sentence was Ed’s. Html tag fail. :(

  3. didgen:

    Your position sounds good to me. It would be dishonest in my opinion to not show my utter and complete scorn for the positions some people take. Civility has its place, as does other forms of expressing yourself. It my responsibility to correctly gauge the situation.

  4. slc1:

    Actually, I like the fuckken Yankee fan’s approach.

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/physioprof/2013/02/15/civility-is-for-fucken-douchebagges/

  5. Didaktylos:

    Taking civility to excess means you have to tolerate a cannibal who has good table-manners …

  6. andrewjohnston:

    The problem with pledges like this is that there’s no reason to sign them. Either you’re not uncivil in the first place, in which case you don’t need to sign on, or you’re an uncivil bastard, in which case signing is a lie. Asking a person to sign something like this is an insult, as it presupposes that they’ll do whatever it prohibits. Look, pledges like this have come and gone in the blogosphere over the years, and they’ve never been used for anything other than browbeating outsiders. I’m not saying that this is what Fincke is doing, but it’s how it will be used.

    Not to mention that it’s a touch restrictive. Following it to the letter would require constant self-censorship, the kind of thing you normally only see in right-wing parodies of political correctness. You can’t have a pledge that entreats people to speak freely without fear of judgment and then follow that up with a list of things you can’t say.

  7. eric:

    The problem with pledges like this is that there’s no reason to sign them. Either you’re not uncivil in the first place, in which case you don’t need to sign on, or you’re an uncivil bastard, in which case signing is a lie.

    Well, I wouldn’t go that far. If you think Dan’s rules are worth following, then a symbolic reminder to follow them (like a pledge) can help you do so. I have a daily reminder to go exercise on my lunch break. Does that mean I’m a lazy bastard, because if I worked out anyway I wouldn’t need the reminder? No, it means that even though I work out regularly, a reminder to keep doing it is still helpful.

  8. Raging Bee:

    Like I said elsewhere, what we need more is a pledge by blog OWNERS to ENFORCE certain standards of honesty, intelligence and civility, instead of just demanding that people responding to disgraceful behavior be the ones to “set the example.” Funny how a blog owner like Dan would miss this idea.

    I don’t come to this blog just because I noticed it. I come, and stay, because a) the OPs are interesting and informative; and b) the commenters have shown themselves to be intelligent enough to make the comments worth reading, and worth responding to. And part of this is because the owner of this blog has managed to attract a decent audience, and is willing to weed out the least worthwhile party-crashers. We can be more or less consistently civil here, because (and to the extent that) the management has selected for civil company. Not all bloggers can say that, and that tends to make their blogs less worthy of my time.

    If you invite a bunch of people into your house, and then find you have to ask your guests to sign a “civility pledge,” you probably invited some of the wrong people.

  9. mythbri:

    One of the things that bothered me the most about Dan’s civility pledge was the item in which he reserved the right to civilly discuss distasteful ideas.

    He didn’t specifically say what kind of ideas, but there are plenty of de-humanizing debates that happen over and over, about issues that are by no means firmly legally settled. Abortion rights, marriage equality, institutionalized racism – I mean, seriously: what was The Bell Cure but an attempt to civilly demonstrate that black people just aren’t that smart, and that society is more or less ordered according to innate racial abilities?

    It’s a disgusting and de-humanizing idea, and it shouldn’t be given any quarter just because the philosophical implications are interesting and it’s a “civil” discussion (in name only).

    There are some ideas, some positions, some discussions that are uncivil by nature. Cloaking them in polite words doesn’t make them so.

  10. Doc Bill:

    I will not be civil to anyone associated with the Discovery Institute. They lie all the time and when you call them on it they play the Civility Card: Oh, you’re so mean! You’re not civil!

    Yes, I am mean. Yes, I am uncivil, but only to IDiots and attack gerbils (you know who you are!)

  11. Gretchen:

    Raging Bee, do you realize that you have just effectively blamed every blog owner for any trolls who choose to show up in the comments on his or her blog? And there have been some nasty ones who have shown up here.

    Additionally, has it occurred to you that this disproportionately punishes female bloggers, considering that the simple fact of blogging while female is deemed an offense by some, with harassment in the comments as an appropriate response?

    I understood Dan Fincke’s pledge to be for everybody– bloggers, commenters, etc. To suggest that this means it hasn’t occurred to him to moderate a blog, or to write a civil blog in the first place, seems pretty daft. Clearly he does both. This pledge is not in place of those, but in addition.

    I’m not going to sign it, for much the same reasons as Ed cites above, but your characterization of the reasoning behind it is bizarre and not at all helpful.

  12. Kevin:

    So, I predict that future posts will be derailed within the first 5 comments by accusations of bad faith or violating “the code”. Because someone will have fairly and accurately pointed out that a comment is sexist/racist/whatever.

    I’m sorry, but Ficke’s call is just tone trolling. That may be knee jerk on my part, but I cannot see how it’s going to make the slyme pit any less slymy.

    It’s a silencing tactic. If you can’t use plain language in support of your arguments — such as “you misogynistic fuckwit…” — then you’re being censored for stating a valid opinion and accurately identifying someone as a misogynistic fuckwit.

    The way to stop being called a misogynistic fuckwit is to stop making comments that mark you as a misogynistic fuckwit.

  13. Raging Bee:

    Giliell, in another thread about this pledge, had this rather succinct rebuttal to the idea:

    There can be no civil discourse about my status as a human being.

  14. Illuminata, Genie in the Beer Bottle:

    do you realize that you have just effectively blamed every blog owner for any trolls who choose to show up in the comments on his or her blog? And there have been some nasty ones who have shown up here.

    No, RB is saying it’s the blog owners fault if their blogs are having “civility” issues, if they allow trolls to stay and flamebait. Of course he moderates his blog. But if his moderation is strictly about who uses certain words, INSTEAD of those expressing bigotry etc., he’s aiming in the wrong direction.

    That said, his pledge does attempt to make the distinction between actual civility and insults couched in civility.

  15. mythbri:

    Dammit. My comment at #9 should read The Bell Curve. Sorry.

  16. Gretchen:

    No, RB is saying it’s the blog owners fault if their blogs are having “civility” issues, if they allow trolls to stay and flamebait.

    If that’s what he was saying, then he should have said it, instead of that nonsense about who you invite into your home. Although it still wouldn’t relevant given that the pledge says nothing about being used in place of a comment policy.

  17. Raging Bee:

    Raging Bee, do you realize that you have just effectively blamed every blog owner for any trolls who choose to show up in the comments on his or her blog?

    I did no such fucking thing. I merely stated the already-obvious fact that blog owners have considerable influence over the content, atmosphere, and usefulness of their blogs.

    And now that you mention it, yes, some blog owners really ARE to blame for consistently allowing their threads to be dominated by pond-scum. Are you saying I’m wrong to blame the owner(s) of the Slymepit for what they knowingly choose to allow to happen on their turf?

    And no, I’m not saying a blog owner is responsible for each and every comment that shows up on his/her blog. I merely say that blog owners can, and should, take reasonable action to keep out the WORST and MOST CONSISTENTLY BAD interlopers — not every single disagreeable comment. And in fact, many FTBers SciBloggers, and others do just that, and the result is blogs that can, at the very least, be trusted not to let decent voices be drowned out by mindless haters and bullshitters.

  18. I get email: John Harrington’s 15 minutes of fame.:

    [...] stupid.  It is.  But then there are those annoying one percenters… (What Ed Brayton says here pretty much sums up my [...]

  19. Illuminata, Genie in the Beer Bottle:

    There can be no civil discourse about my status as a human being.

    Bingo. It’s not possible to have a “civil” conversation with someone who thinks that, because I’m female, I’m a walking incubator, for example. Or that they NEED their guns for protection because the skeery “gangbangers” (code for: black people) all have illegal guns (seeing this around Pharyngula lately). Etc.

    The simple fact is bigots couch their bigotry in feigned civility just so they can dismiss those who respond as “emotional”, “irrational”, “hysterical”, etc. Because, being called a bigot is a bad thing, so there must be plausible deniability. They didn’t say anything nasty! Except that, they did, just with pretty words. They might never use the word bitch or nigger or fag or tranny etc, but the ideas they are expressing are just as fucking insulting and wrong.

    The concern surrounding civility pledges is that this insulting bigotry couched in feigned civility will be allowed and anyone who responds in exactly the way such horseshit deserves, will get the banhammer. Privilege allows some to hide behind “civility” to shut down and silence those without it.

    Now, again, Dan’s pledge does seem to address this. But I have serious doubts about how it would work in practice.

  20. Illuminata, Genie in the Beer Bottle:

    If that’s what he was saying, then he should have said it, instead of that nonsense about who you invite into your home.

    The analogy wasn’t at all hard to grok.

  21. Gretchen:

    The analogy wasn’t at all hard to grok.

    Maybe I was just having difficulty not fantasizing about this blog no longer being worth Raging Bee’s time.

  22. Illuminata, Genie in the Beer Bottle:

    Ah, so this is a personal vendetta. My mistake. I no interest in getting involved in that.

  23. abb3w:

    Worth looking at. However, I ain’t planning on signing up; some remarks I made back in December seem relevant.

  24. Gretchen:

    Ah, so this is a personal vendetta.

    No, I explained the problems with his position here– he blamed the civility problem on bloggers for not attracting the “right” audience, and then backtracked to say that he just means if they fail to moderate properly. The fact remains that wasn’t clearly not what the civility pledge is about, and failure to understand that is not the fault of the author but the reader.

  25. Gretchen:

    Sigh. wasn’t

  26. Raging Bee:

    …he blamed the civility problem on bloggers for not attracting the “right” audience, and then backtracked to say that he just means if they fail to moderate properly.

    I did not “backtrack” on anything. I meant both of those things, and I continue to believe that both are defensible. Some bloggers really do attract better followers than others, due to a variety of factors, most — though not all — of which are under the bloggers’ control.

  27. aaronbaker:

    For myself, I will pledge only to lob bombs at those who really deserve it, while at the same time offering rational reasons to reject their positions. That’s really the best I can offer. And I think it’s enough.

    I find that hard to quarrel with.

  28. fastlane:

    Dan is a good guy. A really good guy. And an incredibly intelligent and thoughtful guy.

    That may be. But 1) intent isn’t magic. 2) He’s also longwinded, arrogant, and seemingly utterly blind to his own privilege. His writing is the opposite of concise and to the point, and one does not need to use lots of words, and a significant amount of rather non-everyday words, in a misguided attempt to be more precise. His writing is neither.

    I can read and understand his blog, but it’s not worth the time. Worse, it’s mostly boring and rather uninteresting. And it’s not the length, and it’s not the gratuitous exercise of vocabulary, it’s the combination of all those things that make it mostly uninteresting, and that’s probably the worst ‘crime’ a blogger can commit in terms of getting repeat visits.

    In this case, I think it goes beyond simple good intentions with a good desired result. I think the words, the bad words and actual human emotion makes him uncomfortable. He claims that others should be willing to discuss what might be an uncomfortable topic to them (and see Giliell’s comment regarding that), but himself is unwilling to discuss topics in a way that makes him uncomfortable. It reeks of privilege, and a little hypocrisy to boot.

    But, his blog, his rules. I won’t be reading.

  29. baal:

    I’m in agreement with Dan and can certainly respect Ed’s position. All too often, however, there is a cadre of folks who only post one negative burst of invective after another. They become the functional equivalent of a rage-bot (really it’s not that hard to program sentence generators that fire on key words and post to blogs) . I do not see how they are helping anything and only serve to drive out potential resolutions or stifle communication (territorial pissing).

  30. Nick Gotts (formerly KG):

    Dan is a good guy. A really good guy. And an incredibly intelligent and thoughtful guy. – Ed

    Intelligent and well-meaning, I’ve no doubt. But also a bit of a twit. Handing over his blog for an extended period to a pagan woomeister was one example of this. This pledge is another, as demonstrated by his complete failure to stop Slimepitters lying about Ophelia and others on the very thread discussing it.

  31. freemage:

    Gretchen: Ophelia Benson gets a lot of trolls, but I don’t think RB would suggest that she ever ‘invited’ them, either explicitly or implicitly. (Most of the trolls would, but then, that’s what trolls do.) OTOH, I do think it’s fair to say that the Slymepit very much does ‘invite’ the willfully uncivil.

    If PZ were to suddenly clutch his pearls and fall upon the fainting couch because of some harsh language in a comment thread, most folks would laugh, because he obviously ‘invites’ such conduct, even setting aside a specific recurring thread for no-holds-barred insults.

    I get that you don’t like RB. I even get why. But attributing stuff to him that he very plainly did not mean isn’t gonna help your case any.

    ***********

    On-topic, I myself view the ‘pledge’ as useful terms of truce under which to hold a discussion, but not as an absolute behavioral standard. If the other party has an extensive habit of behavior that would violate the terms, I’d even require a renunciation of the prior conduct before agreeing that we were operating under truce terms. (So, for instance, if someone from the ‘Pit were seeking to engage under these terms, I’d first say they would need to agree to retract [and, where necessary, admit to malfeasance or wanton neglect of the truth] insults and lies they had made there. The renunciation would need to be explicit and public, too.)

  32. Michael Heath:

    When I was a newbie to the Culture Wars I took Dan’s position. I was naive enough, probably due to my being an optimist, that people would eventually adapt as they became informed. I now hold Ed’s take for the very reasons Ed does. It’s those very reasons which partly makes me object when some progressives seek limitations on speech which is not disruptive, not harassment, and targets ideas and behavior rather than immutable characteristics like sex or sexual identity.

    However I’m glad Dan’s promoting his position. Sometimes civility is the more prudent course to winning, even when the hard bigots Ed refers to are enjoying their arguments being considered by others. We need defendable checks against our approach. The gay rights movement over the past thirteen years is a great case study on how to win, and win fast, by being predominately civil rather than how to lashing out due to our dismay at the injustice and bigotry of anti-gay rights people.

    My fealty to more speech, even offensive speech, has me now disdainful of the North Texas secular convention policy page, an event which has been heavily advertised on Ed’s blog recently. Namely the part of their policy page I put in bold here:

    We hope it is obvious that you should not disparage* your fellow conference goers on the basis of race, color, national origin, age, creed, worldview, disability, veteran status, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.

    Have these people never done junior high math on defining sets?

    I don’t want to quote-mine this organization, so here’s the above with the preceding sentence:

    We consider harassment to be continued unwanted behavior directed toward another person. We hope it is obvious that you should not disparage your fellow conference goers on the basis of race, color, national origin, age, creed, worldview, disability, veteran status, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.

    Once again we have a group who is either mutating the meaning of harrassment to quell speech we should instead promote (the last Skepticon) or here, confusingly and arguably conflating the meaning of harassment, which is obviously bad form, and disparagement, which is often justified and therefore good when done for defendable reasons.

    *Disparage per New Oxford American Dictionary: regard or represent as being of little worth . . . [example follows]. This comes from the app which comes with my computer OS.

  33. gridironmonger:

    My first reaction was:
    Fuck this civility pledge. Fuck it in the ear.

    But I could be wrong.

  34. Daniel Fincke:

    Forgive me for not reading the comments before speaking, but as a quick note, I do accept calling people bigots where there is a substantiatable case (as there is in the instances you cite as examples, Ed). I just don’t see the need for insult words when bigot is already a very strong moral charge (way worse even than mere insults are, but without the side effect of being personally degrading beyond the character charge).

    Thanks for the kind words at the lead of the post. I appreciate your friendship.

  35. manuel moegarcia:

    Have the disciplines laid out in the pledge led to superior results?

    I have my doubts. People who, in a state of offense, totally forgive themselves for their own possibly immoral actions tend to be incorrigible. Tender egos and a sense of offense trump the imperative for morality in immoral people.

  36. democommie:

    “Forgive me for not reading the comments before speaking, but as a quick note, I do accept calling people bigots where there is a substantiatable case.”

    They don’t give a fuck, they really don’t give a fuck.

    Calling them asswipes, pieces-of-shit, lying fuckbags, tonetrolls and wastes of time, space and protoplasm seems to hurt their fee-fees. Nothing seems to make them want to examine the logical inconsistencies of their stated positions. No amount of debunking* seems sufficient to cause them to examine the “facts” that they use in support of their arguments. They continue to lie or repeat the lies of others. Fuck them.

    Civility in the service of genuine debate is a worthy goal. “Civility” in the service of everybody just getting along, when one or ,more parties to the conversation have no intention of conducting an honest inquiry is a complete waste of one’s time and patience.

    * Michael Heath generally excels in this quioxitc endeavor, casting pearls before swine in an earnest attempt to educate them.

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