Reasonable people can disagree in good faith about the wisdom of writing a book, employing a particular rhetorical style, or articulating a particular speech act. They can do a proper moral calculus, and come to a different conclusion. They can be attentive to the same evidence, worry about the same moral issues, and come to a different determination.
If one accepts this point, how should one react if somebody else suggests that perhaps one ought not to write a book, or that one ought to tone down some rhetoric, or go easy with some criticism?
Well, at least one answer, which in my more pious moments I’m inclined to favour, is that one should ask whether their request – or even demand – has any merit. Are their concerns legitimate – can you see what they’re worrying about? Is their position held in good faith (since even if you think they’re mistaken, this is a relevant datum in terms of how one should view their character, etc)? Does their position have at least some evidential merit? In other words, one should react in a spirit of rational enquiry – after all, it’s possible they’ve got a point, and it’s possible that a lot is riding on getting things right.
How one should not react is simply to assume that they are beyond the moral pale because they make the request or demand. Sometimes, shutting up is the best option. And sometimes telling people to shut up is morally justified (and perhaps even obligated).
This question was posed after I posted The dancer from the dance. Perhaps that’s a coincidence.
Be that as it may, I’ll say how I answer the question. How should one react? It depends. It depends on a lot of things. It depends on who is asking or demanding, and what that who has said in the past, and whether that who has or seems to have an agenda other than the stated one. It depends on the situation, and the reasons given, and one’s own understanding of all those.
In a sense, of course one should ask all those questions. Of course, if the demand has any merit, one should take it into consideration. That’s almost tautological. If someone has good reasons, then one should pay attention to the reasons. You bet.
But it’s also true that sometimes one already knows the request or demand has no merit. Sometimes one has already seen and discussed the request or demand; one has asked for merit; one has examined the concerns; one has considered their legitimacy; and one has determined, to the best of one’s ability, that they have little or no merit. One is in such cases not assuming that the requests or demands are without merit, one is concluding that they are, based on reasons.
And the burden is not only on the person being told to shut up. That part got left out of the questions. It’s a very intrusive request or demand, telling other people what and how to write. There’s a large presumption against it, because we value free expression and free inquiry. The people being told to shut up or tone it down are not the only ones who have to do some careful thinking and question-asking.
We (the two authors of Does God Hate Women?) have experience of this ourselves. There was a time when it looked as though the publisher might decide to shut up by not publishing it after all. That didn’t happen, and the publisher behaved beautifully, but it was an issue for a few days, and I can tell you, we did not think the request or demand had any merit.
So, in short, I don’t agree with the conclusion. I think that sometimes, even often, one does get to think – not assume, but think – that people who are telling you to shut up or tone it down are indeed doing a wrong thing (to translate “beyond the moral pale” into terms I recognize).
And now I have to go make the plum pudding. Happy Saturnalia.
SC (Salty Current), OM says
If this is an allusion to Stedman and the other accommodationists, it has been established that this aspect is wrong:
Stedman has acknowledged that we and he do not worry about the same moral issues. It took him a while to do that – I’ve been posting about how I think faith is immoral and related to other immoralities and how I don’t share their goals for quite a while now, including on threads pertaining to him – but that acknowledgement demonstrates his awareness that we do not in fact worry about the same moral issues. Therefore this premise is wrong, as Stedman has explicitly recognized. So that answers the question of whether “that who has or seems to have an agenda other than the stated one.” Of course they do. They’ve admitted to it. This really isn’t difficult to grasp.
Given that we do not share the same moral emphases, I do not care to hear any more of this self-serving scolding. I request – no, demand – that you all knock it the hell off. Now take a few years and mull over whether that demand has any merit.
SC (Salty Current), OM says
So that answers the question of whether “that who has or seems to have an agenda other than the stated one.” Of course they do. They’ve admitted to it. This really isn’t difficult to grasp.
I didn’t mean to suggest by quoting Ophelia that she doesn’t grasp it, of course.
Bruce S. Springsteen says
If I happen to think tattoos are an idiotic waste of money and an attention-begging eyesore, and my dear, brave, wise companion standing beside me in a biker bar senses I’m about to launch into a loud tirade on the topic, I would consider him less than a sane friend if he didn’t try to shut me up by hook or crook, even without taking time to rationally persuade me. I freely admit that sometimes I don’t know how much danger or harm I’m really about to cause, and can concede the possibility that, now and again, discretion is the better part of candor. If I’m getting ready to juggle torches impromptu and you smell gas, by all means hit me with the extinguisher. Still, if I reckon we can weather the melee at that biker bar, and escape with our artless skins intact, I may give it a shot despite his worried looks. He knows who he’s hanging out with. Life’s a gamble and, all in all, I regret the things I didn’t dare say more than the ones I did. Just be mindful of who you’re dragging in with you when you decide to let the feces meet the fan, and be ready to clean up the damage if you guessed badly wrong.
SC (Salty Current), OM says
It would be one thing to misrepresent and bash outspoken atheists when atheists are getting a free pass. It is quite a different thing to do so in a religious world in which we’re stereotyped, marginalized, and harassed.
I couldn’t agree more. Take your own moral counsel and shut up.
'Tis Himself, OM. says
I want Chris Stedman to shut up, not because he’s an accommodationist but because he’s dishonest.
Here is a clip from Daniel Dennett discussing the possible time to remain silent about an issue (or lie): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G8YC30DbIh8&feature=related
It gives an interesting and relevant perspective.
I think what Stedman and others don’t quite realize is well..atheists, even aggressive atheists, didn’t start the fire. We didn’t start the tune that we all danced to. We’re extremely late on the scene.
It was the religious, extreme and mainstream both..that started the beat that we’re all dancing to. They set the tone and the tune of the rhetoric, and we’re just, for the most part, following along. In fact, our rhetoric often doesn’t even come close. We’re tame compared to the First Commandment or the idea that non-believers can’t be real citizens or even people. Not even on the radar.
It’s not fair, or even practical to expect the weaker/minority party to take the first steps to change the tone. Why? We can’t. Even if we stopped right now and all “played nice”, not only would it not stop the hateful and harsh statements on the other side…it would make them worse. Why? Partly because no pushback, but partly because we proved that their tactics worked. They were allowed to bully us around, and we shut up. So then they can push some more.
I’ll let that stand on its own there.
Any demands made by the accommodationists certainly are beyond the moral pale. Shut up about the other atheists and get on with the accommodating and whatever that is supposed to accomplish. They never seem to do this.
Bruce #3 :
That is an extremely pragmatic approach and in most cases, when there isn’t anything more than personal safety is at stake, its only sane and wise. But there have been instances when pragmatism isn’t only a feeble stance but positively harmful and dangerous in the long run. In fact in recent times, every time someone dares to express their intent to say or do something which is bound to offend some radical fundamentalist group or another leading to almost certain violence by those offended, there is a huge outcry calling on people to act “reasonably” and pragmatically to self-censor.
But if we keep giving in on the basis of pragmatism to such coercion, it won’t be long before free speech is in real danger of coming to an end in any real sense. So it seems more than ever now that pragmatism must take a back seat, until everyone recognizes these dangers.
Toronto Atheist says
I feel the need to play the contrarian here and disagree with the comments above.
I just can’t support the idea that telling someone to shut up is an acceptable argument, in any situation. It goes against the very secular principles that shape my values and identity. And so I find the idea objectionable to my very core.
To my mind there is no legitimate reason to EVER tell someone to shut up. Counter their arguments, by all means. But when you tell those you disagree with to shut up you risk losing the moral high ground, and doing serious damage to the legitimacy of your argument in the process. There is no situation I can think of, and perhaps this is a failure of my imagination, where taking such a position helps your argument.
Also, and this is where irony rears its ugly head, by stating that in some cases it’s ok to demand silence from our opponents we are helping to legitimize Steadman’s position that we should shut up. It would serve our argument better if we didn’t grant this point to him at all.
But the main problem with this argument remains that pressuring others to NOT exercise their right to free expression goes against the very secular democratic principles which are defended so passionately here, and elsewhere, by gnu atheists.
So no, I refuse to be a hypocrite on this point. Not even occasionally.
It is not at all clear that anyone has actually asked or told Jeremy not to write his book. Rather it looks as if he is seeking a way out of it for himself and wants to have some high ‘moral’ reason for doing so. Whatever the reason, I think he would be wrong to abandon the project for fear of upsetting somebody else or at the request or suggestion of someone who fears that the book would provoke some other party.
If multiculturism is a subject that needs to be addressed because of societal problems it may cause, then it is crucial that the arena not be left purely to the EDL and extremists on the other side. Reasonable voices should not only be heard but should take over the dialogue if there is one, or create one if none exists now. We know where the other course leads.
Bruce S. Springsteen says
I undertsand the urge to make a supreme, overriding value of free expression, and tend that way myself, but a sense of occasion and a canny understanding of human psycology is needed if you actually hope to achieve persuasion and reconciliation, and not just conquest. Even if conquest is your only purpose, a sober assessment of each situation is just good generalship, and running pell-mell into every battle is no recipe for victory, but a fine way to shoot yourself in the foot or worse. And the good counsel of thoughtful friends in matters of tactics, strategy, logistics and opportunity is a great benefit, if rational success is the objective. It is also possible to create a smoldering wasteland in pursuit of some minor objective, and sinple humanity should keep us from turning the whole battery of our righteous anger on some small, incidental target, collateral damage be damned.
Telling people to clam up is indeed often done in bad faith, out of cowardice or hypocrisy or bullying or fussy propriety, and we rightly bang right back at that. But if we get so paranoid about being censored that we can’t recognize friends with legitimate concerns and develop some finesse with our ferocity, maybe some of those charges of reverse zealotry in the atheist camp aren’t entirely off base. I try not to forget that these beliefs are currently keeping many people afloat in very rough waters, and I’d better have some life preservers ready if I mean to torpedo their crappy life raft on short provocation, or what kind of person am I?
I agree that Stedman and others are being thick, and that we didn’t start this conflict, and that worrying about alienating those who have already systematically alientated themselves is stupid self-flagellation and playing ito a trap. I am a fire-breathing anti-theist and cultural warrior of many decades past. But I always check my motives and analysis, in the mirror and through the eyes of trusted friends and critics, because as a skeptic I know the fist and hardest job is not to delude yourself, especially when your emotions are aroused.
Bruce S. Springsteen says
I apologize BTW for my copious typos. The tiny keyboard is more than my old fingers can maneuver some times. It’s not a lack of care, but a lack of coordination. 😉
Ophelia Benson says
Bruce – Indeed, and ditto. This is what I’m saying. We already do “ask whether their request – or even demand – has any merit.” We come up with various answers. That’s how we roll.
“…and I’d better have some life preservers ready if I mean to torpedo their crappy life raft on short provocation, or what kind of person am I?”
Better to learn to swim then than depend on a crappy life raft.
Toronto Atheist says
I still think it would be far better for our side, and more consistent with the secular values we promote, to simply reject outright the premise that it’s ever ok to tell others to shut up.
So we’ll just have to agree to disagree on this one. Cause that’s just how I roll.
Ophelia Benson says
T. Ath. – but can’t you really think of any circumstances when it’s ok to urge others to shut up? In the midst of a genocide for instance? Or when the noise they are making is nothing but abuse – like the people who “disagree” with women by calling them ugly cunts and fucking bitches and stupid twats?
I think I do agree with your underlying point though (I know I agree, but I may be wrong about what it is). I do think the burden of argument is on the people saying shut up, not on the people being told to shut up. I think the people saying that need a damn good reason; much better than anything Stedman, or Mooney before him, has offered.
“Never” is hardly ever an appropriate absolute. At the very least, it is, em, almost always (also a dangerous term) a tool wielded more heedlessly by the predator than by its prey. It casts any issue in black and white, rather than the greys under which most human behavior operates. There’s no operative commandment that applies when the ogre is about to eat one’s children, for example.
“Shut up” is actually a wonderful example of that grey. And the FTB blogs are a living breathing experiment in it. There is the obvious temptation to say “Shut Up” to bigots, trolls, god-botherers, MRAs, e.g., of various stripes. And it is clear some moderators do so, by way of deleting their comments, more frequently than others. Some readers find the contentiousness and the smackdowns of assholes vastly entertaining. Others prefer the “safe space” absence of the more egregious violators. There may well be race, class, gender, ethnicity biases underlying these preferences of hurly-burly versus safeness, but we are all of a given race, class, gender, ethnicity, etc., and until there is a monolithic mind-meld, I suppose we can only recognize when such are in play.
But, as a fairly recent reader of various FTBs, it is undeniable that there is an inner sanctum of approved commentary by approved commenters, who engage in a rather narrow definiton of apostasy. I can count dozens of times, as a casual reader, when I have seen a fairly innocuous, if naively classist or patriarchal, inquiry from a neophyte be blasted to smithereens by the same handful of smugly superior regulars. The novice was clearly neither troll nor bigot, nor even the “I don’t get it” Nice Guy asking disingenuously how can he ever ask a woman out if not in an elevator late at night…but rather someone seeking a bit of enlightenment. Yet the level of insider vitriol leveled at the new commenter can be absolutely horrifying. A collective “Shut Up And Go Away”, replete with ad hominem vulgarity that would shame a Klansman Freeper, from a group that calls themselves FreeThought.
PZ, Ms. Watson, Ms.Benson, and the other FTB writers are opinion leaders, of the sort we oughtn’t grant Papal Infallibility status toward. Yet “Shut Up” is the far too common Amen Chorus from their regulars, toward any who dare ask for some parsing of the orthodoxy.
In this milieu, I’m afraid I have to agree with those who think “Shut Up” is a step down a slippery slope.
I await the Shut Ups with a smile. And I, like far too many, probably won’t bother to contribute our own Free Thoughts as often as we might otherwise. Beatdowns by a gang of bullies is not the exclusive domain of the Right and the Godly. And in FTB, the “dominant class” is a bit different from the rest of society, so you needn’t educate me on the deconstruction of just who can bully whom.