Unmeasured vituperation on the side of the prevailing opinion

Whither civility, eh? Dan Fincke has his Pledge. (His what? His pledge? What is he, Louisa May Alcott?) Chris Clarke has his sarcastic pledge. I like Chris Clarke’s better.

I pledge to keep a sense of perspective. Tossing basic civil rights under the bus in order to maintain a jury-rigged superficial peace in a single-issue movement is a bad bargain.

That. Fincke’s pledge (his pledge?) is all too reminiscent of Lee Moore’s attempt to jury-rig peace between harassers and the people they are harassing.

Fincke’s “civility” has resulted in mildew people posting lies about me in his comments, which are still sitting there uncontradicted because Fincke has wandered off somewhere, and new comments are held in moderation. I posted a correction yesterday morning – some 30 hours ago – and it still hasn’t appeared. Civil? Not so much.

“Pitchguest” – safe behind the mask – posted the lies. “Commander Tuvok” – safe behind the mask – repeated them.

Or if we should continue, why not Ophelia Benson, who called an AVfM contributor a ‘stupid bitch’ (despite how she doesn’t use such epithets)

No I didn’t. I called myself that, ironically, in a tweet. I’ve posted that correction before, and we all know “Pitchguest” and the rest of them have seen it because we know they leave nothing of mine unread unmonitored unstalked. They know they’re lying, but they go on lying, and Fincke doesn’t even curate his own comments responsibly. “Civil” ha.

Comments on Chris’s post took me back to one from March 2008. Gosh those were the days. Sheril Kirshenbaum ordering PZ to mind his manners. That in turn reminded me of one at ur-B&W from 2009, citing G Felis (the philosophical primate) quoting Mill.

So have some Mill again, courtesy of Bartleby.

Mill wrote in an age when paragraphs were long – our acquaintance Mr Paden would feel more at home there – and his paragraphs were long even for that age. I’ve made paragraphs where there were no paragraphs. Begging your pardon, Mr Mill.

Before quitting the subject of freedom of opinion, it is fit to take some notice of those who say, that the free expression of all opinions should be permitted, on condition that the manner be temperate, and do not pass the bounds of fair discussion. Much might be said on the impossibility of fixing where these supposed bounds are to be placed; for if the test be offence to those whose opinion is attacked, I think experience testifies that this offence is given whenever the attack is telling and powerful, and that every opponent who pushes them hard, and whom they find it difficult to answer, appears to them, if he shows any strong feeling on the subject, an intemperate opponent.

But this, though an important consideration in a practical point of view, merges in a more fundamental objection. Undoubtedly the manner of asserting an opinion, even though it be a true one, may be very objectionable, and may justly incur severe censure. But the principal offences of the kind are such as it is mostly impossible, unless by accidental self-betrayal, to bring home to conviction. The gravest of them is, to argue sophistically, to suppress facts or arguments, to misstate the elements of the case, or misrepresent the opposite opinion.


Skipping ahead a little.

With regard to what is commonly meant by intemperate discussion, namely invective, sarcasm, personality, and the like, the denunciation of these weapons would deserve more sympathy if it were ever proposed to interdict them equally to both sides; but it is only desired to restrain the employment of them against the prevailing opinion: against the unprevailing they may not only be used without general disapproval, but will be likely to obtain for him who uses them the praise of honest zeal and righteous indignation. Yet whatever mischief arises from their use, is greatest when they are employed against the comparatively defenceless; and whatever unfair advantage can be derived by any opinion from this mode of asserting it, accrues almost exclusively to received opinions.

Punching down, in other words.

In general, opinions contrary to those commonly received can only obtain a hearing by studied moderation of language, and the most cautious avoidance of unnecessary offence, from which they hardly ever deviate even in a slight degree without losing ground: while unmeasured vituperation employed on the side of the prevailing opinion, really does deter people from professing contrary opinions, and from listening to those who profess them. For the interest, therefore, of truth and justice, it is far more important to restrain this employment of vituperative language than the other; and, for example, if it were necessary to choose, there would be much more need to discourage offensive attacks on infidelity, than on religion.

And, for example, if it were necessary to choose, there would be much more need to discourage offensive attacks on feminism, than on ideological sexism.


  1. Mandrellian, Kicker of Biological Goals says

    What I find interesting is the combination of Fincke’s resemblance to the verbosity, syllabic intensity and overall density of the writings of 18th century thinkers and his abject failure in even approaching either their readability or succinctness.

    Not to mention the fact that, evidenced by that brilliant Mill quote, greater minds than Fincke’s (or mine, for that matter) have already considered civility as some kind of ultimate goal and found it wanting. Unless both parties to a discussion, argument or debate can be disaffected and consider the topic in the abstract (as Fincke appears to consider most everything), disagreements will invariably become heated, especially if one side of a disagreement consistently and unapologetically behaves in bad faith and with bad intentions. In the case of, say, right now, where innumerable feminist writers have been under years’ worth of more or less constant, dishonest, abusive siege (by a not insignificant number of Fincke’s own commenters), treating said besiegers civilly is the last thing on their targets’ minds. Civility is also not only going to be useless against such dedicated obsessives and haters, it’s also the last thing they deserve.

    TL;DR: fuck that.

  2. Wowbagger, Designated Snarker says

    On the issues we’re most interested in, demanding ‘civility’ is a means of maintaining the status quo. All the anti-feminists need do to win Dan’s approval is show up to the table and smugly insist that the ‘issues’ be discussed’ before any action is taken or changes are made.

    Over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again.

    Which, if we let them, means they win – while Dan watches on, smiling, because they’ve abided by what he considers the more important factor: civility.

    I don’t know what he can’t see the dishonesty of people claiming to be coming to the table with the topic ‘Let’s discuss the issues and resolve them’, but who in reality are going to spend their time taking any position they can to avoid anything that’s going to deprive them of their privileged position as the arbiters of what the atheist community does and doesn’t talk about.

  3. julian says

    Oh get over yourselves.

    Not everyone who’s asking for some level of civility is out to make you hug and make up with people like Franc Hoggle. Jesus, you’ll throw anyone under he bus if they so much as hint they’re not ok with exaggerated invective.

  4. says

    julian? You’re the guy who once used my blog to tell someone to die in a fire, remember? I don’t need any lectures on civility from you, especially not such rude ones.

    And that last sentence? It’s a moronic lie.

    Go away.

  5. Mandrellian, Kicker of Biological Goals says

    Julian, “some level of civility” is perfectly fine, when justified.

    Elevating civility to an end in itself regardless of context? Not fine. Useless. Mill’s quote dovetails more or less precisely with the context of the campaign of hatred and abuse being levelled at FtB/Skepchick/feminist writers for the last couple of years.

    Chiding others for emotion or sailor-talk while letting actual offenses slip by when they’re expressed in dry, academic terms is Dan’s M.O. and always has been – before, during and after his stint at FtB. It’s half the reason I stopped reading his blog. The lengthy, cringe-worthy, pretentious pontification is the other half.

  6. Wowbagger, Designated Snarker says

    julian wrote:

    Jesus, you’ll throw anyone under he bus if they so much as hint they’re not ok with exaggerated invective.

    On the contrary; I’ve no problem whatsoever with that aspect of it, personally – while I also recognise the rather important fact that there are people who aren’t me; something you might also like to factor in – it’s that ‘civil discussion’ is somehow the magical solution to problems.

    It isn’t, and praising dishonest people who hide behind it lends them legitimacy.

  7. says

    “Commander Tuvok” reminds me of Wally Smith. It might be worth checking IP evidence. If he GeoIPs to Virginia, it’s very likely to be him. Then again, there are plently of obsessives out there.

  8. says

    “Tuvok” doesn’t remind me of Wally Smith at all. Wally could put on a good act when he put his mind to it. In his post-confession post-promise never to do it again incarnation he fooled a lot of sensible people for several weeks – all the people at the Talking Philosophy blog, ditto at Josh Rosenau’s, and other similar ones. He did a good job of sounding serious and concerned. Where he tipped his hand was in being too interested in the same few people, and too well informed about them when he had said he was a newcomer.

    “Tuvok” is nothing like that. “Tuvok” is incapable of faking serious, intelligent concern. Wally was a grad student; “Tuvok” is barely literate.

  9. says

    Here’s my contemporaneous account of how he tipped his hand –

    He was pretty skilled at it, really – except for the part about hiding his odd obsessiveness about a small (tiny) set of gnus. It was a mistake to comment on blogs that Jerry or I had just posted about. It was a mistake to mention us or our websites so often. It was a mistake to repeat tropes like “as an atheist I am embarrassed.” Things like that. But his overall style – that wouldn’t have done it by itself. It was off – it was too stiff, too formal, too actory – but that could be anyone.

    Ahahahahahahahaha – and then it gets into familiar territory –

    I’m instructing him how to do it better next time. But the way to do it better next time is to be more like a normal person, and that would entail not pitching a fit about everything I do every other day. Space it out a bit and it just becomes part of life, which is fair. He can disagree with me. Anyone can disagree with me. It’s this fucking obsessive nagging that I get tired of! [she said, her voice rising to a scream] It’s this weird neurotic I just can’t leave it alone picking that 1) gets irritating 2) looks bat-shit crazy and 3) gives the game away if you’re trying to pass as not the guy who did the same crazy routine six months ago.

    I’m not that god damn interesting, and I’m not that important. It’s funny what a lot of people I have examining my every internet word under a microscope.

    I COULD NOT IMAGINE at that time – less than two years ago – that I would end up with not one but twenty, thirty, maybe more people goggling at my every online move EVERY MINUTE THAT I AM ONLINE. I thought Wally was weird and bizarre and off. His obsession was a dead giveaway, and it was why I spotted him when he returned. Now…obsession is just that weird thing that a bunch of people do.

  10. Ulysses says

    I will be civil to people who are civil to me. When someone isn’t civil then they lose any claim to my civility. Lying is uncivil. Purposeful, invincible ignorance is uncivil. Hyperskepticism is uncivil. Using fallacious arguments is uncivil. Harassment of others is uncivil. Note that nowhere have I said that foul language is uncivil.

  11. atheist says

    These pharisaical demands for civility are a waste of everyone’s time. While civility is a good thing, it should be created organically, from a shared attitude of respect. To attempt to impose it where that attitude is lacking will do more harm than good.

  12. atheist says

    And as a rigid system of rules, “civility” is just what a certain kind of clever harasser likes best. Such a system of rules can be used by a clever harasser as cover, and as plausible deniability when carrying out a harassment campaign. When they force their target, by attrition, to break civility, they then can use this break to argue that they are the wronged party! I’ve seen this strategy in action.

  13. says

    I agree with atheist’s view @13 that civility provides a framework within which the rules lawyers and other sharks can swim. I’m uninterested in giving harassers a ready shield to hide behind.

    Harassment is harassment, regardless of whether you use rude words or no. Indeed, those of us who are students of these things know how to be venomous under the veneer of politeness. Politeness has a sharpness of its own. It cuts deeper because it is harder to counter with blunt words.

  14. Axxyaan says

    Dan’s pledge made me think of something Dennet said (or how I remember it) one time about philosophers. (Paraphrasing) Philosophers think that good arguments are somehow magic, you deliver the final statement in your valid argument and everyone agrees, or their head explodes.

  15. Kelseigh Nieforth says

    Hmm, I just took a peek over to Dan’s blog and it seems he’s put a comment updating the situation. Apparently he’s not approving comments yet because of “feuding”. Isn’t that a lovely, civil way to minimize the harassment that’s been going on? Plus of course the “pox on both your houses” false equivalence as a bonus. But no naughty words, nope!

    Way to keep it civil, Dan.

  16. Claire Ramsey says

    I had a look at the civility pledge site. I could not make it very far into the pledge. Mostly I felt like I was in line at the airport. The “pledge” assumes that people are by nature uncivil. Only by taking the pledge can you change your inner uncivil beast and enter the conversation. Just like TSA operates on the assumption that all passengers are criminals. We submit to their procedure and our temporarily-not-a-criminal-that-we-can-prove status is bolstered until next time, so we can enter the secure area.

    The thing is, it is not NORMAL to assume that everyone is a criminal. Just as it is not normal, indeed it violates conventional social rules, to start with the assumption that everyone is not civil and needs to be managed into civility via a pledge. (This is one reason I cringe when a woman says that all men are rapists. I know what she means but it’s not a very good way to express it). Most of us are already on the honor system, and we learned long ago how to behave. I was raised right and I don’t need no stinkin’ pledge.

    Sigh, the pledge also reminds me of those Norwegian Lutheran ladies at church who told me I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about when I said that a person could be a good and moral person w/o being a Christian. Of course my prime example was my father, hence my thinking on the matter. But the pledge-y stuff smacks of that business about Christianity, the Bible, God, belief in God, blah blah blah being the only only only ways that anyone can overcome their evil basic natures, which leaves atheists bathed in evil by their own perverse stubborn intention, etc.

    I will grant that the internetz are in continual dizzying evolution as social arenas. I suppose it is possible that being raised right in the 1950s and 1960s may eventually be completely irrelevant in internentz society. Still I’m looking forward to future research on the social conventions, the kinds of people who are determined to violate them, and the payoff for those individuals.

    For now, though, I am offended that anyone thinks he needs to manage my civility. Hmph I say.

  17. Aratina Cage says

    How did I miss this thread? Huh.

    Punching down, in other words.

    I made a “stupid slimepit joke” the other day on Twitter: “The slimepit is so low that when you punch down, you are actually punching up!” I think that is how they really feel. Them punching down at you and RW and the rest is, in their fucked up minds, punching upwards.

    One other thing, Dan Fincke never did release my comment directed to Batboy/PG/Pitchguest from moderation. But I’m happy with the one of yours he did release, finally, so I don’t think mine is necessary. But on that topic, letting people blab out whatever truth claims they want without requiring them to point to evidence is in itself uncivil. If PG/Batboy/Pitchguest had been required by Fincke to link to the tweet he was referring to, his lie would have been plain for all to see. Fincke could have also simply deleted PG/Batboy’s nasty comment due to a lack of references. So I don’t find Fincke’s own behavior very civil on that thread. That kind of blows his civility pledge to pieces in my mind. And that is nothing against Fincke as a person–it’s against his ill-conceived pledge for false civility.

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