Friday, 15 February 2013

I Fincke I like It!

Firstly, apologies for the pun-laden tabloid style title - the kind of thing you would read in 'the Super Soaraway Sun'. Perhaps a more serious apology now also needs to be made for linking The Sun? Ok, Ok, I will stop now.

So Dan Fincke has posted "The Camels With Hammers Civility Pledge" over on his blog. I invite you to go and read the pledge, not least as he includes a preamble detailing the reasons which have led him to regard such a pledge as a worthwhile venture.

As for myself, I am happy to sign up to the pledge but with a few amendments (something Dan encourages us to consider and make as necessary). Taken as a whole I can only appreciate the spirit in which it is intended and the clearly balanced approach that Dan has taken in formulating it.
That isn't to say that it is without problems. Russel Blackford has added to what many others have said, which is that, perhaps, brevity is not the pledges strongest suit. Chris Hallquist shares some of the concerns I have over language (more on that later). Then we have Chris Clarke and the Pharyngula 'house trolls' predictably apopleptic with rage that anyone other than themselves should try and lay down what is acceptable and what is not in online exchanges. Note that Clarke will happily maintain civility if the blog is by some screwed-up hate-monger, who thinks women should never perform fellatio on their partners due to it being a patriarchy supporting act (go here and here for astonishing blogs and comments alongside Chris Clarke civility).

All I plan to do here is simply go through the pledges sections and comment on each. So here are MY COMMENTS on the pledge:

1. I commit that I will engage in all public arguments with a sincere aim of mutual understanding, rather than only persuasion.
 In total agreement with this. It should be noted that this stands aside from PZ Myers recent complaint, with regard to myself, that I didn't "change my tune", with many commenters that followed seemingly seeing the only alterntaive as lecturing. There is, back on planet reality, a world of difference between posting in a bid to increase mutual understanding (by firmly advocating your own position and listening to what the other side has to say) and some expectation that with understanding must come agreement and compliance.

2. I commit that I will tolerate the existence of people with dissenting ethical, religious, or political views.
Not just tolerate here but welcome. If you disagree with me on an issue then you are the kind of person I want to talk to and engage with.
Where I really appreciate Dan's pledge here is that he goes on to mention that we need also to think of what peoples objectives are, rather than just seeing different methods. It is often that people have broadly similar goals but only ever see the differences in opinion over how to reach those goals.

3. I commit that I will always focus first on the merits of other people’s arguments and not disparage them personally for asking unpleasant questions, taking unpleasant positions, or simply disagreeing with me.
I have on occasion fallen short of this and need to redouble my efforts here. One of the problems is that the 'unpleasant positions' other people take are not always of the ideological bent but also of the personally abusive variety and of deliberate and wilful misrepresentation.
Dan goes on to say, again which I absolutely agree with, that we need to be minded to not always assume the worst possible interpretation of what someone has said. A perfect example of this occurs in the comments left to Dan's pledge itself.
As part of an exchange with Dan I had written the following:
I can understand your perspective on the word ‘slut’ in that it is almost always used in a mean-spirited sense in these contexts.
I personally am not quite so keen to totally consign it to the dustbin because it is one of those words whereby much of what it has traditionally described, on the grounds that those characteristics are universal negatives, many of us nowadays see those same characteristics as (in appropriate circumstances) positives. However, in terms of the conversations that have been problematic in recent months, I can’t see such reclamatory usage being of much relevance.
Personally i didn't think there was much ambiguity in there. The word 'slut' has become such a damaging slur because things such as female sexual promiscuity and desire, which lie behind it, were regarded as negatives. For those, such as myself, that regard them as anything other than negatives, and in appropriate circumstances (such as the bedroom or the porn movie) the word 'slut' can actually be a very exciting word, a positive word, a word of respect because it refers to aspects we hold to be positives. However, Sally Strange was depressingly true to form, as a Pharyngula regular, when she replied:
Evil sentiments, expressed civilly.
and followed on saying:
 So, to translate, Noelplum is not eager to stop using the word slut, because what it “traditionally describes,” which I take to mean sexual promiscuity, is in fact shameful and people ought to be shamed for it.
Sally then criticised Dan for engaging with me at all (and suggested by doing so people like her must not be welcome on his blog), labelling me a misogynist in the process which was rather ironic given the conversation I was having with Dan in that thread.

To go back to Dans point. For SS to manage to get what I said exactly 180° wrong I think has to involve a certain mean-spiritedness and determination to prejudge and see the very worst interpretation in what the other person is saying

4. When I feel it necessary to call out what I perceive to be the immoral behaviors or harmful attitudes of my interlocutors, I commit that I will do so only using specific charges, capable of substantiation, which they can contest with evidence and argumentation, at least in principle. I will not resort to merely abusive epithets and insult words (like “asshole” or “douchebag”) that hatefully convey fundamental disrespect, rather than criticize with moral precision.
 I don't really agree with Dan on this and  my exchange with him was on this topic. Whilst I agree that such abusive language is over-used and that the better part of me tries to steer clear of it, I really don't see that being as hardline over language as this helps. As I said in the comments, sometimes in a pledge or similar, the more you include the more you exclude. As is shown by the comments left around the blogosphere, including this part in the pledge has led to many excluding themselves from the pledge entirely, which is a shame. 
This part of the pledge links strongly with part 6 (I think they ought both have been amalgamated into one part tbh) so i will conclude my comments here under my comments for that part.

 5. I commit that I will go out of my way, if necessary, to remember that members of traditionally marginalized groups and victims of abuse have experiences that I may not have and which I may have to strain to properly weigh and appreciate.
This is probably my favourite section of the pledge and shows the even-handedness of it. Firstly, I take on board and agree with the headline above. Absolutely.
Dan then goes on to add two very important additional points:
Of course none of this means I should feel compelled to surrender my own rational right and need to independently and rigorously assess what anyone says for its truth or goodness. I should not feel compelled to always and unconditionally agree with someone who has an experience or life situation different from my own
On the other side, I will also be sensitive to preempt counter-productively defensive feelings and reactions of people in traditionally advantaged groups by carefully avoiding even the appearance of prejudicially disparaging them all as malicious oppressors.
I have to add that most people are happy to champion one or two of these sentiments but all too few actively seem to champion them all. Some of the comments on Dan's article talking about 'punching up' fall into this category. If we are to have an exchange then starting from a position that different rules can apply to one group than another (ie, I am allowed to insult you but don't you DARE insult me back) is simply a recipe for creating ill will and resentment.

6. I commit that I will not use any language that I know is offensive to either a subset of a marginalized group or to members of that group at large, for whatever reason.
One of the supposed 'harms' of such language are claims that it leads to splash damage. I don't entirely take issue with the claim, but it seems to be applied in a very unnuanced way by people who are seemingly unable to see the difference between what the words are actually referring to. On that score i invite you to have a look at my latest thoughts on just this issue in the peurile titled video Do Cocks Cause Splash Damage: Gendered Slurs #2 


I think many of us also have grave doubts that claims of offence are always entirely genuine. Of course that can be a reason TO follows Dan's pledge here because to not do so can play into the hands of those who would sooner make the discussion about the tone of your argument - the fact you used word 'x' - rather than more substantive issues pertaining to the arguments. However, many of us have our own online spaces, such as I do here on this blog, and object to the idea that we, along with everybody else, must kowtow to the standards of the most worlds most easily offended person.

7. I commit that I will not use any ableist language that disparages people over physical or mental limitations or illnesses.
Again this is another of Dan's lists of unacceptable terms. I do agree that many of us tend to result to such words a little too easily. I also hate to see people's arguments sidelined through such language, even when I don't like the argument (or even the person making it).
On a recent video of mine asking PZ Myers a question a commentor made the following remark:
Not very bright to put it mildly.
Has anyone seriously considered the possibility -I am not joking in the least- that Meyers has suffered some sort of brain damage? (A malignant tumor, a series of micro-strokes, any of a number of neurodegenerative diseases...)
The is seems to me quite a strong possibility.
this was my interjection which I give as it is just such a perfect example of what I am trying to say here:
I just want to add here that I would sooner assume Myers opinions and positions are ones he genuinely holds and that he is fully compos mentis. I get a bit uneasy when we start to genuinely question people's sanity because then we are getting close to the kinds of ad hominem tactics we rail against.
However, I think we need to distinguish between off-handed comments that someone is 'an idiot' and attempts to either rely on those comments in lieu of a substantive response or dismiss the individual on account of their proposed idiocy.

8. I commit that I will always argue in good faith and never “troll” other people. I will respect both safe spaces and debate spaces and the distinctly valuable functions each can potentially serve. I will not disrupt the functioning of either kind of forum.
You only have to go back and read my previous blog entry to not only see how difficult it is to define 'trolling' but that individuals themselves play fast and loose with the definitions.
I do commit to this though. I can honestly say, hand on heart, I have never gone onto any online space and represented views that I do not genuinely and earnestly hold (objection via reductio ad absurdum notwithstanding) and accept that sites which indentify as 'safe spaces' or that require a certain ideology to take part (however abhorrent we may find them) ought to be allowed their isolation from other opinions.

9. I commit that I will apologize when I hurt others’ feelings, even when I do so unintentionally and even when I do not think their hurt feelings are justified.
Much as I understand the sentiments behind this it is just too much a tool in the hands of those who would gladly stifle debate.
Several times I have made the point that to worship - not to simply believe in but to worship - an entity that you truly believe has condemned my grandparents (good folks) to eternal suffering and torment, as some Christians do (not all, by any stretch of the imagination), then I place you no higher than those who idolise serial killers and murderers. Is this offensive to some? Yes, certainly it is and I have recieved many comments and messages to that effect. Make no mistake: if when I see something that offends me, if by calling it out I offend that person in return, then so be it. the alternative is to not speak out and to let such beliefs go uncommented on; acts go unchecked.

10. I commit that I will hold my allies and myself to the highest standards of civil, good-willed, compassionate, and reason-based argumentation and ethical conduct, regardless of whether our enemies do the same, and regardless of the rectitude of our cause.
 I certainly am happy to pledge that I will not hold my opponents to higher standards than those I hold my allies to (as people who advocate 'punching up' sometimes seem to not only do but are quite self-righteous about). However, given that I don't hold my opponents to the highest standard (nor even to the standard I hope to maintain myself; nor even to the standard I manage to maintain myself) I am hardly likely to hold my allies to such a standard.
I think there are times we need to call out our allies and times when we have to accept that our allies calling us out is not akin to a knife in the back. Maybe this was a difficult part of the pledge for Dan to put into words but, as it stands, I think it is a bridge too far.

11. I commit that I will not make accusations of guilt by association. 
- I will judge people on their interactions with those they associate with.
- I will point out the associations of those who themselves play the 'guilt by association' card.
What I will not do is judge people on the beliefs and actions of others. 

12. I commit that I will not use mockery and sarcasm in ways that try to belittle other people.
 This is something of which I am, at times, guilty. I certainly do not wish to do so in lieu of offering an argument and rarely do so with any malice. As a light-hearted individual who finds things funny in the darkest of circumstances I cannot help but at times respond to people with sarcasm and mockery. At the same time, I have never had any issue with receiving such mockery myself, a recent comment had me laughing so hard I was nearly off my chair, the fact I was the brunt of it diminished the humour not one jot!
When Dan goes on to say:
I will draw the line at using humor to personally attack, harass, or silence individuals with whom I am engaged. 
I can but nod in agreement. If your humour is realistically likely to amount to harassment or silencing then it has gone too far.

13. I commit that I will empathetically, impartially, and with reasonable mercy enforce the standards of civility and compassion laid out in this pledge in any venues (including but not limited to: blogs, Facebook pages, subreddits, and discussion forums) where I have moderation powers with sufficient latitude to set and enforce standards. 
In the space that I have managed, over on YouTube I cannot claim to have enforced the same standards of civility that I aim to maintain myself. To do so would not only be impractical but would stifle a lot of otherwise very enjoyable and reasonable debate. What I have always strived to do, what I aim to do going forwards, is to manage that space in such a way that anyone can have their say and represent their opinions. This has involved providing a little bit more support to outsiders (with whom I am generally in disagreement) than to regulars, who are generally well attended to anyway through weight of numbers. The end result is that most people who try and take part seemingly feel enabled to continue doing so and conversations rarely descend away from the issues entirely, even if exchanges are of the form 'argument + barbed comment'

The length of this response is such that I will not copy and paste Dan's civility pledge directly here. I urge you to go and read it and make your own mind up.

Thanks for reading and bye for now,
Jim (np99)


  1. Jeebus, atheists taking civility pledges... What is the secular world coming to?

  2. (9) is a horrible thing to sign up to.

    What you are essentially saying is the absurd notion that when a person A is talking to person B, then B gets to decide what person A means. You might as well forget about discourse altogether if you do that.

    Person A: The sky looks like blue.

    Person B: You just justified the holocaust*! Apologise right now.

    Person A: I'm truly sorry, how can you ever forgive me?

    Utterly absurd.

    I similarly disagree with any 'pledges' committing to not use certain words. Not because I tend to use the usual words objected to, but for the same reason - no-one gets to decide what I mean, other than myself. (And no-one gets to decide what whoever I'm talking to means other than that person for that matter.) Apart from it being a matter of principle and a show of good faith in my eyes, it is far too easy to misuse any sort of censorship.

    Otherwise generally agree with what you've said, Jim. Am slightly unsure about 12, if only because I'm not sure where the boundaries are. Would Hitch's acerbic wit have been allowed, for example? I also believe that what's good for the goose is good for the gander, so I have no qualms about giving someone a taste of their own medicine. It does a bully good to be on the receiving end. Not to mention that it can do a person harm to allow themselves to be subdued by a bully. If people are polite to me, then we'll have no issues. And I guess I'm willing to 'pledge' that! ;)

    *Reference to holocaust deliberately inserted for those people who don't understand Godwin's Law :-P

  3. Overall I see very little value in signing up to a long-winded pledge that will only ever be used to beat people over the head with and endlessly lawyered.

    More specifically I'm entirely against positions that enshrine "taking offense" as being automatically legitimate or having rhetorical value. That way madness lies. Intent may not be magic but neither is an individual's inferred meaning or personal sensitivities.

  4. Wow. Concern Trolling has elevated itself to a new level with this one. Now, they can club you over the head not only with vague guilt and shame, but legalistic hypocrisy too!!


  5. I agree that (9) is the most problematic of the points, but I also have to say that apologies cost us nothing but pride, and I usually *DO* feel bad when I inadvertently hurt someone's feelings, just as when I accidentally step on their toes.

    In the event of some particularly emotionally loaded subject (e.g. eternal suffering and torment) is it so hard to say "I'm sorry that I hurt your feelings, but I must continue to be forthright about my views on this topic. If those views are going to be a source of personal pain to you, we should disengage on this subject matter."

    1. But those apologies are exactly what is considered a "notpology" by those who consider being offended as something that is automatically valid. "I'm sorry that you're offended" is just "I didn't set out to offend you" and, as some like to point out, intent isn't magic.

      Good faith discussion has to assume that the parties aren't setting out with a goal to simply offend. That we're all sorry if offence occurs should be understood. However, when it comes to apologising for the actual words/behaviour/opinions it doesn't just cost pride (not that I think apologising for unintended offence is a pride issue) as it has to come from an agreement that the said words/behaviour/opinions are actually wrong and you will avoid them in future.

    2. There is more than a bit of conceptual space between "I'm sorry that I hurt your feelings" and "I'm sorry that you took offense." The former admits some culpability for inadvertent harm, the latter does not.

    3. For you, perhaps. For others there isn't. "I'm sorry that I hurt your feelings" doesn't admit any more culpability that "I'm sorry your feelings were hurt" where "by what I said/did" is clear in the context. Even if actively referencing yourself makes it sound more genuine if you then go on to say "but I'm not going to stop doing it" you're being pretty clear that you don't actually think you did anything wrong.

      The bottom line is still that it all comes under a "notpology" for those who will insist that if their feelings were hurt then it can only be all your fault and you need to apologise for, and desist from, the clearly dangerous, reckless or actively abusive behaviour that caused it.

  6. I agree that these words are used primarily to map properties onto people that are negative when applied to people as a whole, but can be normal or neutral when viewed in the context of the original object. So you give your example of calling somebody a 'sheep' and draw the analogy with calling somebody a 'cock' or a 'twat'. Hence, so the argument goes, there's nothing wrong with sheep per se and also cocks and twats are fine in themselves, so the owners of those are not being insulted.
    The problem I have with this in reference to 'splash damage' is just that it ignores the historical contexts in which female body parts were selected as insults. So if you have a free choice to select objects in the world whose properties are negative when applied as an insult, why choose female genitalia? Is it possible that historically this was due to misogyny?

  7. Since when does anyone have the right to *not* be offended? Ridiculous.

    I assert my right to offend anyone as often as I can.

    1. ... and please note that "offend" is completely different to "abuse" or "intimidate"

  8. The only people who are going to sign the pledge are those who would have followed it's dictates anyway. So completely pointless.