On Humor and Civility

12.12.2012, 9:00 AM

In a previous post on our recurring topic of civility at Family Scholars Blog, I wrote:

“One of the biggest barriers to civil dialogue is, I believe, the failure to understand those with whom we disagree.”

I further cited theologian Karen Armstrong, who said:

“Try to put yourself in the position of the ‘other side’ ~ as the compassionate ethos demands ~ and ask yourself  ‘How much do I really know about their history of pain, achievement, oppression, disappointment, fear, idealism, and aspiration ~ all of which, on both sides, have contributed to this violence?’”

As a preliminary matter, I would define a “mixed-company conversation” as, say, one between feminist women versus men who are not informed about feminism or gender studies. Or, for instance, heterosexual opponents of equality versus non-heterosexual people. I don’t want to get too hung up on definitions here, but my basic gist is that a “mixed-company” conversation is one in which the parties involved often have different lived experiences, due to the fact that many people in society treat them differently based on their identities as, and prevailing stereotypes about, men, women, heterosexuals, and/or non-heterosexuals.

Within conversations where the goal is for civil dialogue to occur, I think we especially need to be mindful of attempts to use humor and facetiousness. Although it can be tempting to use humor to diffuse tensions, if it is not done with an awareness of the experiences of “the other side” it can come off as hostile. It can, and often does, actually escalate tensions with the very people one purports to want to engage in a civil manner.

I have taken issue here before with the “facetious,” half-joking use of aggressive, over-the-top rhetoric to describe other people’s political actions. And, most recently, I’ve also taken issue with a little snippet in one of Matthew’s recent posts on “benevolent sexism.” In order to facilitate the discussion, he linked to the controversial Charles Murray, saying:

“Charles Murray has some thoughts on a new study in Psychology of Women Quarterly that I don’t imagine are going to be popular in some circles.

I’m just going to leave this here and run in the other direction…”

While all of the comments pertaining to Matthew’s joke have been deleted by the admin here (not at my request*), I had initially asked Matthew why he wrote that “run in the other direction” bit. My point wasn’t to make a big deal about it. I thought he was just trying to make a joke and likely didn’t even know that that’s a problematic pattern of behavior men often engage in when they try to talk about gender issues with women and feminists.

In my decades of experience as a feminist, I’ve found that it’s pretty common for men in “mixed-company” with female feminists to precede their statements with something along the lines of, “You’re going to clobber me for saying this, but,” or “I’m going to get killed here, but,” or, the Internet version: which is for men to make some, what they deem “politically incorrect,” argument and then follow it with a “*ducks*” as though they’re dodging a punch that a woman is throwing at them in response.

Given that Matthew noted that the study he was citing wasn’t “going to be popular in some circles” and that he’s a man venturing into talking about sexism against women, I interpreted his “I’m just going to leave this here and run in the other direction” as a similar precursor to his article.

Now, I don’t expect everyone to agree with me on the point that his “joke” wasn’t funny. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me that the precursor was, no matter how it was intended, rude. And, I don’t even expect all women or all feminists to agree with me here.

On the civility front, though, I would find it reasonable for conversation participants to at least try to understand my argument and where I’m coming from, rather than reflexively dismissing or trivializing it. I would also expect people to acknowledge that humor is a subjective experience, and that what’s funny to some people isn’t funny to all people, and that people might have legitimate reasons for not thinking that something is funny.

When one, for instance, understands that a common stereotype of feminists is that we’re hysterical, oversensitive man-haters who can’t take a joke, one might better understand why feminists who show up to engage in civil dialogue might not chuckle at a man’s “joke” that uh-oh, he better run away after he posts a link, a statement that “half-jokingly” implies that he might be physically or verbally assaulted at some point within the conversation. Simply put, the joke does not assume good faith on the part of other participants that they’ll be able to react non-aggressively.  

Indeed, in one of the comments that the admin deleted, a different man suggested that Matthew felt “hurt” by my argument and, simultaneously, that other people “felt” they had to “walk on eggshells around” me because I point stuff like this out. But, well, it does become apparent though, especially with respect to humor, part of civility is accepting that maybe all participants in mixed-company conversation need to do a little eggshell-walking-on.

I  know some folks take a certain pride in being “un-PC,” but in my experience such people are oftentimes quite prickly themselves when their own sensitivities are on the line in some way. For instance, in this forum, I recognize that cursing isn’t “PC” and is, in fact, banned, so I respect that rule because to not respect it would impede the goal of having civil conversation here. And, the fact that Matthew included his joke at all in his piece certainly made me wonder, wow, but can I actually disagree with him without him feeling super threatened? How delicately do I have to put any sort of disagreement for him to not feel abused at the hands of Angry Feminists?

I would further suggest that responses to my argument, an argument in which I did not once utter the word “sexist” or say that I thought Matthew was being intentionally rude, that I would see as evidence of authentic openness to engage would be something along the lines of, “Fannie, I’m new to this and am not sure I understand what your complaint is, can you explain it further?”

Less thoughtful responses to jokes that don’t go over super well would include exasperated statements along the lines of, “Oh good grief! I was being facetious,” other people jumping in to assume the role of “neutral third party” who think that just because they don’t see anything offensive then nothing offensive exists, and comments like, “Keep the jokes comin’! Most people like jokes!”

Because, well, most people do like jokes. I certainly do. In fact, I used to write for a popular lesbian humor website, writing all sorts of self-deprecating jokes about queer women for queer women and we’d all laugh at ourselves.

However, by the end of this particular conversation, a conversation in mixed-company about a serious topic, we weren’t all laughing together. Which I think speaks to the fact that if a joke in such a context doesn’t go over super well, maybe the joke-teller could think about why that is and ask some clarifying questions.

Sure, I get that it’s everyone’s right to say whatever they want to say and to laugh at whatever they want to laugh at. And if that’s folks’ prerogative to do that in mixed-company conversations, okay. But then I would argue that we should also not pretend that such approaches constitute civility or attempts at understanding.

I’ll end by noting that if men can’t handle the little things in a civil manner, like a woman suggesting that it’s problematic for a man to “joke” that he better run away from the conversation participants after he posts a controversial article, do they really expect women to trust that they’re capable of participating in the bigger conversations- about rape, abortion, and autonomy- in a civil manner?

(*I’m not challenging the comment deletions, I’m just letting people know that the referenced conversation was deleted and that I wasn’t the person who deleted it.)


31 Responses to “On Humor and Civility”

  1. Fannie: I hear you. I really do. I read every word of this post, and tried to consider it carefully, because I respect you and, in particular, I value, and have learned from, your words and actions when it comes to civil dialogue. At the same time, I cannot for the life of me find anything objectionable, from any point of view, in what Matt wrote. I mean, not even .000001 percent problematic. Maybe that is my shortcoming. But there it is.

  2. Schroeder says:

    Fannie,

    I feel like my comment on the last post was misunderstood. I really want understanding between us, though, and let me explain why, briefly: I don’t know many people with your perspective (feminist and lesbian), and I want to be able to learn from you. I really do. And I feel like the misunderstanding is preventing me from doing that.

    As I said my comment then, I loved reading Simone De Beauvoir and Virginia Woolf, and I’m interested in learning more about the feminist perspective.

    You say, “I thought he was just trying to make a joke and likely didn’t even know that that’s a problematic pattern of behavior men often engage in when they try to talk about gender issues with women and feminists.”

    Fannie, I never denied that something similar to what Matt did was ever “a problematic pattern of behavior men often engage in when they try to talk about gender issues with women and feminists.” In fact, I think you’re correct that it sometime is (although I imagine it’s rarely, if ever, intentional… you never said that it was, though, so that’s neither here nor there).

    My point, rather, was that I think you misunderstood Matt’s post in this particular case. In other words, while I know that that does happen, I don’t think that was what was happening in this particular case.

    For one thing, in the rest of Matt’s post, he made it clear that he does not agree with Murray. Like I said in my last comment, I might make a similar joke if I were quoting Karl Marx, Saul Alinsky, Ayn Rand, or any number of similar figures.

    So when you say, “Wow, but can I actually disagree with him without him feeling super threatened? How delicately do I have to put any sort of disagreement for him to not feel abused at the hands of Angry Feminists?” while I can see where you’re coming from, I don’t think Matt would have been threatened by disagreement with the Murray quote, because he himself thought the Murray quote was over-simplistic.

    I do owe you an apology, though: I should never have attacked you personally. That was wrong. Full stop.

    What I was getting at, though, was that I didn’t think you were being charitable to Matt in this particular instance. I was not generalizing about feminists or even about you (not that that’s any excuse for it).

  3. fannie says:

    David and Schroeder,

    What you both seem to be overlooking is the fact that I’m telling you how I feel about Matt’s joke. I’m not asking you if you find it problematic of offensive.

    And, I’m suggesting that we all have to be careful in mixed-company conversations with such attempts at cracking jokes. Particularly, as I don’t think any of you- Matt, David, or Schroeder (by your own past admission)- are super knowledgeable about the female feminist experience, I think you need to be careful about suggesting that it’s somehow oversensitive or out of line or “uncharitable” when people sincerely take offense at something.

    Schroeder, I also disagree with your interpretation, per Matt’s own later clarification. In response to my question about his “I’m just going to run away” comment, he specifically noted that he said it both because Charles Murray is controversial and because he’s a man who’s relatively uninformed about feminism wading into a discussion about sexism. To me, that suggests precisely the pattern I have referenced in my post.

  4. annajcook says:

    I cannot for the life of me find anything objectionable, from any point of view, in what Matt wrote.

    I think, David, that much of it has to do with context. Fannie (and I, to a lesser extent), as feminist bloggers come from a different experiential context than you. We see how — as outspoken women on gender issues — men react with pre-emptive anxiety and fear around us, at times, and try to diffuse that anxiety and fear with humor. And then we see how that humor gets used to undercut any critique we have. As an example of this pattern, I’d point you toward the excellent article by Katherine Cross, “Game Changer,” in which she talks about how the bullying and abuse in online gaming culture often gets a pass because it’s “just a game.” She writes about the verbal abuse women gamers have faced:

    “Joking” and other ways of expressing prejudice under this rubric are how certain people—especially men, as demonstrated by the foregoing ethnographic work—can journey into the forbidden and be “un-PC.” It requires the moral sanction of “unreality” but uses language designed to police boundaries by having real impacts. The bullying directed at Hepler and Sarkeesian was meant to put each woman back in her place and away from the ramparts of male gamedom.

    Obviously, Matthew’s gesture toward getting slammed for bringing up gender issues is no on this same level of attack — no where near! — but it cues into that type of interaction, it draws on a whole culture of nervousness around gender and feminism that sends up red flags for those of us who are used to hearing over and over again that our concerns are “too serious” and we should just “lighten up.”

    Ultimately, I would argue that drawing on that rhetoric shortchanges the ability of men to enter into serious conversations about gender, sexuality, and feminism. Matthew (and others here) should be able to speak their piece and stand firm by their opinions without pre-emptively assuming that others will pile on them for speaking from their own experience, or making the case for their way of viewing things. To assume ahead of time that a topic is too volatile to be treated with other than kid gloves (or by gently putting it down and running the other way) is to duck responsibility for actually having the meaningful, meaty, and sometimes difficult conversations about how we all live together as a diverse group of people.

  5. fannie says:

    David, I just re-read your comment because I wanted to make sure I read it correctly:

    “At the same time, I cannot for the life of me find anything objectionable, from any point of view, in what Matt wrote.” (emphasis added)

    Wow.

    Are you saying that in the 30 minutes from the time I posted my article to the time you posted your comment, you think you adequately considered all points of view on this issue?

    Look, I know from past experience with you that you’re pretty open-minded and reasonable. But, I think you’re missing the point by telling us that you can’t find anything wrong with the joke. As I said in my post:

    Now, I don’t expect everyone to agree with me on the point that his ‘joke’ wasn’t funny. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me that the precursor was, no matter how it was intended, rude. And, I don’t even expect all women or all feminists to agree with me here.

    I kinda read your comment, which is more of a conclusion than an argument, as more of a defense of Matt rather than an attempt to understand my point of view, let alone all points of view.

    I mean, if you want me to try to explain it for you more, I’m willing. But, I see both you and Schroeder, by your own words and actions, acting more interested in telling me that there’s nothing wrong with the joke than anything else.

  6. Schroeder says:

    Fannie,

    I’m sorry you were offended by Matt’s joke. Also, sorry for not acknowledging that earlier.

  7. fannie says:

    Thanks Schroeder.

    Also, here’s a link to a popular feminist blogger who discusses the joke in more detail.

    Just as a note about some of the content, I think that some feminists (like myself) find some of her language humorous and resonating, and that some men might feel offended and/or hurt by it.

    Which, I think, kind of speaks to what my post here is about. In a comment here, among men engaging in this behavior, I likely wouldn’t start by calling such behavior “bullsh**” as I recognize that would likely not be funny to some people and would, in fact, offend some folks.

  8. Maggie Gallagher says:

    In wonder whether civility in “mixed company” i.e. in public argument, also includes the obligation to be thick skinned.

    That is not to infer offense unless clearly intended.

  9. Maggie Gallagher says:

    I really do wonder, not making a conclusion. We typically think of civility as the obligation of the speaker but what of the listener?

  10. hammerpants says:

    Hello all. I am a regular reader at FSB but do not comment very often.

    I am jumping in here because I would like to add another voice/perspective. As a lesbian feminist myself, the thread last week that Fannie is referencing read as very problematic to me at the time, and Fannie’s explanations here in this post for why that is are very thorough. I do recognize that not all will agree with her or myself, or see evidence of what she’s talking about as clearly as we do, and that’s okay. That’s how life is — we all understand the world through our own human experience. Someone cannot prove that something is offensive with facts — offending people is something that those who are offended have authority on, not a casual observer.

    If one does not understand why a person is offended, or why someone views a particular tact as problematic, the best thing to do in mixed company where the end goal is civil dialog, is to inquire why.

    I don’t read Fannie’s post as an attempt to prove something was offensive, but rather a proposal and suggestion that for those whose goal is civil discourse, entering into conflicts or misunderstandings with a spirit of genuine curiosity and willingness to listen goes a long way.

    What I saw on the thread is people reacting as though Fannie’s reaction of taking offense was offensive in and of itself, and I didn’t see many responses of genuine curiosity.

    In the case of me reading the referenced thread at that point in time, I did not jump in with comments because I did not want to voluntarily enter the fray and have multiple people tell me that I don’t have a sense of humor, are overly sensitive, or try to explain to me what’s really going on, which is how I saw Fannie being treated. I wish that I had the mustard that Fannie does to speak so frequently, eloquently, and civilly here from the feminist, lesbian perspective, but I do not. I just want people to be aware that she is not alone in her perspective.

    Thanks for listening.

  11. fannie says:

    Hi Maggie,

    As we’ve been discussing civility here over the past few months, I think many of us have come to a consensus that it’s not civil for the listener to assume bad faith on anyone’s part. That, I think is a fair obligation for the listener when it comes to civility.

    What I don’t think would be fair would be to also impose an obligation upon listeners to never be able to state that they feel offended.

    In fact, with respect to my post, notice how I didn’t claim that Matthew intended to give offense. I used “I” statements to state how his post made me feel, rather than stating something like, “Matthew meant to hurt me!”

    People can hurt other people even if they have the best of intentions. And, I think the view that the “listener,” the person who has been hurt, has to have super thick skin and can never say that they have been hurt is not an open, honest, or direct way for people to engage in communication. Not only can it lead to a lot of resentment on the part of the listener, it privileges the feelings of the person doing the hurting to continue thinking of themselves as Not Problematic, rather than on the person who has been hurt.

  12. Billy says:

    I want to echo Hammerpants’ comments above. Fannie is a remarkable writer who has a wonderfully analytical mind. She notices implications that many of us miss on first reading. From my perspective, her reaction to Matthew’s comment wasn’t aggressive or “injustice-collecting” (as gay people used to accused of whenever we complained of anything), simply pointing out that the “joke” had a long history among men speaking to/with/about feminists.

    People obviously don’t like to be told that something they have said is offensive. But as Hammerpants says, the appropriate answer should be to ask why and in what way the comment is offensive. Just my two cents about a thread in which I did not participate.

  13. annajcook says:

    Maggie writes:

    I wonder whether civility in “mixed company” i.e. in public argument, also includes the obligation to be thick skinned … We typically think of civility as the obligation of the speaker but what of the listener?

    I do agree with you, Maggie, that respectful speaking/listening is a two-way street. But I think, just as with speaking, it is important to remember that listening is situated in our own experiences. People on the margins, by and large, have learned how to be “thick skinned” while listening as a matter of day-to-day survival — and yet their tolerance levels for the kind of casual verbal abuse, bully, and dismissal, etc, they endure is seen as normal, par for the course, rather than something that takes effort. Whereas when people whose experiences are centered by the majority show restraint and graciousness in the face of anger, they’re praised to the skies.

    A similar example would be the way mothers are just expected to shoulder care for children, whereas men are praised and get positive social feedback for being “involved dads.” The yardstick by which mothers and fathers are measured in our society is not equal. Likewise, the yardstick by which “civility” or respectfulness is measured varies wildly whether you are in the “ingroup” vs. the “outgroup” in a given situation (and in the larger socio-cultural context).

    So from my perspective we do all of us — as speakers and as listeners — have a certain obligation to come to the “mixed-company” table with the assumption that our fellow conversationalists are speaking (and listening) in good faith until proven otherwise. But I would caution from my experience that understandings of what being “thick skinned” requires, and what “civility” requires, vary depending on one’s perspective, and that we cannot all assume that it is self-evident what the personal cost of either is, and where listening in good faith stops and holding people accountable for the effect of their words and actions begins.

    @hammerpants, greetings! nice to see another non-straight, feminist voice in the thread :)!

  14. Karen says:

    Maggie, Thank you. I know, understand and highly respect where you are coming from.

  15. fannie says:

    Anna,

    You make a good point above.

    I think Maggie is worthy of respect as a human being, and I like interacting with her and trying to understand where she’s coming from.

    But, I’m also not sure if she comprehends the level of hurt that many of us feel due to her public advocacy against same-sex marriage and that, like, for me even to be here giving her thoughts on civility credence and respect would be, for some LGBT people, kind of…. surreal.

    I hear from some nonfeminsts and opponents of same-sex marriage that I’m thin-skinned, but I think it’s also worth noting that I hear from LGBT people and feminists all the time that I’m really thick-skinned and that they don’t know how I’m able to so frequently interact with opponents of SSM and non-feminists while staying sane and civil.

    And these different perceptions of my “sensitivity,” I think really speak to how subjective the areas of offense and humor are, and that none of us has the special unique capacity being completely objective arbiters of either one. It’s only possible, I think, for us to speak about where we’re coming from, and try to help people better understand that.

  16. Schroeder says:

    Someone cannot prove that something is offensive with facts — offending people is something that those who are offended have authority on, not a casual observer.

    Fannie, in line with this, I have to confess that I was offended, subjectively, when you posted a comment linking to a blog by a male feminist and said something along the lines of:

    “As a bonus, this was written by a man, so maybe it will carry more weight around here.”

    I felt like you were sarcastically implying that I was sexist and that I wasn’t interested in what you are other feminists had to say, which is not true.

    (To clarify, when I say “which is not true,” I primarily mean the second clause, i.e. “that I wasn’t interested in what you are other feminists had to say,” because I know that I am interested. Although I don’t think that I’m sexist, I realize and acknowledge that I might be sexist unbeknownst to myself. But I would nevertheless like others to assume the best about me.)

    Also, as a question for consideration, what do you think is the proper course of action when someone really is easily offended? Is it impolite to engage that person at all, or should you just go ahead risk offending them, while acknowledging their feelings as legitimate? (I’m not accusing anyone here of being easily offended. I’m just posing a genuine hypothetical question, because I really don’t know the answer.)

  17. Maggie Gallagher says:

    Thank you all for your civility towards me.

    Communicating across moral universes is challenging.

    I believe our historic understanding of marriage is good and is based on important human goods. Unions of male and female are different from same-sex unions in some important respects and create social goods that are different from same-sex unions that go to the heart of why marriage has been a universal human social institution and a matter for civil government.

    Its not as if I don’t understand that some people find this hurtful, to answer your question.

    When I have asked,” is it the way I’m speaking that causes the hurt, or the
    idea itself that is hurtful?”, the answer has generally been, once we probe a little, the ideas themselves are hurtful not the manner in which they are expressed. (that is, some people find the manner also hurtful, but when probed acknowledge that fundamentally it’s the ideas themselves, however expressed that are hurtful.)

    So we gaze across at each other from across this moral gulf that civility cannot in itself cover.

    But I will say I have never enjoyed the fact these ideas hurt some people. I do not get pleasure from causing gay people pain.

    One of the unacknowledged questions of civilization is: what suffering to we focus our attention on?

  18. Bregalad says:

    Fannie is referencing a thread that no longer exists which makes it difficult to tell whether or not she overreacted to Matt’s joke or whether Matt overreacted to Fannie’s criticism. For the benefit of those who weren’t privy to the original discussion, would it be possible for the admin to restore that thread to aid in everyone’s discernment process? If the admin does not have access to the content of the thread anymore, I’d be happy to provide it, as I made sure to save it after Fannie proposed Schroeder’s comment to be a violation of the civilty statement, an unfair personal attack against her, and that it be removed. (My perspective: If it truly was a violation, half of the posts around here are too.) I had a feeling that after Fannie’s proposal for Schroder’s rather polite — even generous! — post to be taken down, then it was only a matter of time before the whole thread disappeared. Frankly, I have a hard time believing that any poster could have made such a request and it be respected like her’s was. Fortunately, there’s a way to test this hypothesis, which I’ll jokingly call the David Blankenhon hypothesis, because he once wrote that there was no power disparity or asymetry between Fannie and any other Family Scholar poster. If that is true, it should be evidenced here and now if it is to be evidenced at all. (Please note, David, that I respect you greatly, I merely disagree with you here.)

    In the original thread, the admin said, in an attempt to quell the controversy, “I think Fannie, Matthew, Bregalad, and Schroeder’s exchange is unhelpful and is getting off topic and I am putting everyone on warning. It is not uncivil to disagree, but doing so flippantly sets us on a bad trajectory and brings down the entire conversation. Speaking into such disagreements only throw gas on the fire, even if it is well meant.” Matthew, Bregalad, and Schroeder ceased writing about the subject. Fannie did not–she protested Schroeder’s post among other things. Finally, the admin wrote: “Earlier I issued a warning to several conversation participants but did not take down the comments that were an issue because I believed a warning would be sufficient. Unfortunately the direction of the conversation did not change, so I have removed all of the offending comments. I consider that part of the conversation concluded, and will continue deleting any comments referring to it, and if necessary will take further action. I hope that this is the last I will have to weigh in.” Fannie has now restarted the conversation… again… a conversation I thought was closed. I’m sure official bloggers like Fannie and Matthew have authority to reopen certain discussions at certain times, but it seems abusive to the admin and an abuse of one’s blogging privilege, to reopen not a week later a conversation deemed “unhelpful.”

    From my perspective — and I may be completely wrong, please contradict, oppose, and/or discredit me if that is the case, after all, I’m just your guest — we can proceed in several different ways, two of which I’ll elucidate now. Either this whole conversation is reopend, in which case the original thread should be restored to aid our discernment, or this entire post should be deleted because it is, in fact, unhelpful as the admin originally made clear, and that any further comments on this topic will also be deleted, as the admin also originally made clear.

    —–

    All in all, this blogpost brings to mind something I read recently (see below). But first, I ask a serious question to you, Fannie. If I object or am offended by your taking of offense, will you grant that feeling legitimacy? I ask because you wrote this above: “…a different man suggested that Matthew felt “hurt” by my argument and, simultaneously, that other people “felt” they had to “walk on eggshells around” me because I point stuff like this out.” Why the scare quotes? Is it not possible for Matt in this instance to feel “hurt”? Are you saying that people really don’t “feel” like they have to walk on eggshells around you? I say this because I see offense-taking and the culture it produces as a downward spiral. Once someone takes offense too hastily, the next person does as well, and so on. I say, instead, let’s aim for politeness and not take ourselves too seriously. Let’s interpret people’s comments in a positive light, not a negative one.

    Alright, without further ado, the article this whole blogpost reminded me of. Enjoy!

    “As Western society has become progressively more sensitized to victims, the unempowered, and the disenfranchised, and has desired to give a voice to them, we have tended to truncate or limit public discourse in various ways to ensure that such groups don’t feel threatened. While well-meaning, this reformation of public discourse has come at considerable cost. It has rendered the taking of offence or the playing of the victim or underdog card incredibly powerful ploys within debate. In many cases these ploys overwhelm the debate, making challenging debate next to impossible. These ploys, as they are often open to only one party in the debate, establish their own secondary power differential, a differential that can frequently provide more influence on the course of a conversation for those willing and able to leverage it than the primary differential would provide to those advantaged by it. I will discuss this in more depth later in this post.

    The retailoring of public discourse around these power differentials and the negotiation of the limited amount of trust between parties has resulted in a significant transformation of that discourse in a manner that jeopardizes certain values that are integral to a free society. Within this transformed public discourse, values such as ‘tolerance’, ‘nonjudgmentalism’, and ‘reasonableness’ are paramount – all values that result in the restriction of reason and the claims of challenging discourse from realms in which they formerly operated. ‘Tolerance’ is perceived to deny any right to subject individuals and their core beliefs and identities to the claims of any greater truth or the challenge of a broader conversation. ‘Nonjudgmentalism’ denies the right to be rigorous in forming and applying considered judgments, particularly moral ones. ‘Reasonableness’ denies us the right to introduce our deepest convictions into public discourse. To be ‘reasonable’ is to expect much less from rational discourse and the power of persuasion, reining in the socially unsettling force of challenging debate, seeking rather to settle matters using the decidedly limited resources of consensus principles.

    However, each of these commitments entails the closing down of the sort of challenging and searching public discourse that can secure a free and open society. Discourse is increasingly truncated, to the point that it is no longer able to say much that is meaningful, and is unlikely to be able to settle many of our differences without our deeper convictions being smuggled into the debate under vague terms such as ‘equality’, ‘freedom’, and ‘reciprocity’. With the loss of trust in the power of rational discourse, the unifying power of a shared pursuit of truth, and the effectiveness of persuasion, public discourse provides a slender basis for intellectual community, and core convictions tend to become ghettoized. As this truncated discourse is unable either to resolve or clearly to expose the source of our differences, parties end up talking past each other and the temperature of debates swiftly rise.

    …One of the immediate effects of the culture of offence is to encourage the thinning of skins, and the raising of sensitivities. Persons are trained to be suspicious to the point of paranoia of all differing viewpoints, a suspicion that enables them to put the worst possible construction on the words and actions of their opponents and critics. Far from representing a triumph of critical thinking, these hermeneutics of suspicion tend to reproduce the same threadbare analyses that have been applied on a myriad previous occasions and create a sterile groupthink…”

    From: http://alastairadversaria.wordpress.com/2012/08/07/of-triggering-and-the-triggered-part-4/

  19. Maggie Gallagher says:

    For me–and I’m wandering far astray here of Fannie’s concerns, but I use these comments section to try to think and trust some people find it interesting or helpful–for me, this also raises some questions that only arise for people like me: our society has chosen to focus on the suffering of gay people as the most important suffering at this moment in history.

    Why, given I do not lack ordinary human empathy (something I know about myself but do not ask or expect you do give me credit for), why do I resist so strongly, “going there”?

    This is something I’m trying to figure out. Its not that I’m afraid to say controversial things. Or that I’m trying to protect my income. Or that I’m consumed with hatred.

    Its something else.

    Forgive me for thinking out loud in your presence.

  20. annajcook says:

    our society has chosen to focus on the suffering of gay people as the most important suffering at this moment in history

    I’m pretty startled that this is how it feels to you, Maggie. Because from where I’m standing, social justice activism at its best is a wide-ranging coalition of folks who are striving to end many, many kinds of suffering: poverty, sexism, racism, ageism, abelism, anti-gay prejudice, hatred rooted in religious prejudice against other faiths (or faith full-stop, or atheism), fat-phobia, environmental degradation, persecution of immigrants, exploitation of the global poor, …. and I’m sure others could add issues to those that I have listed.

    As a queer person, I would be very, very uncomfortable if anyone suggested that LGBT equality were “the most important” issue of the present age. It is one of many, all of which are important when we consider how to increase the well-being of the human family.

  21. Karen says:

    AMEN Bregalad!!!!!!!

  22. fannie says:

    Bregalad,

    “I’m sure official bloggers like Fannie and Matthew have authority to reopen certain discussions at certain times, but it seems abusive to the admin and an abuse of one’s blogging privilege, to reopen not a week later a conversation deemed ‘unhelpful.’”

    At this blog, we have been having an ongoing conversation around the general topic of civility. When the referenced conversation occurred, it gave me the general idea to write about the topic of how the use of humor can backfire in purported civil conversation.

    It was not my intent to litigate and re-litigage the referenced conversation, but to use it as an example of how humor is a subjective matter and that what’s funny to some people isn’t funny to all people.

    The thesis of my post is that, specifically:

    “Within conversations where the goal is for civil dialogue to occur, I think we especially need to be mindful of attempts to use humor and facetiousness. Although it can be tempting to use humor to diffuse tensions, if it is not done with an awareness of the experiences of “the other side” it can come off as hostile. It can, and often does, actually escalate tensions with the very people one purports to want to engage in a civil manner.”

    Accordingly, I find that your framing of my post reflects a poor comprehension of this thesis:

    “Fannie is referencing a thread that no longer exists which makes it difficult to tell whether or not she overreacted to Matt’s joke or whether Matt overreacted to Fannie’s criticism.”

    Furthermore, if David B. or Elizabeth find my post, its thesis, or its contents “abusive,” as you claim it is, I’m sure they will contact me directly about the matter.

  23. fannie says:

    Given the limited number of comments in these threads, I’m going to suggest that participants be mindful of writing more bridge-building and substantive comments here.

    For instance, Karen, can you please be specific about your agreement with Bregalad? Are you willing to articulate your points and own them?

  24. Karen says:

    Nope. He said it all. Fannie, comments can now go up to 50 or more, can’t play that card any more.

  25. fannie says:

    Karen,

    Please don’t accuse me of “play[ing] a card.” Comments have been capped at 50 for some time now, and I haven’t been notified that that’s changed.

    Thanks.

    I get that a “like” button would be nice for comments to have (oh, believe me!), but if the comments are going to be capped I rather have people engage in substantive commentary.

  26. Karen says:

    :) 8) ;)

  27. Amy Ziettlow says:

    This conversation has reminded me of my favorite job interview question. For many years the HR Coordinator and I would conduct the call back interviews with candidates for our hospice team or hospice leadership team-so nurses, social workers, accountants, administrators-so a diversity of professional people. My favorite questions was: Tell me about a time when you were misunderstood. How did you know you were being misunderstood? What did you do?
    Only once did someone actually say “I’ve never been misunderstood.” And we ended the interview immediately.
    We asked this question because one of our key tenets was EXPECT TO BE MISUNDERSTOOD; we would drill into the team that WE WILL BE MISUNDERSTOOD. For starters, we misunderstood each other all the time from really straightforward things like how to spell a caregiver’s name to the nuances of a perceived offensive tone from the on-call nurse talking to a social worker on the weekend requesting back-up. And then, our patients and families misunderstood us all the time in part because we were teaching them new tasks and terminology all the time, and because they came, as did we, with a wide array of educational and cultural backgrounds. The levels to which we could fail to understand one another never ceased to amaze me. And the team members who quit were the ones who never bought into our belief that when misunderstandings happen IT’S US, IT’S ME. Meaning, I need to listen to you again, I need to read back to you what I’m hearing, or I need to re-state myself, or I need to name that I think you are looking offended or confused or lost or whatever and so on.
    I found two books especially helpful: Crucial Conversations (when you want to keep the person with whom you disagree engaged in relationship and you are equals–so good for colleagues, spouses, friends) and Crucial Confrontations (when you need to address someone’s behavior that needs to change and there are power dynamics involved directly-boss, parent)

  28. Billy says:

    Your comment here, “our society has chosen to focus on the suffering of gay people as the most important suffering at this moment in history,” is untrue. It may also be offensive, but I am not offended by it since I think it is simply a rhetorical ploy by you.

    If “our society” (whoever that generality covers) was really focusing on the suffering of gay people as the most important suffering at this moment in history, we would not have to be fighting enormously expensive electoral battles simply to receive equal rights. We not have to worry about the 30 states in which it is perfectly legal to fire gay people for being gay. We would not have to worry about the epidemic of young gay and lesbian people who commit suicide because of the intolerance they feel, intolerance that mostly emanates from churches and allied organizations.

    The people who have lately been playing the “victim” card are not glbtq people, but people who pretend that allowing equal rights to gay people somehow victimizes them. They suffer to think that a gay couple and their children might achieve equal rights and dignity in this society. Should we shed tears for their suffering?

  29. fannie says:

    Maggie,

    “‘When I have asked,’ is it the way I’m speaking that causes the hurt, or the idea itself that is hurtful?”, the answer has generally been, once we probe a little, the ideas themselves are hurtful not the manner in which they are expressed. (that is, some people find the manner also hurtful, but when probed acknowledge that fundamentally it’s the ideas themselves, however expressed that are hurtful.)”

    Actually, I have found both your manner and your ideas to be hurtful. And, actually, your manner moreso than your ideas. David B. has historically been able to express his opposition to SSM in a civil manner that still affirmed the dignity of gay people.

    I may also be attributing some of my opinions on your manner to the actions and “manner” of NOM. I don’t expect you to, like, sit here and recount the campaigns and tactics that you specifically came up with or were involved in, but I do think people see you as kind of the “face” of NOM (even though I think you’ve said before that you’re no longer with them?). And, lots of people really don’t like NOM’s manner, so to speak.

    “But I will say I have never enjoyed the fact these ideas hurt some people. I do not get pleasure from causing gay people pain.”

    Thank you for saying that. I think it would be good for more people to hear you say that. I also think that would come as a surprise to some people.

    “One of the unacknowledged questions of civilization is: what suffering to we focus our attention on?”

    I guess I don’t agree that society currently sees the suffering of gay people as the most important suffering. I think, instead, that the gay rights movement has done a good job of highlighting anti-gay animus that does exist and that many people now think that there are really no good, “civil” reasons for opposing SSM. I think that it’s less that people are super concerned with the suffering of gay people, or think we’re society’s biggest victims ever.

  30. Bregalad says:

    It was not my intent to litigate and re-litigage the referenced conversation, but to use it as an example of how humor is a subjective matter and that what’s funny to some people isn’t funny to all people.

    Fannie, I understood your thesis and I think my reading comprehension is just fine, thank you. You are using as an example the referenced conversation to help prove your thesis. Presumably, you think the referenced convo is evidence for your thesis in some form or fashion. If it wasn’t, then why bring it up at all? My point is that we don’t have access to the evidence and that should be rectified.

    In addition to your attempt at proving your thesis, I think you are also relitigating the referenced discussion. David Blankenhorn evidently thought so. Schroeder as well. In your responses to them, you yourself relitigated the issue pretty explicitly. When Schroeder so graciously apologized to you for something Matt said in the referenced conversation, you accepted it. At no point did you say, “Don’t worry, the past is the past, and I don’t want to rehash it.” Because you DO want to rehash it. Because you ARE rehashing it. Even though the admin said not to. BTW – no admin response yet… ;)

    Also, I’m going to frame my posts as I see fit. I know I’m on topic but my framing will, of course, be different than yours. That’s normal.

    Fannie, I posed several questions to you kinda in the middle of my post. I know you don’t have a duty to respond, and you may have good reasons to not give them the time of day, but I’m always interested in your opinion. If you find them worthy, I’d like to hear what you think of them.

  31. [...] Fannie’s post seems to have reached its maximum number of comments, but I had already written a comment. So I’m starting a new thread to continue that conversation. [...]