It turns out, other people on Internet like to talk about civility too!
Over at Camels With Hammers, philosophy professor Dan Fincke has stirred up the skeptic/atheist blogosphere by writing a rather lengthy, detailed civility pledge. The lawyer part of me is intrigued by the depth and precision of it, even as I have reservations about its pragmatic application and even as the cynical (or hopeful? it’s good to have these conversations, right?!) part of me foresees endless pedantic meta-debates in its future (or maybe that’s the lawyer part of me too).
On an individual commenter level, managing his 13 rules (and many, many more sub-rules) in addition to contributing substantive points to a conversation, seems like a lot for any person’s mind to juggle. In the midst of considering and re-considering whether the words one wants to use are the most accurate, precise, and civil words one could be using, is it normal to be like, “Wait….. what did I want to say, again?”
Nonetheless, what I appreciate about his pledge is its suggestion that civility in contentious conversations is both a difficult and a worthwhile aim. And, I agree with much of his pledge, even if I think it would be impossible for even a saint to be 100% compliant with it.
Beyond perhaps the more obvious tenets such as not assuming bad faith, are maybe less obvious ones like holding our allies to the same standards we want to see in our opposition and not implying that people we disagree with are necessarily “stupid” or “crazy.” I say these latter tenets seem less obvious because I don’t see them regularly practiced in the blogosphere, or in more traditional avenues of punditry actually. Conceding that people we like or people we are politically aligned with sometimes act in problematic ways seems to be too much of a concession than what many people are regularly willing to make.
While I was more active in the atheist and skeptic blogosphere in the earlier days of my blogging, I retreated from it in large part because of some of its participants’ incivility toward both religious people and feminists. I just altogether stopped reading blogs where it seemed like every day the headlines bemoaned how some “idiot,” “wingnut,” “lunatic,” or “crazy” person said this or that thing that the blogger felt was so self-evidently wrong that it required no actual rebuttal. Besides, it seems to be a form of microaggression to read bigoted statements over and over again that are never actually substantively addressed. Do the heterosexual ally atheists continually citing homobigoted statements ever think about that potential impact on their LGBT readers? But that’s a whole other can of worms (that anyone’s welcome to address).
Becoming more active in feminist blogging, over the years, allowed me to participate with other skeptic/agnostic-leaning communities for whom feminism was not self-evidently irrational or unworthy of being seriously discussed. And, in feminist blogging, I found that people seemed more willing to call out ableist language suggesting that one’s political opponents were intellectually inferior, mentally unstable, or disabled by sheer virtue of their political opposition. Feminist Internet is notorious, or famous, for its Call-Out Culture! Can you believe it? LOL.
To end, I think civility is important to continually strive for in debate primarily because it recognizes the human dignity of those we disagree with. Yet, like Fincke, it has a practical side as well. He writes:
“When you challenge people you make them uncomfortable. They would rather, if they can find some fault in your demeanor, blame you for being a bad person rather than have to consider that it is the truth of your ideas that is the problem. So why give them the actual evidence you’re a disrespectful person that encourages them in their preferred narrative?”
In my experience, many people approach Internet debate as though an enemy is lurking within everyone who disagrees with them. Oftentimes, the assumption is that those who disagree are acting in bad faith, being “disingenuous,” and perhaps being hellbent on destroying society [or something else most people care strongly about]. Many people have a lot invested in thinking the worst of their political opponents, and when we are uncivil, we confirm that narrative and give our political opponents an excuse to disengage and to not take our substantive arguments seriously.
It is easy, lazy, and oftentimes inaccurate to think of our political opponents as monsters with whom we have little in common. And in that shared belief, many people of all political persuasions have more in common with one another than they’d ever care to admit.