Morality Religion

More on civil discourse and Jen McCreight

Every day seems to bring another example of someone trying to outdo the previous day’s example of spleen-venting on the Internet, especially (of late) in the skeptic/atheist/freethought community. One of the consequences of this was the emergence of atheism+, which I wrote about a few weeks ago.  The sentiment behind a+ is easy to understand – over the past few years, seemingly intractable differences of opinion have emerged inside what some like to call (even if the name is perhaps – and sadly – often merely aspirational) the community of reason, most notably around sexism and misogyny. Various examples of sexism and/or misogyny have been endlessly debated, and these debates have included whether the offences were genuine or perceived, how much that even matters, who the guilty parties are and who is on the side of angels.

Many folk, myself included, have felt compelled to pick sides – or have been assigned to a side, whether they feel like they’re on one or not. The assignation is sometimes made easy, as some commentators seem happy to let their hatred shine, whether towards a construction called “Richard Dawkins” or one called “Rebecca Watson” (for simplicity, I’m using the Adam and Eve characters – there are many further examples one could cite). But that ur-story, and all the subsequent ones, contain so much detail and he said/she said components that you’ll almost invariably offend someone if you wade in. My previous call for civility even invoked (a little, to be sure) offence from Stephanie Zvan, so it’s not even safe to say “play nice”.

Nor should it be safe – one can call for others to “play nice” in a way that is counter-productive through being smug, blind to privilege, one-sided and so forth. Most troubling, perhaps, is that you might make that sort of call in ignorance of the fact that you’re one of those causing the problem. And it’s this final point that I want to address here. Everybody – on both sides of the debate, and everywhere in between – should not be permitted to forget this simple principle: no matter what’s come before, you – and only you – are responsible for what you say in response to it.

I left a comment saying essentially that on a blog post titled “Daddy to the Rescue!” The comment was published, and then deleted a few hours later (and there are reports from others of comment deletion on the thread there). For those who don’t know the context of that blog post, it’s this: Jen McCreight posted something amounting to a retirement/resignation letter to her blog. In it, she cites hate mail and so forth, and also reminds us of her chronic depression. She had basically run out of energy or strength to remain active, as despite the support she continued to receive from some, it was too disheartening to be the subject of constant abuse.

One dimension to this is the details of who is right and wrong in these debates on misogyny and related matters. Another is the playground question of “who started it”. Quite another is the question of what any skeptic/atheist/freethinker thinks can ever be served by insulting others instead of trying to demonstrating their error(s). Causing gratuitous harm is something we criticise (some of) the religious for, remember – why are we doing it to each other? I realise that many of you have tried to reason with those you consider to be your opponents, and have only ended up resorting to insult when reason failed. That’s understandable, even if regrettable (well, I certainly regret it when I do it).

It’s the last question, of insult (in Jen McCreight’s case, sustained) and the effects it has on people that led her father to post the following:

People who call her whore, cunt, bitch, etc. need to learn some civility.  Some parents forgot to teach their children how to disagree without being disagreeable.

The Internet has allowed a lot of people to express their thoughts.  But, it has also allowed anonymous people to publish pure hate and filth without any accountability.  If someone has enough balls to call my daughter a slut to her face I would quickly introduce them to some accountability – a quick fist to the mouth.

What we need in our society is a multitude of free thought, not a multitude of foul mouths.

Yes, in the tinder-box climate we’re talking about, it was a mistake to threaten a “fist to the mouth”. But as for the rest, it seems uncontroversial to me that you can disagree without being disagreeable, that the anonymity of the Internet has lowered our standards of civility, and that it would be (was/is) abusive to call Jen McCreight “whore, cunt, bitch etc.”. But some people seem to think that the problem is something else entirely, namely “Wooly Bumblebee” and some of her commentators. Ms Bumblebee thinks that Mike McCreight’s call for people to stop abusing his daughter

has to be the most pathetic thing I have yet to see. A grown woman being rescued by her daddy. It’s a fucking joke, and speaks volumes as to why she can’t handle the slightest little bump in the road. She is completely incapable of functioning as an adult. I rather pity her, and that is not a good thing.

Congratulations daddy dearest, and thank you for proving once and for all how completely incapable your little Jen really is.aricatured misogynist . folk seem through whether that matters including

Really? The “most pathetic thing I have yet to see”? We should surely insert some qualifiers there, like “on the Internet”, but even then the claim seems rather hyperbolic. Yes, Mike is Jen McCreight’s father. And that does provide part (a large part, no doubt) of the explanation for why he felt compelled to intervene. But to discount an intervention because of it’s source – without considering its content – is a simple instance of ad hominem argument. Mike McCreight has unique insight into Jen McCreight’s response to the bullying she’s reported, and it’s no doubt hurtful to him also. In a case like this, the principle of charity could lead us to say something like “Mike McCreight is hurting too, seeing as he cares for his daughter – we’ll suppress our juvenile instinct to accuse her of rushing off to Daddy for protection”.

She didn’t do that in any case – he blogged without her knowledge. Also, accusing someone of running to their parent for protection isn’t persuasive in itself – even if it does speak to immaturity (which would need more work to justify), immaturity on the part of the person that you are bullying doesn’t make your bullying virtuous. Your bullying is never virtuous – bullying is not the sort of thing that admits to virtue, under any circumstances.

No matter how you assign blame for past actions, or what your character judgements are in relation to all the players in this soap opera, we should all remember to include ourselves in those character judgements also, and try to be objective when thinking of our roles in causing or facilitating harm to others. In this instance, Ms Bumblebee has no defence – in the knowledge that Jen McCreight has been jeered off the stage, and had a long-standing depression triggered, she doesn’t take the option of silence (never mind sympathy). Instead, she broadens the net of victims to members of Jen’s family (and of course carries on with ridiculing Jen while doing so). That’s all “on her”, as the Americans like to say, no matter what sins you think Jen might have committed in the past.

Related, but worthy of a separate post at some point, Ron Lindsay’s (good) post from yesterday on “Divisiveness within the secular movement“.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.

10 replies on “More on civil discourse and Jen McCreight”

Thanks for this, Jacques.

I’ve been trying to fathom the point and the responses “Bumblebee” gave for writing this post (as you well know). What makes all this worse, of course, is that some will continue the sniping and swearing but directing it at “Bumblebee”, thus perpetuating the cycle of incivility instead of deploying reasonable criticism to point out why she’s wrong. Also, one can predict that merely disagreeing with “Bumblebee” – which one has every reason to do, since her arguments either don’t exist or are terrible ones – one will be regarded as automatically in some camp or other.

I know many are getting “tired” of this ongoing incivility and debate, but I don’t think we should tire of it. It shows us that we’re all fallible, we all have views that contradict one another and that are opposed – even on fundamental points. It shows that religion might not be the most important thing to combat, but irrationality and dogmatism and tribalism: which, when it shows up even in those who profess to be on the side of reason, is a good lesson to never be comfortable with your convictions or the company you keep. Yes, it’s tiring and many do, with good intentions, cry “Why can’t we get some proper work done: social justice, etc.”, but I’m glad it’s tiring. It means we can’t be complacent. It shouldn’t occupy us to the point of devoting all our energies to it, though, but I don’t see that happening too much.

It is unfortunate what has happened to Ms McCreight and her family. She does not deserve this treatment. Even if she is, I think, wrong on many issues, this is no way for us to have that discussion or debate, since this merely a character attack on her and, worse, on her family. I do wonder if “Bumblebee” will offer responses, but I’m doubtful. I do so hate it when the principle of charity lies in ruins.

I agree entirely, Tauriq. And on your comment that religion might not be the most important thing to combat, that’s certainly in accord with my thinking. There are various ways in which humans make mistakes, and hurt each other (and other things that can be hurt). Religion is one of them, but for me it’s a symptom of something larger which we’d do better to confront directly, and which involved an axis of things like the ones you mention. (Not all of us need focus on the underlying issues, to be sure – specialists are also incredibly valuable.)

Thank-you again for your level-headed words, JR.

>>it seems uncontroversial to me that you can disagree without being disagreeable

>>religion might not be the most important thing to combat, but irrationality and dogmatism and tribalism

>>is a good lesson to never be comfortable with your convictions or the company you keep

Debates, priorities, and goodness — oh my!

Let’s fess up:
– we run out of patience with those who won’t budge, move too slowly, or flip-flop
– we’re skeptical of leaders deciding priorities based on “good”, optimal, or pragmatic
– we aren’t confident that ethicists know enough to advise us about goodness

It’s exactly those liberal tendencies that make us unwilling to work with those who’ve found closure enough to take action.

My understanding is that Mike McCreight’s statement was on his own blog after trolls showed up leaving insulting posts about Jen there. He didn’t intervene on her behalf he was dragged in by those trying to cause her additional pain after she ceased blogging.

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