I’ll not hide the fact that I am a fan of David Bowie’s music, and always have been. Impute whatever biases you will from that, but also try to objectively reflect on my remarks below, on the fact that he had sex with a 15-year-old girl sometime in the early 70s.
In a 2010 column on abusive comments posted below online articles, I wrote:
As Theodore Dalrymple reminds us in his “Thank you for not expressing yourself”, “The immediacy of the response which the internet makes possible also means that people are able to vent their spleen in a way which was not possible, or likely, before. The putting of pen to paper, to say nothing of the act of posting the resultant letter, requires more deliberation than sitting at a computer and firing off an angry e-mail or posting on a website.”
This, I believe, captures the essence of when it is permissible rather than gratuitously offensive to resort to abuse: Would you have said the same things in an old-fashioned letter to the editor? Would you say the same thing to the columnist in person, if you were to meet him at a dinner party? If yes, I say go ahead. But if not, perhaps you should do yourself and all of us a favour, and simply shut up.
But there’s no chance, or a vanishingly small chance, that the trolls will do us that favour. After all, their purpose is to (at least) provoke and offend, and telling them to shut up will do little but invite them to send some abuse your way. So what can we do?
Thousands of people have now signed a petition for Twitter to introduce a “report abuse” button, where this petition was precipitated by the numerous rape threats that Caroline Criado-Perez received after her campaign to have more women feature on UK banknotes. Notung has highlighted some of the issues in a recent post on SkepticInk, and I agree with his skepticism regarding implementing such a reporting mechanism efficiently.
For all the properly abusive Tweets and Internet comments that people somehow think it appropriate to send, this reporting mechanism will surely be exploited by those who want to simply censor things/people they don’t like – or just for mischief (think 4Chan or similar). So whatever else happens, I’d hope for there to be a human or team of humans assessing reports of abuse – carefully – before implementing any bannings or account terminations.
But it’s not as simply as a mere free speech issue for me, because asking the victims of abuse to simply “deal with it” doesn’t acknowledge the fact that some of us are more equipped to deal with abuse than others are – and that those who are less equipped to deal with abuse tend to attract more of it (getting a reaction being, after all, part of the point of being a troll).
It’s also not as simple as saying “don’t feed the trolls”, partly because that smacks a little of victim-blaming, and also because – thanks to the ubiquity of the Internet and a postmodern rejection of authority – everyone thinks that they are an expert on everything, and aren’t afraid to express their views, no matter how ill-considered those views might be. There’s seems to be an intolerance of ambiguity and uncertainty, which results in a default stance of dogmatism and hostility on many corners of the Internet.
Furthermore, as Notung points out, an unintended consequence of a “report abuse” button might be that those who are calling for the button get reported for abuse themselves. Not only because some “social justice warriors” can be rather brutal (in terms of using abusive language) in response to anyone who questions their point of view, thus perhaps meriting being reported, but also simply in retribution for perceived slights. (I don’t mean to generalise about social justice warriors, by the way. I’m referring to the subset of those concerned with social justice issues that appear to be ideologues, brooking little or no dissent).
Like Notung, I don’t have any answers here. But my two suggestions are:
- That more jurisdictions think carefully about implementing legal frameworks that are updated for the digital age, where every abusive twit has access to the means to cause distress to people like Criado-Perez. New Zealand is currently investigating how to go about this, and I think it’s important to work from first principles here. Existing laws on libel, defamation and the like would usually not take 21st-Century communicative possibilities into account, but if we did so, it might well be possible to eliminate much of the abuse without threatening free speech unduly.
- That we continue playing what part we can in discouraging trolls. I’ve written extensively about this before, in these two columns as well as numerous others – and a persistent fear for me is that if we don’t continue actively trying to provide quality content and commentary, blocking and banning trolls on our respective websites, the environment will become unattractive enough that some folk won’t even bother to read, let alone comment. Yes, the Internet is a free-speech zone, and should remain so – but you don’t have an obligation to allow any content on your corner of it. Just like you’d kick an abusive ass out of your house, do so on your blog, or your Twitter feed.
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“.
Originally published in Daily Maverick
In June this year, a court in the German city of Cologne heard a case involving a four-year-old child from a Muslim family who was admitted to hospital with bleeding following a circumcision. The doctor who performed the circumcision did so at the request of the boy’s parents, and was acquitted of the charge of grievous bodily harm for this reason.
While this particular doctor was acquitted, the court made the general observation that circumcision violated a child’s “fundamental right to bodily integrity”, and that this right outweighed the rights of parents. While leaving room for circumcision to be permissible on medical grounds, the court, in other words, ruled that ritual circumcision amounts to impermissible bodily harm and also constituted a violation of the rights of children.
Contrary to the predictable cries of anti-Semitism that have resulted (and how convenient it is for critics that a German court made the ruling), this is a victory for freedom of religion. Yes, one element of one ritual is outlawed, namely that parents can no longer choose to cut flesh from the penis of their non-consenting child. But why should they ever have had that “right”?
The argument that religion, custom and culture – in and of themselves – are insufficient justification for a practice applies across the board, not simply to examples of such practices that are more anachronistic, bizarre or unfashionable than the ones that happen to still be mainstream in modern societies. We wouldn’t endorse foot-binding on grounds of culture, and we certainly don’t endorse female genital cutting.
Foot-binding would of course not be possible at a later age, or it would at least be far less effective. But you can be circumcised at any age, once you determine that you independently desire to identify with a certain culture or religion. That should be a choice, and not the choice of the parents – this is surely what freedom of religion means. An infant might have Muslim or Jewish parents, but we should wait to hear from the child itself before performing irreversible surgery on them.
Informed consent is a fundamental principle of modern medicine. Exceptions do of course exist, such as when consent cannot be given for whatever reason, and an intervention is held to have significant benefits for the patient. But it’s only contingently the case that we happen to accept male circumcision as exempt from this principle – it has a weight of history and privilege (the privilege that is accorded to religion generally) behind it.
If we were to instead engage in the thought experiment of enquiring whether – in the absence of that history and privilege – male circumcision would be considered permissible, the conversation would revolve around costs and benefits, and whether any benefits could be accrued at lower costs.
In the case of female genital mutilation, the answer is clear – the costs far outweigh very dubious benefits. In general, it’s therefore not very useful or justified to compare that practice with male circumcision (except as examples of cultural artefacts, as I do above. Or, if we were to follow the Jewish scholar Maimonides, we might think them comparable in that both are aimed at a “decrease in sexual intercourse and a weakening of the organ in question, so that this activity be diminished and the organ be in as quiet a state as possible”).
For male circumcision, the fact that it comes at a small physical cost (relative to most instances of female circumcision) is presented as part of the justification for why it should be permissible. But any cost is too great, if it doesn’t come with benefits that can’t be accrued more cheaply. What we should not do is make the mistake of asking adult circumcised men whether they think harm was done to them. They’re not in a position to entertain any counterfactuals – both in terms of their physical state, and also because the majority of them would have grown up in a culture where male genital cutting was acceptable. It would be unsurprising that they found it unproblematic, as it would be just as normal as being uncircumcised would be to other men.
The point is that by that time, the opportunity for choice has passed. A non-religious child has had non-essential surgery performed on it by a religious parent, on the assumption that the child will eventually choose to belong to that religion. And of course, they are more likely to make that choice after having (non-volitionally) embraced the commitment-device of circumcision.
How much stronger would their commitment be, one wonders, if they instead choose to get circumcised as a teen or adult? If circumcision involves a sacred covenant with God, that covenant seems strengthened through being voluntary – and parents should not be free to make that covenant on behalf of their infant in cases where doing so involves cutting the infant’s flesh.
Religious parents in the 21st century are surely aware of these concerns, and do appear to struggle to justify what is at least a prima facie rights violation. So, they sometimes turn to information that wouldn’t have been available to Maimonides – the purported health benefits of circumcision. While it’s repeated so frequently as to seem axiomatic, the evidence that circumcision reduces HIV infection is not as clear-cut (pdf) as many think it is.
Likewise, the claim that circumcision reduces cervical cancer is also more suspect than many realise, as the reported headline findings give little indication as to the dearth of quality data underlying those findings. The key trial held to justify that conclusion is a meta-analysis of 7 different studies in 5 countries, where none of the individual studies found any correlation between circumcision and cervical cancer.
That’s not necessarily a problem, as meta-analyses can sometimes reveal data that isn’t clear in individual trials. In this case, though, the meta-analysis only revealed a correlation with human papillomavirus (HPV), a factor in the development of around 90% of cases of cervical cancer. But while HPV is almost always a factor in cervical cancer, it doesn’t necessarily lead to cervical cancer.
You can of course show that it tends to do so, but note that we’re talking about two degrees of separation from circumcision here, so establishing a sufficiently strong correlation (to even suspect that there might be causation) between circumcision and cervical cancer would require a mountain of data. Instead, what we have in this meta-analysis is a relatively small sample (for the control group), a suspect methodology, and virtually no controlling for other cervical cancer risk-factors, such as smoking or poverty.
In other words, the evidence of benefits from circumcision is not entirely clear. And against these possible benefits, we also need to weigh costs – for example, the cost of reduced penile sensitivity. Or, perhaps the cost of increased rather than decreased HIV infection, seeing as the South African National Communication Survey on HIV/AIDS in 2009 found that 15% of adults thought that circumcision eliminated the need to use condoms.
I don’t necessarily think that all ethical dilemmas can be resolved by empirical evidence, even if many of them can be. But even if circumcision does come with the benefits of reducing HIV infection or instances of cervical cancer, there’s no obstacle to men of a sexually-active age choosing to be circumcised. If the data were clear I’d happily endorse their doing so, because it’s sensible to reduce risk where possible, and where the reduction comes at an acceptable cost.
But it should be a choice. And while surgical interventions can sometimes be approved by someone other than the patient, this should never be the case for non-essential surgery. So to my mind, the Cologne court made what is unquestionably the correct decision on health grounds, and one which also happens to protect freedom of religion. That is, the freedom of the infant to later choose a religion, or to choose to not have one.
Also worth reading:
Religion is no excuse for mutilating your baby’s penis, by Brian D. Earp
And here’s a lunatic rant from Brendan O’Neill:
The rebranding of circumcision as ‘child abuse’ echoes the ugly anti-Semitism of medieval Europe