Populism, more than prejudice, is the problem with Trump

This has been a pretty bad year. What we’ve lost includes Muhammad Ali, Prince, Alan Rickman, David Bowie, Maurice White, Glenn Frey, George Martin, Garry Shandling, Merle Haggard, Elie Wiesel, and Micheal Cimino. (And then Leonard Cohen too…)

Oh, and, potentially, centrist politics – at least for a time. Brexit was at least in part a triumph of the political right, fueled by fears of immigrants and a nationalistic fervor, by contrast to the vision of a world united by common values and open (in both the legal and cultural senses) borders. Continue reading “Populism, more than prejudice, is the problem with Trump”

Arguments, and assumptions of bad faith

I don’t know about you, but I’m finding that the news cycle – especially here in South Africa – is hitting fresh heights of bonkers-ness just about every day. And where scandalous news emerges, outrage on social media follows.

Outrage is oftentimes merited, and you should please not read this post as a complaint about people getting upset about things (although, as David Mitchell points out in a characteristically amusing column, it might be a problem that outrage has become our default setting).

More important than the outrage itself is the motivation for the outrage, in both senses of motivation – the originating argument or cause of it, and then the retrospective justification of it, where I think too many of us are operating in bad faith.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the concept of the “principle of charity”, Wikipedia’s entry opens with: “In philosophy and rhetoric, the principle of charity requires interpreting a speaker’s statements to be rational and, in the case of any argument, considering its best, strongest possible interpretation.”

To put this into practice, one strategy might be to apply Rapoport’s Rules, summarised by Daniel Dennett as follows:

  1. Attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your target says: “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
  2. List any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. Mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

But instead of taking this approach, much online commentary, whether in the short-form of Twitter or in blogs and columns, seems to be a frantic dash to demonstrate the evil of your opponent’s point of view.

There are important debates going on about left-wing politics, political correctness and what counts as fair and unfair criticism. It’s important that these debates aren’t won by those who claim that being offended is always a trump card, because that a) incentivises victimhood and b) is a race to the bottom for what entitles you to claim protection from offence.

It’s good to be challenged – we are often wrong (regarding science, for example), and need to be told so. But how we tell each other that we’re wrong is the problem, in the sense that if you criticise from a position of assumed certainty that you’re right, and your opponent wrong, nothing good is likely to come from the interaction.

I’ve so far stayed out of the Jonathan Chait debate that was occupying so many people in (the broad and very difficult to define) online political community I belong to. There are far too many triggers for hostility in the issues he raises, with a concomitant low probability of sober reflection on the issues.

But now that the fire of that debate has gone out, I do want to point you to his piece responding to his critics, in which he (rightly) reminds us that the fact that some people complain about political correctness simply as a way to excuse or mask their bigotry does not mean that others might also take offence too often, and for the wrong reasons (for example, the race or gender of the speaker, regardless of what the speaker is saying). To quote an important passage from that piece,

making distinctions is important and valuable. Voting may present us with limited and imperfect choices. But when we analyze the world, we don’t need to restrict ourselves to binary choices. We can oppose both racism and inappropriate responses to racism. Indeed, that kind of multifaceted thinking is a special responsibility for liberals.

imagesHaving begun this post with a vague allusion to issues in the South African political landscape, let me close with the specific case of the City of Cape Town having approved the renaming of a road in honour of the conservative apartheid-era president, FW de Klerk, who can among his achievements apparently count ordering the murder of 5 children (and a Nobel Prize).

I was one of the handful (around 250) that opposed the renaming during the consultative process, while around 1700 wrote in support of it. My reasons for opposing it were offered in a previous post, so I won’t rehash them here. But I do want to say something about last week’s council meeting, at which the City approved the renaming (initially proposed by this group of “prominent Capetonians“).

According to news reports, (at least) two quite disturbing things happened at this council meeting, to which I’d add one example of the language of politics gone utterly mad.

Disturbing thing number one is that our Mayor, Patricia de Lille, was apparently taunting ANC councillor Tony Ehrenreich by waving a red clown nose in his general direction whenever he spoke, and accusing him of engaging in “clown politics”. To my mind, if the Mayor engages in debate as if it’s happening on a school playground, there’s more than one person playing “clown politics”.

More disturbing, though, is this detail of how the council meeting proceeded (my emphasis):

The ANC then asked to caucus and, on their return to the chamber, found that the meeting had proceeded without their input. ANC councillors were outraged. The Speaker’s calls for order were drowned out by ANC councillors banging on desks while chants of “no” rang out. Smit then ordered the ANC to leave and the hall to be vacated.

The council sitting was moved to another room, with many DA councillors also shut out as metro police blocked ANC councillors from getting in. Chaos erupted when ANC members tried to force their way in, resulting in a tussle between some ANC councillors and metro police officers. There was continual shoving and pushing as ANC councillors tried to storm the room.

For the next two hours, ANC councillors tried to get in while remaining DA councillors were gradually escorted into the room, where ACDP and FF Plus councillors participated in the discussions.

I’m sympathetic to the DA and de Lille’s claim that the ANC might sometimes act in ways that are aimed at making the City “ungovernable”. But when you’re taking a decision regarding renaming a road after an apartheid president, in a city perceived by some as being racist, it’s quite mad – in terms of effect on public perception – for only the DA, ACDP and FF Plus to be debating the motion and making the decision (a separate issue to whether they were quorate, which they were).

Furthermore, if the meeting did proceed while the ANC was taking a break to caucus, that indicates serious bad faith on the part of the Democratic Alliance, in that they don’t give any impression of being interested in engaging with the ANC or Ehrenreich’s arguments.

In general, that’s the problem I’m highlighting in this post, in full awareness that doing so is hardly novel. But for those of us that care about debate, and its value in showing us where we’re wrong (which is essential to becoming more often right about things), the occasional reminder of why we do this, and how to do it, hopefully serves a purpose.

In our little corners of the Interwebs, or in meatspace, we can do better than simply yell at each other, or presume malice in others before we’ve even bothered to try and understand what they are saying. It’s difficult, to be sure, and I often fail at it myself. But not doing so, or giving up trying, simply cedes all public discussions to the idiots and the ideologues.

In closing, on the Humpty Dumpty language of politics, consider this quote from the Mayor of the City of Cape Town, on the ANC’s opposition to the above-mentioned street renaming:

[The ANC] are opposed to progressive politics and anything that is not backward-looking and embraced by the cold hands of racialised politics.

Renaming a road after an apartheid president is “progressive politics”? As a friend said on Facebook, “Yup, what self-respecting revolutionary could be against honouring a freedom fighter like FW? I want to cry.”

On “quitting” activist (atheist) communities (or maybe, just changing strategy?)

Late last year, my friend Martin Pribble blogged – in a piece that was later adapted for Slate,

I’m through with being an “activist atheist”. That’s right, I no longer want to troll Facebook and Twitter for theists and tell them why they are wrong, I no longer want to make fun of theists for their unreasonable beliefs, and I no longer want to be part of the online atheist “community”.

I’m very sympathetic with much of what he expresses there, which by and large indicates a significant change of focus rather than a literal “quitting” of the community. After all, he’s still on the Internet, and he still talks about religion. Instead, what he was attempting to convey was a shift in strategy – less simply pointing out when and where religious folk say something that sounds silly, and more focusing on what we need to do to fill the spaces that religion seems to fill in people’s lives.

In defining and arguing for the priority of what he calls “methodological humanism” over fact-checking and refuting religious utterances, Pribble isn’t saying that you – as a hypothetical “firebrand” atheist – are doing something wrong. But some of the reactions (“The evident lack of self-awareness in this piece is awesome. Is it satire or is he really this dense?”) made it clear that to some, Pribble was having forbidden thoughts. If you’re an atheist, some twitterers seemed to be saying, it’s compulsory to call religious folk out on their every logical error, and to ignore any common ground you might find.

The quote above was from an atheist, but he received plenty of flack from religious people too (regardless of the fact that they seem to not have read, or carefully read, the piece in question. “Why in the world atheists feel the need to proselytize their beliefs is beyond me” hardly seems a fitting response to a piece that argues against proselytising, and “Impressive writing to fit so much hubris, bigotry, hatred, stereotyping, & intellectual bankruptcy into a short essay” just seems like someone, well, parodying exactly what Pribble is trying to steer away from.

We’ve got to try harder to see, and talk about, the nuance that’s available between the extremes. It’s difficult, yes, but that’s also where much of the truth lies. One size doesn’t fit all, and there’s no reason to reject someone else’s strategy simply because you – or one of your intellectual heroes – chooses a different path. And even if there are a number of errors or misrepresentations in a piece, that doesn’t always mean you can’t learn something from it.

Take, for example, this piece on Dawkins with the inflammatory title of “Richard Dawkins, shut up and listen“. There’s lots in there to find fault with, in particular, the consistently negative interpretation of Dawkins’ intentions in the Twitter exchange documented there. Dawkins is framed as an oppressor – never given the benefit of the doubt. As I’ve argued before, he adopts a particular tone and strategy on Twitter, and to my mind, it sometimes fails, and he’s sometimes wilfully misread.

But if you only focus on how Dawkins has been misrepresented in that piece, or if you only focus on what one commentator described “liberalism attempting to eat itself”, you might stand less of a chance of recognising whatever good might exist in the argument you’re addressing.

The last two paragraphs of the “shut up and listen” piece present a totalitarian and judgemental summary of an imagined Richard Dawkins, and are uncharitable to the extreme. But between the extreme of the (misrepresented) Dawkins and Dawkins’ misrepresentation (to my mind, at least) of Salya Shaban AlHamdi, we can find (via Dawkins) a reminder that identity politics are an easy (but lazy) shield against fair critique, and via AlHamdi, that the reminder in question often won’t be heard, if it’s said with a sneer.

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Twitter, where obnoxious guests can gatecrash any party

twitter-bird-white-on-blueOne of the alleged sorts of “troll” that has been taxonomised on the Interwebs is the “tone troll” – someone who, lacking an argument, counters their opponent’s claims through pointing out that said opponent is being obnoxious, rude, or shrill (etc.). While I agree that tone can’t invalidate an argument, it certainly can make the argument difficult to hear. Also, it can make the speaker come across as either a reasonable person or not, depending on what sort of tone they employ.

There’s the risk of a false choice here, in other words, in that some invocations of the idea of tone trolling like to suggest that tone should never be relevant, and others like to suggest that we should never be rude or aggressive. The truth lies somewhere in between, as is so often the case. Ideally, we’d be such high-minded creatures that we’d be able to hear the argument, and assess it on its own merits, regardless of tone. And ideally, we’d perhaps be able to restrain ourselves from being rude or aggressive, except in truly exceptional circumstances.

(Of course, the problem with rude or aggressive folk is sometimes exactly that they think most situations are exceptional, and that you are exactly that sort of idiot that they should be able to yell at, most of the time.)

The false choice obscures the fact that tone matters on a psychological and political level, regardless of the truth or falsity of what someone might be saying. Consider an analogy, outside of social media and the web: when considering our circle of friends, or when drawing up a guest list for a party, I’d think it a common experience for all of us to know of someone who, while interesting, is a boorish character.

Perhaps they are too self-important, too loud, too sweary, etc. And perhaps they simply don’t fit the context under consideration, in that while you might invite them to one sort of party, you wouldn’t invite them to another sort (the loud, drunken occasion for dance, versus the dinner table, for example).

There’s no logical obstacle that I can see for wanting your Facebook or Twitter conversations, and your website comment spaces, to have a certain character. You might imagine yourself to be part of some sort of libertine Internet community, where people can do as they please, or perhaps you’re on a particular space because you value interesting – and even potentially civil – discussion with people you’ve never met in (physical) person.

If you’re of the latter sort, and you (politely) point out that that’s the sort of conversation you prefer, then people who ignore that request or signal are surely simply rude, lacking in certain basic social graces? And (here’s the conservative bit, I guess) surely that is still something we’d like to describe as wrong? Even in this world of virtual people and micro-opinions on Twitter, surely having basic manners can still be a thing?

Instead, it sometimes seems the case that on Twitter, you can gatecrash any party, and be as boorish a guest as you like. At some point you might be asked to leave, sure – but by the time that happens, you’ll often already have compromised the party for the rest of us. I’m not talking about simply seeing people in your timeline that annoy you – you’re of course free to unfollow, and thus not see that which annoys you. I’m talking more about the people who butt into your conversations with others, or who simply butt in, to say their piece, giving little thought to whether what they are saying is at all relevant to you.

One can ignore these interjections, yes. But a) that’s a (minimal, to be sure) burden I shouldn’t have to endure. I could ignore them, but I shouldn’t have to. More and more, it seems to me that we define our moral standards by reference to the lowest common denominator. So, people troll you on Twitter – toughen up! So, you encounter sexist abuse – come on, they aren’t serious! Despite the fact that we can sometimes be oversensitive, the fact remains that the basic wrongness lies with the troll or the rude gatecrasher – regardless of what we do to cope with them, they can’t be allowed to forget that we’d like them to learn some manners.

There was an (a) up there. The (b) is about how persistent they can be. It’s sometimes not just one interjection when you and someone else are talking about something, but an incessant expressing of a view on a conversation that you’re both not part of, and where you’ve been given every indication (in this case, consisting of the indication that nobody has replied to you, ever) that you should gracefully exit, closing the door behind you.

During a quite therapeutic rant with a friend over private message the other day, he confessed that Twitter was radicalising him, in that the endless stream of often vacuous pronouncements on things sometimes makes one want to disagree on principle, even if you’d ordinarily be inclined to sympathy with the cause or issue. This is simply because the sentiment you’re rebelling against is expressed in such a mindless or reactionary way, and so often by the same people.

In South Africa, it’s often around racial politics, and party politics, where a chorus of knees jerk at every instance of the Democratic Alliance doing something which (could, at an uninformed stretch of the imagination) be construed as exclusively anti-poor (thus, anti-black), with no prospect of it being part of some longer-term strategy that might or might not be defensible, in the minds of people who have spend many hours/days/weeks debating it. Likewise, a chorus of knees jerk at every instance of the ANC doing something which fits (however spuriously) a narrative of corruption or incompetence.

A larger problem, and not the point of this post, is that the deck is stacked against one set of critics, of course, in that criticising the DA is relatively safe, in that you can’t easily be accused of racism. So, a whole cottage industry of banal criticism has sprung up, where indignant opinionistas turn their postmodern attentions to the latest sins committed by the demonic DA.

The critics are often right – but they are never told that (or when) they are wrong, because to do so opens you up to various accusations (chief among these, the charge of racism) that make it easy for the opinionista to slide off the hook. And because these opinionistas are too rarely told that they are wrong, they have little opportunity to improve their arguments, and confirmation bias rules supreme.

So as you can see, Twitter is perhaps radicalizing me also, but perhaps also inducing a sort of bemused smugness, which doesn’t seem very healthy either. I had meant to offer some examples of the sorts of Twitter folk that I’m now starting to block, rather than ignore, but this post has gone on long enough. So I’ll get to that in future, and in the meanwhile, point you to something that makes similar points to those I had intended to make, namely Daniel Fincke talking about how he enforces civility on Facebook.

Parliament – where dead sheep savage one another

Originally published in the Daily Maverick

tumblr_lt41l0pGYC1qdhgq4o1_500When insults are traded amongst groups of friends, we can get away with being more abusive than we would with strangers. If your name is Dorothy Parker or Oscar Wilde, your insults are perhaps easier to forgive because they’re funny, or because we must admire your wit, even as it makes us wince.

But if insults are a substitute for argument – if they are all we have to contribute – then we should rather consider the option of remaining silent, lest we make a fool of ourselves, while exposing all those who support our insults as fools themselves. We should consider the option of silence – or of diplomacy – even if the insult serves the short-term goal of a rhetorical victory.

There are many things that work towards achieving a desired goal, but at a cost. You could silence your child through administering a mild sedative, but don’t be surprised if you’re condemned for doing so. And even where some of our means toward a goal might not be illegal, the standard of the law is not the only relevant one. It’s society’s job to help regulate conduct more generally, and to generate the sort of society that we can enjoy living in.

This holds true for standards of conduct (for example, trying to avoid drowning out all other conversations in a restaurant with your excessively-loud banter) as well as the content of our speech. If we don’t demand sense, interpretive charity, and a certain amount of civility from each other, the absence of those things can increasingly become the norm.

To appropriate a passage from John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty”, if society lets “any considerable number of its members” think that insult should succeed as well as argument, rendering them “incapable of being acted on by rational consideration of distant motives, society has itself to blame for the consequences”.

So it is in Parliament, or perhaps in politics more broadly. When insults start coming in the form of excrement, as was recently the case in the Western Cape, we get a clear signal of one of two things: either that people are sufficiently disgusted by how they are being looked after that faeces are in fact most apposite to their anger, or that they don’t have the knowledge or arguments necessary to express that anger.

There are many permutations between those extremes, and the extremes are both crude. My point is merely to say that a form of protest that offends our sensibilities could (in a logically possible sense of “could”) nevertheless be appropriate, under the right circumstances. However, there are other circumstances in which it’s clear that offending our sensibilities is a simple substitute for having nothing useful to say, or not having the words to say anything useful.

Consider ANC MP John Jeffrey, who said of DA Parliamentary Leader Lindiwe Mazibuko last week: “While the honourable Mazibuko may be a person of substantial weight, her stature is questionable”. It’s not the possible sexism of this comment that’s the only notable thing. It’s also the fact that some people seem to think these insults the height of wit, judging from the television footage. Tell a fat joke and have MPs rolling in the aisles? I can’t imagine how they manage to keep breathing during a Leon Shuster movie, if that’s the level of humour that works on them.

I say “possible sexism” above because I don’t intend to make the case that it necessarily is sexism, although that does seem likely given the relative infrequency of comments regarding the girth of male MPs. Besides, the comment doesn’t need to be sexist to be ad hominem.

And yes, it’s true that members of the DA have levelled the same sort of abuse at ANC MPs. Helen Zille is reported to have commented to Zodwa Magwazao that there “is only one elephant in the room” (although this remark was, I think, ambiguous enough to be a problematic example for this column’s purposes) and Theuns Botha once likened the ANC’s Lynne Brown to a hippopotamus.

It’s also true that the same sort of thing happens in the UK Parliament, although my impression is that the calibre of the wit on display there typically exceeds that of the examples here. But even when it doesn’t, there remains a crucial difference between the House of Commons and the South African Parliament: a constituency-based system.

If an MP has nothing to offer but insult – or if their insults are insufficiently entertaining – voters can remove them from office at the next election. MPs are accountable to citizens, and not only to party leadership. Sometimes, accountability itself seems an impossible dream for us in South Africa, when the ANC Chief Whip’s response to Jeffrey’s remark is to excuse it as a pun, while simultaneously criticising Mazibuko’s fashion sense.

If I didn’t know better, I might call that victim-blaming. But it’s not – it’s simply a distraction and another ad hominem attack. And even though it’s true that Zille and Botha have been guilty of similar offences to Jeffrey’s, it remains possible to point this out in a way that nevertheless apologises – sincerely – for Jeffrey’s remark. A retort of “you too” (known to some as the logical fallacy tu quoque) is also evasion, and a juvenile one at that.

I’m not arguing that MPs shouldn’t be allowed to say the things they do, regardless of how juvenile their retorts might sometimes be. Robust debate must allow for offence, not only because we sometimes need reminding that our own standards of acceptable conduct aren’t sacrosanct, but also because without it, we’ll never get to know which MPs tend to believe and say offensive things.

Beyond the rules governing what is and is not appropriate language in Parliament, there’s also a market for what’s “unparliamentary” or not. Our market could be improved through a constituency system, but it nevertheless exists, and the Whips and other party leaders run it.

Ultimately, of course, the voters run it too. So if you want to appear to be a sexist windbag, you’re free to do so. And if your Chief Whip wants to inform us of your upcoming fauxpology while adding another insult, he should be free to do so – just as we’re free to punish your party at the ballot box if we so choose.

Having said that, I’d think it an over-reaction to punish a party for the conduct of individuals inside that party. I mention the possibility simply because the individuals in question sometimes don’t seem to care about substance rather than rhetoric, and could perhaps do with a reminder that we do care for substance.

The problem, in short, is that these rhetorical tricks and insults are the best that many of them have got – and I’d still like to believe that we deserve better.

The sound and fury of sanctimony

Originally published in the Daily Maverick

imagesThe Easter holidays got me thinking – again – about what each of us could do to increase the odds of having a conversation on the Internet, thereby potentially changing our minds about something. In particular, changing our minds about how we perceive each other’s views on faith and religion. After all, changing our minds is what reading and writing should be about: discovering how we are wrong, rather than reinforcing to ourselves the ways in which we are right.

Easter brought these thoughts back because of the predictable squabbles that flared up between religious believers (well, Christians in this case) and those of us who don’t believe. Both of these groups can take themselves far too seriously: the non-religious through going out of their way to also be anti-religious, and the religious through taking offence at any slight, no matter how minor.

Some people did seem to go out of their way to be blasphemous, especially on Twitter, but jokes like the one that got me into brief trouble when I re-tweeted it (say Jesus backwards. Now say God backwards. Now say them together), or Barry Bateman’s quip about this being a day all about “caramel centered chocolate eggs” (which attracted a full day of judgement) are surely of the sort that can (and should) simply be laughed off as a difference of opinion.

Most of the time, a commitment to secular values would allow for both “sides” to leave each other alone, because their actions and beliefs, kept private, have no impact on others. But for both of these groups, the nuances of how (and why) people believe or disbelieve can get lost in convenient caricatures. In fact, sometimes even the truth is hostage to the will to (dis)believe. Two brief examples aren’t conclusive, but hopefully serve to make the point.

On the Christian side, the Church of England did themselves no favours through being caught out in what appears to be a blatant lie. In the run-up to Easter, they released the results of a poll indicating that 4 out of 5 people believe in the power of prayer – and gratifyingly for them, that belief in the power of prayer seemed to be on the rise in the youth.

The only problem is that the poll shows nothing of the sort. The 4 out of 5 figure is derived from the fact that when asked the question “Irrespective of whether you currently pray or not, if you were to pray for something at the moment, what would it be for?”, 80% of people gave a response instead of saying “I don’t know” or “I would never pray for anything”.

The desire to have a good-news story about the church, especially in the run-up to Easter, is understandable. And in light of 2011’s Dawkins’ foundation research indicating that fewer people seem to believe in the power of prayer than ever, this particular good-news story would no doubt be particularly welcome. But when your brand is built on virtue, and is in competition with others that claim you’re simply making stuff up, it does no good to make stuff up.

On the atheist side, I’m rather grateful to the majority of religious folk who are either disinterested enough or kind enough to not make more of an issue out of the continued civil wars around the role of social justice causes inside atheism, in particular the widespread allegations of misogyny. Instead, the focus continues to be on some of the more prominent voices for non-belief, and in particular, Dawkins himself.

And he seldom fails to disappoint those looking for a soundbite purportedly demonstrating the tone-deafness and hostility of atheists. While I do think most of the examples chosen to make this case are cherry-picked or misinterpreted, it remains true that doing our own cherry-picking or misinterpretation in response is no evidence of virtue.

Furthermore, he really does put his foot in it sometimes, like last week when he told his 660 000 Twitter followers:

He’s right on the logic, sure – but it would have been easy to be right while simultaneously not being maximally offensive.

I’ve addressed questions of strategy before, for example in relation to someone who does actually try to be the lightning-rod that Dawkins is perceived as being – David Silverman of American Atheists. While I haven’t changed my mind that we need people like him to expand the polarities of the debate, and perhaps to stretch the middle-ground for more moderate strategies, they do sometimes make the PR job difficult for those of us who think of religious people as mostly harmless, most of the time.

Likewise, the overly sanctimonious believers who seem to have sacrificed their sense of humour do the majority of believers no favours. Nor, of course, do those who argue against equal rights for gay couples or availability of contraceptives; or those who condone (through inaction, at least) child abuse or the stoning of adulterers and rape victims.

In short, there are all sorts of obstacles to being understood and to having a dialogue. Eliminating some of these require getting our own houses in order, rather than looking outward. But when we do look outward, let’s try to look at what’s in front of us, rather than being distracted by the convenient fiction of the stereotype.

More on dealing with trolls

As submitted to Daily Maverick

(Note to pedants: I realise that the previous post – and this one – uses the word “troll” atypically. This is both because I think the definition could usefully be broadened, and because it’s a useful, evocative word).

If you don’t believe that hostility (or sometimes, something more accurately describable as abuse) on Internet comment threads is a problem, then this post will be of no or little interest to you. I say this to let you know that you should cease reading, rather than skipping to the end to leave a hostile comment. You always have that option, even though people seem more and more reluctant to exercise it.

But if you do think this a topic worth discussing, you’d most likely recall that last week I discussed what appears to be a marked decrease in civility on the Internet. What used to be localised has arguably been generalised, and we’ve now got a significant chance of encountering a troll in the comments thread of Daily Maverick, never mind their ancestral homes of News24 and PoliticsWeb.

One thing that we can all do about this is to temper how we respond to provocation, whether perceived or otherwise. This is part of the remedy for situations in which we might be perceived to ourselves be the troll, or perhaps where we provide one of them with a useful provocation. The advice to not feed trolls remains sound, but it perhaps doesn’t go far enough.

This is because what I’ve always understood as not feeding a troll is simply not responding to their provocations. While mocking someone who seems deserving can provide pleasure – both to other commentators and to spectators – it’s mostly just a way of feeling superior. It usually won’t change anyone’s mind, and serves simply to affirm a group identity as one of the smart, sophisticated set (or so you might think of yourself), rather than the sort of person represented by the ingrate you’re now making fun of.

In other words, directing your scathing wit at a troll might be encouraging another sort of negative aspect of character, while doing nothing to modify the target’s behaviour – except for encouraging him (sadly, it usually is a him) to try harder. It’s perhaps these sorts of considerations, among others, that led Jean Kazez, a philosopher at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, to offer what I thought to be three quite useful prescriptions.

The first prescription she offers has already been addressed, above and last week, and calls for some reflection on appropriate uses of our time and energy – particularly for those of us who do act like trolls online. The second and third, however, call for a complete disassociation from those who do, rather than the more typical exhortation to not encourage them.

Kazez suggests that we should cease any participation in fora where significant bullying takes place, and also cease from interacting with people who do participate in those fora. In summary, both those who bully and those who enable the bullies need to discover that they will lose their “seat at the table” of adult debate.

In a local context, perhaps this could mean never even attempting to engage in a comment thread on certain sites, or promptly removing oneself once certain commentators arrive to hijack the discussion. If the chances are high enough (and sometimes they seem certain) that the usual race-baiting will ensue, what’s the point of yet another attempt to call for a nuanced consideration of how (for example) neo-liberalism is being used as a catch-all term meaning “an economic stance that I don’t agree with”, and is therefore not a useful contribution?

My primary concerns around the advice to disengage involve the potentially instructive role that more sober comments can play. Even if it’s true that engagement typically encourages, because trolls love being given attention, there are nevertheless some fence-sitters lurking who are potentially receptive to productive disagreement.

Withdrawing entirely from debate costs us those opportunities. Limiting or ceasing interaction with those who do participate is even more radical, and involves forsaking the opportunity to set an example, persuade or encourage others to be more reasonable. But perhaps this is the point – we are still too optimistic about how often such opportunities arise, and about how often there’s any reward from taking them.

As someone who has by now spent more than two decades at a university, it’s perhaps easy to accuse me of naiveté here – maybe this is just how people talk in the “real” world, and it’s the Socratic dialogue that was always the fantasy. If it is civilised conversation you want, in other words, have it with carefully selected friends or in a filter bubble you’ve created for that purpose.

Outside of those environments – which bring with them a limitation on our own capacity to learn from difference, and from debate – it sadly seems true that most of the time, our engagements with abusive elements of the Internet are doing nothing to stem the tide of anger and misunderstanding. In the meanwhile, though, they do give the trolls something else to scream about.

On dealing with trolls

As submitted to Daily Maverick

One of the things that the Internet has been good for is broadening the range of perspectives in any given conversation. Of course certain barriers need to be overcome: to participate, you need an Internet connection and a suitable gadget. Nevertheless, conversations have been democratised, thanks at least in part to being able to more easily discover who is interested in talking about the same things as you, and the fact that it’s relatively inexpensive to join in.

However, the filter-bubble remains a problem. Not only do the personalisation features of search engines like Google give you results that reinforce existing prejudices; we also like it that way – it’s called confirmation bias, and too few of us take active steps to combat its negative implications (if we’re even aware of the potential need to do so). There’s another concern though, one that I’ve mentioned in the past but would like to explore a little further today: the question of online abuse and the extent to which it might cause some voices to withdraw from the conversation entirely.

An example from a few minutes ago will serve to illustrate: “screw u, u doos, first of 90% of big business in S.A is owned by whites and top man is white, so cry me a river!!!” is what someone just told me on Twitter after I repeated an overheard joke about members of the UCT Senate’s prospects of employability at Woolworths.

Now, seeing as some folk have been calling me a racist for a few weeks now, thanks to my defending  Woolworths and SAA’s affirmative action policies, we can be sure that the grammar-impaired person who tweeted that at me is clearly unaware of this context. That’s fine – I’d expect most people to be. However, just in case there is some context, one might think a little tempering of the hostility is merited when (over)hearing something that offends you.

Not so for this person, it seems, and increasingly not so for those who comment in these pages and elsewhere. And then there’s the next layer of trouble, which is where the filter-bubble ends up resulting in a congregation of these hair-trigger folks into one “room”, as it were. At some point, all possibility for debate ceases to exist because of the mutually-assured idiocy of a collection of angry people, each paying less attention than the next.

Because there seems to be no chance of changing anyone’s mind, some of those who might otherwise try to do so eventually resort to measures like turning off comment functionality, stop engaging in comment threads, and eventually – stop engaging with certain pockets of the Internet at all. This has two consequences: the collection of trolls and angry folk are made more homogenous, and thus apparently stronger, and likewise, the collection of those who consider themselves “virtuous” is furnished with another example of why they are special, and right – and their homogeneity increases too.

So, one day we’ll end up with half the Internet grunting angrily at each other, while the other half recites passages from Plato. Unless we find some way to arrest this escalation of hostilities, or unless I’m wrong about the trend (and I hope I am). In a future column I hope to explore potential legal remedies for online bullying, such as those currently being considered in New Zealand and elsewhere. But because less regulation is always preferable to more, we should also consider what each of us could or should do, simply in our capacity as members of the Internet community.

First, I’d argue that we can sometimes be accused of placing too little or too much emphasis on history, and not enough on our own conduct. Too little, in the sense of the tweet I quote above where zero effort was made to see if an interpretation is the correct one. And then too much, in the sense that we sometimes expect new entrants to a conversation to know minute and technical historical details of that conversation – and then abuse them when they get a detail wrong. There’s sometimes too little patience for any kind of induction period, and so-called “newbies” need the thickest skins of all.

To remedy this problem, I offer one suggestion: that when a debate gets heated, we should try to remember that no matter what’s come before, we’re constantly at a new decision-point, where we – and only we – are responsible for what we say in response to something we find provocative. Sure, someone else has committed a wrong, and we can be inflamed by that. But essentially juvenile questions of “who started it”, while diverting, seldom help illuminate the question of how it can be ended. In other words, I’m suggesting that we learn (or remember) some manners.

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“.