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.”

The value of comment sections and debates in digital spaces

Regular readers will know that I’ve recently been wondering whether to continue hosting comments here on Synapses, as well as about their value in a more general sense.

downloadI’m not shutting comments down, but will move to moderating them, meaning that it might take up to 24 hours for any comment to appear, and some comments will not appear at all, if I deem them abusive or idiotic. The decision to do so is precipitated by two coincidences, featuring two friends who raised overlapping conversations on Facebook, both of which I engaged with.

The debate on Nathan Geffen’s wall about trolls on GroundUp, and how to deal with them, raised the point that without full-time moderation, comment sections can easily become toxic.

Also, I’ve been led to believe that there’s a potential for legal liability for things posted on one’s own site by commenters, while no such liability exists on Twitter or Facebook (for what other people say, I mean).

Then, Eusebius McKaiser asked for a view on Nick Cowen’s IOL piece arguing that we can’t have productive debate in online spaces, and much of what I say below is a response to that piece (in short, I think we can, but that it takes more work than many of us care to do. In my case, I get few enough comments that the necessary moderation is possible).

Before I get to responding to that IOL piece, just a note on how things will work here with regard to comment and debate. Individual posts will have a moderated comment section, but please also feel free to do one of three things instead, if you prefer:

  1. The old-fashioned “letter to the editor”, where if you’re amenable, and I think your contribution might be of broader interest, I’ll post it as a separate entry.
  2. If you’re on Facebook, there is a page for Synapses. Every entry appears there, and you can comment as much as you like, unmoderated. The same is true for Google+.
  3. Lastly, there’s Twitter, which isn’t ideal for debate, but certainly gives you the opportunity to call me names (if that’s your thing), or to make more friendly noises.

On to the IOL piece, which you don’t have to have read to follow what is about to follow. To quote myself:

it seems to my mind at least plausible that we’re living though an era in which ideas themselves are not that welcome. Where, as Neal Gabler recently put it in a column John Maytham was kind enough to alert me to, the “public intellectual in the general media [has been replaced] by the pundit who substitutes outrageousness for thoughtfulness”.

Despite the demise of postmodernism in academic circles, it still lives and breathes in the popular viewpoint that everybody’s opinion is equally worthy of consideration, and that individuals are under no special obligation to set aside their opinions in favour of what the evidence points to.

The Internet, its potential anonymity, and the sheer volume of both opinions and outrage don’t encourage thoughtful reflection and engagement. I find that the overall quality of discourse and openness to correction is poor on the Internet, and as a result, I tend to only read comment sections to confirm that they are places where people seem unafraid to express their racism, sexism and (other forms of) stupidity.

There are pockets where people do engage earnestly and sincerely, and where there is a chance of shifting peoples’ perspectives. Eusebius’s Facebook wall is itself one small example of that. It’s true that people don’t often say “you’ve changed my mind”, but it’s something that can be intuited from how the tone and content of a conversation shifts.

Second, I’m not sure that the situation is significantly better in meatspace. There, just as on the Internet, people are stubborn, prone to confirmation bias and the backfire effect, etc. It’s partly the fact that there are more participants – with those participants not being carefully selected – in the online space that creates the impression that it’s more chaotic there. In other words, if we were to have an open house in meatspace to discuss something contentious, we might more often have the same impression of shouting past each other.

By contrast, if you do online what you do in meatspace, i.e. carefully select your interlocutors, you’d have the same “civilized” conversations (at least in a relative sense). The problem is that a) you don’t always get to select who talks to you online and b), all the non-verbal cues, such as smiles and body-language, aren’t available to us online.

Complicating this all is my sense of the conversations in both spaces being less civilized than they used to be, because everyone is now an expert in everything. The idea of democracy has been illegitimately expanded into epistemic territory, where the average person has been persuaded that their views are as legitimate as any other person’s view, and where they are somehow attacking you as a person when they criticise your view, rather than us simply having a contestation about the facts or interpretation of them.

We’ve become too personally invested in our beliefs, to put it simply.

John Lennox and @Eusebius McKaiser debate: does morality need God?

eusebiusMckaisercroppedA trip to Johannesburg last week (for the unlikely purpose of presenting a paper at a nutrition conference!) was well-timed, in that I had the opportunity to both attend a debate between Christian apologist John Lennox and Eusebius McKaiser, as well as to join Eusebius in studio the next day for a chat on religion and its place in state-run schools.

You can find the embedded stream of my interview with Eusebius at the bottom of this post. But while it’s still relatively fresh in memory, I thought I should capture a few thoughts on the debate for those of you who could not attend. A recording of debate will appear on YouTube at some point too, I’m told.

The topic of the debate was “Morality and God: is there a connection?”, although the conversation also ended up touching on other issues including the role of God in generating significance in life, and whether atheists are at all handicapped with regard to understanding science.

In his opening remarks, Lennox made the claim that science and atheism were essentially in conflict, as atheism undermines rationality. This was the first of many occasions where I had the clear sense that Lennox was failing to extend himself beyond certain premises that he considered to be axiomatic.

For him, God generates meaning, in that God creates the syntax and grammar of science – the order of things, the directions in which they flow, how they fit together. So without grasping God, you’re handicapped in your capacity to understand science at all. (This is my analogy, but I think it captures what he was saying.)

This question of mine (above) was put to him later in the evening, and he responded by professing ignorance regarding the state of Islamic science. This evaded my question, in that the dilemma I tried to make him grapple with was the possibility that his religion was interchangeable with any other for the purposes of generating this scientific foundation.

If it was not, he’d have to argue that his was superior – an easy thing to assert, but not easy to make a case for, and one of those occasions where the fundamentalism of the axiomatic premises I spoke of above would be exposed.

Another moment of disappointment to me was when he described evolution as a “mindless unguided process”, which reveals a rather caricatured and false view of evolution. Evolution is strongly guided by natural selection – but if one equivocates around what “guided” means, or rather, stacks the deck in favour of only one sort of guided (by a conscious agent, like God), then Lennox can certainly win the day, but only at the expense of making a plainly circular argument.

And that’s the problem with these debates. I’ve debated a couple of apologists over the years also, and besides the opportunity these debates present for showing an audience how arguments work (or don’t work), there’s pretty much zero prospect of productive argument between the antagonists.

Even strong critiques have little impact, such as when McKaiser exposed the inconsistency of Lennox (and all religious folk, to an extent) happily living in the empirical world of cause and effect when it comes to their day to day lives, but then bringing what is (to an atheist) essentially magic into the conversation when speaking of the souls, free will, morality and so forth.

We have a number of compelling (and competing) accounts for how morality evolves or is generated in animals that demonstrate moral instincts – and many of these are more plausible than an account requiring the sort of leap of faith that religion does (and, never mind the difficulty of then making a principled choice between the various religious accounts).

Again, it would only be if you’re predisposed to be sympathetic to the religious (and Christian) account of these things that they have any chance of gaining traction. In a fair fight, as it were, the religious account would be dropped from the list of plausible hypotheses fairly early on.

Similar tactics (and results) were in evidence with questions around the significance of life – a question that only becomes interesting if you grant that life needs some grand metaphysical meaning. There’s no reason to grant that premise, though – it’s a challenge that only has any force because it’s the product of centuries of religious privilege.

The conversation was fair-minded for the most part, although there were a number of sly digs from each debater towards his opponent. I thought Lennox more guilty of this, but my count might be unreliable, thanks both to my epistemic framework and the fact that Eusebius is a friend.

I suspect that Eusebius and I don’t agree on the morality question, although that requires that I hear his view outside of a context in which he was mostly attempting to rebut Lennox, rather than offer his full explanation of how moral principles are generated.

From what I heard on Thursday, Eusebius is a moral realist, which I’m not, but then, at other times, he seemed to speak as if his account of the objectivity of moral truths was one grounded in something like rationality, reciprocal altruism and the social contract, which together make certain moral principles binding on any rational agent.

If that’s true, we’d agree in substance, but I’d object that this doesn’t mean objectivity or moral realism, but rather that we’d converge on the same principles for pragmatic and contingent reasons – certain moral principles would be akin to conclusions in science, in that they are the best-evidenced, rather than being true by necessity.

Were you there? If so, feel free to let me know what you thought, below.

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.

Setting aside our differences

Originally published at the Daily Maverick

Daily Maverick readers will no doubt have noticed that last week, many of this community of opinionistas, editors and journalists congregated for The Gathering 2.0. A fair number of you were there too, and those I spoke with – readers and contributors alike – confirmed that they got as much value out of it as I did.

One key factor in its success, at least as far as I’m concerned, had to do with the value of community, shared goals and aspirations. Finding common ground and room for collaboration has always been difficult, and it has perhaps become increasingly difficult in a world of sharply divided identities and rather loud disagreements.

As was the case at the first Gathering two years ago, I was struck by the sense of a common purpose and shared commitment to finding solutions for South Africa and its developmental and political troubles. Sure, we sometimes disagreed on what those solutions should be, but there was little doubting our sincerity in looking for them.

It’s rare, though, to get to have these conversations in rooms without hostile commenters, and where a combination of ticket prices, self-selection and invitations extended pretty much ensured that people were going to be respectful, even when they disagreed. Out there on the Internet, or in more typical gatherings, civility and respect are not so easily guaranteed.

One thing that has certainly changed for me in the time between these two gatherings is my desire to attempt to be more sympathetic to the reasons why people disagree on goals and strategy – especially in the area of religion, where most of my attempted interventions take place.

Those of you who follow the endless squabbles in the secular, sceptical, or atheist community will know that fighting with each other is as much a part of the game as combating religious dogma is. And this isn’t only because there can be dogmatism and unreason on the non-religious side too – which there certainly can be – but also because everyone is sometimes guilty of being more interested in being right than in making progress.

Making progress – whether it be finding a political solution to a seemingly intractable problem, or persuading the rank-and-file Catholic to join you in publicly denouncing a child-abuse-enabling Cardinal – sometimes requires collaboration rather than antagonism. And, the former is more often appropriate than the latter is, as far as I’m concerned.

Don’t get me wrong – there is room for anger, and there is room for the sharpest criticism. Not only because the sharp criticism can inspire others to break with a tradition or belief, or serve as a lightning rod for debate, but also because it’s sometimes deserved.

The column I abandoned writing this week was going to amount to an extended insult (on issues, rather than ad hominem) directed at Blade Nzimande, and (leaving aside the fact that he would probably never have noticed it) attacking him seems permissible because he is presumably capable of brushing it off.

Likewise, I can feel more comfortable attacking Ray MacCauley rather than his parishioners, or the quack Professor or Doctor rather than those that change their diets or medical regimes on his or her advice. Because we all make mistakes, and while we should all sometimes know better, those of us in authority or with the expertise required to make the judgement in question should know best of all.

But as with any area of contestation – and especially in what I’m confident is an Internet-fuelled tribalism and hyperbole – caricatures so often win out over trying to find common ground. On the pro-science and secular side (and note the false dichotomy there – as if the religious can’t be pro-science, just like pro-life invites the caricature of “anti-life”), what community there is is partly premised on a caricature of the “other”, just like religious folk can easily point to some obnoxious atheist they know and use that person as their baseline for understanding non-believers.

What I worry about in these cartoonish versions of reality is firstly the possibility that we’re forsaking opportunities to learn things – about each other, about difference, about persuasion; and second that we’re impeding progress towards what could in many instances be common goals.

A significant proportion of secular activism – at least on the web – currently consists of people mindlessly (or so it appears) sharing photographs of a Hitchens or Sagan looking thoughtful, and accompanied by an inspirational (or blasphemous) quote. Often, these imagines will come from Facebook groups such as “I fu**ing love science” – as if saying so makes it true.

It doesn’t make it true. Mostly, we love the false impression of community that’s gained through imagining that the other – whether it be the unscientific, Bronze Age-mythology believing monotheist, or the dogmatic, immoral and cruel New Atheist – through the eyes of our respective prejudices.

I’m currently (too slowly) working on a review of Chris Stedman’s provocative new book “Faitheist” (edit: review now posted here), in which he makes the case for atheists “reaching across the aisle” and getting involved in interfaith efforts aimed at bettering lives. As he puts it somewhere in the book: “Do we simply want to eradicate religion, or do we want to change the world?”

These goals are of course not mutually exclusive, but in our eagerness to caricature each other, I worry that we lose sight of the possibility that focusing on the latter could contribute to achieving the former. More to the point, it could do so at a lower cost than encouraging divisiveness does, because the partisan outlook obscures the fact that we probably have more in common than what divides us.

Of course we need to keep asking whether beliefs are true or not, while encouraging people to discard untrue beliefs where possible, even if they are comforting. But no matter how often we ask those questions, they will have no effect unless someone is listening. And why should anyone listen, when it’s clear that the person asking you to listen has no interest in conversation?

Drama free? I guess we’ll see.

In one of the early posts here, John Loftus pledged that Skeptic Ink would be a “drama free network“, and I certainly hope that this proves to be the case. Or at least, that certain sorts of drama can be avoided, because having no drama at all seems the wrong ambition (if you’re not offending or challenging anyone at all, then you’re probably not worth reading). Of late – as you all know – we’ve had drama of a different, sustained, and harmful sort. I’m not getting into that (again), except to say that one can regret what various people (on all sides of the antagonism) have thought it necessary to say and do without being guilty of asserting a false equivalence.

Others can chronicle the history if they choose to. Those of us who aren’t interested in that project should at least ensure that we don’t (intentionally) add to the catalogue of harms, and I’d suggest that the Skeptic Ink mission statement is on relatively safe ground – even if only as a minimal commitment. But just as in any other networks, some breadth and interpretive wiggle-room is useful in allowing for different voices to emerge – and just as in other networks, those who contribute here can’t be assumed to agree with each other unless we say we do.

Arguments should ideally always be judged on their merits, rather than through the lens of history or personality. However, the merits of an argument (or the bona fides of an interlocutor) are sometimes difficult to see when people are yelling at each other, or making no effort to see beyond any stereotypes or prejudicial judgements they might have entered the conversation with. And history is relevant to whether one can be judged as sincere. For my part, I’ll be trying to be consistently fair to the evidence no matter who that involves disagreeing with, and I’d hope that readers would do the same. Please read my comment policy (and of course, feel free to make suggestions in terms of edits) to get a sense of what I believe that to entail.

Towards a Free Society was named thus for two reasons, but where one is really just a marker on the road to the primary reason. The Free Society Institute (FSI) is a non-profit organisation that I founded, and am currently chairperson of, which promotes secularism, social equality and scientific interests in South Africa. So, calling this site something related seemed a obvious thing to do from the viewpoint of consolidating the expressions of “the brand”. But of course, both the organisation and the site are so named for a more substantive reason.

South Africa is a deeply religious (mostly Christian) country, and also a deeply conservative one in terms of things like social justice. Yes, I realise that foreigners might have believed the hype of a liberated and transformed society, but sadly, things like “corrective rapes” for lesbians occur here, and our Chief Justice is a man who believes you can pray the gay away.

So, the FSI has been an advocate for free speech, free thought, gender and racial equality and so forth. We’re also emphatically secular, and almost all of us are atheists. For me, atheism is a simple by-product of critical thought – the inescapable conclusion which follows from the available evidence. This annoys some folk, I realise, but I don’t think atheism all that interesting in itself. More interesting are the thoughts, confusions, biases, cultural forces etc. that lead to religious belief, and the negative consequences that can follow from those factors.

It is these causes of belief – and the ways in which they manifest in society – that will be the primary focus of Towards a Free Society. Because identifying and eliminating these causes is surely part of the strategy for freeing us from dogma, superstition, and also – perhaps especially – prejudice.

An unstoppable tide of trolls

If you’re even occasionally dipping in to the skeptic/atheist/whatever blogosphere, you’d no doubt know that there’s plenty of lines in the sand being drawn. Much of it is rather embarrassing, in that some folk seem so desperate to cast their vote in favour of one camp or another that any pretence of looking at evidence, and making careful judgement, is completely out of the question. Because this round of infighting dates back to Elevatorgate (arguably before, in that elements of previous internal conflicts have also resurfaced), I’m not going to even try to get you up to speed if you haven’t been keeping up.

Here are some examples, though. After the Lehrer resignation, Sam Harris decided to give away free copies of Lying, seeing as that book expressed much of what he’d have otherwise liked to say. PZ Myers announced this on his blog. If you look at the comments on PZ’s blog, it’s only from comment 31 onwards that anyone tries to avoid caricature of Harris’s arguments (on issues unrelated to Lying, note – the fact that he said or didn’t say various things about torture and profiling are treated as relevant to lying).

Russell Blackford then tries to express a few thoughts in defence of Harris, which make it back to PZ’s post in the comments. The comment deals with appropriate and inappropriate uses of the word “racist”, and – whether wrong or right – is expressed in a measured tone. But the immediate response to the comment is: “Incidentally, citing the misogynist shitbag Russell Blackford isn’t going to impress many people here.” There’s a history there too, of course, which you can find out about if you choose to. The only reason I mention it here is to draw attention to the fact that commenter A, who linked to Russell’s post, might have had no idea what commenter B was referring to. Commenter A can’t be assumed to be a veteran of these “debates”, and was perhaps referring to Russell’s post in isolation.

But now, of course, commenter A might never read or comment on Pharyngula (PZ site’s) again. Or, s/he might forever be known as being part of camp X or faction Y. Perhaps, s/he is now a “rape apologist”, and will get shouted down the next time they try to say anything (if they ever do) on any site that is on PZ’s side of these squabbles. In other words, commenter A has perhaps been exiled from a certain community, on the basis of no good reason at all.

I’ll be saying more about tone and the slur of “tone-trolling” in a guest post at Martin’s place (on August 13), so won’t get into that much today either. Suffice it to say that when abuse and insult take the place of debate, nobody wins. I’ve dared to comment on Pharyngula three times, and twice been shouted down for reasons I couldn’t fully comprehend. That’s fine – perhaps I was being dim on those days. But sometimes you’d like to know why, and the problem is that a mob quickly forms, and it seems pointless to try and engage unless you’re already an insider. Clubs, cliques or orthodoxy are inimical to skepticism, and there’s certainly the feel of one there, and on other sites.

Sam Harris pointed this out last night, and PZ has subsequently responded. The comments are again what you’d expect, or have come to expect – you either mock Sam Harris, or you ask a question that’s critical of Harris-mockery. And then you get mocked. Those are by and large the only two options, and as far as I can tell, there’s little room for debate. If you instead want to read a comment thread that encourages debate, go back to the Blackford post in defence of Harris – there’s plenty of deliberate reasoning there, and also telling of people that they aren’t contributing usefully when they resort to insult. Now, both Blackford and Stangroom are philosophers, as am I, so of course I could be expected to have a bias in favour of a certain kind of discussion. The thing is, I’d think – and hope – that all of us in the skeptical community have a bias in favour of communication, and against caricature.

There was a post on Pharyngula a couple of days ago, billed as an open thread wherein people could speak openly to PZ, and make suggestions as to possible changes to the site, comment policies, and so forth. The thread was always going to be deleted after 24 hours (I think it was 24 hours). There were many thoughtful posts there, and one that I wanted to capture  for posterity is at the bottom of this post. You can guess for yourselves what happened to this commenter for daring to question the right of the horde to be abusive. And the thing is – why would the horde not feel they have the right (obligation?) to be abusive when a) PZ very seldom tells them to stop and b) sometimes creates threads where that sort of thing is encouraged.

My column in Daily Maverick today addresses some of these issues, in that it raises the question of how we can adapt to a word in which the immediacy of online communication amplifies the inanity, and makes it that much easier for a like-minded collective to protect their prejudices against any form of challenge. Besides the (very real) issues that have been rending the community (mostly around misogyny), it remains true that there are many thoughtful people on both “sides”, and there is still value in listening to each other. Instead, I suspect that more and more, people will feel compelled to pick sides, and also to stop listening – perhaps in part through measures like eliminating comments altogether.

I’m not ready to do that yet myself, though certainly understand the impulse. Instead, I mostly choose to not respond. But there’s very little reward in that option, both in that I still feel the frustration when an idiotic comment lands, and also because the dialogue can sometimes be very rewarding. Our online engagements with each other are unfortunately tending, at least as far as I can tell, to a victory for those who drown the others out by shouting. They get to stay prejudiced, self-righteous and so forth. And sometimes, perhaps, so do we.

Edit: I wrote a guest post for Martin Pribble’s site, dealing with related themes – read it here if interested.

You’re only 1% if you don’t Tweet

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

Perhaps – and only partly – as a consequence of the incredible volume of content generated on the Internet, it sometimes appears that we all have something to say. Not only through producing content such as opinion columns, but also in commenting on them and in passing them on to others via mediums like Twitter.

As I’ve argued before, this democratisation of knowledge – or at least opinion – comes with costs and benefits. Being able to participate in the conversation entails crossing a very low threshold, in that everyone with access to the Internet, even simply via their mobile phones, gets to have their say.

However, the noise can sometimes drown out any signal. More importantly, we can forget that while everyone is entitled to their opinion, nobody is obliged to treat an opinion with more respect than it merits – no matter how forcefully it is presented, or how much passion underlies its expression.

Twitter is beginning to present a problem in this regard. You might think it always has, and perhaps you’d be right. But I think it’s getting worse. The confluence of a 140 character limit, the attention economy, and our feelings of all being equally entitled to have our opinions creates endless fights, factions and frustration – at least for those listening in, trying to understand what the fuss is about.

Mostly, though, these factors can conduce to a bizarre sense of self-importance. Some Twitter users take delight in being inflammatory, with mini-revolutions started every hour and then forgotten when some new outrage comes along. The problem, however, is that these revolutions are usually against a caricature, a headline, or a set of assumptions about a person that might well be defamatory if they were spelled out in an op-ed.

But while they are underway, with hundreds or thousands of people endorsing your call to action, perhaps you can feel like you’re achieving something – even if that achievement later turns out to only be X more or fewer followers. And even if your call to action ends with a re-tweet, rather than with a portion of your audience changing their vote, changing their bank, or saving some endangered iguana.

Just as the weak and unprincipled parts of mass protest can drown out the voices of those who have something meaningful to say, social media allows one to get by with unsubstantiated rumour or even thinly-disguised character assassination. And when you get it wrong, it doesn’t matter. Nobody remembers, and nobody ever needs to apologise.

While these attempted revolutions are underway, they can seem significant enough to gain some traction. Last Sunday, for example, some Twitterers attempted to incite their audience to believe that the regular sarcasm emanating from Helen Zille’s Twitter feed somehow entailed a reason to never vote DA. Examples of her alleged lack of fitness for high office were Tweeted and re-Tweeted, all in an effort to justify inferences such as her having no respect for those less educated than herself.

Even if this inference were true, you’d still need to build a pretty impressive bridge to get from there to anything relevant to a rational voting strategy. The same people who, for example, argued that Mogoeng Mogoeng’s defensiveness or religious beliefs had no relevance to his suitability as Chief Justice were now claiming that a rude person (on their terms) could not govern well.

The fact is that these are separate issues. You don’t need to like someone to think they can do a good job – even if it’s indisputably true that our feelings regarding someone’s character do influence those judgements. So if you want to play it safe, it’s perhaps best to stick to bland, uninteresting contributions like those from Jacob Zuma’s Twitter feed. It’s impossible to find those objectionable – mostly because they rarely involve any substantive content.

The thing about Tweeting and politics, at least in a South African context, is not only that our memories are short but also that we’re mainly just talking to ourselves. It doesn’t seem plausible that any significant number of votes will be shifted, simply because the vast majority of voters aren’t on Twitter. This statement is not, I think, a result of selection bias as a consequence of only justified by the people I pay attention to – if you search for the hashtag of any emerging political story, the vast majority of Tweets are in 1st-language English.

We’re all still muddling our way along, trying to figure out how best to use resources such as Twitter. Now there is immediate access to people we’d previously have had to apply to meet in triplicate, and much of the time, they feel compelled to respond. And when they don’t, that’s another instant indictment of their characters.

But all of this is prone to over-reaction, and a sense that we and our Tweets are more important than they actually are. The space allows for conversation and for frivolity, and it can be enormously valuable in providing not only access, but also news at a faster pace than we’ve ever benefited from in the past.

We shouldn’t, however, mistake it for rigorous and reasoned debate. And we shouldn’t mistake people for activists, just because they can be shrill and condemnatory in 140 characters or less.

African Christian Action apologises for debate debacle

I intended to simply post this as a comment to one of my posts dealing with the debate that was meant to take place last year between Peter Hammond, Tauriq Moosa and myself. But seeing as there are a fair number of posts on the topic, and that this is significant, it’s perhaps best to note in a public and fully searchable way that the UCT Atheist and Agnostic Society and I have received an apology from Taryn Hodgson for the way in which we were treated in the lead-up to the cancelled debate, and also for their misrepresentations of how events unfolded (misrepresentations repeated as recently as January this year, in Peter Hammond’s newsletter to the flock). Ms. Hodgson has also pledged to correct the inaccuracies in their report on the debate – let’s hope that news of the corrections is also broadcasted to all those who were told untruths about us heathens at the time.

While it may have been somewhat slow in arriving, the apology is welcome, and appreciated.

As mentioned earlier, there are a number of posts on the topic on Synapses, and you can search for “debate” at the top-right of your screen. For a summary of the essential details, this post would be helpful.
The text of the apology is pasted below:

Dear Mr Rousseau and the UCT Atheist and Agnostic Society

Jordan Pickering (who I understand you are acquainted with), contacted us giving us the background as to your withdrawal from the “blasphemy debate” last year.
I was not aware of the full details that he mentioned.

We apologise for the inaccuracies in our report of the event and for misrepresenting you. We will gladly correct the report.

I will urge Pastor Michael to send you an apology. I do agree with Jordan that Michael’s communication and conduct towards you was often deceptive, rude and unchristian.

However, please bear in mind that he is Congolese and English is probably his third language. He also has probably never had training in good communication skills. He did not communicate any of the points Jordan mentioned to us.

We were only informed of the withdrawal of Jacques Rousseau and Tariq Moosa by Michael from the debate an hour before.

We are open to rescheduling the debate on blasphemy and we are prepared to debate any other relevant issues in a fair and balanced way.

Yours Sincerely,

Taryn Hodgson
National Co-ordinator

Africa Christian Action