Morality Religion

Concern for effective rhetoric versus tone-policing

This notion will hopefully strike most of you as obvious, but how we express ourselves matters, at least if you care for being heard. The examples you choose to make a point, and the style in which you deliver that point, can mark you out as either interested in discussion/persuasion, or as simply wanting to show your interlocutor that she is wrong.


Dawkins on “mild paedophilia”

RDRichard Dawkins has – again – demonstrated that he doesn’t know or doesn’t care about public relations. As I’ve argued before, the fact that you might be speaking the truth isn’t always the only relevant thing. Messages can get lost in their delivery, and in the perceptions of their audience – and we can therefore have a debate about the efficacy of a message that is, to some extent, separate from its truth-value.

The outrage on this occasion is his reference to “mild paedophilia” in an interview for The Times (paywalled), that was written up on Religion News Service and then (to my mind, at least) mischaracterised on Pharyngula (commenters, this is not a blog on which to rant about PZ, please – I think he’s being uncharitable in his interpretation of Dawkins, but Dawkins nevertheless said something very ill-advised and insensitive). [EDIT: here’s the full text, from the RDFS site.]

First, an important clarification: what Dawkins reports is not paedophilia, but child abuse. Paedophilia does not necessarily entail any physical contact, but simply the attraction – and many paedophiles hate the fact that they have this attraction at all. We all make it more difficult for them to get help through demonising paedophiles as child abusers.

Second, this is not a new story. At least, the fact that Dawkins was abused is not a new story. He’s referred to it in interviews, as well as in The God Delusion. His comment that “it is at least possible for psychological abuse of children to outclass physical abuse” has previously been the subject of willful misinterpretation by the physicist Peter Higgs, and others.

In this new interview, Dawkins repeats his claim that he doesn’t think he has suffered lasting harm, and suggests that neither would his peers have. That’s a problem already, of course, in that while he’s free to speak for himself, it’s rather risky – not to mention grossly insensitive, and likely harmful to some who do feel harmed – to assert that other victims of child abuse haven’t suffered harm. Then he says:

I am very conscious that you can’t condemn people of an earlier era by the standards of ours. Just as we don’t look back at the 18th and 19th centuries and condemn people for racism in the same way as we would condemn a modern person for racism, I look back a few decades to my childhood and see things like caning, like mild pedophilia, and can’t find it in me to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today.

This is the key passage, in which Dawkins again says something which is arguably true, yet an utterly stupid – and pointless – thing to say. To my mind, what he’s trying to say is:

  • That child abusers were living in a culture and time where the wrongness of their actions wasn’t as obvious to them as it would be now.
  • That the victims of child abuse were living in a culture and time where the wrongness of what was being done to them wasn’t as obvious to them as it would be now.
  • Our understanding of what actors did and felt within a particular historical time and context must be informed by the norms applicable at the time.

The fact that child abuse (and racism, and sexism, etc.) were always wrong is a separate issue to how people felt about those things, and their awareness of the wrongfulness of those things. And, how people felt about things (in fact, how they perceive things today) will obviously have an effect on whether people feel harmed, abused or whatever the case might be. That’s all that Dawkins seems to be saying. And the fact that it will appear to be an insensitive thing to say doesn’t make him wrong on those facts. What makes him wrong is arguably that it’s an excessively, and unproductively, insensitive thing to say.

So it’s not fair, or accurate, to say (as PZ Myers does), that he “can think of some lasting harm [to Dawkins]: [Dawkins] seems to have developed a callous indifference to the sexual abuse of children”. Not at all – this is a completely needless, and unfair, swipe at Dawkins, in that it asserts that he’s persistently, and currently, indifferent to the sexual abuse of children in general.

As discussed above, Dawkins thinks that some abuse, at a particular time, was not regarded as seriously (regardless of its actual seriousness) as it would be today. These are very different claims, and PZ Myers is simply picking the most uncharitable interpretation possible in order to discredit Dawkins.

Later in the post, PZ Myers says

We do not excuse harm to others because some prior barbaric age was indifferent to that harm. Furthermore, the excuse doesn’t even work: are we supposed to believe that a child-fondling teacher would have been permissible in the 1950s? Seriously? Was that ever socially acceptable? And even if it was, in some weird version of British history, it does not excuse it. It means British schools were vile nests of child abuse, just like Catholic churches.

Again, to call it an “excuse” creates the impression that Dawkins condones child abuse. And the use of the word “permissible” implies a binary state, where either all teachers are going around abusing children, then sharing tales over tea, or one where all abusers are caught and punished to the full extent of the law. It was never permissible, not even in the 1950s. Yet, it’s still possible that people didn’t report it as often, or follow up on it as often, or perceive it in the same ways then, as they do now.

This doesn’t alter the fact that it was wrong then, as it’s wrong now. It doesn’t “excuse” it, as per Myers’ words above. All that it does is explain that people might respond to it differently then than they do now.

Free Speech Morality

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.

Daily Maverick Morality

Offensive comments on the interwebs

Originally published on the Daily Maverick

As I’ve said before, Nicholas Carr is wrong to think that the Internet is making us stupid. But to hear all of my arguments for this, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait a good few years. By 2014 or so, I’ll either have finished that thesis, or have somewhat refuted it by no longer being able to construct a coherent sentence, thanks to excessive exposure to the numerous distractions available on the interwebs.

Despite my conviction that he and others are making false claims regarding the long-term effects of our reliance on the Internet for communication and acquisition of information, much of the evidence I have before me this morning can’t help but make me sympathetic to his thesis.