Atheist Ireland has recently publicly distanced itself from the hateful and harmful rhetoric of PZ Myers. Various bloggers have weighed in supporting this move, including Hemant Mehta and JT Eberhard at Patheos, along with Skeptic Ink authors Peter Ferguson and David Osorio. I support this move as well, naturally, but I feel compelled to note that PZ is not truly the heart of the problem here. If PZ converted to Catholicism tomorrow and spent the rest of his days cloistered away from the secular world in devotional quietude and meditative prayer, the problem would not go away, because it is rooted in human nature and culture.
The problem is this: It is easier, faster, and far more emotionally satisfying to discredit someone by attacking their character than by civilly dissecting their arguments. It requires a certain character and a modicum of mental discipline to avoid the former path in favor of the latter, especially when you can be confident of being praised by the in-group for choosing the dark path of argumentum ad hominem.
PZ has surely done freethought a great disservice by elevating the politics of personal destruction to a high art, and by consciously cultivating a commentariat that takes sadistic joy in pulling their knives and rhetorically flensing the speaker rather than straightforwardly addressing their argument. PZ’s allies in the social justice blogosphere have followed in his footsteps, such that by July 2011 it had become clear that “a relatively small and extremely vocal contingent of bloggers act as if any atheists or skeptics who disagree with their political views are useless and slur them every time they get the chance.”
The slurs have continued from that day until today, and they show no sign of letting up. Over at Skepchick, for example, the commentariat has reacted to Hemant’s recent post with the usual guilt-by-association smears:
Hemant Mehta has proven himself to be a liar and a now a promoter and endorser of misogyny-based harassment campaigns against atheist feminists. I formally disassociate myself from Mehta and any group of which he has a leadership position.
It is very difficult to see where exactly he ever promoted such a campaign, but why let pesky things like facts get in the way of a good personal attack?
The “misogyny-based harassment campaign” referenced above is actually a minimally moderated forum where we have seen several indefensible personal attacks posted, oftentimes without significant objection from other commenters. As you might well expect, most of the posters there are pseudonymous and none of them are ever invited to speak at international atheist conferences; it isn’t exactly fair to compare well-known public speakers and their coteries to obscure anarchistic web boards, at least in terms of impact on the community. Nevertheless, for the sake of fairness it has to be noted that personal attacks and other such weaponized rhetoric are not remotely the sole purview of one side in the atheist rift wars.
What, then, shall we do? How can we discuss all manner of sensitive issues without getting perpetually mired in the politics of personal destruction?
Here is the mode of engagement preferred by Salman Rushdie:
At Cambridge I was taught a laudable method of argument: You never personalize, but you have absolutely no respect for people’s opinions. You are never rude to the person, but you can be savagely rude about what the person thinks. That seems to me a crucial distinction: People must be protected from discrimination by virtue of their race, but you cannot ring-fence their ideas. The moment you say that any idea system is sacred, whether it’s a belief system or a secular ideology, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.
Ideas may be (and sometimes must be) flensed ruthlessly, but individuals must be treated with dignity.
These are the same principles which underlie our discussion policy here at Skeptic Ink:
Invectives that demean individuals on the basis of ethnicity, race, sex, religion, sexuality, gender identification, appearance, or age will not be tolerated. We will focus on the arguments rather than individuals. Sensitive commenters should be warned that poor arguments may be called out as such, and that it is our obligation to do so, even if it is upsetting to the person we argue against. No position worth defending requires the sacrifice of either manners or respect for other people. We seek a calm, thoughtful debate on the issues that divide us or none at all, and we expect the same from our commentariat.
Finally, here is some timeless advice from David Gorski:
…could you guys do everyone a favor and both keep your personal animosity towards each other to yourselves, rather than inflicting your extreme distaste for each other on your readers?
He provided this advice in the context of a particular personal dispute, but it works perfectly for the atheist rifts in general.