Actions, Beliefs, and Civility

I was recently on Ashley Miller’s blog arguing with a moron who couldn’t get it through his thick skull that I don’t care about Dan Cathy’s beliefs, but I do very much care that he spends money made at Chick-fil-a to support organizations that encourage the death and imprisonment of LGBT people here and abroad. He didn’t get it and, inevitably, made the argument that, “Your militant actions will only hurt yourself… and others.”

First, veiled threat aside, what he means by “militant actions” is calling people bigots. There has been a pretty hard pushback on the right against being called things, and there is an implication that if the pro-equality side would just be nice, everything will be wonderful and we can have a kind, civil discussion about being treated like real human beings.

In two words: fuck off.

Calls for civility are often used by sides that perceive themselves as losing an argument. The idea is that we are emotional creatures, we react to emotion, so by trying to make emotional appeals a liability, it prevents the aggrieved party from communicating in any way other than purely intellectually, which is less likely to connect with audiences. The group in power can afford this sort of behavior because if there is no change in opinion, nothing changes for them as well. It’s a safe position to be in, calling for calm, unemotional dialogue because it is unlikely to change the status quo. The powerful count on this, so they attempt to paint their opponents as irrational owing to their emotion.

This comes up a lot regarding groups that are attempting to gain power for themselves or lessen the privilege of those who want to continue to deny their existence. For example, the invocations of “militant atheism” are a big one. People like to complain that the New Atheists are mean and will turn people off from their message by saying that god doesn’t exist and religion does enormous harm around the world on a daily basis. We’re called “small-minded“, “shrill“, of course, “militant“. Tone trolls warn that this will not work, that pointing out that many religious believers do awful things just makes people who believe similar, but less harmful, things feel attacked, and the more effective method will always be the accommodationism of Alain de Botton and Michael Ruse.

This is nonsense. Since the advent of New Atheism, the number of people who claim no religious affiliation has gone from 8% in 1990, to 19% in 2011. Millennials,  the generation who have been exposed almost exclusively to gnu arguments, are the least religious generation we have data for. Richard Dawkins has a place on his website for people to tell their deconversion stories, and almost all of them cite the passion and forcefulness behind the New Atheists as a major factor in them coming to the conclusion they have.

New Atheism works because it recognizes and appeals to the human, emotional side of our decision making process, using emotion to improve the perception of their rational arguments. It is entirely irrational to treat human beings as if they have no emotions or that those emotions don’t matter. Again, I point to Ashley Miller’s talk about this very topic at Dragon*con. I also point to Julia Galef’s lecture on the “Straw Vulcan” at last year’s Skepticon. Her basic premise is that Mr. Spock presents a version of logic and reason that is actually irrational because it ignores the reality of people’s behavior and social interactions in favor of an idealized world where emotion isn’t just ignored, but actually doesn’t exist.

And it’s not like the other side of the LGBT issue isn’t appealing to emotions. What else is the point of saying that “their same-sex attractions are abnormal,” or trying to link homosexuality to pedophilia, terrorism, and the “recruitment” of children? These are all lies, everything I just linked to, and there are more lies that I could link to, but apart from being lies (which can be used emotionally as effectively as truth) they aim specifically at an emotional core in human beings: our sense of the virtue of protecting children from that which is Other.

So, I’m not going to get in the way of these people making emotional appeals, because it’s how we get people to understand that our point is much more than just academic. But, I will call them out on their lies, I will laugh that their attempts to play “I’m rubber, you’re glue” with the LGBT community, and I will not be civil about it.

You heard me, I’m not going to be civil.

I see absolutely no reason to be civil to a person who calls me a pedophile and a terrorist. Or who calls for me to be imprisoned. Or be deported (presumably to Planet Unicorn). Why should I be nice to somebody who blames teenaged victims of bullying for being harassed into suicide?

There’s a false equivalence underlying this entirely argument and that’s that there is no difference between working to promote the murder of gay people and calling people who do that bigots. Like Hemant Mehta I’m not even sure what else to call people are aren’t psychopaths like Kevin Swanson who think I (and the Muppets) should be killed, yet are also anti-equality. And then complains about being called a bigot for doing nothing more than expressing his belief that LGBT people should be murdered.

And also like Mehta, I disagreed (in her comments) with Rachel Held Evans that it’s possible to be against the rights of LGBT people and not be a bigot, much like you can’t be against interracial marriage and not be a racist. Words have meanings, and irrationally treating somebody differently (“I read it in a book” doesn’t count as reason) is bigoted. Sorry, thems the breaks.

It’s why Halee Gray Scott’s moronic “I’m Not Charles Worley” post was such a disappointment. She tries to argue that because she’s nice to LGBT people’s faces, that means that she’s not a homophobe for opposing same-sex marriage and working to make sure it doesn’t happen, or opposing same-sex hospital visitation, or any recognition of same-sex relationships. She seems to think that because she doesn’t want to round up all gay people into camps, that makes her not a homophobe. The problem is that her actions produce the exact same effect as Worley’s words. Intent is not magic, and just because you don’t specifically want that to happen doesn’t mean that it’s not your fault for cheering on the people trying to make their sick fantasies into a reality. Sick fantasties like Bob Jones’s wish on the steps of the White House that we go back to stoning homosexuals. Or like the sky tyrant smiting places that accept homosexuality.

And the thing is, to an extent I feel bad for the people who genuinely don’t want to harm others, but feel compelled by their beliefs to do so. But that feeling is rather small and fleeting. Plenty of people have decided to excise bigotry from their beliefs and feel no compunction about calling bigots and homophobes what they are. John Shore has an excellent way of putting it:

But it is indisputable that the “Christian” belief system evinced by the letter above daily and directly contributes to the ruination of the lives of gay people and those who love them. To my mind anyone who at this point persists in clinging to those beliefs does thereby forfeit their absolute right to respectful treatment. Because when all is said and done such people are nothing but bullies. They are sweet-talking, reasonable-sounding bullies who are daring to use God as their weapon of persecution.

I owe such people nothing whatsoever. My allegiance is to their victims, and to the God they shame by their ignorant bigotry.

Similarly, the idea that somehow another person can kindly deny rights to others or gently be silent when the atmosphere they’ve previously created inevitably erupts into violence is complete bullshit. Going to another favorite blogger, Fred Clark succinctly explains why you can’t be nice about denying people’s humanity:

Look, here’s the deal: It doesn’t matter if you think you’re a nice person. And it doesn’t matter if your tone, attitude, sentiments and facial expressions are all very sweet, kindly and sympathetic-seeming. If you’re opposing legal equality, then you don’t get to be nice. Opposing legal equality is not nice and it cannot be done nicely.

So, no, I don’t see a difference between Charles Worley and Halee Gray Scott. Their intentions are different, but the results are the same. I see no difference between Peter Sprigg calling for the imprisonment and deportation of homosexuals and Dan Cathy who paid Sprigg to be able to spread that message far and wide. Nor are other people any different if they continue to pay Dan Cathy to be able to fund that message. Again, thems the breaks, and I really don’t give a shit if they personally have no problem with me. Their beliefs are entirely meaningless as compared to their actions, and supporting anti-LGBT people is supporting anti-me people, regardless of those personal beliefs that people do absolutely nothing about.

No, I will not be nice to these people. I will not moderate my tone or refrain from calling them bigots. Because they are bigots. I know I won’t get them to change their minds, but I can get the people watching to do so. I can get those people to see that discrimination is bigotry, be it against queers, racial minorities, women, or any other group that lacks power. And that’s how we’re winning, despite the people claiming that being called a bigot is the same as being set on fire. I repeat, with a different example: set on fire. For clarity, there are people who think that being called a bigot for lying about the homosexual community is just like being set on fire. Just for absolute certainty, being called out on bigotry is just like being set on fire. Are we perfectly clear on the logic there?

Civility is a privilege enjoyed by those in power and wielded like a weapon against those not in power. It preserves the status quo. Sometimes you want that. If we discuss whether Firefly is the greatest show ever made (it is), and you disagree, then maintaining the status quo is a good thing as it allows our friendship to continue despite your lack of taste in television. But when it comes to power dynamics in society, the problem is the status quo, where a group of powerful people with ideas that harm other human beings get to implement those ideas. By demanding civility, it robs the aggrieved of a method of effective communication and attempts to categorize entirely understandable anger with irrational fury. It is a trick, it is a trap, and it is not one that you should fall for.

So stand up for your positions. Be honest about it. Don’t be afraid of turning off those calling for civility: you will never change their minds. And most important, don’t feel that you have to be civil to people who want you dead just because they say it with a smile.

6 thoughts on “Actions, Beliefs, and Civility

  1. Pingback: Arguing With Ourselves | Reasonable Conversation

  2. The problem I have with this is that this argument also gets used as a weapon to silence people and shut down discussion. I don’t like being called names, I don’t like being bullied, and I happen to think that if you can’t make your point without being a douchecanoe about it, it probably wasn’t a very good point to begin with. But if I’m in a discussion with someone and I make the (to me, very reasonable) request that they, y’know, lay off the personal attacks, scorn and condescension, sarcasm, and other assorted nastiness, I’m accused of being a “tone troll.”

    I get and agree with what you’re saying in these circumstances. But I wish explanations like this came with a disclaimer that these excellent reasons to eschew civility in SOME circumstances doesn’t give you a blank slate to be a dick in ALL circumstances. Sometimes taking a harsh tone is what’s called for. Sometimes, though, by jumping immediately to it, you alienate someone who was genuinely interested in hearing your argument and was open to learning something new and changing their mind.

    (Not that you, personally, would do that. But people do and people have. I know from experience which online communities to avoid, because if I disagree on anything or even ask for an explanation of arguments I haven’t heard before, I can pretty much expect to be not just flamed, but fireballed – and then belittled if I dare to object to that.)

    • You make a couple of interesting points, and bring up places where I should clarify.

      “I don’t like being called names, I don’t like being bullied, and I happen to think that if you can’t make your point without being a douchecanoe about it, it probably wasn’t a very good point to begin with.”

      I happen to agree, especially with the second part, but that’s not what I was talking about. Recently I heard something to the effect of, “When the powerful mock the powerless, it’s bullying. When the powerless mock the powerful, it’s satire.” There is a significant power disparity at play, and maintaining absolutely civility in all cases maintains and re-enforces that disparity. Often the only way to fight back is through mockery and ridicule because a civil discussion can be walked around in meaningless circles forever, never bringing the powerless any closer to equality.

      “But I wish explanations like this came with a disclaimer that these excellent reasons to eschew civility in SOME circumstances doesn’t give you a blank slate to be a dick in ALL circumstances.”

      You’re absolutely right. I should have been more clear on this. There are some people who genuinely don’t understand. I know several of them and have been slowly trying to explain to them what I’m trying to say. However, I’ve also gotten very used to people JAQing off and that’s where a lot of this came from. It’s pretty clear that Brian Brown and Tony Perkins know that what they say is absolutely false. They’ve been at this too long to have not been presented with the evidence. Kevin Swanson and Bryan Fischer live in the real world and have to have at least an inkling that calling for people to be imprisoned or killed might cause some people to take it upon themselves to do so. They’re not stupid. For them, there is no need or reason for civility.

      For other people: case by case basis. But it shouldn’t be a requirement, nor should it even be expected.

  3. Pingback: A Comment I Expect to Disappear | Reasonable Conversation

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