The Incivility Debate

An odd thing about the atheosphere:  nothing gets the sparks flying like one segment of it accusing another of incivility.  The latest round:  here's an essay at 3 Quarks Daily by Quinn O'Neill.  The part about incivility comes toward the end:
Personal and vitriolic attacks on religious individuals are also inconsistent with religious freedom.  If we value religious freedom, respect for people’s right to hold irrational beliefs is in order (so long as the beliefs don’t infringe on the rights of others).  Respecting freedom of religion means accepting the fact that not everyone will freely choose our worldview.  If we encourage people to think for themselves, we must accept that others will come to different conclusions. 
Speaking of incivility, here's Russell Blackford being rather uncivil. It's not a matter of calling O'Neill names (she's not one of the "Colgate Twins," for example).  It's just that he treats her like she's far beneath him.  In the end, he accuses her of being "horribly confused," charges her with "ignorance," "tying herself up in knots," and "writing nonsense," and claims "her post lacks intellectual merit." Anyone going by tone alone would think "the professor has spoken!" and conclude O'Neill was a very confused young lady indeed.  Incivility can distort and distract--that's one of the problems with it.

What's O'Neill supposedly so confused about?  Blackford thinks O'Neill is making utterly elementary mistakes about freedom of religion--she must think the first amendment ensures us the right to practice a religion without ever being criticized!  Good heavens, how could she not know that it merely protects citizens from state imposition of religion?

How indeed? I'll bet she does know that, and her point was a trifle more subtle.  She was alleging a connection between meaningfully exercising religious freedoms and living in a a climate of mutual respect.  And she's surely right about this connection. 

Let's look at a microcosm--a classroom.  I teach a class on the good life in which religion is a frequently topic.  Students by all means have the right to openly avow theism or atheism, but they're sometimes uncomfortable doing so.  Atheist students have told me they worry about being seen negatively by religious students, and vice versa.  Do all of these students have a right to speak out?  Yes, technically they do. But it's just a right "in principle" if the atmosphere of the classroom makes it extremely uncomfortable for students to exercise it.  If I permitted "personal and vitriolic attacks," the attackers would more meaningfully have a right to speak in my class than the people driven into silence.

So yes, meaningfully having rights and freedoms does mean receiving certain forms of respect.  As the referee, I have to make sure students interact with a sense that they are on a par with each other.  I can't set things up so that there's a "smart side" and a "dumb side."   For people to meaningfully have the right to participate, some level of mutual respect has to be the starting point. I have to make it clear that each person is entitled to their own world view, or something along those lines.

Likewise in society as a whole.  If it becomes too uncomfortable to express a view, you have a right to express it only technically.  To really have a right in a meaningful way, it has to be reasonably comfortable to exercise the right.  In fact, that problem is particularly sharp for atheists in the US.  Technically of course they have a right to speak out, but they often can't, for fear of being vilified. Most visibly, Muslims have that problem right now--sure they have a right to free exercise of their religion (technically!), but the whole issue about the Islamic Center near Ground Zero seems to have brought all the islamophobes out of the woodwork.  It's become harder to be a Muslim, even if legally speaking, no rights have been taken away from them.

So yes, having a meaningful right to express a belief or practice a religion does turn on receiving respect.  Conversely, disrespect can be used as a tool...and sometimes that's as it should be. Some ideas really are so odious that they ought to be driven underground.  The hope is that they'll shrivel up and die for lack of air. We can't have a mutually respectful conversation about whether gay people should be rounded up and killed.  We want people to have the right to express that preference, but only in a narrow, technical sense. 

So O'Neill is not wrong at all when she talks about a connection between rights (meaningfully having them, not having them in the narrow legal sense) and mutually respectful, civil interaction.  There is that connection.   The substantive question here is whether it makes sense for atheists to use disrespect in the way I just explained.  Should they try to drive religion underground to shrivel up and die through mockery and disrespect? Blackford makes this very simple--'What's the point of having freedom of speech if you don't exercise it?" he asks.  Answer: it's so you can, when it's a good idea to do so.

Who would want to eliminate all the great religion mockers from the canon--people like Mark Twain, Tolstoy, Voltaire?  Let there be mockery. On the other hand, there has to be hesitation.  For one, what's good for the goose is good for the gander.  If the skeptics get to try to mock the other side into the shadows, they can't complain when disrespect runs in the other direction.  Setting that aside, the conscientious skeptic should consider the full breadth of what religion includes and how it affects the way people live.  O'Neill makes a good point that skeptics have to take a different stance toward religion if their primary goal is to maximize wellbeing. In spite of all the evils than can be traced to religion, the positive psychologists (e.g. Seligman, Haidt, Graham) tell us that religion has benefits for wellbeing--religious people are happier, and even the skeptics around religious people are happier.  This is not a trivial phenomenon, not easy to explain, and not just a matter of people hanging onto "delusions" under duress (O'Neill weakens her case by using that word).  There's a lot in the empirical study of religion that ought to slow down the evidence-based, morally-inspired skeptic. 

But in any event--is there a connection between having rights in a meaningful sense, and receiving respect?  Of course there is.


s. wallerstein said...

People have a legal right to mock religion and a legal right to be incivil towards religion.

Whether it is ethically good in the cirumstance you cite to exercise that legal right is another question.

Here's a quote from Nietzsche (The Gay Science, 209), which reminds me of some debates online:

There's a way of asking us for our reasons that leads us not only to forget our best reasons but also to conceive a stubborn aversion to all reasons. This way of asking makes people very stupid and is a trick used by tyrannical people.

J. J. Ramsey said...

I don't think that a matter-of-fact harsh assessment such as "lacks intellectual merit" is uncivil. Possibly incorrect (though I don't think it is incorrect in this instance), but not uncivil.

I also think that you are mixing together things that really should be separated out. Religious freedom, in the sense of people being free to believe and worship as they wish, sets a minimal baseline for acceptable behavior, legally limiting conflicts about religion to wars of words at worst. What should happen beyond that baseline depends a lot on the circumstances. The rules you have in your classroom are good for your classroom and keep it from getting sidetracked by arguments among students, but if they were to apply more generally, it could make it harder to, for example, criticize the excesses of Christian Science or the Wahhabi strains of Islam.

Jean Kazez said...

By any normal standard, he's being uncivil. All the labelling is definitely uncivil in my neck of the woods. Even worse is the immediate assumption of superior knowledge on his part, and utter stupidity on O'Neill's. It's civil to try to understand what your opponent really meant, uncivil to latch onto the most unflattering reading you can.

As to your second paragraph--I think you misunderstand my point about the classroom. The point was to show that there's a connection between having rights in a meaningful sense (not just technically, but really being able to exercise them) and receiving respect. I gave other examples too, not involving a classroom. In the current climate of hostility toward Muslims in the US, the right to express Muslim beliefs, or practise the religion, becomes attenuated. It's the same with atheism. Where atheists are treated with a lot of disrespect, so keep their atheism a secret,they have the right to express themselves, but that becomes fairly meaningless.

With only the slighest bit of charity, it's easy to read O'Neill as saying true and reasonable things like this--things that show not the slightest ignorance about the nature of religious liberty and free speech rights. It's just minmally civil to make that interpetation.

Of course, after you do so, you can still disagree. You can take the line I mention (critically)--you can say that some rights SHOULD be on paper only, and some ideas should be driven underground. You could argue that it's good to try to disrespect religious ideas into the shadows. To instead attribute utterly stupid misunderstandings to O'Neill is, as I say, uncivil.

J. J. Ramsey said...

"I gave other examples too, not involving a classroom. In the current climate of hostility toward Muslims in the US, the right to express Muslim beliefs, or practise the religion, becomes attenuated."

A big part of that, though, is that the Tea Partiers have enough of a lynch mob mentality that Muslims have reason to fear for their safety, so it's not a great example of mockery effectively limiting religious freedom.

"It's the same with atheism. Where atheists are treated with a lot of disrespect, so keep their atheism a secret,they have the right to express themselves, but that becomes fairly meaningless."

Yet atheists have been able to put up billboards, bus signs, publish books, etc., in spite of their views being marginalized. That was allowed to happen because of the minimal baseline I mentioned that religious freedom provides, in spite of the social marginalization of atheism. Even with that marginalization, the religious freedom of atheists in the U.S. is more than a paper technicality.

For the most part, I'm not in favor of most mockery aimed at the religious because much of it distorts the facts and seems to promote a mob mentality in those that engage in it. However, as I said on Blackford's blog, "Even the most childish and stupid attacks on religion are no more inconsistent with freedom of religion than racist diatribes are with freedom of speech." I stand by that.

s. wallerstein said...

Of course, people have every legal right in the world to be uncivil, rude and mocking towards others, and in my experience, they often make use of that right.

Given how uncivil and disrespectful most people are towards others, especially towards others who are different than they are, towards others who do not form part of their identity group, why add to that climate of lack of respect and uncivility
(or is it incivility?)? Why not strive for a most respectful society, as far as possible?

Jean Kazez said...

JJ, I think it's a mistake to sweep the classroom example aside. That's where you can clearly see that freedom comes in degrees, and does depend on respect. Then you can extrapolate to other cases, "modulo" whatever differences there are in the other cases.

So--imagine a classroom where the Xs are attacked and mocked and openly viewed as stupid. The X's keep a secret of being X's and don't participate in discussions. Are they free? Do they have rights to participate?

Well, yes, in a sense, so long as the professor has no rule against Xs expressing themselves. They're legally free (under the laws of that classroom), or free in principle. But no, since practically speaking, the Xs are unable to speak out. They're "practically" (or some such) unfree.

Obviously, "practically" free is a matter of degree and a loose thing, not easily measured. I think atheists in the US are quite obviously less practically free than Christians, even if they have exactly the same legal freedoms. You certainly can't argue against that by citing atheist billboards and books. You have to look at lots of real world situations--classrooms, school board meetings, etc. etc., and see who speaks out from religious or non-religious premises and who doesn't.

The marginalizing of Muslims is a reality, and not entirely due to the threat of violence. The whole craziness with nearly 20% of Americans calling Obama a Muslim, as an attack, has nothing to do with violence, but sends a message to Muslims. It affects legal freedoms not one bit, but obviously does affect freedom in a practical sense. It makes Muslims less able to speak out, as Muslims.

I think it's pretty obvious O'Neill was talking about freedom and rights in this looser, practical sense, not about constitutional or legal rights. She wasn't saying the freedom of religion literally protects people from being attacked and mocked disrespectfully. She was saying that practically speaking, freedom of religion is diminished in a climate of disrespect.

You might try to argue that it's OK for things to be that way, and nobody needs to be more deferential (not to atheists, not to Muslims, not to Christians...), but there's no confusion involved in seeing a connection between having freedom/rights (in a practical sense) and receiving respectful treatment.

J. J. Ramsey said...

"I think it's pretty obvious O'Neill was talking about freedom and rights in this looser, practical sense, not about constitutional or legal rights."

I don't think it's really all that useful to speak of rights in a "looser" sense, since that just invites confusion. I'm not even sure it even makes much sense to speak of rights outside of a legal framework. If one is a theist, even a Jeffersonian-type of theist, then it makes sense to speak of natural rights, since presumably those rights are a part of the law ordained by God, but that's not an option for nonbelievers.

"She was saying that practically speaking, freedom of religion is diminished in a climate of disrespect."

I see what she was trying to say, but the problem with that notion is that it emphasizes one aspect of freedom of religion, namely the right to practice a religion, at the cost of other aspects of religious freedom, such as the freedom to hold particular religious views in contempt, such as those that encourage homophobia, misogyny, credulity, etc. That's especially true if one takes into account the "respect creep" that Simon Blackburn has described into account, where "respect" shifts in meaning from being more about tolerance to deference or reverence. Such "respect creep" can lead to even the most matter-of-fact criticisms being treated as disrespectful. Simply saying, as O'Neill did, that "[p]ersonal and vitriolic attacks on religious individuals are also inconsistent with religious freedom," neglects other important aspects of religious freedom.

Jean Kazez said...

She certainly didn't write a thorough, precise discourse about rights and respect. Not at all--it looks like what she was really interested in was the business about maximizing wellbeing as opposed to rationality. I thought that part of the essay was actually quite interesting.

I agree about respect creep--let's not have that. I don't have to revere other people's gods. Other people don't have to be meticulously deferential toward my attitude of disbelief. We can all have vigorous debates, humor is permitted, etc. But there are limits, which depend on....well, a hundred different variables. It's all complex and "grey," but I would have thought it's safe to say that "personal and vitriolic attacks" are out of bounds.

J. J. Ramsey said...

"I would have thought it's safe to say that 'personal and vitriolic attacks' are out of bounds."

I wouldn't say that vitriol is out of bounds so much as it is a "nuclear option." I can't fault someone much if at all for vitriol about the cover-up of child rape within the Catholic Church, for example.

(On the other hand, if when applying vitriol, one is distorting the facts as well, especially to make someone look worse than one actually is, that's a sign that vitriol is being grossly misapplied.)

Jean Kazez said...

Fair enough--I agree you need a nuclear option, and that's the sort of thing you need it for.