My disclaimer/policy on comments here has occasioned a bit of discussion on the tubes. Isis reckons that those who say it is a bad thing to piss on the rug will do it anyway when things get heated. Golden Thoughts compares this to the Civil Rights movement, and that those who say “don’t piss on the rug” are comparable to the people who arrested Rosa Parks for sitting on a bus. I have to say that I can’t see it, myself. But it raises an interesting issue: when is it right to be nasty in debate?
Because, sometimes, it is, and everyone agrees that it is. What we are arguing about now are the circumstances. More below the fold.
First of all, I must say that I wasn’t there, didn’t see what happened, and I know nothing more than it has the smell of a traffic accident, with each observer seeing a somewhat different aspect of the incident at ScienceOnline2010. However, I know some of the participants directly or indirectly, and some of the claims made about the behaviour and what triggered it strikes me as, well, unlikely. Anyway, that’s for them to sort out.
Let us start by noting that debate is a dialectic process: this means that there is a give and take of communication. It also means that, to communicate at all, there have to be conventions. I list one take on those conventions here. Without conventions of what is acceptable behaviour, agreed by both sides, there can be no debate, only armed conflict. What those who say it is OK to piss on rugs are asserting is that these conventions favour the powerful and defeat the weak before the argument begins. This is probably true. That’s when you have to re-evaluate conventions. Only if you cannot find shared conventions does argument dissolve into abuse.
Now, when you are first meeting someone in debate, you have to assume certain things about them. Is it fair to assume that because I am male, white, middle class and western that I share the hidden brain of that group? It’s a reasonable bet. But such class-based categorisation depends on a lack of information about the individual with whom you are actually dealing. Suppose, as you get to know me, that I turn out to be actively trying to overcome those attitudes in favour of a more equalitarian view. Suppose you find that I try very hard to treat all comers civilly and equally. Suppose I do not oppress minorities. Are you excused from treating me civilly because of my membership of a class that you despise?
Think very hard about that. It’s in effect to justify discrimination on the basis of what groups someone falls into. Sure, you are doing it for the Very Best of Intentions, but we know where roads thusly paved lead. If you cannot reason with me because I am white, male and all the rest, why try? Why not just ignore me, or seek to suppress what I can say by employing any guerilla tactic you can? End justify means, after all (the idea that they do not is, of course, another tool of the patriarchy/capitalist oppressors/other hated group).
It seems to me that there has arisen a split over the last century or more between those who try to employ reasoning (not Reason – that’s an equid of an alternate aposematism) to argue to true conclusions, and those who think reasoning is a matter of social jockeying for power. As a philosopher, I value the former, but I know that we have to recognise that power relations enter into every interaction. Nevertheless, it doesn’t follow that because some conventions disadvantage minorities, that the mere fact of having conventions does; nor is it true that because some people use rules of reason to establish and strengthen their unjust social control, that all uses of reason are of that kind. There are some pretty basic fallacies involved, of the kind that first year students doing reasoning skills are expected to learn.
Don’t get me wrong: academic disputes can get heated and nasty. They can be about who is cock of the yard in this or that field or department. As Kissinger famously stole the saying, academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so low. But not all, and not even most. By and large, collegiality is the norm, as it would have to be (any society that lacks a general cooperative aspect will shortly cease to be a society, ipso facto). It is not the case that appeals to at least try to be civil to begin with, are unnecessary. Assuming that one cannot be civil with white males, etc., well, that’s just prejudice.
I was most hurt by those who knew me, and had engaged in several years of debates with me, who nevertheless sat back and failed to object when I was being attacked for my pleas for civility because I was a white male d00d. That was basically the reason I left Science Blogs. There are always bullies and those whose first response to anything they do not like is to accuse others and shout. You have to deal with them, but you cannot argue with them, for the shared rules are just not there. So you shrug and move on. But when your character is being attacked, not for anything you may have said or done but because of which class of people you fall into, you expect those who are your friends to come to your defence, and apart from a couple of worthies, none of those I expected would do this did. Oh well, that’s how one works out who is reliable as a friend, I suppose.
So the reasonable response is to disengage, and I did. And in setting up this sanctuary here, I decided that life is too short to continue to fight against those who refuse to even allow that one has the right to debate at all. Which is why I will thank you not to piss on my rug. Until they come to take away my ownership of this place and the right to have it, my rules apply. If you attempt to do that, though, I will get nasty, and I will be right to do so.
Those who have been subjected to discrimination often turn out to be as discriminatory as those they oppose. This is understandable. And I do agree that when you are faced with an opponent who will be aggressive towards you no matter what you say (i.e., who isn’t debating but using only rhetoric and drowning your voice out, like O’Reilly telling his guests to “Shut up!” and then claiming victory), the rules of debate and civility no longer apply. Sometimes that is because the other person is so oblivious of the actual message they are sending that they fail to see that is what they are doing (for example, making a comment about Jews to someone who you do not know is Jewish, or someone you do know is Jewish but you fail to understand how antisemitic your comments are). Their ignorance is no excuse. But that is the last resort. You don’t assume that the slightest hint of aggression indicates you are facing a mass murderer, and kill them. You must make a proportionate response.
That’s all I have to say about civility.