Tone wars

There are a group of critics of religion, of pseudoscience, of regressive politics – all excellent targets for criticism – who think that if you in any way seek polite, civil or reasoned discourse with the targets of your criticisms, you are weak and accommodationist. I call these “tone warriors” and if I had the skills of a cartoonist I would do a funny caricature. Instead, Mike Reed’s Flame Warriors will have to do:


It was a peaceful and productive forum; lively, congenial and a bounteous source of useful information. Then one day, completely without warning, Godzilla arose from the depths and blew his scalding breath on everything in his path. A phalanx of Warriors mobilized to attack the monster, only to be crushed like so many toy tanks under Godzilla’s mighty feet. Godzilla soon reduced the forum to searing and consuming flames. Just as abruptly, he rumbled back beneath the waves, leaving all to tremble in fear of his return. Net life would never be the same. Sadly, many netizens who survive a Godzilla attack will become Xenophobes. [Mike’s caption]

Of course this immediately calls for a caricature of those who think concern for tone need not interfere with substantial criticism:


Diplomat butts into hot disputes, presuming that the combatants will welcome and appreciate his even-handed and eminently reasonable mediation. Frankly, he gets what he deserves. [Mike’s caption]

And perhaps we do. But it seems to me that style (tone) and substance (reason) are not necessarily inversely related, except in Powerpoint presentations. The way we communicate to others has an effect upon the overall debate. Why am I raising this old potato to hot status now (especially as I once said I wouldn’t – you expected consistency?)? Well, it has to do with the way some have responded to the Jon Stewart rally.

Stewart, you may have seen, noted that “we can have animus and not be enemies” and “If we amplify everything we hear nothing”. Sensible stuff, and a needed antidote to the hysterical media and pundits. But PZ Myers (yes, it’s an insult: I spelled his name correctly!) tweeted “The #rally4sanity was amusing, but it should have been called the #rally4tone. Unimpressed. Done and over.” and then posted The Rally for Tone at Pharyngula in which he said, “It was also an afternoon of false equivalence, of civility fetishism, of nothing but a cry about the national tone, of a plea for moderation. And you can guess what I think of moderation.” If anyone has ever read Paul’s blog, then yes, we can guess…

This of course got me thinking. Why is it hysteria when the pundits and Murdoch Minions do it, but not when we do it? Tone warriors will not ask this question, or permit it to be asked; instead we are told “you are being vague and lack examples”. Well, yes, that’s the point. If we give personal examples, then we have (a) ceased to be civil, and (b) get diverted into an exegesis of “whether or not that person said this in the way interpreted, and anyway, what about what they said in a blog post on December 12 last year, and what about the people with whom you are trying to reason? They said bad things too” and so on. It’s the principle, not the person, that we are trying to discuss.

Now it may be that in fact tone is rarely so negative among the skeptical community that this doesn’t in fact need to be said. If so, why is it an issue? Perhaps the religious/antiscience/regressivists are just complaining that people don’t agree with them and mistaking that for tone. This certainly does happen. It seems to me that the standard Catholic line is to treat any objection to their particularism or doctrine as a personal attack upon the Pope, and to claim that warranted personal attacks on church leaders who defended pedophiles is an ad hominem fallacy against Catholicism. Similar comments can be made against other target groups’ responses (such as antivaxxers or Scientology).

But this doesn’t match all my experience of these people. Most of those who have swallowed this or that pseudoscience or pseudomedicine are just ordinary folk, who lack the time, education or even (and this isn’t I think something to criticise everyone for) the interest to find out. And many of those who are religious, again in my experience, are not particularists or exclusivists or exceptionalists who want a theocracy and to tell everyone what to believe and how to live. In fact (and this may be a result of growing up in Australia, with it’s English-sourced Anglicanism – cosmic purpose in a cup of tea), most don’t. The increasing tendency of religious organisations to try to take over the public arena in Australia seems, more than anything else, to be derived from America, and a direct result of the resulting tone wars on both sides.

Back when I had religion [religions plural, really; I tried ’em all like a good consumer] evangelicalism was a rather quiet and personal thing. It was a belief one held and offered to others, and if they didn’t accept it, one nodded politely on the understanding that their destiny was their own business. Then, we had the American style of tone come in, and suddenly we tried to impose our ideas on schools, on politics and other churches and religions. It took only a few years to shift, and then the older, moderate, style was seen as old fashioned. It was a period of tonal shifts, the 1970s. Feminism, left wing politics, and free thinking were suddenly aggressive, and were shortly followed by equally aggressive conservatism, patriarchalism and conformism. Our conservative politicians went from defending individual freedoms to imposing social values in the name of “law and order”, another American import.

But I am old fashioned. I yearn for the ideal of a society where one is not only free to believe something others do not, but one is defended by those who do not agree. I yearn for the Millian idea that the best path to truth is not assertion, but reasoned discussion. I like to think, whether I am basing this on vain hope or evidence I cannot say, that one can convince another person rather than browbeat them. The feminists who convinced me were not the ones who shouted in my face, and there were a few, that all men are rapists. They were the ones who showed me (and continue to do so, I hope) that my male privileges made me blind to the lack of them that women have. The aggressive ones, who I do defend their right to be, merely decreased my acceptance of their view, not increased it.

It boils down to whether one wants to be right or effective. Ideally we would be both, but we are all in a state of relative ignorance, and so we can only be convinced of our rightness. As Cromwell said to the Scots Parliament: “I beseech ye, in the bowels of Christ, bethink ye may be mistaken” (substituting your favourite holiness as required; I prefer “in the bowels of Russell” myself). And if you may be mistaken, you may be convinced otherwise yourself. Reasoned discussion is, in my opinion, the best and most truth-tracking way to become convinced of something. Anger has its place, of course. But as a general strategy, it is no better at tracking truth than any other arbitrary method.

Of course, tone warriors think they are right. So do the religious, the antiscience types and the regressive politicians. They too get angry and aggressive. Anger is not a sufficient guarantee that truth is being arrived at. Otherwise we are all just pundits, interviewing each other.

I have often said that the so-called “angry” atheists have plenty to be angry about, and anyone who attempts to limit their rights to get pissed at how they, a minority, have been treated is curtailing reason. But, and this is purely a matter of strategy, if your aim is to be right, then anger is a fine strategy. If your aim is to convince others, it really isn’t. Those who, in the evolution/creation battle for example, wish science to be taught in schools would do well to bring the religious along with them. Those who want religion to be crushed under their feet and a scorched earth left will not desire that.

I think Stewart has raised the bar on civility: it is a way of reducing the polarisation that poisons much public debate, particularly but now not exclusively in north America. But if you are a tone warrior, then you don’t want to do that. You want to win. And good luck with that. But I do see that when revolutionary wars are fought, they usually end up eating their own young afterwards.

And I am now, of course, on the dinner plate.

90 thoughts on “Tone wars

  1. If your aim is to convince others, it really isn’t.

    This may be right only if you are trying to convince somebody who already disagrees. If on the other hand, you are trying to convince someone who is equivocal or unengaged, it may indeed be a very effective tactic.

    1. History, and politics, has always been like that, except for a period where we thought democratic engagement might work. Unfortunately those who objected to that stepped in before it had a chance to take, and it’s been on the back foot ever since.

  2. Civility is fine. What you’ve omitted, and what the so-called “tone warriors” object to, is the weird passive-aggressive inversion of the tone argument. I’m not telling everyone else that they must be as obnoxious as I am or they will be condemned and thrown off of my team; in fact, you’ll usually find me arguing that we need diverse strategies to do that winning thing you mentioned.

    The other side is not so appreciative. The usual line we get is you’re-not-helping, you’re-harming-the-cause, STFU. “Civility” is the blunt instrument the wimps swing about to try (ineffectively) to silence anyone insufficiently deferential to the status quo. I detest tone arguments because those favoring them have one goal: shutting down views that make them uncomfortable. It’s really a bad idea, though, to try and suppress the more aggressive members of your team, because they’re also the ones most willing to turn about and bite.

    I didn’t think the weird rally was a bad thing. I thought bits were entertaining, while others were very awkward, and I thought Stewart’s closing speech was a sad and desperate reach to retroactively make the whole day relevant. But I have no objection to civility, except when it’s made into a fetish given priority over substance. And in this case, unfortunately, I think it was.

    As I said over on my wicked and militantly rude site, he could have had a rally in which he plainly promoted positive, progressive values using these strange and foreign tactics of civil discourse and rational argument (I know! I never do these things, so I could use the guidance), and he would have set a sterling example, and I would have applauded. I would have had something to applaud, anyway. But he didn’t.

    My argument is never that you must be uncivil. It’s always that you’d better have some cause worth advancing beyond the posturing of manners.

    1. And ironically, the response from the tone warrior to my tweet “style and substance are not inversely related” in response to you, I got “@pzmyers @john_s_wilkins STFU “Making the perfect the enemy of the good.” Have you gomers ever heard that phrase before? Jebus.” from J D. Fisher @sineof1.

      I keep hearing that we are telling you lot to STFU, but I don’t really see anyone saying that to you. Not even Josh Rosenau, whose responses have been, so far as I can see, quite, err, moderate. On the other hand, when Massimo Pigliucci suggests that Jerry Coyne is not quite the philosopher that he thinks he is, he gets told to STFU, and when Josh makes his measured critiques, he gets told to STFU, and now I have.

      If you can’t see that tone is a problem, well, I’m never going to convince you. But those of us who are told by our erstwhile allies to STFU are less than impressed by the plaint against tone.

      And that “posturing of manners” thing? If that isn’t a strawman, then nothing is. I do not think anyone has said in this debate that its just about manners. Not even your favourite target, Chris Mooney.

  3. But you just quoted someone telling me to STFU!

    Oh, and Josh doesn’t make measured critiques. He makes stupid critiques. And no, I don’t tell him to STFU. The usual way we’re told to STFU is indirect and very, very polite: we’re told our outspokenness is harming the cause and driving away people who might otherwise be on our side. There’s also my favorite: “you care more about hating religion than improving science education,” that inane attempt to drive a wedge between our goals.

    My point about the posturing of manners was directed not at you, but at the rally. They were so darned determined to remain completely politically neutral that they cut out everything other than exhortations to be nice.

    1. “But you just quoted someone telling me to STFU! ”

      But the guy telling both you and our host to STFU wasn’t part of the civility brigade, not part of the “we” that Wilkins mentioned when he said, “I keep hearing that we are telling you lot to STFU, but I don’t really see anyone saying that to you.” Rather, that guy is an Internet tough guy writing stuff like “I’ve got more atheist balls in my f–king sock drawer than PZ Myers has in his entire old leftist body. “

  4. Coincidentally, I was just reading The Rally for Tone thread on Pharyngula.

    What struck me was how a poster called yanshen71786 was being told repeatedly to STFU, threatened with “plonking” and told to “bugger off”. Apparently, what caused offense was an opinion about inequitable wealth distribution which the Pharyngulistas found distasteful.

    Now both sides were fully entitled to express the views they did in the language they did. Yanshen came off the better if only because he or she maintained a moderate and civil tone throughout the exchange. But anyone who complains about being told to STFU while indulging in that sort of attitude and tolerating it in supporters should be told, in the memorable words of gubernatorial candidate Frank Caprio, to “shove it”.

    1. And speaking of Pharyngula commenters, there was one, Marco in comment #32, who asked sarcastically, “Was MLK’s Riverside Church speech ‘moderate’?” So I went and looked up the transcript of the speech and saw stuff like this:

      This speech is not … an attempt to overlook the ambiguity of the total situation and the need for a collective solution to the tragedy of Vietnam. Neither is it an attempt to make North Vietnam or the National Liberation Front paragons of virtue, nor to overlook the role they can play in a successful resolution of the problem. While they both may have justifiable reason to be suspicious of the good faith of the United States, life and history give eloquent testimony to the fact that conflicts are never resolved without trustful give and take on both sides.

      and this:

      Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.

      Acknowledging the complexities of a tough situation? Trying to be compassionate and see things from the enemy’s perspective. Um, yes, that is the sort of moderation that Jon Stewart seemed to be talking about. So, ironically, the answer to the Pharyngula commenter’s question is “yes.”

      It’s odd how the “tone warriors” cite MLK as a positive example while failing to see that he deliberately avoided behaving like a mouth-frothing raving dog.

      1. Amusing how we now know (as many of us new then) that the US was not acting in good faith in Vietnam, nor was there any “ambiguity of the total situation,” and that the war was not in fact resolved by “trustful give and take on both sides.”

        Of course, there are real issues with taking the conciliatory parts of the speech at face value, too, given their context of King’s reasonably thorough rejection of US policy in SE Asia in the bulk of the speech. But even if your face value interpretation of them is correct, we can comfortably say that King was simply wrong to that extent.

        It is also a fact that King, as he is presented in the American public discourse today, has been thoroughly sanitised, and was in real life much more of a radical than the kiddies are thought to believe. That does not imply, though, that he ought to be the radical’s primary role model. It’s easy to agree that he oughtn’t.

      2. JP, you are right that the situation in Vietnam did not end up being decided by “trustful give and take on both sides,” because the North Vietnamese eventually took over the whole of Vietnam by force after the U.S. withdrew. However, saying that there was no ambiguity in the situation in Vietnam is ridiculous.

        Furthermore, this statement is half-true:

        It is also a fact that King, as he is presented in the American public discourse today, has been thoroughly sanitised, and was in real life much more of a radical than the kiddies are thought to believe.

        True, Martin Luther King was regarded as a radical in his own time by many, but as was “stupidly” pointed out by Josh Rosenau, he sought to (gasp!) build bridges with whites, a move that was criticized by someone who is still regarded as a radical to this day, namely Malcolm X. Furthermore, MLK made a point of avoiding the “bitterness and hatred” of those like Malcolm X. This is grossly overlooked by the civility-bashing “tone warriors” who cite MLK as a role model.

  5. I agree with the general principle, but wonder whether you are misapplying it.

    Personally, I am a non-confrontational type, though I’ll admit that I have occasionally been a bit confrontational (though not on religion). PZ, by nature, is a lot more confrontational than I. I seem to remember him be confrontational on usenet (talk origins) 15 years ago. Much of what PZ posts is appropriate, given his style. I do think he is occasionally excessive. I’m inclined to say that Jerry Coyne is occasionally excessive. It’s human nature to go overboard once in a while.

    By contrast, people like Glen Beck and many of the religious apologists appear to have adopted a deliberate strategy of being excessive most of the time.

    I, too, remember a time when evangelical Christianity was calmer. I think it was at around the time that Ronald Reagan was elected president, that they made a strategy decision to be far more political and far more confrontational. Their decision to be confrontation on creationism vs. evolutionism was perhaps 30 years earlier than that.

    The more troubling change, I suggest, is elsewhere. We used to have a reasonably balanced news reporting, and our news media used to give reasonably balanced news analysis from time to time. I think the programs were “CBS Reports” and “NBC White Paper” on a couple of US networks. Those days are gone. The media have folded news into entertainment, and most people have stopped following balanced news anyway. We are unlikely to ever return to the kind of public dialog that was more common 30 years ago. We have to do our best to deal with the way the world is today.

  6. I don’t blame Stewart for not taking a political position in this rally, or for not having some kind of agenda or vision.I think in the tactical context of that rally it was the right thing to do, to get as many people as possible to listen.However, that’s why the whole thing seems futile to me though, not only to have a rally to just ask to be nice without an actual message, but also because Fox et al are not after a fair and balanced media coverage in the first place.
    But the same does not apply to our speaking out against religious privilege IMO, what you have there is people in position of power, influence and tax exemption, and they don’t want to lose these.So atheists pointing this out will always be labelled strident, militant and attacking religious freedom, and that’s exactly why we should keep doing it.If we accomodate, we achieve nothing.

  7. “But it seems to me that style (tone) and substance (reason) are not necessarily inversely related, except in Powerpoint presentations. The way we communicate to others has an effect upon the overall debate. ”

    No one argues tone doesn’t matter, nor that content/accuracy is necessarily sacrificed when altering one’s words to be less offensive (it is only sometimes a casualty, though this is important to realize).

    The argument is that tone *does* matter, and it is often advantageous to make people uncomfortable, as this is how most people deconverted from belief in Santa Clause. Other emotions are sometimes desirable results as well, so a wide variety of advocacy is advantageous depending on the time and place. Note the use of pride parades by gays and how that mainstreamed the idea of their existence.

    In addition, different people react to different stimuli differently, even in the same time and place. For this reason, different forms of advocacy are valid and having a diverse voice is optimal. The most offensive atheist advocates consistently encourage others to adopt other approaches.

    What is invalid is criticizing other advocates merely because they make some people uncomfortable. Doing so wholly misses the points that a) it may be good for them to be uncomfortable, and b) that even if it is bad making that subset of people uncomfortable, that may be a necessary harm done pursuing a larger goal, such as ensuring that atheists everywhere know they are not alone or making a different subset of people uncomfortable (when those others should be made to feel that way).

    Critics of offensive advocacy insufficiently demonstrate that they grasp these points, as you failed to in the section of yours I quoted. Their critiques shallowly argue that a specific tone of advocacy is unhelpful (when they *are* specific) by simply noting that offense was committed without attempting to show that more harm than good was done thereby. They simply fail to recognize the good done and assume none was done by the assertiveness they criticize. By similar reasoning I could argue that all cases of chefs putting salt in a batch of food is bad.

    While food can be oversalted, whether a particular dish has too much salt depends on specifics of the ingredients, cooking, side dishes, etc. Also, while some people might be thereby turned off to the food, others will enjoy it more. Any criticism of the amount of salt in a dish should demonstrate awareness that putting salt in food sometimes makes it taste better than saltless food for most people.

    Critiques that do not give examples of wrongdoing are even more ludicrous. If you gave a talk entitled “Don’t be a food over-salter” without either mentioning a single dish or recognizing that salt has a place in cooking, you would be a ridiculous person. This is because it is trivially true that any dish can have too much salt; to have content your talk would need to discuss how to balance advantages and disadvantages of salting and recognize that no one actually advocates making every meal 50% salt by weight.

    “It boils down to whether one wants to be right or effective.”

    You fail to be an effective advocate for your position by assuming what you should be trying to prove.

    Bear in mind that no one says there is no place for civility. The debate is between those like you who say there is no place for angry speech and those like P.Z. who say there is a place for a spectrum of speech.

    1. Except that I say, in several places both in this post and the comments and elsewhere, that there is a place for angry speech. And no matter how many times I say it, some tone warriors seem to ignore this.

      1. Just as the so-called tone warriors say that there is a place for civil discourse which you also seem to ignore.

        Civil discourse is good, but how does one have a civil discourse with people who don’t blink an eye when Bush suspended habeus corpus, but yell that the Democrats are trying to take away their freedoms with no examples whatsoever? Perhaps things are better in Australia than they are here.

  8. Speaking of the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, I feel Myers may be missing the point. The actual content of the performances wasn’t especially relevant, the message was conveyed by the event itself. The left isn’t the source of the insanity or the fear in America this season, and this was well understood by all involved.

    It would be silly to criticize Stephen Colbert for the illiberal sentiments he spouts in his role (although my mother, a liberal with Alzheimer’s, initially disliked his show). Jon Stewart’s sentiments are similarly not difficult to discern, even though he never states them directly. It’s relevant that Obama usurped Wednesday’s show; he understands that audience perfectly well.

  9. The blessed silvery one says:Anger is not a sufficient guarantee that truth is being arrived at. Otherwise we are all just pundits, interviewing each other.
    Yes, but what are bloggers and commentators actually trying to achieve? A lot of it is about feeling part of a group, so the pharyngulistas all bleat “we’re so great! everybody else STFU!” as they follow their master wherever he leads them, picking up and repeating his better lines. They’re not debating, they’re not trying to convince anyone, they’re just enjoying being part of an online gang.

    And the same is probably true here; people joining in because they like what you say and want to be part of your gang too. And with Jon Stewart; people identifying with a group. Unfortunately it’s more difficult to identify with a group which advocates tolerance and civility than intellectual versions of Teddy Boys.

    It’s not about philosophy, it’s not about religion, it’s not about communication, it’s sociology. And no, I’m not a sociologist trying to sell you my field, never done any in my life!

    1. Exactly. Being part of an online gang is a fine goal separate from convincing the unpersuaded, and it is silly to judge the methods of arguing there by those used to persuade.

      Similarly, it is silly to judge methods of persuasion by those used to dispassionately weigh the truth of things. More firmly establishing the intellectual bases of your position in the mind of someone who only disagrees with it for emotional reasons is not always the best approach.

      Tone trolls should stop assuming a) that the role of (offensive) argument is always to persuade and b) that inoffensive argument is always the best way to persuade.

  10. “evangelicalism was a rather quiet and personal thing”

    In some parts of the world still is.

    My secondary supervisor was an evangelical christian who spent his free time translating the bible into Gaelic. He was strongly in favour and highly supportive of my research which had a clear evolutionary aspect. My main supervisor hated and could not understand what I was doing. His tone was somewhat diffrent.

    All he could do was shout and go red in the face, he could not present an effective argument; but it gets to a point when it becomes unproductive to even point out the clear mistakes made as it only makes matters worse

    Its not an effective way to debate. It is a very effective way to win if you are in a position of authority.

  11. A call for civility is not a call for moving politics to the center or a desire to end debate. Could it be that some people are annoyed by people like Stewart because they are afraid they will be ignored or marginalized? Imagine the scene where Mr. or Ms. Imsureimright is pontificating and the listeners, after trying to engage in reasoned discourse, just walk away to talk among themselves.

  12. Religious accommodationism and tone aside, I find it more than a bloody bit rich that a mealy-mouthed millionaire like Jon Stewart is telling people in a country where ten percent of the population hold over eighty percent of the assets that they should focus less on their differences.

    Your post seriously underestimates (or simply forgets) the extent to which “winning,” as it were, by the working class, in the late 19th and early 20th century is responsible for giving us the sort of society in which contemplating Millian ideas about reasoned discussion is at all possible for the most of us (as opposed to, say, the society in which Mill lived). If Stewart-style civility in the face of reactionary forces is a restoration of sanity, I’d rather stay in the madhouse.

    1. Stewart has frequently acknowledged that he is well paid and lucky to be so. Are you suggesting that only poor people, or perhaps the poor and middle class are somehow endowed with special powers of reasonableness? Who gets to be in your group and who decides?

      Are you a member of the JPF, the JPPF, the CFG, or the PFJ? The revolution is sure to begin some time soon.

      1. It has very little to do with reasonableness, and very much to do with self-interest. Stewart benefits immensely from the status quo, so he naturally wants working people to be cowed and civil when they really ought to be on the barricades – and I’m sure he’s quite sincere and thinks himself well-meaning, too. But if you have any doubts about which side he’s really on, just look at his comments condemning the recent strikes in Europe.

        That the unctuous effusions of a Stewart and an Obama are what gets young people excited today is simply sad.

  13. There are a group of critics of religion, of pseudoscience, of regressive politics – all excellent targets for criticism – who think that if you in any way seek polite, civil or reasoned discourse with the targets of your criticisms, you are weak and accommodationist.

    For the record, I am not one of those people—I don’t criticize those who prefer a “softer” tone just because they adopt that approach.

    On the other hand, people who advocate a “softer” tone tend to have very strong opinions about what constitutes “polite, civil or reasoned discourse” and they don’t hesitate to pass judgment on those of us who don’t conform to their bias. Obviously, if you don’t agree with them you must be guilty of impolite, uncivil and unreasoned discourse. I’m one of the targets, and I take it as an insult.

    The people of softer tone are free to practice whatever form of discourse they believe will be effective. I don’t think they are “weak” and I don’t ever tell them to start being “rude” and “obnoxious.” I certainly don’t ever suggest that they should stay out of the conversation. They are an essential component of the debate.

    “Accommodationists” are atheists (or agnostics) who want us to stop attacking religion because it may antagonize moderate believers and prevent them from working with us on causes other than abolishing religion. As a general rule, the accommodationists tend to be the same people who hold strong opinions on what they believe is “polite, civil or reasoned discourse.” I disagree with the accommodationists but not because I think they should adopt my opinion of what will be effective. I disagree with them because they are telling me to alter my goals to conform tho theirs.

    John says, “It boils down to whether one wants to be right or effective.” He is suggesting that my behavior (and that of PZ and others) is ineffective. That’s a legitimate point of discussion but it’s also a criticism and an insult. It suggests that we are being mean mean and nasty just because we like to be mean and nasty. Either that or we are very stupid not to realize that our behavior is ineffective—and maybe even (gasp!) counter-productive.

    John, if I could show you that my tone was proving to be effective would you change your mind and stop using words like “aggressive” and “browbeat” to describe me? Would you admit that it’s possible to be right AND effective by speaking the plain truth?

    P.S. It would help if you’d stop using the terms “reasoned discussion” and “civility” as synonyms for your particular version of behavior. I happen to think that my behavior is also civil and reasonable even though it may be much more direct and confrontational than yours.

    1. “Accommodationists” are atheists (or agnostics) who want us to stop attacking religion because it may antagonize moderate believers and prevent them from working with us on causes other than abolishing religion.

      “Accommodationist” seems to have more than one meaning. Earlier, you had used the term to describe a passage that began with, “Of course, religious claims that are empirically testable can come into conflict with scientific theories,” a sentence that can already be considered an attack on certain religious beliefs. Depending on who is using the word and under what contexts, it seems to mean anything from allowing that science can be compatible with various religions to a near-synonym for “quisling.”

    2. Defending yourself against an attack, such as Kitzmiller is one thing. Going out of your way to look for a fight is another. If you look for a fight, you will surely find it. Don’t spread too much bad karma around. It does bad things to the world, and to you.

    3. If people are believers, but not anti-science or anti-progressive, do not work against rationality and the only essential difference between them and me is that they have religion, then I just don’t care. I no more have an interest in them becoming atheist then if they wear blue rather than green. If that is accommodation, so be it. How is anyone harmed?

      1. Others are harmed if a religious person advances false and harmful epistemology. If a person defends faith, always believing authority figure X, or randomly guessing as “ways of knowing”, it’s nice that he or she fights for science/equal rights/etc., even on such basis. But if, as they tend to do, such a person advocates faith/tradition/guessing/Jesus/etc., he or she is partly responsible if people do harmful things on identical, baseless grounds.

        I think even simply saying one suspects that a supernatural intelligence influenced the words of a book (of which we have possession) qualifies, given the world’s situation. An aggressively low place to set the bar, I know ;-).

  14. I don’t want to stop the attack on religion as it will antagonize believers.

    That is a problem you have any way if you research the subject in the field and is well discussed in anthropology and ethnology. The perspectives and interest of researcher and subject are very different and this often leads to tension. No way round that fact.

    What I don’t want to see is research on belief jackhammered out of shape to fit in with a particular political perspective.

    I want to see an argument that is effective and speaks plain truth. I don’t see that; I see a subject that in the sciences is highly politicized with the usual credibility issues that result when debates over politics and identity become to central in academic debate.

  15. Yes, this is an old potato, but clearly it is not a dead potato.

    This issue of tone seems to me to lend itself to empiricism. We are talking about the effectiveness of various communication methods. For a group of people who so clearly embrace the sciences to continue to have this discussion year in and year out as to what style better convinces the other side or that one style has this or that effect yet only bring anecdotes to support their claims, is ironic and a bit odd, I think.

    I ask, where are the communication scientists, psychologists, sociologists and other social scientists who study persuasion and communication? Where are the citations of such work in the perennial discussion of this topic?

      1. I think it is also important to place this debate in a historical framework.

        The role of education and discipline in the understanding of God and Creation is perhaps it’s starting point. It certainly begins debate about educational practise and the role of discipline in European educational institutions from the 12th century.

  16. There seems to be a lot of strawman manufacture on both sides of the debate, misrepresenting the discussion of the other side. Of course, there is also some well-reasoned debate, but it seems to get lost in the chaos of shouting.

    PZ makes a fair point above – he (and others on that side of the debate) doesn’t demand others act in an obnoxious and confronting manner. He makes a call for diversity, that on the face seems like an appeal to reason. Conversely, those advocating a calmer, less confronting tone are suggesting aggressive choices in media should be reduced.

    Yet this isn’t about what seems fair, no more than it’s ‘fair’ that intelligent design has equal time in the classroom. Fairness is a red herring. There is a solid claim being made here – greater diversity within communication is better than lesser. Sounds simple, but as anybody who has ever worked in marketing, education, politics, advertising or any other field of public communication well knows, it’s not simple. It’s complicated. Some forms of communication work better than others. Some are antagonistic to others. Goals can conflict. Output is not always synonymous with outcomes. It’s not a simple business where we can appeal to a sense of fairness in the hope of extinguishing critical discussion.

    There are certainly different goals and different approaches. Nobody has argued otherwise. There is the claim that ridicule, mockery and confrontational language is useful. Indeed, for achieving some outcomes, it certainly is. But for others, there is good reason to think it creates unnecessary problems.

    The scattergun ‘all approaches’ claim is nothing more than a strained plea to avoid critical discussion, which for skeptics is nothing less than hypocritical. When it comes to goals and communication methods, there needs to be discussion. Criticism is important. An informed, evidence-based approach is vital given the uphill battle we have to change epistemology and promote good thinking skills in a species better suited to social thinking and superstition.

  17. The feminists who convinced me were not the ones who shouted in my face, and there were a few, that all men are rapists. They were the ones who showed me (and continue to do so, I hope) that my male privileges made me blind to the lack of them that women have. The aggressive ones, who I do defend their right to be, merely decreased my acceptance of their view, not increased it.

    How about the ones that were most aggressive not against you, but made reasonable yet aggressive attacks on the most anti-feminist segments of society?

    The goal of the aggression is not to convince the aggressees, it’s to convince third parties of the worthlessness of the aggressees’ arguments.

    1. “The goal of the aggression is not to convince the aggressees, it’s to convince third parties of the worthlessness of the aggressees’ arguments.”

      So it is often claimed. Yet there are a few questions that come from this;

      Is aggression necessary in achieving equivalent results?
      Does aggression dissuade third party viewers more or less than it persuades them?
      Is it merely used to placate the need for the communicator to vent, or is it a legitimate communication tool?

      In seeking answers to these I’m more often than not told it’s my burden to find answers, and not the claimants to justify their choice. I can find reasons that suggest it’s not as clear-cut as the claimant presumes –, but am yet to see any non-anecdotal or non-assertive evidence supporting the statement.

      1. “In seeking answers to these I’m more often than not told it’s my burden to find answers…”

        Since you are telling others to cease acting in accord with their intuition and experience and instead act as you do, the burden of proof is properly on you.

    2. lylebot:

      How about the ones that were most aggressive not against you, but made reasonable yet aggressive attacks on the most anti-feminist segments of society?

      Except that the rare feminist who actually does say that all men are rapists is not “reasonable yet aggressive” because she’s not reasonable, but rather is spouting nonsense.

      In general, while style and substance aren’t necessarily inversely correlated, attempting too hard to be aggressive tends to lead to exaggerating and distorting the picture of one’s adversaries, and third parties who notice when that is happening are not going to be swayed to the aggressors’ side.

    3. They convinced me too. My views were not informed by their interactions with others, but with me. I doubt they convinced those others, but then, I doubt that they had much chance of doing so, and I bet that was their estimate of things as well.

      Again I say, as I have said several times, anger has its place. I will not try to reason with a mob.

  18. “intelligent design has equal time in the classroom”

    This is an American problem? It would be unacceptable in the u.k. state education system as it is such a minority view.

    I suspect the very different roles religion plays in diffrent cultures may explain the different approaches and tones taken. Diversity would appear to be crucial.

    The particular issues America faces are not universal, although it is often presented as if they are.

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