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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 โ€“ 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.


  1. This is your final say? You put a bunch of words in my mouth that don’t reflect what I’ve been saying, imply that you haven’t been strawmanning anyone, and hide behind the defense that I’d swarm you with “minions” (who aren’t at all apparent here, but a phantom horde will do as an excuse, I guess)?

    All right, I’m gone, I’ll try to avoid oppressing you with my minionry.

    • Scaphopod Scaphopod

      A complaint about strawmanning followed in the same sentence by a peculiar assertion that Wilkins thinks Myers is threatening a minion-swarming party? This is just kooky.

      • It’s clear PZ doesn’t take the time to actually read anything, but scans a word or two and makes the rest up in his head. I think he saw the words ‘minions’ and ‘storming’ and the rest was pure imagination. It makes me suspect he doesn’t intentionally create strawman arguments, but simply couldn’t be bothered really understanding the argument he’s trying to attack. Great example of critical thinking. ๐Ÿ˜‰

      • To be fair, I was mocking him, and he has the right to object to my tone.

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