I have recently been in discussions with atheist philosopher Dan Fincke about his famous “civility pledge”. Although I sympathize with the intent behind the pledge, and I agree with much of it, I find myself unable to endorse it as a whole. The pledge itself is a lengthy document, and I do not intend to address it line-by-line, especially as I find myself in agreement with much of it. Instead, I shall outline my own view of when civility is and is not appropriate in political discourse, and shall focus upon my areas of disagreement with Dan’s ideas.
Of course I agree unequivocally with Dan that we should not use words which are stigmatizing to members of marginalized groups, such as racist, homophobic or transphobic slurs. Such words are wrong not merely because they hurt their intended target, but because they hurt the members of the group to which they refer, and reinforce the systemic oppressions from which they derive.
I also find myself in agreement with Dan that we should generally avoid labelling our opponents “stupid”, “insane”, and the like. In my view, these words are problematic in two distinct ways. Firstly, they are very often simply wrong: people are capable of holding profoundly mistaken ideas without being either unintelligent or mentally ill, and we should not automatically leap to pathologize those who hold foolish opinions, even about the matters we think most obvious. Secondly, those words are also ableist: by using insults which reference intellectual disabilities and mental illnesses, we stigmatize people with those conditions, and imply that the opinions of people with those conditions cannot be worthwhile or worth listening to. As a person with mental illness myself, I will be the first to agree that this kind of stigmatizing language should not be used.
I find myself in partial disagreement, however, with points 3 and 4 of the civility pledge:
3. I commit that I will always focus first on the merits of other people’s arguments and not disparage them personally for asking unpleasant questions, taking unpleasant positions, or simply disagreeing with me…
4. When I feel it necessary to call out what I perceive to be the immoral behaviors or harmful attitudes of my interlocutors, I commit that I will do so only using specific charges, capable of substantiation, which they can contest with evidence and argumentation, at least in principle. I will not resort to merely abusive epithets and insult words (like “asshole” or “douchebag”) that hatefully convey fundamental disrespect, rather than criticize with moral precision.
I should say that I have absolutely no objection to Dan’s decision to adopt these principles in his own activism, nor with his decision to enforce these principles as rules of conduct on his own blog. He is obviously entitled to do so, and he is far from the only blogger who prefers civil discourse to a rhetorical free-for-all. And I agree that civil discourse can, for some people in some situations, be the most effective and least destructive approach. But I have to disagree with the notion that this strict conception of civility is morally obligatory, or that all activists ought to adopt these as prescriptive rules of conduct. I have two principal objections to this idea.
My first objection is simply that it is not always reasonable to expect people who are fighting oppression to be endlessly kind and patient towards those who are defending oppression. Many of us find it extremely angering and frustrating when, for example, the same old long-debunked racist anti-immigration talking points are trotted out again and again. It should be remembered that debates about immigration – and I have chosen immigration because it is my own field of interest, but the same could be said of any social justice issue – are not academic debates, shorn of real-world context, in which friends can “agree to disagree” and happily go out for a beer afterwards. Rather, they are debates about the systematic oppression of millions of people, people who are living with the daily fear of arrest, imprisonment and deportation just because of their nationality, due to an institutionally racist and morally indefensible system of immigration controls. When we are talking about things that hurt people and ruin lives in the real world, it is not unreasonable to feel anger at people who are defending those things. When powerful xenophobes like Kris Kobach sneer at undocumented people, call them “illegal aliens”, and actively campaign to deny them basic human rights, I do not think that it is reasonable to demand that the likes of Kobach be treated with civility or respect. To say that people should not be attacked personally for “taking unpleasant positions” or “asking unpleasant questions” seems to underestimate the harm caused by those positions and questions; racist, sexist, homophobic and transphobic ideas are not merely “unpleasant”, they actively reinforce systems of violence and oppression which are harming people on a large scale. Anger is a legitimate response.
I have focused on anti-immigrationists here, but the same points could be made about people who defend any other kind of institutionalized bigotry, from rape culture to transphobia. This objection is particularly salient when the person accused of “incivility” is someone who is themselves living with oppression, and the person chiding them for being “uncivil” is speaking from a position of privilege and relative detachment. Those who are privileged – in which I include myself – should not demand that the oppressed should be polite to their oppressors.
My second, closely related, objection is that polite and respectful discourse is not always the most effective approach from a practical perspective. The danger of demanding that we be polite and respectful towards the proponents of repugnant ideas, such as racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, is that those ideas may thereby gain a false air of legitimacy. I would argue that some ideas are so bad that their proponents should be stigmatized. Most people agree with this as regards the most extreme ideas: few of us would disagree that those who openly express support for fascism should be stigmatized, for example. And there is a reason why anti-racist activists generally refuse to debate, or share a platform with, fascists. If we welcome the proponents of bigotry and defenders of oppression into our spaces and seek to engage them in a mutually “respectful” dialogue, then we run the risk of creating the wrong impression that we think their views are more reasonable than they in fact are – and we inevitably create an unsafe space for people who have been victimized by bigotry and oppression.
I think that Dan has opened an important conversation in the atheist and social justice communities, and I find much in his civility pledge with which I agree. But I cannot endorse it as a set of prescriptive moral rules, nor am I willing to commit to adopting Dan’s strict conception of civility in all circumstances in my own writing and speaking.