Yesterday Ophelia Benson and Richard Dawkins both published, on their respective blogs, a brief joint statement on how atheists should disagree. It’s really unfortunate that such a thing should be necessary, but encouraging that it happened. The statement condemns bullying and harassment generally, and then goes on to cite specific examples of such:
In other words we have to be able to manage disagreement ethically, like reasonable adults, as opposed to brawling like enraged children who need a nap. It should go without saying, but this means no death threats, rape threats, attacks on people’s appearance, age, race, sex, size, haircut; no photoshopping people into demeaning images, no vulgar epithets.
It should go without saying, but this statement comes into the wake of some particularly disgusting instances of people doing exactly these sorts of things, and defending others who have done them. In the comments on this statement on Dawkins’ blog, there are people continuing to defend this kind of behavior:
The reason that people make photoshops of her and her fellow travelers and make derisory comments about her is that they tried very hard to engage in honest discussion with her only to be met with conveniently selective moderation practices, ridiculous accusations of misogyny and a habit of playing the offended victim card to death. People might still have left her to stew in her own juice if not for the attacks on high profile figures over contrived offences. When bloggers jump on board with unevidenced accusations of sexual crimes then they can expect to be lampooned. The rationale behind the ridicule is that there is no point at all in trying to reason with her because she will not give an honest reading to what you say and will likely selectively moderate for effect, so why bother trying to engage politely with her.
No. See, that’s not how it works.
Harassment is not wrong unless you can find some justification in your mind for a person deserving it. It’s wrong, period. If you disagree vehemently with someone, you express this disagreement as an argument. You do not draw childish pictures of them making fun of their appearance. You do not call them demeaning names. You do not, in the same breath, endorse rhetorically punching someone because they won’t listen to you and then, because they complained about the first punch, justify doing it again. You don’t fake a punch and then give them two for flinching. That’s what children and bullies do.
Personally, I see a false dichotomy between harassment and politeness– there’s a world of ways to be rude to and about people without acting like a five year old. But if you’re unable to find a course of action in this realm, I would suggest not engaging with those people. No, going off and drawing a cartoon of them with a pig nose, or spreading around somebody else’s drawing of such, doesn’t qualify as disengagement.
Tribalism is a huge problem in the atheist movement, and my thoughts on that subject are muddled. I haven’t honestly worked out when it’s okay to draw lines in the sand and insist that “we” should no longer value what a certain person has to say because of what they’ve said in the past, or even continue to say, although I think Greta Christina’s recent post on the subject is pretty damn persuasive. There’s only so much time, and only so much attention we have to give, and it’s valid to say that a person’s actions have been so egregious as to disqualify him or her from deserving attention. That doesn’t mean much when you’re talking about someone’s personal attention, but it means a hell of a lot when you’re talking about who to invite to a conference or whose blog to host on your network.
There’s no official code of conduct that people in the atheist movement are forced to follow. If someone behaves reprehensibly, group ostracism is really the only way to deal with it. As a consequence, we continually have people trying to influence the group against someone, or against an organization, because that person or organization is believed to have rendered all charitable assumptions about him/her/them unjustified. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve seen someone say (invariably in the comments on the Facebook post of some prominent person in the atheist movement) that they’ve quit “the movement” altogether for this reason. I then laugh inwardly, bitterly, and move on, because the frustration and non committal nature of the statement is so palpable. “I wish I knew how to quit you,” indeed.
Not all “infighting” is created equal. The existence of disagreement, even strong disagreement, does not justify pettiness and childishness. The fact that someone is a “public figure” does not justify it either– public figures are still people. I don’t think it’s tribalistic to tell people who insist otherwise that their behavior disqualifies their views from consideration by people who want rational, respectful dialog, because it’s always possible to find someone expressing the same otherwise worthwhile sentiment while not being a heinous asshole at the same time. We just have to follow up on this promise, and vote with our attention.
I hope we can. I think this joint statement is a move in that direction.