Joined: Jan. 2006
Okily Dokily ATBCerinos,
Since my return this month 'tis being claimed the board is going to pot. I am allegedly flinging vilest imprecations left and right and dammit, just not being respectful enough.
Personally, and only to a certain extent, I disagree (Shock, Horror, Hold the front page, coo stap me vitals etc), so in order to thrash out the details and have a laugh at the same time, here's a thread about being excellent to each other (WYLD STALLYNS!). Sorry SteveStory, but someone had to do it ;-) Doesn't mean we can't have a giggle!
This thread is designed in good humour to air all those spanking good theories we all have about being nice to each other. SteveStory, the board's moderator no less, has very strongly suggested that we are civil to each other in the manner of a university debate in a political science class or the like. This is an analogy I like a lot, and it's one I'm going to return to. I agree with it.
So here goes my respect agenda, please feel free to disagree vocally, violently and viciously. I have a thick skin.
Stephen Fry (noted author, intellect, wit, actor, and bottomist) once had a character called Donald Trefusis, the Regius Professor of Philology at Cambridge. He wrote in an article called "Trefusis Blasphemes" about the topic of blasphemy, a topic relevant to the Intelligent Design movement because, and let's be honest here, they can't hide their god at all, it's one of the reasons they keep losing in court. In fact this whole topic of respect is very relevant to the debate this site was set up to have, but I may have to explain that later.
An excerpt from "Trefusis Blasphemes":
|I am a lover of truth, a worshipper of freedom, a celebrant at the altar of language and purity and tolerance. That is my religion, and every day I am sorely, grossly, heinously and deeply offended, wounded, mortified and injured by a thousand different blasphemies against it. When the fundamental canons of truth, honesty, compassion and decency are hourly assaulted by fatuous bishops, pompous, illiberal and ignorant priests, politicians and prelates, sanctimonious censors, self-appointed moralists and busy-bodies, what recourse of ancient laws have I? None whatever. Nor would I ask for any. For unlike these blistering imbeciles my belief in my religion is strong and I know that lies will always fail and indecency and intolerance will always perish.|
That about sums it up. Despite the religious context of the Trefusis piece above (he was after all talking about religious blasphemy, please don't make me explain the use of metaphor in that piece) I am not advocating a "faith in reason" or a "religion of science" or a "religion of scepticism" or anything like it, in fact what I am advocating is precisely the opposite. Now for the really offensive bit.
Not all people are equally intelligent. Not all people are equally educated. Not all people are equally honest. Not all people are equally tolerant, good natured, good humoured or indeed good. Not all opinions these multifarious people have, are equal.
Revelation? I think not, but it needs saying. Why? Because we seem to forget it in our rush to be "civil" or "respectful".
Being "civil" or respectful" is not merely the lack of pointing out someone's errors or flaws. I'll elaborate:
Advocates of reason and science are assaulted daily from all quarters. Be it the homeopath claiming magic shaking makes water that can cure your cancer, or the creationist claiming the world is as old as the domestication of the dog. These are anti-reason, ideas held not only in the absence of evidence but in direct opposition to it.
These are the products of minds squandering the "gift of intellect" as it were. If we consider for a moment that these ideas are not those of a backwoods savage, unexposed to education and all the advantages of modern Western society, they become even more shocking. Is it not a tragic indictment on our own societal LACK of respect for each other that a person can grow up exposed to, and benefiting from, all the products of science and reason and yet airily dismiss the parts that conflict with these unsupported ideas? I'm all for tolerance, I'm all for people having different opinions, I value a plethora of widely ranging views, and indeed I survive precisely because people thought previously unthinkable thoughts, so please don't misunderstand this as some desire for Orwellian groupthink.
So while I am for tolerating different opinions and ideas, while I celebrate the diversity of ideas we humans hold, what I am NOT for is disrespect. I think it is the height, the pinnacle, the very summit of disrespect not to challenge an idea. I think than any idea, no matter its source or "sanctity" is open for challenge by reason. My ideas are not ring fenced or protected, no one else's are either. For people to hide behind a false, that's FALSE, shield of "respect" by claiming their ideas are sacrosanct, unable to be examined I think is vastly uncivil and disrespectful. Why?
Progress in human society, and I mean progress for the betterment of the lives of all humans, not just a select few, has derived from one source and one source alone: the ability to use reason to question ideas derived dogma and faith and develop ideas more congruent with observed reality. Those can be political, ideological or religious faiths and dogmas, I make no distinction between those classes. In fact the very word "civilisation" has strong overtones of the emergence from the barbarism of unreason. To be "civilised" is not only to be "reasonable" but to be "reasoned". The abandonment of the use of reason is precisely a return to barbarism, a return to unreason, an abandonment of the values of the Enlightenment and profoundly "uncivilised".
In a debate or discussion at a university one might not respect the ideas of one's opponent, but one respects the opponent to the best of one's ability to do so. That respect entails a certain degree of responsibility: one has to deal with their arguments as they are stated (not perhaps as one THINKS they are stated) and one must be scrupulously honest in the presentation of one's own arguments. Otherwise the whole debate descends into rhetorical farce, unfortunately the kind one can see at Prime Minister's Question Time in the House of Commons (but enough about my disappointments). To this end debate societies have developed many tactics, one of which is the restatement of your opponent's arguments to their satisfaction. This is an incredibly valuable learning tool as it forces one to treat your opponent with respect AND to examine the basis of their argument thoroughly. This, incidentally is why many of the most able counter-creationists are ex-religious people or current religious people, they can better examine the arguments of the creationists by advancing them themselves and understanding the basis for them.
So where is this going? It should be blindingly obvious. If we are to have any form of productive discussion, any form of rational discourse or interchange of ideas the two things we MUST exhibit are honesty and intellectual rigour. Why? As mentioned above if we fail to give our opponent's arguments the same rigour we would desire for our own by lying about them, by obfuscating or twisting them to a straw version we can knock down, then we are demonstrating a profound lack of respect not just for the ideas, but for the people making them. If we hastily cobble together a logically incoherent argument based on nothing more than anecdote and bias, we are committing the same lack of respect. And as alluded to above, this is more than disrespectful, more than uncivilised, it is the basis for a return to anti-reason, unreason and barbarism that threatens the very foundations of our post-Enlightenment society. Doubt me? Think that's too far? Ok then, open your eyes! Read the media "opinion pieces" watch the news, I guarantee you behind everything that makes you wince is unthinking, anti-Enlightenment, anti-reason. The hooting of our chimpier selves who have punched through our veneer of civilisation.
The question that follows from this is to what extent should such dishonesty, such incivility, such disrespect, such anti-reason be tolerated. Sadly the answer I have to give is it should be tolerated to the extent we tolerate all unpleasant things. However, that does not equate to silent tolerance, or meek ignorance. In a university debate if your opponent tells a lie, or makes a straw version of your argument you are not only within your rights to point this out, you are positively encouraged to do so. Those of you from American universities should have encountered this as part of the Socratic method. Obviously one is encouraged to do this as politely as possible, and equally obviously one is held up to certain standards of language.
This brings us to the tricky waters of "insult". Just what constitutes an insult? Is the fact that the recipient claims they have been "insulted" or "offended" sufficient grounds to deem something an "insult" or "offensive"? What in fact do we mean when we say something is "offensive" or "insulting"? To the first question I would answer "no", simply because if I was of a mind I could spend my days writing to my MP about how vigorously I was offended by a huge variety of things. So, sorry, but no, a claim of "offence" or "insult" is insufficient to establish it as such because it ignores the intent of the person or object that offers what is considered "insulting" or "offensive". All such a claim establishes is that someone is offended or insulted by something.
The second question is a knottier one. Just what is "offensive" or "insulting"? The obvious answer is that this varies from person to person, but there's clearly more to it than that. Ignoring for the moment the intent of the person or object offering insult or offence, just what is someone saying when they are "insulted" or "offended"? Many different things which possibly include "I don't like this", "I don't recognise the comment you have made about me", "I don't wish to be questioned or justify myself in that way", "I don't want to think about this" and many others. The "offensiveness" and "insult" of blasphemy is a good example of the latter. Take for example the recent "Chocolate Jesus" episode. An artist and a hotel were going to display a life size effigy of Jesus made from chocolate with no loincloth "coincidentally" at Easter. Protests from various religious groups have made them withdraw this exhibit. Ignoring the "artistic merit" (or lack thereof) of the piece in question, what happened was people who would never have seen the exhibit were so vocal and vehement in their claim of offence and insult that the exhibit was withdrawn. They quite literally said "we do not like this, this is an object that we find contrary to ideas we hold sacrosanct (and perhaps unquestionable), therefore in order to placate us you must remove it". Incidentally to get this canard out of the way now, yes I would be saying the same thing if it were a chocolate Mohammed.
This example of "offence" and "insult" is one of many ranging from Danish cartoons and Dutch films (over which people lost their lives I might add. People STILL die for questioning ideas) to "Jerry Springer the Opera" and "Behzti" a play which "offended" Sikhs here in the UK and which resulted in violent protests. These people's determination to eradicate items they decided they didn't like on the basis that they were counter to some ideas these people had on no rational basis resulted in censorship, banning, or even death. A clearer example of "offence" and "insult" being used as tools of anti-Enlightenment, anti-reason, unreason, disrespect, and incivility cannot be clearer.
And for those of you who say "ah yes but they WERE offensive and thus they SHOULD be removed" I refer you to the Trefusis quote above. Would you really like me and all people like me to start campaigning on an identical basis for the eradication of what WE find offensive? If we did the odious and invidiously dishonest caricatures of "church burning ebola boys" would really be true wouldn't they. Luckily, despite the protestations of fools, this is not the clash of two opposed but similar religions or dogmas, this a clash between dogma and it's polar opposite, the absence of dogma: reason. People rarely consider what other people find offensive when they are on the leap for their own high horse.
Back to our university debate. In our debate does pointing out that your opponent has misrepresented your argument constitute an insult? No, no more than refuting your opponent's argument does. If they have demonstrably lied (as opposed to merely being mistaken or stupid etc), mentioning that by doing so they show themselves to be a liar is not an insult, it's merely grammar! An expression which denotes that they have committed an act of lying. The same can be said of words like "hypocrite", "dishonest" and dare I say it "troll".
Undoubtedly the recipient can now claim to be "offended" or "insulted", but this sadly is another piece of dishonesty, admittedly of a different type. The wound to ego might well be real, but by uttering this cry of "insult" what the person is really doing is shifting the debate away from the argument, moving the focus off their deliberate dishonesty and onto the character of their opponent. They are saying "This person has called me a liar, what ferocious bad manners to point out that I lied, such observations are most inconvenient for me and do not sit well with my personal image, I shall now cover my tracks by obfuscation".
One caveat: words like "liar", "hypocrite", "troll" etc are easily used and can be overused or used in error. In a reasoned debate, a debate between rational adults exercising their respect for each other by civilly and honestly making and dealing with arguments, such words never need be uttered. If they are uttered in error then a simple correction or request for supporting evidence is all that is needed. Call me a liar and I'll ask you to prove it. If you can't then you've been exposed.
Lastly, relevance. How is any of this relevant to the pseudo debate over evolutionary biology? Very simply because objection to evolutionary biology is purely religious, despite the attempts of ID creationists to scientifically spackle over the deity lurking in their lies. If in the above you have not recognised descriptions of tactics used by creationists and their ideological ilk the world over, then I am flabbergasted. The "respect" agenda and the manner in which it is executed is central to how we deal with "the forces of anti-reason". Capitulation, hiding "controversial" objects or ideas, or tugging forelock to the claim that certain ideas cannot be questioned is simply giving in to those barbarians who want to abandon the values hard fought in the Enlightenment. To do this is disrespectful, uncivilised, unreasonable, and irrational, and it cedes control of any debate to those anti-Enlightenment forces we ALL have to constantly struggle against.
If you have been, thank you.