December 3, 2012

Distinguishing Between Criticism and Attacks

A better bible

In his post explaining why he has decided to resign as the Director of Outreach for American Atheists, Blair Scott wrote:
As I enact this transitional phase in my life I ask that all of you take a close look at your contributions to the in-fighting and ask yourself, “Is this thing I am about to attack another atheist for really worth it? Is this thing really that big of a deal that I can’t let it go even though I agree with this fellow atheist on almost everything else? Does attacking this fellow atheist help or harm the overall movement or contribute anything positive to the movement?”
With one important caveat, I think this is reasonably good advice. In fact, the only aspect of Scott's statement with which I disagree concerns the manner in which I continue to see many people in our community equating criticism and disagreement with attacks. So I can agree with what Scott advises as long as we define "attack" as something quite different from criticism and disagreement.

CriticismCriticism and Disagreement Are Not Attacks

Criticism is something to which we must be open, and this includes criticism of our own claims and beliefs. This is a central part of what it means to be skeptical, and the ability to accept - even welcome - effective criticism is one of the hallmarks of the mature adult. No matter what claim, belief, or position we hold, we must be able to tolerate criticism and disagreement with it without making the mistake of equating this to attacks.

The feminist must be able to tolerate criticism of her ideology without labeling any such criticism as attacks. The proponent of men's rights must be able to tolerate criticism of his ideology without labeling any such criticism as attacks. This cannot be emphasized enough: criticism and disagreement, as long as they are delivered in a serious and rational manner (i.e., without juvenile name calling, ad hominem insults, and the like), are not attacks. The fact that effective criticism may sometimes sting the ego a bit does not make it an attack.

What Constitutes an Attack?

If disagreement and criticism are not attacks, then what exactly is the sort of attack that should prompt us to ask the questions Scott suggests? I'd argue that the key time to ask these questions is when we find ourselves tempted to stoop to name calling, ad hominem insults, and/or outright mockery of individuals. They should be asked when we stop talking about the claim, belief, or behavior and begin to focus instead on the person. Now obviously, these are things that probably should not be happening in the atheist community anyway, but I'll agree that they can be useful on occasion. But these are precisely the sort of occasions where Scott's questions can be so helpful.

No name callingSuppose I want to write a post speculating about whether or not PZ Myers might have deliberately crafted his pompous online persona, one that by all accounts is markedly inconsistent from how he behaves offline, because he knows that it will boost his traffic and earn him additional money. To do so would require me to shift away from his behavior and focus on his person. That is, it would be extremely difficult to offer such speculation without it being a personal attack. Asking myself the questions Scott suggests would help me to see that such a post is counterproductive. On the other hand, restricting my focus to PZ's behavior would not necessarily be an attack and might be just fine.

Now suppose I want to write a post publicly scolding the author of the Elevatorgate blog for undermining our community with a series of juvenile personal insults on other atheists. My goal in this post is not to attack the author at all but to criticize his or her behavior as harming his or her stated goals. In this case, it would be fairly easy to criticize the behavior without making it about the person. Scott's questions would not be needed. However, if I decided to condemn the author as a rape-apologizing, misogynistic MRA, I'd be guilty of personal attacks and should heed Scott's advice.

Where We Need to Be Careful

We need to be careful about not making the mistake of equating criticism and disagreement with attacks because of where this can lead. I do not want to see an atheist community that prides itself on being skeptical as long as the skepticism only applies to religious claims. I want no part of an atheist community where we cannot freely apply skepticism to our own claims and those of others within our community. If we replace "attack" with "criticize" in Scott's statement above, we end up somewhere I do not think we want to go. This would have the impact of stifling criticism, fostering groupthink, and making us all into hypocrites.

Be RespectfulThe implications are clear. If we criticize some aspect of feminist ideology (as opposed to the individuals promoting it), we have the high ground, and those who respond by hurling insults (e.g., misogynist, MRA, rape apologist) are undermining civil discourse. On the other hand, if we focus on the people and label them as "feminazis" and the like, it is we who are in the wrong. If we address the problems associated with male privilege and the downsides of a patriarchal society and manage to refrain from any name calling, we are doing something constructive. If we are then met with petty insults, threats, and the like, those doing this are showing us they have nothing of value to contribute and can be disregarded.

When it comes to how we interact with our fellow atheists, I believe we would all be better served by taking a few steps toward the sort of respectful, civil discourse one should expect from adults. This does not mean that we should avoid disagreement and criticism. Far from it. But it does mean that we should focus our criticism on beliefs and behaviors rather than persons. It also means that we should step away from the sort name calling and personal insults that accomplish nothing.

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