November 23, 2019

Spreading Reason Through Name-Calling

really?

When I am interacting with people offline, I can usually tell whether they are children or adults. I can often tell whether they understand me when I speak to them, and it is easy to tell whether they are attending or distracted with something else. As we talk, I can use facial expressions and other nonverbal behavior to give me a rough sense of whether they agree or disagree with what I am saying. As I listen to them, I can use their tone of voice to give me a sense of how they feel about what they are saying.

When I am interacting with people online, none of this applies. I have no idea whether the person I'm replying to on Twitter is 12 or 57. I can only guess as to how much of what I say they might understand, and I never know what else they might be doing during our interaction. I have no cues that might indicate how they are reacting to what I am saying or that could help me assess how they feel about what they are saying.

The point here is not that online interactions are bad, comparatively worse, or somehow less real; they are just different. Some of those differences seem to amplify misunderstandings and even conflict. For the most part, I don't think this is because people go online looking for fights (although some clearly do so). I think it is because we lack so many of the cues that help us read others and respond appropriately offline.

I recently saw an atheist I had been following on Twitter repeatedly hurling insults at others (e.g., "fucking idiot," "fucking clown," "delusional fool," "fucktard") for the crime of expressing mild disagreement with him. I'd seen him do this before and had decided I'd unfollow him if it proved to be a pattern. I have no interest in supporting anyone who regularly calls people names on social media. Someone else gently confronted him about it. His response was that he's not on Twitter to make anybody feel good but to "spread reason" and that if she didn't like it she should unfollow him. As I unfollowed him, I found myself reflecting on how fascinating it is that someone would simultaneously claim to be spreading reason while calling others names.

Unfortunately, interactions like this are not anomalies on social media. They are something I have seen countless times from atheists who claim to be fans of reason or even go so far as to identify themselves as humanists. I am not sure what this behavior is about, but I'll take a guess. I suspect that it might work something like this:

Because I am an atheist and/or a skeptic, I am inherently reasonable. People who do not share my views are idiots and deserve to be ridiculed. By ridiculing them publicly, I am accomplishing some good by chipping away at their false beliefs. Anyone who objects to my name-calling is interfering with this and should be told off.

I think we've all been around the block enough times to know that being an atheist and/or skeptic does not make one reasonable. Many atheists and skeptics manage to believe all sorts of nonsense. Being an atheist might make one more reasonable on the question of gods but rarely seems to generalize beyond that. Perhaps being a skeptic should make one more reasonable, but one would actually have to apply skepticism effectively for that to be the case.

Far more important here is that being an atheist or a skeptic does not tell us anything about whether someone is a decent person. Being a humanist should imply that; however, it appears that many people have adopted the humanist label either without knowing what it means or while lacking the insight to see how inconsistent their behavior is with its meaning. Plenty of self-described humanists treat others poorly, and some even appear to take pride in doing so.

I believe that there is a place for public ridicule of ridiculous beliefs, but this is very different from calling people names. Repeatedly calling someone "fucktard," for example, tells us nothing about their beliefs or what might be wrong with them. It only tells us that those who claim to be spreading reason are spreading something that bears little resemblance to reason.