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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Civility, civility, there's nothing like civility

In our article in Comment is Free, Udo and I say this:

In many situations, it is better to be civil, as Paul Kurtz has pointed out, but satire and mockery have traditionally had a legitimate place whenever absurd ideas are joined to power and privilege. Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire often used mockery to show the absurdity of ideological stances — including religious ones — that were considered sacrosanct. Mockery is one way of saying that a view does not deserve to be taken seriously. Religious views are fair game if one can also show, on a more serious level, why the view in question does indeed not deserve serious respect.

Perhaps some rationalist or humanist organisations, such as Kurtz's venerable Center for Inquiry, do have good reason to maintain a scholarly and dignified brand image. But there is also room for the younger, brasher atheists whom Kurtz inaccurately brands as "fundamentalists", and, in any event, there is a world of difference between appropriate civility and keeping quiet.

I would have thought that this was fairly clear.

* We are not denying that civility is often "better" or "appropriate". We say that it is.
* We are denying that we should have to shut up or engage in self-censorship, as opposed to engaging in appropriate civility.
* We think that there's a place for mocking absurd ideological stances, and we define what that place is: where it could be shown, on another level, why the stance is absurd. I'll add that comedy, parody, ridicule, etc., are often useful to get people to look at something from another angle, when they are used to seeing it in a way that makes them blind to the absurdity.

Nowhere in the article do we defend merely insulting people with whom we are engaged in debate, or mocking ideas merely for the sake of hurting feelings. (To be fair, though, I'm not above making fun of powerful opponents such as the pope. This is less defensible, but it's mostly harmless when fun is being made of powerful authority figures, rather than of the powerless.)

Good Christian apologists don't refrain from mocking ideas that they disagree with and consider (rightly or wrongly) to be absurd. Anyone who is at all familiar with C.S. Lewis knows that he did this all the time. Some of his mockery of what he considered absurd naive views of progress, in Out of the Silent Planet for example, is very funny even if not entirely fair. Lewis also had no qualms about making fun of powerful opponents such as Wells and Haldane. In short, we don't suggest that atheists do more than is already done by people who defend religious positions. So why is what we are suggesting not almost uncontroversial?

What I would never defend (and I'm sure Udo would agree here) is referring to opponents by dehumanising epithets such as "rats", "vermin", etc. There is a huge difference between parodying or mocking an idea, or even the eccentricities of a powerful individual, and referring to opponents as if they are sub-human. I thought that the thread a couple back might have led to some thoughtful discussions of these kinds of important distinctions.


NewEnglandBob said...

Satire and mockery is OK, name calling is not. Where is this post going. It is not clear to me.

Eamon Knight said...

NEB: Surely you can see that there is a difference between substantive criticism which includes mockery as an intensifier, and simple scorched-earth abuse? And that while even the latter may sometimes be defensible, there is a level below which it should not go?

Eamon Knight said...

On second thought, having just read your latest replies to Heddle on the other thread, I begin to suspect that you don't.

Russell Blackford said...

Well, let's discuss it.

The point is that there are distinctions that need to be made here. Or so I'd have thought. I wasn't very impressed by someone who thinks that my/Uod's mild defence of a role for mockery of absurd ideas justifies using language such as "vermin".

People can call me that and it won't upset me ... I'm not that thin-skinned. In principle, however, I think it crosses an important line. Maybe it's just because it's so similar to how the Nazis described the Jews.

DEEN said...

"I thought that the thread a couple back might have led to some thoughtful discussions of these kinds of important distinctions."
I for one didn't comment on this, because I thought those distinctions were abundantly clear already. Maybe not to the sender of the "vermin" comment, but then again, that person has a big pot-meet-kettle problem that make me not want to take this person seriously.

As for a little more in-depth, hopefully thoughtful discussion, let me start with saying that I agree that civility is a good starting point for a discussion. But as soon as a person proves I don't need to take him or her seriously, for instance by not discussing in good faith, or calling people "vermin", I generally don't see a reason to hold back the mockery. Sure, it likely won't convince the person I'm mocking, but by that point I've pretty much given up on getting through to him or her. But it might convince or at least amuse those that are reading or listening on the sideline.

Although I'll admit that there may be practical reasons to still refrain from mockery. For instance, you might be expected to take the person seriously because he or she is your boss, and there will be a backlash if you mock him or her. But then I'd prefer changing that situation (i.e. no longer work for a boss that you don't take seriously) than self-censorship.

The same goes for mocking religious doctrine that I can't take seriously. It may be wise to refrain from mocking it, because you are expected to be respectful of religion, and there will be a backlash from society. However, again I'd rather change that situation than apply self-censorship. In this case, that means changing society so that we're no longer expected to respect ridiculous religious doctrine,

DEEN said...

Sorry, that post was supposed to end in a period, not a comma. That's all there was to that post.

Boz said...

related article on the vermin/rats epithet: