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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

"Tone does matter"

Discuss.

I'm planning to have something to say about this, as a one-time English literature teacher who does actually think that it's important to be sensitive to tone, and to be able to discuss matters of tone intelligently. But here's your chance to get in before me, if you want. I'll try to get back to the issue tomorrow.

26 comments:

Brian said...

Tone matters if you're so obnoxious that nobody notices the content of your arguments. If tone puts people on the defensive, they more than likely won't consider any arguments against their current preconceptions. Having said that folks like Richard Dawkins are called militantly strident for just raising any argument, no matter how well founded, against religon.

cognitive dissident said...

PZ Myers had a few words about "tone" yesterday:

"Tone matters, because too many have been insufficiently fierce in their criticism of pious excuses for sloppy thinking. Tone matters because we haven't been rude enough in the face of special claims of privilege for religious inanity. We need to flip that tone argument around 180°—the problem isn't that our tone is so harsh, it's that yours is so inappropriately soft towards people who lie to children, who want to gut our educational system, and who want to taint science with a bias for magic."

I try to be more tactful than that, but it's not always easy. It's nice to have Dawkins, Hitchens, et al staking out the boundaries of discourse--it makes room for those of us who make our criticisms a bit more gently.

DEEN said...

Tone matters, but it goes both ways. Sometimes being respectful is best, but sometimes contempt is what is called for as well.

Russell Blackford said...

I probably agree with all the comments so far. Keepthem coming.

Russell Blackford said...

I now see that there's already an open thread on exactly this topic over at the new accomodationism-wars blog You're Not Helping.

My take will be a bit different, though.

Eamon Knight said...

I find it irritating that some commenters at Pharyngula seem to view Pigliucci's hard words re the IDists as an "admission" that he was wrong to criticize PZ's use of "witless wanker". From the Pigliucci quotes I saw, there is a significant difference: MP's language is blunt -- but also pertinent to the substance; "witless wanker" is not. It's not the case that the only alternatives are a meek "Um, I beg to respectfully disagree" and scorched-earth abuse worthy of alt.flame. Those are endpoints of a continuum covering degrees of heat.

Not that I have always been polite; back in my Usenet days I called more than a few creationists (and one or two on my side) idiots. But to me that's the nuclear option: it meant I was giving up on having an intelligent conversation with that individual, and from then on they were either a rhetorical punching bag, or a kill-file resident.

Grad Student said...

"'Two plus two f---ing equals four, you cretin!' is not a pedagogic or discursive methodology I find attractive."

PZ Myers et al. are correct in pointing out that religious beliefs are generally unfairly exempt from criticism in the public sphere.

Still, shouldn't we draw the line somewhere? Is describing a believer as "a born-again jesus freak befuddled on hillbilly heroin" (PZ Myers) the kind of rhetoric that we should promote in the public sphere?

Given the enormous problems we face in the world today, non-believers must be willing to engage with believers on some level to confront these issues (religious extremism, global warming, etc.). As far as I can tell, Myers rhetoric ain't gonna help much in this area.

Tyro said...

I'm going to disagree with Grad Student and side with cognitive dissident. I think tone is very important but I firmly disagree that this means we should always adopt a respectful, polite or deferential tone, quite the opposite. I think that derision, laughter, or contempt have their place and that when we fail to use them, then we grant some propositions far more respect than they deserve. When a public, educated figure advocates nonsense then a part of the response should be mockery (though a part should also be a reasoned, polite discussion of the evidence).

The bulldogs at the front lines serve to puncture the inflated egos and unthinking respect that some authority figures have gotten until now and they also serve to shift the middle ground closer to rationality. The anti-rationalist fringe have no fears of going absolutely looney and rarely blush at outright lies which pulls the middle far to their side and while we need to avoid looniness and dishonesty, I think we need people to pull the centre back to us.

I also think that these firebrands like PZ and Hitchens do a good job of motivating and inspiring others where milquetoasts do not. It's easier to rally behind a movement which has polarizing, articulate and outspoken leaders; much harder with compromising and deferential ones.

Again, I think we need the compromisers and when we engage at an individual level it's great to see that these "militant" people speak calmly and respectfully. I'm arguing we need both.

Deepak Shetty said...

Tone matters. But not so much that you lose the intent of your thoughts. For e.g. "I disagree with the Pope's policy on " doesn't suitably capture the outrage (and really short of using some choice abuses , I don't know what does).
I guess we also need to distinguish between abuses (seldom necessary), insults(usually in retaliation), and humor(given that a lot of it would be received as an insult). There are a lot of ways that a persons tone can be harsh without needing to be (I cant think of an appropriate word here, excessive perhaps). Its the difference between Richard Dawkins and P.Z. Myers. Even though both are harsh, I believe Richards *tone* is better (to a religious person they probably sound the same and are probably equally ineffective)

Most reasonable people use the If I wouldn't say it to your face I wont post it as a comment either.

G Felis said...

While I tend toward admiring rather than admonishing strong rhetoric where it is warranted, I think the first point that must be addressed in any discussion of tone is why and how the subject of tone is on the table for discussion.

Criticizing an argument's tone IS NOT - and CANNOT POSSIBLY SUBSTITUTE FOR - a criticism of the actual argument. Yet, 99 times out 100, criticism of tone turns out ot be an attempt to avoid or gloss over substantial points of reason and evidence, an attempt to avoid making a legitimate counter-argument: For a stellar example of the genre, see Carlin Romano's ought-to-be-embarrassing-but-fools-don't-embarrass-easily Chronicle review of Massimo Pigliucci's Nonsense on Stilts. (See also commenter "aldeberan's" defense of Romano in the comments, and my criticism of both Romano and aldeberan's defense of Romano. Further see aldeberan's transparent evasion of the substantial arguments I made, even after I followed up by directly pointing out both the substance of the argument and his/her evasion of that substance.)

If you reflect on it, you've probably run into more than a few examples of this sort of thing in your personal life and interactions. Bringing up tone in *any* argument is almost always an attempt to change the subject: It's a way for someone on the losing end of an argument to redirect attention away from themselves and whatever they have been shown to be wrong about (morally or epistemically) and towards the alleged rudeness/incivility of the person criticizing their problematic position. It takes a certain level of discipline and maturity not to get sucked in by this rhetorical maneuver intended to put the person in the right on the defensive, and it's especially difficult when there's a wider audience whose sympathies the maneuver is designed to manipulate.

So no matter how much tone may or may not matter, the overwhelming majority of discussions of tone do not matter - and, in fact, are precisely intended to avoid, elide, distract from, or simply ignore what does matter. Any discussion of how and why tone matters which doesn't begin with an acknowledgment that most introductions of tone into arguments are simply red herrings has already lost track of what really matters.

Anonymous said...

I have nothing original to add, so I’ll toss on a quote from Shakespeare.

“But words are words. I never yet did hear
That the bruised heart was pierced through the ear.”

If people are getting all butt-hurt, (sorry, make that heart-bruised) it is the very act of disagreeing, not the tone that is doing the piercing.


Grendels Dad

Chris Lawson said...

Grad Student,

Myers was not referring to believers generically as "a born-again jesus freak befuddled on hillbilly heroin"; he was referring very specifically to William Buckingham. His point was that not every believer should be treated with the same respect as a "thoughtful theist who wanted a philosophical discussion."

Now I don't know about Buckingham's alleged drug abuse, but I do know that Buckingham was one of the key instigators behind the appalling Dover ID push, and I do know that, in Judge Jones's words, "inescapable truth is that Bonsell and Buckingham lied at their January 3, 2005 deposition."

So Romano was putting up Buckingham as a man whose opinions on evolution are worthy of respect by scientists. Myers responded to that. In a combative tone, sure, but then Myers' point still stands: Buckingham deserves no respect at all for his opinions on ID (arguably he should have been charged with perjury) and Romano hasn't a clue what he's talking about.

If you think Myers' tone is more of a problem than fundamentalists lying in court to undermine church-state separation and damn fool philosophers writing widely-published editorials while knowing nothing about the issues and choosing the wrong side because it makes them feel self-important, then I respectfully disagree.

steve said...

The word "tone" has been co-opted to mean I don't agree with your position but I can't come up with an argument or evidence to refute it so I'll castigate you for your "tone".

Similar to how the term "islamophobia" is meant to prevent discussion about the problems of Islam.

"Tone" has very little to do do with how one presents an argument and very much to do with the political correctness (as determined by the tone adjudicator) of an argument.

Eamon Knight said...

@Chris Lawson: Now I don't know about Buckingham's alleged drug abuse

Background, from memory: At one point in the course of that comedy of errors, when the media called him on something stupid he'd said (I forget what), Buckingham made the excuse that he was on oxycontin (AFAIK for legitimate medical reasons, but even under those circumstances it can still mess with your mind).

PZ has (by my judgement) gone too far on occasion, but that particular phrase is not one of those occasions -- it is precisely true, and well-deserved.

@G Felis: Yes, you're right that protest against tone are often an evasion of the substantive issue. However, I hope that in this particular venue, we can take it for granted that we are all in general agreement on the issues, and having an honest discussion of rhetorical strategies.

Grad Student said...

Chris Lawson,

You're right, I was wrong to quote Myers' description of Buckingham as an example of how he treats believers in general. Myers was insulting Buckingham for other reasons besides his belief.

As a replacement example, I'll just throw out the communion wafer incident as an example of Myers crossing the line.

Also, of course I think that religious extremism and fundamentalism are worse than the shenanigans of Myers. I just think that some of Myers' stunts and rhetoric aren't helping the situation.

Tyro said...

I just think that some of Myers' stunts and rhetoric aren't helping the situation.

I've heard this criticism a lot and my guess is that you and PZ differ most in your goals which leads you to say he isn't helping. He may not be helping to advance your goals but I think there's a good case for saying that he's advancing his. What do you think?

J. J. Ramsey said...

One catch that I see is that tone and content can be quite intertwined, and it's easier for someone aiming for a nasty tone to get out that broadbrush, even to the point of mangling the facts.

Deepak Shetty said...

@Grad Student said
I'll just throw out the communion wafer incident as an example of Myers crossing the line.
Bad example. Unless you also believe that people drawing stick figures of Mohammed or dressing him up in a bear costume also crosses the line.

steve said...

As a replacement example, I'll just throw out the communion wafer incident as an example of Myers crossing the line.

It's like you get all your information 2nd hand through sources more concerned with the tone of the incident rather than the facts.

The most superficial perusal of the information available with regard to "crackergate" would have informed you that what PZ Meyers took issue with was the fact that certain catholics were threatening to kill Webster Cook over a cracker.

The line was certainly crossed but not by PZ Meyers.

386sx said...

As a replacement example, I'll just throw out the communion wafer incident as an example of Myers crossing the line.

If you're referring to the one where he stuck a nail in it and threw it in the trash, they used to call those "publicity stunts" back in the olden days of newspapers and TV and stuff. :P

Eamon Knight said...

As a replacement example, I'll just throw out the communion wafer incident as an example of Myers crossing the line.

If that had been done out of a clear blue sky, I'd be inclined to agree with you, being basically a live-and-let-live type myself. But I see it as a piece of political theatre in protest of the real-world sanctions being threatened against *Catholic* student over his violation of *Church* rules. They are free to excommunicate him, or make him say a thousand Hail Marys in penance -- but when they agitated to get him expelled by his university, *they* crossed the line, and demanded the secular world respect and enforce their internal rules. At that point, it becomes absolutely appropriate for secularists to demonstrate exactly how much respect those rules deserve, on the outside.

Grad Student said...

@Eamon Knight: I agree with everything you said except the last sentence.

At that point, it becomes absolutely appropriate for secularists to demonstrate exactly how much respect those rules deserve, on the outside.

@386sx:

If you're referring to the one where he stuck a nail in it and threw it in the trash, they used to call those "publicity stunts" back in the olden days of newspapers and TV and stuff. :P

exactly.

@Deepak Shetty:

Bad example. Unless you also believe that people drawing stick figures of Mohammed or dressing him up in a bear costume also crosses the line.

That's a false dichotomy. I support South Park's move to draw Mohammed.

Deepak Shetty said...

@Grad Student
It wasn't a dichotomy , it was an appeal to consistency. Note that Im not commenting on the response to drawing Mohammed.
The issue is that desecrating a cracker is probably as blasphemous as drawing Mohammed to the corresponding religious cult.
If you found both acts offensive, then I can understand your position (even I would disagree), but since you support one and oppose the other , please explain the difference.

Grad Student said...

Deepak Shetty,

...but since you support one and oppose the other , please explain the difference.

Excellent question, unfortunately a good reply would require several thoughtful and long blog posts such as Blackford's recent follow-up post to this one. But hey, this is the blogosphere so I'll tell you my currently undeveloped thoughts on the matter:

1. South Park's Mohammed incident

The ability to satirize and make light of different institutions/beliefs in society is of course essential. The Mohammed South Park episode is just one example in a long line of religious satire that, in Christendom, goes back to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and beyond. Even so, clearly the Mohammed episode offended Muslims. However, in the secular world that the South Park creators inhabit depicting a religious figure in a satirical/comedic way is not very overly offensive.

2. PZ Myers' communion wafer episode

This was also satire, so it's easy to group this act together with the South Park episode, but Myer's actions (putting a nail through a wafer) are not very funny (IMO). It was just a cheap stunt that seemed primarily designed to offend the religious. One can demonstrate the absurdity of considering a wafer the body of a God-man without actually treating the symbol in ways that are recognized as demeaning in a secular society.

If I had more time, I'd try to come up with good examples that fall under these two categories, but I'll admit that's a difficult task.

Grad Student said...

Deepak Shetty,

Oh, and your totally right about my incorrect use of the phrase "false dichotomy." I should have simply said the two situations are different.

Deepak Shetty said...

@Grad Student
"depicting a religious figure in a satirical/comedic way is not very overly offensive."
But it is for the true believers. It really really is offensive to them.

"One can demonstrate the absurdity of considering a wafer the body of a God-man without actually treating the symbol in ways that are recognized as demeaning in a secular society."
As far as I'm aware , that was not the point of the demonstration. The point was that I don't have to respect symbols you respect(the absurdity being a separate question), and I can treat them any way I choose. In which case a demonstration would need to show some disrespect to the symbol. And any action besides eating the consecrated cracker that shows it disrespect would have been met by the same level of outrage from the nuts. Since originally all the student had done was carry it outside the church , still led to calls for his suspension and threats etc. So i doubt the act of driving a nail to the cracker would really make any difference.