Jean Kazez has a post from a few weeks ago entitled "The Emperor's Gnu Clothes" . This is supposed to be a sequel to the original story in which a brave little girl speaks up and says that the emperor is naked. Kazez continues as follows:
Other kids were impressed with the brave girl. They started saying the same thing--"The emperor has no clothes! The emperor has no clothes!" Soon just saying he had no clothes lost its appeal. They shouted louder and louder, and called the emperor a fatty and laughed uproariously.Now, the thread makes it clear that the original brave little girl is, as Kazez thinks of it, someone like Richard Dawkins, standing up and saying unpopular things about the falsehood of religious claims. All the other children are apparently people who have thereafter taken the opportunity to engage in some kind of uncivil name calling, justifying themselves by deriding "the whole idea of Communicative Restraint and Politeness". Kazez keeps saying that her story is meant to provide a picture of "how a likeable sort of brave truthfulness can turn into something else." She adds (this is in an exchange with Ophelia), "I don't expect you to agree that this has happened in the new/gnu atheist movement, but that's how it seems to me."
Some of the adults said: "Children. You're right he's naked. The brave girl was perfectly right to say so. But you've gotten carried away. It's time to think this through. Maybe the emperor actually enjoys being naked. Maybe he really doesn't know he's naked, and he can't figure it out when you're yelling at him. Maybe when he looks at you, your clothes look ridiculous to him, too! Control yourselves, think about how you're communicating!"
This made the children very, very angry. They wanted to believe they were just like that first brave girl. They didn't want to see themselves as rude and insulting. So the children went after the adults who had chided them, and called them names, and derided the whole idea of Communicative Restraint and Politeness, which they called crap for short.
Now, I don't wish to stoop to incivility myself ... so I won't. Well, surely I should put in some snark near the end just so there's something to complain about.
But I mainly want to say how puzzling I find the Kazez account. As far as I can see, the incivility is generally not coming from people who could be considered part of the New Atheist movement - such as Dawkins, or Ophelia, or maybe Jerry Coyne, or perhaps even me if we're going that far down the food chain (though gnus are vegetarian ... so, alas, the food chain metaphor doesn't really work). Most of the mockery, name-calling, gotcha rhetoric, twisting of the truth for effect, adopting outrageous and wildly implausible lies as "Exhibits", and various others forms of downright unfairness actually seem to be coming from such people as Chris Mooney and Josh Rosenau, i.e. people who wish that the Gnus would go away.
Unless I am confronted by egregious examples of power and influence being used destructively - as we see every day from the Catholic Church - I am actually very restrained. The same applies to others who could be seen as belonging in the Gnu herd. Even my commenters tend to be a polite, thoughtful bunch.
What we actually tend to see is reasonably civil, courteous, thoughtful critiques of religion from the Gnus being met with the response that it is so far beyond the pale that it should not be said. Thus, the crucial moment that set off the current round of debates was when Jerry Coyne reviewed two books by religious authors who argued for a compatibility of religion and science. The review was as civil as one could expect from any reviewer who disagrees strongly with key elements of non-fiction books that he or she is reviewing. It was thoughtful, detailed, and followed all the courtesies. See for yourself.
The response from Chris Mooney was that such things should not be said. Again, see for yourself.
Mooney cited - in a way that is clearly an endorsement, as clear as these things can ever be - a speech by Barbara Forrest:
Forrest eloquently defended this view in the first half of her talk; but in the second, she also challenged the latest secularist to start a ruckus–Jerry Coyne, who I’ve criticized before. In a recent New Republic book review, Coyne took on Kenneth Miller and Karl Giberson, two scientists who reconcile science and religion in their own lives. Basically, Forrest’s point was that while Coyne may be right that there’s no good reason to believe in the supernatural, he’s very misguided about strategy. Especially when we have the religious right to worry about, why is he criticizing people like Miller and Giberson for their attempts to reconcile modern science and religion?
Forrest then gave three reasons that secularists should not alienate religious moderates:
1. Etiquette. Or as Forrest put it, “be nice.” Religion is a very private matter, and given that liberal religionists support church-state separation, we really have no business questioning their personal way of making meaning of the world. After all, they are not trying to force it on anybody else.Forrest therefore concluded her talk by saying that we need [an] “epistemological and civic humility”–providing the groundwork for “civic friendship.” To which I can only say: Amen.
2. Diversity. There are so many religions out there, and so much variation even within particular sects or faiths. So why would we want to criticize liberal Christians, who have not sacrificed scientific accuracy, who are pro-evolution, when there are so many fundamentalists out there attacking science and trying to translate their beliefs into public policy?
3. Humility. Science can’t prove a negative: Saying there is no God is saying more than we can ever really know empirically, or based on data and evidence. So why drive a wedge between religious and non-religious defenders of evolution when it is not even possible to definitively prove the former wrong about metaphysics?
Now, notice what is going on here. The views attributed to Forrest do not relate to some piece of writing or speechmaking that eschews all politeness and communicative restraint. The views that Mooney is attributing to Forrest, and clearly (see for yourself) endorsing, relate to a book review that follows the usual courtesies.
And note what it is said by Forrest/Mooney that we should not do or say. It's not a matter of exercising politeness. It's a matter of 1. do not question the beliefs of liberal religionists; 2. do not criticize pro-evolution liberal Christians, 3. do not make atheistic claims. Again, I don't see how this can be any clearer. What we have here is not a call for politeness or some degree of communicative restraint in the interest of social harmony. It quite plainly says that we should not "criticize" or even "question" the religious views of (so-called) "liberal" Christians or "moderates", and in particular we should not say "there is no God". It's there in black and white.
The current debate is not, in essence, about politeness or communicative restraint. If Jerry Coyne talks to a group of Christians he is polite to them, as long as they are themselves courteous, open to discussion, and so on. So am I. What we are proposing is not mocking individuals or generally behaving like arse/assholes. It is, however, doing the things that Mooney (and, apparently, Forrest) said we should not do. That is, we do intend to go on questioning religious beliefs, even so-called liberal ones, criticising religious apologists, even so-called moderates, and putting the case that "there is no God". We will not do this in a way that lacks all "communicative restraint", though the appropriate degree of restraint will depend very much on the context.
Folks, none of this is inconsistent. Anyway, a more applicable story would go something like this:
Some other kids were unimpressed with the brave girl. They started telling her to be quiet. Some even told her, "Yes, the emperor has no clothes, but you must never, ever say such things!"
The girl protested to them, "But it's true, and it's not as if I called the emperor fatty or laughed in his face. Still, he has no clothes, and I think it should be said."
Some of the adults said ... very loudly: "Little girl, you're wrong - clearly he's dressed in beautiful finery. You need to look more carefully."
Others spoke to her in urgent whispers. "You must never say the emperor is naked," one woman said, bending down to the little girl, "not even in the most polite and thoughtful way you can. First, the emperor is not making you go around naked, so why question his clothing choices? Second, the alternative emperor might be a nasty man, so be nice to the one you've got. Third, you can never prove definitively that the emperor has no clothes, so why make trouble? Civic friendship demands that you show epistemological and civic humility about emperors and their various degrees of undress. Now run along and play."
The brave girl was upset by this, but she stood her ground as she thought about it. Some of her friends finally spoke up. "But it's not fair," her friend Cordelia said. "The emperor really is naked."
"But you've both got carried away here," said a nicely-dressed kid with a big white Colgate smile. "Maybe the emperor actually enjoys being naked. Maybe he really doesn't know he's naked, and he can't figure it out when you're speaking to him politely. Maybe when he looks at you, your clothes look ridiculous to him, too! Calm yourselves!"
"I'm perfectly calm," the little girl said in a perfectly calm voice (though she actually still felt a bit upset inside).
"So am I," Cordelia said in a no-nonsense way, "though this is getting a bit annoying."
"Oh noes! No, no, no," said the kid with the Colgate smile. "Now, you're being strident. Think of how you're communicating!"