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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).

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Tone trolling

As per my comments here, I'm not generally a fan of the concept of tone trolling. I stand by those comments, and I don't think that intellectual progress is made in an atmosphere that is full of name calling, insults, and deliberate provocation. No one deserves to be dismissed as a tone troll just for complaining about personal insults and the like from whoever they are talking to online.

What's more, it's not just in the atheist blogosphere that we see some low standards. I do get sick of atheists being singled out for being especially bad in this way. Alas, the internet, for all its great benefits, often brings out the worst in people, and we see too much of this sort of thing in forums on all manner of subjects. I'm sometimes guilty of it myself. Yes - I, too, can fall short of the best standards of online interaction when something has annoyed me.

We're most likely to make some intellectual progress if we try to maintain civility; try to be tough on arguments rather than on our interlocutors as people; try to avoid ascribing ulterior motives, or a sinister psychological make-up; and so on. We're most likely to make some intellectual progress if people feel free to put arguments in support of a reasonable range of positions without being subjected to personal attacks (the word "reasonable" is important here, though - I'm not interested in allowing people to comment with neo-Nazi, pro-rape, Holocaust denialist, Young Earth Creationist, etc., etc., positions; some positions are not going to be taken seriously here, except insofar as they may show what we're up against, and any comments espousing such positions will most likely be deleted).

Civility really, truly does have its uses. It had to be learned a few centuries ago, when controversy via warring pamphlets was carried out in atrociously personal and uncivil ways when judged by twentieth-century standards. It seems that it has to be learned all over again for online controversy in the twenty-first century. This is a respect in which, for the moment, we've regressed.

But... You knew there was a "but" coming, didn't you? All of this is mainly to clear my throat. Although I'm not a fan of the concept of tone trolling, I'm not going to deny that there are some actual cases of it.

We see the real thing when, for example, someone turns up to give a long, sanctimonious lecture about the need for civility partway through what was already a fairly civil discussion. Or when someone starts carrying on at length about how absolutely frakking horrible everyone else has been, after receiving some relatively mildly worded criticism for their contribution (almost as if they deliberately provoked the criticism just so they could use it as an excuse to go all sanctimonious and act all hurt).

So, folks, if you want some glorious examples of what tone trolling looks like - of the real thing out there in the wild - go here and enjoy. I suggest you merely watch the trolls, rather than providing them with unnecessary sustenance. The comments by "David Hay" and "Nelson Rose" are particularly fine specimens.

Oh, and here's a related point. Sure, let's all try to be nice to each other. No one likes a big meanie who acts like a bully and spoils the fun.

But here's a thought. If you write a nasty, dismissive little post about someone who has just frakking died, that's fine as far as it goes. You have that right in a liberal democratic society. There may be occasions in the future when I will do it, too. Just a word to the wise, though, as they say: don't act all shocked and hurt if a friend of that person is then snarky about you in response. Sheesh!

(Hey, it's also a good idea not to accuse someone of "losing their cool" in a post that sounds much more like an angry rant than the alleged rant you're complaining about. Just sayin'. Y'know?)

Otherwise ... Happy New Year, everybody!


Steve Zara said...

I feel honestly sorry for Massimo. I'm not a stranger to the occasional sulk and over-reaction myself. As I have learned, there should be new rule to be added to "if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging" - "don't dig a hole so deep you can't climb out".

Russell Blackford said...

I see that Richard Dawkins has even apologised for his snarky comment. It wasn't necessary in the circumstances, IMHO, but Richard is a gentleman.

latsot said...

The problem I have with Pigliucci's original post about Hitchens is that he made it personal on two levels: he attacked both Hitchens (by deliberately downplaying or ignoring many of the reasons so many of us admired him) and us (by telling us we are wrong to have admired him).

I'm all for pointing out flaws in other people's heroes (and especially our own), but underplaying their achievements in the immediate wake of their death seems pointlessly and offensively churlish.

His response to Coyne and Dawkins glistens with gleeful persecution and as Steve says this just makes his hole the deeper.

Jean Kazez said...

The way I score this boxing match:

Massimo's all-negative post on Hitchens--It's a good thing he linked to Katha Pollitt's must-read column on Hitchens, but it's hardly surprising when people who feel bereaved bite back.

Coyne bites back: to be expected (see above), no reason to make too big a deal about it.

Dawkins bites back: it's going too far saying someone wouldn't need to be replaced--there isn't just a tone problem there, but a substance problem.

Dawkins apologizes: +1.

What would be do without these kinds of squabbles to watch and score? Life is good.