Here’s Rod Dreher giving lectures about civility:
What is it with science-oriented advocates who consider contempt a virtue? Who, exactly, do they think they are going to persuade? (You could say the same thing about sneering political bloggers, sneering religious bloggers, and, well, sneerers in all forms of public discourse, inasmuch as sneering seems to be a popular pose these days.) Most of us are tempted to sneer every now and then (I certainly am guilty of this), but some of these people adopt sneering as a basic intellectual stance to the world.
Here’s Rod Dreher hectoring Anne Rice over her decision to leave institutional Christianity:
I’m sorry, but this is weak, and makes me wonder what really happened. Surely a woman of her age and experience cannot possibly believe that the entirety of Christianity, current and past, can be reduced to the cultural politics of the United States of America in the 21st century. Does she really know no liberal Christians? Has she never picked up a copy of Commonweal? Does she really think that if she asked a Christian on the streets of Nairobi or Tegucigalpa what they, as Christians, thought of Nancy Pelosi, they would have the slightest idea what she was talking about? And Christianity, anti-science? Good grief. Has she not noticed that Catholic Church, to which she did belong until yesterday, has affirmed evolution, and embraces science? How can a woman of her putative sophistication really think that Christianity is nothing more than a section of the Republican Party at prayer?
Dreher’s rant here is ridiculous, of course. Regarding the Catholic Church specifically I suspect Rice noticed their contempt for homosexuals, their willingness to use the sacraments as political weapons against pro-choice politicians, their opposition to stem-cell research, their intransigence on the subject of women priests, and, of course, their reaction to the child sex abuse scandal. Maybe having an official position of accepting evolution isn’t quite enough to undo all of that. And somehow I suspect that Rice is aware of the existence of liberal Christians. She probably just feels they are not enough of a force within the church to combat the more reactionary forces. (We should also note that, contrary to what Dreher says elsewhere in his post, Rice has not lost her faith. It is only institutional Christianity that has lost her confidence.)
But that is not really the subject of this post. That Dreher complains about a lack of civility one minute and then engages in snotty incivility the next is indicative of a common phenomenon among those who complain about the tone of blogs. The problem rarely seems to be incivility per se. Usually that is just a cover for the real complaint, which is seeing incivility directed towards people the writer does not think deserve it.
Take Dreher’s remarks about science-oriented advocates sneering as a basic intellectual stance. He offers two pieces of evidence. One is that P.Z. Myers is rude. The other is this charming little anecdote:
A few years ago, I was in an editorial board meeting with some pro-science academics and others, who had come in to speak to us about some issue, I forget precisely what, having to do with science education in Texas. We entered that meeting entirely on their side, but by the time it was over, we were, as I recall, still on their side on the merits of the argument, but we had a distinctly nasty taste in our mouth. The advocates were simply dripping with contempt for their opponents, and carried themselves with an aristocratic hauteur, as if they considered it beneath them to be questioned by others about this stuff. I never quite got a handle on why they acted that way, but reading Heffernan, it’s more clear: I thought these people had come to argue about science and science education, but whether they realized it or not, they were class warriors.
Gosh yes. It sure is hard to figure out why pro-science academics would respond angrily to the machinations of the Texas School Board. Clearly the explanation lies in classism. What else could it be?
Anne Rice serves up a few Twitter posts criticizing institutional Christianity and Dreher flies off the handle. But scientists being contemptuous towards people who lie about the facts of science, and then try to alter school curricula to peddle their lies to children is incomprehensible to him. Suppose someone argued that the ceremony of the Eucharist promotes cannibalism. Do you think Dreher would say, “What an interesting viewpoint! Let us have a civil discussion about it”? Or do you think maybe he would consider it beneath him to have to reply to such a thing?
We pro-science academics spend a good portion of our professional lives trying to make scientifically ignorant people a little less ignorant. You can always find a few rotten apples, but very few of us are contemptuous of our students. Quite the contrary. Most of us find it thrilling to engage with people who are genuinely interested in learning about science. That is a far larger portion of our lives than is blogging or having to deal with school board demagogues. For Dreher to extrapolate from a few blog posts or one editorial board meeting to people’s general views towards life is absurd. Likewise for thinking that contempt directed at specific people for specific things is somehow indicative of a general philosophy.
Let me also suggest that it is never a good argument to complain about someone’s tone by saying something like, “You’re not going to convince anyone!” That is a lazy argument used exclusively by people more interested in seeming above it all than in actually engaging the issues. Incivility is a tool in the arsenal. It is very good for calling attention to an issue and to a point of view. If the incivility is backed up by a good argument it can be very powerful.
For a personal example, when I was first learning about evolution and creationism I was heavily influenced by the large body of anti-creationist writing that is out there. Initially, you see, I felt some sympathy for the creationists. Not the part about taking the Bible literally, but the part about scientists exaggerating the strength of the evidence for evolution. Most of that writing is very rude to the creationists, and much of it is downright obnoxious. That did not stop me from finding it compelling. As I came to understand the issues more clearly, I also came to realize that the incivility was entirely appropriate.
Or consider The God Delusion. Can anyone argue with a straight face that Dawkins would have been a more effective advocate for his view had he written a stodgy academic treatment of his material? Such treatments exist, of course, but mostly they sit unread on the shelves of university libraries. A few years ago Oxford University Press published an anthology entitled Philosophers Without Gods. It was a marvelous book. It should absolutely be read by anyone interested in this topic. Precisely the sort of scholarly seriousness the tone-complainers said they wished Dawkins, HItchens and Harris had written. I am sure the few dozen people who read it were enriched by the experience. But how many people did they convince?
So much of the discourse on these topics imagines two clearly defined sides with everyone having already taken a stand one way or the other. People with an emotional stake on one side are likely to dig in when confronted by rudeness from the other, so we are all supposed to speak in soothing, gentle tones. But that is a ludicrous oversimplification of reality. What about all the people who are on the fence? What about people who have long been uncomfortable with their religious lives but have never heard a non-cartoonish version of any alternatives? What about all the people who have their eyes opened by the visibility atheism now has as a result of Dawkins’ writing? What about all the other books, and public presentations, and You Tube videos that were sparked by Dawkins’ success?
And, yes, some people will be turned off by his tone. So be it. Life is full of trade-offs. The price of reaching a large audience is calling attention to yourself in ways that some will find distasteful. You can’t please everyone and all that. But the anger directed at people like Dawkins has almost nothing to do with his tone. It is because he harshly criticized religion, and has been very successful doing it.
Which brings me to Vriginia Heffernan. By now you have probably seen her essay bashing ScienceBlogs. We’re all so rude, blah blah blah. Her evidence of massive, wide-spread badness here at SB, in its entirety, was this:
Recently a blogger called GrrlScientist, on Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted), expressed her disgust at the “flock of hugely protruding bellies and jiggling posteriors everywhere I go.” Gratuitous contempt like this is typical. Mark Hoofnagle on Denialism Blog sideswiped those who question antibiotics, writing, “their particular ideology requires them to believe in the primacy of religion (Christian Science, New Age Nonsense) or in the magical properties of nature.” Over at Pharyngula — which often ranks in the Top 100 blogs on the Internet– PZ Myers revels in sub-“South Park” blasphemy, presenting (in one recent stunt) his sketch of the Prophet Muhammad as a cow-pig hybrid excited about “raping a 9-year-old girl.”
A strong case. There are something like sixty blogs here, and Heffernan found three she dislikes. Elsewhere in her essay she recommended a climate change denial blog as worthier reading. (Then recanted that endorsement when its denialism was pointed out to her.)
As for P.Z., I get it that some people do not care for his style. The cure for that is to not read him. I would point out, though, that he routinely provides some of the very best biology posts you will find anywhere. Some of us come for the contempt for religion, and then stay for the science. I would also point out that posts about science and religion, or about the culture wars, are absolutely appropriate subjects for a science blog. Science is not just technical papers and jargon, it is also, or should be, a cultural force.
It was pretty obvious that Heffernan’s essay was not about tone, but was about her sympathizing with the targets of our ire. I was inclined to ignore it, until I noticed Chad Orzel gamely trying to defend her.
That’s where I think this incident points out a real problem: if we’re really trying to promote science, Virginia Heffernan is our target audience: she’s a smart and educated person with no science background, who would benefit from learning more about science in an informal manner. She’s one of the people we ought to be speaking to using blogging as a platform.
If we’re driving her away before she learns anything, there’s something wrong. And castigating her after the fact, essentially for being driven away, is not helping at all.
That’s what bothers me about this whole incident. Firing up people who are already interested in science and know something about it is great, but to paraphrase an Adlai Stevenson joke, we need a majority. If we want to improve the standing of science, and make the world a better place, we need to reach people like Virginia Heffernan (at the very least), and get them on the side of science.
On the narrow question of Heffernan specifically, I disagree with Chad in thinking she deserves the benefit of the doubt. I do not think her article represented a good faith attempt to assess the contents of Science Blogs. Her essay was not especially measured or thoughtful, which rather undercuts her complaints about tone and nastiness.
On the more general question, I think Chad is concluding too much from Heffernan’s piece. She visited the site, found it rude and left. Oh well. But how many other people visit the site precisely because they see a lively conversation going on? How many other people like the passion and the politics and would simply find it boring if everyone wrote in staid, academic terms?
And that’s precisely the problem with all the hand-wringing about tone, the worries about driving people away for excessive nastiness, and the fretting about what is and is not convincing to people. The same features that some people find offputting are precisely the ones that others find attractive. Discourse that drives some people away form your cause draws other people to it.
I don’t know which of those forces (the driving away or the drawing towards) is more powerful in this case. But I have noticed that P. Z. Myers currently gets more than a hundred thousand hits a day. Am I seriously to worry that his primary effect on the site is to drive readers away?
It’s like profanity in comedy. I think George Carlin and Robin Williams are two of the best comedians in the history of the business. But I know a lot of people who find them crude and offensive. No problem. For them we have people like Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Cosby. Profanity is one tool in the comedian’s arsenal. Used properly it can increase the effectiveness of a routine. But it can also turn people off. Different strokes for different folks.
Why do people find it so complicated that different styles of writing are appropriate in different contexts? Or that different people respond to different things? Polemicism and incivility are tools in the arsenal. Used properly they can achieve things that are near impossible to achieve in any other way. Used improperly they are just obnoxious and unpleasant. Many of us are attracted to writing with a clear viewpoint and a strong opinion. Others do not like that. That is why we need many different people doing many different things. We need both warriors and diplomats as the saying goes.
Don’t like P.Z.? Or Dawkins? Then don’t read them. It’s OK, really. Just spare me the lectures about how they’re symbolic of some rot in the discourse, or that your delicate sensibilities are somehow normative for the rest of us.