Monday, August 4, 2008

Catching Flies Revisited

I received many varied responses to my previous entry Catching Flies where I talked about the ineffectiveness of using profanity and personal attacks, specifically when writing an atheist blog, and just when communicating in general.

I would like to address some of the typical responses I received:

"There are appropriate uses of profanity."

I would agree with this statement, there are appropriate uses of profanity. When I stub my toe at home, or when I'm watching the game with my friends and my team loses, this would be an appropriate time for profanity.

But, when I am writing about the existence of god or the validity of science and hoping to appeal to a crowd of people who I know do not generally appreciate profanity, that would be inappropriate. As adults we should value the ability to have a civilized conversation, because sometimes they are hard to come by.

Take Richard Dawkins for example. Would he be as effective if during a debate or interview, he decided to resort to using personal attacks and vulgarity to get his point across?

The example of Penn & Teller was also brought up to justify the use of profanity. They use profanity on their show and it is entertaining to many. But is it entertaining mostly because you agree with what they have to say? For someone who does not agree this might be a bad way of trying to reach them.

When you use profanity on your blog, the people who will find it entertaining are most likely to be those that already agree with you. And this is fine! If you are writing a blog for other atheists to read, this may be the tone and approach that you choose. But for a blog that is attempting to discuss issues with believers, this is a very ineffective method.

I don't know of any believer who would read such a blog and say, "You know what, they're right! I do need to pull my %$!#ing head out of my @$$!"

"We have the right to use profanity, and they do not have the right to censor us or to not be offended."

This is true and I couldn't agree more that none of us have the right not to be offended. That is exactly why I am not suggesting that any blog with profanity should be censored. But our right to use profanity does not always justify the use of it.

Just because we have the freedom to insult people, does not mean it is wise to do, or that it is an effective way of communicating.

And this is not just because religious people are "prudes" or don't want to hear profanity. If someone was trying to tell me something, but was using personal attacks and profanity to do so, I would not be too happy about it either and would more than likely reject their message simply because of its packaging.

"We are past the point of civil dialog / The ridiculous deserves to be ridiculed / We are frustrated and provoked."

Trust me, I understand your frustration. Anyone who has had an argument with a young earth creationist, for example, will know how easy it is to lose one's cool and use inflammatory language. But has resorting to uncivility ever made you more successful in the argument? Probably not.

And I also agree that the ridiculous deserves ridicule, or atleast does not deserve our respect. For instance, I agreed with PZ Meyer's desecration of the eucharist because I think that we have no obligation to consider something holy just because someone tells us we should. I also do not think we should bow to the pressure of Muslim extremists when they do not like their prophet's picture drawn in cartoons.

I totally support the ridicule and criticism of dangerous and ignorant ideas or beliefs.

But this does not mean that I would support using profanity or personal attacks on these people to tell them how much I disagree with their views. There is a big difference between attacking an idea and attacking a person.

Again, take the example of Richard Dawkins. He has probably answered the same silly questions thousands of times from people who have not bothered to read his books or listen to his previous interviews. How frustrating must that be for him? And yet, he tries not to resort to being uncivil, because he knows that would be an ineffective way to communicate his message.

"We aren't trying to change anyone's mind or convert anybody."

This is a response I got from the blog after I told them that I thought their method was ineffective in reaching believers.

This is clearly untrue. Anytime that a person argues a point or posts their views on the internet for all to see, they are obviously attempting to change someone's mind, or to atleast make someone think about the topic at hand.

That is the point of debate and discussion. Ultimately you hope that your argument is successful and that others will accept what you have to say.

Of course, this is kind of taboo for atheists to say, because we are so wary of being compared to a religion. We do not want to seem as if we are looking for converts, but the truth is, we wouldn't mind if other people embraced reason, rejected god, and accepted evolution. I think many of us would welcome such a thing.

To claim that the goal of my blog is not to change peoples' minds would be dishonest, and even more so if I was clearly trying to engage in discussion with believers.

Ultimately it is up to you to choose the tone and language you use every day, but it is important to realize how this tone and language will affect how well your message is received.

As an atheist, if I am actively seeking dialogue with believers, but then resort to insulting them and using profanity instead of sticking to facts and rational dialogue, what is my purpose? Is it purely to insult them because I disagree with them?

Chances are we are not ever going to change the minds of the most die-hard fundamentalists out there. But there is an opportunity to engage in a civil discussion with the many rational people that are out there on all sides of the issue.

By no means am I saying that this is easy. Just like anyone else, I can become frustrated when debating with people about topics I feel passionate about. Getting angry and resorting to insults or profanity is the easy way out.

Let's not alienate each other with insults, because we can communicate so much more effectively without them.

Keeping your cool is a lot more challenging, but it is definitely worth it. I can't ever think of a time when I regretted keeping my cool and being civilized during a disagreement, but I can think of many times when I have regretted doing the opposite.

I'm sure I might slip up once in a while, but I think it is a worthy goal, and that is why I will continue trying my best to be amiable in my discussions.

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1 comment:

DisComforting Ignorance said...

Woo, my first time commenting here, despite having subscribed for quite a while. I have a backlog of blogs to read, and thirty from yours, from my trip. And look what I missed! I just so happened to cover it as well by coincidence.

The one thing I would disagree with here is that just because you are maintaining a blog or such that you are trying to change someone's mind. It can, and sometimes is, a purely cathartic thing. And I think there are also blogs which are aimed solely at preaching to the choir, if you will. Pharyngula, it would seem, is an excellent example of one of those. The profanity/language he uses is appropriate as well as it is aimed at atheists.

On the opposite hand you have someone like Austin Cline over at I think his is quite a model blog in terms of language. The one exception, though, is when it comes to abortion. He uses the term "anti-choice" to describe people who oppose abortion rights. As such, I think that deters people.

I am entirely behind the rest of the post, though. I feel the same. It does not matter who you are or what you're advocating, if, in a discussion, you start lobbing insults or using profanity, it just makes your position look less credible. There is something to be said for remaining cool, calm, and rational. I don't think any less of people who use profanity, at all. In any sort of discussion, it doesn't matter. If it's used in some sort of context in an irate or insulting manner, though, that's detrimental to your case.

Especially if you are going up against Christians. If your goal is to either change their mind or get them to think about something, using profanity is a deal-breaker with most. Entering into the discussion, you should accept those terms.

For me, threatening me with Hell is a bit of a deal breaker. If you start wailing that I'm going to burn in Hell, well, that's the Christian profanity for me.