Thursday, December 18, 2014

On Civility And "Safety"

My friend Linda Kaim recently posted a link to a Caitlin Dewey essay at the Washington Post about harassment on Twitter, and in particular, harassment of women in that venue. "Per an October study by the Pew Research Center, 4 in 10 Internet users have experienced online harassment" (link my own, not provided in the article). I wanted to reprint my comments, and possibly expand on them somewhat.

Having been in the online wars, am familiar with many of the arguments here. Some while back, my sister posted an article criticizing Richard Dawkins for some sexist things he had said in the past, and Sam Harris as well. I don't agree with all of what Dawkins has to say there, but what I see in that is a conflation of two entirely unrelated things:
There’s no denying that Dawkins played a formative role in the atheist movement, but it’s grown beyond just him. Remarks like these make him a liability at best, a punchline at worst. He may have convinced himself that he’s the Most Rational Man Alive, but if his goal is to persuade everyone else that atheism is a welcoming and attractive option, Richard Dawkins is doing a terrible job. Blogger and author Greta Christina told me, “I can’t tell you how many women, people of color, other marginalized people I’ve talked with who’ve told me, ‘I’m an atheist, but I don’t want anything to do with organized atheism if these guys are the leaders.’”
I found this passage in one of the linked stories discussing this matter:
...worst of all, just a few days ago, was this remark he retweeted. It implies – no, not implies, asserts – that feminists assume all men are misogynists (a detestable lie), and that women who receive sexist abuse bring it on themselves by doing so. There’s no reasonable way to read Dawkins’ retweet as anything but an endorsement of this sentiment. (I’m aware the original author was a woman, which just goes to show, as I’ve said in the past, that the rift in the atheist community isn’t between men and women; it’s between people who want every atheist to feel welcome and safe among us, and people who don’t care about doing that.)
The problem here is the author conflates civility and safety. Civility — the ability to discuss ideas and make arguments without making personal attacks — should always be the standard. "Safety", however, is really a demand for the right to never be offended. It is a wish that the world were other than it is. In the headline article, that wish is accompanied by the soft-pedal euphemisms that frequently walk down the aisle with calls for censorship. For instance, let us take this passage:
I am not naive on these issues: I understand that Twitter’s toeing a very difficult line, trying to provide a constructive, useful service to its users while also upholding the all-important virtues of free speech. Since both those things are critical to Twitter’s success, and since they often appear to act in opposition to each other, Twitter’s basically damned either way: Whatever it does, whoever it privileges, somebody will be unhappy.
Did you notice that? "Privileges". In this reading, Twitter "privileges" people to speech, even when that is offensive. This reflects a deep misunderstanding of what free speech is about.
I get that Twitter can be a madhouse, and it does seem that women magnetize abuse therein — or at least, some of them. Anita Sarkeesian particularly seems to draw that out, although one might argue she has a symbiotic and even commercial relationship with such abuse. But the prominent the women I follow on Twitter — Christina Hoff Sommers, Elizabeth N. Brown, Wendy McElroy, Megan McArdle — seem generally less perturbed by this (and I have to imagine most of them get considerable abuse on a regular basis, writing as they do on political subjects for commercial outlets).

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