Playground Insults in the Name of Civil Discourse

3tscekThe London School of Economics is facing a controversy this week over it’s insistence that an secularist group not sport offensive t-shirts and signs. Unsurprisingly, Richard Dawkins has voiced his support for the group, calling the school officials “sanctimonious little prigs”.

I have no idea if Dawkins realized that he was demonstrating the exact sort of mean-spirited behavior the atheist group was accused of stooping to. If not, he can rightly claim to be as ignorant of basic courtesy as he is of theology (and, if so, it is not a compliment to say that he has no problem being mean-spirited).

In fact, the New Atheism (always taking its cues from Richard Dawkins) seems to have a long track record of garnering attention by specifically putting their message in offensive terms–then acting shocked and crying oppression when offense is taken.

And this was the issue with the group: not that the position of atheism (or even of close-minded, ranting atheism that confuses cheap slogans for reason) was unwelcome at the event, but that public discourse requires a certain level of civility in order to function.

The group complains “Our right to free expression and participation in the LSE student community is being curtailed for no other reason than that we are expressing views that are not shared by others”. But this is simply false. Rights to expression and participation were never taken away. The group was neither banned from participating nor hindered from distributing their literature. They were merely asked to remove offensive signs and t-shirts and present their case in a civil way–the exact thing that is expected of every group at the event.

Needless to say, this was not “for no other reason” than their disbelief. It was for the unnecessarily rude methods that characterize the New Atheism. But it seems that the movement, having made incivility its calling card, has trouble understanding the difference between offering reasons for disagreeing and resorting to ridicule.

All this reminds me rather of the behavior of Lawrence Krauss–who recently insisted on an informal debate format with William Lane Craig in order to “have a conversation”, then used that format to shout down and talk over Craig rather than listen to or address his points. This group, following the example of their leaders, seems far less interested in actual conversation or fairness than in using the rhetoric of civil society in order to excuse behavior more appropriate to the Jr. High playground than civil debate.

For all its claims of intellectual superiority, the New Atheism behaves far more like an angry mob than a coalition of thoughtful individuals. Atheists in general should be rushing to distance themselves from this group in the hopes of salvaging what’s left of the stereotype that atheists are a sophisticated lot.

If they’ve failed at dismantling theism, Dawkins, Krauss, and their fans have blown the lid off of the myth that an atheist can be expected to be particularly reasonable.

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6 responses to “Playground Insults in the Name of Civil Discourse

  • Atomic Mutant

    Perhaps you should mention, what these incredibly “offensive signs and t-shirts” was… Perhaps some horrible insult? Nope. It was simply Jesus&Mo(hammed).
    So, this is where we now are: It is “offensive” not to follow a specific religious rule.

    • Debilis

      Yes, they were Jesus & Mo t-shirts.
      And, while they may not be particularly offensive to atheists, not everyone is an atheist.

      This is a big part of the point of public discourse: understanding how to treat others courteously–learning what bothers them and having the decency to be polite about it. There are plenty of t-shirts mocking atheism (on the level of Jesus & Mo), but I don’t wear them for precisely this reason.

      So, if the secular group had simply said “Oops, we didn’t think those would bother anyone, but I guess we were wrong” there would have been no problem. The issue is how they are behaving in the aftermath.

      And this includes people like Dawkins. The phrase “sanctimonious little prigs” is universally offensive. Phrases like that exist for hardly any other reason except to offend.

      Really, what surprises me is how upset the New Atheists are that people are offended. I’d thought offending and ridiculing people was the point of nearly every New Atheist poster and t-shirt I’ve ever seen. I thought they’d count this a success, then.

  • Allallt

    I can’t find the exact Jesus and Mo comic the t-shirt depicted. But you are going to have a hard time explaining why we have to bow to the sensitivities of every and belief. By this same logic we should not serve meat that is not halal (for risk of offending Muslims) or Kosher (for risk of offending Jews) or any meat at all (for risk of offending Buddhists).
    Should we allow the expression of homosexuality is order to conform with the worldviews of liberals, progressives, humanists and other people that support this right. Or should we ban the expression of homosexuality to appease literalists, fundamentalists and bigots?

    The ability and freedom to mock an idea is important. And in every domain outside religion that has been fully supported.

    I support coming at these discussions with full respect for everyone involved. (I hope that has come across when we have spoken in the past). I also the freedom to say when you are offended. But I suspect the SU’s phrase “good campus relations” is more revealing than any claim of harassment. “Good campus relations” extends so far as to pander to the whims of groups, even if they don’t have the rights they think they have, because you expect one 1 groups to complain more than another.

    It’s like when my Mum used to ask me to give my little some of my toys, even though they were my toys. The problem was that my little brother was likely to make life for my mum harder than I was. That is “good campus relations”.

    • Debilis

      This seems to be extrapolating quite about my position to reach conclusions that I do not support. I was not remotely claiming that people need to “bow to the sensitivities of every belief”. What I said was that one shouldn’t be rude about disagreements when interacting with that person.

      So, if some group is opposed to homosexuality, they are allowed that belief. This doesn’t automatically make it polite to wear t-shirts which mock homosexuals to a public forum.

      If someone is opposed to atheism, that is fine. But this doesn’t make it polite to post signs which insult atheists in a public gathering.

      So, no. We don’t all have to ensure that all our meat is halal. But, surely, waving non-halal meat under the nose of a Muslim and asking “how can you have a problem with this” is rude.

      Whether you like that example or not, the point is that this false dichotomy between “bowing to” and completely ignoring the sensibilities of others doesn’t make any sense. Surely, there’s a middle ground where we disagree, but don’t pronounce that disagreement in unnecessarily rude ways.

      And I don’t see why the right to publicly mock an idea is either important, or allowed in every area outside religion. There are many areas in which it is not allowed (but no one seems to be complaining about that).

      Nor, incidentally, is mockery ever polite or respectful. By definition, it is not. That being the case, coming at a discussion with respect for others means refraining from mockery.

      But I don’t know that the toy analogy applies unless it can be shown that religious groups were also mocking atheists–or are complaining more than the atheists are (they don’t seem to be the ones complaining in this instance).

      If theistic mocking of atheists is being allowed, the situation is unfair. But a general rule of “no mocking” is simply promoting civil discussion–which is “good campus relations” in a much less sinister sense.

      Really, it’s just the decent thing to do.

      • Allallt

        A little offence is the price of living in a free society. I don’t understand why it is assumed that Muslims have the right to not see Mohammed drawn.
        Sticking with the Muslims (because I dare stick my neck out to say that it was the picture of Mohammed and not the picture of Jesus that caused issue here), I don’t follow sharia law; I openly mention atheism and speak on sexual liberties. Technically, that is no more or less offencive that a picture of Mohammed.

        It is important to be allowed to mock and question ideas. Do you not think that Flat Earth theorists need to be called out? Does the idea that vaccines cause autism not need to be challenged? When farming practices are responsible for the malnutrition, starvation and death of countless millions of people, isn’t evidential reasoning obliged to replace the inadequate practices we currently have? Should we treat the harmful diet advice given in magazines with respect? Should my planning permission request for a 17-foot multi-coloured PVC dragon model not be mocked out of the community hall?

    • Debilis

      I completely agree that one is going to have to deal with being offended sometimes. That we shouldn’t was not, and has never been, my position.

      Rather, my complaint was with unnecessary rudeness. This is not a matter of people simply being offended at a secularist group. It is a matter of a group refusing to put their position in polite terms.

      Really, I don’t see what rights violation is being committed here. Do people have an inalienable right to post pictures of Mohammed in public forums? Why should that be necessary to communicate secularism?

      I’d say that it isn’t, that this is just a needlessly rude way of making the same point that could have been said politely.

      But, no. It is not important to mock ideas. It is important to seek truth. For far too long, I’ve watched people confuse mockery for making a rational point. There is a massive difference.

      So, I think that Flat Earth theorists should have the reasons why they are wrong explained to them. But I don’t for one instant think that they should be “called out” if “called out” means that we mock them on top of that. Let the reasons speak for themselves.

      In fact, I thought you’d agree. You’ve said you support discussing these issues with respect for those involved. And demanding the right to mock people is not respecting them. By all means, let’s tell them they’re wrong, and tell them why.

      But mocking them while we’re at it seems both rude and pointless.

      It’s a resort to rhetoric, rather than reason, and I think reason should be the basis of civil discourse.

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