Communication is quite important because a failure of such can lead us to misunderstand others, make a 'conversation worth wanting' impossible, entrench others in their unjustified beliefs, and might forfeit a chance one might have to 'light the spark of critical thinking' in others. 'Reframing the discussion,' then, into a respectful and positive experience, should be important. When I have conversations with people [with whom I disagree], I am very careful to be respectful to the person I am talking to while, at the same time -- if there happens to be a disagreement -- applying pressure to their ideas by asking critical questions, posing objections, and perhaps even putting forth a position of my own. I believe that in order for skeptics and atheists (if they hope to have genuine conversations with 'believers' of various stripes and perhaps even would like to cajole people to think critically), a focus should be had on communication so that skeptics and atheists can be more effective communicators. Where, then, if anywhere, can name-calling be appropriate? Might name-calling be effective tools for skeptics and atheists?
It should be quite evident that if one is having a conversation with others name-calling won't generally be conducive to a conversation. If a conversation is difficult enough to have because people aren't often willing to self-reflect or might construe disagreement as disrespect, it seems that sophomoric name-calling would not be helpful. Name-calling, as should be quite the uncontroversial assumption, would be seen by many individuals are disrespectful and an attack on the person rather than the belief the person has. If the atheist or skeptic is going to go around calling 'believers' -- when having conversations with 'believers' -- 'stupid,' 'retarded,' or whatever else, this doesn't seem to be very helpful -- but rather seems to be counter-intuitive if education is a concern or goal. It seems, though (and should be quite obvious) that the issue isn't only 'believers' talking with non-believers, but also non-believers talking with non-believers.
In a recent post on Freethought Blogs, blogger "Lousy Canuck" called D.J. Grothe -- the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation -- a 'douchebag' and an 'asshat.' Referring to a 'meme generator,' "Lousy Canuck" writes,
It’s crude, it’s crass, it’s even gross mischaracterization in many cases, and I’m willing to admit that I’ve participated in creating at least one. I’m honestly hoping it’s enough of a slap in the face to wake DJ the hell up to the fact that he’s running around being a douchebag to those women who are identifying the problem and working to solve it, instead of actually fixing the problems people are having with harassment.I was quick to comment on this matter as I saw it extremely disrespectful and not conducive to a conversation about issues (among other concerns as you can see in the comments if you are interested). "Lousy Canuck" and his commenters, to much surprise, didn't back down and defended the use of the word 'douchebag' arguing that it is no big deal because it is just 'one word.' Some have also amounted my concerns to what they called 'tone trolling' because, apparently, the words we use don't matter (even though, of course, the same people would likely get mad -- and rightly so -- if people used the phrases 'feminazi,' 'cunt,' 'slut,' 'whore,' in reference to persons). It should also be interesting to note that many bloggers have been talking about their problems with the words D.J. Grothe has been using in his apologies and clarifications. The special standards, it seems, are quite evident; one can be justified in calling D.J. a 'douchebag' because it's just a word, but when D.J. used 'irresponsible,' 'banter,' and 'think,' he was totally out-of-bounds.
Some commenters, dismissing my objections to the words 'asshat' and 'douchebag' -- although they and others are focusing on the words D.J. used and finding problems with them -- and likely would not accept the response of "you're just tone-trolling" from D.J. Grothe -- said,
Stop laser-focusing on *two* of them, that makes you a tone troll and a waste of everyone’s time
Do you have anything substantive to say or are you going to continue whining (and yes you’re whining) about tone? If the latter, could you just whine quietly to yourself? The adults are having a conversation.Apparently, it's also the case that two wrongs make a right as "Lousy Canuck" notes,
To all those people who are terribly concerned that I called DJ Grothe a douchebag, I will provide a heartfelt apology in the post where I recount how he’s apologized to all the women whose harassment he called “locker room talk” and “sexual exploits” that they now “regret”.Freethought Blogs blogger Stephanie Zvan -- in a Twitter discussion I had with her -- even went so far as to say that the use of 'douchebag' was an 'allegory' (although the proper term seems to be metaphor) assuming not what everyone believes it to be when people commonly use it, but rather a reference to a product sold to women.
Might, then, insults be called for and appropriate if a term is used not to describe who someone is, but rather what one does (as some commenters have argued)? It seems difficult, though, to even draw a distinction between these things. Is not the 'asshat' one who has that title because of certain behaviors? I am a fan, anyway, of arguments standing on their own merits; if someone really is behaving poorly and doing terrible things, wouldn't the arguments be enough to warrant this without having to result to a fourth grade tactic of glib dismissal (especially when you're hoping to for some sort of change or addressing someone who lauds respect or, as some say, 'deserves better than that')?
It should be quite obvious that there is bound to be disagreement between people in the atheist and skeptic communities or, more generally, between people. If we hope to 'move forward' and prompt others to think critically, I don't see how name-calling is going to help that process. Language is important...and perhaps even more so when the person you're referring to has exhibited an open attitude, a willingness to have a fair discussion with others that is free of personal attacks, and has done a great deal for the atheist and skeptic communities.