Note to Myers: Read posts more carefully before mocking …

I’m often annoyed by reading many of the supposedly very intelligent and rational atheists commenting on something someone else said who — once I check the original source — seem to be completely missing what was actually stated in those posts or articles or whatever and spend lots of time mocking things that the author never said.  It’s gotten so bad that for many of them I actually go and read the original source first, just so that I can be confident that I know what the person is actually  saying, before trying to work through the mockery to see if there’s an actual point there.

A good example is a recent post from P.Z. Myers.  He goes after “faithiest” David Penberthy and spends a lot of time mocking him for being upset by certain things that Myers doesn’t think is a problem.  Unfortunately, he misrepresents what Penberthy actually says in order to make the criticisms seem trivial, when they really aren’t.

Let’s go through the three main cases.  I’ll start with Myers’ brief summary of what was said, and contrast it with longer quotes showing what was actually said.

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http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/09/now_thats_a_faitheist.php

“Well, no. He’s angry at Bobby Henderson for inventing the Flying Spaghetti Monster. He dares to mock religion!”

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Well, he isn’t angry at Henderson for inventing the FSM at all.  In fact, he says:

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http://www.thepunch.com.au/articles/please-god-spare-us-the-born-again-atheists/

“One is the young American physicist Bobby Anderson, who five years ago as a 25-year-old university student wrote a letter to the Kansas Board of Education saying he believed that the earth had been created by a flying spaghetti monster.

It was a clever satirical point which poked fun at the craziness of “intelligent design”, a re-branded form of creationism which refutes Darwin and claims that it is a matter of scientific fact that all life on earth is the work of God.

The Kansas Board of Education (whose members included a vet and a blueberry farmer) had agreed that intelligent design should be taught alongside evolution in schools. Anderson argued that it was only fair that his spaghetti monster religion, which he calls Pastafarianism, should also be included on the curriculum.”

———————–

So, no, Penberthy thinks that the FSM was, in fact, a very neat rhetorical device that worked well as a satire to oppose intelligent design.  Inventing  it was never the problem.  So what was?

———————–

Penberthy:

“For Bobby Anderson, what started as the highly specific ridicule of teaching theological nonsense as science has now ballooned into a more generalised form of juvenile abuse towards anyone who believes in God”

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Seems to me that he’s complaining that instead of the concept being used to make good points — even mocking ones — against specific issues, it’s turned into nothing more than an attempt to make fun of religious people.  The point has been lost.  There’s no attempt at clever satire being used to make any real, argumentative, rational point.  It’s just devolved into schoolyard teasing.  Now, I’m not going to say that Penberthy’s right about this, but surely the supposedly on the side of rationality Myers isn’t going to say that mocking for the sake of mocking is in any way a rational argument or a reasonable thing to do.  Would he?  Does he want to subscribe to the schoolyard notion that immature mocking — and not good natured mocking either — is somehow something that reasonable adults should engage in?

If the mockery doesn’t have a point, then it has no place in the debate.  We might debate over whether or not to include it when it has a point, but surely no rational person can accept that pointless mockery is somehow a good and rational and mature thing to do.

The next point from Myers:

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“He’s furious with that big bully Richard Dawkins, because he dared to interrupt Christians on a televised debate.”

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Again, that’s not what Penberthy said.  Penberthy actually said this:

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“Bobby Anderson is a paragon of civility compared to the brilliant English scientist Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene and other books on human evolution and natural selection. A few years ago Dawkins fired off a particularly narky text, The God Delusion, which became a best-seller and spawned an explosion in the “Up Yours, God” genre which also included Christopher Hitchins’ “God is Not Great”. The God Delusion starts off promising a reasoned and scientific examination of why there is and can be no God, but soon descends into schoolyard teasing of the flying spaghetti monster variety.

Anyone who saw Dawkin’s bullying effort on the ABC’s Q and A last year would recall the manner in which he interrupted and shouted down other panellists who disputed his view.”

———————–

Somehow, Myers missed the part of the big paragraph where Penberthy comments that Dawkins’
“The God Delusion” devolves into the same sort of schoolyard teasing that the FSM has devolved into.  And this, I can say, is completely accurate.  Penberthy may overstate it, but when an actual representation of an argument as a schoolyard “debate” is longer than the discussion of the argument — and its main objections — itself, it’s pretty fair to say that, yep, it does do that, at least on occasion, and so that’s a fair charge.

As for the specific issue — the ABC special — again, Penberthy’s description is a lot worse than Myers presents it.  After all, “shouting down” isn’t considered to be the equivalent of “interrupting”, and is considered to be bullying and against rational discussion.  Myers takes only the comment of interrupting and portrays it as if it was some sort of mild interruption, the kind that happens all the time.  That’s clearly not how Penberthy is seeing it, and if Dawkins really did what Penberthy said he did it is something to be concerned about, and something that rational people should consider unacceptable in any sort of rational discourse.  Again, I haven’t seen it so I have no idea if it’s as bad as Penberthy says, but if Myers is basing his reply on what he saw he has a rational obligation to say that, and make the point clear.  Instead, Myers interprets Penberthy very, very uncharitably … to a level that if he did it in his academic work I would expect him to be slapped silly — argumentatively — over it.

And the last, from Myers:

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“He’s really pissed off at Alex Stewart, who burned a few pages of a Bible and a Koran. His own books, not that he invaded a church or mosque and set things on fire, but simply because he was offensive.”

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So how does Penberthy describe this?

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“This impertinence can be found in equal measure among many atheists, with the latest entrant to their number being Australia’s own book-burning atheist Alex Stewart.

“It’s just a f…ing book, who cares,” Stewart said as he choofed away on make-believe joints rolled inside pages torn from the Bible and the Koran.
“Like you can burn a flag and no one cares, people get over it so with respect to books like the Bible, the Koran, or whatever, just get over it.”

Stewart’s little stunt did nothing to advance the noble cause of atheism. If anything, it made non-believers appear intellectually flippant and superficial, reducing their position to the lame schoolyard assertion that anyone who believes in a God and thinks that texts can be holy has rocks in their head, and should just “get over it”.”

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Again, Penberthy is quite clear that his problem is that this stunt isn’t in any way related to real argumentation, but simply a flippant, unnuanced and immature notion of “I don’t agree with you.  Get over it!”.  And it doesn’t seem like there is any big point there, other than that he can smoke using those papers and there’s not a damn thing anyone can do to stop him.  Again, we could disagree over whether or not Stewart should do it if he had a point, but when this action seems to have no real intellectual point I think it’s safe to presume that either Stewart is an idiot who thinks that this does address some point or — more credibly — that the point is to offend

And no one should defend any action that has the sole or even main purpose of offending someone.

11 Responses to “Note to Myers: Read posts more carefully before mocking …”

  1. Kirth Gersen Says:

    “…surely the supposedly on the side of rationality Myers isn’t going to say that mocking for the sake of mocking is in any way a rational argument or a reasonable thing to do. Would he? Does he want to subscribe to the schoolyard notion that immature mocking — and not good natured mocking either — is somehow something that reasonable adults should engage in?”

    For the most part, I wouldn’t presume to speak for PZ, but in this case I’ll go out on a limb and say that, yes, I think he does just that. The idea being that we’re culturally conditioned to treat religious matters as inviolably solemn and inherently worthy of respect and deep consideration — yet a not-inconsequential portion of humanity has examined these matters and found no reason why they’re any more worthy of being taken seriously than is a child’s imaginary friend.

    In short, Myers mocks religion childishly, I think, because he believes that it is inherently childish… and he wants to make that point as clearly and unmistakably as possible. Granted, it makes him come across as an ass a lot of the time, but there is a kind of logic to it, once you see his viewpoint. He’s not trying to convince believers; all he wants to do is provide a conterpoint to all the choking solemn seriousness, so that people “on the fence” can see that there’s another way of looking at these things.

    So the more people tell him to “get serious,” the more he acts the clown.

  2. Kirth Gersen Says:

    “And no one should defend any action that has the sole or even main purpose of offending someone.”

    As a follow-up, and just out of curiosity — why not?
    Is freedom from being offended one of the paramount Rights of Man?

  3. verbosestoic Says:

    Kirth,

    Well, recall my point, which is that he’s supposed to be on the side of rationality. Schoolyard, childish teasing isn’t rational. There’s not much of a problem with it if it’s good-natured, but what Myers does and what Penberthy is complaining about are not good-natured teasing, but more akin to bullying. That’s not rational, and not generally a positive thing.

    So, he can do that in some misguided notion to espouse his view that he thinks religion childish, but I think he has to sacrifice some claim to rationality to do so.

    As for the point of religion being taken too seriously and supposedly aiming against that, the fact is that people DO take it seriously. Maybe too seriously. But his tack would be no better than someone, say, who makes that sort of mockery of, say, playing video games or being obsessed with keeping their car clean. Again, good-natured ribbing is okay, but simple mockery without sufficient attempts to understand — and express that understanding — of what they actually find in playing video games or in taking care of their car is generally rude and obnoxious. It may express another way of looking at things, but it would be the way of the jerk … not of someone rational or with any concern for or even empathy for other people.

  4. verbosestoic Says:

    Kirth,

    And now, the follow-up.

    It’s hard to reply to your question, not because my stance isn’t justified, but because it’s so obvious. Why in the world would anyone think that doing something JUST TO offend someone is positive? People who do things just to offend people are, in fact, jerks and bullies. They aren’t nice people at all, and it isn’t nice to do things just to offend people.

    Yeah, there’s no right to not have to encounter jerks, but no one should think them people worth emulating, or that that behaviour is acceptable.

    Note that this is different than the case where you do something even though it might offend someone. As long as you aren’t trying to offend someone, it isn’t a problem. But how can trying to offend someone as your main or only goal be considered in any way positive?

  5. Kirth Gersen Says:

    I’m maybe seeing a nuance here that you’re not accepting as a valid one? (1) Religion is by default treated solemnly — this is the initial premise, with which I think we both agree. (2) This stance often shields religion from legitimate criticism in the minds of people who are so accustomed to it that they accept this default condition on an emotional level. (3) Some deep-seated emotional stances are not susceptable to rational argument; an emotional catalyst is often needed, like a pH buffer is needed for very acid waters before many other types of work can be done in them successfully. (4) Myers therefore seeks to provide this emotional catalyst, trusting that others will then follow up with the rational argument that’s needed in the first place.

    Some or all of those steps are open to debate, and may in fact be incorrect, but a reasonable hypothesis can be made that, if they are correct, then Myers’ seeming lunacy is, in fact, part of a rational plan. In other words, I don’t think he’s just sniping indiscriminately, most of the time (or at least, I don’t think he started out that way).

  6. Kirth Gersen Says:

    “Why in the world would anyone think that doing something JUST TO offend someone is positive? People who do things just to offend people are, in fact, jerks and bullies. They aren’t nice people at all, and it isn’t nice to do things just to offend people.”

    Again, I feel this is maybe an oversimplification. Sometimes being deliberately offensive is the only way to get certain people’s attention. You appear not to be one of those people, but it doesn’t do to assume your reaction is identical to everyone’s, and I’ve dealt with quite a large number of people who will stubbornly ignore all reason, logic, and persuasion unless you first hit them right between the eyes, to snap them out of their solipsistic fugue and let them know you’re really there. I would not advocate this strategy as a default, and I make no claims at all that it works with everyone — for a majority of people, I’ll happily concede that it’s probably counterproductive. But if your target audience is primarily made up of the people who react as I outlines earlier, sometimes it’s necessary to get their attention before speaking.

    At the risk of committing a Godwin, look at how well Chamberlain’s approach to Hitler worked, vs. Churchill’s. There are some people who view any attempt at being nice as a weakness, and who very predictably react accordingly.

    Of course, all this pre-supposes that one has goals other than simply being nice. If “be nice” can logically be shown to be the overriding point of existence for all people in both the short and long term, then obviously that would render all of the above argument moot.

  7. verbosestoic Says:

    Kirth,

    If Myers isn’t trying to do 4), then he’s pretty much not doing any rational argument wrt religion. He may argue that sometimes you need to be irrational in those sorts of debates, but I’d still say that he has to concede that he is, in fact, appealing on irrational grounds and that someone who is approaching it rationally really shouldn’t listen to anything he says there.

    Where I think my biggest problem comes in, though, is that when a lot of those discussions over whether that sort of tactic is needed or not the reply is “It works”. And my reply — using your framework — is that if it works with 4) ever occurring, it’s working purely on irrational methods, and anyone who wants to support rationality should be very, very concerned if that’s the case.

    There is still the matter, though, of the mockery itself, since it strikes me as less satire and more picking on people. But that may simply come from Myers just not being all that great at satire …

  8. verbosestoic Says:

    Kirth,

    On the last point, my stance is that in that case you aren’t doing it JUST to offend them, nor is it your main or only goal to offend them. You want them to change their mind, and you see that sort of argument as being necessary for it. It’s fine to make an argument that offends people and make it knowing that it will offend people, as long as that offense is secondary. We can argue over whether that sort of shock treatment is necessary or even useful, but I can say that in your case it isn’t the offense you’re after.

    This is not always true.

    I think, for me, that the best judge of the line is to ask this question: Are you causing the least amount of offense necessary to get your point across? If the answer is “No”, you’ve crossed the line. And if you recall other discussions on this blog, you’ll note that whenever I talk about tone, it’s usually that question that I’m getting at. Either that, or the other question: Are your actions actually in any way helping to make the point you claim you’re trying to make?

    It’s hard to judge intentions, but sometimes people are, in fact, jerks hiding behind that sort of “shock treatment” argument you make here. It’s not always the case, and I don’t think you’re one, but a good case could be made for Myers, at least when he posts on his blog.

  9. Kirth Gersen Says:

    “I think, for me, that the best judge of the line is to ask this question: Are you causing the least amount of offense necessary to get your point across?”

    Sure, but the disagreement is exactly about how much offense is necessary. People like Chris Mooney answer “none.” PZ would answer “there can’t be enough.” The only way they can both be right is if we concede that “lease offense necessary” varies for each observer, and therefore has no objective measure whatsoever, and hence no objective means of judging. The question is, then, do you let it go? Or draw a line arbitrarily and try to talk others into agreeing with its placement? Or what?

  10. verbosestoic Says:

    I say they’re both wrong, because it does vary. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t objective.

    There are some cases where we can say, with no doubt, that if someone was offended by something someone says they were wrong to do so. We do it all the time, and it’s a key part of many standards of etiquette and behaviour, even including harassment cases. Conversely, we can also say at times, with no doubts, that a statement just IS offensive, and we do it in the same cases. Note that in all of these cases we can do it without having to appeal to ACTUAL OFFENSE; even if no one was offended by either of them we can still judge whether offense would be appropriate or not.

    Now, then, we have to appeal to the question of whether offense is ever necessary to make your point. Chris Mooney might be right that it never is, but I’m not sure about that. There are always some people who will be offended by pretty much anything that anyone says, so if you make any public statement you’re likely to offend someone. I’d, however, judge that at least by the standards above, and thus in a real sense avoid having to worry about actual offense, but what offense OUGHT to be taken from the statements. We’d get into the intention to offend — which is one of the hallmarks of those sorts of determinations — and we can figure that out not too badly.

    This then ties into the next question, which would be whether or not INTENTIONAL offense is ever necessary, to (say) shock someone into changing their views. Sometimes, it might be useful, but it does have to be done carefully. But, again, we are capable of objectively judging satire that may offend as part of making the point; we don’t have to rely on what people actually feel to determine that.

    There are always going to be gray areas, but we’re generally pretty good and doing this and we do it every day. It’s hard to describe specific mechanisms because it’s all so internal, but we all do seem to agree most of the time, and can give arguments relative to the situation to justify our perception. If we can argue about it, we can at least come to an inter-subjective if not objective understanding of it.

  11. P.Z. Myers: Still Not Reading … | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] “schadenfreude” than an actual serious post, but I’ve talked before about how P.Z. Myers — and others — don’t read posts and articles before mocking and being o… Well, late yesterday, Myers made a post about the upcoming FIDE Women’s World Championships, […]

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