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Civility and Respect

(a restatement, might offend some of you)

Those of you who've seen me discuss the topic know that I draw sharp lines on various kinds of activism; that I find cultural shaping generally acceptable in theory, but a tool to be used sparingly; When things that are not actually harmful are marked as "the enemy" by a kind of activism (or an activist), it taints the faction or activist very significantly; to be acceptable, activism should err on the side of accepting/refraining from criticism if it must err. If a recognisable harm can't be found in a subjective (but value-guided) matter, generally the matter should be left diverse (or only light guidance should be offered).

I am protective of the terms "racism", "sexism" and the like; I want them to be reserved for condemnable actions or words; words that are normative or actions that stem from actual racist/sexist/etc norms. I think it's okay to theorise about the norms behind someone else's actions at times, but if one doesn't actually believe that there are racist/sexist norms at play, I think it's inappropriate to use these terms. (In the past I've generally described this using language of intentionality, but my notion of intention was broader than general use so I'm trying not to explain it that way anymore).

I also don't consider the fact that something may be offensive or touch on issues that are sensitive for some people to be any cause for condemning (or even frowning on) general speech, but I do praise civility. This may seem to be a contradiction. Instead, here's where I'm coming from on that issue:

  • There is public speech, broadcast to whomever is listening
  • There is public discourse speech, intended to be part of a political discussion
  • There is small-discussion speech
  • In public speech, I feel we should not protect anyone from offense, nor should we be bothered by the offense of others. We should avoid being normative for bad things, but that's not really about things we should not say so much as things we should not be. Racist jokes, stories that offend those of certain faiths, blackface in theatre, all potentially fine.
  • In public discourse speech, conducted over the billboards and airwaves where various groups chime in on topics and possibly get replies (but usually not), perhaps like blogs, things are much like public speech, although I believe we should probably feel a higher obligation to be fair (willing to cede points that arn't solid), strategic (focus on language that might convince), charitable (recognise the perspectives/values of people one's "conversing" with even if one doesn't agree with them), enriching (aim for a high level of discourse), and nuanced (avoid slogans). The desirability of these things goes up the more high-profile the discussion is
  • In small-discussion speech, where people directly address each other in a forum where replies are regular (possibly expected), I would expect stronger versions of the "shoulds" from public discourse speech combined with a further expectation: civility. Civility doesn't require respect for one's conversation partner's perspective, but it does require respect (scaling down to politeness if necessary) for one's conversation partner. Insults, rudeness, and the like are not acceptable. However, rudeness may not be construed to disagreement over the topic; in a small discussion, ideally any topic may be discussed, with whatever level of disagreement, without tempers rising. I believe that civil people will eject noncivil people from the conversation (regardless of whether they agree with them or not).
In small discussion, the point is to share perspectives, mutually explore foundational differences, and potentially instill enough of one's perspectives into the other (mutually) that each participant is left with temptations and ideas to consider later. Being able to manage that is something to be proud of; to fail and lose one's cool is something to be ashamed of.

I also draw a distinction between things worth protecting and things that are not, as well as things we should approve of and things we need to protect even if we don't approve of them. All the racial variation in humanity is fine, and struggle against racial discrimination is worthwhile. The variation in gender attraction is also fine, and struggle against discrimination on that basis is also worthwhile. However, while faiths are generally ok-for-now, there is no reason they merit the same kinds of concern that races and sexual preferences do; they are fundamentally choices (even as those choices are often part of community identity). Likewise, cultural practices don't merit strong protection. It would not be acceptable to hope for those of a gender-attraction to disappear (even through social shaping, were that possible), but it would be acceptable to hope that cultural content or faiths disappear (although morals would not generally permit stronger forms of action towards that end).

I fundamentally approve of the Jyllands cartoons, of Piss Christ, of Satanic Verses, and of racial/about-sex humour. Salman Rushdie and Frankie Boyle are examples of merit, not those who oppose them. I am very comfortable with adverts like this, and condemn wholeheartedly the activists who confuse injustice with offense. This is the error of political correctness, and it marks any faction of an otherwise just movement as needing to be marginalised. Whether in the spirit of worthwhile criticism, pursuit of other values, expression of one's aesthetics/views/values, or even just a laugh or to make a point that this conflation cannot be accepted, these works should be accepted and generally celebrated, so long as they are not born of bad norms.

As a side-comment on a post on someone else's blog (where I'm not keen to post because a persona-non-grata is participating in the discussion there),I hold that one's sexual/romantic preferences in a partner of whatever sort, unless they indicate a desire to be predatory or harmful to another, are acceptable. This is true whether they're based on aesthetics, identity-preferences, or whatever. I believe it to be acceptable to have and express a preference towards or against dating those of particular races, faiths, sex/gender, weight, gender-role, relationship styles, economic or social classes, education levels, accents, languages, or whatever, and that these preferences should be given even more leeway (if there is a category for more leeway) than the preferences one has for one's friends.

I also hold that either sex or romance involve identity-preferences that should generally be respected, and that it would be responsible to disclose anything that one reasonably believes might impact the meaning of sex or a relationship prior to things getting too far, including "transsexuality", racial/religious preferences (some people really care if their partner is religious, jewish, or the like), or anything else relevant. I don't consider this something worth coding as a legal requirement though; there have been lawsuits in Israel about "rape by deceipt" where Palestinian men have claimed to be Jewish, had sex with a Jewish woman, and later it came out that they wern't jewish; that charge strikes me as fallacious, but I believe it is well held as a strong cultural norm. This flows from the ideas:

  • Everyone will have their own frameworks that they use to understand the world
  • Sexual or romantic intimacy should be paired with some sensitivity to the frameworks of one's partner
I think our ability to build the story of our lives, rich in meaning, requires we be willing to be choosy with our partners; the greatest leeway should be granted there. There are some things one sees on dating sites that occcasionally frustrate (one example for me is the number of women who have had enjoyable same-sex experiences but don't want to date a guy who has had enjoyable same-sex experiences), but attraction and preferences are not always fair.


i had an irc debate in a similar pattern (but different subject) yesterday. i warned against on-impulse avoiding unpleasant people in one's life instead of talking out issues; ttuttle said "but sometimes people don't have the energy to deal with these things in their lives", and i said "oh yeah but my point was sometimes people have more childish reasons and i don't like it when they don't show that their reason is the good one."

i concluded that i wished there were an easy way to disclaim "Have you self-examined about this, or are you just acting automatically and possibly-immaturely? And if you say the former is ok, I will drop it!". i end up in too many non-arguments by failing to disclaim that.
Have you self-examined about this, or are you just acting automatically and possibly-immaturely?

man, i just had a THIRD one of these, and to complete the circuit-of-perspective, this time i was the one being questioned, and i reacted defensively. gotta work on recognising it from all angles.
I might consider it more likely that there are repulsive views for race, but I don't think it's a sure-shot, and I'm more likely to see someone expressing preferences for how others should choose their romantic partners as a sign of an idealism that's gone off the rails.

As for gender or religion, I wouldn't even see that "more likely" bit hold (although we may be using the terms gender and sex differently so the next bit might not actually relate to what you meant, or maybe it does?); it's ok not to be bisexual. On religion particularly, there's so much cultural content in there and it's such a big part of some people's lives that in general I think it's probably even a good idea that people aim to date people whose religious views are not beyond a certain distance from their own.

Why would we ask people to investigate or challenge these things? I don't want to date a religious person. I'm very comfortable with that. Most people I've become close with over the years who are secular are the same way, and likewise most of the orthodox friends I've had have preferred to date frum. They know what they want. They've probably painted a picture of their future life where their husband/wife looks reasonably like they do, lives in the culture they do, and keeps the practices they do. Occasionally even Ashkenaz and Sephardic Jews don't like to intermarry because they have different notions of what's kosher and somewhat different cultural practices.

I see almost all preferences for a partner as fair game and am not comfortable with people being nudged on this front (although if they are racist/sexist/whatever, I'd prefer to find out some other way and confront them on it independently of this topic).
i like this post overall, but disagree with several things in it.

It would not be acceptable to hope for those of a gender-attraction to disappear (even through social shaping, were that possible), but it would be acceptable to hope that cultural content or faiths disappear (although morals would not generally permit stronger forms of action towards that end).

i don't think it's fair to draw a line in between these two. mind you, i can't think of a current reason it would be acceptable to hope certain sexual orientations to appear; the only excusable motivation would be if some queer communities developed outrageous behaviour towards those oppressing them. but conversely, there are plenty of despicable motivations for hoping cultural content will go away, and i think it's wrong to include those in your blanket of protection.

it is always in order, in cases like these, to investigate more deeply the reason a person would want e.g. cultural content to disappear. if it is a mix which includes concern for general inter-cultural harmony, it may be worth protecting, but if it is borne solely of xenophilia, it is worth exterminating.

I am very comfortable with adverts like this, and condemn wholeheartedly the activists who confuse injustice with offense. ... so long as they are not born of bad norms.

i am put on edge by the ad (which I didn't actually watch; only read about), and i mostly agree with the post, though not with its completely-mandatory tone.

it is not enough to consider whether something is borne of bad norms, and base justice judgements on the author's intent. this is a place where "intent isn't magic" does apply - even assuming well-intendedness, these types of things inadvertently perpetuate bad norms in the minds of impressionable young people. ("haha, the media says it's ok to laugh at indians' accents! i will do it myself!")

there is a middle ground between your view and the article's view: it is not worth prosecuting popchips ("you must apologise in this way to ever redeem yourself"), but it is worth objecting to.

including "transsexuality",

i am also put on-edge by your use of scare-quotes here. even if you don't believe transsexuality is an Inherent Human Thing, it is a major phenomenon that legitimately contributes to dating-foo. you may as well have also said, "religious" preferences.

speaking of which, considering your view of transsexuality as purely artificially-society-induced, i wonder where it fits in your judgement of whether it's ok to hope things disappear. (even assuming your interpretation of it, i am not sure yet myself whether it is right to "hope it disappears".)
I already have seen obnoxious behaviour from some parts of the non-straight communities (back when I was more a part of them; I knew I was a bisexual and occasionally attended a group called BIGALA there; there was a group of militant lesbians who occasionally showed up and argued that all heterosexual sex is rape; one year they spoiled "Take Back the Night" with urine-filled squirtguns spraying all the men they could see), but the thing is, the communities are not equivalent to the people they purport to represent. I'm not engaged in queer culture at this point but I'm still bisexual, and I've known many people who are pretty much the same with the movement-identity-category distinctions.

I agree with you that the cause is worth determining; I am primarily concerned with making sure there is no automatic protection offered to cultures against cultural criticism. I feel that that kind of protection is a problem, and it's something that multiculturalist liberals tend to automatically offer and enlightenment liberals like me don't.

What's wrong with laughing at accents? There's no racism there. I don't object to the popchips ad at all.

On the last topic, I think it would depend a lot on the "how". If gender-normativity is ended, will "transsexuality" still be something people seek? I'll leave that as a question for future thinkers; right now I am pushing for an end to gender-normativity and I think the situation will clarify as that struggle progresses. I would not reject positions with hopes about that disappearance, but at this time I don't have a firm opinion on the matter. I know that I would not want to nudge people into a gender-identity that doesn't feel right to them, even if I don't recognise their claim to have changed their sex. The conflation of all these terms and concepts unfortunately makes it difficult to talk about or work with nontraditional nature-choice combinations.

I use the quotes around there because the term is based on a type of language that doesn't fit in my worldview, and I don't intend to nativise the term because it might shift or contribute to the shifting in others against how I lay out the terms. It's not meant as scare quotes though, just a marker that the term is ill-formed in my world-of-terms.
I am primarily concerned with making sure there is no automatic protection offered to cultures against cultural criticism.

ok, we are on the same page. i think the primary difference, then, is that "wishing queers would go away" is not based on harmful emergent behaviours, that some people confuse with the group itself, and deserve to be attacked separately.

What's wrong with laughing at accents? There's no racism there. I don't object to the popchips ad at all.

well, for one, it is not laughing at accents (laughing at british accents is totally ok), but laughing at the particular accents of ESL people who struggle to gain acceptance in the united states. there may be nothing inherently wrong with it but it risks being marginalising.

eh, i was going to say the following paragraph:

for two, the effect is compounded by the second half of the joke, which is that indian people have trouble finding dates, so this contributes to the idea that they are somehow an "undesirable" race.

...but then i watched it, and that joke is only implied, not explicit as i expected, so in practice my objection is less. also the ad is just confusing in many ways.
I recognise that it theoretically might make some groups feel marginalised, but the ideal I'm fighting for is equal opportunity to speak freely, poke fun, and cause offense, not the end of such things. I think aiming for the end of such content is unacceptable and a very wrong solution to a legitimate problem.

Maybe we differ on what form an end to marginalisation should take, or perhaps how mutable our activism is to the experiences of others. I am not involved in feminist, anti-homophobic, or other activism based on the opinions or experiences of others; I am fighting for *my* ideals for humanity. If a community feels hurt or marginalised by something, I think it's fine for me to judge if, by my theory, that feeling suggests some kind of attention (beyond generic sympathy); if it does not (in this case, because of other things I consider important), I might offer just a sympathetic ear and a "I recognise your pain, but it's not reasonable to do anything about this".

The Muslim who doesn't like Mohammad being presented in a negative light in Europe? Well, sorry, but we value our ideals of open criticism/mockery/etc, and so you'll have to bear your discomfort. If you want to publish your own cartoons mocking western society, go for it. Our notion of justice precludes your maximal dignity, because maximal dignity of all paths is not compatible with our norms. And we'd say the same to Christians who protested "Piss Christ". Marginalised or not, everyone has to be able to tolerate criticism and mockery in the society we're building, and you can mock and be mocked like everyone else.

Edited at 2012-05-13 04:10 am (UTC)