When you attack the belief, do you harm the believer?
I would have thought the answer to this question was a sound and straightforward “no” . . . that there is, in fact, a difference between, on the one hand, abusive ad hominem rhetoric; and on the other, the critique, or even ridicule of beliefs, propositions, ideas and practices. We all misspeak, we all commit errors and brainfarts, we are all guilty of idiocy from time to time; but that does not necessarily mean that we are all idiots, anymore than the rhetorical tapdancing (“Not that there’s anything wrong with that”) engaged in by George Costanza and Jerry Seinfeld in the Seinfeld episode “The Outing” means that it is fair to describe these characters as Phelpsian homophobes. I would have thought it a given of the ethics of civil debate and dialogue that (i) while no belief should be immune from scrutiny, (ii) an attack on the belief does not constitute an attack on the individual who holds the belief. Disagreement over the issues (even for the sake of devil’s advocacy) is the stuff of reasoned debate. Abusive rhetoric, while entertaining in certain contexts, is just noise: both because it is irrelevant to the issues under discussion and because it tends to generate emotional heat. Abuse, then, is intended to be taken personally—that’s the point of abuse—whereas disagreement about ideas, even if it takes the form of mockery or satire, is not.
Things aren’t so simple in reality, however. As various commenters on Pharyngula, making excuses for death threats levelled at PZ Myers (here’s an example, you can trawl through the thousands of comments on the half-a-dozen-or-so relevant Pharyngula threads at your own leisure for more) because of his remarks about the Eucharist are quick to point out, “We’re only human!!” In spite of themselves, people often do mistake assaults upon their cherished beliefs as personal attacks, and respond in kind. Some, like the Catholic League, have transformed the taking of disagreement personally into a cottage industry, and have –unsuccessfully—attempted to get PZ Myers fired from the University of Minnesota. This is not a phenomenon restricted to religion, either. Two years ago, I became embroiled in a flame war that could only be explained, as far as I could tell, by the fact that my adversary was prone to taking disagreement personally. And earlier this year, I was taken to task for daring to criticise Indian protesters burning effigies of Australian cricket players in response to an unfavourable ICC decision. Still, both here and elsewhere the sufferers of the latest epidemic of misplaced hurt feelings do seem to be predominantly of the Catholic persuasion—though I cannot say whether this has anything to do with the recent Sydney World Youth Day. On a thread in which I mocked the veneration of a corpse during the WYD festivities, I have been accused of “intolerance” and “hatefulness” by one commenter. Another accused me of being able to “dish it out but not take it,” after I disemvowelled one “Jan”, in accordance with the comments policy which any visitor to the site can readily access, for engaging in personal abuse when nobody had abused him. In the opinion of this commenter, when you attack someone’s beliefs, they are justified in responding with personal abusive ad hominem. (In fact, the exact words this commenter used were “insulting people’s beliefs.” Evidently it is possible for a belief to feel “insulted.”)
I think “We’re only human” can explain why some people respond disproportionately or inappropriately—from expressions of hurt feelings to death threats and attempts to bring people to physical or financial harm—when their cherished beliefs are questioned or not taken seriously. But it does not excuse such reactions. At the same time, “being human” means that in many situations we decide to hold back on the critique, especially when the beliefs and ideas that we regard as ridiculous are held by those we hold dear. We might decide that the disagreement isn’t urgent enough to warrant the sacrifice of a valuable relationship. What worries me is this anti-democratic tendency, highlighted by the Catholic (and in some cases, non-Catholic or even non-theist) reactions to PZ Myers’ threatened wafer desecration, to close off all avenues of critique and ridicule. Diplomacy is one thing, but surely there has to be some space for the interrogation of cherished ideas and practices, and if there is such a space in a mature liberal democracy, surely the public sphere (esp. the Internet/blogosphere) is it.