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Posts Tagged ‘debate’

Occasionally I see someone in an internet argument call the person they’re arguing with a faggot, at which point I stop paying attention to anything else that person has to say.

I mean, if you’re the sort of person who not only uses purely demeaning personal attacks in place of actual conversation, but picks “faggot” of all things to try and put someone down, then you’ve just raised the bar pretty high for me to rediscover any interest in your opinions.

Recently I’ve started seeing “cuck” being thrown around as well. It’s an abbreviation of a term for a man whose wife is unfaithful, if you’re not familiar. Yes, it’s something people really do call each other when they want to be mean, even outside of 16th century literature. No, I don’t think that will ever stop being funny.

The most prominent equivalents I can think of that come from my side of the political/feminist spectrum are “pissbaby” and “fuckboy”.

All these terms serve essentially the same purpose: they’re used to sum up in a single word all the negative and dislikable characteristics possessed by the Outgroup, which explains why we should hate them and ignore them and interpret anything they say in a deliberately uncharitable way, and why their sentience and humanity basically doesn’t count due to their stupid shitty opinions about important stuff.

Of course, it’s not exactly the same thing going on in all these cases. Culture is big and messy and complicated, and rarely do two parallel or equivalent things truly mirror each other. And the main difference is that, well, you’re right. You might use these terms sometimes, but only directed at people who really deserve to be put down, because of the horrible and appalling things they do and say. Your epithets are describing an actual, real-world set of behaviours in other people, which ought to be noticed and castigated.

It’s entirely different from the way they just lash out and call people names as soon as they realise they’re “not one of us”.

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Hi there, thanks for checking out our restaurant. You’ve probably heard a few things about us in the media lately, but before you rush to judgment, let me correct some of the misconceptions and misrepresentations you’ve almost certainly been told about the food we serve here.

This restaurant was founded by people with a noble vision. They wanted to raise concerns regarding the quality of many of the raw ingredients that end up in a lot of meals presented to the public. There are some chefs out there who are buying their stock from sources who’ll do them favours in order to keep their business. These sources are often dubious, and aren’t seeking to provide customers with the most tasty and nutritious meals possible. This is potentially a serious problem in the restaurant business; if the public are getting a higher level of salt or trans-fats in their diet than they’re led to believe, because of some shady and unethical deals going on between kitchen staff and providers of ingredients, then this is a scandal which deserves to be exposed.

We’re driven by serious ethical concerns, and trying to change genuinely problematic behaviour in the industry.

So would everyone please stop describing this restaurant as “that place where they shit in your food”.

That is not what we’re all about. We’re trying to inform the public on things like the shockingly high fat content often found in even prime cuts of meat. But everyone keeps ignoring our true priorities, choosing instead to focus on complaints about being served plates of food that are literally full of human shit. There is so much whining from people who claim that this happened to them, and from do-gooders who are outraged on their behalf, and it just needs to stop.

Now, look, obviously I’m not saying I support anyone shitting in anyone else’s food. Of course I don’t think that’s okay. But this is all a distraction from the important issues that the majority of us, who aren’t taking a shit in anyone’s food, are trying to address.

I’m just a waiter here. All I do is bring diners’ meals to them, and at the same time provide some handy informational leaflets explaining our concerns, and how these concerns affect you, and how you can make a difference, and (most importantly) whose fault this all is. If the order I’m bringing happens to have been mixed with, or entirely replaced by, a steaming pile of human shit, that’s not my fault. My encouragement about healthy eating and ethical trading practices are peripherally connected to those plates of shit at best.

Really, the uproar over some shit apparently turning up in a few people’s food is totally hysterical and out of proportion. Some customers have reported being unable to eat properly for days due to nausea, even in contexts that have nothing to do with our restaurant. This is frankly pathetic. Bodily waste products are an everyday part of life. If you’re going to be the sort of person who eats and digests food on a regular basis, you can’t be so thin-skinned or unprepared to face the harsh realities of fecal waste, whether or not it’s directly in front of you on a plate.

Yes, I’ve seen the pictures that have been shared online, showing dishes laden with the combined excrement of several of our chefs, which had been placed on the table in front of certain individuals who claim to have been simply trying to enjoy a pleasant evening out with their families. I understand that there has also emerged some camera footage from our kitchen, where you can clearly see several of our cooks defecating directly onto the meals recently prepared for our customers while discussing loudly the virtue of the philosophical point they’re making about modern dietary habits. But I don’t just blindly accept the narrative being pushed on us here, and I question the agenda of those doing the pushing.

They’d have you believe that this is proof that shitting in people’s food is all that happens in this restaurant. In fact, there are strong reasons to believe that some of these people have been shitting on plates of food in their own kitchens at home, and maliciously misattributing the footage to make us look bad.

But of course, nobody who’s chosen to side with the customers can accept that any of them would behave like that. So they just lap up the story they’re being fed by the media, and conclude that everyone who works in this healthy-eating-centred restaurant is just constantly shitting on everything, all of the time. Which is palpably ludicrous and impossible, just on a biological level.

More than that, it’s also deeply offensive and derogatory, to an establishment founded on healthy principles, and with numerous decent people like myself working towards an important goal. People who refuse to let their worthwhile aims get derailed every time someone whines and wails about finding another mound of human shit in their dinner.

This restaurant is not going away. We are determined, and we will persist. No matter how many public health bodies decry our practices and brand us a hazard to society. No matter how many so-called experts weigh in and declare that all the efforts of our dedicated staff to educate the public about what they’re eating are tainted by the stink of all the shit people are claiming to find in their food. We will not be oppressed. Our doors will remain open, and we will continue to serve customers as we have always done, with a focus on improving honesty and accountability in the manufacture and distribution of basic foodstuffs.

If you don’t like it, eat shit.

(Not literally. I would never condone or approve such behaviour.)

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Atheist horseman Sam Harris has denied being a sexist pig.

Having to defiantly declaim against a position you purport not to hold rarely ends well. In fact it’s usually a sign that things have started pretty badly and are only going to get worse (cf. 98% of all sentences ever composed which begin “I’m not racist, but”). And considering the umpteenth resurgence of interest, over the past week or so, in what a clusterfuck of prejudice and tribalism some corners of the atheist movement have turned into, you could be forgiven for expecting the worst.

But I don’t think this is anything like the train-wreck it might have been. I said on Twitter that I was around 85% in agreement with Harris in that post, and a day later I think that stands. He doesn’t seem to believe anything outrageous, and his stated position seems level-headed and pretty reasonable. I have a huge problem with the snide dismissiveness I’ve seen directed at people who disagree with this assessment and take greater issue with Harris’s words, but that hasn’t seemed to come from Harris himself. His cause is done no favours, though, by certain of his supporters, including the occasional “big name” of atheism who really should have learned to handle these pseudo-controversies more humanely and communicatively by now (naming no names, Professor).

One point on which I’m not wholeheartedly in support of Harris is his closing jabs against “a well-known feminist-atheist blogger” with whom he’s had some recent private correspondence over this matter. Now, it’s possible that he’s not talking about Greta Christina, but given her own public comments about engaging with him, it seems a reasonable bet. As I type this, she’s not had time to respond to Harris’s post in full, but has tweeted a link to this old post of hers as a relevant collection of thoughts in the meantime.

The piece is about the (apparently) common social justice slogan, “Intention is not magic”. This refers to the idea that, if you’ve caused somebody harm or offense, the simple fact that you didn’t intend to do so doesn’t magically absolve you from responsibility for the harm you did, in fact, cause. “It wasn’t deliberate” is only a partial excuse, and that’s as true for, say, using a term you weren’t aware was a slur against a minority, or naively parroting a false and derogatory stereotype, as it is for accidentally crushing someone’s toe.

It’s an important point, worth remembering when people try to excuse blatant sexism and racism as harmless banter. All too often, people get haughty and defensive when it’s pointed out that they’ve caused offense, and attempt to hide behind the magic of their intent.

But intent’s not the only thing that isn’t magic. And, in this case, something else seems worth remembering:

Your immediate gut reaction to someone else’s words isn’t magic either. And nor is the unfavourable interpretation you instinctively place upon them when you take offense.

Both these “not magic” rules have to be applied discriminately. Some things are viscerally appalling at first glance for very good reasons; obviously complaints of offense are often legitimate and should be taken seriously. But it’s not out of the question that someone saying “I don’t think I have anything to apologise for” is basically in the right. (Many atheists will have experienced religious folk being outraged and “offended” that they dare to assert their own lack of belief; even if my saying “God doesn’t exist” upsets you, I don’t think I owe you an apology.)

And as much as the sincere apology format that Greta suggests probably should be a much bigger part of general discourse than it currently is, it’s not automatically the only acceptable response to an accusation of harm or offense being caused. We’re not magically obliged to bow and scrape our way through an “I didn’t mean to, I’ll try and do better next time” every time someone else reckons we were out of line. And, in this case, I’m not at all convinced that Sam Harris is the prejudiced, hate-filled, unrepentant monster some folk really are making him out to be.

The world in general could surely use a good deal more honest contrition, of the kind that really listens to our interlocutor’s concerns, and doesn’t mentally put them into a box as “someone on the other side of the argument and who I will therefore always be in dispute with”. Even if this isn’t a case where that’s the best way to fix things, you won’t have to go far to find another where it will.

Try not to let these disagreements divide the way you see the world into teams, though. I’m not on Team Anyone here. I spent a while being wary and uncomfortable with a couple of good atheist bloggers because they were coming down on the wrong “side” of a Rebecca Watson-centric debate (I forget which one), and that was a ridiculous way to behave. Greta’s still cool, and you should read her book.

Dawkins is kinda just turning into a dick, though.

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Here’s a thing I Facebooked recently:

I got more Twitter attention than I had for ages yesterday, by pointing out that homophobia is silly to people who already knew that. As you can possibly tell from my rather glib phrasing, it felt less than satisfactory or victorious.

It’s definitely worthwhile progress that being gay is coming to be seen universally as obviously completely fine, but I don’t see much of a useful endgame following from enlightened folk like me simply continuing to point it out.

I think I’m troubled by certain inbuilt methods of engaging with those who disagree, and how naturally I slide into those easy patterns. If you want people to learn to love better, and you’re not using love to teach that lesson, surely your methods are flawed from the start. Be the change you want to see in the world, and such. Otherwise your strategy is “Stop hating people different from you, or I’ll hate you for your differences from me.”

If you crush the rebellious, they’ll just learn tyranny & oppression. If you demand they be more accepting, without yourself displaying acceptance in action… Well, I don’t know. Just seems like if I want to be as revolutionary as I want to be, I’ll need to eschew easy options and put in the hours more.

This has been: @writerJames tweets from a nice warm bath while slightly tipsy on the theme of optimising the world through improved compassion and communication, then recaps it on Facebook the next morning.

Surprisingly, not everyone was instantly won over to my proposed hippie lefty love-fest of peace and harmony. I guess they must’ve just been feeling grouchy. Or maybe there’s at least one major proviso which deserves to be added to the above points.

Broadly speaking, I stand by my generalised support for being nice, and I’m strongly inclined to speak out in favour of being kinder to people than they might seem to deserve. Compassion can make real constructive progress between people of differing views possible, in ways that anger and bitterness can’t, far more often than the other way around.

But I can see, on reflection, how something as apparently innocuous at first glance as idly wishing for a charming idyll of universal tolerance might be problematic. As is so often the case, it’s largely down to the context. My context at the time of the above thoughts was a nice hot bath on a comfortably lazy afternoon. Not everyone shared in it.

(In the context of my position of comfort and security, I mean. Obviously no-one was sharing my bath. No-one ever is. Or seems to want to. I’m beginning to think I don’t know how to set up a Facebook event properly.)

The way nobody quite put it to me in the comments was: “That’s easy for you, but some of us are still dealing with shit that we deserve to be angry about, fuckdammit.” Maz pointed out how much fun it isn’t, being told essentially to “calm down dear”, something she’s heard often enough before. She objects to other people’s behaviour, and her audacity for speaking up seems to be reprimanded more severely than the genuinely objectionable remarks that earned her wrath in the first place. While I wasn’t advocating the passivity she argued against, I also wouldn’t dispute the entitlement she claims to her anger.

But my hypothetical commenter summing things up was right about something important. It is easy for me.

And if I’m one of the lucky ones for whom it’s easy, it seems like I have more responsibility than most to make some sort of effort.

My comments were coming from a place of significant privilege. Being a straight white able-bodied male, that’s true of most comments I’m ever likely to make. But the feminists who believe this means my opinions should be ignored or shouted down only really exist in the fetid imaginations of a significant slice of the men’s rights activism movement.

The remark I originally made on Twitter, which my later series of tweets referred to, was about this post by one of the UK’s foremost pitifully watered-down attempts at religious extremism, Christian Voice.

Now, to me, watching a niche outfit like Christian Voice, as they rail against the inevitable march of progress, and bluster about how those gays are undermining all you straight people and your own marriages, no really they are, you just don’t realise it – to me, it’s almost adorable. They’re too quaint to take seriously. They certainly aren’t a threat, but they’re too tragic to really be a joke either. They’re like a doddery grandparent who keeps muttering about how the blacks are everywhere these days doing jobs white people used to do, who you roll your eyes at and gently remind that that we don’t use certain slurs when we talk about people these days.

Their attempt at oppressive bigotry is such a misguided, overblown, tiny little gnat of a thing, it feels inappropriate for me to get all fiery and indignant over it. It’d be like trying to become righteously enraged at the unacceptable behaviour of a toddler throwing a tantrum on the living room floor, flailing at you with their tiny balled-up fists.

And the context of all this is that I’m still a straight white able-bodied male. The thing I know – but didn’t explicitly acknowledge in my original burble – is that for many people homophobia is really not in any way adorable. People are still shamed, humiliated, harassed, brutalised, and attacked for their sexuality. And that’s just in the kinds of progressive countries where these attitudes are obviously on the way out, let alone in somewhere like Uganda. A lot of folk are made seriously fucking miserable by the kind of prejudice at which I sigh and shake my head with weary indulgence.

Now, being aware of that context doesn’t negate the value of bringing compassion to these arguments, or undermine my basic point that fighting hate with hate is a suboptimal method for reaching a conclusion of love and tolerance. But if people are feeling hectored about their tone, I’ve done something wrong.

Judging anyone else’s moral obligation to be kind, patient, and compassionate to people unwilling to return the favour is absolutely not a game I meant to play. However much I might uphold that ideal, I know that berating anyone else for failing to live up to it, without considering their own circumstances and why it may not be a realistic goal in their case, will only add to the world’s level of dickitude. The one person whose situation I’m sufficiently familiar with to make that kind of moral judgment on is me.

I’ll need to eschew easy options and put in the hours more, is what I said. I can hold myself to that standard, while recognising that my straight-white-male-ness is part of what makes this a practical expectation for me, and that not everyone shares those features. It was a pondering on my own capacity for self-improvement that set me off on this road. Which is also why the later comment that “from what I recall of your blogging about religion, you don’t write in the style you’re suggesting here” is quite accurate.

Part of the reason for this apparent double-standard is that, while homophobia has always been almost entirely unthreatening to me, I’ve not always identified with the same privileged position when it comes to religion. I’ve been part of the atheist movement, as it were, and railed against the many and varied injustices of religious oppression as if they were in some way personal affronts. But, if I’m honest, my rights and personal safety have never been under serious threat from any Christian bigots or Islamic extremists or Jain nutjobs. I don’t need to defend my right to my anger the way some people do.

So, I don’t need to be an asshole to outspoken religious people any more than I do to anachronistic homophobes. I don’t need to give them a free pass if they’re going to be hateful or irrational or make the world a notably worse place in any way, but I also don’t need to be hostile in order to stand up for reality and kindness. If you can do that too, then wonderful, I recommend it. If you can’t, then it’s not for me to expect it of you. It may be an unreasonable ask, if these issues are actually affecting you personally and fucking up your life. We’ve all got our own shit to deal with. You’re entitled to work through yours however. I can dig it.

Hopefully that makes a bit more sense of things. Either way I think I’ll stop talking about it now.

Oh and by the way we’ve sold our house but can’t buy a new one yet and it’s all a ridiculous mess.

Bye.

(P.S. I read this only after drafting all the above, which makes a more interesting point more concisely than I did.)

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So a lot of Republican politicians are hypocrites.

I forget what prompted me to bring that up. It’s the kind of self-evident truth I think it’s okay to just throw out there, and take it as a basic, axiomatic principle. Saying “citation needed” seems redundant over something so blandly obvious.

With some regularity, some Republican politician will do something pretty messed up in a tiresomely familiar way. One thing that often happens, while their fans are busily sweeping it under the rug or denying its importance, is that their detractors will point out how much of a fuss those same Republicans and their supporters would be making, if it had been a Democrat pulling this kind of shit.

The exact nature of the shit doesn’t matter. A governor buggering a bridge in revenge at a mayor. A committee on reckless spending blowing $10,000s on a cocaine and strippers party. You know, normal politician stuff.

And the whole “you’d be throwing a fit if the tables were turned” argument often looks pretty sound. Republicans grabbing any opportunity to score petty political points over the supposed misdeeds of their opponents? Once again, citation surplus to requirements. But people mostly seem to draw entirely the wrong conclusion from it.

Because the accusation tends to be hurled at the opposing team in exactly the kind of point-scoring tactic supposedly being decried. Not nearly enough blame is apportioned to the tribalistic party political system as a whole, in which we’re urged to pick a coloured hat to wear, fanatically join forces with anyone else wearing the same colour hat as us, and dedicate ourselves to proving the superiority of our particular colour of headwear. This last duty is generally engaged with more zeal than we end up applying to the job of representing the people, or doing anything to improve the world.

Observing that “Republican politicians suck and are hypocrites” is not especially challenging or interesting. Refining your observation to “Republican politicians, finding themselves quagmired in the system we’ve currently decided to use to make our decisions, are massively incentivised to rationalise ludicrous double-standards and to defend their base at the expense of any kind of logic or basic decency, if they want their careers to survive” is a slight improvement.

As soon as you identify as a Republican or a Democrat, you start veering toward these kind of defensive thought processes. You start giving your in-group the benefit of the doubt, and assuming the worst of the outsiders. You start filtering what information makes it through to your consciousness, until it becomes easy to believe that some bunch of assholes got together over there and decided just to be bad, you guys, not like us nice folk over here, who are very similarly entrenched on the other side of the battlezone but are good for totally legitimate reasons that don’t require any selective or motivated reasoning whatever I’m sure.

Once you pick a side, that’s the path you start going down. And it’s not because you’re a terrible person. You’re smart and witty and thoughtful and you look great, you’ve been working out, I can tell. It’s because this is how humans are hard-wired. There is no escaping these traps. The best we can do is to be consciously aware of them, and notice when they might unconsciously be swaying us.

Yeah, you’re right. Republicans probably would have gone crazy if a Democrat had pulled that kind of shit. That’s what you get when a species that’s been building these patterns of behaviour into our brain for millions of years insists on still living in tribes.

People are not generally the antagonists of their own narrative. Very rarely do you find a group genuinely comprised of self-identified baddies intent on committing foul villainy upon the land. Only one springs immediately to mind – and whatever you might like to think, the GOP is not Slytherin.

Classroom discussion questions

1. Why’d I have to pick the Republicans as the purported antagonists here? Isn’t that too easy and crowd-pleasing? Aren’t I giving away my own tribalistic biases there, as I denounce them in others?

2. So what’s the solution, if we don’t like the two-party system? Just add more tribes? Isn’t that just going to distribute the problem over a wider area?

3. Honestly though, can you think of anything to spend $10,000s of taxpayer money on that’s better than a cocaine and strippers party?

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I’ve been thinking lately about making arguments that give away too much ground.

There’s three examples in particular that sprung to mind in quick succession, which should explain what I mean.

1. Born this way

Sexuality is not a choice. When somebody declares that a person “chooses to be gay”, they are, to within a margin of error, empirically incorrect. The idea that one’s sexual preferences are a mere matter of taste, which can be willed away or ignored if one simply stopped being so stubborn, is a falsehood, as many people have pointed out at length.

But if you’re arguing in favour of gay rights, it may be better to downplay this aspect of your argument, when engaging with somebody who is misstating facts in an effort to demean or denigrate homosexuality or homosexuals.

It’s not that you’re wrong to point out that you were “born this way” (or at least, that nature plays a strong role in determining sexual preference). It’s just an argument that gives too much ground.

Sexuality is not a choice. But so what if it was?

If you make the “born this way” argument your central theme, you’re implicitly accepting way too many of the homophobic assumptions behind the other person’s assertions. If most of your time is spent pointing out that a person’s sexual preferences are entirely beyond their conscious control, then it starts to seem like that is the lynch-pin of your argument, and should it ever turn out to be flawed – or even incorrect – then your opponents’ bigotry will be justified.

There’s always some value in correcting a factual misstatement, but beyond pointing out “It’s not a choice,” you might get more to the heart of the issue with: “Okay, say it’s a choice. If it is, it’s my choice. I’ve made it. Your problem with that is what, and I should give a fuck why?”

2. Big is beautiful

You don’t need to spend much time as either a vaguely attentive man or a barely conscious woman in the modern world to notice that there are some fucked-up standards of beauty out there.

There’s also an encouragingly prominent backlash against many of them. Unless you’re hanging out in very different parts of the internet from me, you’ll regularly be bumping into tumblrs and gifs and photoblogs and memes and other internet doohickeys intended to remind you that fat chicks are among the sexiest things you’ll ever see. That sentence doesn’t even need a citation linked anywhere in it. Just Google it. And make sure SafeSearch is turned off first.

It’s beyond trivially obvious that curves can be gorgeous, and the standards of beauty still considered conventional on many magazine covers are insanely narrow and restricted. This defiance is important and empowering, and no doubt helps many people feel better about their bodies – but again, there’s an assumption behind it which deserves challenging.

Even if every human above a certain BMI were universally considered physically unappealing, so fucking what?

Why should being sexually desirable or attractive be the factor most associated with improved esteem? I don’t for a second resent anyone searching this way for validation, or using attractiveness to encourage and bolster the spirits of those who it might help – but the fundamental question of whether it ought to be considered so important deserves a place in the conversation too.

And let’s not forget the chubby men, incidentally. The internet seems to be mostly about the curvy girls, but I hope there are zones of love for the fuller-figured fellas out there, too, in areas I haven’t spent as much time exploring.

3. “Hardworking people

There’s a lot for a lefty like me to get angry about when it comes to the government’s recent war on welfare and rhetoric about “hardworking people”. Many more active activists have pointed out data which render the coalition’s whole output completely asinine – such as that the majority of people struggling to make ends meet, visiting food banks, and claiming benefits are actually in work – completing undermining the workshy scrounger image the Tories in particular are so keen to propagate.

For many, work doesn’t pay; the system is fucked and allows the rich to exploit the masses for their labour without offering them a decent standard of living (let alone the inhumanity of workfare). This is all important to recall.

But there’s one more assumption tucked in there which it’s worth ferreting out, lest the argument take a turn and veer into the kind of divisive territory we should be trying to avoid.

I don’t want anybody to have to experience the stress of worrying about being able to feed their family, or keeping them warm over the winter, or getting behind on rent and bill payments and ending up homeless, even if they’re lazy bastards who can’t be bothered to get off their arse and look for a job.

Those relatively few people who actually look like what the Bullingdon crowd imagine all poor people look like? I want a welfare system which supports them non-judgmentally too.

Compassion and an unconditional level of basic financial security, for hardworking people and feckless scroungers alike.

Classroom discussion questions

1. Is this a useful way to refocus the debate, or would it just distract from the liberating ideas that are already gathering momentum?

2. Are there any other obvious examples of this that I’ve missed?

3. How blatantly am I pandering to the overweight queer working class vote right now?

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Oh, go on, then. I’ll see if I can muster an opinion about the AtheismPlus Block Bot.

This is a thing you can attach to your Twitter account, which will block certain other people for you automatically. Specifically, the people on this list, compiled by an authorised set of official “blockers”, who are presumed to be useful judges of character when it comes to who’s worth paying attention to on Twitter.

It’s entirely opt-in, obviously. It’s a service that’s available, if you want to pre-emptively avoid some amount of hostility on Twitter. If you know and identify with the community behind it, and trust that your ideas of who’s worth avoiding are likely to synchronise well with theirs, then this will keep those undesirable elements out of your timeline before you ever even have to learn that they exist.

This has the potential to be an absolutely horrible way of engaging with the world.

The blockbot’s most basic aim may be a valuable one: it’s there to help people protect themselves from psychic pain. There are certain attitudes and beliefs with which it can be distressing to even come into contact, and from which it’s quite understandable for someone to wish to shelter themselves.

For instance, someone might have a history of personal experiences which mean that rape jokes serve to greatly emotionally upset them. Consequently, they may wish to steer determinedly clear of anyone who’s made such comments in the past, for fear of encountering further, similar distressing episodes in the future.

(It should, but rarely does, go without saying that this is all entirely possible without infringing on anybody’s freedom of speech. They’re only blocked to you; nobody’s being inhibited from continuing to engage with the world at large.)

Now, I get that psychic pain isn’t fun. I experience it to some small degree from a great deal of online or public discourse, prompted by such things as Republican politicians talking about almost anything, or much of the discussion around “elevatorgate”, or being reminded that Katie Hopkins exists.

But that’s actually a good example of why I try not to shut out all such conversation before it can even reach my sensitive ears. I’ve talked about my reaction to Katie Hopkins before – in particular, about how my own mental discomfort is not in direct one-to-one correspondence with other people being evil and nasty and wrong. Sometimes the stuff you find yourself tending to flinch away from is actually really important for you to take a closer look at, and examine why you have such a strong reaction to it.

It may, in fact, be a very simple answer, much as you first suspected. It may be that certain people on the internet are being deliberately hurtful and insulting, in a way that I find grossly upsetting and offensive. I’m certainly not saying nobody should ever block anyone, or that everyone’s points are always worth listening to. But sometimes there are more interesting things to learn than just “this other person is terrible”. And learning interesting things is something us skeptics are meant to be interested in.

There’s a difference between using the blockbot and, say, deciding that anyone who thinks the earth is 6,000 years old has nothing useful to add to a conversation about evolution. The latter is true, and frankly in that case their opinions can be safely ignored. But this is because their untrue claims have been thoroughly and rationally disposed of, to as great an extent as could possibly be necessary, in a context removed from anyone’s immediate emotional reaction to what they’re saying.

With the blockbot, there’s not a lot of such due diligence going on. It’s a much thinner basis – a single disagreeable tweet, often – on which it’s decided that some individuals have nothing whatever to contribute to any further discussion, on any subject.

It may be going too far to suggest that blockbot users are failing in some sort of moral obligation to pay attention to the rest of the world. They’re not necessarily just shutting themselves off in their own bubble of consistent agreement and line-toeing. But they are giving up a certain intellectual moral high ground. It’s part of an approach to debate which reacts to particular differing viewpoints more viscerally and automatically than would be required by the truly “open-minded” approach that’s generally skeptically espoused.

And it tacitly reinforces the idea that anyone who differs from you on certain intellectual points can’t be part of your group and must be somehow bad. It normalises and delegates the decision of who is other and should be shunned.

This is all starting to sound a bit dramatic. I don’t want to be all that harsh on it. We all choose our filters through which to see the world, and if this is something which you want to have as a part of yours, then knock yourself out. I just think that trying to engage openly and honestly with the people the blockbot targets is exactly what we so often ask of people who see us as offensive and barely human. It’s worth trying to apply it with some consistency ourselves.

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