On “Civility”

In my last post, I described a recent mistake I made in which I accused Casey Luskin of dishonestly doctoring a quote in in order to cast doubt on evolution. Yes, I now consider it a mistake to have accused Casey of dishonesty in this instance. Indeed, I have since edited that post to indicate that Casey's behavior merely appears dishonest. I would like to use this post to explain my reasoning behind that change. I want to start by acknowledging that it is virtually impossible to be certain whether someone is actually being dishonest or whether there are other reasons that might explain their apparently dishonest behavior. This is especially true in online interactions, when important cues like tone of voice and body language are not available for analysis. For this reason, I generally try to avoid passing moral judgments in online interactions because it is simply not possible to know a person's true motives. I also realize that there is an important distinction between the appearance of dishonesty and actual dishonesty, one that is all-too-often blurred in the rough-and-tumble world of Internet discussion forums. This is particularly true when it comes to discussions involving controversial issues like the debate over the teaching of evolution. I will admit to being guilty of blurring that line in this case. I have apologized to Casey for my mistake, and I would like to publicly document that apology here. Anyway, in the comment section of Casey's post, he and I had a bit of a back and forth about the quote and his treatment of it. If you're interested, you can follow our dicussion using these links: Me : Casey : Me : Casey : Me. At this point, I thought the discussion was finally getting somewhere. It had become clear to me that Casey actually had a reason (albeit a strangely contradictory one--see my last comment) for his decision to alter the quote. I realized that I may have wrongly accused Casey of dishonesty. I didn't agree with his justification, but I was willing to accept that he had one. Unfortunately, in his last response to me Casey complained that I had "responded with the classic fallback arguments of evolutionists which are lacking in persuasiveness and civility." He went on to decry my "attempt to attack [him] personally by making sneers and insinuations about [his] motives." He even went so far as to accuse me of seeming "very eager and desirous to attack [him] personally." You can probably guess that I didn't appreciate his assessment of my contribution to the discussion. Alas, I was not given an opportunity to respond to Casey's charges because comments were closed on the post. In retrospect, I should have just left it there. But I felt the need to correct the record, so I sent Casey an email (reproduced here). I will admit that the tone of my email was somewhat harsh, but at that point I was a pretty exasperated and I wanted Casey to know that I felt he had egregiously misrepresented my arguments. (For example, his last comment still ascribes to me the claim that he failed to put forth a testable hypothesis about Caudipteryx being a bird. This is simply not true!) Out of courtesy, I will not post Casey's response to my email. Let's just say he wasn't receptive to my criticisms. Basically, he claimed that I was intentionally misconstruing the definition of "civility" in order to paint him as both uncivil and immoral. The truth is, I did consider his behavior uncivil, but I have intentionally stopped short of passing moral judgment. All of this brings me to the point (finally!) that I want to make about "civility." In my view, there's much more to being civil than just being polite. Civility in public discourse also involves being careful to accurately represent your opponent's arguments. And, for whatever reason, Casey failed to do so in this case. Whether through carelessness or malice (I am withholding judgment), he did not put forth the necessary effort to represent my position fairly and accurately. In other words, he was not conscientious in his treatment of my arguments. Instead, he ignored most of my points while taking great offense to things that were not intended to be offensive. I don't necessarily think that this was an attempt to personally harm me, but it does make me wonder about Casey's underlying motives: Is he truly interested in having a civil conversation or is he just interested in appearing to "win" the argument? There is more to civility than mere manners. Saying "excuse me please" does not change the fact that it is very uncivil to stab someone in the back (figuratively speaking, of course). For my part, I will admit that I'm far from perfect when it comes to manners. In truth, I don't really care so much about strict decorum, but I usually try to respect the wishes of those who do. However, polite language does not replace accountability. In my online interactions, I scrupulously strive to conscientiously represent my opponents' arguments, and I don't think that it's unreasonable to expect them to do the same. In summary, it is my view that a civil conversation requires participants to be BOTH polite AND conscientious. Otherwise, there is very little to be gained from conversing with people with whom you disagree. As it stands, I don't think Casey and I will be exchanging emails anytime soon. Considering his proclivity to take offense to my criticism (combined with my apparent inability to resist dishing it out), that's probably for the best.

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2 Responses to “On “Civility””

  1. Tomate Addict says:

    You are a good man, and you did the right thing. It is far better than Luskin would ever do (on several counts).

  2. Jeremy Mohn says:

    Thanks for the words of encouragement, Tomato Addict. The charge of “incivility” is something that quite often comes up in my interactions with Casey. It seems to happen after I explain why I think his arguments are fallacious.
    (This comment has been edited to improve the tone and avoid further charges of incivility.)

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