Advice, please…

By skepticlawyer

We try to avoid meta around these parts, but the trainwreck on the #equalmarriage thread has prompted some necessary thinking on all our parts, and an admission from me. First, the thinking.

This blog — in having four writers with differing politics — is a risky venture. Going by other blogs around the traps, a fair degree of political conformity is necessary to stop the blog imploding in recriminations and general bitterness. We have avoided this by doing the following:

1. Enforcing standards of politeness that would put the Pymble Pony Club to shame.

2. Demanding empirical data for all serious arguments.

3. Expecting frank disclosure of the underlying rationale for one’s beliefs when requested to do so.

4. Making our blog admins all women.

We have thought seriously about deviating from only the last of these, and only once. In the end we decided to go with various male guest posters, while keeping the blog admins solely women. I like that this is a general legal and political blog, not a feminist blog. Don’t get us wrong — we think feminism is interesting and important. It’s just we think a lot of other things are interesting and important too, and our viewing lenses come from law and economics and literature as much as they do from the fact that we are women.

But: true confessions time.

Over the years, we have developed three ‘off-limits’ topics. Gentle macchia, abortion and Israel/Palestine. Watching otherwise sane commenters variously (a) endorse the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (b) state that the best response to rape was just to ‘lie back and enjoy it’ while treating any resultant child as ‘a gift’ and (c) argue that denying climate change was akin to Holocaust denial (along with accompanying abusive and incoherent soundtracks in all three cases) meant that we thought better of it. People can’t, it seems, engage in reasonable disagreement on those topics.

Friends of mine here in Scotland alerted me to what was happening on the #equalmarriage thread the other morning, and as I watched it unfold, it occurred to me that I was going to have to add another topic to the three listed above. ‘Right,’ I thought, ‘first and last time we discuss gay marriage in a standalone post’. I contacted Legal Eagle to that effect, after looking at the festering sewer of a moderation filter. Apparently I didn’t see the worst of it.

I told various Scots friends that we’d added gay marriage to the ‘off-limits’ list, expecting nodding agreement (how people in Oxford reacted), only to get a very Scottish argument to the effect that by doing that we were giving in. ‘People have to learn to disagree reasonably on those issues, too. And if they can’t, don’t take their arguments seriously’.

In a very abbreviated form, this is a version of an argument once made by German philosopher Jürgen Habermas: if one can’t make a case reasonably, accepting the possibility of defeat, then while one should be permitted free speech, there is no requirement that anyone else has to pay attention. In other words, make your case reasonably and be heard (if not always heeded), or make your case unreasonably and be laughed at (as well as definitively not heeded).

Now some critics of Habermas’s ideas allege that he thinks that irrational commentators should not enjoy freedom of speech. This is not what he says. Like most Continental philosophers, the man is a terrible writer, but he does not propose shutting people up — apart, I think, from the peculiar German management of neo-Nazism. And even classical liberals of my acquaintance — Tom G. Palmer is one — accept that neo-Nazism in Germany (especially in the 10 years or so post-war) is just about as awkward as it gets when it comes to defending freedom of speech.

That the same issue has been around in more familiar contexts is illustrated by the quotation from Barry Goldwater accompanying this post. One thing is certain: Barry Goldwater was no Continental ‘public sphere’ theorist, but he knew a totalising ideology when he saw it. And pretending that we can develop public policy while avoiding some of the topics that bring the nutters out of the woodwork is not going to make the nutters go away, or the issues any easier. Like Barry Goldwater, I think the Republican Party did itself a grave disservice in opening the door to the religious right. The standard line about vampires comes to mind — once they’re invited inside, they’ll never leave. The GOP is now paying the price for ‘engage and accommodate’ rather than ‘engage and rebut’.

What should we do with these three (perhaps four) divisive topics? At the moment, the switch is flicked to ‘ignore’, and for very good reason. I agree with Goldwater and Habermas that ‘engage and accommodate’ is a very bad idea — perhaps even worse than ‘ignore’. This means that the best empirical arguments ought to win, and if data defeats principle, then principle has to go. However, that doesn’t solve the problem of how to ‘engage and rebut’ without descending into shrill and Platonic arguments that one’s interlocutor is too stupid to vote/breathe/live.

By way of illustration, this article (by Will Wilkinson in the Economist) indicates how I approach public policy (or, at least I try to, with some notable failures along the way).

So, over to our readers. Advice, please.

Next, an admission from me. The individual who turned up as ‘parallel’ on the #equalmarriage thread is Andrew Parle, who has commented previously on this blog under his own name (or with a recognisable/consistent handle). By way of background — in terms of other stuff I do — I am also co-moderator of the Australian Skeptics group forum, and know Andrew both from that group, and also socially (although the latter association is more slight). We have always been friendly in the past, and I have yet to establish what would inspire him to both troll and sockpuppet on this blog. I doubt I will ever get to the bottom of it. If nothing else it is illustrative of the depths of irrationality produced in otherwise reasonable people by topics like gay marriage (or Gentle Macchia, or abortion, or Israel/Palestine). I also don’t think Andrew is Catholic Action’s poster-boy; I started to twig that something was amiss when he began to make Catholic natural law doctrinal errors (no, ‘form’ and ‘purpose’ are not the same thing; read Aquinas).

In the past, we have tried to deal gently with sockpuppets, on the basis that sometimes people really do need the cover of anonymity or something like it, but I am starting to move closer to a rebuttable presumption against anonymity. This means anonymity is sometimes okay (the presumption is rebuttable, remember), but it also means that the anonymous person bears the evidentiary onus as to why their identity should be protected. If we become satisfied that we are being played for suckers by anonyms or sockpuppets, we will out them publicly (as I have done here). If the behaviour is repeated, we will make contact with the sockpuppet’s employer.

And finally, since it was rather bypassed thanks to all the silliness, may I recommend you read Legal Eagle’s excellent review of Russell Blackford’s latest book?


  1. Posted February 13, 2012 at 11:18 pm | Permalink

    David, that’s very funny.

  2. ken n
    Posted February 14, 2012 at 5:42 am | Permalink

    An interesting discussion.

    I wonder why issues around homosexuality raise such implacable emotions? (can an emotion be implacable?) Do all of the opponents have deep religious beliefs? In a way, that would be understandable. Are there any others? Where do their beliefs come from? On another blog, a commenter described one kind of homosexual behavior with disgust, suggesting that that decides the whole question. Disgusting, isn’t it? Most sexual behavior, described in everyday words, is somewhere between disgusting and ridiculous. It’s fun, though.

    End of ramble.

  3. ken n
    Posted February 14, 2012 at 6:08 am | Permalink

    And thank you for that book reference, Jacques. I had seen a profile of Kahneman somewhere and made a mental note to track the book down. My mental filing system is letting me down these days. I must use Evernote more….

  4. paul walter
    Posted February 14, 2012 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

    Habermas is Frankfurt School, which means he must inevitably vie with French Deconstructionists for infliction of complete incomprehensibility within his readership. Personally, would like to see politeness reduced to something more light hearted and informal, such as one would observe in action on a typical Saturday afternoon at Mosman Ladies’ Indoor Lawn Bowls Club. Had intended to include a summary of moderator traits, but will attend to this later.

  5. Posted February 15, 2012 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    Well done on covering all the really difficult topics in one post!

    I really like your summary of Mr Habermas’s argument: “if one can’t make a case reasonably, accepting the possibility of defeat, then while one should be permitted free speech, there is no requirement that anyone else has to pay attention.”

    I think that any argument on any of these divisive topics needs to be prefaced with a background statement supporting your position. IE: I am heterosexual, married, and a Christian; I do/do not support gay marriage because…”

    The mask of anonymity is one that really irks me. Even if you do not link to your real ID, I think any comment by ‘anonymous’ just loses weight compared to a comment by ‘MiscPoster12’ who has posed on a few forums. If nothing else, it becomes easier to see what else they have posted, and that makes it easier to ascertain their background position.

    With that in mind: Full Disclosure. I am straight, engaged, sorta-christian, and I honestly don’t know if I support Gay Marriage enough to try to convince anyone else of my position, however I have no problem with it personally. (ducks as the trolls and flames start circling.)

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