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The Lydia McGrew scale of Not-So-Niceness

We're bedeviled in every area of life by ambiguity. It seems as though everybody from the scholar to the pundit to the guy at the corner deli is unable or unwilling to make distinctions. One area out of innumerable areas where such ambiguity reigns is that of niceness. What does it mean to say that civility is optional, that someone is too nice, or that someone is not nice enough? You'd think that context would make it clear, but sometimes that's just what context doesn't do. When I hear someone saying chest-thumping things like, "We've been civil long enough. Civility is optional. So-and-so [some general] was not a nice guy! We need to stop being nice, because the other side is not nice," I can't help wondering if he means to endorse the vile things that are being done by those who self-identify with his political side and who use the very same rhetoric. Or does he really mean to say that moral failings in a leader such as cruelty, sexual promiscuity, or lack of conscience provide an inherent advantage in effective leadership? Sneering, "Nice guys finish last" is not very informative, and it does not inspire confidence in the good judgement of the speaker.

But on the other hand, when someone accuses (say) me of being mean in scholarly dispute and of personally attacking those I disagree with, I know that this isn't true. Sometimes the person making that complaint is using some conveniently hyper-sensitive definition of meanness and personal attack, engaging in grievance-mongering, and distracting attention from my scholarly arguments. Others have "caught" an unfortunate difficulty in handling straightforward language in analytical debate, so that they think that even saying, "This argument is completely wrong" is in and of itself unkind.

So I propose that we develop a scale of "not-so-niceness" and rank either our advocacy or accusations of not-niceness accordingly so that people know what we are talking about. Some of these categories shade into each other, and my examples are made up more or less off the top of my head, but some (particularly the two ends of the scale) are quite clearly distinct from each other.

Although I present this scale light-heartedly, I do seriously suggest that we shouldn't just go around either recommending or condemning vague categories like not-niceness but should use more specific terms and examples to be clearer.

The L. McGrew Scale of Not-So-Niceness

1. "I disagree with Joe."
2. "Joe is very wrong about something very important." "Here, in detail, is why Joe is very wrong about something very important." "It is very important for people to know clearly why these ideas are wrong."
3. "Joe's position on an important matter is ridiculous." "Joe's arguments are entirely without merit." Other phrases here may include "complete nonsense" and "silly." Irony, reductio, and wit may be used in stating and showing what is wrong with Joe's ideas and/or arguments. See the first page of this book review for an especially witty, funny, not-nice example. This category also includes far milder instances of strongly-worded ideological or scholarly disagreement. What differentiates 3 from 2 is that the writing or speaking in 3 is noticeably less measured, low-key, and impassive than 2. 3 at least occasionally allows itself to say, "What??? That's nuts!" or words to that effect.
4. "I will fight Joe with every ethical weapon at my disposal in the political or ideological arena because his policies and/or ideas are so seriously wrong." "Joe's views are morally abhorrent."
5. "Joe is personally behaving badly."
6. "Joe should lose his current job, and I will dedicate some time and effort to trying to make that come about."
7. "Joe is a scoundrel." "Joe is a pathetic weasel."
8. "I feel an urge to kick Joe in the behind." "Joe deserves a kick in the behind." Swearing at or about Joe, though without any Category 10 content. (Does not include suggesting that anyone should literally kick Joe in the behind.)
9. "Joe should be widely shunned from civil society." "Joe's future should be blighted, because he's such an awful person." (May or may not include the proviso that Joe might be readmitted into normal human society if he both reforms and repents sufficiently.)
10. (Wrong under any circumstances.) Sending Joe violent and/or racist insults and memes. Wishing that Joe would die of a terrible disease. Fantasizing gleefully about grievous bodily harm to Joe. Swatting Joe. Death/physical violence/rape threats against Joe and/or his family.

I have probably left out some useful intermediate categories, and some examples may be hard to place precisely, but you get the idea. And if I occasionally call these "stages," that doesn't mean that I am implying that people inevitably or even often move down the ladder into evil if they start out with vigorous disagreement. "Stage" and "category" are just convenient terms for these "slots."

A few things to notice: With the exception of Cat. 10, it is at least possible to imagine some circumstances (though they become increasingly unusual or far-fetched) in which it would be morally permissible to say the things included in the categories. Even Cat. 9 would legitimately apply to an unreformed, unrepentant child-torturer. Putting someone in prison for life and deciding that he is ineligible for parole presumably represents judging that Cat. 9 applies.

Category 4 is a good place to put procedural decisions to be politically bare-fisted while not cheating. For example, does anybody else remember when everybody talked like (the Republicans') using the so-called "nuclear option" to overcome a Senate filibuster was going to bring about the End of the Republic As We Know It? I do. And then the Democrats did it, and the world went on revolving, and now the Republicans sometimes do it, and the world goes on revolving. And y'know what? It was never wrong, never immoral, never cheating. Or what about starting a so-called Constitutional Crisis by a state ignoring a SCOTUS ruling or a federal law? The horror! What most people don't notice is that all of the states that have legalized marijuana, including "medical" marijuana, are ignoring federal law in so doing. Not that I'm in favor of marijuana. Far from it! I'm just pointing out that some of these procedural things don't have the effects they are warned to have, and that there are far more important things (e.g., gay "marriage") on which I am completely open to brain-storming about how the states can reclaim their sovereignty creatively and try to ignore/defy lawless court rulings and terrible federal laws. On this point, I'm staunchly on the side of old Roy Moore, even if he was a creep in another area (and he probably was, but I'm not inviting a discussion of that point), when it came to defying Obergefell as a judge in Alabama. Such legal toughness isn't per se wrong. This is "fighting hard" against grave evil, but the "fighting" is metaphorical and doesn't involve sending violent mobs to people's houses.

Category 6 is often regarded reflexively as always wrong, but even there we can imagine some circumstance where it would not be. For example, suppose that Joe teaches at an ostensibly conservative Christian college with a statement of faith that all faculty must sign every year. Suppose that two years ago Joe revealed publicly that he is an atheist deconvert. Now he has a blog openly dedicated to trying to deconvert others. Yet the Christian college inexplicably continues to employ him. In that circumstance, it would be legitimate (though it wouldn't be "nice") to draw attention to this anomaly and attempt to get Joe fired from that particular job. On the other hand, the real-life scenario in which a crazed woman yells at a stranger whom she sees wearing a MAGA hat that she is going to put this on the Internet and get him fired (though she doesn't know what his job is, and his only offense is wearing the hat) is obviously a wicked application of Category 6. In that real-life case, the woman herself was fired after, if I recall correctly, posting her own rant on the Internet. One cannot help seeing this as poetic justice.

For the categories from 2-9, whether or not it's appropriate to engage in that behavior depends on the facts, both ways. Even category 2 would be out of place if one disagrees with Joe about something that is objectively trivial. Category 4 means you're probably going to spend a lot of time and energy on it, so make sure you aren't just being a monomaniacal lunatic. Category 7 involves some pretty strong condemnation of Joe, so it had better be well-supported. Category 9 applies legitimately only in extreme cases. Category 10 is just bad. Even if Joe has done something deserving of the death penalty, that should be carried out by the due authorities after due process and with solemnity, not with sadistic glee.

We all know of examples of the worst behavior in Category 10, and all the more so with Internet bullying, the rise of the alt-right, and the often unhinged behavior on the left. On both self-identified political sides, and in apolitical contexts, we have seen plenty of verbal and sometimes more-than-verbal not-niceness of the worst kind. Nor is it just a matter of a few kooks. The days when police investigated personally abusive, individual harassment whether or not it involved credible bodily threat are long over, simply because the police couldn't possibly keep up with all of the abuse. I was recently re-reading my favorite Agatha Christie, The Moving Finger. It concerns a "poison pen" case in England. It was like entering a time machine. An era when the police expend significant time and energy trying to catch the writer of abusive anonymous letters! Even before any dead bodies turn up! Astonishing!

So when someone starts saying, "We need to stop being so nice," it's important to know what he's talking about. There might be a clear context. If someone is getting frustrated in a scholarly context and says, "I'm being told that I can't call ideas silly. I think we're being over-constrained here by niceness," then we know that what he's advocating is freedom to be not-nice at a relatively mild Cat. 3 level.

Most of us who hang out on-line much have also seen people apply so-called standards of civility (usually selectively) that are so exaggerated that even Category 1 is virtually disallowed. Sometimes things get very bizarre. "You publicly disagreed with what a fellow Christian wrote in a book. Did you approach him privately first?" Sometimes such a question is pressed even if the critic and the scholar are complete strangers to each other. This egregious mis-application of Matthew 18 is a weapon to try to silence disagreement from those whom the speaker considers unworthy to comment. It is an ad hoc attempt to protect a favored view from criticism from an unwelcome quarter. The speaker would not generally say that all Christian-run scholarly journals must shut down unless the authors who publish in them have attempted entirely in private to resolve their disagreements prior to publishing articles, as if all intellectual disagreement were a matter of sin and/or personal conflict.

These sea lions and concern trolls may permit some delicately-worded version of Category 1 for their favored positions, but usually for their favored positions or favored people they will not permit Category 2 from unfavored people towards favored people and positions and never Category 3. Indeed, any wittiness, even alliteration or mild humor in disagreement, is allegedly bad, mean, harsh tone, etc. Apparently the strategy is, "If you can't shut the other guy up or induce him to use your preferred euphemisms and downplay the issues, at least insist that he must write or speak of the issues in as dry, boring a way as possible on pain of being morally wrong." Since Category 3 includes everything from the occasional use of a word like "nonsense" to the hilariously scathing book review linked above, this ends up being a pretty broad attempted prohibition on vigorous, interesting, strongly-worded disagreement.

Sometimes the misuse of injunctions to niceness takes the form of demanding that we use coded language that is preferred by our opponents. For example, if you're told that you should use "medical aid in dying" rather than "assisted suicide" in order to avoid offending advocates, you shouldn't do it. The reflexive acceptance of deliberate euphemisms is a form of passivity in discussion that has all sorts of negative ramifications. Sometimes the euphemisms are objectively misleading and unclear, as when advocates of fictionalizing literary devices demand that we use "paraphrase" for the creation of entire sayings of Jesus that he never historically uttered. Of course I'm not going to accept that misleading euphemism. I'm trying to make things clear for people, not to confuse them! Sometimes the euphemisms have been deliberately developed by people with an agenda, as in the example of "medical aid in dying" to avoid the upsetting word "suicide." And it is intended to be unclear. What kind of aid? Aid to help the person die, or just aid of some other kind (e.g., normal pain medication) to the person who happens to be dying? Something similar is true of "the LGBTQ+ community." Such a hypertrophic acronym, including some letters that even advocates argue about the meanings of or present different meanings for, is obviously developed with the precise intention of creating an ideologically receptive mindset in those who use it and those who hear it. This is a community with a technical-sounding name. This must be a real thing, deserving of respect. How can we think that this is just a grocery list of perversions? In general, the request that we use cumbersome euphemisms is an ideological bullying tactic, and we should not give in to it in the name of being nice.

Refusing to give in to term-shifting and euphemisms is just a matter of clear, uncompromising presentation which could occur even in Category 1 or 2.

It is partly encountering all of this hyper-sensitivity and being subjected to the weaponization of injunctions to civility that annoys people and inspires them to say that we need to stop being nice or that we should be civil only if the other side simultaneously agrees to be civil. The problem is that such generalities, especially uttered in a political context, can be misunderstood as vague endorsements of something-or-other, when some on the same "side" are using such language to endorse Category 10. Many more are using such language to endorse a misapplication of the categories. Misapplications include being monomaniacal about politics, exaggerating ideological disagreements, seriously overestimating the importance of a given issue, or even downplaying the evil of Category 10 behaviors and hanging out (virtually) with people who do and advocate Category 10 while making excuses for them or pretending that they are "just being funny." (See Proverbs 26:18-19)

So I'm going to suggest a moratorium on contextless injunctions either for or against niceness. And for what it's worth, here are some of my own niceness rules of thumb:

Categories 1-3, especially the milder versions of Category 3, have a broad range of applications. Not only are they "on the table" if applicable, they are often legitimately applicable and sometimes positively meritorious, a form of working for God. Category 4 is also fairly broadly applicable--think of Peter Singer when you think of "morally abhorrent" positions. There is nothing wrong with the metaphorical language of fighting in the political and ideological arena. But it is not as broadly applicable as Categories 1-3, and one should be careful to keep a sense of perspective and not put an issue into Category 4 territory if it doesn't belong there.

The statement in Category 5 is often (unfortunately) true, but there are relatively fewer places than there are for categories 1-4 where it is wise to say it in public as opposed to in private. If this is a dispute about ideas, then if one can focus on ideas and arguments instead, that's often better. But if Joe's behavior is persistently immature or unreasonable (even short of being really dreadful), then it may become necessary to mention it in some context or other. Category 6 is legitimate only in those circumstances where the issues are righteous and important and the person's violation of the terms of employment is egregious and therefore constitutes an abuse of the position and of those who are ultimately paying (e.g., parents paying tuition). Also, anyone thinking of carrying out a Category 6 campaign should seriously consider the possibility of backlash, since people are likely to think that what he is doing is wrong even if it isn't wrong. So it might be imprudent even when otherwise justified.

Obviously, Category 6 is often done in a context where it is despicable--e.g., trying to get someone fired for being Christian, pro-life, pro-marriage, etc., when he isn't violating any legitimate terms of employment at all.

Category 7 will nowadays rarely be wise to apply in public, even when the statements are true. If we lived in the era of the duello, there might be more scope for practical uses of "Joe is a scoundrel" in public discussion, but probably duellos weren't such a good idea anyway. It's often better to pray for Joe even if he is a scoundrel or a pathetic weasel. However, there might be circumstances where it is necessary to warn others about Joe if he really is a scoundrel. Obviously, if Joe isn't a scoundrel or a pathetic weasel, you shouldn't call him one, even in private. So be careful not to overuse.

Category 8 usually represents a mere loss of self-control. Just blowing off steam isn't terribly constructive. Mild swearing and steam-blowing and talking about feeling like inflicting minor bodily harm on a very frustrating individual may not be deeply evil, and sometimes one's patience is sorely tried, especially on-line, but it's hard to think of cases where it's going to help anything.

Category 9 should be reserved for heinous acts. (In case you're wondering, merely disagreeing with me is not heinous.)

Category 10 is always off-limits, and you should not make the faintest, slightest excuses for people who engage in Category 10.

Oh, also: If someone who identifies as on your side politically does Category 10 stuff, please, please spare everyone else the "what-about-ism." What-about-ism concerning people on the other side is just a huge time-waster and contributes to denial about the Category 10 behaviors on the part of those identified with your own side of the political aisle.

For future reference, if you hear me inveighing against people who are demanding too much niceness, I'm usually talking about Categories 1-3, and sometimes 4. I'm sometimes speaking against deliberate concessions and bending over backwards in an attempt to mitigate the otherwise offensive expression of the propositions in Categories 1 and 2.

The precise ordering of some of these is open to question. Maybe Cat. 5 should be eliminated or moved to some earlier position, and maybe Cat. 6 is really more severe (because it has practical ramifications) than Cat. 7.

I think we need something like this to keep our discussions of the issue of niceness precise. Have fun with it.

Comments (42)

The precise ordering of some of these is open to question. Maybe Cat. 5 should be eliminated or moved to some earlier position, and maybe Cat. 6 is really more severe (because it has practical ramifications) than Cat. 7.
5. "Joe is personally behaving badly." 6. "Joe should lose his current job, and I will dedicate some time and effort to trying to make that come about." 7. "Joe is a scoundrel." "Joe is a pathetic weasel."

Of course this is minor, but I think of "pathetic" as being not a moral judgment but one of a person's personality traits. And "pathetic weasel" is often a moral judgment (particularly the "weasel" part), but of a fairly minor degree. I think "Joe is a scoundrel" is a moral judgment of a much more significant level, i.e. one where you should think twice about being around him, and certainly should not want to spend lots of time with him (unless actively evangelizing, which is a different story). I would put "Joe is a pathetic weasel" as only slightly worse than #5, say at 5.5, as it indicates something more long-lasting than his current action itself.

One of the needed distinctions is the levels suited to minor social correction, those suited major social correction, those suited to moral correction, and those suited to civil law correction. There is no automatic presumption, (I think) that something like "Joe is a scoundrel" means he ought to be fired, though it CAN come to that.

Right, good point about "pathetic weasel" vs. "scoundrel." I think I tacitly grouped them together in my mind because both involve far harsher and also more specific language to describe Joe than 5 does (5 is both dispassionate and vague) and yet both might be true. And of course in (as you point out) varying degrees, both could affect one's desire for social interaction with Joe or desire to hire Joe in the first place, etc.

Of the statements here, the ones that most plausibly relate to civil correction would be "scoundrel" (if it involved theft, fraud, etc.) and heinous acts as implied in 9.

One question that comes up concerning 9 is whether there are heinous behaviors that could justify such serious ostracism *without* being subject to any legal action. One that springs to mind here is some kind of despicable "failure to assist" of a particularly hard-hearted variety which is (perhaps understandably) not legally prosecutable in American law. So consider a paparazzi who runs up to an accident, doesn't call 911 or ask anyone else to do so, but immediately begins taking gruesome pictures. Or there was the case years ago where one young man was raping a minor girl in the bathroom of a casino while his friend, who (as I recall the case) could hear her cries, simply loitered outside and said upon being questioned that it was none of his business even though he knew what was going on. There was a question there as to whether it amounted to his being an accomplice, but I believe he may have either not been prosecuted or may have been acquitted. That's the kind of situation where one is inclined to say, "No one should sell him food."

"Pathetic weasel" is a Jordan Peterson phrase, btw, and I included it as a semi-humorous Petersen hat-tip. I believe that in Peterson's lexicon it refers to someone who is really bad news in a somewhat serious fashion but whom one is spontaneously inclined to despise, given his cowardice and underhanded ways of dealing.

I think "Pathetic Weasel" is actually level 10 on the Canadian niceness scale.

Ha. You have no serious trolls or death-threaters in Canada? Betcha you do! And that's even *before* we get to actual murder.

No, wait, I thought "pathetic weasels" described about 3/4 of the Canadian voters, the ones who approve all these idiotic liberal things that are going on in Canada about 10 years ahead of in the US. It's just that because there is a preponderance of them, nobody notices that this is what they are.

That's the kind of situation where one is inclined to say, "No one should sell him food."

So that raises a good point: Typically we moderns like to think that modern civil behavior is fairly decent, and we decry the old fashioned duels of 17th century France and 19th century Old West were bad. But I suggest the possibility that by making it illegal (as we seem to have done) to say "I refuse to sell you food" what we have done is to make it impossible to have any effective social remedies to bad behavior OTHER than those of legal penalties, i.e. punishments for crimes and misdemeanors. But this is not how a society is supposed to work: we are not ants, where "all that is not mandatory is forbidden" and vice versa. We are humans, with a society that is supposed to consist in a vast array of interlocking smaller social structures that work (mostly) by people deciding "it would be good if we created X", found like-minded people, and created X, such as a boys club.

On the other hand, we have so-called macho men calling for a return of the "good 'ol days" of gun-toting, because (so they say) it made people think twice before they mouthed off at a stranger. I don't think this is the answer either, I suspect that what it does is support the casual, insulting offensiveness of the fastest-drawing gunslingers, making pathetic weasels of those who know they are not that fast on the draw. But saying "I won't sell you food" can be done even by shop clerks without a gun.

I think the basic problem, particularly for the Christian, is that the modern world and modern ethos seriously erode a person's ability to assert themselves and demarcate proper boundaries for themselves. You simply aren't allowed to say "no" to anything. It's actually pretty shocking the extent to which we are punished for saying "no" by people who think consent is the only real moral value.

To relate this to not-so-niceness, I have to imagine that there is a sort of "inverse" scale of not-so-niceness re: manipulation, since manipulation is not-so-niceness disguised as an appeal to cooperation and empathy. When the LGBT activists argue, "If you don't affirm me, then I'll be so sad I'll kill myself and it'll be your fault," it seems like this should rank pretty high on a not-so-nice scale.

When Jesus called out his opponents as brood of vipers and hypocrites and white-washed tombs where you rank Jesus's language on your not-niceness scale?

Moreover, what would you rank the imprecatory Psalms?

When Jesus called out his opponents as brood of vipers and hypocrites and white-washed tombs where you rank Jesus's language on your not-niceness scale?

Category 7.

Not sure about the imprecatory Psalms. I've never been one to say that it's okay to actively wish that some human being would dash someone's infant's head against a stone. Perhaps that's Category 10, ergo wrong, even though found in a Psalm.

As a separate issue, calling on God to do something directly to people may be hard to represent on the scale. E.g., "May God smite so-and-so." I intended the scale's references to violence or actions to refer only to wishing, planning, recommending, or feeling the urge to engage in human actions. So I hadn't thought about what are, in effect, attempts to call down direct divine judgement.

Acts 23:3 may be an example here in a narrative passage (rather than a Psalm). Paul predicts that God will smite the high priest, and he calls him a "whited wall." The "whited wall" part puts the utterance in Category 7, so perhaps that is where the wish/prediction for God to smite him also fits.

How about categorizing Apostle Paul's written words on the not-so-niceness scale in Galatians 5:12: "I wish that the people who are upsetting you would go all the way; let them go on and castrate themselves!" (Good News Translation)


So Jesus used Category 7 language. Jesus is Love. Be holy like Jesus is holy. Ergo, there may be times when Category 7 language is loving and holy.

Ergo, there may be times when Category 7 language is loving and holy.

Certainly, no question about it. If you are God, and you can see into a person's soul, naming them based on that knowledge...

OK, that's a little hard for the rest of us to do. But yes, I think category 7 belongs in the arsenal anyway: there are times when it is just and upright to make a tentative judgment of another person's public character based on their known actions, and to state it publicly. For instance, among the acts permitted under Canon Law is the removal of a pastor (article 1741) when:
the loss of the parish priest's good name among upright and serious-minded parishioners, or aversion to him, when it can be foreseen that these factors will not quickly come to an end.

That the people be "upright and serious-minded" implies that they are not being rash or otherwise unjust in their opinion, and that the bishop removes the pastor implies that they have made it known to the bishop. While this could (notionally) be because each parishioner who objects to the pastor has written a letter to the bishop, far more likely is a more public attitude in which "the people" of good name in the parish are making waves of one sort or another.

This can apply far more generally: it is proper to use publicly known facts to characterize the behavior of an officer or representative of an institution to let other people know that there is a serious problem, and to do it publicly if the institution is unwilling to act on the basis of more privately made complaints.

The (serious) obligations toward truth and avoiding calumny and detraction do not preclude using knowledge of public acts to publicly denounce a person whose position implies a broad involvement in many peoples' lives to their detriment.

The responses on Facebook have been interesting. One friend said we never need category 3. Presumably this means we should never even say that something is "ridiculous" and never use the least bit of facetiousness or sarcasm.

In another thread on another topic, I was debating with some friends whether or not deliberately replacing individual words such as "homosexual" with the artificial acronym "LGBT" or even "the LGBT community" signifies some degree of acceptance which Christians should not signal. (Here I wasn't talking about occasionally slipping into "LGBT" or the single word "gay" as a shorthand but the deliberate adoption of the acronym as a policy to avoid "giving offense.") One friend said that it was just a designation and does not signal any acceptance whatsoever, *even though* it is adopted upon explicit request of advocates of the lifestyles. Apparently this specific request isn't a clue as to its social meaning. I then asked as a thought experiment if he would adopt "LGBTQC" if pedophilia became accepted and "child-lover" were suggested by advocates as a euphemism and added to the acronym. He said he would because it would merely be a designator. (Despite its direct, recent history as an approving euphemism in my thought experiment!)

Yesterday a pedophile, since banned from Twitter (for once, a Twitter banning I can get behind) tweeted that his orientation should be added in "Pride month" and directly added the P to the acronym. Someone horrified put this in my Facebook thread to show that my example was no longer purely hypothetical.

I then replied, with some degree of deliberate sarcasm, "But of course if one used that so as to avoid giving offense, it wouldn't signal acceptance. It's just a designator."

Presumably the person who said we shouldn't need category 3 would say that that sarcasm was unnecessary and hence wrong.

Both of these--both the meta-level rejection of all category 3 discourse and the bending over backwards to accept acronyms that prompted some acerbity on my part--are examples where people are trying *way* too hard to be nice.

One friend said we never need category 3. Presumably this means we should never even say that something is "ridiculous" and never use the least bit of facetiousness or sarcasm.

I was going to ask you, Lydia, about the Prophet Elijah and his mocking and taunting of the prophets of Baal.

What category of not-so-niceness is that? Is that forbidden and off-limits too by the Civility Pharisees?

Jesus said "Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs" and "It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to the dogs." Not nice.

Jesus said "Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs" and "It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to the dogs." Not nice.

Uh-oh. I am constantly told not to judge. Now how can I follow Jesus when I have to judge who is a dog and who is a pig?

My wrists hurt from all the handwringing. Woe is me.

What strikes me about any attempt to reject all Cat. 3 discourse is the failure to recognize the value of vigor. There needs to be a place for speaking strongly, for saying, "This is entirely without merit." At one point in something I have been writing lately, I say something to this effect: "This is not good history. This is not good biblical scholarship. This is merely bad literary criticism." I would say that is Category 3 language. It is an *overall* negative evaluation of the argument I have just been surveying. It goes beyond category 2 by comparing the argument, to its detriment, to various other types of discourse. It is stinging. But it is stinging in a deliberate and necessary way. People *need to know* things that they aren't going to hear if we are always so entirely dispassionate as never to be rhetorically vigorous, and even in a negative direction. It is important to *rate* and *rank* things. Not just "This is wrong" or even "This is importantly wrong," but "This is so poor that it should be easy to see that it is wrong," "This is obviously wrong." "This is at such a level that it is a shame that one should have to spend time refuting it."

That's important because otherwise ideas that are not just wrong but silly receive an undue level of dignity merely by the fact that one takes the trouble to refute them, and one's audience may then think that they are *more plausible* than they really are. The concept of something's being absurd, or an argument's being so poor that it scarcely deserves to be called an argument, or an idea's being crazy, is actually needed in our mental repertoire, so that we can rightly order our credences. Hence, these concepts are needed in our rhetorical repertoire.

There is also an important place for indignation. But if we can never use category 3 language, we can never even express indignation.

What strikes me about any attempt to reject all Cat. 3 discourse is the failure to recognize the value of vigor.

Are there actually Christians attempting to reject *all* Category 3 discourse?

If so, they merit the term "Civility Pharisees."

Yes, one of my Facebook friends, who is actually an in-person friend as well, said so in so many words.

"The concept of something's being absurd, or an argument's being so poor that it scarcely deserves to be called an argument, or an idea's being crazy, is actually needed in our mental repertoire..."

Two questions about this. First, roughly how low does the prior probability of an idea have to be for us not to even consider evaluating arguments for and against it? For example, some naturalists think the prior probability of miracles is so low that we shouldn't even consider arguments for their existence.

Second, from a gay rights activist's point of view, doesn't this mean that they're rational in not even attempting to engage with conservative criticisms of homosexuality? After all, from their point of view, our ideas are crazy. More generally, your claim seems to lead to a kind of dogmatism. Shouldn't we always be open to the possibility that we're wrong about something that we are certain about? If not, then there doesn't seem to be anything necessarily irrational with not engaging with conservative criticisms of homosexuality, even if those criticisms are sound.

I didn't say anything about whether or not one considers arguments. But one can also say that the thing is crazy. In fact, one of my points was that one has to be careful when one *does* consider arguments not to make the thing sound more reasonable than it is by doing so. For example, if one were to choose for some reason to write against Holocaust denial, one shouldn't give the impression that Holocaust denial is reasonable by doing so.

Also, contrast considering evidence oneself as opposed to staging a public discussion. I know extremely well what the evidence is against Jesus mythicism. It's not like I haven't considered the evidence. But I have decided not to debate Jesus mythers publicly so as to avoid giving them air time.

In any event, these things are objective not subjective. Sure, someone who is a committed "gay rights" advocate might think that it's "merely crazy" to think homosexual acts are wrong. If he thinks that he's *ignoring* evidence that is staring him in the face. He is the irrational one.

It's rather interesting that the mere fact that I wrote a comment saying that words like "crazy" and "utterly without merit" need to be in our verbal lexicon prompts a response that ever using such language must mean that one is wrongly dogmatic. In fact, at times I have used the stronger language precisely after surveying and discussing so-called "arguments" for some proposition. Basically what I'm saying is, "*This* is an argument??"

And in my earlier comment and my post I didn't even mention things like postmodern word salads that don't even pretend to present an argument. Category 3 language is all the more applicable in response to that sort of discourse. In fact, that was apparently the kind of book in response to which the humorous book review was written that I link in the main post.

By the way, no, one doesn't have to be open-minded to *everything*, such as that 2 + 2 = 5 or that it is sometimes morally right to burn babies in gasoline for fun.

For example, some naturalists think the prior probability of miracles is so low that we shouldn't even consider arguments for their existence.

This is really a different topic of discussion, but if they do so, they display having formed a prejudiced opinion in advance of facts, rather than a fair and honest position worthy of the preliminary state before you have investigated and considered. Certainly any decent doctor with a lot of experience under his belt will have run into one or two cases (at least, probably a good deal more) of "well, there is SOMETHING pretty difficult to explain here, even if I can't scientifically prove yet that it could not be from natural causes, it seems like a plausible candidate for being unexplainable from natural causes."

After all, from their point of view, our ideas are crazy.

I am sure they would like to SAY that, but saying it doesn't make it so. The moral content of the human sexual act is a legitimate subject of debate, but the notion that the "conservative" view (i.e. the view that 99.9% of people, including liberals and modernists, had only 70 years ago) is "crazy" is a pretty wacky one. I suppose that a person in a nuthouse who insists he is Ronald Reagan could equally say "I am not the one who is crazy, it's you all who refuse to recognize the 'fact' of my identity" but we don't have to grant that his claim has even the beginnings of merit to seriously argue the case as if we might really change our minds if he has a really good argument.

Shouldn't we always be open to the possibility that we're wrong about something that we are certain about?

People who insist on this are effectively denying that there is a real and proper category of concepts and propositions of which we are and ought to be certain, and to which we give unqualified, unreserved assent. This stance, at root, belongs to intellectual modernism, it is fundamental skepticism. It requires that we hold ourselves in doubt about ALL claims, including such things as the assertion "I am", the principle of non-contradiction, the statement "the whole is not less than the proper part", about everything. But this philosophical hypothesis is not proven correct, (indeed it could not possibly be proven, on its own terms), and in fact it is controverted by the entirely natural yearning for and inclination to rest in truth when obtained. It is contrary to human nature to reject the certainty of obvious truths (like those mentioned above), to hold oneself to be in doubt about whether they are really true, when looked at carefully we find it impossible to ACTUALLY BEHAVE as if they were in doubt. (All philosophical skeptics contradict their own theory in actual practice: they preach as if their theory were true, not maybe true, and as they argue as if argument could arrive at a resolution to accept their theory as true.)

It is actually just as damaging to the intellectual life to insist on doubting that which is properly certain as it is to assume certainty about that which ought to remain in doubt (so far, before the evidence or the argument has established it). And while one might descend into an argument, in some cases, about some of these which ought to be accepted as true already because they are manifestly true, doing so is a prudential decision and is not ALWAYS the best course. In some cases it is better to ridicule what is ridiculous. A person who seriously doubts his own existence is ridiculous. It is unlikely that debating him is going to improve his state - he almost certainly has acquired one (or several) intellectual vices that make him unsusceptible to reason, and praying for him would be far more effective than debating him. But inoculating others against his foolishness might be worthwhile also, and ridicule helps do that.

If not, then there doesn't seem to be anything necessarily irrational with not engaging with conservative criticisms of homosexuality, even if those criticisms are sound.

There is no "equal but opposite" foundation for the gay position compared to the standard moral position about homosexual behavior (and lifestyle). In order for gays to have formed their attitude and theory, they had to have come to reject a host of nature's indicators for what is the normal and due human use of sex. Once they have come to hold their position, yes, they are in thrall in an intellectual prison, but getting there was not completely without an effort to reject information that should have been recognized. We can be sorry for their slavery to false theories, but we should not pretend, in our own minds, that there is an equivalence about how they got there compared to the normal view of human sex.

Lydia and Tony,

Thank you for your replies. I agree that we shouldn't be open-minded about 2+2=5 or infanticide, but I guess what's unclear to me is where to draw the line between ideas we shouldn't be open-minded about and ideas we should be open-minded about. Put another way, when are we justified in being close-minded about something?

Too broad a question. For example, in some cases the so-called "closed-mindedness" is ex post facto. It's contingent. My closed-mindedness about the existence of Abraham Lincoln is a result of the fact that he did exist and that I have overwhelming evidence for his existence. But Lincoln is not a necessary being. There are "possible worlds" in which Lincoln never existed.

In other cases the closed-mindedness is a priori. In all possible worlds infanticide is wrong, and I can see that by direct ethical insight.

There isn't some single rule, and even the term "closed-mindedness" does not have a univocal meaning in a variety of cases.

In other cases the closed-mindedness is a priori. In all possible worlds infanticide is wrong, and I can see that by direct ethical insight.

I also share that intuition about infanticide. But what if someone says they can see "by direct ethical insight" that homosexual acts are permissible, or that frustrating the essential functions of our reproductive faculties isn't necessarily immoral?

In that case, maybe direct ethical insights aren't infallible. Or maybe we can deny that these people actually see by direct ethical insight these supposed moral facts - maybe they're mistaking some other internal state for direct ethical insight. But if so, how can we have access to their internal states, such that we can claim they lack direct ethical insight into these issues?

(I'm asking these questions because I once discussed the issue of abortion with a pro-choicer who defended his position by saying he could just see that there was nothing wrong about killing unborn babies.)

In all possible worlds infanticide is wrong, and I can see that by direct ethical insight.

I absolutely hate the notional approach encapsulated in "all possible worlds". When taken literally, the phrase cannot be made determinate enough to be certain of meaning. Does it mean "metaphysically" possible, or "physically possible taking into account ALL versions of physically possible including other universes, only the physically possible within this universe...etc?

On the other hand, it is possible to clarify the meaning here: given human nature, and human reproduction, all infants are fully human and have all the rights of humans, including the right to life.

MLP, while it is true that we have intuitive insights into morality, which is spoken of in the Bible, and in Catholic literature is referred to as God enlightening the conscience, I think generally this is to be understood as being reducible to reason. We can give an ACCOUNT of why something "just feels wrong", and this is (in general) what we mean by the natural moral law. The feeling itself is not some kind of "trump" over reason, it is a guide to help us reason.

And because we humans are indeed subject to the effects of original sin, including our internal senses and our intuitive sense of right and wrong, they can be off. So when we account for our intuition, we do have to be careful and test the "accuracy" of it. This is, in part, why God confirms the basic provisions of the natural law in the Decalogue: By His revelation, he gives us a sure guide that we CAN rely on. (Although, even there, of course, we have to interpret the meaning of the revelation, e.g. tempering the sense of "Thou shalt not kill" with "take him even from my altar and kill him".) But in any case just saying "I just know it" without providing a rational account is pretty much a cop-out.

I haven't read through the comments yet but this treatment of a vital issue is brilliant. Thanks, Lydia.

For instance:

The reflexive acceptance of deliberate euphemisms is a form of passivity in discussion that has all sorts of negative ramifications.

So true.

Incidentally, I think you've only hit Category 3 with me, though in the dark days of the Great Recession, ten years ago and more, I feel like you might have been tempted to go full Category 4 on me.

Paul, I'm having trouble thinking of any of your views that I ever saw as morally abhorrent or of any time when I thought I needed to fight you and/or your views with every ethical weapon at my disposal or anything like that. But you don't have to try to remind me... :-)

Truth Unites & Divides: "Are there actually Christians attempting to reject *all* Category 3 discourse?"
Lydia: "Yes, one of my Facebook friends, who is actually an in-person friend as well, said so in so many words."

I think there's a case to be made for avoiding Cat. 3 discourse on practical grounds as much as possible, even if in principle it's permissible.

The question is, what is the ultimate goal of the discourse? If it is to convert the opposing speaker, then forceful denunciation is very difficult to "speak in love" without an existing relationship between the speakers to create the trust and understanding necessary for it (and virtually impossible to do in public even if it is; however much one friend may have legitimate criticisms of another's choices, it is still felt as a betrayal to have that raised in front of others). If it is to convert the undecided audience, then outright denunciation and ridicule can certainly be effective, but almost always tend to have the distinct cost of making any leanings or sympathies in the other direction all the more stubbornly intractable -- and this effect is only worsened if the force or ridicule is at all exaggerated, even for what seem like good reasons. The great temptation in trying for the jeremiad is to make your enemy sound even worse than he actually is.

(One of the single biggest things that made me into a conservative in my 30s, instead of the rather woolly-headed ignorant centrist I was in my 20s, was the fact that all my left-leaning friends and online environments directed such incredible vitriol at people like Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh that I finally had to read a couple of their columns to discover what all the fuss was about. When I discovered that they actually made a good deal of sense in a lot of ways -- that, in short, what my friends said about them was mostly wrong but that what they said about my friends was mostly right -- I was doomed... but I would never have made that effort if my friends had simply dismissed them in passing, rather than expended so much time on ranting about them.)

I also avoid Cat. 3 speech because I know my own heart well enough to know I couldn't do it without the desire to indulge in vindictive or hurtful wrath in the process, and I have to admit I think the people who can pull that balancing act off are probably very few (and many who think they can probably can't). Jesus was able to be angry because He knew without doubt that His anger was justified and was not for the sake of His own pleasure. None of us are Him. What the Holy Spirit inspires in us at the moment, we have to trust in Him to do; I think what we cold-bloodedly plan to do should err on the side of calmness and reason rather than denunciation, as far as we can.

Ha! I won't bring up any details then.

I will say that the 3-to-4 elevating move, so to speak, seems like a big one. That's where you can possibly endanger friendships.

I'll even risk ridicule by suggesting it's a particular huge step with females. For example, there have been times when I have straight up said, to men I love and cherish, old friends or family: "dude, on abortion, you're supporting a particularly heinous class of murder or assassination, and I regard it as disgraceful," without putting in jeopardy that friendship (although probably straining it). In contrast, with women, that step is often a point-of-no-return; and I've had to back away from it rhetorically, on the grounds that the friendship is more important.

I think there's a case to be made for avoiding Cat. 3 discourse on practical grounds as much as possible, even if in principle it's permissible.

Stephen, this is much too strong of a statement. I gave reasons above, in this thread. When a position is truly ridiculous, it is actually important that people recognize it as such and thus *distinguish* it from a position that is merely incorrect. There are gradations of these things, and it is impossible fully to show these gradations without having access to language such as "utterly without merit" or "absurd." Complete impassivity and the refusal to condemn a position tout court has a leveling effect both upon discourse *and upon thought* which creates muddle. It is not necessary to be "vitriolic" in order to make these distinctions clearly.

Consider, for example, the difference between the following two positions, vis a vis the evidence readily available, especially in this age of the Internet:

The moon landing never took place and was a hoax.
The Shroud of Turin is (or for that matter is not) the burial shroud of Jesus.

The first of these is completely absurd, vis a vis the evidence. If one takes the trouble to reply to it at all, one must be careful in so doing not to make it appear to be *intellectually respectable*.

The second of these (indeed, whichever side one takes on the Shroud debate) is nowhere in the same vicinity. It is a matter on which reasonable people can and do differ, using the available evidence. The position that the Shroud is genuine, though (I'm guessing) probably false, is not absurd.

The necessity to make such distinctions becomes all the more urgent when the wrong-headed positions in question are not only absurd but dangerously so.

For example, the view that the Holocaust never occurred is not only silly (vis a vis the evidence) but perniciously so.

It is also necessary to use category 3 language to point out when a purported "argument" is merely filling space, taking on the trappings of intellectual discourse but lacking the substance thereof. This is important in a field like New Testament studies, where it is entirely possible for a scholar to fill several pages with embarrassingly bad "argument," which we are then told that we all need to treat with great respect simply because he has filled the pages! If we had no Category 3, I literally would *not be allowed* to say what I have just said in these preceding sentences. But from a practical point of view, it is very important that I be able to say that, lest the corruption of a discipline continue to have an undeserved sway over the minds of people who wish to know the truth and who are inclined (perhaps understandably) to respect people simply because of their credentials.

In other words, it must be possible to say that the emperor has no clothes. Merely treating every so-called "argument" with Vulcan-like gravity and replying to it, though it has its place, does not give us the ability to sum up and see the big picture or to say when a series of words does not really rise to the level of an argument with any force at all.

Finally, as I pointed out above, what about postmodernism? When books and articles are filled pseudo-intellectual gibberish, we *cannot see it aright* if we do not allow ourselves the phrase or the concept of pseudo-intellectual gibberish. Yet that is already category 3 language.

So, no, precisely *on practical grounds* it is not the case that we should try to avoid category 3 as much as possible.

I'll even risk ridicule by suggesting it's a particular huge step with females.

Paul, I'm entirely open to this as a generalization, tho' I think there are other axes on which a similar probabilistic difference obtains. For example, age. While we're making generalizations, there is a certain type of elderly male that is tetchy to the point of irrationality and cannot handle anything that looks remotely like criticism, however nicely worded and however necessary (e.g., in a job context or other practical context where it becomes unavoidable to make a correction or to interfere in some way). A fortiori, such a person would be likely to flip out or shut down friendship if confronted with the hard-hitting linguistic example you gave.

I've always tried to cultivate a culture of being able to handle direct criticism of my ideas as well as to dish it out. Of course, in that case I strongly prefer that the criticism engage with ideas rather than avoiding that sort of careful engagement and merely talking about "tone" or making ad hominem comments such as that I am uncredentialed or "out of my league" or what-not, such as I've had to put up with in the last couple of years. And as it happens, in the last couple of years I've turned out to be far more thick-skinned than my (male, as it happens) ideological opponents, who, despite not being elderly (see previous paragraph) don't seem to be able and willing either to take the heat or to get out of the kitchen.

One thing that I think is a shame when I see suggestions like Stephen J.'s that we should always avoid category 3 if possible is the appearance that everyone has entirely lost the category of lively, humorous, and hard-hitting debate of *ideas*. Everything is personal. Hence Stephen J. speaks of "vitriol" and immediately considers the situation where the two people involved are personal friends. This, I think, may mark the intrusion of the world of social media too strongly into our whole concept of discourse, so that lively *scholarly* discourse is lost as a category. Suppose, for example, that one writes something like this, in a scholarly journal,

When Smith turns to describing position ____ concerning the nature of God, which he holds, he does so with an unfortunate lack of clarity that makes it difficult to tell what position he is defending. If he means _____, then his position is entirely untenable for reasons that have already been fully canvassed in the literature.[footnote] If, on the other hand, he means ______, then it seems that we are forced to think of God as something rather like a blob of grey tapioca, having no cognizable properties whatsoever, and this is obviously a regrettable conclusion to which to be driven. Why should we think that either of these is plausible?

And so forth. Now, I just made that up off the top of my head, though I think I might have gotten the phrase "grey tapioca" from somewhere or other in C.S. Lewis.

The point is just that such writing has wit and interest. Smith may not enjoy having it pointed out that he is unclear and that one of the possible meanings of his position is that God is like a blob of grey tapioca, but being able to write in such a way about the topic of the nature of God is actually valuable in itself. Neither Smith nor *anyone else involved in the discussion* should be so thin-skinned as to be hurt or reactionary or hardened by the fact that someone wrote that passage. Nor should Smith nor anyone else say that it would have been better in the abstract to avoid the phrase "grey tapioca" or to be more tactful so as not to accuse Smith of an unfortunate lack of clarity. Manly prose with a twinkle in the eye is of value in and of itself, and perhaps never more so than in areas that are otherwise dry and dusty.

Any sort of argument that "category 3 should hardly ever be used" simply skips over all of that and assumes that everything that is the least bit witty, lively, or hard-hitting is ipso facto personally nasty, unkind, and unfortunate.

*That* is a great loss to discourse.

"Neither Smith nor anyone else involved in the discussion should be so thin-skinned as to be hurt or reactionary or hardened by the fact that someone wrote that passage."

I agree with you that this is the ideal to aspire to and hope for. I would point out, however, that if we are attempting to deal with people as they are and not as we think they "should be," we have to acknowledge the fact that some people are going to react in ways we consider unjustified. One person's sparkling wit is another person's mortal insult; we can think the other person wrong in that reaction, but that doesn't help in trying to understand the reaction.

If we are content with merely attempting to make those reactions look as unjustified to the audience as we think them to be, Category 3 is a perfectly viable tactic (you'll note I did say to avoid it "as much as possible", which does not mean "never"). If, however, we are still attempting not just to publicly disprove our opponent but to reach him personally, then in practice, I find Category-3 level speech is almost always counterproductive -- put simply, publicly attempting to humiliate someone almost never works to change their mind, and it almost never conveys the kind of compassion we should aspire to when "speaking truth in love", however intended. And once we have abandoned the attempt to reach the opponent as well as the audience, it seems to me we can simply jump straight from Cat. 2 to Cat. 4.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I'll admit here that I am writing from a perspective of having endured, as a publicly identified "gifted child", a lot of mockery and ridicule from almost all my peers for a goodly chunk of my childhood. I am therefore of the belief that mockery is, in some ways, even worse than outright vitriol as a reaction because vitriol at least indicates you're being taken seriously; I have a very low opinion of satire as an art form largely because of its inherent dishonesty (what Andrew Breitbart used to call the "clown nose on, clown nose off" tactic), and I have a very difficult time with the idea that what is called "wit" (and which suspiciously tends to be called so far more often by the user than by the listener) has a legitimate place in respectful discourse, or that being funny is enough justification to trample someone's feelings solely for the sake of amusement (especially when you're already trampling them out of perceived necessity).

The problem with trying to grant honour to Jonathan Swift is that you wind up hosting all the Jon Stewarts, Stephen Colberts and Samantha Bees, and I can't help but wonder if the damage done to public discourse by the latter is really worth the entertainment value of the former. (And for the record, yes, I have been accused more than once, and probably accurately, of having very little sense of humour.)

To further attempt to clarify my objection, I'll ask a hypothetical question: What is the difference between, in the fictional scholarly article above, the writer calling Smith's conception of God "a blob of grey tapioca", and an SJW termagant's calling our conception of God "an invisible sky fairy" that makes the former a respectable example of discourse but disqualifies the latter? Both, to me, appear to fit the definition of Category 3 as here set out.

Further reflection and even fuller disclosure, however, requires me to acknowledge that I have myself failed to achieve holding myself "above" Category 3 discourse myself on more than a few occasions, and have certainly enjoyed the results when others did. So it must be acknowledged that "take the beam out of your own eye first, Steve" would be a perfectly cromulent final rejoinder to everything I have said here.

Stephen, I think you're just not understanding here, and I think that is partly a result of the breakdown of discourse via social media. For example, you seem to think that a person writing an article criticizing the hypothetical Smith's views, a *scholarly article*, is engaging in some highly sensitive interpersonal interaction with poor old Smith in an attempt to "reach him." This tells me that, in a sense, the kind of discourse I'm talking about (especially the milder versions of category 3) is all the more needed, because we have literally lost the concept of interacting directly with ideas. Everything has been made personal. I would wager that thirty years ago, or even now in certain disciplines, no one would have dreamt of suggesting that the aim of a scholarly article is to "reach" the person whose views are being critiqued! That would just seem bizarre, touchy-feely, and misguided. The aim of research and discussion is to discover truth, and when we abandon that in our rhetoric and our rules for rhetoric, we actually damage the enterprise itself.

I also think that you fail to understand the loss to clarity if phrases are banned on the grounds that they make a person's view *look* ridiculous. Think about it: What if the view in question *is* ridiculous? Then we are going to be insensibly chivvied into cooperating in *hiding* that fact from other people rather than making the truth clear. Euphemism will become required in order to "be kind." But that is a terrible thing, for it darkens counsel and confuses people.

This is evident in your response to my "gray tapioca" example. You don't seem to consider the possibility (after all, it's a hypothetical example!) that Smith's view really *does* imply that God is like a blob of grey tapioca! If this is an accurate and clear description, then the value of putting it that way is to make clear what Smith's view is so that it can be evaluated aright.

We *absolutely must not* have a rule of discourse that says, "You may never describe anyone's views in such a way that those reading will think that they are really silly." For then we will come to be unable to *think* that any views are really silly.

In practice, of course, *nobody* applies such a rule across the board. What happens instead in practice is that people make high-sounding pronouncements such as yours which are then applied selectively. Those who are "outsiders" and promote silly views continue to be called out for it. Those who are "outsiders" and promote views that are *thought* to be silly within the discipline, even if the "insiders" are wrong, continue to be derided. (This double standard is particularly clear in the area of intelligent design and science, where ID advocates are treated as idiots even though their views have genuine merit, but if they say anything remotely tart about their opposition, they are pressed to repent in dust and ashes for "bad tone.")

In this way, the attempt to make abstract rules of discourse without regard to the actual facts of the matter functions to protect those who are favored for some reason or other--either because they are high-status, or because they are seen as victims, or just because the person who chooses to make a fuss has chosen this particular person to favor at this moment. Everyone gets shocked if someone uses a phrase like "grey tapioca" for Smith's view because Dr. Smith is highly respected, or is a poor victim, or has a following of energetic disciples who go around trying to protect him, or whatever. Meanwhile if that really is Smith's view, nobody is allowed to say so.

You *cannot* decide these things in the abstract. The problem with the "sky fairy" language of the skeptic is that it's *false*. It doesn't remotely accurately represent the Christian view of God. It's actually, in the real case, a straw man. Not that it's *mean*.

Remember, too, that in my hypothetical paragraph I suggested that maybe Smith's view was *not* the "grey tapioca" view but a different view that had other problems. I chided him for lack of clarity, for ambiguity. The proper way for Smith to respond is to clarify his view and then defend it. If he thinks that there is a third option, he should lay that out. If he thinks that the view allegedly refuted in the literature is actually right, he should say that. And if he thinks God really does have some important things in common with a blob of grey tapioca, he should man up and defend the thesis.

That's how intellectual discourse works. Not by saying, "That's mean. I'm hurt."

Because we care about the truth.

Otherwise, we rule out clarity. And we must never rule out clarity.

That's how intellectual discourse works. Not by saying, "That's mean. I'm hurt."

Because we care about the truth.

Thank you. I appreciate this. ;-)

I appreciate the importance of clarity and the desire to defend it, and certainly don't mean to imply the opposite. But the difficulty I continue to have with the supposed "necessity" of Category 3 debate is the apparent presumption that somehow "silly" or "ridiculous" can be objective qualities which it is somehow dishonest or disingenuous not to acknowledge. In my experience and observation, this simply isn't true; certainly no original arguer ever thinks his own position ridiculous, or he wouldn't advance it. Anything can be made to look ridiculous with sufficient verbal skill, in a way completely orthogonal to its truth content or lack thereof.

For an example of the sort of thing I'm talking about, consider Screwtape's remarks on flippancy, by C.S. Lewis:

In the first place [Flippancy] is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy; it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practise it.

This is why I believe the "sky fairy" and "grey tapioca" wisecracks, and such styles of argument in general, cost more in terms of harshening the discourse than they gain in truth-value, even if some wisecracks are more technically accurate than others: it all seems to me to be another mode of Bulverism (another Lewis term) in that they encourage the error of presuming any position which has been made to look funny -- or even, as Screwtape notes, any position merely talked about as if it had already been made to look funny -- is ipso facto false, rather than first proving a specific position false and then, as a kind of entertainment bonus, inviting us to laugh at the manner in which that was proven.

If an argument is wrong, we don't need a joke to prove it so; and if it isn't, the habit of joking about opposing arguments makes it far too easy to make it look wrong simply by joking about it -- a habit that, in my observation, almost everyone who uses humour as a rhetorical tactic eventually falls victim to, ultimately to the cost of both the humour and the argument. (The only people who find Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah or Samantha Bee at all funny any more are those who already agree with their positions; they started out using humour to make points and now only repeat their points in a pretense of humour.)

As a further example of Bulverism, one could claim with perfect, unfalsifiable plausibility that I am only making this argument because I have no talent for jokes or humour myself, or are too thin-skinned to endure them at my expense. And both those things are in fact true. But the fact that they are true has nothing to do with whether my position -- that ridicule as a discourse tactic ultimately costs more in truth value than it gains -- is correct.

Or to summarize the previous bloviation more succintly: In principle, I stipulate that if humour and mockery are used to enhance clarity and mutual understanding, they can be valuable tools of discourse. In practice, they are almost always used to obscure clarity rather than illuminate it, and tend far more often to create or aggravate mutual hostility than alleviate it. I therefore tend to be far more skeptical of their presence than their absence, and think they are far better avoided than embraced. Let that be my last word on the topic.

No, calling a conclusion or a position silly is not Bulverism, which is ad hominem. It is the ideas that are silly. Many ideas are objectively silly. Some are also objectively pernicious. Sometimes this is in relation to a known body of evidence. For example, in relation to our known body of evidence, the idea that the Holocaust never occurred is both silly and pernicious.

Some things are inherently silly. For example, postmodern gibberish is inherently silly because it is meaningless. 1 + 1 = 3 is inherently silly. "It is okay to kill homeless people for their organs" is both inherently silly and evil.

The idea that the authors of the Gospels deliberately made things up in order to say that they fulfilled prophecy is, relative to our known body of evidence, silly. This isn't Bulverism, because one could say it even if one had zero idea as to who was promoting it. This isn't about the properties of the person making the claim. It is about the entire lack of merit of the claim (in this case, relative to the evidence).

In any event, calling something silly hardly rises to the level of humor, much less mockery. It is an observation. "This argument is utterly without merit" would probably thought to be Category 3 discourse, but it is neither humorous nor mocking. It is merely sweeping. And is often, unfortunately, objectively true and (when the ideas in question are influential and important enough) necessary to observe.

Jesus was able to be angry because He knew without doubt that His anger was justified and was not for the sake of His own pleasure. None of us are Him. What the Holy Spirit inspires in us at the moment, we have to trust in Him to do; I think what we cold-bloodedly plan to do should err on the side of calmness and reason rather than denunciation, as far as we can.

Have you read much of the letters and sermons of the Fathers of the Church? Or the Doctors? Their language is - quite often - pretty darn strong and "in your face" to heretics and evil-doers of other sorts. It is possible that in a few cases they went farther than appropriate, but overall they are great saints, and I am only in-training.

True charity implies both temperance and restraint when that will do more good, and energy and stridency when that will do more good. The human soul is capable of the passion of anger as a good thing, e.g. to energetically reject injustice where accepting it will harm the souls of good people. It is wrong to get angry at things that hurt you merely because you feel pain, but it is equally a vice to never get angry when injustices will harm the eternal welfare of others.

It is one thing when your opponent in an argument is in error. It is quite another when he is arguing in bad faith, and knows it (or, would know it if he reflected for one moment). It is one thing to temperately discuss even outrageous things proposed by one who is earnestly searching and open to being led by good arguments. It is another thing to temperately discuss outrageously evil ideas in a way that leads innocent onlookers to believe they are "merely incorrect", not outrageously evil.

Context counts for much. What you can do in one situation is not always even similar to what you can do in another kind of situation. Among friends, among friendly Christian strangers, among friendly agnostics, among unfriendly "new atheists" are all quite different and can call for quite different treatment.

And I would add that it is possible to be temperate and to call some ideas silly or to say that some arguments scarcely arise to the level of argument or what-not. I would call my paragraph about the hypothetical Smith quite temperate. "Temperate" and calm doesn't have to mean writing in a way that is dull and that never says outright or even in somewhat witty fashion that some idea is without merit or an argument astonishingly poor. A sentence like, "This is not good history, this is just poor literary criticism" is doubtless Category 3 language but is hardly intemperate or angry.

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