On Tauriq Moosa on civil discourse and the dark side of the internet

I see that Tauriq Moosa has started a two-part post on the value of civil discourse, grounding his discussion in an examination of John Stuart Mill’s classic defence of freedom of speech. As I’ve suggested elsewhere (with no claim to originality), Mill’s main line of argument would tend to cover only rather intellectual speech, entered into in good faith. It needs to be supplemented in various ways to sustain an argument for very broad freedom to express yourself, without society as a whole preventing you through some exercise of political power. Nonetheless, when we defend freedom of speech we shouldn’t forget that the reasons why it is so valuable in the first place don’t apply well to such things as lies about other people and mere attempts to infuriate or emotionally hurt someone you dislike or oppose.

Even if the government should be reluctant to interfere in these kinds of speech (perhaps doing so only in extreme and clear-cut cases), we might still, as individuals, have every reason to subject them to harsh criticism.

Part 1 of Moosa’s post can be found over here, and it makes for good reading. I’ll doubtless comment further when part 2 appears.

For the moment, we find ourselves at a time when some odious forms of speech are being used to intimidate people, hurt them emotionally, or damage their good reputations and possibly their careers. Thus, we get the sorts of examples that Sam Harris complains about.

Harris is someone whom I’ve often criticised. But he makes the important point that someone who is branded as a racist on popular sites is going to be stuck with the label to an extent, no matter what their real views or motivations might be: once it is widely enough stated that you are motivated by racism and bigotry, the false charge can take on a life of its own, with consequent effects not only for your reputation and career but also for innocent loved ones (as when Harris worries about what might one day be read by his daughter).

Separately – or perhaps not so separately, as much of this seems to be tied up with general problems relating to the internet – we have the phenomenon of 4chan-style trolling; here, at its worst, individuals are targeted directly with piled-on hateful comments, just to be cruel or perhaps “for the lulz”. This sort of thing is not funny. Here in Australia, it has become a topical issue, following a recent incident in which a local TV celebrity was apparently driven to a suicide attempt by the efforts of vicious trolls. This particular type of troll is typically misogynist, as well as cruel – it usually targets women, particularly women who are seen as somehow emotionally vulnerable.

Here’s another recent example, one where somebody whom I consider, in some respects, an intellectual opponent was given similar treatment. Not good – and by the way, nobody dishing out such vile treatment to any opponent of mine should imagine that I am their friend or ally. Mere intellectual opponents should have nothing to fear from us beyond disagreement, argument, and whatever degree of good-humoured snark might be appropriate if their positions are absurd.

I love the internet. It produces all sorts of extraordinary utilitarian benefits, and indeed it has been enormously beneficial to me, personally, here in a country that is geographically distant from most other industrially advanced nations. A great deal of what I’ve done in the past 10 to 15 years would have been far more difficult without it – in many cases prohibitively so.

As I’ve observed previously, even the internet’s obvious contraints on fluid kinds of affective communication may have advantages for some people – it may, for example, free up shy people to say things that they would be too afraid to say in real time and real life. Moreover, people who have difficulty “modelling” other’s feelings, via facial expressions, body language, and intonation patterns, may find the more laborious process of using text actually more effective. One way or another, the internet is not only a setting in which people can quickly make (and perhaps harm) enemies; they can also make friends and even virtual-reality lovers, and some on-line relationships turn out to be deep and genuine. We all know (well, I do – don’t you?) folks who have ended up getting married – in real life, that is – after meeting in an internet forum of some kind. In fact, some of the communication on the internet is doubtless of higher quality than much real-life communication, which is itself plagued by plenty of misunderstandings of how people are feeling.

Nonetheless, whatever is gained by the creation and development of the internet – and I repeat that it’s a great deal – there’s also a downside. This includes flame wars, various kinds of vicious trolling, and a general encouragement of uncivil discourse.

I don’t know the best response to this dark side of the internet. Perhaps there’s a limit to what we should want governments to do. But all of us can take some sort of stand, a stand against all kinds of internet bullying, trolling, and harassment. We can’t all “just get along”, but at least we can treat each other with common decency.

My Amazon author site.

Leave a comment ?


  1. Great points, Russell and thanks for the kind words. I am dealing with some of your other points in the second part and look forward to your thoughts then.

    What is of particular concern to me is precisely the problem of civility and interaction, especially since there seems – I say, seems – to be an element of constant uncharitable reading; a deliberate stance taken to immediately have an opponent to destroy, so you’re cheered on, recommended, liked by others in the space. It’s easy to burn someone if you pretend and everyone else asserts that she’s a witch. I wrote that often this is not intentional, but naturally that doesn’t negate the times when it is.

    My problem, as you’ll see, is that vitriol undermines the acquisition of truth – in the sense of “truth” as ever-greater clarity on a situation. This is why I stopped reading bloggers who name-call and use vitriolic mockery: good on them, but I’m under no obligation to engage with spaces in which actual inquiry is not the, or not proclaimed as, the main goal. I don’t think every blog should be about inquiry (or whatever): some may be spaces where it’s mostly aimed at fostering solidarity and community spirit, as is I think the case with PZ Myers’ and Richard Carrier’s blogs. These are important especially for marginalised groups, who are fighting back against things like separation of church and state, knowing they are others similarly outraged by irrationality, and so on. Sometimes merely reading or watching a Sam Harris demolishing bad argument is not good enough: cheering it and seeing others do so with you at a target of warranted criticism, can be important. When I first abandoned Islam, this was essential to me, since I had no one to share my views with.

    That doesn’t mean these places gets a free pass, not at all – as we saw in much of treatment there of Harris before and after his post – but, I think, it puts the blog into another kind of category. I’m not sure, though. I don’t think bloggers who foster such a focus are stupider or worse, but when you’re known for vitriol and being a firebrand, my worry is that it makes genuine discussion probably more difficult in the space you create. But I’ll explain some of this more in the second part.

  2. I’ve said this before, but I’ll mention it again.

    Internet is Plato’s ring of Gyges: you become invisible, you can take on any identity and act out (verbally) all you ever dreamed of acting out verbally.

    The meek become powerful in internet; the repressed liberate themselves; the politically correct can transgress the boundaries they fear to cross in day to day life.

    Even if you use your real name, it’s unlikely that anyone will travel across continents to spit in your face or slap it as they might in a face-to-face situation.

    Given that internet allows us to be anonymously “free”, the behaviors which we see there are no surprise at all.

  3. Both Tauriq Moosa’s and this article are excellent reads. Vicious targeting is really a serious problem, one that I naively had never imagined would reach such huge proportions. I think everyone should heed Russell’s advice and take a stand against all internet bullying. Of course we all know the value of reason, but reason without empathy or compassion is not very useful because lack of empathy promotes anti-social behaviors and nobody can engage in intelligent discussions in an atmosphere of threats and lack of respect for the human being behind the ideas, no matter how absurd their ideas may be.

  4. Actually, the criticisms of Harris are, by and large, valid. Harris’ attempt to dismiss them as examples of trolling is cowardly.

    Harris writes:

    “people like PZ Myers continue to malign me as an advocate of “racial profiling.” I have written to Myers personally about this and answered his charges publicly. His only response has been to attack me further and to endorse the false charges of others.

    I do not think that I am being especially thin-skinned to worry about this. Accusations of racism and similar libels tend to stick online. If my daughter one day reads in my obituary that her father “was persistently dogged by charges of racism and bigotry,” unscrupulous people like PZ Myers will be to blame.”

    No, Sam, people malign you as an advocate of racial profiling because you write things like this:

    “It is not enough for moderate Muslims to say “not in our name.” They must now police their own communities. They must offer unreserved assistance to western governments in locating the extremists in their midst. They must tolerate, advocate, and even practice ethnic profiling.”

    Sam Harris, Bombing Our Illisuions, 2005.

  5. I think most hardcore bullies are not going to cease and desist because people disapprove of them. They see themselves as outlaws, so in fact the more people disapprove, the more fun they have being bad boys & girls. So I think it would make sense to think about other ways of responding. One issue, which is kind of tricky, is complicity and enabling. Many people go on talking to bullies even though they see them as bullies. I think people are often actually grateful to have a few sluggers on their ideological team–though wouldn’t admit it, if asked. The bully knows this, and so feels appreciated, though people may not express their appreciation openly. The continued interaction makes the bully feel like a respectable member of “the community” (whatever that might be).

    So one way of attacking the problem is for non-bullies to think more about who they consort with. Eject bullies from your own “community”, don’t join communities that include bullies, don’t hang out with bullies, even when they’re off duty. Etc. Of course, you have to be aware of who’s a bully in the first place–which means no burying your head in the sand. I think this bully prevention strategy is actually more likely to stop bullying than highminded lectures about civility. As I say, bullies are outlaws–they positively enjoy their incivility and don’t care what others think. They do like attention and interaction, though. Take that away from them, and they really might disappear.

  6. I think most hardcore bullies are not going to cease and desist because people disapprove of them. They see themselves as outlaws, so in fact the more people disapprove, the more fun they have being bad boys & girls.

    This is true. It may, however, be worthwhile to vocalise one’s disapproval for the people who enable bullies. Lots of people have tribal biases or moral cowardice that leads them to endorse or overlook wrongdoings from their “side” but might change their ways if forced to think about their behaviour.

  7. somebody whom I consider, in some respects, an intellectual opponent

    I didn’t realize this is what you consider Jen. Assuming this isn’t too off-topic, in what areas do you disagree with her?

  8. I am wondering if you are in a sense preaching, albeit very eloquently, to the converted here. I cannot at this moment think of any possible way of controlling foul mouthed trollers, or others who seem to find a perverse pleasure in in downright bullying, and sometimes libellous, abuse. I have been tempted at times here, to to make certain serious but challenging statements with a view to probing what type of reply I might get. How charitable would people be, how much will they take before becoming abusive, whilst I remained calm and reasoning. I have refrained from this firstly as I do not write under a pseudonym, and have no desire for people to come knocking at my door, secondly I don’t think I am here to “play games” I guess however Dr Stangroom would intervene, before things got too out of hand.
    Swallerstein September 6th has already pointed out the anonymity which the Internet provides and sees this bad behaviour as a natural outcome. I use the word Natural here advisedly as it is unfortunately a human trait, that within us we have the ability to become at times belligerent, overbearing, rude, ill-mannered, even murderous. Mostly these promptings are reasonably controlled. Sometimes they leak out as when from the safety (anonymity) of his motor car, a driver mouths obscenities at another or demonstrates vulgar gestures.
    It is unfortunate that there are some who take delight or pleasure in the type of behaviour being discussed here. They are best ignored as we might ignore the ravings of a ——- I will not say for fear of giving offence.

  9. I guess however Dr Stangroom would intervene, before things got too out of hand.

    Yes he would, because he is all-seeing and all-powerful. 😎

  10. Well, Simon, it is a bit off-topic, but I thought it was obvious that, for example, I am against the whole Atheism+ thing, as well as many of the proposals that Jen has apparently supported to regulate people’s behaviour at conventions. (As it turned out, the CFI rejected the proposals that I’m thinking of fairly comprehensively, but the fact is that some draconian ideas were proposed by various people, including her … and some draconian and impractical provisions have ended up in the American Atheists’ code of conduct.)

    I was also on the “wrong” side of Elevatorgate from her point of view. I never believed that what Elevator Guy apparently did/said sounded like more than an attempt to monopolise a speaker’s time and regale her with his own theories about her topic (entitled and intrusive behaviour, to be sure, but we’ve all encountered it, and not “sexualising” or “sexual objectification). At most, it sounded like a clumsy attempt to chat someone up, falling far short of sexual harassment. I don’t see it as evidence of the need for stricter rules about people’s conduct at conventions.

    Furthermore, I thought that Stef McGraw was treated badly at the time and was owed an apology, and that, indeed, this was a serious case of real-life bullying – just the sort of abuse that conventions should be looking at preventing, in my opinion. They should also require that their speakers stay on topic.

    As I recall, you disagreed with me about the Elevatorgate issues, and I’m not wanting to derail the thread by arguing about them again. I’m just answering your question. Suffice to say that they got me into trouble with Jen’s whole group, and I now get a certain amount of misrepresentation and vilification myself as a result. I’m sure I’m on some blacklists.

  11. You may be interested to know that the New Zealand government is considering a legal response to ‘harmful digital communications’. My Centre hosted a debate about this only last night, but I’d be most interested to know what Russell and Tauriq think about this approach.

  12. Colin, I will look at it in time for my next post on this (which I’ll write after Tauriq writes his!).

    My initial reaction is to be sceptical about a legislative solution. Part of the problem is that the kinds of behaviour I’m objecting to are varied and often subtle, leaving me unconvinced that an administrative agency or a tribunal could be trusted to make the required judgments. There are also just far too many of them.

    Again, in some cases we are talking about conduct that is already covered by defamation law – but defamation law should be narrowed, in my opinion, rather than added to. It currently goes wider than it should to chill legitimate speech, while being hard to access as an ordinary person who is not immensely rich if you do happen to find yourself getting your reputation trashed.

    That said, we see some vicious and clear-cut sorts of defamation that are currently hard to pursue, and perhaps some kind of regime that narrowed the scope of defamation law, while at the same time making what is left of it more accessible to ordinary people, would be an improvement.

    There may be scope for better laws against harassing email, but that’s only part of the problem discussed in the OP.

    A lot of what is needed isn’t so much new legal restrictions on speech as cultural change – quite dramatic cultural change – in the direction of civility, toleration of disagreement, openness to modifying our views in discussion, willingness to follow arguments rather than to dismiss them for their conclusions, etc. With the emergence of the internet, it almost seems that we’re forced to learn those things over again.

    Politicians can set an example here, but the best way for them to do so might not be by enacting new laws. (Civility, etc., should be high values in primary and high school education, however, and governments have a role there in setting educational standards.)

    All that said, I’ll read the NZ proposal with an open (if sceptical) mind.

  13. Jean,

    I think we can mostly all agree that the best way to deal with hardcore bullies is to ignore them. And this is made dramatically easier if it is in, say, a public internet forum. Easier than it was when I was a child and the small size, and lack of escape, of the school bus was made painfully and abundantly clear.

    But the problem I’m seeing, or perhaps just noticing, lately is the folks who purport to be intellectual and truth seeking in purpose, but aren’t actually willing or open-minded enough to do this work. Too many people simply aren’t willing to do the work necessary to make progress. They have an opinion and they will not budge on it for any reason.

    These folks will often ignore your arguments entirely or misrepresent them in some highly rhetorical, and easily refuted, way. When you call them on it, they ignore that.

    I’m not sure if this is the “subtle” variety of bullying that Russell was referring to, but it seems like something worth discussing. Although perhaps not here… I do think this sort of exchange is certainly one of the more “complex” sorts of bullying that would be incredibly difficult to legislate a solution to, though.

  14. I think we can mostly all agree that the best way to deal with hardcore bullies is to ignore them

    I don’t know that this is the case. And while physical schoolyard abuse is terrible, at least before the internet it wasn’t a public forum that anyone can witness. Nowadays someone can be physically bullied and have the whole thing put on youtube.

    And I think the “public forum” aspect does relate to the discussion. All this harassment and abuse is corrosive and permanent, in a way that we have never experienced before.

  15. Simon,

    It is true, we are in a new realm of bullying. In some ways, the internet makes it easier to escape unpleasant conversation i.e. turning the computer off, but at the same time, the scale of this bullying can be increased to a level that it has never been able to reach before.

    Generally speaking, though, most bullies can be ignored. That is not to say that that cures them of bullying, they’ll probably just turn their attention to someone else. But you are right, some bullies cannot simply be ignored. Some are so persistent that ignoring them could escalate the bullying even more.

    In my own personal experience, the majority of my bullies have been of the former variety. Simply neglected kids or adults who demand attention.

  16. Some bullies can be ignored, but I agree with Simon that it’s not as simple as that.

    I’ll speak for myself. I’ve experienced various forms of bullying and the like, from taunting and physical violence at school, to a hate campaign conducted against me (and a couple of people who were close to me) in pre-internet days, to reputation trashing on popular sites even today.

    In none of these cases could I stop the damage by ignoring what these people were doing. That’s not to say that I had any particularly good redress in any of these cases – and some approaches can, indeed, be counterproductive. But in a large class of cases simply ignoring the bullying is not a useful response, and not even a possible one.

  17. Ben, I agree that physical bullying has certain terrors that are not present with the cyber- variety. But the NZ Law Commission identified certain features of cyber-bullying that make it, in some other respects, potentially worse:

    1. the anonymity of the bullies;
    2. that it’s not confined to the schoolyard or workplace but can, in a sense, follow the victim home;
    3. the potential size of the audience;
    4. the permanent record of the words/images used.

    As the Law Comm’s briefing paper to which I linked is anything but brief, perhaps I could quickly summarise its proposals:

    1. create a new criminal offence of ‘Causing harm by means of communication device.’ This would be committed when someone sends, by electronic communication, a grossly offensive, indecent, obscene, menacing or knowingly false message, that is intended or known to cause substantial emotional distress.

    2. establish a Communications Tribunal, which would be empowered to act in cases of cyber-bullying, harassment and the like. The Tribunal would have a range of powers, including issuing cassation and takedown orders, and ordering apologies and corrections.

    Personally, I’m in (at least!) two minds about such an approach, especially after our public debate earlier this week.

  18. I actually skim-read the whole 160 pages of that report last night. I’m also in two minds about it, and I definitely did not absorb all the detail, but I’m not necessarily opposed to its recommendations.

    Even if they were all implemented successfully, however, they could only go so far to address the problems that Tauriq was writing about, and that I was following up on in the original post.

    Still, the recommendations are formulated pretty carefully, and they have gone to some trouble to avoid overbreadth. For example, you can’t get into trouble just for sending an indecent message – you have to either intend or know (but act anyway in the knowledge) that it will cause the person severe emotional distress. If anything, that might be too narrow a mens rea requirement (this is an unusual thing for me to say!!). I think that the concepts of indecent and obscene messages also get some further narrowing definition somewhere.

    The proposals seem designed to capture a set of the worst cases, especially cases that might affect teenagers, and perhaps that limited goal is all the law should aim at.

    You’ve doubtless read it all more closely than I have Colin. What were your reservations?

    The larger issues would still need dramatic cultural change, even if legislators across a wide range of jurisdictions started to introduce statutory schemes like this.

  19. I don’t know that the internet has increased incivility so much as it has opened the field to people who are simply appallingly, gropingly bad at it. I have often found records of the rhetorical flourish of great orators whose polished debate was full of entertaining disdain and clever incivilities. The discourse of American politics prior to the War Between the States overflows with insult carefully metered to seize the ear without bruising the sensibility. Britain’s parliamentary proceedings are similarly full of wicked wit. That’s what I think we’ve really lost in the easy access of the public forum to people who don’t understand the advantages of not behaving like rabble.

    With that we lose part of the process of social engagement among rivals over specific issues tempered by a commitment to humanity outside of those issues.

  20. On vitriol and mockery | Talking Philosophy - pingback on September 9, 2012 at 7:59 am
  21. What I cannot understand is why the laws the govern the net and the laws that govern people are seperate, I hear all the time of people who drive someone to suicide through this trolling which is met by the most miniscule of penalties (The taking away of said medium, short jail time, fines) the penalties do need to be harsher. I do not think the defense of ‘free speech’ quite fits the bill for a defense of one causing another to kill themselves, though as yet I am unsure what the penalty should be.

  22. Colin, in the end I haven’t discussed the NZ report in my follow-up post, but am still happy to talk about it here. The follow up ended up being more sharply focused, based on Tauriq’s Part 2, and the cyber-bullying issues most emphasised in the report are a bit tangential to it.

    Probably more relevant to this post, as it turns out.

  23. Reading This, I Gave a Sigh of Relief | West Coast Atheist - pingback on April 28, 2013 at 10:35 am

Leave a Comment

NOTE - You can use these HTML tags and attributes:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Trackbacks and Pingbacks: